The Present Heart: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Discovery

The Present Heart: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Discovery

by Polly Young-Eisendrath


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609613600
Publisher: Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale
Publication date: 10/07/2014
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

POLLY YOUNG-EISENDRATH, Ph.D., is the author of 14 books, including The Self-Esteem Trap, The Resilient Spirit, and Women and Desire, and is a Jungian analyst, psychologist, and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont. A frequent speaker and facilitator at conferences and a teacher of mindfulness, she lives in central Vermont.

Read an Excerpt


Ed Epstein was my third husband. This fact might make you think I took marriage lightly, but just the opposite was true. I got married too quickly because I wanted to do the right thing. And, maybe more important, I didn't know how to evaluate the men who stepped forward and wanted to marry me. Marriage #1 and Marriage #2 were to men who were much older than me: They idealized me and needed me and I thought that meant they loved me. I am sympathetic to my younger self, as I have come to understand her, but she was clueless about choosing a partner and often confused about what she was looking for. As I look back now, I don't regret my "starter marriages." My growing up being what it was, I congratulate myself on doing as well as I did. It was hard to find a partner when I didn't know how to look for one, perhaps even harder because I confused being loved with being needed. I always felt my mother "loved" me when she mostly needed me for emotional comfort and sharing.

My first marriage took place in my senior year of college. I married a philosophy professor, 15 years older than me, who pursued me for a year with the conviction that he and I were meant for each other. I was Richard's third wife and became the mother of his second and third children as well as the stepmother for his first son. If I had had my eyes open, I might have wondered about these facts, but they seemed irrelevant at the time. We divorced when I was 27 years old and I moved away (with our two young children) to a distant city and began my graduate studies. Richard and I have remained friends over the years. I am also a friend of his second wife (the one before me) who is the mother of my stepson, my children's half brother. For most of my children's growing up, they had plenty of contact with their father. Grown up now, my children recognize how ill matched their parents are.

My second marriage, when I was 28, was to one of my graduate school professors, 11 years older than me, who pursued me for a year with the conviction that I was meant for him. Both of my first husbands were intelligent, articulate, and well educated. They had generous spirits and they wanted and needed me, but they were not interested in really getting to know me on a first-person basis. I filled up a place in them that had been empty and that was that. In the first 12 years of my adult life, in which I was mostly married (as a friend once said of me, I was "single for about 10 minutes"), I can now say I was unsure if the person I was sleeping next to in bed could even be called my "friend." My marriages, like most marriages back then, were not reciprocal or mutual. My husbands and I were not equals. As Jane Fonda has aptly put it, they wanted me to be in their stories, but they didn't want to be in mine.

I did not try to change them or rebel against them. As I had with my mother, I tried to adapt to the ways they needed me until I could no longer do so without losing my life force. With Ed Epstein, by contrast, my life force was enhanced and my being was increased. One of the extraordinary things about my relationship with Ed was that I met him before I had married either of these other men. On January 2, 1969, I took a plane from Cleveland, Ohio, to New York City where I was to rendezvous with Richard. He wanted to marry me, but I was unsure about my love for him. When I boarded the plane, I immediately spied in the row behind me what seemed to be an interracial gay couple: two men seated side by side with the black man's hand cozily placed on the white man's thigh. "That's interesting," I thought to myself, having never before seen such a couple. Turning around, I slyly stared through the space between the seats. Then the white guy suddenly popped up and sat down next to me. "Hi," he said. "My name is Eddie Epstein and I noticed you looking at me." Ed was tall, slender, and, it seemed to me, impossibly handsome. He looked directly at me with large liquid deep-brown eyes through long lashes that curled up. His manner was earnest and anxious and his thick black hair rippled down to his shoulders. He told me he was a theater student at New York University and was lonely and confused. He said that he wasn't gay but had brought home a gay friend from his program because he liked the guy and he wanted to shock his parents. He told me about his life and his difficulties in finding a relationship with a woman (something about there being so many gay men in the theater program and so few women?). Nothing like this had ever before happened to me! Ed was well-spoken, vulnerable, and seemingly open and honest. I still recall what it felt like to be looking straight into his face: It felt like we had known each other forever. The whole thing was exhilarating and frightening and confusing.

When he asked about me, I told him about Richard waiting for me at the Integral Yoga Society in uptown Manhattan. I told Ed that Richard had been pursuing me, wanting to marry me, but I was ambivalent. I also told Ed about the year I had just spent abroad in Europe and how it had changed my perspective on myself and my life.

When our plane landed, Ed asked me to have dinner with him. "Don't marry that man. He's too old for you." I had never before gone off with a stranger--and certainly not with someone who had a male companion--but there was something about Ed that seemed totally familiar and immediately trustworthy. His openness felt just like mine. I was 21 years old and a senior at Ohio University; Ed was 20 years old and a junior at New York University. I got into the taxi with him and his obviously angry friend (who jumped out during a red traffic-light stop in Manhattan) and we continued talking. After dinner we talked all night, and then, the next day, I called Richard to meet us for dinner in the Village. The three of us had an awkward, but friendly, dinner at a Chinese restaurant where Ed and Richard got exactly the same message in their fortune cookie--"You have a mutual friend." They had a laugh over that.

Although Ed had made a huge impact, and he wanted a long-distance relationship with me, I reluctantly said goodbye to him and chose to be with Richard. I felt Ed was too young and confused to provide the "stability" my life seemed to call out for (in fact, I was too young and confused). Later in 1969, I married Richard, who convinced me he would "provide security." In the interim between meeting Ed and marrying Richard, Ed and I talked many times by telephone and became friends. I invited Ed to my wedding. He made the long trek on a Greyhound bus from New York City to Athens, Ohio. He showed up after the wedding but was in time for the party. Ed seemed excited to see me, and he brought me the Judy Collins album that included the song "Pretty Polly." Even on the evening of my marriage to Richard, I had the strong feeling that Ed and I belonged together. When Richard and I divorced in 1974, I tried to find Ed. I called all the phone numbers I had for him, but none of them worked. In 1975, I got married again.

Then Ed stepped back into my world without my knowing it. He was a graduate student in a seminar I was teaching in the fall of 1981 at Bryn Mawr College where I was on the faculty of the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. Ed enrolled in it as a part of his masters degree in clinical social work. It was a clinical seminar on counseling skills, and Ed and I sat across the table from each other for 90 minutes twice a week in class and sometimes we ran into each other outside of class, too. For 6 months, we did not recognize each other because repression was at work. Repression is an unconscious barrier against recognizing something you already know--something that would make you terribly anxious if you recognized it. Ed was now a balding middle-aged man with a beard, no longer slim. When we spoke to each other outside class, we often felt nervous (as we discovered later when we talked about it). Once he slipped on the ice in the parking lot and fell down hard on his side. I felt a shock run through me when I touched his arm to help him up. Although our appearances had changed a lot (not only was Ed different, I no longer had a hippie-style), repression played a bigger part in hiding our actual identities--who we were to each other.

On the morning of March 2, 1982, a dream got past my repression: In the dream, I am in bed with Ed as he was when I met him in 1969. I am startled to recognize that he is Eddie Epstein because I know I have an Ed Epstein in my class. I wake up and say to myself, "Could that be the student in my class?" Soothing myself--"I never forget a face; that couldn't be the same guy"--I go back to sleep. Once again, I have the same dream, but the man in bed with me is older. Again, I wake with anxiety and go back to sleep. The second time I go back to sleep, I dream of being in bed with my student!

Ed was scheduled to do a clinical presentation in my seminar--about an African-American family he was seeing, under supervision, in therapy about their son who was gay. Of course, reading his case report contributed to lifting my repression. When Ed came by my office to pick up the video equipment, I asked him to step inside. "Last night I had a dream about a man I knew maybe 15 years ago. He was from New York City and his name was Eddie Epstein," I say hesitantly. Ed looks nervous. "I was a student in New York City around that time, but I don't remember you. There are a lot of people with the Epstein name." "I met this guy on an airplane flying from Cleveland, Ohio, to New York City in 1969." Ed looks more nervous. "Geez, that's odd, because I grew up in Cleveland, but I really don't remember you." "This Eddie Epstein was studying acting in New York," I say, narrowing my gaze to his eyes. "Man, I studied acting in New York City, but I really don't remember you!" "This Ed Epstein came to my wedding in Athens, Ohio, where I married Richard," I say with a dry mouth, feeling faint. "Oh my God! Polly, that was me!" We stare at each other. Lenses are shifting like tectonic plates inside me, bringing a new life into focus. "Oh, no!" I say silently to myself, "I will NOT tear my life apart again! I will not disrupt my children. NO. I don't care about love. NO!" Ed suggests we meet up later in the day to talk about what "has happened in our lives since 1969." Then we step right into the seminar where he stumbles awkwardly through his presentation.

My second marriage has already reached a point of conflict and disruption: I do not confide in my husband about any of my feelings or inner life. I often keep him at arm's length. I seek counsel from my friends, but I don't count my husband as a friend. We had married in St. Louis in 1975, and we were trying to build a family with our four young children in tow: ages 2, 3, 4, and 5 at the time of our union. His children stayed with us during the summers and other times when they could be away from their school in Washington, DC. My second husband offered Richard, my first husband, a job at the college where we worked, so Richard moved into a small house across the street from our modest two-story bungalow in a suburb of St. Louis. My children often ran through the neighborhood shouting "Daddy!" to different guys.

I entered serious long-term psychotherapy (eventually it became analysis) right around this time. I had had some psychotherapy during my first marriage also, but now I was beginning to see more clearly the nature of my unconscious dynamics. I try to speak haltingly to my husband about my insights, but they make no sense to him. I can tell that his initial idealization of me is turning into resentment. Our relationship begins to feel like a repeat of what happened between my mother and me.

I become a doctoral student in psychology at Washington University. When I graduate in 1980, I am offered a tenure-track teaching position at Bryn Mawr College, just outside Philadelphia. At the same time, my husband applies for a job in Chicago and we consider having a commuter marriage. We are not spending much time together as a couple, outside the time we spend as a whole family with the children, and we disagree about many things, especially spiritual and emotional issues. I am truly uncomfortable in my skin when we try to be intimate. All the same, we want to make our marriage work. Ultimately, he moves with me, and my children, and takes an administrative post working for the state of Pennsylvania. After arriving at Bryn Mawr College where we live in a house on campus, hardly a day passes that I am not nervous and unhappy. Settling into a whole new routine and taking on a new academic position while mothering young children means I am very stressed. My relationship with my husband is no comfort. Our disputes are serious, threatening, and disruptive. I continue in therapy by telephone and for a while he tries to find a therapist, but he does not find a good match.

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The Present Heart: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Discovery 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
SethSegall More than 1 year ago
If Western Buddhism has been shaped by its ongoing dialogue with Psychology, it’s in part due to the existence of a remarkable cohort of psychologist-practitioners who are also gifted writers.  I include psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers such as Jack Kornfield, Larry Rosenberg, Barry Magid, Harvey Aronson, Jeffrey Rubin, Mark Epstein, Jeremy Safran, Bob Rosenbaum and Polly Young-Eisendrath in this elect group.  Young-Eisendrath, a Vermont-based Jungian psychologist and Buddhist practitioner who has been a long-term student of both Phillip Kapleau Roshi and Shinzen Young, is the most prolific writer of these writers, with some fourteen titles to her name.  Her latest book, The Present Heart: A Memoir of Loss, Love, and Discovery, is a chronicle of her relationship with Ed Epstein — the remarkable story of their fated meeting and marriage, their decades-long love, and most poignantly, Ed’s tragic and inexorable decline into early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease.   Young-Eisendrath has written a brave book exploring the dilemma of caring for her husband when he is no longer capable of being her reciprocal partner — no longer the man she married — while simultaneously struggling to sustain her own inner aliveness, growth, and capacity for love.  The frankness with which she invites the reader to know her in all her unique and specific particularity makes this book a breathtaking revelation.  Part memoir and part meditation on the nature of love, Young-Eisendrath draws a distinction between true love, romantic love, and the one-way street of cherishing without hope of reciprocation. True love, as she defines it, is based on a mutual seeing-and-being-seen within an embracing attitude of acceptance and letting-be — a relationship that’s neither fused nor separate, neither symbiotic nor idealized.  She describes her first two marriages in which she was needed but never “seen,” her discovery of true love with Ed, and her rediscovery of true love once Ed could only be the object of continued cherishing.   Young-Eisendrath’s solutions to her dilemma are wonderfully unique, humorously and heartbreakingly complex, and throughly unbound by tradition.  Without giving too much away, in the process of caring for — and eventually arranging care for Ed she also ends up acquiring the responsibility of arranging care for Richard —  her first ex-husband — who’s afflicted with both circumscribed paranoid delusions and an advancing dementia.  She, Ed, and Richard, soon establish the ritual of regular Sunday dinners at a local haunt — dinners that increasingly resemble the Mad Hatter’s tea party.  How she re-fashions a family from the shards of her life, present and past — the past is never over, it isn’t even past — and keeps her heart alive and growing, is the exciting crux of this story.  Some people succumb to adversity, others rise to the occasion.  Young-Eisendrath’s heroic quest to not be a victim — to accept the karmic flow of life and thrive within it— is an inspiration to caregivers everywhere.  In the course of all this, she elucidates how her Buddhist practice — being fully present, seeing and accepting reality, endlessly letting go, dwelling in groundlessness — gives her the tools she needs to cope with adversity.  She also finds Buddhism to be incomplete — it has little to say about personal love, as opposed to universal lovingkindness and compassion —  so she supplements the Buddhist path with lessons gleaned from life, her psychological practice, and dialog with a distinguished group of mentors.  Although this is Young-Eisendrath’s specific and unique journey, I found it resonated strongly with my own personal experience— the final year of my first marriage as my wife of 36 years painfully succumbed to the ravages of cancer.  I recall how my Buddhist practice enabled me to stay present and not turn away, to let go into the reality of things, to cry and laugh, and, after the end, to find new love once old love was gone.  If people wonder what Buddhist practice is for, this is it.  It’s funny how it’s the unique and particular stories that teach us what’s universal.   I highly recommend this book to anyone struggling to be seen, to anyone cast into the role of caregiver, to anyone interested in Buddhist practice, to anyone thrown by unanticipated and undesired adversity, to anyone struggling to be a genuine self, to anyone interested in love.  
HeidiMR More than 1 year ago
I continue to admire and grow from the works of Dr. Polly Young-Eisendrath. Polly’s narrative, coupled with her insights and wisdom on love, prove to give a broad range of readers many gifts. The Present Heart is not just for the aging or the coupled nor is it just for the Buddhist or the caretaker. In fact, there is so much to learn from this book about “true love” that it makes a worthy read for those in transition from a relationship. Polly’s explanation of this love on a “two way street” is applicable to the many loves in our lives – with family, friends, and life-partners. Polly writes about being genuine in our love and with our love and her voice is certainly genuine to the reader. Through her experiences we learn to listen more closely to our longings, our struggles, and the ways in which the various forms of love play a part in this. The Present Heart is a book to read and discuss; to re-read and discuss some more! It provides the reader insights for managing loss and uncertainty, while provoking the desire to live and love more fully, more honestly, and in the present moment.
ToinetteLippe More than 1 year ago
Polly Eisendrath’s marvelous new book illuminates the nature of true love, which she calls “the meeting of truth and love,” where each person becomes a mirror for the other, a constant witness to the beloved’s heart, mind, words, and actions. Only when we support one another fully in this way, without illusion or criticism, can we enter into a deep and unguarded relationship in which we accept and embrace each moment as it reveals itself—and then move forward. Polly is a strong woman, not only in her devotion to her husband, but also in the way she unflinchingly embraces the cascade of emotional and financial losses that accompany his condition. As he gradually loses his memory and understanding, she remains present, and both of them are able to experience delight in this shared presence. I have rarely seen love articulated so clearly and honestly. What she shares with readers will be of inestimable value to everyone in a loving relationship. Such an untrammeled and open-hearted account of love’s journey is a gift to us all.
arniekozak More than 1 year ago
I recommend The Present Heart to anyone interested in exploring the true nature of love, who is challenged in a care-taking situation, or wants to read an memoir about two exceptional human beings. Polly's view of love challenges the cultural myth of idealized love. The violins, fireworks, and sense of union must give way to a real conversation, based in vulnerability, where each person is committed to knowing the other in their particularity. This commitment cannot take place without a concurrent commitment to knowing oneself and using the relationship as the fulcrum to that self-knowledge. Mindfulness practice can facilitate this intimacy but does not guarantee it. The Present Heart is raw, bold, and compelling like jumping in a cold body of water. It braces and wakes you up to the present moment.
AbigailH More than 1 year ago
This book paints a clear, honest picture of the intricacies of love and partnership as it manifests in all stages of life. One does not have to be caring for a loved one with dementia in order to grow from this story. Written by a Jungian psychoanalyst with Buddhist principles, it dives into the spiritual and practical components of romantic love. This is a fulfilling, wonderful read. The reader can sense the authenticity and openness of the author’s journey as she describes what it means to her to love and be loved. Her discussion on true love as a “knowing” of each other, a reflecting of the Self in the other, and a path of growth for both partners is insightful and thought provoking. It is a book to read with your partner, to discuss, to pick up from time to time and revisit different aspects of love and commitment as your relationship flows. It is also a book to read on your own, to open your heart and explore your own desires. Thank you to the author for taking us on your journey of hope, excitement, love, commitment, grief and loss, and beginning of the cycle over again.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
   In the much awaited for, The Present Heart, the highly acclaimed psychoanalyst and long-time Buddhist practitioner Polly Young-Eisendrath investigates what it means to love consciously as she masterfully narrates her own story of a loving relationship – one that was destined into being, but makes a radical shift when reciprocity falls away due to her husband’s heart-wrenching battle with Alzheimer’s .  Young-Eisendrath uses skill and insight in her writing so that her readers may open our eyes, minds and hearts to the possibilities of love even – and especially – when that love doesn’t show up the way we imagine it should. The Present Heart is direct, honest and revealing – it portrays love when it is most alive and engaging, which includes times when life’s circumstances leaves one feeling misunderstood and in pain.  I would recommend this book to anyone on a path of spiritual exploration, and to everyone who is open to seeing their own personal relationships as paths to greater insight and compassion.  After finishing the book I am left with a strong desire to experience the love that Young-Eisendrath teaches us about – a love that that isn’t afraid of being known: the knowledge of how to love with a present heart.   
NinaLaRosa More than 1 year ago
"The Present Heart - A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Discovery" is a moving and powerful reflection on what it means to truly be in relationship. Polly Young-Eisendrath, the book's author, writes a main storyline of her relationship with the love of her life and husband of many years, Ed Epstein, as they confront Ed's devastating early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Included with Ed and Polly's story are portrayals of other relationships in Polly's life, past and present, that help illustrate Polly's investigation into how real togetherness works. These frank and honest depictions, including what is changing in her relationship with Ed as his ability to participate in it severely and rapidly diminishes, provide a framework within which Polly weaves thoughtful and heart-full observations on what ingredients are needed for real, connected relationship. Frank Ostaseski, founder of Zen Hospice Project, an organization that was on the front lines in San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic, has five precepts or guidelines for serving others at end of life. The first precept is "Welcome Everything. Push Away Nothing." In this book Polly is able to transmit what it's like to be knee-deep in the loss, grief, and unpredictability of a relationship altered by Alzheimer's and to do it with an unshakable attitude of welcoming. This isn't the saccharine, "it will all be ok", wishful welcoming of positive thinking, but a genuine welcoming of surrender to what is. It's an opening to reality in order to grow. Nothing she is going through is easy, but she describes having a port to continually return to in the storm. This depiction offers readers inspiration and comfort for their own journey. This book is a window into how to bring mindfulness and a clear-eyed, full-hearted understanding of relationships to great crisis. It's a powerful mix, taking Polly and readers to a place of greater love. Readers get a visceral sense of what it could be like to bring our best self, welcoming everything, pushing away nothing, to a seemingly impossible challenge. This is not just a book for caregivers or people working in end-of-life care; it is for anyone who has risked opening their heart to another so that they could see and be seen more deeply, clearly, and with more love.