VIRTUE, VICE, AND THE SPACE BETWEEN
with a foreword by Brian Doyle
STUMBLE will inspire you to understand that the first step on the path of redemption is a sense of humor.
The second is failure.
Why, for example, every time I go “on retreat,” do I manage to develop at least one huge resentment?
Many of the included essays are adapted from slice-of-life commentaries I wrote and recorded for NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Here’s one of them.
“The Closest to Love We Ever Get,” included in Best American Spiritual Writing, 2008:
I’m a person who craves quiet and solitude, yet I lived in the crowded, noisy Los Angeles neighborhood of Koreatown for eighteen years. In 2010, I moved to another part of L.A. Back then, though, I told myself I lived in K’town because I had a spacious, beautiful apartment and a gated courtyard filled with hibiscus and pomegranates. I told myself it was because I paid only $760 a month in rent – half as much as almost anywhere else in the city.
But the longer I stayed, the more I saw it was not just the apartment that kept me there: it was the challenges, the dilemmas, the paradoxes. People blasted ranchera music at three in the morning but they also pruned bougainvillea into glories of cascading blooms. They spray-painted gang slogans on my garage door by night and scrubbed the sidewalks clean by day. As I hung out my clothes on the line by the lemon tree, my back was to a busted washing machine; across the alley, a brand new down comforter, still in its package, sat on top of a dumpster.
Part of my impulse living here is to hide out from the rest of the city – from the cell phones and SUVs, the hipsters, the people writing screenplays in too-cool-to-care coffeehouses – but in Koreatown I can’t hide out from myself. Here I come face to face every day with the cross of my irritation, my anger, my racism, my fear. Here I am plunged into the deepest contradictions: between abundance and scarcity, community and solitude, sin and grace, my longing for wholeness and my resistance to it.
Here, I have no voice, no particular power. At Mass at St. Basil’s, at 24-Hour Fitness, at Charlie Chan’s Printing, at Ralphs Grocery, at the Vietnamese shop where I get my pedicures, I am often the only white person present. When I call out my window to Jung, the kid next door, to keep it down, he yells back: “We were here first! Why don’t you move?” His 9-year-old face contorted by hate; hurt and fury rising in my own throat; I don’t have to read the headlines on Iraq to know how wars start, how the battle lines are drawn.
I have driven from Koreatown to Death Valley, to Anza Borrego, to the East Mojave. I am pulled to the desert as if by a magnet; I’m forever scheming to escape there for a week, or two, or a month; I devour books about the desert, and yet I am uneasy with the “nature” writers who leave human beings out, who see us as a blight on the landscape. As a human being, and a Catholic, I see the cross everywhere: in actual deserts and, in the middle of one of the most densely populated sections of Los Angeles, in the desert of my own conflicted heart.
Living in Koreatown has fortified my sense of apartness, allowed me to be in the city but not always of it, shaped me as a writer. But a writer has to be fully engaged: emotionally, spiritually, physically; has to mingle his or her body and blood with the rest of the world, the people in it, the page; has to find a way to cherish that world even as he or she struggles to endure it – Flannery O’Connor’s phrase –which is perhaps the best definition of the cross I know.