Reparations for the Beaten Heart

“The human heart is so delicate and sensitive that it always needs some tangible encouragement to prevent it from faltering.”
Maya Angelou

The heart is beaten. Besieged. A bit assaulted around the edges. With enmity or indifference. The heart is fractured and threadbare.

Is it true the ribs can tell
the kick of a beast from a
Lover’s fist? The bruised
Bones recorded well …
Love by nature, exacts a pain
Unequalled on the rack.

From Maya Angelou’s “A Kind of Love, They Say”

If love by its nature exacts a pain then the heart is the locale of that pain. It is the center of our embodied pain and the center of the body, a muscle in extraordinary demand. The heart tears, beating and beaten in every way.

Julie Campbell embroidery.
The exquisite embroidery of artist Julie Campbell fuses emotion onto human anatomy to capture, in glorious vitality, the abundant complexity of being human. Photograph by Julie Campbell.
“Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot” writes David Whyte in his reclamation of words.

Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot. [It] colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day; heartbreak is not a visitation, but a path that human beings follow through even the most average life. Heartbreak is an indication of our sincerity: in a love relationship, in a life’s work, […] in the attempt to shape a more generous self.

From David Whyte’s Consolations

“Heartbreak is not a visitation,” writes Whyte, but it feels like one. Heartbreak is like standing still while something pummels our exterior. It comes at you, moves after you, moves through you, all the while you are relentlessly stuck.

And the pain sits on our chest like a chest.

Julie Campbell embroidery.
“My heart is fragile, it feels too much, it aches, it cries, it has felt the icy claws of fear and yet I would prefer to feel all of this than have a cold heart lacking all empathy.” Photograph by Julie Campbell
I return to this short short-story by Lydia Davis a writer of meaning stripped of accessory.

In a house besieged lived a man and a woman. From where they cowered in the kitchen the man and woman heard small explosions.

‘The wind,’ said the woman.

‘Hunters,’ said the man.

‘The rain,’ said the woman.

‘The army,’ said the man.

The woman wanted to go home, but she was already home, there in the middle of the country in a house besieged.

In Davis’s Essays, she explains that in a first draft she initially imagined a dog in the house, but it was removed – too domestic, too comforting. When I read Davis’s piece, I mentally remove the man and the woman and place my heart inside the house. Pulsing out its little, nervous hope.1

A heart visited – despite what Whyte argues – by heartbreak.

The heart is, a poet might argue, the smallest parcel of a conceptual human. To have heart, to do something with heart, is to do something with conviction, power, the whole self.

“The human heart is so delicate and sensitive that it always needs some tangible encouragement to prevent it from faltering,” writes Maya Angelou in her glorious generosity of self. Has anyone given more heart?

This woman who spent her life writing pain, sweeping up heartache, and bundling it tight. What do we mean by that?

What are the reparations for a beaten heart? How do we give it tangible encouragement?

Julie Campbell embroidery.
“I love everything about anatomy,” writes Campbell, “But especially how our emotions affect us not just mentally but also physically. What I find fascinating is that our outward appearance tells very little of the person we are. Our bodies are a facade. I like to explore beyond this idea, and get under the skin as it were.” Photograph by Julie Campbell
The key, argues Whyte, would be to look at heartbreak not as a besieging but as… what’s the word… a companion.

Realizing its inescapable nature, we can see heartbreak not as the end of the road or the cessation of hope but as the close embrace of the essence of what we have wanted or are about to lose. […] If heartbreak is inevitable and inescapable, it might be asking us to look for it and make friends with it.

Angelou wrote about a companion. Did she mean her own pain?

Where We Belong

In every town and village,
In every city square,
In crowded places
I search the faces
Hoping to find
Someone to care.

[…]

Then you rose into my life
Like a promised sunrise.
Brightening my days with the light in your eyes.
I’ve never been so strong,
Now I’m where I belong.

From Maya Angelou’s “Where We Belong”

I often think I belong next to Hermann Hesse of Germany’s Black Forest (as my people were). Hesse was formed by a strict religious upbringing and coaxed frequently to the edge of madness by an irreconcilable sense of self against society. He believed in wholes yet suffered alienation. He nurtured a sinewy connection to nature’s cycles and held up solitude as a primitive need in the quest for self-knowledge.

In the touchingly tender poem called “Do you know this too…?” Hesse lays his vulnerability at our feet.

Do You Know This Too?

Do you know this too?
You are in the middle of a cheerful party,
when a sudden stillness takes hold of you,
and you hastily have to leave the happy hall.

Back in your bed you lay awake
like someone suffering from a sudden heartache.
The fun and laughter disappear like smoke
and you break into tears: do you know this too?

From Hermann Hesse’s Seasons of the Soul

Whether it’s a sharp pain or aching fatigue, our hearts are beaten.

Do you know this too?

Julie Campbell embroidery.
“About 15% of pregnancies end in miscarriage … My second pregnancy ended at 11 weeks. I was lucky that I already had a child and knew that there was no reason that I couldn’t have another. A year later my daughter was born. I remember something that was said to me after my miscarriage: a friend told me that her mother had several miscarriages before having her and it she hadn’t she would not have been born. I know everyone has different experiences and copes with loss in different ways but her saying that really helped. Looking at my daughter now I can’t imagine her not having been here so I’m one of the lucky ones that doesn’t have a missing piece.” Photograph by Julie Campbell

I have no reparation for the beaten heart. No transaction to set it right or stop it from stalking our steps. There is no armor against it (well, none that doesn’t extract its own grave toll).

But as I write this, surrounded by sitting in the warmth of something good, the glow of something bright, the company of these artists who met their pain with grace and generosity, and the imagined company of you, dear reader… That is the reparation – no, the recourse – for this beaten heart.