Nobody says anything at first. I look at the faces around the room – fifteen, sixteen year olds who are expecting to stand in front of an audience in a few days and read some of their writing. I wait.
Excited? I hear from one of the elder boys.
All right, I say, acknowledging his ability to share, but careful not to hold up this feeling as something we should all aspire to.
A moment later I hear a small voice: numb?
I note the questioning tone and nod, saying, okay, as I look at the girl. My act is one of inching in – her open eyes a door ajar, which may or may not slam shut as I step towards it.
I rarely admitted anything when I was younger. I have a sense, when I imagine scenes in my past, of an area around my feelings. It is like the thick air between two magnets when they are not set to attract. One magnet is my heart, the other my head. The space between is frustrating. I work at the two, trying to force them together. All I feel is that energy of repulsion – the sense that my feelings themselves are pushing me away. But what if it’s the way I’m approaching? What if I turn myself around, try another route? Now, we draw together, the magnetism effortless.
Usually, when I felt that blank around my heart, I gave up. I jumped into my head and thought: right, well I’ll just have to call the shots from here. If someone had asked me how I felt, I wouldn’t have said numb. I would have been navigating my brain, confident in the cells there, my ability to string a sentence together, give a ‘good’ answer. But numb would have been exactly the right word to describe the area around my heart, which was repelling and repelled.
Numb is a good place to start, I tell the girl in the second row. The door of her eyes has not closed; in fact, it opens a little wider. I see surprise.
I wish someone had told me, when I was fifteen, that what I was feeling was a decent place to start, whatever it was.
I wish I had been able to tell someone how I was feeling when I was fifteen. If I had, I’d been an expert in it now!
What I am, is an expert in reacting to my feelings – oh god; not this again; so bored; why me; why now…
This used to be an endless cycle. I would spin and spin and spin, until I fell over and threw up; then I would begin all over again. Charge through life, faster and faster, get drunk, get drunker, pass out, wake up on Sunday morning completely banjaxed and finally say: ugh, I’m exhausted, I’m not doing anything today; but come Monday morning I begin again.
Do these kids want to read their work to people? Some of them do – one of them is excited. This is Freddie, who took my workshops last year. I watched him during each exercise, giving his all – fearless – turning up in red braces for the final performance. Nothing got in the way for him. Or, if it did, he got over it. When I have us standing, rocking from side to side, lifting each foot, laying it down again, his movements are large, his boundaries outside the confines of his skinny frame so that he can move clear of himself. He has the capacity to learn beyond that which he already knows.
I wake up most morning with a stiff shoulder. I have realised that I can stay fenced in by that, tired jammed, or I can be brave and stretch upwards, breath in, breath out. I can put some music on and swing around. The shoulder still feels odd, but I have moved it beyond that which it is trying to tell me it wants to stay: a comfort zone that isn’t that comfortable.
Nerves can become an uncomfortable comfort zone – this acceptance of feeling awful in front of an audience. Well, that’s just how I am; I’m just not confident; my work isn’t good enough.
You’re the only one putting yourself there by these thoughts. Through these thoughts you are training the perception that you don’t deserve to feel any better.
What about saying that you do?
But I don’t.
Only if that’s what you say.
Decide on a place to trust. Accept that this place will feel strange at first. It is like that space between the magnets. Nobody has ever gone there before.
Start with your feet, I tell the girl who is numb.
We have stopped rocking and now stand with our legs a little distance apart.
How do they feel?
I don’t know, she says.
Good, I tell her, and again her eyes open with that surprise. If she tells me that she doesn’t know, she has thought about it for long enough to feel there is no answer.
Lift one up and put it down again. She does. Now the other.
We are all lifting and plonking. All the kids here, looking at our shoes. Some of us have laces flapping, some of us aren’t wearing socks.
Now try and be still again, I say.
I can feel the calm around me, this silence, this immobility. I take a deep breath and sigh, and invite everyone to do the same.
You breath will tell you how you feel, I say. You can listen to it, see if it shudders, sputters. You can see how long it is, and perhaps sense how big or small your lungs feel. Through this investigation you can notice if your mind wants to think about other things: a movie you went to see, a boy you love, a memory you can’t forget, a conversation you wish you didn’t have. Perhaps you are thinking that you can’t follow your breath – you don’t know how. This is all information.
For over a year, trying to follow my breath, I would think: I clearly can’t do this like everyone else can because there isn’t anything to follow.
One day, I realised that this was a feeling I carried with me in life – always thinking that I was the odd one out, that everyone else was able and I was not.
The breath never lies. But we can lie to ourselves.
If you feel numb it’s because your magnets are negotiating. If you come to the conclusion that you are crap, or unable, or bored – then this is your information, your deception; the pattern of how you react to life.
Sometimes, when I try to follow my breath, I think: this feels quite weird. And then I see how I have a similar thought about myself: that I am made strangely, put together a bit abnormally. And then I get back to the breath, because I know that everything else is just a concept in my mind, it doesn’t grow in the soil, I can’t pick it and eat it – so why cultivate it?
If you hold an ice-cube in your hand for over twenty years, like I did, it’s not surprising your hand feels numb. But if you decide to put the cube down and you wait long enough you’ll notice that when the feeling comes it’s kind of interesting, even if only for the fact that it is finally something different to feeling nothing.
Hi Gabriela — yes, I can relate to what you say about having that sense of numbness as a teenager — for many of us, it seems, it only became safe to actually pay some attention to the sensations in our bodies once we had some distance from our families of origin, as being in those environments required many of us to focus all of our attention on determining what our caregivers felt and wanted (thus effectively making us, in a sense, their caregivers), and this attitude got translated into our dealings with peers and so on.
Hey Chris. Thanks for commenting – as always – so insightfully. You really pointed it out for me when you talked about the whole family thing. Now that I am completely financially independent, I feel so much freer to be different to my family, which was harder to do when I still felt dependent.
How wonderful that these children, not children, but I don’t like the term ‘young adults’ either, have you to guide them through this experience. I love that you told her to ‘start with her feet’. Yes. Even if numb, even if heavy. Start with your feet, with your breath. Even if heavy and distant.
Hi Letizia, so lovely to see you here. It’s kind of you to think my students are lucky! And it sounds like you totally get what I am talking about. Nice! gx
I’ve also had that sense that I’m the odd one out, not quite fitting in anywhere, that sense that I’m innately strange. And the experiences I had as a teenager, unlike the wonderful exercise you did here with this group of young people, encouraged that sense of numbness, the not wanting to admit to feelings in case they weren’t the right ones. Thanks for making me think about this process.
It’s a pleasure Andrea! I do feel, because I felt very much like you say here, that when I work with kids I am guided by what I would have wanted someone to give me, to help me, and in teaching these students I seem to always undo something for myself too. It’s all good!