Anger

Autumn moon over playa. Photo 2018 Rebecca Lawton.

I first read this translation of Mizuta Masahide’s famous “storehouse” haiku when a friend sent me a beautiful broadside of it some twenty years ago. Her brother had just taken his own life, and her grief was bottomless. In time, she found that working with a traditional printer who still pursued publishing on an old letterpress offered some purpose while she mourned. One result of her work was the broadside, black letters and a gilded crescent moon on deep blue, handmade paper.

Over the decades I shied away from ever quoting the haiku, feeling the great loss my friend had suffered. It gave her more right to claim the metaphor. She’d lost something fundamental—a change she would grapple with always.

Masahide’s haiku has seen many translations. Some are shared on blogs and webpages as “Chinese proverbs.” Readers of the Japanese haiku master Bashō, on the other hand, may know the verse as one by his student Masahide. Bashō applauded the poem, written when Masahide did lose his barn or storehouse to fire. From that devastation, it’s said, Masahide learned a great lesson in the transitory nature of things.

Today I’m remembering the haiku: the ownership, the burning, the loss, the clarity that follows—all return to me as I study anger. Like a barn, anger is a thing with an owner. It’s a fundamental part of life, like fire and loss. And it’s something I want to see more clearly.

In Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, Thich Nhat Hanh writes that we each have our own anger. Because it’s ours, we have the right and responsibility to care for it as such. It’s like a little baby, Thich writes—our own baby—something to be held close. Something to be understood. Something not to deny or put away from ourselves or to punish—but something to pay attention to and learn from and guide through the years.

Anger’s an important motivator for any writer to work with, too, making it all the more worthy of attention. Owning my anger, like owning a barn or raising a child, means being willing to nurture and steward and be there for it. It means knowing what triggers reaction and, from that, learning to respond. Owning something means coping with all there is to do for it and with it, even when you’re exhausted or grieving or pushed to the limit.

For a writer, understanding anger—either in charting the path of a fictitious character or in capturing her long, simmering heat over some past or current wrong—is both interesting and instructive. Knowing what triggers her, what she avoids, what she tackles—all these are important puzzle pieces in a story.

So we learn from our own anger and that of our characters.

It’s been said that writing practice helps us cope with life. We unravel the truth of some past event by translating it for the page. We understand that no one emotion is everything about the character—or ourselves—but each one is important. And either the emotion we write rings false coming from an author who hasn’t learned, or the emotion is true and resonant and real. Like a child. Like coping with a great loss.


Find my new book of essays, The Oasis This Time: Living and Dying with Water in the West (due out from Torrey House Press in March 2019), available for presale at Indie Bound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.

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