Sunday, October 11, 2015


The other day my field trip was to the Protestant Cemetery, a crumbling old brick-walled (that's redundant in Rome) cemetery where non-Catholics who croaked here, among them Keats and Shelley, are buried.

 I walked along the banks of the Tiber, my favorite spot, as far as I could to get there.

Here's another great thing about La Citta Aperta: you could take a nap, camera in hand, and just twitch every now and then and still get some halfway decent photos.

Romans, by the way, have the same attitude toward the Tiber as Angelenos do toward, say a tour of Universal Studios. As in--Hunh? Why'd you want to see that old thing?

Here's the cemetery.

Keats' grave.

Shelley's grave.

The nearest church in my 'hood: Trinita dei Pelligrini.

James Joyce spent an unhappy seven months in Rome circa 1906, culminating in a night at the bars after which he was rolled and had his wallet stolen.

"So I went home sadly," he wrote to his brother Stanislaus. "Rome reminds me of a man who lives by exhibiting to travellers his grandmother's corpse."

Friday, October 9, 2015


Los Angeles County General Hospital
(now County+USC Medical Center) Emergency Room, 1934 

This week's arts and culture piece is on some of L.A.'s unsung heroes: the social workers at County+USC Hospital.

Here's how it begins:

As an Angeleno who lives alone and works alone, I’ve often wondered what might happen if I had, say, a stroke out on the street.

Enter Jan Crary, who for 28 years has worked as a licensed clinical social worker at L.A. County+USC Medical Center.

“Found down,” it turns out, is the medical term for people who are discovered unconscious or otherwise unable to identify themselves.

Part of Jan’s job over the years has been to identify them.


County is HUGE!
Just think--there are people in there who will help you!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015


Here's a statue that caught my eye at Mass Sunday: St. Vincezo Pallotti, who I found upon reading up on him was small of stature with piercing blue eyes, had a heart for the poor, and "once dressed up as an old woman to hear the confession of a man who threatened 'to kill the first priest who came through the door.'" (!) (?)

I guess only in Rome as well could you have a two-hour conversation over coffee and then be asked: "So--have you seen Mary Magdalene's foot?"

I groped for a reply.
Which one?
No, why, did she lose it?

Whatever the case, I've seen it now, and thank you seminarian Michael Holmquist: it, or a relic of it, which is encased in about a size thirty-two bronze sculpture of a bare human foot, flanked by tall white candles, and set in a gilded alcove in a corner of the San Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini (Saint John the Baptist of the Florentines) church.

Mary Magdalene's was the first foot to enter Christ's tomb after the Resurrection, just in case you're not up on your Easter stories..

News flash: I don't feel one bit kinder, more tolerant or holier here than I do anywhere else, not that I expected to.

But I am loving every second..


Sunday, October 4, 2015


Rome is full of spots like the above that make you think, Hey, let's fix this place up and I can live there!

Other differences from home: I went to make scrambled eggs the other morning and a cunning chicken feather was attached to the shell! Check out as well the delicious hunk of olive bread.

I totally, totally lucked out vis-a-vis the place where I actually am staying: The Pettinari Home in Campo de' Fiori. You can find it on airbnb.

It's on the third floor, on the courtyard side of a building that dates from the 1600's except with wifi, an espresso machine, a hot shower, and even a tiny washing machine that is just right for traveling.

Last night I was in bed or so I thought for the night when I was overcome by a sudden urge for ice cream. People, I threw on a pair of jeans and a wrap, dashed down to the street, walked a few yards to the local gelato joint, purchased a pineapple sorbet (3 euros), and strolled across the Ponte Sisto to the next bridge north and back around watching the moonlight on the Tiber!

a partial view from my window

window frame and curtain

there's a market steps from my door with cheese, meats, juice, cream, dried pasta, produce and
fresh bred

here is where I have spent an inordinate number of happy, HAPPY, hours

this used to be the oven

I arrived in Rome so bone-tired that I could have been hospitalized. Not just from the flight (LA to Dulles to FCO), which wasn't nearly as bad as I'd anticipated, but from the whole year of being displaced, of traveling, of speaking, of writing a weekly column, of what seemed like incessant, unremitting noise: leafblowers, boorish neighbors, dogs with loutish, coarse-mannered owners who, in the middle of a crowded city, don't know enough or care enough to train them.

Also, I'm a major introvert.

So part of what has been wonderful is that I haven't had to talk to anyone. What an unbelievable treat not to understand what anyone is saying, which I find goes a long, LONG, way toward cultivating goodwill.

What an incredible treat not to have to hear myself.

What an incredible treat to have the time and solitude to read.

Remember reading?

Some of my most treasured memories are of just such serendipitous interludes, often a single day, when "real" life was suspended. One was in Bangkok, probably twenty years ago now, where I'd gone to visit my brother Tim: the book was James Kelman's How Late It Was, How Late. A second was in Woodside, California, at a writer's residency. I'd been writing eight hours a day for weeks and one day I finally collapsed: that time it was Walker Percy's The Moviegoer. In Taos at another writer's residency, we were snowed in and for one whole luxuriously glorious day I lay in bed in my pajamas with Sense and Sensibility.

In Rome what I'll remember is lying in bed with a breeze coming through the window, and the gentle squawk of the seagulls, and Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye :

He swung around and gave me a vicious look. “You like it in jail?”
“It’s not too bad. You don’t meet the best people, but who the hell wants to?

Saturday, October 3, 2015


I know we've adapted the idea to some of our own cities-San Antonio, Sioux Falls, New York--but who knew the original river walk was along the Tiber?

My first night in Rome, I walked along it myself for a bit. My Campo de' Fiori studio, heaven on earth btw, is a long block from the Ponte Sisto, one of Rome's many beautiful bridges.

I instantly saw you can walk along below and that not many people do. (I also learned you want to walk along the south/west side of the river. On the other side are homeless encampments where people poo on the ancient brick sidewalk and did not seem terribly overjoyed at my presence).

Anyway, I was jet-lagged beyond belief but managed to stagger down at twilight and mingle as who would want to miss even a minute of the wonder?



Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Here's a treat--and an invitation, and a challenge--from the website promoting the Richard Rohr book: Eager To Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi.

Listen to THIS TALK given on September 17 by my friend Tensie Hernandez.

Anything I might add would only detract.

Sunday, September 27, 2015


This week's arts and culture piece is about one of my musical heroes and begins like this:

Glenn Gould (1932-1982) was a Canadian pianist, best-known as an interpreter of Bach.

In the documentary “Hereafter,” he makes an interesting and useful observation about freedom.

He says, “I have often thought I’d like to try my hand at being a prisoner. ... I have never understood the preoccupation with freedom as it is understood in the Western world. So far as I can see, freedom of movement usually has to do with mobility, and freedom of speech most frequently with socially-sanctioned verbal aggression. To be incarcerated would be a perfect test of inner mobility.”

Gould wasn’t promoting our grossly punitive prison industry. He was making an observation about the license to do as we please — no matter who is affected or hurt — that passes for freedom in our culture. He was talking about the freedom known to the follower of Christ: to respond — or not — to the invitation to leave everything behind and follow him.


Friday, September 25, 2015


I know there's been some small flurry of interest that Pope Francis has been in the U.S. next week.

A lesser-known news item: next week I am going to Rome!

This will be my first trip to Europe in 35 or 40 years. Last time, I was in no shape to appreciate to appreciate the art, the food, the churches, or really anything. So I'm excited.

Sister Maximilian Marie, O.P., has taken me under her wing and secured me a ticket to the Papal Mass on Oct. 4th that opens the Family Synod, and to the Oct. 14 Papal Audience (the Pope apparently holds a Papal Audience at 10 am each Wednesday he's in town). How great is that?

I have my new passport, my room, my guide books my copies of I, Claudius, John Varriano's A Literary Companion to Rome, A Traveller in Rome by H.V. Morton, and about fifty million suggestions to drink coffee at this cafe, visit this church, walk to that market, and not to on any account miss all kinds of things I'm sure I'll miss. The sisters are having me for Pranzano I think it's called (lunch) one day, and for tea another, and I may take a day trip to Assisi.

Also, I'm to have coffee with a delightful seminarian who generously angled to get me a Scavi tour.

Other than that, I just want to wander the streets (think of the pictures), go to Mass, take in the gardens, and pray with all my heart for the human family.

Every single day this yeas has been so packed, shaken down and overflowing,  I could write a book on it. I've been without a permanent address, mostly by choice, so that's been interesting.

My weekly arts and culture column is almost a full-time job. I take the honor and the responsibility seriously and the gift I receive in return--the people, the inspiration, the sense of a rich extra dimension--the Kingdom of God like yeast, all through the loaf--is stupendous.

I also have a new book out, and if all goes well, two more out next year, and my monthly column for Magnificat. The "Credible Witness" essays need to be submitted six months in advance and the line-up for 2016 includes many of my heroes: Dorothy Day, Franz Jaggerstatter, Fr. Stanley Rother, Fr. Ed Dowling.

Another big project: I'm co-writing the memoir of Kathleen Eaton-Bravo, founder and CEO of Obria, formerly known as BirthChoice, which brings free medical clinics to under-served communities with a focus on crisis pregnancies. She prefers the term "life-affirming" to "pro-life," tries to give the prospective mother every available option in favor of giving birth to the child, and believes in accepting, loving, and supporting the mother (and father), whether she chooses to have an abortion or not. To me, that's the crucial Christ-like link that's been missing in the terribly polarized pro-choice/pro-life battle. It's messy wading into these waters. There's no pat, ends-neatly-tied-up solution to any human situation. The solution is love.

So the project is inviting me to stretch on a number of different levels. To go to a place that's not safe and secure, where the labels disappear, where we consent to be vulnerable, misunderstood, and possibly shunned--by both "sides"--is the place on the outskirts where Christ stood.

In the end, it is always two human beings. Can I reach out my hand to my brother, to my sister, and say: Tell my your story? Can I listen?...

Here's the link to a piece called "The Man in the Skirt: The Church as Field Hospital." It was inspired by a cross-dresser I saw almost every day at Mass this past summer.

Somehow it's in the spirit of the message of Pope Francis--which is straight, rock-bottom, from the Gospels.