Becoming Wiser

krista-tippettI have been listening to Krista Tippett on her radio program, Speaking of Faith, since back in 2003. Though it changed its name in 2010 to On Being, the program has the same focus and appeal.

Like many programs, movies and books that I admire, it often features people who I have never heard of, and who I would probably never have encountered – but I trust her choices enough to listen, and I am usually rewarded by insights from her and the guest.

She has written several books, but her new one is Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.


“I’m a person who listens for a living. I listen for wisdom, and beauty, and for voices not shouting to be heard. This book chronicles some of what I’ve learned in what has become a conversation across time and generations, across disciplines and denominations,” says Krista.

In the early days, her show did have more of an outright focus on religions. But it has always had an interest in how scientists relate to religion, faith and being. Those programs have been amongst my favorites.

For example, my own fascination with Albert Einstein seems to be shared by Tippett who has done multiple programs about Einstein. She has also written Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit. Einstein is a good example of that strange Venn diagram that many of us have where religion, God, faith, belief, and spirituality overlap. Albert Einstein did not believe in a personal God. One of the many Einstein quotes you find online is “God does not play dice with the universe.” That seems to be a clear statement of belief, but it was about quantum physics, not the God of religion. But Albert certainly spent a significant amount of his life doing thought experiments about the relationship between science and religion. How could he not wonder? Any thinking person must wonder.

I believe all of us have the same interest as Einstein (although he may have taken it further than most of us) in trying to discover the order deeply hidden behind everything. Tippett notes Einstein’s self-described “cosmic religious sense” is very compatible with twenty-first-century sensibilities.

But On Being and her new book includes the ideas of theologians from many faiths, but also poets, activists and others.

I call this post “Becoming Wiser” (as opposed to Tippett’s book title Becoming Wise)  because I know I am wiser for having listened to Krista’s programs and read her books, but they also remind me how much further I need to go to be Wise.

This is not a book review but a preview because I haven’t read this book yet, but I am confident that it will continue to help equip me “to meet the world where it really is, and then to make it better.”


other books

Further Reading:
Amazon is getting much better with its recommendations. When I pre-ordered Becoming Wise, Amazon suggested a group of books that do belong on the same shelf. There were  four that I have already read, and the others are all books I would like to read. It included the obvious choices of her other books: Einstein’s God  and her earlier Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters–and How to Talk About It.  It also suggested Rising Strong by Brené Brown,  Felicity: Poems by Mary Oliver,  The Good Book: Writers Reflect on Favorite Bible Passages by Andrew Blauner,  Gratitude by Oliver Sacks  A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals, and Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart by James R. Doty. there are others I would add to that list – for example, guests from her programs, such as Parker J. Palmer and Karen Armstrong.

A Phone Booth in the Desert, a Bus in Alaska, a Dolphin in the Ocean

The idea of a working phone booth on a dirt road in the middle of the Mojave desert, over a dozen miles from the nearest pavement, is intriguing to me.

It caught the interest of the wonderful radio/podcast (I don’t really make a distinction any more) called 99% Invisible. The program is about “all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about — the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world. You probably never heard of it because somehow podcasts are still kind of a fringe thing, but with 80 million downloads, 99% Invisible is one of the most popular podcasts on iTunes.

Last week I listened to their show about that phone booth.  They track one person, Godfrey (“Doc”) Daniels, obsession with it. He read about it in a zine called Wig Out! letter to the editor back in 1997.

Dear Wig Out!,
Recently, I spotted a small dot with the word “telephone” beside it on a map of the Mojave desert, 15 miles from the main interstate in the middle of nowhere.

Intrigued, I donned a cheap, brown serape and a pair of wing-tips and headed out to find it in my old jeep. After many hours I do find it (the glass is shot out and the phone book is missing) but it works! Apparently, this booth was put in after WWII for the use of a nearby mine which ceased operations in the 60s; why the local phone company keeps it operational is anybody’s guess.

A nearby rancher told me that in the 70s they replaced the old rotary style phone with push buttons because the sheep were having trouble dialing…

Doc didn’t know where it was or if it really existed. But the letter had a phone number for it and he called. It rang, but no one answered. He continued to call and even got others to call.

After a month of tries, he got a busy signal. Someone was there. He kept calling repeatedly and finally he caught the person who was using the phone and she picked up. I’ll leave the details for you to discover when you listen to the program, but I’ll say that the phone was used by some people who had no phone of their own. This was 1997 in that distant century before cell phones. He talked to her for a bit. He was so excited that he forgot to ask about the exact location of the phone booth.

Doc eventually track down the location and went for a visit.

It was 1997 and the Internet was new for most of us, but Doc created a webpage and it went as viral as a page might go back in 1997.

People contacted him, sent him news clippings from all over the world about this off, cultish desert phone booth.

The Mojave Phone Booth started getting a lot more calls. People made pilgrimages to the site.

It became very popular. Too popular. The phone booth was located on a nature preserve and the National Park Service was not happy about all the visitors, traffic and the ringing phone. The booth was removed in 2000.

busPeople continued to visit the place where the booth had been.

It reminds me of the story of Chris McCandless who went to Alaska, somewhat ill-prepared but full of the Romance of adventure. He starved to death there.

But people continue to visit, pilgrim-like, the abandoned bus that Chris lived in. What are they hoping to find there?

A trip the Mojave location after 2000 would have found you staring at the concrete slab where the booth once sat. But even the slab was removed. Some people tried to mark it with a plaque.

The number that Doc was calling is still around, if you want to give it a try.  760-733-9969 is not the Mojave Phone Booth, but perhaps its ghost will answer. It is like making a call out to the universe.

If you’re out in the deserts of the American Southwest, you might want to combine your trip with a journey following the large concrete arrows (seventy feet in length) that are there. They may have a logical origin, but I’d like to believe that they might be landing beacons for UFOs.

dolphin56I really like these odd little items that catch people’s attention.

I’m a follower of Dolphin 56. Back in 1979, he was captured along with five other dolphins in Florida. They were assigned the numbers 55, 56, 57, 58 and 59.  Dolphin 56 was estimated to be about 12 years old. He was weighed and measured and branded with the number “56”.

He was spotted over the years from Florida to New Jersey. He was very comfortable, perhaps too comfortable, with people. He became the most comprehensively tracked dolphins on the East Coast. A Facebook page was set up in 2009 to track his movement. People posted photos and video of their sightings.

Dolphin Dolphin 56 went missing around 2012, but people continue to look for him, just like people go to Alaska and to the the place where the phone once sat. The last reported sighting I found reported was that in July 2011 the dolphin was photographed off the coast of Wales – which I find incredible, and not very believable. I prefer to think he is headed back to Jersey waters now as the ocean warms up.

Mojave Phone Booth website

There is even a film that was made about it.  I “rented” it on Vimeo for $5.

Doc did a Kickstarter to get some bucks to write a book about his phone booth adventure.


Death After Life – Life After Death

“Do you often think about dying,” asked a friend after I told him that I was writing a blog post about death.  The poet, Billy Collins, has joked that if you major in English, you are majoring in death. I majored in English, and that is a funny observation – and at least partially true.

I read someone writing on death who said that death gives life meaning. I don’t think I completely agree with that, but it may come from the fact that death and the afterlife plays such a large role in religions and philosophies.

Surely, the first people thought about death once they saw it happen. I can’t imagine that it took too much time before some ideas emerged about life and death and then about the idea of immortality. We have come so far and yet probably not much farther in our thinking than people a few hundred years ago when it comes to dealing with the death of others or ourselves. Current day medicine tries to prolong life and avoid death even when it is inevitable and when a person may want to die. Transhumanists are trying to extend life by merging ourselves with machines.

I have written here about life after death or the afterlife or simply about death after life but I don’t know that it has helped me get any closer to reaching any final decisions about things final.

I still think about there being a “bridge” from this life to what comes after, even though my ideas have changed since my younger days about what is on the other side of that bridge. I have gone from my Catholic upbringing and heaven, through reincarnation, science, death as the end of all, to believing in a life force that continues but not with a self or consciousness.

I gravitate towards books and movies that address the topic, which might seem morbid, but I consider a healthy approach to coming to terms with the topic. The TV series, Proof, that came on this summer is about doctors who become involved in studying near death experiences (NDE) and trying to “scientifically” determine if there is any proof of something to come after death. I can’t say the show is light because the topic is heavy, but it is probably a gentler way for some people to enter into a discussion with others or into an inner monologue about these ideas.

To the Best of Our Knowledge (TTBOOK “a radio show about big ideas”) recently replayed a series of shows on death after life covering a range of topics related to how we deal with topics around death. The show titles themselves reflect on those considerations.

“THE MYSTERIES OF LIFE ARE MORE PRESENT” includes a story about a man who has been documenting life in a village in Nepal for 20 years and the death of one young man there that he found profound and unexplainable.

“NOT KNOWING IS ITSELF LIBERATION” with a Zen Buddhist abbot who has been sitting with dying people since 1970. She is comfortable with the mystery of what comes after.

In “DEATH AFTER DYING” they look at cultures that believed that dying was a kind of trial which didn’t begin until you left your physical body and entered the supernatural world.  Is death not the destruction of the body, but the annihilation of the personality and its transformation into something new?

In “MOURNING IN THE DIGITAL AGE” they address things that might seem trivial like what happens to your digital self when you die, Facebook memorial pages and virtual remembrances. But are these changing the way we mourn and remember departed loved ones?

“HUMANITY BEYOND THE HUMAN” jumps into the future to consider a potential end to the end.

The fifth program is “DEATH DOESN’T BOTHER ME, ANYWAY” which includes the final episode in one story that runs through the series about one person’s death journey.

Anne Strainchamps is the host of TTBOOK and she posted a personal essay after she had spent three months going to work every day and listening to people talk about death and dying, which left her feeling “haunted by death.”

I remember one weekend afternoon, when I was driving home after spending the day alone in the office editing death interviews. The sun was setting, the streets and buildings and people were all tinged with gray, and I could still hear Caitlin Doughty’s voice in my head, her matter-of-fact tone as she described the odor of a rotting corpse, and the small changes in a human body after death. My hands on the steering wheel looked older to me, the skin over my veins stretched and thin. I watched younger people walking and biking in the early, ashen twilight, busy with their lives and pursuits, and thought, “We each have a silent, invisible companion – death – walking with us.”


I identified with her tiring of people she interviewed always saying that “everyone dies” as if that made it any easier to be a temporary “walking corpse” headed to death. And I identified with her looking at the stars one night and thinking that if there is any comforting truth to that phrase, that perhaps it is in accepting that “Death isn’t so terrifying, it’s just… normal. The ancestors whose genes swirl inside me, the billions of people who made this planet home… they all took a last breath and died. We don’t go alone into the darkness, because they showed us how.”

Today, as I type these words, I am not ready to die. I don’t mean I am not prepared because I haven’t done any preparation. I have. But that I am not ready to end this living portion of the journey. Of course you’re not, you might say – who is? But I have been ready several times in my life to end the living. I felt surprisingly content with the conclusion occurring then and there. I’m glad I didn’t follow through on ending my life, but I hope when the time comes to leave life that I will be ready.

So, to my friend or reader who asks “Do you often think about dying?” I answer, Yes.  I find comfort in reading, watching, thinking and talking about it. I wish I had more conversations about it with my grandparents and parents before they died.

Even with people I know who believe that what comes after life is greater than life, I don’t know that any of them are eager for the end. That’s also the case for people I know who believe there is nothing after death. If death gives life meaning, it is perhaps because when we encounter the deaths of others or even the “small deaths” around loss when no person dies (pets, a child leaving home, friends moving far away etc.), it makes life and the now seem more precious. Unfortunately, that feeling is too often very temporary and we fall back to the unmindfulness we were living before.

Ascent of the Blessed by Hieronymus Bosch – often associated with aspects of the near death experience

Dear Reader

Writers have to imagine their audience most of the time. Sometimes you actually meet your readers at book signings and readings, workshops or other events, but most of the time they are an imagined audience.

I know that people find this blog and it’s safe to assume that a majority of them read some of what they find. A few will comment and a rarer few will email or contact me outside the blog.  I have actually become online friends (in that Facebook-redefined sense of the word) with several of this blog’s readers. I’m reading the galley of one person’s novel now. So, connections do happen.

If I was to publish a book, the ideal reader for me would be Michael Silverblatt.

Host: Michael Silverblatt

He is the host of Bookworm, a radio program on KCRW that is the best book show out there.

Any author would want Michael to be their reader. He is perceptive, sensitive, full of wonder, a child reader with the intelligence of a sage. If you are lucky enough to be his guest, then he has probably read everything you have written. He knows your book better than you do.

Michael is just a year older than me, so there might be some age sensibility I am feeling too. His theme song used to be the bookworm song from the Mickey Mouse Club TV show and I don’t think he ever lost that thrill of reading that many people lose as they lose their childhood.

If you are a serious reader, you’ll enjoy these in-depth interviews with writers of poetry & fiction.

The program has been on for more than twenty years, so the archive is large. A search finds more than a thousand results. I have been listening ever since I had an iPod and could download the podcast versions of the show. I have also turned to that archive to hear past shows.

I listen to writers I know and love – like poet Robert Hass or John Updike – but I also listen to writers I have never encountered, trusting that Michael will guide me wisely.

I also listen to programs about authors that I have tried to read and don’t quite understand, like David Foster Wallace. I listened to shows about him and with him in an effort to better understand where he was writing from and to get Michael’s perspective.

I am sure that many guests have learned things about their books from Michael.

You can find the show on iTunes and other places and you can access the podcast feed at

The show also has a Facebook fan page and also a Facebook Book Club, if you want to get interactive with the content.

Michael Silverblatt  has said that he wants to be “a person of ferocious compassion instead of ferocious intellect.” He has succeeded. Perhaps his intellect is not “ferocious,” but it is intense and wonderfully deep.

Stitcher Smart Radio

I have always loved listening to the radio. I grew up on radio. I know it’s not as popular today. Then again, either is TV, which was supposed to be what would kill off  radio. Turns out that the Internet did a job on both of them.

Like a lot of people, I time-shift my TV viewing and my radio listening these days.  I download as podcasts most of the radio that I really enjoy and listen when I have the time. I also use a free service called Stitcher Smart Radio.

Stitcher is a leading mobile audio company that provides a revolutionary media service which allows audio content to be easily aggregated, organized and shared on mobile devices. We feature the most up-to-date and relevant content in business, sports, politics, entertainment, and current events from the media industry’s premier content providers.

I listen on my iPhone and iPad to a number of programs that I used to download by just streaming them. I would advise you to listen while on a WiFi connection and not to use your data plan. That’s still the advantage of downloading podcasts – you don’t need to be online. Podcasts still work great on airline flights, on my iPod and in other situations where you don’t have a connection. But Stitcher has given me many hours of programming free and turned me on to shows I would never have searched for through its recommendations.


Radiolab logo

Radiolab is a terrific program about curiosity.  They say they are “where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience” and that is pretty accurate. I have been listening to it for quite awhile and with podcasts it is easy to control your listening. (Also easy to fall behind – I have a backlog of episodes.)

The show has two hosts. Robert Krulwich I knew from public radio but he has also done TV work (ABC’s Nightline and World News Tonight) and explains complex subjects in science, technology, economics etc. in ways that are entertaining and understandable to those of who are not in those fields.

Jad Abumrad has science and medicine in his blood by birth but studied creative writing and music composition and wrote music for films. He was also a reporter and produced documentaries for local and national public radio programs (On the Media, PRI’s Studio 360, Morning Edition, and All Things Considered – all programs that I also listen to).

Radiolab can be heard around the U.S.  on over 300 stations (Check your local station for airtimes) but it is also online and available to the world.

Pick a sample episode by title: