Month: October 2010




The other day I went over to my friend Brad’s in a section of L.A. called Lincoln Heights. Brad’s house is perched on the edge of a precipice and underneath it is a shed in which a bunch of my stuff has been stored for the last 10 months.

I had many emotions as I opened the boxes and pored through the contents: the blue and gold Talavera plates my ex-husband and I brought back from Guadalajara, the little rattan box I’d bought in Bangkok and filled with tiny shells picked up on a Thai beach, the old glazed ceramic pitcher of Nana’s, encrusted with peaches, apples and twining leaves. Were those my silver salt and pepper shakers? I almost no longer recognized them!
It was a fine fall afternoon, suffused with the dreamy gold-shot light that lends itself to musing on the mystery of why our journeys landed us in the city they did and not another; how we hooked up with this person instead of that one, and the way things might have been very different (in either direction) otherwise; the seemingly disparate bits and pieces that against all odds, day by day, cohere, however precariously, into a life. 

At one point, I realized the air was perfumed with a musky, sweetish, slightly decayed smell and looked over to see a gnarled old guava tree. Its branches were laden, and the ground beneath was covered with soft lemon-yellow fruit. Guavas have rose-colored flesh and tons of tiny seeds you can swallow whole if you’ve a mind to. I had a mind to, and helped myself to several, gorging on the good parts and tossing the half-eaten seed-heavy cores into the abandoned ravine below. Wasps swarmed the fallen fruit, but they were drowsy, or feeling magnanimous, and left me alone to ponder the delicious pleasure of the sun, and the sweetness of the fruit, and the re-discovery of my beloved belongings, all juxtaposed with the imminent possibility of a sharp, stabbing sting. 

My mind roved back to New Hampshire–land of my own birth–as it often does this time of year. I thought of Applecrest Orchards,  and the scarlet-bronze maples, and how, all over the country, we’ll be turning the clocks back soon. I thought of the tall drift of dried leaves onto which, one whole autumn as kids, we’d jumped from an ancient stone wall–yelling “GERONIMO!!!”–and landed: neck-deep.



Genuflect: late Latin genuflectere, from Latin genu, knee, and flectere, to bend. Date: 1630. 1.a. to bend the knee. b. to touch the knee to the floor or ground especially in worship.


The first time I went to Mass, in trembling and fear, I was shocked to see people kneeling. In the middle of Los Angeles, in the middle of the day. I felt like I’d stumbled upon a group of folks sitting on the toilet, or having sex. Right out there in the open, for anyone who wandered in to see, they were asking for help. They were admitting that they didn’t know. They were saying “I adore you.”

I have a theory that prayer is the answer to itself. The very fact that we’re praying means we’re already receiving what our hearts long for. To open ourselves to reality. To move away from isolation and toward communion. To die to self-reliance and come alive in wonder and mystery. Acknowledging our vulnerability, we’re in solidarity with every other sick, suffering, broken person in the world. With our heads bowed, our ears are closer to our hearts. On our knees, we’re the same height as children.

I once stayed at a Catholic retreat house where something seemed off. Why was there no body on the cross?  Why had the Penitential Rite, the Intercessionary Prayers, the Responsorial Psalm—the Psalms!!!— been excised? The Mass had been sanitized and euthanized. The Mass had been emasculated. After awhile it dawned on me that at no time during Mass did the members of the community kneel: nary a genuflection before or after Mass; not during the Eucharistic Prayer or Agnus Dei (the chapel had no kneelers, so none of us could kneel except on the floor).

One afternoon I crept into the chapel, peered beneath the pews and spied the tiny holes on either end that had once held screws. Just as I’d suspected, they had taken out the kneelers.
They had taken out the kneelers. This resistance to kneeling, in conjunction with the whole liturgically-diluted, inert atmosphere of the place, struck me as disturbing and even dangerous. What were we there for but to worship, to give thanks, to kneel before Someone greater than ourselves? What lover of Christ, before a re-presentation of the Crucifixion, would not instinctively be moved to assume a posture of grief, sorrow, awe, praise, trembling supplication? Where was the blood, the anxiety, the majesty, the sublime paradox, the resurrectional joy?

I’m the first to admit I sometimes over-react but I think this is a serious point. I’m weak but I’m not so delicate that I can’t understand that Christ, in agony on the cross, is a reflection of the human condition. I don’t need to be shielded from the knowledge that before the Resurrection comes a long, painful journey. I kneel because someone else consented to tell, live and die the truth. I kneel because for a long time I knelt before nothing but my own desperate self-centered desires and I lived in the fires of hell. I kneel to ask for help because I want to be able to welcome the next shipwrecked soul who stumbles, dazed and bleeding, onto shore.

I kneel because I know that someday—maybe today—I’m going to die.




Napped half the day;
no one
punished me!

–Kobayashi Issa
Translated by Robert Hass


I don’t know about you but I personally sometimes get tired in the middle of the day. This is where my New England Calvinism kicks in big-time. “Work is good for what ails you” and “The early bird catches the worm” and “You can sleep when you’re dead” were thoughts heard often in my childhood home. My circadian rhythm is still set to the hours my father worked as a bricklayer which, for him, often involved driving an hour or more each way to a job that started before dawn. Left to my own devices, I still rise at 5 and retire at 9:30. I’m still in subconscious solidarity with the old man (who died 11 years ago), still on red alert, still feel faintly guilty if I think I’m getting more rest than he did as a father of 8.

There’s help for people like me and, rest assured, I’ve availed myself of it. It’s taken me years, but I’ve finally started to let go of my weird and ancient idea that my job is to fix, advise, oversee, heal, rescue, or suffer for. (“Compassion” means to suffer with, which is an entirely different concept). I find minding my own business frees up lots of energy to pursue the things that make me happy: things like reading, and burning down the house, and looking out the window, and lying down on the ground, and eating halo-halo.

Which is maybe why these days I often avail myself of a short afternoon nap!

EMPLOYEE AT GOOGLE HQ in the great non-
Calvinistic state of CALIFORNIA


I let go of a lot of things when I (temporarily) left L.A. earlier this year. One of them was my left eye tooth. Mere weeks before I was scheduled to take off, Dr. Wong informed me that one of my major teeth was “resorbing.” This is supposedly some extremely rare occurrence whereby your tooth, for no good reason, starts absorbing itself from within. Creepy, right? What’s really creepy is that this had already happened to another of my teeth two years before. 

Which had morphed into my first, and I must say, deeply nightmarish implant experience. Over a series of several visits, the guy, who was the size of a linebacker, would cup my chin in one meaty paw, brace himself against the wall, and put his entire weight behind trying to wedge, weasel and fulcrum the screw(s) in. I got used to opening my mouth and hearing “Wow” (no exclamation point). I got used to hearing a combination strangled sigh/hysterical guffaw and “Hey Gina, come take a look at this.” I heard, “Oh shit.” I heard, “In twenty years, this is the most difficult implant I’ve ever done.” Another dentist once examined the finished job in silence–and asked, “Did you get that done…in this country?”


As a child, I had my teeth drilled without Novacaine. Even back then, I associated the experience with death.  So I wasn’t thrilled to hear that another tooth was resorbing, especially because as you may or may not know, an implant runs around four thousand bucks. That’s writer’s bucks which, adjusted for inflation, is about two and a half million regular bucks.


Left to my own devices, I might have let the tooth proceed on its strange little course simply for the curiosity factor. “What would happen if I just let it sit there?” I eagerly asked Dr. Wong, picturing the whole fascinating three-act play that would eventually take place in my upper jaw. Maybe I could hire myself out for a side show. Maybe people would feel sorry for me and start slipping me five- or ten- or twenty-dollar bills! Dr. Wong did a double-take. “It wouldn’t be good,” he replied somberly. “It would be like a…tree falling in on itself.” Little did he know that for me that was actually an enticement.

Still, just before I left, I had the tooth pulled. Dr. Wong sent me to some hotshot oral surgeon up in Beverly Hills. I cried, because I’d had that tooth for a long time, and it is sad, all the things we have to say goodbye to in this world, and I was setting off on a journey, and felt scared and uncertain.  Dr. Wong made me a little fake tooth, of which I’ve become somewhat fond.

Now I’ve embarked at a new journey with the good folks at the UCLA Dental School. I’d thought getting an implant there would be cheaper than on the outside but it turns out that between the CT scan ($283), the “stent” (?) ($120-130) they make so you can even have a CT scan, the possible bone graft ($700 to $1000), the implant ($950) and the “restoration” (i.e. crown) (they’re vague, but around $1500), I’ll be lucky to get out of this one for four grand.

Still, I like the whole setup there. No cheesy Monet prints, no depressing pile of Peoples and Sports Illustrateds, no foul ’70’s “rock.” Spare white walls, young folk in scrubs and cool sneakers, older professor-looking types “attending,” and an all-around sense of being in the thorough, capable hands of cutting-edge dentistry. Dr. Trujillo has now examined, poked, X-rayed, and scraped my remaining teeth to within an inch of their lives. I went in there yesterday and he has a plan. I am all for a plan. He patiently explained each step, assured me that we could space out the process so I could absorb the cost, and gave me a plastic shield behind which I closed my eyes as he scaled and tried, not very successfully, to feel grateful and calm, or lacking that, nothing.

To avoid paying ten bucks for parking, I’d left my car a twenty-minute walk away, only to find when I returned that in my prospective dental trauma-induced reverie that I’d pulled into a red zone and had an $85 ticket. Ordinarily, this would have plunged me into an abyss of existential despair. Instead, I thought: Oh I will think of this as giving $85 to the L.A. Public Library! I thought, How beautiful that the universe has ALWAYS sent me enough money! I thought, How lovely my mouth will look when the implant is completed!

Because Dr. Trujillo has a plan. Please.




I have never seen a reality show but I’ve heard tell of them, in particular a series called “Iron Chef” that, according to wikepedia, consists of “a timed cooking battle built around a specific theme ingredient.” I have also never claimed to be in the vanguard of, or even minimally conversant with, pop culture, but a battle? Timed? Around food? Just because you can accomplish a particular task in a frenzied rush doesn’t mean you should. How about Iron Surgeon, Iron Lend-a-Compassinate-Ear-to-Your-Friend-Who’s-Just-Found-Out-Her- Husband-is-Cheating-On-Her, Iron Sleep?

And don’t get me going on the insular, rarefied-to-the-point of absurdity, back-biting tone of so much of contemporary food writing. (Confession: I sleep with the 747-page tome The Art of Eating: Five Gastronomical Works by M.F.K. Fisher mere feet from my bed). I can cook from scratch and serve, say, grilled chicken with fennel and shallots, a blood orange and roasted beet salad, and a fig frangipane tart as well, and I hope with as much joy, as the next person, but I draw the line at roast tuna foam or white garlic and almond sorbet. There’s only one criterion for food and that’s whether, at the particular time, under the particular circumstances, you like it. Whether, even if you’re eating alone, you have some basic sense of sharing. Whether, at some point during or after eating you can say Man, was that good! (Yes, that’s one criterion, broken down into three parts).

That takes time. Not necessarily time to prepare the food, but time to figure out what food is about and for–which, call me old-fashioned, I’m pretty sure is to bring people together, not pit them against each other as adversaries. So here are three “recipes” I’ve worked up over the last few weeks that in one sense don’t take a lot of time, and in another sense take a lifetime.

1. Take a piece of Healthy Ham from Trader Joe’s and roll crosswise into a spiral. Dip directly into a large jar of mayonnaise and eat, bite by mayonnaise-dipped bite, while thoughtfully gazing at the bare stucco wall of the house next door and admiring the olive green trim around the windows.

2. Walk down Sunset Boulevard in a light drizzle of rain to the 99-cent store and buy two tubes of Pepsodent, a package of votive candles, and, on a whim, a 76-cent frozen chicken pot pie. Bring the chicken pot pie home, enjoying the smell of wet wild fennel and the sound of tires on wet pavement and the feel of the rain on your face, and put it in a 375-degree oven. While it’s cooking, think of similarly evocative childhood treats: Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, lobster newburg (the old man kept lobster traps back in New Hampshire),  your mother’s home-made popovers. Eat with a teaspoon, in bed, scraping the last bits of crust from the tinfoil, while reading Camus’ The Plague.

3. Take your friend Glenn who just had a hip replacement to the Saturday vigil Mass at St. Basil’s. Yield to his offer to take you for udon in the tiny stall/café at the back of Assi Korean Grocery on Oxford and 8th. Afterward, troll the aisles and come upon an item called Buenas Fruit Mix and Beans Halo-Halo, a glass jar of red mung beans, coconut gel, palm fruit, jackfruit, macapuno (?), white beans, and sodium hydrogen sulphite, the main ingredient of which, however, is pure cane sugar.

Let that pure cane sugar recommend itself to you. Shell out a buck ninety-nine, wait with Glenn in the parking lot for the AAA guy because you had to take Glenn’s car (the seat in your Celica was too low for his injured hip) and it somehow broke down while you were in Assi, accompany him home, retrieve your own car, and drive you and your precious jar home.

While still in your coat, take a quart container of French Village plain yogurt, also from Trader Joe’s (the kind with about a third of an inch of heavy cream on the top) from the fridge. Remove the gold and blue glazed Provence cup you bought at Dona Flor on Newbury Street in Boston that time the editor from Paraclete took you out to lunch and asked if you wanted to write a book about a saint from the dish drainer. Put a ton of yogurt in the cup, then add a couple of giant spoonfuls of Halo-Halo and stir.

Bring it back to your bedroom (you’re sharing a house and still feel a little shy about hanging out in the kitchen). Take off your coat. Check your e-mail. See that, one more time, nothing’s come over the transom even remotely promising money, sex, or fame.

Close your eyes. Give thanks for your health, your friends, your car, that you had a buck ninety-nine. Man, is that good.



“How ingenious an animal is a snail….When it falls in with a bad neighbor it takes up its house, and moves off.”
–Philemon, 3rd or 4th century B.C. Athenian poet

Elisabeth Tova Bailey lives on the mid-coast of Maine and that is about all we know of her background except that “At the age of thirty-four, on a brief trip to Europe, I was felled by a mysterious viral or bacterial pathogen, resulting in severe neurological symptoms” that began to slowly eat away at her immune system, severely compromise her heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion, and, for a time, more or less turn her bones to mush. She had to move to a studio and basically lie in bed all day and after awhile often the only person she would see was her caretaker for a half-hour at meals.

Then a friend brought her a little pot of violets, dug from the leafy loam outside Elisabeth’s studio, in which the friend had placed a single woodland snail. And this small humble snail ended up becoming Elisabeth’s companion, guide, and in a sense alter ego for a year. She moved the snail to a terrarium and made it a water dish out of the shell of a blue mussel. She boned up on snail nutrition and began feeding it pieces of portobello mushroom. She observed the snail (which, thankfully, she refrained from naming) closely, read botanical and biological tomes, pored through philosophy, haiku, memoir and early 1900’s hygeine gazettes looking for references to snails.

She discovered all kinds of fascinating facts about snails. Her snail possessed 2,640 teeth that, as Aristotle noted, were “sharp, and small, and delicate.” “The teeth point inward so as to give the snail a firm grasp on its food; with about 33 teeth per row and maybe eighty or so rows, they form a multitoothed ribbon called a radula, which works much like a rasp. This explained my snail’s nodding head as it grated away at a mushroom; it also explained the odd squareness of the holes I had discovered in my envelopes and lists.” Snails can build a little door for themselves out of mucous and snugly shut themselves in for the winter. They have an elaborate and even seemingly tender mating ritual which in certain species involves, I kid you not, the mutual manufacture and launching of “tiny, beautifully made arrows of calcium carbonate” which are stored in a kind of built-in quiver.

One of my favorite chapters was the one entitled “Marvelous Spirals.” “Even when my snail was asleep, I loved to gaze at the beautiful spiral of its shell. It was a tiny, brilliant accomplishment of architecture, and because the radius of the spiral increases exponentially as it progresses, it fits the definition of a logarithmic or an equiangular spiral. Also known as the marvelous spiral”… 

She notes the many similarities between her and her snail: the pace at which they move; the way they’re both having to adapt to changed environments. 
As the book progressed, I was afraid the snail would die: instead, it laid several clutches of eggs (snails are hermaphroditic, with a gestation period of 6-8 months) and gave birth to 118 baby snails. 

After a year, Elisabeth returned the snail to the woods, along with 117 of its children. Then she brought a single offspring snail back to her farmhouse, where her health continued to incrementally improve (“I might retrieve some papers from a few yards away in the late morning, and then in late afternoon I’d try a rash trip around the corner to the kitchen for a fresh glass of water”). She eventually released that snail as well and, we are given to understand, went on to study, ponder, and write this small gem of a book. 

(Photo from the author’s collection and used with her

We may know little of Elisabeth’s background but we come to know a great deal about her largeness of soul. She retained her sense of humor through what must have been almost unimaginable suffering and stress. She is utterly devoid of self-pity, which, under the circumstances, seems at least as marvelous as an equiangular spiral. All that talk of spirals somehow reminded of Santa Fe’s Loretto Chapel and the “Miraculous Staircase” which, constructed (inexplicably) of non-native wood, and without a single nail–only hand-carved wooden pegs–makes two complete 360-degree turns with no visible means of supportIn 1878, the story goes, the cash-poor nuns, realizing the planned stairs to the choir loft of the new chapel weren’t going to fit, made a novena to St. Joseph. Within days, an anonymous carpenter had ridden up on a donkey. Using only a saw, a hammer, and a square, over a period of six months he built the wondrous spiral staircase, then refused all payment and disappeared, never to be seen again. 

Like the anonymous carpenter, Elisabeth Tova Bailey worked with the simplest of tools: her wits and her questing spirit. Like the anonymous carpenter, she disappeared into the background–allowing the lowly but splendid snail to take center stage–and built a lasting monument to goodness, beauty, and truth. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating restores your faith, just in case it was faintly wavering, in publishing…and the miraculous power of prose…and life.  


“We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
Madeleine L’Engle

My friend Linda Dickey is a kind, generous, deeply smart and well-read convert (from Judaism) who lives in NYC. After I returned from a recent visit, she initiated a friendly e-mail discussion about our respective beliefs that ended up with me (already subliminally thinking our exchange would make a fascinating post) writing 15 single-spaced pages holding forth in the most boring, blowhard way about how, to ME, being a Catholic means being willing to die for Christ, and as a MATTER OF CONSCIENCE, etc. etc., and when I read it all over a week later, I was like Oh who cares? Not who cares about Christ, not who cares that we’re passionate about and have reasoned out our convictions, but who cares about carrying on about your convictions when all any of us really want is to sit down with each other, share a laugh or two, and eat?

Which brings me to the incredible meal Linda cooked for me when I was in in town. Good olives, good cheese, roast chicken, asparagus, crusty bread, salad with avocado, olive oil, and lemon, and THE most delicious flourless semi-molten chocolate cake. She gave me a tour of her huge, gorgeous 4-bedroom, 3-bedroom apartment on 99th and Riverside Drive with a full-on view of the Hudson. I got to meet her husband Tom. The three of us had a lively conversation.  Afterward, Tom walked me to the bus station, showed me how to add money to a Metro card, and gave me his own extra card with 6 bucks already on it. I mean come on. How much more do you need to know about convictions? 


So thank you, dear Linda (who btw, is a grandmother, works full-time, and spends every Friday volunteering at a food pantry and performing other works of mercy). And I include the very short END of our exchange:

Me: Christ is an event, not a theory…

Linda: Right—and yet I wonder why an encounter with Him is given to some and not others…a dear friend of mine is waiting for Jesus to come to him. And like the rest of us, he’s hoping for it and dreading it at the same time!

Me: We do simultaneously hope and dread! And yet it seems Christ always comes to anyone who truly wants Him to. He said so Himself: Seek and ye shall find, knock and the door shall be opened. If you’re poor enough in spirit, He will come. If you’re sick enough and broken enough and weak enough and desperate enough and hungry enough, He will come.

If I’ve had an “experience” of Christ myself, I’ll tell you what it is: being with Him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Around the time I turned 50, I experienced such searing excruciating loneliness, such a profound sense of failure, grief, loss, rejection, abandonment, and inadequacy; such anguish that my work, my youth, my body, my looks, my love, and my life were not bearing and never would bear fruit that I really thought I might die. In fact, in a sense, I did die. I died to any idea that we get to dictate how, when and what kind of fruit we bear. I died not to my desire to love, which flames every brighter, but to my desire to control or direct it anywhere but toward Christ.

When you suffer a lot (whether or not neurotically), if you are very graced, you start to feel a little of the suffering of the world. That was when I truly began to feel Christ as the Great Physician, the Great Teacher, the Great Friend. That was when I began, in my blind, errant, often wrong-headed way to want to help him in what He does. And what He does is walk with us in our suffering. He leads us to the truth of our hearts.

AND–speaking of a lovely light, Happy Birthday to my seafaring brother Geo with a zillion thanks and deep appreciation for all the faithful, behind-the-scenes, mostly unnoticed, unmentioned work he does on behalf of The Family while, with his wife Deb, also trying to valiantly juggle a house, two kids and two careers. Hope the sun is shining in Maine… 



A couple of nights ago, I went to a memorial Mass for my friend Larry Dowling. A bunch of us were there, among them another friend in his 60’s who, just last week, had undergone a hip replacement. A third friend, female, who we both adore, gave him a ride home. He called afterward to say that on the way she’d told him, “Boy you look old. I never noticed it before but you’re just looking OLD. You didn’t used to look old, but now you look old. Old, old, OLD!” “I LOVE her!” was his comment.


Now that is a book I myself must TOTALLY take a page from. That is turning the other cheek at its absolute best.

Speaking of looking OLD, I’m sure it is the SHEEREST coincidence that prompts me to insert this link to NET NY’s “Currents”, filmed in Brooklyn on September 22nd and directed by the one-and-only Deacon Greg Kandra. Greg has a wildly popular blog called The Deacon’s Bench, and I was honored to (at last!) meet, appear on his wonderful faith-based cable TV show, and tell a bit of my story to the, as you can see, beautiful and accomplished Francesca Maxime.



Today is the 83rd birthday of my mother, Janet McCray House King. She was born in rural Rhode Island and raised on a poultry farm. Her mother often went days without speaking a word and her father left one day, when my mother was a teenager, and never came back.

She married my father on August 28, 1951. He had two children from a previous marriage and I was born on July 19, 1952. She bore five more kids.

Mom was never one for small talk. She played the piano:”Lola,” “I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” Rachmaninov’s “Prelude in C Sharp Minor.” She bought me books: The Secret Garden. The Wind in the Willows. The Velveteen Rabbit. There’s a longer version, but the short version is that I put her through hell with my drinking and then she got it together to contact a counselor, staged a family intervention, and in 1986 more or less saved my life.


Happy Birthday, Mom. Thank you for loving me the way I am and–forever–for the books.