On the Private Heart

It has felt lately – to me, to just about everyone I talk with – that there is a tremendous, perhaps even unusual amount of pain in the world, that our very planet is shaking with sorrow.  The headlines are filled with tragedy on a mass scale, and this mass scale translates into individual losses, individual grief.  How do we hold it all?  In the past month, I have watched helplessly while several friends have been diagnosed with serious illnesses.  Long-time marriages have hit the skids.  A family we know suffered a terrible, traumatic accident.   At the same time, we have laughed.  We have spread a cloth over a picnic table and grilled dinner on the shore of a beautiful lake, marveled at a glorious sunset.  I have held my boy and my man close.  I have taught workshops in which the work is filled with trauma, and yet we are able to laugh to the point of tears.  I have feared, and I have loved.  And as artists, what do we do with what we’ve been given?  What, when we sit – as I do right now – in our solitary rooms, with nothing more to guide us than our own consciousness, our own private hearts?

Here I am.  On my chaise.  In my quiet house in the country.  My son is still asleep (oh, for the sleep of a fifteen year old boy!) in his room next door.  My husband is downstairs, revising his new script.  The house smells of eggs and toast.  The dogs are crashed on the floor next to me.  I am surrounded by books I’m reading, or hope to read.  My second cappuccino has grown cold by my side.  This is how I begin this day.  In my big, fluffy white bathrobe and warm slippers.  A life of relative comfort and ease.  A life filled with love.  A modicum of safety.  A life of someone who has survived thus far, who has the battle scars and wounds to show for it, but has found a way to deal with those battle scars and wounds.  (It has been years since my question, in therapy, morphed from “Am I okay?” to “Why am I okay?” – the knowledge of my own sanity finally beyond question.)  So why, then, am I on the verge of tears as I write these words?  This seems to be true of me on most days – my private heart brimming, the sheer teeming randomness of humanity pressing in on me, the stories, the stories, surrounding me, whispering, moaning, shouting, wordless, asking to be given form?

“What do I mean by ‘private heart’?” Cynthia Ozick asks during an interview.  “It’s probably impossible to define, but it’s not what the writer does – breakfast, schedule, social outings – but what the writer is.  The secret, contemplative self.  An inner recess wherein insights occur.”

All I know is this, and it’s both nothing and everything.  I am most myself when I am closest to this private heart.  It’s easy – so easy – to run away.  To get busy, make plans, say yes to dinner, to drinks, to traveling to some far-flung destination.  To go online.  Check email.  Pour a cocktail.  To succumb to the headlines, the tragedies both public and private.  Wouldn’t it be simpler not to feel the whole human catastrophe?  Well, yes and no.  And a moot point, because the artist has no choice.  We can run, but we can’t hide.  All the while, our secret, contemplative self – that inner recess – is waiting.  It aches to feel it all.  The sorrows of this shaking planet, the beauty of this human body, the randomness and the grace that are visited upon us each and every day.

  • So beautifully put. As Robin Williams has been top of mind for so many, I cannot help but think the most creative among us soak it all in. Some of us filter enough that we don’t take it all on as our own, but others feel it all and just can’t stop. I think, in a way, this private heart is where that happens. Blessing and a curse . . .

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, Kristine! Robin Williams, and ISIS, and James Foley, and so many people were on my mind — known and unknown to me — when I wrote that piece.

  • I absolutely adore you and your writing. I resonate with it and it inspires me. Thank you for blessing the world with your gift.

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, Pilar!!

  • Marci Rich

    Thank you for this, Dani. I am still trembling from the shock waves of our writing workshop in Provincetown…these women, these stories…how brave we were, how brave we are…and I marvel that we WERE able to laugh through our tears, in our spirited, raucous way. Our private hearts were exposed in that white studio—while all that week the world continued on its crashing, heartbreaking way—tragedies we would read about when we came up for air. Privately and globally, we experience “the shock-receiving capacity” that makes us writers. You are a wonderful guide, a great teacher, and this essay is a beautiful reminder that we can’t hide. We don’t want to.

    • Danishapiro

      Marci, It was such a special week and I loved every moment of being with you remarkable women. Sometimes teaching is truly an honor.

  • melanie griffin

    Some of us are blessed with feeling hearts. For me, to be united with the suffering of the world is to be truly human. It wasn’t until I started recovering from my myriad numbing practices that i began to write in earnest. Processing and channeling the pain is painful, but it is real, and as you say, it makes me appreciate the grace that is visited upon us all each and every day.

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, Melenie. I write, in Still Writing, about having a “feeling mind, a thinking heart.”

  • FIFO

    Now imagine your broke

    • Danishapiro

      I don’t have to imagine it. I’ve been there.

  • Raymond Cothern

    Amid the smells of breakfast, a child sleeping in the next room, a spouse at work downstairs and sleeping dogs on the floor, good books all around, and a life of love and comfort. Yes, the “private heart” is where “insights occur,” and the tears come because of the transitory nature of it all, tears from the desperate longing to order “the stories, the stories” through words, to capture forever private moments and make them universal, what life is.

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks for these lovely and true words, Raymond.

  • Colleen Haggerty

    I was just checking Facebook to distract myself from my “private heart” as I sat down to write my blog post. Your words perfectly sharpen the edges of the vague awareness I’ve been sitting with for a few weeks now. Thank you.

    • Danishapiro

      I’m glad that Facebook distraction brought you here! You’re welcome.

  • This is validating to me Dani. So many of my author friends say they can’t bear the news so they don’t watch. One of our tasks, as artists, is to find the beauty in the mess and bring it forth.

    • Danishapiro

      Agreed. Thanks.

  • You have profoundly touched my private heart.

    • Danishapiro

      I’m so glad.

  • Gosh, yes. And my private heart has been much more porous since becoming a mother recently. I’m one of those who actually can’t take too much web time absorbing global news at the moment, especially stories involving children. For me, limiting my exposure right now is not trying to hide from it all, it’s self-preservation and knowing that too much feeding my private heart with the global faceless audiences stories of woe just overwhelms me, to no good end.

    • Danishapiro

      Becoming a mother cracks it all wide open. And, as my Buddhist friends would say, limiting your exposure is “skillful means.” Thanks for stopping by.

  • lemead

    I tried to comment on my iphone and somehow couldn’t, but I’m sure it doesn’t surprise you that every word of this resonates. Thank you. xox

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, my dear Lindsey. From my private heart to yours. xx

  • Jessica Halepis

    I just love that term “private heart.” And just as Lindsey says below, this completely resonates with me. xo

  • Yes. You’ve captured it, as you so often do. Many years ago, as I watched my older son (a song writer and musician) struggle with carrying the weight of the world, I told him that the wonderful/awful depth of his heart was both a blessing and a curse — it sometimes made him weary and sad….but it was the reason he is so deeply creative. He feels. I agree with others here, our sensitivity gives us our humanity. And that is truly so good and so needed in our world. Thanks for your thoughtful post.

  • How do we carry the knowledge of all the pain in the world while still going about with our lives? – that’s a question that has fueled writers for centuries!