February 26th, 2011

Art of Heartness

I recently read a quote by Rod MacIver, painter and founder of nature and arts/creativity journal Heron Dance, on Heron Dance’s Facebook page:

“And it has given me something to think about, to write about: How we construct boundaries around our worlds to make sense of them, but those boundaries limit our experience of life. The role of art is (poetry, novels, music films), in part, to question the limits we place on ourselves; the role of art is to offer a glimpse of a different reality. It stands there beckoning to us, –there is greater potential in you and in life than you can see, than you are trying to see.”

Indeed. I have mentioned here before why it has seemed to me that the inarticulable, intangible, perhaps preverbal moving quality of art has felt so important to me. I suspect that sometimes the historically rigid, self-controlling, hypervigilant part of me does want a break, perhaps allows it in this seemingly “safe” area of being affected by art. Of course, perhaps unwitting to or forgotten by it, such hasn’t always seemed so “safe”—sometimes it has resulted in an outpouring of affect that the aforementioned part of me has not seemed to feel comfortable with; sometimes it has even felt overwhelming. Sometimes it has led to insights, shifts, openings that are healing and nourishing for the soul and not so job-security-increasing for those structures of ego in me that don’t know how to see beyond themselves.

What an amazing, beautiful gift of art.

I wrote that blog post opening a few weeks ago. I was going to write about re-reading novels, how I have experienced some differently upon the second or further readings at different times in my life. Sometime, I may still do that. It happens that now, though, I just finished reading a book for the first time, and it is what I want to write about instead. It, as well, fits impeccably with the quote above.

Which, along with what I wrote following it, rings very poignant right now.

I finished a novel (not in the erotica genre) last night that I started reading a couple weeks ago after feeling inexplicably drawn to and purchasing it at Barnes and Noble. I’m not going to identify it here, partly because some that I say about it is not particularly complimentary, but mostly because in discussing what I want to about it, I’m going to spoil the hell out of it.

There were many things I found beautiful about this novel. The setting, the history, the writing in general were such that I pictured the scenery and the overall novel very vividly; such vision has stayed with me after finishing it and often while I was away from it during the reading of it. Most of all, I loved the main protagonist besides the first-person female narrator—her love interest and later husband, Tom. I fell in love with Tom upon our first exposure to him, and that never changed.

Other things I found lacking in the work. Frequently, especially during the second half, I found myself feeling like there was no central conflict in the book—we were reading along with what was happening in their day-to-day lives, but I was not seeing the conflict that was described on the back of the book (to me it had seemed to be resolved fairly early on in the first half), and there didn’t seem to be another “point,” if you will, holding the story together. Occasionally I felt impatience with the narrator, seeing her as selfish or a bit oblivious in ways that didn’t seem particularly convincing. Neither the story nor the characters ever really “pulled me in”; though I enjoyed it, I did not really feel invested in the story. I felt like I “knew” almost none of the characters and did not feel like I particularly cared about them.

The exception was Tom—who, incidentally, I feel was superbly written. It was because of Tom and the relationship between him and the narrator that I kept reading the book. He was the only character that I cared about—looking back, really, I was swept away by him.

To illustrate what I’m describing, about 15 pages from the end of the book, I was reading what I suspect was intended to be an intense scene. I was not particularly finding it so. It may have even consciously occurred to me then that the only character I really cared about was Tom, and as long as he and the narrator were together, I felt a fairly detached disinterest in how they would handle the potential tragedy that was in front of them. Probably in part because he was the main character, but also because of how I had interpreted the tone and content of the book, I felt no suspicion that Tom was going anywhere, so I was feeling fairly nonchalant as I read, my love for Tom and their relationship forming a background of appreciation for a novel I was finding fairly lukewarm on other fronts.

Nine pages from the end of the book, Tom died.

It seemed to me then from a writing standpoint as though all those things I mentioned—character development of most of the characters, pulling into the story, strong central conflict—weren’t even needed because the end of the book was one of the main protagonist’s meeting an untimely death. The “climax” was at the very end, if you will. All that came before was made instantly more poignant by, its meaning as a work of art perhaps even largely derived from, his death at the end of the work. Likely exacerbated by how I experienced this circumstance in the book personally, I did not appreciate this.

Emotionally speaking, I was stunned to a degree that I found stunning in and of itself. I actually found myself in denial, sure he hadn’t actually died and was going to reappear any second (which would have worked under the circumstances). It was literally not until I read the last sentence of the book that I understood that in this story, Tom really did die. And funnily enough, as I was reading the last page I didn’t even know I was doing so yet, because it is followed by an “Author’s Note” that I had not glanced at yet and thought as I was reading the last page was still more of the book.

When I realized the book had ended, I experienced some anger (a furious hurling of the book to the floor with a What a stupid book I hate it! may have been involved) as I felt the flood of feeling related to this occurrence in the book rising to potential overwhelm in me. It struck me as almost ironic in that I had not felt very invested in the story and had certainly not anticipated that I would experience much of a significant degree of affect after finishing it. I had not in the slightest expected or seen coming what happened, had felt no wisp of a hint that Tom was going to be taken away, that the emotional wind was about to be knocked out of me, that I was about to feel the flood of pain and devastation that I did: sobbing for intermittent periods over the course of the day and night, experiencing difficultly sleeping, physically feeling pain and unease in the heart area of my chest, and feeling as though, despite his status as a fictional character, I was really almost grieving Tom a little bit.

I may not have been invested in the book…but I sure was invested in him.

Less than a week ago, I experienced a realization. It was not a deduction or an analysis (or the result of one) or an intellectual examination. It was a seeing, a spontaneous embodiment and insight through which I was made aware of something about myself.

The awareness was of the absence of heart. I experienced a sudden seeing of how absent connection with my heart had been in my experience over a period of the past several months. The immediacy of this insight was breathtaking, and I was stunned that I had not seen it, had not been aware of it for the several months that it had been taking place. Granted, since the phenomenon of disconnecting from and holding myself outside of my heart is an unconscious pattern in me developed at quite a young age, it has not been an uncommon thing for me to do in this lifetime. But it is something I have become more aware of and worked on quite a bit in recent years, so to see suddenly that I had been so oblivious to its occurrence, that open awareness of and connection with my heart had been almost entirely absent in this particular period of time, was astonishing as well as heartbreaking.

At the time I saw this, I stated out loud that I desperately did not want to operate without heart, to be disconnected from my heart and exclude it from my experience and awareness. I unquestionably wanted to reconnect with it. And I felt—and said—tearfully, right then, that I did not know how.

It has occurred to me in the 24 hours I’ve had to contemplate since I finished this novel that the relationship between the narrator and Tom seemed one of the most beautiful I’ve ever read about and felt privy to observe. Seeing such heart between two people (and especially in Tom, whose inner workings the reader did not get to directly see) may have felt like the observation of something new and incredible, that has not always been forthcoming in my own experience and that calls to something profound in me. Particularly at this moment in my existence, this may have occurred to a degree that I felt, really, awestruck by it and experienced from it both a yearning and a satisfaction not unlike that akin to drinking water in the face of urgent thirst. I can—and do—appreciate that I have realized I actually felt a shift reading about them, reading the relationship between them. More and more I have felt a gratitude about this. Though I hate with a passion that the book ended with Tom’s dying, I have felt the energetic shift in me in remembering the witnessing of the love between them. In ways, that being one of them, I did love this book.

Given how I saw this relationship and how it moved me, it makes sense to me that I would have found the abrupt and unexpected loss of one of the participants in it, and thus in a way the relationship, as stunning and excruciating as I did. It occurs to me that other readers may not experience or have experienced it that way did they not have the circumstances and current experience I have described in common with me. Even I may have experienced it differently at a different time.

As it was, I was overwhelmed—blindsided, I had no guard up against the devastation that was coming because I had no idea that it was coming. The rawness in my heart has felt scathing, initially almost unbearable as I felt the fury at this book’s ending and the soul-wrenching awareness that I could not undo the experience of reading it, of falling in love as I did with Tom and experiencing his disappearance from the form in which I came to do so. That it was a fictional work and he was a fictional character seemed to have little effect on the anguish to which I was privy when I realized the story was over and Tom was dead and I had no choice but to experience what I would as a result. Emotionally, I was laid out flat.

Days ago, I said that I wanted desperately to reconnect with my heart—but that I felt I did not know how to.

Here is my answer.

If I take seriously that I want to connect with and open to and integrate my heart, then the invitation to me is to see this for the opportunity that it is. To see the offering, as Rod put it, “that there is greater potential in you and in life than you can see, than you are trying to see.” There was no guarantee, or even a likelihood, that it was going to be comfortable. As wrenching as my response to this book may feel, this is the opportunity I asked for. This is what I said I wanted.

And I love it for that.

Poignant as it felt to me to read when I started this post, I am brought back to the assessment I offered at the beginning of it, that I wrote long before I finished reading the novel I have discussed here: What an amazing, beautiful gift of art.

In humble appreciation.


“And if your glass heart should crack, and for a second you turn back, oh no, be strong…I know it aches and your heart it breaks…walk on…”
-U2 “Walk On”

7 Responses “Art of Heartness”

  1. So much to ponder here, Em. The book effectively lulled you, then stung. I too wonder if this was the goal of the writer, or if it was your perspective on it. Seems a cocktail of both.

    That it reached you so makes the book extraordinary and special. And this illustrates the power of books. So much more of ourselves can become invested. I’m in the midst of a similar reading experience now, so your post doubly reaches me.

    To see a movie we saw at a younger age can illustrate how much we have changed, but a book can reach our hearts with a unique personal power. The perspectives of where we are now becomes a part of the reading, or the re-reading.

    Sometimes our this is for the good, sometimes for the bad because of our investment.

    I don’t know the book you are referencing here, but your thoughts on it will stay with me.

    That’s the power of a great essay, which you have written here.

    Thank you.

  2. Emerald says:

    Hi Craig,

    I love all of what you said here, and thank you so much.

    “The perspectives of where we are now becomes a part of the reading, or the re-reading.”

    So, so true. I really see the coinciding of the awareness I had about disconnection with my heart and what I experienced from this book as deeply related. It is an offering, and as painful as I’ve found it, I appreciate it.

    I honor your own reading experience you mentioned, and thank you again for this comment. I deeply appreciate it.

  3. Yes, what a thought-provoking essay! It reminds me also of a wise saying, that unfortunately I can’t attribute, about the making of meaning existing between author and reader, just as in a conversation. It is also possible that a fairly weak story might still resonate because of our own vulnerable situation, but in the end it is what we learn and make of it that matters. In that sense, every experience is wealth, if we see it that way. To care about something/someone does leave us vulnerable, but also takes us deeper into life. I’ve realized that to in a recent reaction to a novel. Thanks for articulating this so eloquently!

  4. Emerald says:

    “a fairly weak story might still resonate because of our own vulnerable situation”

    Speaking of eloquence and articulation…! This rings very true to me, and I do feel like it pinpoints something that may have occurred. I do feel there may have been other weaknesses in the story/content (though I did find the writing beautiful), but for whatever reason I felt Tom was so exquisitely written—and by extension the relationship between him and the narrator—that it really got to me. It occurs to me that there didn’t need to be much “conflict” between the two of them since the “conflict” was ultimately that he died. While obviously I despised that, it may have to do with how I experienced the observation of their relationship given that seeming lack of overt conflict within it. Perhaps that ultimate “conflict” in the story allowed the freedom to convey in the relationship such purity of heart without feeling a pressure to insert much interpersonal challenge (though I will say I did not find it unrealistic).

    Thank you so much for coming by and for this lovely comment, Donna. I appreciate it very much. :) Xoxoxo

  5. Erobintica says:

    What a wonderful essay. And I keep getting the feeling that some of what you write about the book sounds familiar, as if I had read another commentary on this book and that reviewer had a similar reaction to yours. And I remember thinking, I don’t think I should read that right now. But luckily I don’t remember what book that was.

    Makes me ponder what I’m thinking as I write.

  6. Emerald says:

    Thank you so much, Robin. I have the impression it’s a fairly successful mainstream novel, so that well may be. (I also read at least one review that expressed that the reviewer “loathed” the ending—to which I can relate! I also read some who said they found the ending “predictable” and “expected,” which I almost fell over when I read.)

    I appreciate your coming by and your comment. Hugs.


  1. […] original and current) founder and painter of Heron Dance is Rod MacIver, whom I have mentioned or quoted a few times here at The Green Light District. A year and a half ago I even posted an announcement […]

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