I don’t recall anymore, how long I’d felt that way. I don’t think, at the time, I even knew how long. But that morning, green digits on the clock nagging me and a worn-down comforter not nearly comfort enough, I knew I didn’t want to do it anymore.
I rolled over, stared at the wall and said as much. I pulled the blanket higher though it added no further security.
“Maybe you’d like to see someone about it?” my husband ventured, in that jumpy sort of way a person might poke a long stick into a pile of leaves and something that looks like it’s dead, only it might not be, and it might turn on him with teeth and claws and drool.
I may, or may not, have turned with the claws. But I held my drool, slapped off the blanket and got up. I did snarl something about the injustice of being really, really good at a job you really, really hate, but it didn’t help.
I moved through the ranks at a quick pace, landing a promotion to management within months of my first insurance job, and earned a soup bowl full of alphabet after my name. When the global entity I worked for was forced to withdraw from U.S. operations soon after the 9-11 attacks, I had no trouble securing another position with a regional carrier, located just a few floors down in the same building. My position was enviable. I worked for a stable company, had management’s respect, and was fairly compensated for my efforts.
And yet, as I forced myself from the bed that morning, the desire to do something else — something meaningful — left me feeling strangled. Every time I signed my name to a big check or denial letter, I felt a little bit of my soul die off to the imperfection of material solutions.
In The Heart Aroused, David Whyte ignites an image of fire as “the touchstone of human creativity and passion.” But like our earliest ancestors, while we love the warmth and nourishment of the fire, we fear its destructive wake. Creativity awakens us, but often the risk of conflagration is simply too great and we slide instead on the ice, numbing our souls with a sort of “bureaucratic hoarfrost.” He cautions us to let the interior fire burn:
A certain vitality smolders inside us irrespective of whether it has an outlet or not. When it remains unlit, the body fills with dense smoke. … But refusing to give room to the fire, our bodies fill with an acrid smoke, as if we had covered the flame and starved it of oxygen. The interior of the body becomes numbed and choked with particulate matter. The toxic components of the smoke are resentment, blame, complaint, self-justification, and martyrdom. (p. 89)
By the time I dragged myself to work that morning, I’d crashed into the martyrdom wall in my cubicle. The colleague on the other side of the wall had just died, a kindred spirit and the only person who could credibly tell me why I worked. I had to make a choice — one I’m not sure I understood I was making until I read Whyte’s chapter this week — to find the overlap between the “life we feel we are stuck with and the life we desire.”
A week after her funeral, I began to write, pushing back on years of ignoring the inner voice yearning to speak and choking on my own smoldering ash. It was terrible stuff, but the simple act of putting ink on the page let in enough oxygen to achieve combustion. Neruda recalls writing his first lines:
and I wrote the first bare line,
bare, without substance, pure
of one who knows nothing,
and suddenly I saw
unfastened and open (p. 94)
I wrote my way through a continued distaste for my own work, and I wrote through months of watching the scythe of corporate restructuring cut ugly swathes through my office. I wrote through my own layoff and unemployment, which forced me to press into those experiences. And now as a partner in my own firm, I still write the work, even on days when I don’t like it. I do dirty, ugly work that takes me into folks’ mess and misfortune. But because I engage it on the page, there isn’t a day I can’t find the poignant beauty or the comic twist. If we look, we can always find the art.
No matter how good, or how bad, I can always write. And when I do, my best work emerges even amidst a vocational dissonance that can mark my daily experience.
What do you think? How have you taken the risk of creativity in your work? How can you give oxygen to the fire of your creative soul? 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 5 and 6: Fionn and the Salmon of Knowledge and Taking the Homeward Road
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