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.”
My Grandfather’s Faith: Contradictions and Mysteries
Krista Tippett, host
The crescent-topped dome of Masjid An-Nasr peeks through trees of a residential neighborhood in Oklahoma City. (photo: Andrew Shockley/Flickr)
My grandfather was the Reverend Calvin Titus Perkins, known by all as C.T. He was a Southern Baptist evangelist — a traveling preacher in Oklahoma, the former Indian Territory. He arrived, when he was a very young boy and it was a very young state, in a covered wagon. That famous dry Oklahoma dust seems embedded in the few black-and-white photos I’ve seen of him and his unkempt, unsmiling siblings. Several of them went on to drink and divorce. He was a man of passion but also a lover of order, a believer in rules. The bare bones Calvinism that flourished on the frontier offered him not only a faith but a way beyond the chaos and poverty he knew as a child.
When I left home at 18 for Brown University — in part because it was farther from Oklahoma than any other school that accepted me — my grandfather epitomized what I felt I had to escape from. His was a small, closed world defined by judgment. I was throwing myself toward possibility, toward life with a liberating small “l.” The Eternal Life that all his theology drove toward was really about the avoidance of death and damnation. As I grew older, this threat utterly lost its sense for me. How could every Catholic and Jew, every atheist in China and every northern Baptist in Chicago, for that matter — every non-Southern Baptist — be damned? Could God be so petty, and heaven so small?
The meanness of the God C.T. preached was contradicted, more poignantly, in his own person, though he would never have seen this in himself, nor did I have the words for many years to describe it. He was funny and smart and large-hearted. He had left school after second grade but could perform complex mathematical equations in his head. The copious notes he made in the margins of the Bibles he preached from bespoke a delight in the workings of his mind.
But I saw with my own brand of judgment that there were questions that he would not ask — contradictions too frightening to name. I would leave. I would ask. He reconciled himself to my move in the knowledge that Brown had a Baptist foundation in Roger Williams. Yet for a good decade, at Roger Williams’s erstwhile institution and beyond it, religion ceased to interest me altogether.
Religion, and my grandfather, began to catch up with me again in my thirties and forties, as life (that liberating small “l” heavier now with time) played its sweet circular tricks. I left a high journalistic and political road to study theology. I could scarcely believe that I was becoming religious again and vowed that I could do so only if I could reconcile it with the fullness of my mind. In this, I was still defining myself in opposition to my grandfather, again defying his example.
Strange, then, that as I set out to create a public radio program about religion in the early 2000s, I began finally to be grateful for his place in my life. Our public imagination about religion was dominated by a few shrill preachers, and evangelical Christianity had reentered American politics in a whole new way. Missing from view was a universe of thinking faith and spiritual inquiry I had found thriving just beneath the surface of extremes and platitudes. Missing too was an awareness of the humanity of people like my grandfather and the hard-won integrity of his way of life, circumscribed as I might find it with my farther-traveled, better-educated eyes. The religious historian Martin Marty speaks in the plural about the categories we use to describe vast groups of religious people, salvaging the messy, diverse humanity that slips beneath the cultural radar: evangelicalisms, Protestantisms, fundamentalisms. I’d add: Judaisms and Buddhisms.
“Islam” doesn’t lend itself to pluralization in that way, either linguistically or theologically, but “Muslims” does. “The Muslim world” is as deceptively monolithic a phrase as any we use and as meaningless as “the Christian West.” I’ve spent more time learning that, excavating it, than I could possibly have imagined when I proposed this radio experiment two years before 2001.
So what would my grandfather think of me spending my days illuminating the faith of Muhammad? His thorniest interfaith challenge was breaking my mother’s heart by forbidding her to see her high school boyfriend, who was Methodist and therein a peril to her mortal soul. Still, even the religious world of Oklahoma has changed, and the larger world’s changes have reached Oklahoma. We hear from an inordinate number of Muslim public radio listeners in places like Tulsa.
Last year I received a package that moved me to tears, from a Southern Baptist minister in the Deep South. He had been shaken by the hatred he experienced rising up in his congregation, in their community, in the years following 9/11. Hatred, he knew, was not Christian and could not be of God. He had written an illustrated book introducing the faith of Muslims to Christian children so that understanding and compassion might take root in the place of fear. He sent me an inscribed copy.
I love to think, as I wrote back to him, that my grandfather’s faith might have evolved in this way if he had lived into our century. This Southern Baptist minister embodied the “depth theology” which the great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel best described — those places deep in our traditions where orthodoxy becomes paradox. For whether or not Muslims will go to heaven remains a real question in Southern Baptist belief and many other forms of Christianity. But in a place just as doctrinaire, compassion for the stranger, the outcast, the other is a command. The one is a question to be held, in the knowledge that its meaning will not be unlocked in this lifetime. The other is a command to be lived, breathed, and embodied right now. The seeming contradiction between them is Mystery — a mystery which can form the basis of shared life between the righteous across boundaries even as they remain faithful to beliefs that set them apart.
These days I’m in conversation with scientists as much as religious thinkers. I know too much to take the clash of civilizations between science and religion seriously any more than I can accept it as a framework for the relationship be tween Muslims and the West. I’ve explored the social ethics of Charles Darwin and the “cosmic religious sensibility” of the quintessential scientist, Albert Einstein. Einstein fervently dismissed the notion of a personal God that my grandfather held so dear — the idea of a God who would set the laws of physics in motion and then turn around and meddle in them. Yet Einstein spent his days pursuing the order he perceived “deeply hidden behind everything” and describing it mathematically.
As I pursue my fascination with the spiritually and morally evocative nature of his scientific discovery and others, I am experiencing my grandfather for the first time as an intellectual companion. I feel his untapped mind, those questions he bottled up and could not ask, right beside me, delighting too. The cutting-edge insights of physics, biology, and neuroscience don’t defy or in any way address most of his orthodoxies directly. Instead they open a whole new world of imagination about what it means to be human, alive, and amazed. They open new and deeper questions about what it means to be religious. The Vatican has even brought Galileo back into its fold — Galileo, who wrote that mathematics is the language in which the universe is written. I love to imagine how different my grandfather’s faith would have been — how different his life might have been — if he had pondered the notion that the mathematics in which he was so mysteriously fluent might be the mother tongue of his God.
Children Help Us Embrace the Mystery
by Krista Tippett, host
The notion of God as father is a metaphor, of course, like much religious language. It is necessary approximation and analogy. When I became a mother myself, I was stunned at how little we have filled this metaphor with meaning from the real experience of parenting. The Heavenly Father of my childhood was implacable, inscrutable, all-powerful. But to become a parent in reality is to enter a state of extreme vulnerability. “To become a father,” the French theologian Louis Evely aptly put it, “is to experience an infinite dependency on an infinitely small, frail being, dependent on us and therefore omnipotent over our heart.”
Raising a new human being in this world is a monumental spiritual task, yet we so rarely call it that. This does not become easier when, at some point, our offspring become little theologians and philosophers. They begin to ask huge questions about life and the universe — basic questions about how we got here and where God lives and why people die and why people hurt each other and what it means to be good and to be happy. These questions are the building blocks of religion and ethics. We refine them all of our lives, but at heart they remain the same. What changes is our ability to articulate and act on them.
As parents, we want to support this part of our children’s natures. With other mundane aspects of parenting — like how to help them sleep, or how to feed them, or how to teach them to read — we know that we need help. We seek maps, books, and counselors. But when it comes to these personal, existential questions of meaning, we often feel that we should intuitively have the answers. In my own life, and as I’ve spoken with different people across the country these past years, the spirituality of parenting is often a source of anxiety. It provokes a feeling of inadequacy. This is heightened in our age by the fact that so many of us are less connected to specific religious traditions and institutions than the generations that preceded us. And many of us inherit a mix of spiritual practices in our own histories, marriages, and extended families.
As we prepared to create our show titled “The Spirituality of Parenting,” we put out a call for the reflections and questions of our listeners and newsletter subscribers. Many, many parents wrote in, as well as grandparents and ministers and teachers. You can hear some of their voices and stories, and see their pictures, on our website. Each contribution has been wonderful to read. The breadth of spiritual searching and the diversity of spiritual moorings among them is startling, reflecting the plurality of the culture we inhabit. And more than a few who are deeply rooted in a particular tradition stressed that even they need guidance on how to teach and model a vocabulary of words and practice for exploring religion and meaning and ethics as they share ordinary life with the children they love.
I don’t believe I could have found a better conversation partner than Rabbi Sandy Sasso. Her ideas have kept me pondering, and I’m delighted to send them out into the world. She encourages us to begin with what we know, and also to let our children lead us on a new journey of questioning and learning. We can seek out maps and books and counselors on this part of their development too, and we should. She also urges parents to explore the place they come from, the communities or traditions in their family and background, even if they have left it behind at another stage in life. Don’t let those who modeled the worst of your faith, she adds, define that faith for you. Understand yourself as an ancestor to the next generation, as part of tradition’s unfolding story.
Most of all, we should attend to our children’s musings about life’s wonders and injustices, their grief at the death of a pet or a loved one, their response to a homeless person encountered on the street. It is all right not to have answers for their large moral and existential questions. Unlike adults, children are not afraid of mystery. But they do need us to help them develop vocabularies and ways of living to keep those questions alive and growing. They need to hear how we think about large questions of meaning, and about what experience has taught us. They need to hear our questions and our stories. Stories are the vocabulary of theology for children. They also crave and will use ritual and routine, and we can form these from daily life and commonplace experiences.
I return to the insight I began with — that children can make the essence of religion come alive. They may ultimately teach us far more than we teach them. “Children open windows for us,” Sandy Sasso says, “or can crawl through windows that we can’t crawl through, and they open part of our life that maybe has been dormant for a long time.” The rest is mystery, and our children will help us embrace that more joyfully too.
(photo: Renata Baião/Flickr)
Don’t let the people who gave you a bad opinion of your tradition be the only ones who help you define it.
—Rabbi Sandy Sasso, from “The Spirituality of Parenting”
Auditioning this week’s show prior to release, Sandy Sasso’s words again struck me with their deep wisdom.
Kate Moos, managing producer
Anne Lamott’s “Imperfect Birds”
Kate Moos, managing producer
“Everything I write is for spiritual reasons—to help people keep their spirits up, to help transform misery into laughter or healing, to help people remember the truth of their spiritual identities.”
Anne Lamott appeared on SOF years ago, in 2003, in a show we titled “The Meaning of Faith.” I had been fan of hers for some time prior, but I was especially captivated at that time with her personal story of redemption and recovery, and her life as a thoroughly 21st-century writer.
So, when her new fiction, Imperfect Birds, showed up in the mail, the volume floated to the top of the stack of books on my desk — and I took it home and read it. And then I read the two novels that preceded this one and decided to put some questions to her about this very moving story of recovery and human frailty.
What follows are her replies that took place via email:
I appreciate you taking the time to discuss your new book, Imperfect Birds, with me. In this story you bring us back into the lives of the Fergusons—a story begun in your book Rosie (1983) and continued in Crooked Little Heart (1997). So, the first thing I want to ask is, what is it about this story that makes it necessary to write it in intervals of 13 years or so? Is that because it’s a hard story? A sad one?
Novels take a lot more stamina and time—at least two and half years—I much prefer self-contained stories and essays that I can begin and finish in a week. Novels are years worth of needing to keep the plates spinning in the air; hardly ever really knowing what you are doing, and lurching forward slowly, backtracking, flailing, falling, losing hope and confidence, getting back up, lurching onward.
The Fergusons, especially in this last book, really embody the idea that alcoholism is a family disease. (I am a recovering alcoholic and the daughter of a recovering alcoholic, so I am grateful for this portrayal.) Elizabeth, the mother of the teenager Rosie, is a middle-aged recovering alcoholic whom I found sympathetic at the same time her helplessness made me want to wring her neck. Of the primary characters in the novel, she seemed most incomplete, in a way, most damaged, even though it’s her daughter who is in trouble. Will she stop living her incomplete life through Rosie?
I don’t see her the same way you do. She has really been a late bloomer, not even getting to the full expression of grief following her beloved husband’s death, until Rosie is 13—8 years or so later.
I see her small actions towards truth and tough decisions as heroic, because emotional expression does not come easily to her, as it does to James and Rae. Truth does not come easily to most people in this culture—a good appearance is the dominating value. Rae and James’s adoration of her is one of the things that most helps me experience what a profound, if introverted, person she is—how brilliant and rare, to be able to have a husband and best friend of this quality.
Your portrayal of Rosie’s drug use seems to me to describe a sort of 21st century story about addiction. In an older sort of story about teenage drug use, the kid would hook up with a bad crowd, her grades would crash, and she would start stealing cars or running away from home. In this case, the teenage junkie is extremely high functioning—a model student who volunteers at church. But she’s morally bankrupt, a schemer and liar and manipulator. I think this change in the nature of story reflects a change out there in the world. Do you agree? What has changed?
The pressure on these modern kids is infinitely most intense than it was on me—I’ve heard it said by high school teachers whose kids are almost cracking up under the strain to get into the great colleges, that exceptionalism is the new normal.
At the same time, there’s a kind of terrible feeling of inevitability and doom that begins to unfold. Rosie clearly has fallen into this vortex and there is only one outcome possible. For me, that really hits when it becomes clear that she and her boyfriend Finn are taking a horse tranquilizer with complete whimsy, as if they were tasting chocolates. Her tone is one of complete innocence. Is this the function of denial? Sin? Is she even a moral agent at this point?
She’s a late bloomer too. She didn’t develop until fourteen and fifteen, whereas her best friend in junior high is a luscious voluptuous vanilla blondie who gets pregnant at fourteen. So partly I think she has a lot of catching up to do—she spent the bulk of her youth on the tennis court, which injured her in many ways, and now she wants to experience being desired and larger than life, wild, intense, young, loved, and normal, part of a whole.
In Crooked Little Heart, it seems like Rosie’s moral education really begins, or anyway gets interesting, when she is becoming a competitive tennis player, and she starts cheating, and then she keeps that secret, and we begin to actually feel the spiritual corrosion that secret causes. She starts lying to herself first, about whether she is even cheating. As I read it I actually started thinking about my own reflexive dishonesty and the perils of that. Is there a connection between this cheating and keeping it a secret and where Rosie ends up at the end of Imperfect Birds?
I don’t think so. Almost all of us are pretty secretive, and maybe especially those who had a genetic predisposition to substance abuse, as Rosie does. Then you hear that we are only as sick as our secrets, and it takes a little while to truly get that, and to make the decision to try living a different way.
In the last year or so, I was aware of five people in my orbit who died of alcoholism. I wasn’t close to any of them—they were family members of co-workers or uncles of friends. The people who died were in their 50s (roughly my age) and they just finally wore out. One of them died with full-blown cirrhosis but others were just-you know, their heart gave out, or they fell off a roof, or just came to the end active drunks inevitably come to. It’s such a staggering thing to see people come to that end. Why do you think some of us manage to get better and some of us don’t?
I literally have no idea. Grace?
Elizabeth’s good friend Rae at one point counsels her that she needs to accept the truth, and that even if it is bitter and frightening and difficult, it is beautiful and she should find a way to be grateful for it. That seems like hard advice. Does Elizabeth come to terms with her hard truth? Doesn’t it take her a long time?
It does take her a long time. It has always taken me a long time, too—as a parent, as a daughter, as a sister. You just keep trying not to see what is going on in front of you—especially if you were raised among alcoholics, it’s one of the first things you learn: that what seems to be going on between your parents can actually be explained so that they do not seem crazy or out of control. So you develop a habit of not seeing what you’re seeing—of colluding with the lie machine. And this is a very hard thing to turn around, which is why I said earlier that Elizabeth’s growth, while slow, is so heroic.
I hope this isn’t too personal. You’ve spoken in interviews and in your other, nonfiction writing, about your own experience of addiction, and how your religious awakening happened. I remember, in the interview you did with Speaking of Faith several years ago, you told a story about coming down from drugs on a houseboat, and that—I believe the story was—Jesus was there with you. And I seem to remember that for a while, you said, Jesus was nipping at your heels like a little kitten. Not like Deus Omnipotens, but like a playful lovely kitten. That image is so unexpected and has always sort of stayed with me. Do you still have the experience of Jesus, or of grace, like that? Do you see these novels as religious or spiritual stories?
I have a very unsophisticated relationship with Jesus. I do not have one interesting theological thought in my head. I just feel him, and did from the beginning: I feel the intense love he has for us, especially when we are suffering, and I feel his delight in me, which is something most of us are starved for most of our lives, and I feel his unwavering companionship. I feel his purity and goodness, and I see it wherever people are suffering, and others show up to help. I see Christ Crucified in the world’s abject poverty and despair and unfairness, how horrible horrible horrible it is for most people, and when I see this, I desperately want to be there beside him, helping in any way I can. Maybe just bringing a glass of water, or sitting there breathing with him, like you sit with someone in child birth.
Everything I write is for spiritual reasons—to help people keep their spirits up, to help transform misery into laughter or healing, to help people remember the truth of their spiritual identities. I try to shine a little light in the world, to be the light for whomever is there, whether at the market, or in a bookstore. It is my spiritual calling. I do a very meager job most of time, but this is my intention.
(photo: James Hall)
Cycles of Life and Daffodils
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
“Last year at this time, I passed this field of daffodils every day going to visit my aunt who was dying. As the spring progressed and the first shoots of the daffodils appeared, I saw the changes each day riding by as the buds appeared. The flowers bloomed and then, of course, finished their amazing show and vanished back into the earth. She died soon after.
The field once again turned to a level green field of grass. This year I’ve been taking the same daily ride, but this time for my uncle. The daffodils were back this year in all their glory. The cycle and our journey continues.”
We received this touching photo and reflection from Ruth Govatos in Wilmington, Delaware in response to our call-out for pictures on how you are spiritually nourished by gardening and growing things from the soil. Share your photos with us.
Thinking of Anne Lamott As We Create a New Show
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
“Sober people say that religion is for people who are afraid to go to hell, and spirituality is for people who’ve been there. And I think faith, for me, is a word that speaks much more to a belief and an interest in matters that are spiritual rather than the institution and creeds that you associate with religion.”
We’ve been thinking about Anne Lamott a lot lately as we continue to build a dialogue about what it means to be spiritual but not necessarily religious. (We’re looking to make a full-fledged production out of your responses, so add your reflections here — and please share this link with others.)
Krista interviewed the writer back in 2003, during the earliest days of Speaking of Faith. Now for the first time, we’re making Krista’s unedited interview available. It’s a wonderful listen chock full of audio gems (stream in player above or download).
Lamott described herself to Krista as a spiritual “woman of faith” who disdains dogma and “the great evil” of religious fundamentalism. She calls out fundamentalism as a terrifying peril of our time: “a conviction of being right and of feeling that we are chosen and that other people can be denied a seat at the banquet table.”
We’ve noticed some conversation threads emerging on our blog and Facebook page that illuminate and expand upon Lamott’s ideas about being faithful, spiritual, but not religious. As Elissa Elliot commented on our Facebook thread:
“‘Religious’ (to many people) implies abuse, hypocrisy, and shortsightedness…Perhaps the world ‘spiritual’ is a more ‘open’ and ‘embracing’ term and that’s why more people are using it. It implies that although I believe certain things, I’m not set in my ways, and I realize that God may work in ways ‘outside the box I’ve been raised in.’ AND I want to hear what the next person is saying…”
But if “spiritual but not religious” feels more expansive and embracing to some, others experience it as isolating.
“We can’t just be spiritual individuals all by ourselves. The tension is the tension between the important need to form communities within which to share our spiritual journeys and the impulse to organize these communities efficiently to expand and grow.” — Brant Lee
“Individualism is highly prized in our culture, but when it comes to matters of faith, community is very important.”
In her book, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott has a passage that squarely hits on this need for a spiritual community:
“Most of the people I know who have what I want—which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy—are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people in community, who pray, or practice their faith; they are Buddhists, Jews, Christians—people banding together to work on themselves and for human rights. They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful. I saw something once from The Jewish Theological Seminary that said, ‘A human life is like a single letter of the alphabet. It can be meaningless. Or it can be a part of a great meaning.’”
We’d like to know how are you finding and creating communities that enrich you spiritually? Share your story with us.
(photo of Anne Lamott by mdesive/Flickr)
A First Rite of Passage
Colleen Scheck, producer
This is a personal entry, in the spirit of the “Your Voices, Your Stories” door we open to you each week. I hope my experience will prompt you to share your own stories and reflections.
I’m a melting pot of religious identity: a lapsed Catholic, sometimes agnostic theist, envious of Buddhists, awed naturalist, live-by-the-golden-rule spiritual seeker. I worry that this may be off-putting, but maybe that’s my guilt as a “lapsed” Catholic.
So, this is the identity I brought to the baptism preparation class my husband and I attended a couple months ago at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church. I also brought with me the wisdom of Rabbi Sandy Sasso from our spirituality of parenting show:
“Don’t let the people who gave you a bad impression of your religious tradition be the only ones to define it. You, too, are a part of that tradition, and you’re not just a descendant, you are also an ancestor, and you helped to create the future of that tradition. So give it a second chance.”
We were one of five couples who listened to the priest talk about the evolving theology of limbo, the intended role of godparents, and the significance of baptism. One “couple” was actually a Hispanic mother and her five-year-old daughter, whose baptism was required for her to enter St. Rose’s school.
“What is a sacrament?” the priest asked our class. ”A direct touchpoint with God,” I offered, and then unexpectedly choked up. At that moment, I intensely felt how important it was to me to have my son baptized, to give him a spiritual rite of passage in the tradition I was raised in, to allow him to be touched by God. My emotion surprised me, given the frequently confused spiritual state of mind of my own life. I’m still pondering what it means.
That deep emotion surfaced again a few Sundays ago during Owen’s baptism ceremony. It was held after Mass, and was an intimate gathering of the family and friends of the four souls being baptized: two young babies, my squirmy 10-month old, and the wide-eyed Hispanic girl. We formed a circle around the baptismal font and witnessed each pouring of consecrated water, anointing with oil, lighting of candle, and donning of white bib — all the while offering prayers and blessing to children, parents, and godparents. Owen was curious and innocent. I felt the beauty, gravity, comfort, and joy that comes with ritual.
I wrote a card to Owen that day, trying to articulate why I wanted him to have this experience. I mentioned hoping he’ll embrace a spiritual life, whatever it may be or however he defines it, alongside an intellectual, physical, and emotional life. Knowing he would not read it for many years, I wrote that for me spirituality is about recognizing that there is something greater than ourselves, that life is precious and interconnected — things I want him to recognize in his own way one day.
What I focus on as a result of this ritual, a ritual I was a bit conflicted about, is the place of religious traditions in helping us learn how to care for ourselves and others, and in instructing us how to reflect and how to act. In the card, I told my just-baptized son that I hoped this would be the first of many rites of passage for him that will shape his identity and commemorate his growth.
I asked Trent if I could write about this partly so I can keep evaluating the meaning of this experience and not lose it in the busyness of motherhood and work. But I also wanted to write in order to hear about your experiences of approaching and undergoing rites of passage, religious or otherwise, and how you navigated them for yourself or others?
(photo: Brian Brown)