The Heart Aroused: Meetings in the Dark


I’m pretty sure I’ve stood in the kitchen with Grendel’s mother. I didn’t place her right away, but she looked just like I imagined her back in freshman medieval lit.

She was large and meaty, with bloodshot hair she could have combed with a rake. She threw her head back, showing teeth like I fancied a dragon might, and I wondered if her bulky pink sweatshirt hid green scales and a horned spine.

The floor buckled under heavy footsteps as she stomped across the room to jab a fleshy finger in my face and shout through hot breath and spittle that it was the insurance company’s fault her house was falling apart at the joists. I remembered, with some relief, why I was even in her lair in the first place.

“You going down there, Honey?” she asked, pointing that same index finger at the sagging hardwood floor. And she cackled. I know I heard her cackle.

“We don’t have much choice, now, do we?” I picked up my gear and backed out the door, never taking my eyes off her menacing form.

I met the carpenter outside and crawled with him under her house, where the unknown — endless possibilities of things creepy and crawly in the dark, damp underworld — seemed suddenly less frightening than her well-lit modern kitchen above ground.

Admit it, can we? Sometimes just going about our daily business is a fearsome thing.

In The Heart Aroused, David Whyte illustrates through a 1500-year-old Old English poem how facing the fears that keep us awake at night is essential to awakening a soul we’d rather leave sleeping throughout the workday.

Beowulf, characterized as a sixth century consultant — a hired sword of sorts — is retained by Hrothgar, King of Denmark, to slay Grendel, a swamp creature given to brutal late night attacks. Whyte likens Grendel to our deep fears, the creative risks we will not take:

. . . it is a frighteningly accurate description of what happens to men and women who refuse to confront their more powerful creative urges. It is all very well in the broad light of day at work, or during the feasting and celebrations, when bonuses and employee-of-the-month wall plaques are being handed to the worthy; but at three in the morning, when we are alone, our defenses are down and we cannot sleep, the huge green hand rises from below and drags us into something hitherto ignored, deeper and more urgent. (pp. 36-37)

Beowulf succeeds, but in the wake of his own celebration, discovers destroying one fear gives birth to another — in some freakish way, its own mother:

The message in this portion of the poem is unsparing. It is not the thing you fear that you must deal with, it is the mother of the thing you fear. (p. 38)

For some, certain death on the shore is preferred to diving into that dark unknown of the lake to confront her where she hides.

A deer,
Hunted through the woods by packs of Hounds
A stag with great horns, though driven through the forest
From faraway places, prefers to die
On those shores, refuses to save its life
In that water.

Beowulf , as if to say “We don’t have much choice, do we?” dives in. But the sword he used to slay the son is like a toy against the mother. In short, Beowulf finds the mother’s own sword and brings her to a gruesome end. He surfaces to present the victorious sword to Hrothgar only to watch it dissolve to the hilt, never to be used again. To Whyte, it is telling that our tried and true strategies must sometimes be abandoned as we dive into the dark lake to pursue “the living incarnation of our disowned side.”

In these first two chapters, Whyte issues a call to awaken the soul, for he sees no other way to tap into the creativity necessary to take on these new challenges. And while that may sound right and good, quoting Dante, he observes that often we awake in the dark:

In the middle of the road of my life
I awoke in a dark wood
where the true way was wholly lost (p. 26)

When I wake disoriented, I’d rather fall back asleep. I don’t want to keep my eyes open, not knowing what they’ll see when they adjust.

Engaging the soul certainly has its upside. But don’t expect it will turn up all roses and dark chocolate. If we are to let the soul out of the briefcase, we’d best be prepared to spend time in the dark places at the bottom of the lake, and perhaps even under a client’s house.

What do you think? How has fear kept you from tapping into your creative soul, in business or in life? We’re discussing The Heart Aroused: Poetry and Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. Whether you’re reading along or just dropping in for the discussion, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment box. And, if you’ve posted about the book, we invite you to share your link.

Join us next Wednesday for chapters 3 and 4: Fire in the Earth and Fire in the Voice.

Photo by Louise. Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Lyla Lindquist of A Different Story.


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  1. L. L. Barkat says

    Glynn, I’m glad you got carried away. :)

    I’ve read this book, and I’m amazed that on re-reading it I am taken all over again. There is so much depth, but it’s accessible.

    Lyla, I love that you personified Grendel’s mother!! Are these the figures that haunt you in your dreams? I wonder if you must invite them in to your creativity instead of vanquishing them? This was the part of Whyte’s discussion I kept going back and forth about. Do we kill something to create? Or do we absorb it? Maybe there’s no difference, except in the semantics?

  2. says

    First, I actually bought the book–a first (don’t tell Laura!). Second, Lyla, I love how you opened this, with you on your job. Third, your statement that “we awake in the dark.”

    Like Glynn, I adore the story of Beowulf, but unlike him and David Whyte, I can’t analyze it. Just devour.

  3. says

    I had expected a copy of the book to have arrived by now; alas, it’s somewhere in the mail, perhaps being read by gremlins deep underground.

    Wonderful post, Lyla.

    Whyte’s point about getting to the “mother of the thing you fear” is spot-on therapeutic advice, whether applied in business or life. It takes knowing what you fear to talk about it and talking about the fear to vanquish it.

    All those interesting questions LL raises makes me wish we were all in the same room together talking about this.

  4. L. L. Barkat says

    yes, yes, Maureen! I was feeling the same way. This is a molasses experience, to move between each other’s thoughts so slowly. But I am trying to accept it for what it is. :)

    (Don’t tell Megan I know about her book. :)

  5. says

    I’m in meetings with a client today, discussing Grendel’s grandmother, in a manner of speaking, so I am unable to respond well your your thought-provoking discussion until a little later today. Right now, I’m just trembling a little at L.L.’s thought of absorbing instead of conquering. Promise I don’t bave to wear the pink sweatshirt. Please?

  6. says

    Hey, since I am fairly new to the TS scene, I don’t have the book, but I will tag along with you all. This is so timely for me. Wow.

    And it’s always the mother of thing, isn’t it? Well, guess what? I’m a mother too and I reckon my sword is mightier than hers because it wields Truth-Light and it’s sharp enough to cut that ugly ole pink sweatshirt to ribbons. Yeehaw! meet cowgirl Darlene, she’s a lean, mean, fighting machine (my husband says that, anyway) who is ready to slay whatever has been feasting on her creative ink.

    Can you tell I am giddy about this whole sordid thing? Perhaps we’ll have enough molasses to bake some cookies too. 😉

    Thanks, Lyla. I’m glad feisty is contagious.


  7. L. L. Barkat says

    Nah. Don’t be crushed, Laura. David Whyte is worth 1000 other books out there. (We both know it. Gosh, I’d even say he trumps Julia, and you know how much I liked her! :)

    This is just one of those books you HAVE to buy. I’ve written all over my copy (the library would be mortified 😉

  8. says

    I took an English Lit class several years ago at the University of South Florida. I wrote an essay on Beowulf. I was pretty proud of it, but the instructor thought I overspiritualized it and marked me down. I was bummed.

    Anyway, Lyla, I’d still like to travel with you and find pink sweatshirted Mama Grendels. You make me laugh.

    I’m so simple, and this book is deep. So I just tackled a poem.

  9. says

    I’m a little sniffy over here that Glynn got to write multiple posts (mostly that I didn’t think to do the same). These chapters are so full, it’s tough to do even a fraction of them justice in a single article, so I’m looking forward to reading your more extended thoughts.

    Can’t wait for Maureen to have the book as well. This idea of the “mother of the thing” you fear was huge to me — and you’re right, not just in business but in life. So much of the time the thing we think we fear is only the beginning, and there’s so much more to which we need to get to the heart.

  10. says

    L.L., yes, this one does haunt me a little. It was one of the most frustrating things to me to be unable to “disarm” her. That’s so much of what I do all day — disarm combatants, it seems. She ran both poles — jabbing in my face and calling me honey. But I couldn’t keep her on the honey side and that’s always troubled me a little for some reason. So I suppose, in a way, taking her in to my imagination this way I suppose helps me finish that task. Pink sweatshirt and all. :-)

    Megan, yes. We awaken in the dark. Even when it’s broad daylight, don’t you think? Even then slightly blinded and out of sorts until the eyes adjust?

    Sandy, by some stroke of (what I thought at the time was) bad luck, my freshman comp class was all medieval lit. I wrote multiple papers on Beowulf, dumbfounded that so much study could be done of this one work. And that was way before Whyte’s book! Your poem — “a grendeled past” — I love that. You’ve coined a wonderful new phrase…

    Darlene, I would never, ever tangle with your mother ferocity. I’m so glad to have your giddy feistiness along for the ride! Thank you!

  11. says

    I think fear keeps me from really exploring where my writing can go; it keeps me coming back to the familiar and the ordinary. But I’m not sure what I’m afraid of – myself, the critics, my friends’ opinions? I do know that writing about my fears definitely makes them more manageable.

  12. L. L. Barkat says

    Charity, how cool would it be for you to start a crazy-writing notebook? And, in it, you only do the wildest things? Nothing mundane allowed?

    And a big padlock on it, to which only you hold the key.

    Except sometimes you bring stuff back with you from that crazy lake, and it’s not so much the sword, but the story itself :)

  13. says

    Watch where this encouragement from L.L. takes you, Charity. If you start that crazy-writing, you might find yourself publishing it quasi-anonymously. But then you need not worry about the critics. It leaves you plausible deniability.

  14. says

    Doesn’t it have a great sound? It has so very many possible applications.

    I wonder who might write writer’s insurance. You might find this funny, but it was very difficult to find a producer to write a liability insurance policy for … wait for it … a claim adjuster.

    No kidding.

  15. L. L. Barkat says

    I forgot that insurance gets “written.” Lol! Writing writing insurance! (now there’s a poem, or a comic, in that, don’t you think? :)


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