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January 20, 2016

(From the Heart)


When I was a teenager in Sweden, I read a book by a Swedish Creative Writing guru. His tone was factual and dominant, he knew his business and he made sure we knew he knew. One of his memorable pronouncements went something like this: Never write with the blood of your heart, for it will surely run out quickly and then you’ll have nothing to say.

I held my breath as I read his words. I was a passionate girl, full of poems and words, and I had no idea how to not write from my heart. Also I felt a sense of urgency, I couldn’t explain why, but I felt I might not live long, and I needed to hurry if I wanted to write something that would endure after I was gone.

I loved to read and made weekly visits to our small town library, the bicycle ride home always wobbly with the heavy pile of books on the rack. My rides were accompanied by something else: a strange pressure on my chest, a lingering heaviness when I breathed, pulling the damp ocean air into my lungs as I pedaled down the cobblestone streets.

Growing up, it became an increasingly burdensome task to navigate around all the accumulating things I couldn’t do: dance, sing, take the bus, go to places that required climbing stairs. Later, I joyfully but with difficulty, gave my remaining strength to a wonderful husband and two young daughters. For by then we had realized I would never be able to get that university degree I had been studying for (the classroom was on the second floor and there was no elevator) and we politely declined most social gatherings, since unnecessary interactions just took too much out of me.

It became excruciatingly apparent that I was dying — the pressure on my chest, the difficulty breathing, the debilitating fatigue, the migraines — even though I was only in my late twenties. I visited doctor after doctor, but they only told me I needed to “think positive”. Reading and writing were among the few things I had strength enough to enjoy and they became my refuge.

And then everything changed.

My husband’s employer offered him a position in the US, and they needed him urgently: within a couple of months we had relocated to Radnor, a small town outside of Philadelphia. We’ll have a fresh start, we thought. We’ll be happy here. Among the tasks we needed to accomplish during the transition, was to get physicals in preparation for obtaining US driver’s licenses. The minute the doctor put the stethoscope to my chest, she said: “This does not sound normal”, and she sent me to have an ultrasound of my heart.

It turned out I had a fatal congenital heart disease. It turned out I had lived longer with this disease than anyone the US doctors had ever seen. I had finally been given the words of my condition. It was a relief and a nightmare at the same time. Within weeks I was scheduled for open-heart surgery.

When I think back on what followed I am filled with such awe, humility and gratitude, that I can barely find the words to describe it. Never have I experienced more pain, or more beauty. Perhaps the words that come closest are a miracle. A miracle that changed the way I looked back on my entire life. The years of pain and doubt shifted shape and became something else. A Beautiful Affliction.

I needed to sort through and understand the events leading up to my life being saved on another continent, so I started writing. There was really nothing else to do. Sometimes the stories you need to tell own you so profoundly that you can do little else than wide-eyed watch them unfold on the paper.

I learned there are no shortcuts when you write from your heart. You drill through every layer protecting your innermost secrets, and carefully, carefully, you pull those transparent secrets out into the light, where they squint and tremble, asking “why are you doing this to me?” Because I had no choice, you answer, because I had to know. And then slowly, painstakingly, you weave words into sentences, dressing the secrets, looking at them from every angle, measuring their height and width to make sure they are clothed in proper words.

In spite of what I was told years ago, by writing from the heart I found I never ran out of words. The human heart is surprisingly full, yielding more and more discoveries. And what’s in there, both the big and small things, matter. Because what can be found in one heart I believe, is destined to resonate with other hearts.


This article was originally published on We Heart Writing.

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