Book review: The Book of Joy

How to experience joy in the face of adversity? Douglas Abrams follows Desmond Tutu to Dharamsala in a once-in-a-lifetime visit between the Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people.

The Book of Joy weaves three layers together: teachings on joy, the science on joy and all qualities essential for enduring happiness, and stories of being in Dharamsala with the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. The assumption is that the goal of life is happiness or joy. The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu differ on practices and sometimes on views about how to get there, but they agree on a lot of points and on the importance of joy. Many of their points and practices are backed up by scientific research.

For a couple of days, the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu discuss the various obstacles to joy. What gets in the way of us experiencing joy? Much of our unhappiness comes from how we react to life. We need to study our minds, proposes the Dalai Lama, to understand our triggers and to develop mental immunity. Their discussion covers a variety of emotions and reactions that get in the way of joy, such as fear, stress, anxiety, anger, and envy. They touch on how to overcome them.

Lest that you fear they get into technical and theological discussions, the conversations are light, even if the subject matter isn’t. The Dalai Lama raises points and Buddhist positions without a lot of Buddhist terminology. The same can be said about Desmond Tutu and Christianity.

For another couple of days, the two spiritual leaders discuss the eight pillars of joy. Now that we know what obstructs joy, what can actively lead to it? They outline and then explain four qualities (perspective, humility, humor, and acceptance) of the mind and four of the heart (forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity).

While some practices described are decidedly Buddhist or Christian, in general the path and the practices described are fairly secular. A reader with a Christian background can see the Christian aspects, a reader with a Buddhist background can see the Buddhist aspects. (I am not really sure how the book would hit a non-Christian or non-Buddhist.)

Sandwiched in between these discussions, we are given glimpses of the relationship between the two men, which show joy and its accompanying qualities in action. We see their joy in seeing each other again and the sadness of their goodbyes, knowing that they may not see each other again. We tag along to the community party for the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday.

After the discussions are done and the visit is over, they leave us with ways (Christian and Buddhist) to practice and cultivate joy. Some may speak to you now or at different times in your life. Perhaps gratitude practices work for you today and tonglen practices are appropriate at another time.

For anyone with a Christian or Buddhist background, the practices will be familiar. Probably you already do many of them. The Book of Joy is a compendium of practices as well as a summary of what hinders and what helps joy. It is also a witness to people who suffered greatly in their lives but experience joy nonetheless. They are proof that joy is possible in any circumstance.


James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home & Museum

Another Riley home? A couple years ago, I toured the house where he lived as an adult at Lockerbie Square in Indianapolis. I was surprised to learn that his childhood home existed.

In fact, the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home & Museum is celebrating its 80th year as a museum! The city of Greenfield bought the house in 1935 with the idea of making it a museum.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Riley’s childhood home is on the National Register of Historic Places. Next door is the museum. Check in at the museum. A docent will accompany you to the house and walk you through an hour or so tour of it. The tour winds through the garden and ends with a seven-minute film at the museum.

Phyllis, my tour guide, was an absolute pleasure. She clearly enjoys giving tours and sharing stories about Riley. She paced the tour to the attendees, entertaining questions and engaging in conversation. Through the tour, she sprinkled in quotes from Riley’s poems.

In 1844, James’ parents married and lived in a log cabin that his father built on 3 to 5 acres of land—behind the current house. James was born in that cabin. After three children arrived, his father Reuben set out to build a house, which took three years to complete (!). (He also built a lot of the furniture that populates the house, some of which comes from their log cabin days.)

Reuben was a lawyer, a state legislator, and a soldier in the Civil War. Unfortunately, after the Civil War, the Rileys owed back taxes. They slowly sold off properties and then the house in 1866. James’s mother was devastated, and James vowed that when he got rich, he would buy back the house. (He did, but it wasn’t until after her death in 1870.)

The various rooms of the house are filled with furniture and knick-knacks, including items that Riley mentions in his poems, such as the ceramic dog and sample clock on the mantel or the what-not shelf in the front room.

The front formal parlor contains a wonderful Steinway piano that the museum keeps maintained. (We were encouraged to play it.) The piano is not original to the house but a gift from a Dr. Fletcher. (Hmmm. A Fletcher family was important in 19th century Indianapolis.) The floor had to be reinforced to support the 800 lbs of the piano. (Note: The front formal parlor is not the only room that has been reinforced.)

The other front room is a law office. (James’s father was a lawyer.) The pièce de résistance in this room is the partner desk that Reuben made—a large desk that allows one person to work on each side, divided down the middle by a large partition of cubbyholes. The desk had wandered away from the house between the Rileys losing the house in 1866 and the city buying it in 1935. In recent years, a local company, Irving Materials, stumbled across the desk at an auction, bought it, and donated it to the museum. (Kind of a wild story with a happy ending.)

As we prepared to ascend the front staircase—I marveled at the steep descent of the banister and vocalized my speculation that probably it was too steep for children to slide down—Phyllis paused to tell us about Mary Alice “Allie” Smith.

Mary Alice was an orphan who ended up at the Riley home, working for her board and keep. She would often tell the children stories of goblins—her stories ended up in Riley’s poems and she herself was the inspiration for Little Orphant Annie among other works. (Side note: The work was originally called Little Orphant Allie but the printer could not read Riley’s handwriting.)

The goblins, according to Mary Alice, lived under the stairs. (We got to see the room where the goblins lived—a dark and dank space under the stairs fit for goblins—at the end of the tour.) Apparently, she also had names for each of the stair steps. (The names are lost to time.)

The main bedroom upstairs houses a four-poster butternut bed so heavy that the law office below had to be reinforced. Our docent pointed out various objects in the room: washing and drinking pitchers and containers, a foot warmer, a boat jack, a steeple clock.

The one thing I hadn’t seen before—the sewing bird, a little metal bird fastened to a table. On top of the bird is a place to hold a sewing thimble. The bird’s beak holds a piece of cloth as you sew it—kind of like using pins to pin a hem in place before you sew it.

A rocking chair, a sewing chest (both made by Reuben), and a Howe Company sewing machine occupy the space between this bedroom and the next. The docent explained that early sewing machines—because they were machinery—were used by men, not women. (Hmmm…believable but true?)

The second bedroom was for the girls. The rope bed, with an 1853 coverlet on top, stores a trundle bed underneath. And we were given a demonstration and explanation about tightening the ropes. The room contains some curious objects: a curling iron (I thought of a scene in the movie The Little Women when some of the girls were getting ready for a party), a glove stretcher (the docent asked us to guess what it was…none of us were very imaginative), bottles of squill (a cough medicine made with turpentine!) and camphor. Phyllis pointed to a footstool—a cylindrical object with two wooden pegs on either side—and referred to it as a blind pig footstool. (I haven’t found any information about such a footstool.)

Through the second bedroom towards the back of the house is dormer room with slanted ceiling—the boys’ bedroom. The only access is through the girls’ room or through an alcove to back stairs that originally went outside. (The stairs now end in the kitchen.)

A little door in the room opens to a rafter room (which reminded me of the room where they hid runaway slaves at the Levi Coffin house). This room, keeping with the theme of the day, housed some goblins. We took turns looking through the rafter room door at two shiny goblin eyes peering at us.

A painting of lard hogs by John Keefer, who taught Riley to painting (his initial profession), hangs on the wall. The hogs do not look too happy. They are probably aware of their impending fate.

The alcove with the back stairs is where Mary Alice slept. A thin pallet lay on the floor, and a window overlooks the back yard—probably the best view in the house, our docent mused. The steps of the back stairs are different heights, an intentional design of Reuben’s as a warning from intruders who would stumble and wake the house.

The kitchen is not original, though I do not know when it was added. It is filled with lots of artifacts, including the ever-present pie safe. Our docent demoed the polishing box, which was used to sharpen knives, and picked the handle-less cup and saucer out of the dishes and asked use how they could use a handle-less cup. (And this is where knowledge of history comes in handy. I thought of the cup and saucer metaphor for the House and Senate. Like the saucer, where you pour out hot liquids to cool before consuming them, the Senate is where ideas from the House can cool before acting on them by turning them into laws.)

A small narrow room between the kitchen and the foyer holds several photos, a spinning wheel, and the entryway to the room beneath the stairs where the goblins live. Next to it is the dining room, which another little closet similar to the rafter room, where—you guessed it—goblins live.

Another John Keefer painting hangs in the dining room. An Enemy in Camp — Where is He? Could we determine what was special about the painting? Hmmm…the painting was of a turkey vulture and chickens. Why was there a large off-white shape in the center of the painting? My eyes couldn’t make it out. It turns out that this center off-white shape was key; it was the shape of a silver fox, an image of the South, among the birds. The fox in the hen house, so to speak.

In between the dining room and the front formal parlor is an informal parlor full of interesting tidbits. I noticed a stereoscope on the table, similar to the one I recently saw in the Swiss Heritage Village. A large dulcimer lay on another table. And in the corner is another Reuben-made desk from their log cabin days.

Phyllis then led us outside through the flower and herb garden and pointed out the pixie garden. A surprising number of bumblebees enjoyed the gardens, and I saw a butterfly house in the midst of flowers. I was stopped by a curious site on the climbing passionflower plant—big round pods. I had never seen maypops on passionflower plants before, which made me wonder: was I simply unobservant or were the passionflower plants that I previously saw deficient in some way?

The tour ended in the museum with an amusing seven-minute film of Riley played by an actor. The film, as Phyllis described it, really tied together all the bits of the tour. The museum itself is an interesting collection of tidbits, including tins and packages of the Hoosier Poet brand (like the items I saw in the kitchen at the Gene Stratton-Porter house).

And there was the story of Riley’s Edgar Allen Poe hoax. Riley was born on the day that Poe died—October 7, 1849. But that was not the only connection between the two poets. Before Riley became known as a poet, he struggled to get his poems published in eastern periodicals. To prove his point—that snobbish eastern periodicals only publish poems by already famous poets—Riley “discovered” a long-lost Poe poem. An Indiana (not eastern periodical) published it, and later when the forgery was discovered, Riley was fired from his job at a different newspaper.

I can almost hear Mary Alice’s admonishments to the children against doing something bad, words that are immortalized in Riley’s poem Little Orphant Annie:

An’ the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you
Ef you

No goblins at the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home & Museum, only lots of stories and artifacts from his life. The tour of the house and the museum are definitely worth a stop.

Art favorites: Stickley sideboard

The Arts and Crafts Movement. I love the furniture that came out of that movement—quality, sturdiness, and an understated beauty.

When I visit the IMA, I often wander into the room housing the Gustav Stickley sideboard to soak it in for a few minutes. Invariably the left door on the sideboard calls out to me. The photo at the link below does not show it, but in person the door is slightly ajar, as if it calling for someone to open it.

However, all objects in this room are surrounded by security lights. (Think the security around the fictitious Pink Panther diamond of movie lore.) An innocent movement to get a closer look at an object trips the invisible lights and sets off an alarm that ensures a visit from security.

Always one to follow the rules, I feel a strange tug whenever I visit the sideboard. Amy, it whispers, can you give me a nudge to close my left door completely?

Gustav Stickley
American, 1858-1942
Indianapolis Art Museum

Movie review: Bridge of Spies (2015)

It is quite a feat to make a movie engaging and suspenseful when the audience knows the outcome. But Bridge of Spies pulls it off.

The downing of the U2 plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers in 1960 is a well-known historical event. The movie culminates in the exchange of one prisoner—a Soviet spy—for Powers. But I was not familiar with the person exchanged for Powers or the events that led to the exchange. The movie leads you through this history. Through it, you are left wondering how the next obstacle will be overcome.

How will the defense of the Soviet spy go? What argument is used to save him from the death sentence? How will two Americans be negotiated for a single Soviet? How to convince the East Germans and the Soviets that their interests align? The movie is a fascinating glimpse into the psychology between the prosecutor and the judge, between opposing sides in an international negotiation.

The movie includes a few big names. Alan Alda appears as the head of a law firm, the law firm that provides the lawyer for the Soviet spy. I would have loved to see more of Alda in the movie but his role did not necessitate it for the storyline. Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, an insurance lawyer thrust into the spotlight as the lawyer for the Soviet spy. Steven Spielberg directs the movie written by the Coen brothers.

The movie begins by focusing on Rudolph Abel, who was arrested for espionage. James Donovan reluctantly accepts his assignment as the lawyer to defend Abel. His family is less accepting. The Donovans become targets of hate. Donovan’s reason for representing Abel? The Constitution. All defendants need good representation. (I was reminded of John Adams, who similarly defended people that the Mob would have gladly strung up without trial in direct contradiction to the rule of law.)

Donovan doesn’t prevail in the trial. Abel is found guilty. But Donovan tries a different tactic. He provides a reason to the judge for why Abel should not get the death penalty. The judge listens to Donovan’s reason involving national security.

Meanwhile, Powers is shot down while flying a U2 plane over the Soviet Union. In case of impending capture, pilots of U2 spy planes, who had intimate knowledge of the planes, their technology, and how they worked, were instructed to commit suicide with a specially prepared device. Powers didn’t do that but instead spent several years in a Soviet prison.

Also meanwhile, an American graduate student in Berlin is caught in a dragnet created along with the building of the Berlin Wall. Frederic Pryor was imprisoned.

The CIA pays Donovan a visit, fingering him as the guy to conduct secret negotiations with the East Germans and Soviets to gain the release of Powers. Donovan insists on negotiating for the release of both Powers and Pryor. The CIA insists on negotiating only for Powers. Who cares about the graduate student?

The catch is that Donovan was not doing this as a representative of the American government. He was left on his own to enter East Berlin to conduct the negotiations. East Germany and the Soviet Union each had their own agenda. How to get them to each release an American for a single Soviet? The negotiations were a bit dicey.

The movie is named for the Glienicke Bridge that links West Berlin with Potsdam in East Germany. Due to its location—a spot between the East and the West—this bridge became the spot of many exchanges during the Cold War, leading to its moniker Bridge of Spies.

The movie does keep you on the edge of your seat. How will Donovan accomplish the impossible?

Overbeck Museum

Enchanted by some Overbeck pottery I had seen in various exhibitions and art museums over the last couple years, I looked for a more substantial collection. And I discovered that a museum dedicated to their work exists in the small town of Cambridge City, Indiana—where the sisters had lived.

The museum is housed in the public library, behind a locked door. I expected to peruse the small collection on my own. Instead, I discovered that a librarian had to be present while I was in the collection. Thanks to my impromptu questions, I kind of got an informal “guided tour” of the collection and the Overbeck sisters from the attending librarian. She was a native of the area and had plenty of personal and familial stories to add.

The collection includes a range of mediums—vases, plates, figurines, grotesques (monster figurines), paintings, sketches of designs that they used in the pottery, and molds for the figurines. The items in the collection are either gifts or items on loan. Cards beside each item list who gifted or loaned the item—many items are on loan from the Richmond Art Museum, which is undergoing renovation.

At the entrance to the room is a large wooden ship with ceramic figurines—the Don Quixote. Mary Francis created this ship as a toy for children visiting the library. Over the years, the ship became a little worse for wear and was placed under a glass case—and out of the hands of children.

In 1972, Kathleen and Arthur Postle bequeathed their Overbeck collection to the public library. In 1978, the museum was formally established and in 2000, moved with the library to a new building (its current site).

The collection is displayed in wooden cases made by a local maker specifically for the collection. When the new library building was being constructed, they built the museum room with the display cases in mind.

The Overbecks—originally Overpeck—came from Germany before the American Revolution, bringing with them education and artistic skills. The emphasis on education and art continued through the generations. The six Overbeck daughters were not encouraged to marry but rather devote their lives to their arts. (One sister married. The sole son married and his descendents are the only surviving Overbeck offspring.)

The Overbeck sisters studied at many different institutions and were quite recognized for their skills. Four were potters, one was a musician and linguist, and the married sister was a photographer.

In 1911, the four potters opened a pottery business, which continued until the last sister passed away in 1955. Harriet, the musician, helped with the upkeep of the household. (Apparently, she was a bit embittered about how life turned out for her. She was unable to make full use of her musical talents in small Cambridge City, and she felt that she hadn’t received the Overbeck “heritage” of being able to work creatively with her hands.)

As the sisters died off, it seemed to me that the move from pottery to figurines and paintings began. I love their pottery (the figurines and paintings not so much). Some of the pottery has a modern air about it. The sisters sketched out designs that they use on their pottery—not all have designs. In some cases, the designs were painted on the pottery. In other cases, the designs were carved into the pottery).

The sisters used a special glaze, whose recipe is lost with time. (Though rumors exist that maybe the descendents of the brother know the recipe.) I thought of Gustave Baumann‘s specially made pigments, whose recipes no longer exist. In both cases, their loss preserves the value of the original works.

The collection also includes an original auction notice. On June 26, 1965, all Overbeck property—pottery, paintings, furniture, and collectibles—was auctioned off. I stared at that notice, stunned by the implementation that what has become valued art over the decades was sold off during an estate sale. And I wondered how much art the Overbeck sisters generated. (Wouldn’t that be great if they keep an inventory of their pieces?)

If you go, be sure to look for the six tiles of children playing (one in the front window case and five in the back case). These approximately 8-inch diameter tiles were originally part of the walls in a 1st grade room in a Cambridge City elementary school.

The librarian who accompanied me into the room remembered lining up along that wall; the children would run their hands across the tiles as they walked by them, little realizing their value or that they would appear in a museum decades later celebrating the artwork of the Overbeck sisters.