We’re hungry for fresh ways to tell hard truths and redemptive stories, for language that would elevate and embolden rather than demean and alienate. Elizabeth Alexander shares her sense of what poetry works in us — and in our children — and why it may become more relevant, not less so, in hard and complicated times.
Words Make Worlds
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside / you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
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April 28, 2022
Pádraig Ó Tuama
“This fantastic argument of being alive”
Pádraig Ó Tuama is a friend, teacher, and colleague to the work of On Being. But before that was true, Krista took a revelatory trip to meet him at his home in Northern Ireland, a place that has known sectarianism and violent fracture and has evolved, not to perfection, yet to new life and once unimaginable repair and relationship. Our whole world screams of fracture, more now than when Krista sat with Pádraig in 2016. This conversation is a gentle, welcoming landing for pondering and befriending hard realities we are given. As the global educator Karen Murphy, another friend of On Being and of Pádraig, once said to Krista: “Let’s have the humility and the generosity to step back and learn from these places that have had the courage to look at themselves and look at where they’ve been and try to forge a new path with something that resembles ‘together’ … Right now we should be taking these stories and these examples and these places and filling our pockets and our lungs and our hearts and our minds with them and learning deeply.” And that’s what this hour with Pádraig invites.
Each and every adult is a former eight-year-old, wide open with yearning and possibility; understanding exactly how troubled the adults around you are, even if they think they are hiding it from you; almost unbearably alert to the world’s wonders and its dangers all at once. And that’s the reason you should listen to this conversation with Kate DiCamillo, even if you’ve never heard of her bounty of books beloved by teachers, parents, and former children who’ve grown up reading her. They include Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tale of Despereaux, The Magician’s Elephant, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, and Flora & Ulysses. Krista read Kate’s books with her children. Then, in the early pandemic months, feeling unmoored, she cracked them open to read by herself, inspired by a piece in the New York Times by the wonderful writer of adult novels, Ann Patchett. She wrote of making her way through the Kate DiCamillo opus as one of the most satisfying literary adventures of her life — and also incredibly calming. With honesty and wisdom, laughter and tears, Kate DiCamillo makes bearable the mysterious fact that hope and heartbreak live so close, side by side, in real life. This is her gift to her readers, and to us this hour.
February 3, 2022
A Cognitive Skill to Magnify Humanity
Trabian Shorters is a visionary who has seen and named a task that is necessary for all healing and building, for every vision and plan, whether in a family or a world, to flourish. It’s called Asset Framing — and it works with both new understandings of the brain and an age-old understanding of the real-world power of the words we use, the stories we tell, and the way we name things and people. From everyday social media, to hallowed modes of journalistic, academic, and policy analyses, we have a habit of seeing deficits — and of defining people in need in terms of their problems. This has not only doomed some of our best efforts to failure — it leaves all of us prone to cynicism and hopelessness. What’s exciting is that what Trabian Shorters proposes is not only more effective, it is simple and straightforward to grasp. It is in and of itself dignifying and renewing. The main question you might be asking at the end of this is why, at this advanced stage of our species, it took us so long to learn to asset frame.
The esteemed writer Jane Hirshfield has been a Zen monk and a visiting artist among neuroscientists. She has said this: “It’s my nature to question, to look at the opposite side. I believe that the best writing also does this … It tells us that where there is sorrow, there will be joy; where there is joy, there will be sorrow … The acknowledgement of the fully complex scope of being is why good art thrills … Acknowledging the fullness of things,” she insists, “is our human task.” And that’s the ground Krista meanders with Jane Hirshfield in this conversation: the fullness of things — through the interplay of Zen and science, poetry and ecology — in her life and writing.
October 28, 2021
Pádraig Ó Tuama and Marilyn Nelson
“So let us pick up the stones over which we stumble, friends, and build altars”
Where to turn to find my place of standing when it feels like the world is on fire? This question surfaced in a public conversation Krista had just a couple of years ago with Pádraig Ó Tuama and Marilyn Nelson, two poet-contemplatives. Pádraig weaves together social healing, poetry, and theology. Marilyn is a lyrical excavator of stories that would rather stay hidden — yet as she coaxes them into the light, they lead to new life. This conversation is a pleasure and balm, and a reminder that the ruptures and unease and reckonings of what we call “this moment” were all before us before the pandemic. Pádraig and Marilyn’s offerings are beyond wise, and distinctly tender and powerful for this now.
The wonderful writer Luis Alberto Urrea says that a deep truth of our time is that “we miss each other.” 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.
Jason Reynolds is the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature of the Library of Congress — and a magnificent source of wisdom for human society as a whole. He’s driven by compassion and the clear-eyed honesty that the young both possess and demand of the rest of us. Ibram X. Kendi chose him to write the YA companion to Stamped from the Beginning. In his person, Jason Reynolds both embodies and inspires innate human powers of fortitude and imagination. Hear him on “breathlaughter”; the libraries in all of our heads; and a stunning working definition of anti-racism: “simply the muscle that says humans are human… I love you, because you remind me more of myself than not.”
“Though we have instructions and a map buried in our hearts when we enter this world,” the extraordinary Joy Harjo has written, “nothing quite prepares us for the abrupt shift to the breathing realm.” She is a saxophone player and performer, a visual artist, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, and the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States. She opens up with Krista about her life, dreaming as a way of relating to time and place, and the story matrix that connects us all.
Krista interviewed the wise and wonderful writer Ocean Vuong on March 8, 2020 in a joyful, crowded room full of podcasters in Brooklyn. A state of emergency had just been declared in New York around a new virus. But no one guessed that within a handful of days such an event would become unimaginable. Most stunning is how presciently, exquisitely Ocean speaks to the world we have come to inhabit— its heartbreak, its poetry, and its possibilities of both destroying and saving.
“I want to love more than death can harm. And I want to tell you this often: That despite being so human and so terrified, here, standing on this unfinished staircase to nowhere and everywhere, surrounded by the cold and starless night — we can live. And we will.”
March 4, 2021
Naomi Shihab Nye
“Before You Know Kindness As the Deepest Thing Inside...”
It’s pretty intriguing to follow poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s idea that most of us actually “think in poems” whether we know it or not. Rarely, as she points out, do you hear anyone say they feel worse after writing things down. That, she says, can be a tool to survive in hard times like these, to anchor our days and to get into a conversation and community with all of the selves that live on in each of us at any given moment — “your child self, your older self, your confused self, your self-that-makes-a-lot-of-mistakes.” We also hear her read her beloved poem “Kindness” and tell us the story behind it.
There is a question rolling around even in the most secular of corners: What do religious people and traditions have to teach as we do the work ahead of repairing, renewing, and remaking our societies, our life together? Krista’s conversation this week with Rabbi Ariel Burger, a student of the late, extraordinary Elie Wiesel, delves into theological and mystical depths that are so much richer and more creative than is often imagined even when that question is raised.
January 14, 2021
‘We Go Forward With a Sanity and a Love’
It feels good and right this week to sit with the beloved writer Nikki Giovanni’s signature mix of high seriousness, sweeping perspective, and insistent pleasure. In the 1960s, she was a poet of the Black Arts Movement that nourished civil rights. She’s also a professor at Virginia Tech, where she brought beauty and courage after the 2007 shooting there. And she’s an adored voice to a new generation — an enthusiastic elder to us all — at home in her body and in the world of her lifetime even while she sees and delights in the beyond of it.
You can’t think about something if you can’t talk about it, says Eula Biss. The writer helpfully opens up lived words and ideas like complacence, guilt, and opportunity hoarding for an urgent reckoning with whiteness. This conversation was inspired by her 2015 essay in The New York Times, “White Debt.”
We often explore on this show the places in the human experience where ordinary language falls short. The poet Gregory Orr has wrested gentle, healing, life-giving words from extreme grief and trauma. And right now we are all carrying some magnitude of grief in our bodies.
“When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up to become their brothers’ keepers,” Rebecca Solnit writes. “And that purposefulness and connectedness bring joy even amidst death, chaos, fear, and loss.” In this moment of global crisis, we’re returning to the conversations we’re longing to hear again and finding useful right now. A singular writer and thinker, 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 as disasters in places like post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.
“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.
November 21, 2019
Marilynne Robinson and Marcelo Gleiser
The Mystery We Are
Novelist Marilynne Robinson and physicist Marcelo Gleiser are both passionate about the majesty of science, and they share a caution about what they call our modern “piety” toward science. They connect thrilling dots among the current discoveries about the cosmos and the new territory of understanding our own minds. We brought them together for a joyous, heady discussion of the mystery we are.
Writer David Treuer’s work tells a story that is richer and more multi-dimensional than the American history most of us learned in school. Treuer grew up on the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. At the time of our conversation with him in 2008, he was part of an ongoing project to document the grammar and usage of the Ojibwe language. He says the recovery of tribal languages and names is part of a fuller recovery of our national story — and the human story. And it holds unexpected observations altogether about language and meaning that most of us express unselfconsciously in our mother tongues.
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The Pause is our Saturday morning newsletter, a gathering of threads from the far-flung, ongoing conversation that is The On Being Project. Stay up to date with our latest podcasts, writings, live events, and more.
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