An open let­ter …

On bit­ing back words that hurt

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - MEGAN NICOL REED - FOL­LOW­ING ON Do write. megan­ni­col­

At day’s end, the sound of my hus­band’s key in the door can make my heart sing. Com­pany, adult com­pany, a glass of wine, his dear em­brace, a hand with the kids, episode three of Body­guard: th­ese are the small things that sound sig­ni­fies, the good things. From 9am-3pm, though, the house is mine and I like it this way. Whether writ­ing or clean­ing, pay­ing bills or mak­ing calls, I work hard and I look for­ward to lunch. A proper break: seated at the ta­ble with some­thing to read, some­thing savoury, some­thing sweet, a mug of very hot tea. Th­ese are my pri­vate, quiet plea­sures, and so as I sat the other day, toast just but­tered, book open at cru­cial turn of plot, and I heard that fa­mil­iar scratch­ing mo­tion in the lock, it was not joy that surged up my throat, but a fu­ri­ous ir­ri­tabil­ity, a dread­ful re­sent­ment. It was all kinds of ugly. I put down book club’s Oc­to­ber read ( We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride: breath­tak­ing), pushed away my plate, a pair of poached eggs, still quiv­er­ing from the pan, and stood, as my hus­band, fol­lowed by his mother and nephew, came through the front door.

They had been for lunch, my hus­band’s nephew over from Aus­tralia, my hus­band’s mother on a rare out­ing from the home where she lives, and had de­cided to call by, to check out our new house. It was a per­fectly rea­son­able, very nice thing to do, and my rea­son­able, nice self coun­selled, “Gra­cious. Be gra­cious and wel­com­ing and kind”, but she was no match for my churl­ish, un­gen­er­ous self, who el­bowed her roughly aside. “Hel­looo,” I said out one side of my mouth. “You could have bloody warned me,” to my hus­band out the other. And even as I formed the hate­ful words I was al­ready spilling over with re­gret. Too late. It was too late to take them back.

A short time af­ter­wards we were away with friends, sev­eral fam­i­lies stay­ing at sev­eral dif­fer­ent baches, the kids mov­ing be­tween the house­holds, as free as birds. Warm­ing our­selves on the front steps in the early morn­ing sun, one of the other mothers and I were dis­cussing whose child had slept where. “Mu­umm,” moaned her old­est daugh­ter, over­hear­ing her younger sis­ter and an­other of the lit­tle girls had slept in her room. “I hope they…,” she said in a cross tone, and in my head I fin­ished her sen­tence: “… didn’t touch my stuff”, “… didn’t mess up my room.” As some­one who likes my things how I like them, I could re­late. But then she did some­thing that quite stopped me in my tracks. “I hope they en­joyed it,” she cor­rected her­self. Her mother smiled. “They did,” she said. “They had a lovely time.”

Did you teach her that, I asked later? How was she able to re­frame her mind­set at 11, when I’m 44 and I still can’t? And I told her about the in­ci­dent with my in-laws, about my petty be­hav­iour, how ill-man­nered I’d been. How a voice in my head had been telling me to get over it, suck it up, pull my­self to­gether, but that I had suc­cumbed in­stead to the most re­pel­lent as­pect of my na­ture. That nag­ging voice will never change any­thing, she said. And then she shared some­thing with me that felt like one of the great­est in­sights of my adult life. Next time you feel your­self sink­ing into a neg­a­tive state of mind, she said, try break­ing it with some­thing phys­i­cal. When you were sit­ting at that ta­ble and you heard that key turn­ing, in­stead of let­ting those words take shape, you could have got up and done a quick cart­wheel. I bet you’d have been smil­ing when they came through the door if you’d done that.

Sue nicely summed up my sub­ject last week. She calls it “the quar­ter four stresses”. “On top of those you men­tioned,” she wrote, “I have my hus­band’s, my daugh­ter’s and my mother’s birth­days, plus our wed­ding an­niver­sary on De­cem­ber 31. De­spite be­ing re­ally or­gan­ised, writ­ing lists, shop­ping early, lov­ing Xmas Day etc. I never get past the anx­i­ety this time of the year causes.” Mary said she used to be like me, high stan­dards and ex­pec­ta­tions, bur­dened with re­spon­si­bil­ity, at 64, though, she has found con­tent­ment. “I be­lieve hap­pi­ness is in­ter­nal and does not come from per­fec­tion or con­trol, but just the op­po­site, by re­lax­ing and en­abling oth­ers in your life to be them­selves, how­ever imperfect.”

And even as I formed the hate­ful words I was al­ready spilling over with re­gret. Too late. It was too late to take them back.

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