Years ago, I went to the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. and saw a collection that had been donated to the school by an old couple who lived in a tiny house in a blue collar community. They had hundreds of great works by modern artists in their home—lining the halls of their 3-bedroom ranch. In boxes. And crates. In the basement, the attic and stuffed into the spare bedrooms. I forget how many millions this collection was worth, but after a lifetime of collecting, this old couple gave the whole thing away.
When I stepped through the entrance, "The Heart at Sea" was the first painting I saw. It was a bit abstract, modern and not my "thing" per se. But I stood in front of it for a long time and became transfixed. The black sea was a tangled mess of angry strokes, turbulent and textured, with the red dash of a heart lost in the mix.
I felt the painting viscerally.
This may well have been the first time I'd had such a reaction to a piece of art, aside from the first time I saw "Le Victoire de la Samothrace" in the Louvre. Seeing that famous sculpture in person took my breath away and I felt as though the wind swept around both me and the robes of the marble figure. I felt the the lift of the wings. Maybe that was my surprise—that rock could have so much life.
And here was a painting, abstract, modern, heavy-handed and black and it almost brought me to tears. At the time, I'd just left my husband of ten years, I was skeletal in my despair and my sense of loss. I stood there a wisp of my former self, not knowing where to go, not knowing who to turn to, completely and utterly alone for the first time in my life. And believe me, I understood that heart at sea.
I'd suffered from panic attacks for the first time since I was a teenager, when I lived with an alcoholic, fretting that she'd drink herself to death and I'd find her cold body with the break of day. Those same palpitations that felt everything like what I suspected a heart attack would feel like, snuck up on me in the night. I crouched on my living room floor at 3 a.m., unable to sleep, preoccupying my hands with cutting up words in magazines and making poetry out of them.
My heart would catch in my throat and flutter, and flutter some more, and not stop. I couldn't catch my breath, and I wondered how long it would take someone to find my body in my empty house. Everyone kept asking me my dieting secret. I'd dropped twenty pounds in two months and no one believed me when I said it was anxiety and stress.
I had a hummingbird heart and it beat a drum in my chest all day and night.
As I stared at that painting, I noticed an oddity of modernity that at first I did not like. There appeared to be a stick of wood stapled to the canvas. I found it out of place and too kitsch-y. It was painted a sloppy yellow. But as I stood and stared, lost in the rumbling sea, and the bleeding, drowning heart—my eye was drawn to that yellow beam of wood.
A beacon in a storm-tossed sea, for a storm-tossed heart.
A way home.
Last night I lay on my bed and thought of you. My heart fluttered and not in that panicky-way, but for joy. I remembered the late night heart palpitations and feeling so lost and unloved I didn't know what I would do. I remembered what it was to be a heart at sea. And for once, I didn't feel lost.