Friday, April 29, 2011




By Hilde Domin

The breath
in a bird's throat
breath of air
in the branches.

The word
like the wind itself
its holy breath
goes in and out.

Always the breath finds
throat of birds.

Always the word
the holy word
in a mouth.

--trans. by Agnes Stein

2.. Exchange between me and my 9-year-old niece after she FB-friended me:
"Savannah, you darling girl! What is iPigWorld if you please?"
"it an AWESOME app that you make a pig name and its color. its so awesome!! how are you"

3. Excellent review by Rod Dreher of the film about the martyred Algerian monks Of Gods and Men.
--Contributed by "Philip"

4. Video clip of Good Friday procession, in silence, from Brooklyn's St. James Cathedral across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall, Ground Zero, and St. Peter's in Manhattan.
Newscaster: "What does this mean to you?"
Anonymous member of the faithful: "Everything"...

Good Friday Way of the Cross in NYC:

"Having a passion makes it easier to stay sober...This feels like I'm always having to grow. I can't write the same song twice. I always have to go into a place I don't understand and figure out something...The challenge of writing is so profound that it's gonna take me the rest of my life to start to get good at it...I'm gett'n better...I think it takes a long takes a long time"...

Wednesday, April 27, 2011



...Back in 2000, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I had one overriding emotion: self-centered, panic-tinged fear. I didn't know that eight years later I'd be fine, that the scar would be barely visible, that months would go by where the word "cancer" never entered my thoughts. Back then I still thought about it every waking and sleeping moment. So before I even had surgery, I signed up for a second opinion clinic at UCLA.

The day of my appointment, I found a seat and looked around at the ten or so others, perched stiffly on the edges of their chairs. They know what it's like to lie staring at the ceiling all night, I thought. They could die, too.

"What a bunch of crap," a voice muttered, and I turned to see a petite blonde gal, about my age, in a Dolce & Gabbana jersey and black leather pants. With one gold-beringed hand she was filling out a clipboard of forms. With the other, she chowed down a Whopper.

"This your first time?" she asked, wiping a smear of mayo from the corner of her mouth.

“My first time? Well...yeah."

"First time's the worst," she reported, as if I could look forward to several more such visits. "It's my third."

"Your...third?" I faltered. That was when I took a good look at her hair--bangs and a shoulder-length flip--and saw it was way too shiny to be real: she was wearing an ash blond wig.

"Oh, chemo's nothing compared to all I've been through," she informed me. Double mastectomy, reconstructive surgery. Thought I was home-free after the bone marrow transplant"--she paused to scrape the pickles off her hamburger--"but now it’s metastasized to my liver."

Except for the wig, she looked normal, if a little ethereal: translucent skin, a blue vein tendrilling across her temple.

"I have three teenagers at home in Newport Beach, that’s what keeps me going, that, plus my friends, and shopping. Money means zipola to me, which isn't exactly great for the old marriage"--she jerked a thumb to her left, where a long-suffering businessman type sat shuffling papers on top of his briefcase--"but at this point I could give a rat's ass. The only reason I'm here is to see if they have any drugs that might give me an extra month or two.”

I couldn't get my mind around it: this middle-aged Orange County mall rat, with her manicure and Prada pants, nonchalantly telling me that she was going to die.

"You'll be fine, though," she added, giving my knee a friendly slap. "The fear of the unknown is the worst. Actually going through it is no big deal."

All afternoon I waited in a white room while doctors filed in with their stethoscopes and charts. I prayed my breast wouldn’t have to be mutilated, I prayed they wouldn’t tell me I had some mutant strain that was reproducing at an outlandishishly unheard-of rate, I prayed if I had to die of cancer, it wouldn’t be for a long, long time and they’d give me lots of drugs first. Around 5, the “team”—the social worker, the radiologist—came in to report their findings. The surgical oncologist summed it up. "For patients like you--Stage 1 with a tumor under a centimeter and assuming there’s no lymph node involvement, the risk of recurrence is about nine percent."

Nine percent ran through my mind like a mantra as I got dressed and gathered up my things. If only it's not in my lymph nodes, nine percent's not bad. It could be a lot worse than nine percent. I can live with nine percent. Outside the elevator, I ran into the woman with the ash blond wig.

"How did you do?" she cried. "Good news?"

"Not bad, I guess," I admitted.

"Oh hon, that's great!" she said, leaning over to give me a big hug. "I told you you'd do fine!" She stepped onto the elevator and the doors closed behind her.

How can you describe such goodness, such bravery?—this woman who was dying, who had been through hell, asking "Good news?"—hoping someone else would make it.

I think of her often, this woman from Newport Beach who wore a huge diamond, whose hobby was shopping, who could have treated her husband a little better. And each time I remember how, when Christ walked among his disciples after the Resurrection, nobody had recognized him.


listen to the story on NPR's "All Things Considered":

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


I spent last week from Tuesday on out in Joshua Tree, a couple of hours from my home in L.A., but don't ask me what I did. I walked, snacked, read, napped, went into town to check my email, looked out the window, reflected, prayed, went to Mass, looked out the window. That doesn't seem like much and maybe it wasn't (though re the latter, I was thrilled to discover recently that filmmaker Robert Bresson spoke of  "the ejaculatory force of the eye"). But my brain was so overloaded from working very intently, and my body was so overloaded in a huge city and being me, and my psyche was so overloaded with Lent and the buildup to the Passion, that even so, my days and nights seemed full to bursting.

"Liminal space refers to times when we experience change and transition in our lives. (In fact, Catholic Priest Richard Rohr suggests...that all meaningful transformation happens in liminal space.) It’s often a time in our lives where the old way we have been functioning seems to no longer “fit”, but we haven’t yet discovered or figured out the new way—at least not completely. We may experience times of liminal space with regard to our job (also called our vocation, which may or may not be the same as our calling), our personal relationships, or even as we wrestle with bigger issues like our beliefs about the nature of God in general." (from


Monday, April 25, 2011



Einstein said the reason for time was so that everything doesn't happen at once. That may be true, but I like the poetic approach better.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ "The Wreck of the Deutschland" is dedicated "To the happy memory of five Franciscan Nuns, exiles by the Falk Laws, drowned between midnight and morning of Dec. 7th, 1875," one of whom had cried out as the ship went down: "O Christ, Christ, come quickly"…"Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east," wrote Hopkins, and to know that even one human being, anywhere, once, responded with a line of such beauty, somehow helps us believe Christ did come quickly, Christ must have come quickly...

"We can't bind ourselves to joy," observed William Blake, "we have to kiss it as it flies." We don't kiss concepts. We kiss people; we kiss what we treasure, and I wonder if Christ did not somehow incarnate time, enflesh time, make time a medium in which love and suffering, if we're graced to love and to suffer enough, can find their way to one another's heart.

Anne Harrington, Professor of the History of Science at Harvard, tells of asking "a breast cancer support group, in which the women discussed their feelings, hopes and fears, whether they felt that their support group was helping them live longer.

No, they said, but it didn’t matter, that wasn’t why they’d joined the group.
            'Why then, were they in the group?' I asked. What did it mean to them. Again, the answer was clear: they stayed in the group because they learned there, from one another, how to live better with cancer and how to die better from cancer, something that they could learn nowhere else in their culture. And more particularly, they had all learned that the process of dying was infinitely eased when one did not die alone; as a group, they had learned that they could give this gift of connection and companionship to one another.
            At this point in the conversation, a patient who had been largely quiet so far looked up and perhaps took pity on me. She knew I had come to ask whether they believed that participating in the group was helping them to live longer, and perhaps she thought I was disappointed by their response. So she tried to help by putting the consensus of the group in a different way. ‘If you eliminate the concept of time,” she told me, 'I guess then that you could say that we live longer.’”

-- Anne Harrington, The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine 


Saturday, April 23, 2011


Reading this morning’s Gospel, John 20: 1-9, I noticed something new:

“They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first; he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in. When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths buried there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.”

But rolled up in a separate place…Jesus had folded his clothes. After all he’d just been through, Jesus had folded his clothes.

What courtesy, what delicacy, what attention to the homely details of life! No matter how depressed or despairing, we, too, can make our bed and straighten the kitchen. Even if we’re sick and confined to bed, we can “fold” our thoughts. Even if we’re dying, we can direct them toward prayer…

Friday, April 22, 2011


Ayudad a llorar a vuestro Dios
“Help your God weep!”
-- St. Teresa of Avila


Thursday, April 21, 2011



It's Holy Thursday and all over the world, Catholic priests celebrating Mass will re-enact Christ washing the feet of his disciples the night before he died.

A recent article in Traces ("My Journey Begins Here, by Fabrizio Rossi, July-August, 2010) reports on the pilgrims who walk the Santiago de Compostela through the Pyrenees into Spain, as pilgrims have for centuries.

The piece quoted a man who, at one hostel along the route, washes the guests’ feet in a basin, by the light of a candle. “Many visitors are not Christians,” he said. “They enjoy trekking, they make the journey for sport, but when they receive this gift, they sense the meaning. They don’t say anything, they just weep.”

Monday, April 18, 2011


The root of all disturbance, if one will go to its source, is that no one will blame himself.
--Dorotheus of Gaza, 6th c. monk

French anthropological philosopher René Girard has made a particular study of the phenonemenon of scapegoating.

His theories (courtesy of wikipedia), are basically:

1. mimetic desire: imitation is an aspect of behaviour that not only affects learning but also desire, and imitated desire is a cause of conflict,

2. the scapegoat mechanism is the origin of sacrifice and the foundation of human culture, and religion was necessary in human evolution to control the violence that can come from mimetic rivalry,

3. the Bible reveals the two previous ideas and denounces the scapegoat mechanism.

Excerpts from Girard's  The Scapegoat:

"[H]uman culture is predisposed to the permanent concealment of its origins in collective violence."

"Persecutors always believe in the excellence of their cause, but in reality they hate without a cause...The Old Testament provides an inexhaustible source of legitimate references to this extraordinary work of the Gospels, which is an account of persecution that has been abrogated, broken, and revoked."

"Without using our terminology, yet omitting none of the knowledge necessary to protect us from its insidious effects, the Gospels reveal the scapegoat mechanism everywhere, even within us. If I am right in this, then we should be able to trace in the Gospels everything that we have identified about the mechanism in the preceding pages, especially in its unconscious nature. The persecutors would not allow themselves to be restricted to their accounts of persecution were it not for this unconsciousness which is identical with their sincere belief in the culpability of their victim...
     The sentence that defines the unconscious persecutor lies at the very heart of the Passion story in the Gospel of Luke: "Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34). Christians insist here on the goodness of Jesus...[but i]f we are to restore to this sentence its true savor we must recognize its almost technical role in the revelation of the scapegoat mechanism. It says something precise about the men gathered together by their scapegoat. They do not know what they are doing. That is why they must be pardoned...
     The considerable interest of this sentence lies in the fact that it once more draws our attention to the two categories of forces, the crowd and the leaders, both of whom are equally unconscious. It is an implicit rejection of the falsely Christian idea that made the Passion a unique event because of its evil dimension  since its uniqueness lies in its dimension of revelation. If we accept the first idea we are making a fetish of violence and reverting to a variation of mythological paganism.

"Jesus intervenes when the time has come or, in other words, when violence can no longer cast out violence and internal division has reaches its crisis....Thus we come to understand what is involved in the Kingdom of God and why it does not represent for men an unmitigated blessing. It has nothing to do with a flock of sheep grazing in an eternally green pasture. It brings men face to face with their hardest task in history.” 

“There is only one transcendence in the Gospels, the transcendence of divine love that triumphs over all manifestations of violence and the sacred by revealing their nothingness," Girard observes.

“To adore Satan is to aspire to world domination. It involves reciprocal relationships of idolatry and hate which an only end in false gods of violence and the sacred as long as men maintain the illusion. When that illusion is no longer possible, total disaster will follow:

Now, taking him to a very high mountain, the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. “I will give you all these,” he said, “if you fall at my feet and worship me.” Then Jesus replied, “Be off, Satan! For scripture says:
     You must worship the Lord your God;
     and serve him alone. (Matt. 4: 8-10)”


The problem, in other words, is not "out there."
The problem, as Dorotheus of Gaza knew centuries ago, is in us...

Friday, April 15, 2011



"But what about our past and the things we have still not really accepted; wounds that have not healed but, on the contrary, have become infected? Sometimes an unpleasant word from someone or an insignificant event in our lives brings forth a totally disproportionate reaction, which shocks not only those around us but even ourselves? Was it not perhaps an old wound that was laid bare?"...

--Wilfrid Stinissen, from Into Your Hands, Father

It is here, in the pieces of my shame, that I find myself.

From Timothy A. Brown of Hampton, New Hampshire:
"Could you let me know if you still have the court record when we were officially divorced?"

7. Who knew white people could sing gospel?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Three springs ago, I took a road trip to Death Valley, stayed at the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel, and fell in love with Marta Becket.

I never actually saw Marta, who is the opera house’s founder, owner, and for 41 years at that point, its sole performer. At the age of 84, she performed only Saturday nights. But I did fall in love with her story. 

In the early 1960s Marta, a New York ballerina, singer, painter, and pianist on a road trip to California with her husband, stopped in Death Valley Junction with a flat tire. While their car was being fixed, she peeked through the window of a dilapidated dance hall, left over from mining days, and saw her future: her unlived life, her destiny. So she and her husband packed up and moved and rented the dance hall and opened the opera house.

The population of Death Valley Junction, which Marta now owns, was at one point two and even now is maybe ten. The first show was in February, 1968. The audience would often be five or six people and if nobody came, as happened frequently, Marta danced anyway. In the middle of the desert, by herself, she danced anyway...

“I realized I’d moved to an area where art is completely unknown to most of the locals.” So she gave dance lessons to the kids.

Then she got the idea to paint the walls of the opera house with an imaginary audience: nuns, courtiers, courtesans, popes, dukes. She spent four years painting the walls and two more painting the ceiling, during which time her husband, who was tending bar at a nearby brothel, got tired of playing second fiddle to Marta’s art, found a girlfriend, and eventually left.

Armagosa, a documentary by Todd Robinson, was released in 2000. Someone asked, “You spent six years painting the walls of this place that could be sold, or torn down, any minute?”

“No-one can take away the hours of joy I had painting it,” Marta responded. “The experience is what’s important. No-one can take that from me.”

Her husband left but she stayed: painting, playing the piano, sewing costumes, practicing, dancing, acting, singing, creating new shows: “Comeback Vaudeville,” “Turkish Fairytale,” “The Mirror, the Carpet and the Lemon.”  She appeared every Friday, Saturday, and Monday night without fail. The audiences slowly picked up. Busloads of folks came from Las Vegas, L.A., and in time, even farther afield. National Geographic did a special.

She danced for decades: through her broken heart, her mother’s death, the floods that covered the floor of the opera house with mud. If you’ve ever been to Death Valley, you know that nerves of steel and an almost unearthly vision would be required to live in such eerie desolation. Just beautiful, but very harsh, very isolated. In summer the temperature can reach 125.

In later years Marta “discovered” the handyman Tom Willett, aka Wilget, who under different circumstances might be in danger of being called an eccentric and a clown, and incorporated him into her act. “He willingly put on a hoopskirt and picked up a fan in Gossip. His best turn was as Miss Victoria Hoops in Looking for Mr. Right.” They were soul mates, this unlikely couple: the refined ballerina and the prankster who rode a golf cart around the property barking like a seal. They “took their meals” together and, Marta delicately gets across, went their separate ways to sleep.

They put on the show together for 20-odd years and then one morning in 2005, Marta called, as she did every morning to wake him, and he was gone: felled by a stroke from which he died a few days later. She took one Saturday off and then she was back on stage. She painted Wilget into the circus backdrop of her next show.

She wrote a memoir: To Dance on Sands.

At 80, she was still dancing en pointe. She broke her hip in 2009 and went on to create what she called “The Sitting Down Show.” She lives alone, in back of the opera house, with a menagerie of stray cats, and still performs every Sunday night.

In this season of deserts, I can’t help thinking that Marta’s life, as it is for all of us, has been one long Lent. I can’t help thinking of the three temptations of Christ (Mt. 4:1-11):  

Man does not live by bread alone.
No-one could accuse Marta of selling out or taking the shortcut. She gave everything she had, put out a huge gold-painted donation can, and continued to perform on whatever people chose to give back.    

You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test. 
Her husband cheated but she didn’t. She never risked compromising her work, nor betrayed the purity of her vision, by less than stand-up behavior. 

The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.
I’m not sure what else you’d call it but serving something higher than yourself -- but love -- to put on your makeup and slippers and tutu and, decade after decade, go out under the lights and dance. To believe with your whole heart in the magic of theater, story, song; to lay down your life in the effort to bring that magic to others.  

“Society laughs at old people’s dreams. They even laugh at dreams…until they come true”…

“I must keep going, alone...I’m determined to keep going as long as I can.” 

“I’m still dancing and I’m going to keep moving until I drop.”

Death Valley is an easy place to picture Golgotha. The cross on a hill. That day when we will all be called to give an account of what we did with our gifts. The desert that terrifies and compels, the desert in which we are tormented and glorified, the desert in which we are crucified and if we stay the course, resurrected.

Or as Marta Becket—nearing her last season—puts it: “I listen for Wilget in the wind, even though I never liked the wind.”


And check in tomorrow for the coda to this California/otherworldly story....

Friday, April 8, 2011


photo: Luigi Salemi
All week I've been reviewing the galleys for Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Therese of Lisieux, (forthcoming, please God, from Paraclete Press in September, by me) and all week I've been testy and withdrawn. Endnotes, permissions requests, the proper form for quoting Bible passages: I'm reminded why, among other reasons, I so did not enjoy being a lawyer. I'm as meticulous as the next person when I have to be, but using that kind of energy drains the energy that ordinarily goes into reflecting, making connections, and snacking. And though my copy editor could hardly be more generous, forbearing, and thorough, really, I want to say: Isn't it enough I wrote the damn book?

Cause that's the kind of person I am, in or out of Lent!

Into this abysmal state of mind came an e-mail the other day from one Luigi Salemi, an up and coming architect from Johannesburg, South Africa. "I have been riveted, mostly by your witness," he wrote. "I find great consolation in your person, in the fact that there is someone out there like you, and I thank God for you!"

photo: Luigi Salemi
You can be sure I warmed to this clearly fine young man on the spot and went right to his FB page. Here I found photos of the amazing private home he's designed in Barberton, Mpumalanga (I bet you think I didn't know where that was). I also unearthed a Traces article called  "The Second Synod for Africa." Africa is "the most lacerated continent and, at the same time, the protagonist of an exceptional increase in faithful"--author Allessandra Stoppa notes, which, along with these photos, makes me want to visit this beautiful part of the earth at least once before I die...

photo: Luigi Salemi

"I think the beauty of this house," says architect Luigi Salemi who designed it, "is that it doesn’t point to its own beauty but the beauty of the creation, which is the sign of the Mystery who created it. It’s by no means a humble home but its humility lies in the fact that it opens out to the rest of reality, which is awe-strikingly beautiful!"

Or as Victor Hugo observed in Les Misérables"We must say, by the way, that the hatred of luxury is not an intelligent hatred. It implies a hatred of the arts."

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


c. 380-c. 450

 There are three things, my brethren, by which faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures. They are prayer, fasting and mercy. Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy receives. Prayer, mercy and fasting: these three are one, and they give life to each other.
Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated…
--From a sermon by Saint Peter Chrysologus, bishop, Office of Readings, Tuesday of the Third Week of Lent

Since coming into the Church in 1996, I have more or less eagerly embraced the Lenten fast. For many years I “gave up” coffee, a near martyr-like effort for a caffeine addict such as myself. For the last several years, I switched to sugar, a feat which likewise could only have been achieved with supernatural help. Even so, last Easter morning I went to the 7-11 before Mass, bought a bag of Gummi Bears--because by that time I didn’t want any fancy bittersweet chocolate, I wanted cheap cane sugar in as unadulterated a form as possible short of simply scarfing the stuff with my hands from a five-pound bag--and the minute I got back to my car, dug in. 

The object from which I chose to fast, I realized, was the least of Lent, and at the same time, the fasting was a major focus. (Hard to believe the luster a, say, Lindt bar acquires in the absence of booze, drugs, nicotine, sex, junk food, and TV). So as Lent approached this year, I thought: Those people who say fasting is just an ego-based endurance test are right. I’m going to do something different this year. I am going to fast from badmouthing people. I am going to fast from something that can effect some actual good.

Ash Wednesday dawned, I waited to be transformed from within, and about an hour and a half later I was nitpicking at people: maybe just in my head, but still. A few days later I badmouthed someone out loud, the day after that I nakedly passed on a bit of juicy gossip, and things went downhill from there. I was praying for people. I kept praying not to badmouth, and one more time, there I’d be. Well, this is just going to show me my hardness of heart, I thought. This is going to be a real lesson in humility.

I finally realized what it was really going to be was business as usual, and that I was poised to skate through Lent basically unscathed. That was when I read the above quote from St. Peter Chrysologus and realized: Nice try, but unh-unh.  Prayer without fasting is a gesture. Mercy without fasting is a gesture. Fasting is not a gesture. Fasting is where things get real.

So three weeks in, I began fasting from sugar, and--interestingly enough--right away I noticed my badmouthing diminished. I gave away some money. I went to Mass that weekday and I’ve been every day ever since, walking the twenty minutes to St. Francis or the fifty minutes to Our Lady of Good Counsel, because walking always makes things a tiny bit of a pilgrimage. Walking, your feet, back and legs hurt just a little. Walking is to slow down and walk the Via Dolorosa with Christ.

Why is this? Why the connection between mercy and fasting? Maybe it has to do with a concept emphasized by spiritual writer Ron Rolheiser: that as followers of Christ, we are called to hold a certain amount of tension. We’re called to hold the tension, as Christ held the tension of the whole world on the cross, of emotional and sexual loneliness, our craving for recognition, our perpetually conflicted psyches. I never think of myself as having that much of a sweet tooth, but take away the sugar in my first cup of morning coffee, the honey in my yogurt, the square or two of afternoon chocolate, and you take away a major source of comfort, pleasure, and temporary release/relief.

And in that tiny “desert,” bereft of my usual anesthesia, I am suddenly given to see the tension that so often precedes as well the making of a snarky comment or an unfounded judgment or a thinly-disguised character assassination.  I’m afraid I’m a loser so I try to make someone else look bad. I’m afraid people are judging me, so I judge someone else instead. I can’t bear to suffer the tension of the human condition, so I subconsciously try to make another suffer in my place.  

In a sense, Christ came to address this precise, profoundly evil urge. CRUCIFY him! we say on Good Friday, but we’d more accurately put the emphasis on “him.” Crucify HIM, crucify HER, crucify anyone but me.

Fasting reminds us that our culture is one giant narcotic and if we don’t pay attention, we can skate through our whole lives anesthetized, asleep, numb. Fasting reminds us that Christianity is not to continue to do what we’ve always done while tacking on a nominal good intention or two. Christianity is not a gesture. Christianity is not a vague wish for goodwill. Christianity is to be stripped, in the name of love, of all that is familiar, safe, anodyne, and nailed to a cross.

As Thérèse of Lisieux neared the end of her life at the Carmel cloister, her sister Céline, frustrated at having so much less charity than she would have liked, exclaimed, “Oh, when I think how much I have to acquire!”

“Rather,” Thérèse replied, “how much you have to lose.”


Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Alan Lomax, microphone in hand, recording in Edinburgh in 1951
I'm a sucker for those folks who rode the rails, grifted, whored, made guitars out of, say, old cigar boxes and baling ware, picked, plucked and sang in reedy, haunting voices born of bone-hard suffering that seem perfect for Lent.

Alan Lomax spent decades traveling around America meeting such folks and archiving their work. Click here for ten awesome home-made guitars.

Here's a review of a book about Lomax--Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World, by John Szwed--that recently ran in The Wall Street Journal:

"As Washington geared up for war in late summer of 1940, Alan Lomax fired off a round of heated memos to his boss in the music division at the Library of Congress. As assistant in charge of the Archive of American Folk Song, the 25-year-old Lomax had ambitious plans for serving the cause, such as publishing songbooks for draftees at military camps and arranging antifascist war ballads for marching bands and pop singers, even recording conscripts with musical talent.

In his barrage of strategies in which folk music could be used to inspire a united fighting force, Lomax paused to take a jealous swipe at a hit record that had won over a nation primed for patriotic fervor: "I need not overstress my opinion that 'God Bless America' and Kate Smith are both extremely dull and mediocre," he wrote. "They have both been elevated to an artificially astronomical position by the power of mass advertising and the star system.

Smith's operatic bombast had little to do with what Lomax called "real American music." For him, real American music was performed by rural people such as Texas Gladden, a mother of nine who Lomax recorded a year later in her southwest Virginia home, in a capella, bare-bones renditions of "Gypsy Davey" and traditional songs handed down for generations. "Texas sings her antique ballads in the fashion of ballad singers from time immemorial," Lomax said. "The emotions are held in reserve: the singer does not color the story with heavy vocal underscoring; she allows the story to tell itself."

Capturing such performances and the stories they told was a lifelong obsession for Lomax, who wandered America and the globe in search of the sounds of traditional music endangered by the very technology he used to record them for posterity. His travels took him from his native American South to remote outposts of the Caribbean and across the ocean to the British Isles and the fishing villages of Italy and the mountains of Spanish Basque country. His work spanned six decades, from the Depression all the way to the 1990s. (Lomax died in 2002.) He began his career gathering songs with a 300-pound disc-cutter in the back of a Model A and ended it using hand-held video cameras for backwoods documentaries. No matter what the gear, Lomax never wavered from his mission—to find evidence that the world's poorest places offered some of the richest cultural treasures."

Read the whole of Eddie Dean's great review, "The Catcher of Songs."

Monday, April 4, 2011


Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her" (Luke 10:38-42).

"Just as then Martha complained of Mary her sister, so to this day do actives complain of contemplatives. Wherever you find anyone, man or woman, in any body of people, religious or secular (there are no exceptions), who feel moved by God’s grace and guidance to forsake all outward activity and set about living the contemplative life and who, as I say, knows what he is about, his conscience and advisors corroborating, just as soon will you find his brothers, sisters, best friends, and sundry others, who know nothing of his inward urge, or the contemplative life itself, rise up with great complaint, and sharply reprove him, and tell him he is wasting his time. And they will recount all sorts of tales, some false and some true, describing how such men and women who have given themselves up to such a life in the past have fallen. There is never a tale of those who make good."
--The Cloud of Unknowingby an anonymous English mystic, circa 1370


Saturday, April 2, 2011


APRIL 2, 1805-AUGUST 5, 1875
“Yes, it’s quite true, Kay is with the Snow Queen and finds everything to his liking and thinks it’s the nicest place in the world; but that’s only because he’s got a glass splinter in his heart and a tiny fragment in his eye. These must come out first, or he’ll never be human again, and the Snow Queen will keep her power over him.”

“Well, but isn’t there some physic that Gerda can take that will give her power over everything?”

“I can’t give her greater power than she has already. Don’t you see how great that is? Don’t you see how man and beast feel obligated to serve her, and how far she has come in the world in her bare feet? She mustn’t learn of her power from us; it lies in her heart.”

--H.C. Andersen, "The Snow Queen"


"Despite his evident love of children, Hans Christian Andersen never married. Late in life his health declined rapidly; first he developed chronic bronchitis, then the more serious, and ultimately fatal liver cancer. Unable to care for himself, he moved into the house of some friends near Copenhagen, where he could see the ocean from his room. One morning he quietly finished his tea, and was found a few minutes later in his bed, dead. In his hands was a farewell letter written forty-five years earlier by the only woman he had ever loved."

--Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes

Friday, April 1, 2011


Monday I received devastating news from Nashville, where a dear friend since high school had lived with his partner of 35 years, Stephen. I'd visited them many times over the decades, most recently last summer.  As always, they were kind and generous hosts. As always, Stephen knew every bird, flower, tree, lizard egg, creek, path, and blade of grass on the family property on which they'd built their house together.

Early Monday morning, Stephen was shot and killed on the front porch of their home by a relative--a second lieutenant on active duty in the U.S. Army--who then turned the gun on himself.


Other reflection-worthy, and somehow related, items that passed my desk this week.

From Fr. Joseph Adams, a chaplain to our troops in Afghanistan:

"I got to celebrate Ash Wednesday about 12 times this year, since I only get to visit each outpost only once every couple of  months I try just to hit the highlights, Ash Wed. in March and probably Easter all through April.  Lent's pretty real for the soldiers right now, and the fighting’s due to start up again with the snow melting, so please pray.

In Christ,
Fr. Joe"

"What difference do our human conditions make to God? Our pretensions, our positions, our superior advantages: what does he care about such things? Poor little gnats, strutting about, despising other gnats because their wings are a little less sleek and their feet not quite so thickly furred: of what consequence is all that to him? Whether we are great or small, in his eyes our conditions are equal, and since no one of them corresponds to his nature, did not his honor demand that he sould choose the lowest? Only thus could he manifest his indifference. By identifying himself with the negation of our glories, he would show that he is sufficient unto himself."

--Father Antonin Gilbert Sertillanges, O.P. (1863-1948), was a renowned Dominican preacher, apologist and philosopher)


"I think what makes the Cross, and by extension, Christianity so scandalous, mind-bending and paradigm shattering is the utter powerlessness of the Cross. In the Nicene Creed, We affirm that Christ existed at the the beginning of time; indeed, “through him all things were made. Yet this Person of unimaginable power and Glory “does not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather, he emptied Himself taking the form of a slave.” This echoes and reverses the serpent’s promise of being God’s equal.

I know the Fall is meant to be a rich metaphor and allegory. I can’t help thinking of it literally, as though our First Parents fell out of a tree, and are running around with devastating soul breaks that are poorly set and bandaged. And, our souls continue to hurt, because whatever method we try to use-food, drugs, sex, video games, is poor medicine. Christ entered into time, enfleshed in a mortal body and submitted to suffering, because in our current condition suffering is absolutely unavoidable. It is simply part of being human-living in frail bodies with petty jealousies, calcified hearts. He knew how much we hurt, and short of the End of the World, there is not much he can do to stop this condition. Jesus himself says that he could call on the angels to stop his suffering, but he chooses not to. Instead he shows us the way through suffering, which is love, faith, forgiveness and perseverance."
--from Betsy Cullerton, a correspondent from NYC

Fr. Clem said that we are like little children who have been playing with matches and inadvertently burn the house down. We empty our piggy banks and offer to our father our $1.98 to rebuild his house.
--from Taos, New Mexico, via a poet friend

My Jesus, good night!

We sit down in tears
And call to thee in the tomb:
Rest softly, softly rest!
Rest, ye exhausted limbs!
Your grave and tombstone

Shall for the unquiet conscience 
Be a comfortable pillow
And the soul's resting place.
In utmost bliss the eyes slumber there. 
--J.S. Bach

In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.
-- Camus

Rest in peace, Stephen.  And with Fr. Joe, let us all please pray.