Thursday, April 28, 2016


Some people are attached to being rich. For a long time I was attached to being poor.

That's the basic premise of my new book, LOADED: Money and the Spirituality of Enough.

But just as alcoholism isn't really about alcohol, money neuroses aren't really about money. Mine was about a lack of trust: a near panic what the money I had at any given time was the only money I would ever have. A profound sense of scarcity.

So it's a book about changing out stance toward the universe, toward reality.

It's about learning to take the true measure of ourselves.

It's about community.

Here's an interview with America Magazine, out yesterday, that gives a bit of context.

I'll post a couple of excerpts in a day or two.

my workspace at Mary & Joseph Retreat Center 
where I recently spent several days on  a proposal for what I hope is my next book!

I sort of intensely dislike promoting my work, but speaking of taking the true measure of ourselves, and in the spirit of marketing as a transferral of enthusiasm--I'm putting it "out there."

What I really dislike, I find, is feeling vulnerable!

Thank you all for your loyalty, support and warmth. Those are the real riches we're all able to give each other.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


credit: CRS

Michael Holmquist is a seminarian for the Diocese of Colorado Springs.  He currently studies at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. 

When he read on my blog last October that I was coming to Rome, he extended a friendly and welcoming hand. He took me for coffee, arranged for a spot on a coveted Scavi Tour, cajoled his seminarian friend Kevin from the Boston area into giving me a stupendous personalized individual tour of the sanctuary of St. Peter's (we all stood in line for a couple of hours which was no real hardship for me, but for those two, who have toured the sanctuary countless times, I'm sure it was another matter), and on one of my last days there, got me into a hidden treasure: the convent of Santa Brigida a Campo de'Fiori.

His diaconate ordination is set for this fall on Sept. 29th. Kevin will be ordained as a deacon that day, too.

Recently I received an email from Michael that read in part:

"This past Easter, I went on a Global Fellows trip with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) to Egypt to see their work with refugees and with peace building.  It was a powerful experience for me, particularly with their work for peace building between Christians and Muslims. The message of this community's desire for peace, particularly as Muslims, is something that I really want to help spread, particularly with the more recent divisive rhetoric that has spread in our culture in the US."

He also attached a piece he wrote about his experience that he hopes will run in several venues, and that he offered to share with us..

Here it is:

The week after Easter, I found myself in the choir loft of an Anglican Church in Al Odeysat, a small village in Upper Egypt, surrounded by community leaders of the village, including Christians, Muslims, men and women, clergy, and teachers.

Each year Catholic Relief Services (CRS) partners with the Pontifical North American College in Rome to take a group of seminarians to, see the work of the US Catholic Church overseas. This year’s trip was to Egypt, where CRS has been working since 1956. This day we were visiting a village where CRS had been a catalyst for peace in a place where faith-based segregation had led to distrust and division in the community.

Historically, Christians and Muslims have coexisted in Egypt for centuries, but political upheaval in 2011 led to increased distrust among communities, deteriorated relations, and even violence including the burning of homes, places of worship and even killings. Faith-based segregation has prevented peaceful coexistence, particularly in Upper Egypt.

“We always knew we had the energy to work for peace, but we didn’t know where to start,” explained Mohammed, a math teacher in a village we visited. Mohammed a Muslim, is one of over 80 community leaders from three villages who are participating in a CRS project called “Brokra,” which in Arabic, means “tomorrow.” The project teaches community and religious leaders about how to promote peace and religious tolerance locally.

Promoting religious tolerance among groups accustomed to fighting might seem like an impossible task. However leaders are encouraged to promote change through manageable local initiatives. One example of such an initiative is the creation of inter-religious soccer leagues. When a team wins, the entire village celebrates. Inter-religious outings are another example of local peace building efforts. Religious leaders from different faiths appear together in public spaces to model the changes they hope to see among the community. And mothers will visit other families to discuss promoting peace and religious tolerance in the home by using more religiously inclusive language. These initiatives empower women and youth to be leaders in the work for peace.

Mohammed told us that on the morning that I met him, two boys—one Christian and one Muslim--had gotten into a fight. Fortunately for them, Mohammed quickly defused what could have become a volatile situation. However, using what he learned through CRS, Mohammed sat down with both sets of parents and encouraged an apology. In turn, everyone reconciled and there was no further violence.

Work for peace costs, just as love costs, because it takes us to the peripheries, outside of our comfort zone; it asks us to change. During our conversation, a Muslim woman said that before this project she was scared to enter a church; a Christian man admitted that he was just as afraid to have a Muslim enter his church. But here we were, Catholics, Anglicans and Muslims, men and women sitting together in a church.

A Muslim man told us “Please go home and tell others what you have experienced. We are like you. We want what you want. We want peace; we want a better future for our kids; we want an end to religious extremism. Please, please, tell people we want peace.”

They acknowledged that there was still work to be done, but there was a palpable pride and love in what they had accomplished. Jesus told us “Blessed are the peace makers.” It was inspiring to see the profound respect CRS has in working with communities and individuals. Their work for peace is based in the dignity of every man and woman, knowing that they are made in the image of God. This work allows each person the ability to grow and flourish in a safe and health community where each person is respected.

credit: CRS

credit: CRS

Friday, April 22, 2016


on a good year

the day I went

This week's arts and culture column is on the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve, an hour and a half outside L.A.

It starts like this:

The Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve, located 15 miles west of Lancaster, is an 1,800-acre state reserve “located on California’s most consistent poppy-bearing land.”

On April 2, the website’s “Bloom Status” noted: “The season appears to have ended early, as last month’s rains came too late to sustain the bloom that had barely started.”

Or, as the lady behind the register in the gift shop observed to a fellow poppy seeker, “It just didn’t happen this year.”

I knew that before I made a field trip to the Poppy Reserve, on March 31. But visiting on an off-year, I figured, would be its own, different kind of salute to the California Poppy (Eschscholtzia californica), our state flower since 1903.

At the 2,000-square-foot Jane S. Pinheiro Interpretive Center (and gift shop), I learned about “The Great Poppy Lady,” an Antelope Valley resident and self-taught wildflower artist. In the 1940s, Jane painted watercolors of the local wildflowers that were declared by a UC Davis botanist to be “botanically correct and really a treasure.”


Monday, April 18, 2016


here i tried for a zany "eggs in nest" effect
For years, decades really, I've wanted to take a pottery class.

A few months ago, the way opened and I finally took the plunge. I enrolled in a hand-building class at the Xiem Clay Center here in Pasadena.

At first, I was shy around the clay! Even while alone with a giant block of it in my own apartment.

I don't like people to watch while I'm "creating", I now realize: the same reason (along with my abysmal "technique") I was unable to participate in the recital for a group piano class I took several years ago. Though the pottery class met every Wednesday night I soon found I was happier taking my clay home and sitting with it at the dining room table while we got acquainted.

All I really wanted, from the beginning, was to fashion a bunch of tiny misshapen bowls.

I'd stayed at the apt. of my friends Lisa and Paolo last year for a month while they were out of town. They'd both taken classes at Xiem and in their kitchen were a ton of these minuscule Lisa-made bowls. I sincerely think my attraction to them is some atavistic leftover from trillions of years ago when humans were still insects, or birds. Whatever the case, my whole being thrilled to these tiny nest-like objects.

Simple though they appear, for a while fashioning even one of these tiny misshapen receptacles was beyond me. But after many hours of practice, during which I silently encouraged myself to let love be my guide, a couple of them started to take shape.

Then a couple more. Then five, eight, ten...

The other students quickly moved on to coils and slabs and there I sat, making tiny bowl after tiny bowl. Plus the things shrink after bisque-firing so most of them became even tinier than I'd planned, as in capable of holding, say, a single walnut, or three paper clips.  "Can I just make another bowl?" I'd plaintively ask our instructor Titia, who I'm sure did not care if I made a thousand of them as long as I didn't exceed my cubic-inch kiln allotment, and besides was too busy helping the others make three-tier jewelry boxes, complicated teapots, and four-gallon planters.

Glazing was fun, too, though again I couldn't really let go and experiment the way I would have like to in front of my fellows.

here I got really daring and (none too successfully) pressed
a couple of sidewalk-scavenged leaves into the wet clay

Anyway if you ever need a place to put your used teabag, week's Klonopin supply, or single AAA battery, come on over! I'll setcha right up.

Thursday, April 14, 2016


This week's arts and culture column is on the marvelous NYT fashion photographer Bill Cunningham.

It begins like this:

Bill Cunningham, the subject of the 2010 documentary “Bill Cunningham New York,” is a fashion photographer who for years has maintained two spreads in “The New York Times.”

“Evening Hours” covers the social, philanthropic and political world of New York’s high society. “On the Street” is an “attempt to tease out trends in terms of the reality of how people dress,” observes Harold Koda, curator of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I really feel he does address the whole spectrum of what we are as New Yorkers and I believe he’s the only one who does it.”

Cunningham, 83 when the film was made, rides around Manhattan on an old (donated) Schwinn (his 29th; the previous 28 were stolen). He gets his film developed at a mom-and-pop convenience store called Photo King. He sleeps in a cot in the same tiny studio above Carnegie Hall where he’s lived for decades.

Threatened with eviction and offered a new, snazzy apartment, he frets, “Who the hell wants a kitchen and a bathroom? Just more room to clean.”


Sunday, April 10, 2016


This week's arts and culture piece came to me through a reader who, by chance, had been on a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City and heard the story of a fellow pilgrim named Anna Lidzbarski.

The story begins:

Anna Lidzbarski’s parents were from what was then Eastern Poland and is now the Ukraine. They were Catholic.

“In that part of the world, Ukranians and Poles and Jews all lived together. My father’s best friend, from the time they were toddlers, was Jewish.”

Anna’s parents had been married in February 1938, the year before the war broke out. They were staying with their closest neighbors, Ukranian friends, preparing for a house-raising.

“My father was a radio operator in the Army reserves. That night the local constable came with a telegram telling him to report the next day,” she said.

“War is very dull, very slow. It’s not like in the movies where everything happens at once. It’s like the frog you put in cold water and start heating the pot, little by little by little. You learn to accept each tiny change. You don’t even realize what’s happening.”


Thursday, April 7, 2016


morning light through my south-facing bedroom window

"I work hard at managing, grateful

and spare. I try to forgive all trespasses

and give thanks for the desert"...

The beginning of "Surviving Love" by Linda Gregg from In the Middle Distance.
For the full poem and an audio, visit The Writer's Almanac for January 16, 2016.

Friday, April 1, 2016


This week's arts and culture piece was meant to go in last week, on Good Friday but turned out the paper was dark for Easter.

So here is a reflection on the world-class Huntington Desert Garden, which happens to be a mere few miles from where I live.

It begins:

The Huntington Gardens and Library in Pasadena boasts what is widely considered one of the world’s premier collections of desert plants. The famed Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx called it “the most extraordinary garden in the world,” period.

You can learn more, among other places, in the book “Desert Plants: A Curator’s Introduction to the Huntington Desert Garden” by Gary Lyons.

“As you might imagine,” director Jim Folsom observes in the foreword, “when a garden includes 12 acres of plants, rockery and paths, has several thousand species to boast, and entails the life’s work of many people, there are wonderful specimens to encounter, great stories to tell and myriad lessons to learn.

“You do not merely visit the Desert Garden: you enter it, you are surrounded by and immersed in this wholly different and, at first sight, perhaps strange dreamscape. This garden takes you in and speaks to you in a fresh and compelling voice. Shape, form, movement, color and texture have different meaning here. Plant life and presentation defy, and then reconstruct, your sense of what might be possible.”


Sunday, March 27, 2016


"Room Four [the “Death Row” hospital ward of the TB sanitarium/Soviet prison at Tirgul-Ocna, Romania] was the scene of great kindness and humanity. Prisoners from other wards often came to spend the night with us, helping the dying and offering comfort.

At Easter, a friend from his hometown brought a gift wrapped in a piece of paper for Gafencu, the former Iron Guard trooper. “It’s been smuggled in,” he said. “Open it.”

Gafuncu undid the paper to reveal two lumps of a glittering white substance—sugar. None of us had seen sugar for years. Our wasted bodies craved it. All eyes were on Gafencu, and the prize in his hand. Slowly he wrapped it up again.

“I won’t eat it just yet,” he said. “Someone might be worse off than I during the day. But thank you.” He put the present carefully beside his bed, and there it stayed.

A few days later, my fever increased and I became very weak. The sugar was passed from bed to bed until it came to rest on mine.

“It’s a gift,” said Gafencu. I thanked him, but left the sugar untouched in case the next day someone should need it more. When my crisis passed, I gave it to Soteris, the elder of two Greek Communists, whose condition was grave. For two years the sugar went from man to man in Room Four (and twice it returned to me). Each time the sufferer had the strength to resist it.

--Richard Wurmbrand, Christ in the Communist Prisons


Friday, March 25, 2016



Last night I went to the Holy Thursday service at St. Elizabeth of Hungary. As you  may know, the Mass commemorates the Last Supper at which Christ tied a towel around his waist, knelt, and washed the feet of his disciples All around the world, the event is commemorated in the annual ritual of foot-washing.

This can be done in slightly different ways. Sometimes the priest calls up pre-selected parishioners and washes their feet on the altar. Sometimes little benches and basins of water and towels have been positioned here and there around the sanctuary at the end of the pews.

At St. Elizabeth's, they did both things. First, the priests (there were several) called up some parishioners to the alter and washed their feet up there. Then several dear parishioners in red vests took up stations at the little benches and invited the members of the congregation to have their feet washed.

Well of course I was right at the end of the pew where a basin and bench happened to be located and along came a handsome young man, his face shining with the light and love of Christ, and first thing he came right up to me, smiled, and asked, "May I wash your feet?"

"Oh surely!" I whispered loudly, stripped off my boots and socks and clambered on to the bench. I happened to have nicked my right foot last week and had a Band-Aid on my big toe which somehow made it even nicer and also, living alone as I do, I'm not often touched.

So this lovely young man poured cool water over my feet and lovingly dried them and then he bent over and KISSED MY FOOT.

Of course tears welled. "Thank you, thank you," I wept, and took his shoulders, and we embraced. God bless. God bless, we exchanged Easter greetings.

I was so overcome I stumbled back to my seat, vision blurred, and sat there praying in gratitude for several minutes until I realized that in my swelling emotion, I had completely overlooked/forgotten that once your feet are washed, you're supposed to hang out and wash the feet of THE NEXT PERSON.

I awkwardly tried to interpose myself a couple of times but the folks who came after me had found their own rhythm so I just sat there feeling kind of incompetent and useless and as if I'd taken more than my share, but still deeply touched at the whole communal ritual and all it symbolizes. Which really pretty much emblemizes my whole life in the Church--in fact, my life in general.  Nobody seemed much to notice or hold it against me--ditto.

I always think of my late friend Maureen on Good Friday and this NPR's "All Things Considered" piece I wrote years ago.

Here it is. You can listen to it HERE.

The other day my friend Joan called me. “If I hear one more person say ‘It’s all good,’ I’m going to scream,” she said. “If it was all good I wouldn’t have to be in some 12-step meeting every other minute. If it was all good I wouldn’t have to be on my knees in the bathroom at work asking God to help me not throw a coffee pot at the cook. I’m a 58 year-old-waitress, I have frozen shoulder, my apartment’s a pigpen, I can’t find my teeth, my roots are showing, and I’ve never had a long-lasting, stable relationship in my life. It’s all good. Why, it’s EXCELLENT!”

I am not one of those sophisticated people who has to turn up their nose at every cliché, some of which happen to be true. In fact before Joan made me feel all self-conscious about it, I think I might have said “It’s all good” once or twice myself.

Still, I knew what she meant, and as soon as she mentioned it, I started hearing “It’s all good” all the time. As in “I got in a car crash but it made me realize how short life is and I now I’m going back to college. It’s all good.” Or “My father has Alzheimer’s but it’s teaching me patience. It’s all good.” Or “My son OD’d on heroin but now I’m closer to my daughter. It’s all good.” Maybe it’s all good for you, I started thinking, but what about the person who got maimed in the accident, the father wasting away from Alzheimer’s, the son cold in the ground?

And when my friend Maureen’s mouth cancer came back recently, and she started getting radiation, and she e-mailed me. “It’s best we communicate this way because it hurts to talk, I can’t eat, talk or sleep and I’m living on this horrible Ensure,” I couldn’t help thinking That’s not all good. That just across-the-board sucks.

I started thinking maybe it’s all good if you come through the suffering, and learn, and grow, and are enriched by the experience, but what if all you do is suffer and then die? What if your cancer keeps coming back no matter what you do and then you die? What if you die without ever having been truly loved? What’s so good about that?

And then I thought of how they call the day Christ was crucified Good Friday. I thought of how there’s good as in the power of positive thinking, and every cloud has its silver lining, and then maybe there is a kind of good we are not given on this earth to see, a good that subverts and transcends all our other ideas of good. I thought of the thief who, hanging on the cross beside him, turned to Christ and said Remember me when you come into your kingdom. I thought of Christ, who turned back in his agony and promised, “This day you will be with me in Paradise.” Not later, when we’ve stopped stealing and become holy, or successfully “battled” cancer, or found the love we’ve been longing for our whole lives, but now--in keeping each other company, with all our imperfections and in all our incompleteness, as we suffer the consequences of our actions, or age, or die.

And if it isn’t all good, why does it make me long with all my heart to be… better?