Skip to content

Autumn Once More


The New Gold Dream (15 – 16 – 17 – 18 – 19)


There have been two times when my mother told me I was the cause of a deep, complete satisfaction with her life, and I’d like to talk here about the most recent and final one. A few years ago my mother came to visit Catherine and me a day or two after the birth of the twins. Catherine had just done a remarkable job birthing the twins at home, which she followed up with an equally remarkable dedication to nursing them. Nursing was already, and would continue to be, more painful and difficult than she expected, but anyone could tell from the evidence already at hand that the fact that it was painful and difficult was not going to stop her. My mom, a passionate devotee of nature when it came to life in general and birth in particular, was clearly very satisfied with the situation. And she told me, quite frankly, “I can die happy now, John. You’re the last of my children to get settled. It took you awhile, but you got it right in the end. You and Catherine are going to do a great job with your kids. And I can die knowing that my work here on Earth is done.”

This conversation – or more accurately, the underlying reality it reflected – has been the great happiness of my life in the past five years. The large life-events of the past few months – particularly our purchase of a house in Alligerville, and the sale of my mother’s house – make me feel that an entirely new phase is now beginning. But knowing how precious happiness is, and how good it is, when we have enjoyed some happiness, to leave a record of our gratitude for it, I wish to write a bit about these past years.

In 2014, I sensed that I was at a dead end. I responded by getting away, getting on my bike and hitting the road. I biked up the Mississippi. When people asked me why I biked up the river rather than down it – “Isn’t it easier to go downhill?” – I responded that I was looking for purity. I was looking to find out something about beginning. I wanted to see the river at the place where I could step across it – I wanted to see the small things from which great things come.

When I reached the beginning of the river, the person who was there to meet me, who brought me my pickup truck so I could get home, was Catherine. This set in motion a series of events that led to our marriage. This required a gamble. We gambled. In March of the following year, we married, and really since then, our lives have just opened and opened. We took our honeymoon with the first spring flowers of the Smokies. I had two pair of snowshoes in the back of our truck as we pulled up to the cabin, where we snowshoed in one April morning, shoveled the snow off the garden, and planted our seeds. We spent a beautiful spring together at the cabin, and then a new opportunity arose: a chance to teach a Latin immersion course in South Africa, which we turned into a second honeymoon. Just after returning from Africa I was asked to become president of SALVI. It felt like the whole world was opening up to us. We then returned for fall at the cabin and the nursery, before moving to an Ohio farmhouse for the winter to be near a midwife Catherine wanted. There, nine months and one week after our marriage, our twins were born.

Just before that, I had been offered a job teaching in Rome for Paideia. Now we weren’t sure we’d be able to pull it off with twins, but we decided to gamble again. We threw packs on our backs and the twins on our fronts and set off for Italy, and between fabulous students, incredible colleagues, a let’s-not-hold-back itinerary, and a continually warm reception from the Italians that never ceased to amaze us, we ended up having one of the great summers of our lives. I came back to the nursery for a few weeks after that, but just then a job doing freelance writing for Scholastic fell into my lap, and I began life as a full-time writer.

I wasn’t doing anything particularly glorious, but I was getting paid to write, and it ended up being precisely the kind of flexible, make-my-own-schedule work that allowed us to survive life at home with two infants. We spent a winter in Connecticut, in the town where Catherine had grown up, where excellent libraries gave me, a we-have-no-internet-at-home type, a place to work. That winter we learned that our family would grow yet again: Catherine was pregnant with our third child. I needed more work. Besides my work for Scholastic, another job fell into my lap: Paideia had split with the editorial staff of Eidolon, its online journal. The split was probably not good for the world of Classics, but it was good for me: Paideia still wanted an online journal, and they asked me to edit it. That became In Medias Res, which has become the main outlet for my writing. That winter I also finished the profile I wrote about Reginald Foster, which was published by the New Criterion and became their most-read piece of 2017. It was a small success, but it carried with it a special sweetness because for me the profile was an act of filial piety. It also led to my taking on the task of becoming Reginaldus’s official biographer, the main writing project I am working on now. Spring brought us to the cabin once more, and we spent a lot of time that summer in West Virginia for two Rusticationes and SALVI’s 20th Anniversary party. Fall brought us back to Ohio to be with Catherine’s preferred midwife, and late September saw the birth of our little treasure Eva. Like so many who are not firstborn, she has been so much milder and happier than her older siblings; presumably second-time-around parents are not as tense or unsure, and children imbibe some of their parents’ confidence. After a few more months in Ohio, we returned to Connecticut, and spent another wonderful winter there by the sea.

Three children is quite different from two. Three means abundance, which you can feel in all the happy times; when they all sit together on the couch or pile on you in the bed you feel the wonderful sensation of being surrounded by abundant life. Three also means that you are permanently outnumbered. Even when you do something like, say, take a child for the day – a pretty exhausting task in itself – you are leaving the other person with by far the lion’s share of the work. And we had now three children under the age of two, which is quite an experience. Readers of this blog will note that that’s when I stopped writing almost entirely; now all my writing was for pay. Indeed I could not do much of anything that was not either taking care of my family or working for pay. And so I found myself forced to part from my work for SALVI, and my life began to become simple: there was work, and there was family.

Now we were five, and the cabin was woefully inadequate to our needs, but we returned there for spring. We were not certain what to do, really. We needed more space to live, but this would require more money. There was always the question of whether or not the right thing was for me to try to write more, or stop writing and do something more profitable. We were glad to go off to Italy once more, teaching for Paideia: we would be five people in one bedroom in Italy, but at least it was an apartment with multiple rooms, which was more than we had at the cabin. And we would have a second bedroom for one of Catherine’s sisters, who would stay with us to help Catherine take care of the three children.

We struggled that summer. The students were somehow not as enthusiastic, though I take some of the blame for that myself. I was not at my best. At times there were eight of us in that two-bedroom apartment, which was a bit crazy in itself; but even worse, we got word shortly after our arrival in Rome that my mother was diagnosed with advanced liver cancer. She might not survive until the end of the course. Further diagnosis indicated that I could remain and finish my teaching duties. I flew back to New York the day after my duties ended, and, since I had the most flexible schedule, I became one of the main caretakers for my mother during the last two months of her life. For the last two weeks I moved in with her and took care of her full-time.

There was much about that time that was grim; I find myself stopping here at the keyboard and looking off blankly into the distance, remembering so many things. Dying can be gruesome, and accompanying someone on their death-watch is difficult. But there is also a giftedness in it, which I knew at the time and can see all the more clearly with distance. It was nature, and as such it seemed filled with grace and love, in a way that transcended its grimness. I tended at the end to the one who had tended me at the beginning. It took all the love I had in me, but I was glad that the world had a use for that love. And I know I’ll never be the same after that experience.

Mom was incredibly strong; she took her last walk just two days before she died, though she did not get very far. That I was able to give her the death that she wanted – at home, on her own terms – is one of the things I will forever be proud of.

Another gift came after she passed. My brother and sister allowed me and my family to live in mom’s house for that winter. I wanted to hold on to the house, but as we lived there it became clear that we were out of place. We missed nature; we felt a million miles away from the things that really sustained and consoled us. When October came, I missed gathering the wild apples. Even though there were better apples at the store, it just wasn’t the same. December came and I missed seeing the stars from my writing-window. I was born in the city but no longer belonged there. But still, we had months and months in which to savor that beautiful old house, and say goodbye. And it’s funny, once we had moved all of Mom’s things out, the spirit seemed to leave the place. It started to feel like just a house – a nice house, but just a house.

Now I see those same things – Mom’s couch, Dad’s chess set, my grandfather’s coat – in our new house, which has proven to be the latest of my mother’s gifts. With the sale of her house, Catherine and I have been able to purchase a house in Alligerville, in the Rondout Valley. It is familiar ground, as it is just a few miles from the plant nursery where I worked, and just down the valley from the organic farm where Catherine worked. The house is everything we could have hoped for, an 1803 house expanded upon multiple times, which served as a hotel for much of its life. It is beautiful. It’s a two-family home, and after some renovations we hope to be able to rent part of it out. It has its fair share of problems – one half of it is currently without heat – but we have found it easy to love. The simplicity of our earlier off-grid life has disposed us to gratitude for what we have now: “you flip a switch, and lights come on!” “We have a refrigerator now!” “No need to heat up water on the wood stove for a bath – let’s just turn the tap!” “Look at this, a cabinet where we can put ALL our dishes, instead of keeping most of them on a shelf in a shed where the mice sleep in them all winter!”

And so now begins another chapter of our lives. We know that hard work will be a major part of it. Now we have three toddlers – aged three, three, and two – and a massive old-home renovation on our hands. It’s still more than we can handle, by a lot. But we find ourselves still filled with the same spirit of gratitude and wonder that has accompanied us through each of the seasons of the past five years.

I’ve been listening a lot to the Simple Minds album New Gold Dream over the past few years (my musical obsessions are perfectly capable of enduring for years or even decades). The band’s lead singer Jim Kerr said that “That album is our Holy Grail… It was made in a time between Spring and Summer and everything we tried worked. There were no arguments. We were in love with what we were doing, playing it, listening to it. You don’t get many periods in your life when it all goes your way.” Its title track defines the years of the New Gold Dream: “81 – 82 – 83 – 84.” The song was released in 1982. I love the optimism of this: an artist saying that now, right now, these past two years and the next two years, this is it, this is when everything is opening up, the pleasure of both hope and fulfilment, “the siren and the ecstasy.” One of the reasons I keep returning to the album now I’m sure is because I feel this way myself. It’s an axiom of the spiritual life that God culminates in the present moment. How could He not? The trick is to cleanse the doors of perception, to have the gift of really feeling that this is true.

I don’t know if this feeling will come so easily in a few years. We have so many responsibilities now. Almost everything in the house is falling apart. The previous owner actually went bankrupt trying to keep this place. Will we plot a wise course through all the possible expenses? And will we still hold on to our joy in the place? Our kids have enjoyed uninterrupted good health. Will this gift continue? We have enjoyed ourselves uninterrupted good health. What of that gift? How long can that last? In general, we have had a run of good fortune. In such runs, one begins to look for the correction, the mischance that will teach one to trim the sails sooner and remember that all things pass. But in the meantime, our plan is to put ourselves to the day’s tasks with gratitude. Perhaps the future will be even better. But if it isn’t, I’m glad that we’ll have this to look back on – the days of our New Gold Dream: 2015 – 2016 – 2017 – 2018 – 2019.

In Memoriam T.K. Rabb


One of the things no one told me about having children is: as you reach the age when you are focusing on your kids and birth and new life and all of that, the world you grew up in is passing away: death comes to claim his due from your aunts and uncles, your family friends and teachers, your old neighbors and the people who ran the businesses you grew up with. And you don’t really have time to process it all, or pay due tribute to those who pass. When I heard Ted Rabb had passed away in January, I wanted to get a chance to write a tribute to him, but I couldn’t get it done until just a few weeks ago. He was the creator of the course sequence that would be the closest thing I had to an intellectual home at Princeton. Thanks to the University Bookman for being willing to publish this tribute.

Back in Rural Ohio


Just down the road.

We’ve returned to rural Ohio, to Scio, for a brief period. The twins were born here, and it’s been pleasant for me to revisit those days. I feel a pang at the instability of our lives – that the memories of awaiting the birth of my first child(ren) do not adhere to the place where we live, but are far away, cut off from my daily experience. For that reason though, they are all the crisper; returning here means returning to that time of expectation, birth, and first parenthood, with none of the intervening stages obscuring the impression.

We have as it were gone back in time in another way too. In the Catskills autumn was at its peak: evenings were cold, foliage was peaking, and on rainy days one felt the chill in one’s fingers and toes. Here summer has lingered into October, with temperatures in the 80s, and only the first blushes of color on the trees. It is as if we have gone back to get a re-do of early fall.

And returning after four years, the place seems happier, more prosperous, busier – I am almost inclined to think it is due to the good weather, but Catherine thinks we are seeing a real change. One of the distinctive things about entering interior Ohio along US-22 used to be the sheer number of abandoned cars by the side of the highway: they would get cleared off eventually, but their number made it clear just how often people’s old cars were breaking down and stranding them. Now the roadsides are (almost) clear, and we’re seeing new cars in the streets.

Four years ago I found a restaurant I liked here in Cadiz, the county seat – a decent lunch place with good ambiance, old pictures of Cadiz up on the walls, and locally sourced foods on the menu – and I hoped it would do well. Well, it’s even better now, and when we returned recently with our little family, it was packed. The clientele was mixed: mostly greasy-handed engineers from the local fracking platforms – the main source of the recent prosperity – but also bureaucrats in casual office garb working for the county government, some officers from the courthouse, retirees, and such. They looked a bit more rough around the edges than the patrons might be at a similar restaurant in New York. We looked a bit rough around the edges too: the twins are now three, and Eva is two: two “threenagers” and one in the “terrible twos.” We both look as tired as we are. Eating in a restaurant is always difficult, but eating in a busy restaurant is a particular trial. I had already taken the kids out into the street for a walk, where I taught them about the edibility of Callery pears, which they triumphantly brought back into the restaurant. Now I was trying to corral the kids as we were waiting for our food – they were crawling under the table trying to get to the salt and pepper shakers I had put on a nearby windowsill out of their reach – when I looked up to see Catherine crying.

“What’s wrong?!!” I asked, somewhat incredulous that she had just burst into tears seemingly without any warning at all.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I just feel that these people have been beaten down for so long, and I’m so happy to see them enjoying something nice…” she said, before trailing off. Later she explained that it was more complex than just that: she knew that fracking was the source of much of the bounty and happiness we were seeing, but fracking was probably long-term rather a mixed blessing. But it is always these rather questionable things that seem to reliably produce our prosperity.

After the food had arrived, the waitress came up and told us that we would not have to pay for our meal: someone in the restaurant had already paid for us. We were dumbstruck. It had been a long time since a stranger in America had done anything quite so nice for us. And it felt like a real welcome back to Ohio. I know Catherine has always felt an especial love for this place, and I see why.

Later I speculated on why the person had paid for us, and I thought that maybe Catherine’s tears had played a role. Someone saw us struggling to get through a meal with three toddlers, struggling so much in fact that the children’s mother had burst into tears. But that’s just conjecture. I don’t know the why of it; all I know is that it felt very nice to be back in Ohio.

Thucydides, Warrior Scribe


A professor at Princeton (was it Bob Kaster? or someone else?) had this taped to his door; I liked it so much, I took it down, photocopied it, returned the original, and had my copy blown up to poster-size. It was in my classroom for years. The internet seems to know no more about this cartoon than I do: a few Classicists have tweeted out pictures of this image, but no more.  It boasts that it is “complete and unabridged” – was it a full edition of Thucydides? Or a comic book? I’d love to find the original, and maybe commission a whole series of similar drawings for Classical authors. Maybe as t-shirts!

Helping Tell the Story of Latin in the Twenty-First Century


Eleven years ago, I attended my first Rusticatio, a week-long Latin immersion experience run by an organization called SALVI that takes place in Bushrod Washington’s (grand-nephew of the pater patriae) old mansion in West Virginia.  I thought it made a fascinating story: there was a subculture of Latin speakers in West Virginia?  For real?  I wrote an article about it, but had no luck shopping it around.  Some years later, the Paideia Institute started a new online Classics journal, Eidolon, designed as “another way to write about the Classics.”  I submitted my article to them, and they published it as “The Latin Speakers of West Virginia.”  It became one of the most-read articles on the site for 2015.  It was at Rusticatio that I met David Morgan, whose passing inspired “In Paradisum David Morgan,” a piece I still cannot read today without tears.

A year later, when the New Criterion asked the Paideia Institute for an article about Fr. Reginald Foster, Jason Pedicone suggested I write it.  I took up the task with some trepidation: Reginaldus is a good friend of mine, and he and I have shared two decades’ worth of every kind of experience.  He is a kind of father-figure for me, and writing about him is complex.  But I submitted an article and they took it, publishing “The Vatican’s Latinist” in February 2017.  It became the magazine’s most-read piece in 2017 and far and away the most popular thing I’ve ever written.

It was around that time I realized just how lucky I have been with regard to the Classics.  I have had so many wonderful experiences, met so many incredible people, and read so many marvellous things, as a result of my education in Latin and Greek.  There are many, many stories to tell, and I’ve been close enough to many of them to write about them intelligently.  Later that summer I attended the conference of the Academia Latinitati Fovendae in Kentucky, and wrote about it, again for the New Criterion.  They published it as “Global Latinists,” and again it became one of their more popular pieces that year.

This month I add two more pieces to this list.  The Paideia Institute asked me to write a piece about a new Latin course offered at Princeton University, LAT 110, which was taught entirely in Latin.  Just a few years ago, attempting such a thing would have been considered outre at at place like Princeton.  Initiatives like this really have a chance to energize an entire new generation of Classicists – I’ve seen it my entire life – and I give Princeton tremendous credit for going out on a limb and doing it.  I went down to Princeton and wrote the article, which Paideia just published as “The Past Speaks.”  The article was held up for several months because Jason Pedicone decided that the article really needed video accompaniment.  The result really is splendid, and the video has gone viral, with more than 21,000 views in its first day online.

Two years ago I heard about Rafael Landivar, an 18th century Guatemalan Latin poet hailed as “the American Virgil.”  I tried to commission a friend who had visited Guatemala and seen his tomb to write about him for the journal I now edit for Paideia, In Medias Res (formed when Paideia and Eidolon parted ways).  The friend was not excited by the prospect, and so I just bought a plane ticket and went down to Guatemala, giving myself one of the most interesting vacations of my life, and producing this month’s lead feature in the New Criterion, “In Search of the American Virgil.”

There really is so much more to be said.  I’ve had in mind to do profiles of several of the other remarkable Latinists I’ve met: Terence Tunberg, Milena Minkova, Luigi Miraglia, Nancy Llewellyn.  I’d love to write about my experiences teaching Latin in South Africa, and travel to Australia (where SALVI has started holding Rusticationes) and Brazil (which has been trying to get a Rusticatio) and China (where, I hear, interest in the Classics is growing).  And I have much, much more to say about Reginaldus.  But what I have so far is a good beginning.


Found in the Basement of 85-31 115th St.


The faded inscription on the outside of the testimony.

My mother contracted to buy the Richmond Hill house “as is,” and it was full of stuff at the time she moved in. Most of the furniture I grew up with was in the house before any of us arrived. Many other things were there too – and are still there, in fact. There are quite a number of old letters and papers, pertaining to people we don’t know, and whose relationships are not clear to us. Edith Hull, who married a Mr. Pearl and became Edith Hull Pearl, was (I believe) the owner of the house previous to my mom; but there are many letters of the McLarty family – how they got here I don’t know. Here’s an example of these papers, a “conviction” or testimony of a Christian nature, written by John McLarty in 1881 to his son (also named John). There are a number of spelling errors, which I have preserved, and in general he doesn’t seem to quite finish thoughts or put in periods.  The document was written at 208 Lorimer Street in Brooklyn, a house which no longer exists. How it got here to Richmond Hill I don’t know.

Inscription on outside:

(selected) Thoughts on the use and value of a Liturgy in public worship
recommended to my Dear boy John McLarty
John McLarty
May 23 1881


May 23rd, 1881. My views and thoughts on the use and value of a liturgy as a sistem of Divine Worship.

That branch of the Church Catholic, which I recognise, to which I am devotedly attached, and in which it has been my good fortune to be baptiesed, brings to her daily use, the rich treasures which her children have, during all these ages been gathering for her
How rich the Church is in historic, hallowed memories, how rich in noble works and deeds in philanthropic institutions, in great and honoured names, how rich in the blood of her martyrs and how especially rich in those inspiring hymns, and anthems, and prayers, which seem to bring as it were, the departed saints of old, back to our assemblies, so that those who are here, and those who are there, can worship God once more in the same transporting strains
There are many reasons why I cling with an increasing tenacity to those grand and sublime bursts of praise which have come echoing, rolling, down to us through the ages,
The Litany that incomparable formula of universal petition and prayer, who is there among us that would willingly relinquish it – that angelic strain the Gloria in Excelsis how could we part with it, and how could we replace it, and the noblest and the richest of them all, that sublime and soul inspiring anthem the Te Deum Laudamus why I cling to that as a child would cling to a venerable Mothers inherited blessing. Our modern hymns and songs of praise, grand and beautiful as many of them are yet they can never take the place of those sublime outbursts of praise sung by the saints of God, throughout the ages,
When I sing the songs of Sion I would have the hymns that cheered and encouraged the saints of old in their pilgrimage heavenward, I would have the hymns the martyrs sang on their way to the stake, I would have that angelic strain of the heavenly host, sung ages ago in the dawn of Christianity on the hillside of Judea
I think it impossible for our modern Church in our day to make another Te Deum at all comparable with the one we already posess. Before we can make another such soul inspiring anthem as that we must reverse the wheels of time we must have the shadow on the dial go backward, we must recall the sainted dead, we must rekindle the fires of persecution and restore the martyr age, we must arouse the spirit of that rushing mighty wind of pentacost, and awaken anew the lingiring echoes of the angelic song. We must visit the lowly manger and behold, even while the Magi present their offerings of gold, frankincense and myr, we must visit the dark and gloomy sepulchre even before the Angel watch have left their appointed places, we must reach the brow of that Holy Ascension Mount of Olivet, even before the cloud and the Master has vanished from our sight, then and then oh only may we hope to make another such Anthem, so glorious, so full of the breath of inspiration,
I trust the day is comeing, not far distant, when a broader, more healthy and comprehensive view of our sistem of divine worship will be more jeneraly known and accorded us and yet more adopted by our esteemed dissenting brethren, that those exemplary Christian bodies around us will ere long discover that they have unwittingly given up part of their dowry, when they will consent to the use of those time honoured, beautiful and reverent firms [forms?] and simbols which add beauty dignity and reverence to divine worship and which are the common birthright of all the saints of God. I have often considered the public worship of our dissenting brethren rather cold and negative, too unobjective and impoverished in its surroundings, too bald and bare,
I think the public worship of the sanctuary should be warm and positive, objective, in its lessons, and simbols, and rich in all its surroundings and appointments, responsive in its rendering, and common to all engaged therein,
We very properly think it right, devout and reverent to unite in the hymns of praise, why not also unite in scripture reading and in the common prayer of the sanctuary.
I think we might at least gather as it were around the feet of our Blessed Lord at his, the Christian Alter, and offer to him in an audible, responsive manner that beautiful, comprehensive prayer he had taught us to observe such and even more than such are my views and honest, reverent conviction in regard to the public worship of Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, Maker of heaven and earth.

John McLarty
May 23rd, 1881
208 Lorimer Streeet
Brooklyn E [20?]

The whole document. It’s attached with a tack.

Vance Kuhner’s Eulogy for Mary Costello.


[This is the eulogy that my brother, Vance Kuhner, gave at my mother’s funeral on Saturday, September 22nd.]

Mary Costello as a teacher at P.S. 66.


My name is Vance Kuhner, and I am Mary Costello’s son. I am not here today to mourn the woman I called Mom, or “Kid,” the woman most of you knew as Mary, some as Oma, some as Aunt, maybe some of you as Rose, or Sister Richard.

A week ago on Saturday, the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, Mary left this world, and those who knew and loved her were instantly heart broken. It was hard to understand why this world had to lose such a ray of light.

But that’s not what Mary wanted. So I stand here today with great joy, as she wanted it, to tell of a Christian life well lived.

Mary’s life was taken by cancer. Everything happens for a reason, it is all God’s plan. That’s what I kept telling myself while I watched my Mother suffering. But it is easy to question everything when you watch someone you love in so much pain. I had prayed for a miracle. But what I did not realize was that the miracles were all around me.

The morning after Mary died, Sunday’s Gospel told the story of Jesus telling his disciples that he was leaving them, that he had to fulfill his mission, and that his mission included dying for all of our sins. When Saint Peter tries to stop him, He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” And I realized that I was falling into the same trap.

That is the power of the Adversary, of the deceiver. He attempts to thwart God’s plan. He sows the seeds of despair and hopelessness, and attempts to make us question God. It was he who put my Mother through such terrible suffering over the past nine months. It was he who attempted to make her turn from God. And it is he who tries to make us despair over her passing.

But he misjudges us, and he certainly misjudged Mary Costello. This was a woman of faith, who lived by the Gospels as best she could. This was a woman who lived the Christian beliefs of charity, faith, understanding, forgiveness and acceptance. This was a woman who dedicated her entire life to making the next generation better, to helping her friends, to raising her descendants. This was a woman who was never fooled by the Adversary, and found a way to work ordinary miracles every day.

When I asked my mother what she was most proud of, she said, “My children and grandchildren.” No one denies that she was proud of John, Mary Kate and I, and adored Ian, Kailey, Anna, Aurora, Brian Trip Three Sticks, Mairead, Mariah, John, Mary and Eva. We all know that she loved her two daughters in law Ellen and Catherine, and her son in law Brian. She considered them all her daughters and son. I said, okay, Mom, great answer, what is number 2? She said, “I was always proud of my ability to get through all of the challenges that life put in my way.” I call those her ordinary miracles.

Now, I think we can all agree that they don’t make miracles the way they used to. In my life, I haven’t seen anyone part the Red Sea, or ride their cloak across the English channel, but I did get to witness Mary’s ordinary miracles every day.

Because Mary’s life was fraught with challenges.

After a tough childhood in the Bronx, Mary moved to Queens, where she started her love of adventure and the outdoors with her friend Helen Schombs. She traveled a bit, worked with the Crow Indians on their reservation, and even took some flying lessons. But she had committed the sin of falling in love with my father. She tried to be a nun, but left before taking her final vows. She then went back to my father and they had me, my brother John, and my sister Mary Kate. This estranged her from her immediate family for a number of years. And my Dad was just about the worst provider that you could imagine. During those first fourteen years that they were together, life was tough. She averted disaster on a daily basis. It is now legend how we got to stay in a house that we did not own for twenty five years, how she held a collapsing ceiling together with a bottle cap and a screw, fixed plumbing with 2 liter Coca-cola bottles and old bicycle tires. How she put in a wood burning stove so that we would have heat, how she did without a hot shower for ten years. How she paid for Christmas presents with crafts that she hand sewed, how she waited tables at night after putting us to bed, while never missing a school trip or PTA meeting. How she went to night school and got a Bachelors and Master’s degree with straight As, putting all of us to academic shame. How she singlehandedly found a way to send all of us to Manhattan to Catholic High Schools and to three prestigious colleges (well two prestigious colleges and Fordham).

All of this she did, with a smile on her face, and a positive outlook on life. Ordinary miracles.

When I asked her how she got through those days, she told me, “with the grace of God and the help of a few good friends.” And God did send my Mom good friends. These were the angels in her life. People like Barbara Valis, Cookie Helmeyer, Jeanette Lalli, Jackie and Jimmy Variale and Howard Levardsen. She also had great neighbors who always looked out for us. Neighbors like Bea Delise, Anne and Jeff Kelly, Nicky and Angie Plackis who were always there to help us growing up. More ordinary miracles.

After she got through school, she got a job as a New York City school teacher, which was clearly her vocation in life. There she took her contagious spirit of exploration and learning to hundreds of children, showing them a bright future of what their life could be like. She was known for riding her bike to school, her mean lay ups in basketball that she never missed, and her determined spirit to give her students a well rounded liberal education. I am sure she was also known for those great hats and sunglasses, which were her fashion. She took her pupils into the woods, be it Floyd Bennett Field or Frost Valley, and exposed them to God’s everyday miracles that were all around them. It was there that she became close friends with Cathy Depalo who has been at my Mom’s side through thick and thin ever since.
Once she got the three of us out of the house, the next phase of my Mom’s life centered around adventure. She travelled extensively, Europe, Africa to include safari and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, South America to include Machu Picchu, Asia, to include the Great Wall of China. Her love for adventure, and her ability to find God in the outdoors, be it a desert plain in New Mexico, or a mountain peak in the Catskills is something that spoke to her faith and her relationship with God. She would bring her wild adventure stories back home to the place she loved most, Richmond hill, N.Y. It is funny to me that my Mom went all around the world, shook hands with everyone, but could not find any place that she liked better than Richmond Hill, N.Y. It was her home sweet freedom. I think God sent her to Richmond Hill for a reason. It was his plan, and the reason that she could never leave.

Was she a good friend? To quote the genie from Aladdin, You ain’t never had a friend like Mary. I am sure that everyone in here can attest to the fact that my Mom’s home on 115th Street was a hub of constant activity where everyone was welcome. The inside of her house was like a museum of curiosities from places throughout the world that she had travelled. She didn’t only collect things from all around the world, she collected friends. Who else enjoys travelling on Amtrak, because she enjoyed the conversations with people she just met? Mary loved her friends, and was the type of person that could always be counted on in a pinch, or if you just needed a kind word. One of my high school friends said, you always knew that Mary was on your side, even when no one else was. She threw a great party, which might be on some anonymous Tuesday or Wednesday or whenever she could gather friends and family to the house. And she could make a feast for ten out two chicken breasts and a loaf of Italian bread. Or in a pinch, that perfect popcorn. Ordinary miracles.

Was Mary a Saint? Far from it. In fact I would be afraid that she would come out of nowhere and smash me with a wooden spoon if she thought that I was going to stand here at her funeral and profess that. But what she was, what she is, is a Christian.

I spoke to you at the beginning about the Gospel. About the Adversary and the way he tries to subvert goodness, and take away what God has given us in life. And how he makes it so that we cannot see the goodness in everyday life. Mary worked small miracles every day of her life, and Mary displayed her Christian faith for all to see. Especially the Adversary.

So he sent her cancer.

It may sound trite, but cancer never had Mary, Mary had cancer. She never missed a step, even though she was constantly in great pain. She took no treatment, as it was terminal, but still found a way to go on her walks through Forest park to be with God, to let her friends come over and to visit them and to go on our family reunion vacation, to be with her grandchildren. She looked to her faith, and found a way to beat the deceiver at his own game. So I will tell you that in the end, she beat cancer.

But it was hard to watch her in pain, especially over the last week. John, Mary Kate, Cathy Depalo and I took turns helping her to get through the day. In the last days, she lost her ability to communicate. She was confused, scared, and in agony. But her faith never wavered. She called out to God to take her and asked God for his help to get her through the transition to heaven. As the adversary attacked, she countered with faith. At one point, Saturday morning around 3 A.M. before she died, she mustered whatever strength she had left, and dragged herself with me in tow from the living room where her bed was to the sitting room where she had an ambry. An ambry is a place where Catholics hold holy oils for the anointing of the sick, or baptisms. When we got there, she fidgeted with the key for a couple of moments, like she was trying to get something out. And then came back to me for an instant. She looked at me, with pained, exhausted eyes, and said, “Forgive everyone forgive. Forgive everyone forgive. Forgive everyone forgive.”

She then collapsed into my arms, and I carried my Mother back to her bed, where she never spoke anything again.

Her last words were that of the most important of our Christian values, forgiveness.

You left us Mom at 7:20 that evening. In relentless pain and gasping for breaths, with Mary Kate on one side and me on the other, you released the burdens of this life and went to be with God, your father Francis, your mother Helen, your sisters Helen and Margie and your brother John in heaven, who I know that you have missed every day for fifty three years. And even in death you taught us one last time about Jesus’ teaching of forgiveness.

She wanted me to tell you all not to mourn. She wants you to be happy that she has gone to be with God. She wants you to look forward; and know that the best way to honor her memory is to give charity, to be faithful, to live a life of understanding, forgiveness and acceptance. She wants you to know that she will always be here for us, in nature’s ordinary miracles, be it in the whispering of the wind through the trees, the crash of a wave on the ocean, the rushing of a stream, the patter of the rain, or the falling of the snow. And she wants to remind you that when life gets tough, you should find a way to produce those ordinary miracles, like she did every day.

I love you Mom.

Gendering Three Little Pigs.


I’ve now just recently read two different retellings of the Three Little Pigs story for children which both recast the tale as one of gendered virtue: in each retelling, the wolf and the two unwise pigs are male, while the wise pig, who builds a house of brick, is a female.  That the tale was retold in precisely the same way was striking: not an all-female version of the story, but specifically one where the bad and the unwise are male, and the virtuous and provident are female.  One is called The Three Little Pigs, by Emily Banks (published by Scholastic), and the other The Three Little Javelinas, by Susan Lowell (published by Cooper Square).

I don’t see any good coming out of stuff like this.  I think it’s every bit as bad as recasting the tale to make all the bad or unwise characters female, and the island of virtue male.  It seems shockingly stupid to raise our daughters and sons on this, from before they are even aware of what we are doing to them.

Editing In Medias Res.


I’ve taken on a new job, editing the Paideia Institute’s new magazine In Medias Res. That site naturally has already seen a fair amount of my prose, and hopefully will continue to do so in the future. For an introduction to what it’s about, please read the first editorial.  We’ve only just begun, but there are about ten pieces up there already, and more coming.

The Journals of Jean Sibelius.


At a certain point in my college career I stopped worrying very much about my classes, and decided to get my education directly from the university library.  One of the books I read at the time was Erik Tawaststjerna’s monumental three-volume biography of Sibelius.  I often find that great musicians can also write, but Sibelius particularly amazed me.  The excerpts from Sibelius’s diaries quoted in the book formed one of the most sensitive, eloquent, and accurate depictions of the inner life of an artist I had ever seen.  They still strike me that way; and I truly believe that at some point a slim little volume of Sibelius writings on the life of an artist would be most welcome.  They capture both the divine exultation of inspiration, and the acute despair of the fundamental inner artistic emptiness which drives it all.  Plus all the usual problems with family, self-doubt, critics, and (of course) money.  Sometimes the emotional extremes become funny – funnier even when the dates are put in (these alas lack dates), because you see that he can go from believing himself a god to hating everything about the universe in a single day.

“A wonderful day. Have forged a little but dreamt of even more. The atmosphere this evening was magical, but – always when stillness speaks there are dreadful overtones, the terrifying creatures of eternal silence.”

“My domestic harmony and peace are at an end, because I cannot earn enough to supply all that is needed, let alone pay off my debts. I find it impossible to harmonize what is right for me as an artist, with a necessity to produce income. Take for example my second symphony. It has brought fame and credit to Finland on countless occasions but it cost me 18,000 marks to produce it, and I’ve earned from it only 1,500. My debts mount with every symphony. Surely I was not sent into this marvellous world just to pay off debts.”

“I no longer feel at home in the city; my solitude begins. But the strongest and deepest feelings come to me when I’m alone. I’m at work on the development of the first movement, trembling. The fourth will be a psychological symphony. A symphony is not a composition in the ordinary sense of the word. It is more an inner confession at a given stage of one’s life.”

“The miracle that I am waiting for will never take place. I crossed out the whole of the development. I cannot work properly. Why these empty moments? I suffer so much that my heart bursts in my chest. Where do they come from, these tensions of the spirit, and the pain?”

“Fashioned the second part, marvelous day. Poetic. Life is waiting, this wonderful life that I love so much and which is yet so difficult to live. Don’t lose the sense of life’s pain and pathos, listen to your own inner voice and go your own modest but sure way. You won’t be any the worse for that. May I just live long enough! – for now I’m sure of my artistic path.”

“The fourth symphony is breaking through the clouds in sunlight and power, the Himalayas again. Everything bright and strong. Worked like a giant, the compulsion, the compulsion to write what is ultimately and forever right.”

“Always I’m alone. Alone at home, alone in Helsinki restaurants, alone on the road and alone on the train, alone. Wherever I turn it is black. But nevertheless I would not change with anyone. I worked with appalling effort – a life and death struggle with the symphony. I wonder how the third movement will work itself out, everything is in chaos and I need to concentrate. Lived in the illusions of youth. In the evening, a wonderful atmosphere – marsh mists and the gentle breeze.”