We convened among redwood trees, four hundred participants who had come to listen, learn, and be present with one another. It was an experiment. Whoever was there were the right people, and whatever happened would be the only thing that could have happened. Krista Tippett welcomed us, mentioning the tumult and tenderness in the world, and acknowledging that we are living through a time of disarray, despair, and destruction–but reminding us that this is not the whole story. The hopeful and creative story of our time is one less publicized, and we would focus on that…through generous listening, words that matter, patience, hospitality, adventurous civility, and humility. It was a lofty declaration, and a vague one, and a little like a prayer.
People milled about during breaks, some sitting in collegial little groups, and whether old friends or new acquaintances, they were talking and laughing, and I realized I could become less alone if I were more assertive about approaching people, but I stood awkwardly apart. One learns many lessons at such events, and the most significant are unexpected realizations that have nothing to do with topics on the program. I learned (again) that I am unequivocally an introvert. I have a dear circle of friends, but I don’t know how to access or navigate large groups of strangers, and such situations deplete rather than stimulate me. Entering the dining hall for meals was always the hardest, carrying a tray to an empty place, and sitting there alone like the weird friendless girl in the middle school cafeteria. Maybe there’s an awkward middle school child inside each of us, but some conceal it better than others. In any case, I definitely felt the grounding virtue of humility. And eventually, a couple of kind-hearted women joined me, and we chatted and explored the premises a bit, and things improved after that just by sort of knowing someone.
What helped even more was poetry. David Whyte spoke the perfect words (in his beautiful Irish accent). He talked about generosity, about giving and being more than you think you can and are. “Just beyond yourself,” he said. “Is where you need to be.” He talked about friendship, too, and how a friend bears witness, more than anything else, a friend sees you. And he talked about being brave, about doing things right now that will make you the ancestor of future happiness. “Live in this place as you were meant to,” he said, “and then, surprised by your abilities, become the ancestor of it all…”
It had never occurred to me before, but I thought about the young girl I was in 1981, setting out on my journey to California, and how she was the ancestor of the happiness I have known. And of course I wondered if there are things I can still do today that will help to yield better days tomorrow, even when I am gone. It takes persistence, a pact with the world and with oneself, and I silently promised that I would try.
Here is Coleman’s Bed, the poem David Whyte read that carried me off into the night with courage and conviction:
Make a nesting now, a place to which
the birds can come, think of Kevin’s
prayerful palm holding the blackbird’s egg
and be the one, looking out from this place
who warms interior forms into light.
Feel the way the cliff at your back
gives shelter to your outward view
and then bring in from those horizons
all discordant elements that seek a home.
Be taught now, among the trees and rocks,
how the discarded is woven into shelter,
learn the way things hidden and unspoken
slowly proclaim their voice in the world.
Find that far inward symmetry
to all outward appearances, apprentice
yourself to yourself, begin to welcome back
all you sent away, be a new annunciation,
make yourself a door through which
to be hospitable, even to the stranger in you.
See with every turning day,
how each season makes a child
of you again, wants you to become
a seeker after rainfall and birdsong,
watch now, how it weathers you
to a testing in the tried and true,
admonishes you with each falling leaf,
to be courageous, to be something
that has come through, to be the last thing
you want to see before you leave the world.
Above all, be alone with it all,
a hiving off, a corner of silence
amidst the noise, refuse to talk,
even to yourself, and stay in this place
until the current of the story
is strong enough to float you out.
Ghost then, to where others
in this place have come before,
under the hazel, by the ruined chapel,
below the cave where Coleman slept,
become the source that makes
the river flow, and then the sea
beyond. Live in this place
as you were meant to and then,
surprised by your abilities,
become the ancestor of it all,
the quiet, robust and blessed Saint
that your future happiness
will always remember.