burning questions with Patti Digh: poetic choices
Substance. Mindfulness. Deep play. Meaning-making.
(Insert a very humble bow, a Namaste, my hands folded in respect, and a “Woot! Woot! Patti’s the bomb.” Ommmm Patti.)
1. What is the question that you are currently living?
The question I live every morning is the one that started me on my current journey: What would I be doing today if I only had 37 days to live? It’s a question—and a time frame—that provides immediate perspective to my life. And it’s a tough question some days, because we are filled with “have to’s” and “should’s”. We learn those patterns at such a young age… I’m learning to really understand at a deep level that I am always, ALWAYS, in choice. I may not choose my circumstance, but I certainly choose how I am in that circumstance. That single-handedly eliminates my abdication of personal responsibility—and that, frankly, sucks some days when I’d rather blame things on others.
In this brave new 37days world, “have to” is changed to “choose to,” and “should” is changed to “will.” In this world, “I’ll try to” becomes “I will” or “I won’t” and “I can’t” becomes “I choose not to.”
Living as if you are dying provides immediate, sudden, potent clarity.
2. What makes something poetic?
Everything, EVERYTHING is poetry. Everything is poetic. If you’re alive, you’re a poet. If you’re alive, you’re an artist. Life itself is a creative act. I see poetry everywhere—in the way a waiter hands me my vegan enchilada, in the way the train doors close at the Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport, in the reflected smile of a cab driver in his rear view mirror when I ask about his children whose pictures are so proudly displayed, in the pain we feel when we encounter deep, vast soul-numbing loss.
There’s a wonderful quote from Osho: “When I say be creative, I don’t mean you should all go and become great painters and great poets. I simply mean let your life be a painting, let your life be a poem.”
What makes something poetic is our belief in poetry, of a meaning far beyond the surface of the thing itself, of metaphor, of the dance we dance daily between content and form.
3. What split intentions have you unified?
Oh, honey. How much time do you have?
I’ll start with just one.
As my business partner, David Robinson, taught me from his work as a theater director teaching young actors: “You can’t play two intentions at the same time on stage.” So you can either warn Hamlet or work to get the audience to love you, but you can’t do both at the same time.
My greatest learning about this came in the form of my most recent book. It wasn’t written for publication. I didn’t try to tailor a query to fit what an editor was looking for. I didn’t engage an agent to sell the idea of it. I simply sat down and wrote for my two daughters, completely disengaged from the market, the product. It was the process that mattered: a writer writes.
My single, solitary intention was to leave behind my stories for my two daughters so that when I die—whenever that is—I will be leaving behind an important part of myself for them, something more important than a collection of grapefruit spoons. I felt great urgency about that, because we never know when we will die. I could be on Day 10 of my last 37 right now—and I would never know that.
The greatest gifts of my life emerged from that single intention—in the form of relationships—with my family, with readers around the globe. That work, more than anything else I’ve ever done, speaks to the power of a single intention. I was writing, head down. And I try every single day to get back to that.
4. What piece of advice have you been given that you apply the most frequently?
When our oldest daughter was little, a good friend suggested that we get down on our knees and actually “walk” around the house that way to see it from her eye level. It was an eye-opening journey. In my work as a social justice activist, and also as a writer and speaker, I get on my knees and walk around in someone else’s reality a lot. It’s important to try as much as possible to see what others are seeing, particularly if they are disagreeing with you, particularly if they are belittling or negating you. What drives them? What do they see in the world? What is their vantage point? Their access point? Getting people to where you are is a hell of a lot easier if you give them directions from where they are, and not from where you stand, all sure of yourself.
5. What book(s) are you always telling people to read?
The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers. The man is, hands-down, a genius. His writing is brilliant, each sentence (each one) a combination of words so beautiful that it makes every writer jealous. He is a gracious, amazing man and this is the best book about race in the U.S. I’ve ever read.
6. I’m going to give you a word. Tell me what the first thing that comes to mind when you read it… Ready? The word is: DIGNITY.
Our dignity as human beings isn’t something defined by who we are in the world as individuals, but it’s defined only in community, by the quality of the engagement between us, by the quality of the space between us, by our ability to navigate those liminal spaces. Until we are ready and able to grant the same level of specificity to others as we grant ourselves, there is no dignity. Until we know that the homeless person in Pack Square and the hungry Haitian displaced from his home, and the refugee from Rwanda, and the white male CEO, and the shamed golf star are as fully complex and human as we are, there is no dignity, there is only privilege and judgment.
7. What do you know to be true, unquestionably beyond doubt, certain with every cell of your being, completely, passionately, righteously certain?
I know that when I am on my deathbed, I will be surrounded not by legions of people all over the world who may have come in contact with me or my work, but by a very small group of what I call my “human survival units.” Knowing who those people are is vital. Knowing that we are made up not of atoms, but of love and stories, is also vital. When we die, what’s left is love in the form of stories. I know that death ends a life, but not a relationship.