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that represent the world inside them

Illustration by Lily Qian/ All rights reserved

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Dear friends,

When I was 25, I didn’t know what I was doing. I regretted some decisions and felt the weight of things upon me as I wondered what to do. I was living far from home, and feeling far from home. I wrote to a friend, Francesca, who was 30 years older than me, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” I was embarrassed.

Francesca wrote back, “I’ve never met anybody under 30 who really knows what they’re doing.” I had known Francesca since I was a teenager, so her words of advice built on years of connection. She said that she, too, often wondered what she was doing. Her words gave me such calm. She didn’t tell me what to do. She told me that not knowing what to do was the work for me for now.

I hadn’t really known that I was writing to Francesca for advice. But I was. Her advice came from the struggles of her own life. And what she wrote was true because it held me steady during unsteady years.

Our On Being episode this week is a conversation between Krista and Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows about their new translation of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. These letters were written by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke to a young military cadet, Franz Kappus, over the course of 10 years. At the age of 19, Kappus had written to Rilke asking him for advice, and a correspondence sprung up between them. Their letters were not numerous — there are 10 letters in the book published by Kappus a few years after Rilke’s death — but they seem timeless.

Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows are long-time collaborators on the work of Rilke. They have previously appeared in the show speaking about depressionecology, and their translations of Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. Joanna Macy is 92 and is a renowned Buddhist teacher and philosopher of ecology. Anita Barrows is a psychologist and poet. You get a rich sense of how endeared they are to each other — and to Krista — in friendship throughout this show, as well as how much of their lives they’ve all three lived in conversation with Rilke.

Rilke’s letters of advice to this young poet were begun when Rilke himself was only 27. It was 1903 when the first letter was written, and now, 120 years later, there continues to be so much wisdom. Deeper than the content of the letters, perhaps, is the tone of tenderness throughout the letters. Rilke, who had a complicated childhood and was shipped off to military school as a child, managed to preserve a way of looking at the violences and possibilities of the world with gentleness. He saw the new century with a certain sense of foreboding, but also through the lens of possibility. He did not propose certainty, but instead fostered an extraordinarily intimate relationship with uncertainty. In one of the most famous passages from the Letters, he writes:

“I ask you, dear sir, to have patience with all that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves, like closed rooms, like books written in a foreign language. Don’t try to find the answers now. They cannot be given anyway, because you would not be able to live them. For everything is to be lived. Live the questions now. Perhaps you then may gradually, without noticing, one day in the future live into the answers.”

Speaking about Rilke’s relationship to solitude, Joanna and Anita joke that while he would have needed forgiveness from his spouse, they recognize, nonetheless, the wisdom of his insights. Rilke spoke about “the love that consists of two solitudes that protect, border, and greet each other.” For Anita and Krista, they speak about how divorce was an invitation into a new relationship with their own solitude. And Joanna speaks about how, throughout a 56-year marriage, she and her husband had a recognition of their own essential strangeness to each other. In these experiences of togetherness, solitude, and love, Rilke’s words gave solace and containment. “It is good to be solitary, because solitude is difficult, and that a thing is difficult must be even more of a reason for us to undertake it.”

We experience, 20 years into this century, a young voice from early in the last giving advice. The intimacy of the letters expands to invite many into the tenderness and wisdom of openness. The world — as it is envisaged in Rilke’s letters, and in this conversation — is not a tame place. It is filled with pain and potential; joy and separation; war and wonder. These are not meant to be easy companions, and this is part of the marrow of the letters to a young poet: find a way to hold yourself while being in the world that is around you. It is this same wish we have for ourselves — and for you — and we are delighted to bring this conversation to you.

 

Beir bua, 

Pádraig Ó Tuama
host of Poetry Unbound

 

 


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This Week at The On Being Project


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On Being with Krista Tippett
Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy
What a world you’ve got inside you.”

Rainer Maria Rilke’s prophetic musings about solitude and relationship, humanity and the natural world, gender and human wholeness.

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Hope Is a Muscle: A New On Being Adventure 


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screens on the new On Being Wisdom aapp

If you missed it, in just a few weeks we will be launching our new adventure: the Wisdom app. Starting with a 20-session course, Hope Is a Muscle, this will be a place to explore, reflect on, and find companionship in the shared endeavor of becoming more fluent in our own humanity.

We are not launching this with splashy marketing. We are instead inviting close friends, partners, and Pause subscribers to begin at the beginning and shape this with us. We invite you to take a moment and complete this five question survey about the Wisdom app. This is an opportunity to suggest curated content, forms of engagement, and other insights into ways we can do this well, together. You can also sign up to be notified when it launches and share your thoughts with us.

With gratitude,

The On Being Project’s Wisdom Team

 

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