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.
Last month, on a sub-zero Minnesota winter night, I drove to Minneapolis to record a live event in celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s birthday. My spirit was a bit depleted with the raw, dry cold and a feeling of looming uncertainty about the future. I convinced myself that getting out and being around people (not to mention making a little extra cash) would do me some good.
I wasn’t wrong. That evening, the Minneapolis-based musical troupe Sounds of Blackness was booked to perform. I hadn’t ever heard them before, and boy was I in for a treat. I sat at the back of The Basilica of Saint Mary with my headphones on and let their sweet gospel melodies pour into my ears. One song in particular shook me out of my worried, wired monkey brain. I think the song is called "Everything Will Be Alright." What you’re listening to here is a really great recording of that live performance.
Bad development work is based on the idea that poor people have nothing. Something is better than nothing, right? So anything you give these poor people will be better than what they had before. Even if it’s your old clothes, technology they can’t use, or a school building with no teacher.
But poor people don’t have nothing. They have families, friends – social ties. They have responsibilities. They have possessions, however meager. They have lives, no matter what those lives look like to Westerners.
And Glenna at the Scarlett Lion puts a finer point on this as she observes Liberian girls in Monrovia passing over Nancy Drew books donated by Americans. Of course I immediately hear Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina telling Krista that foreigners should just “leave us alone.”
But, perhaps more importantly, I need to remember to apply these lessons closer to home as we encounter more suffering and job losses and homelessness during these tumultuous economic times. When I start to pity the bearded man who sits on a 5-gallon bucket at the off-ramp of Penn Ave and I-394 in sub-zero temperatures, I need to remember he has a life. To pity him is to judge him. That’s not helping him; it’s not helping me; it’s not helping teach my boys in the back seat each day we encounter him.
Repossessing Virtue: Majora Carter on Being More Deliberately Joyful » download (mp3, 8:46) Nancy Rosenbaum, Associate Producer
A few weeks ago, I sat in while Kate interviewed urban strategist Majora Carter. Three of us crowded into a tiny editing booth. There weren’t enough headphones to go around so I could only pick up Kate’s side of the conversation as the interview unfolded.
Even though I couldn’t hear her, I remember the moment when Majora Carter told Kate about being inspired by the quote: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” Kate smiled and nodded her head and Shiraz, who was engineering the interview that day, also seemed visibly stirred by Carter’s words.
Carter goes on to share how she’s actively trying to be more joyful and appreciative in her every day life. During this time when so many of us are consumed by fear and uncertainty, she says it helps to be reminded that we’ve all got something to offer. Knowing this — and digesting it truly and deeply in our guts — can transform a perceived sense of scarcity into a trusty foundation of personal power.
I’ll admit that while my brain agrees with Majora Carter my nervous system does not. I’m seeing so many layoffs around me and a middle-grade anxiety seems to be wafting through the ventilation system. Recently I woke up from a fitful sleep and noticed myself tense and ill at ease. I wonder how I could flip the script on this creeping malaise. What are you doing to stay grounded and positive during these difficult days? Do you agree that a crisis is really an opportunity in disguise?
"But what’s really exciting for me today is that we truly have lived to see a time where America has a chance to again live up to the greatness that it deserves to be seen and known as, through the love and the caring and the commitment of a president, as in our president, Barack Obama.
It’s exciting ‘cause I know my children will be able to say, ‘I was born when there was the first African American president. Yeah, I can do that too!’ But not only can they do that, but all children of all various ethnicities understand that they can speak in truth. They can talk about loving and caring about this country. They can talk about being a united people of the United States of America. They can live that dream that Dr. King talked about so long ago.
And if those in this country and throughout the world — you can put down your spirits of hate and open up your hearts to receive God’s ever commitment of love, then we can be a united people of the world. If we can think that big, and feel that strong, then I believe, as is said to me by my God, impossible is unacceptable. We don’t know the miracles that will be bestown on us because of that.”
We’re putting our show about depression on the air again this week. It’s been over two years since it has been broadcast, and, as always with rebroadcasts, we went in and refined and hopefully made it better. But this is essentially the show we created six years ago, which people discover all the time online.
Some have told us it has helped keep them alive. This kind of effect of our work is humbling and amazing beyond words. But in every way this show is unusual. It is more personally revealing for me than anything else we’ve done. I feel vulnerable knowing it will be out there in the ether again in coming days.
In my journal this week, as in the program script, I “disclose” that when we first created this program I took the making of it as an occasion to walk with some trepidation back through the spiritual territory of despair. I have a bit of the same sense now, airing it again, because that dark place seems a bit closer to me this February than I’m happy to admit. It’s a long, cold, depressing month in a frankly depressing moment in time, and I’m very tired.
As I prepared for those interviews years ago, and conducted them, I worried that peering down into that abyss again — even in memory, or vicariously through conversation with others — might send me into it. It did not. It was a clarifying, strengthening experience; one that made me grateful to be at a remove where I could in fact learn from depression rather than be enveloped by it. But I will stress here — as much for myself as for anyone reading — that we are not in a place to find spiritual enlightenment when we are in the throes of this illness.
Just in recent weeks, I had a new conversation with Parker Palmer, in which we both found wisdom on economic depression in some of the ways he had talked to me about clinical depression all those years ago. But hearing this show again right now, I’m personally most held and strangely comforted by Andrew Solomon and especially Anita Barrows’ insistence that emerging from depression — “healing” if you will — doesn’t mean leaving darkness behind. It means being aware and whole enough to accept dark months and dark times as expressions of human vitality.
Those of us who have struggled with depression live imprinted with its reality — and the terrifying possibility of its recurrence — ever after. It is a gift, albeit an uncomfortable one, to live on this side of health where I can accept darkness as a companion, not a teacher when it is as close as this, yet an essential thread of the life that is mine.
We’ve been talking a lot more about poetry here lately, thanks to the recently increased involvement of Larissa, APM’s Poetry Producer. I have to say, I can’t complain about the fact that I now have poetry arriving in my inbox on a fairly regular basis.
Thinking more about poetry has reminded me of a message we received from a listener when we rebroadcasted “A History of Doubt" in January. In the message she mentioned, "As a poet, I’ve long embraced doubt, which Keats conceptualized and praised as Negative Capability."
[…] several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.
In other words, negative capability is an ability to thrive alongside the uncertain and unresolved aspects of life, a trait that Keats believed poets express especially well. It seems that this capacity could be incredibly useful now, when we are living with a new-found abundance of day-to-day uncertainties.
For this reason, I’m glad we’re making an effort to include voices like poet Katie Ford in our Repossessing Virtue series. As we continue to interview wise voices on the current economic situation (many of which you’ll hear in next week’s program), we’re hoping to hear more from our listeners for a show in May: How are you dealing with uncertainty in your life, and how are you cultivating your own negative capability? Tell us your stories here.
Krista and the staff regularly find compelling insights in the online journal Sightings out of the University of Chicago Divinity School. The most recent essay by Martin Marty is particularly brilliant and deeply resonates with our Repossessing Virtue series on the moral and spiritual aspects of the economic downturn.
The Pope (John Paul II) was right. The World Council of Churches was right. The preacher down the block was right. The “moderate evangelicals” were right. The first had a perfect record against collectivization; the second had a mixed record, but was positive on this; the third reached a hundred or half a thousand per week preaching “You cannot serve God and Mammon;” the fourth were buffeted in response by evangelical kin who preached “the prosperity gospel” or the “gospel that God blessed only ‘free enterprise.’” In their own ways their criticisms and warnings were directed against “commodification”, whether of labor, leisure, or life. They were not whiners or grumps or exempt from the need for self-criticism, but they were serious, and therefore usually unheard and unheeded.
They do not lack platforms or pulpits today. We see illustrations and confirmations of the problems that occurred when devotion to commodities ruled and commodification set the terms for most of life. Colleague Jean Bethke Elshtain, in my aged and crumbling printout from the 2002 edition of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, celebrated the late Pope’s Laborum Exercens, his “social encyclical” which “shares the basic assumption of Catholic social thought that God created human beings as brothers and sisters, not as enemies…” John Paul II demonstrated his difference from Hobbes and Machiavelli and Marx who “assume worlds of enmity, treachery, manipulation, and conflict.” With the mortal struggle against Communism behind him, he took on orders called “Capitalist” and its cognates, and warned against the trend to measure everything as commodity, as hyper-ability to amass and worship wealth, et cetera.
Today Sightings has bulging files which document where “enmity, treachery, manipulation, and conflict” were consuming us. Documents now come not just from papal and conciliar warnings but in news reporting in The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and your daily paper—if yours has survived. My breakfast encyclical on February 21st included a story by Tom Hundley in the Chicago Tribune. His account shows how pride, not long ago, focused on what luxuries one could buy and own. He quotes one Cecelia Dames, “an expat Midwesterner” who came back from Europe to a changed world. She observes: “Conspicuous consumption is out…Conspicuous frugality is in.” Hundley reports on “the new braggers” who boast of their success in getting bargains at thrift shops, and are now scaling down the goodies they offer friends at parties.
Hundley offers new terms—new to me, at least—such as “frugalista” and “luxury shame” (“a sense that even if you can still afford it, it’s best not to make a show of it”). Dames: “Maybe [those who adjust, and brag] seem ostentatious about [frugality] because they have to embrace it.” Paul Harris in Britain’s Guardian: “For three decades, American culture has celebrated the glories of unabashed capitalism and the ideals of the rich. No longer. Frugalism is taking hold.” What remains to be seen is whether the collapse of everything—of global markets, shopaholicism, et cetera—are replaced by culture-wide adjustments to a changed world, to fresh thought that can inspire more than bragging.
In a recent post including my conversation with poet Katie Ford for our Repossessing Virtue series, Ford talked about how in these hard economic times she finds comfort in literature, and more specifically, in the poetry of James Wright. During our talk, she mentioned a poem he had written, and the title was so compelling, I just had to dig around to find it.
"In Terror of Hospital Bills"
I still have some money To eat with, alone And frightened, knowing how soon I will waken a poor man. It snows freely and freely hardens On the lawns of my hope, my secret Hounded and flayed. I wonder What words to beg money with. Pardon me, sir, could you? Which way is St. Paul? I thirst. I am a full-blooded Sioux Indian. Soon I am sure to become so hungry I will have to leap barefoot through gas-fire veils of shame, I will have to stalk timid strangers On the whorsehouse corners. Oh moon, sow leaves on my hands, On my seared face, oh I love you. My throat is open, insane, Tempting pneumonia. But my life was never so precious To me as now. I will have to beg coins After dark. I will learn to scent the police, And sit or go blind, stay mute, be taken for dead For your sake, oh my secret, My life.
Copyright 1971 by James Wright. Reprinted from “Collected Poems” with permission from Wesleyan University Press.
I’m struck by the lines, “It snows freely and freely hardens / On the lawns of my hope,” and how the speaker wonders “what words to beg money with” when hospital bills finally bring him to poverty. Yet later, the speaker says “But my life was never so precious / To me as now.”
It’s a sentiment I feel I’m hearing often in these Repossessing Virtue conversations and in listener comments — that despite the fear and anxiety of this time, this economic collapse has offered us an opportunity to reexamine and refocus our energy on what we really value.
We’d love to hear what you think of this poem, or what other poems and/or poets are you turning to lately. One listener said he’s been reading a lot of Mary Oliver and John O’Donohue this past year. What other poets are offering you comfort or insight during these economic times?
Laura Rozen reports that during a conference call George Mitchell, the newly appointed U.S. envoy to the Middle East, told Jewish community leaders:
Mitchell said that on the plane back from his recent trip to the Middle East, he had re-read his eight-year-old report on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and was struck by how much the situation had changed. Among the changes he noted, Mitchell said that eight years ago, no one talked about Iran. But this time, everyone mentioned it, both Israeli and Arab leaders.
Repossessing Virtue: Katie Ford on Poetry, Katrina, and Wasting One’s Life » download (mp3, 17:21) Larissa Anderson, Poetry Producer
I used to teach The Grapes of Wrath, and I remember it was such a strain on my students’ imaginations. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Joad family these past few months, with the staggering the numbers of people losing jobs, and collecting unemployment, and I wonder how the Joads’ experience can offer some insight into the current economic crisis.
Honestly, it feels like a strain on my imagination to think about how the Joads endured. They lived on lard, flour, and potatoes. (The potatoes I can figure out, but I don’t even know what I would do with lard and flour.) They lost everything except what they could pack in their truck, along with over a dozen people — some too old to live through that kind of journey — and drove, slowly, across the country to find a job, to survive.
In our conversation, Katie Ford talked about turning to literature to find wisdom and comfort during times like this. She looks to James Wright, a poet who grew up during the Depression in a working-class family and knew what it meant to struggle through economic turmoil. She mentioned one of his poems, “In Terror of Hospital Bills,” and talked at length about some of his most well-known poems like "A Blessing" and "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota."
We thought this might be an ideal time to ask you about poetry and its role in your life. What poems and/or poets are you turning to in this economic environment? What insight are they offering you? Share your story in the comments section below or, if you prefer, write us here.
[Editor’s note: I was combing through a test blog for SOF that never made it into production. One of the entries I posted I regretted not publishing. The piece is timeless, so I thought I’d re-post for you design lovers.]
The design house of mike and maaike developed a wonderfully elegant and simple bookshelf for a curated series of bookshelves. Its title: “religion.” Niches for seven influential religious texts are carved out of a three-foot-long piece of hardwood and reverently cozied up to one another. Included are the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, the Qur’an, Confucius’ The Analects, the Tao Te Ching (translated by Stephen Mitchell), The Discourses of the Buddha, and the Torah.
You can get one of these lovely pieces, but it’ll cost you. The price: $2500.
Repossessing Virtue: Sharon Salzberg on the Humiliation of Suffering » download(mp3, 9:17) Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
I saw Kate immediately after she interviewed Sharon Salzberg for our series on the economic downturn. Kate was awestruck by her simple profundity. And, after I listened, I understood why.
The Buddhist teacher sees the plight of suffering in the U.S. as a source of shame for most people, a kind of humiliation. We are ashamed of losing control. We fear uncertainty.
This burden denies us the right of being human. We’re vulnerable and so we isolate ourselves. So, instead of reaching out to others and finding comfort and strength in our families and communities, we hide. This point gave me pause and, I hesitate to write this, an unsettled feeling — of shame and embarrassment.
In 2002, I was laid off — honestly, I still think of it as being fired — while my wife and I were living in Oxford. The dot-com company I was working for was hemorrhaging money. My boss back in the States called the head of the London office. She ushered me in to her office; over the phone, he said the company needed to cut salaries and positions and had to “let me go”; I was then told to pack up my items and be escorted out of the office immediately while the office manager observed me.
Talk about humiliation. It’s difficult enough being axed. Being the only American in the London office, being chaperoned and escorted out of the building because of standard HR policy (I still cringe at the thought of this type of inhuman treatment.), being left with a mortgage on a home thousands of miles away while your wife’s a graduate student in a foreign country — and then having to tell her about it, well, it is completely humiliating. I rode the Tube for a good part of the day avoiding the inevitable. Classic stuff I’m sure.
Of course I eventually told my wife that day. She was everything I knew she would be. But the pain didn’t lessen; it staked a larger claim. Her magnanimity and compassion were so pure that I couldn’t return the gesture in any form. I couldn’t, and she didn’t expect me to utter transcendent ideas or practice life-coaching skills, to be zen and thoughtful.
My shame increased. I avoided telling our friends taking care of our house for days, my family and other friends for weeks and months. And then feelings of inadequacy and fear and anxiety increased with each day I couldn’t find a new job. My community was completely supportive; it wasn’t enough.
I know no way around it. I know Sharon Salzberg’s suggestions of conscientious breathing and meditation are wise and helpful. That reaching out to ones close to you is the social safety net we all need. But, despite all that, I do wonder what happens once that practice ceases to embrace the reality of the situation. I’m merely a man, an ambitious American who was canned and feared he couldn’t make his mortgage.
So, where did I find community and ultimately respite? In music. I don’t recall the songs that I repeatedly listened to then, but, surprisingly, the music I’m listening to now transported me back in ways I couldn’t have predicted when I started writing. I’m posting them here because listening to them may be as telling as the paragraphs above. And, check out some of the haunting titles. Strange coincidences persist.
"Roshi’s Very Tired" by Philip Glass from The Book of Longing
“It wasn’t about doing the right thing. It’s just me as an athlete — I feel like we all compete and train for four years to get to the Olympic Games. We got there, he was told he finished second after all that, he took a victory lap. I can understand his humiliation and embarrassment and all that. Me being an athlete, I know how he feels, so I feel like it was to me to give it up to him.”—
—Olympian Shawn Crawford
In a display of sportsmanship, the U.S. sprinter gave his Olympic silver medal to Churandy Martina, who finished ahead of Crawford in the 200-meter event but was disqualified for running outside of his lane.
"Listen, punk. Hysteria is the best rock album ever made, and don’t you forget it!” —Mary Doria Russell » download (mp3, 13:13) Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer
A couple of weeks ago when we were taping Krista’s interview with novelist and retired paleoanthropologist Mary Doria Russell, the conversation briefly touched on some of her musical tastes. Intrigued by what I had heard, I did some further research and learned that, growing up, Mary Doria Russell was the kind of kid who “liked the Stones better than the Beatles, Beethoven better than Mozart, and orchestral music better than string quartets.” These days, she says, her “calm, well-ordered and intensely bourgeois life” apparently continues to seek refuge in large-scale, emotionally-charged, musical productions.
As someone who was coming of age in the 80’s, I was surprised to learn that Ms. Russell, who is approaching 60, is quite a fan of what she calls the “big hair” bands of those days, and even claims to have “worn the oxide” off her cassette copy of Def Leppard’s 1986 release, Hysteria. On one of the e-mail exchanges I had with her she said, “Listen, punk. Hysteria is the best rock album ever made, and don’t you forget it!”
So, I decided to give her a call, hoping that we might get a little deeper insight into the musical affections of a “well-ordered” novelist — affections that include Beethoven, Chopin, and Puccini but also Van Halen and, of course, Def Leppard.
In all seriousness, Mary Doria Russell has been very open and on record about her tastes in music. I appreciate her being such a good sport about it in this conversation.
Ad Astra Per Aspera » download (mp3, 2:12) Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
Last week Shiraz shared a section from Krista’s energetic conversation with Mary Doria Russell discussing the meaning and influence of music in Russell’s writing. He also wrote about the Golden Record, a phonograph record that was included on the two Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977, with the hope of making contact with another alien species. Mitch, our senior producer, collected a few audio samples from the Golden Record and put together a beautiful sound collage that was included in the program, and which you can listen to above.
Carl Sagan, the director of the Golden Record project, said that “the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.” His statement hints at an understanding of this endeavor that’s not only useful for extraterrestrial species, but also as an opportunity for introspection. The contents of the Golden Record serve as a time capsule, allowing us to examine which aspects of its content still seem universally human, and which may already seem outdated or consequential.
I can’t help but wonder how this message might have changed now — and how both its form and content might be different. What new art forms might it include now? What images, or perhaps videos? Would it be a Golden DVD, a Golden Hard Drive? Let’s hear your thoughts on what might belong in a “message in a bottle” from Earth, circa 2009.
Ad Astra Per Aspera is a Latin phrase recorded in morse code on the Golden Record. It translates as “through hardships to the stars.”
A nice piece in the New York Times on the perils of reporting on the Israel/Palestine issue. Here at SoF, we’re trying to find some way of addressing the recent conflict, and exploring a few tentative ideas.
I realize I’m not saying anything here. As much as I can personally hope for peaceful resolution of the situation, I’m afraid of that can of worms, of talking about it. War reporting oftens places the media in the role of moral arbiter, but trying to assign moral legitimacy in this conflict is going to take another 5,000 years to sort out. So we have to find some different approach to this. It’s a tough one, maybe the most contentious issue out there. From Ethan Bronner’s piece in the Times:
It turns out that both narration and mediation require common ground. But trying to tell the story so that both sides can hear it in the same way feels more and more to me like a Greek tragedy in which I play the despised chorus. It feels like I am only fanning the flames, adding to the misunderstandings and mutual antagonism with every word I write because the fervent inner voice of each side is so loud that it drowns everything else out.
Repossessing Virtue: Greg Epstein on Human Solutions and Not Divine Ones » download(mp3, 11:47) Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer
We last spoke to Greg Epstein in the wake of a Pew poll on the American religious landscape, finding that 16 percent of Americans identified themselves as unaffiliated, atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. Greg Epstein is the humanist chaplain at Harvard University, and he has been an emerging leader in trying to unify that growing population of the non-religious — to create a community driven not by a stance against religion, but by positive ethical beliefs and actions.
So as we turned to Greg Epstein again, we wanted to know how he’s seen his community experiencing the current economic crisis. Epstein once defined humanism as “philosophy of life without supernaturalism that affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment aspiring to the greater good of humanity.” It turns out that the current economic crisis has refocused his community’s vision of what that “greater good” should look like.
Our guest from this week’s The Buddha in the World program, Pankaj Mishra, wrote an interesting piece in the New York Times about the literary scene in China, specifically focusing on the work of Yu Hua and his novel Brothers. Not specifically related to what he was talking about in the program, but worth a read nonetheless. His skeptical take on the Asian dance with Western modernity continues.
When I first met Yu one evening in Shanghai in 2006, he confidently described to me his vision of “Brothers” as a social and moral critique of China’s evolution. Yet he was suffering from a version of postpublication angst common among authors — the cankerous feeling that his work, and its vision of China lurching between political authoritarianism, extreme poverty, consumerist excess and moral depravity, was not being taken seriously enough. High sales and popular acclaim had not taken the sting out of the venomous reviews. But almost three years of a sustained critical assault on “Brothers” seems to have hardened Yu. He now sees the attacks in sociological rather than literary terms, as exposing a fault line between generations, and his detractors as typical of China’s new nationalists — people too young to have any memory of their country’s previous traumas but obsessed with boosting China’s image as a rising power vis-à-vis the West.
Repossessing Virtue: Ayman Amer on No-Interest Banking and a “House of Finance” » download (mp3, 20:24) Amara Hark-Weber, Production Intern
Throughout recent discussions of our current financial crisis, I have been struck at how few leaders are willing to imagine changes or alternatives to the system that has faltered. In this conversation, Mount Mercy economics professor Ayman Amer delves directly into this topic, outlining financial alternatives as they are practiced in the Islamic world. He ruminates on the shared responsibilities of government, lending bodies, communities and individuals discussing how they can they work together for mutual success. Amer uses the Islamic financial practices of no-interest banking as an example of an alternative method that could realistically be applied here in the United States.
As a scholar with an understanding of the financial structures of both the Islamic world and the United States, Amer pushes us to remember that in times of assessment and reflection it is as important to look outward as it is to reflect inward. He helps us do just this, asking how can we improve our own practices and challenging us to see examples elsewhere.
The first entry I wrote for SOF Observed (which was never published as it was part of a blogging trial) was about the fallen Evangelical pastor Ted Haggard. More than two years ago, news had broken about his then-alleged homosexual entanglement and solicitation of crystal meth. The e-mails were making rounds among the SOF staff.
Not only were all of us shocked like so many others, we were also discussing the news coverage. If I recall, most of us thought it was surprisingly restrained. Many critics of Ted Haggard who might have reveled in his demise, didn’t. And those who might have demonized his accuser were beseeched to pray for him instead. Boy, just thinking back, the Evangelical Right still held quite a bit of political sway. The NAE — of which he was president at the time — was rocked to its core.
We also found Haggard’s letter to his congregation, which was read to parishioners at a Sunday service, terribly and painfully tragic. I remember thinking at the time: Is this evidence of the power of sin over the most sanctified among us, or simply evidence of the power of homophobia and the closet to destroy human lives?
Well, perhaps I’ll be able to better discern the meaning of that question in a few weeks (or when it becomes available months later on Netflix?). Alexandra Pelosi’s — yes, Nancy’s daughter — short documentary, The Trials of Ted Haggard, will be shown on HBO through the month of February. If any of you watch it, I’d like to hear your analysis. One reviewer calls it “engrossing” and writes: “The man comes across as wounded, damaged, confused, deluded, in crisis with his faith, and very, very human. Curiously, his trademark grin is still in place.” There’s a trailer on the linked page above.