We need beauty as much as we need food, water and air, whether it’s visual or auditory. Ignoring that fundamental need parches us.
In a time when so many people spend their lives staring at a screen, encountering beauty in real life — a flower, a bird, a sky filled with stars, a painting or piece of music — can be transformative.
We’re lucky to live in a small town — pop. 10,000 — 25 miles north of Manhattan, named one of the nation’s 10 prettiest by Forbes magazine. If you’ve seen the films Mona Lisa Smile, The Preacher’s Wife or The Good Shepherd, (one of my favorites), you’ve glimpsed our handsome main street in each of these, filled with Victorian-era shops and homes.
Our apartment has great views of the Hudson River, tree-tops, acres of sky and clouds. We savor spectacular sunsets and birdsong, butterflies and fireflies in the cool, green dusk.
In New York city, we have access to museums and art galleries and parks, grateful for every bit of it.
Here are some of the things I find beautiful, that nurture and calm me…
Beautiful architecture — this is Union Station in D.C.
Color, design, elegant neo-classical murals — part of the Library of Congress, in D.C.
Every patch of earth, if you kneel down and really look closely, is a tapestry of color, texture, growth and decay
More neo-classical fabulousness — this, a corner of Bryant Park, midtown Manhattan
I’m crazy about textiles — the purple floral is now curtains in our sitting room
Pattern is everywhere! This is in Soho, Manhattan — glass inserts to allow light into a basement of an early building there
Nothing unusual — lawn furniture in autumn — but I love the symmetry of it from above; this at Hovey Manor, Quebec
I love this painted tin wall, one of the shops on our main street in Tarrytown, NY
I love this view — Bucks County, Pennsylvania — out the window of a 1905 farmhouse a friend used to rent
Every year I wait with bated breath for this lilac tree near us to bloom. Swoon!
Nicaragua is the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti — but its wooden houses are amazingly colored and cared for
Where in your daily life does beauty manifest itself?
Whether your children or grand-children or sweetie or spouse. They want, need and deserve your undivided focus.
Whether to the current Presidential campaign, (if you live in the U.S. and are able to vote, certainly.)
Whether to the people around you on the road as you drive — no texting!
Whether as you walk around your city or town, playing Pokemon Go or reading something on your phone, forcing everyone else to dodge you.
Whether you leave your grocery cart sprawled in the middle of a parking lot because…be considerate.
Whether you yammer away in a public, shared space on your cellphone reallyloudly, Face-timing or speaking to someone.
Whether — as someone did yesterday in our small, congenial town several times — you open a cafe door into a cool, air-conditioned space — carelessly leaving the door wide open to the 90-degree-plus air outside, as you enter and exit.
Utterly oblivious to the needs of those around you.
Some people I know — usually smart, curious, globally engaged — are shutting off the news, signing off of social media.
They’re exhausted and overwhelmed.
They just can’t listen to one more killing, whether of an unarmed black American man, or a police officer, (armed but unprepared for ambush), or of people gathered to watch fireworks in Nice or music at Bataclan or shopping in a Munich mall or in a cafe in Kabul…
They can’t hear another video of despair, of crying, moaning, screams of terror.
It’s not, I think, that we don’t care.
At least, I truly hope that’s not why.
For some, it’s caring too much.
It’s also a feeling of powerlessness and, with it, a growing loss of hope.
What will change?
How and when?
What will make a difference?
It feels too grim, too unrelenting, too much to process or comprehend.
Here’s a poem that might resonate, written by a man fed up with the materialism he saw around himself…
The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon, The winds that will be howling at all hours, And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers, For this, for everything, we are out of tune; It moves us not. –Great God! I’d rather be A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
That’s a sonnet by William Wordsworth, written in 1802.
We live in divided times.
We live in increasing fear of ‘the other’, the people who dress, behave, worship and vote differently than we do.
Is it safe now (where? at what time? for how long?) to board a train (axe attack in Germany. head-on collision in Italy) or airplane (they’re about to give up looking for MH 370)…
Who can we trust, and should we?
It becomes easier and easier to mute, block, unfriend, ignore, turn off and turn away and turn inward, abandoning our best selves, our impulse to compassion.
That’s what scares me most…
I loved this story from my native Canada, a place where individual families (including one I know) are sponsoring entire refugee families from Syria, people as different from them in some ways as can be.
It’s worth reading the link, in its entirety — a bunch of strangers determined to help.
Compassion in action:
When Valerie Taylor spotted a family of newcomers looking lost in the hustle and bustle of rush hour at Toronto’s main Union Station on Wednesday, she offered to help them find their train. What she didn’t know was that some 50 people would do the same, on a day that would turn out to be one of her most memorable trips home ever.
Taylor, a psychiatrist at Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital, said she was heading home on Wednesday after what had been a hectic few days. The heat was blazing, she was tired and looking forward to getting home, when she spotted a family of seven with two baby strollers and several heavy bags.
They looked confused, she said, and a young woman was trying to help them.
Taylor went over to see if she could lend a hand.
“Are you new here?” she asked. Only one of the children, who said he was 11, could speak English.
“Yes,” he said. They had just arrived from Syria four months ago, he told her, and were looking to get to Ancaster, about 85 kilometres southwest of Toronto, to spend a few days with family there.
‘People started trying to problem-solve’
Taylor was headed in the same direction and offered to take them to the right train. To their surprise, strangers began to take notice and to help carry the family’s bags up the stairs and onto the train, some riders even making room to give the family a place to sit, Taylor said.
Five years ago this week, my husband — then fiance — decided to take me to a silent Buddhist retreat.
It was a birthday gift, one he thought might prove calming and healing.
I went in like a sulky five-year-old, arms crossed, dubious.
I emerged with a lot of new insights — if you’re interested, search my archives for July 2011 and you’ll find them, as I posted every day, a bit stunned by how powerful my feelings were and how much they changed over that week.
I’m not a Buddhist, but have spent time at various sanghas with Jose, who is, so was already familiar with the language, precepts and rituals like mantras, chants and prayers. I also knew and was friends with his lama, Surya Das, so wasn’t intimidated by him or his presence. Had every single bit of it been unfamiliar, it might have been even more challenging.
It’s never a bad thing to withdraw and retreat from the insanity of “normal” life and this was an opportunity to do so, and one — I admit — I would never have undertaken on my own.
In a week of silence, your heart speaks very loudly indeed.
Every morning, as we nestled once more into our cushions or chairs for the morning teaching, more and more were empty as people fled, unable or unwilling to stay.
Even those who stayed rebelled, some driving off-campus in their cars to a local bar or standing deep in the woods, yammering on the cellphones — both a violation of the rules we agreed to when we arrived; 75 of us had come from across the globe to do this thing, knowing it would be difficult, and craving that discipline.
I emerged from it dazed, sharpened, newly and exquisitely aware of the daily noise we barely even notice, and had never been conscious of before: cars, sirens, animals, neighbors, airplanes overhead, people talking on their cellphones or listening to music too loudly through headphones.
Jose and I drove to a local bar — where two enormous television screens blared…something. Instead of it feeling, as it usually would, like background noise it was suddenly alien and very much in the foreground. We felt assaulted and exhausted by it.
I missed the precious, glorious, cocooning silence we’d bathed in all week.
I missed the inter-generational community we had created in our silence, sometimes with just a raised eyebrow or shy smile.
I missed sitting in the retreat’s luxurious garden, alone for an hour, my only companion a very bad bunny eating everything he could reach.
I missed the soothing simplicity of our days, from the waking early-morning hand bell rung down the long corridors to our meals eaten together at long wooden refectory tables, the only sounds the clinking of cutlery on china.
The retreat offers three teachings a day, the only time we’ll be allowed to speak. The food will be vegetarian. There will be no cocktail hour, or wine at dinner, both something we usually enjoy daily at home.
Steak? TV? Three daily newspapers? No, no, no. Ah, the things I cling to.
We’re taking my softball glove and ball, and my bike. I’m taking my camera and watercolors, and plan to write a speech due August 10 in Minneapolis.
I’ll sit in the teachings and meditations and chanting as much as feels comfortable. He and I will share a room, and plan to write notes back and forth. It will be very odd — and difficult — not to talk to him. We typically talk several hours a day and I really enjoy it.
So it’s already a powerful meditation on the loss of that comfort. We may whisper to one another in our room. We’ll see.
I’ve been the butt of jokes for weeks now. “Buddhist,vegetarian, silent — I can’t think of three words less likely to describe you,” said one friend.
Unlike many of you, I had never wanted to blog and couldn’t imagine that anyone would hang around, read and comment, let alone return.
Happily, I was wrong, and Broadside continues to attract new followers every day, now more than 16,000 worldwide.
The blog now also has 1,845 published posts, on everything from travel to journalism to politics to decorating.
Yes, my interests are eclectic!
It’s also been very odd, and instructive, to see which posts — many years later — still attract the most views: my 30-hour train ride from New York to Minneapolis, meeting Queen Elizabeth, what going to boarding school very young does to your psyche…(I went age eight.)
That boarding school post has gotten more than (!) 11,000 views over the years and has elicited the most heartfelt, confessional replies, some so heartbreaking they were difficult to read.
One man — the only time that’s ever happened here — wrote to me the next day, apologetically, and asked me (which I did) to take down his comments, so personal had they been.
At their best, blogs link us, heart to heart.
Like every blogger, I never know what posts will resonate and which will sit there, largely unloved, unread and un-liked. I’m often surprised by what you like most, so that keeps me on my toes.
Since college, I’ve been paid to write for a living, with work published in The New York Times, Washington Post, Salon, Smithsonian, Marie Claire and many more.
I sometimes feel like a cow attached to a milking machine, the computer extracting every possible idea for compensation.
So why write unpaid?
Seven years seems like a crazy-long time to keep banging out blog posts, but I still really enjoy it and, it seems (yay!) some of you do as well.
Broadside is a rare and special place for me as a writer — a public space where I muse, question, challenge, reflect, and can share more personal and intimate notions than any commercial outlet is likely to pay me for.
It’s a place to collect and hear your thoughts and ideas, and sometimes listen to/enjoy several of you conversing.
It’s a very small — albeit global — cocktail party!
Here’s a selection from the archives I hope you’ll enjoy:
Alex and I have been friends for a few years. We met through the New York Times Student Journalism Institute, a program offered annually to ambitious and talented young journalists. My husband taught him and we stayed in touch, with Alex coming to stay with us in New York.
I so admire his work, and work ethic, that I asked him to share his ideas and some of his work with Broadside:
Tell me a bit of your history…where were you born? Raised? Did you move around a lot as a child or teen?
I was born and raised in a small town in Wisconsin called West Bend and had a pretty quiet childhood growing up… I started skateboarding in my early teens and my friends and I would shoot photos and videos of each other jumping down stairs and the like, which is how I got into photography originally.
What sort of work do/did your parents do? i.e. where does your creative spirit come from?
My father worked in a factory for 25 plus years and my mother had worked odd jobs before a decade plus career working at Walmart and in other pharmacies as a technician. My dad is still working 50-60 hours a week today but has an office position which I think he enjoys more, and my mom was still working in a pharmacy at a hospital before she passed away from cancer.
She went to work the same day she would do chemotherapy, driving herself to both. She was incredibly hard working, so is my dad, and I think that’s where my work ethic comes from.
My creative spirit early on came from skateboarding and the films and photographs I’d see from the street/skateboarding world. Music eventually became a big influence, I remember getting into The Beatles/Bob Dylan/Jack Kerouac and just the whole scene in the sixties, the photographs had such a unique look, everything from that era.
I remember having this John Coltrane poster on my wall forever, just collecting photos like that. And eventually I got interested in other types of photography, with photojournalism being a big one, and eventually I decided to go to school for it.
Where did you attend college and why?
I went on and off part time at a community college, but was never sure what I wanted to go for but eventually settled on photography with some encouragement from my Mom, who always wanted me to go to school but never pressured me to do so. I had moved to Los Angeles after high school with some friends to go skateboarding.
I worked in a factory for the summer to save for LA and then ended up working at Starbucks in L.A. to pay the bills, and would shoot video and photos of my friends skateboarding in my free time.
In 2009 I started going full time to Brooks Institute in Ventura, California for visual journalism, where I bought my first serious camera, a Canon 50D. However I would only stay at school for a couple of months, it just became too expensive and there were few scholarships, so it wasn’t long before I moved back to Wisconsin.
I eventually went back to college in 2013 after freelancing at the local paper, the director of photography and a mentor of mine at The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel told me that it would be important to have a bachelor’s degree to get a full time job at a news organization, something I have and still inspire to do. If all goes well I will have my degree by the end of spring 2016.
Mourners in Baghdad, April 11, 2015
Did you enjoy it – how has it helped (or hindered) you?
College has opened up the doors to many opportunities, and I’ve been blessed to meet some amazing people, that I would not have had working odd jobs forty hours a week, however it has also been without some serious debt, but again, I could easily have stayed at whatever dead end job with no opportunities… so I am thankful that I had a Mom and Dad that were willing to cosign my student loans so I could go back to school and pursue a career in photojournalism.
And not every school is expensive, I could have gotten a BA for less but the faculty and location was really important in my decision, Chicago has a great journalism scene here, and Columbia had both a strong reporting/writing program, and photo. I went for reporting/writing to learn something different since I had been freelancing as a photographer, and wanted to learn a different skill to fall back on. And at that point of deciding I was really interested in the reporting side as well.
When and where did you first get interested in the work you do now?
I was interested in photography first and then sort of fell into journalism, I was reading a lot about the Iraq war and then got my hands on Eugene Richards, James Nachtwey, and Annie Liebovitz books at Brooks Institute…
So that was really inspiring from the photography side, but with journalism it was NPR that really made me fall in love with the news. Audio is a really different way to “experience” a story, and something about it just clicked where I developed an appetite for consuming not just NPR but reading whatever newspaper I could get my hands on as well.
Tikrit, Iraq, April 2015
Who, if anyone, encouraged or mentored you the most?
I’ve been fortunate to have several mentors over the past few years who I still keep in touch with, including Jackie Spinner, a professor at Columbia College Chicago who is part of the reason I chose that school… Jose Lopez, who I met at The New York Times Student Journalism Institute who has always been beyond encouraging, and many friends and colleagues whose advice and support have been invaluable.
What lessons did they teach you that have proven most useful?
I think what I learned most from them is how to work in the industry itself, it’s a small world and very competitive. Getting to learn the ropes the past couple of years, I could always reach out to them with whatever question I had. But theirs and others encouragement, I found equally important. Getting positive feedback on your work is always motivating to do more and think of new ideas and push yourself.
You’ve traveled the world…what gives you the confidence to do so?
I have always been interested in traveling, meeting new people, and learning about new cultures, I suppose from a lot of the skateboarding videos and magazines I’d see/read when I was younger. With street skateboarding the pros would travel the world, and many professional skaters were from different countries as well so being exposed to that made me want to travel.
My parents didn’t travel much, but were always encouraging and supportive and I’ve always worked odd jobs to save money to get myself places and when it came to journalism, I have been able to work on spec. [i.e. without a previous assignment] for the most part.
Near Tikrit, Iraq, 2015
Other people look at a creative life, and a somewhat transient one, as scary and unpredictable. How does it feel for you?
I really love having a creative outlet, but like many careers that are based on creativity it can feel really stressful and unpredictable. I find that being so passionate about photojournalism makes it much easier to spend so much time and effort without a monetary return, to eat sleep and breathe it, and just being obsessive about it is okay with me because its something I really love.
I know I will not become wealthy as a photojournalist, but as long as I’m doing something I enjoy and can live off of, is what’s important.
Where do you find creative inspiration? Do you have any role models or people you especially admire (in or out of your field?) Why them?
I find a lot of inspiration in friends, colleagues, mentors and other photographers I look up to. Seeing their work and whatever new projects they’re working on inspires me to go out and shoot. I feel that you can learn a lot not just taking pictures but looking at other peoples work, it gives you a different outlook or different way of thinking that can sometimes help you get outside of “your box.”
I also find inspiration in the art, music, and film world, anything that gets me thinking in a new way.
What advice would you offer to people who wish they had your life? (i.e. creativity, freedom, travel, etc.)
Don’t give up. Hard work pays off. For me it’s been a long road but has been truly rewarding knowing I’ve been persistent. And spend time or surround yourself with people who are positive and will challenge you. And be sure to spend time with family.
It’s been a week of disbelief that American police officers are gunned down in cold blood in Dallas during a peaceful march — and disbelief that even more black men have been shot and killed by police as well.
In Dallas, local residents are approaching police officers, many likely for the first time, to hug them and pray with them and thank them for getting up every day, ideally, to serve and protect them.
In normal life, barring bad luck or criminal behavior, very few of us ever talk to a police officer.
Few of us are likely to know one socially unless police work, as it is often is, is part of your own family.
As a career journalist, for whom aggressively challenging hierarchy and questioning authority is key to doing my job well, interactions with police have been been few and far between — I didn’t cover “cops” as part of my job and, more generally, the way police are trained to think and behave is very different from that of journalists.
So how, then, do we ever meet, sit down with and get to know “the other”?
That “other” — i.e. someone whose race, religion, politics, ethnicity or socioeconomic class is wildly different from our own — is someone we really need to know and care about, more than ever.
The divisions, literally, are killing us.
How, then, and where, do we meet one another?
In a world now devoted to narrowed and narrower niches of communication — Snapchat, Tumblr, Reddit, blogs, media slanted in one direction or another — how do we find and listen thoughtfully to other points of view than our own?
How do we sit down face to face and have a civil conversation?
It doesn’t have to be about anything serious. It might be about baseball or music or what books you’ve been reading or your theory about Dany and her dragons on Game of Thrones.
For me, there are only two places like this right now, and I wish I had more.
One is the church I attend, although less and less of late. It is in a small, wealthy, white and conservative town near me. Of those labels, I’m white.
It’s a polite crowd, but deeply corporate and high-earning, with no one who really understands why I and my husband would choose such a poorly paid industry as journalism. What we have done for decades, and done very well, seems like an amusing hobby to them.
I’ve stayed partly because of those differences, although they are starting to wear me down.
The challenge of engaging with “the other” — beyond stilted chit-chat — is initial discomfort. They might have grown up somewhere far away you’ve never seen or attended a college you’ve never heard of. Maybe they didn’t go to college.
They might out-earn you by a factor of 10, or vice versa. Your collar might be white, blue or none, because you work, as we do freelance, at home in a T-shirt.
The discomfort of “the other” — and theirs with you! — is the point of friction we have to move beyond to create and enjoy dialogue, understanding and friendship.
Just because it’s uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s not well worth the effort.
The other place I frequently meet a wide range of people and experiences is with a group of men and women, ages 20s to 70s, who play softball on Saturday mornings. We’ve been doing that since 2001, an unimaginably long time to do anything in a world that changes daily.
In a time of economic and political disruption, even chaos, it’s a haven of comfort and familiarity — even as it brings together a disparate group: a retired ironworker, several physicians, several lawyers, several editors, a gallerist.
After each game, about a dozen of us sit under a tree at a local cafe for a long lunch, whose conversations can turn surprisingly personal and intimate.
It’s not some Kumbaya moment and the group could be even more diverse — people find us through our friendships, generally.
If you never meet or talk to people who are very different from you, how can you credibly listen to their experiences and concerns, giving them the same validity you do your own group(s)?
I grew up in Toronto, one of the world’s most multi-cultural cities, in a country whose population of immigrants remains higher than that of the U.S. — 20.6 percent.
In the U.S., with 10 times the population of Canada — it’s 13.3 percent.
Statistically, there, your odds of encountering someone very unlike you — in your classroom at school or college, on your hockey team, in your apartment building, on the subway or bus — are high in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver. Calgary now has a Muslim mayor (as does London.)
So it’s normal to know, like and respect people who worship on different days, wear different clothing, eat different foods. They’re just…different…not, per se, a threat.
When Jose and I think about moving elsewhere for retirement, our first question is not just “can we afford it?” or “what’s the weather like there”?
It’s — how comfortable will he feel as a man with brown skin?
Donald Trump’s dog whistles of hatred and racism are deeply shocking to many people, in the U.S. and beyond.
My husband is of Mexican heritage, and well established in his field so the taunts can’t hurt him professionally.
But they are a disgusting way to dismiss a nation of people whose hard work has helped the U.S. for decades, if not centuries.
In a time of relentless, growing fear and xenophobia, I hope you’ll keep talking to, listening to and staying close to “the other”, however that plays out in your life.
A collection can be three (or more!) of pretty much anything. Group them together for impact
The large black horse, hand-carved folk art, was found in an antiques shop in Port Hope, Ontario and the little wooden one at auction there. The little metal guy? I can’t remember.
Three of these, the angular ones, we bought in Mexico City, pewter; one is silver plate and one…not sure!
Years of collecting have given me a decent collection of silver and silver-y objects
It’s always tempting to buy cheap stuff because…it’s cheap!
But waiting, saving up and paying a little more for better-quality fabrics, better furniture construction and classic design means you’ll be able to enjoy your things for years, maybe decades.
Classic doesn’t have to mean boring!
I still love the three antique painted rush-seat chairs I sent home from a country auction in Nova Scotia to my then home in Toronto — using them many years later.
Thrift and consignment shops, especially those located in upscale neighborhoods or towns (i.e. drive if necessary!) can be a treasure trove of amazing quality. Craigslist and Ebay, of course, also have a wide range of offerings.
If you know what you’re looking at — (is it a real antique or a reproduction? Oak or maple? Wood or laminate? sterling or silverplate? glass or crystal?) — tag and estate sales are another great source.
Invest in the best-quality framing you can
It forces you to be highly selective once you start using a frame shop, as even the smallest piece can cost $150 for a custom-cut frame.
It’s money well spent to preserve your favorite things, whether a letter from a grandparent or treasured photographic prints (make sure the mat is acid-free and the glass UV-resistant.)
I like the wooden frames from Pottery Barn (on sale!) and Anthropologie has some quirky and charming ones as well; Pier One can be a great source for more ethnic/rustic styles.
Study every room — what shapes are in it, and how does each piece relate to others?
Most furniture is inevitably square (tables, chairs) or rectangular (beds, chests, sofas.)
Before you know it, you’ve filled every room with big fat chunks of stuff, now looking crowded and tedious. Sigh!
Think about including a variety of shapes (ovals? circles?) and scale (large, small?)
Does each room also include a variety of height (chairs, chests, armoires, etc) so your eye moves around it easily?
Make sure you have at least 24 inches between every piece or you’ll always feel hemmed in and irritable as you keep bumping into things.
Our living room — which faces northwest and gets a lot of light — has two mirrors in it; our sitting room has one, and our bedroom has one as well, all decorative.
The mirror pictured above came out of one of my favorite antique shops, in the town of North Hatley, Quebec; it’s clearly Middle Eastern and was filthy…took an hour of Windex and Q-tips to get most of the dust out of all that fretwork! It cost about $225.
A pretty mirror fills a few functions nicely:
1) it fills up a dead wall; 2) it reflects light into and around the room; 3) a lovely frame can add color, interest and texture relating to the rest of the room; 4) you can see yourself!
Of the four mirrors we own, only one was bought new (from Anthropologie); this one. It’s very affordable — $128 — for a lovely and intricately hand-carved wooden frame that feels exotic and vaguely Indian or Celtic.
It now sits on an apple-green wall so there’s a nice contrast between the background and the wood.
The rest came from antique stores.
Several favorite sources for stylish new mirrors include the websites Horchow, Wisteria, and Ballard Designs.
Mirrors are also more versatile than highly-colored artworks, and can easily be moved from room to room as your tastes change.