of "fight or flight", the former

Recently I watched what seemed like an alpha-contest between two or three women in one of the institutions I volunteer with. As a voting member on the team I was involved in meetings and lengthy discussions around courses of action: calls for policy decisions that seemed necessary to several. I tried my best to be fair and to not allow the strong opinions those involved – some I was close to, others less so – sway me in what I thought were right actions for the group.

The conflict resolved, as these things often do, by fairly drastic action: the resignation of one of the long-standing members. In my contact with the individuals involved I inferred a strong sense of “winning” from the parties who went head-to-head the most – they each had their stories, their versions; they were supremely justified in their actions toward the other and in some cases held excellently-rendered character attacks in place (which for some reason give me pain to hear).

What I’ve been thinking about lately is not this particular group, the members of which seem to all be moving on. It’s the subject of how we handle conflict, the desire to wrestle control. In these interactions I recognize within myself the impulses and behaviors that later I have come to regret – but sadly, have a hard time growing out of.

I have come to wonder if domination, or the instinct to dominate, is born out of two impulses: hurt or fear. When I am hurt I will throw out my best defense, my logical precepts, my “if-you-put-it-down-in-writing-it-is-true” arguments – rather than take the time to find the deeper truth, not the words being said, but what is really happening between us. In my experience when I find this deeper truth there is, really, nothing so hurtful after all. A mortal enemy can turn into a friend (this has happened to me many times). And yes, thank goodness, I find my desire, or my needs, which can always be communicated gently and firmly. I am not a doormat; hardly. I am someone who will get my needs met because I no longer require validation from others before I set off to do so.

As I type this I try to feel fear again so I can describe it here. Fear has a different shape than hurt; fear dwells within me, not always known consciously, and therefore treacherously easy to activate. When someone taps it, an ugly force takes over and I am off to the races with a well-defined object in my rifle scope. How often do I suddenly realize I am lashing out against my husband, or my family, and that although I am mostly right there is a tiny part of me that is horribly, horribly wrong? In these cases I have let my own emotional self lie dormant and misshapen, and now I’m inflicting her wounds on others. How often in the middle of such a fight do I sense my own character flaws? Am I willing to halt, to stop, to pull back – or will I go on carrying the argument out to the bitter, “triumphant” end?

Just yesterday I allowed myself to participate in this kind of fear – the strenuous arguments, the desire to resolve, to squash, to finalize, to finish a discussion so I would never have to go through it again. “I’d had enough”. I was going to make a stand. This was, of course, with my husband, and in this case involved an issue of money.

Today I realize, with sadness, that for one thing I talked too much. Every point I made yesterday could have been simplified and could have been stated with dignity. “Talking too much” might not seem that bad at first; but wait. It is not that I said anything I regret, or that I don’t believe today in what I did yesterday. It is that I allowed myself too much verbiage, that in my hurt and irritation I threw out so much verbal flak it could easily be experienced as an offensive, as anger, as a series of specific slights on him (this pains me to think about). My behavior yesterday could not be experienced by my husband as I experience myself now, the morning after: a stronger sense of self, a knowledge of criticisms I am surprisingly vulnerable to.

My husband has sometimes accused me of saying something but behaving a different way. Of course; why wouldn’t this be true? The bottom line is boy, I sure like to talk. Can I back up all I am saying?

Words have consequences; and as someone who loves to use them I hope I can incorporate more self-knowledge and more wisdom about when to slow down.

"Clothes are never a frivolity: they always mean something."

Last night I told my husband I was so hurt about something I simply didn’t want to discuss it anymore. Somehow our roles had become reversed: he wanted to talk, talk, talk it out, and I didn’t. This wasn’t because I didn’t have the verbiage to offer. In fact I felt like we’d discussed the subject much over the last year – at least. I was done. I didn’t know what I was going to do, and I didn’t know what he was going to do. But I’d said my piece, I’d heard his, and I simply needed a break.

The issue? Clothing. My clothing. Currently, at this juncture in my life, my largest frustration. For weeks as this chewed on me more and more I’d felt shallow for my little obsession. But a few days ago I came to the realization: food, shelter, clothing. Basic needs. I think even the cavemen with their depleted frontal lobes had that shit down tight.

Now my family, we have food. We have shelter. My husband hustles at his job in large part pursuing these things; food and housing are our largest expenses as a one-income family of four (39.5% of our take-home pay). Our clothing allowance in our spending plan is currently at 0%, modeled to come out of an “everything else” fund (that would include road trips, fundraising efforts for our childrens preschool, technology for the house, late-night runs for cough syrup or flea medicine, gifts for friends and family, you name it).

I am responsible for the acquisition of, laundering, care for, and inventory of my family’s clothing. At any given point I can tell you how many pair of shoes the members of my family have, what I’ve set aside for consignment earnings, what items are going to the Salvation Army for donation. I mend, I grift, I sew (when I’m not cleaning, cooking, or writing). I have begged and borrowed to supply my children with good winter coats and shoes. I spend a significant portion of my daily chores laying out the wool socks by the fire and folding every t-shirt of my husband’s to its proper place and making sure my kids don’t leave their coats out in the wild.

You can predict where this is going, right? Because as it turns out the lack of formal acknowledgment of the fiscal burden of clothing coupled with the de facto assignation to myself of the practical elements has left me: dead last out of four, wearing holey jeans, my husband’s socks, and (this is the worst, the absolute most demeaning) broken, cheap bras that work so ill my breasts actually ache.

This month it started raining in earnest.

And then a few days ago my husband, beneficiary of a small financial windfall, tells me he is going to buy himself a guitar.

Now, I want to be very careful here. My husband has the right to his guitar. First of all, this is his money. Secondly, he is a songwriter, a good one. His artistic endeavors are as important as, well I don’t know as clothing, but they’re damned important. It isn’t that he’s buying a guitar, or the rain is setting in, or that when it comes to clothes (and clothes alone) at this point I carry a huge crazy-person backlog and a skewed perception of poverty. It’s my fault, entirely, for letting the backlog reach this point. But the guitar: that point where the codependent machinations of intimate relationships threaten to overcome my more logical, Buddhist spiritual mindset. I find myself at first reeling in the grips of the former: the fact he could even think to buy a guitar when I don’t own a coat without holes! I am wearing shoes I bought when last pregnant – approximately one hundred thousand million years ago! A mental picture: I’m outside, kicking the hell out of my car’s passenger-side radial, and shouting, “F*cking, stupid, asinine, selfish a*%hole!”

But, I am incorrect. And I don’t allow myself more than a few tortured mental moments imagining my husband as this monster. And I don’t kid myself: the situation is, in large part, my own fault (he is left on his own to figure out his responsibility). And if he’s reading this and decides not to buy the guitar, after what we’ve discussed since on the subject, I will punch him directly in the nuts.

I typically don’t find the need to justify our financial sacrifices for the life we want to live. And I am not a clothing princess (as I type this I’m ill-attired in my husband’s pants, a pair of panties from Ross’ bargain bin, and a free t-shirt). The point is, my values are not being expressed in my clothing. This trap is entirely of my own making. I can speak of the tell-tale numbers of our financial plan all I like, but the truth is up until now I myself have been out of alignment.

What, then, is my proposed plan? After our conversation resumed last night (and this morning), my husband and I have a plan to recommit financial resources to the family’s clothes. I feel defeated by the lag of what I need (raingear, for instance, for bike-riding the kids about in the rainforest in which we live. I still feel stung at my husband’s lack of practical support coupled with what has felt like an expectation of impossible frugality. And most baffling I feel – and this is the laughable part – I will betray my own self and find myself, months or years hence, as starved, frustrated, out of sync.

Ask me in a couple months when I have a modicum of waterproofing, at least one sweater, and a pair of shoes that don’t leak. Perhaps my perspective will have cleared and the real and true will have emerged, leaving the parts of the martyr (a role I do not play well) left behind.

Our clothes are too much a part of us for most of us to ever be entirely indifferent to their condition: it is as though the fabric were indeed a natural extension of the body, or even of the soul. – Quentin Bell