Dining with David Whyte, Part 1

Someone recently asked Barbara Walters who she thought would/could “replace” Oprah as the queen of talk TV.  Barbara put her own astute spin on her answer and said, “Lady Gaga.”  She wasn’t referring to Lady Gaga as a talk show personality, but rather as a charismatic figure who speaks directly to her fans (her “little monsters”) with a message of empowerment and courage:  “It is a different time but the same message: ‘I had to struggle, I couldn’t get there, look at me, I made it, and YOU CAN TOO.’  And both of these women, Lady Gaga at 25 and Oprah in her 50’s, both of them mean it.”

Oprah has always authentically aspired to motivate her viewers, listeners and readers to live their “best lives,” and Gaga does the same.  Whether you like her (or even care about her) or not, Lady Gaga is a cultural phenomenon to pay attention to, if for no other reason than the extraordinary popularity she experiences.  She is bizarre, real, savvy, and culturally attuned to the complex issue of 21st century identity.  She has said: “I am the excuse to explore your identity.  To be exactly who you are and to feel unafraid.  To not judge yourself, to not hate yourself.” 

If this message seems worn out or far removed for you, (e.g. if you had had enough of Oprah’s empowerment talk, or are thrown off by the image of Gaga wearing a raw steak on her head or clumping through an airport in 24″ Viktor & Rolf platforms), take a moment to reflect on how many negative thoughts you had about yourself since you woke up today: 3, 5, 10, 50?  Not hating yourself is not about being a TV talk show mega-star, or a theatrical, otherworldly musician; it’s about waking up in the morning and being your own best friend.  It’s about talking to yourself as you would to someone you loved.  Or, at the very least, being someone who, as Anne Lamott writes, is militantly on your own side.  We all need more practice at that.

This post is a story about the terror and the triumph of following your passion.

About 18 months ago, before we had to start buying our own tissues at work, I had access to a small but not insignificant amount of money that was left over from a grant proposal.  Basically there was some money sitting around that no one was going to claim, and with some creative rationalization, it could justifiably be spent on helping young professionals to balance their work/life responsibilities. 

As it happened, my all-time favorite contemporary British poet/writer, David Whyte, had just written a book on this topic (The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship).  He’s one of my heroes and most important teachers.  His Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity was crucial for me at a time when I felt depressed and aimless in my professional life, and several of his poems have helped me want to stay alive.  When I learned about the surplus money, I thought, “I’m going to call David Whyte.  I’m going to see if he will come to our campus.”

I was tentative and embarrassed when I first called his office in Washington State.  I apologized for being from the midwest and for wanting him to visit in the dismal month of March.  I worried the office people might laugh at me.  But the women who worked in his office were profoundly friendly.  Someone told me that her step-daughter had just graduated from Illinois and they had found it quite lovely.   They sent me a wonderful press kit and a pricing sheet, and things unfolded from there.

The planning of David Whyte’s visit fell into the “this is a great idea but I’m too busy to worry about it” category as far as the upper echelons of administration were concerned, which was perfect for me.  It meant that  I had the freedom to organize the visit exactly how I wanted without having to plan stuffy, status-conscious, academic talking head events.  And I had two main goals: 1) anyone within driving distance who wanted to hear David Whyte speak could do so, free of charge; and 2) I wanted to talk to him about poetry.  Alone.  Not just cocktail party talk but a real, substantive, one-on-one conversation about things that had started to feel like life and death issues to me.  I wanted to talk about the heart of poetry.

I spent the winter work days planning and publicizing.  And at night, I listened over and over to “Footsteps: A Writing Life,” a 6-CD collection of David Whyte talking through his first 4 books of poetry.  It felt like a quiet but very deep apprenticeship, not to David Whyte the person, because that would be sort of creepy, but to the belief that it is possible, and in fact necessary, to create a life that is fully your own. 

In March, after months of planning, David Whyte finally arrived.  Over 300 people, some from as far away as Minnesota planned to attend his public evening talk.

My first thought when I met him was, “Wow, he’s just a person.”  And he looked tired.  He graciously and attentively fulfilled all of the campus obligations–meeting with college administrators, talking with students about creativity, and conversing with faculty.  He was an exceptional listener, and seemed possessed of deep confidence and kind humility at the same time.

I shuttled him around, kept him on schedule, got him an extra box lunch when he said he was still hungry, brought him wherever he had to go.  When spoken to directly, I babbled.  He asked me something about my dissertation, and I forgot what it had been about.  While walking across campus, the heel on one of my shoes (that I had, of course, bought specifically for that day) broke, the only time in my life that has happened. 

But then the evening came and it was magical.  Transcendant.  It was one of the greatest evenings of my life.  I’ll tell you all about it in Part 2 of this story, but for now, the message is this: the most important thing about following your passion is what it allows you to do for other people.  Being who you are meant to be is not a gift you give yourself; it’s what you give to the world.  It’s Oprah and the millions of people she’s touched, it’s Lady Gaga and her little monsters, it’s Stephanie Nielsen and the nieniedialogues, it’s YOU and whomever you meet during the day.  Father Tim, the main character of Jan Karon’s immensely popular Mitford novels describes offering up the same prayer every day: “Lord, make me a blessing to someone today.”  That’s what being yourself lets you do and be.  What greater gift is there? 

Sweet Darkness

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love. 

The dark will be your womb
tonight.

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see. 

You must learn one thing:
the world was made to be free in. 

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn 

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

David Whyte, House of Belonging

Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” video

12 Comments

Filed under courage, David Whyte, Lady Gaga

12 responses to “Dining with David Whyte, Part 1

  1. Barbara England

    I found this poem and post especially moving, Leslie. I am always touched by your honesty. And the idea of following one’s dream/passion means a lot to me as I still try to figure that one out. Thank you.

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  2. Linda K

    The Whyte poem is wonderful. I am looking forward to Part 2.

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    • LCS

      The best part of this poem for me, Linda, is that he describes not knowing what the next line after, “You must learn one thing” would be when he was writing the poem! He says that he was looking at the blank space on the page, just waiting for it to come. I love this story because it has so much trust and self-permission in it.

      Thanks for reading and sharing!

      Like

  3. Lynn Podoll

    Always enlightening.

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  4. colleen crowley

    Thank you again, Leslie. I am in awe of what you pulled together for so many-“Do what makes you happy and thus make many others joyful as well. ” Whyte’s visit, that is to say.
    I think the paraphrased quote is from a book on Findhorn I have been reading. As long as it hurts no one else. With Oprah or Gaga I see our culture’s need for a Goddess, a Kwan Yin or blessed mother god–we are looking to redress the imbalance of too much masculine and more feminine. I do not see one or the other as superior but I do sense a strong longing for balance. I admire both women, just learning about Gaga at this point. I missed work to watch Oprah’s last show: loved her message, still trying to answer the questions she raises for me. Thanks for the link to Gaga – the film reminded me of a dragonfly birthing from the waters, it had a great message and was well done. She is obviously a multi-media artist. And again, there is obviously the fairytale imagery.
    Most of all, I appreciate you introducing me to David Whyte. The poem was very good but I think there is also poetry in the breaking of the heel on your new shoes. Lovely. I can’t wait for part two! Blessings for your ministry, Colleen

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    • LCS

      Awesome observations (as always), Colleen! One of the comments Jada Pinkett Smith (Will Smith’s wife) made to Oprah on one of her last shows was, “You don’t have children of your own, but you’ve mothered us all. And that makes you a goddess.” Seems totally in line with what you are saying (regardless of how anyone feels about Oprah).

      Thanks for your thoughtful readership!

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  5. marilyn

    loved this post Leslie! The poem had a special meaning for me. I am in a state of transition right now and trying to find out how I can put some meaning into my life by following my passion! I appear to need some time alone now so that I can focus! Hoping that I will have the courage to take chances and really make a difference in somebody’s life. This poem is a keeper. I posted it on my refrigerator. Looking forward to part 2

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    • LCS

      I love that you posted this on your fridge!!! Please know that you’ve already made a difference in many lives (mine included), and also that you have all my best, loving-est wishes on your journey to find more meaning in your life! xoxoxox

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  6. Shelly Wickwire

    I too loved this post. It is perfectly aligned with my reality – trying to re-invent, or strike a new and more realistic balance between what I need and what I need to give to the world (the “realistic” part shifting downward as my age increases). I have been in a reflective space regarding divisions of my seemingly diminishing time resources and am looking forward to the insight that your poet may offer. I also loved Father Tim’s prayer in Karon’s work, but would change it to to ask that every encounter that I have be a blessing to the other person but also that they would also bless me with something in the exchange.
    Simply spend more time looking for what others have to teach me would likely be mutually beneficial.

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    • LCS

      I totally get what you are saying here, Shelly. Thanks for sharing. I’ve found that when I say that prayer, and then the opportunity arises, it’s already a blessing. Something intrinsically calming and reassuring happens to me when I know that prayer has been answered for me on that day.

      And you get about 30 days of having that prayer answered given how much of a blessing you were to me–every single day–during our time together!

      Like

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