Tuesday, January 31, 2012



You've met my brothers Joe and Allen. You've met my brother Geordie. 

No let me introduce my brother Ross, who is a teacher back East, has several masters' degrees (one from Fuller Theological Seminary here in Pasadena), and is the father of the multi-talented, uber resourceful Allen, who we are all banking on to support us in our old age, i.e. as soon as he turns 16 in three years and can get a job.

He, Ross that is, is also thoughtful, insightful, generous, kind, a man of God, and an all-around good egg, as are all my brothers.

This is the beautiful response he wrote to my post of last week re our mother, aging, death, and existential loneliness. 

"Dear Heather,

I agree with what one reader wrote in response: "don't tinker with a thing." Each paragraph is a mini-essay in itself. Here is one. "We carry in our bodies a whole range of wounds, of hurt, of loneliness, of the continual daily onslaught of tiny slights and insults, of guilt for the slights and insults we impose on others. If you’re single, you carry the added weight, the secret shame, of knowing that that you are first in no-one’s heart. You walk the earth with billions of other people and you are first in no-one’s heart…As you age, I’m finding, what also comes up is a primal fear of appearing to be debilitated, weak, in need of help; a deep primordial limbic terror of being cast out of the herd and left to die, alone…"

Great food for thought! I love how you were able to tie up so many loose ends of your relationship with mom and vice versa, especially those bottled up feelings, some of which Mom struggled to release. I come away from your poignant and insightful blog entry convinced of the importance of openly sharing one's feelings--in all their dimensions--as we live life. To put it simply, it's okay to express anger, frustration, sadness, fear; it's okay to express joy, passion, happiness. It's okay to express our needs--for touch, for connection, for intimacy, for honesty. It's okay to admit to ourselves, as you do so eloquently, our vulnerabilities, our weaknesses, our mistakes, our doubts, our questions.

You mention paradox, and I believe, as you do , that this is an essential understanding if one is to grow spiritually. There is so much paradox in our walk with God. One of them is to realize, as your reflections help remind us, that no human love or touch can replace the infinitely more comprehensive and enduring love of God. The sorts of understanding you help us reflect on, as fellow sojourners with you, are focused on the importance of trying to understand ourselves...what is it that is behind our individual and collective pain, as human beings?

There is paradox in wanting to be first in someone's heart. Because while we all seem to want to feel that sensation, the greatest of all commandments, according to Jesus, are that we love God (the One who the psalmist intuited "knit us together in our mother's womb") with all our heart, mind, and strength; and that we love our neighbor as ourselves. Your writings help us remember to keep that in mind, and your writings also remind us of the many ways we deceive ourselves when we attempt to live life apart from God, when we don't keep trying to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps this need to be first in someone's heart can be more accurately understood as a need for connection. I keep coming back to that word "connection" lately. How about you? This life that we've been given is not some sort of cosmic coincidence. There must be some reason we are here. I believe that Jesus' life, ministry, and mission point us to what life is like and what our best response should be. Jesus showed in myriad ways that life is full of pain; it isn't fair. Jesus implies that there are many ways we deceive ourselves into thinking we truly love when we only concern ourselves with our "mate", (it's interesting that Jesus wasn't married). Jesus reminds us that we are to love as he loved, and that one's title, education, and socioeconomic status do not cut us any of us slack from the Jordan River call to repent.

While we want to be first in someone's heart, Jesus implied that we humans we miss the point when we do that. I believe that the higher connection, the stronger and more permanent--more authentic and sincere one-- is to seek to be connected to God. When we seek the God connection, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we will discover that we are connected to others, far more than we could ever imagine. That's a sensation which fills our whole being (heart, soul, body) with the love we truly seek; that's perhaps the "truth" that Jesus implied would "set us free. One of Jesus' key teachings, (and we as humans do ourselves a huge disservice, when we fail to learn from it), was to teach us that being born (physically) is one thing; being born anew spiritually is another.After all, "No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." (John 3:3).

There is a paradox here we all must answer; one which you hint at is reflected in that human desire to be "first in someone's heart." Perhaps the mistake we make as humans comes from the effort to be "first in someone's heart" in the first place. Maybe Jesus mission involved trying to show us this erroneous thinking through his life and ministry- plunging the depths of human sinfulness by going to the cross on our behalf, calling out to and depending on God (Creator) in the process of dying and resurrection.

I believe we all need touch--there's nothing wrong with admitting it. You are wise to go the the masseuse. Even Jesus received touch. I am thinking of the woman who anointed his feet with her tears and with expensive perfume, drying his feet with her hair (in Luke, ch. 7) Since Jesus was from a culture where foot washing was common and he washed the disciples feet, touch was not something foreign to those who lived at the time and place. It's unfortunate we live in a culture where touch is such a "touchy subject" (no pun intended); it is seen as either taboo or on the opposite extreme as something which should have almost no limits and which can be exploited for profit. I believe that the affirmation that comes from giving and receiving hugs is closest to the kind of touch Jesus modeled in the washing of the disciples feet. It's a touch God knows we need, and it's interesting to note that Jesus calls on the disciples to wash one another's feet.

So, I applaud you, Heather, for your insights into life, your profound reflections on the trip to the massage shop, and for your honesty. Your insights about life are reflective of what Henri Nouwen wrote towards the end of his book The Inner Voice of Love: "What seemed such a curse has become a blessing. All the agony that threatened to destroy my life now seems like fertile ground for greater trust, stronger hope, and deeper love."

Peace and Power to you this day, and always,


No, no, that's our beloved Ross on the LEFT...

Sunday, January 29, 2012


On the way back to L.A. from Palm Springs a few weeks ago I stopped in at the West Covina Ikea and bought myself a $39.99 Helmer drawer unit on casters.

This might not seem like an event to you but about...oh, twelve years ago, I ventured into the Ikea in Burbank and was so brutally, cruelly traumatized by the experience that even now I quail at the memory. Ever since I have told myself I am just not the kind of person who can hack going to Ikea, I am not the kind of person who can deal with crowds, I am not the kind of person who likes airplane-hangar sized stores, I am not the kind of person who is able to stand in line, and though I probably could be the kind of person who put together a drawer unit, just in case I'm not, I really don't want to find out.

The next weekend, I got out my Phillips screwdriver, spread the parts out on the floor, and spent an absorbing couple of hours putting the thing together. I did run into a small snafu when I found that five drawers fit and what was left were two huge gaps on the bottom and top, one the height of a third of a drawer and the other the height of two-thirds of a drawer. But I did not qualify for the Winnacunnet High School Mathletes for nothing (qualified, but did not join, preferring field hockey). I quickly saw I'd installed the runners upside down, righted the situation, and now I have all the stuff that was in bowls and baskets and bins cluttering my desk in my  red Helmer cabinet!

Funny how a little thing like re-arranging your desk can open up whole new vistas.

The next day I drove over to the Autry Museum and was mesmerized by the Native American blankets and basketry.

sorry, I forgot my camera and had to use my phone...
ELIZABETH HICKOX (Karuk/Wiyot), c. 1913
this is a hat!

Wuzzie George, a Northern Paiute who wove especially beautiful baskets, lived near the Carson Desert outside Reno, Nevada.


Basketmaking is a whole way of life, taking into account native plants, geography, geology and weather, the changing of the seasons, and the surrounding wildlife. The preparation alone--gathering, splitting, drying, bundling--can take weeks. Controlled burns were sometimes used to encourage the growth of a particular crop of grasses or reeds. The designs were incredibly sophisticated and it is hard to imagine the focus required to bring one of these works of art (many of which they used in their daily routine) to life.

The craft of basketweaving is still alive and well. A woman in one of the videos reported that the Native Americans ask the plants--the reeds, and sumacs, and juncus and redbuds--permission to pick them. And they say thank you afterwards...


Ireland (Green domination)...contemplative 
Thank you so much, for taking time to reply to so many, and to me also...hahaha...you get full-time job...free, voluntarily or not that might be also a matter of destiny...just joking now. It is crazy situation all over world regarding employments, jobs, getting payed for work or not. Anyway  it is easier to think globally when it comes to that type of reality . I didn't meant to speak about that at all.

Just wanted to thank you and to tell you that people can see, read, recognize your goodness, it is so tangible. You got such a good bunch of readers there, they making jokes even of themselves, and similar. I've noticed that many highlighted your 'Confession' regarding couple of 'soul-mate's attacks' on you. And then yours readers commented so funny even when it comes to so touchy topic that we all should review amongst. Please, feel totally, but totally free with replying(not) on my emails, posts, anything...

Regarding Church....Oh I love Her...LOVE Church...that is us in the Most High order, under that High order...Church is blessed straight from the Cross: "Mother (women) here is your son. Son here is your mother." (John 19, 27). Despite and with the Cross and when on the cross I love Church. I just want to be (trust)worthy of my life. To attract other to the real life. To the Truth. Not many are lovers of the truth. 

You really have fine readers and they just enjoy your different way of expression, your sense of humor, picturesqueness...simplicity...quickness...

I love to read, enjoy, cry, find my self in poetry...but I can not write poems. I'd like to be able to express myself, my feelings and to burst, sometimes in verses. But they are too high for me to reach them...need to wait eternity, I suppose... to express them...
Please do not mind me...    
i hope your mum is going to be alright. I'll remember her in my prayers.
Thank you
and  ignore me, not a bother at all,

me in betvven... 
Medjugorje-youth festival, July 2011...amazing event... 

Stana divides her time between Ireland and Medjugorje, in the southern part of Bosnia Herzegovina.

Thursday, January 26, 2012


ME, AGE 5,

Monday afternoon I drove to downtown L.A., just north of Cesar Chavez Avenue in Chinatown and got myself a $20 foot massage. I can’t adequately describe how foreign the notion a massage of any kind is to my Yankee, thrifty upbringing. My Calvinist impulse when in pain is to push harder, work more, soldier through. That’s what my father, a bricklayer did; that’s what my mother (to eight kids) did. Only lately have I allowed myself to realize my entire body is killing me; even then, I'd had to gradually, slowly work up to the idea of "treating" myself to a (low-end) foot massage.

To compensate for this unseemly pampering I’d parked a half mile away, even though it was raining: partly so as to avoid paying for parking, partly because I've come to like building a little penance into my pleasure. The fact is I enjoyed walking in the drizzle through the deserted streets of Chinatown: the pastry shops, the dim sum palaces, the noodles joints, the parking lot attendants sitting on soda shop stools surveying their realms, the workman squatting against a storefront on the sidewalk with a delicious-looking Styrofoam container of grease-slicked roast duck and rice, the skyscrapers of downtown looming in the mist...

Foot massage in L.A. is a term of art, an hour-long affair that includes a neck, back, shoulder and leg rub. The place was about what you’d expect for 20 bucks, no more, no less; dim lights, clean enough, tiny rooms, muslin, bamboo, sitar Musack. First I got to soak my feet in a tub of nice warm water while “Lisa” did my neck and back, and then I got to recline in a big old comfy towel-covered chair while she knelt and did my legs and then my feet. Almost as soon as she started on my calves, I began crying. When you are never touched, to have someone touch you, someone who doesn’t want anything and is coming from a basic place of warmth unleashes, for me anyway, a cascade of emotions. That you can walk through the anonymous streets of a city and through a particular door and someone will invite you to take off your shoes and socks and will then touch you, will not shame you, will not ask you to give an account of yourself, will not be--or at least not act--repulsed, is really, I have to say, kind of poignant.

We carry in our bodies a whole range of wounds, of hurt, of loneliness, of the continual daily onslaught of tiny slights and insults, of guilt for the slights and insults we impose on others. If you’re single, you carry the added weight, the secret shame, of knowing that that you are first in no-one’s heart. You walk the earth with billions of other people and you are first in no-one’s heart…As you age, I’m finding, what also comes up is a primal fear of appearing to be debilitated, weak, in need of help; a deep primordial limbic terror of being cast out of the herd and left to die, alone…

I've somewhat come to terms with all that, though, and what I was really thinking of as Lisa worked over my deteriorating-in-various ways-at-the-moment feet was my mother. Mom’s in a home in Dover, New Hampshire with Alzheimer’s. She’s been in the same second-floor corner room for four years, quite proud that she can still navigate the stairs; insistently, even defiantly (that's my Mom!),  refusing to use a walker. But she’s been failing, as we do. Mom, the most fastidious person I know, has been having trouble cleaning herself. Mom, who put her whole life on hold to sit by the metaphorical telephone, to be on call in case someone needed her, can no longer hear the phone ringing, even though it's two feet away. “Well hello there,” she’ll say to my brother Geordie, who lives closest by and bears the brunt of visiting, accompanying to doctor’s visits, decision-making. “She knows I’m friend, not foe,” he’ll report, “but that’s about it. She greets me about the way she would the plumber”…

Mom took a little fall on the stairs recently, plus she’s started getting belligerent (also wildly out of character: Mom’s stubborn but she’s also extremely meek), and the short of it is that last week the people at the home made her move in downstairs, next to the nurse’s station, WITH A ROOMMATE (94-year-old Hannah, bless her heart). I can’t really describe how very much my mother 1) resists change and 2) is not a roommate person. We all thought she’d freak; instead, and this may be a measure of her diminishment: she didn’t blink an eye. Expressed initial surprise—“Why didn’t you tell me yesterday?”—and then went meekly, happily along. So far, so good, for which we are grateful.

Still—it’s my mother. I'm her firstborn and it's my mother. All week I’d been thinking of the passage, “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands and another will gird you and carry you where you did not wish to go” [John 21:18].

And here in this dim massage room, with not a soul in the world except Lisa knowing where I was, I thought of a story someone had recently told me about when she’d been in rehab. She said her roommate had been a burn victim, a fellow alcoholic who’d tried to fry a hamburger one night when she was drunk and her dress had caught fire and she'd been too wasted to extinguish the flames or call 9-1-1 and had sustained third-degree burns over half her body. And this woman would lie there with a pillow over her mouth in rehab and scream and scream and scream. The pillow muffled it more or less but it was a terrible haunting wrenching sound. And finally this woman who was telling the story had said, “Is there something I can do? Are you all right?” And the burn victim woman said, “Yeah, I’m okay. I’m screaming now because I was afraid if I screamed in the hospital, they wouldn’t take care of me.”

I was afraid if I screamed, they wouldn’t take care of me. Isn’t that on some level the wound we all carry? I thought of my mother, raised on a Rhode Island chicken farm during the Depression with a mother who literally went days without saying a word, and a father who up and left one day when my mother was 13, never to return, only to surface years later with a new, second family. I felt how she was maybe afraid to scream all her life because, even remaining silent, they hadn’t taken care of her. I thought how when your whole psyche has been formed by neglect and abandonment, you are maybe subconsciously afraid that your own child will reject you--and how, in many ways, I had. I thought about all the people I have been hurt by in my life who couldn’t or wouldn’t get closer and how maybe they were exercising a superhuman amount of courage and heart to let themselves get as close as they did.

I thought of how like my mother, I am so not a roommate person and yet, a year and a half ago, and due to our current Depression, I’d gotten a roommate, too...

“She still reads a little,” Geordie had said. “I don’t know how much she absorbs, but she had The Wind in the Willows out the other day.” I thought of how, last year, I too, had re-read The Wind in the Willows (“Ratty, please, I want to row!), even going so far as to read a biography of author Kenneth Grahame—whose mother died when he was five, whose father was an alcoholic, who made an unhappy marriage, and whose only child, a son nicknamed Mouse, had been emotionally troubled all his life and committed suicide at the age of twenty by throwing himself under a train.

I thought of how Geordie had told me, “She has two books by her bed, the Bible and Parched”--my first memoir. Could any daughter, any writer, hope for a greater tribute? I thought “In the beginning was the Word” and of how, before I'd been able to find my way to an actual church, books were the closest thing to a church I had. I thought of how my mother had wanted to be a writer and how in a way I became one for her. I thought of all the time in my life I had spent thinking, If only my mother had hugged me, if only my mother had told me I was pretty, if only my mother had …and how, on the cusp of turning sixty, I had  finally come to realize that of all the mothers in the world, I got the perfect one, the only one, the best one. The one who had taught me to love books and silence and trees, whose secret sorrows and wounds I had absorbed through my DNA, who I been afraid to scream in front of all my life because I was afraid she wouldn’t take care of me but who had taken care of me, I saw now, had taken care of me and loved me and seen what was good in me and guided me toward what was important as no-one else could have.

I made no sound, though my face was wet with tears. I felt her--forever first in my heart, as our mothers somehow always are--in my bones and blood and aching muscles, I felt her across the miles and the years, I felt her--the person who had known me longer than anyone on earth, though she no longer recognized me--before I’d ever been born and after we both died.  I thought of how maybe the deepest cry of our hearts, no matter how old we are, if we are stripped right down to the bone, is “Mummy! Mummy!”…

“Do you want some hot tea?” Lisa asked afterward but that would have been too much intimacy, too much indulgence maybe, so I said no, but thank you so much, and got dressed, and left.

It was raining harder now and I pulled my coat around me a little tighter and put on my scarf. Homeless people were sleeping on the side of Cesar Chavez, huddled in damp sleeping bags, their belongings getting soaked. I walked in the rain over to Grand Street and up to the Colburn School of Music, where I’d attended a student recital the night before, to retrieve the copy of Charles Péguy's The Portal of the Mystery of Hope I'd inadvertently left behind. In the preface, French theologian Jean Bastaire notes: “[A]s it is expressed by the ‘puer eternus’ [eternal child] of the collective unconscious, there exists a connection between childhood and resurrection, and Hope brings the grace that we anticipate from Easter.”

Sunday, January 22, 2012


Der Pharisäer und der Zöllner,
oil on cardboard

He spoke also this parable to certain people who were convinced of their own righteousness, and who despised all others. "Two men went up into the temple to pray; one was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed to himself like this: 'God, I thank you, that I am not like the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing far away, wouldn't even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted" [Luke 18:9-14].

I have always loved the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, mainly because I like to think I'm the humble tax collector but really most of the time I'm a terrible, terrible Pharisee. So we get to constantly examine ourselves and at the same time, we do get to evaluate--not judge, but evaluate--others. Christ himself, after all, said, "Beware of false prophets" [Matthew 7:15]. To that end, and in light of my own continuing and egregious self-righteousness, here are just a few instances where we might find our way toward distinguishing between the two stances. I'm sure you can come up with more! 

PHARISEE: Uses conversion, stance on a particular issue, or religious affiliation as a marketing tool.
TAX COLLECTOR:  Brushes hands free of contact with a bribe. Believes work should rise, fall, find its way to the world, and/or glorify God based on its excellence and on its truth. 

PHARISEE: Why can’t everyone act like me?
TAX COLLECTOR: Why can’t even one person--namely, me--act like Christ?

PHARISEE: Crusades.
TAX COLLECTOR: Surrenders.

PHARISEE: Believes in winning.
TAX COLLECTOR: Believes in miracles.

PHARISEE: Trumpets a cause.
TAX COLLECTOR: Lives mystery.

PHARISEE: Instead of conceding that people are capable of having different experiences, is “disappointed,” “puzzled,” and “hurt” because your experience is different than theirs.
TAX COLLECTOR: Doesn’t waste time trying to talk people out of their experiences; is too busy, absorbed, and joyful contemplating own experience.

PHARISEE: Proclaims.

PHARISEE: Insists on having last word.
TAX COLLECTOR: Believes Christ is the Word.

PHARISEE: Mistakes pushiness, blowhardism, and the imposition of unworked-through emotional and sexual wounds on others for courage.
TAX COLLECTOR: Believes courage consists in doing the footwork and leaving the results/fruit (if any) to God.  

PHARISEE: Has an attitude of, It’s hard hard work, spreading the Gospel, but someone has to do it.
TAX COLLECTOR: Has an attitude of, What a gift I’m allowed to do whatever little I do! 

PHARISEE: Mistakes others’ entirely reasonable dislike of aggression for intolerance.
TAX COLLECTOR: Recognizes hideous tendency toward aggression in self and constantly tries to do better.

PHARISEE: Speaks frequently, and insufferably, of willingness to suffer persecution.
TAX COLLECTOR: Quietly suffers actual persecution, poverty, loneliness. Would die rather than draw attention to it.

TAX COLLECTOR: Playful, joyful, has sense of humor, especially about self.

TAX COLLECTOR: Minds own bidnis.

PHARISEE: Threatens.

PHARISEE: Leaves anonymous critical/hate comments on other people’s blogs.
TAX COLLECTOR: Prays for people who leave anonymous critical/hate comments on other people’s blogs.

PHARISEE: Accuses people with a difference of opinion (especially if the differing opinion is toward merciful, expansive, paradoxical, explosively astonishing God) of heresy.
TAX COLLECTOR: Accuses self of hard-heartedness, pride, and, when appropriate, error.

PHARISEE: Continually attacks Catholic "credentials" by dissecting, questioning and twisting the stance of another on a particular point of Church doctrine or dogma.
TAX COLLECTOR: While quietly strictly adhering to Church teachings in own life, and utterly orthodox in belief and practice, sees "credentials" of  a follower of Christ as being purity of heart, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, turning the other cheek, doing to the least of these, humility, and love. Stops just short of despairing of ever acquiring any of them.

TAX COLLECTOR: PHARISEE: Gives thanks not to be like "other" [i.e., substandard] people.
TAX COLLECTOR: Gives thanks.

EL GRECO, circa 1595

Saturday, January 21, 2012


From “Goodbye, Shirley Temple” by Joseph Mitchell (a short story from Up in the Old Hotel):

The child looked at us and smiled. Peggy said, "Hello there." "Hello," said the child. She started to leave, and then Peggy asked, "What's your name?" The child said, “My name is Margaret” and Peggy said, “Why that’s my name, too.” Estelle lifted the child into the booth and put an arm around her. The child stared across the table at Peggy and said, “What’s that on your face?”

Peggy hesitated a moment. Then she said, “It’s something God put there, Margaret.”

“Won’t it come off?” the child asked.

Estelle interrupted. “Do you go to school?” she asked.

“No,” said the child. She looked at Peggy again and said, “Why did God put it there?”

“Because I was a bad girl,” Peggy said.

“What did you do?”

Peggy asked Estelle for a cigarette. While Peggy was lighting it, the child gazed at her.

“What did you do?” she asked again.

“I shot off my father’s head and cut out his heart and ate it,” Peggy said.

From The Seventh Seal, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman:

The Knight (Max von Sydow):

"What will become of us who want to believe but cannot?
And what of those we neither will nor can believe?
Why can I not kill off this God within me?
Why must he live on inside me in this painful, humiliating way? When I want to tear him out of my heart?...
Why does he remain a mocking reality that I cannot shake off?"...

From “A Good Appetite,” by A.J. Liebling, one of his best. I found it this time in Just Enough Liebling: Classic Work by the Legendary New Yorker Writer:

The wine was a thin rosé in an Art Nouveau bottle with a label that was a triumph of lithography; it had spires and monks and troubadours and blondes with wimples on it, and the name of the cru was spelled out in letters with Gothic curlicues and pennons. The name was something like Château Guillame d’Aquitaine, grand vin.

“What a madly gay little wine, my dear!” M. Cliquot said, repressing, but not soon enough, a grimace of pain..

“One would say a Tavel of a good year,” I cried, “if one were a complete bloody fool.” I did not say the second clause aloud.

My old friend looked at me with new respect. He was discovering in me a capacity for hypocrisy that he had never credited me with before.

The main course was a shoulder of mutton with white beans—the poor relation of a gigot, and an excellent dish in its way, when not too dry. This was.

For the second wine, the man from the Midi proudly produced a red, in a bottle without a label, which he offered to M. Cliquot with the air of a tomcat bringing a field mouse to its master’s feet. “Tell me what you think of this,” he said as he filled the champagne man’s glass.

M. Cliquot—a veteran of such challenges, I could well imagine—held the glass against the light, dramatically inhaled the bouquet, and then drank, after a slight stiffening of the features that indicated to me that he knew what he was in for. Having emptied the glass, he deliberated.

“It has a lovely color,” he said.

“But what is it? What is it?” the man from the Midi insisted.

“There are things about it that remind me of a Beaujolais,” M. Cliquot said (he must have meant that it was wet), “but on the whole I should compare it to a Bordeaux (without doubt unfavorably)"...

Friday, January 20, 2012


24" x 36", oil on canvas, 2008

I met painter Catherine Y. Bates several years ago at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, NM, where we were both doing a three-month residency.

I urge you to check out her work. Here's a link to her Hors Limites/Out of Line ("expressionistic renderings of iconic geographical locations"spanning a forty-year career). 

Catherine also  sends out an annual year-end letter. She's given me permission to share this one.

Dear Friends, December 2011

This ninth end-of-year letter comes late, after a wonderful holiday trip to Pittsburgh, to visit daughter Jenny Bates, her husband Jay Lampert, and talented seven-year-old Hector. Their academic and artistic household brims with stimulating discussions and activities. It was a special joy for me to be there. I will visit son Greg and Flic and the family in Maine in the early spring. Their daughter Hila has returned from her semester in Ecuador and is now an intern with sled dog trips and other nature adventures, while Cori continues her home schooling at a terrific pace, writes so well, and is fast becoming a computer expert!

The past year had many trips between Georgeville and Montreal for rehab after the very successful cochlear implant. I am now much more actively involved with friends and Montreal cultural activities. From my Feb. 19 journal entry: “I believe that beauty has an unexplainable power: to overcome baseness, to connect to people positively, to make life worth living. It requires health, steadfastness, silence, community.” I have changed my major painting studio back to Montreal, reserving a room in my Georgeville home for works on paper; the home also will be a base for any “en plein air” work I might do. I have the best of both worlds.

I updated my website with Mac Store lessons, including older work as well as new paintings. In 2012 there are two exhibits planned and a third in the offing. A graduate student from Laval visited to document paintings I had done before the operation, and will come again to document another twenty post-op paintings, to see about any change in my use of colour, a research into sight and hearing (synethesia).

 40" x 48", oil on linen, 2003
In the summer I swam and began longer walks, and my enthusiasm for painting grew stronger. I have begun with still life works combining the Kuba cloth I bought a few years ago with other increasingly larger abstracted areas of sky and water. I love the large Kuba cloth from Zambia and its seemingly random abstract patterns, which, on closer viewing, are extremely well organized. It is this combination of the abstract and the representational that has dogged me for years, dating back to my early quilt paintings, painted so realistically but made up of abstract sections. Later I used actual physical sections, starting in 1991, but will leave big ones for David Hockney! Martin Gayford’s A Bigger Message, interviews with Hockney, provided enjoyable reading. I also did research into the patterns of African Bwa masks and appliquéd Kuba cloths. Other books I enjoyed – Color Into Light, about Hans Hofmann’s teaching practices, and Philip Guston, collected writings.

I have hopes that the increasing individual actions of people in all walks of life who make positive creative artistic endeavours will contribute some strong antidotes to the negatives of war, environmental destruction, over-population, and other follies. Art is a survival challenge! Best wishes for 2012. Peace for the world.

Catherine Y. Bates
email: cybates@aei.ca

30" x 40", oil on canvas, 2008

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


WESTMINSTER BRIDGE, 1906, oil on canvas

Several weeks ago a sober friend, Alan, and I went to visit another (elderly, sober) friend in the convalescent home. I drove.

I  didn't know Alan well. I knew he worked as a janitor: the night shift at Pepperdine, a 45-minute commute. I asked if he had to work that night: Yes. I asked whether, when I dropped him off at his car, he’d go home and try to sleep for a bit.

“I actually don’t sleep that well,” he replied. “Ever since my son was a kid…they used to talk about crib death all the time. And I was so afraid the kid would stop breathing in the middle of the night that I’d wake up every fifteen minutes. I kept thinking, What if he dies and everyone knows I’m a horrible father and will never talk to me again and then I’d have to live with that for the rest of my life, that my kid died on my watch, that I didn't take good care of my kid. And ever since then I’ve never been able to sleep very soundly.

“How old’s the kid now?” I asked.

“Twenty-two,” Alan  replied.

So there you have it. The heroism of ordinary people who walk the streets, our secret sorrows, the invisible burdens the better among us bear without complaining, never even knowing what they do is a huge, noble deal.

There you have Ordinary Time--and the extraordinary people who inhabit it...

WAY TO EMMAUS, 1918, woodcut

Sunday, January 15, 2012




No priestly infraction, however egregious, could diminish my devotion to the Church.

So this is NOT a call to let’s-all-tell-our-unfortunate-priest-experiences. It’s a reflection on the Church's teachings on sex, which is to say on what it means to be fully, ecstatically alive.

What prompted the reflection is a Mass I attended, on the Feast of the Holy Family, at a church that was new to me.

For a full half-hour, the priest took the congregation to task (most of whom had excellent posture, were shepherding several frighteningly well-behaved children, and were dressed like Puritans) about how the girls should hide their knees and do they really want to be an instrument of the devil and as soon as young people kiss he tells them they must never EVER see or talk to that person again because they have wrecked their chances for putting God first. This priest complained, carped, and looked down upon all the parents with spoiled, ill-behaved children who refuse to properly discipline [super creepy emphasis] them, the result being that, unlike a couple HE knows, they will not grow up to have their very first kiss at the altar.

The whole homily was about saying no—no, no, no, no (plus he kept interjecting “My dear ones,” as in "My dear ones, this cannot be" which made me want to shriek)—without in any way explaining that the reason for all those no's is a larger, sublime yes.

In Love’s Sacred Order: The Four Loves Revisitedcontemplative monk Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis--(now known as Brother Simeon) observes:

Léon Bloy…once said that if we receive the Eucharist and fail to practice charity, fail to allow the Eucharist to have in us the effects that by its very nature it must have, then ‘the sacred Host we have consumed, rather than nourishing us, will become within us like a bomb exploding our hypocrisy to high heaven.’”

It will be like a bomb exploding our hypocrisy, and it will be like a bomb exploding our timidity and fear.

Catholicism is not counter-cultural in that the world is liberal and Catholicism is conservative. It’s counter-cultural in that it is explosively, wildly, anarchically radical. Catholicism is our hearts, our bowels, our erotic energy, our lives! Catholicism is not some timid, rigid, dead set of rules. The whole purpose of the rules is to allow us to explode within them. To follow Christ, to be Catholic (or catholic-in-spirit) is to hover on the edge of metaphorical orgasm and to consent to continue to hover, indefinitely, in almost unbearable tension…which paradoxically allows us to break out in all kinds of other sublimely interesting, glorious directions and ways.

Look at Beethoven’s, say Sonata 11, Opus 22, where in the allegro the tension is drawn out and agonizingly out and then, finally, that e flat that turn that makes you moan with release/joy!

Look at the spires of Gaudi’s Sacrada Familia.

Look at the stories of Flannery O'Connor, the life and work of Emily Dickinson, the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem “Pied Beauty.” That--“Praise him” at the end is an ejaculation, with the beat, the silence, the lacuna, the gathering in before ejaculation (preceded, no less, by the generative thrust of “fathers forth”!), and it is all the more sublime for having been written by a gay man--a Jesuit priest and a severe depressive who stayed faithful to his vows and offered his suffering, his loneliness, his love, his failure as a teacher, his body, blood, genius and soul to Christ.

As the writer Alice McDermott notes, “Being a Catholic is an act of rebellion. A mad, stubborn, outrageous, nonsensical refusal to be comforted by anything less than the glorious impossibility of the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.”

Or as Sr. Jeanne McNulty, third order Franciscan, former Poor Clare, and Order of Consecrated Virgins, once told me: "This may sound strange coming from a nun--but one man wouldn't be enough for me! I want it all! I want HIM!"....

So the reason to save your first kiss till the altar, if that's what you choose to do, is not because you are so listless and etiolated and body-despising and intent on being a straight-A Catholic that you’ll suppress and deny your own God-given erotic urge, but because you are so vital, so juiced, so wild with longing, so crazy about your spouse-to-be that you want to make your wedding night a work of art. You want to offer your wedding night to the whole world.

What that priest forgot to add is “Man, and let’s hope those two had the night of their life! Let’s hope those two saw stars! Maybe they conceived a kid and if so, let’s hope that kid is juiced to the skies with life, with enthusiasm, with poetry and song and jokes, with the capacity to suffer and the capacity to love.”

Because this is how sensual, how erotic Christ is—one of the manifestations of waiting is that pleasure is sharpened. Waiting brings pleasure and joy to their highest possible point, and to bring things to their highest possible point is explode with love. We will suffer, of course, we will undergo the agony—for that is the very highest point of love; the point that Christ reached on the Cross. Consummatum est. To consummate our love in every sense is to give our whole selves to the world.

And that is the opposite of no, no, no.

That is one cataclysmic, self-giving, aching, life-affirming yes.

Wild nights! Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be 
Our luxury!...

Saturday, January 14, 2012


What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

--Philip Larkin


Thursday, January 12, 2012



Not to beat a dead horse but the recent discussion over whether God suffers, it occurs to me, is a question about what religion really is. To me, religion—to bind back together—is the question of what it means to be human. We're not asking, or answering, the questions in a vacuum. All theological questions have at their core: does the answer to them, or even the asking of them, make us more fully human: more compassionate, more open to both suffering and joy, more lost in wonder, more disposed to see Christ in the faces of those with whom we rub up against, interact, and in my case, clash, during the course of my day?

The purpose of theology, for the follower of Christ, in other words, is not to come up with a formula. The purpose of theology is to break open our hearts in love.

A reader recently opined “I think God suffers without anxiety. As beings with imperfect vision, knowledge, and love, we suffer with it.” Which certainly raises more interesting questions, and also brings me back to the  musing that kicked off the discussion in the first place; to wit, without questioning that God knows in the end, that good will triumph, that love will reign, that Christ will take his place upon the throne—we “know” that, too—I wondered whether, like us, God doesn’t know exactly how that will happen. To give people free will, it seems to me, is to consent to not know, to wait knowing that but without knowing how.

I’m just groping here. But to say God knows no anxiety, it seems to me, is to say it would have been all the same to God--to the Father of Christ, to the First Person of the Trinity--whether He created man or not, whether He gave us free will or not. It's to say that the same God who created mortal, fragile, glorious man could just as well have not created him, or could have created him to be a programmed robot. It's to believe we play no part whatsoever in ongoing creation. It’s to believe in a God who is inert, preternaturally calm, distant, removed, uninvolved, and utterly uninterested in and detached from what crazy, wild-card thing happens next in this ongoing drama called Planet Earth.

Instead, we have a very particular kind of God, a stupendous, utterly counterintuitive God, a God who pitched his tent among us, took on human form so he could know, among other things, the excruciating existential anxiety of knowing we are going to die, who nonetheless laughed, ate, drank, danced, gazed  upon the trees and flowers and mountains and sky, who went to weddings and parties, who got pissed off and had a sense of humor, who loved, who sweat tears of blood in the Garden at Gethsemane the night before He died, who gave us His very Body so that we could break Him—knowing that we would break Him—and eat.

Who said, "I'll be with you till the end of time" but did not add "pushing you around like puppets" nor "sleeping."

I think God contains his anxiety, consents to be stretched as far as He can possibly go, and to hold, as Christ did on the Cross, the stretched-to-the-breaking point tension, without lashing out, without transmitting the suffering, but rather in love, as a mother holds that kind of tension in labor--and is then split apart in birth.

A quote from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

“No two ideals could be more opposite than a Christian saint in a Gothic cathedral and a Buddhist saint in a Chinese temple. The opposition exists at every point; but perhaps the shortest statement of it is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open. The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The mediaeval saint's body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive…Granted that both images are extravagances, are perversions of the pure creed, it must be a real divergence which could produce such opposite extravagances. The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards.”

And an essay by Marco Bersanelli, at English Spoken Here: Ilsussidiaro.net that includes this passage:

"But not only are we restless for God: God’s heart is restless for us. God is waiting for us. He is looking for us. He knows no rest either, until he finds us. God’s heart is restless, and that is why he set out on the path towards us...God is restless for us, he looks out for people willing to 'catch' his unrest, his passion for us, people who carry within them the searching of their own hearts and at the same time open themselves to be touched by God’s search for us". We too, children of modernity, may not remain completely insensitive to a God who is restless for us.”

That's not from some ex-drunk untutored layperson such as myself. It’s from Pope Benedict XVI.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012



From The Smart Set from Drexel University
Check them out for more great articles.

Stefany Anne Golberg graciously responded to my fan letter (from Sri Lanka!) re this compelling piece
--which seems especially appropriate in light of our recent discussion...I added the photos and include the opening paragraphs with a link to the remainder...

If You Pick Us, Do We Not Bleed?
Understanding the plant experience helps us understand the human one, too.

In a room near Maida Vale, a journalist for The Nation wrote around 1914, an unfortunate creature is strapped to the table of an unlicensed vivisector. When the subject is pinched with a pair of forceps, it winces. It is so strapped that its electric shudder of pain pulls the long arm of a very delicate lever that actuates a tiny mirror. This casts a beam of light on the frieze at the other end of the room, and thus enormously exaggerates the tremor of the creature. A pinch near the right-hand tube sends the beam 7 or 8 feet to the right, and a stab near the other wire sends it as far to the left.

“Thus,” the journalist concluded, “can science reveal the feelings of even so stolid a vegetable as the carrot.”

Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, the aforementioned carrot vivisector, was a serious man of science. Born in what is today Bangladesh in 1858, Bose was a quintessential polymath: physicist, biologist, botanist, archaeologist. He was the first person from the Indian subcontinent to receive a U.S. patent, and is considered one of the fathers of radio science, alongside such notables as Tesla, Marconi, and Popov. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1920, becoming the first Indian to be honored by the Royal Society in the field of science. It’s clear that Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose was a scientist of some weight. And, like many scientists of weight, he has become popularly known for his more controversial pursuits — in Bose’s case, his experiments in plant physiology.

Perhaps it was his work in radio waves and electricity that inspired Bose’s investigations into what we might call the invisible world. Bose strongly felt that physics could go far beyond what was apparent to the naked eye. Around 1900, Bose began his investigations into the secret world of plants. He found that all plants, and all parts of plants, have a sensitive nervous system not unlike that of animals, and that their responses to external stimuli could be measured and recorded. Some plant reactions can be seen easily in sensitive plants like the Mimosa, which, when irritated, will react with the sudden shedding or shrinking of its leaves. But when Bose attached his magnifying device to plants from which it was more difficult to witness a response, such as vegetables, he was astounded to discover that they, too, became excited when vexed. All around us, Bose realized, the plants are communicating. We just don't notice it.

The more responses Bose got from his plants, the more encouraged he became, and the more detailed his efforts became. Bose discovered that an electric death spasm occurs in plants when they die, and that the actual moment of death in a plant could be accurately recorded. As Sir Patrick Geddes described in his 1920 biography of Bose, the electromotive force generated during the death spasm is sometimes considerable. Bose calculated that a half-pea, for instance, could discharge up to half a volt. Thus, if 500 pairs of boiling half-peas were arranged in series, the electric pressure would be 500 volts, enough to electrocute unsuspecting victims. The average cook does not know the danger she runs in preparing peas, Bose wrote. “It is fortunate for her that the peas are not arranged in series!”

circa 2005, vintage gold-tone gelatin silver  print
Read the rest here. 
And if you think that's weird--TIN HAS FEELINGS AS WELL! 

Stefany Anne Golberg is an artist, writer, musician, and professional dilettante. She's a founding member of the arts collective Flux Factory and lives in New York City. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com

about 1932, gelatin silver print

Monday, January 9, 2012


Last week I wondered whether God waits with us; in essence, whether God suffers, too. I thought the answer (for a Catholic) was self-evidently yes, but not at all, and a lively conversation ensued.

Mystery does not mean chaos. Mystery does not mean vagueness. Mystery is never careless of reason. But the movement in mystery is always toward more warmth, not more coldness; toward the Trinitarian incarnate God of the New Testament and away from the distant, capricious God of the Old Testament; toward the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law; toward the heart, not the brain.

Those who think God doesn't suffer seem to believe suffering would somehow minimize God. To me, suffering would enlarge him.

I am a firm believer that if you have to be a scholar to understand the significance of Christ, then he is not Christ. As interesting and useful as it is to tease out the theological underpinnings of the Way, the Truth and the Life, they have got to be available to a simple illiterate fisherman every bit as much as they are available to the philosopher and the theologian. And if the plain meaning of the Word becoming flesh is that he did not suffer with us in some way that is intelligible to us, that can touch, enter into and transform our hearts, then the Crucifixion and Resurrection are meaningless.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit" because the poor in spirit have run out of ideas, not because they have sharpened their ideas to the point where they can give an intelligent exegesis of God. The poor in spirit are crying out in anguish, “Help!” The poor in spirit realize, “I can’t bear this burden any longer.” The poor in spirit quake with the dread knowledge that they have been cast out, or cast themselves out of their place at the human table.

If God doesn't suffer, He can’t rejoice. And that is a God, I, for one, really could not and would not want to believe in.

Were not our hearts burning within us [Luke 24:32]?  If our hearts aren’t burning within us, if we’re not on fire with love, how can we possibly hope to understand the heart of the Father who sent us Christ?

Sunday, January 8, 2012



            Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
            When the last fires will wave to me
            And the silence will set out
            Tireless traveller
            Like the beam of a lightless star
            Then I will no longer
            Find myself in life as in a strange garment
            Surprised at the earth
            And the love of one woman
            And the shamelessness of men
            As today writing after three days of rain
            Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
            And bowing not knowing to what

--W.S. Merwin

Friday, January 6, 2012



A couple of posts ago, musing about the ramifications of the Incarnation, I wondered whether, since so much of our life consists of waiting in anxiety, God waits, too.

Yesterday I opened the January Magnificat to find an essay by Anthony Esolen entitled "Who Is the Seeker?"

"To what, in the divine life of God," Esolen writes, "does our virtue of hope correspond? It cannot be that God hopes for what he does not have, since he possesses all things. Unless we consider that God has, in his love for us, allowed us to love him freely in turn, and when we fall from that love, when we wander from the fold, God himself submits to the longing to bring us homeward. So [Charles] Péguy [in The Portal to the Mystery of Hope] says of the lost sheep, 'He caused the very heart of God to tremble with the shudder of worry and with the shudder of hope.'