But who is Cleo Wade — according to Cleo Wade?
"If it's not too cheesy," she tells me, "Maybe I'd call myself a 'beloved community builder.'"
In truth, all of these labels are accurate, to a degree. She is an Instagram poet, which is to say that she's a poet (she has been writing since she was six-years-old) who posts on Instagram (where she has more than 500,000 followers.) At 30 years old, she is a millennial, and like Oprah, she works hard to make each of her followers feel a special kinship with her and her message of self-love. So, in a way, she really is everybody's best friend.
"Anytime I put something online or write a book or create a public art installment," she tells me, "I do so that I can get into community with other people."
This was perhaps most viscerally seen in the events she hosted on tour for her first book, Heart Talk, which came out last year. "I'd be lying if I didn't say that I wrote books basically so I could tour books," she tells me. "Being able to be with people and know what's going on in their lives and show them love and care and see them and hear them — that is my greatest passion in life."
In the coming weeks, she will have plenty of opportunities to connect with readers, as she tours the country to promote her new book Where To Begin, out now. Like Heart Talk, it's slim — about the size of a small makeup bag — and filled with poems, short essays, and meditations about kindness, hope, and compassion. Unlike Heart Talk — which focused on self-love and healing — it's about action. If you peel off the dust jacket, you will find a hidden message, embossed in gold on the cover: "The question is not whether or not you are are powerful (you are) the question is ... what you will do with your power?"
In other words: Read Heart Talk to find your power. Read Where To Begin to channel it.
I meet Wade, who is nearly six months pregnant, at a brightly-lit photo studio in Manhattan's Flatiron district on an unseasonably warm autumn morning. When we sit down to talk, she smiles, locks eyes with me, and compliments my eyeliner. She doesn't stop looking at me, and I understand why so many people come to her tour stops for a chance to be in the same space as her, to have her listen. After every event, she tells me, she spends three or four hours in conversation with attendees. "I do a lot more listening than I do speaking," she says. It was these talks with fans that inspired her to scrap her plan to take a year-long break and write her second book instead.
"What I kept hearing over and over again was, 'How are you practicing self-care?' Or, 'How are you staying sane?' Or, 'How do you find calm or peace?' And every single time they said it, they followed it up with especially during this time," she says. She realized that unprecedented times called for unique solutions.
"I think we’ll reflect back on this time and say to ourselves, 'I wasn't prepared to deal with the world we were living in at that time,'" she says. "I really wanted to create something specific to be there as a support beam during these times."
So who is Cleo Wade? She is a person who helps others find their power — and use it. Her words are meant as a balm and a spark; they are intended to soothe your sore spots and to motivate you to soothe the sore spots of others. In the Q&A below, she talks about exhaustion, finding the time to be active in the world, and why she believes having a child is the ultimate act of optimism:
Where To Begin is slightly smaller than the last book, Heart Talk — it's just little bit more portable, so you can take it wherever. The first section begins with a disclaimer that there are no rules, so you can open it wherever you want and start reading. Did you want this to function less as a book, and more something that you could find constant peace and calm in?
Cleo Wade: I wanted it to just be something that wasn't just inspiring, but felt useful. And I think that part of trying to create something that is useful is making sure that it's usable and it's easy to access and no matter what kind of day you're having, it's a friend that you can visit.
I think that's my biggest focus when I write or create books. How many times do we know exactly how great reading would make us feel if we could claim the time or take the time to dive into a book? Sometimes, we just feel too exhausted, or we feel that we don't have the attention span. There's all these things that block us from accessing the joy that reading and having that type of solitary time can bring to ourselves. I wanted there to be as many entry points to this work as possible because no one's day is what you think it is. Give people a lot of ways to get into the work.
I also feel like these books are also entry points to poetry. I always hear from friends that poetry seems really intimidating: I don’t understand the structure, the symbolism.
One of the actual first titles of Heart Talk was A Poetry Book for People Who Don't Like Poetry or Who Think They Never Liked Poetry.
I think for Where To Begin, this could be a book of ideas or tools or words for someone who says that they aren't an activist or they aren't an engaged citizen or the idea of getting involved in our world and participating in that way is not for them or it's too overwhelming. I think sometimes we feel like, You're Gloria Steinem or bust. If I haven't found a way to make participating in the world or being a quote-unquote activist my job full time, then there's no way that I can do it. What our world needs is for everyone to ask themselves, "What can I do with what I've got? How can I contribute?" There's no one way to do it.
In the book, you write that your nine-to-five job doesn't have to be your life. Why do you think that that sort of mentality is important in conversations about activism?
Sometimes I hesitate to even call it activism, because I think that word can be a block. You don't have to call yourself an activist to participate in the world. I don't even call myself that, and obviously being engaged in my community is probably my number one focus in my life.
Grace, my best friend from childhood, her dad gave us this advice: "Stop worrying about who you are in your nine-to-five. Focus on how you show up in your five-to-nine." I remember thinking, Wow, there's such an ability to stretch the day and make the most of your time in your life. I thought to myself, You can be so powerful with your existence if you don't decide what hours you switch it off and on.
I really loved the section in the book about hope. You quote your friend, activist and author DeRay Mckesson, who said: "Hope is not magic, it is work." Why do you think that hope is such a powerful part of this conversation?
Martin Luther King Jr. said that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice. But the moral arc of the universe does so when we bend it. There's a difference between seeing things for what they are and seeing things for their possibility and knowing how you can contribute to them reaching their potential.
The beginning of that DeRay quote is: "Hope is the belief that our tomorrows can be better than our todays." And then he goes on to say, "Hope is not magic, it is work." I do think that it has to do with believing in what is possible, not surrendering to what feels impossible. A lot of what I put into this book was about the feelings and thoughts and ideas and mantras and words that can just help us tap into that place where we feel that type of power.
Right after Donald Trump was elected, I felt like so many people were saying I'm so depressed or I'm so sad. Now, it seems that the rhetoric has changed to I'm so angry. How do you think that anger and hope can and do co-exist?
Listen, I think that all of those things are in the broad brush stroke of love. I think hope exists within love. I think anger can exist within love. We often think about love as this doormat that's always pleasant and has no boundaries and never sticks up for itself. We forget that love can get mad as hell because love is about caring that much.
I think that when we are able to watch what upsets us or makes us angry, we actually know where to put the work in and where it's important for us to invest our hope and invest our belief. I think that when anger turns to violence there's a problem, because I don't think that violence lives in the space of love at all. But I do think that every single emotion or feeling you have is something that is a sign that you are living and you are loving and you have to ask yourself, "What am I going to do with that in a positive way?"
What are you most looking forward to and what kind of conversations are you kind of hoping to have on the road as you tour for Where To Begin this month?
I try never to go on the road hoping to have any types of conversations. I think that sometimes when we have expectations, it blocks our ability to really listen compassionately and as openly as we possibly could. And so, for me, I'm mostly just focused on being open to what I learn and the stories I get to hear more than anything.
Were there any specific conversations you had on the road for Heart Talk that impacted the writing of Where to Begin?
I was hearing so many people talk to me about just feeling so exhausted. There was this alarm that went off in my head: OK, you're exhausted and I get it, I'm exhausted too some days. But what kind of encouragement do we need so that we rest and we don't quit?
The very last thing I added to — the second before it went to the actual printers; I don't even know if the publishers saw it — was a Coretta Scott King line in the last page of the book that says, “Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.” We know that to be true. We know that the road to a world that is even inheritable for our children is a never-ending road of doing the work and showing up and honoring the work of those who came before us. How do we make sure that we stay on the path where [every] single person is a builder of this of this country or world that we have to live in?
We always have time to do everything. It's just we have to actually find the will to make the time. So, when someone says, "I just do not have time to do this," I say, "No, there is time. In the day, there is time."
One of the biggest inspirations for this book was moving through the exhaustion, moving through the anxiety, moving through the feelings of being overwhelmed or depressed and asking ourselves, "OK, how can I show up?”
You're almost six months pregnant. Is a renewed sense of urgency about changing the world because you are having a child? Has it changed in any way how you feel about your work?
It's so important to make sure that we look at every child as our child. I don't think it would be totally accurate to say that I am more passionate about making the world a better place because I'm going to physically have my own child.
I think that whether it's being able to be a part of so many of the lives of the girls of the Lower East Side Girls Club or so many of the kids that I get to be around or work with around the world, every single child deserves for us to go in 100% to make this world better for them. One of the biggest "aha moments" I had in the process of Simon [Simon David Kinberg, her partner] and I deciding to have our child is that it really is the ultimate act of optimism, right? You are saying that you believe that if we all do this work — or if you can at least do your part — then this world can be a safe enough, just enough, equal enough, equitable enough place for children to thrive in.
You're deciding to put an extra being on this planet that didn't ask to be here, which is a little different than just the people you meet as you go through the world. And so you're like, If I'm going to kind of do this to you, I want to go to work and make sure that it can be a place that can be as beautiful for you as possible.
I have so many friends who are having conversations right now about whether the world is a safe enough place to have children.
There’s so much to consider. There is a part of it where hope and faith and belief and optimism really do play a part. I feel hopeful. When I see these young people who are activists for climate change and I go to the Lower East Side Girls Club and I see the way that this generation doesn't just want to work on themselves intellectually, but they also want to work on themselves emotionally and socially, I am renewed with hope. I am grateful that that they will be the leaders in my old age. I am grateful that they will be the leaders as my child grows up.
There is this renewed energy of people who are not only wanting to fix our world, but build it like the way that it should have always been built in the first place, rather than try to fix it. None of this next generation really wants to fix an old house. They're like, "You know what, if this isn’t working, then I'm actually ready to redo all the plumbing here. I'm not just going to wrap something around this leaky spot." And I think that to have the energy and the desire and the will to do that is so inspiring.
Do you think that Heart Talk and Where To Begin act in conversation with each other? How so?
Many people thought that Heart Talk would be more like [Where To Begin]. They said, "You're so vocal about what goes on with social issues and what's going on in the state of our world!" It came out right after the election, and everyone thought I would write the book about getting out in the world.
I remember saying at the time that I do want to write that book, but I can't responsibly tell anyone to get out into the world without first having the conversation about how to get out into the world as the most loved, cared for, secure, and healed person possible. We can't skip that step. It was really critical for Heart Talk to be my first book because, as the saying goes, "hurt people hurt people and healed people heal people."
I think that Heart Talk is more about the fundamentals you need for self-care and self-love. When you want to take that action into the world, Where to Begin is the book for that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.