In the time of broken hearts

Heard on the news this week: Broken heart syndrome is a real thing.

It happens after significant stressors. Too much adrenaline. The heart is weakened. It hurts.

There’s a scientific name for it: takotsubo cardiomyopathy. It derives from the Japanese word for “octopus trap,” after the shape of the left ventricle of the heart in this condition.

It is temporary. The broken heart can heal in a short time, maybe days or weeks.

It can sometimes lead to complications. Rarely death, though.

It seems to affect mostly women 50 and older.

But I wonder.

I wonder, as I regularly step in for teachers who are out.

I wonder, as I absorb laments and frustration and anger about the depth of student struggles.

I wonder, as I listen to students reading poems about tasting the salt of their tears.

I wonder, when I wake up so tired on workdays, when I have so little left to give when I get home.

And I am usually one to see the glass half full, to find the awe in each day, like…

the blue heron standing a glassy pond on the drive to work

the whorls of white smoke floating up from the chimney of a little house in the countryside, struck by the rising sun and transformed into clouds of peach-colored light

the newest photo of my three-month-old granddaughter who’s beginning to smile more and more

hearing my boy play old hymns on the baby grand piano at church with such a multitude of notes and joyful liveliness that surely, surely the angels dance

the one little bird (a cardinal?) singing for all it is worth, from the treetops

-these things strengthen my heart.

And keep it, I think, from breaking.

It is a long season, this pandemic, with its deep layers of residue.

On this day of celebrating love and hearts…I wish you healing peace for the pieces.

Photo: Broken Heart Chalk 2Retta Stephenson.CC BY 2.0

Heart healing

“Heart” is the Spiritual Journey prompt for this first Thursday in February.
Thanks to Linda Mitchell for hosting our group of writers.

On a Sunday afternoon at the end of July, 2019, my husband had a massive heart attack and cardiac arrest. He was resuscitated by EMTs and went straight into surgery after arriving at the hospital. He got four stents and spent several days in induced hypothermia to reduce trauma to his brain, which can happen when blood flow has ceased and is suddenly restored. He recuperated slowly, painfully; his sternum had been broken by the CPR which saved his life. He came home. One morning in September he woke to jolts in his chest and tingling down his arm. I took him back to the hospital. More heart attacks. This time he had four bypasses. The surgeon mended his sternum with a little metal plate.

He is doing well now. In fact, up until winter settled in, he was doing eight-mile hikes in the park a couple of times a week and feeling as good as he ever has.

As this first Thursday in February drew near with Valentine’s Day and “heart” as the Spiritual Journey prompt for the month, I thought of a couple of things I might like to explore. I had chosen one, in fact, when I saw the heart-shaped hospital pillow that remains in our bedroom. This pillow was given to my husband after the bypass surgery. His attending nurse wrote on it with a Sharpie: “Keep hugging your heart!”

I thought, this is it. This is what I need to write about.

These pillows are given to all patients recuperating from open-heart surgery. The patients hug them when they have to cough or sneeze, lessening the severity of the jolt. The pillow protects the incision site whenever the patients move and when they practice the necessary deep-breathing exercises for their lungs.

It just so happens that the hospital where my husband’s surgery and recuperation has the lowest mortality rate in the country for heart bypass patients (according to reports from 2017-2019). It also just so happens that the county’s resuscitation rate is the highest in the nation. So, if you’re going to have cardiac arrest and need cardiac surgery, it’s the best place to be.

My husband is evidence of this.

I think about the surgeon who held my husband’s heart in his hands, who grafted those bypasses. He told us that as soon as the first graft was done, my husband’s heart immediately began beating stronger; it was hungry for the blood. It wanted to live.

Now. Where’s the spiritual element in all this, you ask?

Beyond the miracle that one human can cut open another and repair his heart, and that this repaired person can heal and live life awhile longer, is the Great Physician who is able to transform hearts and lives. When I was young, I attended a Bible study group in which a couple of guys could play guitars and we’d often sing this version of Psalm 51:10-12:

Create in me a clean heart, O God
and renew a right spirit in me

Create in me a clean heart, O God
and renew a right spirit in me

And cast me not away from thy presence, O Lord,
take not thy Holy Spirit from me.
Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation
and renew a right spirit in me.

Godly heart-grafting, I would say. Cleansing, taking away the bad parts, restoring. The heart must be transformed before the spirit can be renewed. Sometimes a great deal of work must be done…but the Lord is able. If we let Him work. If we are hungry for it. We often think of letting Him into our hearts but it’s really more a matter of offering our hearts—battered, damaged, tangled, sick as they may be—to Him. He knows exactly what is needed. Psalm 51 is the cry of David’s heart after Nathan the prophet confronted him with his adultery and murder. It can be the cry of any of our hearts as we place them in the healing hands of Almighty God, craving His mercy.

I rejoice that my husband lives, that he was made well, that the hospital and the EMTs are the best around.

I rejoice more that the Lord forgives and heals hearts and spirits. He works on my own, daily. He is the physician and the pillow, the healer and the comforter. The ultimate heart-hugger. He is the best place to be.

Not to mention that His own mortality record is unsurpassable.

Winter meditation

with thanks to Stacey Joy, who shared the monotetra form this morning on Ethical ELA’s Open Write: quatrains ending in monorhyme, lines of eight syllables.

Winter Meditation

On this dark morning, falling snow
fills the spirit with candleglow
the bliss-blessed silence, calling so:
Hush. Take it slow. Hush. Take it slow.
 
Claim the quiet for your healing
be free as the hawk, a-wheeling
your crystal-scoured heart revealing
wounds are sealing, wounds are sealing.

For now, nature’s red tooth and claw
newly blanketed, without flaw
is still, peace-covered, filled with awe.
Time to withdraw, time to withdraw. 

Apothecary of the soul

Today, the first Thursday of the month, my Spiritual Journey gathering writes around the theme of “Nurturing Our Summer Souls.” Deepest thanks to my friend, teacher-poet-artist Carol Varsalona, for hosting.

Summer itself is about journeys, is it not

In my previous post, A walk back in time, I told of a long-awaited trip to the Country Doctor Museum in the small town of Bailey, NC. I expected to learn about rural physicians and their practices in the 19th to early 20th centuries. I didn’t expect to be mesmerized by the first exhibit, a reproduction apothecary shop replete with show globes (which became the official symbol for pharmacies), exquisite leech jars, real live leeches, rows of dried herbs and powders displayed in large glass jars bearing labels of names so poetic and compelling I itched to look them all up right there on the spot, and black pills made in the shape of tiny coffins because they contain a measure of poisons like mercury, so an illiterate population would be mindful not to overdose.

I certainly wasn’t expecting the large painting on the wall behind the counter…

Apothecary of the soul painting, circa 1700-1750. Artist unknown.
Image: Joyner Library, East Carolina University.

It dominated the wall—the whole room.

“These ‘apothecary of the soul’ paintings are rare,” the docent told our tiny tour group of four, one other couple plus my husband and I. “Most come from Germany. You can see here that Christ is the apothecary. He’s holding the scales, weighing his Crucifixion against the weight of a man’s soul… behind them, jars are labeled with the virtues…we’ve had visitors who are fluent in German and they tell us that this is an old form of the language, much of it is complicated to translate…”

I can make out two Bible references, though. Here’s the King James translation:

Matthew 11:28:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Isaiah 55:1:

Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

My tour group moved on too soon. I couldn’t linger to study the work at length, to grasp more of its symbolism, so I’ve since visited the Museum’s website for more information. There I learned that an apothecary may have commissioned the painting. Apothecaries wanted to draw people to their shops; they sought to be alluring, to the point of extravagance (hence the elaborate show globe towers and gilded leech jars). But imagine the effect on the ordinary townsperson, in need of help, relief, comfort, entering the shop to find Christ adorning the wall. If customers weren’t able to read the verses (from Luther’s 1545 translation of the Bible, I wonder?), they could see that Christ’s right hand holds the scales and that his sacrifice outweighs the man’s sins, represented by a horned beast. The man holds a banner reading My sins are heavy and overwhelming and grieve me from the heart.* Christ’s left hand rests on what appears to be crosswort, a plant often used to treat wounds, headaches, and other ailments, possibly representing a cure-all from the hands of the Great Physician (or Apothecary) himself: the dispensation of spiritual healing as well as physical, “without money and without price.”

I left the shop thinking about the level of trust one must have in the apothecary, and feeling as if I’d been on a pilgrimage versus a museum tour. This happened to be my first journey of summer, which has come at last, bright and beckoning, as the world strives to heal from the COVID-19 pandemic…

Here is to rest, ongoing spiritual journeys, and nurturing the soul.

*******

*Source: Apothecary of the Soul video, ECU Digital Collections, via the Country Doctor Museum website (see Learning). The Museum belongs to the Medical Foundation of East Carolina University, under the management of the Laupus Health Sciences Library.

Other Apothecary of the Soul paintings can be found online; they contain much of the same symbolism.

A bit of legacy poem

For Day Twenty-Six of National Poetry Month

Testament 

I cannot measure
how much time remains
in the hourglass
of my days

sand grains
steadily trickling
more than half
already gone

yet still refining
polishing
my existence

with words

let them be
the worry-stone
worn smooth
slid into the pockets
of those I encounter
a cool indented
presence of calm
for the holding

let them be a beckoning
a turning inward
toward crystals
forming in the geode void
the amelioration
of hollow places

let them be
like the curious folk remedy
of my childhood
jars of strange white peach rings
with heart-colored centers
floating in witch hazel
(which has nothing to do
with magic; the etymology of the name is
pliable)
cure for bruises and
what ails you

let my words be
a gauge for life-giving rain
collected
yet flowing on
and on
a good measure
pressed and shaken
poured out

a testament of love
for the new life

coming

Hope quatrain

with thanks to Dr. Padma Venkatraman and the Ethical ELA #VerseLove invitation to write a quatrain today on hope, especially, hope overcoming hate: What does hope mean to me? How do I see it? She suggested using a metaphor.

I see hope is as vital to our existence as humans. When I started this blog, I wanted it it to be uplifting and hopeful. The world already has far too much anger and hatred. I struggled with condensing a metaphor for hope that would fit in four lines! I finally settled on a sunflower. It’s too big for all I would say here in regard to hope overcoming hate. Maybe I will try it in another form later. Part of my inspiration comes from sunflowers being planted to absorb radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Technically lines one and three should rhyme but I claim poetic license.

For Day Fourteen of National Poetry Month

Hope Perpetuates

Hope turns its face to the sun
Warming its myriad seeds
Hope’s roots absorb toxins
Cleansing each soul that it feeds.

Sunflower. metin.gul. CC BY

Voices

On the last Sunday in July, 2019, my husband went to the gym after church. He had a great workout on the stationary bike (always proud of accomplishing five miles in fifteen minutes).

He got in his truck to come home.

That is the last thing he remembered for a long time.

At the house, our dog went crazy, barking. Someone in the driveway. Police officer: Your husband’s had an accident. Do you have a way to the hospital… truck ran off the road into the woods…appears to have been a medical event…sorry, I don’t know how bad it is. EMS was working on him when I left…

Both of our grown boys happened to be home that afternoon. We rode together to the ER, not knowing what we’d find.

My reeling mind wondered if their black suits were clean…in case…

At the hospital, a nurse was waiting for us. She ushered us into a side room.

Massive heart attack, said the ER doctor, but he’s alive. He wasn’t when EMS got to him. He was in cardiac arrest. They did CPR, defib…they are heroes…heroes…

Heart attacks killed his father and grandfather in their fifties.

After emergency surgery, he underwent induced hypothermia to allow his brain time to rest from the trauma. No one knew how long he’d gone without oxygen. EMS had arrived on the scene quickly, as the station is just up the street from where the truck ran off. My boys and I learned that their dad endured forty-five minutes of CPR and ten – TEN – shocks from the paddles. We would learn that his sternum was broken. Attending CICU physicians warned: After hypothermia, we’ll do a waking test. There’s no guarantee he’ll wake, or how extensive the damage will be to his brain…

As we endured those long hours, we learned that his truck was barely dented as it ran off the road, that it stopped just short of a deep ravine in the woods. We were told that he swerved into oncoming traffic and back into his lane before running off on the right. He never struck another vehicle. People behind him called 911. One thing different, and all would be different…

As one doctor said: Everything aligned for him. Everything.

He did awaken. He knew us. He was soon able to ask, in a raspy voice after coming off the ventilator: What happened?

It would be a long recovery involving another hospital stay and more surgery…but he recovered.

He could remember leaving the gym, but he could not recall anything from earlier that month, or from many months before. All of his long-term memory remained intact; all his stories, all his sports trivia and stats. There was just a period completely erased, leading up to the heart attack. He could not recall a thing from our family vacation to the beach earlier in July, the glorious time we had.

The brain’s way of protecting itself from pain, our oldest son said. I had a professor who told us about this in class. It’s not good to try to make a person remember…

He didn’t recognize the scenery on the way home from the hospital: Why are we turning here? Everything looks so new…have I seen this before?

The doctors said, Some memories may return as he heals. Some may not. It’s hard to say; everyone is different.

After a couple of months, he returned to his work at the church. He’s a minister. The number one question people had after he began regaining strength: Did he see anything? when he was… you know… ‘gone’? I mean, he IS a pastor… such curiosity tinged with hope, in that questioning.

All he could remember, much to people’s disappointment: It was just like going to sleep. No pain, just fading into sleep. So peaceful.

Then one day he saw pictures of our family vacation and recognized the giant tortoise we chanced upon at a roadside display: I remember that!

Random bits returned to his mind, here and there.

Then on another day, much later, he told me: I heard voices.

What do you mean, you ‘heard voices’?

When my truck ran off the road. When everything was going dark.

What did they say?

They said, “He’s in trouble. We have to get him off the road.”

Did you…did you recognize the voices? Do you think that maybewell, it could have been just the EMTs…

He shook his head. All I know is, I heard them when I was driving and I thought, if I can just get over there to the grass, to that little hill… where that sunset is…everything will be okay.

He left me staring after him as he headed out to the park for the eight-mile hike he makes now, several times a week.

He’s in trouble. We have to get him off the road…

Everything aligned for him. Everything.

I ponder the mystery of memory, and the miraculous…in ceaseless awe that he is returned to us, restored, rejuvenated, whole.

In his own words, with his characteristic wit and big, contagious laughter, as “a member of the Lazarus Club.”

*******

Photo is entitled “The Day Black with Night” and is in the public domain on Creative Commons with this verse: “Go for help to Him who makes Orion and the Pleiades, by whom the deep dark is turned into morning, who makes the day black with night; whose voice goes out to the waters of the sea, sending them out over the face of the earth: the Lord is His name.” —Amos 5:8.

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 22, I am writing around a word beginning with letter v.

Awe: The blue hour

In continuation of a series of posts on my guiding word for 2021, awe, I am celebrating the power of poetry.

For who among us was not filled with awe, listening to Amanda Gorman reading her inaugural poem?

Once again, we experience what words can do to inspire, unite, and heal.

Poems also paint a vision. Of things remembered, things hoped for things, things imagined…

Much as artists do on canvas.

Last year Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” took on a special significance for me. I wrote about it in The portal. For me, “The Starry Night” has become a symbol of looking beyond.

Van Gogh painted it while in the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole. He didn’t paint what he saw from his windows, but what he imagined, maybe what he dreamed for, hoped for, in the innermost part of his suffering heart. Perhaps it was an act of faith.

All those blues and the night remind me of “the blue hour,” loosely defined as the time when blue wavelengths of the subhorizon sun paint the landscape at dawn or dusk.

Perhaps this had a hand in my recent spontaneous sketch of my word for 2021, awe. I depicted it as a sunrise, or maybe a sunset.

So now I ask myself: How is it that I imagine a rising or setting sun as “awe” in a metaphorical way? I think of van Gogh’s starry night, the blue hour, and the imaginings, the hopes, of my heart…which have turned into a prayer for the repairing of relationships. Does love not conquer all? What inspires more awe than that?

And so I wrote a poem.

I wove some of van Gogh’s quotes into it:

A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke

There is no blue without yellow and without orange, and if you put in the blue, then you must put in the yellow and orange too, mustn’t you?

Awe (The Blue Hour)

awe


on the blue hour
at the falling away of day
and the coming of the night


with hope of stars

givers of dreams

singers of songs

awe

that there is no blue
without yellow and orange

like the crackling fire
in our souls
beckoning one another
to stop, come and be warm

instead of passing by

in wisps of smoke

tendrils of wrongs

awe

in electric-blue currents of memory
love survives
by anchoring itself
to the last blade 
of living grass

awe

the color of forgiveness
in the blue hour

-F. Haley, 1/18/2021

-Walk in wellness, friends. Live and love deeply. Forgive. Keep your heart open for awe.

One of my masks

My original sketch of “Awe,” where the landscape spells it. Look for awe, and it will reveal itself.

The Starry Night version. The blue hour. How it all connects.

*******

-shared in the Poetry Friday Roundup. Thank you, dear Laura Shovan, for hosting.

and with the Two Writing Teachers’ weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge. Thank you all for continually illustrating the power of words, ideas, and shared stories.

When

“Crippling grief

Note: Roses are the National Flower of the United States

words
wielded
wound

when
will
we
stop

what
have
we
wrought

with
word
warfare

who
will
remain
whole

in
the
unholiness

who
will
wise
up

in
the
wreckage

to
work
toward
well-being
for
all

for
we
are
not
you
and
me

we
are
we

us

without
unity
peace
healing

we
will
cease
to
be

where
are
the
words
of
mending
not
rending

where
is
the
ending

words
create
worlds

and
destroy
them

within
and
without

where
are
the
words

who
will
speak
them

who
will
live
them

and
when


when
when
when

*******

written for
Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog

all are welcome here
to write
and to be

where words
are not
wielded
to wound

Spiritual Word Journey

As the calendar turned from 2020 to 2021, I thought about words.

Particularly the word “weary.” It had seeped into my bones.

And I wondered if maybe, maybe…as much as I love them…I was tired of words.

Tired of the way they are wielded to wound.

Tired of the clamor.

One word with appeal: hibernation. Yes. Give me that word. It is, after all, winter.

I’ve just begun reading the book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May. Early in the book, May speaks of how plants and animals don’t fight winter. They don’t pretend it’s not happening or carry on living the same as they would in summer: They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Winter is a time of withdawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight, but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.

It is winter. My country is in a metaphorical winter. A bitter one. Certainly a crucible. What is being forged, I cannot say; the combination of a pandemic, many types of loss, from jobs to loved ones, to food insecurity, to strife and political unrest, seems almost more crucible than can be withstood. It takes its toll. Mentally, physically, emotionally. Withdrawing, at least from social media where vitriol is most rampant and draining, has great appeal. In the name of preservation, if not of one’s sanity, then certainly of one’s spirit.

Vanishing from sight. Alluring.

Makes me think of little bats I read about recently, how they survive the winter by making tiny dens in the snow. Took scientists years to figure out how they survived—only polar bears were known to make snow caves.

Ussurian tube-nosed bat, hibernating in Japan. Photo: Hirofumi Hirakawa. Science Magazine.

I am not a fan of bats, long before COVID-19. But that this tiny creature weighing less than a quarter ounce can endure, knows to endure, such harsh conditions in this way fills me with awe.

And that is the word I am clinging to in 2021.

Not hibernation. Awe.

I didn’t feel like choosing a word as a focus for the year. Remember, I was weary beyond words. Yet when I flipped my planner to January 1, I found this quote: Experiencing awe, the feeling of being in the presence of something bigger than you, can improve your physical health and make you feel more altruistic. Intentionally create awe this month by spending time in nature, meditating, volunteering, etc.

So that is how awe chose me as a guiding word for the year, extracting an unwritten promise from me that I would look for it each day. I started capturing an “awe of the day” in a notebook…for three whole days. Then I started back to remote teaching with sketchy Internet and a plethora of other school-related issues that weighed heavy enough to bring tears, a rare thing for me. All which were obscured today by the long shadow of the U.S. Capitol. Tonight another word from my planner’s awe-quote, altruistic, rises to the surface: having a genuine and selfless concern for others.

Where is it?

Like awe from which it is born, it must be looked for.

When I see it happening, I take heart. I am awed by others who, in the darkest of times, are the light-bearers. The healing-bringers. In these moments I know I am in the presence of something greater than myself.

I also happened to read this quote from Albert S. Rossi in Becoming a Healing Presence:

We need to push “pause” often and avoid reacting to the latest and loudest…The Lord expects us to live a life of love for Him and for others.

We have all the time we need to do all the things God has us here to do, in a peaceful way…We revere time as a way to remain peaceful, no matter what, to please God who gave us time. We have time to be come more of a healing presence during our remaining time on Earth.

We don’t live life. Life lives us.

Those words and that wisdom fill me with awe, like the little bats which know to burrow in the snow. Like the stars, like the ocean that I haven’t seen in eighteen months and am longing to see again, for the healing it offers my soul, for the taste of salt and infinity on its breeze. Like the children at school (on the screen) who are so buoyant. Like my son’s music—I can hear the keyboard upstairs, as I write—and his beautiful voice when he sings. Like his older brother’s way with words and his deepening altruistic nature. Like my daughter-in-law, a gift straight from God to our family, and her artwork in both painting and baking. Awe. Like my granddaughter’s face, lit with joy, every time she comes to see us. She has changed our world.

Just one more reminder that I’m in the presence of something far, far greater than me.

What the world needs now might not be as much love, sweet love, as awe, healing awe.

Did you see the two widowed penguins with their wings around each other in an award-winning photo, touted one of the best of 2020? Animals know. Let us humans likewise be a healing presence to one another, moving forward.

Two penguins look into the distance in Melbourne

Tobias Baumgaertner. Ocean Photography Awards. BBC News

Here’s to claiming your awe. Or letting it claim you.

Just little more of mine:

Unicorn cake my daughter-in-law made for my granddaughter’s birthday…
unicorns, by the way, are a symbol of healing.

My granddaughter’s portrait, painted by her mom, as a Christmas gift to my husband and me.

*******

With much gratitude to my Spiritual Journey Thursday group. You all are another source of awe. Special thanks to Carol Varsalona for hosting at Beyond Literacy Link. Per Carol’s suggestion, I am including a link to a prayer-poem here that I wrote earlier, tying “awe” (note the beginning letters in the title) to being a vessel of the Spirit: Alight with Expectancy.