Under worldly sway, a Chattanoogan is tempted to abandon lococentrism

My mother, Marianne, speaking Swiss German, regales an audience with stories as her great great niece, Sophia Staubli of Miami, fiddles with an iPad.

By David Tulis

I’ve just returned from a two-day visit to Miami with my mother. My brother, Thomas, a bachelor artist, and I drove her to visit relatives from Switzerland in Miami.

My mother, nee Marianne Staubli of Zurich, still speaks with a heavy Swiss accent, though she married a man who was more foreign than she — Bob Tulis, of Sudbury, Mass., son of Roman Catholic immigrants from Ireland. She has lived here for half a century, and reared her three children mostly in Chattanooga. The daughter of a Swiss federal congressman, Marianne lives out her widowhood as my near neighbor on a family hilltop lot in Soddy-Daisy, Tenn.

We are at Sunday meal at a restaurant in South Miami. The tongues over the plates and goblets are global. My mother speaks Swiss German with her sister in law, Lou Staubli, widow of a chemical company scientist. Lou is in Miami with her son Matthias, who works for a German shipping company. Mattias’ wife is painter Cecilia Thibes Staubli ‡ and a follower of anthroposophy, the contemplative and mystic religion of Rudolph Steiner (1861-1925). Cecilia’s  library contains books in German and English. Cecilia speaks Portuguese with children Sophia and Thomas. Sophia, 19, is learning Chinese and Japanese. She dabbles in painting, reads graphic novels in English and works at Banana Republic.

At table at a dinner Sunday, even French is thrown into the mix — apart from all the English — as my mother and I haggle over an item in the bill and I suggest that her recollections of Lou’s deceased husband are not being well received.

Coming home to a ‘small world’

I tell you of the dinner because it helps explain the odd emotional sense with which I have come home. That sensation intensified as two days of visiting and conversation wore on. Last night I arrived home after 15 hours on the road, feeling my own mortality and inconsequence.

I feel a genuine emotion as my convictions and labor seem to rise before me as hopeless. I’ve lost a sense of confidence in the power of ideas, and the duty of encouragement and persuasion.

Let me suggest why by telling a little about my brother. Thomas Tulis, two years my junior, is an artist building a monumental pile of paintings and photographs with little interest in selling or marketing it after years of a cold public reception, even though he enjoys some critical note.

Both of us are pursuing our passions, willing to make personal sacrifices. I gave up a job at a newspaper at which I had no prospect for advancement or better pay. I write and seek ways to serve my fellow man with that gift — a mysterious process in capitalism and creativity as I seek my way.

Thomas also accepts sacrifices. He has always lived in poverty, refusing to enter the commercial art world, and suffering for a quarter of a century as an artist who says his reward is “the creative act itself,” and that it matters nothing for him if his work has no following and no market. Contented, he lives alone in Atlanta in cold, deplorable conditions, scabrous walls of a rented house covered with pieces of his work. He heats one room with a wood stove. (His website may contain images not appropriate for children.) Despite outward penury, he lives out his ideal, disregarding the dollars that might come as reward for marketing and hobnobbing with curators and patrons.

I see myself in his situation. He is an encouragement to me, but also his life gives silent warning. I ask you. Have you found your ideal, your cause in  life? Are you living for something greater than yourself and your purse or pleasure? For art? For your children? For God?

I suggest you live out a life glorifying to God in the circumstance and the place in which God placed you. You may be native to my city. Maybe this town is an adopted hometown. Maybe you are here because, as do nomadic and rootless Americans, you followed the job. Maybe your husband got a transfer.

The questions today are existential. They are not about free markets, politics, law or culture and society. They are not questions of morality or ethics. They touch on the “Who am I?” and “Where is meaning?” rather than the “What am I to do?”

Thomas the artist has never felt inconsequential in his painting, even though he has little audience, by dint of his constitution and long experience in his trade. He pursues an ideal. I return to Chattanooga feeling very much the slightness and closeness of my work. Why care about Chattanooga when a whole vast world exists? Is it really possible to care about ideas that seem so difficult to sell?

Not letting the rat race control

Mattias Staubli the shipping executive tours the city as after dining we head toward Miami Beach, thronged Sunday night by mass revelings connected to a football game to be played Monday. No one in the car knows anything about the game, but we pick up details from others in a traffic jam. Mattias talks about economics, the shipping business and office politics, his son Pablo in Brazil who wants to get out of mergers and acquisitions and earn an MBA to teach, corruption in Miami run by Cuban emigres, and what exactly constitutes the “rat race.”  Mattias discusses the Indians’ monopolies on tax-free cigarettes and casino licenses, and the flow of millions of dollars. Is it good for them to receive so much free money? he wonders.

We had argued the day before about American imperialism and warmongering. I cited Switzerland, of which I am a citizen, and I urged him to see the benefit in world politics of his homeland’s neutrality policy. “That’s bullshit,” he declared. I said that I am a better Swiss than he because I really believe in peace and free market capitalism. I insisted peace will come eventually among nations when they live out God’s grace and forbearance, act not in hostility,  but neutrally, beneficently. As we chatted my argument seemed hopelessly outclassed by realpolitik. The ideals cannot possibly matter, given the shape of the world as it is, Mattias suggested. It was almost as if he were saying ideals have their place, only not here, not now, not in the vast U.S. whose glories and power are irresistible.

In light of these conversations, and the vast expanse of a strange and wonderful city that passed by our open windows, and my mother’s cackling good cheer, I came to a sense of alienation in this our mutual project.

How can writing (for Chattanoogans) about the ideal of localism ever succeed? How can anyone dare allow himself such a view that his hometown is the center of the world? I have a feeling of humiliation at my petty project. It seems so incredibly small, so unprofitable, vain and provincial. A local website with a local audience, lacking fundamentals such as critical mass, big money, big marketing and sharp techniques.

I was born in Chattanooga to two foreigners, yet I am providentially placed here, with no easy means of leaving. Unlike Matthias and other wealthy people who provide a real service to the world, I am not sure of the strength of my service or its potency as an expression of capitalism. Mattias directs more than 100 plus cargo ships for Hamburg Sud, controlling their loads in Rio and other South American ports. I direct words and ideas to a tiny group of readers as a free service in an obscure inland city.

You have a purpose; you have place

What do my ruminations have to do with you? You have a purpose, too. Your purpose ideally lies within your calling, and your employment within your calling. Perhaps it is your living. Perhaps it has a spiritual or personal value, and your dividends aren’t measured in green banknotes, but in favor of God, or of family. Perhaps your reward is love. Still, each of us has a duty to be content in our place, and to be open to new influences that might hurt — but simultaneously benefit — us.

I am an unusual person to make the case for provincialism and localism, as I am son of a woman who was always torn in her heart between the USA and her native Switzerland. My proximity to these Swiss people makes me realize that I am a Southerner by intention perhaps more than by birthplace or family history. As for Southron talk, I go no further than the word “ah” for I and “mah” for my.

I don’t know where else to go, or what else to do by way of service to my fellow man. I am stuck doing Nooganomics. My explorations are in a direction parallel to that of the Christian church. As the church points toward Christ, I point toward good government, justice, prosperity, liberty and peace. These Christian fruits are implied in His government, and all are taught by the faithful church as rising from the Godhead and the character of the members of the Trinity. In a way, my job is to point you to the church. Local economy, localism and the free market are far more than economic stats or a daily dose of the Wall Street Journal. They have a moral and spiritual dimension.

Thomas struggles for his ideal and accepts poverty. Mattias toils in his high rise and seeks to find his own center. My mother, 89, tootles delight with every sentence as sons take her on a trip. I return home, dismayed, wary, but oddly refreshed. And you? Even if the world is against you or indifferent, you work and fight for your ideal. Do it here.

[I published this essay Jan. 8, 2013.]

‡ Mrs. Staubli’s website is ceciliathibes.com.

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