As we look ahead to a world of profound — and often frightening — change, I stand firm in my belief and faith that our best field of action and our best hope is our local community and environment, our place and our home. As I write, this past weekend witnessed a historic national demonstration that even shot across the globe. The Women’s March on Washington, one of the largest demonstrations in history, provided astonishing inspiration in a time when despair is all too easy. Such mass actions are and always will be necessary. But we can’t have a global march on Washington every day, every week or every month. For true change to happen, it must start within ourselves and within our home places.
In the past couple of years, I have found new inspiration in the poet and leadership guru David Whyte and his ideas about “the conversational nature of reality.” Whyte’s vision of “conversation” is not a facile one. It is challenging and even frightening. Rather than just smoothing over differences, Whyte’s conversation forces us to uncover uncomfortable, perhaps unseen, depths — within both ourselves and others — and engage with them. The conversation with reality is not an argument, and it’s not compromise, which is the model we have traditionally used in our governance system and which now seems irretrievably broken. Conversation, the interchange between sometimes profound differences, changes if not creates reality itself. That can certainly be beautiful and uplifting, but it can also be frightening and wrenching. Regardless, it is always transformative.
Former Missoula, Montana Mayor Daniel Kemmis’ vision of community in his classic book Politics and the Community of Place works something like this. For Kemmis, today’s broken politics are based on “communities of interest,” which hold positions that are battled over for victory or loss. Even compromise — part of one position and part of another — makes everyone at least a little unhappy. Kemmis proposes an alternative method, what he calls a “community of place,” by which we come together not to fight over positions but to determine what is in all our best interest and to move forward together. Public life should be about practiced inhabitation, not ideological supremacy. Through this process, we come to understand everyone’s reality. In knowing that, we figure out our best mutual reality — not a win or a loss, the rule of a majority or even a compromise — and move forward together.
The beauty of this approach is that, by definition, solutions are inherently within the reality, or diverse realities, right before us, and that is exactly what David Whyte invokes in his poem “Everything is Waiting for You,” which valorizes the local, starting in the home. Using modest, homespun imagery, Whyte encourages us to “note/the way the soap dish enables you,/or the window latch grants you freedom … The stairs are your mentor of things/to come, the doors have always been there/to frighten you and invite you,/and the tiny speaker in the phone/is your dream-ladder to divinity.” As we ease into conversation with the reality of the world around us, we start to sense that “the kettle is singing/even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots/have left their arrogant aloofness and/seen the good in you at last.”
The natural world plays a central role in Whyte’s vision. But the reality of nature is not that it is ours to manipulate but rather ours to pay attention to and, of course, enter into conversation with. Whyte closes his poem with, “All the birds/and creatures of the world are unutterably/themselves. Everything is waiting for you.” This vision is not alienating but invitational. We just need to listen and understand through conversation. As Whyte says, “Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.”
In the poem “Start Close In,” Whyte emphasizes how we need to start with “the first/thing/close in,/the step/you don’t want to take.” And that first step is right here: “Start with/the ground/you know,/the pale ground/beneath your feet,/your own/way of starting/the conversation.”
From the people we live with in our community to the natural environment — it’s all speaking to us if we will only listen and enter into conversation with it. As Whyte says in describing the work of Invitas, his leadership institute, “Engaging in conversational leadership is to ‘invite what you do not expect,’ bringing you to the frontier of what is emerging in your organization and asking you to turn into it, rather than away from it.” The conversational vision is alchemical rather than argumentative. It bridges differences in a way more profound, and I suspect more enduring, than majority rules or compromise.
Ultimately we do need to have national and international conversations, and million-person marches are necessary as dramatic, blunt instruments that punctuate and activate. But true change starts in our communities and in our care of the natural world right outside our door. Our current governing system — local, state and national — has devolved into a ping-pong match such that whoever is in power sets out to undo what the previous regime instituted. When the pendulum swings back, the next regime will do the same. This kind of governmental and cultural whiplash serves no one well and is unsustainable. We need a new approach to leadership, change, progress and culture that is enduring and respectful of all. We need to cultivate alertness as our discipline of familiarity, enter into conversation with what is really there (not just what we want), encounter everything that is waiting for us and in that way create lasting change.
Thomas Dean is ready to start close in. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 214.