In The Sixth Month (A Poem About Pregnancy and Motherhood)
by Sarah McKinstry-Brown, guest contributor
Your inner ear has fully formed. You can hear now. I’ve heard of mothers playing their unborn babies Bach and Mozart because classical music makes the brain’s spatial connections arc towards one another like the fingertips of Adam and God in the Sistine.
I’ve played no such music for you, and maybe, some day, when the boy you pine for is majoring in architecture or when your brain goes cloudy as you stare at your pop quiz in geometry, you’ll hold this against me.
Truth is, I can’t bear headphones on my stomach, won’t force you to sit in the front row seat of your mother, the auditorium, while Pachelbel’s Canon fires off the synapses of your brain. For the same reason I can’t bring myself to have your father recite French or fractions into my belly.
No sonata or tongue or equation could teach us what we’re learning already: that to be human is to be heavy, to carry more than one heart inside you.
Sarah McKinstry-Brown is a poet and performer living in Omaha, Nebraska. She is the winner of the 2011 Nebraska Book Award for Poetry for her debut collection, Cradling Monsoons, and her poems are featured in The Spoken Word Revolution Redux. You can read more of her poetry on her website and her thoughts at Cradling Monsoons.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through ourFirst Person Outreach page.
"From the day after the day of rest — that is, from the day you bring the sheaf for waving — you are to count seven full weeks, until the day after the seventh week; you are to count fifty days; and then you are to present a new grain offering to Adonai." —Leviticus 23:15-16
The same evening that 40,000 Orthodox Jews gathered for a rally to consider the dangers of the Internet (and its responsible use), an email from a local conservative synagogue arrived in my inbox to remind me of a ritual for observant Jews to count the Omer. The email message notes which day of the Omer should be counted after sundown, and comes with a prayer written both in English and in Hebrew. You can also get an app for it, follow reminders from Twitter @CountTheHomer, or read the daily prayers via your RSS feed.
“The preference for symmetry was the product of non-differential conditioning.”—
Photo by Mark Round/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0
Researchers at the University of Ottawa discovered that bumblebees don’t have a natural preference for symmetry in nature. In the journal Learning and Motivation, the Canadian scientists’ found that once bees learn to distinguish bilateral symmetry by rewards for symmetry, they begin to strive for the perfect flower.
Our Words Are the Most Powerful and Connective Tool We Have
by Krista Tippett, host
Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye perform at Da Poetry Lounge in Los Angeles in 2011. (photo: Da Poetry Lounge)
I experienced Sarah Kay at a gathering on Nantucket Island last fall. Collected there were the CEO of Google, the founder of the X PRIZE, and an eminent Broadway director. But each time this lovely 23-year-old took the stage to perform a poem, the audience quieted, reflected, and delighted in a completely different way. On YouTube, at TED, and in classrooms around the world, Sarah Kay has become an inspiration and role model for teenagers (and others).
She herself is well aware that it might sound surprising that poetry could galvanize a modern audience. When she and her friend and fellow poet, Phil Kaye, go into schools to introduce Project V.O.I.C.E., she says she finds herself fighting two sides to the same argument. She reminds teachers and administrators that what we call “spoken word poetry” is the same thing Shakespeare and Homer were about. To skeptical teenagers — who, she says, have often internalized an idea that they should shield themselves against amazement — she points out that spoken word poetry is also what Regina Spektor and Jay-Z do. As soon as we forget this, we reinvent it.
Sarah Kay talks about helping teenagers find their voices, which feels like familiar language in the 21st century. Listen to her closely — and take in the layers of response you have to her own poetry — and you see that she is doing something much more instructive and nourishing.
Her Japanese-American grandmother says she is an old soul. There’s something to that. In her slam poetry and spoken word poetry and singing and teaching, Sarah Kay is reminding young people today that our words are the most powerful connective tool we have — and not merely our most personal tool. We are called to be creative with our words, and careful without words, in our age that is technological but still as human as before.
I’ll end by pointing you to Sarah Kay’s performance of her poem, “Hiroshima.” She wrote this after a post-high school trip to Japan with her cousins. She did a lot of thinking there, as she tells it, about what we mean when we say we want to leave an impact on the world. We’ve also interspersed the sound of her performing other poems between a quietly beautiful conversation with me, where she puts words to what she knows about poetry, stories, and what happens within and between human beings.
When a Jain Marries a Bengali: An Indian Love Story That Defied Tradition
by Benjamin Gottlieb, guest contributor
Ashok Jain, his wife Neena, and family at their home in New Delhi. (Photo by Benjamin Gottlieb)
On the day of his wedding, Ashok Jain’s parents beat him mercilessly after he told them he married a Hindu woman.
“They didn’t accept my marriage,” said Mr. Jain, whose family practices Jainism, an ancient Indian religion that emphasizes non-violence. “They asked me to walk out of the home without anything… without even a toothbrush.”
Ashok Jain left his parents’ home in New Delhi 34 years ago with nothing but the clothes on this back. His marriage to Neena, a Bengali Hindu, tore his family apart; his parents, completely baffled by their son’s desire to marry outside his Jain religion, disowned him. He would not see his parents until his son’s first birthday, five years later.
In a traditional Indian marriage, partners are arranged for children by their parents, often at very young ages. The idea of wedding for love — let alone outside of one’s community — is seen historically as taboo. But Mr. Jain’s story of breaking conventional attitudes toward marriage constitutes a growing trend in India’s urban communities that rejects arranged marriages as the only acceptable union.
“The more important thing which spoke to me — above love and all that — was that I had to live for my own identity,” Mr. Jain, who works as a tour guide based in Delhi, said. “I wanted to stand on my own two feet and do what was right, regardless of any social pressure.”
A Complex System of Class in Castes
Strict laws concerning marriage in India are fortified by caste, a complex system of social stratification indigenous to the subcontinent. The system is demarcated by four major groupings, known as the varnas, and further stratified into subcastes or jati.
Mr. Jain’s family is from the third caste, known as the Vaishyas, which make up the merchant class of India. His wife, on the other hand, comes from a Brahman family, the highest caste.
“Surprisingly, the resistance came from my family, even though I was marrying up, so to speak, and she was marrying down,” Mr. Jain said.
Ashok and Neena met in Buenos Aires in mid-1970s while both of their fathers worked in India’s foreign service. At first, their families accepted Ashok and Neena’s friendship because, “we needed a fourth person for bridge,” Neena joked.
But when things became serious, Mr. Jain’s family, which he describes as more traditional, became very reticent to the prospect of them getting married. The thought of ripping apart their families forced the two to separate.
“We had decided that she would go her way and see boys and I would go my ways and see other girls,” Mr. Jain recalled. “We agreed to call each other when we decided to get married to someone else.”
After numerous failed attempts by their parents to arrange a marriage for each of them, Ashok and Neena decided to forego tradition.
“When we made the phone call, I said ‘I’m not getting married to anybody’ and she said the same thing,” Mr. Jain said. “And so we said, ‘What the hell?’”
Back in Delhi, the two wed at an Arya Samaj temple, a small sect in Hinduism that, among other progressive ideas, denounced the caste system in 1978. Unlike the typical Indian wedding, which boasts hundreds of guests and lavish party decor, Ashok and Neena’s marriage only included a few close friends; their wedding attendance, or lack thereof, would later exemplify the first few years of their lives together.
“Looking back, I was satisfied with whatever we had,” Neena, who works in Argentina’s New Delhi embassy, said. “It was hard to bring the kids up alone, especially the first year with my eldest son. Not having anyone to help me out, the frustration at times of taking care of our kids… that was hard.”
Intercaste Marriage in Rural and Urban Areas of India
In Mr. Jain’s India — which he describes as urban, educated, and modern — intercaste and interfaith marriages are becoming more commonplace. His two sons married sisters from the same Punjabi-Hindu family, and his close friends are made up of those who have either married outside of their faith or have progressive ideas about marriage.
“But my India is not the real India,” Mr. Jain said. “Changing norms, changing traditions, breaking traditions. This is not happening for a large part of the country.”
“Intercaste marriage is confined mostly to society’s elite,” said Sohail Hashmi, a writer and historian living in Delhi. “In [India’s] major cities, if you fall in love with someone from the wrong caste, it’s not so bad. But in rural parts of the country, marrying outside your caste could spell banishment or, in extreme cases, death.”
The killings Mr. Hashmi references stem from well-known horror stories in Indian khaps, or social councils in rural villages.
A common afterthought in an interfaith or intercaste marriage is the identity of the couple’s children. In a society that places great importance on one’s caste and religion for the purpose of identity, the children of interfaith marriages run the risk of being ostracized by society.
But that was never a concern for Mr. Jain and his two sons. When asked what his children’s caste or religion is, he responded emphatically, “No caste. No religion.”
“If you were to break it down, I’d say geographically I’m from Delhi but do I follow religion? No, I don’t,” said Sunny, Mr. Jain’s second son. “I had a very secular education as well, so until the end of high school I never really gave this a thought about ‘who is who’.”
When asked how he self-identifies, Sunny, a 30-year-old software entrepreneur, replied with a smile, “I don’t.”
Despite all turmoil associated with Ashok’s decision to marry outside his community, he admitted he now holds a more favorable opinion of arranged marriage.
“There have been cases when young people have come to my wife and I and said, ‘Oh uncle, you did this… so let us know what do you think?’ I tell them that it is not an easy decision, but it’s your decision,” he said.
“You have to decide what you want, decide what is right and wrong… and then, you have to face the baby.”
Benjamin Max Gottlieb is a multimedia journalist and photographer from Los Angeles, California. He is currently a web producer at The Washington Post and the art director of InTheFray.org. Follow him on Twitter at @benjamin_max.
Last fall, our host Krista Tippett attended the inaugural gathering of entrepreneurs, journalists, scientists, and artists who came together “to consider big ideas and the varying arc of those ideas as they shift from inception to action.” One of the other attendees was Ms. Kay.
As we were producing this show, Krista remembered her inspiring performance of the poem. Alas, it was nowhere to be found online, so she reached out to the project’s founder, Tom Scott, and received this fine recording. We did a bit of EQ’ing and compression and, voila!, we had our ending.
Enhancing YouTube Audio of Sarah Kay’s “Tshotsholoza” for Public Radio
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Making quality public radio and illustrating a guest’s point can be a tricky. Take, for instance, the poem going into the midpoint break of our interview with Sarah Kay. The clip is excerpted from Ms. Kay’s June 2010 performance of “Tshotsholoza” at the Acumen Fund’s *spark! event in New York City.
What we hoped for was a broadcast-quality recording. Unfortunately, the Acumen Fund only had a YouTube video of it. The audio is good but not great, but the strength of the content took precedent over the quality of the audio. So, our technical director stripped the audio from the video, imported it into ProTools, added some broadband noise reduction to minimize the buzz and hum, and then used audio compression to aid in some of the dynamic range.
First take a listen to the audio above. Then listen to the video below (with your eyes closed) and see if you can notice the difference.
The End of Racial and Religious Profiling in America?
by Nadia S. Mohammad, guest conributor
Police keep watch as Muslims rally in Foley Square during a protest of ethnic profiling by law enforcement in New York City. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
As the American public reads of yet another report released on governmental surveillance of Muslim American communities, it is refreshing to know that for the first time since the 9/11 attacks, the US Senate Judiciary Committee, along with various state legislatures and federal agencies, are directly addressing long-held public concerns about racial and religious profiling — a practice within law enforcement that relies solely on race, religion or ethnicity to determine possible criminal activity. With these recent developments, could we finally be seeing the beginning of the end of racial and religious profiling in America?
The Senate hearing on racial profiling, initiated by Illinois Senator Richard Durbin, took place in conjunction with Durbin’s co-sponsored bill, the “End Racial Profiling Act of 2011” (ERPA), on April 17. Racial and religious profiling has become a particularly sensitive issue for Muslim Americans in the past decade, although it affects multiple racial, ethnic, and religious minority groups in the United States. In the United States, some assume that all individuals of South Asian or Arab descent are Muslim, and that being Muslim is somehow dangerous — which has led to members of these ethnic groups being profiled. Such practices violate the constitutional right to equal treatment under the law; moreover, racial and religious profiling is ineffective as it is based on unreliable assumptions about minority groups, rather than criminal behaviour profiles.
ERPA would also provide for additional training to help law enforcement, government officials, and neighborhood watch groups avoid using such tactics.
The political debate on the effectiveness of racial and religious profiling by law enforcement goes back several decades. Interestingly enough, when it last garnered high-profile political attention, it was former President George W. Bush who proclaimed, in a February 2001 address, that racial profiling is “wrong and we will end it in America.” He went even further to say that ending racial profiling practices would not compromise security.
Then came the attacks of 9/11 and what Bush once dubbed as “wrong” became an excusable right, in the name of national security. “In the national trauma that followed 9/11, civil liberties came face to face with national security”, said Senator Durbin, and all too often the promise of national security won, at the expense of Muslim Americans and other Americans who appeared to be Muslim.
The ERPA hearing comes at a time when racial and religious profiling is being actively challenged across the nation. Numerous civil-rights advocates and legislative officials have called for an investigation and independent nonpartisan oversight of the New York Police Department (NYPD), after it was reported that the NYPD systematically surveilled Muslim Americans and certain ethnic minorities in the area without probable cause.
After several police officers were arrested for illegally targeting and harassing Hispanic Americans in Connecticut, state legislators passed a definitive bill prohibiting “the stopping, detention, or search of any person” due solely to “race, color, ethnicity, age, gender or sexual orientation.”
The decades of grassroots organizing have also allowed civil-rights groups to provide the public with better tools and technology to empower themselves when faced with harassment by law enforcement. The Sikh Coalition, for example, recently launched a mobile application that allows travellers to file direct complaints with the government if they feel they have been unfairly profiled. In turn, these groups have been able to provide advocacy organisations and legislators with better assessments of the extent and the overall ineffectiveness of racial and religious profiling.
Some federal agencies, after public pressure, are taking measures to prevent organisational discriminatory practices. Both the military and FBI have initiated steps to review their training materials, due to recent reports of their use of severely Islamophobic materials. Last month the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the US armed forces ordered a review of the military’s training material in its entirety to ensure it does not contain Islamophobic content. This month, the FBI is holding workshops titled “Combating Islamophobia: Truths and Myths about Islam.”
While it is difficult to tell, at this point, what the standards of either the military or the FBI are in determining what constitutes Islamophobic material, the attempt to instill better standards is a small step forward.
The passing of ERPA would be a significant achievement at the federal level, but undoing the damage of decades of racial and religious profiling will be a lengthy process. This is only the beginning — in going forward, more legislators and law enforcement agencies will also need to critically examine their discriminatory practices and materials while allowing for greater transparency. Local and federal law enforcement officers will need training to better understand and spot possible criminal behavior using more effective practices than racial profiling.
In ending racial and religious profiling and ensuring our civil-rights are protected, it is important to remember that we are not compromising our security; instead, we are enhancing our safety and building stronger working relationships between law enforcement and community members.
The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague.” So said the Nobel Prize-winning bacteriologist Robert Koch in 1905. A century later, that day has drawn much nearer. Today silence has become an endangered species. Our cities, our suburbs, our farm communities, even our most expansive and remote national parks are not free from human noise intrusions. Nor is there relief even at the North Pole; continent-hopping jets see to that. Moreover, fighting noise is not the same as preserving silence. Our typical anti-noise strategies — earplugs, noise cancellation headphones, even noise abatement laws — offer no real solution because they do nothing to help us reconnect and listen to the land. And the land is speaking.
We’ve reached a time in human history when our global environmental crisis requires that we make permanent life-style changes. More than ever before, we need to fall back in love with the land. Silence is our meeting place.
It is our birthright to listen, quietly and undisturbed, to the natural environment and take whatever meanings we may. Long before the noises of mankind, there were only the sounds of the natural world. Our ears evolved perfectly tuned to hear these sounds-sounds that far exceed the range of human speech or even our most ambitious musical performances: a passing breeze that indicates a weather change, the first birdsongs of spring heralding a regreening of the land and a return to growth and prosperity, an approaching storm promising relief from a drought, and the shifting tide reminding us of the celestial ballet. All of these experiences connect us back to the land and to our evolutionary past.
One Square Inch of Silence is a place in the Hoh Rain Forest, part of Olympic National Park — arguably the quietest place in the United States. But it, too, is endangered, protected only by a policy that is neither practiced by the National Park Service itself nor supported by adequate laws. My hope is that One Square Inch will trigger a quiet awakening in all those willing to become true listeners.
Preserving natural silence is as necessary and essential as species preservation, habitat restoration, toxic waste cleanup, and carbon dioxide reduction, to name but a few of the immediate challenges that confront us in this still young century. The good news is that rescuing silence can come much more easily than tackling these other problems. A single law would signal a huge and immediate improvement. That law would prohibit all aircraft from flying over our most pristine national parks.
Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything. It lives here, profoundly, at One Square Inch in the Hoh Rain Forest. It is the presence of time, undisturbed. It can be felt within the chest. Silence nurtures our nature, our human nature, and lets us know who we are. Left with a more receptive mind and a more attuned ear, we become better listeners not only to nature but to each other. Silence can be carried like embers from a fire. Silence can be found, and silence can find you. Silence can be lost and also recovered. But silence cannot be imagined, although most people think so. To experience the soul-swelling wonder of silence, you must hear it.
Silence is a sound, many, many sounds. I’ve heard more than I can count. Silence is the moonlit song of the coyote signing the air, and the answer of its mate. It is the falling whisper of snow that will later melt with an astonishing reggae rhythm so crisp that you will want to dance to it. It is the sound of pollinating winged insects vibrating soft tunes as they defensively dart in and out of the pine boughs to temporarily escape the breeze, a mix of insect hum and pine sigh that will stick with you all day. Silence is the passing flock of chestnut-backed chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches, chirping and fluttering, reminding you of your own curiosity.
Have you heard the rain lately? America’s great northwest rain forest, no surprise, is an excellent place to listen. Here’s what I’ve heard at One Square Inch of Silence. The first of the rainy season is not wet at all. Initially, countless seeds fall from the towering trees. This is soon followed by the soft applause of fluttering maple leaves, which settle oh so quietly as a winter blanket for the seeds. But this quiet concert is merely a prelude.
When the first of many great rainstorms arrives, unleashing its mighty anthem, each species of tree makes its own sound in the wind and rain. Even the largest of the raindrops may never strike the ground. Nearly 300 feet overhead, high in the forest canopy, the leaves and bark absorb much of the moisture … until this aerial sponge becomes saturated and drops re-form and descend farther … striking lower branches and cascading onto sound-absorbing moss drapes … tapping on epiphytic ferns … faintly plopping on huckleberry bushes … and whacking the hard, firm salal leaves … before, finally, the drops inaudibly bend the delicate clover-like leaves of the wood sorrel and drip to leak into the ground. Heard day or night, this liquid ballet will continue for more than an hour after the actual rain ceases.
Recalling the warning of Robert Koch, developer of the scientific method that identifies the causes of disease, I believe the unchecked loss of silence is a canary in a coal mine-a global one. If we cannot make a stand here, if we turn a deaf ear to the issue of vanishing natural quiet, how can we expect to fare better with more complex environmental crises?
Nurture Wherever It Is Cold, Nurture Wherever It Is Dark
by Preeti Kaur, guest contributor
Preeti Kaur, her mother, her brothers (one wearing a patka) and sister.
In the Sikh faith, the role of the nurturer is one, among many, of the celebrated roles of all Sikhs, regardless of gender. My own father often reminisces to me of how his mother would nurture his growth and curiosity by imparting Sikh teachings to him while he was growing up in Dharamsala, India as a post-Partition refugee family. Everyday when he returned from school, his mother recited the Janam Saakhis, a collection of “birth stories” based on the life and lessons of the first Sikh guru, Nanak Dev Ji. He remembers this nurturing time as his favorite time of the day.
I recently saw a video of Harneel Singh, an extraordinarily eloquent young American man, describing his painful experience growing up as a Sikh boy wearing a patka (a Sikh mini-turban) in school, where he was often taunted and bullied. He speaks very freely that his experience is something familiar to many young people.
The patka is worn by children in preparation for wearing a full turban as a grown Sikh. Many young Sikh boys wear patkas throughout the world, including in America, where Sikhs have lived for over one hundred years. As adults, many Sikh men (and some Sikh women) wear a full turban, or dastaar, as a display of their commitment to accepting their body as it has grown and to distinguish themselves as physically committed to a path of justice. The global political climate of recent years, where turbans are inaccurately portrayed as the garb of global terror, has increased suspicion and violence against turban-wearing Sikhs especially in the form of hate crimes, down to the youngest members of our society in the form of school bullying.
Harneel Singh shares the tender points of his story because he has been nurtured to a point of strength — perhaps through his mother or father, or perhaps through his friends, or the adults in his life, or perhaps even by nurturing his own self, giving birth to a reflective young man.
The following poem, written for the young men who wear turbans in my life, is to honor all steps in the process of nurturing. This includes the process of negative experiences entering our lives — where it is cold, where it is dark — which provide us an opportunity to nurture others and ourselves.
where ever it is dark
after school i tell my mummy i don’t want to go back tomorrow she asks me why
i tell her today in the playground kids push me punch me kick me shout POTATO HEAD! RAG HEAD! ALLADIN! OSAMA BIN LADIN! everything i am not
i throw fists back call them ugly things too i imagine the bullies as yellow toothed neon green eyed gorillas like the ones in my closet at night
my cheeks burn my heart thumps i am MAD i didn’t start this! i am just one no one listens when i yell STOP IT! LEAVE ME ALONE! i want to hide in a tent made of my sky blue bed sheets i wish for a galactic force field but no hands shield my head when the bullies rip my patka off my head
there is no superman on this playground not even pretend not sammy who i swing with everyday on the monkey-bars or alberto who swaps strawberry jelly sandwiches with me in the cafeteria not jenny who i tell knock-knock jokes with on the bus not even the adults who patrol the playground with whistles and detention slips to the principal’s office so everyone might follow the rules
after bloody noses bruises scratches after we are trees pulled out of the ground a pile of mud surrounding us our teacher mrs. jones sits us down why did you punch back she asks the teacher pulls me out of the ground some more
inside i am not a tree inside i am a match like the ones my daddy warns me not to play with an orange blue fire on a stick of arms and legs which grows short in two seconds burning my insides too fast
i go home and cry and cry i tell my mummy everything mummy wraps her arms around my shoulders tells me she loves me with her eyes she unwraps my joora lets loose my long hair runs her fingers through
mummy whispers your hair is the night sky your hair is the universe she combs my kes with a kanga twists my hair firm on top of my head a galaxy you carry high mummy says she takes the square patka angles the cloth like a diamond sets the patka on my scalp ties it tight
mummy tells me this patka crowns you one day you will wear a turban cloth as long as the seven oceans the full span of the earth will rest on your head
be brave young prince like Sahibzaadas Zorawar Singh Fateh Singh
when bullies big as kings threaten them for carrying the universe on their heads when bullies locked them three nights in the cold in the dark they raised their chins high no tears they turned their fists to hearts practiced the ways of the lion prince with questions and conversation
mummy kisses my cheeks i kiss her back
i tell her i will go back to school tomorrow i will be a shooting star prince bright and brave where ever it is cold where ever it is dark
This Mother’s Day, I celebrate my own mother and I celebrate the nurturing spirit which we can each inculcate by sharing the stories of our lives, our own janam sakhis, our own birth stories.
Preeti Kaur is an American of the Sikh faith living in San Joaquin Valley, California. You can read more of her poetry at The World I Stitch.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
This week and next week, we’re bringing people to the air who feel like discoveries. Their chosen vocations surprise and enrich the world in graceful ways. Sarah Kay, next week’s guest, is a young spoken word poet and teacher. Gordon Hempton is an acoustic ecologist, an explorer and collector of natural sound. At heart, they are both about listening as an essential, if somewhat lost, art. In very different spheres, they are leading a renaissance.
Gordon Hempton tells of a turning point when he was in his mid-20s, just a little older than Sarah Kay is now. He took a break alongside the highway on a cross-country drive, and lay down to listen to an approaching thunderstorm. He felt like he had never really listened to life before, and pledged to give himself over to it. Our producer Chris, who mixes the sound of these shows, has created an immersive experience, guided by Gordon Hempton’s ears, which will also make me a more passionate listener to “ordinary” sounds ever after.
Gordon Hempton went on to become one of the world’s first acoustic ecologists. He has gathered sounds from the Kalahari Desert, the edge of Hawaiian volcanoes, inside Sitka spruce driftwood logs of the same wood as violins. His work appears in movies, soundtracks, and video games. Along the way, he’s also invented another, related vocation — that of “silence activism.”
Sitka spruce driftwood washes ashore at Rialto Beach in Olympic National Park (photo by Bryan Matthew + Jessica Lee/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
Silence, as Gordon Hempton experiences and seeks to preserve it, is not a vacuum defined by emptiness. It’s not an absence of sound, but an absence of noise. True quiet has presence, he says, and is a “think tank of the soul.” It is quiet that is quieting.
This is one of those insights that is in the realm of re-learning as much as novelty. We live in a picture-drenched culture. Gordon Hempton suspects this is, in part, because the noise level of the 21st century is so high that we would be overwhelmed if we really focused and took it in. He helps us remember that most of the world’s creatures move through life by way of sound more than sight. The history of humanity is no different. Hearing was always a primary source of never-ending information and of staying safe, of survival. Our eyes close and stop working for us at night, but our ears work for us all the time.
Gordon Hempton also shares a fascinating piece of truth that human ears are most attuned at their peak sensitivity not to other human sounds — but to birdsong. In our not-so-distant past, the sound of birds signaled a habitat that would be compatible for human flourishing. We’ve intuitively nurtured quiet in spiritually and aesthetically nourishing spaces in our common life, like places of worship, libraries, theaters, and music halls. Gordon Hempton also tells of research that links the noise level of environments and our capacity to be actively caring toward other people.
As I was preparing to interview Gordon Hempton, I came across an essay by Pico Iyer called “The Joy of Quiet.” Iyer, a globe-trotting journalist and a non-religious person, shared how he periodically goes on retreat at a monastery. He described the other unlikely modern people he encounters there — like an MTV executive who comes to the monastery regularly with his young children, and has been transformed by the delight they can take together in a quieting, technology-free place. “The child of tomorrow,” Pico Iyer reflected, “may actually be ahead of us, in terms of sensing not what’s new, but what’s essential.”
Gordon Hempton, I think, has been ahead of a lot of us on this particular frontier. He helps us understand ourselves better as listening, contemplative creatures — not for what’s new, but what’s essential, and why.
I feel like a lot happened in the music world this week. Or maybe I was just more aware of what was going on due to my obsessive #musicdiary2012 cataloging. In any case, I want to know the absolute best song that you heard this week. The song can be brand new to the Internet, an old song…
But there is a different story in the DNA of Oklahoma politics. It’s a truly forgotten story in the relatively brief history of this state that people fled the past to create. When the former Indian Territory became Oklahoma in 1907, it had one of the most progressive constitutions in the union, influenced largely by a farmer-labor coalition. Yet small farmers and laborers—75 percent of the population of around two million by 1920—grew less secure and more economically burdened in the early years of statehood, while “New White elites” (bankers, lawyers, merchants and landlords) flourished. These increasingly downtrodden voters gave Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs 16 percent of the Oklahoma vote in 1912, compared with 6 percent nationally. And for a tumultuous moment a decade later, a semi-Socialist grassroots Oklahoma movement elected a governor. …
There are echoes of those farmers and laborers in today’s tea partiers and Wall Street occupiers, but also in Democrats and Republicans who long to recover their faith in politics. A faith in politics, and a determination to make politics work anew for common people, finds impassioned and often eloquent expression in the forgotten pages of the Reconstructionist. Its voices, and its lessons, deserve remembering.
I’m not unhappy about becoming old. I’m not unhappy about what must be. It makes me cry only when I see my friends go before me and life is emptied. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I still fully expect to see my brother again. And it’s like a dream life. But, you know, there’s something I’m finding out as I’m aging that I am in love with the world.
And I look right now, as we speak together, out my window in my studio and I see my trees and my beautiful, beautiful maples that are hundreds of years old, they’re beautiful. And you see I can see how beautiful they are. I can take time to see how beautiful they are. It is a blessing to get old. It is a blessing to find the time to do the things, to read the books, to listen to the music.
You know, I don’t think I’m rationalizing anything. I really don’t. This is all inevitable and I have no control over it. “Bumble-ardy” was a combination of the deepest pain and the wondrous feeling of coming into my own and it took a long time. It took a very long time, but it’s genuine. Unless I’m crazy. I could be crazy and you could be talking to a crazy person.
On the Universality of Creativity in the Liberal Arts and in the Sciences
by S. James Gates
In this lecture for Westmont College’s series titled “Beyond Two Cultures: The Sciences as Liberal Arts,” string theorist Jim Gates offers his thoughts on the complementary natures of science and the liberal arts — and how the human mind formulates “systems of belief” in both disciplines.
This is the first time, in a formal structured way, I’ve been asked to speak before a group of academicians on this set of issues. It is a great honor to be invited to speak on behalf of one of the two “cultures” mentioned in the commentary by C.P. Snow (1905-1980) in New Statesman. It is also a great challenge to be so called upon to speak for an entire “culture.” Of necessity, my comments were created from the vantage point of thirty or so years of working embedded within the academic/scientific culture, and specifically within the field of physics. My views have been molded by this experience.
In preparing for this conversation, I have given much thought to how I, as a scientist, could make a valuable contribution to this tradition established at Westmont College. I believe this is best accomplished by spending most of my presentation describing the attributes of the culture of science as I have experienced them and reflected upon this experience. I claim no special abilities or qualifications to be making this presentation. I am most certainly and woefully uninformed on what I am sure must be a vast liberal arts literature on science and culture. I am, however, a theoretical physicist who has made an effort to think on such matters.
The More Alert We Are in Our Bodies, The More Compassionate and Connected We Become to the World Around Us
by Krista Tippett, host
U.S. culture glorifies “perfect” bodies. At the other end of that spectrum, we champion people who fight when their bodies fail. Matthew Sanford has charted another way. In his lyrical memoir, he describes how he learned to live in his whole body again, despite an irreversible paralysis, in part through the practice of yoga. And like every story well told, his contains lessons that reach beyond the confines of one person’s experience.
Here is the kind of passage — one of several Matthew reads in this show — that made me want to understand more.
"I am forced to feel death — not the end of my life, but the death of my life as a walking person. In principle my experience is not that uncommon, only more extreme. If we can see death as more than black and white, as more than on and off, there are many versions of realized death short of physically dying. The death of a loved one sets so much in motion … Then there are also the quiet deaths. How about the day you realized you weren’t going to be an astronaut or the Queen of Sheba? … What about the day we began working not for ourselves, but rather with the hope that our kids might have a better life? Or the day we realized that, on the whole, adult life is deeply repetitive? As our lives roll into the ordinary, when our ideals sputter and dissipate, as we wash the dishes after yet another meal, we are integrating death, a little part of us is dying so that another part can live."
The “mind-body connection” is a somewhat controversial phrase, a new-age notion to some, though it has been studied and described scientifically in a multitude of forms in recent years. I have spoken with scientists engaged in that work, but none of them has impressed me with the reality of the mind-body connection as Matthew Sanford does by his mere presence.
For over a quarter century, as a result of a car accident that killed his father and sister, he has been in a wheelchair. Yet I’ve rarely sat across from a person so alive, a body so palpably whole and wholly energetic as his. He has knitted his mind and body back together again over a quarter century, wresting wholeness through layers of cultural denial.
As we speak, Matthew Sanford makes me aware of the seamless cooperation of my mind and uninjured body, a synergy most of us take completely for granted. I stand up and walk as soon as the desire crosses my mind; I gesture with my hands to illustrate an idea I am passionate about; I shake my foot as my own engagement in conversation rises.
This kind of fluid connection was severed in Sanford. Yet as he struggled to come to terms with his body’s new realities during years of recovery and violent corrective surgeries, he encountered another kind of mind-body connection that our culture practices instinctively, reflexively. We celebrate those who battle adversity, triumph over obstacles, beat the odds. We love the 80-year-old man who runs a marathon, the injured hero who never gives up pursuing the technology that will enable him to walk again. This is the mind-body connection translated as a battle of will over matter.
Matthew Sanford heeded these kinds of images for many years. He accepted the advice that he should declare the lower half of his body dead and pour all of his energy into creating bodybuilder arms. He lived for years, he says, feeling like a floating upper torso. Then in a time of renewed pain he gave yoga a try. He was fortunate to have a first teacher who specialized in Iyengar yoga.
Iyengar focuses on precision and alignment, qualities Sanford’s body needed and could grasp. Through yoga, he came to a conviction that healing, for him, did not have to mean walking again. Yet he learned to experience his paralyzed limbs in a new way. He describes it as a subtle sensation of energy to which he has patiently learned to attune himself, an alternative to the crisp and clear sensation of nerve endings most of us take for granted. He writes, “My mind can feel into my legs.” Speaking with him about this, coming to a vicarious sense of it myself, is fascinating.
We also speak at some length about a fascinating central idea Matthew Sanford has developed in and through his disability. He speaks of the “silence” he encountered where his mind and body stopped communicating with one another. But this core silence is within each of us, only grown more evident through his injury. He describes it variously in his book and in our conversation, as “the aspect of our consciousness that makes us feel slightly heavy;” “the place where stress lands;” and “the source of our feeling of loss, but also of a sense of awe.”
This is the quality of solitary apartness evoked by the existentialist philosophers. But as Sanford understands it, this silence both separates us from one another and, in its universality, joins us together. In this I sense that Matthew Sanford, through an experience of bodily paralysis, has put new words and a new picture to a core human truth at once both spiritual and physical.
I often feel that I will never be quite the same again after my radio conversations, but rarely is that conviction so tactile and embodied as this time. Through his work with both able-bodied and disabled students of yoga, Matthew Sanford tells me, he sees that the more alert we are in our own bodies, the more compassionate and connected we become to the world around us. Thanks to him, acts like washing the dishes and taking the stairs become moments of gratitude for the grace of my body and all of life.
I’d like to send you off this Saturday with a pairing of tracks from the Beastie Boys’ Ill Communication: “Shambhala” and “Boddhisatva Vow.” After I read Tricycle's interview with Adam Yauch about his life and his commitment to Buddhism in the mid-1990s, I came across this photo and caption by an Aussie, Julian Wearne:
I woke up this morning to hear the sad news about Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch’s passing after a three-year battle with cancer. I felt the only appropriate thing to do was put Paul’s Boutique on the turntable, turn it up, and enjoy one of the finest hip-hop albums ever released.
I’m not religious at all, and I’m not at all educated on the teachings of Buddhism, but I do think MCA’s interpretation of Buddhism can teach anyone a lot. From his song “Bodhisattva Vow”:
A Strength From Within To Go The Length Seeing Others Are As Important As Myself I Strive For A Happiness Of Mental Wealth With The Interconnectedness That We Share As One Every Action That We Take Affects Everyone So In Deciding For What A Situation Calls There Is A Path For The Good For All”
I’ve listened to these tracks so many times but had never really thought about the lyrics and what they said or whom they came from. It should’ve been obvious, but it took an Aussie’s photo on Flickr to shine a light on them in a new way. I hope you take a few minutes to listen to these tracks and remember the life of MCA, a phenomenal artist and a fine human being.
“I think there are a lot of misconceptions in society in general about what actually brings happiness, we’re caught up in all these ideas that having a lot of money or having somebody beautiful to have sex with or having some cool objects, having a cool car, cool stereo or whatever is gonna make us happy. And those things actually don’t bring us happiness. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about how compassion or altruism actually brings a person happiness and I think that’s a lot of what’s trying to be put forward through the concerts and it seems like the optimum way to put those ideas forward is through helping the Tibetans gain their freedom because those values are so inherent within Tibetan culture.”—
—Adam Yauch (1964-2012), MCA of the Beastie Boys, from the Frontline report "Dreams of Tibet"
Yauch, best known by his rap moniker MCA of the Beastie Boys and his activism for Tibetan freedom, died yesterday from a three-year battle with cancer. Jaweed Kaleem offers a fine round-up for The Huffington Post on how Buddhist spirituality permeated his life and music, noting that he was “born in Brooklyn, New York to a Catholic father and a Jewish mother, [and] had practiced Buddhism since 1994.”
In the photo to the right, Yauch speaks at a press conference on June 13, 1998 prior to the Tibet Freedom concert at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC.
In a recent New York Times article Susanne Güsten described the difficulties that Syriac Christians faced throughout the history of Republican Turkey. This story reflects the traumatic consequences of the nation-building process that modern Turkey has experienced since the 1920s and 1930s. The Turkish official national identity was based on the ideology of Kemalism, which idealized a homogenous society defined by secularism and nationalism. This ideal, which has been alien to diversity, made life very difficult for ethnic and religious minorities.
Turkish secularism, in contrast to the American experience of secularism that separated religion and the state, excluded religion from the public sphere and aimed to keep it under state control. In an aim to distance itself from the Ottoman Muslim past, the state took a hostile position against religion. It banned organizing around religion. Even today, all religious associations, including Muslim ones, do not exist legally. Related to this, the state does not allow religious education outside of the state domain. The state itself took the responsibility to teach a Hanefi/Sunni interpretation of Islam. The motive of the “secular” state was to institute an “official Islam.” Only a limited number of non-Muslims, excluding Syriacs, were given the right to open religious schools.
Turkish nationalism perceived ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians, as a threat to the ideal of a homogeneous Turkish nation. In the early years of the Republic, Turkey and Greece had large-scale population exchanges in an effort to homogenize their respective societies. Turkish Muslims in Western Thrace moved to Turkey while Greek Christians in Istanbul moved to Greece. In later years when nationalism peaked, the status of minorities including Christians worsened. For example, in the late 1960s, when Turkey had international problems with Greece over the Cyprus conflict, the state expropriated land and properties owned by Christian community foundations by using simple legal technicalities. Again when Turkey had problems with Greece, Turkey closed down the historical Theological School of Halki, which was opened to train Greek Orthodox clergy under Ottoman rule in 1844. Additionally, due mostly to the nationalist security perceptions of the state, religious minorities faced restrictions in opening up spaces for religious practice.
Only after Turkish secularism and nationalism started to weaken in recent years, the Turkish government implemented new reforms enhancing the religious freedoms of Christian minorities in Turkey. Although many significant problems still exist, the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party has passed several laws to enhance religious liberties for minorities over the last decade. The state passed new laws to return all expropriated properties to non-Muslim community foundations or to compensate the community foundations for properties transferred to third parties. The new laws made it easy to open houses of worship even though some local authorities still keep creating bureaucratic hurdles for non-Muslim minorities.
However, the recent reforms are far from satisfactory. They have not yet offered a solution to many problems that Christian minorities face. Religious communities still do not exist legally and they cannot establish religion-based associations and organizations. Similarly, religious groups cannot open educational institutions to teach religion. The Theological School of Halki, for example, is still closed.
The only comprehensive solution to these problems is to redefine Turkish secularism to make it more inclusive. Secularism in its current form is used as an ideological tool to guarantee state control of religion. For religious freedoms to thrive, Turkish secularism should be transformed into a constitutional principle that guarantees religious freedoms while keeping religion out of the control of the state. This change will prevent the state from intervening in the internal affairs of religious communities including Christian minorities. A change that allows an autonomous sphere to religious minorities would also bring them legal guarantees. While it is true that the current government in Turkey is more tolerant of Christian minorities than its predecessors, Turkey still needs a legal framework that protects the freedoms of Christian minorities. Only a transformation of Turkish secularism could make such a legal framework possible.
Ramazan Kılınç is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.