On Being with Krista Tippett

Mary Karr

Astonished by the Human Comedy

Last Updated

January 25, 2018

Original Air Date

October 13, 2016

“A dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it.” Mary Karr has a captivating ability to give voice to what is funny in life’s most heartbreaking moments. She is beloved for her salty memoirs in which she traces her harrowing childhood in southeast Texas — with a mother who once tried to kill her with a butcher’s knife and her own adult struggles with alcoholism and breakdown. Mary Karr embodies this wryness and wildness in her lesser-known spiritual practice as a devout Catholic — an unexpected move she made in mid-life.


Image of Mary Karr

Mary Karr is the Jesse Truesdell Peck Professor of English Literature at Syracuse University. Her books include The Liars’ ClubLit, Now Go Out There, The Art of Memoir, and Tropic of Squalor: Poems.


Krista Tippett, host: “A dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it.” That’s vintage Mary Karr, the poet and writer of salty and lyrical memoirs, like The Liars’ Club and Lit, in which she traces her harrowing childhood in southeast Texas with a mother who once tried to kill her with a butcher’s knife, and her own adult struggles with alcoholism and breakdown. Mary Karr is captivating, in writing and in person, for her ability to give in to what is funny and wild in life’s most heartbreaking moments. And she embodies this wryness and wildness in her lesser-known spiritual practice as a devout Catholic, an unexpected move she made in mid-life.

Mary Karr: I started praying. I got on my knees. Even I, after whatever, 35 years of agnosticism — when you land in a mental institution, you have to say to yourself, “My ways of moving through the world are not succeeding.” [laughs] But I remember thinking at the time — asking this woman what she prayed for. She said, “Oh, I pray every day for a joyful day that’s full of serenity.” Like, really? [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right.

Ms. Karr: You can pray for that?

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]

Ms. Tippett: Mary Karr lives in New York and is a professor of English literature at Syracuse University. I spoke with her in 2016.

Ms. Tippett: So you may know, then, that I start my interviews by wondering about the spiritual background of someone’s childhood. And clearly, your spiritual background was not religious. And in fact, the stories that you’ve told in your memoirs that so many people know have to do with a childhood that was awash with a lot of violence and chaos — not only violence and chaos, but plenty of that. But if you think about what was the spiritual canvas in and amidst that, inside you, and I’m sure you would answer this question differently at different points in your life, but how would you think about that now?

Ms. Karr: A lot of terror. [laughs] It was a lot of terror and fear and suffering and loathing and self-loathing. The great thing about a really miserable childhood is, the rest of your life looks like you’ve improved things…

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right.

Ms. Karr: When really, all you’ve done is grown up and gotten car keys and a credit card. But you feel like you’ve made some great advance.

Ms. Tippett: And you have said, “Poets were my first priests, and poetry itself my first altar.”

Ms. Karr: I think that’s right.

Ms. Tippett: Did you think of it that way then, or do you think of it that way in hindsight?

Ms. Karr: I think I always sort of did. It would make a lot of sense to Freud. It was the place I had contact with both my mother and my father, is around language, in a way — my father’s stories and my mother’s love of literature.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, which strikes me, as somebody who grew up in that part of the world, kind of, as really unusual that your mother had that love of language. You talk about being able to calm her down or draw her out of a sulk by reciting e. e. cummings or A. A. Milne. But that’s amazing to me.

Ms. Karr: I know, right? No, she was a marvel for that place and time. And so yeah, it was — what would I have had to be? I don’t know — a hooker or a serial killer or a poet. [laughs] That’s kind of the lineup.

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right. I heard your interview with Terry Gross, and I was so intrigued as you talked about your religious life now. And then when I started rereading you and reading The Art of Memoir, reading some of your newer works and Lit, it seems to me also, even — and I don’t think I want to go here immediately — but that there’s a sense in which many of the ways you talk about writing memoirs, there’s a spiritual discipline to that.

Ms. Karr: I think that’s true. I think that’s really true, in an age when even to use the word “truth” or even to say the word “truth,” it always comes now with finger squiggles around it, comes with quotes around it, as though, “How dare one presume to know the truth?” But I believed that one could. I believed that — I guess, for me, having such complicated feelings about my much-loved, fairly troubled family, I just felt like I had to figure out what had happened and why I felt so bad, or I just wasn’t going to make it. So the idea of trying to — even believing that there was such a thing as truth and that it could possibly, in any way, be knowable by a person, through self-reflection and therapy and talking to people and fasting and prayer and, eventually, talking to Jesus; that there had to be some way of — I believed that, that the truth would set me free.

I believed that because, as I said, I was lied to so often and with such conviction by such really talented liars — or just some really able artists. [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: Well, and the people who were supposed to be actually teaching you the truth about life, in a perfect world, right?

Ms. Karr: Right. We’re all lied to by our parents.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, [laughs] that’s it.

Ms. Karr: Let’s face it. We’re all lied to, either intentionally or not intentionally. But again, in an alcoholic family, I think you start with that big lie, “I’m not drunk.” You’re just told that so many times. Or: “Everything’s OK.” Those are the two big ones in a family where there’s a lot of hard drinking. People are always saying, “Oh, it’s fine. It’s going to be OK. No, everything’s all right.” “But last night you were wagging firearms in our kitchen, Mom. Come on.”

And again, my mother was a seeker. She went back to college when I was a kid, and she studied philosophy. She spent a lot — probably too much time, for somebody as moody as she was, with the French existentialists. And she did yoga. Nobody did yoga.

Ms. Tippett: Wow, wow.

Ms. Karr: I guess all reader-ly people are seekers, aren’t we? Is that not true?

Ms. Tippett: Yes, and also, attending to interior life, which is not necessarily such an American thing to do.

Ms. Karr: Right. It’s very unseemly. It’s very unseemly. I think of — Josh Shenk has that great book, I think, called Lincoln’s Melancholy, about Lincoln’s depression and about the kind of — and, I think, again, the blessing — I can see it, now that I’m not in it — but the blessing of a really depressive early life and a really — I don’t think my childhood — there are plenty of worse childhoods. But I think it does deepen you, to be dark-minded, I think.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and “If it doesn’t kill you,” right?

Ms. Karr: If it doesn’t kill you, it does — and it gives you a lot of — I think, if you’re lucky, or if you come out of the other end of it, it also brings you to compassion, I think, for other people.

Ms. Tippett: So there’s this phenomenon that you write about, in yourself and also in your students, that when people first start writing, they’re often actually not writing about the person they really are. And you had this —

Ms. Karr: Always.

Ms. Tippett: Always? You had this epigraph, from Thomas Merton, to The Art of Memoir, which is just a very poetic way of saying — he said, “Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. I wind my experiences around myself and cover myself with glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.” But then do we not even — we don’t know how to express that true self?

Ms. Karr: Well, we don’t know what it is, mostly. I think when I’m at some point — and I think this comes from trying to meditate over a period — I still think of myself as a rank beginner, but over a period of decades, I’ve been trying to do this. And if, in those moments of terror or judgment, of other people or of myself, or thinking I know things I don’t know — when I first got sober, I had this sort of — Virgil, this kind of spiritual guide through the here of early sobriety, who would say to me, when I would tell her something I was afraid of, she would say, “What is your source of information?” And 99 percent of the time it was: “I thought it up.”

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] OK.

Ms. Karr: I had all kinds of magical thinking. And so I think, for me, the process of trying to become curious, in those moments of real discomfort, about what’s going on — it doesn’t always free you from suffering, per se, but — I don’t know. I have a girlfriend who’s a mother with young children, and she called me one day to tell me she had lost her mind, and she was incapable; she needed to call the police and check into a mental institution because she had slapped one of her children who was little — five. But she said, “No, no, you don’t understand. I can’t stop crying. I can’t stop crying. I’ve apologized. I just really think I’m losing my mind.” And I said to her, “Well, who’s noticing that you’re losing your mind?”

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Karr: “And second, how did you get here?” “Well, I haven’t slept. I’m working full-time. I’ve got two kids. I haven’t eaten.” I was like: “Yeah, OK. Well, maybe have a sandwich,” you know? “Maybe it’s time to have a sandwich.”

But just — for me, the voice of God never gives me a long-term plan. It never helps me with any kind of lottery number or anything. But that voice that says, “You need to sit down and have something to eat, or it’s not going to be good to be you anymore.”

Ms. Tippett: So just in that noticing self that that also is you: is God connected to that? Is God in that somehow, for you, or close to that?

Ms. Karr: I think not only is that also you, I think that’s the real you. I think that’s the real you, and the frightened, angry self is often an animal self. And that’s us too, obviously; I’m not trying to say that the devil made you do it and that you’re somehow cut off from those other aspects of how you feel and behave. You’re responsible for all of it. But yeah, I think, for me, coming to have a place inside myself, or my spiritual practice or going to mass or taking communion or trying to be more mindful or praying — just really trying not to kill everybody on the subway every day — that’s the goal for me. It’s not lofty; I don’t want to be Mother Teresa — I don’t want to be an ashole.

I can’t say that on the radio, can I? What else can I say?

[music: “The Concubine” by Beirut]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with the poet and memoirist, Mary Karr.

[music: “The Concubine” by Beirut]

Ms. Tippett: You spoke in a similar way in this book, Now Go Out There, actually. And the subtitle is: And Get Curious, which was a graduation speech — taken from a commencement address?

Ms. Karr: Right. Yeah, can you believe they gave me an honorary degree? I’m so un-degreeable, but they…

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Yes, I can, actually.

Ms. Karr: It was so fun. It was really fun. I’ve never dreaded anything more than that graduation speech.

Ms. Tippett: Why? Why?

Ms. Karr: There had been a huge uproar that they were even having me be the commencement speaker, because there had been a rumor on campus that it was supposed to be Jimmy Fallon, which was a complete lie. But you ask, “Do you want the local poet, old-maid school teacher, or do you want Jimmy Fallon?” — it’ll be Jimmy Fallon every time. So there were protests, and people wrote the chancellor and said, “Can’t we afford a real graduation speaker?”

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] This is terrible.

Ms. Karr: “Do we have to have this person?” No, it was terrible. It was a huge thing on the internet around Syracuse, how awful this was that I was going to be the commencement speaker. And so my level of anxiety, when I was working on the speech — and then, as I often do, once I’ve worked on a talk, I just — at some point, you have to just let go of the outcome. And you say, “Look, if they boo and they throw things, it’ll last for 20 minutes. And then it’ll be over, and I’ll have an anecdote. It’ll be fine. I’ll go back to my life.”

Ms. Tippett: In Now Go Out There, you said, “The opposite of love is fear,” and you told these graduates that “fear can take that expensively educated brain of yours and reduce it to the state of a dog growling over a bone.” But you did say, “Ask yourself who’s noticing how scared you are,” and that that’s where your soul is. And if you can get curious about it, you get less scared, which is…

Ms. Karr: I think that’s right, if you can just sort of see these scary events as practice to notice what’s going on. It’s interesting, because most of that feeling that you have, so often, when you’re terrified, it really is the same feeling our Neolithic ancestors had when the saber-toothed tiger was bounding out of the — you feel like you’re going to die. The feeling people have, when they’re heartbroken or they’re terrified, is: “I’m going to die. I will die from this grief. I will die from this fear.” And if you can wake up into it and look at it and just say, “Well, yeah, I’m going to feel this way for X amount of time. What’s causing this?”

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and something I like about the way you talk about getting real, or getting in touch with your true self, is also — you’re proposing very gentle ways in. You’re not saying: “Analyze it.” Or: “Interrogate it.” You’re saying just noticing, getting curious — those are soft actions. They’re much closer and easier to get at than attacking a problem. [laughs]

Ms. Karr: But it’s also one’s instinct, if you are afraid…

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, if you’re anxious.

Ms. Karr: Is to make it stop.

Ms. Tippett: Right, right.

Ms. Karr: If you’re afraid, if you’re anxious, if you’re angry, if you’re heartbroken, one’s instinct around it is usually violent. And that interior violence is so — the problem with being judgmental — says one of the most judgmental people on the planet — is that the voice you use to criticize everybody else is the exact same voice you use to criticize yourself with. So yeah, if we could just walk around in our separate little bubbles, throwing lightning bolts at people who got our parking places or got ahead of us in Starbucks — yeah, I suppose. But there is something about trying to find a gentler way to respond to what normally makes us feel — or makes me, anyway, have a violent reaction, which is: “Get me out of here. Get me away from this. Make this stop” — if you can find a way to occupy it — it’s also, I think, you find yourself saying true things.

I remember when I first met my agent, and I was a young writer, and I wanted so desperately to have an agent and to write a memoir and be able to buy a Toyota. [laughs] That’s what I wanted, was to be able to buy a used car and not have to take public transport to my kid’s after-school. And I just remember her saying to me, “Oh, you should write a memoir. And I was like, “Yeah, well, I don’t know how to do that.” And she says, “Well, you just write a proposal and send it to me.” And I said, “Well, I don’t know. I’m a poet. I don’t know what that would look like.”

And I would never have said that. Instead, I would have faked that I knew what she was talking about, and then, as the date came when I was supposed to give it to her, I would have found a reason not to do it or to get drunk or to not show up — just not even try, in a way.

Ms. Tippett: Before you met her, before you really embarked on this career of writing or maybe even really saw yourself as a writer, you pretty much — I don’t know — there’s somewhere that you note the connection between “breakdown” and “breakthrough.”

Ms. Karr: Right. [laughs] Is it a nervous breakdown or a nervous breakthrough? That’s right. That’s a good question.

Ms. Tippett: Because you had both, right?

Ms. Karr: Well, I think every nervous breakdown is a nervous breakthrough, if you let it be. I really do. I really believe that. I believe that it’s the old Hemingway saw of: “All of us are broken, and some of us get stronger in the broken places.”

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, here’s something else you said. You called the place you went the “Mental Marriott.” [laughs]

Ms. Karr: It was.

Ms. Tippett: In this graduation speech, which is now this book, Now Go Out There, you wrote: “The loony bin is where I learned that as deep as a wound is, that’s how deep the healing can be.”

Ms. Karr: Right. Yeah, if you think of it that way, however high the fever is that you have, when it breaks, you’ve come that much further forward. And the sense of resilience one has, I think — I’d spent my whole life — my mother was in a loony bin when I was little, and I spent my whole life thinking, “I’m going to go crazy, like my mother.” And then my kid was, I don’t know, three, and I went crazy, like my mother. And there I was, checking into a mental institution. It was such a relief. [laughs] I was like… No, but I got there. And it was a lot of co-dependent nurses asking me how I was feeling and trying to make me little cups of tea, and sitting around rooms with people, moving your Monopoly tiles real slow. It was a restful, quiet place, where I got to say, “Yeah, it’s hard to be me. It’s been hard to be me, everybody. Remember I was saying that before? Well, here we have external evidence that I might not be up to it.”

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and the word “quiet” actually comes up a lot when you’re writing about that time. And there were a lot of hard things you were having to face; your marriage was failing. But in quite a few places, you use the word “quiet.” And here’s this one place — I think you say that there, you started to write differently, that “there was a polished quiet around the writing,” which is such a lovely image.

Ms. Karr: I think I just got that idea of trying to say something small and simple and as true as possible — really, in some ways, starting to write about what I wanted to write about when I was in the fourth grade. I had that journal from 1965 — so I was 10 years old — where I say, “When I grow up, I will write one-half poetry and one-half autobiography.” And what else do I say? I say, “I’m not very successful as a little girl. When I grow up, I will probably be a mess,” or something like that. And instead of trying to act like I knew what was going on, to write as if I were a mess, which is how I felt. There just felt like there was less posing to it. Obviously, when you write anything, you’re constructing a voice, and you’re constructing a self, and there’s artifice to it; you’re trying to make the sentences sound more interesting than you are in your normal life. But I did feel like I got closer to who I really was, at some point, and I stopped trying to sound like Nabokov, say, and started trying to sound like — who’s this genius, and started trying to sound like this aborigine from east Texas.

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] A couple weeks ago I was with — do you know Sylvia Boorstein? She’s a Buddhist teacher.

Ms. Karr: No.

Ms. Tippett: She’s wonderful. She’s on the West Coast. And I did just some sitting with her, and she introduced this concept, which seemed so radical to me, which was about — not so much having a mantra or even following your breath, but about sitting and just kind of noticing, taking in “the natural peace and ease of your mind.”

Ms. Karr: [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: OK, I know. And that’s how I felt, right? Because… [laughs]

Ms. Karr: [laughs] You’re like, “The natural peace and ease of my mind?”

Ms. Tippett: Right. Well, so — and that was such a crazy — just is such a foreign idea to me. But then, if you think about it that way, if you think that all the noise and all the chaos actually is something you’re doing — that it wasn’t there; it was not preexistent — it doesn’t have to be that way. And I was thinking about that as I was reading you, and reading you about being at the Mental Marriott. And what settled — it feels like you started to — that natural peace and ease of your mind, which you’d never been allowed to experience, was present to you, in a way — or at least, I think, in moments.

Ms. Karr: Well, I started praying.

Ms. Tippett: You started praying, yeah.

Ms. Karr: I started praying. I got on my knees. Even I, after whatever, 35 years of agnosticism — when you land in a mental institution, you have to say to yourself, “My ways of moving through the world are not succeeding. [laughs] I’m in custodial care. People won’t let me have sharp knives. There’s a reason that people are looking at me with concern.” But I remember thinking, at the time — asking this woman what she prayed for. And I would pray to stand it; I would pray to — “Let me get through a day. Let me just get through this day without killing myself or anybody else.” And I remember this woman saying — I thought of that when you said she — I said, “What do you pray for?” She said, “Oh, I pray every day for a joyful day that’s full of serenity.” [laughs] Like, really?

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Yeah, right.

Ms. Karr: You can pray for that?

Ms. Tippett: Tell me another one, yeah.

Ms. Karr: Well, so what happened when you — I want to know what happened with Sylvia Boorstein, when you started…

Ms. Tippett: Well, OK. So she told this story — which to me, also, I couldn’t stop thinking about — which was: about 20 years ago, she was watching Larry King interviewing a swami, some kind of wise man. And Larry King, after talking to this man for a while, he leaned forward, and he said to him, “How did you get it so quiet in there?” And the swami said, “It is quiet in there. We make it noisy.” So I’d been thinking about that for a couple of days, and then comes this morning where she says, “All right.” She said, “Today, all I want you to do is just kind of feel the natural peace and ease of your mind.”

And it was — my story is different from yours, but that’s not even something I ever probably wanted or thought would be interesting, for one thing, right?

Ms. Karr: Well, right. It sounds boring.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, it sounds boring. But it’s actually there, right? I don’t think — I couldn’t hold it for more than a few minutes, but…

Ms. Karr: It’s up in there?

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Ms. Karr: It’s up in there? It is? [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: That quiet, that peace and ease — well, it’s elemental, right? It’s like all these layers are on top of it. But seriously, those descriptions you have in Lit, of — then, your marriage is troubled. But even in the midst of that, you’re taking it in differently, right?

Ms. Karr: Yeah, I love that. I love that thing Thomas Keating says about practicing mindfulness and that it’s sort of like there’s a bunch of water that has mud and silt in it, and the longer you practice, the more that just kind of settles to the bottom. And you don’t feel any peace; you might practice for days and weeks, and it’s just cloudy and noisy. And, he says, what you don’t realize is that healing is happening; that that stuff — by doing that, you are settling it, but you don’t notice it, because it hasn’t settled yet. You have to just — how difficult just to keep sitting there.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. Yes, and unfamiliar, right?

Ms. Karr: Oh, yeah. Right, because I would rather snort cocaine and make out with the FedEx guy, yeah. [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right.

Ms. Karr: Yeah, right?

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

[music: “Nyatiti” by Andrew Bird]

Ms. Tippett: You can listen again and share this conversation with Mary Karr through our website, onbeing.org. I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.

[music: “Nyatiti” by Andrew Bird]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, I’m with the poet and memoirist, Mary Karr, who’s beloved for her books like The Liars’ Club and Lit. Less well-known is the way writing, for her, is a spiritual practice.

Ms. Tippett: The story of how you — that kind of falling apart and, I think, becoming spiritually awake — and I don’t know whether you would have called it that, or not — and becoming a writer; and then, also, in that same chapter, being baptized in the Catholic church, at 40.

Ms. Karr: Well, yeah, that was some years after that. I think I was in the bin in 1990, so it was maybe six years later. So I’d been practicing; I’d been meditating and praying for four or five years before my son came in, in his little Spiderman pajamas, and said, “I want to go to church.” And I said darkly, “Why?” And he said, “To see if God’s there,” which was kind of the only sentence he could have said that would have got me up off my butt, away from The New York Times and that bagel and into a church somebody told me we could go to, you know?

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. You made this kind of public confession of your Catholicism, in Poetry magazine in 2005. And you write about how poetry always seemed intellectually respectable, where religion wasn’t, right?

Ms. Karr: Oh, yeah. I mean yeah, being a Catholic is like being, you know…

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right.

Ms. Karr: Oh, my God. It’s shameful.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, so confessing your Catholicism in Poetry magazine was…

Ms. Karr: Oh yeah. It was anathema. That’s where T. S. Eliot first published “Prufrock.” That’s where all the dark and French-influenced Symbolistes for the past century blazed a trail into existential misery. [laughs] For me to come in and be Catholic — oh, my God, it’s bad enough being a Texan; and then a redneck; and then not educated. And then this just proved out all my detractors, you know?

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Oh, yeah, here’s what you wrote: “To confess my unlikely Catholicism in Poetry feels” — I think we can put this on public radio — “feels like an act of perversion kinkier than any dominatrix could manage on HBO’s Real Sex Extra.” [laughs]

Ms. Karr: [laughs] I forgot I wrote that. Gosh. How dare I?

Ms. Tippett: But there is such — what’s the word I want to use? Poetry and prayer and liturgy are so much of a piece, right? They’re so kindred to each other, and…

Ms. Karr: I remember when I first went to the Catholic church, which I did — I took my son; he was the one who wanted to go to church. And I sat with a stack of papers and graded them in the back. I had a latté. I’m not even making this up. I brought a latté. I sat in the back and…

Ms. Tippett: Wow.

Ms. Karr: He was in Sunday school, and I was just cynically there, marking time. And something about the faith of the people — it wasn’t the spectacle or the — Walter Pater and all those esthetes always talked about the grandeur and the ritual and all the gold stuff and all of that. None of that I cared about; I care about it more now, maybe, just because I’ve gotten used to it. But at the time, I was kind of repelled by it. But just people saying their prayers, people saying, “Please pray for my daughter who’s having surgery,” people bringing hope and terror into a public forum and saying, “I’m afraid, and I need these things to happen in order to go on” — and isn’t that what poetry is? Poetry is that place where the most disturbed among us try to find the most exalted language to convey those hopes and those despairs or that desperation.

Ms. Tippett: I’m curious about — as a poet and a writer, if there are parts of the scriptural text or passages that inform you or that you work with, or that you get inspiration from.

Ms. Karr: Yeah, I read the liturgy every day.

Ms. Tippett: You do?

Ms. Karr: Oh, yeah. It’s so cornball, isn’t it? I read the liturgy. And, yeah, my favorite psalm is the hanging psalm. I think I write about it in Lit. I found it in my mother’s childhood bible, marked in blue chalk.

Ms. Tippett: Oh, yes. Right.

Ms. Karr: Such a beautiful psalm, “Cleanse me with hyssop.” Is it “hiss-op”? “Hy-sop”? Whatever the here it is: “Wash me, and I’ll be whiter than snow. Take away my stone heart and give me a new heart.” What is that saying but “Make me present”?

Ms. Tippett: And I remember that part in the book where you’re discovering those passages, underlined in your mother’s young hand.

Ms. Karr: Her little-bitty-baby hand from 1930 or something, and then me finding it in 1999, ’98, whatever it was. I know, right?

Ms. Tippett: I want to read this from St. Augustine’s City of God, which you put at the top of one of the chapters in Lit, where you’re talking about becoming religious: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty, so ancient and so new, late have I loved you. For behold you were within me, and I outside; and I sought you outside and in my unloveliness fell upon those lovely things which you have made. You were with me, and I was not with you. I was kept from you by those things, yet had they not been in you, they would not have been at all. You called and cried to me to break open my deafness and you sent forth your beams and you shone upon me and chased away my blindness. You breathed fragrance upon me, and I drew in my breath and now do pant for you.”

Ms. Karr: Isn’t that great? I got chills when you read that. “And now do pant for you.” Good old St. Augustine. Boy.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. [laughs]

Ms. Karr: Probably our first sex addict, right?

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] That’s right. Well, and actually…

Ms. Karr: Yeah, that was my favorite line of his — “Give me chastity, Lord, but not yet.”

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right, which is a good segue to something else I wanted to ask you about, which is your notion of sacred carnality in The Art of Memoir. It’s a little bit of a stretch, from St. Augustine being the first sex addict, but I do love that language. And talk about what you are thinking, when you talk about sacred carnality in The Art of Memoir.

Ms. Karr: What I liked about the Catholic church that I didn’t find, say, in the Protestant tradition: there’s a body on the cross. Even just being in mass, that you stand up and kneel down; that you move in unison — that I know a lot of cradle Catholics complain about how sheep-like you feel, or they’re like dumb cattle, or something like that. But I sort of found it — it’s like being in hip-hop class. [laughs] When you move like everybody, you kind of feel like you are like them. And the idea that we’re hunks of meat incarnate — in meat; that it’s not metaphorical, the idea of Jesus and the Eucharist. It’s not a metaphor that you’re going to be renewed. It’s not a metaphor of his body or his “teaching,” quote-unquote, or his love or whatever. It’s his body. It’s so lurid.

And I remember looking at the body on the cross and saying to my son that — I don’t even remember whether I ever wrote about this or not. But I remember looking at it before we were baptized and saying, “I don’t get this whole crucifixion thing. It’s so awful. I mean the suffering, beaten critter nailed up there, it’s just so gross. Why don’t they just have you say the jump-rope rhymes, and then you’re redeemed?” And my kid, who was young — maybe, I don’t know, eight or nine — said, “Who would pay attention to that?”

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right.

Ms. Karr: And he said, “This is like Pulp Fiction.” My mother, the one time I left him with her, had let him watch Pulp Fiction when he was, like, seven years old. And he said, “This is like Pulp Fiction. It’s just, like, everybody is going to gawk at this.”

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right.

Ms. Karr: And then I suddenly thought: What else would we pay attention to, as human beings, but this grisly, awful, morbid thing? You’re not going to look at that and say, “Oh, you don’t know about suffering. You’re God. What do you know about suffering?” You’re going to look and say, “Oh, you were a hunk of meat like me? Wow.” That’s a radical — that idea of descending theology, of the spirit being in these hunks of flesh — it’s — wow. It’s a big deal.

[music: “Umrika” by Dustin O’Halloran]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with the poet and memoirist, Mary Karr.

[music: “Umrika” by Dustin O’Halloran]

Ms. Tippett: We talked a little bit about truth when we started speaking, a little while ago, and what a kind of troublesome concept it is for modern people, whether there is any such thing as truth. And as a memoirist, the truth that you’re remembering at any given moment is shifting, depending on who you have become, what you can see.

Ms. Karr: Right, right.

Ms. Tippett: We’re talking about something that is — even the Incarnation, especially the Incarnation — is, on the one hand, the most literal, concrete, elemental image you could have, but it’s absolute mystery too. But in Catholicism, it’s in the realm of truth. So I wonder if you have conversations about things like this with people who aren’t religious, but who are very sophisticated and intellectual.

Ms. Karr: And both; I’ve done both. But I remember, before I did the Ignatian exercises, which I did probably around 2000, ’98, it was all very metaphorical for me. It was all very groovy, New-Agey. Resurrection was starting over, in some kind of hippy-dippy way. And in Ignatian spirituality, there’s a thing you do where you compose a scene with your body, with all the senses, that composes — the way St. Ignatius writes about it, it’s like: If you’re at the Nativity, if you’re at the Crucifixion, what can you smell? What do you touch? What does the cloth feel like on your skin? What do you hear? What do you feel? You try to put yourself, bodily, using your senses, into passages from the Scripture. It’s a very powerful practice, to take a passage from scripture and try to ask the Holy Spirit to put you somewhere, to place your mind and your senses in another place. It’s a very radical, dangerous kind of prayer to make. And I did this over 30 weeks. And they give you a lot of different methods of prayer. And somewhere in there, all of the stuff that had been metaphorical became very actual for me.

The idea of my sense of Jesus — I didn’t like Jesus, when I became Catholic. I came in on the Holy Spirit. And then I got that sense of Jesus that — I just noticed that the people who are always running the soup kitchens and taking care of the babies from El Salvador and bringing in orphans, doing all the good stuff, and who don’t seem really angry and crazy and kind of pissed off and really pious, they seem kind of realistic — always talked about Jesus all the time. So I thought, “I’ve got to get on this Jesus boat. I’ve got to get with this Jesus program.” And somewhere in there, I just found that I was able to practice it.

Do I doubt? All the time. Sure, are there days that I wake up — to me, being a Catholic is like any spiritual practice. It’s a practice. It’s not something you believe. It’s not doctrine. Doctrine has nothing to do with it. It’s a set of actions. Everybody talks about the doctrine — do you believe in this? Do you believe in that?

What do you do, on a day? Do you get on your knees? Do you try to practice charity? Do you try to apologize for your mistakes? Are you trying to live a life that is less shameful than the one the day before? [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: Right, right. So I think that idea of sacred carnality comes in again — that you’re talking about embodied truth, which is apprehended and lived and…

Ms. Karr: How are you going to act? People talk to me all the time — I’m friends with Phillip Roth, who obviously doesn’t believe in God. But he said — he’s 83; he talks about dying. He said, “Well, it’s easy for you. You’re 60. You’re Catholic. You believe in this afterlife.”

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Yeah.

Ms. Karr: I’m like, look, I don’t think the veil is going to be lifted, and I’m going to be flying through the air with a harp with my mommy and daddy. I do believe there is something that happens after death; I don’t know what it means, and it’s not my business. It’s not what I’m supposed to be thinking about right now. I’m just not in charge of that. I’m having a hard-enough time [laughs] just getting through the day. So for me, it’s all about practice and practicality and trying to be awake. And that means getting under that fear and anxiety.

For me, being Catholic or having a meditative or spiritual practice is all about just trying to be guided by something bigger than the part of me that wants to French-kiss my FedEx guy, you know? [laughs] It just does. I need help. I need help, Krista.

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] So you’re so hard on yourself, in your writing. And all across your writing, you describe yourself as a neurotic, “nail-bitey” — that’s a big adjective — worrier.

Ms. Karr: I’m a worrier. I’m a fretter.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, a fretter. And even what you just said; you’re so attentive to the struggle of being alive and, I don’t know, let’s say being true to whatever your true self is. But I do wonder — and I guess I ask this kind of hopefully — let me say this. I think, as somebody who reads you, it’s hard to read how hard you are on yourself.

Ms. Karr: Oh, but can I say, I think I’m less hard on myself than I was, even, when I wrote my last book.

Ms. Tippett: Well, that’s what I wanted to ask. I wanted to ask if — as you get older, if you’re becoming kinder to yourself. [laughs]

Ms. Karr: I’ve got to tell you, I would not trade the age I am now. I would not be younger. I would not be a week younger than I am, because I do feel — you can’t be compassionate to other people unless you’re compassionate to yourself. You can’t love other people unless you love yourself. Unless you have empathy for yourself and your own suffering and your own peccadilloes, you’re not going to have it for anybody else. So yeah, it took me a long time, obviously, to come to that, and I go in and out of it, but I have a lot more presence and a lot more joy. I eat a lot more chocolate. I don’t know. My head is a lot quieter after all of this — the 30 years of prayer and sobriety; the 20 years of being Catholic. I marvel and wonder a lot. I think I spend a lot of time kind of astonished by the human comedy: the hilarity of it and the beauty of it, and just the simple nobility of most people trying to get by. It’s a pretty thing to watch.

Ms. Tippett: The last line of The Art of Memoir, you write, “None of us can ever know the value of our lives or how our separate and silent scribbling may add to the amenity of the world if only by how radically it changes us one and by one.” You were writing to other people, but that speaks, also, to the fact that even as you do that work you’re doing — on getting by, trying to be better today than yesterday — there is also this social good. There are these larger ripple effects that get set in motion, even by something — this is kind of a great mystery of life — even by something like writing memoir about the very particular world in which you grew up, the very particular parents you had.

Ms. Karr: Right, what Faulkner would call your “little postage stamp of reality.” Yeah, I think — it’s one thing I say to my friends who are atheists. I say: “Look, why don’t you — you think I’m so full of horse dookie. Why don’t you pray every day, for 30 days, and see if your life gets better?” And my guess is that it will, just because if you think — let’s say there’s not a God. Let’s say I die, and there’s not a God, and the worms eat me, and that’s the end of it. Daring to hope every day — it’s much more radical, I think, to hope than to live in the despair I was born to. I think it’s much more dangerous. I remember asking Tobias Wolff, when he saw his movie of This Boy’s Life, that great memoir, “Was it hard to watch?” I watched it. I sat behind him, and his family and his mother was there. And I said, “Boy.” I said, “I cried.” I said, “That was so hard for me. Was it hard for you to watch?”

He said, “Oh, it was really hard.” I said, “What was the hardest?” And I was thinking when his step-father is beating him, and he’s a young Leonardo DiCaprio. He said, “Oh, no, that didn’t bother me at all.” He said, “It was the hope. It was when we’re singing Christmas carols thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to be great,’ and we have this awful, awful family.” [laughs] And it’s much more radical, much more daring, and much more dangerous to hope.

Ms. Tippett: I think you’ve said similar things — that it’s easier to write about those terrible, dramatic moments, and harder to write about tenderness…

Ms. Karr: Oh, yeah.

Ms. Tippett: Those tender moments.

Ms. Karr: “Happiness writes white” is the de Montherlant quote: it doesn’t really show up on the page.

Ms. Tippett: Well, I feel like you’ve said this in a number of ways, but I do want to just kind of ask, as we close, how you would start to put words around this vast question of what this sweep of your experience as a memoirist, with the life you’ve lived as a poet and just as a human being — how you would start to talk about what you’ve learned, or are learning still, about what it means to be human, maybe that’s surprised you, as you’ve gone along.

Ms. Karr: There’s more joy than I knew. And the less scared I am, the more joy there is. The less in my head I am, the more south of my neck I live my life. The more awake I am, the more just simple joy there is. People always talk about the sunset and all that. I don’t get any of that; I have zero feeling for nature. But just watching the old lady with the walker on my way to the studio get off the bus in front of me, and just watching how — it was just so heroic. I was just looking at it, thinking, Homer wrote about this, just somebody struggling to move down the damn road, with all this effort, all by her little ancient self. Good for her, you know? It was just pretty to watch.

[music: “Another Day” by The Album Leaf]

Ms. Tippett: Mary Karr is the Jesse Truesdell Peck Professor of English Literature at Syracuse University. Her books include The Liars’ Club, Lit, Now Go Out There, and The Art of Memoir.

[music: “Another Day” by The Album Leaf]

Staff: On Being is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Malka Fenyvesi, Erinn Farrell, Jill Gnos, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Brettina Davis, Bethany Iverson, Erin Colasacco, and Kristin Lin.

Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice you hear, singing our final credits in each show, is hip-hop artist Lizzo.

On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners include:

The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.

Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.

Humanity United, advancing human dignity, at home and around the world. Find out more at humanityunited.org. Part of the Omidyar Group.

The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.

The Osprey Foundation, a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.

And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.

Books & Music

Recommended Reading