Saturday, October 18, 2014


at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden
photo: Carrie Rosema

For this week's arts and culture piece in The Tidings, I took a field trip to a gem of a spot that should be better known: the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont.

"The garden comprises 86 acres of California native plants. I’ve seen the place in lush springs and full-bloom falls, but in Southern California’s current full-on drought, the garden is gorgeous in another way.

Fay’s Wildflower Meadow, for example, normally features a “spectacular wealth of wildflower species native to California.” Though the species at the moment are limited, the very sparseness makes the soft yellow of the evening primrose, the lambent orange of a few scattered California poppies, and the crisp gold of a desert marigold that much more striking"....


Wednesday, October 15, 2014


Brittany Maynard is a 29-year-old Californian who has an inoperable brain tumor, has moved to Oregon in order to take advantage of its assisted-suicide laws, and has created and invited a media frenzy by setting the date of November 1st (or thereabouts, it now appears) to kill herself.

She (very understandably) wants to avoid more suffering and pain. She wants to choose the day and the hour, go upstairs to her bedroom, put on some music she likes, and surrounded by family and friends, "die with dignity."

The neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl survived the Nazi death camps to write the spiritual/existential classic Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl was hardly a believer in quack healing, facile answers, or miracle cures. He endured and survived the most grotesque, most evil, most carefully plotted and planned atrocity of the modern age.

In The Doctor and the Soul, another of his books, Frankl considered the subject of euthanasia.

"In life the opportunities to address oneself to this or that group of values vary from hour to hour. Sometimes life demands of us the realization of creative values; at other times we feel it necessary to turn to the category of experiential values. At one time we are called upon as it were, to enrich the world by our actions, another time to enrich ourselves by our experiences. Sometimes the demands of the hour may be fulfilled by an act, at another time by our surrendering to the glory of an experience. Man can be "obligated" to experience joy. In this sense a person sitting in a streetcar who has the opportunity to watch a wonderful sunset, or to breathe in the rich scent of flowering acacias, and who instead goes on reading his newspaper, could at such a moment be accused of being negligent toward his obligations.

The possibility of realizing in a consistent series and in an almost dramatic manner all three categories of values was open to a patient the last phase of whose life took the following form. A young man lay in the hospital, suffering from an inoperable spinal tumor. He had long since had to abandon his profession; paralysis had handicapped his ability to work. There was for hi therefore no longer any chance to realize creative values. But even in this state the realm of experiential values remained open to him. He passed the time in stimulating conversations with other patients--entertaining them also, encouraging and consoling them. He devoted himself to reading good books, and especially to listening to good music on the radio. One day, however, he could no longer bear the pressure of the earphones, and his hands had become so paralyzed that he could no longer hold a book. Now his life took another turn; while before he had been compelled to withdraw from creative values to experiential values, he was forced now to make the further retreat to attitudinal values. How else shall we interpret his behavior--for he now set himself the role of adviser to his fellow sufferers, and in every way strove to be an exemplar to them. He bore his own suffering bravely. The day before his death--which he foresaw--he knew that the doctor on duty had been ordered to give him an injection of morphine at night. What did the sick man do? When the doctor came to see him on his afternoon round, the patient asked him to give him the injection in the evening--so that the doctor would not have to interrupt his night's rest just on his account.

Must we not ask ourselves now whether we are ever entitled to deprive an incurably ill patient of the chance to "die his death," the chance to fill his existence with meaning down to its last moment, even though the only realm of action open to him is the realizing of attitudinal values--the only variable the question of what attitude the patient, the "sufferer," takes toward his suffering when it reaches its climax and conclusion? The way he dies, insofar as it is really his death, is an integral part of his life; it rounds that life out to a meaningful totality. The problem we are touching on here is that of euthanasia, or "mercy killing." Euthanasia in the narrower and original sense of the word--providing an easy death--has never been a problem for doctors. That the doctor assuages the agonies of death by medication is taken for granted; determining the point at which such medication is indicated is merely a matter of tact and insight and needs no discussion of a basic and theoretical nature. But in addition to this, the attempt has repeatedly been made in various quarters to legalize the ending of lives supposedly no longer worth living.

In answer to such proposals we must first of all reply that it is not the doctor's province to sit in judgment on the value or lack of value of a human life. The task assigned to him by society is solely that of helping wherever he can, and alleviating pain where he must; of healing to the extent that he can, and nursing illness which is beyond cure. If patients and their near and dear were not convinced that the doctor takes this mandate seriously and literally, they would never trust him again A patient would never know whether the doctor was still coming to him as a helper--or as an executioner.

This position rests on principle and admits of no exceptions whatsoever. It applies to incurable diseases of the mind just as well as to incurable diseases of the body.

--Victor E. Frankl, M.D,, The Doctor and the Soul

At the middle of all this is a beautiful 29-year-old woman with an inoperable brain tumor. My first reaction is to say, "Oh my God, that is so awful, that is so hard. I'm so so sorry. That sucks." Personally I would not bear that bravely. I would bear it messily, with unspeakable fear. Still, as my friend Rita (whose husband has suffered for years with Stage 4 liver cancer) said, "Setting a date to kill yourself? There's no...vibration in that."

Another story broke last week: the story of Liberian student nurse Fatu Kekula whose family of five fell sick from Ebola, who pled in vain for medical help, who went out and bought boxes of plastic trash bags, plastic rain boots and dime-store medications and, against every voice around her that told her to save her own life, who told her she was crazy, cared for them herself. Only one--Alfred Wennie, 14, a cousin who the family had taken in--died.

After surviving this dreadful siege, the response of Fatu's mother was to mourn: “I cried. I said ‘It’s a shame on me, because I took somebody’s child, a relative’s child, and he died in my hands.’”

From an October 6, 2014, LA Times piece by Robyn Dixon:

[Kekula said]: “Doctors called and told me to leave them right alone and not go anywhere near them,” the 22-year-old nursing student said. “I couldn’t. They’re my only family.

“When your family get ill, you know that the virus is deadly. But your family is your family”...

“No one came near me. No one! I were all alone, all alone,” she said...

Around the clock, one or the other of them would be weakly calling Fatu for help. She dozed 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there.

“It was a bit difficult for me to sleep because all the time they would call me, maybe two of them would call me at the same time. Every time I would go into a dangerous room, I would dress up,” she said.

“The whole virus thing, it’s like carrying a baby in your hands, because it turns them into a child. You have to be sorry for them. You have to put yourself into the shoes of that person and ask yourself, ‘What if it were me?’”

You don't have to "believe" to see there is a world of difference between the attitudinal values-the approach to life and to death--of Brittany Maynard and Fatu Kekula.

But you'd have to be a liar to claim there is no difference.

And you'd long ago have to have killed your own soul to claim that the difference doesn't matter.

Monday, October 13, 2014


From an article entitled 'The Four Great Loves of Gerard Manley Hopkins" in Recours au Poème, by Joseph J. Feeney.

"Hopkins loved nature’s beauty, and described it with rare skill and vivid images.  At 19, he wrote in his Oxford diary of “moonlight hanging or dropping on treetops like blue cobweb.”  At 21, he noted how “over the green water of the river...swallows [were] shooting, blue and purple above and shewing their amber-tinged breasts..., their flight unsteady with wagging wings.”  Lying awake one night, he saw lightning “coloured violet...but afterwards sometimes yellow, sometimes red and blue.”  He watched young lambs in springtime “toss and if it were the earth that flung them, not themselves.”  Whether describing moonlight, birds, lightning, or cavorting lambs, Hopkins always sought the exact detail and the accurate, fresh word: “blue cobweb,” “wagging wings,” “toss and toss.”  Loving nature, he wanted to make nature’s beauty permanent—at least in the words and images of his notebook.

He also loved the shapes of nature.  Clouds were “repeatedly formed in horizontal ribs.  At a distance their straightness of line was wonderful.  In passing overhead...the splits [were] fretted with lacy curves and honeycomb work.”  He noted the “curves and close folding” of tulip petals, and at his grandparents' home in Croydon the lawn had “half-circle curves of the scythe in parallel ranks.”  Even hailstones intrigued him, being “shaped like the cut of diamonds called brilliants.”  Loving nature, Hopkins loved its very shapes--its uniqueness of form.  This fascination with uniqueness, spurred by the philosophy of the medieval Duns Scotus, brought Hopkins to his famous concept of “inscape”—a word he created to express both an object's external shape and its “inner core of individuality.”

Sunday, October 12, 2014


This week's Tidings piece is called Catholic Worker Dennis Apel and His U.S. Supreme Court Case.

Guadalupe is a tucked-away town in Santa Barbara County, 175 miles from the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the northwestern-most community of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Dennis Apel and his wife Tensie Hernandez started the Guadalupe Catholic Worker in 1996. Supported solely by donations, they distribute food and clothing to the farm workers of the Central Coast. They operate a free clinic. And from the beginning, vigiling at nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base has been part of their practice.

“The base calls what we do protesting,” says Dennis from Beatitude House. “We call it vigiling. Vigiling is a sitting with, a being with while you’re waiting for something to change. Generally our signs would be non-confrontational. The biggest banner we have says, ‘Have Our Weapons Brought Us Peace?’


Friday, October 10, 2014


Bash technology all you want; it is just amazing what turns up on your iphone during yet another night of fractured sleep.

Wednesday, for example, through a Hansel-and-Gretel-like trail of literary and artistic crumbs (okay, mixed with a burst of "lena dunham not funny," "lena dunham insufferable" "lena dunham hack writer"), around 2:53 a.m. I came across Russian abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky's book of prose-poems and woodcuts: Sounds (Klänge, for all you German speakers).

From wikipedia:

"Kandinsky employs a method borrowed from young children's early attempts at speech; through constant repetition and babbling words are emptied of their meaning, so that only the pure sound remains. It is Kandinsky's aim to uncover this "pure sound" of language, the sound which 'sets the soul vibrating.' [FN omitted]"

Often this kind of thing (Gertrude Stein, for example) makes me retch. But I read on to find this:

Blue, Blue got up, got up and fell.
Sharp, Thin whistled and shoved, but didn't get through.
From every corner came a humming.
FatBrown got stuck - it seemed for all eternity.
———————————It seemed. It seemed.
You must open your arms wider.
————————————Wider. Wider.
And you must cover your face with red cloth.
And maybe it hasn't shifted yet at all: it's just that you've shifted.
White leap after white leap.
And after this white leap another white leap.
And in this white leap a white leap. In every white leap a white leap.
But that's not good at all, that you don't see the gloom: in the gloom is
——— where it is.
That's where everything begins. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
With a. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Crash. . . . . . . . . . . . . .


Strangely consoled, I put aside my phone, turned my naked face to the window, and slept.

A youtube that accompanied a 2013 MOMA exhibit on Sounds.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


first-grade red-eared slider on the rock to the right

boojum tree

“My fight for sculpture uses up all of my time and strength, and even then I lose.”

Monday I made a field trip to the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, 45 minutes east of downtown LA. I aimed to write a column on the garden for The Tidings (which I'll work up separately).

My "process"--as is true, I'd wager, for any writer--or painter or composer or sculptor--is a mystery, perhaps most of all to myself. This much I am realizing: an almost ridiculous amount of energy and effort go into the column each week.

First, I prepare myself emotionally and spiritually, building to a kind of trembling excitement. In this case, I didn't want to know too much in advance. I'd been to the garden before. But I'm not going to write a "review," or an informational piece, or a guide to the garden. I'm going to go to the garden and have an experience.

That's where the excitement comes in, because I can't force or create the experience--but if I don't have an experience, I can't write the piece. To write a straight, bloodless, fact piece--by, for instance, simply visiting the website and embellishing a bit--would be the equivalent for me of taking a job in a munitions factory. You have to give way, way more. You have to incarnate the garden. You have to see the whole thing as a sacred obligation.

The morning of my field trip I packed everything but a passport: a sweater, though it was sweltering, an extra pair of shoes, reading material, an iced tea AND an iced coffee (don't ask). I'd debated internally for two or three days in advance as to when to leave so as to avoid rush hour, then finally, fervid with angst, set off at the peak hour of 8:30. Miraculously, the 10 East (heading the "right" way, i.e. out of town) was smooth sailing.  En route, I listened to Bach 2 and 3 Part Inventions (Andras Schiff). The music's important, too.

The garden comprises 86 acres of California native plants: gorgeous, even in Southern California's current full-on drought. There's Fay's Wildflower Garden, and the Cultivar Garden, and the Indian Hill Mesa and the Magnificent Oak.

But what you do, I figured out after an hour or so,  is you go beyond. You keep walking and you’ll find a mile-long trail that on a 100-degree weekday noon is completely deserted. Chaparral, junipers, lowish-lying scrub, blue blue sky and in the distance to the north, the mountains. Gnarled tree branches against the sky, many in their death throes that, even in their dry, parched state, had a beauty and dignity.

I have never mastered the art of packing. My mind skips over what might actually be needed into some other realm and thus I will leave the snacks in the car and instead bring E. H. Gombrich's The Story of Art which even in paperback, weighs around five pounds. This, too, is part of the process. I just feel safe with a book. I don't necessarily have to read it, but I need to carry it. I need to have it near.

So I was slogging along in the boiling sun: starving, carrying a pack that some would call needlessly heavy, but quite happy nonetheless.

And in the midst of this sere but somehow lush landscape was a little clearing; a little happening I almost missed (and maybe the heavy pack slowed me down just enough so I didn't miss it?).

You have to walk off the main path to reach it which in the heat of full noon was not my first inclination.

But I did, and came upon a laminated card, tacked to a wooden post and faded to almost invisible by the sun. “Cedar Point: The Opening Gateway," it read. "Calocedrus decurrens, site-specific rocks, by Joshua Kreutzer."

The card continued:

“I saw the intense, dramatic lean of the existing cedar, and how the path found itself meandering just underneath the tall spike. It triggered memory of two nearby fallen cedars discovered earlier. I envisioned tall spikes, opposing each other, and the pathway winding between them, almost as if within a vaulted cathedral. ...I wanted the tall spikes to appear free standing, as if nothing was holding them up. The deciduous Quercus Garryana [Oregon White Oak] will bloom and lose their leaves seasonally, which will periodically alter the appearance and experience for the everyday visitor. As you enter “Cedar Point,” observe the crossing spikes become an opening gateway.”

Hunh? I thought. And then I walked along this path that was barely a path and started to see what the guy meant. There were five spires, three on one side and two on the other, and they did form a kind of arch. And Kreutzer (who I later googled, and could find nothing) had sort of beautifully, randomly but lovingly piled rocks--six- to eight-inch rounded, weather-beaten, brown, gray, ocher, and speckled rocks--around the bottom of the trunks of three of the cedars and along part of the path.

Just walking along you'd hardly notice the cedars, and the cathedral-like arch they formed--but he had.

Someone had noticed these California Incense Cedars, whose sun-bleached, leafless spires against the blue sky, now appeared to be dead. Someone had thought to pile rocks around their trunks.

There was no-one out here now. The air wafted the fragrance of sweetgrass, warm pine needles, sage. A desiccated leaf spiraled from the branch of a tree to the ground. I thought of the nine-year-old girl I recently read about who, shunned by her family, was dying from Ebola alone on the side of the road in Liberia. I thought of the immigrants who die trying to cross over from Mexico. I thought of how incredibly lucky I was to be able to walk through a garden on a Monday. on any day, and of how because I am so lucky, I don’t mind suffering a teeny bit. It was good to be hungry, and to walk through the far reaches of the garden in the hot sun, and to be carrying a book that if I had any "sense" I wouldn't be carrying.

I want to be worthy to write about what I love and what's important to me.

In the garden, I took pictures, tape-recorded my thoughts, shot a (really bad) video of the Cedar Gateway. I was there almost four hours. I drank it in. I talked out loud to myself. I prayed. I cried.

On the way home I stopped at JTYH in Rosemead or scallion pancakes and knife-cut noodles with seafood. Cause let's never forget, the food's important, too.

I won't write about Cedar Point, or this particular facet of my field trip for The Tidings, if for no other reason than the 800-word max. I get so excited before actually sitting down to write a piece for which I've gathered information, conducted an interview, had an "experience," that my heart is in my throat. I'll take several more hours to sift through the brochures, to transcribe the tapes, to "descend" as I call it, into the material.

Five minutes after I've submitted the piece, I'll start the process all over again; I'll begin mulling the following week's piece.

There's nothing "efficient" about the way I work. It requires a huge amount of solitude. It requires getting very quiet.  It requires drawing upon everything that's in me: everything I've read, heard, thought, felt, suffered. It makes me extremely impatient with distractions, interruptions, noise, small talk. It's probably ruined me to be any kind of consistent companion to another.

Last Sunday's LA Times carried an obituary of Nati Cano, born in 1933, "whose famed Los Angeles-based group Mariachi los Camperos de Nati Cano played top concert venues around the world."

"The mariachi plays kind of imperfect," Cano was quoted as saying, "and for a musician not used to it, it is difficult because it is imperfect. If you just write it on a sheet, it is impossible to interpret, because it comes from a style way back. You almost have to be born with it. I'm not sure you can learn it at a university."

That's how I feel about my writing.

Monday, October 6, 2014


"I wanted to be a priest. However I soon realized that my real vocation, my real calling, was the movies. I don’t really see a conflict between the church and the movies, the sacred and the profane. Obviously, there are major differences, but I can also see great similarities between a church and a movie house."

-Martin Scorcese

That's the opening quote from a splendid essay by Vince Passaro called "Scorcese on the Cross: America's Last Best Tragedian,"

It was published in the August, 2011 issue of Harper's and was chosen, as it darn well should have been, for the annual Best Spiritual Writing series edited by Phil Zaleski.

Passaro writes: "[F]or any mid-twentieth-century child with a dramatic sensibility and a seriously Catholic upbringing, no narrative can ever surpass the Passion, nor can any scene approach the Crucifixion for its depiction of agony and transcendence. The details of Jesus's final moments are especially haunting, none more so than the cry of abandonment recorded in Matthew and Mark....We were taught that the power of the divine, an unimaginable breadth of knowledge and potency, could reside in human suffering."

Amen. I myself have found an inexhaustible mother lode in my own.

And I can't wait to share more of it as a panelist for “Faith in Our Contemporary Culture,” a two-hour symposium sponsored by St. John’s Seminary of Camarillo, California, that will take place Thursday, October 16, 7 p.m., at the American Film Institute Theater right here in Hollywood!

"Carrying forward the bridging message of Pope Francis," reads the blurb, "this will be the first in a series of 'conversations' designed to engage people of all faiths throughout the archdiocese in discussions of the entertainment-based cultural issues of our time." So there!

They even offered to send a "car" to pick me up. I said, "Will there be snacks?"

Other panelists will include the dear and great comic/writer/podcaster Tom WilsonJoe Ferullo, Senior Vice President, Programming CBS Television Network; and Father Jim Clarke, Director of Spiritual Formation at St. John’s. Joe Garner will moderate.

communing with a silk floss tree

Be there or be square. And read that Passaro essay! 

Saturday, October 4, 2014


Tree, always in the middle
of everything that surrounds it [...]

Tree, that (who knows?)
may be thinking there inside

--Rainer Maria Rilke, from "Le Moyer"

Friday, October 3, 2014


This week's art and culture piece in on what sounds like an amazing event, forthcoming from the LA Master Chorale on October 19: Joan of Arc, Voices of Light, and Composer Richard Einhorn.

Above is part of the torture chamber scene from the 1928 Carl Theodor Dreyer film The Passion of Joan of Arc, considered by many to be one of the greatest ten movies ever made. You can read more about Voices of Light, the piece Einhorn composed to accompany the film, here.

Richard (as I now think of him) lives in NYC. A few weeks ago I got to interview him by phone about the piece. He could not have been more generous, enthused, and interesting. And even more inspiring, he was profoundly modest, deferring to the genius of Dreyer's film and insisting he had lucked out by finding a brilliant "collaborator."

How rare and great is that? And his composition is a work of art.



Wednesday, October 1, 2014


As you may or may not have noticed, I failed to post an Aleteia column the last couple of weeks.

I started writing for Aleteia, an online journal, on March 18 of this year. I'm made to write on the interior life and loved the challenge of a weekly post. Unfortunately, however, they've been unable to pay me as agreed. Thus, I've stepped down, or rather aside, until such time as they can.

Just when I'd finally learned to spell "Aleteia!"

That's all I'll say for the moment except that I find goodbyes of all sorts emotionally draining. Let's wish them well and stay tuned.

On other fronts, I'm looking forward to two fall trips to "The Heartland": one to Omaha, Nebraska for an October 25 Women's Day of Recollection, and another to Conception Abbey in Missouri to give a Day of Recollection for the seminarians (for more details, check out my Events Page).

I've also been noticing the days get shorter and look forward to my nocturnal winter forays through the streets of L.A. Have been somewhat obsessed as of late with telephone poles and wires which, tome, evoke The Crucifixion.

September 25 was the second anniversary of my mother's death. That and other things have left me feeling kind of sad and at loose ends and bereft. Also, major sleep disruption.

Well, join the human race!
And thank God for coffee.