Broken Hearts...


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Thinking about the way our metaphors shape our thinking, and the "broken heart" we talk about, I found myself wondering how we imagine a heart being broken. Like a teacup? Like an arm? Like a rock? A stick? A mushroom?

When a teacup is broken, we can mend it with glue. Depending on how carefully we hunt down the pieces, how carefully we adjust and align them, how delicately we apply the glue, the mend may be nearly invisible and the teacup good as new. I've mended cups and bowls well enough to make the fractures invisible and to allow them to hold liquids without leaking. Hearts break just so, especially young ones, and mend, usually, with as little effort.

A broken arm is mendable as well, and the damage typically is confined to internal parts, the bones. With proper attention, it will eventually appear whole again. The skin, if it wasn't punctured, will show no signs. If the bones were set correctly, the arm will move and display correctly. (When I was a kid, it was a desirable freakishness if you had a broken arm or finger set so that it was slightly twisted or curved. As long as it was not obvious and didn't cause some disability, like, say, a badly set leg would.) And the accepted wisdom is that bone scar tissue is harder and stronger than the original it replaces. Two veterans of love's warfare swap scars and offer wounds to each other as boasts.

In theory, a broken rock can be mended. When a "performance artist" defaced the Pietà, experts mended the fractures. Good as new? Only a Philistine of the first order would say so. I used to visit Zion regularly, and often took the same walks. I remember going back once after only a few months and encountering, along the trail, a rock the size of a piano that had fractured and fallen. How to mend that? In theory, with cranes and cement and support rods. In fact, it will never be back where it came from.

The Sioux method of divorce included breaking a stick to represent the end of the relationship. A broken stick... How to mend that? I wonder if the Sioux used the stick for that very reason, because they knew that a relationship, once broken, was usually past mending. What can be more terrible than to continue to love someone and know, with absolute certainty, that nothing good could come from another chance? The heart does not, by any means, love sensibly, and it has its taste for self-destruction.

My illustrations are from the Pre-Raphaelites. I could not bring myself to use that icon of the maudlin, the Waterhouse Ophelia, but the Victorians, with their British literalness of mind, reduced the broken heart to a sentimental aneurysm. As Shakespeare put it so nicely, "Men have died from time to time... but not for love." But nonetheless, the image persists, the sensitive young woman, swooned, a blood vessel burst, her heart "broken." One is hard put to keep a straight face. If only dying of love were so simple. What dies, when love dies, is not the body but the spirit.

But at the heart of the matter. Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart" always reminded me of Alice breaking off bits of the mushroom and eating them. I think the association may come from the coincidence of a Jefferson Airplane song that dates from the same period. a few days ago, I found myself trying to remember the source of "Break off... another little piece of my heart, baby," and I was sure it was Gracie Slick's voice I was hearing in my mind's ear. How do you mend a broken mushroom? It doesn't even scar. Break off too much, and it's gone. Otherwise, it is merely marred in some unchangeable way.

Love's end works with each image, of course. And they are all appropriate. The broken teacup, as fragile as an ego and as easy to mend, the fractured bone, hardened in a refiner's fire. The broken stone, changed forever. But the broken heart, I think, is like that mushroom, a fragile, living thing, seldom destroyed by the damage but changed, diminished. "The love you get over," I once told a young friend, "was not love."

...and Madeleines

And why madeleines? Because that Proustian image is so appropriate to the pain that lingers after losing someone we love. Madeleine, maudlin. For two months I could not drive past a certain fast food drive-in without feeling a nail of pain, because we had hardly ever eaten there, but once, a few weeks before it all fell apart, it was convenient. Earrings I got rid of because I had only worn them because they were her gifts. A shirt she made for me, with "I love this man!!!" scrawled on the back, which I threw away after she left. "Under what circumstances would I wear it?" I asked her when she told me that I'd hurt her feelings by getting rid of it.

I left Salt Lake to escape the ghost of her. Now, I hub through the Salt Lake airport a few times very year, and each trip, I search the faces of the people coming toward me in the halls, looking for a face I dread to see. I stayed in Salt Lake three years, and every car like hers I stared after, wondering. Then I moved away, and I discovered that the haunted cars had followed me. I saw one — the same make, model, color — and was sure it was her, the head behind the wheel. For two weeks, my mind created logics that would bring her, a savage divine joke, to my new hometown.

Today I did my laundry. Five years, and I still know which pairs of socks were her gifts, which T-shirts I bought with her, and I watch them slowly dissolve with the passing years. Only three are left, of the shirts, two of them threadbare and the third still unfrayed. I keep them because I liked them for themselves and that much, at least, the pain has receded. They do not hurt to look at.

The wrack of trivia haunts a heart with a piece broken off. As meaningless as the photograph I forgot I had and found, one afternoon, while packing some bookshelves. I couldn't destroy it; I'm not much for melodrama. I had to throw it away. The night she left, I had sat up all night and burned all the pictures I remembered. I had missed some. When I moved, I took everything of hers I found in house and shipped it all to her across the country, with no note or explanation. Her mother wrote to ask if I was "all right." What does one say to that?

Five years, and I understand that the broken piece was where I kept my talent for loving. I loved one woman after her, pointlessly, a woman who was a drug and poisonous, and I love her — both of them — still, the way an addict loves his needle and the sweet liquid fire in the vein. But I don't know what it means, to say I love them, because I feel no love, no affection, no tenderness, really, for anyone. That part of my soul is as numb as a dead nerve; I don't even feel the numbness.

There are pieces of the brain which, when we lose or damage them, cost us our ability to smell, to see green, to recognize our names. It is like new blindness: impossible to imagine, really, and impossible to describe. Closing your eyes real tight doesn't give you the whole effect. That is a way the heart can break, I think. A piece of our capacity for affection goes blind and, with it gone, we can lose the ability to love.

I can't even feel sorry for myself. I find myself mocking me, even as that last woman did. "Cheesy", she would sneer at this self-pitying meditation. And she's right. The naked truth of the heart is maudlin, after all. Poor Chatterton; poor Werther.


Original scan by
Carol Gerten-Jackson

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