The gesture is everything, says everything. The hand on the heart is not a sign of protection or hiding; at least not this time. It is an expression of grief, and the grief arises out of shame.
My mother, coming of age during the Depression and birthing me soon after the Holocaust, wanted only to see me survive and thrive. She saw me as willful, fiery, carrying the tempestuous temper of my father, which in her eyes would not serve me in this world. It was not only fine but expected that I would be smart, but my task was to avoid revealing too much intelligence or too much spirit. In that way, I would be acceptable and find a husband. Being too much of anything – brilliant, impassioned, strong, ambitious – would be disastrous for a woman.
My mother’s way of instructing and socializing me was shaming. If that did not succeed, then outright sarcastic ridicule was the rod used to avoid spoiling the child.
My humiliated and diminished heart held onto the shame, shoving it down into its deepest, remotest chambers. There it quietly pulsed in rhythm with my heart, hidden yet present, waiting, waiting.
Four of us sat at a booth in a crowded coffee shop having Sunday morning breakfast: three abundant plates of omelets, crispy hash browns and biscuits, and one pathetic bowl of oatmeal. Mine. I was trying to heal a bout of esophageal pressure/pain that had cropped up after a series of colds and the fatigue that followed our annual Day of the Dead grief ritual. My friend asked about how the ritual had gone, and I spoke about my regret over a small misstep I had made during the ritual. I was pleased that I had had enough maturity and awareness to admit my clumsiness and to make amends. But it had truly been a tiny failure in large field of goodness. It is telling that this is the story I chose to relate about the day.
When I finished speaking, he asked if I realized that I had placed my hand over my heart as I spoke - precisely where I was experiencing my physical distress. No. I was totally unaware of the gesture.
I had previously thought that the discomfort in my chest was a result both of depletion and also of taking a psychic hit that I saw as an energetic sword thrust into my heart by the one whose feelings I had disregarded. There may be truth in that; a leader can easily become a target. But maybe it was directing me towards my wound. What if it were a sign like an arrow saying, “Hey, look over here!” What if my body had responded to my shame, self-judgment and feeling of failure by tightening up my chest?
Surveying the road.
Or roads, I should say,
observing what is coming this way -
A limping figure, hard to see
at this distance.
Ah, her hand is over her heart,
this girl or old woman approaching.
“What does your gesture signify?”
we ask, Hecate and I.
“This is the place, the only place,”
she responds, shaking her head.
“Good,” we say. “That’s good.
This way or that way?”
She peers down one road, then the other.
“Does it matter?” she asks.
“Then I’ll go this way.”
And without hesitation, she proceeds
and quickly disappears from view.
I look at Hecate.
“Was that the right way?” I ask her.
“Maybe a bit longer, but surer,
and with a view of the sea.”
I let out a sigh,
breath I did not even know
I was holding,
and notice my own hand
resting on my heart.
How much is enough? This is the struggle. It is difficult to do what I am called to do. It is even more of a challenge to notice and give myself credit for what I do accomplish. How will the struggle change when the shame underneath everything is exposed?
Here is what is emerging: the desire and effort to be kind. Generally, being kind to others is not difficult. Being kind to myself? Another story. The gesture of hand on heart becomes the token, the sign, the image for the new work. It does not differentiate between working for the children and grandchildren and working to give the gift one has to give. Seeing how all the work is intertwined is eye-opening.