Once, I was given a bunch of flowers which I almost immediately gave back. The bouquet was not a romantic gesture: it came from someone in my social circle who (I think) was not very well: she tended to make slightly inappropriate gestures, and not only to me. I was far too fragile myself graciously to accept the flowers and the ostensible message (= “I can see you are having a hard time”). Instead I responded to what I thought was the subtext (“Please be my friend”). Not having the emotional energy to say yes, I gave the flowers back.
I have been similarly harsh on a couple of would-be boyfriends. There was the one at university who, in the days before emails and texts, put a note in my pigeonhole inviting me for dinner. What annoyed me was his blithe assumption that I would be delighted to accept. I recall that he was working on a PhD in astrophysics. He had a Friar Tuck haircut and a lisp. I did not find him attractive in any way, though doubtless he had a very fine mind (and, hey, he probably knew Stephen Hawking). So I turned him down very brusquely. I hardly had the grace to maintain civil conversation with him after that, let alone a distant pleasantness (and was eventually taken to task about my rudeness by a mutual friend).
And then there’s B’s teaching colleague from former years, whose intrusions started when she phoned my mother up (never having met her) to offer advice shortly before our wedding. A couple of years later, she informed us that she had arranged a disposable nappy delivery service for the first six months of our daughter’s life (we had already bought a stack of terry nappies and a large box of Napisan). Last year, assuming that my parents-in-law were living in inadequate and cramped conditions (they weren’t), she started meddling in their housing arrangements. She sends us greetings cards which I find over-effusive and cloying. We have not told her about the breast cancer.
It was our wedding anniversary on Saturday. We are normally quite low-key about this, but we did make a bit more of it this year. During our celebratory trip to the cinema, B said, “Thank you for twenty-one happy years” – we have been married for twenty-two (though actually, in common with my fellow-blogger at http://www.positive3negative.wordpress.com, I think that the cancer experience – if not exactly happy – has had positive effects on us).
Then through the door comes another sentimental home-made card full of platitudes. I am so riled – both by the assumption that our life together is one of unclouded, blissful, rose-tinted happiness; and by the assumption that this friend of former years is close enough to us to mark an ordinary wedding anniversary. I am so riled that I actually rip the card up.
Why do I react with such hostility when some people try to come so close? It’s not that I keep everyone at bay. My animosity is very selective. I think it’s the Groucho Marx factor. I don’t want to be a member of any club that will accept me as a member. I don’t want to be associated with the emotionally needy – the bouquet-givers and the card-senders. I don’t want to be associated with the geeky and the unattractive. I don’t want to go to a club for breast cancer “survivors”. Because I’m not like them. Am I??
Over the years I have been on a number of retreat weekends – often silent, but not always. The context has varied – from Anglican or Catholic convents, to Quaker contexts more recently. Something very strange happens on these weekends. I have noticed that almost invariably on the Friday night, I look around at the others in the group and think what a weird, dysfunctional, irritating lot they are, and I wonder what I am doing among them. But by the end of the weekend – whether or not we have actually spoken to each other much – I usually find that I feel quite differently. The others seem nicer, easier, and their oddities seem less maddening and more endearing.
What I think goes on is that in a reflective space, I have the chance to come to terms with myself and my own vulnerabilities a bit, so that perhaps by the end of the weekend, I love and accept myself a little better. And therefore I am not put into flight so acutely when I see my vulnerabilities in other people. I don’t need to protect myself so fiercely.
I have long lost touch with the bouquet-giver and Friar Tuck. And I still can’t honestly say that I have any enthusiasm for fostering my relationship with the card-sender (she lives at the other end of the country – that’s my excuse). But as we plan to move into an intentional community (Lancaster Cohousing), maybe I should think a bit about how to handle my hostilities. After all, there are bound to be a few weirdos, geeks and irritants.
Maybe it’s time for another retreat weekend.
Maybe I should even join a cancer club.