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The Nones Are Alright

Posted in Uncategorized on February 10th, 2014

The growth of the religiously unaffiliated young (the “nones”) has sparked panicky debate in the pages of many newspapers and magazines. Several books about this phenomenon are forthcoming, mostly from University presses, mostly examining the exodus of Gen X and Millennials as a cause for despair. The rallying cry goes something like this: “What will they do without religion? How will they find a moral center? How can they engage in social justice without God? And how will religion survive without them?”

As an agnostic-leaning believer, I want to prove those questions wrong. Very few people my age or younger are firm believers; most of us are seekers. That hasn’t stopped us from fighting for greater social equality. It hasn’t prevented us from re-imagining faith as something we find in people rather than in institutions. And I’m beginning a book exploring the ways in which nones are really alright. But it will also look at the ways people are reinventing what it means to “be church” outside of church walls, how people answer a vocational call in a time when religious vocations are down to a trickle, how people who don’t “fit” in a particular religion nonetheless find ways to belong to it.

So, I need you. I need to tell your story: whether you grew up without religion, lost it, found it again, or find a unique way to belong to it, your story will help people to understand that faith exists, and is in fact thriving, in many surprising ways not always involving a “God”. If you found faith in Occupy, in a Queer community, in a social movement, in an intentional community; if you attend Sunday Assemblies or some other gathering for nonbelievers or prefer to go without faith on your own, if you stage underground communion services or are a heavily tattooed Orthodox Jew, if you’re a feminist Catholic or an atheist who feeds people at a church soup kitchen, I want to know more. My job is to honor your story and tell it well. I’m not here to exploit it or “sell you out.” That’s not what this project is about. It’s about showing the world that there’s no one way to believe, and no one way to belong.

I’ve been a writer and journalist for two decades, and have written extensively about faith, feminism, and people working for change outside of social and cultural institutions. During the day, I teach writing at UC Berkeley. In my “time off”, I write and edit. This book is under contract with a publisher and will appear in 2015, but it will be a better book, a richer, deeper and more interesting one, the more people whose stories I can tell.

So, please think about contacting me. Or, if you read this and it resonates with people you know, please pass it along. Anonymity is assured should you desire it, and I am willing to talk by phone, Skype, or email. I’ll also be on the East Coast this coming summer and there is the potential to travel elsewhere (in the continental US; as with most writers working outside of mainstream publishing, I’m on a budget). And if you’d like to know more about the book, please ask.

You can reach me in several ways:

By email: kaya at oakestown dot org

On Twitter: @kayaoakes

Or via my Facebook page




Posted in Uncategorized on December 27th, 2013

If 2012 was the year when I released a book, toured in support of it, and generally played the role of author promoting the shit out of her work, 2013 turned out to be the year when I returned to the essay, a form I’ve loved writing since I was a pre teen. No, really; I wrote personal essays in junior high. I did.

So I owe a lot of gratitude to the gracious and thoughtful editors who provided me with guidance and a platform as I made my way back into shorter forms of nonfiction, and learned to love it all over again. Here’s what I published in 2013:

Singing to Jesus with Eyes Closed

My first piece for the excellent, excellent online magazine Killing the Buddha. On faith, Berkeley, evangelicals, and shame. I don’t know why, but several people who read this said it made them cry. Hopefully not in a bad way.

Searching for Bach

Just because Killing the Buddha is so great, I sent them this essay, which had gone through a long, torturous writing and revision process. I owe my friend Carla Costa many thanks for helping it get to its present form. This was the first of my pieces picked up by Andrew Sullivan’s Dish blog, a great resource for news, social commentary, and interesting writing.

The Nones are Alright: What We Can Learn from a Generation of Seekers

My first cover story for the national Jesuit magazine America, on the reasons why people who walk away from religion may be more compassionate and giving than the people who stay in it. This essay has lead to some really interesting discussion, commentary, and talk.

Color and Consciousness

An essay on Bruce Reyes-Chow’s book But I Don’t See You As Asian, race, consciousness, and liberation theology, once again for Killing the Buddha. I loved Bruce’s book, and loved writing about it.

Prose and Prayer

America’s first issue in October featured their blockbuster interview with Pope Francis. The issue after that featured my essay on writing spiritual autobiography (on the cover, again; sheesh…). Cool.

Faithless Generation

Originally written pre Pope Francis, my essay for Commonweal on the vanishing of Generation X from organized religion elicited some really interesting discussions (in some cases, from people who actually read the essay). I have to thank my editor Mollie Wilson O’Reilly for her deft hand in shaping this piece. For those who think writers don’t need editors, well, you’re wrong. We do.

Torn Bread

I wrote this essay in about an hour. It was one of those feverish, dreamlike states writers sometimes get into, when the resulting work is usually not very good. But this time, something worked. And once again, Brook Willensky-Lanford was willing to help me get the work out there, both at KtB and at Salon, which gave my essay a rather sensationalistic new title and elicited a ton of really insulting comments (hooray!). Then it caught the attention of a blogger who called it “pathetic” and set off a shit storm in the comments yet again. And then Brook eloquently came to its defense. So, all in all… an interesting way to end the literary year. If I’m provoking both the hardline atheists and the traditionalist Catholics, I must be doing something right. So, I think I’ll just keep doing it.

Moving and memeing

Posted in Uncategorized on November 14th, 2013

So, blog. I last checked in at the beginning of September. It’s mid November now. In my defense, this semester turned out much, much tougher than expected: merit review at school was due two months earlier than last year, I’m teaching from 9am until 6pm, a brutal schedule for anyone, and in early October, I found out my landlord decided to sell my home of 7 years, which meant throwing ourselves into one of the most expensive and competitive rental markets in recent history. It took four weeks to find a place, we’ve been packing and purging for three weeks, and will finally move next Friday. I’ll be leaving Oakland, the town where I grew up, because the encroaching gentrification leaking over from San Francisco has made it expensive and difficult to rent here and buying at these astronomical prices is out of the question. Which in and of itself is a heartbreaker, not to mention leaving this neighborhood and the people here. It’s been home for the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere, other than my parents’ house.

So, you know. Hard times. But the new place is nice, and in a quiet, rural-ish part of the area. It’ll be a good place to write.

Let me make up for this long silence by taking a crack at a meme I got tagged for on Facebook but will try to get through here instead, just because I’m a chronic over-sharer (I write creative nonfiction; that’s what we do).

9 things you don’t know about me

1. My left leg is nearly two inches shorter than my right leg, which makes me walk with a loping, sluggish gait. People on campus at Berkeley walk really, really fast — the campus is huge — so in the midst of these rushing crowds of mostly short people,  sometimes I feel like an Ent.

2. Educationally, my experiences were all over the map. Went to two elementary schools (one Catholic, one public), one Junior High (public), two high schools (one Catholic, one “alternative”), three colleges (two public, one Catholic) and two graduate writing programs (one public, one private) before I earned my degrees. Much of this was due to my teacher mother trying to find a school where I’d do well. In college, it was mostly due to my being depressed and/or stoned a lot of the time.

3. Although I’m sort of known as a “Catholic writer” (what does that even mean?), I consider myself to be an agnostic Catholic, a questioning Catholic, and a spiritual seeker who’s found her primary home in Catholicism. But over the years, a lot of my rage and anger at the institutional church has turned instead toward a desire to talk with people about the issues that bother me (you know, misogyny, homophobia, etc etc) rather than ranting about them. I guess you could call that maturity. But I’m still pretty sure Mary wasn’t a virgin for most of her life.

4. Speaking of religion, I have a lifelong case of what we might call Jewish envy. My love of Jewish faith, culture, rituals, art, music, food, and so on has sometimes made me wonder if I should reconsider the whole Jesus thing. Also, humor. A Jewish person who picked up my book recently asked me if I wasn’t secretly a Jew because he’d never read anything that funny from a Catholic writer.

5. If I go to a party, it takes me two days to feel normal again. Classic introvert.

6. Rituals before I can fall asleep include the usual face washing, tooth brushing and flossing, and pillow punching, but I’m also unable to fall asleep without cleaning the lint from between my toes if I’ve worn socks that day. Feet are gross.

7. Although, as the author of a book on indie, a former college radio DJ, and a person who owns a lot of vintage vinyl, I have impeccable music snob credentials, I really enjoy a lot of objectively corny music mostly by male singer/songwriters. Gordon Lightfoot, John Cougar Mellencamp (shut up, Scarecrow is a great album), Jim Croce. Okay, I’m ashamed of myself now.

8. My style is important to me, though I rarely write or talk about it, probably because I was part of the third wave of feminism and style was an issue that alarmed a lot of us. But I’ve never met a piece of big jewelry, a pair of beautiful leather boots, or a sweater I didn’t like. My nails are always painted, I wear makeup every day, and I try to keep my hair interesting.  My style just sort of does its own thing: I don’t read fashion magazines or blogs, but I look at what other people are wearing a lot, and I think about clothes as an expression of identity a lot. And I find it mildly depressing that many women in academia and a lot of female writers see style as antithetical to intelligence or substance. It’s a challenge dressing an atypical body type like mine (tall but not thin), but I enjoy it, and as I’m a somewhat withdrawn person in real life, my clothes can speak on my behalf.

9. Without prompting, sometimes I start reciting Hamlet’s soliloquies, which sounds terribly snobby, but Hamlet was my father’s favorite play.




For California Through and Through

Posted in Uncategorized on September 1st, 2013

This past Thursday, after a muggy, insomnia inducing night, I put on my teacher clothes and drove to Berkeley to begin my 14th year as a lecturer in the writing program. This semester, I’m not teaching any upper division courses; my course load has returned to the pattern it followed for the first ten or so years of my work at Cal, which means lots of comp and a little research. It’s very hard work, very challenging, and very intense, both for myself and for my students, who on the first day looked a little nervous, a little bored, and a lot overwhelmed.

I don’t write much about my life at Berkeley, mostly because I am there so much and so consumed by the work it’s not my favorite topic, but it is part and parcel with my vocation, which is writing. But because the opportunity to teach in my genre of writing — creative nonfiction/narrative journalism/whatever you want to call it — doesn’t come along every semester, there’s the temptation to forget that the building blocks and tools of writing I give my comp students are just as significant as the tools of creative nonfiction I give the upper div-ers. But as yet another semester begins and Sproul Plaza goes overnight from being the summer ghost town to wall-to-wall jostling flesh, it does remind me that I have a part to play in the life of this massive, confusing, dysfunctional institution that we’re repeatedly reminded (by the administration)  is “the top public university in the country/world/universe/galaxy.”

Is Berkeley a great school? In many ways. If you’re a STEM person, absolutely. If you’re in humanities or social sciences, it’s hard to tell. It’s great because of the students, who are, to the one, brilliant. It is so difficult to get in to Cal that each of our students battles and fights for that place in class. In terms of diversity, it’s absolutely great. But it is massive. Forty thousand students spread over a thousand plus acre campus. My classes are among the smallest ones undergrads will take; the average lecture they attend has 500+ people enrolled. It is very easy to feel insignificant at Cal, and to feel lost.

My own undergrad experience was nearly the opposite. I bounced around three undergrad schools before I finally graduated, but each of them had fewer than 3000 students. And each presented problems for me at the time: one was too disorganized (no grades, no majors), one was too expensive (out of state tuition). The final one, where I earned my BA, was just a bit claustrophobic. The campus is so small that when I went out there last year to give a talk and suggested to my husband we walk around beforehand, we had to walk around twice to kill 20 minutes. But it was at that college where teachers finally recognized me as someone other than a hunched lump in the back of the room (like a lot of college students, I was dealing with undiagnosed depression at the time), and they prodded me out of my sulky attitude — mostly — and convinced me I had something worth contributing. Socially, I tanked: a commuter student at a residential college, I preferred going home and being with my alt/indie/punk friends, but academically, I soared. It only took two or three professors encouraging me to push me along.

Rarely do I get to play that part at Cal. My job is mostly to get students past the required courses with a skill set and a passing grade. But of course, like any writer set loose in her subject, I try to do more: to interest them in social justice and the ways we can use writing to awaken people to topical issues; to make them feel like they’re part of a community in and out of class; to challenge preconceptions that writing and reading are boring/tedious/shitty/(just read anything on my evals). Sometimes I succeed in showing them this “more”, often I don’t. But here’s the thing about Berkeley: it’s so big that once someone finishes my class, odds are I will never see them again. They’ll be there for four more years and our paths will not cross once. Recently a friend of mine was doing a Masters at Berkeley; for three years, we were on campus at the same time, two buildings apart, and I bumped into her once. My second cousin works on campus and I’ve bumped into him once in six or seven years. I’ll pass a former student a few months after they’ve finished my class and smile and they’ll look at me blankly. It’s not because they dislike me (I hope…), but because life at Cal is so stressful, so much about rushing and running and being in 50 places at once. And after 14 years, that’s exhausting to be a part of, and to watch people enduring. People graduate and care deeply about Berkeley: they say it changed their lives, and I believe that. But while they’re here, they look tired and sound lonely a lot of the time.

So I’m trying, yet again, to do more to help with that. To have students write about what it means to be at Cal, where Cal succeeds, where it falls short. And maybe it’ll help, maybe it won’t. But better they examine their roles in this community, if we can call it that, and consider ways in which they too might be awakened to the potential they have as individuals to make a contribution to it, than they bob through four years here with their heads barely above water. I don’t think great schools are supposed to feel like machines. But then again, maybe my joints are just getting rusty.

Oh dang

Posted in Uncategorized on August 18th, 2013

Did I really manage to go over a month between blog updates? Well, yeah. But I was trying to enjoy my very brief break between summer school and fall semester when a potentially huge writing project fell into my lap. Life’s been kind of a sinkhole since, mostly in good ways.

I’ve been up to some other stuff too, including writing a new joint on race, consciousness, liberation theology and Bruce Reyes-Chow‘s book But I Don’t See You As Asian for Killing the Buddha. I also just finished up a piece for America Magazine on teaching spiritual autobiography, which was one of my two teaching gigs this summer. And I’ve been editing again, helping a few friends with essays and book proposals, which has been pure pleasure for me.

Aaaaand my events for fall and spring are starting to shape up, with two trips out of town to two conferences that, frankly, couldn’t be more different: the progressive Catholic gathering Call to Action and the huge (HUGE) writing conference, AWP. More info on those, and the other things I’m up to, below.Will try to say something more coherent soon, with the caveat that fall semester at Berkeley starts… in a week. Yikes.

Litquake, October 19, 2013 (The Mission, San Francisco, CA: venue TBA)

Call to Action Annual Conference, November 1-3, 2013, Milwaukee, WI

Creative Writing Reading Series, February 19, 2014, St Mary’s College, Moraga, CA

Association of Writers and  Writing Programs Conference, February 26 – March 1, 2014. “Doubt is My Revelation: Nonfiction Writers on Religion”: panel with Nathan Schneider, Jeff Sharlet, Brook Willensky-Lanford and Kaya Oakes. Seattle, WA

Afternoon Craft Conversation, “From Journalism to Creative Writing”, April 9, 2014, St Mary’s College, Moraga, CA


please and thank you

Posted in Uncategorized on July 7th, 2013

Perhaps this is a particularly female phenomenon, and perhaps even more so a particularly Catholic one, but this thing about waiting for permission to do something: I don’t get it. Coming from the punk/indie/DIY community, my modus operandi has always been:

(a) will this thing I want to do hurt anyone

(b) can it be done cheaply/for free and

(c) will it kill me to do it on top of my full time day job.

If the answer is no to all of the above, I just figure out a way to make it work. I’ve done this with starting a magazine, done it with writing books, done it with creating nonprofits, done it with starting theology groups, writing groups, tutoring, feeding people on the street. I’ve done it at my church, at other people’s churches, in social justice settings. I’ve done it at the school where I teach, and at schools where I’ve taught in the past. Sometimes there are hurdles that do require permission, like securing a meeting space, but generally those are gotten over easily if you are respectful and polite (thanks to my late grandma for lessons in simple civility, which I still use to this day). The worst outcome is that I’ve been called a feminist (oh no!) and pushy (oh dear) and the best outcome is that I’ve found a way to be of service to others.

And yet, I can’t fail to notice that other people tend to wait for permission much of the time. There is evidence of this everywhere in Catholicism, where lay people are so passive so much of the time. Over and over people say to me, I would like to start a prayer group like your pray and bitch group (see chapter 8 in my book). Or a writing group like the spiritual autobiography group I’m running this summer. Or a food bank. Or a soup kitchen. But I have to ask the priest if that’s okay.

Say what? Why? The priest is so busy he just wants to take a nap this afternoon. And besides that, why do you need permission to get together with your friends and talk about your problems with the church? I mentioned this to a young Jesuit the other day and he just sighed. And then sent me this quote from Mother Theresa: “Do not wait for leaders. Do it alone: person to person.”

The power of community is especially potent, in my experience, when that community is self formed. Community doesn’t magically appear because you ask someone if you can form one. It takes work, yes, but over and over people say to me community is what’s missing from their writing lives, their faith lives, their social lives. But then they say, oh, but I feel bad asking if I can start a blankety blank group. Listen: did Cesar Chavez ask for permission? Did Dorothy Day? Did the punks? Did the suffragettes?  Did Harvey Milk? Did the saints?

If you really want to start something, the only person you have to ask for permission is yourself.

Sort of essential but completely subjective list of creative nonfiction reads

Posted in Uncategorized on July 2nd, 2013

When I teach creative nonfiction (usually in the spring and summer), students often ask me for recommended reading. For years now I’ve had a Word doc with a list, which this morning suddenly seems to be missing from my laptop (frighteningly, I have over 1K docs with the word “reading” in the file name: that’s what 15 years of teaching writing will do to your machine). So this is an attempt to reconstruct it, with the caveat that I will add/edit/change this continuously as I read more and as friends, readers and students pass along recommendations. I am trying very hard to include one female writer for every male, more nonwhite writers, and more LGBTQ writers: your suggestions are most welcome.

Joan Didion: Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album

Dennis Covington: Salvation on Sand Mountain

Anne Carson: Plainwater

Montaigne: Essays

Rebecca Brown: American Romances

James Baldwin: The Fire Next Time, Notes of a Native Son

David Foster Wallace: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

Rebecca Solnit: River of Shadows, A Paradise Built in Hell

Eula Bliss: Notes from No Man’s Land

Susan Sontag: Against Interpretation, On Photography

Thomas Merton: The Sign of Jonas, New Seeds of Contemplation

Colson Whitehead: The Colossus of New York

Jeff Sharlet: Sweet Heaven When I Die

Sarah Bakewell: How to Live: A Life of Montaigne

John McPhee: Assembling California

Theresa Hak Hyung Cha: Dictée

Richard Rodriguez: Days of Obligation

Bob Dylan: Chronicles Part One

Jeff Chang: Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation

Annie Dillard: Holy the Firm, For the Time Being

Alison Bechdel: Fun Home; Are You My Mother

Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Mary Roach: Stiff; Packing for Mars

Jo Ann Beard: The Boys of My Youth

Zadie Smith: Changing My Mind

John Jeremiah Sullvian: Pulphead

Andrew Lam: Perfume Dreams

Joe Sacco: Palestine

John Edgar Wideman: Brothers and Keepers

Timothy Crouse: The Boys on the Bus

Rory Stewart: The Places in Between

Marilynne Robinson: When I Was a Child I Read Books

Gloria Anzaldua: Borderlands/La Frontera

Vladimir Nabokov: Speak, Memory

Louis Owens: I Hear the Train

Bill Buford: Among the Thugs

Additional recommendations from my summer creative writing students:

Between Stations, Kim Cheng Boey

John Jeremiah Sullivan, Blood Horse

Daphne DuMaurier, Vanishing Cornwall



Posted in Uncategorized on June 29th, 2013

It seems I’ve been doing an inordinate amount of crying for the last couple of days. Yes, I have PMS (dear reader, this happens to women: deal with it). Yes, my beloved home state, the state my grandparents on both sides and great-grandparents on one side were born in, the state that gets so many things wrong and holds so many people and the state that burns and shakes and is everything to anyone, received a gift. It’s called love. Remember that? Love.

Ten years ago this past Wednesday, I got married. I had never really wanted to get married in the traditional sense of vows before God (I was not back in the church at that point) and children and a mortgage etc. Did not want a white dress (we’d lived together for six years before we got married; who would I be kidding?). Cannot walk in high heels. Had no money nor did our families to spend on a big wedding which would only be photographs some years down the road. But somehow the time seemed right: he is a freelancer and I get benefits and the only way to add him on to them was to get married. So we got married, at City Hall in San Francisco, mid day, and then drove back to Berkeley and had burritos. Two days later, there was a small party in my mother’s back yard. A year later, the mayor of San Francisco said, get married, same sex people, and they did: they lined up around the block. One evening around that brief time, a friend and I were on the way to an event near City Hall, and I looked at the line of couples and said, I love it here. This is my home, my real home. This is the best of the place where you end up when you run out of land and the sea rises up to meet you. And then very misguided people, many of whom were from the same church I’d return to with so many mixed emotions about its attitude toward the Queer community that has surrounded me and loved me since childhood, forced those weddings to stop, and a little part of what we loved about California died. It died.

It’s alive again, but now the Google bus picks up rich employees in the Mission, and the Latino and Chicano families who made that neighborhood cannot afford to live there. And the house around the corner from me in Oakland went on the market for 650K, advertised as a “charming Victorian farmhouse” (it is not) and the African American families who live around here, and the Chicano families, and the lower middle class white people are nervous. We may be the next to go. Three black owned businesses were recently evicted from their location in the increasingly gentrified Temescal neighborhood to make way for a restaurant where very few people who live nearby will be able to afford to eat. And those same broke people will get a call from their landlords (as we just did) saying that the rent is going up (as ours just did) and then another call saying an assessor is coming to look at the property (the assessor walked through our house yesterday), because, even though  he says he’s not selling, he’s probably thinking about it, and then your sister whose husband is disabled will be trying to find an apartment because hers is being turned into condos and nothing has a hallway wide enough for a wheelchair that doesn’t cost nearly 3K a month. This is Oakland. This is not San Francisco. It’s not Manhattan. This is Oakland, where I was born and raised to believe in social equality above all else.

California gives you reasons to believe, and then it breaks your fucking heart, and it makes you weep inordinate amounts because of PMS, but also because those beautiful, joyous, same sex couples are not considered married in most churches, in most other states, in many parts of the world. And California is a beautiful bubble, and bubbles are fragile. They burst at the slightest pressure. Not those unions of love I’m watching (and waiting for: hello, friends! I want to bake your cake!). Those will hold fast. But the union between those of us who love California and those who know it is greedy, and loves money and technology and surface. We have lived underneath those things for so long we cannot understand that they are going to crush our hearts.

But people are getting married, again. And a million (million!) people will pour into the Bay Area this weekend and dance in the streets, they are already dancing, at at church tomorrow I will hug my lesbian and gay and bisexual and trans* friends and we will cry, again, and we will hold each other fast, always.


Posted in Uncategorized on June 1st, 2013

Ghost parents tend to march into our consciousnesses when capitalism reminds us we’re supposed to be buying them things. My friends whose mothers have passed dread mothers’ day. I dread fathers’ day. I dread it not only because my own father died almost 25 years ago, but because it’s a reminder that social expectations of what a father is supposed to be would mainly have failed in his case. Often I think this is generational; having been born in 1938, my parents don’t come from the school of parenting where children are hugged and squeezed and told they are loved. My father had trouble expressing emotions other than anger and resentment and occasional bouts of sentimentality, but that too is probably a coincidence of timing. By the time I was born, he was fairly deep into the alcoholism that would play a significant role in his death at 52. There were whole cascades of other health issues and a bad car accident involved as well, but booze was a key. Booze killed his father as well. Booze points a finger at some of the men in my family and says, “sorry, buddy, but you’re mine.”

He wasn’t cruel, just frustrated, a lot of the time. He wanted to write, and couldn’t (or didn’t, I don’t know). He found being home with his five kids difficult, and the fact that four of us were girls didn’t help. My father was old school Irish American macho: the favored only child born late in a marriage, probably he had grown up rather spoiled, and could get away with things, and we kind of ruined that. Often he’d just pick up and leave us, but I see from adulthood this was to keep him from losing it further. He worked very hard and resented it, and we never had enough money, which lead to fights between he and my mother, fights that seemed from my childhood vantage to be epic and circular, always coming back to the same things. I have been living with the guy I share a home with for 16 years total, so I do understand that happens in marriages: things go in circles. In my parents’ case, the circles got ugly, but instead of divorce he would just go, and come back, and go again.

He wasn’t a bad father, but he wasn’t the loving, supportive father, the effusive father who cries on the sidelines at sports events (because, as passionate as he was about baseball and hockey, he was no athlete, and excepting my younger sister, neither were any of us). He came to my cello recitals and theatre things, and when I began writing he read the little things I published in high school, but never said anything about any of them. He was present, which is more than many parents of kids I knew, but it was a different presence; in Berkeley, where I went to high school, the other parents swooped in with hugs and kisses and extravagant praise, and there was my silent father, off to the side, arms crossed, with a lot of grey in his beard. One of my friends spotted him in the back at my high school graduation, puffing on his pipe, and said “your dad is such a character.” That’s not really what a teenage girl wants to hear. She wants her dad to be awesome, fun to hang out with, entertaining. Instead, I had an oddity.

He used to talk at me a lot, rather than with me, but the things he talked at me about turned out to be the biggest pieces of the person I am. Shakespeare, Catholicism, poetry, classic films, growing up poor in Oakland, his fascination with Samurai films. I still recall the Christian Brother who spoke at his funeral talking about Leo and the Samurai films. He talked at me, and like any child and later teenager, I pretended not to be listening, but I listened. All the time. I recall nights when his friends would come over and they would talk and talk and drink and talk and drink and the room would be a fug of cigars and some music playing, Miles Davis or Bach, and I would lie down on the sheepskin rug on the floor and fall asleep and they would keep talking. And they talked about books and art and philosophy. Like a small, girl shaped sponge, I absorbed it all.

He gave me fathers, though. My godfather, his oldest friend, who calls me sometimes from New York, a night owl, a guy who’d swoop in during my childhood wearing a dashiki, bearing gifts from all over the world. I recall a box of candied dates from his time in Syria (he worked for the UN) and a Joan of Arc medallion from Paris that I lost in college when the chain snapped. And there were the other friends of my fathers’, one of whom sent me Thomas Merton’s Sign of Jonas when I had two toes in Catholicism and helped me turn back, even though the Church hurt him badly. And another friend who drove this ancient VW Beetle even though he was rich. And the Christian Brother who told me that years after my father died the Brothers would sometimes meet and have a “Leo Club” where they’d drink and talk about my dad. And all of the fathers I have in books and art and film and music. He seemed lonely to me, a lot of the time. But, as it turned out, he was loved. One of his coworkers told me that people loved him because he could tell stories. I suppose I inherited plenty of that.

My father showed love. He didn’t tell it. He insisted all of us go to college, and private high schools, even though paying the bills was a struggle. He insisted on educating his daughters even though he complained about women a lot. He was there when we did things even if he didn’t say much. A month or so before he died, when he was sick and frail,  he called me on the phone, and talked to me for an hour about Shakespeare in a moment when I was ready to drop out of college. And a few days later I got a postcard from him, with just these lines from Hamlet written on the back:

If ever thou didst hold me in thy heart,

absent thee from felicity a while

and in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain

to tell my story

Hamlet tells Horatio this, Horatio the Stoic, Horatio the student, Horatio who holds the story and will unfold it to Fortinbras and whoever else will listen. So I am my father’s Horatio, and I am a stoic, and a student, and I tell stories. And like my father I often show love rather than telling it and wonder, sometimes, if people see and understand that. Perhaps it’s a matter of perspective. From some angles, it looks like love. From others, it looks like a means for an inwardly fragile person to survive. And from others, it looks like both.





Posted in writing on May 28th, 2013

A few weeks ago, I went to hear the great theologian Sandra Schneiders IHM speak. The topic was women’s vocations, and as soon as she turned to the topic of women who aren’t drawn to being women religious, I started scribbling notes like mad. These are a few things I paraphrased:

*Vocation expands to fit the available space.
*Vocation is otherness: one can only be called from the outside.
*Discernment is a process of coming to a good decision about what I am called to do here and now.
*Discernment is also an assessment of attractions, abilities, and opportunities in relationship to what needs to be done.
*Charisms are not chosen but given.

Three years ago, when I was on a retreat where I was hot, miserable, lonely and restless, I sat in the courtyard late at night and wrote in my notebook “I want to be called to something.” All around me were priests, women religious, devout Catholics who happily sat for hours doing rosaries, and there I was: sweaty, cranky and unable to pray for more than 60 seconds at a shot. Three years later, the last remains sadly true. And still, I puzzle over this idea of vocation.

This summer, a friend of mine will be ordained to the priesthood. He’ll be one of those good priests: patient, tolerant, open minded, even feminist (yes, feminist male Catholics exist…). Another friend just returned from a vocation retreat at a monastery. And another has been put forth as a postulant to the priesthood. As she put it, “This Jesus thing is being turned up to 11.”

The truth is, I am seething with envy. Here are three people who have found that thing: the calling. And years after taking a risk and finding my religion again, I have yet to feel it. Watching men and women say the Mass, I prefer being in a pew, participating but not running the show. No part of me wants to hand out communion, read the Gospels, teach children, or wash the linens: pretty much the only roles married women are allowed to do in my particular religion. And then I wonder if this is a form of self sabotage, choosing a religion where I am confined to a passive position. Were I to vault over to another religion, it’s not unlikely that someone would have suggested by now, hey, maybe you want to be a priest? At a recent talk, I heard an Episcopalian woman say, “well, if you can sing, and articulate yourself, and you’re a woman in this church, someone’s going to ask you if you’re interested in ordination.”

The thing is, I’m not. Up and down, inside and out, consciously and unconsciously, the answer is no (and if you’re asking, of course I think women should be ordained). But this is the other thing. Last week I went to a talk by Simone Campbell of the Nuns on the Bus, and she said something like this: “If women could just work past the resentment and anger we feel at the institutional church, we might realize that we’re all baptized into the priesthood.” And then I remembered something else.

This past January, I was in spiritual direction with a young seminarian, trying to work out the complexity of issues I deal with whenever someone who’s read my book writes me to say “I want to find my religion again, can you help?” This doesn’t happen all the time, but often enough for me to grapple with whether I really can help anyone, with anything, ever. And the seminarian said, “Do you remember what you were baptized as?” And I said, well, my parents named be blah blah… and he stopped me and said, “Listen: you were baptized as priest, prophet and king. Well, queen. We’ve kind of forgotten this idea that the priesthood isn’t just one guy.”

That’s something I also heard echoed in the writing of Dan Horan, a Franciscan. “If the assembly doesn’t gather, there is no Mass. And, if there is no Mass, there is no church.” So just showing up? That’s vocation. Because showing up is hard. And doing it week after week? Hard. And actually listening to the readings when you just got an iPhone, finally? Hard.

This week, a friend whose dissertation I’d nudged along (he’s not a student at my University, and as a nontenured lecturer I am actually not allowed to read or give feedback on dissertations because only tenured people can do that, apparently: which is another issue…) wrote me with good news. Not only had be passed, but his committee thought it was good enough to be a book. And it struck me that I’ve had a vocation all along. I didn’t take vows, or make a promise to God. But I made a commitment, many years ago, to put a writing life above a financially successful life. And I make the commitment, over and over, to help people with their writing because I believe writing is a gift we’re given by others. Sometimes, I help a student who says in her reflection “I still hate writing after this class.” Often, it’s a different student who is only struggling to get a passing grade. But sometimes it’s an older person who wants to get down a family story for her grand kids, or a talented creative writer, or a grad student who’s hit the wall and just needs a push to break through.

It’s not a vocation religion, for all its reliance on the written word, likes to formally recognize. One doesn’t get to be a saint because one can write (just ask this poor guy). But it’s something some of us can do, and if the trickle of messages I get from readers is any indication, it’s important. Really important. Maybe, in its own way, just as important as ordination… only in a very different form. A new form? A different form? A problematic form? A form. A form of life.