Thursday, September 19, 2019



It's not in trouble here.  I have hit the ground running upon returning from my month in Idaho and week-long road trip on either end, have fallen in love with LA all over again, and am obsessed with migrating (eventually) to a new website.

The light in September! Every day I am torn, and from about three pm on, would easily simply sit on my balcony and drink it all in till the sun goes down.


I love women. In fact it's because I do love us that I feel we have veered somewhat off track. I think the woman who wrote the below is onto something.

"The idea that men don’t have to think about the things women think about—but should!—is at the heart of feminism’s complaints today. It is at once a silly and impossible demand. It requires that we not only reorient society to accommodate all of women’s desires but that we rewire men’s brains to share all of women’s concerns.

This is a game men cannot win. Having been twisted into pretzels to be supportive and thoughtful and to limit their ambitions to make room for those of their wives, men in the American elite are now being publicly blamed for the fact that their wives cannot turn off their consciences, their sense of obligation to their children, and the nagging sense that maybe making money and having things aren’t the most rewarding things to do with your life...

Feminism has already largely corrected everything it can possibly correct, including the behavior of men. So now what?

Fourth-wave feminists are living through a period in which feminist dreams have become reality. And they are finding that reality unpleasant...

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Feminism may have delivered greater freedom for women, but it has never delivered greater happiness. In fact, longitudinal surveys suggest that women are less satisfied with their lives today than they were a few decades ago. Having more choices—as we all do in an age where Amazon can bring thousands of brands of shampoo to our doorstep tomorrow and Facebook allows us to pick among 17 different gender identities—does not make our lives richer...

This is not a problem that feminism or any political or social movement can solve. It is not a problem at all. It is the human condition." [italics mine].

-Naomi Schaeffer Riley, from a Commentary piece entitled "Feminism Is In Trouble"

Check out my newest book, RAVISHED: NOTES ON WOMANHOOD if the spirit moves, as well.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019


Now that I've completed it, here's what my month-long artist's residency looked like:

Up at 5:30 for the stupendous sunrise, then prayer, then work, then usually 11:30 Mass, then lunch, then my chore of helping put away the dishes, then more work or a nap or a phone call, then the hour-long walk up the hill, then (often) Evening Prayer, then supper, then dishes, then reading or a movie.

Sometimes, to get really zany, I would leave the walk till AFTER SUPPER!

The sisters at the Monastery of St. Gertrude were wonderful, especially since I was basically a guest in their home, a fact of which I was at all times acutely aware. I did pretty darn well, for me. Did not get crabby, surly, sullen, impatient, sarcastic or snippy, a feat made possible ONLY by the fact that as I said, I spent 95% of the time by myself.

Another crazy stroke of luck: the other artist-in-residence was Dana Stevens of Brooklyn, NY, film critic for SLATE, a wonderful writer, and an all-around stellar human being.

Dana REALLY never got crabby, sullen, or sarcastic, and instead exhibited a refreshing and unflagging curiosity about all things prairie, Benedictine spirituality, and the mysteries of the monastery building which were legion and included working dumbwaiters, a beauty parlor, a Halloween costume room, a craft room, a sewing room, a pantry the size of my bedroom at home filled with shelves of homemade preserves, a library, a former infirmary, an "old kitchen" with two huge gleaming cast-iron woodstoves, a lab where soaps and balms are made, the room with Sr. Placida's antique bookbinder, and more.

As it was, and though we were constantly snooping about, we barely scratched the surface.

Having now experienced a few "transition" days in Boise before heading out later today t begin the drive back to LA, I realize I barely "relaxed" for a single hour while I was there. Not that I didn't sit in the morning staring out the window, but I was generally planning my work day (how could it be that even in a monastery, there weren't enough hours!?). I was so thrilled to have silence, solitude, and a relatively uninterrupted day that I wanted to take advantage of every second to work.

More to the point, I realize now, I really, really did not want to feel.

is the rough translation



My 80-year-old Cousin Dickie died last March. The last remaining "family homestead" (built by my paternal grandfather on Rye Beach, NH, and much visited and beloved by all my siblings and I as kids and beyond) has been sold, the proceeds divided, and as often happens during such times, some old wounds were reopened--and now await healing.

Plus it's fall already, and WHAT HAPPENED TO 2019!? I know they say time seems to pass more quickly the older you get, but this is ridiculous! I tend to want to cling to all people, places, and things--Wait, where are you going? I didn't get a chance to FULLY drink you in! 

But that's not the way reality works. Reality rushes in, relentlessly, one second marching on to another...

Now I'm enjoying (among many other things), the Boise River Greenbelt, a genius urban feature that should be adopted across the land...

Tomorrow I'll head south, stopping once again in Winnemucca, NV (about the only place on a long stretch between Boise and the Eastern Sierras), then to the Bristlecone Forest, and Friday--home.

Being away has made me appreciate my beloved LA all over again.

I will hit the ground running, with a memorial AND an end-of-summer party the very next day.

I can't wait to see my garden--and to play the piano.


Sunday, September 8, 2019


Here's how this week's arts and culture piece begins:

William S. “Two-Gun Bill” Hart (1864-1946) was a silent film star. Wildly popular in their time, his movies tended to follow the same arc — he started out bad and ended up good.

Born in upstate New York, Hart began his career as a Shakespearean stage actor. His breakout film, “The Bargain,” opened in 1914, when he was 50 years old. In 1915 and 1916, he was voted the biggest money-making star in the U.S.

He built his retirement home in Newhall, near what is now the confluence of the 5 and the 114 freeways: “La Loma de los Vientos” — “The Hill of the Winds” — he called it. The architect was Arthur R. Kelly, whose other designs included the Wilshire Country Club in Hancock Park and what we now know as the Playboy Mansion. He specialized in the Spanish Colonial Revival style and completed the Newhall project around 1925.

When Hart died, he left all 265 acres to Los Angeles County, with the proviso that the house be converted into a museum, open to the public for free.



Thursday, September 5, 2019



I am winding down my intense month of work, silence, solitude, and prayer here at the Monastery of St. Gertrude.

Much of my time was spent refining and editing a little ms. I've been working up over the past couple of years: HARROWED: Misadventures in an Urban Garden. (Come on, who would not want to buy that!?)

Then, this past week, I was seized with the borderline manic, obsessive thought that I should revamp my entire website/blog. I've done many fine tunes, but the fact is that I've been maintaining this Blogger site for almost ten years!

And for about the last five, have been thinking of migrating over to Wordpress, which has way fancier templates, widgets, gadgets, graphics et cetera.

As soon as I started investigating, I entered a vortex of possibilities, explorations, frustrations, excitement and fears. I'll definitely need to hire someone to help me.

And I've also been thinking a lot about how I kind of pride myself on my home-made-ishness, which is fine except that "pride" may be the operative word. I tend impatiently to think, Okay, I have some small obligation to "get my stuff out there," but I am going to spend MOST of my time on what I enjoy: the writing itself, the pondering, the wandering.

I tend to think of my "online presence," such as it is, in other words, as a box I need to check off.

Whereas now, I'm thinking more, why not view a revamped website and blog as a project in itself, the equivalent almost of a book? Why not invite someone who knows what he's doing (I have someone in mind already, and yes, it's a man!) and collaborate? Why not look at the "face" I present to the world as its own work of art? (Not that I haven't thought that all along, but I could definitely give 100% to it instead of maybe 68 or so).

I've had my domain,, hooked up to here,, so you've been able to find me either place.

While the new site is under construction, which will probably be months, I'll continue to post and update news and events here, at shirtofflame.


In connection with all of the above, the below is from a talk entitled "RELIGIOUS SENSE AND ART: The human person’s aspiration toward beauty: A yearning for the ideal" given by Crossroads Cultural Center on March 8, 2010.

The speaker is Etsuro Sotoo, a Japanese sculptor strongly influenced by Gaudí and a convert to Catholicism

"No one knows what the future will bring. But it’s clear that Gaudí was headed in a direction completely different from the way mankind has progressed up to this point, and somewhat different from the way we are headed now. For example, buildings are built in opposition to the force of gravity. In New York today, people have build the most amazing buildings, but they’re really built against gravity; they don’t use the power of gravity.

Gaudí believed that the sun, the air, water, and even gravity, exist for us; that people are born from them. He believed that we and gravity are not enemies, but must be friends, and that this is the future. How long can we continue to fight against nature? Shouldn’t we instead use the power of nature to its fullest, use it 100%? Isn’t that the path people should take?

In order to not fight against gravity, Gaudí created his structures like an inverted suspended thread. In other words, by taking a formation designed by gravity and turning it upside down, he was able to use the power of design in his construction. By turning it upside down, gravity supports the structure. Can you understand this? It’s difficult to visualize, but it’s very simple. There are many people in the world who say they understand Gaudí. But he’s so simple that he is difficult to understand. That is Gaudí.

Gaudí believed in love. In his words, “First there is love, then technology.” Aren’t we completely dependent on technology? But the future is not in technology. If we were to proceed only with technology, how long would it be before mankind perished? What has brought us to this point has been friendship, the love of the family, love between people: because we value the heart. This is what has enabled us to live to this point. If we lose our hearts, if we choose to abandon love, then mankind will perish someday."

Saturday, August 31, 2019



How quickly my time has gone at the Monastery of St. Gertrude.

I leave early next Saturday morning for four days in Boise, then down through Nevada to the Bristlecone Forest in the Eastern Sierras, a night in Independence, CA (home of Mary Austin, author of Land of Little Rain), then home.

The schedule here, which I'm free to follow or not, except if I want to eat, is roughly as follows: breakfast 7:30 to 8, Morning Prayer 8:30, Mass 11:30, Lunch 12:10, Evening Prayer 5:00, Supper 6:00.

One thing I've discovered is that minus the urban noise, and driving the freeways, my days here are pretty much the way they are at home. I wake early; spend an hour or two in prayer, spiritual reading, and gazing out the window; shower, eat a bowl of cereal, and for the rest of the morning work (have been editing a book I want to call HARROWED: The Misadventures of An Urban Gardener, plus working on columns for Magnificat and Angelus, plus mapping out my arts and culture schedule for the fall, plus contemplating revamping my website/blog, reading, and watching movies).

Then Mass, lunch, help with dishes (the month-long artist's residency is free; the sisters ask only that I help put away dishes after lunch and supper). Then I'll take a nap if did not get enough sleep, which is usually, and/or work for an hour or two more, answer emails, maybe call or answer a call from a family member or friend (I can get cell reception in my studio but not outside).

Then generally I join the sisters for Evening Prayer, then supper, dishes, and an hour-long, fairly strenuous walk up the hill behind the monastery to the cemetery and on up to a lovely clearing where you can survey the valley below and the setting sun.

En route I'll pray a Rosary, pick some wildflowers for a glass on my desk, and upon returning, read or watch a movie. There is plenty in between of reading the NYT,, and

A few readers, with whom I sympathize completely, commented recently about the difficulty many of us have in settling down, quitting ourselves of distractions, feeling guilty for reading or listening to podcasts or watching TV or movies.

One thing I see out here is how even though I pride myself on working hard, the fact is I work, I mean really work, as in sitting down, focusing, and doing the beast-of-burden, insufferably slow toil of, say, writing a column for maybe two hours a day, three if I'm lucky.

On the other hand, that's not bad. It's pretty much what I'm capable of: mentally, emotionally, and even physically. A certain kind of stamina is required consistently to write--and I do think that diminishes a bit as we age.

But the real stamina and toil for me consists in forever "remembering" that my work--and everything that goes into it--is the way I've been given to love God with all my heart, all my soul, all my strength. That doesn't mean, I realize, that my work is any good. It doesn't mean it's going to bring me worldly success, security or attention. It means I'm called to be faithful to it.

I also need to remember I have a chronic mental-emotional illness--alcoholism--and that my main job, even before writing, is to treat it on a daily basis. Also, I'm an extreme introvert. Not "having" to talk to people here for more than an hour a day has been heaven, and a breeze.

If I can stay straight on all that, I find I'm way less bothered by feelings of guilt, the urge to second-guess myself, and/or resentment at others who are "doing" more, seemingly getting more attention and love, and are clearly more "holy." I don't have to be quite so quick to justify or defend myself and my life in my head.

Early in my stay, a visual artist who was passing through remarked at dinner: "I'm so torn. With all the horrible things going on in the world, I'm really starting to question whether it's okay for me to spend all my time making art."

I kept my big mouth shut, especially since she'd hardly asked my opinion, but I did think: Of course art helps alleviate the suffering of the world. Of course our desire for, and efforts toward, goodness, truth and beauty matter absolutely. If I did not think art basically holds the world together, I wouldn't have devoted my life to it.

Also of course I need only hear, for example, that, say, a friend of a friend is entering his 16th month in jail, awaiting trial for trespassing at a nuclear weapons facility, to be thrown into an abyss of self-doubt. If I had faith the size of a mustard seed, I, too, would be in prison! I, too, would be doing something noble and self-sacrificing and important!

If I've made any progress at all, it may be that now it takes hours instead of days to remember that I am doing something important--for me, the most important thing in the world. I remember the Flannery O'Connor quote that gave me "permission" to quit my job as a lawyer almost 25 years ago now: "We are not judged by what we are basically. We are judged by how hard we use what we have been given. Success means nothing to the Lord, nor gracefulness."

Every time I think I have the cross down, I discover all over again that I don't. Suffering, for love of Christ, helps heal the world. But so, under the right circumstances (which only we can discern, which is why that hour or two of prayer in the morning is ESSENTIAL) do watching films, gabbing with our friends, listening to podcasts, buying a new pair of shoes. If joy, fun, and praise don't do honor to Christ, we're left with masochism, and a competition to see who can suffer most.

Whereas once we're grounded in him, and more or less clear on what we were put on earth for--as St. Augustine said, "Love, and do what thou wilt."

Plus it's summer already! Or was...

Plus the less I think about myself and my "progress," in any way and on any level, the way better for me and everyone else in this vale of tears.

"Living a full and overflowing life does not rest in bodily health, in circumstances, nor in seeing God's work succeed, but in the perfect understanding of God, and in the same fellowship and oneness with him that Jesus Himself enjoyed. But the first thing that will hinder this joy is the subtle irritability caused by giving too much thought to our circumstances."
--Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, August 31

"Reading a book, visiting a museum, wandering out to people-watch at the park. Though we purport to value artists and romanticize their muses, the aforementioned activities aren’t often recognized as work."
--Bonnie Tsui, from a June 19, 2019 NYT op-ed piece called "You Are Doing Something Important When You Aren’t Doing Anything"

"How beautiful it is to do nothing and then rest afterward."
--Spanish Proverb

Happy Labor Day!



Friday, August 30, 2019


I'm winding up my third week of an artist's residency here at the Monastery of St. Gertrude (Benedictine women) in Cottonwood, Idaho.

The sisters have a vegetable garden and a fruit orchard. We have apricot and raspberry preserves, plus stewed cherries, at every meal. The other day they put up 41 gallons of applesauce (from a variety called Yellow Transparent). They have a pantry full of gleaming quart glass jars of pears, peaches, and plums.

The other day whilst wandering the grounds I happened upon another couple of trees, not in the orchard, laden with small, roundish, juicy-looking fruit: on one tree purple-red; on the other golden. Were they Rainier cherries? I wondered. And more to the point, why wasn't anyone picking them?

Naturally I nabbed a few, bit in and--delicious! A tart undertaste overlain with sweetness. A seed like a cherry, the size of a cherry, and yet not quite the texture nor taste of a cherry.

Back in my room I googled and discovered that this splendid fruit is known as the cherry plum. I rapturously told of my find at dinner and was met by the inhabitants of the monastery with supreme indifference. "Oh those old things? Even the deer won't eat them and they make a terrible mess. If they get any bigger, we're going to chop 'em down."

"But they're delicious!" Silence. "Does no-one want them?" Silence. "Would anyone mind if I picked some?" "No, go ahead."

So every day I go out, fill my pockets to bursting with this exotic, scrumptious fruit, and have a feast in my studio. The trees themselves are also beautiful.

All I can think is: What innumerable other treasures do I pass by during the course of my day?

Thursday, August 29, 2019



In this month of the anniversary of the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:


"I’ll get down on my knees to beg you—please, find our Anna
Sushko. She lived in our village. In Kozhushki. Her name is
Anna Sushko. I’ll tell you how she looked, and you’ll type it up.
She has a hump, and she was mute from birth. She lived by
herself. She was sixty. During the time of the transfer they put
her in an ambulance and drove her off somewhere. She never
learned how to read, so we never got any letters from her. The
lonely and the sick were put in special places. They hid them.
But no one knows where. Write this down . . .

The whole village took care of her, like she was a little girl.
Someone would chop wood for her, someone else would bring
milk. Someone would sit in the house with her for an evening,
heat the stove. Two years we all lived in other places, then we
came back to our houses. Tell her that her house is still there.

The roof is still there, the windows. Everything that’s broken or
been stolen, we can fix. If you just tell us her address, where
she’s living and suffering, we’ll go there and bring her back. So
that she won’t die of sorrow. I beg you. An innocent spirit is
suffering among strangers.

There’s one other thing about her, I forgot. When some thing
hurts, she sings this song. There aren’t any words, it’s just
her voice. She can’t talk. When something hurts, she just sings:
A-a-a. It makes you feel sad."

--Svetlana Alexievich. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Alexievich won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, "for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time."

Monday, August 26, 2019



Here's an interview I did with Aleteia last week re my new book, RAVISHED: Notes on Womanhood.


"Christ has asked me to "die" so that I can really begin to live now. This is what the fourth gospel calls abundant life. It is a new and fuller life; it means not so much any external difference as a different quality of life.

I think that it means above all the avoidance of fantasy. I also suspect, though I really cannot be quite sure, that is is one of God's gifts to us as we grow older, that in the second half of our lives the paschal mystery touches us more closely. As our bodies become less strong, and our faculties begin to fail, we are forced to recognize what diminishment may mean, and we have to accept the many things that we will never do, the many doors now closed to us."

--Esther de Waal, Living With Contradictions



Saturday, August 24, 2019


From Buenos Aires. At 15 years of age, Brendae suffers from Juvenile Huntington’s (JHD). She lost her Father to HD on her last birthday after her Mother had left, unable to cope. She’s been cared for by her aunt Norma Lara ever since.

The subject of this week's arts and culture column is a documentary that addresses an especially cruel illness: Huntington's Disease.

Here's how the piece begins:

“Dancing at the Vatican,” a 38-minute documentary directed by Brian Moore and produced by Amanda Spencer, showcases the plight of those suffering from Huntington’s disease (HD), a progressive neurological disorder. A parent with HD has a 50/50 chance of passing it on to his or her offspring.

The film is narrated by Emmy award-winning former NBC-TV foreign correspondent Charles Sabine, an asymptomatic HD carrier whose two beautiful young daughters accompany him to Rome.

HD causes progressive degeneration of nerve cells in the brain. Its symptoms include uncontrolled movements (the accompanying jerking and twitching is known as chorea), emotional problems, and loss of cognition. The disorder is genetic and it is fatal.

HD can strike anyone and anywhere: Folk singer Woody Guthrie purportedly died of it. But in an even crueler twist of fate, it concentrates in certain places around the globe, and they are mostly poor.

Barranquitas, Venezuela, in the Lake Maracaibo region, is one such place. Chile and Peru also have dense clusters of HD. Dilia Oviedo Guillén, from a village in Colombia, watched her husband and five children die of the disease. She now devotes her life, 24 hours a day, to nursing four more adult children who suffer from HD.


Wednesday, August 21, 2019


Living in relative silence and solitude is interesting.

I see that a lot of the "noise" for which I blame the world is really noise inside of me!

"Christ has asked me to "die" so that I can really begin to live now. This is what the fourth Gospel calls abundant life. It is a new and fuller life; it means not so much any external difference as a different quality of life."

--Esther de Waal, Living with Contradictions