Anger for People Who Never Get Mad

mad-girlI don’t know about you, but I hate getting mad.

Four years ago I lost my daughter to a sudden cardiac arrest. Along with my grief rode a sidecar of toxic, bitter anger. I found myself becoming furious at small, irrational things. Again and again I felt caught in the quick of these dark failings.

But … was my anger really a dark failing? Or was it actually alright?

Yes, it was. Turns out my anger was the sign of something stirring in the dark, narrow passageways of my grief. It was the ghost just down the way, beckoning for me to come hither.

Even Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said I was supposed to get mad.

Still,  I hung back fearfully at first. I found myself twisting my anger into silent, furious knots instead. Finally I could avoid it no longer. That’s when I found out it was not only okay to get mad … it was necessary.

Just like a cool breeze on a hot day, when I finally allowed myself to feel my anger, it refreshed and restored me. It literally healed me, and became just as critical to my well-being as clean water, rest and the great outdoors. So I moved on in far greater peace once I began to own ALL of my feelings — even the less attractive ones.

If you were like me, you were raised to believe that anger is bad and that good girls don’t get mad. And certainly not at their controlling addict mothers. In my family or origin, I could never get mad at Mother under penalty of serious punishment. So I pretended ‘mad’ didn’t exist, stuck my fingers in my ears and avoided such things for the next 50 years.

This is how we grow up: numb and afraid to own or even know our anger – until it comes exploding out of us in untoward ways.

Of course, one must handle the sword of anger responsibly. But this can be learned. It simply takes practice. First you have to  take some time by yourself to just breathe. And feel. Organically, your anger will rise up and then pass through you. Only then are you ready to see the truth of the matter, and possibly have a conversation about what’s bugging you.

So I’ve come to trust my anger.

Now I realize that it can be a balm to the soul. It is the release of the pressure valve, and the surrender of the false veil that has us parked in ‘Everything’s fine!’ all the time. So yes … it feels good to get mad sometimes.

When I’ve allowed it, my anger has told me again and again when things were out of balance – when I was off kilter. When danger lurked. All those years ago, when Mom was raising hell while I was trying to do my homework or possibly sleep, my anger was nothing more than warning flashers that my space was being invaded.

So I now regard my anger as a well calibrated  internal warning system that tells me where to set boundaries, avoid danger and generally protect myself. In fact, it’s become a critical information source.

May you learn to enjoy your anger when it bubbles up … and honor it for the innate and powerful wisdom that it is.

As they say in the liquor ads, ‘Enjoy responsibly.’

How to Deal With Bad Reviews

anxious_woman

One of the things that happens when you publish a book is that you get reviews. Some of them are really positive. And others? Well … they’re terrible.

People misinterpret you. You misinterpret what they misinterpret. Then you lie awake at night, annoyed. Troubled. Scared.

You think … what if my book doesn’t sell?

As the great Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, all conflict is a result of misunderstanding.

This is so true! When we hate the feedback we get, we think people have it in for us. Whether we’re artists in the public spotlight or employees showing up for a performance review, we forget something critical.

It’s nothing personal.

It’s the reviewer’s right to express an honest opinion. In fact, it’s their obligation.

After a lifetime of fleeing criticism, I finally get this. And I’m so relieved! When I was younger, I fought the specter of doing things imperfectly. I had to be brilliant at everything – or so my twenty-something brain thought.

When I published my first novel at 29, I was terrified to read my reviews. I told my editor to withhold them (yes, this was before the Internet.) I was convinced that one bad review would shut me down forever. I stuck my head in the sand and would not come out.

Twenty years later, I performed a one woman show on the Fringe Festival circuit. By now, at age 50, I figured I could take it … so I read my reviews. They loved me in Miami! They even appreciated me in Washington, D.C.

Then I got to Vancouver.

Here the reviewer tartly compared me to William Hung from American Idol, and went on to describe it as ‘painfully awkward’, ‘clued out’, ‘stale’. The list of negatives goes on and on.

As one of my fellow actors put it, ‘That review was so bad it doesn’t count.” The show flubbed in Vancouver … and so it goes.

Did it hurt? Yes.

Does it matter? No.

This experience taught me that a) my show wasn’t for everyone … and it probably needed more work and b) bad reviews won’t kill you.

Again, a review is one person’s opinion. And yes, if fifteen people say something needs work, then it probably does. That’s when reviews are truly useful.

But should we use reviews to define our worth or chart the path of our destiny?

That’s a really bad idea.

Recently I looked up the reviews for my first novel … the ones I refused to read back in 1990. Yes, some of the reviews were negative in very specific ways. And yes, their points were well taken.

But another review compared me to a ‘budding Nora Ephron’. That was a compliment I could have used back when I was young and terrified.

It was also proof that there’s no accounting for tastes.

Ultimately, there will always be people who love our work … just as there will always be people who don’t. Back when I published my first self help book, How Much Joy Can You Stand?, I literally got hate mail for writing a book about happiness.

So we all stumble through life with our corrective lenses on, trying to find our way. And we bash into each other, sometimes unapologetically.

This is life.

If we wish to express ourselves out in the maelstrom, we must expect whatever comes to come. And know, at the very same time, we are safe, we are whole and we are doing the best we can.

Then no review, good or bad, will make much of a difference at all.

(If you’d like to learn more about my books in print, please click here.)

What a Begonia Taught Me About Going Through Hell

portrait-painter-1This is the story of a survivor. Namely, a Starlight begonia. Like a lot of survivor tales, it isn’t pretty. But bear with me – her story has an important life lesson for all of us.

This begonia began her life with me when I fell in love with the woman who is now my fiancée. I chose her as the perfect house gift on our first weekend together. We found a good spot for her outside, where she thrived during the summer. Then she limped along in a sunny windowsill indoors in the winter.

Finally she died … or so it appeared. We left the begonia for dead in a forgotten corner of the kitchen, and kept meaning to yank her roots and replace her with something young and thriving.

But then one day a small miracle happened as winter was ending. One tiny, tender leaf appeared. Then two. Improbably, after an entire winter of neglect with no sun and no water, a dead plant that was no more than a dried up wisp of a stem came back to life. Right there in a dark kitchen corner, We watered her, put her outside and hoped for the best.

Here’s the most interesting part: the former plant was as light and fluffy as a twirly girl at a prom. But the new plant was far more industrial strength.

This time around she’s clearly built to last, so at first she seemed a little scary. Her main stem is nearly a quarter inch thick, as if she had been toughened by her ordeal. Like Audrey from Little Shop of Horrors.

I had my doubts about the plant, but my partner kept urging me to water her and feed her plenty of worm sludge. “Life wants to live,” she said.

Flowers began to appear – at first just a few. I frowned and shook my head. “She’s never going to be normal,” I fretted. Rachel just patted my arm. “Life wants to live,” she reminded me. So I gave her more water, more worm sludge, and hoped for the best.

The real breakthrough came, however, when we gave her one final dose of neglect. We went away for a week, during which time the starlight begonia baked under the relentless California sun without a single drop of water. I found myself worrying about her while I was gone. Would she be alright?

As if through sheer tenacity – perhaps the tenacity learned in the winter of her neglect – she not only survived, she thrived. I came home to find her putting out new flowers, new shoots, and new leaves. She became an entirely new plant in my absence.

I can relate to the begonia, because this is my story as well.

I was in twirly prom girl mode myself before the bottom dropped out. I, too, became toughened by death, destruction and test after test. What nature proves to us is that if we’re just patient, and we apply enough compost, water and loving attention, our roots can find their way back to life again. They simply, always do.

When we come back, we are stronger, more mature, and seasoned by all that we have learned. This is the way we find our way  to true and lasting peace and happiness. For at this point, we are no longer infatuated with all that sparkles. Now we have become mature keepers of the heart and soul of life.

We know the secret value of ripping away all that was once familiar, and perhaps outgrown. We understand how to compost the old, and so lie fallow for a long time.

On the other side of rest and restoration lie the miracles. And so we are delivered to the next phase of our journey … if we let the magic of life unfold.

Like most things of value, this process takes time. For me, it’s been four year since my midlife meltdown began, but today my life is far better for my losses. I miss the daughter I lost but I have learned to live peacefully – even richly — without her. And I think about that young wife and mother I once was with a certain tenderness.

More importantly, my life is new and fresh again. This is what comes of burning everything to the ground. Each day I learn a little bit more about humility, and how to lay back and let life come to me, without pushing, striding or needing.

So each day I am rewarded. I wake up to another set of possibilities that nudge me forward, like a new flowers unfolding. But then, why wouldn’t my life be full of miracles … including a sson-to-be marriage at the ripe old age of 57?

It’s a fact. Life truly does want to live.