Christmas Benediction

Christmas Benediction

Christmas Benediction

In 2012, four years before I had my screaming knees replaced, David Sperling and I waited in Chicago’s January cold outside the Metro. We came for a tribute to recently deceased Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States. The program, produced in collaboration with Young Chicago Authors, starred Matt Damon, an old friend of Zinn’s.

David graciously accepted my unlovely whining about waiting in the deep freeze, then bending one painful knee after another up the stairs to the balcony. We went for Matt Damon, but discovered a bigger star, Kevin Coval.

Coval is the creative director of Young Chicago Authors. In between MC’ing other performers, Kevin recited a poem that seeded his future book, A People’s History of Chicago.

I met Kevin a year later and sheepishly confessed I wished to be a writer. He invited me to write with the Young Chicago Authors on Saturday afternoons. It took two years for me to hop the Division bus to Milwaukee Avenue and climb the stairs to the free poetry writing workshop known as “Check the Method”. I thought I’d be an observer but found myself participating. 

Kevin’s work with young poets (who recite hard truths from the stages of “Louder Than a Bomb” poetry slams) made me realize I wouldn’t die if I wrote my own story out loud. And so I did.

I’m not a poet, but when I’m hungry for fresh writing, I slip into the Saturday workshop.  This fall, poet teacher Idris Goodwin joined Kevin Coval. Idris is the Director of The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. It was like the Super Bowl of creative writing. I’ve never been so intimidated in my life.

At the end of the six-week session, each writer showcased a poem generated from the class. I present this hour-long showcase as a gift to you. My poem appears below the video. 

Watch out! You’ll find it hard to catch your breath between poets.

Christmas Benediction

by Regan Burke

May all the lights be green

May the terriers be dancin & teasin

May the squirrels be jumpin in the trees ‘n

May the sweet ones be there.

May the scolds be elsewhere.

May the student be singing Butterfly

May the Rottweiler be lullabied

May Henry’s girlfriend be out of heat

May I be kind to the toothless athlete

May Dumpster Dan’s chicken bones be back in the bin

May the actress be wearing her jeweled Christmas pin

May old cowboy boots flirt with me

May squirrels exercise Henry

May sentient ones smell love

May viral loads rise above

Through the treeless branches to the heavens

May our enemies be unleavened

May we be serene

May all the lights be green

Death in the Horizon

Death in the Horizon

The boundary between the lake and the sky is blurred today. They are the same shade of grey. A few loosely formed clouds dip below what might be sea level. But that would be impossible—clouds falling into the water. 

From my third floor window on sunny days, I see the true horizon on the surface of Lake Michigan through leafless tree branches. On dreary days like this, it’s impossible to know if the heavens meet the earth. I’m lucky though. If my building faced west, the visible horizon would be obstructed by high rises, the prairie, and forested limestone bluffs in the The Driftless Area of the Upper Mississippi. How would I know my place in the world? At water’s edge, I can imagine the circling of the horizon around the earth. I feel the earth move toward it.

As it is, when the sky is blue and the lake bluer I see the offing, that mysterious part of the sea closest to the horizon where sloops disappear and mermaids live. This is what I miss the most when I’m away from the lake. And when the offing blurs into the colorless sky, I’m thrown off kilter. I lose my place in the world’s geography. 

I’ve been staring, gazing and glancing out the same window sitting at the same desk between Zoom classes and story-writing for the last nine months of the pandemic. I’ve studied all four seasons. And I’ve had it. I’m not a nature writer or a poet. If I were, I’d still rather write about people than how the universe on the other side of my window affects my mood. 

I miss public life. I miss the culture of going to the movies with friends. On Saturday mornings, Marca Bristo used to text me a list of movie choices, times and locations. Usually she had a restaurant in mind too. She talked me into seeing movies I would never have picked myself, like Nazi movies which I’d sworn off for life until Marca wanted to see the Boy in the Striped Pajamas. 

Our long-held love for movies expanded in the era of Roger Ebert. In our after-movie chatter, either Marca or I inevitably reminisced, “Roger would have loved this one.” We went to the movies between side effects of her chemotherapy to keep everything as normal as possible. Our friendship went beyond movie gab, of course. She didn’t speak too much about the details of her cancer but she did talk about the process of dying. What a privilege to be such a friend. How could I know the last movie we’d see together would be Once Upon a Time in Hollywood?

Marca died six months before the covid shutdown. I’m glad she didn’t spend the last year of her life shut out of the movies. Gazing at the gloomy horizon isn’t what makes me yearn to sit in movie theaters. Missing Marca does.

Killer Objects

If the fire alarm goes off in my building, I’ll grab my most precious possession and run. That’s Henry the West Highland Terrier, of course, the only other sentient being residing in my third-floor condo.

As for other objects in this art-filled overly-momentoed nine hundred square foot nest, nothing brings me more joy than two bird feeders sitting atop my bedroom air conditioner.  The concrete cactus planters are the latest in a long line of failed birdfeeders I’ve had over the years. Conventional see-through Audobon plastic houses that suction-cup to the window are handy. But they survive only until the next thirty mile an hour wind blows in from Lake Michigan. More than one has fallen onto a car roof in the driveway below, which is why birdfeeders are forbidden by condo rules.

The planters, formed by a smooth cement composite, have a one-inch lip—perfect for perching birds to tip into the bird seed, cracked corn and peanut bits. As soon as I open the window in front of my desk to pour feed into the troughs, a flock of plump house sparrows appear on the balcony. I’ve had rare visits from cardinals, orioles, crows and one glorious Downy Woodpecker.

My favorite these days is the black-capped chickadee. She appears alone, flits in for a bite and scrams. The chickadee is a tiny dark-headed bird with white cheeks. Her white underbelly is blushed with pale yellow feathers. I once thought I was going color-blind because when a chickadee lands, blue flashes in my mind’s eye. They are not blue. If that’s God’s way of making himself known, I’ll take it.

On December 3 at 1:14 pm I ruminated away from my worn-out keyboard just as a peregrine falcon fluttered into the flock of terrified sparrows feeding at the trough. Peregrines eat other birds. The sparrows escaped and the falcon sat there alone, surprised at where he’d found himself. His feathers looked new, like they’d not been used much. His head swiveled almost 180 degrees on his foot-long body. He eyeballed me with knife-like precision. I could see nothing else as he hopped onto the balcony railing. I tried to type a text about the sighting to a birder friend, without moving my hands or looking at the keyboard. The peregrine searched the neighborhood for about fifteen minutes before casting off into his urban jungle. 

A new TV series, “Earth at Night in Color,” includes a half-hour on Chicago’s infamous peregrine falcons. The raptor has decided high rise dwellings are as good as the cliffs where their ancestors lived. The peregrine is the fastest animal, bird or beast, in the world. It dive-bombs other birds at 200 miles per hour, killing them in midair.  Whenever I come across a dead pigeon I look to see if a peregrine is hovering overhead waiting to dine.

How glum to know now my little bird friends are bait. But my resolve to keep the feeders full has deepened.

A peregrine falcon screeches from a perch above the University Club of Chicago, on Monroe Street at South Michigan Avenue on July 1, 2014. (Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune)

Shutdown Holiday

Shutdown Holiday

Years from now, publications will appear describing what happened during the pandemic year 2020. Mystery books will include courtroom dramas defending murderers who snapped under the influence of cabin fever. Memoirs will be riddled with hours-long drives to grandma’s care center, only to wave to her from the parking lot. Chapters headed “Thanksgiving 2020” will describe ongoing feuds stemming from last-minute cancellations to the traditional family dinner. All stories will include descriptions of face-coverings and condemnations for and against mask-wearing.

In the Zoom gatherings I joined over Thanksgiving weekend, I could already see these stories brewing (ok, maybe not the cabin-fever murderer). In fact, I have my own who-done-it idea percolating.  It’s about a family trying to kill off the nonagenarian wealthy matriarch by insisting on a twenty-person no-masks-allowed family gathering. 

When my old friend, Abe, called and said, “let’s have dinner at Gibson’s,” I welcomed deliverance from Zoom socials. I forgot that I promised the mayor I’d stay home when she shook her finger at me on the TV. The last time I had dinner with Abe at Gibson’s, the Irish Rovers marched around to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. The next day, Governor Pritzker got mad at us and shut down all the restaurants in Illinois. Eight months later, after a slight reprieve in the summer, indoor dining is shutdown again, but outside?

“Yes!” I answered. 

Abe is the kind of man who doesn’t talk on the phone. He’s such a good storyteller that he must see you in person, get your reaction, dangle unfinished vignettes that tease questions from you (“what happened next?”). Once he’s tantalized your curiosity and aroused your receptivity, he comes in with a big punch line that leaves you craving for more. This kind of storytelling cannot be done over Zoom.

Gibson’s has opened its second floor for diners. The steakhouse gets away with it by removing all the windows and calling it outdoors. The heat is turned way up. The first floor is sealed off, forbidden territory. I felt guilty enough about ignoring the command to stay home that I insisted on sitting at a table on the sidewalk terrace, outside, surrounded by umbrella-like flaming gas heaters.

I never removed my deep purple full-length down coat and hood with matching face covering. Abe notoriously underdresses for Chicago winters. He wore a windbreaker and wool beanie and brought a blanket. Our body heat swatted away the forty degree cold, at first.

The aroma of grilled steaks hovered around our table like a sizzling dust storm. We ordered a fast-cooking black and blue sirloin to split. Abe ordered a salad.

Forty minutes later Abe was still forking around in the arugula between his stories. My fleece-lined pants, wool socks and snow boots failed me as my body heat dissipated. I whined. Abe called the waiter.

“Could we have the steak now?”

“Oh, I was waiting for you to finish your salad before I put it in.”

That vaccine cannot come soon enough.

Halloween Daydream in 2020

At my third floor window I languish in the maizey leaves clinging to the honey locusts before their final abscission. A man strolls out of the building across the street and stands at the edge of the sidewalk.

What exactly do I believe in these days? Smelling babies. Talking to dogs. The Post Office. I believe I’m armed with more knowledge than any old trickster.

Oversized orange buckets swing from each of his hands, full to the top with candy bars. Even a daydreamer can spot Snickers and Three Musketeers. He’s in a grey suit and tie, his face hidden by the ubiquitous mask. Is he waiting for a ride to a party?

I’m the day-of-the-dead queen costumed in veil and beads armed with loaves and fishes and bellies of the beast.

CostumedChicago kids are allowed to walk around in small groups trick or treating as long as they keep moving and don’t bunch up on the street. A masquerade of tiny witches and goblins approaches the man in the grey suit. They retireve candy bars from his swinging plastic pumpkins. I squint in the brewing dusk to see that his grey suit is actually a doorman’s uniform. Building overlords have chosen him to stand in thirty degrees to guard the front door from trick-or-treaters. I’m offended for the doorman. This surmised slight ruffles my daily itch for anger.

I climb into and out of death everyday.

At the beginning of October Mayor Lori Lightfoot appeared as superhero, Captain Covid, to announce the city’s guidelines for Halloween. Fitting, since Halloween is a month-long event in the windy city, thanks to Mayor Daley II who loved Halloween. I do too. 

There’s a full moon this Halloween, a Hunter’s Moon, they call it. The last time Halloween revelers in Chicago saw a full moon was a few weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. It’s not exactly like the 2016 Cubs winning the World Series for the first time in 108 years, but Chicagoans love to celebrate any milestone. 

Not this year. 

The pandemic has dampened celebrations. The governor shut down indoor bars and restaurants starting midnight Friday on Halloween weekend.

Captain Covid pleaded for mercy to keep the Chicago bars open at least for the weekend. No, no, said Governor Pritzker. The risk is too great. Chicago party-goers are scary, unpredictable, unruly. 

I’m no longer a party animal myself, but their disappointment is mine too. One of my yearly delights is gawking at the outrageous costume parade rollicking in and out of the bars on Rush Street. Some years I’ve dressed Henry in his skeleton sweater to be in that number on our late-night walk. Instead, we’ll go outside to view the Hunter’s Moon, descend into the Druid bygone, and muse about fattening the game, the hunt, the slaughter and the preparation of winter provisions.

I see all the past and all the future, in the moment, aided by the magnetic Jesus stuck to the corners of my eyes.

Bibliotherapy Transition Team

A few years ago I finally transitioned away from chronic pain through bibliotherapy. Dr. John Stracks, the CEO of my Bibliotherapy Transition Team, introduced me to the writing-for-healing workbook, Unlearn Your Pain. 

One of the book’s first lessons asked me if I had any particularly stressful or traumatic events in my childhood. If I answered yes to that little ditty, my next assignment was to describe any of the following: deaths, moves, taunting, teasing, emotional or physical abuse, changes in schools, or changes in family situations. 

Every time I completed a paragraph, pain slipped away not only from the sciatica ripping down my leg but also from the stenosis at the base of my backbone that had been squeezing the life out of the nerves in my spinal canal. The mysterious agony of fibromyalgia began to subside as well. 

I was writing away my pain.  

The next part of my transition team came with a memoir writing group. On my first day I came with no writing of my own and listened to stories about the family cat, road trips to the West and baking cookies with Grandma. My stories were about an alcoholic family that turned out alcoholic children. I had no fond memories of family vacations or beloved family pets. I slid out of that classroom into the endless dark corridor. A class member caught up to me and urged me to come back the following week. 

“I can’t write like that,” I said, “my writing is too dark.”

“Everyone has their own story to tell. Come back and tell yours.”

And so I did. My classmates read their written stories out loud. I heard my words fall loosely on the table in front of me. Shame kept me from lifting them up and out. Pain relief continued at a more dramatic pace as I wrote and shared stories of my distressed childhood. A year or so in, my words managed to reach across the table to the writing teacher, then to Veronica, then down one side of the table and up the other. I created my own blog and posted my weekly writing for public view. Public! Readers nurtured me with their comments, wanting more. More! 

“You should write a book,” friends said.

 “A book? Never thought of it,” I said.

And then I did.

Writing teacher Beth Finke included one of my stories in her memoir, Writing Out Loud. When I submitted a writing sample to Tortoise Books, publisher Jerry Brennan emailed, “I heard you read your story from Beth Finke’s book at the Book Cellar. Send me your manuscript.” 

Manuscript? I had written 500 words a week for four years but I didn’t have a manuscript. Beth told me to find a big room, spread all my stories out, then pick them up one by one in chronological order and number them. 

“Then you’ll have a manuscript,” she said.

From Jerry Brennan’s edits, I revised, revised, revised. Each sentence brought its own ache. This twenty-five-year old physical torment transitioned to an end with the final chapter of In That Number.

I have enormous gratitude for all those beautiful and gracious souls in my transition team.

WGN Interview with Bob Sirott: “Campaigning then vs. now”

Regan Burke is author of “In That Number: One Woman’s March Up From the Streets of Protest To The Halls of Power and Beyond” and political organizer. She’s worked in the campaigns of Adlai Steve…

Click to hear 10 minute interview: Campaigning then vs. now

From left, President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump, former President Barack Obama, former first lady Michelle Obama, former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former President Jimmy Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter participate in the State Funeral for former President George H.W. Bush, at the National Cathedral, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Pool)

Loving Those Enemies

Loving Those Enemies

The results of the November 3 presidential election are exactly what I’d hoped for. I hear complainers wishing for more of a landslide. Joe Biden won 52-48 percent. We used to call that a landslide. Perhaps ol’ Joe should have claimed it.

Modern mystic Dave Chapelle says we have to remember that half of the United States doesn’t agree with us. I say it lke this: 71 million people in the United States hate me. And 75 million people love me. Ok. Ok. Maybe not me, maybe it’s Joe Biden or Kamala Harris they love and hate. But if I allow those voters to love and to hate me, the reality is easier to swallow.

The bitter pill is, how do I not hate the 71 million in turn? How doI love them? I know the government to-be will keep more of them from dying of covid-19, fix their crumbling roads and bridges and secure their futures through Social Security and Medicare. I’m grateful for that. And equally grateful I’m removed from those decisions.

The truth is, anytime I’ve tried to stop hating someone who hasn’t been on my side, much less hated me, I’ve fallen short. Oh the people I’ve hated! All the ex’s—husbands, bosses, boyfriends, co-workers. And the parents.

My father gave me good reason to practice hate. I recently received a message from a friend I didn’t think knew my father:

Your book reminded me of an encounter with your dad. Your description of one of his 4-step cons made me think about his pitch to me. He came to my office with a guy I knew who was supposed to build his credibility. He then revealed he was a VERY SUCCESSFUL businessman / lawyer. He had an important venture that I would want to invest in. He first wanted me to invest $50,000 into a newspaper, aimed at the business I ran. No, not interested. Second, advertising at $25,000 for a two-year commitment would help my business. No, not interested. Third, can we put you on the masthead as an advisor? Your name would guarantee success. No, not interested. Fourth, can you recommend any high-net-worth people? No, can’t do that either. He was smooth, business-like. A real confidence man.

This is the latest addition to a long list of my father’s marks in his get-rich-quick schemes. It’s taken years of writing to shake off hate and slip into love. He’s been dead over twenty years but I only recently stopped fearing calls that might begin with the four frightening words, “Your father called me.”

Small love allows me to say, “he had a traumatic childhood”. Big love comes from grace. It disallows understanding or analyzation. I’ve just started to love my father, not because of those memories where he deserved love, but in spite of those memories where he didn’t deserve it.

It’s a beginning. 

And now, for the 71 million.

Thank You Zoom. Thank You Facebook. Thank You Amazon.

This week, six people I know announced they’d tested positive for Covid-19. A few are sick, some are asymptomatic (a word in daliy use now). One of the blessings of Zoom is that some of these covid-positive friends were able to join about 200 other participants on my October 21  Zoom book launch with WBEZ’ Monica Eng. Another blessing? Friends from far afield who wouldn’t have been able to come to Chicago for a book launch party, zoomed in too. 

And then there’s people from long ago. Matt Person and I lost contact over thirty years ago. Here’s the message he sent via Facebook Messenger:

Hi Regan,  I’m the (Gary Hart) Road Warrior from Cape Cod who said yay Missouri and Indiana yesterday! Thanks for your stories and the awesome interview. We met in St Louis (in’84) and you were a mentor to our group, (Marc) Dann, (Pete) Giangreco. We then all headed to wonderful Indiana where Janet Reed and I worked in Jeffersonville. I returned home to Cape Cod. A decade later I became chef at the US Embassy in Reykjavik for a year. I’m sending you a hug from my partner Jill and myself, with appreciation! Such important experiences, ‘84, ’88. Good and challenging times! Best, Matt

Over on Amazon, a stranger, “Uptown Girl” buried her book review in a reply to a previous Customer Review

While sex, drugs, and rock & roll are the salt, pepper & salsa of Regan’s delightful book, the constant is her life-long history in politics. I—like everyone—was shocked that Hillary lost in the last election—man, she took some hits, so it warmed my heart when Regan wrote: “I never failed to be completely starstruck by her brilliance, kindness, and sense of humor. She listened to people’s problems and laughed at their jokes” (p. 231). I was not surprised with her other description of Bill and Hillary together: “Hillary Clinton [dressed in a grey tweed suit and black high-heeled feet] is not the kind of woman who knows if there are leftovers in the fridge.” In blue jeans, Bill jumped to his feet, invited the group into the kitchen, and started pulling food from cabinets and containers. (p. 178). I needed to hear all of that. But what wormed its way into my heart and mind was that Regan never lost her faith in God. A god that could take her in—warts, addictions, and bad men. She writes: “I call myself a Christian. I love the same Jesus whose friendship saved me when I was a child. I trust that my despair, my depression, my addictions and my character flaws don’t change the universal goodness of God” (p. 229). Amen, sister. Thank you. I await your sequel. – Uptown Girl

The notes, comments, snaps, yowls and yowzas from these and others about my book are more nurturing than any I’ve received in all the hours I’ve been alive. The words, your words, nourish my spirit. They teach me to feed love and kindness to others—a virtue perpetually under construction in the daily restoration of my soul.

Thank you.

Order “In That Number” at ReganBurke.com