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

The Present Heart: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Discovery (Rodale Books)

The Present Heart Rodale book Art

After a chance encounter with a handsome, idealistic stranger on a plane in 1969, Polly Young-Eisendrath rediscovered Ed Epstein a decade later when she least expected it. After untangling themselves from their existing relationships, they married in 1985 and spent the next 25 years together. They were soul mates, but in 2001, Ed (at the vital age of 53) began to show signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Over the next 10 years, as her husband gradually reversed his mental maturity, Young-Eisendrath was faced with the question, what is love?

The Present Heart is an insightful journey of living in the present moment. In a deeply moving yet unsentimental voice, Young-Eisendrath draws on her lifelong practices of Buddhism and psychoanalysis and her own unique view of love, as well as a circle of profound thinkers including author Abigail Thomas, psychoanalyst Nancy McWilliams, and Buddhist teacher Shinzen Young.

A thoughtful meditation on the human experience, The Present Heart shows how our most intimate relationships, often the source of our greatest pain, can prove to be our path to spiritual enlightenment. The book offers a new perspective on how to maintain engaged, reciprocal relationships—with a partner, parent, child, or friend—under any and all circumstances.


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Listen to Polly read two short excerpts from the book.


The following excerpt is from Polly’s new memoir, The Present Heart: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Discovery (Rodale Books)

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Feeling loved by Ed meant he took delight in our daily contact, wanting to see and accept me just as I was. He wanted to hear the details. Every day he held up a mirror and helped me see myself through his eyes. I did the same for him. The reciprocal sharing of our lives enhanced the colors and tones of daily life. Our love offered a way to transcend our individual separateness and step out of our self-enclosure and it was mutual/circular/reciprocal. Our love required empathy, mindfulness, equanimity, emotional maturity, open communication, and truth-telling. Those skills are eroded and eventually erased in people with Alzheimer’s disease. When I look back over the long road I have traveled in learning how to love and in helping others love, I have learned most through the tragedy of loving someone with premature dementia. Ed’s capacity to know me as a particular person and keep me in mind was scrubbed away in the endless storms of neurons dying. We do not usually include “knowledge” as a component of love, but I can say definitively from my experience that knowing your beloved as a particular person and holding him or her in mind is a requirement. Otherwise, that individual seems only to fill a role and feels used or disregarded.

Many aspects of Ed’s warm demeanor remain even now and encourage others’ understandable, but painful, remarks about how much he “loves and adores” me. That is what people tend to say when they feel a warm affection between two people who have spent their lives together. For years now, though, I have come to see what is wrong with these ideas because Alzheimer’s has eroded Ed’s capacity to keep me in mind in my particularity. Looking from the outside at the two of us walking hand in hand down a country road near his residential care center, with our old dog hobbling along next to us, you might think, “I hope I can share a love like that when I am in the final years of my life.” But now I know that much more than affection and care are required for love to be sustained and sustaining.

Though I minister to Ed’s needs on an ongoing basis, bear witness to his changing life, and see him for extended visits at least twice a week, we have—of course—no partnership. Ed has a heartfelt connection to me, but he cannot ask me a personal question. He reaches out sweetly and tenderly for hugs and kisses and wants to caress me, but he cannot picture me driving home, he does not know if I am ill, and he cannot imagine anything about me that is separate from him.

Loving Ed has moved me to ask about love itself: What is it? Why is it so easy to idealize or sentimentalize or conflate it with romance, attachment bonds, and needs? Why is true love so hard to find, to practice, and to trust? True love requires being deeply and precisely known and then accepted—with our flaws. Known first and then accepted. But that acceptance must include an ongoing desire to see and know your beloved again and again, moment to moment, as she or he changes with the impermanence of life itself. Just as we come to know the world by trying to see it as it is, rather than how we want it to be, love invites us to discover the truth about another as a way of coming to know that person, ourselves, and ultimately the world.

But why do we look for a mirror in another’s eyes where we can relax and study our own perplexity, pain, and confusion? Why is this relaxation always contingent on being certain that we are not simply being used to meet the other’s needs or subtly controlled by the other’s demands? Stretched out across three seats on the flight to London, I fade into a soft sleep and wake within the feverish grasp of a question: What is love, anyway?


Praise for The Present Heart

“I have rarely seen love articulated so clearly and honestly. What Polly 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.”

Toinette Lippe, author of Nothing Left Over: A Plain and Simple Life and Caught in the Act: Reflections on Being, Knowing, and Doing

“The Present Heart asks the question “present for what?” and the answer is “all of it.” Caring for two ex-husbands with dementia, one of whom has cashed in her lifesavings, Polly Young-Eisendrath tests her training as a Jungian analyst and Buddhist meditator against the hard rocks of reality. Bypassing self-pity altogether, she finds an immense and surprising capacity for loving without delusion and seeing without blame. Unflinching yet hopeful, her story is an inspiring study in courage.”

Kay Larson, author of Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists

“Polly Young Eisendrath’s brilliant new book skillfully blends Buddhist sensibility with depth psychology to illumine the human heart’s deepest longing for love. Besides shining the bright light of these two wisdom traditions on love in all of its mystery, she also makes her own personal path toward love and its loss transparent. Her well-honed craft, self-awareness through love and loss, and profound understanding of human nature make this book useful to all of us engaged in seeking meaning and relationship.”

Grace Schireson, Ph.D., Zen Abbess, Central Valley Zen, author of Zen Women: Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens, and Macho Masters

“Polly Young-Eisendrath illuminates love as a path—not a goal—of self and mutual discovery that goes to the very heart of our nature.”

Barry Magid, author of Ending the Pursuit of Happiness

“This is a book for anyone who has encountered catastrophic change in a relationship. It is a story of love broken open—the unvarnished account of how a well-known psychoanalyst uses her Buddhist path and community of friends to make room in love for every other emotion—and to thrive again. THE PRESENT HEART left me thinking of May Sarton’s observation: “I am lavish with riches made from loss.”

Deborah Anna Luepnitz, Ph.D., author of Schopenhauer’s Porcupines

“Polly Young-Eisendrath’s wise, exquisite, heart-opening book will renew your faith in the power of love as a transformative gift and a path of personal awakening. Informed by decades of analytical practice and spiritual inquiry, this intimate story of one woman’s journey through love and loss—and what lies between—deserves a place on your bookshelf next to Elegy for Iris, A Three Dog Life, and About Alice. Read this book!”

Mark Matousek, author of Sex Death Enlightenment and When You’re Falling, Dive

“In this provocative and daring memoir, Polly Young-Eisendrath has mined her inner landscape more than most people will ever even dream. Her digging yields surprising gems that will be precious to anyone interested in transforming hardship into wisdom—and even joy.”

Jaimal Yogis, author of Saltwater Buddha and The Fear Project

“The author is a Jungian psychoanalyst, a couples counselor, and a Buddhist, so she has plenty of theories about love and how to live it. The psychology of love has been her life’s work. But the truly remarkable thing about Young-Eisendrath is that she never lets her theories overshadow her experience; she sees her theories in light of what she is living, and not the other way around.”

Terry Moore


Rodale News: Learning about Love Through Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease transforms the mutuality of love, but it doesn’t have to leave the caregiver feeling isolated and bitter.

 When a beloved spouse develops dementia, all kinds of catastrophes can unfold in a family, ranging from financial and legal to emotional and psychological. It’s hard to believe that this disease, which creates such mayhem, could mean anything other than disaster for those touched by it. Yet we know that other diseases, such as cancer and heart attack, can lead to transformative life experiences that open doors to greater love and spirituality. Is this same kind of existential opportunity possible with early-onset Alzheimer’s? I began to find the answer to this question when my beloved husband, Ed Epstein, developed early-onset Alzheimer’s in his mid 50s.   
Love Lost: The First Sign of Ed’s Dementia
Both Ed and I were psychotherapists, and we shared everything, including working together as couple therapists. Our closeness fired on all cylinders: physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual. For more than 25 years, Ed was my best friend and my lover, and I expected that he could always help me know myself better and that I would do the same for him, holding up the mirrors in which we saw ourselves in each others eyes.
For some years before Ed received a conclusive diagnosis (holographic PETscan) of dementia  at the age of 59, I felt and saw the strange erasing of my beloved. And as this happened, I began to understand the nature of love in a radical new way. On April 8, 2008, I wrote the following in my journal:
I awoke during the night and involuntarily mulled over the problem of what has been missing in the last 5 years of our relationship. Really, it’s been the lack of witnessing that has been so hard. Ed rarely knows where I am, what I’m doing, what is going on in my physical or mental being. Ed is oblivious of me unless he needs me. Or, to put it more accurately, he just takes  READ MORE