Wednesday, December 30, 2015


not drawn by friend's kid but it fits

A friend reports that his four-year-old son recently drew a picture of T. Rex who is saying, "Hey, ixyouws me!" (Hey excuse me).

You parents out there experience this stuff all the time, but this tickles me pink.

Another reader sent a link to a stellar story by Tim Gautreaux in The Atlantic: "Attitude Adjustment."

It also has kids in it.

Sunday, December 27, 2015


As 2015 draws to a close, here's the beginning of this week's arts and culture column:

"Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time" is a 2001 documentary about an artist who makes “sculptures” out of, among other things, leaves, rocks, sand, sticks, roots and skeins of sheep’s wool, many of which fall in upon themselves, or melt, or are borne away on the incoming tide.

In the opening scene it’s 4 a.m., somewhere on the coast of Nova Scotia, and Goldsworthy is hard at work. He bites off pieces of icicle; shapes them with the heat from his lips and tongue and hands; and connects them, barely breathing, until he’s formed a spiral — a spiral of ice! — to glorify the rays of the rising sun that will melt it.

And in turn the sun glorifies the sculpture, brings it to life, and completes the process of creation. “I didn’t realize it would shine through on both sides!” exclaims Goldsworthy, who is willing to let the vagaries of wind, rain and air both bring his works to fruition and destroy them.


Wednesday, December 23, 2015


These are shots of Loose Park in Kansas City.

I couldn't get over the trees there--and my new apartment in Pasadena likewise overlooks a crazy expanse of tall old-growth black walnuts, olive trees, possibly ash, a lemon tree, and a persimmon which is festooned at the moment with orange fruit. I went out and picked all the ripe ones yesterday and plan to make a persimmon pudding for Christmas dinner.

To which ten are expected, and maybe a few strays. Prime rib, ham, Opaline's celery root soup, red cabbage with hazelnuts, brussels sprouts with bacon-herb bread crumbs, cranberry orange cake et cetera.

One of the guests has been tasked with bringing a table and chairs as I have none. In fact, I don't even have a bed yet and have been sleeping on a friend's futon.

What I do have is a fully tricked-out kitchen, bathroom, desk, big green chair and Christmas decorations galore. Also a balcony of beautiful succulents and agaves. My friend Gerry has pledged to help me start a garden out back! But all in good time.

I got to go to Twin Towers jail last night with my friend Joan and share our experience, strength and hope with some of the alcoholic/addict inmates.

One guy came up afterward, took my hand, and said, "Thank you so much. I've been doing meth since I was 14. I'm 30 now and I'm getting out January 4th and I want to be a counselor. But I'm afraid I'll go right back to my friends who drink and do drugs."

Our drive for friendship and connection and love is so strong that we'll even go to people who aren't really, can't really, be our friends. I know what that's like. I still struggle with it in certain ways. Maybe in fact that's our central struggle as humans--wanting more from people than they can give us. Wanting other people to fulfill a longing that is really for something greater than ourselves. Thus relationships falter, we turn to shopping, food, drink, drugs, sex, guns. Wars start. The scientists try to engineer imperfection out of the human person.

To be human is to BE imperfect. That's our glory, that we stumble forward anyway, making art, telling stories, composing music, gazing up at the night stars. Trying to connect.

Possibly the very best thing about my recent move is that I have discovered St. Elizabeth's of Hungary up on North Lake Ave. I went to 8:30 am Mass one day and found it is held in a little whitewashed side chapel. Dark beams, big heavy wooden cushioned chairs with scallop shell backs, old Colonial light fixtures, clay tile floor--just primo. I told a neighbor/friend about it and he reported back that the chapel is OPEN (he visited after dropping his two-year-old son off at day care) from 9 am to 9 pm. I've crept up there in the dark a few times now, around 6, and had the whole place to myself and said Evening Prayer, and then just sat, the red light burning by the tabernacle.

I thought of Therese of Lisieux sitting in the chapel at the abbey school she attended, the one where the other girls for whatever reason didn't like her, and thinking, at the age of ten: Wasn't Jesus my only Friend? And how when someone once asked, "What do you say to Jesus when you pray?" she thought for a minute, then replied: "I don't say much of anything. I just love him."

So after this busy year with a lot of travel and a lot of unsettledness of various kinds, I want to give myself a couple of days before the rush, work and buzz of Christmas day to be quiet. To love him. To reflect upon the fact that the whole world still acknowledges, still grinds to a kind of halt, still strings garlands of lights, still in its way celebrates the coming of a baby.

And may the world light a candle for that guy who started doing meth at 14, and all like him. That he feels the hand of a Friend. That he finds his way.

Sunday, December 20, 2015


This week's arts and culture piece is a reflection on The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day.

Here's the opening:

On the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1932, Dorothy Day visited the National Shrine and prayed that “some way would be opened for me to work for the poor and the oppressed.”

When she returned from the National Shrine to her apartment in New York, the French peasant-intellectual Peter Maurin was waiting on her doorstep, and on May 1, 1933, the lay Catholic Worker movement was born: first a newspaper, then a soup kitchen, then the first “house of hospitality” from which a worldwide lay movement would eventually blossom.

Dorothy’s checkered past — the Bohemian nightlife, the flirtation with Communism, the abortion, the 1927 conversion, the common-law marriage — were behind her. She’d given up Forster Batterham, the resolutely atheistic love of her life, because of his refusal to sanction the baptism of the child they’d conceived together, Tamar. The separation was wrenching, the hardest thing that she would ever do, she later said.


Thursday, December 17, 2015


Years ago, an old friend was dying of cirrhosis back in New England.  In "real life," he'd been restless, flighty, evasive, tormented (as is so often true of alcoholics, he was also handsome, charismatic, talented, funny, and smart).

He was lying in a hospital bed and I could hardly believe he was alone and the snow was falling gently and that I could sit quietly by his side. People who are dying lie still and are approachable in a way that live, healthy people almost never are.

Christ allowed himself to be that poor--Flannery O'Connor entitled one of her stories "You Can't Be Any Poorer than Dead."

And in the dying he allows us to sit with him, to talk to him, to pray with him, to touch him, to eat him.

astro burger/Christmas star

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


What with my recent move to a new apt., travel last week to KC, social and work obligations ET CETERA, I'm about two weeks behind...Thus I will not be crafting my hand-made rubber stamp and construction paper Christmas cards this year and sending them out with a dear Madonna-and-child stamp!

I did, last weekend, however, manage to unpack my Christmas decorations. In the course of this splendid task I unearthed, nestled beside a stack of old cards (which I keep, year to year), a tangle of lights, and a several small boxes of vintage bulbs the second page of what had clearly been a two-page essay. I recognized it instantly--a piece by my friend  James Stephen Behrens, a former diocesan priest in NJ and for many years now a Cistercian monk at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Georgia.

James Stephen is a photographer, a writer, and a close observer: of deer, cobwebs, shadows, stars, people.

I emailed him right away and asked if I could run his essay. It's entitled "Christmas 2014" but it could just as well be called "Christmas is Forever."

Like Mary, he said yes.

Here it is, with my thanks and my joy.

There is a strip mall not far from the monastery.  I was there a week or so before Christmas.  Most of the stores are vacant and have been that way for a long time. The “For Lease” signs in the windows are faded.  I parked the car and walked around a bit.  I looked in a few windows and the views were all pretty much the same – gatherings of dust, empty coffee cups on the floor, dismantled shelves, scraps of paper.  When I walked back to my car I noticed something strange.  All the tall lampposts were decorated for Christmas.  Each one had a variation of a Christmas theme.  Some had big foam Santa Clauses.  Others had silver bells and red and green ribbons, all covered with glitter that sparkled in the sunlight.The big parking lot was almost empty of cars.  I wondered about the decorations.  I suppose that each year they are put up on the lampposts, even if there are no shoppers, no stores, no Christmas music streaming from loudspeakers.

I suppose that one very important dimension of Christmas thrives on fullness.  I know that there are malls, restaurants, churches, banks and credit card companies that thrive during the Christmas Season.  They promise the best that this Season can bring, with bows and ribbons, discounts galore, deferred payments and Christmas bonuses. But there is another dimension to Christmas that draws near to places that are empty, deserted and in need of the hope that only the meaning of Christmas can bring.  Emptiness gnaws at us, like a hunger that we are incapable of satisfying, of filling, with our own resources.  And yet this expectation rises in the human heart at this time of the year. Maybe a good place to ponder this dimension is an abandoned strip mall, a place off the busy and thriving places of the Christmas map, a place where the only music that can be made is a Christmas carol as it plays on the car radio or goes through one’s mind as the emptiness waits for a fullness that may be a long time in coming.

I am listening to the radio as I am stringing these words along.  Over one-hundred and forty children were killed in an attack on a school by the Taliban.  It happened in the Pakistani city of Peshawar.  It is one of many tragic stories that ride the airwaves along side the carols of good cheer and wondrous gifts to come.  It is hard for me to separate the bad news from the good.  Seen from a place far above us, the earth must look like a beautiful place, a place where city lights twinkle back at the light of the stars and the vast oceans glisten as the tides rise and fall.  The wounds born by its people cannot be seen.  And nothing at all seems to be crippled by the ache of emptiness.  But upon a closer look, the earth and its inhabitants struggle to fill the emptiness that hollows the heart and deadens the mind.

There are lights at this time of the year.  Lights on trees, lights on homes, lights in churches, synagogues, and in gatherings of the faithful all over the earth.  These, too, can be seen from afar.  And Scripture tells us that a Child was found by three Wise Men who followed the moving light of a star across a vast desert, and when it settled above a little town, they knew the Child awaited them. And they worshipped him, and brought him gifts.

It is the Light of that Child that makes everything different, makes of all things not what they seem to be. For this Light that is Life, when brought to bear upon the darkest corners of human life, promises that there will be redemption, that the light of goodness, of God, will overcome whatever darkness we see about us. The Light will fill our emptiness and we will someday learn not to assuage our emptiness with excess, with violence, with the murder of the innocent.

I like to think that the lights and decorations of that little strip mall are okay, even though no one comes to the place. For I like to think that our lives are kind of like that mall. We wander in the midst of a poorly decorated world, a world like a half-baked Christmas awaiting a crowd. But if you pull off the road and into the mall, and think just a bit, and maybe pray, you will better know why God came to us as one of us. He can be most clearly seen in the empty and abandoned places of life, places that we normally avoid when sales are non-existent and the frenzied crowds at the mega-malls. And in the silence of that little empty mall, his message is barely a whisper, but it is clear: Christmas is for all, the rich and the poor, the empty and half-hearted, as free gift, and it is eternal, and no darkness will overcome it. But you have to pull off the highway just a bit, and stay for a while in a place that life seems to have passed by. God is waiting there, as he waits everywhere, amidst the lonely decorations and the row of closed stores – a place that looks to be waiting for something real good to happen, when in fact, it already has, a Big Time arrival, from afar.

--James Stephen Behrens, OCSO

Friday, December 11, 2015



This week's arts and culture column is about what may be the tallest piece of folk art in the world: L.A.'s own Watts Towers.

The piece begins:

Mystery surrounds L.A.’s Watts Towers, starting with the name of the passionate visionary who built them — Simon Rodilla, Sabato “Sam” Rodia, Don Simon? — and continuing to his exact whereabouts from 1910-1918, the number of years he worked on the towers (33 or 34?), and the forces that drove him.

A self-taught laborer, Rodia was born in Italy in 1875 (1879?) and came to the United States at the age of 15.

He worked the coal mines in Pennsylvania until a mining accident claimed his brother, then made his way to Seattle where he married and had three children. The marriage collapsed in 1912, possibly due to Rodia’s then-active alcoholism. After working as an itinerant day laborer for several years, he migrated to Los Angeles and bought a wedge-shaped piece of land in the working-class neighborhood of Watts, near the railroad tracks.


Thursday, December 10, 2015



Monday afternoon I was at my new apt. in Pasadena minding my own business, doing four or five things at once, and trying to prepare for my trip to Kansas City the next day.

Whilst arguing with my car insurance lady Isabel over the increase in my premium, I thought to saute up a boneless pork cutlet from Trader Joe's, douse it with mango chutney, and proceed to wolf it down for some much-needed sustenance.

Suddenly, in the midst of, "You're trying to tell me I'm going to pay forty dollars more A MONTH!?" I realized something extremely untoward was happening: namely that a giant hunk of unchewed meat had wedged in my throat and that I could neither swallow nor kind of breathe.

"I'M CHOKING," I announced mid-sentence to Isabel. "I'M CHOKING!!!"

Isabel said, "Oh my God, I'll call 911" and I lurched out to my balcony where I tried to get down a swallow of tea, choked some more and started keening as best I could (my airway was blocked) in the loudest voice I have perhaps ever employed in my all my 63 years, HELP ME!!! HELP ME!!!

My new downstairs neighbor Laura, who was setting out on some errands, jumped out of her car and came to my rescue as did a next-door neighbor, Jesse, and boy am I going to bake them both some cookies when I return to L.A.

I retched and choked and made the most ungodly huffing/spitting/grunting noises while Laura called 911 and the paramedics came--a first in my tenure on earth--and insisted upon ferrying me to the hospital.

"Can't you just--HARRRCCHHH--do the Heimlich?" I rasped, mindful of the fact that if I wasn't going to die, I had a long list of tasks to complete before bedtime.

But they wouldn't, or couldn't, or doing the Heimlich isn't protocol, so this team of competent, consoling, handsome young men transported me to Huntington Memorial where the ER doctor's assistant administered a couple of teeny sprays of nitroglycerine, which fyi dilates the esophagus and after my 45 minutes or so of extreme discomfort the offending wad of food dropped down, liberating my trachea, and let me tell you, the ability to swallow freely is a wondrous delightful thing for which we should all give daily if not hourly thanks.

I hightailed it out of there ASAP and had a beautiful couple-of-mile walk home. Isabel called on the way to make sure I was okay and how nice is that from your insurance agent?

Back at my apartment, it was weird seeing the spilled tea all over the balcony and half a cold pork cutlet still sitting on the counter and everything quiet and how quickly things can take a turn in this vale of tears and how differently the afternoon could have turned out. [Here's a youtube on how to save yourself if choking alone at home].

And of course it was a wake-up call; to slow down, to quit trying to do too many things at once and too fast, to chew my food.

A little over 24 hours later, I was sitting at Jack Stack's in Kansas City partaking of a gigantic feast of stellar barbecue, courtesy of the fine fine folks of St. Peter's Parish. I ate slowly and carefully and tried not to talk with my mouth full which is not my forte. Cheesy corn, baked beans, fried onion rings, fried mushrooms, cole slaw, broiled shrimp, salmon salad, brisket, ribs, turkey, ham, pickles, broccoli, frosted carrot cake, molten lava cake and coffee.

I refrained (also not my forte) from regaling the guests with my "event" from the day before and the only awkward moment came when, among these 15 or so civic-proud Kansas Cityans who I couldn't help noticing seemed bizarrely focused on one particular subject, I thought to ask--"So who are the Royals?"

I might as well have asked, "What is the name of that big round yellow thing that comes up every morning?" but they forgave me and we went on to the fascinating subject of the long-standing enmity (also news to me) between the states of Missouri and Kansas.

KC has a prosperous, welcoming feel and the spacious, beautifully proportioned mid-West homes, many built by the lumber barons of yore, are decked out to the max with Christmas lights. I'm staying near the Plaza and could happily walk around for hours.

Everyone has been incredibly gracious and kind.

And I am grateful.


Sunday, December 6, 2015



Harder to breathe
near the summit, and harder

to remember
where you came from,

why you came

harder, and harder to say
the word “I”
with a straight face,
and sleep–

who can sleep. Who has time

to prepare for the big day
when he will be required
to say goodbye to everyone, including
the aforementioned pronoun, relinquish
all earthly attachment
completely, and witness
the end of the world–

harder in other words
not to love it

not to love it so much

--Franz Wright

Friday, December 4, 2015


The field trips continue!

This time I traveled to a land far, far away for those of us who live on the East side of L.A.: San Pedro, hard by the Pacific and a 25-mile drive, where I visited with the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Here's how the piece starts:

In 1839, Jeanne Jugan opened her home to an elderly blind woman in France. The order known as the Little Sisters of the Poor was born.

In 1905, the Little Sisters opened a home in L.A.: St. Ann’s in Boyle Heights. When St. Ann’s was threatened with closure due to expanded fire safety requirements, the sisters began praying to St. Joseph for a new place.

Soon after the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, under Cardinal Manning, gave the sisters a chunk of land in San Pedro, high on a bluff overlooking the Pacific.

And in 1979, the Jeanne Jugan Residence opened. Currently, the home boasts nine sisters,110 residents and three levels of care: independent living, assisted care and skilled nursing. The requirements are simple: you have to be 65 or older, and with few financial resources.

Following a recent 11 a.m. weekday Mass in their chapel, three of the sisters shared what the work means to them.


I find the older I get,
 the more I'm drawn to make friends with people
who care for the sick and the dying...

Tuesday, December 1, 2015


When a worm is looking for a sexual partner, its primary criterion is length. A pair of worms slithering alongside one another, belly to belly, head to tail. Because worms are hermaphrodites--they have both sets of sexual organs--they must arrange their bodies in such a way that the male organs of one line up with the female organs of the other. These sexual organs--really just tiny pores--tend to be located around the twelfth segment, between the worm's head and its clitellum. Once the worms are in position, the male organs release sperm, which is taken in by the female organs. For some worms, including the nightcrawler Lumbricus terrestris, the pores aren't designed to line up precisely, and seminal fluid has to travel along a groove that is formed when the worm contracts the longitudinal muscles in its body, forcing drops of fluid towards their final destination one segment at a time. Many species have several pairs of female apertures, and copulating worms will adjust their position a few times so that sperm is deposited in each one.

--Amy Stewart, The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms, p. 69.

I knew you'd want to know!

Friday, November 27, 2015




Fr. Frank Sabatté is a Paulist Fathers priest and a random-stitch portrait embroiderer who heads up an arts collective in NYC called Openings.

In fostering the nexus between spirituality and creativity, “Openings believes that the connections between creativity and transcendence foster critical conversations that have the potential to unite individuals across cultural divides.”

What could be more “Catholic” than fostering  conversation around and about creativity?

Fr. Sabatté grew up in San Jose and studied art at the College of Fine Arts, UCLA. That was when he got to know the Paulist Fathers at the Newman Center.

What struck me about them was how human they were. They were real, and they were amazing preachers. One priest in particular, Fr. Ken McGuire, became my spiritual director and eventually, a dear friend. He had an amazingly brilliant mind. We formed a community, a bunch of us. I’m 64. So I went through the old church.

He  joined the Paulist Fathers,  was ordained in 1980, and spent 26 years at  various assignments: Connecticut, Berkeley,  UC San Diego, Tucson.

That was when the Paulist Fathers said, "Why don’t you go to our mother hosue in NY and try to get something together with artists?" I didn’t like the idea of living in New York at all! I’m a Californian. But in 2006 I went.  

He started by meeting with a young parishioner, a convert who wanted to start something for artists. They “kind of brainstormed.” He also started to visit artists, particularly young-adult open studios at the major NYC schools. He’d simply go out, chat, meet people. As a devout introvert, that was a challenge.

I deliberately did not wear a collar because I believe that what a priest wears is not for him but for the people he serves. Fr. Isaac Hecker, our founder, said a Paulist should dress like a gentleman of the time.

My intention at the beginning was basically, “I’ve got to get this program going.” Then, I had this experience with a young artist. We were talking, and in the back of my mind I was thinking “Maybe I could get her to join my group.” And after I left, it hit me like a thunderbolt. I thought “She knew that I had an agenda. She knew that my program was what mattered.” So I dropped it. From then on the program didn’t matter. What mattered was the person standing in front of me.

Now I say, “Tell me about your work.” I don’t ask, “What does it mean?” I say, “What’s pulling you? What’s sparking inside of you? What’s nudging you?” And then we get to talking. And then I introduce myself. I say, "My name is Frank. I’m an artist and a Catholic priest. And then the conversation can continue. 

Eventually he and four or five other people formed a team and started a discussion group at St. Paul the Apostle, the third largest church in Manhattan. That first group went up and down and then died. Fr. Sabatté had expected as much. But they’d already built up a network. And in spite of the fact that most of the young adults he’d met were very nervous about the institutional church, they’d already had three very successful exhibits.

 St. Paul the Apostle is like a cathedral. It’s huge. We put the art in the side chapels.  The first event, in 2006, was with eight artists. At the second reception the following year we had sixteen artists. In 2011, we had twenty-four artists and 800 at the reception. Young artists, hipster types, parishioners, Catholics, ex-Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists. And we all hung out. Food, wine.

The root of the word “conversation” is conversion, which is different from proselytizing. In a conversation, the Spirit will change both of us.

About ten years ago Fr. Sabatté was going through some major life changes. On sabbatical in L.A., he went with a friend to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Inside he saw the tapestries of the saints by John Nava.

I was stunned. I said, I’ve got to do something like this. I did some research, and discovered a form of Chinese embroidery, developed in the ‘20’s, called random-stitch embroidery. The layered stitches, all painstakingly done by hand, are often used for portraiture.   

Later he discovered free motion embroidery, thought to combine the two methods, and acquired a machine with an adjustable stitch. He begins by tracing the design from a photograph, then drawing it free-hand on canvas.

I did some faces, the old priests I lived with. But I didn’t want to just do “religious” art. “Cambodia, 1975,” is a young girl based on a photograph taken by the Khmer Rouge. They used to photograph their victims before they tortured and killed them. This maybe thirteen-year-old girl seems to look right through you.

“The Magdalene” depicts an exhausted, strong, sensitive young woman you might spot riding home on a city bus. He’s done Bathsheba, an interracial couple named Joey and Lisa, and “Sweat Shop Girl.” He’s done Fr. Isaac Hecker and his own wry, bow-tied father.

Every artist lives in the constant tension between solitude and community. “Openings” begins to bridge the gap.  

For more, visit


Wednesday, November 25, 2015


The morning before Thanksgiving morning is always special: the last hush before "the holidays" begin in earnest.

I read a passage from Caryll Houselander this week about the Parable of the Sower and of how one way the seed can be choked out is by overfocusing on our worries, our "cares."

I'll be moving into a new apartment over the weekend and I thought of all the things that have been occupying me as of late: Will Carlos and his friend show up with the truck at Public Storage as planned at 9 on Saturday? I have a backup plan but my friend Ellen is coming to help and WHAT IF I INCONVENIENCE HER? How to get the best deal on AT&T wifi? (I've already called three different numbers and received three different answers). Where (and freakin when) should I shop for a dining room table, a bed, possibly a new desk as the old one may have been damaged in the last transit? I'll have a longer commute to certain things: where will I find the time? Whoops, don't forget to stock up on cleaning supplies!

Those tiny details have at times choked out the overarching glory of the fact that I HAVE AN APARTMENT. I have money to pay for it, a car, good health, a life that is so rich and full the only real "problem" is that I can barely take it all in.

I am seeing many people I love over the next few days.

This afternoon I'm going with my friend Joe, with whom I've shared many holidays, to his favorite spot: the lunch buffet at The Sizzler.

Tomorrow I'll go to the clubhouse where I hang out and enjoy some fellowship with my sister and brother on-the-mend alcoholics.

Then I'll join my friend Donald and his extended family and my dear friend Tensie and her son Thomas and many others for a feast at his place in Glassell Park. I have all the ingredients for the persimmon and pomegranate salad I'll bring (talk about cares!).

All the while I'll be reflecting on a year that's been full of two of my least favorite things: asking for help and receiving.

How much easier, safer, and more secure to "give." But the truth is I'm not a very good giver either! I'm not a natural sharer, I'm not naturally generous: definitely not of money, not of heart. I want to give, if at all, my way: on my time, in the way that, given my temperament, energy level, doesn't overly tax.

That's how I want to receive, too.

But if we're very lucky, we're called to give and to receive in ways that stretch us into deep discomfort.

For me, the discomfort often means exercising superhuman effort (and often failing miserably) to be gracious and patient when everything in me wants to scream, If you're going to give to me, just give and then leave me alone! Or on the other end, For God's sake, haven't I given you ENOUGH of my time, my energy, my heart? I'M BUSY. I'm overwhelmed. I've already given you my widows' last two mites while I'm trying to write a weekly column, ghost-write a book, change over every account/contact I have to a new address, have my gas and electricity turned on, respond to your request for time, money, love. And now YOU WANT MORE!

You want me to look at and comment upon MORE photos, youtubes, links; to pray for your alcoholic brother, your mother-in-law with Alzheimer's, your wayward priest; to plug your charity, attend your fundraiser, blurb your book, listen to your story.

Oh. You want me to visit the prisoner, to give a drop of water to the thirsty, to sit by the bed of the sick.

Oh. Just as the world from the day I was born has done for me.

I thought especially this past week of the people who have supported my blog--in every way, but I want to particularly thank those who have done so financially. I have three readers who give each month and how incredibly beautiful and generous and kind is that?

I have a few who a couple or three times a year donate generously. I have many and you know who you are and so do I who have given and continue to give over the years. Many of you correspond with me from time to time. Of course more deeply than and/or way apart from the money are the goodwill, the silent support, the prayers, the Eucharistic flow--for as St. Ignatius of Loyala said, "Love is an exchange of gifts."

Still, money is good and when folks donate cash one of the things I get to do is pass on a bit of it.

To that end, I rec'd an email this morning from Elizabeth Alex, Community Outreach and Media Relations Director of Unbound, asking me for a plug ("I was hungry and you fed me...).

So here you go.

Unbound is an organization that connects sponsors with kids, young adults and the elderly in areas of the world that you think things are bad here have NOTHING. Thirty bucks a month, which makes a huge difference: a new roof, an indoor toilet.

Unbound hooks you up with an actual person whose name, age, face, and daily life you can know and "see." They make it super easy to donate each month, write letters or emails to your sponsee, send a birthday card and photos.

I took a media trip to Honduras with Unbound earlier in the year. You can read about it herehere, here, and here.

One upshot of the trip was that I now sponsor 9-year-old Brenda Valasquez.

Recently I received a letter from Brenda.

"Thank you so much," she wrote.

"Last week we bought some pots."


Monday, November 23, 2015



Happy Thanksgiving Week!

Here's a link to an interview I did with CNA for my latest book, Stripped.

And here's a piece I was invited to write on the book, and spent several hours working up, and that the guy didn't like.

He could be right that the piece doesn't work. I really labored over it and sometimes that can be a good sign and sometimes that can be a bad sign.

I would have earned 25 cents a word (that's after 20 years of toiling at my craft) and of course now "earn" nothing.

Except that yesterday I rec'd a link (thank you, John Tallman) to a book called The Beethoven Factor: The New Positive Psychology of Hardiness, Happiness, Healing, and Hope  by Paul Pearsall. The blurb runs:

Conventional wisdom insists that the statement is false, that stress is a thief robbing us of our ability to relax and enjoy life to its fullest. But for centuries, poets and philosophers have celebrated the ups and downs of life as the very essence of living, the spice that enables us to taste life fully.

So who's right? The new, fast-emerging positive psychology movement is affirming the timeless wisdom of the philosophers by showing that it is not stress itself preventing us from enjoying life, but our negative reaction to stress that does the damage. Positive psychology confirms that rather than shrinking from adversity, we must become engaged by it-and thrive through it-before we can savor all the sweetness life has to offer.

This is something I've pondered a lot lately, the equating of "spirituality" with "equanimity": a kind of preternatural calm. As I ask in one of my books, was Van Gogh "sane"? Was Beethoven "calm"? No! The follower of Christ consents to live in ongoing TENSION. It's no feat to sit in a cave and shut the world out. The feat is to be kind to one another and to give everything we have and are to our work even when we're in terrible anxiety, fear, irritability etc. 

The feat is to be true to our inner compass--our faith, if you like--when we can't know how that being true will pan out. And when the stakes are life and death.

For the artist--for all of us if we're tuned in to drama of creation--the stakes are life and death for everything. 

I was reaching for something in the piece below that I maybe didn't quite reach. But I will stake my life on the reaching. The reaching--as apparently Pearsall's book corroborates--is beyond all price. 

So here you go!

Recently I attended a memorial service for a friend who had died of a heroin overdose. The intro was given by a meditation teacher. “There is no birth and no death,” she informed us.

That’s an attitude that strikes me as strangely hostile to life. It’s a stance that says I’m just going to block my ears and go lalalalalalalala and that way you can’t hurt me and wake me up when it’s over. Nothing matters because nothing ever really happens.

How very different from Catholicism that says, Birth is real, death is all, all too real.

How very different from Christ, who says: “Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come” [Mt. 24:42].

Staying awake means consenting to participate, minute by minute, in the almost unendurable tension of a drama the end of which we can’t know and can’t foresee.

That’s the story I tell in my latest memoir: Stripped: At the Intersection of Culture, Cancer, and Christ.

People see “cancer” and they tend to picture a story about chemo and radiation.

But my own story is this. In 2000, I was diagnosed with Stage 1, Grade 1 breast cancer. I weighed the risk of recurrence against the “benefits” of the proposed treatments—and after weeks of research, spiritual guidance and prayer I went against medical advice.  I had outpatient surgery and then I declined the recommended treatment: chemo, radiation, and a five year round of a heavy-duty estrogen drug called Tamoxifen.

At the time, the doctors told me in so many words that I was crazy. Fifteen years later, the medical community is now endorsing this same “wait and see” stance for early stage breast cancer.

But Stripped is no anti-medicine screed. Nor is it even a book about cancer, or only cancer. It’s a book about the contemplative life. It’s an invitation to ask ourselves what Master we serve.

Hearing the world “malignant” instantly stripped me down: emotionally, spiritually. Coming face to face so suddenly with my mortality pruned me, in a way I wouldn’t have asked for, from many old ideas and worldly attachments.

One phenomenon I pondered deeply in the weeks after my diagnosis was our cultural grounding in the paradigm of war: the war against poverty, the war against drugs, the war against cancer, the war against terror.

I didn’t notice us winning in any of those areas.

In fact, with over fifty percent of our discretionary national budget going to the military, with our manic insistence on gun ownership, with our craving for and fascination with violence, we were clearly only generating more violence, more massacres.

To be diagnosed with cancer is to be expected, like a good military-minded citizen, to fight a battle. I found I wasn’t much interested.

The opposite of fighting a battle doesn’t mean accepting the “unacceptable,” being a doormat, or lapsing into weary resignation: it means staying awake to reality. “Resist not evil,” Christ said, and I think he meant let’s not waste our energy fighting; let’s use our energy to live in alert, creative, love. Let’s direct our energy toward what we’re for, not what we’re against.

Far less does creative love mean the choice is between Jesus and the doctors. No, no, no. The question is whether we’re going to serve the master of fear or the Master of love.

The master of fear told me to go along with the harsh treatments even though, given my low risk of recurrence, my intuition and heart told me they’d do more harm than good. The Master of love said: Do the research, run your decision by people you trust and love, and continue to go out and spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

In the temple, Christ spoke “with authority.” In the end, that authority allowed me to go a different way than a culture that is increasingly based on the commodification of the human body, the human person.

One form that took was declining the proferred medical treatments.

But the deeper form was that, in the wake of my cancer diagnosis, I lost—let go of—my fourteen-year marriage.

In “Letter to a Young Poet,” Rainer Maria Rilke advised, Ask yourself in your deepest hour, Must I write? If the answer is yes, “then build your life according to this necessity.”

The answer was yes. That yes led me to face the fact that some women are able of two vocations: a marriage/family, and writing.

I wasn’t one of them.

Letting go of the worldly emotional and financial security, social status, and companionship of a marriage was a way harder decision than how to treat my cancer. But I wouldn’t trade the perpetual creative tension, the minute-by-minute adventure of the writing life, the terrible fear, as I age, of being cast out of the herd, for anything on earth.

Because the battle I HAVE been willing to fight is the battle St. Paul referred to in 2 Timothy 4:6-7:

For I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand.

I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015



I have been right out straight looking for an apartment, meeting various deadlines, dealing as we all do with the steady stream of daily obligations, interruptions, requests for help ET CETERA.

Yesterday morning I thought I had a clear few hours and my fondest wish with a few clear hours is always to write.  Instead, as usual, a variety of items demanding my immediate attention came up (a nun looking for some poetry suggestions, a woman from Vermont who's coming to LA for heart surgery and wondered if she could stay with me (NO! But I will come visit you while you're here), a personal (right) letter from the founder of wikipedia asking for (more) money.

In the midst of all that came the following, from my young San Antonio, TX, friend: the amazing Mr. Greg Camacho.


How are you? I've got some good news!

Three weeks ago I went to El Paso for my cousin's wedding. You may recall that last year I reported to you a reflection on a short trip to the famed Whoopee Bowl Antique Mall, on the way back from Albuquerque, cut shorter by their not being open on Sundays.

Wellllllllll. It turns out the Whoopee Bowl was only ten minutes from our hotel in EP, and my parents and I arrived Friday evening. So Saturday morning, mere hours before my cousin tied the knot, we went.

The nice looking giraffe greeted us with a smile. Chrome Mary stood watch over her ramshackle children. For about an hour it was pure, at-least-seven-kinds-of-weird bliss. One of those weird ways was entirely due to the stone tower aquarium with fish swimming inside, and a slightly portentous leak sprouting a sizable offshoot of lichen. Elsewhere, two Santas, a gorilla, and a Calavera Catrina overlooked a crèche. All this eccentricity would seem simply gauche if it weren't for the tender zebra nuzzling up to the Christ child.

As we walked through the aisles of old and interesting, often zany miscellany, I remembered your comment that all of this could only be part of the Good News, and I thanked God that a place like this exists.

Attached are some pictures. I've left out others in case you happen to stop by the Whoopee Bowl on your own - I don't want to give away all the surprises!

All the best and more,


One more time, I remembered life IS the "interruptions," and laughed out loud with delight, and gave thanks.

Let's all hold out our hands over the dear head of Greg C. and give him a blessing!