At the heart of the matter

shutterstock_337062152 copy.jpg

I have been thinking a lot about the heart lately - what it does, what it symbolises and what moves mine. With an unusual flutter now and then, mine tends to draw attention when I get too wrapped up in the world.

Over 10 years ago I found myself at the doorstep of a an electro-cardiologist. After I underwent a number of tests and hung out with halter monitor for a while, my cardiologists explained I had a couple of rogue cells in my heart. I was told these mischievous cells were causing around 22,000 ectopic heartbeats a day. To give me a sense of this number, it was explained to me that the average person has only a handful a day, like maybe 5.

Ectopic heartbeats are when the heart skips a beat or the heart has extra beats. In my case I had cells in my heart that wanted to be the ‘big beater’ and so they would jump in with a beat, putting the big beater out of sync, creating lots of additional heart beats - tens of thousands of them a day. Seems these rogue cells were working hard to win the fight to be the boss. When my cardiologist told me what was happening, I couldn’t stop laughing, of course I would have a heart that would go rogue! But not for long, I had a procedure called an ablation, where they burnt those naughty little rogue cells away, and other than the occasional ectopic beat or flutter, my heart now beats to a more acceptable rhythm.

Recently, I had to have an echo-cardiogram, an ultrasound of my heart. Lying there chatting with the specialist sonographer, while the inside of my heart was being examined, I glanced up at the screen briefly and was astonished to see what looked like two little hands inside my heart clapping. The sonographer explained to me it was a valve opening and closing, and he did agree it looked a lot like hands clapping.

I haven’t been able to get this beautiful image out of my head. How delightful to discover that inside our beating hearts are hands applauding us through life. Clapping a rhythm for us to dance. Clapping a rhythm for us to live by.

Pondering this image, got me thinking about the significance of the heart, above and beyond its physical role to pump blood around our bodies to keep us alive (as if that wasn’t enough). I got thinking about what moves my heart. What makes it swell inside with emotion, so much so that it brings tears to my eyes. And I realised when I went through the list of things, they tend to correspond to some of the virtues Aristotle put forward, for people to ‘live well’. Courage. Temperance. Kindness. Joy. Pride. Honour. Equanimity. Friendliness. Honesty. Wit. Friendship. Not necessarily the words he originally used. But you get the idea. I have taken the time to elaborate on a few which stand out for me at this moment in time.

Kindness
An act of kindness will always bring a gentle smile to my face and a long sigh of appreciation. This may sound a little odd, but next next time you notice someone being kind, pay some attention to your reaction, the gentle smile and the long sigh. A particular act of kindness in my memory banks, which sprung up as soon as I typed the word ‘kindness’, was one from about three years ago when my then 11 year-old daughter was running a cross country race. It was a hard slog of a race. Cold, wet and muddy. As she cross the finish line exhausted from the gruelling race, a girl running not far behind her slipped on a muddy patch of grass just before the finish and fell. She was done. She lay there unable to get up, only a few steps from the finish line. It was heartbreaking to watch. She lay there, defeated, with no more in her. She couldn’t move. She was emotionally spent. Beaten. My daughter saw her fall, so she walked away from the finish line, walked away from her own exhaustion. From the promise of water and rest. She walked to this girl on the ground. My daughter bent down and spoke to her and encouraged her to get up. And when she did, my daughter helped her cross the finish line. Walking with her. Guiding her. Holding her arm. Supporting her across the finish line, together. Helping her drag her muddy limbs and face across the line. My heart swelled at my daughter’s act of kindness. At her care. Her generosity of spirit. And as I share this story right now my heart swells, alongside the tears in the very corners of my eyes.

Courage
I am always moved when people are vulnerable enough to be brave. The most recent example of courage that I have come across is the story of Tara Westover. I could not put down her memoir, Educated. I read it with such desperation to turn each page, to find out what was going to happen. So incredibly thirsty for her story. As I collected it from my library just now, and took it to my computer so I could find a quote to share, I notice I was holding it close to my heart, such was the impact of this beautifully written story of a young woman finding her true self at the expense of the love of her family. The book should always be carried beside your heart. When you buy it from the bookstore, walk out with it, cradled to your chest.

Spoiler alert!! Please go to the subhead ‘tenderness’ in order not to ruin your upcoming reading of this fabulous book, as I am about to share something of it from close to the end. A poignant memory Tara shares at perhaps her lowest point.

The moment in the book that broke my heart (which can happen when it swells way too much) where I ended up with my tears falling from my eyes, down my temples and along the edge of my cheek bones into my ears (I was reading in bed, my head in my pillow, and could not get out until I finished her book, and gravity has a way with tears) was the moment she reads the letter from one of her brothers, Tyler, expecting it to be a rejection, but instead it is a moment of acceptance and support, and love.

‘I clicked on the mouse, the attachment opened. I was so far removed from myself that I read the entire letter without understanding it: Our parents are held down by chains of abuse, manipulation and control…They see change as dangerous and will exile anyone who asks for it. This is a perverted idea of family loyalty…They claim faith, but this is not what the gospel teaches. Keep safe. We love you.’ Educated, p363, Tara Westover.

Keep safe. We love you. After I read these words. I sobbed and sobbed for Tara. I know no courage like hers. I was so relieved she was rewarded with love, and not rejection. So relieved that staying true to herself was met with love.

Tenderness
Before my husband became my husband. He was a friend. A photographer, my then boyfriend, who was a graphic designer, hired now and then. I remember the moment I fell in love with him, my future soul mate, although I did not realise that was what he was at the time. We were in Fitzroy, at a rooftop cafe for an opening for something, I can’t remember what. All I remember was it was night time. There were young children there. There was light. A wall. And my then friend, who would one day became my husband, was giving the children attention when no one else was. Entertaining them, with what seemed like a magical trick, but was actually simple hand shadow puppetry. A rabbit. Brought to life on a graffitied brick wall, on a Melbourne evening, on the rooftop of a radio station. The light, behind his hands, bringing to life a rabbit. A rabbit met with wide eyes, gasps, awe, the biggest smiles. The delight of young children. To me, this was an act of tenderness. My heart swelled. Almost to bursting. And I knew in that moment that I was destined to love that man. That man with his shadow puppetry. And I did. And I do.

Creativity and Beauty
Music and art will move my heart. Every time. The beauty of nature, will always expand my heart. The way the sun hits the deck. The way the water glistens from the sunshine. I have spent the day at the beach today. The sunshine, the different hues of blue in the water, the light greeny-blue from the shoreline, the deeper hues of green and blue in the breaking waves, the almost purple blue of the sea where it meets the horizon. The sky blue of the sky from the horizon to above our heads and beyond. It was glorious.

But when I think of creativity and beauty which makes my heart swell, I think of my son playing his guitar. Something he started when he was just 7 years old. Something over a decade later he still loves to do. Sitting in his room or on the couch in our dining room. Playing with such feeling. The guitar almost an anatomical part of him. Not a separate instrument at all. The beautiful blues he plays. The beautiful Spanish guitar songs. The jazz pieces. His favourites. Stevie Wonder’s ‘Isn’t She Lovely’. And Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears in Heavens’, with it’s lyrics inspired by the death of Clapton's four-year-old son. When talking matters of the heart, of what makes a heart swell with emotion, with tears to match. I couldn’t think of a better way to finish, than with these lyrics. Thank you, Eric Clapton.

Would you know my name
If I saw you in heaven?
Would it be the same
If I saw you in heaven?
I must be strong and carry on
'Cause I know I don't belong here in heaven

Would you hold my hand
If I saw you in heaven?
Would you help me stand
If I saw you in heaven?
I'll find my way through night and day
'Cause I know I just can't stay here in heaven

Time can bring you down, time can bend your knees
Time can break your heart, have you begging please, begging please

Beyond the door there's peace I'm sure
And I know there'll be no more tears in heaven

Would you know my name
If I saw you in heaven?
Would it be the same
If I saw you in heaven?
I must be strong and carry on
'Cause I know I don't belong here in heaven

Permission to feel

shutterstock_1490808767 copy.jpg

How have we found ourselves in the ironic position, where we feel bad about feeling? Why do we feel shame or discomfort for having emotions? Somehow, our feelings have become the bad guy. The villain. And rational thought the hero. Our emotions have become undervalued. The head has become the victor of the heart.

Friends of mine are making a really big life-changing decision. One involving lots of money. One involving lots of change. Talking with them about it, as they shared their plans, I shared my joy for where they were at, ‘How super exciting!’ I said. Which was met with, ‘Yep, but we are trying to keep the emotion out of this decision, and go through the steps logically.’ What the hell? Why? For any decision to be made, emotion and thought have to be in tandem. You can’t actually make a decision on intellect and logic alone. It isn’t possible!

Phineas Gage taught us that. If you haven’t heard of him, look him up. He lived in the 1800s. Was a railway worker foreman. Just an ordinary bloke until one day he had a significant accident and miraculously survived. And in doing so, changed the course of history and how we view the workings of our brains today. On the afternoon of 13 September 1948, Gage was overseeing the blasting of rock and the preparation of the road bed for a railway line in Vermont. Distracted by his men behind him, he turned to look at them, opened his mouth to speak and in a freak incident the powder in the hole he had been packing down with his tampering iron, exploded. The tampering iron shot out of the hole and through Gage’s jaw, past his eye and out of the top of his skull, to land bloodied some 25 metres away. Gage survived but his frontal lobe was seriously damaged. He lost his ability to feel emotions and this not only impacted his personality and behaviour, it also stopped him from being able to make decisions. He no longer had a preference, only apathy.

Turning emotions off to make a decision is a bad idea. Particularly if you are making a big decision. Imagine trying to use logic alone to decide if to marry, to have children, buy a house, move house, quit your job, take another job, relocate your life or any of the myriad of big decisions that make through the course of our lives. You need your emotions to help you make those decisions - you need to feel love, fear, excitement and trepidation.

Our issue with emotions is not isolated to decision making. It goes much deeper and much further. Our emotions are important. They guide us, keep us safe and motivate us. They help us navigate between right and wrong. To fit suitably and appropriately into our social constructs. Without them we would be at best robots, at worst psychopaths. And yet, throughout life we are taught to suppress our emotions. It starts from the very beginning. As a baby, our cries are met with a ‘shh’, ‘shh’, ‘shh’. As a young toddler if we are boisterous in play showing great joy we are told to ‘calm down’. As a teenager if we are sad, we are told to ‘cheer up.’ By the time we reach adulthood the script is set: having emotions is bad. And they have become taboo. And there is shame in feeling our feelings. Show passion and you are at risk of being considered too intense. Show fear and you are at risk of being seen as cowardice. Show tears of frustration or sadness and you are at risk of being called unhinged. But what are we meant to be instead? Without emotions we are nothing but big cold lumps of clay.

Without emotion music would not move us. Without emotion poetry would not exist. Without emotion we cannot be in awe of significance, grateful for the mundane, or appreciate what is before us. We rely on our emotions to heal. We need them to make connections. So, give yourself permission to feel. Give yourself permission for others to see that you feel. That you really feel. Show the world big love. Show the world big fear. Show the world that you are an emotional being. And show the people around you how to feel.

Allow the children around you to feel their emotions. Let’s make sure the next generation and those to come, have deep respect for their emotions; and understand how powerful they are in shaping our lives. Lead by example. Embrace your emotions. Trust them. Celebrate them. But whatever you do, don’t bury them. Don’t hide them. Don’t bottle them up. Allow yourself to feel excited, at the risk of feeling disappointed. Allow yourself to feel happy, at the risk of feeling sad. Allow yourself to feel hope at the risk of feeling despair. Listen to your heart. To feel is to know you are human. To feel is to know you are alive.