When I first discovered Patti Digh’s extraordinary blog, 37 Days, in 2005, I felt like I was home. Who was this extraordinary woman whose every post resonated so loudly with me? Patti is the author of several books, most recently Life Is a Verb, Creative Is a Verb and Four-Word Self-Help: Simple Wisdom for Complex Lives. She is a popular speaker and with her partner, David Robinson, the co-founder of The Circle Project which is transforming K-12 and teacher education and providing telecoaching experiences and retreats for individuals. Patti resides in Asheville, North Carolina with her amazing husband, Mr. Brilliant, and her younger daughter, Tess, a blazing-bright creative being. Her older daughter, Emma, is a student at North Carolina State and totally rocks the sousaphone section of their marching band. Patti is one of the most heart-centered people I know and I’m honored to call her friend.
1. Let me start by asking you one of your own questions: What kind of landscape are you a part of? What landscape gives you a potent sense of belonging?
It was Keith Basso who wrote, “wisdom sits in places.” I love that phrase, and I see and feel the potency of that image and that understanding. Wisdom does sit in places—I have felt that. Have you? Having traveled around the world for many years, I came to believe that I could live anywhere. I still believe that. But not everywhere is home, is it? Not everywhere provides that sense of belonging and comfort and peace that comes with finding your place in the world. It has become clear to me that I resonate with some places more than with others, a deep heartfelt sense of “yes.” I’m not sure there is a cohesive thread between those places, either, in terms of physical landscape: Some are urban, others rural, many are near water. But the thread true to all of them is a great sense of love, of that hollowing out of the chest that comes with the urge to be there. And more and more, I realize that while there is a physicality to landscape—a longing to lie down on the earth, a wish to be in that space in a fuller way—there is more often than not a longing to be in a landscape of people I love. My girls are the mountains, my husband John is the rock I stand on to look out to sea, the people I meet because of my work are the fields of gold. And there is ample space for me to be alone, knowing they will be there when I come back, and that I take a part of them with me.
2. In Creative Is a Verb, you write about how we can sometimes deflect our creative selves. Is there a part of your creative self that you realized you’d been deflecting and have now fully owned?
I believe there are three ways we block ourselves from being our most creative: 1) False comparisons with others; 2) False expectations of ourselves; and 3) False investments in a story. All three of them are deflections that keep us from fully inhabiting that creative spark we had as children, the one before we started comparing our drawings of trees with the girl next to us in art class, before we started focusing on being the best rather than the most fully human, and before we had formed in concrete the story that we’re not the creative one, we’re the _________ one. The freest I’ve ever been is when I started writing 37days in 2005—I had only one intention: Not to build a successful blog (I really didn’t know what a blog was), and not to create a book, but simply to write my stories down for my two daughters in case I died. That was it. The power of a single intention. Life is a Verb quickly became a quiet bestseller. And then the deflections began: What if my next book isn’t as good? Maybe I only had one book in me. What will people say if I tell the story of ________________? I’m not a guru, I’m an overweight white-haired slightly depressed menopausal woman. We wrap stories around everything. Every single thing. And I know now the story I can wrap around myself can either be one of joy and creativity and absolute wonder, or of comparisons. I choose Option A. Almost always.
3. As someone who is in demand as a speaker and travels frequently for business, what steps do you take to ensure that you have sufficient time to recharge? How are you creating stillness in your days?
This is a powerful question for me right now. I have only this year begun to practice this kind of self-love. Last year was sacred for me—there was a lot of death and illness and difficulty—and this year I want to create a spaciousness. Space on my calendar, space in my head and body, space in my house. So my answer this year is different than it has been in the past. Last year, this question would have drawn a blank stare from me, I fear. Because the answer would have been that I don’t do those things, I don’t take care of myself, I’m tired.
In response to recognizing that, I started a year of mindful eating and moving on January 1, 2011, to ensure that I recharge, take care of myself, create space in my head and body. My new blog, becoming bendy, is documenting this journey, and I can say that just a month into it, I feel healthier, both mentally and physically. My doctor put me on antidepressants at the end of 2010 and told me to lose weight to get my blood pressure down—it had gone up to 188/144, and that scared me. Having a father who died at 53 from heart issues is always in the back of my mind, especially as I teeter nearer and nearer to that age. Having a doctor look at me and ask if I was depressed also scared me: Was it that obvious I was in a bad space? Yes, yes it was. I was in a wet paper bag and couldn’t get out of it.
After a month of moving my body every day, paying attention to the structure of my days, eating vegan until dinnertime (I’ve been a vegetarian since 1976), I feel fundamentally different: more flexible, clear-headed, spacious, sure, and happy. Stillness is coming to me by design; I am creating space in my day for it. I just started a meditation practice, and am making time for that, too. My approach to wellness has changed—it no longer includes numbers and measurements, which has freed me up to really focus on wellness, and not on weight, to focus on a kinder, gentler way of being in the world as I am.
4. Because you’re such a frequent flier, you wrote in Creative Is a Verb of longing “for another perspective, the one at the eye level of corn.” What are a couple of small steps we can take when we’re craving a shift in perspective?
I love your questions, Marilyn. This has everything to do with really seeing what is in front of us every day. Not what we expect to see, but what is really there. As my business partner, David Robinson, says, what we are teaching people is akin to what he learned in art school (he’s a painter): To see. Anything that takes us out of our normal viewpoint does this: reading a magazine we wouldn’t normally read, going to a community meeting about an issue on which we haven’t focused, riding a city bus instead of driving, getting on our hands and knees and “walking” around our house at the level of a child, going as a guest to the gathering place of a religion we don’t practice, taking a photograph every day of the color red as we find it in our day, asking someone “what are you going through?” and then just listening to their answer without feeling the need to tell our story, looking at children’s art, using a wheelchair or crutches for a day, trying to learn to play a new instrument….there are a million simple ways. Madame Curie has said, “Dissymmetry causes phenomena.” Only when we are in some kind of disequilibrium can we really see. Find ways to knock yourself off balance. Daily.
5. Bullying seems to be rampant in the U.S. these days and it’s across the board—from the top levels of politics and media to the neighborhood schoolyard. What simple actions can begin to put an end to bullying in our daily lives?
Kindness is always an option. Always. If we are bullied, we need to respond with kindness. Not because it will teach the bully anything, but because it is a form of detachment that more beautifully expresses our own worldview. Everything that happens to us is free data—mostly about us. If I am bullied and fight back, I’ve become a bully myself. If I am bullied and refuse to pick up my end of the rope, I maintain my own integrity, my own deep sense of self that overrides any circumstance in which I find myself. I think anyone who makes fun of others is a bully—I’ve been one, and so have you. Websites like “the people of WalMart” and others that make fun of or seek to humiliate others—those are bullies. Sometimes our bosses are bullies and it takes a lot to stand up and detach inside that circumstance—those are the moments that really count. Sometimes detachment is the only way through. Not escalation, but detachment. Adults are bullies, perhaps more than children, but this epidemic of bullying in schools particularly bothers me—responsible adults (parents, teachers, community members) must speak up and be advocates for those we see being bullied who are, perhaps, too young to see that it will get better. Reach out to those children you perceive might be having a tough time, and listen to them. Intervene when necessary. If someone says your child is bullying, don’t become defensive—seek information and take action. We need to keep our children alive.
In a world in which public humiliation has become entertainment (reality television, tabloid news, for example), we’re not setting a good example for our children. We have to do better.
6. “I’ll try” is, as you write in Creative Is a Verb, the “enemy of intention.” In what area of your life did you realize you were sitting on the fence in the land of try and how did you get clear on your intention?
I’ve always been a leaper. I do change like the French Revolution. If I want to write a new blog or book because I have something new to document or say, I write it. There’s no strategy except the strategy of saying what I most long to say. Impetuous? You bet. So I don’t stay in the land of try very often, but I do recognize its seductive qualities: let’s research the ever loving hell out of something before moving forward, let’s hold another focus group, let’s benchmark some best practices. These all imply an intention of selling; my intention is saying.
“How” is a far easier question to ask (and answer) than “why.” But it’s the “why” that matters.
7. There’s a chapter in Creative Is a Verb called “Listen to tiny fishies” where you tell a lovely story about something that happened with your daughter, Emma, when she was three years old. You write, “I had finally stopped flying long enough to hear her.” What’s one thing you’ve recently realized that you had stopped long enough to hear?
I got a message on my cell phone during my last book tour from my youngest daughter, Tess, who is now seven years old. Her little voice quavered and broke as she said, “Momma, please come home. I need you.” I think you can imagine how this broke my heart. So I’m looking for ways to share my work and stay home more. Sometimes we have to hear the same message over and over again, don’t we? The message from Emma was the same message: “I dreamed I was a little tiny fish and I couldn’t find my mommy,” she said. Tess is saying the same thing. I’m listening. Again.
8. Both Life Is a Verb and Creative Is a Verb were collaborative projects where you incorporated art and poetry from your readers around the world. What have you enjoyed most about the collaborative process while creating your recent books?
These collaborations have changed my life. At a most basic level, it is hard for me to ask for help. There are probably a lot of reasons for that—but I’ve always been the one others go to for help and it’s hard to create space for me to ask others. I’m working on that. I remember when my father died—I was just a teenager, but every adult around me, from my mother to the funeral home director, asked me what to do next, how to set up the funeral, what songs to use. I love being of service to others, and I now realize how precious it is to open up that space for others to help us. When Life is a Verb was being published and there was this extraordinary outpouring of love and art and poetry from readers, I was made speechless by the generosity. I simply asked, and the world opened up its heart to me. It was an artistic barn raising of such magnitude, and made the book a work of art created by love. Opening up space for people to make art is part of my work now, and I dearly love that. To see interpretations of my words into art is so meaningful and humbling to me. I love the community that has gathered to create art. In my newest book, What I Wish For You: Simple Wisdom for a Happy Life, coming out this spring, you’ll see contributions from people around the world, both in art and in writing. The wisdom we need is within all of us. All of us have something to say—we have all walked across our own personal desert. Not just the famous people, the ones we often pay attention to, but all of us have a wisdom. I’m so delighted to open space up for the saying.
My collaborative blog, 3x3x365: 3 friends, 3 states, a photo every day in 2011, was born out of an online friendship with two extraordinary women, true storytellers. I love their perspectives on life. The three of us have never met in one place at the same time, and this project is a way for us to deepen our friendship across distance. I am loving the way our photos and stories (none of which are shared beforehand) are intertwining and revealing the connections that are there between all humans, but we don’t see them.
9. One of my all-time favorite 37 Days essays is “Follow your desire lines.” You wrote, “Natural human purpose. What is mine? Yours? Maybe if I look at the paths I’ve worn, over and over again, I’ll see that purpose show itself…” That post was written on December 7, 2005. Patti, in the ensuing years, what have you learned about your desire lines?
I love these questions, Marilyn. In these six years, I have found the power of a single intention—not writing to have a successful blog, not writing to get a certain number of page views, not writing to get a book contract, but just writing. Writing what I long to say, separate from all those measures we place on ourselves. Playing with language to make it say what I most need and long to say—an extraordinary process if divorced from outcome. Living in the process (and not the outcome) of writing is one of my desire lines. And some days it is a struggle, that, because we are surrounded by people measuring things and expecting us to.
Opening space for people to say what they long to say is another. Living life on a very human scale is another—meeting people one-on-one and listening to their stories and telling mine. My desire lines are now vastly different from eleven years ago when my first business book was published. There is a vulnerability inherent in my desire lines now, a knowing, a private journey that plays out in my words. I’m getting better at stepping into my own journey and letting go of the expectations of others. There is a simplicity to knowing, and I am enjoying the spaciousness that allows.
Beyond all that, my desire lines are, ultimately, intensely personal: to be a mother to my children, a friend to other humans, an activist working for social justice, and an artist whose art shows up in the world in many different forms. I don’t want to be an expert, but a friend, a collaborator, a teller of my own truths.
Creative Is a Verb Retreat - April 7-10, 2011 (near Asheville, NC - limited to 16 participants)
Facebook: Patti Digh