Tucked into the nooks and crannies of the last several weeks has been my slow reading and annotation of a remarkable book I discovered when I asked the Great Oracle of the Web to answer a personal conundrum.
Each of us in our own way and at our own pace stop and ask “what’s next?”, “what can I do?” or, more insistently, “what should I do?” when faced with one of life’s puzzles.
In this case, the puzzle seemed to be about the travails of my grown children that seemed beyond my understanding and my ability to impact in some positive way and given (or seen in juxtaposition to) my own progressions and changes in health, life, marriage, etc.
I forget just precisely how I posed the question to the oracle but, as it is wont to do, the search engine surprised me wholly by almost immediately pointing to a book.
“Here, read this. It’s written by that same fellow who wrote that poem you always have to re-find when someone dies and which speaks so eloquently, which acts as its own expression of condolence and faith, when someone loses someone very close to them in death.”
The poem is called Cloud-Hidden; you’ll find it below.
I wasn’t dealing with death, at least in the sense of loss of mortality, but that obvious clue suggested that someone who could express something so profoundly and so well in 98 words might just have some insights.
I ordered the book. And Saturday morning I finished it as the proud little avian gentlemen chirped from the shade their morning “you and me, how ‘bout it?” 12-note ditties outside my window in the cool and crips rising sunlight after a night of rain and dense humdiity.
David Whyte works in the world of corporate development fostering engagement with the world, its denizens and its conversations; the idea that he might have something to say to people struggling to have meaningful conversations with people they loved had merit.
As I worked into the book “The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship”, it occurred to me that it was a graduate seminar in summoning the magic , an extension of that small collection I’d assembled for myself and my children and that, given my intent to offer something of value to them, perhaps I should first read it myself. (Keep in mind what Whyte has to say about self in “Life at the Frontier”.)
So it was with curiosity that I dove into a text about work, relationship and self at the age of 67, after extensive inquiry into who I was and what I had to offer the world, after 40 years of marriage, after 35 years of employment, after a life-changing encounter with love and mortality.
Having raised two children, having had my own difficulties and successes in martial conversation, having left something of my self inside the work forged during a lifelong conversation with the world, I thought perhaps this fellow might teach me something and offer some value to my children. I was not disappointed. 85% of the way through, I ordered three more copies to give to the very people I wished to help, reach, and love. I urge you to find your own copy and read it at a leisurely pace.
“Three Marriages looks at the triumphs and tragedies of human belongings in three crucial areas that most individuals simply can’t avoid: in relationship, in work and in all those strange and inexplicable inner ways we belong to ourselves.
It seeks to understand the often accident-prone, the sometimes triumphant, the very often comic and the too often tragic and disastrous, human attempts to belong to something or someone other than our very own well-known but very often very, very boring established selves. It looks at what happens along the way when we become more interesting: when we get out the dynamics of self-entrapment and fall in love– with a person, a future, a work, or with a new sense of self.
At the same time, Three Marriages looks at that other equally strange human need, to be completely and utterly alone, trolling the deep riches of an inner peace and quiet
where the self can actually seem lithe, movable, limitless and inviolate, invulnerable to those invisible wounds delivered by partners and spouses, unharassed by commitments, inured to the clamor of children, and untouched by the endless nature of our meetings, all of which come as a result of a deep-seated, not-to-be-suppressed, inherited human need to belong — indeed, that constant basic need we cannot ignore— to be part of a bigger conversation that the one we are having now.” [Pages 11-12]
To be part of ‘a bigger conversation that the one we are having now’ resonated immediately with the central thrust of my search engine inquiry. I’d been in love with people, had been deeply invested in work (of both employment and ‘creative’ nature), had two children, and had certainly spent considerable energy looking into my own self, so this book was going to have something to say to me.
Almost immediately Whyte spoke of commitment, resolve and more when he noted those moments in our lives “when we held our hand in a fist and made unspoken vows for what we had just glimpsed”.
“ [The internal cry might arise] ‘Why would anyone in his right mind logically choose to marry?’ In effect, both partners must suffer a kind of logical self-impairment to make the commitment. A marriage is creatively destructive of both partners’ cherished notions of themselves. Despite the initial hopes of perfection, what one partner wants will not occur; what the other partner wants will not occur. Both are left with the actual marriage: a radically new conversation that is built on the razed foundations of their former identities.”[Page 51]
“What is the thing called the self that drives home from work and walks through the door into a relationship? Who is it who goes out the door in the morning and leaves a loved one, husband, a wife, a daughter, home behind and looks to a new future in the day?”[Page 81]
“… we often find ourselves surrounded by bossy, hectoring voices trying to short-circuit our personal experience by superimposing their own disappointments”[Page 93]
[Julia Cameron does a wonderful job of enumerating and naming these ‘bossy, hectoring voices’ in her seminal book “The Artist’s Way”; many of those voices are present in the flesh in your life and are given such names as “wet blanket” and “crazy-maker”.]
It doesn’t interest me if there is one God
or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel
If you could know despair or can see it in others.
I want to know
if you’re prepared to live in the world
with its harsh need
to change you. If you can look back
with firm eyes
saying this is where I stand. I want to know
if you know how to melt into that fierce heat of living falling toward
the center of your longing. I want to know
if you’re willing
to live, day by day, with the consequence of love
and the bitter
unwanted passion of your sure defeat.
I’ve been told, in that fearsome embrace, even
the gods speak of God.
David White, River Flow: new and selected poems 1984-2007 [Pages 95-96]
“Falling in love is subversive to societal order, and its pursuit could never follow abstract rules arranged by others with no knowledge of the particularity of the person pursued. Love is individual, as Dante rediscovered, and must be given a larger world than the one that society is prepared to allow it.”[Page 112]
“The pursuit of another with hopes of a marriage of hearts and minds involves a dismantling of our usual daily self-protections. There is a sense of a current larger than one we have generated ourselves, tearing us off to as yet unknown places. There are roads to be taken, tides [or flights] to be caught, and places to go, a sense of drama, urgency and necessity.
The pressing dramatic qualities that accompanied the pursuit are all diagnostic features that the passion is a real one and worth following. For those who can garner at least a little wisdom amid the madness, there’s also sense that the journey itself will provide the test of whether what we are pursuing is good for us, real or lasting.
There is also a sense of abduction, of the pursuit not being a fully voluntary affair. With a sense of being stolen away comes another form of self-protection through sleight-of-hand and secrecy. The enterprise is barely believable to ourselves, so how can we explain what is really happening to others? Under these circumstances, no advice should ever be given to those in love. Blood should issue from our lips before we say a word of warning to friends, relatives or even our children. They will go their own way and cross any oceans in their way. Who, in that state, has ever listen to anything but what they wish to hear? [Page 118 – 119]
“My work is not a walk in the mountains, it is not surveying the undercurrents of a ballroom, it is not leaving troops on the field of battle. It is writing the next word. This task elicits no sympathy from the gnarled steelworkers of this world, but put a brawny, no-nonsense, iron-fisted steelworker in a closed room with a blank page for an hour and you will soon have him donning his mask and very hapily getting back to perspiring in front of hot buckets of molten steel. All of us remember the blank page from childhood, no matter if we never lifted a pen again after graduation.”[Page 121]
“We leave the beckoning blank page of our life completely empty because we don’t have confidence on the particular first sentence that confronts us.[Page 122]
“This invitation to the depths, this challenge to get below the surface, is a dynamic that faces not just the writer but all people who really want to know what is eating at them, what is asking to be addressed, what lies beneath the surface busyness.”[Page 128]
I was struck when reading about this ‘wanting to know what is asking to be addressed’ because it echoed my own personal tribulations and seemed to echo some of those in my children. I keep in mind Kahlil Gibran’s admonition that our children are not our children (they are life’s longing for itself) but sometimes the answers to a conundrum come when you focus on something else.
I was immediately prompted to pull out a pen and jot down, on the blank pages at the back of the book, those times when I had been able to — was challenged to — “drill down” into the depths. This impromptu list went a long way towards describing who I am and, perhaps with some additional mental trench-digging, who I might become.
The first time this occurred was when I was 19. I was a probationary firefighter who’d flunked ladders and been sent to the less physically-demanding activities of ambulance training and duty, and the dispatch desk, an assignment that shaped my ‘vocationally-promiscuous’ career for two decades. When I got to the dispatch desk, I quickly understood that the work space was poorly organized in both procedural and spatial terms. When I pointed this out to the skeptical Chief with a convincing explanation and demonstration, he gave me the freedom and the imprimatur to re-design the space and the function, though he retained the right to veto on matters of policy and procedure. This led to extensive discussions that once almost bordered on a insubordinate argument.
In an emergency response system, the dispatcher has a temporary command role. With a quick assessment based on information that has come to his attention by phone, wired alarm, or radio, he asks for a specific response. When he asks for an engine company to roll out the door, though it be commanded by a lieutenant, the dispatcher (usually a private) outranks the officer until the apparatus arrives on the scene and the ranking officer aboard the apparatus does an assessment, and assumes command of the scene and the department until that itself is superseded by the arrival of a captain, deputy chief or chief. No one can override or overrule the first pronouncements of a dispatcher. So the dispatcher must be able to have at his fingertips access to a vast array of resources, technologies, etc., and these must fall readily to hand. Hence the need for the re-design.
The questioning by the rookie of the chief began to verge on insubordination during the frequent and regular discussions among all personnel about scenarios, tactical responses, etc. The proffered scenario was one in which the incoming phone call spoke of a car fire in the parking lot of a state university facility in the same town, but the reality that needed to be discerned was that the parking lot technically was just on the other side of the border to the next town. What units should the dispatcher roll? The first engine company was an easy and correct answer but, when I suggested that the mythical caller had spoken of someone in the car, I also mythically sent the ambulance, an unacceptable answer because insurance rules inside mutual aid compacts disallowed an ambulance response without prior request by the chief of the fire department tn that adjoining town. The problem: that department was a call department and getting the chief on the phone to ask permission was going to take some time. The theoretical fire scene was blocks away. In the argumentative discussion, it was not even permissible to roll the ambulance with the proviso that it not cross the line until given permission to do so, giving the dispatcher a one-to-two minute window of opportunity to reach out to the chief a few miles away, because it would have been bureaucratically presumptive and no insurance blanket would have covered the ambulance or its personnel. Had they been in an accident on the way, liability would have belonged to the town, and would have landed on my head.
Years later, I sat on the dispatch desk at a large private ambulance company in Springfield, MA with full command of an active fleet of six ambulances and another six on call when I got a call from someone in Boston who said a plane had just crashed at Logan Airport and would I please send everything I had?! I said “no”. I immediately flipped the large desk calendar over so I had a large blank piece of paper on which I began to design an instructive simulation game that would allow dispatch and command staff throughout a large area to play out the kinds of scenarios we’d discussed in the fire department and which presented itself that day. [The final exam on the test for ambulance personnel at the fire department asked for a description of the triage decision-making that would be involved on-scene at a tourist bus crash involving 40 victims.] So I began to “drill down” into the depths of that problem and began to conceive of a system that would use simulation gaming to teach mass casualty incident response and management. It would take me decades to reach the bottom of that trench.
I worked my way through college being employed by this company and had been asked to participate in a regional transportation planning committee that was beginning to look at the challenges of training and development for a sophisticated emergency medical services response system. My experiences thus far allowed me to merge my understanding of a such a system into a public education video that I produced for my senior project in video production. Using a script that I wrote, talent that I recruited, scenes and settings of which I was able to arrange the filming of because of my connections, I produced a half-hour description of how paramedics would work under the direction of physicians at hospitals with radio connections ands bring the emergency department out into the field. Today, this is routine. In the early 1970’s, this was still a vision.
Later, when I was employed as the first staffperson for a new fledgling statewide medical society of emergency physicians, our challenge was to find more income. We ran a successful three-day symposium on emergency medicine but we needed more balance on the calendar and more training and education in trauma. A new member had just joined; he came in as the new chief at a major teaching hospital in the big city in the center of the state and he’d come in from Colorado where he’d chaired the committee that oversaw the most successful ski symposium in the country in the specialty. It was like getting a gift from God. He was reluctant to take on the challenge; nowhere in New England where there any ski venues like they had in Colorado. But he didn’t have staff in Colorado, and I knew how to find and negotiate for meeting venues. We had Stowe, and together this fellow and I (with input from others) put together an educational curriculum in trauma management. The first year was a financial and programmatic success, and we repeated it for two more years at a different location. The final year, we had over 250 physicians, doctors and EMS staffers paying $250-300 per person for the chance to learn in the morning and ski in the afternoon. I told other people about this fellow for years; he’d quickly risen to assume the presidency of the organization. I said “If he asked me to move that mountain over there down the road ten miles, I’d go get my pick and wheelbarrow.” When I left the organization, the plaque they gave me said, simply, “Thanks for putting us on the map.”
Later I was tasked with the administrative leadership of a regional EMS corporation and quickly discovered they had not addressed one of the 15 components of a good EMS system: a functional plan for disaster response. In short order, we were at work and developed the plan, as well as the educational and training component for the plan. It was described by the six-state regional association of EMS systems as the best existent state-of-the-art approach. It was tested during a real event months after I’d been pushed out of the job by a corporate bully of a hospital administrator who had visions of running his own ambulance company; his hospital bought the one with a reputation for dealing in illicit drugs and I’d had the audacity to point that out after I’d been promoting a formally-structured private-public system that involved public input from police, fire, hospital and other private and public entities. One day thereafter, my wife said, as we gazed out our living room window at the red skies some eight miles down the road, “Don’t you want to go?”. I’d preached about dysfunctional mass convergence and knew that I had no command or response role even if I was still in the job, so I said “No. If we planned well and I trained them correctly, it’ll be okay.” It was. I had been able to transmit my best sense of an OODA-like flexible and ongoing assessment of problem-seen-in-the-scope-of-space-and-time, a kind of ma-ai of emergency repsonse, to a leading paramedic and his small transportation/training committee. As luck would have it, he was on duty that night and assumed medical command. He assessed the spatial traffic management aspects of a small closed-access parking lot and quickly organized it and the response so that the critically-wounded burn-and-trauma victims could be loaded into jet helicopters and flown to Boston within “the golden hour”. Between 25 and 30 people were involved in the explosion of flocculent dust in the Malden Mills “fleece” manufacturing facility without loss of life.
In the interim, I had returned briefly to college. I thought that an extension of what I had learned and conceived might make use of the new technologies of “interactive videodisc”. I learned once again that the academics were ill-prepared to teach or lead anyone to anything, though I did get side-tracked writing and circulating a proposal which I forwarded to a wide range of people. I’d read about the development of a simulation-based system to teach battle doctrine (“TraDoc”) and sent off the buffed-up summary of my thoughts and ideas to one of the military people involved; several weeks later, the CIA called and wanted to know how I knew of the effort which was driven by a pair of software experts from Bolt, Beranek and Newman. I’d also talked my way into a job as the Managing Editor of a company loosely affiliated with Children’s Hospital in Boston tasked with use of cable and satellite TV to provide continuing education to pediatricians; it was there where I discovered that my own poor education and experience were heads-and-shoulders above what the venture capitalists had gleaned out of the ranks of the unemployed. We put 15 shows “in the can” and I started up a similar effort in orthopedics affiliated with Massachusetts General Hospital, but these died on the vine for lack of advertising support. They didn’t charge me with that task nor ask me, but many of the symposia I’d run for the society of emergency physicians attracted significant financial support from equipment providers, pharmaceutical companies, and the like.
Years after that, having been serially unemployed or under-employed for years, I sat in the basement office in my home reading that day’s Boston Globe when I turned to the business section and was smacked in the face by a large computer-generated image of a wounded civilian lying on the ground next to a Hummer from which had emerged a GI who was tending to the person. Overhead, circling for a landing, was a MedEvac chopper.
“That’s my game!”, I shouted to no one there, as it depicted precisely the kind of thing I’d envisioned. Previously, I’d dusted off the proposal a second time and sent it off to a number of people; one copy was hand-carried by the son of a local EMT I’d trained to the neo-cons in the Office of Emergency Preparedness inside the US Department of Justice where it was then given to the people at BreakAway Games who turned it into the online game Incident Commander. I’d also written an article for a trade magazine in 1990. The graphics were much better in this Globe photo, though, and so I soon found myself employed as a subject matter consultant to MAK Technologies. (The M and the K in the name stand for the very same two software engineers who built that Army TraDoc system that trained the armor component of Desert Storm and which resulted in the now-famous battle of 73 Easting.)
The scenario that the MAK crew was charged with actualizing (our task was the computer game; others were responsible for the supporting classroom curriculum and text) was the outbreak of avian influenza among both chickens and humans in Georgia. [Do you know how many chickens there are in Georgia? Don’t go count them and began to find their locations, like I did. You’ll hop onto the radar of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, like I did. But if you’re gonna be a responsible party in emergency response, you have to know something about maps and GIS, or space and time, or ma-ai ( the harmony within space) (The essence of this dynamic concept is that the practitioner must find and join with the chaotic and extra-ordinary nature of what is happening and changing before one’s eyes. ).
Emergency management requires high-end spatial intelligence. [Hell, I just discovered that Delorme up in Freeport, Maine was bought out by Garmin and that if I buy one of their expensive hand-held GIS units I can get Garmin BaseCamp software for my iMac and can start plotting some photographic safaris…. If I do that, I’ll be labeled a terrorist for sure.] [See three-reasons-why-schools-neglect-spatial-intelligence ]
Picture that small army of people wearing many hats and having differing intent and loyalties who are involved when it’s been discovered that the chickens over on the south 40 are sneezing and dying. Do a rapid economic assessment of how much money is at stake. Ask the people who work there if they were wearing their rubber boots and if they washed their hands thoroughly. Ask the owner of that facility if authorities can go onto the premises and do some lab tests. Try to ignore the shotgun in the foreman’s hands. Explain to them that the state has 36 hours in which to figure out where the vectors and fomites are. Explain what a vector is, what a fomite is, and what the difference between them is. Tell the state’s national guard contingent to set up roadblocks at the intersections to the north and east. Tell the guy who owns the property that you’re gonna have to kill all those chickens that cost him about $8.95 a piece.
So it was time to drill down into the depths again. I reviewed most everything I could resurrect that I had from the North American Simulation and Gaming Association. I reviewed the lessons I’d learned as a beta-tester in the inaugural edition of his “Game of Games” that involved six players using e-mail and a simple Moodle web site. I wrote e-mails to its developer and re-read a lot to the material I could glean from the work done by Thiagi and drove to Montreal where I could meet and interview a British online and interactive gaming entrepreneur.
What I came up with was a game engine that “had five players playing 25 different roles during a two-week timeframe compressed into a two-hour game, thus forcing relevant information to the surface of the tabletop, or the players’ awareness.” See http://www.thesullenbell.com/2015/05/21/outbreak-or-break-through/
Finally, when talking to a physician who felt compelled to rush to the aid of New Orleans after the nation watched Katrina curve into New Orleans more sharply than a Clayton Kershaw offering, I was challenged to put my thoughts down on paper about how America might begin to understand how better to respond to mass emergencies. The result was “Simulations and Virtual Communities of Practice”.
But that was then, and this is now. Since then, the concepts and technologies have been hijacked into the service of the few and their diseased sense of control. There is little room if any for anyone’s sense of anything if it isn’t in alignment with the pronouncements of people who do not live in the community and whose priorities lie elsewhere.
“Lifting the pen above a blank sheet of paper is an iconic moment. That is, it stands not just for the writer … but also for the building contractor about to lay out a foundation or a baker counting out her ingredients. It stands for the importance of first steps, where each of these first steps taken has to be judged finally to prevent all future steps from coming to a very sticky end. In breadmaking the preparation is paramount. The measures are important, the ratios of flour to yeast, of flour and yeast to water. Kneading and the exact strength of that kneading have to be finally gauged. The recipe is tried and tested and must be begun as it is finished, according to how you want the crust to emerge and the bread to taste. In building a house, the building contractor must lay out the lines of the foundation exactly. He must consult the plans, measure and remeasure, check and recheck. The consequences of getting it wrong multiply and become more and more embarrassing as the work proceeds.
But what if we have no recipe to consult? What if we have no grand architectural plans? What if we do not know what we are building or baking? And what if that lack of knowledge of what to do and where to go is debilitating, and therefore, as it is to most human beings, slightly, or for some, deeply depressing? What if we really do have a blank page?
Contractors may have a level and a chalk line to lay out the line of the wall, but they have no fixed mark for building again if their business fails or if they lose their half their company through divorce or, worse, injure themselves so they cannot do the physical work anymore. The tangibles of work are built every day out of the intangibles of intent and commitment. How do we proceed when there is actually not meant to be a place, because we are actually working with a way of being, a slowly building conversation between what we want for ourselves and what we are most afraid of?” [Page 153-154]
I remember watching Anthony Bourdain while relatively immobile and flat on my back in a medical rehab hospital bed and discovering the value and meaning of mise-en-place, a discovery which eventually resulted in the lucky acquisition at an an incredibly low price of a pristine and untouched version of the instruction/reference book given to entrants to the Culinary Institute of America.
“The idea of there being this code of ethics about productivity was, on the one hand, very romantic to me but, on the other hand, it made a hell of a lot of sense, even spiritually. The idea that by cleaning your station, that sets the table for excellence in every part of your life.
I think many people look at the idea of mise en place as just being something where you prep your carrots and celery and have it off to the side—and not something that has wider applications?
Oh my God, it’s so elegant, this system. It’s not just about organizing space, it’s actually about how you relate to space, how you relate to time, how you relate to motions within that space, how you relate to managing resources, how you relate to managing people, how you relate to managing your personal energies, all of that.”
Wright spoke to his disciples at Taliesin and to the world of architecture at large about the process used in designing his acclaimed cantilevered house over the falls called Fallingwater.
“One must be able to walk around and inside the structure, know every detail, before putting pencil to paper. I never sat down to the drawing board – and this has been a lifelong process of mine –- until I have the whole thing in my mind. I may alter it substantially. I may throw it away. I may find I’m up a blind alley; but unless I have the idea of the thing pretty well in shape, you won’t see me at a drawing board with it.”
“Conceive the building in the imagination, not on paper but in the mind, thoroughly – before touching paper. Let it live there – gradually taking more definite form before committing it to the draughting board. When the thing lives for you – start to plan it with tools. Not before… Working on it with triangle and T-square should modify or extend or intensify or test the conception – complete the harmonious adjustment of its parts.”
In Ayn Rand’s book The Fountainhead, based on Wright and the Fallingwater process, the client says to architect Howard Roark “You’re completely natural only when you’re one inch from bursting into pieces. What in hell are you really made of? After all, it’s only a building. It’s not the combination of holy sacrament, Indian torture and some form of ecstasy that you seem to make of it.”
To which the architect replied: “It isn’t?”
From Fallingwater Rising by Franklin Toker, Alred A. Knopf, New York 2003, cited in “The Spirit of the Game”, the tenth chapter of Summon The Magic
Whyte is both a poet and a rock climber, obviously experienced at both, and he says:
“Good poets, like good rock climbers, look not for clinging but for real purchase. People who are serious about pursuing their vocation look for purchase, not for a map of the future or guided way up the cliff. They try not to cling too closely to what seems to bar their way, but look for where the present point of contact actually resides. No matter what it looks like. The point of contact is what allows us to take the next step.” [Page 143]
If I understand this (I’ve failed rock-climbing for the same reasons I failed ladders in the fire department: my knees were damaged through sport and I lacked confidence in my leg strength, and my sense of balance has been dysfunctional at a fine level for as long as I can remember it, and I’m precipiphobic too), I can apply the concepts to my newly-rediscovered approach to photography. I have several points of contact: a new camera, a small catalog of how-to- videos on top of a solid earlier amateur education, and a burgeoning opportunity with a growing file of ideas, places to go, etc. My “purchase”, or where my present point of contact currently resides, is the fact that I have, in weak-kneed fashion, yet to try the software to download the first batch of photos I’ve taken. That’s the next ledge in my uphill climb.
Whyte explores these concepts in Chapter 7 (“Searching for the Self: The pursuit that is not a pursuit”) starting on page 154, he recounts an experience he had when he was hiking in Bhutan. I’m not going to begin to try to recount that tale; it’s too important and I would not do it or the author any justice. Buy the book to read this part alone. Find the part on page 167 in which he identifies and talks about the essential human ingredient: anxiety.
How many of us grew up with the relationships of others in front of us for some level of experiential examination? These included our parents, their partners, close neighbors, the parents of long-term friends, and perhaps others. What arises from Whyte’s discussion is the focus on how the participants in a relationship spend a good deal of their time working with anxiety, their own or that of the other participant(s) in the relationship(s).
The book uses the literary works and lives of — among others — Jane Austen, Dante Alighieri, Charles Dickens, Pema Chödrön, Rainer Maria Rilke, William Wordsworth, and Robert Louis Stevenson (and his pursuit of and marriage to Fanny Osbourne) as his vehicles for his exploration of the balance of work, love and self. Each of them shared some attributes amongst each other and with Whyte in that they are writers, travellers, romantics and more. Us too, probably, in our own way. And many of them grappled with ongoing or chronic health issues.
“Till that moment in my life I always thought this is me and that’s somebody else and something else. But for the first time I did not know which is me and which is not me. Suddenly, what was me was just all over the place. The very rock on which I was sitting, the air that I breathe, the very atmosphere around me, I had just exploded into everything. That sounds like utter insanity. This, I thought it lasted for ten to fifteen minutes but when I came back to my normal consciousness, it was about four-and-a-half-hours I was sitting there, fully conscious, eyes open, but time had just flipped.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaggi_Vasudev
“The voice in the whirlwind asks us to see the world without having an ounce of control over it and to cultivate our faith by paying attention to this creation.” [Page 175]
I had that same experience sitting on the cliffs at Pemaquid on my honeymoon in the late 70’s, here memorialized with photo on return trip two years ago and a stay at The Bradley Inn.
“All of our great contemplative traditions advocate the necessity for silence in an individual life: first, for gaining a sense of discernment amid the noise and haste, second, as a basic building block of individual happiness, and third, to let this other all-seeing identity come to life and find its voice inside us…. To be large enough for the drama in which we find ourselves.” [page 34]
“… we have all the five senses through which to create a constant subliminal conversation with the world outside.” [page 41]
[See A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman, Vintage 1991 as well as Deep Play, Diane Ackerman, Random House, New York, 1999.]
The way we face the future actually create your future as much as her individual actions along the way.[Page 244]
On pages 247 and to 48, Whyte describes –through the lens of the experience of Deirdre Bloomfield-Brown–what he calls a “life-changing encounter”,”a breakthrough experience”.
“Finding the key is it very own human motif. Again and again, we have to find a way in through the door, and again and again, stories say that the key is always right under our noses. We are the ones who turn in the door and open it. We have to look for the key by looking at the way we are made to open the great conversation of life. What am I naturally drawn to? How am I made for this world? What is my essential nature?”
I made a list of my own personal life-changing encounters. I came up with six moments. Listed here chronologically, they include that evening at dusk when I sat meditatively on the rocky bank of the brook that ran off the mountain, the moment in which a lynx came to the brook for a drink of water. I watched in awe, trying to be very still, but the lynx realized that I was there, and looked at me for an extended moment. Our eyes met as we assessed each other for intent. In that same moment I transmitted silently the thought “I wish you no harm”, and the animal turned back to slake its thirst. When it had its fill, it turned and vanished.
The second occurrence was an encounter in the halls of my high school with my favorite English teacher on my return from my freshman year in college, all puffed out in my special ops trainee black beret dress uniform with brass and jump boots, only to be rebuffed, shunned. He turned without saying anything and went back to his office. He retired years later and I found his address through the high school and wrote to him about how, with that moment, he likely saved my life, and certainly redirected its focus.
Years later, during a week-long training camp designed to turn me into an EMT instructor, I offered up a hand-written note to another trainee who seemed uncertain about her command of the content and her ability to deliver it, despite the fact that she was a licensed and registered nurse. That led to a 42 year marriage. The two of us ended up as co-teachers for three successive 100-hour EMT courses. What I wrote was that her students would be hard-pressed to pay attention to the content because they would be paying more attention to her beauty.
Sometime later, I encountered my firstborn, and experience I can vaguely remember, most likely because he was probably still in utero. He celebrates his 40th birthday next month. (On page 302, Whyte pays homage to the female gender when he says “It is hard to really comprehend how much physiological capital our bodies put into the necessity of giving birth.”)
The incident at Pemaquid is recounted above and has been described several times.
Lastly, what can be called a theophany occurred in the presence of my two-year-old daughter at a moment of her night terrors and colicky irascibility; a hand — in a room in which only the two of us were present — grasped me at the top of my shoulder/collar bone that I’d wedged in to the dormer ceiling in her nursery and squeezed it firmly so as to announce presence and gravitas; it transmitted viscerally the sentence “Be gentle with this child; I have great things in store for her.”
Later in the book, Whyte talks about moments of “initiation and confrontation”, or “seeing to the root”: “… our sense of lack, our sense of worry and inadequacy, has a root and a cause. This root is our desire to have any other reality than the one we are confronted with in the moment.”
In my case, two come to mind. The first is light in nature, but nonetheless perhaps indicative. I was reading the news in the announcer’s studio at the student radio station, doing a five-minute gig in the midst of the afternoon music show dee-jayed by the program director, when he snuck in behind me — the red “on-the-air” sign was no deterrent to him — and pulled out a cigarette lighter and lit the long taped-sequentially-together roll of news copy on fire.
I’m sure there are other such moments; I’ve either forgotten them or they were inconsequential. The most consequential moment extended for hours and hours, and it was the moment after I woke up from the coma in the hospital having been told and learned kinesthetically that I could not move anything on the left side of my body. That moment extended and progressed through to the time when my son, the fellow I first encountered in utero, lifted me up and placed me in a wheelchair and took me downstairs to be evaluated for placement in a medical rehabilitation wing.
The deeper you go into this book, the better it gets, and by better I mean accurate, compelling, resonant and relevant.
On pages 256-257, Whyte goes on to discuss “accidie”, defined elsewhere as spiritual sloth or apathy, and conversely those moments when we are asked “to be authentic, and to be tenacious in that authenticity”.
“Engagement with the self reaches its climax with a sense of being utterly alone with the struggle. There is a peculiar quality to the distilled essence we imbibe when we come to this sense of complete isolation. Ironically, our sense of communion with others is enhanced when we understand how completely alone people feel when confronted by the forces that surround them.”
Chapter 11 is entitled “The Art of Marriage: The disappearance, reappearance and dissolution of the self,” and in it Whyte describes marriages as “dynamic moving frontiers”[page 265], noting that “each marriage is a mystery to its self”[Page 275]. He says” To go against ourselves in a relationship is to find another form of self that can grow without destroying the growth of the other.”
In Chapter 12 (“A Sweet Prison: Living with the work we’ve chosen”) White talks about families; see in particular page 311. On page 317 he talks about the conjunction of marriage and work:
“As it is difficult to explain the mechanics of a given marriage, so it is difficult to explain the mechanics of a vocation. Perhaps because that is less to do with mechanics then the slowly building, concentrated focus that gets the job done. The subtle joys of the steady application to a work yielding up its secrets and its subtle triumphs are hard to explain. Just as almost no one wants to know how happily married we are, almost no one wants to know the details of how we gain our sense of satisfaction in work, as much as from its rewards and its fruits.”
“… there is indeed no other enemy than the false self we continually present to the world as the real one.” [page 334]
“There is no self we can construct that will survive a real conversation. A real conversation always involves our moving the small context we inhabit to the next-larger context that will transform and enlighten us and that seems to have been waiting for us all along.
“What we withhold from ourselves is the very thing we need to complete ourselves. This active completion is often seen as a form of death and something to be fought against. We quite often do not want to know what we need. We will try to offer false gifts to the self in order to keep the real gift at bay.” [page 339]
“Vulnerability is the door through which we walk into self-understanding and compassion for others. Being enlightened does not mean that we assume supernatural powers or find a perfection that exults us above the daily losses other human beings are subject to; enlightenment means that we’ve accepted thoroughly our transience, our vulnerability and our imperfections and live just as robustly with them as without them.”[Page 340]
“… the best thing to do is to hold a kind of silent vigil besides the part of us that is going through the steps of a difficult transformation.” [Pages 340-341]
“The refusal to participate fully in any of the marriages, to make them overt and speakable, causes endless friction in a relationship. Not speaking about them, a couple can often become afraid of each other’s desires and eventually see each other as unspoken enemies. To speak of these marriages out loud at the very least creates a crossable frontier between the couple. Each couple stands at the turbulent edge between the surface attempt to control these other powerful marriages and the Dionysian [irrational, frenzied, undisciplined] underground energies that carry them along, trying to flow around all outer obstacles. When we attempt to stop the conversation our partner might be having in the other two marriages because of natural jealousies, we become an obstacle to the one we are supposed to “love,” and then wonder why it is so difficult to make this first marriage work in isolation.”[Page 346]
“What we desire in the three marriages is a sense of profound physical participation with creation, the reconfirmation that we are not alone in the world and the reminder that there is a larger context to existence than the one we have established ourselves.”[Page 354]
Also of interest:
TEDxPugetSound – David Whyte – Life at the Frontier: The Conversational Nature of Reality
The idea of achieving work/life balance is a modern-day knockoff of the American Dream, rooted in the minds of ambitious yet overworked professionals who want to “have it all” — work and play, career and family.
I don’t believe there is such a thing as “work/life balance.” You don’t hear people talking about finding a “family/life balance” or an “eating/life balance.” IT’S ALL LIFE.
Work usually takes priority over the rest, however, because work is what we spend the majority of our day doing, it financially supports our dreams, and it’s a core part of our identities (the first “small talk” question people usually ask is what you do for a living). Add mobile technology to our career-driven lives, and work priorities now have the potential to take over our personal lives. When this happens, professionals are putting their relationships, mental and physical health, and overall happiness at risk.
HOW TECHNOLOGY SKEWS OUR PRIORITIES
The reason work seems to be encroaching more and more on our personal time is that every day, we unknowingly hand over precious power to alerts and notifications — distractions ironically set up to ensure we don’t miss a thing.
My notifications come from Google, business blogs, email, productivity apps, airfare alerts, my investment firm, and (what should be at the top of my list) my son’s school. When we’re constantly bombarded with these bits of information, priorities and distractions start to run together, and we have a hard time knowing what to focus on. And that struggle is about to get worse. I’m a marketer and our whole mission in life is to get you to pay attention, to make what we have to say more important than anything else you could be doing at the moment. According to analyst firm Gartner, by 2017 Marketers will spend more on IT than CIOs. Most of that investment is to help us get you to stop, listen, read, watch, click, like, share, tweet, pin and buy.
IT’S NOT ALL TECHNOLOGY’S FAULT
How do you know when your priorities have truly gone awry? I believe it’s when you’ve reached a point where the urgency to react to something is disproportionate to its priority. Although technology enables every notification or alert to seem urgent, technology itself isn’t the true culprit. Rather, it’s our relationship with technology that throws us off-balance.
Do you delay a scheduled workout because you feel compelled to reply to an email first? Do your kids ask you to step away from Facebook? Do unread emails cause you stress even after a 12-hour workday? Do you check your phone at dinner? These are all signs that you have an imbalanced relationship with technology.
4 WAYS TO BALANCE YOUR LIFE
Below are a few simple ways to begin building a more balanced life — one where you have room for hobbies, health, relationships, and personal priorities.
1. TAKE 30 MINUTES EACH MORNING BEFORE CHECKING YOUR EMAIL OR PHONE
I used to wake up every morning and immediately look at my phone to see if there was anything urgent in my inbox or something interesting on Facebook. It always started with me telling myself, “I’m just going to check,” but that quick check turned into 30 minutes of working, mentally prioritizing my to-do list, and looking for a problem to react to.
The most defining moment of your day is when you first wake up. You have a choice about the first information you expose to your brain. By meditating, exercising, journaling, or doing something reflective for those first 30 minutes instead of opening the digital floodgates, you allow yourself to start your day recharged and aware of your priorities. Learning to control which information we pay attention to — and when — is crucial to achieving balance.
2. IDENTIFY YOUR PERSONAL “CRITICAL PATH” PRIORITIES
Every year, my company holds a meeting for our executive team to discuss our “critical path” for the coming year. What are our most important priorities? Our departments then align their goals along that path. Professionals can benefit from going through this same process with their personal lives.
Can you identify your five most important personal goals and values? Do you want to be more connected to your kids, be physically fit, or be on the road to a funded retirement? These priorities are part of your personal “critical path”; if you don’t define them now and give them the necessary attention, something less important (but louder) is bound to take their place.
3. FIND A NON-WORK-RELATED PASSION
Without any interests or hobbies outside work, we run the risk of becoming resentful and isolated. While it sounds dedicated and noble to focus on work 24/7, everyone knows this isn’t a realistic or sustainable lifestyle. Research shows that this lifestyle can stifle creativity, impair judgment, and diminish focus. Many companies show outward signs of rewarding this behavior, but most people secretly have little respect for individuals with no boundaries.
Learn a language, join a gym, or volunteer at your child’s school. Most importantly, do something that makes you step away from your computer and smartphone. Non-work-related, tech-free passions expand your universe and make you a more interesting person.
4. BUILD A COMMUNITY OF SUPPORT
Finding a non-work-related passion also involves building supportive, nurturing relationships outside of work. Money and jobs will come and go, but trusted friends who have your personal interests at heart can help you handle difficult professional decisions with less stress and more confidence.
When we take a look at why it’s so hard to achieve balance between work and our personal lives, technology designed to serve us lies very close to the root of the problem. However, the root itself has to do with our tendency to permit outside forces to drive our priorities.
Being dedicated and ambitious is admirable, but allowing work to define your self-worth and identity is dangerous. Don’t let yourself wake up one day and realize your kids are out of the house, you never went on that cruise, or you never ran a marathon.
By reevaluating priorities and taking the necessary steps to unplug from work and technology, you can achieve real balance — improving your health, happiness, and life as a whole.
by David Whyte
This chapter is closed now,
not one word more
until we meet some day
and the voices rising
to the window
take wing and fly.
Open the old casement
to the lands we have forgotten,
look to the mountains and ridgeways
and the steep valleys, quilted by green,
here, as the last words fall away,
the great and silent rivers of life
are flowing into the oceans,
and on a day like any other
they will carry you again,
on the currents you have fought,
to the place where you did not know