Thinking of Anne Lamott As We Create a New Show Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
"Sober people say that religion is for people who are afraid to go to hell, and spirituality is for people who’ve been there. And I think faith, for me, is a word that speaks much more to a belief and an interest in matters that are spiritual rather than the institution and creeds that you associate with religion."
We’ve been thinking about Anne Lamott a lot lately as we continue to build a dialogue about what it means to be spiritual but not necessarily religious. (We’re looking to make a full-fledged production out of your responses, so add your reflections here — and please share this link with others.)
Krista interviewed the writer back in 2003, during the earliest days of Speaking of Faith. Now for the first time, we’re making Krista’s unedited interview available. It’s a wonderful listen chock full of audio gems (stream in player above or download).
Lamott described herself to Krista as a spiritual “woman of faith” who disdains dogma and “the great evil” of religious fundamentalism. She calls out fundamentalism as a terrifying peril of our time: “a conviction of being right and of feeling that we are chosen and that other people can be denied a seat at the banquet table.”
We’ve noticed some conversation threads emerging on our blog and Facebook page that illuminate and expand upon Lamott’s ideas about being faithful, spiritual, but not religious. As Elissa Elliot commented on our Facebook thread:
“‘Religious’ (to many people) implies abuse, hypocrisy, and shortsightedness…Perhaps the world ‘spiritual’ is a more ‘open’ and ‘embracing’ term and that’s why more people are using it. It implies that although I believe certain things, I’m not set in my ways, and I realize that God may work in ways ‘outside the box I’ve been raised in.’ AND I want to hear what the next person is saying…”
But if “spiritual but not religious” feels more expansive and embracing to some, others experience it as isolating.
"We can’t just be spiritual individuals all by ourselves. The tension is the tension between the important need to form communities within which to share our spiritual journeys and the impulse to organize these communities efficiently to expand and grow." — Brant Lee
"Individualism is highly prized in our culture, but when it comes to matters of faith, community is very important." —Sanna Ellingson
In her book, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott has a passage that squarely hits on this need for a spiritual community:
"Most of the people I know who have what I want—which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy—are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people in community, who pray, or practice their faith; they are Buddhists, Jews, Christians—people banding together to work on themselves and for human rights. They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful. I saw something once from The Jewish Theological Seminary that said, ‘A human life is like a single letter of the alphabet. It can be meaningless. Or it can be a part of a great meaning.’"
We’d like to know how are you finding and creating communities that enrich you spiritually? Share your story with us.
“Everyone talks about how Johnny has fallen from grace. In reality, he’s fallen to grace. He is integrated. He is living a life of truth. He has grown in awareness and humility. He had all these things within him, but they weren’t the guiding, leading principles of his life. Now they are.”—
A couple of weeks before my birthday, my mom sent me an e-mail reminding me when my “star birthday” was — March 14th, by the way — and saying she was donating to a local temple on that day so they can provide free food for the congregation. Although I’ve always been told when my star birthday was, this was the first time I went on a quest to find out what it was.
Simply put, your star birthday is your birthday using the Hindu calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar. Hindu calendars are traditionally used to derive entire individual horoscopes, which are culturally consulted for just about everything — from determining a baby’s name to finding the best wedding location (and person!)
Your birth star, or Janma Nakshatra, is just one component of the calendar. If you draw a line from where you were born, at the time you were born, to the moon, the Janma Nakshatra is the star constellation that the line would pass through. Each month has 27 Nakshatras, which means some Nakshatras will occur twice in a month.
As with most aspects of Hinduism, there is no rule as to what significance a star birthday has. For example, I spoke to Narayanan Kandanchatha, who grew up in the Indian state of Kerala and is from the sub-caste Nambudiripad. He said that each year they would have to do an important prayer on their star birthday. In his case, the star was so critical that if it was missed, rather than do it the next day, they would wait until the Nakshatra of the following month. He also said that in his culture, in order to do a Upanayanam ceremony (the male coming of age ceremony for the Brahmin caste), a boy must have conducted a special ceremony on his Nakshatra 36 times.
For my mom, her tradition was to wear new clothes on her star birthday. Then she mailed me a new shirt to wear. Some people believe naming your baby with the same first syllable as their star is auspicious. My parents didn’t intend it, but in researching this blog I discovered that I coincidentally ended up with an auspicious first name!
Finding your star birthday
Find your Janma Nakshatra when you were born by using this calculator and your birth year (mine is Satabhisha.)
Next find the Hindu month in which you were born. Scroll to the table of Hindu months here to find the start and end dates for that month. For example, I was born March 5, which would be the month Phalguna, starting on February 20.
Then, go back to this first calculator, and for the date range enter your full Hindu birth month (e.g., February 20 - March 19) for the current year. It will give you a table with all the Nakshatras for the month. Find the date your Nakshatra lands on, and that is your star birthday this year (March 14 for me). If your Nakshatra occurs two times in that month, the second time is when you would celebrate your star birthday.
Since Hinduism is a religion composed of diverse cultures and history, the details in this procedure can change. Many cultures define their months differently. Also, some people don’t use the Nakshatra at all, using instead the Tithi, a completely different aspect of the calendar. But I’ll leave you to investigate these varieties on your own.
We were pleased to see The Daily Beastfeatured the New York Public Library’s backstage clip of their event with Krista last week. It’s a short snippet, and, with a bit of prime-time drama-like production, it effectively captures the substance and tenor of the event.
We’d been in touch with Paul Holdengräber and Meg Stemmler at the NYPL for a few months to prepare for this live evening — including discussions about various formats and stage partners (such as Alan Alda, who couldn’t make it). While it came off seamlessly, there was a bit of last-minute heroics that made it all happen.
Archival audio clips of Albert Einstein and segments from Krista’s conversations with Paul Davies, Freeman Dyson, and Andrew Solomon were selected and pulled together minutes before the performance began. (Moments like that make me think of the famous frantic-run scene from Broadcast News when Joan Cusack’s character rushes a videotape to the studio for live broadcast, pushing people aside and sliding under an open file cabinet. Well, ok, so it wasn’t that dramatic.)
In the end, NYPL’s brilliant ideas were worth it. Hearing the voice of Einstein was a fun and compelling way to open this conversation about the intersection of science, theology, philosophy, and medicine that is the backbone of Krista’s new book. And a wonderful conversation it was between Krista, Andrew Solomon, and Paul Holdengräber — exploring that intersection on both richly intellectual and deeply personal levels.
With a full house in NYC of more than 500 people, we were also excited that over 5,700 others watched our live stream online — something we are doing more of so that we can include the many of you who aren’t able to attend in person. It’s only fair, right?
If you missed it, you can watch it here:
And, if you want to participate in our upcoming events in April, check out our SOF Live page. We’ll be live streaming video of Krista’s interview with NPR’s Michel Martin in Washington DC, and Krista will be giving a solo performance in a gorgeous venue in Philadelphia where she’ll be playing clips and answering questions.
Behind the Scenes: Editing for Story Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
"Like everything good in life, the art of editing takes time to learn and it never becomes a matter of rote mastery. You start out fresh with every interview and every interview presents its own distinctive challenges and idiosyncrasies….
Stories are magic. Be very slow to throw them out. That said, all stories are not equal. And some stories are too long and you’ll have to work and experiment with creative ways to keep them in…” —Krista Tippett from “Notes on Editing Speaking of Faith”
Our production staff works collaboratively to whittle down Krista’s 90+ minute studio interviews into an hour of radio. With music, Krista’s scripting, and other elements like poems and readings, each produced show has room for 40-45 minutes of interview material.
So what stays and what goes? There’s no magic formula. But as Krista notes, “stories are magic” and so we listen for the jewels.
In Krista’s recent interview with Jacqueline Novogratz, she told so many good stories we struggled editorially with which ones to include. And our choices shifted as we progressed through the editing process.
The audio above is a story about an ambulance company in Mumbai that we liked but was left out in the early stages of production. The story comes at a juncture in the conversation when Novogratz shares a succession of examples of projects she’s working on. We decided that all of those stories would be too much for the listener to digest, so this is one we reluctantly cut.
Then there are stories that get cut and we later pull back in. That was the case with what we nicknamed "the Jane story" — about a woman living in a Kenyan slum who saves to buy her own home. In our final listen, Colleen and others felt the final section of the show would benefit from another concrete story to ground Novogratz’s work and its impact. You can listen to the produced version of “the Jane story” here:
One of my radio mentors likes to say, “Who’s doing what and why do we care?” Good stories help to answer the “why do we care” question.
A listener, Russell, e-mailed the other day saying he had been on his own sleuthing expedition expedition to find the original source of an Einstein quote about Buddhism being the cosmic religion of the future. It was referenced in the Particulars section of our show “The Buddha in the World.” He had come up empty-handed and wrote to ask if we knew where the quote came from.
Well, as Nancy’s previous post indicates, many a producer has been challenged by sorting out Einstein’s misquotes from original quotes. So have many other quote detectives. This quote seems to be a good example of how misquoting gets propagated so quickly on the web. Many sites with the quote source this site, which leads to a dead-end since it attributes it only Albert Einstein. Some people source books — Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das and All the Questions You Ever Wanted to Ask American Atheists, Vol II by Madalyn Murray O’Hair — but those books do not source the quotes either.
The best conclusion is this response from the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem:
"The quote under discussion which I know is quite ‘popular’, could so far paraphrase of some ideas Einstein developed in an essay titled "Religion and Science" in 1930. Here he mentions the “cosmic religiosity” (not religion!), Buddhism, and a belief that avoids dogma and theology.”
Many of us have read Nick Kristof’s columns over the years. And, perhaps, like me, you’ve been moved by his words, shaken by his stories, struck dumb with melancholy and grief. But, inevitably, the “plight of the ‘distant stranger’” assumes its role in feeling the events happening over there.
The HBO documentary, Reporter, will challenge you to come closer, to care, to take action as he pursues uncovering the truths behind human rights violations and personal suffering. With Kristof leading the way, the viewer bears witness alongside his two traveling companions, a med student and a teacher, to the tricky trail the journalist walks when reporting in war-torn Congo.
The film portrays some of the ethical and moral dilemmas of being a reporter in a conflict zone. When Kristof encounters a 41-year-old woman of 60 pounds lying at the edge of a village about to die, he acts. When a warlord responsible for the raping and pillaging of thousands gives thanks to the Lord, he bows his head; when that same man, General Nkunda asks him to eat with him, he dines. Few of these decisions are made without some type of deliberation — a grimace, a pause, a controlled look. But, in the end, he always writes.
He perseveres and tries to understand the underlying aspects of the people involved. And, he asks the difficult questions that have gotten other journalists killed. I’m not trying to saint him, but I now better appreciate his work as he attempts to discover a fuller aspect of all the human beings involved. He continues to tell the difficult stories of a region that gets covered during catastrophic events, and then forgotten within a blink’s time of a celebrity foible or the next breaking news event.
I hope we can interview him for the show some day in the future and hear how he wrestles with these difficult choices — and how he continues on.
"It establishes a poverty threshold that depends on the cost of food, shelter, clothing and utilities ‘plus a little more’ for ‘a population that is not poor but is somewhat below the median.’"
Poverty measurements are a pet interest of mine, along with everything we can chalk up to the logistical challenges of aid. The U.S. has one standard federal poverty line, and a lot of assistance is based on it: food stamps and national free lunch, for example. That means a mother living in New York City and trying to raise kids on a low income has to be below the same income level as someone living in a small rural town with a lower cost-of-living, or she will be eligible for far fewer benefits.
It’s a system which is widely known to be flawed and yet has existed for 50 years. Even it’s founder, Mollie Orshansky, offered this only to be used for statistical purposes and not as a policy criterion. It looks like the government is finally doing something about it!
We’re experiencing some of the same “attachment” now that Krista’s new book is out. Several minutes of this morning’s staff meeting was dedicated to some impromptu analysis of the Einstein’s God ranking on Amazon.
The short: the book seems to be doing well, but the ranking system is a mystery in itself.
"For Murdoch, these conflicts amount to holy missions. While others may see him as an opportunistic predator, ready to lay waste to whatever falls under his gaze, Murdoch sees himself as a moralist, the enemy of entrenched, arbitrary power."
"Murdoch was infuriated by the editorial, which he saw as yet another example, as if more were needed, of the Times’ characteristic self-interest wrapped in a cloak of high-toned moralism.”
"Much as he has done in the newspaper wars he’s fought over the last 60 years, he wants to turn the tables, call Google’s moral authority into question."
And yet, none of these family and business relationships seem very nice.
"Physicists have no problem answering the question of ‘If a tree falls in the woods and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound?’ They say, ‘Yes! Of course it makes a sound!’ Likewise, if time flows without entropy and there’s no one there to experience it, is there still time? Yes. There’s still time."
After listening to a few "Einstein’s God" interviews, my head is swimming in “what is time” versus “how do I feel time.” Well this Wired article has my head spinning even more.
Two Jesuits who work at the Vatican Observatory — Brother Guy Consolmagno, curator of meteorites, and Father George Coyne, its former director (whom you might recognize from his appearance in Bill Maher’s Religulous) — have been on our interview list for years. Yesterday, Krista was finally able to interview them, together, from a recording studio in Arizona. These two astronomers had a great dynamic between them and have a bit of different perspective from most of the “hard” scientists — usually physicists — we have spoken to over the years. Oh, and they have great sense of humor, as you can see in the video to the right of Br. Consolmagno’s appearance on The Colbert Report.
We’ll start producing this interview while Krista’s out on tour speaking about her new book, and we can’t wait to release this program! In the meantime, Colleen and I tweeted some of the lines that struck our ears. A transcript of our Twitter stream:
For the next 90 minutes, tweets from Krista’s interview w/ two Vatican Observatory astronomers: Fr. George Coyne and Br. Guy Consolmagno.
68 degrees in Arizona. They’re rubbing it in since it is frigid today in Minnesota.
Fr. George is a Jesuit who grew up in Baltimore. Tells a great story about a priest who hooked him up w/ books from the Reading, PA library.
Br. Guy grew up in Detroit and transferred to MIT when he discovered they had the largest science fiction collection!
Br. Guy joined Peace Corps b/c he “couldn’t see the point of studying stars when people are suffering.” Realized that all people love stars.
Fr. Coyne: if all we do is feed and clothe people, we’re all going to be naked; what really makes us human is music, the arts, science…
Br. Guy: you don’t find answers to theological ?s by looking through a telescope; you don’t go to the Bible to find answers to science.
Fr. George: “the God of religious faith is a lover.”
Fr. George: “My understanding of the universe does not need God. I don’t need God in my science.”
Br. Guy Consolmagno: “The tragedy of Haiti is the tragedy of death. … There isn’t any answer to that.”
Fr. George Coyne, astronomer: “To limit our human experience to scientific knowledge is to impoverish all of us.”
Br. Guy Consolmagno, on seismic and cosmic activity in the creation of life: “The climate will change. … The Earth is not a paradise.”
Fr. George Coyne: “To have faith is an extreme risk. ‘Rock of Ages’ is a nice hymn but…”
Br. Guy Consolmagno: “We know our understanding of the universe is incomplete; our understanding of God is incomplete.”
Br. Guy Consolmagno: “You have to experience something before you can react to it.”
Fr. George Coyne, an astronomer on his science: “It’s exciting to be ignorant.”
Fr. George Coyne, when he presents papers at scientific conferences: “I’m not dressed as a priest. It just confuses things.” Funny moment.
The Vatican Observatory is staffed by all Jesuits, except one diocesan priest. But the observatory was not founded by the Jesuit Order.
4 Jesuits have asteroids named after them: Xavier, Loyola, and the 2 chaps Krista is interviewing: Fr. George Coyne + Br. Guy Consolmagno
Br Guy on Galileo: why is it that 400 years later he’s symbol of science religion clash when that’s not what it was about at his time?
Br Guy: Don’t just learn science from reading Newton & Galileo, but also from Plato, Shakespeare, and scripture
Br. Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit astronomer: “Truth can sometimes only be expressed in a poetry.”
Fr Coyne: language of universe is math; it’s a tool to understand beauty; we absract to understand
Br Guy: Being able to do science is trying to understand how God plays with us
"But after I accepted that…he actually said such things, the next puzzle for me was why? Because…prior to Martin Luther King, I don’t know of any other Nobel Laureate who spoke so forcefully for the rights of African Americans." — S. James Gates, Jr., string theorist
"My trip to this institution was in behalf of a worthwhile cause. There is a separation of colored people from white people in the United States. That separation is not a disease of colored people. It is a disease of white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it." — Albert Einstein, speaking at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1946
Albert Einstein’s spiritual sensibility is the center of this week’s program, "Einstein’s God," but I want to highlight a section from our companion show, "Einstein’s Ethics," that explores the nature of his humanitarian passions and public ethics, including his views on race. It contains one of my favorite interviews: Krista’s conversation with S. James Gates, Jr, a professor of physics whose work focuses on string theory and supersymmetry — things I don’t fully comprehend.
Originally, he was not on our radar for this program, but when we heard him speak at a conference on Einstein’s legacy, we were impressed not only by his scientific insight, but also by his reflection on Einstein the person. In this excerpt from our program, Gates speaks eloquently and thoughtfully about how he discovered Einstein’s passion for the problem of racism, and his "capacity for ethical engagement and his scientific creativity" — something Gates himself embodies. You’ll hear the beautiful voice of the legendary opera singer Marian Anderson, whom Einstein invited to stay at his home after she was denied a room at Princeton’s best “whites only” hotel.
"I think in a way that kind of cliche ‘spiritual but not religious,’ which apparently is a thing more and more people say to describe themselves, is in a way an attempt to reconcile in some cases with science. In other words…if I say I believe in this highly anthropomorphic God, if I’m religious and too old-fashioned in a sense, or buy into specific claims of revelation, that might not sit well with the modern scientific intelligence." —Robert Wright, author of The Evolution of God (February 2, 2010)
(graphic: Pew Research Center)
New research from the Pew Forum on Public Life reveals that a sizable slice of the Millenial population (people born after 1981) does not affiliate with a particular religious denomination or faith. We’re aware that people of all ages are defining themselves under the expansive umbrella of “spiritual but not religious.” We see this, in part, through the weekly listener emails that flow into our inbox.
Our contact form includes a question: “What faith tradition, if any, do you belong to?” Here are examples of some recent responses we’ve received:
I defy labels ;)
Christian, Baptist… though I refer to myself as a “recovering evangelical” currently not affiliated
atheist, with emerging theory of spirituality
the teachings of Christ, the Buddha, and my dog, not necessarily in that order
As you can see, it’s quite a spread. In his recent public conversation with Krista, Robert Wright provided some helpful insights about how this “spiritual but not religious” trend might relate to a concern with what he calls “modern scientific intelligence.”
If you consider yourself “spiritual but not religious,” can you help us understand what this term actually means to you? Does science have something to do with it? Is it primarily a youthful Millennial trend, as the Pew Forum report suggests? Are there other terms that you would add to the list above to describe yourself on this “spiritual but not religious” continuum?
New data from the Pew Forum may be unsurprising to some of us, but it amplifies what we have probably assumed to be true and seems relevant to our projects at Speaking of Faith:
"Compared with their elders today, young people are much less likely to affiliate with any religious tradition or to identify themselves as part of a Christian denomination. Fully one-in-four adults under age 30 (25%) are unaffiliated, describing their religion as "atheist," "agnostic" or "nothing in particular." This compares with less than one-fifth of people in their 30s (19%), 15% of those in their 40s, 14% of those in their 50s and 10% or less among those 60 and older. About two-thirds of young people (68%) say they are members of a Christian denomination and 43% describe themselves as Protestants, compared with 81% of adults ages 30 and older who associate with Christian faiths and 53% who are Protestants."
Since 2005, same-sex union ceremonies in the UK have been forbidden from mentioning anything religious at all. This has basically banned religious groups (like the Quakers) from consensually performing civil unions for their gay members. It looks like senior bishops in the UK are now backing an amendment to lift this ban, allowing religious institutions to perform same-sex partnerships if they choose. Some Christian groups fear this is a step towards forcing the church to perform gay marriages in the future.
Current NewGround Fellow (check out our program on the organization) Ali H. Mir has written a challenging piece in USC’s The Scoop. By definition of the Patriot Act, he says, journalists should be identifying Joseph Andrew Stack III — the suicide bomber who flew his plane into a federal building in Austin, Texas in order to kill employees of the Internal Revenue Service — as a terrorist and not simply a tax protester:
"Law enforcement and the major media outlets in the United States need to be consistent in their definition of terrorism and to use the term objectively. Selective use of the term makes it clear that objectivity is simply a conceit and that certain racial, ethnic and religious groups are incapable of committing acts of terrorism (i.e. upper-middle-class white men who own airplanes and nurture a grievance against their own government)."
The administrative dashboard for SOF Observed allows us to see who has liked and reblogged our posts within the Tumblr community. It also allows us to see who “follows” our blog. Our most recent follower, 40 Days 40 Deeds, is a group of folks in four cities across the U.S. who aspire to:
"…make small changes throughout the 2010 Lenten season to encourage people to be kinder, to give more, to inconvenience themselves a little to make the world a more pleasant place to be."
The project is in its beginning stages and I’m already liking it. Their deeds are seemingly inconsequential, but, as Pádraig reminds us, “Lent is less for giving up, and more for making space.” These small acts of kindness are really important — offering a ride home to a stranded co-worker few people like, giving your time to be a judge at a history fair, or even just letting that nasty driver budge in front of you during the morning commute — and, perhaps, just might establish new meaningful relationships andlengthen one’s telomeres in the process.
Also, this type of blog picks up on a theme taken up by a pair of Muslims living in New York City last fall. As a way of observing Ramadan, the two men vowed to visit 30 mosques in 30 days during Islam’s holiest month. Not only did they worship regularly, they got to know the many brothers and sisters of all nationalities that make up the Muslim community.
Coupling religious ritual and observance with being a better person and getting to know people — what better way to live out one’s faith and improve one’s self. And, what a great way to notice common threads in many traditions.
In 2005, just a few months after Ta’er Hamad had been arrested, she wrote:
After your son was captured, I spent many sleepless nights thinking about what to do, should I ignore the whole thing, or will I be true to my integrity and to the work that I am doing and try to find a way for closure and reconciliation…
…I understand that your son is considered a hero by many of the Palestinian people, he is considered to be a freedom fighter, fighting for justice and for an independent viable Palestinian state, but I also feel that if he understood that taking the life of another may not be the way and that if he understood the consequences of his act, he could see that a non-violent solution is the only way for both nations to live together in peace.
Over three years later, Robi indirectly received a defiant, militant reply from Mr. Hamad via its publication by a Palestinian news agency:
"Just as I refused to directly address the soldier’s mother, I cannot wish to meet her. I cannot meet with the occupier of our land on the same land. I carried out the operation as part of the struggle for freedom, justice and the establishment of an independent state, not out of a lust or love for killing. Acts of violence are a necessity imposed upon us by the occupation and I shall not abandon this path for as long as the occupation continues."
"Ta’er, how ironic, the people who most wanted to protect me from the words in your letter were my Palestinian friends and other bereaved parents in our group. They of all people have the right to talk about my actions and who I am for we have worked together for more than 6 years to try to end this terrible conflict and to give both sides a chance to live with a sense of dignity free from the terrible fear which engulfs us and gives us all the excuse for violence. The tears I saw in the eyes of my Palestinian partners in the Parents Circle when they met me after you chose to publish the letter were tears of understanding and yes friendship and love…"
"… The wisest reaction I had to the words of your letter came from my wonderful son Eran, who I thought would be terribly angry. Well he said, listen mum, perhaps this is the beginning of a dialog."
In the audio embedded up top, Trent recently spoke with Robi from her home in Tel Aviv to learn more about how she’s reflecting on this exchange, and what it means for her work with the Parents Circle - Families Forum. It’s worth a listen to hear her ongoing tenacity.
A is for Ashes and last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, the day when many denominations observe the beginning of Lent — the 40-ish days leading up to the Last Supper, the death of Jesus, the finding of the empty tomb, and the mysterious appearances of Jesus.
Lent comes from the Latin word for Spring. So, it seems that Lent is for Spring.
When I was a small boy, the talk in the class was what you were giving up for Lent — crisps, or lemonade, or, for the radically committed, sweets. Last Tuesday, eating pancakes and lemons, some friends discussed what to give up. We were all agreed: Lent is less for giving up, and more for making space.
We make space to contemplate what it is that we will celebrate in 40 days’ time. We make space to recognise our faults. We pray a little more. We allow our emptier stomachs to remind us of the pithiness of our observations in comparison with real hunger. We give more money. We confess. We reconcile. We listen to emptiness for a while. We do not say Alleluia.
This Ash Wednesday, I went to Clonard Monastery between work meetings. There were workmen, nurses, office people, people in tracksuits, children, teenagers, young, old. We lined up and had ashes, made from the burnt palms of last year’s jubilant celebration of Palm Sunday, smeared on our foreheads with the words “Turn away from sin and return to the Gospel”. After Mass, I walked from the Catholic Falls Road through the city centre into the Protestant Donegall Pass. I wiped the ash from my head, aware of offence and violence.
This year, I have been a sometimes-absent, sometimes-silent friend. I have been bad at communication. Good intentions, frankly, have not been enough. Decisions about what charity to give to have resulted in distraction, not action.
I am hoping that empty space will create something for me. I am giving up eating anything between meals. Three square a day for me. And, pithy as it seems, I am also giving up sweet things. Hard core for me this Lent.
On Holy Thursday, the Eucharist is removed from the tabernacle in the church. We attend the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, reminding ourselves of the emptying of God by God. We remember the descent of our tortured and abandoned brother into Hell. We allow emptiness to create hope.
A friend of mine told me a month ago that he’s been diagnosed as HIV positive. Another friend is in the gut-clenching grip of heartbreaking decisions. Someone is unemployed. Someone is lonely. And I am hoping that Lent will create a bit of space for me to commit my time, my body, and what love I can give. Such resolutions will not, please God, end with an Easter celebration, when a fire will be lit outside the monastery and we will process into the church with springtime candles lit from that same fire.
A is for Allel…
Mr. Ó Tuama, originally from Cork, works in Belfast, Northern Ireland doing chaplaincy and community work, mostly through the Corrymeela Community and the Irish Peace Centres. Part of his community work involves writing poetry to encapsulate some of the stories of living and dying in the context of the Irish conflict.
"…there are some scientists who say ‘I don’t think electrons really exist.’ It’s useful to think of them as existing. It’s useful to build computers with that image in mind of an electron, but I don’t think they really exist… when other people think of God as a personal thing, that’s as close as you can get given the constraints on human cognition and maybe it’s not something you should apologize for…"
Transcribing Krista’s interview with Robert Wright for next week’s show, I came across this passage, which reminded me of a conversation I had with a Hindu Sanyasi when I was 16. In Hinduism, “God” has different definitions depending on what appeals to you. For example, in my family, I grew up understanding that all the different deities were forms of one personal being. But working in India, I met people who literally believed every deity existed as a separate identity — true polytheism. And this Sanyasi was my first exposure to the idea of God not as a personal being.
He explained it by saying that you have to start in kindergarten, learning simple concepts and forms. I think he believed that many people need rituals and images to understand God, but as their spirits reincarnate (and they “graduate”), they can refine their perception of God towards the truth, just like over time we can understand quantum physics (maybe!).
"Palestinian member of the Forum, Ali Abu-Awad met with more than 60 members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, Palestinian fighters most of who are on Israel’s most wanted list. He spoke about non-violent resistance and the work of the Parents Circle - Families Forum and gave them an alternative framework to function. After six hours these hardened fighters wanted to know more and there will be ongoing meetings. Many in the meantime have given up their arms and are looking for another way.”
We were aware that the organization Robi and Ali participate in as bereaved family members, and now work for, reach out to many people as part of a process of dialogue and understanding. But, reading this, was a stark reminder that their efforts extend beyond the peace-loving middle to even the most militant, radical coalitions.
More Science Behind the Human-Animal Connection Shubha Bala, associate producer
I was catching up on my Radiolab and caught the "Animal Minds" episode. In line with our discussion on animals and spirituality, this episode delves into different scientific research on whether or not animals and humans have a mental or emotional connection.
“None of the theories of the transmission of religious belief favoured by anti-theists work. Religious belief is not a marker of stupidity. In this country, among the under thirties, it is most common in those with a university education. Nor is it transmitted by brainwashing. But if religion is natural, none of this proves it is necessary, nor that it is impossible to suppress…”— —Andrew Brown, editor of the Guardian's Comment is free section, has stirred up quite a conversation with his "Are science and atheism compatible?" article — saying that science has as much ability to bring as much discomfort to dogmatic non-believers as it does to the most religious.
"Myself When I Am Real" Andy Dayton, associate web producer
"It was kind of like jazz." That’s what Nancy said when I asked her how Krista’s conversation with E. Ethelbert Miller went. Prior to the interview, Trent began paging through Miller’s second memoir, The 5th Inning, and seemed taken by the book’s honesty and willingness to acknowledge the darker corners of life. From the introduction:
"How do we cope with failure in life? How do we live when everyday we open our eyes to death? This memoir is about how I coped with failure and disappointment in career, marriage, and life. We fail as lovers, parents, and friends."
With this in mind, I sent an email to Chris suggesting he give Charles Mingus’ Mingus Plays Piano a listen when scoring the program’s soundtrack. The album has a contemplative and improvisational sound that I really enjoy — an enjoyment that’s enhanced knowing a bit of the story behind it. Appearing in the liner notes to the compilation, The Impulse Story, here’s an account from inside the studio when Mingus recorded the album:
"Somebody was playing the piano in there very hauntingly — very beautifully. Then it would stop, and start again. It didn’t sound like practicing. It sounded like somebody was just thinking on the piano. That’s the best way I could say it. I looked in the music room and it was pitch black. The lights weren’t on. So I went into Thiele’s office and said, ‘Who’s playing in there?’ ‘It’s Charlie Mingus. A very close friend of his died.’ I never knew who he was grieving over. But about a half-hour later Thiele said, ‘Charles, let’s go into a studio.’ That became Mingus Plays Piano.”
"Thinking on the piano." Replace notes with words and you might say that reading (and hearing) E. Ethelbert Miller can be a similar experience.
My suggestion didn’t make its way into the program. Miller dropped enough musical references during the interview to easily fill the program’s 50 minutes. But you can listen to the first track from the album — “Myself When I Am Real” — to get a taste of what “thinking on the piano” sounds like.
Artist Kara Walker installs her work “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love” at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (photo: Cameron Wittig/Walker Art Center)
I’ve heard E. Ethelbert Miller’s essays and short interviews on Weekend Edition Sunday and always learned something new. He has been at Howard University, first as an undergraduate, since it was a crucible of Black Power in the late 1960s. I’ve heard him observe political and cultural events — like the election of Barack Obama as president — through a fascinating lens, from that vantage point, and also from his vantage point as a poet, a “literary activist.” And I wondered what would happen if I sat down with him for a whole hour to explore the nexus of the political, the artistic, and the spiritual in the dramatic trajectory of black history over the last half century — a trajectory he has both been shaped by and has shaped.
The result is an unpredictable, playful, and challenging program. For starters, he is not eager to engage in a head-on discussion of Obama and race — the discussion many in our culture have both longed for, and not found a way to have, throughout his candidacy and now his presidency. For E. Ethelbert Miller, Obama’s election says interesting things about how white people in the U.S. have changed. He does not buy the language of a “post-racial society.” Yet he sees that both Barack and Michele Obama have made a lasting impact on global cultural associations between blackness, elegance, excellence, and beauty. And in the long run, he seems to feel, that may be more than enough, for now.
We hear the trumpet of Miles Davis and the saxophone of John Coltrane as Miller guides us in an entertaining, if not linear, way through the evolution of what he calls “blackness” in the last half century. His words and the sounds of this music join the poetry of Lucille Clifton "won’t you celebrate with me") and the prose of Buddhist novelist Charles Johnson and Muslim activist Malcolm X to evoke the eclectic range of influences that nourished the black consciousness that first emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Our cultural memory has taken in some of these influences and forgotten much of the rest, though they have all continued to ferment in E. Ethelbert Miller’s being and in the diverse universe he inhabits.
He likes to imagine a healing role for African-American Muslims, for example, in the global encounter between Islam and the West in this century. He also suggests that, in this globalized world, the noun/adjective “African American” is too small. His own heritage is West Indian, and the term African American in fact obscures the far-flung immigrant story inside the story of race in the U.S. alone. But in using the word “blackness” — which culturally might seem a reversal — E. Ethelbert Miller is talking about much more than the color of one’s skin. He is talking about “the color of ideas.”
Also, I recommend reading Miller’s "My Language, My Imagination." It’s a beautiful essay based on a speech he delivered on the campus of Western Oregon University in 1998. It is a vivid, personal, concise, and energizing introduction to the turning points and inner dynamics of African-American life in our time. And it is terrific background for going on to read Miller’s memoirs — especially his first, Fathering Words — and his poetry.
African-American descendants of slaves ponder it, as do descendants of immigrants that arrived at Ellis Island. Expecting parents deliberate it, as does a bride going from maiden to married (or vice versa). Artists muse it, as do people with political or religious intentions. “It” being the meaning of the personal name — or the process of giving, taking, or receiving a name that we experience in multiple ways as giving definition, and sometimes control, to our individual identity.
I’ve been thinking about this since hearing Krista and E. Ethelbert Miller talk about the significance of naming in this week’s show. I appreciated both the weight and the humor in Miller’s description of the experience of naming his children. In his first memoir, Fathering Words, he writes about his own name change:
"…I changed my name my sophomore year at Howard. I reinvented myself. Maybe everything I am writing now is a continuation of that 1969 decision, like the Brown, Supreme Court decision of 1954. I was Gene to my parents, especially my father. I enrolled in college as Eugene E Miller, but like the legal blow against segregation, I became more social and outgoing under the name E. Ethelbert Miller.
How did it happen? Was it as quick as my grandmother changing my father’s last name from Williams to Miller when they came to America? A new identity, an escape as good as anything Houdini could do. The magic was first discovered in the lounge of Drew Hall. A number of us were thinking about running for student government as a ticket. I was selected to run for freshman class treasurer. It was obvious that no one had checked my poor math grades from elementary to high school. A consecutive record of failures with numbers that established a Ripken-like streak. The person handling my campaign was a young coed from Chicago. She had a nice afro and shape, and she was funny and smart. We sat on the floor in the lounge trying to come up with slogans for posters and we couldn’t. She asked about my middle name. Ethelbert, I told her, and she laughed. She came up with this silly expression about ‘Ethelbert Is Coming’ and soon made posters with an airplane, which struck me as stupid, but what did I know about politics. Many students found the expression funny and voted for me and I won.
So I was Eugene Ethelbert Miller after a few weeks away from the Bronx. But folks would call me Eugene until I ran for sophomore class president and decided to cast myself as a new politician. I had resigned from being freshman class treasurer because I refused to spend money on a class party and folks wanted to party and so they did so without me. Just as Richard Nixon became the new Nixon to some, I changed my name to E. Ethelbert Miller…”
In his first memoir, Miller also peppers in writings from his sister, Marie. A nurse, she shares her candid assessment of his name change:
"I thought the entire name change thing was as crazy as getting an afro, or wearing African clothes, or going to Africa. E. Ethelbert Miller, please! What was he getting into down in Washington? All that black stuff was crazy. I saw it on television. It didn’t have anything to do with my life. When you’re thinking about working in a hospital, all you see is red, the color of blood. Folks don’t have no time for race relations when they are sick or dying; and why didn’t my brother take an African name if he wanted to be so black and different? He could have been Kwame, or one of those principles associated with that thing called Kwanzaa. You know, he could have called himself Umoja or something like that."
I made the traditional choice of taking my husband’s name when I got married, primarily for practical reasons, but also because my maiden name reflected a history of family adoption, so I felt no innate connection to it. It didn’t take long for me to get used to it; in fact, I think the process of changing my social security card took longer. With my son, we chose a name that was simple, sounded regal (to us), and was connected to family heritage. I hope Owen will embrace it, though I’ll be prepared for the reality that he may amend it.
I wonder: What stories, choices, meanings are behind your names? In what ways and in what places do you find yourself pondering the meaning of your name and how it defines you?
I’m currently editing Kate’s interview with Omid Safi, which focuses on his recent book about memories and stories of Muhammad. During the conversation he says that if you ask most people a story about Christianity they can tell you about a prevailing idea or parable about Jesus; ask about Judaism and you’ll often hear something about Moses; inquire about Hinduism and Gandhi will come up or the idea of non-violence. But, if you ask them about the Prophet, they most likely will have no concrete idea or story.
Later on, he shares a wonderful story about the Prophet and the “naked embrace” of his wife when he’s questioning the veracity of his divine visions. A concrete story that humanizes Muhammad, to be sure, but also a tale about women and their influential role within Islamic thought.
In the quote above, Ms. Izzidien gives another concrete example of the Prophet through an interaction with his wife — but, this time, by weaving it into her delightful and light-hearted, but sincere, take on young Muslim women assuming the lead in courtship. A modern-day perspective worth noticing, and look for the produced interview with Omid Safi later next week!
As the newest addition to Speaking of Faith, my first task has been to prepare the show "No More Taking Sides" for rebroadcast in a couple of weeks. Listening to Ali say “Nobody want to be honest. Everybody want to be right,” reminded me of working in Gujarat when "state-sanctioned" violence, torture, and rape broke out across the state, primarily with Hindus attacking Muslims.
Although Hindu by birth, I was working there for a non-denominational organization. I was 20. Under 24-hour curfew, the media were saturated with images of brutality happening just down the street. More importantly, the dialogue of friends and colleagues concentrated on “us” versus “them.”
Recently, a friend read my personal narrative and asked, “Didn’t the Hindus realize the irony that came with attaching terms of violence to the Muslims?” Well no. Not the Hindus that took a side. They felt they were right and all Muslims were wrong. As for me, in addition to coping with the sheer force of violence, I was equally faced with a personal crisis — the Hindus I met believed I was part of “them,” but I just wanted to be human and I wanted the brutality to stop.
Robi and Ali’s story makes me imagine that organizations like Parents Circle - Family Forumcan break down the centuries of opposing sides that have persisted between Hindus and Muslims.
Arresting. From the Mail & Guardian, this difficult and disturbing set of images accompanied by an interview with Leon Botha, an artist and Progeria survivor. He is 24 years old. A Friday afternoon video *pause* in a day that leaves me reflective.
(Thanks to Boing Boing for their post leading me to this slideshow.)
“I tend to think that fictional characters are in some ways more real than biological human beings. Think of Victorian England. How many people from that era can you remember?. I would say that Sherlock Holmes is more real than the anonymous people who came and went and lived and died in east London. To be a fictional character like that is not such a bad fate.”—
Last week, we lost fiction writer J.D. Salinger and historian Howard Zinn. In the days after their deaths, I noticed Salinger quotes like this one from Catcher in the Rye peppering friends’ Facebook feeds:
"I don’t care if it’s a sad good-bye or a bad good-bye, but when I leave a place I like to know I’m leaving it. If you don’t, you feel even worse."
I haven’t read The Catcher in the Rye since high school, but that voice of Holden Caulfield’s is so recognizable and distinct — like someone I know really well but haven’t talked to in awhile. People have been posting RIP Howard Zinn tributes, but many don’t feature memorable quotes, which reminded me of Mary Doria Russell’s commentary about the enduring imprint of fictional characters.
What about you? Are there characters from beloved books whose imprint has stuck with you over time? Do you have quotes from these fictional friends to share?