In her poem, “Landscape,” Mary Oliver tells us, “if the doors of my heart ever close, I am as good as dead.” Poetic hyperbole aside, her lines call attention to what at times we call passion…a word sometimes cynically held hostage by quotation marks as if, it itself, were some sort of cliché. But there’s something important here, not only about teaching and learning, but also about life. The link between heart and head is the same connective tissue between knowing and meaningfulness, between accomplishment and bone-deep pleasure, making that wonderful phrase, “by heart,” come alive.
There are certain things we know “by heart:” songs, prayers, poems, aphorisms, lines from a play. Whatever the source originally, what we know “by heart” becomes internalized—something we can pull out upon demand, something that can even come to us unbeckoned. For some reason it has become important, and who knows what came first: event or significance. But here’s the thing. “By heart” can mean more than simply holding on to pieces of your life. It can also mean doing something that you love, doing something that in a key way shapes you and develops your character. It’s when those quotation marks drop off that word, passion, and you light up both with desire and pleasure in the work, even if, or perhaps because, it demands hard work.
Obviously not all that we do in life and learning can go by the way of our hearts, and it’s clear, over and over again, that when a child is truly interested in something, that something becomes not a thing, but a way, not an obligation, but…a passion. And although there are many ways into the heart, the path of conflating your desires with your child’s isn’t one of them. I learned this the hard and expensive way when we bought a piano for my daughter who mostly wanted to be outside with a lacrosse stick. First, we made a deal for more free time commensurate with piano practice. Then, we bargained for more lessons with abandoned recitals. Then, we changed classical music for pop. Finally, we sold the piano. And I can still see her running out the door, lacrosse stick in hand, her long hair floating behind her, disappearing before the screen door latches back in place.
Our jobs as parents and teachers is to nurture the passion in our children, guarding against the over-programmed and, much like our commitment to a strong liberal arts education, not converting that same passion to a passport for success. There’s perhaps not a faster way to kill youthful passion than to twist it into a vehicle for achievement only. And there’s a delicate equation between self-awareness and by-heart-passion that both needs protection and has nothing to do with reality. My son used to tell us he was going to play basketball for CAL: we never told him otherwise. I was going to be a gifted actor, and my parents, who regularly came to my “shows,” never laughed…at least not in front of me. Actually, what matters most about things-by-heart is what develops while loving what you’re working at: grit, perseverance, commitment and pride. It becomes about the “how,” rather than the thing itself.
I remember a story from one of our students who recalled a Lower School project on the United States, state by state. When assigned an individual state to study and report on, every student coveted one of two states: California and New York. Holding her breath as she went forward to draw the name of her state from a hat, she opened her folded paper and read her fate: Nebraska. Disappointed, she nevertheless dug in…and then fell in love, yes, with Nebraska. She couldn’t get enough of it, and the more she learned, the more she wanted. Later, when it was near her birthday, her father told her that an early birthday gift was on her bed. She ran into the room and saw two tickets, one for her and one for her father, to Omaha for three days. She was ecstatic, and California and New York became distant runners-up.
By-heart moments in life and learning are to be treasured, looked for, cared for. It’s about holding yourself in the present tense, about a center that holds you. It’s about doing arabesques in the kitchen at night, alone, remembering yourself as a dancer. It’s about the calm space of writing in your journal, whether you became that poet or not. It’s about playing basketball on Saturday mornings even if that jump shot is long gone. It’s about toppling the masonry of enterprise only and embracing the long-lasting effects of passion. It’s what poet Tony Hoagland names in his poem, “Muchness.”
That’s how my heart is, I thought—
It lies coiled up inside me, asleep,
then springs out and shocks me
with all of its muchness.
And it is this “muchness” that never disappears.