2 April – Feast Day of la Santa Musa

CBS Reporter Martha Teichner before my painting of "St. Stephanie"

My wife and I were recently in Barcelona (more on that another day), immersed in its many-layered histories and beauty, when I received a surprise email from a producer for the great weekly television program CBS Sunday Morning, inquiring if I would care to be the subject of a profile for an upcoming broadcast.

Timed to air on the thematically-relevant Easter Sunday, April 4th, this segment would feature my “All the Saints of the City of the Angels” project, wherein I had explored the multi-cultural heritage of Los Angeles, via its 100+ streets named for saints.

Of course I was ecstatic – and grateful – and, as soon as we returned to L.A., I began preparing for the film crew’s visit – which was an adventure in itself, as my studio had been hastily converted into a storage facility when our home’s sewer line irrevocably broke, just before our trip to Spain…. Ah, Best of times, Worst of times….

Nonetheless, I was able to re-establish peace, space, and reasonable tranquility in time for our interview.

I had long esteemed reporter Martha Teichner as one of the most thoughtful and cultured of reporters on Sunday Morning; so I was doubly pleased that she was selected to interview me.  She was thoroughly engaging during the nine hours we spent together; insightful and empathic, and the pleasant  source of sweet stories of interviews past.

Crew on location, KGB Gallery, producer Brian Healy at right

Producer Brian Healy hovered helpfully in the background throughout the day, offering spot-on suggestions and tips to enrich the  segment that will ultimately appear on the show (if it appears, of course).

Each time All the Saints gets a little exposure like this, that I get interviewed or asked to speak on the project,  provides me a much-appreciated opportunity to better understand the project myself.  These ten years of researching, writing, exploring, and painting the City of the Angels’ saint-streets and street saints add up to a significant portion of my time here on this blue marble, and probably constitute one of the most thoughtful, if meandering, meditations on how I view the world.

I am grateful to CBS Sunday Morning for the opportunity to explore this project again, and to share it with others. I hope those of you who view the segment, on televised air, or in some online version, will get something useful and reflective out of it as well.

All best. Blessings.

Shooting the Saints

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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.

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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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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