TED 2017 - Words That Matter

There may be no more powerful a collision of voices that I’ve ever experienced than listening to Anne Lamott, and then David Whyte at the TED conference in Vancouver this year. They are two authors whose voices together create sparks when listened to side by side. And, at the core -both of them are driven by honesty.

Author Anne Lamott is a Christian, a former alcoholic, and an activist. She wove a tale of loss, parenthood, and faith - all of it tied together with humor.

Anne Lamott - Author - at TED 2017
Anne Lamott - Author - at TED 2017

At TED 2017 she said "Hope begins in the dark ... if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don't give up."

Lamott recently turned 61 and shared a list of “every single true thing I know.“ Here’s the list:

  1. “Life is a precious unfathomably beautiful gift, and it is impossible here,” she said. “Life is filled with heartbreaking sweetness and beauty, floods and babies and acne and Mozart, all swirled together.”
  2. “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes. That includes you.”
  3. “Nothing outside of you will help you in any real, lasting way. If it is someone else’s problem, you probably don’t have the solution.”
  4. “Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy and scared. Everyone, even the people who seem to have it most together.”
  5. “Chocolate with 75% cacao is not actually a food. Its best use is as bait in snake traps or to balance the legs on wobbly chairs.”
  6. “Every writer puts down terrible first drafts. The trick is that they commit to sticking with it.’
  7. “Every story you own is yours. If people wanted you to write more warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
  8. “You are going to feel like hell if you never write the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your heart — your stories, visions, memories, visions and songs. Your truth, your version of things, your own voice. That is really all you have to offer us. And that’s also why you were born.”
  9. “Creative success are something you have to recover from. They will hurt, damage and change you in ways you cannot imagine.”
  10. “It is a miracle to get your work published,” she said. “Just try to bust yourself gently of the fantasy that publication will heal you, will fill the Swiss cheesy holes inside you. It can’t. It won’t.”
  11. “Earth is forgiveness school. It begins with forgiving yourself — then you might as well start at the dinner table.”
  12. “Speaking of food: try to do a little better. I think you know what I mean.”
  13. “Grace is Spiritual WD-40 or water wings,” she said. “The mystery of grace is that God loves Henry Kissinger and Vladimir Putin and me exactly as much as He or She loves your new grandchild.”
  14. “Laughter really is carbonated holiness,” she said. “It helps us breathe again and again, and gives us back to ourselves.”

Then she took a deep breath on stage. I may have missed a few. Said Lamontt “Okay, I think that’s it. But if I think of anything else, I’ll let you know.”

TED is often a conference of complex issues, and remarkable visions of solutions. Technical, scientific, social. But I don’t remember being caught by surprise by soaring oratory - at least not often.

Which is why David Whyte was unexpected and magical. Whyte is a poet and philosopher. He’s also English. When a US border guard recently asked him, “And what do you do, Mr. Whyte?” he answered, “I work with the conversational nature of reality.” And as odd an answer as that seems, he proved it to be entirely true. Whyte’s talk was a meditation on the fuzzy frontiers of the past, present, and future. He read two poems inspired by his niece’s hike along El Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

David Whyte -  Poet and Philosopher.
David Whyte - Poet and Philosopher.

The first, “Finisterre,” references the town in Portugal where Whyte’s niece walked after finishing her pilgrimage — and the three rituals she performed along the way: eating scallops, burning a letter and leaving an item of clothing behind. It concludes that even without her hiking boots, which served Whyte’s niece for seven weeks of walking.

FINISTERRE

The road, in the end, taking the path the sun had taken,

into the western sea, and the moon rising behind you

as you stood where ground turned to ocean: no way

to your future now but the way your shadow could take,

walking before you across water, going where shadows go,

no way to make sense of a world that wouldn't let you pass

except to call an end to the way you had come,

to take out each frayed letter you had brought

and light their illumined corners; and to read

them as they drifted on the late western light;

to empty your bags; to sort this and to leave that;

to promise what you needed to promise all along,

and to abandon the shoes that brought you here

right at the water's edge, not because you had given up

but because now, you would find a different way to tread,

and because, through it all, part of you would still walk on,

no matter how, over the waves.

David Whyte-  poet and philosopher.
David Whyte- poet and philosopher.

The second, “Santiago,” considers how in a single, much-anticipated moment, like reaching the end of El Camino, the past, present, and future seem to swirl and combine.

The road seen, then not seen, the hillside

hiding then revealing the way you should take,

the road dropping away from you as if leaving you

to walk on thin air, then catching you, holding you up,

when you thought you would fall,

and the way forward always in the end

the way that you followed, the way that carried you

into your future, that brought you to this place,

no matter that it sometimes took your promise from you,

no matter that it had to break your heart along the way:

the sense of having walked from far inside yourself

out into the revelation, to have risked yourself

for something that seemed to stand both inside you

and far beyond you, that called you back

to the only road in the end you could follow, walking

as you did, in your rags of love and speaking in the voice

that by night became a prayer for safe arrival,

so that one day you realized that what you wanted

had already happened long ago and in the dwelling place

you had lived in before you began,

and that every step along the way, you had carried

the heart and the mind and the promise

that first set you off and drew you on and that you were

more marvelous in your simple wish to find a way

than the gilded roofs of any destination you could reach:

as if, all along, you had thought the end point might be a city

with golden towers, and cheering crowds,

and turning the corner at what you thought was the end

of the road, you found just a simple reflection,

and a clear revelation beneath the face looking back

and beneath it another invitation, all in one glimpse:

like a person and a place you had sought forever,

like a broad field of freedom that beckoned you beyond;

like another life, and the road still stretching on.

“Every story you own is yours” said Anne Lamott. “No way to your future now but the way your shadow could take” read David Whyte. Two authors. Very different voices. But both of them did the impossible. They took me places I'd never been before. A time-traveling experience. As TED explores the complexities of our world, the risks and rewards of staring at the world’s hardest problems - Lamott and Whyte invite us to look inward rather than outward. The answers, they say, are closers than you may imagine. Philosophical curiosity has its own set of solutions - just below the surface.

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