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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.

Dancing the Stories of the Orishas

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

Callejon de Hamel

In Cuban Santeria (also known as La Regla Ocha and La Regla Lucumi), orishas are revered deities who rule over different earthly elements. They are called through dance and drum rituals to interact with humans.

Oshun, for example, is an orisha associated with fresh water. She represents female sensuality and beauty. Oshun’s movement is fluid and coquettish, which is what you’d expect from a goddess of beauty. Her signature color is yellow and she typically carries a fan with her, which she sometimes wields as a weapon. When Oshun laughs, she’s preparing to punish someone. It’s only when she cries that she’s truly happy.

This summer, I realized a decades-old dream of traveling to Cuba to study Afro-Cuban folkloric dance, specifically the dances of the orishas. Before the trip, I understood the dances as reflections of the orisha’s personality. But Alfredo O’Farril Pacheco (pictured below, in red shirt), a master dance instructor based in Havana, says that the orisha dances also tell a story. When you know the story, it changes how you embody the dance.

In the case of Oshun, one dance movement pantomimes the orisha splashing water on her body. You can see this in the video at about 53 seconds. Oshun is bathing in a river, preparing to seduce the warrior Ogun.

At the time, Ogun was ”ranking off a lot of people’s heads,” as O’Farril Pacheco explains in Spanish. The other orishas knew they couldn’t stop Ogun by force, so Oshun was recruited to seduce him out of the forest and stop him from killing. Before she could begin her temptation, Oshun first needed to clean herself after menstruating; so she washes herself in the river, splashing water over her back during the process.

I learned this Oshun movement years ago, but never knew the story. Before I would scoop my arms forward, towards my heart. O’Farril Pacheco offered the image of the river and the story of the seduction and I started lifting my hands higher, above my heart, and “tossing the water” over my back.

Dance teachers Alfredo O'Farril Pacheco and Barbara GutierrezHe also taught us to think about the environment the orishas inhabit when we’re dancing. Some of the orishas live in the forest. When you walk in the forest you have to pay attention and pick up your feet. There’s also a difference between owning the forest and living in it. When you live in a place but don’t own it, you tread with alertness and caution. These narrative elements aren’t extraneous. They convey rich layers of meaning through movement.

Another dancer I met on my trip, who is initiated into Santeria, told me that an enduring theme of Oshun’s narrative is that people constantly underestimate her. In a parallel way, I underestimated the narrative richness of the orisha dances. I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface and have so much more to learn. Oh what a gift to learn these stories, and dance these stories anew. 

About the lead image: Callejon de Hamel. (photo: Amy Goodman/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

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What Do You Think Williams’ Mother Meant by Giving Her Those Journals?

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

spiralsThis bit of audio from our Terry Tempest Williams interview has us all mystified. It resulted in this “thought experiment” among our staff, which led to wildly varying interpretations.

Take a listen to this confounding story about the journals her mother left her:

What do you think Williams’ mother was trying to say about herself? To tell her daughter?

What do those pages say about “voice” to the rest of us?

I’ve told and retold this story to many of my friends and family, and each person has a distinct take on what it all means, but they all ask with a wrinkled brow: Why? Why? Why? I’m anxious to hear your interpretation because I can easily come up with a half-dozen theories.

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Sweetness to the Rotten Core

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Yesterday I posted this good morning message on our Facebook page: “Shana Tova! Special memories from New Years past?” Lauren Rosenfeld, an author and blogger living in Asheville, North Carolina, shared this wonderful memory:

Lauren Rosenfeld"One Rosh Hashanah I came home from a busy day at work and brought out the apples to cut up and dip in the honey to share with my husband and our four little children. When I cut into the apples, they were rotten to the core (literally!). I was more than a little freaked out (being admittedly a tad superstitious about such things).

I ran to our next door neighbor (who was not Jewish). She smiled and brought us fresh apples — and joined us to celebrate the new year. In the end I felt grateful for the “bad apples” because they allowed us to bring in the new year with the sweetness of friendship and generosity. Lesson learned: Even bad apples can be a gift! ♥”

These are the tales that overwhelm me. Thank you Lauren. Wishing you all the sweetness and friendship of a new year.

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Touch. Solomon on The Moth.

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Working for Speaking of Faith (soon-to-be Being) has ruined me. My life is invaded with connections that I otherwise would’ve been oblivious to. So vacations are never completely free of imaginative associations. Nevertheless, I’m thankful. It’s a gift.

A lazy Saturday afternoon. My two boys down for a nap. My wife writing. Me? Cleaning the kitchen. To enliven the mind while performing this domestic simplicity, I cue up a recent edition of The Moth podcast. And who should be the storyteller? Andrew Solomon — a former guest on "The Soul in Depression" who most recently took the stage with Krista at the New York Public Library.

Andrew Solomon on Stage for The MothIn the audio above, he tells the remarkable story of Cambodian woman he met while doing research in that country. He wanted to understand what happens when an entire nation has been subjected to a trauma. This Cambodian woman had survived the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge.

In a resettlement camp, she started a group to help shattered women refugees rendered lifeless by the horrors of Pol Pot’s regime. As Solomon tells it, she developed three steps to bring these women back to society and help them rediscover their humanity. It’s the third step that struck me and reminded me of a Quaker’s story from 2003:

“‘I would teach them the third thing: which was to perform manicures and pedicures.’ … She said, ‘You know, the worst atrocity of all that was brought by the Khmer Rouge was that half the country turned against the other half of the country. And people who lived through that period knew that they couldn’t put anything in anyone else, and they completely lost the habit of looking anyone else in half in the eye.’

She said and ‘All of these women had been deprived for a long time of any occasion to indulge in the least bit of personal vanity. I brought them to my hut, and I built a special room that I would fill with steam. And it was a pleasure for them to feel beautiful. But what was really amazing for them was that, in this context, it was something that was at once very intimate and very impersonal. And they would start, because I was telling them how to do it and giving them some instruction, to handle each others’ fingers and each others’ toes. And it meant they were touching each other. And if I had told them to begin to hold each others’ hands or to have some kind of physical contact with other people, they would’ve shied away and they would have pulled back. They weren’t ready to do anything with anyone. But, in this context, they would touch each others’ fingers, touch each others’ toes, and then, because it was such a funny context, and because they felt so happy about the fact that they were, for a moment, feeling a little bit beautiful again, they would begin to laugh together. And they would begin to tell each other little bits of stories and things and that was the way that I taught them to trust again.’”

This idea of slowly finding and gently rediscovering one’s humanity through touch is powerful testimony. Testimony I had heard in another story by Parker Palmer, who also appeared in "The Soul in Depression":

"I’ll just tell that story quickly, because it’s such a great image for me. … There was this one friend who came to me, after asking permission to do so, every afternoon about four o’clock, sat me down in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks and massaged my feet. He hardly ever said anything. He was a Quaker elder. And yet out of his intuitive sense, from time to time would say a very brief word like, ‘I can feel your struggle today,’ or farther down the road, ‘I feel that you’re a little stronger at this moment, and I’m glad for that.’ But beyond that, he would say hardly anything. He would give no advice. He would simply report from time to time what he was sort of intuiting about my condition. Somehow he found the one place in my body, namely the soles of my feet, where I could experience some sort of connection to another human being. And the act of massaging just, you know, in a way that I really don’t have words for, kept me connected with the human race.

What he mainly did for me, of course, was to be willing to be present to me in my suffering. He just hung in with me in this very quiet, very simple, very tactile way. And I’ve never really been able to find the words to fully express my gratitude for that, but I know it made a huge difference. And it became for me a metaphor of the kind of community we need to extend to people who are suffering in this way, which is a community that is neither invasive of the mystery nor evasive of the suffering but is willing to hold people in a space, a sacred space of relationship, where somehow this person who is on the dark side of the moon can get a little confidence that they can come around to the other side.”

If there’s one thing you do this weekend, take 15 minutes and listen to Andrew Solomon’s story. And, then, pay attention. Those connections are waiting for you to be made — and to be shared.

Now that I’m done with the dishes I think I’ll rub my wife’s feet. Well, maybe…

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The Gospel According to Battlestar Galactica
Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer

Ever since Krista got me hooked on Battlestar Galactica a couple of years ago, I have noticed very few episodes that didn’t offer some not-so-subtle references to Judeo-Christian theological influences. There are countless examples throughout the program’s four seasons: a “chosen” or select group of survivors travelling great distances trying to find the prophesied “home”; the twelve tribes of mankind; transitioning from pantheism to monotheism, etc. But one of the more blatant is the refrain at the end of most speeches in BSG, “So say we all” — basically serving the same function when a congregation says “Amen” after a part of a church liturgy. And hearing the pantheistic human characters say “Gods damn it” still catches me off guard.

In this week’s program, "TV and Parables of our Time," USC professor Diane Winston notes how the writers of BSG would also weave issues found in today’s real-life news into their story lines. She cites the detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib as one example. Winston goes on to suggest that maybe we need good storytelling in order to process the events happening in our world, and that trying to understand the complexity of these events only through news media may not be enough.

As someone who finds the Bible in desperate need of an editor, I wonder if I would find the biblical stories more compelling if they had spaceships and cool sound effects and thrilling scores. Would I find the messages more relevant? I don’t know. It does makes me wonder if these modern narratives like Battlestar Galactica need to have familiar touch points, such as religious rituals and themes that we grew up with, in order to make a space-based story somehow more accessible to our terrestrial lives. Or do they just borrow from great stories, many of which can be found in religious texts? What do you think?

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Repossessing Virtue: Rachel Naomi Remen and Economic Crisis as Spiritual Journey
» download(mp3, 23:20)
Kate Moos, Managing Producer

Rachel Naomi Remen spoke to Krista for a program we called "Listening Generously" some time ago and re-aired recently. In it they discuss the power of story to heal and restore, as well as the power of story, or narrative, to limit and to harm. So I wasn’t surprised when, in the course of this brief interview with me, she said "our story had become too small," and asserted that finding our way back to the largeness of our collective story was part of the spiritual path we are on, as we navigate the economic crisis.

I hardly edited this conversation at all because I was so taken by Dr. Remen’s hospitality and warmth, and I wanted to share that with you. I hope you’ll let yourself sink into her wisdom on the spiritual aspects of our shared anxieties and ask yourself, as she suggests: What do I trust? What do I really need?

We’ll keep releasing mp3s of our interviews via this blog, our podcast, and now on a Web site for Repossessing Virtue. And, please share your ideas about how this downturn has affected you in terms of personal conscience and values?

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