Turning the Gifts of Our Experiences Into Story and Laughter
by Krista Tippett, host
Full disclosure: until I moved to Minnesota, I didn’t get the Midwestern accent/humor thing thing that the movie Fargo so iconically captured. But I remember hearing Kevin Kling on NPR and staying with him despite myself, always being touched as well as amused at where his stories took me.
Having only heard him on the radio, I wasn’t aware of the disability he was born with — his left arm much shorter than his right, with no wrist and no thumb. Then, about ten years ago, he was in a catastrophic motorcycle crash. The Associated Press and the local newspapers in Minneapolis and St. Paul reported the accident. Eyewitnesses thought he had died. The accident had paralyzed his healthy right arm, the one which had always done the bulk of the work.
Reading his stories from and about his childhood — they are legion — it is clear that Kevin Kling was always a natural humorist. And life has also made him wise.
Our losses make us human, he’s learned. They give us our richness and our wisdom. But wisdom doesn’t come cheap; it costs us. This is one of the endless things he says that makes you think hard just before or after he makes you smile.
We get the whole package of Kevin Kling in this conversation: funny guy, poet, wise man. As deeply down to earth as he is — in life as on stage — he also has an innate love of literature and philosophy, weaving Shakespeare and Dante into his stories as easily as Goofus and Gallant.
He describes himself as touched by Dante’s underworld. It’s a reality he feels he landed in, and wrested himself back from, after his accident. He also plays with Dante’s language about the underworld as he considers his very being and presence in the world. Dis, he says, is “the place of shadow and reflection where you round off the rough edges of torment and desire. You go to this world of Dis. And it’s the prefix for ‘disability,’ which doesn’t mean ‘unability.’ It means able through the world of shadow and reflection. And so it’s just another way of doing things… it is literally having a foot in two worlds.” This is how Kevin Kling experiences the “dis” in the disability he was born with, as well as the one he acquired in midlife.
And being able-bodied, he helpfully points out, is always only a temporary condition.
Sit back, relax, and prepare to reflect and to laugh. It’s a rare, lovely gift of Kevin Kling to make us do both. He helps us remember what he knows so well — that our sense of self and our sense of humor are great gifts in facing whatever life throws at us. Once we turn our experiences into stories and laughter, they no longer control us. The challenge is in not merely resting with the stories that help us sleep at night, but claiming the stories we want to grow into.
Live Video: In the Room with Kevin Kling
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
WHEN: Feb 9th, 2012 (1pm CT/2pm ET)
If you listen to NPR, there’s a good chance you’ve been regaled by the unparalleled storytelling of Kevin Kling. His popular commentaries and hilarious autobiographical tales have graced the public radio airwaves and his plays have been staged across the United States.
Born with a congenital birth defect, Kling’s left hand has no wrist or thumb, and that same arm is 75 percent the size of his right arm. And then, about five years ago, a motorcycle accident took away the use of his right arm when the brachial plexus nerves were pulled out of their sockets.
In a face-to-face conversation from the studios of American Public Media and Minnesota Public Radio, Krista Tippett will talk to this American humorist and writer about confronting and embracing these physical challenges and his own mortality, and the will to create rather than despair. Through his work and his personal story, we’ll focus on his work as an artist, the importance of humor and craft in his spiritual life, and how he finds meaning in the world around him.
You’re welcome to watch it here, or join us on our events page where you can chat with other folks watching it.
If I did not see light in the story, I could not tell it.
Our interview with the public historian who is unearthing the “complex interrelationships between African American and Cherokee people in pre-colonial America” is in the final stages of production. Look for our interview next week.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
This is storytelling at its finest and its darkest, but Auslander’s wry sense of humor and delivery give the heaviness of the situation a light touch. For those of you with delicate sensibility about the Holocaust or profane language, be forewarned. He does swear a few times and is brutally honest about his visit to a concentration camp in Germany. His ending is worth it and his point all the more salient because of this humorous approach.
Some people have a way of bringing laughter to deep, painful sorrow - but not in a way that ignores or diminishes the reality of that sorrow. It’s like some people have this ability to see the microscopic punchlines and jokes even in the darkest of places. Writer Shalom Auslander has this ability. Here, he tells a live story with The Moth in NYC about his reluctant trip to a WWII death camp. And if you like this, you can hear more stories from him on This American Life, read more stories in his (amazing) books & articles, or listen to him talk with Terry.
~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Tuesday Evening Melody: Saturday Night Tavern Storytelling with Over The Rhine’s “All My Favorite People”
by Marcy Bain, guest contributor
As a Presbyterian minister I spend a great deal of time in sanctuary spaces, but I confess that my favorite spiritual music is not always sung by the Sunday morning choir. Often it’s sung in Saturday night taverns by mainstream folk artists like Over The Rhine, Patty Griffin, and Jennifer Knapp. Other artists shuffle in and out of my iPod rotation, but when I seek spiritual comforts, to these musical mainstays I always return.
The other day I was trying to locate that thing, that ineffable quality in their music that draws me into sacred space, and it proved a daunting task. Like a flash of creative insight, or a burst of beauty that wrecks the senses, I can’t really put my finger on the pulse of such mysteries; I can only receive them when they come to me. And so it is with these artists and their songs.
However, if I endeavored to speak in broad terms, I would say that these artists hold a few key characteristics in common. They make music that strikes a spiritual chord in me without being doctrinaire. They each pursue excellence in their craft. They defy labels and simplistic categorizations. Folk music at its core is story tellin’ music; each of these artists sings out their stories from the deep-seated wellsprings of spirit and soul. None of them make music specifically geared towards the Christian marketplace, but all of them have deeply nourished me in my journey of faith.
For those of you with New Year’s resolutions to expand your musical palette, start with Over The Rhine’s “All My Favorite People,” dive in to Knapp’s “Mr. Gray,” and let Ms. Griffin take you to church with her stirring rendition of “All Creatures of Our God and King.” If the Saturday night tavern happens to be your favorite sanctuary, who knows, you just might get to see a preacher overcome by “a juke box altar call” (to borrow a lyric from another OTR song) as she sits in the corner putting the final polish on her Sunday morning sermon.
Marcy Bain is an ordained Presbyterian minister from Dayton, Ohio. She believes that there is a special place in heaven for girls with guitars, and she is ever so grateful for all that they’ve contributed to her life.
Want to recommend a song for our Tuesday evening melody? Submit your suggestion and a little bit about the tune. We’ll take a listen for possible publication on the On Being Blog.
A Polish Grandmother’s Christmas Story
by Paul Clement Czaja, guest contributor
A Christmas scene from Syria. (Charles Roffey/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
As a Polish family, the real celebration of Christ’s birth for us took place on Christmas Eve with the singing of carols before sharing together a festive dinner. And then, finally, when the night outside was deep and decorated with a billion stars, all the family would sit around the Christmas tree, and our dad would give out the presents to each and every one of us. But my story takes place on that Christmas Eve afternoon so many years ago when I was still a kid growing up in the Bronx.
After my mother had prepared the big dining room table with a large, lovely white linen tablecloth, Grandma would come down from her apartment upstairs and place a white plate piled high with brown dates in the middle of the still empty table. My brother Peter and I would get up and begin eating some of these unusually sweet and sticky exotic fruits. We did so every Christmas, but on this particular time I was puzzled enough to ask Grandma how come we only got dates on that one day of the year. We never had dates on any other day — only on Christmas Eve. Why? She smiled at Peter and me and invited us to come and sit down and told us this story:
Monsters We Love: The Power of Stories in Every Era, in Every Medium
by Krista Tippett, host
When I first sat down to interview Diane Winston, I told her that I didn’t want to start our conversation with zombies and vampires. I didn’t want to spend all of our time on them, but they quickly became the focus of the entire first half of our conversation nevertheless.
As I had sensed, and Diane Winston helped me understand in a whole new way, monsters — human and otherwise — are an immensely playful and deeply serious way in to the story of our time. And television — as she and I first discussed a few years ago through shows like Lost, 24, Battlestar Galactica, and The Wire — is a medium where more and more creative people are drawn to tell this story in fresh and surprising ways. Like it or not, TV is a primary place in this culture where we act out the ancient human compulsion to engage who we are, what we fear, who we aspire to be.
Not surprisingly, as much has changed on the planet in the past few years, much has changed on the small screen. There is what I’d call a whole new genre of total civilizational collapse. Art and drama confront reality by exaggerating it. The instability people are feeling and fearing from the economy onwards comes out in the new TV season through scenarios in which a mysterious plague has turned most of humanity into soulless zombies (The Walking Dead); total environmental collapse has sent humans back in time to co-exist with dinosaurs (Terra Nova); and aliens have disabled modern technology and wiped out government and civil society as we know it (Falling Skies). Falling Skies was co-created by Steven Spielberg, and its departure from the sweet memory of E.T. surely says something about shifting perceptions of the hostility of the world “out there” — extraterrestrially and terrestrially.
The Walking Dead and its zombies, as I hadn’t quite realized until I dug into this topic, deserve special attention. Its second season premiere was the highest-rated television drama in the history of basic cable among viewers in the 18-49 demographic. It picks up some of the themes and touches of the wildly popular Lost. It turns them inside out as well. In Lost, bands of survivors were thrown together to find their way out of a supernatural place; along the way, they knew equal measures of love and loss, tragedy and redemption. In The Walking Dead, Earth itself has become a supernatural place in a horror story way. And the zombies — murderous creatures who used to be human and are now reactivated brain stems — are not the walking dead; the survivors are, as the show’s creators tell us up front. Life is reduced to a nightmare. Moments of hope and redemption are scarce and short-lived.
A semi sports an advertisement for The Walking Dead on its payload. (photo: Ewen Roberts/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd)
As Diane Winston points out — and she is one of the sharpest watchers of these things I know — these plot lines are thick with ancient, abiding questions of meaning, of the presence or absence of God, of morality writ large. In this show, we play a scene taking place in an abandoned church in The Walking Dead, which is as overtly theological as anything I’ve seen on television in my life — complete with a cross, prayer, confession, martyrdom, and overtones of Jesus in Gethsemane and the sacrifice of Isaac. Diane Winston says to me, at one point, "People have been asking ‘Where is God?’ for thousands of years and why wouldn’t we be asking the same question? And why wouldn’t we want to represent it in our own language rather than in the King James version?”
It’s a relief, really, to turn from zombies to vampires, who populate a number of shows and who at least have emotional lives and relationships. True confession: I am a True Blood lover, as is Diane Winston. Vampires unlike zombies, she points out, are sexy. They are playful characters for projecting ideas about mortality, otherness, and the meaning of being human. And in part because their “true blood” is obviously fake, they fare positively in contrast to other monsters on TV right now who happen to be human — the serial killer Dexter or the teacher-turned-meth dealer and murderer on Breaking Bad. It is completely fascinating to hear what Diane Winston knows about the intentions of the writers of these series — the fact, for example, that Vince Gilligan, the series creator of Breaking Bad's bleak badness, is all about examining the reality that actions have consequences.
As a mother as much as anything else, I occasionally worry about the severity of these images as tools for examining morality. But Diane Winston’s perspective is bracing and comforting in some sense — reminding us to trust the power of stories which have endured through every era of human confusion and darkness. I remember the psychiatrist and author Robert Coles telling me how children know what to do with stories — and that we shield them from the world’s darkness and despair at their own peril. It is after all their world to make sense of, to navigate, and to repair.
And in the end, this is not a dark hour of radio. We’ve layered lots of great sound of various TV shows throughout my conversation with Diane Winston. We move beyond zombies and vampires to fascinating religious complexity in 24's successor, Homeland, and the fascinating back story to HBO’s Enlightened. It’s a strange and unpredictable mix that’s in the end funny and scary, bleak and hopeful, endlessly mysterious and endlessly familiar. Like life itself.
Giving Thanks to My Ancestors on Día de Los Muertos
by Jenny Ward McDonald, guest contributor
Last fall the idea to visit the family graveyard came to mind for the first time in ages. Día de Los Muertos seemed like the perfect excuse to make the journey. I allowed life and distance to keep me away, however, and I never went.
I am not Latina, but I did develop a strong appreciation for Mexican culture while studying midwifery on the Texas/Mexico border. When I moved home to Georgia, I kept a piece of Mexico in my heart. Since the first idea to celebrate my ancestors Mexican-style entered my mind last year, the urge had only grown stronger. So as November approached this year, I resolved to do it. I invited my two sisters. One said she’d bake a casserole and we planned to picnic at the cemetery. On October 31st, they both cancelled on me. I was determined, however, and went anyway.
Who Was the Buddha? The Story of a Human Being Like You and Me
by Toni Bernhard, guest contributor
An image of the Buddha is carved into a banyan tree at Wat Mahathat in Thailand. (photo: McKay Savage/Flickr, cc by 2.0)
The name Buddha means “awakened one.” This is the story of how a young man became the Buddha. As with all ancient tales, we can’t know what is to be taken literally and what is to be taken metaphorically. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m inspired by his story either way.
The Buddha was born a prince in a small kingdom in northern India. His name was Siddhartha Gautama. His father, the king, indulged his son’s desires and protected him from being exposed to human suffering. The king posted guards at the palace gates to keep Siddhartha from seeing how less fortunate people lived. He even had attendants hold a parasol over his son so he wouldn’t experience heat or cold or dust. Everything unpleasant about life was hidden from him.
When Siddhartha was nine years old, his father took him to a plowing festival. At one point, the nurses left the prince unattended under a rose-apple tree. In striking contrast to the noise of the festival, it was calm and quiet under the tree. Siddhartha sat cross-legged and became aware of the sensation of his breath going in and out of his body. It was his first experience of true calm and peacefulness. Soon his nurses returned and broke this peaceful abiding, but the experience had a profound effect on the young prince.
One day, when Siddhartha was a young man, he talked his attendant, Channa, into taking him beyond the walls of the palace. For the first time, Siddhartha was exposed to life as the rest of us experience it.
Zombies, Zombies Everywhere
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
A mass of people dress up for the Toronto Zombie Walk. (photo: Sam Javanrouh/Flickr, cc by-nc 2.0)
For some reason we’re experiencing a zombie moment. From zombie crawls across the globe to the record-breaking 11 million people who tuned in to watch the season premiere of AMC’s The Walking Dead, zombies are seemingly everywhere this season. Even sober institutions like The Centers for Disease Control are using zombies to teach us about disaster preparedness.
As we get ready for next week’s interview with Diane Winston, the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the University of Southern California, we’re wondering about this collective obsession with the walking dead. Why do you think zombies (not to mention other semi-humans like vampires and werewolves) are so appealing to our imaginations right now? Is it campy escapism from our economic woes? Or could it possibly be a reflection of how many people are feeling at this moment — like the walking wounded?