Naming upfront that this piece reflects my memory of interactions with my partner, parents, and siblings. I have done my best to capture dialogue, behavior, and "energetic feel", and acknowledge those around me may have different renderings.
I emerge from the bedroom to the suffering of my partner, convulsing in grief, coffee cup in hand. I am about to leave for work and wrestle with my frustration & aversion. Why are you like this? The question rises in me and I refuse to speak it aloud, instead voicing my confusion.
What happened? I thought we had arrived on a new shore of understanding. I thought the ground was stable, but I see we are still at sea. Why do the waves course through you as these cascading tears, my love? I stroke his back as tenderness slowly emerges in my body, guiding us both to a soft landing. Tell me more, I don’t understand, I say, and he reveals the wounds on his heart, how the sharpness of anger builds a narrative where he doesn’t feel seen. He wants to exist in a story where his effort and care can be acknowledged alongside my pain. Without that, his efforts become invisible, and he enters the darkness of despair. Where the message he receives is that he is incompatible with the world around him. In the past this darkness could result in the impulse to self-harm.
Today, he asks, when will the violence stop? What did I do to deserve this anger?
How can I name that my anger is not just about him or what he deserves? It is the anger of my father, erupting without warning to send tremors through the household. It is my own protector, fighting bullies that threaten my security & ease.
For a moment I step into the body of my father, experiencing the body dysmorphia of hands too large, clumsy feet, a hulking form. I touch into the clarity that anger gives me, the power I can exert in circumstances where I have not always had my own autonomy. I see that my father’s anger was born of growing up in a family with not enough food to eat, with immigrant parents often absent from home, with two disabled older brothers with whom my father was grouped and shamed. I see my father’s rage at being a child without money or power, and how escaping north to Berkeley and succeeding at capitalism allowed my father to inhabit a body of value. Anger is powerful in this shared body, filling me up and allowing me to release the tension that I carry, the fear of not being able to survive that I can’t seem to voice aloud.
Today my partner reminds me of my brother, my child. I am my father and myself, soothing and staying with him until the pain subsides. The suffering washes over me. He tells me that he wants a loving and stable relationship and that breaks my heart, because I see how hard he tries, and yet I still experience rage.
In my partner’s suffering, I see my youngest sibling. They share the same first name and similar neuro-divergence, both on the autism spectrum with possible ADHD. This past week, in a visit home ostensibly for my mother’s birthday, my sibling shared that they are experiencing severe depression and ongoing thoughts of suicide. They are in their seventh year of an undergraduate degree, failing two classes, uncertain if they will graduate in May. They are questioning their gender, living in a home where my father rejects the very existence of transgender people. Where my father does not respect them as an adult because of their autism.
If my sibling is to explore or step into a new gender, they will be cast out of my father’s house and disowned. My sibling’s suicidality and the violence of my father’s position collide in my body. In the past I would have raged at my father as I do my partner, but I see the futility of my own violence in the face of his. Instead, over the dinner table on my mother's birthday, I name that we come from different times and begin looking for larger apartments to take my sibling in.
My father says that his whole life he has strived to make it possible for his children to survive. He shares that he has enough money and income-generating assets that his children will never have to work again. We acknowledge that this inheritance has allowed one sibling to not work for the last ten years. What we both do not name is that this inheritance comes with conditions, the following of which have been implied or explicitly stated:
You cannot transition genders. This money is only to be used for capitalist accumulation - either in the form of housing or financial investments. You cannot give it away to people who are not your family. You cannot use the money to volunteer, to travel, or to have fun. Do not disobey me or bring shame upon this family.
What we both do not name is that his children will be lost to him if he follows through on his threat to disown my sibling. His decision will create a rift in the family that will split us for holidays, birthdays, and other celebrations. I think of my father’s father dying before age 60 - in 1998, the year my sibling was born. I worry in advance that my father will die before repair is possible. I worry about how we will survive without the support of my father, whose money makes many things easier.
My partner is a historian, whose memory catalogs civil rights movements, wars, traces the rise of modern-day capitalism and nationhood. He has learned to take refuge in facts, in part perhaps because they offer him grounding when human emotions prove confusing or social cues unreadable. Nuance and detail are means of safety for my partner. He is quick to defend himself when I make bold blanket statements out of anger or anguish, perhaps because he has trouble touching into his own sense of wholeness when I do. I perceive that anger in his body is not safe, because his anger can quickly become physical violence towards self and others. I wonder how that impacts his perception of my anger.
My partner worries that I anchor on the difficult moments in our relationship and keep coming back to those in times of anger or anguish. I do. Those challenges remind me of what I don’t want – the things in my childhood that I want to escape or heal in my future family – and gives me the possibility of change. Without keeping those fears close, I fear being engulfed one day, trapped without recourse. And so it is harder for me to anchor on positive memories; even in those memories I catch myself holding my breath, hoping to be met & trying not to provoke conflict. I want more moments of true ease and delight, without worrying about future imprisonment.
I step into the body of a younger self, who could not trust her family to provide emotional safety. When I was a child experiencing sorrow or anger, my parents would send me to my room until I could calm down. My difficult emotions were not welcome. When my father's rage erupted in yelling or emotional violence, he would not apologize or initiate repair; my mother would pretend in her silence that those things did not happen. From my parents I learned that conflict happened and was subsequently ignored, never repaired or resolved. Neither parent took accountability for the harm they caused.
I am my father and I am not him. I do my best to look deeply at the roots of my anger, bringing presence to the things my anger wants to protect: my insecurity over my intelligence and appearance, my fears of being ignored or not included, my yearning for affection and appreciation. I see how my anger has a valuable role in my life and I am grateful to it. I hold my needs and fears with tenderness, and I hold myself accountable to the ways in which I express my anger, which can cause harm to people I love. I can work on finding ways to voice my anger without the emotional force - the rush of power flooding my body - that I remember my father wielding in my childhood home.
I have been fortunate to find a spiritual path that grounds me in a tradition of skillful nonviolence and compassion, that has provided me with tools for emotional awareness and regulation that my father did not have access to. When my father was my age (32), he had two children, just purchased a house, and stood before a vast and unknowable future, committed to creating a more prosperous and abundant life for his children than he received as a child. I bow to my father's aspirations and the ways in which his efforts truly set me up for wellbeing: quality education, enough leisure time to write poetry and play outdoors, in some ways, the freedom of not worrying about money. And I must hold him accountable to his behavior and decisions when they cause harm.
I learn to love my partner as I do my father, and my siblings, and my mother. As I learn to forgive them and hold them with compassion, I kneel to embrace my child self, who is trembling beside me. For whom anger was a protector against feeling hurt and grief at not been seen or held emotionally at home. I learn to forgive myself for my own rage and to thank it for arising to care for me. For pointing me in the direction of safety and comfort. I hold it close and let it soften too.