Saturday, December 31, 2011


2012. I like it. Like the look, like the sound. Clean, alliterative.

I learned a lot IN 2011. I learned that while in one way I am sharing some of my deepest self in this blog and my other writing, I can't "just be myself," because if I were just myself I'd be a whole hell of a lot ruder.

 A blog is probably tailor-made for someone like me: a lonely introvert. People get invested in being part of a community--that is part of the beauty of it--and yet we're all like nomads, or pilgrims, and blind-folded pilgrims at that...questing, seeking, stumbling, weighing in, doing the best we can by each other.

As my friend Terry Carr wrote last night: "Not a bad year, but I'm cutting it loose regardless. Clean house. Make way for the new."


Thursday, December 29, 2011



“My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

It amazes me that Mary is able to say those words. No, that is not accurate. What amazes me is not that she can say them, but mean them. I can easily say them, but I do not mean them, not even a little. Why? The answer is easy: I am much too self-absorbed to rejoice in God, or rejoice in being saved by God. Rejoice in God my Savior? No. I don’t like the fact that I need to be saved, neither by God, nor by anyone has He chosen to use as his instrument.

What does my spirit rejoice in? It rejoices in me: in my mental prowess, my intelligence, my wit, my ability to crack jokes; in my perceptions, my feelings, my judgment, my intuitions. I rejoice in the little world I inhabit. Everything is only and always about me.

Maybe a good way to sum up this up is to say that I limit myself to finding joy in my Comfort Zone. The CZ is like a cocoon that encloses me, a plastic bubble that keeps me cosseted and complacent. I do my best never to step outside of it, and never to let anything unpleasant inside it. The littlest things take on a great importance in the CZ. Sitting in my lounge chair, sipping a cup of coffee, reading (maybe even praying) the Breviary, thinking about the Gospel from the mass of the day, waddling/ambling/walking to the bathroom to use the toilet, shower and shave, listening to NPR radio while I get dressed, making a mental list of things to be done during the day….. Those things are all easily done within my CZ.

Then comes the moment that upsets the applecart: the morning Mass at 8:00am. So much happens to pull me out of myself. The other priests are there at mass, concelebrating from their seats, in a small semi-circle. Some are deafer than others (once in a while a hearing aid battery squeals or whistles). Some are more asleep than awake. Each one of us is an incarnation of idiosyncrasies that age has frozen into place. Almost of us are on automatic pilot, mumbling responses and words by rote memory. There are five or six seminarians in the house since it is vacation time and these men cannot travel to Poland, Vietnam, or Ghana for Christmas. Several of them will be at Mass too. I wonder what kind of example we are to them, what they get out of going to Mass with us who are retired, at the end of the ministry road that they are just starting to walk on. We cannot be very inspiring to them. Do they see their future when they look at us? Probably not: the Comfort Zones of youth are too filled with dreams and fantasy to admit the reality of old age.

I make my bow and pray to the Blessed Sacrament. It doesn’t matter too much if I am the principal celebrant or one of the concelebrants. In any case, I run the risk of getting pulled out of myself into God’s world. All I have to do is listen to the Gospel, listen to the prayers of the Mass, and experience my oneness with everyone there, my solidarity with them. I am one more man, one more priest around the altar, eating the Meal that turns our individual worlds inside out and upside down. If, of course, I let the Mass do that to me. I can block the word out, the prayers, the meaning of the eating and drinking. I can ignore what I am taking into me, what I am taken into. I can do it all on automatic pilot, within my CZ. But it gets more and more difficult to do that. The Word keeps sneaking in, into my consciousness, calling me to get beyond myself, to see more than me and my petty concerns. The new English wording of the Mass also rattles me. It makes me focus, it makes me concentrate on the meaning of what I am saying and doing, it calls me to be attentive and reverent. I suppose it is a blessing I don’t know the new English translation well enough yet to go through the whole Mass half asleep.

Everything conspires to make me center myself on Christ, make Him my center, realize He is The Center, mine and everyone else’s. I enter a new dimension at Mass, the world of Grace, of relationship with the Divine, not the Divine that transcends us and is way above us, but the Divine that breaks into my little world, the Divine-human, the Divine that makes all our little worlds part of Him. The Incarnate Word, the Word-made-flesh-made- Bread, the Bread that consecrates us, cracks our Comfort Zones, pulls us out of them and transforms us into his Body, his people. Of course, He does it gently, patiently, continually, gradually, mercifully, because we all resist His efforts. We easily forget what He calls us to remember, we easily get back into our CZs once Mass is over, and step out of the world He has made us a part of. We return to the small world we came from.

Within a few minute of the Mass, I am back to rejoicing in myself. But sometimes not. Sometimes while the moment lasts, I see myself and everyone else as part of Christ’s Body. This perspective comes out in the way I talk, joke, try to be helpful and so forth, but more often than not, I slip back into my Comfort Zone. I rejoice in the food I eat, the scotch I drink, the nuts I munch on, the conversations I have, the battle of wits I win, the superiority I display. In the books I read, the TV programs I watch, the movies I see, the music I listen to, I rejoice in whatever will keep me amused and entertained so that I do not have to face how much I need saving, how much I need God to break through my self-absorption and save me.

I rejoice in hiding my awareness of my self-absorption from myself. I do not rejoice in acknowledging my neediness. I rejoice in everything that enables me to block out my weakness, my limitations, my co-dependence, my sins, my very real poverty... I work very hard to hide from myself how much I need saving.

I rejoice in good a good night’s sleep, the hours I pass in the Internet, the relationships I have with so many good people. I rejoice in my power to control and manipulate them, and in the illusion that I am in control of them and of myself. In the way I can get people to like me, to do what I want, to thank me and praise me, I rejoice in the recognition I receive, the applause.

I rejoice in feeling needed by them, in their need of me and dependence on me. I rejoice in my pension and savings, in having enough money to feel secure and safe for the foreseeable future.

I rejoice that I am able to block out whatever would pull me out of myself and make me feel uncomfortable or insecure. I rejoice in the lies I tell myself so I don’t have to face how needy I am. I rejoice in my ability to keep myself so hectic and distracted that I do not have to face the fact that I am headed towards death. I rejoice that I don’t have to face the ultimate things that are staring me in the face, that I am able to ignore them even though they just won’t go away.

I rejoice in anything and everything that will help me to hold on to the status quo even though it slips through my fingers as I grasp at it.

Mary, help me not to be so self-absorbed. Help me to get beyond myself. Give me the grace to embrace your Son, to trust Him, love Him, entrust myself to Him. Help me see that He cannot save me if I do not let Him break through my Ego Bubble and accept Him as Lord even of my self-centered life. Make me see that only He can save me from my self-absorption. Help me to give him more than lip service. In your trust you opened every part of you to the God who humbly brings his life into our flesh. He made you part of Him by making Himself part of you. Make me aware of His presence. Move me out of my Comfort Zone and into his world. Bless me with your trust in your Son so He can become the center of my life. Enable me to rejoice in Him.

Mary, this Christmas please give me the one gift I so need but in no way deserve: grant me an awareness of His Presence, His Presence in you, in the Eucharist, in me, in everyone else. Help me to see that His Birth contains and embraces His Death and explodes into His Resurrection. Help me to realize that He is part of all humanity and my humanity, present in all I am and do, in all we are and do. All I go through is caught up in who He is, from my birth to death, my rebirth in glory. Bless me at every moment with an awareness of the Mystery Present so that at any moment I might let His new life come forth from me in a smile, a gesture, a prayer, a word, responding to his Presence in those around me. Make the new me He is shaping at every moment bubble forth with the joy of His Presence. Amen.


Tuesday, December 27, 2011


From Chapter XLIV: Book One
It is usually imagined that a thief, a murderer, a spy, a prostitute, acknowledging his or her profession as evil, is ashamed of it. But the contrary is true. People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. In order to keep up their view of life, these people instinctively keep to the circle of those people who share their views of life and their own place in it. This surprises us, where the persons concerned are thieves, bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murderers boasting of their cruelty. This surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere in which these people live, is limited, and we are outside it. But can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth, i.e., robbery; the commanders in the army pride themselves on victories, i.e., murder; and those in high places vaunt their power, i.e., violence? We do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people, only because the circle formed by them is more extensive, and we ourselves are moving inside of it.

From Chapter XIX: Book Two
The man on whom depended the easing of the fate of the Petersburg prisoners was an old General of repute--a baron of German descent, who, as it was said of him, had outlived his wits. He had received a profusion of orders, but only wore one of them, the Order of the White Cross. He had received this order, which he greatly valued, while serving in the Caucasus, because a number of Russian peasants, with their hair cropped, and dressed in uniform and armed with guns and bayonets, had killed at his command more than a thousand men who were defending their liberty, their homes, and their families. Later on he served in Poland, and there also made Russian peasants commit many different crimes, and got more orders and decorations for his uniform. Then he served somewhere else, and now that he was a weak, old man he had this position, which insured him a good house, an income and respect. He strictly observed all the regulations which were prescribed "from above," and was very zealous in the fulfilment of these regulations, to which he ascribed a special importance, considering that everything else in the world might be changed except the regulations prescribed "from above." His duty was to keep political prisoners, men and women, in solitary confinement in such a way that half of them perished in 10 years' time, some going out of their minds, some dying of consumption, some committing suicide by starving themselves to death, cutting their veins with bits of glass, hanging, or burning themselves to death.

The old General was not ignorant of this; it all happened within his knowledge; but these cases no more touched his conscience than accidents brought on by thunderstorms, floods, etc. These cases occurred as a consequence of the fulfilment of regulations prescribed "from above" by His Imperial Majesty. These regulations had to be carried out without fail, and therefore it was absolutely useless to think of the consequences of their fulfilment. The old General did not even allow himself to think of such things, counting it his patriotic duty as a soldier not to think of them for fear of getting weak in the carrying out of these, according to his opinion, very important obligations. Once a week the old General made the round of the cells, one of the duties of his position, and asked the prisoners if they had any requests to make. The prisoners had all sorts of requests. He listened to them quietly, in impenetrable silence, and never fulfilled any of their requests, because they were all in disaccord with the regulations.

From Chapter XXX: Book Two
He asked a very simple question: "Why, and with what right, do some people lock up, torment, exile, flog, and kill others, while they are themselves just like those whom they torment, flog, and kill?" And in answer he got deliberations as to whether human beings had free will or not. Whether signs of criminality could be detected by measuring the skulls or not. What part heredity played in crime. Whether immorality could be inherited. What madness is, what degeneration is, and what temperament is. How climate, food, ignorance, imitativeness, hypnotism, or passion act. What society is. What are its duties, etc., etc.

These disquisitions reminded him of the answer he once got from a little boy whom he met coming home from school. Nekhludoff asked him if he had learned his spelling.

"I have," answered the boy.

"Well, then, tell me, how do you spell 'leg'?

"A dog's leg, or what kind of leg?" the boy answered, with a sly look.

Answers in the form of new questions, like the boy's, was all Nekhludoff got in reply to his one primary question. He found much that was clever, learned much that was interesting, but what he did not find was an answer to the principal question: By what right some people punish others?

Not only did he not find any answer, but all the arguments were brought forward in order to explain and vindicate punishment, the necessity of which was taken as an axiom. Nekhludoff read much, but only in snatches, and putting down his failure to this superficial way of reading, hoped to find the answer later on. He would not allow himself to believe in the truth of the answer which began, more and more often, to present itself to him.

From Chapter XL: Part Two
"Perhaps it is necessary to pave the banks with stones, but it is sad to look at the ground, which might be yielding corn, grass, bushes, or trees in the same way as the ground visible up there is doing--deprived of vegetation, and so it is with men," thought Nekhludoff. "Perhaps these governors, inspectors, policemen, are needed, but it is terrible to see men deprived of the chief human attribute, that of love and sympathy for one another. The thing is," he continued, "that these people consider lawful what is not lawful, and do not consider the eternal, immutable law, written in the hearts of men by God, as law. That is why I feel so depressed when I am with these people. I am simply afraid of them, and really they are terrible, more terrible than robbers. A robber might, after all, feel pity, but they can feel no pity, they are inured against pity as these stones are against vegetation. That is what makes them terrible. It is said that the Pougatcheffs, the Razins [leaders of rebellions in Russia: Stonka Razin in the 17th and Pougatcheff in the 18th century] are terrible. These are a thousand times more terrible," he continued, in his thoughts.

"If a psychological problem were set to find means of making men of our time--Christian, humane, simple, kind people--perform the most horrible crimes without feeling guilty, only one solution could be devised: to go on doing what is being done. It is only necessary that these people should he governors, inspectors, policemen; that they should be fully convinced that there is a kind of business, called government service, which allows men to treat other men as things, without human brotherly relations with them, and also that these people should be so linked together by this government service that the responsibility for the results of their actions should not fall on any one of them separately. Without these conditions, the terrible acts I witnessed to-day would be impossible in our times. It all lies in the fact that men think there are circumstances in which one may deal with human beings without love; and there are no such circumstances. One may deal with things without love. One may cut down trees, make bricks, hammer iron without love; but you cannot deal with men without it, just as one cannot deal with bees without being careful. If you deal carelessly with bees you will injure them, and will yourself be injured. And so with men. It cannot be otherwise, because natural love is the fundamental law of human life. It is true that a man cannot force another to love him, as he can force him to work for him; but it does not follow that a man may deal with men without love, especially to demand anything from them. If you feel no love, sit still," Nekhludoff thought; "occupy yourself with things, with yourself, with anything you like, only not with men. You can only eat without injuring yourself when you feel inclined to eat, so you can only deal with men usefully when you love. Only let yourself deal with a man without love, as I did yesterday with my brother-in-law, and there are no limits to the suffering you will bring on yourself, as all my life proves. Yes, yes, it is so," thought Nekhludoff; "it is good; yes, it is good," he repeated, enjoying the freshness after the torturing heat, and conscious of having attained to the fullest clearness on a question that had long occupied him.


Sunday, December 25, 2011


First, you have to understand the kind of family I come from.

You know how most people in a “gift exchange” set a maximum, as in, say, Nothing over 50 bucks? Well in my family we set a minimum. Come ON, you have to fork out at least 5...

Well when I was married there used to be this great store up on La Brea Avenue near Fountain called Bargain Circus. Russians ran it, and they had all kinds of great "specialty foods" for dirt cheap. So every Christmas my ex-husband Tim and I would take separate trips there and buy a big bag apiece of food and wrap the stuff up for our stockings. It was a blast, especially as we both liked to cook. We bought regular presents, too, but we also did the stockings first, and it was really the best part of Christmas morning. 

Well one year we got invited for Christmas dinner to some friends of Tim's who lived in Beverly Hills. The guy was in real estate, very nice couple, but with money obviously. So we get over there and the guy had bought his wife a diamond tennis bracelet and she'd bought him a Mercedes SUV, and after awhile they asked, "So what did YOU two get each other?"

"Oh all kinds of things!” I replied eagerly. “A tin of anchovies. A bottle of capers. A box of kasha"....

Silence. Finally, the husband said, "Kasha?"  

"Oh that's not all," I assured him. "Then there was the small stuff."


Friday, December 23, 2011



One Christmas morning several years ago, at my old apartment in Koreatown, I woke in the dark, as I tend to do this time of year, and sat for a bit, basking in the little colored lights and drinking coffee. The furniture was dusted, the mirrors polished, the floors vacuumed. There were long red tapers on either side of the fireplace and a 138-dollar standing rib roast in the fridge.  Christian, the friend I’d commandeered to cook the meat—and of course stay for dinner—would arrive in a few hours. Ten were coming to dinner and it was all going to work out perfectly.

First, though, I had to bake my pear cake, so I finished my coffee, pre-heated the oven to 350, and began assembling the ingredients. Suddenly I realized I should have been feeling a current of warm air. I pressed my hand against the glass of the oven door: ice cold. The pilot was lit, but no gas was flowing in.  I opened the warming oven and fooled around with the little red button: no dice. I fooled around with the knob: no dice. I took the shelves out of the oven and tried to light the oven manually, no dice. I called the gas company, where the woman who answered told me I could make a repair appointment for January 5th. I took a deep breath, walked very slowly into the living room, sat down on the couch, and put my head in my hands.

After awhile I got up. I tried the landlord and my ex-husband: no answer. The stove was an old O’Keefe and Merritt gas range, so I started googling: O’Keefe and Merritt, gas oven troubleshooting, gas oven won’t light. All that came up was a bunch of complicated diagrams, so I waited till 7 and called Christian. “Why don’t I just bring the stuff up here?” Christian sighed. So he angelically drove down and we hauled everything out to his car: the 14-pound roast, the potatoes, garlic, carrots, mushrooms, parsnips and turnips, the baster, the beef broth.

What of my pear cake, though? The one with the caramelized brown sugar “crust,” the hint of corn meal?   I called my friend Joe, another prospective guest, to report the hideous turn events had taken. “Come on up,” he said. “We’ll cook it at my place.”

One challenge remained: the Yorkshire pudding, which was to be cooked at the last minute and presented at the table. I called my downstairs neighbor Emil but having already helped decorate my apartment, he was holiday-compassioned-out and snapped (which I knew was a lie), “My oven’s broken, too”. Everyone else in the compound was out of town except Oscar. I called and pleaded, “Do you think I could use your oven for twenty minutes later this afternoon?” Oscar’s apartment, I happened to know, was packed to the rafters with bird cages, tapestries, chandeliers. “Hold on, Miss Heather,” he replied. “I’ll have to take out all the stuff I have stored in there and see if it works,” he replied.

There were more snafus. I overbaked the cake. One guest called to say she’d had a panic attack and been hospitalized. By the time Christian had hauled down the roast and the Yorkshire pudding had been cooked—in Oscar's  oven—dinner was two hours late.

But in the end, things all worked out. We lit every candle in the house. We had a toast. Everything was delicious, or delicious enough. The anxiety has faded. What remains is the memory that my plan got derailed, but that there was another plan; that things almost fell apart, but miraculously came together.

I wonder if Mary and Joseph didn’t feel the same way, gazing down at the baby Jesus in the manger—which, after all, means “to eat.”

GIOTTO, c. 1300
Thank you, thank you all, for your readership, reflections, comments, and LOVE!!!
May a child be perpetually reborn in each of us...
I'm cooking again Sunday--
And Merry Christmas 2011...

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Twice now--once for five days in the fall of 2007, and last year, for roughly the month of July--I've spent time with contemplative Jeanne McNulty at the Franciscan Appalachian Hermitage in Spencer, West Virginia.

Sr. Jeanne rents out cabins for twenty bucks a night and has a straw bale chapel that houses the Blessed Sacrament and is an all-around good egg/woman-of-deep-faith/treasure. 

I wrote about last year's stay in a previous post

The other day, I received Sr. Jeanne's annual Christmas card. I was in a bit of a jumpy, nasty mood and this card brought me right around. So with her permission, I pass on the first couple of paragraphs and if you're ever in Spencer, check out the Hermitage. 

The donkey drawing is by William Kurelek (who was schizophrenic and entitled one of his most well-known paintings I Spit on Life) and comes from a Christmas card that was designed years ago for Catherine de Hueck Doherty's Madonna House

"The donkey that carried Our Lady to Bethlehem took another form in my thoughts.  For he carried the Word-a dumb animal, carrying a Virgin

who carried God…" (Catherine Daugherty) Dec. 2011

Merry Christmas !

This picture captures so much mystery:  the silence, the profundity, the obscurity and the simplicity of God's descent to human kind.  I think that the picture too speaks of journeying thru the desolate places and many of us have been on long lifetime journeys now.  We've crossed over many peaks and valleys and have felt the comforting, guiding hand of Providence in our lives.  We've seen God's wonderful "past performance" and marveled at it.  We are enabled to pass this "Good News" forward with confidence to the others who are finding their life journeys difficult.

There is not a desert here but there is a pathway through the wilderness and all of nature seems to just be waiting for His second coming to our barren earth.  I try to stay away from all the busyness of the stores and the let the silence penetrate the depths of my being while I hold in my heart before the Lord, all my relatives, friends and all those who have crossed the threshold of this "little portion" on retreat.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


These are some shots I took the other morning as I walked through my 'hood of Silver Lake, California.

When I first moved to L.A., I believed poinsettias only grew in ten-inch plastic pots wrapped in red or gold tinfoil. No indeedy! They are an actual tree which you tend to see growing in old-fashioned yards in and about the Southland. As you can see, they are beautiful, and to confine them to a tiny pot veers toward sacrilege.




Monday, December 19, 2011


"When we demand satisfaction of one another, when we demand any completion to history on our terms, when we demand that our anxiety or any dissatisfaction be taken away, saying as it were, “Why weren’t you this for me?  Why didn’t life do that for me?” we are refusing to say, “Come, Lord Jesus.”  We are refusing to hold out for the full picture that is always given in time by God.

When we set out to seek our private happiness, we often create an idol that is sure to topple.  Any attempts to protect any full and private happiness in the midst of so much public suffering have to be based on illusion about the nature of the world in which we live.  We can only do that if we block ourselves from a certain degree of reality and refuse solidarity with “the other side” of everything, even the other side of ourselves."

--Adapted from Preparing for Christmas with Richard Rohr

L.A. sunsets in December tend toward sapphire and apricot. The mornings are cold--the grass wet, the flagstones slippery with dew. The farmer's markets feature orange persimmons, earthy sweet potatoes, acorn squash with leathery skin the color of evergreen trees. Front yards burst with creamy, lush roses, drooping clusters of scarlet toyon berries, bougainvillea--magenta, fuchsia, imperial purple--flaming so brightly the blooms seem to be lit from within.

It’s 5 a.m. and dead quiet, an hour in which it is easy to imagine the whole city holding its breath. Blue Christmas lights—one rogue pink replacement bulb calling to mind my own imperfections—frame the window behind my chair. Two black pottery angels from Oaxaca hold beeswax candles. The branches of the Brazilian pepper tree rustle and the pewter sky lightens slowly to peach. The garbage truck pulls up and I hear the grinding of gears, the wheeze of the claw, the contents of the upended trash container being poured into the truck’s maw. In another hour, the cat will cry for his breakfast.
I open my breviary. I seek your face; your face, Lord, I desire. In the gathering dawn, I sit, bathed in the shadowy blue light, and wait.


Saturday, December 17, 2011


"Human nature is so constituted that it must have something holy that it can worship, otherwise it becomes cramped and distorted and instead of a holy object of veneration something else will take its place. I ought to know for I have just emerged from a murderous dialogue with such a self-appointed object of veneration. These substitute values are far more autocratic and demanding than the living God himself. They have no idea of courtesy or of waiting their turn, or of the blissful encounter, of voluntary persuasion, of gracious appeal. All they know is demand, compulsion, force, threats and liquidation. And woe to anyone who does not conform…

The cliché, the label, the uniform, the slogan, the ‘dominant trend of the masses’—these are our rulers. And pity the man who dares to differ, to proclaim his own thoughts or use his own name.

Prayer is our way to freedom and education in the method of prayer is the most valuable service that can be given to mankind. It makes it possible for the temple and the altar to occupy again their rightful place and for humanity to humble itself and measure its responsibilities in the name of God."

--Father Alfred Delp, S.J., condemned, beaten, imprisoned, and executed by the Nazis for the crime of being a Jesuit

Friday, December 16, 2011


The priest at St. Dominic’s observed last night at Mass that Advent is a penitential season.

I knew just what he meant.

I refer to the penance of bearing with my own shortcomings, chief among them trying to be all things to all people and sometimes ending up not being very much to myself or others. In order to be the right kind of martyr (which means “witness”), you have to stop being the wrong kind of martyr. I, for one, constantly have to discern between stretching myself as far as I can go, which I believe we are called to do, and contorting myself, which I don’t think we’re called to do. 

This has everything to do with the suffering of the world at large. Because we are called to love one another as he loved us, and Christ himself was always the right kind of martyr. He frequently told people who wanted to follow him, No, go along back home, you’ll bear more fruit there. He frequently ducked away from the crowds to go to a lonely place to pray.

My spiritual director tells me “You are never the person of last resort.” For us hyper-responsible or at least hyper-guilty types, that's a bitter pill to swallow.  

With all that, I have not, thank the Lord, "overdone" Christmas.

My holiday activities to date have comprised a Messiah sing-along, a tamale-making party, and a play. Other than that, I have steeped myself in Advent liturgy and prayer, trudged in the dark and the cold to Mass, and spent large parts it seems of every night awake on my bed , pondering the birth of Christ.

Wednesday afternoon I’m going to my friend Julia’s for tea and cookies, Christmas day I’m cooking for my friends. Other than that, I intend to spend the Fourth Week of Advent in as much silence and solitude as I can.

The Holy Family was born into darkness and exile and so it remains.

Thank you all for the light you bring to me.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


On a cross-country road trip several years ago, I took a 400-mile detour to a museum in Shelburne, Vermont.

I wanted to see an exhibit of the work of an African-American woman named Effie Mae Howard (1936-2006): a recluse who’d had a mental breakdown, begun making quilts, shown her work under the pseudonym Rosie Lee Tompkins, and recently died.

“The reason [the work] makes me feel so good is that I put Christ in the center of it,” Tompkins had said and, from the photos, her quilts—abstract, off-kilter, geometric, saturated with color—were stunning and original pieces of art. I’d first read of Tompkins earlier in the year, and upon learning that the museum was mounting an exhibit, I'd determined, come hell or high water, to make time to see it.

Why did it seem so important to see the work of a person who, according to one review, had “suffered a nervous breakdown in the late 1970s, and thereafter was plagued by voices in her head and the sense that she was being watched”?

First, because by all accounts Tompkins’ quilts were sublime. But also because that we bend over our work even when we’re in pain matters. That we’re faithful to the call of our hearts even though nobody notices or cares, and we’re not making any money, and the suffering continues, matters.

People consider it a badge of honor to describe themselves as countercultural—which usually means they’re listening to Eckhart Tolle as they cut you off in their SUV—but I’ll tell you what’s countercultural. Anonymity is countercultural (Tompkins had not allowed herself to be photographed, tape-recorded, or quoted). Losing your mind and taking up quilt-making is countercultural. Anything that’s done for the glory of God, not ourselves, is countercultural.

So I would take my little stand. I would drive 200 miles each way to honor the fact that Rosie Lee Tompkins had anonymously threaded her needle, and taken thousands of tiny stitches, and made her explosive, crazy, glorious quilts.

The drive was destined to take place during a torrential, torrential downpour, past pizza shops and ice cream stands and white-steepled churches; past the Kokopelli Inn and Pelkey’s Blueberries and a sign saying “Free Stuff.” The rain slashed down so hard, and I was so exhausted, that I almost turned around. But I kept thinking of Rosie Lee Tompkins, who, from odds and ends of fabric, buttons, rickrack, sequins, lace, had fashioned a whole strange, mystical existence.

When I finally arrived, The Shelburne transpired to be situated on 45 acres of grounds and feature, among other things, a Blacksmith Shop, a weaving cottage, the Vermont Settlers House-Cabin; a textile section, a Shaker exhibit, American and Impressionist Paintings, collections of dollhouses, glassware and ceramics. I bypassed all that, walked through what seemed like miles of nasturtiums, roses, and sere cornstalks, and went straight to “Something Pertaining to God: The Patchwork Art of Rosie Lee Tompkins.”

I saw at once that the exhibit was worth the long drive. The whole trip would have been worthwhile for a single quilt: “Hit and Miss Strip,” a 73” by 112” work consisting of irregularly-sized pieces of black and blood-red velvet—squares, triangles—sewn together in jagged, improvisational blocks and rows. The quilt gave the effect of a cross without actually depicting a cross; an effect of controlled chaos, of a pattern, but one that shifted and morphed. Nothing lined up but the pieces all went together. Barely-contained…Sorrow? Love? Grief? Erotic energy. I didn’t know, but she “got” it. I’d felt the same way when I first heard Stan Getz’s “People Time.” Richness, complexity, depth, and a ton of pain.

In addition to quilts, the exhibit included, among other items, table runners, chair cushions, clothing, and a pillow cover of a stained-glass window featuring a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus wearing a rosette-studded pink robe. Tompkins had eventually covered just about everything in her house with patchwork, often embroidering on her name, her birthday—9-6-36—and various Bible verses.

Her pieces had been hailed by art critics, featured in museums nationwide, described as the best “painting” in the 2002 Whitney Biennial, but she had never achieved the tranquility she sought. She came to believe that her phone was tapped. She felt that people were watching and listening, as if she lived in “a glass house.” She draped one whole wall of her bedroom with appliquéd crosses, hoping to ward off the voices, but to no avail. In spite of her torment, she had continued, up till the time of her death, to sew.

“I think it’s because I love them so much,” Tompkins speculated, “that God let me see all these different colors.”

this quilt is by Lola Ruiz (,
inspired by Rosie Lee Tompkins