Dear Johanna: Pieces of Heart

Dear Johanna,

I want to talk to you about your heart. Actually, I want to talk to you about other people’s hearts, but we’ll start with yours because it is often easier to begin with ourselves.

girl-child-mood-heart-wallpaper-1920x1080By the age of five, no doubt you have already heard and absorbed some of our cultural language surrounding love and hearts and the importance of both. Sometimes in the church we use phrases like “asking Jesus into you heart” and “giving your heart to God,” which is confusing and sort of strange, but eventually we learn that this means something a little different for each of us.

Now, while your actual heart is an organ inside of you that helps all of the blood get where it is supposed to go in your body, we also use the word “heart” as a metaphor for our souls (a metaphor is a figure of speech, sort of like a code word that helps us to understand something we don’t have other words for). Sometimes we say things like, “You have stolen my heart,” which sounds sort of scary and a little bit gross if you were talking about a real heart. We also say things like, “I love you with my whole heart” or “You have a piece of my heart.”

This is the phrase I want us to consider.


Last month I watched the San Francisco Ballet perform The Nutcracker. The performance took place in San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, which is one of the most beautiful buildings in California. It is like a palace, Jo, with towering columns, slick marble floors, shiny gold molding and red velvet chairs. It is the most perfect place to watch a ballet ever, especially a ballet like The Nutcracker.


When I was a little girl, not much older than you are now, Grandpa D took me to the Lied Center in Lincoln to watch the Midwest Ballet perform The Nutcracker. I got all dressed up in white tights and black velvet. I wore my shiny black shoes and packed a tiny velvet purse with Kleenex and chapstick. D picked our tickets up from the Box Office and handed them to the checkers and then we entered through tall glass doors with shiny gold handles. From inside the Lied Center you could see snow falling outside and people sliding down the sidewalks. D took our coats to the coat check and escorted me to my chair.

It was my first year taking dance classes at a studio just down the street and the first time I had ever seen a real ballerina in person. Everything was so beautiful, Jo. There were fancy party dresses and colorful sets and big red carpets and bright chandeliers. At the intermission D bought me petit fours and a Shirley Temple. (Petit fours are tiny little cakes that are dipped in frosting. Shirley Temple is the name of a little girl actress from a long time ago. It is also the name of a drink that is made with 7UP and grenadine, which is a sweet cherry syrup that makes your drink turn pink.)


Year after year D would take me to The Nutcracker. Sometimes Grandma Jayne came along, and eventually we added Aunt Abbie. One year we brought my grandmas and another year I took my neighbor. Even after I quit dancing myself, I continued to go to The Nutcracker.

Every year it was magical—the costumes, the sets, the scenery, all of it. It became so special that it took up a special place in my heart, along with my memories of D and my memories of dancing and my memories of Christmas. I was 20 years old the last time D and I went to the Nutcracker, but after that I moved away and it was harder for me to come back for the performance.


The next time I went to The Nutcracker I was 25 and living in Kansas City. It was the first time I had ever seen the ballet performed anywhere other than Lincoln’s Lied Center and the first time I went with anyone other than D. I got all dressed up in a green satin dress and a pair of high heeled shoes. I spent an hour curling my hair and wore gloves and sparkling long earrings. A man picked me up and took me to a fancy French restaurant where our waiter was snooty and we ate lobster bisque and vanilla risotto. I was nervous most of the evening, not only because I was on a date (and to be honest, Jo, I don’t always do so well on dates), but because I was going to see The Nutcracker, and I was taking someone else with me.

The performance was great, though it was not quite the same. I took the man’s arm for the first time as we walked down the stairs and it was new and exciting and it was actually better than watching the dancers. The man was pretty great too, all smiles and “thank yous” and dressed up very dapper. I don’t think he would ever have gone to a ballet on his own. Though he appreciated the symphony and generally liked fancy things, he was more into comic books than play bills, at least by my estimation. But he was gentle with this piece of my heart. He did not judge it or make fun of it or say it was a waste of his time. That was very important, (though I didn’t realize it at the time).

Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-François Vilanoba in Tomasson's Nutcracker.

Each of our hearts is full of the things that we love and that make us who we are: favorite movies and childhood memories, the smell of cinnamon rolls in the oven or the taste of mac ‘n cheese. When someone shares a piece of their heart, Jo, even a piece that sounds strange or seems boring, that doesn’t interest you right away or that you don’t understand, you must be careful with how you respond. You do not need to love it, you do not even need to like it, but still you should treat it with care. Pieces of heart are surprisingly strong, but they are also remarkably fragile.

Sometimes, Jo, I have made the mistake of dismissing the pieces of other people’s hearts. When I make a new friend or spend time with a stranger, I have sometimes been so intent on finding the pieces of our hearts that are the same—the points of connection and shared fascinations—that I have overlooked and forgotten the pieces they value most. I have been so fixated on finding the sameness that I dismissed the specialness of difference.


There will be things in your life that deeply excite you; things that bring you so much joy and happiness and wonder that they are a part of you more than they are outside of you. I feel that way about Little Women and the works of C.S. Lewis, music from the ’40s and books that smell like a life I never lived, setting foot in the icy cold waves of the Pacific and eating Christmas chicken and clinking glasses with our family all ringed around the table.

I hope you will embrace those things that pull at your heart and begin living inside of it. I hope you will seek them out and celebrate them and the wonder they bring to your life.

I hope you will share them with others and risk being vulnerable so that you might delight in being connected. It is a beautiful thing to be known, Jo, though sometimes it comes at a cost.


I hope also that you will make room for what you don’t know or understand, that you will see other people’s pieces of heart as something new that you might learn to love rather than something strange that you’ll never enjoy.


The last time I went to The Nutcracker there were two tickets and only one of me. It had been years since I’d seen the performance in Kansas City and I was anxious about offering an invitation. Sometimes, Jo, it is easy to share pieces of your heart and sometimes it is a little scary, especially when your heart has been hurt.

I asked more than one friend to go with me and more than one friend told me no. (Even when you are a grown up, it can be hard when people say no.)

My final invitation was to a church friend named Juliana. Though she had already scheduled a meeting for that evening, she moved it so that she could come with me. Juliana told me that she had gone to see The Nutcracker with her daddy when she was little, just like me and D. The ballet was a piece of her heart just like it is a piece of mine, and that shared excitement made our night extra special.


Someday, Jo, I will take you to a performance of The Nutcracker. It may not mean the same for you as it did for me when I was your age, but I hope you will give it a chance, because you, My Dear, are one of the pieces of my heart that I cherish the most.

All my love,

Auntie Amanda

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