Wednesday, April 29, 2015



Just as waiting seems to be the true state of the motionless contemplative, so doubt seems to be that of the flâneur...Like an ascetic animal he roams through unknown neighbourhoods until he collapses, totally exhuasted, in the foreign, cold room that awaits him.
--Walter Benjamin


Monday, April 27, 2015



Every so often I hear from a woman who says How can you belong to a Church that doesn’t allow women to be priests?

My answer is Man, if you want to be priest, go for it! No-one’s stopping you. To be a priest is to be constantly scourged, constantly to stagger under a heavy cross, constantly to comfort others with no-one but the Good Shepherd to comfort you, to undergo a constant and ongoing death.

It is to know your time is not your own, your body is not your own, your life is not your own. In fact, this is precisely the invitation Christ extends to all of us.

Being a priest—a bridge, a conduit—for Christ has nothing to do with getting even, being vindicated, having as much worldly power as some other person. In authentic priesthood, there cannot be an iota of anger; of wanting to “set people straight,” of crowing, lording it over, taking first place, winning, triumphing; of sharing or grabbing power.

Being a priest is about utter and complete surrender.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux realized early that, as she diplomatically put it, priests need a lot of help. She vowed to pray for them. She longed to be a priest herself and in her way, achieved her goal. Check out her life, and her death. Check out the lives of Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa and Caryll Houselander and Dorothy Stang and the many other women who, in their way, have been priests for all of us. .

You want to be a priest? Don’t wait for approval or validation or permission. Christ has already given the command to go out and spread the Gospel to the whole world. Go for it. The world is teeming with those in need of pastoral care. You probably live with some of them.

Consent to a self-emptying you would never have chosen on your own and that you could not endure for five minutes on your own. Consent to be available to all, to be misunderstood by many, to live a life that is entirely hidden from the world.

Read The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos. Contemplate you willingness to live with results so meager you wonder whether they are results at all. That’s of course while being in dire pain of various kinds yourself.

In your poverty, be willing to let your witness be an afternoon’s entertainment for rich people. Be open to people’s anger, especially their anger at the Church, their religious hysteria, guilt, shame, despair; their sexual, emotional, vocational, and relational wounds. Let them cast their burden upon you. Carry it in silence, with humility and love. Cast your own burden upon Christ alone.

The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few, as Christ observed.

And as St. Thérèse learned all too well in her short 24 years: “There are no raptures, no ecstasies—only service.”

Sunday, April 26, 2015



“The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world - impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family, just like the lover of the fair sex who builds up his family from all the beautiful women that he has ever found, or that are or are not - to be found; or the lover of pictures who lives in a magical society of dreams painted on canvas. Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.”

--Charles Baudelaire, from The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays

"I might have been myself minus amazement, / that is, / someone completely different.”
--Wyslawa Szymborska


Friday, April 24, 2015


Warsaw’s Ghetto Heroes Monument commemorates
 those who fought against the Nazis during the uprising in 1943.

Here's last week's arts and culture piecefrom The Tidings:

Yom Ha’Shoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, ran this year from the evening of April 15 to the evening of April 16. It marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and is celebrated a week after the end of the Passover holiday.

A book that deserves to be better known is “The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps” (1976). The author, Terrence Des Pres (1939-1987), was an American writer, Holocaust scholar and professor at Colgate University.

In chapters with such titles as “Nightmare and Waking,” “Radical Nakedness” and “Excremental Assault,” Des Pres describes the psychological and spiritual torment endured by the inmates of the Nazi death camps.

Upon arrival, every inmate underwent an almost complete disintegration of personality. Those who survived came to accept that they were in fact awake and not dreaming, and adopted as their mission to figure out how to continue living for the next minute, hour, day.

“With the return to consciousness came a feeling of intense decision.”

Lone wolves, as in “real life,” didn’t make it. The inmates instinctively formed alliances, communities, friendships. They exchanged gifts — a piece of string, a bite of potato. A Treblinka survivor observed: “In our group we shared everything; and the moment one of the group ate something without sharing it, we knew it was the beginning of the end for them.”

Krystyna Zywulska, a survivor of Maidanek, was charged with “card-filing” the incoming prisoners.

In “I Came Back,” she wrote:

“I thought of my arrival and my first impressions of the camp. I knew that a person coming to a camp was afraid of everything and everybody, that she was distracted and terrified. The first word was so important. I decided to be patient, to answer all questions, to calm them and give them courage. My life began to hold meaning.”

In “Twenty Months at Auschwitz,” Pelagia Lewinska wrote:

“From the instant when I grasped the motivating principle … it was as if I had been awakened from a dream. … I felt under orders to live. … And if I did die in Auschwitz, it would be as a human being. I would hold on to my dignity. I was not going to become the contemptible, disgusting brute my enemy wished me to be. … And a terrible struggle began which went on day and night.”

Personal hygiene was out of the question, for example, but many inmates grasped that their very lives depended upon at least making the gesture. They tore a tiny swatch from their coarse striped uniform, dipped it in the filthy water, and went through the motions of grooming themselves — after which the “washcloth” was rinsed out and secreted away for the next day.

Des Pres never stoops to sentimentality. Many vicious, cold-hearted inmates survived as well. Self-pity had no place in the camps. Once people died, they were not spoken of again. Moral dilemmas that in the outside world would be unthinkable were the inmates’ daily lot. Almost every survivor did things in the camps that he or she was ashamed to speak of later.

Still, a Treblinka survivor, quoted by journalist Gitta Sereny in “Into that Darkness,” observed:

“It wasn’t ruthlessness that enabled an individual to survive — it was an intangible quality, not particular to educated or sophisticated individuals. Anyone might have it. It is perhaps best described as an overriding thirst — perhaps, too, a talent for life, and a faith in life.”

In “Smoke Over Birkenau,” Seweryna Szmaglewska asked: “When there is no help, no care, no medicine — whence comes this magic will to live?”

In perhaps the most beautiful passage in the book, Des Pres responds:

“There is a power at the center of our being, at the heart of all things living ... already we can grasp some part, at least, of what the survivor’s experience reveals: that whether felt as a power, or observed as a system of activities, life is existence laboring to sustain itself, repairing, defending, healing.”

“The Survivor” could only have been written by a man of profound intelligence, conscience and heart. That Des Pres committed suicide several years after the book was published makes for a profoundly tragic coda.

He concluded:

“And as for an ethic based on selfless love, that dream cost two thousand years of misery, and like ‘faith in humanity,’ came to its end in Auschwitz, in Hiroshima, in the forest of Vorkuta …”

The notion that the death camps marked the death of Christianity is the one place that Des Pres and I part ways. It seems to me that Christianity, far from dying, was lived out in the camps to its farthest reaches.

Those eyes that are not quite yet dead — that refuse to die — are not proof that God is dead: they are the light that shines in the darkness.

Those festering feet, still torturously, slowly, plodding are the feet Christ washed the night before he died.

That emaciated human being in rags and dirt with the heart to share her last morsel of potato is the person the disciples met on the road to Emmaus.

“They knew him in the breaking of bread.”

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


Oh there is much to do each day! The admin, the errands, the personal grooming, the moving of the car for street sweeping, the deadlines, the apartment search, the emails.

It was only yesterday afternoon, on my walk, that I put it all together; the overflowing, insane grace of the last couple of days.

From Combermere, Ontario:

"The Great Blue Heron came back  yesterday."

"It is a good rainy spring day with Buffle Heads  ( a little mostly white diving duck) swimming in the marsh."

From the Seattle area:

"I wish you could see how Spring exploded this week.  New flowers and greenery everywhere!  Lots of beautiful Eastertide sunshine.  You would love it, I think."

From Schwenksville, PA:

"Every day there is something new to look at here. Not like winter, when every day there is something new but worse. Today, the most magical was thousands of mining bees emerging from the ground. They looked like they were just hatching, flying all crooked and wobbly. A few were peeking their heads out of the holes, not quite sure if they were ready for the outside world. I know how they feel!!"

From Groton VT: 

"A lone beauty blooming: Iris reticulata "Katharine Hodgkin".
She's a mere 3 inches tall."


"There's a red haze in the landscape as the tree buds swell."

Then---news from a friend that his wife had just given birth to a baby girl.

"Heather why do good things keep happening to me?" he asked.


Sunday, April 19, 2015


Here's last week's arts and culture piece from The Tidings:

I grew up on the coast of New Hampshire. My first love was a surfer. When I moved to Southern California, I got to see the beaches I’d only seen before on TV: Malibu, Newport.

But until last year, I’d never heard of Eddie Aikau. That was when a reader from Hawaii wrote me, saying:

“Eddie Aikau was a surfer lifeguard and native Hawaiian who gave his life in loving service. They have signs all about Hawaii saying ‘Eddie Would Go’ to commemorate his willingness to go where needed. The family was Catholic. … They had monthly family meetings where all undercurrents of discord were uncovered, discussed, mended. They were a large family.

“Eddie gave his life because he did go — to seek help for those on a capsizing ship while at sea. He gave up his life vest for others and climbed aboard his surf board seeking rescue. He was never seen again.”

I had to know more. Here’s his bio, from the Eddie Aikau Foundation website:

“Edward Ryon Makuahanai ‘Eddie’ Aikau (May 4, 1946 – March 17, 1978) is one of the most respected names in surfing. He was the first lifeguard at Waimea Bay on the island of Oahu. He saved many lives and became well known as a big wave surfer. ‘Eddie’ was a true symbol of Aloha …

“Eddie braved surf that often reached 20 feet high or more to make a rescue … He won several surfing awards, including first place at the prestigious 1977 Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surfing Championship. The local saying, ‘Eddie Would Go,’ refers to his stoke to take on big waves that other surfers would shy away from and his courage to make a rescue in impossible situations.”

On YouTube, you can watch clips of Eddie surfing and a documentary called “Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau.”

You can find “Eddie Would Go: The Story of Eddie Aikau, Hawaiian Hero and Pioneer of Big Wave Surfing,” by Stuart Holmes Colman, at the Los Angeles Public Library.

I learned that this old-school, world-class “waterman” was indeed raised Catholic. He came from a close-knit family of six kids, presided over by the charismatic “Pops,” who moved his family to the Chinese graveyard on Oahu where he was caretaker, worked hard, and threw parties featuring roast pig, slack-key guitar, and a potent homebrew of pineapple, brown sugar and strawberry syrup called “swipe.”

Eddie quit school in the 11th grade to surf. He worked the night shift at the Dole cannery, hit the North Shore in the morning, and rode waves all day. His genius was noticed early.

After coming of age, he drank a bit too much at times and, even after marrying, had a bit of an eye for the girls.

But his real love was the sea, and Coleman does a beautiful job of weaving Hawaiian history, culture, language, food, music and the age-old, mystical connection with the water into the story of this almost otherworldly surfer-lifeguard folk hero.

Drownings and injuries were frequent at Waimea Bay. As a lifeguard there, Eddie routinely and matter-of-factly risked his life — often to save drunken, ungrateful tourists.

“He was a protector. It was a role he picked for himself and he was good at it,” notes ex-wife Linda Crosswhite.

He attempted over 500 rescues. Not one person was ever lost on his watch.

As a surfer, he rode waves nobody else would. He didn’t want to attack, carve up, use the wave as an object to showcase himself. He wanted to be one with the wave.

In a culture whose land had been stolen by a few white businessmen, whose language, culture, customs and even ocean had been commandeered by outsiders, Eddie didn’t want to fight. He was a peacemaker, which is the one thing, perhaps, that takes more courage than fighting.

He had the duende — roughly, style crossed with soul crossed with class — of bullfighters and certain ballerinas.

In 1976, the Polynesian Voyaging Society decided to sail the Hokule’a, a double-hulled voyaging canoe, on a 30-day, 2,500-mile journey that was to follow the ancient route of the Polynesian migration between the Hawa;iian and Tahitian islands. Eddie, deeply proud of his Hawaiian heritage, was chosen as a team member.

The Hokule’a set sail on March 16, 1978, in stormy weather and quickly sprung a leak. The boat capsized. One last time, Eddie went.

He paddled off on his surfboard into one of the most dangerous channels in the world, with 20 miles of roiling sea between him and nearest land: the island of Lanai. He seemed to know he was destined to die doing what he was born to do: look out for others; being one with the water.

“Eddie didn’t take off where everyone else took off,” observes his brother Clyde. “He took off deeper.”

The rest of the crew was rescued the next day by the U.S. Coast Guard. Eddie’s body was never found.

His memorial plaque overlooks Waimea Bay. It reads: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Thursday, April 16, 2015


I first learned of "wabi-sabi" from a dear woman named Pat Arndt who, several years ago, gave me a book on the subject.

From wikipedia: "Wabi-sabi (侘寂?) represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is 'imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.' "

Aside from the fact is there any other kind, I am staying for two nights in what's billed as a wabi-sabi cabin in the lovely Southern California foothill town of Ojai.

The clawfoot tub, shower and toilet are in a separate small building! It was fun going out there about ten times last night: looking at the stars, smelling the cedar, tripping over the lintel.

After I finish this post, edit a set of galleys, finish my weekly arts and culture column (which involved transcribing a tape), respond to my emails and answer my phone calls, I hope to 'relax' this afternoon with a brisk hike into the mountains!

Friday I drive a couple of hours further up the coast to "my people" at the Guadalupe Catholic Worker.

But today, I'm communing with the birds.

"[W]e are not judged by what we are basically. We are judged by how hard we use what we have been given. Success means nothing to the Lord, nor gracefulness."

--Flannery O'Connor, from a letter to “A,” November 22, 1958



Monday, April 13, 2015


A couple of folks sent me the link to this piece by David Brooks, author of The Road to Character, that appeared April 11 in the New York Times.

It's called "The Moral Bucket List" and begins like this:

ABOUT once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.

When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day. But I confess I often have a sadder thought: It occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success, but I have not achieved that. I have not achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character.

A few years ago I realized that I wanted to be a bit more like those people. I realized that if I wanted to do that I was going to have to work harder to save my own soul. I was going to have to have the sort of moral adventures that produce that kind of goodness. I was going to have to be better at balancing my life.

I like a lot of what Brooks goes on to say. But balancing one's life, in the way Brooks means, is the last thing the follower of Christ is geared toward.

He continues:

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

The follower of Christ doesn't strive for balance between his or her résumé virtues and eulogy virtues. The follower of Christ surrenders 100% in favor of the eulogy virtues. There's no more division. You bring the eulogy virtues to your work, your relationships, your money, your physical, emotional and spiritual "health," such as they are.

If you happen to be intelligent, you bring your intelligence 100% to bear in favor of the eulogy virtues. If you're organized, driven, disciplined, a good fundraiser, a compelling speaker, you bring all that 100% to bear as you devote your entire being to the pursuit of the eulogy virtues.

Here's a small example. Recently I heard of a Catholic priest who follows a "paleo" diet. He eats no sugar, no grains, no dairy, no oils, no salt. He wears a crossbit or whatever that thing is called that tells you how far you walked each day. He's obsessively fit. And he's outlawed donuts at his church after Mass. Everyone has to eat raw vegetables and hard-boiled eggs. Apparently some nice older lady made him a loaf of banana bread. He threw it in the garbage.

This is the kind of thing we get when we strive for "balance" between résumé virtues and eulogy virtues. As long as we're striving, as opposed to surrendering, we inevitably slant, consciously or subconsciously, toward self. We impose our idea of virtue on others. We have a plan for ourselves and we have a plan for others.

The "deep love" Brooks speaks of is something entirely different. Okay, follow your paleo diet if that makes you grateful, and other-directed, and free, and gives you a better sense of humor. But don't impose your way on others. Love your parishioners. Be their shepherd! Give them their donuts! Get down on your knees and give thanks to the kind lady who made the banana bread.

We consent to associate with people who have bad taste--which is to say taste other than ours--in music, art, architecture, books, food. I can't tell you the number of Sizzlers, and Olive Gardens and white-people corporate restaurants I've found myself in when I would way rather be at some hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese joint slurping pho and swilling coffee with shaved ice and condensed milk. We don't insist upon going where we want to go. We go where "they" want to go. And we give thanks, and we're gracious and present and we give 100% of ourselves, 100% of the time. We're not nutritionists. We're not fitness gurus. We care for people's souls, we listen to their stories, we share ours, and then we leave them to figure out what they want to eat.

Food is the least of it. We consent not to have things look our way, go our way, turn out our way. As my friend Father Terry says, "If we're lucky, we'll give up all hope of ever being happy in the way we thought we'd be happy."

Archbishop Oscar Romero was celebrating Mass when the assassin came.

From a piece by Paul Grondahl in Crux entitled, "A Maryknoll Priest Recounts Oscar Romero's Path to Sainthood":

[Romero] criticized US military support for the government of El Salvador and pleaded with soldiers to defy orders to fire on innocent civilians. His impassioned defense of the poor and oppressed made him wildly popular among ordinary citizens and champions of social justice, but a controversial figure within the Catholic Church and a target for violent right-wing operatives who sought to silence his crusade.

On March 24, 1980, as he celebrated Mass in a small church, the Chapel of Divine Providence Hospital, an assassin shot and killed Romero. He had agreed to say an anniversary Mass for the widow of a publisher of an independent newspaper that had been firebombed for publishing investigative stories critical of the government.

“He had spoken about the importance of journalists and a free press and the need to alleviate the suffering of the poor,” [Rev. John] Spain [a Maryknoll priest in El Salvador] said. Romero was killed by a single shot from a rifle fired through the open chapel doors by a sniper in the back seat of a Volkswagen parked out front.

“I’ve listened to the audiotape of the Mass and you can hear Archbishop Romero say, ‘Let us pray for…’ and then you hear the crack of the sniper’s shot, followed by screams,” Spain said.

Archbishop Romero had a gun pointed at him, and he calmly continued what he was doing: his work, his life. That is not balance. That is the perfect example of the résumé virtues subsumed by the eulogy virtues.

That Archbishop Romero died celebrating Mass--serving his flock, worshiping, loving--IS his résumé.


Saturday, April 11, 2015



The other day a print interviewer asked over the phone, "Now what's the name of your new book?"


 "Scumball?" she replied.

The title wasn't my idea. If I were going to that route, I actually would have chosen COLLAPSE.

Anyway, that was my laugh for the day. And I was reminded how several months ago I was in Omaha over the weekend giving a Day of Recollection for some truly fine women of the Heartland. My hotel was downtown and after cruising around Old Market on foot, I decided to go to a Saturday vigil Mass at St. Mary Magdalene Church. Having miscalculated the time, was running a teeny bit late. In fact, a few blocks before the church, I started sprinting.  

So there I was, all 62 years of age of me with a purse and a tote bag, trilling along at top speed and just as I approached the door, my foot hit a loose piece of sidewalk and I went sprawling and I mean sprawling. My first thought was My phone! Not I hope I didn't break my leg, or arm, or jaw, any of which I could easily have done. Stuff did fly out of my purse and though the phone was fine, the breath was knocked out of me and out of shock and fear I emitted a kind of strangled scream. A guy who was hanging around the side of the church regarded me kindly lying there in a heap and said, "Are you okay?" 

Of course I felt like a complete ass. "Yeah, I'm okay," I chuckled, or tried to chuckle as I righted myself. In fact, I'd badly bruised one knee and scraped the palms badly enough that they were bleeding. Stigmata! I thought as I limped up the stairs to Mass. 

But seriously, inside from the back right-hand corner of the sanctuary (which was packed to SRO), I thought about the Stations of the Cross and how Christ fell three times and how when you fall, it's not some delicate, elegant thing. Our human instinct is to stay standing as long as we possibly can. A true fall is never orchestrated.  It's a sudden, complete loss of control that is anything but graceful and that we can't help but experience as a humiliation. 


When we trip in public, we always immediately look around to ascertain whether anyone saw us. Then we glance behind us to see what "the culprit" was and shake our heads in disgust to telegraph to the people who did see us stumble: I'm not a klutz, some jerk left a pile of dog poo on the sidewalk or The city should really spend some dough on making this place safe for pedestrians or Did we just have an earthquake?  

On the way to Calvary, Christ didn't have that option. No human would think to make up a God who died the way Christ did, and who underwent what he did on the Via Dolorosa. No human, geared toward worldly power and success, would be given to see that our falls, our wounds, our collapses don't exclude us from fellowship at the human table: they're our ticket in. 

This morning's Magnificat reflection, by Adrienne von Speyr,  begins with a reference to Mary Magdalene:

"The Lord appears first to the former sinner. She is the first to experience his being alive. And from this, she comprehends the cross. All the sins of the work, also her own, which were so visible, struck the Lord on the cross. But because she is no longer a sinner but, rather, was converted by the Lord already before the cross, he appears to her. She is surely to embody in her person the absolution that is granted to all sinners on the cross." 


Thursday, April 9, 2015


 On my recent trip to Vashon Island, the proprietor of the Betty MacDonald Farm where I stayed had thoughtfully supplied piles of books: old, new, picture books, history books, books on architecture and design, books on Arctic explorers, books on flowers, shells and trees.

I can hardly imagine a more delightful afternoon than the one I spent propped up on the daybed, looking over Puget Sound and riffling through some of these dreamy, thought-provoking books. A sampling:

"Another true cypress is the Mexican cypress, usually called cedar of Goa. It was once mistakenly thought o have originated in Portugal, which had a colony in Goa, on the west coast of India--such are the ways names are given! The Monterey cypress, C. macrocarpa ("large-fruited"), was named by a German botanist employed by the London Horticultural Society to collect plants in California. When Karl Theodore Hartweg found the Monterey cypress in 1846, he said it "closely resembled" the cedar of Lebanon, but he didn't call it a cedar. The Monterey cypress grows larger outside its natural habitat in California. It is thought to have been stranded after the Ice Age in a less lush habitat than it originally had, and prefers."

--Diana Wells, Lives of the Trees: An Uncommon History, from the chapter "Cypress"

"It is safe to assert that in decoration with gold and yellow we cannot hold the candle to our ancestors: save, perchance, in the department of book-binding. One meets occasionally with a handsome gilt-edged book or a find modern yellow leather binding. But who can imitate parchment stained by age and time with yellow, or one of those pieces of creamy old ivory which, chased with with gold, present so beautiful an appearance? Most old things weathered by the air have a distinctive charm which no hand-process can produce.

Think of old white-painted houses, which with the passage of time have acquired a peculiar bright yellow, a yellow derived from air, which no decorator's chalk-wash can equal. The artificial colouring matter is simply different from the flavous coating with which the air gradually invests anything which boasts a white surface. It is a thing to note how in the long run in Nature's handicaps yellow carries its colours past all others to victory. What does age not turn yellow? Our human skin, our bones, old wood, white paper, and green leaves, all submit to its influence. Nature devises us a mournful treat in the autumn yellows of the woods: no strident yellow, no sheeny light-filled yellow of the spring, but a mild adieu-giving yellow, dissolving into violet atmospheric tones, or an orange ruddy yellow before a background of greenish sky. Of its leafage we gladly take a spray home with us and feel pleasure with its possession throughout the winter. Only the arrival of spring with its first brilliant yellow flowerets makes us notice that the yellow that so appealed to us is now grey and dust-covered."

--M. Bernstein, Colour in Art and Daily Life, from the chapter "Yellow, As Colour and Light"

"When Oregon pioneer Martha Gay Masterson's little son Freddie died after a sudden and brief illness, the family buried the boy in a place where he loved to play, so that 'the little birds he loved in life sang their evening songs over his grave.' His little playmates 'came loaded with lovely white flowers' which were strewn over his grave. Only a day or so before he grew ill, Masterson had cut his curls for the first time, and asked what should be done with the ringlets. Freddie had answered, 'You take one curl, Mama, then I will put the others out by the big tree and the birds can have them to build their nests.' Busy with her work, Masterson did not follow him outside and had all but forgotten the incident until late in the fall when one of her daughters called her outside to see a bird's nest she'd found. There in the tangled mass of sticks were little Freddie's golden curls. Twenty-one years later, Masterson still had that little nest."

--Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith, Pioneer Women: The Lives of Women on the Frontier, from the chapter "Behind Closed Doors: Pioneer Women and Family Dynamics"

"March 28 [the day I was on Vashon]: Gathered some of the young crimson catkins of the Black Poplar. The last few days have been very cold and dry, with keen north wind, and any quantity of March dust in evidence.

This morning I saw some Frog spawn which had been brought in from a pond, together with some Caddis grubs in their funny little cases of sticks and straws. One grub looked very smart, he had stuck his house all over with bits of bright green rush and water plant."

That was on a page with three charming small water-colors of "Moss-cups."

And on the previous page, with a painting of "Nest and eggs," this quote from E.B. Browning:

Then the thrushes sang
And shook my pulses and the elm's new leaves.

--Edith Holden, The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady

Tuesday, April 7, 2015


Every once in a while, I get a glimpse of what life would be if  I stopped fighting everybody and everything.

Yesterday was just such a day.

I won't go too deeply into my borderline OCD dread of "errands," except to say that, having been out of town, I had a bunch of them. I went over in my mind many times what order to do them in, what would happen if I had to wait, or couldn't park, or had to go to the bathroom, or got hungry, or the people were mean.

I had a loose list and truth to tell, none of them were emergencies. None of them were life-and-death, though I tend to experience everything that way.

Anyway, I started out with a visit to Sunset Nursery where I needed to buy a small bag of potting soil and four plastic pots, two big, two small (I already had four terra cotta with saucers) in which to plant the cuttings (purple bamboo orchid, various agaves and succulents) I'd nabbed (with permission) from the last place I stayed.

I deposited twenty cents in the meter and the visit went smoothly. Thank you. One down.

Next, I proceeded to the 99-Cent-Store Only on Sunset and Micheltorena. This is in my old 'hood adn though there are dollar stores all over the place in L.A. for some stubborn nostalgic reason I feel I can only get my nonfat half and half, stevia packets, toothpaste, dental floss, anti-itch cream, Post-Its and Banquet chicken pot pies here. I used to walk to this particular store, over the hills from my house, two or three times a week and so it has hearth-like connections for me. Anyway, all went well here, too. The crazy person before me in line was well-behaved and the cashier (they're unsung saints, all) was as always forbearing and kind.

From there I went to the Metro gym in Atwater Village. I love this place. Clean locker rooms, nobody bothers you. I crammed in my little ear phones, put on Pandora (Iris DeMent, Lucinda Williams) and did the exact same thing I do every time I'm there which is 20 minutes on the elliptical and then a slapdash rounds of the resistance weight machines. Like museums, concerts, and church (all of which I prefer to do alone), I enjoy being among people as long as I don't have to talk to them.

From there I motored the short distance to one of my favorite places on earth, the Pathfinders Club in Atwater Village, where I spent an hour and a half with my fellow alkie/addicts tapping into sanity and love.

Meanwhile, my "new" (now two years old) Fiat had a little glitch that had been driving me crazy for months; namely, the little faux leather skirt around the stick shift (I now know this is called a "boot"), had come undone from its little notches and try as I might, I couldn't get the thing to fit right. Consequently, there was an unsightly gap around the top portion of it: annoying but not annoying enough for me to have taken an hour to set it right. I had called Chrysler Glendale Jeep from the gym and they said Come on over, we'll replace it in a jiffy, no need to make an appointment.

So over I went and the very competent and gracious Javier informed me the thing was broken, which was why I hadn't been able to "make it work," located the part, said they would have to replace the whole knob etc, and that what with the warranty I would not have to pay a thing! The only thing he would "take" was my time, he said: half an hour. So I sat with the other waiting customers in a little shaded area to the side of the parking lot and read the L.A. Times. Actually, I sat in the sun where I always gravitate.

True to Javier's word, in half an hour I was driving off with a brand new "boot" and gear knob and the Lord knows what else. That felt good! Thank you!

Thus fortified, I turned my thoughts to my hair. I have always always dreaded having my hair cut (which had needed doing for weeks) and I know now always will. I'm not sure why: some combination of shame, not knowing what I want or how to describe it, and fear of spending money and time. Plus probably mainly having to talk to the person who's cutting my hair.

Anyway, I suddenly remembered that my friend Emily had told me about a guy Sammy who had a chair down from the clubhouse on Glendale Boulevard and cut a lot of old ladies' hair and was kind of hang-loose. Emily's hair looked great. So I wheeled in at the black awning she'd described and walked in. An Asian lady was doing nails in the front. She gave me the once-over and said, "Sammy?"


"Sammy!" she called, and a Japanese guy with lavendar Lucite glasses instantly appeared from the back room and offered to cut my hair for twenty bucks.

"Like grocery store here" he chuckled as he snipped away. "Come back, get mani-pedi [from the woman in front], twenty bucks also. She very good. Like swap meet right here!"

Then he refused to take a tip and instead gave me a flyer for a twenty-buck hour-long foot massage joint that had just opened up the street.

My hair looked exactly the way it always does, whether the haircut costs five bucks or a hundred. Thank you!

What next!?

I forgot to say that some horribly misguided person somewhere along the line I'd just discovered had keyed my car! Yep, a big long scratch, extending from the back rear part whatever that's called through the right passenger door. Mean! I'm very careful about not blocking people's driveways and the car is barely three feet wide so never hogs parking spaces like some other vehicles I can think of, so it had to be either someone who hates me or a random act of cruelty.

Anyway, I'd called the insurance company and they said report it and get an estimate so at this point in my day (now about 4 p.m.) I thought Well I will stop right down at this body shop on Hyperion! So I did. And Alex informed me it would cost six hundred and fifty dollars to fix.

I said "Is there any kind of wax or anything I could put on, just to make it look a little better?" He said, "No, but you can get some touch-up paint from the manufacturer and I could put it on very carefully." "Will it look like a patch-up job?" "Kind of, but if you stand far away you won't notice much." "How much would that cost?" "I'd do it for free. You bring the paint in, I'll do it for free."

Well even if not a perfect solution, that, too, was pretty darn nice, In fact, I could hardly believe the guy wouldn't charge me. I would look into it. (After googling, and speaking to the dealer, it transpires this is apparently not a great idea, but still). Thank you!

I also forgot to say that while speaking to the insurance agent, we discovered I only drive 6000 miles a year and was being charged for 12,000 and also there's an alumni discount if I could provide proof that I'd graduated from college, making for a total annual savings of over a hundred bucks. Thank you, Mercury (even if there's a $250 deductible for vandalism and I already pay over 1200 a year for insurance!).

One thing I love to do is cut little blurbs out of the paper about mom-and-pop noodle joints, with which L.A. abounds. I am a huge noodle nut. For years, I'd heard of this place called Sapp Coffee Shop on Hollywood Boulevard. I happen to be staying at the magnificent Hollywood Grove home of my friends Julia and Aaron while they're out of town for several weeks, which means that I was within walking distance of Sapp's (even though I was driving).

So being ravenous at this juncture, and also jonesing for my afternoon caffeine fix, I at long last entered the doors of the cheery yellow lunchroom of Sapp. I ordered the famous jade noodles and a Thai iced coffee which together made just about the greatest meal I've had in quite some time. Basil, lime, chilis, sugar, fish sauce, a couple of bites of crab, pork, the pale green slightly chewy noodles, sweet strong iced coffee with plenty of crushed ice.

How can you say there is no God?!

One last errand: a very sad, very momentous state of affairs: the App Store was down on my iphone5. I'd googled and tried every fix. I'd turned the phone off, at one point for hours, and turned it back on. I'd checked and re-checked the settings. There was only one thing left to do: visit the T-Mobile store, in this particular instance on Western and Hollywood. (Knowing parking would be horrendous; I walked from Sapp, peering into the faces of tourists, homeless people, street hucksters and regular folk, also no doubt on the hunt for noodles, wandering through Thai Town).

Once I was inside the store, Virginia informed me that the only thing to do was back up the phone on itunes, remove all data and content (contacts, photos, apps), reset to factory settings and then restore from the backup.

What was interesting here was that instead of sighing and fuming and twitching and rolling my eyes and thinking Oh my God, we WASTE our lives, technology RULES us, this will take ANOTHER FIVE HOURS OF MY PRECIOUS TIME AND WHAT IF I LOSE EVERYTHING?, I thought: What an amazing item a smartphone is. It allows us to call each other, text each other, look up almost unbelievable amounts of information. It speaks driving and walking directions to us, scans our boarding pass at the airport, takes photos, records videos. It's amazing the thing works at all, never mind as well as it does. Of COURSE it's going to have issues now and again.

And look at this dear kind young girl who is telling me that if I bring in my laptop she will do the whole thing for me and it won't take more than twenty minutes. How nice is that?

Thank you!

In fact, when I got home, I googled and figured out how to back up and restore myself and called Virginia for verification and now my App Store not only works again, but I have got WAZE!

Which should come in handy as I make my way back to the root canal guy in Beverly Hills this afternoon at 2:30, then back to the Keck Center at County USC in rush hour traffic to meet with some other people at the bedside of our dear friend Horace who's been gravely ill since Feb. 24th but is now, to our complete delight and relief, showing signs of recovery. And at 5, we are going to exchange some more love and sanity, all of us.

Thank you!

That was just the day. I could write a whole other long thing on the night, which included playing (however badly) several Bach two- and three-part inventions on the Steinway, but enough said.

It was a day when I realized how many people we depend upon in the course of any given twenty-four hours, how generally helpful they are, how there is almost always a solution of some kind, at least to the mechanical challenges of life.

And may there always ALWAYS be noodles.


Saturday, April 4, 2015



A friend recently wrote: "It's been a less than stellar Lent."

I couldn't agree more:  Although the more I think about it, the more I see that for me what that means is I can't remember the last time I've been so consistently less in control of my schedule, my time, my energy, my plans.

I've barely had time to write, and I don't think I've been to daily Mass more than once or twice during the whole of Lent. I even missed a Sunday Mass (for only the third time in eighteen years, though not through my own intention: I'd taken a red-eye to Honduras with Unbound and due to travel snafus, etc. the scheduled Mass was cancelled).

Anyway, this is what's interesting. I've only completely lost it a few times, and if to a person (as opposed to circumstances, the world, God), have made prompt amends.

I've HAD to surrender, because I simply would not have been able to proceed otherwise.

Still, the whole time I felt like I was rushing to an airport, typing a new address into the google maps search engine, charging my phone, dealing with spotty cell reception and/or wifi, hauling bags with snacks, work, retreat notes, and a travel mug of coffee, jamming a key to an unfamiliar room, inadvertently setting off the security alarm, figuring out how to buy a ferry ticket, forgetting my comb, my lipstick, my phone.

What's interesting as well is that never have I had so many people from so many quarters appealing to me for this or that. Will you pray for me, my husband is addicted to porn, my daughter has a degenerative disease and chronic pain. My best friend had a stroke, a heart attack, a relapse. My brother in law is dying of alcoholism. My kid left the Church. My daughter's engaged to a wastrel. I lost my job. I had an abortion. Will you pray for me, speak to my parish, read this poem, comment on this link, watch this youtube, blurb my book, tell me how to get an agent, listen to my story about the Little Flower? Will you feed my cat, move your plants, take over my jail commitment, come to my graduation, St. Patrick's Day party, or concert, go to the hospital to visit a sick friend, pay your storage bill.

The whole time I'd be thinking, Okay but could I just eat one single meal where I'm not hunched over a laptop, speeding down some freeway (or stuck in gridlock while people text me calling me to task for not responding earlier),  or walking? I really tried to walk for at least an hour every day so as not to lose it completely and it was often the only hour I had to return phone calls and texts or to eat.

I'd also be thinking, I need to find a place to live!! I literally do not have an address at the moment! I have friends who bless their hearts will receive a letter or a package care/of.

The hardest thing about this sort of "crisis vortex" is that I can't write, or can't find the time and concentration to write. Which is usually my one consolation or I should say the activity that above all others calms my nervous system. 

Every day a hundred stories to tell that are not getting told! I'm also very attached to "producing"; to giving "a good account" of myself at the end of the day. There's something good in that and there's something prideful and ego-based in that. Whatever's in it, it's been shattered to smithereens during Lent. 

In the midst of all this, btw, I realized I had this huge lump on my left upper gum which I knew could only be Stage 4 mouth cancer or a severely problematic tooth. I was in Seattle at the time giving a retreat and could only pray the thing didn't blow before I got home. Which it didn't thank you God, probably because I was taking antibiotics, the procuring the prescription from Palm Springs and picking up before I felt for Seattle from my mom-and-pop druggist of which had been yet another...oh never mind).

Anyway, Tuesday morning, on my way across town for the first of what are to be several visits for a $1200 root canal  I thought, There is only one real thing to "produce," ever, and that is love. 

Can I love that I have the money to pay for my tooth, that it's a gorgeous sunny Southern California day, that the tulip trees are out, that I know where to park for free because I used to work as a lawyer two blocks away, that I no longer work as a lawyer, that I have legs with which to walk, that I'm sentient, upright, and breathing without difficulty? 

Outside the building where the endodontist or whatever they're called was located, I saw a heavily plastic-surgeried woman in spike heels, a mini-skirt, a Chanel handbag, and bright red lipstick. Her expression was sullen and she was barking into a cell phone and smoking. 

Of course when I got up to the sixth floor, went to the ladies' room, and returned to the guy's office, she turned out to be the receptionist. This cheered me no end. My heart was so with her, on every level. 

And instead of acting all put-upon like I'm capable of doing, out of fear, at the dentist (where I have spenT way way more of my life than you want to know), I tried to be extra courteous and extra kind. "Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love." St. John of the Cross.  

There's always love. The question at any given moment is whether there's any love in me. 

Here's another strange thing that happened during Lent, in the midst of what seemed to me to be unrelenting destabilization and chaos. You know when you feel kind of possessive of a person and kind of jealous when he or she pays attention to someone else? Well I have a situation like that in my life. And I won't go into the details but a moment came up last week that held the potential for me to get jealous. Instead, I found myself just wanting the person to be happy and I saw that getting attention from this other person I'd often been jealous of would make him happy. And I was able in a small way to pave the way for this other person to be kind to him and to point it out and to rejoice FOR BOTH OF THEM. 

I helped to make them both look good in the eyes of the other, in other words. Or at least I wanted that. A very quiet, unobtrusive, unremarked-upon by the world (and for sure by them) kind of thing. But it was not for one second lost on me. That is love, man. When you truly take a back seat. When you truly just want the well-being of the other. That's St. Therese of Lisieux, praying for souls. Every so often I get a glimpse of what that would look like. Instead of constantly jockeying for status and position, just going through life thinking This person drives me crazy and also seems to be getting more love and attention than me, but God loves him (or her) so let me ask God to love him or her through me. 

That kind of thinking gives you an incredible amount of courage and strength. You're not trying to work up a natural affection for the person you skeeve: that's not going to happen But you love God, and you know He loves the person and you want everyone to be happy because He wants everyone to be happy. So you make your policy love and courtesy and charity and kindness because it's easy to love Him. 

Except when He's not finding you an apartment. Whoops!


Seemingly unrelated but not really thought:  I was in Honduras for a week in February and met this one woman who haunts me. She was a housekeeper, walked an hour and a half each way to work, 6 1/2 days a week. Had two small kids. Another was at a group home, another with the mother of the father (she had five altogether, from a variety of fathers). During coffee season, they all picked, including the five-year-old. She made fifty bucks a month and the room she was renting cost fifty bucks a month. So she had to move every month...She was always just one step away from being evicted. She had us to her immaculate room, her meager belongings neatly covered with cheap blankets. The kid playing with his one toy a dingy plastic truck. She was beautiful and had lost most of her teeth. But it was her eyes that haunted me. 

I've thought of her a lot as I live out of a suitcase and look for an apartment. 

"The Lord hears the cry of the poor." That is really the heart of existence, the longer I live and the more I think about it. We are all poor and if we follow Christ, we know we are poor and we are human enough and humble enough and vulnerable enough to cry out that we are poor. 

I'm not in any way comparing myself--with a bank account, a job, etc--to that woman in Honduras. I'm saying that a large part of the world exists in that kind of anxiety THEIR WHOLE LIVES. 

What is our response? We know what Christ's response was. But what is ours?...

Here's the single greatest moment I experienced during Lent. 

Tuesday afternoon, after the root canal in the morning and a bunch of other things,  I went to Confession. I'd tried to go during Advent and stood in line for an hour at a church where even though there are always long lines the penitent stays in there and the priest apparently counsels for ten or fifteen minutes. So a bunch of us who had waited for an hour didn't get to go to Confession. And I hadn't been back and was way overdue and we like to go to Confession before Easter. 

It was down to Holy Week and I know the priests are busy so I had to look around a bit for a church that had Confession. I found a place in a neighborhood called Frogtown, St. Ann's, a Filipino parish that was having a communal 5:30 penance service. Dandy. So I found my way over and there were maybe ten of us. One of the priests made an announcement in Spanish and then, I think there were three priests altogether, one went up and sat to the side of the altar and two others each went to a side confessional. 

I'm all about the grille so I went to one of the side boxes. Except when I got in there was a screen but the priest was sort of half behind it and half not. Right away he looked at me. Okay. We'll look at each other. He was maybe Filipino, maybe Asian of some kind, I couldn't really tell. A white vestment, a stole.Slender. Middle-aged. Serious but kind. 

So I said my thing, head bowed, like you do. 

And this was the moment. 

I looked up and the afternoon sun was coming through a little side window and the light shone on his face. this really beautiful face, a face of long-suffering, of faith. 

He looked out the window for a minute. He seemed to be gazing at a point that was far, far away. 

I thought: He believes. This guy believes it, like I do

That is really what we are looking for. Some tiny sign that someone believes. Doesn't have to be a priest, though of course that's a bonus. It was a bonus that day. 

He said, "Pray for the courage and the strength to do God's will Jesus was always eager to do the Father's will."

I was crying but that's the phrase I remember: Jesus was eager to do God's will. Because, you know, it sounds good on paper, but it is kind of a daunting thing. 

Look at him. 

Here's something else, though. I have not once gone hungry. I have not gone one night without a roof, usually a pretty spectacular roof, over my head. 

Everything gets done. Life lurches on. 

I want to thank the many, many people who have shared their homes, lent me their homes, helped me move my stuff, fed me, sheltered me, welcomed me, consoled me, supported me, gone out of their way to come see me, given me beautiful gifts, paid me. 

And I especially want to thank the people who have asked me for help. Because that is what we are here for.

If you asked me to pray for you--I did. 

I have held each and every request in my heart, even, in fact maybe especially, the ones I had to say no to. 

Christ is risen. 

And now--let's eat.