Maura Zagrans

Maura Zagrans
Maura Poston Zagrans Author, Poet, Photographer

Monday, September 15, 2014


Check your local television listings and set your DVRs. You won’t want to miss this.

It was “lights, camera, action” as three camerados battled butterflies in their stomachs, all for the sake of explaining what can be done to fix our crippled criminal justice system. 

On 27 August 2014, CBS producer Liz Kineke and crew came to the University of Notre Dame to film interviews of Father Dave Link, Gary Sparkman, and me for an upcoming episode titled “Crime, Punishment, & Redemption” in the Religion & Culture series. The episode is scheduled to premier on Sunday, 5 October 2014 but you’ll have to check your local listings for the date and time when your CBS affiliate station will air the show.

Thanks to the helpful intercession of vice president for university relations Lou Nanni, the regal third floor conference room of beautiful Stayer Hall was made available us. From a magnificent cathedral-shaped window, we could see the iconic Golden Dome gleaming in the sunshine.

After introducing myself Liz and her crew--assistant Natalie Baxter, cameraman Dan Morris, and sound technician Rich Pooler--I drove to Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore, where Gary would leave his car and come with me to the site of the filming. Gary, whose story is told in Chapter 12 of Camerado, I Give You My Hand and whose successful re-entry into society has been a miracle of sorts, had graciously agreed to be interviewed for the show. Gary’s face lit up when he saw me pull into the parking space beside him. We climbed from our cars and gave each other bear hugs. He looked fantastic. I felt a rush of pride.

It had been exactly one year since I had seen Gary. It was the night of the book release party for Camerado. Gary was the first to arrive at the Eck Alumni Center, where the elegant celebration was held, so I was able to spend time with him before the crush of guests arrived. I was so excited to place a copy of Camerado in his hands, but even I was unprepared for his deeply emotional reaction. “Wow,” he said, overcome. “Wow.” He sank into a nearby couch and sat there, too stunned to say anything else, as he turned the pages. He became oblivious, as if he had gone into some deeply private place and the rest of the world had disappeared.

So here we were, happy to be together again. As I drove to Stayer Hall, we talked about how much we admire Liz, who had proven in phone conversations just how well informed she is about prisons, and about poverty, and about the connection between the two. As we rode the elevator to the third floor, we talked about Gary’s daughter and her love of reading—my kind of kid, for sure. And then as we walked down the long corridor toward the conference room where the crew was customizing lighting conditions and setting up equipment, we talked about how nervous we were.

Entering the room and turning to his left, Gary suddenly stopped in his tracks. There, right in front of him, sat Father Dave.

Shaking his head in disbelief, Gary buckled in the middle. Clutching his heart, he exclaimed, “Oh! Oh, my! Oh my God!”

He turned to look at me, and I saw that tears filled his eyes. “Maura,” he said. “Oh, my! Oh, my! Maura, you--you surprised me! You brought Father Dave here to surprise me!”

I realized then that he had not known that Father Dave would be also here for the taping.

Father Dave, who was by now on his feet, extended his hand as he closed the short distance between them. Gary took the outstretched hand and then simply wrapped his arms around the priest and, as if they were long-lost relatives, the two figures melded into one.

Great, I thought, furiously blinking back tears that would obliterate my eye makeup. This is not the time to cry.

I felt terrible as I watched Gary struggle to keep his composure. He was so emotional, so raw it made me feel guilty, as if I were engaged in indoor rubber-necking. And yet, at the same time, I felt a keen awareness that Liz and the others were witnessing a powerful scene that could never have been scripted. It was the kind of thing I had seen over and over again the past four years since I started writing my book. This is the kind of raw, genuine exchange of emotion that happens all the time between Father Dave and his brothers. His camerados.

I turned to look at Liz. She was gazing, mesmerized, at the two friends. Backlit by the brilliant August sunshine, an aura of light surrounded her form. Was I imagining it, or was she blinking away a few tears of her own? She caught my glance. Her mouth curved in a gentle smile, and she nodded.

It was then that I knew this would be a great day.

Lights. Camera. Action. Bring it. Bring it all. We were ready.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Jack Kerouac:  My Rucksack Prophet

      If an author can be a soulmate, I claim Jack Kerouac as mine. 
     With each passing year, I find more to love about him. I love his poignancy. Life ripples like the grass and new days mass over like lamby clouds. His work ethic. Go tell him that I have been consumed by mysterious sorrowful time yet I have straddled time, that I have been saddest and most imperially time-haunted yet I have worked. His point of view. Thoreau was right; Jesus was right. I don't believe in this society; but I believe in man. His x-ray vision. Maybe that's what life is, a wink of the eye, and winking stars. His terabyte memory. My life is like a sea, my memory the boat. His despair that always found its resting place in hope. What a strange and beautiful life this is . . . as weird and lovely as the very sea. His wisdom. I only expect you to believe in everybody, including me, and to believe in everything, like a child, a bird; like I do. I am humbled by a man who loved even though his heart was pierced by our human foibles, weaknesses, inconstancy. Say anything you want, I like my people joy-hearted.
    With each new release from the vault holding unpublished Kerouacian treasures, I am drawn further and further into his beatific vision. Every time I re-read one of his novels, I grow. Reading his collected letters is always transformative. I'm a new person afterward. I feel more precise. Wiser. More connected to the Divine. A little more worthy of this life I've been given.
     Born on 12 March 1922, Kerouac's attitude about the brotherhood of man was so progressive, he's still ahead of the times. So disgusted was he by racial discrimination, it upset him to the point of illness. In a 1948 letter to Neal Cassady, his best friend and literary muse, Kerouac writes:  Here I am sitting in a shack, writing on a board table, as it rains, and as the radio plays colored music in this land where the colored are pushed back & scorned & "kept in their place." And, Neal, there's a woman called Mahalia Jackson who sings real sad, while, in the background on another station, there's white audience laughter from some contest show in Nashville, Tenn. You see how it makes me feel, don't you? I didn't come down here to mourn the Negro's lot, but I do. I shudder to think of his outrage were he alive today. We haven't come very far, have we, Jack? Not nearly far enough.
    Kerouac's theory of writing stands alone. I'm not referring to his much-vaunted theory of spontaneous prose writing but rather to his insistence on writing until one reaches the bones of authenticity. In this passage in a letter written to Neal in 1950, I felt as if Kerouac were describing meI have renounced fiction and fear. There is nothing to do but write the truth. There is no other reason to write. I have to write because of the compulsion in me. No more can I say.
     The body of Kerouac's literature forms one majestic arc, an arc held together by his core identity. He was a spiritual seeker. ...there is no Why. There is Mystery, of course, but no Why. The mystery is this:  that there should ever have entered our heads the notion of Why! A wandering disciple. I'm getting awfully tired of roaming. His purpose in life was to seek the Divine. Don't let those wild escapades fool you. Jack was as deeply religious as a monk.
      I feel as though Kerouac is my literary soulmate for an infinite number of reasons. Certainly in the Top Ten is the fact that both of us have felt the touch of the Divine in what is known as a "Divine Experience." Also in the Top Ten is the fact that both of us are as moved by God's presence whether we are stretched out on the ground beneath the branches of a pine tree, or we are kneeling in prayer beneath the golden spires of a cathedral. Just a couple of days ago, I told my friend Gary that I'm a realistic idealist; this is probably also how Kerouac would have described himself. I wished that the church was not only a sanctuary but a refuge for the poor, the humiliated, and the suffering; and I would gladly join in prayer...I wished all mankind could gather in one immense church of the world, among the arcades of the angels, & when it came time to take of bread, I wished Jesus would reach out his hand to a single loaf and make it two billion loaves for every single soul in the world. What else would we need besides God and the bread for our poor unfortunate bodies? And then someday we could all become pure souls--not animals and not even mortal men, but angels of heaven--and spend all our time, like the old priests, scanning the words of God over and over again till they became our only concern, our only language, our only imagery, our only wish and our only life, eternal life. Kerouac was a dreamer with a plan.
     And so I could not let this day go by without honoring my own personal rucksack prophet who tacked this "pome" onto the ending of a letter to Malcolm Cowley:
For I
             That the night
             Will be bright
             With the gold
  Of old
       In the inn
     Jack, I owe you, buddy. You've been so generous. Thank you for all you've given me, and the world. I doubt that birthdays are celebrated in a place where admission itself is the ultimate equalizer. What need could there be for a cake and candles in heaven? Even so, I want to wish you a happy birthday.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Letter to My Godbaby

4 March 2014

Dear Noah:

You are here.

Thank you for coming.

Thank you for leaving Heaven’s perfect embrace and the adoration of the angels. You could have chosen to stay with God. That you opted instead to join a rag-tag bunch of imperfect beings on earth is proof of your optimistic nature.

We anticipated your birth knowing full well that God would use your melting-pot ethnicity to create a beautiful baby. Even so, never in our wildest dreams could we have predicted your exquisite loveliness. Now, looking into the face of Diversity’s Child, we feel the gentle reprimand of a Father who wants us to love in the way that He loves His children no matter what their race or nationality.

Holding you in my arms, I tumbled into your fathomless eyes. You looked at me and moved your raspberry-colored lips as if you were trying to tell me something, and I realized that you were trying to articulate something of the Love from whence you just came. You were talking about God's hopes for you...for us....for the future.

It occurred to me, little Noah, that you are carrying particles of your namesake’s supreme hopefulness in the very atoms of your little body. Perhaps your purpose in life is to reignite the flame of optimism in all of us. Sweet Noah, is it your purpose to re-teach us how to trust? Is it your mission to remind us of the mighty trust that led one obedient servant to do something nonsensical? Are you here to make us re-imagine how that ancient character gathered together God’s non-human creatures and then became the willing caretaker of that precious cargo until the day the dove delivered the branch of a new beginning?  

Did you assume your earthly internship so that you could ring our memory bells? Remind us of God’s original intentions? Nudge our vague recollection that we are to co-exist in peace and love so that all creatures great and small might enjoy their time on earth? Are you trying to remind us that we all have an ark to build, and that one person can change the destiny of the world?

Darling godson, you already have.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Maura Reviews The Goldfinch

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I dislike being that cranky curmudgeon who does not find what others are enthusing about in a book. However reluctant I am to admit that I cannot get on board the Donna Tartt train, the truth is, I am unable to join the flock trilling praises for THE GOLDFINCH.

I couldn't wait to finish the book because I was anxious to be done with it. With one exception, the worlds that Theo inhabits are never anywhere that I want to be, and so I was itchy to turn the pages as quickly as possible so I could get the hell out of wherever he was.

My greatest criticism with the character Tartt has drawn is this: if Theo is so stinkin' bright, how can he be so naive--scratch that; as long as I'm being honest--stupid as to not know anything about life insurance benefits, or how to convey the facts about his abusive grandparents and alcoholic father to adults who can help? Why does he go so unprotesting from safety and a summer spent sailing to the desert of his father's care? Not even PTSD, or an unresolved Daddy-complex can explain this level of naivete. Theo's extreme "I'm out of it" innocence reflects the mentality of, say, a normal five-year-old.

To my way of thinking, Tartt's first person POV is written from much too great a distance. We all have certain blind spots about ourselves, but Theo's are so massive they defy credibility. I tried to believe Tartt when she told me that Theo was brilliant. However, there is too much about what he does that contradicts his literary mother's bragging rights. The best I can give her is that she created a character whose black-out drunkenness is mirrored by the black-holes in his brain.

Tartt's philosophical wrap-up is lovely. But in a book of 756 pages, that's just not enough loveliness to counterbalance the hours spent reading about puking and vomit, mindless materialism, and bloodied, drugged, wasted human potential. Ugh. Get me outta here.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Father Dave and St. Therese of the #LittleWay

I thought I had Father David Link all figured out. I spent three years of my life immersing myself in his life story and then writing a book about him. But it was not until I read Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Therese de Lisieux and Three Gifts of Therese of Lisieux, by Patrick Ahern, that I fully comprehended the colossal secret behind his success. This secret is the Little Way of St. Therese.

Let me explain.

St. Therese is a role model of how one’s own “littleness” can be used to great advantage. She saw herself as a tiny white flower blooming for just a moment of time in this awesome universe. Keenly aware of her smallness vis-a-vis the overall scheme of things, her genius was in discovering a redeeming purposefulness in performing even the most anonymous tasks with immense love. Her living legacy is the brilliant insight that all of us can do the same.

Having read Therese’s autobiography and, subsequently, Bishop Ahern’s book about her, I am thunderstruck by the uncanny connections between the little saint and the subject of my book.

Therese chose to use her days on earth as if they constituted a forward march straight into the outstretched arms of Love itself. The cadence by which she stepped was “confidence, nothing but confidence” – confidence, that is, in a God who is merciful, tender, and very much in control. In fact, whatever Therese was asked to do was accomplished with equanimity, humility, and confidence.

Curiously, as if they were bookends, Dave Link represents a counterbalance to Therese’s signature style. Even though Dave has been asked to do some very important things, he fulfilled those callings with equanimity, humility, and confidence. This is because, like Therese, he maintains a sense of proportion.

He knows that we are but a grain of sand. Even so, he realizes that each one of us is an integral part of God’s master plan. Thus every action undertaken by every one of us is essential, potentially redemptive, and important.

Father Dave gives his late-wife, Barbara, to whom he was married for forty-five years, credit for whatever good he has achieved in his careers as an attorney, academic leader, and as a priest and prison chaplain. That Barbara nurtured a lifelong devotion to St. Therese explains some of the uncanny connections that color the late-in-life-career of this accomplished professional who, having everything, could be doing almost anything.

Therese made her final profession of vows on September 8, 1890. September 8 is Barbara’s birthday.

Dave and Barb were married on July 12, 1954. July 12 is the wedding date of Therese’s parents (both of whom have been beatified).

Dave and Barbara Link were deeply involved in their home parish, St. Therese, Little Flower Catholic Church in South Bend. They were also profoundly committed to helping the homeless of South Bend (Dave is co-founder of the renowned

St. Therese is the patron saint of priests; St. Barbara is the patron saint of prisoners.

Like Therese, Dave traded an easier existence for a purpose-driven life. When he could have taken a vacation, he strapped on a tool belt as a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity instead. When he could have been enjoying a roaring fire at home, he plowed through snowstorms and kept watch over homeless men in a subterranean shelter. And now, at a time when he could be golfing or visiting his children and grandchildren, he chooses instead to go behind the razor wire where, as chaplain at six of Indiana’s state prisons, he shows incarcerated men that miracles can happen when they choose to walk the Little Way.

Dave shares Therese’s philosophy that we will not be evaluated on the works we have performed when we are summoned from this earthly life. The question, says Dave, will not be, What have you done? Rather, it will be, Did you act in such a way that other souls were led to Me? Have you brought any camerados along with you to the gates of My heaven?

Father Dave inhabits a place in my heart that is reserved for just a few. His gentle constancy and wellspring of strength remind me of my beloved father. His goofy sense of humor reminds me of what it was like growing up with five incorrigible brothers.

He is admirable but fallible.

He inspires me but, even so, he is, quite simply, one of us.

I walked away from my first meeting with Father David Link knowing that he was someone special. Of course, I did not yet appreciate the many aspects of his extraordinariness. But I came to understand that he is whom he is because, like St. Therese, he works confidently, lives compassionately, and loves completely. And these are things that all of us can do.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Jack Kerouac and St. Therese of the #LittleWay

Between the lines of some of Jack Kerouac’s best writing is the veiled presence of the author’s chosen patron saint, St. Therese de Lisieux.

Known the world over as the Little Flower of the Little Way, the famously on-the-road Kerouac admired French-born Therese Martin for her childlike faith and guilelessness. It was to her that he directed many of his prayers; it was from her that he received comfort. He must have been enchanted by the images of little lambs and fragrant roses that were associated with the young saint, for they appear in his books over and over again. Much of his work is infused with the unabashedly childlike innocence associated with St. Therese. Indeed, her aura pulsates throughout his books as if it is the very heartbeat of his prose.

St. Therese and Kerouac shared a great deal in common. Both were life-long seekers of the reunion with the Divine. Both had been gifted with rare faculties that allowed them to see the world through ancient eyes and appreciate all of creation with their poetic souls. Both of them revered, and were contented in, nature.

In her autobiography, Story of a Soul, Therese describes an idyllic childhood in which she played outdoors with her sisters and took daily walks with her father. During one walk, her father plucked a little white flower that was growing from a patch of moss in a wall made of stone and gave it to her. It was not lost on the little girl that he had taken care to pull the blossom out with the roots still intact. Using this as a teaching moment, her father explained that God had taken ineffable care to nurture and preserve this little flower. It was a watershed moment for Therese, who later recalled, “While I listened I believed I was hearing my own story.” Even as a young child, Therese was exquisitely aware that the choices we make in how we live our lives have an impact on the living world around us.

So, too, was it essential to Kerouac that he live in respectful harmony with animals and nature. As an author, Kerouac wrote this veneration right into his work. Tender references to creatures great and small as well as a burning appreciation for the majestic awesomeness of this world make for some of Kerouac’s most lyrical, memorable, quotable prose.

Significantly, in his first published work, Kerouac gives to the autobiographical family whose story is chronicled in The Town and The City St. Therese’s own surname, which was Martin. But St. Therese’s influence can be seen and felt in countless other ways throughout the entire body of his work. In The Dharma Bums, for example, the opening scene shows Kerouac, who has just hopped a freight train, meeting a bum on the lam. Pulling a tiny clipping from his pocket, the stranger explains that he has carried this copy of a St. Therese prayer for years and that he reads it “most every day.” From then on, Kerouac refers to this man as “the little St. Therese bum.”

In a sense, these opening chapters of The Dharma Bums are a symbolic gift from Kerouac to St. Therese. They are Kerouac’s attempt to provide St. Therese with closure on an unsettling episode she recounted in her autobiography:

During the walks I took with Papa, he loved to have me bring alms to the poor we met on the way. On one occasion we met a poor man who was dragging himself along painfully on crutches. I went up to give him a coin. He looked at me with a sad smile and refused my offering since he felt he wasn't poor enough to accept alms. I cannot express the feeling that went through my heart. I wanted to console this man and instead I had given him pain or so I thought. The poor invalid undoubtedly guessed at what was passing through my mind, for I saw him turn around and smile at me. Papa had just bought me a little cake, and I had an intense desire to give it to him, but I didn't dare. However, I really wanted to give him something he couldn't refuse, so great was the sympathy I felt toward him. I remembered having heard that on our First Communion Day we can obtain whatever we ask for, and this thought greatly consoled me. Although I was only six years old at this time, I said: "I'll pray for this poor man the day of my First Communion." I kept my promise five years later, and I hope God answered the prayer He inspired me to direct to Him in favor of one of His suffering members. It is as though Kerouac attempted to write into the script of the universe a new connection that would enable St. Therese to feel the satisfaction she had been denied in the moment. Breathing new life into the old cripple, Kerouac gave him legs strong enough to jump a boxcar and brought him all the way from France to America where, with the help of the sustaining prayers of the little saint, her devotee rides the rails.

Two hundred-some pages later, Kerouac invokes the spirit of St. Therese in a rush of ecstatic prose. Writing of “little flowers that grew around the rocks” and “children and the innocent,” Kerouac vows to love as she loved: “Okay world,” I said, “I’ll love ya.”

Kerouac’s friends were witness to the author’s exceptional powers of observation. They say that his eyes functioned like movie cameras, capturing images that he then stored in a recall vault so flawless they nicknamed him “Memory Babe.” Thus there can be no doubt that Kerouac knew what he was about when he concluded The Dharma Bums. He surely knew that the final words uttered by the twenty-four-year-old nun on her deathbed were, “My God, I love you!” And so, when we read on the last page of The Dharma Bums,

       …I said, “God, I love you” and looked up to the sky and really meant it.

we recognize that Kerouac is wrapping the ending right back around to the beginning pages where we were introduced to “the little St. Therese bum who was the first genuine Dharma Bum I’d met.”

In his work and in the way he lived his life, Jack Kerouac did his best to shine a light upon and to follow the Little Way of St. Therese. I’d like to think that she was among the first to embrace him as he stepped from this world into the next.


Sunday, February 2, 2014

Book review of The Signature of All Things

The Signature of All ThingsThe Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Only Elizabeth Gilbert, whose success allows her to do pretty much whatever she wishes, could have gotten away with publishing such an epic, ponderous work. Lucky for us that she has this kind of clout.

What makes this novel so, well, novel, is its artful blending of writing styles. Somehow, Gilbert has updated classic Russian literature by writing a contemporary plot with a Victorian quill pen. Whenever one metaphor would do, Gilbert gives us three, the net effect of which is to leave other authors standing in the midst of a smoking, bombed-out, post-nuclear figure-of-speech landscape.

Drawing rooms, pristine forests, sea voyages around the world, and life on several continents are backdrops as characters debate the meaning of life, the folly of human relationships, and the delicate interplay between science and spirituality. I heard Gilbert's own voice as she wrestled to place all possible answers along a continuum, and I was inspired to refine the articulation of my personal philosophies.

This is a book that demands a significant investment of time. For me, this investment was repaid with interest when I arrived at the ending. Here, Gilbert performs a perfect 10.0 dismount with some of the most perfectly pitched passages I have ever read.

In psychology, there is something known as the Zeigarnik Effect. Inconclusive thoughts fester in our minds because we struggle to close the loop, understand that which was undefined, complete the idea, solve the riddle. In writing a Zeigarnik ending, Gilbert ensures that the inquiry continues long after we close the back cover of THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS.

(I listened to the audio recording, which is performed magnificently by Juliet Stevenson.)

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