The Heart Aroused: Embracing Fire

The Heart Aroused by David Whyte LL

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
pure wisdom
of one who knows nothing,
and suddenly I saw
the heavens
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

Photo by L.L. Barkat. Used with permission. Post by Lyla Lindquist of A Different Story.


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  1. L. L. Barkat says

    Lyla, this piece has stayed with me (yeah, of course I got the preview! :). The loss of that friend, who made your work feel like it was worth doing. Oh. So hard.

    And the finding of words, and, I think, more lately, art of all kinds… as a way back or in. Yes, I feel the power of that as I watch you get more and more creative by the day.

    I am not quite finished the second chapter in this set. I was just so taken that I read really, really slowly. I got stuck on phrases like “decipher the fire” and this especially… “Plain sailing is pleasant, but you are not going to explore many unknown realms that way.”

    I am very much in that place of beginning in the unknown and needing to trust that the way will unfold as I keep taking it into my hands and peering for the possibilities.

    • L. L. Barkat says

      Glynn, you have outdone yourself! :)

      These chapters are just so rich, aren’t they? One could write a book on the book (one seems to be 😉

  2. says

    These chapters are full. I am still grieving a bit over what’s left here on the cutting floor, and I didn’t really even touch chapter four and his discussion of voice. I could go back and read this chapter again and again. My last fire was still smoldering when I arrived on the scene. I spent a lot of time in the ashes, just breathing and studying, and taking in a lot of smoke in one area where a flame still flickered atop a pile of debris. (Hours before, it wasn’t debris.) But the smoke, chugging out of that pile where there wasn’t enough oxygen to just let loose… I thought about that a lot when he wrote of giving room to the fire.

    I really liked that image of sailing as well. As a non-sailor, I can imagine that even plain sailing can be downright exhilarating. And yet, what could it be like to explore those uncharted realms? You’ll let us know when you get there, yes?

  3. says

    Put your hand
    where you’ll feel

    the heat. Not
    the head but

    the heart. Choices
    are made there,

    too, the muscle
    both pushing

    out and pulling
    in, beating ever

    faster the closer
    you get to

    seeing yourself
    the phoenix

    rising from ash
    and soaring.

  4. L. L. Barkat says

    Lyla, I would *so* love to hear a little more about what’s on the cutting room floor, even if it’s just here in the comment box :)

    Am marveling at the wonderful-terrible real-life image you experienced with fire around the same time you’ve been processing these chapters.

    And Maureen, love the poem. The phoenix is such a powerful image too. None of this stuff is simple.

  5. says

    The voice part of the chapter was my favorite, but then I totally over-analyzed the idea of voice in “The Little Mermaid.”

    Love hearing more of your story, Lyla. You can walk through my messy rubble anytime.

  6. says

    I’m just going to sit here and be overwhelmed by Maureen’s poem for a while. Pushing in and pulling out — thanks for that.

    Megan, the chapter on voice was so good. Your preoccupation with Ariel and her kind aside, the idea of saying no releasing the right kind of yes — this still has me thinking.

    And Laura, yes, I’ve been in a fair amount of fire lately and it probably really colored my reading of these chapters. I have this recent image that I haven’t done anything with yet — it seems like it says something but I don’t know what. There’s a row of blackened wire hangers, smoke curling out around the edge, what had been suspended from them fallen completely away. You know fire too well from the other side. I wonder what you might think.

    Part of what’s still on the floor is this contemplation of the “overlap” he talked about between the life we think we’re stuck with and the life we desire. How we want to think (or at least I do) that it is one or the other — but that there’s a way to find where they converge, where we can take the life we have and remold it into that very thing we so desperately want.

  7. L. L. Barkat says

    To use your hanger image, and Maureen’s phoenix image, sometimes what we desperately want is within our grasp, but it needs to be “undressed” or released (by burning away) from a certain kind of life we’ve built for ourselves.

    Real change and an embrace of something essential and not yet freed needs to happen. To me, this is a little different than trying to keep remolding something ill-fitting into the thing we desperately want. I think I tend to feel like a failure when the re-molding projects go awry, when what I really need to be doing is seeing how the situation is begging for a different solution.

    So there’s loss (of some kind of fabric of something, of some kind of holding-us-back structure) in order to find those moments where we see and articulate the real art of the row of blackened hangers with the smoke curling (what a beautiful image, though terrible in how it came to be).

    This sounds almost trite in the saying, perhaps. But I guess I am playing with the idea that sometimes we need that fire and the alteration, because the ice and paralysis is a more terrible end (no phoenix rises from the stasis of ice).

  8. says

    Ice wears no motion unless it is lifted from beneath or floating to the surface from the deep. In the end, it will not fly unless it melts amid the heat … until its vapor spins to the sky to wrap the phoenix as it passes by.

    I read somewhere that fire doesn’t ever eliminate anything, but simply transforms any substance it touches from one thing to another. If something precious (like gold) passes through fire, it simply becomes purified. These thoughts remove some of the fear of difficulty and suffering, for sure. Passing through the fire can only transform … and that makes all the difference. There’s a reason the phoenix inspires me.

  9. says

    Laura, I get that — some things simply cannot be remolded, they have to made into to something completely new. (Or left behind completely.) But there are other things, I think, that we stay with, like it or not, and somehow I think we have to find a way to remake them (or perhaps they remake us) so that we move beyond this idea of being “stuck” somewhere. If that makes sense.

    And Karen, wow. Ice is only moved by some other force. And movement, of course, creates heat…

    Thanks for coming back, Maureen.

  10. L. L. Barkat says

    Yes, definitely stay with some things. And it takes so much wisdom (and maybe courage) to know the difference :)

    I’m still stuck on your beautiful-terrible blackened hangers…

  11. says

    Wow. Great discussion here. I told myself I absolutely don’t have time to read this book, but now I’m wavering. It sounds fascinating, and your responses to it are all so thoughtful. Bother. I really really really don’t need yet another book on my nightstand :)

  12. says

    Well, Kimberlee, here’s the thing. I would never have pulled this book off the shelf. (There is one, wiser, who selected it 😉 ) And sometimes I don’t think I have time to read it either. But from the looks of things, I’m starting to think I don’t have time not to read it. And I’ve got some really good other books in queue.

    That said, don’t sweat it. 😉 Read along with the discussion and pick up the book another day. There’s enough material in the comments to keep you going for a long time.

  13. says

    There is so much in these chapters. I’m still caught up in chapter 3, on pages 89 and 90, actually. I can’t seem to get away from ashes.

    Interestingly, our pastor talked about creativity and fun in the workplace on Sunday. He mentioned Google and Edison and how we ended up with Post-It Notes.

  14. says

    Sandy, those pages might be two of the most marked up in my book. And I have a lot of marked-up-ness. I think, when you get to it, you’ll really, really like chapter 4 also. Wish I could have done that chapter justice.

  15. says

    These reviews and comments always make the books sound so savory and delicious. I feel the distance of the pages as I consume the crumbs you all so kindly share.

    Sandra, I really believe that Glynn had himself cloned at some point. If he didn’t sleep, he wouldn’t make so much sense. 😛

  16. says

    Karen, I always appreciate reading others’ thoughts on a book — whether I can actually read the book at the same time or not. Everyone sees just a little different part, or a different way, and it really opens my own understanding from those “crumbs.” I’m glad to hear your thoughts here.

  17. says

    Lyla- this smolders with recognition and resonance. Although i do not hate my job, I know exactly what you mean by the need to write about it, finding beauty and art in it. To me, the writing is almost like dreaming– Scientists still don’t understand why we dream, or how it happens. But they say we’d go insane without them.

  18. says

    And Bradley, I should probably be more clear there — while I’m not necessarily in my dream career, I’ve grown with it to a place where it’s very comfortable and right. (I don’t hate it anymore. 😉 ) It’s conflicted in many ways, but it’s good. And much of getting there was what happened when I started writing, and searching, and seeing.

    Comparing that to dreaming — I really like that. There’s something that happens in that process, of stepping outside and seeing and experiencing in a completely different way.

  19. says

    My goodness, what a rich discussion. Thanks to all of you for your thoughtful comments. And I am fascinated by this talk of fire. I do recognize the purifying element of it – even the re-creating one. I live in California where wildfires regularly cover the earth – and within days, green shoots appear. The problem is – we have built our homes, businesses, hospitals on top of this earth where wildfires regularly cover all. Then, when the fire comes, it is destructive. Period. Lyla’s poetic reflections on the after-effects of such destruction are a way in for those of us who read – and apparently, a way out for her, as she writes. That is what poetry can do, I think – offer us both a way in, and a way out. Thanks for all of this.


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