Heart-Work: “Flare up like a flame”

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

– Rilke, from “Book of Hours”

This week, this has been the poem in my head. I’ve loved Rilke since I read “Letters to a Young Poet” in high school, but this poem is the one I come back to over and again. It reminds me to grow larger – to the “limits of [my] longing,” even. It reminds me that there is something bigger than myself (some call it God) that I can embody in this vastness. I can open to what is and continue. This invitation to expand myself – to take the hand of the divine amidst the beauty and terror and seriousness of life – to go to the limits of my longing and embody Love in the face of beauty and terror and seriousness — it fills me with this sense of peace and stillness. I feel a physical expansion in my chest as I read this poem. I love it that much.

I’m thinking a lot lately about the work of our hearts.

Meaning, I’m thinking a lot lately about the work our hearts do on a spiritual level every day in this world. I’m wondering how different others’ heart-work is than mine. I’m wondering how it’s the same.

Yesterday, I was talking to a friend about the really, really difficult week I had. We laughed, because that’s what you have to do, and she got the heart-work it takes to do this job. We talked about the way you have to get right up into the problem. You have to get right up in the tangled, jumbled, garbled mess, and you have to understand what it’s like to be in that if you hope to make any sort of change.

It would be easy for me to stay in my comfort zone and look over at the mess, poke at it a couple times, and make a recommendation. But nothing’s going to be done that way. Instead, I need to walk fearlessly and directly into the mess. This is the heart-work. It is my heart-work. It is some of my heart-work. This work of connection, and seeing, and being un-afraid: this is the work of my heart.

Several weeks ago, a caregiver of a young man for whom I had to walk so fearlessly, so directly, with so much heart and presence into that mess — his caregiver hugged me when we were through, after I delivered some difficult news she did not want to hear. She said, “this is the first time in 15 years I’ve ever met with anyone and not cried. Nobody has ever really tried to understand him. Nobody has been honest with me. I feel so good about this.”

This is the heart-work. This is the value of connection, and seeing, and walking straight in, fearlessly. Present. Un-afraid.
Recently, I also keep thinking about this:

When I was in graduate school, during an advising/dissertation meeting, my advisor asked me to re-cap everything I had been involved in over the year. I made the list: Practicum, TA, Extra Practicum experience, Social Outreach Coordinator for Student Government, on and on…basic overachiever type.

“Huh,” she said. “We’re nominating people for awards right now. You’re the type of person who’s always doing really great things and should get an award, but is always going to be overlooked.”

I never got an award.

And this isn’t about any sort of bitterness. This is about that comment. It’s not that it still hurts (although it did at the time). It’s more about the ways that comment made me feel small. It’s about the way small always seemed to feel comfortable. It’s about the way this almost felt like a compliment about my humility.

It’s about the way I am learning to go to the “limits of my longing.” To embody all that is. To let everything happen and to find this place where fear and anxiety isn’t. I do not feel small here.

When I think about it, the word small has come up a lot in my poetry recently:

“I am learning to/ breathe this body. Learning to /move to/unsmall myself, learning to/ expand.”

“Always too small and too/ large for this world, I have only ever wanted to/bring myself to life…”

“…together we were/invisible and invincible and/ it was never love but I loved him in a way that made us/ not small at a time when we were both/ unseen.”

“A poem is so small — / it is only words on a page, spoken and then/ gone; I want to be large. / The vastness of my embodying reaching / out so I can expand to exist/ beyond this: take my hand and we will make/ the moon.”

A few weeks ago, I wrote these words:

“Here is what I know: I can’t keep quiet because there is a fire that is burning inside me. I can no longer afford to keep it covered: I risk smoldering. I risk becoming nothing; I risk disintegrating into ash.”

When we go out to the limits of our longing – when we embody Love and Light and we really hear what is our heart-work, we can’t keep quiet. We flare up like a flame so large, All That Is can move within the long shadows we cast with our light.

I wrote: “I cannot be afraid of my passion. I cannot be afraid of my voice. I cannot be afraid of my intensity. These are not sins that exist to shame me.”

This country of Life is no joke. Beings of love: let’s unsmall our hearts. Let’s join hands and embody the biggest Love and Life you can imagine.

Life is too beautiful to be small.

We have too much flame to go unnoticed.


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