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Leaning Into Solitude

11 April 2023

Barbara listened to David Whyte’s Three Sundays Zoom Series called Clear Mind Wild Heart, Finding Clarity and Courage Through Poetry and found reinforcement for thinking positively about solitude.

Tags: barbara read, barbara watched, david whyte, david whyte's three sundays series, grief, mbti, poetry

I’ve been a groupie of the poet David Whyte for a long time. It began one morning in 1997, when my boss in Tampa called my remote office in Orlando and said, “Go buy the book, The Heart Aroused, read it, and get the author David Whyte to be one of our speakers in Houston at the annual meeting in May.

When I heard David Whyte speak that spring to a room full of physicians, I was infatuated with his great speaking skills, English accent, and the poems he recited. I’ve always read poems too fast. If I didn’t understand them immediately, I felt stupid or bored and moved on. He repeated whole poems at least twice and parts of poems sometimes up to five times as if he knew that was what it would take for me to get it. With his repetitions and interspersed explanations, I could understand them and let the words and emotions sink into my mind and body.

David Whyte has memorized at least 300 poems. In his talks, I can tell he has a general plan, but then he intuits what the audience needs to hear and recites the appropriate poem. If the poem is one he has written, he talks about how he wrote it, why he wrote, where he wrote it, and what it means. That was what I always wanted in my high school and college English classes from poets, but most of them were dead. With that craving satisfied, I began to cherish some poems that Whyte introduced me to: Wild Geese by Mary Oliver, The Swan by Rainer Maria Rilke, Lost by David Wagoner, and What to Remember When Waking by Whyte himself.

Since 1997 I have traveled to hear David Whyte eight times all over the country—Stowe, VT, Pacific Grove, CA, and Charleston, SC, to name a few. Each time I was enchanted, inspired, and wanted to see him more. A friend used the term literary crush, and I realized I had one.

And then the pandemic came, and all travel ended. But time with David Whyte did not. In the Spring of 2020, he started having a series called Three Sundays every other month. For an hour and 15 minutes at 10:00am Pacific time, I watched him do his thing up close on Zoom. He has exceptional eye contact with the camera, and I felt like his live body was in the room with me as I watched him on my computer monitor four feet in front of my chair. The week after, he sends a link to the recorded session, a summary, a list of resources, and all the poems he recited or read. It’s the most value for $60 I’ve ever gotten. I blogged about being with him this way in September 2020 and December 2021.

Then, I watched every other month until September 2022, when my husband took a turn for the worse. I skipped September, November, and January last year because I couldn’t stand to think about how to make my life better while my husband was getting worse every day.

But I found myself ready to tune in again last month and heard these words, “When we want to move and be moved by the music of life, the act of sustained attention in deep silence is the place to start. If we allow ourselves to pay deep attention and sustain it over time, remarkable things start to happen, both in the way the world seems to come to find us and in our own physiology—our body seems to get larger in order to hold the world and our sense of presence becomes more generous and hospitable to others.”

I’ve been working on having enough silence since I was 35. I learned I was an Introvert and started rearranging my life with my family so I could get more alone time. When my children were little, I might have just an hour a day when they had room time. As they grew, I had more time to myself. In my last five years of full-time work, I had a flexible schedule until I retired in 2012. I worked long days Monday to Thursday and had Friday off. One Thursday evening, my husband George said, “I have a few things I’d like to talk about before you go into radio silence in the basement for the weekend.” We were both certified at the same time to teach the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and once we understood that he was an Extravert and I was an Introvert, he never begrudged me my time alone, and I never resented his desire to be with people more than I wanted to be.

Over the years, I adored all the solitude I created, but it had a different air of nourishment and happiness when I knew my husband was cheerfully waiting in the wings for me to come out of hiding. Since I became a widow four months ago, I have regular visits from my daughter Allison who lives near me in Charlottesville, wonderful ones from my granddaughter Kathryn who drives up from Durham, and my new neighbors have been very attentive. However, I still have lots of silence to try to do what David Whyte recommends in his quote above.

Sometimes the silence is delicious to me because we had caregivers in the house around the clock for the last three months of my husband’s life. Sometimes the silence is so empty I feel hollow. Then, I go play hymns on the piano and pretend George is sitting in his blue chair listening to me. My memories of his cheerful encouragement wash over me and bring me peace.

After playing for about 30 minutes one night last month, I wrote this poem:

You Never Know When

Daddy, you paid
for twelve years
of piano lessons
on a Steinway
you couldn’t afford
always hoping
I’d play
in front of company
like 19th century
finished women did.
All to no avail.

Now that piano lives 
in my last house.

With no one here,
I've played hymns
every day
since my husband
died in December.


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