On Being Blog
I’ve been fuming a bit this week over the way the usual constellation of journalists, pundits, and commentators have analyzed this past Saturday’s Civil Forum on the Presidency, hosted by Rick Warren at his Saddleback Church in southern California. I watched the forum with great interest and found it a useful contribution to our evolving sense of who Barack Obama and John McCain are, what they believe in, how they explain and present themselves.
I won’t focus here on my personal impression of how the candidates performed. I will say that I found much to admire in the way the evening was laid out. Interviewing them separately and asking each of them roughly the same set of questions provided a remarkable display of how different they really are. While some of Warren’s questions were predictable, I thought that many of them were very good, and different enough from the usual network or public broadcasting fare that they elicited a few answers we hadn’t heard before.
For example, Warren asked each of them, in the context of tax reform, to “define rich.” At another point he noted that what is often called “flip flopping” may be a sign of wisdom — changing one’s mind can be a result of personal strength and growth. Such common sense questions and statements have been lamentably rare in all the debates hosted by professional journalists in this long campaign season up to now.
And yet the edition of the Sunday New York Times that landed on my doorstep the next morning did not even report on this first post-primary encounter of the two candidates on the same stage. I’ve heard and read one parody after the other online, in print, and on the air, at least in my home territory of public radio. When these news gatherers have seen fit to mention the Saddleback event, they’ve analyzed it in terms of what it says about the changing Evangelical scene. The same kinds of journalists who are happy to earnestly take the temperature of “the man on the street” have gleefully made fun of the demeanor and words of Saddleback members who attended the event Saturday night and church the next morning. It’s been a field day for pat generalizations about Evangelicals that nearly amount to caricature - sometimes verging on bigotry - that might be nixed by editors if it were about people of different ethnicity or race.
Obviously I have strong feelings about this. Did any of you watch the event? What do you think?
The gang from Speaking of Faith will be at the Minnesota State Fair this Friday, August 22, at the Minnesota Public Radio booth (at the corner of Judson Ave. and Nelson St.), between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.
Although Krista will be in Mississippi, if you’re in the Twin Cities, come say howdy to Kate, Colleen, Alda, Andy, Mitch, Rob and I
(and possibly Trent). Don’t worry, I asked your boss if you could take the day off and your boss said it was OK.
I’ve never been to the State Fair, being from Montreal, so I’m looking forward to the festivities. We Canadians put our cheese curds in a bowl of fries and gravy, so I’ll be curious to see what Minnesotans do with ‘em. See you there, eh!
The germ of an idea for our show on Vodou varies greatly from how our program on play originated. We receive thousands of e-mails from listeners who want to hear more on a topic they’re curious about. Many of these gentle recommendations we add to our supersecret *wink* “big list” of potential programs. Vodou was one of them.
About two years ago, Patrick Bellegarde-Smith wrote us a brief e-mail asking if we had produced shows on “African and African-derived traditional religions” and recommended several volumes that he’d edited on Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santeria, Brazilian Candomble, and Umbanda.
Our former associate producer Jessica Nordell called him asking for suggestions for people that he thought could speak about Vodou intimately. He was forthcoming and recommended many voices, including Claudine Michel. But we quickly realized that he was that voice — a Haitian aristocrat who was not only a scholar of the tradition but a practitioner who discovered Vodou in his early adulthood. We found his personal story about rediscovering his heritage and the spirit of the people of his country utterly captivating.
Once Krista interviewed him, we knew it was a show. Production of some shows are liberating when all the pieces fall into place. “Living Vodou” was one of them.
Patrick Bellegarde-Smith sent us Angels in the Mirror: Vodou Music of Haiti, which was a homerun for music elements. The compilation was appropriate, Mitch reminded me, because it piggybacked on his story about playing Haitian music on a radio station in Benin. It also captured the ears of our senior producer for its pure, percussive rhythms, whereas Haitian actress and singer Toto Bissainthe’s beautiful melodies blended themes of rural life and Vodou. In the spirit of Vodou ceremonies, Mitch chose “Legba non baye-a” to usher in the program. Legba is the first lwa to be saluted at a ceremony and serves as a gatekeeper, a conduit to the spirit world.
Legba nan baye-a
Legba nan baye-a
Legba nan baye-a
Se ou ki pote drapo
Se ou k ap pare soley pou lwa-yo
Legba is at the gate
Legba is at the gate
Legba is at the gate
It is you who carreis the flag
It is you who shields the spirits from the sun
My challenge was to find a photograph that would capture the vibrant culture and complex system of beliefs that Bellegarde-Smith described — as it is lived in the United States today. A few hours later, I was left hopeless thinking that I may not get an image that would do our show justice. Maya Deren’s book and film set me on the right course.
I began searching Flickr and other sites for variant spellings of Haitian spirits and concepts — everything from Voodoo to Vodun, from Gede to Ghede, from lwa to loa, from veves to vévé. Then I discovered this image:
The photo captures so much: the poto mitan, a painting of a Catholic saint, a fashionably dressed priest shooting vaporized rum from his mouth, a small boy in a humid basement, a lady in white garb, a festive atmosphere, movement.
Here was a photographer who was personally invested in her subjects — at least my intuition said so — and not just documenting them. When I contacted Stephanie Keith for permission to use a few photographs, I asked her why she got started on this project — a Vodou priest at a Buddhist peace rally invited her to learn more about his religion at a “party.” That was enough for me. The result: “Vodou Brooklyn,” a narrated slide show of her images and story mixed in with songs from Angels in the Mirror.
Several months later, Current TV contacted us after watching the video wondering if we did film projects. Unfortunately, we can’t do much right now. And, the Brooklyn Historical Society invited Stephanie to submit our documentary for the Brooklyn Arts & Film Festival. It’s exciting to see our material find paths into different communities, and we can only hope it furthers our public radio mission to “enrich the spirit and nourish the soul.”
UPDATE 8.18.08: And, as unexpected bloggers talk about this show (e.g., The Wild Hunt), perhaps we’ll be part of a larger dialogue in niche communities we weren’t involved in before.
Races: athletes in China, candidates in the U.S. My mind races ahead to the month of Ramadan, which begins in September.
Upcoming guest James Prosek — fisherman, writer, artist — insists that some species should be left nameless. Let nature be mysterious. I agree with that when it comes to my own quiet spiritual/religious practice, of which the thirty-day marathon of daily fasting is a public part.
It’s hard to wake up before sunrise, try to eat something, sneak in a few more hours of sleep, then go through the day without food, water, or a full night’s sleep. I’m already a clumsy space-case on most days; then, it only gets worse. For thirty days I strive for grace but battle irritability. I reach for understanding but collide with doubt. I pray for a compassionate heart but am too hungry to be unselfish. That’s when the meaning behind this marathon, this race, shines.
I know, too, that the Muslim world struggles the same way. I’m not talking about Asia or Africa. I’m talking about my parents in their empty nest fretting about their unmarried 31-year-old son. I’m talking about my little sister who just moved by herself to Toronto. I’m talking about the bounce of my grandmother’s laughing belly. I’m talking about family I have here and the eagerness of my cousin’s kids to earn holy Brownie points. And in this small world of mine, we are exhausted by the political talk about the larger Muslim world, salt in a wound — a wounded body that once soared like a gymnast.
Krista just last week interviewed dapper expert Vali Nasr. It’s a great interview about the political situation in the Middle East. We planned to broadcast this program in September, in the lead-up to the November election… and in the middle of Ramadan. Something about that felt off to me, like a program about the Catholic sexual abuse scandal on Christmas.
So I explained that to the rest of the gang, trying not to get caught up in the emotion of naming something I prefer to keep nameless. I’m a radio producer, supposedly professional, but some things hit close to home and push you away from objectivity.
All other times of the year, we have our daily toils and the evils in the news. But not in Ramadan. Ramadan is a time of self-perfection and moral beauty. Ramadan is something to protect, for all the discombobulation I feel at 4 a.m., when sleep makes sense but fasting doesn’t. And even though I don’t know how to say all this out loud, I hoped to have said enough when we huddled to discuss my concerns about the air date.
Part of me felt unreasonable trying to mess with the production schedule, but I’m grateful to the others on staff for understanding my concerns. We pushed the broadcast date of that Vali Nasr show by three weeks, to October.
And, hopefully, we’ll be able to put together a true Ramadan show next year.
This week we’ve been wrapping up production on next week’s show with Eckhart Tolle. One mark of a promising interview, for me, is when it continues to resonate in my head and my life in the following days. And the conversation I had with Tolle worked its way powerfully into my experience of moving these past few weeks — specifically one thing he said almost as an aside.
He was elaborating on his theory of the importance of the present moment — of being fully aware, alert, attentive to it, engaged in it. He noted that stress is a symptom of not wanting to be in the moment we’re in. On the heels of hearing him say that I realized that I was treating most of the events on my moving “checklist” as tasks to be endured. I was looking at an entire week of my life — the packing, the organizing, the moving out, the moving in — as a period I just had to soldier through to get to the other side. And I became aware that approaching it that way — in effect steeling myself not to be present — did raise a wall of stress in me, a palpable physical and emotional sensation.
But here was the surprise: I could immediately disarm that by leaning into the moment. I still had to pack that box, and it was not the most exciting task of my life, and it was tiring at times, but it was not stressful. As I kept pulling myself back to this discipline time and again across the week, I even experienced little unexpected epiphanies and joys I would utterly have missed in my practiced “just get it done” mode.
To be honest, I went into my interview with Eckhart Tolle somewhat skeptical. I’m always wary of hype, or what looks like hype, especially when it comes to religious/spiritual figures. Often that’s valid. But I’ve also learned that sometimes the people who are getting all the attention are getting it for a good reason. More from me and others on the show we’re calling “The Power of Eckhart Tolle’s Now” in the days to come…