Eight Beautiful Things to Give as Gifts

Every Monday, subscribers to my newsletter get an email with links to at least five things I thought were beautiful. This past week, I sent them these – links to books, CDs and useful things that would make perfect gifts for someone – maybe even yourself.

  1. Peter Taylor is a writer read most often by other writers, in much the same way that Townes Van Zandt is a musician most often known by other musicians. A Summons to Memphis, his best known novel, is filled with family pathos, the experience of trying to return home and a father that is strong willed, yet incapable of managing his affairs. In other words, the perfect story of the Urban South.
  2. Shelby Foote was the soul and voice behind Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War. And he is the masterful craftsmen who wrote what is perhaps the best single treatment on the War Between the States, titled simply, The Civil War: A Narrative History. But before all of that, he was a novelist of wide acclaim. His novel Shiloh, about the bloodiest day of the bloodiest war in US history almost cannot help but to be amazing.
  3. MFK Fisher is probably my favorite writer that no one knows about. She was a fierce woman and a feminist before the word existed. She wrote about food, mainly, but saw that as her way of writing about love. She was someone who knew what it meant to face the world on your terms, and yet still have time for a glass of wine with a dinner you made for yourself. In the midst of the food rationing of WWII, she wrote about what to do when the wolf shows up at your door: You cook him.
  4. My favorite thriller of all times is The Silence of the Lambs (if you only know the film, make it a point to read the book, which is so much better). The sequel to that was Hannibal, where we see clearly in the mind of a serial killer. One of the plot devices in both books is Hannibal’s prodigious memory, and in an interview, Thomas Harris mentioned an obscure book that heavily influenced him called, simply, The Art of Memory. Part instruction book, part history lesson and part philosophy tome, it is delightful and instructive.
  5. In the Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal asks his prison guard for a copy of Glenn Gould’s 1955 performance of The Goldberg Variations. It’s perfect in every way – but in 1983, they recorded him doing it again, and it too is perfect, but in another way. Both versions are available on one CD.
  6. Thoreau said that a thing costs however much of our life we had to trade for it. In Your Money or Your Life, the authors take that to heart. It’s sorta a self-help book, but much more a “How to think about money and your life” book. It doesn’t promise you will get rich if you read it, but does promise to change how you think about money.
  7. Lots of us wish we were creating more – we wish we were writing more, or painting, or building or whatever our art is – but something keeps getting in the way. The author Stephen Pressfield gave that something a name, and wrote a book about how to kick that something in the ass and do your cool thing. If you know a person who just can’t seem to get that thing written, this is the perfect book.
  8. I love beautiful things that are also useful. Like the Opinel No8, a French pocket knife that has 4 pieces, no springs and costs less than 15 dollars. Perfect to keep in your bag for slicing that apple, opening a box, or cutting some string. And the design is so epic, it has won awards and been featured in design museums.

And while not beautiful, certainly useful:

  1. And while we are talking about useful – I use my Kindle tablet every day, and it’s less than $50. A computer you hold in your hand for $50. What a world. And if you don’t like sitting down to read, you probably ought to get an Audible subscription, where you have access to almost 200,000 audiobooks for less than $15 a month. And the first month is a free trial.

I Miss You

When I moved to Raleigh, I didn’t know a soul here. I didn’t have a job here, I didn’t have new co-workers. Nothing. Zip. Zilch. It was incredibly isolating.

So I decided to change that. My goal was simple, but not easy – one conversation with a new person each day, and coffee or a meal with a new person each week. I kept that up for years. As an introvert that needs people, it was both a challenge and fun.

And it worked. I soon had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, from many different segments of society. It worked so well I quit doing it.

These days, I have a set of coworkers I love, but that I spend most of my daylight hours with. Instead of walking the streets all hours of the day and night in pursuit of my work, these days I do most of my work at our Community Engagement Center, so in effect the streets come to me. I feel rushed a lot, and always behind, so it’s easy to not prioritize outside meetings or meals.

It is incredibly isolating.

I hate that it is so easy for me to feel so busy that I don’t have time to prioritize relationships, when the reality is, those relationships are my work.

Facebook makes this both better and worse. Better, because I have friends I first met nine years ago in one of those weekly coffee meetings that I have been able to keep up with, see their kid’s pictures from recital, and hear about how they have learned new things, developed new passions, heard about their marriages, their divorces, their hopes and their struggles.

And it makes it worse, because some of those people live six blocks from me and I haven’t laid eyes on them in more than a year. Because I still feel “connected” to them. It’s maddening.

Not only is it bad for me – it’s bad for business. Love Wins Ministries was born as a result of those conversations years ago. So many of the projects I have developed over the years began in conversations over coffee. Much of what actually fed me and kept me alive in those early years came about because of those meetings.

So I intend to make 2017 the year of intentional connection. This is the year I begin having intentional meetings to develop relationships. It is the year I begin to commit to coffee dates again, to meeting new people, to finding new opportunities, to learning new things. This is the year I commit to lean in to the hard work of relationships – because, as I am fond of saying, all of us are better than any of us.

So, if I haven’t seen you in ages – I want to have lunch. If we are really only “Facebook friends”, I want us to be real friends. If you only see yourself as one of my “fans” – I hate that term, but more and more people are introducing themselves to me that way – please let’s really connect. And if my assistant reaches out to you with a lunch invitation, please know that means I thought it was important, and that you are important. Because honestly, if my assistant doesn’t schedule it, it probably isn’t going to get scheduled.

Blog Rebooted

In the last 13 years, I wrote nearly a thousand blog posts on my personal blog. And now I’m abandoning it, so I can start blogging again.

The internet has changed a lot since December of 2003, when I wrote my first blog post. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the need to have your own space on the internet – a piece of digital real estate where no one can censor you, where you can speak your mind, where the forces of capitalism need not dictate your options.

The web is more commercial than ever before. Rather than selling products, now we all are the product, with our lives becoming increasingly content fodder for corporations to profit from.

More and more, I want a place that is not just against that, but actively opposed to that. My thoughts on this have been heavily influenced by Gina and Andy and more Andy.

I give you Hugh’s Blog.

Few pictures. Short posts. No editorial calendar. Intentionally minimalist in design. Easily navigable. Highly readable. No plan. 100% controlled by me.

All while holding real estate that tells how to get in touch with me, how to hire me and where to find me.

Obvious influences are Gina Trapani, Kevin Kelly, Leo Babuta, Jason Kottke, and Derek Sievers.

Yes, they are all sorta nerdy, mostly introverted creative types who have rocked serious change in the world.

Yes, these are my people.

One of the new features is the Now page. The first time I ever saw one of these, it was on Derek’s blog. The idea is, what am I up to “now”. Imagine you ran into someone you hadn’t seen in 20 years, and he asks, “What are you up to?” The Now page is the answer to that question.

So, poke around, click buttons and try to break things. There is still some trim work to be done, but overall, I like it.

I was about to ask, ‘What do you think?”, but I also disabled comments.


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Over the holiday weekend, a friend in her 20’s was our house-guest. Saturday we took her out to grab Mexican food. Over dinner, she thanked us for our hospitality and the place to stay.

We shrugged it off, and apologized that we are so boring. I spend a lot of time working in the yard, and we generally get ready for bed around 10. What spare time we have is often spent reading or listening to music. It’s a lot of things, but exciting probably isn’t one of them, especially if you are 23 and single.

She said that no, she loved staying with us, that the rhythm of our lives made it feel like a sanctuary from the world.

More than seven years ago, our friend Ashley officiated our wedding, and in preparation, asked us to describe what we wanted our future home to be like. We had lots of ideas, but the one word we both used was sanctuary.

When I first began doing this work, my friend and mentor Bart Campolo told me that if I intended to devote my life to serving in the midst of chaos, I needed to have a place I could retreat to that wasn’t in chaos. I needed to have a place to go, to remind myself who I am.

Our house isn’t much. It is small, and has one tiny bathroom, and an occasionally leaky roof. The floor squeaks, and the back yard has horrible drainage and is in too much shade. The hub for Raleigh’s gang activity is less than 2 blocks from our home, and gunfire isn’t unheard of. It is not a perfect place. But it is our place – our sanctuary.

I’m grateful for this house, for the flowers and the trees and the cats and the chickens, and especially for Renee, all parts of the total that combine to make sanctuary for me, and that remind me constantly who I am.