Illuminating Maine’s Deep Winter with Light Sculptures
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
The holidays are over and there’s no getting around the fact that it’s January and bitter cold in the Upper Midwest. The days, while inching longer into light, are still short. Now is the time of deep winter, when a touch of light goes a long way.
Last week, as I caught a glimpse of holiday lights being dismantled from an indoor public tree display, I thought, “Already? It’s not even New Year’s. Now’s the time when we need the light the most.”
The good people of Portland, Maine understand this need in their watery bones. From Thanksgiving through Valentine’s Day, the city is bedecked in glorious light sculptures designed by local artist Pandora LaCasse. For over a decade, Ms. LaCasse has been transforming public parks and buildings into canvases for her light art.
Ms. LaCasse, a native of Maine, says that place matters in her work and that the state’s landscape inspires her creativity. As she told one interviewer, “I’m always trying to get the essence of a place. I think people like the lights because it’s the middle of winter and they respond to the color and light. And it’s accessible.”
Ms. LaCasse’s color-drenched creations feature abstract shapes found in nature, like teardrops and orbs. They’re not the stuff of Santa, candy canes, and the nativity. I once lived in Maine and now make my home in Saint Paul, Minnesota where my neighbors festoon their homes with holiday lights. As much as I admire these wintry displays, I do so as a non-Christian outsider, who’s observing them from afar. Pandora’s lights were different. I could love them without feeling excluded. They were a balm for my soul in deep winter and I miss them.
Drawing Beauty and Decency From Loss
by Krista Tippett, host
I like to say that what we do with this public radio program, one conversation at a time, is trace the intersection of grand religious ideas and human experience — theology and real life. Kate Braestrup embodies this exercise, this adventure.
I discovered her beautiful memoir, Here if You Need Me, somewhat by chance and encountered a bracing wisdom and beauty that are more than borne out in conversation with her.
Little in Kate Braestrup’s early life pointed to the vocation she has now. She grew up the daughter of a war correspondent for The New York Times, living all over the world. She became, first, a writer. But after she married her husband, Drew Griffith, they moved to a small coastal town in Maine, had four children in eight years, and found a spiritual home in Unitarian Universalism.
Drew became a state trooper and was preparing to train for a second career as a chaplain to law enforcement officers. Then one day in 1996, he died suddenly in an accident in his squad car. Within a year, Kate had enrolled at Bangor Theological Seminary in his stead.
Kate Braestrup tells a story in her book — a prism of her theology, really — about the day her husband died. She had just gotten the news, and her best friend was with her. The doorbell rang and her friend answered. There on the doorstep was a young man “clad in a spiffy dark suit” holding out a pamphlet. “Have you heard the Good News?” he asked, at which the door was closed in his face. A few minutes later, the doorbell rang again. This time it was an elderly neighbor, pot holders and a pan of brownies in her hands, tears rolling down her cheeks.
"That pan of brownies was the leading edge of a tsunami of food that came to my children and me, a wave that did not recede for many months after Drew’s death. … I did not know that my house would be cleaned and the laundry done, that I would have embraces and listening ears, that I would not be abandoned to do the labor of mourning alone. All I knew was that my neighbor was standing on the front stoop with her brownies and her tears: she was the Good News."
Recounting story after story from the work she does now, Kate Braestrup finds the “Good News” — God if you will, love incarnate — in casseroles, in impromptu search parties, in the law enforcement officers who put themselves in the position hour by hour, day by day, to be there and be of service precisely in the midst of danger and disaster they cannot make right again.
From the human dramas in which she becomes implicated, Kate Braestrup gleans and shares insight into the raw processes of human grief and healing — the fact that waiting for news of a missing person is “aching physical labor” the way in which the officer who has just discovered a young woman’s body in the woods becomes “acutely aware of the feel of ordinary ground under the soles of his boots”; the simple, stunning, recurring experience that human beings are equipped, preparing unconsciously in all we do, to deal with unimaginable loss. These losses are final, and yet they have a power to draw beauty and decency into relief, to be tended and redeemed on some level, by the practical care — the human concern — that arises to meet them.
Kate Braestrup makes me think of the formation of Dorothy Day, the 20th-century Catholic social reformer and activist. She was galvanized to create practical everyday communities of care by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which she experienced as an eight-year-old girl living in nearby Oakland. She stood on the street watching for days as the people of Oakland helped each other and helped the people of San Francisco who were coming across the bay in boats. She wondered: Why can’t we live this way, treat each other this way, all the time?
After cataclysmic events both natural and man-made, accounts of courage and help accompany the news of tragedy. Yet they are reported as extraordinary and rarely followed up. Kate Braestrup suggests that this human instinct and capacity to care is more normal, and more reliable, than we imagine.
Among her many bracing reformulations of basic truth, Kate Braestrup notes that we only use the word “miracle” when improbable events go our way. But she inhabits a world where improbable things go wrong, go badly, all the time — and so do the rest of us. Her Unitarian Universalist sensibility is reflected in her sense that Christianity has spent too much time focusing on death as a problem to be solved. This is our culture’s instinct, certainly; and yet as it turns, notions like “solution” and “resolution” are meaningless at the “hinges” of our lives.
Of the deepest lessons she draws from her work in the wilds of Maine, Kate Braestrup writes this: “Sometimes the miracle is a life restored, but the restoration is always temporary. At other times, maybe most of the time, a miracle can only be the resurrection of love beside the unchanged fact of death.”
Story of a Falconer: A Medieval Art of Intimacy and Beauty (video)
by Samantha Broun and Amanda Kowalski, guest contributors
"Falconry is my biggest passion in life. For many of us, our pursuit in the sport is a very spiritual place, and going out with your bird into good habitat and chasing wild animals with it is just very personal."
—Scott McNeff, falconer
One night at a dinner party, I (Amanda) had just met Scott when he casually mentioned that he had a hawk in his car and asked me if I wanted to come see it. I had never seen a bird of prey up close before and had no idea Scott was a licensed falconer. When he invited me to go out “hawking” with him, I had to go. And I had to bring my camera, of course.
I was immediately hooked. In addition to it being a visually stunning sport to watch, I realized there were a lot of great sounds as well: the bells used on the hawk’s legs, the whistles and sounds the falconers use when working with the bird, and Scott was such a great explainer of it all. That’s when I contacted Sam.
Despite the fact that falconry has been practiced worldwide for thousands of years, it is a relatively new sport in North America. Currently, there are just over 4,000 federally licensed falconers in the United States. When Amanda showed me some of her photos and asked if I wanted to tag along with her and Scott, I said yes.
Producing “Presence in the Wild”
by Colleen Scheck, producer
I love this week’s program with Kate Braestrup, chaplain to the game warden service in Maine. Simply, her practical theology just makes sense to me — a daily translation of spirituality into caring, useful, deliberate action. And I’m glad we were able to add a Unitarian Universalist voice to the many diverse religious perspectives we delve into, just in the way we like to, exploring that perspective through a person’s “lived theology” (Krista Tippett phrase).
This was one of our programs that came together randomly and quickly. Krista saw a reference to Braestrup’s memoir a few months back, and she was curious about her story and her journey to Unitarian Universalism. We got a copy of the book, and as I read it I was immediately absorbed by its reality and humor, and by Braestrup’s wisdom, searching, compassion, and gutsy movement between grief and hope.
We booked the interview, grateful that our guest was willing to drive almost two hours from her small coastal hometown to Portland, Maine, so we could record her conversation with Krista via ISDN (the best broadcast-quality audio connection possible). Right after the interview, we decided it would be a good balance to the other voices, viewpoints, and topics we’ve done in recent weeks, so we front-burnered it into production. You’ve perhaps read other producers’ accounts of how some shows take time to find the right voice or precise approach, brewing like sun tea to get the best flavor. Others are like good espresso — best when ground fresh and served immediately. To me, Kate Braestrup is like that fine espresso, giving me a jolt of optimism and inspiration. (Full disclosure: I don’t drink coffee, but I was a barista for a short time).
We edited, wrote, listened, edited again, tossed around titles, planned content for the Web site. Mitch took cues from the interview and laid in Cole Porter music, but he wouldn’t give in to the “Sweet Home Alabama” reference near the end. And we laughed questioningly at Kate Braestrup’s description of a t-shirt one cop wore in a D.C. bar crammed with law enforcement officers — words I’m sure have never before been uttered on a Speaking of Faith program. Not suitable for radio, so you’ll have to listen to the unedited interview to hear them.
I exit this program with a new appreciation for the work of law enforcement officers of all kinds who are theologians in their own way, as Braestrup describes:
"Law enforcement officers, like all human beings, are presented with grand questions about life’s meaning and purpose. They consider the problem of evil, the suffering of innocents, the relationships between justice and mercy, power and responsiblity, spirit and flesh. They ponder the impenetrable mystery of death. Cops, in short, think about the same theological issues seminary students research, discuss, argue, and write papers about, but a cop’s work lends immediacy and urgency to such questions. Apart from my familiarity with and affinity for police culture, I was sure working with cops would take me right up to where the theological rubber meets the road."