“You May Have to Break Your Heart”

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Any Common Desolation

can be enough to make you look up
at the yellowed leaves of the apple tree, the few
that survived the rains and frost, shot
with late afternoon sun. They glow a deep
orange-gold against a blue so sheer, a single bird
would rip it like silk. You may have to break
your heart, but it isn’t nothing
to know even one moment alive. The sound
of an oar in an oarlock or a ruminant
animal tearing grass. The smell of grated ginger.
The ruby neon of the liquor store sign.
Warm socks. You remember your mother,
her precision a ceremony, as she gathered
the white cotton, slipped it over your toes,
drew up the heel, turned the cuff. A breath
can uncoil as you walk across your own muddy yard,
the big dipper pouring night down over you, and everything
you dread, all you can’t bear, dissolves
and, like a needle slipped into your vein—
that sudden rush of the world.

© Ellen Bass. Reprinted with permission.

The truth of this poem hits home now more than ever. When the world seems incomprehensible and its ills too many, I often retreat to the natural world, looking up “at the yellowed leaves of the apple tree” to calm my mind and try to make sense of our sometimes violent, divided culture. “Any common desolation”—the despair that seems almost normalized at this time in our country—can send us into a frenzy, can glue us to our screens, but it is much more healing if we get outside of our minds and commune with “that sudden rush” of the actual world again. It can be painful to be so open to the world (“You may have to break your heart”), but as Bass points out, it is more than worth it “to know even one moment alive.” For what truly lifts us back into the flow is noticing each small thing that sparks our senses, whether it be “the sound of an oar . . . ,” “the smell of grated ginger . . . ” or simply, “warm socks.” When we turn our attention away from what’s wrong with the world and focus on what’s right, then “a breath/can uncoil as you walk across your own muddy yard.” As my favorite spiritual teacher, Pema Chödrön, writes in Start Where You Are: “What you do for yourself—any gesture of kindness, any gesture of gentleness, any gesture of honesty and clear seeing toward yourself—will affect how you experience your world . . . What you do for yourself, you’re doing for others, and what you do for others, you’re doing for yourself.” It doesn’t take much to reawaken our hearts, but we must make the effort to take care of ourselves, to take care of each other again.

—James Crews