Beautiful Things


Above is a photo of 49 Talavera Mexican tiles.  Not a great photo, and it certainly doesn’t do them justice, but hopefully you get a sense of their beauty.

I love beautiful things.  After what was mostly a dreary week of disappointment, I received a box from Mexico full of these lovely tiles.  They are beautiful.  I like the click clack of them against each other, the glassy coolness of the tops of them, the rough feel of red clay on their backsides, and how the sun in my dining room glints off their shiny surfaces.  I love them.  I have no idea what the hell I will do with them, but I know I love them.  Maybe I’ll make them into magnets, or frame them.  Had I my own place, I’d glue them somewhere in the bathroom or kitchen.

I have traveled widely and have collected beautiful things from around the world – Celadon from Korea, tea sets and calligraphy scrolls from China, lacquer bowls and kokeshi dolls from Japan, brass coffee pots and woven hangings from Saudi Arabia, and so on.

We are, I know, a materialistic culture.  Our economy is built on a foundation of MORE.  All the same, not all of that MORE is beautiful, and I’m going to be brazen here and say there’s nothing wrong with loving beautiful things.

The Buddhist in me is a little ashamed, I admit.  Everything is temporary, after all.  Grasping for things (or fame or money etc.) is a desperately losing battle, destined to only bring you unhappiness.

There was an article in a local magazine about a man who prided himself on having only 100 things in his life.  He strives to live an austere and non-materialistic life.  I suppose that is admirable to some degree, but a friend pointed out that by being so purposeful in not having things, he was perhaps obsessing about things anyway.

There’s got to be a balance.

The first thing I do in a new place is put my posters and pictures up on the wall.  It makes it home for me.  It makes it beautiful.  I think if you don’t surround yourself with beauty, your soul is not being fed.  I remember being struck in the movie “Office Space” not only of the sterile environment of the protagonist’s work space, but also the sterility of his home.  Nothing on the walls, not much furniture, a kind of brown tone to everything.  It showed a paucity of spirit, I thought.  It was depressing.

I suppose it’s a little obnoxious to have things around your home from faraway places.  It’s a way of saying “Look at me.  Look how cool I am and how well traveled.”  It’s a little precious.  I don’t want people to think of me that way, of course.  I’m not out to impress.  But people’s stuff defines who they are, to some extent.  It shows a side of their personality, more than just where they’ve been.

In Arthur C. Brooks commentary “Love People, Not Pleasure” in the NY Times last week, he points out that “Some people look for relief from unhappiness in money and material things.”  Is that what I’m doing?  Certainly when I engage in retail therapy – usually clothes or books – that’s what I’m doing- filling a hole of unhappiness or discontent.  But beautiful things?  Maybe not.

Brooks goes on to say, “More philosophically, the problem stems from dissatisfaction – the sense that nothing has full flavor, and we want more.  We can’t quite pin down what it is that we seek.  Without a great deal of reflection and spiritual hard work, the likely candidate seem to be material things, physical pleasures or favor among friends and strangers.  We look for these things to fill an inner emptiness.  They may bring a brief satisfaction, but it never lasts, and it is never enough.  And so we crave more.”  He states that this “lust for material things” leads us to a “deadly” formula – Love Things, Use People.  He suggests inverting this equation to – Love People, Use Things.

In my defense, I would say I do Love People and Use Things.  It’s not that I love beautiful things more than I love people.  Not by a long shot.  It’s just that I need beauty in my life as much as I need good people.  But I think this raises a good question – how do you reconcile your stuff with a higher good?  To that I would say DO GOOD in your life.  Make sure your obsession with your stuff isn’t taking over your love of the people around you.

We don’t need to justify art.  It is necessary and important to humanity.  Similarly, I don’t think we have to justify our love of beautiful things.

Why not surround yourself with beauty, whatever that is for you, while surrounding yourself with people of beauty (not to be confused with “The Beautiful People”) and work of beauty.  That we should be doing good deeds in our life goes without saying.  That we need beauty, though, is just as important.


“Children of Chance”

Several weeks ago, a piece appeared in the Opinion Pages – The Stone (a blog about philosophy) in the New York Times by Peter Atterton entitled provocatively enough “Do I Have the Right to Be?”   It begins with Atterton saying:  “It’s a disturbing thought:  All of us are alive today thanks at least partly to some mass atrocity that was committed in the past.  This is because war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and ethnic cleansing invariably affect who is born after them.”

It is a disturbing thought, and an intriguing one.

Atterton goes on to say, “I think we fail to appreciate how radically contingent our lives really are.”  It took me several readings of this article to wrap my head around this concept, I confess.  But I’ll use my own existence as an example.  It’s not just that my parents chose to make love on some random (probably cold) March evening when they could have chosen some other night, or day, or month and that consequently a different person would have emerged nine months later.  It starts even before that – long before that.  But I’ll only go back as far as my great-grandparents – one side who fled tough times and a too large family in Norway, and one side who fled tough times and a too large family in Ireland.

If there hadn’t been a mass genocide of Native Americans in this country, the U.S. wouldn’t exist, and therefore wouldn’t have been populated with immigrants like my great-grandparents.  My grandparents would not have met, my parents would not have met, and naturally, I would not be me.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but in my youth I used to think (proudly) that my family didn’t have anything to do with slavery.  This is ridiculous.  Surely my ancestors in Ireland and Norway got cheap cotton from the U.S. in the 19th century.  Surely my ancestors got sugar from the West Indies or other equally slave-dependent sugar manufacturers.

It’s very hard to divest yourself of responsibility for past or current atrocities.  We are all connected, for better or for worse.

Atterton talks about Nietzsche, who believed that all things are intertwined, and that, for example, if you have a moment of joy, it’s only because of your entire previous history.  That moment of joy is only possible because of everything that happened before.  Atterton writes:

For Nietzsche this is a splendid thing, for it gives us the power to redeem the past.  It ultimately enables us to justify those moments of pain and suffering in our past that are now seen as necessary links in the chain of cause and effect leading to the present affirmation of joy – a case of ‘I didn’t like it at the time, but it all turned out for the best and I wouldn’t change it for the world.’

Atterton rightly points out that if we say it was all for the best, we are also saying the suffering of other people, people we may have hurt, was worth it.  And that’s cold.    He goes on to say, “Who can maintain in good conscience that the Holocaust or slavery was justified because otherwise he or she, or anyone else currently living for that matter, wouldn’t have been born.”

I’m glad he said this.  I have long had a problem with the all-to-common saying “I have no regrets.”  I do have regrets.  There are decisions I made, people I’ve hurt, things I’ve done that I SHOULD regret.  It wasn’t my right.  And regret, I think, keeps us humane.  Makes us remember, and hopefully, not repeat past mistakes.

I have also often thought that what we have in our life is from the backs of others (the food we eat, the cars and houses we own – all from the hard work of others).  But truthfully, before this article, I hadn’t thought my very existence was on the backs of others, or because many people died before me.  It is a humbling thought.

We are all connected.  If we keep this in mind, it would be hard to be superior for too long.  And because we’re all connected, we have a shared responsibility to each other.  To live a good life.   To do no harm.  Easy to say, of course.  Happily I think Americans in general (and I realize, not all) do take responsibility for their actions.  More so than people in other places I have lived, at any rate.  We can do good.  I want to believe it.

The Hired Man and Moral Choice

the hired man

I forgot to tell you that I will also talk about books in this blog, because I love books and they make up a lot of who I am.  So I want to tell you about a book I just finished last night, Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man, which came out late in 2013.  I read a lot of old books, as you can tell from my affinity for Anthony Trollope, but I’m happy to say that I also find new books that are just as important – Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss comes to mind, or anything by Hilary Mantel.  Yes, there is still good literary fiction being written!

The Hired Man is set in Croatia, the present day or close to it, and tells the story of Duro, a native of a small Croatian town called Gost.  He works for and befriends an English woman and her two children who have bought a summer house in Gost, and who, unbeknownst to them, stir up painful memories for both Duro and the town folk.  It’s about friendship, and the souring of friendship, and about outsiders and what happens to them.  It’s about war and its aftermath, and about the choices we make in our lives when faced with adversity.  It’s  beautiful, haunting, devastating.

Laura, the Englishwoman in the story, has a dream to buy up houses all over this area of Croatia; to restore them and beautify them just as Duro is doing for her summer house.  Then she’ll sell them to English people or other foreigners as summer houses for a profit.  She invites Duro to be a business partner, and Duro is partly pleased, but mostly nauseated by such a plan.  Laura is ignorant of the area’s dark history and seems to breeze through life like nothing can touch her.  It’s not that Duro wants Laura to be aware of what happened in this place (in fact he goes out of his way to hide it from her) and for that to stop her from carrying out her plan; I think it’s more that Duro doesn’t want the past covered up and forgotten.

Naturally I was entranced by this story because it plays into one of my on-going rants (the world is not our oyster) and raises hard moral questions for me.  Does Laura, or anyone like Laura (and I think there are a lot of people like this) have a right to march into Croatia and live as if nothing horrible happened there?  Does “moving on”  necessarily mean forgetting?

After talking about this with my dad, he asked me if I would like to visit Croatia.  I had to admit that it sounded marvelous.  The pictures on Google are beautiful, of course.  But do I have a right to go to a place with such a poisonous recent history?  Could I enjoy myself?

Did I have a right to work in Saudi Arabia, a place with plenty of its own atrocities?

This may seem silly, because wherever you go there have been plenty of atrocities throughout history, and even recent history.  But I really struggle with this question.

My mom once said she likes to travel, but that she doesn’t want to go anywhere with a lot of poverty.  I balked at this when she first said it, but there might be some sense in what she says.  On the other hand, there is plenty of poverty right here in my hometown of Bloomington, Indiana.  There is plenty of poverty in places that my parents do visit, like Chicago or New York.

But then I worry that I’m turning into a moral absolutist, and I don’t think I want to be that.  Places, and people, after all, are many things.

I’d really be interested in anything my readers have to say on this matter.  How should we live with the memory of tragedy?  Where should we go?

Thank You, Monira Al Qadiri


Kuwaiti artist Monira Al Qadiri recently created a short video ( called SOAP, which has been posted on the website Creative Time Reports.  She explains that during Ramadan (which is going on now, by the way), soap operas from the Muslim world are very popular with Kuwaitis and other Gulf state nationals.  In her mashed up version, Al Qadiri has inserted immigrant workers into the video, workers who do all the work  in these lavish homes, but in the soap operas, cease to exist.  It’s very clever.  I applaud Al Qadiri for starting this conversation – a conversation about workers who are virtually ignored even though they are the ones sustaining not only individual families, but the very Gulf economies themselves.  I hope she goes further, and discusses the horrible human rights abuses that these workers endure.  It is a much needed discussion, I would be thrilled if it happened from within these countries, instead of someone like me, an outsider and a Westerner, pointing out these horrendous crimes.

Al Qadiri writes:

In the Gulf, however, an important figure is erased from these mass-produced images: the migrant worker. Although they play a central role in maintaining daily life throughout the region, migrant laborers are never represented within pop culture. This is especially apparent in soap operas, in which the main characters sit by themselves in their lavishly decorated, ultraclean villas, cook their own food, drive their own cars to work and independently conduct other daily activities. Such images of autonomous life are far from reality: most citizens of Gulf states are serviced 24/7 by housemaids, cooks, drivers and sanitation workers, who come largely from South and Southeast Asia.

The video above hijacks excerpts from Gulf soap operas to superimpose images of domestic workers onto their unrealistic settings, making the presence of migrant laborers both undeniable and surreal. The title of the work, SOAP, conflates the shorthand for “soap opera” with a bar of soap, that evanescent object that seems to magically leave a state of cleanliness in its wake. Its disregarded presence mirrors the precarious existence of the migrant worker who wields it.

I hope you have a chance to look at this video.  It’s short and totally worth it.

A harangue about travel and how we talk about it

heaven lake xinjiang

(Above, Heaven Lake in Xinjiang Province, China, taken by my friend Yang Fu Chun, also known as Benjamin)

This was just pasted on my Facebook (thanks Caitlin), entitled “Everyone Should Live in China at Least Once” by Andrea Xu.  Of course I had to read it, because I spent five years, on and off, living in China.  I was relieved that the author didn’t make it into one of those lists – you know, “Seven Reasons to live in China” or some such shit.  I hate all those reductionist articles – “The Five Best Whatever Ever” or “Seven ways to overcome whatever”.  As if people can’t or won’t read an article that’s not a list?  Pandering to the lowest common denominator.  Ugh.

But I digress.

I really wanted to write about travel, and how we talk about it.  Andrea Xu captures a lot of truisms in her piece –  like how both exhilarating and frustrating it can be to live in another country.  I also like how she ties what you can learn in China to what you can apply it to when you get back home.  I think too often Westerners travel with nothing more in mind than getting something out of it for themselves.  But I wish I could ask her why she would invite everyone there?

Here’s a question I struggle with:  Should stupid, ignorant, bigoted people travel to other countries?  Will they come back less stupid, ignorant, and bigoted?  Maybe.  I hope so.  Certainly I have encountered a number of this type while living overseas (and not only in China – in Saudi Arabia and Japan as well).  I think it’s possible to remain pretty myopic in a foreign place, especially if you’re with a group.

Maybe some people thought I was stupid, ignorant, or bigoted living overseas.  That’s entirely possible.  And I know I learned a lot.  But really, it’s not like I want to stop anyone from going anywhere.  I just hope they think about it long and hard before they go, and that they are as open as they can be while there.

I have a problem with the phrase “The World is your Oyster.”  It’s not your fucking oyster.  (I write about this in my book, actually.)  It’s a complex, sometimes terrifying, place.  It’s hard not to be changed in some way by a place, in either a good way or a bad way.  Moreover, YOU change a place by going there.  You affect the people you encounter, in either a good way or a bad way.  I know this isn’t rocket science, but I think some people forget this.

Jordan, a man I work with, says he often asks foreigners what they think of Americans overseas.  “Inevitably they say, ‘Entitled’,” Jordan tells me.

I asked my Spanish friend Monica what she thinks of Americans, and especially Americans overseas.  “Innocent,” she said.


I know that a college semester in Kenya changed my life, and I also know that at age 21 I most certainly was an idiot.  I was also traveling with a group.  But it changed me in so many ways, and to this day is vivid and important.  I wouldn’t want to deny any college student that experience.

(Although my alma mater Earlham College no longer sends students to Kenya.  Too dangerous.)

What can I really say here?  I want people to travel smart.  I want them to be careful.  I want them to be realistic, but joyful.  I want them to soak it all in, but at the same time to be as green as possible.  I want them to know, really know, people in the countries that they visit.  And I certainly don’t want them to come home as bruised and battered as I was when I came home from Saudi Arabia.  Tough place.

The Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) is reported to have said, “Don’t tell me how much you know.  Tell me how far you’ve traveled.”

Maybe he had something there.



On writing, privilege, and trusting yourself

group joe jay

I’m taking a writing class.  It’s the second this year, and it’s good because it doesn’t let me off the hook where writing is concerned.  It’s far too easy to procrastinate and tell yourself that you’ll write tomorrow, or maybe on the weekend.  While I say I need to write, I confess I don’t have a writing “habit”.  I don’t sit down each day at 8am and write until 5pm.  Some people do.  God bless, I say.  I write when I get an itch, which is pretty often, but it’s not on a 8-5 work schedule.  I guess I don’t think writers should feel like they need to adhere to the corporate world’s idea of the working life.  A friend of mine believes this kind of thing is part of the over-professionalization of practically everything.  That may be.  Maybe I’ll change my mind about a schedule if ever I make my living as a writer.

So in this writing class I received a great article from The Huffington Post, written by Pat Schneider.  She wrote How the Light Gets In and Writing as a Spiritual Practice.  In this article,  “Original Voice, Original Genius”, Schneider writes about her own struggle with finding her “voice” in writing, and how writing  is still seen as a plaything of the privileged.  “I was taught subtly – and so very well- that the only good writers were those with privilege.”  She writes about a ninth-grader who produced a Shakespearean sonnet in Shakespearean English but was too terrified to produce anything in his own voice.  She writes of the poverty of her own childhood, and how she knew education was the ticket out,  but she took this to mean that she had to imitate T.S. Eliot and others like him, instead of writing about her own experiences.  She said she didn’t write in her own voice until her 40s.  She says, “The ancient Hebrew poet said it best:  We are created in the image of the creator.  If that is true, we, too, are creators, and language, voice, is our first, our primary artistic creation.”

I tutor writing at a community college, and I often bump up against this problem.  There are some students who don’t know how to begin a sentence, much less an academic paper.  “How should I start?” they ask me.  I have always started a tutoring session with asking them about the assignment, and then asking them what they think of the reading.  Just getting them talking about the project.  Now I take Pat Schneider’s advice, and ask them what would you say to your best friend about the reading?  How would you just chat about this paper?

I fear far too many people see writing – and writing in their own voice – as something far outside themselves, as something only “certain people” do, or can do.  These students think writing comes from the outside, and not from within.  They have no faith in themselves, in their own ideas, and in what they have to say.

I also volunteer at the local library, tutoring a Mexican man who wants to get his GED.  Last week at our session, I had him write about a book he had just read out loud about wolves.  He would say one perfectly good sentence, and then instead of writing it down, he would stop and think hard about what he “should” write, as if what he said in the first place wasn’t good enough.  I pointed this out to him.  I said the second sentence you said is marvelous, but what you first said was marvelous, too.  I don’t want him to be afraid to write.  I don’t want him to be afraid that he isn’t “good enough” in some way.  He’s very good.

Pat Schneider writes:

“When will we stop considering as art only the voices of the privileged?  The flaw we hear in “bad writing” is not absence of knowing Shakespeare.  The flaw is hiding our first, deepest voices, suppressing them and coming to believe they don’t exist.  It may not sound at all like Shakespeare, but it is the only platform solid enough to support learning craft. . .The voice that has listened in the womb and practiced every day all day and even while dreaming at night is absolutely original, powerful and, therefore, the stuff of genius.”


I have often thought about all the untold stories in the world.  What would the world sound like if more people told the truth of their lives?  Maybe we couldn’t handle it.  But I still want to read those voices.  I want to know those stories.