Tuesday, May 31, 2011

THE WRITING LIFE, PART II: I'D RATHER BE WRITING

ARTICHOKE AND TELEPHONE WIRE,
ANGELUS AVENUE, LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA.
My whole philosophy of the writing life could be summed up in four words: I’D RATHER BE WRITING.

I’d rather be writing than taking a class about writing, teaching a class about writing, complaining about writing, or having long, wind-bag conversations about writing. I’d rather be writing than watching TV, gossiping about other writers (which is saying something), or idly shopping, talking on the phone, or eating (ditto). I'd rather be writing, it turned out, than be married. I'd way rather be writing than working at a job I loathe, which is why I have no other job.

I wouldn’t always rather be writing than reading, or taking a walk, or cooking, or playing the piano, or going to Mass, or talking about books as opposed to writing. But I’ve been extraordinarily graced to have come to writing so relatively late in life (I was 43 or so when I started) that I intuitively knew I didn’t want to waste a single second. I intuitively understood that if you want to write, you have to sit down and write. I intuitively understood that unless you're independently wealthy, you have to be willing to walk a constant tightrope of how you're going to write, plus pay the rent and eat.

Whatever your financial status, you have to be willing to bear the constant tension of the gigantic gap between the writer you wish you were and the writer you are. And if my credo is "I'd rather be writing," my story has turned out to be "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you." [Matthew 6: 33].

SUNSET BOULEVARD,
SILVER LAKE BOULEVARD OVERPASS
WHOOPS!
When I started out, I took two classes at UCLA extension, the first from David Ulin, who went on to become editor for several years of the L.A. Times Book Review, and Bernard Cooper, memoirist, short-story writer, novelist, and art critic, whose work and person I tremendously admire. One night, Bernard handed back our essays and in one of the margins I found scribbled in black pen: “You’re a terrific writer.” I stopped breathing. I wasn’t sure that was true, I suspected Bernard wrote the same thing on everyone’s paper, but that was all I needed. I never for a second considered getting, say, an M.F.A. after that. That single kind, generous statement, and the fellow feeling behind it, have silently nourished my work for sixteen years.

Soon after the second class ended, me and another couple of gals decided to form a little group. We would meet informally every other week, critique each other’s work, give moral support, share information. We proceeded nicely for several months and then I noticed one of the women was sort of jabbing at my work for  what she saw as political incorrectness. Then one day the other one showed up, announced, just a tad smugly, that she’d been taking a workshop (unbeknownst to us) with some kind of hot-shot L.A, writing-workshop giver and had submitted her work and won a prize. And right then I saw the handwriting on the wall. Till then, I had actually thought that writers operated by some moral code that was loftier than the rest of the world’s. I dropped out of the group, have never felt moved to join another, and to this day, for better or worse, rarely show anyone my work before it goes out to my agent, or a magazine, or an editor.

Another way I've been blessed from the beginning is that I have an almost violently protective urge toward my writing. I had wanted to write since I was six. I couldn't get to it for thirty-five years because of my drinking, and fear, and sloth, and spiritual bankruptcy. I had given so much of myself away--body, mind, soul--out there in the bars that when I finally began to write I felt toward it as St. Maria Goretti did about her virginity which was that she would rather be stabbed to death (at the age of twelve, no less), than yield it. I just thought: NOBODY is going to undermine me. NOBODY is going to tell me this is not the calling of my heart. Nobody is going to lay their repulsive, monstrous, cowardly, lemming-like political correctness or Phariseeism or pretentious literary blowhardism or shallow commercialistic (is that a word?) lies on my writing and wreck it for me

I had quit my job as a lawyer to begin writing, and from the start I viewed it as a job that you make your bed, get dressed and show up for every day. Flannery O’Connor wrote for four hours every day; I would make four hours a day my goal. I would serve an apprenticeship, probably for the rest of my life, which so far has certainly proved to be true. I worked and continue to work like a pack horse, for the first ten years in pretty much complete obscurity.  Sometimes I put in more than four hours, often less (and in one way, of course, you are "writing" twenty-four hours a day), but rare is the day that I don’t write at all. I keep a journal. My freshest energy is in the morning so I try to tap into that. I spend at least an hour every day answering mail, not that I get that much mail, but answering it other than mechanically takes thought and time. I try to remember to say please and thank you to the people with whom I come in contact, professional and non-professional. I try to be conscientious and timely. To my knowledge, I have never failed to respond to a letter of thanks or encouragement or shared trouble/questing, or a query from a fellow writer or would-be writer unless it was from the few stalker-types I’ve encountered, but that’s another story.


My goal from the beginning was simply to make enough money to continue to write and that’s just about how it’s panned out. Writers will tell you anything except how much they’re paid but I myself am always curious and as it is something of a miracle that anyone ever manages to support him- or herself as a writer, I'm glad to share that info, too. For years I supported myself by doing free-lance legal writing and research, for which I was paid 75-90 bucks an hour. I was married at the time, so my expenses were half what they are now and I’d work maybe 20-25 hours a month, just enough to cover expenses so that I could devote as much time as possible to my own writing. I saved some money from when I was a lawyer, a little of which I still have as a "prudent reserve." 

I live very close to the bone and the huge grace of that is that I have always been able to write exactly what I’ve wanted to. I don’t think in my whole time as a writer I’ve written more than two or three query letters. I just write whatever essay or reflection I’m moved to (I have no talent at all for fiction) and then I think about where I might send it. For years, that was to literary journals and a few magazines: The Sun, Notre Dame Magazine, Portland, The Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine back when they published—and paid good money for—essays.

I started writing around 1995 and I probably published forty essays before my first book Parched, was bought in 2003 or '04. I got a $40,000 advance and a couple of years later I sold my second book, Redeemed for $110,000. Which sounds like a huge amount of money, and in a sense is, except that your agent gets 15%, which brings it down to 96, which you get in installments, 30%, 25%, 25%, and 20% over the course of two years and to write the thing takes two or three on the back end, so basically you’re grossing 24 grand a year for four years (and way less in the not so grand years), and as it was I felt bad for Viking as the book so far has sold about 4000 copies, of which 3900 or so seem to have been to priests, pretty much each one from whom I’ve heard and have developed a relationship with, which is just one of the many treasures my particular writing life has brought.  

Parched, after selling I think 18,000 copies, was remaindered (This means you receive a letter containing the phrase "Due to low sales" and an offer to buy hundreds of copies of your own book for $1.57 apiece). And Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Therese of Lisieux, for which I got a $7500 advance and has so far been twice the work of the other two, is coming out September 1st from Paraclete if we can ever stop arguing about the cover.

(Here's an encouraging fact for all you would-be writers: the people who design the jacket don't read your book. In fact, I once wrote an essay about how NOBODY reads your book: not your editor, not your publisher, and especially not the people who interview you, if you're lucky enough to get an interview, and more on self-publishing later). 

However, as I said, I get to write what I want. For instance right now I’m working on a book I started ten years ago, right after the event, about my “little bout with breast cancer,” as I like to call it, and how I got a load of the our medical/health care system and the “battle” against cancer and simply refused to undergo chemo and radiation, or to take Tamoxifen. No thank you! The coda being I’m still alive, obviously, and the whole thing turned into a huge reflection on the war mentality on which our entire culture is based, and how maybe there is a way to exercise non-violence toward our very bodies, and the goal of living as long as you possibly can versus the goal of living fully. Stripped: Cancer, Culture, Conscience and the Cloud of Unknowing, I’m going to call it. Now what ten, or possibly twelve, people in the world are not going to be dying to read that! So on I toil.


I’m deeply proud of all three of my books and, in fact, of all my work.

My way wouldn't work for someone else, but this is how it's working out for me. And the point is that the principles underlying the writing life apply, or should, to all of life. So I hope everyone can find something here, even if it's simply to be entertained, which is no small thing. 

Anyway, I have never been much interested—nor much invited—to be part of any literary scene. Now that is REALLY something I’d rather be writing than doing: being part of some "scene." Doggedly, blindly, write is my idea. Read, ponder, mull. Book slams where you’re rated (!?), or go from pub to pub, or shout, or scream, or perform: not for me. Once, when I was a bit more flush than I am these days, I paid 100 bucks to attend a literary awards ceremony that was super boring and for which I later learned the authors could nominate their own books! So that was the first and last awards ceremony I’ve been moved to attend.

Another time I was on a panel for the L.A. Festival of Books. Just the phrase "Festival of Books" should have tipped me off. Cave of Books, Hushed Temple of Books, I could maybe get on board with, but a festival of books? I’d avoided this annual event in all the time I’d been in L.A. but I’d been asked to be on this panel and I’m always honored to be asked to do anything that has to do with my writing, so I went. And just by the time I’d made my way across the gigantic UCLA campus, and checked in, and received my badge, coffee cup, and T-shirt, I wanted to go home.

SECRET STAIRWAY
MICHELTORENA, NORTH OF SUNSET BOULEVARD
Then I actually walked in and the first thing I heard was an extremely loud rock band. I had to literally stagger, among throngs of milling people, to the nearest humongous building and go around to the back where it was quiet and gather myself. I’m a total ham, and don’t at all mind talking in front of groups of people, and actually enjoy being on panels but I tend to get all overwrought and trembly about the nobility of writing, and the calling of being a writer, and how writing for me is a religious vocation, which is fine except that nobody seems to have the slightest idea what I’m talking about and by the end, I need to get out of there and take a really long, solitary walk.  

Which is why I've always carved out tons of time to spend at retreats, remote cabins, monasteries, hermitages, and convents. Writing conferences: oh my God, no. Writing residencies, especially ones where you don’t have to eat with (and therefore talk to, be distracted by, and cultivate a social life with) the other residents, no matter how delightful they may be: great. The Dorland Mountain Arts Colony in Temecula, California (I was in residency there when it burned down; it’s now re-opened); the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, where you get your own casita, for heaven’s sake, for three months! Djerassi in northern California and Ucross in northern Wyoming were also lovely, and I made friends at all those places, but I happen to bear the most fruit in complete solitude. These are beautiful opportunities to apply yourself whole-heartedly to your work, and many are completely free.

DUSK, NEAR BERKELEY AND BENTON WAY,
A WINDY MAY NIGHT IN LOS ANGELES
NEXT: The Writing Life, Part III, The Habit of Art

Monday, May 30, 2011

THE WRITING LIFE: PART I





When I started Shirt of Flame last August, probably like many people who start a blog, I had some vague hope that it would parlay itself into a paying gig. Typically, I didn't think too hard about how this might come about, or what it might look like if it did.

Then, a few months in, I got an offer to write a weekly column for a larger blog called Patheos. Of course they couldn't pay me, but also probably like most people who start a blog, I welcomed the prospective exposure. I called my column "A Book of Sparks." I proposed to make the theme, loosely, arts and culture.

Elizabeth Scalia, who has been blogging with wild success for years as The Anchoress, first for herself, then for First Things, now as Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos, could not possibly have been more helpful, supportive, and encouraging. 

And yet, after several weeks, I started realizing something didn't feel right. My Wednesday column was due Monday, which meant a good part of the weekend was taken up writing it (I will gladly spend 50 hours a week composing fuzzy photos of jacarandas or reflecting upon the Filipino dessert known as halo-halo but some perverse thing in me, I'd almost forgotten, balks at outside deadlines). For another, though I had not way of knowing, I sensed that not only was I not getting more readers for Shirt of Flame, but that Patheos was siphoning readers (which isn't saying much) (who now had to click twice Wednesdays as I could only run a teaser on my own page) off.

But the real deal is I started to realize my work was appearing on the same page with advertisers. Not benefactors, or donors, or friends, which are different, but advertisers. I started to realize someone was making money off my writing (even if it was about two dollars a week) and it certainly wasn't me. I started to realize I like my page to look a certain way: to arrange my posts, photos, and images with a certain sensibility that I can't articulate, but that's mine.

But most to the point, I started to realize that as soon as advertisers enter in, you start to tailor, you start to censor, you start to try to be relevant, find a foothold, establish a brand, try to get more page views than the next person.   You start writing "think" pieces about "the royal wedding" and Charlie Sheen’s addiction. You start having an "opinion" on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s philandering because “Charlie Sheen” and “Arnold Schwarzenegger” are buzz words and in the blogging world, buzz words are what get page views.

There are many rooms in my Father's mansion and thank God for that. We need people who keep their ear to the political ground, people who can tell us what's going on in the Vatican, people who reflect on popular culture vis-a-vis Catholicism, but the fact is I am simply not a person who is ever going to be interested in, never mind be moved to write about, any royal wedding. I have no opinion on Charlie Sheen other than There but for the grace of God go I and I hope the poor guy makes it. I have no opinion on Arnold S. other than Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, and how sad for his wife, family, mistress, illegitimate child, and for that matter, him.

And beyond that, I know myself all too well. Someone as desperate for success as me starts getting advertisers and next thing you know I'm putting up a photo of a Hollywood star with a crown of thorns on his head and promoting a kind of Disney Christ. Someone with my craving for attention gets advertisers and next thing I know I'm giving make-up tips and having bakeoffs and writing about Justin Bieber. Next thing you know I become willing to pander to the lowest common denominator and emasculate, homogenize and sanitize Christ, not because I love him but because I want to make money off him.

A few weeks ago I ran a piece about the late comic and satirist Bill Hicks. I included a video clip called “Play from Your Fucking Heart.” An anonymous commenter observed: “The language posted in the video? Catholicism that is not Catholic.” [sic]

I’m no fan of gratuitous profanity. I'm pretty sure it was only the second time in nine months that the word "fuck" appeared on my blog, both times when I was quoting someone else (which is not to say I'm not often a terrible swearer myself).

But when Hicks asked “When did mediocrity and banality become a good image for your children?” I believe he was making an integral, essential point. I believe he was making a point upon which the continuation of our civilization, if not all of humanity, depends.

Christ is the über defense against all that is mediocre and banal and sanitized and hygienic and inert and false and shallow and hypocritical and wolf-in-sheep's-clothing and dead, and the über fount of all that is beautiful, true, good, astonishing, paradoxical, vital, life-giving, weird, open-your-veins, and funny. We all need to make a living, especially we writers, but being nailed to a cross is never going to catch the eye of a PR firm. Joy born of excruciating suffering is never going to be the raw material for workshops, tapes, a T-shirt line, or a product giveaway. To be paid for writing that is born from the heart is one thing, but to play from the heart is not itself for sale.

Or as I told Elizabeth (who, just as I was thinking of leaving, offered, with the prospect at least some kind of small payment if I doubled my readership, to host my whole blog): "I am just a hopeless non-team player (when it comes to writing, anyway), and a stubborn, often self-righteous, romantic, and a terrible introvert and control freak, and to be fair, my own particular way of articulating and presenting the fruit of my reflections, and all kinds of other things that I now see probably militate, as I said, against ever being 'hosted' by ANYONE." I would way rather have 400 readers a day and be free to write what and how I want and get the occasional donation, speaking gig, mentoring job, book sale, and/or email from someone who tells me I have helped shore them up or made them laugh or deepened their love for Christ than to have my work appear on the same page as any kind of promotion and get 4000 readers an hour.

In fact, that I have 400 readers a day is such a miracle and the whole subject of the writing life so sets me on fire that I'm planning a series of posts on this very issue.

So the blog stays with me. And with deep gratitude to Elizabeth, and hopes to occasionally continue to appear in their pages, as of last week I bowed out of Patheos.

With all due reverence, respect, adoration, worship, and praise, if Christ--my Lord and King--did not play from his fucking heart, I don’t know who did. So I beg to differ. To play from your fucking heart is about as Catholic as you can get. And as long as I can afford to, and have the energy, I mean to keep trying to do it myself.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

LIGHT UPON THE SCAFFOLD: THE PRISON LETTERS OF JACQUES FESCH


Jacques Fesch,1930-1957, was a murderer who spent three years and eight months in solitary confinement and experienced a profound conversion before his execution,by guillotine, in a French prison.

“The cross I carry, so shameful in men’s eyes, is no less glorious than that of monk or missionary. But those who live in the world find all this very difficult to comprehend…There is no coherence in it to the eye of the mere spectator.
            It’s only a short time since I really understood what the cross is. It is simultaneously miraculous and horrifying. Miraculous, because it gives us life, horrifying because if we do not bring about our own crucifixion, we have no access to life. This is great and blessed mystery for those who are persecuted." 

"I am sad indeed. Is it a lack of humility that is making me insensitive? I could easily become violent, and at the least contradiction my hackles go up. Pride: the worst of evils and the one that most separates us from the Lord. I have plenty of reasons to be humble, but I’m not. The more I’m knocked down, the more I stiffen my neck and cling to the pride that is my form of courage. 'Brother Leo,' said St. Francis, 'do you know what perfect joy is? Suppose that on our return to the monastery the brother porter receives us like shameless rogues, insults and strikes us, tosses us into the snow and leaves us outside there without shelter and food. If we find the strength to think that this brother has treated us as we deserve, and if we praise the Lord for it, that is perfect joy!'”

"You have to be here to understand what a deadly effect imprisonment can have on a person. He may succeed in submitting outwardly, but interiorly he festers in a frightful way. Wild beasts wait for the beast-tamer to make a false move, and then they leap on him. But do not be alarmed, dear brother; I've been through similar crises and survived."


"Here is where the cross and its mystery of suffering make their appearance. The whole of life has this piece of wood as its center…Don’t you think that, whatever you set out to do in the short time that is yours on earth, everything worthwhile is marked with this seal of suffering? There are no more illusions: you know with certainty that all this world has to offer is as false and deceptive as the most fantastic dreams of a six-year-old girl. Then despair invades you, and you try to avoid the suffering that dogs your heels and licks at you with its flames, but every means of doing so is only a rejection of the cross. We can have no genuine hope of peace and salvation apart from Christ crucified! Happy the man who understands this…” 

--all from Light Upon the Scaffold: The Prison Letters of Jacques Fesch, ed. by Augustin-Michel Lemonnier, trans. Matthew J. O'Connell




People too often confuse morality and law. I did evil and I know it, but I also know how and way I acted as I did. I am perfectly aware that I was not free. My real guilt is not in this area, and it is not the actions for which I am now in prison that are the most serious ones. The real issue is not actions as such--which are indeed atrocious and irreparable--but the deeper responsibility of the man named Fesch. He knows that his responsibility lies elsewhere than where the law puts it. The people before whom I feel guilty are not the civil authorities, but others; and if the day ever comes when true judgment is passed upon it, it is these others who will weigh in the balance against me: Pierrette and Veronica [his wife and daughter]. It is for them that I must give an account.

Our real sins, in other words--which is why we are all criminals--are failures of love.

MOZART'S GREAT MASS IN C MINOR: KYRIE

Lord, have mercy upon us.
Christ, have mercy upon us.
Lord, have mercy upon us.

Friday, May 27, 2011

THE SEVENTH DAY: AU HASARD BALTHAZAR, J.B. LENOIR AND MORE

A sampling of the profusion of gifts, high art, and marvels of various kinds that came within my purview this week:

1. Au Hasard Balthazar, sublime 1966 film by Robert Bresson about a farm girl and her saint-like donkey.

"Everyone who sees this film will be absolutely astonished, because this film is really the world in an hour and a half."
--Jean-Luc Godard



2. Swiss Trio: Swissmar Classic Peelers, gift from Marjorie S'addah, writer extraordinaire, dear friend, and recent visitor from upstate New York:




3. God's Word: Blues Musician J. B. Lenoir:



4. Sacred Heart prayer card (...or...what is this, cradle Catholics? Is it a scapular or what? approx. 1" x 2," tucks nicely into back jeans pocket) (breaking news: it's a BADGE, see comment below) in laminated plastic case, given to me by my beloved Jewish friend, Lisa G.:



5. Windom (Minnesota) Peewees:

Around about Tuesday, the mailman shoved through the slot a real treat: a package from my young friend Timmy J. Smith. Timmy, lately of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, hails from the small town of Windom, Minnesota, and for years has been putting out a primo 'zine called The Fellowship of Tim. I am the proud owner of many back copies, which profile such people, places, and things as the groddy sink in the restroom of the garage where he worked as a third-generation gas station attendant and in which he figured he'd washed his hands at least 10,000 times, dwarf wrestlers, his job as a box-cutter, and his stint as a clerk at a record/porn movie shop. Anyway, this time he sent me two more (PLUS a couple of CDs of my NPR stories, which was we originally bonded, PLUS a very cool Michael the Archangel medal): one about his foray into the world of stand-up comedy, and one about his career as a Windom PeeWee tee-baller.




Here's how one story begins:
I am going to pick one defining moment in PeeWee's History that until right now has remained a secret for over 25 years. And here it is; I told Heath Raverty to pick my little sister for his 2nd pick to be on our team, which he then did. Then when everyone started making fun of our pick I lied and said that what I really said was "don't pick my sister." My best intentions on taking care of my scared little sister had now turned to the exact opposite of making my friend look stupid and leaving my sister's feelings hurt. I couldn't let Mr. Jaacks and all the other Peewees think that I would actually want my little sister on my team. Don't get me wrong, I don't think I'm a horrible brother and I wasn't, I was 8 and a PeeWee. My intentions were good and pure, but in that ten seconds, ten quick seconds, I got a harsh lesson in PeeWees baseball. A lesson that after 25 years I just might understand....

Timmy writes from Sioux Falls: "Here is a link if anyone is interested on how to get a copy [of the newest issue of Fellowship of Tim]: http://fellowshipoftim.bigcartel.com/ A lot of it is inspired from my Lectio reading of Matthew 6:26, although its written subtly to touch the hearts and minds of my secular friends who are trying to make sense of my conversion and way of life with Christ today, which many of my old friends see as some sort of psychological disorder. HA! Know of my prayers. I am hitting the road." *

6.
PASSION FLOWER,
PARKMAN AVENUE JUST SOUTH OF SUNSET BOULEVARD,
EAST SIDE OF STREET, GROWING IN PROFUSION ON VINES COVERING
OTHERWISE UNREMARKABLE CHAIN LINK FENCE
7.  If we look at the history of the world and its civilisations, imaginative sympathy for the victim is in fact a very rare quality. In most cultures, the exact opposite applies, because the weak and vanquished have no rights at all. If and when this sympathy comes a out, it does so as the result of a titanic struggle within a person and within a society. The struggle is nothing less than what de Stogumber describes as a kind of 'conversion.' And it is not just for the dull and unimaginative; it is a conversion which even some of the most sensitive and creative spirits known to humanity have had to undergo.
--Michael Kirwan, Discovering [René] Girard [a gift from faithful and generous correspondent-photographer Bill MacIver]


* Tim J. Smith is currently studying to become a Catholic priest.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

AND THEN THERE WERE BOOKS


Recently a correspondent wrote:

What do you think about E-books and readers (Kindle, I-pad, Nooks, etc?) Have you tried any? And what, if any, effect do you think they have on the experience and impact of reading? I would love to read your thoughts on the subject.

So far, I pretty much regard kindle and e-books as the anti-Christ but I regarded answering machines, computers, and cell phones as the anti-Christ, too, until I started using them.

I don't know if I will ever come around to reading a book on a screen though. I know you can highlight, search, and save, but the whole tactile experience is so incarnational and I would hate to lose that. Also, I generally can't afford to buy books and books are therefore inextricably connected for me with the library, which is a whole other beautiful link to humanity. The excitement of putting a book on reserve and having it delivered to my local branch, the small sense of civic pride at knowing I am trusted and wanting to live up to that trust by taking good care of the book and returning it on time, the knowledge that the book has passed through many hands before mine and will pass through many hence.

Reading for me is a whole kinetic mind-body experience. If the book is mine, I turn down pages, underline, scrawl notes, arguments, insults. I spill coffee and crumbs. When I finish a book I like, it’s often bristling with little neon Post-Its, at which point I sit down and copy out (i.e. type) the quotes and passages that have struck me. That alone is a rudimentary form of “communication” with the author, a kind of paying homage by way of the effort required to copy out his or her words, to re-experience and more deeply absorb and imprint them upon my memory/soul.

You can’t rest an ipad in a comforting little tent on your chest as you lean back and muse. You can’t use an ipad as a makeshift pillow when you’re lying on the grass and decide to take a nap in the sun. You can’t prop up the leg of a desk, or hold down the corner of your beach towel when you run in to take a dip, or press leaves or ferns or wild violets between the pages of a kindle. You can’t surround yourself with e-books and thereby help make a cozy den redolent of civilization, the wisdom of the ages, God. And how are we to size up a potential friend if we can’t scan his or her bookshelves?

When I moved out of my apartment of 17 years last year, I put an ad on craigslist for free books and in a single day gave away 90% of the books that I’d been accumulating and carrying around since childhood. I felt like my head had been shorn, and yet, just as people say, books multiply. People give you books, you pick up books. I kept two or three boxes and now I have a glass-fronted three-shelf bookcase filled with books, and then there are the reference books, the cookbooks, the books of sheet music, the three or four or five teetering piles of books on the Chinese chest, the books on my bedside table, the books on the bed. All the better, I say. Books are friends. Books are companions. To those who say “We need to save the trees” I say, “We need to publish not fewer books, but less dreck.”

But the argument for e-books and against real books that leaves me truly cold is the one that says: You don’t have to lug books around any more! You don’t have to actually carry books or magazines. You don’t have to pack them, move them, feel the burden of their pesky, undesirable weight.

This to me is emblematic of a very unfortunate cultural idea that the goal is to free ourselves from what are actually the right kind of burdens.


To wit, we have old people who don’t want to be a “burden” to their children, children who don’t want to be a burden to their work-obsessed parents, a government that sees the sick, the poor, the mentally ill as burdens. We bypass the “burden” of peeling and chopping the beautiful root vegetable known as a carrot in favor of a bag of fake, uniformly-sized, tasteless, faux carrot nubs.  We have the “burden” of walking instead of driving. We have the burden of buying actual flowers instead of sending, I can hardly bear to type the word, an “e-flower.”

We should burden each other. That is what we’re here for. We should be willing to sweat and bleed a little for what we love, and for the writers who have laid down their lives in order to leave us their work.

Some of the happiest moments of my life have consisted in checking out books from the library, putting them in my little bag or pack, and walking them, rejoicing, home. The heavier the load, the more the prospective enjoyment, nourishment, delight, stimulation, companionship, connection with humanity, growth.

I remember reading James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late in my brother’s sweltering bedroom in Bangkok. I remember reading War and Peace in a wretched little pensione on the island of Syros, Greece. I remember reading Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer in my room at a writer’s residency in Woodside, California. I remember because the books were great literature, and I had gone to some trouble to bring and/or find them, and because they awoke something in me that can never quite be similarly awakened by anything I read on a screen.

The weight of the books I have carried, toted, lugged, moved in my life would come to the tens if not hundreds of thousands of pounds.  But no way, not now and I pray not ever, am I ready for a “kindle.” 

Because I have never carried the books. The books have carried me. 


Monday, May 23, 2011

MAGNIFICAT


A word today about Magnificat, which has been my constant companion for many years. Magnificat is a handy little pocket-sized monthly magazine with the daily liturgy, an abbreviated form of Morning and Evening Prayer, two versions of Night Prayer, profiles of the saints, consistently gorgeous art work, a daily reflection, culled from far and wide, that I, for one, find invaluable, and much, much more.

Yesterday, I discovered to my surprise, that reflection was from me!

Here's a link to a series of lectures by Father Peter Cameron, O.P., the it must be said brilliant editor-in-chief.

At the behest of a mutual friend, got in touch with me awhile ago and has signed me on to do several Lenten reflections, Advent reflections, and now a series of reflections on Luke.

One of the best things about that assignment, so far, has been Andrew Matt, one of Fr. Cameron's editorial assitants (maybe the only one, I'm not sure). Andrew is one of these cradle Catholic, Catholic-educated insanely smart folks who will send you (or to be more accurate will send me, as I am constantly making huge, ignorant-convert faux pas) a whole piece on how to distinguish between Mary of Bethany, the Mary in Mary and Martha, Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary, Mary, the wife of Cleopas, etc. and is constantly urging me to purchase a volume of verse by some obscure German poet (Gertrud von le Fort, to be exact, who by all accounts was/is brilliant) ("Hymns to the Church is available in English – I implore you to ask your librarian to poke around on the Interlibrary loan thingy they have and find it for you – it’s there, for I got Fr. Peter to check her out and he’s used some of her poems in the Meditations of the Day. I think it was translated by a certain Margaret Chanler for Sheed and Ward, 1942. She’s a convert and is up there with Flannery and Co.").

Or  "Here’s another one to add to your list, if you haven’t read it yet: Charles Péguy’s book-length poem The Portal of the Mystery of Hope (Eerdmans, 1996)...He’s got a section in his long poem that treats the parable of the prodigal son that is enough to die for. I’m telling you, I practically well up whenever I talk about it. It’s stunning. If you read French, the original will make you swoon. The whole thing is a miracle. I could go on and on. The English translation is magnificent though, and so I’m bending your ear with my final plea about this poem because it is so moving, so Catholic, so much about the rough and tumble flesh and blood sacramentality of life itself. It’s the best poem on hope, ever."

The point being that, as usual, I think I am "doing" something, or working for someone else, and all the benefits and gifts seem to redound to me.

Thank you, Fr. Cameron, for your beautifully-selected reflections that have enriched my life and for your whole great magazine. And thank you as well for Andrew Matt!

CANNA LILY, NEAR TACO STAND/BEAUTY SALON,
 SUNSET JUNCTION, SILVER LAKE, CA
"MY SOUL PROCLAIMS THE GREATNESS OF THE LORD"...

Sunday, May 22, 2011

THE LIFE OF CHRIST IN WOODCUTS: JAMES REID




A few years ago a friend gave me a book called The Life of Christ in Woodcuts by James Reid--one of  "a host of maverick artists" from the early twentieth century" who "introduced the idea of the graphic novel, a story told exclusively with wood engravings." (from the back jacket).

Originally brought out in 1930, the book was republished in 2009 by Dover Press. Without using a single word, Reid manages to convey the whole story of Christ's birth, life, death, and resurrection. One of my favorite cuts is when Christ was a young man and the other young people are pairing up, walking arm in arm around town, and he is watching from afar, and you can see the idea forming in his head...Oh that looks like so much fun. That looks really, really great! And somehow...that is not going to be for me....


Anyway, these are beautiful woodcuts and a moving book. Fellow wood engraver/graphic novelist Lynd Ward (1905-1985) apparently did a book called Vertigo--a subject that, if you have any feel for either, seems very much connected to the life of Christ....

Saturday, May 21, 2011

JACARANDA TIME


Here in Southern California, it's jacaranda, or apparently more accurately jacaranda mimosifolia, time. All up and down the residential streets has gently settled a veil of soft, deep purple. If you park your car, you're likely to come out and find it covered in a thin shroud of purple. It laughs purple, weeps purple, wakes and sleeps purple.

Back in the early '90s, I worked for three years at a law office on the corner of Wilshire and Doheny in Beverly Hills. My principal emotion during those years was despair, with mingled dread-loneliness-revulsion running a close second. One spring day I was in my boss's sixth floor office and as he nattered on about the motion for relief from default I was to write one more time because, one more time, he'd ignored a deadline, I glanced out his windows and saw that all the streets north of Wilshire were blanketed in purple. It was jacaranda time! There was light, there was poetry, beyond the prison walls there was life! It was perhaps the one truly happy moment of my career as an attorney.

And looking back, I can't help thinking that it was also perhaps the first moment when I  knew I had to leave.







Friday, May 20, 2011

SCAVENGER

"I feel that what people call by the word ‘scavenger’ is really a resurrection."
LOUISE NEVELSON, 1900-1988
There are two kinds of people: those who think using other people's castoff belongings and wearing other people's old clothes is disgusting, and people like me: a die-hard, back-alley-rooting rag picker.

Scavenging isn't an isolated activity; it's a way of seeing and experiencing the world that is, or can be, basically ordered toward community. It springs from the idea that the more you're willing to step outside the lines, the more interesting things often appear. And the lower you're willing to go toward the bottom, the more layers of existence seem to open.

L.A.is fine, fine pickings, even in the midst of economic collapse. Last night, for example, I set out out for a nice jaunt to Vons for toilet paper when I came upon a big brown grocery bag of clothes on the curb by Parkman and Sunset. I dug right through, emerging with a cashmere Banana Republic hoodie in a fetching shade of orange, two T-shirts, a V-neck brown Gap jersey and two perfectly good pair of heavy socks.

Then I didn't have anything to carry them in the mile or two to the store so I walked down to the Tropical Café and started rooting around in the outside trash can for a plastic bag. "Just found some free clothes," I explained to the guy who was standing nearby, sucking on a cigarette. "Ask at the liquor store. He'll give ya a bag," he reported, so I went to the corner liquor store where a bunch of fellows who looked like they might have been "between jobs" for about a decade were hanging around watching a soccer game and scraping scratch cards, and sure enough the guy behind the counter gave me a plastic bag and off I happily went, marveling at the kindness of strangers.

On the way to Vons I nabbed a sprig of pink lantana from in front of the Jiffy Lube, and stopped to admire the tulip trees on the overpass above Myra, and then up near where Circuit City used to be fell in with a guy named John who collects plastic bottles and lives in an alley near Fountain and reported that there was a whole community of homeless folk there who play cards till midnight and when they have a particularly good week buy bus tickets and go to Vegas.

LANTANA
IN FRONT OF SUNSET BLVD. JIFFY LUBE, SILVER LAKE,  CA
Collecting bottles so you can eat is of course a whole other deal than ferreting a Banana Republic hoodie back to your warm, safe room on the hill. But where the two worlds may intersect is in a sense of existential nostalgia and a deep fear of abandonment. For those of us solitary types to whom every moment of connection is extra precious, or who are so in touch with our loneliness that inanimate objects not only keep us company but often seem way safer and more predictable than humans, pieces of wire, pebbles, cardboard, stickers, castoff sweaters and small flowers can take on almost unimaginable significance.

In Raw Creation: Outsider Art and Beyond, John Maizels profiles many such folks and their amazing, poignant works of art.

Take John Mikovisch, a retired employee of the Southern Pacific Railroad who built the Beer Can House in Houston.

THE BEER CAN HOUSE
HOUSTON, TEXAS

"At the hospital [Münsingen psychiatric clinic in Bern, Switzerland], [Heinrich Anton] Müller spent much time in a deep hole he had dug in the grounds, possibly in an effort to find solitude or privacy, but he was also active and inventive. He constructed a series of complex machines which were concerned with perpetual motion or simply with reducing gear ratios or creating energy for no apparent purpose.”

HEINRICH ANTON MÜLLER
WITH PERPETUAL MOTION MACHINE 

“Later in life [Willem] van Genk drifted away from painting. In the mid-1990s he remained reclusive, finding it difficult to leave his house for fear of hairdressers. Within his home he has constructed an imposing model of a tram station out of paper and cardboard, but it is strictly not for exhibition. He now concentrates on his large collection of plastic raincoats, replacing their buttons with a more imposing kind, and says he likes to feel that when he wears them he is protected by the different personalities he can adopt.” 


WILLEM VAN GENK,
CARDBOARD TRAM

"When you put together things that other people have thrown out, you’re really bringing them to life – a spiritual life that surpasses the life for which they were originally created."
--Louise Nevelson

UNTITLED, MIXED MEDIA, C. 1985
LOUISE NEVELSON
All you who are thirsty, come to the water! 
You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat;
Come, without paying and without cost,
drink wine and milk!

--Isaiah 55: 1

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

THE REDUCTION OF DESIRE

MONSIGNOR LORENZO ALBACETE
In God at the Ritz, Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, priest, theologian, and physicist, shares a personal story about the spiritual peril that he calls “the reduction of desire:”

A student was driving him to a university building, a residence for priests, where he was to spend the night. They arrived and he spotted a parking space in front of the residence with a sign “Reserved for Residents,” which to his mind meant priest residents, however temporary. “Ah, parking right up front,” he observed. But to his surprise and consternation, she drove right by and proceeded to a public parking lot that seemed to a person of his bulk to be several miles away!

Clearly the distance was not a problem for her—she was thin and small and could easily cover that distance—but it was for me.

I said, “Look, did you see that parking place back there?” She replied, “Yes, but that’s for priest residents.” And I said, “Wait a minute! Number one, we’re just dropping off the luggage. Number two, I am a priest resident of this building tonight, so I have a right to it as a priest resident.” I continued, “So I think we have a right to park there.”

Monsignor Albacete acknowledged that his argument might have stretched the point.

“But what shocked me was that she wasn’t even attracted by it! She had no desire to park nearby. I told her, “You suffer from the reduction of desire.” Now my desire to park up front would be so great that I would look for the smallest justification in order to be able to do that. But she didn’t even struggle with this. She didn’t mind going miles away to park in the student lot.

My driver’s response to the parking situation is emblematic to me of the problem of the reduction of desire. She didn’t park up front because the educational system, with its laws and punishments for breaking the law, had drilled into her that she should accept her spot as a student and not have ambition that might be beyond her rightful place in society. That is how power remains in power—by reducing our desire.”
           
I find this story fascinating, not least of all because I so related to that rule-following driver. My Pharisee desire to get good spiritual marks would have led me to follow the parking sign to the letter. My Calvinistic streak would have primly thought: Well you should just exercise more, Father. [Disclaimer: I have had the great honor of meeting Msgr. Albacete and, like probably just everyone else who comes in contact with this holy, very funny man, instantly warmed to him].

In many ways I have thrown off my chains but part of me is also still in third grade: afraid of “getting yelled at, wanting to stay in good graces with the powers-that-be. To want to stay in people’s good graces isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it becomes a bad thing if we’re led to do violence to our convictions, ourselves, and others. It becomes a bad thing if we’re thereby led to reduce Christ to a social worker or a cop or a politician.

As Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis writes in Love’s Sacred Order: “Contemporary Church life threatens to fragment into extremes of “liberal” and “conservative” precisely because often we lose sight of this deepest mystical Center and spend ourselves in fruitless debates that are unworthy of the Church because they are really political and not mystical in method, content or intent.”

In a period of intense emotional pain, I once asked a friend to go to Mass with me at the cathedral in downtown L.A. She refused, as a matter of conscience, because she felt the money should have been spent on “the poor” instead of on a fancy church. Now I realize no-one is obligated to do anything they don’t darn well please, and that my friend had every right to say no. But I wanted to say: You think I’m not one of poor? You think you’re not one of the poor? You don’t burn for the Eucharist, for Mass? Who cares how much or how little the church cost?

Of course I’m always in danger of the reduction of my own desire. I’m ever more aware of the myriad times, every day, that I’m a terrible Pharisee. But more and more I also see that my greatest grace is that for someone of my demographic and education, I am, and have always been, and am poised to pretty much always be “poor.” Poor in spirit as a perpetually restless, irritable, discontent alcoholic (and that’s sober!), poor in worldly goods, poor in companionship. But to be poor is to burn with love for Christ. To be poor is to be ever more well situated to “will the one thing,” which Kierkegaard observed is the mark of the saint. 

Human beings always trump ideals, ideas, theories, and abstractions. Friendship always trumps politics. The spirit of the law always trumps the letter of the law.

And the Eucharist always, always, always, trumps everything. 

THE LAMENTATION
GIOTTO DI BONDONE, 1305-06

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

101 NOODLE EXPRESS


"The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star."
--Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Physiologie du Gout, 1825

I am headed back to L.A. tomorrow and though everyone has been super welcoming, kind and hospitable, I have lacked for nothing, and the food has been beyond bountiful here at the Marianist novitiate in Dayton, I find myself craving, rather badly, a beef roll from the 101 Noodle Express.

The first time I went to the 101, with my friend Ron, we each grabbed a beef roll, gnawed off a huge bite, chewed, and then our eyes glazed over, a hush descended upon the table, and neither of us spoke for a full minute. Then finally, one of us breathed, "Oh my God." And the other said, "You are kidding me, right?" and then we both said together, "That is the most delicious thing I have ever tasted. "


Here's how L.A.'s own über food writer, the great Jonathan Gold, describes the beef roll: "a steroidal composition of fried Chinese pancakes, cilantro and great fistfuls of thinly sliced meat wetted with sweet bean sauce and formed into something like a Chinese burrito the size of your arm. A specialty of Shandong, half a day’s drive north of Beijing, a proper beef roll may be big enough to feed a family of four but is also oddly delicate; it may taste of crisped pastry and clean oil but also projects the muscular minerality of the braised meat. The San Gabriel Valley boasts many good beef rolls, but the best are generally acknowledged to come from 101 Noodle Express, a cramped, narrow storefront adjoining a shuttered bowling alley, a place whose general dinginess tends to keep away a lot of the people who might enjoy the beef rolls, the pumpkin-shrimp dumplings, and the cold noodles with cucumber and bean sauce."

Dingy, shuttered bowling alley, oil...If that doesn't send you scurrying at the soonest possible opportunity to 1408 E. Valley Blvd. Alhambra 91801, I throw up my hands.

First you get yourself a tasty order of pumpkin and shrimp dumplings. Then you get the beef roll (one order comprises two rolls, each of which unless you are a COMPLETE hog, easily makes a meal).


Then you find some hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon, order a Vietnamese coffee, and talk about movies, books, the next great meal, death, and life in glorious, maddening Los Angeles.  


But first, you give a huge shout-out to Brandon Paluch, who so kindly invited me to Dayton, and for having completed his first year at the Marianist novitiate here, and to Nhan and Andrew, ditto, and to the other noviates and good brothers who so generously hosted me this past week. Thank you all! Thanks be to God! May our paths cross again!

My apologies for the bad exposure but we WOULD dawdle over our ice creams before our nocturnal tour of the very cool little "old-hippie" town of Yellow Springs.

NHAN AND BRANDON,
YELLOW SPRINGS ART COUNCIL
THE LOVELY ANDREW