I had occasion recently to go on retreat for three days to an island in the Pacific Northwest. It was a time for me to do what I often recommend for leaders, to reflect on what I’m doing in light of what I’ve done, and explore what it might portend for my future. I sought the company of others of my vocation, at a similar age and stage of life, excited about what we might discover together.
As I write here, I am carrying a resonance deep inside me of the presence and poetry of a visitor to the retreat: David Whyte. He describes himself as a poet-philosopher, a practitioner of something he calls ‘the art of conversational reality,’ by which he means the encounter between one’s self and the world at each moment of our days, where our past intersects with the imagined future of our lives. He explained this perspective to the group of us at the retreat and I was touched by his evocations of meetings held with himself at that frontier, inner conversations that became poems, words put on a page, arrayed in lines of varying lengths and stanzas, daring for the moment as poets do to essay the unknown, the darkness ahead, with only the beacon of his glowing soul to light the way.
He told the tale of a trip to Ireland and a visit to a stone chapel local monks built to fish from years ago over the Cong River in Connemara. He described the effect all could imagine of standing beside a coursing stream or on a bridge over one, the water flowing beneath you, the water’s look, its sound, first becoming ‘a thing,’ an entity, a something freshly understood in this time, this place. But also in the same moment not a thing, not a fixed something, but rather a medium, something that serves some purpose beyond itself. And his telling transported us in place to the still sturdy ruin of this ancient chapel, looking at once down and through an opening in the floor at the blur, a blurry patch rushing past; then lifting our gaze out the open side of the chapel to see that patch flowing off downstream…recalling for me the stoppered bottle I tossed into the Pamlico River of my childhood, upon reading Robinson Crusoe, reading Treasure Island, holding a message to some other wide-eyed city-bound shipwrecked boy on the other side of the world.
He brought us there imaginatively and then recited for us ‘Cleave,’ his poem about [_________]. Important to put a space there for the object of ‘about,’ generally speaking when it’s a poem that is the object of discussion, as the very good ones shun easy answers, shimmer in the sun on the forward path so you wonder, your curiosity piqued, what is that? as you approach and bend towards them.
And specifically in the case of ‘Cleave’ to not so quickly fill in the blank for its subject, for it is many things in one. He opens with a meditation on the Olde English meanings of the word ‘cleave,’ “to hold together and to split apart, at one and the same time;” then moves directly inside the consciousness we all share deep within of “the shock of being born” – all of us carrying an awareness from that moment, of “breathing in this world / while lamenting for the one we’ve left,” the encompassing care and safety of our first world: our mother’s womb.
This awareness puts within us the knowledge, an active knowing, of loss, an “everyday and intimate embrace with disappearance” that, if we allow, if we stay tuned to that frequency of transmission, will take us to a window into something essential in the present moment, in Whyte’s view:
We were born saying goodbye
to what we love,
we were born
in a beautiful reluctance to be here…
we are present while still not
wanting to admit we have arrived.
How many of us know the pause that lives in the current moment, the hesitancy before action to commit, eh? It’s epidemic in Millennials we are told, for various reasons associated with this day and age, too many choices, too frenzied a life pace, too easy for Twitter-world to trivialize something they might dare to cherish.
But even the most action-oriented leader of earlier generations feels the weight of a wrong move retarding the pace of decision. This market with this product…now or later? This level of investment in this type of infrastructure…vs more or less in some other one? This divestment… to fund which next acquisition?
The poem encourages us to connect these questions with something intrinsic to us as humans, to see as normal the hesitancy we might otherwise view pejoratively as indecisiveness.
Those of us becoming the elder generation know this pause equally in ourselves: how long to continue working, what to do next; how much do we need to earn for ‘retirement,’ where to invest when. And what is retirement anymore, a thing of the past, not for us, for we are
always growing older
while trying to grow younger,
always in the act
of catching up,
We reach down for that shining unknown something in the forward path to the next world, yet, unaccountably, reach back simultaneously for the familiar, the known, our deep reference the care and safety left behind in our first world…
in each new and imagined future
the still-lived memory
of our previous life.
What does this feeling of loss, universally shared and carried by all, teach us about the present moment? How should it shape the conversation as we face the reality of encounter with the world beyond?
We spent our final afternoon at the retreat in solo ‘walkabout’ on the retreat center grounds, ruminating individually to culminate the weekend’s experience. I sat the entire time beneath a giant cedar tree, but in my mind’s eye I was in the fishing chapel above the coursing Cong. I plotted a course for the next phase of my life journey as I sat over the stream, a conversation with myself at the frontier where my past intersected with my imagined future, to decide where I will go and what I will do next, whose company and whose help I will seek along the way. I found, taking a line from another of his poems, ‘I promised what I needed to promise all along.’
As I gathered myself to report, imbued with this new intimate knowledge, three long-familiar watchwords, echoed by earlier conversations in the retreat, bobbed to the surface as guidelines:
- Respect for the other’s burden, every bit as challenging and important as my own
- Curiosity to know how the challenge lives in others in the present day, to experience the world and its streams as they are and will become
- Generosity in encounter with the unknown, with hopefulness as my opening expectation
Useful guidelines for future encounters with others, I’d say, and if this retreat was any proof, equally useful for present encounters with one’s self.
Comments? I’d like to hear your thoughts. Email me at email@example.com
Postscript. David Whyte teaches by the example of his inquiry just as powerfully as he does with his written words. Think back to your first encounters with adult poems, 8th grade English or earlier, whenever it was, and how your eyes coursed forward then back, back and forth over the lines, working to make sense of them. He does that work for you verbally in delivering his poems, a few steps forward then one or two steps back, approaching the end then back to earlier, finishing only when you’ve taken everything else in, and are ready for the closing words. Masterful delivery.
I encourage you to watch his talk from TED2017.