When I was a senior in college I took a creative writing class as part of my English major. In this class we read a number of essays and short-stories in a collection that promotes up and coming writers. In any case, as I was flipping through this book, I ran across a very short essay called “Joyas Voladoras” by Brian Doyle. While only slightly over two pages, this essay perfectly captures the reality of the human heart and the pain of love. The last paragraph is one of the most beautiful–and heart-wrenching–paragraphs that I’ve read in all of literature. It literally knocks the breath out of you.
As part of the class, we read the story out loud together by taking turns reading paragraphs. As I had already read it, I knew that when we reached the last paragraph, we would want to be prepared. I don’t mean the kind of prepared where we brace ourselves for an impact that we don’t want to feel, but the kind of preparation where we need to pause to give our hearts the time and space to really feel what is about to happen. Far too often we ignore the deepest emotions of our heart, and I didn’t want this to be one of those times. So as we neared the final paragraph, I raised my hand and suggested that our professor should read the last paragraph so we could all listen and let the experience of this reading fully hit us. She quietly smiled and said that I should read it.
I began reading out loud slowly and deliberately not wanting to rush over the lines for fear of having this moment end too quickly. When someone captures the human experience in the way this writer did, you can actually enter into it yourself as you read. And as I read, our creative writing class entered into this moment. At the end, I looked up, and our teacher (and a number of others if I’m not mistaken) were wiping tears away from their eyes. It is one of my favorite moments of college, and perhaps my life.
“Joyas Valadoras” is the name given to the humming bird by the first explorers in the Americas. It means “flying jewels” and the description of the hummingbird–and the hummingbird’s heart–is how Doyle begins this essay. Don’t be fooled by the word “essay” for it is far too poetic to be a mere essay. In fact, the first sentence of this piece gives wise instructions for how the reader should approach the whole piece: “Consider the hummingbird for a long moment.” In other words, don’t rush through this.
Doyle describes the hummingbird’s heart. It beats ten times per second and is the size of a “pencil eraser.” In fact, the heart beats so fast that on a cold night or when they need to sleep they are actually in danger of dying for the heart slows down too much. Rest for them can be deadly. Doyle explains it like this: “On frigid nights…they retreat into torpor, their metabolic rate slowing to a fifteenth of their normal sleep rate, their hearts slugging nearly to a halt, barely beating, and if they are not warmed, if they do not soon find that which is sweet, their hearts grow cold, and they cease to be.” [**Stay with me here, for this is far more than an essay describing the physical conditions of a hummingbird!**]
Doyle then asks us to consider those humming birds who do not wake up: “Consider for a moment those hummingbirds who did not open their yes again today…each thunderous wild heart the size of an infant’s fingernail, each mad heart silent, a brilliant music stilled.” Doyle explains that the hummingbird’s heart races incredibly fast, so much so that they often experience heart-failure or aneurysms–more than any other creature. The nature of the racing of their hearts is such that their lives are very short.
Then slowly and imperceptibly, Doyle is not talking about a hummingbird’s heart anymore. That is not what this essay is about anyway. He writes, “Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise, and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old.”
In contrast, Doyle explains that the biggest heart in the world is that of a blue whale. It ways seven tons!! Yet, we know very little about this gigantic creature. There are about 10,000 blue whales in the world and “of the largest mammal who ever lived we know nearly nothing.” But Doyle goes on to write, “But we know this: the animals with the largest hearts in the world generally travel in pairs, and their penetrating moaning cries, their piercing yearning tongue, can be heard underwater for miles and miles.”
As should be obvious by now, Doyle is doing far more than describing the hearts of various animals. In explaining about the hearts of animals, he has subtly been drawing us into this reality: “We all churn inside.” In this creation there is unimaginable beauty (“flying jewels”) and their is excruciating pain (“a brilliant music stilled”). And so finally, we are led to his masterful ending and the real point of this whole piece. If you’ve read this far, I encourage you to take a minute and quiet your heart. Let yourself feel these words. It may hurt, but it will almost certainly heal as well. In giving an overview of the hearts of creatures, Doyle ends with this:
“So much held in a heart in lifetime. So much held in a heart in day, and hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one, in the end–not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart. Perhaps we must. Perhaps we could not bear to be so naked, for fear of a constantly harrowed heart. When young we think there will come one person who will savor and sustain us always; when we are older we know this is the dream of a child, that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn, repaired by time and will, patched by force of character, yet fragile and rickety forevermore, no matter how ferocious the defense and how many bricks you bring to the wall. You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.”
We’re meant to experience deeply this life. Deeply. And that hurts. And naturally we attempt to shield ourselves from the pain. And in the short-term, that may work. But, we’re not meant to “brick up our heart” so that it’s cold and impregnable. We’re meant to go on, and as we go, we experience pain and sorrow–and there’s a hell of a lot of it. But you know what, in the midst of all of the pain that humanity bears, there’s real love and real joy too. And we’re meant and designed to experience that as well. Let’s not close off our hearts to the few things in life (i.e., joy, friendship, love, courage, God, eternity) that make this all worth it, just because we have to have a little (or a lot of) “pain and sorrow” along the way. What kind of life is that in the end?
Keep living–and feeling deeply.
December 10, 2012 EWRT 1A A Heart-To-Heart with “Joyas Voladoras ” Brian Doyle wrote a poetic piece called “Joyas Voladoras”, which is laced with hidden messages through the use of his metaphors, similes, and symbolism. The general meaning is left for interpretation uniquely by each reader who comes across it, and the details so heavy, that one who reads it is instantly able to draw a deeper meaning which coincides with whatever life lesson speaks most to them. For the analysis I personally came up with, I was able to infer a life lesson within all of the poetic devices used. Doyle's first, long, inferable metaphor using the hummingbird as a fast paced, short lived, small-hearted creature, then moving on to a summary of the whale, who, in contrast, is a large, proportionally slower moving creature, with a literally gargantuan heart, using the gift as a giant sponge to enjoy a slow paced life, cherishing every moment, but it leaves no significant markers of its presence behind as a representation of its life, is a key what the author is outlining. There comes two choices in how a life will play out based on action, where the life can be spent as a whole unit to produce something great, like a hummingbird, or it can be lived moment to moment, only focusing on the significance of yourself, like the great blue whale [parallel antithesis]. The last paragraph is one of the most beautiful–and heart-wrenching–paragraphs that I’ve read in all of literature. It literally knocks the breath out of you. It is a clear summary for how all of this talk about animals is actually meant for us human beings, us homosapien sapiens, man twice wise, to learn from the lives of one of the smallest creatures, and from the life of the most massive of creatures. As a light source which Doyle uses to inform the reader that this whole essay is not just about the size of the heart, he includes a short section of insight, one which I find to be the revealing text the essay would fail without. Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them