Feel what you feel

Today after church, I went to the pier downtown and spent some time watching the pelicans diving for fish. The way they do it is pretty dramatic: they fly in great loops high in the air, then suddenly pivot toward the earth and plummet directly into the water with a big splash. Their wings and necks look bent and broken as they speed to the water’s surface. But a second after they bomb, they pop back up, fold their necks and wings back into more natural-looking angles, and settle into a relaxed float, presumably to enjoy whatever spoils they have captured in their deep beaks.

When I was a kid, my dad would recite a poem about pelicans: what a wonderful bird is the pelican. His beak can hold more than his belly can. Belly can: like belican. Ha ha.

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One of my big objectives right now as I navigate this new and unfamiliar life as a separated woman and a single mom is to “feel what I feel.”  This is not as easy as it might sound, and it is at times a lot harder than I expected it to be. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy over the years tempering, suppressing, and reinventing my emotions. Learning not to “overreact.” Telling myself not to trust my own feelings. Tamping down on thoughts I knew I shouldn’t think; dismissing words that I knew should never enter my thought process. Words like divorce.

Harris O’Malley’s Huffington Post (re)blog earlier this month, “On Labeling Women ‘Crazy,'” really struck a cord with me. The idea behind the article is that “What’s Really Going On When Men Call Women ‘Crazy'” is not that men are discussing anyone’s actual mental health symptoms or diagnoses, but rather that they are diminishing women’s behavior they find uncomfortable or inconvenient in an attempt to manipulate or control that behavior and make it more palatable.

The trend of labeling women “crazy” is part of the culture that socializes women to go along to get along. When women are told over and over again that they’re not allowed to feel the way they feel and that they’re being “unreasonable” or “oversensitive,” they’re conditioned to not trust their own emotions. Their behavior — being assertive, even demanding or standing up for how they feel — becomes an “inconvenience” to men and they’re taught not to give offense and to consider the feelings of others before their own.

Oh, how I understand this. How thoroughly conditioned I became not to trust my emotions, to the extent that I no longer needed an outside force to tell me I was unreasonable, oversensitive, or crazy. I told myself. I kept myself in check.

I do not wish to convey that Lou and Lou alone taught me not to trust myself. I would say that work began before I ever met him and that much of it was accomplished in the bunker-mentality conservative Catholic church I attended as a teenage convert. There, I learned that feelings are fleeting and not to be counted on in terms of decision-making and discernment. You don’t need feelings to find out what the rules are and to follow them.

I think a lot of my thought process going into the marriage was very rational. Lou is a hard worker and would be a good provider. He is loyal and would be faithful to me. He went back to school and got a bachelor’s, just like I wanted him to. He got along well with my family. He didn’t lie to me or hit me. In these ways, he was ahead of a lot of boyfriends I had heard of. At times in our early relationship that were tough, I reminded myself of these facts. At times in our marriage that were tough, I reminded myself again.

Whatever unpleasant thing I was feeling didn’t stand up to the facts.

In an argument, the words spoken are the facts. The tone used is the emotion. If you choose your words well, you can always tell your adversary she misinterpreted you. If you choose your words less carefully, you can still claim semantic misinterpretation. You can insist on only facts. You can let her believe she is crazy for understanding you to mean anything other than the bland, un-nuanced words you spoke.

Nowadays, I want to feel what I feel. All of it: the good and the bad, the confusing and the unexpected. The guilt, the relief, the joy, the sorrow. The anger and the love. The hope and the grace.

And feeling what I feel isn’t always easy. It can be painful; it can be rapid-fire. It can be like a pelican circling over the bay and dive-bombing a fish. I grapple to identify the emotion, and feeling it is like diving, bent and broken, into icy water. But I find, sometimes to my surprise, that I’m always able to find the surface again.

Like a pelican with a beak so full of fish his belly cannot accommodate the haul, I have a heart filled with emotions, so many I’m not sure I can process all of them. And no one can tell me I don’t have a right to feel what I feel. I will not abide anyone who does.

Fortunately, I have People. Really good People who encourage me in my effort to feel what I feel, who listen to me as I circle those feelings and try to catch them. People who make the effort easier, less daunting. People for whom I feel warmth and love and gratitude–things I’m happy to feel.

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