I love language expressions that convey a deep intuitive knowing using human anatomy, blending body and mind. Two of my favorites are “to know by heart” and “it’s in your blood”. Within these expressions are a poetic understanding of life’s phenomena.
“To know something by heart” is to say that one has learned something to the degree that she no longer has to think about it. It becomes a different quality of memory, which seems to bypass conscious striving for recall, and emanates from a place other than the brain, a place where Taoist acupuncturists say a powerful source of the human spirit resides, the heart.
When we say we know something by heart, the context is usually within the recitation of something that has been memorized. I played the piano years ago and memorized many pieces, playing them by heart at recitals and for the Guild. I’ve also memorized Shakespearean monologues and soliloquies and recited them by heart for teachers, students, friends and for my dog.
My knowledge of plants is in this heart realm of knowing. When I’m with a plant that I don’t see very often, and I stop to greet it, it’s name comes to me from another place where there is no effort. It’s a different place of knowing.
Recently, I listened to a program by an agency who works with people with Alzheimer’s disease. The presenter described how the mystery of memory presents in people who seem to have lost crucial aspects of their memory, though other memories still remain. The challenge is in discovering what these memories are for each person with Alzheimer’s.
The agency presenter described a case of a caregiver who met with a male patient with Alzheimer’s who had grown quite despondent. The agency learned that this man had been an artist, a painter. The agency suggested that the caregiver get some paints, brushes, canvas, and an easel. Then the agency said to the caregiver to set up the easel in the patient’s room and begin to paint even though she didn’t know how.
The caregiver painted every day in the patient’s room, while he sat in his chair disinterested. One day, the patient got up from the chair and walked behind the caregiver to look at what was on the canvas. The patient grew angry, and said to the caregiver, “No, no, no. You’re doing this wrong.” (That’s my paraphrase.) He took the paintbrush out of her hands, sat down, and began to correct her painting. The agency said that he continued to produce many paintings on his own after that. This was something that he knew by heart.
I wonder if knowing things by heart strengthens that spiritual aspect of the heart which Taoists describe, and if that is the strongest, longest-lasting place of our memory. Perhaps memorization of poetry and music does something for our hearts and our spirits in addition to strengthening our memories. What do you know by heart? It’s likely to be something even more special than that which you could do in your sleep, or know like the back of your hand.
My other favorite expression, “it’s in your blood”, also has a connotation of the type of knowing that avoids the brain; it has a meaning that says we come to something more from a genetic fate, than from learned reason. When something is in one’s blood, it also joins a person to a host of people, the individual merges into a pool of ancestral genes.
We can easily get into the question of nature and nurture here. What about the stories, though, of people who weren’t conditioned by their immediate caregivers to do what they feel led to do?
I was born in West Virginia near my grandparents, but moved to suburban Atlanta when I was a small child. Though we visited the WV family farm annually, I was raised far from the farm-life of my grandparents and great-grandparents. Natural areas and going home to the farm were always special to me. When I discovered from a local herbalist in college how to make medicine from plants, I fell in love. Although it might have looked like lunacy in my suburban upbringing to pursue becoming an herbalist, I knew that it was what I needed to do. While on this path, and visiting with grandmother Ruby, I learned that my great-grandfather James Dovenor (he never knew how to spell his middle name, so I don’t know either), a fur-trapper, carpenter, farmer, and fiddler, also grew ginseng. Knowing that made sense, somehow, of my mysterious longing to work with the healing properties of plants.
Since then, I’ve learned much more from my father and grandmother of how they harvested and used local plants. It was knowledge almost forgotten except that it’s life was in my blood, latent, waiting for a sign.
What is in your blood? What do you know by heart? I would love to know.
Love after Love
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
Derek Walcott, 1986