Cancer made me feel completely misunderstood and out of place, but it also made me more self-aware. It gave me a new perspective on the world, helping me appreciate simple dialogues with loved ones and strangers. Above all, it was transformative and empowering, giving the knowledge that only an experience like this could impart: to know what it means to be empathetic. This is my story of Tisha B’Av.
The first word for cancer to appear in medical literature, back in the time of Hippocrates around 400 BCE, was karkinos, from the Greek word for crab; it’s a linguistic coincidence, but to me it seems connected to the similar-sounding word kinos, the elegies for Tisha B’Av. Since that hour on my bed at camp three summers ago, I have searched for the notebook where I wrote my own kinos and filled pages with my own pain, but I haven’t found it. Maybe like the old Jewish custom to bury the books of kinos deep in the ground, in the hopes of not needing to use them the following year (with the rebuilding of the Temple), I buried them somewhere deep in my room. What I feared then as my life’s end, like the Temples’ destruction, turned out to require of me the courage to begin again.
—Raffi Leicht, from her powerful piece in Tablet Magazine, “How Tisha B’Av Helped Me Heal”
If you read one thing today, be sure it’s this contemplative personal history of a young, observant Jewish student who says that “cancer, and a year of chemotherapy, gave me a new perspective on Jewish holidays — starting with Tisha B’Av.”
A Better Title for Our Show with Poet Christian Wiman?
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
It took several months, but I was finally able to make the case that Christian Wiman was a voice we needed to put on the air after seeing the strong response to his conversation with Bill Moyers on PBS. He was good; he also seemed nervous, and I wondered if that didn’t have to do with being on television being asked questions by one of America’s best interviewers.
And that’s where the beauty of radio comes in. Rather than setting up a face-to-face interview, we set up an ISDN line — an extremely high-quality telephone line that captures the intimate aspects of a person’s voice — with Krista in a studio in St. Paul, Minnesota and Wiman in a studio in Chicago, Illinois. Methinks you’ll hear a somewhat different Christian Wiman that will add to the sum of your life.
That said, I’m not too wild about the title of this show though: “Remembering God.” It doesn’t do the interview justice or capture what’s relatable for many listeners out there: being raised in a faith rooted in family and culture, losing that devotion and belief in a greater Being, and returning to some type of belief that perhaps is more mature but less intense.
If you get a chance, take a listen and tell me what you might have titled it. There’s no doubt we will rebroadcast this show, and I’d be more than glad to shepherd your suggestions so we can make way for a better title!
From Outside Faith and Within, Being Religious Is Being Transformed
by Krista Tippett, host
Recently I spoke to a class of college students — by way of Skype — in southern Minnesota. We talked about how religion is portrayed through news media. As often in my experience, this was a critical discussion about the narrow and often inflammatory way religion comes up, and usually in the context of politics.
I asked them if they felt at all represented in media portrayals, or how they might. One young man in the back of the classroom said, “I don’t think there is any real expression of what it means to be religious now. It’s different.”
He’s right. I think about this all the time. There has been a dramatic break with ways of being spiritual and religious that held, in the West, for many generations.
Before I created this radio show, I spent two years interviewing people across the Christian Church — from Armenian Orthodox to Nazarene Holiness — who had in some way been involved in the ecumenical movement that surged after World War II and through the 1960s. Sitting with them, probing their memories, I relived the absolute shock and thrill of first encounters between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. This felt unprecedented, impossible, and utterly liberating. It’s not just that faith looked new; the whole world looked full of possibility and kinship that had not been there before.
Rigid, rule-bound ways of being religious — of being identified not merely by the same denomination but perhaps the very same church or synagogue your parents and grandparents attended before you — have transformed in a handful of generations.
Strong religious identities survive and thrive. But more than ever before, even in their most conservative iterations, they are chosen. And alongside them is a world of flux and questioning — a new phenomenon of people who have been raised with more questions than answers, more choices than givens. They are not abandoning religion, though, or revealing it as something primitive that modernity has outgrown (as intellectuals since the Enlightenment have predicted they would). They are rediscovering and reinventing it.
I did not realize, before I spoke with Christian Wiman, how provocatively and profoundly he has become a poetic witness and voice for this change. He grew up in a West Texas world soaked in a particular charismatic Christianity. When he left that world behind, its religious core ceased to make sense.
For many people who were never religious or who leave the religion of their childhoods behind, it’s the experience of having children of their own that brings an urgency to the question of what they believe. For Christian Wiman, it was the experience of love — of falling deeply in love with the woman who would become his wife. Because he is a poet, perhaps, he became wonderfully articulate about the power of love to make life more vivid, to make us reach for the best in ourselves, to feel we have touched transcendence and to want to rise to that experience. And then, hard on the heels of that, he was diagnosed with a mysterious blood cancer that could kill him in 30 days or 30 years.
Christian Wiman believes that a whole new religious language is being created. It will include traditional religious insights and language, but will also reach beyond them — or better approximate the animating essence of them. He even imagines “that God calls some people to unbelief in order that faith can take new forms.”
From outside faith and within it, Christian Wiman has pondered this question: “How does one remember God, reach for God, realize God in the midst of one’s life if one is constantly being overwhelmed by that life?” You don’t need to be diagnosed with cancer these days to share in that question.
This conversation, “Remembering God,” about what he has learned about faith, and how he is living his questions, is rich with humility, challenge, and an infectious courage.
Bill Moyers Interview with Christian Wiman on Poetry, Love, Faith, and Cancer
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
For several months, we’d been batting around the idea of interviewing Christian Wiman. We knew of his poetry and had read Every Riven Thing, his latest book of poems. And I was incredibly interested in his successful approach to reviving Poetry magazine as its editor.
But, it wasn’t until I was watching Bill Moyers’ interview with Wiman one Friday night though — and the ensuing response online — that I pushed him to the top of our list. Gratefully, he accepted our invitation and our host Krista Tippett took him even deeper into his ideas about religion and God, death and the ineptitude of poetic language romanticizing it, and how poetry can become a “false idol.”
We’ll release our show with Christian Wiman, “Remembering God,” on this Thursday, April 12th — first on podcast and then on public radio stations throughout the week. Until then, watch this marvelous interview.
I think we talk too much about how poetry can get to the edge of the sayable, can take us back and take us beyond what can be said. I love poetry, because it gives me the concrete. It gives me concrete experience and it helps me to understand my experience.
—Christian Wiman, from his interview on Moyers & Company
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Jeff Harris: 4,748 Self-Portraits and Counting
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The trajectory of this man’s story and the scenes shared will leave you simultaneously inspired and devastated. What a life!
(h/t Kate Moos + The Rumpus)
Completely Free to Be Vulnerable: Martha Depp on Art and Cancer
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
This afternoon we received the following email from Ben Depp, a photographer whose sister Martha, an artist and art teacher, was diagnosed with an advanced form of ovarian cancer:
“I put together a six-minute film on her art, life, and cancer. I think this is a good fit for your blog because of her spiritual journey through her cancer process, and it’s very interesting because of how she illustrated the process with painting and drawing. Her blog has touched thousands including many with terminal cancer.”
I don’t know why, but I started watching Ben’s quietly touching video, half expecting an against all odds type of story. It wasn’t to be.
Martha died this past Thursday at the age of 33. May she rest in peace with that brand new body she was awaiting:
“Physically, healing hasn’t happened. I mean, obviously, I still have cancer, and I’m obviously going to die from it. And it’s all over my body. But I’m kind of happy about that because I get to go to heaven sooner and be healed and get a new body and be from pain and suffering, and tears. No more tears.”
A Well-Rehearsed Ritual
by Anna Lawrence Pietroni, guest contributor
A Christmas tree stands a month after Christmas last year. Ashley, who had recently overcame thyroid cancer, kisses her son Trey, who was undergoing treatment for tuberculosis.
(photo: Fred Erlenbusch/Flickr)
Advent Tea was invented by my mother 40 years ago. My brothers were young and knocking over furniture in their pre-Christmas fervor. Mom needed to find some way of marshaling their excitement, so she built a little ritual around the lighting of a candle on a Sunday — something to pull them back to here and now and to take their eyes off December 25th. She took a few simple ingredients: cream crackers (frugal, brittle squares of air and flour), a jar of home-pickled onions, and a slab of cheddar cheese. She lit a candle, and that was it: Advent Tea.
Now my young sons are knocking over furniture, and I welcome Advent Tea as a slower, settled time on Sunday afternoons. My boys’ religious education is a little patchy. When I asked them what Advent meant, they told me “it means crackers.” But Advent Tea does what all good rituals do: it’s a simple, repeated practice that has worn grooves into our years; it brings the weight and depth of shared experience to the moment.
Last December we were far from home, living in Boston, Massachusetts. Back in England, my parents were nursing my grandfather through the final stages of cancer. Advent was about a different kind of anticipation: not of birth, but of death. We knew Grandad did not have long to live. My parents were fully occupied with making his last weeks as comfortable as they could, and yet my dad found time to buy the makings of Advent Tea and ship them in a shoebox to the States. I felt the separation keenly — daily Skype calls are no substitute for being in the room. But Advent Tea connected me with them; I ate what they ate, we all lit a candle, and this invoked a little of their presence.
I’m back home now and don’t need the shared practice to draw my loved ones close. This year, the ritual of Advent Tea is serving us in an unexpected way. We face our first Christmas not only without Grandad, but without my father too. He was vital, active, in his mid-sixties and struck down this summer by a stealthy, aggressive cancer that shocked everyone with the speed of its progression. I got home five days before he died. Our family is depleted: we’ve lost two tender, generous men who blessed the lives of everyone they knew. It’s all too easy to dread Christmas, to seek out all the gaps and silences their absence has created and fill them up with weeping. I find myself angry when explaining Advent to my children; that it’s more than cheese and crackers. I discover that the ecclesiastical construct both baffles and irritates me: the baby’s already been born. Not only that, he’s lived; he’s died; we’ve had the Resurrection. We know the story. So why all this faked ‘waiting’?’ And don’t get me started on the Second Coming.
My rant leads me to look for definitions. (What does it mean, anyway?) Advent, meaning “coming,” leads me to parousia, the Greek word used in the New Testament in connection with the Second Coming. It means “presence.”
And this is what the ritual of Advent Tea fosters: a gentle coaxing to be fully present, to cultivate what John O’Donohue calls “soul texture.” It’s a well-rehearsed ritual, so we don’t need to think about what to set out on the table. The meal is simple. There is no cooking, no performance. We laugh. We eat. We light a candle. My sons fight about who gets to blow it out. As with my brothers, 40 years ago, Advent Tea helps us all to sit still. This year, more than ever, it coaxes me to be right here right now, with all the sadness and the gratitude and joy.
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The Gift of Brain Cancer
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
This TEDtalk by branding guru Stacey Kramer is three minutes long and inspirational in its brevity and its punch. Nobody wishes for adversity but sometimes it’s a profound teacher.