Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Isn't it fun?: abortion week...

As one astute commenter noted in response to Part I: "Non-violence is not one issue in a catalogue of issues (you can tell I abhor the term); it is a disposition toward reality."

I, too, abhor issues. Abortion is not an issue; abortion is one of an infinite number of facets of the Way, the Truth, and the Life...

"Blessed are the peace-makers," said Christ, and we have only to look to the Holy Family for an example. Can anyone possibly imagine St. Joseph being a general? For St. Joseph to have been a general or even a soldier would have been so wrong, on so many levels, as to be unimaginable. It would have been as wrong, in its way, had Mary been an abortionist.

Impossible to imagine Joseph coming home from a hard day’s work of, say, scourging, washing the blood off his hands, sitting down to dinner, and saying, “Well, well, little Jesus, let me tell you about the bad man to whom I administered justice today.” Impossible to imagine that a man whose master was Caesar or Herod or the Pharisees should have raised the Son of Man. That Christ would have learned what it is to be a man from a man who “enjoyed” war is inconceivable. The people who enjoyed war crucified him.

Christ also said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” [Matthew 10:34]. He didn’t mean the sword of violence, though. The operative point of the cleansing of the temple was not that Christ got mad—he got mad frequently. The operative point was not that Christ finally spoke up for himself: one way or another, Christ always spoke up for himself. The point of the cleansing of the temple was not that it was out of character, but that it was entirely in keeping with the character that Christ had displayed all along. The operative point was that he told the truth, knowing he was setting himself up to have the Pharisees kill him. The operative point was that he didn't call down the wrath of God and the power of the angels—as he clearly knew he could have—and kill the Pharisees first.

One way to think of the “sword” Christ spoke of, I’m thinking, is the sword that tends toward purifying our forever-mixed motives. A mother will sacrifice for her son for the pleasure of basking in the reflected glory of his success. A father will sacrifice for his family knowing the social prestige and manliness that will thereby accrue.

All that was stripped from both Mary and Joseph.

Joseph fought one of the hardest battles it is possible to fight for a man, because it is partly biological: the battle against seeing his wife as chattel, as an extension of his ego; against clinging to the familial, cultural status accorded to the head of a household that would otherwise have inured and made “worthwhile” the sacrifice of supporting for and caring for a family. He stayed when it appeared to him, and possibly to the world, as if he had been cuckolded while still engaged. He stayed when it appeared that not only had Mary been unfaithful to him; she had been unfaithful to God. He stayed, not for a moment holding it against Mary. He stayed, knowing that Christ was not the fruit of his loins, and gave Jesus his whole heart, his livelihood, his guidance, insight and love. He stayed, taking his rightful place as head of the household, while also acknowledging, accommodating, and revering the fact that Mary had her own calling. He consented to stay in the background when another lesser man would have felt the need, out of a bruised ego, to assert himself. He stayed, and was faithful to his marriage vows. He stayed, working with his hands, handling the wood he loved. He stayed, and risked being called a coward, less than a man, and insufficiently forceful with his wife.

Similarly, Mary overcame the hardest thing it is possible for a woman to overcome: her desire to cling; to possess that which she loves; to manage, control, and become proprietary. This, too, is partly a biological urge. She could have said no to the angel Gabriel. She could have aborted Christ, and thereby averted the neighbors’ gossiping and putting herself, the prospective child, Joseph and the rest of her family in peril. She could have killed Christ as an infant so as to “spare” him from being killed by Herod.

Instead, at every step of the way she said yes to life and no to death. At every step of the way she was ready to die so that someone else might live. At every step of the way, she displayed extreme tenderness and extreme fierceness—because to say yes to life requires extreme tenderness and extreme fierceness (and extreme courage, grace, and class). But at no point did either she or Joseph exercise violence toward others when violence was directed toward them. She was Abraham, except this time the knife over the neck of her beloved son was not stilled. She stayed, and witnessed what is probably the most excruciating thing a mother can witness: the brutal execution of her innocent son. And still, she endured; still, she surrendered completely; still, she loved.

The Crucifixion is always and forever a scandal. Even those of us who love him are a little ashamed, a little appalled, a little embarrassed. I mean couldn't he have stuck up for himself? Why didn't he call down the wrath of God? Did he have to die like that? Even those of us who love him want to gloss over the Crucifixion.

But the Crucifixion is the central emblem of our faith; the absolute heart of Christianity. We take responsibility for our actions, we take the beam out of our own eye before we try taking the mote out of our neighbor's eye, and we offer ourselves up completely, for the Father to do with as He wills.

From yesterday's Magnificat reflection:

"Faith is not a thing of the mind; it is not an intellectual certainty or a felt conviction of the heart. It is a sustained decision to take God with utter seriousness as the God of my life. It is to live out each hour in a practical, concrete affirmation that God is Father and he is ‘in heaven.” It is a decision to shift the center of our lives from ourselves to him, to forego self-interest and make his interests, his will, our sole concern. This is what it means to hallow his name as Father in heaven."
--Sister Ruth Burrows, O.C.D.

Unthinkable, abortion, with Mary and Joseph as models. Theirs is the kind of radical letting go, detachment, and surrender to which we are called. This is no namby-pamby "spirituality." This is no self-indulgent program of prosperity, exotic travel, and “true love.”

Reality is not, nor has it ever been, for the faint of heart.


Sunday, February 26, 2012

POOR BABY: A Child of the 60's Looks Back on Abortion

Several months back I posted a series on the issue of violence--or rather non-violence as the chief characteristic of God’s love. Many—not all, but many—folks came out fighting. What are we just supposed to let Hitler?....they asked. What are we, supposed to just stand by and watch our children be savaged? What are we just supposed to let the Japanese at Pearl Harbor rape our children and cut them into little teeny bits…

That last hit me with particular force, as one reason violence is so abhorrent to me is because of the abortions I had before I converted. I've BEEN violent. I have seen "the children" not protected. I have been responsible for the children not being protected. That is a wound, a sorrow, a guilt, a shame I carried around for over twenty years; in a sense, will always carry. And because of it, I see so clearly how all violence is connected; how fear—the fear that there won’t be enough to go around, the fear that we are not loved, the fear that we lack the capacity to love—is the same fear that underlies all violence, all cruelty, all war. . .

I said it then, and I’ll say it again: non-violence isn’t a stance toward war but rather a stance toward reality. I’ve noticed that when people are pissed at me, when they disagree with an opinion, for example, they’ll immediately stop using my name. That’s the effect of violence. We reduce the person to something less than human; we make him or her invisible so it’s okay to hurt them. Going to an abortionist and closing your eyes isn’t the same as the people who operate the remote controlled military drones that pick people off from miles away, but it is absolutely on a par with.

This is not to try to reduce Christ to the Great Pacifist. To reduce Christ to a single issue—your issue; my issue—always misses the mark. But the problem with violence is that it is by nature not containable. Like good, it’s a metaphysical concept with implications and repercussions that go far, far beyond the violence at hand. Just as we never know (and mostly never see) where the fruits of our “good” acts are going to break out, we never know where the results of our violence will break out either. When people see someone else being violent, they tend to think that gives them carte blanche to be violent themselves. If we think our own violence is justified, we’d better be prepared to let everyone else justify theirs, too. Nagasaki shows up in the psycho who lined up the Amish schoolgirls. Capital punishment shows up in 9/11 shows up in Abu Ghraib. SHU (23-hour isolation) units give rise to Austria’s Hans Fritzl, who kept his daughter Elisabeth, along with the three children she fathered by him (a fourth died) in an underground bunker for 24 years.

Live by the sword, die by the sword. I’m reminded of a lawyer I worked for, writing legal briefs, for several years. After awhile I saw he was a shyster but I figured, Well I’ll be conscientious within my job; I’ll be stand-up within the parameters of what I do. Of course he ended up stiffing me for four grand, and when I took him to small claims court accused me of shoddy workmanship.

Another example: a friend put up razor wire all around her back yard wall to discourage robbers. Months later, she adopted a litter of stray kittens. She mothered them, fed them, cooed over them, and one morning she went out and found one of them impaled on the razor wire. Frantic to save it, she tried to jump over the rail and got slashed herself. The very violence you plan on using on another comes back to do violence to you and those or what you love. Violence cannot be confined to a specific target. Like love, violence radiates out in all directions. Violence is completely impersonal. It will hurt the robber and it will hurt the kitten.

The Obama ruling rescinding conscience protection rules for medical workers is horrifying, but could it possibly come as a surprise? Can we seriously believe a county that spends up to half its budget on the military but won't give its children basic health care is concerned with a petty matter like conscience? Can we seriously believe a country that keeps 80,000 prisoners in 24-hour a day solitary confinement is going to balk at ordering a doctor to provide an abortion?

Both the right and the left are seeing the logical extension of exactly what they have been clamoring for all along. The right wants a conscience that is for war, for locking up prisoners and throwing away the key, for the rich at the expense of the poor--and is shocked when that same violence-based conscience turns its gaze to abortion and doesn’t blink an eye. The left wants everybody to do exactly as they please as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else—and for everyone to get to make up what that might mean as they go along—and is shocked that freedom without moral law in the end means coercion: if not for them, then for someone else.

I was sparing my children the suffering of having a bad mother: that’s what I told myself under the banner of humanitarianism. I would have been a bad mother and to prove I would have been a bad mother I destroyed my unborn children. Crazy, right? The exact kind of crazy reasoning employed by the people who say, “Well, yes, we killed 110,000 civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but if we hadn’t even more people would have died.” We love people so we have to kill them. We love some people so we have to kill other people.

The problem here is hubris. The question here is: how do WE know? How do we know how many people, if any, would have died if we hadn’t incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki? We don’t know that refraining from dropping those bombs on Japan would have somehow changed the whole world so that NOBODY had to be killed. You don’t know what kind of mother you’re going to be until you're a mother. I always told myself I wouldn’t know how to care for a pet and then I finally got a cat and for sixteen years it turned out I “knew” exactly how to care for her...

To choose violence is not to cut off the possibility of suffering, in other words, but rather to cut off the possibility of good. It’s to forestall the transformation that always comes about when we refrain from violence, for Christ’s sake, when violence would be expedient. Christianity has never, ever claimed to be expedient. Christianity has never remotely claimed to be about results, efficiency, numbers, worldly success. Hitler was efficient. The death camps got results. Christianity is about the one lost sheep. Christianity says there are worse things than having or being a bad mother.

Violence is just one prism through which to view abortion. There are many others. Abortion led me to see, for example, that if you think of sin in any kind of mathematical way there is no escape. I had done what was not forgivable. I had done what could not be atoned for. For twenty-plus years I could not get my mind around how I could possibly be forgiven.

Unlike us, however, apparently God does not weigh things, balance things, count the cost, keep a ledger. We're forgiven before we even ask for forgiveness. The Prodigal Son had been forgiven long before he came trailing home. I'd been forgiven even as I lay on the table in those clinics: the problem was I couldn't forgive myself. The repentance is for us, not for God. The repentance is to open our hearts. God's is always open. God's has always been open. Open, and longing for us to turn to him, and bleeding...

Or as St. Thérèse of Lisieux observed: "God is all-wise but there is one science of which he knows nothing: arithmetic."

God knows nothing of arithmetic—not that kind—and I also take full responsibility for what I did. In fact, it there is a felix culpa to my abortions, it's that I understand all too well that the evil in the world does not come from "out there"; it comes from within me. When I hear that a 13-year-old has been raped, or that another pedophile priest has been arrested, or ___, I don’t think, Those savage beasts. I don’t think, The unimaginable, unspeakable evil. I think, I am complicit in that.

I also understand that someone else, someone who, say, was abused physically, emotionally and/or sexually as a child is going to come at the issue of violence from a whole other standpoint. That person knows they should have been protected, and they were not. Someone perhaps should have used some kind of force to remove the parent from the home, someone should have said this is wrong, this is totally totally against love and against God, and you are precious, you are loved, you were grievously hurt, the grownups failed you. So while I hear "Take up your arms" as a call to perpetrate more of the violence in which I've been complicit, the other person is going to hear "Put down your arms" as more not being protected by the world, more betrayal, as opening themselves to more violence.

I have to tread very carefully here, then, and to speak from my own experience, and to let others have their experiences and as always, the genius of Christ is that he meets us all exactly where we are.

Speaking of experiences, story is always significantly grittier, funnier, more excruciating, more joyful and more real than someone who is trying to teach, or pontificate, or analyze...Everything I know, I have learned through my simple love of Christ, the Sacraments, and the Gospels...

My story, in a nutshell, is three abortions, twenty-plus years of silent excruciating suffering, and then I found my way to Project Rachel, an organization that operates under the auspices of the Church and helps women (and men) to heal from abortion. I wrote a 10,000-word essay that no-one seemed to want to publish—possibly because of its length, but also possibly because it doesn’t fit into the prevailing rhetoric. It’s not from the right and it’s not from the left. It’s from Christ. It’s from reality. It’s from gratitude for the women, Christine Lowe in particular, who helped me find my way back, insofar as I have, to a child-like heart.

I’m going to post later in the week from a couple of different angles—but for now I’ve converted my story into a $2.99 “e-book” that you can find in the sidebar if the spirit moves.

And so—introducing “POOR BABY: A Child of the 60’s Looks Back on Abortion.”

Saturday, February 25, 2012



Undulant across the slopes
a gloss of purple
day by day arrives to dim
the green, as grasses

I never learned the names of–
numberless, prophetic,
transient–put on a flowering
so multiform, one

scarcely notices: the oats grow tall,
their pendent helmetfuls
of mica–drift, examined stem
by stem, disclose

alloys so various, enamelings
of a vermeil so
craftless, I all but despair of
ever reining in a

metaphor for: even the plebeian
dooryard plantain's
every homely cone–tip earns a
halo, a seraphic

hatband of guarantee that
dying, for
the unstudied, multitudinously
truly lowly,

has no meaning, is nothing
if not flowering's
swarming reassurances of one
more resurrection.

--Amy Clampitt

Thursday, February 23, 2012


"There lives the dearest freshness deep down things"...

Jan. 4, 1869
We have had wind and rain, so that floods are out, but in temperature the weather mild to an unusual degree.--The other evening after a very bright day,the air rinsed quite clear, there was a shalsh of glowing yolk-coloured sunset.--On the 1st frost day (which otherwise I do not remember for a long time), the air shining, but with vapour, the dead leaves frilled, the Park grass white with hoarfrost mixed with purple shadow.--Today--another clear afternoon with tender clouding after rain--one notices the crisp flat darkness of the woods against the sun and the smoky bloom they have opposite it. The trees budded and their sprays curled as if dressed for spring.

March 12, 1870
A fine sunset: the higher sky dead clear blue bridged by a broad slant causeway rising from right to left of wisped or grass cloud, the wisps lying across; the sundown yellow, moist with light but ending at the top in a foam of delicate white pearling and spotted with big tufts of cloud in clour russet between brown and purple but edged with brassy light. But what I note it all for is this: before I had always taken the sunset and the sun as quite out of gauge with each other, as indeed physically they are, for the eye looking at the sun is blunted to everything else and if you look at the rest of the sunset you must cover the sun, but today I inscaped them together and made the sun the true eye and ace of the whole, as it is. It was all active and tossing out light and started as strongly forward from the field as a long stone or a boss in the knop of the chalice-stem; it is indeed by stalling it so that it falls into scape with the sky.

The next morning a heavy fall of snow. It tufted and toed the firs and yews and went on to load them till they were taxed beyond their spring. The limes, elms, and Turkey-oaks it crisped beautifully as with young leaf. Looking at the elms from underneath you saw every wave in every twig (become by this the wire-like stem to a finger of snow) and to the hangars and flying sprays it restored, to the eye, the inscapes they had lost. They were beautifully brought out against the sky, which was on one side dead blue, on the other washed with gold.

At sunset the sun a crimson fireball, above one or two knots of rosy cloud muddled with purple. After that, frost for two days

September 24, 1870
First saw the Northern Lights. My eye was caught by beams of light and dark very like the crown of horny rays the sun makes behind a cloud. At first I thought of silvery cloud until I saw that these were more luminous and did not dim the clearness of the stars in the Bear. They rose slightly radiating thrown out from the earthline. Then I saw soft pulses of light one after another rise and pass upwards arched in shape but waveringly and with the arch broken. They seemed to float, not following the warp of the sphere as falling stars look to do but free though concentrical with it. This busy working of nature wholly independent of the earth and seeming to go on on in a strain of time not reckoned by our reckoning of days and years but simpler and as if correcting the preoccupation of the world by being preoccupied with and appealing to and dated to the day of judgment was like a new witness to God and filled me with delightful fear

July 19, 1872
Stepped into a barn of ours, a great shadowy barn, where the hay had been stacked on either side, and looking at the great rudely arched timberframes--principals (?) and tie-beams, which make them look like bold big As with the cross-bar high up--I thought how sadly beauty of inscape was unknown and buried away from simple people and yet how near it was if they had eyes to see it and it could be called out everywhere again...

April 8, 1873
The ashtree growing in the corner of the garden was felled. It was lopped first: I heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at the moment a great pang and I wished to die and not to see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more

--Gerard Manley Hopkins, Journal Excerpts, found in The Poetry of Earth: A Collection of English Nature Writings from Gilbert White of Selborne to Richard Jeffries, ed. by E.D.H. Johnson [all punctuation sic]

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


I wrote this eve-of-Lent piece (it was published in The Sun) ten years ago. Reading it over, I'm appalled at my hubris (may the dear, faithful monks forgive my blindness and ingratitude),  but also cheered by how my house was built on solid rock even in the early days of my (ongoing) conversion...

I like what a priest said in a homily last week: "Instead of giving up something this Lent, why not just give?"...Nonetheless, I'm doing my going-without-sugar thing again this year and all I can say is it's a long, long time till Easter...

Blessings on your own Lenten (and all other kinds of) journey...


I’m not sure what I pictured when I decided to make a retreat at an unfamiliar monastery, but it wasn’t this: a jumble of outbuildings and abandoned sheds, piles of barrels draped with blue tarps, a labyrinth of dirt roads. I circle around a couple of times, spot a sign saying "Registration" in the window of the bookstore, and park. After eight hours on the road, I'm hoping to be greeted by some calm, prayer-centered soul. Instead a heavily made-up woman named Dot startles, turns down the volume on a Larry Norman tape, and flutters nervously around trying to find someone to replace her at the cash register.

We walk the few hundred yards to a barracks-like structure and she ushers me into Room 1. I do a quick inventory--two twin beds, midget bedstand, broken Venetian blinds. "There's no…desk?" I venture.

Dot’s rolling eyes say it all: “There’s always gotta be one, doesn’t there?” she’s thinking. "If I could make a suggestion," she says tightly, "next time you go on a retreat, you might want to inform the people of your needs beforehand"-- as if a desk were a piece of esoteric equipment; as if I'd asked for something outlandish, like a pack of condoms.


All the next day the “retreat master” Jim, an overweight pecan farmer with a John Deere cap, makes hourly progress reports on his painstaking, convoluted attempts to locate a desk. Finally one of the monks approaches me in chapel, looks furtively around, as if we were planning a tryst, and whispers, "We've finally found you another room. Room 12."

And the kicker was, when I went over to look at it, Room 12 didn't have a desk either...At which point I realized my room was fine. It was wonderful. Hot water, heat, an outlet for my laptop, a porch.


Out back the next morning, I saw a beautiful orange bird. There are cottonwoods and cholla, and a little stream running through.

photo: integrity of light


I'm here because I need a break from my life--the book nobody wants to buy, the one-bedroom apartment where I write, my husband Tim, the early stage breast cancer I found out about last year and decided to treat with surgery only. "Oh, you're using holistic medicine," people say approvingly. But I am not using holistic medicine. I am not seeing an acupuncturist, a nutritionist, an herbalist; I am not taking vitamin supplements or Laetrile or mistletoe tea. Aside from cutting down on fat, I am doing pretty much what I was doing already, which is eating healthily, walking, writing, praying and hanging out with other sober people--I've been a recovering alcoholic for 14 years.

But you got cancer doing that, I can hear people thinking. So I got cancer! People get cancer, they die from cancer! My problem is not cancer. It's lack of faith, lack of acceptance, living in illusion. That's the real reason I'm here.


This big place is apparently run by six or seven monks, all of whom appear to be in the throes of deep spiritual crisis. The Divine Office--Vigils, Lauds, Vespers, Compline--is the heart of Benedictine spirituality. At every other monastery I've attended, it's prayed with the utmost attention and reverence. Here the monks show up looking like they just crawled out of bed; they slump and slouch and scratch and yawn; they seem crabby and bored. One, a sixtyish fellow with bloodshot eyes, practically lies down in his seat after quavering the entrance antiphon; another, a tall rawboned youth with hacked-off hair, crosses his legs, gazes out the window and dangles his breviary in one hand. This, it turns out, is the abbot.

I was appalled for about ten seconds and then I realized that I am so clueless and broken right now that I feel much more at home with these folks than I would with people who were reverent and assured.


For the last three years, I've given up coffee for Lent, and I’m going to try it this year, too. A hundred times a day, I contemplate how horrible this will be. Here is the extent of my caffeine addiction: for the last two mornings, I've woken before dawn and driven 15 miles to the local Circle K for a jumbo "Dark Roast." It would be one thing if it were actually good, but it has no more of a jolt than the watered-down swill they serve in the dining hall.

Still, knowing myself, I will make the trek to Circle K every morning.


I’ve figured out how the monks keep the place up and running: the army of oblate-volunteers who spend the winter in a nearby RV park.

The first night I met a retired couple named Fran and Earl, who immediately informed me they'd been coming here for 11 years. The next night I met Lois and Vern. "Oh I met a nice couple last night who do the same thing you do," I told Vern. "Fran and--"

"We've been coming here 12 years," he cut in. "They've only been coming 11."


For once, in chapel this morning, I was actually able to attend to the meaning of the Psalms and readings. I've been praying the Divine Office on my own for two years, but usually I'm still so self-conscious, so eager to "progress," that I never get around to orienting myself toward Christ: I make it all about me. I keep doing it because I figure it's pleasing to God; because maybe after 30 or 40 years, I'll be purified; because there's only one way to make it be about Christ: to keep on praying. And in the meantime, every once in a blue moon, it is like it was this morning.


One of the RV women is in charge of cooking, and her approach seems to be to take a food and smother it with so much fat that it is unrecognizable not only as the food it was, but as any food at all. Last night dinner consisted of pork chops in an inch of greasy breading, a string-bean casserole enhanced with suet, and a tray of deep-fried, syrup-drenched apple fritters that must have weighed a pound-and-a-half apiece. I happened to be sitting at the same table as the chef, and it came out in the course of the conversation that she makes a special "black bread" for Ash Wednesday (they serve only bread and water that day).

"What's in it?," I piped up eagerly, hoping it might by accident contain a stray nutrient or two.

"Oh they've begged me for the recipe,” she replied coyly, “but I won't give it to them. Four Seasons wanted the ranch dressing recipe from my restaurant, too, but I wouldn't give that out either"...

I don't know what horrified me more: that she had been connected in any way with the operating of a restaurant, or that she imagined I might want to duplicate anything she had cooked.


There's a nun here from Baltimore, about my age, named Georgina, who has breast cancer and leukemia. They give her five years, tops, she told me last night. I might drive her into town to get some supplies as she is constipated, exhausted from radiation and, like me, having a hard time with the food. At dinner, I saw her give a big smile to Jim, the retreat master who I'd decided I didn't like, or who didn't like me. Constantly, I am reminded of my meanness.

Last night I skipped dinner and went to the chapel for Compline at 8:30--pitch black outside, freezing cold--but they must have already had it in the dining hall because nobody was there. So I went to the Lady of Guadelupe alcove, where the light was, and said Evening Prayer by myself, and then sat by the Blessed Sacrament for awhile. That used to sound so hokey to me: the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Now I see it as a deep, mysterious gift. What solace, what peace to sit with Him: the Great Physician; the Master Anaesthesiologist.


I keep thinking of last Sunday’s reading from Sirach: "When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear; so do a man's faults when he speaks." Or acts. Giving Sister Georgina a ride into town this afternoon, I saw myself…through her eyes. First, she was embarrassed to be going at all as any retreatant worth his or her salt apparently does not leave the grounds for the duration of the retreat, while I have gone on my lame coffee runs every morning. Second, she wanted to pick up some juice and tea because she's sick: I wanted to pick up some chocolate and a last coffee before Lent begins tomorrow.

photo: Bob Tranchio
To top it all off, I repaired to my room afterwards and proceeded to eat the entire giant Cadbury bar I had purchased at the Safeway while Georgina was loading up on apricot nectar and chamomile. After judging everyone else for being fat. It doesn't matter where I am, my faults will be revealed.


My last day, Ash Wednesday. When I go into the dining hall, each table is bare except for a loaf of dark rustic bread--the secret recipe!--and a white crockery bowl filled with dirt and stones. At noon Mass, the abbot talks in his homily about prayer as a method of detaching from thought. He observes that one way to do this is to sit in silence with a sacred word. The word many of the monks use, he says, is the Aramaic "Maranatha": Come, Lord Jesus. The chapel is packed and, for a second, I wonder if this "middle-America" parish is ready for contemplative prayer. And then I realize that this whole place probably operates on nothing but prayer, that I know nothing about prayer.

We file up to have our foreheads anointed with ashes. "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return," he says afterwards, over and over again.


I spend the afternoon packing and, when Vespers is over, wander behind the chapel, skirt the duck pond, and find my way to the outdoor Stations of the Cross. Like the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the Stations have always struck me as slightly musty and old-school, but someone has put a lot of thought into designing these--I know from the brochure that they incorporate natural features of the landscape--and it seems like a fitting way to end my visit.

I start at Station 1--Jesus is Condemned to Death--noticing a nearby creosote. "This desert bush," the placard reads, "forced to survive with so little water, reminds us of how Jesus felt as he stood before his merciless accusers." I pause to reflect on this happy thought for a minute, then make my way around a boulder to Station 2--Jesus Bears His Cross: "This heavy stone, an impossible burden, is like the cross Jesus was forced to carry to Mount Calvary."

The path winds up a hill; I trudge on, the sun sinking in a pool of red. Station 3--Jesus Falls For the First Time. Station 4: Jesus Meets His Mother. Station 10--Jesus is Stripped of His Garments: "The spines in this ancient cactus remind us of the Crown of Thorns Jesus wore; of the many humiliations we, too, suffer in our lives." Station 12--Jesus Dies On the Cross: "Just as the trunk of this burned-out tree is stripped bare, so we will be stripped of everything: property, success, looks, health."

And suddenly I am weeping, weeping for the old men and the abused children, for the people so alone they never get prayed for, for Sister Georgina, for myself. I've tried so hard to "get" it by being good: praying the "right" way, giving up coffee, being mature and responsible and accepting about my cancer. But nobody ever "gets" it. It's not about being good, it's about being vulnerable. It's not about being perfect, it's about becoming human. It's not about pretending that cancer don't suck in every possible way, it's about consenting to bear my suffering in a desperate, keening, crawling-on-bloody-knees kind of love for my brothers and sisters, just as, in some mysterious way, my brothers and sisters bear their suffering for me.

Christ wasn't mature and responsible and accepting when they drove the nails through His precious hands, His beautiful sacred feet. He knew the worst spiritual anguish any person can know: Father, Father, why have Thou forsaken me? And yet...He doesn’t forsake us; He never forsakes us. That's what the Resurrection--that light way in the distant future, after these seven dark weeks of Lent--tells us. I don’t understand it, I don’t even believe it half the time, but that's what I've staked my life on.

The dinner bell rings and I salivate: I've been fasting all day. Tomorrow I'll leave the silence and the cottonwoods and the birds, and make the long drive home.

But for now it's time to walk through the gathering dusk and join the others--the young monks and the old; Dot, Jim, Sister Georgina; Fran and Earl, Lois and Vern; the woman in charge of cooking: to bow our heads; to eat the good black bread.

photo: Jonathan Gayman

Sunday, February 19, 2012


The reason a human being can live in a Bombay slum and not lose his sanity is that his dream life is bigger than his squalid quarters. It occupies a palace.
--Suketu Mehta, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found

Hopeless proud-aunt bias aside, I've always known my nephew Allen, now 13, is special. He tells me, "All the other kids want to play video games but I want to be outside!" On a trip to Newfoundland he collected hundred of crab shells, brought them home in a dingy cardboard box, and spent hours arranging and re-arranging them according to color, size and type. When Hurricane Irene threatened to hit, he made a series of hand-crafted “DANGER” signs and posted them around his Nashua, New Hampshire neighborhood. An amateur cartographer (“What’s that called, a person who likes maps, a cardiologist?”), he walks the streets and draws detailed plans of wherever he happens to be. He’s rallied a group of kids around him, many of them younger, who he refers to as his “crew.”

Allen's mother died when he was four. He lives with his father--my brother Ross, a currently woefully under-employed teacher (The Depression) to whom the lion's share of credit must go for this amazing offspring;  Ross's second wife (i.e. Allen's step-mother), a lovely woman of Colombian descent named Edilia; Edilia's mother, Gladys; and Edilia's college-age daughter Laura in an apartment complex--Amherst Park--through which every joy and every ill of our cultures apparently passes.

When I called recently, he launched into a stream-of-consciousness description of his neighborhood, his community, and his place in it that IMHO should be put in every Social Studies curriculum in the U.S.

I know this place like the back of my hand—hey, what’s that mole doing there, get it? I know the lay of the land, I know every parking lot, every bike rack, every exterior light, every interior light, who lives in every apartment. I know where the Puerto Ricans hang out, the Dominicans, every patch of poison ivy, I know how many trees there are and what kinds. Red pine, white pine, maple, um, there’s one other kind…I know the creek, I know the woods*, I know the pond, I know every kind of frog…There’s the green hamel-backed, there's the…

Hamel-backed? How do you spell it?
Oh I just made that one up [giggles]. Then there’s the turquoise frog I call it cause it has a yellow-greenish-blue belly, and the brown bull. Toads, bullfrogs. We don’t allow poachers. We used to allow kids to kill one frog each, but then we realized, nah, even one’s no good. So now no poaching, no killing, did I tell you about my tadpoles? I have four tadpoles in a jar and they have these big black eyes they look at you with and they’re so cute!

What’s the name of your organization?
We don’t really have a name. We’re just kind of here.**

Well, what is it that you guys do?
Forest patrol. We pick up bottles and maintain the swamp. We're able to regulate how much water goes down the swamp. I made this log bridge with sticks on either side and a whole bunch of bright pieces of paper I stapled on so people won’t fall in.We try to break up fights and stuff, little kids getting in fights. We work on the fort.

What’s the fort made of?
Sticks and leaves and pieces of wood, plywood and stuff we found lying around. We have trees, too, which is kind of cool cause we climb 'em and when we see someone coming, we attach ropes and then we jump down, slide down and attack or arrest people.

Yeah, if I have enough men, we tackle the guy and then we sit on him.

So it’s not violent?
No, no, no.

What does an arrest consist of?
That’s like when a kid has caused a lot of crimes and what we do is we’ll go and arrest him like if he has a warrant. Like if he’s done so many wrong things he has a warrant we have to tell him if he does it again he’ll be in trouble.

What might the crime have been?
Destroying property, beating up little kids, resisting arrest…some of these kids get violent, they try to get you in your private parts...It’s really cool, my friend Jorge [not his real name] has a pair of handcuffs…

Handcuffs! Do you have a jail?
Well we’re working on that but right now we have some difficulties, I talked to Savannah about it. The third co-captain Eric retired cause he’s kind of mad about something so we had to close down one of our forts.

Who’s we? Do you have your own little police force or what?
Well, me and Savannah are kind of like co-captains…[Savannah is his 10-year-old cousin who lives an hour and a half away in Portsmouth]. We don’t…we don’t boss anyone around, it’s not like that…But a lot of violence around here, every night there’s a cop at someone’s house, so we try to protect. What happens is people get provoked, kids’ll call you a raper or a pedophile or—

They call you rapers? They call kids PEDOPHILES?
[giggles]. Oh yeah, all the time, you just have to ignore ‘em, but so anyway some of the kids’ll get provoked and they start fighting, this one girl, Tanya [not her real name], she’d punch anybody, another girl, plus she started using drugs. But she started to figure out that people didn’t want to be around her, and we were just nice to her and and so now she’s not using drugs anymore.

Here's another thing, at school they have indecent exposure. Like the guys they wear their pants around their ankles or the girls’ll show too much boobage or their thong. So one time, you get a warning, two times you get suspended, and three times they’ll arrest you.

Good Lord! Who’ll arrest you—the cops?
Yeah, indecent exposure, they call it. Most of the kids, you know, they dress okay, but a few…

What’s INSIDE the fort?
Gunsticks. Sand bombs. Bottles filled with sand. Cans are only for real war. Spiky pine cones. Eric once got a pine cone stuck in his cheek...

No wonder he retired…Now are all these kids white or are they different races?
White, Spanish, and Egyptian. Mexican, too.

What’s your funnest thing that you do in Amherst Park? What would be your perfect day there?
I usually work on the fort, go out around noon on a Saturday and start working on the fort. Recently me and Eric found a bike in the pond and we cleaned it off. It actually works. If you look on the ground, you can find lots of tools cause everyone here is always working on their cars. So I found an Allen wrench set, I found a screwdriver. I got my own storage space cause the landlord gave it to me cause it has mold in it. I used to fix kids’ bikes in there, I made almost forty dollars, but ever since the economy turned bad there hasn’t been as much business. I still have my toolbox, though, and I'm gonna start up again when it gets warmer.

So you don’t have trouble in the forest every day?
No, we haven’t had war for about a year.

You go out there in winter, even though it’s freezing cold?
Sometimes, but then other times we stay inside and drink hot cocoa. Hey yunno how I had to go to the emergency room for my stomach awhile ago? I don’t mind needles, I say bring ‘em on, whatever they have to do. At the free place, though, the clinic the other day, they’re kind of big. I guess they can’t afford skinny needles, so they hurt a little going in…

Oh geez...that's no good...Now back up a minute, how did Savannah come to be co-caption?
No, she’s captain.

Oh, she’s captain? So what are you?

Savannah’s even above you!

How did she achieve that position? Did you appoint her?
Yeah. She’s pretty smart about this stuff. It’s really hard to do. Personalities, how you deal with people. She’s given me some pretty good tips. Like she told us to build a decoy fort so if the enemy comes to destroy they’ll destroy the decoy.

Do you talk to her every night?
Well right now no, cause her mom’s not there, she’s in Vegas or wherever so the phone's gone. But yeah, she’s the one…plus we also have badges for everyone. Ranger patrol, public water protection, there’s computer and technical, there’s equipment and building, there’s vehicle and repair, there’s modifying and stuff like that.

And she’s the captain?
Yeah, yeah, she’s the captain. I’m not in charge.

That is so cool!

I love that! And you made her the captain?
Yeah. I’m not kind of like judgmental of people. I have two friends in eighth grade [Allen’s in seventh] and then I have friends who are boys and friends who are girls.

What’s your stance toward grownups? Respect them and work with them, or stay away from them or what?
Well...basically stay away cause a lot of the adults here are kind of crazy, they’re either on pot or they’re getting arrested every night. Really loud screamers. They get nervous if the kids are touched, they’ll go crazy on the other parents. Lots of fights.

So the grownups are not…
Yeah, these are not mature grownups. These are kind of like stupid drinkers and cigarette people. But a lot of my crew their parents mostly don’t smoke and if they do smoke they’re still really like nice and everything…

Well that's good cause smoking in and of itself doesn't make a person...What’s the thing you’re most proud of? Can you point to one thing you feel has been most helpful in your role as, uh...public guardian?
I was really proud of our co-captain Eric who retired, cause he once saved this kid’s life cause he was drowning. The kid fell through thin ice and Eric went in and saved him.

Oh wow, that's incredible! But what about you? What’s something you’ve done that you’re proud of?
[Hems and haws]. Nah, I can’t single out anything. Oh here’s another thing we do, though, we have training for little kids: we show ‘em what they have to do. Like if you come here, a lot of the little kids are actually very smart. They’re not dumb. Like if they see someone coming toward them, they’re not going to run at them, they’re probably going to hide from them. So we train in self-defense, in what we do. I’m kind of like Savannah’s assistant so I have to write everything out. Savannah will tell me what fort she wants to assign this kid to or if this kid’s gonna be fired or whatever. She always does a background check to make sure, you know, they’re not bad kids. Me and Eric study the kid for awhile and then once we get to know ‘em, we tell Savannah. We also teach ‘em different signals to use in the forest. One of the bigger kids’ll be the advisor to the little ones.The youngest kid we’ll take is five and six all the way up to thirteen. We tell them our model, our routines, what we stand for.

And how would you describe what it is exactly that you stand for?
Serve, protect, and…and...rescue...

*Note from Ross: “I often feel bad that Allen didn't grow up, as did we, in a place with lots of open space, but he and his friends still manage to find delight in the thin strip of trees that border the apartments and the community college next door. He calls it ‘the forest’ and it reminds me of Chile, very long and very thin.

**Note from Ross: "Ask him, by the way about (cousin) Savannah's involvement--I think Allen has selected her to play an important role in their guarding of the forest. I think she is a de facto general. I'm not sure, but it's worth asking him about it.”


I will not gild the lily by enumerating the myriad virtues here displayed except to say that they are not civic qualities so much as knightly qualities. I will say that they are the mark not so much of the statesman or the politician or the soldier but rather of the pilgrim who bends his knee to a queen and sets out on a life-long search for the Holy Grail. I will say that as he spoke, his ostensibly run-of-the-mill neighborhood became imbued with a kind of mythic nobility. I will say that I would take this kid as the first line of defense over the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps combined any day of the week.

Pray for him, and more like him—The King of Amherst Park.


Saturday, February 18, 2012


As I approach my 60th year I'm more and more conscious of Time's winged chariot--the last gallop before death that Jung calls the age of meaning. ike those jerky frames in the early silent films, the days flip speedily past, an as my future contracts every moment becomes more precious. Or to employ a different metaphor (perhaps more apt in your case) I feel I'm being swept along on a frothing river knowing the Falls is not too distant. In his memoir of childhood, The Sacred Journey, Frederick Buechner, whose father shot himself when Buechner was ten, poses the question that has obsessed these kaddishes: What is God saying when a good person takes their life? A moment comes into being and it goes on forever, he writes, not just in memory but as though it had a life of its own in a new kind of time, what Dylan Thomas described as "below a time"--a "having-beenness" beyond any power in heaven or on earth, in life or death, to touch--and the people we knew and loved continue to grow and change with us till we finish our days, that you will continue to touch my life and the lives of our children with power and richness.

--from A Mourner's Kaddish: Suicide and the Recovery of Hope, by James Clarke

From the jacket flap: "Several months after my wife's suicide [at Niagara Falls], I began this journal [which takes the form of letters to her] as a way to cope with overwhelming grief."

Clarke is a judge of the Superior Court in Ontario, Canada and lives in Guelph. He is also the author of seven collections of poetry and was kind enough to send me a copy of A Mourner's Kaddish and a volume of his poems: How to Bribe a Judge: Poems from the Bench.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


PHILIP GUSTON (1913-1980)
From a conversation between editor Clark Coolidge and painter/printmaker Philip Guston, from Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations:

CC: It’s the bones.

PG: It’s the bones of the whole thing.

CC: Because you can look at a line and it’s fantastically ambiguous, too. At the same time as being the most solid thing you can make, you could see it so many ways. You can see it as a cut, you can see it as a stiff iron, you can see it as a division…

PG: Well, at this point, however, I must say something about that year of drawing, when I did hundreds, literally, maybe even into the thousands.

CC: In Florida, right?

PG: That’s right. And up here.

CC: It strikes me as funny that that was in Florida.

PG: I know. Well, for many reasons that we don’t have to go into now, I was cut off, you know.

CC: I know. And it’s because I always think of Florida as a good-for-nothing place.

PG: It is! That’s exactly what it is. It’s nothing.

CC: Where rich people go to do nothing.

PG: I know. It’s just a nothing place.

CC: And you go there and you do that.

PG: I know. Well, I didn’t work there for some weeks or months and then finally, out of desperation, I started this. And, in fact, when I was doing these line things, I suddenly got a call from [Morton] Feldman, who was in Texas making that show for the de Menils, in Dallas? Or Houston, I guess it was. And he said, “I’m in Texas, come and see me.” No. He said, “Can I come see you?” And I said, “Please come.” He said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m down to one line.” And he said, “I’m coming right away.” And he appeared two days later. I met him at the airport and I showed him all these things. They were all over the walls, the floor. The whole studio was just bulging, hung with these drawings. They were just brush ink on paper. They were all over the floor—you couldn’t walk in. So we looked at them. And that night, after dinner, we took a walk along the beach, and I started kind of weeping. Not weeping but sort of shaking. And I said, “Well, I’m really down to nothing now. I’m just down to, like, one line.”

Charcoal on paper, 17 1/2 x 23 inches

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


I'm thrilled to report that after a two-plus year run as Zazu in The Lion King (at the Mandalay Bay Theater in Las Vegas), my friend Patrick's back in town.

I know him best as a dear friend, but Patrick is best known to the world as a deeply talented actor who attended Yale Drama School and has graced stage and screen since. I've seen him do Shakespeare in Santa Cruz, I've seen him in Steve Martin's The Underpants at the Geffen, I've seen him at South Coast Rep. Every time I'm at Ralphs or Starbucks with him, it seeems, people will come up and say...Curb Your Enthusiasm! Or Hannah Montana! or ER!... 

At least as much to the point, Pat's got a huge heart and a wicked sense of humor, and he is also generous, thoughtful, kind, and one hell of a good listener.

So in honor of the fact that L.A. now has back one of its own, I'm thinking to run this piece I wrote years ago when I went to watch the taping of an episode of Frasier:

It's a kick living in and around Hollywood but I'm not exactly in the loop. I don’t know Matthew Perry from Perry Mason, Drew Barrymore from Lionel Barrymore, Paris Hilton from Paris, France. When I first met my friend Patrick I overheard him talking to someone about Frasier. “Frasier,” I piped up. “That’s a TV show isn’t it?” Yy-eah, he replied. I’ve had a guest spot on it for the last eleven years.”

Recently Patrick invited me to the Paramount lot for a taping of the show. I’d brought along a book—Camus’ The Plague--but in no time I was yukking it up with the rest of the studio audience and had forgotten all about my book. There were people from all over: Topeka, Duluth, Perth. A comic, whose very hard job it was to keep us from getting restless, informed us that Cheers had been filmed on this very stage. There were three sets: one of what looked like a radio studio, one of a living room, and a third from which a giant set of digital scales loomed from the shadows. When it was time to begin, a pony-tailed man stepped to center stage and clapped two little striped blocks of wood together, just like in the movies.

As far as I could figure, Frasier worked on some radio advice show and the plot of this particular show was that his crew was having a contest with the crew of a rival radio station to see which could lose the most weight. At home, he had a cranky father, a brother who was phobic about germs, and a Jack Russell terrier named Eddie. The dialogue was smart and engaging, the off-camera crew interacted with split-second precision, and the whole thing was way so absorbing I didn’t once turn to Camus.

Between scenes Patrick kept coming anxiously over with food--cardboard cups of cashews, miniature candy bars--to keep my strength up.

“Boy that brother’s sure good,” I remarked, tucking into a Three Musketeers. “Do people know him?”

“Heather,” Patrick replied. “That’s David Hyde Pierce. He’s won about seven Emmys.” 

“Oh. How about that Roz you have a crush on? Is she a regular character?”  

“That’s Peri Gilpin. She’s been on since the show since it started.”

Of course to me the best part was Patrick himself, who played a Trekker geek named Noel.  He had one scene where he was doubled over with stomach cramps, one where he popped up from a dead faint on the floor, and one at the very end where he snuck back to the site of the weigh-in, grabbed a lock of Roz’s hair and stuffed it down the front of his shirt. This brilliant actor clearly stole the show and I couldn’t restrain myself from turning to the couple beside me to loudly stage-whisper: “That’s my friend!”

“Wow!” I told him the next day. “That was fun. No wonder everyone likes TV!”

When Christmas rolled around that year, Patrick handed me a card. “Awake and sing!” it said on the front. And inside was a year’s subscription to People magazine. 

Welcome home, Patrick. 
If you want to keep up with him, Pat also madly twitters @patiokerr.


Sunday, February 12, 2012


Today I’m having a little luncheon for my friend Ellen’s birthday. When I cook for friends, even if, as in this case, we’ll only be four, it inevitably turns into a two-day (at least) extravangaza. There’s the working out of the menu, the shopping, the cleaning of the house, the gathering of the flowers, and finally, the cooking.

Here’s my menu (one of the guests is vegetarian):

Endive Salad with Meyer Lemon, Fava Beans and Oil-Cured Olives
Beets and Tangerines with Mint and Orange-Flower Water
Orecchiette with Cauliflower, Cavalo Nero, Currants and Pine Nuts (this includes a sub-recipe of Currant and Pine Nut Relish)
Olive Oil Cake with Crème Fraiche and Candied Tangerines

These are all courtesy of the first cookbook I’ve bought in ages: Sunday Suppers at Lucques (Lucques being a fab L.A. restaurant run by chef Suzanne Goin).

To simply go to one grocery store and be done with it would of course have been too easy, and the shopping in this case involved Saturday trips to Trader Joe’s, Jons, the 99-Cent Only store, the Silver Lake Farmer’s Market and a walk up North Micheltorena where I nabbed a couple of sprigs of wild rosemary from beside a derelict strip of sidewalk. I held my breath for the fresh fava beans, which can be hard to find, but Jons came through. 

This left the vanilla bean and the Meyer lemons, the latter which are all over the place when you don’t need them and nowhere to be found when you do. Meyer lemons are to my mind one of California’s finest treasures: thin-skinned, ultra juicy, less sharp than the thick-skinned ones you get in the supermarket, and a luscious deep orange-gold with smooth velvety skin. We had a tree in the back of my old apartment complex and I didn’t buy lemons of any kind for years. They probably don’t travel well which is why you seldom see them in the supermarkets, even out here, nor at the Silver Lake Farmer’s Market (where I did, however, purchase two fine bunches of cavalo nero aka Tuskan kale).

I was sure they’d have Meyers at the Hollywood Farmer’s Market, though, which is twenty times the size of the Silver Lake’s and convenes on Sunday. Another thing I love is combining forays. So I decided to attend the 7:30 Mass at Blessed Sacrament in Hollywood Sunday morning, and to walk over to the farmer's market afterwards, and not only did they have Meyer lemons, they had about five varieties of kale (among a multitude of other things) I'd never even seen before.  Vanilla beans were $12.79 for two at Vons so I decided to get Ellen a twenty-buck Starbucks card and use extract for the candied tangerines instead. 

All this has been ever so slightly complicated by the fact that over two months ago my roommate decided to start feeding a mother cat and her five kittens who were lurking around the back yard. I foresaw nothing but trouble (though heroically held my tongue) and so it has been, in increasingly and escalating measure. I didn’t mind feeding them for the several weeks she was gone (that's in addition to the two of her own who live indoors), nor comforting her when she got slashed on the barbed wire trying to rescue the one who got impaled out by the gazebo, nor the last couple of days having to bolt and unbolt the kitchen door, and tiptoe around and otherwise not talk while I was in there (she had finally managed to captured a couple of them and taken them inside where they were freaking in the kitchen), nor listen to the sad tales of the two different people who had agreed to adopt and were reporting back that the cats were feral and were sitting in the corner hissing.

Saturday morning, though, when I came back from my shopping to find my pore housemate barricaded in the kitchen, it did start to seem a bit much. “You can’t come in here!” she barked through the crack in the door as I approached laden down with bags. “I'm sorry, but there’s blood all over the place”…I like kittens as much as the next person, and the thought of my own late lamented Blanche still brings a tear to my eye, but I am extremely resistant to showing interest in saving something just because someone else is interested.  

So the whole has been an exercise in patience, mind-your-own-businessism and also refusal to cooperate or get caught up in other people’s projects/drama, though I did find the deep concern for the kittens and the complete unconcern for me ever-so-slightly troubling as after all I do pay rent and it is always nice to have access to your food included therein. Nonetheless, I asked if there was anything I could do and repeated (as I had several times before) that I needed to use the kitchen to cook Monday and as almost always happens, so far (Sunday night) all is well. The kittens are upstairs, my housemate seems more at ease than she has in a long time, and I have survived a week  that was difficult for a variety of reasons, this being just one of them. 

This morning I sat quietly for an hour in the dark, as I do almost every morning, looking forward to the preparations, to my guests, to the laughs and fun I know we'll have, and when I rose I thought, Thank you, Lord, this is just what I needed, to think of someone else, to cook lunch for my friends.

Saturday the Gospel reading was the miracle of the loaves and fishes [Mark 8:1-10]. "Still, he asked them, 'How many loaves to you have?'"...

Implicit but not mentioned is that along with the four thousand, the disciples and Christ had their fill as well, with some left over. There's food and then there's food. And when we feed others, we get fed, too.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


[T]here is no real need for gharries [a gharry was a horse-drawn carriage, used in Egypt and India as a cab, in which the horses were hideously abused] and rickshaws; they only exist because Orientals consider it vulgar to walk. They are luxuries, and, as anyone who has ridden in them knows, very poor luxuries. They afford a small amount of convenience, which cannot possibly balance the suffering of the men and animals.

photo: National Geographic

Similarly with the plongeur [dishwasher in a fancy French restaurant , a job at which Orwell describes toiling away, in sixteen-hour shifts, for weeks]. He is a king compared with a rickshaw puller or a gharry pony, but his case is analogous. He is the slave of a hotel or a restaurant, and his slavery is more or less useless. For, after all, where is the real need of big hotels and smart restaurants? They are supposed to provide luxury, but in reality they provide only a cheap, shoddy imitation of it. Nearly everyone hates hotels. Some restaurants are better than others, but it is impossible to get as good a meal in a restaurant as one can get, for the same expense, in a private house. No doubt hotels and restaurants must exist, but there is no need that they should enslave hundreds of people. What makes the work in them is not the essentials; it is the shams that are supposed to represent luxury. Smartness, as it is called, means, in effect, merely that the staff work more and the customers pay more; no one benefits except the proprietor, who will presently buy himself a striped villa at Deauville. Essentially, a ‘smart’ hotel is a place where a hundred people toil like devils in order that two hundred may pay through the nose for things they do not really want. If the nonsense were cut out of hotels and restaurants, and the work done with simple efficiency, plongeurs might work six or eight hours a day instead often or fifteen…

photo: courtesy Restaurant-ing through history
 Fear of the mob is a superstitious fear. It is based on the idea that there is some mysterious, fundamental difference between rich and poor, as though they were two different races, like negroes and white men. But in reality there is no such difference. The mass of the rich and poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit. Change places, and handy dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? Everyone who has mixed on equal terms with the poor knows this quite well. But the trouble is that intelligent, cultivated people, the very people who might be expected to have liberal opinions, never do mix with the poor. For what do the majority of educated people know about poverty? In my copy of Villon's poems the editor has actually thought it necessary to explain the line "Ne pain ne voyent qu'aux fenestres" "[["The poor] do not see bread except through windows”] by a footnote; so remote is even hunger from the educated man's experience. From this ignorance a superstitious fear of the mob results quite naturally. The educated man pictures a horde of submen, wanting only a day's liberty to loot his house, burn his books, and set him to work minding a machine or sweeping out a lavatory. "Anything," he thinks, "any injustice, sooner than let that mob loose." He does not see that since there is no difference between the mass of rich and poor, there is no question of setting the mob loose. The mob is in fact loose now, and--in the shape of rich men--is using its power to set up enormous treadmills of boredom, such as "smart" hotels.

--George Orwell, from Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933


Thursday, February 9, 2012


I once participated in a discussion re the conversion of St. Paul, who was thrown from his horse and struck blind on the way to Damascus. "Of course our lives aren't nearly as dramatic as St. Paul's," one of the other participants opined, at which point I thought, Mine is!

To wit:


Regular readers will recall my recent announcement re the undertaking of a new project: knitting. Caryll Houselander, aka the Divine Eccentric, was a big fan of learning to do some kind of hand-crafts (she whittled little animals and Biblical figures out of wood) which, at this point in my life, I am totally on board with.

After a rather severe mishap in which I attempted to “wind together” two thousands-of-meters long skeins of string-like, viscose yarn that of course became hopelessly tangled, and that I of course insisted upon taking literally five to six hours to unwind (though in my OCD way I actually, strangely, enjoyed this), followed by an abortive attempt to start a scarf while simultaneously watching Joseph Losey’s The Servant, I have re-started the scarf, and it might actually be shaping up!

I also managed to knit out a skein of beautiful red-orange ribbon and completed what turned out to be a 9-inch or so square of…What is it? I asked myself after consulting my how-to knitting book and triumphantly “binding off.” A guest (i.e. never to be used) washcloth? A welcome mat for a gay dog-house? In a burst of inspiration, I folded my creation in two, stitched up the sides, snipped off a royal blue tassel from one of the many moth-eaten lengths of tapestry draped about my room, affixed a silver cross (ditto) to the whole, and now have a kind of gerry-built makeup case! That can't travel anywhere much besides the back of my toilet as everything would fall out. Frankly, however, the whole calming, repetitive, over, around, under, and through or however it goes process is such balm to my fevered psyche that so far I hardly care whether I'm actually making anything.

A huge shout-out to my friend Christine, an expert knitter herself, who, when she got wind of my desire to learn a craft, presented me with a giant bag of needles, knitting guides and magazines, and many many skeins of what I'm sure is incredibly expensive yarn. Now is that not a friend? I have many such people in my life and I thank God daily for them.

Ten to eleven a.m. is always an exciting part of my day as this is the hour when the Filipino mailman is most likely to either shove the mail with a great clattering clomp through the bronze slot in the front door, or, in the event of a package, to knock. I always have one ear cocked and rush headlong through the living in room in the event and the other day I rec'd a shoebox-sized package, return address from my brother Joe who resides (in the house he and his wife Mimi just bought, talk about exciting) outside Atlanta, Georgia.

Joe once sent me an autographed photo of George Jones (a mutual hero). Another time he Fed-Exed me a note, written on a piece of scrap paper in black Magic Marker in my mother's hand reading: "GOL RAM IT. PUT THE SEAT DOWN!" (salvaged from the family homestead; pore Mom having been driven to distraction by a lifetime of bathroom-sharing with five sons).

In other words, a package from Joe is no small thing! This time I tore off the wrapping to find a memento he apparently picked up on The Queers' last tour through the Everglades. A varnished crocodile head with green glass eyes might not be quite as exciting as being thrown from a horse and hearing, "Saul, Saul, who dost thou persecute me?" but in my book it qualifies for a very close second. This, too, has taken up pride of place in my bathroom:


I like to keep my personal life under wraps, but I do think this photo of yours truly with the great William G. of Glendale, California,  is worth sharing.

Have an adventurous weekend!