by Michael Abraham-Fiallos
I sit across from my husband at a Chinese restaurant downtown. We sit outside, in one of those wooden outhouses that Covid has made into a mainstay of New York dining. It is his lunch break, and I have come downtown to meet him, to talk things out. Frankness and care sit with us at the table; they mediate the space between us, between my cabbage and dumpling soup and his shrimp in egg sauce with white rice.
“Why must you bring our past traumas into every argument?” he asks. His voice is steady as he asks it. The question is a question, not an accusation. In his face, I see the desire to understand. “It’s a question I ask myself, too.”
The question strikes a chord, rings a bell deep inside me, sets off alarms I did not know were there. I sit with it a moment. “I don’t know,” I say. “Or,” I continue, “I know, but—”
He finishes the thought for me: “But you don’t know why you can’t just let that tendency go.”
I nod. He nods. We understand what we’ve said and what it means, if not what it means we ought to do. We finish our lunch, and we part with smiles and jokes. We are well. As I walk uptown toward the train, however, I turn the question over and over in my mind. Why must you bring our past traumas into every argument?
Fletching is a word we don’t really use anymore because we live in a world of guns. It simply means to affix feathered vanes to arrows in order to make them fly. Fletching is a painstaking labor, a labor performed, one imagines, in days long gone by, only by those with the nimblest and swiftest of fingers. It is beautiful in my imagination, this work—full of colors and textures and needle-like precision. In reality, it was probably arduous and tedious, probably bent the back and wore out the eyes. But, of course, it was necessary, for in a world without guns, what is life without arrows?
Oh, but what is life without arrows? For all intents and purposes, there are two kinds of arrows: arrows that sustain and arrows that obliterate. The first kind means stew and salted meats and eating well throughout the winter. The second kind means war and the wailing of widows and the fatherlessness of children. The arrowhead gives, and the arrowhead takes away—like God is supposed to, but the arrowhead does it faster and better. But what, in a world after arrows, is an arrow? I sit in my third-floor two-bedroom in East Harlem, on a thundery summer day, comfortable in the air conditioning, so far away in time from the world that demanded the fletching of arrows, and I wonder at this question. In place of wood and feather and flint, what is it that we gather to make real the shape of our will in the world about us? How is it that we provide and that we destroy?
I fear that I might be the type who is always fletching, preparing always for an attack, making for myself and my circumstances far too many arrows. I fear that I might be the type who makes heaps of them, armfuls, enough to stuff quiver after quiver, that inside I might be a warrior or a hunter stuck in a life where hunting and warring are not, strictly, possible. Maybe what I’m saying is that I have anger issues. Or, maybe what I’m saying is that I have grown accustomed to the labor of gathering the materials of destruction and putting them together into little, lethal rods of words. I had to fight a lot as a teenager, mostly against a fundamentalist Christian family that didn’t know what to do with a little fag except to make him feel little and like a fag. I got good at fighting, exceptional really: vicious in my wordplay and nimble in my rage. I had an arrow for every occasion, for every opinion or trait or life-choice that an uncle or an aunt might try to demean and demolish. It helped that I was unwell and didn’t know it: I could turn on a dime, change tempers like the wind, whip into a frenzy and then fall into cold disdain. I had a warrior’s temperament grafted onto me young, and the work of a warrior when he is not warring is to fletch, to shore up weapons for future use. (I’m sure the extended family would argue that I’m overstating the case. Perhaps I am. Nevertheless, I am twenty-six now, and I am a fletcher with expert fingers and too many arrows.)
I suppose we make arrows of memories and traumas and words and feelings, that in a world like ours it is what we notice and know about the complexity of persons that makes us lethal. I suppose also that I am an angry man, deeply angry, angry at the root, and unsure of how to use my arrows to sustain rather than to obliterate. But, at last, I would like to stop collecting weapons and begin collecting tools.
Recently, I learned about the concept of nonviolent communication. Developed and pioneered by Marshall B. Rosenberg (1934-2015), a psychologist and activist, the practice involves empathetic listening, on the one hand, and honest expression on the other. What gets listened to and what gets expressed are, in order, observations, feelings, needs, and requests. At its root, according to Rosenberg, nonviolent communication is about satisfying our needs on balance with the needs of others. It is about hearing the ardent please that underlies so much of what it is that others say to us. It is also about hearing ourselves say please, understanding that please and please may not always reconcile easily and that work must be done, slowly and carefully, through speech and listening, to meet my please with your please and satisfy them both, sometimes imperfectly and in a compromising fashion. Maybe this sounds to you simply like the work of being a human among other humans. That is because, of course, it is. But, to a young man with too many arrows, who has learned that an arrow gives and takes away like God does, it is daunting. It seems so slow and so arduous. It seems to require that one surrender his arrows and stand bare before another.
But, I don’t know if that last little bit is really true. It may just be that learning to communicate nonviolently is not about putting down one’s arrows, one’s knowledge of trauma and memory and complicated feelings, but about sending these out in the right directions. I have spent most of my life shooting arrows with abandon, at any threat, real or imagined, that appeared before me. If our arrows are, indeed, fletched with emotional baggage, then it is not at what is threatening that we must aim them, but at what is desirable, what is needed, transforming that emotional baggage into something wholly different. A threat threatens because it represents the possibility of a lack, of a need gone unmet. If it is in fact true that I am armed to the teeth, then it is not toward an enemy that I wish to aim but toward the abundance of the world about me, that I might share it with those whom I love. To hold an arrow—a feeling, a memory, a desire, an observation, a trauma, a need—as a tool, rather than as a weapon, would mean to recognize its lethality while, at the same time, understanding its potential to bring sustenance and nurture.
Perhaps this metaphor has gotten too big for itself. What I want to say, in plain terms, is that I’m coming to understand I must exorcise the tendency to view my knowledge of others and of myself as some future opportunity to wound. I might use this knowledge differently I think, as an opportunity to find gifts out in the world with which to surprise and delight, to find the fulfillment of others’ needs and to answer their implicit please’s. Importantly, I share all this not because I am trying to confess to you, but because I think this is a uniquely common problem, this problem of fletching constantly and ending up with too many arrows and not knowing what is their proper purpose. I think many of us who come from troubled families are violent in disposition, that we dwell too often on the shadows around any corner, that we have our fingers too readily upon the bowstring. I believe, with greater and greater conviction, that a life of fighting might be, in a strange and unlikely way, a kind of blessing when one is finally tired of fighting. Warring makes one strong and resourceful, and meeting the needs of beloveds requires strength and resourcefulness. Meeting one’s own needs without trampling the needs of beloveds—this, too, requires a hunter’s skill, the skill to take stock of the land about one and make use of it.
What is a life without arrows? Impossible, really. But, life spent shooting arrows needn’t mean life spent shooting arrows at others. Life spent shooting arrows might mean an assertive kind of life spent finding creative solutions, life spent doing what must be done in order that the wild abundance of life shines through. What this looks like in practice—well, I don’t know. I am not a very practical person, lost too often in my own metaphors and all they suggest. For now, I am busy fletching and busy pondering where I might direct all these arrows, how the mess of feelings and memories and knowledge I have collected of myself and of others might find a peaceful target in the world.
For now, I am doing my best.