Saturday, May 31, 2014



The one who beholds
is never alone.
This flower
is a friend.
She leads my eyes
to golden stare
while billowed petals
set my heart to sail
in wind—
far beyond
far within.
we go
from here,
my friend.

--Rita A. Simmonds
June 28, 2011

Thursday, May 29, 2014


Just as every birth is a miracle and every death its own sorrowful mystery, so the annual blooming of the jacarandas in Southern California without fail generates a psychic intake of breath, an existential lacuna, a hush.

Clouds of purple blossoms blanket sidewalks, public stairways, windshields, and median strips.

Summer is here!! My heart rejoices.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


On my recent trip to Philadelphia I got to spend a delightful afternoon with artist/writer Stefany Anne Golberg.

We bravely took the 36 trolley from downtown, alit at 54th Street, and explored the ancient (1728(!)) and charming Bartram's Garden.

As you can see from the pix, this recent essay by Stefany, from Drexel University's The Smart Set, kind of says it all.


In The Metamorphosis of Plants, Goethe turned to botany — because sometimes, poetry isn't enough.
By Stefany Anne Golberg

"Gloom rains down during early April days in the north. The sky is heavy and stuffed with shadows. A goldfinch at the bird feeder looks ridiculous; his molting winter feathers are a wreck. Everything about his half-golden face says hope, the uncombed horror of hope. This is the time we look for anything that reminds us of life. These are the days of stick-seeking and leaf-hunting, of changing our eyes into microscopes. On the windowsill, a slug; under a pile of leaves, an infinitesimal green something. Eliot was so right about April and its cruelty.

Found among the notes of the poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe is a stupendous claim: Everything is leaf. This is a statement that seems too beautiful to be science. Goethe came to this idea on a trip to Italy in the late 1700s. The more Goethe looked at plants, and lived and breathed with plants, the more profoundly he felt poetry’s limits. He turned to botany and began publishing scientific works. He created his own study of seeing, which he called “morphology.” In this, Goethe’s love of plants followed the same path that all lasting love must take. Goethe wanted to know plants from their most essential beginnings, wanted to touch their seeds, follow their cycles. He couldn’t be satisfied just wandering around parks, glancing at the flowers and pronouncing metaphors upon them — Goethe had to understand what a plant truly is. Everything is leaf, he discovered at last, every part of a plant is leaf. The cotyledon, the foliage, the cataphylls, the petals — a plant is fundamentally leaf. Goethe published this intimate memoir of his relationship with leaves and named it The Metamorphosis of Plants."

Read the rest of this stupendous essay HERE.

Stefany resides in Schwenksville, PA, with her husband Morgan Meis, who we met afterwards for dinner. They both teach at Drexel and Morgan also writes (among many other places) for The Smart Set.

Check out the latest from his column, "Idle Chatter," for a closer look at Goya.

Check out as well his first piece, on Frank Lloyd Wright, for the New Yorker blog. Amazing, right? I'm sure it's the first of many. He also has a stellar piece on his conversion (in Sri Lanka, of all places), in this month's Image.

That is one smart (and kind, and dazzlingly talented) COUPLE, I'd say. Keep an eye out for them. They are destined for big things. Heck, they are big things ALREADY.

Thank you for welcoming me to your part of the world, Stefany and Morgan.
And truly, everything IS leaf.

okay, and maybe an occasional bird....

Sunday, May 25, 2014



For those who missed Friday's post, I have a new column on arts and culture in Tidings. Weekly. Plus a monthly column in Magnificat. Plus a blog. Plus I've been out of town for three weeks. Plus as it happens I'm leaving town June 17 for seven more weeks.

In the meantime I need to get my teeth cleaned, buy a new phone, attend my own book party, prepare a talk for the Catholic Press Association conference in Charlotte, NC, and figure out what to pack for the south, NYC, Westerly RI, Rye, NH, a month in Gloucester, MA (Ignatian Exercises!), Orleans, MA (home of  Paraclete Press, publishers of Shirt of Flame), and a week at Weston Priory in Vermont. They'll have books to read at those places, right?

It's an embarrassment of riches, and the Tidings column in particular is in a way my dream come true. I've been writing, in my way, on arts, culture, faith and life for twenty years. It is also going to be an incredible amount of work. I can't just report on an event, which for one thing would bore me senseless and for another would be an impermissible taking of a shortcut. I have to sink into the meaning, the essence, the heart of the thing and find some meat. But first, in many instances, I'm going to have to visit, say, a museum, or interview a person, or read a book and take notes and ponder.  I will no doubt use the blog as a carcass, picking off bits of flesh here and there. But roughly half of the columns need to be based in the L.A. Archdiocese. Which is huge but which also requires me to keep my ear to the ground in a new way. That takes time and effort, too.

I'm not a critic, and was not hired to be a critic. I'm a human being with a questing heart. Still, one of the things that excites me is the invitation to look more deeply at art, to listen more closely to music, to reflect more widely on what makes us all tick.

I feel it as a great honor and a great responsibility, to which I pray to be equal. And I am also ever more aware that "I am the vine, you are the branches. Without me you can do nothing."

I had an interesting experience on my last round of travels. I was leading a retreat in Malvern, Pennsylvania, and I started to feel the anxiety that is so familiar to me before I speak, anywhere. I was making copious, somewhat crazily messy notes. What if I forget to say this? What if I leave out that joke? What if...

And suddenly I thought Why not say what God needs me to say instead of what I want to say because I think it will have some intended effect (which in large part is always to get people to love me)? What if I just relax--the Lord knows I have all the information and could blather on endlessly on any number of subjects, especially sobriety, with no notes whatever for hours--and let God speak through me and not worry about getting a hit off MY thinking I'm sounding new, original, smart, and deep.

So I just sort of let go and let the weekend be what the weekend wanted to be. I don't mean let go into formlessness or laziness. I mean let go of having to predict or engineer the outcome (as if i could do that anyway).

In other words, I trusted. And at the moment, I am not going to have much of a choice but to trust some more. Too much is going on for me to continue with my usual strategy of managing and controlling. Does a man add one cubit to his life by worrying? asked Christ. Regard the lilies of the field; they neither toil nor spin.

I'm going to pray not to toil or spin either, not in the frantic way Jesus means. I'll probably end up linking to my columns here and having that be the day's post. But I still hope to keep up with you all.

Let's continue to hold one another in prayer.

One day at a time.
Easy does it.
I am not alone.
None of us are.

Saturday, May 24, 2014


[W]hereas knowledge of Dante's tongue could serve in reading other Italian texts, full command of Angeleno dynamics qualifies one to read Los Angeles, the uniquely mobile metropolis. Again that word 'uniquely'...I make no apology for it. The splendours and miseries of Los Angeles, the graces and grotesqueries, appear to me as unrepeatable as they are unprecedented. I share neither the optimism of those who see Los Angeles as the prototype of all future cities, nor the gloom of those who see it as the harbinger of universal urban doom.  Once the history of the city is brought under review, it is immediately apparent that no city has ever been produced by such an extraordinary mixture of geography, climate, economics, demography, mechanics and culture; nor it it likely that an even remotely similar mixture will ever occur again. The interaction of these factors needs to be kept in constant historical view--and since it is manifestly dangerous to face backward while at the steering wheel, the common metaphor of history as the rear-view mirror of civilization seems necessary, as well as apt, in any study of Los Angeles.
--Reyner Banham, Los Angeles, The Architecture of Four Ecologies

Thursday, May 22, 2014


Whoa, three weeks of traveling, safe home, and it's been hard to keep up with the blog and all my other stuff.

Which now includes, and I didn't dare announce it till the thing actually came to pass, a weekly column--called The Crux--in Tidings, the newspaper for the Archdiocese of L.A.

Arts, culture, faith and life. The first column is entitled "Insane for the Light" (from Goethe).

Here's the link, which seems not, at the moment, to be working. But rest assured that I am.

And here's the link to my second column: Soul-Stirring: Self-Taught Artists from the South.


Monday, May 19, 2014


Hoo-hoo, I am back in urbanville and I must say my heart soared at the sound of buses, motorcycles, honking horns, and people yelling at each other from their cars; the sight of sullen, pouting hipsters  slouching dejectedly down the sidewalk nursing their fresh tattoo wounds;  and the prospect of artisinal bread, strong coffee, and, since this IS Philadelphia, a visit to the Barnes this afternoon.

Call me shallow but just as I love the silence and solitude of "the country," I also love the crazy energy of cities. And good coffee and little shops in which to browse and a world-class museum or two or three. Somehow sight unseen I managed to book a hotel in exactly the part of town I would have chosen, The Alexander Inn, on S. 12th and Spruce.

The minute I checked in yesterday, I started out on foot for the Mutter Museum, which features medical anomalies, deformities,and pathologies of the human body including, nicely laid out in a glass case, the world's largest distended bowel.

I sat in the window of my fifth floor room last night and reveled in the city lights.

It has been a long, LONG two and a half weeks. I'm glad of a two-day respite that's not going to be a respite because I'm so excited I will spend the whole time walking around town and exploring. I can't remember the last time I so instantly responded to a city: the old buildings, the doorways, the lintels, the flowering trees, the shaded alleys, the shops, the feel...


don't jump, William Penn!
Life IS worth living!
Let's go walk along the Schuylkill... 

Saturday, May 17, 2014


"In addition to obedience and love, a third element particularly characteristic of Therese was added to these two, like a secret spice: to evade nothing, to meet the difficulties of daily routine, whether small or large, and to meet them not by a stoic act of will, but, as it were, with open arms. We must receive such hardships warmly, let them penetrate us, expose ourselves to them, taste them to the full without a shudder. This practice of non-resistance became for Therese noble tranquility."
--Ida Friederike Görres, The Hidden Face p. 299

"And we have ceased fighting anything or anyone--even alcohol. For by this time sanity will have returned."
--Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 84

Friday, May 16, 2014


Here’s a book you might want to check out: Chasing Misery: An Anthology of Essays by Women in Humanitarian Responses.

Here's the website.
From the dust jacket:

“Chasing Misery is a collection of different experiences, perspectives, and voices of women involved in humanitarian aid work. This book provides a glimpse into the humor and heart-break faced by women working in some of the most complex and challenging environments of the past decades.”

These are women with whom you wouldn’t want to tangle. Tough cookies who have learned to shield their tender hearts because otherwise they’d be crushed. Women who, like all women, struggle with relationships, mother wounds, and mixed motives. Women who ponder the distinction between courage and a death wish, between the desire to alleviate suffering and the desire to escape. Women who ask the question we all ask, all the time: Does anything I do ever, really, help? Is “helping” even the goal?

Women who have been on the front lines in, among other places, Haiti, Katrina FEMA camps, the South Sudan, Pakistan, Syria, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Afghanistan.

The title essay, by Kelsey Hoppe, begins:

“I like to smoke here. The smoke wafts and curls and hangs indecisively in the humid air. Horrid clove cigarettes he calls them. This man who is not in love with me but thinks he is.

There’ll be another earthquake, I say.

How do you know? he asks.

I just know, I shrug.

What else do you know? he asks.

I know that he is not in love with me. I know that this is how life is, that you can sit on a roof in desperate tropical heat talking about earthquakes and fathers and religion and think that you are in love with someone that you are not.”

So right away we know this book that is ostensibly about humanitarian aid is really about humanity.

This is from “Answers Found in Harm’s Way: From Congo to Afghanistan,” by Emilie J. Greenhalgh:

“That is when I realized, despite the possibility that I would die without having had a family, that I did not want to die before going to Afghanistan and putting myself through a different kind of hell. I did not want to leave so many of my questions unanswered. I was just getting started. If I could get out of this, I vowed that I would go to Afghanistan and, that from here on out, I would call my mother before I got on the plane to remind her that I loved her.”

I mean who doesn’t want to hear more of that story?

Lucy O’Donoghue is my friend, so I may be biased, but her “Relationships” was one of my favorites.

An excerpt:

“Where do we start to try and get closer to authentic encounters in the face of such transient work? It’s not always big things. To me it’s the simple things, like spending evenings at the bedside of my administrative assistant in Congo for the weeks after she miscarried her baby. Or knowing that by keeping that older man on as a guard I can help him feed his orphaned granddaughter. It’s seeing a junior guard conducting the choir with flair at the tiny mud-brick church in the village on a Sunday morning. It’s being able to give our housekeeper a job as well as a chance to learn to read and write. It’s being able to recognise someone else’s talent and effort and reward them for it. It’s celebrating when the fleet manager becomes a dad for the first time. It’s being told, “Lucy, you’re the only boss we’ve had who seems to care about who we are—who cares about the whole lot of us.” It’s building trust, having that trust betrayed, and building that trust again. It’s about recognizing that we’re not completely autonomous, no matter how much Western culture may idolize this notion. We’re social beings, and I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we’re looking for authentic social encounters…

There isn’t some shortcut, be it an institution, a brand, technology, efficiency, or medicine to relieving human suffering on a grand scale that doesn’t involve taking a good hard look at how we interact with each other on a small scale—with honesty, integrity, clarity, humour, compassion, gentleness and fairness. Sincere human relations keep us real and grounded. Relieving human suffering starts by recognising each one of us is an end in ourselves. The stock count is only a means to an end. Let’s keep the priorities straight.”

Thursday, May 15, 2014


This was the breakfast made for me by Madonna House member Alma Coffman my last day in Combermere. That is an egg freshly laid by one of the Sex Link chickens Alma, among others, expertly raises, and fried in a black cast iron frying pan. (Vis-a-vis the coop's "pecking order," did  you know there is always one chicken who pecks everybody and one who pecks nobody? Just like life). The greens, which included chervil, dandelion, sorrel and lovage were freshly picked from Alma's garden. And check out the purple flower garnish (Is that a violet? I was so overcome by the beauty of the presentation I forgot to ask).

We sat at a table set with salt, pepper, and an old Tabasco bottle full of olive oil and another of vinegar, to dress the greens. We looked through a picture window with a view to one side of the marsh and straight ahead of the chicken coop and a row of birdhouses. We had a heart-to-heart talk. A ruby-throated hummingbird came, and another chickadee-sized bird that was pale yellow all over, and after awhile Monique Rivett-Carnac, who had generously sponsored my visit and because she'd out of town, I'd not yet met.

After awhile I had to ride my bike back. But it was pretty damn near the most exquisite breakfast I have ever had.

I'm back in my homeland, the U.S. of A. (I see we have had an oil spill (!) in my 'hood in L.A.) preparing to lead a women's retreat this weekend in Malvern Pennsylvania.

And I will be processing my visit to Madonna House, and the people who touched me so deeply there, for a long time.

I am coming home laden with gifts--some you can see and some you can't.


Tuesday, May 13, 2014


The message of Jesus is folly, in human terms. Anybody who spoke like Jesus today would be considered mad, only good for a psychiatrist. His message is not for the wise; those who think that they have the power, strength and knowledge to transform the world will not understand that the folly of His message is the gift of the Spirit and the transformation of their hearts. The message is for the wounded and the little ones, the poor ones, those who are awaiting the liberator and the good news. The deeply wounded person will always recognise the liberator, because the presence of Jesus will free him, bring him peace and strength and courage, and although he cannot understand the meaning of the little piece of bread and the wine, he knows that he needs them to be transformed. 

Monday, May 12, 2014


A couple of weeks ago, actor/comic/podcaster/all-around nice guy Tom Wilson invited me to sit down at the Casbah Cafe for an interview.

Here's the result, on Tom's podcast The Nerdist.