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Posts Tagged ‘On Being’

Generous Listening

A conversation can be a contest,
or a game of catch with invisible balloons.
They bounce between us, growing and shrinking,
sometimes floating like cloud medicine balls,
and sometimes bowling at us like round anvils.
You toss a phrase and understanding blooms
like an anemone of colored lights.
My mind fireworks with unasked questions.
Who is this miracle speaking to me?
And who is this miracle listening?
What amazingness are we creating?
Out of gray matter a star spark of thought
leaps between synapses into the air,
and pours through gray matter, into my heart:
how can I not listen generously?

I found this poem via On Being’s poetry archive; I’ve heard Nelson on their podcast before. It seems to me – in a year marked by isolation and loss – that we especially need generous listening right now.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month, as I do every year. 

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journal handwriting poetry elizabeth alexander

Back in the early months of 2020 (which seems a thousand years ago), I stumbled on a new podcast, produced by the good, thoughtful folks at On Being. I am the slowest podcast listener ever, but Poetry Unbound, hosted by Irish poet Pádraig Ó Tuama, saved my life on some of those long, dark evenings in early quarantine.

Now that we’re back to long dark evenings again, I am savoring the second season: an episode here and there, usually while I’m cooking dinner or putting dishes away. I am not much for longform podcasts (I’d rather read a book or an article), but these short, lyrical episodes feel just right to me. They consist of Pádraig reading a poem, then musing on it in several short segments, then reading it again. The repetition is soothing, and I often notice things in the second reading that I missed the first time around.

Pádraig’s poetic commentary includes musings on meter and word choice and metaphor, but he also muses on a range of broad and specific human issues: love and heartbreak, the complications of family and politics, the quiet bravery of healthcare workers, the wisdom of teachers, the utter devastation caused by fire and illness and grief. He is wise and thoughtful and tender, and his voice, with its Irish lilt, is a balm to my ears and my soul. As a serious bonus, many of the poets he features are new to me, and I’ve loved discovering their work alongside him.

What podcasts – or poems – are bringing you life, these days?

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harbor-purple-sunrise

Hello, friends. These are strange times, aren’t they?

Like many people, I’m self-isolating at home these days: working, baking, running, reading, doing yoga, checking in with my people and trying not to go completely crazy. My workplace, like many colleges and universities, is going online for the rest of the semester. We’re all adapting, and I’ve been through the gamut of emotions. I’m sure many of you can relate.

Not surprisingly, one thing that’s helping a bit is poetry: specifically, the luminous new Poetry Unbound podcast from On Being. Narrated by Pádraig Ó Tuama (in his lovely Irish voice), it brings us a new poem every Monday and Friday. (I usually share poetry here on Fridays during April, which is National Poetry Month, but I decided to start early this year.)

This poem was featured in the Feb. 28 episode of Poetry Unbound, and I thought it was beautiful and wise. I hope you enjoy.

Praise the rain, the seagull dive
The curl of plant, the raven talk —
Praise the hurt, the house slack
The stand of trees, the dignity —
Praise the dark, the moon cradle
The sky fall, the bear sleep —
Praise the mist, the warrior name
The earth eclipse, the fired leap —
Praise the backwards, upward sky
The baby cry, the spirit food —
Praise canoe, the fish rush
The hole for frog, the upside-down —
Praise the day, the cloud cup
The mind flat, forget it all —

Praise crazy. Praise sad.
Praise the path on which we’re led.
Praise the roads on earth and water.
Praise the eater and the eaten.
Praise beginnings; praise the end.
Praise the song and praise the singer.

Praise the rain; it brings more rain.
Praise the rain; it brings more rain.

—Joy Harjo

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becoming wise book sunflowers tea

After I read Krista Tippett’s memoir Becoming Wise last spring, I did something I’d intended to do for a long time: subscribed to her weekly On Being podcast, which is the foundation for her book. I quickly realized a few things: one, the podcast is fascinating and lovely (as I expected). And two, I could never hope to stay “caught up.”

I wasn’t trying to listen to the whole On Being archive – that would take years. But even the current episodes, each nearly an hour long, ask for more time than I sometimes have (at least in one long spell). They also, critically, ask for my attention: these are not conversations during which you can zone out. Krista and her conversation partners – who are poets, physicists, activists, musicians and above all, deeply thoughtful people – are fully engaged in their talks about the big questions of being human. As a listener, I don’t want to miss anything.

My solution? I have been listening slowly.

I’ll turn on an episode of On Being while I cook dinner, some nights: peeling carrots, chopping peppers, stirring a pot of soup on the stove. I’ll listen to a chunk or two – 15 minutes here, 20 minutes there – while I’m running errands in the car, baking a batch of scones, or folding laundry. My head has to be in the right place: open, curious, sometimes a little melancholy. (The episodes, while they wrestle with real and sometimes insoluble issues, always leave me feeling heartened about the state of the world – and usually jotting down the title of a book written or recommended by that week’s guest.)

Generally, I hit the pause button at least once during an episode: when dinner is ready, or it’s time to go pick up my husband from work, or I arrive at yoga class or the library. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to an entire episode at once. But I’m coming to prefer it that way. These conversations contain so much that’s worth mulling over. They are slow, wise, witty, sometimes meandering. And they reward slow listening.

Some of my favorite episodes so far have featured Mary Karr, Michael Longley, Maria Popova and Naomi Shihab Nye. But there’s a wealth of honest, thought-provoking, warmhearted conversation to be found in the On Being archive. If you’re looking for an antidote to the rapid-fire headlines, I’d recommend listening – slowly.

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becoming wise book sunflowers tea

“I’m a person who listens for a living. I listen for wisdom, and beauty, and for voices not shouting to be heard.”

These are the opening sentences of Krista Tippett’s luminous memoir, Becoming Wise, which distills the best of what she has heard, and learned, in nearly 15 years of hosting the radio show On Being.

Each week, Tippett interviews a guest about his or her work in a stunning range of fields: from poetry to physics, counseling to yoga to social activism. She has listened to doctors and actors, priests and lawyers, people who are household names and those who work in quiet, unheralded spaces. Becoming Wise introduces us to some of those voices, and lets us listen in as they talk with Tippett about the big questions of what it means to be human.

If you’re a regular reader, chances are you’ve heard me rave about Becoming Wise in recent months. I’m over at Great New Books today, talking about it more fully. Please join me over there to read the rest of my (glowing) review.

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candle flower

Amid the horror and heartbreak of the past week, I have been turning back to poetry, because I honestly don’t know what else to do. I quoted this poem in a post I wrote last month (after the tragedy in Orlando), but I share it here in full.

Ars Poetica #100: I Believe

Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry

is where we are ourselves
(though Sterling Brown said

“Every ‘I’ is a dramatic ‘I'”),
digging in the clam flats

for the shell that snaps,
emptying the proverbial pocketbook.

Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,

overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way

to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)

is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

—Elizabeth Alexander

I also recommend Philip Larkin’s “The Mower,” Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Gate A-4,” and Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.”

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