The three of us were discussing the unspoken rules we live by, and what happens when other people don’t play by those rules. The question: How do you respond when God puts people in your life who don’t fit into your plans, make you feel out of control, or upset your way of doing things? We took turns answering, as we had for the six previous questions in the study guide. My response: I double down, trying to keep things in control through my own perfect behavior, and when that doesn’t work, I get frustrated/defeatist and shut down/try to disappear.
There was a pause, then one friend asked, “How’s that working out for you?” I replied, “Not well,” with a self-deprecating laugh. It was a question posed to me many times, and my answer was ready and worn-in.
She replied, “Well, it’s working on some level. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t be doing it.”
I opened my mouth, inhaling, preparing to respond. But no words came. After a beat, I said, “Right… I guess… I guess that’s true.” I scribbled down her words and our discussion moved onto the next question.
Later that evening, as I stood over the stove making dinner, I considered my friend’s question and comment. It was said with a good natured laugh, a recognition that she, too, experienced the tension of knowing something doesn’t work and continuing to do it anyway. I rinsed broccoli crowns, moving them one at a time from colander to cutting board to be trimmed.
I recalled a series of moments with my ex-boyfriend. These moments all tangled together in my memory, the pattern identical in each. He did something that bothered me. I didn't know how to talk about it, so I turned it back on myself, carefully figuring out what I did wrong. I’d come to him and humbly apologize for the role I’d played in the situation. And then I waited. I looked at him, expecting him to read my mind and apologize for his nonsense.
It never worked. Not once. And yet I kept doing it, as if a perfectly executed apology would enable him to read my mind and know what I wanted. An impulse of conscience told me that this was an effective means of communication, and if he wasn’t getting the message, well, I should just try harder.
He should just know, I thought to myself each time, not knowing that my habit of obsessively turning interactions over in my head looking for my mistakes was not a habit most people shared.
After preheating the oven, I tossed the broccoli in olive oil, salt, and pepper on a baking sheet. I pulled out my non-stick pan and heated a drizzle of oil. I cut open the package of chicken and patted it dry with a paper towel, preparing it for the pan. Thinking back on slight after slight, adding up like so many papercuts, it was a particular feat of dysfunction that the relationship lasted as long as it did.
My method, though entirely ineffective, provided me with a way around the discomfort of confrontation. I remembered the chronic turning in on myself, my refusal to direct my annoyance and anger at another person.
I didn’t see it at the time; I was too far down the rabbit hole, buried under an endless list of rules for how the world works that I pieced together in other moments. My place in the world was one that didn’t make a fuss, that didn’t ask for anything, that didn’t feel anything other than fine.
I saw it, rifling through my memory as I pushed and turned the knob on the stove and considering how desperately I clung to my method and my rules. But I didn’t see it at the time. I thought of that moment and the ones to come. How many of my habits continued to work in a way that was not healthy for me or my relationships?
What wasn't I seeing that would one day become obvious? And why did I expect myself to know it all at once, right then and there, as if thinking hard enough could illuminate the path to perfected control.
I slid the chicken into the pan. The corresponding sizzle and lack of leaping flecks of oil confirmed that the pan was hot enough. Five minutes on this side, the recipe told me. Then five minutes on the other. The details of the new recipe jumbled together in my brain. How much cumin? When does the chicken go in? Only half of the seasoning? Why can’t I find when to use the other half?
I substituted ingredients with reckless abandon when I didn't have the right kind of milk on-hand. I missed it in my scan of what was needed before beginning. Always read the recipe all the way through before you start, I heard my mother say in my head. My method was more chaotic, a lawless rush to toss prepared ingredients here and there-this in the oven, that on the stove, this in the sink, that in a bowl.
This recipe, one from a meal kit, required me to make a sauce. I groaned inwardly. I never add the ingredients at the right time or over the right level of heat, and I always want it to simmer down to a thicker consistency than it wants to. Cooking for one allow me the freedom of cooking without fear of offending someone else's palate. Any missed ingredients are mine to reap the consequences of alone.
The timer dinged, announcing that the broccoli was done. I turned off the oven and let it sit until I had room for it on the stovetop. Stirring the fig and balsamic reduction, I watched the small bubbles dance in the too-thin mixture. I turned off the heat, resigned to a runny reduction.
I plated the meal and poured the sauce over top, then settled onto my couch to eat. Tentatively, I tasted a bite of dripping chicken. I chewed, considering. Tastes fine to me, I thought, shrugging. I turned on an episode of The West Wing for company. I might still be operating under the same rules of conflict that I had at seventeen. But that night, at least my haphazard, fast and loose recipe-following method worked well enough for me.