Thursday, September 30, 2010


What is happening to our beloved Los Angeles Public Library? Why has the whole city, including of course me, not yet risen up to protest the budget cuts, the reduced hours, the Sunday and Monday closures?

I’ve had a library card continuously since the age of 6. Those halcyon days when I first learned that the  world lent out free books are forever enshrined in memory. Mrs. Craig, the town librarian: combination priestess/nurse with her iron-gray hair and sensible oxfords. The heating register, with its filigreed wrought iron grate, that all through the long, frigid winters exhaled the medicinal smell of heating oil. The shelves of books: balm, even a child could understand, for the wounded human soul.

I kept my card through elementary and high school, college and law school, through 20 years of hard drinking. Living in a cockroach-infested “loft” on Boston’s Merrimac Street, I still made a bi-monthly pilgrimage to the BPL. Even at my worst, I was still enough of a human being to be allowed free books. Friendless, despairing, I still had Anne Frank, and Ivan Ilyich, and Gregor Samsa.

For those of us who can't afford to buy all the books we read, the library is as essential—perhaps more essential—than a grocery store. We need books to remind us how deeply we are connected. We need books because we know we are going to die. Decades later, the LAPL still gives me reason to live: my online account where I can reserve, renew, and check for due dates; the catalog that allows me to troll for Hans Christian Andersen biographies, or Rouault paintings, or the photos of Larry Clark; the “Hold” section at the Edendale branch in Echo Park where my heart skips a beat when I spot the fuchsia slip with my name inked in black Magic Marker. Is there a more vivid sign of hope that a small schoolgirl, or schoolboy, shifting from one foot to the other, standing in the checkout line with an armload of books? How is the next generation to govern itself, order its priorities, care for its sick, poor, unlucky, unlearned if we fail as a culture and a community to acknowledge the importance of the library?

After 20 years, I recently left L.A. and went on the road. Maybe my time here is up, I thought. Maybe I’m done with Los Angeles. In New Mexico I got a temporary card. I walked through the snow to check out Mabel Dodge Luhan’s Winter in Taos, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away. I walked from the library to evening Mass, pondering the connection between libraries and churches. Religion from the Latin religare: to bind together again. Books, that bring all of humanity back to the table. The memorial of St. Agnes, a 14-year-old who was martyred—beheaded—for refusing to yield her virginity; having consecrated herself to God, for dying rather than consent to an arranged marriage. What do you do with that? How do you deliver a homily on such an act--which reveals even the most radical contemporary "feminism" to be decidedly lukewarm--in this culture? “It’s about love,” said Father Brito, in his simple, earnest way. “The saints remind us that the point is always love.”

At the Lebh Shomea House of Prayer on the Gulf Coast of Texas, I read Caryll Houselander’s Guilt and Malcolm Muggeridge’s Jesus and Catherine de Hueck Doherty’s Poustinia. In Spencer, West Virginia, I stayed in a phoneless, wifi-less cabin  and went to the library every day to check my e-mail. I read Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Joseph Conrad’s “The Nigger of the Narcissus” and The Way of a Pilgrim. After awhile I got homesick. I missed the Southern California light. I missed the farmers’ markets. And I missed the L.A. Public Library.

So I came back: to my friends and the food but also to the reduced hours, the cuts, the Sunday and Monday closures, and ever since the light has seemed ever-so-slightly shadowed. I’ve been lucky enough to participate in the ALOUD series, both as panelist and as interlocutor. I know how graced we are to have a public library at all; a place with free books that’s open even one day a week. 

But if we can spend $2 million to persuade a Chinese automaker called BYD to open an office on Figueroa Street, we should be able to find money for our libraries. If we can afford $30 million for a parking garage for Eli Broad’s proposed museum, we should be able to find money for books. If we can afford to pay policemen, we should be able to pay librarians. Because as the children, the teenagers, the elderly, the poor, and those of us who would sooner go without food than without our red, blue, and gold LAPL card know, libraries are about love. The point is always love.


Tuesday, September 28, 2010


“One artist in the Collection whom [Jean] Dubuffet [founder of the term "art brut," and champion of art by "outsiders" such as psychiatric patients, convicts, and children] came to know well was Aloïse Corbaz (1886-1964), an inmate of a mental hospital near Lausanne, whom he first met during his initial visit to Switzerland in 1945. Her work has generally been exhibited under her first name only, a common practice in early exhibitions to give anonymity to mental patients. She had an educated and cultured upbringing, and worked as a private teacher, which led her to the court of Kaiser Wilhelm II (as tutors to the daughters of his pastor) in the years before World War I. From a distance she became infatuated with the monarch and was unable to cope with her overpowering feelings. On her return to Lausanne she was overcome by psychiatric disorders, perhaps the result of long-standing problems worsened by this emotional upheaval. She was admitted to hospital in 1918, never to live outside an institution again...”  

“Dubuffet wrote: ‘She was not mad at all, much less in any case than everyone supposed. She made believe. She had been cured for a long time. She cured herself by the process which consists in ceasing to fight against the illness and undertaking on the contrary to cultivate it, to make use of it, to wonder at it, to turn it into an exciting reason for living.’” 

--from Raw Creation: Outsider Art and Beyond, by John Maizels, pp. 45 and 47 the town of Kowata
there were horses for hire
but I loved you so much
I walked barefoot all the way

--Kan’ ami, Japanese Noh actor, author, and musician during the Muromachi period (1333-1573)

Aloïse Corbaz:
no crazier than you or me

Friday, September 24, 2010


I am back from NYC, where I stayed at the apartment of a friend of a friend in East Harlem. I have always enjoyed a building that smells of roast chicken, and cheap laundry detergent, and Raid.  The sirens from the cop cars at the projects across the way, the free wi-fi at Burger King, and the friendly cries of "Americana!" also went toward making me feel at home. I was tired the first day and thought, briefly, that I "should" go to a museum, or a gallery, or some sophisticated person-type thing, but I chose instead to lie in bed and look at the leaves on the tree outside my window, and listen to the sparrows. I am as driven, perhaps more driven, than the next person, but I am also deeply resistant to the cultural mandate of "busyness." How are you? we ask. I'm busy, we reply, as if that's an answer. I always think being too busy is a sign of some egregious failure on my part--a failure of faith; a failure of being true to my deepest self.

So I was busy but I wasn't too busy. I walked up to Corpus Christi on 121st for 8:00 Mass on Monday. Thomas Merton was baptized there and though I am not a huge Merton fan, I am grateful for him, and his work and life. Simone Weil, during her brief time in New York, also attended Mass at Corpus Christi, and though at some point I always somewhat impatiently part ways with the good Simone, I am also grateful to her, and sympathize with her, and see that her suffering, like all suffering, is a mystery that none of us are equipped to judge. I had lunch with my dear friend of 20 -plus years Ann.  She has always been beautiful and she still is. We walked a bit in Central Park, near the West 80's, afterward.  I walked every chance I got, as walking is how I come to know a place. Walking and sharing a meal and looking at people's faces and going to Mass.

Monday night, I spoke at a series called Theology on Tap, at Slattery's Midtown Pub. As Carl Jung said, the Latin word spiritus is the same for the most depraving poison and the highest religious experience, so it was good to be talking about Jesus at a bar. The folks were welcoming, attentive, and kind and I would like to thank Tim O'Reilly for inviting me, everyone who showed up, and John Egan for giving me a gift I wasn't able to use this trip but will avail myself of next time.

Tuesday night I had the huge honor and gift of meeting Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete who I simply loved at first sight, as probably everyone who meets him does. At some point I had to set aside all thought of I'm not smart enough, faithful enough, worthy enough to meet this wonderful man and just say No, you're not, so why not try to make him and everyone else know you're glad you are to be here? He has the humor that comes from deep, deep pain--which I related to instantly--and his very presence softened me, humbled me, mystified me, reminded me, and opened the window onto a whole new way of seeing, that to follow Christ is something very different than I, for one, like to think it is. Following Christ has nothing to do with health or balance or drawing up a checklist of the pros and cons and making a reasoned decision. Following Christ means utter, blind, almost insane (in the eyes of the world) abandonment. We love to spot and judge the people who we think have abandoned themselves less than us. But to meet someone who you know has abandoned himself more is, in the best sense of the word, terrifying. You melt, like a moth in a flame, and at the same time you realize you're being called way, way higher.

Wednesday I got to travel to Park Slope, Brooklyn--who would like to put me up for a week or two or three there? Come on, I'll be super quiet! I'll tell jokes and say the rosary with you!--and hook up with Deacon Greg Kandra, the lovely Francesca Maxime, and the staff at NET NY, where I filmed a segment for Greg's show, "Currents," that should be on any day/minute.

 As I made my way around around New York, I thought a lot about how all the experiences of my life had fed my creativity.  I thought a lot about an observation (thank God we had at least one that night) of Msgr. Albacete's: that sin doesn't generate pain; being forgiven for sin does. Suffering doesn't lead to joy; joy leads to suffering. It's only in experiencing the risen Christ, however momentarily, that we see our habitual blindness, our tragic cowardice, our desperate, doomed efforts to  serve both God and mammon.

My last morning, after cleaning up the apartment, packing, and checking my subway map, I had 45 minutes before I had to take off. So I walked down E. 106th, and saw that the doors to St. Cecilia's Church was open, and went in for awhile and prayed. I can never understand those people who want to tear down all the churches and give the money to "the poor." That's what Judas wanted to do. For one thing, we're all "the poor," and for another, what do we have to give the poor except Christ? What do any of us have to give Christ except our two-dollar candles, our paper flowers, our prayers, our hearts?

"It is necessary to uproot oneself.
To cut down the tree and make of it a cross,
and then to carry it every day."
--Simone Weil
Then I walked over to the Conservancy Garden in Central Park, which was so achingly beautiful that I actually knelt and made the sign of a cross in front of a robin. Joy generates suffering because joy never lasts, joy reminds us of our deaths, joy has at the middle of it that I wished I didn't look so old, that the leaves were beginning to turn, that everything in me wanted to spend the rest of the day in that garden instead of taking the Air Train to JFK and sitting in a teeny plane seat for 6 hours. And yet to know that every train ride, meal, conversation, walk, flower, is unique under the sun: never to be experienced again; never to be repeated! To know that New York was a friend now: because I had people to pray for, because I had joined my suffering to theirs. Turning to leave, for once I wouldn't have had it any other way: wouldn't have changed a single second of my morning, my trip, my life.

Or as someone once said:

"I don't like guilt be it stoned or stupid
Drunk and disorderly I ain't no cupid."

Friday, September 17, 2010


I am still enough of a rube to be excited about the prospect of spending five days in Manhattan. Which, starting Sunday night, just fyi, I will be.

Monday, September 20th at 7:30, I'll be at Slattery's Midtown Pub, 8 E. 36th Street. No, not swilling rotgut vodka gimlets: giving a talk hosted by Theology on Tap, a program of lectures given by a number of local dioceses, often featuring noted spiritual leaders and religious academics. Obviously, they're taking a break from that model with me, and I'm tickled pink to be speaking at a bar, especially since the title of my talk is "Divine Intoxication."

Tuesday, September 21st, at 7:00, I'm  doing a "Face-to-Face" with the faithful, charismatic, learned, and by all accounts exceedingly kind (and funny) Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete. Here's an  interview Msgr. Albacete gave to Robert Wright (author of (the largely anti-God) The Evolution of God) for Meaning of Life TV.

Check out the part where Wright brings up Benedict XVI.
"I kept thinking, where is Joey?"  the Monsignor remarks.
"Yeah, he's Pope," Wright affirms and almost laughs, which if you've ever seen Robert Wright (who I met once and very much liked), is a miracle one step down from the Virgin Birth.

Wednesday I'll tape a segment with Deacon Greg Kandra of NET NY, a faith-centered cable TV network based in Brooklyn. Deacon Kandra worked for CBS for years and has now fully given his life to God and thereby discovered (after I begged him to have me on his show) me. In between, I look forward to meeting new friend Rita Simmonds, and her family and pals, in the flesh; and am apparently going to be eating, drinking coffee, and chatting (possibly simultaneously) every spare minute. I was in NY for two weeks last summer and spent the whole time wandering around by myself to Mass, public gardens, and the Cloisters. This will be a different kind of trip.

As Jung observed, the Latin word spiritus is the same for the most depraving poison and the highest religious experience. Everything is a religious experience to me, in its way, and  preparing for my visit, I thought of Lou Reed's "I'm Waiting for the Man." Reed waited at the corner of Lexington and 125th for his dealer. I used to do a lot of waiting myself, though my "man" was the guy behind the counter at Jobi's Liquor or the bartender at Sullivan's Tap in Boston.  Now I wait for another Man. And I'm filled with joy at the prospect of meeting a bunch of people who, on the other side of the continent, are waiting for Him, too.  

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Don't you hate when your worst nightmare actually occurs? I've been fumbling along with this new housemate situation, watching all my oldest childhood triggers being triggered: my conviction that I'm not "allowed" to take up a lot of room, express a need, or make a mistake. And yesterday, having finally arranged my room in more or less the fashion I want it, I affixed a brand new extension cord to the space heater that my house-owning house mate had provided, and started answering my morning e-mails. Deeply absorbed, suddenly I thought, What's that funny smell? Folks, I looked toward the window to see a bit of hazy smoke, shot out of my seat, and saw that the extension cord was literally melting. With gauzy white curtains mere inches away. With the cords to my laptop, printer, desk lamp etc. lying alongside. On the hardwood floor of a huge, lovely bedroom. IN SOMEONE ELSE'S HOUSE.

I would literally rather suffer third-degree burns myself than burn down someone else's house. I'd already turned off the space heater, and I immediately also disposed of the offending cord and yanked open all the windows, praying the smell would dissipate, but of course the noxious odor of melting plastic woke my housemate and the poor woman padded down in her PJ's to investigate. To her unbelievable, everlasting credit did not freak out but calmly examined the situation with me, said maybe we (i.e. I) should plug the space heater directly into the wall, and to my amazement, did not evict me on the spot.

I felt so bad and was so shaken up--I swear two more minutes and the place would have gone up in flames--that my first impulse was to stay in my room for about 3 weeks, then under cover of night, leave. But after 23 years of sobriety, countless  examinations of conscience, learning to habitually run my crises by a spiritual director, and the complete grace of God, I was able to realize that the damage, if any, was to my housemate, not me. I realized my task was to make her feel safe; to reassure her, insofar as possible, that her house was in good hands and the person living under her roof was generally conscientious, dependable, and kind. 

So against every fiber of my being, I went out half an hour later and had breakfast, chatted, took out the recycling,  asked if there was anything else I could do, and then went about my business for the day. One of my power-of-positive-thinking friends thinks this experience of living in some rudimentary kind of community (after so many years alone) is meant to "prepare" me for a "relationship." But as T.S. Eliot said, "Wait without hope. For hope would be hope for the wrong thing." I don't wait any more for a relationship, but I do think this experience will perhaps better prepare me for "relationship" with everything and everyone. Which requires accepting that people--even me, especially me--make mistakes. 

The house could have burned down--I, too, could have lost most of what I own, including my writing--and I am so, so grateful it did not. But I couldn't help thinking of how in the blink of an eye, everything can change. I couldn't help thinking of the ones for whom the curtains did catch fire--too soon--and this poem by the great Wislawa Szymborska:


The cemetery plot for tiny graves.
We, the long-lived, pass by furtively,
like wealthy people passing slums.

Here lies little Zosia, Jacek, Dominik,
prematurely stripped of the sun, the moon,
the clouds, the turning seasons.

They didn’t stash much in their return bags.
Some scraps of sights
that scarcely count as plural.
A fistful of air with a butterfly flitting.
A spoonful of bitter knowledge—the taste of medicine.

Small-scale naughtiness,
granted, some of it fatal.
Gaily chasing the ball across the road.
The happiness of skating on thin ice.

This one here, that one down there, those on the end:
before they grew to reach a doorknob,
break a watch,
smash their first windowpane.

Malgorzata, four years old,
two of them spent staring at the ceiling.

Rafalek, missed his first birthday by a month,
and Zuzia missed Christmas,
when misty breath turns to frost.

And what can you say about one day of life,
a minute, a second:
darkness, a light bulb’s flash, then dark again?

Only stony Greek has words for that.

--Wislawa Szymborska
(translated from the Polish, by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh).


Wednesday, September 15, 2010


I’m pretty sure I can pinpoint the moment I knew I had to return to L.A. after my recent 6-month, cross-country, deeply spiritual "retreat." It wasn’t the moment I thought: I miss the light in Southern California. It wasn’t the moment I thought: L.A. is where I can be most creative, or grow the most, or most fully serve my fellow man. It was the moment my friend Maud emailed me and said, “Heather, you won’t believe it. They’re selling little containers of the garlic sauce from Zankou Chicken at Jons.” 

Jons Grocery is a subject unto itself, but you haven't really lived until you've been to Zankou Chicken. I'm talking the original location of course, in a grungy strip mall on the northeast corner of Sunset and Normandie. The one with the parking lot full of surly Armenian cab drivers and triple-parked cars. The one so redolent of the luscious smells of roast chicken and juicy glistening shawerma that you should have to pay just to stand in line. The one where the garlic sauce--a seemingly mild but über-potent white paste, the exact composition of which remains a fiercely-guarded secret and which no living person, man, woman, or child outside the Iskaderien family has yet been able to parse--all began.

But it's never really about the food, or only about the food. It's about the layers of meaning and memory above, below and running through the food. When I go to Zankou I don't just go for the chicken or the garlic sauce.  I go thinking of the dark underbelly of the immigrant dream. I go knowing that in 2003, spurred by family rivalries/resentments and the fact that he was dying of cancer, the scion of the franchise came home one night, pulled out a 9mm semiautomatic Browning, and shot to death his mother, sister, and himself. I go thinking of California journalist par excellence Mark Arax, who wangled his way into the bosom of the Iskenderian family and wrote an essay called "Legend of Zankou" (which you can read in his West of the West).

I go thinking of Jonathan Gold, Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer and true L.A. treasure who, via some long-ago column, no doubt turned me on to Zankou in the first place.  Though we've never actually spoken, I (along with probably much of the rest of the city) feel I have a history with Jonathan. JG turned me on to Vim's on 8th and Vermont (greasy-spoon Thai), Dow Show (which morphed into Heavy Noodling, which morphed into JTYH in Rosemead) (insanely delicious Shanxi knife-cut noodles), and the Hong Kong Deli (pork chop rice, dim sum).  He wrote a piece after the 1992 riots that moved me to tears. I once attended an ALOUD event at the downtown library in which he took part. Afterwards I approached the stage trembling, clasped my hands before my heart, like St. Thérèse of Lisieux appealing to Pope Leo XIII that could she please, please Your Eminence, be allowed to enter the cloister at Carmel at the age of 15, and croaked, simply, "Thank you." Gold responded with as much graciousness as any human being under the circumstances could have been expected to, which was to say "Heh-hey, okay then," and back very, very slowly away.

Arax and Gold are excellent writers because 1) they clearly work like pack-horses and 2) they are rooted in a sense of place.  In another West of the West essay, Arax describes how, driving the back roads of the San Joaquin Valley, he once “knocked on the door of a tarpaper shack that seemed lifted right out of the Mississippi Delta, circa 1930” and discovered James Dixon, a 95-year-old tenant farmer and one of the last of a dying breed of “black Okies” who had migrated to California in the ‘40s from Arkansas, and Texas, and Louisiana and lived in  abject poverty ever since.  

Gold, famously, for awhile in his early 20s, "had only one clearly articulated ambition: to eat at least once at every restaurant on Pico Boulevard." Pico is not, at first glance, one of L.A.’s most promising thoroughfares, but that he managed to mine its riches and discover a universe in the process was exactly the point. "Pico, in a certain sense," he observed of the experience, "was where I learned to eat. I also saw my first punk-rock show on Pico, was shot at, fell in love, bowled a 164, witnessed a knife fight, took cello lessons, raised chickens, ate Oki Dogs and heard X, Ice Cube, Hole and Willie Dixon perform (though not together) on Pico." 

From 2500 miles away, that little container of garlic sauce reminded me that in Los Angeles, I had walked my own unpromising streets, pondered my own questions, developed my own passion for uncovering its mysteries. I’d gone away in part to write, but that single superb sentence of Gold’s reminded me that if it’s never only about the food, it’s also never only about the writing. It’s about streets, neighborhoods, heart. I needed to come home. So I came home, and I haven't stopped writing since.

Which brings me back to Zankou. Go.  Have yourself a Styrofoam container of juicy chicken or shawerma or falafel. Rejoice that the Iskenderian family is back on its feet and opening Zankou outlets all over Southern Cal. Groove on the pickled vegetables: saffron yellow, turmeric orange, sumac purple. Get juice on your chin. Wipe your greasy hands on your pants. Eat deeply of the garlic sauce. Descend into the garlic sauce. Maybe, though it hasn't to anyone else, it will yield its secret to you

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


I almost had a heart attack the other morning when, on my way to LAX to catch a 7:50 a.m. flight, I came to Parking Lot B and saw a huge looming sign saying "Employees Only."

For years I had used Parking Lot B for long-term parking. I had memorized the Century Boulevard exit off the 405 South, that little frisson where you have to veer right (else be steered exorably, frighteningly, unthinkably toward Imperial Highway), then left onto La Cienaga, then down to 111th. Lot B was the furthest away from the terminals but also (of course) the cheapest. Eight bucks a day. Lot B was part of a whole ritual and routine that gave me the illusion of being "safe." Lot B, place ticket in wallet, empty out remainder of coffee, affix club to steering wheel, walk to the shuttle (I am always way too impatient to wait till the driver ambles around to my section). Lot B was part of the whole mental structure I build before boarding a plane, entrusting my life to an unseen pilot, flying through the ether--and that's not even counting the frightening "unknown" that inevitably awaits on the other end. 

And now Lot B was closed! Why had no-one told me! Why had there not been a public service announcement to every citizen of L.A.? How did people find out about such cataclysmic changes? Where would I park now? How would I find my way in the dark? What if I missed my plane? I thought of Kafka who, studying for his law exams, had noticed one hand nervously creeping toward the other, as if to comfort it. 

And later I thought, if the nervous system of a warm-blooded animal can react so strongly to a change of parking lot, how people must feel who are waiting for the jury to come back. I thought of the people who are about to hear the results of a biopsy.
I thought about the people in the boxcars headed for Auschwitz.

I parked in Lot C (12 bucks a day). I made it with time to spare. But next time I'm going to drive downtown, park at Union Station (6 bucks a day), and take the "Flyaway" Bus (14 round trip). 

Monday, September 13, 2010


I have been to St. Louis, Missouri/Belleville, Illinois. I saw East St. Louis (urban blight on its way up, felt right at home), The Hill (linguine with white clam and shrimp sauce), and the green patinaed, copper-sheathed spires of many churches I wished I could stay longer and visit. I at last saw the St. Louis Arch, which is apparently some kind of national landmark (perhaps especially known to sports fans?), and over which my little brother Joe came very close several years ago to disowning me when I confessed that I had never heard of it. I sampled a local delicacy known as Gooey Butter Cake. Jim Cavataio, husband of event/retreat organizer Rosalee, very kindly went to some special bakery and bought me a whole cake, which I shared with the receptionist at my hotel and who is now my friend for life.

I was hosted by a Catholic order called 
the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.  O.M.I. priests live and work among the poor in 71 countries, including Sri Lanka, Zambia, the Philippines, Haiti, India and Brazil, and I was thrilled to learn from presenter Fr. John Madigan that founder St. Eugene De Mazenod, came from a "dysfunctional" family and felt guilty his whole life for not having been good, kind, and effective enough to prevent his parents from divorcing. Fr. Tom Hayes provided homiletic depth and dry humor, and Fr. Jim Bropst contributed sanity, more laughs, and really beautiful and well thought-out music, liturgy and prayer. Co-organizer Diane Green brought four sisters, her mother, and her efficient, hard-working, understated and delightful self.

I was called upon to talk a lot--that's why I was there--and I was humbled, honored and grateful and I am also drained. I am an extreme introvert, which doesn't mean I don't love being around people--nor, surprisingly, that I apparently can't give a halfway decent talk--does mean I am somewhat drained, not energized (at least superficially), by the experience. I would ALWAYS "rather" be in solitude and not just because I, too, am the type who worries even now that I couldn't have made my parents happier. Solitude is where I feel "most myself" and every chance I could I took off and walked the lovely grounds of the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, marveling at the wild grapes, crabapples, chokecherries (?), and goldenrod; praying that I would say something that at least one of the wonderful women who turned out at the retreat could relate to or be comforted by or use.

My life has turned out differently than many of the women there. I did not go the husband-and-children route, or rather that was not the route that found me, and I prayed, too, that we could all look for the similarities and not the differences. I talk about things that are easy to glamorize or sensationalize or politicize, and I try very hard to steer clear of self-pity on the one hand, and confessionalism and shock value on the other. I speak and write at all because the very fact that I am still standing is all glory to God and none to me. That is a sacred honor and I am always astonished at the grace that helped me get through the talk at all, and also always left with the knowledge that I could have done so much better.

This is the tension the Christian consents to hold: praying you are doing the right thing, but never quite knowing. Am I "made" for solitude, or is it "God's will" that I participate in ways that are often difficult for me? Is it good to be a mother and wife, or good to carve out a more solitary path? Do we "help" by being ourselves, or do we help by trying to stretch ourselves? Is gooey butter cake "good" or "bad?" I'm pretty sure both.

And so many many thanks to all for a beautiful weekend. And special thanks to the women who showed up and gave so much to me.


Sunday, September 12, 2010


September 12 was the birthday of my sainted father whose greatest legacy was perhaps the black humor that has helped me, for one (of his eight kids), survive. He was a handsome devil.


My father is no longer with us, but life springs eternal. For the other extremely notable personage who celebrates another year on earth today is the one and only Lawrence Page of Exeter, New Hampshire.

Larry has been asking me for years whether I have run into Hulk Hogan on the streets of L.A. I was sorry to have missed his birthday bash, but we had a nice chat and he is happy with his new Miley Cyrus (upon whom he has a small crush) CD and "loves" Facebook, where he recently opened an account and already has 59 friends.

Dad and Larry knew and I think I can say appreciated each other. Happy Birthday, Larry. Happy Birthday, Dad.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


Leave it to a child to finesse Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and all those other militantly atheistic humorless crabs who are so intent on persuading us that GOD DOESN'T EXIST.


I'm re-reading--and highly recommend--Rosamond Purcell's SPECIAL CASES: Natural Anomalies and Historical Monsters: photos of mummified giants, the hundreds of needles taken from the body of an insane morphine addict (did she swallow them?), the skeletons of conjoined twins, etc.

What kind of tragically limited vision could pore over creatures like these and not be drawn to contemplate Something or Someone or Some Realm Beyond?...Which brings me to possibly the best passage in the book:

"Once, at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, I stood gazing up at a rearing reconstructed skeleton of an extinct giant sloth when a woman arrived with her three- or four-year-old son. "Oh, God!" she said looking up at the claws and the massive head. There was a short silence. Her son took his his fingers out of his mouth--'Is that God?' he asked.


Thursday, September 9, 2010


Yesterday I was talking to a friend about this transition I'm making from apartment-living to being a housemate. "What must be hard," he remarked--and this is a dear friend, and I know he was speaking out of total respect and concern--"is not seeing it as…a step down." Actually, I realized later, though I am a bit strapped for cash, I’d been thinking it was a step up: better neighborhood, bigger house (and a house, not an apartment!), huge yard, a place in Joshua Tree to which I also have access, cable, free wifi, washer-dryer, all for three or 400 dollars less than I was paying at my old place. 

But he got me to thinking about how 1) it’s no use ever trying for a certain effect (not, I don’t think, that I had been) as people rarely see things the way you do; and 2) is the glass half-empty or half-full? syndrome.

I thought about this particularly last night as I was asking the cashier at the Silver Lake Goodwill for the "old people's" (my term) (over 55) discount. I thought more as I walked home alone, in the dark, on Sunset Boulevard. I could have thought Aging spinster buying clothes at the thrift store or I could have thought, as I more or less chose to, For 11 bucks I just got a pristine pair of black Everlast workout pants, a cashmere cardigan, and a green v-neck jersey with three-quarter length sleeves I can wear to the retreat I’ve been asked to give this weekend for which I’m getting flown out to St. Louis,  paid well, and 50 women have signed up. I could think I’m a boarder or I could think I now have a place in the city and a place in the desert. I could think I’ve made less than 10 grand this year or I could think I just took off for 6 months, went all over the country, had a huge set of adventures, met a bunch of people, and am freeing myself up for more adventures. I could remember that I may not be making a ton of money but I am writing, hard, steadily, and I hope well (or at least better). 
I could think I’m a loser or I could remember I’ve found my way to Christ and that is the one, the only thing that matters, ever could matter, ever will matter on this earth.

In this morning's Gospel I'm reminded: “Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.” Luke 6: 38-40. And really this is the crux of the whole thing. I'm reminded that Christianity is not a theory; it's an experience. You have to let go before you have enough, when you're not feeling secure. You have to give to someone else when you're terrified there won't be any left for you. You have to choose to believe, with every ounce of strength, that if you're trying to make your basic policy  love, everything is a step up.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010


I'm getting stoked about the women's retreat I'm to lead this weekend at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Illinois. 
For those who, like me, are hazy on any U.S. geography apart from a coast, Belleville is across the Missouri, whoops, Mississippi River from St. Louis and my only regret is that I'm not going to be able to stay longer in a city that--who knew?--was once known as "The Rome of the West." In fact, searching for photos, I came upon the blog, Rome of the West, of one Mark Scott Abeln who, with the fervor of a true convert, has apparently devoted his life to cataloguing, researching and putting up photos of the gazillions of churches in the St. Louis area (thought, not, alas, as far as I could see, the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows). 

I also learned that there are Our Lady of the Snows churches in Nulato, Alaska; Sun Valley, Idaho; Milford, Michigan; and Prague. In 1897 Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem called "Our Lady of the Snows" that begins: 

A Nation spoke to a Nation,
    A Queen sent word to a Throne:
"Daughter am I in my mother's house,
    But mistress in my own.
The gates are mine to open,
    As the gates are mine to close,
And I sent my house in order," 
    Said our Lady of the Snows.

So Our Lady has the snows covered, the world over, and I look forward to the challenges, surprises, and it's to be hoped, fruitful discussion generated by the three talks I'm to give on:

1) Discovering God in Myself; 
2) Discovering God in My Family (the prospect of which  caused me to break into hysterical, not entirely mirth-filled laughter); and 
3) Discovering God in My Community. 

Organizers Rosalee Cavataio and Diane Green have done a bang-up job of getting the retreat together, keeping it affordable, getting the word out, and making me feel welcome in advance. So if you happen to be in Belleville Sept. 10 and 11th, come on by! I'll be there! And more to the point, so will Our Lady. 

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Alfred L. “Fred” Davis III 
May 8, 1948 – September 7, 2009

One year ago, my friend Fred died at the V.A. Hospital in West L.A. Fred had a hair-trigger temper, the nervous system of a rattlesnake, and a heart that, miraculously, had not quite been hardened by an abusive childhood, the tour in 'Nam, a career as a bronco-rider, and his years as a Skid Row drunk.

Fred could be difficult. But if he was in one way shut down, in another his spirit made him vulnerable in a way that more "well-adjusted" folks--however kind and generous--never have to be. He suffered to an extent and for a period of time that would have felled a "normal" man, and if that made him unusually sensitive to people's faults, it also gave him an unusual capacity to see and accept people for what they were. He knew I wasn't as nice as I like to make myself out to be, nor as self-assured. He accommodated my tendency to focus on the unattainable, my sappiness; the way I talk about God. Perched on his wheelchair at the V.A., I'd sometimes start crying mid-conversation; he'd ignore me. I'd grope to articulate a memory or feeling or yearning; he'd acknowledge me without engaging or much responding, which is really all I wanted. I don’t know what it was in Fred that invited or allowed this level of trust. Maybe illness is the great leveler. Maybe in silence we share the wounds that are never going to heal.

I think of his bachelor apartment with the smoke-stained walls, the bills lined up in military rows on the dresser, the packets of ketchup from Taco Bell in the fridge, the pinup rodeo girl tacked to the wall of his closet, the paper lunch bag on the floor by the bed filled with spent cigarette butts--he died of complications from emphysema--the drawer with the SSI checks that had been accumulating, because he'd been in the V.A for over a year. I think of the afternoons I spent in Building 215, with the waning rays of the sun bathing the San Gabriels. I think of how you have to be in almost unbelievable pain to sit in silence with another person; to endure that level of ineffectiveness, of poverty. 

We were able to share our loneliness, and I miss him.

Monday, September 6, 2010


When I set out for West Virginia this past June, I imagined  random groups of top-notch musicians on every streetcorner--maybe settin' on bales of hay--tuning their fiddles, banjos and mandolins and just waiting for me to show up so they could launch into some insanely great version of "Highway of Sorrow" or "Footprints in the Snow."  I pictured striking up conversations with such folks. I pictured making friends. One day soon after landing in Spencer, a town of 7000 in the northwest part of the state, I read in the local paper of a covered-dish potluck at the nearby Otto Community Center. That Friday night, I made a batch of deviled eggs, mentally reprised some of my best stories, and set out.

Otto turned out to be about 25 winding—actually, that's redundant; every road in West Virginia is winding—miles outside of town. The hollers were blanketed in wildflowers and overhung with tall, old-growth trees. When I arrived at the potluck, there was an intriguing casserole of sliced hot dogs and cream of mushroom soup cloaked with a thick layer of cornbread. There was a dessert that combined graham crackers, Cool Whip, strawberry jello, sour cream, strawberry pie filling and canned walnuts.  There were twenty or thirty people who managed to be simultaneously totally accommodating and totally, TOTALLY uninterested. I liked them tremendously for this. At first, I was afraid  maybe my black jeans (and muscle shirt, and Pumas, and belt) had marked me out as Wiccan. But then I realized I'd made the exact same mistake people make when they watch TV and form the stereotypical opinion that every Los Angeleno spends his or her life being randomly killed by landslides, earthquakes, freeway pileups, snipers, and rioting minorities. These folks didn't need another friend. They had friends. They had families, by whom they were surrounded. They weren't remotely fired up to have an existentially tormented, spiritually conflicted, temporarily homeless person in their midst.    

Happily some other people were, and is so often the case, they were the clean and sober drunks, junkies, potheads, crackheads, and meth freaks in town. One such character introduced himself to me on the steps of a local church as Dane. "Dane?" I asked. "No, Dane." "You mean Dane? D-A-N-E?" "No, DANE." "Oh, Dean," the light finally dawned. Dean held forth on the deleterious effects of home-brewed corn liquor on the human esophagus, and Ernest told the story of how someone had once snitched on his moonshining friends back in Tennessee and they'd drawn lots to see who'd shoot the guy. I took in the Ripley 4th of July parade (pronounced PAY-rade). I ate biscuits, quote unquote, a local delicacy which consisted of two thick globs of doughy bread, split, with about 10 slices of bacon in the middle. I attended the Mountain State Arts and Crafts Fair, watched a metal forger for awhile, and bought a very cool 11-dollar key chain made from a spiraled-out piece of twisted metal which I promptly took off, threaded through a piece of leather cord, and made into a necklace.

But mostly I hung out with LaDean and Annie. I loved these gals. They toted around their own personal giant thermoses of coffee, they smoked like fiends (LaDean rolled her own, from tobacco bought in bulk from the smoke and beer shop), and their purses were stocked with fistfuls of Hershey's Kisses and Smarties. One night we decided to take a field trip to Parkersburg. Annie drove, LaDean rode shotgun, and I sat in the back so as to be able open both windows and, it was to be hoped, avoid asphyxiation. LaDean immediately pulled out a purple plastic lighter, torched up, and passed around a Tupperware container of candy. Annie took a meditative drag on her Marlboro Light 100 and mused, "We could go Route 14, but that damn road's crookeder 'n a dog's hind leg.”

With Annie as tour guide, we went to Fort Boreman, a Civil War site overlooking a stunning view of the Little Kanawha and Ohio Rivers, a couple of charming bridges, and Blennerhassett Island. We toured Parkersburg’s historical section with its Victorian and Queen Anne mansions. We wondered if Starbucks was open—Spencer had no decent coffeehouse of any kind—but it was past 9 and everything was closed.

I’d planned on staying in Appalachia a couple of months, maybe even three. But I’d been on the road, specifically in small, somewhat remote towns, since January. I could totally get behind shopping at Dollar General and Wal-Mart. I didn’t mind driving to the Spencer Library every day to check my e-mail. Living in a cabin with the shower in the bedroom, a small snake problem, and the only shelf space for my makeup above the kitchen sink didn’t faze me. What did was that I began to feel that if I stayed much longer, I wouldn’t be “on pilgrimage anymore,” I’d be hiding out. I’d gone on the road partly as a money-saving measure, and partly because I’d felt called to an extended period of solitude and silence. But I’d had my silence, and I began to realize it was time to to take what I’d learned or absorbed or pratfallen over and return to the world. In one way I hated leaving “so soon,” and in another, I was itching to head home.

Our goodbye get-together convened at the Spencer MacDonald’s. Annie and Linda, a big-hearted, big-voiced Texas gal who would have given Ann Richards a run for her money, drove over the 25 miles from Ripley. I  picked up LaDean. We sat in a corner booth, drinking coffees and Diet Cokes, and I’m still not sure how it happened, but somehow we ended up taking 15 or 20 minutes apiece and telling--we'd already shared bits and pieces of our stories--what it was like when we drank, and how we got sober. I don’t want to violate anyone’s privacy but I think I can safely say there were enough booze-related accidents and injuries, enough across-state-lines statutory rapes, marriages, and divorces, enough broken limbs, broken promises, and broken hearts so that all four of us felt right at home. And there were also enough hard-won family truces, reparations made, and tiny glints of hope to give me, for one, reason to persevere one more day. LaDean presented each of us with a small talismanic rock she’d hand-painted with various shades of nail polish, sanded down, and glazed. The three of them gave me a beautiful card signed with love and good wishes.

Afterwards, we went outside and sat on the curb in the shade so the gals could smoke. Part of the sadness of travel is the sense of the alternate lives we could have lived, the day-to-day relationships we could have formed, the community in which we could have participated and that, because we live in real time and real space and are going to die at the end, we are never, this side, going to be able to. But along with that goes the sense that the people whom we do meet this side are fellow travelers; that in some other realm we have been ordained to know and to be sustained, however fleetingly, by each other’s faces and voices and light.

Finally, there was nothing left to do but nose little pebbles and squashed-out cigarette butts around on the MacDonald’s parking lot asphalt with the toes of our shoes.

“I wish you could stay.”
“Me, too.”
“We loved having you here.”
“I loved being here.”
“God sent you to us,” Annie said.
I looked out over the smoked-blue hills of West Virginia. And even though I was the one poised to start a 2500-mile drive the next day--I was pretty sure God had sent them to me.