2 billion and none to spare

A wild turkey, seen on my drive to Manhattanville College, who only has 1 billion heartbeats. Still, I feel some solidarity. We’re in this together.

2 billion heartbeats.

Given that a person dies of natural causes, this is the number of heartbeats a person has, approximately, in a lifetime.

This has been in my thoughts this past week as I had the opportunity to read, once again, this marvelous essay about hummingbirds by the late Brian Doyle, in which he postulates that we each have 2 billion heartbeats to use as we see fit in our lifetime. This number, I believe, is drawn from the Rate of Life theory, which postulates that every mammal has about 1 billion heartbeats per lifetime (a whale’s heart beats slower than a mouse, thus, a longer life for the whale, but still the same amount of heartbeats.) Every mammal, that is, except us: we humans have elongated our lives to the point that we get about double all of the other mammals.

We each have a set amount of heartbeats. We don’t know how many. Not all of us will get our full 2 billion. Some may get a few thousand more. But when we use them up, we’re gone.

Each of these 2 billion heartbeats matter.

I remember the first time the threat of looming death was used to motivate me in my creative life. I was in high school, and I was at music camp, a small gathering of 7th-12 graders in Wilkes-Barre, PA. My harp teacher for the summer, a beautiful Russian woman with jet-black hair and doctoral student at Juilliard, was exasperated with my level of practice, which – let’s be honest – consisted of just about nothing. Let’s call it extremely focused practice that only happened when I was in the same room as my teacher.

Anyway, she was exasperated, and she exclaimed, in her thick Russian accent, “April, you only have one chance at life. You should make something of yourself with it.”

I don’t know what it was about that moment, but it stuck. It was as though I had never considered the possibility before, that I might do something with my life, and it might be what was in front of me. And I started practicing. For real. About 8 hours a day.

When I got home from camp that summer, my teacher just about passed out when I played the entire piece from memory that I had been learning measure-by-measure for nearly 6 months.

“I don’t know what that teacher did with you at summer camp,” she said. “But it worked.”

It worked. I learned how to take a raw talent, a gift I had been given, and invest in it. I invested with time and energy and sacrifice, choosing practicing over other things, shaping my activities – social and otherwise – around getting enough practice time in.

More recently, in my work as a chaplain, as I’ve spent time with the dying, I have felt an acute clarification of my priorities and, yes, even my artistic endeavors. One afternoon, during a training on grief, our instructor asked us to imagine receiving a diagnosis that would greatly shorten or limit our lives. What would we regret the most?

It was in that moment – not unlike the moment with my harp teacher when I was a teenager – that I felt it, a wringing out of my soul, a deep regret felt viscerally even in an imagined diagnosis: you never invested in the writing that gives you joy.

I spent many years writing sermons, writing academic papers. But what I have loved to do, since I was a child, is write creatively. And I had never taken the time to honor that love, even letting it wilt and die on the vine for years at a time.

It was not that I would regret not making it a career, or making money from writing. It was simply about honoring it and doing it. I loved to write, yet had never even allowed myself the pleasure of taking a formal class, to work on my craft.

I am happy to report that since then, I have invested a good deal of time. I’m writing my first non-academic book. It is a great source of joy, and more than that, it is a facet of my spirituality. I grow through my writing.

And I was reading that Brian Doyle essay about hummingbirds because I invested a whole week in writing workshops at a local college, using my heartbeats this week to invest in work on myself, my craft, my creation. It doesn’t make me money. It doesn’t make me famous. But it makes me a better person, to do this work. And it’s hard, like practicing the harp, it requires time, energy, even physical pain. And emotional pain. Writing the stuff I’m writing now makes me go back through painful times in my life and re-live it. And I’m doing it, and I’m coming out better for it. I don’t want to be on my deathbed wishing that I had done the things that make me grow and bring me joy. I want to use those heartbeats well.

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