Once More, With Feeling
thoughts on embracing vulnerability, creating a nurturing environment, and tending to my own creative spirit
Growing up, the only predictable aspect of my external environment was just how unpredictable it always was. Navigating it meant traversing a landmine of violence, verbal and emotional abuse, manipulation, and demands to remain silent.
“Children should be seen and not heard” wasn’t just an old school parental expectation in my house, it was a law that came with grave consequences and punishments when my mouth and body did not comply. As a 38-year-old woman raising my own children, I look at how they are able to just exist in their bodies, how natural it is for them to just...move without hesitation; their bodies are never seized into submission by warnings. They literally move throughout their days completely unencumbered and unfamiliar with the hesitancy and fear I knew intimately as a child.
I watch how easy it is for my sons to move their bodies as they mill about the house going from room to room, lounging on the furniture. They don’t wait for what feels like hours in their rooms, next to their doors, listening for the right moment to emerge and sneak quietly to the bathroom. My sons don’t have to listen intently to every movement my husband or I make, wondering if our footsteps will make a stop at their door and what will happen when they do. The boys’ visibility and presence around the house do not expose them to violence or vitriol. Their voices are full, strong, clear, loud, unfiltered—not stuffed down in their throats. They shout, run, play, relax, talk with one another, and openly express their emotions and opinions even when it can be a struggle for them to do so. I am in awe of their freedom and relieved that as their parent, I have been able to create an environment for them that fosters and nurtures the very freedoms I was unable to experience.
My imagination was the safest space I occupied as a child and teen. With my emotional and verbal expression so suppressed, I withdrew inwardly as far as I could to where it felt safe enough to exist. My internal life supported layer after layer of mental and emotional scaffolding designed to preserve pieces of self that emerged but could not outwardly be expressed as I developed. Creative expression became a safe—but somewhat secret—channel for me to allow those parts of myself to be seen, heard, and expressed without retribution. In my early years that looked like building worlds with classmates on the playground during recess or during car rides as I stared out the window. I became an expert on how to be completely physically expressionless: blank face, eyes observant for danger but not curious, body ready to move as soon as directed but still as stone until then. I remember going to restaurants—Grandie’s, Luby’s, Sizzler, Shoney’s—and creating stories out of the words in front of me on the placemats or card displays; I’d use the words to conjure up visuals that created scenarios completely different from the reality I was living in. I was always motionless so as not to give away how active my mind was.
At age 12, my imagination found writing, which allowed me to process thoughts I kept hidden. At 14, performing arts allowed me to naturally move my body in ways I couldn’t at home, and oration offered my voice the chance to be expressive rather than silenced.
I think about what my childhood and teen years were like often as I engage with my creative voice as an adult no longer under that environment of suppression. Creative expression for me has always been about coming to the surface for air, repeatedly attempting to keep parts of myself alive. But even after years of experiencing deep healing, I still find myself contending with the impact of those formative years in my art practice. I still haven’t fully deconditioned myself from questioning if what I’m expressing will be met with retribution. Sometimes I look at a mark I’ve made on the canvas and can see it came from the place where my deepest fears around abandonment and stickiest yearnings for approval reside. I am constantly editing myself in my head which can make it difficult to write vulnerably, as it has been this week.
I struggle with vulnerability and intimacy in other areas, too. Even with all the work, all of the unlearning to relearn how to express myself I’ve done since turning 19, verbalizing needs and feelings still remains the biggest hurdle I have to clear. The older I get the more I realize how my fear of opening up birthed from a fear that’s rooted deep in my subconscious.
Two years ago, my therapist told me I intellectualize my trauma and experiences as a defense against having to feel the emotional impact of them. She said mentally processing what I’ve survived allows me to put distance between myself and the memory so that I am not transported back to how it all felt. She told me the mental and emotional scaffolding I built as a child was designed to protect me then, but now as an adult, and even as an artist, my task at this stage of life is to feel it all so it can be released.
I believe that is an accurate assessment. It’s one I carry into the studio with me as I attempt to transmute emotions into marks and paint on a surface. Her words play on a tape in my mind as I try to write out what feelings accompany early memories that rise to my consciousness. Some memories have no emotions attached to them at all which leaves me to wonder if I suppressed them so deeply as a child that I am unable to access them. This week in the studio I’ve been grappling with what it would mean for those emotions to remain hidden from me, and so I’m left to wonder: what I am protecting myself from?
That’s the question I’m here to answer. Here, on the page. Here, on the canvas. Here, ultimately, in my life.