Ceci Talks Cleo Wade’s "Where to Begin: A Small Book About Power to Create Big Change in Our Crazy World"

“It ain’t all pretty, but it’s so damn beautiful.” - Cleo Wade

I remember the day I read Cleo Wade’s words for the first time; I was sixteen and eating lunch in my high school choir room: “It ain’t all pretty, but it’s so damn beautiful.” It was handwritten in a bold red, over a vibrant page of blue. This was long before Instagram granted us the luxury to save our favorite posts, so I screenshotted the image and made it the lock screen on my phone. Since then, reading Cleo’s words are like coming home for me. And I hope if you read her poetry, you’ll feel the same.

Over the course of the last few years, Cleo’s career has grown immensely. Before her first book, Cleo would post her prose on social media and go into communities setting up her booth, “ARE YOU OKAY? Free Peaceful and Loving Conversation.” She’s a true change-maker with a hand reaching out for all people to join her in making the world a better place. In 2017, she released a collection of poetry called, Heart Talk: Poetic Wisdom for a Better Life. (I’ve loaned this book to countless friends and family members because it’s just that good.) Freshman year when Cleo was on her book tour, my friend Sarah and I went together to see her speak. After hearing her words  surrounded in an undeniably safe space along with other fans from the area, I finally got to meet her and tell her how much she meant to me. That night I left crying the happiest of tears, feeling understood, empowered, loved and refreshed. When she announced the release of her second book, Where to Begin: A Small Book About Power to Create Big Change in Our Crazy World, I knew that I would not only love it, but that I would have to write about it, so here we are.

Where to begin with Where to Begin... I guess I’ll start by sharing the first poem in, or I should I say on the book. Under the paper cover, in gold writing it says,“the question is not whether or not you are powerful (you are), the question is what will you do with your power.” The hidden gem of the series, this poem sums up the message of this book: promoting the preservation and cultivation of individual power as a     revolutionary act in the fight for change, love and justice.

Without giving too much away, this book is a carefully and wonderfully constructed space, meant to encourage readers to think critically about the way they “show up” to promote change in our present world.

The first poem of the series happens to be the title piece, and it is 91 pages long. “Where to Begin” is a poem Cleo recited in her 2018 Ted Talk. In her letter to the reader, she encourages readers to read the poem however they like, a page a day, the whole thing at once, out loud or silently. Throughout the piece she asks big questions, answering them simply and in the most human way possible. One of my favorites is, “the world will say to you: What are you going to do? Do not be afraid to say, I don’t know everything but I can do something. Walk into more rooms, saying,“‘I’m here to help.’” The beauty of Cleo’s poetry is that it’s easy to find yourself in her words and that they are forgiving of the human condition to fall prey to hatred, selfishness, and other evils of the world. She answers the need to heal our planet with little tips like, “start by saying,‘no thank you, I don’t need a plastic bag.” She encourages us to start the conversations to end racism, bias and bigotry in our very homes with our families and friends. She shines a light on the human ability to be kind and unconditionally loving to one another, claiming the secret ingredient for real change, is hidden in those undeniably human acts. Most importantly, she acknowledges that there isn’t a big change that is going to shake the world into healing, but rather a lot of small changes started by you and me that will rock the world into relief.

Probably one of my favorite components to Cleo’s collections is that she tells little stories in between poems. In Where to Begin, she tells stories of how she copes with overwhelming feelings of anxiety and pain, she shares the advice she gets from her friend Mia’s 100 year-old grandfather, and her friend Grace’s dad about finding passion in all corners of your life. Cleo illustrates how she finds her inspiration in simple moments spent with family and friends. She quotes Baldwin and Dr. King in calls for love and justice, asking us to think about how we can be kind in even the toughest of moments. Cleo has a tradition of ending her poems and stories with a loving, but equally chilling, “that’s all,” because when you are as honest and vulnerable as she, you need not apologize for speaking your truth and being yourself. In a section called, “we were happy,” Cleo quotes a poem by Hafiz; it reads,“ever since happiness heard your name, it has been running through the streets trying to find you.” Reading that line took my breath away and immediately after the quote, Cleo says, “it breaks my heart a little every time I read it,” and once again I felt that same connection I did when I was sixteen reading her words for the first time.

It’s still hard for me to describe my love for Cleo Wade and her words. Maybe it’s because I met her work when she was writing on napkins; before Heart Talk, before Where to Begin, before the talk shows, the tours, before we met. Maybe it’s because her words caught me at 16 and in a moment of weakness in life, a time when I was still trying to figure out how I wanted to be in this world. Either way, her words have been on my mind for the last five years. I have quotes signed “love, Cleo” all over my wall. It’s hard to put into words the magic that happens between a writer and their reader, an artist and their admirer. Cleo has managed to take her little notes and create a revolution, a community, and home, where people of all kinds can come to be seen, be heard, or to simply listen. She’s a poet that transcends the page and reaches out to as many people as she can possibly touch, to remind them that they are valuable, capable and most importantly, loved.