Thursday, June 30, 2011


The June, 2011 issue of The Sun
1. Do you all know of The Sun? "Personal. Political. Provocative. Ad-free," as it bills itself. Which translates into a somewhat eclectically mixed bag, one-man operation, the man being editor Sy Safransky (and his loyal staff), who started out peddling his labor of love on streetcorners and has now been at the helm for over thirty years.

The Sun is one of the few more or less mainstream magazines that will publish straight-out Catholic essays. Plus they pay. Plus they've been very supportive of my work through the years. So I am grateful to them, and proud to say I have a piece in the July issue that I entitled "Metaxu," and that they changed to "Stuck with Fred."

Metaxu is a word much used by Simone Weil, who apparently got it from Plato, which means, roughly, that which both separates and connects. Weil illustrated the concept by means of the following: "Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but it is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link."

Which definitely describes my...volatile friendship with the late, great Alfred Leroy Davis III, to whom I've dedicated Shirt of Flame. So check out this groovy mag.

2. Overheard at a coffee shop: “Faith is not leaping from Point A to Point B. Faith is leaping from Point A.”

3. Watched a a 1964 black-and-white film called  I Am Cuba. Peasant sugar-cane farmer who is about to be ousted from the meager patch of land from which he ekes a precarious living muses, "I used to think the most frightening thing was death. Now I know the most frightening thing is life."

4. My friend Barbara (whose late, extremely colorful mother, "Annie," was a fixture for decades at the Fulton Fish Market) told this joke:

"One of the house rules of the Sisters of St. Joseph was that anyone who came to their door was to be given hospitality because that person might be St. Joseph himself come to test them. One day a novice was sent to answer the door and upon seeing the man who rang the bell, she slammed the door and ran to the Mother Superior.

She said, "Mother, I know our rule, but I am sure the man at the door is NOT St. Joseph. His nose is red and he reeks of alcohol." 

"Quick, let him in," said the head nun. "It must be St. Patrick."

5. Stargazer lilies: A medieval still-life in my room:

6. Why we must always keep the churches open:

A bitterly lapsed friend from the Village recently mentioned in passing that he'd been in St. Veronica's.

Me: "What were you doing in St. Veronica's?" 
Him: "Even my soul needs a little sustenance now and then. Even if it's only for 5 minutes and a $5 in the poor box."

7. A new find:

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


In a recent post, I wrote of Brother Joseph F. Schmidt, FSC, and his amazingly insightful book Everything Is Grace: The Life and Way of Thérèse of Lisieux

For years Br. Joe was at the International Renewal Center near Santa Fe, and is now living and teaching in teaching in Naorobi. Simply discovering this remarkable man and his work would have been gift enough. But Saturday night I discovered that he's temporarily back in the States and giving a retreat from July 16th through the 23rd on St.Thérèse, and prayer, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.


he retreat is being given at the Canossian Spirituality Center. It so happens I'm going to be in Taos for the month of July. So I am going, darn it!


Sunday, June 26, 2011


If you lived in Boston, as I did from approximately 1978-1988, you knew of Whitey Bulger, the South Boston Irish mobster and as it turned out FBI snitch, who has been on the lam for sixteen years, was arrested last week in an apartment in Santa Monica along with his long-time girlfriend Catherine Greig, and has been extradited to Boston to face a laundry list of charges that include extortion, racketeering, and nineteen plus or minus murders.  

You knew of him no matter what, just from reading the paper, hanging around the bars, walking the streets.

But I also happened to have had Billy Bulger, Whitey’s younger brother, as a guest professor for a class at Suffolk Law

Later, I would read Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance, by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, and learn that Bulger and his cronies hung out at a garage they owned on Lancaster Street in the old West End:  

“Peering out from the shabby curtains of a second-story window in a flophouse directly across the street from the Lancaster Street garage was a group of troopers from the Massachusetts State Police. Six days a week, the troopers were hunkered down at the window in the roach-infested bedroom, chronicling the mob action across the street”… “Directly across from the garage was a run-down brick building, 119 Merrimac Street. The first floor was a gay bar. Upstairs rooms could be rented. It was a dump; a place where winos crashed.”…

Hey now! I lived in that building. [The gay bar, known as 119, was the next door down]. Yup, that is the building memorialized in Parched, in which I had a fifth-floor “loft” for $250 a month, utilities included, from approx. 1980 through 1988 when I finally got sober and moved out of Boston for good.  

But my fascination with the capture of Bulger--who is now 81--goes way beyond that I lived in Boston, and had a loft in the "flophouse" where the cops spied on him, and that the bartenders in the dives where I drank came from Southie and Dorchester, and that I became a (now ex-) lawyer in Boston and now he is back to be tried, in what promises to be a major media circus, in Boston.

It may be that I've lived so much of my own life in emotional and spiritual bondage that I'm strangely drawn by stories of people who've "walked among" but lived apart: convicts, mental patients, monks, nuns, kidnap victims. 

It may be the born-in-the-projects, code-of-honor, good brother/bad brother Irish Catholic slant I find so compelling: in a piece called “The Last Act in an Irish Tragedy,” James Carroll, long-time Boston Globe columnist, observes: “Bulger’s crimes are uniquely his, but his habit of defining himself by enmity perfectly embodied what William Butler Yeats called the ‘antithetical self.’’ We know who we are by whom we hate.”

But really what's at work here is the "glamour of evil." Do you reject sin, so as to live in the freedom of God's children? Do you reject the glamour of evil, and refuse to be mastered by sin? Do you reject Satan, father of sin and prince of darkness?... the priest asks during the Renewal of Baptismal Promises we make during Lent.

A character like Bulger invites us to take a closer look at the devil in our own characters. Not to in any way minimize his vicious life of crime, but let's not forget that, given half a chance, and with even the remotest kind of success, any of us might go completely over to the glamour of evil, too. I myself was so pathetically inept that my life of crime was nipped in the bud the day my mother made me go to the store from which, as a teenager, I’d shoplifted four sweaters; look the couple who owned the place in the eye, fork over the money I owed, and apologize--at which point I hung my head in shame, as I should have, and burst into tears.

But let’s not forget that ineptitude, under the circumstances, is a grace. I’ve never been able to bend so much as a straw to my will. But what if I had been able to? (And in fact I committed plenty more of the kind of "crimes" you don't happen to get arrested for.) What if any of us were?

To snap your fingers and have people do your bidding; to have people afraid of you, catering to you, covering up for you; to entice others to become corrupted, too, seems glamorous, whether we want to admit it or not, and what seems even more glamorous is getting away with the whole thing.

But can thinking you're different than everyone—better than everyone, above everyone—ever lead to "getting away" with anything? Bulger was forced to cut all ties with his family, his friends, his neighborhood, his culture, his state He defined his life by who he hated and in the end came home to discover that everyone hated him.

Tommy Donahue is the son of one of Bulger’s scores of victims, Michael Donahue. 

In an article for The Boston Channel, M.R.F. Buckley writes that Tommy was eight when his father, an innocent man who’d simply offered a ride to someone who’d run afoul of Bulger, was shot.      

"I was 8 years old when my father was snatched from me and my whole life I've been living with this. No rest, no closure. Constant down emotion," Tom said from Boston.

"It has been an emotional roller coaster, more down than ever up. It's been beyond frustrating. It's been an emotional, horrible roller coaster. But this is the one thing that we've been waiting for. Not only myself, but the other families that have been completely destroyed by this guy, you know? This mass murderer," said Donahue. "He's a scumbag. He's a mass murderer and a destroyer of families."

"Nobody's ever said I'm sorry, so this was ... it's kind of a closure, in a way," said Donahue's widow, Patricia.

So they got Whitey Bulger, and maybe these poor families can start to lay their grief and loved ones to rest at last.  But “they” got Whitey Bulger a long time ago. He turned himself in.

Be sober, be vigilant;
because your adversary the devil,
as a roaring lion, walketh about,
seeking whom he may devour.
--1 Peter 5:8

Saturday, June 25, 2011


Emily Green of the Los Angeles Times recently glorified "the biggest, silliest, loveliest and most poignant of California wildflowers," the snow-white, crepe-petaled matilija poppy.

Its season is short and one recent afternoon, on Glenfeliz Boulevard in Atwater Village, I marveled at the matilija myself.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


For weeks now, at the suggestion of my spiritual director, I’ve been carrying around a yellow Post-It in my wallet. On it are written: 

--Make sure I’m putting myself first.
--I’m not responsible for making people happy or always doing what they need.
--I need to have a life first.
--I need to be sure my needs are being met.

I cannot begin to describe how thoroughly, absolutely, horribly each of those grate against my very identity. I was raised to believe that to be good is always to put the other person first, that love consists in ignoring your own needs, that your job is to make other people happy. This may come as news to many of those who are closest to me. Because what happens, it’s taken me almost 59 years to figure out, is that when you try in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons to make other people happy, they end up rebelling. You end up resenting. And the whole thing—your sacrifice, your martyrdom—blows up in your face.   

Also, if you try in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons to make other people happy, you tend to think, often rightfully, that people are taking advantage of you, because it is human nature to take advantage of someone who has, however inadvertently, placed him or herself in a position of weakness and victimhood. Which tends to make me, for one, come out fighting, often at what seem to the other person like completely random and unpredictable times, and in wildly out-of-proportion ways. The other person thinks everything’s going along fine and suddenly they show up at quarter to five instead of four-thirty and I’m ready to call 9-1-1. "What’s the matter?" they innocently ask. "YOU. WERE. LATE!!!" I shriek. I’m not proud of it, but I am bound to report I have actually done that a few times in my life.

I have certainly made inroads, and I have done massive amounts of inner and outer work in this area through the years, but I’m being called upon to make way more.

Which brings me to one of the most interesting and useful books I’ve read in a long time: Everything is Grace: The Life and Way of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, by Joseph F. Schmidt, FSC, a lecturer, spiritual director, and counselor at the International Renewal Center of the Christian Brothers located in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Sante Fe.  

A little background: Thérèse (1873-1897) was sickly as an infant and had to be farmed out to a wet nurse from whom she was later separated. Her mother died of breast cancer when Thérèse was 4 ½. Her two beloved older sisters left fairly soon after for the cloistered convent at Carmel. Major abandonment issues, in other words. Thérèse herself entered the same convent at the age of fifteen, lived a hidden, outwardly unremarkable life there, and died at the tender age of twenty-four of TB. 

She might have remained entirely unknown had she not left behind her autobiography, written under orders from her superiors: The Story of a Soul. She was canonized as a saint a mere twenty-eight years later. In 1997, she was named a Doctor of the Church (one of only three women upon whom the honor has been bestowed). Her “little way” continues to inspire, challenge, invite, and confound. And people, including me, continue to write books about her. 

Anyway, one of Joseph Schmidt’s central theses is that Thérèse’s path to holiness took place largely around her struggle with, to put it in contemporary terms, "co-dependency.” Here are some excerpts from his wonderful Everything is Grace leading up to the famous Christmas eve during which Thérèse’s “second conversion” took place, and she turned a corner, never to return, with the wrong kind of people-pleasing.

She began to develop a style of feeling secure and bonded by pleasing others... 

Over the years, however, with the grace of insight, Thérèse came to see that while pleasing others could be a good thing, the motive of calming her disturbing feelings might not be a worthy one. If that motive fully replaced the motive of real love, then her feelings would be dictating her behavior, and that could become a serious personal weakness, undermining her authentic sensitivity and loving spirit. It could move her to compromise her personal integrity and to lose her true self for the sake of feeling good, and then she would be living out of sham love. But, from her earliest memories, it was out of real love that she wanted to live. 

These disturbances flowed from the early difficult feelings of insecurity and separation…

She became aware [even as child] not only that her willpower could be misdirected in terms of what she actually chose, but that even by choosing good she could be on the wrong path if she willfully chose good in a self-centered or self-righteous way. The very act of willpower even directed toward sanctity, she understood, could be tainted by the self-love that could drive her to try to make herself the saint she wanted to be rather than allowing God to make her the saint she was created to be. She recognized that in the use of her willpower she could sometimes be self-serving or even violent to herself or others in her efforts to be good. She was beginning to glimpse that holiness, while needing her cooperation, was really a matter of God’s doing. 

When Thérèse experienced herself as weak, she thought that she needed the support, recognition, and praise of others. What she really needed was the inner strength—the strength of soul—that was founded on her own conscience and her relationship with her loving Father. "God would have to work a little miracle to make me grown up," she recognized, "and this miracle He performed on that unforgettable Christmas day."

The custom at the time was for the children of the house to leave their empty shoes by the fire for the parents to fill with Christmas candy. Thérèse, the youngest of five daughters, was the last to keep up the custom. Upon returning from Mass that night, her usually kind and pious father, uncharacteristically cranky, passed the shoes and remarked, "Well, thank heaven, this will be the last year." Thérèse, 13, overheard him. Ordinarily she would have burst into tears and made a scene, devastated at the thought of having displeased her dear Papa. She began running upstairs to her room, choking back sobs. But on the moment, something changed…  

Thérèse’s sensitivity had been offended, but what of that? Could she not bear the pain of having inadvertently displeased her father, if enduring that pain was necessary to remain true to herself? Originally, in conformity with the family pattern, she had felt that if she did displease her father, she would not survive as the person she was. Her feelings had made her believe that failing to please her father would mean that she was not the good person on which she had staked her identity. Who would she be if she were not the sensitive, pleasing little Thérèse? She felt that she would surely die; it was as simple as that. Her feelings told her that she would simply no longer exist; that she would dissolve, as it were, into nothingness.
The threat of the feelings of separation and being abandoned attendant on Thérèse’s displeasing her father were so intimidating that they raised the specter of annihilation. The movement from the path Thérèse had been on with its dimension of falseness to the path of deeper truth to which she was called—a movement of profound transformation—felt like death. 

But she did not die. She gathered herself, allowed herself to experience but not be overwhelmed by the feelings of hurt, and marched downstairs like an adult to open her presents with gratitude, good cheer, and joy.

Thérèse was pleasing her father, but not because she needed to please him in order to make herself feel connected and good. She was pleasing him now because, from the depths of her true self with a deepened sense of inner freedom, she could act in whatever compassionate, creative, and free way she was called to. And pleasing her father was exactly what, on this Christmas night, she was called to do and wanted to do. 

[F]rom the time of her complete conversion she would never walk on the path of accommodating others at the expense of her own true self. That is, she would never please others because in a self-indulgent way she needed to please them for her own sense of security, or closeness, or fear of separation. Now she would accommodate others in a spirit of freedom and creativity, and as an expression of real love. In pleasing others, she would never again act in violence to her own integrity.
By the time Thérèse had entered Carmel, she had become so skilled at pleasing others and accommodating situations that she never insisted on her own way... 

She never afterward had to insist on her own way because in a sense she always got her own way, which was to love, and to be loved by, God in total freedom.

We put ourselves first, in other words, in order to put ourselves last.
To put ourselves first doesn’t mean that we never allow ourselves to be inconvenienced, or that we’re not constantly stretching ourselves, trying to go beyond ourselves, trying to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. It means we refrain from committing to more than we can give. It means refusing to be manipulated, guilt-tripped, or forced into an obligation or relationship we don’t want. It means maintaining our integrity even when everyone around us seems to have lost theirs, or not to value integrity. I never want to be a lone wolf in the wrong way. But to value integrity sometimes means being a lone wolf in the right way.
This is never going to come naturally to me. The way of least resistance always seems to be to “put the other person first,” to not make waves, to “go along.” I need a lot of guidance and every time I make even the smallest stand in the other direction I do feel as if I’ll be annihilated.

And yet God, in his infinite mercy, somehow contrives, as we stumble along the path, to eventually make the pain of not changing the one form of pain that’s worse than the pain of actually changing.
Whether we’re changing or not, God is with us.

And as Elizabeth Leseur observed: “Silence is sometimes an energetic act, and smiling is, too.”


Sunday, June 19, 2011


Of course [the fear of mice] as well as the fear of vermin is associated with with the unexpected, unsolicited, inescapable, essentially mute, and insistent appearance of these animals with their surreptitious objectives, and is coupled with the feeling that they have tunneled through the surrounding walls a hundred times and are lurking there, that they are so remote from us and hence even less vulnerable to us both because the nighttime belongs to them and because they are so tiny. Their small size in particular adds an important dimension to the fear they inspire, for example the idea that there could be an animal that would look exactly like a pig—an amusing idea per se—but it would be as small as a rat and might come out of a hole in the floor making a snuffling sound—that is a horrifying idea.

I couldn't help thinking of the above passage from Kafka the other day at the Silver Lake Farmer's Market. I was walking along minding my own business, clutching my bag of arcane, dollar-a-bunch, Hmong greens; casing the ground for forageable fruit--half-eaten strawberry hulls, bruised apricots--when an appalling sight stopped me short.

Leaning against a lamp-post was a girl in skin-tight black pants, bleach blond hair, one shoulder bared, pelvis thrust out, cell phone to her ear, and a sullen, bored, seen-it-all, I-despise-the-world-and-everyone-in-it-but-if-you-offer-me-enough-I-might-consider-throwing-you-a-bone look. That in itself was nothing: that is the average denizen of a certain strata of my neighborhood. What made it horrifying was that the girl, I swear, was maybe three-and-a-half feet tall. She had the wardrobe, world-weariness, and jaded expression of a high-class call girl a decade past her prime and she couldn't have been more than six years old. 

I mean, seriously, I did a double take. JonBenét Ramsey at least had the eyes  of a child. This poor girl, and she was not poor financially, had been utterly, completely corrupted. Not necessarily by sex, but by consumerism, by advertising, by a world that increasingly sees people as human billboards. The kid had to have been conditioned since birth to have been so ruthlessly stripped, so soon, of all that is child-like. Her hair, her clothes, her jewelry, her phone, her body language all conspired to give her the vacant, insolent look of a  Eurotrash model in a Vanity Fair ad.  She was not a child dressed up and made up like a grownup, but a grownup whose soul had died in the tiny body of a child.

A child made up like a grownup is grotesque, but a grownup in the body of a child is horrifying.

I wanted to blame the parents but having opted never to undertake that noble task myself, I had no right. Besides, the real culprit is the culture, of which we are all a part.  Half a mile down Sunset Boulevard is a billboard advertising a movie called "Bad Teacher." A presumably naked woman slouches behind a desk, stiletto-booted feet up, shades covering her eyes, an apple in front of her with a note on it reading "Eat Me." "She doesn't give an 'F'" is the so not-funny punchline. I, a grown woman and ex-barfly, don't want to look at that. And four- and six- and ten- and twelve-year-olds have to look at that, too?

Léon Bloy (1846-1917), the novelist, poet, and fervent Catholic convert, had a notoriously foul temper, categorically refused to get a day job, alienated many of his fellow literati, and burned with love for Christ.

In Pilgrim of the Absolute, a collection of diary entries, he wrote:

Every man who begets a free act projects his personality into the infinite. If he gives a poor man a penny grudgingly, that penny pierces the poor man’s hand, falls, pierces the earth, bores holes in suns, crosses the firmament and compromises the universe. If he begets an impure act, he perhaps darkens thousands of hearts whom he does not know, who are mysteriously linked to him, and who need this man to be pure as a traveler dying of thirst needs the Gospel’s draught of water. 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.

To try to be pure is never to follow a set of arbitrarily rigid, life-despising rules. We try to be pure because someone else needs us to be pure. Someone in pain needs us to refrain from using another, whether in reality or fantasy, to anaesthesize our own pain. Someone needs us at least to try to overcome our fear, our anger, our impatience, our lust.

To try to be pure in this area—in any area but in this area especially—is to offer up our little bit of suffering, of loneliness, longing, frustration, and anxiety, so that someone else might not suffer, and then  transmit their suffering so as to harm another. Maybe that person is standing in front of us in line at the grocery store with ADD, three screaming kids and her dingy food stamps scattered all over the check-out counter. Maybe that person is the next bin Laden. Maybe that person is the child who has been touched, maybe by a priest, and is going to grow up wanting to inappropriately touch someone else: someone younger, someone weaker.

“There is abundant hope,” Kafka also observed, “but there is none for us.”  Which is a slightly bleaker, and funnier, way of saying, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." [John 12:24]. To try to be pure is to consent, in a sense, to die. To try to be pure is one way not to despair of that small girl, to welcome her into the world, to hold out hope that at some point she will learn to delight in flowers and books and all the things that are free, that can’t be “consumed.” 

"Verily I say unto you," Christ also said, "Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. [Matthew 18:3]  He didn't mean innocence, or sentimentality, or ignorance of the evil and meanness and cruelty of the world.

He meant openness of heart. He meant conversion to joy: to the willingness to be a fool, to wear our hearts on our sleeve, to run to love like children run to their parents, before they realize their parents are fallible--and then to run anyway. One way or another, the open of heart do tend to die in this world.

And the truly open of heart get killed.


Saturday, June 18, 2011


circa 1960
back row, Allen Jr. and Jeanne
middle: Dad and Mom
front: Ross, Joe, me
afterward would also be Geordie, Tim, and Meredith
My father--a bricklayer with eight kids--saw the world as a place of mystery and beauty but that things could go so consistently, abysmally, wrong gnawed at him. His fertile imagination tended toward the catastrophic, and his saving grace was a black, finely-honed sense of humor.

“The Floyds invited me to the lake,” I announced: Dad mused “Remember that Kelleher boy who pitched over the side of a canoe and drowned?”

“Can I learn how to ski?” Joe begged: “Was it last year that girl wandered off the trail and froze to death?” Dad replied.

“Doesn't that get my goat!” he'd rail in the parking lots of grocery stores, spotting a cart left by a careless shopper. “If that thing ever got rolling, it could pick up momentum, barrel right into a three- or four-year-old kid…” He shook his head, leaving us to imagine the twitching limbs; the tiny crushed skull bleeding onto the asphalt.

We had dinner--supper we called it--together every night. Around the table we bonded, and made fun of each other, and bitterly fought, and around the table the neuroses were created and cemented in place with which I, for one, have struggled all my life. My older brother Allen and older sister Jeanne left home as soon as they graduated from high school leaving me, at the age of ten, the oldest of the remaining six. My job, I believed, was to relieve my father's financial anxiety and I took it seriously. When he was worried, I was worried. Like him, I took every wasted penny personally. Like him, I learned early to see imaginary fissures in the facade of the world and to take them as signs of impending doom.

One night, the whole brood was eating supper and as happened about twenty times a meal, had run out of milk. "I'll get some more," Ross offered, and made for the kitchen. Right away, Dad started in. “Don’t drop the milk.” “For Crimey’s sake, don’t drop the milk, it's up to a dollar-thirty.” “Watch out Ross, whatever you do, don’t drop the milk.”

Almost inevitably, just as Ross was about to reach the table--a tremendous crash. Milk splashed, glass shattered. A gallon of milk, released from the confines of its glass bottle onto the floor, walls and table of the family dining room, is a fearsome thing. Milk pooled on the floor. Milk ran in runnels into the kitchen. My father wasn’t violent but for a second we stopped breathing and looked instinctively to the head of the table. A stricken, defeated look crossed his face, and then he bent over double and silently buried his head in his hands.

Had Dad lost it for good? Had we finally pushed him over the brink? What if he just got up, put on his brown Carhartt jacket that smelled like White Owl cigars and Old Spice and Smith Brothers cherry cough drops, got in his pickup, and left us for good? Who would take us out in the boat to check the banged-up lobster traps? Who would bake bread on weekends? Who would plant a single amaryllis bulb in a pot of soil, put it in the dining room window, and marvel when it bloomed each spring? Who would dig the garden, and harvest the tomatoes, and sit out on the breezeway with his buddies drinking Bud and listening to the Sox? Who would go around the house singing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” in that crackpot fake tenor? Who would recite Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad” (“And I am two-and-twenty,/And oh, ‘tis true, ‘tis true”) with what sounded suspiciously like a catch in his throat? Mom couldn't leave us. But what if Daddy, fount of all fun, all jokes, all food, shelter, clothing, security, order, warmth, bolted?

He was trembling, for God’s sake!  Jesus, was he crying? Had we made Dad cry?

At last he straightened up. His beat-up hands dropped to his knees. His face, unthinkably, was wet with tears, and so red we thought he might have had a heart attack. He was still trembling. He was gasping. But finally we realized he wasn’t crying. He was laughing.

"Ha ha, heh heh, Don’t spill the milk!” he gasped. “Don’t…don’t drop…HAH…HUNHH… Janet, get me a napkin…Don’t”…He pointed to Ross, as if Ross had just told the funniest joke ever, “Don’t spill…HANH HAH…if that doesn’t beat....HANNHHH…Lindy Gilman’s kids [Mr. Gilman was the Runnymede Farms milkman] will eat!”… but he was laughing so hard he couldn’t go on.  

We suddenly sprang to action. One of us ran to the rag box. Someone else started picking out the biggest chunks of glass. Someone, maybe me, passed behind the back of his chair and patted his thinning hair. But in a way, I am still sitting at that table with my father: head in his hands, face hidden, present physically, yet a millions miles away. Sitting with him while he perhaps contemplated the years stretching behind and ahead: of waking in the dark, of driving 40, 60, 90 miles to work, of standing in the bitter cold and scorching heat all day laying brick, of constant anxiety, constant frustration, constant fatigue.

Sitting with him knowing that when and if he opened his eyes his family, his glory and his cross, his family whose entire purpose in life was to break his heart was going to be looking back at him: waiting, bereft, refusing to leave. Sitting with him while all that was good and kind and decent in him, and all that was fearful and weak and in pain had perhaps met, and clashed, and in some place that was unknown to us, where we could not follow, on some terrible battlefield in which our fates hung in the balance, he had chosen us over himself; had chosen the spark of life that is humor--over despair, over death. In a way, that is who I write to. My father, in that moment before he lifted his head, and stayed.

For weeks, we’d be finding splinters of glass under the sewing table, the desk, the radiators. There would be more anxiety. There would be more pain. But for now, God was in His heaven and all was right with the world. We were saved, until the next broken bottle of milk, or window, or leg, or spirit. Life could go on. 

Because Dad had laughed. Thank God Almighty. Daddy had laughed.

ON JUNE 10, 1999

Thursday, June 16, 2011


Published in the “Where I Live” column (Home section) of the Los Angeles Times, 8-5-04.
The L.A. Times no longer runs "Where I Live." And I no longer live in Koreatown.
We all have our own little pieces of personal L.A. history, and one of mine is at the northeast corner of Oxford and Wilshire in Koreatown. 3731 Wilshire is the office building where I worked as a lawyer for the whole of the very strange year of 1992 and, walking around the neighborhood on my lunch hour, found the apartment in which I still live: a one-and-a half-bedroom with high ceilings, French windows and hardwood-floors for $675 a month. 

I’ve been walking Koreatown ever since.

“Great problems are in the street,” Nietzsche said, and as a writer, living alone, I not only need to get out and see that other folks are struggling, too: I need to get out, period. Koreatown is nothing if not a melting pot--of cultures, races, demographics--and walking out my door into this heady mixture of the mundane and the exotic is stimulating stuff. Just heading to the mom-and-pop joint where the guy from Seoul changes my watch battery, I pass the Armenian cobbler, the Cuban cigar store (for panatelas to send to my ex-husband), and the Vietnamese salon in a mini-mall just off Arlington where Mai administers soothing pedicures.

As a Caucasian, I’m a minority in Koreatown, and if that gives me the solitude I need for my work, that also makes the moments of community seem that much more precious. I stop in so often at the Pio-Pico library to pick up reserved books that the African-American security guard once asked if I worked there. Crystal, the junkie who begs change outside the 7-Eleven, inquires whether I've had anything published lately. Walking to Windsor Park in the cool of a winter dusk, I sometimes stop in at St. Gregory’s and, along with the four or five elderly parishioners of various nationalities scattered among the pews, kneel for a moment and pray.

So much is at my fingertips! One mango, two eggs, a handful of tomatoes at the corner produce truck. $2.99 bags of frozen pork dumplings at the Assi Supermarket. The strange little bazaar off Western and 9th where, for a week or so in early June, I buy a pound of cherries every day. Food--comfort, color, connection--helps make K'town home. A stone’s throw from the nondescript copy centers and anonymous dentist offices of the Wilshire corridor, there’s Vim’s for chow foon with shrimp and Chinese broccoli, La Plancha for ninety-nine cent pupusas, Kobawoo House for mung bean pancakes and kimchee. At the local 24-Hour Fitness, the air is thick with the smell of garlic.

One thing I’ve noticed from walking is that it's the poor, the weary, and the mentally precarious who tend to have a kind word or a smile. This is something to be grateful for when, as happens so frequently in the press of urban life, I am feeling particularly poor and weary myself. Waiting for the light to change at the corner of Arlington and 8th  one recent afternoon, I found myself standing next to a guy from the nearby board-and-care: cigarette with an inch of ash dangling off, moth-eaten yarmulke, plastic coke bottle stuffed with water and tea bags. He looked me over--a benevolent sizing up--and took a long drag. 

“So what else have you been doing besides building log cabins?” he asked. 

“Nothin’ much,” I replied. “Just wandering around looking at the flowers.” 

He nodded approvingly--it was as if we’d taken up a conversation we’d begun years ago and would take up again years hence--and we continued in that vein for the rest of the block, parting at the mailbox (into which he deposited a highly-smudged letter) as friends.
Just when I think I know the neighborhood inside out, I discover someplace new: Liborio’s Market, where I nab a can of coconut in heavy syrup for a flan recipe; the thrift store at the Congregational Church on Commonwealth where I happen upon a vintage copy of Betty MacDonald's Onions in the Stew. There are adventures: the Christmas day the stove busts and I have to farm out a prime rib, roasted potatoes with fennel and garlic, and polenta pine-nut torte to the neighbors' ovens.  There are surprises: the morning I walk to the corner and find that overnight, the name of the closest cross street has been changed from 9th to James M. Wood. There is serendipity: the antique chair, upholstered in faded pink silk moiré, I find in the alley one lucky evening and single-handedly haul upstairs. .

Friday morning I walk to St. Basil’s for eight o’clock Mass: at Communion, I get the Filipino Eucharistic minister who hisses “The Body of Chrissssss” (no “t”) as he puts the wafer in my hand, which drives me nuts but also makes me glad all over again I’m a Catholic as Jesus liked nothing better than hanging out with broken-down prostitutes and homeless people and folks who didn’t have perfect diction.
Sipping a coffee outside the Serrano Starbucks afterwards, I watch the passing parade: thousands of lives intersecting, then going off in their own directions; colliding, picking themselves up and gathering themselves to begin anew; the smallest act--the chance smile, the random act of rudeness--rippling out to our fellows in unseen ways. I think of the parallel life that haunts us all, the baffling suspicion that things would be better in some other place--“Always you will arrive in this city,” Constantine Cavafy wrote of his native Alexandria, “Do not hope for any other…”.  For a minute I forget I have responsibilities, work, a life. If I sit here all day, I'll be able to see, half a mile west down Wilshire, the Romanesque tower of the United Methodist Church  silhouetted against the rays of the setting sun.

I can never quite tell whether I’m losing myself or finding myself in Koreatown and I remember the exact day when I realized perhaps it didn’t matter. That would be the afternoon I left my apartment to walk down San Marino and, through the window of a rundown  tract house, heard the halting strains of the same Beethoven sonata I’d just finished playing on my own piano.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


photo: Dustin McClaws

From a recent exchange with Betsy Cullerton, a NYC lawyer with severe birth defects. Betsy underwent four major surgeries as a child and has been in a wheelchair all her life.  

Hi Heather,

I spent some time in Michigan over the weekend. My parents have several acres on the lake, and I haven’t worn out my welcome. My mother is a wonderful gardener, and with all of the rain across the Midwest spring has exploded. I was out in the driveway, listening to the frongsong gurgle and belch in the ditches and gulley. A flock of birds rested in the tree above me. The lake, sequined and shining gave the impression of something solid; I longed to walk across it. For a moment I believed I could. Looking out over such an expanse, I felt such a deep desire and longing to return. I prayed over the feeling, and I realized that it was a longing for God. The world is gorgeous and life pure gift. The world is not my home; my joy is veined, riven with exile

I was very lonely as a child. While my cousins were down at the beach, I would be off in a wooded area, or reading. Thank God for books. They have comforted me through many long afternoons. The loneliness was painful and uncomfortable. Like a hairshirt. But I have grown used to the mortification. There is a mysterious solace in it I know to be God. But I must accept being strange to others. 
I know that many consider my life to be one of sorrow and limitation. This is particularly true in America where illness and frailty have become taboo and rude. I often feel uncouth, like a dinner guest picking my teeth at the table. Don’t I have enough good manners not be sick? And if I can’t be well, can’t I at least have the decency to hide at home or in an institution? But there are moments of inexpressible sweetness and joy that bloom in the dessert. I don’t know what grass feels like against my feet. I’d like to think that in heaven I will be able to roll in it with the dogs. But I do know the Braille of the land-its bumps, slopes, and curves. We have grown so afraid of pain, suffering, and sorrow we’ve forgotten the laughter in tears, the joy in sorrow and the comfort in pain

I just read your post on the burdens of love and the burden of books. I had to laugh. I once felt as you did. But now that I have a kindle, I love it. My hands and wrists no longer tremble with fatigue as I read. And it is easier than ever for me to be lifted up and away through literature. My father loved to read. From him, I inherited my ravenous appetite. While I was recovering from surgery, he gave me an illustrated copy of Anne of Green Gables. The story gave me so much joy. And dear Anne! So much happiness after such terrible affliction. She taught me so many lessons. Then there was Narnia and The Velveteen Rabbit, stories that filled in the Gospel for me. Later I borrowed from my brother’s collection. He introduced me to Tolkien, Herbert, LeGuin, Edward O’Brien, and early Steven King. He did not hoard his books; we passed them freely back and forth. They were exceptions to a fierce privacy we both respected

The burdens of love are much more difficult. I’ve hired many caregivers throughout my life. I tell them the job requirements, travel and pay. They begin with enthusiasm, but often it wanes. Caregiving may be a job, but it requires a  lot of love and tolerance. Tolerance of my frailty, tolerance of weakness. We negotiate and compromise. With some the love has frayed and broken within a month. With others it has been renewed daily. When they would quit, I would take it terribly personal, as though I was a burden. But that’s a sort of denigrating narcissism to which I am prone. My weakness gives others an opportunity to love. If they choose not to accept it then they are not required to do so. Each day I have the opportunity to love others in their weakness as well.

It is my great regret that I cannot perform corporal acts of mercy-helping a friend move, driving my mom to the doctor, or changing a niece’s diaper. When I feel this way I often think of Martha and Mary before the Lord. Martha is busy cooking and cleaning, consumed with the physicality of hosting. Mary sits in quiet dreamy contemplation. My acts of mercy must be spiritual in nature-consoling, listening, praying and writing. Secret acts. Little acts.

Hi Betsy,

As always, your insights are about three levels deeper than the world's, or mine, so I thank you for them. "We have grown so afraid of pain, suffering, and sorrow we’ve forgotten the laughter in tears, the joy in sorrow and the comfort in pain"...You know, this is the whole heart of Christianity, that we are called to joy, and that the joy is available even in the midst of sorrow and pain, and in fact, our joy is not COMPLETE without sorrow and pain. To love Christ is to see and experience the world in a certain way, a new way, a way that is totally different than the way of the world. And as he said, it drives a sword between people! We are so afraid of pain we don't know what to do with it, we hide it away, we avert our eyes. We have no sense of liveliness or playfulness or getting our hands dirty, of looking pain in the eyes.

Someone, I'm sure a very dear woman, just took me to task for mentioning on my blog that my beloved friend Lisa G. and I had had a little spat this week that we had VERY MATURELY resolved because, as Lisa said, to stay mad would have been retarded, and of course the woman had a developmentally disabled or whatever the politically correct term is son, and is part of a campaign to wipe the word "retarded" out of any thinking person's vocabulary. And because I felt this woman's wounded heart was more important at the moment than my "right," which I dearly wanted to argue for, to use a perfectly good word that means slow, for heaven's sake, and is therefore beautifully descriptive and even poetic, I apologized and took the passage down without making a federal case out of it...

From Betsy, a few days later:

I am very familiar with those types of speech codes. When I first came to
Chicago I wanted to work with Access Living, a nationally recognized Center for Independent living. While I appreciate the work that they do, some of it was deeply overwrought, a reflexive outrage had replaced genuine human emotion. Take for example, the Jerry Lewis Telethon, a favorite target of advocates for many years. Did the telethon promote pity? Of course. But pity acknowledges the pain of another, something the advocates cannot stand. In a valiant effort to show our humanity, they simply whitewash pain and disfigurement, and present a super-competent portrait that is as fictive as the one they tried to replace.
I work in City Hall. I see many people struggling in walkers, or ill-fitting obsolete wheelchairs. Perhaps the walker is their choice, an effort to retain independence. Their steps are so deliberative and labored, that I have to believe their lack of equipment was forced on them rather than chosen. My heart is moved to pity, because I know how much it hurts to not have what you need. Depending on who you speak to, the preferred term for people with disabilities is people with special needs. This phrase is the linguistic equivalent of pine air freshener in a taxicab. If I really wanted to convey the pain, sorrow, and humiliation of my body, the word cripple captures it perfectly. Along with “retarded,” "cripple" has been thrown in the politically correct trash-heap.
Where I most diverge with the advocates is in their belief that if every doorway were widened, every curb leveled, every toilet raised, every caregiver fully funded, the pain and alienation of my condition would be greatly lessened and I would be able to pursue my dreams fully in society While that would be wonderful, no law, no government, no politician can soothe my inflamed and wounded heart. Even of the world were perfect, I would still have a fallen and broken heart. That brokenness is what we can no longer face. We cover it up with speech codes and sensitivity training. An institutionalized culture of grievance has stripped us of the words I’m sorry and You’re forgiven

Instead there are reports, protocols, and reprimands. Try not to censor yourself. Your words will fall like hailstones to some, petals to others.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Jeff Dietrich, editor, publisher, and CEO, has honored me by publishing a review of the letters of Dorothy Day in this month's issue of The Catholic Agitator, the newspaper of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker.

You can subscribe to the Agitator, learn more about the amazing work and witness of the LACW, sign on to volunteer at their Skid Row soup kitchen, become an intern, and/or in general get your ear to the social justice/anti-war/hospitality-for-the-disenfranchised-and-downtrodden ground here.  


All the Way to Heaven: The Selected Letters of Dorothy Day,
Edited by Robert Ellsberg
Marquette University Press
(Milwaukee, Wisconsin), 2010

 Dorothy Day’s journals, The Duty of Delight, came out in 2008. [Click here for my review of those].  Now we have the companion volume: All the Way to Heaven: The Selected Letters of Dorothy Day. And again, we have editor Robert Ellsberg to thank for this massive and painstaking labor of love.

The letters span the years from 1923 to 1980, the year Day died at the age of 83. She was always a prolific correspondent. But once she and Peter Maurin met, in 1932, and the Catholic Worker got underway, she often spent many hours a day writing letters, considering it part of her spiritual practice and work for the movement. As a matter of humility, she kept no carbon copies so the letters that survived are a testament to the love and care of the recipients who preserved them. “Fortunately, a wealth of material remained,” Ellsberg notes, “including her precious early letters to Forster Batterham, to her daughter Tamar, to Ammon Hennacy, Thomas Merton, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, and many other lifelong friends and fellow travelers,” Ellsberg notes.

Dorothy was neither warm nor effusive. She was flinty, blunt, and to the point. She was a dutiful and loving, but not a doting mother. She acknowledged; she didn’t gush. If the letters are any indication, interestingly, she did not have much of a sense of humor. One of the most fascinating exchanges was with Catherine de Hueck Doherty, the Russian émigré fellow social activist who founded Madonna House in Toronto. Doherty apparently disapproved of what she saw as Dorothy’s lack of organizational skills, apathetic housekeeping, and the almost complete chaos that held sway at any given time at the CW houses of hospitality. And yet in her letters to Doherty, Dorothy shows a warmth, affection, and concern for the spiritual well-being of the other that are lacking in her letters even to Forster Batterham, the love of her life and the father of her child, Tamar.

She smoothes the ruffled feathers of priests and donors, shores up flagging fellow Workers, admonishes, instructs. She’s wonderfully detached from results: if we get closed down, we get closed down.

What comes through loud and clear is the paradoxes of the religious path and the Cross. A woman with a huge capacity for love who gave up the love of her life, as a matter of conscience, for Christ.  A woman who has been widely hailed as the most influential Catholic laywoman of the 20th century who was a "prophet without honor in her own country" (one of Dorothy’s biggest sorrows was that Tamar turned her back on the Church, as did most of Dorothy’s many grandchildren). A “mother” whose extended family of  friends, fellow Catholic Workers, and guests was perpetually troubled (as the human family always is).  An unprecedented “success” who also experienced massive failure—when the CW held to its pacifist stance during the Spanish Civil War, then WWII, for instance, orders for the newspaper (which in a mere two years had reached an astonishing 150,000 circulation) plummeted.  A “political” anarchist who was uninterested in politics: “I should like very much to be able to throw myself into the work of a political movement, but I can’t. The whole policy of our paper is against political activity.” [p. 56] An adherent of voluntary poverty whose movement owned properties in downtown Manhattan and an estate on the Hudson. “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system,” she said, and she also had attorneys, real estate agents, and a cardiologist.

 “Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love,” she was fond of saying, a quote borrowed from St. John of the Cross. She suffered persecution from the state, at times the Church, from her daughter, from Ammon Hennacy who was in love with her, from the generation of Catholic Workers who came up behind her and had little of her love for the Sacraments, daily devotions, chastity, penance, mortification and prayer. “Fr. Hugo said once, quoting some saint, ‘The best thing to do with the best of things is to give them back to God.’ It is in that spirit that priests and nuns take vows of celibacy.” [p. 169] “I am trying to spend two hours in church every morning before my days begin just to get the strength to go on. And end my days there too.” [p. 185, August 1, 1950]

She had a vision of a new system based on sacrifice, penance, prayer, personalism, and pacifism. “I’m no feminist,” she declared. She was not a feminist; she was a human being. “You can’t go to prison as a gesture,” she observed in response to a correspondent who had criticized the self-righteousness of some of the war resisters. “Prison is real suffering.” She suffered jail herself time and again, mentioning stints of days, a week, a month almost in passing: no self-pity, no drama, no false martyrdom. Her compassion was for others, not herself; for those who are poor not voluntarily but involuntarily: poor in spirit, poor in choices, poor in inner resources.

She was offered (and turned down) 12 honorary doctorates. The cause for her canonization is underway. The Catholic Worker philosophy has spread world-wide, and yet nobody knew better that the real battle against the powers and principalities begins, is perpetually waged, and ends in the human heart. We can’t love the person across the world any better than we can love the person who is standing in front of us in the line at the grocery store, kneeling behind us at church, or sitting across from us at the dinner table. “The powers of this world are overwhelming. Yet it is hoping against hope and believing, in spite of “unbelief,” crying by prayer and by sacrifice, daily, small, constant sacrificing of one’s own comfort and cravings—these are the things that count.”

Impossible for those of us who know and love the L.A. Catholic Worker not to feel a pang at a letter dated February 2, 1974, from Dorothy  to Catherine Morris: “So we will always have trouble and poverty too! Yet we are being given money for a new house just the same. This work has its exciting moments.  Hope you and Jeff [Dietrich] give your life to it”—because of course they have.

But perhaps the highest accolade was given by Mr. Breen, a cantankerous “guest” who arrived at the CW doorstep in his seventies and was given to violent emotional outbursts, Tourette’s-like fits of vitriol, and racist, homophobic rants. “I am at my wits end,” wrote Dorothy to Catherine de Hueck Doherty in July, 1935.  “He has been with us for the last year, and just suddenly this last week he has gone to pieces. He would not stay with us, not caring for ‘kikes and dingos,’ as he says, so we’ve been paying for a room around the corner and he has spent two days with us. We don’t know what to do. He sits at the lower window like a Cerberus and growls and curses at everyone who comes in for a bite of food or for some clothing. He hates us all, he hates this place, he says he is going to die, yet he won’t have the Sacraments, etc….And he, after all, is Christ. ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these,’ you know. It’s the hardest problem we have yet.” 

Mr. Breen clearly belonged in the psych ward, but insisted upon staying, and Dorothy in turn insisted upon keeping him, until his death, in fact, in 1939.

“As long as I live,” Mr. Breen once wrote to Dorothy—and I venture to say he speaks for all of us—“I shall always be proud of having had you as my boss and my friend. Your little glimpses into my mind on personal responsibility a few days ago remade me and I have, thank you, ceased to hate people as I was wont to.”