I am filled with a rage fueled by sadness. Rage like a sourdough mother, a lump of material from which my outbursts grow. I cannot adequately express my emotions. My spectrum is happy to angry. The points between, obscured. This sourdough mother journeyed with me from my Irish childhood and has accompanied me across two continents and through several long-term relationships and two marriages. Its raw materials are to be unearthed in the fights and arguments of my childhood, long forgotten, but somehow embedded in my subconscious, dormant but alive.

Sometime in my seventh or eighth year, my mother stood at our front door, headscarf tied, overcoat buttoned, small suitcase by her side.

“I’m running away with a soldier,” she told my two brothers and me.  “Ye’ve my heart broken.”

We cried, begged, cajoled. She relented. The suitcase taken upstairs, the overcoat and headscarf hung on the back of the pantry door where the coats went.

She was bluffing in that moment. Never would she have abandoned her family, but three wild boys, full-time, our father away from Monday to Fridays most weeks, I can empathize with her plight. And I find myself dealing with those same emotions of frustration and anger, overwhelmed by parenthood. It is so easy to write those experiences off as “part of growing up Irish,” or, “That’s how it was in those days.” Only, it’s not so easy to dismiss a small boy’s trembling at the sound of raised voices, at the slamming of a door, of the threats to leave, to beat, to have “had it with the lot of you.” The fear I felt back then, when my mother’s wooden spoon or my father’s hand threatened, is part of my “starter,”  part of my problem.

A few months ago, I took umbrage with something my wife said about the title of my book.  I was in her office, trying to scan an image to send someplace. Her criticism triggered my response. I took a piece of the sourdough mother and rolled the anger between my fingers. The anger bubbled and rose, and in a split second was out of control. My laptop hit the ground and my wife yelled at me to leave her office.  I returned to my own office with the stricken machine, sat on the green Ikea chair, eyes shut,  and inhaled, exhaled, trying to master the runaway sourdough rage. When my wife arrived to continue the argument I took the statue of the Detroit River Lighthouse on my desk and smacked it against my head. I flung it to the floor, but instead it hit the closed laptop and left an indent, deep as a bullet hole. When I opened it up the top of the screen was a shattered sun of blackness, and the bottom flickered like a guttering candle. The expression on my wife’s face told me I’d reached some new low.

My outburst was a reaction to circumstances in my life, some legitimately difficult, others petty and small. My mother’s short-term memory is slipping away slowly. Slipping nonetheless. I take a pinch of rage. Writers brag on Facebook about how marvelous it all is, their students, the writing, the joy of teaching a loved book. I take a pinch of rage. My ex-wife dictates my son’s visitation schedule in emails that make haikus look like Shakespearean monologues. I take a pinch of rage. Politicians play Russian Roulette with the economy. I take a pinch of rage. My calf gets injured every time I run. I take a pinch of rage. I live too far away from my Irish family. I take a pinch of rage. I miss making a difference in people’s lives. I take a pinch of rage.

I’ve hit hopelessness, the frustrations of post-MFA life; and I’ve hit anticipation and the hopefulness of an acceptance coming through for a story. It’s difficult for me to say, “I am sad.” And it’s really difficult for me to say, “You hurt my feelings.” I don’t have any excuses, having left Ireland twenty years ago. For someone with supposedly excellent communication skills, I manage to do a pretty lousy job in communicating my emotional state. I guess this is the paradox of my life. This is why I spend several hours each month in my therapist’s office, journeying through my childhood, through my adulthood, figuring out the issues. This is why, when my anger is triggered, my response is to reach for that sourdough heirloom and break off another little bit, pinch it, roll it, flatten it, and wait for the moment I lose its control and the anger pours from me, untrammeled.

This festering rage, this pattern of keeping the original starter fed with new anger, is unsustainable. There are people I love whom I must consider, young children whose own tiny “mothers” are being created by the influences around them. Instead of endowing them with a piece of my own childhood for their starter, I want to give them something else, some new material, from which one day they will hopefully construct healthier, stronger, more viable means of expressing their emotions than I did.

My job is to resist falling into the familiar of childhood.  The ease with which I can lose my temper is something I have to control as best I can. It’s difficult to not repeat the patterns imprinted on my young self.  Those messages absorbed subliminally resurface in the yeasty ball I nurture, a rage-filled creature in search of sustenance. This is when I tell myself I am not my parents, I am not my parents. I am their child; my writing and my way with words are inherited from them. My prominent ears are family heirlooms, gifted through genetics, and from me to my son and daughter. I am the sum of my past, and that includes this ball of rage I keep alive with my own tantrums. These days I attempt to destroy it through writing.  I process the past into narratives that allow me to remove pieces of the starter and render them harmless on the page.  As I uncover secrets from the fertile dough of my memory, secrets that leave raw welts on my psyche, I move into the early months of my fiftieth year, committed to dismantling my sourdough mother of rage and creating a happier, safer home for my family.

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JAMES CLAFFEY, hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA, with his wife, the writer and artist, Maureen Foley, their daughter, Maisie, and Australian cattle-dog, Rua. He is the author of the collection of short fiction, Blood a Cold Blue, published by Press53 . www.jamesclaffey.com

10 responses to “Rage Like a Sourdough Mother”

  1. Susan Tepper says:

    You are not alone in your yeasty rage state. All writers and artists have this in some form. I hope that gives you a pinch of relief. All the crap written about how wonderful things are in people’s lives is often, I think, a wishing process. This piece is strong and sad but also true and well expressed. Thank you.

  2. I agree with Susan. This is courageous and well-done. Artists are temperamental, but it’s not an excuse. It’s something to work on. Sounds like you are.

  3. Lucinda Kempe says:

    “I process the past into narratives. . . . ” Beautiful, James. Me too. I don’t have rage, but the sadness is sometimes close enough to the surface to taste. And words the salve.

  4. Considering the amount of physical and mental abuse my parents inflicted upon me as a child, I hardly beat myself up (no pun, honestly) for being angry so much of the time. I’ve evolved, at least, and have never laid a hand on anyone other than that insufferable bully in 5th grade when I first arrived in America not speaking the language.

    I acknowledge my rage and anger every day; but I don’t feel guilty over it. I don’t feel guilty over anything.

    Nice work, J.C.

  5. Hell is subjective and/or tailor-made. I don’t discount anyone’s experiences. And we do keep going…we have young kids we try to be good role models for.

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