The Slow-Cooked Sentence

Philosopher-poet David Whyte seeks words’ precarious beauty

Rachael Conlin Levy

Woodcut by Agnes Miller Parker from 1947 “The Life of the Fields” via


For Deborah,

whose questions prodded me to write what I’d felt, but hadn’t voiced.


I am alone. I am besieged. I am vulnerable. I am all this, yet also its opposite. I am friendship. I am longing. I am courage. I am words.

Language is all that separates me from the sea star, the sparrow and the spruce. Alike, our bodies respond to outside circumstances, attaching meaning to an object or event. The sparrow and I experience a similar rush of hormonal and neural changes when experiencing fear. But while the sparrow is afraid, I both feel afraid and know that I am frightened. This is self-awareness.

In humans, consciousness manifests itself as an ability to think and act symbolically. Cavalierly I use common, everyday language to create, define, and guide me in being. I am because of words. I am life, awakened to itself. 

Cell biologist Ursula Goodenough predicts “that all feelings, including those we consider most deeply human, will be found to be created the same way that other conscious experiences come about–by establishing a mental representation of the workings of underlying processing systems.”

The neuroscientist seeks to understand the intricate mystery of how consciousness is produced in brains, while the philosopher and poet begins with symbol and works backward to find the wellspring of hormone and nerve. This “beautiful, hidden and beckoning uncertainties” of words is the subject of philosopher-poet David Whyte’s 2014 book “Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.”  

My fingers ruffled the book’s pages, searching for words that spoke to me in this moment, with its particular set of thoughts preoccupying my mind, with a certain heaviness of heart. Eyes danced down a page, skimmed passages, landed on a sentence that resonated.

“Loneliness is the substrate and foundation of belonging, the gravitational field that draws us home and in the beautiful essence of its isolation, the hand reaching out for togetherness.”

There, in the Sistine Chapel are Michelangelo’s hands: God’s outstretched and longing for touch–In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God–Adam’s languid finger almost too heavy to lift. I read Whyte again.

“Loneliness is the substrate and foundation of belonging, the gravitational field that draws us home and in the beautiful essence of its isolation, the hand reaching out for togetherness.”

Fifty-two workaday words. A year’s worth of weekly essays that, with restraint, could be savored. Yet I could not stop myself. I plucked a handful from his alphabet, reading word after word, passage after passage–alone, besieged, courage, friendship, loneliness, longing, vulnerable–filling my mind with words that I had not known mattered, deeply, personally. I read Whyte for a third time.

“Loneliness is the substrate and foundation of belonging, the gravitational field that draws us home and in the beautiful essence of its isolation, the hand reaching out for togetherness.”

I am lonely. Here. In this space that is public, yet in all other aspects private because of its obscurity, I speak into the silence. Like a ghost, I’ve haunted the blog for 11 years, the lifespan of my youngest child. Stealing moments out of my life, reveling in the temporary solitude, I have been happy. To write is a comfort.

“To be alone for any length of time is to shed an outer skin,” Whyte wrote. “The body is inhabited in a different way when we are alone than when we are with others. Alone, we live in our bodies as a question rather than a statement.”

With few watching, the blog’s opacity frees me to live the questions and write my way to the answers. Here there is space to wander and wonder, and I am grateful, because my mind is often a conflict of commitments, a battlefield of should’ves and ought-tos and musts.

“Creating a state of aloneness in the besieged everyday may be one of the bravest things individual men and women can do for themselves,” Whyte wrote. “Nel Mezzo, in the midst of everything, as Dante said, to be besieged–but beautifully, because we have made a place to stand–in the people and the places and the perplexities we have grown to love, seeing them not now as enemies or forces laying siege, but as if for the first time, as participants in the drama, both familiar and strangely surprising.”

To read another requires me to voluntarily and temporarily silence my own voice so that I might listen. The conversation with Whyte expands as layers of writing become an intimate and vulnerable discussion, irrelevant of time, space, even language. Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. The first line from “Inferno.” But what does it mean? Dante and his translator, the poet Mary Jo Bang, joined Whyte in my head.

Stopped mid-motion in the middle
Of what we call a life, I looked up and saw no sky—
Only a dense cage of leaf, tree and twig. I was lost.

A reader gives a writer agency and purpose. To write and go unread is to be lost. At times I have considered turning off the blog’s comments section because it is a continuous reminder that what I write is lost, unread, inconsequential to most. But each time I have forced myself to continue to work in this public and vacant space, to listen to the answering silence that follows a post.

“The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance…” Whyte said. “To be courageous is to stay close to the way we are made.”

Silence, too, is conversation. It is not of my choosing, but nothing can be done but to return again and again to this quiet, overlooked space to work with words. Not Whyte’s now, but mine.

I am doubt. I am isolation. I am tangential.

Whyte, Dante, and Bang have been thanked, and are, even now, being ushered to my mind’s door.

I am certainty. I am independence. I am essential.

I am life, aware of itself. I am a surge of hormonal and neural changes–emotion, shared and named. This, too, is companionship. Seeking neither Adam nor God, I stretch out a hand to touch the sea star on the tidal flat, pick up the sparrow feather, gather spruce tips in spring, and hold a pen. 


4 responses to “Philosopher-poet David Whyte seeks words’ precarious beauty”

  1. Deborah says:

    I wish I had a good meaty comment, but I am suffering from maternal fatigue and can only come up with this is beautiful and a pleasure to read. I’m looking forward to sharing more thoughts on it tomorrow.

  2. Thanks, Deborah. May you find the time to both rest and write–equally vital to a good life!

  3. Denise says:

    I enjoyed reading this post. Thank you for writing it, Rachael. I’m happy to have read it in the morning, with a full day ahead of me. I know these topics will stay in my thoughts and influence the way I move through this Friday.

  4. Thank you, Denise. I’m glad you dropped by.

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