Thursday, May 31, 2012


from STREET OF CROCODILES, a 21-minute-long stop-motion animation short subject 
directed and produced by the Brothers Quay and released in 1986 
It's that little glint, that privileged look into a keyhole, and realizing suddenly that there's this little universe that's probably suffering and barely breathing, but it's pulsating, vibrating, with its own life. That in itself is a metaphor of the universe.
--The Brothers Quay, filmmakers

New England has a long tradition of solitaries: Robert Frost and his “road less traveled,” Henry David Thoreau in his cabin at Walden Pond; Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose family of origin lived together but ate dinner alone in their separate rooms.

Twice, I've paid homage to the queen of them all: Emily Dickinson, the poet who, near the latter part of her life, took to shutting herself up in her bedroom, seating visitors in a chair in the hall, and speaking to them through a barely-cracked door. Emily was a genius—I don’t use the term lightly—whose work I revered and of whom I’d read several biographies, identifying deeply with her losses, lacks (by all accounts, she was a life-long celibate), and hard-eyed religious longing.

“I like a look of Agony,/Because I know it’s true—” she wrote about the face of a dying friend; and she was so conversant with naked suffering that to another bereaved friend, she observed that to approach “The crucifix requires no glove.”

Dickinson’s former home and gardens, now a museum, are in the western Massachusetts town of Amherst. The brick house, painted pale yellow and built in 1813, features a veranda, a cupola, and a shaded lawn. In the Tour Center on my last visit (circa 2007), I learned a new Emily quote: “Narcotics cannot still the tooth that nibbles at the soul.” Emily called immortality her “Flood subject.” “Emily’s job is to think,” her sister Lavinia had said. Why that’s my job as well! I mused. Too bad no-one wanted to pay me for it.

Simply be within the four walls where she’d lived, and reflected, and written, was to be in a holy place. To look out the dining room windows she’d looked out of, even if the view wasn’t the same (the land across the street had originally been a field where her brother Austin grew hay for his horses, instead of wooded as it was now). To survey the living room and think of her writing, “There’s a certain Slant of light,” and “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” and “The Brain—is wider than the Sky.” To stand in the bedroom and imagine her observing the snakes, frogs, flies, flowers of which she’d made a universe, the Universe.

In the upstairs hallway stood a Plexiglas case displaying The White Dress: the garment in which Emily had apparently floated through the gardens and house; a reproduction of the sole surviving item of her clothing. Similarly,  to date but a single photo had been unearthed. A single dress, a single photograph; of the more than 1200 poems she’d written, less than a dozen published during her lifetime: icons of her themes of death, Immortality, thwarted desire.

I gazed out through the tops of the elms across the street.  How much, of necessity, we hold in. How violently we desire. From her chaste bedroom in Amherst, Emily had written:

Wild Nights – Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile – the Winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden –
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor – Tonight –
In Thee!


Friday, May 25, 2012


--Philip Guston
Silver Lake Blvd. and Parkman, LA


Wednesday, May 16, 2012


In May, 2010, I found myself tooling up the Gulf Coast Highway in Texas listening to this Nanci Griffth tape I'd had for ages.  Route 77, the leg I was on, is apparently a major drug-, gun-, money-, poached game- and people-running corridor.

I didn't see a ton of bluebonnets but it was a thrill to actually be in the place the song was about.

"And when he dies 
he says he'll catch some blackbird's wing
Then she will fly away to Heaven, 
come some sweet bluebonnet spring"...

Sunday, May 13, 2012


I must say I have not been entirely well. I have been so far out of my normal routine and therefore "out of my comfort zone" that I'm not sure what's going on.

On top of it, my mother is fading. I was so grateful to spend last week with her, but there were of course many emotions as well, and leaving her was wrenching.

This morning I was cleaning my desk and I came across a little card a friend sent me years ago. It's a quote from Dorothy Day: "I always had a sense of being followed, of being desired, a sense of hope and expectation."

I thought, Well I haven't. I've had a sense of abandonment and failure and pulsating, electric fear. I threw the card in the wastebasket and started crying.

And then I went to Mass.


Saturday, May 12, 2012


In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984

When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other's work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives--
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

--Seamus Heaney

Mom is recovering from a fall that left the whole left side of her face bruised.
She never complains.

Friday, May 11, 2012


Today we have a guest post from Rozann Carter, who is the Creative Director at Word on Fire Ministries.

These good folks often re-run my posts and now they have graciously granted permission to re-run one of theirs.

You can see the original post here and more of the  WOF blog here.

Having just returned to Chicago from the small, rural New Mexican community where she grew up, Rozann Carter reflects on the differences between urban and rural Catholicism-- on display within a simple, fervent prayer for rain.

O God, in Whom we live move and have our being, grant us sufficient rain, so that, being supplied with what sustains us in this present life, we may seek more confidently what sustains us for eternity. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.
 -taken from the Roman Missal of the Catholic Church, special prayers For Civil Needs

Mounted on the post of the barb-wire fence that separates the front yard from the pasture is a rain gauge. When the first crest of a thunderhead is visible on the horizon, when the phone lines are busy with local farmers and ranchers dialing up their neighbors 20 minutes further west to see the scope of what is rolling in, while families are anticipating the post-rain, deep-breathing, prayerfully giddy backporch session that is hopefully to come, that rain gauge sits—a quiet, inanimate, unaware receptacle of the palpable hopes of an entire community—hopes grounded in an inch-worth of measured drops of water.

Please, God. Please let it rain.

And so they wait, day after day, watching the local weather channel with religious devotion for an often-disappointing percentage chance… and then the sky for a sign that the “real Weatherman” is more merciful thanKFDA’s Doppler Dave. They make plan A’s and plan B’s based on the news, selling the cattle for another week of wind, tumbleweeds and dirt; holding onto the herd upon the prediction of a gully-washer. They talk at the coffee shop (the kind with Cain’s Drip and Mini-Moos cream) about what they’ll do when the grass doesn’t grow and only the noxious “loco weed” survives, about the inordinate number of grasshoppers that are eating up the remaining stalks… and then, with lightness and joyful carrying-on, about how the local football team just whipped a 3A school across the Oklahoma line.

And they go to Mass. They bring their humble and fervent pleas for provision; they arrive with a sense of being utterly susceptible and powerless to muster up a rain cloud on their own accord; they fortify themselves with weighty back-up-- their children, who have been given specific directives to keep petitioning, keep praying, keep giving thanks.  (The cycle of desperate hope and resignation/elation that accompanies this rain-prayer was on hilarious display in my family growing up. My cousin Kyle, upon making the connection that rain meant a “happy dad” and after a few confusing mornings of 3+ inch rains and no puddles, was discovered making the rounds filling up the rain gauges with a water hose.)
The orientation of rural communities around the cycle of the seasons, the weather and the type of Divine blessing that calls to mind the Israelites’ “manna in the desert” creates a specific type of spirituality. There is a seriousness, a depth of dependency, and a daily resignation to the will of God that occurs in rural life which is difficult to replicate. I returned to Chicago last week after having spent a long weekend at home in Northeast New Mexico amidst the highs and lows of the agricultural Spring, more aware than ever before of this contrast.

Urban Catholicism, mind you, is a grace-infused, organizing force that defines neighborhoods, serves as a means for acquiring healthcare and education, and populates carnival-style block parties. It makes a city into a community and organizes initiatives to make free-time valuable (eternally valuable) for those with little to none of it. It holds the common good in high esteem and boldly participates in both local and global corporal works of mercy to elevate this good. It provides a place of worship, of repose, and of embodiment of the Kingdom of God, very much amidst the imposing forces of a hostile culture.

Rural Catholicism, on the other hand, has a different organizing dynamic. The rural Catholic Church, especially if it exists in an agricultural community, is place of gathering, not so much to unite a varied prayer, but to pray a common prayer in unison.  It’s a pinnacle experience bringing together career, community and faith. Its liturgy is positioned at the end of another week of county-sweeping forecasts, of community-wide fulfillment or disappointment, of answered prayers or the resignation that there is a deeper lesson to be learned in the seemingly unnoticed appeals.

Within the mystique of the pastoral, the perception of being idyllic, serene, and simple, and even the criticism of being disconnected from the societal and cultural milieus of the day, there is something of rural life that gets at the heart of what it means to know one’s place vis-à-vis God. The daily necessity of fervent supplication creates an almost monastic, beggar’s mentality that orients one around the all-powerful, other-ness of Providence in humble submission, while still pleading for his very personal intervention, as if He calls forth blades of grass in the same way that he numbers the hairs on one’s head and names the sparrows.

The rural Church exemplifies a necessary reorientation of priorities, the temporal in service of the eternal, in the midst (and for the good) of the entire community. The Old Testament nature of this daily trust keeps one humbly and thankfully dependent, in a proactive and yet submissive way, which is the prerequisite for true sanctity.

The lesson to be learned from the rural church is contained within this dynamic of praying for rain. Within the interior identification of what it is that we physically need, what we may take for granted but simply cannot live without, we recognize that we are fundamentally a beholden people. We are dependent on a God who reiterates that our fervent supplication does more for us than for Him, a God whose mercy, severe at times, is exercised with our ultimate good in mind. He sends the rain in due time, but during that passing time, he glories in the spiritual transformation that comes only by way of the recognition of a need so intense that it cannot be filled by our own power, but so daily that it must be constantly reckoned with. 

Would that we were all this vulnerable… always.

Please God, let it rain.