The Shock and Value of Flannery O’Connor

Works by Flannery O’Connor are not difficult to read in the way that works by Russian authors or Henry James are difficult to read. They are difficult to read in that O’Connor held that because midcentury men and women had seen incredible things, they were harder to impress and wake up out of the doldrums of modern life. How do you stir someone who seems to be asleep?

The same question could be applied to our technologically savvy, smart phone-using world. We are so sated with entertainment that it can be mind-numbing. The whirring of gadgets no longer registers as noise to us. To arrest our attention, screenwriters and directors aim faster, harder and louder to keep us engaged. Headlines are more salacious, brazen or teasing. Considering this approach, little has changed in the 60 years since O’Connor wrote for her audience.

What does Flannery get right?

O’Connor’s work is shocking and violent. I read her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, with relish after the dissatisfaction I felt with “Madame Bovary.”

In Madame Bovary, the novel fails because of the author’s inability to grasp and the possibility of change in the main characters. They are what they are and what they are will damn them.

The Violent Bear It Away deals very directly with our ability to make a choice, to pursue or run away from a transcendent call.

If you, like Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, believe that man is the only measure of himself, the only one who can call himself to anything, you will disagree with this assessment. But I think there is something beyond us, something bigger than ourselves working in and out of this world.


A belief or experience of transcendence is such a ubiquitous concept across time and cultures that psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman listed it in his list of Character Strengths and Virtues, a concept of positive psychology that examines not what makes a man ill, but well, happy, fulfilled and flourishing.

Internal Locus of Control

Psychology also proposes that successful and well-adapted individuals likely have an internal locus of control (among other things). It is a sense that in a given situation, we can make a choice and our choices matter. Our choices affects the outcomes.

O’Connor’s vision aligns with these concepts. In all her works, we meet broken characters. Most are generally broken by pride. Pride that they are superior in their righteousness, in their class, in their skin color, in their education. It is often the humbler character of her writing who can see the bigger picture, for pride blots out a multitude of good sense.

As these characters, limited by their background or the smallness of the world, interact with the more worldly ones puffed up by pride, something happens. There is an action, an encounter, to deflate the proud. In her short stories, the action is presented in a tightly woven series of events and comes to a quick and intense ending, often deadly.

Even modern man with his gadgets and medicine cannot escape this last end.

We saw our society shaken down with fear of death as the novel virus with unknown origin, risk factors and spread came onto the stage. Anxiety persists even up to now. It has rocked those who felt safe and secure in their modern world to their core.

This, O’Connor believes, is the moment of grace. It is the moment of invitation. It is the moment to ask ourselves, when faced with the universal reality of death, “So what?”

So what? What difference will it make?

Did this last year change you?

What did you do with the anxiety surrounding death?

Those with the stomach for it, who can overcome the shocking quality of her work, find themselves returning to her work again and again. With the shock worn down by repeat exposure, they find themselves drawn into the mystery of these questions. What is the moment of grace? What is the call to transcendence? What choice does the character make? His or her actions have consequences; they mean something; they matter.

And so do yours.

Madame Bovary – Modern Woman

This month I revisited Madame Bovary.

Madame Bovary, written by Gustave Flaubert, made waves in its day as a scandalous piece of work in which a married woman pursues adulterous affairs. That tale is, alas, as old as time. What makes Madame Bovary a truly modern woman is her absolute existential boredom.

Decadent young woman. After the dance by Ramon Casas 1899

She was a devout child, but the author tells us time and again, sincerity is not the motivation. Strong emotion is. Bovary desires to be moved, transported, whether through music, poetry, romance or sex. First religion, then novels, then she tries her hand at marriage and homemaking only to find her husband a weak match for her flights of fancy. Motherhood comes next, then adultery.

Through each step the reader witnesses her first delights, then her acclimation to the new passion, then her desperate hope to keep the feeling going, then the abandonment. Either she abandons it or, out of boredom with her, it abandons her.

Her early dabbling into poetry, mythology and novel reading is akin to the excitement and entertainment the modern woman seeks through our endless array of media: cinema, television, the latest Oprah recommended novel, and social media. She wants to be the heroine of the story.

Social media allows the modern woman to believe she actually could be the heroine by seeing other women “like her” have it all in decor, fashion and good sense. Like a good Instagram follow, Bovary pours herself into her home, her marriage and her motherhood.

Bovary tried to follow the rules, but then chucks it all for the thing that feels good. What feels good must be right. She must follow her heart. “You do you” is the modern expression for the rule of unconditional non-judgmental acceptance that works fine for what wall color you want or method for getting your toddler to sleep, but most individuals will draw the line when it comes to vow breaking, murder or self-harm. Relativism can only go so far.

Nothing fills the existential void. She deteriorates further. Emma shops, surrounding herself with beautiful things to forget her misery. Debt accumulates. Credit was more personal in those days, but still just as dangerous.

Her personality faults, the weaknesses of her vision, are much like the modern traps of today. Bovary’s heart desires transports, which speaks to a deeper need for transcendence. She is the mystic who cannot find her vision.

For all her attempts at repentance, the author makes clear she is not seeking real meaning, but just a way to revive the passion she once felt. She is, so to speak, chasing the dragon, looking for transports but not transcendence.  

No one can see her for who she is.

The men in her life project their images onto her. She is a darling or angel, she is a fine body, and she is a kindred spirit, she is a monetary opportunity. To the women, she is a shameless piece of work who cannot keep properly house. Not one person sees her as a complete person, able to speak the truth to her of how she fails herself and those around her. The answer to her trouble cannot be found in the world around her.

The Introduction of this particular edition described the Flaubert’s personal views of women. It may be that Emma Bovary is never seen because the author himself was less than capable of seeing women as whole persons.

Writers, painters, musicians, playwrights, and the like, can see deeper into the world and articulate it through their medium. Yet there comes a point when the medium will be limited or exalted through their perception of the world.

Are moments of grace possible, or are we all doomed to follow the trajectory we set out on early in life, determined perhaps so primitively as by our personality? Are we just responsive to physical impulses, incapable of setting meaning to the emotions that move us or satiate us? Flaubert dabbles with deep things but ultimately cannot answer them.

It isn’t the adultery that makes the book a bad book, but the belief that Bovary and the man she married are ultimately doomed because they believed or hoped in something greater than themselves.

When you stop believing in that, what hope is there?

Learning Routines: Accounting for Weakness

Set the scene

There is a scene in “The Gilmore Girls” in which Rory at Yale finds the perfect study tree. It fits her back perfectly with an atmosphere or not too loud and not to quiet. In the end, she is willing even to pay someone to vacate its trunk so she can enter that ideal state of mind for focused study.

Continuing the focus on learning routines, whether homeschooling or working from home, it works much the same way. I am not in the office I wrote about so lovingly as I type this. I am at a desk, set temporarily against a window in the living room to make space for a baby in my bedroom.

On this desk sits alpaca yarn in a tangled mess, a doll that needs repair, roses dying in a vase of murky water, and a library book that cannot be renewed. Coos and questions and crying draw my attention every minute or so. There is little about this setting conducive to that ideal state of mind.

Our location matters a great deal for focus.

The art of homeschooling or working from home means taking into account my weaknesses as well as the ideal I aim for. It is only by being honest but not fatalist about my weaknesses that I can begin to approach the ideal.

Over the past year, with a fourth grader, second grader and kindergartener to teach, I had to learn to focus and sit still.

My weakness: I want to act.

With so much to be done around the house, a tidy room mattered for how our day was to begin. If some tasks for the day were not completed the distraction of them would tempt me during one of the quieter moments of the day to break away from the work of waiting patiently for the student to work out 5+7.

My focus was the glue that kept the homeschool day together. With technology, social media, and so many opportunities for instant gratification in this world, it has become very difficult to focus. It is easier to respond to every interruption, to check out briefly and occupy myself with an email, a social media check, a scroll through Instagram.

Patience is hard. Yet homeschooling demands it.

Luckily, patience is a virtue and virtues are learned through practice. Suffering from impatience early in the school year does not spell disaster for the next nine months. One bad day does not mean this is a terrible idea, that we were crazy to embark on this plan, that the world around us obviously doesn’t realize how much our kids need to be in traditional school and we need to not be their teachers.

Teaching or working from home calls for its own skill sets. It can be learned, grown into and maybe even mastered in its own way.

Because I know this about myself, our commute to school is the task of tidying the room to prepare to begin the school day. In this way, we switch gears from breakfast and home to work.

Practical parts of the routine

On the counter I write out my daughter’s subjects and their order for the day, setting the list beside her stack of books. She will work independently after the morning basket. I put my phone on my desk, out of sight, and set out another ordered stacks of books.

Once the oldest is dismissed, we begin a careful balance as I flit from one child to the next, while reminding those not receiving attention to refrain from interrupting.

When I see they are distracted we move locations. Our primary spots are the couch, the dining table, and desks in one of the bedrooms. This line of desks is set up to remove the distraction of siblings’ faces. I sit to the side, where I can work one-on-one as needed and still call out idle hands, wandering eyes or daydreaming minds.

Be realistic

I should not expect them to focus without me present, which is why I cannot escape during the day. I know their weaknesses along with my own. Homeschooling makes it possible to adjust to both.

Distractions and interruptions will happen. Acknowledging this is the key to progress. We do our best, begin with a plan, find areas where it needs work, problem solve and adjust often, sometimes weekly, to find a better fit.

I recommend

I recommend satire.

This month I read “A Handful of Dust” by Evelyn Waugh. Set in the 1930s, Tony and his wife live a Downton Abbey existence but he is more Mr. Grantham than Lady Mary and does not change with the times. He just rolls along attached to the traditions.

She is a modern lady with modern ideas. She does not like the décor of their stuffy, uncomfortable estate, but does enjoy her monthly day trips to the city. There she meets a man, pushes him into an affair with her and takes a London flat to continue their dalliance.

This could be the subject of any genre, really, but the author is a master of subtle satire. Instead of intimately probing their goings-on, he shows the fallout how all they build, all they hold onto, it but ashes compared to the seriousness with which they give it.

The weight of their concerns likes in sentiment, how it feels. Sentiment is based on certain psychological associations and traditions. Emotions are a combination of cognitive and bodily sensations that can be as influenced by my prejudiced beliefs as by the meal I neglected to eat.

Thus satire can take our unspoken, unconscious conclusions and illustrate to us how they really look.

I recommend “The Princess Bride.”

This is not satire. This is comedy. This is the perfect romantic comedy in which everyone except the villain and his henchman is loveable.

During our most recent viewing, after Westley has been attacked by the R.O.U.S., his shoulder bitten and bleeding, my children marveled, “how come he’s still going if he’s hurt?” The innocents of our home are practically paralyzed by a small cut on the toe. To see a man persevere despite injury puts their passions in perspective.

“Some hard things are worth doing,” we tell them.

The classic hero-villain story in which we do not explore the psychology and woundedness of the villain is ripe with moral lessons children need to learn in their simplicity before they are cognitively ready to take them in their complexity.

I recommend the musical “Hamilton.”

My husband and I were gifted two tickets in July 2017. The musical, now available on Disney+, does the opposite of Waugh’s satire in “A Handful of Dust.” All the founding fathers seek to build something lasting, something built on principle, rather than emotions, sentiments, or passion.

As a modern composition, Lin Manuel Miranda explores and experiments with various ideas of what psychological motivations stood behind these historical actions.

Despite the complexity, George Washington is a hero, a man who is challenged, facing hard things, carrying his own regret, but pushing forward. “There’s nobody else in their country who looms quite as large,” King George acknowledges.

Washington is no saint, but neither is his legacy denigrated by his mistakes. He openly admits to having “led [his] men straight into a massacre” when he was younger. He cautions Hamilton in his desire for glory and upward mobility.

It is a wonder to think what individuals faced in order to build something that has lasted 224 years.

“Congress writes, George, attack the British forces/I shoot back, we have resorted to eating our horses.”

 “A thousand soldiers die in a hundred-degree heat/as we snatch a stalemate from the jaws of defeat.”

Some hard things are worth doing.

While purists are put off by then creative license and avenues taken, when the facts are missing, storytellers are generally allowed to fill in the gaps of our knowledge as they tell the story. As in film, writers condense complex timelines and historical records to highlight particular aspects of the story. I do not recommend “Hamilton” for studying history; I recommend as a study of character.

The desire to build something lasting and the urge to make something of himself motivated Hamilton.

Ideals motivate Jefferson.

The desire to become important and essential motivated Burr. Finding another in the place he desired, his motivation, the emotion that moves his actions, turns to jealousy, leading to this final and conclusive action.

Whether literature, film, or Broadway, there are stories that can teach us something about ourselves. When we identify with a character, we see their actions and principles play out safely at a distance. We can learn without having left our seats. And hopefully, we can improve.

Lyrics taken from memory then confirmed at

Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!”

How do you Meet The Lament?

With pandemic reading coming to a close, I began to read short stories to my husband. First, a little Flannery O’Connor, then to check the item off my to-do list, we settled on the couch and I began reading “The Lament” by Anton Chekhov.

The art of the short story is the art of capturing an entire world in a single moment.

The more ordinary the moment, the better the author has done it. I once approached short stories as a news article, give me the facts, or a magazine feature, paint me a detailed and wide-ranging illustration of what we are about. This expectation made some short stories, like “Springtime á La Carte” by O. Henry very satisfying and “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor approachable, but left others utterly baffling (see “Hills like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway).

As my husband and I came to the last words of “The Lament” our reaction, both of us was to pause and say, “hmm.” It was hard to know what else to say.

In series of short stories titled, “The Poet and the Lunatics: Episodes in the Life of Gabriel Gale” by G. K. Chesterton, through a comic-murder-mystery telling, Chesterton explains to the world this breed of a person is called a poet. It may be “a person who writes poems” but, to put it more, ahem, poetically, a poet is one who “possesses special powers of imagination or expression.” According to Chesterton, this might make him one step away from lunacy, but it certainly makes him more insightful. Only the truest poet can capture the short story because only the poet can whole worlds in a brief exchange.

“The Lament”

“The Lament” captures a moment, a man on a cab, drawn by a horse in the snow, who takes a single passenger and then a group of passengers before turning in for the night. He attempts multiple times to begin the same conversation, “My son…died this week,” he starts.

There are moments of awkward sympathy and comic dismissal. Overall, the world around him does not care. The narrator tells us, “It will soon be a week since his son died, and he has not been able to speak about it properly to anyone. One must tell it slowly and carefully; how his son fell ill … surely the listener would gasp and sigh, and sympathize with him?”

It is certainly a story for our times!

The world is moving so fast, so anonymously around him, and in the end, there is no one else to listen to him but his horse, because no one else has the time, the care, or the relationship to listen.

It relates to the world now because people are lonely, their pets become like children. For too many, they have no one else to love them, or with whom they feel safe enough to open their hearts to vulnerably.

Mother Teresa said,

“The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.”

The world without may see to be burning down around us, but what goes on within us? To love and to be connected to others breaks the heart that it might soften. When it softens, it will meet with grief and heartache. The power of enduring love is the choice to continue even though.

As C.S. Lewis wrote, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

Chekhov sees in his cab driver that desire to preserve the softness of his love for his son in his grief, by holding the story of his death sacred. There is no one with whom he can share it.

In the end,

“Iona’s feelings are too much for him and he tells the little horse the whole story.”

Let’s not allow our communities to come to this point. Let us hear the stories. Let our hearts break a little when some suffering comes our way so that we can, as a community, be built stronger together than divided apart.

Previously published in the weekly column, Here’s to too Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

What a nine-year-old thinks of the opera

The rain came down steadily as we rushed out to the van, ready to pick up her friend and arrive in time to park and walk to the historic State Theater in Modesto for an event combining two great loves of mine: opera and literature. Though I dared not hand over an adapted copy of “Mansfield Park” to my daughter, given its controversial themes, she knew of “Emma” and “Pride and Prejudice” from movies, BBC mini-series and Babylit books.

As an avid reader, Miriam will say the skill of reading serves many purposes from aiding the desire to be an author one day to helping one work independently in their schoolwork. She knows a world exists inside the covers of a book, allowing us to go beyond the walls of our home to touch something new. “Sometimes it can teach you things like some books can give you information about living outdoors and camping and they can also give you facts. I learned about London from The Famous Five,” she said.

She prefers to read stories that are adventurous and magical. What would a nine-year-old think of an Austen classic about love, marriage, and intrigue, with a small setting and an exteriorly small narrative?

This is what she had to say:

“It was raining. My mother and I had just set off in the car when my mother realized that it was too early. So I stayed at home and did my math and at the right time we set off in our van and picked up Grace, my friend, on the way. Then we arrived and someone showed us the way to the State Theater. There were lots and lots of seats, they went lower as there were more rows. They had some special curtains because they had no backstage. We sat down in our seats near the middle. Before the show started someone came out and told us a few facts about “Mansfield Park.” My friend Grace had a paper that told her the names of the characters, the name of a dog, and who they were engaged to and who they marry.

“The director said it was a battle over Edmund’s soul. The opera starts out with Mr. Rushworth asking Maria to marry him. In the end, Edmund asks Fanny Price to marry him. I loved it, it was so wonderful. My friend Grace and I discussed it to each other on the way back to our homes, about Fanny Price and Mary Crawford. We noticed that Mary was beautiful but she didn’t care that much about virtue. And Fanny is plain looking but she is a good woman.

“I liked the characters, how they looked, their faces. I liked that they sang instead of talked, how the story is written. It surprised me that Edmund asked Fanny Price to marry him.

Fanny Price was my favorite and so was Edmund. I liked her voice. I like how Edmund cared about virtue and his voice.”

From Opera Modesto's Production of Mansfield Park. Edmund Bertram played by Andrew Pardini with Alix Jerinic as Fanny Price. Photo by Kathryn Anne Casey
Edmund Bertram played by Andrew Pardini with Alix Jerinic as Fanny Price. Photo by Kathryn Anne Casey

The opera, offered as a free student/reader performance whet her appetite for more. She said, “I’d love to attend an opera again. I’d like to see Pride and Prejudice and I’d like to attend more of Jane Austen’s stories.”

As Opera Modesto board member, Hillari DeSchane said during the pre-opera talk, “Opera strips the story down to its skeleton and the clothes put back on our musical notes.” Bringing the story to its core makes it accessible, relatable, and human in a new way. For a girl, nine years old, it illustrated, dazzled, amused, and delighted her with its reliability, the importance of the decisions made between virtue and vice, and the talent demonstrated.

As a lover of art and literature, I know that exposure to great art and great talent broadens our perspective and offers us an experience of transcendence, taking us to a place of beauty. As a mother, to see her wide eyes, her giddy gestures, her overwhelming joy at a match made between the right people for the right reasons, fills my heart in a deeper and fuller way than I could have thought possible.

Photo of two nine-year-olds at the State Theater, Modesto
Photo by Kelly Osterhout

Top Book Picks from 2019

I’m not sure how it happened. We moved to the country. The children lived outdoors in the summer. And I read. I sat my pregnant body on the couch every nap time at noon and read. I snuggled in the covers when the kids protested bedtime in their beds at 7 p.m. and read. When deep reading happened, I read for hours. When book club deadlines came up, I read for hours.

For me, reading is a pleasure, a professional development and an academic pursuit. Picture books are an opportunity to stop the pressures of the days, put aside the to-do list and enter a magical world with my children.

The books I loved in 2019 are fairly diverse and I share them here by category.

In Literature

three books stood out to me.

Cover of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

First, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens as a familiar, the cozy, and feel-good winter read.

Cover of “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley

For a summer book club, I made my way through Frankenstein by Mary Shelley the monstrous Halloween cultural icon placed in the story of which has lessons we would do well to consider in this remarkable scientific age. Its themes include the responsibility one bears after playing with life through scientific research and the question of what makes someone human. Bearing almost no resemblance to movies young and old, “Frankenstein” is a thoroughly thought-provoking read and groundbreaking book in the canon of science fiction.

Cover of “The Portrait of a Lady” by Henry James

But my favorite work this year in literature was The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. Flannery O’Connor, whose work I love and whose life I admire, read everything James wrote. His characters are nuanced, the story intriguing. I love a good female protagonist, and although the ending did not quite offer the closure I craved, the writing was impeccable and I look forward to returning to this one again and again.

Spirituality and Religion

Cover of “I Believe in Love: A Personal Retreat Based on the Teaching of St. Thérèse of Lisieux” by Jean C. J. d'Elbée

In books focused on spirituality and religion, nothing quite compared to reading I Believe in Love: A Personal Retreat Based on the Teaching of St. Thérèse of Lisieux by Jean C. J. d’Elbée and How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art by Elizabeth Lev. I read “I Believe in Love” as a high school student and delving into that work was a reflective exercise revealing to me a pattern to my life and relationship with God I had not yet seen.

Cover of “How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art” by Elizabeth Lev.

In How Catholic Art Saved the Faith Lev walks the reader through the symbolism and cultural role of religious art during the Post-Reformation period. The book is a delight the eyes, the full color illustrations fodder for the soul, and it answers the question of why so much religious art seems to come from this particular time period.

The Craft of Writing

Cover of “The Letters of Flannery O'Connor and Caroline Gordon” by Christine Flanagan

To improve my craft,I took great pleasure in reading The Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon by Christine Flanagan. Gordon was an established writer as O’Connor started out and her advice to O’Connor as an author-mentor is absolute gold for the writer who takes the work of writing seriously.

In the self-help department

Cover of "It’s Good to Be Here” by Christina Chase.

one book stood out among the many I read for research for my next book project: It’s Good to Be Here by Christina Chase. Chase is a disabled woman with a degenerative muscular disorder. Having lived three times over what doctors predicted, her sharp and poetic mind brings into focus the things that really matter and helps right the perspective so easily lost when one is able-bodied. As a mother of a child with a chronic medical condition, this may be the best and most meaningful book I read all year.

and in 2020

While I do not adhere to reading lists with any form of discipline, my goals for reading in 2020 include another work by Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit; Henry James, The Golden Bowl; a foundation work in fiction, Beowolf and parts of The Canterbury Tales; and books on writing, The Art of Fiction by John Gardner; philosophy, Essays on Women by Edith Stein; and Catholic thought/spirituality, Literature Through the Eyes of Faith by R. R. Reno.

Do you have plans for what you will read in 2020? And yes, audiobooks most definitely count.

Previously published in “Here’s to the Good Life!” a weekly column in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Suggested Christmas Comfort Reads

Where is the silence this season? With four kids, holiday schedules that include more events not less for myself and my spouse, presents, plans, a baby due at the end of January, where is the stillness?

My mind whirls without reflection. The meditative booklets are reduced to one. I am paring down, contemplating a few handwritten notes instead of a flurry of Christmas photo cards, putting the hold button on any more decorating.

When my internal pace slows down, it is time for comfort watching and reading, sitting beside the Christmas tree, its soft glow and silver bells jingled by a mischievous kitten and kid. The familiar helps me read the silence and stillness needed to keep a modern family going in a busy world.

For some, comfort reads are cozy mysteries; for others, they are from the Jane Austen canon. Comfort watching might be black-and-white classics like The Shop Around the Corner and Miracle on 34th Street, modern charmers like Elf, or formula-followers like the Hallmark line-up.

A comfort read is a book that does not challenge the reader too much. Its writing is familiar; its characters lovable; its villains recognizable. We walk away with a sense of hope, security, or having spent time with old friends. The rain may fall with thunder outside the window, but inside, the cozy read is the sense that it will be okay, if only for that moment.

My literary line-up this month

The Cricket on the Hearth by Charles Dickens

The Cricket on the Hearth cover

A relatively short and lesser-known piece. In it, we are introduced to a couple so clearly beloved by the author, it is difficult not to love them immediately. Their intentions are so good, their love so pure, their joy so merry. Through them, we meet other, more troubled characters. Those with heartache find joy; the villain meets a quick conversion, and all is well while the cricket (a guardian angel or benevolent spirit) chirps away on the hearth.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol Cover

A very, very well known and delightful short during a busy season. After reading Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities in high school, Dickens may seem woefully unappealing to many, but A Christmas Carol represents all the good things about his writing. He loves his characters, and in his humor, you are inspired to love them as well. His pieces are all action, with minimal description, enough description, say, to guide a director in a movie in casting his characters and setting his scene. If you have watched any of the adaptations and then read the book, you will find all those quotable moments beautifully drawn.

I appreciate the scenes I have not seen represented in the movies. They deepen the characters and the regret of Scrooge. While the conversion in Cricket on the Hearth is too swift to be believable, Scrooge’s conversion comes in the stages natural to human life. We need more than one encounter with grace to inspire us to go from living for ourselves to living for others. Scrooge has three.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women Cover

is a comfort read for many a feminine reader. The events may feel foreign, young women who have a servant and house, struggling financially while their father is at war. But, the simplicity and charity in these women are what we hope most to find in those we know and love. It represents the relationships we would like our children to have, the mothers we women would like to be, the neighborhood interactions we dream about.

Their family meets deep sorrow. It is not a children’s book, but a book for adults and older children that still retains its innocence. In a world where mainstream television no longer holds this, the offering of something safe that still feels real, is most welcome.

There are many other works from other cultures and other times. These are the three I am reading this December, along with a host of picture books from the library and our Christmas collection.

It passes the raining days, brightens the darkened windows, and helps me slow down enough to remember what this season is supposed to be about.

Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch Weekly Column “Here’s to the Good Life!”

Saints and Heroes – A review of Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty

Is Dorothy Day a saint?

Cover of Dorothy Day: The World Will be Saved by Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of my Grandmother by Kate Hennessy

Dorothy Day: The World Will be Saved by Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of my Grandmother” is the story of an influential woman told by her granddaughter. Kate Hennessey explores not only the biographical details but considers the controversy over how Day is presented historically to the public, the push for canonization (naming her a saint in the Catholic Church) and the complex relationship between Day and her daughter, Tamar Hennessey, the author’s mother. Hennessey paints a portrait no other author can, that of exploring the depths of this remarkable woman, seeking to discover her for who she is, beyond the black-and-white claims of the left or the right.

On the surface, Day was a journalist, a columnist, a social justice advocate, a founder of a publication called the “Catholic Worker” so named to stand in contrast from the Communist publication the “Daily Worker,” and founder of houses of hospitality and worker farms in which no souls seeking shelter were turned away. She was a Catholic convert with a past to rival St. Augustine of Hippo, the first of our spiritual memoirists. 

Many want Day declared a saint.

Others object. Hennessey, with an eye on the person of Day, is willing to look at her as a human being filled with good motivations and good work, some mistaken ideas, a clear vision and the energy to put it into place. 

The author does this with deft and skill at the written word, following in her grandmother’s footsteps. She offers details usually left out of such works such as the operas listened to or musicals watched on television, the type of drinks consumed, the variety of shells collected. These details paint the scene for the reader, drawing out the sense of time, place and personalities engaged at these moments in Day’s life. 

The book opens with a question of how far back one must go in order to begin to understand Day. One must go very far back, it turns out, to her family of origin.

Hennessey’s perspective of a searching granddaughter never wavers. She writes openly of peppering her mother with questions of their past, and as the book draws to a close, shows clearly those moments at the kitchen table when the conversations must needs also come to a close, there was nothing more to say.

Saint-social-justice-warrior or radically-minded failure?

Hennessey offers the evidence and leaves the reader with the lesson we all must learn, most of our heroes succeed in some areas and failed in others, but that does not diminish their heroic status. 

Like many a student in California, I learned the virtues of Martin Luther King Jr. And the vices of Christopher Columbus. 

In graduate school, I was stunned to learn of the instances of plagiarism in MLK’s life and his failure in faithfulness to his wife. 

During a radio program exploring Columbus’ legacy and diaries, I got a glimpse of the nuances in his life indicating there might be more to the story, more villains and more innocence, good but period-influenced intentions. 

What does it mean? 

There are heroes and there are saints and the two paths might not always cross. A saint, recognized by the Catholic Church is someone who achieved an extraordinary degree of holiness, conformity with the will of God, during his or her life. 

A hero, in contrast, is someone with a remarkable skill or ability needed in a particular time and place, who moved forward history in some significant way. It says little about the rest of his or her life. Just because one person sees the vision of a more perfect union or has a dream where children of any color can play together, does not mean that person was perfect. Few of us are. 

We want our heroes to be immaculate and without sin, and so the temptation, especially in this modern name-changing, statue-removing times is to erase their presence in history. We want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak, an archaic saying meaning to accidentally throw out the good when we try to discard the bad. 

A better way is to approach, as Hennessy did, is the exploration of a person’s life in search of understanding, to praise the good, acknowledge the bad, and know that we can love the sinner who may never be a saint. 

I hope we all can aim for a virtuous and moral life. I wish we all might seek the good and desire to find a way towards goodness and improvement. But I also understand that human weakness runs deep, the temptation is strong and just as we grow up to see our parents’ in a fuller light, more than just mom and dad, but people with flaws, good intentions and great failings, we can see our heroes similarly. 

They can still be heroes. 

And so can we.

The Rigors of Rigoletto (and other arts)

Previously published as part of “Here’s to the Good Life!” a weekly column in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

On October 25 and 27, Opera Modesto will present the Guiseppe Verdi’s masterpiece Rigoletto to enthusiastic Gallo Center audiences. Like many classic operas, the tragic story centers around a licentious noble (the Duke of Mantua), a character with some deformity (the Duke’s court jester, a hunchbacked Rigoletto) and a beautiful woman (Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda). Opera Modesto brings back to the stage local favorites like Artistic and Creative Director Roy Stevens to play Rigoletto.

Roy Stevens as Rigoletto, Slovenian National Opera, who will star as Rigoletto for Opera Modesto
Roy Stevens as Rigoletto, Slovenian National Opera

In a continued spirit of collaboration Opera Modesto welcomes Victor Starsky of New York to sing the role of the Duke and Maya Kherani from San Francisco to performing as Gilda; and shines the spotlight on local rising stars making their operatic debuts: Amelia Schmidt of Oakdale as Contessa Ceprano; Summer Opera Institute teen performer Elizabeth Barton as the Paggio; and Kristina Townsend Memorial Competition award winner, Christopher Rodriguez (Fresno State) as the Ufficiale. 

Age-old truths come to life through opera: an avenue that combines the arts uniquely and boldly through costume design (visual arts), stage direction and acting, vocal performance, instrumental performance, and storytelling. According to Joseph Pearce, author, literature scholar and Director of the Center for Faith and Culture at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee, stories are interesting because people are interesting. “They relate lessons, insights, and experiences better than a straight presentation of the facts. Someone may be nodding along with a story when they’d be nodding off at a sermon.”

In their best works, storytellers like Shakespeare take the reader the outer rim of what language can do. They impress connoisseurs with their mastery. Opera does this with vocal performance. I have seen crowds go mad over 5-minute drum solos and long-held notes by country music singers. To see the repeated and taxing effort of an opera performer hold not one note but sing an entire aria without a microphone, traveling the vast range of human vocal potential, is spellbinding. 

We love to watch human feats. Being both spiritual and material beings, these feats act as a demonstration of the power of the will to push the body. The arts (visual, performance, written or craft) point us to the immaterial of man when a common physical or cognitive ability evolves to something beautiful.

Beauty, simply put by Thomas Aquinas, is that which, when seen, pleases. It shows the best of the object. One can use a voice to shout obscenities or harmonize. One can punch a wall or perform a fouette. I can text “wher u at” or transcribe a sonnet in calligraphy. We can profess “it all goes to the same place” or take a multi-course meal in its time savoring flavors that need not be exotic but simply bring out the goodness and quality of local cuisine. 

Every human action has this potential. We are physical, thinking and feeling beings, and every type of action can become an art form, performed with rhythm, apparent ease, style and flourish. 

It looks easy. Yet, the artist will tell you, the very best work comes only with difficulty. “Learning isn’t supposed to be fun, it’s work,” my college professor expounded in his disinterest in the style of education that serves the pleasure rather than the discipline of the child.

The goal of these arts, whether woodworking, poetry recitation, or football drills, aims at the same– not merely task completion, but to do so well and with mastery. 

This the potential of human nature more than other (irrational) animals. We have minds that can do, train and then with all the skills in hand, begin to practice the art – the part that feels, that requires intuition, saying, “I just knew it would work.”

Each has his art and not every art fits the standard description of “the arts.” We are all artists who must find that area that will speak to the soul and expand the mind, push the body, and reward not only the self but those who witness it. 

For my part, I look forward to once again, seeing this act in operatic form this month at “Rigoletto” at the Gallo Center in Modesto. For more information, visit

Rigoletto teaser poster