In Plain View

West Texas is long on churches and short on curb appeal. It is mythmaking territory, a land where legends sprout more readily than trees. The names of its towns speak the truth about this arid swath of geography: Levelland. Plainview.

Balmorhea State Park's artesian fed pool.

The fancifully-named “Sweetwater” breaks the trend, but then again the town did build its own lakes in the late 1800s in order to attract commerce. That’s what you have to do in West Texas if you want a lake: you have to build it yourself. The land is so flat that whichever of the six flags that flew over the state at any given time in the past few centuries would have been easily visible rippling in the dry western breeze for many, many miles.

About other regions, it might be a stretch of the truth to assert that the character of its residents reflects the land’s contours. About West Texas it would be a falsehood to argue otherwise. Whether the landscape draws certain types of folks, or whether it makes folks behave a certain way once they’re already out there, is not clear. What is clear is that you know what you get with these people. They speak directly, and let you know exactly where you stand, just like a quick glance around the dusty plains will tell you exactly where you stand relative to the nearest house, farm, town, low-hanging cloud.

You can hear everything, too, in a terrain unbarricaded by natural soundbreaks. In a 2007 interview with West Virginia Public Television, American composer George Crumb said that the mountains of his home had imprinted their soundscapes indelibly on him through their endless echoes. And it’s true; Crumb’s music is always resonant with echo, either vastly or intimately. The wide West Texas country also comes with its own soundtrack. The even, steady, predictable beat of the plains across which trains once howled is mapped onto the sparse and transparent music of Buddy Holly, one of its greatest sons. The rockabilly singer who hailed from Lubbock and streaked across the pop music firmament like a brief and bright comet wrote and sang in a level, straightforward way, like the earth under his feet. His lyrics and delivery functioned in a single layer: if he sang “oh boy,” it meant he was glad. He didn’t even take poetic license with Peggy Sue; there really was a Peggy Sue. Plain songs with plain words by a plain man from the High Plains. No point in singing the multifaceted and signifyin’ blues here. The land is the blues.

Maybe this kind of landscape heightens the moral sensibilities, makes people better somehow. After all, hiding iniquity is quite difficult when even on the rare un-clear day, you can see forever. There is no cover for evil deeds. Perhaps this is why fundamentalism flourishes here: you can see exactly what your neighbor is up to, facilitating both judgment and fear of judgment. Or maybe this kind of landscape just makes people brazen rather than ethical. Everyone will see anyway, the thinking might go, so what does it matter? The notion of such a wide open expanse is inextricably bound up with sight, literal and moral. You can especially see the fundamentalist evangelicalism that dots the plains: pious specks of tiny Assembly of God churches, get-right-or-get-left billboards, and Christian bookstores.

You can hear it, too; on a three-day visit I counted as many references to the Rapture in normal conversation. The end of time was spoken of as it were just around the corner; and indeed, in what can sometimes seem a post-apocalyptic wilderness, it is easy to believe it just might be. Upon concluding a conversation, one elderly gentleman left me with the cheerful promise, “See you here, there, or in the air!”

Second only to the  fundamentalism in regional religious thought is a loose conglomeration of land-centered beliefs that coalesce around the thesis that until the Rapture, West Texas is the best place on earth to wait it out. Charles Reagan Wilson wrote a book called Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause. In it he argues that the mythology embodied in the “lost cause” worldview, which emerged among southern states following a humiliating loss in the Civil War, constitutes a religion, with high priests, sacred texts, and rituals. It is a convincing argument, and can be applied in some senses to the fervent regional loyalty of Texans. The only difference—and it is a big one—is that their pride, never having been mortally wounded by sociopolitical defeat and cultural irrelevance, doesn’t have to be bolstered by falsehood. Standing on the High Plains, surrounded by longhorn cattle and empty miles, one comes to share their unshakable belief that Texas would be just fine if the other forty-nine should fall.

Surely one of the highest liturgical rituals of Texanism must be the outdoor musical drama “Texas,” performed almost nightly near Amarillo since 1965. Big enough and epic enough to stand up to the canyon (!) in which it is performed, the musical is a cocktail of love stories, expansionism, and frontier dilemmas set in a vague period in the 1800s. The requisite Native Americans obligingly appear in headdress, and vigorous square-dancing is pounded out over a score reminiscent of Copland’s Billy the Kid. Given that even the terrifying thunderstorm depicted in the play coincides with a romantic stage kiss, “Texas” makes frontier life look pretty great. It is easy sport to poke fun at the bland patriotic finale tacked onto the production in recent months, until one realizes that throughout most of this number, the Texas flag is still foregrounded onstage, with the American flag in the background. No, Texas’s cause was never a lost one; and it is impossible not to feel a thrill as riders on horseback fly through the canyon bearing the flags that have flown over the state. The rite is enacted to an enthralled congregation seated on the floor of a rocky open-air cathedral, a reminder that West Texans have succeeded at living on the plains not by subduing them, but by acquiescing to them. Descending into the massive gash to watch the musical hammers home the strange sacrifice of mingled pride and humility that these flatlands demand from their dwellers.

Land and people are connected here as they are everywhere—always a truism but always different in its manifestation. In Wendell Berry’s What Are People For?, he speaks often and in many ways about the “practical harmony” between a land and its people. In West Texas, the harmony is sometimes discordant, with certain strains missing as raindrops pelt the earth less frequently and buffalo hooves have fallen silent. Yet it is still there, throbbing through the music of the plains, which sometimes sounds like a square dance in a canyon, and sometimes sounds like the moan of a lamenting cow, and sometimes sounds like two electric guitars and a dutifully-thumping bass for a Lubbock boy to sing against. The sounds and sights grind themselves into the souls of their inhabitants, whose much-lauded fierce independence is yet ever-dependent on the flat lands on which they stand.




All Hail West Texas

I am from El Paso, Texas.

The rest of America’s hope settles in its dust. It comes blowing down from both sides and settles right there in the sand like many an American ideal barred by the border. Driving into El Paso on Interstate 10, it feels like the city may never come, until suddenly, after eight hours of a few ghostly railroad towns, oil rigs, and Dairy Queens, it finally happens. Not just seen from the road, it is felt—like a drink of water, it comes as a relief.

El Paso was planted at the base of the Franklin Mountains and watered by the Rio Grande. I suppose it remains to be settled whether the United States reaches its hand into Mexico or if Juarez is stretching its legs onto American soil.  Today a fence traces the line that river’s water once drew. Distance makes it easy to forget what El Paso lacks compared to its Texan sister cities, yet proximity makes its socio-economic dominance over Juarez blatant.

If something new and fresh comes their way, the people of El Paso will take it gladly, but there’s no telling if it will last as long as the traditions that make the city move, rambling and rumbling like a Ford truck on one of its ranch roads. True, in the last ten years the city has leaped in progress, but still this happens at the slow pace for which the city is famous.

El Pasoans share the in the pride Texans are infamous for, but distance from their fellow comrades imbues the pride with a simple-minded charm. It’s felt that “the stars at night are big and bright” and that the “sage in bloom is like perfume”, but not with the same fervor.

Nobody complains about the climate. For some  its consistency adds to El Paso’s charm. For others the pleasure of perfect weather is pacifying; sunny days run into each other, whole seasons passing without a change of shirt. When rain finally falls, it falls hard, breaking the parched ground open and forcing it to succumb.

It goes without saying: postcards from El Paso are sent with irony enclosed in the stamped envelope. Despite all of this, its unique offerings satisfy.

I was raised in this place.

A sporting goods salesman, my maternal grandfather worked Wilson’s southwestern territory,  eventually relocating his family from Chicago. A truck driver, my paternal grandfather cruised I-10 carting goods east from California also eventually pitching the Ritchey tent in El Paso. My parents met at the state university in town, got engaged three months later, and married three months after that.

I won’t forget our stucco house on Guthrie street. At dusk the light would catch Guthrie’s street sign, shooting glares through my bedroom window, affixing the memory of that sight at the front of my memory. Oakbridge and Rockwood didn’t puzzle me, but Guthrie, what was that?  I’ve never known how to shut my mind off when it settles into speculation, an unrelenting eagerness to question everything. I exhausted my parents with questions. But answers to the real questions, not why a brain freeze happens, or why the stop lights are red, yellow, and green, but the questions with consequences, those questions I sometimes wish went unasked. As for that Guthrie street sign, it’s fun to think of it as a signal from the “Dust Bowl Troubador” himself, picking me out early on, singing to me before I had answers that hurt the both of us.

To pass the time, my young family piled into our truck to take nighttime drives around the historic district, a hodgepodge of old ranch style outposts and mansions. Peeking in windows, I’d imagine how the owners traipsed around; with each lamp lit, a story unfolded in my mind. We’d conclude with a stop at St. Anthony’s Monastery, “set upon a hill to light the way,” but  the dark, gated grounds and towering cathedral paired with crumbling headstones at Concordia cemetery on the horizon terrified me. My infrequent mass attendance and minimal acquaintance with the sacraments didn’t help. Lunch time stories of First Holy Communions in white dresses left me keen to understand. A Swedish Lutheran in a place where most of my school friends were Catholic, it was difficult to situate myself in the crowd, but I learned and I was bolstered.

By the time I started high school, it seemed most of the girls had forgotten the feeling attached to those white gowns, that is, until it came time for them to put another on for their quincaneras, a young Hispanic woman’s entrance into womanhood. A quincanera is one occasion (of many) to gather friends and family for food and fun.

Life was leisurely. Everything began after schedule because there was no rush to be anywhere else. The expression “our door is always open” was well-lived, and when I crossed a doorstep, I was met with open arms. Truly, the hug was the handshake even between strangers.

Like most suburban cities, El Paso has its share of strip malls, a uniform assemblage in every subdivision. But because of its felt isolation and a hesitance from large chain stores to move in, these strip malls are packed with small locally-owned businesses. I had a favorite tiny taco joint, tamale joint, fajita joint, margarita joint and guacamole joint. For fifty years my grandparents have dined at Avilas’s, a family-owned Mexican restaurant. The fixtures remain unchanged: rod-iron lamps, bright upholstery, desert landscape paintings and heavy ceramic plates. You can expect it to stay that way if the last five decades are any indication.

These memories make me eager to defend it. Yet I was unwilling to commit. I was authenticated there, working to prove myself as much as the city works to make a mark on the map, and once I had, I went away. But when I come home, I’m a prodigal welcomed with a “Bienvenidos!” as if I’d never left.  It’s an unexpected return on an investment that ended the day I left.

A long absence hasn’t lessened my fervor. Ask me where I’m from and my heart swells with pride, pride in the mountains, the river, the sunsets, and even the grime that builds up from the hope that settles in the dust.

The Liturgy of a Neighborhood

When my husband and I started to discuss where to look for a house, our preferences did not quite align. Johnny leaned toward the affordable suburbs of Katy, and I presented an unrealistic argument for a pricey, historic bungalow in one chamber of the heart of Houston – the Woodland Heights, our church’s neighborhood.

My husband’s practical wisdom prevailed, and walking into the two-story house in which we now live, we experienced the surprisingly truthful cliché: We just knew. I made it my mission to see the suburbs as I now see everything: to seek out what is rehumanizing right here, chain stores and all. Our neighborhood is very walkable, most of our neighbors are friendly, and we consider Cedar’s Mediterranean Grill & Market “our place,” offering the best hummus, hookahs, and Arabic music videos on the TV. We now feel as if the ‘burbs are home sweet home. However, if we won the lottery, we might be persuaded to move to one of those bungalows. Until that improbable day, my urban aesthetics are assuaged by driving to church every Sunday through the absence of notorious Houston traffic – it’s like God’s gift to the faithful.

As creatures of ritual and pleasure, our Sabbaths consist of a geographical trinity to which we migrate like birds to their homeland. We both work from home, so Sunday is our earliest day of the week. I am not a morning person. But, gratefully, Antidote Coffee is our first stop, its atmosphere just buzzed enough to gently wake fellow grumpy, slow risers. Cheery, multi-colored patio furniture awaits outside, and eclectic vintage furniture inside. Red brick walls sport local art and photography. The menu offers organic and fair trade coffee roasted in Marfa, Texas; organic artisanal tea, beer, wine, homemade baked goods, watermelon gazpacho, red bean hummus, and other delights. Happy hour includes spirits, of course, but also $1.00 espresso shots. The Beach Boys, The Kinks, and Old Country play overhead. They spin bad music at times, too, but at least it’s obscure bad music. The staff is attentive and kind – by now they know that Johnny takes his cappuccino wet with organic milk; they wait patiently as I rummage through the tea selection indecisively.

It’s a small, intimate space. I can’t help but eavesdrop on most conversations as they bounce off the stained concrete floor. And there’s no finding a secret, introverted nook in which to work or read. As I select a small wooden table or a velvet couch, I often have to ask a person, “Is this seat taken?” One afternoon, I poured my teapot of organic breakfast and spilled some of it in the process – very characteristically of me. A soft-spoken man chuckled in sympathy and asked what I was drinking, or spilling. I asked the same of him (Sencha green) and we oohed and ahhed over varieties of white tea, as well as our mutual preference for dark roast and chicory coffees. I discovered that he was born in France, adopted by an American family, and is now part of both families – he visits the French countryside regularly. I shared that my mom was adopted; her biological family is from Louisiana, and she, too, is part of both families. And when I said that just that morning, Johnny and I daydreamed of visiting Paris, the man said, “Oh, you should – there’s still a lot of magic in that city.” I marveled at this conversation with a kindred spirit-stranger.

Kaboom Books is right next door, a brilliant pairing. More rainbow-hued tables and chairs adorn the storefront, encouraging the enjoyment of coffee and used books here or there. The second Kaboom location is a little bigger and five minutes away, and our church is situated in the middle. The owners are a good-natured married couple, transplants from New Orleans after Katrina. We met the spunky red-haired wife, newly a Houston resident, and to our delight and surprise, she reported that they love their new hometown and neighbors.

I am not above a Barnes & Noble/Starbucks combo, but I do have a special place in my heart for the unshakable independents in our culture, and for the smell of old books. Kaboom’s tall, crude wooden shelves hold more mystery than a polished new store. Their selection musters up a literary faith in the face of uncertainty. Lately, I believe that I will find Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter on that high shelf with the B’s, though I cannot yet see it. Like the old bungalows in the neighborhood, these books spin yarns and tall tales to complement the story their pages hold. The front page might bear a reader’s name written with pencil or ink, provoking a sort of reverence in me as I flip through the pages, as if that long-lost soul is loaning it to me. Kaboom opens later than Antidote on a Sunday morning, so I wistfully peek into my dusty little sanctuary until I can step inside again. Sometimes we do so after church, or during the week. Our liturgy of the neighborhood is not just for the Sabbath, you see.

We hop in the car with to-go cups of caffeine and weave down Euclid Street for two minutes toward church. This neighborhood provides something suburbanites should cultivate: a deeper sense of community and beauty, which naturally pours into my soul as I spy porch swings, rocking chairs, hammocks, wind chimes, lush gardens bright with flowers, protective oak trees, and quirky art sculptures planted in front yards. The amicability also speaks from the bungalow architecture itself, with most homes boasting wide front porches that make hospitality visual. Friends drink wine on those shady havens in the evening, or sleepy-eyed fathers enjoy breakfast in solitude the next morning. History resides in these streets as well – old, tattered bungalows sit alongside newer models, but the Woodland Heights is committed to preserving “a hometown near downtown since 1907” and beautiful American Craftsman design. Change is good at the right time, but I still admire this small town within the big city, one determined to conserve historical architecture which tells a large part of Houston’s story.

The impetus for our Sabbath migration sits on the corner of Beauchamp and Byrne: Church of the Holy Trinity, a small Anglican parish. “Worship is primary theology. It is also home, which, as the saying goes, is the place where they have to take you in” (Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace). I grew up with Baptist mega-church roots, and so our little liturgical church feels exactly like our second family (after in-laws) with differences, squabbles, hugs, laughter, shared tears and joy, and all the rest. I actually know my priest – a far cry from a distant pastoral association, with a stage and bright lights. Fr. Doug loves local coffee shops, whiskey, good tobacco, the Coen Brothers, John Donne, Wendell Berry, and slow food, just for starters.

The liturgy suits people like me and Johnny, and many in the congregation – the artful-minded, craving visuals and symbols. We walk in the door to dip our fingertips in cold, holy water; trace a cross from our forehead to our chest; light a candle cupped in red glass to symbolize prayers weighing heavy on our hearts. I take a wooden pew under the St. Catherine of Alexandria stained glass. There is a still, sweet reverence under the wooden nave which looks like an upturned ark, drying out from a tragic flood. As we do “the people’s work,” peaceful repetition – kneeling, bowing, crossing – we embed Scripture and worship into our souls and movements. Liturgy is found in the pages of Genesis, the 1st century early church, and onward until now – more history rooted within a bustling, modern city. The music is both traditional hymns and new songs on guitar, piano, and djembe. Candles light the altar; incense tickles our noses and represents our collective prayers. When we walk out the door and gather on the patio, some smoke a cigar and others grab a Shiner (on tap in the kitchen). We adults sweat in a Houston summer, and the kids run helter-skelter on the playground. We take our worship back out into the old-and-new-bungalowed neighborhood – as they welcome us, we hope to welcome them into our home the next week, signaled by church bells sounding through the ‘hood.

Urbanites seek refuge from the traffic and workweek cacophony, and our activities are almost unconscious liturgical repetitions. We work with our hands in our home or in an office, completing similar tasks over and over again. We frequent our favorite places to eat, drink, and refuel. We are created to gravitate to rhythm, order, beauty, and our incarnational five senses. Or perhaps we rebel against these forces, our fallen dance.

But we are to live within our culture, our eyes roving for what is true, good, and beautiful – such as the Menil neighborhood, houses of art which continue to nourish and protect me. But even more nourishing and protective are our church, Antidote’s small town hospitality, and Kaboom’s cozy inspiration – making the Woodland Heights our second neighborhood. It’s like Isaiah said: “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” And so we drink coffee & tea, read, and worship; return to our suburban neighborhood, rest, repeat – revisiting the rhythm of our Bayou City Sabbath after Sabbath, a world that ought to be, without end, amen.

The San José: A Hotel with a Soul

Photo: Jenni Simmons

Back in my formative, single days, I read an influential article by Paul Soupiset in Communiqué. He received a clever gift from his wife – a weekend getaway/personal retreat in room #26 of Austin’s Hotel San José – and he deemed the urban bungalow lodging “a perfect spot for meditation, prayer, and contemplation.” I was newly enamored with Kathleen Norris’s book, The Cloister Walk, and so his description caught my eye. At the time, I imagined my tiny studio apartment to be my own monastic cell, and I mimicked Norris’s observance of the hourly offices as best I could while sitting on my blue futon. I went from Baptist to Anglican for the sake of poetic liturgy. Reading both pieces birthed my love for quiet, clean-lined spaces, with ample room to think and pray.

Through Soupiset’s words and photographs, I was whisked away to what Hank Williams III described as “Mexico meets Japan”: cacti and bamboo stalks outside, cowhide rugs and rice paper lanterns indoors, minimalist yet comfortable, with strong lines and simplicity. It sounded peaceful and funky enough to suit my eclectic tastes perfectly. And yet, all monastic notions aside, I wasn’t too keen on sleeping over alone, nor did I have appropriate budget, so I tucked the idea away for my marital future. When I finally said “I do” to a drummer, we spent our honeymoon in Gruene, TX, and returned the following year for our anniversary. The bustling city of Austin is nearby, so we saved our pennies, booked a room at the San José and tacked on a night to our annual getaway, thereby establishing a tradition. Since we entertained life in a convent and monastery (respectively) during singlehood, marriage seemed a celebratory occasion on which to splurge.

Reading a great article is one thing, but experiencing Hotel San José in the flesh is a very incarnational experience – it touches on all five senses, while heartening the spirit. We’ve stayed there four times, and it’s like a deep, meditative breath each time we’re handed a key. We step from the parking lot through a wide, wooden-slatted door to modern oasis landscaping courtesy of Austin’s Big Red Sun. There’s a Zen garden quality as gravel crunches underfoot; large wooden eggs are placed here and there. Lush greenery hangs from wooden trellises overhead. Birds flit from clay birdhouses hidden in tree branches. Stairs are framed with twigs and vibrant porcelain colors. Terra cotta planters nourish desert plants and succulents. You can read and sip tea on vintage patio furniture or an assortment of geometrical wooden chairs placed throughout the sculpted gardens. The hushed calm is something of a sonic miracle seeing as cars whiz by on S. Congress just steps away.

Photo: Jenni Simmons

The buildings are quite satisfying to those of us who appreciate the honesty of modernism. Lake|Flato architects, believing that such a style “should respond to its particular place, enhance a site or neighborhood, and be a natural partner with the environment,” transformed an old tourist court into a sanctuary of vernacular architecture. This bungalow-style hotel is framed by stucco and gray brick walls; Spanish tiled roofs and large, olive green doors imprinted with white room numbers. Inside is a fresh take on monastic living – well, except for a flat screen TV and the mini bar (a wooden box cradling items such as Shoyeido incense, dark chocolate, and a bottle of cabernet). The white rooms display the most beautiful austerity illumined by bright, natural light, heeding another of Lake|Flato’s philosophies to explore “how the light of a specific region enlivens a space, brushes a wall, and animates materials.”

We slip off our shoes to feel cool, concrete floors and simple wool rugs woven with Rothko-esque blocks of color. The minimalist aesthetic is offset by vintage music posters on the wall, and platform beds and couches covered with tapestry pillows and hippie blankets. We slide open a massive, industrial sliding door into a sparse, white bathroom scented with the San José blend of pepperminty soap. Other furniture consists of Bertoia chairs and Saarinen tulip tables straight out of Dwell magazine. If I didn’t have an aversion to theft, I might have smuggled the red Eames rocking chair into our car when the staff wasn’t looking.

You’d never believe what this chic place used to be if I told you. I couldn’t visualize it myself, either, until I watched the documentary, The Last Days of the San José (2000), co-produced and directed by Saint Liz Lambert (as I like to call her). She purchased what was then a very ramshackle, squalid San José Motel with a vision of what it ought to be. But she acted as owner and manager for three years while she courted banks all over Texas to finance the renovations. In the meantime, she chronicled the lives of some of the tenants – a diverse lot. There were prostitutes, drug addicts, transvestites, runaway teenagers, and a self-instituted handyman attending anger management classes. There were more winsome characters, too, such as street musician Gerry Van King (the “King of 6th Street”), and Diana and her son, just trying to get by until they could afford rentable housing. One young female tenant described her surroundings as “a mini rundown Melrose Place.” And so it was.

Yet one glorious day, when Lambert finally sweet-talked a bank into a loan, it was time for all of her tenants – the good and the bad – to pack up and find other living arrangements. My heart shattered at that moment in the film. I had some less favorite characters, but I wondered, what happened in their childhood and their young adult life? Were they ever shown kindness?

Photo: Jenni Simmons

There’s a scene in which the hymn “Softly and Tenderly” (sung by Robert Sean Leonard in Chelsea Walls) plays softly while scenes of the city flash slowly –

Come home, come home,
Ye who are weary, come home,
Honestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
calling all sinners, come home.

In that subtle, poignant moment, I got the impression that Lambert cared a great deal – she befriended many of her patrons – but a place of filth and crime is no kind of shelter. Even if their lives resembled a dark tale penned by Flannery O’Connor, Lambert extended mercy by closing down the disreputable motel. It was not a home, and needed to recapture the positive atmosphere of its beginning as an “ultramodern motor court” in 1939. If we book a swank room at the Hotel San José here in 2009, we should not forget the people who struggled in its seedier rooms, nor the story behind the bungalows. These pieces of old architecture have quite the redemptive story to tell. With the eye of an artist, Lambert looked past syringes in sinks, crack pipes tucked away in random crevices, tattered curtains, soiled bed linens, and a sickly lime green exterior. She tore it all down to create a thing of beauty, a transformation akin to the resurrection – a motel’s dying breath raised to new life.

Through her work, Lambert also restored this particular neighborhood to safety and boosted the local economy, a salvific act to any location. Today, some of the best shopping in all of Austin resides on S. Congress: the fair trade of Ten Thousand Villages, local wares at Parts & Labour, the folk art of Yard Dog, the eclectic antiques of Uncommon Objects, worldwide crafts at Tesoros – and the literary Mecca of BookPeople is just minutes away. There’s good food and drink to be found at Guero’s, Home Slice, Hey Cupcake, Woodland, and Farm to Market. There’s even great music to tap your feet by right across the street at The Continental Club, which has seen Hotel San José through the worst of times, back in its days of squalor. All of this variety is very representative of a very grateful, zany, welcoming city.

In the same spirit, Hotel San José has mastered the art of hospitality in an inspiring, creative fashion – which is why it’s called “a hotel with a soul.” They offer a rare selection of perks for rent: Americana CDs, obscure films on DVD, bicycles for gasoline-free transportation, typewriters to peck out your memoirs (though there’s also free wireless internet), and Polaroid cameras to capture the tranquility on film. Your dog is even welcome. The rooms are no longer $30-40 per night, but if you have a worthy splurge (such as an anniversary) and you’re into the Tex-Mex-Orient vibe, the quality of stay speaks for the price, in my opinion.

With her creativity, Lambert redeemed the kitsch of the utilitarian motor court aesthetic with something more personal and less dehumanizing. In addition to Hotel San José’s funky, minimalist decor, the rooms are stocked intentionally with an eye for detail. For cleansing, the toiletries are small bottles of Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap and other exclusives created by a local Austin spa. A stack of single tissues are stacked neatly on a window sill. In each bathroom, a poem is nailed near the mirror to read while brushing your teeth. The small wine bar is the place to be, yet not raucous.

Photo: Jenni Simmons

But perhaps the prime example of their artful hospitality is the room service – breakfast in a bento box. This, too, is worth every penny we save each year – maybe the most beautiful presentation of a meal I’ve ever put in my mouth, compartmentalized and all. My favorite menu consists of big bowls of plain yogurt, granola, and berries along with grapefruit juice and a Bodum urn full of Jo’s coffee (an outdoor shop next door). To top it all off, we plug in my husband’s iPod to the complimentary bedside iHome and enjoy Aradhna while waking up.

I’m never quite ready to check out at noon, so my husband and I might forgo Gruene one of these years and spend two nights at Hotel San José. It is a soothing refuge, and we rather like that our favorite out-of-town accommodations have such a redemptive story. We’ve taken something away after each visit, at times unaware. Lately I’ve noticed that our house mirrors a similar eclectic minimalism, even the same warm green paint color. We purchased our home with a serious intent to offer hospitality to family, friends, and neighbors. After staying at the San José, we strive to make our dwelling just as artful and serene – a place where the cheerful and downtrodden alike can come and rest; wine and dine in good health; take a book off our many shelves and read. I’ve come to believe this is what any hotel should be – a home when you’re called away from home. And surely, a place where you feel free to kick back, pray, and cleanse your scattered thoughts.

To book a room at Hotel San José and/or purchase The Last Days of the San José DVD, call the very kind hotel staff: 800.574.8897.

A Medieval Christmas
(Downe in the Heart of Texas)

I’ve been surrounded by musical types all my thirty four years of life. My Dad plays piano and guitar, my Mom can do a lovely harmony, my Grandfather was a Baptist minister of music, my Aunt sings a warm honey alto, another Aunt and I share a genetic admiration for certain albums, and musicians were always the boys to catch my eye. My friends are often musical, too, or über-artistic, and through a few of these chums, I met Kemper Crabb several years ago. I can honestly say that I’ve never met anyone like him. His off-the-wall sense of humor was quite a shock to my shy little soul, he had a Gandalf-like demeanor (which is probably a result of how many times he’s read The Lord of the Rings), and he always spoke wisdom like a sage. Furthermore, he’s a native, die-hard Texan, an Episcopal priest, and a gifted teacher – quite the all-around modern Renaissance kind of guy. I’m grateful that we’ve remained friends – largely because, as fate would have it, I met my drummer-husband via Kemper and another scheming couple. Kemper’s been one of my greatest teachers, changing my worldview for the better, often by recommending a fantastic book.

Back when I met Kemper, I was in the midst of a folk-only musical phase, foaming at the mouth over the Indigo Girls, Joni Mitchell, Lucy Kaplansky, Dar Williams, The Story, and so on. Kemper’s music stopped me in my Birkenstocked tracks. There are ten albums in his discography, but my introductions were The Vigil and A Medieval Christmas. I should be able to describe his genre, yet the music of Kemper Crabb is nearly impossible to pin down. The Vigil, for instance, is a concept album based on a knight’s ritual of preparation, and possibly his most popular album to date (impressing the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn). And I have lamely tried to classify him: “art rock“, “old world/new world”, “ancient/future exotic-acoustic”, “head-spinningly eclectic.” You must hear his music to understand my dilemma, and luckily for you during this month of Advent, you easily can.

Just in the nick of Christmas-shopping time, Kemper released a DVD and CD entitled Downe in Yon Forrest: Christmas From the Middle Ages – footage of a concert filmed at Church of the Holy Apostles in Katy, TX, and its soundtrack. This festive project is a new, expanded arrangement of his earlier album of holy-day hymns and carols (A Medieval Christmas). And, a version of Downe in Yon Forrest will air on PBS this month on select stations nationwide. I’m pretty happy about all the hype because I’ve attended several of his Medieval Christmas concerts over the years, and ignoring any personal bias, I never find the set list to grow old – a relief to my Muzak-saturated ears this time of year.

Actually, there’s an upside to that annual, dreadful slaughter of good music in elevators and chaotic shopping malls at the onset of Thanksgiving. The innocent melodies themselves are lovely, many written by artistic medieval folks. People from that time are often branded as Dark Aged dolts or dimwits in history books, yet their songwriting expertise is hard to ignore. We can’t help but sing these songs every single year, and few know that we’ve caroled with gusto and cheer for over a millennium. Some of these tunes were written as early as the 8th or 9th century (and some lyrics date all the way back to the 4th century). As Kemper likes to say in concert, “The medieval Christmas carols are the greatest hits of the Western musical canon.” In more recent decades, countless musicians have tried their hand at these beloved songs, too. I own a mixed bag of Christmas albums by Johnny Cash, Over the Rhine, Emmylou Harris, and Sufjan Stevens, and as much as I adore them, Kemper’s take on Christmas is something magical and multicultural, displacing our sense of time.

His current lineup is a black-clad troupe playing a motley crew of ancient and modern instruments: Kemper, of course (mountain dulcimer, recorder, mandolin, bazouki, vocals), Ryan Birsinger (bowed psaltery and harmonium), Garett Buell (tabla and various percussion), Christina David (violin), Frank Hart (cello, sitar, vocals), David Marshall (guitar, recorder, bazouki, mandolin), John Simmons (um, yes, a close relation; djembe, doumbek, shakers, vocals), and Chris Whittington (guitar, vocals). On the Downe in Yon Forrest DVD, this harmonious bunch perform seated in a semi-circle, book-ended by percussion; religious icons and falling snow are interspersed with the live footage.

The ringing doumbek kicks off “What Child is This”. This is one signature aspect of Kemper’s vision – the percussion is prominent, to reflect what this music might have sounded like on medieval streets, versus the more refined courtly tradition of the time. With tribal flavor and a gypsy, raucous vibe, Kemper makes common songs new again and restores reverence to age-old lyrics with his smooth, lilting tenor. Modern takes on antique arrangements with riffs, Middle Eastern drones, and satisfying, head-bobbing rhythms help us to hear that “music of the Middle Ages was a fusion of (at least) three major things: Church music, Church chants, and indigenous European music with Muslim influence through the Crusades and centuries of trade.” Singing in rounds and three- or four-part harmonies brings out the joyfulness and beauty that our Medieval brethren intended as they celebrated Christmastide on the Church calendar.

Aside from friendship and toe-tapping music, I am forever grateful for Kemper’s history lessons during each concert. History gives us direction, and my faith is literally rooted in the historical. Another Kemper-proverb is, “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you cannot know where you’re going.” This is the honest-to-God truth. Yet, all too often, history books are dry and poorly written, a monotonous list of dates instead of the story of the people who came before. But creativity and teaching are deep within Kemper’s soul, and by incorporating audio and visual aspects, he gives us one of the best types of history lessons and rollicking songs to boot. Some years ago, I might have mused that people from the Middle Ages were simpletons, not nearly as advanced as we are in 2008. Then I heard Kemper state in concert, “I’m always amused by how superior moderns think they are when you consider that modernity gave us Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, chemical warfare, nuclear weapons, biological weapons, and the abortion holocaust. More people died in the 20th century than had died in all the rest of human history together.” He goes on to say that we can look to medieval society as one that self-consciously attempted to replicate what they believed to be the city of God on earth. They failed of course, but “the fall injects a little bone-headedness into everything we [all] do.” My two cents is that I don’t see much architecture comparable to the Gothic cathedrals in Europe; not enough, anyway.

In today’s America, there’s a craving for the lyricism found in the artistry of these hymns and carols. The very words teach us truth, and why this season is celebratory at all. Commercialism has elbowed the beauty out of December for most intents and purposes. In my little suburb, for example, the most hideous lawn decor is propped up with pride, and I’m talking giant, inflatable snow globes and Santa Tigger. You might see some sort of Nativity scene, but don’t count on it. My husband and I hole up in our living room and order as many gifts online as possible in a desperate attempt to not set foot in a mall full of frantic, stressed-out shoppers. I do believe giving packages tied up with string is a lovely symbol of the greatest gift to our culture, and to the world – a swaddled infant Jesus, crying in full humanity while already King. But I think gift-giving has now reached ridiculous proportions and lost the richness in simplicity and meaning. Many people come to Kemper’s holiday concerts and find a vapid hole filled; a place to sit, hear, see, learn, and remember that there are more than enough days in this month, and these days are holy. The old lyrics keep us grounded in reality, too; as Kemper says, “Our society is fairly unrooted, so a lot of what’s driven the return to Celtic and more ancient forms of music is the desire to sink into what we can conceive of as roots versus the endless novelty.”

Good art speaks to people, no matter the time period. Bringing diverse elements together is part of the cultural task of an artist as well as making creative works their very own. I know that, for me, the namesake of Kemper’s newest project, the song “Downe in Yon Forrest”, is captivating every single time. In some modern circles it simply isn’t hip to say “I love my Lord Jesus above anything”, yet I challenge anyone to not find that song stunning. The lyrics are utterly poetic and the musicians play in such a way as to make my heart ache with the sheer beauty of it all, so finally I just asked Kemper, “Who wrote that amazing song?” Sadly, the author is unknown. It’s often thought to be an Appalachian song, but one thing Kemper does know for certain is that the song is British, dating back to the late 1400’s or early 1500’s. A song by an unknown medieval songwriter is still popular today because it was passed down from family to family, church to church, century to century, and historian to an avid reader (Kemper fits that bill). As he performs these ancient carols, we’re reminded that for all the good of contemporary music – and there’s a lot – we must not forget the old songs; it would be to our peril as a culture.

The diverse instrumentation also opens our ears to cultures with which we may not be familiar. And since our relationship with the Middle East is, well, a little tense, you might be intrigued by how many songs make use of their native drones and dissonance. Many believe the Eastern cultures are dead ends, but this simply isn’t the case. I’ve always found Islamic art – the lush, intricate shapes and patterns – to be beautiful. Muslim people (and those of every culture, far and wide) are made in the image of God. They, too, have something to contribute to what is truthful. There will always be something lovely to behold whether it be food, drink, visual art, music, or otherwise. I don’t ascribe to their religion, and I find in their offerings broken forms of beauty. But at the same time, it is my job to cultivate what is true and beautiful from multicultural sources and reflect back the complete picture, as best as I’m feebly able. And lest I and my fellow Christians forget, our faith originated in the same locale. Kemper wants his music to be a symbol of hope for the future as we exchange artistic, economic, and political ideas with the East once again (as in the Middle Ages). And that we’ll “walk away from these songs with an appreciation of the fact that our forebears could produce things of surpassing beauty.”

With such a great brain to pick, I just had to ask him my favorite Curator-related question: “What do you find to be rehumanizing in our culture today?” He notices a renewed search for mystery, with people grounding their meaning in some kind of narrative, and sees that much of art is drawing people out of themselves into a larger dimension. Yet, with the straight-shooting wisdom he’s known for, he summed it all up by saying, “It’s only through things that ultimately lead back to God; if they don’t find the connection to Christ – the only one who lived out humanity in its fullness without jacking it up in any way – then they’ll never be completely rehumanized.” I can’t tell you how much I love to hear someone state that opinion so plainly in the month of December. Since our art inevitably reveals what we believe, Kemper’s matter-of-factness is the primary reason I love the Medieval holiday music. Whether you share his faith or not, you’ll never hear Christmas music quite like this, at least not in the mall. Step away from the Muzak and into the Middle Ages.

To see Downe in Yon Forrest, please check your local listings or call/e-mail your local PBS station.

To purchase the Downe in Yon Forrest CD and DVD (and Kemper’s other albums), please visit the Kemper Crabb store.

To purchase the Downe in Yon Forrest DVD as seen on PBS, please visit the PBS store.

She Spoke to Silence

Photo: Houston Chronicle

For a little over a year, I’ve struggled with a variety of health issues. The particulars are boring (and odd), but I will say that most people bounce back from such ailments in 1-2 months. Obviously, I am not one of those people. I’m healing all right, but at a maddening snail’s pace. I strive for a martyr-like demeanor, yet I won’t acquire sainthood anytime soon. I’m not a good sufferer. I’ve grasped for comfort all the year long day, primarily by way of reading. Somewhere along my book trail, I discovered the poet Vassar Miller, a fellow Houstonian, afflicted with cerebral palsy since birth (1924). I was humbled by this lady who suffered with more severity, and more grace than I have. I was inspired by poem after poem, like spoonfuls of medicine when my words seemed to fall short.

I remain enchanted, wishing we had met in person. Vassar Miller was a poet of great courage and skill, a crusader for the disabled, a self-taught theologian, and a teacher of creative writing at The University of St. Thomas, near her museum-district home. She had a raucous, bold laugh, even if she fell from the motorized cart which whisked her to class and back home again. She would proclaim, “Don’t help me. I can do it myself.” Bach oratorios, chocolate ice cream, her dogs, friends, and Sundays were among her favorite things. If asked her life-mantra, she’d say, “To write. And to serve God.” Frances Sage described her as “a rather shy, friendly woman with intelligent eyes, warm, and interested in conversation.”

Though her speech halted and skipped, her brain was sharp and she did not avoid poetry readings. With her typical, healthy sense of humor she described this in “Introduction to a Poetry Reading”:

I was born with my mod dress sewn onto my body,
stitched to my flesh,
basted to my bones.
I could never, somehow, take it all off
to wash the radical dirt out.
I even carry my own rock
hard in my mouth,
grinding it out bit by bit,
So, bear me
as I bear you.
high, in the grace of greeting

She was who she was largely due to her parents. Her bookish Dad lugged home his typewriter from work for Vassar to play with, and criticized her early, trite poetry. Her stepmom encouraged her to read and write; both parents took on her education at home until she entered junior high. After receiving B.S. and M.A. degrees from UH, Miller accomplished more than most able-bodied people. She published nine volumes of poetry, edited a literary anthology (Despite This Flesh: the Disabled in Stories and Poems), was included in numerous periodicals, selected as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (1961), named the poet laureate of Texas (1988; alternate in 1982), and inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame (1996).

She was admired by such peers as Donald Hall, Denise Levertov, Miller Williams, and most famously, Larry McMurtry. He hadn’t the greatest opinion of Texas writers (in 1981), but he singled out Vassar Miller as an exception, “That she is to this day little known, read, or praised in Texas is the most damning comment possible on our literary culture.” Even so, at age 74, she died virtually unknown (though there is a Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry). There might be a few clues to this mystery.

She had decided to live in Houston, outside the mainstream of poetry in New York. A woman of unflinching faith, she dipped her lame feet in two churches: St. Stephen’s Episcopal in the morning for the rituals of liturgy; Covenant Baptist in the afternoon for the music and diversified congregation. She often wrote in traditional forms, bucking against the popular poetry of her day – the Beats and Confessional poets – though her words were of common, American language. She unabashedly used themes that disturbed many – suffering, isolation, the silence of God, the naked self, the ineffable, and self-acceptance of her life’s constraints.

Regardless, Miller’s timeless, poetic voice upholds her reputation to this day. The core of her vision was that complex, unsentimental faith, with nods to the mystics, John Donne’s anguish, and George Herbert’s fervor. At times there’s a similarity to Flannery O’Connor as well. Both women were straight-shooters, right from the hip. They never apologized for their beliefs and often confounded their faithful brethren. Their respective afflictions were not the impetus to write, though I think it toughened them into sages. Whatever was in their mind’s eye is what you get. And as Levertov said, Miller did not care if her peers were listening. She rarely read her contemporaries. She believed that poets write to their deepest selves. Miller has also been deemed the Emily Dickinson of the 20th century, for her sources were personal and domestic, scenes of her solitude and feelings. Whether she recalls another writer to mind or not, she was in fact a living paradox: a successful, modern religious poet. “Without Ceremony” is just one poem of many that sums up her identity:

Except ourselves, we have no other prayer;
Our needs are sores upon our nakedness.
We do not have to name them; we are here.
And You who can make eyes can see no less.
We fall, not on our knees, but on our hearts,
A posture humbler far and more downcast;
While Father Pain instructs us in the arts
Of praying, hunger is the worthiest fast.
We find ourselves where tongues cannot wage war
On silence (farther, mystics never flew)
But on the common wings of what we are,
Borne on the wings of what we bear, toward You,
Oh Word, in whom our wordiness dissolves,
When we have not a prayer except ourselves

In my reading of Vassar Miller, a few critics felt she was a Texas poet, though not a poet of Texas; they could not find the geography in her work. As I’ve lived in Houston most of my 33 years, I must respectfully disagree. I’ve listened to the droning sing-songs of cicadas all summer, thinking of this elegant lady. Cicadas, hurricanes, endless summers of heavy heat, and drab, snowless Januaries appear in her poems quite often:

Unwinding the spool of the morning, / the cicada spins his green song,
(“Invocation” from Onions and Roses)

Hurricane, hurricane, / blow me away,
(“Invocation” from If I Had Wheels or Love)

. . . the cicadas’ antiphonal choirs / one memory’s and one desire’s . . .
caught in the yellow honey of the heat
(“High Noon”)

Even if a sense of place is not a prominent theme in Miller’s work, these glimpses of the Gulf Coast make me swell with Texan pride, proof-positive that her genius resided in my city. I’ve just about raised Vassar Miller to heroine status, among a select few: Mother Teresa, Flannery O’Connor, Billie, a local nursing home resident, my mom, my aunts, and my grandmothers. Each of these women looked head on in the face of suffering and survived. They not only survived, but extended their hands to anyone within reach. Intentionally or not, they impress on my frail heart how to persevere, smile, and even laugh when darkness settles in; they teach how to look beyond pain to service. My paternal grandmother did all of this and then some. When I was too young to philosophize, she taught me an invaluable lesson. As Parkinson’s Disease ravaged her nervous system, I witnessed that the disabled are not defined by handicap. As a child I didn’t know the term “Parkinson’s.” I knew “Memaw.” My grandmother and her soft, radiant smile whenever I walked in the room. In adulthood, this is how I vividly remember her.

Through her quiet, humble, successful life, Vassar Miller teaches us to see the physically handicapped in just this way. Not a twisted body, but a human being. To not gawk, stare, or point. Look into the eyes of every person – medical jargon is not their name. Do not fear or pity a bent spine, a shiver of tremors; be patient with a stuttering tongue. Love our neighbors with an artist’s eye, with imagination, for there is surely more than meets a healthy eye. Have courage; you might be surprised to find beauty within illness, perhaps more than you can bear. A broken body it may be, but a glimpse of restoration shimmers below; a reminder that the Fall is not forever.

In the introduction to Despite This Flesh, Miller speaks directly to the handicapped: your greatest crutch is to be ashamed in light of society’s erroneous opinion. Remember the Body from which you come. Whether they’ve learned so or not, our culture desperately needs each foot, hand, ear, eye, nose, body. One arm may be lame, but in another time, it will be whole. And to writers: you have a special eye – you see what some cannot. Poets: your eye is especially free from prejudice, or so it should be. Hold your mirror to what is truthful. The race does not always belong to the swift.

Obviously, Vassar Miller’s poetic sensibilities and her faith cannot be ignored. She stated them as her connecting vision of life, “Liturgy has always seemed to me the poetry of worship, humanity’s poor best for the infinite. Formal language and syntax have always been my personal struggle for order in what has often seemed my disorderly world.” In a very real sense, religion and poetry were, to some degree, her stay against shadows and madness, part of her trinitarian view of poetry: it is sanctifying, creative, and redemptive. Sanctifying in that poetry bestows order on erratic emotions and events. Creative in that it gives shape, makes a relic, where only a mass of thoughts and sensations were before. Redemptive in that a poem makes art from cast-off words, giving them value.

Vassar Miller was well-versed in theology, and she probably knew quite a lot about St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians wherein he stated, “we are His workmanship.” Miller’s life being immersed in words, I bet she knew that in the Greek, workmanship is “poiema.” Human beings are God’s poems. If I may further speculate, I’d say that’s why she championed the handicapped. Despite cerebral palsy, she knew that in her Maker’s eye, she was crafted well. Her body was out of order, but her soul held rhyme and reason.

Some of my best teachers are writers. And to my (selfish) benefit, they leave behind lessons I can turn to again and again. Vassar Miller teaches me to not cater to whim or sensation; write and live what is true and timeless to humanity; have tenacity in the face of suffering. Keep speaking toward the silence of God. And believe it or not, for all the beauty and groaning of sunshine, autumn leaves, sparrows, gardenias, or sheltering clouds, it is you and I – our bodies broken to some degree, our tongue a dangerous thing – who have memory, sin, suffering, and something to look forward to, even now:

The sun has no history.
Only I, bearing
my Adam and Eve on my back,
dragged under, dragged down, may leap
up to the saddle of hope
(from “The Sun Has No History”)

For Further Reading:

If I Had Wheels or Love: Collected Poems of Vassar Miller

Heart’s Invention: On the Poetry of Vassar Miller (Steven Ford Brown, ed.)

Despite This Flesh: the Disabled in Stories and Poems (Vassar Miller, ed.)

A Genius Obscured” (published in Sojourners)

Three Sanctuaries

Give or take a few years, when I was too young to recall my surroundings in North Texas or when I lived in Austin during college, Houston is all I’ve ever known. I call it home. I’ve grown accustomed to frenetic city life which seems to buzz 24-7, the concrete arteries of interstate, all too often clogged with cars wasting precious, overpriced gasoline, and the heat, dear God, the heat. The humidity is not for the faint of heart, because you will drip with sweat (or as a Southern lady might prefer, “glisten”). Something inside me bonds with the fast pace and bountiful resources at my fingertips, though in a quest for sanity, I seek out havens of quiet. One such place is the Menil campus, tucked into a neighborhood of bungalows and shady oak trees.

My regular pilgrimage is devoted to the main hub, The Menil Collection, and two satellite structures – the Rothko Chapel and the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum. I’m drawn there not just to escape the chaos of urban life, but also the racket of my soul. Stepping foot into any of the three buildings hushes my spirit and cleanses my psyche. As a Christian, I am drawn to the two chapels within walking distance of each other, as well as the Byzantine icons housed in the elegant Menil Collection: religious art particularly dear to Dominique de Menil.

John and Dominique de Menil and their five children have been compared to the Medicis of Italy. One could say that what the Medicis did for the Renaissance, the de Menils did for modernism in Texas, though if you could travel through time and share this comparison with the couple at their wedding in 1931, they might have scoffed at the grandiose idea. John worked in a Paris bank with a normal income, and seven years later he joined Dominique’s family oil well-logging business, Schlumberger, Ltd.. John and Dominique fled France as the Nazis invaded, and they landed in Houston, TX. The city was never to be the same. They built a modernist, flat-roofed house amidst white columned-mansions in River Oaks, championed civil rights in a city still imprisoned by segregation, and of course, collected modern art considered to be peculiar, to say the least.

The de Menils were Catholic, yet ecumenical, and they found a mentor in Father Marie-Alain Couturier, a French Dominican priest who was an artist himself. He was instrumental in uniting the work of Matisse, Rouault, and Leger with churches in France. Father Couturier took the couple around to numerous art galleries in New York, teaching them his love for modern art. He not only infected them with his passion, but also opened their eyes to the beauty of Cubism, to the work of Mondrian, and other types of art that previously seemed foreign to their eyes. And as John de Menil said in a lecture at the University of St. Thomas in 1964, “We were very fortunate because those times were extraordinary times for collecting. First the great masters, the Cubists, Picasso, Braque, Gris, were still available at reasonable prices. The Surrealists cost practically nothing. And on top of that African art was coming on the market.”

All of this good fortune resulted in one of the most impressive private collections in existence. John and Dominique always planned to share their finds in a museum, and after John’s death, his wife birthed their dream by christening the Menil in 1987. Though John might have preferred great architecture, Dominique aimed for a functional space, one that appears larger and more luminous than its unassuming, simplistic exterior. I must say, her idea works. Whenever I walk towards the austere building, I’m struck anew by the genius of its placement in a cozy neighborhood where people live, the true life of a city. The idea of sanctuary comes alive between the quiet streets. I’m soothed under the shade of old, twisting oak trees. I take refuge from the sweltering Texas sun by snagging a bench under the high, undulating awnings outside, or by opening a tall glass door to the Menil itself, flowing with cool air and natural light filtered by means of louvers, skylights, and massive windows.

Inside, the de Menils’ eclectic collection hangs at eye level, spaced at comfortable distances on wide white walls. Very little text is near each piece, allowing the art to speak. As modernists, John and Dominique believed in a spiritual connection between art of all cultures and times, and they believed in erasing those borders. As I walk from room to room, I see this very clearly in the diversity: Greek and Roman cultures, medieval and Byzantine work, indigenous art of Africa and Oceania, modern and contemporary art (including Ernst, Magritte, Leger, Matisse, Picasso, Jasper Johns, and Warhol), and current rotating exhibits. To my eye at least, I begin to see a common thread in the eclecticism – both the creators’ and collectors’ search to see beyond what we can see, past ourselves, into the beautiful, in order to discover what is truthful, what is good, what is everlasting; when before our eyes, what is tangible seemingly crumbles.

The Menil Collection was not the first project to bear the de Menils’ influence. Inspired by the fusing of modern art and spirituality in Mattise’s Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, they commissioned a chapel adorned with somber paintings by Mark Rothko and architecture by Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry. The Rothko Chapel opened to the public in 1971 when John was still alive, literally “open to all” in its nondenominationality, honoring the de Menils’ egalitarian beliefs and their desire to provide a sacred space for the city of Houston.

I’ve walked the sidewalk from the Menil to the Rothko Chapel many a time, always feeling like I’m taking a trek into mystery. I arrive at a modest brick building facing a pool of water in which Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk sculpture presides. The steel structure was placed there in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to symbolize the de Menils’ passion for civil rights; the love of God and neighbor cannot be separated from justice. The obelisk’s stare prepares me for the stillness inside the Rothko Chapel. Fourteen large canvases, including three triptychs, loom around the octagonal room. The paintings emanate hues of black, brown, deep maroon, and plum, framed only by the gray walls and lit only by a single aperture of natural light above. Crude benches face each other in the framework of a square. Though I feel the rhythm of the geometrical beauty, my impression is also one of emptiness; a space waiting to be filled. This void serves its ecumenical purpose, allowing each person to bring in what he or she may. It isn’t my personal belief of worship, yet I do think the Rothko Chapel is a rightful sanctuary from the cacophony of life. We are saturated with moving pictures, flashing lights, and noisome information on nearly every communication medium we see or hear. That is why a chapel of stillness with meditative modern art beckons me to step inside a place where I can slow down, sit, drink in beauty, and hear my own thoughts. At the opening of the Rothko Chapel, Dominique de Menil made an interesting observation as well, likening the art’s hushed tones to the voice of God as heard by Elijah – not in the heavy wind, not in the fire, but in a small whisper.

The final destination of my pilgrimage to a trinity of sanctuaries is the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum which opened in 1997. Dominique happened upon two 13th-century frescoes stolen from a votive chapel in Cyprus, and cut into 38 pieces. She salvifically rescued the shards, paid for their restoration, and asked her architect-son, Francois de Menil, to design a building “to restore the sacred fragments to their original spiritual function.” He was a novice architect at the time, but he created one of the most dazzling sites I’ve ever seen.

Like the Menil campus in its entirety, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel’s exterior is restrained – simple blocks of concrete. As the door closes behind me, my eyes adjust to the dim light, quite a contrast from bold Texan sunshine. I walk across the narrow vestibule tower, gently illuminated by the light monitor above. Within a few more steps, I see the glass and steel chapel structure housed first under concrete, then a hovering black metal liner, more specifically named an “infinity box” by Dominique. The freestanding chapel appears to be billowing white glass, an abstract re-creation of the original Byzantine chapel in size and scale, only pulled apart – like a paused explosion. This visual effect symbolizes how the frescoes were ripped from their original home. The box within a box structure, and the rescued sacred art evokes a reliquary – profound, since the two frescoes were originally part of an entire living liturgy on the walls and floor of the Cyprus chapel.

Underneath the opaque glass, a large Christ Pantokrator fresco hangs directly above in the dome, and a Virgin and Archangels fresco rests in the apse, exactly where they resided in the Cyprus chapel. These icons are the only source of color in the building, but they provide ample warmth with rich tones of royal blue, mustard, and brick red. A small golden cross sits on the altar. Where the Rothko Chapel seems empty, the Byzantine Chapel is filled with images. Even the benches present a different idea – most face the altar, the others placed near the front on each side, creating a cruciform shape. The last time I visited, I sat on a forward-facing bench and thought I could remain there all day. I realized that the frescoes do for visitors what they did for Byzantine parishioners – teach what is alive in the cosmos beyond mere visibility. An older man walked in, knelt at the altar, and crossed himself: a very moving sight. I imagine Houstonians and world travelers alike are grateful for this welcoming, devotional place.

Friends arrive in Houston and ask me, “What should I do while here?” I’m pretty infamous for directing them to the Menil neighborhood, to these three shelters of art and spirit. Houstonians are proud to claim these renowned buildings, but we are also eager to share. We’re inspired by the generous souls of John and Dominique de Menil and lessons they left behind for anyone who will listen. Even now, they teach us to be enchanted by the sanctity of art, to embrace a variety of work – catholic, if you will – to share with one another, welcome the stranger, beautify our surroundings, behold what is lovely, and seek for the truth. The word “sanctuary” means different things to different folks. To the Greeks, sanctuary was a plot of land deemed a sacred zone. For Christians, sanctuary is the space of a church focused near the altar. Broadly, sanctuary is refuge from the wind-whipping deserts of our lives, shelter from whatever storm may shake us. A place to retreat and give us strength to get back out there. Every city could benefit from two such saints as the de Menils and the sanctuaries that bear their vision.

For further reading, check out Sanctuary: The Spirit In/Of Architecture, edited by Kim Shkapich and Susan de Menil and published by the Byzantine Fresco Foundation.