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Wish I’d Saved Those Dead Bodies

I open the drawer to a pile of dead bodies—naked GI Joe and his headless pal, Ken, with his pants around his knees. Small plastic green soldiers had been flung willy-nilly into the drawer’s mass grave. Their weapons, swords and shields, were buried with them, $_3just like their human predecessors in the ancient world. I had not opened my low-slung coffee table drawers since my grandchildren stopped overnighting several years ago. I kept them in tact as a mini-shrine to time standing still.

How I yearn for those little boys to come flying through the door one more time, go straight to the coffee table, plop down on the floor and do battle on the table top with their action figures.

In another drawer I discover my granddaughter’s mini stuffed bear dressed like Betsy Ross, her hat half chewed up by one of my now-dead Scotties; a tiny red plastic car from Monopoly Junior; and, three red plastic cups in the shape of Shriners’ hats. I reach to the back of the drawer and feel around for the little monkey that goes with the cups. All three grandchildren loved this old-fashioned shell game. They set the three hats on the table top, hid the monkey under one and spirited the hats round and round, in and out. I would guess which hat hid the monkey. I always got it wrong. One of them would jump eff347a9d7e47ddeb8669a526ce39fbain to help me, their old grandmother with her limited sense of place. Another would whisper, “pick the left one” knowing the hat on the left was empty. They thought juking me was hilarious. I did too, but for different reasons—my delight was simpler: I loved hearing them laugh.

Perhaps the shell-game scammers on the L trains started with the Shriner monkeys when they were kids. Chicago visitors huddle with their suitcases on the O’Hare Blue Line, get sucked in, throw their dollars down, win once, then lose over and over. The scammer fools them like my grandchildren fooled me. And they all laugh too.

I clean out the drawers and throw all the bits and pieces of remembered joy down the garbage chute. I disinfect the coffee table as if it were a crime scene. This is what we do, after all. Clean things out. Throw them away. To have space for more stuff. I don’t need more space though. If I can’t hang it on the wall, wear it or stuff it into my bookcase, out it goes. So now I have two empty compartments in my small apartment I’ve no use for. Oh, I could store little Christmas ornaments there, but I already have a place for those. One drawer is a perfect place for the two TV remote controllers I all of a sudden need. But I’d never remember I put them there.

I really wish I’d saved that monkey shell game.

For now, these drawers of time past remain empty.

Deut. T-Deut. T-Deut. Deut. Deuteronomy

Deut. T-Deut. T-Deut. Deut. Deuteronomy

Reflection on Deuteronomy?

Every couple of years my church asks me to write something for their Daily Devotions. When the request appeared in my inbox this year, it included the assignment list for the Advent writers. I sent a note to Pastor Rocky, “You get Mark and I get Deuteronomy?”

I’m not sure I have a favorite book in the Old Testament, but I am sure I have a least favorite—Deuteronomy. It has always seemed to me that this book is reserved for scholars; we lay people aren’t supposed to know its secrets.

Deuteronomy 18:15-18: The Lord your God will raise up a prophet like me from your community, from our fellow Israelites. He’s the one you must listen to. That’s exactly what you requested from the Lord your God at Horeb, on the day of the assembly, when you said, “I can’t listen to the Lord my God’s voice any more or look at this great fire any longer. I don’t want to die!” The Lord said to me: What they’ve said is right. I’ll raise up a prophet for them from among their fellow Israelites—one just like you. I’ll put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him.

Reflection. There’s no secret in this passage. Moses tells us we are getting what we asked for, someone we can talk to, who knows what it is to love and suffer and be happy and sad. He’ll be human, a Jew and a Prophet, like Moses. And when He comes, we can trust His words because He’ll be speaking for God.

Watch out if you see a prophet coming your way. They’re not foretellers of the future. They are truthtellers of the present, who expose hidden gracelessness. Jesus is God’s Truthteller. He digs into my dry bones and pulls out the person He wants me to be. I want to be that person too. Sometimes. I often hide from the truth—fearing ridicule and silent scorn because my greatest obsession is to be normal and to fit in.

God’s Truthteller came in the form of a sassy teenager recently: “you think you’re so privileged.” she said when my wrinkled old mouth asked for her seat on the bus. God’s Truthteller told me to love her, to be a Christian, to trust Him with her words.

Prayer. Thank you God, for sending me your Truthteller, a baby I can cherish, a man I can believe, and a friend I can trust. Expose the flimflam thoughts I tell myself and give me courage to have a life of truth and grace.

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See more Daily Devotions from Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago here.

The 2018 Midterms: The Saints Came Marchin’ In

I Got My Country Back.

Weeks after the January 2017 presidential inauguration and Women’s March, I met with a group of women who look like me—old, white, middle-class—to discuss what we could do to help right our country. We devised a plan based on the Indivisible Handbook: meeting monthly to report on our calls and letters to elected officials stating our opinions about Cabinet secretaries, legislation and impeaching the President. We all decided the most impact we could make was to help turn the Sixth Congressional District blue, ousting six-term incumbent Republican Peter Roskam at the midterm election in 2018.

Cries at 2016 post-election presidential rallies to “lock her up,” a demand to jail Hillary Clinton awakened us to a cruel reality. This America, our country, had turned overnight into a place we’d only seen in movies like Elmer Gantry and footage from 1920’s Ku Klux Klan rallies. Little by little we discovered some of our friends, neighbors and family members had voted for a man who gloried in grabbing women by the genitals and calling immigrants murderers and rapists. At first I wondered how people could be so duped by the Reality Show President. I slowly came to realize not all are fooled. People who look like me actually like his white nationalist agenda. Yep. They like him, a tells-it-like-it-is guy, no matter how crude or criminal. I dismayed.

My enthusiasm, and that of my activist friends, turned pessimistic as we drew closer to the midterm election.

Sean Casten, an environmental scientist and political newcomer, won the Democratic primary for Congress in Illinois’ Sixth Congressional District over five women. The district includes some of Chicago’s wealthiest suburbs. I had never heard of him, knew nothing about him. But he became the object of my strongest desire.

I really wanted him to win.

The day after his November victory an interviewer asked Representative-elect Casten what he attributed his win to. Without hesitation he said, “The women. My sister, my wife, the women who showed up every day in the campaign office, the ones who phoned voters from home and knocked on doors. The women.”

Democrats took 35 seats and counting away from the Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections. And I got my country back. I live in a country where white suburban voters fullsizeoutput_45efelected a 32-year old black woman nurse, a country that elected a Sudanese Muslim immigrant woman who wears a head covering, a country that elected two Native American women for the first time in history, a country that elected a married-with-children gay governor, a country where a lesbian became a conservative state’s attorney general. My country will have 102 Democratic and Republican women in the House in January, 12 women in the Senate and 9 women governors. In my country, a record forty-four percent of employers offered employees paid time off to vote.

In my country, the saints are marching in.

How Will I Know When You Die?

How Will I Know When You Die?

No. No. No.

A friend asked me if I’ve given my son a list of people to call when I die. And right then I felt the future running away with me so fast I could hardly catch my breath.

“No.”

“Why not?”

I told her he’d never do it. “He’d get mad if I even approached the subject.”

“How do you know?”

How do I know? He hardly talks to me as it is, much less about an uncomfortable subject.

“It’s a hard job—to call around to strangers and tell them their friend has died. Think of the responses—the oh-no’s! and the demand for details. No. He wouldn’t do it.”

“Well, how will I find out?” pleaded my friend.

There’s that future again, coaxing me to live in it, whispering that it’s my responsibility to inform my friends when I die.

I’m drawn to a passage in Pascal’s Pensees: “We never keep to the present…we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up,” He writes about our failure to live in the present, “we think how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control…” So, no. I’m not going to try to control what happens to me after I die, other than keeping my end-of-days papers in order. I’m happier owning this moment and this moment and this moment. I’ll let time future govern itself.

On the Sunday after All Saints Day, November 1, my church recites the names of those members who’ve died the past year. This year there were more people on the list I knew. I mean, I knew them. Not just their names. I knew them. After the service, as I sat alone in my pew listening to the organ postlude, I popped open my iPhone. I read an account about two women who guarded the dead body of one of the synagogue victims in Pittsburgh so that, in keeping with Jewish custom, the person would never be alone. I had descended into the grace of solitude, a still point, wondering if Jews believe the soul lives beyond the body when I heard someone call my name.

“Hi Regan,” came the voice of my pastor, Shannon Kershner. I looked up to see we were the only two people left in the church after the All Saints Service. She had just delivered a sermon on John, 11:35: Jesus wept. It’s the shortest verse in the Bible. Pastor Shannon reminded us Jesus cried over the death of his friend, Lazarus, joining in the collective grief of his community.

“Are you ok?” she asked.

“No,” I answered. “The dead.”

“Yes.”

She knew.

 

Talk To Me, Dogs

Talk To Me, Dogs

Facebook told me this the other day—that talking to my dog is a sign of intelligence. Whew. I’m glad of that. I talk not only to my dog but to all dogs. Out loud. In public. On the street. I’ve questioned whether their tethered humans might think I’m crazy but I can’t help it. It’s an irresistible impulse, a compulsion, this talking to dogs. And now I know it’s smart.

“Thank you for saying hello to me,” I say to the miniature poodle springing up and down in boyish spirals in the elevator.

“Mac, Mac, come see me,” I yell to Angie’s labradoodle on the sidewalk.

“Henry! Here comes that German Shepherd. Hang tight. Let ‘im sniff. Uh. oh. That scrappy Spitz. Just go ‘round him.”

The word for this is anthropomorphism. Facebook quoted behavioral scientist Nicholas Epley, a University of Chicago anthropomorphism expert. He says that I and others like me are actually showing signs of “intelligent social cognition” in talking to our pets. Because God made us social creatures, we talk to things we love, to be social, to have friends. For thousands of years dogs have adapted as companions to humans. They want to bond with us too, to be a part of the family, to please us. They even want to talk to us, which is why they bark. Dogs evolved from wolves. Wolves howl. They don’t bark.

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“O people, we have been taught the utterance of birds.” (Quran, 27:16)

Somewhere along the evolutionary highway, dogs learned to bark to communicate with their human packs.

Literature old and new is full of talking animals. Some writings are called fables as in Aesop’s The Hare and The Tortoise, who challenge each other to a race. Some are fairy tales—the big bad wolf misleading a red-caped girl in the woods. Snakes and donkeys converse with humans in the Bible. The Koran says Solomon communicated with birds. How could all these stories be based on non-facts? Surely humans once chitchatted with both household pets and wild animals. 

Henry retired at seven years old as a West Highland Terrier stud. His official registered name was Clipper. My friend, John, drove me to Indiana Amish country to fetch the castoff sire. I sat in the back seat with the dog on the way home so I could talk to him, bond. It was the month I first feared I was slipping into cognitive decline.

“He’s not responding to the name Clipper,” John said. “I’ll bet they never called him that. They just bred him. Why don’t you call him something like Henry?” 

And so I did. All the way home to Chicago. The next morning I hollered, “Henry?” He ran from the next room and jumped in my lap. We’ve been conversing ever since.

I suspect the non-pet owners who find me talking to Henry when the elevator door opens haven’t heard of Dr. Epley’s research. To them, I’m just the batty old pensioner with the th-6fluffy white dog on the third floor. 

But I know better. 

I talk to animals.

 

The Once and Future President by Regan Burke

The Once and Future President by Regan Burke

Barreling out of Washington National airport on Friday afternoon, October 5, 2018, my cousin, his wife and I headed south for a family reunion in Charlottesville, Virginia. Leslie, in the back seat kept a close watch on her iPhone messages for news of the controversial vote on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh who had been accused of sexual molestation as a teenager. I sat in the passenger seat next to my cousin, Bill, making sure my iPhone didn’t jiggle out of the USB charging port in the console. I’d arrived from Chicago where the verdict of Jason Van Dyke’s murder trial was about to be announced. Van Dyke shot 19-year old Laquan McDonald sixteen times on a southside street in full view of a dashcam. When I left home at 7:00 in the morning police were already positioned on every corner of the Loop anticipating riots in the streets if the jury acquitted Van Dyke.

Messages started lighting up the car halfway down Route 66. All the Senators we thought might vote against Kavanaugh caved. 

Leslie reported from the back seat.

“Collins is a yes.” 

“Flake’s voting for him now.” 

“Manchin is a yes.”

It was like the reading of the dead at a war memorial. Our once hoped-for heroes were dead to us now. Through my gadget came news that the jury came in with a 2nd-degree murder conviction for Jason Van Dyke. Justice prevailed somewhere out there in the middle distance but I was geographically removed from quick-fix relief and drawn into the pall in the car on the Virginia highway. I anticipated a gloomy night in the larger group of our politically-charged and mostly-Democratic relatives. 

In the dusk of warm Virginia horse country two hundred of us gathered on the lawn of th-1our kind and generous relative, Ann—sisters and brothers, cousins, 2nd cousins,1st cousins once removed, spouses, partners and all their small children. Our casual salutations were loving and genuine but often cut short.

“Did you hear Manchin voted yes?”

“I just saw Kavanaugh’s getting sworn in tomorrow.”

During afternoon free time the next day, some of us wound our way up a forested valley road to Monticello, the mountaintop plantation of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson. Up until the 1950s, this father figure came to us a hero, our 3rd President, author of the Declaration of Independence, purchaser of the Louisiana Territory and the guy who sent Lewis and Clark to Oregon by canoe. We began to hear about his slave ownership in 1960s periodicals. All accounts were accompanied by declarations that Jefferson hated slavery and tried to abolish it. So we still had our hero.

Sometime in the 1990s historians uncovered research documenting that even though Virginia had a strong free-slave movement in the early 1800s, Jefferson was not a part of it. He even built a new road to Monticello to hide his slave quarters from visiting abolitionists. We started to doubt our hero-father. 

Then came Sally Hemmings.

In 1998 DNA testing showed Thomas Jefferson fathered his slave’s six children. The Sally Hemmings exhibit at Monticello tells us the relationship started when fourteen-year-old Sally lived in Paris with Jefferson and his daughter. The exhibit rightly asks the question, “Was it rape?” 

Indeed it was. 

And what of our hero now?

 

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Monticello’s slave quarters

 

Birds of a Feather

Birds of a Feather

On a ridge near the Fox River John and I soft-footed along the sidewalk stopping here and there for Henry, my terrier, to sniff unfamiliar markers deposited at the base of old-growth trees by squirrels, chipmunks, and, of course, dogs. I asked John the usual grandmotherly questions about school, his grades, homework. Science is his favorite subject and he likes moving from class to class now that he’s in Middle School. He pointed out homes of his school ’s vice-principal, classmates, older kids he knew. He said there are often turkey vultures shuffling around this lawn or that, looking for dead worms and garter snakes. 

“Did you know vultures ride the thermals?” He asked. And I knew what he was thinking—he wishes he could spread his arms like wings and let the thermals airlift him into the sky. I do too. We probably have the same dream.

Further along we saw a robin jumping across the grass.

“I never see robins in the city except in the park,” I said, “do you think that’s the robin singing?” 

“No, that’s a cardinal. In the trees. A robin goes yeep.yeep.yeep. A cardinal goes schwee-eet. schwee-eet,” he said.

When we returned to his house, we headed for the deck off the kitchen. He asked if Henry and I wanted a drink, then disappeared inside for a few minutes. He came back through the door caressing a lizard that stretched from his neck to his waist. 

Catching me staring at the hummingbird feeder dangling from the railing, he said, “We haven’t seen a hummingbird since we put up the feeder. But there are lots of yellow finches flying in and out of the lilac tree.”

I have no clue what 12-year old boys are supposed to know. There was a time when he carried a pocket computer around with him so he could play Mario at every possible moment. After a few years, Mario took a backseat to Minecraft and I thought cyber games would possess him for the rest of his life. So I was thrilled to hear these lessons in bird behavior so confidently plucked from deep within his genetic code.  

I shouldn’t be surprised. As a fledgling, before he could talk but after he’d learned to walk, his mother and I took him to Target. While we loaded bags in the car, John sat 1motionless in the shopping cart transfixed by a seagull preening in the sun at the top of a lamppost. A few years later, John and I were sitting on the sunny side of Navy Pier, taking a lunch break after whiffling around first-grader attractions in the Children’s Museum. Sparrows started hopping around our table and John surrendered his bagful of beloved McDonald’s fries to the birds. Crouching down on the pavement stretching his arm as far as it would go with a soggy cold fry dangling between his thumb and finger he tried to get the birds to eat from his hand. The outstretched arm tired and weakened so he propped it up with his other arm and went for at least a half hour. 

I rue that I see him so infrequently. But I’m comforted by my brood of friends with the same grandmother’s lamentation. Like birds on a wire we gather and chirp about our grandchildren, clucking out their accomplishments, funny remarks and milestones, ending with a feathered sigh.