On Thursday night before the debate, I wrote something that meant a great deal to me. It was about a trip I made to Ole Miss in August and the incredible symbolism of that the debate on that campus, a cultural triumph it signified far larger than who won or lost.
Our Business of Doing Good show of a few months back generated some passionate response from all of you. One thing Jonathan Greenblatt mentioned during that program was his work with the X Prize Foundation to develop a “poverty X Prize.”
Google’s up to something similar: Project 10^100. Send in your ideas about how you’d change the world, by October 20th. Google’s going to front $10 million to help these world-changing projects get off the ground. The categories: Community, Opportunity, Energy, Environment, Health, Education, Shelter, and Everything Else. So what’s your project? Tell them (and, hey, tell us, too).
I spent three fascinating, moving days in Oxford, Mississippi at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in August — the site of the first scheduled presidential debate. I was honored with an invitation to speak to the remarkable Honors College of Ole Miss by its dean Douglass Sullivan-Gonzales. Oxford was the home of William Faulkner, and it is one of the most intriguing places I have ever visited — marked by a loveliness of people as well as place. Even then, in mid-August, the Secret Service and other affiliated debate authorities had begun to tear up and rearrange that beautiful campus — building elaborate security perimeters and state of the art communications
facilities for thousands of journalists. The august building in which I was to speak, the appointed site of the debate, had already been locked down and quarantined. I couldn’t help but think of all these practicalities — at public expense — as I heard John McCain’s announcement of his wish to postpone the debate yesterday. I imagine many hearts sank in Oxford.
And it’s been a wild ride for them all along. The first debate was originally planned to focus on issues of domestic policy and the economy. The Ole Miss faculty and administration created an interdisciplinary semester curriculum around these issues. They lined up an astonishing array of visiting lectures and extracurricular seminars. Then just as school began, the McCain and Obama campaigns agreed to shift the Ole Miss debate focus to foreign policy. Right now it looks like the original plan was more prescient. The university took the change in stride, moving forward with its own well-laid plans, though with some understandable frustration. I joked — but not all in jest — that by November the students at Ole Miss will be the best-informed, most well-rounded thinkers in the nation.
But there are deeper issues at play around this debate, in particular, a convergence of more fundamental national dynamics that could easily be missed in all the politicking around this ultra-politicized event. In 1962, the nation’s eyes focused on Oxford and Ole Miss, as race riots accompanied the integration of the university by a determined African-American student named James Meredith. In just a few days there, I learned that for people who live in and love Oxford even in 2008, history’s subdivisions and ephiphanies still fall on either side of this living memory: time is divided into “before Meredith” and “after Meredith.”
I remember especially one woman who stood with me at the monument to James Meredith at the center of the campus — a wonderful dean at the honors college from an old Oxford family. Her grandparents were close friends of William Faulkner and his wife, icons of a paradoxical past — at once immensely gracious and essentially cruel. She spoke of how after the riots hearts and minds changed individually and ultimately collectively. She suggested, softly, that Oxford has become something of a model for how people and communities can evolve. This is not a story so often told. She said, “We had to realize that we had been wrong — and wrong about a way of life we loved.” I was humbled to be in her presence. I have not spent much time in the Deep South in my life, though I grew up in Oklahoma, where issues of race and bigotry have not often enough met with profound public reflection. In Oxford, I saw people wrestling carefully, searchingly, self-critically, and gracefully with the unresolved American encounter with race. I was impressed.
And so hosting this historic 2008 civil debate between a white candidate for president and an African-American candidate for president means more to the people of Oxford than most of us can imagine. The current chancellor of the university was himself a student “during Meredith.” History is present at Ole Miss, and it is history that we have scarcely found ways in our common life to name and discuss even in the midst of Barack Obama’s historic candidacy. I for one will be watching the people of Oxford tomorrow, not just the candidates. I hope very much that the debate happens.
Awe-some Music Inspired by the Jewish High Holy Days
Colleen Scheck, Producer
If you’ve never listened to the SOF Playlist that accompanies each program, I highly recommend checking out the list for this week’s show exploring the meaning and sounds of the approaching Jewish High Holy Days, "Days of Awe." You can hear full-length tracks of each song played in the program.
As we were preparing this program for rebroadcast, I was struck by the beauty and diversity of the music Mitch compiled, which is inspired by this sacred time. I looked a little more closely into the background of some of the songs, discovering some interesting history and modern context. Here are a few examples:
"On Rosh Hashanah" Bassist David Chevan’s 10-minute rendition of “On Rosh Hashanah” is a contemporary jazz composition that fuses Jewish and non-Jewish musical influences. Chevan, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia, grew up in a Conservative-Egalitarian synagogue where he led services from the age of 10. He’s melded sacred music with jazz for years, and he currently performs with an ensemble called The Afro-Semitic Experience. Their compositions blend a wide range of music influenced by both Jewish and African-American traditions, from 18th-century cantorial works to the music of Sly Stone and Mahalia Jackson. In this 2002 NPR profile of Chevan and Afro-Semitic pianist Warren Byrd, they describe how the point of their collaboration is to address differences and commalities among faiths and races in America.
"On Rosh Hashanah" is from Chevan’s 2003 album, The Days of Awe: Meditations for Selichot, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur. A review of the album called it a “groundbreaking work if only because it is the first time that a jazz musician (or any instrumental musician) has ever made a recording solely devoted to the music of the Jewish High Holy Days.” ”On Rosh Hashanah” features Chevan, The Afro-Semitic Experience, and trumpeter Frank London. Like many of the works on the album, it’s based on a 1907 recording by the famous early 20th-century cantor Josef “Yossele” Rosenblatt.
"Rivers of Babylon" Rabbi Sharon Brous sent us this version of Psalm 137 (expressing the yearnings of the Jewish people in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem) as one example of “the vibe of services at IKAR.” Originally recorded for an IKAR Shabbat CD, she says it is also used for High Holy Days, and she calls it “one of the most soulful compositions” she’s ever heard. It’s based on the 1972 version written by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of The Melodians — a 1960’s Jamaican rock-steady reggae trio. It first appeared in the sound track to the 1972 movie The Harder They Come — a film based on the life of Ivanhoe “Rhyging” Martin, a Jamaican criminal who achieved fame in the 1940s. Many other musicians have covered it, including Boney M, Sinead O’Connor, the Neville Brothers, and Sublime.
As in her conversation with Krista, the influence of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on Brous surfaces again in this quote from IKAR’s Web site: “Heschel taught that music is the only language that is compatible with the wonder and mystery of being.”
The lead female voice on “Rivers of Babylon” is Jessica Meyer, a former IKAR member who taught prayer music to children and sang at services. A former actress (she was in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist), Meyer gave up a burgeoning Hollywood career to become a cantor. She recounts what drew her to IKAR:
"I was a Hebrew School dropout. Disgusted with the Judaism ‘Lite’ espoused by the Conservative synagogue of my childhood, I went in search of a spiritually vibrant, politically engaged Jewish community committed to a culture of Jewish learning and prayer. I did not find it until I came to an IKAR service…
The music of prayer at IKAR is electrifying. The melodies range from Ashkenazi old school to Carlebach, to one inspired by a Sufi chant! The people who lead services are not performing, they’re praying. (It is amazing how much closer people can come to a prayer when they have the freedom to explore for themselves – when there isn’t a someone performing it for them.)
It took me many years, and three continents to find Ikar. It is a blessing to be a part of this community.”
Check out the “Days of Awe" play list for other songs by Leonard Cohen, the BBC Symphony, and Barbara Streisand. Which ones resonate with you?
This story in the UK’s The Guardian is about a 27-year-old fellow in London who is using the concept of flash mobs to feed homeless people during Ramadan. I’m going to have to look further into this, because it sounds like he could be a voice for next year’s potential Ramadan show.
I wanted to share a tremendously informative piece of writing that came into my inbox yesterday — an essay by Omer M. Mozaffar about the passing of Warith Deen (often referred to as W.Deen) Mohammed titled "American Islam Enters its Next Phase." Mohammed was a gentle but towering figure in the history of Islam in the U.S., yet remains little known in the culture at large.
Fully one-third of U.S. Muslims are African-American, with a noble, fascinating history and th
eological trajectory all their own. We first waded into these waters when we did an early post-9/11 program on "Progressive Islam in America." (If you listen you will find that it sounds quite different from the programming we do now, though it remains kindred in spirit and intent.) One of the voices in that show is the supersmart fast-talking Precious Rasheeda Muhammad, a third-generation African-American Muslim. I will never forget discovering her, and discovering all I learned about African-American Islam as I prepared to speak with her.
I’ll boil my most surprising learning down to this: although Louis Farrakhan is still to this day known best and heeded in U.S. culture as the face and voice of African-American Islam, he has long spoken for only a sliver of this movement (tens of thousands as opposed to millions). The vast majority of the African-American Islamic community went through a profound mini-reformation, which W.Deen Mohammed led and exemplified and which mirrored the conversion Malcolm X underwent near the time of his death — away from the more militant, racially separatist roots of Farrakhan and Elija Muhammad (W.Deen’s father) and towards a universalist, orthodox Sunni Islam. To put a finer point on this: Farrakhan speaks for tens of thousands; but the gentle Mohammed embodied a religiosity of millions who, as Mozaffer says, will now move into their next phase as a community formed by his example.
Amy Sullivan on Moral Leadership Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer
Having grown up in Canada, I look at the presidential campaign with a bit of befuddlement. The issues in Canadian politics are different, and the parliamentary system lessens the impact of a leader’s biography and charisma. No campaigning politician ever feels the need to explain his or her religious convictions (or lack thereof).
But in this segment of Krista’s interview with TIME Magazine editor Amy Sullivan, I finally heard a compelling historical explanation for this fascination with the personality and religion of the President of the United States. In October, this will be the first part of a two-part look at religion in the current election. More on that second part in a few days.
It’s a mixed bag when somebody verbalizes what others dare not express. There’s always one loud-mouth that says something that makes people around him feel completely uncomfortable, even if he’s saying something that is at the back of others’ minds.
"One parishioner ruled out voting for Mr. Obama explicitly because he is black. "Are they going to make it the Black House?" Ray McCormick asked, to embarrassed hushing from a half dozen others gathered around the rectory kitchen. (Five of the six, all lifelong Democrats who supported Mrs. Clinton in the primary, said they now lean toward Mr. McCain.)"
Unfortunately, I hear some of the people (loved ones included) from my home when I read this statement. I just have to wonder if some Catholic voters aren’t using the Vatican’s stances on abortion and homosexuality as a pretext, a protective shield for their prejudices. And this gets conflated in reporting about Catholic and Evangelical voters and the issues that will determine these voters’ decisions in the booth.
For one, I’d like to thank the man for articulating a sentiment — racially discriminatory though it may be — to a reporter, in public. I may have cringed, but it needed to be said — in a parish rectory, no less. And thank you to Mr. Kirkpatrick for diligently teasing out the lingering mindset of racial discrimination from social issues girded by one’s faith.
As you can see, I have strong opinions about this. What do you see? What do you think?
I am not as devout a yoga practitioner as my colleagues, Kate and Krista, but I usually do about 20 minutes of yoga after a half hour on the elliptical — don’t ask me how often THAT happens. Actually, it is exactly 20:27, during which I go through a series of poses that I learned from a few yoga classes as well as a some instructional DVDs. I have an iTunes playlist on my computer called “Mitch-Yoga” that I put on and I know that I will start when the music starts and stop when it is done, measuring the time spent on each pose to where I am on the playlist. It is interesting to see if I am rushing through it or if I am necessarily taking my time.
Well here are the rest. The first track is Bebel Gilberto’s “All Around,” have a listen:
2. “Madman’s Honey” performed by Wire
3. “Ceu Distante” performed by Bebel Gilberto
4. “The Boy with the Gun” performed by David Sylvian
5. “Maria” performed by David Sylvian
I don’t think this is for everyone, but it does put me in a place that helps me relax and get into my body. What do you like to listen to while you do yoga? Silence?
I woke up this morning around 4:45 a.m. to eat before my day of fasting. To keep myself from passing out into my leftover veggie omelet from the night before, I turned on the TV. It was about 4:55 a.m. The first thing that confronted me as I scooped food into my mouth was the destruction of Haiti. People standing in mud, broken. Helicopters dropping off bags of food, long lines, the complete absence of buildings. The government has apparently stopped counting the death toll. Without numbers, the reporting on Haiti is going to end up even further down from where I found it: the last report of the hour.
Following the report, the beautiful, dark-haired host smiles with her moist lips and signs off, wishing me a good day. A good day? Are you mad?! I’m ready to intentionally deny myself food to try vainly to understand where I stand in this world. As I’m eating, there are people on the other side of the glass who are traumatized after three (or four?) hurricanes. And the host has the gall to wish me a nice day? Did she even watch the segment that just aired? The cognitive dissonance was a bit much, but there I sat with my leftover veggie omelet, my juicy organic yellow peach, my full glass of milk, and my disgust of the human race, cursing at the screen. I heard Heschel blaring at me, at the newscaster: “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
At 5:30 a.m., I went back to bed, to catch a few more hours of sleep before heading off to work. I lay there wishing for a red cape and blue tights and the chance to fly across the continent and do something. But you never see Superman fighting systemic poverty, or downgrading hurricanes by flying in a counter-Coriolis trajectory. He fights Lex Luthor.
It’s the afternoon now. I’m still hungry, but come 7:23 p.m. tonight, I’ll eat. I can. Yet today, my life feels like the platitudes of that news anchor. I saw something horrible, yet I got on with my day.
In conversations I’ve had with friends on this subject, the answer is invariably that it’s my duty to live my life more fully and more appreciatively, that the more tempting response of sullenness isn’t going to help anyone. Instead, bring your earnestness into whatever else you do. Working here is important to me because I can integrate my skills and energy toward something that is, in my view, part of some larger solution. And that’s good. Still, every time my cheeks stick from thirst, they drag my thoughts back to this morning, faithfully as a dog on a leash.
Kate got me into yoga — coming in day after day last fall glowing from Bikram. Bikram was too hot for me, literally, but I discovered “Core Power” soon after and was hooked. And grateful. Kate is thinking of posting a photo of herself in corpse pose. It doesn’t occur to me to do something like that, as I am incredibly word-centric. And that is part of the reason yoga is fantastically healing for me. I came off a long stretch of years of writing my book where I was desperate for a break from the thoughts in my head. Yoga has taken me out of my head. Rather, more accurately, it has helped me center myself, including the thoughts in my head, in my body. This is a relief, practically a whole new life.
As I’ve grown into this practice, I’ve experienced other intriguing epiphanies. About six months in on a very regular routine, I experienced a surge of energy. This was nearly overwhelming for a few weeks; I was sleeping several hours less than normal and waking up energized. It was as though yoga had unblocked or tapped more energy than my metabolism knew what to do with. And after about a month, that stabilized, settled down. I also went through a period a few months in of a deep, visceral, unnamable sadness. I’ve written in my book and done radio about my history of clinical depression; and for someone who has struggled with depression, sadness can be scary. But this felt natural and safe somehow. The scary part was that it eluded words and conscious analysis; I could not think it through. As it was arising in my body, I sensed it would have to work its way out of my body. And it did. I do speak about this with Seane Corn in our interview, something I’d been looking forward to.
There’s a lot of talk in yoga about taking the practice “off the mat” — letting its lessons infuse daily life. I didn’t notice this immediately, and the ways I find it happening now are quite mundane. But they’re still powerful; they are reordering some of the ways I approach what is mundane. So, for example, I’ve always been driven and goal-oriented. But in flow yoga, every transition is as important as every finished pose; and grace in transitions is as important as getting the final poses right. Somewhat to my surprise, I find that I’m able (sometimes, not all the time!) to spend more time and care on graceful transitioning and processing as on final products in other parts of my life. This is liberating — it’s like I’ve been missing whole stages of experience, at an ordinary level, all my life.
Finally, I also see the deepest lessons of yoga taking hold on me as I go lighter rather than harder on myself as I in fact become more advanced. This is perhaps the first passionate endeavor in my life in which I am absolutely content that I don’t have to be great or best or always better. I take as much pleasure in slow poses as in fast; I cut myself slack when I’m tired or distracted. I let messy, inconsistent life be what it is. I learn to delight in my body just as it is, at 47. And this does somehow translate into being easier on everything and everyone else around me. For a lifelong perfectionistic over-achiever, this is a seismic step forward into wisdom. I’m amazed to find this practice helping me literally embody many of the great spiritual teachings of my own faith and those that inspire me in others. So I’m grateful to Kate, and grateful to all the sages and practitioners who kept this spiritual technology alive for something like 5,000 years so that I and other 21st-century mortals could discover it when we need it most.
Yesterday we had our cuts and copy session for an upcoming program on forgiveness and revenge and today we recorded the script. I am now looking for music to use in the program and thought I’d reach out to you for help. What music do you find evocative in expressing forgiveness? How about the desire for revenge? It doesn’t necessarily have to be a song explicitly about these themes, and thus instrumental pieces are always welcome.
Michael McCullough on Revenge and Forgiveness Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer
A show we’re working on features psychologist Michael McCullough. He wrote a book about the evolutionary psychology behind the behaviors of forgiveness and revenge, and how that affects everyone from primates to politicians (huge gap, I know). He says we need to understand those origins in order to better serve our moral institutions today. Above is a clip from the rough cut of the show that makes the animal kingdom sound like The Godfather.
McCullough is a Ph.D. at the University of Miami in the departments of Psychology and Religious Studies. His many scientific papers focus on forgiveness and revenge, gratitude, and religious development in people’s lives. Some introductory ones:
He recently wrote something for The Huffington Post on the virtue of forgiveness — timely wisdom for the future president of the U.S., whoever that may end up being. “The ability to control revenge and broker forgiveness among groups in conflict is a crucial, though underappreciated, element of statecraft.”
The show should be online and on the air in two weeks.
Ahead of our re-broadcast of the program on Stress and the Balance Within this week, our guest Dr. Esther Sternberg will be participating in an international symposium (co-organized with the United Nations) on the mind-body connection. It’s pretty interesting that an international body like the UN takes part in the scientific conversation around what human consciousness is about:
The Human Consciousness Project will conduct the world’s first large-scale multicenter studies at major U.S. and European medical centers on the relationship between mind and brain during clinical death. The results of these studies may not only revolutionize the medical care of critically ill patients and the scientific study of the mind and brain, but may also bear profound universal implications for our understanding of death and what happens when we die.
I’ve never tried fly fishing, and I haven’t fished at all since I was a kid. But working these past couple weeks on our show "Fishing with Mystery" brought back a visceral memory of that unmistakable tug on my line. Though I haven’t experienced it in almost 20 years, I’ll never forget what it’s like to go from reeling in an inanimate object to feeling that sudden connection to a living creature beneath the water’s surface.
It’s no wonder people often use fishing as a metaphor to describe the creative process. While working on this show, I was trying to come up with literary references to fishing. Luckily, the availability of searchable online texts makes this kind of literary fishing a lot easier. I cast my line into the pond of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, searched on the word “fish,” and came up with a whopper.
The abridged passage below became a part of the show, and I think it perfectly captures one of the ideas James Prosek explores in his work. Namely, that nature can help take us away from reality, and into our dreams, but that it simultaneously pulls us back to the immediate reality that’s always there if we pay attention.
Sometimes, after staying in a village parlor till the family had all retired, I have returned to the woods, and, partly with a view to the next day’s dinner, spent the hours of midnight fishing from a boat by moonlight…communicating by a long flaxen line with mysterious nocturnal fishes which had their dwelling forty feet below….It was very queer, especially in dark nights, when your thoughts had wandered to vast and cosmogonal themes in other spheres, to feel this faint jerk, which came to interrupt your dreams and link you to Nature again. It seemed as if I might next cast my line upward into the air, as well as downward into this element, which was scarcely more dense. Thus I caught two fishes as it were with one hook.
Former guest of "The Buddha in the World" Pankaj Mishra argues in The New York Times that a new generation of politicized extremists will be cultivated if the Indian government doesn’t change its policy toward Kashmiri Muslims.
This week’s show is with fisher, writer, and painter James Prosek. As he says in his interview with Krista, “Creativity is my faith. That’s my way of stopping time. Making stuff with my hands, that tactile quality of even running a pencil across the paper… Making a mark on that paper is really important to me.”
Through my many years of obsession with drawing, comics and cartoons, I understand what he’s talking about. Making a mark on a page takes skill, concentration, and an observant eye. Even then, you can’t always render what you see adequately. So what to do? This hilarious post on art/design blog Aviary solves all your drawing problems.
I’ve been fuming a bit this week over the way the usual constellation of journalists, pundits, and commentators have analyzed this past Saturday’s Civil Forum on the Presidency, hosted by Rick Warren at his Saddleback Church in southern California. I watched the forum with great interest and found it a useful contribution to our evolving sense of who Barack Obama and John McCain are, what they believe in, how they explain and present themselves.
I won’t focus here on my personal impression of how the candidates performed. I will say that I found much to admire in the way the evening was laid out. Interviewing them separately and asking each of them roughly the same set of questions provided a remarkable display of how different they really are. While some of Warren’s questions were predictable, I thought that many of them were very good, and different enough from the usual network or public broadcasting fare that they elicited a few answers we hadn’t heard before.
For example, Warren asked each of them, in the context of tax reform, to “define rich.” At another point he noted that what is often called “flip flopping” may be a sign of wisdom — changing one’s mind can be a result of personal strength and growth. Such common sense questions and statements have been lamentably rare in all the debates hosted by professional journalists in this long campaign season up to now.
And yet the edition of the Sunday New York Times that landed on my doorstep the next morning did not even report on this first post-primary encounter of the two candidates on the same stage. I’ve heard and read one parody after the other online, in print, and on the air, at least in my home territory of public radio. When these news gatherers have seen fit to mention the Saddleback event, they’ve analyzed it in terms of what it says about the changing Evangelical scene. The same kinds of journalists who are happy to earnestly take the temperature of “the man on the street” have gleefully made fun of the demeanor and words of Saddleback members who attended the event Saturday night and church the next morning. It’s been a field day for pat generalizations about Evangelicals that nearly amount to caricature - sometimes verging on bigotry - that might be nixed by editors if it were about people of different ethnicity or race.
Obviously I have strong feelings about this. Did any of you watch the event? What do you think?
Although Krista will be in Mississippi, if you’re in the Twin Cities, come say howdy to Kate, Colleen, Alda, Andy, Mitch, Rob and I (and possibly Trent). Don’t worry, I asked your boss if you could take the day off and your boss said it was OK.
I’ve never been to the State Fair, being from Montreal, so I’m looking forward to the festivities. We Canadians put our cheese curds in a bowl of fries and gravy, so I’ll be curious to see what Minnesotans do with ‘em. See you there, eh!
The germ of an idea for our show on Vodou varies greatly from how our program on play originated. We receive thousands of e-mails from listeners who want to hear more on a topic they’re curious about. Many of these gentle recommendations we add to our supersecret *wink* “big list” of potential programs. Vodou was one of them.
About two years ago, Patrick Bellegarde-Smith wrote us a brief e-mail asking if we had produced shows on “African and African-derived traditional religions” and recommended several volumes that he’d edited on Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santeria, Brazilian Candomble, and Umbanda.
Our former associate producer Jessica Nordell called him asking for suggestions for people that he thought could speak about Vodou intimately. He was forthcoming and recommended many voices, including Claudine Michel. But we quickly realized that he was that voice — a Haitian aristocrat who was not only a scholar of the tradition but a practitioner who discovered Vodou in his early adulthood. We found his personal story about rediscovering his heritage and the spirit of the people of his country utterly captivating.
Once Krista interviewed him, we knew it was a show. Production of some shows are liberating when all the pieces fall into place. "Living Vodou" was one of them.
Patrick Bellegarde-Smith sent us Angels in the Mirror: Vodou Music of Haiti, which was a homerun for music elements. The compilation was appropriate, Mitch reminded me, because it piggybacked on his story about playing Haitian music on a radio station in Benin. It also captured the ears of our senior producer for its pure, percussive rhythms, whereas Haitian actress and singer Toto Bissainthe's beautiful melodies blended themes of rural life and Vodou. In the spirit of Vodou ceremonies, Mitch chose “Legba non baye-a” to usher in the program. Legba is the first lwa to be saluted at a ceremony and serves as a gatekeeper, a conduit to the spirit world.
Legba nan baye-a Legba nan baye-a Legba nan baye-a Se ou ki pote drapo Se ou k ap pare soley pou lwa-yo
Legba is at the gate Legba is at the gate Legba is at the gate It is you who carreis the flag It is you who shields the spirits from the sun
My challenge was to find a photograph that would capture the vibrant culture and complex system of beliefs that Bellegarde-Smith described — as it is lived in the United States today. A few hours later, I was left hopeless thinking that I may not get an image that would do our show justice. Maya Deren’s book and film set me on the right course.
I began searching Flickr and other sites for variant spellings of Haitian spirits and concepts — everything from Voodoo to Vodun, from Gede to Ghede, from lwa to loa, from veves to vévé. Then I discovered this image:
The photo captures so much: the poto mitan, a painting of a Catholic saint, a fashionably dressed priest shooting vaporized rum from his mouth, a small boy in a humid basement, a lady in white garb, a festive atmosphere, movement.
Here was a photographer who was personally invested in her subjects — at least my intuition said so — and not just documenting them. When I contacted Stephanie Keith for permission to use a few photographs, I asked her why she got started on this project — a Vodou priest at a Buddhist peace rally invited her to learn more about his religion at a “party.” That was enough for me. The result: "Vodou Brooklyn," a narrated slide show of her images and story mixed in with songs from Angels in the Mirror.
Several months later, Current TV contacted us after watching the video wondering if we did film projects. Unfortunately, we can’t do much right now. And, the Brooklyn Historical Society invited Stephanie to submit our documentary for the Brooklyn Arts & Film Festival. It’s exciting to see our material find paths into different communities, and we can only hope it furthers our public radio mission to “enrich the spirit and nourish the soul.”
UPDATE 8.18.08: And, as unexpected bloggers talk about this show (e.g., The Wild Hunt), perhaps we’ll be part of a larger dialogue in niche communities we weren’t involved in before.
Races: athletes in China, candidates in the U.S. My mind races ahead to the month of Ramadan, which begins in September.
Upcoming guest James Prosek — fisherman, writer, artist — insists that some species should be left nameless. Let nature be mysterious. I agree with that when it comes to my own quiet spiritual/religious practice, of which the thirty-day marathon of daily fasting is a public part.
It’s hard to wake up before sunrise, try to eat something, sneak in a few more hours of sleep, then go through the day without food, water, or a full night’s sleep. I’m already a clumsy space-case on most days; then, it only gets worse. For thirty days I strive for grace but battle irritability. I reach for understanding but collide with doubt. I pray for a compassionate heart but am too hungry to be unselfish. That’s when the meaning behind this marathon, this race, shines.
I know, too, that the Muslim world struggles the same way. I’m not talking about Asia or Africa. I’m talking about my parents in their empty nest fretting about their unmarried 31-year-old son. I’m talking about my little sister who just moved by herself to Toronto. I’m talking about the bounce of my grandmother’s laughing belly. I’m talking about family I have here and the eagerness of my cousin’s kids to earn holy Brownie points. And in this small world of mine, we are exhausted by the political talk about the larger Muslim world, salt in a wound — a wounded body that once soared like a gymnast.
Krista just last week interviewed dapper expert Vali Nasr. It’s a great interview about the political situation in the Middle East. We planned to broadcast this program in September, in the lead-up to the November election… and in the middle of Ramadan. Something about that felt off to me, like a program about the Catholic sexual abuse scandal on Christmas.
(photo: Trent Gilliss)
So I explained that to the rest of the gang, trying not to get caught up in the emotion of naming something I prefer to keep nameless. I’m a radio producer, supposedly professional, but some things hit close to home and push you away from objectivity.
All other times of the year, we have our daily toils and the evils in the news. But not in Ramadan. Ramadan is a time of self-perfection and moral beauty. Ramadan is something to protect, for all the discombobulation I feel at 4 a.m., when sleep makes sense but fasting doesn’t. And even though I don’t know how to say all this out loud, I hoped to have said enough when we huddled to discuss my concerns about the air date.
Part of me felt unreasonable trying to mess with the production schedule, but I’m grateful to the others on staff for understanding my concerns. We pushed the broadcast date of that Vali Nasr show by three weeks, to October.
And, hopefully, we’ll be able to put together a true Ramadan show next year.
This week we’ve been wrapping up production on next week’s show with Eckhart Tolle. One mark of a promising interview, for me, is when it continues to resonate in my head and my life in the following days. And the conversation I had with Tolle worked its way powerfully into my experience of moving these past few weeks — specifically one thing he said almost as an aside.
He was elaborating on his theory of the importance of the present moment — of being fully aware, alert, attentive to it, engaged in it. He noted that stress is a symptom of not wanting to be in the moment we’re in. On the heels of hearing him say that I realized that I was treating most of the events on my moving “checklist” as tasks to be endured. I was looking at an entire week of my life — the packing, the organizing, the moving out, the moving in — as a period I just had to soldier through to get to the other side. And I became aware that approaching it that way — in effect steeling myself not to be present — did raise a wall of stress in me, a palpable physical and emotional sensation.
But here was the surprise: I could immediately disarm that by leaning into the moment. I still had to pack that box, and it was not the most exciting task of my life, and it was tiring at times, but it was not stressful. As I kept pulling myself back to this discipline time and again across the week, I even experienced little unexpected epiphanies and joys I would utterly have missed in my practiced “just get it done” mode.
To be honest, I went into my interview with Eckhart Tolle somewhat skeptical. I’m always wary of hype, or what looks like hype, especially when it comes to religious/spiritual figures. Often that’s valid. But I’ve also learned that sometimes the people who are getting all the attention are getting it for a good reason. More from me and others on the show we’re calling "The Power of Eckhart Tolle’s Now" in the days to come…
Somehow Lauren Collins’ piece in The New Yorker is magically able to connect an unlikely list of characters — a gangbanger, a former president of the United States, producers from teen drama, a Native American peacemaker from colonial days, and a boxing promoter — with Rick Warren and the publicity he’s generated for the upcoming election event at Saddleback Church.
The author’s characterization of the ad promoting the event may be a tad overstated though — everything from the typefaces to the colors and the backdrop:
Dominating the church’s Web site is a pop-up ad in the style of an old-timey woodcut poster, the type you might see announcing a Willie Nelson stand at the Ryman. McCain and Obama face off in three-quarter profile, as if tuning up for a battle of the bands.
Quoting Eckhart Tolle Kate Moos, Managing Producer
This morning we’ll do the “final” listen to our program with Eckhart Tolle, which goes out to stations around the country and live on our web site next week on August 14th. It’s not final really, but it’s the last listen to the program in draft form, and it’s where a lot of fine tuning and fussy tweaking occurs.
At this stage in the process, we’ve been neck deep in the work for a little while, and we begin to use a sort of lingua franca based on the material — words and phrases from the guest or their writing populate our speech, to serious and comic effect.
With the Niebuhr show, one of our favorites was, “I am my own most vexing problem,” intoned with overdone gravitas. It’s a twist on Niebuhr’s famous dictum: “Man is his own most vexing problem.”
This week, we are making casual diagnoses of our pain bodies, and sharing earnest stories about how focusing on the now in normally stressful situations really works!
Leonard Cohen in a 19th Century Vernacular Alda Balthrop-Lewis, Production Intern
Last week I took a microphone to a “singing” that happens regularly at the University Baptist Church in Minneapolis, where a group gathers to sing four-part a cappella spirituals from a book called The Sacred Harp. We’ve had several listeners over the past few months write in to suggest producing a show about this folk singing tradition (and we have been looking for a music show). Developed in the southern United States in the late 19th century, it’s called Sacred Harp singing, after the title of its song book, and there are now groups all over the country who meet weekly to sit in a square and sing together.
The sound clip here is of the University of Minnesota Student Singing last week. Each singing begins with an hour of song, followed by brief announcements and a short break, then another hour of song. Any of the participants can propose a song, stand in the middle of the hollow square (the name for the square sitting formation), and direct the rhythm. There is no official leader. The first thing you’ll hear on this recording is preparation for the song: a woman announces the number, 455. You can hear silence as people find the page. A bus goes by outside. Then they begin to tune, deciding where the pitch of the song should be. They raise the pitch. They sing the first chord together, then the whole song once through on the syllables fa, sol, la, mi. Then, finally, they sing the song once through on the words, “I want a sober mind, an all sustaining eye.” After the song is over the next song is proposed, and they begin again (though, as you’ll hear, there is no rule against a joke in between).
I am fascinated by this tradition, in part because of its unusual musical notation, which you can see in the image above. More deeply moving, however, is the enthusiasm these songs inspire in the singers and the communities that grow up around the songs. Small groups are proliferating all over the country. The Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association lists singings in 35 states. From Hoboken, Georgia, where there is a group of singers (mostly family, mostly Baptist) who have been singing together for so long that they don’t know how long, to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where the singing takes place above a bar, people in many parts of the United States are finding connections across the hollow square.
I am moved by the joy and kindness these people demonstrate to each other, and I am excited about one woman’s project to arrange Leonard Cohen for her Sacred Harp group. Maybe there, some day, we’ll find our music show.
Ashamedly, I’ve begun to tune out news coverage of the Iraq War and the politics of the region. So many statistics are flashed on the screen every day that they become faceless data to me. Then, along comes a promotional e-mail from HBO for a documentary called Baghdad High, and I have to challenge my complacency and comfortability.
In the film, four Iraqi teenagers filmed and told their stories as they carry on in their daily lives — attending class, lip-syncing to Britney Spears, trying to make sense of the violence, and so on. In this short interview with Ivan O’Mahoney and Laura Winter, the producers, they bring back the humanity of living in a war zone.
What got me was a story O’Mahoney tells about an exchange between Ali, one of the boys in the film, and a newly enlisted soldier during a Q&A session at the Tribeca Film Festival:
"All the questions were more about whether Ali had a girlfriend rather than what his life was like. And then all of a sudden it got really serious. There were two big lines behind the microphone and one of the kids got up and said he had just signed up for the Marine Corps, and he would probably be in Iraq within three or four months. And he said, ‘I finally know what life is like behind those walls and what you guys are like, and it’s been really, really fantastic.’ And at that moment I could see Ali beam with of pride, thinking, ‘Well, at least I’ve been able to make the difference for one person.’"
Just as we need to understand the plight of the people living there, we also need to prepare the young soldiers who are about to embark on missions that will change their lives, and that we, as a society, will need to deal with upon their return. I look forward to watching this film and paying attention again.
“And now, speaking of physical necessity, I’m off to IKEA in my online editor Trent’s pickup truck known affectionately (despite its carbon footprint) as ‘Black Thunder.’”—Krista Tippett, from her journal on “The Business of Doing Good” with Jonathan Greenblatt
“The good news is that creative capitalism is already with us. Some corporations have identified brand-new markets among the poor for life-changing technologies like cell phones. Others — sometimes with a nudge from activists — have seen how they can do good and do well at the same time.”—