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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.

A Linguistic Resurrection for Reconnecting with Compassion: Krista Tippett’s TEDTalk

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Krista Tippett Delivers TEDTalk at the United NationsOn Monday we received an unexpected valentine. Krista’s presentation at the United Nations to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Karen Armstrong's Charter for Compassion was posted as a TEDTalk!

Released a week earlier than planned, we couldn’t post it until now. At the time, we were in suburban Detroit (go WDET!) setting up for Krista’s interview with Sylvia Boorstein (looking like she’ll be our Mother’s Day show, yay!).

The Twitter chatter has been incredible, and it’s great to see how people respond to these ideas. Please take a few minutes to watch, share it with your friends, and weigh in with your response. We’d love to know what you’re thinking.

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Poetry Is a Conveyor of Truths

by Krista Tippett, host


A man at a coffeehouse in downtown Long Beach reads aloud to himself.
(photo: John Williams/Flickr)

When I listened to our Rumi show back in December, I was struck with new force by Rumi’s notion of “the value of perplexity.” Perplexity is a great word I’d like to use more often. It’s something more nuanced than confusion, more substantive than anxiety. It describes the way many of us feel at this moment in time in the life of the world, I think, and also on a more intimate level at this time of year.

We’re making sense of what’s been, reckoning with that, and also feeling perplexed (which is not the same as hopeless) as we look forward. I was tired at the end of last year and I’m aware of that in many around me too. And the cold and snow in the place I inhabit encourage an animal urge to get under the covers and close one’s eyes.

My interview with Elizabeth Alexander (audio above, mp3) encourages this slowing down and peering inside, as well as seriousness and playfulness with words, and a different kind of reflection than all the popular “end of year” analyses and lists. I’ve become more and more aware, in my years of doing this program, of poetry as a conveyor of truths that cannot be captured in mere fact. Poetry, Elizabeth Alexander also reminds us, is one of the great ways we have to tell our stories, the stories of life. It is a carrier of questions to sit with. There is this question, for example, that ends her poem titled "Ars Poetica #100: I Believe": “Are we not of interest to each other?”

A question like this could be as powerful a tool as any we possess for reorienting our approach to each other in our private and public spaces. So was the question she invoked in a political moment at the presidential inauguration in 2009: “What if the mightiest word is love?”

Inauguration
Elizabeth Alexander reads her poem "Praise Song for the Day" at President Barack Obama’s inauguration on January 20, 2009. (photo: Kim Ellison/Flickr)

As Elizabeth Alexander and I frankly discuss, these have been hard months since that historic and exhilarating day on the Washington Mall. But this, for her, makes that question more pointed, more necessary — not less so. During one exchange, I wonder if a discussion about poetry might be a luxury when the crises of our time for many are about basic matters of safety and survival — a job to go to, food to eat, medicine to buy, a roof over one’s head. She comes back at my question with a poem Gwendolyn Brooks wrote in a crucible of poverty and insecurity: “(C)ould a dream sent up through onion fumes/And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall/Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms?”

I have the feeling that we need poetry but sometimes without even knowing it. I’ve noticed how distinctively magnetic it is for us and our listeners when we draw out a Joanna Macy, or hear Wendell Berry, or now sit with Elizabeth Alexander. Poetic language is magnetic and humanizing in a class of its own. But I’m aware too that poetry also demands a quality of attention and vulnerability that other forms of language don’t, which may be why we don’t reach for it as often as we might.

I’ve been reaching for it lately. And I’d like to share a few of the poems that have spoken to me at this turn of year.

To begin, two poems by Elizabeth Alexander. The first I asked her to read is actually the end of a long poem called "Neonatology," about the birth of her oldest son. She paired it with a second, "Autumn Passage," which is about the death of her mother-in-law. This loss unfolded in that same period as she was becoming a mother. “Autumn Passage” is on my mind today, as I have news of the impending death of the mother of one of my dearest friends. (The full poems and her readings can be heard by clicking the links above.)

Crave Radiance by Elizabeth AlexanderI’ve also been pondering Rainier Maria Rilke’s "Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower," which Joanna Macy translated and read for us back in September. And, finally, a classic, Mary Oliver’s "Wild Geese." This is poetry, as my beloved producer Kate Moos (a poet herself) has pointed out, that has saved lives.

And, I’d be remiss if I didn’t encourage you to pick up a copy of Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems, 1990-2010 by Elizabeth Alexander. This book of poems collects the work of this major American poet, and brings us new poems as well. From the seminal work of The Venus Hottentot through "Praise Song for the Day," her poem for Barack Obama’s inauguration, Elizabeth Alexander celebrates the deep moments poetry can illumine.

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Found in Translation

Susan Carpenter Sims, guest contributor

The Dream of the Rood (Vercelli Manuscript)I’m a research junkie and a word nerd. When I was in graduate school, I spent a year researching one of the earliest Old English poems, "The Dream of the Rood." The project began as a lexical analysis for a linguistics class, and what I discovered was that many words had multiple senses — and the available translations didn’t emphasize this. I ended up doing my own translation of all 256 lines. It was immensely rewarding to unfold levels and layers of meaning this way.

I then began studying the Bible with a concordance and would spend whole afternoons looking up every word in one verse. I felt like I was digging up ancient treasure. Word archaeology. I began to see an analogy between words and computer icons. The way you can click on something and it opens up a whole world you couldn’t have imagined before you clicked.

I’ve also read a couple of books by Neil Douglas-Klotz in which he translates various words of Jesus into the Aramaic that Jesus actually spoke, and from there into English. The result is quite poetic and illuminated. For instance, here’s an excerpt from his translation of the Lord’s Prayer:

Grant us what we need each day in bread and insight:
Loose the cords of mistakes binding us,
As we release the strands we hold of others’ guilt.

The other day I was doing evening prayer with the radiant little book, Celtic Benedictions, by J. Philip Newell. One of the verses was: ”I commune with my heart in the night, I meditate and search my spirit” (Psalm 77:6). In my New Revised Standard Version Bible, there was an alternate translation for “I commune,” which I read as “My music spirit searches.” I found this odd but inspiring. It took me a minute to realize that because of how the notes were laid out, I was reading it wrong. The alternate translation for “I commune” was simply “My music,” and for “search my spirit,” it was “my spirit searches.” So the verse would then read, “My music is with my heart in the night; I meditate and my spirit searches.” The New International Version translates this verse as “I remembered my songs in the night. My heart mused and my spirit inquired.”

Maybe all of this doesn’t excite you like it does me. I realize it’s this very sort of thing that confirms some folks’ rejection of the Bible, but, for me, it emphasizes poetic truth as what’s valuable over hard fact. There’s grace and mystery in it, not fixed formulaic answers.

Much has been made of what gets lost in translation, but I’m here to say that a lot can be found. When I research and explore this way I feel like I’m peering into a divine kaleidoscope. My music spirit searches, and finds communion in and with the words.

The image above of “The Dream of the Rood” is scanned from the only surviving manuscript, known as the Vercelli Book, from the medieval period.
(credit: image and text courtesy of the University of Oxford)

Susan Carpenter SimsSusan Carpenter Sims is a writer and collage-maker living in Taos, New Mexico. She writes a weekly column for The Taos News and blogs about her love of a historic local church at The Whole Blooming World.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on SOF Observed. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.

Editor’s note: Update (2010.07.14) A resourceful reader, Allison Boyd, helped us find her! The following entry was submitted by a guest contributor without a name or an email address. Rather than letting this lovely post go unread, we published it with the hopes that the author will recognize her or his fine work and contact us so we can give proper credit and adulation!

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The Elusive Footage of Elephants Mourning
Colleen Scheck, senior producer

This week’s guest, Katy Payne, was one of the scientists interviewed in a recent 60 Minutes feature about the ongoing study of elephant behavior in the Dzanga forest clearing in the Central African Republic. This is worth watching because it contains beautiful and moving footage of elephant interaction, including how elephants behave after the death of a young calf in 2000. I believe, though have yet to confirm, that this is the footage Katy Payne describes in our program:

"…We were keeping a video record. It was very painful and hard for us to do so, but we did this for the rest of the day and all the next day. And during that time, more than 100 elephants, unrelated to the calf, walked past the place where the little corpse lay on the ground. Every single one of them did something that showed alarm, concern, or somehow showed they were aware of something novel that they were approaching. Some of them took a detour around. About a quarter of them tried to lift the body up with their tusks and their trunks, sometimes trying over and over again. One adolescent male attempted to lift up this little corpse 57 times, and walked away from it and came back five different times."

The feature focuses primarily on efforts to create an “elephant dictionary” from studying vocalizations, including infrasonic sounds. Katy Payne is as warm and passionate as she was with us, giving some impressive imitations of elephant vocalizations herself.

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Interfaith, Interreligious, Pluralism, Dialogue, Etc.

Mitch Hanley, senior producer

We often struggle with crafting interesting or catchy titles for each new program. Sometimes we latch on to something one of our guests said in the interview, as was the case with our recent program, which may win the dubious honor of having the longest title: Curiosity Over Assumptions, Interreligiosity Meets a New Generation.

But, please do know that it was not without much debate and extensive brainstorming among our entire staff to try to arrive at a title for the work of Aziza Hasan and Malka Haya Fenyvesi. With humility, I share some of the runners-up:

  • Reimagining Interfaith (blah)
  • Jewish-Muslim Relationship: The Next Generation (starring Patrick Stewart!)
  • Us & Them - Engaging the Other in Jewish/Muslim Conversation (blah)
  • The Next Generation of Interreligious (still a bit Trekky)

The struggle had to do with our attempts to avoid the words “interfaith,” “dialogue,” and “pluralism,” which we felt do not sufficiently carry the meaning and real importance of the work that many are doing around the world. We also didn’t want to invoke images of intergalactic pluralism (still a far off dream, I’m afraid).

Krista even brought up the shortcomings of these terms in the interview. Here is an excerpt from the transcript:

Ms. Tippett: I feel that the word “interfaith” or the adjective “interfaith,” even like the word “pluralism,” these words themselves are kind of safe and benign and maybe even boring. When, in fact, when people really have their hands and lives dug into this stuff, as you do, it’s anything but. I mean, it’s very dramatic. It’s galvanizing. It’s changing human life. Do you think about that, that problem of the words themselves getting in the way of communicating to the larger society, what the power of this is?

Ms. Hasan: Absolutely, and I’m glad you brought that up because, when we first started the program, that’s how I would describe it. I would say, you know, this is an interfaith dialog group, and it just wasn’t deep enough. I mean like I’ve been there, done that. I don’t need to do hugs and hummus. If anything, I want to be part of something that’s real, and so to be able to finally like understand the complexity beneath the surface and the importance of having honest conversations that deal with issues like identity and diversity of opinion and gender and so many other things.

Ms. Fenyvesi: I also think a lot about what one of our Fellows who’s actually a Rabbinical student right now said to me. He said, “I really feel like NewGround is about what it means to be Muslim and Jewish in America today.” So that’s not as short as pluralism or interfaith, but I think there’s something about it that really covers what we do.

So what do you think? What words really capture the importance and essence of this work? Or do the existing defaults — e.g. interfaith, pluralism, dialogue — work just fine?

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Bouncing Off Language and Meaning
Marc Sanchez, associate producer

We recently aired our show "Language and Meaning — an Ojibwe Story," with Ojibwe linguist David Treuer. The show prompted a letter from a listener and fellow linguist, Miriam Isaacs.

She teaches linguistics and Yiddish at the University of Maryland and writes, “I just finished writing an essay about how it felt when I met some Zapotec speakers in Oaxaca, how their experiences about their children being ashamed of their own language related to how many immigrants felt about Yiddish.” This video features Professor Isaacs reading her essay as part of the Marian M. Jenkins Memorial Speaker Series at the National Museum of Language in College Park, Maryland.

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Mohegan and “Auxiliary Language”

Andy Dayton, associate web producer

Stephanie FieldingAfter we replayed our program with David Treuer last week, we received an interesting story from listener Stephanie Fielding in Uncasville, Connecticut. In the program, Treuer talks about his efforts to help sustain the Ojibwe language:

"What I really love about language revitalization, what is so key to it, is that it’s always been ours and it’s a chance to define ourselves on and in our own terms and in ways that have nothing to do with what’s been taken. We can define ourselves by virtue of what we’ve saved."

Stephanie wrote in about her efforts as a member of the Mohegan tribe to “reclaim and resurrect our language one hundred and one years after that last native speaker died.” I was intrigued by how she also related this mission to another part of her identity — her interest in the Baha’i Faith:

"One of the interesting principles of the faith that brings me to where I am today is the need for a universal auxiliary language. Auxiliary implies that first languages are maintained and the auxiliary language is the helper. Because of this, as the Baha’i Faith spread across the world we have been making it a practice to help preserve the languages in those countries where the Faith was taught. This practice moved me to work as a linguist for our tribe."

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“All Words Have Connotations”

Andy Dayton, associate web producer

We’ve been talking about covering the difficult topic of torture for quite a while now, and the idea resurfaced again in staff meetings with the recent release of the Bush administration memos on interrogation techniques. About the time we were renewing our efforts to find a voice on the topic, I opened up the Sunday paper to find Clark Hoyt’s editorial "The Brutal Truth" — an account of the linguistic evolution of The New York Times' torture and interrogation coverage.

Hoyt outlines the decision to use the word “brutal” to describe what the Bush administration had labeled “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and the reader mail they received in response. Some thought the word was a cop-out, one reader writing “Why can’t The New York Times call torture by its proper name?” While another writes “The Times has simply placed itself as one actor in a political fight, not a neutral media outlet.”

This sort of criticism was in our heads as we produced this week’s program "The Long Shadow of Torture".” Unlike The Times, we don’t get to hash out our editorial choices over a series of articles — we pretty much have one chance to get it right, and then have to live with our decisions after broadcast. I found that many of the questions asked during production mirrored the ones posed in Hoyt’s editorial; as a journalist, when does your choice of words compromise the integrity of your reporting? Using harsher terminology may seem to impart a biased viewpoint, while softer words might be complicit in obscuring the truth. Is “detainee abuse” more accurate than “torture,” or vice versa?

Perhaps my favorite part of Hoyt’s account is the linguist Deborah Hannon’s response to his presentation of the “brutal” issue:

"The search for words that are not in any way evaluative is hopeless," she told me. "All words have connotations."

This statement makes the prospect of objective journalism a daunting one. What do you think, did we we come out OK on this program? What kind of connotations did we inevitably inject into the conversation?

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Finding the Confucian HeartAndy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
Last week as I was fleshing out the particulars for our program “Recovering Chinese Religiosities,” I stumbled upon an interesting article about a discovery that the director of the Harvard Yenching Institute referred to as “like the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.” In 1993, Chinese archeologists uncovered several bamboo strips near Guodian, China. Those strips were found to contain what is thought to be the oldest written version of the Tao Te Ching, as well as many writings from supposed Confucian disciples. The texts are said to have challenged many previous assumptions about both Taoist and Confucian history:
For years scholars believed that Confucians were little concerned with human emotions. But in the Guodian texts, the element “xin,” — a pictographic image of the human heart — appears over and over again as part of several Chinese characters. It’s a startling display, both philologically, in terms of understanding the evolution of Chinese characters, and philosophically. “These texts conclusively show that emotions or feelings as we understand them today were major philosophical concerns,” Tu says. The Guodian texts offer detailed descriptions of a range of human emotions. They also extensively explore the relation between heart, mind, and human nature; between the inner self and the outer world; and whether human nature is good or evil — a cumulative emphasis on the inner dimensions of man that most scholars formerly believed came much later in Chinese intellectual history.
Continuing the lesson we learned from our program with David Treuer, here’s another example of how meaning is often tied to language — the deeper symbolic meaning of the pictographic heart is lost when the text is translated to English. I was also struck by the fact that, while the linguistic elements of this story are specific to Chinese culture, it also displays how the metaphorical relationship between the human heart and emotion seems to be a cross-cultural one.
I can’t help but wonder: What exactly is it about our own biological blood pumps that seem to inspire so much symbolism and meaning?

Finding the Confucian Heart
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer

Last week as I was fleshing out the particulars for our program “Recovering Chinese Religiosities,” I stumbled upon an interesting article about a discovery that the director of the Harvard Yenching Institute referred to as “like the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.” In 1993, Chinese archeologists uncovered several bamboo strips near Guodian, China. Those strips were found to contain what is thought to be the oldest written version of the Tao Te Ching, as well as many writings from supposed Confucian disciples. The texts are said to have challenged many previous assumptions about both Taoist and Confucian history:

For years scholars believed that Confucians were little concerned with human emotions. But in the Guodian texts, the element “xin,” — a pictographic image of the human heart — appears over and over again as part of several Chinese characters. It’s a startling display, both philologically, in terms of understanding the evolution of Chinese characters, and philosophically. “These texts conclusively show that emotions or feelings as we understand them today were major philosophical concerns,” Tu says. The Guodian texts offer detailed descriptions of a range of human emotions. They also extensively explore the relation between heart, mind, and human nature; between the inner self and the outer world; and whether human nature is good or evil — a cumulative emphasis on the inner dimensions of man that most scholars formerly believed came much later in Chinese intellectual history.

Continuing the lesson we learned from our program with David Treuer, here’s another example of how meaning is often tied to language — the deeper symbolic meaning of the pictographic heart is lost when the text is translated to English. I was also struck by the fact that, while the linguistic elements of this story are specific to Chinese culture, it also displays how the metaphorical relationship between the human heart and emotion seems to be a cross-cultural one.

I can’t help but wonder: What exactly is it about our own biological blood pumps that seem to inspire so much symbolism and meaning?

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Language Reclamation, Not Just Preservation

by Rob McGinley Myers, associate producer

What inspires a person to learn the language of his ancestors, even though he didn’t grow up speaking that language himself? And what inspires him to join a school where he can teach that language to children? What do those children think about the language? And what affect can the effort have on an entire community?

These were a few of the questions I had for Keller Paap, a teacher in an Ojibwe immersion school program called Waadookodaading (We Help Each Other) on the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation in north-central Wisconsin. I got in touch with Paap while I was working on our recent program "Sustaining Language, Sustaining Meaning." You can hear his story in the embedded audio above. He begins by introducing himself in Ojibwe.

What I gleaned from talking to Paap was that this language revitalization effort is doing more than merely preserving the language. It’s literally keeping the language alive so that it can continue to grow and change, with new words and new ways of saying things. I love the way he describes his students’ relationship to the language. They aren’t dwelling on the long-standing U.S. policy of forcibly educating Native Americans in English. They aren’t learing Ojibwe as a political act or even as a cultural act. They’re just living in it, and making it their own.

This audio piece was produced with help from Trent Gilliss and Mitch Hanley. Music by Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band. Keller Paap took the photo of the Ojibwe road sign, which translates as “The Dam.”

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The Language of Money

Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
toddler: (holding up a penny) Uh-dakah!
father: (leaning in) Dollar?
toddler: (thrusting penny in the air) Uh-dakah!
father: No. That's a penny.
toddler: Uh-dakah.
father: That's money. Can you say mun-eeeee?
toddler: Money! Dakah.
father: You buy things with it.
father: (looking quizzically at mother): What's he keep saying? I can't understand him.
mother: I don't know. (turning to toddler) Penny.
toddler: Dakah.
mother: (to father) Maybe it's the Hebrew -- from school.
father: I don't know the Hebrew word for money. Do you?
mother: No.
father: Google it.
mother: (searching)
father: I learned about this on the show. Isn't it zakat or something? No, wait. That applies to Muslims. Maybe zedekah... or something similar.
mother: Here it is. Tzedakah. Charity.
father: Hm.
mother: Here he sees a penny and thinks of giving it away. And we see it and instantly thinking of buying things.
father: I guess we just learned something from a two year old about money.
mother: I think so.
father: Man. We better sign up for some Hebrew lessons...
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Spirit of Language

Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer

(photo: Lastexit/Flickr)

As we prepare to do a show on endangered languages, I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection of language and spirituality. This came up recently with my three-year-old daughter, who has been asking about death since we buried her fish in our back yard. We were driving across town the other day and she said out of nowhere, “Daddy, when will be my last day?” Meaning, When will I die? After a moment of panic, I decided to talk to her about various views of death from different religious traditions. But I quickly realized that she has no knowledge of the words “spirit” or “soul,” and so it was impossible for her to even grasp that concept. In her mind, she is just a body, nothing more, nothing less. And yet, in due time, the English language will give her a concept of the soul, and with it a whole new conception of her self.

Just learning a language is, in part, acquiring a spiritual worldview. And that would explain why religion and language have so often been intertwined in the history of Western civilization. When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1450s, the first book he printed was the Bible. A generation later, Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation, and he also produced the first complete translation of the Bible from the original into a contemporary European vernacular. In 1533 Henry VIII broke with Rome and created the Church of England. The result was a whole new English liturgy, with phrases that have since lodged in most English-speaking brains: “Till death us do part,” “Man cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower,” “In the midst of life we are in death,” and “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

When I think of all the spiritual concepts bound up in my own language, it’s hard to believe that (according to organizations like The Living Tongues Institute) languages around the world are dying at a rate of about one every two weeks. What conceptions of humanity and our place in the world are being lost? I’d be interested to know if any of you have learned any rare languages, and if so what unique ways do those languages have of ordering the world with words?

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