[Note: This episode is dedicated to the late poet (and editor non pareil), David Corcoran. We miss you, David.]
In this strangest of holiday seasons, when so many of us are missing our extra limb of extended family, I’m not so sure it’s just cheer we could use. As we turn this final page on our dark 2020, we might need something that transports us in a different way. The wisdom of the poet and philosopher David Whyte, especially when it comes to the wonderful relationship he had with his mother, Mary O’Sullivan, might be just the right tonic for our times.
I got in touch with Whyte about coming on to Our Mothers Ourselves after I heard him tell a heartbreaking story about his mother during his popular Sunday Series. Thomas Crocker, Whyte’s very kind right-hand person, got back to me and said that David’s schedule was hectic, but there was something about the invitation that spoke to him. That’s the way things tend to happen with this podcast: People find themselves wanting, needing, yearning to talk about the woman who saw them through so much of life.
Over the past decade or so, I’ve been asking people to choose just one word to describe their mother, and when I asked this of Whyte, he said it was something he hadn’t thought about before – finding the one word that best sums up Mary O’Sullivan. He chose the word “lyrical,” because, he said, his mother was “joyously articulate,” “a great singer,” and lyrical in her use of words to convey love and affection.
Turning the tables just a bit, I asked a few friends, whom I know to be fans of Whyte’s poetry, for the word they would use to describe David Whyte. A sampling of the responses: Insightful. Profound. Deep. Wise. Genius. Spiritual. Inspirational. Accessible. Surprising. Mystic. Storyteller.
My own word for Whyte: Bountiful. Everything he writes, even words wrought in sparest form, is a generous helping for the mind and for the soul. When Whyte arrives, poetry in hand, the gift he brings is as precious as the most exquisite mother-of-pearl box. And long after its bearer has taken leave, the poetry stays. Phrases like ‘Perfection is a fragile, ice-thin ground that barely holds our human weight’ linger like an afterimage.
One David Whyte poem that is new to me is Farewell Letter, about a letter he imagined his mother might have written to him after her death. In our interview, Whyte talks about the interrupted dream that gave rise to that poem.
Whyte's verse is balm for many a broken soul. So here’s to hoping that my conversation with him about his mother and their elemental bond will feed your mind, raise your spirits and fill your soul. I know it lifted my own heart beyond measure.
* You can find Whyte’s word for his mother — and the words other offspring who have contributed to the word cloud — on the mother word cloud page. Please visit and contribute your own.
A special thanks to Thomas Crocker at Many Rivers Press for permission to use David’s poetry.
Music composed and performed by Andrea Perry.
Artwork by Paula Mangin. (@PaulaBallah)
Producer: Alice Hudson
Katie Hafner 0:39
This is Our Mothers Ourselves and I'm your host, Katie Hafner. In this strangest of holiday seasons, when so many of us are missing the closeness of family. I'm not sure it's really just cheer we could use though that's certainly welcome. But something that might transport us in a different way. The wisdom of the poet and philosopher David Whyte, especially when it comes to the wonderful relationship he had with his mother, Mary O'Sullivan could be just what the doctor ordered. So here's to hoping that my recent conversation with David about his mother and their elemental bond will feed your mind, raise your spirits and soothe your soul. David Whyte, thank you so much for coming on to our mother's ourselves. To talk to me about your extraordinary mother, Mary O'Sullivan, whose life we will celebrate for the next half hour or so
David Whyte 1:43
I look forward to that very much.
Katie Hafner 1:45
If you had one word to describe your mother, what would that word be?
David Whyte 1:53
lyrical. Yes, lyrical. And in the sense of joyously articulate, and she was also a great singer, and lyrical in the sense of lyrics being used to convey love and affection. And she was very good at that, too. So, yes, I've never thought of that before. So lyrical, definitely fits her character and her very Irish background too.
Katie Hafner 2:32
That's lovely. So let's plunge right into her life from the beginning, the life of Mary O' Sullivan, where she was when she was born, where she was born, who her parents were.
David Whyte 2:46
Mm hmm. Well, you know, I grew up thinking she was born in Waterford. And because it was always Waterford, Waterford Waterford, I also grew up with about five alternative childhoods for my mother. So it was only when I reached my teens that I realized that this was quite extraordinary that I had all of these these different childhoods for my mother. And she never told the same story twice, either. You know if it was a bedtime story I never heard, I never heard it exactly as it was, as it had been told the night before. But I did find out actually, many years later that my mother was actually born in Dublin, while her mother and father were there probably probably working. It was 1932. So it was hard-scrabble existence in a very difficult dark Ireland, and it was run, you know, by the church and a very conservative government, and who knew what the people should want. But I think my mother had had quite a wonderful early childhood. They moved backwards and forwards, between Waterford and Dublin. And it was only years later that I found out that my mother spent a lot of time in hospital with polio. So yeah, but she recovered fully, but I think it I think it really formed her character. Of course, so many, so many kids had polio in those days, until vaccination came along. And I think my mother was quite remarkable in that any kind of trials that came along seem to make her character more generous and more compassionate to others. Somehow, every difficulty she had enabled her to understand how difficult life was for others, and I felt that with everything really, including in the most marked moments in my mother's life was when she lost her own mother at 13 years old. That was the defining moment in the woman who bore me's life, and I felt that sadness and grief and shock in a way passed down into my body as I, as I heard the story from my own mother. I was remembered in bed, sitting there when I was very young. As my mother told me, her late night story, and my light, my light never worked in my room, there was a bulb there, but it never worked. So my mother would always have the door cracked open a little bit, and there was a light on the landing, you know, the area at the top of the stairs. One of the great memories from my childhood is my mother's silhouette against that light, against the door cracked open, and the light on the landing behind her mother's voice emanating from that shadow. And often it would be English, sometimes it would be Irish, she had a good amount of Irish in her there was a Gaeltacht area very near where she grew up. And I do remember once hearing not only my mother's voice, but my mother's mother's voice speaking to me. And then even in another story, I heard my mother's mother's mother's voice speaking it was like a direct female line being passed down into my own body.
Katie Hafner 6:29
David Whyte 6:31
Yes. And the grief of that break in a way, that temporary break with her own mother. And we were all gathered around my mother's death bed. But at the end, I remember my sister shouting out, "She's waiting for you." And we all knew who my sister meant. It was my mother's own mother. She'd missed so much. In a sense. She was 13 years old.
Katie Hafner 6:55
So I'd like to hear the story of how she lost her mother.
David Whyte 7:01
Yes, well, I think there was an there was an aura of dread in the house because my mother's mother had to take to her bed and the bed was in the house. It sounds like my mother's mother had heart disease, because her ankles and legs were swollen. So obviously, the doctor was shaking his head when he came and, and you know, there was a quiet kind of understanding in the house that my grandmother wasn't long for this world. But my mother couldn't quite believe it. But she spent all the time she could buy our mother's bed. But at the same time, my mother was enrolled in a singing competition. If you're ever in Ireland, there are musical competitions, right?
Katie Hafner 7:51
David Whyte 7:52
Yes. And she kept winning every round, she had a beautiful voice, my mother, and then my grandmother was getting worse and worse. And then my mother sang her way to the finals, which were held at the theater in the town. And the evening came for my mother to go down to that theater to sit to sing in it. But she didn't want to leave my grandmother's bed. But my grandmother kept telling her to go. "You should go You should go You should go. "Leave me, I'll be grand." I'll be grand as they say in Ireland. And usually when someone says I'll be grand means, leave me alone. Do what you need to do. So I'll be grand. And my mother knew she wouldn't be grand, actually. But eventually my grandmother persuaded my mother to go down to the singing competition, even though it went against my mother's conscience and intuitions. So she went to the theater, and she won the competition actually, with a song called A Mother's Love is a Blessing. An old cliched song, but my mother singing it in a way which would probably under the circumstances of not left to dry eye in the house and when she got back to her own house, her mother had passed away.
Katie Hafner 9:22
And probably while she was singing that very song,
David Whyte 9:25
Exactly, yeah. So my mother was so shocked, you know, and felt so badly at having left her mother. She just ran out of the house. And she ran through Waterford city and out into the countryside to my great uncle David's house with her Auntie... My great Auntie Nancy was still alive, actually, almost 90 years old. And then they took her in, you know, and she must have arrived sobbing at the door. And then she sang the song again for them while she was there.
Katie Hafner 10:02
David Whyte 10:04
Yeah. And, excuse me, and the lovely thing was just a few years ago, I took my own daughter to see my great Auntie Nancy for the first time. And Nancy asked her to sing. And my daughter sang that song for her. So, after, after 70 odd years, you know.
Katie Hafner 10:32
Holy smokes and just that song, you know, it's a very, it's a very shlocky kind of Hallmark song, right?
David Whyte 10:39
Well, any style can become transcendent, if it's in the body, if it's filled with grief and presence. And, you know, someone who's got a bit of genius about them can always make something real and new, and particularly if that experiences in is fully in your body, which it was in my mother's. So that was, that was a real break in my mother's life. Their family life was never the same again,
Katie Hafner 11:11
after your grandmother died. What What did your mother do? What happened?
David Whyte 11:16
Oh that's part of the history of the bad old Ireland, you know, and that's one of the reasons I was born in the north of England and grew up in England, because of the terrors of the church at that time. You know, the church in Ireland was a very, very oppressive organization. And it was also hiding a great deal of dark sin, which was perpetrated against people who trusted them, particularly children. They were a kind of a dark hand on society. And the church split apart my mother's family because they didn't fit in there. They didn't think that a father should be in charge of children by himself. So they took the boys away, and they put them in Christian Brother communities, where I'm afraid they were terribly abused.
Katie Hafner 12:15
So these are your mother's two brothers.
David Whyte 12:17
Exactly. And they don't know what the sisters were threatened with, where they were threatened to be taken somewhere, God knows one of those laundries they had, and they fled the country. And first of all, my auntie Anne when she was 16, so she had a passport, she went across to Britain. And she, she posted her passport back for my mother, who, at 15, went to England by herself.
Katie Hafner 12:45
She sent her passport back for your mother.
David Whyte 12:48
Yeah. To be able to go across on the ferry to England. So it looks as if she was 16. So, and there they were, you know, in England, 15 and 16. And, and they had to find work right away. So when my own daughter reached 15, I couldn't believe that my mother had had to go out into the world in by herself at that age. So my mother found work in Yorkshire, West Yorkshire in one of the dark Satanic mills. Although she was with a lovely family, it turned out she had luck in she was taken in by a really, really nice family near Haworth where the Bronte sisters lived and grew under the moors, not far from where from where I was eventually born. And my mother was so young that she would put in an eight-hour shift in the mill. And then she'd go and play in the park afterwards,--she took me one day to the mill to show me the village and where she'd worked. And then the park where she played at the end of the day. So you can imagine that extraordinary compression of childhood and forced adulthood on a young woman of that age.
Katie Hafner 14:05
and the compulsion to play... a beckoning playground.
David Whyte 14:09
Katie Hafner 14:10
So then did she stay in Yorkshire and she met your father ...
David Whyte 14:16
She apparently did spend a little time in Birmingham working but Yorkshire kept drawing her back and eventually, she found herself in Mirfield, which was the town that I was born in eventually. And, and she stayed in the hospital at the top of a very, very long, very, very steep hill called Hopton Hill. And so my mother would have to walk up that hill. And so my mother met my father at a dance at the local armory. And my mother said she knew my father was serious because he would walk up Hopton Hill you had to be serious. And so and they fell in love. And this young Yorkshire fella with this young, lyrical Irish woman, and my father was just out of the Navy. And, and I was born just a few short years later.
Katie Hafner 15:21
You have a great poem, by the way, called Born Again, where you talk about how you would like to be born again because of the circumstances of your birth.
David Whyte 15:31
Oh, yes, yes, that's right. So
Katie Hafner 15:36
do you remember that? Should I take it out? I just love it. Oh, actually, I've got it right here. Let me just read you the little bit of I want to be born again. But I want to be born exactly as I was almost between things as I was in this life. And as I want to be in the next, Mary Theresa O'Sullivan, nine months gone. carrying me back to England. Her pains sharp in Waterford sharper in Dublin, the hard rolling bench of the ferry almost my midwife.
David Whyte 16:14
Well read. It's great to hear it coming back. Actually. Yes. I was almost born in Dublin, actually. And then I was almost born on the ferry, typical that she'd you know, she'd make plans to go to Ireland. When she's eight and a half months pregnant. Ah, Jesus we'll be all right, we'll be grand, you know. And, and my father persuaded to go with with her too, she was a great adventure my mother and be very little that would stop her or her sister, my auntie Anne was just the same. And actually, I always remember taking them to Ireland, I took them across, in, in a rental car, you know, to to Ireland. And then we went down to see all the relatives in in Waterford and it was one long party really for my, for my mother and my auntie Anne. And then at the end of it, I tried to get them up in the morning because we had to be on the road to Dublin, you know, to catch the ferry while getting them out of bed and getting them out of the house, my garden. And, and and then there were roadworks all the way by the time we got to Dublin we'd missed the ferry. So I looked at them both standing guiltily there. And I said, right, I said, I'm going off into into the town, I'm going to the to, to the museums, I'm going to look around literally Dublin. And I'll see you at five o'clock. And then they both looked at me with these faces. And I knew what these faces were saying. The faces were saying, we don't have a penny left between. It was true. And they said you don't have a penny left to you, between you and and they said we don't. So I don't know. I gave them thirty quid or something and, and off they went into the town we met later to to catch the ferry but that's the way my mother was, you know, she would she she she didn't have a need to have any structure in place for her to go off and, and adventure in the world. And and I think that's, that's how she met my father. That's how she came by me. That's how, how I was almost born in Dublin and just made it back to Yorkshire in time.
Katie Hafner 18:37
What is your first memory of her maternal love?
David Whyte 18:43
Oh, I've got this astonishing memory. I was just thinking about it. When I was walking around this morning, just thinking about this interview. And I was in the park with her in Mirfield. Ings Grove Park, it's called. And it was a beautiful sunny day. And I was holding my mother's hand I was probably three years old or something or four, I don't know. I looked up at my mother. And my mother looked down at me. And I and I felt so much love emanating from my mother, I felt as if I was looking at the sun. So it was just as if the sun's rays were filling my body with affection and the sense of being wanted. But I had an absolutely visual sense of looking straight into the rays of the sun. And that was my looking straight into the rays of her love and affection. It was quite a shock and surprise to me later, as I grew into life, to discover that so many people didn't have that experience with their mother. I couldn't quite believe it. You know, I couldn't believe that anyone could be that motherless in the world you know, even with a with a physical mother by your side I it was something that, that it took me time to actually understand. And, you know, through the experience of my schoolmates, and then as you grow older and you're, you're able to take more of an understanding of other people's griefs and traumas, you know, to understand what kind of, of a break that causes, you know, in a person's sense of themselves, you know, not to have that astonishing sunbathe in that, in that form of love and affection.
Katie Hafner 20:44
It sounds also like maybe she part of her inheritance was the love she got from her own mother that she could give to you.
David Whyte 20:53
Yeah, I yeah, all of us felt that, that and my two sisters, and I know that that love is being passed down. And an intergenerational gift. And the, it was interesting, you know, because on my father's side, the masculine affection was not passed down, you know, my father had a very difficult relationship with his father. And that's partly because my grandfather was, was traumatized in the trenches of the First World War, and for two years. It's the mud and corpses of Flanders. So we always felt intuitively my sisters and I that my father was apprenticed to my mother's ability to love and was a student, you could say. And I'd say, you know, in later life, he proved to be a very good student, actually. Difficult man in his twenties and thirties, and became a very mellow, very affectionate and very loving father, so it was lovely. It was lovely to see that apprenticeship to my mother's love...
Katie Hafner 22:16
...and the very fact that he was open to the apprenticeship, you know, becoming a mother. And, you know, I think that there's a spectrum of how we, how we view our mothers. And it's either as, as you clearly do as this incredibly loving, nourishing person with whom you have a truly elemental bond. And then on the other end of the spectrum, it's the person who simply gave birth to you. And everything in between.
David Whyte 22:50
Yeah, I had this very elemental experience of the other side of that coin too when my mother died. Because I had this very powerful intuition that she was gone from us completely. And she needed to be gone from us and from me, and that she had other fish to fry, as they say, she had another life to live that was independent of her being a mother. And that was quite a, you know, that's quite a shock to the first-born son of an Irish mother.
Katie Hafner 23:26
So this is the you have this intuition after she died.
David Whyte 23:29
Katie Hafner 23:31
Tell me when she died and how she died. What her later years were like?
David Whyte 23:38
Well, first of all, we had this remarkable rehearsal of her death. A good three years before she did pass away where she was in hospital. And we were sure she was going to go and, and then we were there, you know, for a week or 10 days, and I was with her every day. A good few hours. And my mother was having these very powerful experiences when she'd fall asleep of being with all her relatives, and especially the ones who had passed away. And that she was meeting them again, there was a lovely dance hall in Waterford City. He would go there and visit you know, and all her friends from when she was 16 years old, say, "Oh there you are, May." We called her Mary. But she was called May where she grew up. "There you are May, you're back to see us all." And she'd have this great evening, she sat in the pub drinking with her uncles and aunties and I remember one afternoon when she said to me, okay, you can go now it's opening time, meaning the parallel world and that's where she was going. She was looking forward to falling asleep to having these experiences, and so I was I was sure she was about to go because this is, you know, this is a very, very powerful ancient thread that you meet, that on the other side, the first people you meet are the people you've loved and missed in your life. And whether it's true or not, it's a very ancient experience. And, and then she had this dream while I was sat by her bed, actually. And that was that she was back at that dance hall in Waterford, she was 16 again, they were all there to greet her so happy to see her. And her uncle John was there whom she was very close to. And she turned around to look at John and she saw there was a door behind John, and there was a handle on the door. And my mother said to John in the dream, "what's behind the door, John?" and John said, "May, you don't want to go through there just yet." But in the dream, my mother was fascinated by this door, so she put her hand on the door to go through. And then she felt John's hands in the middle of her back and push her away and with it with a huge shove back into the dance hall. That was the moment that my mother woke up and started to get better again. And I was there, you know, to greet her and she, she said, "Oh, my God, I was just with John. And he stopped me going through this door, and I'm back. I'm feeling great. I'm feeling a lot better." You know, so it was just as if she got to the door where she she could have left, you know, could have left her body. And there was an intercession of someone who had loved her to say, "No, your time's not up. Yet." Yeah. It was really a remarkable time and I bought my mother and father a little cottage so that they could move out of the house which wasn't appropriate for them because it was the top of the hill. If you walked a hundred yards away from the house where I grew up in you were you had to go back uphill to the house. So I bought them a lovely cottage very close to my sister's house and, and we had the three extraordinary years actually with them in that beautiful cottage, rose cottage, my mother was incredibly happy. So we had this amazing gift of these last three years and until my mother started to, to say the last farewells again.
Katie Hafner 27:26
And what what year was that?
David Whyte 27:28
That will be 2002
Katie Hafner 27:33
So this really beautiful poem you wrote, Farewell Letter. I'm wondering if you might recite it.
David Whyte 27:41
Yes, this was, you know, when you do lose someone close to you. And part of you is intuitively looking for a word or a sign from them. This is a very common experience too that people feel if they see a rainbow suddenly or they'll feel as if it's the departed speaking to them or a bird singing out the window. Part of us is curious as to where they are and what they're doing. And I had this- I had this deep fascination with where my mother might be imaginatively or in reality. And, and then I, one night, in the cottage, I was there with my father. I had this incredible dream of receiving this letter from my mother, it was in my mother's handwriting addressed to me. And I knew as you do in a dream, I knew that the contents of the letter would tell me why where my mother was, and what she was up to. And so I started to open the letter. And as I was opening the letter, I woke up, and I couldn't believe it. I was so frustrated. And, and I did everything you do you know, I put my head back on the pillow in the same way. I tried to all asleep again to get back into the dream. No luck at all, you know? And then I sat up and I said, listen, David, there's a part of you knows exactly what is in that letter. So go to the kitchen table now. Get a fire going in the grate and write what your mother said to you in the letter. So I did, it was about six o'clock in the morning, my father was still asleep. And this is the piece I wrote. A farewell letter. She wrote me a letter after her death. And I remember a kind of happy light falling on the envelope as I sat by the rose tree on her old bench at the back door so surprised by its arrival, wondering what she would say. Looking up before I could open it and laughing to myself in silent expectation. Dear son, Dear son, it is time for me to leave you. I'm afraid that the words you are used to hearing are no longer mine to give. They've gone and mingled back in the world where it is no longer in my power to be their first original author, nor their last loving bearer. You can hear motherly words of affection now only from your own mouth. And only when you speak them, to those who stand motherless before you. As for me, I must forsake adulthood and be bound gladly to a new childhood. You must understand this apprenticeship demands of me an elemental innocence from everything I ever held in my hands. I know your generous soul is well able to let me go, you will in the end be happy to know my God was true. And I find myself after loving you all for so long, in the wide infinite mercy of being mothered, myself. P.S. All of your intuitions were true.
Katie Hafner 31:24
I just love that line. You can hear motherly words of affection now only from your own mouth. In other words, what I have taught you.
David Whyte 31:38
Katie Hafner 31:40
And only when you speak them to those who stand motherless before you. All those people you refer to earlier who might have living mothers, but who didn't receive that radiant light.
David Whyte 31:56
Katie Hafner 32:00
So before we wrap up, I have to say this has been just such a true pleasure. I'd love to try another exercise with you here. You know, you have these wonderful kind of the light motifs of your work. I called them. And I was wondering if we might try to apply them to Mary O'Sullivan. So what I'm going to do is ask you for a word much like at the very beginning where you used the word lyrical to describe your mother. And I'd like to see if you can summon a word since words are your forte. For the following: Mary O'Sullivan's pilgrimage:
David Whyte 32:59
Blessing, yeah, blessings, that's part of the Irish tradition.
Unknown Speaker 33:05
David Whyte 33:05
And I'll just say one thing about the word blessing because the understanding was passed to me from my mother about what a true blessing is, which is not just to wish someone well, that the genius of a true blessing is to wish something for them that they did not even know they needed themselves until they heard it from your mouth. That's a true blessing. So I wish a blessing for my mother. And maybe it'd be a surprise and a gift back to her for everything that she gave to me on her onward road.
Katie Hafner 33:44
Mary O'Sullivan's inheritance:
David Whyte 33:48
Gratitude. Gratitude for all the difficulties, you know, all the griefs and the pain and the trauma and the exile from her country. Gratitude even for that. It's all part of what, what made her so...
Katie Hafner 34:08
maybe for the compassion it gave her?
David Whyte 34:11
Katie Hafner 34:13
And the last one: Mary O'Sullivan's invitation:
David Whyte 34:24
Mary O'Sullivan's invitation was always to having a good time. A lightness of heart She came to see me here in Langley in the Pacific Northwest and within three nights she was being walked home by the owner of the of the Dog House Saloon. She was closing the place and she knew everyone in the town and so I felt like a stick-in-the-mud Mister Conservative stick-in-the-mud. And, and for months afterwards, everyone would be saying, "oh, you're Mary O'Sullivan's son and my mother had only been there for three weeks. Yeah, yeah. The invitation to, to kicking your heels off and dancing and having a great time.
Unknown Speaker 35:17
Katie Hafner 35:19
Well, David Whyte, I'd like to thank you so much for this. What a treat and a gift.
David Whyte 35:26
Lovely. Well, it's been a marvelous, marvelous opportunity to talk about a really extraordinary woman who transformed almost everyone she came across, not just her, her very loving son. Thank you.
Katie Hafner 35:50
And that's Our Mothers Ourselves for this week. Our theme song was composed and performed by Andrea Perry. Paula Mangin is our artist in residence, and Alice Hudson is the show's producer. A special thanks to Thomas Crocker at Many Rivers Press for permission to use David's poetry and the late Bridie Gallagher for her beautiful rendition of A Mother's Love's a Blessing. Don't forget to visit OurMothersOurselves.com and contribute your word to the mother word cloud on the website. Our Mothers Ourselves is a production of Odradek Studios in San Francisco, and I'm your host Katie Hafner. Have a great week, everyone.