Sunday, August 29, 2010

THE EXISTENTIAL LONELINESS OF SUNDAYS...



I've been taking care of my friend's cat Bella, an overweight calico whose dinner has to be mooshed with water and microwaved for 13 seconds (I don't ask, I just follow directions).  We’ve bonded nicely. In fact, Bella’s one fault is the way that, when feeling neglected, she sets up a piteous cry that can be assuaged only by copious amounts of brushing, petting, and human-to-feline affirmations. Mostly, this is simply annoying but it also puts me in mind of how, when feeling neglected, I set up my own kind of piteous cry.  It puts me in mind of how I get nervous, and thus tend to over-react, because my deepest cry is to a God whom I am never entirely sure is listening.

I love when people have had some experience of God that they’re able to put into human terms. I have a friend who, in his drinking days, managed to plow one hazy night into five parked cars. The cops came, beat the living shit out of him, and threw him in a jail cell where he sat all night: sweating tears of blood; not knowing who, if anyone, had been in those cars; contemplating the fact that he might have killed someone.  He was hungry, he was sick, he was jonesing, shaking and scared. And around toward morning, just before they came to take him to be arraigned, he experienced a presence that, afterwards, he could only surmise was God. And his experience was simply this: God was not mad.   

I once heard another man, big burly guy, observe wonderingly apropos of how long it had taken him to get sober: “God never forces us to do anything. God is polite. So God is not mad. God is polite. But I wonder if the impulse to prayer is not our response to the cry of a heart that is equally as lonely as ours.  

I've never quite understood why, but of all the times of the week, Sunday tends to be when I most keenly feel my existential loneliness. Maybe it's because Sunday is the day traditionally spent with family and (by choice) I am far from my family. Maybe it's because Sunday reminds me of the poverty of sleeping alone. Sunday is when I see my death before me and simultaneously feel so sorrowful, and so over-awed and grateful that I ever got to live at all, that my entire being “becomes” the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem. 

GIOTTO'S "LAMENTATION"
I used to think I felt sad because the weekend was coming to a close--not that the weekend had usually been all that stellar. But recently I’ve been thinking maybe it’s because Sunday is the day we're most likely to go to Mass, and then we all leave, and Christ is alone for the rest of the week. Maybe Christ, too, feels especially far from his family on Sunday. Maybe Sunday is the day that he, too, feels most keenly the poverty of sleeping alone. Maybe, if we wonder whether God ever hears us, he wonders whether we ever hear him. 

He’s not mad. He’s infinitely courteous. But maybe that feeling in my heart on Sunday night is Christ saying, like he did in the Garden at Gethsemane to his disciples, Come sit with me for an hour. Don't leave quite so soon. Like Bella, maybe he’s saying: You don’t have to say anything or be anything or do anything. Just come sit.   



Saturday, August 28, 2010

GOODBYE TO ALL THAT



For 17 years, I lived at 915 ½ S. Hobart Boulevard, in a way-below-market-value apartment in a section of L.A. called Koreatown. I had a courtyard, French windows, hand-painted tile in the bathroom and kitchen, and a balcony filled with succulents and bromeliads and cacti I’d grown from cuttings filched from friends’ gardens and median strips.  I had Oriental and kilim rugs, paintings, icons, sconces, crucifixes, incense. I had a living room with crown moldings,  a fireplace mantel carved with cherubs and bunches of grapes, and walls painted a contemplative deep gray-green called Sparrow. People walked in and said It’s so you! They said, It’s so warm! They said, You’ll never find another place like this.

Something about that last began to irk me. Perhaps I never would, but perhaps 17 years in any apartment—especially one that was more or less in the ghetto—is also long enough. I’d come in some sense to believe that my identity lay in that apartment. The apartment, with its combined weight of decades of mementoes, photos, keepsakes, and journals, had become a kind of psychic albatross. Did I really need the falling-apart Fitzgerald Reader—a “gift” (exchange, really)—from the guy who’d deflowered me? Did I need the scratched-beyond-repair LP of Blonde on Blonde I’d listened to as  a 15-year-old—especially when I no longer owned a turntable? Did I need to be sleeping in the same bedroom in which I’d slept for 10 years with my ex-husband? No. I hadn’t needed that for a long time. I’d reached the same kind of critical fear-versus-faith mass ’d reached 15 years before when I’d quit my job as a lawyer. If I had to live beneath a freeway underpass, I’d figured then, so be it: I had to write. And now, if I had to live in a broom closet, so be it: I had to let go of this apartment.

Another person, perhaps, would have simply looked for another apartment. But that would have been too easy, too straightforward.  In fact, the move from my apartment was the culmination of an unexplained urge I’d felt for some time to take off and spend several months in silence and solitude. Maybe I would start a new life! Maybe I would let go of the whole city! So I cobbled together 3 months at a writer’s residency in Taos, a 40-day silent retreat in a place that shall remain for now unnamed, a week with old friends in Nashville, a month or two or three (it turned out to be one) at the Franciscan Appalachian Hermitage in West Virginia. And then I gave notice on my apartment, disposed of my stuff, packed up my white ’96 Celica convertible, and took off.

“Men travel faster now, but I do not know if they go to better things,” observed Willa Cather, but I actually did go to better things, partly because my preferred mode of travel is to drive 500 or 600 or 700 miles in a day, then hole up in the same cabin and watch the world quietly, marveling and pondering from a porch or a window or my bed.  This was the second time I’d driven cross-country in three years and it wasn’t lost on me that as I inched closer to death I was both re-visiting my past—I’d hitch-hiked cross-country as an adolescent—and metamorphosizing into some new person who would carry me through the next stage of life. I had many adventures. I learned many things, most of them completely different than what I’d expected to learn. I could write a book about every day, and maybe I will end up writing one book, about the whole trip.

But for now I’ll just say I thought the internal movement would be toward a further paring down, more asceticism. But the trip broke something, perhaps many things, open in me that I didn’t even know were dammed up. I saw how carefully I control my life so that certain things are kept in and certain things are kept out. I saw how often I mask fear with self-righteousness. I saw that I experience the smallest failure, disappointment, or “rejection” as devastating and that I had developed a whole way of being that revolved around avoiding those things.  I saw how attached I was to the idea of myself as a solitary, a “hermit.”  I also, for perhaps the first time in my life, experienced the old saw, "You take yourself with you wherever you go," as a good thing.  I was glad to have myself along. I can’t think of better company. And perhaps because of that, since I've returned I’ve also been more open to other people; new possibilities.

I’ve been cat-sitting for the last five weeks in an apartment in West Hollywood. I’ve enjoyed my time here. Every Monday I get to walk across the street to the Plummer Park Farmer’s Market. I get to walk to Trader Joe’s, Ralphs, Jons, Target, the Will and Ariel Durant branch of the public library. Runyon Canyon is a little overrun for my taste, but I’ve discovered the residential streets to the west that run past the Wattles Community Garden, a jungle of roses, towering calla lilies, prickly pear cacti, tomato plants. I’ve discovered that if you go far enough north, and are willing to walk up a steep enough hill, you come to the end of Curson Avenue, a street most of us know better several miles south, around Wilshire, as the one where you start looking for parking if you’re going to visit LACMA.  I have always been drawn to borders: the juxtaposition of civilization and wilderness, the conscious and the subconscious, now and eternity. I love that if you follow any street in L.A. far enough it will eventually peter out into either the mountains or the ocean. Crenshaw ends at the Pacific in Palos Verdes. I once had a tax accountant in West Hills, RIP Jack Willow, a trip to whose office involved driving Roscoe Boulevard to the place where it ends in a stand of fennel.

Next Wednesday I’ll be moving into a big, beautiful house in Silver Lake. I’m going to have a room-mate, a possibility I would never in my wildest dreams have considered five years, or one year, or even 9 months ago.  I have no idea how this will pan out. All I know is that last night, coming toward dusk,  I walked to the top of Curson. I paused to catch my breath, then turned and, looking south, stood for a minute on the foot-wide lip of concrete that marks the end of someone’s driveway and the beginning of wilderness. The city, resplendent, was bathed in a smog-tinged gilded pink haze. I thought of all the places I’ve been and all the places I still have to go. I tried to make out the 900 South block of Hobart Boulevard—my home for so long—but, already, I was too far away. 



Thursday, August 26, 2010

SEND MY ROOTS RAIN

As you may or may not know, Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) was an English convert to Roman Catholicism and a Jesuit priest who wrote some of the most complex, astonishing, and wrenching poetry of the modern age. In 1886, an Irish poet named Kathleen Tynan asked how it was that “a man like him with all his interest in art and literature had decided to become of all things a priest.” (I’m taking this from an essay by Frederick Buechner in Speak What We Feel (Not What We Ought to Say)). “You wouldn’t give only the dull ones to Almighty God,” he replied. Which is magnificent enough in itself, but I couldn’t help thinking as well, "What would the person whose passion is literature and art want to become but a priest"—in the metaphoric small p, catholic with a small c sense of serving as a mediator between the human and the divine?  

Hopkins was in all worldly senses a failure. He was melancholy, sickly, small and pale. By his own admission he was an ineffective teacher of Latin and Greek (his job at University College Dublin) and an ineffective priest. He felt a stranger in Dublin, a stranger among his closest friends, none of whom remotely saw or encouraged his brilliance, and a stranger in his own skin. He carried a lifelong physical, emotional and spiritual torch for a man  whom he had met as an undergraduate; and by all accounts, he also remained a lifelong celibate. He suffered conflict, depression, darkness, and doubt. In 1884 he began a series that would come to be known as “The Terrible Sonnets” (“I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark”…). Only a handful of his poems were published in his lifetime.

“What is my wretched life?” he wrote in his notes after a retreat, the year before he died. “Five wasted years almost have passed in Ireland. I am ashamed of the little I have done, of my waste of time, although my helplessness and weakness is such that I could scarcely do otherwise…All my undertakings miscarry: I am like a straining eunuch. I wish then for death; yet if I died now I should die imperfect, no master of myself, and that is the worst failure of all. O my God, look down on me.”

Hopkins was a genius. He'd earned the right to think of his years as wasted. The rest of us get to keep writing, keep striving, keep remembering that maybe our own sense of "helplessness"  arises from the fact that our work isn’t yet as good or as deep as it could be. And I, for one, also need to remember how  often great artists seem to be formed by great suffering. Flannery O’Connor and her lupus. Beethoven and his deafness. Gerard Manley Hopkins and the torment he experienced “both because of what he considered shameful about [the feelings in him stirred by the sight of male beauty] and, even worse in his eyes, because of his sadness and regret at never having fulfilled it.” (Buechner again). 

Hopkins’ last words (he died of complications from typhoid) were “I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.” But perhaps the reason he loved his life in the end was that he had consented, during it, to carry an almost unimaginably heavy cross. Perhaps only the cross could have produced lines like this:

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Pages from Hopkins' journal

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

LAY ME DOWN

HEY, A PERSON GETS SLEEPY
This may be a holdover from my drinking years, but I have always been a big fan of if you’re tired simply lying down on the ground, wherever you are, to think or read or take a short nap. This works well if you’re in, say, Exeter, New Hampshire, where I spent the better part of two weeks last summer throwing myself down beneath the nearest spreading chestnut tree or elm or oak with a flagon of iced coffee and a book.

L.A. poses a bit more of a challenge but over the years I have spent my share of time on patches of grass here, too. During my short but intensely hateful career as a lawyer, for example, I’d argue a motion at the downtown Superior Courthouse, then hit the park between Grand and Hill, find a spot on the lawn, kick off my heinous high heels, lie down amidst the throngs of passersby and my (ex-) fellow winos, and stare miserably up at the sky thinking “About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters”…

During a visit to L.A. earlier this year (on a break from my cross-country journey), I  had jet lag, and I had an hour-long gap between the time my friend had dropped me off at the corner of Ohio and Sepulveda in West L.A. and another person was picking me up. Across the street was a “park,” one side of which ran parallel to the 405 freeway and a portion of which had been staked out by what looked to be a rather sizeable community of homeless people. But I was tired! So I rolled my Swiss Army suitcase over (after decades of schlepping my belongings around airports like a camel I realized I didn’t care if a suitcase with rollers DOES mean you’re a wuss, and let me give a shout-out right here to the courtly, helpful salesguys at Savinar Luggage), nodded to the brown-baggers, and found my own very nice spot in the sun where I stretched out, used my purse for a pillow, and enjoyed a much-needed snooze.

And just recently I hiked to the top of Bronson Canyon on a Sunday afternoon, hoping for some peace and quiet, only to find the place instead crawling with people, horses, and dogs. This wouldn’t do at all, and I soon spied an opening to the trail on the right where  people probably peed and which was probably some huge gay cruising place at night. But no-one was in there now, so I thought I’d just sally forth and  lie down on the pebbles, sharp stems, etc. and enjoy a little time with the birds. Which I did and it was lovely. I could still hear people going by but I simply tuned that out in favor of the insects and voles or whatever other small animal-type things were in there with me. At one point I heard a sudden, loud, and obnoxious electronic BLAPPP followed by an interlude of indecipherable loudspeaker static. Figures, I ruminated, even up here you can’t have a moment of silence, and went back to sleep. I began to hear more squawking, bothersome static, though, and I’m not sure how much time elapsed but after awhile I was given to realize that the noise was being made by a person and that the person might be addressing me! So I sat bolt upright to see a cop in full uniform with a bullhorn in his hand and a white and blue 4-wheel drive ranger vehicle behind him who, no doubt having been alerted by some ambulatory passerby, had apparently been standing there for several minutes thinking I was injured, OD’ed or dead.

“Didn’t you hear me, Sir?” he called through his bullhorn. I let this go and yelled back, “I did but I thought it was coming from behind me," which was vaguely true, then cupped my hands around my mouth and added, “I’m so sorry,  I’m fine, I was just having a little nature moment for myself!” I don’t know if he could hear me but he was very nice and we gave each other a smile and a tip-my-hat-to-you wave, and I lay back down for a minute thinking how not all cops are racist thugs, and not all priests are pedophiles, and of how grateful I was that for 23 years, if I’d been recumbent in public, it was more or less because I'd been lost in wonder and not because I was drunk. After a few minutes, I got up, dusted myself off, walked back out, and re-joined the trail, refreshed.  

And all the way back, through the wild mustard and sage and pearly everlasting, and a fresh batch of hikers huffing their way up, I thought about the poor folks who never think to lie down, wherever they are—and of how much they miss.

WILD THINGS, THEY MAKE MY HEART SING...

Monday, August 23, 2010

GREATEST SIMILE OF ALL TIME

We have Robert Burns’ “My love is like a red, red, rose.”

We have Wordsworth’s “Thy soul was like a Star.”

But for my money the prize goes to brother Californian/fellow Angeleno/noir genius Raymond Chandler who, in Farewell, My Lovely, wrote: “He was about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”

Saturday, August 21, 2010

THIS IS MY LETTER TO THE WORLD/THAT NEVER WROTE TO ME...

WINTER IN TAOS
Back in January of this year, when I gave, sold, or lent out most of my stuff, moved out of my apartment, and went on the road, people kept saying, “Oh, you should keep a blog! You should let everyone know where you are!” But the truth is I didn’t particularly care if people knew where I was. I didn’t feel moved to chart my progress, geographical or spiritual. Not only did I not feel moved to start a blog, for most of the 6 months I was gone, I didn’t even have internet access in the various rooms where I stayed. I liked this. For the most part, I enjoyed walking to the coffee shop or the local library to check my email, my dwindling bank account, the occasional headline. It’s a very good thing to learn that you can get along, for awhile at least, without the world, and that the world can get along without you. I had a cell phone with 1000 monthly minutes. That was plenty. That provided more than enough communication with the world. I communicated with the people around me. I regarded the birds, and the trees. I communed with the Psalms. I wrote in my journal. 

A blog is not a journal, or maybe I should say not my blog, nor my journal. My journal is private. It’s also meandering, unpolished, often mean-spirited, and messy. I can’t have an experience if simultaneously with the experience I’m recording it. As it’s happening, life is dull or uncomfortable or distasteful or exciting or sorrowing or joyful, but emotions, by their very nature, are such that you’re not aware as you’re experiencing them. You disappear and come back to yourself later and realize: Oh. That was a moment. Why? That why—the insistence upon asking, the responsibility of groping for an answer—is the heart's call of the writer. To process experience inwardly, to see unexpected connections and glory and poetry and how that relates to all of humanity takes work and intention and patience and a kind of continual pruning of the will. To just say Here’s a moment and here’s a moment and here’s the next moment and here's the thought or image or whim that just popped into my head is not to be in the present, it’s to be in the stasis of hell. It’s to be Narcissus, perpetually gazing at his own image in a world too busy to look because everyone is looking at his or own image. 

Turtle, Spencer, WV 
I’m at least as much of an attention junkie as the next person. Since I’ve been back, I’ve updated my website, my amazon profile, my wikepedia entry, my FB profile. I, who have always been resolutely anti-blog (cause doncha know, I’m a purist, I’m a professional), have started (obviously) a blog. I’m interested to see how it unfolds, what I’ll learn. In two weeks, I’ve already realized: Oh okay, this is like everything else. It’s not going to make you famous. It’s not going to gain you a big “following.” It’s work and if you look at it in any other way than that it’s a gift then the blog won’t be any good, it won’t be you, and you’re going to be burdened by the fact that it’s work and pissed that no-one’s paying attention. In fact, one of the main reasons I started a blog at all was because I have so many unpublished essays, reflections, and snippets of ideas I figured: Why not start just giving them away!

In order to find ourselves, we have to lose ourselves. We have to hold the tension between carving out the solitude and silence we need for our work and our obligation, if any, to promote the work. We have to live in the absurdity of wanting to be noticed and publicly reflecting on the fact that we are being noticed—or not. We have to devote everything we have to creating excellent art, and have faith that if it's supposed to find its way to the World, it will...

Emily Dickison wrote 1800 poems--
7 of which were published in her lifetime...

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

THE KING OF LOVE MY SHEPHERD IS


One challenge of Christianity has always consisted in looking around and resisting the impulse to fall into despair at (depending upon the era and your own personal gripes) the priests, parishioners, liturgy, hierarchy,  music, architecture, literature, emphasis on social justice, emphasis on contemplation, failure to be sufficiently conservative, failure to be sufficiently liberal.  The impulse is to believe people will improve if we point out their faults to them.  The impulse is to exhort. But to think that the Church will improve if OTHER people act better is like making your life's work exhorting that Marriage is imperfect! Or People aren't kind! Or You live and then you die! We know that.  "Where are the courageous ones?" the indignant voice perpetually asks. "Where are the saints, the heroes, the martyrs? Where is the real follower of Christ?" At some point you realize: Oh. I'm supposed to try to be that person myself.

"Christianity has not been tried and been found wanting," observed G.K. Chesterton. "It has been tried and found difficult." Narrow is the gate, Christ said, and you can rig little cardboard fake dioramas on either side to make it look wider, but it is still going to be narrow. To be a follower of Christ means being certain that we are to love each other as he loved us, and being very uncertain about what that means in any given situation. It means being certain that the light will prevail, and then consenting to walk in almost complete darkness. It means being certain about Christ, and very, very uncertain about yourself. “The operation of the Church is entirely set up for the sinner," wrote Flannery O'Connor, "which creates much misunderstanding among the smug.” 

Fourteen years ago today I was confirmed and took my First Communion at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Hollywood.  I never thought the Church planned to solicit my vote to see how it should be run. I never thought the Church was going to be one bit more perfect than I was which, to put it mildly, was not very. I read the news. I go to Mass, often daily. I see what is wrong with the world, with the Church. I have musical sensibilities, aesthetic tastes, homiletic preferences that over the years have been crushed, again and again, to the ground. But my experience has also been this: There has never not been a church, a copy of the Gospels, a breviary, an altar, a place to kneel, a cross with a body on it, a priest to say Mass and hear my Confession. I have never once been encouraged to not die to myself, not serve the poor, not quest, seek, pray, lay down my life. I have never been invited to hold myself to anything less than the very highest standard.

I can't think of a more appropriate place to have been confirmed than in the middle of Hollywood. For religion is not separate from life. It IS life: our heart, our pain, our divided selves, our shattered dreams, our longing for the infinite.We shed tears because we were given a glimpse of the way life was created to be and is not,” observed Frederick Buechner, and no-one felt that gap more keenly than Christ. “O Jerusalem,” he wept before going to his Crucifixion. “How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” After Mass, when ved uccessful" follower of Christ is the one who dies. aying Marrts to them. ks fo Jesus statue found in Elvis's bedroom: everyone leaves and the lights are turned off, there Christ still hangs, broken and bleeding, alone, above the altar. 

Out on Sunset Boulevard, sirens blare, traffic races, signs pulsate:  Ro-Ro's Chicken, Crossroads of the World, Crazy Girls!! I think of St. Maria Goretti (stabbed to death rather than yield her virginity), St. Agatha (breasts chopped off rather than deny the faith); St. Rose of Lima (rubbed pepper on her face so as not to tempt with her beauty, then died serving the street people of Peru). I think of how the mark of the saint is a capacity for love so extreme that the world sees it as insane. I think that, after 14 years of toil, sweat, pondering, loneliness, and often seemingly barren prayer, I still don't much focus on what's wrong with the Church. I focus on the miracle that She took in a wretch like me.  

THE KING OF LOVE MY SHEPHERD IS 

The King of love my shepherd is,
whose goodness faileth never. 
I nothing lack if I am his,
and he is mine forever.

Where streams of living water flow,
my ransomed soul he leadeth;                               
and where the verdant pastures grow,
with food celestial feedeth.

Perverse and foolish, oft I strayed,
but yet in love he sought me;
and on his shoulder gently laid,
and home, rejoicing, brought me.

--Henry Baker, 1868

                                                    



Tuesday, August 17, 2010

THERE IS ANOTHER WORLD--AND IT IS THIS ONE...


Only recently did it dawn on me that I had never slept in another bed in L.A. besides my own. I'd been married for a long time, and then I wasn't married. I'd slept in a lot of places just outside L.A.: Valyermo, Montecito, San Diego, Temecula, Lompoc, Palm Springs, Anza Borrego, Joshua Tree, Desert Hot Springs, sometimes in tents.  But though I'd lived in L.A. for 20 years, I had never, once, slept at another's house or in another's bed.

Last January, I gave up my apartment in Koreatown and went on the road. Now I'm back and "in transition." Now I've slept in the charming, nook-like library of my friend Julia's massive Bronson Canyon Craftsman (glass-fronted bookshelves, green velvet curtain for a door). I've slept on a blow-up air mattress on the living room floor of my friend Lisa's apartment in the Fairfax District. Lisa owns Flounce, the must-be-seen-to-be-believed Echo Park vintage store, and her apartment is overflowing with buttons, bakelite, onyx, tiaras, compacts, shoes, gloves, feathered hats, tortoiseshell, amber, odd bits of fabric, Rosalind Russell suits, shantung chemises, and old perfume bottles. I spent my whole time there snooping through her drawers. What is this? I asked at one point, holding up what looked to be a tattered strip of old beaded lace/tattered dust ruffle/Tallulah Bankhead's dog leash. "It's a dickie! she cried, snatching it protectively from my dangling finger and arranging it coquettishly around her neck. "Isn't it adorable?" And on her--for you have to meet Lisa--it was.

Anyway, now I'm sleeping for five weeks in a big second-floor apartment on the corner of Fountain and Vista in West Hollywood. The bedroom's in back but I prefer sleeping on the couch. I like to see the people playing tennis under the sodium lights in Plummer Park. I like to hear the cars and the voices floating up from the street. I spent six months in places where the sounds at night were of wind rustling through the trees, and birds, and coyotes killing their prey; places where there was no streetlife, no traffic.  It took awhile, but I got homesick for L.A.

One place I'm not homesick for is my old apartment, which I was afraid I would be as I'd lived there so long. It's been good to see L.A. from some different windows. Gazing out this one, I think of the Sangre Cristo Mountains, and the Gulf Coast of Texas, and Appalachia, and all the beautiful, crazy things I saw and experienced. The long days of silence. The nights on other beds, looking up at the stars. The fullness of every moment, no matter how hard or painful, that no-one will ever know because the words don't exist. We're going to die, and no-one will ever know how full our hearts were, how much we loved. "When in Kyoto, I long for Kyoto," wrote Bashō, and happy as I am to be back, now I'm homesick for those places, too.

Soon I'll move. And this is going to be a window I never thought I'd be looking out of. Because Contemplative Hermit-Woman is breaking out. I'm poised for a journey I NEVER thought I'd take. As of September 1st--I'm going to have a roommate.

Lisa, adorability notwithstanding,  is not going to be my roommate. 


Saturday, August 14, 2010

EVERYONE'S SO FAT

My brother Allen and me, several years ago: Rye, New Hampshire
L.A. is the last place I ever thought I’d end up. Though I’d never felt particularly at home in New England, back in 1990 L.A. seemed more of an idea—a really bad idea—than an actual place. My older brother Allen, who'd been a building contractor in Manhattan Beach for 20 years, seemed to bear out my worst suspicions. Whenever he came back East to visit, he went around in his Bugatti shades and hundred-dollar haircut saying, “Everything’s so small! Everyone’s so fat!” What a snob, I used to think.
            
As it turned out, Allen was the main reason my husband Tim and I ended up moving to L.A. At the time, we were living on Boston’s North Shore, Tim was a carpenter, and I was trying to work up the courage to 1) start using the law degree I’d earned in an alcoholic blackout; 2) start writing; 3) start over. When we got married in 1988, Allen gave us week-long round-trip tickets to L.A. as a wedding present.

It was sweet of him to invite us stay with him and his (now ex-) wife in Manhattan Beach, but we felt lost among all those perfectly-toned women with ponytails hanging out of the back of their Gold’s Gym baseball caps, all those jocks with white teeth and chiselled biceps who looked like extras from Hawaii-Five-O. Everything about us seemed inadequate for L.A., or at least that part of L.A.: we didn’t care enough about what kind of car we drove, didn’t like to shop enough, weren’t perky and upbeat enough. Still, Allen kept urging us, “You should move out here. The weather’s beautiful. There’s tons of money. I’ll even give Tim (who, by the way, is now my ex-husband) a job.”

Almost everything about Los Angeles seemed wrong but we came anyway. Maybe it was the birds-of-paradise and Mexican sage and bougainvillea, maybe it was that we both knew there weren’t that many more years in which we might have the energy and impetus to make a major move, maybe in the end it was the light: so seductive, so beckoning, so full of hope. When we first moved, to a rented house in the Culver City neighborhood of Palms, I got a load of the cars shining in the driveways, the shady green lawns, and the first night propped my bike against an angel-pink oleander in the side yard and went to bed. The bike was gone in the morning, of course, a perfect introduction to the trompe l’oeil contradictions with which every Los Angeleno resides, and that even now keep me wondering from second to second whether I am living in heaven or hell.  

This sense that appearances are deceiving, that a level of reality exists beyond anything my senses could observe, turned out to be a recurring theme. The woman with jungle-red nails and stiletto heels turned out to sing in the church choir, the teenager on the bus bench with a serpent tattooed on her neck was bringing soup to her grandmother, the black guy who looked like a pimp was a hospice nurse, the Vietnamese guy who looked like a hospice nurse was a crack dealer. South-Central (as it was known back then), which I had always pictured as a bombed-out crater surrounded by razor wire, consisted largely of quiet residential streets lined of charming bungalows. After a couple of years, we moved to a gorgeous French Normandie courtyard apartment in the middle of insanely crowded Koreatown: a neighborhood so full of mesmerizing contradictions that it would be another 18 years before I'd move again.  


I've learned not to let quiet residential streets and bird-of-paradise bushes—wherever they’re located—lull me into a false sense of security. But I’ve also learned that the opposite of security is not necessarily danger: it’s risk, letting go, opening up to the city’s vaunted, and in my experience entirely merited, sense of possibility. As I crawl in a sea of 101 freeway traffic on a Friday afternoon, quiver like an atom in the molecule of a packed Hollywood Bowl, tilt through the noxious brown sky on a return flight into LAX—peering out the airplane window stunned to think that somewhere in that endless, dun-colored grid are my apartment, my bed, my toothbrush—questions like these rise constantly to mind: isn’t it by the merest chance that in this chaotic megapolis I’ve somehow managed to find a place to live, my way as a writer, friends who can stand me? Isn’t it at least a minor miracle that the vast majority of us get through any given day without being hit by a car, shot by a stray bullet or struck by a toppling palm tree? Isn’t it only a short step from there—the consistent avoidance of the cataclysmically bad—to the notion that it is just as likely that a stroke of good fortune will come one's way?  

Living so close to Hollywood doesn't hurt any in promoting this cockeyed optimism. Inch for inch, L.A has to have some of the most beautiful people on earth: security guards who look like Errol Flynn, carwash cashiers built like Marilyn Monroe. The cornucopia of cultures, the outsized weather and mutant vegetation, the gorgeous bodies combine at times to impart an almost ludicrous sense of abundance. But, as with every other good thing in life, there’s a downside, too. I still dream of New England: the fields of cows, the old barns, the lilacs in spring.
            
But nowadays when I go back, I can’t help myself. Everything’s so small, I think sadly. Everyone’s so fat.


Friday, August 13, 2010

YOU MUST PUT ON THE NEW WOMAN!!

When I first started praying the Divine Office, it took me months to realize that every Friday morning we prayed Psalm 51. With my track record, I had no trouble at all getting behind "In guilt I was born/a sinner was I conceived," and after another several months, I also realized that before Psalm 51 every Friday was "Your inmost being must be renewed. You must put on the new man." (Ephesians 4: 23-24)

I thought of "the new man" yesterday when I was uploading images on my laptop. I, for one, tend to get stuck for decades uploading the same dismal images into my psychic hard drive: the time, 13 years old, when I forgot my Oratorical Contest speech and stood frozen like a deer-in-headlights in front of the entire population of North Hampton, New Hampshire. The moment when the guy-I-adored-who-didn't-adore-me remarked, apropos of my shattered, hemorrhaging heart, "What's the matter, havencha ever been rejected  before?

I think Christ, in his infinite tenderness, knew all about our tendency, when we are emotionally devastated, to think there is something wrong with us: that we weren't good enough, that we didn't measure up. Christ, with his infinite knowledge of the human heart,  knew that we tend to be blocked, and then act badly, out of shame and guilt. Kafka's The Trial rings so true because on some level we sense that we are always being judged for an unknown offense that we're not sure we committed. The Misfit, in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" voices this same dilemma in a different way: our existential loneliness is so excruciatingly painful that we can't help feeling we're being punished to an extent that goes far beyond our "crimes"--no matter how bad they were. So even after our track record starts to improve, we tend to think the painful things that happen in life are somehow our fault. Over and over again, because it seems to make sense, we upload the old image.

I think the function of prayer is to very slowly change that. After a long, and seemingly unrewarded, and more or less unswerving, doggedly persistent effort we get a tiny glimpse of the possibility of starting to upload a new image. We start to see that we actually have some control over the image of ourselves and the world that we carry secretly around, and mull over, and harbor, and base our decisions and lives upon. We start to dare to believe that we are loved, and have been all along, in spite of our brokenness. 

We start to see Christ was crucified not because he saw we were bad, but because he saw we were lost.  


THANK GOD FOR FRIDAY 

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

FAST, PRAY, LOVE


Reading of the legions of  30-something gals who are signing on for Bali these days, all I can think is that any spiritual seeker worth his or her salt has undertaken a journey so full of failure, hardship, and disappointment that no-one would want to follow it. Does anyone really want to follow in the footsteps of Simone Weil, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Christ? I can't think of anything creepier than someone trying to literally re-trace the path of another, hoping for the same "happy ending" result. Tip: There are no happy endings. Carve out your own path. Undertake your own desert journey.

Catherine de Hueck Doherty was a Russian whose journey as an émigré in exile took her to Canada where she founded Madonna House, worked with the poor, and wrote prolifically. In Poustinia: Christian Spirituality of the East for Western Man, she speaks of the difficulty of community life and observes:

"As you know only too well, the divisions, arguments, and power plays that take place at meetings witness to the fragmentation of humanity. By your presence in love, you have to witness to how much time is wasted, how much selfishness is going on, how much greed there is for power, attention, and recognition…If by prayer you have received food from God, you should be able...to give the oil of tenderness and the wine of compassion, first to each other, and then to everyone you meet. All this is done silently, in the secret places of your hearts.

An incident from the life of [co-founder of the lay Catholic Worker movement] Dorothy Day expresses well what I am trying to say here. Dorothy went to Rome during the [Vatican] Council. Several years later when I met her in Rome I asked her what she did during the time the Council was in session. She said she had simply taken a room in the poor quarter of the city, and for ten days she fasted and bread and water and prayed for the Council. That was all she did! Then she returned to New York the way she had come—on a freight boat! Maybe this was the reason why the Council was so successful. In the eyes of God, who knows?"

That's eating. That's praying. That's love.


Saturday, August 7, 2010

BELLS FROM THE DEEP

Werner Herzog may be  ever-so-slightly megalomaniacal, and I do think he was not ENTIRELY sympathetic to Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man, but I love his notion of "ecstatic truth."  Bells from the Deep is his 1993 "documentary" about Russian mysticism. Here's his description of one scene: "I wanted to get shots of pilgrims crawling around on the ice trying to catch a glimpse of the lost city, but as there were no pilgrims around I hired two drunks from the next town and put them on the ice. One of them has his face right on the ice and looks like he is in very deep meditation. The accountant’s truth: he was completely drunk and fell asleep, and we had to wake him at the end of the take."


A former drunk myself, I have always believed the blackout to be a crude form of mystical union. I have come to prefer being (mostly) awake. But being awake is not for the faint of heart. In fact, a drunk, trying to imitate a pilgrim searching for the lost city of Kitezh, being shot by Werner Herzog, to create a film I am going to watch, alone,  from a darkened Hollywood apartment, embodies almost more ecstatic truth than I can handle...



Friday, August 6, 2010

WELCOME TO MY WORLD

For 17 years I wandered around the Koreatown section of L.A., weeping, praying, contemplating, complaining. Growing and regressing. Having breakthroughs and breakdowns. Years during which I stayed sober, gave up my job as a lawyer, converted to Catholicism, started to write. Years during which, I am happy to say, I told many, many jokes. 


Last January I sold or lent out most of my furniture, gave up my beautiful apartment--hardwood floors, crown moldings--and set out in my '96 Celica convertible on a cross-country sabbatical/odyssey/retreat. I have always had a teensy bit of a hermit/nun complex, so thought the movement would be toward more asceticism; a further paring down. Instead I learned that I  missed food, clothes, money, and my smart, funny friends. I missed Vietnamese noodles, the insanely great Goodwill stores, the public library (surely one of the greatest institutions civilization has yet produced), the whole holy-hell paradox of this city where so many of us dreamers of the golden dream end up.  


I thought I might have been done with L.A. I thought I might move to someplace that was quiet and less chaotic. I was wrong. I've barely talked for 6 months and now I have an almost violent urge to talk to the whole world. I've been in a kind of metaphorical cloister and now I'm burning to bust out. Suddenly the detritus I've been slowly, silently compiling--the 25 years of journal entries, the recipes, clippings, quotations,  stories, epiphanies, crises, revelations, poems, songs, photos (that one above, btw, is of a Jesus statue found in Elvis's bedroom, which I snapped on my cell at Graceland during a previous pilgrimage)--seem like they might be of some crazy use!

I have been very concerned ever since I returned with myself, and my career and living situation. But yesterday I saw an old man inching his way down LaBrea, and thought of how we are simply cowed by all the suffering of the world, and how that is why those of us who do, go to Mass.  For the guy with a junkie wife. For our families we can't quite find it in our hearts to forgive. 
For that old man, resolutely shuffling forward with his down-at-the-heel shoes and dingy socks.

"When I moved to the East Side, I went to a Salesian priest, Father Zossima. It was he who urged me to go to daily communion. I had thought this was only for the old or the saintly, and I told him so. 'Not at all,' he said. 'You go because you need food to nourish you, for your pilgrimage on this earth.' ”
--Dorothy Day, Loaves and Fishes