13 August 10 – Feast Day of Cassian of Imola, Ill-Fated Writing Teacher

A quick little moral tale before we get to our main story

Saint Cassian was a 4th century 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 news 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 some two hundred of his students  did their worst – or, depending on your interpretation, their best, for one telling of his martyrdom records that the students “carved their initials carefully on his flesh.” (emphasis added)

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?

And Now, Our Main Story:

Each December some half a million people converge on Guadalajara’s convention center to celebrate that perennially endangered species known as the printed word. La  Feria Internacional del Libro, or FIL as it is more handily and affectionately known, brings together publishers, authors, and book lovers from all over the (chiefly Spanish-speaking) world  for a week of exhibitions, conferences, readings, and convivially crowded hobnobbing.

For some two decades now, la FIL has recognized one country or another as its Invitado de Honor, affording them the chance to spotlight their literary and artistic culture.  Last year la FIL tweaked this tradition a wee bit by extending its Invitado invitation to the City of Los Angeles, which, in turn, invited four dozen writers to travel to Guadalajara as L.A.’s cultural ambassadors.

While a number of well-known and widely-read authors – Ruben Martinez, Yxta Maya Murray, Dagoberto Gilb, Geoff Nicholson, Jonathon Gold, and Alex Espinoza – traveled to la FIL, at least one fairly unknown author also got the nod – that would be me.  Sort of like Ringo being chosen once upon a time to bring up the rear for the Beatles.

A highlight of our Guadalajara sojourn was, of all things, the hotel.  Not that there was anything the least bit distinctive about it, but because each morning, upon entering the café for breakfast, one focused not on what to eat, but with whom to eat it.  Writers who principally knew one another by by-line alone got to chat over café con leche with writers they – we – admired.

One thing that came up repeatedly in conversation was how charmed and enamored we all were with our host city.  Guadalajara has wonderful colonial and beaux arts architecture, parks hither and thither,  several museums and community arts spaces, and some of the most congenial and polite citizens a large city could possibly boast.

It felt, one thought, like a rather enhanced, civilized version of L.A.

And that’s where the thought began to germinate, to propose a small anthology of writers’ reminiscences about our time in Guadalajara, as sort of valentine not only to our host, but also to the National Endowment for the Arts (which funded our trip) and to the Department of Cultural Affairs of the City of Los Angeles (which organized it).

My sweetheart friend Veronique de Turenne, late of the LA Times and still of the “Here in Malibu” blog on LAObserved.com, enthusiastically volunteered to co-edit the submissions, which filtered in from a dozen fellow authors.  David Kipen, who organized the L.A. writers contingent, agreed to contribute a cheery, pithy foreword; and Veronique and I each had stories about Guadalajara we wanted to contribute. Veronique’s fun tale, which ends the book, inspired its title, Waiting For Foreign.

The essays include a pair of lovely, nuanced pieces: Alex Espinozas uneasy meditation on his complicated relationship with the land of his birth; and Michael Jaime-Becerra’s sweet ode to his father’s alternating power and fragility.

There are some light-hearted pieces as well: Dagoberto Gilb’s stream-of-consciousness take on Guadalajara, the publishing biz, and Cesar Rojas, which ends on a slightly bitter rant about racism; and Ruben Martinez’s reggae-foxtrot love song to Guadalajara and all things tapatío.

I had taken dozens of photographs in Guadalajara, and as I graphically reworked them in Photoshop, these began to complement the stories in the book. I found a website – Blurb.com – which enables users to design and create their own books, through its downloadable program, and which the website will then print on demand.

Admittedly, it felt a little ironically complicated to be self-publishing and printing-on-demand a book inspired by an international book fair that relies on the participation of dozens of publishing houses, particularly at a time when no one knows what the future of publishing holds or what the workable model will be.

Perhaps this eight inch square, eighty-page book, labored over for months, and then uploaded in a half-hour and printed – “on demand” – and delivered directly to my door less than a week later, is one of those models for the future.  .

I only know that it offers a creative person the liberating opportunity to gather and organize thoughts and insights however one best sees fit into an actual physical book – that still palpable, valued object.

Whether anyone else cares to read, to purchase, or to own that creation remains to be seen.  But thus has it ever been with writing. May it ever remain so.


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.


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



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.

2 August – Feast Day of Nuestra Señora de los Angeles

On this day (well, a Wednesday, rather than a Saturday), a year short of two dozen decades ago, some three dozen Spanish soldiers clad in leather jackets dismounted their new-fangled horses in the parking lot of La Playita Seafood Restaurant, at the southern edge of Lincoln Heights; and seven or eight Tongva “heathen” crossed North Broadway Boulevard to greet them.

Because La Playita was not due to open for another two hundred years, the welcoming party brought the visitors refreshments – hand-woven baskets of pinole and carved-out gourds filled with water mixed with acorn powder – which they exchanged for Spanish thank-you gifts of tobacco and costume jewelry.

All along the Spaniards’ march north from Baja, their spiritual guide and chief diarist, Franciscan friar Juan Crespi, had christened practically every significant piece of Alta California geography with the names of God’s elect – a pond for St. Elmo, a river for San Dionisio, a marsh for St. Isabel of Hungary – creating a map of spiritual guideposts for those who would follow. And now, here, facing the Tongva settlement north of Yang-Na, beside its free-flowing river sheltered by, and nourishing, the large stands of willow trees, cottonwood, sycamore, and oak that stood just downhill from the newcomers’ camp in La Playita’s parking lot, Fray Crespi’s next baptismal name inched to the tip of his tongue.

As space was demarcated by the saints, so also were the Spaniards’ days, framing a sacred time-space continuum. The calendar began, on January first, with the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus (a clean cut), and moved reverently forward, saint by saint, through the year. And now, today, one of the most holy days of the Franciscan calendar was to be celebrated – at this spot, which Fray Crespi would describe in his journal as perhaps the most lovely garden the men had yet to encounter; wild roses and grapevines as far as the pleased eye could see.

Today was – this is – the Feast Day of Our Lady of the Angels, named for the poor hovel in which the founder of the Franciscan order, Saint Francis of Assisi, lived out his days on land bequeathed him by Dominican brethren.

Here Francis entered enduring myth and legend; receiving the stigmata, speaking with animals and birds – in a place so famed and sacred that a visit there could relieve the pilgrim of days to be spent in Purgatory.  And, as Francis’ sanctity grew across the centuries, prayerful observance of this day set aside to celebrate his meager little chapel would reap similar benefit.

So it was that time and space truly came together for Fray Crespi, mystical Franciscan poet of the California landscape, today.

Here, in this green lush valley, at the fork of two crystal rivers, as quail and antelope ambled unafraid and thrush and turtledove sang in the near distance, Crespi’s calendar reminded him it was time to commemorate his Founder’s holy life.

And now – awash in the silver music of willow branches dancing along the river’s surface, cooled by the live oak’s ample shade, refreshed by the natives’ welcoming beverage, drinking in the pleasing colors of the native plants, and smiling into the heartwarming faces of his Tongva hosts – Fray Crespi invokes Saint Francis, who called the Sun his Brother and the Stars and Moon his Sisters.

Today is Eternity; Today is Forever. Today is Purgatory, poised between Heaven and Hell.

Here we float – together with Saint Francis, together with Fray Crespi, with untold hundreds perhaps thousands of Tongva elders and Chumash brethren. Brother Coyote and Sister Antelope, Brother Live Oak and Sister Yarrow float among us, with birds whose names we never learned and insects we never knew as friends.

If we can only recall what this day was meant to mean we could cut our stay here short; our time in this imbalanced purgatory might end.

Francis’ chapel and hovel were named Our Lady of the Angels because, ancient rumor has it, angel songs had often been heard in the valley below. They must be here, too, still, if only we can cleanse our hearts and listen.


j michael walker, 02 august 08.

Published in: on 2 August 2008 at 5:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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