So many ideas, so many things I am reading, are swirling around the same center lately. I’m sure the realist would suggest that it’s because I am just looking for the same central ideas so I notice them more, but I am such a mystic about this sort of thing. I never think it’s an accident when words make their way to me at a specific time.
I’m a fan of On Being, and I shared the latest episode yesterday. It’s an hour-long conversation with poet and philosopher David Whyte, and it is definitely worth your time if you get a chance to listen. I first ran across him about a year ago with his poem that states that “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.” It’s a passage I turned over and over in my own mind in the earliest days of being by myself for the first time.
Krista Tippet’s conversation with him touches a bit on that poem and on a lot of other things as well. They talked a bit about the “conversational nature” of life and where things intersect and take paths we don’t expect. I loved his discussion of genius when he explains that “in the ancient world, the word ‘genius’ was not so much used about individual people, it was used about places, and almost always with the world loci. Genius loci meant ‘the spirit of a place.’ And we all know what that intuitively means. We all have favorite places in the world, and it may be a seashore where you’ve got this ancient conversation between the ocean and the land and a particular geography of the way the cliffs or the beaches are formed … But a more sophisticated understanding would understand it’s this weatherfront of all of these qualities that meet in that place. So I think it’s a very merciful thing to think of human beings in the same way as — that is, your genius is just the way everything has met in you.” The way everything has met in you. To think of that – the way every piece of every thing I have experienced is met in me and the way all those tiny pieces create who I am and my life path – it’s a pretty overwhelming thought but a beautiful one, too. It makes me see people around me in a different light as well. We all have our unique genius, the way everything has met inside of us.
I’ve been reading Rilke lately, as I wrote about a few days ago, and his whole premise in Letters to a Young Poet is to fully immerse yourself in every experience, even the sad ones. To feel the weight of your own sadness so that you can find your way to the other side, too. He urges the reader to feel it all and “live the questions” which was an idea David Whyte echoed, too. He discusses this notion of feeling through questions to train what he calls “a more beautiful mind” and he insists “it’s an actual discipline, no matter what circumstances you’re in. The way I interpreted it was the discipline of asking beautiful questions, and that a beautiful question shapes a beautiful mind. And so the ability to ask beautiful questions, often in very unbeautiful moments, is one of the great disciplines of a human life. And a beautiful question starts to shape your identity as much by asking it as it does by having it answered. And you don’t have to do anything about it. You just have to keep asking. And before you know it, you will find yourself actually shaping a different life, meeting different people, finding conversations that are leading you in those directions that you wouldn’t even have seen before.” I’ve seen this first hand. It resonated with me so much that I went straight to the transcript of the show to read it again.
I feel as though all I ever do is observe and ask questions. (You see that here if you read along because most of what I write is really just a combination of those two things.) I have so few answers, only questions. But asking these questions – what am I feeling? why am I feeling it? what brings me alive and makes me feel real and how do I do more of it? – the simple act of asking has led me to so many new people and paths and experiences that I’ve seen unfold in the past year or so. I overlook the miraculousness of it all sometimes when I am caught in my daily tasks, but it amazes me when I stand back to look and feel it and be amazed.
Rob Bell talks about this on a recent podcast of his as well. He says it’s the difference between our frantic what am I doing? what am I doing? what am I doing? that we ask internally all day as we hurriedly move from one task to another and the awe-inspired what am I even doing here? question that we ask if we are wise enough to notice our own genius, as Whyte would say, the way all of our experience is met in us to create this spirit that is uniquely ours. This life that is uniquely your own.
There is so much unexpected in my life, and I can be frantic in my daily buzzing. There are volumes left unanswered for me right now. But the genius loci of my life is here when I pause to see it. These two kids I get to see everyday and watch them grow into their own ways. This home I found largely by coincidence that I call my own with deeper roots every passing week. The circle of people around me – some I’ve known for years, some who are new, and some who have meandered back to me somehow after absence. My job and the tasks of my daily life. This journal which began with a few observations years ago and evolved to something very different in a way only genius loci could create.
We had a visiting poet today on campus. She read a few pieces this morning, and then we had a hardy group of students and a few faculty members show up for the afternoon Q&A session with her. As I listened to her and watched a few eager student faces, I made the effort to pull back a minute, to see the true genius of what I was experiencing. That this is my life.
That I work somewhere I can park myself in a chair in the late afternoon and listen to someone talk about words and ideas. And then I go home and exhale a bit with two kids whose names and faces I didn’t know would ever exist a decade ago. And we eat and play and bathe and now I record a few things here as they sleep and my dog snores at my feet. And tomorrow, I wake up and brew coffee, and I begin it all again. The rhythm of my life full of things I love most and with a path that meanders with surprises along the way. That is the what am I even doing here? awe-inspired question I can ask myself. How did I get this life? How did I arrive here? It’s really only a result of asking the right questions and listening to what they evoke in me, but when I step back to see it for what it really is, it blows me away sometimes.
Andrea Hollander was our poet today, and she spoke a lot about the process of creating poetry and that she doesn’t consider it a good poem until it surprises her as she’s writing it. I feel that in so many ways. When I sit down here to write, when I make observations and ask the right questions, I arrive somewhere and realize that I knew something I didn’t know I knew. Like a deep recognition or remembrance brought to the surface. It’s why I record ideas here, even if they are hurried or jumbled like they are tonight.
In one of her poems, Hollander explains, “You know how it is when something / so startles you into your life — / you forget you are anything but eyes / or ears or mouth. It doesn’t have to hurt. / I’m talking about certain swells / of music your bones recognize / as if they’ve created them and now / they’ve come home.”
I hear the music today. The swell and the recognition, the feeling that my bones created it with their own genius loci. The way everything has met in me. I’m grateful for all the little pieces.