The little house








My mother died last Christmas. I sold my parent’s house in Youngstown, Ohio this July. The process of selling the house entailed several trips back to my hometown. Most of my life there for eighteen or so years seemed to be mixed states of paralysis, acquiescence and rebellion. Time has been extraordinarily cruel to the former Steel Capital of the Mahoning and Shenango Valleys (also Murdertown, USA).  For three shifts a day it was artificially brilliant, genuinely crazy and the food was extraordinary. I still have a few friends there, but for the most part my visits are like wandering through my own fallible memory. As I drive through town I find only the places where things should have been that are now empty lots, or worse. The criminals I knew have been replaced with criminals I recognize, but don’t know. Only the violence doesn’t seem to have diminished. Homicide has always been one of the town’s parochial talents.

Youngstown was where I was born and raised, and where most of my family lived out their lives. It was predictable as the mill whistles, but it didn’t feel much like home. Probably I have the most feeling of familiarity on a tennis court, but that’s just a lifetime of habit, long afternoons and the reliability of painted lines. I’ve lived in quite a few places since I left my hometown, slums, communes, townhouses, apartment complexes, basement rooms, dormitories, sublets, suburbs and the neighborhood I live in now. I’ve traveled around, tried my hand at being a slumlord, been hustled on land contracts, bought and sold vacation properties, actually paid off a couple of mortgages—even returned to visit my Grandfather’s village in Italy.  But home has been elusive. For the last twenty-five years home has been wherever my wife was; the location still doesn’t matter much to me. Home is where I’m responsible for the repairs, or at least waiting around for whomever I’m going to pay to do them.

There always seems to be something nervous and obligatory about my entire concept of home.

 It’s a concept or feeling that seems to be made of unequal amounts of desire, memory and geography…more like Never Never Land than the house in Houston (which has more than a dusting of Peter Pan about it) where I keep my books, nap with the cats and have my bills sent. Kitchens feel most like home to me. Places where I’ve simmered winter soups, cleaned fish, rolled out pastas, or turned out a five or six course meal speak back warmly to me. I genuinely long to cook for people I’m fond of…I embrace all of it from the shopping through to the putting away leftovers. Some of my qualities of home begin there. There’s something about a crowded, slightly frenetic kitchen filled with laughing and shoving that resonates the best of home from childhood and has not abated as I’ve aged. The old expression is ‘hearth and home’. But my hearth also needs a dishwasher, a Kitchenaid mixer, German knives, stainless steel pots, cast iron pans and specialty devices my mother used to shake her head at amusedly.

I never knew anyone who actually had a familyhome. As I grew up no one’s home ownership extended beyond their childhood. Even the wealthiest of my friends could only drive me past where their grandparents used to live. It was Eisenhower’s America, people wanted to get out to the suburbs, away from where they worked, into tract neighborhoods with matching trees and ornamental fences. Unexpectedly housing developments appeared that adapted bits of Victorian culture and mores, like the obligations of appearances and denying any reference to the physical existence of work. Salesmen in polyester ties and short sleeve shirts sold split level dream parlors and promised garden terraces reminiscent of Jane Austen whom they’d never read. Suburban communities aspired to be a constructed existence of manners and denial, where all the stains and embarrassments of the working class were simply willed away.  Much of the tragic current real estate collapse began with those sales pitches—not the convoluted intricacies of subprime derivatives, but the belief that with the right property you could leverage your way out of your own life.

Although the war in Viet Nam and rebellion marked my generation, what defined the people I knew in high school was raw ambition. I didn’t know anyone who was satisfied. Everyone expected to go to college. Everyone would leave home as soon as they could—even if it meant running away, getting married or joining the army. Not because our parents were bad people, most of the parents I knew growing up were kind and worked terribly hard. But they demanded their children do better than they had.  In spite of the variety of languages, customs, religions and ethnicities each family translated that message—and we got it. We weren’t escaping anything as much as going somewhere else. The differences between our collective bus and Ken Kesey’s infamous Electric Kool-Aid International were ours wouldn’t say “Further” it would say “Better”. It would be driven by a realtor instead of Neal Cassady, and the key to expanding our mind would be in the lockbox hung on the back door. There wasn’t much separation anxiety in our generation. I got luggage as my high school graduation gift—and I was glad to use it.

The year I was born there were 186,000 people in Youngstown, the year I graduated high school the population had dropped to 139,000, currently there are 73,000. The cities of Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Albany, all show similar (but not as drastic) declining demographic trends. During that time period while the US gained nearly 120 million more people, many citiesin the East and Midwest appeared to have been evacuated. Not to dismiss the realities of the recessions, changing economy, and psycho-sociological cultural shifts—a great many of us just left home.  We put down payments on seemingly aboriginal suburbs springing up where you could get “more home for your money”, be near beaches, mountains, deserts and drink in the clubhouses of thousands of ubiquitous new golf courses. We went off to college, or moved away for work and couldn’t bear to come back—except to visit.

For a while during this Spring I owned three homes, in three states Texas, New Mexico and Ohio. I lived in a realm of overextended worry, that an unobserved roof leak or random band of drug addicts could lurch me into scenario after scenario where subcontractors continually ask “Sir, could you come here and take a look at this…”.  For those few months I had exceeded even my own wildest dreams of property ownership, and like most wild dreams it turned dsitorted, tricky and wierd. I didn’t sleep through many nights, I ground my teeth and stopped shaving regularly. I gathered caches of hand tools in each house and shambled regularly through the nuances of product location in Home Depots in all three locales.

 The chief signal of my existence was a lamp attached to an automatic timer.

By mechanical illusion I could simultaneously awaken at 5:55 AM in three time zones and later begin switching off lamps between 9:30 and 10:20. I arranged for people to park in driveways, trim trees and in other ways pretend they were me, or my simulacrum living there. I was constantly somewhere else and relaxed nowhere.

Now I’ve sold my mother’s house. When she and my father purchased it in 1964 they could have traded it for 10 brand new Oldsmobiles. The selling price I was happy to accept would hardly purchase a single new car now, even if Oldsmobiles still existed. Where I’ve been living and traveling between, I have  favorite motels, melancholy private routes and some particularly dreaded restaurants on the road. I’ve learned to live within the light of my own illusions. Like hypnogogic Dorothy Gale spinning between the lessons of one world and the next I recite my affirmation.

”There’s no place like home. There’s no place…”











I drove alone from Jemez Springs to Houston in fifteen hours as the finale of my summer travel. Most of the route was secondary roads, speeding up, slowing down, and feeling the camber of turning pavement…tedious and lonely.

I just wanted to be home.

Over this summer I’ve driven roundabout my personal Mobius Strip twisting memory and diversion from the Gulf Coast to the Blue Ridge to the Gulf Coast to the Sangre de Christos. Hour after dulling hour of deepening my carbon footprint and struggling with my tiring self to hold on to my concentration at highway speed limits brought me back to the same bed I left early last month.

From a lifetime of long drives I have discovered some disagreeable things about myself. Not the least of which is that my general ability to concentrate on a single idea while driving by myself seldom reaches a half an hour and even less seldom comes to any fruitful conclusion. Other than the quick physics of passing and avoiding, or the arithmetic of distance to destination divided by mph—not much gets solved. It becomes, as my friend in marketing calls it, windshield time. Merely time spent stuck in my seat, time I spend listening to books on tape, the yammer of the radio, or music designed to be a soundtrack to the passing scenery. It remains a boring prelude to nothing happening…

During my summer’s travel I’d gone sliding and rattling on steep washboard roads, been washed sideways into another lane by flooding rainwater pouring through a narrow valley, and waited out a passing tornado trapped in a gas station helping the clerk hold the door shut. I’ve amassed the equivalent of weeks of seventy mile per hour hours pretending I wasn’t jailed in Flipper, my Ford Explorer Sport.

Most of those moments of blithe danger, boredom and scenery were spent strapped in the same chair, in the same posture, confined in the same twenty-five cubic feet—waiting for something to arrive, hoping something bad wouldn’t happen.  Confinement is the one of the fees I pay for travel, and Flipper’s front seat is more spacious than the seat I rent  on an airplane.

One of the fundamental desires human beings have is confinement—we’re fascinated by confining ourselves, other people and things. Whether it grows from the embryonic experience, the safety of the cave, the warmth of the lodge, the privacy of our own room, the security of our homes, the eternal rest in a grave. We dutifuly restrict ourselves to all kinds of orthodoxies, dietary restrictions, literature, clothing styles and television programs or refusals to watch. The dogma of the over educated is nearly as severe as the dogma of the less educated. I have amassed a pocket tearing collection of keys that allow me to lock and unluck, houses, cars, schools, bicycle chains, luggage, cars I no longer own, friend’s houses, cars my late father owned, lost locks and locks I’ve re-keyed…not to mention spares.  The weight of them in my hand gives me pleasurein my power to open restricted places. To be possessed and possess, to be held by a thing larger, to be familiar with the devices of our confinement are deep sunconscious drives.

Perhaps my favorite novel is Marcel Proust’s“ A la Recherche du Temps Perdu” (In Search of Lost Time). It’s about confinement. The physicality of reading it demands confinement, being trapped in long complicated sentences demanding patience and concentration to be able to progress slowly on to the next sentence and the next—struggling to remain in the constrictive plot which over time becomes no more than to remain within the fictional mind of the narrator. During my time reading I was forced into a kind of relationship with M. Proust as confining and suffocating as his legendary cork room. The relationship was (or is) as gorgeously engaging and intimate as a bad love affair. One can’t get out—only look for suitable furniture. Readers of Proust can often describe their own Proustian moment when they re-capture an instant that had been lost or left behind by time. Like pan perdu, french toast, resurrects stale bread, we seize a personal morsel on the edge of becoming stale and forgotten and devour it—perhaps our most primal act of confinement.

Sometimes, like this, someone attempts to keep it for themselves fixed on the page.

I drove one long day from 7,000 feet to sea level as the prisoner of my own desires to both get to my home and find my driving limits. A windy morning drinking tea passed through to an afternoon of eating dry Cheerios, smoked provolone and celery. It was a long summer day on cruise control to darkness. When darkness fell I was in Gatesville, Texas watching the yellow gold light drift out of prison windows as I drove past. That’s as attractive as these buildings can appear (excepting in the rearview mirror following release). There are nearly 8,000 human beings living inside those walls. Many of them will never leave prison. It’s a harsh ugly place where the State of Texas metes out punishment by confining men and women to serial numbers, cells and units. Gatesville holds the women’s death row where Karla Faye Tucker was imprisoned. There are 9.2 million people who wake up in prison on our planet. We also share a common need to confine.

In infancy we swaddle, carry and pass infants from embrace to embrace before we teach them to be alone. We school our own children in time out corners, send them to their rooms, deny them various licenses and liberties, schools assign them detentions and our taxes pay for a system of juvenile incarceration. And all of this most of us would list in the category of good, as necessary even as kindness. The constraints that encircle the ring on my left hand seem too complicated for such a small chain link. Who can be married, what defines a marriage, what are the grounds for terminating a marriage are all political and legal issues demanding so much more a personal pledge. The same judge who can marry you, also has the power to incarcerate you. There isn’t a village, city or town without its own jail. Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison corporation in the industry, is large enough to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange [CXW]. There are nations we are free to visit for business, pleasure or the exchange of ideas and others, like Cuba, we circumscribe from entry.  Human history is marked by more  by captivities than victories. We have an abiding need to confine others (Proust knew this too).

Now I’ve returned. My vacation has ended. I’ve returned to what I vacated six weeks ago. I’m stiff and dulled—the familiar is vaguely strange. The sounds I used to sleep through wake me. I get up in the middle of the night and finish unpacking. I take the camera out of my cargo shorts and toss them in the pile to be washed. I won’t need to capture any moments in the camera’s digitalized room for awhile. I’ve returned to the invisible rules of the ordinary.

La Llorona

July 20, 2009










There are stories we tell our children to make them sleep. Good Night Moon. They go on and on in somnambulant cutesy boredom until dreamless unconsciousness is the inevitable option. There are stories that now hardly get told. Fifteen years ago I was working in a wonderful alternative school in Galveston, Texas. My class demographic was predominately gang members, Blues versus Reds. Frequently we began class with an oral survey question. Sometimes we needed information for a grant we were writing, sometimes the students wanted to know things, sometimes I was curious. Who has books at home? guns? anyone at home? been shot? Who has ever had someone tell them a story?

After that response we began to have story time.

 When our work was done we turned down the lights and while street monstrous teenagers lay on the floor pretending to be asleep, I told them fairy tales. Afternoons I would chop Cinderella’s sisters feet to fit the glass slipper, search for the tinder box in the cave of the dog with eyes as large as windmills and slip Beauty’s hand into the Beast’s magic glove. Through it all the only complaint I heard was if I talked too slowly or ended too soon. Adolescents who had committed genuinely horrible crimes, been arrested, threatened, shot, beaten or escaped by running in fear of their lives waited on Fridays for the next chapter of “Wizard of Oz”. We danced lightly in a transitory world where fear and betrayal and violence existed in a framework that made emotional unconscious common sense. They went home to a world that had people passing poison potions, heroes fought to real deaths, poor people were imprisoned by the whim of the High Sheriff, and journeying aross dangerous territory in search of treasure or glory was neither mythic nor symbolic. I’d like to say this had a significant psychological impact on their development, but I’m not Bruno Bettelheim…I’m merely the story’s teller. 

One afternoon I asked if anyone knew the story of La Llorona.

 I grew up near the Ohio/Pennsylvania border, my Spanish pronunciation is effected by the peculiar way we formed our vowels and mashed word endings. Thanks to too many hours of television most of my regional accent has disappeared in English, but it resurrects itself if I attempt a foreign language. When a native Spanish speaker says La Llorona it rolls to the back of the throat and comes out like a beast from a cave. When I say it, it sounds like the beast is soliciting on a cheap telephone.  At first the students looked sideways, and then began snickering and asking what I said, making me slowly repeat it a few more times. When I guessed the game and laughed, everyone laughed, even the students who didn’t understand the joke.

With some encouragement one student began telling the story to save us all from mine, but became too self conscious to complete the story. It didn’t matter, by then the next voice continued, and he was corrected, and that one was corrected and soon there was a laughing mêlée as the story was told, amended, retold and Rio Grande culture broke out. It’s a fantastic tale, about disobedience, illicit sex, betrayal, infanticide, a flowing river, an apparition of Jesus and a ghostly weeping woman. Its telling nearly always ends with an imitation of La Llorona’s weeping call and then wild eyed sincere anecdotes of when the teller or listener has seen her. 

Who am I? el bollio, white bread. My abuella or tia never told me that story to scare me away from rivers at dark. I hardly own the words it’s told with, but I have loved the terror of moaning women ghosts since I was a child. Some things seem to belong with us before we know they exist. It’s how most of us chose our pets (or lovers), not so much by wise husbandry, but by a kind of blind mutual recognition. As much as I enjoyed the duendes, lechuzas, and tricksters, they meant no more to me than a trip to the Disney Lands—distractions, amusements, grotesques. La Llorona resonates.

Some ghosts, like faith, appear sporadically and are often easier to retell in whispery tones, than deny or explain. We wander casually through our world of mixed realities and symbols—flags, statues, names, songs, curses, and secret misinterpretations in accretion without translation.  I would have to have employed a calculator just to sum the number of crosses I have seen since I left Houston in June. Made of wood, plasticine, flowers, pewter, clay, sticks, painted tile, malachite, crystal, leather and glass, cemeteries in bloom with them, nailed over doorways,flashing to  advertise radio stations,  walls of them for sale in curio and folk art shops, outlined in neon, in plastic envelopes next to bottles of Six Hour Energy, made in stacked lines of painted rocks,  in gumball machines, decorated with plastic flowers and red, white & blue tinsel at the site of a fatal automobile accident, hung in gold or silver on the sweaty throats of young girls and in hundreds of variations tattooed on falling flesh—a trefoil cross on the bicep of a basketball player on television, a delicately designed chain of Maltese Crosses around the wrist of  the man who sold me irises at the farmer’s market, or the jail ink between the thumb and forefinger on the left hand of a grocery clerk. In a motel I received an outraged please respond to this e-mail to enjoin me in a lawsuit pursuing a battle between an empty desert and an abandoned cross over how to honor World War I veterans. I’m incapable of stretching a string of logic between intention, action and the cross of Jesus that wouldn’t look like a spider’s web in a storm.  Symbols can lose their original meaning, but migrate on as if they had a kind of energetic life of their own. And we read these signs in varying levels from complete oblivion to psychiatric disorder.

 Driving to Taos to visit a poet friend and spend Friday afternoon basking in the tatters of  Summer of Love anniversary festivities, I found La Llorona translated onto a water tank by a very talented graffiti artist.

One of the many gifts the students at Galveston gave me was an appreciation of tagging and graffiti.  In exchange for helping them with their reading, they taught me to read the writing on the wall. It seemed a very fair trade. Whether this art outside of Taos was a transgressive portrait of love gone awry, or an adrenalized version of the Muralista tradition that extends back centuries in this part of the world, I can only guess. I do know that the artist who did it was intelligent, sensitive and sophisticated in his craft…and he had heart.  The face of a distressed woman bisected with a line of rivets like tattooed tears—her head, her existience is filled with unaccountable water in a desert that surrounds her, as if she subconsciously bears and barely contains the guilt that transforms her—that becomes her—La Llorona, The Weeping Woman…the wanderer who is condemned to search along shifting borders of life for something precious and lost.

Casino de los Muertos

July 13, 2009


Casino de los Muertos

It’s been a long string of bad news with my struggle to complete repairs on the chapel. My world of  domestic maintenance unwinds in slow episodes like a magical realism novel. I casually scrape at a loose piece of plaster, and a story of repairs to a problem corner begins to tell itself in unimagined dimensions. Buried human secrets of family relationships, yearning and proximate despair wait as patiently as drying paint. My problem was leftover paint. My 1/2 of a quart of flat white paint asked to be useful before it desiccated. I thought I’d touch up the door. One thing led to another, and three hours later I had run out of caulk, had the door re-glued and clamped, and was using a palette knife to fight sui generis cracks with a volatile and messy adhesive. Of course when I found the blue paint for the outside of the door there was barely enough to prime the repairs. It was also late afternoon and hot enough to annoy yesterday’s sunburn. Around 4:30 I called Home Depot to check their Sunday hours and discovered they were open until 8:00. Home Depot is 40 miles away. In my exhaustion it seemed prudent to take the smaller can of interior paint with the formula printed on the lid, as opposed to the messier gallon. My plan was to have the paint for the morning and knock off two coats before noon.

The way to Jemez Springs is one of the most scenic, pleasurable drives anyone could hope to make. I always feel fortunate to top the hill at Rio Rancho and drift down through the mesas, past three pueblos, through the red rocks and finally follow the Jemez River to town. Like many other pleasures, doing it in reverse isn’t quite as charming. But a lovely evening was promising to arrive. My work was done and well done. It’s as much as anyone could hope for from a day. I drove to town tired and happy, sipping ice water and listening to Ray Charles and Van Morrison.

The regular paint guy, the one who always explains what I’m going to need that I didn’t know I’d need, wasn’t there. The Sunday replacement already seemed overwrought before I showed him my paint can’s formula. I told him I wanted the color matched in latex semi-gloss exterior. “This is interior paint.” he exclaimed.  “I can’t. This is only a quart. You want a gallon.” Aren’t the proportions the same with the volume increased by four? “No I can’t do it. No one can possibly predict what color it would be.” He seemed much more agitated than a problematic paint mix should make a paint clerk. He became more animated and nervous as he refused to mix the paint. My 40 mile drive meant nothing to him. Plan B.  His Plan B appeared to be more violently brushing his hair away from his face and perhaps weeping . My Plan B would include an 80 mile round trip. Sunday evening isn’t a good time to get paint mixed.

A friend had told me the Santa Ana Star Casino was featuring an exhibit of Dia de los Muertos folk art. It promised a tableau of skeletons pulling slot machine handles, skeletons winning at black jack—laughing bones. The Santa Ana Star was the next traffic light down the road, so I decided to try to salvage my drive with a visit. My relationship with Dia de los Muertos is long and as genuine as Christmas. Many years ago I was lost in Oaxaca, wandering through a barely dark evening. By chance I found myself in front of a small whitewashed house with its front door open to a homemade altar decorated with colorful tablecloths, candles, marigolds, bread, fruit and a bottle of mescal. An older man appeared in the doorway and motioned for me to come in. I did. I had no more than primitive marketplace and resturant Spanish; He had no English. “Mi Esposa…” he gestured to a photograph of a young bride. He poured me a drink and gave me a plate of mole. He talked to me about his wife, about her gifts in his home, how his mole was poor and how much he still missed her. His generosity and sincerity surpassed the shortcomings of language.

Later as celebration overtook the streets I was ecstatic with the macabre parades of dancing skeletons around the zocalo, the thick fragrant chocolate, street vendors selling sugar skulls, and glorious laughing embrace of death by the entire city. If it had been a religion, I would have converted. I would have converted not because of the pageantry, but because of the man who invited me into his home. In the years since I’ve celebrated Dia de los Muertos with the fervor of a convert. When my father died, it became very real. As my altar becomes more crowded I look forward to that too quick hour of October sundown when I sit with my front door open talking to my dead and crying. Then I party.

The idea of a casino hosting a Dia de los Muertos exhibit seemed as peculiarly apt to me as anything else once you accept that the primary  illusion of a casino is based on the concept that miracles can happen. Rock acts you thought must have died appear in the bigger lounges, impersonators of dead entertainers are moribund royalty, and in general, the clientele appear to be much closer to dancing with a laughing skeleton than winning a progressive jackpot.

Which brings me to my mother.

Weesie loved to go to casinos. Not Vegas, or even Atlantic City, but air conditioned human warehouses where a couple thousand white haired people sit in padded chairs with their magnified eyes glazed over by a jumble of spinning video images. Hallucinatory winking fishes, straw chewing farmers, modest mermaids, pink elephants, lucky radishes, bonus watermelons, nervous turkeys, zodiac signs, flags, smiling cherries and cutesy swinging bells all promised to help her pass time in a nickel machine trance of concentration, distraction and cheery cacophony. Something like a church that sells cigarettes.

Almost needless to say there was no display of folk art. But it was cool inside and I was sunburned and thirsty. I found the drink cart and got a complimentary cranberry juice. Sundays evenings are slow all over, especially casinos. The croupier was leaning against the craps table chatting with the $5 a hand black jack dealer. Nothing was happening. There weren’t enough slot machines ringing to cover the muzak. I took a promenade. The loose slots were scattered and hidden like memories. I wandered around until I found “Gone Fishin’ ”, my mother’s favorite, and headed home.

Desert Reformation

July 11, 2009


The lives of Georgia O’Keeffe have been one of the Twentieth Century myths that nearly surpass her work as a source of speculative interpretation. Her dramatic relationship with Alfred Stieglitz (among others) flavors our view of her early paintings. Her desert blooming beginning in 1929 leads us in a different direction of interpretation. Currently the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is celebrating the return of “Jimson Weed” from its loan to the Bush White House. “Jimson Weed” is a painting made near the end of her first great outpouring of work reflecting Northern New Mexico. Celebrating both the loan and the return bring a new vision of Georgia O’Keeffe as a de-re-constructed American is still another appellation added to a complex artist who both profited by and denied definition.

 Santa Fe is an old, cantankerous and flexible city, having been a Tewa pueblo, the Spanish capital of the Kingdom of New Mexico, a Mexican territorial city, a US territorial city, a Confederate fortress and currently the State capital of New Mexico.  It’s older than Boston and has enjoyed and endured many more rebellions.  Now it seems to have become an imported re-vision of Southern California—a gorgeous artsy retirement community to contemplate the Zen of well invested power, without many distractions of urban responsibility.  It has all the pretentiousness of a second marriage or an imported suit. I like it a lot. The police are civil, the street people are colorful and not odiferous and nearly everything is so expensive I hardly buy anything but, postcards, books and lunch.  

Indeed it was after lunch that I found a parking citation on my car, “Flipper” with 17 minutes left on the meter. By good fortune a passing Traffic Enforcement patrolman helped me resolve this injustice to everyone’s satisfaction, which brought Carol and me to the O’Keeffe Museum in good mood for a promenade. One of the admirable things about the O’Keeffe Museum is it’s small and relatively expensive. Enormous museums, while an art bargain, are so demanding on my eyes, memory and patience that I seldom visit without either headaches or disorientation.  My $10 admission worked out to roughly twenty-five cents a painting—peep show prices. But I find that admirable—show me anyone paying more attention to an image than a person watching a peep. I’m not prudish—I’d appreciate that level of attention and pleasure for my work.

I spent the largest share of my time in the last gallery studying the newly returned “Jimson Weed”.  First to put it into my private perspective, then wondering what subconsciously attracted the Bushes to request this particular painting for their private dining room in the White House. “edges of verdigris—pale green at the center—sharp edges  away—darkening bloom—edges hint at withering—bloom about to begin rotting—thick fragrance” Those were the notes I cribbed on my admission ticket stub.

The difference between a high quality art print and the original is viewer’s inter-relationship with the color and scale. I studied O’Keeffein books, museums and under the tutelage of a wonderfully affectionate roommate in another decade. Perhaps more than any modern artist other than Frida Khalo, it’s important to share the same air as a Georgia O’Keefe painting. Her scale (particularly her flowers) and painterly qualities are lost even in the best reproductions. By chance I saw a show “Carr, O’Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own” on a break from a conference in Canada. This presented the three artists (Emily Carr, a Canadian Modernist nature painter) as contemporaries and developed a visual conversation by proximity. Lovely. In that close gallery context the difficult, seeming redundant struggle of these three artists to establish an independent geography of self in which to operate became apparent to me. Not a where, but a where they were.

Which brings me back to the prodigal “Jimson Weed”.

I can appreciate the desire and opportunity to live with great art, even temporarily. If could borrow art from any American museum I’d do it to0.  But there is the latest version of Georgia O’Keeffe, returned from the White House slightly altered—even more G-Rated, sexually redacted, PTA approved—a painter of the still life of the purity of the Western Myth—an abstractionist of “Little House on the Prairie Chapel”—an image at once appropriate and sincere as the prayers of a reformed Texas land man harvesting the high plains desert—more purified than President Carter’s sister, Ruth Stapleton, who converted Larry Flynt. Things change. After six years of near kitch in the private dining room, Georgia returns to Santa Fe more docent friendly for her term of government service.

Now the brochure blurbs and little museum film point out, “sometimes a flower is just a flower” and remark that there has been too much confusion about sex and Georgia O’Keeffe…perhaps you’ve never really looked at a flower. Defensive and accusatory.  Although feminist criticism made a similar claim, that O’Keefe’s paintings were merely projected with sexual undertones by Patriarchal Freudian art critics like Edmund Wilson and Lewis Mumford. (For a more detailed study I recommend “Georgia O’Keeffe” by Roxana Robinson.)  Now the work has been PoMo Christian sanctified by belief and public policy.  Myopic gardeners and school boards are safe to be in the same parlor with the once scandalous Ms. O’Keeffe—even dress up like her (tastefully).

 But I’ll strop Ockham’s razor and suggest that a person who posed for over 300 nude photographs for Alfred Stieglitz (who was married to another woman at the time), had affairs during her marriage to Stieglitz (who also had numerous affairs), traveled easily in the relatively bohemian art world of both Jazz Age New York City and the Mabel Dodge Luhan salon of Taos may have had at least a subconscious sexual dimension in her art.  Perhaps it’s not as pornographic as Wilson and Mumford inferred, maybe not Freudian patriarchy—but at least Jungian dreamy. And what’s wrong with that? Why does Georgia O’Keefe need to be neutered? Who could think that denying the libidinous drive of her contemporaries like Pablo Picasso or Diego Rivera would improve the value and appreciation of their work? As the thousands of galleries in Santa Fe attest, fine art is a free marketplace—not a museum. Meaning is calculated by what a salesperson can convince the buyer to believe it’s worth, not aesthetic orthodoxy—and that’s still a relatively intimate relationship. And in the end I’ll have to defer to Ms. Bush’s taste, if “Jimson Weed” matched the newly redone wall covering, I hope she enjoyed it.  Pleasure is pleasure.

So now I’m not sure if the celebration is about “Jimson Weed” being in or returning from the White House…I think that ambiguity might have annoyed and amused Georgia O’Keeffe as well—even if she has been child proofed.


July 7, 2009


I just finished reading Rag and Bone; A Journey Among the World’s Holy Dead, by Peter Manseau. He’s an intelligent memoirist who isn’t embarrassed to mix intelligent research and genuine human respect into his narrative. I recommend it to your bookshelf both for the pleasure of reading and the more difficult business of thinking about it. His writing in a memoir style balances attractively between genuine memoir (which used to be a form reserved for those whose lives appeared to merit remembering) and the old New Journalism. In addition Mr. Manseau brings a level of scholarship that surpasses the I was a tourist in my own life—now I’m a writer new memoirs that appear twice daily in Amazon ads. The fundamental question Rag & Bone presents to me is how (or why) do fragments grow to surpass the whole in reverence?

 This morning on the radio I heard two vaguely related stories, the first was the guilty pleas of the family and friends in Utah who had been convicted of stealing and selling Native American relics, and the second the international media carnival that surrounds the sad death of Michael Jackson.  Already E-bay had posted five bids for a signed Michal Jackson faux fedora for over $2,500 and the bidding is climbing even  as his public  funeral takes place.

I’m spending the summer in New Mexico and hiking distance to Pueblo ruins where it isn’t impossible to find polychrome pottery shards. This morning I checked the Antique Tribal Art Dealers website for stolen artifacts and found thousands (It’s worth a few amazing minutes to check the list of stolen artifacts at ). Our trade in relics has continued unabated since before the middle ages. Whether it’s a stolen Haida mask, a membership to the Natural History Museum or an autographed copy of a “Thriller” album, we share a desire to possess fragments of the past. They’re talismans; they give us some comfort and power over the long conglomeration of deaths that is reaching for us. They put us in proximity to things larger and greater than our lives. They give us a brief feeling of well being and control. Owning, venerating, wearing, trading and sharing items of the dead are as human as eating a turkey on Thanksgiving or dragging a family heirloom to Antiques Road Show. Perhaps it speaks to an evolutionary period when ritual cannibalism was part of our physical history.

I’m a dilettante saver and collector. Stuffed into drawers and falling off shelves, I have blossoms from Emily Dickinson’s garden, a tennis ball used at Wimbledon, old vinyl records I don’t have equipment to play, dozens of paper machie muertos, water pictures I refuse to use, Chinese New Year currency, mixed with my grandfather’s old baking books, magic tricks, cheap second hand religious art and of course, shelves, files and piles of books, postcards and letters. Some days (not often enough) I rearrange them. I remake gates between my interior and exterior worlds and wander around in my labyrinth of intimacies. So when I read about the Native American Chief of Police traveling to Manhattan to retrieve a war club, I understand both the impulse to steal and trade it, and the desire to recover it and return it to its ancestral place of origin. It’s almost like a dance.

There are days feel so lost and alien—like a wanderer, or petty thief or trinket peddler waiting to be admitted into the same different foreign, worrisome city. The way I fight this is have secret familiars to depend on that I only intuitively understand.  In the bottom of a trunk I have my father’s speed bag gloves and revolver. I have the crucifix my great grandmother brought over from Slovakia. Old sweaters, favotie tee shirts. In and of themselves these things have no function, the gloves are dry and cracked, the revolver may or may not shoot and the crucifix is a crucifix. But somehow they refract some of the power  and belief that were invested in them. In the same way at Christmas I cook seven fish dishes for as many guests as I can. Not because the dishes or I aspire to level of spiritual and culinary orthodoxy, but because I believe the hands that fed me and the hands that fed them go back to the sea that feeds us still.

There is an unaccountable power in believing in the spirituality the physical world however fragmented we find it.

So if my friend wants stylizied ocean waves tattooed to cover her arm, or a divorcee in Santa Fe wants to wear Navajo turquoise squash blossoms, or a send a Tibetan scarf to her daughter, or the guys at the bar want to lean their Larry Mahan’s on the barstool…or if  someone wants to cry all afternoon at Michael Jackson’s televised funeral. I appreciate their willingness to reach beyond the cruel greed of logic and the money that pass for power for most of our days.

Most of the world I travel through is tired, sad and frightened. If a 40 year old man can no longer  believe he’s a delightful child who can sing, spin and dance as if he were weightless and hear the fragmented world scream in delight. If he shatters into pieces trying to crossover from Wacko Jacko into a redemptive magic world one last time. I understand why some of us race around to find a relic to keep. The brutality of our world is so relentless.

Repairing the Chapel

July 4, 2009

Reparing the Chapel


Repairing the Chapel

The chapel has taken damage in the winter turning to spring.

Ivy has forced the two window lights away from the back wall

and the thaw has rotted some wood along the casement.

It’s not my chapel; no chapel genuinely belongs to anyone.

Ownership is merely the responsibility of maintenance.

Like owning anything beautiful,

my job is to preserve it and pass it on

for the next unknown temporary owner.

Increasingly maintenance of churches,

like so many wonderous structures, is a choice for society everywhere

(I found nearly 4,000,000 hits on Goggle search “abandoned churches”).

It’s nearly a famous cliché, a self-criticizing ethical criticism.

Why spend resources on a building that does nothing,

when there are starving people in…?

But a more fundamental question is lost in the deflection

of allocation of religious resources to those most needy.

Why does anyone need a chapel at all?


There are hundreds of religions and hundreds more

sects and sub-sects arguing within those beliefs. Our collective

knowledge of the divine is by turns cosmic, petty and confounding.

There are magnificent mosques, basilicas, synagogues, padodas,

shrines and temples—sacred architecture abandoned by cultures

that have left this earth for places unknown.

Mega-churches are built on the scale of sports arenas.

as well as hundreds of thousands of nondescript churches and assemblies

where sincere congregations meet in their fellowships of worship.


But a wayward chapel is something both personal and abandoned

in hope that it will find its way into the right hands.

What starts as a random real estate transaction develops

dimensions of communion I would generally reserve

for translating poetry or interpreting art.

With the exception that it isn’t academic—it’s purer labor.

Someone wanted me to repair the window.

Someone wanted to touch my hand,

or more to touch their hand.


Repairing the chapel window has asked me to an open commitment.

It doesn’t speak, but asks in the language of aloneness.

I’m no tourist here. I am here. I am. I.


There’s no one in the whitewashed room, but I’m not alone.


Through my life I’ve visited chapels.

In Canada after arduous travel I heard the Madonna

House Community sing vespers in a sobornost house

 imitating a Russian pilgrims retreat. The nave was barely

forty degrees, vapor poured from the casual choir.

Tears flowed, I met a saint, ate in the etiquette of silence

and washed dishes with aged nuns. There’s a small chapel

in Kentucky where I listened to a beautiful young woman

play Shubert as the sun set. Then she walked out in the late spring

evening and kissed me for a long time.

I spent a half hour in Beethoven’s chapel.

There’s a chapel in Tzintzuntzan where I watched a crucified man

suffer next to a naked fluorescent tube hanging from a ceiling.

Since I was ten I’ve made trips to nondescript Calvary

Cemetery Chapel to observe a sad parade of priests

bury my family. I stood in line to retrieve miraculous dirt

at Chimayo. I mention these chapels, because they were

filled with astonishing events.


This chapel is like the empty bowl of my soul.


I know a poet who resurrected a lost rose garden.

In my imagination I dreamed of him touching the earth

that unknowns had touched, hand digging through the loam

 to Rilke’s Roses. 

One poet tries a simple and physical connection

to another poet who wasn’t there. So it is in the chapel,

a connection to a someone who isn’t there…a quieter

whispering, not rational and not effusively emotional,

—different than the rituals of religion.


I prime the wood and hear my Grandfather’s voice

reminding me a brush is made to spread paint and not leave

a brushstroke.  He was a patient perfectionist.

In the chapel repairs I sense a similar inventive patience.

Myopically I prime the window frame.

I go on working a coat just beneath the surface;

to restore the surface—as the someone who came before me

must have looked on in tired wonder

at the slow progress of keeping a chapel the same.