Fifty-two words, starting with "alone" and ending with "work," take center stage in individual essays that compose Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, the book released late last year by English author and poet David Whyte.
But they're not just any words. Each one, as Whyte explains over the phone from his part-time home in Washington (he splits time between there and Oxford, England), is an actual physical state of being.
"We have so many, so many states that people are in, that they feel just the name we give to the state actually makes them feel worse. You know, if they're feeling 'denial' or if they're feeling 'despair' or they're feeling 'shy.' ... I was trying to rehabilitate a lot of words that we use in pejorative ways, so that people could actually understand there's a place for every emotion and every quality in the human spectrum. And it's there for a reason."
His process for rehabilitating them involved digging into the physical state itself — a place where he felt haunted by each word — and using that experience to access what the words could mean.
"From the outside, that's called a poetic approach," he says, "but it's actually a physical and imaginative approach from my mind."
The hardest word for Whyte to write about?
"People kept asking me to write an essay on pain, and I would always say, 'I can't. I don't feel qualified for it,'" the 59-year-old says. "Of course I've had temporary agony like everyone. Whether it's a tooth abscess or hitting your thumbnail with a hammer. But I just felt there were so many people who live in daily, debilitating pain. It felt like it would be condescending to them just for me to write an essay for the sake of it."
Then he developed sciatica in his back. The condition worsened over a period of three months to a point at which Whyte, who regularly travels and speaks internationally, found himself crawling around hotel rooms before he could stand upright. "So many times I would think, 'I have to cancel today,'" he says. "I never, ever did."
A day came when he tried to buy a pair of boots in a Vancouver, British Columbia, shoe shop (thinking his shoes might be part of the problem with his back) and couldn't sit in the shop's "very chichi, low seats" to try them on. "It was quite humiliating," he says, and that day he wrote the essay on pain, which includes the passage:
"Physical or emotional pain is an ultimate form of ground, saying, to each of us, in effect, there is no other place than this place, no other body than this body, no other limb or joint or pang or sharpness or heartbreak but this searing presence. Pain asks us to heal by focusing not only on the place the pain is felt but also the actual way the pain is felt. Pain is a form of alertness and particularity; pain is a way in."
After focusing primarily on words like pain, honesty and courage, the book's inclusion of two particular words does seem out of place: "Istanbul" and "Rome."
"I felt [the sites] were states in themselves," he says, recalling his travels there. "... Istanbul was this bridge between the Western world and the East. And yet in the Western mind that bridge goes into a big nowhere, and a large gap in our understanding, so I thought that was fascinating."
And then there's the experience of the place itself. "You get into the spice market ... or down by the Golden Horn buying a fresh fish sandwich straight off a boat, it's just magic. I love to just walk there and imbibe the aromas and the vistas. So I thought I'd give people a little bit of what I thought I'd been gifted by the place."