An Impossible Puzzle

An Impossible Puzzle

Twice in the past week I’ve been confronted with a feelings wheel.

“Please share your name, your pronouns, and how you are feeling today,” the Zoom meeting facilitators instructed. “This feelings wheel is here to help.” Both times, I scanned the words in the wheel, tilting my head to read around the dial. I looked inward. I took deep breaths. I sifted through mental snapshots of recent events. I felt the floor beneath my toes and recalled my first moments after waking up that morning.

But I couldn’t identify my emotions.

The feelings wheel didn’t help; it only overwhelmed. I stared at the candle on my dining room table before me, willing the flickering flame to offer clarity.

Yesterday, when it was my turn to share, I blabbered about feeling anxious in the moment and feeling envious of those who said their feeling words were “grounded” and “creative.”

Because how do you sum up in a word—or a few short sentences—how it feels in any given moment to be alive?

How it feels to be alive in a world where more mass shootings have occurred in this country than days so far in 2021 and where 64 people died at the hands of law enforcement during 19 days of testimony in Minneapolis? A world where our politicians thank a man for, um, being murdered?

What word in the feelings wheel captures the experience of knowing I contribute to an economic system in which billionaires not only exist, but got $4 trillion richer because 3 million people died in a global tragedy wrought and exacerbated by our greed, consumption, and unwillingness to touch the earth lightly?

Even a simple acknowledgment by legislators of the ongoing existence of anti-Asian racism—racism that has been around since the advent of white supremacy in this country but only recently recognized by woke white people—is weaponized as another wedge to pit minority groups against each other and uphold anti-Blackness in our education systems. And I am expected to describe that feeling.

How do I explain how it feels to work for a religious community that co-sponsors a Stop Asian Hate rally, but whose members state matter-of-factly that Chinese people eat dogs, call me by the name of the other woman of Asian descent they’ve seen in worship services, and make assumptions about my parents’ education? When a congregant says to me, “I don’t see you as a person of color, and I’m surprised you see yourself that way,” what word do I point to on the  feelings wheel?

This week, in between Zoom meetings and procrastinating this In Between Sundays post, I have compulsively completed logic grid puzzles. In a logic grid puzzle, I am presented with a scenario (all these people adopted new puppies!), an objective (match each new puppy owner with their puppy’s breed, name, and the month in which it was adopted), and a series of clues.

The scenarios of logic grid puzzles are inconsequential and light. All I need to solve a logic grid puzzle is a handful of clues, a matrix, and a bit of time and thought.

Of the puppy adopted in March and Elena’s pet, one is named Patrick and the other is the boxer.

When solving a logic grid puzzle, I never have to guess. A logic grid puzzle exists in absolute statements.

Terrance isn’t the schnauzer.

A logic grid puzzle has one solution. When I place green dots in all the correct places in a matrix, a notification pops up to congratulate me. Sometimes, it tells me I completed a puzzle in “expert” time.

As a child, I despised logic puzzles, and I didn’t care for math. I didn’t like that there was one solution we were “supposed” to arrive at by following a standardized set of procedures in order.

These days, I find myself yearning for a set of procedures that can help me make sense of how I feel. I wish, instead of a feelings wheel, I had a matrix and a set of clues:

  1. The verdict is the result of a man’s murder.
  2. The World As It Is is not the World As It Should Be.
  3. Of the World As It Should Be and the World As It Is, one considered this verdict a predictable outcome and the other was on edge because it anticipated a different outcome.
  4. The verdict is just, but the verdict is not Justice.

To solve this scenario, I would read the clues to find where they intersect and fill out the feelings matrix with red X’s and green dots. Afterward, I would sit back and review where the green dots sit.

Those green dots would reveal my feelings. No looking inward, no fumbling for words, no deep breaths needed. Maybe the matrix would congratulate me as expert of my own feelings.

Alas, there isn’t a logic grid puzzle of my feelings. And so I will continue procrastinating my work by indulging in picayune puzzles as I wallow in this morass of tension that is called being alive in the World As It Is.


  1. Norm Hazzard

    Dear Valerie–Thank you for being brave enough to share such painful thoughts and feelings. Though the feelings wheel may not have been capable of expressing your feelings adequately, you certainly have done so here. Despite the slights that you have experienced, please know that many of us have great empathy for you and the many others who have not been adequately respected.

  2. Herb Hartnett

    Approaching prejudice through the logical mind and our society in general with its guns and hate is a brave journey. Prejudice is especially despairing coming within your spiritual world at UUCC. Rising above the fray is your bravery and spirit of goodness. To quote a simplistic bit if wisdom from the last century, “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

  3. Alice Pham

    It is hard to sort out our emotions with all that’s been going on. A jury convicts a murderer, and we’re supposed to celebrate what should be a routine matter but isn’t because the victim Was Black? The Congress okay a sharing a little check to people in danger of losing their homes and having trouble feeding their children? People are being held in storage type facilities on our border because U.S policies and climate change and a former president who didn’t see them worthy of salvation and too many in prefer to “otherize” anyone who’s not like them? And I’m horrified tHat people at UUCC can’t acknowledge the unique person you are! As you know this list could go on and on! We have so many problems…and yet I know I’m lucky to Have a loving family, a comfortable home to live in, and people like you in our .congregation! And like I am working hard at envisioning a better world! Wish I could pray and expect it to get better. Meanwhile, we have to work on the small world that is UUCC. As a member of the TRC committee, I would love to talk with you about any ideas you Havel to educate ourselves better.

  4. Linda Linton

    Valerie – Thank you for telling your story. I appreciate your honesty about how much you’re experiencing and processing.
    The world seems to me to be spinning quickly and unpredictably. I know my mind and heart are foggier than usual.

  5. Laurie Coltri

    Dear Valerie,

    Thank you for the feelings wheel. I’m dismayed, angry, frustrated and saddened that you have been hurt by our religious community. Hate and bias live in all of us and can lie dormant like a chronic illness, waiting to strike. I have been surprised and horrified over the years by my own outbreaks. So, sadly, I’m also not really surprised.

    I think that the worst thing people can do is to conceptualize evil as an external force – we are all capable of evil, and it is often done without conscious malice. We are also capable of sincere apology and reparation, curiosity about what others’ lives are like, focused listening, and personal growth.

    I hope that we can all do the hard, occasionally mystifying, ultimately joyous work needed to make one another feel safe and cared for, particularly here at our religious community. May it begin with me.

  6. William Ramsey


    We all want Justice but what we get is Law – that’s all we have to offer.

    As a scientist turned lawyer, I have been asked by fellow scientists about law school. I say,

    “There is nothing in the Law as hard to understand as entropy. Nothing in the Law as just as the Infield Fly Rule.”

  7. Gwen Brown

    As per usual Valerie you have shown magnificence in your writing. You continue to confirm what many of us already know and provide a magnifying glass to persons that have the privilege of needed one. I often think “I don’t understand why you don’t understand “ as they claim shock over what is everyday existence for you and other people of color . Thank you for your boldness and your ability to put into words what so many of us oftentimes cannot. Honored to be in your orbit. Thank you for being you!

  8. Kathy Parker

    Dear Valerie,
    I am very moved by what you have shared with us in this brave and deeply honest reflection. And I am sorry for the hurt you have experienced by a few careless words in our community. We are all so blessed by your presence with us — your wise and heartfelt messages, your lovely singing, your gifted performances at the piano — you are a treasure. Beyond all that, we mostly just love who you are.
    I don’t know you really — I am pretty new at UUCC — but I hope in time I will know you better, truly.

  9. Carolyn Cross

    The advice to victims “Don’t let the bastards get you down” is precisely the way society absolves itself from the responsibility of taking steps to dismantle the atmosphere that allows perpetrators of abuse to continue with impunity. Trying to help the victim “feel better” may make the church feel better about itself, but it does nothing to stop the abuse.

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