Essays and Memoirs
DH Lawrence & Spirituality Print E-mail

D.H. Lawrence 29 November 1915

(Excerpt from Spirituality and the Writer June 2019)

Perhaps the finest spiritual essay in English is “The Spinner and the Monks,” the second chapter of D. H. Lawrence’s Twilight in Italy.In 1912, Lawrence and Frieda von Richthofen, having just met and gone lust-mad for each other, spent the winter/spring seasons on Lake Garda in Gargnano, Italy. High above Gargnano and its tangled streets sits the Church of San Tommaso. The small chapel, which Lawrence espies from the lakefront, seems to float in the sky, looking out at the snow-capped peaks of the Tyrol. Climbing ancient cobblestone streets up through the village, passing walled houses atop steep stairways, he discovers San Tommaso’s terrace, “suspended” “like the lowest step of heaven,” a place with an earthen sacredness in between (or joining) the sky and the earth. He enters the Church and inhales “a thick, fierce darkness of the senses.” His soul shrinks, he says, and he hurries outside.

On Writing That Is Far Less Religious, Way More Spiritual Print E-mail

santa fe sky original contemporary abstract landscape painting by colorado contemporary artist kimberly conrad(Brevity May 30, 2019)

In my long and ongoing study of the memoir and what the form means for writers who want to capture their religious or spiritual experience, I keep coming back to an inescapable truth about the history of what we think of as spiritual literature.

This truth has two parts: first, that from 400 to 1948, there are only four primarily personal religious autobiographies whose authors intensify the passion of their religious conversion, which feels as close to verifiably authentic as each can make it in the writer’s prose: the confessions of Augustine, Tolstoy, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Thomas Merton.

All Those Glittering Notes: The Music of Richard Thompson Print E-mail

richard-thompson(San Diego Troubadour May 1, 2018)

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My favorite sentences in my favorite jazz book ever come from Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker. The lines arrive near the end when author Stanley Crouch is at his summarizing best; he notes that jazz, a performer’s art, involves “navigating a landscape in which spontaneous creation whizzes by in layered stacks.” He quotes the great bebop drummer Max Roach: “Jazz is about creating, maintaining, and developing a [musical] design.” Jazz was designed—forget, for the moment, by whom—to maximize its players’ skills as improvisors, often at what seems like the speed of light. Whether it’s such standards as the calm “Stormy Weather” or the blustery “’Round Midnight,” good jazz men and women push themselves and their ensembles to create, maintain, and develop the music—bend expectation with surprise, follow the uncommon riff or abrupt turn where it wants to go.

Eulogy for John Christianson Print E-mail

John Christianson

Eulogy for John Christianson April 2018

John and I were good friends, close friends. I knew him through the best and worst times of his life. For a time, when I was churning out article after article for the San Diego Reader, where I’ve written cover stories the past twenty years, he seemed to read every-thing I wrote, often commenting, “Great piece, Tom,” after which he’d want to discuss some quote or idea from the work. Writing is a lonely profession; when what you write is examined, even critically, you feel a great inner satisfaction, having been heard.

John enjoyed going toe-to-toe on religion and hypocrisy. Unlike most people who look askance when I say, “I have never had a religious thought or feeling in my life,” John laughed that big, barrel-chested laugh of his, somewhere between lusty adolescence and existential darkness. However, I had no idea that he grew up a Christian. The doctrine tortured him with guilt about his sins. I said why don’t you just let that neurosis go. He said he’d always wanted to but he never could. It was just too deeply ingrained.

Fanfare for an American Maverick: Ruth Crawford Seeger Print E-mail

15SEEGER2-master675(San Diego Troubadour February 1, 2018)

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Say the name, and the action is clear: Xerox, to copy; Google, to search; Maverick, to go it alone. The latter (the refined term is eponym) comes by way of Samuel Maverick, an early twentieth-century Texas drover who refused to brand his calves. Without a burnt-flesh insignia, cowboys couldn’t tell one cow from another. But, since Sam so hated impaling animals and upset the cattle business because of it, we honor him with an Americanly distinct word.

Kneaded Print E-mail

Sustenance Anvil Press 2017(Sustenance: Writers from British Columbia and Beyond on the Subject of Food December, 2017)

You don’t wet the bread board. You flour it, generously, as the Tassajara Bread Book says. Next, you splat-set the antsy dough onto the wood where it fate-flattens with a shrug. Already, you’re speaking up for the lump—to wit, its voice, yours for the taking, such generosity, indeed.

You knead the pile. The pile needs you, so much so that your push meets its fetal mass, serpent-bodied. Its bouldered build yeasts a gathering force, an orneriness that matches your provocation, hail batch, well met.You put your hands’ heels into it and the mass rolls its shoulders and spine back and the water leeches out, and with it the gluten, which sticks to your fingers, gums them up, and gloms onto your intent, hosts this transference, what the psyche of food plots in you, its host-maker.

Thomas Merton and the Language of Spirituality Print E-mail

T. Merton Foto Terrell Dickey(Berfrois UK October 17, 2017)

When I was growing up, I was uninspired by Christian dogma. Perhaps it was because my cradle-Catholic father became an atheist or my Sundays, by my choice, were spent singing (not worshipping) in a church choir. Later, after reading James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I knew that if I fell headlong toward any faith, I need only revisit that novel to keep me honest. The most frighteningly apostate fiction ever penned should disabuse anyone of holy orders. Joyce begins his semi-autobiographical work (made all the more powerful because it was semi) portraying the familial heaviness of his Irish Catholic family. He is further assailed at school where, via monumental sermons, he is enthralled by the Church’s vision of Hell. Post-grad, he begins to escape his indoctrination and adopt the life of an agnostic via literature. There, he cherishes those theological conundrums and literary questions Catholicism sometimes raises and sometimes won’t touch.

The rest of the essay is here:

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