Wednesday, February 21, 2018

HARROWED: NOTES FROM AN URBAN GARDEN


I have felt kind of quiet as of late. Not moved much, in this culture of VERY LOUD voices, to speak.

That is not because I don't have opinions. Oh do I have opinions! The quietness is partly because first, who can fathom the seasons and shifts and alternate storms and calms of the human heart.

It's also partly because I figured out my "stand" toward existence, my mission on earth, the "issues" of the day, and how I want to move and have my being in the midst of all of that, many years ago. As horrible as things seem, and often are, they have more or less always been that way. Read the Psalms.

Of course I'm always called to grow. I'm always called to examine my hardness of heart, cowardice, self-righteousness and all kinds of other unsavory traits with which I'm saturated from top to bottom, and to do better.

But lately I seem to have come to grips maybe a teeny bit more with what has actually always been one of my central conflicts: the desire to be holy and my utter inability, under my own steam, to move one iota in that direction.

It's true: I have always wanted to be a saint. I don't think that's pathetic or melodramatic. I think it's a very legitimate desire. In fact, it may be the only truly sane desire, given the human condition, the battle of good against evil, and of course Christ.

I'm sure it's in one sense why I became a Catholic--because I'm drawn to extremes and the saint is an extreme practitioner of love. i think I've always known this about myself. Never have I been drawn to 'normal' life. Always, even as a child, I have felt myself to be and to some extent have been an outsider.

I heard the other day from Alma, a friend at Madonna House in Combermere, Ontario. She had seen my Servant of God Adele Dirsyte piece in the March Magnificat and wanted to tell me that she'd lived for a time at  Magadan, site of one of the Russian gulag camps where Adele was imprisoned.  Adele's story is ghastly and harsh. The Communists caught her taking the Eucharist and marked her out for “slow extermination.”

To follow Christ I reflected later is, in some way, always to be marked for slow extermination. Or I guess sometimes fast. But for most of us it's slow, and constant. There are no two ways around it. Death is death. In a worldly way, there is no way to undergo a crucifixion looking like or coming off as a winner.

The other day I was at a gathering where several people around the room vented the usual virulent slurs against Catholicism. One woman who had been to Catholic school and surprise, hated and despised the nuns, had been forced to go to (said in a sing-songy, condescending baby tone) “cha-pel, or whatever they called it.”

I grieve over the fact that so many people had such a gruesome time at Catholic school.

Later that day I went to five o’clock Mass at St. Andrew. What with Lent, and Sunday afternoon existential sorrow, and the fact that no man, ever, has truly loved me or ever will, I was feeling kind of weepy anyway.

And halfway through the Creed, along to the pew in front of me comes this poor, poor burn victim guy whose face had just been decimated. Decimated. White bandage over nose hole and the rest…of course I could hardly wait for the Kiss of Peace so I could touch him. 

But the point is—again, the slow extermination. The leper. How Christ came for all that is disfigured in us and among us. At one point, the guy knelt and prayed and hid his face in his hands and tears were simply pouring down my face. This suffering, suffering man in the cha-pel. How could anyone deny him that? Thank God for churches: for many of us who are more or less unfit for family, our one, our only, true home. I wondered what his prayer might be. My brother.

(For all I know, it occurs to me now, the guy was totally in acceptance and gratitude). 

Anyway, such have been some of my thoughts. In the middle of all this--and by "this, I of course  include threats of nuclear war, the raping of the environment, an entire working class that increasingly cannot afford a decent education, basic health care, or to buy a home, and a government that resembles an especially vicious alcoholic parent--I've been working in my garden.

Hours and hours and hours, in the garden. Digging holes, weeding (TONS of), sorting stones, clipping, staking, fertilizing, grooming, speaking in hushed tones to, praying. Sitting in the faded green metal chair with a pair of binoculars. So far I have spotted a pair of band-tailed pigeons, three acorn woodpeckers, a large group of cedar waxwings, several scrub jays and goldfinches (the latter at the birdbath), Anna's hummingbirds galore, and one red-shafted flicker.   

Always, always, I feel I should be doing more. All my life I've felt I should be doing more, or other. Should be "speaking out," should be an "activist," should be committing acts of civil disobedience and going to prison. Should be feeding the poor in a soup line, should be a special ed teacher,  a hospice nurse, a mother. At the very least a wife. A girlfriend anyway... "Popular," then. A companion to all!...

No?

Should at any rate, for sure, be writing more. Working on another book, or promoting the books I have. Should be explaining why MY WORK IS IMPORTANT. MY WORK IS ESSENTIAL. MY WORK...

Underneath it all throbs my central wound, and maybe it is everyone's central wound: the inability to form a true partnership with another human being. Whether I push everyone away ultimately because of my wounds, or whether I’ve been somehow weirdly marked out for the cell, the cloister, the inner mental ward, the effect is the same. Celibacy, coupled with a prickly personality, a giant dose of narcissism, and an ocean of self-centered fear, is a lot of tension to carry--and sometimes I carry it better than other times.

Lately, though, the thought has come to me: What if I really were doing enough--even to be a saint? (Which I'm sure I read somewhere actually means "friend of Jesus"--so all right then!) I do so want to help out. But what if it were enough to write a weekly arts and culture column for my archdiocesan newspaper and a monthly column in Magnificat and to put up an occasional post that maybe a hundred people read?

What if it were enough to lift my soul to the birds and work in the garden? (Aside: Seriously, I have got to write a book about this garden and its daily adventures--for there are NEIGHBORS, wouldn't you know--that bring to the fore my worst and most weaselly character defects).

What if it were enough to pray every morning and carry my little cross and give thanks at the end of the day?

“As illness wears out the covering of the body, the soul shines forth. As this woman came to trust me, I discovered that she had not really talked to anyone in thirty years. Early on in her marriage, something had broken down irreparably between herself and her husband. She simply lost what she had with him and could not get it back. There she was inside this home, the mother and the heart of it. She learned to go through all the external motions and she became an utterly convincing domestic actress. But inside she was lost. Gradually she began to accept that there was no path outwards. Then she made the decision to live her intimate life inwardly. She undertook the journey. She went inwards as far as she could and over the years she managed to build some kind of hermit cell within her own heart. And that was really where she dwelt. When she began to talk about herself, it was clear that she spoke from a refined interiority. In a sense, she was not a mother living in a suburban house with husband and children. She was someone who had long since departed to an interior monastery that nobody had discovered. And when death began to focus more clearly around her, she was not afraid. Death was no stranger to her. Having had to build a sanctuary where no-one ever visited, she had come to know the mind of death. She was not thrown by the cold clarity of death’s stare or the unravelling force of its singular eye. Nor was there any bitterness in her. She had allowed as much transfiguration as she could. Against the hidden pathos of her life’s distance, she had no resistance. She had garnered a fragile beauty from isolation.”

--John O’Donohue, Beauty, from the chapter “The Beauty of the Flaw”






I AM GOING TO CALL IT "THE HERMIT-CELL-OF-THE-HEART GARDEN!"
COME ON OVER AND NAB A THIRD-CLASS RELIC!
NEXT UP: MY SEEDPOD AND SEASHELL MOBILES
WHICH ARE SAVING THE WORLD.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

"WITHOUT YOU, THERE IS NO US": SUKI KIM'S MEMOIR ABOUT GOING UNDERCOVER IN NORTH KOREA



While Kim Jong-un's sister gets her photo snapped at the Olympics, the people of North Korea, as they have for decades, suffer unimaginable isolation, suffering, and oppression.

This week's arts and culture column starts like this:

Suki Kim was born in South Korea to parents whose family had been separated by the Korean War. In the early 1980s her father, a successful businessman, suffered a sudden financial reverse and went bankrupt, a “crime” that could have drawn prison time.

She was woken in the middle of the night, shuttled off to a relative’s house in a faraway city, and did not see her parents for a year.

They were reunited at New York’s JFK Airport. The family was now poor, and the 13-year-old girl knew not a word of English.

These events make her memoir, “Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite” (Penguin Random House, $15), of her time undercover in North Korea, teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) to 270 young males at a Christian evangelical school, all the more astounding. For in addition to being a gripping “insider” story, her work is a literary tour de force: lyrical, nuanced and haunting.



READ THE WHOLE PIECE HERE. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

MEMORIA




Is the silence which transience brings a vacant silence? Does everything vanish into emptiness? Like the patterns which birdflight makes in the air, is there nothing left? Where does the flame go when the candle is blown out? Is there a place where the past can gather? I believe there is. That place is memory. That which holds out against transience is memoria.

It is crucial to understand that experience itself is not merely an empirical process of appropriating or digesting blocks of life. Experience is rather a journey of transfiguration. Both that which is lived and the one who lives it are transfigured. Experience is not about the consumption of life, rather it is about the interflow of creation into the self and of the self into creation. This brings about subtle and consistently new configurations in both. That is the activity of growth and creativity.

Viewed against this perspective, the concealed nature of memoria is easier to understand. Memoria is the harvester and harvest of transfigured experience. Deep in the silent layers of selfhood, the coagulations of memoria are at work. It is because of this subtle integration of self and life that there is the possibility of any continuity in experience.

-John O’Donohue, Four Elements: Reflections on Nature






SPRING HAS COME TO LA...

Friday, February 9, 2018

THE TATTOO EXHIBIT AT LA'S NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM

THE TATTOO I'D GET IF I WERE GOING TO GET A TATTOO.

This week's arts and culture column begins like this:

For all you ink aficionados, through April 15 the Natural History Museum is featuring a special exhibit: “Tattoo.”

Tattoo culture has been 5,000 years in the making. Since the 20th century, L.A. has formed a significant part of it.

“Before it becomes a mark,” the museum notes, “a tattoo is process. Its results can be a sign of identity, a rite of passage, a type of protection, a form of medicine, a memory made visible, or a piece of art to be collected and worn on that most intimate of canvases, the human skin.”

The exhibit, which costs 11 bucks in addition to the entrance fee, features commentary on the wide and varied history of tattoo, vintage photos, flash sheets of pinup girls, dragons and Catholic iconography, and videos.

Silicone arms, tattooed in various styles and backlit like medieval manuscripts, are displayed throughout in glass vitrines. There are tribal designs; a giant, writhing octopus by Kari Barba (b. 1960), whose Long Beach shop occupies the site of the legendary Bert Grimm’s World Famous Tattoo; and my own personal favorite, a style honed by Montreal tattoo artist Yann Black (b. 1973) that he describes as “somewhere between German Expressionism and Russian Constructivism.”


READ THE WHOLE PIECE HERE. 

Saturday, February 3, 2018

REMBRANDT'S "SELF-PORTRAIT AT THE AGE OF 34"



This week's arts and culture column begins like this:

Rembrandt van Rijn’s “Self-Portrait at the Age of 34,” on loan from the National Gallery in London, is on view at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena through March 5. The appearance marks the painting’s U.S. debut.

A little background: Rembrandt (1606-1669), Dutch painter, printmaker and draughtsman, was born in Leiden to prosperous parents. His mother was Catholic and his father a member of the Dutch Reformed Church. Though as an adult he seemed to have practiced no religion himself, this Christian influence of his childhood clearly marked and helped form him.

In 1932 he moved to Amsterdam, and in 1934 he married Saskia van Uylenburgh, the cousin of his art dealer.

Prodigiously talented, and prolific in a wide range of styles and subjects, his oeuvre includes landscapes, mythological and religious works, and portraits.

Though now widely considered one of the greatest artists the world has known, and certainly the most important in Dutch art history, Rembrandt’s later years were marked by personal tragedy and financial catastrophe.


READ THE WHOLE PIECE HERE. 

Monday, January 29, 2018

"IMPOSSIBLE DREAMERS": SENIOR ATHLETES GO THE DISTANCE

IS GAZING INTO THE MIDDLE DISTANCE
CONSIDERED A SPORT?

This week's arts and culture column reflects on a documentary in which old people (a term I, being one of them, much prefer to "seniors"--better yet, why not elders?) take to the tennis court, swimming pool, boxing ring, track, golf links and more.

Here's how it begins:

We’ve all heard it. Seventy is the new 50. You’re only as old as you feel.

Enter “Impossible Dreamers,” a documentary about competitive “senior” athletes.

The film opens with legendary golfer Gary Player, 80, distinguished silver hair neatly combed, hopping spryly onto a treadmill.

“Instead of spending money at the bar, and overeating, buy yourself a treadmill,” he suggests, pounding away. “Put it in your bathroom … all you do is spend five minutes in the morning, five minutes in the evening. It’ll be like the greatest miracle. …This is the best doctor in the world, right here.”

A mad gleam in his eye, he then goes into the “speed” portion of his workout, huffing and puffing like a demented steamboat.

Many of us live in apartments so — let’s say cozy — that the living room wouldn’t accommodate a treadmill, never mind in the bathroom.


READ THE WHOLE PIECE HERE.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

STONES AND STICKS







Here's a girl after my own heart: Japanese choreographer Kei Takei.

Here's an article about her.

“For my stone dances, I was just walking on the street one day and I found a sudden connection with a rock,” she said in a telephone interview from Tokyo.

She picked it up and could sense reverberations. “It’s like a creative message,” she said. “I follow it and see where it leads me.”

 Plus check out the totally weird felt tunic she's sporting!

I myself have been a teeny bit, and ever more, obsessed with rocks. It all started as I was planning my native plant garden and somehow came upon a whole cache of buried river rocks in the backyard of my Pasadena bungalow. I dug many of them up with my bare hands to lay out boundaries and line paths.

Also the ground itself is filled with smaller rocks of various sizes that are good for making little circles around the plants, so I started collecting them, in spackling compound buckets, too.

Then a friend gave me three beautiful stones he'd found on a hike in the mountains which I arranged on a window ledge in my kitchen.

Back to the garden, I made the acquaintance of pea gravel. And again by hand I painstakingly collected pebbles, slightly bigger than pea gravel, but smaller than a small rock, with which to line the area beneath the rose arbor.

Then I went out to Joshua Tree last year during Lent and stayed at a cabin without electricity and after about 14 hours, rock collecting came to seem like THE most absorbing activity imaginable.

Now I look for rocks wherever I go, and have come to consider them companions and friends.

Most recently, and this could turn out not to be a really great thing, I chanced upon a picture of a mobile made out of small rocks in which holes had been drilled.

Well! That fired my imagination. And let's just say I am now the proud owner of a Makita 18v cordless drill AND the "rotary tool" known as the Dremel, 3000 series.

I have also learned neither of those do a really wonderful and quick job of drilling through even a small stone. The youtubes say to hold the stone under water but can that be good, esp as the Dremel is not cordless?

Anyway, no matter for I have now discovered--copper wire! I envision all kinds of creations of seed pods, sea glass, small stones, pieces of driftwood and the Lord alone knows what else. The Dremel as well has myriad uses outside pebble-drilling and will come in handy not only in the pottery class (my second) I plan to take in the spring, but for removing foot callouses.

Plus I already did a little home repair job with my drill! So watch out.


 
THESE WERE THE LAST PIX I TOOK AT MY CABIN IN TEMECULA,
WHERE I SPENT JAN 2-13.
I'VE ALREADY RESERVED TWO WEEKS IN AUGUST!





Monday, January 22, 2018

CUBA IS!


Giselle and Rachel Cruising down the Malecón,
Havana, from the series Habana Libre, 2009,
copyright Michael Dweck


This week's arts and culture column reflects on a photography exhibit called "CUBA IS."

Here's how the piece begins:

The almost yearlong, greater-L.A.-wide Pacific Standard Time LA/LA Festival, showcasing Latin American and Latino art in L.A., officially ends this month.

But there’s still plenty to see, including, through March 4, an exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography called “Cuba Is.”

The images promise a peek inside and beyond “aspects of Cuba not easily accessed by foreigners, and sometimes not even by Cubans themselves.”

Well, sign me up.

It’s all here: Cuba’s indigenous African and European roots, the enforced exile of its citizens, its poverty, sugar cane fields, classic cars and love for ballet and baseball.

But what’s also here are race divisions, class conflicts, the uncertainty of the future and up-close-and-personal looks at people’s kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms.



READ THE WHOLE PIECE HERE.


Man with Crocodile,
Ciénaga de Zapata, 2006
copyright Raul Cañibanoyou

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

ARCHITECT LOUIS KAHN'S SALK INSTITUTE


LOUIS KAHN, 1901-1974

The subject of this week's arts and culture column is Louis Kahn--who was a genius architect, and also had a compelling personal life.

Here's how the piece begins:

Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974), one of the most well-known architects of the 20th century, died of a heart attack in Penn Station at the age of 73. He was nearly bankrupt and on his way home from India.

He was born in Estonia. His family moved 17 times in his first two years of life, a pattern that repeated during his own nomadic adulthood.

Kahn was short (5 feet 6 inches) with a gravelly voice and conspicuous facial scars from burns sustained as a child. He was also magnetically charismatic and an almost fanatically hard worker.

“He was not controllable,” people said of him. “He didn’t know day from night.”

Symmetry, order, principled, fundamental, primitive and exhilarating were some of the words used to describe his work.

“It’s important that you honor the material you use,” he once told a group of students. “You say to a brick, ‘What do you want, brick?’ and brick says to you, ‘I like an arch.’ ”

READ THE WHOLE PIECE HERE.

And don't miss Wendy Lesser's wonderful You Say to Brick.

KAHN'S PHILLIPS EXETER LIBRARY, 1965
I SPENT SOME TIME HERE STUDYING FOR THE NH BAR EXAM. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

THE SKY IS THE MOST IMPORTANT LANDSCAPE


  

SUNSET, TEMECULA, CA


"From my present point of view, the sky is the most important landscape, the sky reigns over all things, forever changing their aspect and making new spectacles of the most familiar sights.
--Auguste Rodin, Cathedrals of France

I found the quote in a wonderful book of photographs, by Jennifer Gough-Cooper of Rodin's work, called Apropos Rodin

Which in turn Geoff Dyer turned me onto (he also contributed an essay), I think in The Ongoing Moment.

I also learned from Geoff of photographer Miroslav Tichy, who is also well worth a look.

In fact, I wish I had time to write of all Geoff Dyer has given me, and to the world His But Beautiful is a book about jazz that you can read and be changed by even if you know next to nothing about jazz.

Then there is Zona, which is about his obsessive love for Tarkovsky's Stalker...but don't get me going.

I am headed out soon for my afternoon walk.

All I'm saying is that reading--a practice of steady, eclectic reading--has opened up universes for me, my whole life. And continues open up more. 

A few other books on my list right now are a biography of the late, great rock critic Lester Bangs called Let It Blurt, by Jim DeRogatis, Conrad Aiken's "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," and a book about Indian untouchables (there may be a more p.c. word now) called Ants Among Elephants by Sujatha Gidla, who actually grew up as one of this despised caste. Things are changing, apparently, and about time.

I have had approximately one hour of "free" time in my time at the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, where I arrived last Tuesday. Every time I hear from someone from home, they say, "I hope you're enjoying your retreat."

I have to refrain from shrieking, "It is not a freaking RETREAT. It's a "residency." Where I have been working my ASS off since the moment I arrived."

My God! Do people know nothing of "the writing life?"  There's not just the writing. There's the collecting of pebbles, rocks, twigs, and seed pods. There's the incessant observation of the sky. There's the prayer, the stoking of the wood-fire, the sitting with one's head in one's hands, the inability to sleep because you so don't want to miss the stars, the coffee-drinking, the pacing, the talking to oneself, the practicing of the Haydn sonatas. The reading of the book on Rembrandt, the book on Illuminated Manuscripts, and the book on North Korea by Suki Kim, all for future columns.

Oh, okay, the NYT and the New Yorker blog.

The stretching exercises.

The looking through the binoculars at the acorn woodpecker.

The snatched watching of the Brisbane and now Sydney WTA tournaments. 

The realization, all over again, of how truly petty and touchy and impossible I am, and no wonder I'm  not married, and God, please don't hold my MYRIAD character defects against me.

No but seriously, I have only had to get into my car and drive, anywhere, once, the whole time I've been here, which was to Sunday Mass. So no driving, no social obligations, no dentist or doctor appointments, no "having" to talk to people (the bane of my introvert's existence), no food shopping even, as I stocked up before I came. Just enough phone calls to keep me involved and interested in the stream of life. But basically none of the stuff that makes life so unbelievably stressful.

This morning, walking down the hill, I realized that for the first time in probably years, my entire body did not ache. My back didn't hurt. More notably my neck, which lately has seemed more or less permanently crippled, did not hurt, or at least very much. So that was a treat.

Just then I spotted a whole cache of weird spiny sponge-like-looking objects that had clearly fallen from or been blown by a nearby tree, cactus, or shrub. Of course I had to nab a few.

I feel so bad for the people in Montecito who were killed in this week's mudslide. I've been on retreat there, and attended Mass at their beautiful mission church, and hiked in the hills above, many times over the years.

Here's what the sky looked like this morning in Temecula, after the rains here.