This past weekend, I had the privilege of attending poet, David Whyte’s day long workshop, Solace, The Art of Asking the Beautiful Question. You may have heard his poetry during your yoga class or meditation instruction when the teacher senses a quote-worthy place has arisen within your Sangha’s mysterious arc. It’s also possible that by nature of having become the dedicated gentle stalker of the sinuous and unrelenting questions of your soul, have by grace or sheer necessity, found, “Solace”, in his writing.
One of Whyte’s masteries is his capacity to name the unnamed thing. The thing that no matter, how eclipsed from our doubtful, suffering, or at times even elated perspective, surfaces, if only for a glimpse, to remind us we are not alone. His writing honours how each moment is not a solitary event, but a companioned journey, twinned with an unknown, who with us, in spite of us, and because of us, makes way with us. His poems speak to these hopefully growing stack of moments along the trail we call our life, who in their rebellion of such offered kinship, intimately and startlingly shatter back into wakefulness that life lives us.
As a young twenty-something, Whyte was a nature guide in The Galapagos. He then went on to work in corporate America until one day he knew he must become a full-time poet. In his biography, slash inspirational read, Crossing the Unknown Sea, trading in his secure although hectically earned bank account for the bard’s quill reads as though the knowing awoke and was implemented quickly and humbly. Inspiring to say the least.
Whyte has a gift for praising these exalted and treacherous times when life comes calling for us and many of his poems are about that revelation-tinged moment when we are made privy to its plans. He describes these phenomena as, “the season has ended”, and we must, “let things go with a blessing”. I believe in this simplicity.
During the workshop, a thirty-something man in the audience asked him,
“I have a business and a business partner that long have been ready to change. I know what must be done, but I have a wife and three children who rely on me. Given the experience you have with risking change, how do you suggest I proceed?”
In his skill, a mix of candour and courage, Whyte elegantly leveled with the young man saying, “the truth is, when you make a change like this, it likely asks you to go “without” for a time.” (Meaning dollars). He proposed the young man have a conversation in which he name the ended season with his business partner, and begin the new conversation by asking his wife if she would partner with him in the change life has asked of him. Whyte went on encouraging us with lines from his poem, Start Close In, in which he recommends before speaking with others, we:
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
you don’t want to take.
Reciting beautifully to all of us, he continued with,
Start with your own
give up on other
don’t let them
your own voice,
Whyte’s poems are often stories about the revelations that herald change and how they are revealed while in relationship with nature. For him, these places have ranged from cliffs in Ireland to the sunlight in his own home.
During his talk, he discussed how places have a genius loci, a local protector or “spirit of a place”, who calls out and makes manifest secrets we have chosen not to meet in ourselves. Some revelations can look like the growing and disquieting suspicion we are now to leave the job, the marriage, or maybe simply the park before our best laid plans and ideals allot for. On the other side, it can also ask for yet another dark crag of our supposedly already open heart to unfold, or for the flowers to be placed on the table just so, or for that manuscript, that dust gathering secret in your mental attic to present, and finally see the light of a page.
In a sense, he’s saying, whatever it is, this next move, this new thing, has never existed before, not through you anyways. It comes calling and we must “become the private ear that can really listen”. Earlier in his talk, Whyte quoted Antonio Machado (1875-1939), the great poet of the Spanish Civil War, who he says might well have been speaking to and about us when he wrote,
Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino y nada más;
caminante, no hay camino,se hace camino al andar.
Pathmaker, your footsteps
are the path and nothing more;
pathmaker, there is no path,
you make the path by walking.
Whyte tells us to set ourselves on a bearing, “start close in, take the one step you don’t want to take, your own.” Because even if you’re even slightly off, what is real in your life cannot be let go of, it will stay, but if we don’t set our bearing in this way, later on, we could end up very far away.