Awakin Calls » Phyllis Cole-Dai

Phyllis Cole-Dai: Writer, social artist
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Jan 30, 2021: Writing Across the Divide


Watch: Video Recording

Read: Call Transcript (Also: Nuggets From Phyllis Cole-Dai's Call)


"This is not a thing I have sought, But it has come across my path and I have seized it. " -- Annie Dilliard Annie Dilliard's words point to the place where Phyllis Cole-Dai's most significant projects begin -- in that electric intersection where serendipity, sincerity and steadfast resolve collide.  On Ash Wednesday of 1999, Phyllis Cole-Dai walked out of her home in Columbus, Ohio with a friend. The two of them carried no money with them and would spend the next 47 days -- of Lent and Holy Week -- living on the streets. "We didn't go out to find answers to questions or to search out solutions to problems. We didn't go out to save anyone or to hand out donations of food and blankets. We went out for one primary reason: to be as See full.

"This is not a thing I have sought,
But it has come across my path and I have seized it. "

-- Annie Dilliard

Annie Dilliard's words point to the place where Phyllis Cole-Dai's most significant projects begin -- in that electric intersection where serendipity, sincerity and steadfast resolve collide. 

On Ash Wednesday of 1999, Phyllis Cole-Dai walked out of her home in Columbus, Ohio with a friend. The two of them carried no money with them and would spend the next 47 days -- of Lent and Holy Week -- living on the streets. "We didn't go out to find answers to questions or to search out solutions to problems. We didn't go out to save anyone or to hand out donations of food and blankets. We went out for one primary reason: to be as present as possible to everyone we met - homeless person, volunteer, University president, cop." 

The Emptiness of Our Hands is a moving memoir of those 47 days, co-authored by Phyllis. It explores the great divide between the housed and the homeless-- and how being without a real home can ravage the human spirit.

As a writer and editor Phyllis has always written across the divides that separate us from ourselves and one another. Through her writing she seeks deeper understanding, and the possibility of healing -- for herself and readers. Her work spans multiple genres. 

Beneath the Same Stars is a historical novel set during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. In it Phyllis explores the vast divides between settlers and the indigenous people of this land in ways that bear deep relevance to our troubled times. Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poetry, co-edited by Phyllis, explores the divides between mind and body, self and other. In its pages, contemporary poets such as Joy Harjo, Li-Young Lee, Derek Walcott and Naomi Shihab Nye rub shoulders with beloved poets of the past, including Rumi and Li Po. The book evolved out of a popular blog titled "A Year of Being Here", that Phyllis created in 2013. For three consecutive years she posted  a daily 'mindfulness poem' along with an accompanying art piece, drawing in readers from across the world with her thoughtful curation.  

Her latest book is For the Sake of One We Love and Are Losing: A Meditative Poem & Journal. Written in the form of a meditative poem, the book seeks to bridge the poignant gap between the living and those who are dying, or have passed. Published last year as the world grappled with a pandemic that has continued to drastically redefine our reality and claim lives, Phyllis' words have served as a tender, steadying hand for many in pain and grief. When she lost her own father recently to COVID-19, her own words would return to her as deep medicine (along with blessings, poems, healing images and more) from her many well-wishers and readers.

In mid-March, 2020, in response to the pandemic, Phyllis created Staying Power -- a free virtual care package delivered to subscribers every Sunday that weaves together offerings of personal stories, meditations, poetry, music, and other resources -- all with the simple intention of helping people weather the challenges of these times with 'a clear mind, sound body and generous spirit.' Several of her stories have been syndicated on DailyGood, including, "I Am One of Everybody," the heart-warming story of Phyllis's 'signature' red coat, that has now been autographed by hundreds of strangers, and that serves as unique reminder of our shared hunger to simply belong.

Born in 1962 in the farming community of Mt. Blanchard, Ohio, Phyllis eventually graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (English, 1984) from Goshen College; a Master of Theological Studies (1987) from the Methodist Theological School; and a Master of Arts (English, 1993) from The Ohio State University. She lives with her scientist-husband, teenage son, and two cats in a 130-year-old house in Brookings, South Dakota, also the traditional homeland of the “Seven Council Fires” of the Dakota, Nakota and Lakota confederacy (more commonly called the Great Sioux Nation). 

Join us in conversation with a writer whose sincerity, courage and compassion speak directly to the call of our times.


Five Questions for Phyllis
What Makes You Come Alive?

In a word, beauty The beauty of poems and stories, of music and art, of film and dance; the beauty of nature; the beauty of food and fabric and fragranceeverything that delights and humbles the senses; the beauty of kinship and communityof a hand held, of laughter shared, a testimony heard, a struggle joined; the beauty of solitude, of silence, of introspection; the beauty of mystery, and of the infinite ways that we're all connected within the flow of life and death and Life Again.Beauty is endless in its forms. So it's no surprise that I like creating it. I write poems, tell stories, share memoirs and essays, give speeches, compose songs. I'm especially committed to creating things that might help bridge and heal divisions within ourselves and our communities. Beauty reminds us of what we hold in common and helps us to honor that more deeply. It also reminds us of how we differof how we can and must learn from one another, for the sake of each person and the whole.

Pivotal turning point in your life?

In 1989 I lived by choice for 47 days on the streets of Columbus, Ohio. My purpose in living on the streets for a season of my life was to be a compassionate, attentive presence among the homeless people I met. During that period, I learned just how fragile we human beings are, and also how strong and resourceful we can be in our fragility. I learned the power of a single word or a single act to affect someone's life, for good or harm. I learned the importance of self-awareness, and the necessity of relinquishing expectations about self and others. I could go on and on with insights gained from that experience of seven or so weeks. It was a long while ago now, but I've been working on integrating, and deepening, what I learned ever since.

An Act of Kindness You'll Never Forget?

I'll always be grateful to a Dakota elder named Chekpa Win (her English name is Darlene Renville Pipeboy) for accepting my gift of tobacco, thereby agreeing to teach me about her culture. She did this despite my being Euro-American. She had no reason at all to trust me, but she welcomed me in. She served as a key consultant while I was writing Beneath the Same Stars, but more than that, she became my friend. Her kindness is ongoing. She is my Dakota mother.

One Thing On Your Bucket List?

No list. I live in the bucket.

One-line Message for the World?

Follow the nudge of the Muse.

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