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More on the Heart: “Joyas Voladoras”

August 7, 2010

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.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. August 8, 2010 10:18

    jon, this post speaks to me so powerfully. i admit that i am scared of certain things in life. and i’m getting ready to “brick up” the wall right now to defend my heart. rejection and fear are painful and fearful. when one experiences it, one is definitely hurting. but i don’t want to miss out on many great and wonderful things. and i learned…that in my deepest sorrow…the Lord is my greatest joy.

    thank you, my friend. you just offered me a bunch of sunflowers to my weeping heart. (i know that might sound silly…but sunflowers are my favorite. they tend to cheer me up.)

    • jonathangroover permalink*
      August 9, 2010 8:26


      I’m really glad this post can help you. And you’re right, Christ is our greatest joy. We just have to get to a place where we will let him do his work. We want a band-aid, he wants to perform surgery. I pray that your heart is mended and made whole very soon.

    • SweetD permalink
      March 31, 2016 2:37

      Sunflowers are my favorite flower as well. I call them “Happy Flowers” because they make me smile. I told my family, when I die, I want my ashes to be spread over a field of sunflowers. They are very peaceful.

  2. November 3, 2011 4:23

    This is simply an awesome post. I loved this essay as well when we were analyzing it during class!

  3. Melissa permalink
    January 1, 2012 10:14

    Oh my gosh I love this to the core. My heart actually feels better. I cried after reading this. This is a meaningful moment right now. You are amazing.

    • jonathangroover permalink*
      January 6, 2012 6:32


      I’m so glad you were able to experience the beauty of this piece. It definitely had the same effect on me when I read the story. May your 2012 be filled with peace and joy that overcomes any sorrow. 🙂

  4. Birdy permalink
    June 28, 2012 1:43

    I really can’t establish a connection between the part about the hummingbird, the whale, and the human’s heart. How are they related? How do they symbolize the last paragraph? Why would the author spend most of the paragraph talking about hummingbirds and whales? What does the author mean by “we all churn inside”? I know the essay is about the heart but how is everything going together?

  5. Sam permalink
    September 30, 2012 11:21

    I was more drawn to the part where we are to “live alone in the house of the heart.” That we are independent from each other, that our perspectives are unique and individualized, that people will never be able to fully understand our perspective because they have to live in their own house, too, just like how we don’t know exactly the life of the blue whale. We at least can know a bit about its heart.

    But I like how you brought the idea of going through life despite pain. The hummingbird is going to die, and each heartbeat is killing it, but it continues to live in order to enjoy the nectar that also powers its heart. The blue whale continues to live despite finding something heartbreaking to moan about (e.g. death of its pair). And we too must continue to live despite the striking moments of life into our hearts.

  6. February 18, 2013 8:33

    I would like to list this blog about “Joyas Voladoras” on my English class syllabus, but I do not who to credit it to (other than “Jonathan”). 1. May I use your blog? 2. May I use your last name, or would you prefer I credit this to . . . ? Thanks. Mike Falcon, Glendale Community College, Glendale, California.

  7. December 9, 2013 5:14

    What college did you go to? If it was Columbia in Chicago, then I am in the same class you took, writing a journal about the same essay, in the same book. this really helped, thanks!!!!

  8. ethan hu permalink
    March 7, 2014 3:50

    AWESOME! you just helped me find the answer why brian doyle talked about hearts and memories for a school project! its because of how long heart beats are and how long life is and what we go through in life. thanks!

  9. Jessica Mendoza permalink
    July 1, 2014 3:12

    I’ve been trying to understand this essay for so long and you just made me understand this! Especially right now when I need it the most and it took me so long to find it I only knew it was about hummingbirds and heartbeats. And I found it right here with such a great explanation on life and happiness and pain. Thank you!

  10. August 13, 2014 6:36

    A delightful piece, richly told and as full of depth as Brian Doyle’s short story. I, too, read “Joyas Valadoras” in college and was moved so much that it has stuck with me for years. I find myself recalling his story often whenever I see a hummingbird or hear friend’s talk of one. What Doyle did in a few pages was masterful. He moved the audience to “consider” and, truly, you walk away from the read both enriched and enlightened. Thank you for your wonderful review.

    Torie Amarie Dale

  11. LoveKafka permalink
    March 19, 2015 2:25

    I’m glad I found your blog. My child in 6th grade is reading this and I feel bad for him because the crux of the essay is in the last paragraph and he did not understand it at all. He was to write an interpretive essay about this piece and he skipped the last paragraph altogether. I had to read it several times for myself and then explain each line to him. But, even I was missing the “live deeply” part …. I wasn’t able to put it into those exact words. However, it is a 6th grader’s essay assignment and I am not sure he understands all the “live deeply” part so those would not be words he would use.
    I’m surprised this college level poetic essay is being read by 6th graders.

    Thank you!

  12. gage permalink
    April 22, 2015 10:24

    it was touching and sad

  13. Emily permalink
    February 11, 2016 4:26

    First, I just wanted to say that this is an amazing story. I’m a freshmen in high school, and my pre-ap English class read this story on Monday. It left me speechless. My teacher gave us an assignment to write an essay on this story. I’m supposed to find two themes or overall messages in this story and find two or three examples of text evidence to support my claim. Do you think you could give me an idea for the theme of this story? I would really appreciate it, thank you so much!

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