Silhouette of a person in a field with a starry sky behind them

Image by Marian G Ruggiero/Unsplash


Dear friends,

My favorite (read: only) word in Russian is остранение. It’s translated into English as defamiliarization. One time, I was in a bar in New York City, and heard a man with an Irish accent next to me ordering a drink. I asked him where he was from, and pretty soon my friends were wondering why I was taking so long. He lived in New York, working as a French and Russian translator for the UN. He had good Irish too, so we moved between Irish and English as we spoke. I asked him what some of the etymology of остранение was. The heart of the word is something like other-country-ized, he said. 

Defamiliarization is one of the functions I hope for in good conversation. I hear something and it makes me look at their world in a new way, and change my actions correspondingly. I hope for moments to see old ideas in a new light, where the familiar feels less familiar. However, it’s not all transcendence: defamiliarization can cause loyalties to be stretched, can cause profound change and it can also be used as a weapon to exile someone, from their people or place.

All of this is an introduction to this week’s On Being episode, a conversation between Krista and Jill Tarter, the multiple award-winning astronomer who is one of the founders of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute. Now nearing her 80s, Jill has spent a lifetime considering what the conditions for life — and intelligent life, with communications systems — on other planets might be. She was the inspiration for the character played by Jodie Foster in the film adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel, Contact, and has had a fascination with earthlings’ place in the vast universe since she was a child. 

She invites her students to call themselves earthlings, because it locates us, as a species, on a particular planet. Jill has spent her career casting her eye and intelligence across vast distances of space. Far from dislocating her from her own particular planetary location, it locates her here, on earth, and she takes this locatedness with all its political ramifications. 

Novelists and politicians have long imagined an alien takeover; many assuming that such a takeover would unite humanity in the face of a planetary threat. However, Jill Tarter says to Krista that our fragile planet is already under environmental threat, and urges practices that are not waiting for aliens to come, but rather that read the signs of the times. She’s keen for our ecosystem of life on planet Earth to survive long enough to make contact with other ecosystems — and that involves tending for the environment as well as our neighbors. And this is what brings us back to neighborliness. Over and over throughout Krista and Jill Tarter’s conversation, I found myself thinking about here while Jill speaks about out there. Her clarity about what a universe-wide perspective can give to a community-wide politic has arrested me, stopped me, made me think. 

Krista asks Jill Tarter how she’d sum up her life’s work, and she does it in a three-word question that is as expansive as it is profound: Are we alone? She obviously asks this of the universes, but we can also hear it in our neighbourhoods, communities, cities. Perhaps defamiliarizing the question of location might help us see the here as well as the out-there in ways that affect our politics, policies and public lives. 

Our two poems from this week’s episodes of Poetry Unbound also function as invitations into reconsidering place. On Monday, we shared a reflection on Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo’s poem, “Battleground.” As the poet-in-residence at Gettysburg National Military Park, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo wanders around looking for evidence of graves honoring Mexican soldiers. Finding none, she conducts a ritual to honor them — the known and the unknown. The poem then shifts scenes and she is on the southern border of the U.S., leaving offerings of water bottles for those whose lives are worthy of respecting, welcoming and saving. Li-Young Lee’s poem, “From Blossoms,” reads like a piece of music, a hymn even. He’s remembering a particular day where he and a companion bought peaches from a boy at a stand at the turn of a road. You can’t make a person taste peaches through a poem but Li-Young Lee comes close. The perfection of this simple day is, perhaps, unrepeatable, which is why it’s so invaluable. 

When death is near, or when time forces us into binaries that are dangerous and ungenerous, we wish for such spaciousness, so that we continue the difficult work of  preserving life in this world. 


Beir bua, 

Pádraig Ó Tuama
host of Poetry Unbound




This Week at The On Being Project

Our Latest Episode

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On Being with Krista Tippett
Jill Tarter
“'It Takes a Cosmos to Make a Human'”

The pioneering astronomer on what’s relevant now in the ancient question: “Are we alone in the universe?”

Listen on:
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Poetry Unbound

Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo

A poem about history that offers a hopeful practice: rather than vengeance for the dead, sustenance to the living.

Li-Young Lee
"From Blossoms"

Can a memory of a beautiful day, with gorgeous peaches and companionship, be a place to return to, even on difficult days? Yes, the poem says, yes.

Listen on:
Apple Podcasts
Google Podcasts
Our Website



Staff recommendation section image collage: Poetry Exchange show

image, The Spiritual Edge show image, Portrait image of musician UMI

Listen | Krista in conversation with The Poetry Exchange hosts Fiona Bennett and Michael Shaeffer
On May 20th, Krista was invited onto this award-winning podcast to talk about Christian Wiman’s “Good Lord the Light,” a poem that has been a companion to her. 

Listen | KALW's The Spiritual Edge podcast
A collaboration between KALW and USC's Center for Religion and Civic Culture, the first season of this podcast is called “Sacred Steps” and offers intimate profiles of activists and humanitarians challenging the status quo. From a COVID ward in Boston, to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, each episode connects listeners to the struggles and hopes of individuals giving everything for the wellbeing of others. Listen to the trailer before the first episode is released on May 23rd. — Liliana Maria (Lily) Percy Ruiz, Executive Producer 

Listen | "This Universe" by UMI
This song is a mini-meditation that I often return to, and reminds me that I am exactly where I need to be. It helps me zoom out and think about the bigger picture that we are part of. As UMI says in the lyrics, "I'm glad that I could feel alive with you and I'm glad that we both chose this planet in this universe." — Lilian Vo, Associate Art Director 



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