Here’s the full transcript of my June 10 interview with Kansas Poet Laureate Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg. We chatted over lunch at the Eldridge Hotel in Lawrence, Kan. My biggest surprise? Caryn’s stated purpose in life.
DIANE: To ask you the hard question first: What is goodness?
CARYN: I guess I would explain goodness with all that’s sacred, which to me means the life force, just what’s alive, what’s in motion, what’s changing, what’s really happening around us, underneath our stories of what we think is happening, of how much control we think we have.
DIANE: I don’t understand.
CARYN: Right now we’re sitting in this restaurant, but outside I see this tree moving in the wind. To me that’s a good thing, that’s an alive thing. The conversation we’re having and the communion in words, that connection is what’s alive. In some ways, I equate goodness with God, with everything that’s sacred, holy, everything that is calling us to wake up and be alive in our lives.
DIANE: God is calling us to wake up and be alive in our lives, or is it just–?
CARYN: I don’t define God as any entity. I see it more as the life force itself. I think there’s a pull on all of us to draw on our better nature, and basically to be good, so what does that mean to be good? I think it means to pay very close attention to what your own callings are in life, what you’re supposed to be learning at this moment or that one. How you need to learn it. How can you do it with curiosity and tenderness and kindness for yourself and for others.
DIANE: It’s a quality of being awake?
CARYN: Um hum.
DIANE: It’s a quality of being in the moment?
DIANE: It’s being kind to others?
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: The idea of friendship to yourself and others is a magnificent one. The idea that you’re cultivating it also implies that it’s going to change over time. What is good at 18 may not be the same as when your 25, 40 or 80. When I asked my mother to define goodness, and she’s 83, she said it changes over time.
CARYN: It does, and I think each of us is really the only one who knows what’s true goodness for us at any given moment. For example, yesterday I was doing a workshop with people with metastatic cancer. We were talking about how at one moment summoning all the vigor in your body and going out and doing things, really participating with others, is a good thing to do, but at another moment, pulling back and curling up on the couch and going to sleep is a good thing to do. Only you can know at each moment what’s really the best thing for you. Where I run into problems is that I have moments where I’m just frozen: Well, what is a good thing to do at this moment? There are so many good possibilities. What’s the goodest?
DIANE: What do you think freezes you at that moment?
CARYN: Sometimes wanting to do a lot of things at once. Sometimes just landing on that big question, which I think is right behind what is good, which is: How do we live? And not really knowing at this moment: Will this bring greater balance and goodness to my life, or to the world or to my cat who wants to be patted.…
DIANE: Are there universal goods? You talked about what’s right for us at the moment, but are there universal goods?
CARYN: I’d like to answer that by looking at the universal bads, having just finished a book on the Holocaust. I think pretty clearly that there’s universal evil: purposely causing pain to another. Even though I’m not a vegetarian, I’d even put plants animals, the Earth itself into that category. Purposely causing pain to anything else that’s alive — without having to — is evil. If somebody is running toward you with a knife, and you have a kitchen knife and you stab them, I don’t know if that’s evil, it’s self defense. You pick a carrot out of your garden, out of the ground to eat; I don’t think that’s evil. I don’t even think it’s evil to eat animals, but I would say that if you do things that are really out of balance with the life force itself, it’s not a good thing. What sets the Holocaust apart is that it was not murder done in passion. It was cold, calculated, institutionalized murder…. It’s something beyond our evolution as humans. I was speaking to this Hindu authority, yoga teacher and Holocaust expert named Joshua Green about it. He said that what the Holocaust shows us is just how low we can go; how far down we can sink when our best nature isn’t in the forefront.…
DIANE: Again, are there universal goods? You said there is universal evil.
CARYN: I do think there are universal goods. I think anything that affirms the life force like helping a child who’s hurt, planting a garden, doing work that has some benefit for somebody….I do think it’s somewhat subjective, but I do think there are some. Anything that lifts up another person, or lifts up a place, or lifts up something that’s good for the world and brings us a little more life, I’d say that’s a universal good.
DIANE: How do you know if you’re doing harm or good? That’s a hard one.
CARYN: You don’t, although I think that part of it has to do with intention…. Let’s (look at the example of) a child who trips and falls into an oncoming car, and you go and rescue the child, and then he grows up to be a universal evil, a serial murderer. You have no idea if anything you do is ultimately going to help or not…. I think we can’t ultimately know the fruits of what we do. I kind of joke with my husband that we won’t know if what we’re doing is the right thing until after we’re dead.…
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: I started this project with (novelist) Laurie Marks’ quote about how all kinds of righteousness are bad. I needed to remind myself that I could also go down the garden path to righteousness.
CARYN: We all can believe that the way we know is the only way, but I think one thing that is really clear in this world is that there are many, many paths. Only the person on the path can tell…. It goes back to something else Pema Chodron says which relates to the metastatic group I told you about: That only I can know at any moment whether this is going to bring me closer to who I really am. Is this going to take me further away?
DIANE: But how do you know you’re not deluding yourself? How do you know that you’re not just rationalizing things, or being driven by destructive drives.
CARYN: I think we’re always blind to what we’re blind to. You don’t really know, but if your intention is true and you try to get as clear a view as possible on your own life story and follow that and live accordingly, then you’re doing the best you can. There’s probably moments when you’ll be deluding yourself and rationalizing, and maybe later you’ll realize that and maybe you won’t. I know plenty of people who are doing things that seem to me to be incredibly rationalized and messed up, and yet they see it very differently.
I’m becoming a Yoga teacher, and I’m undergoing training looking at sacred Yoga texts. I’ve studied Buddhism and Judaism and some other areas over the years… In just about every religion, there’s a lot of print given to how to live a good life. There’s all kinds of ways anybody can take anything in any religion and delude themselves with it and do harm, but I also think that a lot of spiritual, religious traditions as well as non-spiritual, non-religious traditions call people to open their eyes, look at reality, really look at reality, get past their own psychological projections that they put on other people and that blind them to how to really live.
For me it’s always a peeling-the-onion process: deconstructing and taking apart, lifting up the myths you tell yourself. We all have our own story about who we’re supposed to be. If you’ve ever heard yourself saying, “I’m not the kind of person who,” you can stop right there because how do you know what type of person you are? …. And then we have our family scripts and roles, and our community scripts. You might be the person who’s always got it together, taking new risks in the community, or you might be the one who runs whenever there’s trouble. We all have ways we’re pigeon holed. Of course, culture in general pigeonholes us. If you lift the flap of all of that, to really see what is underneath that… if you can, at least get a glimpse of it sometimes, that’s how you start to see who you are, what you’re alive for.
I’m working with a life coach…. She had me put together a life-purpose statement. I wrote a lot of statements that were more about doing … and then I realized that my life purpose statement is kind of simple: I’m alive to praise God. The way I define God is not how most religions would. I see God as the life force, everything that’s alive. I see God in rocks. My work as a poet, a mother, a wife, a friend, a writer, a teacher, mentor, facilitator, a not-so-good gardener, an occasional cook, is to look at anything I’m doing and ask: Does this support what I see as my life’s purpose?
DIANE: Are you praising, by your action and mindset, the divinity in every bit of existence?
CARYN: That’s the goal.
DIANE: And then there are the moments when one’s stuck in a traffic jam, and there’s not much praising of divinity going on.
CARYN: Actually, I think it’s the opposite. There’s moments when (praise is) really happening, and then there’s the rest of the time.
Poet Dylan Thomas wrote… If I’m not praising God with my poetry, what the hell am I writing about? I feel the same way. Praise does not necessarily mean compliment. It means exploring and connecting with spirit.
DIANE: The fundamentalist Christian view may be to literally praise God, which is a pretty narrow view to me, but it doesn’t sound like you’re talking about that. Actually, when you said you were praising God, my eyebrows went up. I wondered if you’d had a personality transplant.
CARYN: This is how I’ve always been. For me praising God means supporting people in their spiritual or non-spiritual journeys in whatever language they use that has meaning to them.
DIANE: I think of it more as a spiritual journey than religious journey. It’s emotional and a nonmaterial journey. It’s not just about the job you have or the things you have in your house.
CARYN: Yes, nonmaterial journey is a good way to put it because just about everybody I know — whether they consider themselves to be atheists or not — is on a nonmaterial journey.
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 that it numbs us and keeps us from going forward.…
I think a lot of times it has to do with not having what we need. You feel overwhelmed if you haven’t had enough to eat that day, or you had food that made you feel kind of sick, or someone hasn’t been nice to you wherever you’ve gone. There are all kinds of things that can happen that make us feel like we don’t have what we need. I think that can build up. I don’t know if it’s always fear, but a self-protective quality. You know: “The hell with helping you. I’m going to go find someplace I can put my feet up and watch old movies.”
DIANE: I understand that. Is there anything else you think we’ve missed?
CARYN: You haven’t asked me about poetry and goodness.
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.
DIANE: Maybe also jarring through the thick layer you’ve used to protect yourself against the world. I know that with the best poetic writing I have an “Ah hah” moment. It’s totally visceral. I love Virginia Woolf, particularly “To the Lighthouse.” I remember reading that and realizing that it was like looking at my family, even though the book had nothing to do with my family. It was universal.
CARYN: Absolutely. And it’s true what you say about this being visceral because it gets us out of our head. We feel it in our bodies. We feel it emotionally. We’re working with it with our minds, so it brings us together. It integrates us.
DIANE: If we try to only think through things, we can be led astray.
CARYN: Intellectually, it’s easier to rationalize. Sometimes you’ll think something and then suddenly you’ll feel like somebody punched you in the stomach, and you’ll know that’s not right. We have to listen to and draw on all of us.
DIANE: Use your heart and head?
DIANE: That’s a great place to end the interview. I really appreciate it. Thank you.