sun coaxes freckles
waves tango onto shy shore
ocean days with you.
never mind my traitor knee
never mind the virus.
never mind our masks
never mind the hanging sword –
walking is presence.
sun coaxes freckles
waves tango onto shy shore
ocean days with you.
never mind my traitor knee
never mind the virus.
never mind our masks
never mind the hanging sword –
walking is presence.
Very happy and excited to announce the publication of my new book
“Overdue: A Dewey Decimal System of Grace”. It’s available through Liturgical Press (lit press.org) or Amazon.
I’m grateful for the people I met in prison who inspired this book and who continue to inspire me, and for my publisher’s faith in giving me a voice.
GRAMMAR POWER (from Fall 2006)
Ask any writer, and he or she will admit to a lifelong love affair with words. Admittedly, I was a late bloomer. My parents say that when I was a toddler, it took me so long to begin speaking that they worried I was developmentally impaired, especially compared to my loquacious brother. I was an early stranger to words, but now we are on intimate terms. I love the sounds and meanings of words, and especially the marvelous possibilities of their juxtaposition in sentences. In clinical terms, I love etymology, diction, syntax, and grammar.
So imagine my surprise, when I became a high school English teacher this past year, at finding that my passion for the English language is not shared by 95% of my students. I had assumed, naively, that my own enthusiasm would magically transfer to their curious young minds. It didn’t take me many 55-minute class sessions to realize that I was mistaken. Grammar made my students groan.
Grammar, defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “the study of how words and their component parts combine to form sentences”, is apparently not as appealing to teenagers as, say, “The O.C.” But grammar figures prominently on my course syllabi, and so my job is to chop up the sumptuous feast of grammar into manageable, delectable bites.
“No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place,” noted the Russian writer Isaac Babel, itself a sentence so surgically elegant that it pierces my heart, and with which I completely agree. But the intricacies of punctuation fail to captivate the imagination of my students. They may learn it, but they don’t like it. As a teacher, I find I must be satisfied if they understand and can apply the rules. As a writer, though, I want them to seethe nebulous loveliness of the semicolon, to hearthe bridging call of the colon, to tastethe trailing sweetness of the ellipses.
Instead, I hear a lot of this: “Why do we have to learn this boring stuff?” And this: “Who cares about this stuff?” And, most maddeningly, this: “My parents say they never use, like, gerundsand stuff.” For students and their parents, therefore, I feel I must endeavor to provide some helpful answers to these questions.
The short answer to the first question is that you have to learn this boring stuff because you will be tested on this boring stuff. In the present scheme of education, test scores matter, to your future, to your school’s future, and to your teacher’s future. But more than that, in the long view, knowing when a sentence is grammatical, or how to fix one that is ungrammatical, is the mark of an educated, thinking person. Grammar comes instinctively to some people. “Grammar is a piano I play by ear. All I know about grammar is its power,” wrote Joan Didion, which is fine if you can write like Joan Didion. But to play on with the piano metaphor, most of us cannot play by ear, and need rather to learn to read music in order to play the piano with any degree of competence. Grammar is the collection of notes that make a song. If you don’t know the notes, the song of the sentence suffers from your incompetence. Certainly great writing relies on more than good grammar. But good grammar is a start.
The second question’s answer is: lots of people. Not only writers and teachers care about grammar. Following is a list of some of the people in the world who will care about your grammar: the people who will decide whether to admit you to a particular university, the people who will hire you when you apply for a job, the people who will promote you in your chosen career, and, in rare cases, the person who will agree to marry you and have grammatical children with you. It matters in most areas of adult life that you know how to speak and write correctly, and that the first impression you give of your literacy is a positive one. Solid communication skills are essential to success in most fields, perhaps all fields.
As for the third question, I’d like to say this just once to all parents: Never say you don’t use something.Your affirmation of your child’s complaint is a teacher’s nightmare. Before I was a teacher, I was guilty of saying this to my daughters about things like quadratic equations and the periodic table. But I have regretted my dismissive attitude. I have learned to shut up, because there is no good that comes from poisoning a young mind against a new or difficult concept, from discouraging children from being well-rounded. I don’t really know what my children are going to use in their adult lives. As far as grammar goes, maybe you don’t use it consciously, but I assure you that you use it. Even if you don’t remember what a gerund is, you at least know how to look it up. You know that there is a right way and a wrong way to say something, even as there are many ways to say something.
Popular culture can be stubbornly ungrammatical, but we adults must not simply throw up our hands and give up when confronted with the linguistic apathy of our young people. Our language is a living thing that we bequeath to the next generation. Let us handle it gently but firmly as we place it in our children’s hands. Our language will grow and change, as it has done through the centuries, but only if we show our children how to care for it, how to let it breathe.
THE EVERPRESENT THREAT OF A GUN (from 2017)
If you are an American, you’ve possibly had an experience like this: You are driving your car, minding the traffic laws. A rude driver cuts you off, or does something equally thoughtless on the road. You are tempted to make an angry motion in response, but then a little thought pops its head up: What if he has a gun?
Or someone is obnoxious in public, talking disruptively in a movie theater or using loud and foul language at a football game, and your first instinct is to call him (or her) on this unacceptable behavior, but again the little gopher of worry appears: ITAL What if this person is armed? Unbalanced and trigger-happy?
Guns are ubiquitous in the United States, which is a point of American pride. They’ve become our national symbol, even more than baseball or apple pie. We love our guns. We are happiest when armed. We celebrate even the weapons whose only function is to kill multiple human beings as efficiently and effortlessly as possible. Guns and ammo are as fundamental to our daily lives as bread and butter; we buy them, sell them, trade them, collect them, hoard them. So it is logical to assume, when we are out and about, as in the above scenarios, that every purse, every pocket, every belt, every glove compartment, holds a gun. It’s the American way.
But does this make us safer? According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun in the home actually makes the chance of suicide three to five times more likely and homicide two to three times more likely. Gun death rates in the states with the highest rate of gun ownership are seven times higher than in the states with the lowest rate of gun ownership. Of youths who commit suicide with a firearm, 82% obtain the gun, usually a parent’s, from their home. Accidents and anger, domestic abuse and depression, are deadly when combined with guns. Guns create the opposite of safety.
A local, sad case in point: an older gentleman with dementia roams his street and behaves erratically towards a neighbor as she gets out of a car. This frightens the neighbor, who fears that the man is armed. She sees something sticking out of his pocket. The police are called with a report of a threatening man who might have a gun. The police respond, but the old man does not. He is shot dead when he doesn’t comply with commands to halt whatever he is doing. The suspected gun in his pocket turns out to be, of all unlikely things, a crucifix. How’s that for tragic irony: a religious symbol of redemptive death is mistaken for a weapon and gets another man killed.
So much is wrong with this story: neighbors who are strangers, caregivers who are inattentive, cops who shoot too easily. But the most telling part to me is the fact that everyone assumed the thing in the old man’s pocket was a gun, because, again, we assume in our great country that everyone is armed. There are approximately 265 million guns in the United States, more than one for every adult, so everyone you meet might be packing. That makes us afraid. That makes police jumpy. That makes everyone look suspicious to everyone else.
If anything else killed over 32,000 Americans a year, wouldn’t we be in crisis mode? Wouldn’t we be funding studies and searching for solutions to stop the madness? But the US Congress has banned any funding for researching the causes and effects of gun violence in society, in deference to the almighty power of the gun lobby. We are so gun-centric that we even acquiesce to sacrificing our first graders to the glory of the gun.
I have been writing and speaking against handguns ever since one killed John Lennon in 1980, which is pretty much my entire adult life. Since then, gun ownership has ballooned and exploded. That we have citizens walking around with assault weapons hanging off their shoulders is unspeakably vile. Most of us believe there should be sane limits on gun ownership, but most of us do not have the ear of our elected representatives in Washington. The state of California is making valiant efforts to limit outlandish types of weapons and ammunition, and good for us. Hunting animals is one thing. Killing human beings is quite another. Despite the NRA’s rhetoric, guns do kill people: children, students, spouses, soldiers, young people, old people, sad people, innocent people. As long as guns are everywhere, we will have an increasingly violent society. Sadly, we are right to worry that the angry guy on the freeway has a gun and is not afraid to use it.
THE LUXURY OF RETREAT (from 2017)
When I was a younger writer, throwing words together amid bouts of real life with a husband and four daughters, I dreamt of affording the kind of retreat advertised in writing magazines: A rustic cabin, a Parisian apartment, where a writer can go only to write. Solitude would stretch from morning to night, no carpools, no lunches to pack, no laundry, no unscheduled trips to the vet, no noses to wipe, no arguments to settle, writing the only task. How glorious! Surely I would write fantastic things on retreat.
Now, as an older writer, I could afford a few weeks away in a cabin. But now, curiously, the retreat ads no longer beckon. My life has evolved to a place where I actually have several retreat-like hours every day. How lucky is that? I work until 3:30, and then the afternoon hours are mine in my empty nest, until my husband gets home. The years of writing while negotiating a house full of daughters gave me the ability to write quickly, efficiently, in any space, through any noise, a skill that still serves me well. I get a lot done in my daily micro-retreats. How lucky am I?
Yet sometimes I miss the frenzy, the haphazardness, the incessant demands on my person, the cacophony of family, against which I used to long for quiet. Those decades were fiercely busy, and yet they provided much raw material for the weekly newspaper column I’ve written for thirteen years. My writing never took the place of a full-time job, but it financed some extra joy around the house. I suppose that was payback for the richness of ideas that my family generated. I wrote on deadline and on the fly. I always thought I’d be a better writer if only I had the time.
Am I, though?
In my silent afternoons, I sometimes feel as dry as the drought-induced landscape outside my window. My daughters have grown and fledged. I am past the midpoint of life; my bones have thinned; my patience has lengthened. I am more reflective, less impulsive. I am more wrinkled, less limber. As the newspaper business shrivels, my column’s been cut to twice monthly, and maybe that’s a good thing, because my topics can feel menopausal. Here’s the irony of now: I have time. I have space. I have money. I have a fancy laptop. I even have an office, in a bedroom that my youngest daughter had decorated in a leopard motif, now repainted a color called “Zen green”. But do I have anything to say?
Some days, I’d say no. I’d say I am desiccated; I am done. But then something happens, a connection, a reaction, an impression, a tiny synapse, and I get that writing feeling, that I have to get this down. I sometimes compare the urge to write to the urge to throw up: I have to get the roiling rough draft out of my system and onto paper. My writing hours fly as I wrestle with a word or cut a limp phrase or rethink the direction of an essay.
Then I know I have something to say. Writers write the same way they breathe; that is, out of necessity. I am a classic introvert, but I’ve stirred up my share of fusses with the written word. I need to write. I love to write. I love to be read. It’s just that my raw material has changed, along with me. I listen more than I opine these days. My need to be the burning center of everything has calmed. Perhaps life as we age becomes one long retreat. In my dotage I may write fantastic things.
How lucky would that be?
What do I want to learn more about?
The human heart –
how it love
how it beats
how it breaks
how it heals
how it opens
how it hardens
how it swells
how it stretches
how it stops
how it adapts
how it forgives
how it encircles
how it reaches
for the holy.
How my heart has been able to hold
so much more than I thought possible.
The Least of These
“‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’
“He will answer them, ‘Amen I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’”(Mt 25:44-5)
If you are a Christian, you don’t have to be a Biblical scholar to discern the many lessons of Jesus Christ concerning the way his followers – Christians – are to care for others, especially the poorest and neediest. Jesus is pretty clear on this. In the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, for example, he uses the parable of the sheep and the goats to spell out the merciful works to which we are called: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, care for the sick, welcome the stranger, visit the prisoner. We Catholics call these deeds the corporal works of mercy. Sometimes we act as though they are optional. They are not.
But even the earliest disciples of Jesus failed to get the point of universal kinship. “And who is my neighbor?” they asked Jesus (Lk 10:29), who responded with the famous tale of a decent Samaritan, a man from a group universally loathed by his Jewish audience. The Samaritan does the right thing? For a stranger? Trust Jesus to use the outlandish to make a point. And trust his most fervent followers not to get it.
Nothing has changed. The ‘Good Samaritan’ is an image even non-believers use as a cultural reference and as a legal term, and we still don’t get it. According to a Pew Research poll from 2018, barely 50 percent of American Catholics believe we should receive and aid refugees fleeing to our country. This stark statistic means that half of us live in direct contradiction to the teaching of Pope Francis. Of course, 50 percent beats the meager 25 percent of white evangelical Christians who advocate welcoming the stranger, according to Pew Research, meaning that their majority position directly contradicts the teaching of the Christian Lord and Redeemer with whom evangelical Christians claim a personal relationship. How’s that for cognitive dissonance?
Here is a story of how far the U.S. government, in our names, has fallen from caring for the least among us: A Good Samaritan in Arizona named David Warren was recently put on trial for giving food to the hungry and water to the thirsty, the recipients in this case being undocumented migrants in an unforgiving area of the desert where several thousand people have perished in the last 15 years. Warren’s works of pure, bottom-line mercy somehow translated into a criminal indictment, with a possible sentence of up to 20 years in prison. The fact that the jury was hung gives me hope for humanity, but how is it that the jury of his peers did not unanimously find him not guilty? The federal authorities plan to retry him for this felony. Those who cry out for religious freedom might want to look more closely at an administration that prosecutes acts of faith.
And to those who argue that Warren broke the law: If you’ve ever wondered whether you would have been brave enough to harbor Anne Frank or provide a safe station on the Underground Railroad or face the lions in the Coliseum, now you have your answer.
How have we gotten here? How have we failed to learn from our history? Oppressed people have long fled to this land for the promises of freedom and justice, safety and prosperity, all the way back to the Mayflower. The United States is a proud collection of immigrants. Our Statue of Liberty offers the lofty poetry of hope, although the reality is often that the latest group of arrivals gets treated terribly by those who immigrated earlier. In a perverse American custom, we seem to have to vilify each other before we can be neighbors. Meanwhile, we prosecute the merciful. Meanwhile, the vice president is unmoved by the undignified plight of other men crammed together in a cage. Meanwhile, government officials deny basic hygiene to refugees. Meanwhile, well-fed Americans gleefully chant against welcoming the stranger.
Maybe God’s grace will only flood through us when we admit that we need help in getting over our prejudices, our cruelty, our lack of Gospel charity to ‘these least ones’. Maybe only grace can turn faux Christians into the real deal that Jesus expects us to be. Without that grace to grab our hearts, we supposedly faithful people will ultimately have some explaining to do.
Originally appeared in the Bakersfield Californian July 27, 2019