The youthful perspective on the future, the present perspective on the future and the future, mature perspective on the future—I'd like to try and bring all those three tenses together in one identity tonight. And you could say that the poet, in many ways, looks at what I call "the conversational nature of reality." And you ask yourself: What is the conversational nature of reality? The conversational nature of reality is the fact that whatever you desire of the world—whatever you desire of your partner in a marriage or a love relationship, whatever you desire of your children, whatever you desire of the people who work for you or with you, or your world—will not happen exactly as you would like it to happen.
But equally, whatever the world desires of us—whatever our partner, our child, our colleague, our industry, our future demands of us, will also not happen. And what actually happens is this frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you. And this frontier of actual meeting between what we call a self and what we call the world is the only place, actually, where things are real.
But it's quite astonishing, how little time we spend at this conversational frontier, and not abstracted away from it in one strategy or another. I was coming through immigration, which is quite a dramatic border at the moment, into the US last year, and, you know, you get off an international flight across the Atlantic, and you're not in the best place; you're not at your most spiritually mature. You're quite impatient with the rest of humanity, in fact. So when you get up to immigration with your shirt collar out and a day's growth of beard, and you have very little patience, and the immigration officer looked at my passport and said, "What do you do, Mr. Whyte?" I said, "I work with the conversational nature of reality."
And he leaned forward over his podium and he said, "I needed you last night."
And I said, "I'm sorry, my powers as a poet and philosopher only go so far. I'm not sure I can—" But before we knew it, we were into a conversation about his marriage. Here he was in his uniform, and the interesting thing was, he was looking up and down the row of officers to make sure his supervisor didn't see that he was having a real conversation. But all of us live at this conversational frontier with the future.
I'd like to put you in the shoes of my Irish niece, Marlene McCormack, standing on a cliff edge on the western coast of Spain, overlooking the broad Atlantic. Twenty-three years old, she's just walked 500 miles from Saint Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees, all the way across Northern Spain, on this very famous, old and contemporary pilgrimage called the Camino de Santiago de Compostela—the Path to Santiago of Compostela. And when you get to Santiago, actually, it can be something of an anticlimax, because there are 100,000 people living there who are not necessarily applauding you as you're coming into town.
And 10,000 of them are trying to sell you a memento of your journey. But you do have the possibility of going on for three more days to this place where Marlene stood, called, in Spanish, Finisterre, in English, Finisterre, from the Latin, meaning "the ends of the earth," the place where ground turns to ocean; the place where your present turns into the future. And Marlene had walked this way—she just graduated as a 23-year-old from the University of Sligo with a degree in Irish drama. And she said to me, "I don't think the major corporations of the world will be knocking on my door." I said, "Listen, I've worked in corporations all over the world for decades; a degree in drama is what would most prepare you for the adult—
But she said, "I'm not interested in that, anyway. I don't want to teach drama, I want to become a dramatist. I want to write plays. So I walked the Camino in order to give myself some courage, in order to walk into my future." And I said, "What was the most powerful moment you had on the whole Camino, the very most powerful moment?" She said, "I had many powerful moments, but you know, the most powerful moment was post-Camino, was the three days you go on from Santiago and come to this cliff edge. And you go through three rituals. The first ritual is to eat a tapas plate of scallops"—or if you're vegetarian, to contemplate the scallop shell.
Because the scallop shell has been the icon and badge of your walk, and every arrow that you have seen along that way has been pointing underneath a scallop shell. So really, this first ritual is saying: How did you get to this place? How did you follow the path to get here? How do you hold the conversation of life when you feel unbesieged, when you're unbullied, when you're left to yourself? How do you hold the conversation of life that brings you to this place? And the second ritual is that you burn something that you've brought. I said, "What did you burn, Marlene?" She said, "I burned a letter and two postcards." I said, "Astonishing. Twenty-three years old and you have paper. I can't believe it."
I'm sure there's a Camino app where you can just delete a traumatic text, you know?
It will engage the flashlight, imbue it with color and disappear in a firework of flames. But you either bring a letter or you write one there, and you burn it. And of course we know intuitively what is on those letters and postcards. It's a form of affection and love that is now no longer extant, yeah?
And then the third ritual: between all these fires are large piles of clothes. And you leave an item of clothing that has helped you to get to this place. And I said to Marlene, "What did you leave at the cliff edge?" She said, "I left my boots—the very things that I walked in, actually. They were beautiful boots, I loved those boots, but they were finished after seven weeks of walking. So I walked away in my trainers, but I left my boots there."
She said, "It was really incredible. The most powerful moment was, the sun was going down, but the full moon was coming up behind me. And the full moon was illuminated by the dying sun in such a powerful way that even after the sun had dropped below the horizon, the moon could still see that sun. And I had a moon shadow, and I was looking at my moon shadow walking across the Atlantic, across this ocean. And I thought, 'Oh! That's my new self going into the future.' But suddenly I realized the sun was falling further. The moon was losing its reflection, and my shadow was disappearing. The most powerful moment I had on the whole Caminowas when I realized I myself had to walk across that unknown sea into my future."
Well, I was so taken by this story, I wrote this piece for her. We were driving at the time; we got home, I sat on the couch, I wrote until two in the morning—everyone had gone to bed—and I gave it to Marlene at breakfast time. It's called, "Finisterre," for Marlene McCormack.
"The road in the end
the road in the end taking the path the sun had taken
the road in the end taking the path the run had taken into the western sea
the road in the end taking the path the sun had taken into the western sea
and the moon
the moon rising behind you as you stood where ground turned to ocean:
no way to your future now
no way to your future now except the way your shadow could take, walking before you across water, going where shadows go,
no way to make sense of a world that wouldn't let you pass except to call an end to the way you had come, to take out each letter you had brought and light their illumined corners; and to read them as they drifted on the late western light;
to empty your bags
to empty your bags; to sort this and to leave that
to sort this and to leave that; to promise what you needed to promise all along
to promise what you needed to promise all along, and to abandon the shoes that brought you here right at the water's edge,
not because you had given up
not because you had given up but because now, you would find a different way to tread, and because, through it all, part of you would still walk on, no matter how, over the waves."
"Finisterre." For Marlene McCormack—
who has already had her third play performed in off-off-off-off-Broadway—in Dublin.
But she's on her way.
This is the last piece. This is about the supposed arrival at the sum of all of our endeavors. In Santiago itself—it could be Santiago, it could be Mecca, it could be Varanasi, it could be Kyoto, it could be that threshold you've set for yourself, the disturbing approach to the consummation of all your goals.
And one of the difficulties about walking into your life, about coming into this body, into this world fully, is you start to realize that you have manufactured three abiding illusions that the rest of humanity has shared with you since the beginning of time.
And the first illusion is that you can somehow construct a life in which you are not vulnerable. You can somehow be immune to all of the difficulties and ill health and losses that humanity has been subject to since the beginning of time. If we look out at the natural world, there's no part of that world that doesn't go through cycles of, first, incipience, or hiddenness, but then growth, fullness, but then a beautiful, to begin with, disappearance, and then a very austere, full disappearance. We look at that, we say, "That's beautiful, but can I just have the first half of the equation, please? And when the disappearance is happening, I'll close my eyes and wait for the new cycle to come around." Which means most human beings are at war with reality 50 percent of the time. The mature identity is able to live in the full cycle.
The second illusion is, I can construct a life in which I will not have my heart broken. Romance is the first place we start to do it. When you're at the beginning of a new romance or a new marriage, you say, "I have found the person who will not break my heart." I'm sorry; you have chosen them out unconsciously for that exact core competency.
They will break your heart. Why? Because you care about them. You look at parenting, yeah? Parenting: "I will be the perfect mother and father." Your children will break your heart. And they don't even have to do anything spectacular or dramatic. But usually, they do do something spectacular or dramatic—to break your heart. And then they live with you as spies and saboteurs for years, watching your every psychological move, and spotting your every weakness. And one day, when they're about 14 years old, with your back turned to them, in the kitchen, while you're making something for them—
the psychological stiletto goes in.
And you say, "How did you know exactly where to place it?"
And they say, "I've been watching you for—a good few years."
And then we hope that our armored, professional personalities will prevent us from having our heart broken in work. But if you're sincere about your work, it should break your heart. You should get to thresholds where you do not know how to proceed. You do not know how to get from here to there. What does that do? It puts you into a proper relationship with reality. Why? Because you have to ask for help.
Heartbreak. We don't have a choice about heartbreak, we only have a choice of having our hearts broken over people and things and projects that we deeply care about.
And the last illusion is, I can somehow plan enough and arrange things that I will be able to see the path to the end right from where I'm standing, right to the horizon. But when you think about it, the only environment in which that would be true would be a flat desert, empty of any other life. But even in a flat desert, the curvature of the earth would take the path away from you. So, no; you see the path, and then you don't and then you see it again.
So this is "Santiago," the supposed arrival, which is a kind of return to the beginning all at the same time. We have this experience of the journey, which is in all of our great spiritual traditions, of pilgrimage. But just by actually standing in the ground of your life fully, not trying to abstract yourself into a strategic future that's actually just an escape from present heartbreak; the ability to stand in the ground of your life and to look at the horizon that is pulling you—in that moment, you are the whole journey. You are the whole conversation.
"The road seen, then not seen
the road seen, then not seen
the hillside hiding then revealing the way you should take
the road seen, then not seen
the hillside hiding then revealing the way you should take, the road dropping away from you as if leaving you to walk on thin air, then catching you, catching you, holding you up, when you thought you would fall,
catching you, holding you up, when you thought you would fall,
and the way forward
the way forward always in the end the way that you came,
the way forward always in the end the way that you came, the way that you followed, the way that carried you into your future, that brought you to this place,
that brought you to this place, no matter that it sometimes had to take your promise from you, no matter that it always had to break your heart along the way:
the sense the sense of having walked from deep inside yourself out into the revelation, to have risked yourself for something that seemed to stand both inside you and far beyond you, and that called you back in the end to the only road you could follow, walking as you did, in your rags of love
walking as you did, in your rags of love and speaking in the voice that by night became a prayer for safe arrival, so that one day
one day you realized that what you wanted had actually already happened
one day you realized that what you wanted had actually already happened and long ago and in the dwelling place in which you lived before you began, and that
and that every step along the way, every step along the way, you had carried the heart and the mind and the promise that first set you off and then drew you on, and that
and that you were more marvelous in your simple wish to find a way
you were more marvelous in your simple wish to find a way than the gilded roofs of any destination you could reach
you were more marvelous in that simple wish to find a way than the gilded roofs of any destination you could reach: as if, all along, you had thought the end point might be a city with golden domes, and cheering crowds, and turning the corner at what you thought was the end of the road, you found just a simple reflection, and a clear revelation beneath the face looking back and beneath it another invitation, all in one glimpse
all in one glimpse: like a person
like a person or a place you had sought forever
like a person or a place you had sought forever, like a bold field of freedom that beckoned you beyond; like another life
like another life, and the road the road still stretching on."
Thank you very much. Thank you. You're very kind. Thank you.