Monday, November 27, 2006

Building a Heart

People from other lands are often puzzled by an ancient winter custom of my people – the building of a heart – so I will try to tell you about it, in words I hope you know. Language is different for us here. Sometimes we hum, or growl, or sigh a note, instead of using words, which can be so easily misunderstood. I’ll try to use words we’ll both understand.

When my people return at the end of autumn to reclaim our homes on the hard, on the island, we often build new hearts. It’s hard to keep a heart on a boat, or a raft, or in the underwater caves where some of us live in the warmer months. Hearts survive best on land, so when we become land dwellers again just before winter arrives, we inspect our hearts and do what we can to keep them going another year.

Everyone has a heart. I suppose that’s true even in your culture. But in my travels I’ve yet to wash up on a shore where hearts are built as they are here. From an early age we learn how to build our own hearts, because no one else can do it for you. With wisdom and age and a little luck our hearts survive, some even become stronger and more beautiful with each passing year. But there are those that shrivel up and blow away. I think that is true everywhere.

I remember, as a young girl, my first heart was built of sand – a castle with turrets and towers and spires and a secret keep and a moat. I built it too close to the high water mark, and a rogue wave washed it out to sea before I could show it to anyone. I felt foolish and didn’t build another heart for years.

We build our hearts along the coastline. They’re meant to be seen and shared with the whole village. They’re also meant to withstand the elements. What good is a heart that’s hidden in a cave?

Taking a walk along the hearts on a cold winter morning is a good way to see how your friends and family are faring. Some days you see a heart with a fresh coat of paint, or bright green sea glass adorning the walls, or saffron colored silk banners flying from the highest points, and you know someone has fallen in love, or given birth to a daughter, or written a poem.

And then, you might come upon a heart that has been neglected so long that sand has partially buried what the north wind couldn’t blow away. When you find a heart like that you visit its owner and sing or hum or rattle some shells or beat a drum. It helps – the sounds – better than any words. If you saw this friend on the street, without first visiting his sad heart, and asked him how he was he would say ‘Fine, really fine’ but his eyes would slide away before meeting yours. That’s the trouble with words. You need to visit your friend’s heart to know the truth.

Busy parents with young children quickly repair what they can each winter, hoping it’s enough to keep their hearts beating and intact for another year. They promise each other it will be different when the children are older, when they have time to care for themselves differently. They do the best they can.

Repairs and additions and improvements are good and necessary, but sometimes, you just have to tear down what you’ve got, especially when you no longer recognize it as your own, and start from scratch.

By the way, it’s best not to build a new heart when you are discouraged or depressed or despairing. Why do you have so many words for this? Sleep and chocolate is best in this dark place. Too many people wear themselves out when they should just be sleeping. Building a new heart requires energy.

Sometimes, things get a little out of hand with our hearts – maybe it’s like that where you are too? Like the night young Sam Wilson fell in love, for the first time, and he lit a torch atop his heart, drawing the entire village to the beach with the blaze. It was one of the coldest nights of the winter, so cold that the smaller waves near the inner sandbar froze mid-curl. We all sang with Sam, voices raised to the heavens, until the wind came up and a spark flew to the heart just down the beach – wouldn’t you know that one was made of straw? It caught the flame, and sent it to the heart beside it, and soon half the hearts on the island were in flames.

That might sound like a disaster where you come from, but for us it was a wild night and passion. So much fire, burning like that on a beach in the dead of winter can do that to you, especially when you’ve lived most of your life in the water. The heat was so intense, most of us had sunburns the next morning, and nine months later so many babies were born. But that was a long while ago.

It’s best to be done, really done, with your old heart before building a new one. We all know what it feels like, the knowing that it’s time to build an entirely new heart, but there is no word for it. There is a sound - the sound the ocean makes just after slack tide, when the moon pulls the sea towards it again, so far away. It sounds like that. Maybe you can’t hear it where you are.

You need to remove what’s left of your old heart, sorry and dilapidated as it may be, before building the new one. There are almost as many ways to do this as there are ways to say “I love you”. How many ways can you say it in your language?

You could wait for the next northeaster to blow and let the storm tides carry it away, back to the sea, especially if your heart came from the sea to begin with.

There’s a ceremony for burning the old heart down – which is very different from the way Sam Wilson did all those years ago. You do this alone, on the night of the solstice, singing to the smoke that curls up to the stars. It’s our oldest song, the one with no words. Even babies know this song.

Or, you could slowly dismantle it, saving what you can, giving away what you no longer need, returning pieces of it to the ones you once loved, and maybe still love.

We have a word for it – no matter how you do this part – we call it remembering. You have this word, but I’m not sure if it means the same thing in your language.

It’s best to be mindful when choosing materials for your new heart, and in no particular hurry.

I remember the year I build a new heart, after my husband sailed away with that stupid girl from the next island. I tore down the heart I’d been building for years with him, the one I thought he loved. It was a modern heart – all sharp angles and abstract forms. He said he loved it, but really, who could love a heart like that? I didn’t even love it. After he left I borrowed a bulldozer from my neighbor and ran it over. When it was flattened and shattered and scattered all over the beach, I grabbed the nearest thing I could find – an old grandmother sea turtle’s shell, and plopped it down over the place where my old heart had been. It was like that for years. I almost forgot how to love. But one day I replaced that old shell with a new heart and life went on.

So, it’s best to build a new heart when you’re strong and healthy and ready to let go of the old.

That’s where I am today, on the edge of this winter, gathering the raw materials for my new heart.

In your culture, where youth is king and queen, you might find it amusing that a fifty year old woman would even be considering building a new heart. You would probably make a sitcom about it. But here, we write songs about the elders (and I’m a fairly young elder) who build new hearts. They are our heroes. Who has more courage than us, starting afresh yet again when our bodies and minds are slowing down, settling into a new rhthym?

This heart will be like a tent, made of rich tapestries that I’ve been weaving all my life, with threads pulled from every story I’ve told and every dream I’ve dreamed. The ceiling will be the stars, the moon will illuminate the inner chambers, each one filled with a different color (magenta and periwinkle) or sound (laughter and bells and incoming waves).

I am still gathering a few more special objects – an imperfect conch shell, a smooth, warm stone, the soft rosy sand from the cove on the east end of the island. And there, something small and blue caught in the strand line, in the dried seaweed and driftwood. The brilliance of the blue – like lapis with gold flecks – draws me closer. It’s a feather, a blue gull feather. You don’t have blue gulls in your land, and even here they are rare.

I reach for the feather, just as another hand reaches for it as well. He has one end of it. I have the other.

We look up in surprise, then recognition - another old soul, deeply lined face, deeply blue eyes, building a new heart of his own.

He opens his mouth, but no words come out, only the sigh that we all hear when we fall in love.

Is it the same in your land?

Thursday, November 9, 2006

On Falling in Love at Fifty

It may not always be so, but today

He stands on my doorstep, flowers in hand, wearing a smile that radiates light.
I forget that he’s an hour late.

It may not always be so, but today

He laughs at my jokes, sighs and holds me tight when I tell a sad tale.
I begin to trust.

It may not always be so, but today

He says I make the most delicious roast chicken and gravy he’s ever tasted.
I offer him seconds.

It may not always be so, but today

He writes poetry…for me.
I begin to surrender.

It may not always be so, but today

He gives me the gift of a book about adventure and love and sailing, and we take turns reading aloud to one another.

It may not always be so, but today

He assures me I’m much more interesting than women half my age.
Hmmm….I’ve become interesting.

It may not always be so, but today

He tells me my writing must be shared with the world.
I feel a little dizzy.

It may not always be so, but today

He whispers his desire for me.
I hear him clearly, even though his lips are pressed against my bad ear.
When will I tell him I have a bad ear?

It may not always be so, but today

He thanks God for our good fortune and asks for blessings as we begin this journey.
I whisper ‘Amen’.

It may not always be so, but today

He tells me I am the one.

It may not always be so, but today

I am.