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Morrigan Go Bragh by Regan Burke

On the southwest coast of Ireland known as West Cork, I monitor a murder of grey-backed black-crowned crows cruising around the wild Irish garden of the home I’m visiting in the hills above the harbour of Baltimore, an old pirate town. I’m not a thbirdwatcher, but enough of a bird lover to know these elegant, regal beauties are not something I see in the trees in or around my home in Chicago.

I sit in the peace of soft rain watching three Grey Crows preen on the dead unpruned branches of an ancient apple tree less than 50 feet from my morning coffee. I throw kitchen scraps onto the stone veranda adjacent to the dining room to entice the 20-inch long birds to come nearer to me. They swoop gracefully from their perch, plunk down and waddle toward the bounty, as I knew they would, like their foraging junk-eating U.S. cousins, the American Black Crow.

I open my laptop and look them up. Wikipedia has not only facts and figures of the Grey Crow but also a link to Celtic myths and legends of this western European corvus. I click into the world of Irish folklore where the Grey Crow is known as a manifestation of  The Morrigan. The Morrígan is a mythical figure, a foreteller of doom and death, deriving her name from the word “mara” connoting terror or monstrousness as in night-mare. Mara is my older sister’s name. The “rigan” in mor-rigan translates as queen, as in my name, Regan. Mara-Regan equals Mor-rigan, or the nightmarish queen, manifested in the Grey Crow keeping watch o’er my morning. So here I am on my Irish vacation, hiking heather and heath, having great craic with my Irish host, Vivienne DeCourcy, when I’m visited with the terrorising reminder of how my sister Mara and I are ferally joined for all time in blood and tradition.

“Mara” has a place in many traditions. It means bitter in Hebrew, demon in Sanskrit. My mother benignly named my sister, thinking it a noble Gaelic name for Mary, never researching the root of it. The human Mara lives up to the historic iterations of her name: she killed me off before I was born, bullied and tormented me as a child until, as a fully-ripened adult, she declared she no longer considered me a part of her family.

This new knowledge awakens old fears and crams them into a contemporaneous morass. Is The Morrigan perched outside my window an omen on this mid-August day in 2017 as Donald Trump is heralding white supremacy in mythological statements that intertwine fact and fiction? Some say ancient Irish bands of young lawless warrior-hunters who lived on the fringe of civilisation were dedicated to The Morrigan similar to the white supremacists’ infatuation with Trump. The tenants of this wild Irish countryside fear Trump is a modern-day Morrigan cawing out lunatic signals, picking at trash and digesting hate. My hope is that he is a temporary danger–unlike my sister Mara.

 

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Ozzy the Arhat by Regan Burke

Give me something to do. God.

Tell them to come get me.

Hold me. Speak to me. Take me to the ball game.

Peanuts. Cracker jacks.

Do the dead always visit us in the morning? I wake up listening for the click-clacking tap-dancing, rat-a-tat across my hardened floors. Ozzy had well-padded soles, wide feet and solid toenails meant to root out rats and badgers from their earthen dens. No Scottie-level potted plants ever made it past the first day, neither inside nor on my third-floor balcony. His diggers instinctively, fanatically worked their way into the soil to get to something, anything that proved his worth, duty done. Satisfied with nothing more than a dirty nose and paws, he gave me a message: don’t worry, I’ll protect you from any danger, man or beast.

At the Takashi Murakami exhibit in Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, I wondered aloud to my 20-year-old grandson, CJ Kelly, why the artist painted so many colorful frogs at the feet of the arhats. CJ mindfully revealed those are the arhats’ toenails, not frogs. Ah, toenails. Murakami’s arhats are Buddhist spirits who hesitate between two worlds, the physical and the not, to comfort suffering earthly beings. His bulbous toenails are a tribute to the noble path of those enlightened ones whose feet are moving them through their death and decay. The parade of toenails is Murakami’s day-glo gratitude for arhats who stop along the way to ease our sorrows.

Murakami called his Chicago exhibit, The Octopus Eats His Own Leg, based on an ancient Japanese adage that an octopus eats its own decrepit limb to save itself from death rot. A new leg grows back, the octopus is healed and lives a long and healthy life.

In the exhibit, the 333-foot-long, 10-panel painting, The 500 Arhats, has 1,000 intricately painted toenails. I misinterpreted the toe protectors, thought they were frogs. After all, how could toenails mean so much to anyone but me? I harbor an unspoken repulsion of human toenails. Summer sandals expose these keratin plates sitting atop ugly toes that hardly ever match each other—some curled under, some straight, some turned outward, some inward—all on the same foot.  Toenails are often fungus-rotted discolored thick globs that women hide with colorful paint instead of covering with cool shoes. God clearly missed the boat in his design of the human toe apparatus.

But Ozzy’s coal-black, perfectly formed, hardy toenails witchy-curled out of his all-business paws, ever-ready for the hunt, the prowl. At rest, his legs stretched out before him showing off his toenails as if he’d just had a pedicure.

His body turned in on him overnight. Like the octopus, his system ate up his dying kidneys and liver but left a beleaguered heart that had to be put to rest. I now have my own arhat who will walk me through the sound of silent, unseen toenails until the hard margins at the edges of grief fade into the path.

murakami_portrait
Takashi Murakami in front of his epic work “The 500 Arhats.” (Courtesy MCA Chicago)

 

Keep On Truckin’— Contemplation on a Deadman by Regan Burke

In Beth Finke’s latest book, Writing Out Loud, the following brief memoir was excerpted. I post it for those who’ve asked for the full story.  Check out Beth’s book for more stories from Chicago writers: Writing Out Loud.

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Keep On Truckin’— Contemplation on a Deadman

I worked in politics my whole life, always hoping for the perfect politician, one who acted in the best interest of the whole. Bill Clinton could have been my hero. I loved his rallying cry in the 1992 campaign, “personal responsibility.”

But I had doubts. Could I work for a candidate who was pro capital punishment and unsure of his view on abortion? Those were two issues I thought every Democrat knew to be against and for.

The “personal responsibility” message won me over. In October 1991 I abruptly left Chicago for Arkansas to work as Clinton’s campaign scheduler, a grueling job that required 24/7 attention. One cold January night Clinton and his entourage, George Stephanopoulos and Bruce Lindsey, returned to Little Rock in a small private jet from all-important New Hampshire. I met the plane on the dark, deserted tarmac to give Clinton his next-day schedule. He descended the jet stairs with a big smile, came directly at me, grabbed my coat and ran his graceful elongated fingers up and down my long furry lapels. “Nice coat, Regan,” he whispered in my ear.

This encounter may be the reason I love Bill Clinton.

When he won, I relocated to Washington to work in his administration. I moved into the first floor condo of an 1880 townhouse on Church Street in DuPont Circle. In 1994 he passed a crime bill I thought went too far. Next he signed NAFTA, an agreement opposed by every Democrat I respected. Both policy shifts were spearheaded by White House insider, Rahm Emmanuel, who decidedly did not have the public good at the forefront of his self-serving mind. But Clinton loved him. Dissatisfaction settled in the space between my bones and muscled me awake at 3 o’clock in the morning for the next six years.

In the early still of a hot D.C. August morning in 1995, NPR told me Jerry Garcia died. I collapsed on the bathroom floor weeping over the death of something I couldn’t put words to. At 49-years-old my idealism had come to an end: my phony world of everlasting good died with Jerry Garcia. Reality glared back at me in the mirror as I brushed my hair, seeing for the first time a wrinkled face and rubbery neck. I dressed in soft yellow, a flowery cotton frock, and pinned a silk flower in my hair, ready for the grieving day.

My dog Voter squirmed away from my extra long hug and I went out the door to my old friend, Keith Lesnick waiting to drive us to work. As soon as I got in the car tears spilled out. He asked about the sadness, and I slobbered out a few words, “Jerry Garcia signed into rehab last night,” I said. “He died in his sleep.” Keith waited a few respectful minutes, and then, with one simple sentence, he opened a new, naked reality that included the unspoken caveat—don’t take yourself too seriously.

He said, “well, it’s not as if it’s Aretha Franklin.”

Hazmat Blues by Regan Burke

One hundred and seventy days into the Trump Administration I flew to Washington DC for the annual board meeting of the national anti-sexual violence organization, RAINN.org, (Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network). Lively meals with DC relatives, the board meeting and coffee afterwards with old political cronies were old-shoe comfortable and safe, though conversations periodically broke into expressions of danger. This is, after all, the nation’s company town, Trump’s ground zero.

I arrived at the Washington National Airport an hour early for the non-stop flight home to Chicago. Packed with fellow travelers, pop-up phone and sunglass vendors, fast food and maintenance workers and airline personnel, the terminal sizzled. I managed to nudge a stool into a space at a long table rigged with outlets and nose-dived into the computer-news rabbit hole: click, Trump crashed a wedding at one of his resorts, click to an old story about a sinkhole in front of Mar-a-Lago, click to a twitter storm of jokes about draining the swamp.

Annoying conversations buzzed my ears about a hazmat incident at the control tower. Click! a local TV station reports fumes from roof construction at the Leesburg, Virginia control tower has shut down all flights for 4 airports around DC. Click. Is Steve Bannon, the President’s sneaky architect of distraction, trying to terrorize awaiting airline travelers?  Or did he sabotage the timetable to turn the screw on some disagreeable Administration insider?

The announcement came. “…we don’t know when flights will continue, we’ll update you as soon as we know.” It was 10:00 pm when I learned my flight was cancelled until the next morning. The United gatekeeper told us all the hotels were booked for 50 miles around and that maintenance crews would be handing out blankets for those who’d be sleeping in the airport.  No problem, I’d just contact one of the five people I know in DC and ask to lay my aching bones down on a couch. Click. Click. All five were non-responsive. Travelers were staking out their spots on the floor. In front of the gatekeeper I pleaded, “I just cannot sleep on the floor. I’m old and have arthritis. Is there no other solution?”

He shook his head.

“How much would it cost to get to the nearest hotel?”

“Sixty miles away? About $100.”

“Oh no. Are you giving vouchers for cabs?”

“No”

I was dragging my carry-on away from any hope of a reprieve, doomed to slumping to the floor by Dunkin Donuts, when a young man pressed something in my hand.

“Please let me help you. Take this.”

A $100 bill. Before I could thank him, my FaceBook message lit up with a query from Dan Murphy whom I hadn’t seen in 10 years: Click. “FB is telling me you are nearby! Can I see you?”

And right then, I was no longer afraid to die.

Click.

Click.

Click.

A People’s History of Chicago

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Chicago poet Kevin Coval came to a luncheon of forty older adults in the Gold Coast to read from his new book, A People’s History of Chicago. This was not Kevin’s usual audience, which is young, disaffected and enlightened high school kids from the neighborhoods. After his reading, he passed out small notebooks and pencils and asked us to write a list of what you see when you walk out your front door. Then he gave us 8 minutes to write a poem.

Kevin is the Artistic Director at Young Chicago Authors, an ongoing free workshop that meets every Saturday at Milwaukee and Division. He invited all of us to the workshop, saying “we need you.”

And so the next Saturday I climbed to the 2nd floor high-ceilinged room of bare brick walls and planked floors. Twenty chairs were arranged in a circle in the middle of the room and loose, unlined sheets of paper and pencils were in a box in the middle of the circle. This is not just organization, it’s respect.

Poet-teacher Jose Guadalupe Oliverez sat on a chair in the circle and as people emerged from the staircase, he motioned to them to join him. He asked us to state our first names, age and our high schools. A group of 16-year-olds from Crane High School and their spoken-word coach, a 19 yr old poet from Calumet City, a 16 year old Lincoln Parker home from boarding school and a 20 year old jewelry maker made up the group. I apologized, “I’m Regan and I’m old. Thank you for letting me sit in.” Jose prompted us to write lists, reading various poems for inspiration about truth and lying. He gave us 8 minutes to write. At the end, each of us recited one poem.
_____________
Lying

I get on the bus
See a cohort
Where you goin?
To the March at Trump.

You go girl, he says
thinking I’m alive in pursuit of justice

Am I? I dress for the day
with buttons and banners
Tell others I’ll see you there!
Notify on Twitter and FaceBook

Then go downtown and what?
I tell others it works
to be in the number, to yell
This is What Democracy Looks Like

I write letters, make calls, send emails
Proclaiming the what and why
but then in silent spaces
I doubt.

Does my voice matter?
I tell others theirs does, mine does.

I doubt.
Will it get better?
for me
or you
or them
or us

Am I acting, lying?
What about the rest of ‘em?
Are we all just hoping, acting, lying?
_______________

Hot and weak at the bus stop I was thinking about the racism-felt poems I’d just heard from the young poets. A woman in a McDonald’s uniform came along complaining, “Where the fuck is the bus?” She asked if I had been to the new Division Street Target and before I answered, she added, “I can’t go there. They tore down my home to build it.”

I beseeched God, “when will it ever end?”

People Say They Did the Best They Could

What My Parents Believed

No One Ever Said We Were Democrats. Neither of my parents campaigned nor wore political buttons nor wrote thoughtful letters to politicians. They were Catholics, went to Catholic schools, Catholic colleges, married in the Catholic church. They took on the mantle of Irish Catholicism as if it were a physical birthmark, a once-a-Catholic-always-a-Catholic mental tattoo unaccompanied by belief in God or Jesus. They took advantage of the culture of the sacraments— Holy Communion, Marriage, Baptism—to display how beautiful we all were in our expensive clothes, polished shoes, fashionable hair styles.

They argued. About money mostly. And other women, other men. They agreed on important things. Pope Pius XII was a backwater imbecile for invoking papal infallibility in 1950 when he proclaimed all Catholics must believe Mary didn’t suffer physical death and was assumed into heaven. This new doctrine, along with the Pope’s insisting the Church of Rome stay neutral during the Holocaust, put a stake in their religiousity.

They hated right-wing bullies like Senator Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover. McCarthy was a reckless demagogue who ruined lives with public witch hunts and unsubstantiated accusations against communist sympathizers. FBI Director Hoover amassed power by steering favorable press and policy his way using his secret files to blackmail Congress and Presidents alike. Throughout their lives my parents derided the Red Cross for raising money for war-time troops then charging soldiers and sailors for their so-called giveaways like toothpaste, coffee and donuts. My mother eagerly showed how smart she was in these matters. After all, my parents attended college in the nation’s capitol in the years leading up to World War II. She gossiped about under-informed conversationalists, “What do you expect, they don’t even read the New York Times.”

During the war, they lived in housing provided by the Navy in Key West. With no children to mind, they spent evenings in the Officer’s Club chattering about the day’s news, forming opinions and cooling off with rum smuggled in from Cuba. The men were Navy pilots and Naval intelligence officers. Some worked in the newly-formed CIA. Anyone who didn’t drink was not to be trusted. They never went to a restaurant, nor any gathering, party, picnic, or church function unless they knew alcohol would be served.

Any friend or relative who stopped drinking was derided as a reformed drinker, as if that were a dirty word. My father eventually stopped drinking and went to Alcoholics Anonymous, but he still steered clear of social events and restaurants where there was no alcohol. With all their strong opinions about religion and politics, the foundational belief of my parents was that life without alcohol was as unsophisticated and tasteless as a Greek diner.

My father, divorced from my mother, helped me get sober in 1979. When I told my family I was in AA, my older sister, glass of wine in hand, said, “Well. Just because you’re an alcoholic, doesn’t mean everyone is.”

 

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Don’t Come to My Place

When friends from out of town ask to visit, they know they’ll be sleeping on a pull-out couch. No one seems to mind. But in the summertime, when I inform them I have no air conditioning and no screens, few believe me. The original in-the-wall air conditioner in my 1959 condo conked out in 2006. Replacing it would require ripping up and rewiringth-1 the wall and I’ve never had the inclination to do so. Neither can I bring myself to replace the broken dishwasher or stove.

Hot spells can be oppressive, even claustrophobic. When heat envelops me, I sweat, swell up, get dizzy. At times I feel like I’m going to faint. The failure of my body to adjust disrupts my circadian rhythm and agitates my sleep cycle. To cool off, I sleep with my windows open for the nighttime breeze from Lake Michigan which means on weekends I hear 2:00 am passersby mixing it up from the bars down the street and cars and motorcycles gunning it on my corner. North Lake Shore Drive makes an “S” curve at Oak Street Beach right outside my building and the occasional emergency siren wakes me as it hones in on late night crashes.

Summer sleep can be exasperating. I rise with the sun at dawn because my blinds are open all the time to catch the changing light and moving clouds. Oh, there are some — I’ve run out of wall space, so I hang paintings and dangle sculptures from drapery rods in front of partially closed blinds.

When I was about 10 years old, I occasionally slept outside in the summer on a porch with no screens. Mosquitoes didn’t bother me there. But when I slept inside, the bloodsuckers buzzed my ears until they found a juicy spot to prick my skin. I figured this was because mosquitoes come inside through the screens and can’t get out. I vowed to get rid of all the screens as soon as I had control over my own surroundings. And so I did. th-3Some visitors are afraid of the mosquito-borne West Nile Virus so they spray gobs of poisonous DEET all over themselves. I’m as afraid of West Nile as I am of getting hit by a bus. Bugs fly in. Bugs fly out. Mosquitoes, moths, flies, bees, wasps — they come in, take a look around and go out.

An occasional sparrow or pigeon may fly in too, but they find their way out once Ozzy the dog wakes up and gets wind of them. City life with all the windows open, nature buzzing around, birds chirping, cars honking, buses burping, lake breezes, the sound of rain on the trees – all of it fills me with joie de vivre. I wouldn’t live any other way.

So, if you’re nostalgic for life before air conditioning, come to my place. You’ll be cooled and calmed by slow-whirring fans and iced lemonade.