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Dear friends,

When I was a child my parents became involved in charismatic religion. The charismatic movement within Catholicism in Ireland was typified by many things: guitar masses, a lot of participation from the congregation, a lot of raised arms during the songs, the belief that the spirit of God would move among the congregants. But the thing that intrigued me most was when someone would “give their testimony” — would share part of their faith story. These stories usually had a before/after narrative plot. Often the stories were deeply intimate, and meant a huge amount to both the teller and the listeners. 

As I grew up, I remained involved in this expression of religion, and the telling of testimony became part of my life. I liked it, but was perturbed: which testimony should I tell? Every story is both a revelation and a concealment. There are secrets lurking in even the most open story — things you’d tell one person, you wouldn’t tell another. I knew I could tell a story of religion that said I was sad before religion was in my life, and happier after. I knew that there was another story, though: that becoming involved in religion meant a closet, meant adhering to a cultural expectation that at times was constricting, even oppressive. 

These days, “story” is a strong commodity in the world. Everyone, it seems, wants you to “share your story” — often the story of how owning a new car, a new watch, a new pair of sneakers has helped improve your life. But story is a troublesome thing: it can be a relief, yes, but it can also be a restriction. As years went by, I realized that story needs to be tended with truth, vulnerability, change, and inquiry in order to hold its integrity. Story can be used as recruitment too easily and too often: but recruitment to what? And at what cost?

Our On Being program this week is a conversation that Krista hosted at the On Being Gathering in 2018, a conversation involving Marilyn Nelson and myself. Marilyn Nelson is a renowned poet, with many collections of work spanning years. Sharing a platform with Marilyn was an experience of spaciousness for me: she brings such consideration to her choice of words, a consideration that bespeaks her approach to life — unhurried, precise, artistic, and wise. Sitting next to her and talking with her was the beginning of a friendship. Some of Marilyn’s work — such as in the book A Wreath for Emmet Till — navigates history through the lens of poetry and this work is typified with careful attention: listening for detail, form, and point of view; telling the truth that has often been closed up; opening up what was denied. In this hour we hear of poems written about the history of a Quaker Hall in Lyme, Connecticut — in 1666, in 1729, and also, today. It came as a shock to many that the first pastor of this church kept enslaved people in the attic of his parsonage. It was “very unusual, I think, to have the courage required to tell those stories,” Marilyn says. And further, “Nobody knows how to begin, or to go that far back.” In this way, what’s so clear is that such storytelling requires an attention to time, because time can be a tool of denial when it erases the time before bravery — a time when, perhaps, atrocity was done. 

We speak, too, about shame, and how shame is a powerful factor in how communities choose to tell their stories. Shame can lead to erasure, to silencing, or to loudness. Marilyn speaks of how poetry and contemplation have a deep connection with each other — she uses contemplative practice in her work with students of poetry, in the hope, it seems, that the deepest work of art and story can be revealed. 

In many ways, this is a conversation about the contemplative underpinning required in telling stories that are difficult to tell. Some might find this contemplative underpinning in prayer, others in mindfulness, others in a yoga practice. Wherever it’s found, it’s necessary, because the stories we tell are filled with many things: joy, lament, confusion, shame, celebration, resilience, survival, grief, hope, and challenge. The conversation was recorded before a live audience and the questions that came from the listeners were rich with insight: asking about embodiment, asking about how a story — or a poem — can find the right form. My lasting memory of this conversation is one of deep encounter: hearing Marilyn’s lifetime of using the practice of poetry to pay attention to the world around her, and feeling like the conversation that unfolded between Krista, Marilyn, and myself was one in which I was being formed and focused. 

The two poems from Poetry Unbound this week also continue this theme of storytelling. Romeo Oriogun’s poem “Pink Club” tells of a gay club in his home country of Nigeria: a place to dance even though you’re illegal; a place of sensuality and flirtation and safety and exploration; a place where stories of relief and exile can find a home. The poem itself is filled with its own rhythm, evoking the sound of a nightclub, evoking the echoes of sadness, and the powerful echoes of resolve to find a life that’s safe. Gail McConnell’s poem “Worm” is, in many ways, a nature poem, looking closely at that small creature, the worm. Seeing its segments, its capacity to aerate the world, its deep necessity in all agriculture, this poem honors the little beast whose determination makes the underground a place of growth and passage. No stranger to pain herself, Gail McConnell’s praise of the worm is also a praise of a story of life found in unexpected places. 

Friends, in all the stories you tell of your life this week, we wish you joy and listening. We also wish you courage, and the opportunities to tell old stories in new ways, so that new meanings might be found, new safeties might be created, and new opportunities seen. 


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
Pádraig Ó Tuama and Marilyn Nelson
So let us pick up the stones over which we stumble, friends, and build altars’

The poet-contemplatives ponder the ground of now. “Where to turn to find my place of standing when it feels like the world is on fire?” 

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Poetry Unbound
Romeo Oriogun
Pink Club

A gay club becomes a place of sanctuary for people seeking rhythm and safety. Away from a world of threat, the club is an experience of what could be.

Gail McConnell

Looking at a worm, much is learned: how to ingest, how to open up, how to make space, how to survive, how to get through.

Listen on:
Apple Podcasts
Google Podcasts
Our Website

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The On Being Project & Theater of War

Free Virtual Event Nov. 3, 5, 7

We are thrilled to partner with Theater of War the extraordinary project of former On Being guest Bryan Doerries to offer the Oedipus Trilogy, a catalyst for constructive, community-driven conversations surrounding the great longings and callings of our time.

Members of the On Being team and our broader community will participate in this virtual series alongside the Oedipus Trilogy company: Moses Ingram, Jessie Eisenberg, Taylor Schilling, David Denman, Frankie Faison, Zach Grenier, and spectacular others. 

Attendance is free. Register separately for the performances on November 3, November 5, and November 7. We encourage attendance at all three, and look forward to sharing in this experience with our far-flung community of listeners and kindred partners!

This series accompanies the publication of Bryan’s new translations of the Oedipus Trilogy: New Versions of Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. 


Read | Becoming the Marginalian: After 15 Years, Brain Pickings Reborn

From Krista: The wondrous Maria Popova, twice a guest on this show, by herself and then together with the astrophysicist Natalie Batalha, just announced a renaming of Brain Pickings her labor of love that is precious to so many of us. Of the new name, she writes, quintessentially Maria: “In the margins of books, in the margins of life as commonly conceived by our culture’s inherited parameters of permission and possibility, I have worked out and continue working out who I am and who I wish to be — a private inquiry irradiated by the ultimate question, the great quickening of thought, feeling, and wonder that binds us all: What is all this?”

Listen | "Finding Our Way"

Prentis Hemphill, an embodiment practitioner, facilitator, and writer, hosts dynamic conversations with activists and artists that explore how inner healing charts the path to creating the world we dream of. This has been a source of grounding and possibility for me, unlocking my imagination of what a more healed world can be. I hope the same for you.
Lillie Benowitz, Pastoral Engagement Associate, Religious Life & Social Healing


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