Thursday, December 18, 2014


Christmas is coming and the gifts are pouring in: a container of home-made turkey soup, a watercolor by my friend Emily of Eike Batista, whose wealth fell in 2012 from 34.5 billion to a mere 4.5 billion (!), a few very welcome blog donations, a painting I bought myself from Brooklyn artist Matthew Kirby that I'm saving to open on Christmas morning.

Late November, I always think I am really going to keep a hold of myself this season and simply continue my daily routine, working hard, looking neither to the right nor left, keeping my head down, prayer and Mass of course, okay maybe an open house or two, but let's not get crazy.

Then around Dec. 8th I realize all over again that I'm going to do basically nothing but visit with people, eat cookies, play carols on the piano, gaze lovingly at the lights up and down every street, talk to friends, old and new on the phone, and feel nonstop mingled joy and pain till December 26th. At least.

So I have surrendered to the season, more or less, and that's really what it's all about, isn't it? Entering into a kind of consecrated time and space that somehow both intersects and runs parallel to our daily lives, and yet is infinitely beyond our daily lives, or rather beyond our worldly finite lives.

I have many friends and family members who are in pain, who are lonely, who are struggling with loved ones who are sick or dying or in the grip of obsessions and compulsions, who are worried about their financial situation or their health or their kids.

So I'm thinking to run this piece on the Feast of the Epiphany that I wrote for Magnificat a couple of years ago.

"The Magi appear. The star hovers in the East. The star that points both heavenward to God, and earthward to a family. The Holy Family. Mother, father, child. The family, soon to be on the run, hunted by brutal murderers. The family, perpetually under siege. The family, our sanctuary and our exile. The family, fount of all that is good in us, and all that can become so terribly wounded.

Right from the beginning, Christianity is “a religion you could not have guessed,” as C.S. Lewis observed. “It has just that queer twist about it that real things have.” The Savior of the universe born with a bounty on his head. The Lamb of God, fresh from the womb, already up against Satan’s powers and principalities. Christianity is never sentimental, even toward babies. Joseph and Mary already had in their midst the Cross. Christ already had in his eyes the reflection of Mount Calvary.

Christianity has at its center joy, but joy is born of brokenness, limitation, tension, paradox. The shepherds, who have never left their pasture; the wise men, who have traveled from afar. A God of drama, of theater, of sensuality, of extremes: light and dark, poverty and wealth, anguish and hope. In the humblest of dwellings, three Maji materialize bearing gifts: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh; the sweet fragrance of incense. What must Mary and Joseph have thought? What could such an event have signified?

A religion born of dreams: the angel Gabriel who appeared to Mary, the dream of the wise men in which they are warned to return home by another route, the dream of Joseph, as soon as they depart. The dream of every human heart: to love and be loved; to not die alone. "The star was seen by everyone but not everyone understood its meaning,” notes Cromatius of Aquileia in his Commentary on Matthew's Gospel.

The Epiphany. The star that sheds just enough light so that we can take one more step, and then we must look to the star again. So like our lives that we, too, live in exile and fear, but also in hope. So emblematic of the strangeness of Christianity; its incongruities and contradictions. Never what we think it’s going to be, never what we think we want it to be. Always a fresh twist, a new pain, a new joy. Always a God whose ways are not our ways. Always, just when we think we’ve found a foothold, the order to flee to Egypt

The star shines in the east. How quiet the night must have been all around them. How deep the dark.

'God is at home,' observed 13th-century mystic Meister Eckhart. 'We are in the far country.' ”

Wednesday, December 17, 2014



Man, the days, weeks, months tick by so fast! I feel like I've spending most of my recent time firming up plans for 2015, editing galleys, tending to administrative details, and finding a place to live for February through April when the entire house in which I live is going to be re-done and I have to camp out somewhere else...

So here's a little update. This morning I happened to notice that my newest book, out March 6, 2015, is available for pre-order on amazon. STUMBLE is a collection of essays about the mad search for beauty, our anguished human hearts, my own personal attempt to navigate the world with an abandonment-wound-scarred psyche, and the glory of L.A.'s hibiscus bushes, 99-cent stores, Catholic churches and public libraries.

So there's that. Then there are my 2015 trips which include but are not limited to a Lenten mission outside Boston; a women's retreat, followed by a private week in Seattle; Rome in October; and from February 8 to the 15th, Honduras. That's right: the country with the world's #1 homicide rate, I will be there for Valentine's Day. (Here's an article about how the United States has had a huge hand in fostering, creating the conditions allowing, and committing much of the violence).

This will be courtesy of what sounds like a stellar organization: Unbound, which hooks up sponsors with children, the elderly and young adults throughout the world.

Little-known fact: I have a B.A. in Social Service. I never used it and that may be because trying to hold myself as a helper/service-type person has always been beyond even my GIGANTIC capacity for delusion, hypocrisy, and grandiosity.

In fact, my first thought upon receiving the invite was: Seven days with non-stop other people? I'll never make it.

Though that's not selfishness so much as a recognition of my extreme introversion, which is inextricably linked to that and how I write.

Anyway, so I called the woman right up. These were my questions:

"Can I have my own room?"
"Does it have wifi?"
"Will there be time during the day when we can be by ourselves?"

This is on a jaunt to meet folks who live on one to two dollars a day. I did catch myself long enough to cackle, "I realize the idea isn't to air-lift my office to Tegucigalpa but rather to meet people and mingle with people and hear people's stories"...

Though after hanging up, I thought, Shoot, I forgot to ask about the coffee situation.

As my friend Christine said, "Heather, they produce coffee in Honduras."

With that, I thought, I can do anything for a week and signed right on.

And now I'm beyond honored and curious and excited and up for a new experience/adventure.

Actually, I was beyond honored from the beginning. [Postscript: And as a told a reader from Honduras who wrote yesterday to chide me for mentioning the homicide rate (I said Don't feel back, I live in L.A.), I am preparing my heart to fall in LOVE with the landscape, people and coffee].

Through it all--Advent. I have not one but two Advent calendars and am counting down the days, lost in prayer, the liturgy, and daily Mass...I got to take in the Master Chorale's "Rejoice: A Cappella Christmas" at Disney Hall the other night, and have more concerts and open houses and get-togethers and then I am hosting Christmas dinner. So the season is full, in the best sense of the word, and so is my heart.

Thanks for being with me!


Monday, December 15, 2014


Last week I took myself off on a short field trip: a one-day retreat at The Mater Dolorosa Retreat Center on the outskirts of greater L.A. The rain poured down that day and what with our long-standing Southern California, drought, we raised our faces to it and were grateful.

Then I wrote about the day (and night) for my arts and culture column.

Here's how the piece starts:

"I find I am most excited about the Advent and Christmas seasons around Nov. 7. Then, the First Sunday of Advent hits, the calendar starts filling up, I start feeling a teeny bit of the stress. I imagine the Holy Family felt fleeing Herod.

Times like this it’s good to know that right here in greater L.A., nestled in the San Gabriel foothills, is a spot where you can possibly get away for a day or two: Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center.

The mission-style retreat house, dating from 1949, is set on 30 acres of beautifully landscaped, Old California-style grounds. The Center is best known for its very popular ministry of group and silent weekend retreats.

But if space and staff permit — call ahead and be flexible — you can rent an individual room for $55 a day. For $65 you can spend the night. For $95 you can spend the night and eat three meals"...

I, of course, craving silence and solitude, brought my own food and ate in my room...


Friday, December 12, 2014


Isaiah 9:2
My response to the recently-released Senate report on interrogation techniques used by the Central Intelligence Agency was deep sorrow. That we routinely brutalize and torture detainees is one more example of how in trying to wage a war on terror, we have become terrorists ourselves.

As former FBI agent Ali H. Soufan observed in a recent NYT article,“Imagine if we didn’t go down that road. Imagine. We played into the enemy’s hand. Now we have American hostages in orange jumpsuits because we put people in orange jumpsuits.”

On the Cross, Christ said, "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do." But more and more, we DO know what we do. I find it difficult to believer we will not be called to answer for this. I find it difficult to believe that Christ is going to buy our infantilized wilfully blind protestations that we were only trying to "protect the innocent." In an effort to maintain our status as the world's superpower, in fact we torture, kill, drop nuclear bombs on, shatter the families of, impoverish, traumatize and mass displace the innocent.

That stems from the orientation of the individual heart--I know my own at any given moment needs much mercy, much purification, much more humility and clarity, much help.

That includes the soldiers we recruit and condition to kill and torture on our behalf.

Excerpts from two articles, both on Page A3 of the Los Angeles Times, Thursday, December 11, 2014:

The first is entitled: "Malala: Books, not guns.At Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, the new laureate, 17, calls for education for all."
"Why is it that countries which we call strong are so powerful in creating wars but are so weak in bringing peace," [Malala Yousafzai] asked. "Why is it that giving guns is so easy, but giving books is so hard? Why is it that making tanks is so easy, but building schools is so hard?"

The second is "Brazil report details abuses: The National Truth Commission reveals the crimes of the military dictatorship."

"'The practices were a human tragedy that cannot be justified by any kind of motivation,' the report concludes. 'At thd same time that these reports expose scenes of horror that are little known by millions of Brazilians, they also honor the victims of crimes committed by the Brazilian government and its armed forces, which during the dictatorship instituted the systematic violence of human rights and the condition of a police state.

The report also notes that hundreds of Brazilian military officers received training in torture from the United States at the School of the Americas in Panama."

Finally, here's the link to a NYT piece by Eric Fair, a former torturer-for-hire, aka "contract interrogator" employed by the United States government at Abu Ghraib. Let's ponder that as we prepare to pay our taxes. As he notes, the abuses delineated in the recent Senate report are only the tip of the iceberg.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014


"Along with love and work, [watching] is the great salvation. For whenever someone is seriously watching, a form of lost innocence is restored. It will not last, but during those minutes his self-consciousness is relieved."

--Robert Phelps, biographer of Colette, quoted in Molly Peacock's The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delaney Begins Her Life's Work at 72.

In grief over her husband's death, at the age of 72 Mary Delany (1700-1788) began making intricate cut-outs of the flowers she loved, calling them her "flower mosaicks."

Here's a NYT review of the book Molly Peacock wrote about Mrs. Delany's life and work.


Saturday, December 6, 2014


Again, do I not have the world's #1 best job?

For this week I got to interview a treasure of L.A., the Church, and the world: actor/comic/musician/writer/painter/speaker/voice-over artist and I don't know what all else, Mr. Tom Wilson.

Tom traveled all the way from the far reaches of the San Fernando Valley to Echo Park so we could sit at a hipster coffee joint (small bottle of cold press sorrel juice, 9 bucks) and talk about our misfit psyches and Jesus.

Here's the beginning of the piece:

Tom Wilson has made his way in Hollywood as an actor, stand-up comic, and voice-over artist for over 35 years.

A cradle Catholic, he was raised in Philadelphia and taught by the Sisters of Mercy. “As a thoughtful oddball kid I accepted Catholicism lock, stock and barrel. I didn’t rebel at all. But while everyone else was playing football I was walking the perimeter of the field looking at the trees and thinking deep thoughts,” he says.

“Even back then, I knew to go to the Eucharist, the absolute axis of the cosmos, to make sense of the world”...



Friday, I was minding my own business, working away in my cell, when a terrific din arose outside. Before I understood what was happening, which was that "the tree cutters" had come, the majestic Brazilian pepper tree outside my window had been harshly, drastically denuded. Its graceful pink-peppercorn laden branches had formed a kind of umbrella, perhaps fifty feet wide, that had shaded, protected, made private my room; that had made my room into a sanctuary. Often I had lain in bed and cried at the way the afternoon light filtered through the leaves, such was the beauty.  Now the base of the trunk was littered with piles of cruelly sheared-off limbs, like a voluptuous woman whose mane of long, wavy hair had been chopped off.

I would have said goodbye to my tree, I thought stubbornly as I did errands. I didn't even get to say goodbye...

"It'll grow back in a few months," my roommate (who I have grown to truly appreciate and love) waved off my long face when I returned. "Damn thing. So messy!"

Well such is the difference between a homeowner and a renter, especially a dreamy renter whose dearest wish is a room, heat, running water, and an outlet in which to plug the coffee maker and someone else can figure out the details.

Speaking of which, the tree cutters are but the first of what promises to be a long siege of disruption. The foundation of this big hundred-year-old house is to be redone, followed by the floors, the windows, the landscaping and the re-painting of the entire interior.  So I have to find another place to live for three months. I'm ready to roll with it and am going to look upon the whole revamp as a great adventure. I'll tell you what I will miss, though (other than even a rudimentary sense of stability, consistency, and general lack of surprises), and that is my piano.

Well, c'est la vie.

I did think of this passage from Robert Walser called "To Those Who Cut Down Beautiful Nut Trees":

For, passing by a beautiful farmhouse with a splendid, luxuriant nut tree, I cried aloud: "This high majestical tree which protects and beautifies this house so wonderfully, spinning for it a cage and garment of such serious, joyous homeliness, intimate domesticity, such a tree, I say, is like a divinity, and a thousand lashes to the unfeeling owner of it if he dare make all this cool, green leafy splendor vanish just to gratify his thirst for money, which is the vilest thing on earth. Cretins of this sort should be kicked out of the parish. To Siberia or Tierra del Fuego with such defilers and destroyers of what is beautiful. But, thank God, there are also farmers who will certainly still have senses and hearts for what is delicate and good.

As regards the tree, the greed, the countryman, the transportation to Siberia, and the thrashing which the countryman apparently deserves because he fells the tree, I have perhaps gone too far, and I must confess that I let my indignation carry me away. Friends of beautiful trees will nevertheless understand my displeasure, and agree wit this energetically expressed regret. For all I care, the thousand lashes can be returned to me forthwith. To the coarse expression "cretin" I myself deny applause. Being compelled to dislike it, I beg the reader's forgiveness. As I have already had to beg his forgiveness several times, I have become quite a dab hand at courtesies of this sort. "Unfeeling owner" I had no need at all to say. Such overheatings of the mind, as I see it, ought absolutely to be avoided. It is, however, obvious that I will allow my grief over the downfall of a beautiful tree to stand. I certainly make the worst of it; nobody shall hinder me from that. "Kicked out of the parish" is an improvident phrase, and as for the thirst for money, which I have called vile, I suppose that I have myself at some time or another offended, fallen short, and sinned in this respect, and that certain wretchednesses and vilenesses have certainly not remained alien to me.

--Robert Walser, The Walk, trans. by Christopher Middleton with Susan Bernofsky


Friday, December 5, 2014



photo: Sarah Kotlinski

One of the joys of my life is the little notes I receive and/or when I'm really lucky, a photo. Last week I struck pay dirt and received two such double treasures, both from the great state of Pennsylvania. I actually consider Pennsylvania a kind of sister state, having now spent time in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Malvern, and, on a cross-country road trip several years ago, Watsonville.

Here are two gals after my own heart. Thank you, Sarah and Stefany Anne.

photo: Stefany Anne Golberg

Thursday, December 4, 2014


I'm up at Mater Dolorosa Retreat Center in Sierra Madre, California, just for a one-night retreat (I'm going to write about it for The Tidings).

Forgot to bring the downlead-from-camera-to-laptop cord so the pix/processing will have to wait.

These excerpts from depth psychologist James Hillman's A Terrible Love of War have been in my draft file for months. The Pentagon is suggesting a 400 billion-dollar overhaul of our nuclear weapon system. This seems a good time to run them.

"[T]o understand war you have to get at its myths, recognize that war is a mythical happening, that those in the midst of it are removed to a mythical state of being, that their return from it seems rationally inexplicable, and that the love of war tells of a love of the gods, the gods of war; and that no other account—political, historical, sociological, psychoanalytical—can penetrate (which is why war remains “un-imaginable” and “un-understood”) to the depths of inhuman cruelty, horror, and tragedy and to the heights of mystical transhuman sublimity. Most other accounts treat war without myth, without the gods, as if they were dead and gone. Yet where else in human experience, except in the throes of ardor—that strange coupling of love with war—do we find ourselves transported to a mythical condition and the gods most real?" p. 9

"The enemy provides the constellating image in the individual and is necessary to the state in order to collect individuals into a cohesive warring body. René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred elaborates this single point extensively: the emotional foundation of a unified society derives from “violent unanimity,” the collective destruction of a sacrificial victim, scapegoat, or enemy upon whom all together, without exception or dissent, turn on and eliminate. Thereby, the inherent conflicts within a community that can lead to internal violence become exteriorized and ritualized onto an enemy. Once an enemy has been found or invented, named, and excoriated, the “unanimous violence” without dissent, i.e., patriotism and the preemptive strikes of preventative war, become opportune consequents…If war begins in the state, the state begins in enmity."
pp. 24-25

how do we bury the dead
by Mermer Blakeslee

how do we bury the dead
stacking up on the patio against our picture window? I can barely see
over the last body blown here by another cluster bomb—
every forty minutes, every twenty every ten every five every two every one—
I can no longer see into the garden

what do we do with all these children
lying here outside our kitchen

until each of their deaths has been named a death
until each of us knows who it is we have killed
how young she is—eight? thirteen? twenty-two? did she often
hold her hands that way? was she about to ask a question?

her face once a freshly-turned field
but now

enunciate repeat
kill, death, kill, death

pausing after each as each deserves,
in our sleep, on TV
till our words become sand stinging blood from our palms
raised to the rising wind

look now what is left of her face, the torn, barren ground—
hers, then his, too— repeat


sand to cover at least her slight
once radiant body

Quoting Chris Hedges, from War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning:

"Look just at the 1990s: 2 million dead in Afghanistan; 1.5 million dead in the Sudan; some 800,000 butchered in ninety days in Rwanda; a half-million dead in Angola; a quarter of a million dead in Bosnia; 200,000 dead in Guatemala; 90,000 dead in Liberia; a quarter of a million dead in Burundi; 75,000 dead in Algeria; and untold tens of thousands lost in the border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the fighting in Colombia, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, southeastern Turkey, Sierra Leone, Northern Ireland, Kosova, and the Persian Gulf War (where perhaps as many as 35,000 Iraqi citizens were killed). In the wars of the twentieth century not less than 62 million civilians have perished, nearly 20 million more than the 43 million military personnel killed.

The martial concatenation of sex and anger, together with frustration and helplessness, terror and grief, explodes into furious yet apathetic violence especially vented onto women. Rape accompanies war and follows in its path, even though rapes are not recorded in the statistics. . . 'Psychological injuries to the surviving rape victims are often lifelong.' [fn omitted]." p. 53

Quoting General Dwight Eisenhower, January 12, 1955:

“When you resorted to force…you didn’t know where you were going. If you got deeper and deeper, there was just no limit except…the limitations of force itself.”

"War is an act of force and there is no logical limit to the application of that force."
--Carl von Clausewitz, German-Prussian soldier and military theorist who stressed the "moral" (in modern terms, psychological) and political aspects of war

Plato observed, "The body fills us with loves and desires and fears and all sorts of fancies and a great deal of nonsense, with the result that we literally never get an opportunity to think at all about anything. Wars and revolutions and battles are due simply and solely to the body and its desires. All wars are undertaken for the acquisition of wealth, and the reason we have to acquire wealth is the body."

--all from James Hillman, A Terrible Love of War


Tuesday, December 2, 2014


Here's an experience that's common for me. I'll be away from home somewhere, speaking. I'll ask to join some folks in the refectory at breakfast or lunch or dinner. We'll introduce ourselves around the table and folks will tell or be asked what brought them here. "Oh that's nice," I'll affirm when the other person says they're leading a marriage encounter or a pre-confirmation retreat or a K of C fundraiser. My turn comes and I'll say I'm giving a Day of Recollection or a talk. And inevitably some Catholic high-school principal or buttoned-down deacon type will train her or his gaze on me--I mean really, do I look that weird?--and I can see the wheels start to turn:

What's your claim to fame? What qualifies you to give a talk?

"What do you do?" the person will finally ask.

"I'm a writer," I say proudly, and again I can see the wheels turning.

"Oh?" the person will say at last. "What do you write?"

"Well my first book was about my twenty years as a falling-down blackout drunk," I'll guffaw. "Then I wrote about working as a Beverly Hills lawyer and converting to Catholicism. Why I was confirmed and took my First Communion at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Hollywood, California!"

This generally elicits zero interest or curiosity, thought if someone said that to me I would well-nigh die of excitement. Instead, people more or less freeze. So I'll trail off with, "I write about my daily life. The Gospels as they reveal themselves in the people I meet every day. The beauty of Los Angeles. The paradoxes. Out little pilgrimage to Christ"...

YOU JUST HAVE TO READ THE BOOKS, I always want to say. I can't describe what or how I write. I don't write books as a product, a commodity to sell my "brand." I write as a vocation.

Actually, nothing makes me happier than getting to say where I've come from. You weed out all the stuffed shirts that way. And I always get a kick out of my own inability to say exactly what it is I do and who I am and what I write about--which I sincerely believe is exactly as it should be.

Still, these conversations remind me that we live in a Catholic culture that has been appropriated, like the rest of the world, by marketers. We pride ourselves on our intelligence but we're not smart enough to see the world of difference between "I was blind and now I see" and "I'm a blind-to-sight"  convert or or a "drunk-to-sober" convert or an "atheist-to-Catholic" convert. Who cares? Aren't we all, in our ways? To qualify our conversion makes the conversion about us, not Christ. To brand our conversion implies that we should be congratulated, recognized, applauded for it. Are you kidding? The sign of a conversion is that you prostrate yourself before the One who is greater than you.

Public repentance is another form of branding. We have confessionals for that. I'm open about the fact that I spend twenty years as a falling-down drunk but not in order to brand myself as The Sober Convert. Could anything be more obnoxious than to go about preening about how great I am to have laid down the evil spirits and how the people dying in the gutter just haven't seen the light. Again, are you kidding? My stance is: Can you believe I get to be sober? How great a God is that?

I'm open about the fact that I've had abortions and can you imagine the dough I could make branding myself the Repentant Convert Who's Had Abortions going around and selling myself at Pro-Life Conferences? Such an idea nauseates me. I repent in private, I repent in ways that are hidden from the world.

From Prayer by Hans Urs von Balthasar:

"Since Christ is perfectly human, the following of Christ is possible to man. It is possibly in the human community set up between the Lord and those who encounter him, those who, like Mary and Joseph, formed a human community with him from the beginning, or those who, like the apostles, come to him so as to be formed in the fashion of his humanity. It is here that contemplation exerts a powerful effect on living, here that is serious pursuit is seen to be indispensable. It is my life that is meant [italics mine], not my speculations, imaginations, religious and theological phantasies, but my actual way of living. The life in question is life in faith, and so in obscurity rather than vision. Whoever contemplates the gospel, or the history of salvation in general, is constantly surprised by this obscurity. It seems as if God care little, in his revelation, about any sort of well-rounded system....

There is much in Christianity susceptible of exact analysis, but is is ultimately shrouded in the silence of the divine mysteries. What is ultimate in Jesus is turned, not to men, but to the Father; it is itself comtemplation, and, through contemplation, action." [p. 141].

The point of a conversion, in other words, is that you've changed your life--and in my case, you remain very aware of how much you need to change it still.  I don't have a self-styled system. I don't have a brand. I have abject gratitude at having been given a second chance. I have a sense of wonder and mystery. I have my capacity for beauty, my stories, my suffering, my love.

What qualifies me? I boast of my weakness. I try to follow Christ.