One of your most popular titles is Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Can you give us a brief synopsis?
Middle-aged ex-lawyer, sober drunk, Catholic convert, resident of 2009 Koreatown, Los Angeles, “walks” for a year with cloistered French Carmelite nun who died of TB in 1897, at the age of 24, with no pain medication, crying “I love Him!” the book is an interweaving of Thérèse spirituality and my own stumbling path.
It was a very difficult year for me. Actually it was a very difficult decade. I felt like an utter failure. I was not first in anyone’s heart, and had not been for a long time; neither did I feel like my writing was bearing fruit. As my friend Fr. Richey says, “If you’re really lucky, you’ll give up all hope of being happy in the way you thought you were going to be happy.” That was kind of what happened to me during that year. It was a crucifixion. On the other side of crucifixion is resurrection of course–though resurrection never looks like you thought it was going to either…
In one way, truly, St. Thérèse and I were the odd couple. Outwardly, we’d led very different lives. But I was attracted to her Mary Magdalene bleeding heart—which she managed to channel into a white-hot flame of love, of the desire to save souls, in an outwardly totally unremarkable way. No-one thought there was anything remotely noteworthy about her during her life. That alone is a theme dear to the heart of a writer, or this writer…
What led you to become a Catholic?
A complete crisis of meaning. I was sober, newly-married, and working as a Beverly Hills lawyer and I began to realize….This cannot be all there is. I cannot have gotten sober to argue motions for the rest of my life…I began to ask the deepest questions of our existence: Why am I here? What is my purpose on earth? What is the meaning of suffering?
I think we all have a sense of mission; we sense that we were put here to complete some task that no-one else could. I began to ask what that might be, and to look for a companion—companion comes from the Latin: cum pane: “with bread”… I saw that the goal is to be fully human and that if you take that as far as you can go, you will inevitably meet Christ.
I saw that it is all very well to say we need to be compassionate and care for the environment and so forth and that two seconds after you leave your apartment you’re at war with every other driver, pedestrian, person, with yourself. I saw that, left to my own devices, I’m simply incapable of real compassion, real love. I will always look out for myself. I will always grasp, cling, want to manipulate, hoard, possess. I saw I had to die to myself somehow.
And again, if you take that as far as you can go–actually, in another way, you don’t have to take it far at all–you will inevitably meet Christ. I saw that if you want to love, you will suffer. I saw that we are made to be in relationship to God. As Carmelite contemplative Ruth Burrows observes: “And we must renounce the desire to have a God we can handle. We can be like people at a seaside resort who prefer the man-made swimming pool with its easy temperature, safety, and amenities. After all, it is sea-water! And a little beyond is the open sea, untrammelled, untameable, over which we have not control whatever. But it is to this sea that we must commit ourselves and let ourselves be carried away. It is terrifying, this immense sea that is God.”
The crucifix is terrifying and it is also inexhaustibly compelling. We try to tame religion but it is the life-and-death-stakes risk we are called as humans to take. It’s the ultimate extreme sport, the ultimate gamble, the ultimate experience of falling in love, the ultimate peril, beauty, drama, journey. To me, religion is a stance toward reality. It’s not something extra I tack on to life: it’s the ground of life…
And at the same time I’m just trying to find a parking spot at Trader Joe’s and affordable health care, like everyone else. I love that as soon as we think we’re becoming “spiritual,” life brings us up short. I love that life is both a mystery and a comedy.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Always. Writing had been the secret call of my heart since I’d first learned to read. I couldn’t get to it till I was 40, partly because of my drinking, partly out of terror. I viewed writers as akin to gods. In fact, my crisis of meaning was also a crisis of vocation. I quit my job as a lawyer, started to write, and became a Catholic almost at the same time.
Do you remember the first thing that you wrote?
The very first thing I remember writing was a story in seventh grade entitled “And Then—Darkness.” It’s about a princess who defies her father, falls deeply in love with the “lowly gardener,” and after her father has the gardener executed by drowning, rows out in her little boat and drowns herself in solidarity…Seventh grade! I hadn’t even kissed a boy yet! Already I’d equated love with death…The template for my future was already in place. I truly believe we’re blueprinted with these shadows we’ll spend the rest of our lives working out.
What does your writing day look like?
I’m a New Englander at heart and a perennial early riser. So my ideal writing day consists of getting up around 6, sitting with my coffee for an hour or so meditating, praying, as I call it, pondering. There’s a certain state I can access, or to which I’m given access, where—connections reveal themselves, is maybe the best way I can put. And then three or four hours of uninterrupted time…that to me is heaven.
Not that it happens every day, especially the uninterrupted part. But through a combination of drivenness, guilt, and the fact that I would always rather be writing than anything else on earth, I usually get to my desk, even if it’s only for an hour, every day. And as we know, the rest of the day is, or can be, “writing,” too…I have a bunch of yellow legal pads—I did take away something from my days as an attorney—and I’m constantly jotting down ideas, book recommendations, insights, reflections, thoughts…
Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
I have a blog to which I devote a semi-ridiculous amount of time. I write of everyday mysticism, the utter weirdness of the leaf on the sidewalk, the face glimpsed fleetingly through a window, the cadmium red doorframe, my own ongoing triggers, annoyances, blocks, daily traumas and epiphanies, joys. The link between transcendence and art.
I get to showcase everything from the passion of my ultra-marathon runner friend Geoff Cordner, to the prose poems of Portland, Oregon writer Leanne Grabel who wrote a beautiful book called “Badgirls” about the creative writing class she taught at a juvenile facility, to the Ancient Bristlecone Forest in the Eastern Sierras…It’s a blog about the writing life, which is to say life, period. And L.A. is a city rich in paradox, and paradox, too, is life…
Beyond that, I’ve been working on a book called “HARROWED: Misadventures in an Urban Garden,” which is really an exploration of how, though we profess to want to live one way (in my case in complete solitude and silence) , life conspires to present us with something completely different (namely, what amounts to a de facto commune that includes several children under the age of 6, an entire cadre of Mexican and Salvadoran workmen, a landlord who raises my rent every year AND keeps the place under almost constant construction): in short, about navigating the perpetual dilemma of cash flow and the creative life; about how to love your neighbor as yourself.
What does your heart burn for?
Religious folk often fail to see the deep mystical truths embodied in plain, no-nonsense paths, actions, and prayers, twelve-step programs being a prime example. “My God, you can hear these folks thinking, I am not going to go sit with a bunch of unpromising unwashed heathen to address my booze, or relationship, or money problems. I’m not that desperate.” The “heathen” are often closer to the heart of the Gospels, without knowing Christ, or calling their way Christ, than the religious folk could dream of.
Similarly, the heathen might be astonished to discover that the liturgy, ritual, and dogma they’ve pre-judged to be rigid and stultifying constitute a glorifying, a sacramentalizing, a celebration, a to-the-point-of-blood safeguarding of the mystery of all that is simple, all that is paradoxical, all that is beautiful, all that is towards love, all that is true.
I have a foot in both worlds, and my heart burns to bring everyone to the table. As Charles Péguy wrote: “We must all be saved together! Reach God together! Appear before Him together! We must return to our Father’s house together…what would He think if we arrived without the others, without the others returning, too?”…
What book is currently on your bedside table?
Oh man, I never have one book; I have a stack or two. The stack will always contain a few old favorites: e.g., a compendium of the food writer M.F.K, Fisher, Catherine de Hueck Doherty’s Strannik, the collected stories of Flannery O’Connor. In addition, right now I have Astonishments, by the Polish poet Anna Kamienska, Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, The Song of the Cold by Edith Sitwell (birthday gift). I just read Katherine Boo’s Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, about life in a Mumbai, airport-adjacent, sewage-lake slum that, by my lights, may be one of top ten books of the decade. And I’ve just discovered Alexandra Fuller.
If you could have dinner with anyone in history, who would it be?
Well it would be a dinner party. One nice guest list would be St. Francis of Assisi, Kafka, Emily Dickinson, Caryll Houselander, Flannery O’Connor, Janis Joplin, Werner Herzog, Robert Bresson, and Beethoven.
What is the best advice you ever received?
“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” [Matthew 6:19-21].