Monday, November 23, 2015



Happy Thanksgiving Week!

Here's a link to an interview I did with CNA for my latest book, Stripped.

And here's a piece I was invited to write on the book, and spent several hours working up, and that the guy didn't like.

He could be right that the piece doesn't work. I really labored over it and sometimes that can be a good sign and sometimes that can be a bad sign.

I would have earned 25 cents a word (that's after 20 years of toiling at my craft) and of course now "earn" nothing.

Except that yesterday I rec'd a link (thank you, John Tallman) to a book called The Beethoven Factor: The New Positive Psychology of Hardiness, Happiness, Healing, and Hope  by Paul Pearsall. The blurb runs:

Conventional wisdom insists that the statement is false, that stress is a thief robbing us of our ability to relax and enjoy life to its fullest. But for centuries, poets and philosophers have celebrated the ups and downs of life as the very essence of living, the spice that enables us to taste life fully.

So who's right? The new, fast-emerging positive psychology movement is affirming the timeless wisdom of the philosophers by showing that it is not stress itself preventing us from enjoying life, but our negative reaction to stress that does the damage. Positive psychology confirms that rather than shrinking from adversity, we must become engaged by it-and thrive through it-before we can savor all the sweetness life has to offer.

This is something I've pondered a lot lately, the equating of "spirituality" with "equanimity": a kind of preternatural calm. As I ask in one of my books, was Van Gogh "sane"? Was Beethoven "calm"? No! The follower of Christ consents to live in ongoing TENSION. It's no feat to sit in a cave and shut the world out. The feat is to be kind to one another and to give everything we have and are to our work even when we're in terrible anxiety, fear, irritability etc. 

The feat is to be true to our inner compass--our faith, if you like--when we can't know how that being true will pan out. And when the stakes are life and death.

For the artist--for all of us if we're tuned in to drama of creation--the stakes are life and death for everything. 

I was reaching for something in the piece below that I maybe didn't quite reach. But I will stake my life on the reaching. The reaching--as apparently Pearsall's book corroborates--is beyond all price. 

So here you go!

Recently I attended a memorial service for a friend who had died of a heroin overdose. The intro was given by a meditation teacher. “There is no birth and no death,” she informed us.

That’s an attitude that strikes me as strangely hostile to life. It’s a stance that says I’m just going to block my ears and go lalalalalalalala and that way you can’t hurt me and wake me up when it’s over. Nothing matters because nothing ever really happens.

How very different from Catholicism that says, Birth is real, death is all, all too real.

How very different from Christ, who says: “Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come” [Mt. 24:42].

Staying awake means consenting to participate, minute by minute, in the almost unendurable tension of a drama the end of which we can’t know and can’t foresee.

That’s the story I tell in my latest memoir: Stripped: At the Intersection of Culture, Cancer, and Christ.

People see “cancer” and they tend to picture a story about chemo and radiation.

But my own story is this. In 2000, I was diagnosed with Stage 1, Grade 1 breast cancer. I weighed the risk of recurrence against the “benefits” of the proposed treatments—and after weeks of research, spiritual guidance and prayer I went against medical advice.  I had outpatient surgery and then I declined the recommended treatment: chemo, radiation, and a five year round of a heavy-duty estrogen drug called Tamoxifen.

At the time, the doctors told me in so many words that I was crazy. Fifteen years later, the medical community is now endorsing this same “wait and see” stance for early stage breast cancer.

But Stripped is no anti-medicine screed. Nor is it even a book about cancer, or only cancer. It’s a book about the contemplative life. It’s an invitation to ask ourselves what Master we serve.

Hearing the world “malignant” instantly stripped me down: emotionally, spiritually. Coming face to face so suddenly with my mortality pruned me, in a way I wouldn’t have asked for, from many old ideas and worldly attachments.

One phenomenon I pondered deeply in the weeks after my diagnosis was our cultural grounding in the paradigm of war: the war against poverty, the war against drugs, the war against cancer, the war against terror.

I didn’t notice us winning in any of those areas.

In fact, with over fifty percent of our discretionary national budget going to the military, with our manic insistence on gun ownership, with our craving for and fascination with violence, we were clearly only generating more violence, more massacres.

To be diagnosed with cancer is to be expected, like a good military-minded citizen, to fight a battle. I found I wasn’t much interested.

The opposite of fighting a battle doesn’t mean accepting the “unacceptable,” being a doormat, or lapsing into weary resignation: it means staying awake to reality. “Resist not evil,” Christ said, and I think he meant let’s not waste our energy fighting; let’s use our energy to live in alert, creative, love. Let’s direct our energy toward what we’re for, not what we’re against.

Far less does creative love mean the choice is between Jesus and the doctors. No, no, no. The question is whether we’re going to serve the master of fear or the Master of love.

The master of fear told me to go along with the harsh treatments even though, given my low risk of recurrence, my intuition and heart told me they’d do more harm than good. The Master of love said: Do the research, run your decision by people you trust and love, and continue to go out and spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

In the temple, Christ spoke “with authority.” In the end, that authority allowed me to go a different way than a culture that is increasingly based on the commodification of the human body, the human person.

One form that took was declining the proferred medical treatments.

But the deeper form was that, in the wake of my cancer diagnosis, I lost—let go of—my fourteen-year marriage.

In “Letter to a Young Poet,” Rainer Maria Rilke advised, Ask yourself in your deepest hour, Must I write? If the answer is yes, “then build your life according to this necessity.”

The answer was yes. That yes led me to face the fact that some women are able of two vocations: a marriage/family, and writing.

I wasn’t one of them.

Letting go of the worldly emotional and financial security, social status, and companionship of a marriage was a way harder decision than how to treat my cancer. But I wouldn’t trade the perpetual creative tension, the minute-by-minute adventure of the writing life, the terrible fear, as I age, of being cast out of the herd, for anything on earth.

Because the battle I HAVE been willing to fight is the battle St. Paul referred to in 2 Timothy 4:6-7:

For I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand.

I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015



I have been right out straight looking for an apartment, meeting various deadlines, dealing as we all do with the steady stream of daily obligations, interruptions, requests for help ET CETERA.

Yesterday morning I thought I had a clear few hours and my fondest wish with a few clear hours is always to write.  Instead, as usual, a variety of items demanding my immediate attention came up (a nun looking for some poetry suggestions, a woman from Vermont who's coming to LA for heart surgery and wondered if she could stay with me (NO! But I will come visit you while you're here), a personal (right) letter from the founder of wikipedia asking for (more) money.

In the midst of all that came the following, from my young San Antonio, TX, friend: the amazing Mr. Greg Camacho.


How are you? I've got some good news!

Three weeks ago I went to El Paso for my cousin's wedding. You may recall that last year I reported to you a reflection on a short trip to the famed Whoopee Bowl Antique Mall, on the way back from Albuquerque, cut shorter by their not being open on Sundays.

Wellllllllll. It turns out the Whoopee Bowl was only ten minutes from our hotel in EP, and my parents and I arrived Friday evening. So Saturday morning, mere hours before my cousin tied the knot, we went.

The nice looking giraffe greeted us with a smile. Chrome Mary stood watch over her ramshackle children. For about an hour it was pure, at-least-seven-kinds-of-weird bliss. One of those weird ways was entirely due to the stone tower aquarium with fish swimming inside, and a slightly portentous leak sprouting a sizable offshoot of lichen. Elsewhere, two Santas, a gorilla, and a Calavera Catrina overlooked a crèche. All this eccentricity would seem simply gauche if it weren't for the tender zebra nuzzling up to the Christ child.

As we walked through the aisles of old and interesting, often zany miscellany, I remembered your comment that all of this could only be part of the Good News, and I thanked God that a place like this exists.

Attached are some pictures. I've left out others in case you happen to stop by the Whoopee Bowl on your own - I don't want to give away all the surprises!

All the best and more,


One more time, I remembered life IS the "interruptions," and laughed out loud with delight, and gave thanks.

Let's all hold out our hands over the dear head of Greg C. and give him a blessing!

Saturday, November 14, 2015


Ishiuchi Miyako’s “Postwar Shadows,” now at the Getty, features photographs reflecting on the reality of life after nuclear war. The show culminates with photographs of personal effects, including garments, which had been in direct contact with their owners’ bodies at the time of the bombing. (Ishiuchi Miyako)
Ishiuchi Miyako (Japanese, born 1947)
Title/Date: Hiroshima #9 (Ritsu Ogawa), 2007
Medium: Chromogenic print
Dimensions: Framed (approx.): 187 x 120 x 3 cm (73 5/8 x 47 1/4 x 1 3/16 in.)
Copyright: © Ishiuchi Miyako
Object Credit: Ishiuchi Miyako

This week's arts and culture piece features a profoundly moving exhibit currently at the Getty: "Postwar Shadows" by the Japanese photographer Isuichi Miyako.

It begins like this:

Aug. 6 of this year marked the 70th anniversary of the first atomic bomb dropped by the U.S. on Japan, at Hiroshima. Nagasaki followed on Aug. 9.

General Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, testified before the U.S. Senate shortly afterwards that death from radiation is “without undue suffering” and “a very pleasant way to die.”

Belarusian Svetlana Alexievich, this year’s laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, paints a somewhat different picture. In “Voices from Chernobyl,” she writes of a woman who cared at home for her husband who was dying of radiation poisoning:

“[Tumors] crawled upward, along the body, to the face. Something black grew on him. His chin went somewhere, his neck disappeared, his tongue fell out. His veins popped, he began to bleed. From his neck, his cheeks, his ears … I’d bring a washbowl from the bathroom, and the streams would hit it, like into a milk pail. That sound, it was so peaceful and rural. Even now I hear it at night.”


Monday, November 9, 2015


"Before my bed
there is bright moonlight
So that it seems
Like frost on the ground:

Lifting my head
I watch the bright moon,
Lowering my head
I dream that I'm home."

--Li Po, via MASQUES by Stefany Anne Golberg"

Thursday, November 5, 2015


It's that time of the year when my daily walk, often around 5 or 6 p.m., turns nocturnal.

I'm back for the month in Angelino Heights, an historic section of L.A. just east of downtown.

Traffic rushes by on the 101 just south but up here on the hill, the big old Victorians and four-plexes are quiet in the late dusk.

I went to the Twin Towers jail last night with some others to talk to the addict/alcoholic inmates.

My search for a more permanent home continues. But as each night falls, wonder of wonders, I am fine.

Monday, November 2, 2015


the little island in the middle of the Tiber on which San Bartolomeo is located
I've had a number of pieces lately in Mind + Spirit.

Here's the link to a piece I recently wrote for Aleteia: "Among the Modern-Day Martyrs of San Bartolomeo."

Friday, October 30, 2015


credit: Bernhard Musil

This week, I got to interview Daren Fuster, Director of Artistic Administration for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's series, "Baroque Conversations."

The piece starts like this:

Starting Nov. 12, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra will offer an enlightening five-concert “Baroque Conversations” series.

“The series spotlights repertoire from early Baroque schools through the pre-classical period. In signature LACO style, the artists share their insights into the music and invite questions from the audience, which provides audiences with an in-depth look at the music being presented as well as an opportunity to get to know LACO artists on a deeper level.”

The first four programs will be held at Downtown L.A.’s Zipper Hall. The series finale, a program of cello concertos, will take place at USC’s Bovard Auditorium.

As you may know, Baroque music is a style of Western music composed from approximately 1600 to 1750. The bassoon, oboe, harpsichord, flute violin and cello figure prominently. Noted composers include Bach, Telemann, Couperin and Handel.

An interesting fact from Wikipedia: “The word ‘baroque’ comes from the Portuguese word barroco, meaning misshapen pearl, a negative description of the ornate and heavily ornamented music of this period.”


Tuesday, October 27, 2015


The coming month is going to be devoted to the search for an apartment.

I've been living as a gypsy for almost a year now--not because I'm broke, but at least partly because I've been so busy and had so much travel that I haven't had the sustained time to look for a beautiful, comfortable place.

If you know of a bougainvillea-draped guest house or bungalow that is quiet, hardwood floors, crown moldings, hand-painted tile, washer and dryer, space for my bromeliad and succulent collection that is in the Silver Lake/Echo Park/Atwater Village/Los Feliz/South Pasadena area of LA, please do let me know!

I used to live in an apartment that fit that description, but it was in Koreatown and at this point I am way too old for K'town.

In fact, once I find a place, my hope is to stay there till the time comes to ship me off to the old people's home.

"As the bearer of the empty place, the religious mendicant has an active duty beyond his supplication. He is the vehicle of that fluidity which is abundance. The wealth of the group touches his bowl at all sides, as if it were the center of a wheel where the spokes meet. The gift gathers there, and the mendicant gives it away again when he meets someone who is empty."

--Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World


Saturday, October 24, 2015



This week's arts and culture column, Jacques Lusseyran: Blind Hero of the French Resistance, begins like this:

“And There Was Light” is the strange and beautiful autobiography of Jacques Lusseyran, “blind hero of the French Resistance.”

Born in Paris in 1924, Lusseyran lost his sight at the age of 8 in a schoolroom incident. Even at that age, he was groping toward the transcendent.

Trying to navigate his way around a world he could no longer see, he came to learn that inanimate things are alive, and of the sympathetic current that runs between the branches of a tree in springtime, and that if you press the little stone you’ve secreted in your pocket, it will press back.

He wrote, “The seeing commit a strange error. They believe that we know the world only through our eyes. For my part, I discovered that the universe consists of pressure, that every object and every living being reveals itself to us at first by a kind of quiet yet unmistakable pressure that indicates its intention and its form. I even experienced the following wonderful fact: A voice, the voice of a person, permits him to appear in a picture. When the voice of a man reaches me, I immediately perceive his figure, his rhythm, and most of his intentions. Even stones are capable of weighing on us from a distance.” He staved off despair by assuring himself that the blindness was temporary, that the very next day his sight would be restored.


Thursday, October 22, 2015


I'm back from Rome as of last Friday, but I didn't begin to post all the photos I took.

Here are some of Assisi where I took the train on a day trip.

Once in Assisi, I walked up the hill from the train station, which turned out to be one of the best parts of the trip.