I had the privilege of meeting William Stafford on two separate occasions. My first meeting with him was during a writer’s conference I attended at Squaw Valley in California in the late 1970s. He really took, what I recognize now as, a coach’s approach with my worries, my venting, and my desire to find my own way through the conference. He didn’t offer much advice. He listened and was kind and he acknowledged my insecurities and the way I expressed them. I was grateful and more relaxed…. not feeling that there were some unstated behavioral “poet's” standards that I had to discover and then adhere to in order to go forward as a writer of poems at the conference, and then into the world. I could be myself. It was good enough.
I was a young writer, and looked even younger than I was. I was always surprised then, and I am even now in spite of my years, at the kind of interpersonal and inter-group power struggles that occur in groups of poets, in groups of artists and other groups otherwise, perhaps romantically, defined by the altruism and humanist intent in their over all aims and urges in the work that they pursue. I never expect these, rather darker, less than conscious, urges to arise in the open in such groups. When they do it alarms and dismays me.
At the conference I was early in my developing understanding that even in groups of people truly committed to doing good works for the betterment of the species, and the planet in general, there were deeply rooted conflicts; conflicts, often unstated or completely under-realized on a conscious level, that defined much of what I felt occurred and was accomplished. These worked as a powerful and distracting subtext in the dynamics of such a group… and in fact could pull the group apart, or at least distract individuals and the group itself away from its initial urges and goals. And it was painful in so many ways, to most of the participants.
At that time, in that situation, Stafford helped me retain my center in all this. He seemed to take some good natured humor in such interpersonal hijinks that had the power to divert people from their goals as individuals and in groups of otherwise like-minded people. This made the conflicts more manageable, and less overwhelmingly significant… but never really minimized the serious nature of what they could undermine, and what action toward mutual goals they could derail and roadblock.
I am unsure how this relates to coaching, aside from the fact that later I found that Stafford had been a conscientious objector during World War Two, which must have been a terrifically difficult public position to take at the time. In fact, it has been said, and I think it is overwhelmingly recognizable, that much of Stafford’s work is marked by the sometimes lonely process of exploring one’s lack of connection in the world, one’s essential alienation and homelessness even at home; and the search for, and discovery of, the sometimes fleeting seeds of connection that have the potential to, at least, be nurtured into being.
In this poem this is reinforced most in its focus on finding and staying with what is authentic, and how we need others to keep us to that line of authenticity, no matter how wavery it is, or our efforts are at following it. No matter how alone we might feel in our search to stay within eye/ear/touch/smell shot of it. Our efforts, and the line of authenticity itself, waver; and so, if we are ready to commit to the task, our efforts to find and re-find our connection to it weave in and through it… a braid. Braids are quite strong. Rope is a braid.
How does this relate to coaching? I think perhaps Mr. Stafford was really one of my early coaches. He had the power to influence my own direction… he knew it, he respected and was humbled by the power I had given to him in that role. And he respected me and acknowledged me. Never once did he minimize my perceptions about the things that disturbed me about how people, even I... in a process that is perhaps normal in spite of its deep difficulties as well as its intersections for celebration... fail to go forward in easy, straight, unified lines. Groups can only braid their efforts together the best they can… and sometimes they don’t do very well at all.
My own awareness of the nature of individual and group functioning , and my empathic, intuitive detections of the sub textually expressed conflicts, in individuals and in groups, have been a matter of constant distress, unpleasant surprise, and at times the desire, even need, to separate from others, from community. But this same curse is also a gift at the core of my strength as someone who wishes to be of service to others, as an artist and as a coach.
This is not an easy task, and the balance between separation and engagement continues to hugely define my awareness and the underlying tensions of my life. So, they have urged me to find my own road while also begging me to engage… to find a way to express the truths those struggles reveal to me to help others engage in their own journeys of discovery.
Because, of course, this struggle is the universal struggle. It is the struggle of every person. And it is the coach’s, and the poet's, job to integrate these polarities into the unified whole that is what we are as humans. Together/Separate, With/Without, One/Many, Individual/Community. “…it holds/ together something more than the world,/ this line. And we are your wavery/ efforts at following it. Are you coming?/ Good: now it is time.”
An Introduction to Some Poems
Look: No one ever promised for sure
that we would sing. We have decided
to moan. In a strange dance that
we don’t understand till we do it, we
have to carry on.
Just as in sleep you have to dream
the exact dream to round out your life,
so we have to live that dream into stories
and hold them close at you, close at the
edge we share, to be right.
We find it an awful thing to meet people,
serious or not, who have turned into vacant
effective people, so far lost that they
won’t believe their own feelings
enough to follow them out.
The authentic is a line from one thing
along to the next; it interests us.
Strangely, it relates to what works,
but is not quite the same. It never
swerves for revenge,
Or profit, or fame: it holds
together something more than the world,
this line. And we are your wavery
efforts at following it. Are you coming?
Good: now it is time.
--- William Stafford