Dani Shapiro
August 26, 2014

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.