Chicken Kimono Heart
The man in the ballcap ahead of me at the checkout line is buying 3 things. One is a donut, from the deli. The other two are Manischewitz cherry wines. Cheap, nasty things, all three. It’s a 9p.m. donut, and since this man can’t be on his period there is literally no excuse for a 9p.m. donut.
As a former card-carrying member of the self-harm club, I know exactly what they are: 3 small purchases, all edible ways of saying “fuck you, Me.” I stand bearing witness, behind him all solemn with my single-purchase bottle of wine. Maybe I’m not as far removed as I’d like to believe, but for tonight, this wine means the difference between the voice telling me not to write and a primal instinct screaming that I need to.
The brand-new ballcap on that says “I love California,” with a little cartoon voice bubble on the side saying “yay!” in embroidered enthusiasm. The same primal instinct buying the wine tells me that the hat is stolen, and I smile at the secret irony.
I’m not judging. I’m commiserating. This is a hard place to be, and it’s getting harder. Did YOU give up everything you know, everyone you love, to be here? Did you let go, did you leap to force that western net to appear, did you hope beyond hope that that little voice promising that YOU ARE SPECIAL is right and not just some chemical? Did you hand-over-claw your way to any nail-hold out here?
Neat! Now get in line.
This isn’t cynicism, this is experience. And I’m not bitter — in fact, I’m the opposite. I am fucking standing on my desk with the Dead Poets, cheering you the fuck on. Because we’re all in this together. We left what we knew. And now we’re finding out What’s Next. And it’s not always pretty.
I am LUCKY. I have a partner. I have a job I love. I have the best friends a gal could have, on both coasts. But it’s still hard. Maybe not conestoga-wagon hard. I didn’t have to Pay An Indian to ford a river, but I paid in other ways. No one leaves without singing the blues — and I’ve sung… but no way I wanna leave.
So why do we do this? Why punish ourselves? Will asked me the other day why people don’t just do what they need to do to be comfortable — why the urge to fight our way to one struggle or another… and I don’t know. Maybe it’s instinct. Maybe it’s just chemicals, squirted out from an ego-center to fuck with us, but I like to think of it as something greater.
And that something is “meaning.”
If the unexamined life is not worth living, a meaningful life is worth everything. But it’s such a personal, bespoke thing. One person’s meaning is helping others. Another’s may be… whatever it is that Kardashians do.
I have a patois I like to use with my close ones, and I tend to invent my own words from time to time. Example: we celebrate a pumpkin-centric holiday called “The Pumpkining.” Other Example: if a chicken-based action is happening, it’s a “chickening.”
I need you to know this because the next part of the story is about a particular chickening that took place in my kitchen, late one night…
I bought a raw chicken, removed the giblets, and placed them in a jar and popped them in the fridge for possible gravy or whatever. My guy likes to cook, so I figured I was doing him a solid, but instead, he wanted to know why there was a jar of tiny organs where he usually stores his iced coffee.
“I’m good on gravy,” he says. “You can toss them if you want.”
But I don’t.
Instead, like a PERFECTLY RATIONAL PERSON, I saved them until he was out late at work one night and then dissected them one by one so I could learn more about how chickens work.
I found and identified the liver and the gizzard pretty easily, but then there were these three meaty-looking strawberry-shaped things… The first one I sliced with a transverse cut left-to-right, and by looking at the veiny, muscular walls inside I wondered if it might be a heart? I cut the second one more carefully, with a sagital incision top-to-bottom. Oh shit. 4 chambers. This is a heart I’m holding in my hands. I only have one more intact, non-butchered heart to go, and while I’m amazed that the Giblet Gods gifted me with THREE hearts, I’d mangled the first two and I really wanted to be careful with my final opportunity to dissect something so vital and significant.
I realize, out of context, that dissecting giblets in the Operating Theatre of my kitchen in the middle of the night probably qualifies me as a lunatic, but that’s if you don’t know me very well. If you do know me very well, (or shit if you just read this,) I have a perfectly good reason to be fascinated by hearts and birds: I have a heart condition.
My heart beats way, way, way too fast — like a bird’s. Without medicine, my resting pulse is 135bpm. Want me to walk up that flight of stairs? Cool, no problem, but my pulse will jack up to 208.
I’m not going to die — well — from THIS. It’s managed mostly by meds, but sometimes I get really tired because while you’re stressed out by things, I’m doing internal cardio. If you’re wiped out from rush hour, that makes sense — but I ran a marathon during my commute.
It’s called IST. Inappropriate Sinus Tachycardia. And I’ve been pretty secretive about it in the past, because I didn’t want to be considered incapable or a liability for any of my physical performance jobs. I can do most things, no problem. It just takes a toll sometimes, and kicks my ass more on some days than others. It seems to be really aggravavated lately, so I had to give up caffiene. That’s been the hardest part. 200bpm, no problem now give me my goddamn Dr. Pepper.
It’s a rare condition. There’s not a lot of research on this, and aside from burning part of my heart with a laser or possibly a pacemaker in my future, I don’t know what lies in store for my heart. I’m OK now and grateful because I read about people completely debilitated by the same condition that allows me to walk on stilts and zip down ziplines every week for work.
So back to the chicken…
I’ve never seen the inside of a heart before. The frogs we dissected in class had little frozen hearts, but I was too clumsy and not personally invested enough. But now, I stand in my kitchen with my final heart, now warm from my touch, sitting in my hand.
The first cut is to reflect the first layer of smooth muscle, which unexpectedly unwraps in my hand. I carefully unroll the wrapped fist of the heart, and marvel at the simplicity of the miracle. I’ve felt this way a few times, like when I figure out how a magician’s trick works. This is nothing less magical — if anything, the magic is in the sheer innocence of this organ.
There is no guile in a heart. Just a sheet of muscle wrapped in a kimono-shape, forming 4 chambers. We get about 3,363,840,000 heartbeats, if we’re lucky. I could see the two arteries leading in and out, the Vena Cavas. I saw the hole at the bottom. The easy elegance took my breath away.
Salt and meat, plus electricity, squeezes this beautiful machine. Sometimes faster, sometimes slow, always aware and in tune with our thoughts and feelings. A constant, consistent partner, keeping us in check and keeping us alive. I marveled at the little wonder in my hands, and then I saw it:
Right there in the Upper Left Atrium. A tiny blood clot. Literally, the very last heartbeat this creature had, kept sacred by the kimono hug until I exposed it to light. Probably the most intimate thing I’ve seen and the most holy connection between all Temporary Creatures. “We get one go at this, tick tock. Make it count, tic tock.” For a good while, I could not tear my eyes away.
One heart, one life, and one last final heartbeat. Chicken, Blue Whale, King or Guy Buying Manischewitz. We get ONE OF THESE.
I wondered about the meaning of this — the significance. If the Happening of a Chicken is a Chickening, what else could a “Me-aning” be but myself, Me, Happening? One heartbeat at a time.
We need to seek Meaning. In all things. In the fluorescent light truths of kitchen anatomy, in the contracts, the kisses, the sad beauty of a 9p.m. donut.
I say a prayer for the sacred holy Chicken, who gave her life that I might be reminded to cherish these singular things as they rocket rat-a-tat rapid-fire through me. One day, I’ll have my last. But until then, I’ll continue my search for meaning and miracle in every little thing, in every heartbeat. From this Chicken I find courage.
So from my desk to wherever you are tonight, I Love California, I raise my glass of wine to yours. I hope you’re safe and warm tonight. I hope somehow, electric salt&meat means you feel loved, if only because it’s the truth. (And sometimes truth is the only thing connecting one lonesome night to the survival of the next.)
I know it’s hard out here. I know we feel a million miles away from any safety net. I know it’s scary. But we have Each Other, I Love California. We have learned to live Violent, Vulnerable, Honorable, with our hearts outside our bodies. My heart is with Will. With my Brother, my Mother, my Dad. It’s with Greenwald and Charissa and Erika, with Beth down the street and with the guy who I stared at as he slept on the bench just to make sure he was breathing. I am terrified out here, but with every beat of my Chicken Kimono Heart, I Love California, too.
So let’s drive it like we stole it (or at least we stole the hat) and make Me-aning, Us-aning: brave choices that make these hearts beat wild and so loud and fast Where We Are that it’s felt Where We’re From. Let’s live like our beats are numbered. Let’s beat it, just beat it. Beats by Dre, beaten but not broken.