Tuesday, September 30, 2014


From a podcast about the 1889 Van Gogh self-portrait that was on loan to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, from December 07, 2012 to March 04, 2013.

Dr. Mary Morton, curator of 19th c. collections at the National Gallery, describes the painting as "incredibly powerful" and continues:

"The colors that van Gogh is using are kind of screamingly complimentary: orange against blue and bluish-violet. He is using a nervous, almost electric touch--you can see it vibrating around his head, almost like a halo. And out of a hole in this vibrating background looms his head, his face, his fiery hair, his beard. It's an image you stand in front of and walk from and continue to be haunted by.

It's the only self-portrait [out of 36] in which he specifically includes an artist's palette, a group of brushes and a painter's smock, so it's the only one in which he specifically conveys his position as a painter.

He's at Saint-Rémy [a mental institution] where's he's voluntarily committed himself, and we know from letters to his brother has come out of a particularly severe psychotic attack.

He writes to his brother that he's feeling better and is ready to return to work almost as a kind of healing. This is the painting he produces, and I think you can see it's on the heels of something that was very violent and intense for him. He's still deeply troubled.

But he's also during this period painting pictures of roses. He's still having these terrible attacks and going out into the garden and the countryside and reveling in nature and in flowers, as a kind of desperate way to cling to life, and to heal."


Sunday, September 28, 2014


We may know that God will not allow himself to be apprehended easily, but sometimes we forget the complimentary truth. Once he is known to some degree, he will not permit us to keep at a distance on limited terms, maintaining a prudential respect. He is a hidden God, but when he deigns to show himself, he demands afterward our passionate pursuit.

--Fr. Donald Haggerty, Contemplative Provocations


Friday, September 26, 2014


For my arts and culture column, this week I got to talk to local documentarian Josh Rofé about Lost for Life, the 2013 film he directed and produced about juveniles who are sentenced to life without parole.

Here's how the piece begins:

"Jacob Ind underwent horrific sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of his mother and stepfather. At the age of 15, he murdered them both.

Brian Draper and Torey Adamcik were small-town Idaho teens. In 2006 they donned masks, drove to the residence where classmate Cassie Jo Stoddart was housesitting, and brutally stabbed her to death.

These are just three of the more than 2,500 prisoners who have been sentenced as juveniles, some as young as 13, and are serving life without parole in American prisons.

They are also three of the men profiled by local documentarian Joshua Rofé in his riveting 2013 documentary “Lost for Life.”

“Could You Forgive?” reads the tagline for the film and to his credit, producer and director Rofé leaves us to decide. He shows the minds, hearts and, in some cases, the transformation of the prisoners"...



Tuesday, September 23, 2014


Last week I took a field trip to the Getty Villa in Malibu. I especially wanted to see an exhibit called Molten Color: Glassmaking in Antiquity.

I'd take a core-formed two-inch "White Perfume Flask with Purple Zigzags, Greek, 600-300 B.C." over over a two-ton Dale Chihuly installation any day.

I was equally mesmerized by this grape arbor tucked into one side of the reflecting pool (which was devoid of water due to Southern Cal's dire drought). Shades of ancient Rome, Bacchus, molten light, and the bittersweet changing of the seasons.

Afterward I meandered over a south-facing balcony to catch a glimpse of the Pacific through hillsides of eucalyptus and sycamore. Suddenly I felt a fluttering at my elbow--a flock of uniformed schoolkids wanting a peek at the view as well. "Come," I said, and ceded my place, and looked back to admire them--joyful, pointing, taking pictures--like a row of little birds in their identical blood-red polo shirts.

In the bookstore I bought a postcard of St. Michael the Archangel (Constantinople, first half of the 14th century), whose prayer I have memorized and use frequently to good advantage.

On the way back, I stopped in Santa Monica at a yarn store. Come late September, a girl's thoughts turn to scarves.

From there, I walked over to Staples and bought a 2015 At-A-Glance Tabbed Weekly Calendar.

Then I wandered down to the Huckleberry Cafe and Bakery, braved the hordes of screenwriting hipsters, and purchased a ham and gruyere croissant to go (fair).

Pacific Coast Highway was all ripped up, with orange cones and jackhammers; and traffic on the 10-E proceeded at a horrific crawl the whole ten miles to my exit.

I listened to Horowitz playing Scarlatti and thought about how instructive life in LA can be, if only you let it. Pain built into the joy;  hardship built into the hoped-for easeful field trip; squalor built into the beauty; and inexhaustible life tinged, always, with death.

That's the way of the world. Which is why God gave us wine.

Sunday, September 21, 2014


photo: George Goss

It is a terrible misfortune when there is not to be found one really interior soul among all those at the head of important Catholic projects. Then it seems as though the supernatural had undergone an eclipse, and the power of God were in chains. And the saints teach us that, when this happens, a whole nation may fall into a decline, and Providence will seem to have given men a free hand to do all the harm they desire.
-- Jean-Baptiste Chautard, The Soul of the Apostolate

You may remember Matthew Kirby, the wonderful painter from Brooklyn whose work I featured a while back.

Matthew's a walker. Recently he sent me this email, and a painting inspired by the story he told in it.

"Quick story: I spend a lot of time walking around my Brooklyn neighborhood running errands and I noticed another walker, a small, gaunt man dressed in slightly rumpled clothes with an Irish-style cap that buttons in the front and thick, obscuring lenses in his glasses. By my calculations, his walks - one around 8:00 in the morning and a return trip around 3 or 4:00 in the afternoon - take him over two miles each.

But what's remarkable about him is that he pulls down, rips up and throws in the trash just about every leaflet, business card, menu and glued or stapled-on advertisement he finds along the way. For a while he had a heated battle with some large, close-up, hi-res images of faces in states of self-conscious imitation rapture that a local sex implement shop had been gluing up on the plywood walls of a renovation site. Every other day new posters would be put up, and then scratched down with what were clearly human fingernails.

At first it took me a while to realize that he was not picking up trash - which many well-meaning homeless or jobless people in the city do unbidden and unrewarded - he was systematically cleaning his route of the inane messages and images of advertising. He does it with visible irritation, but not rage (he's a conscious pedestrian and stays out of other people's way to the point of making himself unseen), and I came to admire him for it.

So one day I was at Mass, not at my usual time, and I turned around pass the sign of peace and there he was. He let me know, in a way that wasn't at all rude, that we was absolutely not going to take my automatically extended hand (which is always more than fine with me.) But I was able to see his face more clearly this time and could tell that he was a suffering rather than just cranky person. It was not the face of a crusader or moralist, but of someone who was just trying to protect himself from all the impersonal, talky, fake-chummy, lethal messages and images in the world. And I remember that he sang quite well and said the responses firmly and un-selfconsciously.

I have seen him less and less since then and I know nothing else about the man. I have no reason to think he's any more or less mentally ill than anyone else at Mass or in the streets of Brooklyn. Maybe he could give an articulate reason for what he does; maybe not. But I can't help but think that he is really is one of the solitaries Merton describes, and that he's living his solitude creatively, publicly, on the same streets we all walk on.

Here's a painting semi-inspired by him, although it's not intended as a portrait or even an illustration."

But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
--Matthew 19:30

Friday, September 19, 2014



This week's arts and culture column is on the fascinating subject of beekeeping. In an 800-word piece, I could barely scratch the surface, but here you go. It begins:

Earlier this year, I visited Madonna House: the lay community in Combermere, Ontario, founded by the late Russian emigré and mystic Catherine Doherty.

Life at Madonna House is deeply incarnational. Members grow their own food, cut their own wood, make their own altar cloths, candles, icons. My last day there, Andorra Howard, a community member for 30 years, took me to see the bees she tends and loves. As she worked, she told me some of what she’s learned:

“I’ve been the ‘official’ Madonna House beekeeper for three years now. The job has been one of the most wonderful, fulfilling and challenging of my apostolic life.

“When I was first asked to look after our hive I spent a day with our local bee inspector to learn beekeeping. He never worked with gloves and sometimes without even a veil!"...


Wednesday, September 17, 2014



Heather King
September 16, 2014

Lately I’ve been thinking about my days in the early ‘90s as a Beverly Hills lawyer. That was when I first started asking the deep questions: What was I born for? Who do I want to serve? I sincerely wanted to help alleviate the suffering of the world but working as a lawyer, making money for the first time in my life (I was close to 40 at the time), I started to realize I didn’t want to align myself with the rich and the powerful. I didn’t want to lord it over the rest of society.

I come from a blue collar family and some of my feeling arose from a congenital sympathy for the underdog. But when I began to read the Gospels, I found that was the stance of Christ as well. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. What I really started to ponder was “Say yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no.” Nothing could have been further from that creed than the “law” of civil litigation.

That was when I began to see that there’s a law of the land and there’s a Higher Law.

That was when I began to see that the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court had no more idea of how the world really works than a Skid Row drunk.

That was when I quit my job as a lawyer, converted to Catholicism and began to write about everything I was experiencing and learning.

My conversion arose from the conflict we all face: between the (apparent) security of this world and the (apparently) precarious realm of the kingdom of God. You cannot serve both God and mammon, and who doesn’t struggle with that every day? Still, from the beginning I understood “Render unto God what is God’s and unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” to mean, among other things, that I don’t love and serve Christ through my country. I love and serve my country—and everything else—through Christ.

Recently I saw a Catholic TV show in which people talk about their conversion to Christ across a jaunty cluster of American flags. This struck me as emblematic of an egregious theological error, one that underlies and derails much of our contemporary Catholic discourse. I’m not claiming to be statesman or a politician or a military tactician here. Far from it. My point is that as a follower of Christ my highest concern is never, say, how to respond to ISIS. My highest concern is the day-to-day orientation of my heart. My concern is that I continue to ask those deep questions I started asking as a lawyer every moment of my life.

I’ve often pondered the passage in the Gospels where Christ tells Peter to go hook a fish, open its mouth, and he’ll find a coin to pay the temple tax [Matthew 17:24-27]. One of the things that says to me is that Christ didn’t agonize much about man-made rules and regulations. Not because those things aren’t important, but because when you’re propelled by love, your allegiance to all that is for and from love, to all that truly goes toward the common good, is settled. “The sons are exempt.” If you’re already giving your whole heart, your whole strength, your whole mind, taxes of any kind are a subsidiary, not a primary demonstration, of our love for Christ.

So as a follower of Christ, I will automatically be the best possible citizen. Out of love, I will obey all the laws that go toward the common good. I won’t lie, cheat, or steal. I won’t bear false witness. I won’t litter, I’ll return my library books on time. I’ll obey the traffic laws (as long as there are no cops around, full disclosure).

As a follower of Christ, I’ll also do many things that are not strictly required by law and refrain from many things that are not forbidden by the law: things that stem from kindness and courtesy and that many of my own neighbors don’t observe at all. I won’t commit adultery. I’ll work hard not to covet my neighbors’ goods. I’ll respect my neighbors by refraining from playing loud music, owning a dog whose barking would disturb my neighbors’ peace, or parking my car so that the back half obstructs the sidewalk. I’ll keep my yard free of junk to comply with municipal laws; but out of love I’ll make my yard beautiful—because out of love we want to make the world beautiful for everyone, even our loud neighbors.

I will follow the law of the land to the extent that it coincides with Christ’s teachings, in other words, but my North Star will be the Gospels, not the U.S., or any other, Constitution. I’ll be the best possible citizen and I’ll also be good neighbor—which is a very much higher calling than to be a good citizen. I would no sooner own an assault weapon, which is allowed under the law of the land, for example, than I would have an abortion, which is also allowed under the law of the land. I am for life, in all its forms, and violence and murder, of any member of the human family, go profoundly against the commandment of Christ to love one another as he loved us.

In the Errol Morris documentary “The Unknown Known,” former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has, or seems to have, no doubts, no regrets: not about our involvement in Iraq, not about the abuses at Abu Ghraib. When confronted with the controversial U.S. failure to prevent looting of the Iraq National Museum, with its extraordinary collections of Babylonian, Sumerian and Assyrian artifacts and rare Islamic texts, Rumsfeld had complained, "The images you are seeing on television, you are seeing over and over and over. It's the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase and you see it twenty times. And you think, my goodness, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?"

“Stuff happens,” he’d continued. “[F]reedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.”

“What keeps you awake at night?” Morris asks in the film. Without missing a beat Rumseld replies, “Intelligence.” In other words, Are they going to get us before we get them?

Right there is the difference between a citizen and a follower of Christ. Because the follower of Christ is kept awake by his conscience. Personally I lie awake at night thinking how very, very far I have fallen short during the day, one more time, from loving my neighbor the way Christ loved us. My question has to do with Matthew 25. That’s what I agonize over. When I’m not agonizing, I’m giving thanks. That’s another mark of the follower of Christ: gratitude.

If Christ stands for anything, he stands for the radical, revolutionary idea that we are no longer going to be energized by, order our lives to, or take pleasure in hating our enemies. We are going to try to live instead by rigorous honesty, vulnerability, and the child-like heart that persists in feeling the full force of our yearning to have everyone around the table—without using violence to achieve it. The kind of almost insane courage required to even say such things out loud, never mind try to live them out, itself tends to engender the worst kind of violence—as Christ well knew.

Let others parse whether and when self-defense is justified; we can never go wrong if we’re moving toward, orienting our hearts, toward, peace. That’s not a statement of military strategy or an insistence upon pacifism as ideology; it’s a statement of the deepest desire of Christ’s heart: that our joy may be complete. The problem with spending our time wondering whether we’re going to get them first or they’re going to get us—whether “them” is a family member, our boss, the IRS, or ISIS—is that we will have missed our whole lives.

"Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell,” Christ taught [Matthew 10:28]. What a crazy idea! When Peter heard it, he “took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You" [Matthew 16:22]. And Christ—who knew full well they would get him—turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” [Matthew 16:23].

We do want to save our souls, and the souls of our brothers and sisters. We do agonize over these questions. We do pray for those in power. We realize no-one would want to have to make the decisions our politicians are called to make.

But we also know that at the end of the age when the time comes for Christ to separate the sheep from the goats surely we hope to have something more compelling to say for ourselves than ““I know you said Blessed are the peace-makers but I spent my life defending my Second Amendment rights.” Or “I know you gave us trees and birds and flowers and each other but I chose to spend my life on earth watching videos of beheadings.” Or “I know you said we will be judged on whether we clothed the naked, gave the thirsty a drop of water, or visited the prisoner but I couldn’t bear to be around that kind of poverty. I couldn’t bear to face and feel the poverty in myself: my hemorrhaging heart, my mother who was an alcoholic, my father who beat me, my life-long terror that I wasn’t enough: not smart enough, not pretty or handsome enough, not strong enough, not worthy enough of love.

And because I could not bear to face any of that, nor to share that with another human being, nor to come naked myself before God and his Son, I chose instead to confuse you with a nation-state. I chose to align myself not with you—because the truth is, nailed to a Cross, you looked kind of weak. You looked kind of like me—but with the most powerful country on earth.”

I’ve hitch-hiked across my country; our country. I’ve driven back and forth across it twice. I’ve camped, hiked, and walked its mountains, deserts and streets. I’ve prayed on its freeways, wept at its beauty, grieved at its struggles. But, bound by the First Commandment, I don’t worship a flag. I don’t kneel before a political system. I don’t adore a military power.

Only one thing would be suitable to set on the table over which to tell the story of my conversion. That would be a crucifix.


Monday, September 15, 2014


"Then, some days ago, walking past the rocks in the park on my way to the subway, and suddenly aware of the intense greenness of the leaves, that same happy yet mostly vague and excited feeling came back to me."
--Alfred Kazin’s Journals, selected and edited by Richard M. Cook, p. 130

"I always had a sense of being followed, of being desired a sense of hope and expectation."
--Dorothy Day

"Religion consists of the belief that everything that happens to us is extraordinarily important. It can never disappear from the world for this reason."
--Italian poet Cesare Pavese (1908-1950)

One of the fruits of thinking that everything’s important is that you begin to live every second at an inner fever pitch, in such a way that all your powers and talents and faculties are brought to a thrilling, vitalized, height.

Either that, or like Pavese, you kill yourself.

Saturday, September 13, 2014



This week's arts and culture column is a review of a book by Sarah Lewis called The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery.

Here's how it starts:

"As a free-lance creative writer, I can hardly read enough about rejection and failure. So here’s a book that recently caught my eye: “The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure and the Search for Mastery” (Simon & Schuster).

Sarah Lewis rightly points out the danger of falling into a rut of the safe and the familiar. She beautifully articulates our sense that what we long to achieve in our creative endeavors lies forever just beyond our reach.

She emphasizes that even spectacular setbacks can sharpen our resolve. Still, toiling away in my humble room, I couldn’t totally relate, career-wise, to some of the folks she profiles: Sara Blakely, the billionaire founder of “the girdle-refining line” Spanx; Andre Geim, the Nobel-winning physicist who managed the first isolation of a two-dimensional object (it’s graphene).

One of my favorite passages was about Ben Saunders, a Devon-born explorer who became only “the third person in the world to reach the North Pole solo and on foot.” After achieving this staggering feat, wanting to share his joy with someone, he warmed his satellite battery by tucking it under his arm and called his mother.

Standing in line at the grocery store, too overwhelmed to speak, she began crying and asked him to call her back. So he called his girlfriend: the message went to voicemail.

“After 72 days of trudging alone on the pack and pressure ice, at times swimming through the ‘inky black water’ of the Arctic Ocean over three miles deep,” Lewis observes, “he had no cheering squad, no flag to plant.”

Now that I could relate to. Because we are all, in our way, walking to the North Pole"...


Thursday, September 11, 2014


Check it out, folks: the PROFESSIONAL trailer for my latest book: STRIPPED: CANCER, CULTURE, AND THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING.

[Note: as of August, 2015, this version of Stripped  has been retired. A new, though virtually similar version, has now been published by Loyola Press].

Angela Wood and Ben Guzman of SMALLMEDIUMLARGE PRODUCTIONS  created, filmed, edited, and pulled this whole amazing thing together.

In 2000, I was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer. I went against medical advice and refused chemo, radiation, and Tamoxifen.

On a related note, in the New Yorker this week is a piece by Jerome Groopman called "The Transformation: A breakthrough in leukemia treatment."

He talks about how the prevailing thought about cancer, up to very recently, has been to kill the cancer. But now they're discovering, with a certain kind of leukemia, and a new drug, how to make the cells mature and heal.

"The Agios drug, instead of killing the leukemic cells--immature blood cells gone haywire--coaxes them into maturing into functioning blood cells. Cancerous cells traditionally have been viewed as a lost cause, fit only for destruction The emerging research on A.M.L. [a kind of leukemia] suggest that at least come cancer cells might be redeemable [emphasis mine]: they still carry their original programming and can be pressed back onto a pathway to health."

Later, Groopman notes: "The images at Agios showed robust marrow: the leukemic cells had been forced to mature and had reverted to functioning white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. They were transformed [emphasis mine]."

Then he writes about a precursor to the new Agios drug, a drug called ATRA that had been developed thirty-five years ago.

"The idea for ATRA grew out of research by Zhen-yi Wang and Zhu Chen, of the Ruijin Hospital, in Shanghai. There were studying acute promyelocytic leukemia and wondered whether there was another way to treat the cancerous cells besides killing them. Want was inspired by a passage from the Analects of Confucius: 'If you use laws to direct the people, and punishments to control them, they will merely try to evade the punishments and will have no sense of shame. But if by virtue you guide them, and by the rites you control them, there will be a sense of shame and of right.' Wang later wrote, 'If cancer cells are considreed elements with 'bad' social behavior in our body, 'educating' rather than killing these elements might represent a much better solution."

These are exactly the kind of thoughts that came to me in my own 'walk' with cancer-- except my own inspiration was the nonviolent Christ of the Gospels!

The order and harmony of the universe applies from the macro to the micro, from the cellular level to the global level, from our innermost hearts to the laws that govern the movement of the sun and stars.

Monday, September 8, 2014



"I shall tell you something else which is very important for busy people like you who say they have no time to pray.

Try to look at the reality in which you live--your work, your commitments, your relationships, your meetings, your walks, the shopping, the newspapers, the children--as a single whole from whcih you cannot disengage yourself, a whole which you have to think about.

I shall say more: a whole by means of which God speaks to you and through which He guides you.

So it is not by fleeing that you will find God more easily, but it is by changing your heart that you will see things differently.

The desert in the city is only possible on these terms: that you see things with a new eye, touch them with a new spirit, love them with a new heart."


"I know you've got a question to ask me and I know what it is.

You want to know why the innocent have to suffer, why the poor have to suffer, why the Just Man had to die

I used not to know the reason for these things.

When I discovered the reason it was Christ Himself who told me.

You ask Him this evening; He will tell you

And perhaps He will add the phrase which meant so much to me when He was explaining that universal salvation depends on the vocation of some to pay for all.

'You shall not escape from love.'

If in the Kingdom we ask the innocent who suffered for sinners, the poor who paid for the rich, the tortured who shed blood for the powerful, whether it is just or mistaken to pay so dear, we shall hear them tell us:

'It was necessary so that no-one might escape from Love.' "

--Carlo CarrettoThe Desert in the City


Thursday, September 4, 2014


all photos © Mikoko Hara
from a current exhibit at the Getty Center: "IN FOCUS: TOKYO."
Hara was born in 1967, graduated from Keio University,
and is interested in "distance and isolation of people in public spaces – especially of women."
these photos, which I found extraordinarily moving, are from a series called AGNUS DEI
[which as you may know means Lamb of God]

"Duende rises through the body. It burns through the soles of a dancer’s feet, or expands in the torso of a singer It courses through the blood and breakers through a poet’s back like a pair of wings It smokes through the lungs; it scorches the voice; it magnifies the words. It is risky and deathward leaning. “The duende does not come at all unless he sees that death is possible,” [Garcia de] Lorca says (Deep Song). Duende, then, means something like artistic inspiration in the face of death. It has an element of mortal panic and fear. It has the power of wild abandonment. It speaks to an art that touches and transfigures death…”

-Edward Hirsch, TheDemon and the Angel; Searching for the Source of Artistic Inspiration

all photos © Mikoko Hara