The artist and poet on taking back the word “better”
If you’re looking to feel all the feels, Cleo Wade is here to help. The 30-year- old author, artist and poet rose to fame for posting her uplifting mantras on Instagram, where she counts stars like Drew Barrymore, Reese Witherspoon, and Gigi Hadid among her followers. It’s been a big year for Cleo — in addition to publishing her second book Where to Begin, she’s expecting her first child. Cleo and I spoke about what words inspires her the most, her message for a certain troll on Instagram, and how she’s combating the national epidemic of loneliness.
Katie Couric: New York Magazine dubbed you “The Millennial Oprah”- how does that make you feel?
Cleo Wade: Anytime anyone compliments your work in any way, you feel such a wave of gratitude. But there is only one Oprah, just like there’s only one Katie Couric. Obviously we don’t have the same career… her path, and how she became who she is, and what she’s gone through, is unparalleled. She is such a singular magnificent being. I feel so grateful that anyone would remotely compare us! But I think it’s about how she might make her audience feel, and how I try to make the people who read my books feel.
When your first book came out, you said, “If you could make a book a best friend, that’s what you hoped to do.” How would you describe ‘Where to Begin’?
This book is that same friend, because I don’t really want to write books, I want to create friends. I want to create a space where a few ideas and poems and mantras live to be with you through your most difficult moments. So this book is also a friend, and I hope it can be that same best friend, but this friend is having a different conversation with you.
This book was written from a place of listening to what people were telling me on my last tour. I’ve traveled so much through my work, and everywhere I went, when someone would ask me a question about self-care, self-love, balancing social media, or staying informed without letting the news drive you crazy, they always ended the sentence with, “Especially during these times.” When you hear something over and over again, you start to feel called to speak about it.
Where To Begin is that same loving voice that’s in Heart Talk, but it’s speaking to what we’re going through now. It’s a challenging, overwhelming and anxiety-provoking time to live in, and I just wanted to start a conversation about that. It isn’t an answer, but I wanted to acknowledge that the world is changing — and at the same time we have to make sure that we aren’t normalizing things that aren’t normal.
This book is a bit more political, I think, than your last. How do you plan to get involved this election season, and why is it so important to you to encourage your readers to be civically engaged?
Oftentimes we confuse being political with being partisan. Everything is political. When someone says, “I don’t want to be political,” to me, that means you’re moving through the world without acknowledging that there are sets of systems in place that allow for us to live in this country together. I think we are in a bad place in our political sphere right now, because we treat our political parties like football teams. We’ll root for our team, even if it’s the losing team. As someone who’s from New Orleans, where the Saints were a losing team for a very long time, every single Sunday everyone would still go out with their hats and their jerseys and their cheers. So there’s a part of me that gets it.
But when it comes to decisions that affect the lives of so many people, we can’t afford to look at our political system like teams that we are rooting for or against without actually listening to the ideas. We can’t afford to not pay attention. For this next election cycle, I just hope that people will listen to the ideas, and want the best plan for themselves and their neighbors. I hope people will not care so much about the person or figurehead who just appeals to some emotional space within the voter. We need to blend the emotional space with the intellectual space, and even with the spiritual space. I plan to devote most of my work to the election cycle next year. Besides mom-ing, that will be my number one priority.
The mantras and poems you’ve written have inspired so many people. What words of wisdom resonated with you the most?
There’s this one line in the “Where to Begin” poem that says: “The world will say to you, what are you going to do? Do not be afraid to say, ‘I know I can’t do everything, but I can do something.’” You must be gentle on yourself as you work on self progress. I’ve never experienced one giant rock bottom moment or one huge “aha” moment that made me want to change my life. Instead, I’ve had many moments of “aha” shifts that I’ve paid attention to, put into practice, and then they’ve ended up changing my life in really giant ways.
One of those was taking back the word “better.” Not to let it mean “lacking,” but to see it as an opportunity for a daily micro-adjustment. I remember thinking, “I wonder if I could be doing this better. Doing my life better.” But saying I wanted to be a better person just sounded… like way too big of a task. I didn’t know where to start. But then I thought to myself, “I think I know how to be a better daughter.” So I called my parents. “And I think I know how to be a better sister.” So I made sure to constantly reaffirm my relationship with my sibling. “And I think I know how to be a better friend, or partner.” So I did the interior work to make sure I would never compete or compare myself with any of my girlfriends, or I would not live in a state of wanting to provoke my partner in order for them to show love.
During the summer you set up a booth at a park in Manhattan that you call the “Are You Okay” booth, which you’ve described as being like Lucy from “The Peanuts” (except you don’t charge). What’s the most interesting thing you’ve heard someone tell you?
I never share specific stories because for so many people it’s such a sacred space, but I can say that something I’ve heard over and over is the way that people are struggling with loneliness. In my first tour of Heart Talk, I noticed that most people came alone. When I put two and two together, I realized these spaces, whether it was the booth or the tour, they could be spaces for people to make friends. So I design tours in order to help people connect.
Now, when I do the “Are You Okay” booth, I do it in a park where we can set up blankets, so that as people wait their turn, they can sit together and meet each other. They’ve really become these great community spaces that are combating a loneliness that I feel is present in every generation and every background. People just don’t know where to go to make those friends, or find that community.
When you shared on Instagram that you were pregnant, one commenter wondered why “all these young women really hitting their stride professionally [are] then getting pregnant right at a high point. I don’t get that.” I imagine that between the many political issues you’ve spoken out on, you’ve received a number of hurtful comments. Why did you find it so important to respond publicly to this one?
As a woman, if you’re ever saying something to me or about me, I feel like you’re saying it to every woman everywhere. And I feel like if someone says something to a woman anywhere, they’re saying it about me. So I felt it was important to show that women should firmly set boundaries and stand up for ourselves, without betraying kindness or dignity. I also felt the opinion in that comment was misinformed, so it could be a teaching moment to let that person know the reason that women struggle to maintain careers and also have children is not biological, it’s societal.
We don’t have the healthcare system that will allow a woman to go into a hospital and have her child without a bill that will hang over her for the rest of her life. I have a friend who is still paying a hospital bill from having her daughter without insurance, and her daughter is 16 now. We know there are people who work 40 hour weeks but still don’t make a living wage. So when you start to apply across the board that some women should be able to have kids and some shouldn’t, it becomes an extremely discriminatory conversation really quickly.
And when is the right time for a woman to have a child, if you are the man in charge of saying there is a “right time?” According to this person, you’re either too poor and unsuccessful to have a child, or you’re too rich and successful when you’re at the height of your career to have a child. So I wanted to expose that as a false narrative by talking about the reality of what women go through, and the injustices that they face in our country. That is the real issue here, not a woman’s right to exercise her reproductive freedom.
You wrote some of this book when you were pregnant, but have you written anything just for the baby?
I feel so lucky that I have gotten to be involved in the lives of so many young people, particularly the young people in my life who I love so dearly like the girls at the Lower Eastside Girls Club. So I feel as though I’m always writing for the next generation. I don’t know that I’ve specifically written anything for my child yet, but that’s mainly because the same things I want to write to my child are the things I want to say to every child. So I don’t know what that line in the sand is. Because I think every child deserves the love and care and compassion and empathy that I will give my own child.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This originally appeared on Medium.com
Books purchased through this link may give us affiliate revenue.