Gifts and Omens from the Polar Vortex

Gifts and Omens from the Polar Vortex

In 1982 newspaperman Paul Galloway made arrangements for me to volunteer on the Adlai Stevenson for governor campaign. Paul wrote features for the Chicago Sun Times and knew the campaign press secretary. It’s best to have a reference when volunteering on a campaign or you’ll get stuck answering phones or standing on a street corner passing out brochures. I was entrusted with driving Nancy Stevenson around to her scheduled events. She is one helluva quick-witted woman. I’ve never known any two people as funny as Paul Galloway and Nancy Stevenson. At the end of every day, I’d have hilarious conversations with Paul recapping the day’s events. He’d brief me on the serious issues of the campaign that I had missed while I was out with Nancy. Once in a while he’d relay bits of gossip about Adlai’s opponent, Jim Thompson, that he’d overheard in the newsroom—confidentially, of course, but I told Nancy everything.

Paul scheduled time with Nancy on the campaign trail because he was writing an article on the candidates’ wives. At the end of that day, as we dropped Nancy off, we doubled over out of the car barely able to recover from the previous sidesplitting eight hours. When the article appeared a few days later, a campaign staffer asked if we had given Paul an aphrodisiac because he wrote more of a love letter to Nancy than a journalistic objective feature story.

When the 2019 Polar Vortex was on its way to Chicago at the end of January, I decided to spend  the forced hibernation writing about my time in the ’82 Stevenson campaign. But my first draft notes were blank. I could remember very little about it. In writing memoir, when I sit down with a particular theme in mind, memories rise up. Other memoirists say the same thing; it’s why we call it bibliotherapy. Incidents hidden somewhere in the hippocampus come forward.

Not this time. No specifics of what-I-thought-were-memorable days with Nancy Stevenson and Paul Galloway. It’s as if Paul took the stories with him when he died ten years ago. Like they are his to tell, not mine. This has made me profoundly sad, not only at the lost memories, but at the loss of Paul.

And so the day before the Polar Vortex I figured out how to tee up the full 18 hours of  The Marvelous Mrs. Mazel on Amazon Prime. I threw half-a-loaf of stale bread cubes onto my 4’x10’  third floor balcony to nourish the house sparrows, finches and occasional chickadees that frequent my suet feeder. Then I shuttered myself in and Dapped all the fullsizeoutput_4cb7little crevices around the balcony door that were spritzing air into my not-so-insulated living room. That was the extent of my preparation for the coldest two days ever recorded in Chicago.

Day One: -23 °. I awoke to a thick film of silver ice covering all my windows. There were fractal peek-a-boos to the outside world near the balcony door handle and around my hardy geraniums on the indoor windowsills. The ice curtain shut me out of the humanity moving around behind the windows across the street, buses and cars on Lake Shore Drive and any fool pedestrian walking about in the feels-like-minus-40 degrees. The windows emitted a dazzling cold so I grabbed some goose down, hunkered down far away from the frozen glaze with Henry the dog and cuddled the TV remote.

My binge-watching was interrupted by a thrashing whomp, whomp whomp, on my balcony. Then another. And another. Then two more. I rose to inch toward a clearing in the frosty glass. A murder of crows had come to visit. 

The American Black Crow measures 20 inches long with a 3-foot wide iridescent wing span. The crow and its cousin, the raven,  show up in every ancient mythology as bad omens of storms, disease or death. Native American tribes believed the crow had the power to talk and was a stealer of souls. Recent research suggests their cognitive abilities are as sophisticated as chimpanzees. If they look you in the eye, they will remember you, follow you down the street and caw to you when they’re hungry, like wild pets.

As the arctic blast began serrating its way from the North Pole down toward the Lower Forty-Eight, the goal of every bird in the Midwest was to gorge themselves, find a safe 51281615_10218858609480733_4258526774826106880_nplace and stay still to conserve the calories heating their bodies. The weather should have kept the crows out of sight.

Instead, it brought them to me.

Day Two: -21°. The ice wall on one of my windows melted enough for a small lookout. I prayed to the crows, “Come back. Please come back.” They first landed mid-morning. A mighty set of black wings fluttered a plumped-up body onto the balcony railing and the rest followed, plucking for leftovers. They flew off and came back. Again. And again. And again. I remained still throughout, trying to lock eyes with the leader. Was this a bad omen? Come to steal more memories?

In the late afternoon the temperature rose to minus-2 degrees. I strapped Henry into his dreaded boots, packed myself in layers of cold weather gear and set out. We clipped along the crackling tree-lined sidewalk.  A crow cawed overhead. Again. And again. And again.

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 reminded that 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 lived 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. I trust Trump is a temporary danger, unlike Mara whose talons are forever embedded in my soul.

 

This is What Happens When You Opt-In

Looking out my third floor window as I tap words into my MacBook Air, I see three crows bounce from bare tree limbs to the ground and back — caw, caw, cawing at each other about their breakfast. The internet once told me if you look a crow in the eye, it will 12196091_952754094793732_8173525927943455115_n-1remember you for three years. Momentarily anthropomorphizing these superior animals, I connect to them telepathically. Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Crow for visiting me this morning. This connection more than compensates for those mornings when their caw, caw, cawing wakes me earlier than I’d wish.

All of a sudden, something pops up in the corner of my screen: “White House forced to reverse course on Trump’s golfing.” I instantly break off my birdwatching and open the link to this urgent story. I don’t dislike golf, but I’m not interested either. However, since the tragedy of 11/8, I involuntarily relinquish my time to so-called breaking news. I click and read. The next thing I know a little box appears with a photo of a pair of shoes I covet. Hmmm, I wonder if those are on sale. I click.

Pope Francis calls these commercial intrusions “opprobrium of savage capitalism.” Yikes. I’m ashamed. But still I click.

When I retired in 2011, I left behind a well-serviced computer and an outstanding modern invention, the Blackberry cell phone. On my own, I wasted time and money trying to replace these gadgets of convenience. Mourning the loss of IT department expertise, I succumbed to the sales pitches of Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile, gobbling up three different mobile phones within six months. The first one, an android, made sparkling photos. It accidentally slipped through my fingers into Lincoln Park’s South Pond as I leaned over to click a photo of a turtle sunning on a rock. For my second cell phone I decided to forego the camera and try a much less costly flip phone. Alas, my thick Irish fingers couldn’t navigate the buttons. The well-trained manager at T-Mobile suggested an iPhone and showed me how easy it was to use, how cheap it would be on a monthly payment plan and how all the information stored in the cloud downloaded (or is it uploaded?) into the phone.

Acquiring a computer was simpler. I knew without an ever-ready IT department, I had to thbuy an Apple since it was the only brand with a store on Michigan Avenue, which I equate, rightly or wrongly, with quality. And it has a walk-in IT department.

After a prolonged learning curve, I have enough knowledge to use my gadgets for news, restaurant suggestions, bus schedules, appointment reminders and a depository for my writing, rants and raves. I maintain an online community of friends, enemies, strangers, relatives, and acquaintances, larger than I could ever handle offline.

Well, Reader, it’s time to brake for breakfast. But first I must read two articles that just extralargepopped up:  “Is a ‘deep state’ subverting the presidency?” and “Bald Eagle Population Booming In Chicago.”