Thursday, July 14, 2011

Emotion in a Box

I am surrounded by boxes. We move to our new place in two days, and all around me are boxes of things that define me. My books, my clothes, my kitchen gear and hidden away in a brown leather box is my past. Letters—written to me, and written by me and never sent—from a time before I hid myself behind layers of efficiency, organization and reliability. Most of the letters are from elementary and high school, and at times are embarrassing to read, but the letters are also honest and courageous. Back then, I didn't ask for permission to feel or to say what I felt.

In college, I found a haven for my feelings in literature and theater. To be successful, I had to dive into the emotions of the characters that showed up on the page or the stage. Then I entered the working world and found that although there was a lot of talk about feelings, most people didn't really want anything to do with them. Feelings are unpredictable. They are confusing and they take time to sort out. So I started teaching, a profession I found more welcoming to feelings. And I burned myself out on feeling. I treated my students like they were my children. I burned myself out on feeling responsible.

Photo by Dennis Keagy
I remember when I put her away—the girl that felt so much. A relationship had gone south—deep south—and I started questioning whether I could trust my emotions anymore. So I decided to take that part of me underground. All those feelings were beautiful and powerful, but not ready to be worn on an everyday basis. I packed her away because I didn't know how to feel and function at the same time. And survival being paramount, I focused on function.

It's not that the years since have not been filled with emotion—I met my husband, I moved to Los Angeles, I taught at a great school and I gave birth to my daughter. But with the emotion came fear. Fear that I would open the valves measuring out my emotions too wide and destroy everything I built in the flood. The unexpressed emotions took up residence in my body, and when the weight became too much to bear, they would manifest themselves as illness. Illness allowed me an acceptable way to withdraw from the world to go live in the world of that brown leather box for a while. Sometimes I would actually open the box and read something from it, but most times it was more about giving myself time to feel, to cry, to be.

When I first started packing for this move, I thought about getting rid of that box. Getting rid of the past. My past. But now I see that the box has been holding a piece of me that I did not feel safe wearing on the outside until very recently. And I have nothing but gratitude for that box and its faithfulness. So the box is coming with me. But I look forward to the day when I no longer need it. When I can own all those feelings out in the daylight.

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