Nov 18, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, November 17, 2019
The Trappist monk, mystic, peace activist, and scholar Thomas Merton wrote about how he decided to pursue saintliness. One spring night he and a friend were walking along Sixth Avenue in New York City. The subway was being dug. The street was torn up--there were banks of dirt “marked out with red lanterns” lining sidewalks and piled up high in front of the shops. This was the 1940s. It was before Merton became a monk, when he was still a young man. Merton and his friend, someone who went on to become a noted poet, were arguing, passionately, about something.
Suddenly, Merton’s friend turned to him and asked, “What do you want to be, anyway?”
Merton recalls his answer, “I could not say, ‘I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,’ or ‘Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English...,’ so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged.”
Then Merton tried to formulate his response. He said, “I don’t know; I guess what I want to be is a good Catholic.”
Merton’s friend was not satisfied, “What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?”
Merton admitted that he was confused. And so, his friend continued to press him. “What you should say,” Merton’s friend informed him, “what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”
“A saint!... ‘How do you expect me to become a saint?’,” was Merton’s reply.
“By wanting to,” his friend said simply.
Merton was filled with self-doubt. “I can’t be a saint. I can’t be a saint,” he answered back. He recounts that in that moment, “my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities; the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that the they must reach... cowardice.”
Merton’s friend would have none of it. He told him, “No. All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.”
Merton described this story in his spiritual classic the Seven Storey Mountain. It was the first major work that he published. For many people, especially of the Vietnam War generation, he went on to become exactly the person who his friend was prompting him to be, a saint.
Merton’s Catholic theistic theology may not resonate with most you but his narrative touches upon the theme of our sermon this morning. This is my second sermon for you on courage. We might define courage as the midpoint between fear and confidence. We exhibit courage when we acknowledge our fears, admit that there are ills which might befall us, and act anyway.
Last week I spoke with you about collective courage. Collective courage is the way that we can collectively face our fears and struggle to find new ways of being. It is the expressed in the seventeenth-century universalist phrase, “turn the world upside down.” It is the act of working together to confront social crises--great and small--and then attempting to reorder society.
This week I want to speak with you about individual courage. What I mean here is finding the courage to become the person you feel called to be. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote about finding “the courage to be.” We humans are born with the knowledge that we will die. We witness the mortality of others and realize that death will soon come for us. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but each breath draws us closer to our moment of expiration. This can make us anxious. No matter what we do--no matter how carefully we eat, how much we exercise, or how many doctors we see--the threat of death cannot be overcome. “The basic anxiety, the anxiety of a finite being about the threat of nonbeing, cannot be eliminated. It belongs to existence itself,” wrote Tillich.
In the face of our individual impending extinction it takes courage to continue along with life. And it takes even greater courage to be and to attempt to become, to recognize ourselves as poised on the existential void and still strive to live a life of authenticity. For Merton, it took an extraordinary amount of courage to pursue the vision of sainthood that he found with his friend that New York City night. It meant rejecting all of anxiety that told him he could not or would not or was unable to or that his life was too insignificant. Instead, it meant somehow moving past all of that and coming to recognize, in his words, “For me to be a saint means to be myself.”
The courage of becoming has long been prized by our religious tradition. In the nineteenth-century, the Unitarian theologian James Walker preached, “We are not born with character, good or bad, but only with a capacity to form one.” Our characters might be described as the total sum of our virtues and vices. Virtues are things about us which are praiseworthy. They are the accretions of our actions. Our actions become our habits and then eventually our habits turn to virtues--or vices--and these become our characters. And we Unitarian Universalists have long taught that we are not born with our character fixed in place--born wicked as many a conservative religious tradition teaches. But rather we are born with the capacity to become, the capacity to develop our virtues and vices.
Thomas Aquinas, the twelfth century theologian, identified four principle virtues. These are wisdom, temperance, justice, and courage. Over the next several months as we explore how to develop the spiritual and resources that will allow us to address the grave crises of the hour and of our lives we will be examining some of these virtues. We have started with courage because developing the courage to be is essential if we are to pursue the other virtues. Without courage it is difficult to gather the wherewithal to figure out how to be ourselves. William Ellery Channing, another nineteenth-century Unitarian theologian, wrote that the courage to become ourselves might even “be called the perfection of humanity, for it is the exercise, result, and expression of the highest attributes of our nature.” When we find it we open ourselves to the rich possibilities of life and confront the truth that we have a responsibility for forming our own characters.
Bob Schaibly used to frequently remind this congregation of this truth. During the two decades he served here he often told you some variety of, “life... [does] not have a meaning; we give life its meaning, or rather we give our lives their meanings.” Bob’s death this week prompted me to go read a number of his sermons. Reading them I found that he also often told you some variant of, “You already have within you what it is you need, and what it is that we who know you need, and what all the living things in the world need.” The recognition that life does not have an intrinsic meaning, the realization that we are born with what we need to pass our time on our muddy planet, it takes courage to face these truths starkly. It takes courage to admit to them and then open ourselves to becoming ourselves.
I spent a portion of this summer thinking about courage. As some of you know, Asa and I were in Europe for about five weeks with my parents. You might remember that everyone else in our family is in the arts. My father is an art historian and photographer. My mother was a ceramicist in her younger years and then, after she retired from teaching, served on a musem board. She, incidentally, makes all of my stolls. My brother is a figurative painter. His girlfriend is fashion designer. And Emma is pursuing a career in fashion photography.
Traveling with my parents meant immersing ourselves in the arts. We spent about a week in Arles, France at the giant international photography festival there. Rencontres d’Arles is even larger than Houston’s FotoFest. It brings close to a hundred thousand people to the ancient Roman city where Van Gough painted. It is a premier event in the arts world, a bit akin to the Cannes Film Festival.
My parents go most years. This year was very special. One of their closest friends, the Czech photographer Libuse Jarcovjakova was one of the featured artists. She was given the former Saint Anne’s church as an exhibition space. The building has been stripped of religious iconography. The stones have been washed white and a blonde wooden floor put in. The side chapels and the nave have been converted into a gallery that allowed Libuse to exhibit more than two hundred of her images.
Libuse is about the same age as my parents. This was her first major show. It would something of an understatement to say that it was a smash success. During the week that we spent together in Arles there were major articles about her work in the New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and the Guardian. Walking around Arles with her was what I roughly imagine moving through Cannes with a well-known movie director. People stopped us in the street or came up to us and introduced themselves to Libuse while we ate in French cafes.
It would be fair to say that Libuse was in a bit of state of shock. In the space of a week she went from a complete unknown to an international art celebrity. And there are two things about Libuse and courage that I want to share with you. The first is about her art itself. And the second is about her life as an artist.
Libuse’s photography comes from straight from her life. It is her record of courageously becoming. Which is no small thing. She, as I mentioned earlier, is Czech. She came of age in Communist Czechoslovakia. She is also queer. To put it mildly, being a queer artist was not a form of authenticity that was largely tolerated by the Marxist-Leninist authorities. And yet, over the course of more than twenty years she took thousands of black and white photographs documenting her life, lives of those she loved and the lives of those she just happened to encounter. She used photography to attempt to make sense of her life. She told me, “Sometimes I was involved in very complicated situations. I used photography to get some distance for myself and to make some sense of the situation.”
The images that garnered the most attention were from the T-Club, which was one of only two gay clubs in Prague during the Communist-era. Never entirely legal, Libuse describes it as a place for: “Convulsive laughter and genuine tears. Insightful conversation and superficial coquetry. One-night stands and love for life. Beautiful young men and beautiful young women. Effeminate “B´s” and respectable-looking gentlemen, who rebounded from their families. Female footballers, waiters, taxi drivers and most probably the secret police too.” In this “place of eternal carnival,” as Libuse called it, people were able to find the courage to be themselves.
And Libuse took photographs of them as they lived that courage. This Transgender Awareness Week, one image in particular stands out. It is of a young postman from North Bohemia who traveled to Prague to visit the T-Club. He wanted to be a woman and gender transition was not possible for him in that repressive society. And yet, there is Libuse’s photograph. In it, the young postman appears as the woman he longs to be. She’s wearing a blonde wig, flirting with the camera, beaming in a long fur coat, courageously, fully, being herself.
Libuse empathy for her subject pops right out of the frame. I can only imagine the courage that was necessary to both take the photograph and be its subject. It is quite possible that either act could have cost the photographer or her subject their livelihoods. For Libuse, even the attempt to be an artist took courage. You see, she came from an artistic family. Both her parents were artists. But they were not the kind of artists approved by the Communist Party. They painted modern abstract canvases. The Party wanted socialist realism, which depicted working people living an idealized life under the Marxist-Leninist regime.
When Libuse graduated from high school the Party had its revenge upon her parents. They her made undergo what was called forced proletarization. In other words, they denied her a college education and tried to make her become a factory worker. She wanted to be an artist like her parents. She did not give up the courage to become. Instead, she told the factory officials that while she worked in the factory, she wanted to document the glorious life of working people had under the Party’s leadership. So, she took her camera and made photographs of people at work. But she did not do it in service of the regime. Instead of showing workers nobly toiling away, she took photographs of them engaging in their everyday acts of resistance--goofing, napping, ignoring supervisors, or doing whatever else they did when they showed up to the factory and did not work. I particularly like the images she made of the creative ways people found to sleep at work--under desks, in giant steel tubes, behind piles of wooden crates...
It took a lot of courage for Libuse to make such defiant photographs. Finding this courage was necessary for her to be herself--to become an artist when her society told her explicitly that she could not be one. It also helped her to develop a sense that courage and beauty are found in everyday life. In conversation with me, she explained a bit of her philosophy, “Doing photos of such normal ordinary things seems like it might be boring but photography changes things. Life is changing so fast that this ordinary thing will be very important. You don’t need to have some extraordinary adventure. You just need to be present to every day, normal, ordinary life. That is very special.”
It takes courage to recognize the specialness of ordinary life. We probably will not become famous religious teachers like Thomas Merton. And we probably will not become internationally known artists like Libuse. But we can find the courage to be ourselves. After all, this is what both Libuse and Merton recommend to us. It is also what the virtue of courage offers us. When we cultivate it we find within ourselves the ability to shape our character. We are born not good or bad but with the ability to choose and in order to do so we must be courageous.
I had initially thought to end our sermon there, but the events of the week require further observations about the courage of being. I speak, of course, of the week’s impeachment hearings. They have demonstrated extraordinary instances of the courage to be by civil servants. The women and men who have testified in front of the nation have offered case studies in how we can shape our own characters. They each have decided upon a profession and then performed its actions, cultivated its habits, and, ultimately, found them embodying its virtues.
It is clear that one of the virtues of their profession is courage. In the face of intimidation by the most powerful man on Earth, the President of the United States, Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to the Ukraine, testified on national television. In a telephone call, the President of the United States had said to the President of the Ukraine that he was displeased with Yovanovitch and that she would “go through some things,” words that for me recall mafia movies. Yet there she was, in front of the world, offering information that may well lead to the impeachment of the President.
The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre observed, to “be courageous is to be someone on whom reliance can be placed.” And in her testimony, Yovanovitch demonstrated that whomever the President might be she can be relied upon to perform her professional duties. It was a demonstration of how she had cultivated the virtue of courage. It was a demonstration of the courage of being--of embracing the role, the profession, she had chosen for herself.
Her testimony reminded me of words by the civil rights organizer, Ella Baker. Baker said, “I am here and so are you. And we matter. We can change things.” Baker’s words are an invocation of the courage of being. They remind us that we are here and that what we do matters. It takes courage to accept this, courage to admit, as Bob Schaibly taught, that we make the meaning we find in life. Yovanovitch was reminding the world that civil servants play a significant role in government. However much the President of the United States might slight her and her State Department colleagues, they remain actively involved in shaping the destiny of the federal government. And their professional virtues, of which courage is but one, are a significant reason as to why.
Not all of us are civil servants, just as not all of us are artists or great religious teachers. And yet, there is something about the courage to be that it is found in the lives of each person I have talked with you about this morning that recommends itself to each of us. It takes courage to recognize that we have within us the potential to be something and then courage to search for that something. It is the ordinary courage of life, not something extraordinary, and it is something we can find within us.
That is what Libuse tries to communicate with her photography. Her work is not of important religious leaders like Thomas Merton or successful government officials like Marie Yovanovitch. It is of regular working people like the woman from Bohemia dressed in her furs outside the T-Club, finding a space to courageously be the woman she knew she was despite having to live as a postman. It is of regular working people discovering the courage to be their human selves amid a brutal Marxist-Leninist regime--to goof off at work, to sleep on the job.
Can you find the courage to be and become? Such courage might mean admitting that you are uncertain of who you are supposed to be and living with that ambiguity. That is certainly something of what Bob Schaibly suggested in his sermons. Before we find the courage to be we must first discover the courage to recognize that it is we who make the meaning of our lives. In some times and places this is much easier to recognize that in others. Living in New York, the child of relative wealth and privilege, it was no doubt easier for Thomas Merton to accept that he could become who he wanted to be than it was for Libuse in 1970s Prague. Finding the courage to be a queer dissident artist under the Soviets and refusing to let the officials of a totalitarian regime be the people who made meaning from her life was extraordinarily difficult. It meant creating in secrecy, without recognition, for decades. And yet, she found the courage to be.
Can you find the courage to be and become? Have you found it? Can you accept that we make meaning in our lives? It is a significant responsibility. And it means accepting that our ordinary lives--yours and mine--can contain the meaning we give them. We might be hemmed in on many sides. We might not come from lives of privilege or have the advantages of a fine education or struggle with poverty. But we can find the courage to be and discover within ourselves the resources to make meaning in our lives. And to accept that such meaning will change over time. It is like Bob Schaibly said, “at different times the meaning of your life may have been to do God’s will, or to do justice, or to love mercy, or to enjoy the fruits of creation, to complete your education, to raise your children, to get these kids through college, and so forth.” Your meaning is your own if you can cultivate the courage to make it.
This belies the universe having cosmic meaning. And it takes courage to face that, as the poet Cristina Peri Rossi wrote:
“Se necesita mucho valor
para tanta muerte inútil.”
“One needs a lot of courage
for so much useless death.”
Death, like life, is only given the meaning we provide it. It takes courage to face that and to give our lives, and ultimately, our deaths meaning. And so, let me give the last words to Bob Schaibly who gave his life, and his death, meaning in part by serving this congregation, Unitarian Universalism, and our human world:
You already have within you what it is you need, and what it is that we who know you need, and what all the living things in the world need.
May we each, as members of this religious community and as members of the great family of all souls, cultivate within us the courage to find what we need within Bob Schaibly’s words.
Let the congregation say Amen.
Aug 20, 2019
This year during my vacation in England and France I published almost daily blog posts. My writing was experiment to see if I could maintain a regular posting schedule. I also wanted to create a record of the trip. I went with my parents and son. I am not sure how many more long trips we will be able to take together and I thought it would be nice to have a travel log.
Over the month, I wrote four sets of posts. Each set was composed in one of the places where we were staying: Arles, Paris, Sers, and London. My posts tended to fall into four general, often overlapping, themes. I wrote about art, food, places, and politics. My favorite posts about art revolved around family friends Markéta Luskačová and Libuse Jarcovjakova. I summarized the restaurants we visited with posts about places to eat in London and Paris and paid tribute to Cadenheads in London. I wrote about the streets of Arles, Parc de la Villette in Paris, Chateau d’If off the coast of Marseille, the fascinating Château de La Rochefoucauld, and the disgust I felt at Versailles. I composed a meditation on the relation between fashion and politics as walked the Rue de Turenne and I met with a retired professor of political science, a journalist, and some anarchists to discuss the state of French politics. And I offered some pastoral words in the wake of a wave of mass shootings in the United States.
If the object was create a travel log that I will use to remember the trip, my blogging was absolutely a success. The same can be said if the objective was to increase the traffic to my blog. It roughly doubled over the course of the time that I kept the blog. The five posts that generated the most traffic were: Rue de Turenne (or some thoughts on champagne socialism); Reflecting on the Mass Shootings in Dayton, El Paso, Gilroy, and Southhaven from London; Château de La Rochefoucauld; It is the Job of the Far Left to Organize the Margins; and Europe 2019.
Composing a daily blog was a time consuming labor. It took me between 30 minutes and an hour and a half each day. It is not something that I will be continuing now that I am back in Houston. Instead, my blog will largely return to being a place for me to publish the texts of my sermons, letters to the congregation I serve, and announcements about upcoming events. On occasion, I will post other things but for the moment I will be focusing my non-sermon related writing on my scholarship.
Aug 12, 2019
originally published on http://firstuu.org on August 2, 2019
I am writing my letter this month from the small village of Sers. Sers is located in the southwest of France in the Cognac region. Asa and I are here with my parents and our family friends, the French artists Gilles Perrin and Nicole Ewenczyk. Gilles is an amazing photographer and I highly recommend you check out his web site. Nicole is a writer and the two of them have collaborated on several beautiful books, a few of which are available in English and one of which they even worked on with my father.
Sers is very beautiful. It consists of perhaps a hundred buildings, almost all erected before the twentieth-century. The village’s real gem is its eleventh-century church. Its ancient stones exude a sense a calming quiet, especially when they are blessed by the sun.
Throughout my vacation I have been feeling quite blessed myself. I am deeply appreciative of the work of First Unitarian Universalist’s staff in my absence. I am equally grateful for the congregation’s lay leaders. Together everyone’s support has meant that I have been able to enjoy my vacation knowing that the important work of the congregation is continuing in my absence. As I wrote in my column last month, the vision and work of the congregation happens because of its members, for ministers come and go. Who knows how many priests have come and gone from the village church in Sers over the last thousand years?
Over the course of my vacation I have been using some of my free time to keep an (almost) daily blog. You can read it at www.colinbossen.com. I’ve mainly focused on art and politics. If you’re interested in art you might be interested in my posts on Libuse Jarcovjakova, Les Rencontres d’Arles, and the Musee d’Orsay. As for politics, you might like to check out my posts on the French Right, the purpose of the Far Left, and the state of the French Left (which benefited from a conversation I had while visiting First Unitarian Universalist’s own John Ambler in Paris cafe).
Mostly, I have been using my vacation time to prepare myself for our coming year together. The staff and I have planned a year-long series of services designed to move the congregation through the transitional work of casting something of a new vision for yourselves. These services will be interwoven with an effort to develop religious resources for Unitarian Universalists to confront humanity’s interlinked cultural, ecological, economic, political, and, ultimately, spiritual crises.
We will start with these services in September. In August, I will be leading three services at the Museum District. The first of these, on August 11th, will be a Question Box service. It will be an opportunity for you to ask me questions about the life of the congregation, Unitarian Universalism, religion in general, or anything else that’s on your hearts. Board President Carolyn Leap will be asking me the questions as part of a dialogue between the congregation’s lay and ordained leadership. It will be an unusual service and I am really looking forward to it!
On August 18th, again at the Museum District, we will be using the service to mark the four hundredth anniversary of the enslavement of Africans in what is now the United States. It is a date that is as a central to the country’s history as the start of American Revolution and it is important that we observe it as a religious community. The legacy of slavery continues to shape the United States, and challenge our spiritual lives, in so many significant, and disturbing ways.
At the Museum District, on August 25th we will be celebrating our annual Water Communion and Ingathering. It is a lovely way to reconnect after the summer and I am looking forward to this special service.
I haven’t mentioned the services at Thoreau in my letter because I understand that in July the Board decided that for months of August and September Thoreau will be following its own worship calendar. And so, the Rev. Dr. Dan King will be updating everyone on worship plans for that campus in his final letter to the congregation.
I look forward to seeing many of you soon. In the meantime, I close, as always with a bit of poetry. In this case, it’s John Tagliabue’s “With sun hats we meet out in the country”:
In the flying and shaking world
some flowers of Money steady us
so we become monarchs of the skies;
he has mentioned magnificence quietly
and now to the flowering Moment
we send the summer Salutation.
Jul 17, 2019
We left Arles the same way we came: by train. The train back to Paris was uneventful. About the only thing of note that happened during the entirety of our time in transit was that at Gare de Lyon a taxi driver tried to scam me by telling me that there were only fixed fares from the train station. He wanted sixty euros. I told him no thank you and then went off to find a taxi starter who put us in a metered taxi.
Here’s a list of my blog posts in Arles:
Jul 12, 2019
The entire reason why we’re in Arles is to attend Les Rencontres d’Arles. It is a three month long international photography festival, now celebrating its fiftieth year. Throughout the festival, the city is awash in photography. There are photographic images, photographers, and photography students. Street art of a very special kind springs up on almost every wall of the ancient city--digital prints of photographs wheat-pasted to the stucco, plaster, wood, and brick. Every little cafe or shop seems to have its own show. And throughout Arles there are major exhibits featuring some of the most important figures in the history of photography.
So far, we have been almost half a dozen shows. Yesterday I went to Germaine Krull & Jacques Remy, Un Voyage Marseille-Rio 1941 and La Movida, Chronique d’une Agitation, 1978 — 1988. Both were in or adjacent to the Cloître Saint-Trophime, a magnificent 12th century cloister featuring exquisite stone carvings surrounding a beautiful courtyard.
The Germaine Krull exhibition chronicled the voyage and exile of a group of French political dissidents and European refugees. They fled Paris on the eve of the Nazi invasion. They boarded a freighter run by Vichy partisans and eventually ended up in a penal colony in the North of Africa. The photographs themselves were not particularly interesting. They more-or-less looked like snapshots that someone took of their friends. But as historical documents they are incredible. They show the conditions under which important dissidents like Victor and Vlady Serge lived during the opening years of World War II. And they emphasized that the existence of stateless or semi-stateless refugees is not a recent problem. It dates from the instant that states acquired the necessary technology to demarcate people along the lines of citizenship.
As La Movida exhibition paired beautifully with Libuse’s exhibition. The bodies of work were roughly contemporaneous. And so was the subject matter. While there were many aesthetic differences, the primary difference was the political environment under which the photograph’s were taken. Most of Libuse’s photographs are intimate personal documents chronicling people on the margin’s of society efforts to privately find freedom under a totalitarian regime. In contrast, the four photographers whose work is featured in La Movida lived in a society where people were beginning to publicly pursue freedom after the collapse of a fascist state. Their work generally lacked the intimacy of Libuse’s. It captured the hunger for freedom that people have after freedom becomes possible—as opposed to the way people create free spaces, autonomous zones, in their efforts to privately resist.
The other thing I was reminded of in La Movida exhibition is that I am now old enough to have lived through periods that are now historical. I was an early teen—almost precisely the age my son is now—when the late photographs in both Libuse’s exhibition and the La Movida exhibition were taken. Looking at them I was also reminded of my friend Todd Sines’s photographs of the 1990s techno scene in Detroit--another moment that is both increasingly historically distant and important.
Jul 11, 2019
We spent the majority of our first day in Arles with Libuse Jarcovjakova. She’s an old friend of my parents and for years she’s met with my father’s students in Prague to show them her work and give them a lecture or two on photography. Today was not much different, except that we were in Arles rather than in Prague.
After breakfast we all gathered in the hotel’s conference room and Libuse gave her talk. It was more of a dialogue between her, my father, and Judy Walgren than a formal lecture. I imperfectly transcribed a few of the things she said. She began by talking about the difference between social documentary and personal documentary photography. She said, “When I am doing some social documentary photography, I have done some research... Personal documentary, I use it like self-help. Sometimes I was involved in very complicated situations. I used photography to get some distance for myself and to make some sense of the situation.
Another short note, it is mostly about very ordinary life. It is mostly about something that is very close to you, which is very obvious. Doing photos of such normal ordinary things seems like it might be boring but photography changes things. Life is changing so fast that this ordinary thing will be very important. You don’t need to have some extraordinary adventure. You just need to be present to every day, normal, ordinary life. That is very special.”
One of my father and Judy’s students asked Libuse a question about selfies. This was her response: “I spent five years in West Berlin from 1985 to 1989. There was an exhibit there last year of my work. In the exhibit there were over forty selfies. Living in West Berlin in the 80s I felt very lonely. The selfies were something that helped me to find myself. I was never thinking about my looks. I just wanted to document. I hate myself in many of them. I am just ugly there. I felt horrible. I had no money, no friends, no language. It was a historical moment. But perhaps a good example of what the selfie can do.”
Immediately following her lecture we walked down to the church in the center of town where her exhibition is. It is one of the best exhibition spots in Arles and they had something like two hundred of her images--stretching from the mid-seventies to the late eighties--on display. I bought the exhibition catalog. The images form a remarkable archive of people on society’s margins in Communist Czechoslovakia.
While we were there Libuse gave a second talk. Again, I imperfectly transcribed a few of the things she said. She began by talking about taking photographs in the factory where she worked as a teenager. She said: “At the factory they didn’t care that I was taking pictures until they realized that I wasn’t taking photos of the heroic worker. That was what the Communists wanted. I was taking pictures of people goofing off, sleeping on the job, not working.”
She continued: “In those days, I was very adventurous. I was regularly moving into groups of people that were totally different from me and trying to be accepted. Step-by-step I worked with them and that opened doors. With Vietnamese and the Cubans I taught them the Czech language and I was living with them. They suffered from racism. We teachers were the only Czechs who would spend time with them. And so they wanted me to photograph them. And I took the photographs. I was inside their community. It is necessary to have empathy to join a group like this.”
Reflecting on her body of work she observed: “I had the good luck that I didn’t work on assignment. I had a free hand.”
In response to the question: “What made you ready to show the work?” Libuse said: “Ten or eleven years ago I was unknown. I was always unknown. When I went to my studio I felt a sadness. I had all this work that I hadn’t shared. And so, little-by-little, I began to share my work with some professionals. Then a professional wanted to see both my journals and my images. I felt like it was too personal. I felt like it was gossip. But then I read somewhere that the most personal is the most universal. And I shared more of my work. And I got feedback, especially from young people. They felt like they were reading their own stories.”
In response to the question: “How do you feel now?” Libuse said: “Every morning when I wake up I’m totally empty. I’m very happy. I know it is amazing. People are approaching me and I am know that I have touched their hearts. It is very important for me now not to be in the archives but to be making new work.”
When one of the students asked her how she got her start, Libuse replied: “I am from an artistic family. I got visual art as a heritage. Being in touch with visual culture was very important. My father was a painter and so was my mother. My father had a big personality. I decided I couldn’t be a painter because of him. So, at the age of 13 I got my first camera. At the age of 15 I started to study. Everyone hated my work. And I was very shy about showing it to people. That changed when I started working at the factory at the age of 19.”
When asked, “Were you influenced by punk at all?” Libuse said: “I had almost no influence of contemporary photographers. I knew Robert Frank and Diane Arbus. I had never heard of Nan Goldin.”
That was the last question that she answered during her talk with my father and Judy’s class. After that my family, Judy, her son, Libuse, and Libuse’s niece and grand nephew all went to lunch. We had dinner together as well and then went our separate ways for the evening.
Jul 10, 2019
We met my parents, Judy Walgren, and their students at Charles de Gaulle to catch the train to Arles in the afternoon. The morning was uneventful, we both slept in, and we arrived in time to get a bite to eat before we all got on the train—McDonald’s again for my son and the French pastry chain Paul’s for me.
It turns out that I speak the best French of the group—a rather pathetic statement given that I can only muster enough French to ask for directions, order food, and buy something. Nonetheless, it came in helpful as we traveled. The train ride to Arles consisted of two trains. The first a high-speed train from Paris to Lyon; the second a local train that went from Lyon to Arles. There was a lot of difference between the two trains. The first was modern. It had assigned seats and air conditioning. The second was an artifact from perhaps the 1960s. There were no assigned seats and the car was broken up into a series of cabins of eight.
The most challenging part of the trip was the transfer between the trains. We had exactly 13 minutes to do it. Thirteen minutes to get the luggage of sixteen people—and Americans generally don’t travel light—from one train to another. My French came in handy. I got off and asked directions from a train agent. He answered in English—a fairly common phenomena since many people speak much better English than I speak French—and I was able to steer the group in the right direction.
We barely made the train, but we did, only to discover that without assigned seats many of us had to stand. My son went off with his grandfather and I made my way into a cabin with a handful of extra seats. It was partially occupied by the largest Frenchman I’ve ever seen. He was probably seven feet tall and occupied two seats. The cabin was quite small which gave the whole experience a somewhat surreal feel, especially once people had crammed into all of the seats around him.
The rest of the trip to Arles was uneventful. We saw some beautiful countryside—lavender fields and vineyards—and some delightful towns filled with buildings with stone walls and clay roofs. We arrived exactly on time—8:00 p.m.—and made our way through the streets of the city to the place where we are staying. It is directly across from the Roman coliseum and smack in the center of town.
After checking-in and depositing our bags we went to a pizza place, that also serves Provençal food, for dinner. The service was slow—they managed to forget my son’s order and he ended up eating some of my Dad’s pizza. The waiter was impatient with our lack of French. But overall, the food was quite good. Most people had pizza. I had Provençal style tuna, which was served with a baked eggplant covered in a cheese sauce, some kind of vegetable terrine, a baked tomato, and rice. Towards the end of the meal Libuse Jarcovjakova and her niece and grand-nephew joined us. She and my parents had a long conversation about her sudden success. In addition to pieces in the New York Times and the Guardian, she’s been covered in Le Monde and several other French and Italian publications.
Tomorrow we’re supposed to spend most of the day with Libuse. She’s giving a gallery talk to the students and we’re all having lunch and dinner together. I suspect we’ll spend most of the time in between settling into our apartment.
Jul 9, 2019
We arrived in Paris mid-afternoon. Our flight was delayed by more than two hours. I am not certain why—no consistent explanation was given—but our plane sat on the tarmac at JFK for quite some time. During that time, before I fell asleep on the flight over, I watched a couple of movies: Captain Marvel and the Man from U.N.C.L.E. My son watched a bunch of movies too. He was having such a good time with the inflight entertainment system that I basically had to threaten him to get him to rest for a bit prior to landing.
Our friends Gilles and Nicole have a place across from the Cite de la Science on the edge of Parc de la Villette. Nicole let us in, and my son crashed. Nicole fixed a salad and offered me some baguette for lunch. The salad was simple and delicious—lettuce, a bit of tuna, some egg, and smidge of carrot tossed in olive oil and lemon. Whole books have been written about baguette. Anything I have to say on the subject would be trivial. So, I will pass over the baguette to just note that it was the perfect post-flight meal. Shortly afterwards, I fell asleep.
Someplace the writer Tom Wolfe has a comment about radical chic. It is a phrase he used to describe the New York Review of Books and the left-wing, well-educated, well-off, group of writers who surround it and use it to promote radical politics. Staying with Gilles and Nicole made me realize that the phrase is probably apt for my parents and their friends as well. Many of them share a similar distinctive aesthetic and left-leaning politics. Gilles and Nicole’s apartment has much in common with my parents’ place in Michigan and Marketa Luskacova’s and Libuse Jarcovjakova’s apartments in Prague. In each place there’s the same art filled walls; postcards from friends; copious books; and mass of well use kitchen implements. Some of the art is political. Some of it is satirical. Some reflects a particular affinity with a national culture—the Czechs or the French—but overall the feeling is overwhelmingly international, with a heavy, but not exclusive tilt towards Europe. At my parents’ place there is a bit of Asian art from my Mom’s time with the Peace Corps and some stuff from Mexico—an accumulation from my stints in Chiapas and Oaxaca and my family’s stay in Mexico City when my father was on a Fulbright. At Gilles and Nicole’s there’s a fair amount of African art, particularly masks, acquired, I imagine, from their travels to Africa to photograph people at work.
Visiting with Gilles and Nicole made me aware of my own culture. A number of the women I have dated have said something like, “I’ve never met anyone like you before.” As I have gotten older, I’ve realized that being raised in this milieu of radical chic is not at all a common experience. And so many of the things that I take for granted, including how I think about much of the world, come from this sensibility that is, well, far from the usual American experience.
I anticipate more reflections on culture and radical chic throughout the course of the trip. But for, now, I’ll turn to describing Parc de la Villette. I dragged my son there after we woke up from too long post-airplane naps. It is in my estimation one of the great urban parks of the world: a masterpiece in urban landscaping. The park is a magical mixture of large public spaces and tiny half-hidden gardens. We stumbled into a set of hanging gardens, inspired by the hanging gardens of Babylon; a multiple layered bamboo garden that created a private, quite, meditative, almost other worldly, space in the midst of Paris; and a selection of upright mirrored stones that felt like a modern rendition of menhirs.
I am sure there are other gardens tucked into the Parc waiting to be found but after exploring for about two hours we went back to Gilles and Nicole’s. My son went to bed after a dinner of French McDonald’s. I had another salad with Gilles and Nicole. The aperitif was a delicious mixture of cognac and wine. We spoke a mixture of English and Spanish and they tried to help me with my rather pathetic French. A good portion of the conversation was about light. I have noticed over the years that when I am with photographers they tend to talk about light. They are in the midst of a commercial shoot for Christmas. Apparently, lit candles are very difficult to photograph—they are both a source of light and generally need a source of light to illuminate, a difficult problem.
Tomorrow we meet my parents and my father’s class at Charles de Gaulle airport to catch the train to Arles. This year my father is co-teaching the course with the photographer Judy Walgren. She is a new colleague of his at Michigan State and her son, whose is about the same age as my son, will be accompanying her.
Jul 8, 2019
The rest of July and through early August I will be traveling in Europe with my parents and son. My son and I are tagging along on my father’s study abroad class for Michigan State University. He has taught the course on-and-off since 1980. My mother has accompanied him all but one time. When my brother and I were children we went together with my parents as a family. Since graduating from high school, I have joined my parents on four of their trips to Europe. One of these trips was with both of my children and my then wife. Another was with just my son. My daughter has also traveled with her grandparents on her own.
My father’s class is on photography. As a professor of journalism and a photographer, he has taught two generations of students photography through a combination of portfolio projects, gallery and museum visits, lectures and tours. The lectures and tours are frequently given by leading European photographers--many whom became, over time, some my family’s dearest friends.
This summer my son and I are again joining my parents. My son is now twelve which means that he is old enough to really appreciate aspects of such a trip in ways he wasn’t able to before. Along the way we will be visiting many of the family friends that we have made over the years. These will include artists and art critics, friends of mine from my time at Harvard, childhood friends, and members of the international anarchist community. After reading Mark Lilla’s article in the New York Review of Books on the French New Right I attempted to contact a number of people he describes. So, there’s a slim chance I might also connect with some young French right-wing intellectuals.
This year, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to publish excerpts from my journals on my blog. My blog posts will generally be unpolished first drafts--taken almost straight from my journal. They will include not only my reflections on the trip but my thoughts on what I am reading and, possibly, both the profound ecological, economic, political, and social crisis humanity is in the midst of and my thoughts on the role that the Unitarian Universalist church might play in confronting it. In general, when I write about people who are public figures, I will use their names. When I write about people who are not, I will use initials.
My son and I arrive in Paris on July 8th. We will be spending our first night in France at the Paris apartment of family friends Gilles Perrin and Nicole Ewenczyk. On July 9th we meet up with my parents and travel to Arles for the Rencontres d'Arles. I have been to Arles once before and I am particularly excited about this year’s festival because family friend Libuse Jarcovjakova’s work is being highlighted. On Friday it was featured in the New York Times and Guardian. On the 16th we head back to Paris for ten days. We will be visiting with a host of folks there before heading on July 26th to Sers, a village in Nouvelle-Aquitaine where Gilles and Nicole have a home. We will be there until August 2nd when we fly to London. We will spend six nights in London, including my 43rd birthday, before flying home to Houston on the 9th. I am back in the pulpit on the 11th with a question box sermon.