– simple thoughts & writings &c. by Elizabeth Heimbaugh –

Sweater from an Old Friend


One day last week I decided to wear a sweater given to me by someone I care for a great deal. I hadn’t worn it in a long time, mostly because it’s big and warm and made of alpaca and wool, and the season hadn’t been right for putting it on. But it was a cool day—autumn is really here now—so I took the sweater out of my closet and pulled it on. Anyway, the person who bought me the sweater lives far away, and we’re seldom in touch these days, but he’s still very dear to me. So I felt I should wear the sweater with a sense of reverence—to handle it gently and acknowledge the memories and meanings that came attached to it. It wasn’t even a particularly sentimental day; it just seemed natural, almost a duty, to try, in some tiny way, to honor someone who meant something special to me.

That morning, as I sat praying in the chapel, I took off the sweater and lay it over my lap like a blanket. It made me feel protected, in a warm, nostalgic way, and reminded me of that tender feeling which people so often long for: the sense that you are important to another human being, that you are intimate with a person in a manner that ennobles your heart and makes you feel like you’ve been allowed to share in a precious secret. Even when your time with this person has faded into memory, the love remains in your heart and you are glad—while at the same time you are (perhaps terribly) sad—that there once existed many affectionate moments between the two of you. Because of course this history of love, this recalled fact of shared experience and endearment, is something that can’t be stripped away.

Anne Lamott wrote something on the subject that stirred my emotions. She was talking about people “being alive in our hearts” and as an aside, she said, “—and maybe this is the only way we ever really have anyone.” It’s a touching and poignant thought. And somehow also a comforting one, since there is safety in knowing that the love in our hearts can’t be taken away, no matter what the other person—the object of our affections—does or says or feels about us in the privacy of his own soul, and no matter where he lives, or what he’s doing with his life these days. Naturally, it’s nice to think that the person you loved will continue loving you, too. And it’s heartbreaking to consider the reverse. But luckily, if you’ve found a quality person to love, you can safely assume that you will always have a treasured place in his or her (inner) life. Because these quality people know that, once you care, you always care, even if in different ways; and to them, what has once entered the heart is sacrosanct and will always be guaranteed a home there. They understand that the nature of love is to persist and grow (even if, again, in unexpected or subtle ways), not to be axed off at the root and stunted or thrown to the fire to burn into ashes. At least that’s what I believe.

That’s not to say that it’s always a pleasant experience to witness the changing shapes of love. There are moments when you will badly wish for love to look a certain way, when in fact life wills it to take another form. How do you reach a place of greater acceptance in these moments? I’m not the expert on such matters, but I suppose some tried-and-true remedies include patience, breathing, and surrender. It also makes sense to avoid dwelling on your painful thoughts too long, or in too much detail, because then you will start to feel nauseated and unhappy. But if you can come to a basic acceptance of the general facts, and realize that the rest is not your business to worry about, then you might be able to redirect your attention, send your love, and move forward with what you’re supposed to do. And if you find that the sweater becomes a little too warm or a little too scratchy to wear, then take it off—lovingly, of course—and return it to the closet whence it came.

Here is the best true story on giving I know, and it was told by Jack Kornfield of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre. An eight-year-old boy had a younger sister who was dying of leukemia, and he was told that without a blood transfusion she would die. His parents explained to him that his blood was probably compatible with hers, and if so, he could be the blood donor. They asked him if they could test his blood. He said sure. So they did and it was a good match. Then they asked if he would give his sister a pint of blood, that it could be her only chance of living. He said he would have to think about it overnight.

The next day he went to his parents and said he was willing to donate the blood. So they took him to the hospital where he was put on a gurney beside his six-year-old sister. Both of them were hooked up to IVs. A nurse withdrew a pint of blood from the boy, which was then put in the girl’s IV. The boy lay on his gurney in silence while the blood dripped into his sister, until the doctor came over to see how he was doing. Then the boy opened his eyes and asked, “How soon until I start to die?”

Sometimes you have to be that innocent to be a writer. Writing takes a combination of sophistication and innocence; it takes conscience, our belief that something is beautiful because it’s right….

The above passage is an excerpt from Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird.