Sep 3, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, August 25, 2019
When I was a kid, maybe in second grade, I was given a homework assignment. I was told to make a diorama of the water cycle. How many of you have had a similar assignment at some point in your schooling? It is a pretty familiar one.
I proceeded with it as instructed. I got some blue paint. I got some green paint. I got some brown paint and white paint. I got some glue and some little cotton balls. I got some construction paper. And I got a shoebox and set to work.
Well, actually, my mother and I got to work. Remember, I was seven or eight years old. I do not know about you but when I was that age homework really meant work, I did with my parents, at home.
Like most seven-year-olds, I was probably cranky towards and a bit unkind to my mother as she helped me assemble my diorama. I may have even resented her for making me do my homework assignment. Whatever the case, over the course of a week or so we transformed a plain shoebox into a model of the water cycle.
There was a large blue body of water--probably Lake Michigan since we lived near the Great Lakes. Water evaporated from it and then condensed into clouds--little fluffy cotton balls. After the clouds came precipitation. I almost certainly had fun portraying a grand thunderstorm with lighting and torrents of rain striking the Earth. From there, I showed how water flowed over the green and brown ground--painted in solid unmixed colors straight from the tube--into the rivers and then back into the lake.
There were a lot of things that my diorama did not show. It did not show the sublimation process. That is the process whereby ice converts directly into water vapor without converting into liquid water first. This mostly happens over the polar ice sheets.
My diorama also did not show transpiration. That is the process where plants absorb water from the soil and then push it out through their leaves as water vapor. Nor did it show infiltration. That is when water neither evaporates from the source, nor flows into a river, nor is absorbed by a plant, but moves deep into the soil. It seeps down and increases the ground water table.
Remember, this was second grade. Such concepts are a bit complicated for most seven-year-olds. I may not even be doing a good job of describing them now. Whatever the case, my diorama did not show other things. One of its most glaring omissions was its attribution. I claimed sole credit for its construction. Painted on the back of the shoebox were the words “by Colin Bossen.” A more honest attribution would have been, “by Colin Bossen and his mother Kathy Bossen, who by turns, assisted, cajoled, and threatened him until he completed it to her satisfaction.”
It also completely omitted the processes by which most humans get water. The majority of us do not get it directly from the lake, from the clouds, or from the ground water table. We have a complicated infrastructure of water treatment plants and sewer systems that transport clean water to our homes. And we have drains, toilets, and pipes that remove dirty water from them.
This summer, I found myself thinking about my second-grade water diorama, and all the things it omitted, when I was in Arles. Arles is a small city in the South of France. It is might be most famous for being the place where Vincent Van Gogh spent a year painting. His canvases of his time there include his famous bedroom with its blue walls, blue clothes, blue pitchers, blue doors, yellow bed, yellow chairs, and rich, textured, wooden floor. They include glowing night scenes, a cafe along cobblestones, with wooden chairs and crowds sipping cognac, coffee, absinthe, wine, or, well who knows, as adults and children stroll into the darkness. And they include well known images of Arles fading Roman ruins.
The heart of Arles remains the old Roman city. The Colosseum and the Amphitheater are still in regular use. They are surrounded by mazing Medieval streets, dense clusters of stone buildings bursting out into plazas and squares and interrupted by flowers hanging from balconies or in plentiful pots right outside two-hundred-year-old doors.
Arles also remains a city of the arts. It is the site of one of the world’s largest photography festivals. You might know that my father is a historian of photography and museum curator. My parents travel to Arles every couple of years to take part in the festival. This year, my son and I joined them.
It is an amazing festival. The exhibitions are generally located in medieval buildings that have been temporarily converted into art galleries. And it was in one of these--a fifteenth century Gothic church--that I found myself thinking about my water diorama. More accurately, I found myself thinking about the things that my diorama omitted.
The church has massive vaulted ceilings. It is made of stone. It has elegant arches. It is spacious and seems to go on and on. Inside of it was a huge exhibition of the work of the French photographer Philippe Chancel called Datazone. It was a terrifying collection of photographs. Chancel has spent the last several years traveling the world photographing sites of catastrophe. He describes his subjects as “traumatized ecology, chaotic deindustrialization, and the toxicity of modernization.”
He takes photographs of collapsed houses and abandoned factories. He takes photographs of piles of rubbish--mountains of plastic bottles and rusting iron. He takes photographs of tankers that have been run to ground. Their steel and valuable components are being stripped and recycled by workers who labor without any safety equipment.
Many of his photographs of water. They do not depict the clean water of the water cycle--the clouds and lakes that my diorama inelegantly displayed. Instead, they portray all of the omissions from the diorama. Water in Africa that has been rendered toxic after being used in oil extraction. Water filled with chemicals, glistening, thick, and black rather than transparent. Water in Flint that is filled with lead and rendered undrinkable. Water that has been packaged and sold in plastic bottles. These plastic bottles return to the waterways and pollute them--creating masses of floating plastic islands and then slowly dissolve. As they do, they place tiny pieces of plastic particulate in the world’s water supply. Water in Antarctica. Beautiful, luminous, floating clumps of ice. Massive, white fading into blue, crystal layer upon layer. Objects almost too gorgeous to imagine. Icebergs created by our warming planet as glaciers calve into the ocean. Not a sign of a healthy planet but a sign of a planet in distress.
In that building, created so that a congregation might gather and worship the most high, might connect with something or someone greater than itself, Philippe Chancel portrayed how humans have become disconnected. He showed how we have become disconnected from water and disconnected from each other. He showed the danger of forgetting, of omitting, the fullness of the water cycle. Clouds form over the polar ice caps. We need them to survive. Water travels through the Earth. Chemicals placed in the Earth will mix with water. We need clean, unpolluted, water to survive. He showed the danger of forgetting that we are dependent upon a human built infrastructure to have safe water in our homes. Flint does not have safe water. Newark does not have safe water. We have forgotten that we are dependent upon our collective infrastructure and we are destroying our cities. We need infrastructure to survive.
When I envision my second-grade diorama now I think about all of things it omitted. Each thing absent could have taught me a lesson. If my mother’s signature had been on the work it would have reminded me that I am always part of, connected to, the larger human family. My work, my accomplishments, are dependent on the work of others. None of us are in this world alone. If human infrastructure had been present, I would have been reminded that we are connected to, dependent upon, things like sewers and water treatment plants for our survival. We need them to live. And if the water table had been present, I might have been reminded that our collective human actions impact water, that our actions, for good or for ill, connect us to the whole of the planet.
And, this Sunday, this water communion, as we gather as religious community for the start of our liturgical year, as we mingle our waters, let us remember that we connected and dependent. We are connected to and dependent upon the larger human community. We are connected to and dependent upon the infrastructure we have built to bring us safe water. And we are connected to and dependent upon the planet, with its mass of water that gives us life.
There is always a larger truth. We are not alone. We are part of something greater, more beautiful, more complicated, and, yes, more fragile, than we can imagine.
Let us remember this truth, now, and always.
That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.
Aug 13, 2019
My parents have been friends with the Czech photographer Marketa Luskacova since shortly after my father first started teaching in the United Kingdom. They met her when she was a young single mother living in exile. It was the early 1980s and she was a political dissident who had fled the Communist East for the relative freedom of the West. While she was not a fan of the Marxist-Leninist Stalinist regime in her own country, she was no advocate for Thatcher’s Britain either. She spent most of her time making photographs of working-class people who were on the edge of British society and threatened by neoliberalism.
Her most famous photography from the 1970s and 1980s is her series on the performers, hustlers, street people, and vendors who made up the community of Spitalfields Market. Her photography of them earned her praise from, and friendship with, John Berger. It also provided an important document, an artifact of historical memory, that attested to the diversity of human culture under threat from the neoliberal vision—musicians who made their own eccentric instruments, cobblers who handmade quality shoes in their shops not as luxury goods but as necessities for workers, and people regularly creating, rather than consuming, their own culture around rubbish can fires and wooden crates.
It was fitting, then, that we met Marketa for dinner at St. John Bread and Wine opposite Spitalfields. St. John’s might be my favorite restaurant anywhere. I will write about our meal in my London restaurant round-up. For now, I’ll focus on the conversation. Marketa is always illuminating. She is always thinking, feeling, trying to understand her own aesthetic, considering what it means to be an artist, how her medium enables her to see the world, always seeking the spiritual dimension—which for her always has a deeply political element to it, even if the politics are never explicitly stated. They’re there in her subject matter and her framing.
Marketa brought perhaps a fifty test prints from her ongoing series on a Czech carnival that she’s been shooting for nineteen years. Here was her first insight, there is much to be gained by returning to a subject and community year after year—depth of relationship, sensitivity to change over time, and not a bit of self-discovery. And that’s where she offered a second insight, there’s often an emotional disconnect between when she does her strongest work and how she’s feeling. She confessed that she didn’t particularly enjoy this year’s carnival. Over the last two decades it has grown from perhaps eighty people to over five thousand. Going this year was, for her, kind of a miserable experience—too many people observing, not participating, not wearing masks, making a spectacle of the whole thing. And yet, when she started to review her test prints, she realized that she had taken some of the strongest photographs of the carnival yet. Conversely, she confessed, that when she is feeling euphoric, carried away by the joyous feeling of the crowd, she often takes photographs that are not particularly good. Her own internal euphoria often causes her to misjudge what she’s doing—to think it is better than it is.
I can relate. I usually hate my sermons before I preach them. Often, it is the texts that turn out to be my best work—texts that get anthologized, republished in magazines, or assigned in college courses—that I have most negative reactions to prior to preaching. I suspect that is because that when I do my best work, I am deeply emotionally connected to it and this makes me aware of its flaws rather than its strengths just as I am about to put it out in the world.
I know that I am not alone in this. Not only does Marketa’s experience resonate with mine, but I have had a few conversations with my friend Titonton Duvante over the years on the subject. Titonton has been a techno innovator for almost thirty years. When he is really on, really connected with what he is doing, he is amongst the best electronic musicians out there. I have listened to a few thousand DJ and live sets over the last twenty-five plus years and some of Titonton’s are among the most memorable. But here’s the thing, he’s told me that there’s an exact relation between how nervous he feels, how anxious he is, and how good his performance ends up being. If he’s really nervous, on the verge of losing it nervous, then almost he inevitably offers a masterful performance. If not, then not.
Clearly there’s something about the emotional investment an artist has in their art—and preachers are, amongst other things, artists—that is closely correlated to their artistic production.
Back to Marketa... While we were together, she talked a bit about her recent show at the Tate and her upcoming show at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol. She and my parents had an extended conversation, which I won’t relate, about the various economic challenges artists face. And she shared that last year she received the Jan Masaryk Honorary Medal from the Czech government. Of course, Marketa had a story about Jan Masaryk.
Her grandmother loved Jan Masaryk, thought he was a humane, sensible, and cultured leader. When the Stalinists seized power, they threw Jan Masaryk out of a window. He died. Marketa was four and she remembers her grandmother being completely distraught, sobbing, over and over again, “They’ve killed Masaryk. They’ve killed Masaryk.”
She told me that when she received the Jan Masaryk Honorary Medal she thought of her grandmother. She imagined her smiling down from heaven on that day, proud of her granddaughter who had resisted the Stalinists and was now being honored with a medal named for a political leader who she had admired.
Spitalfields has changed. The street culture that Marketa photograph is entirely gone—washed away by upmarket shops and good. The cobblers who handmade shoes for the working poor have been replaced by boutique stores that sell fancy shoes, still handmade, to the affluent. Neoliberalism has succeeded in destroying so much of the vibrancy and power of the working-class throughout not just Britain, but the world. And yet, there’s something about Marketa’s story of her grandmother and the Jan Masaryk Honorary Medal. It isn’t about anything as quaint as triumph of good over evil or the inevitable collapse of totalitarian regimes or anything else that I might find truly comforting. It has more to do with the power of perseverance and the truth that the future is always unwritten and that resistance, in some for another, continues. And that there is great power to be found in preserving, through stories, through photographs, in all the forms we can. We create records of resistance, memories and stories, so that, even after its defeat—for Jan Masaryk was certainly defeated—our resistance might continue to inspire future resistance to tyranny.
Jul 28, 2019
No discussion of Paris would be complete without at least a gesture towards the city’s restaurants. In past years, when I’ve been in Paris, we’ve cooked a lot in the apartment we’ve rented. This year the apartment we had was quite small and the heatwave was debilitating. As a result, we didn’t host any dinner parties or make excursions to the Bastille Market. Instead, we either ate sandwiches and pastries from the local boulangeries (bakeries) or went out to eat. Here are some a few of my favorite meals:
My parents took my son and I and their friends Gilles and Nicole to this Michelin Star restaurant that has been getting a lot of press internationally. The chef specializes in a fusion of French and Chinese and doesn’t cook from recipes. She goes to the market and is inspired each day from what she find’s there. The most interesting part of the meal was the tea and wine pairings that went with each course. We had what was billed as a three-course meal but actually turned out to be six courses. There were two amuse bouches—Chinese waffles and three small dishes of crab, sea snails, and egg rolls—followed by a salad of heirloom tomatoes, cockles, and mussels, a main course of sea bass cooked with tea, and then a dessert of fruit and sorbet finished by a palette cleansing coconut marshmallow and a coconut sorbet.
Alongside each course was either a delightful tea—white, oolong, or green—or a wine. I’ve never had food specifically paired with tea before. It works almost as well as pairing it with wine. It’s something I plan to experiment with at home.
The British photographer Nigel Dickinson has been close friends with my parents for something like two decades. He has a fabulous studio in Paris’s Belleville neighborhood. Belleville is a very diverse community. It is one of those places where you can find Sephardic and Tunisian Jews living alongside Muslims from Algeria and Morocco. It is also the home to a sizable Laotian and Thai community.
We had a dinner with Nigel twice. Both times he took us to Laotian or Thai restaurants near his home. The food was far better than any Thai food I’ve had in the United States. It was also quite a bit different. Most Thai places I know serve variations on perhaps a dozen kinds of curries. These places served a huge variety. We had fish mashed and then steamed in a banana leaf while cooked in a coconut milk curry, a red tofu curry that didn’t even vaguely resemble the red curry I get in America, a delicious raw papaya salad, and half a dozen other dishes. Unlike Yam’Tcha, Lao Siam and Krung Thep Mahanakorn were both quite affordable. Two people could eat there for well under forty euros a piece.
Oyster Club is a classic Breton seafood place in the Marais. We had their mixed seafood plates and oysters. The mixed seafood plates came with winkles, whelks, more oysters, pink shrimp, and grey shrimp. This last item was to be eaten whole—shell and all.
The restaurant itself is on a small side street and sort of spills out into the street. It’s a lively evening scene and the food is excellent—though the menu is limited to seafood. It is certainly a place I will go back to next time I am in the Marais.
Au Bouquet Saint Paul and Chez Mademoiselle are two excellent bistros near Rue Saint Antoine in the Marais. Au Bouquet Saint Paul had an inexpensive fixed price lunch—14.50 euro for either an entree and a dessert or an entree and an appetizer—that consisted of classic French bistro food. We ate there twice. The sea bass and gazpacho soup were both great and my son loved the cream brûlée. They also served Berthillon ice cream, which an experience in itself.
Chez Mademoiselle is a bit pricier. It also has a bit more of a scene. It is located in the front of the building where we rented our apartment. I went there a few times—once for dinner and twice for drinks. One night while I was sipping on a glass of rose the bar erupted into a spontaneous dance party.
We ate at La Cigogne for lunch our first full day in Sers. It is a Michelin Plate restaurant. While this is the lowest designation that Michelin can give a restaurant, it doesn’t mean the food is bad. On the contrary, it means it is quite good. It just isn’t good enough to earn a Michelin Star or a Michelin Bib Gourmand.
I suspect that La Cigogne earned its Michelin ranking because its food is excellent but not necessarily innovative. Yam’Tcha pushes culinary boundaries. La Cigogne delivers fantastic and classic French food. I would happily eat at either again (provided someone else is picking up the tab) but Yam’Tcha undoubtedly provided the meal that my parents and their friends will be talking about for years to come.
Jul 13, 2019
The crisis in the United States keeps getting worse and worse. Today as I wandered through Arles members of my congregation in Houston participated in protests against President Trump’s planned ICE raids. His administration’s anti-human and anti-immigrant policies are part of the larger global crisis. I have been thinking about the crisis a lot since I have been in France. Much of the photography at Les Rencontres d’Arles is focused on the crisis. And my intention is to make it the major focus of congregational life when I return. I think that the moment we are in requires religious communities to confront it if they are to be faithful to humanity, God, and nature.
Right now, though, I am spending my time in beautiful cafes in Arles drinking rose with my family. I guess that’s what privilege really is in the end, the ability to step outside or away from the world’s crises. And at this age, with my Harvard education, my many trips to Europe and on vacation in other parts of the world, my more than modest income, my significant cultural resources, and, of course, my skin color and citizenship status, I feel quite privileged.
When I return to the United States I will do my best to weaponize that privilege: preaching about the rise of totalitarianism, writing about white supremacy, organizing and attending protests and marches, attempting to develop and articulate spiritual practices and theological resources for confronting the intertwined economic, ecological, social, political, and, well, really spiritual crises humanity faces in these opening decades of the twenty-first century. But now, I just feel my privilege.
I feel it when I attend an exhibition like Philippe Chancel’s. His work emphasizes the global nature of the current crisis: the Republican destruction of the city of Flint’s municipal water system is seen as part of the same cycle of ecological destruction that is decimating parts of Africa or China. It is revealed to be a symptom of a political and economic class that is more interested in its own self-interest than in serving the needs of the vast majority of working people. While the conditions and the political systems are almost incomparably different Chancel is on point in his implicit comparison between a Michigan governed by Rick Snyder or a North Korea run by Kim Jong-un. In both situations the rich and powerful--the most privileged--are fine while poor and working people suffer.
In the midst of the global crises, I think that the for challenge someone like me is partly about holding onto my own humanity. In the end, privilege contains within it the possibility of shedding one’s humanity. I believe that there is only one human family and that we are all, ultimately, part of the same earthly community. Privilege is based on separation. The ability to step away from the experiences that most people have. And, well, in a world filled with refugees, economic exploitation, and many other kinds of discrimination and systematic violence, I feel quite privileged--which is to say separate and insulated--here in the South of France.
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.
Jul 29, 2017
Yesterday the New York Times brought news that famed photo editor John Morris died at the age of 100. Morris was the photo editor of the New York Times during the Vietnam War and made the decision to publish two of the most famous images of the war on the newspaper’s front page--the informally titled “Napalm Girl” by Huỳnh Công Út and Eddie Adams's "Saigon Execution." He made sure that these images appeared on the top fold of the paper, which meant they were seen even by people who didn't build the Times. He was Robert Capa’s photo editor for many years and the founding photo editor for Magnum Photo. You can read the Times’s obituary of John Morris here. They've also made a nice video tribute.
John was a long time friend of my parents. I believe they met him through their friends Nicole Ewenczyk and Gilles Perrin--my father collaborated on a book with them a few years ago. Last summer, while I was visiting them in Paris, I had the pleasure of attending one of his lectures. John’s talk focused on his century of experience as a photo editor. He spoke about his commitment to pacifism and his belief that photo editing could be a kind of anti-war activism. The selection of images that highlighted the horrors of war, he hoped, could engender empathy for the victims of violence and inspire people to oppose their government’s involvement in international conflicts.
After John’s lecture we all had dinner at the little bistro across the street from his studio. I was seated next to him and we talked about the civil war in Syria. A few years ago I penned a piece for the Huffington Post arguing against military intervention after the Assad government used chemical weapons. I have since had some ambivalence about the question of military intervention and come to support, in principle, the Kurdish anarchist movement, Democratic Union Party. I have never been convicted of absolute pacifism and, as in the case of my longstanding support for the Zapatistas, believe that organized violent resistance to various forms of fascism and totalitarianism can sometimes be the only way to arrest them.
John did not agree. After his experiences in World War II, he felt that violence always beget further violence. Any support of a military movement in Syria, he believed, would only extend the conflict and cause further suffering. I suspect that his position was also tempered by his Quakerism.
Unfortunately, the bistro was too loud for us to converse more in-depth. Nonetheless, it was a memorable experience. It deepened my already deep respect for the photographers, and their editors, who strive to document our world as political and ethical acts. Social documentary photography is an art form and art in all its forms can be a powerful act of resistance to the viciousness of human brutality.