Category Archives: Family Spirituality

Book Review: The Overstory

The best argument in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

As fires devastate over 3 million acres in California, Washington state’s air is “hazardous” because of burning forests, and over 500,000 people have been ordered to evacuate due to fire danger in Oregon, it’s time to read The Overstory. Fair warnings: Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel is not an easy read. Some highly intelligent friends found it too long, depressing, convoluted. And it will leave you unable to walk oblivious beneath a forest canopy ever again. The ultimate tribute, as Powers told the Chicago Review of Books: “I just want to walk, look, listen, breathe, and write this same book,” from different angles and perspectives.

He recreates a genre of literature which challenges the notion of human separation from the environment, as the former Stanford professor tells a PBS interviewer: The book’s astonishing scientific data about trees, discovered during the last 30-40 years, is verifiable. To our peril, only 2-5% of US old growth forest remains, and we’re clueless about the mystery and magnificence we have destroyed.

Humans share significant amounts of DNA with trees and through books like The Hidden Life of Trees  by Peter Wohlleben, we’ve learned the scientific processes of how they communicate, support and nurture each other,  protect against assault through their vast root systems. Powers brings an enhanced reverence to the topic, underscoring how some leviathan redwoods are “old as Jesus or Caesar.”  As Powers says, we live in an extraordinary moment, suddenly realizing our grief over what we’ve done to the natural world.

At first the human stories seem as tangled as the undergrowth. But gradually, the connections emerge. To focus on one: A young woman, Mimi Ma, adored her father, who kept meticulous records of every camp site his young family visited in the national parks. The perfume of pine brings back her childhood’s “only untouched days,” and the memory of her father after his death. “She falls into the smell, a devastating whiff of over two hundred million years ago. .. until she and the dead man are fishing side by side again, under the pine shade where the fish hide, in the soul’s innermost national park.” (p.183)

What a lovely phase for the soul’s vast inner expanses, filled with abundance: peaks, firs, wild strawberries, waterfalls, lakes, campfires, clear stars, panoramas, quiet, columbine, cedar, green valleys, birdsong, sun-dappled trails beside streams, deer, stunning vistas, golden meadows, chipmunks, overlooks, sunsets, picas, granite, soft dust, aspen, crashing waves, bubbling wells. Other lyrical phrases: “the bronze spears of beech buds,” “the polite applause of aspens. A yew reaching out, like a parent taking a child’s hand.”

Mimi and four others converge on a legacy tree “five times larger than the largest whale.” (p. 264)  In one day, this mammoth eats four pounds of carbon from the air, in the natural cleansing cycle humans seem hell-bent on destroying. Two live on platforms in its uppermost branches trying to protect it from a logging company.

They fail, but years later in jail, imagining the questions, “Why didn’t you do something? You who were there? How can humanity unsuicide?” can answer with integrity, “we tried.” How bizarre and infuriating that logging companies greedily devastating national forest, which supposedly belongs to the people of the US, are legal, but environmental activists trying to save it must face police, pepper spray poured into their eyes, and prison terms.

The shared humanity of loggers and environmentalists surfaces in poignant moments, though. One occurs when a tree-sitter tosses down his sketches of lichen, huckleberries and pools, and the loggers are impressed at the life forms that flourish two hundred feet above ground. Another comes after a howling storm, when the loggers appear at the base and confess, “we were worried about you.”  (p. 296)

Towards the end, the novel crescendos into sacred text.  One character, dying from an act of botched eco-terrorism, assures her comrades, “what we have will never end” in an echo of the last supper. Another goes to jail, accusing himself, “He didn’t look hard enough. He loved too little.” By doing his time, he saves the woman he loves from a similar fate, but consigns Adam, a collaborator, to a life-long prison sentence.

Adam, like a modern Thomas More with a “heart as good and worthy as wood” feels “If I save myself, I lose something else.” His sacrifice of teaching profession, wife and son re-writes salvation history in another, 21st century key. And the resurrection? Surely it comes through the trees called “sempervirens,” which scientists tell us will survive fires that break open cones of seeds that couldn’t open any other way. The novel quotes the poem:

For there is hope of a tree, if it

goes down, that it will sprout again,

and that its tender branches will not cease.

Reading the book challenges our unconcerned life styles, and may put us in the same mental frame as John Muir, whose love of Yosemite led to making it the first national park. He once admitted, “I only went out for a walk…”

For Shame! Another Injustice

Really, LAPD? Does it take 5 or 6 deputies to tackle a 95 lb. reporter, pinning her to the ground and arresting her for doing her job, simply because you perceived she might get in your way? That’s what happened Sept. 12 to Josie Huang, who clearly wore her press credentials and verbally identified herself as she covered BLM protests in Los Angeles. She was arrested around midnight, finally released around 4 am with a charge of obstructing a peace officer. (Is the irony in peace officer intentional?)

Full disclosure: Josie’s mother-in-law is one of my oldest friends, her husband is my godson, and I attended her wedding. She is a respected, award-winning journalist for KPCC and The LAist who covered the sheriff’s press conference at the hospital where two deputies underwent surgery after they were shot.  The mother of two toddlers herself, Josie recorded, “One of the deputies is a mom of a 6 year-old. I felt my chest tighten thinking about the little boy.”

As she was wrapping up her shift around 11 pm, Josie noticed a disturbance in the street: protestors taunting cops. One officer pointed a weapon at them. As she filmed a subsequent arrest, deputies yelled at her to stay out of the way, but she could find nowhere to go. The rest was filmed on this disturbing video:

The downward spiral is clear: two deputies simply sitting in a patrol car are seriously wounded by gun shots—another act of violence caused by the ridiculous, free access to weapons unique to the US. Other cops gather for a press conference at the hospital where the wounded are being treated. Obviously, they’re on edge—but must one point a gun at a demonstrator simply waving a flag? The simmering anger and blame suddenly shift to the wrong person, an innocent reporter. But the overkill is unjustified: five or six cops brutally  forcing a slight, unarmed woman to the ground, handcuffing her, ignoring her repeated protests that she is with the press.  

But in Trump’s US, press credentials don’t much matter.  Josie’s story is one of many, as journalists covering protests this summer have been consistently targeted.  In 2020, 190 journalists have been attacked, 61 journalists arrested, and there have been 800+ reported aggressions against the press during BLM protests. AS NPR’s official statement pointed out: “Huang, a KPCC public radio reporter was performing her job last night—gathering facts to inform the American public. The rights of journalists are protected by the First Amendment, essential to an informed public and our democracy.”

So this incident, aside from its personal connections, raises larger questions. First: without the press, where do we get the information vital to responsible citizenship? Second:  if police are this brutal with a respected reporter, how are they treating anonymous, powerless people of color?  

Places to donate to help protect journalists:

The Future We Want for Elly Wicks

At the age of one month, Elly made history. For those who missed the cringe-inducing coverage, her mom, Assemblymember Buffy Wicks drove the hour and a half from Oakland to Sacramento with her newborn on Monday, August 31. She made the trek to debate legislation she considered vital: creating more multi-unit housing in a state desperate for it, and expanding family leave protections.

When the housing bill came up near midnight, Wicks who was nursing, literally “detached” from her daughter and ran down two flights of stairs with a blanket hastily thrown over the whimpering child. “Please, please, please pass this bill,” she said on the Assembly floor, holding the swaddled baby. “And I’m going to go finish feeding my daughter.”

She’s not a drama queen. She did it because California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon had decided only Republicans exposed to COVID could vote by proxy–not new moms. He was apparently oblivious to what reports: “Postpartum mothers could experience a slew of health issues that would qualify them as immunocompromised, putting them at a higher risk [for COVID].” 

Let’s hope that legislators strolling on the golf course stopped short, stunned  to see how seriously some representatives take their job. How moving that Wicks feels “beholden, not just to our children — but for all the children who will come afterwards.” With a mom like that, Elly can’t go wrong.

Buffy Wicks’ photo—slightly disheveled but committed—rings bells for a lot of us. I was fortunate enough to stay home with my infants, and grateful to a department chair who covered my weekday college classes for a semester, offering me the chance to teach on Saturdays when my husband, who worked all week, could babysit. But even with those cushions—placed in situations where I had to choose between career and baby, I’m embarrassed to admit I often chose the former. How unimportant the deadline or the meeting or the phone call seems in retrospect, compared to the miracle of my four children!

But the future for Elly is different, I hope. After the news got out, working moms went ballistic, with 25,000 references on Google alone and news coverage from as far as Lima Peru, where El Comercio called Wicks the hero of “la lucha de las madres trabajadores” (the struggle of working mothers). Rendon apologized but the damage was done; the cry had gone forth: “What century does he live in?”

While 70% of women in the workforce are moms, family leave policies in the US are pathetic compared to other nations. The United States is one of a “handful” of countries among the 193 who belong to the U.N. that does not have a national paid family leave program. 

Ah Elly, we have much work to do to humanize our society, making it worthy of our children. By the time Elly is a nursing mother, protections should be in place so moms never have to make the outrageous choices Buffy did. What for women has too long been a question of either/or can become a both/and. As one Republican senator commented in the film “Miss Representation,” “if the women in Congress could just get together, we’d  pass family leave protections quickly.” Welcome to a more just, humane world, Elly! To Rendon and the ol’ boys club: “Your day is done. You had your chance. Your time has passed.”


First Death Certificate of 9/11—Fr. Mychal Judge

Someday it may seem mild, but a priest who openly admitted being alcoholic and gay, then went rollerblading in his sixties was pushing the narrowly defined boundaries of priesthood in the seventies and eighties.

At one time, Mychal Judge drank so heavily he had blackouts. The drinking began in the seminary with little sips of altar wine. By 1976, “his alcoholism had become so serious that it became both crisis and opportunity.” After joining AA, Judge later attended as many of its meetings as he could. Some thought he was more familiar with the AA book than with the Bible.

The risk was dramatic at a time when “if a friar had drinking problem, it was hushed up or he was sent away for therapy.” So too for his second frontier: being gay. Judge was open about his gender preference even at a time when Archbishop O ‘Connor was quoted in the  New York Post as saying, “I would close all my orphanages rather than employ one gay person.” At first hesitant to march in New York’s first inclusive St. Patrick’s Day parade in 2000, Judge received wild acclaim from the crowd—and nervous disapproval from the church.

That continued when he was reported to the diocese for not wearing vestments at firehouse Masses. Judge told the young clerical bureaucrat who called him on the carpet: “if I’ve ever hurt the church I’ve served and loved so dearly for 40 years, I want to be burned at the stake on 5th Ave., at the front doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.” “No matter how many robes Cardinal [O’Connor] put on or how much power he tried to exert, he still could not… quash Mychal Judge.”

The story of his death is well known: Judge rushed to the World Trade Center to be with the fire fighters responding to the disaster. Some speculate that he removed his helmet to pray the last rites over a dying firefighter, was struck on the head by debris and died. Five rescue workers carried him out through the rubble; Shannon Stapleton’s photo of them was widely published. (His friends joked that even in death, Mychal still loved a photo-op.) Firefighters laid Judge’s body before the altar in a nearby church, covering it with a sheet, his stole and badge. His eulogist pointed out how appropriate it was that Judge died first; then he’d be in heaven to meet over 400 first responders who arrived later.

Judge’s biographer comments on the impromptu ritual of two cops praying over his body at Ground Zero. It’s not only OK for laity to give last rites in an emergency. It “was, in fact, entirely in keeping with Father Mychal’s own sacramental theology of hallowing the moment and was typical of the way ordinary people generated light in the darkness of that day.” The overflow crowd outside Judge’s funeral proved what his eulogist said: “When he was talking with you, you were the only person on the face of the earth.. . . We come to bury his heart but not his love. Never his love.”

Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching In by Kathy Coffey, Liturgical Press, 800-858-5450


Why Care about Creation?


Throughout history, church bells have invited people to worship and celebrate, as well as rung out warnings of danger like invasion or fire. On Sept. 20, 2019, they rang in solidarity with the climate strike of 4 million young people in 150 countries. Some rang for 11 minutes, signaling the 11 years scientists say we have to limit global warming to a maximum increase of 1.5 degrees C, or risk catastrophic loss of lives. Why should people of faith care about the current climate crisis? Why should they, in fact, see it as a burningly relevant question of justice?

Answers to that question lead us back to the psalms, ancient Celtic and Native American spirituality, St. Francis of Assisi who would sing in wonder at moon, stars or sun, and writers like St. Bonaventure, who said creation was God’s first book, leading us back to God if we “read” it properly. Today, Pope Francis’ letter “Laudato Si” is an eloquent plea. “The cry of the Earth and… the poor cannot continue,” he wrote there. If we don’t see creation as sacred, it’s much easier to exploit and destroy it. As the pope points out, we must love the beauty of our world or we’ll treat it like “consumers or ruthless exploiters.”

The faith community can be an effective force for change in the environmental crisis. Surely 1.2 billion Catholics and 2.2 billion Christians, united in stewardship, could make a difference. Many churches already take the lead: converting to solar or wind power, changing parking lots into community gardens, divesting from fossil fuels, investing in alternate energies, minimizing plastic waste, educating parishioners and neighborhoods about their carbon footprint.

Furthermore, climate change dovetails with other social justice issues because it has the worst effects on the poorest. People of color suffer higher rates of asthma and cancer, disproportionately affected by air pollution caused by industrial plants in their neighborhoods. Drought in Africa has led to starvation, forcing more refugees into exile. For their sake, and for future generations, the question rings with maddening frustration: If we could use almost-free, renewable, natural power sources like solar, wind, geothermal or hydro-electric, why would we choose toxic, diminishing fossil fuels instead?

“The young remind us that the earth is not a possession to be squandered, but an inheritance to be handed down,” said Pope Francis, affirming Greta Thunberg, outspoken climate activist, the first to strike in her native Sweden. At Davos in Jan. ’19, she challenged the World Economic Forum: “I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.” Will the faith community act as decisively and respond to the climate crisis as brilliantly as this young girl?

MORE Methane?

In a week of stunning news (de-fund the Post Office to prevent mail-in votes, disenfranchising voters??), a staggering notice from the EPA may have escaped peoples’ attention—and it’s simply one of over 100 environmental regulations weakened since 2016. Their plan to eliminate methane regulation will release an estimated 850,000 tons of the planet-warming gas into the atmosphere during the next 10 years. And their excuse? To save the oil and gas industry, the largest source of methane emissions, about $100 million a year through 2030. Meaning: we are not channeling money to the hungry nor unemployed, but to the fossil fuel billionaires, not coincidentally big financial backers of the current administration.

“Methane is the main ingredient in natural gas. But when it’s released before it burns, say from a leaky valve at a drilling site, it’s far more potent than carbon dioxide,” reported on August 13. Here’s the irony: while smaller oil and gas companies do find the costs of regulation excessive, the big producers don’t even want the concession. “The negative impacts of leaks and fugitive emissions have been widely acknowledged for years, so it’s frustrating and disappointing to see the administration go in a different direction,” said Gretchen Watkins, Shell Oil’s US president.

She sounds like Pope Francis, who said in “Laudato Si”: “We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay” # 165. Scientists say we have 11 years to limit global warming to a maximum increase of 1.5 degrees C, or risk catastrophic loss of lives. The proposed addition of methane, along with the other gases, could warm the atmosphere by 3-4 degrees. And many scientists believe methane leaks are 2 to 3 times higher than the EPA estimates!

Even for one whose science background is as pathetic as mine, a basic understanding means that the greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) trap the sun’s heat, melting the polar ice caps and warming the oceans. Most of the emissions are CO2, but methane, in its first 20 years in the atmosphere, is 84 times more potent. Most know the disastrous effects. As sea levels rise, the weather that results leads to drought in places, and massive flooding that could destroy coastal areas and islands.

Signs of hope: state regulations, the industry’s policing itself since leaks are expensive and dangerous, investors’ sensitivity to bad PR, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Fund’s plans to sue, the hope of a more far-sighted president taking office in January. As for the agency designed to protect the environment? “Give an account of your stewardship.”

Why does a blog about spirituality veer precipitously into science? For the answer, see next week…


Two young grandchildren arrive at my door, looking like masked bandits, giggling with delight. They’re excited about today’s “field trip” to a children’s museum that’s moved some of its offerings outdoors. It requires masks of children over five, and this five- and seven-year old are trying to comply.

The widespread (we hope) wearing of masks sets off thought that dovetails with Matt Malone, SJ’s insight that when God found Adam and Eve hiding in the garden, ashamed of their disobedience, God asked, “Who told you that you were naked?” (Gen. 3:11) Fr. Malone hears the question not in a “Charlton Heston” booming, accusatory voice, but in a plaintive lament, “Aw—who told you? There goes all your innocent beauty!” Then God makes clothing for them (Gen. 3:21), as any protective mother would do, sending children into searing heat or chilling cold, knowing fig leaves just won’t do it.

These garments were temporary—until humanity could be clothed in Christ. To restore our confidence, writes Fr. Michael Casey in Balaam’s Donkey, “God has chosen to be unveiled before us. Jesus is the visibility of the unseen God…He calls us to come out of the bushes and be seen as we are, no longer fearful of rejection but confident that we are held in God’s all-embracing love.” Redeemed, we need no longer feel ashamed.

Back to the masks. The pandemic creates a different form of “naked,” for we are stripped of  our professional and social activities. The usual errands and exercise are gone; we can’t attend a concert or play, give a presentation or retreat, go out for dinner, plan air travel. So little adult agency is left—it’s questionable if we can safely hug, shop, or ride in a car with a friend. How shrunken we seem, how much is lost, how fragile our flimsy masks.  Depression like Michelle Obama’s is natural. It’s a pervasive joke that we live in sweats, the dressier clothes forgotten in the closet.

Jesus’ take on clothes was “consider the lilies.” Maybe we had to re-learn we were precious without the usual accoutrements. God calls us to an identity deeper than suit, better than ball gown. When held in an all-encompassing  love that keeps us alive and united, does it really matter what we wear?

Feast of St. Clare—Aug. 11

Doing this week‘s newspaper word search with my grandson, all the hidden words contained the root “joy.” That word could name the theme for the life of St. Clare, St. Francis’ lesser known female counterpart (though much more, in her own independent right) and dear friend.

Clare enjoyed the “guarantee of living without guarantees.” That might make us feel insecure and wobbly. We rely heavily on insurance policies; she relied totally on God. Clare saw humans as mirrors reflecting the divine. In the beauty of the Beloved, she found more than enough wealth to offset her life style of poverty.

As Richard Rohr points out in Eager to Love, Clare and her sisters had a topsy-turvy insistence on living without privilege. Totally dependent on God, spending 40 years in one small house and garden, she discovered abundant joy. It seems important to note that in dark times, we can still nurture joy—it’s not a dirty word showing we simply don’t understand our era.

One of the most famous, but misguided, images of Clare was her holding the monstrance high, so that Saracens invading Assisi shrank back in fear and left her monastery alone. It’s true that soldiers did enter her home, San Damiano, but they were European mercenaries hired by Frederick II. The monstrance didn’t exist then—in 1240.

What Clare actually DID, confronting the genuine threat of invasion far outside the city walls where she and her sisters lived unprotected, was take “her usual posture for prayer,” lying prostrate.  It seems the exact opposite to a macho demonstration of power or strength, and yet it was effective. The invaders retreated, causing no harm.

Clare’s process of letting go ego and learning to mirror God led her to write: “Place your heart in the figure of the divine… and allow your entire being to be transformed into the image of the Godhead itself, so that you may feel what friends feel…” Given that intimacy, it’s unsurprising that Clare not only lived but even died joyfully, encouraging her soul to go forth with “good escort.”


Delight, Continued

Yes, I know there are an overwhelming number of deadly serious topics and terrible news to address now. And I appreciate the skilled columnists and humorists who are doing so. But in the words of Ross Gay, author of The Book of Delights, “Delight doesn’t truck with ought. Or should, for that matter.” See last week’s blog for why I’m so smitten with this book, which coordinates beautifully with what Dorothy Day, quoting Ruskin, called “the duty of delight.” Greg Boyle, SJ, in turn refers to Day’s sequel to The Long Loneliness: “This way will not pass again, and so there is a duty to be mindful of that which delights and keeps joy at the center, distilled from all that happens to us in a day” (Tattoos on the Heart, p. 148).

If Boyle, in the midst of grim poverty and Los Angeles gang wars, could keep such a clean focus on what lifts the spirits, it signals the rest of us. Or as Gay says, “the more stuff you love, the happier you’ll be.” And that stuff can be simple or silly, rarely dramatic or profound. As the Book of Proverbs says of Wisdom, “her ways are pleasant… and all her paths are peace” (3:17).

Many people now celebrate the exuberant color of July’s abundance in the garden. I was also touched by a burst of creativity from our local library. After arranging a contact-less pick-up of books ordered online, the website asked, “would you like a bag of picture books too?” Ever the eager grandmother, I of course ticked “yes.” What a delightful surprise to find waiting, at the precisely scheduled time, a bag designed to be colored and made into a house. The books within were carefully calibrated to what I’d checked out before, honoring the ages and interests of my grandchildren. AND it contained a package of sidewalk chalk for drawing in a contest encouraging the census. Piling into bed with a small grand-daughter and bingeing on books was another delight in that chain. In a messed-up society, a few rarities are true and good.

Of other delights: a hike along cliffs overlooking the ocean where the sense of time vanished. And a visit afterwards with a beloved daughter to Wildflour bakery in Sonoma County. The area is rightly famous for its wine and cheese, but we’ve found there the finest scones anywhere. What great happiness to drive with an armful of warm bread, nibbling a nectarine raspberry scone, past ripening apple orchards and fields of cows who seem to have strolled in from the ads for eating local.

I’ve laughed with friends at how something like a socially distanced happy hour at 5, which once would’ve been the PS of the day, has now become its centerpiece. Or the rare joy of finding a bookstore open, requiring masks and distance, but still almost like The Time Before. Quarantine may have forced us into the duty of delight, but by whatever path we arrive, it’s a fine place to be.


A Detour—or a Doorway?

I suspect many people like myself are using the added gift of time during quarantine (yup, CA is still locked down) to educate ourselves about racism. I enjoyed hearing Ibram Kendi speak at the on-line Aspen Institute, and will continue with his book HOW TO BE AN ANTI-RACIST. It contains gems full of hope such as this:

‘Racist’ and ‘antiracist’ are like peelable name tags that are placed and replaced            based on what someone is doing or not doing, supporting or expressing in each moment. These are not permanent tattoos.

It’s helped blur (probably not erase) my tattoo to read THE BOOK OF DELIGHTS by Ross Gay, African-American poet and professor at Indiana University. I’d enjoyed his first book, a catalogue of unabashed gratitude (Please don’t correct; he prefers the lower case title), all poetry.

With this one, he set out to write “a daily essay about something delightful.” In doing so, he discovered the development of a “delight radar” or “delight muscle.” So too, people who keep gratitude journals find that the regular discipline of writing down what they’re grateful for increases their appreciation. Themes emerge: travel, gardens, food, kindness, cafes, relationships. His lyrical prose touches lightly and insightfully on racism, but for the most part, we’re on happy, shared, human ground here.

Some of the more unusual delights are friends who dutifully write their names and phone numbers in the spaces provided in journals or backpacks, a trust in human decency—someone will return this if it’s lost. Or a “new brand of flummoxment” when Gay, a large, athletic man, is caught off kilter and almost sprains his ankle trying to re-align his arms for a friend’s hug. Or the purple stain on the skin from mulberries. Or carefully carrying a tomato plant on a plane, seeing the friendliness it evokes.

While many of the themes are familiar from religious traditions (valuing the meal, “the encyclopedia of human gestures,” the ego’s come-uppance), it’s a joy to read fresh, non-religious language. The word “vulnerable” must be over-used, so Gay’s “small and hurt-able” seems stronger. The poetic phrasing helps us see anew and think twice. His description of a grove of pawpaw trees could fit CA redwoods or mid-western oaks too: “something ancient and protective”… “the groveness also a kind of naveness.” Lotsa sacred places outside of church!

Popular media has conflated suffering and blackness, so Gay brings a unique twist: “A book of black delight. Daily as air.” He also challenges us to find our own: what delights might this day hold?