Month: September 2010




What is happening to our beloved Los Angeles Public Library? Why has the whole city, including of course me, not yet risen up to protest the budget cuts, the reduced hours, the Sunday and Monday closures?

I’ve had a library card continuously since the age of 6. Those halcyon days when I first learned that the  world lent out free books are forever enshrined in memory. Mrs. Craig, the town librarian: combination priestess/nurse with her iron-gray hair and sensible oxfords. The heating register, with its filigreed wrought iron grate, that all through the long, frigid winters exhaled the medicinal smell of heating oil. The shelves of books: balm, even a child could understand, for the wounded human soul.

I kept my card through elementary and high school, college and law school, through 20 years of hard drinking. Living in a cockroach-infested “loft” on Boston’s Merrimac Street, I still made a bi-monthly pilgrimage to the BPL. Even at my worst, I was still enough of a human being to be allowed free books. Friendless, despairing, I still had Anne Frank, and Ivan Ilyich, and Gregor Samsa.

For those of us who can’t afford to buy all the books we read, the library is as essential—perhaps more essential—than a grocery store. We need books to remind us how deeply we are connected. We need books because we know we are going to die. Decades later, the LAPL still gives me reason to live: my online account where I can reserve, renew, and check for due dates; the catalog that allows me to troll for Hans Christian Andersen biographies, or Rouault paintings, or the photos of Larry Clark; the “Hold” section at the Edendale branch in Echo Park where my heart skips a beat when I spot the fuchsia slip with my name inked in black Magic Marker. Is there a more vivid sign of hope that a small schoolgirl, or schoolboy, shifting from one foot to the other, standing in the checkout line with an armload of books? How is the next generation to govern itself, order its priorities, care for its sick, poor, unlucky, unlearned if we fail as a culture and a community to acknowledge the importance of the library?


After 20 years, I recently left L.A. and went on the road. Maybe my time here is up, I thought. Maybe I’m done with Los Angeles. In New Mexico I got a temporary card. I walked through the snow to check out Mabel Dodge Luhan’s Winter in Taos, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away. I walked from the library to evening Mass, pondering the connection between libraries and churches. Religion from the Latin religare: to bind together again. Books, that bring all of humanity back to the table. The memorial of St. Agnes, a 14-year-old who was martyred—beheaded—for refusing to yield her virginity; having consecrated herself to God, for dying rather than consent to an arranged marriage. What do you do with that? How do you deliver a homily on such an act–which reveals even the most radical contemporary “feminism” to be decidedly lukewarm–in this culture? “It’s about love,” said Father Brito, in his simple, earnest way. “The saints remind us that the point is always love.”


At the Lebh Shomea House of Prayer on the Gulf Coast of Texas, I read Caryll Houselander’s Guilt and Malcolm Muggeridge’s Jesus and Catherine de Hueck Doherty’s Poustinia. In Spencer, West Virginia, I stayed in a phoneless, wifi-less cabin  and went to the library every day to check my e-mail. I read Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Joseph Conrad’s “The Nigger of the Narcissus” and The Way of a Pilgrim. After awhile I got homesick. I missed the Southern California light. I missed the farmers’ markets. And I missed the L.A. Public Library.

So I came back: to my friends and the food but also to the reduced hours, the cuts, the Sunday and Monday closures, and ever since the light has seemed ever-so-slightly shadowed. I’ve been lucky enough to participate in the ALOUD series, both as panelist and as interlocutor. I know how graced we are to have a public library at all; a place with free books that’s open even one day a week. 
But if we can spend $2 million to persuade a Chinese automaker called BYD to open an office on Figueroa Street, we should be able to find money for our libraries. If we can afford $30 million for a parking garage for Eli Broad’s proposed museum, we should be able to find money for books. If we can afford to pay policemen, we should be able to pay librarians. Because as the children, the teenagers, the elderly, the poor, and those of us who would sooner go without food than without our red, blue, and gold LAPL card know, libraries are about love. The point is always love.




“One artist in the Collection whom [Jean] Dubuffet [founder of the term “art brut,” and champion of art by “outsiders” such as psychiatric patients, convicts, and children] came to know well was Aloïse Corbaz (1886-1964), an inmate of a mental hospital near Lausanne, whom he first met during his initial visit to Switzerland in 1945. Her work has generally been exhibited under her first name only, a common practice in early exhibitions to give anonymity to mental patients. She had an educated and cultured upbringing, and worked as a private teacher, which led her to the court of Kaiser Wilhelm II (as tutors to the daughters of his pastor) in the years before World War I. From a distance she became infatuated with the monarch and was unable to cope with her overpowering feelings. On her return to Lausanne she was overcome by psychiatric disorders, perhaps the result of long-standing problems worsened by this emotional upheaval. She was admitted to hospital in 1918, never to live outside an institution again…”  

“Dubuffet wrote: ‘She was not mad at all, much less in any case than everyone supposed. She made believe. She had been cured for a long time. She cured herself by the process which consists in ceasing to fight against the illness and undertaking on the contrary to cultivate it, to make use of it, to wonder at it, to turn it into an exciting reason for living.’” 
from Raw Creation: Outsider Art and Beyond, by John Maizels, pp. 45 and 47

…in the town of Kowata
there were horses for hire
but I loved you so much
I walked barefoot all the way

Kan’ ami, Japanese Noh actor, author, and musician during the Muromachi period (1333-1573)

Aloïse Corbaz:
no crazier than you or me



“Every true writer is surely a judge.”

After months of work, I recently sent off an essay to a “literary” magazine called Tin House. I didn’t want to bother with their pesky online submission protocol, so I went the old-school way: I printed out the 3400-word piece, addressed a manila envelope, and happily walked my little package to the Post Office. 

Last week, my self-addressed stamped envelope came back with a small Xeroxed notice to the following effect:  “Between September 1 and December 30, 2010, Tin House magazine will require writers submitting unsolicited manuscripts to the magazine to include a receipt for a book purchased from a bookstore. Writers who are not able to produce a receipt for a book are encouraged to explain why in 100 words or fewer.” 

As you may or may not know, submitting to a literary mag means months of waiting, usually for a rejection, and getting paid, if at all, two or three hundred bucks. I don’t mind begging; I don’t mind being a slave to literature. But if you want to start a “Buy a Book, Save a Bookstore Campaign,” the idea is to make a sacrifice yourself, not to compel a sacrifice from others. I, too, am saddened and perplexed by the rise of “digital” reading, but to blindly go out, buy a book because someone else thinks I should, and submit proof of my purchase to a rag that, in this case at least, has the temerity to hold itself out as on the side of the artist is one place where I must–I will!–draw the line. 

So here’s the letter I’m mailing out tomorrow (with a Mother Teresa stamp) to Tin House: 


Dear Sir/Madam:

I devote my life to writing. I made in the neighborhood of $13,000 last year. In good faith, I submitted my ms. via U.S. Mail. I walked to the P.O. You used my 44-cent stamp to tell me that I had to buy a book. I am too poor to buy a book. I’m also well able to make my own decisions about how to spend my money and how to support literature. Here’s an idea: why don’t you pledge to buy a book from every writer who takes the months of work required to write, edit, polish and submit an essay?


Heather King

And as my ex-husband Tim would say: So there, March Hare!!



I am back from NYC, where I stayed at the apartment of a friend of a friend in East Harlem. I have always enjoyed a building that smells of roast chicken, and cheap laundry detergent, and Raid.  The sirens from the cop cars at the projects across the way, the free wi-fi at Burger King, and the friendly cries of “Americana!” also went toward making me feel at home. I was tired the first day and thought, briefly, that I “should” go to a museum, or a gallery, or some sophisticated person-type thing, but I chose instead to lie in bed and look at the leaves on the tree outside my window, and listen to the sparrows. I am as driven, perhaps more driven, than the next person, but I am also deeply resistant to the cultural mandate of “busyness.” How are you? we ask. I’m busy, we reply, as if that’s an answer. I always think being too busy is a sign of some egregious failure on my part–a failure of faith; a failure of being true to my deepest self.

So I was busy but I wasn’t too busy. I walked up to Corpus Christi on 121st for 8:00 Mass on Monday. Thomas Merton was baptized there and though I am not a huge Merton fan, I am grateful for him, and his work and life. Simone Weil, during her brief time in New York, also attended Mass at Corpus Christi, and though at some point I always somewhat impatiently part ways with the good Simone, I am also grateful to her, and sympathize with her, and see that her suffering, like all suffering, is a mystery that none of us are equipped to judge. I had lunch with my dear friend of 20 -plus years Ann.  She has always been beautiful and she still is. We walked a bit in Central Park, near the West 80’s, afterward.  I walked every chance I got, as walking is how I come to know a place. Walking and sharing a meal and looking at people’s faces and going to Mass.

Monday night, I spoke at a series called Theology on Tap, at Slattery’s Midtown Pub. As Carl Jung said, the Latin word spiritus is the same for the most depraving poison and the highest religious experience, so it was good to be talking about Jesus at a bar. The folks were welcoming, attentive, and kind and I would like to thank Tim O’Reilly for inviting me, everyone who showed up, and John Egan for giving me a gift I wasn’t able to use this trip but will avail myself of next time.

Tuesday night I had the huge honor and gift of meeting Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete who I simply loved at first sight, as probably everyone who meets him does. At some point I had to set aside all thought of I’m not smart enough, faithful enough, worthy enough to meet this wonderful man and just say No, you’re not, so why not try to make him and everyone else know you’re glad you are to be here? He has the humor that comes from deep, deep pain–which I related to instantly–and his very presence softened me, humbled me, mystified me, reminded me, and opened the window onto a whole new way of seeing, that to follow Christ is something very different than I, for one, like to think it is. Following Christ has nothing to do with health or balance or drawing up a checklist of the pros and cons and making a reasoned decision. Following Christ means utter, blind, almost insane (in the eyes of the world) abandonment. We love to spot and judge the people who we think have abandoned themselves less than us. But to meet someone who you know has abandoned himself more is, in the best sense of the word, terrifying. You melt, like a moth in a flame, and at the same time you realize you’re being called way, way higher.

Wednesday I got to travel to Park Slope, Brooklyn–who would like to put me up for a week or two or three there? Come on, I’ll be super quiet! I’ll tell jokes and say the rosary with you!–and hook up with Deacon Greg Kandra, the lovely Francesca Maxime, and the staff at NET NY, where I filmed a segment for Greg’s show, “Currents,” that should be on any day/minute.

 As I made my way around around New York, I thought a lot about how all the experiences of my life had fed my creativity.  I thought a lot about an observation (thank God we had at least one that night) of Msgr. Albacete’s: that sin doesn’t generate pain; being forgiven for sin does. Suffering doesn’t lead to joy; joy leads to suffering. It’s only in experiencing the risen Christ, however momentarily, that we see our habitual blindness, our tragic cowardice, our desperate, doomed efforts to  serve both God and mammon.


My last morning, after cleaning up the apartment, packing, and checking my subway map, I had 45 minutes before I had to take off. So I walked down E. 106th, and saw that the doors to St. Cecilia’s Church was open, and went in for awhile and prayed. I can never understand those people who want to tear down all the churches and give the money to “the poor.” That’s what Judas wanted to do. For one thing, we’re all “the poor,” and for another, what do we have to give the poor except Christ? What do any of us have to give Christ except our two-dollar candles, our paper flowers, our prayers, our hearts?

“It is necessary to uproot oneself.
To cut down the tree and make of it a cross,
and then to carry it every day.”
–Simone Weil

Then I walked over to the Conservancy Garden in Central Park, which was so achingly beautiful that I actually knelt and made the sign of a cross in front of a robin. Joy generates suffering because joy never lasts, joy reminds us of our deaths, joy has at the middle of it that I wished I didn’t look so old, that the leaves were beginning to turn, that everything in me wanted to spend the rest of the day in that garden instead of taking the Air Train to JFK and sitting in a teeny plane seat for 6 hours. And yet to know that every train ride, meal, conversation, walk, flower, is unique under the sun: never to be experienced again; never to be repeated! To know that New York was a friend now: because I had people to pray for, because I had joined my suffering to theirs. Turning to leave, for once I wouldn’t have had it any other way: wouldn’t have changed a single second of my morning, my trip, my life.

Or as someone once said:

“I don’t like guilt be it stoned or stupid
Drunk and disorderly I ain’t no cupid.”



I am still enough of a rube to be excited about the prospect of spending five days in Manhattan. Which, starting Sunday night, just fyi, I will be.

Monday, September 20th at 7:30, I’ll be at Slattery’s Midtown Pub, 8 E. 36th Street. No, not swilling rotgut vodka gimlets: giving a talk hosted by Theology on Tap, a program of lectures given by a number of local dioceses, often featuring noted spiritual leaders and religious academics. Obviously, they’re taking a break from that model with me, and I’m tickled pink to be speaking at a bar, especially since the title of my talk is “Divine Intoxication.”

Tuesday, September 21st, at 7:00, I’m  doing a “Face-to-Face” with the faithful, charismatic, learned, and by all accounts exceedingly kind (and funny) Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete. Here’s an  interview Msgr. Albacete gave to Robert Wright (author of (the largely anti-God) The Evolution of God) for Meaning of Life TV.

Check out the part where Wright brings up Benedict XVI.
“I kept thinking, where is Joey?”  the Monsignor remarks.
“Yeah, he’s Pope,” Wright affirms and almost laughs, which if you’ve ever seen Robert Wright (who I met once and very much liked), is a miracle one step down from the Virgin Birth.

Wednesday I’ll tape a segment with Deacon Greg Kandra of NET NY, a faith-centered cable TV network based in Brooklyn. Deacon Kandra worked for CBS for years and has now fully given his life to God and thereby discovered (after I begged him to have me on his show) me. In between, I look forward to meeting new friend Rita Simmonds, and her family and pals, in the flesh; and am apparently going to be eating, drinking coffee, and chatting (possibly simultaneously) every spare minute. I was in NY for two weeks last summer and spent the whole time wandering around by myself to Mass, public gardens, and the Cloisters. This will be a different kind of trip.

As Jung observed, the Latin word spiritus is the same for the most depraving poison and the highest religious experience. Everything is a religious experience to me, in its way, and  preparing for my visit, I thought of Lou Reed’s “I’m Waiting for the Man.” Reed waited at the corner of Lexington and 125th for his dealer. I used to do a lot of waiting myself, though my “man” was the guy behind the counter at Jobi’s Liquor or the bartender at Sullivan’s Tap in Boston.  Now I wait for another Man. And I’m filled with joy at the prospect of meeting a bunch of people who, on the other side of the continent, are waiting for Him, too.  



Don’t you hate when your worst nightmare actually occurs? I’ve been fumbling along with this new housemate situation, watching all my oldest childhood triggers being triggered: my conviction that I’m not “allowed” to take up a lot of room, express a need, or make a mistake. And yesterday, having finally arranged my room in more or less the fashion I want it, I affixed a brand new extension cord to the space heater that my house-owning house mate had provided, and started answering my morning e-mails. Deeply absorbed, suddenly I thought, What’s that funny smell? Folks, I looked toward the window to see a bit of hazy smoke, shot out of my seat, and saw that the extension cord was literally melting. With gauzy white curtains mere inches away. With the cords to my laptop, printer, desk lamp etc. lying alongside. On the hardwood floor of a huge, lovely bedroom. IN SOMEONE ELSE’S HOUSE.

I would literally rather suffer third-degree burns myself than burn down someone else’s house. I’d already turned off the space heater, and I immediately also disposed of the offending cord and yanked open all the windows, praying the smell would dissipate, but of course the noxious odor of melting plastic woke my housemate and the poor woman padded down in her PJ’s to investigate. To her unbelievable, everlasting credit did not freak out but calmly examined the situation with me, said maybe we (i.e. I) should plug the space heater directly into the wall, and to my amazement, did not evict me on the spot.


I felt so bad and was so shaken up–I swear two more minutes and the place would have gone up in flames–that my first impulse was to stay in my room for about 3 weeks, then under cover of night, leave. But after 23 years of sobriety, countless  examinations of conscience, learning to habitually run my crises by a spiritual director, and the complete grace of God, I was able to realize that the damage, if any, was to my housemate, not me. I realized my task was to make her feel safe; to reassure her, insofar as possible, that her house was in good hands and the person living under her roof was generally conscientious, dependable, and kind. 

So against every fiber of my being, I went out half an hour later and had breakfast, chatted, took out the recycling,  asked if there was anything else I could do, and then went about my business for the day. One of my power-of-positive-thinking friends thinks this experience of living in some rudimentary kind of community (after so many years alone) is meant to “prepare” me for a “relationship.” But as T.S. Eliot said, “Wait without hope. For hope would be hope for the wrong thing.” I don’t wait any more for a relationship, but I do think this experience will perhaps better prepare me for “relationship” with everything and everyone. Which requires accepting that people–even me, especially me–make mistakes. 

The house could have burned down–I, too, could have lost most of what I own, including my writing–and I am so, so grateful it did not. But I couldn’t help thinking of how in the blink of an eye, everything can change. I couldn’t help thinking of the ones for whom the curtains did catch fire–too soon–and this poem by the great Wislawa Szymborska:


The cemetery plot for tiny graves.
We, the long-lived, pass by furtively,
like wealthy people passing slums.

Here lies little Zosia, Jacek, Dominik,
prematurely stripped of the sun, the moon,
the clouds, the turning seasons.

They didn’t stash much in their return bags.
Some scraps of sights
that scarcely count as plural.
A fistful of air with a butterfly flitting.
A spoonful of bitter knowledge—the taste of medicine.

Small-scale naughtiness,
granted, some of it fatal.
Gaily chasing the ball across the road.
The happiness of skating on thin ice.

This one here, that one down there, those on the end:
before they grew to reach a doorknob,
break a watch,
smash their first windowpane.

Malgorzata, four years old,
two of them spent staring at the ceiling.

Rafalek, missed his first birthday by a month,
and Zuzia missed Christmas,
when misty breath turns to frost.

And what can you say about one day of life,
a minute, a second:
darkness, a light bulb’s flash, then dark again?

Only stony Greek has words for that.

–Wislawa Szymborska
(translated from the Polish, by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh).




I’m pretty sure I can pinpoint the moment I knew I had to return to L.A. after my recent 6-month, cross-country, deeply spiritual “retreat.” It wasn’t the moment I thought: I miss the light in Southern California. It wasn’t the moment I thought: L.A. is where I can be most creative, or grow the most, or most fully serve my fellow man. It was the moment my friend Maud emailed me and said, “Heather, you won’t believe it. They’re selling little containers of the garlic sauce from Zankou Chicken at Jons.” 

Jons Grocery is a subject unto itself, but you haven’t really lived until you’ve been to Zankou Chicken. I’m talking the original location of course, in a grungy strip mall on the northeast corner of Sunset and Normandie. The one with the parking lot full of surly Armenian cab drivers and triple-parked cars. The one so redolent of the luscious smells of roast chicken and juicy glistening shawerma that you should have to pay just to stand in line. The one where the garlic sauce–a seemingly mild but über-potent white paste, the exact composition of which remains a fiercely-guarded secret and which no living person, man, woman, or child outside the Iskaderien family has yet been able to parse–all began.

But it’s never really about the food, or only about the food. It’s about the layers of meaning and memory above, below and running through the food. When I go to Zankou I don’t just go for the chicken or the garlic sauce.  I go thinking of the dark underbelly of the immigrant dream. I go knowing that in 2003, spurred by family rivalries/resentments and the fact that he was dying of cancer, the scion of the franchise came home one night, pulled out a 9mm semiautomatic Browning, and shot to death his mother, sister, and himself. I go thinking of California journalist par excellence Mark Arax, who wangled his way into the bosom of the Iskenderian family and wrote an essay called “Legend of Zankou” (which you can read in his West of the West).

I go thinking of Jonathan Gold, Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer and true L.A. treasure who, via some long-ago column, no doubt turned me on to Zankou in the first place.  Though we’ve never actually spoken, I (along with probably much of the rest of the city) feel I have a history with Jonathan. JG turned me on to Vim’s on 8th and Vermont (greasy-spoon Thai), Dow Show (which morphed into Heavy Noodling, which morphed into JTYH in Rosemead) (insanely delicious Shanxi knife-cut noodles), and the Hong Kong Deli (pork chop rice, dim sum).  He wrote a piece after the 1992 riots that moved me to tears. I once attended an ALOUD event at the downtown library in which he took part. Afterwards I approached the stage trembling, clasped my hands before my heart, like St. Thérèse of Lisieux appealing to Pope Leo XIII that could she please, please Your Eminence, be allowed to enter the cloister at Carmel at the age of 15, and croaked, simply, “Thank you.” Gold responded with as much graciousness as any human being under the circumstances could have been expected to, which was to say “Heh-hey, okay then,” and back very, very slowly away.

Arax and Gold are excellent writers because 1) they clearly work like pack-horses and 2) they are rooted in a sense of place.  In another West of the West essay, Arax describes how, driving the back roads of the San Joaquin Valley, he once “knocked on the door of a tarpaper shack that seemed lifted right out of the Mississippi Delta, circa 1930” and discovered James Dixon, a 95-year-old tenant farmer and one of the last of a dying breed of “black Okies” who had migrated to California in the ‘40s from Arkansas, and Texas, and Louisiana and lived in  abject poverty ever since.  

Gold, famously, for awhile in his early 20s, “had only one clearly articulated ambition: to eat at least once at every restaurant on Pico Boulevard.” Pico is not, at first glance, one of L.A.’s most promising thoroughfares, but that he managed to mine its riches and discover a universe in the process was exactly the point. “Pico, in a certain sense,” he observed of the experience, “was where I learned to eat. I also saw my first punk-rock show on Pico, was shot at, fell in love, bowled a 164, witnessed a knife fight, took cello lessons, raised chickens, ate Oki Dogs and heard X, Ice Cube, Hole and Willie Dixon perform (though not together) on Pico.” 

From 2500 miles away, that little container of garlic sauce reminded me that in Los Angeles, I had walked my own unpromising streets, pondered my own questions, developed my own passion for uncovering its mysteries. I’d gone away in part to write, but that single superb sentence of Gold’s reminded me that if it’s never only about the food, it’s also never only about the writing. It’s about streets, neighborhoods, heart. I needed to come home. So I came home, and I haven’t stopped writing since.

Which brings me back to Zankou. Go.  Have yourself a Styrofoam container of juicy chicken or shawerma or falafel. Rejoice that the Iskenderian family is back on its feet and opening Zankou outlets all over Southern Cal. Groove on the pickled vegetables: saffron yellow, turmeric orange, sumac purple. Get juice on your chin. Wipe your greasy hands on your pants. Eat deeply of the garlic sauce. Descend into the garlic sauce. Maybe, though it hasn’t to anyone else, it will yield its secret to you


I almost had a heart attack the other morning when, on my way to LAX to catch a 7:50 a.m. flight, I came to Parking Lot B and saw a huge looming sign saying “Employees Only.”


For years I had used Parking Lot B for long-term parking. I had memorized the Century Boulevard exit off the 405 South, that little frisson where you have to veer right (else be steered exorably, frighteningly, unthinkably toward Imperial Highway), then left onto La Cienaga, then down to 111th. Lot B was the furthest away from the terminals but also (of course) the cheapest. Eight bucks a day. Lot B was part of a whole ritual and routine that gave me the illusion of being “safe.” Lot B, place ticket in wallet, empty out remainder of coffee, affix club to steering wheel, walk to the shuttle (I am always way too impatient to wait till the driver ambles around to my section). Lot B was part of the whole mental structure I build before boarding a plane, entrusting my life to an unseen pilot, flying through the ether–and that’s not even counting the frightening “unknown” that inevitably awaits on the other end. 

And now Lot B was closed! Why had no-one told me! Why had there not been a public service announcement to every citizen of L.A.? How did people find out about such cataclysmic changes? Where would I park now? How would I find my way in the dark? What if I missed my plane? I thought of Kafka who, studying for his law exams, had noticed one hand nervously creeping toward the other, as if to comfort it. 

And later I thought, if the nervous system of a warm-blooded animal can react so strongly to a change of parking lot, how people must feel who are waiting for the jury to come back. I thought of the people who are about to hear the results of a biopsy.
I thought about the people in the boxcars headed for Auschwitz.

I parked in Lot C (12 bucks a day). I made it with time to spare. But next time I’m going to drive downtown, park at Union Station (6 bucks a day), and take the “Flyaway” Bus (14 round trip). 



I have been to St. Louis, Missouri/Belleville, Illinois. I saw East St. Louis (urban blight on its way up, felt right at home), The Hill (linguine with white clam and shrimp sauce), and the green patinaed, copper-sheathed spires of many churches I wished I could stay longer and visit. I at last saw the St. Louis Arch, which is apparently some kind of national landmark (perhaps especially known to sports fans?), and over which my little brother Joe came very close several years ago to disowning me when I confessed that I had never heard of it. I sampled a local delicacy known as Gooey Butter Cake. Jim Cavataio, husband of event/retreat organizer Rosalee, very kindly went to some special bakery and bought me a whole cake, which I shared with the receptionist at my hotel and who is now my friend for life.

I was hosted by a Catholic order called the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.  O.M.I. priests live and work among the poor in 71 countries, including Sri Lanka, Zambia, the Philippines, Haiti, India and Brazil, and I was thrilled to learn from presenter Fr. John Madigan that founder St. Eugene De Mazenod, came from a “dysfunctional” family and felt guilty his whole life for not having been good, kind, and effective enough to prevent his parents from divorcing. Fr. Tom Hayes provided homiletic depth and dry humor, and Fr. Jim Bropst contributed sanity, more laughs, and really beautiful and well thought-out music, liturgy and prayer. Co-organizer Diane Green brought four sisters, her mother, and her efficient, hard-working, understated and delightful self.

I was called upon to talk a lot–that’s why I was there–and I was humbled, honored and grateful and I am also drained. I am an extreme introvert, which doesn’t mean I don’t love being around people–nor, surprisingly, that I apparently can’t give a halfway decent talk–does mean I am somewhat drained, not energized (at least superficially), by the experience. I would ALWAYS “rather” be in solitude and not just because I, too, am the type who worries even now that I couldn’t have made my parents happier. Solitude is where I feel “most myself” and every chance I could I took off and walked the lovely grounds of the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, marveling at the wild grapes, crabapples, chokecherries (?), and goldenrod; praying that I would say something that at least one of the wonderful women who turned out at the retreat could relate to or be comforted by or use.

My life has turned out differently than many of the women there. I did not go the husband-and-children route, or rather that was not the route that found me, and I prayed, too, that we could all look for the similarities and not the differences. I talk about things that are easy to glamorize or sensationalize or politicize, and I try very hard to steer clear of self-pity on the one hand, and confessionalism and shock value on the other. I speak and write at all because the very fact that I am still standing is all glory to God and none to me. That is a sacred honor and I am always astonished at the grace that helped me get through the talk at all, and also always left with the knowledge that I could have done so much better.

This is the tension the Christian consents to hold: praying you are doing the right thing, but never quite knowing. Am I “made” for solitude, or is it “God’s will” that I participate in ways that are often difficult for me? Is it good to be a mother and wife, or good to carve out a more solitary path? Do we “help” by being ourselves, or do we help by trying to stretch ourselves? Is gooey butter cake “good” or “bad?” I’m pretty sure both.

And so many many thanks to all for a beautiful weekend. And special thanks to the women who showed up and gave so much to me.




September 12 was the birthday of my sainted father whose greatest legacy was perhaps the black humor that has helped me, for one (of his eight kids), survive. He was a handsome devil.


My father is no longer with us, but life springs eternal. For the other extremely notable personage who celebrates another year on earth today is the one and only Lawrence Page of Exeter, New Hampshire.


Larry has been asking me for years whether I have run into Hulk Hogan on the streets of L.A. I was sorry to have missed his birthday bash, but we had a nice chat and he is happy with his new Miley Cyrus (upon whom he has a small crush) CD and “loves” Facebook, where he recently opened an account and already has 59 friends.

Dad and Larry knew and I think I can say appreciated each other. Happy Birthday, Larry. Happy Birthday, Dad.