Wednesday, July 20, 2016


     I wept when I prayed – because of something inside me that felt the need for tears.
        Why did I pray? A strange question. Why did I live? Why did I breathe?
           I believed I would be drawn into eternity, into that time where
               question and answer would become one.    Elie Wiesel as a young man, before the Night


Awake late at night
finally reading his story
an innocent boy’s beautiful faith
betrayed, put into a ghetto, then deported
it feels like my, like our story.

Praying the psalms next morning
the same ones he recited…
my tears have become my bread, by night, by day
as I hear it said all the day long: ‘ Where is your God?’   Psalm 42
At the end of the sky is the rising sun; to the furthest end of the sky is its course.
There is nothing concealed from its burning heat.  Psalm 18
What could extinguish this holy fire in his soul
what violence and death what hatred and prejudice kill your faith?

A farmer’s morning mowing the summer hay
the mature stems falling in windrows
I think, my God, those who were forced to dig the trenches
and then mowed down in a deadly harvest of bullets
the cattle cars of children disappearing off into the camps.

My lunch plate at noon, full to overflowing
food lovingly cooked and served, and to think
you had so little, scraps of moldy bread, thin soup
and in the end, a living corpse mirrored back to your own haunted eyes.

What they took from you
your mother and sisters, your father, your friends, your village
your faith and your freedom and the joy of your youth
they stole every love surrounding you, Elie
but they could not destroy the endpoint
your deepest question and answer – love, the Eternal.

               Scott Eagan
                        June 6, 2016

     Man questions God and God answers. But we don’t understand His answers.
        We can’t understand them. Because they come from the depths. of the soul, 
             and they stay there until death.   Elie Wiesel

Scott Eagan is a poet, a friend, and a member of the Madonna House apostolate in Combermere, Ontario.
He generously agreed to share "What Is Love." Thank you, Scott.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016


My new Jesus statue (his nose is broken), courtesy of Boston's one and only Mary the Hairdresser, a living saint.
She gave me a bag of pistachios, too.
Cards on either side also from living saints--I know many.

That would be today!

Here's an insert I received in a card from a dear friend--oh hell, ALL my friends are living saints:


Desire, longing, and yearning;
Hunger hankering and ache:
May you know the presence
Of the God
Who makes a home
In each of these. 

I hope all your friends are, too.

Thanks to each and every one of my readers for lighting the way and making life worth living.

Sunday, July 17, 2016


This week's arts and cultures column is about a current exhibit at LACMA.

Here's how the piece begins:

Skip the Robert Mapplethorpe.

Instead, go to LACMA before Aug. 7 and check out a truly transcendent exhibit called “Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Na Hulu Ali‘i.”

“For centuries on the Hawaiian Islands,” you may not have known, “vividly colored feathers gathered from native birds were valuable cultural resources, ornamenting spectacular garments painstakingly constructed by hand. … [The garments] bore rainbows of feathers to signify the divinity and power of chiefs (ali‘i), who wore them for spiritual protection and to proclaim their identity and status. These unique valuables also found use as objects of diplomacy, helping to secure political alliances and agreements.”

The first documented visit of Westerners to the Hawaiian Islands occurred in December 1778, when Captain James Cook and his crew arrived. When they left, they took with them more than 40 featherwork garments that had been bestowed as diplomatic gifts. Featherwork evolved over the course of the ensuing monarchies and the next 100 years.


Wednesday, July 13, 2016


I find as I age I become more and more impatient of time spent grooming. Not that I'm a complete slob, and of course I'm terribly vain, but for instance, I've taken to cutting my own hair, with a pair of kitchen shears.

It looks fine, or just as fine as it ever did.

That my eyesight isn't what it once was probably exacerbates things. Anyway, last week I bought a travel size what I thought was skin cream at a CVS in Manhattan and slathered it all over my face for a few days and nights, thinking, Man does this stuff smell gnarly!

Sunday as I was leaving Manhattan for Lake George I realized that all around my right eye felt as if it had been burnt. That's weird, I thought. Then yesterday I woke and my whole face felt tight, like I'd applied an egg white mask. My hand crept up, and--People! My skin felt like sandpaper, as if I'd sustained second degree burns all around my eyes and mouth. Wow, had I been  out in the sun too long? Then I though to read the label of my "lotion" more closely and saw I'd been applying Olay Ultra Moisture BODY WASH.

I practically needed a can of shortening to remedy the situation.

After layering on about an inch of generic Pond's, the chemical peel seems complete, and thrillingly large chunks of facial skin are drying up and flaking off.

I really should look in the mirror and at the fine print more often. But hey, I'm busy working!


Saturday, July 9, 2016


Dr. Timothy Flanigan and two of his colleagues while working as a volunteer in Liberia.
(Photo courtesy of Dr. Flanigan)

This week's arts and culture column is on a man who, full disclosure, has become a dear friend.

Here's how it begins:

Dr. Tim Flanigan of the Miriam Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, is a husband, a father of five, an infectious disease doctor and a professor at Brown University.

In September 2014, at the height of the Ebola epidemic, he traveled to Liberia as a volunteer for two months to help organize the response.

“Listen, I’m no good in a tsunami or an earthquake. I’m not an orthopedic guy; I’m an infectious disease doc. If I didn’t go during the Ebola epidemic, when would I go?”

Everything you need to protect against Ebola, it turns out, can be bought at Home Depot. He packed seven hockey bags with supplies: suits, gloves, goggles. He and Sister Barbara Brilliant, FMM, made the last flight from Boston on August 31, before Delta stopped flying to Monrovia.

Father Miguel Pajares, 75, the chaplain at St. Joseph Hospital there, had contracted Ebola and died five days later. The director of the hospital, Brother Patrick Nshamdze, also became infected and died, as did nine of the remaining 15 workers. The hospital was closed. Dr. Flanigan and Sister Barbara — who has worked in Liberia for 35 years — and her team worked to train and work side by side with the hospital staff to reopen.


Friday, July 8, 2016


FRA ANGELICO, c. 1438-45

“I think the country is longing for people to stop blaming one another and just grab each other’s arm and say we’re in this together,” he said. “That’s what we thirst for and we feel like we’re in a desert.”
--Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings


                             "Each time Zechariah entered her prayer chamber, he found her
                         supplied with sustenance. He said, "O Mary, whence cometh this?'
                                                                                                She said, 'From God."
                                                                           --Quran: The Family of Imran 3:37

After hours in my seventh-floor municipal office,
I am working on revisions to the drainage code
alone, like Mary high in her temple
staring at the blank screen that is my life

Mary tapping at the holy keyboard,
God sent her fully microwavable meals
with Alfredo sauce manifest
I bang on the candy machine down the hall: Nothing.
It has eaten my pieces of silver

Mary had a mentor in Zechariah,
who dropped in and taught her divine wisdom
whenever he wasn't on a vow of silence
but only burned-out Bill from computer services,
styrofoam cup loosely in hand with a little cold coffee left in it,
comes by my door to mutter about the weather

Mary got a visitation from Gabriel
which helped clarify things, like her task in the world
I get the cross-town courier in bicycle shorts, panting,
not so much to announce a virgin birth unto me,
as carrying a roll of blueprints under his arm

which I study religiously while eating
naught but stale chips
and a linty Lifesaver
The hour is late; my hunger groweth
Mary, Mary, whence cometh my succor?

--Mohja Kahf

reprinted with permission from the author

Wednesday, July 6, 2016


The Sunday NYT ran an op-ed piece by Roy Scranton that made my 4th of July weekend. It's called "Star Wars and the Fantasy of American Violence." Scranton is a former soldier who fought in Iraq and thus knows first-hand the devastating physical and spiritual corruption wreaked by violence on both soldiers and civilians. He's also a widely-published journalist and author who teaches in the Department of English at Notre Dame.

An excerpt:

"[I]n the frightened months after Sept. 11, the myth of violence was more powerful than the truth of war. As an American soldier in Iraq, I was both caught up in that myth and released from it: I could see what “the work of peace” really looked like, what American violence did to Iraqi homes and bodies, yet it remained my job to be an agent of that violence — a violence that neither redeemed nor enlightened.

On this Fourth of July, while American violence continues to rain down on Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, as we continue to support violent regimes in Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and elsewhere by buying oil that we then burn and dump into the atmosphere, precipitously heating the planet, and amid a crucial presidential election, we should ask ourselves what we’re really celebrating with our bottle rockets and sparklers.

There is another version of America beyond the noise our fireworks make: not military strength, but the deliberate commitment to collective self-determination. Perhaps this Fourth of July we could commemorate that. Instead of celebrating American violence, we might celebrate our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the ideals those documents invoke of an educated citizenry deciding its fate not through war but through civil disagreement. Instead of honoring our troops, whose chief virtues are obedience and aggressiveness, we could honor our great dissenters and conscientious objectors. And instead of blowing things up, maybe we could try building something."


The late, great comic Bill Hicks says it his own way in Revelations.

Here's my friend Dennis Apel's most recent newsletter from federal prison, where he's serving 120 days for vigiling against war and nuclear weapons.

With my own desire to build something, I've made a couple of pilgrimages to one of my favorite places in NYC: The Conservatory Garden in Central Park.  All through the north end of the Park are glorious stands of pale-pink tinged hydrangeas.


Sunday, July 3, 2016


 Hello to the I'm sure two people who are still reading my lately scattershot blog!

I've been away from home for three-plus weeks now with two to go. Non-stop people mostly the whole time and now I'm holed up on the Upper East Side in NYC till next Sunday and not a moment too soon.

While gone, I have to keep up with my weekly arts and culture column, plus it transpires I'm working on a book about prayer for Loyola Press that is due in October (?) (!) So I will be hunkering down and in for a bit.

Here are some scenes of the incredible places, inhabited by the incredible people, I've been graced to see.

Scenes from a friend's cottage in a small coastal Maine town a bit north of Belfast. Water from pump! Outhouse only! Crazy stands of wild lupine!

A pic that doesn't nearly do justice to an American masterpiece: the elaborate seven-panel piece called "The Seven Sacraments" by George Tooker in St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Windsor, Vermont. His painted "Stations of the Cross"--all of Christ's hands--were also breathtaking.

In Newburyport, Mass. I stayed for a night in a wonderful, eccentric-eclectic carriage house studio on the banks of the Merrimack River. Having caught caught Lyme Disease at a stay down the coast in Gloucester a couple of years back, I slathered on Deet and set out for a walk into the nearby 450-acre Maudslay State Park. While I was there, the heavens parted (coincidence?: I DON'T THINK SO) and I became drenched to the bone, semi-lost, and completely enchanted. That was one of the best interludes of my trip.

Back home in California, Gov. Jerry Brown, to his everlasting credit, just signed bills to enact six new gun control laws.

I pray with all my heart the sanity continues.

Monday, June 27, 2016


Christine Hale, friend of a dear friend, has a new book out in July: A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A Memoir in Four Meditations.

The four meditations are "What You Do Wrong," "Sky," "Lucky," and "Walk Fast, Keep Going."

And the advance praise says it better than I ever could:

"Christine Hale’s memoir A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice vividly and beautifully describes a chaotic life, and rather than the expected acceptance that accompanies a Buddhist memoir, this book finds several avenues out of pain, including tattoos, which come to represent the sometimes ragged fashion in which people are able to love. I couldn’t stop thinking about this book after I read it: the many startling scenes and places brought so vividly to life, the rich detail, and the remarkable (if deeply flawed) people who populate its pages. A candid, deeply absorbing tale."

--Debra Spark, author of Good for the Jews

"Christine Hale’s evocation of the bewildering complexities of life as a mother, daughter, wife (and ex-wife), and student of Buddhism is both a poem and a letter to those she has worked so long and hard to understand. On a journey that takes her through emotional and actual hurricanes, love and cruelty, urgent losses, and painful gains, she climbs to sometimes unnervingly high altitudes as she experiences “the joy and the sorrow of samsara.” In beautiful, clear language, Hale explores the wounds life gives us, the wounds we give ourselves, and the long process of healing."

--Sarah Stone, author of The True Sources of the Nile

"A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice is an exquisite engagement with those tough human questions that must be asked even if they can never be answered. Hale writes toward acceptance, every page brimming with honesty, insight, and deep understanding. A truly beautiful meditation in lovely, lively prose."

~Dinty W. Moore, author of The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life

That "lovely, lively prose" makes the book worth reading, to my mind, even apart from the story. And the story is gripping. An introspective, bookish child born and raised in southern Appalachia. A mother given to anti-social passive-aggression and violent rages. A father who puts up with it--and also, in secret, forces sex and physically abuses. A disabled sister.

Through interweavings of memory and half-buried flashbacks, Hale tells the story of how she came to be who she is now: mother of an adult daughter "J" (now a medical doctor) and slightly younger son "B", student of Buddhism, author, creative writing teacher, seeker, pilgrim, wife.

The book is wonderful on the awkward raggediness of family life. One recurring theme is what comes to be a family ritual: Hale and her two children getting tattoos. They make a deal for each to accompany the other to a Tampa, Florida, tattoo parlor for "Lefty" to do his magic. Her daughter J, the last to take the plunge, steps into Lefty's chair for the first time one year right after Christmas. Afterward, Hale offers to treat the kids to dinner (she also, of course, pays for the tattoos).

"Christmas dinner after Christmas tattoo!" I hear myself chirp. They roll their eyes.

At my favorite Indian restaurant, seated two-facing me in a particularly uncomfortable vinyl booth, the seat too hard and the back too straight, I'm the only one eating. My children piddle and stir their entrees; they confess one after the other (in what seems to me callous disregard for my feelings) to having eaten in what seemed to them famished necessity) immediately before the tattoo.

The minute I've paid the check, J heads straight back to Lefty's to meet a guy friend who's become a tattoo addict, she explains, after witnessing the inking of her back--his third tattoo scheduled tonight. B is visibly impatient to get to the privacy of his room and answer all those mixed calls and text messages, and maybe make a pass at his homework.

Driving home alone after dropping B off at his dad's, I can't fail to notice how J is right, again: we never do anything together.

And I keep making mistakes I cannot fix.

Of a tropical hurricane that flattens a retirement community a mere hundred miles south, and spares her own home, she writes:

I understand I have learned something from what did not happen--although I have no words to label it. I know I ought to be ready to start my life over, with greater clarity and resolve. I have, after all, taken refuge and been spared. But all I really feel is wonder: my own open-ended amazement about how much we can't predict, how surprising life is, what happens to us, and what does not.

This embrace of paradox, the unknowable, the ever-unfolding surprise ending--life as unfinished symphony--is the central paradigm of course, of the Cross. In fact, in the one passage that made me wince,  Hale's house is in dire danger of being flooded from rising storm waters and she rejects, just a bit contemptuously, "petitioning the Methodist God of my youth to save me and my son."

 As a "good Buddhist," she writes, "[N]o-one except me had the responsibility or ability to save me and mine. I could face the question squarely, do what I could, and accept the outcome. Or I could panic, do nothing, blame someone else. My choice."

Just for the record, no-one in this vale of tears holds the corner on facing questions squarely, acting decisively, taking responsibility and accepting whatever happens,

Which this gorgeous writer and deeply thoughtful, deeply sensitive human being, I'm sure would be the first to acknowledge.

Besides, that someone from such a traumatizing childhood could find her way to the writing that saved her--and as all good writing does, in turn helps to save us--is the real takeaway.

"Paralyzed silence--at the table, in the car, in the den while the television prattled: the default sound of my childhood. On the infrequent occasions my parents did speak expansively, they told and re-told Southern Gothic tales of people they'd known--not tragically dead--and places they'd lived or visited--now ruined. A scree of nostalgia rubbled every story's surface. When we traveled, we toured graveyards, battlefields, antebellum mansions. Much of what I saw was sealed under glass cases. Everything that mattered happened in past tense, way past. All of it reeked of loss. When I was very small we still visited relatives. They were old, wrinkled, eccentric, infirm or alcoholic...

[My parents] had been born defeated by their origins, the land where their people had always lived: beautiful and backwards Appalachia...My parents passed their defeat directly on to me; I didn't just inherit it, it was cultivated in me."  

Perhaps. But that some of us manage to transcend all that was inherited and cultivated in us as children, while still honoring and loving our parents for all they gave us, is some shaky kind of Resurrection.

But then the Resurrection is always shaky.

I'm sure there's a tattoo in that.

Friday, June 24, 2016



This week's arts and culture column is on a merry olde ensemble that sings madrigals.

Here's how it begins:

A few Sundays ago, I made my way toward Altadena, north of Pasadena. The neighborhood is lovely: up against the mountains, up above the city, quiet.

The homes were large, graceful and charmingly landscaped.

When I arrived, a woman in a medieval wench costume with a gigantic bosom and a feather wreath in her hair was sitting cross-legged in the driveway. “Welcome!” she said brightly — and I did feel welcome, right away.

Inside I felt as if I’d stepped onto the extras lot of the Errol Flynn “Three Musketeers” shoot. There were more wenches, in tightly-cinched corset-style bodices and long full skirts. There were men in leather jerkins, harlequin-style pantaloons, striped stockings and fawn-colored boots. Fringed, ruffled, medallioned — sporting an astonishing array of feather-bedecked headgear, the whole merry group toasted with another with tankards of what could only be mead.

This was The Briton Ensemble, whose work has been described by “Splash Magazine” as “madrigal magic.”