“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way–things I had no words for.” Georgia O’Keeffe
How are you? How do you feel? How do I feel? I am not sure. I come from a long line of people who avoided feelings–or at least conversations about feelings. My grandfather would answer those questions with, “I feel with my fingers.”
Given her father’s avoidance, it is no wonder my mother thought I had way too many feelings. I was a teenager at the time and I probably did–unnamed feelings spilling out like an overflowing rain barrel–running willy-nilly with no destination.
Knowing how we feel is rarely easy to answer–especially when the feelings get trapped behind a dam of no-talk-rules. But when I don’t know how I feel I act out of them rather than delve into them as a form of self-discovery.
How do I know how I feel? I try to listen to my body. Feelings are not head items–I think from my head, I feel in my body. I train myself to pay attention to my feelings. It’s not something I do naturally.
When I notice an unease within, I immediately want to get busy, find a distraction, run away. I’m uncomfortable. I don’t have time to deal with it now. I don’t know exactly what the feeling is, I do know it’s unsettling. Instead I can choose to sit with it and see what it has to say to me. First, I notice and name what I am sensing and where. An image helps me identify what the feeling is like. It might be like a whirring fan in my belly. Or like a bottle with a woven basket squeezing it and getting increasingly tighter around my neck. Or like a stampede of horses running over me. Whoa!
Then I pay attention to where my energy is. When I’m angry, I feel it in my gut, a fist clenching and releasing. I feel fear in my throat–closing off the air, my voice caught in a dry well. I feel love in my heart, where it expands and overflows. Sorrow is in my chest, pressing down on me. Hurt pierces my heart and spills out in tears. When I connect with something absolutely true it is an electric charge that radiates up and down my spine.
I understand sorrow, love, fear, anger as first tier feelings. They are loud, quick, full. Other feelings are more nuanced: Feelings like insecure, smug, shame, mischievous, bored, lonely. These take longer to tease out.
My feelings remind me of an insistent three-year-old who keeps talking until you sit down to listen to her. When I sit down and listen to my feelings, they gradually make themselves known, felt, and heard.
One way to be with these feelings is through art. Art opens me to feelings I didn’t realize I had or have long forgotten. How quickly a familiar song can bring me to tears or lift me out of a slump. Listen to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and feel the joy rise within you–a masterpiece he wrote when he was completely deaf. Monet’s Waterlilies calm while a Calder mobile delights. Art carries us into another place, mood, or season.
Before life screeched to a halt, I visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art exhibit Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War. How quickly that art pulled me back into those challenging times. We were all so certain of our position, so righteously angry, so ready to blame. The raw art of protest signs, acrylics dripping blood red, editorial cartoons’ sharp satire harpooning the Washington establishment brought me right back to the late ‘60s. We didn’t necessarily recognize it as art then, but 50 years later we see the creativity forged in the furnace of war and social unrest. The exhibit came with a playlist of songs–Proud Mary Keep on Burnin’–swiftly returning me to my early 20s. This is the power of art.
An artistic expression that helps me engage with my feelings is collage. I collect images from magazines, newspapers, even old pictures, or tour books. I include background designs, words, letters. When I decide to create a collage, I take my collection and spread it across the dining room table. I look through it until I am drawn to an image, shape, or color. I set it aside and see what else calls me. I soon have a small stack of what looks like unrelated pictures, words, colors, patterns, people.
I use cardstock or cardboard as backing. I place a larger image as the base layer. Then I arrange and glue pieces on and around it until I have something that hangs together. I might add a piece of raveled cord, a bent wire or some other found object.
Once the collage feels close to completion, I set it on a table so I can see it as I go about my day. I might need to add another layer, hide part of something that doesn’t quite fit, add a new border. After living with it for a few days I give it a name. Hope. Peace. Fury. Joy. Loss. Grief. I let it speak. What does it want to say? How does it see the past? Where is the future? How does it feel?
A collage is an appropriate expression for this time of novel virus and social unrest. My life feels cut into pieces with fragments and shards combined in new, haphazard ways, like puzzle pieces that don’t quite fit. I reroute my weekly trip to the St Paul Farmers Market to accommodate the single entry and exit points connected by a new one-way flow. My city’s streets have whole blocks burned out. I see colleagues in square images on my computer screen. This new assemblage requires me to look at my life from an altered perspective. I feel twisted into knots and lonely for a simpler time.
Once I recognize, name, and accept my feelings, I can befriend them. Now I better understand what drives me, how my sadness and fear entwine, what triggers my anger. Art in its many manifestations helps me translate those feelings into a language that serves me better than denial ever has. How about you? How do you feel? What does it look like? How do you know?
Mary Lou Logsdon is a Spiritual Director and retreat leader in the Twin Cities. She teaches in the Sacred Ground Spiritual Direction Formation Program. She can be reached at email@example.com
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