Unconditional friendliness, living with purpose, obstacles to goodness and using poetry and the arts to pierce our myths are just some of the topics that popped up when I had lunch with Kansas Poet Laureate Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg on Thursday.
I’ve known Caryn for 20 years. We share a writing group. We’ve discussed the writing life and swapped family news more times than I can count. However, it wasn’t until I interviewed her last year for a story about her Brave Voice workshop that I realized my old friend could teach me a lot about living. To say that I can be a slow learner is an understatement.
All accomplished poets share the ability to peer deeply into the human soul, but Caryn’s work as a writer is also shaped by her experience as a cancer survivor, her work as a workshop facilitator, and her activism in the transformative language arts movement. Among many other things, she founded a master’s degree in transformative language arts at Goddard College in 2000.
Here are snippets of our conversation. I’ll post the full transcript tomorrow.
We started by discussing many aspects of goodness. After commenting that shelf felt like she was wandering around this “impossible thing to define,” Caryn honed in on one aspect of goodness that has been noted by a spiritual teacher:
CARYN: Pema Chodron, a Tibetan nun who I love, talks about maitri, which is the quality of unconditional friendliness towards oneself and toward others. To me that may encapsulates goodness. Approach everything to find goodness and to cultivate it in our lives. It’s not a static thing that you can suddenly be good or have goodness. I think we can move through goodness. You have to continually cultivate compassion and curiosity to all that’s calling to you within yourself and others about all the encounters that you have, all that life brings you.
DIANE: Do you make a conscious effort to be good?
CARYN: I probably do, but I don’t think about it in those terms. I make a conscious effort to live in the right way, to live with meaning, think what I try to do for my health, for my family, for my work, just for my own well being overall, for people I encounter. I try to keep my eyes open for small things I can do anonymously that might make a difference. Occasionally if I have extra change, I’ll stick it in meters, that kind of stuff, although that doesn’t help the city’s bottom line.
DIANE: Do you think belief in God is required to be good?
CARYN: No…. My Holocaust book is about two people who do not believe in God. I write it as somebody who believes God is everywhere. I think living well, living with consciousness and commitment to continually learning how to do good in the world, in a strange way, has little to do with whether a person considers them self as spiritual, religious or none of the above. We can see examples in all directions of the extremes.
DIANE: Some people argue that it’s too easy to be selfish, it’s too easy to not understand what’s the right thing to do if you don’t have faith in God, or if you don’t have a religion to lead you. On our own, we make mistakes.
CARYN: I think that’s a really simplistic view. I think (that is shown by) the fact that somebody like Lou Frydman, Holocaust survivor, who doesn’t believe in God, has devoted his life to activism, to raising a really good, loving family, participates big in his grandchildren’s lives, reads, agitates and writes….. I think that people who believe there is only one way to live, only one way to be good, are themselves not practicing goodness.
DIANE: What do you think stops us from being good?
CARYN: Fear and loss and pain. That make us feel that we need to pull in and be smaller than we really are to protect ourselves.
DIANE: We’re afraid of doing the right thing? We’re afraid of being fully authentic and doing what’s right for ourselves and others?
CARYN: I don’t know if it’s always afraid of doing the right thing. We’re just afraid of life. I think all of us have pockets where we either have fear or there’s pain that’s so big, and it numbs us and keeps us from going forward.
DIANE: What about poetry and goodness?
CARYN: Poetry and poetic language — which I would extend to memoir, novels and short stories, spoken word and song writing, just everything we can do with language — it’s all about, at its best, taking life and encapsulating it, and passing it on to us in a way that we can see more who we are and how we live. Even speculative fiction shows you a lot about how you live or about how people could live or what people could become. I think the arts serve as a mirror of where we are, but also of a larger vision of where we could be and also historically where we have been. For people trying to cultivate goodness in their lives I don’t think they can do better than to turn to the arts because you’re going to see things there. You can hear it in song, you can see it in painting, you can listen to it in a spoken word performance.
DIANE: It’s a matter of looking at it, but also maybe participating in it? I know that writing has taught me a lot about myself.
CARYN: Creating it, looking at it, doing it. You can see in all these things — what’s the word I want? — you can see your reflection. You can also see where you might be limiting yourself, where you might go instead, through the use of writing, through imagery and rhythm. Imagery speaks to our five senses: smell, taste, touch and so on. Rhythm — just the sounds words make when they’re put together — kind of jars us out of that thick layer of stories and myths that I talked about earlier. We can kind of lift it up and look underneath it. You can use that as pathway to connect to who you are.