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She has called Brain Pickings, her invention and labor of love, a “human-powered discovery engine for interestingness.” What Maria Popova really delivers, to hundreds of thousands of people each day, is wisdom of the old-fashioned sort, presented in new ways. She cross-pollinates between philosophy and design, physics and poetry, the intellectual and the experiential. We explore her gleanings on what it means to lead a good life — intellectually, creatively, and spiritually.

The poet, essayist, and playwright Claudia Rankine says every conversation about race doesn’t need to be about racism. But she says all of us — and especially white people — need to find a way to talk about it, even when it gets uncomfortable. Her bestselling book, Citizen: An American Lyric, catalogued the painful daily experiences of lived racism for people of color. Claudia models how it’s possible to bring that reality into the open — not to fight, but to draw closer. And she shows how we can do this with everyone, from our intimate friends to strangers on airplanes.

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet / confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you.” David Whyte is a poet and philosopher who believes in the power of a “beautiful question” amid the drama of work as well as the drama of life, and the ways the two overlap. He shared a deep friendship with the late Irish philosopher John O’Donohue. They were, David Whyte says, like “two bookends.” More recently, he’s written about the consolation, nourishment, and underlying meaning of everyday words.

“If you can’t talk about something, you can’t think about something. I’ve worked with students who could barely let themselves think, they were so scared of thinking the wrong thing.”

This conversation was inspired by Eula Biss’s stunning New York Times essay “White Debt,” which had this metaphor at its core: ”The state of white life is that we’re living in a house we believe we own but that we’ve never paid off.” She spoke with us in 2016 and we aired this last year, but we might just put this conversation out every year, as we’re all novices on this territory. Eula Biss had been thinking and writing about being white and raising white children in a multi-racial world for a long time. She helpfully opens up words and ideas like “complacence,” “guilt,” and something related to privilege called “opportunity hoarding.” To be in this uncomfortable conversation is to realize how these words alone, taken seriously, can shake us up in necessary ways — and how the limits of words make these conversations at once more messy and more urgent.

Pádraig Ó Tuama and Marilyn Nelson are beloved teachers to many. To bring them together at the On Being Gathering was a delight and a balm. Marilyn is a poet and professor and contemplative, an excavator of stories that would rather stay hidden yet lead us into new life. Pádraig is a poet and theologian and social healer at Corrymeela in Northern Ireland — “a soft place for hard conversations,” of hostility met in hospitality. They venture unexpectedly into the hospitable — and intriguingly universal — form of poetry that is prayer.

The wonderful writer Luis Alberto Urrea says that a deep truth of our time is that “we miss each other.” We have this drive to erect barriers between ourselves and yet this makes us a little crazy. He is singularly wise about the deep meaning and the problem of borders. The Mexican-American border, as he likes to say, ran straight through his parents’ Mexican-American marriage and divorce. His works of fiction and non-fiction confuse every dehumanizing caricature of Mexicans — and of U.S. border guards. The possibility of our time, as he lives and witnesses with his writing, is to evolve the old melting pot to the 21st-century richness of “us” — with all the mess and necessary humor required.

“When you’re in a very quiet place, when you’re remembering, when you’re savoring an image, when you’re allowing your mind calmly to leap from one thought to another, that’s a poem.” Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Kindness” has traveled around the world. She grew up between Ferguson, Missouri, Ramallah, and Jerusalem. She insists that language must be a way out of cycles of animosity. She’d have us notice “petite discoveries” that embolden us to choose human nourishment over division. “Before you know what kindness really is / you must lose things.”

We often find ourselves talking to poets and writers about the vivid connections between art and faith. This special hour came out of a live collaboration between On Being and Selected Shorts at Symphony Space in New York. Claire Danes, Ellen Burstyn, Julie White, and U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith joined us with stories and poems about meaning and mystery.

“When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up to become their brothers’ keepers. And that purposefulness and connectedness bring joy even amidst death, chaos, fear, and loss.” A singular writer and thinker, Rebecca Solnit celebrates the unpredictable and incalculable events that so often redeem our lives, both solitary and public. She searches for the hidden, transformative histories inside and after events we chronicle merely as disasters, in places like post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.

“In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” A mystic, a 20th-century religious intellectual, a social change agent, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., famously saying afterwards that he felt his legs were praying. Heschel’s poetic theological writings are still read and widely studied today. His faith was as much about “radical amazement” as it was about certainty. And he embodied the passionate social engagement of the prophets, drawing on wisdom at once provocative and nourishing.

In the 1960s, Nikki Giovanni was a revolutionary poet of the Black Arts Movement that nourished civil rights. She had a famous dialogue with James Baldwin in Paris in 1971. As a professor at Virginia Tech, she brought beauty and courage by the way of poetry after the shooting there. Today, she is a self-proclaimed space freak and a delighted elder — an adored voice to hip-hop artists and the new forms of social change this generation is creating.

The moral life, Marie Howe says, is lived out in what we say as much as what we do. She became known for her poetry collection What the Living Do, about her brother’s death at 28 from AIDS. Now she has a new book, Magdalene. Poetry is her exuberant and open-hearted way into the words and the silences we live by. She works and plays with a Catholic upbringing, the universal drama of family, the ordinary rituals that sustain us — and how language, again and again, has a power to save us.

Pádraig Ó Tuama is a poet, theologian, and extraordinary healer in our world of fracture. He leads the Corrymeela community of Northern Ireland, a place that has offered refuge since the violent division that defined that country until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. And Pádraig and Corrymeela extend a quiet, generative, and joyful force far beyond their northern coast to people around the world. “Over cups of tea, and over the experience of bringing people together,” Pádraig says, it becomes possible “to talk with each other and be in the same room with the people we talk about.”

Jean Berko Gleason is a living legend in the field of psycholinguistics — how language emerges, and what it tells us about how we think and who we are. She has helped to illustrate the remarkable ordinary human capacity to begin to speak, and she’s continued to break new ground in exploring what this may teach us about adults as about the children we’re raising. We keep learning about the human gift, as she puts it, to be conscious of ourselves and to comment on that. For her, the exploration of language is a frontier every bit as important and thrilling as exploring outer space or the deep sea.

The philosopher Simone Weil defined prayer as “absolutely unmixed attention.” The artist Ann Hamilton embodies this notion in her sweeping works of art that bring all the senses together. She uses her hands to create installations that are both visually astounding and surprisingly intimate, and meet a longing many of us share, as she puts it, to be alone together.

Fairy tales don’t only belong to the domain of childhood. Their overt themes are threaded throughout hit TV series like Game of Thrones and True Blood, Grimm and Once Upon a Time. These stories survive, says Maria Tatar, by adapting across cultures and history. They are carriers of the plots we endlessly re-work in the narratives of our lives — helping us work through things like fear and hope.

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