An email rejection of my application to a writing class read, “You are not ready for this class. Yours is a personal essay only in the sense that you are the narrator, but it does not express your feelings.”
My inner response was, “Really? NO feelings?” This couldn’t be true. Then I reread the essay. Blown away, I realized, that yes, it was true. My essay read like a report.
My brain spun: How do I write with feeling? Do I know what I’m feeling? Do I have the language to express my feelings?
During the next few weeks, a number of experiences began to reveal some of my feelings and ways to express them. I was given a writing assignment with the instruction, “Respond in writing to this photo.” It was a picture of a middle-aged man with long dishevelled hair speckled with gray, a scraggly beard and fierce, angry eyes, wearing a frayed overcoat.
As I stared at the photo, my insides began to churn, I heard myself gasp, and there was a lump in my throat. I asked myself, “What’s going on? I’m only looking at a photo.” For the first time, I began writing about my feelings.
The following Saturday I visited the Leonard Cohen retrospective at the Jewish Museum in New York. Part of the exhibit was in a small black box theatre. Film loops were shown on three walls, creating a surround of Cohen’s life, music and poetry.
I found a seat on a small patch of empty floor, squished between two people. I pulled up my knees, covered my heart with my hands and sat in this position for 45 minutes while I wept, as the strains of “So Long Marianne, Democracy is Coming to the USA” and “Hallelujah” filled the theatre and people hummed.
There, in the dark, I had my own private, personal retrospective. While watching and listening, I remembered all the men I had loved, my children when they were young, the amazing delight of grandchildren and many friends who had died.
I sat in a river of uncensored emotions and I recognized them! As I cried, smiled, mourned and got angry, my emotions flowed into one another and over each other. Finally, my feelings were getting some air, even though my body was crouched on the floor with my arms around my knees.
You freeze up in childhood
A few days later, while driving to Pennsylvania, I listened to Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming. She recounted a story about waiting to give the commencement address when a student called everyone’s attention to an empty chair in the middle of the graduating class. A vase of flowers rested on the seat of the chair as a tribute to a student who had recently died.
As I listened to the CD, I noticed a churning in my belly. The feeling gathered energy, my throat closed and I held my breath as pressure built behind my eyes. I pulled over to the side of the road and sobbed.
Later, when I told someone about my experience, she asked, “Where was the empty chair in your life?” My mother’s chair was empty at my college graduation. She had died the month before.
Shortly after that, I read Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby. She wrote,
“You freeze up in childhood, you go numb, because you cannot change your circumstances and to recognize, name, and feel the emotions and their cruel causes would be unbearable, and so you wait. Ice, glass, mirrors, I was frozen, or rather thawing.”
I, too, have been frozen and am beginning to thaw.
My memory of feelings is scant, and often, when I feel emotional, I have no words, no familiar language. I believe this absence of emotional vocabulary stems from a moment in time when my mother was told that her husband of a few months had died, causing an emotional tornado in her body and mine. The silence of that dark wordless space echoes through the years.
Now, I understand my reluctance to identify and name any feelings. The tumultuous setting of my first emotional experience was painful and without language or understanding. A lifetime of curiosity, exploration and attention prepared me for the moment of grace that appeared while listening to the music of Leonard Cohen in a dark, crowded space.
In that moment, I opened myself to the depth of my feelings and allowed them to be felt and named. Hallelujah!
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image 1 Image by Fred T. from Pixabay 2 Image by Frederic Ch. Reuter from Pixabay