Bruised but Whole

FeaturedBruised but Whole

And then it was over. The Inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris didn’t just come and go at noon on January 21. The world came to a screeching halt and shifted into a lower gear of slow and steady governance. And we relaxed.

Before the big day, I complained about all the pomp. I wanted them to hide in the safety of a back room in the Capitol, put their hands on a bible, then get to work. Thank god I wasn’t in charge. In front of the television with my son and his family, I ogled Lady Gaga’s poofy red skirt, Andrea Gorman’s ballet hands, and Bernie Sanders’ wool mittens. Were it not for the pandemic, I would have celebrated on the National Mall wrapped in goose down with my thirteen year-old grandson. Just as I celebrated with his older brother and sister in the 2009 Barack Obama Inauguration. Just as I celebrated with their father in the 1977 Jimmy Carter Inauguration. 

Each of these Inauguration Days marked the “most important election” of our time: Gerald Ford to Jimmy Carter, Geroge H. W. Bush to Bill Clinton, George W. Bush to Barack Obama. And in the days after each previous Inauguration, the earth didn’t instantly shift under our feet. Indeed, for all the hype and hyperbole, Adminstration staffs admit in their memoirs, “We didn’t know what we were doing. We got off to a slow start.”

The mother of all power transfers washed across the universe with the Biden-Harris swearing-in. Joe Biden, wearing his mask, walked off his inaugural stage and signed seventeen executive actions inclduing a pivot in the Covid-19 pandemic policies. As if on cue, people on Zoom calls reported one after another their first shots for the two-shot coronavirus vaccine. And as the covid death toll passed 400,000 souls, Biden announced his Chief Medical Advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Mr. Rogers of the Pandemic. And we relaxed.

Madam Vice-President Kamala Harris, walked off her inaugural stage to perform the swearing-in of Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Osoff. The two new Democrats mark a power transfer in Congress. And we relaxed.

The Biden and Harris familes treated millions of TV viewers to their short walk to the White House along Pennsylvania Avenue. Instead of the traditional inaugural parade, in the evening we watched one of those pandemic-era technological extravaganzas with Bruce Springsteen and Katie Perry, interspersed with greetings from American workers. And we relaxed.

When President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden arrived at the front door of the White House around 4:00 pm, they waved to us and turned to walk inside. For a few brief seconds, they stared at a closed door. The White House Chief Usher who opens the door and offically greets the First Family was nowhere to be seen. From his Palm Beach golf course, at 11:30 am, thirty minutes before the official end of his chaotic presidency, Donald Trump, getting in one last cheap trick, had given the order to fire the Chief Usher. 

And still, we relaxed.

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Buy my book, “In That Number” at ReganBurke.com, Amazon.com, or your favorite independent book store.

MLK: The Drum Major Instinct

FeaturedMLK: The Drum Major Instinct

Fifty-three years ago Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a prophetic sermon he called the The Drum Major Instinct. He riffed off a passage in the New Testament where Jesus’ disciples got mad at him because they wanted to be credentialed leaders, to be praised for their importance, the “drum major instinct”.  In the 1940s the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, wrote in the Twelve Steps that this desire for an important place in society, the “social” instinct, is necessary for community survival. Both men cautioned that this natural god-given instinct, unbridled, can turn on us, become an obsession for power and supremacy and eventually distort our personalities. 

I know a bit about the desire for attention. During these pandemic shutdown months, online Zoom meetings have become the stage and meeting room for events. Last month I was the featured speaker in one square among nearly five hundred muted souls on Zoom. At the end all I heard was thank you from the host. People wrote kindly in the Chat but I still wish I could hear that applause. My book was published in October 2020 and the enthusiasm I need to promote it has waned, due to—you got it—no applause.

Donald Trump heard a lot of applause throughout his entire presidency, even during the months most of us followed the stay-at-home orders of Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force leaders. Whew! Trump’s drum-major instinct has rampaged so out of control that he still says the Democrats stole the election he lost to Joe Biden.

MLK:  “… the final great tragedy of the distorted personality is that when one fails to harness this instinct, he ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up…by spreading evil, vicious, lying gossip on people…”

Trump spread evil, vicious lies to his duped white followers continually until they finally exploded into a blood-and-guts frenzy on January 6. They sacked the US Capitol in an effort to thwart the official declaration of the election results. Five people died. King nailed this aberrant behavior in a prescient accusation: his drum-major instinct makes him think he is somebody big because he is white. 

MLK and Bill Wilson remind us we all have the drum-major instinct. We all want the admiration of others. They caution us to keep it in check, to watch out we don’t let our drum-major emotions go awry, that we don’t act superior to others. I confess I do feel and act superior to the insurrectionists, the white fundamentalists, the angry male mob who sieged the Capitol. I condemn them in conversation, even post condemnations on social media. Experience tells me if I don’t stop, I’ll soon be in a full blown mire of self-loathing, questioning how I got there. King and Wilson both offer an ancient solution to keep my own potential soul-sick personality at bay. Love and service. Be a drum major for love. Help others.

I’m open to it. That’s the best I can do today.

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The Drum Major Instinct,” Sermon Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King, Jr., February 4, 1968, Atlanta, Ga. Listen Here: http://okra.stanford.edu/media/audio/DrumMajorInstinct.mp3

My book, “In That Number” is available at ReganBurke.com, Amazon.com or in your favorite independent bookstore.

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.

Featured

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)