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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.
None of us can truly know what we mean to other people, and none of us can know what our future self will experience. History and philosophy ask us to remember these mysteries, to look around at friends, family, humanity, at the surprises life brings — the endless possibilities that living offers — and to persevere. There is love and insight to live for, bright moments to cherish, and even the possibility of happiness, and the chance of helping someone else through his or her own troubles. Know that people, through history and today, understand how much courage it takes to stay. Bear witness to the night side of being human and the bravery it entails, and wait for the sun. If we meditate on the record of human wisdom we may find there reason enough to persist and find our way back to happiness. The first step is to consider the arguments and evidence and choose to stay. After that, anything may happen. First, choose to stay.
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Jennifer Michael Hecht, from Stay: A History of Suicide and Philosophies Against It 

Upon hearing the news of Robin Williams’ death last night, I offer these necessary words from the closing chapter of Ms. Hecht’s book. Read the final chapter here and listen to Krista Tippett’s interview with the historian-philosopher-poet

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Moni Basu has written this magical narrative about the process of dying in India. Her writing is thoroughly engaging and wonderfully informative. She weaves in a personal narrative that few reporters know how to do so well:

"I’d thought about losing my parents throughout the week as I listened to Shukla talk about dying. Human relationships, he told me, mean little at the end of one’s life. Part of gaining moksha and joining God, he said, is to let go of all earthly desires, including the attachments we have to loved ones.
The concept is difficult for me to grasp, and even more so as I watch Upadhyay and his brothers. The oldest lights a fire inside his father’s mouth for the last time, then the workers on the ghat set the entire pyre alight. It can take four or more hours for the flames to consume the body of an adult man.
I’d never thought much about rebirth or the possibility of moksha when my own father died. But I do now.”

My only beef is the title, "Hotel Death," which I’m certain the writer had nothing to do with since it doesn’t even come close to evoking the depth of this article. Despite that, an absolute must-read for us Westerners.
Moni Basu has written this magical narrative about the process of dying in India. Her writing is thoroughly engaging and wonderfully informative. She weaves in a personal narrative that few reporters know how to do so well:

"I’d thought about losing my parents throughout the week as I listened to Shukla talk about dying. Human relationships, he told me, mean little at the end of one’s life. Part of gaining moksha and joining God, he said, is to let go of all earthly desires, including the attachments we have to loved ones.
The concept is difficult for me to grasp, and even more so as I watch Upadhyay and his brothers. The oldest lights a fire inside his father’s mouth for the last time, then the workers on the ghat set the entire pyre alight. It can take four or more hours for the flames to consume the body of an adult man.
I’d never thought much about rebirth or the possibility of moksha when my own father died. But I do now.”

My only beef is the title, "Hotel Death," which I’m certain the writer had nothing to do with since it doesn’t even come close to evoking the depth of this article. Despite that, an absolute must-read for us Westerners.

Moni Basu has written this magical narrative about the process of dying in India. Her writing is thoroughly engaging and wonderfully informative. She weaves in a personal narrative that few reporters know how to do so well:

"I’d thought about losing my parents throughout the week as I listened to Shukla talk about dying. Human relationships, he told me, mean little at the end of one’s life. Part of gaining moksha and joining God, he said, is to let go of all earthly desires, including the attachments we have to loved ones.

The concept is difficult for me to grasp, and even more so as I watch Upadhyay and his brothers. The oldest lights a fire inside his father’s mouth for the last time, then the workers on the ghat set the entire pyre alight. It can take four or more hours for the flames to consume the body of an adult man.

I’d never thought much about rebirth or the possibility of moksha when my own father died. But I do now.”

My only beef is the title, "Hotel Death," which I’m certain the writer had nothing to do with since it doesn’t even come close to evoking the depth of this article. Despite that, an absolute must-read for us Westerners.

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This picture is achingly beautiful — and hits much too close to home. Read Jezebel’s post about this touching father/daughter tribute.
(via trentgilliss)
This picture is achingly beautiful — and hits much too close to home. Read Jezebel’s post about this touching father/daughter tribute.
(via trentgilliss)

This picture is achingly beautiful — and hits much too close to home. Read Jezebel’s post about this touching father/daughter tribute.

(via trentgilliss)

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What if we understand death as a developmental stage — like adolescence, or midlife? Dr. Ira Byock is a leading figure in palliative care and hospice in the U.S. He says we lose sight of “the remarkable value” of the time of life we call dying if we forget that it is always a personal and human event, and not just a medical one:

"I don’t want to romanticize it. Nobody looks forward to it. But we shouldn’t assume that it’s only about suffering and its avoidance or its suppression. That in addition to, concurrent with the unwanted difficult physical and emotional social strains that illness and dying impose, there is also experiences, interactions, opportunities that are of profound value for individuals and all who love them."

Krista Tippett’s interview with Ira Byock on “contemplating mortality.”

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trentgilliss:

I adore these closing stanzas from this poem by Marie Howe:

For months I dreamt of knucklebones and roots,

the slabs of sidewalk pushed up like crooked teeth by what grew underneath.

The underneath —that was the first devil.
It was always with me.

And that I didn’t think you — if I told you — would understand any of this —

She is one of those all-too-rare poets who can read her work with a fluidity and a clarity that doesn’t sound forced. It was such an honor to edit and produce this interview with her for On Being.

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An enchanting hour of poetry drawing on the ways family and religion shape our lives. Marie Howe, poet laureate of New York State, works and plays with her Catholic upbringing, the universal drama of family, and the ordinary time that sustains us. The moral life, she says, is lived out in what we say as much as what we do — and so words have a power to save us.

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We revive the too-long-dormant Tuesday evening melody with these haunting lyrics of The Long Wives, the solo project of Brandy St. John. The song is rather dark, the religious imagery visceral, and somehow I find some sustenance in its beauty:

They’re fighting in the streets
They’re fighting on the TV
Did you learn to make a fist
Before you learned to speak?
And did you cut your teeth a little too soon?
The answer lies in your eyes
It lies in our wounds

The violence of man
The violence of the beast
The violence in your heart 
Your violence for me
And the blood it runs
And the blood it runs
And the blood it runs by

The master comes to eat
The blood and the body
Now he’s full of Christ
And the life of the party
He has a gun for you, he has a gun for me
He just asks that we all send him some money
All he really needs is a little more money…

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Kate Braestrup with Game WardensThis week we feel especially privileged to do the work that we do. A brief post by our senior editor about the decision-making behind this week’s show and why it matters to us. From trentgilliss:

For those of you who don’t know, I edit and produce a national public radio show called On Being with Krista Tippett. It’s played on about 250 public radio stations at different times throughout the week. Part of my gig is deciding our programming line-up. Why do I tell you this?

About a week ago, we had a gap in our schedule and I suggested rebroadcasting our interview with Kate Braestrup, a UU chaplain who works with Maine’s game wardens on search-and-rescue missions and such events. She also lost a husband early in her life. For some, it seemed counter-intuitive to put a show on about death, loss, and grief during this festive time of year. But we know that the holidays can be a lonely time of despair, depression, and loss for many; I hoped our program could meet those people suffering in some minor way — and remind all of us the gift of grace and happiness during this season.

I never could’ve envisioned (nor wanted to) this horrifying scenario before us. And so I worried about the programming decision.

Well, my beloved wife Shelley and I just finished listening to the production on MPR News (yes, believe it or not, on the radio). Kate Braestrup’s stories and insights on love, death, and loss are profound — and more relevant than I could have ever imagined. It’s wise people like her who are most needed during our country’s darkest hours and brightest holidays. Bella and I cried a little; we danced.

This show doesn’t make sense of the tragedy in Connecticut; nothing can. But, Kate Braestrup offers a framing for how to think about love and tragedy, how we live forward. If you’re looking for something to listen to with your loved ones, listen to this show. And, if you do, please write me and share your thoughts. It would mean a lot to me: tgilliss@onbeing.org or @trentgilliss.

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Serpent handlers, like other Christians, have chosen something to emphasize. Over the course of two thousand years, others have chosen the precise nature and identity of Christ, the proper understanding and practice of the Eucharist, the correct way to baptize, the proper way to organize a church, which day of the week to call the Sabbath, and any number of other things as the sine qua non of being a true Christian, and in each case some other Christians have regarded that defining center of faith as ‘adiaphora’ — something indifferent.
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Mack Wolford + KateSeth Perry, excerpted from his commentary "Adiaphora and the Dark Extremes of an Eccentric Faith"

How do we respect the depth of a Christian snake handler’s faith — and talk about it without caricaturing or lauding his life?

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The Quiet Man

by Norman Allen, guest contributor

N.T. Allen

For my father’s memorial service, my sister suggested that I stand before the congregation and say, “We’d like to share with you exactly what it was like to live with our father. So let’s have a moment of silence.”

It’s not that Dad didn’t speak, it’s that he didn’t speak about the personal. He could rant against George McGovern and lift Richard Nixon up as a god, but remain entirely silent about my sister’s adolescent breakdown. A few years later, he declared my hero Jimmy Carter the “greatest embarrassment the White House has ever seen,” but didn’t say a word about my recent emergence from the closet.

Dad built his life on the foundations of a suburban existence: retirement plans, company loyalty, and a close-knit family that gathered to wave him down the street each morning and waited each night for his return. True to his class and time, he made himself a Manhattan before dinner and smoked incessantly. No one was going to change that.

But behind this rigid façade lay a man tragically eager to please. As kids we could always talk him into a double-scoop cone, if we could just get him away from Mom. As an adult, I learned that this tendency went much deeper.

Dad went to medical school because his parents told him to. Failing that, he accepted their second choice and became a mechanical engineer. In a rare moment of intimacy, on a father-son camping trip to the High Sierra, he confessed that his dream was to be a park ranger. I wonder what his life would have been if he’d had the courage to follow that ambition. Perhaps he would have found his voice leading nature hikes and campfire programs.

Dad never broke the habit of trying to please his parents, but he made sure that we didn’t suffer the same fate. He applauded my high school theatricals and provided financial support for a creative college major. On my weekly calls home, he always made sure that I was writing, though he never inquired about the specifics.

True to his nature, he remained silent and stoic through my mother’s seven-year battle with cancer, and continued so when he was diagnosed himself two years after her death. During Dad’s final months, I bathed him, mopped up his bodily fluids, and listened for changes in his breathing. The only concern he voiced was for the future of his dog, an oversized Sheltie who watches as I write.

It was Dad’s Lutheran pastor who put his silence into context. Older congregants, he said, had expressed a need for guidance as they considered death’s approach. My father provided the model they were seeking. Church members who visited in his final weeks all returned with the same tale: Dad was quiet, uncomplaining, unafraid.

In the end, we didn’t ask for a moment of silence at Dad’s memorial service. Instead I shared a story about Saint Francis sending his brothers out to spread the Gospel and telling them, “If necessary, use words.” When one of Dad’s elderly neighbors caught my eye and smiled her appreciation, I knew we’d made the right choice.

Dad was a quiet man, but he renounced his parents’ prejudices, encouraged his children’s ambitions, overcame his own homophobia to welcome new family members, and remained a steady presence through his wife’s long illness. If St. Francis is right, and our actions speak louder than our words, you might say the man never shut up.


Norman AllenNorman Allen is a playwright living in Washington, DC. His plays include In The Garden (Charles MacArthur Award), Nijinsky’s Last Dance (Helen Hayes Award), and The House Halfway, to be produced at this summer’s Source Theatre Festival in Washington, DC.

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.

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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.

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Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), from his interview on NPR’s Fresh Air

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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"I would just like people to believe that humility — listening to the other person and trying to understand the other person — and forgiving are important." —David Plant, who reflects on his legacy knowing his skin cancer has spread to other parts of his body
Photo of David Plant with his stepson Frank Lilley courtesy of StoryCorps
"I would just like people to believe that humility — listening to the other person and trying to understand the other person — and forgiving are important." —David Plant, who reflects on his legacy knowing his skin cancer has spread to other parts of his body
Photo of David Plant with his stepson Frank Lilley courtesy of StoryCorps

"I would just like people to believe that humility — listening to the other person and trying to understand the other person — and forgiving are important."
David Plant, who reflects on his legacy knowing his skin cancer has spread to other parts of his body

Photo of David Plant with his stepson Frank Lilley courtesy of StoryCorps

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What shall we do about the elderly dying with dementia, losing who they are — how do we help them “die well”?

My mom is at the end stage. She is losing her abilities to speak, to eat. How do I help her? Is it okay to talk about dying with her? I do read to her, I tell her I love her, I see her as often as I can at her long-term care home. But as she declines, I am not sure how to help her “die well.”

I have had a great sense of healing in my time with her in this stage of life, but as I see her becoming less and less connected I am not sure what to do. How can I help her at this stage? Perhaps just being there, holding her hand, reading, I am not sure. How do we address her dying? Is it okay to talk about it? I don’t want her to die without being at peace about it.

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Annie Voldman, in response to "Contemplating Mortality"

We received this powerful note with searching questions yesterday from a listener in Vermont. What advice would you offer her, or suggestions on resources that would give her good counsel? Please leave them in the comments section and we’ll forward on. Many thanks for your help.

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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“I’ve been more than blessed with people, with miracles, with angels all around. When I’ve been in trouble and couldn’t get up the stairs, along came a neighbor, and she just said, ‘Can I help you?’…So I consider myself really blessed, and I want my children, I want everyone to know that they need to help one another. It comes back to them ten-fold.” —Ruth Wilkes, on what she would like to tell her family before she dies
Photo courtesy of StoryCorps and Suncoast Hospice (distributed with instagram)
“I’ve been more than blessed with people, with miracles, with angels all around. When I’ve been in trouble and couldn’t get up the stairs, along came a neighbor, and she just said, ‘Can I help you?’…So I consider myself really blessed, and I want my children, I want everyone to know that they need to help one another. It comes back to them ten-fold.” —Ruth Wilkes, on what she would like to tell her family before she dies
Photo courtesy of StoryCorps and Suncoast Hospice (distributed with instagram)

“I’ve been more than blessed with people, with miracles, with angels all around. When I’ve been in trouble and couldn’t get up the stairs, along came a neighbor, and she just said, ‘Can I help you?’…So I consider myself really blessed, and I want my children, I want everyone to know that they need to help one another. It comes back to them ten-fold.”
Ruth Wilkes, on what she would like to tell her family before she dies

Photo courtesy of StoryCorps and Suncoast Hospice (distributed with instagram)

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The Witness of True Love and the Grace of Loss (Video)

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

The notion of contemplating mortality can be an abstract one for those of us not facing death. It can be waxed about in highly romanticized language, such as in a Wallace Stevens poem, or shown on television in the most inhuman ways, leaving us cold and unmoved.

While editing this week’s show on facing and contemplating reality, I suggested we ground our interview with Dr. Ira Byock, a leading figure in palliative and hospice care, with other people’s voices from StoryCorps. Annie and Danny PerasaTheir words, their stories, I hoped, would take Dr. Byock’s clinical experiences and complement the doctor’s ideas about dying well with the necessary pathos of those families facing death.

To close the hour, we included audio of Annie and Danny Perasa, a couple from Brooklyn, New York. They had been married for 27 years when Danny was diagnosed with a fast-spreading, painful form of terminal cancer. It’s a love story illustrating that the process of dying is not only a medical event, but a personal one in which “eloquence, grace, and poetry” can still be found. Danny passed away on February 24, 2006.

As a result, we’ve heard from so many listeners asking to hear this audio again. Here’s a wonderful animation extending the story you heard on the radio.

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