Starting Point

New to On Being? Start Here

Some best-loved shows of the last few years, some classics, and a few outliers that define us.

Illustration by Andrea Ucini.

The best laws and diversity training have not gotten us anywhere near where we want to go. Therapist and trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem is working with old wisdom and very new science about our bodies and nervous systems, and all we condense into the word “race.” Krista sat down with him in Minneapolis, where they both live and work, before the pandemic lockdown began. In this heartbreaking moment, after the killing of George Floyd and the history it carries, Resmaa Menakem’s practices offer us the beginning to change at a cellular level. 

No conversation we’ve ever done has been more beloved than this one. The Irish poet, theologian, and philosopher insisted on beauty as a human calling. He had a very Celtic, lifelong fascination with the inner landscape of our lives and with what he called “the invisible world” that is constantly intertwining what we can know and see. This was one of the last interviews he gave before his unexpected death in 2008. But John O’Donohue’s voice and writings continue to bring ancient mystical wisdom to modern confusions and longings.

The poet Jericho Brown reminds us to bear witness to the complexity of the human experience, to interrogate the proximity of violence to love, and to look and listen closer so that we might uncover the small truths and surprises in life. His presence is irreverent and magnetic, as the high school students who joined us for this conversation experienced firsthand at the 2018 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. And now he’s won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Editor’s note: This interview discusses sexual violence and rape.

How can we keep walking forward, and even find renewal along the way, in this year of things blown apart? How can we hold to our sense of what is whole and true and undamaged, even in the face of loss? These are some of the questions Sharon Salzberg, a renowned teacher of meditation and Buddhist practices, has been taking up in virtual retreats this year, which have helped ground many — including Krista — on hard days. She teaches how to stay present to the world while learning kindness toward yourself.

Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton collects sounds from around the world. He’s recorded inside Sitka spruce logs in the Pacific Northwest, thunder in the Kalahari Desert, and dawn breaking across six continents. An attentive listener, he says silence is an endangered species on the verge of extinction. He defines real quiet as presence — not an absence of sound but an absence of noise. We take in the world through his ears.

As a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Robin Wall Kimmerer joins science’s ability to “polish the art of seeing” with her personal, civilizational lineage of listening to plant life and heeding the languages of the natural world. She’s an expert in moss — a bryologist — who describes mosses as the “coral reefs of the forest.” And she says that as our knowledge about plant life unfolds, human vocabulary and imaginations must adapt.

Krista interviewed the writer Ocean Vuong on March 8 in a joyful room full of podcast makers at On Air Fest in Brooklyn. None of us would have guessed that within a handful of days such an event would become unimaginable. So this conversation holds a last memory before the world shifted on its axis. More stunning is how exquisitely Ocean Vuong spoke on that day to the world we have now entered — its heartbreak, its poetry, and its possibilities of both destroying and saving.

“Having tasted beauty at the heart of the world, we hunger for more.” These are words from Nobel physicist Frank Wilczek in his book, A Beautiful Question. It’s a winsome, joyful meditation on the question: Do cosmic realities embody beautiful ideas? — probing the world, by way of science, as a work of art. He reminds us that time and space, mystery and order, are so much stranger and more generous than we can comprehend. He’s now written a wonderful new book, Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality.

“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.

Vincent Harding was wise about how the vision of the civil rights movement might speak to 21st-century realities. He reminded us that the movement of the ’50s and ’60s was spiritually as well as politically vigorous; it aspired to a “beloved community,” not merely a tolerant integrated society. He pursued this through patient-yet-passionate cross-cultural, cross-generational relationships. And he posed and lived a question that is freshly in our midst: Is America possible?

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — or SETI — goes beyond hunting for E.T. and habitable planets. Scientists in the field are using telescopes and satellites looking for signs of outright civilizational intelligence. One of the founding pioneers in this search is astronomer Jill Tarter. She is a cofounder of the SETI Institute and was an inspiration for Jodie Foster’s character in the movie Contact, based on the novel by Carl Sagan. To speak with Tarter is to begin to grasp the creative majesty of SETI and what’s relevant now in the ancient question: “Are we alone in the universe?”

An hour to sit with, and be filled. Two voices — one from the last century, one from ours — who inspire inward contemplation as an essential part of meeting the challenges in the world. Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited, it was said, was carried by Martin Luther King Jr. alongside the Bible and the U.S. Constitution. Thurman is remembered as a philosopher and theologian, a moral anchor, a contemplative, a prophet, and pastor to the civil rights leaders. Rev. Otis Moss III, himself the son of one of those leaders, is a bridge to Thurman’s resonance in the present day, and between the Black freedom movements then and now.

Pádraig Ó Tuama and Marilyn Nelson are beloved teachers to many; to bring them together was a delight and a balm. Nelson is a poet and professor and contemplative, an excavator of stories that would rather stay hidden yet lead us into new life. Ó Tuama is a poet, theologian, conflict mediator, and the host of our new podcast, Poetry Unbound. Together, they venture unexpectedly into the hospitable — and intriguingly universal — form of poetry that is prayer.

Editor’s note: This episode includes a preview from our new season of Poetry Unbound featuring a poem by Joy Harjo.