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Becoming Wise: An Interview with Krista Tippett

On July 6th, 2016, I had the honor to interview Krista Tippett, NPR star and host of the podcast On Being. She is also the author of the New York Times best-selling book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. She's interview leaders in various fields of study, from top physicists, to religious leaders like Thich Naht Hanh, to civic organizers and activists. 

Below, you will find an audio recording of this interview. Thank you for listening, thank you for reading, and stay tuned for more events like this one in the near future.

Poetry is Pretentious

Two transformative events occurred to me this April, this National Poetry Month. The first was an enraptured reading of Dan Fox’s new book from Coffee House Press called Pretentiousness: Why it Matters. The second was rediscovering the magical word-jutsu of Saul Williams.

For most of my life, I’ve shied away from reading poetry. Not for any reason I have the ability to pinpoint, but it went at least as far back as an embarrassing ninth grade English class writing assignment. During this stretch of time, I understood poetry to be an overly simplistic and subjective art form (How horrendously misunderstood I was!) My neglect for seeking a greater understanding was two-fold: fear, and willful ignorance.

On the one hand, all the great artists who had ever emotionally stirred me were poets. Dylan, Tupac, Homer, Dante, Eliot, Whitman, Kanye. On the other hand, I disregarded any other poet as ‘preeeeteeeentioussss.’ Pitifully attempting to transmit their visceral experience through the rhythm of words. This contradiction was untenable.

Pretentious…we say that word as though it slips through the lips of Eden’s serpent. We lob that word as an insult to art forms that extend beyond our comprehension in an attempt to assuage our own self-doubt.

If not for the daring magicians who faced this accusation, of being called pretentious, with grace, bravery, and defiance, the world we inhabit would be devoid of great art. What if Picasso cowered rather than triumphed when he cubed the faces of his subjects? What if Basquiat bowed when the New York bums disgraced his cardboard canvas? What if Kanye succumbed to the pressure of his peers when they were laughin’ while he was rappin’ instead of strappin.’

We would all be lesser. Without.

There is a beautiful irony in believing that poetry is pretentious, in that it both is and is not. It is pretentious in that it stretches and extends the mind. Scribbles become words become concepts become thoughts become devoured by conscience. It is not pretentious in that it can be wholly and perfectly accomplished by everyone from a lanky, dopey ninth grader who had yet to grow into his own feet to a former mayor with a twitter feed.

Poetry is pretentious, but pretension is power.

A week from today, myself, my partner, and two lucky giveaway contest winners will be at the newly renovated James J Hill Reference Library to see Saul Williams perform his pretentious act of speaking truth to power through the art of poetry. I both hope and know that his performance will inspire me to find my voice, use these words, and become…

Impermanence

From the beginning of May until the end of June, I didn’t read a single book. This was very, very, difficult for me, especially considering I set my GoodReads goal at 100 books this year. It was a lofty goal for sure, but prior to this extended reading drought, I was on a pretty good pace. (I’m now reading David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and LOVING it.) There were a variety of reasons for my lack of reading. Most obvious was that we were moving the bookstore to Downtown and that endeavor was devouring my hours like a black hole gobbles up matter, relentlessly. There were other reasons too. Summer had rolled around and this meant beach trips, Frisbee sessions, and other activities to be done in the sun. Music festival season ramped up and I was adventuring to catch some sultry tunes under the Michigan trees with my closest compadres. 

During this excursion, a buddy of mine (whose literary prowess I trust and whose intellectual aptitude I find engaging and challenging) recommended me a book. The book was called 10% Happier by Dan Harris. Mr. Harris is a news anchor for ABC and his book explores the notion that meditation can improve one’s ability to focus, reduce stress, tame the ego, and genuinely better every aspect of one’s life. I started reading it slowly at first. A few pages here; a chapter there. The narrative didn’t pick up until many chapters in. His exposition about the benefits of meditation was spot on, and he approached it with the same skepticism with which I approach just about everything. I quickly realized, however, that his skepticism ran deep
 

Although he embraced the beneficial facets of meditation, like increased focus and an ability to appreciate the important things, he was reluctant to lean into the spiritual, mystical, sides of meditation. Throughout his inquiry, he was amazed at how much meditation had helped him understand his own neuroses, but walled up when faced with concepts central to Buddhist meditation. It took him over 150 pages to arrive at a discussion on compassion and non-attachment. I knew Mr. Harris was strongly agnostic towards the spiritual, and I understood his contempt for further analysis on the subject, but I was disappointed in his unwillingness to explore. 
 

There was one concept, however, that I could not shake. It is out of this concept which the whole of Buddhist meditative tradition is spun. It is central to non-attachment, pleasure, pain, taming the ego and controlling the will, even death. This is the concept of impermanence.
 

The first instance in which my eyes scanned across this word on the page, it seemed a hundred font sizes larger, weighed down with metaphysical anchors that dredged through my mind. It was as though the word was written in shimmering ink with twinkling stars surrounding it. I was sent into a contemplative state of awareness and recognition that eventually led me to this Bibliotherapy session (and to the start of routine meditation.) 

Don Draper, from AMC's Mad Men, meditates, officially making it bad ass.

Don Draper, from AMC's Mad Men, meditates, officially making it bad ass.

Buddhism asserts that all states of nature are transient. Change is the only constant. Every flower wilts, every movie rolls credits, your favorite song at your favorite band’s concert never lasts long enough. Time marches on and we are left here perpetually seeking permanence. But if everything fades, decays, and disappears, how do we avoid despair? It was while contemplating on the idea of impermanence that I was able to reconcile my emotions in regards to moving the bookstore. It was difficult for all of us to leave that beautiful spot under the Blair Arcade, but I have been warmed by the kindness everyone has shown us in our new home and community. I was reminded of a well-known poem by the great Robert Frost:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Nothing gold can stay. Nothing gold can stay…. But gold surrounds us in every moment. From a honeybee pollinating that flower in the park, to the wispy tendrils of that giant cloud in the sky. Every present moment is where you find joy and happiness. As Mr. Harris states in his book, “happiness is not a feeling, happiness is a skill.” And this is how to avoid despair. If you can calm your relentless ego enough to be mindful of when you’re experiencing the good, and holding onto the gold, you can begin to see the beauty that surrounds us at every turn. You can let go of the negative and focus on the positive. Eternity does not exist as a state of nature. Eternity exists in the eyes of your lover, in the laughter of a baby, in the warmth of sun on your face, and in the pages of a good book. Eternity exists in the moment. 

So, the next time you find yourself in a state of bliss and happiness, become mindful and feel the joy flow through you. Let it overtake every cell in your body and revel in it. But know that it will soon pass, and that’s okay. Because you felt it. It was real and authentic. And with practice, and maybe a little meditation, you’ll come to realize that you can turn that joy dial up to 11 anytime you wish.

Until next time, peace, love and happiness.

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