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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.
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The Angle of Johnny Cash’s Back from the Wings

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Johnny Cash Poster from Carnegie Hall PerformanceOne of the wonderful stories Rosanne Cash shares in this week’s show is about an intimate moment with her father before his appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1994. This performance marked the revival of his recording career with the release of his album American Recordings. An important moment to be sure.

In the rehearsal room at Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis, Rosanne Cash tells Krista Tippett a story about rejecting her father’s repeated pleas for her to sing “I Still Miss Someone” with him on stage. Just as he turns to leave, she sees the flat of his back “bathed in light” and relents.

As we were producing this segment, all the producers at On Being longed to hear the actual performance. What did they sound like together? How did Johnny Cash introduce his daughter? How did the crowd respond?

Well, we looked around for a copy, any copy of this special moment — but came up empty. That is, until we found a bootleg copy. The quality is far from stellar but it does answer these questions. The way this legendary country music performer and father calls his daughter onto the stage is warm and endearing. The music they make together is worth hearing. And, in some ways, the feel from the seats of Carnegie Hall adds to the pleasure.

Listen in and tell us about the experience from unfettered ears.

Audio produced by Susan Leem and Trent Gilliss.

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Rembrandt’s Divinely Inspired Light: An Unheard Cut from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

Rembrandt's 'Portrait of a man'
Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a man, half length, with arms akimbo” (1658) (photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

"Sometimes you have to kill your puppies." This is radio producer insider baseball talk for cutting your most precious, beloved bits of tape — the ones that aren’t serving the bigger story you’re trying to tell. Such was the case with Great Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a masterful storyteller appearing in our recent shows "Pursuing Happiness with the Dalai Lama" and "The Dignity of Difference."

On stage at Emory University with the Dalai Lama this October, Sacks told a story about Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine. When the First World War broke out, he was stranded in Switzerland and later made his way to England. There he found solace in the company of Rembrandt’s paintings at The National Gallery in London.

In the clip above (mp3, 01:31) that never made it into the show, Sacks points out that Rembrandt’s subjects weren’t all that beautiful, but his paintings nevertheless reveal their “inner radiance.” He invites us to find beauty where it’s not immediately obvious, and to expand our perceptions of what’s beautiful.

Rabbi Kook commented on Rembrandt’s masterful use of light in this 1935 interview with The Jewish Chronicle:

"I really think that Rembrandt was a Tzadik. Do you know that when I first saw Rembrandt’s works, they reminded me of the legend about the creation of light? We are told that when God created light, it was so strong and pellucid, that one could see from one and of the world to the other, but God was afraid that the wicked might abuse it. What did He do? He reserved that light for the righteous when the Messiah should come. But now and then there are great men who are blessed and privileged to see it. I think that Rembrandt was one of them, and the light in his pictures is the very light that was originally created by God Almighty.”

And these lines from Rabbi Sacks’ short reflection about art, timeless beauty, and Rabbi Kook’s particular love of Rembrandt resonate:

"Art which aims to shock, shocks only once, while art which aims at beauty never fades. Art as sensation eventually deadens our sensations, while art as wonder wakens them."

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When Choice Means Different Things to Different People: Sheena Iyengar on Sources of Control

by Shubha Bala, associate producer

Sheena Iyengar"It depends on how you define control. If you define control as ‘I will entirely write my script,’ that could be one way of thinking of having control. Another way to think about having control is to say ‘Look I was given this script, and I executed it with great aplomb.’ And there’s nothing to say that that means you don’t have control, it’s just a different kind of control."

Sheena Iyengar, a business professor at Columbia University and author of The Art of Choosing, has come to view cultural and religious rules as “life scripts.” She says they are empowering rather than stifling. In Krista’s interview with her earlier this year, Sheena Iyengar describes her journey to this revelation.

The Art of Choosing by Sheena IyengarIn the audio above (download mp3), she starts by describing a study that shows that religious followers are less depressed than atheists. Sheena Iyengar then talks about another study that demonstrates most Asian children are more motivated and performed tasks better when their mothers made choices for them, whereas the converse is true for most Anglo-American children: they were more motivated if they were able to choose the task themselves.

And, she explains that her interest in examining culture’s role in choice was especially informed by her own Sikh background.

Here, for example, she discusses whether an arranged marriage, such as that of her parents, is in fact devoid of choice. You can listen to the clip to the left (or download the mp3) of this portion of their conversation as well, and then share with us examples of how your culture has influenced your view of choice.

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Climate Change Explained in Four Minutes
» download (mp3, 3:55)
Trent Gilliss, online editor

Today, we will be releasing our latest show called “The Moral Math of Climate Change” with Bill McKibben. He’s an environmentalist who has been studying and writing about issues of global warming and sustainability for more than 20 years. Most recently he founded 350.org, aimed at raising awareness about climate change and ground-up solutions around the world.

During Krista’s interview with McKibben, she asked if he could give her a better understanding of the history of climate change and how climate scientists have arrived at their conclusions. I wasn’t able to listen to the conversation while it was happening, but the first thing Krista mentioned when she emerged from the studio was how helpful his “four-minute” explanation was.

Although McKibben’s explanation isn’t a complete, comprehensive history, he provides a good overview and a basis for discussion. And, he leaves a lot of space for asking more questions.

I’ve heard from many of you who are deeply invested in this topic, and many others who are struggling to understand and better talk about sustainability issues in moral and spiritual terms. Perhaps this is a place to continue this discussion, this exploration and what it means to move forward conscientiously and culturally. Or, share this mp3 with your friends, family, and neighbors. I’d love to hear where you take this dialogue.

As the Copenhagen conference takes place and then recedes — and with it the news coverage, to a degree — that’s when we here at SOF would like to pick up our coverage and extend this conversation by recording and retelling your stories for others to hear:

  • What would it feel like to live in a world that — spiritually, psychologically, philosophically — meant something different?
  • How has climate change affected your “moral imagination?” And, in turn, how has it also changed the way you live your life on a day-to-day basis?
  • Do your family, cultural, and spiritual backgrounds factor into this understanding?

These are some of the questions were asking. Perhaps you have others that you’ve explored and thought about. Share your thoughts with us using our traditional form; and, we’re experimenting with our Google Voice number and widget to capture more audio, more voices of those who are actually thinking about the story. Click the widget below and talk to us using your phone.

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Dharma Talking with Cheri Maples
» download (mp3, 12:53)
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

I recently caught up with dharma teacher Cheri Maples, who appeared in our 2003 program "Brother Thay: A Radio Pilgrimage with Thich Nhat Hahn." Back then, Maples was a police captain (later an assistant attorney general) in Madison, Wisconsin. She spoke with Krista about what it means to be a compassionate cop who practices mindfulness awareness on the job.

We’ve re-aired “Brother Thay” seven times (!) since its inaugural broadcast, and noticed that people consistently resonate with Maples and her personal story. Maples was in town recently to deliver a dharma talk (PDF) so I decided to go and see what’s changed in her life since she and Krista last spoke.

Maples reflected on the surprising ways in which her life changed course after she accepted an invitation from Thich Nhat Hahn to travel together to Vietnam in 2007. The following year, the Zen master formally ordained her as a dharma teacher through a ceremony called "The Transmission of the Lamp." She is no longer employed by the state, but she’s still involved with the criminal justice system through a new organization she co-founded called The Center for Mindfulness and Justice.

Maples drew a standing-room only crowd for her dharma talk that evening. She spoke about gratitude, joy, wonder, tenderness, and mystery. Here’s something I jotted down that stuck with me: “The hell in your life is the compost of your enlightenment.”

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Suffering and Poetry
Larissa Anderson, Poetry Producer

In his essay, "Ecce Homo," Xavier Le Pichon talks about his mother’s experience with Alzheimer’s. He explains that she was aware of her memory loss long before she was diagnosed. After her death, he says he came upon some of her diaries, which revealed how she tried to hide her memory loss.

Le Pichon relates this discovery to a poem his mother taught him, Le Vase Brisé" ("The Broken Vase"), written by 19th-century French poet, Sully Prudhomme. In his essay, Le Pichon remembers the poem like this:

"The vase where the verbena is dying
Was cracked by the blow of a fan.
The blow barely grazed it
As no noise revealed it.
But the light bruise
Biting the metal each day
With an invisible but sure hand
Slowly progressed around it.”

The original French version of the poem, published in 1865, was slightly different. I asked poet Robert Archambeau to translate it. He recommended that his colleague at Lake Forest College, Jean-Luc Garneau, read both the French and English versions of the poem, and talked about Sully Prudhomme — his background, his style of writing, and what he may have been trying to say about suffering in his poem.

It’s interesting to connect Garneau’s comments about Sully Prudhomme to Krista’s interview with Xavier Le Pichon. As Garneau says, Prudhomme, along with a few other poets, started the Parnassian School of poetry, a style of writing that rejected sentimentality for scientific precision and detachment. Prudhomme’s poem centers around the idea of fragility — a vase that was cracked by the slightest breeze from a fan. It’s a crack that not only goes unnoticed, but also renders the vase unable to keep its flowers alive. Garneau points out Prudhomme’s scientific distance in the line “the vase is broken: do not touch,” which, he says, suggests suffering should not be interfered with.

When I hear Garneau discuss the poem, I think about Le Pichon describing how he felt he was so immersed in his scientific pursuits that he was not able to see the suffering of others, and that it is through “walking with the suffering person that has come into your life and that you have not rejected, then your heart progressively gets educated by them. You know, they teach you a new way of being.”

Later in his interview with Krista, Le Pichon recalls what it meant for him to see his mother experience Alzheimer’s: “My mother died of Alzheimer’s disease and I could see what the suffering was and that requires from us to invent a new way to deal with this person, with the suffering, to make their life possible, humane. And at each age you have new challenges and you have to face them. And this is how we build the humanity. The humanity is given to us at the possibility of old age, at each birth, and it has to be constructed. It has to be built. It is hard work.”

As Garneau describes what Prudhomme was communicating through the poem, it strikes me as contradictory to Le Pichon’s belief in facing suffering, engaging with it — his idea that fragility is “at the heart of humanity.” I’d be curious to hear more thoughts about how this poem connects with the show and why it surfaces in Le Pichon’s writing.

But, it’s not just “The Broken Vase” that captured Le Pichon’s attention. It is clear from “Ecce Homo” that Le Pichon sees suffering and poetry as intimately linked. He writes:

"As humans are confronted to suffering and death, as mirrors of their own suffering and death, they are confronted to their own fragility and vulnerability and this confrontation forces them to go beyond themselves by entering into a transcendent world that can be metaphysical, artistic and (or) poetic. This has probably been the origin of metaphysics, of art and poetry, which give us the capacity to project ourselves beyond the immediate reality of the difficulties of our life."

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A Question From Behind the Glass
Nancy Rosenbaum, Associate Producer

Most of the time, Krista is not physically in the same room with the person she’s interviewing. This was the case during her recent conversation with geophysicist Xavier Le Pichon, who lives in southern France. She spoke with him from Studio P in Saint Paul while he was an ocean away in another studio in Aix-en-Provence.

A typical Krista Tippett interview lasts 90 minutes, give or take. Mitch, our senior producer, usually handles audio engineering while others take turns transcribing in real-time. In this photo you can get a sense of the set up. This image was taken by Trent on the day of the Le Pichon interview and here you see me transcribing while Colleen listens in the back. Mitch is taking notes and John Scherf, the technical director, makes sure that everything goes smoothly with the recording.

Krista (pictured at right) is situated in the studio while the rest of us listen in the control room. A soundproof glass panel separates us.

As Krista enters the last stretch of the conversation, she’ll usually pause to ask if there’s a question “from behind the glass.” This is our opportunity as production staff to contribute a question or two.

In her conversation with Le Pichon, I noticed that he became animated when Krista first referenced an emerging wave of research on the science of altruism. Le Pichon responded that in addition to altruism, scientists also need to study compassion and empathy “otherwise they will not understand anything. They need to go beyond that.” From there, the conversation took another turn to Dorothy Day and the San Francisco earthquake and then to 9/11. When the behind the glass moment came, I asked if Krista could revisit her earlier discussion about the science of altruism, compassion, and empathy.

You can hear their exchange in the audio clip above. Here Krista mentions that Le Pichon has written about a proposed research study with a colleague on vulnerability and fragility. I couldn’t remember where Krista found this reference so I went back to some of the materials Le Pichon originally forwarded. In one essay he sent, entitled “The Sign of Contradiction,” he references a colleague named Dominique Lambert who teaches at Universitaires Notre-Dame de la Paix in Namur, Belgium.

Le Pichon writes:

"…we have pleaded for a scientific research program that will try to consider the importance of the fragility and vulnerability of humans in the development of humanity. As I have implied in this short essay we believe that vulnerability and fragility played an essential role in the origin and development of humanity. We believe that the implicit and sometime explicit denial of this fragility and vulnerability in our modern societies put us in great danger of losing the meaning and value of human life."

I haven’t been able to find much about Professor Lambert’s research on fragility and vulnerability beyond this link. If more surfaces, I’ll post it here. Or, if you’re familiar with his research, let us know!

Photos by Trent Gilliss using his hand-dandy Nokia N95!

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The Lasting Impact of Maathai’s Song in a Minnesota Winter
Colleen Scheck, Producer

It’s a sticky, stifling day here in St. Paul — “Africa hot,” an old friend always used to say when intense summer heat made its brief annual stop in Minnesota. That recollection reminded me of my deadline for Trent’s request to write about our interview with Wangari Maathai.

The day we interviewed the Nobel Peace Prize winner, over three years ago now, was about as opposite as possible from today. Eight inches of slushy snow greeted us that morning as we drove to the Holiday Inn in Minneapolis where Maathai was staying. We still managed to arrive early enough to soundproof the room, set up mics and laptops, test levels, and make sure Krista had some breakfast.

The hotel space we’d reserved — a dark, bland, deflated suite on an upper floor (to avoid traffic noise seeping in) — was sadly the best, most convenient option given Maathai’s tight schedule. That drab room was brought to life, though, the moment she entered in a vibrant red-blue-gold dress and headwrap, her simultaneously gracious and powerful person filling the space.

During the interview, I sat in the bedroom area on the floor transcribing on my laptop. My fingers were tired by the time we started to wrap up, 90 minutes later, and then one of my favorite SOF moments happened.

Krista concluded the interview, and Mitch asked Maathai for music recommendations, specifically songs she remembered singing during her environmental activism in Kenya, that we could maybe include in the program. Her reply:

"I would have to ask them (laughs). Because we do sing sometimes, but those are very local songs. Like, one song I always sing when we are together with the women — here comes my faith — because there is a lot of our — people are still very religious, and so quite often when I’m talking to them I use religious songs. And one song that we always sing is one that says ‘there is no other god, there is no other god but Him, there is no other power but Him.’ It is like a chorus. You want me to sing for you?" After drinking a sip of cold, bad hotel coffee, she continued, "And this kind of song would be appropriate because when we are singing, when we are moving, we always want it to be peaceful, non-violent, so singing religious songs was very common…. We go?"

She cleared her throat, and off she went (her song is included in this video).

I’ve listened to this song so many times in the past three years. I remembered Trent saying he’d sing it to his young boys, and now I do the same with my 6-month old son when rocking him to sleep. I don’t get the words right, but I don’t care. It reminds me of strength, wisdom, compassion — things I hope to inspire in him.

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"Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen"
» download (mp3, 3:22)
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer

I’ve had this song in my head all week. It’s the late Joe Carter’s rendition of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” recorded during Krista’s conversation with Carter in 2003:

One of the stories I seem to remember that she told, it was about — Emancipation Day had come. And there was a group of former slaves now on an island off the coast of South Carolina. And my parents were from South Carolina, all my family. And they were waiting for the emissary of the government to arrive in his little boat to tell them that they had received the deeds to their land, because the government had promised them not only freedom, but 40 acres and a mule.

And so this was going to be a great, wonderful day. And the former slaves had gathered together on the island waiting with bated breath. And finally, they saw the boat of the officer approaching. And they could tell, even from the distance, that his face was not happy and his countenance was somewhat sad. And they said there was a groan that just came from the crowd. And one of the older women from the crowd just stood up and began to make up a song on the spot. She sang, (singing) “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Glory, hallelujah.”

And then she spoke, looking to the people around her, she said, (singing) “Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down. Oh, yes, Lord. Sometimes, I’m almost level to the ground. Oh, yes, Lord. Oh, nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Glory, hallelujah.”

She looked at the people standing by, and she said, (singing) “Although you see me going along so.” And they answered, (singing) “Oh, yes, Lord.” “I’ve got my trials here below.” And they answered, (singing) “Oh, yes, Lord. Oh, nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Glory, hallelujah.”

You can now find mp3s of all of the songs performed by Carter on the Listening Room page for this program. Have a listen, download, and enjoy.

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Ad Astra Per Aspera
» download (mp3, 2:12)
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer

Last week Shiraz shared a section from Krista’s energetic conversation with Mary Doria Russell discussing the meaning and influence of music in Russell’s writing. He also wrote about  the Golden Record, a phonograph record that was included on the two Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977, with the hope of making contact with another alien species. Mitch, our senior producer, collected a few audio samples from the Golden Record and put together a beautiful sound collage that was included in the program, and which you can listen to above.

The Golden Record itself contains quite a range of scenes from Earth, not only in its audio recordings but also in the included 122 images (the record case includes instructions for how to play both, explained here). The audio contents of the record include greetings in 55 different languages, 27 examples of music from around the world (not available for download, but you can still listen to them here), and a selection of "The Sounds of Earth." Also included are messages from Kurt Waldheim, the U.N. Secretary-General at the time, and U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

Carl Sagan, the director of the Golden Record project, said that “the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.” His statement hints at an understanding of this endeavor that’s not only useful for extraterrestrial species, but also as an opportunity for introspection. The contents of the Golden Record serve as a time capsule, allowing us to examine which aspects of its content still seem universally human, and which may already seem outdated or consequential.

I can’t help but wonder how this message might have changed now — and how both its form and content might be different. What new art forms might it include now? What images, or perhaps videos? Would it be a Golden DVD, a Golden Hard Drive? Let’s hear your thoughts on what might belong in a “message in a bottle” from Earth, circa 2009.

Ad Astra Per Aspera is a Latin phrase recorded in morse code on the Golden Record. It translates as “through hardships to the stars.”

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Mary Doria Russell on the Music of Little Green Men
» download (mp3, 2:12)
Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer

We’re all excited about this new program we’re working on featuring anthropologist-turned-novelist Mary Doria Russell. She frequently writes historical fiction, but Krista one day picked up her sci-fi epic The Sparrow (and its sequel Children of God), and was hooked. I guess being a fan of Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek influenced her a wee bit as well.

The premise of Mary Doria Russell’s epic is that music from another planet is detected by SETI scientists here on Earth. That’s how first contact is made. This leads to a group of astronauts being sent into space in search of the music’s source.

The idea of music traveling across the universe is not remotely fantastical. We’re already beaming transmissions from Earth into space in hopes of making contact with an alien civilization. In the 1970s, we sent out the Pioneer and Voyager probes to study the solar system. The two Pioneer probes each carried a plaque showing where the probes came from.

The Golden RecordThe two Voyager probes carried something far more ambitious: a cosmic message in a bottle known as the Golden Record. Although the potential aliens would need to build a device to read the record, once they do, they’ll find directions to Earth, and a wide sampling of sounds, music and images from life on this planet. That’s our attempt at making contact. So in this produced program with Mary Doria Russell, it seemed appropriate that we lay in some of that Golden Record music.

Here’s a short clip that ultimately was cut from the program, about Mary Doria Russell’s fascination with music. Enjoy. The full show will be up next Thursday.

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