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Meditation And Modern Art Meet In Rothko Chapel

Pat Dowell

For 40 years, the Rothko Chapel in Houston has served as a space for personal contemplation, interfaith dialogue and action for human rights. The sanctuary was created by Mark Rothko, who committed suicide one year before the chapel opened. 
 The Rothko Chapel is an interfaith sanctuary, a center for human rights — and a one-man art museum devoted to 14 monumental paintings by abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. The Houston landmark, commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil, opened its doors 40 years ago, in February 1971.
For the past four decades, the chapel has encouraged cooperation between people of all faiths — or of no faith at all. While the chapel itself has become an art landmark and a center for human-rights action, the sanctuary's creator never lived to see it finished. Rothko committed suicide in 1970.

 A Quiet Space
Approaching the chapel from the south, visitors first see a steel sculpture called Broken Obelisk by Barnett Newman in the middle of a pool — it appears to be floating on the surface of the water. The chapel itself is a windowless, octagonal brick building. Solid black doors open on a tiny glass-walled foyer. (The foyer was walled off from the rest of the interior when the Gulf Coast's notorious humidity began to affect the paintings.)
The main room is a hushed octagonal space with gray stucco walls, each filled by massive paintings. Some walls feature one canvas, while on others, three canvases hang side by side to form a triptych. A baffled skylight subdues the bright Houston sun, and the surfaces of the paintings change dramatically as unseen clouds pass outside. There are eight austere wooden benches informally arranged, and today, a few meditation mats. A young woman brings the meditation hour to a close by striking a small bowl with a mallet, creating a soft peal of three bells in the intense silence of the room.
Concerts, conferences, lectures, weddings and memorial services all take place in the chapel throughout the year, but on most days you will find visitors — about 55,000 annually come to see, to meditate, to write in the large comment book in the foyer, to read the variety of well-thumbed religious texts available on benches at the entrance.
'It's Their Place'
There is always an attendant to greet people, answer questions, and, if necessary, ask visitors to put their cell phones away. Suna Umari has worked at the chapel in various jobs for 30 years, most recently as historian. She also takes a turn as attendant, and her eight-hour shifts have given her a new sense of what the chapel means to visitors.
"People feel it's their place," she says. Her relaxed, almost musical voice fits well with the atmosphere of the place. "They come, and they have a problem, and they cry in this space. If you look at the comment books, they make comments to each other as though this was their personal little diary."
"The first time I saw them, they must have had a fight, because she came in and sat down; then he followed," Umari says. "He sat next to her, and she ignored him. She kept turning her head away from him. They whispered to each other, and pretty soon they made up."
When the couple came out to the foyer, the man wrote a declaration of his love in the comment book — he used a whole page. The woman wrote that she loved him back.
For one visitor with a very personal connection to the chapel, the experience was unnerving.
"I wasn't prepared for that when I walked in the door," says Christopher Rothko, the painter's son. He was a child when the Rothko Chapel opened. He didn't come to see it until he was 33 years old, and he was surprised that at first, the paintings didn't really communicate with him. After all, he points out, he's used to conversing with Rothkos on a daily basis. But not that day.
"I almost left with nothing," Rothko says, but he lingered for a little while, "and ended up spending an hour and 15 minutes there. The time just sort of stopped running. I can't even tell you where I went at that point. I just know it was a Rothko experience unlike one I've had before."
'Looking At The Beyond'
These paintings do not feature the luminous color fields that made Rothko famous. The paintings in the chapel are dark, in purplish or black hues. And there's a reason for that, says Umari.
"They're sort of a window to beyond," she explains. "He said the bright colors sort of stop your vision at the canvas, where dark colors go beyond. And definitely you're looking at the beyond. You're looking at the infinite."
iAt first glance, the paintings appear to be made up of solid, dark colors. But look closely, and it becomes evident that the paintings are composed of many uneven washes of pigment that create variations in every inch. Stepping back, waves of subtle color difference appear across the broad surfaces — leading to an unmistakable impression of physical depth.
The canvases are huge; the largest is about 15 feet by 11 feet. Susan Barnes, author of The Rothko Chapel: An Act of Faith, was at the chapel the day they were installed.
"What I remember most of all was these large paintings, one at a time, being put in a sling and lowered through the skylight," Barnes says. "The largest of these ... the four single monochrome paintings ... barely cleared."
In fact, the first day, the truck and the crane had to be sent back because it was too windy. Think about a massive, wall-sized painting, Barnes says, "and think about as it as a sail. It was too dangerous."
'A Holy Space'
Back in 1970 when the paintings arrived, Barnes was fresh out of college and working for the de Menils. They hired architect Philip Johnson to design the building and Rothko to fill it. But the painter had such specific ideas about the space that Johnson bowed out.
It was always intended to be more than an art gallery, though. In a 1972 interview, Dominique de Menil said she saw it as a meeting place — a gathering place "of people who are not just going to debate and discuss theological problems, but who are going to meet because they want to find contact with other people. They are searching for this brotherhood of humanity."
It's a place that will really not just invite, but also demand a kind of journey.
Christopher Rothko, son of Mark Rothko
Religious leaders from around the world participated in the chapel's dedication in late February 1971. Forty years later, the chapel continues to be a space devoted to personal contemplation, interfaith dialogue and the fight for human rights. Though Mark Rothko didn't live to see the sanctuary he created, Christopher Rothko says his father knew what it should be.
"It took me a while to realize it, but that's really my father's gift, in a sense, to somebody who comes to the chapel. It's a place that will really not just invite, but also demand a kind of journey."
The journey for onetime art-history student Barnes led to a ministry in the Episcopal Church. She says that over the years, the chapel has become a sacred place.
"You walk into this chapel and you know, now, that it has been sanctified by the prayers of the people. There is something you feel in the chapel that tells you it is a holy space."

The Square

The Square

In 1913, or 1914, or maybe 1915—the exact date is unknown—Kazimir Malevich, a Russian painter of Polish descent, took a medium-sized canvas (79.5 cm. x 79.5 cm.), painted it white around the edges, and daubed the middle with thick black paint. Any child could have performed this simple task, although perhaps children lack the patience to fill such a large section with the same color. This kind of work could have been performed by any draftsman—and Malevich worked as one in his youth—but most draftsmen are not interested in such simple forms. A painting like this could have been drawn by a mentally disturbed person, but it wasn’t, and had it been it’s doubtful that it would have had the chance to be exhibited at the right place and at the right time.
After completing this simple task, Malevich became the author of the most famous, most enigmatic, and most frightening painting known to man: “The Black Square.” With an easy flick of the wrist, he once and for all drew an uncrossable line that demarcated the chasm between old art and new art, between a man and his shadow, between a rose and a casket, between life and death, between God and the Devil. In his own words, he reduced everything to the “zero of form.” Zero, for some reason, turned out to be a square, and this simple discovery is one of the most frightening events in art in all of its history of existence.
Malevich, too, knew what he had done. A year or so before this significant event, he, along with some of his friends and likeminded peers, participated in the first All-Russian Congress of Futurists. It was held at a dacha, in a bucolic wooded area north of St. Petersburg. They decided to write an opera called “Victory Over the Sun,” and right there, at the dacha, immediately got to work on carrying out their plan. Malevich was in charge of scenic design. One of the set pieces was black and white, and it somehow resembled the future, still-unborn square—it was used as a backdrop for one of the scenes. What spilled out by itself from his wrist, impulsively and with inspiration, later in his St. Petersburg studio was recognized as a fundamental achievement of theory, the apex of accomplishment—a discovery of that critical, mysterious, coveted point after which, because of which, and beyond which nothing exists and nothing can exist.
Groping about in the dark with the brilliant intuition of an artist and the prophetic insight of a Creator, he found the forbidden figure of a forbidden color—so simple that thousands had walked past it, stepping over it, ignoring it, not noticing it.… To be fair, not many before him dared to plan a “Victory Over the Sun”; not many dared to challenge the Prince of Darkness. Malevich did—and, just as is supposed to happen in credible tales of yearning Faustuses and of bargaining with the Devil, the Master gladly, and without delay, whispered in the artist’s ear the simple formula of nothingness.
By the end of that same year of 1915—the First World War was already in full swing—the sinister canvas was displayed alongside others at a Futurists exhibition. All of his other works Malevich displayed on the walls in the traditional manner, but “The Black Square” was afforded a special place. As can be seen in one of the surviving photographs, the painting is displayed in the corner, under the ceiling—right where it is customary to hang Russian Orthodox icons. It’s doubtful it eluded Malevich—a man well versed in color—that this paramount, sacral spot is called the “red corner,” the word “red” here, in the original Russian, having the additional meaning of “beautiful.” Malevich quite consciously displayed a black hole in a sacred spot: he called this work of his “an icon of our times.” Instead of red, black (zero color); instead of a face, a hollow recess (zero lines); instead of an icon—that is, instead of a window into the heavens, into the light, into eternal life—gloom, a cellar, a trapdoor into the underworld, eternal darkness.
Alexandre Benois, a contemporary of Malevich and an excellent artist in his own right, as well as an art critic, wrote this about the painting: “This black square in a white frame—this is not a simple joke, not a simple dare, not a simple little episode which happened at the house at the Field of Mars. Rather, it’s an act of self-assertion of that entity called ‘the abomination of desolation,’ which boasts that through pride, through arrogance, through trampling of all that is loving and gentle it will lead all beings to death.”
Many years before that, in September of 1869, Leo Tolstoy went through a strange experience that had a powerful effect on the rest of his life, and which served, it appears, as a turning point in his entire outlook. He left his house in high spirits to make an important and profitable purchase: a new estate. They were riding in a horse-drawn carriage, happily chatting. Night fell. “I dozed off but then suddenly awoke: for some reason I felt afraid.… I suddenly felt that I don’t need any of this, that there is no need to ride this far, that I’ll die right here, away from home. And I felt frightened.” The travellers decided to spend the night in a little town called Arzamas:
We finally approached some lodge with a hitching post. The house was white, but it seemed horribly sad to me. And so I felt a great sense of dread.… There was a hallway; a sleepy man with a spot on his check—that spot seemed awful to me—showed me to my room. Gloomy was that room. I entered it and felt even more dread.…
A whitewashed square room. As I remember, it was particularly painful to me that this room was square. There was one window with a red curtain … I grabbed a pillow and lay down on the sofa. When I came to, the room was empty and it was dark.… I could feel that falling back asleep would be impossible. Why did I decide to stop here? Where am I taking myself? From what and where to am I running? I’m running from something frightful that I can’t run away from … I stepped out into the hallway, hoping to leave behind that which was tormenting me. But it came out after me and marred all. I was just as scared, more scared even.
—What nonsense, I said to myself. Why do I feel anguish, what am I scared of?
—Of me, came the soundless voice of death. I am here.…
I tried to lie down but as soon as I did, I jumped up in horror. The anguish, the anguish—the same dread as comes before nausea, but only spiritual. Frightening, terrifying. Seemingly it’s fear of death, but if you recollect, think about life, then it’s a fear of a dying life. Life and death were merging into one. Something was trying to tear my soul into pieces but was unable to do it. I went to look once again at those who were sleeping; I tried falling asleep myself; same kind of dread—red, white, square. Something being torn apart but not tearing. Painful, painfully dry and malicious, not a drop of kindness could I sense within myself. Only an even, calm anger with myself and with that, which has made me.
This famous and mysterious event in Tolstoy’s life—which was not simply a sudden, serious depressive episode but an unforeseen kind of meeting with death, with evil—was named “the Arzamas horror.” Red, white, square. Sounds like a description of one of Malevich’s paintings.
Leo Tolstoy, who personally experienced the red-white square, couldn’t foresee, nor control, what happened. It appeared before him and it attacked him, and under its influence—not right away, but steadily—he renounced the life that he led before; he renounced his family, love, the understanding of those close to him, the foundations of life around him; he renounced art. This “truth” that was revealed to him led him into nothingness, into the zero of form, into self-destruction. On a “spiritual quest,” toward the end of his life, he found only a handful of banalities—a version of early Christianity, nothing more. His followers, too, walked away from civilization, and likewise didn’t arrive anywhere. Drinking tea instead of vodka, abstaining from meat, rejecting family ties, making one’s own boots—poorly, crookedly—that, essentially, is the result of this personal spiritual quest that passed through the Square. “I’m here” came the soundless voice of death, and life went downhill from there. The struggle went on; “Anna Karenina” (mercilessly killed off by the author, punished for her desire to live) was still ahead of him. Still before him were several literary masterpieces, but the Square won. Tolstoy banished from within himself the life-giving power of art, moving on to primitive parables and cheap moralizing. He let his light go out before his physical death, in the end astonishing the world not with the artistic prowess of his later works but with the magnitude of his genuine anguish, his individual protest and public self-flagellation on a hitherto unprecedented scale.
Malevich also wasn’t expecting the Square, although he was searching for it. In the period before the invention of “Suprematism” (Malevich’s term), he preached “Alogism,” an attempt to escape the boundaries of common sense; preached “the struggle against Logism, naturalness, philistine sensibilities and prejudices.” His call to action was heard, and the Square appeared before him, absorbing him in itself. Malevich had every right to be proud of the celebrity afforded him by his deal with the Devil. And proud he was. I don’t know if he noticed the ambiguity that came with this celebrity status. “The painter’s most famous work” means that other works were less famous, less important, less enigmatic; in other words, they were less worthy. And it’s true—next to “The Black Square,” all his other works lose lustre. He has a series of canvases of geometric, brightly colored peasants with empty ovals for faces that look like transparent, unfertilized eggs. They are colorful, decorative paintings, but they come across as a tiny and insignificant stew of rainbow colors, before they, swirling for the last time, mix in a colorful funnel and disappear into the bottomless pit that is “The Black Square.” He has landscapes—pinkish, impressionistic, very run of the mill—the kind painted by many, and often better. Toward the end of his life, he tried to return to figurative art, and those attempts look predictably bad: these aren’t people but, rather, embalmed corpses and waxed dolls, tensely peering out from the frames of their clothing, as if they’ve been cut out of colorful bits of fabric, scraps and leftovers from the “Peasants” series. Of course, when one reaches the top, the only way is down. The terrible truth was that, at the top, there was nothingness.
Art critics write lovingly about Malevich: “‘The Black Square’ absorbed all painting styles that existed before it; it blocks the way for naturalistic imitation, it exists as an absolute form and it heralds art in which free forms—those that are interconnected and those that are not—make up the meaning of the painting.”
It’s true that the Square “blocks the way,” including blocking the way for the artist. “It exists as an absolute form”—that’s true as well, but that also means that all other forms are unnecessary by comparison, since they are, by definition, not absolute. “It heralds art”—this bit turned out to be false. It heralds the end of art, its impossibility, its lack of necessity; it represents the furnace in which art burns, the pit into which art falls, because the Square (to quote Benois again) is “an act of self-assertion of that entity called ‘the abomination of desolation,’ which boasts that through pride, through arrogance, through trampling of all that is loving and gentle, it will lead all beings to death.”
A “pre-Square” artist studies his craft his entire life, struggling with dead, inert, chaotic matter, trying to breathe life into it; as if fanning a fire, as if praying, he tries to ignite light within a stone; he stands on his tippy toes, craning his neck in an attempt to peek where the human eye cannot reach. Sometimes, his efforts and prayers, his caresses, are rewarded: for a brief moment, or maybe for a long while, “it” happens, “it” “appears.” God (an angel, a ghost, a muse, or sometimes a demon) steps back and acquiesces, letting go from his hands those very things, those volatile feelings, those wisps of celestial fire—what should we call them?—that they saved for themselves, for their wondrous abode that is hidden from us. Having solicited this divine gift, the artist experiences a moment of acute gratitude, unhumiliating humility, unshameful pride, a moment of distinct, pure, and purifying tears—both seen and unseen—a moment of catharsis. But “it” surges, and “it” retreats, like a wave. The artist becomes superstitious. He wants to repeat this moment, he knows that, next time, he may not be granted a divine audience, and so his spiritual eyesight opens up, he can sense with deep inner foreknowledge what exactly—avarice, selfishness, arrogance, conceit—may close the pearly gates in front of him. He tries to wield his inner foreknowledge in such a way as to not sin before his angelic guides; he fully understands that he’s a co-author at best, or an apprentice—but a crowned co-author, a beloved apprentice. The artist knows that the Spirit blows wherever it pleases. He knows that he, the artist, has done nothing in his earthly life to deserve being singled out by the Spirit, and so if that happens to pass then he should joyfully give thanks for this wonder.
A “post-Square” artist, an artist who has prayed to the Square, who has peeked inside the black hole without recoiling in horror, doesn’t believe the muses and the angels; he has his own black angels, with short metallic wings—pragmatic and smug beings who know the value of earthly glory and how to capture its most dense and multilayered sections. Craft is unnecessary, what you need is a brain; inspiration is unnecessary, what’s needed is calculation. People love innovation, you need to come up with something new; people love to fume, you need to give them something to fume about; people are indifferent, you need to shock them: shove something smelly in their face, something offensive, something repugnant. If you strike a person’s back with a stick, they’ll turn around; that’s when you spit in their face and then, obviously, charge them for it—otherwise, it’s not art. If this person starts yelling in indignation, you must call them an idiot and explain to them that art now consists solely of the message that art is dead—repeat after me: dead, dead, dead. God is dead, God was never born, God needs to be treaded upon, God hates you, God is a blind idiot, God is a wheeler-dealer, God is the Devil. Art is dead and so are you, ha ha, now pay up! Here is a piece of excrement for it; it’s real, it’s dark, it’s dense, it’s locally sourced, so hold it tight and don’t let it go. There is nothing “loving and gentle” out there and there never was, no light, no flight, no sunbeam through a cloud, no glimmer in the dark, no dreams, and no promises. Life is death; death is here; death is immediate.
“Somehow life and death have merged into one,” Leo Tolstoy wrote in horror, and from this moment on, and till the end, he fought back as best he could—it was a colossal battle of biblical proportions. “And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.” It’s terrifying to witness the battle of a genius with the Devil: first one seems to overcome, then the other.
“The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is such a battlefield, and it’s difficult to say who won. In this novella, Tolstoy says—tells us, repeats it, assures us, hammers it into our brains—that life is death. But, in the end, his dying hero is born into death as if into a new life; he’s freed, turned around. Enlightened, he leaves us for a place where, seemingly, he’ll be given consolation. “New art” derides the very idea of consolation, of enlightenment, of rising above—it derides it while deriving pride from that derision, as it dances and celebrates.
Conversations about God are so endlessly complicated that it’s scary to even engage in them, or, on the contrary, very simple: if you want God to exist—He does, if you don’t—He doesn’t. He is everybody, ourselves included, and for us He is, first and foremost, us. God does not impose himself on us. Rather, it’s His distorted, falsified image that’s imposed upon us by other people, while God simply and quietly exists within us, like still water in a water well. While searching for Him, we search for ourselves; while refuting Him, we refute ourselves; while mocking Him, we mock ourselves—the choice is ours. Dehumanization and “desacralization” are one and the same.
“Desacralization” was the slogan of the twentieth century; it’s the slogan of ignoramuses, of mediocrity and incompetence. It’s a free pass doled out by one dimwit to another bonehead while trying to convince the third nincompoop that everything should be meaningless and base (allegedly democratic, allegedly accessible), and that everyone has the right to judge everyone else; that authority can’t exist in principle, that a hierarchy of values is obscene (since everyone’s equal), and that art’s worth is determined solely by cost and demand. Novelties and fashionable scandals are surprisingly not that novel and not that scandalous: fans of the Square keep presenting various bodily fluids and objects created from them as evidence of art’s accomplishments. It’s as if Adam and Eve—one suffering from amnesia, the other from Alzheimer’s—were attempting to convince each other and their children that they are clay, only clay, and nothing but clay.
I’m considered an “expert” in contemporary art by an arts fund in Russia that’s subsidized by foreign money. They bring us art projects and we decide if said projects should get funding or not. There are actual experts working alongside me on this panel, true connoisseurs—old art, “pre-Square.” All of us can’t stand “The Black Square” and the “self-assertion of that entity called ‘the abomination of desolation.’ ” Yet they keep submitting projects that consist of “the abomination of desolation,” solely of the abomination, and nothing else. We are obligated to spend the money that has been allocated to the fund or else it will be closed. We try our best to fund those who come up with the least pointless and annoying ideas. One year, we funded an artist who placed empty picture frames along a riverbank, and another artist who wrote “ME” in big letters that cast a beautiful shadow, as well as a group of creators who organized a campaign to clean up dog feces in St. Petersburg’s parks. Another year, it was a woman who affixed stamps to rocks and mailed them to various cities in Russia, as well as a group that made a pool of blood in a submarine, which visitors had to step over while listening to the letters of Abelard and Heloise via headphones. After our meetings, us members of the panel step out for a silent smoke, where we try to avoid making eye contact with one another. We then silently shake hands and hurriedly walk home.

(Translated, from the Russian, by Anya Migdal.)

I swear I hate to brag and I’m not really, I’m sharing my joy and wonder with all of you.

No Time to Say Goodbye: A Memoir of a Life in Foster Care

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The Arts Matter Because...

Edited by Paulette Beete

We know that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, 3.2 percent — or $504 billion — of current-dollar Gross Domestic Product in 2011 was attributable to arts and culture. But beyond the numbers, we know the arts matter for a wholly human reason--they illuminate, they console, they articulate. In short, they help us to explore and express the wonderfully messy business of being human. We've gathered just a few quotes from previously published Art Talks to give voice to the many reasons why the arts matter. We encourage you to browse the Art Works blog to read and hear even more from artists and cultural leaders about the power of the arts.
“The arts matter because they saved my life.” — Katori Hall, playwright
“It's our life. The reason why I say, 'It's our life,' is because a lot of people, we do a job to make money, to have food on the table, but the arts, it feeds our soul and it's the soul that keeps us going on.” — Sherri Young, African American Shakespeare Company
“Because they are a place where we reflect the world around us, and it's the one place that anybody can do that, honestly and, hopefully, in an uncensored way.” — Jonathan Bailey Holland, composer
“Art enlarges our human sympathies; it is in fact what makes us fully human. A life without art would be reptilian.” — Enriqueta Carrington, NEA Literature Translation Fellow
“Art is the most profound way in which a group of people can understand their culture and other cultures. Somehow art gets at the soul of who we are as a people. It transcends race, class, and gender. It transcends sexual orientation. It transcends history. It transcends war. It, for me, is the only thing that truly is eternal. Histories get rewritten and changed. They get buried. But art, for some reason, manages to remain untainted.” — Marcus Gardley, playwright
“I think it's extremely important to be well rounded and exercise both sides of your brain, and I think sometimes if you build the creative part, you need that in the scientific part as well. So just exercising that part of your brain and using it I think can be beneficial, especially if you're in a scientific field. Plus it can do different things for you. For me it relaxes me a little bit. It's just something different, it's doing something different than I do every day at work.” — Karen Nyberg, astronaut and quilter
“Art matters because it informs our world. Be it in graphic design, fine art painting, murals; it will state the state of things, whether we see it or not…. I think that there's power in art, politically, socially, culturally. And so I think art is power.” — Gregg Deal, visual artist

"Art matters because it is a hate-killer. Art matters because it is the one true great connector in a world that seems to be very unconnected, and it's important now more than ever to shine a huge light on that connectivity that we have, that we often forget." — Josh Groban, singer and composer

Ginevra de' Benci’s

National Gallery of Art

At some point in “Ginevra de' Benci’s” history, before 1780, the painting was cut down, presumably because of damage. The truncated wreath on the reverse supports this idea. 

This silverpoint drawing from The Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, provides an idea as to how the portrait may have appeared before it was cut down. Did this drawing serve as a preparatory study for Ginevra's portrait? A reconstruction of the portrait (right) helps us imagine the original format. 

Here is a sample chapter from my new books “No Time to Say Goodbye: Memoirs of a Life in Foster Care.” Now on Amazon.Com

I used to be Irish Catholic.

I used to be Irish Catholic. Now I’m an American—you grow.    George Carlin

  The single greatest influence in our lives was the church. The Catholic Church in the 1960s differs from what it is today, especially in the Naugatuck Valley, in those days an overwhelmingly conservative Catholic place.
  I was part of what might have been the last generation of American Catholic children who completely and unquestioningly accepted the supernatural as real. Miracles happened. Virgin birth and transubstantiation made perfect sense. Mere humans did in fact, become saints. There was a Holy Ghost. Guardian angels walked beside us and our patron saints really did put in a good word for us every now and then.
   Church was at the center of our lives.  Being a Roman Catholic back then was no small chore. In fact, it was a lot of work. The Mass was in Latin, conducted with the priest’s back to the flock. (We were a flock. Protestant were the more democratically named “congregation.”)
  Aside from Sunday Mass there were also eleven Holy Days of Obligation that we had to attend, and then there were the all-important sacraments of First Confession, First Communion, and Confirmation, all ornate and dramatic affairs that happened within a few years of each other.
  We dressed properly in a suit coat and tie for Sunday mass. Fridays were meatless as a means of penance. At school, there was prayer in the morning before classes began, prayer before lunch, prayer after lunch and prayer before we went home. There was also a half-hour of religion class every day. And there was fasting. In those days, Catholics fasted eight hours before receiving communion.
   Then there was confession on Saturday, mandatory because Sunday Mass was also mandatory and so was taking Holy Communion, which could not be accepted without first going to confession.  We had to go to confession twice in a week: once on Fridays, since the nuns were convinced none of us would go on our own over the weekend, and then once again on Saturday afternoons when Helen made us go.
  When I made my first confession at age seven, we were taught that there were two types of sin: mortal sins, which were serious sins, and venial sins, which were lesser sins,  lying and disobedience. The nuns said that we would have to narrow our selection to venial sins since we were far too young to have any mortal sins against our soul. 
  One of little girls in the group raised her hand and asked, “What’s adultery?”
 “Nothing to worry yourself over, dear,” the nun answered, “It’s for adults, and it is a most grievous offense against God.” I liked the sound of that, “most grievous offense against God.” Sounded serious.
  Confession was a big deal and involved a lot of formality—kneeling in darkness, foreign languages, and solemnity—and I didn’t waste all that somberness with unworthy sins, so when the priest slid open the little wooden door that separated us in the dark I began my prayer.
 “Deus meus, ex toto corde paenitet me omnium meorum peccatorum—” In full, the words meant “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins because I fear the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve with the help of Thy grace to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.”
  Then the sins were confessed. I told the priest I had committed adultery.
  “Adultery, huh?” the priest said.
  “Yes, Father,” I answered as solemnly as I could. “Adultery.”
 “So, how’d that work out for you?” he asked.
 “Ah,” I answered, “you know.”
  “No,” he said, “actually I don’t. So how many times did you do this, this adultery?”
  “Like, I think, three times, Father.”
 “I see,” he said. “And during those times, were you alone or with others?”
  “No, Father,  I was alone.”
  “And do you think you’ll be committing this sin again in the near future?”
 “Naw, Father,” I answered. “I’m pretty much over it.”
   As the years went and I became more confessional-savvy, I learned that the dumber the sin, the lighter the penance, the prayer for forgiveness that one was required to say up at the altar after the confession had ended.
  So in the name of efficiency, I developed a pre-packaged list of dumb sins, like “I disobeyed my mother,” or “I fought with my brother,” or “I failed to say my nightly prayer.”
  Through trial and error, I learned that every now and then I would have to toss a more serious sin into the mix or the priests might get testy and tax me with a big penance. So I tossed in the fail-safe sex sin, “I had evil thoughts about _____” and would fill in the name of the girl who struck me at the moment. I rotated the sins and the priests, and, overall, the system worked.
  One Saturday, Denny and his gang of desperadoes showed up for confession and slid into the pew with me and waited for our turn at the confessional.
  Denny turned to me and said, “Johnny, you got any good sins?”
   Feeling magnanimous, I shared my formula for a hassle-free confession, and in closing said, “And then you say ‘I had evil thoughts about Mary Puravich,’ or whatever,’” using the name of a pretty girl from my class.
  Denny shared my sin system with his friends, who were always in a hurry to cut their way to the front of the line, have their confessions heard, and leave without saying their penance. I went in to the confessional and said my piece, ending with, “and I had evil thoughts about Mary Puravich.”
  “You know,” said the priest, “I gotta meet this Mary Puravich. She must be some kind of knockout, because the last four guys in here said the same thing about her.”  
  For all purposes, school was an extension of church, and unlike the way we lived in Waterbury, school was no longer optional. We were to be at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic School, in uniform, Monday through Friday from eight a.m. until three p.m. No excuses.
  Because I lacked almost any formal education at that point, I couldn’t read or write, so it was decided that I should start school from the beginning—first grade—making me roughly two years older than my classmates.
  Assumption was already over fifty years old. Walter and his sisters had been schooled there in the 1930s and the building , basically unchanged, had nothing sleek or new. It had sixteen classrooms for two hundred and fifty students, no gymnasium or cafeteria, highly polished wooden floors, and enormously large windows that each had to be opened and closed with a long pole with a hook on the end of it.
  Our teachers were members of the Sisters of Mercy, an order formed in Ireland in 1831 to aid the poor, arriving in America in 1843 to minister to the famished Irish flocking to the states. Several of the nuns who had taught Walter were still living at the convent and filling in as substitute teachers, and one or two of them were still teaching full-time.
  Classes began with the ringing of an enormous brass handbell by a nun who was strong enough to pick it up and move it around. Boys and girls played apart from each other on different sides of the school yard. The boys were clad in white shirts and green ties with the letter A sewn into the middle of them, black slacks, black socks, and black lace-up shoes. Loafers and pointed-toe shoes, then all the rage because of the Beatles, were forbidden. The girls were required to wear black Mary Janes, white or green knee socks, and a green dress uniform with an under slip, and a white, button-down shirt. They were also issued green beanies to wear in church, although I can’t recall that any of the girls ever wore one.
  Just beneath the schoolyard was Farrell’s Foundry. At different times of the day, the mill released its afterburn from the enormous smokestacks that dotted the skyline. Tens of thousands of black specks shot into the air, making it look like a black-snow blizzard had hit our little town. The specks rained down on our white shirts, ruining them forever with ink-black spots of burned iron.
 Every school day started with a prayer, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance and then religion class. Sometimes one of the priests stopped by during religion class and opened the floor to discussions, wrongly assuming the questions would be deep and theological. What he got was, “Father, all right, look, if the Russians fired an atomic bomb at us and Jesus flies out of heaven and swallows it and it explodes in his stomach—will he be dead?”
  The best one came from Peggy Sullivan, who asked, “If Jesus shaves off his beard, will he lose all his magical powers?” and then, pausing to catch her breath, “and if so, how screwed are we?”
  One kid in the class, Patsy Sheehan, resented having to learn certain things about our religion the difference between venial sins and mortal sins, the Act of Contrition and so on. When the priest told us we that we had to choose a middle name for our confirmation, Patsy complained, “I got enough on my plate already.”
  The priest insisted she pick a new middle name. Patsy asked, “What’s Jesus’s middle name?”
 “He’s Jesus. He doesn’t have one,” the priest answered.
  “So, what’s he, special?” Patsy asked. 
   Then there was Martin O’Toole, a wonderful, magnificent liar. He lied in such awesome, Herculean fashion that his tales were artful, Homeric. Our nun once asked, “Mr. O’Toole, why have you not turned in your homework?”
  Martin waited until he had everyone’s attention and then stood slowly and dramatically from his desk, put his hands on his tiny waist and said, “Sister, last night I was in my back yard playing when I picked up a rock from the ground.” He then recounted the scene of him picking up what must have been a boulder the size of Rhode Island, “and as soon as I picked it up, oil! Bubbling crude came bursting out of the ground, millions of gallons of it! I was soaked in oil.” He paused and looked around the room and added, in hushed tones, “It took me hours to put that rock back on that oil and save this entire city.”
  He returned to his seat and said, “And that’s why I didn’t time to do my homework, Sister.”
  The nun’s jaw had dropped, and the silence of the moment was broken only when Micky Sullivan, a dense and gullible child, asked, “What kind of oil was it, Martin?”
  “Esso,” he replied. “It was Esso oil.”
  Many years later, Johnny became mayor of a small town in the Valley. An investigation of the town’s finances showed fifty thousand dollars missing from the treasury and all the evidence pointed to Martin. When asked to produce the town’s books, Martin said, that “The books are gone. Mice ate them.” He served two years in federal prison.
  Then there was Ilene Flynn, a little red-haired, freckled-faced, fair-skinned girl who was more pious than the Pope. I knew a lot about her because the nuns thought we looked alike and paired me with her for all religious functions.
  At our First Holy Communion, Ilene was so nervous her mouth went dry. Unable to swallow the host and forbidden to touch it—only a priest could do that—she ran around in circles crying hysterically, “Jesus is stuck in my mouth! Jesus is stuck in my mouth!” while the nuns flocked around her shouting instructions about swallowing, “Go like this, Ilene, go like this!” and then they did a swallowing demonstration that made them look a lot like penguins eating long fish.
  Ilene’s Friday afternoon confessions were epic. She confessed to everything, I mean absolutely everything, and she actually said all of her penance, unlike the rest of us who negotiated a lighter-sentence deal with God before we got to the rail. My policy on penance was one for five. If I were given thirty Hail Marys as penance, in the deal God and I worked out, I said six.
  Once, Ilene came out of the confessional in tears, wailing loud enough to wake the dead.
  “What is it, Ilene?” Sister asked. “What happened?”
  “Father O’Leary told me I’m going to hell on a lying rap,” she wailed, “and I don’t know what a rap is!”

A sample chapter from my new book "No Time to Say Goodbye: memoirs of a Life in Foster Care" now on Amazon

                                         FIRST DANCE, FIRST KISS, SORT OF

Summer came and went and autumn arrived. That September, the Catholic Youth Organization sponsored a Harvest Moon Dance in the basement of the Assumption church and everybody who was anybody in my universe was going.
  Around the block from us lived a cute little girl named Susie Barton, and I asked her if she wanted to go to the dance with me. “But not as a date,” I said, although I have no idea why I said that. To my surprise she said yes, but I was reluctant to be happy about it because at that point in my life every silver lining seemed to have a cloud.
  On the big night, I showered, shaved the end of my chin—the only place where I was beginning to sprout a beard, a matter of grave concern to me—and laved myself in Old Spice cologne. I had at least four full bottles ofOld Spice stored away from Christmas gifts past. I didn’t know that Old Spice was a cologne and not an aftershave, and when I splashed it on my freshly shaven face, I felt as if my cheeks were on fire and I cried out, “Jesus God in Heaven!”
 Cologne and fair-skinned people don’t work well together, and my cheeks and chin turned apple red. When I left the house I looked like a tomato in a tie and sports coat, albeit a well-dressed tomato.
  Aside from the abnormal bright red glow on my face, I thought I looked spiffy and Mod—a short-lived ’60s fashion—in my then-stylish paisley-patterned vegetable motif tie that stood out brilliantly against my white Oxford-collared shirt, the only type of buttoned-down shirt I and most other Catholic school boys owned.
  I topped that off with a double-breasted blue jacket that I thought made me look swinging-London-ish in a working-class American way, but actually probably made me look like a member of the Gambino crime family in training. Under my tan peg-leg pants was the pièce de résistance, a new pair of shiny oxblood penny loafers. I left the house hearing wolf calls from Denny.
  A hardworking kid with a profitable paper route and a burgeoning weekend yard-maintenance business, I had a healthy pile of cash built up from shoveling snow and collecting returnable bottles. That day I bought Susie a dozen roses for twelve dollars, a staggering amount, I thought, and a box of Whitman’s Sampler chocolates, the middle-sized box. I was a romantic but also incredibly frugal.
 I collected the roses and chocolates from under the trash can where I had hidden them, because if I had brought them into the house the ribbing from Denny would never have ended. It would have been the best thing that ever happened in his life.
  At Susie’s house on Winter Street I rang the doorbell and her mother, father, younger brothers, sister, and dog came to answer it. They just stood there, smiling and staring at me, except for the little brother, who was embarrassed by it all and covered his eyes and giggled.
  After a while, I said, “Hi.”
  And they all said “Hi” back at one time and stared at me some more.
  “Oh doesn’t he look so cute?” Mrs. Barton said, as though I weren’t there to hear it, and then, without warning, she took a flash photo of me, blinding me. Finally, the little brother called out, “Susie! That stupid guy is here for you!”
  And I thought, “Oh, God, please kill me now.”
  Her mother and father greeted me, and I mumbled  “Hello.”
  “You seem tense,” Susie’s father said.
  “Yes, sir,” I answered, but I wasn’t tense, I was just being me. In the parlor Susie was standing by the fireplace, wearing a Mod polka-dot miniskirt, or what passed for a miniskirt in those days; tons of department-store-bought jewelry, and her hair was up in curls on one side, which I’m pretty sure was the fashion that year. She was slightly taller than I but wore new black shoes that didn’t seem to have any heels. She had that makeup stuff all over her face. She looked nice.
  Her still-smiling parents and brothers and sisters were standing between us but the dog had moved. He was now standing in front of me with his head in my crotch. Susie smiled and said, “What happened to your face?”
  “I don’t know,” I shrugged, and thought to myself, “God, I don’t ask you for much, but please kill me now.”
  Her mother kept saying, “Oh, this is so precious.”     
   “Should we go?” I asked, and Susie draped a white homemade shawl over her shoulders and walked with me to the front door, her family walking in step less than six inches behind us. When I turned and shook her father’s hand, he lit up and beamed to his wife. “Look at that, honey; he shakes hands, isn’t that nice?” as if I was a dog who had learned to give paw.
   “Oh, this is so precious,” the mother answered.     
   One of her brothers said, “You look like a dork,” and I thought, “God, why don’t you ever kill people like that? Simple bolt of lightning—”
   When I stepped out into the cool October night, I sighed an enormous breath of relief and lifted my eyes to look at the stars that were shining brilliantly. Mrs. Barton released her last “Oh, this is so precious” as we walked off into that beautiful night.
  Susie and I had what can best be described as a “clipped” conversation on the short walk to the school. She said something polite and then lowered her head and pulled her lips together tightly and I could tell she was thinking, “Oh what a stupid thing to say.” I knew because I was pretty much an expert at saying stupid things.
  I had planned to display what the French call sang-froid, or urbane cool, but so far that wasn’t working out, so I gave up on it. That wasn’t me. Not then and not now. I was, and remain, a talkative, mostly happy and uncool kid with nervous tics, and all I was doing with that stupid cool thing was making a nice girl nervous.
  I stopped in mid-step, looked myself up and down and said “John, you look fantastic!” and then I turned to her and said, “Well, that’s enough about what I think of me. What do you think of me?”
  It broke the ice. She had a fine sense of humor and when she laughed, she pulled her head backwards and closed her eyes and then looked at me. It was pretty good. Relaxed and acting like teenagers again, we enjoyed the rest of the night. I wowed her with my breathtaking dance steps and mastery over the Watusi, the Hitchhiker, the Frug, the Monkey and a little step I invented in the privacy of the shower called the Limbo Twister, which, to my amazement, never really caught on.
  When the dance ended, we walked home. By then the temperature had dropped to about forty degrees. The moon was out in full bloom and lit up the streets. We walked along in silence, both happy about a wonderful evening and sad that it was ending. She shivered and, without a word, I removed my sports coat and draped it over her shoulders. She looked at me and smiled and it surprised me, because I had been certain she would shove me away.
  We kicked the leaves as we walked along and looking down, she said, “My feet are as big as boats,” although she seemed to be talking to herself more than to me. I didn’t know how to answer that so I looked up at the moon, but there was no script hidden there for me to read. My stupid lips went dry and stuck to my buck teeth and for a moment I looked like Humphrey Bogart. So I stared at her feet and said, “Yeah, I dunno, I guess.”
  After another second had passed I added, “But you’re pretty, pretty,” and as soon as I said it I thought, “Pretty, pretty? John, you’re an idiot.” But she squeezed my hand and when I looked at her I saw her entire lovely face was aglow with a wonderful smile, the kind of smile you get when you have won something.
  “Why do you rub your fingers together all the time?” she asked me, and I felt the breath leave my body and gasped for air. She had seen me do my crazy finger thing, my affliction. I clenched my teeth while I searched for a long, exaggerated lie to tell her about why I did what I did. I didn’t want to be the crazy kid with tics, I wanted to be James Bond 007, so slick ice avoided me.
  “It’s okay,” she said. “I bite my nails, see?” and she showed me the backs of her hands. Her finger nails were painted a color I later learned was puce.
  “My Dad, he blinks all the time, he doesn’t know why either,” she continued. She looked down her feet and said, “I shouldn’t have asked you that. I’m really nervous and I say stupid things when I’m nervous. I’m a girl and this is my first date, and for girls this really is a very big deal.”
  I understood completely. I was so nervous I couldn’t feel my toes, so I started moving them up and down to make sure they were still there.
   “It’s all right,” I said. “I don’t know why I do that with my fingers; it’s a thing I do.”
   “Well, you’re really cute when you do it,” she said.
   “I know,” I said, and I don’t know why I said it, but I did.
   Near her home, there was an old abandoned carriage house on the Renahan estate and the wide driveway that led to it was lined by tall pine trees whose branches reached out across the drive and touched each other like old, dear friends.
  We stopped walking and looked at her house, whose lights seemed to intrude on the calm night. Instinctively we clasped hands and walked down the drive and sat on the large marble doorstep of the carriage house. Thin slivers of moonbeams sparkled through the protective covering of the pines and we drank in the beauty of it all, she looking off into the nearby woods and me looking at her.
  Without a word, I leaned forward to kiss her, at the exact moment that she turned to say something and her forehead crashed into my rather long nose. I recoiled, and she reached out to touch me at the exact moment I leaned forward again and her fingernail went in my eye. When I brought my hand up protectively my finger got caught in her loop earring and I thought, “You know, God, I really don’t deserve this.”
  The moment passed. Her ear was bleeding slightly, I had a welt on my nose and water was pouring out of my left eye  When we got to her house, we talked about the dance for a second and then a curtain moved. The porch light went on.
  “Goodnight, and thank you,” she said. I nodded and smiled and said, “Yeah, and God thank you.” I walked away a few feet, turned, and said, “That was supposed to be ‘Yeah and goodnight and thank you’.” And then I prayed for death, yelling at God from inside my head, “What? You can’t spare a bolt of lightning?”
   Then she touched my hand and laughed and I relaxed and she whispered, “Come here.” I came forward a few feet and she kissed me and turned and ran slowly into the house wearing my sports coat. When I walked home the dark the cold was gone and all I felt was warmth and happiness. And I said to God, “You know there, God, sometimes life is pretty good and this is one of those times.”