A stoic does not express emotion. A stoic family is mostly expressionless.

I was reared in a stoic household: Germanic (on Mom’s side – she referred back only as far as “Pennsylvania Dutch,” because she liked their folk art) and Welsh (on Dad’s side – traced back to the 15th century and Sir Rhys ap Thomas, Knight of the Garter and Governor of Wales who hosted jousting tournaments at his Carew Castle. I was pleased to discover, as an adult visiting Wales, that Sir Rhys’s armor was not all as shiny as I’d been led to believe!)

When I was a child, not only was I not versed in the language of emotions, but also it was clear that I should not feel emotions at all. Nor, my parents hoped, would I ever express them, because Mom and Dad would not know what to do with loose emotions flitting around in our home like bats that had snuck in through tiny chinks in our walls.

It took decades for me to feel safe with emotions, and years more to identify and name them.

This past winter I experienced for the first time a prolonged depression, and I gained a huge compassion for people who often feel depressed. The emotion matched the weather, as if layers of gray, leaden clouds pressed down on the daylight, on the land, on my body, on my energy, on my eyelids. Some days the only thing I wanted to do was to hide under a quilt and sleep. What helped me the most was just being-with: allowing myself to feel what I was feeling, and not fighting it. I allowed myself to have compassion for me, and to accept the compassion of friends who checked in on me and who made sure that occasionally I got out from under my quilt even if I didn’t think I wanted to. Like the gray clouds, thankfully the depression has finally moved on by.

Though it is not depression, in the past months I have felt a lot of sadness, and have come to understand that most of it is not “mine.” Several friends recently have lost spouses and friends and beloved pets. Though I do not feel sad in myself for these losses, my friends’ sadnesses have come to visit me. I can name the feeling as “sad” and “grief,” and I have invited those others’ feelings to come in and stay a while with me. I believe that my holding them temporarily may lessen their impact on my friends. And I’m pleased to notice that I can tell the difference between emotions that are “mine” and ones that are “theirs.”

But in the last few weeks I’ve felt . . . something . . . that is probably an emotion, but I have no name for it. It’s been appearing several times a day recently. I’m definitely feeling it, because I’m no longer the stoic I was raised to be; emotions of all sorts are allowed in my life.

And, being a poet, I’m searching for a name for what I’m feeling, or at least a metaphor or a simile that will help me understand it.

        This feeling is both poignant and sweet.

        It is like the aroma of an evening’s dinner, still alluring at the far corner of the house long after the meal is finished and I am full.

        It is a sensuous, musical feeling, like when a dissonant chord is held so long it becomes foreplay, and its resolution portends orgasm.

        It is like the afterglow from a vanished dream.

        It is like Midwestern air just before a thunderstorm trips and falls into a million wet pieces.

        This feeling is like a crocus risking February with both fear and elation.

        And trying to describe this feeling is like hearing an unfamiliar bird that calls from a hidden place, and then trying to describe the call to an Audubon member.

This feeling that I can’t yet name seems to be located not so much in my gut, where the heavier emotions live, but nearer my heart because there is lightness and joy in it as well as mystery. All I know to do is simply feel it, to be-with it just as I was with depression. While I seek its name I will smile or weep, stomp or twirl, maybe share a cup of tea with the feeling, and perhaps a square of dark chocolate with almonds.

Whatever this emotion is, I’m quite certain it contains something wonderful for me. Maybe it holds a wise insight. It might reveal ecstasy, if I stay with it long enough. What a very un-stoic thought!

At the very least, even if I never can name it, maybe this mystery emotion contains the seeds of a brand new poem.

16 replies
  1. Alison Heins
    Alison Heins says:

    The first thing that came to me was “spring fever”. A condition, not an emotion, I suppose. But does the terminology really matter? Like the “99 names of God”, there is no one word, yet, we know what is meant.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Thank you, Ann. I wouldn’t wish depression on anyone, but . . . misery does “love company,” so thanks for sending it on to your friend!

      Reply
  2. Janice O'Mahony
    Janice O'Mahony says:

    I love the phrase, “there must be a word for it in some language.” I bet there is a perfect word for this feeling somewhere. In the meantime, we’re stuck with metaphor, similes or “it’s kind of like if you combined x with y and sprinkled on z.”

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      And, at least in American English, we can make up our own word – perhaps “eXwYandZee” for this particular malady?

      Reply
  3. christina
    christina says:

    Kything–the experience of being with… not an emotion exactly, but an experience of open heartedness. And thank you for being with the sorrows of others.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      You’re right, Christina – the experience of kything is close enough to an emotion to be listed in the pantheon of emotions. Thanks for the reminder.

      Reply
  4. Johnny Palka
    Johnny Palka says:

    Well, Cynthia, your post really caught me by surprise. I’ve always experienced you as a person laden with both emotions and empathies that are close to the surface. I guess I’ve been missing something. Or perhaps you’ve been missing something that the rest of us see plainly!

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      And you’ve known me only as a slightly more evolved adult, not as a stoic child forbidden to have emotions. I like the elder version of me a lot more!

      Reply
  5. Anna Trenshaw
    Anna Trenshaw says:

    I like the idea of ‘holding on’ to friends’ emotions to help lessen their impact. An exceptional gesture that can also take a toll. I hope that after noticing which emotion is theirs vs. which emotion is yours, you can process it accordingly. As always, I love reading your insights!

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      In my book “Meeting in the Margins,” I spend several pages talking about the practices of “kything” and “tonglen” – they have both been very important to me. Thanks for being my fan, dear – and I do hope you pay attention to your own wise advice.

      Reply
  6. Ann Medlock
    Ann Medlock says:

    Could it be joy? Plain ole joy? I’ve had the just-out-of-the-corner-of-my-eye sense of warmth, of letting go into union, acceptance, amor fati… Sometimes I even let myself stay there a while.

    There was a long piece on depression last year that changed my ideas about what that is: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/07/is-everything-you-think-you-know-about-depression-wrong-johann-hari-lost-connections

    Sometimes the state of the world and our places in it can only be met with grief if we’re at all sentient. The thing I’m trying to learn is to hang on, even within grief, to the moments of beauty and grace that I don’t want to miss. They make it possible to go on, even to be joyful.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Possibly “plain ole joy” that we don’t feel we deserve, or that doesn’t “fit” with the circumstances around us . . . I’ll have to ponder that one. I love the Guardian article, and printed it out for myself. The story of “cow as antidepressant” is a delight. Thank you so much for adding this article to the conversation. And yes, to find the beauty and grace that are happening concurrently (or even within) grief – that may be our most important work of all! Thank you Ann.

      Reply
  7. Claudia Walker
    Claudia Walker says:

    All these lovely descriptors of this feeling/emotion that lights near the heart, came into focus beside my heart as Spring! Thank you Cynthia!

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      I hadn’t thought of the seasons as being names for emotions – but I guess they really are! Thanks, Claudia.

      Reply

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