Sunday, January 25, 2015


Dana Gioia and the Future of the Catholic Literary Imagination.

Here's the beginning of the piece:

Dana Gioia is a poet and critic who served as chair-man of the National Endowment for the Arts. He is the author, most recently, of “Pity the Beautiful,” his fourth volume of poems.

He also has a genius for connecting people. To that end, he’s spearheaded a conference called “The Future of the Catholic Literary Imagination” that will take place at the University of Southern California Feb. 19-21.

Sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at USC, the conference will feature Julia Alvarez, Ron Hansen, Alice McDermott, Kevin Starr, Tobias Wolff and Gioia himself, as well as “many more leading writers, critics, scholars, editors and journalists — young and old, Catholic and non-Catholic — in a dynamic, serious (but never pious) conversation about the relationship between faith and literature in contemporary American culture.”

I had the chance to sit down with Dana recently, and we discussed Catholic literature and his place in it.

You were born and raised in a blue-collar family in Hawthorne, Calif. How did your own Catholic literary imagination first catch fire?

I was raised in a Catholic family in a mostly Mexican neighborhood and attended 12 years of Catholic school. Consequently, my whole early worldview was Catholic, and it seemed consonant with the great art I encountered — Dante, Michelangelo, Mozart, Shakespeare. The creative vision of these artists was reinforced by their spiritual vision. Those early experiences shaped my sensibility. Art without a metaphysical dimension still feels diminished to me.


palm trees ringed with white lights
grand park, downtown l.a.
i like to imagine the trees CARE.

Friday, January 23, 2015



Hi there, folks. What a time. It's week seven or eight of the jackhammers, drills and saws but a new day is dawning. A new day is always dawning. I have made friends and learned the life stories of Tony and Mark, two of the workers, and filched some potting soil from the ten-foot long trailer of dirt and trash in the driveway.

My roommate Jacqui and I (my next book should be called The Roommate) have re-bonded and one of the things to come out of our little set-to (which we later laughed our rear ends off over, plus I showed her the post and she loved it) is that if and when I move back here in May, I will make the little free-standing studio (pix to follow) in the back yard into my office (aka 12-hour-a-day home).

To have my own little place to which I can shut the door, gaze out the window at the birds, and write is just what I need and would be heaven. Remind me to extrapolate soon about my life-long pattern of always having an incredibly great space in which that also always has at least one MAJOR drawback. The insistence upon being in at least 30% discomfort at any given time may be hard-wired into my system, I don't know.

Anyway, here's an interview, in which I use the world "just" approximately 200 times too many, that Anna Weaver worked up for Northwest Catholic. It's called "On Fire for the Light" and is a kind of entree into the Women's Retreat I'll be leading in Seattle March 20-22nd (waiting list only at this point).

For the next few days, I'll be packing and moving. Fun!

Have a great weekend yourselves.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015


Fyi, I'm coming to Texas! And will be speaking at the above-described event, which is open to the public.

Very excited. Have driven across Texas twice solo, done a 40-day retreat on the Gulf Coast, and listened ad infinitum to Iris Dement's "Bluebonnet Spring." I've always been warmly welcomed. Houston will be new to me. Hope to take in a bit of the museums and gardens.

And I'm very much looking forward to meeting the students, parents and folks-at-large at Episcopal High School the night of February 3rd.

See you there!

Monday, January 19, 2015


"I write above all for the reader, with the intention of giving pleasure, amusing, stunning or destroying. It is impossible to write without another person."

--Tadeusz Konwicki, Polish novelist and filmmaker, from a book-length interview called "Half a Century of Purgation"

This is week eight of the tree-cutters, drills, and jackhammers and I must say it is a sign of God's infinite mercy that I have not had a complete nervous breakdown.

My one true not-to-be-moved obligation is to turn in my arts and culture column each Friday. Then I have many many other self-imposed obligations. Amazingly, I have more or less kept up with them all.

I case I haven't spelled it out, this is what's going on. The foundation of the house where I've lived for four years (and which my room-mate owns) is being is re-built, after which the whole house and yard are going to be re-done. So I'm going to move out for three months is the plan. I've already found a place, not far from here. So that's good, but I still have to pack up all my stuff and store it and figure out what to bring with me and haul that over and move in by Feb. 1st and the morning of Feb. 1st I leave at 6:15 am for Houston for four days, then come back for a few days, then fly out on a red-eye the following Saturday eve for Honduras. Followed by two Lenten missions, a book release in early March, ET CETERA.

So while I've been pretty well maintaining, one day at a time, yesterday morning I had a huge blowout with my roommate. That's it, I'm moving out for good, I'd already decided. She is all about MONEY and I am all about LOVE.

Later in the afternoon I brought another friend home with me to pick up some of my plants. My roommate was out in the yard and mentioned that at the new place where I am moving for three months while the house is being re-done I will have peace and quiet from 7 am to 5.

"Yes,"  I snapped, and before I even understood what I was saying, added, "and it will be nice to be someplace where I am WELCOMED and TREASURED."

"You're welcome here!" she said. "You're always welcome here."

"I am not!" I responded stubbornly. "I am not treasured!"

And then this person who I've been accusing in my head of being emotionless and cold, Jacqui, my beloved roommate, came over and gave me a big hug and said she adored me and I am welcome to stay here always and it's been hard on both of us and she can't imagine how frustrating it must have been these past months--more like two years--with first a new sewer on the street, then her lawsuit and now a new foundation and house rehab.

I forgot to say that yesterday morning, before all this transpired, I had gone out to the yard and buried a little silver cross under the pink camellia bush and a Pope Francis medal under the red camellia bush, both of which I can hardly bear to think of leaving, to bestow a kind of blessing on the house.

And we just happened to be out by the camellia bushes when all this happened.

Anyway, apparently I am destined to move through life as a giant baby, wearing my heart on my sleeve, crying at the most inopportune and inappropriate moments, lurching from one position to another in the space of five minutes, from hot to cold, from resentment to love, from hardness of heart to humility of heart, from being convinced that I'm right to doubting that I've ever been right, from weariness to wonder, from fear to faith, from self-righteousness to an embrace, a truce, a guffaw.

I like to think I am so complicated, so deep, but at the end of the day I just want to be treasured. I think we all want that. And however awkwardly and ridiculously that comes out--maybe it's a good thing to say it out loud every so often. You have to be in a certain kind of poverty, one you would never have looked for or asked for, to admit that you want to be treasured. I mean we can't insist on being treasured or harp on being treasured. But it's okay to be vulnerable. It's okay to speak our little "truth."

When we do, the world seems instantly to reach out and grasp our hand.
And one more time we're astonished: by ourselves, and--even more, even better--by the other.

Saturday, January 17, 2015



This week's arts and culture colulmn is called A Folk Art Treasure: Grandma Prisbrey's Bottle Village.

Here's an excerpt:

"At the age of 60, Grandma Prisbrey, as she was known by this time, exploded.

During the next five years, in a borderline berserk burst of energy, she erected structure after structure.

Grandma began to visit the nearby dump daily. She built wishing wells, a Shell House, an Agitator Garden (using old washing machine parts), a Cabana/Card House (Grandma loved to gamble), and a Shrine to All Religious. She constructed a Doll Head Planter and a Parade of Dolls Doll House. She erected a Rumpus Room for her grandchildren, a Meditation Room, chapels, huts, flower stands and a Headlight Planter.

She connected them all with cement walkways in which she embedded bullets, combs, hood ornaments from cars, broken pieces of tile, keys, razors and baby pacifiers."





Thursday, January 15, 2015


The people I admire most are those who are sensitive and who want to create something or discover something, and do not see life in terms of power."
--E.M. Forster

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


"In Bimini, on the old Spanish Main, a black girl once said to me, 'Those as hunts treasure must go alone, at night, and when they find it they have to leave a little of their blood behind them."
--Loren Eiseley, The Night Country

Health tip: when your little sister suggests tea tree mouthwash as an antidote to toothache, do not hunt down that little brown bottle of 100% tea tree oil in your medicine cabinet, think to yourself If mouthwash is good, the real undiluted stuff will be even better, and proceed to smear it all over the inside of your mouth for a few days.

Hardy soul that I am, that's what I did.

After a while I started thinking, That's weird, my lips are chapped. I wonder why?

Then I looked in the mirror and saw I looked like I'd had discount collagen implants.

Then the entire inside of my mouth started to basically blister.

Anyway, turns out tea tree oil is for external use only (who has time to read labels?)

So I've been in pain the last few days, and dosing with Benadryl.

Meanwhile, beautiful stuff pours over the transom: links, reflections, thank you notes.

Here, from Fr. Tom Hall, for example, is a piece called "Pope Francis's Stand on Climate Change is the Latest Battleground for U.S. Catholics," and another called "Vatican Panel Says Oscar Romero Was a Martyr."

So there's good news out there, too.

I'm preparing to move my living quarters for three months (at least) and the foundation of the house in which I currently live, as I'm sure I've mentioned way too many times, is being re-done.

I'm taking advantage of the disruption of my writing schedule to visit with friends and fellowship.

That's also good news.  

Saturday, January 10, 2015


My arts and culture column this week is a love letter to my adopted city. January 1st, 2015, marked twenty-five years to the day since I moved here.

The piece begins:

"I grew up in New Hampshire, and in all my most vivid childhood memories, I am shivering. For the better part of the year, I waited for the school bus in weather so cold my teeth ached, stood hunched against frigid winds at recess and came home to a mother who considered it perfectly normal for citizens of the 20th century to inhabit a house the temperature of an igloo.

At night, I climbed between sheets that felt as if they'd been stored in a refrigerator and, in the morning, woke to a room whose air had the raw bite of the tundra. One fairy tale character in particular had a devastating hold on my psyche: Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl, the gentle street urchin who froze to death on New Year's Eve."


Fyi, the essay will be included in my newest book, STUMBLE: Virtue, Vice and the Space Between, forthcoming in March from Franciscan Media.    

Thursday, January 8, 2015


Those original solitudes, the childhood solitudes, leave indelible marks on certain souls. Their entire life is sensitized for poetic reverie, for a reverie which knows the price of solitude. Childhood knows unhappiness through men. In solitude, it can relax its aches. When the human world leaves him in peace, he feels like the son of the cosmos. And thus, in his solitudes, from the moment he is master of his reveries, the child knows the happiness of dreaming which will later be the happiness of the poets. How is it possible not to feel that there is communication between our solitude as a dreamer and the solitudes of childhood? And it is no accident that, in a tranquil reverie, we often follow the slope that returns us to our childhood reveries.

--Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie


Tuesday, January 6, 2015



Wow. After suspending my normal writing schedule for the whole of December, out in Palm Springs I've been free to spend many uninterrupted hours a day feverishly writing.

So here, as promised, is the joke's-on-me coda to my Christmas eve Mass rant...

It all happened back in September, when LA was in the midst of a sustained, torrid heat wave. The whole city was parched, wilting, and at the tail end, as it transpired, of a years-long drought. The church to which I was headed for 5:30 pm Mass that day had no A/C. The ladies would inside would be fanning themselves the whole time with rolled-up bulletins or missalettes.

Anyway, I wheeled into the parking lot just a teeny tad late. Mostly I'm on time and I'm never ten minutes late, but I will more often than is perhaps strictly necessary be late by, say, a minute and a half. I'm not proud of it, but that's how I sometimes roll. This is due to a habit, perhaps a compulsion I have, of not allowing myself quite enough time to get places and/or squeezing in one too many minor errands, and then careening through the streets and deriving huge satisfaction from arriving at my destination with ten seconds to spare. It's a stupid ego thing, an adrenaline hit, and a practice that is obviously not terribly cognizant of others.

I hadn't run any errands before Mass but I was coming from the gym. I still had on a kind of workout tank top, blue. I also had on a pair of Diesel jeans, a nice belt, silver earrings and a bracelet, and Mephisto sandals. My nails were done. So I wasn't dressed like a street person (which is okay if you ARE a street person). But I was rushed, and my hair, as is its, or my wont, was a bit disheveled, and my tank top, sleeveless, was perhaps a bit tighter than we all might wish. As I was dashing from my car into church, the thought did cross my mind that maybe I should put on the long-sleeved shirt I had in the trunk. But as I said, I was late already and the temperature was over 100 and I figured I'd slip in, sit in the back, and all would be well.

So I slipped in during the first reading and sat in the back. It was Tuesday, which meant Adoration afterwards, which I fully planned to stay for. That made me happy, and being at Mass, any Mass, always makes me happy, and I had always liked this particular church to which I'd been coming frequently to the 5:30 for years.

I'd been coming for years and people tolerated me but no-one had ever gone out of their way to say hi. That was okay. I'm used to smiling at people and not having them smile back. Plus if they did smile back, I'd probably run.

Anyway, right away I also noticed: a new priest! Mid-thirties to early forties. Earnest. Beautiful singing voice. Filipino perhaps, as was much of the parish. Said the liturgy slowly. Lovely all around.

I pondered all these things in my heart during the readings and homily. When it came time for the Eucharist. I made my way down the aisle, singing "Pan de Vida" with the others, my Magnificat open back in my pew so I could say the Communion antiphon when I returned to my seat.

I was in the right-hand line, the side on which the new priest was standing. When I got up to the front, I held out the little throne I'd made of my hands to receive the Eucharist, as I always do.

The priest placed the Host in my hand.
He said, "The Body of Christ" as usual.
And then he leaned toward me with the most welcoming, beatific smile and said something else.

For a second, as you can imagine, I simply couldn't compute. For those of you who aren't Catholic, the priest never EVER speaks to you during Communion. Then my mind kicked into gear, and here again, I'm not proud, but I just couldn't imagine any other possible explanation.

My God, I thought, does the man read my blog? Does he recognize me? Is he trying to tell me he likes my pieces in The Tidings?

I stood there uncertainly for a second, smiling,  and whispered, "What?"

And the priest leaned forward and very slowly, very clearly, said, "Please dress appropriately next time you come to Mass."

Does that not trump all? Is that not absolutely 100% beyond brilliant? Genius.

I was stunned, I was shocked, I made my way back to my pew, pulsating with embarrassment but also strangely...exultant. I did have a split-second of wanting to turn back and say, "Dude, these jeans cost a hundred and twenty-five bucks."

I did have a half-second of wanting to say, My God here I have trudged to Mass, bravely, loyally, alone, for eighteen years. Good for you: So dress appropriately.

Part of me wanted to protest, I come to this church where after years no-one knows who I am, no-one cares, no-one knows I write for the Magnificat they're toting. I feel connected to them. I pray for them. I'm grateful for them. Good for you: So dress appropriately. 

I often joke that I'm the only white Catholic in hipster Silver Lake. Very funny, so show your respect for the people of color who sit beside you in the pews by dressing appropriately next time you come to Mass.

I nipped those thoughts in the bud, in other words, and I'll tell you why. Because all those years of prayer and of trudging to Mass and of schlepping to Confession had formed in me the habit of obedience. In spite of my faults, they had formed in me a humble and contrite heart.

Ever since coming into the Church I'd been waiting for Christ to speak to me. And he had.

St. Francis of Assisi heard, "Rebuild my church." Mother Teresa heard, "Wouldst thou not help? Wilt thou refuse?" I heard, "Put on a shirt and comb your hair."

Seriously, at once I took the message as coming straight from Christ. It couldn't possibly have been more appropriate. That priest had seen straight through to my core, to my central conflict, to the way I'm still trying to serve both God and mammon.

To wit: I've been single for 15 years. Like the priest, all priests, I'm called to be a celebrant, not a star. That's hard sometimes. One of the deepest desires of the human heart is to matter to someone. Usually I'm okay with the fact that I don't, but when I feel rejected or abandoned or anxious or afraid, I do tend to want a little more than usual to be seen. Something had happened the day before that had made me feel rejected.  I had been craving, subconsciously at least, a little male attention.

It wasn't lost on me for a second that someone had seen me. Christ had.

In addition to addressing my craving for attention, the priest's words touched on many other unfortunate tendencies of mine. To think the rules are made for everyone but me. To think Oh but my heart yearns--why should I care what my hair looks like? My impatience. My tendency to use activity to anesthetize my emotional pain. .

Later in the week I told the story to a lapsed Catholic friend. "Don't you think the priest might have been prompted by his own unworked-through stuff?" she asked right away. "No I don't," I said firmly. "I don't care what his hang-ups are and I don't care what his politics are. He was right. You show respect for Christ."

Later still I thought,  I didn't have on my wedding garment that day. By wedding garment I don't mean some weird kind of pre-Vatican II chapel veil which for me would be a grotesque affectation and I couldn't wear for two seconds without obsessing, Is everybody noticing how holy I am?

No, the real wedding garment is largely inner. The real wedding garment is doing things nobody's going to notice. Leaving on time. Taking a few minutes of silence to prepare. Cultivating the humility and love constantly to be aware that our appearance, demeanor, and capacity to be present affect the people around us. That doesn't mean we have to look dowdy. It means that, whatever our station in life, our heart is oriented toward motherhood, in the deepest sense of the word.

But the real deal was this.

During those 15 years of single life my thought had been: Maybe there'll be a second marriage in my life and maybe there won't be. Up to God! I'll just go along being faithful to the teachings of the Church but also being "open." As time had worn on, though, I'd begun to see that maybe I had actually been called to a life of celibacy. Every relationship I've ever been in (not that there have been many) has been marked by unalloyed pain. For whatever reason, the area of romance had always for me been a reservoir of conflict and woundedness.

You have to work that out, of course, in or out of a relationship, because the real relationship is with all other people, with Christ. I'd always been afraid that to "embrace" celibacy would be a thinly-disguised, unhealthy fleeing from the world. But in fact I was participating more fully in the world in various ways than I ever had been. I felt more whole, more useful, in these past few years than I ever had.

And now Christ seemed to be saying, You have to choose. You have to make a decision. Otherwise you're going to be forever hedging your bets.

That's the real reason the words of that priest struck to my core. I'm always telling Jesus how much I love him. It's as if he were saying:

"Do you? Do you love me more than these?"
"Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."
"Feed my lambs."
"Do you love me?"
"Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."
"Tend my sheep."
"Heather, do you love me?" 
"Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." 
"Feed my sheep."

And dress appropriately for Mass. Everything you need, the strength, wisdom and courage to make any decision, will grow from that.

I knew the priest's words had flowed from the deepest kind of love. And because those years of schlepping to Mass had formed in me as well the knowledge that I belong, that I am welcome no matter what, I stayed for the whole hour of Adoration.

You spoke to me, Lord, I wept from my place in the back.

Never had I more truly understood the words: "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me."