Eight years ago, I watched one of my oldest and best friends give birth to her first child. It was a high summer night, the stars were calling out all of our names, and the four of us in attendance–plus her, no doubt–knew in those moments just how wild and alive we were.
The next morning I took a photo of her sitting on the porch with her brand-new, soft and squishy baby. Her lips are parted, her face is relaxed, and her eyes pour out a deep sort of knowing. She loves that picture, she says, because it reminds her of how open she felt right after giving birth. How connected and receptive to the world around her she was.
Three years later, her husband died suddenly and tragically in a motorcycle accident. I went to her house the next day to simply be with her, and was surprised to find her so calm. I’m sure that straight-up shock was a part of her demeanor, but she talked again about openness. About how heightened and crisp her senses were, how beautiful the late-summer gold of the hills. How scorching his absence felt.
Over the next several months, I watched her move through her grief in a beautiful way. And by this I don’t mean, “She moved on. She stayed busy. She distracted herself.” What I mean is that she stayed open where she had been broken open. She cried and yelled and got lonely. And she also picked bouquets of tiny flowers and canned a rainbow wall of food from her garden. She played cards and laughed until she did that great high-pitched inhale she does when something’s really funny. She read her son stories and took him on adventures and swam in the pond and felt the warmth of the sun sink into her every open pore. And through it all, I watched her heart expand.
By that time in my life, my dad had been dead for 14 years and I’d been hurt pretty badly a few times, by both bad choices in men and a couple serious accidents, but I didn’t really know what it felt like to be that open. To have the world rush in through cracked spaces in such a palpable way.
Last summer, though, my heart broke. Until then I’d thought the phrase was just a sentimental metaphor. But I literally felt it ripping open just a little bit more every day as my long-term partner withdrew from me without explanation. It was not a clean break like the phrase implies, not a vessel shattered on the floor, but a slow, painful tearing of fibers, tendril by tendril. It felt to the center of my chest like the piece of duct tape my sister once peeled slowly off the back of my neck.
During that time, I thought a lot about my dear friend who, in the face of life’s most intense offerings, chose to remain open and let pain and fear and beauty and joy rush in as they presented themselves. I thought about her relaxed face, open eyes, and the way it felt to lie next to her by the pond on those hot summer days immediately following her husband’s death. We sat in silence and talked about the aching places and the intimidating unknown before her. And then we slipped into the water, aware to core just how wild and alive we were.
Unlike when I was nineteen and my dad died quite suddenly, I knew when my heart broke this summer that there was an option other than numbing out. So I walked up Mount Tabor on Portland’s east side again and again, felt the heat of sadness in my belly, buried my face in cedar branches, scrunched my toes in the grass, and sat on a bench above the reservoir.
On the hill behind me sat the ghost of my lover’s and my former selves. It was our first Fourth of July together and we were waiting for the sky to get dark so the fireworks could light up the sky. Everything was so new then, and we wanted nothing more than to be on that hill next to each other. And as I sat on that bench six years later, it felt as if those two people were tugging on one side of my heart.
In front of me the sun eased down toward the buildings on the west side of the Willamette River. All of Portland was spread out before me. And beyond that, the Pacific. It was so beautiful, so expansive, and pulled on the other side of my heart with the hope that this next chapter of my life could feel equally huge.
I sat there like that for a long time, stretched wide, while the late summer sun poured into the ripped open spaces and burned their raggedy edges clean. Then I kept on doing it. And to my surprise, love kept streaming in as fast as I could make room for it.
Several months later, I’m convinced that a ripped open heart is actually a pretty awesome thing—in the space it’s created, there’s suddenly room for the whole damn star we call the sun.