Tuesday, February 15, 2011


rose and cigarette

The other day my weekly newsletter from the always luminous and thought-provoking Fiona Robyn arrived in my in-box. A Confession, Fiona called this week’s message. After sharing some particularly candid insights on the subject of malice, she left her readers with this question:

What kinds of malice and cunning do you use? How does it feel to admit them to yourself or to others?

I immeiately wrote back to say that I planned to blog the answer. But then, I plan to do a lot of things. Fiona wished me luck.

As I’ve said before, procrastination is bad, but it isn’t ALL bad--particularly for a writer. While I put off writing about the forms malice takes in my life, I had a few days to observe them.

Sunday, in the happy aisles of Trader Joe’s, I had an unlikely encounter with my own meanness. The store is always crowded on weekends, but this week, the small space was clotted with an army of desperate lovers seeking pink gerber daisies, scentless roses and Belgian chocolate. Access to the few food items I wanted, not to mention movement, was blocked at every turn by a crush of carts, organic food lovers, and miserable valentines who were obviously infuriated that everyone else was in THEIR way.

Me, too. Infuriated--particularly at the guy who pushed his way in front of me repeatedly and then gave me a scornful look for his trouble. Oh, I know all about people like you, I thought, huffily. People who think they have a divine right to be FIRST wherever they go.

So I glared and I grumbled and I thought a lot of crappy thoughts about how arrogant and selfish the rest of the human race was. And then I stopped. Right there in the frozen food aisle where I’d been jockeying for position near the veggie burritos. I brought my cart to a halt ( I know, almost a crime against humanity in that situation) and took a look at myself.

What was I doing? What kind of thoughts had I invited into my brain? When someone gave me a not so gentle nudge, I moved along--but in an entirely different direction of mind. I made a conscious effort to smile at my fellow grumblers, to compliment them on the flowers spilling from their cart, or their brightly colored scarves. A couple of them shared some satisfying complaints about the madness in the aisles. I couldn’t believe how congenial they all were, how like me! I even smiled at the man with the Divine Right--though that seemed to annoy him even more than my desire to get to the avodcados.

Nice story, right? Particularly the latter part where I come off sounding pretty wise and cool. A regular yogini. But Fiona’s question deserves a more honest response, and the truth is I don’t stop and pivot nearly enough. In fact, the first part of the story probably tells a deeper truth. When I feel malice, I do a lot of talking, both internally and externally. If someone does something I don’t like, I tell them about it--otherwise known as complaining and criticizing. And if that doesn’t work (which it almost ever does) I escalate the volume or the meanness--or both (even less effective.)

And then, when the world refuses to change at my behest, I make my head into an echo chamber. I walk through the house or the hours of my life, carrying on a running monologue about my grievances. I treat my life like the overcrowded aisle of a supermarket where lots of (mostly imaginary) people and things are in my way.

Pretty futile, I admit. I mean, would the man with the Divine Right to be First have changed if I rammed my cart into his posterior and pointed out that he was an arrogant jerk? Or if I walked around thinking about it for a week? Or if I told all of YOU? No, he wouldn’t and he wouldn’t suffer either. Not a whit. But I would--which is what I do with most of my malice. I turn it on myself. Or on those who love me enough to listen.

Which brings me to the second part of Fiona’s question: How does it feel to admit that?

Well, the honest answer is not good. Not good at all. But it also feels just a little bit hopeful. Because if I can say it out loud. If I can write it on the bleeping internet, then maybe I can alter it.

Today one of my Facebook friends posted this quote:

I once had a garden filled with flowers that grew only on dark thoughts but they needed constant attention & one day I decided I had better things to do. ~ Story People

I love the quote, but I also recognize that it’s not so simple. I personally have decided I had better thing to do countless times, but the dark garden continued to create new shoots. When I was younger, maybe even last year when I made Goodwill toward all! my simple little New Years resolution, I believed I could eradicate them for good. Now I suspect that short of achieving Nirvana, the black flowers never entirely go away. They're part of that miserable, wondrous, entirely mysterious thing we call the human condition. But that doesn’t mean you need to water them. Or take them in the house and put them in a vase. Or walk around holding them in your hands like a bride.

Maybe that’s why this year my resolutions were more modest: smile more. And laugh even more often. Notice the color of people’s scarves, and the flowers they buy for people they love.

It won’t make you a saint or eradicate every trace of malice in your heart, but I can tell you one thing I’ve learned since January first: It’s almost impossible to hold a crappy thought in your head when you’re smiling.


Unknown said...

You just made me cry. Good tears. :)

Patry Francis said...

Thanks for the inspiration, Fiona!

Jessica Keener said...

Words from two sages. Thank you.

And timely, too, because lately I've been trying to re-steer my thoughts and set them off toward more hopeful directions.

I'm learning: if I intend darkness, then darkness will arrive because I've called for it.

But, not always.

Sometimes, life is just plain hard or difficult, or dark for a variety of reasons not in our control.

I guess in that case, it's still up to me to go inside for shelter, steer around the uncalled for trouble, and do my best to ignore it if I can.

Anonymous said...

You should sit next to me in the car, if you want to hear malice and bad thoughts. My former carpool partner often laughingly quoted me at the wheel, "Oh for the love of god, DRIVE" said through clenched jaws. Mostly in the market I am a smiling dervish of efficiency, but on the road other drivers bring out the worst in me. I have often thought I should just try being calm in the car, but the first driver that noses out into the intersection in front me always flips the switch off my gentle resolve! Thanks for a chance to consider my own habits, Patry.

Patry Francis said...

Jessica: Thank you for this and for everything you do. I think we are on the same path--attempting to change what we can, and making peace with the implacable fact that "life is just plain hard."

Robin: I love your phrase "a smiling dervish of efficiency." I can just see you! It's an image I plan to hold in mind when I'm paying bills or organizing tax documents or performing any of the other chores that tend to turn me into a frowning grump of inefficiency.

Lisa said...

This post was just in time. Hello friends. I honked at a lady today and I honked with malice. Keep in mind, I live in Colorado and I'm a horn virgin, or I was until today. I feel like such an ass. Though it's nice to know I'm not alone in my struggle against assishness. Love you Patry!

Dale said...

Oh, dear Patry. Of almost no one would I believe this, as a description of their deepest malice, but I believe it of you :-) xoxo

Annie said...

Patry, Thank God, I thought I was the only mean one, but if you can sometimes be mean too, that makes me very hopeful that there is hope for me yet. xoxo

Patry Francis said...

Lisa: Honking with malice! That sounds serious! The way I see it, there are three kinds of people: those who are working on their assishness, those who are inveterate asses and proud of it, and most irredeemable of all: those who have no idea that they are asses.

Patry Francis said...

Ah, Dale, what a lovely thing to say...but I'm afraid that I'm not nearly as kind as you think. Thomas Merton once wrote about how disillusioned he was when he entered the monastery and found that monks who'd spent thirty or forty years praying and meditating could still have nasty tempers. But later he came to realize that the intractable nature of their weaknesses only made their persistence more remarkable. These days I'm striving to be like those monks.

Annie: And I find hope in YOU. There's something amazingly therapeutic about admitting to our darker thoughts and words. It's a first step, and one that, at least for me, must be undertaken every day. xo

Deborah Jiang Stein said...

Thanks for the forthright name, "crappy thoughts." I often hesitate to name this and just forge ahead. Sooner or later, the crappy thought surfaces until I face it.

Crappy thought, my new favorite phrase.

Sky said...

I agree with Dale! Oh, if you could only spend a day with me you would see REAL malice! I have come to see my impatient, hateful, and judgmental self more clearly over the course of the past few years. I hope this clarity is actually allowing me to dispel some of the behavior, but I seem to have a grocery cart full on any given day that I could banish. Baby steps, I remind myself...change always begins with baby steps.

I love the new look here at the blog, by the way. :))

Patry Francis said...

Deborah: Maybe we should start a crappy thought support group? Your girl could be our adviser if she's available!

Sky: Just this morning, I had a flare-up of angry, judgmental thoughts. Then I thought of what I'd written yesterday, and I felt accountable in some way. I've committed to change, not perfection (certain defeat lies in that direction) but a daily, incremental alteration of my habits of mind. Yes, BABY STEPS!

Thanks for noticing the new look. After 6 years, it was about time!

Beth said...

Great post, Patry, and coincides with my own desire to do something more intentional about my own negative thoughts. Have you ever seen "The Dhamma Brothers?" about inmates at a maximum security prison who learn intensive mediation as a way to control acting out on their negative thoughts? I found it inspiring, the same way Merton is inspiring, and it reinforced the truth that we are all inmates of our own prisons, or monks in monasteries better known as marriages, families, workplaces, communities.

Anonymous said...

Patry, my dear,
Once again you've said some important things about everyday living and the way it is done. I have been working with the help of my faith on not being judgmental for over seventy years now, and I'm sorry to say, I still have to work on it.
The only thing that helps me with these thoughts of judgment on a specific person is that I would be disrespectful and thoughtless if I were doing what he/she is doing. But I have no way of knowing what his/her life is like at this moment in time and have no right to act or think that I do. Then I relax and think on something else.
Often this works for me. But it still happens, my judging others, sorry to say.

Keep up your healing efforts for us all, Patry.
Ancient Reader

Lorna said...

that WAS inspiring, and left me needing to look at myself more closely. Having done that, I can only confess to raging Pollyannaism, for which I have the appropriate amount of shame. Pollyannas are not interesting people, they're not Divine Righters, they're not even malicious in dark places. they're just kind of smiley and annoying. More dark, I say!

Patry Francis said...

Beth: Just added the Dhanna Brothers to my list on Netflix. I suppose that most of us should be grateful that our negative thoughts rarely involve violent fantasies, and we don't have to fight the impulse to act on them. But it's clearly a situation of "there but for the grace of God..." I love your description of our secular monasteries.

Ancient Reader: We have never met and I don't even know your name, but even from this distance, I can feel the result of your efforts. What you say about judgment extends the conversation that Beth began, and the thoughts it triggered in my head. Much of what we call our "selves" is coded on our genes--be it a gift or a challenge. How can we possibly judge?
And yet, sadly, knowing all that, we sometimes do...

Lorna: Pollyanna was and still is my idol. Thanks for always reminding me to smile.

rdl said...

:D love this!
I had a day like that last wk. (maybe it was a full moon?) when my favorite word was "flippin", flippin car, flippin people - all in "My" way of course. helped when i took myself away - out of the beaten track to poetry group, where everyone stops and listens - even me. :D

Anonymous said...

Great post, Patry. It's so true about how hard it is to feel any kind of bad when you're smiling. A related thing, one that took me more than a few decades to get, is that when I speak good wishes out loud, they have a way of bouncing off the recipient and finding their way back to me. Like when I (sincerely) wish the dour saleslady a good afternoon, I'm making it happen for myself too. Most likely I'll have a good afternoon (or a good few minutes but I'll take it). I feel better because of the giving, however slight. Of course, like donating to charity, it doesn't work if the intent is to make myself feel better. Still, it's pretty amazing how words--and smiles--can have an all-inclusive ripple effect.

Tinker said...

It's rather humbling to admit, at one time or another, I think I've indulged in an awful lot of negative behavior ...Whining, complaining, honking, stomping, swearing (mostly silently, but occasionally, ahem, not so much)...Not to mention, heavy sighing and my top secret black ops weapon - the dark matter glare (the one where lasers shoot out of my eyes, mentally sending the other person through a black hole in the nether regions of the universe. Or, at least, out to a cornfield, somewhere in the twilight zone. Fortunately, it's effects are non-lethal and a figment of my imagination). I've confirmed I know how to make an a** of myself. Now, I'm trying to work on the unmaking...
I've been trying to remember the list of daily goals you posted (in January, I think) - especially the one about 'be the antidote' - and while I don't always seem to remember it in time to take full advantage - it has helped on several occasions (it definitely helped me while having to stand in line for over an hour at the DMV, last week - TWICE, in two days. Thank you!).
I think you've named the ultimate antidote to it all, here - smiling. I'll keep trying to do more of that. Thanks for the reminder, Patry :)

The Curmudgeon said...

I'd have to drive to work one Friday a month when the boys were little and we had Cub Scout Pack Night at the school hall. It was the only way I could get there on time. Or reasonably close thereto.

But I could never make the Cub Scout hand gestures. Just having come off the Kennedy Expressway, I was always afraid I'd make the wrong hand gesture.

Dark thoughts can be overwhelming. I wallow in them all too often, like a hippo in a mud hole. It's easy to do when you work alone. It's difficult to stop wallowing and start doing. Have you seen an athlete jump out of a pool and land on his feet? Imagine the hippo in the mud hole doing the same thing to grasp the degree of difficulty. Of course, if you seriously imagine that, you can't help but smile, can you?

So keep smiling. People will wonder what you're up to, of course... but that will only make you smile more.

Maryanne Stahl said...

I haven't read blogs in a while and I have missed you! thank you so much for this. I needed it.

Tara Benwell said...

Hi Patry,

I think I wrote to you a few years ago telling you that your waitress shoe blog post (Waitress gets a bok deal) really inspired me. After reading it I decided not to buy another pair of socks until my book was published. While I never got that book deal, I did buy some new socks this week! I've just self-published my book on Amazon.com. This post "And then there were socks" is dedicated to you: http://www.tarabenwell.com/Tara_Benwell/Blog/Entries/2011/3/25_And_then_there_were_socks.html

Thank you,

Tinker said...

Hope all is well with you and that you've been finding many smiles. Hope you had a happy Mother's Day, Patry. Hugs to you!

i beati said...

I try not to have any malice of forethought or otherwise - is that unhealthy?

sewa mobil said...

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David Edward said...

i am smiling. i would buy flowers for you, or more likely, hike up to a green mountain meadow and pick wild flowers instead.

Anonymous said...

If I can go off on a tangent, I must say I have never figured out why anyone shops at Trader Joes.

Anonymous said...

More to your point, when I find myself getting annoyed because people are "in my way," I make myself pause and say (internally, of course) "they are not in your way, they are your fellow human beings." It calms me down in a hurry.

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