Saturday, April 30, 2016


This week's arts and culture column is on an important documentary: Abigail Disney's "The Armor of Light."

Here's how the piece begins:

Some of us see a disconnect between supporting the child in the womb and also promoting gun ownership. Others see guns as precisely the best way to protect everyone.

Reactions tend to be knee-jerk, feelings run high and dialogue can be difficult to impossible. So Abigail Disney, producer and director of the recent documentary “The Armor of Light,” is to be roundly applauded.

The documentary features two figures on the opposite side of the gun divide.

The Rev. Rob Schenck is a Washington mover-and-shaker whose conservative, often Tea Party Republican constituents are almost uniformly against abortion and for the National Rifle Association.

“I’m an evangelical Christian,” he says. “That goes to the heart of my identity. The real organizing principle of my life has been the sanctity of life.”

In the early days of the movement, the commitment to non-violence was uppermost in his mind. But then some people appeared to have a very different set of principles. In 1986, Barnett Slepidian, an abortion doctor, was killed with a high-powered rifle by a member of the pro-life movement.

As founder of Faith in Action, a ministry that primarily serves Capitol Hill and the Federal government, Schenck “realized that if people under my spiritual care were capable of this, I was probably capable of this.”


Thursday, April 28, 2016


Some people are attached to being rich. For a long time I was attached to being poor.

That's the basic premise of my new book, LOADED: Money and the Spirituality of Enough.

But just as alcoholism isn't really about alcohol, money neuroses aren't really about money. Mine was about a lack of trust: a near panic what the money I had at any given time was the only money I would ever have. A profound sense of scarcity.

So it's a book about changing out stance toward the universe, toward reality.

It's about learning to take the true measure of ourselves.

It's about community.

Here's an interview with America Magazine, out yesterday, that gives a bit of context.

I'll post a couple of excerpts in a day or two.

my workspace at Mary & Joseph Retreat Center 
where I recently spent several days on  a proposal for what I hope is my next book!

I sort of intensely dislike promoting my work, but speaking of taking the true measure of ourselves, and in the spirit of marketing as a transferral of enthusiasm--I'm putting it "out there."

What I really dislike, I find, is feeling vulnerable!

Thank you all for your loyalty, support and warmth. Those are the real riches we're all able to give each other.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


credit: CRS

Michael Holmquist is a seminarian for the Diocese of Colorado Springs.  He currently studies at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. 

When he read on my blog last October that I was coming to Rome, he extended a friendly and welcoming hand. He took me for coffee, arranged for a spot on a coveted Scavi Tour, cajoled his seminarian friend Kevin from the Boston area into giving me a stupendous personalized individual tour of the sanctuary of St. Peter's (we all stood in line for a couple of hours which was no real hardship for me, but for those two, who have toured the sanctuary countless times, I'm sure it was another matter), and on one of my last days there, got me into a hidden treasure: the convent of Santa Brigida a Campo de'Fiori.

His diaconate ordination is set for this fall on Sept. 29th. Kevin will be ordained as a deacon that day, too.

Recently I received an email from Michael that read in part:

"This past Easter, I went on a Global Fellows trip with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) to Egypt to see their work with refugees and with peace building.  It was a powerful experience for me, particularly with their work for peace building between Christians and Muslims. The message of this community's desire for peace, particularly as Muslims, is something that I really want to help spread, particularly with the more recent divisive rhetoric that has spread in our culture in the US."

He also attached a piece he wrote about his experience that he hopes will run in several venues, and that he offered to share with us..

Here it is:

The week after Easter, I found myself in the choir loft of an Anglican Church in Al Odeysat, a small village in Upper Egypt, surrounded by community leaders of the village, including Christians, Muslims, men and women, clergy, and teachers.

Each year Catholic Relief Services (CRS) partners with the Pontifical North American College in Rome to take a group of seminarians to, see the work of the US Catholic Church overseas. This year’s trip was to Egypt, where CRS has been working since 1956. This day we were visiting a village where CRS had been a catalyst for peace in a place where faith-based segregation had led to distrust and division in the community.

Historically, Christians and Muslims have coexisted in Egypt for centuries, but political upheaval in 2011 led to increased distrust among communities, deteriorated relations, and even violence including the burning of homes, places of worship and even killings. Faith-based segregation has prevented peaceful coexistence, particularly in Upper Egypt.

“We always knew we had the energy to work for peace, but we didn’t know where to start,” explained Mohammed, a math teacher in a village we visited. Mohammed a Muslim, is one of over 80 community leaders from three villages who are participating in a CRS project called “Brokra,” which in Arabic, means “tomorrow.” The project teaches community and religious leaders about how to promote peace and religious tolerance locally.

Promoting religious tolerance among groups accustomed to fighting might seem like an impossible task. However leaders are encouraged to promote change through manageable local initiatives. One example of such an initiative is the creation of inter-religious soccer leagues. When a team wins, the entire village celebrates. Inter-religious outings are another example of local peace building efforts. Religious leaders from different faiths appear together in public spaces to model the changes they hope to see among the community. And mothers will visit other families to discuss promoting peace and religious tolerance in the home by using more religiously inclusive language. These initiatives empower women and youth to be leaders in the work for peace.

Mohammed told us that on the morning that I met him, two boys—one Christian and one Muslim--had gotten into a fight. Fortunately for them, Mohammed quickly defused what could have become a volatile situation. However, using what he learned through CRS, Mohammed sat down with both sets of parents and encouraged an apology. In turn, everyone reconciled and there was no further violence.

Work for peace costs, just as love costs, because it takes us to the peripheries, outside of our comfort zone; it asks us to change. During our conversation, a Muslim woman said that before this project she was scared to enter a church; a Christian man admitted that he was just as afraid to have a Muslim enter his church. But here we were, Catholics, Anglicans and Muslims, men and women sitting together in a church.

A Muslim man told us “Please go home and tell others what you have experienced. We are like you. We want what you want. We want peace; we want a better future for our kids; we want an end to religious extremism. Please, please, tell people we want peace.”

They acknowledged that there was still work to be done, but there was a palpable pride and love in what they had accomplished. Jesus told us “Blessed are the peace makers.” It was inspiring to see the profound respect CRS has in working with communities and individuals. Their work for peace is based in the dignity of every man and woman, knowing that they are made in the image of God. This work allows each person the ability to grow and flourish in a safe and health community where each person is respected.

credit: CRS

credit: CRS

Friday, April 22, 2016


on a good year

the day I went

This week's arts and culture column is on the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve, an hour and a half outside L.A.

It starts like this:

The Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve, located 15 miles west of Lancaster, is an 1,800-acre state reserve “located on California’s most consistent poppy-bearing land.”

On April 2, the website’s “Bloom Status” noted: “The season appears to have ended early, as last month’s rains came too late to sustain the bloom that had barely started.”

Or, as the lady behind the register in the gift shop observed to a fellow poppy seeker, “It just didn’t happen this year.”

I knew that before I made a field trip to the Poppy Reserve, on March 31. But visiting on an off-year, I figured, would be its own, different kind of salute to the California Poppy (Eschscholtzia californica), our state flower since 1903.

At the 2,000-square-foot Jane S. Pinheiro Interpretive Center (and gift shop), I learned about “The Great Poppy Lady,” an Antelope Valley resident and self-taught wildflower artist. In the 1940s, Jane painted watercolors of the local wildflowers that were declared by a UC Davis botanist to be “botanically correct and really a treasure.”


Monday, April 18, 2016


here i tried for a zany "eggs in nest" effect
For years, decades really, I've wanted to take a pottery class.

A few months ago, the way opened and I finally took the plunge. I enrolled in a hand-building class at the Xiem Clay Center here in Pasadena.

At first, I was shy around the clay! Even while alone with a giant block of it in my own apartment.

I don't like people to watch while I'm "creating", I now realize: the same reason (along with my abysmal "technique") I was unable to participate in the recital for a group piano class I took several years ago. Though the pottery class met every Wednesday night I soon found I was happier taking my clay home and sitting with it at the dining room table while we got acquainted.

All I really wanted, from the beginning, was to fashion a bunch of tiny misshapen bowls.

I'd stayed at the apt. of my friends Lisa and Paolo last year for a month while they were out of town. They'd both taken classes at Xiem and in their kitchen were a ton of these minuscule Lisa-made bowls. I sincerely think my attraction to them is some atavistic leftover from trillions of years ago when humans were still insects, or birds. Whatever the case, my whole being thrilled to these tiny nest-like objects.

Simple though they appear, for a while fashioning even one of these tiny misshapen receptacles was beyond me. But after many hours of practice, during which I silently encouraged myself to let love be my guide, a couple of them started to take shape.

Then a couple more. Then five, eight, ten...

The other students quickly moved on to coils and slabs and there I sat, making tiny bowl after tiny bowl. Plus the things shrink after bisque-firing so most of them became even tinier than I'd planned, as in capable of holding, say, a single walnut, or three paper clips.  "Can I just make another bowl?" I'd plaintively ask our instructor Titia, who I'm sure did not care if I made a thousand of them as long as I didn't exceed my cubic-inch kiln allotment, and besides was too busy helping the others make three-tier jewelry boxes, complicated teapots, and four-gallon planters.

Glazing was fun, too, though again I couldn't really let go and experiment the way I would have like to in front of my fellows.

here I got really daring and (none too successfully) pressed
a couple of sidewalk-scavenged leaves into the wet clay

Anyway if you ever need a place to put your used teabag, week's Klonopin supply, or single AAA battery, come on over! I'll setcha right up.

Thursday, April 14, 2016


This week's arts and culture column is on the marvelous NYT fashion photographer Bill Cunningham.

It begins like this:

Bill Cunningham, the subject of the 2010 documentary “Bill Cunningham New York,” is a fashion photographer who for years has maintained two spreads in “The New York Times.”

“Evening Hours” covers the social, philanthropic and political world of New York’s high society. “On the Street” is an “attempt to tease out trends in terms of the reality of how people dress,” observes Harold Koda, curator of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I really feel he does address the whole spectrum of what we are as New Yorkers and I believe he’s the only one who does it.”

Cunningham, 83 when the film was made, rides around Manhattan on an old (donated) Schwinn (his 29th; the previous 28 were stolen). He gets his film developed at a mom-and-pop convenience store called Photo King. He sleeps in a cot in the same tiny studio above Carnegie Hall where he’s lived for decades.

Threatened with eviction and offered a new, snazzy apartment, he frets, “Who the hell wants a kitchen and a bathroom? Just more room to clean.”


Sunday, April 10, 2016


This week's arts and culture piece came to me through a reader who, by chance, had been on a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City and heard the story of a fellow pilgrim named Anna Lidzbarski.

The story begins:

Anna Lidzbarski’s parents were from what was then Eastern Poland and is now the Ukraine. They were Catholic.

“In that part of the world, Ukranians and Poles and Jews all lived together. My father’s best friend, from the time they were toddlers, was Jewish.”

Anna’s parents had been married in February 1938, the year before the war broke out. They were staying with their closest neighbors, Ukranian friends, preparing for a house-raising.

“My father was a radio operator in the Army reserves. That night the local constable came with a telegram telling him to report the next day,” she said.

“War is very dull, very slow. It’s not like in the movies where everything happens at once. It’s like the frog you put in cold water and start heating the pot, little by little by little. You learn to accept each tiny change. You don’t even realize what’s happening.”


Thursday, April 7, 2016


morning light through my south-facing bedroom window

"I work hard at managing, grateful

and spare. I try to forgive all trespasses

and give thanks for the desert"...

The beginning of "Surviving Love" by Linda Gregg from In the Middle Distance.
For the full poem and an audio, visit The Writer's Almanac for January 16, 2016.

Friday, April 1, 2016


This week's arts and culture piece was meant to go in last week, on Good Friday but turned out the paper was dark for Easter.

So here is a reflection on the world-class Huntington Desert Garden, which happens to be a mere few miles from where I live.

It begins:

The Huntington Gardens and Library in Pasadena boasts what is widely considered one of the world’s premier collections of desert plants. The famed Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx called it “the most extraordinary garden in the world,” period.

You can learn more, among other places, in the book “Desert Plants: A Curator’s Introduction to the Huntington Desert Garden” by Gary Lyons.

“As you might imagine,” director Jim Folsom observes in the foreword, “when a garden includes 12 acres of plants, rockery and paths, has several thousand species to boast, and entails the life’s work of many people, there are wonderful specimens to encounter, great stories to tell and myriad lessons to learn.

“You do not merely visit the Desert Garden: you enter it, you are surrounded by and immersed in this wholly different and, at first sight, perhaps strange dreamscape. This garden takes you in and speaks to you in a fresh and compelling voice. Shape, form, movement, color and texture have different meaning here. Plant life and presentation defy, and then reconstruct, your sense of what might be possible.”