A Close Relationship Between Emotions

“I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’m frequently struck by emotions’ refusal to sit tight within a neat parcel capable of being understood and processed. Instead, they spread, grow, and connect like some organic disease, fusing together and dismissing both boundaries and nomenclature.

Both Joan Didion and C.S. Lewis recognized—and were confused by—the deep relationship between fear and extreme sadness. A double-helix of mounting needs that press upon our brains and hearts and render us helpless.1

Anyone who has swum the muck of grief knows fear and sadness only begin to name the range of emotions encountered.

Photograph of "Empathy" from "Stories of Emotions" featured in "A Close Relationship Between Emotions."
A floral art interpretation of empathy: a refined, contained, and yet flowing selection of roses, mums, and hydrangea in undulating calm and passionate hues. Part of Interflora’s award-winning “Stories of Emotions” display at the 2017 Chelsea Flower Show. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

How beautifully complex that fear and sadness would entwine so ferociously.

Or that love—the height of generosity—would summon feelings of jealousy, selfishness. In 1819, poet John Keats wrote to his love, Fanny Brawne, about how, from his love to her, he had slipped into its darker vestibules.

My dearest girl,

This moment I have set myself to copy some verses out fair. I cannot proceed with any degree of content, I must write you a line or two and see if that will assist in dismissing you from my Mind for ever so short a time. Upon my Soul I can think of nothing else—The time is passed when I had power to advise and warn you again[s]t the unpromising morning of my Life—My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you—I am forgetful of everything but seeing you again.

Meanwhile, we also see a brilliant study of anger coupled with humor in the comedy, creativity and general being of John Cleese (owing to a childhood fearing he’d upset his high-strung and foul-tempered mother).

“I find anger…hilarious,” Cleese admits in his autobiography.2

I have at times suspected that what I seem to laugh at most are the things that frighten me. I find anger, like Basil Fawlty’s, hilarious—provided it is ineffectual, as real anger might be too disturbing. I’m terrified of violence, yet I shout with laughter at great slapstick comedy that threatens people’s physical safety (think of Harold Lloyd or Chaplin or Eddie Murphy crossing the freeway in Steve Martin’s Bowfinger).

My sense of humour has been described as cruel… yet I am almost obsessively appalled by torture. And I howl at absurdity and nonsense when my deepest physical fear is a sense of meaninglessness. Am I trying to diminish a fear by laughing at it, and thereby belittling it, reducing its threat?

Photograph of "Pride" from Empathy" from "Stories of Emotions" featured in "A Close Relationship Between Emotions."
A floral art interpretation of pride: a vivid, clashing arrangement with a bold outer shell and a soft, warm foundation. Flowers include orchids, roses, allium and celosia. Part of Interflora’s award-winning “Stories of Emotions” display at the 2017 Chelsea Flower Show. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

This idea that we can harness our more destructive emotions into something energizing, enabling, is echoed in Marianne Moore’s early modern poetry. “A day of wrath shall be as one,” writes Moore in her poem “Fear Is Hope.”

‘No man may him hyde
From Deth holow eyed.’
For us two spirits this shall not suffice,
To whom you are a symbolic of a plan
Concealed within the heart of man.
Splendid with splendor hid you come, from your Arab abode,
An incandescence smothered in the hand of an astrologer who rode.

From Marianne Moore’s ‘Fear Is Hope’

On the other hand, too much of these enabling (one might say “positive” emotions) can turn against us and overwhelm. Emerson writes of a joy so vast, so deep, that it reduces him to a child who can barely contain joy’s potency.

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child.

This feeling of wonderfully pure joy burned by sadness like a piece of paper held to a warm match—it is so familiar, don’t you think?

Photograph of "Joy" from "Stories of Emotions" featured in "A Close Relationship Between Emotions."
A floral art interpretation of joy: a dynamic, exploding gathering of celosia, craspedia, gloriosa in bright purple and orange hues. It conveys both fundamentals of joy: energy and delight. Part of Interflora’s award-winning “Stories of Emotions” display at the 2017 Chelsea Flower Show. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Is this what van Gogh meant when he so frequently mentioned St. Paul’s words “being sorrowful yet always joyful”? In the Letters van Gogh wrote to his beloved brother and in the sermons he delivered in England, he references St. Paul’s concept “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” as a comfort, laid over his shoulders when he is in need of warmth.

Probably because he felt similarly, and it gave voice to his feelings. And yet, it is against this disparity, this division, that van Gogh rails throughout his life.

Seek only light and freedom and do not immerse yourself too deeply in the worldly mire. […] One does not become simple and true overnight. But let us persevere, and above all have patience. He who believes, does not hasten.

He longs to be one or the other, not both. Joy and sorrow overwhelm.

When we are aware of our emotional conflict and complexity, we quickly become aware that we are powerless against it. Something that will not be tamed nor hold still—even when it comes from our own minds—is overwhelming and debilitating.

In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Fears in Solitude,” creeping fear overcomes someone happy in nature like a lead mantle. With the relentless death in the French Revolution, many wondered violence befaced England?

Coleridge wrote the feelings into words:

A green and silent spot, amid the hills,
A small and silent dell! O’er stiller place
No singing sky-lark ever poised himself.
The hills are healthy, save that swelling slope,

[…]

My God! It is a melancholy thing
For such a man, who would full fain preserve
His soul in calmness, yet perforce must feel
For all his human brethren—Oh my God!
It weighs upon the heart, that he must think
What uproar and what strife may now be stirring
This way or that way o’er these silent hills—
Invasion, and the thunder and the shout.

A soul in calmness but a weight upon the heart. Our body, figuratively, torn into different emotional pieces.

Whether emotions are constructed, intuited, or formed naturally or through our experience is hot science, and I’m sure soon we’ll know more; the gap between neurology, biology, and psychology narrows.

But really, the close relationship between emotions and our inability to wrestle our emotions into one—which means unless we are great poets it can be extremely difficult to express—seems to be less a psychological issue than one of language.

Which is why I’m grappling with it here in joy and fear.

Photograph of "Friendship" from "Stories of Emotions" featured in "A Close Relationship Between Emotions."
A floral art interpretation of friendship: hydrangeas, mums, and roses positioned to convey the building blocks of friendship. It is a neat, deliberate and uplifting arrangement of blue flowers to convey tranquility and yellow for happiness. What I love about these arrangements is they are fashioned of the same floral material, sometimes the same textures and colors. Much like the emotions they represent. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Welsh has a word, hiraeth, which means “intense happiness at a love that was, and sadness that it is gone.” Is that what Emerson felt? Certainly, Keats, who, by the time he penned that letter to Fanny, knew he was likely to die from the family illness.

The Portuguese has saudade, which means a sense of wistful melancholy experienced when reflecting on lost love. Is that what we feel when looking at nature, knowing it exists but is being ruined?

English needs more words for these combinations of emotions. Emotions that bind and refuse to separate. Emotions that wrap us in mantels until we lose our way. Sadness with fear and fear to hope. Love and selfishness. Anger and mirth. Joy and fear.

And, one of the most peculiar, from Shakespeare, humor and sadness:

[It] is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many samples extracted from many objects; and indeed, the sundry contemplation of my travels, in which my often rumination wraps me in a most humorous sadness.

From As You Like It

Expression, to ourselves and others, is the beginning of understanding. Without better words, how can we express our emotional fragments and combinations? How can we express or understand ourselves?

Things Grown Piece by Piece

“You string words together like beads to tell a story.”
Anne Lamott

Let us contemplate parts and wholes. The progression of many into one. It’s human nature to assemble, but what do we form when we do?

In Illuminations, German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin welcomes us into his library—a pile of books yet unpacked, promises of greatness:

I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am. The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. I cannot march up and down their ranks to pass them in review before a friendly audience. You need not fear any of that.

Instead, I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper, to join me among the volumes that are seeing daylight again.

When does a pile of books become a library? When they are organized? When they are touched and loved?

“The way my walls are made, stone upon stone, is like growth,” sculptor Andy Goldsworthy writes of his art. Goldsworthy repositions rocks and stone in walls, cairns, and arches, shapes that both amplify and slink into their surroundings. “I think the main difference between a design process and a sculptural process is that the latter is close to the way things grow.”

When does a pile of stone become a wall? For Goldsworthy, this transference occurs when the sculptural process begins; the first brick of a wall is a wall.

For Benjamin, similarly, the distinction doesn’t exist. His boxes of books are a library.

We are likely to agree with either or both. It is the power of gestalt, the human tendency to make out of many one.

"Graft" by Roxy Paine, 2009. Featured in "Things Grown Piece by Piece."
“Graft” by Roxy Paine, 2009. More than 35 individual steel pieces have been welded together to form a fabricated tree 45 ft high. Learn more.

This mental assembly of things occurs with both physical and abstract entities.

Anne Lamott’s highly influential writing guide Bird by Bird, published twenty-five years ago and widely read today, suggests the nature of writing—and creating—should be done through placement of one piece after another:

[S]omehow in the face of it all, you clear a space for the writing voice, hacking away at the others with machetes, and you begin to compose sentences. You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story.

We see this piecemeal assembly of work and creativity in the work of John Steinbeck, who—famously, twice—chronicled his writing process in creating The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. Steinbeck stings together words, pages, and himself.1

In his journal kept while writing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck tracks his daily progress in an attempt to map the actual working days and hours of a novel, omitting not one day, not one state of being. It gives us a rare glimpse of an author producing—his novel and himself—“bird by bird.”

My nerves are very bad, awful in fact. I lust to get back into it. Maybe I was silly to think I could write so long a book without stopping. I can’t. Or rather, couldn’t. I’ll try to go on now. Hope to lose some of the frantic quality in my mind now.

Unlike Goldsworthy and Benjamin, Steinbeck does not recognize that his day-by-day bricklaying has become a novel. He uses phrases like “the work” and “my story.” He calls it a “book” but only in the future tense: something it will become. When he is halfway done, Steinbeck notes “the story which will be so much greater than I am,” and by the end of the next month, he uses the phrase “the hardest, most complete work of my life” but, again, in a subjective future tense.

The last page in the diary, October 26, 1939 Steinbeck closes with “Finished today. I hope to God it’s good.”

Even with a completed stack of pages before him, Steinbeck is reluctant to name the work as a whole.2

"Graft" by Roxy Paine, 2009. Featured in "Things Grown Piece by Piece."
“Graft” is part of Paine’s Dendrite sculpture series, tree-like structures formed piece by piece to evoke man-made and natural environments. One side of the tree is gnarled and weathered, the other (pictured here) is smooth and elongated. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Gestalt means “unified whole” and comes from theories of visual perception developed by German psychologists in the 1920s. These theories “attempt to describe how people tend to organize visual elements into groups or unified wholes when certain principles are applied.”3

Navigating from a brick to a wall or a book to a library, even pages to a novel, is a cognitive, psychological step we make, even if when we make that leap differs.

What if we get even more abstract, however, like Alan Lightman does when he contemplates the stardust that forms all humans. When, Lightman asks, does the summation of atoms become a human? When she has a name? When she can say “I”?

Is she human when she is loved?

It is a fundamental tension of humanity: after the edge of material and before the wellspring of being, there is a chasm.4

There’s no mark that equals hair, there’s no mark that equals skin or anything else. It’s a little bit like an architect choosing a brick. The brick doesn’t determine anything about what kind of building will be built from it. You stack up the bricks one way and you make a gas station, or you stack up the bricks another way and you can build a cathedral. Both of them will be very different experiences, but it wasn’t the brick that determined the nature of that experience.

Perhaps there is no artist that allows us to float between a human whole and its pieces better than American portraitist Chuck Close.5

Through his use of grid scaling, Close makes the whole and its pieces simultaneously visible. A complete, detailed human face with every detail intact and yet, not a face at all, just the summation of pieces.

I believe a person’s face is a road map to their life, and embedded in the imagery is a great deal of evidence if you want to decode it. If a person has laughed his or her whole life, they’ll have laugh lines… It’s not necessary for me to have them laughing or crying or anything in order to have people be able to read them.

Like these portraits, we are formed of pieces, and those pieces coalesce into our concepts of being.

We shore up our fragments and say “I.”6

"Graft" by Roxy Paine, 2009. Featured in "Things Grown Piece by Piece."
Paine also replicates natural structures that form and grow using carbon copies of themselves in his Replicate series. The meticulous relationship between parts and whole, the original and offspring and repetitive forms in nature are all explored in Paine’s work. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In art, in politics, in socio-economic systems, in religion, in science, in the basic family unit, and most of all in our concept of self, we are asked to move fluidly between the parts and the whole. To embrace all in value and meaning.

In this enormous complexity, I struggle to care, to prioritize, to discern, to assemble.

With all this change, how can we, the assemblage of atoms, ever feel truly whole. Full. Complete. Done?

There is poetry. A prism of knowledge, poetry strips language, images, and metaphors of meaning and returns them to us able to reassemble as needed.

Poetry allows us to visualize the invisible.

With her characteristic grasp of the finite and the infinite, poet Mary Oliver delivers us a robust, inclusive concept of sea:

I go down to the edge of the sea,
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,

[..]

It’s like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
full of moonlight.

Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.

from ‘Breakage’

Goldsworthy’s walls break down, Benjamin’s Library was burned by Nazis, Close’s portraits are dissembled visually by a few steps towards the canvas. Things grow and decay.

While you can, while it lasts, read the whole story, piece by piece, sit in the complexity, sit in the beauty.

The Gifts of Inheritance

“What do we inherit, and how, and why?”
Dani Shapiro

One of my favorite concepts is called “two-handed giving.” Leaving no hand open for receiving. The height of altruism.

Gifts of inheritance are more like heavy parcels that abseil from the sky. They knock us over, and we’re forced to claim them, carry them. Are they appreciated? It remains to be seen. They are definitely nonreturnable.

Vladimir Nabokov believed that memory—or more specifically, “the act of vividly recalling a patch of the past”—was a hereditary trait.

British novelist Graham Greene claimed he inherited a fear of bats and birds from his mother, while Penelope Lively surmised her love of gardening was an inherited trait passed through the female line.

Roald Dahl credited his love of nature to his father’s overwhelming need to take his pregnant wife for “glorious walks” in the woods, hoping an in vitro experience of beauty would take hold.

What are gifts of inheritance? How do they affect us? Do they make us who we are?

Wedding dress. Featured in "The Gifts of Inheritance."
My wedding dress. Something mothers traditionally to pass on to daughters. Photograph by Chris Cook.

you look just like your mother
I guess I do carry her tenderness well…

Rupi Kaur, “Inheritance”

Genetics, snapshots, keepsakes, spaces. The physical things we inherit, keep, claim, and pass on.

But what about nonphysical items?

What we really inherit is consciousness. A sense of who we are.

This inheritance anchors us. It is so fundamental to our sense of self and our connection to who we imagine as our “kin” that we fail to see it as its own thing—like a mirror that shows everything but itself.

Until, like a mirror, it shatters.

When a genetic test proved beyond doubt that writer Dani Shapiro was not related to the father who raised her, she undergoes a disintegration of identity, an investigation of truth and a reconstruction of self.

“If my father wasn’t my father, who was my father? If my father wasn’t my father, who was I?” Shapiro demands and tries to answer.

I woke up one morning and life was as I had always known it to be. There were certain things I thought I could count on. I looked at my hand, for example, and I knew it was my hand. My foot was my foot. My face, my face. My history, my history. After all, it’s impossible to know the future, but we can be reasonably sure about the past.

By the time I went to bed that night, my entire history—the life I had lived—had crumbled beneath me, like the buried ruins of an ancient forgotten city.

Shapiro’s sense of self becomes so fractured that she feels physical detachment. “My body wasn’t my body,” she mourns. As she reassembles her new self, piecing together what happened, and what it means, Shapiro tries to make sense of what her parents knew, especially her father. She ultimately finds empathy towards herself by extending it to someone else first.

Did she learn that empathy from her father?

Photos of booties. Featured in "The Gifts of Inheritance."
Crocheted booties worn by my mother-in-law and my daughter. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Where did you get those big eyes?
My mother.
And where did you get those lips?
My mother.
And the loneliness?
My mother.
And that broken heart?
My mother.
And the absence, where did you get that?
My father.

Warsan Shire, “Inheritance”

For most of us, inheritance is more than genes; it’s the steadfast progression of what others—our caregivers, teachers, relatives—want for us.

Principles. Boundaries. Morals. Direction. Happiness.

No wonder people have so much fidelity and pride in family, nationality, and heritage. Through these links we extend ourselves beyond corporal limitations into infinity.

In his radiant memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, American essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates chronicles a young life shaped by a father: “An intellectual, born as it happened among people who could not see a college campus as an outcome.”

Young Coates was molded by his dad’s pressing need for his son to awaken and embrace a full measure of self.

This is all my father wanted—for the long struggle to wake us up to be present in class as it was at home. The struggle infused all his dealings with me. Whenever he could, he violated my weekends with his latest pet lesson.

Coates gained consciousness of the plight of the young black man; he became aware of the systematic silencing of black voices and awake to the reality of a repressed future.

I believed in the intellectual of all of us, that mine was the legacy that aligned pyramids and spotted the rings of distant planets with only the naked eye. That was my greatest inheritance. But I turned this good news to bad ends, and ran with the sort of crew that surveyed all these new teachers, and picked out the ones who would never understanding.

From his father, Coates also inherited a deep desire to give that consciousness to others so that we too might feel enlightened.

Somewhere, somehow, on this road to our self-formation, we claim personhood. We say “I am.” A fierce act of independence that breaks us from our kin and from our parents as I am me is often followed by I am not you.

Footprints. Featured in "The Gifts of Inheritance."
My daughter’s footprints at birth. She has my high arches, her father’s straight toes. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Look, my eyes are not your eyes. You move through me like rain heard from another country.

Ocean Vuong, from “For my Father/For my Son”

“My eyes are not your eyes,” writes Vietnamese poet Ocean Vuong in his collection of odes to identity, fathers, and personhood.

The majority of me came from my parents. But my parents do not contain all of me. I didn’t see this as significant until I had my daughter.

My daughter is bold and charming and has a searing temper—much, much more than me and my husband and all our kin combined. And if she is more than me, that means there is still a part of me that is not her.

Personhood is our complete concept of self. Expandable, contractible, but with boundaries, definitions. I am this.

I worried when I became a mom that I’d lose the “I am this.” That the “I” would disappear, and the “this” would blur.

Your eyes are not my eyes, nor do we see the same thing. But we are still, as kin, connected. Vuong’s poem continues: “This means I am touching you—this means you are not alone.”

Maya Angelou wrote that she inherited/learned anger from her mother. I learned anger from my father. But I learned how to manage that anger from my husband. And a lifetime of work. I’ll show my daughter how.

We are more than what we inherit. A lifetime of more. We are more than what we give our offspring.

I think of the poet Keats. John Keats inherited the family disease, tuberculosis. He knew he was going to die. And he did die. Young, like his mother. But Keats, glorious, lustrous Keats also wrote incomparable poetry that ballasts the holds of heaven.

Where did the poetry come from?