Together Apart is a new Orion web series of letters from isolation. Every week under lockdown, we eavesdrop on curious pairs of authors, scientists, and artists, listening in on their emails, texts, and phone calls as they redefine their relationships from afar. Our first installment was an exchange between Amy Irvine and Pam Houston.
Our second exchange is between Krista Tippett, author and CEO of the On Being Project, and the poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama.
Pádraig Ó Tuama: How are you, Krista?
Krista Tippett: I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m not great. I just heard you give a little sigh across the ocean, and I’ve noticed that I’ve been sighing a lot.
Ó Tuama: I know.
Tippett: I’ve just become aware of it.
Ó Tuama: Remember when you interviewed Seane Corne? I always was struck by the way that you said that this sadness, which wasn’t about a depression or anything, it just arrived. And it wasn’t to be resisted, but it was to be paid attention to. There’s obviously huge anxiety for some people, too, people with somebody they love, working a necessary job, or being exposed, or somebody having died, or whatever; there’s those devastations. But then for everybody who’s also just in the weird waiting of isolation, there can be, I think, moments of a strange sadness.
Tippett: That actually points at something I’ve been intrigued by about poetry and the way you’re writing about it right now. In Holy Week you talked about “body poetry,” the Stations of the Cross as body poetry. And I’d never actually heard that phrase before.
Ó Tuama: No, I made it up. But I’m sure other people have made it up, too.
Tippett: What do you mean?
Ó Tuama: Well, one of the things I’ve always loved about the Stations is that, when you go into a church, and you walk the Stations, or “do” the Stations—
Tippett: We should just say, it’s this liturgy of Good Friday, of reenacting the crucifixion.
Ó Tuama: Exactly. From the time that Jesus of Nazareth was condemned to death to the time that his corpse was laid in the tomb, and fourteen stopping stations, almost like fourteen chapters, just with a freeze frame of an image. On a literary level, it always appealed to me, because you walk around them. And I think that’s why I consider it body poetry, that there is a way in which you skirt around the margins of the church, literally, of the church building; you’re just walking around the skin of it, on the inside. You’re using your body in a way where you’re inscribing form, when it comes to the physicality of the church. And I’ve found that, often, much more comforting.
There have been years when I haven’t gone to Mass, when I’ve found it so difficult to go to Mass, because of stuff that was being said from the Vatican. But even during those years, I’d sneak regularly, a few times a week, into a church, walk around the skin of the church, like some kind of poem. And it inscribes all this bland space in the middle, which, in a certain sense, is what poetry does, too — not that it inscribes a blank space, but it certainly makes use of blank space. And I’ve found that to be humble in its offering, as well as a recognition of, there are certain things I can’t do. Like I can’t participate in a religious practice that I find problematic. At the same time, I don’t want to not participate in anything, either. So I find myself wandering around the skin of church buildings. At times, I’ve literally walked around the outside of a church, because I know the Stations so well, I know them by heart, so I can just guess where they’d be.
Tippett: I just finished recording a show that we’re producing for the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, a long-ago interview that I did with Ellen Davis, who’s a scholar of the Hebrew Bible.
Ó Tuama: Oh, I love that. Oh, it’s great. And Wendell Berry —
Tippett: And Wendell Berry, he’s very private and doesn’t do interviews much at all, but he read poetry. And this theme that comes through this conversation and, I think, that is embodied in Wendell Berry’s — both the poetry and his reading — is the lost art of being creatures, and the poetry of creatures, which is another way, actually, to talk about exactly this thing you’re talking about, which is body poetry, and also how the form of poetry, as well as the poetry within sacred text and traditions, that’s an intelligence that’s always been held in liturgy and text.
Ó Tuama: Totally — and ritual. All the advice that I’ve been reading, these days, has been for people, inasmuch as they’re able, and so many people have so many things going on — like some people have all this aching, stretching time, and other people are like, My God, I’m homeschooling my children and keeping my job down and phoning my parents to make sure that they’re not going out and doing stupid things, I’m looking after my neighbor —
Tippett: Barely staying on my feet.
Ó Tuama: Barely staying on your feet. So I know that some people have loads of time, while others don’t. But, for everybody, some of the advice seems to be to have some liturgies during your day, even if those are just the liturgy of a certain kind of breathing while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil, and some small practices that can just hold you steady throughout the day.
BBC Radio Scotland had an audio diary on last Sunday, and they had given recording equipment to a man who is an imam. He’s also a medical doctor. And he just kept a weeklong audio diary of the family’s prayer during this time of lockdown. And you just had him whispering into the recorder, going, “It’s the first prayer of the morning, and I’m trying to keep really quiet so as not to wake up my child.” And then you heard the child start to scream. He’s like, Oh, no. And then you heard his wife — they must live in a tiny flat — you heard his wife just from the corner; she clearly had just woken up, and she said, “What time is it?” And there was just something so intimate about the way within which he allowed everybody into the marking of his day with the five times of prayer that I found really moving. And it was less the recitation of the prayers, and it was more the fact that those things held the whole day together. And he said — when the final prayer was said, he said, “It’s in the bag now. I know it’s okay to go to sleep.”
And I thought, you know, you don’t even need to believe in a God to be held by that kind of rhythm. So if it was like: Read a poem in the evening; do a bit of stretching in the morning; do this in the afternoon; call somebody you love, later on in the afternoon, even for two minutes, just to hear their voice — do those small little things so that, when you get to the last one, you go, okay, yeah, I’m at the end. Another day, done. I found that to be very moving.
Tippett: I also really like that this is body poetry, the poetry of creatures.
Ó Tuama: It’s form.
Tippett: It’s form.
Ó Tuama: It’s form. And, depending as to what poetry journal you subscribe to, they’ll either have loads of form, or none. They’ll have essays about why form is dead, and you’ll think, For God’s sake, everything is form — even non-form is form. I don’t care if people write in sonnets or don’t; I’m interested in good poetry. I’m not a purist, when it comes to how it arrives. But everything is form, even breaking it and even rejecting it. All of that is form, because you’re in conversation with the thing that says you should, and you’re going, “No, I won’t.” That, too, is a conversation.
And so, thinking about a sonnet on the page and thinking about how to get through a day in lockdown, both of those are serious questions about what our relationship with form is: Is form a place within which you can find freedom? Or is form a place where you feel imprisoned? And I think so much of the human condition is revealed in that, some people, for whom this lockdown feels like a godsend, and other people for whom this lockdown feels like torture. I think it’s the space in between — many people move back and forth, oscillate back and forth on an hourly basis between those two.
I’m in Fermanagh, so I’m surrounded by countryside. I have found myself just staring at birds. There are two hares that live in the garden. I’ve given them names from Irish mythology—Oisín and Deirdre. I search for those hares at dawn and dusk, just hoping for a glimpse, to see them. And when I do, it gives such a sense of relief. I just think that their form is staying alive, escaping from foxes, as well as eating and sleeping in the snatches where they can. I’ve found so many things to be about the creatureliness of survival. We look to the things that help us to survive. And I think, for humans, ritual can really help that.
Tippett: Poetry right now is just exploding. Actually, it has been for several years, poetry being downloaded on the internet, starting with a new intensity after the 2016 election, which had its corollaries in that same time period in the UK and in other countries.
Now it seems to be deepening again. But I feel like one way you could talk about this is, everybody’s discovering poetry, but there’s a way in which, to me, it feels like — maybe not consciously, but we’re re-remembering, rediscovering, the ordinary poetry that actually weaves through life and how we make meaning.
Ó Tuama: That’s a nice way to say it. Even the most immediate thing is the ordinary poetry of touch, of shaking a friend’s hand; of hugging or kissing a friend when you see them; of just seeing your friends, going out for a coffee.
Tippett: Because that’s a form, again, also?
Ó Tuama: Yeah, and proximity; the removing of those things is showing how important they are. You know, I have pretty bad asthma, so that’s partly why I’m so far away. I’m here so I can record, but I’m also here because my asthma’s pretty bad, and I’ll probably be one of those people staying out of touch with other people even after some restrictions are lifted. Every day is filled with Zoom calls or texts or phone calls with people, where you’re expressing love to each other. It’s lovely. Then, once a week, I go out to do some shopping and I see people in the shop, and I feel like, Oh, my God, don’t come near me.
There’s an oscillation between a real intensity, in language, of affection and love, but then an increased intensity of anxiety in proximity to strangers. I’m disturbed by it. But it’s wise to do, of course, but I am disturbed by it. How long before this begins to change something in us, where we become more attuned to each other, in affection, through safe media like a telephone or a Zoom call, but more anxious toward each other in physical proximity, when we’re out? So I think that, as you were talking about, the poetry of ordinary things — the fasting of touch has brought about a reflection on the importance of touch.
Tippett: And even people who don’t think that they read poetry listen to music, which is poetry. Songs have poetry.
Ó Tuama: Exactly.
Tippett: Right now, in the absence of company and the sensory and physical — and not just the physical experiences but the enlivening of the spirit that comes with interaction — during the day I’m working really hard, and it’s so disembodied to be working so hard through a screen the entire time. I tend to be also listening again and again, catching up, because you’re just so curious, there’s so much happening, and you want to know all that’s happened. But then I’m realizing, at the end of the day, I have to turn on music. And that starts to rehumanize me. So many of us walk around with all kinds of poetry in the form of lyrics, all the time, that we know helps keep us alive.
Ó Tuama: Who are you listening to in the evening, Krista?
Tippett: Joe Henry. He’s a singer-songwriter, and he is very actively a poet. The songs that are in his album, The Gospel According to Water, he wrote in the course of last year, when he thought he was maybe going to die with stage-four cancer. And it’s just occurred to me that — and I’ve also been reading Christian Wiman’s new book of poetry, Survival Is a Style. I find that I’m listening to people who face their mortality head-on; and now that’s where all of us are, together. And that awareness of mortality is part of the lost art of being creatures. And so Joe Henry, there are lines in that poetry, like “Give me the terms of my surrender, and I’ll provide the war.” There are just so many lines, I feel like they describe our society right now.
What about you? What are you listening to?
Ó Tuama: My sleep is awful. I’m barely getting an hour at a time. I’ll be awake, often, from 2:30 a.m., and awake for the rest of the night. And at around 4:30 a.m. I’ll get up and will go sit outside with a big blanket and listen to the dawn chorus. It’s been so moving. I have never in my life been this sort of person — birds are nice, but —
Tippett: There’s that peace of wild things again.
Ó Tuama: But there’s one particular blackbird that sings from the top of a tree about twenty feet away from me, and it seems like it’s the same blackbird every morning, just one up there. There are birds all around the place, but there’s this one who sits way at the top of this slender tree, just on a tiny branch, and sings for about forty-five minutes: stops, seems to listen, and then responds to other things. I have just stared at that blackbird, every single morning, and it provides such a grounding, just to be right here, right now, watching that.
Then I go in and make some tea, listen to the morning news, and hear dreadful figures coming from Spain and from England, God Almighty. And then the political battles because the two jurisdictions are coming up with different recommendations.
Tippett: Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Ó Tuama: Yes. So the Republic’s restrictions are more strict. The Prime Minister, Taoiseach in the Republic, is a medical doctor. I suppose he has an actual advantage, in terms of being able to read medical reports and having studied pandemics. There’s lots of political wrangling going back and forth as we look to recover at some point in the future, what that’s going to look like, and could Ireland be pushed back into a second wave by there being different measures in the two jurisdictions of the North and the Republic?
It’s depressing to listen to that. But the birds shore me up enormously.
I have been listening, over and over again, to Max Richter’s Sleep. I texted you the other week, to say, his Tiny Desk —
Tippett: You did, and I’ve downloaded a bunch of his music, too.
Ó Tuama: Have you ever heard Sleep?
Tippett: I’m not sure — oh, is it a long, long, long thing he did?
Ó Tuama: Eight hours.
Tippett: I looked at it.
Ó Tuama: It’s beautiful.
Tippett: Do you put it on for eight hours?
Ó Tuama: I regularly will just — once I start to work, once I set up a desk, I’ll put it on. I suppose that’s about quarter past seven, maybe, after I’ve heard the morning headlines; and then, maybe about 4:00 p.m., I’ll turn it off. But you barely notice it after a while; it’s just quiet phrases repeated over and over again. It’s only been performed live once, and it started at midnight. Somewhere in London. They’d taken the chairs and seats out from under the concert hall and put beds in. The idea was that people would come to listen to it, would fall in and out of sleep as they listened to it, because he wrote it based on research of the cycles of REM sleep.
And then there’s an Icelandic composer, Olafur Arnalds. He is one of those new classic people, as well, strings and violins and piano and just gorgeous, elongated chords, almost like Pachelbel or Gurecký, some of those people. I’ve been turning to those, much more than anything with words. I don’t know why — I’m reading hundreds of poems every day, at the moment, looking for some poems for various special editions of Poetry Unbound. And maybe because there’s so many words in the books, and then so many words in the Zoom calls, when it comes to music, I’m just looking for something that has the rhythm of breath.
Tippett: I found myself writing something in an email, yesterday, and it was one of those moments where you say, “Oh, I’ve never said that before.” You know what I mean? You write something, you say, “I’ve never thought that to myself out loud before.” I was talking about how much poetry we’re ending up doing, this thing that’s increased and increased, just gradually built and built over time, until it’s really like the beginning of our project, and then, in the last year, bringing you into the project and creating Poetry Unbound.
So here we are in this terrible, unexpected moment, and we really have this muscle that just feels like the most — maybe the most — essential thing we can offer. So I wrote — actually, I was writing about you. “Pádraig, as I think you know, lives and works at the intersection of poetry, social healing, and spiritual inquiry.” And then here’s the new thought I had: “I don’t see poetry as a sidebar right now, but the form that is giving us the language we have been lacking to speak about what we need to speak about, to do it with nuance and complexity, and to let our questions have their rightful place in our midst and the human voice at its most raw and eloquent.”
Ó Tuama: In preparation for thinking about us having this conversation about isolation, I found myself thinking about the retreats that I’ve run for years. God Almighty, I’ve run retreats —silent retreats, sometimes retreats over five days, for twenty years. These are a certain form of chosen isolation, and, obviously, there’s no choice in this. But I find that people in isolation regularly turn to small snippets that can help them breathe into their own self. I find that poetry is often very important for people there. So, whenever I run a retreat I’ll always bring ten or twelve books of poetry and just leave them around and say to people, “Take them. Read them. And then give them back to me at the end,” It doesn’t always happen. But that’s okay, too.
And I find that there is something about how silence brings you into contact with parts of yourself that can feel like you’re at the edge of a fracture, that part of yourself where you go, Oh, I don’t like that part of myself, or that boredom that you find it difficult to sit with, or that lack of control that you find difficult to sit with, or that desire for control —
Tippett: Or, for me, just to add, is that there are times when I feel, and I actually think I indulge this too much, when I’m like, I just am not strong enough to go there right now. That would be hard. That would take energy. I’d rather read a mystery novel. Which, then, I give myself permission to do, also…
Ó Tuama: Of course.
Tippett: Because I also think that’s being a creature, too. Anyway, I interrupted you.
Ó Tuama: I’ve been re-watching True Blood.
Tippett: Have you? Maybe that’s what I should do next.
Ó Tuama: It’s just such candy. It’s ridiculous.
Tippett: I interrupted your thought.
Ó Tuama: No, no. I just think silence, even silence during a retreat — which is totally different than what’s happening now—because you’re on a retreat, you’ve chosen to go there and you know when it’s finishing.
Tippett: You’re gonna go home at the end and see your family.
Ó Tuama: Lots of people are on forced retreat now. I’ve been reading Kathleen Norris. Do you know her writing? She’s got a great book on acedia, which is the old noonday demon that the monks and nuns, the matriarchs and patriarchs of the early church, spoke about. I’ve found it so helpful, the way within which she speaks about that strange restlessness that you get faced with, that the very thing you know you should do, you don’t know how to do — or you don’t know how to bring yourself to do it.
That is an old restlessness in the body that I think is really interesting to pay attention to and that there is an attention being drawn towards, at the moment, in a more intensified way. Poetry, I think, helps that. When you can find a poem that sits with you, where you go, Oh, that meets me right here; there’s so much space around it. It’s not going to be too long, typically, the poems that people are consuming during times like this, or engaging with — they’re not twenty-page poems. They’re poems of a page or so, even less. I think there’s something really consoling, but inviting, about that.
But, as you say, it hurts. Kathleen Norris said that acedia is partly the desire to try to not care about what’s going on, that spiritual listlessness. She says it’s not surprising because care hurts. She says that the old proto-Indo-European word for care is the same as the word for lament. And so to care is to hurt. So I understand the need, sometimes, to go, “I can’t face that now,” because it’s not that I don’t care; it’s that I can’t imagine that I’ll have the capacity to hurt through this.
Tippett: That’s really helpful. That brings up a lot in me.
You like Star Trek, too, don’t you? Were you a Next Generation person?
Ó Tuama: Oh, yeah, totally.
Tippett: So Deanna Troi, of course, half Betazoid and empath — I always felt like, Oh, that’s what I am. I’m half Betazoid.
Ó Tuama: All my friends at school wanted to marry her. I wanted to be her.
Tippett: Oh, no, I don’t think you’d want to be married to someone who knew everything that was going on, whether you wanted to talk about it or not.
Ó Tuama: That’s true. Exactly. No wonder it never worked out with her and Riker.
“And you see, therefore, that a life well-lived is a storied life, not only your own story, but paying attention to another’s story. And paying attention to a great world narrative can help you pay attention to your story.”
Tippett: That’s right. But I did feel — I think there is something in that, which is also partly what makes me a good listener, the reason this is what I do, and because listening is not just about the words being spoken, it’s about picking up things that are communicated at an animal level. I worked with this physical therapist — I had this place in the middle of my body, like in my solar plexus, where I carry this — it was like this big lump, which was everything I couldn’t — it was feeling the things that I don’t want to feel.
Anyway, I had this place, and it’s where I put anxiety and hard times. I had a physical therapist who’s a cranial-sacral guy and he said, “So you’re really empathic.” And he said, “So what that means is, also, you need to have a little bit of chainmail available, because it’s not actually good for you to let everything in. You need to…” That was really helpful for me to think about: it’s okay to have my chainmail up, because I can’t do a lot about what I could feel or understand. I think there are many other people like this — I suspect you’re like this, too — who need, even just as a matter of wisdom, to not let everything in equally. But you have to have that reflex, and it’s kind of hard to relinquish it, at times.
I think you’re right, that what poetry does — like reading Christian Wiman’s poetry right now, which is quite arch, nothing sappy about it. Part of it is actually about the loss of faith. I think poetry, a poem, even if I’m not ready to engage all of the feelings or all of the things I’m picking up or the question of what I should do about it, I think a poem penetrates. It pierces the chainmail and it allows me to sit with that. Just dwell in it. The poet takes over and is able to be ruminating and putting words to things. And I can sit with them in that place in myself while they do that, and it’s like cracking it halfway open.
Ó Tuama: It is a kind of a self-opening, which then invites another person to participate in that self-opening. There’s something profoundly intimate in reading a poem. Half the time, in writing a poem, I’m writing something and feeling around in the dark for the words that feel correct. And you don’t even know, yourself, quite how vulnerable you’re being.
I have a poem that finishes off with a repetition of three lines: “[Y]ou might as well love. / You might as well love. / You might as well love.” I was doing a class on that poem in New York City — a friend of mine teaches in a school there — and it was about five, fifteen-year-old women in the class. It was an extracurricular poetry class. They had each read that poem, and they each had to ask me one question about it. One of the students looked at me, and she said, “You finish off with this repetition three times, ‘You might as well love.’ Who are you trying to convince?”
Ó Tuama: I thought, It’s not really appropriate to start to weep in front of fifteen-year-olds. I had never thought about that before. “Who are you trying to convince?” God Almighty, I just wanted to leave the class. Instead, I had to hold myself together, because I realized immediately that there was an element to that poem that I had never in my life allowed myself to recognize. I realized: I’ve written it to my mother. I think I’m trying to convince her and me that there can be the possibility of love. Nothing had prepared me for that moment with that fifteen-year-old.
Tippett: Will you read the whole poem? Do you know it by heart?
Ó Tuama: I don’t actually, but I’ve got it in front of me. I’ve got my computer in front of me.
The Facts of Life
That you were born
and you will die.
That you will sometimes love enough
and sometimes not.
That you will lie
if only to yourself.
That you will get tired.
That you will learn most from the situations
you did not choose.
That there will be some things that move you
more than you can say.
That you will live
that you must be loved.
That you will avoid questions most urgently in need of
That you began as the fusion of a sperm and an egg
of two people who once were strangers
and may well still be.
That life isn’t fair.
That life is sometimes good
and sometimes better than good.
That life is often not so good.
That life is real
and if you can survive it, well,
survive it well
and meaning given
where meaning’s scarce.
That you will learn to live with regret.
That you will learn to live with respect.
That the structures that constrict you
may not be permanently constraining.
That you will probably be okay.
That you must accept change
before you die
but you will die anyway.
So you might as well live
and you might as well love.
You might as well love.
You might as well love.
Tippett: Oh, Pádraig. That’s so beautiful. And it’s so —
Ó Tuama: Who are we trying to convince? That student was so right. And then the class — actually, I’ve got it somewhere in the shelves in Belfast — they gave me a copy of that edited collection of Chris Wiman’s Joy book that he put together, a poetry book about joy. They’ve all written in the front of it. So I have her name, which I must…
Tippett: When did you write that poem?
Ó Tuama: I wrote that — it was published in 2013. I think I’d written it a couple years beforehand, 2011 or so.
Tippett: It’s so stunning to hear it now. I’m finding — because I’ve been, in these last years, speaking with wise people in our world, including you — that wisdom holds. Wise people are in their bodies. They are; they’re inhabiting their bodies, and the things that are true continue to be more true. And that poem is more true, more vividly true to more people right now, I would say, and maybe even to you. Isn’t that kind of miraculous?
Ó Tuama: It is, yeah. It’s very moving. I hear regularly from people who have said that either at a funeral or at a wedding, they’ve had this poem read. And I have found it very moving. Somebody wrote me the other day, saying that they performed an emergency marriage in a hospice, during these days of the coronavirus, and had used that poem as part of it. And I just found myself thinking, They have made that poem something that it never was.
What drives me mad, sometimes, about the ways in which our educational curricula have taught poetry, is that so many people have been educated to begin with the presumption that they’re ignorant, when it comes to the question of a poem, even though they have an intuitive love of it. They might go, “Look, I don’t know — I don’t get it, and I don’t know anything about Emily Dickinson, I don’t know anything about this or about that, but I just love that line. But I’ve probably got it wrong.”
I just want to remove all the detritus of the excuses and have people be in the moment when they can say, “I love that line” and not feel the need to second-guess themselves, because poetry, while it’s written by people who are alone, mostly — maybe some poets write in cafés, but I think, primarily, most books of poems are written by people sitting alone somewhere — I think that there is something in a poem that knows its own loneliness and is aching to reach out through the page to somebody else, and be made into something by the reading of it that it hasn’t yet been simply in the writing of it.
And I think that is the reciprocity at the heart of a poem. Poems are intrinsically relational, in that they are seeking to reach across time, centuries, sometimes, millennia, even, and have people who might know nothing about the writer and maybe even nothing about the mythology or the references in the poem, nonetheless love some lines in it because it means something to the reader that maybe the poem could never have imagined for itself. Poems, lonely as they are, are relational.
One of the things that I find so sad is that so few educational curricula about poetry are hospitable to the dignity of the person reading, and instead beginning with this asceticism that seems to imply that there’s this great mountain you need to conquer in order to understand this poem and then write an A-scoring essay on it. I find that so sad.
Tippett: So interesting. What you just said about poems is true of all of us right now. Lonely as we are, we are relational.
Ó Tuama: I looked up the etymology, because I am, like the priest in Proust, a fan of the etymologies. And the etymology of “isolation” comes from insula, in Latin, meaning “island.” So, hence, “peninsula,” also. You see that this word occurs elsewhere in English, too.
Tippett: We’ve each had to make of ourselves an island.
Ó Tuama: I love islands.
Tippett: Me, too.
Ó Tuama: When you’re on an island, you’re always looking off it. Especially if it’s a small island. Your eye is always drawn to the horizon.
Tippett: It’s true — to what is out there, all around.
Ó Tuama: Especially if you’re on an island that has a view of another island, you might spend more time thinking about that one than the very island you’re on. I think the islanding we have at the moment is very interesting because we are all looking to the horizons of ourselves and looking across that way. Sometimes I think with great anxiety, with anxiety or with comparison and all those other things that are deaths of the soul, but, also, with the deep relationality of the human condition.
Tippett: And this particular crisis has literally sent us inside. It has sent us inside, physically. It has sent us inside ourselves. It has made, each of us, an island. So even the unfamiliar — because we don’t live this way. Busy, busy, busy — and a lot of us are busy in isolation, as well, but it’s still different.
Ó Tuama: I know. It is very different.
Tippett: We’re so busy; we’re so structured; we’re so externally structured and so externally busy. I’ve been thinking so much, in recent years, when I hear people talk about the “crisis of loneliness” in our societies. I think we have gotten to this perilous place, culturally, where we don’t know how to be alone. We don’t know the difference between solitude and loneliness. Most creativity comes from a person who is alone.
Ó Tuama: And lonely enough to listen. Paul is always very interesting about that. Paul is always very critical of people who go too quickly to the idea of loneliness as possibility, because, he says, “When you are eating alone for the fifth Christmas in a row, and you don’t want to, talk to me then about loneliness’s gift.” People who are good with their own solitude can also still be lonely in a way that feels like a death and that can possibly lead to certain kinds of deaths, also. I’m caught in the tension between the fact that we are called to something, as human beings, which is the capacity to be alone; that too much of which can lead to actual death. I think death of heartbreak can be a profound thing.
Tippett: I also absolutely think that there’s a crisis of modern humans not learning to be at home in themselves and not cultivating their interior life. And that’s what we’re talking about, when we talk about spirituality. It’s interior life. In this rapid period of just a couple of generations, we moved from just about everybody being born with a religious identity and a religious practice and world ritual and text and community. Some of that was terrible and some of it was even destructive and abusive, but it wasn’t all destructive and abusive. In any case, it gave people something to reject. It worked with your interiority. If you even think about that not that long ago, everybody in the western world went to confession: well, again, there’s a lot that can go wrong with that, terribly wrong. But the fact that there was just this practice of having to just dig inside yourself and think about repentance and think about accountability and give voice to that in the presence of another person — that was a practice of interiority.
Ó Tuama: We’re back to form again.
Tippett: That place in us has withered, that muscle. I do think that that’s part of what we’re talking about with the crisis of loneliness; not knowing how being alone is also part of being human.
Ó Tuama: Having studied scripture for so many years, I find stories easier to remember than abstract things. I was very interested in how, ultimately, people who are interested in scripture — which, as you are saying, would have been a huge amount of people — or that they had a forced conversation with it, whether they liked it or not — that that is bringing your own story into conversation with another, older story. Whatever you think about heaven and hell, ultimately I think that scripture, as a narrative, artistic form, it’s a very secular experience, in the sense that it is people in their own lives and in the world — that’s what “secular” means, “secula” — it’s people in the world having a conversation with a story that’s also very worldly, do you know, about death and inheritance and who’ll marry who and jealousies and revenge —
Tippett: Adultery, murder, corruption.
Ó Tuama: Things that make Game of Thrones seem like a walk in the park, in comparison to First and Second Samuel. One of the things that I think can be so helpful — not because of any religious reason about the afterlife, but because of a secular reason for the current life — is having a great story that you’re in conversation with. And I think certain pieces of literature have risen to that; you see the way that Tolkien, for instance, was so influenced by Beowulf and all those ancient Nordic mysteries that he created a whole life, really, in terms of his response to the trauma of being in the trenches in World War I. He created a new literature that was in conversation with the old literature.
And you see, therefore, that a life well-lived is a storied life, not only your own story, but paying attention to another’s story. And paying attention to a great world narrative can help you pay attention to your story; to go, Oh, what I’ve just gone through, I was Goliath in that moment, and actually, that thing that just happened was me, being toppled by a David. Or, I was Bathsheba in that moment. Or, I’m thinking in a new way about Judas, because of X, Y, and Z. And that, I think, can create a hospitable storytelling of yourself, to yourself, which is, I think, what you’re talking about. It isn’t about who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s about having a big enough story to contain all the stories that a life is.
Tippett: I love that. It’s not just about being philosophical.
Ó Tuama: No. God Almighty, no.
Tippett: It’s not, the storied life. This interiority is vivid and rich and as wild as we are.
Ó Tuama: I just looked up, as we were talking, that magnificent poem — I actually think I’d like to learn it off by heart — the “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe” by Elizabeth Alexander. And the last lines:
“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?”
I think the possibility of that is not just to think of the interest to each other being person-to-person, but, ultimately — and this crisis is forcing it — to yourself: that you can look to yourself as being of interest to yourself, not in a self-obsessed way, but to say, Oh, look at what’s happening. Gosh, do you know, I can’t sleep these days. Or, I’ve got that loneliness, the kind that you talked about in the interview with Seane Corne. Or, Look at what’s happening. And to pay attention to that with interest and curiosity, I think, might mean that you can show that same curiosity, interest, and tenderness to people around you.
Tippett: That’s wonderful. I think we should wind it down, because this is gonna be a lot of words.
There’s one thing that I was thinking about before we got on, and I don’t actually know if it belongs in this, but I’d like to tell it to you to figure out why it felt important to me. It’s a story from divided Berlin. And one feeling I have right now is that I have now lived, twice, through the world as I knew it, utterly upended in a way that was unimaginable until it happened. And I had been thinking a lot about that in Berlin, in recent years, and now I realize, Oh, this is the moment when — this is the second time.
So the story I wanted to share with you is — divided Berlin, East Berlin, is where I discovered poetry, in a way; where I discovered poetry as something that resurfaces when other forms of voice and authority and humanity are failing; where there’s a vacuum in where we’ve been looking for things to make things work; and, also, to tell us who we are. And, in East Berlin, that was acute. Poets in that world were just the heroes. You would go to these really hip parties where everybody’s wearing leather or fake leather, whatever they can get their hands on, and it’s thick with smoke and the most radical music you could get away with, and lots of drinking, and somebody would stand up and recite a poem. And they were the sexiest person in the room.
I had these friends who were — these were some of just my anchor friends in that world. They were visual artists but moved in that world of all kinds of art. Through them I got to know this poet named Jürgen Hultenreich, who was a very debonair and —
Ó Tuama: Of course, he was, with a name like that.
Tippett: But, you know, later on, after the world changed, I wasn’t sure that his poetry was that good. During that time, he would read, we was just the cool guy at the party. He was amazing. He was lovely. He had this dramatic fate, which happened to a lot of people in those latter years, where he — because his poetry was considered to be dangerous. That’s the other thing. Poetry was dangerous.
Ó Tuama: Of course.
Tippett: It was explosive. He was given twenty-four hours to leave the country. I literally didn’t really get to say goodbye. It was like, go to prison or go to West Berlin. He had this long-time love. They weren’t married but they’d been together forever. And so then he’s living twenty minutes away from her. But the feeling we all had was, they would never see each other again. I became this go-between between the East Berlin world and the West Berlin world. I could take letters to him.
Back in the apartment of my friends, the artist friend, he did busts; sometimes he did sculptures. So they had this bust of Jürgen; it was sitting on top of this battered suitcase. I have a picture of it; next time you come, I’ll show you this picture.
Ó Tuama: I’d like to see it.
Tippett: The bust of Jürgen, and it was like an altar. It was like a shrine. They put a hat on it; it was sitting on top of the suitcase. There’d be flowers around it. The children would put things in front of it. And that, to me, is, in my mind, about what poetry represented in that world. And he later published this book, when he got to West Berlin, and the title was the cleverest thing about it. There’s this book by Heine, called Germany, a Winter Fairy Tale — that’s the translation. In German, it’s Deutschland, ein Wintermärchen. Jürgen cleverly titled this book Deutschland, ein Winterpärschen. So “märchen” means “fairy tale,” and “pärschen” is a made-up word, which kind of means “pair-y tale,” like “two of them.”
Ó Tuama: That’s very clever.
Tippett: Very clever. I don’t know why that story is with me right now, but I think it is because I do think that poets and poetry are— we’re understanding that this is really a special thing in our midst. West Berlin essentially was an island in the great communist sea, and it was an artificial island, but that this is also not — that this is also a story we know, and we repeat.
Ó Tuama: Sometimes when I teach classes on poetry, I find myself thinking that poetry is something that needed to be written to meet somebody in a moment of their life that hasn’t yet been written and will say to people, “What have you experienced for which there was no words and that you would have yearned for?” and to say, Look, some of you might want to share that; some of you might want to keep it to yourself. But that can be a poem that we write now and that you even keep to yourself and maybe nobody else will read it. But that’s a poem, because you’re writing it to give a beatitude to a moment of your life for which there were no public words, yet, but you’ve made it. Most poets are trying to do the same thing. O
About the Authors:
Krista Tippett is the founder and CEO of The On Being Project, the host of On Being and Becoming Wise, and curator of the The Civil Conversations Project. Tippett is a Peabody Award-winning broadcaster, New York Times bestselling author, and a National Humanities Medalist. She was the 2019 Mimi and Peter E. Haas Distinguished Visitor at Stanford University. Her previous books are Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (2016); Einstein’s God: Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit (2010); and Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters and How To Talk About It (2007).
Pádraig Ó Tuama is a poet, theologian, and conflict mediator. He is the inaugural poet laureate of The On Being Project and hosts the Poetry Unbound podcast. He was the former leader of Corrymeela, Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation organization. His books include two volumes of poetry, a daily prayer book, and a memoir, In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World