This holiday I will join my family in giving thanks for loved ones, for the harvest, for our healthy food. But quietly, I will offer another prayer of gratitude: for my inner tyrant.
The stars are still beautiful, and I am still angry.
It is 1:30 in the morning. I am wide awake. I blame Bob. His blood sugar took a plunge during the night, and he had to get up to deal with it. In the drunken state caused by low blood sugar, he was about as silent and subtle as a turkey trying to run on a hardwood floor.
In the final crunch of farm season leading up to the Thanksgiving harvest, I have no mercy for him. I am only angry. I wait until he settles back to sleep, then creep downstairs to my office.
I don’t go to my desk. I slip outside with the dogs and look at the stars, trying to let them wash the boiling rage directed at my husband from my head. It doesn’t work.
I come back inside. I still don’t go to my desk. My thoughts are too ugly. I go to the floor in front of my biggest windows. I take a place on the rug where I can feel the heat from the wood stove and gaze up at the stars outside.
They are still beautiful, and I am still angry. And as I sit there at the beginning of what will prove to be a sleepless yet unproductive night, my anger broadens. It is unfair to be angry only at Bob, after all. Better to be open-minded and contemplate the rage I feel for everyone on my list.
I am angry at Saoirse, who at the age of 11 still insists on a bedtime story, even when I am ready to collapse from exhaustion. I am angry at her because she disapproves of how I am teaching and parenting her sister, Ula, whose impaired vision has come to dominate our lives. I am angry at Saoirse because she has figured out that, with my attention diverted, she can sneak by without doing the writing assignments and projects that will solidify her lessons in home school.
I am angry at Bob for having diabetes. I am angry at him for whatever he ate in secret that caused him to miscalculate his insulin dosage. I am angry for the nights I wake up and worry about him; that one miscalculated dose of insulin may cause a catastrophe, and that I might sleep through it and fail to help him.
Maybe I have to wait until the night to unleash my inner tyrant, but I cannot chart my course in this life without her.
I am angry at Ula. I am angry that it seems I can no longer enjoy a quiet cup of coffee with Bob in the morning, before I have to start figuring out how to work her vision therapy into our chaotic family schedule. I am angry that, no matter how many times I teach this 7-year-old basic words, she cannot identify them when reading, and she must approach every printed word as though she has never seen it before. I am angry that her care demands four extra hours of driving each week, and endless disruptions to our schooling rhythm. I am angry that I have a smart kid who wants to know the physiological function of tears when we cry, but who can barely write her own name.
And, speaking of the physiological function of tears, they begin to flow as I watch the stars. They pour down my face as I ponder the troubles of those dearest to me, and confront my deepest anger—the anger directed at myself.
This is not who I am supposed to be. I am a caring mother. A loving wife. A compassionate human. Bob did not choose diabetes. Saoirse did not choose to be ignored in her schooling. Ula did not choose for her eyes and brain to refuse to communicate.
The hard anger at my family now softens into self-loathing. My inner tyrant, a part of me that I find frightening, has shown herself under the cover of darkness, and I am hating her.
There is much work that could be done in the quiet of these hours. I could do some bookkeeping. Sort through the turkey orders. Edit some writing. Plan some lessons. Dice fat for the rendering pot. Sew up the toes of socks. Thankfully, I am wise enough to know when tears take precedence over to-do lists. I let them flow.
Sometimes I just need the dark moments. In the safety of the starlight, I let the uncomfortable feelings ripple out of my body until my stomach unknots and I feel the strength to address the problems of everyday life once more.
I lose track of time. After a spell, I find my way to my desk and boot up the computer to review my schedule for the day. At 7:30 in the morning, I have a phone appointment with Fran, a friend of mine who has been trying to write a book for a few years now. Her ideas are important ones. They need to get down on paper. They mean a lot for sustainability. For happiness. For the advancement of local food politics. I want her to succeed. But lately, she has stalled. Her commitments have been interfering with her research.
Fran is devoted to her community. She identifies needs, gets people organized, makes things happen. From my perspective, she doesn’t say no to anyone, and she always honors her word. So last month, I gave her a smackdown.
“You need to get in touch with your inner jerk,” I explained. “Writers aren’t nice people. Not always, anyhow. We have to have a mean, selfish streak if we’re going to chart our own course. Cancel your commitments. It’s time to get the book done.”
How funny, then, that I should be encouraging her to love this dark part of herself yet hating the same parts of my own personality.
I slump back in my desk chair and reflect on what I said to Fran. Both parts of me play a role in getting through the day. The compassionate woman reads to her children even when she is exhausted, but the tyrant locks the office door and keeps them out so that the paying work can get done. The compassionate woman ends the reading lessons before the stress brings tears to her kids, but the tyrant makes sure they get the services they need by standing in offices, making phone calls, and writing letters, refusing to leave or take “no” for an answer. The compassionate woman puts good food on the table to maintain blood sugars, but the tyrant reminds her husband that, ultimately, he is responsible for his own health.
I will quietly raise my glass and give thanks to my own inner tyrant.
My limited understanding of psychology is that the tyrant is a primitive part of my brain. She is not as evolved as my conscious mind. But even though she comes from a more ancient part of my being, her function in my modern life is no less important. I need this tyrant. Maybe I have to wait until the night to unleash her, but I cannot chart my course in this life without her.
The last of the Thanksgiving turkeys have been harvested. Over the next few days they will find their way to the homes of about 100 families, who will gather around the table and give thanks for their health, for their loved ones, for the roof over their heads, for the nourishing food at their tables. I will joyfully share in that gratitude.
Then, as I do every year, I will slip away after the plates have been cleared and put on the movie that I watch every Thanksgiving: It’s a Wonderful Life. I will pour myself a splash of bourbon over ice, take out my own holiday delicacy, a homemade chocolate truffle, and prepare to weep my way through the film.
But this year, I will watch it differently. I will pay attention to George Bailey’s darker side. I will raise my glass to it. Honor it. We cannot all forever be the people we imagine ourselves to be.
And, quite often, it is our darker side that illuminates the best part of us, that brings us to where we need to be. I will quietly raise my glass and give thanks to my own inner tyrant, to my ugly side, to my darker half. Because it is owing to her hard work that the light shines so brightly on all the rest of me.
Shannon Hayes writes, home-schools, and farms with her family from Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York. Her books include The Grassfed Gourment, Radical Homemakers, and Homespun Mom Comes Unraveled.