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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.

A month ago I went away for a week to do nothing but write poetry.

I went prepared, taking with me my poetry “sketchbooks” (ideas for new poems), and potential poetry drafts that I hadn’t nurtured in years, and a few pretty good poems that just needed their “final” polish (note: for a poet, no poem is ever “finished,” even after it is published!).

Given the luxury of a whole week with no distractions (I didn’t even have to prepare my meals!), I anticipated entering, and writing from, those interior spaces where the emotions live, the deep places that often resist being explored.

But as my writing time unfolded, I was fascinated to see that the drafts I wrote from my interior were mostly theological. What I wrote were questions, dispatched from my internal darkness into the limitless ether. Three, then five, then ten drafts of potential poetry about divinity, and those eternal Big Questions: what does it mean to be human? Is there a God? Can there be an I/Thou relationship between a human and the Creator? Which metaphors best convey the unknowing?

As I wrote I realized I was not seeking answers so much as wanting to ask the questions clearly. I hoped to wear the questions more comfortably in my daily life. This has been a lifelong pattern for me, this wanting to explore the inner questions. As early as age eight or nine I was deeply curious about the target of people’s praying – but I didn’t dare ask about it because in my Unitarian family we had judgments about prayer, and we didn’t “do” it. (We didn’t talk about sex either, but that’s for a future essay, not this one.)

When I was a teenager I consulted pastors and preachers and teachers of various stripes to find out what their personal experiences of Life and Death and God were. Almost to a person, they offered me a book or three to read, and sent me, dissatisfied, on my way.

Then, for three decades I was a practicing Roman Catholic. I found consolation and a feeling of divine connection in the rituals and mysticism of the Church. But eventually those Big Questions started rising up again, and the Church no longer satisfied.

In my late forties I returned to college to complete a bachelor of arts degree. I remember taking an ethics course in which we were assigned a research paper on any one of the major ethics issues (abortion, euthanasia, bioengineering, etc.). We were to research what professional ethicists had to say about the issue we chose, and summarize their work in our paper. But I wanted to unearth, and report on, what I thought about the issue. I was nearly fifty, and I had a lot more life experience than most of my classmates; I wanted to wrestle with my own reasoning, not regurgitate the rationales of others. It took some cajoling, but eventually the professor acquiesced, and I got to write the paper my way. When he saw the results of my ethical struggles, he agreed that all my upcoming papers might be written the same way. He hadn’t been used to students actually thinking!

And now, twenty-some years and a masters degree in theology later, I’m still eager to discover my own truths. I still want to clarify my own questions. I like diving deep and braving those dark, interior spaces. I love the hints hidden in dreams. I need metaphors to provide insights where plain words don’t suffice. All of that takes creative time, plus some amount of courage and tenacity. And that explains why I came home from my writing week with over a dozen raw question-filled poetry sketches instead of a collection of finished work.

Guess I’ll just have to go away for another writing week. I want to explore those new drafts, and see how I might enfold unanswerable questions into meaningful metaphors, so some of my questions can be brought out of the darkness. My inner nine-year-old still wants to hold them up to the light.<

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A writer who is a poet tends to see things as metaphor.  I am a writer/poet, and sometimes I drive myself crazy noticing a thing and knowing there is a delicious but elusive metaphor there, just waiting to be penned.

 

Last week I travelled from my home island to the mainland, to visit a friend in the hospital. A newly-launched 144-car ferry is in service now – the Tokitae (“TOH-kit-TAY”), a Salish greeting meaning “nice day, pretty colors.” This is a state-of-the-art motor vessel, 360 feet of shiny paint, new signage, up-to-the-minute radar and bristles of communications antennae, with diesel engines deep inside that purr so quietly you don’t know you’ve cast off until you notice the dock receding in your rearview mirror.

When the Tokitae reached the mainland and nosed into its berth, I watched two crewmen reach out for the mooring lines and loop them around the huge anvil-shaped cleats on the vessel. “Isn’t that interesting,” I thought. “Everything totally new, except for the ropes.” What was securing the vessel to the berth was old-fashioned weathered hemp rope, slightly frayed in places from hard work.

I stared at the rope and its many layers: natural hemp strands wound into cord, cords twined together into thumb-sized ropes, then double strands of that rope braided into a round, unbreakable cable as thick as my wrist. I could feel one of those annoying metaphors nudging at my mind. Ah well, let it go – it was time to negotiate the ramp off the ferry, and head for the hospital.

My friend was in the Intensive Care Unit, a state-of-the-art unit in a brand-new 13-story hospital. We were surrounded by technology, from the machines monitoring Mark and keeping him pain-free, to the cellphone that his wife, Effie, was reluctantly learning to navigate, and the WiFi computers in the family room that kept the two of them connected to email from well-wishers.

Effie is one of my dearest friends. We speak the same language of the heart. Her eyes glistened with tears of gratitude as she said, “You know, the phone calls and the emails are nice, but what really amazes me is how I can FEEL my connection to my friends. It’s a spiritual connection, but almost physical, like an energy network of support. THAT’S what’s keeping me going. And Mark feels it too. Each strand of love weaving into a connection that’s holding us.”

And THERE was my metaphor: the mooring rope of sacred love connecting two people to the interwoven compassion of many others, strong enough to hold them tenderly in difficult moments from which they’d rather drift away.

On a newly-minted Olympic class ferry, an ancient method still secures us to the shore of a home island.

Amid all the newest and shiniest technology in a hospital ICU, it is still a most ancient skill that binds us to each other.