This is the second video of baby Liv moving at her own pace, feeling her way in the world.
I begin this exploration of words for emotions with an imaginary word: vellichor.
There are feelings for which we have no words, feelings for which we borrow words from other languages that offer up the right shape and texture in the mouth of what we know to be true inside of us--and now, increasingly, words invented for the purpose of defining more closely our emotions in specific settings. Vellichor is one such word.
vellichor: n. the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time—filled with thousands of old books you’ll never have time to read, each of which is itself locked in its own era, bound and dated and papered over like an old room the author abandoned years ago, a hidden annex littered with thoughts left just as they were on the day they were captured.
A word of longing and regret, couched in a specific context, endlessly repeating.
This beautiful video of a baby learning how to roll over is a wonderful example of what trusting organic development looks like--for our babies and for ourselves.
Attachment theory asserts that it is in the context of relationship that we find ourselves. Through relationship with another, we come to shape our own basic understandings about the world, the way it works, and our place in it. If our primary attachment figure is able to be available, to be sensitive to our needs, and to be empathic, then we begin to create and to internalize the belief that other people are dependable, and that we ourselves are worthy of attention. If, on the other hand, our primary attachment is unavailable, inconsistently available, insensitive, uncurious, or unempathic, then we begin to create and to internalize the belief that others are not dependable--that we can't rely on them to help us when we need help--and that that is true because we are not worthy of their attention, that there is something deeply wrong with us.
And in infancy, attachment behaviors--crying, calling, crawling towards--are triggered by fear. Attachment and emotion are bound together from the very beginning. When we feel frightened, or tired, or ill, we look to those to whom we are most attached. So this is the place where attachment theory opens into theories of emotion: are emotions universally experienced and expressed? Are there cultural differences around the experience and/or expression of emotion? What are emotions for?
In the coming months, I want to explore specific emotions, familiar and unfamiliar, and perhaps to explore these larger questions about emotions.
Another poet and poem beloved in the Pacific Northwest: David Wagoner's Lost, from Collected Poems 1956-1976:
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
Winter can be a hard time for people. The combination of high expectations around the winter holidays, and the shorter darker days of winter can be hard, can leave us feeling depleted, lacking the resources we need to address the extra challenges of the season. What to do?
Noticing your own experience with awareness and without judgement can be a support. The New York Times has been running a series on meditation for daily life. This piece, on walking in the rain, is a beautiful example of how we can give ourselves resources without a lot of time or money or effort. It reads in part:
Take a deep breath in, savoring the smell of petrichor — the earthy scent produced when rain falls on dry soil. As you release the breath, notice any corresponding release of tension you may have been unconsciously holding.
There is plenty of rain for us here in the winter of Western Oregon to step into this practice and explore whether or not it can be of use.
Afer my reflections on attachment, I was moved to discover this musem: The Museum of Broken Relationships. This is what the website has to say about the project:
Museum of Broken Relationships is a physical and virtual public space created with the sole purpose of treasuring and sharing your heartbreak stories and symbolic possessions. It is a museum about you, about us, about the ways we love and lose.
The Museum has two permanent physical locations--one in Zagreb, and one in Los Angeles--and has displays of some of the contributions online as well, stories and symbolic objects alike. It hosts exhibitions internationally as well, for a day, a week, a few months...
Take a look.
Over the last few weeks, I've been thinking and writing a lot about attachment--about the ways in which we learn to be individuals only in the context of relationship. And I've been thinking, too, about what happens when relationship changes dramatically, goes away, or just stumbles--as in the Still Face experiment. What happens to the developing person when their primary attachment figure--the person who cares for them most consistently--fails to mirror them? Is damage done? It can seem that way. Just a few seconds of the nonresponsive mother, and the baby begins to experience distress. The mother's emotional absence is experienced by the baby as a rupture in the relationship.
And yet, how can this damage ever be avoided? If, as Winnicott suggests, the ordinary devoted mother sometimes feels tired or anxious or irritated, and fails to be perfectly attuned to her baby--if she doesn't mirror her baby's experience--isn't this bad for babies?
Research suggests that misattuned parents miss their baby's cues about 30% of the time. So as babies try to communicate their needs, their desires, their wish for engagement, one out of every three times, their parents just don't get it. Over and over and over again, these babies are shut out or shut down. And research finds that well-attuned parents miss their baby's cues... about 30% of the time.
Missing cues is normal. It's part of being in relationship: sometimes we notice bids for attention, sometimes we don't. The significant difference between misattuned and well-attuned parents isn't about the missed cues--it's about what happens next, about what they do next. And that's part of what you can see in the Still Face experiment. The return of warmth, the genuineness of apology, the willingness to hear how it felt to not be seen, the pleasure of being together again are all part of what allows babies--and children, and adults--to get reconnected, and to trust that those they most care for are willing to come back over and over and over, to keep trying even when they've made a mistake. And that trust reinforces the bond.
Attachment theory is encouraging because it's not about urging us to become more perfect parents or partners--it's much more about making room for us to acknowledge the moments when we've failed and missed seeing the other person, because in that acknowledgement, the relationship grows stronger.
I read about Kathleen “Katie” Marie Shoener's struggle with bipolar disorder and her death by suicide just after Halloween last year--her favorite holiday, and the holiday close to which her family chose to host the first 5Kate Mental Illness Awareness Walk/Run run in her honor. This year marks the second such event. Funds raised will go to support the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) among others. I was moved by her story, by her devout family's deep love for her, and by the tagline created for the run: "dress in costume, but don't mask mental illness".
On the walk/run website, her family has these words to share:
So often people who have a mental illness are known as their illness. People say that “she is bipolar” or “he is schizophrenic.” Over the coming days as you talk about this, please do not use that phrase. People who have cancer are not cancer, those with diabetes are not diabetes. Katie was not bipolar – she had an illness called bipolar disorder – Katie herself was a beautiful child of God. The way we talk about people and their illnesses affects the people themselves and how we treat the illness. In the case of mental illness there is so much fear, ignorance and hurtful attitudes that the people who suffer from mental illness needlessly suffer further. Our society does not provide the resources that are needed to adequately understand and treat mental illness. In Katie’s case, she had the best medical care available, she always took the cocktail of medicines that she was prescribed and she did her best to be healthy and manage this illness – and yet – that was not enough. Someday a cure will be found, but until then, we need to support and be compassionate to those with mental illness, every bit as much as we support those who suffer from cancer, heart disease or any other illness. Please know that Katie was a sweet, wonderful person that loved life, the people around her – and Jesus Christ.
The walk/run takes place in Scranton, Pennsylvania--but NAMI is a national organization that offers support groups here in Portland. If you'e so inspired, consider making a donation to them to further their important work.
Someone recently suggested this podcast to me, an episode of The New York Times' Still Processing podcast entitled "We Care for Ourselves and Others in Trump's America". If you follow the link, (I'm hoping) you'll find both the audio and the transcript. It's a moving conversation about the ways in which caring for ourselves is at once a personal and a political act, an individual and a collective act.