Saturday, December 31, 2011

HAPPY NEW YEAR


2012. I like it. Like the look, like the sound. Clean, alliterative.

Now 2011...no, seriously, 2011 was a stellar year--like all of them...

Not least of all because it was the first full year of my beloved blog. First off, I cannot possibly overemphasize my gratification at the caliber of my readers so could you all, right here, take a huge bow?

I never wanted to do any such thing as invite cheap hits by fomenting useless discussion, vitriolic argument and marketplace Catholicism. Tabloid is tabloid, and I take great pride that if you want to gossip about Fr. Corapi, Fr. Pavone, the inner Vatican, etc. etc. you're not even gonna find that stuff here. I never wanted to hitch my wagon to a cause, or promote my work by purporting to be on the right "side" of anything. I wanted to write about mystery and wonder and paradox and suffering and love and books and ideas and Christ and I have.

And you all have come. You are a major part of my inscape, an impetus, an inspiration, an encouragement, a challenge, and a collective (and sometimes individual) ethical/moral/spiritual guide. I can't tell you how many times during the week I think, Oh I can put that in the blog, or Oh what a beautiful branch, bird, piece of garbage, where's my camera, or Oh I wanted to thank that person for the comment he/she left two days ago...

I learned a lot. I learned that while in one way I am sharing some of my deepest self, I can't "just be myself," because if I were just myself I'd be a whole hell of a lot ruder. Oh the clever, biting retorts I have squelched! Oh, the biting retort I regretted later. Still, I also learned that I can't both write the blog and be everybody's best friend (not that everybody, trust me, wants to be). Nobody would ask their plumber friend, Hey after you work all day would you mind coming over to my house and fixing my toilet, sink and shower while I sit on the side of the tub with a beer and share my soul/tell you my troubles/explain why I think you're wrong and I'm right? Much as I adore sharing souls, stories, troubles, and points-of-view, that's what people are asking when they propose an ONGOING e-mail correspondence. People sometimes say to me: You write just like you talk! Which may or may not be true (or a compliment), but however I write, it is 24/7 mule work. Not that I'd for the world do anything else, but what you see is pretty much all I have.



I feel called to get up on my soapbox every so often and that is a thing, too. I dread and abhor conflict and yet I am somehow compelled to invite it to a certain extent. I have lost many, many nights of sleep worrying about whether I am in error, whether I'm being a jerk, whether I'm being unfair, whether I'm trying to win a useless battle. By the time I've written a post, it turns out, I've pretty much said all I have to say on the subject for the moment. I've discovered when angry or tired I'm liable to completely mis-read the point and tone of a comment and several times have spent an hour or two crafting a reply only to realize afterward I'd engaged in pointless overkill. Restraint of tongue and pen--let the other person have his or her say, within reason, and that is a process of discernment, too.

Again, I feel incredibly fortunate to have either not drawn in the first place, or to have nipped in the bud, the kind of folks who want to argue for the sake of arguing. And I also actually have made a few new friends, which is of course a treasure.

A blog is a strange phenomenon. You get to "know" people you've never met; people whom you have no idea what they look like or how they conduct themselves in "real life." A blog is probably tailor-made for someone like me: a lonely introvert. People get invested in being part of a community--that is part of the beauty of it--and yet we're all like nomads, or pilgrims, and blind-folded pilgrims at that...questing, seeking, stumbling, weighing in, doing the best we can by each other.

Speaking of which, my goal this year is to not only do better by others, but better by myself. I'm gonna turn 60--60, for the love of all that is holy!--this year and it's occurring to me, really, maybe it is time to get a comfortable desk, a decent pair of shoes in which to walk miles every day, an eye exam (I did that once; now I have to do it again?) I lack for nothing but for years I have driven myself really kind of mercilessly, writing, writing, writing, the books, the essays, now the blog, driving cross country and back twice, reading, thinking, going to Mass, corresponding, traveling, speaking, did I say writing?

In one way I live like everyone else and in another...yesterday morning, for instance, someone said to me, "You should try this restaurant down the street," and I thought, Are you kidding? I can't afford to eat out...Or I'll go over to someone's house and they'll have three kinds of tea and I'm like, Oh WOW, look at all the stuff you have! I have a taste for austerity which is not a bad thing and is probably not going to change. But--well, for instance, I once couldn't stand the noise from the neighbors next door while I was trying to work so I got the bright idea to haul in the patio table from the balcony, this round glass patio table with a wrought-iron chair I'd bought at the Salvation Army, and set it up in the corner of the living room and put all my stuff, my papers and pens and stapler and so forth on the piano seat and the printer behind the sofa.

Just for the day was the plan, and I ended up writing there for three or four years.

Just never moved, never tried to make things any more convenient or comfortable. I don't know what that is. I'm not a slob really, I'll keep things fairly neat and organized; I just can't stand to take time out, to go shopping, to make decisions. So I guess that's called impatience, plus I don't like to spend money, but maybe it's time. I'll be very concerned that certain other people are comfortable but undergo weird kinds of discomfort myself. As Jesus said, "Love your neighbor as yourself" and there is something very very deep there. Nobody is gonna love us for us--that's our responsibility. Plus I'm old, practically! So hold the door for me, already, and I am so looking forward to any and all senior discounts.

I also think about dying a lot.

So let's continue to be kind to each other cause you never know when you're celebrating the last Christmas, the last New Year's, the last time you see your mother, or your brother or sister, or your spouse, or your kid, or your friend. I took a last 2011 walk around my neighborhood Tuesday night, thinking of what a rich, full year it had been.

And 2012 will have its own richness.

Or as my friend Terry Carr wrote last night: "Not a bad year, but I'm cutting it loose regardless. Clean house. Make way for the new."

LOVE!!!....




THE SUN GOES DOWN ON 2011...
"LORD, I HAVE LOVED THE BEAUTY OF THY HOUSE,
AND THE PLACE WHERE THY GLORY DWELLETH"...

Thursday, December 29, 2011

MY SPIRIT REJOICES IN GOD MY SAVIOR: GUEST POST BY FR. SALVATORE J. ROSA

CHRISTMAS DINNER 2011
HERE'S WHAT MY SPIRIT REJOICES IN!
NOT ONE OF US PASSED OUT IN THE HAM...
Welp I have made it to Palm Springs, on which more later, and I am taking full advantage of the Octave of Christmas to rest on my laurels and put up other people's writings: first Tolstoy, soon a wonderful piece on the feelings/emotions of plants, and today the good Fr. Salvatore J. Rosa.

Fr. Rosa is a friend I met online earlier in the year through my blog and helped a bit with some of his (very good, as you will see) essays. This is just one of many such incisive reflections he has turned out in the past months.

“My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

It amazes me that Mary is able to say those words. No, that is not accurate. What amazes me is not that she can say them, but mean them. I can easily say them, but I do not mean them, not even a little. Why? The answer is easy: I am much too self-absorbed to rejoice in God, or rejoice in being saved by God. Rejoice in God my Savior? No. I don’t like the fact that I need to be saved, neither by God, nor by anyone has He chosen to use as his instrument.

What does my spirit rejoice in? It rejoices in me: in my mental prowess, my intelligence, my wit, my ability to crack jokes; in my perceptions, my feelings, my judgment, my intuitions. I rejoice in the little world I inhabit. Everything is only and always about me.

Maybe a good way to sum up this up is to say that I limit myself to finding joy in my Comfort Zone. The CZ is like a cocoon that encloses me, a plastic bubble that keeps me cosseted and complacent. I do my best never to step outside of it, and never to let anything unpleasant inside it. The littlest things take on a great importance in the CZ. Sitting in my lounge chair, sipping a cup of coffee, reading (maybe even praying) the Breviary, thinking about the Gospel from the mass of the day, waddling/ambling/walking to the bathroom to use the toilet, shower and shave, listening to NPR radio while I get dressed, making a mental list of things to be done during the day….. Those things are all easily done within my CZ.

Then comes the moment that upsets the applecart: the morning Mass at 8:00am. So much happens to pull me out of myself. The other priests are there at mass, concelebrating from their seats, in a small semi-circle. Some are deafer than others (once in a while a hearing aid battery squeals or whistles). Some are more asleep than awake. Each one of us is an incarnation of idiosyncrasies that age has frozen into place. Almost of us are on automatic pilot, mumbling responses and words by rote memory. There are five or six seminarians in the house since it is vacation time and these men cannot travel to Poland, Vietnam, or Ghana for Christmas. Several of them will be at Mass too. I wonder what kind of example we are to them, what they get out of going to Mass with us who are retired, at the end of the ministry road that they are just starting to walk on. We cannot be very inspiring to them. Do they see their future when they look at us? Probably not: the Comfort Zones of youth are too filled with dreams and fantasy to admit the reality of old age.

I make my bow and pray to the Blessed Sacrament. It doesn’t matter too much if I am the principal celebrant or one of the concelebrants. In any case, I run the risk of getting pulled out of myself into God’s world. All I have to do is listen to the Gospel, listen to the prayers of the Mass, and experience my oneness with everyone there, my solidarity with them. I am one more man, one more priest around the altar, eating the Meal that turns our individual worlds inside out and upside down. If, of course, I let the Mass do that to me. I can block the word out, the prayers, the meaning of the eating and drinking. I can ignore what I am taking into me, what I am taken into. I can do it all on automatic pilot, within my CZ. But it gets more and more difficult to do that. The Word keeps sneaking in, into my consciousness, calling me to get beyond myself, to see more than me and my petty concerns. The new English wording of the Mass also rattles me. It makes me focus, it makes me concentrate on the meaning of what I am saying and doing, it calls me to be attentive and reverent. I suppose it is a blessing I don’t know the new English translation well enough yet to go through the whole Mass half asleep.

Everything conspires to make me center myself on Christ, make Him my center, realize He is The Center, mine and everyone else’s. I enter a new dimension at Mass, the world of Grace, of relationship with the Divine, not the Divine that transcends us and is way above us, but the Divine that breaks into my little world, the Divine-human, the Divine that makes all our little worlds part of Him. The Incarnate Word, the Word-made-flesh-made- Bread, the Bread that consecrates us, cracks our Comfort Zones, pulls us out of them and transforms us into his Body, his people. Of course, He does it gently, patiently, continually, gradually, mercifully, because we all resist His efforts. We easily forget what He calls us to remember, we easily get back into our CZs once Mass is over, and step out of the world He has made us a part of. We return to the small world we came from.

Within a few minute of the Mass, I am back to rejoicing in myself. But sometimes not. Sometimes while the moment lasts, I see myself and everyone else as part of Christ’s Body. This perspective comes out in the way I talk, joke, try to be helpful and so forth, but more often than not, I slip back into my Comfort Zone. I rejoice in the food I eat, the scotch I drink, the nuts I munch on, the conversations I have, the battle of wits I win, the superiority I display. In the books I read, the TV programs I watch, the movies I see, the music I listen to, I rejoice in whatever will keep me amused and entertained so that I do not have to face how much I need saving, how much I need God to break through my self-absorption and save me.

I rejoice in hiding my awareness of my self-absorption from myself. I do not rejoice in acknowledging my neediness. I rejoice in everything that enables me to block out my weakness, my limitations, my co-dependence, my sins, my very real poverty... I work very hard to hide from myself how much I need saving.

I rejoice in good a good night’s sleep, the hours I pass in the Internet, the relationships I have with so many good people. I rejoice in my power to control and manipulate them, and in the illusion that I am in control of them and of myself. In the way I can get people to like me, to do what I want, to thank me and praise me, I rejoice in the recognition I receive, the applause.

I rejoice in feeling needed by them, in their need of me and dependence on me. I rejoice in my pension and savings, in having enough money to feel secure and safe for the foreseeable future.

I rejoice that I am able to block out whatever would pull me out of myself and make me feel uncomfortable or insecure. I rejoice in the lies I tell myself so I don’t have to face how needy I am. I rejoice in my ability to keep myself so hectic and distracted that I do not have to face the fact that I am headed towards death. I rejoice that I don’t have to face the ultimate things that are staring me in the face, that I am able to ignore them even though they just won’t go away.

I rejoice in anything and everything that will help me to hold on to the status quo even though it slips through my fingers as I grasp at it.

Mary, help me not to be so self-absorbed. Help me to get beyond myself. Give me the grace to embrace your Son, to trust Him, love Him, entrust myself to Him. Help me see that He cannot save me if I do not let Him break through my Ego Bubble and accept Him as Lord even of my self-centered life. Make me see that only He can save me from my self-absorption. Help me to give him more than lip service. In your trust you opened every part of you to the God who humbly brings his life into our flesh. He made you part of Him by making Himself part of you. Make me aware of His presence. Move me out of my Comfort Zone and into his world. Bless me with your trust in your Son so He can become the center of my life. Enable me to rejoice in Him.

Mary, this Christmas please give me the one gift I so need but in no way deserve: grant me an awareness of His Presence, His Presence in you, in the Eucharist, in me, in everyone else. Help me to see that His Birth contains and embraces His Death and explodes into His Resurrection. Help me to realize that He is part of all humanity and my humanity, present in all I am and do, in all we are and do. All I go through is caught up in who He is, from my birth to death, my rebirth in glory. Bless me at every moment with an awareness of the Mystery Present so that at any moment I might let His new life come forth from me in a smile, a gesture, a prayer, a word, responding to his Presence in those around me. Make the new me He is shaping at every moment bubble forth with the joy of His Presence. Amen.



CASBAH CAFE, SILVER LAKE, CALIFORNIA
SCENE OF FREQUENT "VISITATIONS"
BETWEEN ME AND MY FRIEND JULIA 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

TOLSTOY'S RESURRECTION


Whoa, hi people. Here we are, or here I am anyway, having reached December 27th. I feel like all of Advent I sort of laid my head on Christ's breast, like St. John the Evangelist, whose feast it is today, at the Last Supper....

Anyway, I had a grand Christmas, the high point of which was morning Mass, where I sobbed like a child, followed by a day of cooking and some hard-core eating with my beloved friends. Like the miracle of the loaves and fishes, there were baskets of tri-tip, ham, salmon and sweets left over, which I have actually distributed rather than hoarding, as is my wont. Ten pounds of ham would daunt even me, though I did reserve the bone which will make a splendid split pea soup...

Tomorrow I'm heading out to Palm Springs to house-sit for my friend Christine till January 9th and find myself weirdly, tipsily excited. I'm also working on the manuscript of Stripped, my "cancer book," which requires deep concentration. So having just re-read Tolstoy's last novel, Resurrectionand having remembered that it helped me make the decision, almost twenty years ago now, to quit my job as a lawyer, I think to offer a few excerpts.

I was in civil litigation, not criminal law, but what struck me then, and strikes me with even more force now, is that the constraints of any system based on justice rather than mercy--as all worldly systems perhaps must be (you philosophers will have worked this out)--hold true across the board...

From Chapter XLIV: Book One
It is usually imagined that a thief, a murderer, a spy, a prostitute, acknowledging his or her profession as evil, is ashamed of it. But the contrary is true. People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. In order to keep up their view of life, these people instinctively keep to the circle of those people who share their views of life and their own place in it. This surprises us, where the persons concerned are thieves, bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murderers boasting of their cruelty. This surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere in which these people live, is limited, and we are outside it. But can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth, i.e., robbery; the commanders in the army pride themselves on victories, i.e., murder; and those in high places vaunt their power, i.e., violence? We do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people, only because the circle formed by them is more extensive, and we ourselves are moving inside of it.

From Chapter XIX: Book Two
The man on whom depended the easing of the fate of the Petersburg prisoners was an old General of repute--a baron of German descent, who, as it was said of him, had outlived his wits. He had received a profusion of orders, but only wore one of them, the Order of the White Cross. He had received this order, which he greatly valued, while serving in the Caucasus, because a number of Russian peasants, with their hair cropped, and dressed in uniform and armed with guns and bayonets, had killed at his command more than a thousand men who were defending their liberty, their homes, and their families. Later on he served in Poland, and there also made Russian peasants commit many different crimes, and got more orders and decorations for his uniform. Then he served somewhere else, and now that he was a weak, old man he had this position, which insured him a good house, an income and respect. He strictly observed all the regulations which were prescribed "from above," and was very zealous in the fulfilment of these regulations, to which he ascribed a special importance, considering that everything else in the world might be changed except the regulations prescribed "from above." His duty was to keep political prisoners, men and women, in solitary confinement in such a way that half of them perished in 10 years' time, some going out of their minds, some dying of consumption, some committing suicide by starving themselves to death, cutting their veins with bits of glass, hanging, or burning themselves to death.

The old General was not ignorant of this; it all happened within his knowledge; but these cases no more touched his conscience than accidents brought on by thunderstorms, floods, etc. These cases occurred as a consequence of the fulfilment of regulations prescribed "from above" by His Imperial Majesty. These regulations had to be carried out without fail, and therefore it was absolutely useless to think of the consequences of their fulfilment. The old General did not even allow himself to think of such things, counting it his patriotic duty as a soldier not to think of them for fear of getting weak in the carrying out of these, according to his opinion, very important obligations. Once a week the old General made the round of the cells, one of the duties of his position, and asked the prisoners if they had any requests to make. The prisoners had all sorts of requests. He listened to them quietly, in impenetrable silence, and never fulfilled any of their requests, because they were all in disaccord with the regulations.


From Chapter XXX: Book Two
He asked a very simple question: "Why, and with what right, do some people lock up, torment, exile, flog, and kill others, while they are themselves just like those whom they torment, flog, and kill?" And in answer he got deliberations as to whether human beings had free will or not. Whether signs of criminality could be detected by measuring the skulls or not. What part heredity played in crime. Whether immorality could be inherited. What madness is, what degeneration is, and what temperament is. How climate, food, ignorance, imitativeness, hypnotism, or passion act. What society is. What are its duties, etc., etc.

These disquisitions reminded him of the answer he once got from a little boy whom he met coming home from school. Nekhludoff asked him if he had learned his spelling.

"I have," answered the boy.

"Well, then, tell me, how do you spell 'leg'?

"A dog's leg, or what kind of leg?" the boy answered, with a sly look.

Answers in the form of new questions, like the boy's, was all Nekhludoff got in reply to his one primary question. He found much that was clever, learned much that was interesting, but what he did not find was an answer to the principal question: By what right some people punish others?

Not only did he not find any answer, but all the arguments were brought forward in order to explain and vindicate punishment, the necessity of which was taken as an axiom. Nekhludoff read much, but only in snatches, and putting down his failure to this superficial way of reading, hoped to find the answer later on. He would not allow himself to believe in the truth of the answer which began, more and more often, to present itself to him.


From Chapter XL: Part Two
"Perhaps it is necessary to pave the banks with stones, but it is sad to look at the ground, which might be yielding corn, grass, bushes, or trees in the same way as the ground visible up there is doing--deprived of vegetation, and so it is with men," thought Nekhludoff. "Perhaps these governors, inspectors, policemen, are needed, but it is terrible to see men deprived of the chief human attribute, that of love and sympathy for one another. The thing is," he continued, "that these people consider lawful what is not lawful, and do not consider the eternal, immutable law, written in the hearts of men by God, as law. That is why I feel so depressed when I am with these people. I am simply afraid of them, and really they are terrible, more terrible than robbers. A robber might, after all, feel pity, but they can feel no pity, they are inured against pity as these stones are against vegetation. That is what makes them terrible. It is said that the Pougatcheffs, the Razins [leaders of rebellions in Russia: Stonka Razin in the 17th and Pougatcheff in the 18th century] are terrible. These are a thousand times more terrible," he continued, in his thoughts.

"If a psychological problem were set to find means of making men of our time--Christian, humane, simple, kind people--perform the most horrible crimes without feeling guilty, only one solution could be devised: to go on doing what is being done. It is only necessary that these people should he governors, inspectors, policemen; that they should be fully convinced that there is a kind of business, called government service, which allows men to treat other men as things, without human brotherly relations with them, and also that these people should be so linked together by this government service that the responsibility for the results of their actions should not fall on any one of them separately. Without these conditions, the terrible acts I witnessed to-day would be impossible in our times. It all lies in the fact that men think there are circumstances in which one may deal with human beings without love; and there are no such circumstances. One may deal with things without love. One may cut down trees, make bricks, hammer iron without love; but you cannot deal with men without it, just as one cannot deal with bees without being careful. If you deal carelessly with bees you will injure them, and will yourself be injured. And so with men. It cannot be otherwise, because natural love is the fundamental law of human life. It is true that a man cannot force another to love him, as he can force him to work for him; but it does not follow that a man may deal with men without love, especially to demand anything from them. If you feel no love, sit still," Nekhludoff thought; "occupy yourself with things, with yourself, with anything you like, only not with men. You can only eat without injuring yourself when you feel inclined to eat, so you can only deal with men usefully when you love. Only let yourself deal with a man without love, as I did yesterday with my brother-in-law, and there are no limits to the suffering you will bring on yourself, as all my life proves. Yes, yes, it is so," thought Nekhludoff; "it is good; yes, it is good," he repeated, enjoying the freshness after the torturing heat, and conscious of having attained to the fullest clearness on a question that had long occupied him.

LEO TOLSTOY,
1828-1910

Sunday, December 25, 2011

MY CHRISTMAS JOKE

SUNRISE ON THE MEKONG, DECEMBER, 2011
PHOTO: MY FRIEND ELLEN MUGAR, SENT BY IPAD THIS MORNING

MERRRY CHRISTMAS, BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE!

I have spent the quietest or I should say most contemplative Advent this year in my own personal history. I can't say I'm any the worse for wear though I'm not sure I'm any much the better either. (I will keep searching for The Formula...)

It's been interesting, however, to spend many hours truly not 'doing' anything, not even speed-reading, reflecting, madly writing notes on my yellow legal pad, sticking Post-Its all over everything, copying down quotes, answering every email with a LONG email of my own, and/or consciously, or at too much length, pondering the Gospels. Although the Gospels seep in anyway, thank the Lord, as what would I want to seep in more? For instance, thinking of the dinner I'll cook and host today, I suddenly thought of Christ at the Last Supper. You think you have family members/friends who drive you crazy (not that I do of course)--how would you like to have at your last meal on earth Judas, the guy you knew was going to momentarily narc you out to the people who would torture you to death?...

But MERRY Christmas, and I received two beautiful packages in the mail yesterday, one from my friend Dylan back in Arlington, Massachusetts: an icon with the legend Cor ad cor loquitur (Heart speaks to heart), and one from the angelic Rozann Carter of Word on Fire full of little  hand-labeled packages of fancy sweets, and how nice is that?  I had a lovely chat with my brother Ross and my nephew Allen back in New Hampshire. I took a walk yesterday afternoon through the hills of Silver Lake with my friend Ellen, timing it so as to arrive at St. Francis at 5 for the Vigil Mass, except it turned out I'd misread/heard and the Mass was at 7 so I'll go this morning at 8 instead, then start cooking in earnest.

Ham, tri-tip, spicy salmon, squash soup, Tuscan sausage, cabbage and cheese, roasted root vegetables, apple, Asian pear and radicchio salad with buttermilk dressing, cherry pie (made from scratch), and maple bourbon frozen souffle is my menu (much of it to be made and brought by others or I wouldn't be going to any 8 o'clock Mass this morning).

ALSO, walking home with the last of my groceries Friday, I found in a pile of discarded clothing on the lawn of my neighbor two doors down, a black silk skirt with magenta lining that I nabbed post-haste, fits perfectly,  and I will wear for dinner today.

A child is born.

Thank you all, love to you all for the huge gift of yourselves on this great and holy feast. And here's a Christmas joke for ya.  


First, you have to understand the kind of family I come from. You know how most people in a “gift exchange” set a maximum, as in, say, Nothing over 50 bucks? Well in my family we tended to have to set a minimum, as in, Come ON, you have to fork out at least 5...

Anyway, when I was married there used to be this great store up on La Brea Avenue near West Hollywood called Bargain Circus. Russians ran it, I'm pretty sure, and they had all kinds of great "specialty foods" for dirt cheap. So every Christmas my ex-husband Tim and I would take separate trips there and buy a big bag apiece of food and wrap the stuff up for our stockings. It was a blast, especially as we both liked to cook. We bought regular presents, too, but we also did the stockings first, and it was really the best part of Christmas morning. 

Well one year we got invited for Christmas dinner to some friends of Tim's who lived in Beverly Hills. The guy was in real estate, very nice couple, but with money obviously. So we get over there and the guy had bought his wife a diamond tennis bracelet and she'd bought him a Mercedes SUV, and after awhile they asked, "So what did YOU two get each other?"

"Oh all kinds of things!” I replied eagerly. “A tin of anchovies. A bottle of capers. A box of kasha"....Silence-- then finally "K-kasha?" the husband echoed. 

"Oh that's not all," I assured him. "Then there was the small stuff."

ICON AND SKIRT

Friday, December 23, 2011

THE CHRISTMAS THAT ALMOST WASN'T

THESE PIX ARE FROM ANOTHER CHRISTMAS
THAN THE ONE THAT ALMOST WASN'T.
THESE ARE FROM THE YEAR THE SINK KEPT STOPPING UP.

MY FRIEND MAUDIE AND ME
IN THE KITCHEN
RON S. BY THE MANTEL
AREN'T THEY PRECIOUS,  MY PALS?
CARD BY ARTIST EXTRAORDINAIRE
MAUD SIMMONS
One Christmas morning several years ago, at my old apartment in Koreatown, I woke in the dark, as I tend to do this time of year, and sat for a bit, basking in the little colored lights and drinking coffee. The furniture was dusted, the mirrors polished, the floors vacuumed. There were long red tapers on either side of the fireplace and a 138-dollar standing rib roast in the fridge.  Christian, the friend I’d commandeered to cook the meat—and of course stay for dinner—would arrive in a few hours. Ten were coming to dinner and it was all going to work out perfectly.

First, though, I had to bake my pear cake, so I finished my coffee, pre-heated the oven to 350, and began assembling the ingredients. Suddenly I realized I should have been feeling a current of warm air. I pressed my hand against the glass of the oven door: ice cold. The pilot was lit, but no gas was flowing in.  I opened the warming oven and fooled around with the little red button: no dice. I fooled around with the knob: no dice. I took the shelves out of the oven and tried to light the oven manually, no dice. I called the gas company, where the woman who answered told me I could make a repair appointment for January 5th. I took a deep breath, walked very slowly into the living room, sat down on the couch, and put my head in my hands.

THE OLD O'KEEFE AND MERRITT
I SOLD IT WHEN I MOVED 
After awhile I got up. I tried the landlord and my ex-husband: no answer. The stove was an old O’Keefe and Merritt gas range, so I started googling: O’Keefe and Merritt, gas oven troubleshooting, gas oven won’t light. All that came up was a bunch of complicated diagrams, so I waited till 7 and called Christian. “Why don’t I just bring the stuff up here?” Christian sighed. So he angelically drove down and we hauled everything out to his car: the 14-pound roast, the potatoes, garlic, carrots, mushrooms, parsnips and turnips, the baster, the beef broth.

What of my pear cake, though? The one with the caramelized brown sugar “crust,” the hint of corn meal?   I called my friend Joe, another prospective guest, to report the hideous turn events had taken. “Come on up,” he said. “We’ll cook it at my place.”

One challenge remained: the Yorkshire pudding, which was to be cooked at the last minute and presented at the table. I called my downstairs neighbor Emil but having already helped decorate my apartment, he was holiday-compassioned-out and snapped (which I knew was a lie), “My oven’s broken, too”. Everyone else in the compound was out of town except Oscar. I called and pleaded, “Do you think I could use your oven for twenty minutes later this afternoon?” Oscar’s apartment, I happened to know, was packed to the rafters with bird cages, tapestries, chandeliers. “Hold on, Miss Heather,” he replied. “I’ll have to take out all the stuff I have stored in there and see if it works,” he replied.

There were more snafus. I overbaked the cake. One guest called to say she’d had a panic attack and been hospitalized. By the time Christian had hauled down the roast and the Yorkshire pudding had been cooked—in Oscar's  oven—dinner was two hours late.

But in the end, things all worked out. We lit every candle in the house. We had a toast. Everything was delicious, or delicious enough. The anxiety has faded. What remains is the memory that my plan got derailed, but that there was another plan; that things almost fell apart, but miraculously came together.

I wonder if Mary and Joseph didn’t feel the same way, gazing down at the baby Jesus in the manger—which, after all, means “to eat.”

THE CRUCIFIXION,
GIOTTO, c. 1300
Thank you, thank you all, for your readership, reflections, comments, and LOVE!!!
May a child be perpetually reborn in each of us...
I'm cooking again Sunday--
And Merry Christmas 2011...

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

CHRISTMAS GREETINGS FROM A WEST VIRGINIA HOLLER...

THE STRAW-BALE CHAPEL
Twice now--once for five days in the fall of 2007, and last year, for roughly the month of July--I've spent time with contemplative Jeanne McNulty at the Franciscan Appalachian Hermitage in Spencer, West Virginia. Jeanne rents out cabins for twenty bucks a night and has a straw bale chapel that houses the Blessed Sacrament and is an all-around good egg/woman-of-deep-faith/treasure. 

I wrote about last year's stay in a previous post

And the other day, I received (along with Jeanne's many other friends) her annual Christmas card. I was in a bit of a jumpy, nasty mood and Jeanne brought me right around, and I'm thinking she may you, too. So with her permission, I pass on the first couple of paragraphs and if you're ever in Spencer, by all means check out the Hermitage. 

The donkey drawing is by William Kurelek (who was schizophrenic and entitled one of his most well-known paintings I Spit on Life) and comes from a Christmas card that was designed years ago for Catherine de Hueck Doherty's Madonna House

"The donkey that carried Our Lady to Bethlehem took another form in my thoughts.  For he carried the Word-a dumb animal, carrying a Virgin

who carried God…" (Catherine Daugherty) Dec. 2011



Merry Christmas !


This picture captures so much mystery:  the silence, the profundity, the obscurity and the simplicity of God's descent to human kind.  I think that the picture too speaks of journeying thru the desolate places and many of us have been on long lifetime journeys now.  We've crossed over many peaks and valleys and have felt the comforting, guiding hand of Providence in our lives.  We've seen God's wonderful "past performance" and marveled at it.  We are enabled to pass this "Good News" forward with confidence to the others who are finding their life journeys difficult.

There is not a desert here but there is a pathway through the wilderness and all of nature seems to just be waiting for His second coming to our barren earth.  I try to stay away from all the busyness of the stores and the let the silence penetrate the depths of my being while I hold in my heart before the Lord, all my relatives, friends and all those who have crossed the threshold of this "little portion" on retreat.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

POINSETTIAS ET CETERA

LIQUIDAMBAR TREE
GOLDEN GATE AVENUE
Here are some purty things I saw on the other morning as I walked through the great town of Silver Lake, California.

Those last three are of a poinsettia growing in the front yard of a house across the street and a little down from my place. When I first moved to L.A., I literally believed poinsettias only grew in ten-inch plastic pots wrapped in red or gold tinfoil. No indeedy! They are an actual tree which you tend to see growing in old-fashioned yards in and about the Southland. As you can see, they are beautiful, and to confine them to a tiny pot is at least partway sacrilegious.

BIRDS ON TOP OF ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI CHURCH
NEED I SAY MORE?
"RED-HOT POKERS"
IN THE ALLEY SOUTH OF THE TROPICAL CAFE
YELLOW FLOWER WITH DELICATE PODS



MERRY CHRISTMAS!!

Monday, December 19, 2011

PREPARING FOR CHRISTMAS WITH RICHARD ROHR


"When we demand satisfaction of one another, when we demand any completion to history on our terms, when we demand that our anxiety or any dissatisfaction be taken away, saying as it were, “Why weren’t you this for me?  Why didn’t life do that for me?” we are refusing to say, “Come, Lord Jesus.”  We are refusing to hold out for the full picture that is always given in time by God.

When we set out to seek our private happiness, we often create an idol that is sure to topple.  Any attempts to protect any full and private happiness in the midst of so much public suffering have to be based on illusion about the nature of the world in which we live.  We can only do that if we block ourselves from a certain degree of reality and refuse solidarity with “the other side” of everything, even the other side of ourselves."


--Adapted from Preparing for Christmas with Richard Rohr

L.A. sunsets, in December, tend toward sapphire and apricot. The mornings are cold--the grass wet, the flagstones slippery with dew. The farmer's markets are full of orange persimmons, earthy sweet potatoes, acorn squash with leathery skin the color of evergreen trees. Front yards burst with creamy, lush roses, drooping clusters of scarlet toyon berries, bougainvillea--magenta, fuchsia, imperial purple--flaming so brightly the blooms seem to be lit from within.

It’s 5 a.m. and dead quiet, an hour in which it is easy to imagine the whole city holding its breath. Blue Christmas lights—one rogue pink replacement bulb calling to mind my own imperfections—frame the window behind my chair. Two black pottery angels from Oaxaca hold beeswax candles. The branches of the Brazilian pepper tree rustle and the pewter sky lightens slowly to peach. The garbage truck pulls up and I hear the grinding of gears, the wheeze of the claw, the contents of the upended trash container being poured into the truck’s maw. In another hour, the cat will cry for his breakfast.
            
I open my breviary. I seek your face; your face, Lord, I desire. In the gathering dawn, I sit, bathed in the shadowy blue light, and wait.

THIS IS ACTUALLY DUSK,
BUT THE POINT IS I'VE BEEN SPENDING
A LOT OF TIME IN THE DARK...

Saturday, December 17, 2011

R.I.P. CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS

FR. ALFRED DELP,
1907-1945
"Human nature is so constituted that it must have something holy that it can worship, otherwise it becomes cramped and distorted and instead of a holy object of veneration something else will take its place. I ought to know for I have just emerged from a murderous dialogue with such a self-appointed object of veneration. These substitute values are far more autocratic and demanding than the living God himself. They have no idea of courtesy or of waiting their turn, or of the blissful encounter, of voluntary persuasion, of gracious appeal. All they know is demand, compulsion, force, threats and liquidation. And woe to anyone who does not conform…

The cliché, the label, the uniform, the slogan, the ‘dominant trend of the masses’—these are our rulers. And pity the man who dares to differ, to proclaim his own thoughts or use his own name.

Prayer is our way to freedom and education in the method of prayer is the most valuable service that can be given to mankind. It makes it possible for the temple and the altar to occupy again their rightful place and for humanity to humble itself and measure its responsibilities in the name of God."


--Father Alfred Delp, S.J., condemned, beaten, imprisoned, and executed by the Nazis for the crime of being a Jesuit


Friday, December 16, 2011

AND THE DARKNESS HAS NOT OVERCOME IT



The priest at St. Dominic’s a couple of weeks ago observed that Advent is a penitential season and never have I felt the truth of that more keenly. In particular, I refer to the penance of bearing with my own shortcomings, chief among them trying to be all things to all people and sometimes ending up not being very much to myself or others. In order to be the right kind of martyr (which means “witness”), you have to stop being the wrong kind of martyr and I, for one, constantly have to discern between stretching myself as far as I can go, which I believe we are called to do, and contorting myself, which I don’t think we’re called to do. 

This has everything to do with the suffering of the world at large. Because we are called to love one another as he loved us, and Christ himself was always but always the right kind of martyr and never but never the wrong kind. He frequently told people who wanted to follow him, No, go along back home, you’ll bear more fruit there. He frequently ducked away from the crowds to go to a lonely place to pray. My spiritual director tells me “You are never the person of last resort,” and that is as sure a guide to “being of service” as I can imagine. 

With all that, I have not, thank the Lord, "overdone" Christmas. My holiday activities to date have comprised a Messiah sing-along, a tamale-making party, and a play. Other than that, I have steeped myself in Advent liturgy and prayer, trudged in the dark and the cold to Mass, and spent large parts it seems of every night awake on my bed , pondering the birth of Christ.

Wednesday afternoon I’m going to my friend Julia’s for tea and cookies, Christmas day I’m cooking for my friends, and other than that, I intend to spend the Fourth Week of Advent in as much silence and solitude as I can muster.

The Holy Family was born into darkness and exile and so—though we are called as well to joy—it remains. I can never thank you all enough for the light you bring to me.





Monday, December 12, 2011

WHY I AM FOR LIFE, NOT "PRO-LIFE"

ADOLF HITLER AS AN INFANT
“How lovely it all is!” said Tyltyl, who could not get over his astonishment. “Goodness me, how lovely!...Where are we?”

“We are in the Kingdom of the Future,” said Light, “in the midst of the children who are not yet born. As the diamond allows us to see clearly in this region which is hidden from men, we shall perhaps find the Blue Bird here….Look! Look at the children running up!”

From every side came bands of little children dressed from head to foot in blue; they had beautiful dark or golden hair and they were all exquisitely pretty. They shouted gleefully:

“Live Children!...Come and look at the little Live Children!”

--Georgette Leblanc, from The Children’s Blue Bird, adapted from a play by Maurice Maeterlinck

Call me old-school. Call me churlish. But the practice some folks have of requesting a FB friendship, then, the second you accept, promoting their work and/or political views by putting up a giant post on your wall has always struck me as less than sporting. So when someone I'd never met before did this to me recently, rather than simply deleting the post, I thought to write the person:

Congrats on your [work] and thanks for the FB add....please don't post your own [work]/pro-life stuff on my wall, though....just a personal preference...You're always welcome to send a message of course-all the best and Advent blessings—Heather

Granted, my wording was clumsy: by “preference,” I meant I generally don’t like people posting any self-promotional stuff, or political stuff, on my wall.

This was the message I received in reply.

Apologies and thank you for making this a private message Heather. My pro-life stuff? [My work] could save a baby. I allow people to post decent things on my wall and group wall. My preferences are quite different than yours Heather. Pro-life stuff? God bless.

Two minutes later, when I went to write him back and explain, he’d de-friended me.

The “God bless” that really means “Burn in hell” also strikes me as less than sporting. And though my intent was simply to maintain my own FB page, not to weigh in on the subject of abortion, the whole exchange pointed up exactly why I have always been uneasy with the “pro-life” movement.

If either side had the courage of their convictions, the pro-life people would wear giant buttons of Hitler, Ted Bundy, and Osama bin Laden, saying “We are for all of life and that means criminals, drag queens, meth-heads, serial killers, terrorists and whores,” and the pro-choice people would wear giant buttons of Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Emily Dickinson and Christ, saying “If it were up to us, these people might never have been born.” In fact, the pro-life people seem to be “for” an illusion of life, and the pro-choice people are “for” death.  Have whatever view you want, but have the courage to tell it like it is.



Anyone can be “for” a tiny pair of baby feet, especially if the baby is someone else’s that you don’t have to feed, take care of, get up in the middle of the night for, educate, and morally, emotionally and spiritually guide while, say, earning minimum wage as a single parent. What's way harder is to exercise the same melting tenderness and touching pity toward the mother. Anyone can be “for” an unborn baby. The challenge comes when the baby grows into an adult, as babies tend to do, who is playing loud music, running red lights, seducing your husband, or raping your daughter.

As I ended up writing the FB guy, sending the message through a (kind, and again thank you) mutual friend, I am very much against abortion. Abortion, in view of the fact that I’ve had three myself, is and always will be my central wound. (The guy and I ended up having a short, civil exchange later and I OF COURSE wish him well).

And because I am against abortion, that means to be sure that I am very much for the birth of Hitler. Not for what Hitler did, but for his birth.  I am for the crack baby, the deformed baby, the baby who is going to die before his second birthday and shatter for all time his parents’ hearts, the baby who is going to be abused, the baby who is going to grow up and abuse someone else. I am for the whore, the serial killer, and the meth-head drag queen.

You are either for all of life or you are for none of it. Yes, we are going to suffer. The question is not how to eradicate suffering. Suffering is ineradicable, and all efforts to eradicate it lead inevitably to "final solutions" like ethnic cleansing, enforced sterilization, and genocidal murder. The question is how to creatively bear our suffering without transmitting it to another. If we were truly for life, the conditions whereby souls like Hitler and Ted Bundy and Osama bin Laden are created would no longer exist.

One problem with the term "pro-life" is that it implies that everyone else is anti-life. It tends toward the very unfortunate belief that, as a pro-lifer, you are doing the crusading work of  "saving babies" and everyone else is a base coward. Another is that it is a political movement with an agenda, a massive budget, and a poster child--a "converted," wholesomely hot mother whose wealthy parents are apparently poised to support her and the kid; a 4.0 college student, saved from abortion twenty years before--who invariably seems to be white or very light brown, looks to be from Orange County, California, and has really good teeth.

But the main problem with politicizing abortion, to my mind, is the danger of the goal becoming not sacramentalizing life, but supporting a candidate; not converting hearts, but winning votes; not Christ, but you and your cause. You cannot serve both God and mammon. It's not that speaking out against abortion in a political context doesn't require courage; it's that for me it wouldn't require nearly enough.

What is never going to fly in a political speech is that sex is holy, that the love between a man and a woman is the most precious thing on earth, and that we welcome new life and all life not as Republicans or Democrats but as members of the Mystical Body of Christ. That is the message I'm interested in imparting. That is the message to which I devote my work, my heart, my life. You don't get funding for that. You don't get the backing of a political party for that. You don't get an expense account or health benefits or the support of your like-minded peers; you don't get a platform from which to launch your CD, your book, your blog, your career.

Now I'm not saying my way should be your way. I'm saying we all have to find our own way. Maybe your way is to work for a pro-life candidate: great. Maybe your way is to picket abortion clinics: beautiful, if that's what you feel called to. I just have never seen a war on anything--cancer, terrorism, drugs, abortion--work. I just  intensely dislike the presumption that your way should be, must be, mine.

Christ never mentioned abortion: he didn't have to (I myself have mentioned my experiences with, and views on it frequently--from one of the first pieces I ever published, in Commonweal in the early '90's, up to and including my most recent book). Every word, act, and glance was toward life, toward community, toward the child. His whole life was about the child-like heart, no matter that it is going to be trampled to the ground. That's what sets me on fire. I don't "support" life; I love life.

To be for life means to be for reality, and reality is paradoxical, contradictory, awkward, unendingly messy, and unresolvable. To be for life means to realize that someone who is born to a junkie mother, is beaten every day of his life, sexually molested as a child, and farmed out to a series of foster families as a teenager may be in prison for another reason than that he has a "criminal mind." To be for life means to believe that human beings are capable of transformation. To be for life implies a capacity and willingness, no matter how difficult or how much of a stretch, to put ourselves in the shoes of another. To be for life is to refrain, insofar as possible, from every kind of violence: physical, emotional, psychological, and I say this because I am (obviously) so prone to violence myself. Because to destroy your own child is a special, and perhaps the most horrific form, of violence imaginable.

To be for life means to stand your ground while also exercising delicacy, courtesy, and restraint of tongue and pen. It means to be passionately for our work and passionately against imposing our work on others. It means to refrain from trumpeting our own courage in favor of admiring the courage of the next person.  It means to be for the unborn baby and for the baby who grows up to be an alcoholic, love-starved, frightened, extremely misguided adult and has an abortion, or two, or three before at last crawling toward the light (or not)—because you never know the wounds from which another suffers. You never know the sins and sorrows for which another is doing life-long penance. You never know the odds against which another is working. You never know who you are hoping burns in hell so you can "save" some other baby. 

I am for you and for me, as fallen, pissed-off, broken--and as glorious--as we all are.  
I am for reality.
I am for Christ.
And please don’t post your pro-life stuff on my FB page.