Issue 018
April 19, 2018

Pilgrim Laundry, Rebel Girls, Sacred Mirrors

Photographing along the way.

Kumano Laundry

Hello Explorers, many of you new, arriving via (??) my recent Longform appearance. Welcome, welcome. And, as always, allow me to begin with a friendly reminder that the single-tap eject button is always available. One tap, no confirms, and you’ll never hear from me again.

I am back from my solo Kumano wander, having done a kind of reverse++ of the path I took in Koya Bound. I had some notes on vipassana and walking at the bottom of this letter, but it all grew a bit too long. Will follow up in the next couple of weeks. It’s already mostly written: walking as coupled with meditation. For now, all sorts of other good stuff, including notes on walking, solitude, photography, and “looking” at the bottom.



Presently sitting in a cafe in Kyoto (ed note: that was days ago, now finishing this in Tokyo), sun-dappled river adjacent, Miles Davis on the stereo, good coffee in the gullet. I’m here for the Kyotographie opening. If you’re in or visiting Japan in the next month, I recommend swinging by to check it out. It’s a city-wide exhibition that takes over a number of machiya, galleries, old newspaper printing factories (pictured above), filling them with photography by internationally and locally renown photographers. It’s very good, not only for the images but also for the opening of spaces not always accessible to the public.

A big, huge, thank you to everyone who responded to my request for podcast help in the last letter. Lordy, there were about fifty of you who reached out. An absurd amount of talent. I ended up hiring Ivan Kuraev in NYC who has been a recording engineer with The Moth for years. And guess what, when you start to delegate to someone talented …

… you get new episodes of On Margins.

Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls

Elena Favilli joins me on episode 004. She is both the co-creator and co-publisher of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.


Some numbers:

  • 1,000,000+ copies sold
  • 42+ languages
  • $1,600,000+ raised on crowdfunding

And yet, and yet, and yet — the book was so close to not happening. The company this close to folding. Timbuktu, the parent company was an award winning iPad app and digital magazine publisher. But, as Elena explains:

The company wasn’t making money. We were using our own personal money just to survive, and were consulting on the side doing any kind of jobs that you can imagine when you’re trying just to keep things going for a little longer before shutting everything completely down.

It became clear for both of us that this passion for gender equality, and female empowerment was our biggest, biggest passion, and focus. We decided to do something around it at some point.

And so they did. It’s an inspiring story. She and her co-founder Francesca are of that cut of human you want nothing more than to succeed in the world. And from a single book comes a giant dollop of permission. To which I added (not meant to be mansplainy, just wanted to celebrate their achievement):

You honed your voice and understanding of who you wanted to be in the world and what kinds of things you wanted to add to the world. Through these books, you found that [product/market] fit and you found a permission from all of these people, millions of copies, 42 languages. That’s incredible. People around the world are giving you permission to do the thing that you’ve always felt in your heart to do.

Listen on iTunes or on the On Margins website.

Full transcript is available here:

(If you enjoy the show, please take a minute to leave a little review in the App Store:

New episode coming next week with Jason Kottke.

Friends with New Books

Alex Chee’s new essay collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel just came out. Alex is one of those infuriating writers capable of lucid thinking and beautiful prose. He’s a shark when it comes to illuminating process and peeling back the skin of writing. I am jealous of so many of his sentences. I was lucky enough to attend his fiction workshop at Tin House; have been waiting ages for this essay collection.


Have you read any Lynne Tillman? Are you into photography? And families and identity? And how these things can fold into each other, how “a family’s secrets appear as absences and exclusions, erasures and deletions” in and around imagery? Then go grab Lynne’s latest novel, Men and Apparitions. Lynne is is one of those infuriating writers that makes you realize how goddamned boring and staid a writer you are.

From the protagonist, Zeke:

Toward the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, there had been rumors of photography, in the days when science and art were near-inseparable, spreading among the elite — educated men and a few women, scientists of all stripes, creatures of the Enlightenment. They heard about the progress of various scientific trials, experiments toward image fixing that had begun in the late eighteenth century: camera obscuras, and attempts to plant ephemeral images on a surface through the effects of light and chemicals. Photography emerged out of positivism, photo historian Geoffrey Batchen has theorized; photography is like a symptom of positivism, an obsession about proof, for documenting existence. It trusts empirical evidence, it is empirical evidence. Photography’s origins can slide into an incessant hope for proof — of anything. It becomes a force in itself, as making images makes us.

“An incessant hope for proof …” This might explain why we feel the need to smartphone-ography everything, most importantly, perhaps, ourselves. We are real, we are real, we are real.

An old favorite of mine by Lynne is Weird Fucks which is literally an account of weird fucks she had back in the 60s and 70s. It’s one of the funniest story collections I’ve read, and it’s fascinating to see proto-Tillman finding her foothold on voice and tone.

(That shot up above is a little off-the-cuff portrait I took of Lynne a couple of years ago in NYC, featured on the jacket of Men and Apparitions.)

Yale Publishing Course

I’m lecturing at the Yale Publishing Course once again this summer (July 29 – August 3). This will be my eighth year. EIGHTH! It’s one of my favorite weeks (or two; one week for magazines, one week for books) of the year. It’s the most inspiring deep dive into global publishing I’ve found. Each year I leave with a head stuffed with new ideas and publishing optimism.

Seventy of the smartest publishers, editors, and CEOs gather (as students) from around the world for a week of mind-meld. I usually give the opening or closing keynote and then hold daily office hours. From 9am until 5pm, Monday-Friday, the course digs into every facet of the business and art of publishing. I recommend it without reservation.

It is, however, a bit expensive. $5,850 for the five days. Although that includes books, materials, most meals, and lectures from some of the smartest thinkers in the industry and faculty from the Yale School of Management. I did manage to finagle a 15% discount for you folks, though. Use my code — YPC2018MOD — at checkout and save almost $900.

Do let me know if you’re going to attend.

Phantom Thread test footage

Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson narrates some absolutely hypnotic test footage from Phantom Thread. I still haven’t seen the film (as a movie lover the most painful thing about living in Japan is that 1. the country doesn’t get many good foreign films, and 2. when they do, it’s months after their international release dates).

The closer I get to creative people operating at the PTA level, the more I realize nothing is an accident, everything is considered, and achieving that state of grace necessary to consider so much involves excising the fat, the garbage (in people or obligations) from a life. Focus, dedication, saying no. Once there, you get to be haunted by lenses, filters, lighting, wallpaper, teapots, and film stock.


I find myself thinking about sequences and series, especially in the context of photography. How Sugimoto Hiroshi or William Eggelston only really start to make sense as patterns or successions.

As part of my recent Kumano walk I’ve come back with four series: Laundry, Solo Rooms, Mirrors, and Objects. I’ve been slowly revealing them on Instagram under the #notkumanokodo tag.


#kumanomirrors is 39 images long and if my diminishing follower count is any indication, folks are (maybe?) not so into this kind of thing. Buuuuut, this is part of the point: I’m bored with what Instagram and its ilk elevates or celebrates — the low hanging work, the easy landscape, the dreamy vista, the contrasty portrait, the shot of … beautifully cooked eggs. Mirrors ain’t no especially grand statement, but I’m curious to see if something this innocuous but repetitive — and, for me, fascinating — can find some kind of purchase on Instagram.

How does a series function in the age of algorithms? If time lines are no longer linear, how do you create entry points into something bigger than an algorithmically selected single shot? Unique hashtags work, and I’ve found that engagement with these series tends to happen in bursts.

But anyway, more importantly, why mirrors?

Kumano Mirror

The British Museum chose the Haguro Mirror as one of the most 100 important objects in the history of humanity. Mirrors have strong connections to Shinto worship (many shrines house mirrors along with local dirt) and mirrors are connected to the origin myth of Japan.

I’ve seen these roadside mirrors a million times in Japan. And I’ve noticed them on previous Kumano walks. But it wasn’t until this walk that I became obsessed with them — their variance in patina, what they reflected or didn’t reflect, the positioning, objects surrounding them, how they reflect the “true” Kumano path or are part of the “Not Kumano Kodo” verbiage that dots the walk. There is a rhythm to seeing them, and then a rhythm to photographing them. They became grounding figures and I was always glad to find a new one.

Which speaks to something important: Rewalking is not unlike rereading or rewriting. We may only get the permission to see a path in a certain way by walking that particular path again and again. This was my 6th or 7th time on the Kumano Kodo (4th on the Kohechi route; 1st time walking north to south) and I only now, finally, felt like I began to see the road.

another goddamned mirror

I was also walking alone, further enhancing the sense of “looking.” Wim Wenders, in the introduction to his photography book Written in the West, writes:

Solitude and taking photos are connected in an important way. If you aren’t alone, you can never acquire this way of seeing, this complete immersion in what you see, no longer needing to interpret, just looking. There’s a distinct kind of satisfaction that you get from looking and traveling alone, and it’s connected with this relation of solitude to photography. If you’re not alone you take different photos. I rarely feel the urge to take pictures if I’m not on my own. That trip looking for material was sheer pleasure. I’d get up in the morning and drive off into the blue and just keep driving all day. For long distances I didn’t even have any music to listen to. There was nothing I needed but to look and take photographs. The combination was unusual anyway, those two beautiful cameras, the Leica and the Makina, with their different functions. Really there were three of us on that trip … Yes, when you take photographs, solitude is often tied up with a particular feeling of happiness, a quite specific kind of contentment that I’ve occasionally noticed in other people I’ve met taking photos on their travels too.

Solitude enables a heightened awareness of the mirrors. The laundry. The objects. The infrastructure of the trail.

When I run, I don’t listen to music or podcasts. The point of the run is to open that otherwise inaccessible quiet space of the mind. And so Wim’s comment on driving without music rings true. Driving in the west itself being a kind of dangerous hypnosis. I’ve driven across America four times and can attest, it is not unlike a meditation.

In the mountains there was only one little stretch where I popped in my headphones and listened to a song, and then one stretch at the very end, dreary, asphalt, punishing sun, that I listened to an incredible podcast. But otherwise silence, breath and, indeed, looking.

The next Roden will be arriving sooner than later. Blisters vs Vipassana is the main theme. If this letter didn’t drive you nuts, tell a friend. Point ’em in our direction — — and let them know that not all of the world is falling apart.


p.s., (*whispering* … and a completely humble THANKS to the hundreds (!!) of you who wrote in after the last letter with a boost of encouragement — I tried to respond to each and every one of you; thank you thank you thank you … here’s my favorite piece of pilgrimage laundry:)

Kumano Laundry