As a longtime civil engineer by day and a poet by night, Cuban American writer Richard Blanco has straddled the many ways a sense of place merges with human emotion to form the meaning of home and belonging. In 2013, he became the fifth poet to read at a presidential inauguration (he was also the youngest and the first immigrant). The thoughtfulness, elegance, and humor of Blanco’s poetry and his person captivated the crowd for this live conversation at the Chautauqua Institution.
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“Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!” So declares the title character in the 1958 comedy Auntie Mame. She introduces her Bohemian world to her nephew, Patrick, who comes under her care after he is orphaned. The movie’s celebration of individuality and independence inspired comedian Justin Sayre to embrace his own — whether as a gay person or a queer artist. “You don’t have to do anything you’re told,” he says. “You just have to be kind. And you just have to never stop looking. That’s it.”
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.
Spike Lee’s Malcolm X paints a nuanced portrait of a historical icon — as a human being who was constantly searching for his truth and who was willing to change his mind in public, over and over again. The movie takes us through the various chapters of Malcolm X’s life: first as Malcolm Little, then, in his early 20s, as “Detroit Red,” to his rise as Malcolm X, the activist preserved in history books today — and beyond. Activist and poet Andrea Jenkins related to Malcolm X’s experience of transformation and evolution portrayed in the movie. She’s a city council member in Minneapolis and was the first openly transgender black woman elected to office in the United States. She joined us for a live recording and screening of the movie at the Parkway Theater in Minneapolis.
November 14, 2019
The Hidden Human Depths of the Underland
Robert Macfarlane is an explorer and linguist of landscape. His newest book, Underland: A Deep Time Journey, is an odyssey that’s full of surprises — from caves and catacombs under land, under cities, and under forests to the meltwater of Greenland. “Since before we were Homo sapiens,” he writes, “humans have been seeking out spaces of darkness in which to find and make meaning.” Darkness in the natural world and in human life, he suggests, is a medium of vision and descent, a movement toward revelation.
A League of Their Own is a fictionalized account of the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, formed during World War II. Geena Davis and Lori Petty play the competitive Hinson sisters, who are recruited to join the Rockford Peaches and play in the league. Since its release in 1992, the movie has inspired many young female athletes, including baseball commentator Jessica Mendoza. She grew up playing softball with her sister and went on to compete at the Olympics — including winning gold and silver. Jessica says one of the movie’s famous lines — “It’s the hard that makes it great” — inspired her to break records on the field and off.
For as far back as Joy Ladin can remember, her body didn’t match her soul. In her mid-40s, Ladin transitioned from male to female identity and later became the first openly transgender professor at an Orthodox Jewish institution. She admits the pain this caused for people and institutions she loved. And she knows what it is to move through the world with the assumed authority of a man and the assumed vulnerability of a woman. We take in what she’s learned about gender and the very syntax of being.
Set in a coal mining community in Yorkshire, the movie Kes tells the story of 15-year-old Billy Casper, who is in many ways a victim of his environment: He’s picked on at school and at home, and the adults in his life have given up on him. But he begins to find freedom and refuge when he starts training a kestrel hawk. Podcast producer June Thomas, who grew up in a similar community to the one portrayed in Kes, says it’s this realism that helped her connect with her hometown in Northern England, even years after she left.
Coco is a heartwarming tribute to the spirit of El Día de los Muertos, the Mexican celebration of remembrance. The Pixar movie tells the story of Miguel, a young boy who dreams of becoming a musician. When his family forbids him to perform at a concert on El Día de los Muertos, he steals a guitar from the memorial of a renowned musician and finds himself journeying to the Land of the Dead, where he meets some of his ancestors — and learns more about the role they play in his identity. Writer and critic Monica Castillo was moved by the portrayal of family dynamics, forgiveness, and memory across generations that comes to life through the movie’s beautiful music and animation.
October 24, 2019
America Ferrera and John Paul Lederach
The Ingredients of Social Courage
“Our discomfort and our grappling is not a sign of failure,” America Ferrera says, “it’s a sign that we’re living at the edge of our imaginations.” She is a culture-shifting actor and artist. John Paul Lederach is one of our greatest living architects of social transformation. From the inaugural On Being Gathering, a revelatory, joyous exploration of the ingredients of social courage and how change really happens in generational time.
The Exorcist is known for being absolutely terrifying, but film critic Mark Kermode argues that it’s also a masterpiece. He was too young to see the movie when it was released and had to wait six years before he could watch it in a theater. Decades later, he has made documentaries about The Exorcist, written long essays and a book about it, and even became friends with the movie’s director and screenwriter. But he says every time he watches the movie, he’s still taken back to the experience of transcendence and magic he experienced when he watched the movie for the first time.
October 17, 2019
Jennifer Bailey and Lennon Flowers
An Invitation to Brave Space
Lennon Flowers and Rev. Jennifer Bailey embody a particular wisdom of millennials around grief, loss, and faith. Together they created The People’s Supper, which uses shared meals to build trust and connection among people of different identities and perspectives. Since 2017, they have hosted more than 1,500 meals. In the words they use, the practices they cultivate, and the way they think, Flowers and Bailey issue an invitation not to safe space, but to brave space.
What does it mean to be good? What does it mean if we aren’t good? Whose fault is it? These are just some of the questions that animate Amadeus, a fictional portrayal of famed composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his musical rival Antionio Salieri. These questions also inspire Sue Phillips, a Unitarian Universalist minister. She first watched the movie in the late ’80s, just as she was coming out and understanding her place in the world.
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.
Career Girls is a love letter to the friendships that shape us in our formative years, and the nostalgia that accompanies us once we’ve grown out of them. The indie movie follows Annie and Hannah, college friends who reunite for the first time since they graduated six years ago. Karen Corday, a writer, was the same age as the characters when she first saw the movie. She says it helped her feel seen and comforted to know that her experiences “just living as a person in the world” were worth exploring.
October 3, 2019
Derek Black and Matthew Stevenson
Befriending Radical Disagreement
We’d heard Derek Black, the former white-power heir apparent, interviewed before about his past, but never about the college friendships that changed him. After Derek’s ideology was outed at the New College of Florida, Matthew Stevenson (one of the only Orthodox Jews on campus) invited him to Shabbat dinner. What happened next is a roadmap for navigating some of the hardest and most important territory of our time.
The movie Brown Sugar is, at its heart, a tribute to hip-hop — complete with a soundtrack featuring artists like Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and Mary J. Blige. It follows Dre and Sidney, childhood friends whose love of hip-hop is what connects them throughout their life. This coming-of-age story celebrates how love and music feed one another — an idea that spoke to Nick George. From the first time he picked up the DVD at Walmart as a college student to his life now as a spoken-word poet and community leader, Brown Sugar has accompanied him as a grown-up in life, in art, and in love.
James Baldwin said, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” Imani Perry embodies that prism. For the past few years, Perry has been pondering the notions of slow work and resistant joy as she writes about what it means to raise her two black sons — as a thinker and writer at the intersection of law, race, culture, and literature. This live conversation was recorded at the Chautauqua Institution.
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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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