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Poet David Whyte invites us to the edge of discovery
By Mary Sykes Wylie
Imagine yourself scurrying through a typical day, innocently following your all-too-familiar routine, when suddenly everything begins to unravel. You find yourself sitting in blank-eyed stupor at a desk piled high with papers needing immediate attention. You hold the phone receiver to your ear, but can't make yourself listen to or care about what the voice at the other end is saying. You bite your tongue with a client so as not to snarl, "Quit bitching and get a life!" You look around your office and wonder wearily how you're going to get through the next project, the next day, the next minute.
What if the fuzzy, gray blur of your life were suddenly pierced by a series of jarring questions emerging from nowhere? Like an amnesiac coming to in a strange city, strange office, strange body, you hear yourself asking, "How did I get here?" "Who the hell am I?" "Who did I use to be?" "What happened to the last 15, 20, 30 years?"
Anyone wise in the ways of convention and common decency would surely suppress those unsettling questions, do the adult, prudent, responsible thing, and soldier on. "Grow up!" you might scold yourself. "Get a grip! Quit whining! This is life! Whoever promised you a rose garden? You've got kids, a mortgage, car payments, health insurance, college tuition, and a 401K to think about, so suck it up." You tell yourself this because, if you pay any real attention to these little gremlins, you're in serious trouble. Give them a few minutes of your undivided attention and you may come to the visceral realization that, ultimately, everything and everybody you care about will come to an end, including your precious self. You could actually die before you decide that you've never allowed yourself the opportunity to truly live your life.
Twenty years ago, poet David Whyte had one of those sudden moments of existential turmoil and clarity, but instead of swatting those troubling thoughts away like a sortie of mosquitoes, he found himself absorbing their subversive message and radically adjusting his life. After a youth spent traveling the world and even serving as a wilderness guide in some of the most spectacular spots on the planet, he'd decided to give up his unrealistic, bohemian daydreams of being a poet (how many openings for "wandering bard" were there in late 20th-century America?) and embrace pragmatic necessity (after all, he had a young child to support). He'd taken a job with the good guys at a nonprofit environmental organization on an island in Puget Sound, one of the most gorgeous places in North America. It was an eminently reasonable, mature, nonbardic decision.