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?
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
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
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.
David Whyte, House of Belonging