Monday, February 28, 2011


A few weeks back, I spoke of a young man who had written me several times with the following concern:

"You seem to avoid some of the tense battles among Catholics on left and right. Issues like the Latin Mass, abortion in the health care bill, what the Church did, should have done in regards to sex abuse scandal, etc. Do you think the hot button issues of the day are important for the average Catholic to engage in and fret about? I have and it's making me so upset, angry, stressed, etc. I wonder if I am losing my focus on the real spiritual battle?

Should I be e-mailing, discussing, lobbying, debating people, friends, family on the wrongness say of abortion or gay marriage or the culture of death, etc. or should I be inside a church praying, doing small acts of penance, works of mercy that don't seem to amount to much while the whole world keeps moving in the wrong direction...?"

In particular, this guy had spoken of his frustration with Facebook, in which he apparently gets involved in doctrinal discussions, sees it as his duty to take a stand, and tries to set people straight, at which point they more or less turn on him.

My response had basically been: If the discussions frustrate you, DON’T ENGAGE IN THEM. Figure out what you’re for, not what you’re against. The road to Christ is lonely, long, and almost unbelievably rocky, and though it takes place in community, we have to also walk it alone, often in great anguish and distress, often for decades if not our whole lives.

But obviously a whole movement is afoot among young people in the Church—which they unfortunately learn from us older people—that is based on vitriol, grandstanding, contempt, finger-pointing, and the drive to “win,"  because this earnest young seeker wrote me several more times expressing his  frustration. So by way of a kind of open letter, I thought I would try to make it a little clearer why I “avoid some of the tense battles among Catholics on left and right.”

The first thing to keep in mind is that following Christ is not a career move. The mark of authentic conversion is that it costs you something, not that it gains you something. So if you’re trying to become, say, a “pro-life” or an anti-war or a convert celebrity, that is something, but it is not Christianity. That is to bring the world into the temple; that is to be a money-changer in the temple: to make a name for yourself, to cultivate a reputation, to strive for notoriety based not on your love, but on your “views.” Both the right and the left are simply variations on “the world” in which the goal is power, prestige, efficiency, triumph, and the goal is to shame or bully other people into changing without changing one iota yourself. The Catholic media that traffic in this sort of incessant "opinion"-driven "discussion" seem to me to have very little, if anything, to do with Christ. Keep your own side of the street clean and pray--pray for us all--is more my idea.

To write some snarky “opinion” doesn’t cost anything. That’s cheap grace. Nothing infuriated or repulsed or grieved Christ more. The people who wear their five-inch aborted-fetus buttons, to take one of the more unfortunate examples of the religious right, remind me of the Pharisees who prayed loudly on the streetcorners and wore their phylacteries long. "We care," they proclaim; they insist. 'We care more than you do. We’re more outraged than you are. You’re wrong and we’re right."

I’ve had abortions. I feel deeply that abortion is wrong. I have gone on record and I will go on record again as saying I believe abortion is deeply wrong. But the reason abortion is wrong is that it’s a failure of love, and  if you're not converted by the sight of an actual child, you're certainly not going to be converted by seeing an aborted fetus; just as, if you're not converted  by Christ's person, teachings and life, you're not going to be converted by watching a fetishistically violent film of his crucifixion.

So I don’t show my sorrow by wearing a button of an aborted fetus—or actually any fetus—who by the way could not possibly have been in a position to give his or her consent to be plastered all over my chest in order to make a statement about my political/religious views.

I show my sorrow by changing my life. I show that I care by changing my life. By looking at my own sexual baggage, wounds, behavior; by looking at the ways I use and discard people as objects; by ferreting out my resentments, fears, character defects; by a more or less constant examination of conscience; by sharing those things with another human being—a spiritual director, a confessor—and trying to do better, knowing I am mostly bound to fail. The spiritual path doesn’t consist, in other words, in pointing out to others the ways they might be contributing to the suffering of the world, but in searching out the ways I am. That’s why I steer clear of the religious right.

The religious left is all about faux love.” Two gay people “marry,” that’s supposedly an increase of love. Two people sleep together to see if they’re compatible, thereby (supposedly) saving the world from a ton of unhappy marriages: that’s an increase in love, the thinking goes. But it’s the “love” that urges people to take a shortcut to avoid suffering. It’s the “love” that says I think you’re too delicate to face and live out the truth. I don’t think you’re strong enough, or mature enough, to take in the whole picture, to hold the full tension of the suffering of the world before you; to admit that every time you take the shortcut, you are contributing to that suffering, not relieving it. So if a kid you conceive might be “unwanted”: abort it. If an old person strikes you as no longer serving any “useful purpose”:  help him or her to commit suicide.

Unfortunately, the underlying idea, if you follow it through, and you don’t have to follow the idea very far, is “Exterminate or annihilate people who are suffering,” because suffering always stems from or is exacerbated by a lack of love, and love is grounded in family--mother, father, if possible, children--and the holiness of sex, and the sacrament of marriage, and making our life’s work, no matter what our station, to welcome, support, rejoice in, marvel at, and support new life and all life: in charity, in integrity, in truth. Which requires sacrifice, on everybody’s part: married, single, straight, gay, young, old.

So much sacrifice, in fact, that I, for one, am way too busy to get overly exercised about whether to, say, bring back the Latin Mass, though I’m sure I would welcome such a move; or lobbying against (or for) abortion in the health care bill; or calling for reform in the hierarchy. As it is, I look at these people who are always railing against the Church (from the right and left) and think: How in any way is the Church impinging upon your freedom? How is the Church in the smallest particular preventing you from performing the works of mercy, from trying to figure out how to love your neighbor as yourself, from taking the beam out of your own eye before you take the mote out of your own eye, from not casting the first stone? Are the Papal police coming to your door and arresting you? Is Rome telling you anything other than at the last day, you will be judged by how you treated the least of these, which includes not just the unborn, or the illegal immigrant, or the prisoner on Death Row, or whoever else you’ve adopted as your cause, but the person on the other side of the fence: your “enemy”? If the Church started saying You can’t pray, you can’t go to Confession, you’re not allowed to be emotionally or sexually responsible, hate your enemy, I’d start to worry.

Instead, I’m always a little taken aback by the complete lack of affection, often within her own ranks, for the Church. To me, the Church is kind of like having an alcoholic mother: majestic one minute; engaging in some cringingly  non-Christ-like behavior the next. But no matter what, she’s your Mother. No matter what, you love your mother. And the way you love her is you notice when she goes wrong, you grieve for her, you mourn for her, and then you silently resolve to help her do a little better. You don’t pretend not to see her faults and get all self-righteous and militaristic if someone attacks her—but you also don’t kick her when she’s down. I think the way we feel about the Church is very much an indication of how we feel, in our hearts, about the least of our brothers and sisters. In one of her letters, Dorothy Day quotes a priest who said, “You love God as much as you love the person you love least.” And by extension, I think we love God about as much as we love His Church...

To be a follower of Christ is to accept to hold an almost unbearable amount of tension: to accept bottomless imperfection, brokenness, woundedness; to consent to any number of extremely unpromising people and situations. But this is where things get interesting. I mean we're given all kinds of signs to let us know when we’re onto Him, and almost the first sign is that the Way, the Truth and the Life are interesting. You start to change; that’s interesting. You forgive someone you thought it was impossible to forgive; that’s interesting. The MOST unpromising person, or situation, the seeming catastrophe, turns out in the end to have helped you along in some way you could never have imagined on your own: that’s interesting. You forego a slew of money and security in order to pursue work you’re passionate about: that’s interesting.

Listening to a bunch of people try to shout each other down, especially in the name of God, is not only corrupt and depressing, but deathly boring. I once signed up for a day of “community discussion” among a group of artists where, simply in the course of the introductions, I was attacked, twice, for being a Catholic. At the break, I simply left. Not so much because my religion had been attacked but because I knew the conversation would not be interesting. I went home and worked and had a rich, lovely day.

So to be a follower of Christ is not a career move, and it’s not a social move either. It’s not about having a bevy of supportive, admiring, we’re-all-on-the-same-team friends. I can hardly imagine anything worse for a person’s spiritual development than to be told, “Whoa, dude, that was a killer pro-life polemic!” or “You really nailed those pederast priests!” No-one, to my knowledge, has ever become a saint on the basis of his or her political views.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t know exactly where we stand, and why. But we stand with Christ. Christ himself neither endorsed nor supported any causes. His cause was love, his cause was truth, his cause was beauty. His cause was to lay down his life for his friends. Being a follower of Christ is not about convincing, it’s about converting. And the heart you should be most concerned about converting is your own.

Here’s how, in my experience, you know you're becoming a follower of Christ. You begin to want to be seen less, not more. You begin to want to be quieter, not louder. Knowing you’re on the right track doesn’t come from scoring points among your “friends.” Knowing you’re on the right track doesn’t come from winning  useless arguments. You find yourself making tiny sacrifices. You find yourself experiencing tiny moments of joy. You find yourself mysteriously drawn to the Gospels, to Confession, to Mass.

A few years ago, I found myself in line at the confessional at a church in Atlanta, Georgia: a moment I didn’t realize would be seminal, but since then has come back to me again and again. At the time I was in a real dark night of the soul, struggling with a certain obsession, and a shattered heart, and a bunch of other difficult things. I’d tried everything I knew, I'd run out of ideas, and in desperation, I’d decided, in a kind of self-styled pilgrimage, to get in my ’96 Celica and drive from L.A. to the coast of New Hampshire, my childhood home, going to Mass every day. Every day for weeks, wherever I was, I’d been to Mass. All I knew was: Try to get close to Christ. Stay close to Christ. I’d made it to Atlanta, where my brother Joe and his wife Mimi lived, I was staying on their couch, I was physically and emotionally exhausted, and I had a deep urge to go to Confession.

It was a Friday and I looked in the Yellow Pages and found a nearby church that had Confession just before noon Mass. So I walked from my brother’s apartment down Peachtree to what turned out to be this dear, dingy little neighborhood church, and I found myself standing in line with all these not-very-prosperous-looking gay guys. I didn’t know what they were about to confess, but I knew they were human, and like me, had a body, a heart, a will, a longing to be loved, to love, to be good. I knew they were as weak and fragile as me; as prone to succumb to temptation as me; that, like me, they probably approached Confession with a mixture of humility, reverence and dread. I’m a citizen of the 21st century. I’d seen the billboards; I knew the score. I did not need to be told how futile, how pathetic, how meager, how seemingly useless it was to stand in a shabby church and sit before an overworked priest, as I did a few minutes later, and tell him the ways I was broken, and then go out to kneel in a pew behind an aging drag queen and say three Hail Marys and a prayer for peace.

But we do not come as people who strive for efficiency, for results, to swagger and preen and lord it over the rest of the world. We come as sinners. We come as beggars. We come hungering and thirsting. We come: the lame, the blind, the deaf, the halt, the leprous, the demoniacs, the desperate, the lost, the lonely. We don’t have our political views to give each other; we have Christ. We don’t have convincing arguments; we have our wounds, our holy longing, our groping in the dark. We don't have clever op-eds; we have our bodies, our puny love, our lurching, guaranteed-to-fall-short striving for purity.

And I’m not sure I have ever felt so close to the heart of reality, so certain of my seemingly utterly ineffective and irrelevant faith, so proud to be a member of the human race as I was that afternoon, standing in line with my brothers in Christ--aching, hoping, against all odds trusting--at that dingy church. If I did not believe that to stand in line at that confessional was in some sense saving the world, I would blow my brains out. Because to believe that is to believe in the Resurrection. And if Christ did not live, if he did not vanquish death, there would be no reason, no possible way to go on.

So we walk alone, and yet we walk with Christ, and that means we walk with, are inextricably bound to, every other human being who lives now, ever has lived, and ever will live. To believe that we are all deeply, intricately connected, and that our actions have eternal consequences, is to operate from an entirely different basis than politics. We operate from a basis of redemptive suffering, which was what MLK, Jr., operated from and why he was assassinated. It was why Christ was tortured to death. Redemptive suffering subverts every possible order. It upsets people terribly. It enrages and unsettles. It’s radical: gets to the root of. We like to think of ourselves as radical but when push comes to shove, we’re not radical at all. We’re lost sheep. We want things to be pleasant. We want to be “ok.”

But to quietly, more or less hiddenly, consecrate our entire selves to God and the teachings of the Church is an entirely different matter. That is why we go to Confession. That is why we struggle to refrain from our lust, our pettiness, our hardness of heart, our compulsive, frustrated desire for fame. That is how I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my gay brothers and sisters, with the unborn, with the prisoners on Death Row, the sick and suffering, my next-door neighbor and his irritating music that makes me want to kill him: in line at the confessional, on my knees at Mass, and then by bringing what I experience there, what I am given there, out to the world. We strive for purity because someone else needs us to be pure. We strive for love because God loved the world so much that He gave us His only-begotten son. We strive for charity because, as Léon Bloy wrote in Pilgrim of the Absolute, “A charitable act, an impulse of real pity sings for him the divine praises, from the time of Adam to the end of the ages; it cures the sick, consoles those in despair, calms storms, ransoms prisoners, converts the infidel and protects mankind.”

My friends are well aware of my religious affiliation. I would not dream of informing them that their views on sex or abortion or gay marriage are wrong. What I do instead is live my life in such a way that if, for example, a woman friend comes to me and says “I’ve had an abortion and I’m in terrible sorrow and grief,” I don’t say some asinine thing like, “Well that’s not a healthy reaction! You need to go to a shrink right away and get some antidepressants! You need to find a guy and have yourself a little fling. You need to go on and take a bubble bath.” No, I get to say “Oh my sister! I have been there!” I get to say, “Thank God someone is still alive enough to feel her own heart!” I get to share my experience, strength, and hope, one human being to another. I get to listen. Or if a gay friend comes to me (I'm not holding my breath, but you never know) and says, "Am I crazy to want to stay with this person I love with all my heart, but to not have sex?" I get to say, "No, dear friend, you are not crazy. That is toward love. That is toward the highest. That is toward all of humanity. That is one of the most beautiful sacrifices I can imagine." 

“The saint has no “fads” and you may live in the same house with him and never find out that he is not a sinner like yourself, unless you rely on negative proofs, or obtrude lax ideas upon him and so provoke him to silence. He may impress you, indeed, by his harmlessness and imperturbable good temper, and probably by some lack of appreciation of modern humor, and ignorance of some things which men are expected to know, and by never seeming to have much use for his time when it can be of any service to you; but, on the whole, he will give you an agreeable impression of general inferiority to yourself. You must not, however, presume upon this inferiority so far as to offer him any affront, for he will be sure to answer you with some quiet and unexpected remark, showing a presence of mind--arising, I suppose, from the presence of God--which will make you feel that you have struck rock and only shaken your own shoulder. If you compel him to speak about religion…he will mostly likely dwell with reiteration on commonplaces with which you were perfectly well acquainted before you were twelve years old; but you must make allowance for him, and remember that the knowledge which is to you a surface with no depth is to him a solid…I have known two or three such persons, and I declare that, but for the peculiar line of psychological research to which I am addicted, and hints from others in some degree akin to these men, I should never have guessed that they were any wiser or better than myself, or any other ordinary man of the world with a prudent regard for the common proprieties. I once asked a person, more learned than I am in such matters, to tell me what was the real difference. The reply was that the saint does everything that any other decent person does, only somewhat better and with a totally different motive.”
--Coventry Patmore, The Rod, the Root and the Flower

Strive to be that kind of person.

If you’re wondering whether you’re being called to witness, consider how eager you’d be to “witness” if you stood to get killed for it: as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Edith Stein, and St. Maximilian Kolbe and so many others have been.

True witness is life-and-death. So write this in blood, on your heart:

“To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda or even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery; it means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”
--Cardinal Emmanuel Célestin Suhard, Archbishop of Paris 1940-1949

Saturday, February 26, 2011


I am having many adventures here on the coast of New Hampshire, my childhood home that I'm visiting from L.A. My hotel was out of quarters for the washing machine this morning. Gas is $3.21 a gallon. I have attended Mass at Immaculate Conception.


The sun came up in Bethel, Maine the other morning.

I was in Bethel visiting my friend Ellen, who lives in Cape Elizabeth, outside Portland, and has an annual one-week time-share up in Bethel. She took me for a drive along Sunday River to the old paper mill town of Rumford.






Now I'm back in Portsmouth. Yesterday I took my mother, who has Alzheimer's, to Petey's Seafood for lunch. First I drove her past the cemetery where my father is buried, the house where we lived for 40 years, and the elementary school that all eight of her kids attended, but none of it much registered. She enjoyed the ride anyway--"Isn't the water blue!"--and the lunch, and on the way back to Dover, we met up with my brother Geordie who'd stopped into the Café Kilim in Portsmouth for a coffee.

Geordie's a commercial fisherman who runs his boat out of the Portsmouth Pier and in some insane, vicarious pride-of-place, I had been loitering about down there for days looking for him: lurking forlornly around his boat, the Ocean Pride III; pestering the other fishermen. We'd been playing phone tag since I arrived, but hadn't yet met up, so to lay eyes on my beloved sibling was a thrill.

Like all my siblings, he is super funny, and a great story-teller, and he also knows more back roads than practically anyone. Yesterday morning it was snowing and he stopped by my hotel, picked me up, and took me for a drive along the coast and around Portsmouth.


Fishing is a dangerous, and to my mind noble, job. Several years ago, Geordie lost his former boat, the Seawitch, to a rogue wave. Now that really is an adventure.

Here's an NPR story I did at the time that I hope gets something across of how glad we all are that he is still with us.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


At this late stage of the game, I have discovered country music great, velvet baritone "Gentleman" Jim Reeves.

How a diehard fan of Patsy Cline, George Jones, Webb Pierce, and Bill Monroe; how a gal who hitch-hiked, multiple times, to Nashville in her youth to hang out at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge and attend the Grand Ole Opry when it was still at the Ryman Auditorium, could have missed out on this extraordinary voice is a mystery. But the other day I grabbed a pile of CDs from ex-husband Tim to listen to in my rental car, among them a double disc entitled "The Very Best of Jim Reeves," and I am now hooked.

"He'll Have to Go," "Making Believe," "I Guess I'm Crazy," "I Won't Come In While He's There": I defy any warm-blooded human being to hear such tunes and not feel an uncontrollable urge to run to the nearest sleazy roadhouse, grab a long-necked Bud, wrap your arms around the nearest convicted, badly-tattooed felon and take to the dance floor.

I'm just on the blue side of lonesome
Right next to the Heartbreak Hotel
In a tavern that's known as Three Teardrops
on a barstool not doing so well.

Reeves died in a single-engine plane crash, of the Beechwood Debonair aircraft he was piloting, on July 31, 1964. The inscription on his memorial reads, "If I, a lowly singer, dry one tear, or soothe one humble human heart in pain, then my homely verse to God is dear, and not one stanza has been sung in vain."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011



I always get a kick out of these folks who go around saying, “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious. Oh no, I’m not religious. I want to say You're not religious? Does blood not beat in your veins? Have you never ached with sorrow at the suffering of the world? Have you never cried at the flight of a bird? Have you never fallen in love?

"It comes as no great surprise to discover that the most powerful and valuable projection one ever makes is falling in love. This too is a shadow projection and probably the most profound religious experience one is ever likely to have…To fall in love is to project the most noble and infinitely valuable part of one’s being onto another human being…To make this examination more difficult, we have to say that the divinity we see in others is truly there, but we don’t have the right to see it until we have taken away our own projections…Making this fine distinction in the most delicate and difficult task in life."
--Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow

“Religion consists of the belief that everything that happens to us is extraordinarily important. It can never disappear from the world for this reason.” 
--from the diary of Italian poet Cesare Pavese, suicide

"The whole way along the human religious itinerary, the word "God" or "Lord," represents the one object of man's ultimate desire, the desire to know the origin and ultimate meaning of existence." 
--Luigi Giussani, At the Origin of the Christian Claim

I like this idea that God is a question; God is our deepest human desire. And it's a "question" that can never be fully answered, and a desire that can never be fully satisfied. 

"Religious experience is absolute; it cannot be disputed. You can only say that you have never had such an experience, whereupon your opponent will reply: ‘Sorry, I have.’ And there your discussion will come to an end. No matter what the world thinks about the religious experience, the one who has it possesses a great treasure, a thing that has become for him a source of life, meaning, and beauty, and that has given a new splendor to the world and to mankind….No one can know what the ultimate things are. We must, therefore, take them as we experience them. And if such experience helps to make life healthier, more beautiful, more complete and more satisfactory to yourself and to those you love, you may safely say: ‘This was the grace of God.’” 
--C. G. Jung

 “My own involvement in the spasms and pains of nuclear man [the man “who has lost naïve faith in the possibilities of technology and is painfully aware that the same powers that enable man to create new life styles carry the potential for self-destruction,: p. 5] makes me suspect that there are two main ways by which he tries to break out of his cocoon and fly: the mystical way and the revolutionary way… 

It is my growing conviction that in Jesus the mystical and the revolutionary ways are not opposites, but two sides of the same human mode of experiential transcendence. I am increasingly convinced that conversion is the individual equivalent of revolution. Therefore every real revolutionary is challenged to be a mystic at heart, and he who walks the mystical way is called to unmask the illusory quality of human society."
--Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer

"We do not know what Godhead is, we only know that it is, and that all that is depends on it."
--St. Thomas Aquinas

"Anyone who wants to know the human psyche will learn next to nothing from experimental psychology. He would be better advised to put away his scholar’s gown, bid farewell to his study, and wander with human heart through the world. There, in the horrors of prisons, lunatic asylums and hospitals, in drab suburban pubs, in brothels and gambling-halls, in the salons of the elegant, the Stock Exchanges, Socialist meetings, churches, revivalist gatherings and ecstatic sects, through love and hate, through the experience of passion in every form in his own body, he would reap richer stores of knowledge than text-books a foot thick could give him, and he will know how to doctor the sick with real knowledge of the human soul.
--C. G. Jung

“The Catholic Mass is a masterpiece of balancing our cultural life. If one has the courage to see, the Mass is full of the darkest things: there is incest, betrayal, rejection, torture, death—and worse. All this leads to revelation but not until the dark side has been portrayed as vividly as possible. If one went to Mass in high consciousness one would tremble at the awfulness of it—and be redeemed by its balancing effect…One ought to be pale with terror at the Mass.

The central symbol of Christianity, the cross, is a double seesaw with the two axis crossing at the center. It provides the framework for balancing the right and left and also the high and the low. If one can honor this equilibrium and the inclusiveness implied in it, one will be truly catholic (meaning whole or complete). This word needs to be brought out of its sectarian narrowness and given the breadth of its original meaning. Then it will offer a most wonderful revelation"… 

"Our Western tradition promises that if even a few people find wholeness, the whole world will be saved. God promised that if just one righteous man could be found in Sodom and Gomorrah, those cities would be spared. We can take this historical context out of its historical context and apply it to our own inner city. Shadow work is probably the only way of aiding the outer city—and creating a more balanced world.”
--Robert A. Johnson, both from Owning Your Own Shadow

BORN 1921
“The ritual event that takes place in the Mass has a dual aspect, human and divine. From the human point of view, gifts are offered to God at the altar, signifying at the same time the self-oblation of the priest and the congregation. The ritual act consecrates both the gifts and the givers. It commemorates and represents the Last Supper which our Lord took with his disciples, the whole Incarnation, Passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. But from the divine point of view this anthropomorphic action is only the outer shell or husk in which what is really happening is not a human action at all but a divine event. For an instant the life of Christ, eternally existent outside time, becomes visible and is unfolded in temporal succession, but in condensed form, in the sacred action: Christ incarnates as a man under the aspect of the offered substances, he suffers, is killed, is laid in the sepulcher, breaks the power of the underworld, and rises again in glory. In the utterance of the words of consecration the Godhead intervenes, Itself acting and truly present, and thus proclaims that the central event of Mass is Its act of grace, in which the priest has only the significance of a minister. The same applies to the congregation and the offered substances: they are all ministering causes of the sacred event. The presence of the Godhead binds all parts of the sacrificial act into a mystical unity, so that it is god himself who offers himself as a sacrifice in the substances, in the priest, and in the congregation, and how, in the human form of the Son, offers himself as an atonement to the Father.

What happens in the consecration is essentially a miracle, and is meant to be so, for otherwise we should have to consider whether we were not conjuring up God by magic, or else lose ourselves in philosophical wonder how anything eternal can act at all, since action is a process in time with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is necessary that the transubstantiation should be a cause of wonder and a miracle which man can in no wise comprehend. It is a mysterium…What in the world could induce us to represent an absolute impossibility? What is it that for thousands of years has wring from man the greatest spiritual effort, the loveliest works of art, the profoundest devotion, the most heroic self-sacrifice, and the most exacting service? What else but a miracle? It is a miracle which is not man’s to command; for as soon as he tries to work it himself, or as soon as he philosophizes about it and tried to comprehend it intellectually, the bird is flown.  A miracle is something that arouses man’s wonder precisely because it seems inexplicable”...
--C. G. Jung, from an essay entitled “Transformation Symbolism in the Mass”

"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"... 
--Carlo Carretto, both from Letters from the Desert


Oh and there’s Night, there’s Night, when wind full of cosmic space
feeds on our faces: for whom would she not remain,
longed for, mild disenchantress, painfully there
for the lonely heart to achieve?
--Rilke, Duino Elegies, The First Elegy

"At times I feel myself overcome by an immense tenderness for those people around me who live in the same century."
--Albert Camus, Notebooks, 1951-1959


Those are just a few of the "reasons" why, though I guess I am “spiritual,” I am also way, WAY religious.

Monday, February 21, 2011


Call me biased, call me an overly proud aunt, but let me introduce one of the more mature, well-adjusted members of our family--one of crown jewels, really of a clan rich in crown jewels: my 12-year-old nephew Allen. Here he is, on an outing yesterday to Newick's Seafood on Great Bay in Dover, New Hampshire.

No-one can say this child doesn't know his audience: he held court the whole meal, telling vastly entertaining stories of the kids who huff Sharpies at school, his favorite COPS episodes, and one of his fondest childhood memories: the time his Uncle Joe showed up at Appleseeds Nursery, told the teacher Allen had a doctor's appointment, and spirited the kid out to Dunkin' Donuts for a chocolate with sprinkles.

Beside Allen is his father, my next youngest brother Ross, a teacher, scholar, and pastoral ministry student.

Here's the fourth member of the party, our sainted mother Janet M. King: matriarch of this talented brood. We enjoyed a healthful meal of fried clams, scallops, shrimp, haddock, french fries, chowder, and a giant plate of onion rings.


Saturday, February 19, 2011


It's February but when I woke this morning and parted the drapes in my darling room at the Motel 6 on Gosling Road in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (for I am visiting my childhood from L.A.), I thought of one of my father's favorite poems: "Snowbound," by John Greenleaf Whittier.

Every time a winter squall threatened, he'd be in the kitchen around 5:30 a.m. cooking pancakes, a small sleepy child clinging to either pants leg, starting us off for the day by theatrically intoning:

"The sun that bleak December day
Rose cheerless over hills of gray"...

Dad was a bricklayer with eight kids, deep financial anxiety, and possibly the keenest and blackest sense of humor of anyone I've ever known, which is saying something (Looking the poem up just now, apparently, the word in the first line is actually "brief," not "bleak," but Dad always said bleak).

As for my mother, plain-spoken, hard-working, here's a paragraph from my memoir Parched

"Mom was as faithful and true as they come, but one thing you were in no danger of getting on her watch was a big head. The one time I dared to ask if I was pretty, she stole a line from Thornton Wilder's Our Town and replied with an enigmatic little smile, "Pretty enough for all practical purposes." Another afternoon I came home and announced I’d scored across-the-board 99’s on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, a standardized exam that, according to the teacher, was administered to children ALL OVER THE COUNTRY. “That’s nice,” Mom replied blandly. “Time to set the table." When I won the school spelling bee in fifth grade, beating out kids who were three years ahead of me, I thought a small congratulations might at last be in order. Instead Mom, who had loyally--or so I thought--come to watch, insisted I'd missed the winning word, got on the horn, and tried to badger the principal into holding a rematch."

Anyway, I am loving being in New Hampshire: the ground blanketed with snow, the leafless birches and maples veiled ever-so-faintly with the pale yellows and deep reds that herald spring, the Isles of Shoals shimmering mirage-like, as they always have, ten miles off the coast.

To me, "home" always means hours of introspective pondering over my past, present, and future: mulling over my history, discovering new clues to my psyche. 

Apropos of which yesterday afternoon, I went to visit Mom at the Wentworth Home, the assisted living facility in Dover where she lives, and we had a classic conversation. Not having seen her in a year and a half; and in light of the fact that, what with her Alzheimer's, I wasn't sure she'd know who I was; and more to the point because I am simply a terrible, terrible sap, I was a bit teary-eyed walking into her room.

She was sitting quietly in a chair."Mom, it's me! It's Heather. Your oldest child!"
Pause. "Oh?"

Talking to Mom these days is like talking to someone who was in a blackout the night before and doesn't want to be caught out, so her responses tend to be extremely broad. "What did you have for lunch, Mom?" "Food." "Who's picking you up for Thanksgiving dinner, Mom?" "Uh...yeah."  I'd called her from L.A. several times to tell her I was coming, but L.A. doesn't mean much, and though she has a vague idea of how many children she has, she's far past remembering our names.

Her room is really pretty lovely and has two large windows, one with a view of the Wentworth-Douglass Hospital to the south and one that faces Central Avenue to the west and through which she can watch the sun set.

And what ensued, I realized later, was the exact same conversation we've been having our whole lives, or rather the conversation we've never--in spite of my best efforts--ever had. We talked about my trip, the weather, our plans the next day for lunch. And then I launched in--to really, the only question that truly interests me about anyone. 

"What do you think about, Mom?" I asked eagerly. "What goes through your head when you look out the window?"

"I don't know," she replied modestly. "I suppose they keep us so busy (Doing what? I wanted to ask, but whatever) I don't have much time to think." 

Tremulously: "Do you think about Daddy?"

"Oh yes, from time to time. You never forget."

Suddenly I was overcome by a huge rush of emotion: the pent-up emotion, in a way, of a lifetime. Everything I had ever thought about, felt, longed for with all my heart desire to "know" my mother, and to have her know, see, understand deepest concerns from my earliest memories: the passion to belong, to connect, to bring our own family and the whole human family around one huge banquet table and be happy as we (or more accurately, I) had never had been in real life. 

"Mom," I blurted, "do you think after we die that we're reunited with the people we love? Do you think afterward we're all together?"

"No," she replied shortly. "I think when you go you just go. I think we have what we have and then that's it. I just try to enjoy each day as it comes." 

My mind raced. Mom was Protestant, Mom believed in God: what about the Resurrection?  What about the seed falling to the ground and dying and bearing much fruit? What about Jesus appearing to the disciples after the third day?

"Really?" I said. "You don't think there's anything afterward at all?"

"You don't have to worry about that," she waved me off. "That will take care of itself. Let someone else worry for a change."

"I'm not worried, I'm just wondering." 

"We all go someday," she said firmly, as if I'd disputed the fact. 

From there, I segued into a somewhat overwrought diatribe about how grateful I was for all she had given me. "Your love of nature, you're kind of inward, Mom, quiet, you always loved to gave me all that! Your mother was inward, too, and I inherited that! And then, that was so great that you and Daddy gave us all music lessons, even though you didn't have much money. I didn't know then how much music would sustain and comfort me, what a joy it would be as I grew older. I still have a piano, Mom, out in L.A. I still play my Mozart sonatas..."

"Oh," she said. "I guess I never thought about it much like that. You just saw to it that your kids had music lessons. That was what you did."

All right, then. We talked some more about her days, interests, and life, and then she asked politely: "So what do you do?" 

"Well, I'm a writer, Mom!" (again, on the verge of tears). "You remember how I always loved to read, and getting there took me a long time, and lots of wrong turns, but now I get to write, Mom! The only thing I ever wanted to do. The only thing, really, I'm fit to do..." I clasped my hands over my heart. "I just feel so lucky, so mysteriously blessed...."

"That's wonderful," she said matter-of-factly. "That desk you're leaning on, boy, is that handy. I put the...the stuff on the outside..."
"The finish?" I supplied.
"Yes, I finished it myself." 

"Beautiful, Mom. Nice job."  I opened the drawers, one by one, and looked at the pencils, the envelopes, the magnifying glass, the rubber bands, all neatly, orderly arranged, and, also in a rush, I saw how my whole life I have seen the world through this lens of thinking everybody is like me but just won't or can't admit it. They're withholding, or they're unable or unwilling to get in touch with their deepest selves and my job is to draw them out.

My own drawers at home are a pleasant jumble and I suddenly, finally saw My mother is a completely different person than me. She does not see like me, feel like me, experience the world like me--and she doesn't have to.  Most people, I do understand, come to this realization at about the age of 5 but really, better late than never. 

I looked across at that dear, simple, intelligent, common-sense face, and felt a deep, deep sense of peace, and more gratitude and love than ever. I must have driven her crazy with my head always halfway in the clouds. My way of being must have been just as foreign to her as hers had always been to me. One wasn't better or worse than the other: they were just different. She was right about so much: Enjoy each day as it comes. Let someone else worry for a change. Everything was all right the way it has. Everything had always been all right. 

We made plans for lunch today and I took my leave. But driving the back roads home, through the salt marshes, the old farms, the setting sun, a single child-like image rose stubbornly to mind. No-one, not even Mom, can convince me we're not going to all be together after we die. 


Friday, February 18, 2011


I've arrived in my home state of New Hampshire for a two-week stay.

One of my first stops was the Portsmouth Pier, where my brother Geordie docks his fishing boat, the Ocean Pride III.

There's something about driving the roads, and especially seeing the ocean, that has a huge tranquilizing/nostalgic effect on my psyche.

Actually, driving in New Hampshire is not so much driving (compared to L.A.) as taking a restful nap while your vehicle winds around gentle bends, takes you past stunning views and delivers you gently to your destination. I have checked in with my brother Ross who's going to drive down from Nashua with his son, our nephew Allen, Saturday. Meredith, my little sister, is going to come up from Northampton, Massachusetts sometime during the next week.  My brother Joe  e-mailed yesterday to say he was in Slovenia (!) with his band The Queers and will be back later in March. Then there's my nephew Rick, his wife Tracy, and their kids. I'll visit my mother at "the home" in Dover later this morning. I have not been home in a year and a half and that all feels very comforting and warm and fills my heart.

And already the faces of the people in the stores and in the streets and driveways and yards and gas stations and the one guy I saw, behind the wheel of a pickup, down at the pier, remind me of the decency and plain-spokenness with which I was raised; of the spare, no-frills Yankee spirit; of the ridiculous love I have for my family; and of this poem--because  no-one can accuse a New Englander of being is overly optimistic--from our own Robert Frost:


MARY sat musing on the lamp-flame at the table
Waiting for Warren. When she heard his step,
She ran on tip-toe down the darkened passage
To meet him in the doorway with the news
And put him on his guard. “Silas is back.”        5
She pushed him outward with her through the door
And shut it after her. “Be kind,” she said.
She took the market things from Warren’s arms
And set them on the porch, then drew him down
To sit beside her on the wooden steps.        10
“When was I ever anything but kind to him?
But I’ll not have the fellow back,” he said.
“I told him so last haying, didn’t I?
‘If he left then,’ I said, ‘that ended it.’
What good is he? Who else will harbour him        15
At his age for the little he can do?
What help he is there’s no depending on.
Off he goes always when I need him most.
‘He thinks he ought to earn a little pay,
Enough at least to buy tobacco with,        20
So he won’t have to beg and be beholden.’
‘All right,’ I say, ‘I can’t afford to pay
Any fixed wages, though I wish I could.’
‘Someone else can.’ ‘Then someone else will have to.’
I shouldn’t mind his bettering himself        25
If that was what it was. You can be certain,
When he begins like that, there’s someone at him
Trying to coax him off with pocket-money,—
In haying time, when any help is scarce.
In winter he comes back to us. I’m done.”        30
“Sh! not so loud: he’ll hear you,” Mary said.
“I want him to: he’ll have to soon or late.”
“He’s worn out. He’s asleep beside the stove.
When I came up from Rowe’s I found him here,
Huddled against the barn-door fast asleep,        35
A miserable sight, and frightening, too—
You needn’t smile—I didn’t recognise him—
I wasn’t looking for him—and he’s changed.
Wait till you see.”
“Where did you say he’d been?”        40
“He didn’t say. I dragged him to the house,
And gave him tea and tried to make him smoke.
I tried to make him talk about his travels.
Nothing would do: he just kept nodding off.”
“What did he say? Did he say anything?”        45
“But little.”
“Anything? Mary, confess
He said he’d come to ditch the meadow for me.”
“But did he? I just want to know.”        50
“Of course he did. What would you have him say?
Surely you wouldn’t grudge the poor old man
Some humble way to save his self-respect.
He added, if you really care to know,
He meant to clear the upper pasture, too.        55
That sounds like something you have heard before?
Warren, I wish you could have heard the way
He jumbled everything. I stopped to look
Two or three times—he made me feel so queer—
To see if he was talking in his sleep.        60
He ran on Harold Wilson—you remember—
The boy you had in haying four years since.
He’s finished school, and teaching in his college.
Silas declares you’ll have to get him back.
He says they two will make a team for work:        65
Between them they will lay this farm as smooth!
The way he mixed that in with other things.
He thinks young Wilson a likely lad, though daft
On education—you know how they fought
All through July under the blazing sun,        70
Silas up on the cart to build the load,
Harold along beside to pitch it on.”
“Yes, I took care to keep well out of earshot.”
“Well, those days trouble Silas like a dream.
You wouldn’t think they would. How some things linger!        75
Harold’s young college boy’s assurance piqued him.
After so many years he still keeps finding
Good arguments he sees he might have used.
I sympathise. I know just how it feels
To think of the right thing to say too late.        80
Harold’s associated in his mind with Latin.
He asked me what I thought of Harold’s saying
He studied Latin like the violin
Because he liked it—that an argument!
He said he couldn’t make the boy believe        85
He could find water with a hazel prong—
Which showed how much good school had ever done him.
He wanted to go over that. But most of all
He thinks if he could have another chance
To teach him how to build a load of hay——”        90
“I know, that’s Silas’ one accomplishment.
He bundles every forkful in its place,
And tags and numbers it for future reference,
So he can find and easily dislodge it
In the unloading. Silas does that well.        95
He takes it out in bunches like big birds’ nests.
You never see him standing on the hay
He’s trying to lift, straining to lift himself.”
“He thinks if he could teach him that, he’d be
Some good perhaps to someone in the world.        100
He hates to see a boy the fool of books.
Poor Silas, so concerned for other folk,
And nothing to look backward to with pride,
And nothing to look forward to with hope,
So now and never any different.”        105
Part of a moon was falling down the west,
Dragging the whole sky with it to the hills.
Its light poured softly in her lap. She saw
And spread her apron to it. She put out her hand
Among the harp-like morning-glory strings,        110
Taut with the dew from garden bed to eaves,
As if she played unheard the tenderness
That wrought on him beside her in the night.
“Warren,” she said, “he has come home to die:
You needn’t be afraid he’ll leave you this time.”        115
“Home,” he mocked gently.
“Yes, what else but home?
It all depends on what you mean by home.
Of course he’s nothing to us, any more
Than was the hound that came a stranger to us        120
Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail.”
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.”
“I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”        125
Warren leaned out and took a step or two,
Picked up a little stick, and brought it back
And broke it in his hand and tossed it by.
“Silas has better claim on us you think
Than on his brother? Thirteen little miles        130
As the road winds would bring him to his door.
Silas has walked that far no doubt to-day.
Why didn’t he go there? His brother’s rich,
A somebody—director in the bank.”
“He never told us that.”        135
“We know it though.”
“I think his brother ought to help, of course.
I’ll see to that if there is need. He ought of right
To take him in, and might be willing to—
He may be better than appearances.        140
But have some pity on Silas. Do you think
If he’d had any pride in claiming kin
Or anything he looked for from his brother,
He’d keep so still about him all this time?”
“I wonder what’s between them.”        145
“I can tell you.
Silas is what he is—we wouldn’t mind him—
But just the kind that kinsfolk can’t abide.
He never did a thing so very bad.
He don’t know why he isn’t quite as good        150
As anyone. He won’t be made ashamed
To please his brother, worthless though he is.”
“I can’t think Si ever hurt anyone.”
“No, but he hurt my heart the way he lay
And rolled his old head on that sharp-edged chair-back.        155
He wouldn’t let me put him on the lounge.
You must go in and see what you can do.
I made the bed up for him there to-night.
You’ll be surprised at him—how much he’s broken.
His working days are done; I’m sure of it.”        160
“I’d not be in a hurry to say that.”
“I haven’t been. Go, look, see for yourself.
But, Warren, please remember how it is:
He’s come to help you ditch the meadow.
He has a plan. You mustn’t laugh at him.        165
He may not speak of it, and then he may.
I’ll sit and see if that small sailing cloud
Will hit or miss the moon.”
It hit the moon.
Then there were three there, making a dim row,        170
The moon, the little silver cloud, and she.
Warren returned—too soon, it seemed to her,
Slipped to her side, caught up her hand and waited.
“Warren,” she questioned.
“Dead,” was all he answered.        175