The Angle of Johnny Cash’s Back from the Wings
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
One of the wonderful stories Rosanne Cash shares in this week’s show is about an intimate moment with her father before his appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1994. This performance marked the revival of his recording career with the release of his album American Recordings. An important moment to be sure.
In the rehearsal room at Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis, Rosanne Cash tells Krista Tippett a story about rejecting her father’s repeated pleas for her to sing “I Still Miss Someone” with him on stage. Just as he turns to leave, she sees the flat of his back “bathed in light” and relents.
As we were producing this segment, all the producers at On Being longed to hear the actual performance. What did they sound like together? How did Johnny Cash introduce his daughter? How did the crowd respond?
Well, we looked around for a copy, any copy of this special moment — but came up empty. That is, until we found a bootleg copy. The quality is far from stellar but it does answer these questions. The way this legendary country music performer and father calls his daughter onto the stage is warm and endearing. The music they make together is worth hearing. And, in some ways, the feel from the seats of Carnegie Hall adds to the pleasure.
Listen in and tell us about the experience from unfettered ears.
Audio produced by Susan Leem and Trent Gilliss.
The Unorthodox Spectrum of Mormonism Explained
by Krista Tippett, host
I’ve had a sense of déjà vu as the discussion about Mormonism has heated up as of late, with exactly the same dynamic occurring in the last presidential election season. But the discussion this time is more serious.
It’s not just the fact that two Mormons — Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman — are viable presidential candidates. It’s a Broadway musical. It’s more than one successful TV drama. We’re in, we’re coming to say, a “Mormon moment.” Joanna Brooks, giving just one of the many helpful pieces of perspective in this conversation, compares the rise of Mormons in politics and culture to the rise of the Mormon-owned Marriott Hotel chain. A highly disciplined, highly effective frontier culture grows up and migrates back out into centers of power. It’s a classic American story. But there’s also some kind of religious and cultural coming of age here, for Mormons and the rest of us.
I couldn’t have found a better person than Joanna Brooks to shed some distinctively informative, candid, and meaningful light on it all. She’s a literature scholar and a journalist. Her Ask Mormon Girl blog and Twitter feed is a remarkably reflective, compassionate community of questioning with Mormons of many stripes. And Ask Mormon Girl, as she notes on her website, is housed on the “legendary Feminist Mormon Housewives blog.” That is just one of many things that does not meet the traditional American eye on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — but which we engage through the voice and life of Joanna Brooks.
She grew up, as she tells it for starters, at the southern tip of the “Book of Mormon Belt” — Orange County, California, that is, which I’d associated more vividly with evangelical Christianity. Her father was “bishop” of their congregation several times growing up — a volunteer position that Mitt Romney has also held in his communities across his lifetime. Her mother is a “professional Mormon,” as she affectionately puts it — with, among other things, a serious avocation for genealogy. Joanna Brooks uses words like “rich,” “imaginative”, and “robust” to describe this faith that formed her and that she continues to love.
She has also struggled mightily, suffered disappointment and heartbreak, with this tradition she loves. She became an intellectual and a feminist at Brigham Young University, and then watched the university and the Church for a time condemn and disown the very Mormon mentors who’d inspired her. She was vociferously opposed to the proactive role the LDS Church took in California’s Proposition 8 referendum. But she is a probing force inside the Church’s wrestling with pain and confusion over this issue. Her blog is a model of compassionate presence, both to LGBT Mormons and to parents struggling to reconcile their religious beliefs and their love for their children. She honors the human confusion here that is not exclusive to Mormons and the added complexity that their theology of the family and eternity gives to subjects of marriage and sexuality.
Most of this conversation, though, is not about hot-button issues or presidential politics. It is an informative, energetic, and often moving journey into life on the other side of the American perception that Mormons are weird at best, a cult at worst. Joanna Brooks does not defend her tradition in any simplistic way, but she does make it three-dimensional and far harder to parody. Consider, for example, as she helps us do, the ambivalence and pain that Mormon married couples feel at their church’s legacy of polygamy. Hear her explanation of her sense of the “strangeness” of accusations she’s heard since she was a child, that she — a follower of Jesus Christ, a serious thinker about notions like atonement and grace — is not Christian. On a lighter note, but with just as much illumination for the listener, she is candid and corrective about a lingering obsession out there with ritual Mormon undergarments.
The most classic American story in this Mormon moment, perhaps, is how Joanna Brooks and other faith-filled and “unorthodox” Mormons are claiming their place in the unfolding story of this young frontier tradition. It is evolving from the inside in ways more meaningful, perhaps, than its outer rise to prominence in politics. Maybe in hindsight, we’ll see this Mormon moment as an occasion for this increasingly influential American phenomenon, composed after all of human beings, to become more articulate about itself and more comprehensible to the rest of us in its complexity.
The question for me is, how do we love wisdom — philosophia — in the face of impending catastrophe, given the kind of thinking, loving, caring, laughing, dancing animals that we are?
The Centrality of Desire in the Messiness of Human Life, and God’s Too
by Krista Tippett, host
I still have a vivid memory of the first time I interviewed Avivah Zornberg. I had experienced her through the Bill Moyers series Genesis, and through her powerfully, lushly written books about the Bible. I brought one of mine into the studio that day — Everett Fox’s The Five Books of Moses, a translation that sacrifices English clarity to let the visual wordplay of the original Hebrew come through. In the end, I closed my eyes, and did something closer to entering the text than discussing it. That’s what Avivah Zornberg makes possible.
That first time, for Passover, we were looking at the iconic story of Exodus, which has inspired so many people in so many places across time, far transcending its appearance as words on a page. This time, I sat down in her living room in the Old Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem and began the conversation by wondering where she might want to go. She was as delightful and gracious in her whole being as she is with her voice. We decided to start with the story of Noah and the Flood — chapter 6 in the book of Genesis — and see where it might take us.
This of course is one of those stories that many of us have heard in Sunday school, or seen in Technicolor at the movies, and heard references to and jokes about all our lives. But Avivah Zornberg knows the Hebrew Bible’s actual words and cadences by heart. She approaches it with the foundational mystical text of the Zohar. She applies the ancient Jewish art of midrash, reading between the lines with imagination, poetry, sensuality, and a sense of humor. And she uncovers stories within the story that open up the “biblical unconscious” and speak in unexpected ways to human life.
With her, we see that the biblical flood in some sense un-creates the world that has just been created. But the corruption that led to this undoing was not merely one of fleshly sin and violence; it was a loss of the connective tissue of language between human beings. “They have become so open,” Avivah Zornberg has written of the flood generation, “that they are closed to one another.”
Likewise, in Hebrew, the “ark” into which Noah retreats contains allusions to “word” as well as to “box.” This uncommunicative, self-absorbed man seems, upon closer examination, a strange choice for God to appoint to save all life on Earth. But precisely in his awkward imperfection, Noah embodies one of the qualities I love about the Hebrew Bible. It is an honest, unvarnished account of the messiness of life — the failed and flawed nature even of our greatest leaders. There are no storybook heroes in the Hebrew Bible. They are us, just as they are in real life. So even Noah, in one of those ironies of the human condition, finds himself imprisoned by the box/ark that is his claim to greatness.
That day in Avivah Zornberg’s living room, we walked backwards in Genesis — from Noah and the Flood to the creation story of Adam and Eve and Eden. Here too we find ironies that we recognize at the center of ourselves. From the Hebrew, Eden can also be translated as “delight” — “land of pleasure.” Everything is beautiful and perfect and delicious here. But it is the one tree in the center of the garden, from which God has asked Adam and Eve not to eat, that they desire.
The theme of desire — its centrality in moving human life forward, the way we struggle to both honor and order it — runs throughout Avivah Zornberg’s vision of how this text might tell us the story of ourselves. And, like the Bible itself, she does not condemn the fact of desire so much as seek to understand it. For the consciousness that desire enlivens is also a primary source of awareness and intentionality; it’s our choices that have the power to redeem us, not an impossible striving toward perfection.
I’ll leave you with a line to entice you to listen to my conversation with Avivah Zornberg. She says of the power of Adam’s telling of the first lie:
“Brodsky said consciousness, human consciousness, begins with one’s first lie… That’s when we begin to be aware of the complexity in ourselves and the different impulses. And that’s where poetry comes from as well. You know, not only bad things come from saying two things at the same time. As long as you have a kind of straight unequivocal immaculate version of things, then there can be no poetry and there can be no tension, no desire again. Desire makes itself felt when language comes alive.”
The Vanishing Ego in Painting: An Interview with Painter Joan Watts
by Kim Russo, guest contributor
On a gloriously sunny Memorial Day in 2008, I arrived at the Santa Fe studio of painter Joan Watts. I was there to interview her for a review in a local newspaper. She led me into her impressive studio where her newest paintings, in cool gradations of blue, purple, and gray, lined the warm, white walls. As we talked, a friendship based on our mutual experiences in the studio and on the meditation cushion began.
When she moved to Santa Fe from New York in 1986, the New Mexico landscape became the influence critics and curators referenced when discussing her reductive paintings. Writers used words like “ephemeral” to describe the luminosity of her paint, or “meditative” to describe her subtle formal choices — all outcomes, they suggested, of her examination of the southwestern landscape. I wondered if, instead, the New Mexico landscape gave Watts — a practitioner of Zen since 1989 — the vehicle for relating the spiritual experiences she had on the meditation cushion and in her daily life.
So which is it Joan? Are these landscape paintings that are about meditation, or meditative paintings that are about the landscape?
(laughing) Well, the light of New Mexico has certainly been a penetrating vehicle enveloping my spiritual path, but it is also true that my spiritual path propels me to somehow discover the means to evoke light and space through painting. It’s true that after beginning my Zen meditation practice the process of making a painting also became a form of meditation for me.
Can you describe that?
Now when I begin a painting, I get started in the process and then let go. The painting takes over, and I disappear. But the moment before the ego drops is pure fear. It is the same experience in sitting meditation, when the ego drops away.
Do you think your paintings describe that experience of the ego disappearing?
Can a painting embody or transmit Buddhist experience? I don’t know. Can you convey something of your experiential state to the audience? I don’t know. It depends on the viewer.
Transmission between (Buddhist) teacher and (Buddhist) student is about both of them, but both of them becoming one. With art we have an object. Is there anything embodied in that object through which some transmission happens for the viewer? I don’t know. But the same things get in the way of the transmission between viewer and art object as Buddhist teacher and student: ego, assumptions, intellectual understanding, education.
That reminds me of when I saw the Rothko Chapel for the first time. When I entered and saw the huge black canvases, I didn’t understand why anyone would present black paintings of nothing to represent a spiritual space. I grew up in a Presbyterian church full of stained glass and light. I didn’t understand Rothko’s chapel at all. I sat there for a long time really looking at the work. Then I saw it: the paintings weren’t black — they were purple, blue, green, red — and they slowly revealed themselves to me. It was an experience that changed as my position in the room changed. I thought: Wow, this is what spiritual realization is like: slow, changing, and constantly transforming. Spiritual life is an experience, not a concept. Rothko had created an experience for me rather than showing me a picture. That was life-changing for me.
I visited that chapel several times after my mastectomy and also had a powerful experience with the work. Seeing the Rothko Chapel was healing for me, and it was the beginning of my meditation practice, although I didn’t know it at the time. It is interesting how you entered the chapel with an attitude and you got very conceptual and mental — What is going on? Why black in a church? — all assumptions based on previous experiences, and then the present moment went CLUNK!
Do you have the same experience while you are painting?
Yes. I think in the creative process itself, when it goes really well, the artist is gone during the process — and later the artist can reflect. But the reflection is not the experience. It’s a memory, which is not the actual making.
So you are moving in and out of a kind of meditative state.
You can experience life as a coming into and out of the ego-self, or you can be only in the ego-self, which is like the Xerox copy — this is what I want and this is what I expect. The ego-self is conceptual. In-the-moment, non-conceptual experience can be scary. Non-conceptual experience is never a Xerox copy of anything else you have experienced.
I want to talk a little bit about how your meditation practice has changed how you function within the art market.
I don’t have to worry about supporting myself financially. But for me there was an interesting relationship with my ego because I felt I had to make a big presence in the art world. That is why I made a business plan, I set up exhibitions, and I made the monograph of my work, which took three years. But getting the work out in the world is ego-based. I can’t work in both places at once, the art world and the studio.
Is it possible, really, to completely detach from the ego? Or is it only possible to keep it in check?
Some day I’d like to get free of the business and just work — but there is an ego base that creeps back in. My mom played gorgeous piano every day by herself because she just enjoyed it, and she composed music. She didn’t try to put it in the world. When I was a kid, I thought that if I was in her shoes I’d get it out there in the world. Now I really admire what she did.
I had a conversation with the Santa Fe photographer Herb Lotz after his recent retrospective exhibition. I asked him if he thought it was successful. He said he was really glad he had the opportunity to do it and now he doesn’t ever have to do it again. I remember being blown away by his answer. It was filled with gratitude — and no attachment.
About the images: The paintings featured above are part of Joan Watts’ One series, 24 x 24 inches, oil on canvas, 2008. (photos: Herb Lotz)
Kim Russo is an artist, writer, and Head of Fine Arts at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. She has written for the Journal Santa Fe and Pasatiempo, and is currently working on a book, funded by the Frederick P. Lenz Foundation, about how Buddhist practice can help contemporary artists negotiate the ego-traps of the studio and the art market.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
I would definitely say that Creole is a really good example of what American is, because it shows how all these different things came together, and after a couple hundred years, what came out of it. It’s no longer African, it’s no longer French, it ain’t no longer Acadian, it ain’t no longer Spanish. It’s a culture of its own.
A Twitterscript of Lord Martin Rees Interview
by Susan Leem, associate producer and Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Professor Rees gives The Reith Lectures 2010 (photo: The Reith Lectures/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
Rees’ calls for peaceful coexistence between believers and non-believers has made waves among atheists. He raised more hackles recently by accepting this year’s Templeton Prize (joining the ranks of past winners Mother Teresa, John Polkinghorne, and Billy Graham). He has one foot in each world as an atheist who is devoted to the cultural, “tribal” experience of attending church.
As a highly credentialed scientist, Lord Rees has studied and pondered the mysteries of black holes and separate universes, but what placed him on our radar is his concern for science’s impacts on human beings. He is a rare individual in that his sense of mystery and wonder for distant worlds and other forms of life doesn’t eclipse his awe of humankind.
He argues that even science is not unassailable, and its truths can be quite difficult to grasp. In fact, the mere questions that scientists ask today could not have even been imagined 30 years ago.
We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation, which we’re aggregating and reposting for those who weren’t able to follow along. Follow us next time at @BeingTweets:
Gazan Doctor Renews Commitment to Forgiveness and Peace after Losing Three Daughters
by Kate Moos, executive producer
As we began to drill down on our editorial planning for next month’s production trip to Israel and Palestine, Trent asked me to sit down with Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian physician who has written a new memoir about growing up in the Gaza Strip, his struggles to become a doctor, and the loss of three of his daughters to an Israeli mortar in the hostilities between Hamas and Israel of 2009. I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity is recently published, and he was making a swing through the Twin Cities on book tour.
So I dusted off my rusty interviewing skills, tried to emulate the masterful Krista Tippett with my deep listening, and the 30-minute conversation above ensued.
Abuelaish’s story would be heroic in many ways without his personal loss, but is even moreso because, in its wake, he renewed his commitment to forgiveness and acceptance, and now travels the world on a mission for peace in the name of his daughters, for whom he created a foundation.
Let us know what you think about this interview, and share your thoughts on others you’d like to see, in what we hope will be a regular feature here on the blog.
(photo: Trent Gilliss)