Intrusions and hostilities

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, 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.



  1. Quick hello- love the openness of your blog… nothing annoys me more than people who hide behind the insincerity of a greetings card or who offer their well-meaning (or is it judgmental?) help & advice.
    Thanks for coming to Dad’s funeral- hope we got the balance of celebration & respect right.
    I am now about to face another awful thing which I’m sure you will appreciate: running the gauntlet of sympathetic smiles & looks, & (oh help!) hugs & kisses in the playground – whilst my village friends are super-kind & lovely, I do not need to ‘talk’, or ‘share’, & certainly not ‘have a good cry’ (well not in public anyway!). Wish me luck!

    • I think the funeral was “right” and hope you and your Mum and Paul think so too. Though the deeply solemn demeanour of the the undertakers’ crew always makes me want to laugh –

      All the best for the playground sympathy. You could counter it with a bit of black humour – and then go home and howl privately (if you need to).

  2. Just spotted you can leave comments. I really liked this blog…. how resonant it is! But then isn’t ‘I know just what you mean’ just the sort of comment that riles in the way you describe? ie ‘How dare you presume to understand what I’ve just written’… and so on. I guess it’s all about the oppression of being defined by someone else in a way not of one’s choosing….. although we do that to others so readily (the geek, the unattractive – unattractive to whom?). I had a brief interest in the cohousing project but decided I wasn’t the sort of person who would live in a co-housing project….. hey ho. That reflective, empty space lets all that stuff dribble away.
    Keep on blogging….

  3. I am quite prickly about my space. It takes a long time before I let someone get close – if they’ve proven themselves appropriate. Is it about fragility, vulnerability? I think there is another side, too – which is particularly applicable to the “wannabe boyfriend” situation. I do not – refuse to – consider myself some kind of commodity to be “chosen” by some agentic “chooser” who walks around exercising choice.

    For this reason, I have always on principle refused any guy who hits on me. How dare he think I am passively available to him, merely awaiting his possible interest? Instead, I have always asserted, I am the one who does the choosing, and if I have not already approached you to convey my interest, it is because I have none, so, sorry, good luck finding someone more appropriate. It’s probably mean – they mean well – but I resent the ideology that underlies the assumption that men must be the (active) choosers, and women the (passive) chosen.

    Perhaps I drag this too far into other areas of my life. If someone tries to get too close, too fast, I feel as though I am being “collected” (like those people on Facebook who want to “friend” up all of your friends, to increase their own friend empire) like a commodity. Being friendly is fine, warm and accepting is great – but assuming intimacy when you’ve barely gotten to know anything at all about me? That feels proprietorial, and I kick against that. I own me, and I don’t cede my agency.

    Defending one’s space is not always from a position of vulnerability. Sometimes it is a political choice. In a cohousing context, where I imagine political and other sensibilities will readily bubble to the surface, I see no problem in drawing your boundaries where you feel they need to be drawn, rather than where others might wish you to draw them. You are free to revisit them any time you choose.

  4. Thank you – I’ll ask myself if it’s my political choice next time I find myself warding off someone’s over-familiarity.

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