Saturday, July 13, 2013
Before I married my husband (in my straight life), Sister Jen told my mom, “If he breaks her heart, I’ll kill him.” For years, I thought he had broken my heart. Though I was the one who left the marriage, he was the first one to fall out of love. It hurts my ego to admit that, but it’s true.
Recently, I have realized that I broke my own heart: I had been dedicated to the idea of myself as someone who would live a life like my mother’s, and when I walked away from that marriage I walked away from that vision of myself into a dark unknown.
This wasn’t the first time I had broken my own heart—in college I had ended a relationship with a fabulous fellow whom I thought would be my husband, but I just couldn’t marry him—for reasons that were altogether unclear to me.
When I left my husband, I established a pattern: I was not like my mom. If I was not like my mom even when I had the chance to be, who was I? Part of the answer was that I was a lesbian, an answer that was painful at the time but that I now know has been such a life-giving gift.
With my leavings, all I seemed to know of myself was in a whirl that wore me out. Dang, I was tired. Ooff. Air out of a tire tired. Body as a sack. Head like the clapper in a bell. Chest thud. Tired. That’s what I wrote in my journal at the time.
The first time I left someone I loved, I wailed. I lost a lot of weight. I had to hold myself back from hurting myself more seriously (though I was never suicidal, so I have not experienced that level of pain.) I ached. The only identity I held onto was my identity as a student.
The second time, the time of my divorce, I also wailed and ached and shed weight, but this time I never felt tempted to hurt myself. This time, the identity that I held onto was my identity as a public school teacher, but even as a teacher I could not achieve what seemed most important to me without wearing myself out. I had told myself that my students would receive the same education that my wealthier private school students in Dallas had received, though I now taught five classes of 35 students instead of four classes of 18 students. Again: Ooff. Air out of a tire tired.
I worked to lift my body and spirit to face the dark winter and this dark time in my soul, but I slipped into an emotional fog nonetheless. I made it through each day, and I think only Ann saw my struggles, (other than my students and colleagues who noticed how much weight I was losing), but at night I was so weary that I could not sleep. I still have the journal where I tried to process my grief. In that journal, I wrote a letter to God, an almost desperate prayer:
Are you there, God? It’s me, Mary. I feel bone-weary and soul-sad. Where does this depression come from? If this sadness could talk, I can imagine what it might say, “I’m here because I’m always here, and I’m as old as time. I rock like an old woman endlessly knitting in her chair. Whatever you do or feel, I rock on. I am the pain of human suffering, caused by human cruelty or the whims of weather and tide. I am part of what it means to be.” I hear the sadness, God, but I don’t hear you. Where are you?
At the time, I read in le thi diem thuy’s novel The Gangster We Are All Looking For a poetic passage describing a dying school of fish, and I wondered if my sadness were like that school of fish just before it dies on shore—darting in the darkness, luminous in the shallow water with the moonlight creating a mesmerizing, melancholy beauty.
I felt the fish shifting in the sea of myself, knocking my ribs, tightening my throat, bumping and turning in a synchronous bounce from my stomach lining. I wondered if they if they would ever rest. I wondered what must die in me, what would turn its white belly to the moonlight from the sandy shore.
I talked to God, but I didn’t hear a response. I grew heavier and heavier. At work, I struggled. I loved teaching high school students, but the long nights and weekends, the parents and students, were too much. I was too weary.
I thought, “There must be another way,” and I left the job I loved, the identity I clung to. In the fall I hiked and biked on sunny days, and on rainy days I looked for another job.
I finally found a job with an online educational start-up that demanded little of me and paid me a generous salary, but that job didn’t embrace my heart as teaching had, so I left to become a national education reform consultant, working in schools with teachers and administrators who wanted to create better schools for poor students. Again, I was generously paid.
In that job, I became disillusioned with my ability to make a difference at this distance from students. When I read Mother Theresa’s statement, “If you want to work for the poor, you must live with the poor,” I decided to return to teaching, this time working with some of the poorest students in my region.
Like the Grinch’s heart which grew three sizes in one day, in my new school I felt my heart heal and grow. I was not making a difference at the structural level—I had given up on finding a way to do that—but I was making a difference for some (I wish I could say all) students in my classes and in my school.
Then, I had to leave my students again, this time before the end of the year because of a brain tumor diagnosis. Again, my heart broke, and I cried after surgery when my colleague Jill brought me get well letters from my students. I cried again when my colleague Alexandra brought me a video of students reading the personal essays that they had been writing when I left.
After learning to walk, if unsteadily, again, I returned to schools but not to my own classroom: I worked with teachers in poor schools who wanted to improve their teaching. Finally, I realized that I could no longer do this either, so I went to part time and then quit altogether and went on Social Security for people with Disabilities.
Strangely, in this long process of finally leaving education, I was not heart-broken. I was at peace, relieved, sometimes joyful and even ecstatic. I would no longer keep trying to do what I could not do. My heart began to heal, and I began to consider a new career where I could make a difference to people who are marginalized, this time as a therapist for people with life-changing health conditions.
I am now working, slowly, towards that career. I am taking a two-pronged approach: I am at the School of Social Work working towards an MSW, and I am writing two books, one about my life’s change after brain tumors (there was a second one), and one about other people’s experiences with life-changing health conditions. I crave hearing other stories that connect to my own, so perhaps others will appreciate these connections.
I felt guilty about recovering from my heartbreak and about leaving my career in education. I wrote about this in my last entry. Serendipitously, however, I am now reading Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy, and his book is helping me to see my own heartbreaks in a new way.
Though Parker Palmer has written a book about civic engagement in political life and not a self-help book, he argues, “The politics of our time is the ‘politics of the broken-hearted.’” I think I understand what it means to be broken-hearted.
He writes, “If you hold your knowledge of self and world whole-heartedly, your heart will at times get broken by loss, failure, defeat, betrayal, or death.”
“Yes,” I think, “You have my attention, Parker Palmer. You’re talking to me.”
He continues as if not interrupted: “What happens next in you and the world around you depends on how your heart breaks.”
“If it breaks apart into a thousand pieces, the result may be anger, depression, and disengagement.”
As someone who has three times experienced dark depressions, Parker Palmer must know what he’s talking about on an intellectual and on a visceral level.
He continues, “If it breaks open into greater capacities and contradictions of human experience, the result may be new life.”
Though there have been times when I have felt like Humpty Dumpty, whom the doctors could not put back together again, my heart and I are not shattered. I can wonder with Parker Palmer, “What shall I do with my suffering?”
Parker Palmer assures me, “The broken-open heart is a source of power as well as compassion—[it gives us] the power to bring down whatever diminishes us and raise up whatever serves us well.”
He notes how crucial is the “habit of the heart” called hope.”
Hope. Hmmm. When I was teaching at the end of my career, if you had asked me, “What is the most important lesson that you teach in your Language Arts classes?”, I would have answered, “Hope,” by which I would have meant a hope that is substantive and powerful, not a cotton candy hope that is sugary and does not sustain us but melts into nothingness.
I need this hope now.
Parker Palmer’s exposition gives me hope. He continues, “Some of what we must learn if democracy is to flourish comes only from “crossing over” into lives unlike our own, not fleeing from them in fear but entering into them in trust that an experience of ‘otherness’ can help our closed hearts break open.”
This sort of “crossing over” had been the center point of my life: I have long loved teaching students whose lives and histories were so different than my own and have loved meeting people in El Salvador and other technologically developing countries whose lives and countries are so different than mine. Now I love hearing people’s stories and connecting with strangers as I ride the city bus. I love hearing the stories of those people I’m interviewing about their lives after a serious diagnosis of themselves or someone in their lives.
Though I am no longer teaching, I continue along this path, now more intent to share my own story than I was but for, and still intent on hearing and sharing others’ stories. As Parker Palmer (I know the convention is to use just his last name, but he feels closer to me than that, so I’m adopting the Southern convention of using two names)…Anyway, as Parker Palmer tells me, “We are imperfect and broken beings who inhabit an imperfect and broken world. The genius of the human heart lies in its capacity to use these tensions to generate insight, energy, new life.”
I want to do that. I want to generate insight, energy, and new life!
Later in the book, he adds this assurance, “You go through a long underground passage of grief….But one day you emerge and discover that because of your devastating loss, your heart feels more grateful, alive, and loving.”
This is true for me and for most of the people with serious health conditions whom I have interviewed: we are more alive because we have grieved. Our hearts, like Robert Frost’s birches (a great poem to read, if you don’t know it), are bowed and not broken, or in Parker Palmer’s lexicon, are broken open and not apart.
Again, Parker Palmer has it right: “A heart that has been consistently exercised through conscious engagement with suffering is more likely to break open instead of apart. Such a heart has learned how to flex to hold tension in a way that expands its capacity for both suffering and joy.”
Thus, my brain tumors…as my separations years ago, my coming out as a lesbian, and my leaving a long career in education…have been gifts to me. I do not believe I am tying up my story with a bow when I say that these experiences of death in life have made me stronger. I don’t know what I’ll do with this broken heart, but I do believe that my heart has broken open and not shattered.
“What shall we do with our heartbreak so that it yields life, not death?” With Blues Traveler, I’ll sing an optimistic thought:
Life I embrace you,
I shall honor and disgrace you.
Please forgive if I replace you:
You see I'm going through some pain,
But now I see clearly,
And the dawn is coming nearly
And though I'm human and it's early,
I swear I'll never forget again.
Well, to tell the truth, I’ve forgotten before, and I will forget again. Again my heart will break, and again I will hunker down to tend to my broken heart. But I’ll emerge, as I am emerging now. I will engage with my life and the strangers who cross my paths. I will live, and my open heart will break again.
Perhaps that’s what it means to live.
Thanks Parker Palmer.