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.

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15 July – Feast of St. Swithin and Our 32nd Anniversary

St. Swithin, stained glass

St. Swithin, stained glass

Today is the feast day of many saints – the big web calendar of saints lists fifty-five of them, many largely anonymous.

A favorite is Saint Swithin (or Swithun), a ninth-century English bishop reputed to possess a post-mortem talent for weather forecasting (Perhaps, given his view from above, he may have some advance knowledge of cloud movements?).

A charming legend recounts how he miraculously restored a basketful of eggs, carried for sale by a Winchester egg woman, that had been maliciously broken by some workmen.

A warning about putting all one’s eggs into one basket? Or that, having done so, there is still hope? Or a love from the common street vendor? Restoration?

Who knows.

In any case, I wish to mark today because it carries great significance in my little life – a life as anonymous as that of most of today’s patron saints.  For it was 32 years agotoday that I was married to my wife, Mimi, the source of most of the good things that have happened in my life.

Mimi and  in NYC's Central Park, one snowy December

Mimi and I in NYC's Central Park, one snowy December

May this good fortune long continue.

Published in: on 15 July 2009 at 12:44 pm  Comments (1)  
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12 July – Feast Day of Saint Veronica

veronica iii Today’s issue of the New York Times Travel section has a short but not so sweet piece on our Los Angeles neighborhood, Highland Park.

Sadly, NYT’s first foray into the 90042 got it wrong, or at least came up woefully incomplete.

Three of the four businesses mentioned lie along a mere block-and-a-half of York Boulevard;
and the fourth, the admittedly fun Society of the Spectacles eyeglass shop, is just down the street.
What??
No Figueroa Street, the long, broad and longtime heart of Highland Park??
Apparently not:
The most egregious comment (one hopefully taken out of context)
comes from Cafe de Leche’s owner Matt Schodor, who says,
“The landscape has changed significantly. Now, everything is centered on one street.”
Oh. Is it? What about:
Avenue 50 Studio, a non-profit community arts and culture gallery, founded in early 2000 by local artist Kathy Gallegos, was one of the first – and still flourishing – cultural outposts to put out a shingle in the neighborhood. Housed in what was, decades ago, a small automotive garage, in a hardscrabble landscape abutting the Metro line snaking up to Pasadena, Avenue 50 now shelters two artist studios and an Etsy-ite fabric artist, as well as providing Northeast L.A. with monthly exhibitions of cultural significance and outreach; as well as concerts, poetry readings and workshops, weekly yoga classes, the occasional Women-Only massage party, and more.
[Note: I had the good fortune to have a solo show for my then-a-birthing “All the Saints of the City of the Angels” project there the year Avenue 50 opened, and I have had (I think) four more shows there in the intervening nine years, and was tapped to serve on its Board of Directors when the gallery went 501 c-3 several years back. ]
Figueroa Street between Avenue 50 and York boasts all sorts of cultural richness of the sort that precludes many of us from ever needing to fight the westbound traffic of the Santa Monica 10 Freeway:
Chicken Boy, the once-beleaguered and now much-beloved tongue-in-cheek Statue of Liberty of Northeast L.A., perched (of course) above Future Studio Gallery, an appropriately quirky venue for pretty quirky art, replete with a souvenir shop;
The Highland Theatre, where first-run movies are shown in modest circumstances for less than the cost of a louche’s latte;
A cornucopia of great taco trucks and, increasingly, pirate/private nighttime taco stands, where dedicated men and women sizzle buche, carnitas, cebollitas y mas, with griddles and gas tanks under jury-rigged mood lighting in alleyways and in front of grocery stores and (Yes!) tire repair shops  – Just one dollar for a salsa verde stairway to heaven.
There’s much more I could add, but the morning grows long. In the end, perhaps there’s little reason to fault the New York Times for its incomplete reportage on a distant zip code, for naively compacting a vibrant community to four shops on three blocks.
After all it took the Los Angeles Times nine years to write its first review of Avenue 50 Studio, just down the hill from where a number of its now-laid-off reporters once lived and commuted….
As Saint Veronica’s vera icon teaches us, the truth is often far more complex than it looks on the surface.

The Feast Day of Saint Reinhold and the Passing of Robert Graham

robert-graham-reliefFrom what I knew of the man, Robert Graham would have enjoyed this little tale.

 

Saint Reinhold was a tenth century bishop, assigned to oversee the construction of an abbey in Cologne. No mere supervisor, however, Reinhold threw himself into the abbey’s stonework with such skill and zeal that his carving soon outshone the handiwork of the stonemasons under his care. Disgruntled by this turn of events, and envious of the saint’s superior craftsmanship, the stonemasons grabbed their hammers and beat him to death.

 

Ah, the tempestuous art world.

 

Last Wednesday, on the 1048th anniversary of Saint Reinhold’s final, crushing critique, hundreds of us gathered at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, in Downtown Los Angeles, to honor the gentleman carver and sculptor Robert Graham.

 

I came alone and sat near the back – as misfortune would have it, I had yet another memorial service to attend, and would need to leave before the final benediction. Even so, when that time came, the rows all around and behind me would be filled: Frank Gehry in the row before me; Donald Sutherland across the aisle; Harrison Ford passing in front. Really, though, the mind registers the faces and names, then rapidly – especially in such a setting – readjusts to the realization that we are all, at base, small and frail human beings.

 

Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. For me the twin moments were the human ones at, or near, the beginning and end of the service:

 

Noriko Fujinami, Graham’s studio director, presiding quietly and comfortingly from the center aisle, moving over to place her hands on a mourner’s shoulders from behind; silently embracing a newcomer.

 

And then: As the service began, we were asked to join the choir in singing “Amazing Grace,” a song that hadn’t passed my mind in decades, as Cardinal Roger Mahony and entourage entered with the casket from the rear. Looking up from the printed lyrics – “How sweet the sound / that saved a wretch like me” – I caught the cardinal reaching into the fount of holy water at the rear of the cathedral, and taking great handfuls and literally pouring out great draughts of it, repeatedly: the holy water cascading over the beautiful wood, as though Roger was trying to exorcize some deeper personal pain at the loss of his friend.

 

Much later, after Communion, and before the Eulogies would restore a sense that our life, at least, goes on, Robert’s widow, the actress Anjelica Huston, was escorted by Msgr. Kevin to a podium, from which, veiled in black, she read William Butler Keats’ poem “He Bids His Beloved Be at Peace.”

 

First, what a joy it is to hear poetry read by someone who knows how to do so. But of course, how fraught with emotion and meaning this was, given the context. As Anjelica came to the sixth line – “The South is pouring down roses of crimson fire” – her voice broke, became hoarse holding back her tears, as ours poured down. She struggled to regain control over the next two lines, and then spoke the rest quietly, tarrying softly over the half-benediction / half-plea of the final four lines:

 

“Beloved, let your eyes half close, and your heart beat
Over my heart, and your hair fall over my breast,
Drowning love’s lonely hour in deep twilight of rest,
And hiding their tossing manes and their tumultuous feet.”

 

Whatever followed seemed superfluous.

21 October – Feast Day of Saint Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins

Today I learned that someone close to me was raped this week. 

I’m sorry. Let me repeat that, because simple language is such an inefficient carrier for news this tragic:

Today I learned that someone close to me was raped this week.

The details are dreadful and painful in the extreme. To say nothing of the psychological wounding the perpetrators (yes, there was more than one coward) inflicted, the physical pains will resonate through her battered body for months, at least.

Where does this deeply ugly thirst for violation derive? How is it possible that man, born of woman’s womb and nursing, can exact such terrible suffering from his virtual sister?

I find it incomprehensible, and an ineraseable blot of shame on my gender.

Back in the early Middle Ages, around the ninth century, the cult of Saint Ursula began to flourish. Storytellers generally agreed that she had sailed to Cologne, Germany, where she was killed.

Any number of explanations have been proffered to explain away the extravagant number – eleven thousand – of virgin martyrs who died in her company: Perhaps it was a misreading of roman numerals; or a misreading of Ursula’s youthful age (only eleven years old); maybe it was a misreading of Ursula’s true name (“Undecimillia”); etcetera.

All arise to explain away the supposed impossibility of eleven thousand women being martyred by men.

Tonight, though, I read that a woman is raped every six minutes in the United States alone. Every six minutes: that’s ten an hour; it’s 240 a day, every blessed day of the year.

Urusula’s martyred companions seem to me tonight almost too small a number, by a magnitude of eight. It’s terrible – shocking – terrifying – sickening – to realize; but even today, in our enlightened age, over 87,000 women are raped every year in the United States.

May we somehow eventually come to honor the suffering and agony of Ursula, her companions, and their several thousand sisters, by raising our sons to be men who will treat women with equality, love, and respect.

Published in: on 4 November 2008 at 12:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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1 September – Feast Day of Good Saint Giles

a sweet little prayer left at my exhibit

a sweet little prayer left at my exhibit

It’s a pity there are no streets named for Saint Giles in L.A.; he’s an attractive character. 

His chief visual attribute derives from the animal-lover’s legend that there was a hind who was his dear friend (yes, sorry, that was intentional), and who nourished him with her milk.

Giles was living the hermit’s life off in a cave, and the hind was his only visitor. One day a royal hunting party spied the hind and followed her to the mouth of the cave. They fired an arrow into the cave, but the arrow struck Giles’ hand rather than his hind, as he protected the latter with the former.

The iconic depiction of this event transposes us from the interior of the cave to just outside where, in a composition not unintentionally echoing the Nativity, the king kneels before Saint Giles as he shelters his hind.

The Medieval mind would find much there to contemplate, ambling from Giles’ cave to Bethlehem and back.

But another of Giles’ legend attracts, for it connects (at least in my rambling mind) to some of what I’ve experienced during the months that All the Saints has been on display at the Autry Museum, here in Los Angeles.

some of the thousands of prayers left at my show

some of the thousands of prayers left at my show

We designed an alcove in which two of my paintings are displayed as though they were in a small chapel; there is a shelf on the side wall with a pen and little cards that feature the All the Saints frame; visitors are invited to write on these and leave them on the community altar.

I didn’t really know what people would write – or if they actually would use them – but over two thousand cards have been written on and left among the battery-operated votive candles.

They speak to a wide range of concerns people harbor, from jobs and healthcare to the war in Iraq (sounds like the election, doesn’t it?); but they do so, almost every time, on a personal, intimate level that evokes a person’s real and troubled soul.

Some of the most charming are written in a child’s hand; many express grief over a lost pet – Giles would understand, I’m sure.

But I mentioned another legend about today’s saint: it is known as “The Mass of Saint Giles” and was depicted in Van Eyckian detail by the artist known as the Master of Saint Giles. Supposedly, Charlemagne had committed a sin of which he was so ashamed that he could not being himself to utter it in confession. An angel delievered a note describing the confessed sin to Saint Giles as he was conducting mass: the sin was forgiven.

While the legend may convey several important lessons – no sin is unforgiveable, even great people are capable of great error – it also underscores the benefit that can be derived from getting something troubling out of your head and onto a scrap of paper (Ah! the benefits of writing!) and setting it out there, anonymously perhaps.

On some level I like to think this community chapel installation in my exhibition addresses this need; and in so doing, it levels the playing field by showing how similar we all are in our hearts’ core.

Published in: on 2 September 2008 at 4:38 am  Leave a Comment  
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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.

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.