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In poetry, religion, and conflict it is often the small words that matter.
When I was younger, I thought that those three studies would be aided by fancy words, big concepts, in-depth theories. But no, as with any necessary art, it’s the small words that are the most important.
Working in conflict mediation for years, I heard it often: two groups in conflict would be brought together, and someone would say something like, “Well, we all know why we’re here” — and immediately the fracture would deepen, because some people were there because of something that happened last week, whereas others were there because of something systemic.
Or somebody, in an attempt to create common ground, would say “All our lives have been impacted by this conflict.” As a mediator, I could see some people checking out of the process, because the “our” wasn’t brave enough in that sentence. Many rooms are filled with hurting people, yes, but hurting people whose hurt has been disproportionate to each other. Acknowledging that won’t break us, it might even make us.
Our offerings this week can all be explored through the lens of such small words: “us” and “we” and “our”; words that reveal imagination.
Agustín Fuentes speaks of the many ways of Us in this week’s On Being episode. He’s an anthropologist who brings spacious and scientific understanding to the question of what it means to be human. Considering evolution, he tracks how not everything is the “survival of the fittest”; collaboration and competition can support each other, he says. Responding to a question from Krista, Fuentes says, “When you ask me, what is the human? I would argue: one of the most amazing, challenging, world-changing animals out there, with the capacity for incredible horror and amazing love.”
This capacity for how the Us, the We, the Our is capable of both horror and love runs through our Poetry Unbound shows this week, too. Chen Chen’s “I Invite My Parents To A Dinner Party'' is a brilliantly funny poem about a painful thing: a man wishes his parents to be sociable in a shared meal with his boyfriend. He parents his parents through this poem, with instructions, and asides and comparisons. His boyfriend, however, expands the concept of Our, making a new shape of love, at a tense family meal, with generosity and imagination. Layli Long Soldier’s poem, from her WHEREAS book, responds to a line from the U.S. government’s 2009 apology to Native peoples (an apology that did not consult Native people) where the arrival of Europeans in North America is described as a “new chapter.” Naming such erasure and denial, she brings us to an image of holding her hurt daughter. “Stop, my girl. If you’re hurting, cry” she urges, voicing lament and the experience of victimhood, asserting in the chorus of Us a particular voice that is frequently denied.
In all your thanksgivings, may your our be generous. And may our us be filled with justice.
Pádraig Ó Tuama
host of Poetry Unbound
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This Week at The On Being Project
Our Latest Episode
On Being with Krista Tippett
“This Species Moment”
Civilization is built on bodies breathing in proximity to other bodies. And what we’re learning about evolution, ecosystems and guts can save us.
I Invite My Parents to a Dinner Party
A poem describing an awkward family meal, where parents are unsure how to meet their son’s boyfriend.
Layli Long Soldier
WHEREAS my eyes land on the shoreline
A Native poet critiques the U.S. government's official apology to Native peoples which was created without consulting Native peoples.
Thank You To Our Donors
This week we want to say a special thank you to The On Being Project's individual donors and funding partners. We're so grateful for the financial gifts you've made to support our work across this difficult and defining year. We hope our offerings of 2020 have been valuable resources for you, however you've been navigating this time. We're so grateful to have you as part of our community. Thank you.
Poetry Film: Letter to My Body
Watch this short film by Elyse Kelly featuring Joy Ladin’s poem "Letter to My Body."
Read | Atomic Habits by James Clear
This book really helped ground me in the new reality of working from home and building new habits that reflect the person I want to grow into. It's been a gentle accompaniment in a chaotic time. — Lilian Vo, associate art director
Listen | Omoiyari by Kishi Bashi
Kishi Bashi wrote this album to reflect the "turbulent socio-political atmosphere of present day America." It's a product of reckoning with the lessons we can learn from history. Omoiyari, in short, is a Japanese word to describe the act of compassion and empathy towards others. My favorite song on this album is “Marigolds.” — Lilian Vo, associate art director
Read | Sidewalk Flowers by James Arno Lawson
This book is a beautiful celebration of noticing — small details, moments, and opportunities, set in the perspective of a little girl while out and about with her father — whose attention is elsewhere. — Jhaleh Akhavan, community engagement associate