Power and Vulnerability

Grendel as imagined Betterlifethroughgrendel

In David Whyte’s book, The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, he takes up the story of Beowulf to illustrate power and vulnerability in the workplace. I never read the story before. It is a fascinating tale of a warrior Beowulf asked by the King of Denmark to slay Grendel, a monster coming up from the lake and dragging people from the castle to tear them limb from limb. Grendel is also a metaphor for the inner demons that keep us from living the life we were meant to live. The fears that keep us from living wholeheartedly.

Beowulf slays Grendel, but then Grendel’s mother appears even more fierce than her son. Isn’t that how it often goes? We address some surface fears only to have more difficult demons take their place? The first was a quiz, this is the final exam.

Beowulf must enter the dark lake to reach Grendel’s mother. The dark lake is so scary that a stag pursued by hunting dogs would rather die a certain violent death than enter it and be saved. The only way for Beowulf to be powerful is to be vulnerable first. Find his voice, speak out against a bad idea or injustice.

It isn’t hard to remember a time when I’ve sunk down on our haunches like that stag at the shoreline. I am human and it is not easy to face down the demons every time. There is help available if I am willing to tap into the ancient feminine wisdom found in vulnerability and self-compassion.

This is where Brene Brown so marvelously illuminated the path to becoming more vulnerable. I have read all of her books and participated in her online courses and recommend any of her books. In her most recent, Rising Strong, she explores what happens when you take a risk or enter the arena. At some point when we risk vulnerability we will slip and fall. The key is to remain wholehearted and continue to stay open.

It is a choice to continue to put my faith in the long game or eternal story because my life is at stake. “The mythologist Joseph Campbell used to say that if you do not come to know the deeper mythic resonances that make up your life, the mythic resonances will simply rise up and take you over. If you do not live out your place in the mythic pattern consciously, the myth will simply live you, against your will.” (Whyte)

Be the hero of your own story; not a side character, as Sara in Katrina Bivald’s novel would say.

Evening of Dancing Words

Billy Collins
Billy Collins reading a poem as Aimee Mann looks on.

Tonight was a evening to celebrate language. The full house in Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus were gathered because they were fans of the poet Billy Collins or the singer/songwriter Aimee Mann, or both. People are drawn to these artists because they respect language and are committed craftsmen. Or in the case of Billy Collins, I love his dry wit and the humor in his poetry. I can relate to poems such as “Forgetfulness”:

The name of the author is the first to go

followed obediently by the title, the plot,

the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel

which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor

decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of your brain,

to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

First two stanzas from “Forgetfulness” from Billy Collins’ Sailing Alone Around the Room

I have one album by Aimee Mann. She has a beautiful voice, but her songs are all a little too melancholy for a steady diet. She was joined by a bass guitarist who also sang backup. She introduced him and then I forgot his name and he is not in the program. It made for a nice tryptic on stage.

Aimee Mann
Aimee Mann performs as poet Billy Collins looks on.

Aimee Mann and Billy Collins took turns performing and in between they bantered about their experience participating in a workshop for young poets at the White House. It is where they met and where they started what appears to be an on-going discussion of poetry and art.

Are song lyrics poetry? Sometimes they can be, although Aimee admitted that her job is easier because she has the music or melody to help her. Billy only has blank pages.

I bought the tickets for this performance in August. I thought the book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies prompted me to buy the tickets. In my January 11 blog post, I committed to memorizing poetry. Apparently I was already thinking about poetry because I bought these tickets in the summer. Until recently I did not realize it was Billy Collins performing with Aimee Mann. I was all about the poetry. Aimee was a definite bonus.

Billy Collins shared with the students at the White House workshop the importance of form in poetry. It is not enough to express yourself. There needs to be some discipline and structure. Form pushes back at you and does not allow you to get away with everything.

Collins also told the students (and us) a good poet also has to tell a little lie: that you care more about poetry than yourself. Then you can create a poem that intrigues the reader and can serve something other than the author’s ego. Aimee agreed and said her husband (Michael Penn) says, “you have to give a shit.”

Truth for all meaningful work.