Sunday, October 30, 2011


Several years ago I took a guided tour of the L.A. River, which runs from Canoga Park to Long Beach and cuts a mostly unseen, mostly unremarked upon, largely under-utilized (though all that has been changing) 51-mile swath through the city. I kept telling myself I was going to go back, but for whatever reason(s), I hadn't since.

Then, one afternoon last week, a friend who walks along the river frequently said "Let's go," so we did, and I couldn't believe how lush and magical it was down there! The sun was shining, and a breeze was riffling the water, and all over were birds! Cormorants, egrets, mallard ducks, great blue herons. Floating, soaring, cawing, perching on rocks, skimming over the water. Also little red crayfish, like miniature lobsters, with spotted claws, schools of small black darting fish, and many half-submerged mud-covered golf balls from the nearby Los Feliz 3-Par Golf Course.

We poked sticks into the shallows, and jumped over puddles, and marveled over the flight of the great blues...

Just as we were almost back to our starting point we came upon a little man who was feeding a giant flock of pigeons, their sleek purple-green heads forming a kind of thrillingly iridescent sea. Whether we startled them, or the man gave a sign, or it was St. Francis himself come to bestow a blessing, as if with one mind the birds suddenly with a sedate flapping of wings rose, wheeled left, up, around and back, narrowly missing our heads, and settled down again, and then for good measure, did the same thing once more. It was incredible to see so many arrow-like bodies performing their pigeonly maneuvers in unison, regimental and balletic at the same time.

Later I thought about how the river was like being two places at once: in the city, with the semis rolling by above, and in the wilderness, down below with the grebes; on earth, with plastic bags snagged on the reeds, and in heaven, where the birds fly free; in time, where every afternoon eventually ends, and in eternity, where we walk--let us hope--forever with a Friend.

I went back the next night, alone: vespers with the herons.


WALKER EVANS,  circa 1935-1936

… Here I must say, a little anyhow: what I can hardly hope to bear out in the record: that a house of simple people which stands empty and silent in the vast Southern country morning sunlight, and everything which on this morning in eternal space it by chance contains, all thus left open and defenseless to a reverent and cold-laboring spy, shines quietly forth such grandeur, such sorrowful holiness of its exactitudes in existence, as no human consciousness shall ever rightly perceive, far less impart to another: that there can be more beauty and more deep wonder in the standings and spacings of mute furnishings on a bare floor between the squaring bourns of walls than in any music ever made: that this square home, as it stands in unshadowed earth between the winding years of heaven, is, not to me but of itself, one among the serene and final, uncapturable beauties of existence: that this beauty is made between hurt but invincible nature and the plainest cruelties and needs of human existence in this uncured time, and is inextricable among these, and as impossible without them as a saint born in paradise.
--From Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee (text) and Walker Evans (photographs)
For more on the Gudger Mantel: Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, by Errol Morris

no object was removed, added, or arranged
on the right is a Baroque Madonna from The Cloisters, NY...

Thursday, October 27, 2011



I had a long talk recently with a dear friend who has gone back to the Episcopal Church as he does not feel the Catholic church is a healthy place for him to be right now. Part of me wanted to say Who ever said being a Catholic is about "health!"(“Since the day of my conversion, I have never been well”: St. Francis of Assisi).

The other part has to know that he may well be exactly right. I am reading Baron Friedrich von Hügel's Letters to A Niece (battered library copy) (Flannery O'Connor read and liked them). The baron (1852-1927) loves the Church, TOTALLY gets the Church: that it is a trial, that it is glorious, that it COSTS.

And yet, or because of which, he also says you should almost discourage people from converting because if you try to persuade them and they’re not ready it can be disastrous. They leave forever or become lukewarm. I myself  have never entertained the slightest hope of converting or even real desire to convert anyone. Though at the same time I of course wish with all my heart that everyone would be converted. It’s just that I know beyond the shadow of a doubt it would not be through me. All I can do is say I love Christ, I love his Church, which has revealed himself to be the center of everything. I don’t have to justify or defend or promote, which is good because I wouldn’t know how to.

Anyway Baron von Hügel gives the same advice basically that Msgr. Albacete does, which is (I’m paraphrasing) Continue on as you are. Give everything you have to being the best Buddhist or Hindu or agnostic or whatever you can be...

Here are some excerpts from his letters:

"God has never left the world in complete and groping darkness; all religions contain some light from God. They are all from him. It is an awful idea that souls who cannot have known Our Lord should be debarred from God. None of the saints have believed that"…

"The most subtle enemy of religion is humanitarianism. If Christianity is true, there must be abiding consequences. We can’t get rid of it, it’s all in the Gospels. Our Lord speaks of it several times. His message is an immense warning to us here and now, a terrific alternative. You must see that. If you read the Gospels and give that up, I don’t know what you see."

"Sometimes I ask myself—the wisest, deepest men I have known—are they not all Roman Catholics? Yes, they are…You can’t be a Roman for nothing. There is a tension here, a heroism, an other-worldliness. If you don’t feel it, then it’s your fault. There must be some change in you."

"The touching, entrancing beauty of Christianity, my Niece, depends upon a subtle something which all this fastidiousness ignores. Its greatness, its special genius, consists, as much as in anything else, in that it is without this fastidiousness. A soul that is, I do not want to say tempted, but dominated, by such fastidiousness, is as yet only hovering round the precincts of Christianity, but it has not entered its sanctuary, where heroism is always homely, where the best always acts as a stimulus towards helping towards being (in a true sense) but one of the semi-articulate, bovine, childish, repulsively second-third-fourth-rate crowd. So it was with Jesus himself; so it is with Francis the Povorello; so it is with every soul that has fully realized the genius of the Christian paradox. When I told you of my choking emotion in reading, in St. John’s Gospel, that scene of Jesus, the Light of the World (that He is this, is an historic fact), as the menial servant at the feet of these little foolish fishermen and tax-gatherers, what do you think moved me but just that huge, life-and-love-bringing paradox, here in its fullest activity? The heathen philosophies, one and all, failed to get beyond your fastidiousness; only Christianity got beyond it; only Christianity. But I mean a deeply, costingly realized, Christianity—got beyond it: Gwen will, some day, get beyond it. It is, really, a very hideous thing; the full, truly free, beauty of Christ alone completely liberates us from this miserable bondage."

(the angels got him out!)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


The sky was horribly dark, but one could distinctly see tattered clouds, and between them fathomless black patches. Suddenly I noticed in one of these patches a star, and began watching it intently. That was because that star had given me an idea: I decided to kill myself that night.
--Dostoevsky, “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man”

That's kind of how I feel having published another book.

As with all "big" things in life (getting married, getting a degree, getting a job, getting sober, getting divorced), you tend to think, all evidence to the contrary, When THIS happens, it's all gonna start coming together. Finally, I can rest. Finally, the shelf on which I live overlooking the abyss will be many feet wide, maybe even an acre or two, instead of three inches where I am always trying to find a foothold by day, and tossing and turning at night, and my heart is lurching lest I fall into the precipice. Finally I will have a little bit of money. Finally I will have friends.

Then you realize two things. None of those things are going to happen. And two, they've happened, in their way, already. 

I keep thinking of a time, years ago, when my ex-husband and I were driving to Tucson on an especially desolate stretch of the 10 when suddenly this big old pale yellow Mercury shot off the freeway and landed upside down in the creosote. We pulled over and a bunch of other people did, too, and inside was this wizened wiry dude who looked like he'd spent his life in a honky-tonk and it turned out was coming back from Vegas. The guys inched him out: cowboy hat crushed, blood running down his hands and face. And he sat there on the ground in the blazing sun, took a sip of water, shook his head--we were all amazed he wasn't dead--looked up, half in wonder, half in exasperation--and asked, What next?

So what's next for me? I have about four different book ideas, all of which have been roiling around causing my head to almost explode to the point where I have to sit up late at night listening to pandora radio, playing Brain Jam (have I "shared" about my intermittent Brain Jam addiction?), and jabbing the "skip" button every time Simon and Garfunkel come on the Iris DeMent, Kate Wolf, Gillian Welch, and/or Emmylou Harris stations. I even "watched TV" (is it TV if it's on your computer?) last week: Enlightened with Laura Dern which I must say made me laugh so hard in places (in identification) I momentarily forgot that I myself am wandering, as usual, in the dark...

A book about food (to which I have a complicated relationship--and who doesn't?), I'm thinking? A book about my friends....a series of reflections about cooking, shared meals, forays around L.A...Think of the possibilities! The 99-Cent Store meal, the potluck, the foraged meal, the meal where you throw all caution to the winds and invite people from all different parts of your life who are bound to either love or despise each other...actually, I had THAT meal last Saturday and we had a blast. Food is SO Eucharistic, of course....I could reflect upon Simone Weil's anorexic/privation "philosophy"....bring in Kafka's "The Hunger Artist"...but really I could cook, which I love and have not done much of the last couple of years...


Sunday, October 23, 2011


I have had contact with several lapsed leftist types lately and have been shaken to the core.

You know the type. The type who, when it comes up that you go to Mass, get a pained expression on their face, lean in as if they were talking to a not-very-bright infant, and say "Oh. You see, think everybody should be allowed to sit at the table." The type who believe that THEY are the "free-thinkers," THEY are the truly compassionate ones, they are the ones who are performing the hard, HARD works of mercy (preferably in a way that is highly visible and garners them lots of praise) while the rest of us naive children who have not yet grown up and experienced the real world go to church.

Nothing delights these folks more than a priest who has broken his vows, unless it is seeing the Church pay out millions of dollars to sexual abuse victims and, say, having to close a parish (though they will then make a great show of parading back to Mass every so often with the defrocked priest and both taking the Eucharist, triumphantly “flouting the rules” and thereby establishing, as one of these folks put it, “The Better Church”).

No, literally, I reacted to the phrase as if I’d been shot: moaning, and writhing about, and all but foaming at the mouth. The Better Church? Don't you mean the actual Church? I wanted to say. No-one stands at the door of a Catholic church and says you can't come in if you're poor, if you're cheating on your husband, if you're addicted to internet porn, if you're having gay sex, if you're a drunk or a prostitute or a charlatan or a swindler or a pederast priest or an arms dealer or a venture capitalist, if you're insane (thank God, or they would never have let me in). No-one stands at the front of the Communion line with a ledger and demands, Are you a sheep or are you a goat? Have you gone to Confession?  No one asks, or even knows, in a city anyway, whether you're Catholic.

The problem is not that the Church is exclusive; the problem is that we are. What bothers us is not that everybody can't sit at the table; it's that everybody is allowed to. What bothers us is that the Church tells us what love looks like, then leaves us entirely to the honor system, to the individual conscience, and we all tend to feel that our conscience is more finely honed than anybody else's. I certainly lean, or have historically leaned, to the left. So I am partly speaking for myself--in fact, let me speak only for myself, before I converted--when I say the people who refuse to attend Mass on principle are the last people who want everyone around the table: they want themselves and "the poor." What they can't stand is the thought of being associated with the wealthy, the Pharisees, the war-mongers, which would lower them in the eyes of their peers, which would be a terrible blow to their identity, which would require them to actually try to love their enemy.

To try to make up our own church as we go along, to believe that we can have our own private church with our own rules, our own whims, our own laws, our own desires, our own truth, is to have a parish of one. That is the Church Without Christ established by Hazel Motes, the protagonist of Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood, whose integrity, in the end, consisted in blinding himself with lime, pilgrimaging the roads of the rural south with bits of broken glass in his shoes, and dying in a ditch. And make no mistake. O'Connor wasn't saying that Hazel Motes was grotesque: she was saying that we are: trying to make our own way by our own wavering, false light.

Part of the genius, the subversion, of the Catholic church is that it continually gives the lie to our sentimental notions of compassion. We think we're compassionate but we tend to be compassionate to those we think will be compassionate back. We think we love but the love is often about us and the image we like to project. We think we're radical but we are deeply conservative, deeply frightened of The Other, deeply desirous of the first place, the place of security, the place of prestige, whatever prestige may mean to us and our peers.

That is why to be a follower of Christ is always to be on the outskirts. That is why to be a practicing Catholic is always the most radical, the most counter-cultural, the most scandalous place to be. It requires us to stop pointing the finger at everyone else and to try and understand them. It requires us to admit that no one of has the whole picture, the whole answer, and that every single one of us is integral to the coming of the Kingdom. It requires us to acknowledge that while we're "putting up" with them, they're putting up with us, too.

Perhaps the real genius of the Church is this: no matter how we lean politically (and more and more, my impulse is not to lean at all), nothing shatters our egos like worshiping with people we did not hand-pick. We might think we're all about subversion, but the last power we want subverted is the power of "control" over what we worship, over the Person or thing to which we give our bodies, our hearts, our souls. The ignominy of worshiping with people who seem to believe something very different from what we do! The distastefulness of sitting in the same pew with people who would not say hello to us on the street and to whom we would perhaps hesitate before saying hello back! The humiliation of discovering that we are to be thrown in with extremely unpromising people!--people who are broken, misguided, wishy-washy, out for themselves. People who

We don't come to church to be with people who are like us in the way we want them to be. That is a club, a civic organization, a movement, not a church, or rather not the Catholic church. We come because we have staked our souls on the fact that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that the Church is the best place, the only place, to be while we all struggle to figure out what that means. We come because we cannot live, breathe, work, love without the Eucharist. We come because we hunger for the holy, because we yearn with all our hearts for the invisible to be made visible, to suffer with him, sit in the Garden at Gethsemane with him, eat with him, sleep with him, pray with him, live and die with him, spend eternity with him. We come because we believe he knew what he was doing--all evidence sometimes seemingly to the contrary--when he said: "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."

We come because we'd be hard pressed to say which is the bigger of the two greatest scandals of God: that he loves us--or that he also loves everyone else.


Saturday, October 22, 2011

Charles Warren Eaton: "Bruges Moonlight" (1910)

“We gaze with perplexity at the highest part of the spiral of force that governs the Universe. And we call it God.

We could give it any other name: Abyss, Mystery, Absolute Darkness, Total Light, Matter, Spirit, Supreme Hope, Supreme Despair, Silence.

But we call it God, because only this name – for some mysterious reason – is capable of making our heart tremble with vigor.

And let there be no doubt that this trembling is absolutely indispensable for us to be in contact with the basic emotions of the human being."

—Nikos Kazantzakis (1883 - 1957)
T. Samuel Palmer: "Cornfield by Moonlight with Evening Star"

The Moment
The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
you stand in the centre of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,

is the same moment when the trees unloose
their soft arms from around you,
the birds take back their language,
the cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can’t breathe.

No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round.

—Margaret Atwood

Courtesy of

Thursday, October 20, 2011


I'm sure many of you are already fans, but if not, here’s a writer for you: Caryll Houselander (1901-1954) aka (via Maisie Ward's fine biography) That Divine Eccentric.* Caryll was a British mystic, poet and spiritual teacher who wore a pair of big round tortoiseshell glasses, and lived in London during the Blitz, and her whole life, till she died at 53 from breast cancer, apparently barely slept or ate. A friend observed: “She used to cover her face with some abominable chalky-white substance which gave it quite often a the tragic look one associates with clowns and great comedians.”

From the dustjacket of her 1951 book Guilt: “Caryll Houselander lives on the top floor of a high apartment building. Her rooms are color-washed, bare but for the essential furniture, many books, and two or three gleaming ikons: the windows look out on a view of the city. As well as writing, Miss Houselander’s interests include working with children, wood carving, drawing and painting, and the study of Jungian psychology, Hebrew, and Russian spirituality.”

How can you not want to meet this woman?

Guilt has several short (3-4 page) reflections, plus grainy black-and-white  pulsatingly weird head shots of, among others, Leopold and Loeb, Peter Kürten  (the Monster of Düsseldorf), Hans Christian Andersen, Rimbaud, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Rilke, who according to Caryll, did not fulfill his potential, neglected his wife and daughter, and turned into a mooch of rich dowager benefactresses to whom he could, eventually, no longer deign to speak, merits no photo at all. Kafka’s photo is heartbreaking. He’s probably 4, and has been dressed in a vaguely military velvet pantsuit. In his left hand he clutches a broad-brimmed hat many sizes too large for his head, in his right he carries a kind of plume-topped baton, and he has been made to stand before one of those dreadful aspidistra-draped Victorian backdrops. His little feet are smartly shod in pumps with grosgrain bows, one tiny elbow rests awkwardly on a plant stand,  his hair is neatly parted in the middle, exactly as it is in that photo on the front of Collected Letters where he looks uncannily like an insect, and the eyes—the eyes whose depths are already suffused with the pain of the ineffective mother and the father who all his life he would loathe, fear, resent and adore—plead mutely, desperately, without hope, for help.

But I’m talking about Caryll, who swore, drank, had an affinity for wounded children (her own childhood was nightmarish), was a Catholic convert, and wrote many books on spirituality, among them The Reed of God, A Rocking-Horse Catholic, and The Risen Christ.

"[Christ] did not teach in terms of right and wrong, but of joy and sorrow. Blessed…joyful, are the poor in spirit; woe, sorrow, to you rich. The only answer to the mechanical masses [i.e. the attractive, healthy, energetic, let’s-get-things-done folks] is the saint, for the saint is the only true individual, and in him we see Christ, and see His values, not as something forced on us by school teachers, but as something to envy.
Take St. Francis of Assisi, whom the whole world, not Catholics only, thinks of in connection with poverty. He lived in an age as worldly as ours; times change, but human nature never. St. Francis changed the outlook and the lives of countless people, not by scolding them, but by showing them, not by being a reformer, but by being a poor little man in love with all created loveliness. The reason is so simple: he reflected on Christ, on whom his eyes were fixed; and when he lifted up his arms in ecstasy to receive his Lord’s wounds in his own body, the shadow that he cast on the white roads of Italy was the cruciform shadow of Christ."
--Caryll Houselander, from the novel The Dry Wood

"[The grain of wheat] must be buried in earth, that is, in us, who are made from the earth. The seed of Christ is not buried in angels, but in men. It is to flower and bear fruit through human experience: through our loves, our work, our sorrows, our joys, our temptations. It is to be literally our living and our dying.
We are the soil of the divine seed; there is no other. The flowering of Christ in us does not depend upon pious exercises, on good works outside our daily life, on an amateur practice of religion in our leisure time. It is in the marrow of our bones, in the experience of our daily life.
The seed is in darkness: the darkness of sorrow, the darkness of faith."
--Caryll Houselander, from I don't know where

From Maisie Ward's That Divine Eccentric:

"The sure cure for bitterness, Caryll comments, is to pray and do penance for the person: love will grow in proportion. “It is not according to how much penance I do or how many prayers I say, but how much love I put into it.”

In a little country church she heard a priest preach on the Eucharist—and his teaching seemed somehow the more memorable because he was hideously ugly—resembling, said Caryll, “a florid pig.” He died a few weeks later. “Between the sermon and his death I was one day talking to him. I was running someone down, saying beastly things of him. Suddenly I noticed that his eyes were shut. “You are not listening,’ I said. He replied, ‘I cannot—not to that; you see we are both present at the Mass. Whilst you were trying to make me think ill of X, Christ our Lord was offering Himself up to God to redeem them’”

“But we are not at Mass,” I said…and he said, “When your thoughts are hard or bitter or sad, let the sanctuary bell silence them. It is always ringing.”

“When you have done something really healing,” she wrote to a friend, “it happens so often that the only way you know it at first is by your own feeling of emptiness. Even Our Lord experienced this; when the woman who touched the hem of His garment was healed, He knew it by the sense of something having gone out of Him, an emptying ‘[power] has gone out of Me.’

It is the same for His followers—we know the moment of healing, not yet evident, not by exaltation and triumph but by emptiness and a sense of failure! That demands huge faith, but you have it!”

By the “huge faith” required of us she meant the faith that we can throw ourselves totally on Christ. But even He needed to pray to His Father in a desert place apart; to commune with His special friends, His Apostles; to leave the crowd that thronged and pressed around Him for their healing—and from curiosity. As members of Christ’s Mystical Body we owe to our fellows what help we can give them, but we do not owe to them neglect of our work, or our prayer, of others who may need us more. We do not owe our time to those who want merely to waste it. If Caryll had attempted to help everybody who came, she would have ended by helping nobody."

* Apparently That Divine Eccentric (sadly) is out of print. I first checked it out of the L.A. Public Library, then last year the very kind Tom Sullivan of NYC gave me a paperback, red cover, published by Sheed and Ward (London) (Maisie Ward was married to Frank Sheed; together, they formed Sheed and Ward), copyright 1962.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Word on Fire is running an excerpt today from my fresh-off-the-presses memoir Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Therese of Lisieux.

Here's the link.

Here's another excerpt I recently ran myself.

And here I must, or at any rate WILL, implore your help. If you enjoy the blog, or my books or any of my writing, and the spirit moves, please feel free to tell another friend, or to pass on my book, or write a review in your own blog, or archdiocesan newspaper, or literary mag, or to do whatever you all publicity-savvy and/or book-loving folks do. Thank you so much! Thanks to ALL who have bought my book and offered such generous feedback, support, insight...And of course thanks to St. Thérèse.

Finally, here's a reflection from Richard Rohr:


Christians indeed have a strange image of God: a naked, bleeding man, dying on a cross. It’s not what you would think the image of God could be or should be. Is God eccentric here, or is it we who have not diagnosed the human situation correctly?

Jesus receives our hatred and does not return it. He suffers and does not make the other suffer. He does not first look at changing others, but pays the price of change within himself. He absorbs the mystery of human sin rather than passing it on. He does not use his suffering and death as power over others to punish them, but as power for others to transform them. He includes and forgives the sinner instead of hating him, which would only continue the pattern of hate. Amazing that people cannot see that!

It’s interesting that Jesus identifies forgiveness with breathing (John 20: 22-23), the one thing that you have done constantly since you were born and will do until you die. He says God’s forgiveness is like breathing. Forgiveness is not apparently something God does; it is who God is. God can do no other.

Adapted from Hope Against Darkness:
The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety, pp. 27, 30-31, by Richard Rohr

Monday, October 17, 2011


Here's some happy news: Fr. Robert Barron has invited me to come to Chicago on November 14 and speak at a "Day of Recollection" for the Word on Fire Ministries staff!

The incredibly smart, well-travelled, and deep man-of-faith Fr. Barron; Fr. Steve Grunow, his assistant and my loyal FB friend; and Rozann Carter, who makes the whole operation run smoothly, have been huge supporters of my work. Naturally I am honored to the ground and can hardly wait to regale these erudite folk (in addition to English, Fr. Barron is fluent in French, Spanish, German and Latin) with tales of my checkered past and undying love for Christ and Church. Plus I get to stay at the by the looks of it splendid Mundelein Seminary aka the University of St. Mary of the Lake, at which Fr. Barron is a professor.

In the meantime, check out Fr. Barron's wonderful new book Catholicism (includes photos of Cologne Cathedral, the young Karl Wojtlya, Botticelli's "The Madonna of the Pomegranate" and more!) which I have been savoring and will post about as soon as I've finished and digested.

Also, fyi, tomorrow, October 18, 2011, I'll be on the Ave Maria Radio show "Kresta in the Afternoon," from 4:20-4:50 EST.


Sunday, October 16, 2011


Here's a photographer I've been meaning to tell you about: Norris Archer Harrington. I mean a real photographer, with a fancy camera, not just someone who goes about taking random pictures of trash cans and leaves. Also Norris, along with his wife Barbara Nicolosi Harrington (the prolific writer/screenwriter/ teacher/blogger) is deeply generous. One time I showed up at their house on a Saturday night thinking they were having a St. Joseph's party (due to my own dereliction of duty, I had not properly RSVP'ed and therefore did not know that the party had been cancelled). And the two of them INSISTED ON TAKING ME OUT TO DINNER.

Below find just a small sampling of Norris's work, in and around L.A., California, and elsewhere. (He says one of his favorites is "Humboldt Machine Works" and it's one of mine, too). You can see more of Norris's fine photos at his gallery here.
And here's a gorgeous piece of Sunday morning music, via Jason Pannone of Cambridge, Mass.:

 Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending

Thursday, October 13, 2011


The other day I read that Mother Teresa had her daughter Missionaries of Charity wash each morning with a sliver of soap from a bar that had been divided six ways and brush their teeth with cold ashes from the stove. I am SO with her! Think of the yearly toothpaste savings (though realizing them would take awhile as I would first have to buy a stove, I guess wood to burn in it, and a house to put it in).

This in turn put me in mind of dental floss, the cost of which has long been a personal pet peeve. What is the stuff spun by eunuch silkworms? It's THREAD, for heaven's sake! Tell me three hundred yards doesn't cost about .00008 cents! Tell me the inventor of Glide isn't sitting in a Frank Lloyd Wright mansion with their own personal in-house dentist, laughing his or her way to the bank while we saw away with our overpriced length of cheap cotton down below...

But it was while trolling the aisles of Rite-Aid recently that an outrageous markup, an unconscionable profit margin, a staggering cost of daily life to which I had hitherto given scant thought was borne in upon me. I refer of course to toilet paper. $8.69 plus (almost10%) tax for 12 rolls of Simplify, the cheapest brand on the shelf. Are they hand-pressing the stuff from Egyptian papyrus?

There has got to be a cheaper way, I thought, and  came right home and googled "industrial toilet paper."  Maybe I could go with those gigantic rolls they have in airports and office buildings, I mused. Of course since your TP wouldn't fit in a regular holder you'd just have to let it sit there on the floor dripping water on it as you got out of the shower and also, if someone came to visit, reveal you're insane, but I've gone to greater lengths than that to save a buck.

Anyway, who knew there's a whole world out there of janitorial supplies? On Cleanit, for example, you can buy 60 rolls of Scott Extra Soft for $48.86, 10 4-packs of Charmin Ultra Soft for $36.94, or--this last really caught my eye--24 rolls of Windsoft 2-ply "Recycled" for $11.76.

I must say, though, the description gave me pause: "Premium wrapper adds an upscale touch to any facility. Brighter and whiter...Safe for sewer and septic systems. Individually wrapped...Softer and more absorbent toilet tissue provides 'at-home quality'. Meets EPA guidelines for post-consumer content. 40% post-consumer waste content"...

"Post-consumer waste content"? Is it made from other people's...? GROSS! Probably all TP is, and probably half our food, but if so I REALLY don't want to know. More to the point, 60 rolls of Scott weigh 16 pounds and cost $9.90 UPS ground to ship, thereby more or less offsetting any savings.

Again, Mother Teresa was ahead of the curve as apparently people in India often just use their hand.

I'm not quite ready for that. But I did happen upon the wikipedia entry for toilet paper which is highly entertaining and contains some atypical "personal opinion"; to wit: "Toilet paper is a soft paper product (tissue paper) used to maintain personal hygiene after human defecation or urination. However, it can also be used for other purposes such as blowing one's nose when one has a cold or absorbing common spills around the house, although paper towels are more used for this particular purpose."

What??! People don't use toilet paper to absorb common spills! They use their shirt sleeve or the hem of their hoodie!

Anyway, you can also learn on this wiki entry about hygiene during the Tang Dynasty; the use of wool, hemp, lace (!), sand, seaweed, and corncobs as TP substitutes; ply, pattern, dispensers, and the Whole World Toilet Paper Museum.

So there's my latest budget-tip foray, writing about which was much, MUCH more fun than looking for a job.

Here's a money-making idea: "Art" prints.
This one is called Two Desiccated Leaves on an Oil-Stained Sidewalk
Two Leaves and a Sneaker
Call the Ambulance 

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Jane Brox grew up in Massachusetts' Merrimac Valley, now lives in Maine and has written a number of wonderful books (Here and Nowhere Else; Five Thousand Days Like This One), the most recent being Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light

She starts out like this:

"Although fire has blazed in hearths and flared from pine torches for half a million years, the earliest known stone lamps--fashioned by Ice Age humans during the Pleistocene--are no more than forty thousand years old...Often the lamps were merely unworked flat slabs of limestone, or limestone with natural cavities for the nubs of tallow--animal fat--that had to be replenished every hour...

Eighteen thousand years ago, while above [the cave painters at Lascaux] herds funneled through valleys on their way to the plains near the coast, people ventured far beyond the reach of day--working their way down through stone corridors and twisting through narrows--to draw from memory on the limestone walls and ceilings"...[In 1960, explorers discovered] "a spoon-shaped lamp carved of red sandstone...The lamp possesses a refined beauty: its maker created a perfectly symmetrical bowl, polished the sandstone smooth, and incised the handle with chevrons...Hold it again as it once was held, and the animals will emerge out of the darkness as you pass. Nothing stays still. Shadows nestle in the cavities; a flicker of light across pale protruding rock turns a hoof or raises a head. One shape recedes as another emerges, and everything lingers in the imagination."

She moves up through wicks (originally made of juniper twigs or moss), candles, lanterns ("Time of Dark Streets"), lighthouses, and gaslight.  

Way back in the day, streets were perpetually dark, allowing thiefs, hustlers, and prostitutes to roam freely, and also affording cover for the private emotions that play over our faces and eyes when we know nobody's looking. Artificial light changed all that:

"Gaslight also transformed the crowds walking the streets: darting eyes, staring eyes, averted hooded eyes; myriad sounds and colors; confinement and freedom—all became illuminated. What was a walker but “a kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness” [quoting Baudelaire], according the street a soul, according it the power to take one’s own away?"

From anthropologist Walter Hough: “The Eskimo have no phrase expressing a greater degree of misery than ‘a woman without a lamp.’ After the death of a woman her lamp is placed upon her grave.”

photo: National Film Board of Canada
Here's a little-known fact:

"Historian A. Roger Ekirch discovered that medieval villagers slept in a different way than modern people. Each night, they experienced divided sleep. They would go to bed soon after sundown, sleep for four or five hours—this was called 'first sleep'—and then wake up an hour or two after midnight. Some people inevitably took advantage of the early-morning hours to get out of bed and work: students bent over their books; women did housework they couldn’t get to during the day. Some even visited neighbors or slipped out of the house to steal firewood or rob an orchard. It was a good time for sex. But frequently people would lie quietly in bed, resting or talking, before they fell back into a lighter, dream-filled sleep—called 'second sleep'—that lasted until sunrise. The quiet, free time in the small hours would have been dearly valued in a society where the days were filled with labor and obligation.
Divided sleep, Ekirch notes, began to slip away as artificial light increased"…

I, too, have been experiencing "divided sleep." Good to know that instead of nearing a psychotic break, as I'd feared, I'm simply slowly, inexorably, moving--as in so many other areas of my life--toward the mindset of a medieval villager.

But perhaps nowhere does Brox get more at the "ecstatic truth" of light than in this passage about Van Gogh's The Café Terrace on the Place du ForumArles, at Night:

"The glow of gaslight washes the walls of the café and its canopy roof...[b]ut beyond the terrace, the dark increases quickly, and stars glitter in the gaps between buildings. Present-day astrophysicist Charles Whitney suggests that van Gogh 'has overpopulated the small patch of sky in view of the interference that might be expected from the café lights.' And van Gogh himself once insisted, 'I should be desperate if my figures were correct…I do not want them to be academically correct…My great longing is to learn to make those very incorrectnesses, those deviations, remodelings, changes in reality, so that they may become yes, lies if you like –but truer than literal truth.' ”  

Oh! Those who don’t believe in the sun…are real infidels! 
The sun, light in the darkness, light that brightens nature and people, light that calls the dead from their graves. 
Those who have eyes to see will recognize that all light comes from the same sun.”
--Vincent van Gogh, Letters to Theo

Sunday, October 9, 2011


this is neither tuscan kale nor hmong rapini look-alike but some kind of
super bok choy type foodstuff....
The other morning I was in the shower when suddenly I thought: I bet people wonder what I eat. No? Well, I'm gonna tell ya anyway: Tuscan kale and pasta.

Oh I don't mean every meal! That would leave no room for the spoon-size shredded wheat and raisins or single poached egg on toast for breakfast, nor the salad of 99-cent store spring mix and shaved carrots for lunch, nor the tonnage of dried sweetened mango, roasted almonds, Ak-Mak crackers, French Line plain yogurt, cheese and coffee that sustain me for the rest of the day.

I just mean four or five meals a week, if I get to the Silver Lake Farmer's Market on Saturday, that is, where I purchase a couple of bunches of greens: maybe that Hmong rapini-lookalike with yellow flowers ($1), maybe a Tuscan kale ($1.50). And then Monday (and Wednesday or Thursday) afternoon around 2, after I have feverishly written all morning, working myself into a state of catatonic excitement and/or despair, I proceed as follows--in a way you may or may not be moved to get on board with, too.

First you put on the water for the pasta and cut the greens, just three slashes with a big knife and throw them into a frying pan in which you've heated a generous amount of hot olive oil and saute them over fairly high heat till they start to almost burn a bit. Then you throw on a third or so of a blue, yellow, and white Talavera coffee cup of water and put your housemate's screen thing over the top cause it'll splatter. Meanwhile you mince up a couple of cloves of garlic and three or four anchovies. Now if you're one of those people who when you hear the word "anchovy," respond ECCCHHHH, I will still be your friend, but I really don't know what to say other than that I'll pray for you.

Then you throw in a third of a package or so of linguine or fettucine or penne and, after the water's all absorbed from the saute pan, shove the greens up aside against the far side, heat an additional small puddle of olive oil and saute the garlic and anchovies, mashing up the latter. (You can add some dried hot red pepper here as well. This is from one of the Chez Panisse cookbooks and I think their recipe incorporates red wine vinegar, too, but I don't).

Drain the pasta, put a giant serving in a big bowl, add a little butter, heap on some greens, salt, ground pepper,  if you're feeling flush, which I, for one, have definitely not as of late, grate over some real Parmigiana and if not, sprinkle over some of the vastly inferior but not entirely grotesque shaved Parm or Parmagiana-Romano mixture from Trader Joe's, and Bob's your uncle.

Afterward, I like to take a nice long walk around the hilly streets of Silver Lake, pondering God's infinite bounty and the unsolvable problems of life, heart, and writing that cropped up that day.

In this way, I keep my food bill down to approximately $23.87 a week, leaving lots of spare change for the Sunset Boulevard panhandlers, drunks and psychotics who brighten my existence.

Bon appetit!
You can buy the big can at Jon's (Armenian market) for 6.99!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


A climber "enjoying the superb glue-like ice
smeared over the Glen Nevis Mica Schist " [Scotland], 2/3/2010
Now HE needs a friend!
photo: Rob Jarvis
“New Atheist” Sam Harris tells the story of a scientist who, while hiking in the Cascade Mountains, came upon a frozen waterfall and was so overwhelmed that the next morning he fell “to his knees in the dewy grass” and gave himself to Jesus. “That’s psychotic,” was Harris’s response. My response was: Come on, Sam, bad poetry doesn’t make a person psychotic!

I thought, Oh Sam, you have never done anything you were really ashamed of. You have never needed to be forgiven. You have never despaired of your own faults…
I've often maintained I became a Catholic because I was looking for the truth, but maybe the real reason I became a Catholic was that I needed a friend. When your ship is going down, you don’t need a person “engaged in the rational pursuit of evidence-based spiritual knowledge”: you need a friend. When your car has just crashed—and as a human being, my car has always just crashed, or is about to—you don’t need a “New Atheist”: you need a friend.

I wonder if the hunger to have a friend and to be a friend, in fact, is not the basis of all true religion. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends…I have called you friends,” Christ said. (John 15: 13-15).  As a Catholic, that’s what I’m really saying. I'm saying, Christ laid down his life for me, and I want to be willing to lay down mine back. I'm saying, Help me be willing to lay down mine back, because I’m so out for myself, so cowardly, so weak. I'm saying, Help me be a good friend, because I so easily forget that everyone else wants a friend, too.
Here’s the truly Good News of Jesus: I don’t hate myself anymore, and I don’t hate you. Every time I come across a rant by this Hitchens fellow, for example (who is dying, which is hard and sad), I want to say, “Chris baby, put down the booze and come join the human race!” Harris is the same way, without even the booze as a redeeming factor: no sense of humor and a bully. That’s no life. Believe, wrestle, doubt, rail, or disbelieve as you please, that goes without saying, but whatever you believe, it’s got to at least give you the balls to do work you love, and make you marginally happy to the point where, if nothing else, you can laugh at yourself.

Anybody can laugh at other people--which, to maintain the proper tone of affection, is of course always best done in the presence of the person who's the butt of the joke.

But to be able to laugh at yourself--that's "God."

Alone in my cell....
"Even then my life was gloomy, untidy, and barbarously solitary. I had no friends, and even avoided
speaking to people, retreating further and further into my corner"...
--Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground