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Book notes: The Three Marriages by David Whyte

What started as some good posting momentum at the start of the year has slowed slightly. Pandemics will do that I suppose. I would like to say that I have been journaling a lot, but that would be a lie. At the start of things I spent far too much screen time on twitter and reddit. Not sure whether I was trying to actually determine whether this was the actual end of the world or simply basking in the doomer glory of it all. Probably a mixture of both. Fortunately I was able to break out of that cycle, a testament to how quickly the thrilling (even the thrilling for the wrong reasons) can become commonplace, and was able to get back to reading.

I am changing my approach to these posts since I was noticing some resistance to completing them. Rather than a “review” which connotes something of value that I add on top, I am framing these as simply notes – a marker of the books I have read and a few of the impressions I am leaving with.

I first heard of the poet David Whyte on a Sam Harris podcast that I listened to on the way in to work. That should place it in time well enough. I really liked the way he described reality as the frontier that exists between the “self” and the “world” and so I ordered his most recent prose book from my favorite local bookshop and picked it up a few weeks later. Another placement for when I started on this.

The three marriages is not about serial divorce nor polygamy, but rather the relationship one has with one’s spouse, with one’s work and with one’s self. Right off the bat Whyte points out that most people’s first experience of marriage is the one that they interrupt, specifically first children. The images we carry from our childhood of our parents’ marriage stay with us and inform how we see the three marriages throughout our lives.

As a poet, he makes many references to the poetry of others as well as ahis own. In first talking about the marriage to the self, he cites The Prelude by Wordsworth, with whom he shares a particular affinity, calling out the line:

I made no vows, but vows / Were made for me

The Prelude, Wordsworth

to make the point that life comes to find us as much as we go out to find it, but that can only happen if we are awake and aware to the world around us, stopping for even just a minute to pay attention to something besides our selves. He expands on this point is his own work Everything is Waiting for You

To feel abandoned is to deny

the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,

even you, at times, have felt the grand array;

the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding

out your solo voice. You must note

the way the soap dish enables you,

or the window latch grants you freedom.

Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.

Everything is Waiting for You, Whyte

He draws this conclusion about the work we have to do, as well as what is not up to us, in finding a “great work”:

To glimpse our vocation, we must learn how to be sought out and found by a work as much as we strive to identify it ourselves. We must make ourself findable by being seen; to do that we must hazard ourselves and make ourselves available to the world we want to enter.

The Three Marriages, Whyte

This passage struck me since it speaks directly to something I have more and more trouble with as I get older: trying something new and f*(&ing it up. This is an echo of Whyte’s idea from the podcast of reality being a frontier, a conversation, between the self and the world. As I look for great work, as much as I need to learn new skills and new ways of being, I need to put myself in (potentially unfamiliar or uncomfortable) situations even more to let a great work find me.

Whyte touches on the role that worry plays in self discovery, specifically the thing that we I do to battle with worry: make to do lists:

Millenia of worrying under night skies have brought human beings to the point where the complexities of our contemporary societies have almost reached a breaking point. In many ways, our to-do lists have become the postmodern equivalent of the priest’s rosary, the lama’s sutra or the old prayer book – keeping a larger, avalanching reality at bay. Above all, the to-do list keeps the evil of not-doing at bay, a list that many of us like to chant and cycle through religiously as we make our way to work through the commute.

The Three Marriages, Whyte

I totally saw myself in this. When I used to actually drive into the office, “chanting” my to do list was a regular pastime. One of the hidden blessings of CQ (COVID-19 Quarantine) has been my lack of focus on my to do list. There hasn’t been as much to do, and what was on there hasn’t seemed as important. I still check it, check things off and add things now and again, but it is not with the same religious ferocity as “before”. I have not quite arrived at comfort with the “evil of not-doing”, but I can feel myself getting closer. A few more weeks of quarantine and I think I might “arrive” somewhere (which probably means I am fooling myself).

In a chapter on the marriage with work, Whyte takes on the paradox of what seems to be vs. what is about the life of a writer:

From the outside, especially to those that long for a more artistic life, a writer looks to be involved in what looks like an unscheduled imaginative adventure, but what she needs above all else is structure and a goodly amount of space within that structure. It takes a good settled sense of what we are about, first to think that we deserve the time and the to arrange our days so that what we want comes about.

The Three Marriages, Whyte

When I am being honest I know that I am still looking for that settled sense of what I am about and that my to do list is the armor that I put up to avoid not-doing long enough to find it. The hardest part seems to be the feeling that after all this time I should already know what I am about. The sense that I knew once and it either wasn’t real, has left me, or that simply the frontier between my “self” and the “world” has shifted (I like that explanation most of all).

The Three Marriages is gently disturbing. White uses language to point to things that language can’t describe directly. While that is the gift of poetry, the long form of the Three Marriages helped me, who is “poetry-challenged”, to see some things I had been missing and realize some things I already knew.

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