Gentling the Spirit, Aggressive Kindness and Kitestrings

Last weekend, I packed up my ragtag crew, sippy cups and craft paper and Batman t-shirts – and some stuff for the kids too – and shoved it all in the miniature van and headed down to New Orleans to meet some dear friends converging there for the weekend.

We four were close in college, closer still in the years just following, hopping on planes and trains to go wherever another of us happened to have landed for whatever 12-18 month job made us pause – Los Angeles, Boston, Memphis, San Francisco, Houston. We cooked in galley kitchens and squeezed into Airstreams and sang at each other’s weddings with dresses crammed in duffel bags (except for when I was on bedrest with twins and the other two put a cell phone on T’s altar so I could listen in). Then the babies began to enter, stage left, and we got a bit quiet and distracted. My friend J, with the oldest child, whipped us back into connection a few years ago with a daily text thread. (This is my friend about whom when we heard of her baby’s arrival, our first among us, I remember shouting into the 3-way phone call “We’re Pregnant!”) We share the minor commentary (what we ate for lunch, whether to do highlights or a glaze or go for a semi-permanent color) and the major issues (celebrating finishing a dissertation, challenges with a child, depression rearing its foreboding head). And now, as we’ve grown from 4 to 16 people, the gatherings are every two years, if we are lucky.

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And we are – lucky, that is. It’s a lot just to be in the presence of dear friends, especially right now. Especially when the heart is banged about with the soul-crushing disappointment that maybe some of our neighbors and families might not believe in equality and justice and inclusion as much as we had thought. I showed up to our reunion with my family of five, a rattling claptrap of Transformers and stuffed beagles and stale Christmas cookies, and myself in a state I’ve self-diagnosed as “Aggressive Kindness.”

As you might imagine, it’s neither overtly aggressive, nor is it particularly kind. Presenting symptoms are:

  • Intensity
  • Trouble moderating
  • Worry lines
  • Predilection for stress eating
  • Tight pants

And of course the trouble is, when my pants are tight, I feel even angrier, which begets more stress eating. And so it goes.

The short, sharp teeth associated with this state can manifest when I: read the news, walk around in the world, talk/not talk with friends and family, am conscious. Sometimes when I am asleep. The “aggressive kindness” itself is a bit more subtle – no doubt because I am engineering it, white-knuckling it with my hot little grip as I try to be a bigger person than I am ready for (or should be, perhaps, in some cases).   To wit: After the woman behind me at Michael’s became annoyed that I was on the phone and taking too long to get a buggy, I searched for her, aisle after aisle, so I could say: “Hi, I’m glad I found you. I’m sorry. I want to offer my apologies.” Then as she edged nervously away, I quickly followed behind her with, “You see, two of the buggies had trash in them, so it took awhile to find one. That’s why I took so long. You see? …DO YOU see, actually? I hope your holidays were super nice…” She finally sent a tight two-inch smile over her shoulder and scurried away. I’m not proud in admitting that I almost took small pleasure in chasing her, thinking if she can forgive me and see me, then somehow it helps that a swastika was spray painted on the Reform Rabbinical School’s sign in Cincinnati this week. I wanted to shout after her, HEY WE ARE OKAY, RIGHT?! I INSIST THAT WE ARE OKAY AS PROXY FOR THE WORLD’S OKAYNESS. Aggressive kindness is a little bit intense.

Aggressive kindness also misses the forest for the trees. Like attending the service at the local mosque a few Fridays back to show support, tugging down my headscarf repeatedly, and also repeatedly asking the young Muslim woman who kindly guided us through, “What do you need me to do? Do you need someone to hold a sign up outside? Do you need a show of public support? Where have you heard bigoted hate speech? How can I help?” She calmly and wisely lay a hand on my arm and suggested we meet for lunch and get to know each other better.

Sigh. Obviously, the learning here is that I’ve got to gentle my spirit back within itself, to reel it back in like a gently looping kitestring, softly riding the currents overhead – not severing the jugulars of bystanders.

So in New Orleans, when I propped up against my friend T’s island and leaned in to discuss the state of the world, how to take action, how to parent for the Resistance, to unravel the intricacies of tough stuff we’d been dealing with – career self doubt, marital stagnation, general atomization from friends – with my furrowed brow of intensity, there would then appear one of our 9 children or 3 partners with a need, a question, a pot boiling over, a Lego helicopter that needed a pilot, a dispute to settle, a lime to squeeze. I watched myself feel at first some consternation around this – wasn’t this the purpose of the getting together? When could we really talk, the way we did when we were 28, amidst hours of parlor games and long hikes? When could we figure stuff out and make mutually reinforcing New Year’s resolutions and do some vision-boarding so that my soul might be soothed, restored?

…It is harder to learn to self-soothe with outside reinforcement limited to – at most – an elbow squeeze and a knowing smile from someone who’s known and loved you half your life. Far harder than the big elaborately wrought expanses of time and space we have come to think are so essential. I blame myself first for this misplaced expectation, with the whole current notion of “self care” coming in a close second. This notion is promulgated by yoga magazines and blogs and spas that say only the highest forms of self care, like sensory deprivation chambers and far flung yoga retreats, will see us through. Not many are saying: stay where you are, with all the little annoyances and gnats, and try to breathe there. For me, it took a bit to sit with my agitation at not getting the wide, open space and time for deep conversation. But then I began to ease into a slow and peaceful dawning that just being there with each other was enough. And with the issues as big and frightening and destabilizing as they are – even if we had had four lounge chairs lined up on a deserted beach – being together in loving silence might have been all we could do. I realized that the heart of it, the heart of me, needed most just the proximity of these other hearts I hold dear. And quite possibly, sitting in loving company with my minimal, distracted, flawed, agitated best is not just “enough” – but perhaps exactly what I’d been craving all along.

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I’ve never had to do this – be simultaneously Woke to socio-political current events while in deep connection with my own self.   And I am not very good at it yet. I am easily agitated, I chase people in stores to scream SORRY!!! at them, I find it far harder to sip chamomile than make NOW posters.   But thank god for friends, amirite? Thank God and Yahweh and Buddha and Allah for the ones who remind us with their presence that this is a time of holding and of sheltering just as much as it of lacing up tennis shoes and marching.

Downshifting into a place of quiet amidst the domestic chaos and coordinated movements of multiple families’ schedules helped me to gentle my spirit back. It was enough to be circling close around each other, passing avocados and corkscrews, the kitchen lights like an enveloping bowl, the sentences we couldn’t finish like touchstones, shorthand of where we’d already been or what we’d eventually come back to.   All the furnishings of comfortable old friendships.

What I am trying to say is that it is not just “okay” to accept this, it might be in fact the very stuff of healing.

Rebecca Solnit wrote, “this is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.” What I lose sight of is the emotional cost to a dual-burner engagement and perception this time requires. And how that cost might circumscribe what I think should (or can) be accomplished. In the weeks after I broke my leg two years ago, I became so frustrated with myself for being tired all the time, for not getting much done, even accounting for a hobbled pace. It took a good friend to remind me that my body was a healing factory on overdrive and overtime at the time — how could I expect my same output?

When I look at what’s making my teeth so short and sharp, what I am needing is not more from the world, but more from me. And annoyingly, it’s usually in the form of quiet and meditative attention, if not downright idleness. Preferably, idleness in connection.

Gentling the spirit back within is not weakening it or diminishing it – it’s keeping the powder dry for when you need it most.

Come and sit, my best friends say. We won’t be able to talk or plan, but what could be said or anticipated that hasn’t yet already? Sit and we’ll peel garlic and start sentences and answer the children and wink at each other over the hubbub. The maddening normalcy of it all will remind us the great underground river of love hasn’t altered course or dried up.  This too is productive. It is, in fact, communion.

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