Hello, My Little Anger — An Essay by Gretchen Van Wormer
We haven’t been in the North Carolina Aquarium twenty minutes before I’ve drunk the blue Kool-Aid and asked my mom if we can please, please, please take a picture of the Slippery Dick. I want a snap not of the fish (halichoeres bivittatus) but of the fish’s educational sign, which reads:
Slippery Dicks don’t change their stripes as they get older. Unlike most other wrasses, they contain the same color and pattern throughout their lives.
The fish’s coloring is gloriously day-glo, but what’s drawn me in is the cheap joke of its sign: “You dicks never change!”
My cell phone is ancient as a horseshoe crab and doesn’t take pictures, so my mom asks my stepfather to get the shot. Bryce checks his phone to make sure it came out all right, and when it’s clear it has, I’m thrilled.
It is a little awkward to be in your 30s and taking pictures of Slippery Dicks with your mom and your Bryce as part of the Thanksgiving holiday. But it’s not my fault the aquarium delights me. With my family, I become positively human. Earlier I reached into a shallow pool of water and swooned as rays rippled up to my hand like kittens wanting their heads pet. When a docent chided me for using my whole mitt to touch them, “Two fingers, please, so I don’t get fired,” it was only a little annoying, because my stingray high was compounded with my innuendo high. “Two fingers, please”? Come on.
I want to be disgusted by the aquarium. The otters rebounding off their rock wall and sliding through the water in a maddening loop remind me of all that’s wrong with these places. I believe the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh when he says nature has feelings for us: “Do you see a tree out there? That tree loves you.” Locking up these creatures seems like a stone-cold way to requite that love.
Still, there’s something refreshing about swimming with all the other fish and doing as the fishes do.
After the Dick-pic, I stand next to my mom as she does the oddest thing: She speaks to a fellow aquarium-goer. “Beautiful, aren’t they?” she says of the fish, admiring their tropical shades. The woman agrees cheerfully. “Stunning.” She takes out her cell phone, and my mom says, “Oh, let me get out of your way so you can get a good one.”
A couple years ago, at the Amazonia exhibit at the National Zoo, I stood passive-aggressively in front of the glass as another viewer tried to harass/film a swimming turtle in its lake-prison. I was on my own, doing research for an essay about how angry the zoo makes me. I finally caved and took a step back so the woman could follow its glide, and when a smile splashed across her face, I assumed this was not due to her love of the turtle, but to her love of winning the epic battle of she vs. me.
How could my mom not only talk to her woman, but offer to get out of her way? So disturbing.
The North Carolina Aquarium is riddled with photo ops, and now my mom is determined to support all of them. A family squeezes most of itself inside a replica of a Megalodon jaw, and my mom grins with an almost-drunken pleasure before saying to the mother of this devoured brood, “Do you want me to take the picture so you can get in there, too?”
“Oh, that would be great!” the other mother says, and my mom takes pics of various wacky poses before handing the phone back.
Later, after dallying at the octopus exhibit, I round a corner to see my mom engaged in a truly vulgar act. It’s bad enough that she’s supporting other visitors’ giant-creature-replica shots, but suddenly there’s Bryce with his head sticking out of a jumbo crustacean.
“Got it.” She beams.
There’s the fear of becoming your mother, and then there’s the fear of not becoming your mother.
I have vague recollections of teenage angst toward my mom, most of which ended with my slamming the door and her threatening to take it off its hinges. My sister, Heidi, was the same way. But by the time we surfaced from childhood and realized that other people’s fathers weren’t like ours — a suicidal, narcissistic, addicted man whose own mother called him a “dry drunk” (an alcoholic who, even when sober, is an asshole) — we were no longer concerned about our maternal DNA. Instead, whenever we didn’t like how the other was acting, we’d dump on each other: “You’re reminding me of Dad right now!” or, “That’s so ‘Stanley J.’ of you!” It was icy water.
My parents finally divorced when I was eighteen and my sister twenty. The day my father moved out, I suggested my mom uncork a festive bottle of wine. It was like a hatch had swung open and I was free.
She met Bryce a couple years later. I must’ve been a touch hostile, because one afternoon, when I was home from college, she turned to me gently and said, “Has Bryce ever done anything to make you…uncomfortable?”
“God, no,” I said. “Never. Not at all.”
He’d only ever been nice. And my college was in New Orleans, a time zone and many states away, which should’ve made me feel liberated no matter what. But I was terrified that whatever had opened would close. I didn’t trust her.
My aquarium-ire is benevolent; it feeds on sympathy for the creatures, not on the creatures themselves. When I look back on the accusations of being like Dad, though, I can’t help but see these screaming matches as a beastlier species. The kind of being that hates parts of itself, and takes this out on another because they’ve got those parts too. “You’re all stings!” “You’re the one with the freakin’ barbs!!”
A slow evolver, I’ve taken eons to grasp that ugliness shares habitat with loveliness, and will predate the lovely if left unattended.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist teacher who knows the trees love us, has pointed out that it’s not intelligent to see ourselves as existing apart from our environment, including our families:
We say our father is not us, but without our father, we cannot exist. So he is fully present in our body and in our mind…There are so many other non-self elements that you can touch and recognize within yourself — your ancestors, the earth, the sun, water, air, all the food you eat, and much more. It may seem like these things are separate from you, but without them you could not live.
He teaches that everything in us, even anger, is a vital organ, like the heart or lungs. We cannot pitch it when it bothers us. We have to love it:
The first function of mindfulness is to recognize, not fight. “Breathing in, I know that anger has manifested in me. Hello, my little anger.” And breathing out, “I will take good care of you.”
I’ve wanted to toss my father, my anger, because I understood them to be separate from my true and healthy self. There’s a lot of “best self” nonsense out there, and what it seems to amount to is that all unflattering aspects of oneself can be expunged. But this is as absurd as trying to restyle a Slippery Dick’s color patterns. You have to take care of the dickishness you’ve got. That’s the only way to chill.
At the aquarium, Bryce has succumbed to fish fatigue and found a quiet spot to fiddle with his cell phone while my mom and I wander around. Later we’ll hit the gift shop. It’s wondrously normal.
I don’t want to be a total downer about this captivity thing, so I give in to the baser desire of zenning out with the moon jellyfish. My mom and I watch as they float brainlessly by, pink clovers of brine shrimp traced on their translucent bells.
They’re so graceful that I almost forget they’ve got their own venom. Jellyfish don’t sting themselves, though, and they don’t sting members of their same-species swarm. Their tentacles have special receptors that recognize the chemistry of their own, and these receptors work like a safety switch, turning off the toxic quills.
I don’t know yet what will bring forgiveness of my father into being. But I do see that I must be kinder to myself. And that withholding this kindness has made me ill.
Mom, Bryce, and I leave the aquarium and step into a cool drizzle. At a restaurant twenty minutes away, we order calamari without irony. It’s delicious, and I feel grateful that the open water is so near.