33: Diastolic, Systolic (Kim Townsend)

        This week isn’t a quote: it’s an idea Professor Kim Townsend gave me, and I want to give it to you. After all, ideas belong to those who need them.
        I sometimes wonder, while writing these, “Why am I so dang dark? Lighten up! Make jokes!” I wonder the same thing when I write fiction: it can be pretty heavy, and sometimes I think, “Come on now, where’s the humor, the gentle, playful connection? Where’s the bounce?” And I think those things are good–and I think you can practice them. Looking back over these posts, I see some darkness and I see some light, I see some play and I see some pain. And I want to tell a story.
        When I was nineteen I walked into Professor Townsend’s office. I wanted to ask something, though I didn’t know how to say it. Looking back, I wanted to ask whether there was something wrong with me. I loved being in college, but I also had hard times: times when I left my dorm room, running and crying. Times when moments pulled tight around me, and I felt myself crushed to something small by the pressing need of the world, by the pressure I put on myself, by the seeming impossibility of doing something. I tried to explain that to Townsend. Was there something wrong with me? Was I broken?
        Townsend is one of the warmest, kindest, wildest, most willing teachers I’ve ever had. He used to say things you’re just not allowed to say, but that needed to be said, and he shook many of us out of our sleepwalking. In this moment, he listened carefully, thought for a long time, and then answered, gently, with a metaphor.
        In order to pump blood through your body, he said, your heart goes through two phases. Diastole is when your heart expands, bringing in new blood; systole is when your heart contracts, pushing blood through your body. Our hearts do both of those: systolic motion, contracting, tightening, confining; diastolic motion, an exuberant release, a forward rush, a new discovery. And that’s not a problem. The problem comes if you get stuck in one of these: that’s a heart attack. That’s death.
        Townsend told me to see the cycle, instead of focusing on one side. He said our emotional lives can beat like our hearts, and we need both phases: if all my moments were emotionally diastolic, I would drain myself away as power seeped out in all directions. If all my movements were systolic, I’d clench my heart tight and tighter until I’d wrung the life from my body like blood from a cloth.
        “But as long as you have both, Azlan,” he told me, “as long as that pressure finds its movement, and your movements find their pause, I think you’re okay.”
        Over the next years, we talked a lot. I learned a lot. I know my teacher had his pains, and I know he gave to the world. We wondered and laughed and shared meals. Sometimes the world gathered in, and sometimes it opened up: a beating heart, alive within its cycle.

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