News! News! News…letter

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Breaking news

Hello Everybody out there in Blog Land,

I just wanted to take a minute to let you know that I’ve finally joined the Internet Age and created an email newsletter. If you want to receive all my latest writing news, blog posts, recipes, and more, hand-curated and wrapped up in a tidy package delivered right to your inbox, you can sign up here.

I tried to embed the signup form on this page for you, but of course, code and I don’t get along, even when real programmers write it. It can smell the fear exuding from my every pore. But the newsletter will still be awesome!

Love, your friendly neighborhood technophobe,

Karen

Karen Ullo is a writer, musician, wife, and mother of two small tornadoes–er, boys. Her novels are Jennifer the Damned (2015) and Cinder Allia (coming in 2017.) She is also a regular Meatless Friday chef for Catholicmom.com. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Stammering

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I’m preparing to attend a conference at Notre Dame in just a few weeks called Trying to Say God: Re-enchanting Catholic Literature. I’m terribly excited to finally meet face to face many of the movers and shakers of the Catholic literary world. It’s an honor and an opportunity for which I’m deeply grateful. However, the conference organizers recently sent a list of essays as preparatory reading—many of which I had read before, and which I’m sure many of you will recognize—and I noticed something that disturbed me. All of these essays deal directly or tangentially with the perceived dearth of a Catholic literary culture in our current age. They are:

Dana Gioia,  “The Catholic Writer Today,” Dec. 2013, First Things

Paul Elie, “Has Fiction Lost its Faith?”  New York Times, Dec. 19, 2012

Kaya Oakes, “Writers Blocked: The State of Catholic Writing Today,” America, April 28, 2014
Randy Boyagoda, “Faith in Fiction,” First Things, August 2013

 

Francis Spufford, “Spiritual Literature for Atheists,” First Things, November 2015

David Griffith, “The Problem with Waiting” Image – Good Letters

There’s an awful lot of good stuff here, many very salient points and much healthy debate written by people far more learned in these matters than I. I am grateful to all of them for their contributions to this very necessary conversation, and I agree with at least portions of every essay. However, in (re)reading this list in close succession, I could not help but be overwhelmed by the distinct lack of emphasis on what ought to be a Christian’s first and only goal: to do the will of God. Just to make sure I was paying attention, I went back and ran a search through each of these essays for the following words: vocation, discern, pray, love, humility. Some of them never appear; a few appear in passing, as in the titles of quoted works, or in a very general sense. For example, Gioia says of the past literary “golden age”: “Catholicism was not only seen as a worldview consistent with a literary or artistic vocation… the Roman Church was often regarded as the faith most compatible with the artistic temperament.” It’s the only time he mentions vocation. The author who comes closest to proposing prayer and humility as solutions to the problem of the Catholic literary culture is Spufford:

Wild justice—justice unmediated and unfiltered—is different from the thing we painstakingly try to make in courtrooms. Wild charity—love unmixed and uncompromised—is fearfully unlike the adulterated product we are used to. It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

That’s it. Six essays about how to create a Catholic literary renewal, and only one mention of “love unmixed and uncompromised.”

Maybe this is our real problem. The focus of anything we build in the name of Christ and His Church ought never to be on the product or the people who build it, but on the One who works through us and through our works.

I am the least and the lowest among Catholic writers. My résumé looks like a post-it note next to those of the authors above. But I dare to say: the solution to whatever lack of Catholic literature there may be lies not in changing the attitudes of publishing houses and periodicals, nor the outlook of universities and academics, nor in establishing our own periodicals and publishing houses, nor in the coming of some great literary genius to inspire and renew the languid modern imagination—though it is not wrong to seek any of these things. But to speak about such practicalities without speaking about the proper spiritual context in which to pursue these goals is to put the cart before the horse. The real answer to our literary woes lies in the same place where the answer to a spiritual problem always lies: in prayer, trust, humility, and the action of God’s Holy Spirit. Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his Letter to Artists:

The particular vocation of individual artists decides the arena in which they serve and points as well to the tasks they must assume, the hard work they must endure and the responsibility they must accept. Artists who are conscious of all this know too that they must labour without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves. There is therefore an ethic, even a “spirituality” of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people.

I do not doubt for an instant that the authors of all six essays are prayerful people who have devoted themselves to this “spirituality of artistic service.” But are we—even as Catholics speaking mostly to an audience of other Catholics—afraid to say that Christ is the Way to our literary, as well as our actual, salvation? Are we afraid to forego the language of the academic essay in order to address our own spiritual sickness? If we cannot “say God” even in our appraisals of our own Catholic culture, how do we propose to do it in our poetry, our fiction, our memoirs? God, who has the words of everlasting life, has no need of a Catholic literary culture; if one exists, it is only by His gracious will. If you and I desire such a thing, then let’s get down on our knees and beg for it with humility and hearts that are open to God’s will. Perhaps if we seek first the kingdom, then all these things shall be added to us besides.

All artists experience the unbridgeable gap which lies between the work of their hands, however successful it may be, and the dazzling perfection of the beauty glimpsed in the ardour of the creative moment: what they manage to express in their painting, their sculpting, their creating is no more than a glimmer of the splendour which flared for a moment before the eyes of their spirit. Believers find nothing strange in this: they know that they have had a momentary glimpse of the abyss of light which has its original wellspring in God. Is it in any way surprising that this leaves the spirit overwhelmed as it were, so that it can only stammer in reply? (John Paul II, Letter to Artists)

Christian artists are called to gaze in awe at the splendour of our Creator, who spoke us into being. Only then, and only if He grants us the vocation to do so, do we humbly go forth and stammer.

The Overrated Art of the Opening Line

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It was a dark and stormy night

Anyone who has ever taken a creative writing class has been indoctrinated with the importance of the first impression. That elusive perfect opening image, the one that instantly hooks the reader, that declares this book to be un-put-down-able, has developed an almost mythical importance among fiction writers. My Google search for “how to write a great opening line” turned up 83.5 million results. There are even first line generators to get you started, if you happen to be incapable of forming a sentence but still want to be a writer. However, it recently occurred to me that I could not recite the opening line from a single one of my favorite novels. The ones that I’ve included here, I had to go look up. On top of that, my all-time favorite opening line is not really an opening line at all.

Something here is fishy.

My all-time favorite opening line is from Slaughterhouse-Five. It says, “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” It does everything a great opening line should do: it establishes an unmistakable authorial tone, which even dares to break the “fourth wall” and speak directly to the reader; it introduces a character whose very name, “Billy Pilgrim,” sets him up as an everyman on a journey; and it creates a circumstance that makes Billy Pilgrim ridiculously interesting, namely that he’s come unstuck in time—whatever that means, but I sure want to read the book to find out. It’s eight words of perfectly-written dramatic hook.

But it’s not the opening line. It’s the beginning of chapter two . . . and it also appears at the end of chapter one:

I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun.
This one is a failure, and it had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt. It begins like this:
Listen:
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
It ends like this:
Poo-tee-weet?

“Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time” is a spectacularly brilliant opening line that gets intentionally buried, and whose impact is intentionally undercut by stating it before its proper dramatic time. It’s almost like Kurt Vonnegut took the rule book for writing opening lines, dared anyone to do it better, and then threw the story in a trash can like Kilgore Trout was sometimes wont to do.

The actual opening line of Slaughterhouse-Five says, “All this happened, more or less.” Which is complete and utter nonsense, and provides no dramatic hook at all.

And so it goes.

But, of course, there are plenty of more famous opening lines than my particular favorite. Perhaps the one that is most frequently mentioned when people say “Famous Opening Lines” is from Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Enough with the comma splices already.

Punctuation aside, there is not a single element of drama developed in this rambling paragraph of a sentence. Not a single character is introduced; we have no idea what time period is actually being described by all these superlatives; and the only active verb contained within the string of passives is “insisted,” which carries all the dramatic weight of a toddler stamping his foot.

And yet, it’s arguably the most famous opening line ever written.

My favorite book of recent times is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. The opening line says: “Here is a small fact: You are going to die.” Which isn’t drama, and it isn’t news.

Another, even more recent book that I very much enjoyed is The Orphan Mother by Robert Hicks. It begins:

December 12, 1912

To the shabby house on Columbia Avenue they came, the four of them, all in black, narrow ties fastened with jeweled stickpins about their necks.

At least something happens in this one: the drama of the jeweled stickpin. How riveting.

Here are a few particularly dull opening lines that I found on the American Book Review list of 100 Best First Lines from Novels:

Mother died today. —Albert Camus, The Stranger

Where now? Who now? When now? —Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable

For a long time, I went to bed early. —Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. —Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

Elmer Gantry was drunk. —Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. —Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler

If I wrote “You are about to begin reading Karen Ullo’s new novel, [insert title here]” and turned it in to my creative writing professor in any university in the world, it would be handed back to me covered in bright red ink. Yet there it is, on the list of the top 100 first lines ever written. It’s not a great line. It’s not even a good line.

But it’s a wonderful book.

What makes a great opening line is never the line itself. Certainly, it’s possible to put a zinger right up front, to entrap the reader Billy Pilgrim-style and—if you can manage it—never let him go. But what really makes a great opening line is the appreciation that comes from having savored the whole novel. The opening line is only truly beautiful after you have taken the entire journey with the characters, and then you stop to look back across the trodden path to see where you started and how far you’ve come. My, what a distance lies between “All this happened, more or less” and “Poo-tee-weet?”. “Here is a small fact: You are going to die” means quite a bit more once you know that Death himself is speaking. “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler,” is really the only appropriate way to begin a book that . . . does whatever it is that book actually does. Just go read it.

I sympathize with every teacher or editor who has ever had to try to convince an aspiring writer that “[Character name] was drunk” is a terribly insipid way to try to catch a reader’s attention. I have had my fair share of those conversations; but the aspiring writer does have Sinclair Lewis on his side. The truth is, the art of the opening line has nothing whatsoever to do with an exciting, dramatic hook, or even clever wording; the only way to make an opening line “great” is to follow it with a magnificent story. Dickens’s comma splices hold such an exalted place in literature because they are the gateway to “a far, far better thing” than one line could ever hold.

Karen Ullo is a writer, musician, wife, and mother of two small tornadoes–er, boys. Her novels are Jennifer the Damned (2015) and Cinder Allia (coming in 2017.) She is also a regular Meatless Friday chef for Catholicmom.com. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Cinder Allia coming soon!

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I’m thrilled to announce that my second novel, Cinder Allia, will be coming your way this summer! Dates are still tentative, but the gears are turning to get it out to you, hopefully in time for you to bring it to the beach! Here’s a hint of things to come:

Cinder Allia has spent eight years living under her stepmother’s brutal thumb, wrongly punished for having caused her mother’s death. She lives for the day when the prince will grant her justice; but her fairy godmother shatters her hope with the news that the prince has died in battle. Allia escapes in search of her own happy ending, but her journey draws her into the turbulent waters of war and politics in a kingdom where the prince’s death has left chaos and division.

Cinder Allia turns a traditional fairy tale upside down and weaves it into an epic filled with espionage, treason, magic, and romance. What happens when the damsel in distress must save not only herself, but her kingdom? What price is she willing to pay for justice? And can a woman who has lost her prince ever find true love?

Surrounded by a cast that includes gallant knights, turncoat revolutionaries, a crippled prince who lives in hiding, a priest who is also a spy, and the man whose love Allia longs for most—her father—Cinder Allia is an unforgettable story about hope, courage, and the healing power of pain.

Karen Ullo is a writer, musician, wife, and mother of two small tornadoes—er, boys. Her novels are Jennifer the Damned (2015) and Cinder Allia (coming in 2017.) To find out more, go to www.karenullo.com.

Adventures in Music-ing

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“To music” really ought to be a verb. I realize the -ing form of it would look rather awful: you’d either have to make it musicking—which looks sickly—or you’d have to run the risk of musicing being pronounced like “muse icing”—which is an interesting image, but not exactly what I’m going for. Still, there really is more to music-ing than “making” music.  The usual phrase connotes that music is a thing, like a table or a statue. But music is not a form of matter; it’s a form of energy. Music only exists when it is in motion. A vinyl record or a CD might be called “potential music,” but you’ve got to spin it for it to play. The potential energy of the hammers in a piano must become kinetic, and the kinetic energy must be converted to sound waves, or the strings will remain forever silent. Music is always active; inertia must be overcome by force not once for all time, like the energy channeled into a sculptor’s chisel, but over and over again, at the very moment when the music is required, or else it will not exist. Music-ing is always a verb.

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Bells like these

I’ve been the music director at a Catholic parish for almost thirteen years now, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned for sure, it is that Murphy’s Law applies double to music, especially during Christmas and Easter. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. On my very first Christmas Eve in my current job, the vigil Masses ran smoothly, including a children’s “hand bell” performance using the color-coded bells popular in preschools and kindergartens. (Our organist owns the company that markets those bells, and she records the accompaniment tracks herself.) But later, when we arrived for midnight Mass, the organ would not play. At all. It wasn’t until Christmas morning that the pastor figured out some of the kids from the bell choir had banged on the back of the organ console and dislodged the fuses.

This liturgical year in particular has been a comedy of holiday errors. Once again, the Christmas Eve vigil Masses ran smoothly, but when I set up all the microphones for midnight Mass, I flipped on the sound system and. . . BUZZ. Not feedback. Just something-ain’t-right noise. Do you know how long the process of elimination takes to figure out what’s wrong with a sound system? It could be any single microphone, cable, or sound board channel causing the problem, and in order to test them, I had to keep turning the system on and off. And the switch is in the sacristy, a good thirty yards or so from where the musicians set up. And I was barely six weeks recovered from foot surgery, hobbling back and forth across that distance, until I stationed the deacon at the switch and kept signaling to him across the church. But it turned out to be a good thing we had an excuse not to perform our prelude music, because—despite setting an alarm—the pianist overslept. While I was desperately troubleshooting the sound system, the organist had to call and wake her up. The pianist is normally very responsible and punctual, but this time she had to stumble into church half-way through the gathering hymn, right after I finally ditched the offending microphone, without having time to determine whether it was the cable or the mic itself causing the buzz.

Music-ing. Gotta love it.

Still, no matter how many things go wrong, in my almost thirteen years as music director, we have never had a complete musical meltdown. We’ve had plenty of less-than-perfect services, but, no matter how close we’ve come, we have never had to simply throw in the towel and say, “Sorry, folks, no music today.” Much of this, of course, has to do with careful planning and built-in redundancy. I mentioned both an organist and a pianist; at most Masses, we use both instruments at the same time, which also means that if one accompanist gets sick or goes on vacation, the other is there to cover. If the organ malfunctions, we still have the piano. If the pianist oversleeps, we still have the organ. If I can’t sing, the pianist can cantor, too. But an even bigger part of our record of no meltdowns is the fact that we have had plenty of heavenly intervention.

The most obvious example of this came a few years ago on a Sunday during Lent. Because of a perfect storm of personal emergencies, both of our accompanists had to be out at the same time. Although I’d made plenty of calls, I couldn’t find a sub. I arrived at church on Sunday morning having prepared the choir for an all-a cappella service, and I announced our plan to the congregation before Mass. No sooner had I finished the announcement than a man I had never met appeared at my elbow and said, “You need a piano player?” I looked at him in shock and said, “Can you really do it on this short of notice?” He more or less grunted, “Yes.” I thought to myself, the worst thing that happens is we have one terrible hymn and then I tell him, “Thanks, but no thanks.” So I set the sheet music in front of him… and he blew us all out of the water. It turned out he was the band director from the local Catholic high school, someone I had emailed and spoken to on the phone but never met in person. People call him “Doc” because he’s got a Ph.D. in music.

The pastor’s reaction after Mass: “Angel of God, my guardian dear…”

However, the heavenly intervention usually comes in ways that are much less obvious to the people sitting in the pews. More often, it comes as grace in the midst of personal suffering. This year’s Holy Week was probably the most extreme example our musicians had ever witnessed. Holy Week has a tendency to be a great physical trial for me personally. There was the year when I premiered my original setting of the Exsultet with chronic tonsillitis. There was the year when I caught a stomach bug on Wednesday, missed our final rehearsal, and barely managed to keep my drugged, dehydrated body upright to conduct Holy Thursday and Good Friday. But this year, I had major internal surgery less than a month before Easter. The things that still hurt the most for me to do post-op are singing and conducting. Add to that the fact that the pianist is fighting a problem with her wrist, one of our cantors got sick, and several choir members are in the middle of moving back into their renovated homes after the flood. Best of all, the organ developed a cipher ten minutes before the Easter Vigil. That means a particular note plays constantly even when no one presses the key.

This really should have been the year when we threw in the towel.

But of course, we didn’t. There was quite a lot of codeine involved in my performance this year, but somehow I was still alive and conscious—and on pitch!—at the end of the last Mass on Easter Sunday morning. Somehow, the pianist still played. Somehow, the exhausted choir full of flood victims still sang. Somehow, the organist even managed to negotiate the cipher. Despite the best efforts of the world to drown us out, Easter in our parish was still filled with beautiful music.

If that’s not the work of the Holy Spirit, I don’t know what is.

My history with music-ing is long, complicated, and filled with almost as much pain as love. I guess that’s how you know when you’ve got a vocation. No matter how I try to get around it, music-ing continues to be an adventure, even when I’m long past the point when I’d prefer it to be dull. But I suppose that, as with most things in life, if music-ing were not my own personal Passion, I’d be tempted to overlook the ways in which it is a continual source of grace.

Happy Easter!

Karen Ullo is the author of the novel Jennifer the Damned. To find out more, go to www.karenullo.com.

Easter Communion

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Sandro Botticelli, The Last Communion of St. Jerome

 

Easter Communion by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Pure fasted faces draw unto this feast:
God comes all sweetness to your Lenten lips.
You striped in secret with breath-taking whips,
Those crooked rough-scored chequers may be pieced
To crosses meant for Jesu’s; you whom the East
With draught of thin and pursuant cold so nips
Breathe Easter now; you serged fellowships,
You vigil-keepers with low flames decreased,
God shall o’er-brim the measures you have spent
With oil of gladness, for sackcloth and frieze
And the ever-fretting shirt of punishment
Give myrrhy-threaded golden folds of ease.
Your scarce-sheathed bones are weary of being bent:
Lo, God shall strengthen all the feeble knees.

 

Karen Ullo is the author of the novel Jennifer the Damned. To find out more, go to www.karenullo.com.

The St. Joseph Altar—or, learning to love the culture you married into

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I have a confession to make: I’ve been Catholic all my life, and I had never heard of a St. Joseph Altar until about ten years ago, when I married a man of Sicilian descent. He’s as much an American from South Louisiana as I am, but my cultural heritage is French, while he’s a Ullo from a town called Marrero. The number of vowels in those two words ought to tell you that his grandparents often seasoned vats of homemade tomato sauce with Italian prayers and buried statues of St. Joseph upside down when they wanted to sell a house—another tradition this Cajun girl had never heard of until I married into the tribe. I didn’t even know St. Joseph was the patron of Sicily, much less any of the finer points of the devotion.

Since my husband first started hounding me, the first March after we were married, to find a St. Joseph Altar to attend, it seems like suddenly they’re everywhere: articles popped up in the local Catholic newspaper, my parish school decided to host one, friends galore—even my own parents, who never took any interest in such things when I was growing up—often invite me to attend them. Apparently, the custom has deep roots in Louisiana, as it does almost anywhere in the U.S where there’s a large group of Sicilian immigrants. I’m just late to the party.

2017-03-12 13.32.20The tradition of the St. Joseph Altar dates back to the Middle Ages, when Sicily was suffering from drought and famine. The people prayed to St. Joseph to send rain to make their crops grow, but for a long time, the only thing that would grow—the crop that kept them alive—was the humble fava bean. When the rains finally came and the people harvested their crops, they set up an altar filled with the produce, gave thanks to St. Joseph, and then distributed the food to the poor. Since then, the annual altars, held on or near the Feast of St. Joseph on March 19, have become ever more elaborate, layered with symbol and ritual. You can read more about the history of the practice here and here.

Much like St. Patrick’s Day for the Irish, St. Joseph’s Day appears to this outside observer to be more or less an excuse to throw a party during Lent. It’s a holy, philanthropic party, and it’s soberer than St. Paddy’s Day with its green beer, but it’s a party nonetheless. At the large, public altars I’ve attended, the food displayed on the altar itself will be given to the poor at the end of the day, but there is also a meal prepared to give away to anyone who comes, usually pasta with tomato sauce (of course!) and a boiled egg. There is no meat at a St. Joseph Altar because the feast falls during Lent, when Catholics historically ate no meat at all. The food is often sprinkled with bread crumbs to represent the sawdust of St. Joseph the carpenter (although at the altar we attended last Sunday, it wasn’t. This made my husband upset enough to ask if he could volunteer to help next year. I suspect he will be the official Bread Crumb Sprinkler.) Once you’ve finished your pasta and whatever vegetarian side dishes come with it, there are enough Italian sweets for every person there to rot three sets of teeth. I don’t know the names of most of them, and I couldn’t spell them if I did, but I am perfectly happy to be ignorant and just eat. As my own people would say, Mais, ça c’est bon!2017-03-12 13.30.22

After you have stuffed yourself and viewed the beautiful culinary artwork that adorns the altar—and tried desperately, if not quite successfully, to keep your children’s snatching fingers out of all that meticulously worked icing—the generous hosts send you home with a little paper baggie full of yet more cookies, a blessed fava bean, a small hunk of blessed bread, and—if your fervently Sicilian husband goes and asks for it—also little baggies of blessed salt. This is the part of the St. Joseph Altar that I’m having trouble learning to love, because I am not allowed to divest myself of any of these blessed objects, ever. According to my husband, the bread is meant to protect against natural disasters and the beans are good luck. Once, I threw away one of the hunks of bread because I cleaned out our cabinets and thought it was just a random, forgotten crumb. It’s a mistake I shan’t be eager to repeat. But . . . now there are fava beans and small lumps of bread lurking in odd places, hidden in drawers, tucked into the corners of shelves, taunting me any time I try to clean. There really must be something blessed about the bread because it never seems to mold. It just gets really, really stale. I suppose these little objects ought to remind me to give thanks for God’s bounty and to ask for St. Joseph’s intercession, but they don’t. They only make me wonder why I have to keep fava beans and bread crumbs all over my house.

I guess I haven’t been Sicilian long enough yet.

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The take home loot: bread, beans, salt, and a rosary in Italian colors. The cookies had already been eaten.

We are strange creatures, we humans, who cling devotedly to our weird little habits that never seem weird until we see them through the eyes of someone who doesn’t share them. My husband feels about egg boxing pretty much the same way I feel about cluttering up the house with fava beans. Yet our weird little habits keep us rooted in the human family, reminding us that we belong to a community—and in the case of a St. Joseph Altar, that community is not only Sicily or the Church but the community of the saints in heaven. I suppose that’s worth the inconvenience of a few bread crumbs.

Especially when they come with cookies.

(I took these photos at the Cypress Springs Mercedarian Prayer Center in Baton Rouge, where the sisters are still trying to recover from the flood. They wouldn’t mind a little Lenten almsgiving, if you’re able.)

Karen Ullo is the author of the vampire saga Jennifer the Damned. To find out more, go to www.karenullo.com.