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Hearty Hearts

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.

—William Butler Yeats

When I was married, my husband and I practiced the “day late, dollar short” theory of Valentine’s Day. That is, he would wait until Feb. 15 came around. Then he’d go down to the local drugstore in search of the requisite box of Russell Stover Candies. By then all the red-cellophane hearts had been picked over. But there were still a few that remained. And they were slashed down to half their price.

The candy was every bit as fresh, the ribbon every bit as bright, the cellophane still crackly.

It was expedient. And we were poor. Half the time I was a student or I was working freelance or I was nursing the babies. The other half of the time I was doing all three all at once.

This small economizing on the Valentine heart seemed creative, admirable, a way of subverting cultural expectations—spend a lot and be romantic on Valentine’s Day—while still getting to eat the maple creams and raspberry nougats.

It wasn’t till after the divorce that I wondered if that small savings wasn’t a kind of template for how we had lived our married lives: economizing on our hearts.

Funny thing is, my older daughter, Madeleine, can remember her father going to the drugstore the day after Valentine’s Day. It was a practice he carried over to the custody arrangement. But he has long since moved out of the area and long since stopped shopping for the cut-rate heart.

I carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it (anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)

—e.e. cummings

The heart is heavy. It’s rough at the edges, bits of dirty quartz embedded in the strata. If you threw it—hard enough—you could hurt someone, knock them out or maybe kill them.

It’s a heart of stone, but not like the stone in the Yeats’ poem.

My daughter, Linnea, found it for me on a hike one time. She was about five. She came trotting back to me with it in her hand, telling me she’d found a heart. I put it in my daypack. It was worth the weight to carry.

I leave it out on my desk and look at it from time to time. I think how much a part of the earth it remains, even atop a stack of books. I think how durable it is. How strong.

What time’s my heart? I care,
I cherish what I have
Had of the temporal:
I am no longer young
But the wind and waters are;
What falls away will fall
All things bring me to love.

—Theodore Roethke

When Linnea was little, she invented something called “heartings” for Valentine’s Day. Heartings, in their strictest sense, were Valentine cards that she made for people she really liked.

But heartings were also gestures of the wide-sweeping affection she tendered—still does—to people she likes. That first year she spread an indiscriminate number of hugs and love notes throughout our family and friends, including this one little boy, Bjorn, from whom she stole a kiss. “I want what I want,” she gave as her explanation.

What Linnea wants, it seems to me, is a kind of spaciousness and generosity of affection I have always admired. There is something to be learned from this kind-hearted kid unafraid of heartings.

I’ve wondered what her secret is. How can she have such an unguarded heart? Maybe it’s just that she’s still a kid and hasn’t had much hurt touch her life. On the other hand, she’s gone through two divorces, lost her beloved grandmother and lives a continent’s length away from her dad. That all qualifies as hurt in my book.

But she seems blithely content to embody Thomas Merton’s sage maxim: “The only way to make a person worthy of love is by loving them.”

I want to speak with the blood that lies down
each night to sleep inside your heart

—Pablo Neruda

In the Franklin Museum in Philadelphia there used to be, maybe still is, a giant-sized model of the human heart.

It was a spacious and inviting heart, one that you could make your way through just as if you were a hearty little glob of hemoglobin doing the serious business of serving the body.

But what I remember most about that heart was how roomy it was. Though it was designed for kids to walk through, it could handle the adults, too. If you had to stop and tie your sneaker, the people in line behind you didn’t have to stop and wait—a design flaw in an ample heart. You could simply scoot to one side, tie your shoe and let the other visitors pass.

And so you’d make the trek through the heart certain there was room for you and certain that your being there was just exactly where you were supposed to be:

Ducking your head as you streamed out of the vena cava. Then climbing up and down the little stiles that served as the bicuspid and tricuspid valves, doing crowd control between the atria and the ventricles. Then onward you would go, ducking your head once again as you exited via the aortic semilunar valves, re-oxygenated, refreshed.

—Jo Page

You can contact Jo Page at jopage@graceniska.org


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