Let Your Heart Be Broken
By Maria Popova
We spend our lives trying to anchor our transience in some illusion of permanence and stability. We lay plans, we make vows, we backbone the flow of uncertainty with habits and routines that lull us with the comforting dream of predictability and control, only to find ourselves again and again bent at the knees with surrender to forces and events vastly larger than us. In those moments, kneeling in a pool of the unknown, the heart breaks open and allows life — life itself, not the simulacrum of life that comes from control — to rush in.
How to live with that generative brokenness is what composer Tina Davidson explores throughout her memoir Let Your Heart Be Broken: Life and Music from a Classical Composer (public library) — a lyrical reckoning with what it takes to compose a life of cohesion and beauty out of shattered bits and broken stories.
She recounts attending a talk by Stephen Levine — the poet and author best known for his work on death and dying — at which an audience member asked what the meaning of life is. Acknowledging the vastness of the question, Levine paused, then offered: “I think the meaning of life is to let your heart be broken.” Reflecting on his words, Davidson writes:
Let your heart be broken. Allow, expect, look forward to. The life that you have so carefully protected and cared for. Broken, cracked, rent in two. Heartbreakingly, your heart breaks, and in the two halves, rocking on the table, is revealed rich earth. Moist, dark soil, ready for new life to begin.
Davidson — who is living with congestive heart failure after a savage bacterial infection — was a small child when her heart was first broken. Long before she became an accomplished pianist and composer, she was a three-year-old girl living with her foster parents and siblings in Sweden, until she was ripped from the only family she knew to be adopted by an English teacher from Ohio, who eighteen years later was revealed to be her birth-mother, having abandoned her newborn in the heartbreak of an ill-fated love affair. Davidson writes:
Here was the heart of loss. To my three-year-old self, my foster family was my family. The day my mother rang Solvig’s doorbell and brought me home as an adopted child, I lost my first mother and father, my three brothers, a home, a country, and a language. I lost myself and became another child. The shining child waited at the window. The dark child emerged. To the passing eye, I was unremarkable, even normal — but my inner self was silent, dark, and eternally sad for a loss that had no name.
Soon, her single mother married and Tina became the eldest of five children living in an itinerant family across Turkey, Germany, and Israel. Eventually, that dark inner child found light in music as she became an accomplished classical composer, creating with “that wonderful absorbing feeling of being,” with “a sigh of homecoming.” She writes:
Music, like life, is no more than itself. There is no implicit reason to it except that it is. And that is its magic. Like swimming in a dark underground grotto, life miraculously pulses open.
And yet an unslaked longing lurked beneath it all. Thirty years after the separation, Davidson set out to reconnect with her foster family, only to find that her foster mother had died of carcinoma a year earlier. Inhabiting her grief — grief “patient and enduring” that untucked hidden griefs she had been living with at the edges of being — became her way of wresting new life from the broken pieces of her heart. She reflects on this tender and tumultuous process:
The path of memory was littered with startling beliefs and perceptions that operated, silent and deadly, behind the scenes. My progress was uneven. I reworked an understanding, leaped ahead, then wallowed for weeks in a fog. After a remission, I emerged to work on a new piece of the puzzle. The darkness began to lighten, my rage abated, my depressions lessened; I began to breathe.
Punctuating the particular story of her own life with reflections on the universal pulse-beat of all life, she considers what readies the soil for this new fecundity as we continually tussle with our past, with the selves we have been and the lives we have lived and the losses we have lost:
The past presses on the present with staggering consistency. Nothing is separate or fresh, always an afterimage. The slow time-lapse photograph catches the multi-image movement of our lives. Danger lurks in every corner. To reconstruct will challenge perceptions of self, to restore will allow old pain to well up.
The price of forgotten memories, however, is more costly. My puppeteer of darkness is cruel. He perpetuates false beliefs and forces reenactments I cannot control.
The miracle is light. The miracle is that we rise again out of suffering. The miracle is the persistence of the soul to find itself, to look hard into the darkness, reach back, and grasp remnants of ourselves. The miracle is that we create ourselves anew.
With an eye to both creative work and life itself, she echoes Henry Miller’s penetrating insight on control and surrender, and contours the most generative orientation of being:
The word allow asks for balance and helps me rethink the issue of ownership and parentage. Allow provides a medium for growth and questions authority. Too much control forces a finger into sacred ground, leaving a trail of infection. To allow, in the end, is to have.
Let Your Heart Be Broken is a consummate read in its entirety, exploring with uncommon sensitivity and poetic insight the fundamentals of love, forgiveness, creativity, and what it takes to emerge from the inner darkness into a vast vista of light, rooted in the life-tested truth that “we are, in the end, a measure of the love we leave behind.” Complement these fragments from it with Kahlil Gibran on how to weather the uncertainties of love, Hannah Arendt on love and the fundamental fear of loss, and Alain de Botton on surviving heartbreak.
Published April 23, 2023