What a question, huh? Perhaps, though, it is the most important question of our lives. We all suffer heartache at one time or another. We have all lost loved ones -- mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, best friends, and so tragically, children.
Yesterday morning, an email arrived in my in-box and my heart has been aching like crazy ever since. A friend's daughter, in her mid-twenties, was killed last Saturday in Argentina after she was hit by a bus. She died instantly. Shahnaz, brilliant and beautiful and so deeply loved by her adoring parents, was a graduate of Columbia University. She was vacationing in Argentina with her fiance just before heading off to law school and he to medical school.
I have had my share of heartache, and I have faced a life-threatening illness, but honestly, when I think about losing one of my three children, a deep and terrifying chasm opens up in my chest. I think about my friend this morning and the gaping, endless hole of darkness into which she and her husband have been dropped and I stop breathing.
After meditating this morning, I found myself doing something I used to do daily when I was in treatment for lymphoma six years ago. I stood at the kitchen counter with my greasy pastels and colored pencils, my glue and scissors and stacks of colored paper. I stood there in my bathrobe making collages. I drew wild pictures of big red aching hearts. I drew hearts clinging to green trees. I drew hearts standing alone. Hearts dangling in the sky.
Why do such a thing?
I think because, it made my heart hurt just a little bit less.
Last week, I had the great privilege of going to a conference in Denver called "The Power of Writing." Organized by Kathleen Adams, whose specialty is journal-writing and therapy, the conference brought together some 350 writers, art therapists, creative expressionists and others (including a research scientist!!) all devoted to the notion that writing and journaling and ARTWORK, can mend the heart. I brought my own aching heart to the conference (oh, it's a long story, but more than anything, I am in a protracted dance of agony over my very empty nest.)
The best thing to come out of the conference wasn't, for me, the notion that writing is healing. Writing of course is healing, but lately, it has become clear to me that writing is just not enough. I need more. I need color. I need strong visual images. I need paint and photos. I need to stare at beauty.
Beauty comforts the heart. Art heals the soul.
But that's not the only thing I realized. I need people.
Healing the heart starts, and continues, when we open ourselves up to love. When we open ourselves to other people, all people.
I met a couple of incredible people at the conference. One woman, Mary Durning, from Maryland, was my writing partner in an amazing workshop held in a park set in the spectacular snow-covered Rocky Mountains. What happened in that workshop (we each were assigned to make friends with a tree) was nothing short of a miracle. (I will write about that workshop --and another amazing TREE STORY-- in a future blog entry!) For now, though, let me just say that Mary Durning is a social worker whose background is pediatric oncology, meaning, she's worked with children suffering from cancer. I am a cancer survivor. By the time Mary and I had finished working together, I was in tears!!! And we were connected in an astonishing way.
I met another woman too. Actually, she was someone I had met before. Her name is Anjana Deshpande, and she is a poetry therapist in Philadelphia. On Friday, the last day of the conference, I slipped into one of the last open seats in a very crowded room, to hear the morning speaker. I took a sip of my coffee and turned my head to the left, and there was a woman staring at me. I stared back. Incredibly, it was Anjana, a woman I had met at another conference four years ago. A woman who had talked -- and cried -- me through much heartache after my illness. Stunned and delighted, we stood up and hugged. Later, over lunch, we caught up (she's getting her MSW and is working with Iraqi war veterans who are suffering from PTSD, an issue that I had independently decided that I too wanted to pursue.)
Well, so, what does all this have to do with the heart? Everything.
Life can deliver us stunning blows. Sometimes we don't know how we can possibly go forward, how we can deal with the loss and heartache we feel. Sometimes life seems so fragile and tenous that it is terrifying. When we feel this kind of tragedy and incredible heartache, how do we move forward?
By opening ourselves. By stopping. By breathing in, very slowly. And out. And by focusing on our hearts. By filling them with love for others. By dwelling in those moments of love. By celebrating the love we have, in our families, with our friends, even with "strangers" we meet briefly at a conference.
Yes, we sometimes wince with pain. We cry our hearts out. And then, we take a tissue from a loved one and we wipe our tears. And we take a crayon, maybe, or a paintbrush, or a camera, and we start, slowly, making art, to heal.
P.S. the image that appears here is a digital photo of one of the collage paintings I did back in 2002 when I was in treatment.