Sunday, January 30, 2011


From wikipedia:

“The Museum of Jurassic Technology is an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the lower jurassic. Located at 9341 Venice Boulevard in the Palms district of Los Angeles, California, the Museum holds a specialized repository of relics and artifacts evoking some of the more obscure and poetic aspects of natural history, the history of technology and science, and their entwined realizations in human artistry and ingenuity. It was founded by David Hildebrand Wilson and Diana Drake Wilson (husband and wife) in 1987.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology traces its origins to the earliest days of the institution of the museum, which it dates back to Noah's Ark, the first and most complete Museum of Natural History known to man. The Museum's catalog includes a mixture of artistic, scientific as well as some unclassifiable exhibits, and evokes the cabinets of curiosities that were the 18th century predecessors of modern natural history museums. The factual claims of many of the Museum's exhibits strain credibility, provoking a rich array of interpretations from commentators. The Museum was the subject of a book by Lawrence Weschler in 1995 entitled "Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder," and the Museum's founder David Wilson received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 2001.

The Museum maintains over 30 permanent exhibits including:

The Delani/Sonnabend Halls - recalling the intertwining story of an ill-fated opera singer, Madalena Delani, with a theoretician of memory, Geoffrey Sonnabend, whose 3-part work Obliscence: Theories of Forgetting and the Problem of Matter suggests that memory is an elaborate construction that humankind has created, "to buffer ourselves against the intolerable knowledge of the irreversible passage of time and the irretrievability of its moments and events." There is only experience and the decay of experience, an idea he illustrates with a complex diagram of a plane intersecting a cone.

Tell the Bees: Belief, Knowledge, and Hypersymbolic Cognition: An exhibit of pre-scientific cures and remedies

The Garden of Eden on Wheels: Collections from Los Angeles Area Trailer Parks.”

The Museum of Jurassic Technology, in other words, is simultaneously utterly serious, utterly tongue-in-cheek, and a kind of elaborate gift/puzzle/hoax. When I first moved to town, I lived right around the corner from the place and the first time I wandered in, I knew I’d stumbled into an alternate world.

An ordinary Victorian tea set was exhibited with grave, respectful, “museum-type” commentary. A horn, supposedly cut a century or two ago from the forehead of a woman, was mounted like a pair of stag’s horns on a heraldic board. Four and twenty moldy blackbirds were baked into a plaster-of-Paris pie--but maybe I'm mixing that up with the "mice on toast" diorama. For someone like me, whose central belief is that the mundane is also utterly transcendent, I felt like I’d wandered into a part of my psyche I’d always known existed but had never quite yet met in the flesh.

“One of the things that we are greatly interested in is helping people to achieve states of wonder,” observes curator David Wilson. In Dr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, writer Lawrence Weschler describes the effect of the museum on one such person:

“One day, for instance, when I was talking with David at his front desk, a visitor emerged from the maze-like alcoves stupefied. He stopped for a moment and gazed on the rotary pencil sharpener on David's desk. He stared at it, manipulated the rotor, dumbfounded. Like he'd never seen anything like it in his life. It was just an ordinary pencil sharpener.”


Friday, January 28, 2011


In a 1940 letter, Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker, told of a story a friend had read in The Saturday Evening Post in which:

“a young girl is wildly in love with a wastrel until later on when this had been broken up and she had been married for a year to a man of good solid character, she ran into her former love again. She confessed to her husband that she had been afraid of meeting him for fear some of the old glamour remained, and she said to him: ‘Now I can see him as he is.’ And her husband, who must have been a man of great discernment, said to her very sadly: ‘Perhaps it was before that you were seeing him as he really is.’" "Or as he was meant to be," added Day.

I’m reminded of this passage from Thomas Merton: “One reason I am so grateful for this morning’s sermon is that my worst and inmost sickness is the despair of every being able to truly love, because I despair of ever being worthy of love. But the way out is to be able to trust one’s friends and thus accept in them acts and things which a sick mind grabs as evidence of a lack of love—as pretexts for avoiding the obligation of love.”

I’m reminded of  Kirsten Arnesen Clay, the Lee Remick character in The Days of Wine and Roses who, by way of explaining why she can't or won't stop drinking, says: “...I want things to look prettier than they are”...

I’m reminded of Dostoevsky’s line about Paradise in "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man": “And not only in their songs but in all their lives they seemed to do nothing but admire one another.”

I think I am FINALLY done with that damn, I mean the blessed book I have been graced to write about my year-long walk with the literally sainted St. Thérèse of Lisieux. From whom, believe me, I have learned A LOT. Meanwhile, I'm off to Palm Springs tomorrow to stay for three days with my friend Christine who hails from Zermatt, Switzerland, and wears pointy Moroccan leather slippers, and has an orange tree in her backyard and...I'll give a full report!...

Saturday, January 22, 2011


photo: adam foster
Thirty years ago I “hid” a fifty-dollar bill between the pages of a red leather, gilt-stamped journal that now sits, along with all my other old journals, on a shelf in my bedroom closet. Every so often, I still leaf through, hoping to find that fifty bucks.

I think of all the other things I’ve lost in my life: the moss agate bracelet my parents gave me for my 23rd birthday, left behind one hazy night—dropped? impulsively given away?—in the bar of the Copley Square Hotel. The ninety dollars of waitressing money that fell out of my pocket near the old Boston Garden in the fall of 1988 and I mourned for months because it was some of the last money I ever made waitressing and I’d waitressed for 15 years. The black leather jacket (how? where?) somewhere between my apartment and the Southwestern Law Library, right after I’d first moved to L.A. and was studying for the California bar.

moss agate, rough
I won’t count the things that were stolen, which is another kind of loss; or the things I gave away to the wrong person: my virginity, for instance; or the things I knew I was going to lose in advance, like a little chunk of my left breast when they cut out that tumor. A few years ago, for the first time ever, I lost a library book--Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile--which I hated not so much because the book cost 35 bucks to replace (plus I didn't like it) but because the loss blemished the perfect library record I’d had since I was 6 (I found it later, under a floor mat in my car, and got a refund). It’s as if all those lost things tell their own story; form a path linking my past and future, like Hansel’s and Gretel’s crumbs.

Why do we lose things so much more often than we find them?
Why can’t we be more careful?
Do the things we’ve lost feel like they’ve lost us?

Maybe in some other dimension everything’s there, keeping each other company: the whirligig for the Krups food processor I accidentally emptied into the garbage, along with the plum pudding, that really bad Christmas in the mid-90's. The 250-dollar reading glasses with the thick black frames I’m pretty sure I left at a Starbucks on the main drag in the mountain town of Temecula, California. The green ribbed sweater that disappeared one night in the Twin Towers jail in downtown L.A.

The clothes, the books, the jewelry, the money: maybe they're all in some cosmic lost-and-found; maybe in an alternate realm, a small carefully-tended pile, labeled with our names, awaits each of us.  Maybe everything finds its way back: the fragments of broken heart, the minds that wandered off and never returned, the roads not taken. Maybe in another world, we get to start over: the illusion that our parents were perfect, that he’d never look at another woman, that we weren’t going to die.

“I’m so sorry to hear it,” Andy Warhol said when he learned that everybody dies. “I just thought things were magic and that it would never happen.”

Friday, January 21, 2011


"Confusão is a good word, a synthesis word, an everything word. In Angola it has its own specific sense and is literally untranslatable. To simplify things: Confusão means confusion, a mess, a state of anarchy and disorder. Confusão is a situation created by people, but in the course of creating it they lose control and direction, becoming victims of confusão themselves. There is a sort of fatalism in confusão. A person wants to do something, but it all falls to pieces in his hands; he wants to set something in motion, but some power paralyzes him; he wants to create something, but he produces confusão. Confusão can overwhelm our thinking, and then others will say that the person has confusão in his head. It can steal into our hearts, and then our girls dump us. It can explode in a crowd and sweep through a mass of people—then there is fighting, death, arson. Sometimes confusão takes a more benign form in which it assumes the character of desultory, chaotic but bloodless haggling.

Confusão is a state of absolute disorientation. People who have found themselves on the inside of confusão can’t comprehend what is going on around them or in themselves. Nor can they explain specifically what caused this particular state of confusão. There are carriers who spread confusão, and others must beware, though this is difficult because literally any person can at any moment become a perpetrator of confusão, even against his will. By confusão we also understand our own states of perplexity and helplessness. We see confusão raging around us and can’t do anything to stop it…The best thing is to act slowly and wait. After a while confusão loses energy, weakens, vanishes. We emerge from a state of confusão exhausted, but somehow satisfied that we have managed to survive. We start gathering strength for the next confusão."

--Ryszard Kapuściński,  from Another Day of Life 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


I’ve been pondering a quote about St. Thérèse of Lisieux from Ida Friederike Görres biography, The Hidden Face:

 “[S]he rejected all ascetic efforts which were directed not towards God but toward one’s own perfection.”

I, for one, have a way of trying to be perfectly accommodating, perfectly forgiving, perfectly available, perfectly responsive which is somehow not about the other person, but about me.

I've had a number of incidents lately where people have in one way or another approached me and after I've responded with as much grace, patience, compassion and generosity as I can muster, have proceeded to guilt-grip, nitpick, bully, and scapegoat. In the past I've tended in such situations to offer a long, heartfelt explanation of how they had misunderstood, and why I thought and felt as I did, thinking my job was to be friendly and open.  Now I’m more likely to respond, “You may be right!”--or not respond at all--mentally wish the person well, and move on.

(Plus, you can always defriend him or her on Facebook).

No, but seriously, I'm deeply aware of the myriad ways I fall far, far short every day: of my selfishness, my jealousy, my petty spite, my obsessive-compulsive thought patterns.

But what Christ came to say, it seems to me more and more, was you are never going to get where you want to go by merely following the rules. The rules are important, but only to let you know whether or not you’re moving in the right direction. "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” [Matthew 5:17]

Part of the fulfillment is that you get to take yourself into account. You don’t embark on some willy-nilly saying yes to everything even though you’re hungry, angry, lonely and tired; out of some misguided sense of martyrdom, which for me is often a thinly-veiled disguise for my fear that the other person won’t like me if I say no.

Maybe not everyone can relate, but as the oldest of six in a family affected by alcoholism, the delusion that if only I were good enough, accomplished enough, pretty enough, perfect enough I could save them  ("them" being my family, the poor, the sick and suffering, the world) has been seemingly hard-wired into my psyche since practically my first sentient day. 

Of course there’ll be many times when you “sacrifice.” Your friend calls you because her car broke down on the way to the airport: of course you “give up” your quiet evening of reading to go pick her up. But you’re not trying to get good spiritual marks. You’re not doing it to get straight A’s on some cosmic report card; you’re doing it because you’ve prayed long and hard enough, you’ve developed enough of a relationship with Christ, so that you can now actually feel and somewhat gauge the stirrings of your heart. You’re able to discern your motives. You say yes because you know you’re going to be able to reciprocally participate in the flow of give and take. You devote your energy to the people and things that nourish you instead of frittering it away trying to win useless arguments.  

So quit explaining yourself. Give yourself permission to say no once in awhile. Leave the scapegoaters to their own sad and secret sorrows--and pray for them, for we are all scapegoaters in our way.

Listen to the birds.

Take a walk. ...


Saturday, January 15, 2011


Rembrandt van Rijn
The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1662
Collection: The Hermitage, St. Petersburg
The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) once saw a reproduction of the Rembrandt painting of the parable of the Prodigal Son [Luke 15: 11-32] and became so entranced that he traveled to St. Petersburg, wheedled the administration and guards, and sat before this great work of art for five days, gazing, reflecting, pondering.

The trip resulted in two books: The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers and Sons (1992) and (the posthumous) Home Tonight: Further Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son (2009).

Nouwen reflects deeply on the younger son, the elder son, and the father (at different times, we are all of these characters), realizing in the end that he himself was called to be a "father"--as a priest, as a person. And he makes a very interesting point, especially for those of us who are getting on in years, about how people don’t want to consult with the father about the little comings and goings of their daily lives. They want to be out and about having fun, they don’t want to consult with or invite or let the father in on everything, they just want him to be there when they need him, when they need guidance or direction or mercy or the deep God-like welcome that asks no questions, that doesn’t condemn or judge but simply welcomes, embraces, and blesses.

"Before now I was never able to see how the love of the father embraced not just the return of his younger child but also his running away from home…Perhaps the whole movement of leaving and returning is only one movement rather than two, especially as it is experienced in the loving heart of the father. This is not a parent who says, “Don’t go.” That kind of statement is not in keeping with the spirit of this story. The spirit of the story is different. It reads, “Yes, son. Go. And you will be hurt and it will be hard, and it will be painful. And you might even lose your life, but I will not hold you back from taking that risk. When and if you come back, I am always here for you. But I’m also here for you now in your leaving. Yes, we belong together and I am never separated from you.” This aspect of divine Love is, for me, a critical life-connection.” 

"And in the passage of return there is a further step to be taken. The return is not just about you and me, but it has to do with our response to another person’s resentment. Seeing what we do, and working to change, there is an urge to critically judge resentment seen in others. This is important because we each must choose our reactions to the anger and pain of others. It is when we are primarily giving thanks for our lives that we have the potential to receive another’s anger and judgment while remaining upright and letting it move through us. When we are looking for occasions to be grateful we hear anger and pain in a new way and can more readily accept it as being theirs and not ours. It is in that spirit that we try simply to receive it without judgment. This is only possible as we adopt thanksgiving as our way of living. Otherwise their resentment connects with ours and that only makes things worse. In the grateful life we no longer listen to another’s resentment as an affirmation of our own. Nor do we judge. We simply receive it in love."

"Each one of us, as well as all who went before us, share the human condition and suffer from being loved imperfectly. [to wit, by our parents] We are not meant to stop at simply feeling the pain of these wounds, nor are we to become stuck in guilt or accusations. Rather this whole experience is to move us toward accepting a relationship with God’s living Spirit of Unconditional Love. Our spiritual journey is nothing more than a return to the intimacy, the safety, and the acceptance of that very first relationship with Love, that is uniquely present and at home within each one of us."

"We all know the lonely person in others or ourselves who, through so many disturbing behaviors, is asking, 'Please recognize me, please love me.' Human suffering is so often an expression of our extreme need to feel genuinely loved, and when we know nothing about the first love, we turn to others who cannot offer us the love we need…

Rembrandt was able to paint the prodigal son’s return only after immense suffering…

Look at the hands of the father in the painting. Very few people notice at first glance that there are two different hands, one of a man and the other of a woman. Rembrandt knew that the Divine was not merely a man looking upon creation from the sky, and he understood something about the Creator that Jesus wanted us to know…Rembrandt painted the hand of the woman for an earlier painting of the Jewish bride. She has very delicate, gentle, and tender hands that speak about who she is as women—protecting, caring, and inordinately in love. The hand of the man is Rembrandt’s own hand. It speaks of who he is as father, supporter, defender, and giver of freedom. After a long life and having lived the death of both of his wives and all of his children, Rembrandt understood the depths of holding and letting go, of offering protection and freedom, of maternity and paternity. That’s how he was able to paint this image of God toward the end of his life."

--Henri Nouwen, all from Home Tonight: Further Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Detail from Rembrandt's
The Return of the Prodigal Son

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Like most of us, I'm am saddened, frightened, unsettled and bewildered by the recent tragedy in Tucson. I'm also unsettled by the response--much of which, from both "sides," seems way over-geared toward the very venom, vitriol, and finger-pointing from which such a deranged act is likely to spring in the first place.

Help, O Lord, for good men have vanished:
truth has gone from the sons of men.
Falsehood they speak to one another,
with lying lips, with a false heart…
--Psalm 112

Dorothy Day, co-founder of the lay Catholic Worker movement, believed not in pointing fingers, but in doing penance…Not in trying to ferret out other people's motives, but in ferreting out, and amending, our own..."Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system,"

Day wrote, and this seems a fitting week to offer this review of her diaries I wrote a couple of years ago for the newspaper of the L.A. Catholic Worker, The Catholic Agitator.


           On the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1932, Dorothy Day visited the National Shrine and prayed that “some way would be opened for me to work for the poor and the oppressed.” Right there is the difference between Dorothy Day and me, or maybe you. I, too, often pray for help, for solace, for relief—but I’m not always thinking of poor and the oppressed, if you get my drift.  
            When Dorothy returned from the National Shrine to her apartment in New York, Peter Maurin, a Catholic French social activist with peasant roots and a philosophy of personalism, was waiting on her doorstep, and on May 1, 1933, the Catholic Worker was born: first a newspaper, then a soup kitchen, then the first “house of hospitality” from which a worldwide lay movement would eventually blossom. Dorothy’s checkered past—the Bohemian nightlife, the flirtation with Communism, the abortion, the 1927 conversion, the common-law marriage—were behind her. She’d given up Forster Batterham, the resolutely atheistic love of her life, because of his refusal to sanction the baptism of the child they’d conceived together, Tamar. The separation was wrenching, the hardest thing, she later said, that she would ever do. 
            If Dorothy said a thing was hard, you know it had to be. The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, span the years from 1934, a little under a year after the CW began, to nine days before her death in 1980, and nothing could be clearer than that they were written by one fierce burning flame of a Catholic and a woman. Dorothy herself, notoriously unwilling to suffer fools gladly, said, “Don’t call me saint!” But if the saint “is the person who wills the one thing,” as Kierkegaard opined, it seemed to me, as I closed this 654-page book, that she came pretty darned close.
            “A crowded, confused day with a great desire on my part to write on love and the strange things that happen to you in growing in the love of God,” she wrote on September 20, 1953. The love of God was the one thing she willed, and she willed it through poverty, conscripted celibacy, chastity, obedience, labor strikes, jail time, illness, struggles with the Church; through WWII, the Cold War, and the 60’s: “We see her traveling to Cuba on the eve of the missile crisis, fasting for peace in Rome during the Second Vatican Council….and standing in solidarity with young men burning their draft cards,” writes editor Robert Ellsberg in his admirable introduction. 
           She willed it through the Vietnam War, through a showdown with the IRS over her refusal to either pay taxes or register the CW as non-exempt (Dorothy won), through the women’s and sexual liberation movements with which, having lived through and witnessed the effects of similar upheavals in the ‘20’s, she was unable to muster much sympathy. She willed it through moral loneliness. Because when you’re Dorothy Day, who is your peer? She had no peer.
            Peter Maurin’s role was to “enunciate principles”; Dorothy’s was to implement them. By May of 1935, the circulation of the paper, The Catholic Worker, had already reached an astonishing 100,000. By 1936, the CW had moved into 115 Mott Street in Manhattan which would remain headquarters for the next 14 years. The same month they established the first farm outside Easton, Pennsylvania. By 1941, there were already over 30 independent but affiliated CW communities in the U.S., Canada, and the UK.
            In 1943, exhausted, Dorothy took a year’s leave of absence (“For the last few years I’ve been thinking a great deal of putting aside the responsibility of the Catholic Worker…”) She spent several months at a Dominican convent in Farmingdale, Long Island, and used  the time typically, not to relax but to spiritually prune herself. (“Exam. conscience…One’s faults stand out. Also to establish how hard it is to establish regular habits.”)
            Of course, she returned to her beloved Catholic Worker. But for the woman who co-founded, and for decades ran, arguably the most influential Catholic movement of the 20th century, this habit of examining her conscience persisted throughout her life:
            “I am oppressed in general by a sense of failure, of sin.”
            “I have no wisdom, no ability to run things and manage a household.”
            Dorothy frequently quoted the Dostoevsky line: “Love in reality is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams,” and the diaries give ample testament to the twin crosses of community and poverty:
            “Breakfast a thick slice of dry bread and some very bad coffee….I have prescribed for myself this day in bed but I keep thinking it is my spirit that is all wrong. I am surrounded by repellent disorder, noise, people, and have no spirit of inner solitude or poverty.”
            “Two teeth pulled Monday at a filthy hole in the Bowery. Too weak to go further.”
            “Snow, cold. No coal or oil.”
            “So little time. Sow time to reap time, Fr. Roy used to say. One’s spiritual life takes 3 hours a day at least.”
            “We are begging [the fish man] and he said he would bring us cuttings from filets for chowder.”
            But the real poverty consisted in the conflicts within the community, in meager results, in the fact that no matter how much she did, it was never quite enough to stem the tide of drunks and crazy people, the shell-shocked, the quarrelsome and argumentative who streamed through the house and whom she made it her life’s mission to love and serve.
            “The prevalent complaint when I arrive at the farm for a visit [is]…`you are never here!’”
            “[M]y Halgren’s catechism, stolen. I know by whom, because he thought I, aspiring to be poor, must be kept poor.”
            “Our house will hold just so many, we can feed just so many, and after that we must say no. It makes us realize how little we can do.”
            “What did our poverty consist of? Insecurity—loss of jobs—no ownership—no property—no responsibility—lack of a philosophy of work.”
            “In time of trouble [workers] are most anxious and grateful for our help, but when there is no crisis, they are condescending….They still think, as they have always thought, that church and schools, church and state, church and unions cannot be mixed. In other words, they distrust Catholics because of the aims of Catholics.”
            After 40 years, you’d think her followers would have at least thrown the woman a decent party—but no. “May 1. [1973]. Anniversary [of the CW]: Such drunkenness and noise in the house tonight that I could not stand staying downstairs for our 40th birthday anniversary party. A vision of hell. Went upstairs and wept.”
            Reading along, month after month, year after year, I began to wonder, Why is this feeling so familiar? When I saw that entry, I realized, That sounds like the people with whom I've often been surrounded! That sounds like my life! This is the beauty of the diaries. They show us someone just like us, except perhaps a little, if not about ten times more, focused, more harder-working, more disciplined. Someone who took note of the daily details of life--what she ate for breakfast, the petty quarrel at dinner, that she rinsed out her underwear at night--but was perhaps a little more able to see God in all of it. The saint isn’t the person who refuses to see the meanness and ugliness of the world, but the one humble enough to realize that our humdrum lives, in all their brokenness and glory, are where we find God.
            Because if community was a cross, Dorothy made clear again and again, community was at the same time an enormous blessing. If she was “poor,” she reminded herself, she was also rich. As of 1944, she owned only three pairs of stockings (“heavy cotton, grey, tan, and one brown wool”), all of which had come to her “from the cancerous poor, entering a hospital to die…But the fact remains that I have stockings to cover me when others go cold and naked. The fact remains that I am now listening to a concert—Brahms’ 2nd Symphony, joyful music to heal my sadness….What right have I to recreation? What need have I of recreation?”
            Over and over she reminded herself not to judge others, but to love; not to look at the faults in others, but at the faults in herself.  She praised St. Thérèse of Lisieux for being as strict with herself as “the Spaniards” (St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila), but she was equally strict with herself. In all those years, she never allowed herself a word of self-congratulation, never once rested on her laurels. “Physical and spiritual senses need to be ‘mortified,’ subdued, disciplined,” she observed. That was at the age of 78.
            Who talks about work any more—hard work as an antidote to our “modern” illnesses of neurotic guilt and depression? Dorothy did. She cooked (“My bread is beginning to be very good.”), cleaned, planted, resolved disputes, spent hours caring for Tamar (and later, Tamar’s seemingly innumerable children). She kept up a voluminous correspondence, hand-writing up to 10 letters a day (that she didn’t keep carbon copies she considered a small act of humility). She was an avid reader: Étienne Gilson, St. Augustine, Jacques Maritain, Chesterton, Léon Bloy, Charles Peguy, C.S. Lewis, Butler’s Lives of the Saints; the novelists D.H. Lawrence, Jane Austen, Ignazio Silone. She loved music: Bach, Brahms, opera.
            But first and foremost, Dorothy considered herself a writer. “I must learn to contain myself, to do my own work which is writing, correspondence, and the constant study, meditating on both natural and supernatural life.” She was continually preoccupied with getting the newspaper to press, writing her column, “On Pilgrimage,” and publishing her books: The Long Loneliness, Loaves and Fishes, and several others. She was a beautiful, pithy, unsentimental writer, as the diaries alone attest, and those who have tried to write themselves will marvel at her ability to get so much done with such constant inner and outer distractions.  
            They will marvel and then they will take note that perhaps the reason she was able to accomplish so much was that she built her life on a bedrock of daily devotions: the Divine Office, rosaries, vigils, prayer, fasts, and always, the Mass. For over 40 years, Dorothy went to Mass almost every day. In fact, perhaps her greatest accomplishment was her blending of the active and the contemplative lives in a way that was entirely traditional and yet entirely modern and new. For all her radicalism, she was as observant as any medieval nun. For all her activity, she was at heart a mystic:
            “I was overwhelmed at being right over the altar, the Blessed Sacrament out of my sight but so near, and the strong sound of Gregorian rising in waves of adoration and praise, which seemed to fling themselves joyfully against the altar.” 
            “[I]f our faith were as a grain of mustard seed, we would be prostrate as we entered His presence.”
            “Time only for the prayer of Jesus—always time for that. Waiting traveling, at any time, in any place, that murmur of the heart. My Lord and my God, my Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
            Obedience to and love for the Church allowed her to smoothe her occasional disagreements with it, or more accurately perhaps, the Church’s disagreements with her. In 1951, for instance, she was told by the chancery that “we would either have to cease publication or change our name.” She responded that “ceasing publication would be a grave scandal to our readers and would put into the hands of our enemies, the enemies of the Church, a formidable weapon.” The newspaper continued.  
            As for her frequent, and lifelong acts of resistance, she emphasized that the way to approach civil disobedience is as witnesses to our own complicity in the violence and suffering of the world. Every year from 1955 on, the CW refused to participate in the city-wide Civil Defense Drill and every year they went to jail.  In 1958, the protestors, including Dorothy, were sentenced to 30 days. She published an explanation of her motives which included the following: “We do not wish to be defiant, we atone in some way, with this small gesture, for what we did in Hiroshima, and what we are still doing by the manufacture and testing of such weapons.”       
            Perhaps that is why she could write, “I am not interested in politics or elections.”  She was interested in the homeless, the hungry, the forsaken. She was interested in peace and justice and brotherly love, and she believed that all genuine love is grounded in Christ-like self-sacrifice. “Peter [Maurin’s] greatest message for us, greater even than his message of poverty, was man’s freedom and responsibility…Peter did not want to be fragmented, if we can use that word, by being labeled pacifist or anarchist. First of all we are Catholics, then Americans, Germans, French, Russian, or Chinese. We are members of the Body of Christ, or potential members. We are sons of God.”
            “The year is turning out differently than I planned, as all things do,” she wrote in 1944, and could have written about almost any year in her harsh, difficult, sometime dangerous, yet always rich and varied life. In May, 1957, she was shot at while visiting the Koinonia Community in Americus, Georgia, an interracial Baptist community.  In January, 1958, she set out for a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. She spent weeks with Tamar and her grandchildren in West Virginia and Vermont, and time and again retreated to the Peter Maurin Farm on Staten Island, closely observing birds, flowers, trees, stones, and horseshoe crabs:
            “Out in the fields, the cover crop shows pale green against the black soil, and scattered are quicksilver pools reflecting the sky.”
            “White shades of pink, yellow centers, 9, 9, 6 petals per flower. 8 leaves, 4 flowers on some. Very fragile, growing around trees on Wood Rd. Are these anemones?”
            I myself (again, I’m sure very unlike you) was rabid to know more of her personal life, but even in her diaries, Dorothy is reticent.  An interesting footnote appears about Berkeley Toby, the man she married in 1920 on the rebound from an unhappy love affair—the marriage lasted less than a year—but that’s about it.  She was a traditionalist, and the rampant promiscuity of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, the fact that dear friends and fellow Catholic Workers were marrying outside the Church, pained her. 
            But she never judged. She recognized that we’re so starved for love that we often settle for corrupt forms of it, and her views were always based on charity, courtesy, and her belief that sex is, above all, a sacrament. In 1959, when Forster’s long-time companion Nanette was dying of cancer, he asked Dorothy to help nurse her, which she willingly did. She and Forster maintained a complex friendship to the end. Several entries in her last years read little more than simply, “Forster called.” The fact that after all those years, his call was the single most noteworthy event of the day says more than a sonnet.
            Throughout her life, she lectured, attended conferences, traveled around the country by bus to visit the burgeoning number of sister houses. In July, 1973, she accepted an invitation to speak at Joan Baez’s Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in Palo Alto, and used the occasion to also picket with the UFW. It would be her final arrest. “The true anarchist asks nothing for himself, he is self-disciplined, self-denying, accepting the Cross, without asking sympathy, without complaint.” Her words could have been a caption for the famous photo taken that day in Delano: mouth set, eyes fierce, staring down an armed policeman.

            She continued her travels in California, including a visit to Los Angeles.  The entry for August 19, 1973 leaped off the page: “Sister Catherine [Morris] (Holy Child) is here at A.H. [Ammon Hennacy] house 5 days weekly. Fasting.” Because all these years later, Catherine Morris, and her husband Jeff Deitrich, are still at Hennacy House, still going to jail, still serving the poor of Skid Row, still running their soup kitchen at Gladys and 5th, still providing shelter, food, clothing and hospice to their many and various "guests." 
            On November 29th, 1980, Dorothy died in her bed at Maryhouse, the shelter for homeless women the CW had recently established on East Third Street. It seemed only fitting that she should draw her last breath under one of the same rooves that for decades had given shelter to so many of her brothers and sisters.
            One other entry stayed with me, the entry for August 24, 1973, five days after Dorothy’s visit to Hennacy House:  “Mass at St. Basil’s, to confession to Cardinal McIntyre. Many at Mass, great and beautiful church often crowded.”
            At the time I lived a few blocks from St. Basil’s and the morning after I finished reading the diaries I walked to Mass there myself. Dorothy was much on my mind, and when a black homeless woman—no shoes, no teeth—noisily stretched out in the pew behind me, I realized at once this was no coincidence. She was one of “the least of these” and as she moaned and muttered and the entire congregation edged gingerly back, I was reminded all over again that if you’re going to live out the Gospels you can’t have a life that’s “separate.” You can’t have too much to “lose” in the way of time, money, belongings to not share those things in some way, or at least be willing to. 
          So when Mass was over, I turned and made a point of meeting the homeless woman's eyes and smiling. Smiling back, she asked, “Do you have a dollar?” If I’d been Dorothy Day, I could have said, “Do you need a place to stay? Come home with me.” But I’m not, so I did the next best thing. I said, “Yeah, I have a dollar, but do you want me to take you downtown, too? Cause I know where there’s a soup kitchen if you’re hungry and the people there will know of some shelters.”
            “No thanks, hon,” she said, “I just want a dollar.”
            “Are you sure?” I said. “My car’s back at my apartment but I’d be glad to go get it and drive you down there”
            “I just want a dollar,” she replied, and in the nicest possible way added, “Actually, do you have five dollars? I need to get back to Compton.”        
            Sure you do, I thought, and gave her five, which seemed to delight us both.
            In the annals of human interchange it wasn’t much, but if not for Dorothy Day, I might not have even considered giving up part of my precious morning. If not for Dorothy Day and the good, good people at the LACW who have been comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable since 1970, I might not have known where to offer to take this woman. If I hadn’t spotted a copy of Day's The Long Loneliness “by accident” in the bookstore of a retreat house 15 years ago, I might never have converted at all. 
            Apropos of daily Mass, Dorothy wrote: “He took upon himself our humanity that we might share in his divinity. We are nourished by his flesh that we may grow to be other Christs. I believe this literally, just as I believe the child is nourished by the milk from his mother’s breast.” I believe that, too. What honor, respect, devotion, and love we owe this remarkable woman who, like us, doubted, sweated, bled, believed, and as we can only pray we will, stayed the course. 
            It takes a saint, or at least a Dorothy Day, to live a life that to its smallest moment shows that solace comes from helping the other person. It takes a Dorothy Day to remind us that learning to love our neighbor requires a kind of continuing, ongoing crucifixion.  If not for Christ, where would any of us go, Lord? So under His gaze, we put our arms around each other, the homeless woman and I, and walked out of St. Basil’s together.

Monday, January 10, 2011


I have taken down the Christmas decorations—so sad!

But around my room are bowls of camellias from bushes that are possibly as old as the house in which I'm living, which means they date back to the 1920’s. I am constantly out in the back yard, peering among the branches to observe that day's new blooms, trying to identify some of the many varieties. Double red camellias, snow white camellias, baby pink camellias (Debutante?”), white with pink stripes (“Extravaganza?”) Adolpe Audusson camellias: the buds as tight and hard as filberts, then day by day unfurling to reveal the tips of the petals arranged in a thrilling spiral.

Sometimes I feel like my life is one long, recurring cycle: deep solitude, segueing into the pain and isolation of too much solitude, segueing into the seemingly always fresh, always new discovery: People! What have I been thinking, I need more people in my life, more room for people!

Followed by a flurry of social activity, segueing into the restlessness and unease of too much “people,” followed by the seemingly always fresh, always new discovery: I’m a solitary! What was I thinking? I can’t both write and have a social life. Followed by…

I have been working hard and Saturday “made” myself stay in bed till 3, reading, looking up every few pages to stare into space, reflect, and/or admire my camellias.

A pile of old New Yorkers: beautiful review by Jill Lepore of Isabel Wilkerson’s  The Warmth of Other Sons: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. 

The final years of the letters of Dorothy Day: even Day was a "prophet without honor in her own country," one of her biggest sorrows being that her only child, Tamar, turned her back on the Church, as did most of her many grandchildren.

An article in the November, 2010 Traces by Davide Perillo about architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926)  and the Sacrada Familia (Holy Family) church in Barcelona upon which construction began on March 19, 1882 and continues to this day.

The way Gaudí found the answer to the design for the interior columns by studying the tree outside his bedroom window...


Insectopedia—"A stunningly original exploration of the ties that bind us to the beautiful, ancient, astoundingly accomplished, largely unknown, and unfathomably different species with whom we share the world"—by Hugh Raffles:

“As a child, [Jean Henri] Fabre [1823-1915, the great French entomologist] had been deeply impressed by La Fontaine’s Fables, though less by their moral complexity and social satire than by their ability to make the natural world serve as a vehicle of moral instruction. Nature was everywhere and at every turn offered occasion for inquiry and education. Insects, especially, were around every corner and beneath every footstep. And so were their secrets. Insects struggled, they triumphed, they failed. Their lives were full of drama both epic and homespun; they had personalities, desires, preferences, habits, and fears. Indeed, their lives were much like his own”…

I once let a giant cockroach (or maybe it was a palmetto bug) live under my toaster for a month because I felt he was lonely...

I lay there for awhile longer. And then I got up, went into the kitchen, and very quietly, very attentively, washed the dishes.

Saturday, January 8, 2011


WATER AS SOUL: Water droplets on grass blades
Photo by Jean-Paul Nacivet of Getty Images
I am proud to say that an essay of mine appears in the Winter, 2010 issue of Portland, The University of Portland Magazine.

Not so much for the essay, though I'm proud of that, too (it's a reflection on the Yousaf Karsh photo of Mother Teresa), but because Portland is such a fine magazine.

The main reason for this is its long-time editor, Brian Doyle. And by fine editor, I don't just mean the way he treats your work, I mean the way he treats you, the writer, which is to say as a human being. This 1200-word essay had languished at another magazine, for nine months. Brian responded, I am not kidding, within 3 1/2 hours. He's responded within hours, if not minutes, other times with a rejection. But any writer will tell you, to know one way or another, within a reasonable amount of time is a rare and precious and almost unbelievably welcome gift.

It says, I know you toil in silence and obscurity. I know this work we do is important. I know how much it means to you.

Once he accepts the piece, you hear no more or very little from him and then you get the issue with your piece in it and whatever he's done, or not, it looks great. This is so my personal preference to another, diametrically opposed style of editing whereby the people say we kind of like the piece but can you do this and this and this and this to it first? We're not accepting it, but we might accept it then.

So you do this and this and this and this and then they say Actually, we liked it better the first way, can you do that and that and that? We're not accepting it, but we might accept it then. Et cetera. Which I have to say is simply not kind, or respectful, or really very sporting, either, since not to put too fine a point on it, they are holding all the cards. If you like the damn piece, take it and I trust you to do what you want with it and that what you want to do is within reason and will make the piece better. For heaven's sake, already.

This approach no doubt explains why the pages of Portland, over the years, have been graced by the likes of Annie Dillard, Scott Russell Sanders, Kathleen Norris, Pico Iyer, and Sallie Tisdale.


Brian's also an incredibly fine writer. He has several books, among them Credo, Two Voices: A Father and Son Discuss Family and Faith, (both memoir/essay) Epiphanies and Elegies (short stories), and what appears to be an extremely well-reviewed novel, just out, Mink River. His work frequently appears in Best American Spiritual Writing, Best American Essays, and Harper's.

That his own work also regularly appears in Portland would alone be reason to subscribe. And his essay "Leap" may be the best thing ever written in the aftermath of 9/11:

reflection by brian doyle

photo courtesy of

A couple leaped from the south tower, hand in hand. They reached for each other and their hands met and they jumped.

Jennifer Brickhouse saw them falling, hand in hand.

Many people jumped. Perhaps hundreds. No one knows. They struck the pavement with such force that there was a pink mist in the air.

The mayor reported the mist.

A kindergarten boy who saw people falling in flames told his teacher that the birds were on fire. She ran with him on her shoulders out of the ashes.

Tiffany Keeling saw fireballs falling that she later realized were people. Jennifer Griffin saw people falling and wept as she told the story. Niko Winstral saw people free-falling backwards with their hands out, like they were parachuting. Joe Duncan on his roof on Duane Street looked up and saw people jumping. Henry Weintraub saw people "leaping as they flew out." John Carson saw six people fall, "falling over themselves, falling, they were somersaulting." Steve Miller saw people jumping from a thousand feet in the air. Kirk Kjeldsen saw people flailing on the way down, people lining up and jumping, "too many people falling." Jane Tedder saw people leaping and the sight haunts her at night. Steve Tamas counted fourteen people jumping and then he stopped counting. Stuart DeHann saw one woman's dress billowing as she fell, and he saw a shirtless man falling end over end, and he too saw the couple leaping hand in hand.

Several pedestrians were killed by people falling from the sky. A fireman was killed by a body falling from the sky.

But he reached for her hand and she reached for his hand and they leaped out the window holding hands.

I try to whisper prayers for the sudden dead and the harrowed families of the dead and the screaming souls of the murderers but I keep coming back to his hand and her hand nestled in each other with such extraordinary ordinary succinct ancient naked stunning perfect simple ferocious love.

Their hands reaching and joining are the most powerful prayer I can imagine, the most eloquent, the most graceful. It is everything that we are capable of against horror and loss and death. It is what makes me believe that we are not craven fools and charlatans to believe in God, to believe that human beings have greatness and holiness within them like seeds that open only under great fires, to believe that some unimaginable essence of who we are persists past the dissolution of what we were, to believe against such evil hourly evidence that love is why we are here.

No one knows who they were: husband and wife, lovers, dear friends, colleagues, strangers thrown together at the window there at the lip of hell. Maybe they didn't even reach for each other consciously, maybe it was instinctive, a reflex, as they both decided at the same time to take two running steps and jump out the shattered window, but they did reach for each other, and they held on tight, and leaped, and fell endlessly into the smoking canyon, at two hundred miles an hour, falling so far and so fast that they would have blacked out before they hit the pavement near Liberty Street so hard that there was a pink mist in the air.

Jennifer Brickhouse saw them holding hands, and Stuart DeHann saw them holding hands, and I hold onto that.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


Photo: Erika Stone

One of the great things about being so completely oblivious to much of what's going on in the world is that I am often pleasantly, if not insanely surprised, by things that other people have apparently known about forever. The other day for instance I went to a fellow blogger's site and at once my eyes were drawn not to his most recent post, but to a darling little widget at the top that said "DONATE NOW."

Who knew? Here I've been nattering on about my cash flow, or lack thereof, and it turns out any Tom, Dick, or Harry can simply set up a paypal account and the $$ will start flowing in.

So now I, too, have a paypal Donate button.

Feel free if the spirit moves, and thank you.


Tuesday, January 4, 2011


SEPTEMBER 25, 1932-OCTOBER 4, 1982


I just watched a documentary on Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best-known as an interpreter of Bach.

The film is called Hereafter and in it, Gould makes an interesting and useful observation about freedom. He says, "I have often thought I'd like to try my hand at being a prisoner...I have never understood the preoccupation with freedom as it is understood in the Western world. So far as I can see freedom of movement usually has to do with mobility, and freedom of speech most frequently with socially-sanctioned verbal aggression. To be incarcerated would be a perfect test of inner mobility"...

Gould was not a member of any organized religion, but he engendered deep reverence in his listeners.  He made people believe in God; he linked them to the eternal. Watching him it's impossible to imagine him with a woman: he was so clearly “wedded” to, consumed by, united with his music. Famously eccentric, he wore gloves year-round, and hated to be touched. He hummed and muttered and crooned while he played, and came to abhor concert halls, likening the experience to a blood sport like bullfighting, and to prefer the control and solitude of the studio.

"I've had all my life a tremendously strong sense that indeed there is a hereafter," he observed, "and that the transformation of the spirit is a phenomenon which one must reckon and in light of which one must attempt to live one's life."

He died at 50, in 1982, and yet in the clip below, filmed in 1981, he looks like an old man, partly because he insisted, his whole life, on sitting on the beat-up chair that his father had made for him as a child and so is hunched over the keyboard (which no doubt contributed to the beauty of his playing), partly because he suffered for decades from a variety of health problems and neuroses, partly because to have the kind of genius he did is perhaps a burden too heavy to bear for the span of a "normal" life.

"When I listen to Glenn Gould, admiration is not what stimulates me," one young fan notes, close to tears, near the end of the film,  "but rather what he has done, the kind of man he was, how he led his life, what it's got to do with me."

Sunday, January 2, 2011



I 've always loved Carlo Carretto's Letters from the Desert. Autobiographical info about him online is sketchy, but apparently Carretto (1910-1988) was working to spread the social justice message of the Gospels in and around fascist Italy when he felt the desert call, burned his address book, and set out for the Sahara. Where he stayed for 10 years, after which he returned to Italy and went to visit his beloved mother. Who the whole time had been living an extremely active life, crowded with family, social, parish responsibilities. And he realized that for all his time in the desert in silent meditation and prayer, his mother was at least the contemplative he was.

Book Review

By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat

Carlo Carretto
Essential Writings
Carlo Carretto, Robert Ellsberg
Orbis Books 09/07 Paperback $16.00
ISBN: 9781570757259

Carlo Carretto (1910 - 1988) was a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus, an order inspired by the spirituality of Charles de Foucauld. He was born in northern Italy and wanted to become a teacher. But his plans were upended by the rise of fascism in his country, and he joined Catholic Action, a movement that aimed to mobilize the laity in promoting the religious and social message of the church.

Carretto spent 20 years working with this organization and then in 1954, decided to become a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus, a community of desert contemplatives. He led a contemplative life and served others in the spirit of Charles de Foucauld and Francis of Assisi. He lived in the Saharan desert of Algeria for 10 years and 20 years later wrote Letters from the Desert. It became very popular, especially with those who yearned for a new kind of contemplative life in the world. He went on to publish a dozen other books.

Robert Ellsberg serves as editor of this volume in the Modern Spiritual Masters Series. He has selected passages from Carretto's writings that demonstrate his life and work and interests. There are chapters on The Wisdom of the Desert, God Is Love, The Church of Sinners, A Brother to All, Prayer, and Last Things. We were quite impressed by his thoughts on carrying others in prayer, the importance of contemplation in the streets, the God within, and the many manifestations of resurrection in the world. In his introduction to the paperback,

Ellsberg states:
"Carlo Carretto represented an ascetic, yet joy-filled spirituality available to lay people, even in the midst of pressing obligations, even amid the din of city noise, even in the midst of poverty and suffering. He showed that a life of prayer need not — indeed must not — relieve us of a passion for social justice and a spirit of solidarity with the least of our brothers and sisters. At the same time he reminded social activists that in the midst of their good works they must preserve a place of stillness, a place where they can listen to the word of God and find renewal."

From Letters from the Desert:

            One seeks not what is true, but what is pleasing to others. We seem to need this mask. We seem incapable of living without it. 

            Nazareth was the lowest place: the place of the poor, the unknown, of those who didn’t count, of the mass of workers, of men subjected to work’s grim demands just for a scrap of bread.

            But there is more. Jesus is the ‘Holy One of God.’ But the Holy One of God realized his sanctity not in extraordinary life, but one impregnated with ordinary things: work, family and social life, obscure human activities, simple things shared by all men. The perfection of God is cast in a material which men almost despise, which they don’t consider worth searching for because of its simplicity, its lack of interest, because it is common to all men. 

            After Calvary, peace was no longer to operate on the thin blade of truth or in the court of law, but in the torn heart of a God who had become man for us in Jesus Christ. 

The following are from I, Francis, in which Carretto "takes on" the voice of St. Francis of Assisi:

On non-violence:

            In my time, the Crusade against the Muslims was considered a “just war,” and the Church itself promoted it.
            In your times, you consider as just, very just, guerilla wars waged against totalitarian regimes, against dictatorships which oppress the poor.
            Perhaps the Crusaders were right in my time. Just think of the Battle of Lepanto. And perhaps the guerillas of today are right.
            I am not debating, and above all I am not judging.
            I am only saying that there is another method of combating and vanquishing, that of nonviolence. And I am pointing out that in the Gospel it undoubtedly has the primacy. And I, Francis, consider it more effective as well, even though it may be more difficult.
            The struggle against injustices and outrages, especially those committed against the poor and defenceless, is basic Christianity, and Christians are not permitted to be silent, to withdraw, to refuse to get involved.
            If they understood, really understood, they would volunteer to die for justice.
            That is what Jesus did.
            But nowhere is it written that to make our adversary yield it is necessary or indispensable to employ the sword, the machine gun, or the tank.
            The highest claim of the Gospel is that I can cause my enemy to yield with my unarmed love, with my bare hand, as Gandhi did, as Martin Luther King did, as all who believe in nonviolence do, as Bishop Romero did in your times.
            What a sublime example this unarmed person gave! What wonderful words he spoke against the arrogant, who massacre his people!
            Give a nation  a handful of men and women like that—give the Church a band of heroes of strength like that—and then you will realize that when Jesus proposed nonviolence he was not doing so in order to lose battles. He was doing so in order to win them, and win them in the only way worthy of a human being: without shedding the blood of others, but by shedding one’s own.
            This is the principle of martyrdom, which has never been lacking in the Church and which is the highest witness a human being can bear upon earth.
            Further than that one cannot go.

On the Church:

              Until now, I had not well understood in what the mystery of the Church consisted: sinfulness, and infallibility; bad example, and assurance along the road; fearful blindness to the shepherds, and the certainty of reaching the Land of Promise with precisely those shepherds.

On poverty:

             Judgments on the question of poverty are difficult to make. The garb of a pauper, a small house, a wooden table, a chipped cup, the plaited haversack—these are external signs. Then there is the reality, the true poverty, which is altogether interior and invisible.
            Today, I prefer the reality. And I actually see it is better, see it in its real essence, because now it has become something more vast, and universal.
            The one who cannot meet the rent is not the only poor person. He or she is poor as well who is suffering from cancer.
            Those who live in burned-out slums are not the only poor. He or she is poor as well who is on drugs, who is unloved, who is marginalized, who is alone…
            So it is difficult to judge.
            And I do not wish to judge.
            So I only say, place yourselves directly before God and be judged by him.
            And keep one thing in mind.
            At the vespers of your life you will be judged by your love, not by your poverty.
            I say this because out on the frontiers of the Church poverty has become a battlefield, where the poor hate the rich, and the laborer hates his or her employer.
           This is no longer blessedness. It is not even the Gospel. This is Marxism…
           Never forget, God is love. Poverty is but his garment.

On politics:

              The pity is that it is always the same ones who govern: the powerful, the rich, the professional politicians.
              Try the little one's in the government—the simple, the poets!
              But who believes poets!
             Try being governed by those who can still look at the stars at night, or spend an hour watching a beetle under a dry leaf in the forest, or dream over a glow-worm in a field of May wheat.
            These are the ones who would see humanity’s problems better. At least they would not commit such horrors.