#53 | None of us are OK

“None of us are the people we want to be right now.” – me, talking to the 7-year-old.

One of the many posters available for free download at The Amplifier Project.

Today is the 56th day since I held an in-person meeting. It has been 67 days since I drove the kiddo to school.

The early days are a blur now – the hunt for the supplies, the postings on Facebook where people had found toilet paper, artists doing online sharing of their work, companies announcing waivers of payments, or free offerings. In a tiny way, it felt like the way the US “came together” after 9-11, for us old enough to remember that.

But as is almost inevitable here in the US, that is now behind us as the virus has become politicized. Of course, that isn’t true for everyone, but the drive to “reopen the economy”, while our numbers of cases and death continue to climb, and the extreme right’s demand for their “freedom” has pushed science and fact-based decision making to the sidelines.

And it is frustrating. In some ways, it would be easier had this happened back in 1995 or so, before the proliferation of online media when every idiot with a cell phone wasn’t a potential broadcaster, when a discredited doctor couldn’t make a video filled with disinformation and it just goes viral, when I didn’t know how awful people were being in some other state. However, that means we wouldn’t know each other either, you and I.

For those who are wondering, my own life is going pretty well. I have developed a routine, and my natural introversion and homebody ways are doing OK with this. I go for long walks each day with the kid, I am getting home projects done, and our family eats together every day. My income is varied enough that I am OK – at least for a while – economically, and no one in my inner circle has gotten sick.

But just because I am not sick does not mean I am OK. None of us are OK, and I wish we were at a place as a country where we could deal with that.  But until that happens, I will just look for the beauty where I can find it.

Five beautiful things

#52 | The Ugly Part

“When I am in that darkness, I do not remember anything about anything human.” —Angela of Foligno (1248–1309)

An unhoused woman gave me this painting she had painted. Glad to finally get it framed.

In every renovation, building project, there are two parts – the pretty part and the ugly part.

The pretty part is what you are building toward – the end result, the reason you ripped out that wall, you pulled up those bushes, the inspiration derived from a picture you saw on Pinterest or in a magazine whose page is now ripped out and on your refrigerator. The pretty part is what you want the world, or at least your little section of it, to look like.

But to get there, you have to go through the ugly part. You have to have visqueen hanging in your house, you have to have a dumpster in your front yard, you have to have sawdust everywhere, you live with a pile of mulch in your driveway for a month.

And if you are not careful, the ugly part will wear you down. You will fall into despair, and will wonder if your dream will ever come to pass, if you will survive this, if the page hanging on your refrigerator is worth all this… mess.

Yesterday I cut down a hedge that surrounded our patio and took down a 12-foot-tall landscape screen that was 40 feet long. The task involved chainsaws, a sledgehammer, and garden loppers. And honestly? It looks like hell right now. Brush everywhere. Sawdust on everything. My arms have deep scratches. The ugly fence the screen was, well, screening is now in full view. I am ass deep in the ugly part.

But if I hang on, if I can just get through it, this summer I am building a 384 square foot deck over the site of the previous patio, that will have a magnificent view of the backyard, that will act as an extension of our living room, that will dramatically enhance our enjoyment of this house. And yes, I have a whole board on Pinterest devoted to this deck.

All of this is true, but yes, it is all metaphor, too. There is a lot of ugly right now. Things are falling apart. What was previously broken is being unveiled. And some of us wonder if it will ever be beautiful again.

But it will if we see it through. If we hang on, if we keep the vision in our heads of that better world we dream of, if we do not quit, then it can be beautiful – not like before, but better than before.

But first, we have to get through the ugly parts.

Five beautiful things

  • Like many folk my age, I grew up on Looney Tunes on Saturday morning. This collection of 90 vintage Looney Tunes films is everything. I am slowly working through them, and while some are cringe-worthy, most hold up well.
  • The New Yorker did a beautiful photo essay tracking 24 hours in New York under the Pandemic. This is not one of the ugly parts, for sure.
  • A few weeks ago would have been the peak of cherry blossom season at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Sadly, the garden is closed because of Covid-19, but this lovely video walkthrough is stunning. (Here is a short drone film to give you a bird’s eye view.)
  • Kevin Kelly is one of my internet heroes, and may really be the world’s most interesting man. He just turned 68 and composed a list of 68 pieces of advice. Lots of good stuff here, as well as some snark.
  • Several of my Psychologist and social worker friends shared this very helpful list of resources from the World Health Organization about coping with adversity during times of stress. (Sound familiar?)

Reading

I am not doing as much reading during this pandemic-related pause as I thought I would be, but one book I have really enjoyed is Lloyd Khan’s The Half-Acre Homestead: 46 Years of Building and Gardening. Lloyd is the real deal – he was doing this stuff long before the rise of Instagram and Pinterest “backyard farmers.” He is very realistic, but with his head firmly in the clouds. The photography is beautiful, I love his aesthetic, and it has driven me to change my thinking about home and what that means, as well as what it would mean to imagine living here for at least 46 years. Highly recommended.

 

#51 | Coping Mechanisms

“There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
— Seneca

I have wanted a porch swing my whole life, but never owned the porch for it. So I built this instead.

Good morning!

I am Hugh Hollowell, and this is Life is So Beautiful, a newsletter about finding the beautiful when it’s hard to – and maybe especially when it’s hard to.

The last two months have been… interesting? The shift in everything – I mean everything – has been surreal. We all find our own coping mechanisms, some healthier than others, and mine is building things.

First I built a chicken coop. Then a swing for the front yard (that is it up top there). Next is a fence for the side yard, and eventually, a deck for the backyard. These are all things we have been planning since we moved in, and assumed it would take 5 years for me to have enough time to do them.

Five years? How about 2 months? Hah. We plan, God laughs.

Building things and cooking are my two favorite… hobbies? I don’t think of them that way, though, because hobbies, at least the way I understand them, are done for their own sake, and both of my… interests have a result that is useful.

And that is the thing – I am unsure if it is Protestant guilt or a working-class work ethic or my ADHD or something more pathological, but I have never been good at sitting still. I can read for a few hours in a row, I can watch some movies without getting up and moving around, but other than that, I can’t “relax”. I can’t sit still. And the idea of sitting for 4 hours and pasting stamps in a book or putting a jigsaw puzzle together that I am going to then take apart and put back in its box just sends shudders up my spine.

But for me, building things IS relaxing. I get the same joy from taking 30 boards of various sizes and cutting them to make a gate as my wife does from a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. And when I am done, we have a gate that we didn’t have before. In what is probably my favorite novel, the Reverend Ames prays that his son will be brave and that he will find a way to be useful. That is all I have ever wanted.

How are you coping with all of this? Hit reply and let me know.

Five beautiful things

Decay can be beautiful. In one of the Travis McGee books, I forget which, McGee wonders what the world will look like when we get past our dependence on the automobile – what will we do with the broad paved roads, the parking lots, the old cars? I thought of that line for the first time in 20 years when I saw these amazing photos of abandoned cars.

As I said above, we all have our own ways of coping. I love this story (and photos) of a celebrated sports photographer who discovers a whole new world in his backyard.

This is cute: What did the Hubble Telescope see on your birthday?

Museum curators have taken to sharing on Twitter the creepiest thing they have in their collection, and the results are epic.

These… vignettes?… are beautiful and hit a lot of my triggers.

Podcast

So, I have mentioned it in bits and bobs, but I have a podcast now. It’s called Hopeful Resistance, and it’s about changing the world without losing our soul in the process. It is the companion piece to my other newsletter I send each Friday. It isn’t for everyone, but if you would rather listen than read, you can find out more here.

If you like it, I wish you would tell a friend, and maybe leave a review on iTunes.

Can we talk?

Every week, in addition to my day job running a small nonprofit farm, I crank out two newsletters and a podcast. They are a labor of love, and they are all part of my life’s work of creating a compelling vision of a better world.

That work is funded by, as of this morning, 62 people who pay the freight so everyone can read my essays, get my newsletter, and listen to my podcast. I have turned away offers of advertising and sponsorships in order to keep my content free for everyone. Think of it like NPR, and those 62 folks are the Sustainers who make it all possible.

If my labor of love has moved you in some way, if you have shared my stuff with others, if you are one of the many folks who send me notes thanking me for doing this newsletter for more than 5 years now, will you consider becoming a Patron and supporting my work? It means I have the time and resources to keep doing the things I do, as well as the cushion I need to risk new things, like the Hopeful Resistance podcast.

I really do appreciate it more than you know. Y’all are the best.

#50 | Ask for what you need

“Bring what you have, and ask for what you need.” – Gareth Higgins

When in doubt, build something. The boy and I made a chicken coop for the backyard.

Good morning!

I am Hugh Hollowell, and this is Life is So Beautiful, a newsletter about finding the beautiful when it’s hard to – and maybe especially when it’s hard to.

I grew up in a house with a father who revered quotes. You know, short, pithy sayings that usually convey a point of view or moral argument. Like, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” Benjamin Franklin said that, and come to think of it, Franklin figured large in the quote library that lives inside my dad’s head.

Because of this, I guess it is natural that I too love quotable snippets, although I tend to collect them from less famous people. Like my friend David LaMotte, who once told me that “You are changing the world, whether you want to or not.” Or my buddy Brian Ammons, who opens worship services with the brilliant (and radical) phrase, “You are all welcome here. And all of you is welcome here.” Or, from his husband Gareth Higgins, who organizes gatherings and says that you should “Bring what you have, and ask for what you need.”

I recently came across an interview with Fiona Apple, who is promoting her new album, and in it, she says that her decision to release a new album now doesn’t make sense to a lot of people, but that this is what she knows how to do. And that line – “This is what I know how to do” gives language to what has been going through my head the last 40 days or so we have been in quasi-isolation.

Because right now, the world is a hot freaking mess, and all of us are trying to find our way in it. And maybe pumping out two newsletters (1, 2) and starting a podcast are not the most obvious ways to help the rest of the world in the midst of this pandemic, but it is what I know how to do; it is what I can bring to the table, and then it is up to me to ask for what I need for the rest of it.

 Five Beautiful Things

  • A 2-hour tour of Switzerland, as seen from the cab of a train. Imagine this being the scenery you see everyday? I want to have a party now, where I can put this on the TV to play in the background.
  • This will only appeal to a small subset of you folks (or maybe not, since we are all cooking more), but one of the happiest points of my day right now is when I log onto Facebook and see that Jacques Pepin has posted another short how-to video – something he has been doing quite a lot while in isolation.
  • Over on Instagram, there are virtual tours of Frank Lloyd Wright houses.
  • Paul Graham is a venture capitalist. He and I don’t have a lot in common. But this essay about the brevity of life, something he really only discovered after becoming a parent, really punched me in the gut. It feels particularly pertinent right now, as we fear that so many people we love will die.
  • Ariel views of Hong Kong’s fountains. These are so lovely.

And if you get a sec, check out my new podcast, and I would appreciate it if you left a review on Apple Podcasts. Reviews really do help.

#49 | Future Plans

“Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more; wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking. By walking one makes the road, and upon glancing behind one sees the path that never will be trod again. Wanderer, there is no road– Only wakes upon the sea. – Antonio Machado

My cat Felix, watching another cat on TV. #Meta

Good morning!

How are you doing? Are you getting some exercise (even if only a little bit)? Eating as good as you can? Connecting with others as best you can (from a safe distance, of course!)?

Like so many of you, we are entering our fourth week of staying at home, and while we are OK – my wife and I both are pretty high-ranking introverts, we both have offices at home, we have a pretty nice amount of food in our pantry and a chest freezer full of meat and frozen vegetables – we have entered what can only be called a new level of mourning for the past as we accept our new normal.

And I think that is what this is – a new normal. I don’t think we ever can go back to the way it was. The best timelines I have seen for a vaccine that can be rolled out at scale is measured in terms of months and even years, not days or weeks.

I think this is our WWII, our Great Depression, our Civil War – a widespread event that leads to privation and massive loss, and that changes society forever as a result. Only, this time it isn’t just a US event, but a global one. The ramifications for this are mind-blowing.

I’m ever hopeful, but also ruthlessly pragmatic, so I am beginning to make plans that assume some form of this current status for six months to a year. So I am building both a chicken coop and a vide studio for virtual meetings. I’m ordering more canned goods when I do the grocery shopping and building more pantry shelving. And in our garden this year, we are planting not only vegetables but also flowers. Because the vegetables are necessary for us to live, but the flowers remind us of what we are living for.

Five Beautiful Things

  • Here are five beautiful public gardens (including Monet’s at Giverny and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew) that have virtual tours, if you are getting tired of looking only at your own flower beds.
  • Traffic light art? This is both beautiful and creepy. (via Kottke)
  • The National Zoo has livestreams of some of their popular animals, like the naked molerat and the giant pandas, if your kids (or you) need a fieldtrip.
  • The loss of Bill Withers last week felt like we were being punched in the gut. There’s no sunshine when he’s gone. (FYI – a lot of his music is available to stream for free on Amazon Prime if you are a member).
  • If the loss of Bill Withers was a punch in the gut, the loss of Ellis Marsalis felt like God is just trolling us. Here is a lovely piece from when he and his sons were on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood back in the day.

An update

So, starting a podcast is slow AF. Who knew? I mean, to actually record, edit, and upload an episode is not really a big deal. Once you know how to do it, you know how to do it. But then you have to wait for the various directories to recognize you exist. Like the two biggest, iTunes and Spotify.

But my little podcast does exist, and I have uploaded two episodes and will get the other two uploaded in the next 48 hours, and then we will be caught up. You can listen to them here in the meantime, and we will just continue calling this the soft-opening phase.

#48 | The video heavy edition

“What day is this, anyway?” – Me

The 24th of each month is PDay in our house, where we celebrate the arrival of our foster son. There is always cake and all the accouterments.

Hi, y’all.

This is Hugh Hollowell, with another edition of Life is So Beautiful, a weekly reminder that the world is, despite what you have been told, filled to overflowing with beauty.

It’s been two weeks today since we got serious in our house about being in lockdown, and the week before that was spring break and we were getting cautious, but it feels like forever since I sat in a restaurant with my wife and kid, or sat on the shady bench and watched him play on the playground with other kids, or nibbled on samples in the grocery store while I leisurely shopped. I miss driving him to school.

Part of me wonders if those things will ever happen again. If they announced tomorrow that we could all go back to normal, would you feel safe being in a packed restaurant again? It will be a long time before I don’t automatically bob and weave when someone gets within 6 feet of me.

One positive effect of publishing a weekly newsletter about finding beauty for 5 years is you look for beautiful things everywhere, and like most things, you find what you are looking for. I love the increased number of people walking and gardening in my neighborhood. I love all the flowers – it seems like spring is springier this year, or maybe it is just that we are all outside more, to enjoy it. I love the many ways we are all collaborating and sharing and bringing our gifts – from the artists and writers reading their stories online to the local baker who is, through video, walking people through the process day by day of how to make sourdough from scratch.

It’s all so very beautiful.

Five Beautiful Things

Note: Normally, I try to deliver a variety of posts, but I figured with a lot of us having more flexible schedules, I could be forgiven a week heavy on videos. Enjoy! – HH

  • Actress Tilda Swinton’s Springer Spaniels, cavorting in Scotland, while accompanied to a Handel aria? OK, yes please!
  • Since the 1980’s, this Japanese man has drawn colorful pictures of every meal he has eaten. I feel like such an underachiever. I haven’t even eaten every meal I have cooked!
  • Yesterday, because of a serious dose of cabin fever, our family went “motoring”, where we just drove 50 miles or so on the Natchez Trace to see the wildflowers and get out of the house. But these videos (here and here) are video of mid-century Los Angeles, as taken from a car while it’s driving around. In short, motoring in the past! Without leaving the house!
  • A hummingbird frenzy! (For best viewing experience, turn up your volume)

This… defies explanation. A Rube Goldberg contraption of dominos falling, as assisted by cats… just watch the damn thing already!

About that big announcement I promised…

I told the Patrons about it this weekend, and now I’m telling you – over this time of quasi-confinement, I have been teaching myself how to edit audio because I have pulled the trigger and am launching a podcast!

It is the audio companion to my Hopeful Resistance newsletter, for those who prefer to listen rather than read. The back issues are being uploaded to the internet over the next few days, and after that, every Friday. Check here to see if they have been uploaded when you read this, and then they should be available at iTunes and other places shortly after that.  They should be at that link in the next 48 hours if they are not when you read this.

Think of this as the soft opening, or rather, the private invite to the soft opening. Starting Friday, I will be promoting the heck out of this, but I wanted to let y’all know first, so you can be watching for it.

#47 | What will stick?

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
– From Ulysses, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Hi there.

I’m Hugh Hollowell, and this is Life is So Beautiful, a newsletter about finding the beauty in the world around you, even when it feels like the whole world has stopped.

My wife and I were talking last night about how, for us personally, our life feels both completely normal and totally unhinged. We are both pretty introverted, I have an office in my home, and when I’m not there, most of my work is on an urban farm with 1 or 2 other people. She is a stay at home mom these days and being immunosuppressed after her heart transplant, we are both super-aware of germs and live with the fear of catching things.

But.

We also miss family dinners out in restaurants. Face to face meetings in coffee shops. Family outings to the museum or the movies. The pleasure of shopping for groceries and it not feel like The Hunger Games. Browsing a bookstore for hours while sipping a hot chocolate. Sharing a meal with friends. Going to church.

It turns out, Sartre was only half right. Hell IS other people. But so is heaven.

I was talking to a friend the other day about this huge slowdown and wondered out loud what of this will stick after it is over. Will all of us who made our own bread keep doing it? Folk who are now cooking regularly, some for the first time in their lives, will they continue? Will we keep doing video meetings? Will more people work from home than before, now that we have proven we can?

One thing I hope sticks in my personal life is the long walks the 7-year-old and I have been going on each day. We walk about a mile each day around our neighborhood as a way to give me some exercise and to spend his pent-up energy. While you would suspect it would be boring, walking in a given neighborhood every day, in fact the opposite is happening – we are coming to know it in new ways.

We are telling stories and sharing memories of the people who live in the houses whose occupants we know, and making up stories about the occupants of the houses where we don’t. He can now not only tell you the difference between wisteria and azaleas, but he will tell you why wisteria is pretty to look at but bad for the environment. There is a creek that crosses our neighborhood, and we manage to cross it three times each day in our walks. And when we see our neighbors and friends in their yards, we stand an appropriate distance and pass the day.

I really hope this keeps up. It’s the best part of my day.

What are you doing now that you hope you sustain after this is over?

Five Beautiful Things

  • There have been so many examples of artists sharing their work from home – here is Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Instagram account, where he is playing requests on his piano in his living room, with occasional cameo appearances by his dog.
  • As humans quit moving about, the rewilding of the world has begun.
  • Roy Davis is a sculptor who makes wooden movement machines. I profile a lot of art in this here letter, but I would buy one of these in a heartbeat (if I had an extra $3,000).
  • This time-lapse of a sunflower is simple and mesmerizing.
  • Thai fruit carving is a thing. I love the sheer amount of effort that goes into creating something so delicate and beautiful that has a life expectancy measured in hours.

Bonus:

I have been loving the collections of artistic and cultural enrichment ideas everyone is posting – here is a huge one, with lots of amazing links and sources. If we are only going to be traveling whilst sitting on our couch for the foreseeable future, at least we can see beautiful, amazing things.

Reading:

It’s long and heavy, but somewhat hopeful. This article, Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance, does a good job of showing why we have to stop the world if we want to survive this current epidemic. Basically, we are buying time.

Housekeeping:

Despite launching it at the worst time in human history to launch something new, I am heartened by the response to my second newsletter, Hopeful Resistance. Because I have learned nothing about timing, I am launching yet another new thing next week! Patrons will learn about it this weekend, but the rest of you will have to wait until next week. After a winter full of depression and slog, it feels good to be creating again.

* * *

Well, that is it for this week. I hope you have a great week, and that your life is filled with beautiful things. If you see something beautiful this week, I hope you will let me know about it, and if one of my five I shared today struck you in a special way, I hope you will let me know about that, too.

If you want to support this project, you can sign up to be a Patron or buy me a book or forward this email to your friends. And if someone did forward this to you, you can get your own subscription here.

#46 | When things are scary

“When we are overwhelmed it is a moment when we need our own love, kindness, and compassion the most.”
— Matt Kahn

Azaleas in my front yard

Hi, I’m Hugh Hollowell, and this is Life is So Beautiful, a weekly newsletter about finding the beauty around us. This premise behind this newsletter is that there will be ugliness in our lives, and it is self-evident. But the beauty in our lives is often hidden, and so we have to hunt for it. And the beauty we find can give us a reserve to draw from, to see us through the bad times, like loading up with water before you cross the desert.

Right now, there is a lot of ugliness, fear, and uncertainty in the world. But it is also filled with beauty. It is also filled with hope. It is springtime, and the flowers are blooming, and as I type this the birds are singing outside my window.

I know it’s scary right now. It is for me, too – because of the medications she takes, my wife is immunosuppressed, which means she doesn’t have a normal immune system. She won’t be able to fight this off if she gets it.

I think the thing I hate most about this is how it makes you see others as a potential spreader of disease, instead of a human being. We don’t need more help in being afraid of people we don’t know, and yet here we are.

Please stay home as much as you can to help flatten the curve, but while you are there, take care of yourself. Stay hydrated. Get plenty of sleep. No, probably more than that. Go for walks. Learn something new. Eat the best food that you can, and stay in touch with people. Isolation will kill you. Don’t let them steal your humanity – look for opportunities to help others, even if on the smallest of scales. Find the humor where you can, and laugh as much as you can. Hunt out beautiful things.

And remember: Love always wins in the end, and if it ever seems like love has not won, it is because it is not yet the end.

Five Beautiful Things

  • Italians waiting out the coronavirus by doing socially distant neighborhood singalongs.
  • A reader shared this with me: For 27 years, a photographer took pictures of her parents waving goodbye every time she left their house. This is so good. (Thanks, Paula!)
  • Jenna is a writer who has had her share of online harassment. She had a breakthrough last week, when she chose to look for the good in those who wish her ill. I love this so much.
  • This may be my new favorite Instagram account.
  • A musical instrument I hadn’t heard of is a crystal organ. It sounds haunting, and now I need an album full of this.

Hopeful Resistance

Thanks to the financial underwriting of my patrons, last week we launched my new newsletter, Hopeful Resistance, and it was great! (Imagine that said in my Tony the Tiger voice). In case you missed it, I am doing a new weekly newsletter on Fridays – a short essay about how we resist the current realities of our world without losing ourselves in the process. How we resist hopefully.

You can read the first one here, and then sign up here to get your own subscription.

* * *

Well, that is it for this week. I hope you have a great week, and that your life is filled with beautiful things. If you see something beautiful this week, I hope you will let me know about it, and if one of my five I shared today struck you in a special way, I hope you will let me know about that, too.

If you want to support this project, you can sign up to be a Patron or buy me a book or forward this email to your friends. And if someone did forward this to you, you can get your own subscription here.