Saturday, October 30, 2010


The other day I went over to my friend Brad's in a section of L.A. called Lincoln Heights. Brad's house is perched on the edge of a precipice and underneath it is a shed in which a bunch of my stuff has been stored for the last 10 months.

I had many emotions as I opened the boxes and pored through the contents: the blue and gold Talavera plates my ex-husband and I brought back from Guadalajara, the little rattan box I'd bought in Bangkok and filled with tiny shells picked up on a Thai beach, the old glazed ceramic pitcher of Nana's, encrusted with peaches, apples and twining leaves. Were those my silver salt and pepper shakers? I almost no longer recognized them!

It was a fine fall afternoon, suffused with the dreamy gold-shot light that lends itself to musing on the mystery of why our journeys landed us in the city they did and not another; how we hooked up with this person instead of that one, and the way things might have been very different (in either direction) otherwise; the seemingly disparate bits and pieces that against all odds, day by day, cohere, however precariously, into a life. 

At one point, I realized the air was perfumed with a musky, sweetish, slightly decayed smell and looked over to see a gnarled old guava tree. Its branches were laden, and the ground beneath was covered with soft lemon-yellow fruit. Guavas have rose-colored flesh and tons of tiny seeds you can swallow whole if you've a mind to. I had a mind to, and helped myself to several, gorging on the good parts and tossing the half-eaten seed-heavy cores into the abandoned ravine below. Wasps swarmed the fallen fruit, but they were drowsy, or feeling magnanimous, and left me alone to ponder the delicious pleasure of the sun, and the sweetness of the fruit, and the re-discovery of my beloved belongings, all juxtaposed with the imminent possibility of a sharp, stabbing sting. 

My mind roved back to New Hampshire--land of my own birth--as it often does this time of year. I thought of Applecrest Orchards,  and the scarlet-bronze maples, and how, all over the country, we'll be turning the clocks back soon. I thought of the tall drift of dried leaves onto which, one whole autumn as kids, we'd jumped from an ancient stone wall--yelling "GERONIMO!!!"--and landed: neck-deep.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Genuflect: late Latin genuflectere, from Latin genu, knee, and flectere, to bend. Date: 1630. 1.a. to bend the knee. b. to touch the knee to the floor or ground especially in worship.

The first time I went to Mass, in trembling and fear, I was shocked to see people kneeling. In the middle of Los Angeles, in the middle of the day. I felt like I’d stumbled upon a group of folks sitting on the toilet, or having sex. Right out there in the open, for anyone who wandered in to see, they were asking for help. They were admitting that they didn’t know. They were saying “I adore you.”

I have a theory that prayer is the answer to itself. The very fact that we’re praying means we’re already receiving what our hearts long for. To open ourselves to reality. To move away from isolation and toward communion. To die to self-reliance and come alive in wonder and mystery. Acknowledging our vulnerability, we’re in solidarity with every other sick, suffering, broken person in the world. With our heads bowed, our ears are closer to our hearts. On our knees, we’re the same height as children.

I once stayed at a Catholic retreat house where something seemed off. Why was there no body on the cross?  Why had the Penitential Rite, the Intercessionary Prayers, the Responsorial Psalm—the Psalms!!!— been excised? The Mass had been sanitized and euthanized. The Mass had been emasculated. After awhile it dawned on me that at no time during Mass did the members of the community kneel: nary a genuflection before or after Mass; not during the Eucharistic Prayer or Agnus Dei (the chapel had no kneelers, so none of us could kneel except on the floor).

One afternoon I crept into the chapel, peered beneath the pews and spied the tiny holes on either end that had once held screws. Just as I’d suspected, they had taken out the kneelers.
They had taken out the kneelers. This resistance to kneeling, in conjunction with the whole liturgically-diluted, inert atmosphere of the place, struck me as disturbing and even dangerous. What were we there for but to worship, to give thanks, to kneel before Someone greater than ourselves? What lover of Christ, before a re-presentation of the Crucifixion, would not instinctively be moved to assume a posture of grief, sorrow, awe, praise, trembling supplication? Where was the blood, the anxiety, the majesty, the sublime paradox, the resurrectional joy?

I’m the first to admit I sometimes over-react but I think this is a serious point. I’m weak but I'm not so delicate that I can’t understand that Christ, in agony on the cross, is a reflection of the human condition. I don't need to be shielded from the knowledge that before the Resurrection comes a long, painful journey. I kneel because someone else consented to tell, live and die the truth. I kneel because for a long time I knelt before nothing but my own desperate self-centered desires and I lived in the fires of hell. I kneel to ask for help because I want to be able to welcome the next shipwrecked soul who stumbles, dazed and bleeding, onto shore.

I kneel because I know that someday—maybe today—I’m going to die.


Monday, October 25, 2010


Napped half the day;
no one
punished me!

--Kobayashi Issa
Translated by Robert Hass


I don't know about you but I personally sometimes get tired in the middle of the day. This is where my New England Calvinism kicks in big-time. "Work is good for what ails you" and "The early bird catches the worm" and "You can sleep when you're dead" were thoughts heard often in my childhood home. My circadian rhythm is still set to the hours my father worked as a bricklayer which, for him, often involved driving an hour or more each way to a job that started before dawn. Left to my own devices, I still rise at 5 and retire at 9:30. I'm still in subconscious solidarity with the old man (who died 11 years ago), still on red alert, still feel faintly guilty if I think I'm getting more rest than he did as a father of 8.

There's help for people like me and, rest assured, I've availed myself of it. It's taken me years, but I've finally started to let go of my weird and ancient idea that my job is to fix, advise, oversee, heal, rescue, or suffer for. ("Compassion" means to suffer with, which is an entirely different concept). I find minding my own business frees up lots of energy to pursue the things that make me happy: things like reading, and burning down the house, and looking out the window, and lying down on the ground, and eating halo-halo.

Which is maybe why these days I often avail myself of a short afternoon nap!

EMPLOYEE AT GOOGLE HQ in the great non-
Calvinistic state of CALIFORNIA

Thursday, October 21, 2010


I have never seen a reality show but I’ve heard tell of them, in particular a series called “Iron Chef” that, according to wikepedia, consists of “a timed cooking battle built around a specific theme ingredient.” I have also never claimed to be in the vanguard of, or even minimally conversant with, pop culture, but a battle? Timed? Around food? Just because you can accomplish a particular task in a frenzied rush doesn’t mean you should. How about Iron Surgeon, Iron Lend-a-Compassinate-Ear-to-Your-Friend-Who’s-Just-Found-Out-Her- Husband-is-Cheating-On-Her, Iron Sleep?

And don't get me going on the insular, rarefied-to-the-point of absurdity, back-biting tone of so much of contemporary food writing. (Confession: I sleep with the 747-page tome The Art of Eating: Five Gastronomical Works by M.F.K. Fisher mere feet from my bed). I can cook from scratch and serve, say, grilled chicken with fennel and shallots, a blood orange and roasted beet salad, and a fig frangipane tart as well, and I hope with as much joy, as the next person, but I draw the line at roast tuna foam or white garlic and almond sorbet. There’s only one criterion for food and that’s whether, at the particular time, under the particular circumstances, you like it. Whether, even if you’re eating alone, you have some basic sense of sharing. Whether, at some point during or after eating you can say Man, was that good! (Yes, that’s one criterion, broken down into three parts).

That takes time. Not necessarily time to prepare the food, but time to figure out what food is about and for--which, call me old-fashioned, I'm pretty sure is to bring people together, not pit them against each other as adversaries. So here are three “recipes” I've worked up over the last few weeks that in one sense don’t take a lot of time, and in another sense take a lifetime.

1. Take a piece of Healthy Ham from Trader Joe’s and roll crosswise into a spiral. Dip directly into a large jar of mayonnaise and eat, bite by mayonnaise-dipped bite, while thoughtfully gazing at the bare stucco wall of the house next door and admiring the olive green trim around the windows.

2. Walk down Sunset Boulevard in a light drizzle of rain to the 99-cent store and buy two tubes of Pepsodent, a package of votive candles, and, on a whim, a 76-cent frozen chicken pot pie. Bring the chicken pot pie home, enjoying the smell of wet wild fennel and the sound of tires on wet pavement and the feel of the rain on your face, and put it in a 375-degree oven. While it’s cooking, think of similarly evocative childhood treats: Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, lobster newburg (the old man kept lobster traps back in New Hampshire),  your mother’s home-made popovers. Eat with a teaspoon, in bed, scraping the last bits of crust from the tinfoil, while reading Camus' The Plague.

3. Take your friend Glenn who just had a hip replacement to the Saturday vigil Mass at St. Basil’s. Yield to his offer to take you for udon in the tiny stall/café at the back of Assi Korean Grocery on Oxford and 8th. Afterward, troll the aisles and come upon an item called Buenas Fruit Mix and Beans Halo-Halo, a glass jar of red mung beans, coconut gel, palm fruit, jackfruit, macapuno (?), white beans, and sodium hydrogen sulphite, the main ingredient of which, however, is pure cane sugar.

Let that pure cane sugar recommend itself to you. Shell out a buck ninety-nine, wait with Glenn in the parking lot for the AAA guy because you had to take Glenn's car (the seat in your Celica was too low for his injured hip) and it somehow broke down while you were in Assi, accompany him home, retrieve your own car, and drive you and your precious jar home.

While still in your coat, take a quart container of French Village plain yogurt, also from Trader Joe’s (the kind with about a third of an inch of heavy cream on the top) from the fridge. Remove the gold and blue glazed Provence cup you bought at Dona Flor on Newbury Street in Boston that time the editor from Paraclete took you out to lunch and asked if you wanted to write a book about a saint from the dish drainer. Put a ton of yogurt in the cup, then add a couple of giant spoonfuls of Halo-Halo and stir.

Bring it back to your bedroom (you're sharing a house and still feel a little shy about hanging out in the kitchen). Take off your coat. Check your e-mail. See that, one more time, nothing’s come over the transom even remotely promising money, sex, or fame.

Close your eyes. Give thanks for your health, your friends, your car, that you had a buck ninety-nine. Man, is that good.


Monday, October 18, 2010


“How ingenious an animal is a snail….When it falls in with a bad neighbor it takes up its house, and moves off.”
--Philemon, 3rd or 4th century B.C. Athenian poet
Elisabeth Tova Bailey lives on the mid-coast of Maine and that is about all we know of her background except that "At the age of thirty-four, on a brief trip to Europe, I was felled by a mysterious viral or bacterial pathogen, resulting in severe neurological symptoms" that began to slowly eat away at her immune system, severely compromise her heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion, and, for a time, more or less turn her bones to mush. She had to move to a studio and basically lie in bed all day and after awhile often the only person she would see was her caretaker for a half-hour at meals. Then a friend brought her a little pot of violets, dug from the leafy loam outside Elisabeth's studio, in which the friend had placed a single woodland snail. And this small humble snail ended up becoming Elisabeth’s companion, guide, and in a sense alter ego for a year. She moved the snail to a terrarium and made it a water dish out of the shell of a blue mussel. She boned up on snail nutrition and began feeding it pieces of portobello mushroom. She observed the snail (which, thankfully, she refrained from naming) closely, read botanical and biological tomes, pored through philosophy, haiku, memoir and early 1900's hygeine gazettes looking for references to snails.
She discovered all kinds of fascinating facts about snails. Her snail possessed 2,640 teeth that, as Aristotle noted, were "sharp, and small, and delicate." "The teeth point inward so as to give the snail a firm grasp on its food; with about 33 teeth per row and maybe eighty or so rows, they form a multitoothed ribbon called a radula, which works much like a rasp. This explained my snail's nodding head as it grated away at a mushroom; it also explained the odd squareness of the holes I had discovered in my envelopes and lists." Snails can build a little door for themselves out of mucous and snugly shut themselves in for the winter. They have an elaborate and even seemingly tender mating ritual which in certain species involves, I kid you not, the mutual manufacture and launching of “tiny, beautifully made arrows of calcium carbonate” which are stored in a kind of built-in quiver. One of my favorite chapters was the one entitled "Marvelous Spirals." "Even when my snail was asleep, I loved to gaze at the beautiful spiral of its shell. It was a tiny, brilliant accomplishment of architecture, and because the radius of the spiral increases exponentially as it progresses, it fits the definition of a logarithmic or an equiangular spiral. Also known as the marvelous spiral"...  She notes the many similarities between her and her snail: the pace at which they move; the way they're both having to adapt to changed environments. As the book progressed, I was afraid the snail would die: instead, it laid several clutches of eggs (snails are hermaphroditic, with a gestation period of 6-8 months) and gave birth to 118 baby snails. 
After a year, Elisabeth returned the snail to the woods, along with 117 of its children. Then she brought a single offspring snail back to her farmhouse, where her health continued to incrementally improve ("I might retrieve some papers from a few yards away in the late morning, and then in late afternoon I'd try a rash trip around the corner to the kitchen for a fresh glass of water"). She eventually released that snail as well and, we are given to understand, went on to study, ponder, and write this small gem of a book. 

DELPHINIUMS FROM THE PERENNIAL BORDER  IN ELISABETH TOVA BAILEY'S GARDEN (Photo from the author's collection and used with her

We may know little of Elisabeth's background but we come to know a great deal about her largeness of soul. She retained her sense of humor through what must have been almost unimaginable suffering and stress. She is utterly devoid of self-pity, which, under the circumstances, seems at least as marvelous as an equiangular spiral. All that talk of spirals somehow reminded of Santa Fe's Loretto Chapel and the "Miraculous Staircase" which, constructed (inexplicably) of non-native wood, and without a single nail--only hand-carved wooden pegs--makes two complete 360-degree turns with no visible means of supportIn 1878, the story goes, the cash-poor nuns, realizing the planned stairs to the choir loft of the new chapel weren't going to fit, made a novena to St. Joseph. Within days, an anonymous carpenter had ridden up on a donkey. Using only a saw, a hammer, and a square, over a period of six months he built the wondrous spiral staircase, then refused all payment and disappeared, never to be seen again. 
Like the anonymous carpenter, Elisabeth Tova Bailey worked with the simplest of tools: her wits and her questing spirit. Like the anonymous carpenter, she disappeared into the background--allowing the lowly but splendid snail to take center stage--and built a lasting monument to goodness, beauty, and truth. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating restores your faith, just in case it was faintly wavering, in publishing...and the miraculous power of prose...and life.  

Friday, October 15, 2010


“We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
--Madeleine L’Engle

My friend Linda Dickey is a kind, generous, deeply smart and well-read convert (from Judaism) who lives in NYC. After I returned from a recent visit, she initiated a friendly e-mail discussion about our respective beliefs that ended up with me (already subliminally thinking our exchange would make a fascinating post) writing 15 single-spaced pages holding forth in the most boring, blowhard way about how, to ME, being a Catholic means being willing to die for Christ, and as a MATTER OF CONSCIENCE, etc. etc., and when I read it all over a week later, I was like Oh who cares? Not who cares about Christ, not who cares that we’re passionate about and have reasoned out our convictions, but who cares about carrying on about your convictions when all any of us really want is to sit down with each other, share a laugh or two, and eat?

Which brings me to the incredible meal Linda cooked for me when I was in in town. Good olives, good cheese, roast chicken, asparagus, crusty bread, salad with avocado, olive oil, and lemon, and THE most delicious flourless semi-molten chocolate cake. 
She gave me a tour of her huge, gorgeous 4-bedroom, 3-bedroom apartment on 99th and Riverside Drive with a full-on view of the Hudson. I got to meet her husband Tom. The three of us had a lively conversation.  Afterward, Tom walked me to the bus station, showed me how to add money to a Metro card, and gave me his own extra card with 6 bucks already on it. I mean come on. How much more do you need to know about convictions? 

So thank you, dear Linda (who btw, is a grandmother, works full-time, and spends every Friday volunteering at a food pantry and performing other works of mercy). And I include the very short END of our exchange:

Me: Christ is an event, not a theory…

Linda: Right—and yet I wonder why an encounter with Him is given to some and not others…a dear friend of mine is waiting for Jesus to come to him. And like the rest of us, he’s hoping for it and dreading it at the same time!

Me: We do simultaneously hope and dread! And yet it seems Christ always comes to anyone who truly wants Him to. He said so Himself: Seek and ye shall find, knock and the door shall be opened. If you’re poor enough in spirit, He will come. If you’re sick enough and broken enough and weak enough and desperate enough and hungry enough, He will come.

If I’ve had an “experience” of Christ myself, I’ll tell you what it is: being with Him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Around the time I turned 50, I experienced such searing excruciating loneliness, such a profound sense of failure, grief, loss, rejection, abandonment, and inadequacy; such anguish that my work, my youth, my body, my looks, my love, and my life were not bearing and never would bear fruit that I really thought I might die. In fact, in a sense, I did die. I died to any idea that we get to dictate how, when and what kind of fruit we bear. I died not to my desire to love, which flames every brighter, but to my desire to control or direct it anywhere but toward Christ.

When you suffer a lot (whether or not neurotically)
, if you are very graced, you start to feel a little of the suffering of the world. That was when I truly began to feel Christ as the Great Physician, the Great Teacher, the Great Friend. That was when I began, in my blind, errant, often wrong-headed way to want to help him in what He does. And what He does is walk with us in our suffering. He leads us to the truth of our hearts.

AND--speaking of a lovely light, Happy Birthday to my seafaring brother Geo with a zillion thanks and deep appreciation for all the faithful, behind-the-scenes, mostly unnoticed, unmentioned work he does on behalf of The Family while, with his wife Deb, also trying to valiantly juggle a house, two kids and two careers. Hope the sun is shining in Maine... 


Wednesday, October 13, 2010


A couple of nights ago, I went to a memorial Mass for my friend Larry Dowling. A bunch of us were there, among them another friend in his 60’s who, just last week, had undergone a hip replacement. A third friend, female, who we both adore, gave him a ride home. He called afterward to say that on the way she’d told him, “Boy you look old. I never noticed it before but you’re just looking OLD. You didn’t used to look old, but now you look old. Old, old, OLD!” “I LOVE her!” was his comment.

Now that is a book I myself must TOTALLY take a page from. That is turning the other cheek at its absolute best.

Speaking of looking OLD, I'm sure it is the SHEEREST coincidence that prompts me to insert this link to NET NY’s “Currents”, filmed in Brooklyn on September 22nd and directed by the one-and-only Deacon Greg Kandra. Greg has a wildly popular blog called The Deacon's Bench, and I was honored to (at last!) meet, appear on his wonderful faith-based cable TV show, and tell a bit of my story to the, as you can see, beautiful and accomplished Francesca Maxime.


Monday, October 11, 2010


Today is the 83rd birthday of my mother, Janet McCray House King. She was born in rural Rhode Island and raised on a poultry farm. Her mother often went days without speaking a word and her father left one day, when my mother was a teenager, and never came back.

She married my father on August 28, 1951. He had two children from a previous marriage and I was born on July 19, 1952. She bore five more kids.

Mom was never one for small talk. She played the piano:"Lola," "I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," Rachmaninov's "Prelude in C Sharp Minor." She bought me books: The Secret Garden. The Wind in the Willows. The Velveteen Rabbit. There's a longer version, but the short version is that I put her through hell with my drinking and then she got it together to contact a counselor, staged a family intervention, and in 1986 more or less saved my life.

Happy Birthday, Mom. Thank you for loving me the way I am and--forever--for the books.

Saturday, October 9, 2010


Here's a moment I know you've been waiting for: the transcript of the September 21, 2010 "Face-to-Face" at the Crossroads Cultural Center in NYC with the truly wonderful Msgr. Albacete. Monsignor is a priest, physicist, theologian, one of the leaders of the international Catholic lay movement Communion and Liberation, and the author, among other things of God at the Ritz. But more than that, or I should say maybe the reason he's able to do all that so well, is that he has a sense of humor.

From God at the Ritz: "Have you noticed that many horrendous murderers and serial killers are said, at one time, to have been very religious? I always looked at my most pious altar boys with deep suspicion, wondering what was going on within their religiously agitated minds."

I think we need no further introduction, except to thank, deeply, poet Rita A. Simmonds for transcribing. And to say Cor ad cor loquitur (one of the three or four Latin phrases I now know): Heart speaks to heart.

Friday, October 8, 2010


As you may or may not know, Simone Weil (1909-1943) was a Catholic—or in her case Catholic-in-spirit—nutcase (I use the term with the utmost affection and respect) who took the notion of sacrifice to places I'm increasingly not sure it should go. Born to Jewish parents, at the age of 6, she (completely admirably) refused to eat sugar in solidarity with the soldiers on the Western Front. She was a French intellectual who’d insisted on working in a factory (though she was incompetent, loathed the work, and made no friends), was possibly anorexic (or at the very least masochistic), and upon volunteering as a nurse in the Spanish Civil War promptly stuck her foot in a pot of boiling oil, causing burns from which she later, weakened by her refusal of food, fresh air, and human intimacy, died. Believing herself to have a special mission, Weil refused to join the Church and was in general the patron saint of Those Who Do Things the Hard Way, a club of which I count myself a charter member and which no doubt goes a long way toward explaining my fascination with her life and work.

In a blog called Paying Attention to the Sky, Catholic convert Derek Jeter expounds on Weil's refusal to be baptized:

“I feel,” she wrote once, “that it is necessary to me, prescribed for me, to be alone, an outsider and alienated from every human context whatsoever.” And on another occasion, she jotted in her journal the self-reminder, “Preserve your solitude!” What motivated her was no selfish desire to withdraw from the ordinary concourse of men, but precisely the opposite impulse. She knew that one remains alienated from a particular allegiance, not by vainly attempting to deny all beliefs, but precisely by sharing them all.

To have become rooted in the context of a particular religion, Simone Weil felt, would on the one hand, have exposed her to what she calls “the patriotism of the Church,” with a consequent blindness to the faults of her own group and the virtues of others, and would, on the other hand, have separated her from the common condition here below, which finds us all “outsiders, uprooted, in exile.” The most terrible of crimes is to collaborate in the uprooting of others in an already alienated world; but the greatest of virtues is to uproot oneself for the sake of one’s neighbors and of God. “It is necessary to uproot oneself. Cut down the tree and make a cross and carry it forever after.”

Especially at the moment when the majority of mankind is “submerged in materialism,” Simone Weil felt she could not detach herself from them by undergoing baptism. To be able to love them as they were, in all their blindness, she would have to know them as they were; and to know them, she would have to go among them disguised in the garments of their own disbelief. In so far as Christianity had become an exclusive sect, it would have to be remade into a “total Incarnation of faith,” have to become truly “catholic,” catholic enough to include the myths of the dark-skinned peoples from a world untouched by the Churches of the West, as well as the insights of post-Enlightenment liberals, who could see in organized religion only oppression and bitterness and pride.

“[I]n our present situation,” she wrote, “universality has to be fully explicit.” And that explicit universality, she felt, must find a mouthpiece in a new kind of saint, for “today it is not nearly enough merely to be a saint, but we must have the saintliness demanded by the present moment, a new saintliness, itself also without precedent.” The new kind of saint must possess a special “genius,” capable of blending Christianity and Stoicism, the love of God and “filial piety for the city of the world”; a passive sort of “genius” that would enable him to act as a “neutral medium,” like water, “indifferent to all ideas without exception, even atheism and materialism .

Simone Weil felt that she could be only the forerunner and foreteller of such a saint; for her, humility forbade her thinking of herself as one capable of a “new revelation of the universe and human destiny… the unveiling of a large portion of truth and beauty hitherto hidden…” Yet she is precisely the saint she prophesied.

Despite her modesty, she spoke sometimes as if she were aware that there was manifest in the circumstances of her birth (she had been born into an agnostic family of Jewish descent) a special providence, a clue to a special mission. While it was true, she argued in her letters to Catholic friends, that the earlier Saints had all loved the Church and had been baptized into it, on the other hand, they had all been born and brought up in the Church, as she had not. “I should betray the truth,” she protested, “that is to say, the aspect of the truth that I see, if I left the point, where I have been since my birth, at the intersection of Christianity and everything that is not Christianity.”

It must not be thought that she was even troubled by the question of formally becoming a Christian; it vexed her devout Catholic friends and for their sakes she returned again and again to the problem; but, as for herself, she was at peace. Toward the end of her life, the mystic vision came to her almost daily, and she did not have to wonder (in such matters, she liked to say, one does not believe or disbelieve; one knows or does not know) if there were salvation outside an organized sect; she was a living witness that the visible Church and the invisible congregation of the saints are never one. “I have never for a second had the feeling that God wanted me in the Church. . . . I never doubted…. I believe that now it can be concluded that God does not want me in the Church.”

It is because she was capable of remaining on the threshold of organized religion, “without moving, quite still… indefinitely . . .“ that Simone Weil speaks to all of us with special authority, an Outsider to outsiders, our kind of saint, whom we have needed (whether we have known it or not) “as a plague-stricken town needs doctors.”

In other words, she refused baptism to be in solidarity with the souls in hell. I, too, am prone to think, if not that I have a special mission, that I am special, in some way annoyingly invisible to the rest of the world; and though I am far, far from an expert on Simone Weil, I have always viewed her refusal to be baptized, for reasons I couldn't define, as faintly suspect.

But over the course of the last couple of days, I may have begun to crack the code. As so often is the case, my epiphany came from sober drunks: two engaging, attractive but otherwise perfectly ordinary young woman, neither of whom, I'd wager, have ever heard of Simone Weil. One spoke of how, after getting drunk after work, she took to driving (narrow, winding, mountain road) Mulholland Drive home, hoping she'd go off in a cliff in a blackout and figuring that, since she technically wouldn't have been a suicide, her mother wouldn't feel as bad as she might have otherwise.

The second woman also spoke of her bad track record in the driving department and of her habit, in her drinking days, of riding a scooter instead of operating a motor vehicle so that if she got in an accident, she'd only kill herself and not hurt anyone else. "That was a nice enough thought," she'd now realized, "but I also saw I didn't really know how to take care of or love myself." 

Such are the profound metaphysical questions, I'm proud to say, that occupy the minds of we garden-variety ex-drunks. But more to the point, these gals had both been thinking, as I so often have, like Simone Weil. They'd been willing to sacrifice themselves, but for the wrong reasons and out of subtly misguided motives.

For one thing, Church tradition has it that Christ himself descended into hell for three days after his death: he's already in solidarity with the souls in hell (and so are we, simply by virtue of being human). But to say "I'm not going to technically kill myself, I'm just going to drive along Mulholland in a blackout and hope I die," or "I'm going to ride my scooter and kill only myself" is to give the living the type of help they don't need and didn't ask for (as both of these women had seen, which was why they were telling the story at all). Someone's going to have to scrape your mangled body off the side of the road. Your mother's going to have to grieve for you whether you were a suicide or not. To refuse to be baptized so as not to leave one's brothers and sisters behind is like an alcoholic saying, "I'm going to keep living in the hell of drinking so as not to leave behind the drunks." But the way to help all drunks, past, present, and future, is not to keep drinking, but to get sober yourself. Which requires a quality that Weil, perhaps fatally, seemed to lack: not the willingness to help others, but the willingness to ask for help herself. For all her supposed solidarity with "the workers," it apparently never occurred to her to befriend any of them. It never occurred to her that the workers themselves might have spiritual insight, wisdom, experience, strength, and hope that could shed light on her situation (plus tell her a much-needed joke or two). 

None of us are equipped to know the workings of another person's soul. I have to believe our suffering goes toward relieving the suffering of others no matter how it's undergone. But especially for those of us who like to think of ourselves as "intelligent," maybe the real suffering  consists is in realizing our utter ignorance, brokenness and poverty. It's in casting our lot with the rest of humanity and realizing that religion is both sublime and in the utterly mundane and seemingly ordinary. I'm sure there's a special place in heaven for the ones who did go off the cliff, or crash the scooter into a tree, or voluntarily starve themselves to death ostensibly so another could live. But what really helped me yesterday was hearing that the gal who used to ride her scooter wasted has sobered up, stopped smoking pot, trained herself over the course of two years to get up early, and is now going to college.

Next up: exploring this same idea of misguided "martyrdom" vis-a-vis me and my sainted mother!


Thursday, October 7, 2010


Here are two creations of my obviously brilliant friend Mark Olmsted in response to yesterday's Edward Hopper post...

Check out Mark's blog:

Mark tidies up the streets around his L.A. apartment and has all kinds of fascinating adventures, experiences, and reflections thereupon....

Wednesday, October 6, 2010



According to a 2007 New York Times review of an Edward Hopper retrospective at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, "Hopper once said that, as an artist, the only thing he ever aspired to do was to paint 'sunlight on the side of a house.' "

I'm thinking of Hopper this morning, having just returned from six days in the high desert town of Joshua Tree. I read, I napped, I did errands, I drove to the Yucca Valley Starbucks to get online. Every night around five I walked up Covington Flats Road and watched the colors and clouds and shadows over the mountains as the sun set. I wrote, I pondered, I prayed. But I've been worried about a lot of things lately. I feel tired and old. So a lot of time I simply sat and looked out the window.


At the behest of my (wonderful) teacher friend Alan Pulner, I once gave a little talk to a class of third-graders at the Hobart Middle School here in L.A. I couldn't believe how smart these kids were. "What's your genre?" they asked, and "Does it take you a long time to revise?" and "How do you know when you're done?" But to me the question of the day came from a small Asian girl in a green cardigan sweater who, after sitting quietly the whole hour, finally raised her hand. "Do you..." she began shyly, then stopped to gather herself before continuing. "Do you find it helps when you write to look out the window?"


I wanted to jump up and clasp that little girl to my breast. I wanted to say, Now you are a writer. You will suffer. You will spend much of your life alone. You will get very little understanding and almost no support. But just to be able to ask such a question....that is everything. To devote your whole life to learning how to paint sunlight on the side of a house is everything. To devote your whole life to describing the feeling in your heart when you look out the window and see a gull skimming over the water, or a man buying his bottle of Thunderbird at the liquor store is everything. I settled for, "Yes! I find looking out the window helps absolutely! I spend a lot of time looking out the window. I am a big fan of looking out the window."

Sometimes we look out the window. And if we wait a really long time, no matter how discouraged or tired or hopeless we get, sometimes what's out there begins to look back.


Monday, October 4, 2010


Land of Silence and Darkness is Werner Herzog’s 1971 documentary about a 56-year-old German woman named Fini Straubinger. Fini suffered a fall down the stairs when she was 9, and several years later went first blind, then deaf—after  which her mother confined her to bed for the next three decades. She’s recovered from that ordeal—we never learn how—sufficiently to devote her life to helping others who are deaf-blind, folks who communicate by spelling out words on each other’s palms by a series of taps and strokes. Fini is magnificent with her regal bulk, heavy wool coat, and deerstalker hat. “Noble friend George,” Fini greets one of the guests at a birthday part. At an asylum she holds out her arms to a deaf-blind woman who could communicate only with her mother—and whose mother has recently died—and says simply, “Sister in destiny.” 

Over and over, she takes people’s hands compassionately into her own and spells out on their palms: “I’m like you”… “I, too, can neither see nor hear”… “We are just alike…”

 To the interviewer she observes:

“I always jump when touched.”
“Years go by in waiting.”
“If I were a painter I’d represent our condition like this; blindness like a black river flowing slowly like a melody towards great falls. On its banks, trees and flowers and birds singing sweetly. The other river, coming from the other side is as clear as the purest crystal. This one also flows slowly but also without any sound. Deep down there is a lake very dark and deep where the two rivers meet. Where they join, there are rocks making the waters foam afterwards to let them flow silently and slowly into that sombre reservoir which lies in a deadly calm only troubled by an occasional ripple representing the struggle of the deaf-blind. I don’t know if you can understand this. The rocks who tear the waters stand for the depression the blind and the deaf feel”...

But the scene that comes back to me again and again is the one with Vladimir Kokol: 22 years old, born deaf-blind. “It was never tried to awaken him,” Herzog observes in voice-over. “Only his father cared for him.” “He never learned to walk.” Vladimir is chubby, neatly dressed in a button-down shirt, blue V-neck sweater and pants with suspenders, and he’s sitting on the floor staring into space, hitting himself on the head with a polka-dot ball, and blowing spit bubbles—Brrrrr, Brrrrrr, BRRRRRRR—the way you understand he has been for years.

Fini sits down beside him, takes his hand into her own, tries to make contact.
“I can’t hear anything. I’m just like you.”
 No response.
“Poor dear.”
No response.

At some point, a pair of hands sets a portable radio, playing a bouncy 70’s “jazz” tune, in Fini’s lap. And here a remarkable transformation takes place. Vladimir places his hand over the speaker, leans his forehead against its side, and grimaces in mingled ecstasy and pain as if trying to communicate with this "something living." Fini lets him hold the radio. He sits quietly for a moment and then a beatific look lights his face. He smiles; he “understands.” And then he very slowly brings the radio to his breast, rests his cheek across the top, and with infinite tenderness, places his hands delicately, protectively, along the front. He can’t hear; it’s not the music he’s responding to. He’s responding with such delicacy, such profound gentleness, to the vibration, the rhythm, the small pulse, perhaps, of heat. He might have been the Virgin Mary cradling the infant Christ.

I wondered what had happened to Vladimir Kokol who, if he lived, would have been in his early sixties by now. I googled his name but the only references were to Land of Silence and Darkness. Was his appearance in Herzog’s film his one “moment in the sun?” What treasured place did he have—do any of us have—in the universal plan?  Did he fade back into obscurity? Did he ever hold a radio again? 

Or maybe Vladimir has entered another realm, where someone—at last—is holding him.