The Human Heart

The following is an excerpt of “Love of our Lives” by the Indigo Girls. The parenthetical words are the ones I’ve either heard or think when I’m listening. Here’s the youtube video of a live version. The words are pretty easy to hear.

My days slip like coins into a slot. They are gone. The shadows lie long.
I’ve been banking on a broken (slot) machine, left unattended like most of my dreams, rusted components of an unmarked (unheard) song.
Broken pieces, broken hearts. Fix me, oil me, (pay me, pull me) and match (patch) me with the next best thing.
When it breaks down, I beg you, “Don’t go!” I try to outflank you with an army of words. I strategize. I am fighting for the love of my life.
Iron, (Fire and) water, and oxygen, scotch and soda, or any combination starts the reaction. (Whenever things blend together, they break down.) Is there no mastermind of modern day who can blueprint a plan to make love stay? [To make it] sturdy and weather proof? Usher in a new revolution.

In a Lenten devotion from my church, HF drew a parallel between his open heart surgery and “create in me a new heart, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Patch me with the next best thing.) That got me wondering what “original” things I have ruined and what needs to be patched. And then there’s my own heart. I am so proud of it, and so invested in the work I put in to maintaining it. But sometimes I wonder if I am “banking on a broken machine.”

At the Natural History Museum in Chicago, there was an exhibition titled “The Machine Inside.” One of the displays illustrated how our heart and circulation compares to that of other animals. We have the most advanced heart in the world – a four-chamber wonder. Our blood travels from the left ventricle to the body (where oxygen is given to the tissues via the capillaries). It then returns to the heart, and the right ventricle pumps it to the lungs (where oxygen is saturated back into the blood). Circulation creates a figure eight loop, with the heart at the center: heart // body (brain) // heart // lungs // heart. There is no teasing out an end or beginning. It is a snake head eating its tail.

When I think of my own heart, I am well-aware of it on my left side, and I think of going to sleep. First, I lay on my left and feel my heart beating. After a while, this starts to bug me, and I flip to my right, bring my knees slightly up, approaching the fetal position, pull the covers over my head, and fall asleep.

When I think in evolutionary terms, I imagine my ancestors, fighting off foes and hunting for food. They stand with their right sides facing danger and taking the brunt of the attack. Their right flank is exposed as they jab with a spear or slash and parry with a sword. My ancestors, whose hearts were slightly to the left, fared slightly better when gored by an injured hog or when slashed by an enemy’s sword. They were slightly more likely to live to have children.

Circulation forms a figure-eight loop, but it is not infinite. The heart, which lies at the intersection of those loops, which rests between beats (3/5ths of the time), which I depend on, which has relentlessly adapted over eons, is likely going to be the thing that fails me first. Now, whether my heart is left or right of center doesn’t seem to matter much. What matters is that it keeps on beating. And that when it stops, this life will stop with it. And I will return to the center of things. I will return to where I began.

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