Tuesday, November 19, 2013

a heart that hurts is a heart that works

One of my favorite songs, perhaps my most favorite, is Universal Heartbeat by Juliana Hatfield.

I turned to it often when I was watching my first marriage decay, wondering if anyone else out there was able to feel pain the way I did. Slight of frame and absolutely beautiful in a minimalist sort of way, Juliana sang a tribute to the heart's capacity to experience pain as a savory delight. It can all be summed up in one of the lines of the song's refrain, "A heart that hurts is a heart that works." Hearing these words she wrote made me want to marry her, sight unseen.

She got it. She felt what I felt. I was married to a woman that didn't care what she was doing to our son by leaving him behind and didn't care what hoops I went through to please her. As I pursued a five year battle to save my family, my heart heaped pain upon itself with the ferocity of a teen aged cutter with a pocket full of razor blades. It's true. The quality of the human heart is not in its capacity to love but in it's capacity to feel deep emotional pain.

The journey of being a writer is much the same as the task of saving a marriage where only one person wants to remain married. Every day you feel like stepping in front of a bus at least once. The need to care for my son was the only thing that kept me from stepping off the curb. My stories deserve the same chance. My stories deserve someone who will sacrifice all for them. Sacrifice often takes the form of a pain filled heart, and my heart knows how to feel pain. It learned how long ago.

I went to grade school in River Forest, Illinois. St. Vincent Ferrer is a catholic school in that upscale Chicago suburb which sent me into the world with a certificate of some sort or another that said I was ready for High School. Aside from the massive essence of a catholic school and church that occupied an entire city block, the best thing about going to school there was just across the street.

I grew up in Elmwood Park, Illinois, which was next to River Forest. In the shadow of the blimp-hangar sized St. Vincent's church was a little restaurant named Johnie's. I say restaurant because they served food but it had no indoor tables, no waiters. It was a single enclosed counter. You walk in one end, stand at the counter, order your food, walk along the counter, pay, walk a little farther, pick up your food, and walk out the other side. My favorite meal there was the combo. Italian beef, peppers, and an Italian sausage on a roll soaked with the juice from the beef. The bread was a meal all on its own and for a kid growing up with a weight problem, this was a drug on the order of heroin.

It was on a certain day when I was there for lunch. My memory tells me I was in fourth grade, but the time line may be flawed. Suffice it to say, it was a school day. I wasn't wearing a tie so I was younger than seventh grade. Since we weren't supposed to go there at lunchtime while at school, I needed to do whatever I could to keep the restaurant between me and the Priests across the street. Unobserved, I did the routine of walking the counter and exiting with my greasy meal in a bag clutched in my hand. I exited and turned right to avoid detection.

My plan was to walk through the parking lot behind the building and reconnoiter with my friends by the picnic tables near the entrance. Along the way I would pass the service entrance of the restaurant and a few sweaty cooks smoking, the slippery pavement by the crusty grease trap, a wash of putrid air from the walk in cooler exhaust fans, and the garbage dumpsters. This particular day, there was something else I needed to walk by, a woman who was rummaging through the garbage looking for food.

She was wearing an unusual amount of clothes. It was springtime but she was dressed like it was winter. Nothing about her wasn't smeared with dirt or grime. The term 'homeless' wasn't yet popular in our culture, so I pegged her as a 'bum,' my first ever encountered. I stopped and studied her. She appeared to be about my mother's age which made me sad. I wondered if she had children and if so, did they know she was looking through a dumpster for food.

My heart broke. I wasn't supposed to be here, it was against school rules, and now I felt like I was being punished. I was the fat kid in class. I had plenty to eat all the time. I stood motionless in my husky size Sears pants with yet another high calorie meal lined up and ready to go in the hopper while this woman was scavenging for food that people like me had thrown away. I couldn't stop watching. I wanted to give my food to her but I was too selfish, too fixated on satisfying myself, and unable to make the offer since no one had ever shown me how. The normalcy of my world was placed on pause. I was alone in the appreciation of the power of the moment, shame and humility served on a platter.

I finally managed to make it back to my friends. I tried to explain how I felt to them but again I was left impotent. No one had shown me how to share my feelings. I ate my sandwich but made sure to sit in a spot where I could see the woman. Eating had become such a habit that it happened automatically, even while watching an impoverished woman struggle to feed herself. No one else watched her. No one else cared. The brisk lunch crowd came and went without anyone else noticing the woman in the garbage. Maybe that was why I watched her. In my school aged way, I was showing her respect as a person. Maybe I was just gawking. It's hard to say.

I buried the experience down deep, as I did with most of the pain in my childhood. It was a useful technique in maintaining my obese profile but not at all effective in forgetting the moment. I am told that my name, Edward, has origins which trace its meaning as 'witness.' Ain't that the truth. The woman in this story is just one of innumerable instances in my life where I was in the right place at the right time to see with my own eyes activities or circumstances which evoke a pure emotional experience.

I often hate my heart and its ability to feel such pain and empathize repeatedly. I wish I was as brain dead as the other 99% of people in this world who are satisfied to just look the other way and not let their eyes decode the feelings of others. I can't. God made me this way and I am not always happy about that. If there is a trade off, I hope it's that having such a heart will make me a great writer some day. Until then, it just leaves me drained.

Another query rejection came in today. It was for a 28,000 word middle grade novel I just wrote. Over three-and-a-half years I've had over two-hundred rejections spanning four novels, a dozen picture books, and a smattering of short stories. You would think I'd be used to the rejections by now, and in doing so you would be incorrect. 

A heart that hurts is a heart that works hard.