Month: December 2010




The other day I was part of a discussion where the subject turned toward death, and how people’s parents had handled the subject when they were kids. “It’s just like going to sleep,” several mothers had explained, which of course had plunged the poor little 5- and 6-year old tykes into months of bedtime existential terror. One finally came back and said, “Mom, I don’t like that it’s like falling asleep. I’m afraid I won’t wake up.” So the mother thought for a minute, then said “Okay, dying is what it was like before you were born.” Which was somehow even worse…

I don’t know if it’s a matter of aging, or just temperament, but I personally think about death a lot. Wouldn’t the joke be on us if God really IS an old man with long white hair, for instance? Christ himself called Him the Father, which connotes some kind of personhood and I can’t imagine, if God is love, that He is not also somehow enfleshed, in some recognizable form like us. We don’t love disembodied ideas or abstractions or feelings. We don’t “love” peace. We don’t love love. We love people. Thus,in fact, Christ.

Earlier this year, I did a 40-day more or less silent retreat at a place on the Gulf Coast. I was far from home, and had given up my apartment in L.A. and had set off with some undefined but extremely pressing urge to get closer to Christ. All my life I have had this burning hunger, this drive for meaning, and it had only grown. That I had found my way to my three “homes”—sobriety, writing, the Church—was cause for abject rejoicing, but what gnawed at me was whether there was perhaps more: something else I’d been put on earth for. I did not understand the very deep pull to solitude. Sometimes I wondered if I was too much alone, and sometimes I wondered whether I should be alone more, whether I actually had a calling to be a contemplative hermit, which is kind of funny but not really.

I just so wanted to give all of myself and I could not seem to find the place or person or whatever to focus it all on! I literally was willing to consider joining a religious community or some kind of community, though the problem there would be that after about three hours with people I get extremely antsy and edgy, even if they’re not talking. Not because I’m especially mean or impatient, though I can be both, but because my whole way of existence…I live life at this sort of inner fever pitch which requires a ton of solitude and silence. I love to talk and gab and chat, too, but within pretty well-defined limits. Like sometimes friends will say, “I watched a couple of movies today and had lunch with so-and-so and went shopping then went to a party,” and I’ll just think, If I had to do that for even a single day I would die. I would jump out of my skin at not getting to just wander about and think, write, ponder, take a solitary walk, look at the trees.

Speaking of which, Darwin would have had a field day at this place: the sky, the ground, and everything in between teemed with life. Armadillos huffed around the foundations of my cabin. Two pygmy owls and their three babies nested in the branches of a  live oak. Javelinas ambled out from the palmetto scrub. Broods of wild turkeys, a mother and eight or ten babies, bobbed across the drives. Altamira orioles, heart-stopping, brilliant orange-gold with jet black markings—if you’d seen one such bird in your life, you would have counted it a triumph—abounded.

The first thing I noticed was that my life here was not that different from the life I lived in L.A.: I already lived the life of a contemplative in the middle of the city. The second thing was that the main reason I’d come was to get some kind of spiritual direction, some encouragement, some validation, some guidance. And for whatever reason—and the reason could have had to do with the way I presented myself, or any number of other factors that did not reflect badly on me or the other person—there was nothing. I don’t mean just a little, or not what I wanted to hear or expected to hear, I mean nothing. I was not foundering. I had not lost my moorings. I was not (for once) exaggerating the situation or feeling sorry for myself. But I would have had to be sort of willfully ignorant not to notice that over the previous several years I had had a lot of failure, a lot of no answers, a lot of no matter which way I turned, a blank wall.

I also would have had to be willfully ignorant, however, not to see that I had been formed, that a new person was being formed, by this very deep solitude. I had found my three homes, for example, and I had also found (as is inevitable) how much the three homes could be exactly like the world. As always, there were a few rare, shining, Christ-like examples. And as always, everybody else, including me, wanted to make a buck or be at the top of the heap, everyone wanted to have a platform, everyone wanted to say their way worked, everyone had their idols and as soon as you got into a community or a movement, the movement tended to became your idol.

In a way, I was coming to see, what was there to band together over? What was there to say or do? You devoted your life to writing. You followed Christ. I don’t in any way mean I was, or wanted to be, or fancied myself, a lone wolf. Dear God, no. I needed people desperately. I was grateful for every moment of companionship. More to the point, the Church was my absolute Mother. The Church was my life-blood. The Church was my anchor, my heart. The Church had taken me in when no-one else would have me.

The people who preached poverty so often hated the Church! How can you go to church? they’d ask. How can you stand the homilies, the music, the bad architecture, the hypocrites?  And I would think: You don’t know what poverty is. You have never known the poverty of being so poor in human companionship, so starved for touch, so hungry for the truth that you have stumbled into church like a drowning man seizes a raft. You have never been poor enough that you have been so grateful for whoever  turned up in the pew beside you, for a smile, for a priest who said Mass, that you have fallen to your knees and sobbed. You don’t know what it is to be poor until you have no family, no man, no friend who understands your heart, no-one to support your work to which, day after day, year after year, in silence, in solitude, you give your life.


Still, as I said, I’d begun to see that this strange little existence of mine had some kind of weird value. I was in the world but not of it; I never had been. I’d been a blackout drunk for 20 years, and then I’d gotten sober, and married, and divorced, and written, but even when I’d been doing “normal” things I’d known that real life lay “beyond.” It’s not that I hadn’t participated, especially as of late, it’s that I had always seen the things on earth as pointing to the things beyond. And even though I’d been educated as a lawyer, and lived in L.A., and had friends who were in the world, I was still not exactly of the world. I did not watch TV, for instance. I had never so much as heard Obama speak. I just did not read about or listen to or pay any attention to politics.  I didn’t need to pay attention to politics to know that we were doing terrible terrible violence to ourselves and each other, the world over: emotionally, physically, spiritually, financially, sexually.

I was immersed quite enough in culture. I saw the billboards. I read the New York Times Book Review. You don’t need to immerse yourself in culture, you need to walk down the street and look at people’s faces, to love them, to see their hunger. You need to feel the suffering of the world and to see with horror how you contribute to it. You have to undergo not so much penance as a kind of purification. People will always hear the truth; it’s just that nobody dares to speak it. And the person who does dare to speak it is going to stand outside culture somehow.  And suffer.

Anyway, every night after supper I’d take a long walk. No-one would be around. Every once in awhile a pickup from the local game preserve would drive by: I’d wave, they wouldn’t. I’d study the sky, marvel at the wildflowers. Think about what I was working on, wonder what was going to become of me. Worry about my mother and some difficult stuff that was going on in my family. And one night, I was almost back, with the drive like an allée, lined with tall trees, stretching straight before me.

It was not the cool of the night—the nights, like the days in this part of the world, were sweltering—but it was towards night. Afterwards I realized, too, that I’d been in a kind of “garden,” which is where lovers meet.

And suddenly I thought: Someday I’m going to walking down a road like this and Christ is going to be walking toward me. What if he materialized right now and started walking toward me—would I recognize him? I thought of how, when you get off a plane and you know someone is waiting for you, it still takes you a second to recognize the person among all those strangers. I thought maybe we would look at each other for a minute—you know, with a little expectant smile—“Is it you?”  And then I’d know. I’d just know. This face I’d been looking for, searching for, waiting to see, my whole life.

Apparently Mother Teresa, guardian of the poor of Calcutta, once wrote a note to Dorothy Day, guardian of the poor of the Bowery. “Dear Dorothy,” it read. “My love, prayers, and sacrifices to you.  If you go first, please tell Jesus that I love him.  If I go first, I will tell Jesus that you love him.”



Several years ago a friend turned me on to a writer named Betty MacDonald, best known as the author of The Egg and I (1945) (the book that gave rise to the characters Ma and Pa Kettle), and who I say–let’s start reading again!

The book of hers I’m (re-)reading now is called Anybody Can Do Anything, and it’s all about Seattle in the Depression, and Betty’s wacky family–they’re all back home, living with the chain-smoking, novel-reading, mild-mannered mother–headed up by the oldest sibling, Mary, and how Mary gets Betty, who is divorced with two young daughters, a succession of odd jobs for which Betty is completely and utterly unqualified.

Here’s the conversation that ensues, for example, after Mary announces to Betty that she’s volunteered her for a job “at the Western Insurance Company being private secretary to a perfectly darling man named Welton Brown.”

I tried to keep my voice normal as I asked, “Just what have you told this Welton Brown I could do, Mary?”

Mary said, “Stop interrupting and you’ll find out. Because Welton gets out a magazine, his secretary has to be able to type and take shorthand, know all about insurance, be familiar with advertising and layouts, draw well enough to illustrate the magazine and be able to write and edit articles. He’d really prefer someone who’s been published.”

“Well,” I said, “A–I’m only mediocre to rotten in shorthand and typing; B–I don’t know anything about advertising or layouts; C–I majored in art in college but we never drew anything but plaster casts; D–I can’t write and I’ve never had anything published and all my insurance information is mixed up with chickens.” [an allusion to what would become her first book, see below]

Mary said, “Listen, Betty, I’ve known you for twenty-four years and you’ve never thought you could do ANYTHING. Now there’s a depression and  jobs are hard to find and you’ve got two children to support and it’s about time you grew up and changed your thinking to things you can do instead of things you can’t do. Mull over your talents and build up your ego. A–you have to know insurance–you were married to an insurance salesman. B–You have to know advertising–you don’t but I do and I can teach you. C–You have to be able to draw and you say you can only draw plaster casts–and what may I ask, could be more ideal training for an insurance company with all their accidents? D–Shorthand and typing–if  Welton Brown thinks he can get a court reporter who can do all those things he’s a bigger jackass than I think he is. E–You have to be able to write and that is one thing you have to admit you can do. What about your children’s stories–what about ‘Sandra Surrenders’–I’ll bet the Ladies’ Home Journal would snap it up if we ever finished it.”

In other words, this is a book we could all use in our own Depression era, not because it has job-hunting tips but because of its complete lack of self-pity and huge sense of fun.

Betty ends up working as a photo tinter, an organizer for a rabbit grower, a typer of bills for a florist, a dentist and a laboratory. She works for an oil promoter, a public stenographer, a Mr. Wilson who runs a pyramid scheme, and a gangster. Mary’s also constantly setting Betty up on gruesome blind dates, and as the two of them good-naturedly dismiss the guy with roving hands as “Oh that old raper” and the elderly lech as “Probably just some lonely old buzzard who wants to meet some girls,” I couldn’t help reflecting upon how much we’ve lost in our dreadful anti-sex-discrimination-lawsuit era. For fun, the sisters (there are four of them) put on a pot of spaghetti, invite a crowd of artistes–some of  whom end up staying for years–and crowd around the gramophone or piano making fun of each other, smoking, drinking endless cups of coffee, putting on plays and/or singing.

Actually, everyone in Betty’s family, including her, chain-smoked, which probably did not help stave off the TB that killed her at the age of 50, but again, you have to appreciate her refusal to whine or blame. Here’s the bridge from one job to another with which she alludes to her year in a sanitarium about which she wrote the also delightful The Plague and I: 

“I finally collapsed with tuberculosis and was wheeled away from the Treasury Department. When I got well again I went to work for the National Youth Administration. The NYA and Mary would have seen eye to eye about a lot of things. Executives for instance. Mary believed that everybody but our collie was a potential executive and the NYA proved it. “

There’s also a great chapter–“All the World’s a Stage”–on the free entertainment to be found by going about the city ferreting out amateur dance and song recitals:

“Then Miss Grondahl announced that she would play “Rustle of Spring” and “Hark, Hark the Lark.” She had shed her gold cape and was simply clad in a sleeveless black satin dress and some crystal beads. She settled herself on the piano bench, folded her hands in her lap and began to play. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, and then suddenly, like running in backdoor in jumping rope, she lit into the first runs of “Rustle.” Miss Grondahl was a vigorous very loud player but what made her performance irresistible to [Betty’s sister] Dede and me were the large tufts of black hair which sprang quivering out of the armholes of her dress each time she lifted her hands at the end of a run or raised her arms for a crashing chord.”

Eventually, Betty re-marries, moves to Vashon Island, off the coast of Washington state, and begins working for a contractor with cost-plus government contracts (she would later write Onions in the Stew about her time there).

But first, Mary convinces her to write a book about her adventures on the remote chicken ranch to which she’d moved with her first husband (father to her two daughters): a marriage that had ended when Betty matter-of-factly packed up the kids one rainy, gloomy day, walked them down the hill, and boarded a bus for Seattle, never to return. The book was accepted by J. B. Lippincott, serialized in the Atlantic Monthly, and the rest was history, thereby proving Mary’s theory that anybody can do anything, or as she triumphantly told Betty, “You just feel successful, but imagine how I feel. All of a sudden my big lies have started coming true!”

Would that we all had a sister Mary! And long live Betty MacDonald.



GIOTTO, c. 1305

Today is what’s known in the Church as the Feast of the Holy Family. Here’s the Gospel reading:

When the Magi had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and His mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy Him.” And he rose and took the child and His mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called My Son.”
But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and His mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus reigned over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
–Matthew 2: 13-15, 19-23
I’m thinking of how the “new atheist” Darwinists seem to think that the fact that species unexpectedly, for no apparent reason, sometimes “unfairly,” “arbitrarily” die out is some kind of insurmountable barrier to belief; or  should be irrefutable “proof” to us naive, primitive, if not cretinous followers of Christ that a loving God does not and cannot exist. Whereas to me that any of us are liable to die or be killed at any minute, through no seeming “fault” of our own–or what’s even harder to bear, through our own weakness–is where belief starts, not where it ends. I always want to say: Not to worry, I have in fact noticed–as is borne in, ceaselessly, upon any thinking human being over the age of about 3–that “bad things happen to good people.” I have in fact gotten wind of The Slaughter of the Innocents, which of course is ongoing, in the poor, the exiled, the dispossessed, those senselessly, randomly killed throughout history, or left to die, and whom we are still killing and leaving to die today, and that includes ourselves, and our spirits and souls…

How frightened Joseph must have been; how anxious and bewildered Mary. How absolutely “contemporary” their sense of exile, their uprootedness, their longing for a home that never seemed to quite materialize. How fragile, then as now, the call that comes in a dream; the question: Is this really a call, or am I crazy? How timeless the fact that the first “defense” against fear, isolation, danger is a family: a mother and a father, irrevocably committed to each other, consecrated to something higher than themselves. That, too, of course, is fragile: perhaps the most fragile unit of all. “How glibly we talk about ‘family-life,’ as we do also of ‘my country.’ We ought to say many prayers for families. Families frighten me. May God be merciful with them,” notes the protagonist of Georges Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest.

Still, a family is not nearly as fragile as anything less or other than a family. The older I get, the more I am grateful to mine.


Geertgen tot Sint Jans
Early Netherlandish painting, c. 1490

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeliness;
You will see rare beasts and have
unique adventures.

He is the Truth;
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that
has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its
occasions shall dance for joy.

–W.H. Auden, from “For the Time Being,” a Christmas Oratorio

If I had no sense of humor, I would have long ago committed suicide.

–Mahatmi Gandhi





Writing a book about a saint has been, to put it mildly, humbling. Really the only way I find I am just like St. Thérèse of Lisieux, or St. Thérèse as a prepubescent child, is her habit of melodramatically over-emoting. She cried, and then she cried because she cried. She was, or could be, a general pain in the ass to all around her.

At the age of 13–on Christmas eve in fact–she underwent her well-known “second conversion” around this very issue.

The French custom at the time was for the children of the house to leave their shoes by the fireplace the night before Christmas for the parents to fill with candy. As the youngest of the five Martin daughters (several of whom had already left for the cloister), Thérèse was the last to keep up the ritual. Returning from the vigil Mass that night in 1886, her [single] father [the mother had died when Therese was 4 ½], tired and uncharacteristically cranky, passed the pair of filled shoes and remarked: “Well, fortunately this is the last year.” Thérèse overheard and ran upstairs, ostensibly to take off her hat.

Her impulse was to burst into tears and make a scene, as she ordinarily would have. Instead, she paused halfway up the stairs, willed herself to smile, turned around, marched back to the parlor, embraced her father and opened her gifts with joy, good cheer, and thanks.

The episode marked a turning point: the entry into the third, and what would be by far the most fruitful, portion of her spiritual life. In her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, she wrote:

On that night of light the third period of my life began, the most beautiful of them all, the most filled with graces from heaven…In an instant, the work that I hadn’t been able to do in ten years—Jesus did it, being content with the good will that I had no shortage of. Like his apostles, I could say, ‘Lord, I fished all night without catching anything’ [cf. Lk. 5: 5-10]. Then, more merciful toward me than He was toward his disciples, Jesus Himself took the net, threw it out, and brought it back in, full of fish…He made me into a fisher of souls [Mk. 1: 17]. I felt a great desire to work for the conversion of sinners, a desire that I never felt so strongly…In a word, I felt charity enter my heart, the need to forget myself in order to please others, and ever afterward I was happy!…” [SS, p. 104]

Something to shoot for…today…tomorrow…in the next few decades…

‘And how did little Tim behave?’ asked Mrs. Cratchit when she had rallied Bob on his credulity, and Bob had hugged his daughter to his heart’s content.
‘As good as gold,’ said Bob, ‘ and better. Somehow, he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.’
–Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
I am grateful for you all. Wishing you hope, joy, converted hearts, and the peace that passeth all understanding on this most beautiful night of lights….


I’ll be thinking tonight of my cousin Richard, back in the land of my birth: New Hampshire. Richard is cheerful, industrious, and hard-working. He was given as a young boy into the care of his (and my) paternal grandparents, who he in turn cared for till they died and who left him their house in Rye Beach, New Hampshire with a fireplace and a sun room and a sloping lawn and a picture window giving onto the Atlantic.

Rye has got to be some of the most beautiful, mostly untouched, prime real estate on the Eastern seaboard that, miraculously, has not been ruined, and in fact is pretty much the way I remember it as a kid 50 years ago.  Richard has lovingly tended the property for years, growing dahlias, hollyhocks, tiger lilies, geraniums and several unruly spruce trees that he is always hacking up with a chain saw into pieces and hauling to the dump. In the winter, he does odd jobs and needlepoint, tends his African violets, and plays the organ. 


Anyway, one Christmas a few years ago I was home for the holidays, and spending the night at Richard’s place as he is suffering from some horrible kind of cancer of the cartilage, and at the time had been driving down to Mass General in Boston every morning for radiation, the two of us being poised to leave at dawn the next day to beat rush hour. The coastline of New Hampshire is one thing in summer, with the beach roses and Queen Ann’s lace and tourists, but it’s an entirely different thing in the winter: equally as beautiful in its way, but stark, brooding, and almost entirely deserted.

It was the night before Christmas eve, dead dark out, freezing cold, and I was snooping around in the bathroom cupboards (you can still find Yardley face powder and dried-up bottles of Bactine in there left over from when Nana was alive) when I heard the faint sound of music. What the….? I thought. Was it carolers? Were some drunk teenagers driving by with their windows open and the bass blaring? So I went out to the sun room to investigate–past Nana’s collection of Belleek china, the Oriental rugs, the pot of corn chowder we’d had for supper–and there was Richard, sitting at his organ. Richard, who has worked all his life as a handyman, dishwasher and house cleaner. Richard, whose right arm the doctors were telling him they might have to amputate.  Richard, at full, WAY overly-loud voice singing “O Holy Night.”

Completely unselfconsciously: “Fall on your knees.” Completely un-ironically: “O hear the angel’s voices.” Like a child (Richard is now 72) : “O ni-ight divine.” I’m pretty sure at least partly for me, his guest: “O-O night when Christ was born. “

Across Ocean Boulevard, the waves crashed on the rocks. Somewhere, someone was being born. Somewhere, someone was dying. It was beyond doubt, by about a million light years, the best rendition of “O Holy Night” that I have ever heard, or ever will hear.

Merry Christmas, Richard. And all over the world, may the stars brightly shine.




Hey there! I thought I’d have a little open house and invite you all over today for Christmas!

I haven’t said a whole lot about my current living situation but here’s the deal: I’m sharing a fairly huge house with the gal who owns it. There’s a curving walkway in the front, and in the back a big backyard with a fountain, a white painted Provence table, and a shaded patio. There’s a kitchen, long dining room, living room with two comfy couches, a “meditation room,” and then I have basically the servant’s quarters but really a very nice “wing”: hardwood flooors, French windows, bathroom with black and white tiled floor and clawfoot tub. (Her headquarters are upstairs, plus she has a business and therefore an office downtown, plus she has a whole life out in Joshua Tree, where she also owns a house so I often have the place to myself).

Anyway, with my monkish bent, whether my housemate is here or not, I of course spend about 98% of the time in my cozy and fairly spacious room which I have tricked out for the holidays and I think amply demonstrates that the best things in life are free, or almost free. So come on in! Have some mulled cider, or peppermint hot chocolate, or if you like to “celebrate” the holidays the way I used to, a giant tumbler or two of straight gin and about ten non-filtered Camels and welcome to you. You can use that hand-painted Talevara saucer for an ashtray.

I don’t really don’t have room for a tree this year, but here are some antique bulbs, with a very cool flaked glass finish that I purchased for a dollar at the late, lamented L.A. Skid Row Salvation Army Store at Stanford and 7th. (Sorry for the photo quality; I am still laboring along with a DumbPhone). The bowl is from a thrift store on Main Street in Belle Fourche, South Dakota where I was visiting a friend after a writer’s residency in Wyoming, and I still remember the prairie he showed me around the Badlands, and the many beautiful kinds of grasses, and how we stopped to look at one particular kind called broome.

Here’s my crèche of cunning clay African figurines. You can’t really see, but the Virgin Mary has actual round wire earrings and and the three wise men are wearing tiny bead necklaces. I bought this at the Claudia Laub studio up on Beverly Boulevard at a post-holiday sale for 18 bucks around 2000 and still carefully unwrap the figures each year from the individual squares of black tissue paper they came in. The baby Jesus always gets unwrapped the very last, and when I put him in the middle, I know it’s Christmas.

After an unfortunate incident that occurred early in my stay here, I’m terrified of burning down the house or some other electrical mishap so instead of festooning lights over and around the windows, ceilings, shelves,  lamp stands, bed and sink as I usually do I simply picked up the whole huge tangle, placed it in Nana’s sterling silver fruit bowl, and plugged it in. Voilà!

Before I moved out of my former apartment early this year, I did a whole paring down which frankly, at the moment, is making me a teensy bit nostalgic. I gave away all my records, for instance, many of which I’d been lugging around since high school, to a gal who lived in a loft downtown, after reading my craigslist post came to pick them up, and proceeded to stand in the middle of my living room, burst into tears, and announce, “My boyfriend just dumped me and I need a HUG!” So I have her a hug and not only my LPs, but my videocam, my portable sewing machine and my sound system as well. The 30-something gals in my life had sniffed, “Nobody has a sound system anymore, you just get some Bose speakers and plug in your ipod.” I wasn’t so sure but I was leaving in a few days and it just seems wrong to have so much stuff you have to put things in storage so I gave this gal the whole lot and she said, “I’ll make a notebook binder for you out of some of the album covers,” so I said “Okay” and gave her my address in Taos where I was going for the first three months of my trip and never heard from her again. You ever notice how the people who are always nagging about paring down and simplifying and being “green” and leaving a small “footprint” are rich people who have houses and cars and after getting rid of half their stuff wouldn’t even notice or feel it? I wasn’t trying to be “green.” I haven’t regretted my move for a minute. But just for the record, I have noticed. I have felt it.

Anyway, now I have a Sony transistor radio! Which I bought on ebay for 16 bucks and makes me feel like I’m about 16 and that I have to say I love. At night I scrunch up under these two giant comforters, open the little window by my bed, gaze out at the pepper tree in the moonlight and listen to Jim Sveda play Christmas music on KUSC.

And fall asleep praying for YOU on that lovely black and gold rosary.

Christmas miracle! I said I never heard from that girl again, but I did, just last week! She had in fact made me a binder, with front and back covers from an old Judds album, and sent it to Taos in October (I left in April), and finally, amazingly, this delightful gift had made its way to me here in Silver Lake, California. So who says what goes around doesn’t come around?


And here’s the pièce de résistance: three deep pink dappled-with-white camellias. I don’t know if you have ever seen a camellia close up but they are breath-taking. They have layers and depth and complexity and secrets. And that I can walk into my back yard and simply snip as many as I want, for free, is a window onto a whole other kingdom that I would not have missed for anything in this world.

So hang out as long as you like. Come back any time. Hey, I said the ashtray, not the floor–you better leave your car here and get someone else to run you home, here, take the rest of that Wild Turkey. But first, let’s sit  quietly for a minute and listen to this poem together, which is somehow all about the light that shines in the darkness, mingled joy-pain, and the beyond weird paradox in which we live…and die…and live again…

By Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things—
        For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
            For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
    Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
        Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
            And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
        Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
            With swíft, slow; sweet, sour; adázzle, dím;
    He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

                                                                       Praise him.

“I love you all way. I go tonight with Christ. I love him too.”

–last note written by a miner to his wife, Frankfort, Illinois, where 119 miners lost their lives on the last shift before the Christmas holiday break, on or about December 21st, 1951


If I had a nickel for every time I’ve written in my journal, “Wow…something is happening to me,” I’d be rich. In one way, I am always exactly the same—which is and isn’t a good thing—and in another, I am always undergoing (in my mind, at least) some mysterious, hidden transformation.

The latest manifestation of which has to do with the book I’ve been writing for what seems like way too long: Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, out of which this eponymous blog has (obviously) sprung. The publisher is a lovely, small Catholic press on the Cape in Massachusetts. (As part of the deal, I get to spend a week at their retreat house in Orleans, and don’t think I’m not gonna take full advantage of THAT as soon as I can figure out a way to get back there).
Anyway, they had seen my two memoirs, and approached me a couple of years ago with the idea to write a book about “walking” with a saint for a year. Not a biography, or a hagiography, but a sort of lived reflection on the saint’s work, thought, prayer, path. So I thought for a bit and chose Thérèse of Lisieux because let’s face it, there is something kind of irresistible about a beautiful young French girl who wanted to be the Bride of Christ so badly that at the age of 14 she traveled to Rome, knelt at the feet of Pope Leo XIII, and begged for permission to enter the freezing cold, crawling-with-neurotic-nuns cloistered convent at Carmel. Who spent the rest of her short life in obscurity but on spiritual fire, going so far at one point as to offer herself as Christ’s Holocaust Victim. Who, when she coughed up a big gob of blood at the beginning of Lent one year (she would die of TB), was thrilled to know that more suffering, and heaven, lay ahead. Who died at the age of 24, with gangrened intestines and no pain medication, crying: “I love Him!” Who had first thrown off a spiritual biography in a cheap lined notebook, under orders, in her spare time during “recreation” hour, that her Superior tossed in a drawer for awhile, has gone on to sell millions of copies, and over a hundred years later is still, this morning, a very respectable #20,017 on amazon.   


At any rate, this book I was writing did not have to be long: 35,000 words. I was not getting a HUGE advance, which was fine with me as it would be nice just once before I die to actually receive a royalty check. So I got down to work, and immersed myself in St. Thérèse, or so I thought, and read some of the zillions of other books that have been written about her (thinking that mine, of course, would be different), and lived another year of my tortured but glorious, small, obscure life, and wrote, and revised, and wrote and revised, and went off to Taos early this year on a 3-month residency and finished the book. And waited months for the contract to be signed. And sent off the manuscript. And waited months to get notes. 
And when the notes came back, it turned out there was too much of “me” in there and not enough of St. Thérèse. Well of course I was mortified. What had I been thinking! Who on God’s green earth would want to read anything about me (although they had said, I’d thought, that they wanted a memoir) when the subject was St. Thérèse? So I cut all the parts about me, which was about half the book, and rewrote the first three chapters, and sent them off, and now it turns out there is not enough about me and they want me to put some back in.
The POINT being that I have finally been given to see that this is not a “job”: it’s meant to be a  way deeper “walk” with St. Thérèse than I’d envisioned. A surrender on a whole new level, or levels. Like most of us, I have a divided heart. Writing means everything to me, or that’s what I tell myself. I have sacrificed, if that’s the right word, for it: possibly a marriage, certainly a steady income, health insurance, a social life by any “normal” standards (though I’ve never been all that big on social life).
But it’s a very tricky thing, to write of the spiritual path and also want to get paid for it. My first memoir, Parched, is about addiction as spiritual thirst. My second, Redeemed, is (roughly) about my ongoing conversion to Catholicism. But I have always been dead set against making a platform out of the fact that I’m sober, or that I’ve converted. I mean BFD. Who cares? I used to not believe in God and now I do, isn’t that interesting?: NO. I used to be a big drunk and now that I’m sober I’m going to make a career out of telling you how to get sober. Please. The point is not me, but a God so merciful, so sublime, that he takes us as we are, wipes the slate clean, and allows us to be useful in spite of our abysmal track record.
According to my agent, this has made my work difficult to sell. It doesn’t fit easily into any category. It’s not self-help (thank GOD, and shoot me first). It’s too Catholic to be mainstream and too mainstream to be Catholic. Which is my whole point, for the love of heaven: catholic with a small c! That the religious impulse is the impulse toward life, in all its wrecked glory.  That Christ is not separate from life, he IS the way, and the truth, and the life…and all I want to do is tell the stories and showcase the people who show me that and help me live it out.
One of whom at the moment, it transpires, is St. Thérèse. Because while writing means “everything” to me—in fact, partly because writing means everything to me (the other part being my enormous ego)—so does getting noticed. I think it is one of the most difficult, if not THE most difficult, parts of the spiritual path: that we don’t get to say or see where or how our work bears fruit. And what I’m seeing is I somehow thought if I sacrificed, if writing meant enough to me, that I’d be able to support myself with it. What I’m seeing is that not only doesn’t it necessarily support you, it doesn’t even necessarily make you an excellent writer. 
That’s where Thérèse comes in. Because to be an excellent writer, in every sense of the word, you have to live out the Gospels. You have to cultivate the “habit of art,” as Flannery O’Connor (via Jacques Maritain) put it, unto your smallest hour and minute. You have to descend into St. Therese’s “little way” and offer your fruits, such as they are or aren’t, to Christ with childlike trust, knowing they will go toward easing the suffering of the world as he sees fit. 
Maybe I need to separate the idea of art and money completely. Maybe I need to go back to waitressing—there’d be some good stories there!  But right now I need to find my voice with this St. Thérèse book, to incorporate the right kind of “me,” to be honest enough to say what I’d really been struggling with during my year with her, which not to put too fine a point on it, was that to be a woman, and single, and aging, does not exactly put you at the top of the human heap. That it is all very well to talk about “the scandal of the Cross,” but to experience it is a very different thing. That for some time I’d been in the grip of a fairly excruciating emotional “attachment” around which, in the fall of ’07, in desperation I’d gotten in my ’96 Celica convertible and in a self-styled pilgrimage, driven across country and back, going to Mass every day, then spent the next two years feverishly writing a book about this VERY DEEP AND IMPORTANT UNIVERSAL HUMAN JOURNEY that I felt VERY STRONGLY was going to be my breakthrough book and that was not selling.
But yesterday I had this whole epiphany about how I’d been led to St. Thérèse for that very reason. The point wasn’t whether the other book sold, or whether any book ever sells. It was that our suffering always bears fruit; that if sobriety is not a platform it is still probably the richest and most useful thing about me; that maybe my falling in love had not been a shameful neurotic waste but some kind of huge mystery and blessing and cross that it is not ever going to be given to me on this side to understand. Maybe I had moved at least a teeny bit closer to knowing what love really is, to maturity, to abandoning myself completely. Maybe our true gift is just to figure out who we are and be that. Maybe my extremely personally painful habit of wearing my heart on my sleeve, if I can channel it the right way, is a gift. Maybe my real gift is to tell jokes. 

Mother Marie de Gonzague, the Superior at Carmel, ended up writing of Therese: “Tall and strong, with the air of a child, with a tone of voice and an expression that hide in her the wisdom, perfection and perspicacity of a fifty-year-old…a little ‘untouchable saint,’ to whom you would give the Good God without confession, but whose cap is full of mischief to play on whomever she wants. A mystic, a comic, she is everything. She can make you weep with devotion and just as easily faint with laughing during recreation.”

May I take a page from that book as I continue with mine…



My friend Joan has waitressed at Langer’s Pastrami for 21 years and at Factor’s Deli for 25, and she has a whole cast of characters who people her life. Her conversation is peppered with non sequiturs, anecdotes that start three-quarters of the way through, and references to the Cat Lady, the Barker, Jean, Sue B., Mister Rubin, Miss Singer, the Jazz Player, the (now ex-) Mayor of Southgate, the Police Captain, and My Daughter (her cross-eyed cat Lucky who, when riled, “pee-pees on the pillow”) that after a while, cohere into some rough kind of manic whole.

Joan and I had our annual date last Sunday for the Advent Lessons and Carols at St. James Episcopal Church down on Wilshire. We were both very well behaved, following quietly along with a minimum of snarky asides on people’s hair, shoes, facial expressions, sexual orientation, height, weight, general presentation, and/or age. As usual I sobbed brokenly at the final hymn—“Lo He Comes on Clouds Descending”—and, as usual, Joan elbowed the crowd expertly aside afterward so that we could make a beeline for the reception/free food which was excellent: shrimp, skewered salmon, and several giant platters of baby lamb chops.

We hadn’t seen each other for awhile but we picked up right where we left off. “So how’ve you been?” I asked as we huddled in the corner scarfing, and she launched into several convoluted stories–getting in trouble for leaving a wet towel overnight at work, losing her 99-cent store glasses in the ice cream, and fishing the L.A. Times from the trash outside the Coffee Bean on Larchmont and saving 75 cents–all of which I “understood” completely.

Joan can be a little hard to track, but it’s fascinating to ponder what goes on in that blond head of hers. [CAUTION: bad swear coming up!] The two of us were once at a girls’-night-out dinner party where the conversation turned to movies, movie star sightings, and the Oscars. “So anyway, Gwyneth Paltrow,” someone was saying and suddenly Joan, who’d been sitting silently sunk in thought for several minutes, roused herself to interject: “I was in Vons the other day and over the loudspeaker came a really mad voice saying “What the fuck are you doing calling a customer a bitch?”

Maybe you had to be there, or know Joan, but it was super SUPER funny.

Anyway, several years back, along with the help of NPR’s crackerjack producer Sara Sarasohn, I got to do a radio piece on Joan. Sara and I went to Langer’s, and recorded the sounds of the busboys clearing the tables, and Joan telling a little of her let’s say unique story, and the result is one of my favorite “All Things Considered” pieces that I, or I should say Sara and I, ever did. And since I am nothing if not an AVID “re-gifter” (and rabid self-promoter), here it is.

If you want to meet Joan in the flesh, chow down what Pulitzer-prize winning food writer Jonathan Gold has called the best pastrami sandwich in the city, ponder the Jewish antecedents of the Blessed Savior, and/or score a counterfeit green card at nearby MacArthur Park, she’s at Langer’s Thursdays and Fridays, 8 to 3:30 (except next week when she’s having eye surgery), and at Factor’s Famous Deli over in west L.A. Mondays through Wednesdays 7:30 to 2:30: “It’s been Hanukkah, Hayther, they’re ALL OUT…oh my God, the latkes”…



I once reviewed a book by a man who had “lost” his religion. He was disgusted by pedophile priests, outraged that God doesn’t answer the prayers of amputees by restoring their missing limbs, aghast that televangelist faith healers are often (I would have said always) fakes, and in desperation had conducted a series of social surveys revealing to his horror that people who claimed to have faith acted no better than anyone elseI certainly hope not! was my response. Religion doesn’t mean acting better than other people; it means, if we’re lucky, getting to act a little better than we used to ourselves.

Similarly, there’s a huge misconception that faith provides some kind of consolation: that faith assuages fear, dispels doubt, and imparts a phony, infantile sense of well-being that the more clear-eyed among us, as a matter of intelligence and conscience (and if that were the case, I’d add rightfully), reject. Not long ago a friend of mine–great guy; funny, compassionate, smart guy who also happens to be resolutely atheistic–was facing eye surgery. He said, “I was coming home from the doctor’s the other day and I was so scared and felt so alone and I thought: ‘Man, I could use some of that faith people talk about. Too bad I don’t believe.’” And I, in turn, thought, Wow, do folks actually think that the person who “believes” suffers one iota less anguish at the thought of, say, eye surgery–or scorn or ridicule or rejection or abandonment or loneliness or poverty–than the person who doesn’t “believe?” If that were the case, everyone would believe. It wouldn’t be faith, it would be a transaction.  It would be a magic trick.

But the interesting thing about belief is that it doesn’t make you act better than other people, doesn’t make you appear more together, doesn’t advance you in the eyes of the world, doesn’t relieve your terrible fears and terrible shortcomings.

What does faith do? It helps you to bear the almost unbearable tension of being a mortal human being without cracking. It helps you to bear your fears, your neuroses, your anxieties, your rage, your lusts, your loneliness, so that you don’t lose your mind, or start swilling Night Train, or embark on a life spent watching internet porn. If you are very far along the path, it may begin to help you refrain  from taking the agony of bearing the tension out on other people. It leads you, or has anyway led me, to ponder the sort of Man Christ was. A Man who, nailed to the Cross, could still be focused not on his own suffering, but on the suffering of the rest of the world. A Man who, in the throes of death, turned to the Repentant Thief beside him with the reassurance: ‘This day you shall be with me in Paradise.’ [Luke 23: 43]

I find there are two basic types of people who attack when they discover I’m Catholic. The first are lapsed or disgruntled Catholics who claim to be revolted by the Church but can’t stop talking about it. I love these types. Their hearts are broken. They’re always trying to trying to trip me up, get me to say something bad about the Church, convert me back to the cause of the unbelievers. The second type, the Pharisees (in a peculiarly unfortunate combination, the two “types” sometimes exist in one person), are always trying to get me to say something bad about other so-called (in their eyes lukewarm) members of the Church.
None of these folks can bear the hideous gap between how a follower of Christ should be and how a person who claims to be a follower of Christ actually is. It is horrible, it’s absurd. But don’t let that stop you! I want to say. Anyone who signs up to be a Christian signs up for failure. The very, very few who “succeed” die. In order to be any good at it you more or less have to be killed.  You also have to be somewhat nuts to set yourself a goal that is basically impossible to achieve. As Thomas Merton observed: “We must remember that in order to choose religious life, you must be a misfit…Let’s get away from the mystique that religious are the cream-of-the-crop Christians.”

No-one would embark upon such a way of life except out of love. No-one would want to follow such a Man except out of love. No-one would be willing to say: I believe and yet I fail, I believe and yet I doubt, I believe and yet I’m in terror, I believe and yet I lack love except out of the desire to love. 

Which is the segue into an upcoming post: Why I Am Religious and Not Just Spiritual. And the overflowings of a heart that is full–of gratitude, of a sense of awe-struck mystery–as we enter the Third Week of Advent.