Uncle Chiz

Father Andrew Stanko is the son of an Army infantryman who went into the bitter battle of Guadalcanal right behind the Marines in World War II. There he contracted a jungle disease that was incurable, and came back home to marry his sweetheart Ann Mley, to father Andrew, and much too early to go to the Lord. Uncle Andrew was also, just before his death, my sponsor at confirmation in St. Emerich’s Church in Johnstown (in the district of Cambria City). Father Andrew has been the joy of his parents and our whole family for many years. Entered below is the homily Father Andrew recently preached, in his accustomed simplicity and depth, at the funeral Mass of Uncle Chizie Mley, another World War II vet, a Marine, and parishioner of St. Therese of Lisieux parish in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.


By Father Andrew Stanko

My dear family in the Lord, especially Aunt Bernie, Chiz’s wife, Betty, his sister, his entire family, and all the parishioners of St. Therese parish gathered here today, and all the friends of Chiz who have come to his funeral. Certainly, my Aunt Bernie is grateful to all of you for taking the time to honor Chiz by your presence.

The last of September Chiz had a fall and was admitted to the hospital. At first, it didn’t look too bad, but one thing led to another, and things went downhill. I remember visiting Chiz when he was first admitted, and his greatest concern was that he would probably have to miss the novena in honor of St. Therese.

However, his sorrow was mitigated when Father Karmanocky visited him and brought him a blessed rose. Father Bernie, many thanks for this act of compassion. You don’t know how thankful Chiz was for that favor. I also noticed that he got a get well card from the parish.

Taking after the Little Flower, who based her spirituality on doing the little things well, this parish really follows the example of your patroness – you do the little things well. This is one of the things that sets this parish apart from so many other parishes. The Little Flower said that she would spend her heaven by doing good on earth. She does this through her “little way.”

One of the things that I always do is to pay attention to the day on which a person dies. So many times God has a hidden meaning to send to us. Chiz died on the Solemnity of the Epiphany, when the three magi went to visit the Christ Child. This Solemnity reminds us that Christ came to save all peoples, all nations. One thing about Chiz was that everyone liked him. I never heard a negative word about him. He didn’t present gifts like gold, but he gave the simple gift of himself. Chiz always had stories of how he came to the church hall to help make pyrohy. Most of the time he just did the simple things, but there were times when he was promoted to “potato peeler.” (This was piece work for him.)

When I was in the seminary, usually Uncle Chiz and Uncle Andrew had to take turns driving me back to school. I remember that Chizie had to take me back in the midst of a snow storm. When we got to the Ebensburg – Loretto road, he told me that he would have to put the chains on. No problem, he got me there. Then, he always gave me a few bucks on the side for some spending money.

Of course, Chiz, like all the Mleys, liked to talk. One of his favorite pastimes was to go to McDonald’s with his buddies to drink coffee and talk. When I was at St. Stephen’s, I joined them on a few occasions. It was a lot of fun and Chiz always had something to say. He was the only one who could rival my mother in the “gift of gab.”

I bring in some humor because we cannot allow ourselves to be overcome by grief. Chiz lived a long and good life. He loved his country as he served in World War II as a Marine. He loved being called a Marine; this was something special for him. He worked at Bethlehem Steel as supervisor of the real estate department. We must keep his memory alive by remembering stories about his life.

He has left us but only physically. His body has died but his soul lives on. His relationship with us still continues in what we as Catholics call the Communion of Saints. He can help us now from his place in eternity. We pray for the happy repose of his soul, but we must remember that he can help us who remain in this life, in ways that he could not help us when he was in this life.

We must also today reflect upon the message of God’s Word. The first reading gives us the prophetic word of Isaiah the prophet. He has a vision of eternal life. He pictures it as a life where “the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces. ... Let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us.”

Saint Paul reminds us in the second reading that “this momentary light affliction is producing in us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” Chiz did suffer in his last days, but those sufferings cannot be compared to the eternal weight of glory that he now enjoys.

The Gospel from Saint Matthew is about the eight beatitudes. Let us focus our attention on: “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” In order to mourn, we have to love. We mourn for Chiz because of our love for him, and also because of his love for us. We must remember that love is eternal because God is eternal. Our love for him and his love for us does not end with this life, but remains for eternity.

I have a few words that I would like to direct in a special way to Aunt Bernie. Aunt Bernie, you have exhibited great strength during this whole affair. You were a tower of strength. It was difficult, but you showed a perseverance that reveals a great faith in God. You were a faithful wife to the end. Also, thanks to Bill and Eli for your great help. You helped to hold up Bernie during these trying times, and I thank you on behalf of Bernie. Also, thanks to little Joshua who brought Chiz a lot of joy.

Today, say “farewell” to Chiz, but just to his physical presence. Actually, Chiz is better off than all of us. His pilgrimage is ended, but we are left to continue our pilgrimage back to the Father. We say farewell to a humble man of simple pleasures – a man who loved God, his Catholic faith, his wife and family; a man who loved his country, who loved life, and who loved people. At the visitation, someone asked, “What do you think Chiz asked when he saw the face of God for the first time?” The answer was, “Take care of Bernie.” So, so long Chiz, until we all meet again. May God bless Bernie and all of us gathered here.

Calling All Catholics: Opportunities for Lay Persons to be God's Hands and Feet Have Never Been Greater

By William E. Simon Jr., published on FoxNews.com October 8, 2011 Thirty years ago, if you had told me I was going to write a book about opportunities for lay Catholics to become more involved in the Church, I would have said that would take a miracle.

I grew up the oldest of seven children in an Irish Catholic family, going to church every Sunday. I even had a sort of evangelical experience while I was working at a hospital during high school. But by my young adulthood, I was not a model of religious piety. I worked hard, but I did a lot of partying too. I got married at 27 and was divorced by the time I was 32.

I still have some trouble piecing together how I got so lost in my 20s. But slowly, I returned to the Church.

After an annulment, I remarried, and though my wife didn’t convert to Catholicism until 15 years later, we raised our three children in the Catholic faith.

My churchgoing and sacramental life became consistent. I juggled a career and a family, and on Sundays we would go to Mass. Occasionally, I would yearn for greater spiritual engagement, but that feeling would usually disappear amid the busyness of life.

But about a dozen years ago, with some significant professional and material success under my belt, I began to feel that something was missing, that maybe these three things in my life – my family, my faith, and my career – shouldn’t be separate. And maybe the balance among the three wasn’t quite right.

So I started to pray.

I had this soft inkling, no great thunderbolt, that God wanted me to become more involved in the Church, even to speak or preach there or to be of service in some way. The message seemed to come out of nowhere.

The extent of my involvement in church until that time had been to sit in the pews and help with fundraising. But a little voice kept pushing me. So I thought, Okay, I’ll go down this path a little bit.

I discovered there were plenty of opportunities to become involved in daily parish life, partly because of, no doubt, the decline in vocations.

My niche has turned out to be the parish finance committee, but I also serve meals to the homeless who come to our church for help.

As part of my due diligence, I went to talk to an old friend of my father’s, theologian Michael Novak. His enthusiasm about the idea of greater lay involvement in the Church led to what, for me, has become a life-changing dialogue.

We talked about the future of the Church and all the difficulties it faces in the coming years: the steep decline in the number of clergy and the external pressures from an increasingly secular society are going to make the 21st century a challenging one. But my conversations with Michael made me hopeful about the opportunities for lay people to serve and to deepen their faith, and it became clear that there had been dramatic developments in the wake of Vatican II encouraging lay participation in the Church.

Indeed, my late father became a Eucharistic minister at age 65. I saw firsthand the great fulfillment it brought him, and I wondered why he didn’t start sooner. I think he would say he wished he had, but that he was too busy with his career and family. And I wondered if other people might feel the same way or simply do not realize how much they could give and gain by getting more involved in the life of the Church.

Ordinary Catholics can make extraordinary contributions. In my own parish near Los Angeles, I have seen firsthand the lay leadership in our high school, in parish business affairs, and in a majority of the 69 ministries that are presently on offer.

There are now abundant opportunities for people to serve and engage with their neighbors in varied and substantial ways, whether professionally or on a volunteer basis.

One might say the days when it was enough to “pray, pay and obey” are over; the opportunities to bring one’s faith alive, to be God’s hands and feet on earth, have never been greater.

A few years ago, I met Bob Buford, a successful businessman and author of a book called "Halftime," devoted to helping middle-aged people do something significant with their lives.

He likes to talk about how when you’re younger, you want to devote 80 percent of your time to your job and your family and 20 percent to other things.

But slowly, the priorities start to shift as you get older. Your 40s and 50s, he says, are the “bridge years.” Bob calls this transition, “going from success to significant.”

Well, I’m 60 now, so I guess you could say I’ve come to this shift a little bit later than many. My wife says I shouldn’t beat myself up over it.

But now I’m ready to cross that bridge. I want to make a positive difference in people’s lives. I have found a calling. And if my book can help others to do the same, well, I’ll thank God for that.

William E. Simon, Jr. is co-author with Michael Novak of "Living the Call: An Introduction to the Lay Vocation" (EncounterBooks, 2011). This essay is adapted from the book.

A Tribute to Michael Novak

By Christopher DeMuth (These remarks were given at a retirment party for Michael Novak, who had worked at AEI for 32 years.) Michael Novak and his work during the past thirty-five years have been abundantly feted. Celebrants have expounded on his brilliance, his prolificacy, and his influence. But brilliance and industriousness, although highly important virtues, are not nearly as rare as the total Novak phenomenon. And influence, although highly admired, is not a virtue at all—it puts Michael in the company of Eliot Spitzer and Peter Singer. So I would like to take a different tack and remark on Michael’s character, in particular his ambition and his bravery.

He spent the first twenty years of his professional life in academics. To the brilliant and industrious, university life offers wonderful opportunities for achievement and fulfillment. Michael could have continued to hold the best chairs at the best schools and to win all the teaching awards. But the academy favors work on discrete, manageable problems “in the literature” and can punish departures from certain orthodoxies. At some point in the 1970s Michael decided that he would go after bigger game.

I have often marveled that, in the midst of the Jimmy Carter administration, the hard-headed businessmen on the America Enterprise Institutes’s Board of Trustees would countenance the appointment of a theologian, and moreover a theologian with a colorful paper trail in left-wing politics and Democratic Party electioneering. But it was Michael who took by far the greater risk in accepting the offer—throwing away tenure and respectability for God knew what (but He wasn’t talking, not even to Michael.)

Since then his vocation has been the conquest of momentous, difficult, contentious problems. Problems with large practical and political components, where his philosophical learning provided a foundation but everything else was left to his own wits and experience. Today we recognize the moral architecture of democratic capitalism because Michael built it for us—even the terms were unknown before he and Irving Kristol started their work.

And he has provided many elaborations and applications: the moral architectures of economic development, of escape from the welfare trap, of nuclear deterrence, of the corporation and business-as-a-calling, of the income tax, intellectual property, mediating structures, ethnic politics, and even sports (the last however limited to Notre Dame football). If you listen in on Michael debating the progressive income tax with a professional economist, you will get an idea of the moral clarity he has brought to questions that everyone knew to be terribly complicated and endlessly nuanced.

Along the way he has dispatched many cherished liberal shibboleths and theological wrong-turns. In recent years has grafted back the second wing of faith onto the long-prevailing narrative (even at AEI) of the American founding as a secular exercise in institutional ingenuity. Bravest of all, he has provided religious instruction to Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

What Michael’s greatest projects have had in common is audacity. In taking them on, he was committing himself to originality, which risked failure, and to unflinching truth-telling, which risked elite derision if he succeeded. His brilliance may have given him the confidence to take the big risks; his industriousness may have been inspired by fear of failure. But they alone cannot explain what Michael achieved. They had to be coupled with guts—sheer obstinate confrontational Johnstown guts.

Michael’s toughness is often masked by his sweet, magnanimous disposition. Don’t be fooled. If you have watched him make a big concession in a debate, or respond sympathetically to a hostile questioner, or provide a generous account of an opposing view in a book or essay, then you know that his kindliness is often the sign that serious intellectual vivisection is about to commence.

And then there’s his vast philosophical mastery: he already knows Argument No. 27 better than the other guy, and he also knows that it is conventionally trumped by Argument No. 8—but he also knows that it is completely annihilated by Argument No. 131-C, which he derived himself fifteen years ago.

But most of all, Michael’s sweet magnanimity is genuine and in fact reflects the ambition and bravery of his intellectual position. For it expresses his certainty that there is good in human nature—good that calls for earnest entreaty on its own terms. Among career pundits and haut thinkers, nothing could be more politically incorrect, more embarrassingly naïve. Yet in Michael’s choices of projects, and in the particulars of his arguments, one sees three overarching propositions constantly at work.

First, that man for all his failings is ardently concerned to know what is right and just. Second, that politics for all its flaws is capable of pursuing social betterment and sometimes finding it. Third, that reason for all its frailties can help us find our way. To dedicate a lifetime to such propositions in late twentieth-century America one had to be not only brave but downright reckless. That the endeavor has proven so astoundingly fruitful is reason to doubt the cynicism of the age and to work, as diligently as he has, for a return of the better angels.

Let us then drink to Michael’s continuing good health, good spirit, and good works.

Christopher DeMuth is D.C. Searle Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and was AEI’s president from 1986 through 2008. These remarks were given at a retirment party for Michael Novak, who had worked at AEI for 32 years. Michael Novak is a long-time member of First Things editorial and advisory board.

Published in First Things Online October 6, 2010

The Art of Karen-Laub Novak

By Deirdre M. Lawler Last week I was introduced to the work of the late Karen Laub-Novak (1938–2009), on exhibit at the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C. Only vaguely familiar with her and her work, I was curious to see how her art relates to the deeper questions of life and faith, and to see a collection from a successful, contemporary Catholic artist.

Laub-Novak’s works in oil, bright and imposing, dominate the exhibit. The overwhelming theme among these works, which are all focused on human forms, is of struggle; the body is the locus of tension and decision. Laub-Novak’s figures are, on the one hand, carefully studied and anatomically examined; she depicts them as flesh and bones, occasionally with an almost x-ray quality. She seems to revel in muscle mass, the tension of individual sinews wrapping around and connecting the body. On the other hand, as people they are left undefined: almost anti-gravitational at times, they are positioned without grounding and presented without context; their extremities trail off or are truncated; their faces are obscured. Nevertheless, by omitting definition in the figures, Laub-Novak seems to invite the viewer to consider what forces or ideas these figures are battling. While she stresses the physical and yet leaves it incomplete, she introduces the metaphysical and highlights the fragility of the distinction between the two in the human experience. Some of her choices in color and composition are too harsh for my taste, but I was struck by Laub-Novak’s ability to convey one single moment like a cross-section of motion. Reflecting on this juxtaposition, I was reminded of Eliot’s image of “the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless.”

One striking piece in a spectrum of whites, reds, and blacks called “Confusion” focuses on a proportional male figure, standing in profile. His body is almost lost in a conglomeration; blending iterations of himself which pull him in different directions and combine with him to form an abstract shape. A faint outline of a secondary facial profile indicates the motion of the figure turning his head down and to his left, away from the viewer. Whether he is turning aside from a goal, redirecting his thoughts, or hanging his head under oppression is left undetermined.

One oil painting stands apart from its group and indeed from the entire exhibit: a portrait entitled “Fr. Richard Novak, CSC In Orvieto, Italy.” Fr. Novak stands in the foreground of an Orvieto street with the cathedral in view behind him, facing the viewer with a genuinely happy expression. The close-up view of the priest and angular perspective on the street lends a snapshot-like quality to the painting; even without the hint of the name in the title, I would have guessed that the artist was familiar with her subject. Fr. Novak’s peaceful and unassuming presence gives the painting a lighter and perhaps less serious tone than her other work; yet some foreboding background color and one intriguing detail (the priest’s crucifix hangs askew from his neck, half-hidden in his cassock) ensure that the viewer is not left without food for thought.

Coming upon Laub-Novak’s lithograph series on T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday,” I was excited to find explicit evidence of Eliot’s influence on her after her oils had already brought the poet to mind. Like the oils, these prints illustrate states of the soul and the emotions through bold imagery of the body. In this medium, however, Laub-Novak searches further along the lines of human weakness, where many of her oils depict strength. “At the Turning of the Stairs,” a mysterious reflection on part III of the poem, relates most to Laub-Novak’s other works compositionally. I preferred “Redeem the Time,” however, a work with more classic composition than many of her other pieces, taking up part IV with Eliot’s image of the “jeweled unicorns” and a subtle approach to the “silent sister veiled in white and blue.”

The remainder of the exhibit consists mostly of the “Duino Elegies” and an Apocalypse Series, both sets of lithographs. The style of the apocalyptic pieces is more open and dynamic, eliciting the confusion and drama of the event. The “Elegies” have a more precise and measured character, and are darker and more unsettling.

But I was struck most of all by a solitary watercolor which, half-hidden in the entrance to the main exhibit, could easily be overlooked. This piece, “The Original Big Apple,” presents a unique perspective on the scandal of Eden; the fallen couple is depicted standing within the core of the apple, which hangs from a tree around which the serpent, large and dominating, is wrapped. Despite what appears to be inferior technique and presentation—the paint as well as the ink in the piece are almost carelessly applied, the paper is buckled, and pencil sketches are evident—the thoughtfulness combined with delicacy in this work are distinct from and in some ways preferable to the more ambitious style of the others.

That Karen Laub-Novak was a woman of faith is evident through her work. Even if her biblically themed paintings and lithographs are not indication enough, a few samples of her work in bronze, Church commissions, are certainly expressions of a religious spirit. I understand that she did not consider her work religious art per se, and I would second her there—the questions she addresses, she addresses from the human perspective. They are more an invitation to introspection than a directive toward the divine. Nevertheless, it is clear that all the pieces drive at the deeper questions of our existence, and that they originate from an artist who believed the answers will be deeper yet.

Deirdre M. Lawler, formerly an art teacher, studies philosophy and theology at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Published in First Things Online November 12, 2009

Karen Novak, 1938-2009

By Mary Eberstadt I almost emailed Karen today. It’s just part of how we live now, that electronic tic. There was a story I wanted to tell her, a small knot of thought that had been nagging for weeks and finally had gotten untied in a way that I thought would amuse her. So I tapped the key that would bring up her address, only to realize that this particular story—unlike others we had tossed back and forth during the past year before her death—would have to wait indefinitely. Such is the hypnosis of the Internet, that it can lull us for a split second into forgetting even the otherwise rather singularly unforgettable fact of death.

To many people, including readers of First Things, the name Karen Laub Novak is recognizable first as that of the wife and longtime love of one of the great theologians and public intellectuals of our time, Michael Novak. Theirs was “a marriage,” in the words of their longtime friend Hadley Arkes, “sustained by two wings, by faith and reason, nature and art—by the relentless wit and energy of Michael and the genius and deepening sainthood of Karen.” And just as it is impossible for anyone who has known them to imagine Karen apart from Michael, so is it equally impossible to imagine Karen apart from her children. Just how remarkable it would have been to find oneself a child of Karen’s was powerfully in evidence at her funeral, especially. As Jana put it with devastating simplicity, “I have spent—and will spend—my life trying to follow her example.”

And there was of course a third essential woman there—this one known as well to the outside world: Karen Laub Novak, the artist. A former student of the expressionist Oskar Kokoshka in Vienna, she went on to create a dazzlingly wide collection of lithographs, paintings, and sculpture, much of it graced with what admirers have identified as Catholic mysticism. Her work has been exhibited all over the country (an especially evocative selection is currently on view through October at the John Paul II Institute at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.). Other works included illustrations for ­children’s books and numerous magazines—the New Republic, Washington Monthly, and Crisis among them. Karen’s commissioned art cut a wide swath, from John Paul II on down. Her statue of the Green Revolution titan and Nobel Prizewinner Norman Borlaug—who died only a few weeks after Karen—has been called by one critic “one of the two most beautiful” statues in North America.

Even this summary does not exhaust the formidable parade of Karens: grandmother, sister, sister-in-law, aunt; domestic mastermind of a couple of homes; volunteer for worthy causes, among them Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, where she counseled the families of wounded soldiers. She and Michael also presided for years over one of the liveliest dinner tables in conservative Washington—and certainly the warmest. What made those dinners the memorable events they were was not only Karen the hostess but another persona—Karen the intellectual, one who knew the ideas of the day as well as the minds behind them. Her own influences, as she once noted in an essay called “Creativity and Children,” included “Kafka, Dostoevsky, Flannery O’Connor, Bergman, T.S. Eliot, Camus, Asian and South American writers, and such sixteenth-century mystics as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.” It was, she admitted, “a strange group for a cocktail party,” especially when combined with her rural, Catholic, Iowan background. But it certainly made for great stuff both in the Novak dining room and beyond.

And she was also, to many people including me, a dear friend. We visited with each other regularly over the past year of her cancer, after a particular round of tests confirmed that time would be short. Most Wednesday afternoons would find us deep in chat at the Novaks’ home, following any number of storylines simultaneously—families and friends, birth and death, recipes and furniture-store discounts, and much more in the unholy mix of high and low through which women, especially, transition seamlessly. As Susan DeMuth noted: “Friendship with Karen was full of questions. . . . She asked questions about matters divine, about art and creativity, about the best routes around Washington, about medical options, about politics and culture.”

Sometimes we’d be alone and trading confidences about those kinds of things, and other times alone and debating different issues of enormous weight: What exact shade of leafy green would look best on the living-room walls? Was Hugh Laurie more brilliant as his character Gregory House in the television series or as Bertie Wooster in the PBS rendering of P.G. Wodehouse? Even more challenging: Where exactly in the Novak kitchen—an object in a constant state of renovation and replacing—might one find the can opener, the crackers, the latest pile of magazines, the phone? And of course the most eternal question of all: Why do husbands, particularly the bookish, high-minded husbands of the sort we knew, so closely resemble the famous Collyer Brothers—so determined not to throw anything out that their wives are reduced to standing athwart the toppling rivers of paper, yelling stop?

Many other friends and family traipsed in and out of the Novaks’ house during those same months, with Michael’s sister Mary Ann presiding over the comings and goings and adding so much to the entertainment and amusement of Karen. The trinity of those Novaks—Michael, Karen, and Mary Ann—handled the influx of visitors with impeccable grace. On any given day one might catch one family member or another in the house, or Joan Weigel strolling in with a casserole, or Jana’s friend Brenna with some extra time to help organize things, or JoAnne Kemp or Robyn Krauthammer or Kristie Hassett or who knows how many others popping by for one reason or another only to linger in the happy mayhem of the house.

A couple of times I brought our youngest daughter, age seven, for whom chez Novak and especially Karen’s studio and artistic implements amounted to a magic kingdom of its own; Karen that first day gave this daughter an art set that she has proudly used and reused ever since.

Also on any given day, a carpenter or plumber or electrician or other workman would likely pass through tinkering with something, because Karen treated the house as one would expect an artist to—as a perpetually unfinished work in progress. Few workers managed to get out without having at least some significant fraction of their life stories ferreted out, for Karen was an empath of the first order. Nothing seemed to fascinate her more than every human being put in her path.

On it went in their home in the year before she died, the whole place less like a house with a death threat hanging over it than an ongoing party in desperate need of phone-finders and a revolving door. Sometimes Michael would come home early and join in, giving guests an excuse for a late-afternoon drink (in the last months Karen had to forgo such treats because of her medicine). I remember one raw winter afternoon when Michael came in from a trip to a roaring fire that Karen had set in the living-room fireplace—Karen did everything herself, cancer or no, though how much of that was Norwegian self-sufficiency and how much a clear understanding of the incompetence of others was hard to tell. That afternoon Michael introduced me to that fabulous elixir, the Manhattan, as we sat and heard from him the details of the event he’d been traveling back from—and this happened to be Richard John Neuhaus’ funeral.

In sum, being Karen Novak meant being at the center of a whirlwind that would have exhausted many a healthy woman in her prime, let alone one being battered from within by at least two different kinds of cancer and all the stress and side effects that the medical regimen entailed. Yet her work never ceased, whether in her house or in the wider world. Right up till the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of her illness, she was still taking in concerts, plays, dinners, and lectures at a stage when any ordinary mortal would have taken to the sofa and stayed there.

Some eighteen years earlier, diagnosed with cancer as a mother of teenagers, Karen had been given six months to live—a guess that proved wonderfully wrong. That experience was no doubt the crucible in which the extraordinary grace and courage of her last year—remarked upon by all commentators public and private—were forged. It is also an odd and true fact that, for all her suffering, Karen remained a beauty. A gamine blonde with dazzling blue eyes and great flair for color, as a lovely photo from Washingtonian magazine once captured particularly well, she was the only truly sick person I ever saw whose beauty was honed by illness. It was as if she had become one of her own human portraits, taut as a bow—only, in her, that tautness had none of the visible tensions of, say, her artistic meditations on Rilke and Eliot and so many other dark and recalcitrant artistic forces. It seemed more to reveal what she herself once described as “that inner landscape within us that is often veiled, even from our-selves . . . full of life, struggle, endurance, and stubbornness.” And that landscape was one beautiful place.

I was walking with our seven-year-old down a quaint street on a brilliant August day—as it happened, in the same seaside town where Karen and Michael had spent many happy times, and with the same child to whom Karen had given the art set—when Mary Ann Novak called with the news. I shut the phone and kept walking. “Mommy?” came the inevitable question, alongside the inevitable tug on the sleeve. “Mommy, what’s wrong?” Mommy’s sad. “Why are you sad?” It’s our friend Mrs. Novak. She’s gone. “What do you mean gone, Mommy? Did she die?” Yes, she died. “But Mommy!” came the imperious voice. “Don’t cry! Don’t you do that! Because Mrs. Novak was such a nice lady!”

Because Mrs. Novak was such a nice lady. It took weeks to figure out why those childish words stuck so, why they seemed to demand more inspection than they got at the time, but I finally did. Just look at the radical causality they imply: I’m crying because she was such a nice lady, is what the adult would have said; in other words, she was nice, therefore I cry. But the purer mind of seven turns up something deeper. She was nice; therefore you shouldn’t cry, came her challenging response.

Is it possible? Do children actually know things we don’t, see things we no longer can, perhaps even intuit heaven? That was the story I almost sent to Karen’s email account. After all, she’s the one who pointed out, in the essay on creativity mentioned earlier, that “the very young, healthy child has a heightened perception” and that “I’ve seen qualities in them and in their friends I would like to recover myself.” How I wish I could know what she would have made of the story—that and a thousand or so other things that won’t be the same without getting to share them with her.

Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, contributing writer to First Things, and author most recently of The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism, forthcoming from Ignatius Press in 2010.

Published in First Things November, 2009

The Passing of an Artist

By Santiago Ramos, Published in Image Journal September 10, 2009 Back from an unannounced (and unforeseen) hiatus in blogging, I have so many ideas accumulated that I don’t know which to focus on. So here are brief mentions of various articles that have piled up over the last few weeks, all of which deal with artists who have worked within the “pile up” as Annie Dillard understood it—i.e., the place where art and faith meet.



The first is the passing of an artist, Karen Laub-Novak—a painter, printmaker and sculptor whose vocation was largely spent in a dialogue with literature, through which she tried to capture the religious sense in art. Among her most memorable works are lithographs inspired by the written word: on St. John’s biblical Apocalypse; on Rainier Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies; on T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday.” She also illuminated the covers of many of the books of her husband, the writer Michael Novak. It’s interesting to think that Laub-Novak began her work in the 1960s, a time (as Camille Paglia documents in her essay “Religious Vision in the American 1960s”) teeming with interest in the religious traditions exotic to the West.

Laub-Novak was in some ways very much of her time, but she opted more often than not to plumb the depths of her own, Western religious tradition for inspiration. She also wrote some interesting Sontag-esque essays about art, many of which are found on her website.

From “Art and Mysticism are a Journey” (1973):

Words don’t express the awakening of creative experience. An experience valued by few. I try to talk about it. I feel this experience is one of shared humanity. Simple and fundamental in all of us. Talent varies. Commitment varies. The sheer guts to continue on with an activity that seems “unessential to progress” varies. But insight, inspiration, creativity are at the center of all of us. The rising and falling of the spirit are our common heritage, our common goal.

Michael and Karen: A Love Story

By Hadley Arkes Michael Novak, after considerable strain, decided to leave the seminary in Rome; he would head back home to America and to graduate work at Harvard. In time he would draw a worldwide audience for his writings in theology, philosophy, economics, politics, even sports. But he would arrive at Harvard to begin his graduate studies, in his late twenties, with an accomplishment rare for graduate students: a novel already published. The Tiber Was Silver was the story of a young seminarian, written with all of the color and the authenticity of one writing from within the experience actually lived.

In the novel, the young seminarian, Richard McKay struggles with the question of whether he is truly fitted for the priestly life. He responds to the doubts registered by his superior, Padre Bracciano, and he admits that: “He was worldly. He did love art, love the cities, love people: everything captivated him! Governments, reforms, proposals, everything about the earthly city.” The young seminarian meets an attractive young woman, an artist, and he is evidently drawn. The challenge facing the writer was to convey just how much Richard, the seminarian, was attracted and yet how plausible was his decision not “to go over the wall” and turn away from the priesthood to the world of marriage.

But Michael did himself go over that wall. And just a few years later he met that young artist in Cambridge. They met for lunch, as she was seeking advice from a young Catholic as earnest as she was, and she was indeed, as the novel anticipated, arrestingly attractive. This was Karen Laub, sprung from Iowa. She had been schooled at Carleton College, and she was returning from Europe, where she had studied painting with Oscar Kokoschka in Vienna. The lunch extended into dinner, and into a conversation that would go on until the hours of the morning.

Michael was evidently smitten. Over the seminary he could strain in pondering, but on the question of a lifelong marriage with Karen he suffered no indecision. He was taken aback when he proposed and she said, “not yet.” There were so many things she wanted to do in exploring her craft and the world before she settled down. But she too was smitten, and they settled down ... to explore the world. She would be with Michael as he was drawn again to Rome and Venice, and other places even more exotic in Europe and Asia.

I used to wonder that she could suspend her own notable projects as she joined Michael in these outings, when the children were grown and her own career had been launched. But of course nothing was ever suspended. She would absorb everything in her own appetite to know more about the world and to explore the mysteries and the truths that formed the central thread in both of their works.

Fr. Kurt Pritzl, the dean of the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University, caught something so right about her work: She would put the accent on “’strong things,’ not always easy things or pleasant things, but real things of life that we all face.” Her figures would at times jar us because she would strip away the skin to uncover the tendons, the nerves, and one could feel the tension in the body. As Fr. Pritzl observed, she would start with the “word given” – the word that was at the Beginning. She would draw on T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, Rilke’s Elegies, or the Book of Revelation. But then, as Pritzl said, she “gave [the word] body, shape, texture, color, concreteness, physicality.”

For Michael and Karen, this was a marriage sustained by Two Wings, by faith and reason, nature and art – by the relentless wit and energy of Michael and the genius, and deepening sainthood, of Karen. Fr. Pritzl’s words were spoken as a homily at Karen’s funeral Mass two weeks ago. She had an earlier bout of breast cancer, but later on the cancer spread. For over a year the prospect of losing her hovered overhead as she undertook therapy with a remarkable spirit. She was determined to make every day account, to remain upbeat, joyous, to appreciate everything, and she lifted us in turn: we wanted to share as many moments as we could with her in the same way.

With that sense of things, she and Michael decided to take a National Review cruise this summer, along with children and grandchildren. They would stop in Rome but also in Ephesus (now in Turkey) where they could visit the house thought to have been the home of Mary. The trip was risky, and Karen noted in her jaunty way that if she died on the trip, they could simply bury her at sea. But it was a trip that provided an apt culminating moment in life. Back from abroad, she took a turn for the worse, and suddenly – to the rest of us – she was in her last moments. We had long expected it, but for the friends it was still numbing.

And yet ... The day after she died, I had the feeling – the most vivid I’ve experienced after the death of a friend – that Karen was still there, that that lovely soul is still with us, and will be with us.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College and is one of the architects of the Defense of Marriage Act.

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own. © 2009 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

Published by Hadley Arkes in The Catholic Thing September 2, 2009

Cresco artist gained fame in her own right

By Michael Morain Stroll through Cresco's Beadle Park and it's hard to miss the 13-foot sculpture of Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, the town's most famous native son.

That monument's sculptor, Karen Laub-Novak, grew up in Cresco, too. She studied at the University of Iowa, resettled in Washington, D.C., and became an internationally known artist before cancer took her life earlier this month, on Aug. 12. She was 71.

The artist and her husband, the conservative think-tanker Michael Novak, often entertained a high-powered bunch of friends at their home, including U.S. Rep. Clare Booth Luce, journalist Charles Krauthammer and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, according to an obituary in the Washington Post.

But Laub-Novak gained fame in her own right. Her sculptures, paintings and prints have been displayed throughout the world. One critic called her portrayal of Borlaug "one of the two most beautiful statues in North America"; the other was Augustus Saint-Gaudens' hooded bronze "Grief" at the Adams Memorial in Washington's Rock Creek Cemetery, where Laub-Novak was buried.

The artist sculpted pieces for churches, crafted awards for various organizations and illustrated numbers books and magazines.

Early on, however, her work failed to get attention, and she collected a stack of rejections from gallery owners and curators. After sending countless letters under her full name, she finally decided to sign a note to an important museum with a simple "K." instead of Karen. It worked: The director sent her a warm response.

From then on, she signed all of her work as K. Laub-Novak.

Published in the Des Moines Register August 30, 2009

Cresco native K. Laub-Novak, noted Iowa artist, dies at 71

By Staff Reports, published in The Cresco Times-Plain Dealer August 25, 2009 Cresco, Iowa — Karen Laub-Novak, a Cresco native and one of Iowa’s greatest artists, died Aug. 12. A large and much noted funeral mass was held Aug. 17 at the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament in Washington, D.C.

Notes of mourning came from as far away as her print studio in Cambridge, England, the Vatican, Poland, Slovakia and Italy. Her bronze statues, great bold paintings and powerful etchings and lithographs have been exhibited around the world and have evoked considerable awe at their depth and darkness of vision.

Iowans probably know best her magnificent 13-foot statue of Norman E. Borlaug, which stands in Cresco’s Beadle Park. This statue has been featured more than once in large portraits by the Des Moines Register and other papers. One critic called it “one of the two most beautiful statues in North America,” the other one being Gaudens’s “Grief” at the Henry Adams memorial site in Rock Creek Cemetery. Karen Laub-Novak was laid to rest on the opposite hillock of the same cemetery.

Laub-Novak was born in Minneapolis on Aug. 25, 1937 to George and Mary Laub, and died just days short of her 72nd birthday. The cause of death was complications due to her four-year struggle against more than one form of cancer.

She was a cheerful, colorful and vivacious woman, who was much loved by many different circles in Washington. A distinguished group of these friends gathered for the funeral, including Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and his wife Martha, and a large number of journalists, writers and artists. In her quiet way, her dramatic gestures and warm smiles lit up every party she attended – most remarkably so during the last four years, when her energy for things other than meeting her friends was much depleted.

Laub-Novak was born and raised in Creseo, got her bachelor’s degree at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., and her MSA at the University of Iowa, where she studied printmaking with Mauricio Lasansky. In 1963 Karen was married in Assumption Church in Cresco to Michael Novak of Johnstown, Penn. They had just passed their 46th anniversary at the time of her death on Aug. 12, 2009. Together, they have three children and four grandchildren. Karen is also survived by her sister Gretchen of Cresco and her three children and three grandnieces and grandnephews.

Laub-Novak is a painter, sculptor, print-maker and writer. Her extensive biography reflects worldwide representation in private collections as well as permanent collections. Previous one-person exhibits include the William Sawyer Gallery, San Francisco; Los Robles Gallery, Palo Alto, California; Botolph and Impressions galleries, Boston; Des Moines Art Museum; Rochester Museum, Minnesota; the Rockefeller Foundation, New York; Stanford; Harvard; Yale; Duke and others.

She has also done many commissioned works. In addition to her bronze sculpture of Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman E. Borlaug, other works include a bronze liturgical crucifix for a Grand Rapids, Michigan church, also presented to Pope John Paul II, a bronze medallion for the Becket Fund, and glass or bronze awards for other organizations. She has also created a corpus sculpture to be used in the Oratory.

The artist’s illustrations have appeared in magazines (including Washington Monthly, The New Republic, Crisis and Motive), books, newspapers, and filmstrips. She has illustrated children’s books, published 40 drawings in A Book of Elements, and designed many book covers.

Laub-Novak has given lectures and workshops at colleges, universities and institutes including Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Carleton, the Aspen Institute, and the Salzburg Seminar. She was keynote speaker for Wisconsin Women in the Arts, and the Earl Lecturer at the Pacific School of Religion.

Her work also includes several series of lithographs on famous texts: seventeen on The Apocalypse; six on T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday”; six on The Book of Genesis; and to date, eight lithographs on Rainier Marie Rilke’s “Duino Elegies.” Her essays and reviews have appeared in educational, theological and general interest magazines. Her essay, “The Art of Deception,” was written for the book Art Creativity and the Sacred. She was also a guest editor for Momentum Magazine, which published her essay “The Habits of Art.”

Previous exhibits have included work inspired by poets including T.S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dante, and the author of the “Apocalypse.”

Last year, her daughter Jana prepared a magnificent copy table of her work of all her artistic media in all its human dimensions. The collection, The Habits of Art, can be purchased on her Web site at www.laub-novakart.com. Many of the images from the collection are also on display on the site.

Lovely tributes to her work have appeared over the years in the Des Moines Register, Washingtonian Magazine, Washington Post, Washington Times and National Review.

She began using the name “K.Laub-Novak” by accident. When she wrote to gallery owners and museum directors under the name Karen Laub-Novak, she usually received a standard form letter in reply. One day, writing to an important museum, she signed her letter K. Laub-Novak. This time she received a beautifully typed letter on wonderful paper from the museum director with a personal signature. From then on she signed her work K. Laub-Novak.

Celebrating Karen Laub-Novak

Karen Laub-Novak was laid to rest yesterday after her long fight with cancer. Her youngest child, Jana, delivered the eulogy during Mass at Blessed Sacrament Church in Washington: (Photos below include scenes from the recent National Review cruise and Karen Novak's artwork.)

Hi. My name is Jana, Karen and Michael’s youngest.


I thought that perhaps I ought to start by explaining why I’m wearing such a bright colored dress. No — much to my brother’s disappointment as well — it is not in honor of Syracuse University. Instead, I wanted to wear bright colors to honor my mother.

It’s not just about her art — though you can’t forget her love of bright reds and oranges in her paintings — nor about her personality — though you also can’t forget her bold and sunny personality — but also about her own fashion.

Honestly, did you ever spot her when she did not have on at least a splash of bright color?

Even when she wore more black in recent years, it was never without a bright scarf, large bold jewelry, etc. And certainly when she was younger…. The colors then were beyond, well… Let’s just say she had her own unique sense.

As a math and science chairman was quoted saying in a 1971 article about my mom: “Who's the girl in the purple tights?”


So I found I simply could not wear black today. Her life was too bright, too “blazingly brilliant” as a friend of hers put it, to think about black.


And that is the point: We are not here today to mourn my mother — though we do do that — but instead to celebrate her. For hers was a life lived well — and well lived.


You can see that in the faces of each of you here today, in the passion in her artwork, and in the peace in which she left us. She did not fear death, she did not fear leaving this world to meet her God. She had always embraced struggle, even made peace with it — with chaos; with tension.

Hers was a life filled with joys and sorrows, laughter and tears, happiness, and yes, even mistakes. She had her flaws of course.

After all, did you ever know any one who worried so much? …. … Well… besides my father that is?

But most of all, she had her strengths.

Like her unfailing good humor and spirit — which not only saw her through these last years, but, even more important, saw all of us through them:

* Her declaration that going bald was just her attempt to finally look like the avant garde “chic” artist she always was?

* Her insistence, till the end, that “dammit! She was picking the paint color!”

* Her impish suggestion that our cruise was a grand idea, because that way, if she died we could simply just throw her body overboard and not worry about the expense and logistics of a funeral.

* How about when I asked her what the top things were she wanted to do if she only had months to live? Spend time with your family, I guess? Her reply: “Oh, I think I’ve dealt with all of you long enough haven’t I?”

* Or perhaps my personal favorite, which is her reply whenever I told her I loved her. I was looking for an “I love you too” or some such affirmation. Instead, I’d say “Mom, I love you” and she’d say ….. “Thank you.” But the truth is, that is what I needed, and need, to say to her: “Thank you.” For she is who made me the woman, the person, I am today.

And I have spent — and will spend — my life trying to follow her example.


Well, except that I do know how to throw things away….


Her example is so powerful: Her lessons are simple, yet profound, seemingly inconsequential, yet so incredibly significant…

For me as a child, she taught me creativity, encouraged me to think outside of the box — and perhaps most important to her — pushed me to draw outside of the lines.

For me as a teen, she taught me independence, encouraged me to think of the other side of every issue and person, and pushed me to conduct myself with dignity.

(Something she did so clearly during her first struggle with cancer, and this last one.)

For me as a young adult, she taught me perseverance, encouraged me to make blind leaps of faith, and pushed me to find my own path.

For me as a married woman, she taught me loyalty, encouraged me to be compassionate, and pushed me to be patient.

For me as an adult, in these recent days and weeks, she taught me strength, encouraged me to embrace suffering and darkness, and pushed me to look inwardly and reflect.


In that article I mentioned earlier (about the purple tights), a 1971 review of an art show and lecture by her in Florida, there were some wonderful comments about mom, and her art — for they cannot be separated.

In this article, they referred to her as a “Catholic mystic”,

… a painter who cherishes her midwestern Roman Catholic roots while seeking self-discovery in reading, domestic routine, Zen discipline and her own work.

They then discussed her artwork:

In looking over the body of her work she finds a few themes which are constant. She is fascinated with tensions in Western society — tensions between creativity and the disordered psycho, between verbal and nonverbal expression, action and reflection, inspiration and the discipline of one's particular work, to name a few.

The tension is translated in the sinewy line, dramatic positions and charged color relationships in her subjects, nearly always based on the human figure.

You may look in vain for a figure in repose. Rather, they stretch out in fitful sleep, struggle to rise, lie moribund, huddle against each other or strive to fly on broken or incomplete wings.

How fascinating to think that was written about my mother and her art nearly 40 years ago — even before I was born. And it’s true. You can look for it at the reception, as we have a selection of her art displayed in the Auditorium.

But most of all, it is the description of dying and of death. Fitful sleep, huddling against each other, flying on broken wings. It is her own imagination — and it is her own reality…


Back in ’71, mom also gave a lecture to the students, emphasizing the critical points she wished them to take away from her, from her art, and from life. She spoke:

… about the importance of the final willingness to sit in the darkness; to live, if necessary, without resolution of tensions, without reconciliation, with death rather than resurrection inevitably ahead. She ask[ed] if in America we cheat ourselves of some of life's richest, deepest experiences by turning away from the unpleasant.

Think about that. Then think about her art — bring an image to mind. And then think again about what she’s really proposing here:

… to sit in the darkness … to live with tensions … with death — to truly experience the negative …


So let us look at today as mom’s final gift to us — her final act to keep us from “cheating ourselves”….

… To wake us to the darkness….

… To assure us of tensions…

…. To emphasize the inevitable death ahead…


We are here to celebrate her life, her art, her self, her example, her inspiration.

So now let us honor her by embracing that darkness ….

— but also by lighting it through humor and good spirit, as she did.

Through that, we can tell her today, and every day, that …. “we love you.”

And I know that somewhere up there, in heaven, she’ll reply: “Thank you.”


So mom…. [ turn to coffin ] “I love you…”

And at a reception later in the day, Meghan Cox Gurdon spoke:

Karen was amusingly specific about the circumstances that should follow her death. She would cheerfully tell anyone that what she wanted was not so much a funeral as a wake — and she said this cheerfully because she wanted cheerfulness from the people who would gather to remember her. I think everyone here knows that she wanted us to drink martinis and eat maple bars — cheerfully.

It is perhaps less widely known that she greatly desired to have at least one of her obituaries written in the style of the great obits of the London Daily Telegraph. The principal — or at any rate most famous — author of the Telegraph obituaries was a fellow called Hugh Massingberd, who died a few years ago.

Massingberd established a kind of matrix for the perfect obituary, which rested, in his view, on understatement. It would begin with the name and age of the person being remembered, and then trickle into the loved one’s personal history, touching with discreet but reverberating lightness on the things that made them great and the things that made them delightfully or exasperatingly human.

And Karen loved that. She had a wonderful obituary in the Washington Post last Friday. Good as it was, though, it could not, considering the audience, go places that we can, here. So I am going as best I can to give you — and Karen — a more intimate (and probably clumsier) version of the Massingberd treatment:

The artist Karen Laub-Novak, who died on August 12 aged 71, embodied the quotidian difficulties posed by Virginia Woolf’s famous theory that what A Woman needs to produce great art is a room of her own.

Novak — and here I am trying to stick to Telegraph style, though I doubt I can keep to it — was as much mother as artist, as much wife as mother, and as much of all three as any woman can reasonably be.

“I am finding it hard to get much work done,” she once told me. “Michael seems to be able to go into his office and concentrate and write and get everything done. I go into my studio but keep hearing the phone, and thinking about things I need to do, and the children, and grandchildren, and even if I shut the door I am far too aware of what’s going on behind it.”

That really is the central dilemma for ambitious married women, and a creative force like Karen Novak really had to wrestle with it.

There were the angels of God to be painted… great skeletal angels that consume — and give rest to— fragile human souls… that demanded to BE painted, and forced themselves out through the end of her paintbrush.

And then there was the eternal call of family: “What’s for dinner?”

Karen — I mean “Novak” — struggled with this, and in a funny way it added to her sweetness. She was an endearing mixture of the Absolute and the… Oh-man-I’m-not-sure. She could confidently tell anecdotes to any number of powerful and imposing dinner guests, yet she was beset by crippling indecision when confronted with what from the outside seemed amazingly facile choices.

You cannot paint the way Karen painted without the ability to trust your eye, or your idea, or the sweep of your arm when it is turning a black line into the high arch of an angel’s wing. You can’t sculpt the way Karen sculpted, kneading the medium into human form, so that from it emerges the face of Alexander Hamilton or the suffering body of Christ crucified, without knowing — believing — that each manipulation is bringing you closer to the truth of the thing.

Yet this same vigorous, strong-minded person was wracked with indecision — really tortured, and for months — over what style of knobs she ought to choose to go on the kitchen cabinets.

Then the question became what color she and Michael ought to have on the walls. Blue, maybe? Maybe yellow? Karen was practically on the threshold of the Hereafter before she could decide. A week before her death, as she and Michael went to see some doctors, workmen slipped into their house and painted most of the ground floor a fresh, light green.

That was Karen all over: The big things, the bold black strokes, the great love she had for her husband and children and grandchildren, she could deliver without a backward glance. It was the tiny agonies of domestic life that sometimes turned her into a human pretzel.

Karen was — and here I am going to try to get back into Telegraph style — a woman of dignity and elegance. She had a calm and unaffected manner that was straight from the American Midwest. She had a panache at tying silk scarves that was straight from the Champs Elysees. In her later years, she got particularly good at tying scarves gracefully around her head so that she looked a bit like Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”

In her earlier years, when Michael discovered and claimed her, she was, frankly, a hottie.

As Michael loves to tell it, they met on a blind date. He thought it might be a disaster, so he told ahead of time he’d probably have to take her home early.

But her blue eyes had an effect on him he had not expected. The martini he offered her, so I recall, had an effect on her that she had not expected. Michael was patient. He waited until their second date before deciding that she was the gal for him.

And off they went, into the future. They had three children: Tanya, then Richard, and then Jana. Michael wrote and wrote and argued and lectured. Karen painted and sculpted — and kept answering the question, “What’s for dinner?”

When they moved to Washington, Karen did something that has for years struck me as one of the most sensible things a mother can do. She chose the school she thought their children ought to attend. Then she walked around the neighborhood until she found a house she liked that happened to be for sale. So it was, on the basis of this wonderful practicality, that Karen and Michael came to live at Northampton Street.

The two of them made such a beautiful couple. She was like the strings that tie the hot air balloon to the earth — sorry, Michael! She held him, and grounded him as he bobbed buoyantly about — yet at the same time, Michael held Karen, and grounded her, and spoke of her always with love and respect and admiration.

And what a dinner table they had — always someone sparkling, always someone clever, and that was when they dined alone.

When they had guests, if you were lucky enough to be there you’d join in serious questions of theology and state. And limericks and doggerel and songs. And Michael’s endless supply of goofy jokes that would run down the table, bounce off Karen’s smiling face, and run back again, making everyone laugh not in a high-stress, super-competitive Washington way, but easily, and happily.

As a hostess, Karen liked to serve what the understated Hugh Massingberd might call “unadorned traditional cuisine.” nothing fussy. and she had those light, theatrical gestures that were so “her” — a mingling of insecurity and warmth… with a desire to put others at their ease.

Karen knew she would be leaving for a long time before she left. She thought a lot about what she could now see that the rest of us could not.

One thing she told me she’d realized: The thing to do in life is to stick to what you do best. She didn’t mean that painters should paint or that writers should write. She meant something much more specific.


She meant that if, for example, one found oneself a painter of terrifying angels, one ought to stick to angels, and not go into any other subject.  I don’t think she regarded her artistic departures from angels as a mistake, exactly — but shortly before she died she was emphatic about the need to focus, and then go deeper — to get better and better at expressing whatever it is we express best. She wanted people to know this — not to fritter themselves away but to concentrate, even to be narrow, in order to go deep.  It was Karen’s advice to those of us who are not, so far as we know, close…yet… to where she is now.

But she would also have been the first to recognize, as we contemplate our callings and the ways we could go deeper, that we have another question to answer.  and that, of course, is: “What’s for dinner?”