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An Invitation to Heartbreak and the Call of the Loon

Heartbreak is an inevitable and painful part of life. But there are at least two ways for the heart to break: it can break open into new life, or break apart into shards of sharper and more widespread pain.

A brittle heart will explode into a thousand pieces, and sometimes get thrown like a fragment grenade at the perceived source of its pain — there’s a lot of that going around these days. But a supple heart will break open into a greater capacity to hold life’s suffering and its joy — in a way that allows us to say, “The pain stops here.”

The broken-open heart is not restricted to the rare saint. I know so many people whose hearts have been broken by the loss of someone they loved deeply. They go through long nights of grief when life seems barely worth living. But then they slowly awaken to the fact that their hearts have become more open, compassionate, and welcoming — not in spite of their pain but because of it.

So here’s a question I like to ask myself: What can I do day-by-day to make my heart more supple?

In the poem below, Mary Oliver invites us into heartbreak — not because she wants us to wallow in suffering, but to help us become more open and responsive to a suffering world.

I spent last week in a part of the world where loons like the ones Mary writes about make their summer homes. If ever there were a sound that could break your heart open, it is the cry of a loon late at night on a moonlit lake.

P.S. I’m convinced that heartbreak is a powerful political as well as a personal experience, which is why I titled the prelude to the new paperback copy of my book, The Politics of the Brokenhearted, which you can read for free here.

by Mary Oliver

Here is a story
to break your heart.
Are you willing?
This winter
the loons came to our harbor
and died, one by one,
of nothing we could see.

(Excerpted from New and Selected Poems: Volume 2. Read the full poem here.)

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