Writing with the Ears of the Heart

By Russell Smith

Early this year, my business coach took me through a meditation. After inviting me to sit up straight and plant my feet on the floor, he began:

“I want you to go back to when you were five years old. Remember how carefree you were when you used to run and walk everywhere! And you’d fall down. Then you’d get back up, run, and fall down again. Feel that little five-year-old in you, wanting to play and be carefree.”

The meditation ran a while longer and through more visualizations. At the end, my coach asked me how I’d felt.

“I felt stuck,” I replied. “I didn’t feel carefree as a five-year-old. I have a congenital heart defect, and even at five years old, I knew it was bad. I knew I could really get hurt if I were playing with other kids and I fell or got hit in the chest. Sure, I played some – but very cautiously. I didn’t feel carefree at age five – or for much of my childhood. I felt anxious, worried, afraid. During spring breaks, many of my classmates headed to the beach for fun in the sun. I headed to frigid Rochester, Minnesota for a week of medical tests at my annual checkup with my heart doctor.”

Listening to the meditation again to write this article, I have the same reaction. It loses me the moment it starts: I didn’t feel carefree at age five.

And yet, until I heard those words, I hadn’t realized my emotional reaction to my childhood. It took the light command to return to age five for me to start processing those feelings at all.

My congenital heart defect has been with me for – well, for my entire life. That’s the definition of “congenital.” I’ve lived with it, thought about it, felt it. But I’ve never really considered it, processed it, unwound it. I’ve filled dozens of journals in my life, but I can’t find more than a few references to my CHD.

I often had a different approach in social settings. Looking back, I can recall many instances of meeting a new person and informing them of my CHD within a few minutes. What a strange subject to raise to a new acquaintance – and so soon. Why would I do that? I mean, really, who cares? Subconsciously, though, I wonder if I shared my CHD as if to say: “You are a stranger. I don’t know you. The world has already hurt me. Please don’t hurt me too.”

It feels like an emotional continuation of my childhood – devoid of those carefree sensations we assume universal to age five. It also feels that my decades-old practice of avoiding confrontation with my CHD in my interior life – as evidenced by my few private writings about it – had bubbled strangely up in my external, social life. We can’t tamp down these things forever.

In the summer of 2021, I applied to join Foster, a writing community. In my application interview, I brought up my CHD. Not as a defense mechanism, but specifically as a topic I wanted to address in a personal newsletter I’d recently started.

How odd. How curious.

Without long consideration or internal debate, I simply decided the time had come to address this part of my life.

Joining Foster provided one push toward examining my life with CHD. Foster’s community strives to improve all of its members’ writing. From that aspiration comes an uncommon yearning to understand the mind of each writer. That posture of moral generosity leads to better writing than we could create alone.

Foster’s entrance into my life mattered because, if I was going to write about my CHD (or any topic), I wanted it to attain a high standard of quality. Meaning that people outside my family would find the writing worth reading, even years later. I knew I could not hit that standard alone.

Other recent happenings also gave me a hearty shove. A friend’s husband died of cancer at age 37. A dear friend, barely older than me, suffered a heart attack; thank heavens he survived. Another dear friend suffered two strokes, became blind, and spent months learning to walk again. These sad reminders quickened a desire, still possible even approaching 50, to know myself, to come to terms with my life, and to chart a more flourishing path, if I could.

The last year of writing has illuminated some provocative realizations. Of the 35 essays I published in 2022, only eight have dealt with my CHD. A bit more than 20%. Taking even a few, halting steps into my own heart has helped calm me and put more perspective into life. I haven’t engaged in a frantic treasure hunt; I have undertaken a peaceful walk to merely encounter what I come upon. Observe and reflect – that is all. That is enough.

About 20%. Not nothing, not too much. That seems like an appropriate “weighting” for my CHD in my life. Not nothing, but not too much burden. From a scientific viewpoint, I’ll never know why I’ve done quite well in life given my CHD. I do wonder if my great secret has been this balancing act of “not nothing, not too much.” I pay attention to my body, but I do not fixate on my CHD. I don’t fret every moment of every day about it. I simply live life. And simply living life has brought me immense joy.

For me, with CHD and all facets of my life, the significance of writing derives from the opportunity for research – of the interior of myself and the exterior of the universe. That duality of explorative subject – exterior and interior – happens most profoundly for me Aurem Cordis – when I listen with the ears of the heart. Our ears reside on the outside of us and bring the world inside. The heart dwells in our bodies, animating us so we may engage in the world outside us.

To truly listen, we must remain still. To truly explore ourselves and our world, we must listen within the fullness of remaining still. The modern world makes this stillness enormously difficult. Writing has taught me to cherish stillness so that I may listen with the ears of my – innately flawed and joyously human – heart.


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