The Heart Remembers

The Heart Remembers

 

I recently watched a fascinating programme on the strange experiences of a number of heart transplant patients. In recovery many felt that their personalities had in some way changed. Despite not having access to details of their donors’ lives, after experiencing marked differences in their own behaviour, many sought to know something of the people whose hearts had given them a second chance. There were some interesting discoveries. One middle aged man had felt compelled to train hard physically, despite having little inclination in his pre-transplant days. It later transpired that his donor had been a driven Hollywood stunt man, extremely fit and active. Another man – who had little education – felt compelled to write, penning romantic poetry to his surprised and delighted wife only to be later informed that his donor had been a keen writer and poet.

 

Some scientists have been studying these unexpected changes, delving deeper into the heart’s physiological function for clues. They believe that they have discovered a collection of neurons in the heart, similar to that in the brain, surmising that the heart plays an important role in perception and memory function. Experiments seem to suggest that the heart registers experience prior to the brain, sending it messages, and through its own cluster of neurons, retaining memories. This challenges the current assumptions about the brain’s dominance and suggests that intelligence and cognition stem not only from our grey matter; we possess emotional intelligence, the heart and brain supporting each other’s functions. This might explain heart transplant patients who seem to be reliving the memories of their donors, particular in the areas of life that once provoked love and emotion, areas that brought pleasure or satisfaction.

 

How wonderful to think that the metaphors of the heart might prove more tangible. We all instinctively know that the heart is a powerful organ, not merely a sophisticated pump. When we speak of love that is deeply felt or lost, how often do we place a hand to our hearts? In grief and sadness, the tug in our chests is not imagined. How apt that all the poetic musings of centuries might hold a deeper wisdom about the extraordinary power of our bodies.

 

When the donor’s heart is removed and transported, it lives for only a few hours; lives but does not pump. It was moving to watch a heart, once reattached in its new home, immediately starting to flex, the memory of its own beating resonating strongly in each of its cells. It is equally moving to think that the memory of its loves, sorrows and joys might also still pulse within it, circulating the experiences of another human being, as easily as blood, around the system of a new body and being, creating an extraordinary bond between donor and recipient. The heart is the mythic seat of our empathy; there can be no more powerfully empathetic experience than to feel the life of the dead, resurrected within us, expressed in such touching symbiosis. Perhaps we all experience this to some extent in the genetic memories we inherit. There are many cases of descendants unknowingly following eerily similar paths to that of long dead ancestors, the links between us more deeply mysterious and magical than most of us can comprehend.

 

This ended up being a rather nice discovery for Valentine’s Day, along with the following two poems by Seamus Heaney – a man who can do little wrong:

 

Poem

 

Love, I shall perfect for you the child

Who diligently potters in my brain

Digging with heavy spade till sods were piled

Or puddling through muck in a deep drain.

 

Yearly I would sow my yard-long garden.

I’d strip a layer of sods to build the wall

That was to keep out sow and pecking hen.

Yearly, admitting these, the sods would fall.

 

Or in the sucking clabber I would splash

Delightedly and dam the flowing drain

But always my bastions of clay and mush

Would burst before the rising autumn rain.

 

Love, you shall perfect for me this child

Whose small imperfect limits would keep breaking:

Within new limits now, arrange the world

And square the circle: four walls and a ring.

 

                                                                        Seamus Heaney

 

 

 

The Guttural Muse

 

Late summer, and at midnight

I smelt the heat of the day:

At my window over the hotel car park

I breathed the muddied night airs off the lake

And watched a young crowd leave the discotheque.

 

Their voices rose up thick and comforting

As oily bubbles the feeding tench sent up

That evening at dusk – the slimy tench

Once called the ‘doctor fish’ because his slime

Was said to heal the wounds of fish that touched it.

 

A girl in a white dress

Was being courted out among the cars:

As her voice swarmed and puddled into laughs

I felt like some old pike all badged with sores

Wanting to swim in touch with soft-mouthed life.

 

                                                                                    Seamus Heaney

 

 

 

 

 

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Authentic Belonging

Stuck in and longing to be out in the sunshine; feeling poorly (niggling pain) and so am rambling around my own head – today it feels a rather poor substitute for a ramble around the woods!

 

I have been thinking a lot about belonging. Belonging is a beautiful word; it is a yearning fulfilled. It is a feeling that resides in an eternal present. When we feel that we belong, we feel whole and centred; our existence makes sense. What makes each of us feel at home can differ greatly; one person’s sanctuary is another’s exile. A sense of belonging in one’s life might be challenged by different things. We might not feel at home in our jobs; our marriages; our friendships; our bodies or sexualities; we might not even feel at home in our families, in the places that we live and occupy.

 

My own major challenge comes from a sense of not being entirely at ease in my family: there have been the emotional, social and political differences that can scatter some of us far from home; this has been intensified by the crisis of an irrevocable family split in the wake of a tragic family death. The distance now feels so unbridgeable. It can be a tough one because so much of our identity, our sense of grounding in the world, is tied up in these relationships; even the most destructive can feel extremely hard to let go of. For many years I ignored the growing discomfort, actively seeking to distort my own shape in order to fit the perceived family form. However damaging the pretence was, it felt far less dangerous than an honest admission that I was moving ever further away from the people I had once felt such a part of.

 

I believe that deep within each of us there is a striving towards an authentic relationship with self. True authenticity is really about openness and honesty with self and others, in our actions and our words. And yet this often feels like the most difficult challenge to negotiate, as if honesty were a weapon of nuclear proportions, once launched, devastating in its impact, bound to unleash consequences beyond our control. It might feel a whole lot easier to white lie our way through life, a masquerade of benign diplomacy at best, at worst, cold political manoeuvring. We might feel the need to be emotionally evasive in order to protect our hidden vulnerabilities; we might become skilled strategists, giving only that of ourselves that will produce the desired result; we might even present a series of masks, worn and changed with expert ease, none suspecting that the shifting and fluid surface of our social interactions are actually rootless, disconnected from any vital pulse, our hidden, inner selves untouched. We become impossible to know – inscrutable and lonely – as far away from belonging as it is possible to be.

 

Being honest with myself and my family felt like a kind of unspeakable treason but it became curiously life and death, as if that push for authenticity inside me could not tolerate one more day of denial, one more hour of self negation. I felt like selfishness personified, years of unspoken frustration and hurt hurtling out of a dark place. I cannot help but think that if I had been brave enough to acknowledge the truth and deal with it years ago, much of the pain might have been avoided. And yet sometimes in being authentic we can potentially wound others, and it is often the horror of such that counsels silence; a taught silence at that.

 

And yet the outcomes of our actions are notoriously hard to predict. An honest act of integrity might lead to disastrous consequences, whilst the most ignoble of choices might ultimately have positive effects. Life is tricky and complex and often events play out over lengthy time periods, only revealing in retrospect the impact – for good or ill – of our decisions. To say there are no right or wrong choices, just choices, might on some level be true, and certainly this takes the paralysis out of decision making, but it might also cause us to abandon responsibilities and ethical considerations as we launch in, unconcerned about what we might initiate. There is no easy answer. However, not being true to oneself merely to avoid pain or rejection (for oneself or others) can cause a great deal of wreckage.

 

I am in a strange family exile, mainly self-induced. It is not always comfortable but it certainly feels more authentic and as time passes, the angst of having shaken up the status quo diminishes. I truly believe the love we have shared with people is indestructible, but often our relationships have their allotted time span. We seem to be more accepting of this in relationships other than the familial. Letting family members go from our lives, as we might a partner in divorce, seems unthinkable to some. My brother has told me that ‘blood is thicker than water’. If there is no true relationship or exchange between people, what is it that we share? DNA, physical likeness, memories, parents… Without love expressed and shared, what is blood? Perhaps the yearning for authenticity is a yearning for love, closeness, for that place where we can be absolutely ourselves, and still be accepted, still belong…

 

My own exile ended a great many of my personal delusions about my family. It gave me some distance to challenge my own unreasonable expectations of both myself and them, freeing both of us from demands that neither could live up to. It also began my search for a new sense of belonging. I am finding it in some interesting places, the most powerful of my recent life being that of a growing sense of belonging in nature and the landscape. Maybe I am kidding myself – a connection to nature always being easier to negotiate than people. But perhaps the hardest relationship is the one we have with ourselves; unavoidable; the scariest relationship to be truly honest in.

 

I guess all things mirror something of ourselves back to us; my family has taught me so many valuable things, and they remain my family, regardless of distance. Perhaps what the drive for authentic relationship ultimately guides us towards is a discovery of that precious sense of belonging within; that much yearned for home of true acceptance and love.

  

 

 

My Body – For Better, for Worse…(Part Two)

Sunday 8th Feb:

 

And now, as I slowly deflate back into my old shape – the rash an unthreatening pink and down to one brain-numbing Piriton a day – I slam hard into excruciating menstrual pain, no swelling to ease the collision.

 

As soon as I get out of bed, I feel the familiar pain low in my groin, sharpening and intensifying. It escalates alarmingly and I know that I need to get back to the bed before I pass out. By this time my whole body is covered in sweat. I can’t feel my hands or forearms; in their place is a peculiar buzzing sensation; it resonates frantically in my ears until I feel nauseous. Laurie brings pain killers and a hot water bottle. At this point the pain is all that I am; body and being pure and unavoidable pain. I am excruciatingly present in my own body and unable to reach my awareness outside of it. At this point I am usually sick; extreme pain brings with it diarrhoea, vomiting, a complete emptying, as if the body needs more space to contain the unbearable ringing sharpness of spasm building upon spasm.

 

Sometimes it can be like this for hours, the painkillers failing, endless refills of hot water bottles, repeated vomiting. Today I am lucky, the tablets gradually softening the wrenching in my womb, the whirling chaos in my head settling into quiet. My night shirt is drenched; I feel drops of sweat trickle through my wet hair onto my neck and the sun floods in through my window covering me with warmth and light. My awareness unclenches from its tight, internalised focus, seeping out softly beyond my boundaries: the clouds morphing in the wind; grey roof tiles; the heat of the sun easing the chill of my damp skin; the sunlight turning the darkness of my closed eyelids red; my breathing, steady. I feel that strange euphoria, the utter gratefulness in the absence of pain; I feel peace, and the blissful slipping into sleep…  

 

My paganism has led me to challenge our culture’s negative associations with menstruation. I have striven to engage with its gifts and challenges in a nourishing way. Through our menstrual cycle we become intimately connected to the growth, blossoming, shedding and dying of the natural world; the waxing and waning energies of the universe. The menstrual cycle enables us to merge with the dance of life in all its beauty and joy, pain and struggle, destruction and creation. Our wombs become a spiralling galaxy; the turning wheel of the seasons; the waxing and waning moon; the breathing in and out of being. Within our bodies the whole extraordinary drama of living, dying and rebirth takes place every single month. The Goddess is immanent, indwelling; moving through our bodies and beings and our menstrual cycle is a very tangible reminder of this blessing. I have written, performed and shared rituals that celebrate this with other women, and yet I know that my experience of menstruating is actually quite different from most. The celebrating has a bitter sweet ring to it.

 

Over the years, I have always made the assumption that this ‘problem’ of mine was the result of something I was doing, as if some fine tuning –  or even radical adjustment – to my diet/behaviour/psychological state might bring me back into perfect balance with myself, and thereby eliminate the worst of my symptoms. Five years of a vegan diet; twenty two years of vegetarianism; giving up caffeine; even starting to eat fish again after a lifetime without meat… drinking more water; experimenting with every suggested herbal or alternative therapy; yoga; relaxation; meditation…

 

There was inner work to be done too. Had the psychological impact of the damaging sexual relationship of my teens left a physical scar, manifesting in the rather graphic metaphor of a heavily bleeding and painful wound? Had my mother’s horrendous menstrual problems shaped the expectations of my own? I even explored the notion that my blocked creativity might be causing stress in this area of my body, our wombs being the creative centre of our physical selves. Working through each of these issues as creatively and sensitively as I could, my general physical, emotional and psychological state seemed to benefit enormously but my periods stayed the same. In fact, as I have reached my forties, teetering on the hormonal edge of my peri-menopausal years, the pain and the bleeding have become increasingly worse.

 

Smear tests, pelvic exams and scans, show no obvious signs of organic malfunction. Doctors seem to be saying that this is the way I am built. To accept such a statement is a major paradigm shift for me; after years of assuming that this was the result of my ‘doing’ or not ‘doing’, this new possibility has seeped in around my reluctant edges. Perhaps this really is my ‘being’, a part of who I am. Perhaps I was born with this, my mother and my grandmother too. Something in us has shaped our cycles in a particular way; perhaps genetic or hormonal – ‘something’ not academically sexy, interesting, or life-threatening enough for modern medical science to study. In the spectrum of menstrual experience, this ‘something’ means that I function from its extreme.

 

So where do I go from here? I have stopped yearning for early menopause and have made, for me, the unorthodox decision to shake hands with the synthetic progesterone devil that is the Mirena coil. A life without extreme pain and excessive loss of blood is an attractive prospect; the Mirena holds out some promise of this for women like me. I have a deep distrust of the pharmaceutical industries and have held onto the treasured belief in a ‘natural’ remedy. But I have also reluctantly come to accept that life gives us all experiences that are ‘natural’ but not necessarily desired.

 

Pain can be psychologically crippling. I have given a million prayers of thanks that my own experience of pain allows me to have sizeable breaks from it; periods of time when my awareness is not squeezed by it. My sister’s illness brought her ultimately nothing but physical pain. It distorted and internalised her personality and perception, destroying her ability to cope and tragically accelerating the conditions that led to her early death. Of late, I have realised that I need not be nailed to this burden – unlike my sister, I thankfully have a choice.

 

I have decided to give myself permission to do something that normally I would say ‘no!’ to; in doing so, a whole world of new possibilities potentially opens up. I do not yet know what the results of this experiment will be. It’s a risk; life is full of them. For better, for worse, my body and I are in this together.

 

  

 

 

My Body – For Better, For Worse…(Part One)

Weds 4th Feb:

 

I have spent the best part of this week covered in a rash, various bits of my body swollen, most obviously my face. My system screamed into red alert during a course of antibiotics, flooding my body with histamine, plumping out my skin until uncomfortably stretched. The rash has surfaced like some unspeakable plague from the depths, my skin sore and tender to touch. A puffy stranger, drowsy and vague from anti-histamine, has been staring back at me from the mirror. On the Piriton box it tells me not to operate machinery. I look as if I am caught up in my own thoughts but it’s an achievement to express one lucid sentence; language feels like a pointless struggle; it’s not that I have ceased talking but when I do, I feel as if I am reaching deeply into a big, black sack, grasping clumsily in order to express the simplest of things. One tiny pill, every four hours and my head like a damp bog; my Blog, a blank page.

 

Just when I thought enough time had passed for the problem to ease, my pelvis has joined the party, a fleshy rubber ring tightly encircles my lower body, the swelling tightening up across my abdomen and down into my groin. Anxiety has successfully broken through the inner mizzle; I have experienced allergic reactions before, had swelling before, but never as extreme as this…It feels frightening to have so little control.

Snow

As I write this it is snowing, the circle of the sun clearly visible behind a thin layer of cloud. Despite falling for hours, the snow hasn’t laid; gazing out from the warmth of my room, it could just as easily be the seed fluff of willow or poplar carried by spring breezes. It’s a joyful thing to watch how receptive it is to the tiniest shifts in the currents of air, one moment suspended, the next plummeting in chaotic spirals, only to vanish into the ground like ghosts through walls.

 

Snow clouds seem brighter, lighter, not like the brooding greys of rain. Gravity does not weigh so heavily on their contents; even in raging blizzard the spaces between appear more tangible. Watching the weightlessness of snow falling, I feel insubstantial, as if I too could be lifted, carried, perfectly choreographed by the movement of invisible forces.

 

I open my window; our neighbour’s cat on the high fence, white flakes adorning his beautiful, fiery coat; the sun breaking through briefly, a pale, white haemorrhage of light. There is a peculiar silence that comes with snow, as if time too were suspended. I hold out my hand and watch the flakes dissolve within a second of contact, and I marvel at how such a beautiful thing cannot be grasped or kept. It is not the sadness of transience that snow invokes; there is something more enduring in its fragility. Perhaps it is the relative rarity of the event that intensifies the memory of it, each subsequent encounter building upon the original magic. Its impact is never lost; snow makes children of us all.

 

 

Brighid’s Thaw – For Imbolc

Winter had settled over me,

The frost sealing my eyes, my mouth;

My bones as ice,

Stilled

Beneath frozen water.

 

You came

And planted your sun like a seed in me,

Warm,

Precious,

Pearl of light,

And my being became the song of snow-melt,

A river-burst of birdsong

Rising.

 

At your touch my body is a garden

Of snowdrops;

This tender blooming

The greening of my soul.

                                         

                                         Maria Ede-Weaving