this is my dream home

Philipp Blom on meeting Wolf Stein (and describing my dream home, except for the last sentence): 

“When I arrived at his address … he welcomed me warmly and asked me to excuse the state of his house … What I had noticed, however, was not the tools lying about, but the books spreading everywhere like moss on wet stones. Piles of books lined the entire hallway and more were sitting on every step of the staircase leading up to the first floor. Books were creeping up the walls and occupying every inch of free space on the floor, on tables, chairs and other furniture. The rooms were accessible only through narrow canals winding through a mountainous landscape of reading matter in all shapes and sizes. He showed me around the house. There were books surrounding his bed, books on shelves above it, books in front of the bathub, and books in his study … The only room free of this growth of books was the kitchen, a desolate place not only because it was bare in contrast to the other rooms, but also because it was almost devoid of food.”


these are the questions

Stringing together the intertextual mutterings of DFW-- raw and touching provocations on the basic questions of human faith and existence -- from his essay "Joseph Frank's Dostoyevsky":


**Am I a good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me? Is there a difference? How do I ever actually know whether I'm bullshitting myself, morally speaking?**

**What exactly does 'faith' mean? As in 'religious faith,' 'faith in God' etc. Isn't it basically crazy to believe in something that there's no proof of? is there really any difference between what we call faith and some primitive tribe's sacrificing virgins to volcanoes because they believe it'll produce good weather? How can somebody have faith before he's presented with sufficient reason to have faith? Or is somehow needing to have faith a sufficient reason for having faith? But then what kind of need are we talking about?**

**Is the real point of my life simply to undergo as little pain and as much pleasure as possible? My behavior sure seems to indicate that this is what I believe, at least a lot of the time. But isn't this kind of a selfish way to live? Forget selfish--isn't it awful lonely?**

**But if I decide to decide there's a different, less selfish, less lonely point to my life, won't the reason for this decision be my desire to be less lonely, meaning to suffer less overall pain? Can the decision to be less selfish ever be anything other than a selfish decision?"**

**Is it possible really to love other people? If I'm lonely and in pain, everyone outside me is potential relief--I need them. But can you really love what you need so badly? Isn't a big part of love caring more about what the other person needs? How am I supposed to subordinate my own overwhelming need to somebody else's needs that I can't even feel directly? And yet if I can't do this, I'm damned to loneliness, which I definitely don't want ... so I'm back at trying to overcome my selfishness for self-interested reasons. Is there any way out of this bind?**

**What is 'an American'? Do we have something important in common, as Americans, or is it just that we all happen to live inside the same boundaries and so have to obey the same laws? How exactly is America different from other countries? Is there really something unique about it? What does that uniqueness entail? We talk a lot about our special rights and freedoms, but are there also special responsibilities that come with being an American? If so, responsibilities to whom?**

**Does this guy Jesus Christ's life have something to teach me even if I don't, or can't, believe he was divine? What am I supposed to make of the claim that someone who was God's relative, and so could have turned the cross into a planter or something with just a word, still voluntarily let them nail him up there, and died? Even if we suppose he was divine--did he know? Did heh know he could have broken the cross with just a word? Did he know in advance that death would just be temporary (because I bet I could climb up there, too, if I knew that an eternity of right-hand bliss lay on the other side of six hours of pain)? But does any of that even really matter? Can I still believe in JC or Mohammed or Whoever even if I don't believe they were actual relatives of God? Except what would that mean: 'believe in'?**



“He had always been so strange and had lived, like a prophet, in such unimaginably close communion with the Lord that his long silences which were punctuated by moans and hallelujahs and snatches of old songs while he sat at the living room window never seemed odd to us.” 
-James Baldwin


"I find that my praying turns into thinking. It’s like trying to contain something, and then perhaps it turns into prayer. It’s almost impossible for me to maintain it as a purely distinct activity."
-Marilynne Robinson


“The soul knows for certain only that it is hungry. The important thing is that it announces its hunger by crying. A child does not stop crying if we suggest to it that perhaps there is no bread. It goes on crying just the same. The danger is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is any bread, but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry.” 
-Simone Weil

"The truth is, most wisdom is embittering. The task of the wise person cannot be to pretend with false naivete that every moment is new and unprecedented, but to bear the burden of bitterness which experience forces on us with as much uncomplaining dignity as strength will allow. Beyond that, all we can ask of ourselves is that bitterness not cancel out our capacity still to be surprised."
-Phillip Lopate


* "Blindness" by Jorge Luis Borges
"He said that when something ends, we must think that something begins. His advice is salutory, but the execution is difficult, for we only know what we have lost, not what we will gain. We have a very precise image--an image at times shameless--of what we have lost, but we are ignorant of what may follow or replace it."

"A writer, or any man, must believe that whatever happens to him is an instrument; everything has been given for an end ... Everything that happens, including humiliations, embarrassments, misfortunes, all has been given like clay, like material for one's art. One must accept it ... Those things are given to us to transform, so that we may make from the miserable circumstances of our lives things that are eternal, or aspire to be so."

Vivir quiero conmigo
gozar quiero del bien que debo al cielo
a solas sin testigo
libre de amor, de celo,
de odio, de esperanza, de recelo.

-Fray Luis de Leon

Alles Nahe werde fern ("everything near becomes distant")
-Johann Wolfgang van Goethe

*"Some Thoughts on Mercy" by Ross Gay
"It is said, and I believe it, that bees can see inside you. And yet, and yet, the bees didn't attack. Not one sting. They didn't even warn me by coming toward my face. They didn't believe what I thought--what I had imagined--was real. They knew inside me was a truth other than murder. They had mercy. And once the hive was all cloesd up, they went back to their business."


these are thoughts on work

July 2010, South Africa

I decided to quit my job after I watched a TED talk.

The culprit was Ruth Chang’s TED talk, “How to Make Hard Choices,” a video whose summary I’ve recapitulated too many times to count. The basic gist is this: a decision is hard because there is no objectively “better” alternative. “In a hard choice, one alternative is better in some ways, the other alternative is better in other ways, and neither is better than the other overall,” she says. A hard choice can be as ordinary as choosing what to have for breakfast or as momentous as moving from one city to another.

Usually, two choices have values that are incomparable. The world of value, she says, is different from the world of science, in that there’s no linear or hierarchical comparison between justice, beauty, and kindness. So if you have two choices, with different merits and consequences, with no clear categorical imperative or utilitarian benefits, you’re usually faced with two different values in which there’s no better or worse choice. Rather, the two choices are “on a par”—they are in the same league of value, despite “being very different in kind of value.”

Chang argues that when we make a hard decision, we exercise “the power to create reasons” for ourselves—we’re choosing what we value, what we stand for, and who we are. The choices we make are opportunities to act according to what we believe to be true about ourselves, rather than be drifters, tossed and turned by the wind.

Whether or not Chang’s talk is philosophically, ethically, or principally sound, she gave me a paradigm for making a decision about my job. The main questions I asked myself were: What are the values that my current job hold for me, and are those values in line with what I say are the highest values in my life?

I had to be honest with myself, and I’ve known this for at least a year. My job stood for financial stability, for security, for safety and certainty and a consistent paycheck that ensured I would be able to live comfortably in San Francisco. Absent from the job were values that I purportedly cared about: learning, growth, challenge, passion, the discovery and pursuit of a vocation … Even if I could have convinced myself that what I was doing benefited other people, the rationale would have been twisted, and I didn’t look forward to doing what I did everyday, staring into the black hole of a computer, clicking and moving and writing things I didn’t really care about.

After I watched Ruth Chang’s TED talk, I was frustrated and terrified because it compelled me to make a decision that I had been putting off for too long, one that I thought I wouldn’t have to make until much later. I decided that I would give myself two weeks—I would talk to friends, think and pray and journal, and if I still felt as strongly as I did after watching that video, I would put in my two-week notice.

Nothing changed in the way of certainty. In fact, by the next morning—having committed to a course of action—I felt excited and liberated. Some future frontier had opened up. All of a sudden, so many possibilities emerged. I felt clear-headed but also stimulated by new and crazy ideas. I let the two weeks go by, confiding in friends along the way, and then I did it—I went into my boss’ office on a Monday morning, teary-eyed, leg shaking, and told him I had to leave—it was time for me to go.

I had accepted the job two years ago, after a couple rounds of casual interviews. I really liked everyone I talked to. I was charmed by the people at the company, and I became close friends with several of my colleagues almost immediately. Sharing experiences with people in pursuit of enlightenment, goodness, and generosity was the best part of my job, and my gratitude and fondness for them made it hard to leave. But I also quickly discovered that I could not conjure up any enthusiasm for technology whose benefit of interconnectedness I did not find vital or significant enough (I do believe in the first world, technology has destroyed our quality of life in as many ways, if not more, than it has built it up). I say enough because it is possible to present a sturdy rationale of significance for any product or software. In the end, the question for me was whether I believed in that significance enough to give the hours of my days to it. In my hierarchy of good and true things, the answer was no.

There were many deliberations of course.

I was told by many people, especially those more than a decade older than me, that I was lucky to have a job that was stable, that did not require long hours, that gave me the time and space for a life outside of work. Roman Kznacic describes this very strain of thinking in his book How To Find Fulfilling Work, which he calls the “grin and bear it” approach to work: we “get our expectations under control” and resign ourselves to the inevitable drudgery of work—a fact for a majority of humans, both in present day and throughout history. As long as a job meets financial needs and provides the time and resources for a life outside of work, then we should “accept the inevitable and put up with whatever job we can get.”

In other words, we give up searching for some kind of “meaning” in our work, or at least settle for less than we would like. “The best way to protect ourselves from all the optimistic pundits pedaling fulfillment,” Kznacic writes, “is to develop a hardy philosophy of acceptance, even resignation, and not set our hearts on finding a meaningful career.” I think most people, even those who are young and have the obvious luxury of changing careers, believe this, even if they won’t admit it. The primordial, post-Edenic curse is a labor that aches and burns; we have been cursed so that we will neither reap joy nor find meaning in our work, except that we are consigned to it for survival. “I find meaning and joy in what I do outside of my job, in my life that is not work,” so I’ve been told. In having suffered through several wearying and unfulfilling jobs, several of my friends have settled into this common posture of resignation.

But Kznacic himself does not advocate this approach. Neither do most people who have found some kind of meaning in the work they do, because they probably have weathered many jobs they didn’t like, and discovered, through the process of elimination, what they didn’t want to do, which also helped illuminate what they did want to do (unless they were lucky bastards who knew from the age of two what their life’s calling was. Warren Buffett, I’m looking at you).

Quitting my job was a rebuttal to the nihilistic malaise of work that affects so many of us—the first motion in a search to affirm the possibility that there is some work out there that is meaningful for me. Maybe there is a labor to which I give the hours of my day out of love, or at least a loving sacrifice. There is a small part of me that fears the idealism of my search. I already see the glaring doubt in some friends' eyes; they and I both see the naivete. Perhaps I am steeped in a blissful ignorance of quitting with low stakes. I am often terrified that my search may fail, but I know the searching will not be futile, because the searching, which takes courage, faith, and humility, is a kind of persistent, whirring consciousness that attends to the fundamental desires and questions of our existence: What am I doing here? Why am I here? What am I living for? These questions matter to me.

It is a privilege to consider these existential questions about work and meaning. It is a privilege to be able to quit without vital or dire consequences. I didn’t bear this fact lightly. At times, I felt ungrateful, petulant, and finicky for wanting to quit. As start-up techies in the Valley expect free lunch and coffee, we too feel entitled to these first-world freedoms: to choose work, to dislike work, to switch work, to quit work. I try not to forget that the liberty and choice I exercised in quitting is not the norm for millions of people around the world, especially millions of women. Kznacic says that “the desire for fulfilling work—a job that provides a deep sense of purpose, and reflects our values, passions and personality,” is a modern phenomenon, the consequence of material prosperity that has “freed our minds to expect much more from the adventure of life.” It is a privilege of our wealth to worry about whether our talents are being used or our well-being is being nurtured, says Kznacic.

This I know and have considered, and no matter how noble it is to be a good and dutiful steward of a job that I don’t like, I also think, given the opportunity to make a choice, to keep searching, to actively move towards something that is meaningful, to impact others in significant and weighty ways, that I should take it—and if it’s not presented to me, that I should find it. I’m robbing not only myself, but others, of a gift—for where I can give of myself the most, with the greatest intensity and effort and heart, is also where I can make the most impact, somewhere, in a tiny corner of this world. There are outlines of a uniquely shaped passion, deep and powerful, in each of us. Maybe only the silhouette of a feeling, a shiny, translucent flutter of an image. A negative space felt most palpably as an absence. A whisper or a nudge or a tickle. I do believe Frederick Buechner’s now oft-quoted remark: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

I don’t believe in earthly perfection, and that particular disbelief precludes finding ultimate and unwavering satisfaction in work. There will always be a God I serve that is greater than the work I do, and so, even the most indelible feelings of significance will wax and wane, even the most reliable wells of passion will rise and fall—this I know.

But if you are, by God’s grace, given the freedom to choose how you spend your days on this earth, which are limited and precious blessings, will you spend your minutes merely getting by? Passing the minutes to make the money that will support the life you are too scared to lose? Tethered to a paradigm of success that requires a certain title and salary? This is as much a question of consciousness as it is of freedom, a question of identity as it is of survival. In letting go of a job that provided some definition of my role in this city, and gave me some semblance of credibility to tout around like a blow-up doll employed as an imaginary friend, I’ve had no choice but to define myself by what I value and care about, with no regards to money, prestige, or status. I’ve realized how much of my security I put into money and financial stability, how much of my self-confidence I had given over to the tenuous reinforcements of a a filled-out résumé steady job in the tech industry. Without all that buttressing, I feel like a thick layer of bubble wrap has just been popped and peeled off of me. I’ve noticed how much easier it is to slow down and be present. I’m trying to live by my highest values and priorities: community, sentience, kindness, and creativity. Will these values be embedded in the work that pays me money? I have yet to find out. I’ll report back.

Where do I go from here? I do not know. I don't yet feel frantic or worried, but I don't expect unending ease. Most of my days are busy, though I feel protected by a sense of stillness and peace that is rarely intruded upon. There is still anxiety about places that I need to be and who I am not, or not yet. I pray for resilience, strength, and discernment. I don't expect clarity, certainty, or definitive answers. The ideas and desires I have are more outrageous than ever. Sometimes I let all the little fears roll into a gigantic snowball that flattens me breathlessly, and I remind myself that nature requires cycles of movement and stasis. Fallow fields are necessary for a reawakening of the earth; still waters breed bacteria and germ. Things cannot stay too still for too long, but require stasis, God-given rest, the space of a Sabbath, and oxygen to ignite again. A pause. Not knowing isn’t a bad thing. God created mystery, and humility, in all the knowledge and wisdom we lack, is necessary to recognize that mystery.

It was Henry Thoreau who wrote in Walden (a must-read for the unemployed): “We must learn to reawaken ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in the soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor … Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.”

There are so many forgotten corners of the world. There are monks lighting candles in the vespertine hours, thanking God for the darkness and its night. They are whispering prayers for the rest of this world. There are bus drivers maneuvering on asphalt from the bay to the breakers, eyes fixed ahead. They sit still, yet are constantly in motion. There are nurses tending to the sick when everyone else is asleep, and airplane stewardesses ushering us back to our seats, tending to our crisis-prone, mid-air selves. Some will spend their whole lives in the clouds. There are old men playing chess in front of a decrepit, old bakery. They have forgotten about human chronologies and know not time beyond the sun and the moon. There are museum guards waiting for their shifts to end, in half-asleep stupor. Children in school uniforms are waiting for the bus; half-naked men push shopping carts full of trash; wrinkly, white hands burned from steam make morning buns before dawn everyday. There are so many ways to live, so many forms of existence. Don’t you forget that there is more than one way to survive.

Perhaps you will always be searching; perhaps everyone is. Each woman settles these questions of survival herself, finding a transcendent peace wherever she can, not resolving, but coming to terms with, over and over again, as she will do for the rest of her life. If she has the courage to look outside herself, she might see that the corner from which she emerged was in fact, only a corner of the world, a cave closed off from the vast expanse, only shadows of some realer place. She reaches out her arms, and there is mud in her eyes, and when she finally opens her eyes again, and she does, she finds that she can see, like she never had before. And she moves forth, into the world, placing one foot in front of another.

Ars viviendi as ars moriendi :: The art of living is the art of dying.


"Why did I ever expect to keep anything? That isn't how life is." 

"That odd capacity for destitution, as if by nature we ought to have so much more than nature gives us. As if we are shockingly unclothed when we lack the complacencies of ordinary life. In destitution, even of feeling or purpose, a human being is more hauntingly human and vulnerable to kindnesses because there is the sense that things should be otherwise, and then the thought of what is wanting and what alleviation would be, and how the soul could be put at ease, restored. At home. But the soul finds its own home if it ever has a home at all."

(Marilynne Robinson, Home)