This week’s program is another one that draws on my past and tugs fiercely at my heart. I write about my formative, wonderful, heartbreaking experience as a chaplain to Alzheimer’s patients in my online journal this week. When I wrote my book a couple of years ago, I had to recognize the men and women I came to love who had Alzheimer’s as being among my greatest teachers. And I found in Alan Dienstag the wise teacher and conversation partner about this experience that I’d been waiting for, without knowing it, all these years. He wrote to me afterwards that the conversation was very nourishing for him, almost therapeutic, and it felt that way for me too.
Like the best of conversations that delve deeply into particular human experiences and passions, as Trent noted after he heard the interview, it speaks beyond those particulars to the wider human condition. This is a mystery, and part of the reason I keep doing this work.
I’d also like to do a kind of shout out and thanks here to the Masonic Home and Hospital in Wallingford, Connecticut, where I spent several hours each week over 18 months that are now woven into the fabric of a radio program. Recently out of the blue I received an e-mail — through our show inbox — from Ray Cooley, who was the chaplain there and my mentor and supervisor through that experience. It meant so much to me to hear from him and to know that he’s listening!
In looking for potential music for this program with Mercedes Doretti, we came across a rich collection of artists in both Argentina and Chile who’ve documented, in song, the dark times of Argentina’s “dirty war” and General Pinochet’s regime in Chile.
Some of the artists were exiled, as was the case for Mercedes Sosa, whose song, “Sera Posible el Sur?,” became an anthem for the people of Argentina. This song refers to the state-sponsored terrorism used in Argentina to “disappear” thousands of people and dismiss the mothers looking for their children as crazy. Here is a rough translation of the first stanza:
Will the South be possible? will it be possible with so many stray bullets to the heart of the village, and so many mothers are deemed crazy and all of the memory in a prison
"Sera Posible el Sur?" by Mercedes Sosa
Mercedes Sosa’s lullaby, “Pequena,” was used in the program and can be found on the SOF Playlist.
Victor Jara was an outspoken supporter of Salvador Allende’s populist politics and helped to get him elected president in 1970. Upon the coup of 1973 and General Augusto Pinochet’s grasp of power, Victor Jara was arrested, brought to the national stadium with thousands of others, and over three days was electrocuted, his hands broken, and finally shot to death on September 15, 1973. According to his wife, with broken hands he wrote his last poem on scraps of paper that were smuggled out of the stadium by survivors. The final words of which include:
"Silence and screams are the end of my song."
Although the Pinochet regime managed to destroy many of the master recordings of Jara’s works, here is a YouTube video of Jara performing, “El Derecho de Vivir en Paz (The Right to Live in Peace)”:
Sullivan’s outlook for religious America isn’t particularly optimistic, and he laments what he considers a shortage of intelligent religious voices in the U.S.:
The days when America’s leading intellectuals contained a strong cadre of serious Christians are over. There is no Thomas Merton in our day; no Reinhold Niebuhr, Walker Percy or Flannery O’Connor. In the arguments spawned by the new atheist wave, the Christian respondents have been underwhelming.
In the past we’ve considered Sullivan as a potential guest for Speaking of Faith, perhaps in response to California’s Proposition 8 ruling on gay marriage; he’s a Roman Catholic and openly gay, giving him a unique perspective on the subject.
For next week’s program — tentatively titled “Laying the Dead to Rest: Meeting Forensic Anthropologist Mercedes Doretti” — we are weaving in the poetry of one of the people who disappeared during Argentina’s Dirty War, Alicia Partnoy. What’s even better, she graciously accepted our invitation to read four of her poems, in English and in Spanish.
Here is the first set of poems I could bounce and encode for you to hear before we air the program. I’ll be putting up the other ones in the coming days. Please note that what you’ll hear above will be markedly different from the versions included in the program. These are the poems as she recorded them — a straightforward, passionate reading.
But, when we produce them for the program, we take a different approach. We want to immerse you in the moment, give you space to reflect and breathe in the words of the poem as well as the import of Doretti’s experiences. Mitch might give an extra second at the end of a line of verse, volume graph certain words or lines, or bed the poems with music.
If you’d like, I’d be glad to post those more highly produced versions in addition to the ones I’m posting today and through the weekend. Let me know what you think. Personally, I still marvel at the difference — for the better or the worse sometimes. I can’t wait to hear them in the context of the final show.
In the meantime, I hope you’re as moved as I am by these lovely points of light and darkness.
Repossessing Virtue: Marie Howe on Greater Simplicity and Laura Ingalls Wilder » download (mp3, 15:53) Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
I met the poet Marie Howe once. Sitting in LaGuardia Airport with Kate, she and her beautiful daughter streamed right on by when Kate grabbed her to say hello. You know how it is when the person you’re traveling with meets an old acquaintance and starts catching up. You say hello and then politely stand off to the side or sit in the margins as they catch up and talk about old times.
But, this experience was delightfully different. She was instantly familiar, intimate without being awkward. She engaged me. She was funny, her frankness refreshing in its honesty without being harsh or offensive. She was real.
So, hearing her talk about taking walks with her daughter in her NYC neighborhood to experience reality rather than watching television as an act of simplicity mirrored the woman I spoke with in the airport. But, when Kate asks her about who’s she reading or looking to for wisdom, I expected to hear the names of esoteric poets or sophisticated literary writers — not Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Long Winter. I took comfort in just hearing her talk about that.
An anecdote: I made an editorial decision to include Marie Howe’s closing statements about the value of public radio. I had a similar deliberation about Jessica Sundheim’s good words for our Repossessing Virtue series. Here’s why. We ask people who they are turning to for wisdom and comfort during these economic times; one of those sources is public radio and, hopefully, Speaking of Faith. If they were grauitous, I would have omitted them; if I would have deleted their statements, I would have cheated them of telling their story for the sake of being humble. I’ll let you decide, and please let me know if you think I made the right or wrong decision.
Repossessing Virtue: Anita Barrows on Finding the Sacred in the Ordinary » download (mp3, 15:17) Larissa Anderson, Poetry Producer
There are many Speaking of Faith programs where I can remember exactly what I was doing when I heard the show, when I heard something resonate like a ringing tuning fork right up on my bones. "The Soul in Depression" is one of those shows, and we recently rebroadcast it. I particularly love the poetry in the program — like the Rilke poem that starts, “I love the dark hours of my being. / My mind deepens into them.”
Anita Barrows translated that poem. She’s a poet herself, and she’s got a new book of poetry out titled, Kindred Flame. I talked with her recently for our Repossessing Virtue series. During our conversation, she said we’re called now to examine how we take care of each other. And, she mentioned a Rilke poem she’s translating with her friend and colleague Joanna Macy that gives her perspective and strength.
I was also interested to hear her say Pablo Neruda is a good poet to turn to in these economic times. She brought up poems like “Ode to My Socks” and “Ode to Tomatoes.” "Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market" is another one. Barrows said Neruda helps her remember it’s in the ordinary things that we find the sacred.
Repossessing Virtue: Elliot Dorff on Seeing Duty as a Responsibility » download (mp3, 15:19) Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Elliot Dorff, a Conservative Jewish rabbi, first appeared on SOF as part of "Marriage, Family, and Divorce." Now a somewhat old program. It was before my time, an era when Krista and Mitch and Kate would pop in at conferences and interview interesting voices in a hotel room with mattresses and drapes serving as sound baffles. (Well, I guess we still do that once in a while, even today!)
Dorff, a Conservative Jewish rabbi, looks to the Torah and ancient rabbinic wisdom as a model for acting in the world during these difficult financial times. He has a special way of explaining things plainly. At the beginning of the interview, he opens with an idea that, although not particularly novel, but becomes more poignant in light of current events and crises: our collective focus on money and material wealth is a form of idolatry. When the Torah forbids people from worshipping “false idols,” the sacred text doesn’t just intend for it to apply to statuettes or icons or paintings. For Dorff, that means any being or object or idea that takes one’s focus away from God.
He sees the current economic and cultural crisis as more than just a spiritual dilemma — it’s a point of pragmatism that pulls together community for those in need. The Torah requires him to help the poor and the needy. And serving those in need means more than charity. Helping others means preserving their human dignity and we, he reminds us, should not look on this service to others as a duty but as a responsibility.
One of the best ways to help is to give that person a job or invest with that person. It’s a matter of dignity by empowering people in need to foster long-term sufficiency. He tells a story where he and other faculty members put this idea into practice by taking a salary cut so that fellow colleagues’ positions would be preserved.
Dorff’s perspective and grounded wisdom reminds me that the psyche of my fellow man is as important as is his basic need for food and shelter. Being able to hold one’s head up brings alleviates the burden of survival. We don’t want to simply exist, we crave respect and creation and ambition, in the best sense of the word.
Repossessing Virtue: Anchee Min on Repairing the American Individual » download (mp3, 16:47) Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer
The novelist and memoirist Anchee Min grew up in Mao’s China, during the Cultural Revolution. In our program "Surviving the Religion of Mao," she described that period, beginning in 1966, when Chinese people were forced into peasant labor camps and told to sacrifice everything they loved for the greater good of the country.
I was taught to write, “I love you, Chairman Mao” before I was taught to write my own name. I never thought I belonged to myself. It was never “I love you, Papa” not “I love you, Mama.” It’s always “I love you, Communist Party of China,” “I love you, Chairman Mao.”
We were taught if you can sacrifice your loved ones, if you can denounce your parents, if you can denounce your favorite teacher, you are capable of greater love for the humanity.
Anchee Min managed to come to the United States in the 1980s, taught herself English, and became a bestselling author in part by writing about the horrors of her childhood. So I was particularly interested in her thoughts about our current economic downturn. Having grown up in a culture of total sacrifice, and then come to a country that so celebrates the pursuit of happiness, what perspective does she bring to this crisis? She has some hard and challenging answers.