When I ask her what she felt or thought or what kind of memories came into her mind during my presentation she sits silently for a very long time. Then she says that she very well feels and understands what I address in my work and that sometimes there might exist a slight feeling of isolation in her, but that this is not really a problem. Valya is very shy and careful with every sentence and so tender the way she talks; she does not give anything away. As if she were absolutely terrified of saying something wrong. Later in the group we realize that her fear of committing is very real. We are so challenged and don’t know how to help her, as she just has no ideas of what she thinks or feels and is very afraid of saying anything that would upset anyone. But we all feel that she is determined to participate, but feels blocked. As we keep asking, Valya tells us that she doesn’t really know her feelings but that sometimes, she feels a slight sensation of tension in herself, a sensation, which bothers her greatly and she just wants to get rid of it. She does not want to feel, she just wants it to go away. We ask if that tension could be interpreted as feelings, which she does not want to feel? She agrees that that could be the case but does not really know, but in any case she does not want to name them, she is afraid of naming them, as words are so limiting and she could be wrong. I tell her that sometimes one just has to start with naming things, to find out more about them. To be silent leaves things in the dark, that even naming something wrong to later find out that was wrong, is often more effective to find out more about oneself than not daring anything. She agrees that she is too afraid to name her feelings and we help her with coming up with a project, which will help her face her feelings and investigate them.
Together we all come up with the idea of her creating very expressive abstract drawings and then have the people who pass by in the streets where she is stationed interpret them into different categories of feelings. For this she would bring a bunch of boxes along. Each box would be labeled in advance with emotions, one emotion per box and the people would be asked to slide each drawing into one of each boxes and in that way help her name her feelings. How she would come up with the array of emotions to label the boxes we wonder, so somebody suggests that she should just look up emotions in some dictionary or in the internet and then pick the ones she feels might apply to her in one or another way, without being to specific, but just pick them impulsively. This, we all hope would help her to get started, to find, what really wold be the right thing to do to feel and deal with her feelings.
It's been three days, and we feel that things are not really moving along for Valya. Today is the last day for preparations! Tomorrow they all have to hit the streets.
Valya arrives at the Contemporary Art Center with a whole truckload of cardboard boxes, it seems. Her commitment is really so wonderful! But when I ask whether she also brought the list of feelings along, she explains, that she just didn’t know where to start. When I ask her whether she really thought that this project was the right idea for her, she is again so hesitant, that I realize, we have to start from ground zero again; we have to find out where Valya really is.
I ask her what she would like to do for herself and the people in Nizhniy. She says she doesn’t feel at home in Nizhniy, the city she recently moved to, to be together with her boyfriend while having left behind many good friends in an other place. It’s hard to remain yourself in relationships, she explains. Many times, the things the people she loves want to do, are not the things she enjoys or the people they want to spend time with are not the people she enjoys spending time with. Through the conversation we realize that she fears losing the people she loves if she told them her real feelings or opinions. She is so terrified of these disturbing thoughts that come from within her, that she wants to completely repress them.
It’s important to remain an individual I say, especially in relationships and I elaborate with the story of my husband just walking out on me at a performance in the New York Opera house, where I bought very expensive tickets for both of us (after having asked him) to see one of my favorite singers perform. I explain that also I have to realize again and again the need of accepting people being different and that it's the same for people around me who deal with me. Again and again, we have to ask ourselves what we feel in each and every situation. Only in this way can we remain centered. If you don’t know that you feel you can always use a technique, often called meditation, which is really nothing more than sitting and breathing and trying not to hold on to your thoughts. I suggest that we give it a try and we take three chairs and sit in the courtyard where nobody would disturb us, to sit for ten minutes. After this exercise Valya is truly amazed! She is stunned about her experiences of becoming aware of her thoughts and through that being able to let the thoughts go. For the first time, she really feels herself it seems. She says, she feels so light and positive all of a sudden. With that feeling still lingering, I suggest her to go out for a walk and look at the city, to find out what she personally would like to add.
When Valya comes back she is so filled with excitement and even wants to do TWO projects. This feels like an entirely new Valya! She tells us that during the walk she realized that thoughts and feelings were like birds, that she would like to do a project in which she would name people’s feelings and thoughts and then let them fly away. Together we come up with the idea of her walking around Nizhniy and carrying a stack of silk papers with a birds drawn, stamped or printed on each piece of paper. Then she would ask each person she would encounter in the streets, what they thought or felt in that very moment and write it down. Later she would go to the top of the hill of Nizhniy and let all the thoughts fly away. What I like so much about this idea, I tell her, that it would above all help people to become aware of the fact that they are constantly lost in thought and then she would liberate people with her project. Finally, when she would let the papers fly away, they would fly back into the city, perhaps some people would come across some other people’s feelings or, in a case of extreme coincidence, even their own feelings!
Valya's second project, which might be a bit related or perhaps exactly opposite the idea she first thought of doing, is the idea of a big box with her in it.
In this idea, Valya would sit in this big box and placed in the middle of a square or some public place. An alien object, creating a great sense of mystery. As people would pass by, she would hold a piece of paper out through one of the small openings, with the question written on it: Can you help me help you? And then, as people would approach her shelter, she would hold out an other paper with an invitation written on it, asking the people to write down a situation they seem to have a hard time coping with.
As she would not be able to see these people and they in turn would not see her, they would feel less inhibited to be more honest with their real issues, just like in a confession box in the church. Then having collected a struggle, she would write the other aspects or the solution on the other side of the paper and in that way teach people to help themselves just as she needs to learn how to help herself.