Deciding When Something is Too Small

The change of seasons is here once again, and that always means looking at my wardrobe and deciding what to toss and what to keep. My philosophy is a little soft in this regard–I’ve tried Marie Kondo’s advice to only keep what makes me joyful, but I don’t always succeed.  I waver when deciding what to do with favorites that are a smidge too tight–sometimes finding a way to creatively make them fit with “design details” and sometimes keeping them as a reminder for where I feel most comfortable in my body.

But when I need to make a decision or answer a question about life’s more profound changes, I turn to a different voice–the voice of David Whyte in his poem “Sweet Darkness.” Do I leave my marriage? Do I stay in this relationship?  What should I do about my job?  And after I ask myself a question, I know that I am more than halfway to the answer when I hear David Whyte’ powerful lines reverberating in my mind: “…anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”

While those words provided guidance for me, they did not make it easy for me to make any life-changing decisions, especially the decision to leave my marriage, even after years of depression and verbal abuse by my ex-husband. While I was no longer a practicing Catholic, my values around marriage and family were firmly rooted in my upbringing which stressed the power of commitment and the necessity to work things out no matter what. And sometimes, to suffer in the process.

But after 25 years of marriage, many trips to the counselor, several deep depressions, and a widening gulf between how much joy we shared versus how much suffering I endured, I realized that my marriage was too small for me. I wasn’t thriving in the way I’d hoped for. I was merely surviving. And I deserved so much more. My children deserved more. And I wanted to offer them an example of choosing self-respect over tradition.

While deciding to leave my marriage was the most life-changing decision regarding what was too small for me, I’ve returned to the wisdom in “Sweet Darkness” many more times in the past 17 years. I’ve ended relationships that were less than satisfying, refusing to settle for the sake of companionship. I’ve left jobs that no longer provided a nurturing professional space. I’ve learned the signs of good fit and can more easily walk away from those things that are too small–except for a few pairs of capris in my closet! I hope David Whyte’s poem can offer you some wisdom. It’s been life-changing for me.

Sweet Darkness by David Whyte
~The House of Belonging

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.

How Poetry Heals: A Personal Story

How can poetry help depression?  Aren’t medication and therapy the best ways to treat the illness? My story may surprise you.

When I suffered from depression in the early 1990s, Prozac was the new “miracle drug.” Along with this so-called “miracle drug came a physical explanation of causation: that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. This thesis is still widely promulgated, though much research is coming to light that disputes and even negates this biomedical explanation for the darkness that is so prevalent in our modern world. More information on the research side can be found at the website Mad in America, curated by science reporter Robert Whitaker. As part of Whitaker’s work to educate the public, he invites doctors, psychologists, counselors, and patients from all over the world to share research, essays, and personal experiences on the issues of depression and its treatment.

Ancient doorway in Rome
The other door to healing

Even in the 1990s when I  struggled to climb out of depression and tried numerous medications for several years with no results, the idea that the chemicals in my brain were out of whack did not provide a solid answer. Instead, I pursued a more metaphysical explanation for the questions that haunted me:  “Why am I depressed?” and “What longings are unfulfilled?”

And that’s what led me to poetry. One of the most valuable resources I found to aid in making sense of the gifts of depression was poet David Whyte’s 1992 CD entitled The Poetry of Self Compassion. Whyte’s recitation of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Journey” confirmed my feelings of being on a perilous but necessary quest through darkness and confusion. And I was deeply confused by the all-encompassing psychological pain that I was experiencing. But once I heard Whyte recite “The Journey,” I knew that someone understood a piece of what I was experiencing. And that the way I was feeling  had nothing to do with messed up brain chemistry. My depression had everything to do with self-discovery and taking charge of my life.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
~Mary Oliver

I remember listening to the poem over and over–as if rolling around a mysterious new food in my mouth, trying to figure out why it tasted familiar. What was it I was determined to do?  What else besides raise my children, serve my community, and be a good wife? I just knew there was more. And Mary Oliver’s words gave me the courage to make the journey that would save my life.

The answer was slow in coming, but I gradually began to  realize that my struggles with depression and a migraine headache exacerbated my ex-husband’s verbal abuse to the point where I could finally see his behavior for what it was. Depression and chronic pain became my crucible for change and my pathway to a new life. My body and my mind were finally aligned. Poetry became my way to unlock the profound secrets that illness led me to discover. Poetry helped me to have compassion for my journey and for all the mistakes I had made along the way.

Whyte ends on a note of great compassion in the poem “The Faces at Braga” as he compares surrendering to the fire of depression and embracing your flaws in this way: “If only we could give ourselves to the blows of the carver’s hands, the lines in our faces would be the trace lines of rivers feeding the sea” and we would “gather all our flaws in celebration, to merge with them perfectly…”  What a compelling call–to celebrate one’s flaws. What a gift of healing.

Courage for when the bridge is down

David Whyte has had a fascinating life. He grew up traipsing through the moors of Yorkshire, England and was pulled into the world of travel one day as he watched Jacques Cousteau on television. David’s work as a marine zoologist took him to the Galapagos Islands, and his curiosity took him  to the Himalayas where he explored temples and Zen Buddhism.  David uses all of his experiences when he writes poetry, even those that scared him.

The bridge you need to cross
The bridge you need to cross

How many times do you come to a place in your life where you are afraid to move forward? Where you’d rather do anything, no matter how difficult, than take that next step?  What resources can you call on to take you over that bridge? In this poem, David invites the reader to share his experience of an impossible bridge in the Himalayas. I hope you are inspired with the way he handles his challenge.

THE OLD INTERIOR ANGEL
by David Whyte, from Fire in the Earth, 1992

Young, male, and
immortal as I was,
I stopped at the first sight
of that broken bridge.

The taut cables snapped
and the bridge planks
concertina-ed
into a crazy jumble
over the drop,
four hundred feet
to the craggy
stream.

I sat and watched
the wind shiver
on the broken planks,
as if by looking hard
and long enough,
the life-line
might spontaneously
repair itself,
–but watched in vain.

An hour I sat
in silence,
checking each
involuntary movement
of the body toward
that trembling
bridge
with a fearful mind,
and an empathic
shake of the head.

Finally, facing defeat
and about to go back
the way I came
to meet the others.

Three days round
by another pass.

Enter the old mountain woman
with her stooped gait,
her dark clothes
and her dung basket
clasped to her back.

Small feet shuffling
for the precious
gold-brown
fuel for cooking food.

Intent on the ground
she glimpsed my feet
and looking up
said, “Namaste.”
“I greet the God in you”
the last syllable
held like a song.

I inclined my head
and clasped my hands
to reply, but
before I could look up,
she turned her lined face
and went straight across
that shivering chaos
of wood
and broken steel
in one movement.

One day the hero
sits down
afraid to take
another step,
and the old interior angel
limps slowly in
with her no-nonsense
compassion
and her old secret
and goes ahead.

“Namaste”
you say
and follow.

How Poetry Heals: A Personal Story

How can poetry help depression?  Aren’t medication and therapy the best ways to treat the illness? My story may surprise you.

When I suffered from depression in the early 1990s, Prozac was the new “miracle drug.” Along with this so-called “miracle drug came a physical explanation of causation: that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. This thesis is still widely promulgated, though much research is coming to light that disputes and even negates this biomedical explanation for the darkness that is so prevalent in our modern world. More information on the research side can be found at the website Mad in America, curated by science reporter Robert Whitaker. As part of Whitaker’s work to educate the public, he invites doctors, psychologists, counselors, and patients from all over the world to share research, essays, and personal experiences on the issues of depression and its treatment.

Ancient doorway in Rome
The other door to healing

Even in the 1990s when I  struggled to climb out of depression and tried numerous medications for several years with no results, the idea that the chemicals in my brain were out of whack did not provide a solid answer. Instead, I pursued a more metaphysical explanation for the questions that haunted me:  “Why am I depressed?” and “What longings are unfulfilled?”

And that’s what led me to poetry. One of the most valuable resources I found to aid in making sense of the gifts of depression was poet David Whyte’s 1992 CD entitled The Poetry of Self Compassion. Whyte’s recitation of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Journey” confirmed my feelings of being on a perilous but necessary quest through darkness and confusion. And I was deeply confused by the all-encompassing psychological pain that I was experiencing. But once I heard Whyte recite “The Journey,” I knew that someone understood a piece of what I was experiencing. And that the way I was feeling  had nothing to do with messed up brain chemistry. My depression had everything to do with self-discovery and taking charge of my life.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
~Mary Oliver

I remember listening to the poem over and over–as if rolling around a mysterious new food in my mouth, trying to figure out why it tasted familiar. What was it I was determined to do?  What else besides raise my children, serve my community, and be a good wife? I just knew there was more. And Mary Oliver’s words gave me the courage to make the journey that would save my life.

The answer was slow in coming, but I gradually began to  realize that my struggles with depression and a migraine headache exacerbated my ex-husband’s verbal abuse to the point where I could finally see his behavior for what it was. Depression and chronic pain became my crucible for change and my pathway to a new life. My body and my mind were finally aligned. Poetry became my way to unlock the profound secrets that illness led me to discover. Poetry helped me to have compassion for my journey and for all the mistakes I had made along the way.

Whyte ends on a note of great compassion in the poem “The Faces at Braga” as he compares surrendering to the fire of depression and embracing your flaws in this way: “If only we could give ourselves to the blows of the carver’s hands, the lines in our faces would be the trace lines of rivers feeding the sea” and we would “gather all our flaws in celebration, to merge with them perfectly…”  What a compelling call–to celebrate one’s flaws. What a gift of healing.

 

Questions That Have No Right to Go Away

Yosemite forest
Yosemite forest

David Whyte is one of my favorite poets. I love the simplicity of his language and the power of the images he uses. Like the idea of walking noiselessly through a forest, like an explorer stalking important prey. In this case, David asks you to confront a question, but not just any question.  A question that has not right to go away.

We all have such questions. Did I marry the right person? What is my true calling? How can I live more authentically?  For me, the time around the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas are the perfect time to ask such deep questions. Surrounded by family and friends, memories and family photos, I often look back on my life or take stock around the holidays. This time of year is ripe for reflection. Full of possibility. Enjoy the poem.  Everything is waiting for you!

Sometimes

by David Whyte

Sometimes
if you move carefully
through the forest

breathing
like the ones
in the old stories

who could cross
a shimmering bed of dry leaves
without a sound,

you come
to a place
where the only task

is to trouble you
with tiny
but frightening requests

conceived out of nowhere
but in this place
beginning to lead everywhere.

Requests to stop what
you are doing right now,
and

to stop what you
are becoming
while you do it,

questions
that can make
or unmake
a life,

questions
that have patiently
waited for you,

questions
that have no right
to go away.

~ from Everything is Waiting for You

When You Don’t Know What to Do, Stop!

I first heard the poem “Lost” by David Wagoner recited in a workshop with David Whyte as he talked about bringing your soul, your essence, into the workplace. David acknowledged that our work journeys often involve times of loss and confusion. Sometimes we stay in the job, sometimes we leave. But always there seems to be a time needed for deep reflection. I love the notion of being in the woods, being lost, and then pausing until you find your way. Good advice no matter where you find yourself!  Enjoy the poem.

Yosemite forest
Yosemite forest

Lost
by David Wagoner

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. you must let it find you.

What lines speak to you?  Is there a situation in your life that is calling you to pause and reflect?

Keeping Your Heart in Your Work

Toad Hall's cabin by the pond
Toad Hall’s cabin by the pond

“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver,

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

Remember when you were a child and you pretended to work in some occupation? As a girl growing up in the 50s, I often played at being a teacher, a flight attendant, or a nurse. I couldn’t wait to get my first job. When I graduated from college, I was enthusiastic and idealistic about the difference I could make in the lives of my students.   And I have contributed in positive ways to my students, but often in very small ways rather than the grand happenings we see in movies like Freedom Writers. And as I’ve encountered more and more bureaucratic obstacles at work, I’ve often felt discouraged. My enthusiasm has waned.

SchoolUniform
My first day of school.

And the loss of enthusiasm so many workers feel is no wonder, especially given the amount of time we Americans spend working. About a third of our adult life is spent at work, another third sleeping, and the last third in the routine tasks of living. Those are sobering statistics and all the more reason for us to look for ways that we can be happy and productive in our workplaces. Yet so many of us find ourselves in workplaces that feel soulless and boring. There is an increasing reliance on data to drive all of business’ decisions, and employees are treated like machines that can endlessly go faster and produce more, producing a very harsh work environment. From Amazon to school systems, people feel stressed, tired, and unappreciated. What can workers do in such an atmosphere?

Poet and leadership consultant David Whyte, writing in his book about work Crossing the Unknown Sea, Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, has this to say about our needs in the workplace: “The workplace carries so much of our desperate need for acknowledgement, for hierarchy, for reward, to be seen, and to be seen as we want to be seen, that we often overreach….The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.”

The last line really stops me in my tracks, especially when I am discouraged by institutional problems and practices. I know that I am powerless in the face of the large university system that employees me and seems to be adopting more and more of a cut-throat business mindset rather than creating a nurturing environment for inspiring students and faculty. Where is my heart? What is it that I can give myself to with abandon?

My answer is two-fold. In my classroom, I focus on three ideas. First, I am present and in the moment for my students when I teach. I do this by beginning most classes with a minute of silence to calm and center the class and by banning the use of cell phones and laptops in my classroom. Anther area I focus on is community. I learn everyone’s name in the first couple of days so that students feel welcome and respected. Additionally, I often have the students work with partners or small groups so they get to know their peers and can work in teams. Finally, I design my activities and assignments carefully, working to provide enough structure so that they know what to do and enough freedom that they can express themselves.

In my writing life, I focus on setting small goals that I know I can achieve on a regular basis. Submit to three new publications every month (still working on this one!), write every day, and when I’m feeling especially stuck, use colored pencils to create shapes and images that mirror my feelings. When I do that, I often find the colors and shapes evoke ideas so that I surprise myself with a new poem.

iStock_000004050433Small

I plan to keep working for several more years and am committed to staying positive and happy. I plan to keep writing and teaching. I plan to be happy. I plan to see the beauty of life everywhere. And I hold close to my heart these words from author Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are

“I want to see beauty. In the ugly, in the sink, in the suffering, in the daily, in all the days before I die, the moments before I sleep.

Anyone or anything that does not bring you alive….

David Whyte is a modern poet whose voice is as clear and cloudless as the sky above Crater Lake. He is of English/Irish heritage, has a background in marine zoology, and uses poetry to assist people in affecting change in their personal and work lives. He calls all of us out of our routine slumber and directs our gaze to places we may fear or wish to avoid. David asks us to risk being authentic in an increasing virtual world. “Sweet Darkness” is a poem that asks the reader to enter the particular place of darkness that is calling to you now.

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.

You see the world through your own particular set of eyes and your own particualr set of experiences. No one else in creation sees the world exactly as you do. Your vision is unique. But when something unexpected bumps up against us in life, then our vision is temporarily lost. We feel alone and engulfed by the surging energy of life. We cannot be found, just as we can no longer see.
Turn 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.
Don’t fight the darkness, the poet seems to be whispering. Just as our eyes grow accustomed to a dark place, so the dark place will make a home for us, will see our shadow self. No matter what our particular set of circumstances and our particular reasons for being dropped into darkness, we are recognized and loved. Think of the poet’s metaphor used to describe this kind of night: your womb. A womb is a place of complete safety, a place where an innocent life can grow and be nurtured. A place to wait until you are ready to emerge, whole at last. A place of incubation, peace and rest.
You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.Give up all other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Here the poet tells us there is only one thing to know right now: you are meant to be free, to take your own particular place in the grand scheme of life. Have you been going through some life-changing event? Large or small, scale does not matter here. All that matters is that you realize your place in the grand design and take that place. Maybe you are called on to leave a job that is choking you. Maybe a relationship needs to shift or even to end. Maybe there is a geographical change to make or a dream that you feel has always had your name on it. Whatever that world is, it is time to take your place. Know that others have done it before, the poet seems to be saying. You can do this. Just embrace the one world that is yours for the taking, no matter how small or how grand. The time is now and everthing is telling you that.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learnanything or anyone
that does not bring you alive is too small for you.

The darkness that has enveloped you has provided a place of safety and shelter to incubate your emerging self, to nourish new growth, or to give sustenance to your will. What is it in your life that has been too small for you? That has not allowed you to grow? The other question concerns a person. Who is it in your life that has stifled you? Who has placed you in a box that you have outgrown?

Life is constantly calling us forward to take our place and to be fully alive. What is that one thing in your life that is now too small for you? Who is that person you have outgrown? Maybe it is a role you have played that no longer suits you. Maybe you need to stand alone. Maybe it’s time to become one with a partner. You hold the answer, the poet tells us. Just go into the darkness until you can hear the small voice inside and then follow its becokoning, loving hand.
Poem “Sweet Darkness from The House of Belonging, Many Rivers Press, 1998.