The poet David Whyte’s farewell letter to his mother, Mary O’Sullivan. His lyrical bridge to the past.

David Whyte's Farewell Letter

David Whyte's Farewell Letter is a balm for the soul

November 28, 2020

In this strangest of holiday seasons, when so many of us are missing our extra limb of extended family, I’m not sure it’s really 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 what the doctor ordered.

Whyte has said that what he does for a living is ruminate on “the conversational nature of reality.”  For more than three decades, he’s been bringing his poetry and philosophy to audiences of all stripes, pinstripes included. He has read Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem The Swan – in its original German – and Emily Dickinson’s I dwell in possibility to corporate managers, and watched their bewilderment turn to understanding. In fact, Whyte has worked with companies around the world with the goal of making business leaders see that they are more likely to reach their full potential if they can find the poetry in their work lives.

I began reading David Whyte’s poetry nearly 20 years ago, when a friend gave me a two-volume boxed set. In that set I found the immaculately crafted poem The Well of Grief, which came to inhabit my interior landscape — and my purse, where I’ve kept a copy folded and tucked for many years. 

I got in touch with David 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 Letterabout a letter he imagined his mother might have written to him after her death. Mary O’Sullivan became her son’s own lyrical bridge between two worlds.

In our interview, Whyte talks about the interrupted dream that gave rise to the poem. 

Whyte’s verse is balm for many a broken soul. Who wouldn’t want to read a poem titled Everything is Waiting for You? (Incidentally, the volume in which the poem appears, of the same title, is dedicated to none other than the lyrical Mary O’Sullivan.) So here’s to hoping that my conversation with David 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 David Whyte’s word for his mother — and those of a thousand other offspring who have contributed their one word — just around the corner, on the 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, and to the late Bridie Gallagher for her beautiful rendition of A Mother’s Love’s a Blessing.

This episode is dedicated to the late poet (and editor non pareil), David Corcoran.  We miss you, David.

Our Mothers Ourselves is a production of Odradek Studios in San Francisco.

Alison Aucoin’s mom died from Covid-19. The grief became rage. At Donald Trump.

Alison Aucoin's mom died from Covid-19
Alison Aucoin's mom died from Covid-19
November 22, 2020

Originally Published: November 23, 2020
Updated: January 21, 2021

Grim milestone. One of 404,689 Covid deaths in the U.S. alone.

The U.S. keeps reaching grim milestones, then surpassing them. Since early December, the number of average number of deaths every day from Covid has been more than 3,000, and  now regularly exceeds 4,000.

Let’s put that number in perspective. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake killed 3,000 people in the SF Bay Area. The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 killed 2,605 people. These latest tolls from Covid occur in a single day. 

I started the Our Mothers Ourselves Podcast last May, when pretty much everyone I knew was deep in the Covid doldrums, well before we had any idea just how many people would get sick, and well before I knew anyone whose Mom died of Covid. 

For months, I’ve had it in the back of my mind to find someone who lost their mother to Covid. But I didn’t pursue it.  Was I scared? Did it feel exploitive? Then, in early October, my producer sent me a Facebook post she’d just seen. “You have to see this,” she said.

I was as taken aback as I was intrigued. The post shows a photograph of a woman seated next to a wooden box. But what your eye goes to immediately isn’t the woman’s face. It’s the finger. The woman in the photo, Alison Aucoin, is holding up her middle finger in a gesture of quiet outrage. In the post, Alison goes on to explain that the box contains the ashes of her mother, Lynn Evans. Alison describes mom’s tenacity and grace, and the cruel way that Covid killed her. But Alison isn’t blaming the virus so much as she is blaming the President of the United States – Donald J. Trump – for the way he mishandled the pandemic. 

Alison Aucoin's mom died from Covid-19

Lynn Evans was 79 when she died in April, after contracting Covid in a nursing home in New Orleans. Thousands upon thousands of Americans have died since. Alison’s post was visceral, raw, blunt, and beautiful. So we approached Alison, who had just moved to Orange County, California with her daughter, a dancer who had received a scholarship to train at the prestigious American Ballet Theatre Gillespie School. She agreed to share her story.

And so we talked, with Alison in her apartment in southern California and me in a closet in my house in San Francisco (next to the WiFi router, of course), both of us logged onto Squadcast, with only each other’s voices. Alison talked about her mom’s very southern childhood in New Orleans; as an only child, Lynn was mightily doted upon. Alison, too, was an only child, and she told me about the way her mother was a constant presence in her life, selfless in the way she would do anything for her daughter that seemed like the right thing to do, and was in her capacity.

The hardest part of the interview came with Alison’s recounting of the nightmare that was Lynn Evans’s illness and death. As her condition deteriorated, Lynn tried to tell her daughter how sick she was, but she had dementia, and Alison couldn’t understand what her mother was trying to say. Because the nursing home staff hadn’t mentioned that she was sick.

Alison was proud to tell me that moving cross-country in the middle of a pandemic to support her own daughter’s dream to dance is something her mother would have done for her, and she’s proud to take that piece of her mom into her own parenting.

We talked for more than an hour. At times during the interview, Alison was overcome by emotion and had to stop. And we went slowly, coming back to things that were too tough to tackle at the beginning and taking a break when she needed it. We took many breaks.

So when you listen to this episode, bear in mind that for every word Alison says, there were ten more that she couldn’t summon because talking about what happened was just so hard. That’s how raw things still are for Alison, whose mom died from Covid seven months before we spoke. That’s the toll of one death. Alison Aucoin’s mom died from Covid-19, and It’s a death that speaks for 404,689. And counting.

** A  warm Thank You to ace trumpet player Kevin Clark and the Dukes of Dixieland for permission to play On the Sunny Side of the Street, and Stardust (with Tom McDermott on piano and the late great Leigh Harris (Little Queenie) on vocals