30 August – Feast Day of St. Fiacre, the Misogynist

My muse for my Santa Ynez painting

My muse for my Santa Ynez painting

The fall of 2000, when I began the rich journey through the soul of L.A. that would become All the Saints of the City of the Angels, I was researching – with an eye to portraying – the streets named for saints in and around Downtown Los Angeles.

It was in this way that I found myself one morning in the lobby of a drop-in shelter on San Julian Street in the heart of Skid Row; and it was at that moment that I noticed – how could I not? – the lovely young woman in the photo at left.

Jevona welcomed my request to photograph her, and as I did, she began telling me, unbidden, her life story. It proved a sad, difficult tale, with avaricious men attempting at every turn to take advantage of her. As she told me several times, “If I would sell my body, I wouldn’t be homeless.”

That fall I connected Jevona’s situation with the legend of Saint Agnes – Santa Ynez – whose street I needed to portray. One of the aspects of All the Saints’ first year of of which I am most proud is the positive effect my painting of Jevona as Santa Ynez had on this frail young woman – Ah, if only that could have lasted.

The troubled and troubling ways in which men have, and still, historically abused women is beyond lamentable, thus important to remark and to overcome.

Therefore I bring this relationship up today, for today – Saturday – is the feast day of a particularly unpleasant misogynistic saint (so-called), Fiacre, of Ireland. I recommend taking a few minutes to read his tale from Jacobus de Voragine’s great Golden Legend.

The gist of it is that he felt himself wronged  – “full sorry and wroth” – by one woman and then, after solitary reflection, decided to take revenge on all women.

As Jacobus tells “he made his prayer to our Lord that no woman should never enter into his church, without she be punished by some manner of sickness. ”

His awful prayer, it seems, was granted: one woman lost an eye; the foot of another “swelled by such manner that all the leg, knee, and thigh of it was grieved with sickness.”

Nor were these isolated instances: “many other miracles have been thereof showed.” It seems also a continuation of his demonization of women, that he is invoked against syphilis, venereal disease, and sterility.

As we struggle for gender equality and for honest and open relationships between women and men, let us recall today all the Santa Ynezes who have struggled – and struggle still – against all the Saint Fiacres.

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28 August – Feast Day of St. Augustine, son of Santa Monica

Detail of my painting for Santa Monica Boulevard, All the Saints

Detail of my painting for Santa Monica Boulevard, All the Saints

Today is the feast day of St. Augustine, one of the chief theologians of the Church; writer and philosopher – and, in his youth, a rabble-rouser, carouser, and his mother’s great and constant sorrow.

a petition left in my gallery

a petition left in my gallery, Summer '08

His mother, Monica, was a widow who, like so many mothers among us, raised three kids – two daughters and a son – alone. Augustine showed great promise, yet got himself into trouble, distancing himself from his upbringing, ignoring his mother’s please to change.

His conversion to the writer and philosopher we know across the centures – the author of City of God and Confessions – was a cumulative act Augustine himself attributed to his mother’s unceasing love, concern, and faith in his ability to change. And it was because of her unyielding love, despite her son’s misdeeds, that Santa Monica was canonized as a saint.

In my book, All the Saints of the City of the Angels, I connect the narrative arc of Augustine’s and Monica’s relationship to the troubled lives of mothers and sons who negotiate the dangers, attractions, unquiet, and pain of the street.

As I wrote:

In his Confessions, Saint Augustine writes, “In what abyss was I buried?  And you extended … toward me your merciful hand, to bring me out of that profound darkness…”

 

Here in the City of the Angels, where so many mothers weep for sons who are victims of violence or perpetrators of violence; where so many families are connected by prisons and hospitals, courtrooms and morgues; it is that merciful hand, like the optimistic long-suffering love of Santa Monica, that can help us out of the darkness, that can help us to heal.

another petition left in my gallery

another petition left in my gallery

 May we all be healed.

23 August – Feast Day of Santa Rosa de Lima

Santa Rosa de Lima, color pencil/paper, 1994

Santa Rosa de Lima, color pencil/paper, 1994

Yesterday morning I went out into our garden, my mind preoccupied with the violence that haunts our home in Mexico.

Seated on the patio steps, I was drawn out of my funk by an unusual three-note trill emanating from somewhere beyond the bouganvillea.

I was searching for the source when suddenly it appeared – its form somewhat like a jay’s, but devoid of brilliance  – on a telephone wire: within brief seconds it was gone.

So suddenly had this songbird disappeared, I was still gazing in its direction when a monarch butterfly drizzled into view from stage right, below and before the bouganvillea.

Startlingly, the songbird reappeared, pouncing from out of view; plucked the butterfly with its tweezer-like beak; and set about enjoying breakfast on my studio roof.

A quick exploratory poke or two; and the narrative took another unexpected twist: the monarch arighted herself from the asphalt and ambled its uncertain way, slightly rougher around the edges.

The songbird watched for what seemed eternal seconds, and then took off; exit stage right.

Tonight as I write this, family, friends and villagers are marching for peace and justice through Creel, back home in the Sierra Tarahumara, an eternal week to the minute after thirteen of their neighbors were machine-gunned into near-oblivion by the janjaweed of the drug lords.

I choose to take yesterday’s butterfly, universal symbol of rebirth, as a sign that we the people will eventually prevail.

20 August – Feast Day of St. Oswin, Murdered Saint

Me Voy Pa el Pueblo, color pencil/paper, 1980s
Me Voy Pa el Pueblo, Going to the Village, color pencil/paper, 1980s

Sadly, apologetically, this posting is neither fiction nor legend:

Last Saturday evening the hounds of hell, brandishing AK47s and bearing the black ski mask mark of cowards, emerged from a trio of hulking SUVs in front of a group of regular, everyday muchachos standing in front of one of the few civic halls in nearby Creel, a small rustic tourist outpost in my beloved Sierra Tarahumara, and – I hesitate to write this -, without speaking, they calmly massacred twelve young men, one college professor and – how does one write this? – a fourteen month-old baby.

Driving away, taking the only road leading into and out of town, witnessed by many and identified (understandably) by none, they left victims so utterly destroyed by their ruthlessly outsized firepower that several teenagers were all but unrecognizable and indistinguishable.

I think we need Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings at the moment.

Thirty-four years ago the smiling universe dropped me, innocent and open-hearted, into the most beautiful  place i had yet to experience.

The small one-engine plane made a curving landing onto the dirt airstrip of Sisoguichi, in the Sierra Tarahumara mountains of Chihuahua, Mexico; and as we swooped to earth,  impassively studied by a single Tarahumara man in yellow floral blouse and cream-colored cowboy hat, hand resting on his chin, amid the flourishing greenery and cool-grey rock outcroppings, I knew that I had somehow come home.

The mission pilot was wrangling his little plane into its corrugated metal hangar as a broad-smiling nun came crossing the creek to receive me, her indefatigable sidekick, a Tarahumara orphan girl named Tati, bobbing at her side, hand in happy hand.

Madre Olivia and I somehow made ourselves mutually understood, despite being monolingual in separate languages; and I can still recall clearly – 34 years, 2 months, and 18 days later – the major events that followed on that first day.

Clearer still is my recollection of the moment the next morning – my 22nd birthday – when I spotted the tall, thin, apple-cheeked girl who immediately became my reason for remaining in la Sierra after my volunteer work was done – and who three years later became (as she remains) my wife, Mimi.

La Sierra’s endless and endlessly amazing skies; its Rembrandtian light penetrating adobe walls; its rich and communitarian cultures; its trusting and generous people; their melodic and laughter-filled languages -all bore into my heart’s core and erased any longing I harbored before arriving. Each assured me: you are from here now, you are of this place.

So it has remained, more than thirty years, that whenever we return to la Sierra to visit family, I feel an easing of nerves, an erasure of tension, when our car begins its ascent into those gorgeous green mountains bedecked with great grey rock. To this day I refer to la Sierra as “back home,” as assuredly and naturally as if I had been born there – because I truly felt, that first summer, that I was reborn there, both culturally and spiritually.

All of the art and writing I have created in the three decades since that summer has been nourished by my immersion in that world.

Which is why Monday night’s hope-crushing news, with its murder and its grief, weighs on my chest like one of la Sierra’s gargantuan grey rocks.

As unimaginable arms and inconceivable outside forces converge on this isolated countryside of great beauty and hard labor, the traditions and certainties of generations are sent spiraling out of orbit, and gravity loosens its grip. 

Folklore to the contrary, violence has been rare here and trust and courtesy the norm. My first summer in la Sierra Tarahumara, without exception, strangers received me into their homes, sat me at their kitchen table, and served me coffee and flour tortillas as a civilizing bond.

When violence erupted, it was individual and focused, and its narrative easy to follow.

What do we do now, when the janjaweed of the drug lords are unleashed unannounced, to slaughter a meek and humble people already battered by drought, poverty, and scant access to education and jobs?

Saint Oswin’s Feast Day is today, his tale – like the news back home – one of conflict, treachery, and wanton murder. 

As our family, friends, and neighbors, in Creel and beyond, pace uneasily, ashen-faced and heartbroken in their now-threatened homes, Venerable Bede’s description of Saint Oswin rings true for last weekend’s victims – and for the people there I’ve known, as well:

“most generous to all men and above all things humble… of graceful bearing, with pleasant manner and engaging address”

En Paz Descanzan.

 

Published in: on 20 August 2008 at 12:14 pm  Comments (1)  
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18 August – Feast Day of Santa Elena (St. Helen), part ii

Detail, my portrait of Saint Helen, from "All the Saints of the City of the Angels"
Detail, my portrait of Saint Helen, from All the Saints

Saint Helen is a fascinating character to consider.

I’ve written about her twice in my book, All the Saints of the City of the Angels: once in connection with Santa Cruz Street, in San Pedro Bay; and again, in connection with the curiously named San Teala Court, in Woodland Hills.
As I wrote in the San Teala piece, she
“was Constantine’s mother, a pious woman with a penchant for organizing, and an eye for buried treasure. In the fourth century she bustled about the Holy Land, uncovering relics which had lain unnoticed for three hundred years.  The cross where Christ died; the nails which had secured him; the notice which hung above his head; the crown of thorns that rung his brow – all these freely presented themselves to her, as if awaiting her arrival.”

 And she, via her legend, is responsbile for the naming of both Santa Cruz Street and the island to which its name is directed, out beyond the harbor’s horizon.

The tale goes that, after millennia of living in relative harmony, the Chumash peoples of Limuw, a large island near present-day Santa Barbara, were visited by Spanish explorers from the empire to the south.

Accompanying the soldiers who came ashore was a Franciscan priest; All were welcomed by the islanders, who took them to their chieftan’s village of Xaxas, set in a great forest.
After their warm reception, and an exchange of gifts, the visitors headed back to their canoes, and from there to their ship anchored offshore.
Overnight the priest, Juan Gonzalez Vizcaino, discovered he had forgotten his cross-topped walking staff (no mention is made of whether he had imbibed any welcoming inebriants during the welcoming ceremonies).
Despairing of seeing this treasure again – and admittedly harboring suspicions that the natives had gained the cross through clever means – , the Spaniards awakened at first light to the cheerful sight of the men of Xaxas guiding their great tomol towards the ship; and in the center of the tomol sat one of the Chumash, bearing the lost cross.
Like Saint Helen of old, some Limuw maiden had recovered the Friar’s lost cross.

 

18 August – Feast Day of Saint Helen

Detail, The Old Moon Remembers, by J Michael Walker, 2001

Detail of "The Old Moon Remembers", by J Michael Walker, 2001

All the long 101 way home

Tonight

All the long 101 way home:

 

The moon,  

Large cream-gold

Old-friend of calm.

 

Pulling onto the driveway,

Behind silhouette trees

A horned owl asserts herself

 

Hooting

Four-note verses

Unhurried, soft  

Against freeway’s wild wash.

 

– Composed tonight, upon coming home.

Published in: on 17 August 2008 at 10:06 pm  Comments (2)  
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17 August – Feast Day of San Jacinto (Saint Hyacinth)

San Jacinto, by J Michael Walker, color pencil/paper

San Jacinto, by J Michael Walker, color pencil/paper

What can I say; I have a particular fondness for San Jacinto, the purple saint. There’s a street bearing his name in the Silver Lake Hills of Los Angeles, north of Sunset and overlooking, intermittently, the silvery lake to the northeast.

It’s a rather sedate drive – apart from the confectionary castle at its mid-point – but, as I wrote in my book (p.65), the street exhibits some mystic tendencies, as it “ambles lightly about the Silver Lake hills, tracing a circumscribed path: Two hundred paces downhill, south by southwest. Turn. Then two hundred paces uphill, north by northeast. Repeat. A sacred Zen dance, good for the heart and legs.”

San Jacinto’s best legends are all, in fact, about ambling lightly.

 

One I illustrated some years back (at left) recounts how, when the village of Kiev was overrun by “fierce Tartars,” Jacinto grabbed a large, heavy statue of the Virgin Mary and, ‘though she weighed more than he, carried her with no perceptible difficulty to safety.

 

The legend I treasure more, however, is sometimes confused with this one; perhaps it occurred later on the same journey.

 

San Jacinto came to the River Dnieper or – what do we know – the River Vistula (Wikipedia informs that the two were once connected) and needed to cross whichever river it was that he, short of boat, needed to cross.

 

What to do? He crossed the river on foot.

Indeed.

And, it is recorded in the Acta Sanctorum XXXVII, 316, No. 38, that:

 

“the footprints of the saint remained on the water, even after he had crossed the river; and that, when the stream was calm, they could be seen for centuries afterwards.”

 

Sigh. Aside from its self-evident zen poetry, three things etch this tale in my heart.

 

First, when Jacinto was candidate for canonization, the Acta Sanctorum again assures us, “four hundred and eight witnesses were rigidly examined on this very matter, and they all attested on oath that they had seen these footprints with their own eyes; which, they said, the natives of the country call ‘the way of Saint Hyacinth.’ “

 

The Death of Hyacinthos, by Jean Broc

The Death of Hyacinthos, by Jean Broc

Second, his English name, Hyacinth, traces back to Apollo’s young lover Hyacinthus, who was killed in rivalry with Zephyrus: Hyacinthus’ spilled blood, which Apollo gathered, legendarily formed the liquid seed for the Hyacinthus orientalis (Interestingly, Wiki also informs us that “Hyacinths are sometimes associated with rebirth”).

 

But, for the water hyacinth, I cannot help but presume that the name derives from the legend of San Jacinto, for the plant is a tenacious free-floating perennial, remaining on the surface of any waterway to which it is introduced despite ‘most any efforts at extermination or control.

 

San Jacinto demonstrated this self-same tenacity for me the first year of All the Saints, when I created large prints of the Eastside Los Angeles saint-streets, and installed them in city bus shelters. San Jacinto Street had been among this first batch, and I had focused on his watery legend in my portrayal.

 

My friend Sally Stein and I went around to photograph each of the bus shelter installations. When we came to the San Jacinto Street installation at, as I recall, Sunset and Fountain, Sally remarked that she was surprised she wan’t seeing any light reflected on the glass covering my piece – only then did we realize that the glass had been utterly broken and lay all over the cement, and that someone had pulled hard on my print to remove it, but to no avail:

 

San Jacinto had held on, steadfast even in the L.A. night.

San Jacinto Street, photographed festooned with zempasuchil flowers, the eve of All Saints Day, L.A. 2000

San Jacinto Street, photographed by J Michael Walker, festooned with zempasuchil flowers, the eve of All Saints Day, L.A. 2000

 

 

13 August – Feast Day of Saint Cassian of Imola

Today may be a good day to reflect on all those who never receive proper recognition for their efforts, for this is the feast day of St. Cassian of Imola.

Saint Cassian lived in 4th century Italy and was employed as a schoolteacher, who “taught [his students] the basic elements of literature, that is, how to read and write.”

Unfortunately, Cassian’s activities drew the ire of the local judge who, alliteratively, was “a partisan of the passions of the apostate emperor.”

For any still-summer-vacationing teachers, the ominous thought to contemplate is that the angry judge “could find no means more appropriate to take vengeance on Saint Cassian than to abandon him to his own students.” (shudder)

Cassian was stripped and bound, and his students – some two hundred or so – did their worst – or, depending on your interpretation, their best, for one telling of his martyrdom records that some students “carved their initials carefully on his flesh.” (emphasis added)

Cassian died “bloodied with a thousand little wounds”; yet, surprisingly, this death made him neither patron saint of teachers; nor of penmanship, critics, scholars, or even writers.

A good story seems to lurk here, morbid though it may well be.

Cassian taught 200 boys to read and write: After carving their initials into their master’s flesh, what did they go on to write?

Published in: on 13 August 2008 at 3:24 pm  Comments (1)  
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12 August – Feast Day of Saint Felicissima

My favorite quote of the day comes from my friend Maureen, who replied, after I has emailed her that my book All the Saints of the City of the Angels has been named a finalist for the SCIBA (Southern California Independent Booksellers Association) nonfiction book of the year:

“I celebrated by going to my nearest independent book seller and buying another copy.”

How absolutely, fittingly perfect.

(And just for the record, she shopped at Vroman’s: they had 2 copies left)

Published in: on 13 August 2008 at 2:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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5 August – Feast Day of Our Lady of Copacabana

My version of Our Lady of Copacabana, sort of

My version of Our Lady of Copacabana, sort of

The cheerless dismantling of our local daily paper, the Los Angeles Times, has been so harrowing and relentless, it’s led me to check LAObserved’s fine blog a couple times a day for the latest dreary development. (Already the fine reporter who profiled me last fall, Deborah Schoch, was let go after 16 years.)

And so it was that last night, just before retiring, I turned to LAObserved for a final midnight looksee – and was stunned to read my name in a posting about upcoming book awards:

My book All the Saints of the City of the Angels: Seeking the Soul of L.A. on Its Streets has been named a finalist for the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association’s award for best nonfiction of 2008.

O my fluttering hummingbird heart! Humbled to the core, bedazzled and amazed, it’s made me feel just like a kid.

I want to send everyone flowers; offer free backrubs; share a glass of better wine; and stretch out on the grass to stare up at the clouds, and then (after more wine) up at the stars.

These awards are voted on only by independent booksellers, not the chains. No offense to Amazon and the rest; but these are the folks who, when they order my book, have to pay my wonderful publisher upfront and can’t return their leftovers. These arethe True Lovers of Books, who share their enthusiasm with customers and post handlettered endorsements next to treasured discoveries.

Their support since my book’s release, in March, has warmed my heart; this nomination has set it ablaze.