A heartbeat is one thing you want to do like everyone else.
Right after Christmas we walked for hours around Manhattan in the freezing air: Chelsea, the Village, the Bowery. Now and then we stopped to get warm, once in a coffee shop and once at a poetry marathon. All that cold air was shocking to my Carolina lungs, so I was having a little trouble with what felt like allergies. I took a couple of different medications and went to bed.
In the middle of the night I woke up with my heart banging against my breastbone faster than I’d known it could go. “Too much allergy medication,” I thought, and I fell back asleep thinking it would be better in the morning.
It was, but I still felt weak and strange. I was due to go preach for a congregation in the suburbs. I like to preach so much that I could do it with one foot on fire, so I had fun talking and singing with them. But when I was through I felt faint and had to sit.
Several people came in from the parking lot in back of the church to say there was a white car out there with a flat tire. It was the Chevrolet we’d rented in Newark. A dapper man with a red-gold mustache, blue eyes, and a lovely suit held my hands and told me he would be delighted to change the tire for us. He went out with my partner Kiya to begin.
When I got out there he (we’ll call him Craig) was kneeling on the ground placing the jack under the car. A very tall young woman (we’ll call her Lou) was giving him instructions on where to put it. Another tall woman, a friend of Lou’s, was standing with us. “You know a lot about this,” I said to Lou.
“Back in Tennessee I got my mechanic’s certification,” she said. “It was hard there because no one understood what I was going through, but finding these friends and this church just saved my life.”
I realized she was talking about a life back home where people would have looked at her and seen a man. The other woman standing with us was going through that same transformation.
The four of us stood and watched Craig change the tire after getting him a car mat to kneel on so he wouldn’t scuff up his trousers. He was glowing, changing that tire, while we admired his efforts.
A woman came out of the church. Seeing us standing there, she called out to me, “Oh, you talk a good game about women’s empowerment”—that’s not at all what I had talked about, but people hear what they will hear—“and there you are, four women watching one man change a tire.”
The five of us glanced at her and smiled. What she was actually looking at was more complicated than one could gracefully explain. Kiya started laughing a little. She was still smiling when we got in the car, having treated the very happy Craig to a round of applause.
“What are you smiling about?” I asked her.
“Here is what you don’t know,” she said. “Craig told me it had always been one of his fantasies to change a tire heroically in front of a crowd of appreciative women. We were making his fantasy come true.”
“Fun,” I said.
“I was also laughing about what that woman said about four women watching one man change a tire.”
“She didn’t know what she was seeing, all the way.”
“What she also didn’t know is that Craig told me he used to be a woman.”
Feeling weaker and weaker as the day went on, I got on the plane to come home. By the time we landed, I was a flat tire. We went straight from the airport to the doctor, to the emergency room, to the Heart Center of the hospital.
Apparently the weakness was caused by my heart racing like a wild horse, beating to its very own rhythm. Samba, rumba, 5/4, 2/4, then 9/8 in the next measure. For eight days they tried to get the wild horse to slow down, and did every heart test I’d ever heard of. The good news was that my heart was healthy, with no build-ups and no blockages. After they sent me home, my heartbeat went back to normal.
An experience like that is one way to wake up to the beauty of the day. I’m in love with my heartbeat now, and I feel the heartbeat in people who are around me. The planet looks to me these days like billions of hearts beating, flashing sparks of light, a cacophony of drums, small and large, fast and slow, all holding one basic rhythm.
A beating heart is something we all have in common. A heartbeat is one thing you want to do like everyone else. What surrounds the heartbeat, though, that’s where we take in the feast of wild variation.
That Lou and Craig have found their right rhythm gives me courage. It feels like beauty and magic to have met them when I was out of my own rhythm. I’m on the road again, friends. Thanks.
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The Rev. Meg Barnhouse, a UU World online columnist, is senior minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, Texas, and the author of several books, including Broken Buddha. She is also a humorist and singer-songwriter. (Author’s website.)
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The first time, I emerged merely breathless, wet, and cold.