Saturday, August 31, 2013

SUNDAY SERMON: KENT HARUF'S BENEDICTION

PAUL KLEE
BEFORE THE BLITZ, 1923
From Benediction, a novel by Kent Haruf.
Rev. Rob Lyle, of the fictional town of Holt, Colorado, is preaching on a Sunday morning. The text is from Luke.

"Love your enemies...what is Jesus Christ talking about? He can’t mean this literally. That would be impossible. He must be speaking of some utopian idea, a fantasy…

[Y]ou can’t love people who do evil. It’s neither sensible nor practical...They’ll only do wickedness and hatefulness again. And worse, they’ll think they can get away with this wickedness and evil, because they’ll think we’re weak and afraid. What would the world come to?

But… what if Jesus wasn’t kidding? What if he wasn’t talking about some never-never land? What if he really did mean what he said two thousand years ago? What if he was thoroughly wise to the world and knew firsthand cruelty and wickedness and evil and hate…from firsthand personal experience?... And what if in spite of all that he knew, he still said love your enemies?...

And what if we tried it? What if we said to our enemies: We are the most powerful nation on earth. We can destroy you. We can kill your children. We can make ruins of your cities and villages and when we’re finished you won’t even know how to look for the places where they used to be. We have the power to take away your water and to scorch your earth, to rob you of the very fundamentals of life. We can change the actual day into actual night. We can do all of these things to you. And more.

But what if we say, Listen: Instead of any of these, we are going to give willingly and generously to you. We are going to spend the great American national treasure and the will and the human lives that we would have spent on destruction, and instead we are going to turn them all toward creation. We’ll mend your roads and highways, expand your schools, modernize your wells and water supplies, save your ancient artifacts and art and culture, preserve your temples and mosques. In fact, we are going to love you...We have set our hearts on it. We will treat you like brothers and sisters. We are going to turn our collective national cheek and present it to be stricken a second time, if need be, and offer it to you. Listen, we—

But then he was abruptly halted. Someone from out in the congregation was talking. Are you crazy? You must be insane! A man’s voice. Deep-throated. Angry. Loud. Coming from over on the west side of the sanctuary near the windows. What’s wrong with you? Are you out of your mind?”

Later, Rev. Lyle reflects:

“People don’t want to be disturbed. They want assurance. They don’t come to church on Sunday morning to think about new ideas or even the old important ones. Thy want to hear what they’ve been told before, with only some small variation on what they’ve been hearing all their lives, and then they want to go home and eat pot roast and say it was a good service and feel satisfied.”

PAUL KLEE
DESTROYED PLACE, 1920

Thursday, August 29, 2013

THE LORD KNEW ME WELL: GOD AND POP MUSIC IN COMMUNIST CHINA


From God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China by Liao Yiwu. Liao “is a Chinese author, reporter, musician and poet who has been imprisoned for criticism of the Chinese regime.

The below is excerpted from a conversation with Ho Lu, 24, which took place in Bailu Township at Shangshuyuan, China on January 13, 2010. Ho, a disaffected, argumentative youth, had been living with his mother, “idling” all day, “very into pop stars,” when he had a conversion experience.

Ho: I couldn’t have cared less. I was in no hurry. I didn’t have a girlfriend to pester me. My mom cooked for me and bought me clothes. I got pocket money each month. It wasn’t bad. But on day, I became bored at home. I opened up the Bible and flippd the pages and stopped at a passage in the book of Jeremiah: “ ‘If you will return, O Israel, return to me,’ declares the Lord. ‘If you put your detestable idols out of my sight and no longer go astray, and if in a truthful, just and righteous way you swear, as surely as the Lord lives, then the nations will be bleessed by him and in him they will glory.’ ”

I was totally, like, thunderstruck. My mind blanked out for a few minutes. My God, I thought about all those detestable pop idols that I had worshipped—Li Yuchean and Jay Chou. Thy ran past my mind like floating clouds. The Lord knew me well. He understood my generation well. We had been plunged into a bottomless pit of pop icon worshipping. I couldn’t get myself out, and my life had almost been ruined. God finally revealed himself to me. His words were stern. I had to remove all the idols out of my sight, and I swore to be good.

When my mother came home that night, I told her that I wanted to be a Christian and I wanted to be baptized. She looked bewildered and didn’t know what to say.

Liao: That was quite a sudden change.

Ho: If you really believe in God, you should be baptized. If you don't, suit yourself. That was what I thought at the time. I’m a prototype of the posteighties generation. For years, I followed all sorts of pop icons and knew how to sing all their songs. When a new one came along, I discarded all the old ones. I spent my whole life chasing idols like a dog chasing a ball. But then I learned to sing hymns and I never get tired of them. The hymns touch me on a deeper level. They change me.





THE BLASPHEMY OF WAR: ARGENTINIAN CONCEPTUAL ARTIST LÉON FERRARI

WESTERN CIVILIZATION AND CHRISTIANITY (1965)
A few weeks ago I happened upon a NYT obit. "Léon Ferrari, 92, Provocative Argentine Conceptual Artist" read the header. It was , and the sculpture caught my eye.

"A Catholic artist who is anti-war!" I thought, seeing the photo of the above sculpture.  "I've never heard of him!"

But when I read the piece, it turned out that Ferrari was rabidly anti-Catholic His art was fueled by outrage at the abuses of war, government, and the Church. In 2004, he had "displayed statues of the Virgin Mary in a blender, little saints in baby bottles and Christ figures in a toaster to demonstrate his belief that people are force-fed religion." Pope Francis (at the time Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires) had condemned the exhibition as blasphemy. 

While for Ferrari the sculpture was an (entirely deserved) indictment of the West for our ceaseless waging of war in the name of Christ, I saw the sculpture as a reflection of the fact that when we wage war, we kill Christ all over again. For Ferrari, the operative emotion was rage; for me, it was sorrow. 

Ferrari apparently started a club for "the impious, heretics, apostates, blasphemous, atheists, pagans, agnostics, and infidels." I get it. I often feel closer to that camp than to the camp that weeps over the unborn and in the next breath approves arming 19-year-olds with M-16s. Still, to refuse to acknowledge that Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin, and the Kim clan of North Korea managed to handily starve, massacre, torture and enslave millions of people with no religion at all is its own kind of hypocrisy. And for all our hypocrisy, for all the violence the West has perpetrated, it may well be our belief in Chris, tepid though it may be, that has prevented us--so far--from perpetrating a complete no-holds-barred psycho bloodbath. 

We all hunger and thirst for righteousness but the Crucifixion put to rest for all time the notion that the way to sate that hunger is murder. "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do, Christ said, on the Cross, of his murderers. 

The intersection of the Cross is where we all meet. And Ferrari was right about one thing: more and more, it seems we are going to meet--the light versus the dark, goodness versus evil, the truth versus the lie of war--across the wings of a fighter plane.  

Sunday, August 25, 2013

MY PLANTS







I derive great pleasure from my plants. My materials consist of a $1.99 pair of white cotton gloves, a paring knife, a pair of scissors, and my roommate's green hose. I’m forever buying pots: pots glazed with pale green, rough brown Indonesian pots, ordinary terra cotta pots.

“I’m gardening!” I think, balancing a Christmas cactus  in one hand, a bamboo orchid cutting in the other, and holding my hip against that fuzzy cactus thing with the ruffled leaves I filched from a friend's garden in the Hollywood Hills.

I still have bromeliads from a plant I originally got 23 years ago. This bromeliad is the perfect plant. Overwater it, underwater it, neglect to repot it, it will grow "pups" which you can neatly slice off with a paring knife, or if you’re too busy to walk to the kitchen, simply twist off, stick into a pot of cut-rate potting soil, forget to water, and next thing you know it has ten pups of its own and is taking over the patio.

FIFTH GENERATION BROMELIAD
Every few days I go out there and say You are SO BEAUTIFUL! you are doing SO FREAKIN GREAT! I pluck stray twigs, leaves, and bunches of pepper berries that have fallen from the towering tree above from betwixt their dear fronds. I snip off any dead leaves. I stroke, compliment, soothe, encourage--and above all, admire. Look at you, you strapping creature! Wow, you are growing like a son-of-a-gun!

I feel sure children would do well under this regimen, too--though I understand you have to interact with them more often than every few days.

BAMBOO ORCHID (PROPER NAME EPIDENDRUM)
ANOTHER KIND OF BROMELIAD


THESE LAST TWO ARE FROM CUTTINGS MY FRIEND GERRY L.
GAVE ME FROM THE YARD OF HIS BUNGALOW IN CHINATOWN

Friday, August 23, 2013

IN PRAISE OF HOUSEWORK



"The minute we apply a glimmer of consciousness to a mechanical gesture, or practice phenomenology while polishing a piece of old furniture, we sense new impressions come into being beneath this familiar domestic duty. For consciousness rejuvenates everything, giving a quality of beginning to the most everyday actions. It even dominates memory. How wonderful it is to really become once more inventor of a mechanical action! And so, when a poet rubs a piece of furniture—even vicariously—when he puts a little fragrant wax on his table with the woolen cloth that lends warmth to everything it touches, he creates a new object; he increases the object's human dignity; he registers this object officially as a member of the human household. Henri Bosco once wrote: ‘The soft wax entered into the polished substance under the pressure of hands and the effective warmth of a woolen cloth. Slowly the tray took on a dull luster. It was as though the radiance induced by the magnetic rubbing emanated from the hundred-year-old sapwood, from the very heart of the dead tree, and spread gradually, in the form of light, over the tray. The old fingers possessed of every virtue, the broad palm, drew from the solid block with its inanimate fibers, the latent powers of life itself. This was creation of an object, a real act of faith, taking place before my enchanted eyes.’ ”

--Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space





Wednesday, August 21, 2013

ADDICTION, FREE WILL, AND JEFFREY DAHMER


AS A YOUNG GIRL, THÉRÈSE PRAYED FOR PRANZINI
A CONDEMNED CRIMINAL WHO WENT TO THE GUILLOTINE FOR BRUTALLY MURDERING
A WOMAN, HER DAUGHTER, AND HER SERVANT

My heart bleeds for the children, spouses and friends of alcoholics who are fascinated and compelled by the subject of alcohol, who want so badly to understand and forgive, and yet at bottom can't help seeing addiction as a "vice,"  a fundamentally moral issue.

You probably have to have experienced addiction yourself to know that once a person is in its grip, he or she no longer has free will. The addict is no longer able to choose NOT to drink, drug, gamble, binge and purge, smoke. That's what "normal" people simply can't grasp...

To say you didn't ask for the compulsion doesn't derogate the fact that you're still responsible for everything you do under its influence. I just watched an old video of Stone Phillips interviewing Jeffery Dahmer. In prison, Dahmer came to believe that Christ was his "Lord and Savior," and that he would be accountable to him.

He took full responsibility for his actions, refusing to blame them on his parents or anyone else.

He also talked about how after the first time he killed, and especially the second, he was in the grip of a compulsion. He couldn't have stopped if he wanted to.

When I try to imagine the craving to drink, which ruled my life for twenty years, as a craving to dominate, control, even kill...I can in a sense understand or at least sympathize with it.

Also, when asked about the cannibalism, Dahmer said, "I thought if I ate [his victims], they'd somehow become part of me...permanently"...Which is exactly the exchange that takes place in the Eucharist...

At the heart of the darkest evil--when passion has passed way, way over to pathology--still Christ resides, reigns, calls...

Like Thérèse, we can pray for the Jeffrey Dahmers and Ed Geins of the world. We can realize that what they had in them, we have the seeds of in us, too.



Monday, August 19, 2013

REPORT FROM PAKISTAN: FERTILITY, INTIMACY, RELATIONSHIPS


A typical weekend hiking in the Margallas,
the foothills to the Himalayas, that provide the backdrop of Islamabad. 
One of the readers I've "met" through my blog is a Westerner who lives in and works as a public health worker in Pakistan.

Here's part of her story.

"I'm teaching the Billings Ovulation Method™ of natural fertility regulation and we’re looking at how to introduce it more widely in a place like Pakistan. 

Heather, it's an amazing privilege to work with women and couples one on one teaching them to recognise their body and how beautifully they were designed from the beginning.  It's also heartbreaking at times - to look into women's eyes and hear them tell me what they really think about motherhood, sexuality, their bodies and how much they just put up with.

As a wise Muslim colleague and dear friend of mine remarked one day, gender is home to the deepest prejudices of humanity.  Perhaps that points us to a truth that there’s something so remarkable about femininity and masculinity that every culture, all of humanity, has spent all of history battling over it in some form or another. We only need to watch a documentary like ‘Miss Representation’ to realize that in degrading femininity and the oppression of women, Pakistan is not alone, even if the way in which this is done may seem poles apart. Is this what we call ‘progress’ when girls are increasingly sexualized and objectified in the media, increasingly raised on ‘pink, pink, pink’ means feminine?  Is it ‘progress’ to sell the unrealistic idea that we can, nay, we must ‘have it all’ or to conceive gender equality purely in terms of power and an aggressive pitting of male against female?

In pointing out the faults in our own society, I don’t want to trivialize in the slightest the situation of women in Pakistan.  As a Billings teacher, I encounter this first hand as I hear the stories of clients – especially the most vulnerable women, the single mothers, the widows, the impoverished, the minorities – recount the hurdles, dangers and stigmatization they must overcome on a daily basis, created largely through a neglect of the role of women in general.  But in those situations, ironically, it is their children that give their lives meaning and hope – struggle and suffering too, yes – but those children mean the world to them.  Speaking of her five-year-old son, her only child, one single mother client confided, “My greatest fear is that he will abandon me too – like all the others in my life have.” 

In spite of all this, I still think certain social norms in Pakistan could help us in the West remember something we’ve forgotten.  In Pakistan, people are still largely conceived in a relational and communal sense.  Some of the anthropological research that I’ve read even on maternal health in Pakistan points this out – without passing judgment – that notions of ‘autonomy’ and how that’s defined by ‘international’ norms simply don’t fit here.  I remember meeting with a Government official from the Ministry of Health and I encouraged him – “Your country still has a social fabric of sorts, don’t let it disintegrate in the name of the individual.”  He nodded vigorously; a senior official from the World Bank had said something very similar a few days earlier. 

Children are still highly valued in Pakistan, perhaps to a fault at times that couples struggling to conceive suffer enormous social stigma and women are too often defined solely by their ability to produce children.  But contrast that with our individualistic society where child-rearing is considered ‘just another lifestyle’ and the ‘village to raise a child’ mentality is fast fading, and to be honest, I don’t think there’s much room for finger wagging in either direction. 

I think it’s far more useful to acknowledge certain universal elements about our state as being male and female, certain realities that we can use for good or ill, and strengthen the positives that can be found in any given society.  In fact, in an organizational sense, you’ll hear this called ‘appreciative enquiry’

NFP is a bit like appreciative enquiry – it starts with an assumption that there are natural goods to be found here, and that they can be built upon. To have a senior health sector bureaucrat wax lyrical about how Islamic the Billings Ovulation Method™ seems; to see the way women’s eyes light up when they recognize their Peak fertile day for the first time; to just shut up and listen, almost sheepishly, when my client, a peri-menopausal, professionally well-established mother of three starts to cajole me, as yet not a mother: “Lucy, you’ll realize too – children really give that sense of purpose…” – these are moments where I know that the Billings Ovulation Method™ has a universal value to it that pretty much anyone can recognize.

Of course it’s not a panacea for all situations. There needs to be a certain minimum level of mutual respect and cooperation from which to plant a seed of natural cooperation in family planning.  But that seed can and does transform relationships.  The kind of cooperation, communication and respect for the other that forms the foundation of this most intimate aspect of life, very often spills over into other areas of a couple’s life. Trying to measure that, from the outside, is impossible.  But, just because it’s difficult to observe, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

I know it’s there, because I see it before my own eyes as I walk with my clients – especially when I get to teach the couple together.  And boy is it beautiful – sometimes hard, sometimes painful – but there’s something extraordinarily satisfying about understand how we can work with our bodies and with each other, not imposing on our bodies or against each other.  Their stories of joy and sorrow, disappointment and hope, wounding and healing are a far cry from the simplistic narratives on either side.

There’s so much more we could do.  Translating natural fertility regulation resources into local languages.  Providing more, better quality, better followed up teacher training courses.  Linking up with health education institutes.  Just making this a real, viable, available alternative for women and men throughout Pakistan.  We’re always looking for more people who want to be kept in the loop of what we’re doing. 

Heather, thanks for giving me airtime.  If anyone wants to know more, email us at islamabadbillings at gmail dot com."

Clearly not camera shy, hanging out with kids in Sindh,
southern Pakistan, during some field work.
 My 9 year old neighbour, Maryam - there are lots of Maryams,
Mary the mother of Jesus is one of the most revered women in Islam - and I compare my fresh Henna, compliments of her.
A typical Saturday afternoon in Sindh, southern Pakistan.
 Almost anything grows in this country -
 including sunflowers outside the Shah Jahan mosque in Thatta, Sindh province, southern Pakistan 

A Saturday afternoon toddle with my neighbours
down to the beautiful Shah Jahan mosque in Thatta, Sindh province.

The ceiling of part of the Shah Jahan mosque, Thatta, Sindh province.  
          Islamic art is patterned - too awed by the greatness of Allah 
                to ever attempt to represent him in any human form, 
                they instead draw the beauty of intricate patterning 
                          to lift the spirit to higher thoughts. 

Colourful and shy, these women literally hold their head scarf in their mouth,
or hold it over their mouth with their hands, to keep themselves covered.
Badin district, Sindh province, Pakistan
A young boy pushes, I'm assuming, his disabled father to go collect a cash grant.
When you're born into these environments, it becomes survival of the fittest -
the disabled, the malnourished, the widowed, the woman, the girl, the weak,
all find themselves at a disadvantage and it's a battle from the start.


Sunday, August 18, 2013

A LOVE LETTER TO LOS ANGELES; ON THE 17th ANNIVERSARY OF MY CONFIRMATION

DISNEY HALL
HAVE YOU ALL BEEN WAY UP TOP TO THAT COOL GARDEN
THAT YOU CAN OFTEN HAVE ALL TO YOURSELF?
"When you read American nature writing, quite a few books could be seen as love letters to a place: Thoreau’s Walden, Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge, Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra. Some, like Walden and Refuge, are about the places the authors grew up. They’re like a hymn to the parents and their family home. Others, like My First Summer in the Sierra, or Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey, are about places the writers went to and fell in love with, the way we do with lovers or spouses. The latter is how I feel about Vermont. I’ve been lucky enough to find a “mate.”
--John Elder, author and environmentalist, in an interview in the July, 2013 issue of The Sun


A friend recently asked me where I’d want to be buried.

I thought a minute and said, “Probably in the Post Road cemetery in North Hampton, New Hampshire, where my parents are buried, on the street where we grew up, a few miles from the Atlantic. I’ve lived in LA for 23 years but our true home is maybe where we grew up.” 

She asked, “Don’t you think, wherever our deepest heart is, we should be living there?” 

It’s a good question. Maybe, but maybe not. Just because I might want to be buried there doesn't necessarily mean I'd want to live there. Plus, “Here we have no lasting city; we seek a home that is yet to come” [Hebrews 13:14]. To be a follower of Christ is to consent, out of love, to all kinds of things not being the way we would have arranged them. It's to consent to a kind of perpetual exile, or maybe more accurately, to see that we all live in exile. 

I came to LA almost on a whim with my then-husband, my new husband, in 1990. He’s gone but I stayed, in this maddening, glorious, seemingly very unpromising city that in every way is so unlike where I was raised. And yet I’ve come into myself here. I became a writer here; I became a Catholic here. I was confirmed and took my First Communion on August 18, 1996, at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Hollywood.

LA has been my "mate" with whom I've had an ongoing, ever-evolving, tumultuous relationship. LA has been my cloister. A reader recently remarked, "You sound like you're weary of LA, and like you're also in love with it," and she was exactly right. LA in many ways drives me crazy, and yet I can't get enough of it, can hardly get close enough to it, all of it: the beauty and the squalor, the wealth and the poverty, the sacred and the profane. Everywhere I've lived, stayed, worked, visited in this city, whenever I've found myself with 15 minutes to spare, I've walked. I've walked near the dermatologist, the foot doctor, the dentist, the DMV, the bank, the church, the houses of friends, the grocery store, the soup kitchen, museums, concert halls, bookstores, parking structures, convention centers, courthouses, office buildings, movie theaters, libraries, and prisons. 

On foot I can peer into people's yards, see their faces. On foot, my ear is as close to the ground as I can get to it without actually lying down. 

I sometimes think, Has anyone else ever said the Anima Christi--"Soul of Christ, sancify me, Body of Christ, save me, Blood of Christ, inebriate me..."-- going up this particular set of steps? Has anyone ever prayed for the trees and flowers and birds and people on this street, this block, this seemingly God-forsaken strip mall?

Sometimes I picture leaving invisible bits of my body and blood behind, little energy trails of calories and heat, on the streets of LA where I’ve walked. That's where my “real” life takes place: in silence, in solitude, even if I’m with people.

So thank you for welcoming me, sheltering me, embracing me, annoying me, bewildering me, and staggering me with your crazy-ass, wild-card beauty.

LITTLE TOKYO

Friday, August 16, 2013

GLAD TO BE HOME

orange-green seedpod
agave outside san carlos cathedral. monterey, ca
“Literature has blurred the features of the men who have chosen the empty spaces of the planet for their domain, who seek the broad plains of solitude. All the clichés about ‘adventure’, all the banalities about the ‘magic of the sands,’ or the ‘appeal of the desert’, have thrown a veil of confusion over the truth. The man who becomes a denizen of the Sahara is neither the one stereotype always straining every nerve towards feats of heroism, nor the other who bears within him the unhealed wound of a great love. A sic heart finds no more effective cure in the desert than anywhere else; rather less, probably. The image of the man who is made a ‘Saharan’ by duty, by resentment, or by despair, is entirely false. To picture the desert as a convalescent home or a place to retire to—what a misconception! The desert enriches only those who are already rich. It strengthens only the strong. One must entrust to it the heart’s abundance and the heart’s vitality; for these it brings to fruition.”

“ ‘I have gathered the smallest atoms of time into ever-more-substantial textures,’ wrote Mallarmé. To give substance to that thin thread of water or sand that runs between our fingers—that is our sole problem. It is this that inspires the mystics, as it inspires the poets. ‘The contemplation of time is the key to human life’, says Simone Weil…

Whether one walks, rides a camel, flies, or dives deep into the sea, it is for the sole purpose of crossing a frontier beyond which man ceases to feel himself a master, sure of his techniques, upheld by his inheritance, backed by the crowd. The more powerless he is, the more his spirit permeates his being. The horizon of the world and the horizon of thought coincide within him. Then the water, the rocks, and the sand become vital nourishment, and perhaps a poem.

The sea and the desert are countries of lowly material attributes, where mind and spirit find luxury.”

“Travel is a means of achieving another life. Not the life you had been hoping for, but on the contrary, such a life as you cannot foresee when you set out.”

--all from Philippe Diolé, The Most Beautiful Desert of All

my own dear bedside table

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

THE REDWOOD ABBEY


I-5
TAKE THE 101 NEXT TIME
Welp, folks, I am kind of telling my big road trip backward but now that I have internet access again, here's the first part of my trip, north from L.A. with a stop just south of Santa Cruz in Aptos, thence up the next day to Our Lady of the Redwoods Abbey.





SEACLIFF BEACH,
APTOS CA
I WAS HOSTED BY THE LOVELY ANN BREILING AND HER MOTHER MARIE

...AND SITE OF A LARGE TRAFFIC JAM

FERN,
BRICELAND THORN ROAD,
WHITETHORN, CA

OUR LADY OF THE REDWOODS ABBEY
THE STARS AT NIGHT WERE SPECTACULAR

I spent six days at the abbey in silence. The first night I read an essay by a member of the USMC called "The Few, the Proud, the Chosen" in which I learned that Marines consider their rifle HUMAN and recite a creed to that effect. I spent the whole remaining time working on, beginning rather, an essay of my own that ran to fourteen (VERY rough) pages when I left.

PATH LEADING TO MEADOW
MEADOW WITH CHAIR UNDER TREE

GRASS




PLENTY TO PONDER IN A THISTLE 

WILD TURKEYS EVERYWHERE
DEER AS WELL
NOT AT ALL SKITTISH
YOU COULD COME CLOSE AND STUDY THE FAWNS



EARLY MORNING



MANZANITA (?)