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Finding Beauty in Forgotten Places
Perceiving every place as a temple is a life-changing skill.
My most beautiful memories take place around a worn-out formica countertop holding up a greasy steel box of light-bulb-warmed fried chicken, flickering fluorescent lighting over cans of beer on ice, or a nighttime drive past the distant industrial flames of “Cancer Alley” while listening to the wistful indie music I came of age to.
To be fair, that’s probably because my family owned a gas station in small-town Louisiana.
In the early years, my parents worked hard to keep it afloat, stocking the shelves and counting all the money late into the night. They couldn’t leave us alone at home, so my siblings and I slept in the back room on floor mats.
These were the best times of our lives.
On its surface, it was an unholy, forgotten place of greed (Louisiana Lottery), lust (“performance” pills), and gluttony (fried chicken and Whatchamacallits). But it was our little temple. The beauty we felt was not in the environment — it was woven into the million little moments together as a family.
(My proud dad in his kingdom):
Last week, I went off on a tirade about the modern lack of beautiful places like Sagrada Familia.
But honestly, after some more reflection, my family’s time together in that store was more beautiful than a cathedral I visited once in Barcelona.
Like one of those “synchronicities” LA people go on about, I heard a story about the Temple of Jerusalem the day after my essay went out. Before the Romans destroyed it, it had soaring ceilings, golden walls, and all the most expensive dyes around. The curtains? Thick as your damn hand. It was a place to commune with the God of the Hebrews, Yahweh.
On the surface, it was shockingly beautiful.
The problem was that almost nobody was allowed to see it. Listening to the story made me realize I had made a mistake in my last essay.
Real beauty is… local. Or, maybe beauty was more my responsibility than I had reckoned.
I want to unpack that.
Temples are just a strange sort of landscape
We never stopped making temples – we mostly just stopped calling them that.
The hyper-clean and geometric modern look of Target gives me the feeling that buying more shiny things will make me shinier. Whiter teeth, multi-vitamins, and better noise-canceling headphones will make my material body more powerful and attractive.
They spend billions designing these “temples” to elicit a mood in you. Nothing is an accident. The other day, I happily paid 3.99 for a can of plain water because the marketing was good. I like a nice-looking can.
I think modern people find the idea of “holy places” strange (or at least primitive), so I want to see if I can frame what they “do” in slightly more modern terms.
Spell of the Sensuous is one of my favorite books. In it, Abram explains how our emotional systems map directly onto “landscapes.” For early humans, if the mountainside was on fire, part of the “mind” was also on fire. Before we had abstract language to map our minds on, there was much less separation between the landscape “out there” and the one “in here.”
“Forest baths” are a modern rediscovery of this old wiring.
This is where it gets a little weird.
To draw an analogy, a mother goose will chase her egg if it rolls away from her nest. The bigger the egg, the harder she will chase. That makes sense — she’s invested more energy in bigger eggs. But, if you give her a fake egg ten times larger than any real egg she could lay (supernormal stimulus), she will exert a super-goose effort to retrieve it.
In other words, our ability to respond to a stimulus goes beyond any naturally possible stimuli. That’s how man-made Cheetos taste better than nature-made apples.
Similarly, temples to the god Mars were “hyper landscapes” that literally "concentrated" the warrior's spirit. They weren’t just for show – they made people better fighters. Ancient people weren’t dummies.
In contrast with Mars, Yahweh is the spirit of the good of all good. Get an entire people (the chosen people) building a temple while in that mindset (spirit), you end up with a physical location that is literally a condensed dose of the good of all good. If you’ve ever stepped into one of these places (another example being Sagrada Familia), you wouldn’t be able to deny it. It nearly melted my head.
But the problem is that this condensed milk ’n honey is only allowed to a select few. That’s why the next “step” in our evolution was to be able to generate the spirit of the “temple” anywhere we happen to be.
Your body is a “temple” (who said that?)
"Modern man can't see God because he doesn't look low enough." – Carl Jung
The most powerful form of beauty is trapped within the ordinary, waiting for our eyes to get right enough to reveal it.
Revealing that temples are everywhere
When I’m not trying to impress you with stories about cool vacations I went on, ugly beauty is my favorite kind of beauty.
Don’t get me wrong; I felt intense awe when I stepped into Sagrada Familia. But I knew parts of me didn’t belong there. Good to visit, not to stay.
I’d rather drive across America, stopping at little gas stations in the middle of nowhere (like the one I was raised in), just marveling at the anti-beauty. I also love those roadside diners where the food is just OK, and the waitress tops your stale coffee every 15 seconds.
I explore these forgotten places with the curiosity of a latchkey kid who found a dead body. The violently bright ads for deadly sins are funny in a twisted way. More importantly, I love little moments of connection with the people who might seem “stuck in hell” at first glance.
Sometimes, they’re secretly having the time of their life – like the two of us:
Yes! Sagrada Familia is nice and all. But I need to know how to grow a million little veins of beauty into the cracks of my ordinary-ass life — like talking to our neighbor Ira Thibodeaux about his pet pigs… or whatever. Life is mostly not a shockingly beautiful temple, in case you haven’t noticed (not in an obvious way, at least).
For the same reason, as a writer, I sometimes get carried away with the drama of big, fancy, expensive ideas. I think that’s what makes writing beautiful. But it’s not. Beautiful writing is what grows through the cracks of ordinary observations.
Exemplifying this, my dad’s best friend was a writer named Kenny Morgan. Kenny used to tutor the LSU football team and even took them turkey hunting occasionally. He wrote with honest prose that I could only dream of achieving. He’s not reaching for some grand vision. He’s just sayin’ it how it is.
I remember an old man at our store saying, “You know ‘Ken-nah Maw-gun?’” I knew Kenny was “the guy” just from the speed and volume with which he said, “Ken-nah Maw-gun!” It was the same way people would shout “Buddy Foreman!” at my dad just about anywhere he went in the tri-state area. People from any walk of life knew and admired them. Why? They just had a way of telling a story, I guess.
Once, I asked my dad how he’s so good with people, and he said, “Just look in their eyes and say what you thought the last time you looked.”
I consider myself pretty laid-back, but compared to my 76-year-old Southern father, I’m a stiff, overly abstract, and fast-talking city boy. It makes sense — I grew up staring at screens, not into people’s eyes. He has a lifetime of practice on me.
A few years ago, Kenny was diagnosed with lung cancer. Before he died, he emailed my dad some of his last tales and observations.
In my favorite of these, Kenny reflects on being a boy in the ‘50s. Occasionally, an inmate named Fontenot (that’s pronounced “Font-know” to you non-Louisianans) escaped the mental institution in our little town, Jackson, Louisiana. He ran naked through the farms and streets. Here’s the thing: Fontenot was about 6’4 and 250 pounds of muscle.
Kenny reflects on being 12 years old and watching Fontenot vault a barbed-wire fence without the slightest concern for his dangling middle-aged manhood.
Everyone in town would call one another. “Have you seen Fontenot?”
Eventually, they found him floating in someone's backyard pool. That’s when the “men in white coats” arrived, jabbed Fontenot with his medication, and hauled him back to his room at Eastern Louisiana Mental Health System.
Nowadays, a 250-pound, insane, naked man wouldn't be lovingly searched for by a tight-knit community. Instead, someone would call the police, shriek about the safety of the children, and then Fontenot would be cuffed, hauled off to a state prison, and never to see anyone in his hometown again.
Hyper temples are the landscapes in our phones
Kenny just wanted to regale the townsfolk with a story of his last turkey hunt. For most of his life, I imagine, people would listen and laugh.
But one fine day, they weren’t listening anymore. They were too busy looking at their screens. Compounding the loss, Walmarts and McDonald's fast pleasure forced out mom-and-pop watering holes where people gathered to tell each other stories.
“Buy, buy, buy” became a more powerful story than “stop on by!”
Growing up back in the ‘90s, the decline of small-town America was well underway. But, within that larger pattern, my family had something beautiful growing between the cracks… for a little while at least. We polished up this little store, served the town, and it provided for my family — our little Sagrada Familia.
My dad bought the store exactly one year after my birth. Since that day, he’s told me about a hundred times that, before we took over, grass was growing between the cracks in the floor. How’s that for a metaphor?
He took great pleasure in the slow revitalization — and in hiring and getting to know the people of our town:
I texted this photo to both of my parents, eliciting a different memory from each:
Mom: “She used to say, ‘I’m shakin’ like a leech on a tree!’”
Dad: “I had to fire her for teasing Clarence [a very close family friend], and it insulted your mother.”
I texted my dad, “What a glorious time,” to which he responded, “It truly was.”
Still, that ol’ tube TV glowed in our living room, beckoning me westward. Instead of building a little store for our town of two thousand, I could make my face shine on the screens of millions. Become a star.
So, I pilgrimage out west like the Jews once did to the Temple of Jerusalem.
The source of all hyper temples: Mount Hollywood
Most of us languish at the bottom of Mount Hollywood out here.
The climb is too steep by design — insiders want us to admire them from below but don’t want us to crowd them at the summit.
Instead, they give us little hits of hope to keep us addicted to the struggle. It’s Hotel California: “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”
But that’s not even the saddest part: the people who sacrifice everything and make it to the top aren’t even happy. Or, as Jim Carrey famously phrased it:
“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it's not the answer.” — Jim Carrey
I met hundreds of people in LA who came from the heartland of the country, searching for something more. I've seen the drooping skin of celebrities up close, and I've seen the dim behind their eyes.
This ain’t it.
This is not the promised land.
The promised land
Ironically, I found a promised land right here in LA once I looked closer at the “low” places.
I guess sometimes you have to travel across the country and make a bunch of mistakes just to end up right back where you started. That seems elegant, like Forrest Gump or something.
In the last few months, I got into volunteering for the massive homeless population around here. We bag groceries and hand them out to about 150 families every Wednesday. Some of these guys and gals have been here for years. The other volunteers call them by name. I started to learn their names, too.
I often think about a mysterious tattooed man named Gavin who mumbles and rages against invisible demons. While it can be pretty terrifying, it’s also shockingly human.
Some of these people are completely off their rocker; they are also deeply tapped into the sickness we all feel. Loneliness. In some sense, they are the most sane of us all. Given how much we’ve isolated from each other, we should all be running around screaming (like Fontenot). We’ve lost our embodied and communal ties, and it haunts us like a missing limb.
It feels something like this (a 2012 statue in front of a church of an angel with broken wings, no chest, and a face made of fingers):
But, by reaching out a hand and looking into the eyes of people otherwise forgotten, unlikely beauty shines back from them. It’s so surprising to me – although it shouldn’t be. I’ve seen it happen since I was one.
Real beauty is in the cracks right below my feet.
Since rediscovering local beauty, I’ve made more and better connections in this city. I’m happier. Paradoxically, I’m more materially successful, too. Although, I’m starting to care a lot less about that.
Mount Hollywood has hypnotized me with flickering screens for as long as I can remember.
But, I’m discovering a better call to adventure that was always in front of me — clearing the grass from an abandoned store. Metaphorically.
So much real beauty is to be found in the forgotten corners of the world that it makes striving for personal “greatness” look pathetic.
Honestly, I’m excited for this new chapter of my life. Or, rather, the old one that’s new again.
Thanks for reading,
This song captures the feeling perfectly:
More pictures from the store: