By Heart

Love is a fire truck, red as a heart, I whisper to my one-year-old in her pajamas. Her hands, perfect dimples and seashell nails, fumble with the pages, eager to turn them before I’m through with the story. She mimics the siren’s woo woo woo just like her brother did when he was smaller, shuts the last page emphatically like her sister used to do. We know this book by heart.

She knows what’s next, too, in the bedtime routine. We turn on ocean sounds from the owl lamp on her dresser, more static than waves after six years of service. We turn off the light, and my baby rests her head on my chest, pops her thumb in her mouth to listen while I sing and rock.

*

What do I know by heart?

Good Night Moon, its lilting rhythm intertwined with the guilt I felt when sleep-training our first-born. Where the Wild Things Are, the vine of its rhyme wrapped around memories of our precocious talker, who would complete the final phrases of each line: His mother called him Wild Thing, and Max said…? “I eee you up!”

Songs from library storytime. The Paw Patrol theme song. Old nursery rhymes: a penny for a spool of thread, a penny for a needle–three objects fast becoming outdated, unknown by my children, though they know Mommy’s going to school to become an acupuncturist, to use what my oldest calls my “soft needles” to help people with pain and sadness and sleeplessness.

Slowly, I’m memorizing the Shu Transport points, and the five systems of the Balance Method, flipping through flashcards kept in my jacket pocket, in line at Winco. Little by little, I work this ancient medicine into my heart. Halfway through acupuncture school, half of me is always studying. On the walk to school, tracing the edges of little hands to find Large Intestine 5 in the dip beneath the thumb bone, Heart 9 at the top of a tiny pinky finger.

*

There are some things we can only know by heart. There’s no other way to account for it.

It’s just before sunset and I’m at Fossil Beach with this guy I know. We are 20 and 21 years old and we’ve spent the fall hanging out in each other’s tiny kitchens between classes, cooking each other oatmeal, or sharing jam jars of wine and talking late about Robinson Jeffers and planets and our families. Then today, he asked me to spend the afternoon at the beach, and we packed a paper bag picnic and I climbed, heart pounding, into the passenger seat of his red truck. I was sure he could hear my heart then, and I’m sure he can hear it now, sitting side by side on this driftwood log, staring at a peach sky.

When he asks if he can kiss me, I know — I know. My heart is in my mouth and I’m so sure of the rightness of us, it scares me. Years later, I’ll still struggle to describe what I feel in this moment, how my heart seemed to know who this was. I’ll wonder if I’ve overlaid the moment with every moment since then– 18 years of loving him.

*

Maybe it’s both. A flash of recognition, the heart understanding something you can’t speak aloud. And also speaking words aloud, until they sink deep into your heart. You learn something by heart, by accident or on purpose, through repetition. Until it becomes dull and meaningless (a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush), or until it shines with the gleam of purposeful reuse.

Like the sturdiness of recited prayer: old words gripped tight as a banister, steadying feet for the climb. I started with the Lord’s Prayer as a child, copied it onto paper in Sunday school, then clung to it through childhood nights when I braved the dark alone, whispering the words over and over to myself.

Decades later, I am praying one decade of Hail Marys at a time, learning the Anglican rosary. Running my fingers over plastic beads, I find small spaces of peace between naptimes. I speak the words aloud and feel connected to the millions of people who have said them before me, are saying them now. It becomes both my prayer, and not mine. My words, and not mine. I am a mother with very human worries in my heart, and I am somehow connected to the Holy Mother in the space created by these prayers. The worries still and settle like the beads, sliding into place.

“For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved,” Paul wrote to the first believers two thousand years ago (Romans 10:10).

Belief and knowing happen deep within us, where there are no words. But belief can be sparked by words, by testimony and prayers, poetry and letters. And when we believe– when we fall in love with God– we have to speak it. Like the circle of beads, belief and words are interconnected. A mystery.

Even Paul, encouraging those early believers from a distance, was sending them older words they would have recognized, from the Torah: “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so you may obey it.” (Deut 30:14)

I want the word of God near me like this. In fact, I’m realizing anew how much I need the word of God every day, all day long. Otherwise, I forget. I fall asleep, again and again, just like the disciples. I say I want to hear God’s voice and know God’s purpose for me, but really I have been refusing the simple (not easy) truth that God’s purpose for me is the same as for everyone who tries to follow Jesus: to point others to God, to be used by God.

To hear God’s voice, I need to bring not just prayer but the bible into the rhythm of my days, in whatever way I can manage it. Reading a Psalm and a chapter of a book from the New Testament before I clear the lunch dishes. Listening to a hymn in the car on my way to preschool pickup. Tucking a verse into my stack of flashcards. I want to have more of God’s word in my heart so I can better hear what God has to say to me each day. So I can have the word in my mouth and in my heart.

*

Rocking my baby in the dark, I’m doing what I do every time I put her down for a nap or for the night: focusing every part of my attention on her, taking all of it in, as if I’m studying for a test. I’m learning her by heart, because each day feels like a train that carries us further from babyhood, closer to the future.

Outside the door, I hear my husband ask our son for the nineteenth time if he’s sure he’s done with dinner. Doesn’t he want some of the yummy green beans? We both know all he’s had to eat is the bun around the hot dog, a swipe of ketchup. And still there’s patience in my husband’s voice. Kindness, and weariness too.

After this comes the long trudge across the desert toward the oasis of bedtime– all three kids asleep, and maybe some time for talking again, just the two of us. These days it’s mugs of tea and not wine, but there’s still talk about poetry and planets and our family.

But first there’s teeth-brushing, pajama-wrangling, small-naked-person-chasing down the hallway. No, I don’t know where your bear slippers are. Yes, I will fill up your water-bottle. It’s time for a story. It’s time for lights out. Okay, go to the bathroom then come right back. Yes, I will sing you a song. No, you just went to the bathroom. Good night. It’s time for bed. It’s time for bed.

Most nights, I am so desperate for them to be in bed, I try to speed things up. But some nights, I remember to weave prayer into their bedtime routine. I want them to have this habit. There’s one we’ve been trying out lately that they like, from a little book, Praying with My Fingers. Each finger represents a different group of people to pray for: friends and family, teachers, leaders, the sick, and yourself. I count with my fingers, and learn how to pray.

In a way, children already know how to pray, I think. They have their ears resting on God’s chest, listening to the heartbeat there, like my baby does. I think this is what Jesus means by having a childlike faith. Children know they are small and need help. They know they are loved, and that someone knows what they need, and cares about their hurts and their worries. I am teaching my kids, in my imperfect way, about God, hoping they’ll love Jesus. But they’re also teaching me, about trusting God and resting in his unconditional love.

I think of the routine my son and I stumbled into, through the creativity of desperation, at his first preschool drop-off last year. Let’s tie strings to our hearts! I whispered, getting down to look into tear-filled eyes over his mask. He whimpered, but watched as I pantomimed unspooling a long thread, whipping it in the air like a lasso. He giggled as I coiled it around my heart, then very carefully tied the other end around his. Remember if you miss me today, you can pull on your heart-string, and I’ll feel it. Sometimes now, he runs into his classroom without looking back. And sometimes he gets out his invisible string, and he lassos my heart.


This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in the series “Love Looks Like”.

6 thoughts on “By Heart

  1. “They have their ears resting on God’s chest, listening to the heartbeat there, like my baby does. I think this is what Jesus means by having a childlike faith.” <— Melissa, I loved this visual so much. It will stay with me a long time. Thank you for writing.

  2. Melissa, Being in a nearly parallel time with my own three babes, it was impossible not to be moved countless times while reading this. The memorized children’s books and the way their tiny voices fill in the words. Learning our children by heart. Thank you, your writing is a gift.

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