November 13, 2008

Krista's Journal: A Lifetime of Surprises

November 13, 2008

I was in Chicago, Studs Terkel's home town, when news of his death hit the airwaves o on October 31. His famous voice was everywhere for the next few days, mostly taken from his work at the height of his long career. In this show, you'll hear snatches of his arresting introductions of original, luminary thinkers like Gore Vidal (then "a young writer"), David Hockney, Laurie Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, Simone de Beauvoir, Arthur Miller, and Bertrand Russell. But Studs was perhaps best loved and admired for his gift of drawing out non-celebrated, "ordinary" people — finding "that person on the block" who could articulate and make connections on great themes and tumultuous changes in American life. Those people, he told me, were his heroes. It was, of course, a wonderful thing to sit and talk about all of this with a master of the medium in which I now work. It was thrilling to hear him say that for him, as for me, the measure of a good interview was in how much it surprised — both the listener and the person speaking. He deemed an interview a success when he and another person began to "think" together — to say things neither of them expected, to put into words something they never even knew they thought. Our conversation had exactly that feeling of adventure. At 92, his hearing was extremely limited. "Speak up, I'm deaf!" he leaned forward and commanded, as soon as I walked through the door, with a big smile on his face. But we were able to work a temporary technological miracle of renewing his hearing. We put headphones on him and cranked up the volume and suddenly, for an hour, Studs Terkel was again at ease in his element of the art of conversation. It was a real pleasure to give him this gift, but he gave much more back in return. Studs Terkel was a lifelong contented agnostic, he told me right away — which means, he quipped, that he was "a cowardly atheist." Yet the body of his life's work was rich with insight into the human spirit. And a book he had recently written when we spoke had emerged, to his own surprise, full of religion: Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith. He had started to approach this "oral history of death" at the age of 86, in part at the urging of his doctors. He had survived a quintuple bypass and a number of "other medical adventures." Then, in the early stages of research for the book, his wife Ida died. They had been together for 60 years. Mortality was as real to him as it had ever been, and the conversations of this project became a window into personal reflection and an unexpected comfort. His project on death, like the book it yielded, was paradoxically soothing and life-giving. In this program, you'll hear some of the stunning words and voices Studs drew out for Will the Circle Be Unbroken? They include a few people who had faced death in extremity. Among them are a man who spent two years falsely accused on Florida's death row; and a woman who was six years old and home alone on the day her home village, Hiroshima, was destroyed by the atom bomb. But on the whole, when Studs Terkel got people talking, they learned — and we learned — that death is an encounter woven through any given life story in the most ordinary, ubiquitous way. Each of us experiences the reality of death vicariously and in all its variety, across the span of a life, through family members, friends, colleagues, and public figures. We face our own mortality by way of accidents and illnesses. And always, always, such encounters leave us asking questions of meaning, religious and non-religious, with implications both metaphysical and practical. Here is the great mystery that I took with me from my hour with Studs Terkel: looking death square in the face means looking life square in the face. He learned a lot about faith in doing this project, and he took its power in other people's lives more seriously than before. He didn't believe in an afterlife. He did believe, he insisted, in this life. Studs Terkel devoted his passion and knowledge, and the hours and days of this life, to the art of drawing out what human beings know and do. Surely that in itself is a form of reverence, and one that has left a lasting mark on the living that continues beyond his passing.

Recommended Reading

Image of Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith (Ballantine Reader's Circle)
Author: Studs Terkel
Publisher: Ballantine Books (2002)
Binding: Paperback, 448 pages

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Voices on the Radio

was a radio personality and author who published 20 books on central themes and events in American life. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1984 oral history of World War II, The Good War. He died on October 31, 2008.