Sunday, March 30, 2014


I'm setting out this week for a week in the Monterey area on the central Coast.

Thursday night, 7 p.m., I'll give a talk at San Carlos Cathedral, pictured above. The oldest building in California, the oldest jokes...No, seriously, I'm going to come up with some new ones on the long drive up. Everyone's invited: Catholics, alkies, Catholic alkies, anti-Catholic alkies, non-alkies, non-Catholics.

On the way back home, I'll stop in Santa Maria and spend a night or two with my friends from the Guadalupe Catholic Worker. More Lenten joy. I'm fasting (more or less) from sugar. 

Happy Cesar Chavez Day. It's a state holiday in California, as it should be.


Thursday, March 27, 2014


VAN GOGH, 1882

"I have to listen to her gossip, as I'm with her all the time, but I don't worry about that. I"ve never had so much help as from this ugly and faded creature. For me she's beautiful and I find in her exactly what I need. Life has marched over her body. Pain and visitations have marked it. Now I can get something out of it."

--Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Anthon van Rappard

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, my first thought was "I'm going to die." 

My second was "I do not want to 'battle" cancer." 

I have my own battles. 

I didn't want to fight a battle on behalf of big pharma, my war-obsessed culture, or the fear of being thought a nutbag. 

I wanted to acknowledge that to be diagnosed with cancer is a traumatic psychic blow. I wanted to educate myself. I wanted to come to grips with my mortality. I wanted, as I have always wanted, to act in freedom (a stretch, as I was panic-stricken) and to make the decisions I thought were right for me.  Not for anyone else. For me.  

As it turned out, I was incredibly lucky. My cancer was Grade 1, Stage 1. 

And STRIPPED, my new book, is a different kind of cancer memoir. It doesn't describe chemo because I didn't have chemo. It doesn't describe radiation because I didn't have radiation. 

I had the tumor removed and then, after reams of research and untold hours of anguished prayer,  I went against medical advice and declined all further treatment.

STRIPPED is about the long, slow process of coming to that decision--made on Palm Sunday, fourteen years ago.

It's about the loss of a certain kind of innocence, the end of a marriage, the deepening of my faith, the vocation of writing.

In fact, it's not a cancer memoir at all. It's a memoir about coming to terms with this thought from Kierkegaard: "We come into this world with sealed orders."

Here's an excerpt. I was living in Koreatown at the time and had just schlepped up, as I often did, to 8 o'clock Mass:

"One Monday morning in the parking lot of St. Basil’s I ran into my friend Frank, a 70-ish Irishman who looked like the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life, had been sober for years, and was squiring a fellow with a rat-like face who was clearly coming off a major bender. Frank was one of these hearty cradle Catholics who are always going off to Europe to visit shrines and talking about some miracle or other. He’d once lent me a very good book called Abandonment to Divine Providence, by a 17th-century priest named Jean Pierre de Caussade. I liked Frank.

Still, when he asked about my cancer and, right there in the parking lot, grabbed my arm and said, 'Come here, let’s pray,' I instinctively recoiled. In New England, where I come from, even your own parents don’t hug you, and I had never quite grown used to the touchy-feely ways of Southern Californians. But Frank got a hold of me, and then he made the hungover guy, who reeked of booze, come over, and we all put our arms around each other and Frank placed his free hand on the upper part of my chest and started pouring out a very heartfelt prayer. 'Jesus, we ask you to help Heather,' he said, with just a hint of a brogue. 'You know she loves you SO MUCH, and we ask you to heal her: every tissue, every cell, every limb, every organ'...

Ten years ago—okay, one year ago—I would have died of embarrassment to be standing out in public praying with a geriatric Irish Catholic and some poor mangy drunk, but the great thing about having cancer is that situations that formerly might have seemed traumatic pale in comparison. Also, you very quickly realize you can no longer afford to scoff at anything or anybody that might even remotely have the capacity, and more to the point, willingness, to help.

After a few seconds I realized that to be embraced by these kind, well-meaning folks, who no doubt had many better things to do than take time out of their busy morning to comfort me, actually felt good. So afterward, I said, 'Wow, Frank, I sure am glad we ran into each other!' and shook the rat-faced guy’s hand, and we went our separate ways with smiles, waves and, on my part at least, a warm glow of gratitude.

Everything was fine until around two the next morning, when I got up to use the bathroom and thought,
That’s strange, I could swear I’m feeling a little nauseous."


So far STRIPPED is available in paperback only.

You can buy it from amazon.

Or you can buy it from my very own createspace store. In which case I get higher royalties but you pay list price and forego the free shipping opp.

The ebook should be out next week: will keep you posted.
I'm working on a  trailer. 
A thousand thanks for the support.

Sunday, March 23, 2014



--from the diary of Witold Gombrowicz, Polish writer

For today's offering, please see my brand new ABOUT (me) page. 


Saturday, March 22, 2014


God said on the seventh day to rest so I'm going to let the good Fr. Patrick Dooling give the homily today.

This is Day 1 of a 4-day series from Lent 2013. I feel everyone should know of Fr. Pat. He is Associate Pastor at San Carlos Cathedral in Monterey, has taught in such far-flung places as Samoa, and I'm sure has tons of credentials he has been too modest to mention.

Plus he's funny.

You can find the rest of the series on youtube.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


"Please help me dear God to be a good writer and to get something else accepted. That is so far from what I deserve, of course that I am naturally struck with the nerve of it. Contrition in me is largely imperfect. I know know if I'm ever sorry for a sing because it hurt You. That kind of contrition is better than none but it is selfish. To have the other kind, it is necessary to have knowledge, faith extraordinary. All boils down to grace, I suppose. Again asking God to help us be sorry for having hurt Him. I am afraid of pain and I suppose that is what we have to have to get grace. Give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace, Oh Lord. Help me with this life that seems so treacherous, so disappointing."
--Flannery O'Connor, A Prayer Journal


Friday, March 14, 2014



MATTHEW 17: 1-9

Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother,
and led them up a high mountain by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them;
his face shone like the sun
and his clothes became white as light.
And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them,
conversing with him.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
“Lord, it is good that we are here.
If you wish, I will make three tents here,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, behold,
a bright cloud cast a shadow over them,
then from the cloud came a voice that said,
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased;
listen to him.”
When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate
and were very much afraid.
But Jesus came and touched them, saying,
“Rise, and do not be afraid.”
And when the disciples raised their eyes,
they saw no one else but Jesus alone.

As they were coming down from the mountain,
Jesus charged them,
“Do not tell the vision to anyone
until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”


My friend Maria, sober two years now, tells the following story. At the depth of her drinking, her two kids were taken away from her. The family is now re-united.

I HAD A BABY WHO DIED at birth in 1994. We named her Elly. My husband at the time was an incredibly spiritual person. He was like the Pied Piper. Very kind and giving. When the baby died, he wanted to name her Eleemosynary [meaning charitable; same root word as eleison]. Elly, Moss, in airy ways. He wrote a song about how she took us down so we could go forward. Elly was like an act of charity. In ways she saved the two of us. She saved us from each other and took us away from each other, which was probably going to happen away.

My husband had had a horribly alcoholic, workaholic dad. So he wouldn’t drink. And in those days, I wouldn’t drink either. I got remarried in 2001. Ben was born 2003. Clare was born 2004. I started drinking, badly, when Clare was born. My husband pretty much abandoned us after Clare was born. That's not exactly why I drank, though that didn't help.

I lost contact with God but never with Elly. She comes to me in profound ways every year on her birthday.

It was 2007. My husband was in China with his sick mother. I agreed to go there to visit, end of August. I was drinking heavily; I was in bad shape. I was incredibly depressed. Ben and Clare were with me, a 12-hour flight. On the plane I was thinking, Even though I’ve been abandoned, I'm going to China for the sake of his mother, our family, our kids. Clare was asleep on my lap; she was 2. Suddenly she woke up. and said, "Mom, I saw my sister." I'd never told my kids about Elly. I'm thinking, Well okay, little children like to imagine they have an even littler sister. So I asked, "Are you talking about a baby sister?"

"No, a big sister," Clare said. "She had white hair and blue eyes and she was wearing a long beautiful white dress and she was in a garden full of flowers and trees. She took my hand. I asked her, 'Can I come play with you?' And the girl said, 'Yes—just not now.' Then she let go of my hand and turned to go and behind her was a man. And he was clean, he was so so clean!

I felt like I was crystallized. I felt electrified. I almost wanted her to get off my lap, I felt so charged over.

"Mom," Clare kept asking. "How did the man get so clean?"

Tuesday, March 11, 2014



"A friend e-mails me a link to some photos he thinks I'll like. they are by George Silk, of fourteen-yea-old diver Kathy Flicker in Princeton University's Dillon Pool in March 1962. The black-and-white images have a spirit-photography quality; the water displaces Flicker's head, and refracts her body, inflating its size nightmarishly. What falls below the water's surface is free of our usual grasp of physics. The pictures achieve something rarely articulated about the metaphysical state of swimming. The body, immersed, feels amplified, heavier and lighter at the same time. Weightless yet stronger."

--Leanne Shapton, Swimming Studies 

Sunday, March 9, 2014


Here's something cheerful for Lent, by way of my beloved friend Msgr. Thomas Terrence Richey: a quote from Karl Rahner.


"In despair, despair not. Let yourself accept everything; in reality it is only an acceptance of the finite and the futile. Make yourself block up every exit; only the exits to the finite, the paths that lead to what is really trackless, will be dammed up. Do not be frightened over the loneliness and abandonment of your interior dungeon, which seems to be so dead — like a grave. For if you stand firm, if you do not run from despair, if in despair over the idols which up to now you called God you do not despair in the true God, if you thus stand firm — this is already a wonder of grace — then you will suddenly perceive that your grave-dungeon only blocks the futile finiteness; you will become aware that your deadly void is only the breadth of God's intimacy, that the silence is filled up by a word without words, by the one who is above all name and is all in all. That silence is God's silence. It tells you that he is there.

That is the second thing you should do in your despair: notice that God is there. Know with faith that he is with you. Perceive that for a long time now he has been waiting for you in the deepest dungeon of your blocked-up heart, and that for a long time he has been quietly listening to you, even though you, after all the busy noise that we call our life, do not even let him get a word in edgewise, and his words to the man-you-were-until-now seem only deadly silence. You shall see that you by no means make a mistake if you give up your anxiety over yourself and your life, that you by no means make a mistake if you relax your hold on self, that you are by no means crushed with despair if once and for all you despair of yourself, of your wisdom and strength, and of the false image of God that is snatched away from you.

As if by a miracle, which must be renewed every day, you will perceive that you are with him. You will suddenly experience that your God-distance is in truth only the disappearance of the world before the dawning of God in your soul, and that the darkness is nothing but God's brightness, that throws no shadow, and your lack of outlets is only the immeasurability of God, to whom no road is needed, because he is already there. You shall see that you should not try to run away from your empty heart, because he is already there, and so there can be no reason for you to flee from this blessed despair into a consolation that does not exist.

If we do this, then peace comes all by itself. Peace is the most genuine activity: the silence that is filled with God's word, the trust that is no longer afraid, the sureness that no longer needs to be assured, and the strength that is powerful in weakness — it is, then, the life that rises through death. There is nothing more in us then but God; God and the almost imperceptible and yet all-filling faith that he is there, and that we are."

--Karl Rahner, The Eternal Year, trans. John Shea (Burns & Oates).

Saturday, March 8, 2014


From a reader in North Carolina:

'"Thought you might like the following link of Winifred Atwell playing the piano. Maybe the whole world knows about Winifred Atwell, but I just discovered her when I heard her on my Pandora channel! With a little internet research I learned that she was a Trinidadian who was a highly regarded classical pianist, world famous ragtime player, and top recording artist in the 1950's in England. She was also a lifelong Catholic, humble enough to play organ for her church, who always donated her time on Sundays to play concerts for charity." 

Check it out!: The Black and White Rag (with Twelfth Street Rag):

Thursday, March 6, 2014


I had an outing Tuesday, to the Indian Wells Tennis Garden for the big-deal tournament that's held there each early March.

It was a gorgeous day. I'd packed a little picnic. And within a few minutes of arriving, I had a shocking realization--I am prejudiced! I already knew that, but I mean against my own people! White folks. I'm like a gay homophobe: a secretly self-loathing Caucasian!

One of the reasons I hadn't known this is that I had been lulled into a false sense of security through years of attending Mass with exclusively Hispanics and Filipinos (there are only two white Catholics in all of L.A., me and Bill MacIver). But to be surrounded, for once, by Anglos...whoa.

I mean there is nothing INHERENTLY wrong with a 30-year-old couple  identically dressed in fake beekeeper hats,  or shaggy hairdos on women with a visor plunked in the middle so the hair falls over and around it like a Cousin Itt, or head-to-toe golf attire, or plastic surgery. (I of course was dressed in head-to-toe black including a pair of utterly inappropriate pointy ankle boots (the temperature was 84) and looked like a refugee from East Poland).

No, there really isn't anything wrong with golf attire and plastic surgery, and as I was lying on the ground waiting for the WTA matches to begin, I started thinking: These really ARE your people. Who ELSE would be your people?

On the instant, I accepted what I could not change. I conceded to my innermost self what my perpetually tormented, faux-victim soul has all my life resisted.

You're white and you're middle class.

Get over it.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014


I wrote this piece 13 or 14 years ago--it was published in The Sun.

Reading it over, I'm appalled at my lack of charity, my arrogance, my blindness. God bless those monks. I thank them.

Here's to a rich and fruitful Lent for us all.


I've just driven 550 miles from L.A. to a monastery in the desert. I’m not sure what I pictured when I decided to book this ten-day retreat, but it wasn’t this: a jumble of outbuildings and abandoned sheds, piles of barrels draped with blue tarps, a labyrinth of dirt roads. I circle around a couple of times, spot a sign saying "Registration" in the window of the bookstore, and park. After eight hours on the road, I'm hoping to be greeted by a calm, prayer-centered soul in a rough brown robe. Instead a heavily made-up woman named Dot startles, turns down the volume on an Amy Grant tape, and flutters around trying to find someone to replace her at the cash register.

We walk together the few hundred yards to a barracks-like structure and she ushers me into Room 1. I do a quick inventory--two twin beds, midget bedstand, broken Venetian blinds. "There's no…desk?" I venture.
Dot rolls her eyes and replies tightly, “If I could make a suggestion, next time you go on a retreat, you might want to inform the people of your needs beforehand"--as if a desk were a piece of esoteric equipment; as if
I'd asked for a pack of condoms or the local porn channel.

This all leads to a two-day long Rube Goldbergish comedy of errors with various dear people painstakingly attempting to locate a desk. Finally one of the monks approaches me in chapel, looks furtively around, and whispers, “We’ve finally found you another room. Room 12."

The kicker is, when I go over to look at it, Room 12 doesn’t have a desk either. At which point I realize my room is fine. My room is wonderful. Hot water, heat, an outlet for my laptop, a porch.

Out back, I saw a beautiful orange bird this morning. There are cottonwoods and cholla, and a little stream running through.

I'm here because I need a break from my life—the book nobody wants to buy, the one-bedroom apartment where I write, Tim, the breast cancer with which I was diagnosed last year and, after voluminous research showing the negligible benefits of chemo and radiation for my Stage 1, Grade 1 type of case, decided to treat with surgery only. "Oh, you're using holistic medicine," people say approvingly. But I am not using holistic medicine. I am not seeing an acupuncturist, a nutritionist, an herbalist; I am not taking vitamin supplements or Laetrile or mistletoe tea. Aside from cutting down on fat, I am doing pretty much what I was doing already, which is hanging out with other sober people, eating sensibly, exercising, writing and praying.
But you got cancer doing that, I can hear people thinking. So I got cancer! People get cancer, they die from cancer! My problem is not cancer. It's lack of faith, lack of acceptance, living in illusion. That's the real reason I'm here.

This big place is apparently run by six or seven monks, all of whom appear to be in the throes of deep spiritual crisis. The Divine Office (also known as the Liturgy of the Hours; generally, starting at dawn and at intervals throughout the day, consisting of Vigils, Lauds, Vespers and Compline) is the heart of Benedictine spirituality and, at every other monastery I've attended, it's prayed with the utmost attention and reverence. Here the monks show up, no matter what the hour, looking like they just crawled out of bed. One, a sixtyish fellow with bloodshot eyes, practically lies down in his seat after quavering the entrance antiphon; another, a tall rawboned youth with hacked-off hair, crosses his legs, gazes out the window and dangles his breviary in one hand. This, it turns out, is the abbot. I was appalled for about five minutes and then I realized I am so clueless and broken right now I feel much more at home with these folks than I would with people who were perfect and reverent and assured.

I've planned my week at the monastery so that my last day will be Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. For the last three years, I've given up coffee; this year I'm going to try foregoing sugar, too. A hundred times a day, I contemplate how horrible this will be. Like a fool, I refrained from bringing my own coffee machine. The upshot is that for the last two mornings, I've woken before dawn and driven fifteen miles to the local Circle K for a jumbo "Dark Roast"—which turns out to have no more of a jolt than the watered-down slop they serve in the dining hall.

Still, knowing myself, I will now make the trek to Circle K every morning.


The adobe chapel, set on a little north-facing rise, has rough-hewn lintels and tile floors and a Lady of Guadalupe alcove. There's a courtyard with a fountain and roses out front, and off to one side a cemetery, its stones adorned with plastic flowers, American flags, and faded Christmas bulbs.
Vigils is at 6:30 a.m. and Lauds at 8, followed by breakfast. Mass is at noon; 6:00 Vespers is followed by dinner; Compline is at 8:30. Tonight, it being Saturday, Compline was early. Right in the dining hall, as soon as we'd finished eating, one of the monks threw around some psalm sheets, plopped down on a metal folding chair and halfheartedly sighed, "I guess it's time to sing."
And we sang.
And it was great.


Now I know how they keep the place running: the army of oblate-volunteers who come from all over the country and spend the winter in a nearby RV park.

The first night I met a retired couple named Fran and Earl who immediately informed me they'd been coming here for eleven years. The next night I met a couple named Lois and Vern. First I met Vern. "Oh I met a nice couple last night who do the same thing you do," I said. "Fran and--"
"We've been coming here twelve years," he cut in, "they've only been coming eleven."
Next I met Lois. "I was just telling Vern I met some of your neighbors last night," I began, "a very nice couple named Fran and Earl--"
"They've only been coming here eleven years," she interrupted. "We've been coming twelve."


No wonder the monks look distracted. In addition to hosting retreatants, they run a drop-in center for local Native Americans, a gift shop (prickly pear cactus jelly, beeswax candles, locally-grown apples), and a library. A well-stocked library! In the bookstore this afternoon I picked up Thomas Merton's Disputed Questions (it's almost a cliché to read Merton, who I’m not even that crazy about, on retreat) and started an essay on solitude I wanted to finish without buying the whole book. I know! I said to myself. It's probably a long shot, but I'll see if it's in the library. So I wandered down and this portly old monk was sitting in a tiny cinderblock room reading a book and eating candy.

"Um, do you have any Thomas Merton?" I asked (thinking, in my usual tolerant way, Have they even heard of Merton in this backwater?).

"Fourth aisle, halfway down on the left," he answered genially, flipping a switch and waving me into the back room I hadn't even noticed.

And I went to the fourth aisle and there were shelves of Merton, it looked like they had every book Merton ever wrote: volumes and volumes of journals, letters, essays, the whole works, and not one, but two copies of Disputed Questions. To top it all off, when I went to sign it out, the monk said, "Just jot down your name and phone number in the ledger." "I'm staying here," I told him, "do you still want my home phone number?"
"Might as well," he replied. "That way, if you want to take the book with you when you leave, feel free. Just mail it back when you're done."

Now that's my kind of library.


I've also discovered that right down the street is the Kiowa Mountain access road, which slopes gently through gorgeous desert scenery for, according to the guy who runs the drop-in center, twenty-three miles. There's a gate but it doesn't say No Trespassing on it, so I climbed over this morning and walked about an hour each way. Clear blue sky with mammoth clouds, mountains in every direction, cottonwoods like fluffy lace, just beginning to green. And dead, dead quiet, except for four or five cars. All of the people waved, and two stopped to ask if I wanted a ride.
I have to have a mammogram--my first since the surgery--when I get home.

Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time: "When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear;/so do a man's faults when he speaks. (Sirach 27:4). Which segues into the Gospel reading: Can a blind man act as guide to a blind man? A student is not above his teacher...Why look at the speck in your brother's eye when you miss the plank in your own? (Luke 6:39-45) All three examples, the missal pointed out, are about people wearing masks, pretending to be something they are not. The blind man pretending to be able to see, the pupil presuming to be a teacher. I see this again and again in my own life: the very thing for which I've been judging someone else I need to work on.

The elderly priest who said Mass today weighs a hundred pounds tops, talks in a squeaky mouse voice, and possesses the humble, peaceful, firm but self-deprecating air of the truly enlightened. First, he asked for our prayers because he has a bad heart--by the looks of him, I don't doubt it for a moment--and then he gave a wonderful homily. He said if we're human we have human hearts prey to all the temptations and shortcomings listed in the Bible. He himself has been subject to all of them, including lust, he continued and, and has only been able to resist the vast number of women who have thrown themselves at him (big laugh here, of course) because of his prayer life. The thing to do during Lent, he explained, is try to die to your worst shortcoming.
And if you want to figure out what your worst shortcoming is, examine what you complain about in others, and then examine what distracts you in prayer.

I'm starting to see something. Whenever I get a glimpse of myself in someone else, instead of recognizing or acknowledging it, I hate that in them. Hate their weakness and ineffectiveness, that they don't know how to save themselves either, that they feel lonely and despised, too.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

Love yourself as your (like you, deeply defective) neighbor.


For once, in chapel this morning, I was actually able to attend to the meaning of the Psalms and readings. I've been praying the Divine Office on my own for two years, but usually I'm still so dumbstruck I'm doing it at all, so self-conscious, so eager to "progress," that I never get around to orienting myself toward Christ. That's my distraction in prayer: I make it all about me. I keep doing it because I figure it's pleasing to God; because maybe after 30 or 40 years, I'll be purified; because there's only one way to make it be about Christ: to keep on praying.

And in the meantime, every once in a blue moon, I “connect,” the way I did this morning.


Today after Mass this old hunchbacked monk stood in the alcove and drained four good-sized goblets of leftover communion wine in about ten seconds--I mean he was just swilling. (Of course I would only notice this having been such a giant lush for so many years myself). Afterwards, a middle-aged Mexican man wearing a flowered shirt, patent leather dance shoes, and jeans with a waist about twenty sizes too big came in, knelt before the altar with his ass crack fully exposed and proceeded, in a piercing, frantic stage whisper, to pray. He eventually made his way around the entire sanctuary, stopping in front of every statue, pulling up his pants as he went.


Everyone here, it's beginning to dawn on me, is in some way deformed. One of the monks has a withered leg, another a goiter. A man with a breathing tube sat at my table at dinner tonight, the woman beside me had no chin, and morbid obesity abounds.

With the diet, it's small wonder. One of the RV women is in charge of cooking. Last night dinner consisted of pork chops encased in an inch of greasy breading, a string-bean casserole enhanced with suet, and a tray of deep-fried, syrup-drenched apple fritters that must have weighed a pound apiece. I happened to be sitting at the same table as the chef, and it came out in the course of the conversation that she makes a "black bread" for Ash Wednesday (they serve only bread and water that day). "What's in it?," I asked eagerly, hoping it might by accident contain a stray nutrient or two.

"Oh they've begged me for the recipe,” she replied coyly, “but I won't give it to them. Four Seasons wanted the ranch dressing recipe from my restaurant, but I wouldn't give that out either"...
I don't know what horrified me more: that she had been connected with the operating of a restaurant, or that she imagined I would want to duplicate anything she had cooked.


From Merton's The Sign of Jonas: "I ought to know, by now, that God uses everything that happens as means to lead me into solitude. Every creature that enters my life, every instant of my days, will be designed to wound me with the realization of the world's insufficiency, until I become so detached that I will be able to find God alone in everything. Only then will all things bring me joy."

That is fine, but I need to learn the difference between detachment and contempt. Because the point of detachment is not to realize how different and elevated you are: it's to realize how ordinary you are: how exactly like everyone else, how desperately in need of help. How can a person have a prayer life and eat such shitty food?, is the subtext of my complaints about the cooking. But someone could just as easily look at me and say, How could anyone have a prayer life and still be so anxious, so petty, so endlessly self-absorbed?

The truth I don't want to face is that I'm deformed, too. Spiritually and emotionally it goes without saying, but now physically, too: the lumpectomied breast, the faint purple scar.


"Hence the solitary man says nothing, and does his work, and is patient, (or perhaps impatient, I don't know) but generally he has peace. It is not the world's kind of peace. He is happy, but he never has a good time."
That's from Merton's essay, "Philosophy of Solitude." I love that: he is happy but he never has a good time. Well—I’m halfway there.


I am trying not to get too worked up over it, but Tim has an obstruction in his throat that feels to him like a growth. He's going to see the doctor today and when I talked to him last night--the pay phone behind the chapel, the lit booth a beacon in the dark--I saw for the first time that he is really very worried about it. I haven't been that worried, because he seems otherwise healthy. But last night I said, "Well you feel all right, don't you?" and he said, "No, I don't. I feel tired." Oh, God, I thought, what if we both got cancer? So I prayed last night and am praying for him today. I even asked for him, out loud, in our petitionary prayers in chapel this morning.

Glamorizing the monastic life is something against which I have to be constantly on guard. I've always thought of myself as a solitary who never has enough solitude, but I'm beginning to see it's not more solitude I need: it's accepting the solitude in which I already live, accepting that the search for God has to be conducted without complaining, without wanting to be recognized. My whole life--this burning flame of love for Christ--has to be lived in secrecy and hiddenness. Partly because it can't be communicated and partly because, just as when Christ was alive, nobody is much interested. Not my family, not the majority of my friends, definitely not my husband. And I'm just starting to realize what the saints knew all along: it is always going to be like this.

The loneliness is not the obstruction. The loneliness is the path.


I was hoping to see the sun rise this morning, and I did see the sky lightening, eventually, though there was no spectacular sunrise. I came expecting springtime in the desert: flowering mesquite, balmy nights. Instead, it's been freezing, overcast and windy. I scheduled my visit mere days too early: next week at the latest, the RV people say, the weather will turn and it will be in the 80's.
"Fire and heat, bless the Lord/Cold and chill, bless the Lord," as the psalm says.
It's fine, I am grateful for my polar fleece.

There's a nun here from Baltimore, about my age, named Georgina, who has leukemia and breast cancer. They give her five years at the outside, she told me last night. I might drive her into town to get some supplies as she is constipated, exhausted from radiation and, like me, having a hard time with the food. At dinner, I saw her give a big smile to Jim, the retreat master I'd decided I didn't like, or who didn't like me. Constantly, I am reminded of my meanness.

Here's Merton again, from "The Power and Meaning of Love": "There is no way under the sun to make a man worthy of love except by loving him. As soon as he realizes himself loved--if he is not so weak that he can no longer bear to be loved--he will feel himself instantly becoming worthy of love. He will respond by drawing a mysterious spiritual value out of his own depths, a new identity called into being by the love that is addressed to him."


The day was dreary and windy—again—but I took my two-hour walk nonetheless. Sun breaking through the edges of the clouds, snow-topped mountains, low-hanging blue haze. Sea green and purple prickly pear. Red dirt, green bleached grass.

Not thinking about much, except how to be better to Tim. I've been struck with pangs of tenderness now that I'm away; he is so precious, so worthy of love, so fragile. So fragile and I'm so hard on him. I do the exact thing Merton warns against: I treat him like an object, worthy only insofar as he is of use to me. One of the central dynamics of our marriage (in my mind) is that he is IN MY WAY: when I want to pray, when I want to cultivate other friendships, when I want to work, when I want to do the thinking that gives me the material for work. Some of this is objectively true, and some of it is me blaming my sloth on him because he's a handy target. But whether or not it is true, what a sad, hard way to look at any person, much less your husband.

To want to "progress," whatever that means, more than you want to love a person, to see Christ in them. To see Christ in the other is progress: the only progress.


Outside my window a woman with a St. Benedict medal hanging from her neck and a chainsaw in her hand is eyeing a long row of firs. It cannot be an accident that the sound of our machines so perfectly mirrors the state of our souls. Leaf blowers, digital alarm clocks, snowmobiles, jet skis. Yesterday, on my walk in the “wilderness,” I could hear an ATV as I started out. And then the SUVs roll by, not many of them, thank God, but there will be more next year and more the year after that, kicking up their gravel and clouds of dust, scaring the animals, in a big hurry to go nowhere. And to drown out the anguished cry of their hearts.
Just like me.

I do begin to see that the weather, the people, the surroundings, the conditions, never make that much difference. One second is one second for all of us; we all get twenty-four hours in a day, to do with as we will. Merton had the same problems in the monastery that I do: not enough time to write, not enough time to write what he wanted to, not enough time to read, not enough time to pray, not enough silence. A constant longing for solitude, constant infringements upon it, the constant realization that he was blowing whatever chances for prayer he had. People who drove him crazy, people whose spirituality he didn't trust, the tension between obedience and a call. That is the spiritual path; nobody can avoid it.

So much to reflect upon, so much meat, so much happening in these quiet orderly days, punctuated by prayer. Even with no responsibilities, there still aren't enough hours in the day to give praise, to get lost in wonder. It was so lovely and cool and fresh on the trail this afternoon. And I was thinking about an observation of Walker Percy’s: that Christianity is so on target because the heart of it is the acknowledgment that man has a problem; that man is in deep, deep trouble. Yesterday I actually started thinking that if Tim got lymphoma and died, at least I'd have more time to write. That is the extent of my selfishness, God forgive me.

I'm beginning to see what Christ meant by "Blessed are the poor in spirit." It's only when you're able to admit how utterly lost, utterly broken, utterly prone to sin you are that you reach a place of truth, that you do down on your knees, desperate just to touch the hem of His garment. I think St. Thomas Aquinas probably realized something like that when he said near the end of his life that all his books were straw—and lapsed into silence.


Last night I skipped dinner and went to the chapel for Compline at 8:30--pitch black outside, freezing cold--but they must have prayed it in the dining hall earlier because nobody was there. So I went to the Lady of Guadalupe alcove, where the light was, and said Evening Prayer by myself, and then sat by the Blessed Sacrament for a while. That used to sound so hokey and nunnish to me: the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Now I see it as a deep, mysterious gift. What solace, what peace to sit with Him: the Great Physician; the Master Anesthesiologist.

I swear it has gotten colder each day I've been here. It is now almost as bad as winter in New England, where I grew up. Taking a walk will be like penance.

Today I had a moment when, along with St. Ignatius of Loyola, I prayed from the center of my being, for Christ to take all of me: my freedom, my memory, my understanding, and my will. Of course it's easy to feel that way when I have had no cares or worries or interruptions for a week. One dose of "reality" and I'll be plunged back into confusion; overwhelmed anew--but I have to believe that all prayer is a step in the right direction, even if I feel at times like I'm regressing. Probably all spiritual progress consists in the deepening realization that you can do nothing without Him. Your life naturally becomes one of ceaseless prayer, because there is simply no other possible mode of existence. There is no virtue in prayer, no sense of “accomplishment,” any more than there is virtue in a drowning man who instinctively tries to keep his head above water.

I keep thinking of that reading from Sirach the other morning: "When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear; so do a man's faults when he speaks." Or acts. Giving Sister Georgina a ride into town this afternoon, I saw myself through her eyes. First, she was a little embarrassed to be going at all as any retreatant worth his or her salt apparently does not leave the grounds for the duration of the retreat, while I, having gone on my pathetic coffee runs every morning, thought nothing of an extra trip. Second, she wanted to pick up some juice and tea because she's sick: I wanted to pick up some chocolate and a last coffee before Lent begins tomorrow. Third, my car was littered with crumbs and papers, while she, with her spotless clothes and perfectly-groomed hair, I'm sure has her car steam-cleaned every other day.

To top it all off, I repaired to my room afterwards and proceeded to eat the entire giant Cadbury bar I had purchased at Safeway while Cheryl was loading up on chamomile tea and apple juice. I'd told myself I'd save half for Tim, but no, by six o'clock I had eaten the whole calorie-laden bar all by myself. After judging everyone else for being fat.

It doesn't matter where I am, my faults will be revealed.


Ash Wednesday. At Morning Prayer, a reading from Isaiah about fasting: "If you bestow your bread on the hungry/and satisfy the afflicted;/Then light shall rise for you in the darkness,/and the gloom shall become for you like midday"...When I go into the dining hall for a cup of tea, each table is bare except for a loaf of dark rustic bread (the secret recipe!) and a white crockery bowl filled with dirt and stones.

Later, at noon Mass, the scatterbrained abbot starts to sing "Alleluia" after the opening antiphon and the wizened-up sick old holy monk interrupts with a kindly, "No, not during Lent." "I know, I know," he replies loudly before plowing on...And yet, though we've never exchanged a single word, after a week I find I feel a deep affection for him. What a job! To keep this big place up and running; to deal with the monks, the oblates, the community (last Sunday I noticed he was gone and overheard someone saying there's a shortage of priests in the area and that he was scheduled to say seven Masses that day); to reconcile the contemplative life with the active life. In his homily, he talks about prayer as a method of detaching from thought, and observes that one way to do this is to sit in silence with a sacred word. The word many of the monks use, he says, is the Aramaic "Maranatha": Come, Lord Jesus. The chapel is packed and, for a second, I wonder if this "middle-America" parish is ready for contemplative prayer. And then I realize that this whole place probably operates on nothing but prayer, that I know nothing about prayer.

"Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return," the priest repeats afterward, over and over again, as we file up to have our foreheads anointed with ashes.


I spend the afternoon packing and, after Vespers, wander behind the chapel, skirt the duck pond, and find my way to the outdoor Stations of the Cross. Like the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the Stations have always struck me as slightly musty and old-school, but someone has put a lot of thought into designing these--I know from the brochure that they incorporate natural features of the landscape--and I can't think of a more fitting way to end my visit.

I start at Station 1--Jesus is Condemned to Death--noticing a nearby creosote. "This desert bush," the reflection on the placard reads, "forced to survive with so little water, reminds us of how Jesus felt as he stood before his merciless accusers." I pause to pray for a couple of minutes, then make my way around a boulder to Station 2--Jesus Bears His Cross: "This heavy stone, an impossible burden, is like the cross Jesus was forced to carry to Mount Calvary."

The path winds up a hill; I trudge on, the sun sinking in a pool of red. Station 3--Jesus Falls For the First Time: "These interlocked branches, so rare an occurrence, show that the cross is an unnatural formation, emblem of a fallen world." Station 10--Jesus is Stripped of His Garments: "The spines in this ancient cactus remind us of the Crown of Thorns Jesus wore; of the many humiliations we, too, suffer in our lives." Station 12--Jesus Dies On the Cross: "Just as the trunk of this burned-out tree is stripped bare, so we will be stripped of everything: property, success, looks, health."

And suddenly I am weeping, weeping for RVers, for the overworked abbot, for the old men and the abused children the world over, for the people so alone they never get prayed for, for Sister Georgina, for myself. I've tried so hard to be good: praying the "right" way, giving up coffee for Lent, being mature and responsible and accepting and spiritually advanced about my cancer. But it's not about being good, it's about becoming human. It's not about pretending that cancer don't suck in every possible way (because in my stripped-down state, I realize I have not fully "processed" it; I am terrified of getting sick and dying); it's about consenting to bear those things just as, in some mysterious way, every other human being bears his or her own individual crosses for me.

Christ wasn't mature and responsible and accepting when they drove the nails through His precious hands, His beautiful sacred feet. He knew the worst spiritual anguish any person can know: “Father, Father, why have Thee forsaken me?” And yet...He doesn't forsake us; He dwells within us always. That's what the Resurrection--that light way in the distant future, after these seven dark weeks of Lent--tells us. I don’t understand it, I don’t even believe it half the time, but that's what I've staked my life on.

The dinner bell rings and I salivate: I've been fasting all day. Tomorrow I'll leave the silence and the cottonwoods and the birds, and make the long drive home.

But for now it's time to walk through the gathering dusk and join the others--the young monks and the old; Dot, Jim, Sister Georgina; Fran and Earl, Lois and Vern, the woman in charge of cooking.

To bow our heads.

To eat the good black bread.


I don't think you even know how God works through you to reach wretches like me.

Keep on writing sister.

Sunday, March 2, 2014


Every so often I start thinking My God, I am some kind of religious crackpot. I'm a total phony. I've never abandoned myself to God AT ALL. What is with this frenetic daily Mass-going? I'm trying to capture God, possess God, take God off to a little corner.  It's a show; it's a distraction; it's an attempt to escape from the messiness of "real life." It's an attempt, one more time, to be special. Who am I kidding?: I don't even like people, hardly. I'm testy, I'm exhausted. I'm like the guy in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov: the more I love humanity, the more I dislike individual people. 

Just the night before, though, I'd read these passages from The Quotidian Mysteries by Kathleen Norris:

"[A]s Soren Kierkegaard reminds us, 'Repetition is reality, and it is the seriousness of life...repetition is the daily bread which satisfies with benediction' "...

"I have come to believe that the true mystics of the quotidian are not those who contemplate holiness in isolation, reaching godlike illumination in serene silence, but those who manage to find God in a life filled with noise, the demands of other people and relentless daily duties that can consume the self."

"Ironically, it seems that it is by means of seemingly perfunctory daily rituals and routines that we enhance the personal relationships that nourish and sustain us. I read recently, in Martin Marty's newsletter, "Context," of a study that monitored the habits of married couples in order to determine what made for good marriages. The researchers found that only one activity seemed to make a consistent difference, in terms of the ability to maintain a stable, happy, long-lasting relationship, and that was simple affection, the embracing or kissing of one's spouse at the beginning and the end of each workday.

Most significantly, as Paul Bosch, the author of the article reports, 'it didn't seem to matter whether or not in that moment the partners were 'fully engaged' or even sincere! Just a perfunctory peck on the cheek seemed to be enough--enough to make a difference in the quality of the relationship.' Bosch comments...that this "should not surprise churchgoers. Whatever you do repeatedly," he writes, "has the power to shape you, has the power to make you over into a different person--even if you're not totally 'engaged' in every minute!' "

God likes repetition: He invented it. No-one likes repetition more than a kid. A trick, a funny face, a story: "Do it again!"

"Suffer the little children to come unto me, and do not prevent them; the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."

Saturday, March 1, 2014


The Howlin' Wolf Story is fantastic!

Wolf was a stand-up, family-man guy who came from "meager" (his daughter's word) beginnings, ran a tight band, and paid his guys well, including unemployment insurance. His mother kicked him out at the age of 13 and would never speak to him again, including on his deathbed, because he played "the devil's music."

I think it's the devil's work to turn your back on your own son!

There are some amazing clips of Wolf LICKING the neck of his guitar.

Here's his version of "Dust My Broom"...