“How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?”
from Stanley Kunitz’ “The Layers”
I read this poem often to my yoga classes, and every time I get to that line, I choke up.
I remember going to Stanley Kunitz’ birthday party when I was a student at NYU. I think it was his ninetieth, and it was in some kind of New Yorky basement, or maybe it was the NYU Law School. My memory of those years went up in smoke.
I just decided one day that I was a poet. (It sounds so pretentious now, but I really did wake up one day and decide that.) I went and had my black coffee (all I would eat for the day during those anorexic years) and decided that I would focus on poetry. That, in fact, I may be a bad poet but that I was a poet nonetheless and I had found my focus, finally. I knew why I was here in New York City. If I didn’t want to be a poet or an actor or some other career that was guaranteed to bring me heartache and no money, than why wouldn’t I have gone to Rutgers or somewhere cheaper in New Jersey? So, yes, I would be a poet, I declared to the world.
I went to Stanley’s birthday party and was touched by all the poets reading his works, except they weren’t reading them; they didn’t have to. They had them memorized. They were reciting them as an act of love, an offering, an honor.
How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?
That was probably the first time I heard that line. Or maybe not. Maybe I had read it and underlined it and memorized it, but it was the first time I really heard it—there in that basement or church or NYU Law Library. I was hit by the reality that I’d had a feast of losses already, and I was only nineteen years old.
What if kept going, I remember thinking. What if every year I lose more people and things and memories? How will I ever reconcile this? How will I survive?
I’ve reconciled some of it, as to be expected at my age.
Why do some people experience such loss, so much mass at once, while others buoy through deaths and years like they are untouchable, when, really, no one is?
They simply haven’t been hit yet by the storm, and maybe they never will until they are. And, by then, they will have prepared greatly. Whereas some people never get to prepare, or they spend their whole lives (or what seems to be that) preparing, and, yet, it doesn’t make a difference. Like my dear friend Emily Rapp, whose son Ronan is dying at any moment of the fatal Tay Sachs. She was hit with no warning, and no matter how much preparing and how many lifeboats she throws in his little boat, he will sink. He is un-savable.
I’ve reconciled some, but what of those I haven’t? How does the heart reconcile? Does it?
We move on. We get up and go and come home and pour a glass of wine or not, but we never fully get over things. What does getting over even mean? It sounds like some kind of vengeful expression that they would make a movie out of like Die Hard. Getting Over It Part 7.
I am going to get one over on you. I am getting over. It suggests that there is something underfoot, something to be trampled on and overcome.
My heart does not want to overcome or trample on my losses but rather assimilate them into my life so I can function like a “normal” adult with responsibilities and schedules. Right now, I stay in pajamas and write unless I have to go and teach, and I worry about things like having a girl because how do you even braid hair? I worry about having children. Period.
How do you make a diorama? How do you do algebra? What if I don’t want to watch their soccer practice?
What is a normal adult? Is there such a thing?
I am a woman of a certain age. (Yes, yes, in comparison, I may be very young. I am sure some of you reading are rolling your eyes and saying, “Girl, you are so young.”) Not in baby-making years. I am not at all. Trust me on this. I am young at heart and maybe young looking, but when it comes to ovaries and eggs, I am meh at best.
Do I need to reconcile all my losses before I bring life into the world? Do I need to do the proverbial getting my sh*t together before I make a move?
(What do I do? Who do I ask?)
I have always fantasized about having someone who would give me answers, which is why it was especially devastating that my father died so young because, although I am sure his answers would be fifty percent bullshit, I would take them as The Word, happily and without question. (I would!)
Here I am a teacher and a leader, and I am still searching for someone to tell me what to do.
As I have written about before, one of the worst things for me is deciding what to eat. Recently, in Bali, I went out to eat with someone who takes my yoga classes, and I couldn’t decide what I wanted. I hemmed and hawed and changed my order. I fretted.
She said something to the effect of I have never seen that side of you.
What side? The pressure I feel to be somebody that always inspires, that always knows what to do and what to order and what to eat. I don’t even know if I want a baby, and I am in my late thirties.
So yes, there is this side of me. The side of me that doesn’t know. Who has lost a lot. Who has anxiety, still, yes. Who, sometimes, doesn’t leave her house and who would prefer to write than do or teach yoga and who tends to take things too personally and drinks too much coffee and gets stuck in the past and novels, too.
I have reconciled those things for the most part (some I’d like to keep). But the questions are looming.
I am not looking for answers necessarily.
I think life exists in the questions.
I am looking to never stop asking the questions. To always look and uncover and dig and smell and retrieve and throw back. If I stop asking the questions, I die.
It may take a while for my body to die, but my mind and soul and all other parts of me will wither away immediately if the questions stop. The heart can never reconcile all of it until it stops beating.
I think that is why that line chokes me up. I know the truth behind it.
How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses? It doesn’t.
Some turn to legend, some to fact, some to dust, and, the rest, well, the rest you bury inside of you and reach for it when you are drowning, knowing it will be there. And it will.
*Since the time that this essay was written, Emily Rapp, who is now also a Positively Positive contributor, has sadly lost her son, Ronan.
Jennifer Pastiloff was recently featured on Good Morning America. She is a yoga teacher, writer, and advocate for children with special needs based in L.A. She is also the creator of Manifestation Yoga® and leads retreats and workshops all over the world. Jennifer is currently writing a book and has a popular daily blog called Manifestation Station. Find her on Facebook and Twitter and take one of her yoga classes online at Yogis Anonymous.
Jen will be leading Manifestation Writing/Yoga retreat at Kripalu Center again this winter as well as retreats in both Costa Rica and Tuscany in 2014. She travels around the country leading her signature Manifestation Workshops.
*Image courtesy of Simplereminders.com.