#25: 2017 Season 1 Review
2017 Season 1 Review, January 5, 2018
Episode 25 of Rewrite Radio features a collection of excerpts from our first season of the podcast, curated and edited together by our creative director Jon Brown. He’s teased out a conversation between Festival speakers through the years about the power of stories to help us understand and navigate dark times. Jon also joins Festival director Lisa Ann Cockrel on the microphone for a look behind the scenes of production.
Speakers in order of appearance in this episode:
Frederick Buechner (1992)
Katherine Paterson (2004)
Brian Doyle (2012)
Patricia and Alana Raybon (2016)
Ashley Bryan (2016)
George Saunders (2016)
Ashley Bryan (2016)
Barbara Brown Taylor (2004)
Zadie Smith (2016)
Tobias Wolff (2016)
Frederick Buechner (1992)
Kelly Brown Douglas (2016)
Lisa Ann Cockrel (host): [00:00:09] Welcome to Rewrite Radio, the podcast from the Festival of Faith & Writing. I'm Lisa Ann Cockrel, the director of the Festival, and I'll be your host. This is the place you can listen back to conversations we've had with writers and readers as we’ve celebrated the written word together for over two decades. In each episode, you’ll hear a session that took place at the Festival. It might be a reading, an interview, a lecture, a panel conversation, or something else entirely.
We've got a special episode of Rewrite Radio for you today: a look back at our first season of the podcast edited together by Jon Brown. Jon is the creative director here at the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing, and in that
Jon Brown: Oh I'm so glad you're finally admitting it. [Lisa laughs] I have to admit, I'm sitting here telling myself [whispering] “Act like an adult! Act like an adult!” [Lisa laughs] which is probably bad advice.
Jon: Yeah, yeah. But thank you for bringing in scones. They really pushed me over the edge.
Lisa: I'm happy to bring in scones anytime. I've got extras. So there you go. [laughs] So talk about this episode you’ve put together. It's, you wouldn't call it like a best-of episode, right? How would you describe it?
Jon: It's more of like
Lisa: Yeah, it's kind of counterintuitive. We’re gonna go with it.
Jon: It's kind of impossible to do a best-of episode? We're intimately familiar with these talks. They’re all so rich; you can't really go through them and be like, that's the best talk, because they're woven together in a very precious way. We want to be careful with them, at least, we have a lot of respect for them. This was more an investigation of what we have, and we weren't necessarily expecting to come away with something. We didn't know if it would work necessarily. So it was more of an experiment.
Lisa: Yeah, we had to kind of see like, okay, we launched this podcast just about a year ago, at Christmas 2016 we launched our first three episodes and so we thought, we were talking just before Christmas break this time, we thought, why don't we think about doing a sort of retrospective, and you kind of sat with that. And from what I hear from our conversations, you listened back to all 24 episodes in like a two-day period, maybe?
Jon: It turned out a little bit more intense than I expected.
Lisa: Exactly. And it got pretty heavy. I mean, you pulled together this really beautiful, I mean, I would call this episode really almost a meditation on frankly mortality. So, Jon, do we need to talk? [laughs]
Jon: It definitely was not my goal. Most of these people are super funny. Brian Doyle. Listen to his whole episode, please. But as I started to go through these talks, I started to find a little thread, a little resonance between them about the power of story to talk to some of the darker parts of our experience. And after spending a good couple days going through this and pulling clips, I was surprised to find how heavy this compilation turned into. But I definitely think it's sort of heavy in a good way.
Lisa: No, I think that's right. I think that could be a new tagline for the Festival: “Heavy, in a good way.” I mean, when you invite people into conversations at this intersection of literature and belief, you're inviting people into the very heart of the human experience. And I think that's heavy, in a good way.
Jon: And maybe this particular episode is a taste of that conversation in a way we're artificially bringing these authors together in conversation and weaving together talks, and while it is artificial—
Lisa: Sure, because these are authors all the way from Buechner in 1992 to Zadie Smith and George Saunders and several others who were here in 2016.
Jon: —and they all sort of speak to one another.
Lisa: [00:05:07] Exactly. Yeah. And that is, I think that's at the heart of what the Festival is about, is
Jon: Thank you for the scones.
Lisa: Of course.
Lisa: And now a look back at the first season of Rewrite Radio. We'll start with a few words from Frederick Buechner speaking to a full house in 1992.
Frederick Buechner: [00:05:51] I spend my life, my working life, which is a large part of my life, moving words around the page. The more I deal with them, the more I marvel at them. As I say, it's what my life has been for many many years, and I often
And the most famous one of all, or so I'm told, is by
An old silent pond.
Into the pond, a frog jumps.
Splash. Silence again.
I’m gonna recite it again. Close your eyes this time.
An old silent pond.
Into the pond, a frog jumps.
Splash. Silence again.
Now you can open your eyes.
It's obvious that none of the things I said words most basically do or are being done in that poem. The language is not beautiful. It could hardly be more commonplace. The words are almost monosyllabic, not flowery, not poetic. They don't mean anything. The whole point of a haiku is not to mean anything at all, not to be the bearer of anything other than what it is talking about directly. There's no idea of symbolism in a haiku. The frog isn't supposed to stand for one thing in the pond for another thing and so on. It doesn't move us, there's nothing moving particularly about that scene. There's no narrative. All of these things that one usually associates with words are not present, I think, in that particular form. What it does do, this is what I'm suggesting is the most basic thing perhaps that literature does, it puts a frame. A frame around a moment.
This most pedestrian moment, you picture Bashō, whoever he was, walking along the edge of the old silent pond and startling a frog who leaps into the water and makes a splash catches his attention for a moment and then, as the sound died out to silence again, he simply enables us to participate in a moment that, without him, without the frame, we would very likely have missed. At least I would very likely have missed it; perhaps I shouldn't foist this on you. Either I wouldn't have noticed it at all this moment. I’d have been lost in thought—and lost is a good word to hang onto—lost in thought or else I would have noticed it and I would have verbalized it. I would've said wow, it was just a frog jumping into a pond as if that's all it was and would have dismissed it. Or I would've thought about it. I would've thought about it. Sickly door. The frog from the sound the splash the pond would've made me think of other things I've carried a million miles away from the moment itself.
What the haiku, it seems to me, is doing, and what literature, the art of writing, at its most basic is trying to do, is say, stop all of that. Stop thinking. Stop
Lisa: [00:10:58] Katherine Paterson, starting with a few lines from Mary Oliver.
Katherine Paterson: “White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field”
“Coming down out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel, or a Buddha with wings,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings — five feet apart —
and the grabbing thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys of the snow —
and then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes
to lurk there, like a little lighthouse,
in the blue shadows —
so I thought:
maybe death isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light wrapping itself around us —
as soft as feathers —
that we are instantly
and shut our eyes, not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river that is without the least dapple or shadow,
that is nothing but light — scalding, aortal light —
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.”
I don't think, once having read this poem, I could never think of death the same way again. What a wonderful, wonderful image, I said to Carl. “Yes,” he said “that was what I thought,” but Gina, who is his wife and our co-pastor, said, “That's all very
I know on September the eleventh, a day of fear and terror, I finally had sense enough to turn off the TV and put on the CD of Brahms’ “German Requiem.” But I'm guessing that most of us gathered here tonight don't rate ourselves as a Mary Oliver, much less of a Johannes Brahms. I'm a writer for children. What is my role as
[00:15:29] “That night, as he started to get into bed, leaving the light off, so as not to wake the little girls, he was surprised by May Belle’s shrill little, ‘Jess!’
“‘How come you still awake?’
“‘Jess, I know where you and Leslie go to hide.’
“‘What do you mean?’
“‘I followed you.’
“He was at her bedside in one leap. ‘You ain't supposed to follow me!’
“‘How come?’ Her voice was sassy. He grabbed her shoulders and made her look him in the face. She blinked in the dim light like a startled chicken.
“‘You listen here, May Belle Aarons,’ he whispered fiercely, ‘I catch you following me again, your life ain’t worth nothing.’
“‘Okay, okay!’ She slid back into bed. ‘Boy, you're mean. I oughta tell Mama on you.’
“No, May Belle, you can't do that. You can't tell Mama about where
“‘’Cause if you do, I'm going to tell Billie Jean Edwards you still wet the bed sometimes.’
“‘Boy, girl, you just better not try me.’ He made her swear on the Bible never to tell and never to follow. But
“I don't know about you,” I said to those children, “but I'm feeling a lot like a dandelion today.” I could see them visibly relax. Here was an adult willing to tell the truth. We can't make meaning for anyone, much less for the
Lisa: [00:18:01] Brian Doyle.
Brian Doyle: Three of my friends were murdered on September eleventh.
Good boys. Tells you about Irish Catholic New York, right? I was so enraged and horrified and furious and helpless and speechless and
I said, “No, no, no, no, I will not.” There's nothing to say. I'm not adding to the ocean witless commentary and vengeful prose. You know I'm going to bow and shut my mouth and pray silently, which is the only eloquent thing to do, as St. Francis says, you know, “Go now and preach the gospel; if necessary, use words,” says Francis. So I said, no, there's nothing to do. I was just going to pray. So I'm explaining this at home, in the kitchen, explaining this to my poor wife, you know, yea high, and “I said no, Mary!” and so I said no
And our daughter was standing there and it was probably nine. And she goes, “Well, what are you going to do then?” I said what do you mean? And she said, “Well, Dad, you know you're always saying, no offense, you're always saying, if God gives you a tool and you don't use your tool, that's a sin. And so, you know, Dad, no offense, but you only have one tool. [audience laughter] You say so yourself. You're only going
“Go to your room!” But she was right. She was right. So I ended up writing three stories from my friends, one about the couple who leaped from the tower holding hands. You know this story? There are no, there's no video. There's no film. There's no photograph. There were only fourteen people, saw with their naked, holy eyeballs that a man reached for a woman and a woman reached for a man at the lip of hell. They reached for each other. No one knows who they were. No one knows if they were lovers, friends, colleagues, companions, or if they just met each other there at the abyss, at the edge of the abyss. But they reached for each other. People saw with their eyes. They saw a man and a woman stick out each hand and grab each other's hands, and then jump out.
[00:20:34] They fell so fast, they would have blacked out on the way, thank God, before they hit the ground. The mayor reported, as you remember, the mayor reported that bodies hit the ground so hard there was a pink mist in the air.
But I choose to remember not the idiocy of a man who would murder my friends and murder children. We forget that there were little children who were murdered that day. I choose to remember a man
Lisa: [00:22:08] Patricia and Alana Raybon, authors of Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace.
Alana Raybon: I was in my dorm room and just waiting for the time to talk to her. I had called other people that were in my life at that time. Other people who were also going through something similar to me. Growing up as an African-American, I was very familiar with the Nation of Islam, just from the narrative about civil rights. And so I had first started through that pathway, and I was drawn to a more traditional view of Islam and so I kind of decided to go completely orthodox and so I just called her up and I said, “Mom, I've decided to become a, you know, to practice mainstream Islam.” And that was basically it. The conversation was quiet on her end. It was little awkward, actually. But I was relieved on my
Patricia Raybon: Well we became a family like many families, in that we looked cohesive, but we were not talking and speaking about things that needed to be said. And so we can sit around a Thanksgiving table and have all the right foods and say all the right things, except we're not saying the thing that's tearing everybody apart. The sadness of that became for me a place of mourning. I was looking last night again at the Kübler-Ross stages of grief, and I went through all of them. The first one’s denial. and then there's anger. So when Alana called, I think I said something like, “Oh, thanks for calling. How is your car running?” You know? My husband had bought her a used Honda that she drove up to campus in. So I had, you know, the stages are denial and then anger. And I was angry, my
And so that third stage in that Kübler-Ross dynamic is bargaining. You know, if I can, what can I do to reconfigure, bring my family back together. But there wasn't anything I could do. And so that fourth of the five stages is depression. And I was very sad. I dragged myself through the mall, looking at Christmas toys or Easter dresses or whatever. And just piling it on. “Oh, woe is me.” And then finally you get to acceptance. And I said that all in about a minute, but I'll tell you that it took a long, long time.
Alana Raybon: [00:26:36] Well the interesting part of this, Mom, is I'm just learning this about you now. [audience laughter] I mean, I knew you were sad, but I had no idea there were so many layers to it. And so, you know, I guess what I'd like to share with everyone here is, there was a point when we were writing the book where I started to feel really
But yes, the process did take a long time, and I think we both went through it. I went through it a period of denial as well, or maybe stubbornness? I was very ornery. I just felt like, you know what, this is my right. And you don’t really have a say in it, and how dare you make me feel bad for choosing something different. I went through a lot of that. Then I went through, “Well, now I have to prove to you why I think what I'm doing is right.” And that was probably, looking back, the most naive stage that I went through. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that. I was looking through verses and trying to prove to her and all of this ridiculousness. And then I kind of decided to just step back from it all, and I was in complete avoidance mode. And my husband is very, he doesn't like to small talk, and so when they would come over, he would bring up some political topic and then they would get into the religious nature of it, and I would just leave the room. [laughter] I'm not even going to go there. And so I went through a lot of just, I don't even want to be around it. I don’t want to discuss it. I'm just going to live my life.
But the awkwardness of it was, you know, for people of faith, and I'm sure many people in here can agree, you can't be a person of faith and not express your faith in many parts of your life. So you know with prayer or with other things we were doing, there was this awkwardness, because I was doing these things in front of her. And so I was always looking over at her what is she thinking right now while I'm praying? Or if they were there during Ramadan, that was very awkward and it was so uncomfortable. So it really took me a while to get to a point where I was ready to talk to her about it without the anger and the trying to point fingers and trying to prove that she was wrong. It took about ten years. [audience laughter]
Patricia Raybon: Alana and I discovered that peace, peacemaking, is not this destination you get to, and then everything's fixed. It's a choice. Peace is a choice, and you get up every day and choose to get along with the people in this circle that God has given you, and sometimes you make mistakes, but then you can get back to it the next day and try again. I could get stuck in the weeds of that theological debate. Or I could love my family. And that's where I sit. [applause]
Lisa: [00:30:55] Ashley Bryan.
Ashley Bryan: One of the most tragic experiences in life is the death of a child. So never let the child within you die. The one thing we all have in common is we have survived childhood. And if I can remind you of that experience of adventure and excitement of trying, of going beyond the formality of who you think you are, I can get a back and forth play.
Lisa: [00:31:30] George Saunders.
George Saunders: We live a short time. I've chosen this art form. Let's get out on the perimeter and see what it can do. It might be that the kind of moral cul-de-sacs and difficulties we get into in our particular time will not be rattled by conventional realist narrative. In other words, there are things happening in contemporary classical music that are so strange and percussive and weird, but they've produced very strong emotions that couldn't be produced by the classical toolbox. So in that model, as you said, the weirdnesses is a means to the old classical end of trying to understand what we're doing on the planet.
Lisa: [00:32:13] Ashley Bryan.
Ashley Bryan: I live on poetry, the spirituals, the art of the world. That's at the heart of being
I try to break down why who I am as an artist and you as a painter or you as a carpenter or you as a ditch digger, I try to break that down. I tell everyone, you cannot resist being creators, transformers; you are dealing with materials that you must do something with to make it other than what it is. When people think, as an artist, I take a blank surface and I start painting images on it, I'm transforming a blank surface. But I tell my friend when she's talking with me, I say, look, you have potatoes and a meat and a vegetable. And if you don't do something to transform those, you don't have a dinner. You can’t avoid transforming the material, anything you do, and making it something. For you to walk into this room, you have to transform a distance. That space you've walked to get in here, the act of making something other, getting somewhere else with what you have at hand is universal. You can give it all kinds of names, but that's the essence of who we are. That universality of transforming whatever is at hand. I am saying words, and Aree is saying words. If you're not transforming them in some form of understanding on your own terms, no two of you are doing the same thing. That effort, that desire to make it so that it means something to you, is personal and original.
Lisa: [00:34:35] Barbara Brown Taylor.
Barbara Brown Taylor: I meant to wear bohemian clothes and sleep in garrets. I meant to live
Lisa: [00:36:16] Zadie Smith reading an excerpt from her book, On Beauty.
Zadie Smith: “The second picture
“Is she really so grotesque? She was a shock to Katie at first, like a starkly lit, unforgiving photograph of oneself. But then Katie began to notice all of the
“Katie, a string bean physically, can even see her own body contained in this body, as if Rembrandt was saying to her, and to all women: ‘For you are of the earth as my nude is, and you will come to this point
“This is what a woman is: unadorned, after children and work and age and experience — these are the marks of living. So Katie feels. And all this from
Jane Zwart: It's quite good isn't it?!
Zadie Smith: Yes, it's not bad, yeah.
Lisa: [00:38:17] Zadie Smith interviewed by Jane Zwart.
Zadie Smith: In a very childlike way, my instinct as a kid, and it remains, is that these various texts are interpretive works of philosophy, they have something to say about what it is to be in the world. To me, the texts of Islam are about submission in a really interesting way. Submission is one part of human life, should be. The New Testament, with its insistence on the sin that happens inside, even before it's acted upon, is another aspect of life I find very interesting. The older testament with its emphasis on the law, these all seem to me aspects of human experience, and I take them as seriously a when I'm reading Kierkegaard or if I read Plato. To
[00:39:27] I like that picture that Graham Greene gives of a kind of extreme
But yes, anything which condemns, you know, throws the stone at the house next door, is my issue. My main and closest religious feeling is one expressed by Iris Murdoch about “The Good.” That “The Good” is God, and the knowledge of it, the fact that we can even speak of it as a concept is the evidence of God. Now that's as close as I've ever come. And I don't find that to be even a kind of a statement of belief, it seems to be evidently true. That the Good is God in the world, and anywhere it's practiced, acted upon, remembered in moments of danger or horror. I don't see what else God could be but that. And that existence of Goodness in people as an idea, as a kind of almost force in the world, that's the thing that I “believe” in.
I don't think for instance like the behavioral psychologists that good is just a way of, a way of protecting yourself so that we don't
Lisa: [00:41:52] Tobias Wolff.
Tobias Wolff: I wish I had more to say about spiritual practice—for me, I guess, my spiritual practice is to try to treat other people as I would wish to be treated, and to think of them of as real as myself. And that is for me—what literature did for me when I was young that nothing else ever did quite, and that it continues to do is, I think that most of this, without any ill-intention walk-around in a kind of shallow, self-absorption, and self-concern, and there's something about literature that wakes me up to the absolute adamant reality of other human beings. And once you apprehend that, and refresh your apprehension of that, that is, I mean, that is the basic thing we have to know. Is, first of all, it makes a demand on us, of course, but it also makes us realize we're not alone.
Lisa: [00:43:09] Frederick Buechner.
Frederick Buechner: The world is a manger, in which God is continually being born in one form or another. But we’re so apt to be lost in thought, looking somewhere else. I love God. Pay attention. Watch, listen, wait for, and love each other, Jesus says, love your neighbor. You have to see them to love them. You have to see them to love them. It's hard to love somebody you can't see. See their faces, see the way they walk down the street, see the way their shoulders slump when they’re tired. Then maybe you can love them. And then the reverse, almost. It is in loving them that we come, really, to see them. So often we don't see people very
Lisa: [00:44:25] Kelly Brown Douglas.
Kelly Brown Douglas: The date was February 26, 2012. It was a Sunday evening in Sanford, Florida. It was a rainy evening. Seventeen-year-old Trayvon Benjamin Martin, who lived in Miami Gardens, Florida with his mother, was visiting his father. Trayvon was walking back to his Sanford residence from a store where he had just purchased a can of iced tea and a pack of Skittles candy. Trayvon was wearing a hoodie. A neighborhood watch captain spotted Trayvon. He called 911 to report a suspicious person in the gated neighborhood. The 911 operator advised the caller to remain in his car, not to follow the person and police would be there. The watch captain did not follow instructions. Armed with a gun, he left his car. Shortly thereafter, shots were fired and Trayvon was left dead on the Florida sidewalk.
Trayvon was African American, the watch captain was not. Trayvon possessed iced tea and Skittles. The watch captain possessed a gun. Trayvon's body was taken to a morgue. The watch captain was freed to go home. The next day, Tracy Martin identified his son's lifeless body from a photo. The watch captain was not charged with the crime. The killer was seemingly protected under Florida's “stand your ground” law. Almost two months later, after black communities across the country launched protest rallies calling for the arrest of the watch captain, he was finally arrested and charged. However, he claimed he killed Trayvon in self-defense. A year and a half later, on Saturday night, July 13th, 2013, a six-woman jury found Trayvon's killer not guilty. They acquitted him of both
The story of Trayvon Martin was an all too familiar story in the black community. It was eerily reminiscent of the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till, which also garnered national attention. Emmett was brutally murdered for allegedly flirting with a white woman in a convenience store. Like Trayvon's killer, Emmett's killer was found not guilty. The only person held responsible for Emmett's death was Emmett. And so it was that the story of Trayvon would go down in history as that of another young black male killed for no other reason than the fact of his blackness being perceived as threatening, with his killer getting away with it.
For many young black women and men coming of age—some fifty years after the Civil Rights Era and during the time of a black president—they've faced the shock, as they came to grips with what happened to Trayvon. They wondered if their
If, as Anselm says, theology is faith seeking understanding—and I believe it is—then as a theologian the succession of young, black people being killed pricked my faith. How was I to understand the justice of God in the midst of these unjust slayings? What was the meaning of God's love in a world of racist hate? What was the meaning of the resurrection in a world that continued to crucify our sons and daughters?
I must say that the chapter on the cross and resurrection became—which I call “Finding Jesus and Trayvon,”—became one of the most difficult to write as I contemplated the very meaning—not of these children's deaths, but of their life—and hence the meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection. For as I wrote it, it became clear to me that their deaths were nothing less than
Which brings me to writing the conclusion of this chapter. I remember clearly not knowing how to end it. And so after several false attempts one afternoon that just did not feel right to me, I resolved to simply go to bed and start all over the next day. Then in the middle of the night, I was awakened by this refrain in my head that kept saying, “End with telling the stories of those children's lives. End with telling the stories of those children's lives.”
And so I woke up. And I immediately jumped out of bed and combed the internet for their obituaries and any other testimonies that I could find of their lives for which to end this chapter. For this was the resurrection end. It ended with their lives, not with their deaths.
That's what the resurrection is all about: that your life is not defined by crucifying realities. It was not defined by their crucifying death. They weren't meant to be crucified; they were meant to live. And so, needless to say, that was a very—I wrote that through tears.
But I ended it with this, this brief paragraph. And this tells you what I think about this book: “‘God is in control,’ Sybrina Fulton said, Trayvon's mother. And so God is. Left for each of us is to act like it. And thus to be where God is, standing up to “stand your ground” culture so that our sons and daughters might live. This book is my refusal to be consoled
Lisa: [00:51:27] Many thanks to all the wonderful writers who allowed us to share their Festival talks with you on this first season of Rewrite Radio. You can see a list of all the writers featured today in this episode's description.
Rewrite Radio is recorded at the Festival of Faith & Writing on the campus of Calvin
If you like Rewrite Radio, please leave us a review on iTunes. It helps other people find the show, and we're grateful for your help to bring more people into conversations about literature and belief.
Thanks again for listening to the first season of Rewrite Radio. I'm Lisa Ann Cockrel. We’ll be back soon with season two and more from the Festival of Faith & Writing archives.