As I read this report by Sabrina Tavernies in The New York Times this weekend, I found myself wondering how Douglas Johnston might read this. What am I missing? What is the reporter not telling me about madrasas that leads to a greater understanding on my, the reader’s, part? What are the routines and teaching taking place in the madrasas. How do those teachings differ from Islamic school to Islamic school? If the Qur’an is the sole text, how is it used: purely for theological training? as a foundational text for reading and writing? as a tool for propaganda? as a source of philosophical discourse?
I ask because I fear I’m not literate enough about understanding the complexity of these issues and Pakistani society in general. So when I read sentences like this, “Suicide bombings were neither encouraged nor condemned,” my internal alarm bells start ringing, which makes me slightly suspicious of other interesting points made in the report.
To me, the article touches on a significant point — Pakistan’s inability to create a quality public school system. I’d like to read more than a few sentences about this. Perhaps another time.
Am I being overly analytical and parsing too much?
Over these past five years, I’ve been utterly charmed with the effort that’s put into producing a weekly national program. We’ve been making great commitments to reveal this part of the process through releasing Krista’s unedited interviews, videotaping editorial sessions and face-to-face interviews, and blogging about the correspondence we have among our staff and the ideas that inform our roles.
But, commitments require Krista (and sometimes staff) to speak at public and private events — ranging from speaking engagements at our funders’ board meetings to lectures at local public radio stations’ fundraising events. These forums can be quite inspirational and enlightening, revealing another aspect of Speaking of Faith's mission to reach larger and more varied audiences.
My goal is to share more of this side of Krista and Speaking of Faith with you. One way to do this: put our managing producer’s iPhone to work. A savvy news person, to be sure, Kate’s also a poet and quite a wit — an exquisite match for Twitter (follow us @SOFtweets). She acceded to my request and so began the experimentation while Krista, at the invite of WLRN, spoke at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Miami:
I’ll be retweeting our managing producer’s Twitter fiesta from Krista’s event at Trinity in Miami tonight. Doing some catch-up now. 7:19 PM Apr 23rd from web
RT @katemoos In the Green Room eating Sun Chips. That is not a product placement. http://twitpic.com/3uw9v 7:20 PM Apr 23rd from web
RT @katemoos Miamians v. friendly plus equip seems to work. Winning combination! Plus warm here. 7:20 PM Apr 23rd from web
RT @katemoos Am told Miami audinces come late. Don’t fret. I’ll manage my little punctual problem. Cuticles. Joke. 7:20 PM Apr 23rd from web
RT our senior producer @mitchhanley @katemoos Glad to hear the equipment is working. How’s the turnout? 7:22 PM Apr 23rd from web
RT @katemoos @mitchhanley Little hard to say but 400? 7:22 PM Apr 23rd from web
RT @katemoos Krista sites Parker Palmer. To let the soul speak one must create quiet, trustworthy spaces. 7:23 PM Apr 23rd from web
RT @katemoos @mitchhanley Sorry that was a typo. 300? 7:23 PM Apr 23rd from web
RT @katemoos I am a drop in the ocean. But I am also the ocean. Larry Ward 7:24 PM Apr 23rd from web
@katemoos is on a roll. She was hesitant to commit to too much for Krista’s event tonight. Parker Palmer, Larry Ward, and Sun Chips Kate? :) 7:26 PM Apr 23rd from web
RT-1 @katemoos questioner here asks Krista to account for that Scottish singer. 7:28 PM Apr 23rd from web
RT-2 @katemoos KT’s theory on that is short. But she applauds intimacy of radio. Sound. 7:28 PM Apr 23rd from web
RT @katemoos Iphone battery death! GBye dear Tweets! From Miami, Katy Lou signing off. 7:31 PM Apr 23rd from web
Oh no! @katemoos is down. Any stealth twitter junkies in the Cathedral?! 7:32 PM Apr 23rd from web
@lance_agena Oh, back-ups, back-ups, back-ups. We always prepare for Krista but how about behind the curtains. I will or I’ll retweet if so. 7:38 PM Apr 23rd from web in reply to lance_agena
One final RT from our dear @katemoos: BTW anyone calls me KatyLou and I will find you and make you pay. Finito!
7:39 PM Apr 23rd from web
Well, we’ll be doing more of our regular twitter conversation. Next week Krista speaks in Cleveland, using her new format. 7:42 PM Apr 23rd from web
We’ll be sure to have @katemoos working the scene and we’ll give you a heads-up. 7:53 PM Apr 23rd from web
And, if you haven’t heard, Krista has a live public event on May 20th with Obama’s head of faith-based initiatives, Joshua DuBois! 7:56 PM Apr 23rd from web
Kate will be tweeting from Cleveland this Thursday and we’ll be doing more of these in the coming weeks — including Krista’s live conversation with Joshua DuBois, Obama’s head of faith-based initiatives — so please give us your feedback. We’re still finding our voice(s) and style for this format.
Connecting Chicken Coops and Benedictine Prayer Illustrations
Earlier this week, I posted a quote on our Facebook page from Eulalia Cobb. She’s a listener from West Pawlet, Vermont who wrote a lovely reflection in response to last week’s show on her practice of mindfulness while spring cleaning a chicken coop:
"In years past, I rushed impatiently through this coop cleaning. After all, there was a garden to be planted…"
What I find so delightful about posting wonderful words like Eulalia’s outside the bounds of speakingoffaith.org is the broad knowledge base and interesting insights we may not have learned otherwise. Many times this wisdom serves as a fresh starting point for fans who may not have happened across these quirky, endearing stories. And that’s why I absolutely dug Denise Klitsie's comment in response:
"I am working on illustrations for a book on the hours of prayer—the Benedictines started this idea of recognizing transitions throughout the day that pressed up against one in work and life and began to name the hours, none, sext, vespers etc.—this essay on cleaning the chicken coup is inspiring me for imagery because imaging these "hours" is every challenging so I thought this picture of repetitious mundane yucky work might fit the hour of sext where the noonday devil is present tempting one to give up, throw in the towel, give up the fight because it is just too hard or too messy. Thanks SOF."
These are the types of connections that sustain my work. I’ll keep trying to do more. I’d love your advice on better or more inventive ways of making these connections possible.
I’ve been skeptical about celebrity pet charity projects and rock stars like Bono who have endorsed the RED campaign — encouraging people to shop and buy stuff in order to aid impoverished Africans. It just rings hollow to me and somewhat paradoxical, even though I recognize the good intentions behind it.
And then I read these lines from his op-ed this weekend:
It’s Lent I’ve always had issues with. I gave it up … self-denial is where I come a cropper. My idea of discipline is simple — hard work — but of course that’s another indulgence.
Then comes the dying and the living that is Easter. —Bono, lead singer of U2
Whatever brash generalizations or dismissive attitude I may have held, that changed after reading the Irishman’s contemplative words. Even though the rest of his essay is much more poetic and eloquent, it’s that second sentence above that captured me. He recognizes the falsehood of working harder. That staying at work is often an escape, a source of leisure rather than fulfilling one’s obligations and roles of responsibility at home — the mundane tasks of being present while one’s children ask for your time or hiding behind a gadget rather than engaging your spouse. Here, the man is revealing something of himself, his ordinary self. He is speaking to something greater than his own ego — and mine.
Nearly two years ago, I enjoyed Bono’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast with President Bush. Like many others, I admired the way he was reaching out; yet, his words felt removed to me — a diplomatic performance to unite disparate parties.
But, his reflection in this essay starts from his personal core. They reveal a man who is a seeker of some greater truths, both personal and universal, that have a grounding in fallibility and transcendence. And that I respect greatly.
I can only hope that Krista could interview him for SOF. Perhaps at Trinity Wall Street? Wouldn’t that be an incredible event to witness? The likelihood is minimal, but it would be a dazzling adventure. Can anybody make it happen?!
In our interview for next week’s show, the very thoughtful scientist/author Jon Kabat-Zinn has intriguing and provocative things to say about the pressures and possibilities of aligning our “Stone Age minds” with 21st-century digital realities. But he also says: “This is far too serious to take too seriously.”
The most godly people I know have a sense of humor even about the most important things, and I’m convinced God does too. And that is my far too serious justification for posting two very funny Facebook takes on Passover and Easter, the holiest of holidays being observed simultaneously this week. Be blessed — and enjoy.
Last week when I was going through this week’s program with Vigen Guroian, I was listening to some of the choral music for the first time in two years. Later that evening, I put on an old Cocteau Twins CD, Heaven or Las Vegas (which must have been on my mind since SOF had recently been picked up by KNPR in Las Vegas!), and I was struck how some of the lush harmonies were seemingly reminiscent of some of the Orthodox Russian repertoire, or at least Kitka’s Bulgarian folk styling of Nikolai Kedrov’s Otche Nash — “The Lord’s Prayer” in Russian.
"The Lord’s Prayer" performed by Kitka and composed by Nikolai Kedrov
The harmonies in both of these pieces are saturated and lush, and I could swim in them for hours.
For all of you CT fans, I know there may be better examples, so what tune, if any, would you have suggested? “Iceblink Luck” always reminds me of spring and little daffodils popping up everywhere, and I am really ready for that up here in Minneapolis. Also, another spring/flower reference, kitka means “blossom” in Bulgarian. So, here is the pairing, back to back.
Rushing to take my children to school yesterday, I witnessed a gorgeous scene of a group of several dozen people — young and old — congregating in front of the entrance to the Sabes JCC in St. Louis Park. The morning light was in full bloom, still a nip of cold in the air, and traffic unusually quiet. I paused and watched and then remembered this piece in the Times about Birchat HaChammah:
According to the celestial calculations of a Talmudic sage named Shmuel, at the outset of spring every 28 years, the sun moves into the same place in the sky at the same time and on the same day of the week as it did when God made it. This charged moment provides the occasion for reciting a one-line blessing of God, “who makes the work of creation.”
Reflecting on the awe and physical majesty of this planet every 28 years seems to be an act I should replicate every day. I’m glad that small group reminded me to stop and look at the sun.
SOF producers had already started reaching out to past guests of the show to engage them in conversation about the moral, ethical, and spiritual dimensions of the economic downturn. We wanted to get listeners into the mix of the conversation.
I spent a few quiet winter days in my cubicle with a highlighter pen, reading the 100+ responses we had received. People wrote in with all kinds of insights and reflections — from the deeply personal and specific to more theoretical interpretations of the economic collapse, its causes, and its implications.
When I read this essay by Khalid Kamau in New York City, I knew immediately that I wanted to talk to him. I wrote on the page “I like this one a lot” and gave it a little star.
You see the theme of community keeps coming up in the conversations we’ve been having with past guests of the show and others through our continuing Repossessing Virtue series. And while living more deeply and deliberately in community sounds good at first pass, it can be complicated and fraught. My own recent-ish experiences living with roommates is a reminder of this.
Khalid nails this complexity in a very personal story he wrote about baking a cake for his parents as a kid. I’m not going to give away the guts of the story; you should hear him tell it. But suffice to say that Khalid’s received some confusing messages growing up about what it means to ask a neighbor for help. To this day, he says he won’t knock on a neighbor’s door to borrow eggs or milk.
I’m excited to share Khalid’s story with you as well as the conversation we had about how he’s experiencing the economic downturn. Unlike others we’ve spoken to, Khalid was laid off from his job a few months ago. When he was working, Khalid says he was always busy, a frenetic New Yorker (I used to be one of those too). Now he’s using this new-found expanse of time to volunteer, pray, reflect, and simply do nothing.
This is the one of the first in a series of listener conversations we’ll be featuring online and in an upcoming radio program slated for broadcast in May. We’re approaching this as a creative experiment so please let us know what you think.
A few days ago, I was an emotional mess. I was touched at by the compassion and heart-wrenching stories I was reading. I’m the better for reading them. These are the shared stories about Alzheimer’s experiences from our radio and online audiences. But, then I’m faced with the question: What do we do with this repository of knowledge, with all these magnificent life stories?
Our first step was to create an interface that provides more context — in this case a dynamic map showcasing these acts of remembering. For this “mash-up” we used Google maps, Flickr images, an internally developed application (thanks Dickens!), and our Web site. We gain a greater sense of these authors and their relation to others geographically, including pull quotes and images and age and religious affiliation. And then you can delve deeper by reading each individual essay and viewing larger images.
But the danger is that one can feel lost, even overwhelmed by all these stories, and not no where to begin. We moderate and copy edit most of comments, reflections, and stories online; we like to maintain a safe space where people can feel a sense of trust and share things they wouldn’t in other online forums. The other advantage is that we read everything that comes our way. So, I had to ask myself, “Why not use that curatorial role to highlight particularly moving stories?” So I started tweeting and posting quotes to our Facebook page. For those of you who only read SOF Observed, I thought I’d share them with you:
Madeline Miller:"I hold that advice dear and try to have lots of picnics or just live in a picnic-like way…"
Diana Carson: On a moment between her grandfather — who had Alzheimer’s — and her grandmother: "I don’t know who you are, but … I have loved you for a long time."
Deborah Jaeger: On working with her father who has Alzheimer’s, "The most difficult aspect of taking care of my father is that we are invisible to others."
Lea Mathieu: Reflecting on the change in her mother who died of Alzheimer’s, "I do not hope for grace and forgiveness in the future — everyone I meet knows I love them now,"
And from this call-out, we found an unexpected voice in Alan Dienstag, who submitted his own suggestions.
A few years earlier, Krista had interviewed two people for a potential show on Alzheimer’s. The interviews went really well, but we wanted our first foray into this topic to speak to something larger, more personal, more universal — and we needed a voice that could create that space.
We take great pride in being open to possibilities and sources that aren’t part of our Rolodex, so to speak. And, we hope to discover more stories that give greater meaning to all these topics we cover over the years. In the meanwhile, we’re ready to include more.
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.