The tea kettle whistled obnoxiously on the stove as clouds of steam dotted the microwave with droplets of water. Her hands fluttered as she spoke, nearly shouting over the noise. She grabbed a basket of teabags from a cupboard shelf, brought it back to the table and told me to choose whatever I’d like. Brown hair fell over a cheek as a shaky hand tucked it behind her ear. She kept right on shouting as she walked back to the stove and finally took the whistling kettle from the burner. She poured sloshing hot water into two mugs on a tray. I was afraid her jerky movements might splash and burn but I remained silent, watching and listening as she verbally and physically released one strong emotion after another, under the pretense of preparing tea.
She had just moved into the neighborhood and had offered me an invite to her home the week prior. I supposed I ought to be cautious, as I didn’t even know this person.
But I was too mesmerized by the sudden display.
In my childhood, when people expressed strong emotion it was scary. It could escalate quickly into physical attacks. My mother used to say, ‘Don’t say anything about (x, y, or z) or it will make your father (brother, uncle, aunt, teacher, pastor) mad.’ The spoken, and unspoken rules, were clear. Expressing yourself was always bad. We were to don masks, as my mother had. A mask of calm and acceptance; no matter what happened. Don’t show fear. Don’t show sadness. Don’t feel a thing. Smile and laugh if you can, especially around church folk. If you can’t smile, just don’t let anyone else know you are upset. It isn’t safe.
So as I watched this stranger prepare tea, I took note of her contorting face. I saw the open emotions in her jaw and forehead and lips. She was breaking all the rules I’d learned. Ordinarily that would make me want to crack a joke to get things back to a safe zone.
But I already felt I was in a safe zone. In large part because I loved her home. It was tidy but not obsessively clean. Her decor, in the rooms I’d seen, generated a feeling of peace and calm. Bible verses were noticeable here and there. Paintings of trees and landscapes were skillfully placed.
Her whistling litany continued as she carried our mugs of hot water to the kitchen table.
“One lady from church actually told me at the funeral, ‘aren’t you just so glad, at times like this, to know the sovereign grace of God?’ no! No! NO! I am not glad for the sovereignty of God that took my child away from me. Don’t tell me to be happy about that until YOU have buried a child yourself!”
I hid my gum in a Kleenex (she kept a box in every room and on the many visits which would follow that first day, we both used them a lot). I gently took my mug of tea from the tray. I had two thoughts in response to her display of emotion. I thought: this woman is salty. And: I like it.
“I’m sorry. Am I sharing too much? I make people uncomfortable. They don’t want to get this personal this quickly.” She interrupted my thoughts.
I smiled, “Oh no. I think you are salty. And I like it.”
She wasn’t sure she liked that adjective and she let me know it! I wanted to laugh again and say, ‘you just proved how salty you are!’ but I could tell she was also feeling a bit insecure so I shared, instead, “Salty is good!! Like the Bible–we are the salt of the earth. To me it simply means you are being entirely truthful. Honest. REAL. What would food be without salt? YUK! How bland! You are spicing up my life. And I appreciate it. That woman who said that to you was out of line. She needs someone to sting her with a dash of salt!!”
My whistling-tea friend moved away a few years ago. Except for an occasional phone call, we rarely linger over tea anymore.
But I was talking to another salty friend over mugs of tea this week, about the anger that can be a part of the grieving process, about how expressions of strong emotions are needed before you can really move into acceptance of the loss. And I was reminded of this moment, when a woman I’d just met showed me her grieving heart, making anger into something beautiful and intriguing rather than something to run from.
There are so many unspoken rules, particularly amongst Christians, about how strong emotions are bad; expressing them openly–even worse. Open up in the usual church setting–about your anger or grief over an injustice or a loss, and you are likely to hear some version of: ‘I really hope you can come to forgive that’. Forgiveness is needed; yes. But even God gets angry for a time, (according to the psalm which assures us weeping must occur; if there is to be joy in the morning.). Many times I suspect we hear that ‘forgive’ platitude because it is part of the unspoken rule I grew up with–keep quiet, don the mask, and look the part on the outside. Otherwise you make the rest of us feel uncomfortable…
But in my own journey I have learned that sitting in some discomfort is a key part of the healing process. Discomfort needs to be faced, not ignored. Emotions need to be felt and released, in a safe way, or true acceptance and forgiveness can’t happen. One only need to read the psalms of David to see how he worked through things. He was angry, sad, lost, grieving–some psalms are so honest they can make us uncomfortable. But, always, David returns to his praise for God–likely because after owning up to all those emotions, he was able to return to the proper view of God as savior, protector…Father.
That day in my friends kitchen began to spark the strong feelings I had buried about my child abuse. Looking back, I can clearly see God’s hand in many such moments.
Granted, it probably isn’t a good idea to go off like a teakettle around just anyone and everyone (particularly not on live TV or social media). But cultivating safe spaces and friendships, journaling, talking openly with God (as David did), are important.
Ultimately I hope to have the kind of kitchen that makes that kind of thing acceptable, and I want to be the kind of friend that lets others steam up their own kitchens now and then, too.