At The Shore

At The Shore

Once upon a time a long time ago I got tumbled round and round and somehow knew to go limp, relax my breath, close my eyes and not wriggle toward the sky I couldn’t see. I let myself go, with, the, flow; let the tide churn my body turned-fish-turned-seashell-turned-driftwood-turned-mermaid. Sanded, winded, exhilarated and afraid I ended up splayed out on the beach—waiting for someone to acknowledge my courage in facing the swollen ocean alone and coming out alive. But they were all in their beach chairs smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, telling jokes, gossiping, hissing—the parents, the aunts, the uncles, the friends, the neighbors.

That was the summer my father taught me to swim and I made friends with the ocean.

Twenty-two years later, second-husband Ed moved me and my child Joe into flat-roofed, low-slung stucco in the tidal flatlands of Ocean Gate, New Jersey, where freshwater Toms River flowed into saltwater Barnegat Bay and made the brackish brine off our sandy backyard abundant with sealife, birdlife and shorelife. Ed, a no-good sometime-recovering alcoholic raised in the working-class Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, had spent gobs of time at the shore and had one good characteristic—he loved nature. The first summer on the bay, he taught Joe and me to fish, crab, birdwatch and seine.

In knee-deep water, Joe’s five-year old body, barely holding up a pair of trunks, stood on one side of the seining net. He gripped its wooden pole with both hands. Holding the other pole, I stretched the net six feet to the side of Joe. On the count of “One, two, three!” we dug our poles into the bottom and slowly pulled them through the sand, dragging the 220px-Seine_(PSF)slackened mesh to the shore and heaving it waterlogged onto the beach to see what lived beneath and around our sea-shored feet. We scrambled to our catch before low-flying seabirds descended to snatch up bottom-feeding young flounder; then we examined the rest of the bounty, which always contained a variation of tangled fishing line, faded lures, pieces of styrofoam, oyster shells, mussel shells, small rocks and pebbles, and once in a while a prized jellyfish, baby turtle or blue crab.

One time an osprey flew overhead scouting out what may have been his next meal. He held something flapping herkyjerky in his talons that dropped smack on the beach in front of our seining net. Screeching like seagulls we threw up our arms, jumped up and down, pushed and pulled each other screaming for Ed. Ed grabbed a stick and an old ice chest and lifted the six-foot rat snake into captivity. That snake lived in a glass tank in the kitchen for a few months eating live frogs and mice before we released it back into the seagrass.

Once upon a time a long time ago I learned to be the mother of a boy, face fear and love nature. And she loved me back.

The Reunion by Regan Burke

In the locked ward of the Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital in Monmouth County, New Jersey, I was withdrawing from my demons – cheap wine, LSD, amphetamines and marijuana – when my long-absent father appeared before me. I was 24 years old. The last time I’d seen him, the week before I was to enter Monmouth College, I’d knocked on the door of his mid-town Manhattan apartment seeking money to pay my first year’s tuition. He was drunk, wrapped tight in a dirty blue bathrobe. He wrote me a check, then stopped payment before I could get to the Admissions Office in Long Branch, an hour down the Garden State Parkway.

Fresh out of a straight-jacket, I had no clothes or shoes of my own, having arrived at the public madhouse in an ambulance after a drug overdose. I wore a short-sleeved baggy muslin dress from the institutional collection designed and made by the permanent residents.

“You have a visitor,” the nurse said before escorting me from my cell-like room to the end of the hallway into a clean and airy space she called the Day Room. There were windows along the wall opposite the door, starting maybe six feet up from the floor and reaching the ceiling. For the first time I realized my confinement was subterranean.

My father turned toward me. His brown felt fedora, soft brimmed with a hand-creased crown, topped his elegant duds: white open-necked shirt, tweed sports jacket, gabardine trousers and cordovan wing-tips. A miasma of feelings engulfed me. I feared him. I missed him. I loved him. I hated him.

Why didn’t she say it was my father? I had no idea how to talk to him, or anyone else for that matter. My body shook and rattled as I searched for some kind of appropriate words. I knew only hippy language.

“Hey, man. Far out. You’re here. I’m a little strung out.”

He told me his story of recovery from alcoholism. He loved the effect from his first teenage beer. After that, once he picked up the first drink he binged until he was forced to stop. He had been in and out of jail for getting in fights, drunken driving and cashing bad checks. He couldn’t hold a job. In the end, he holed up in the New York apartment drinking quarts of scotch round the clock until an old friend knocked on his door.

“Had enough, Burke?”

After years of trying on his own, these bewitching words got him to open the door and allow a few men from Alcoholics Anonymous to enter his life. The obsession to drink lifted. “A miracle,” he called it.

He told me about an AA meeting at the hospital. He didn’t suggest I go, didn’t offer to take me, didn’t tell whoever was charged with moving me around my current existence. He just laid the words down. And then he left. He never removed his hat.

About 25 years into my own recovery — admitting defeat, examining resentments, practicing forgiveness, making amends and consciously increasing a spiritual life — that reunion with my father came back to me. I now know supernatural love and courage drove him to bestow his abundant legacy, the gift of sobriety.

A Gucci-Loving Spiritual Seeker Gets It in est

In the late 1970’s, my father attended the Erhard Seminar Training, est, a large-group self-awareness retreat founded by modern-day American guru, Werner Erhard, and known today as The Landmark Forum.

After 15 years of estrangement, I became re-acquainted with my father in 1975 when I had overdosed on drugs and alcohol at twenty-four. He visited me in a New Jersey psychiatric institution to tell me about his own downfall and recovery from alcoholism.

A year later, I took my 9-year-old son Joe for his first visit to his grandfather’s home in Chicago’s Lake Point Tower. He ran his coal-mining business from a 6th floor office overlooking Navy Pier, and lived on the 57th floor with a girlfriend whose name I’ve forgotten.

I found comfort in our common interests. We attended AA meetings together, ate according to Dr. Atkins, and searched for meaning in the writings of American buddhists Alan Watts and Ram Dass. Over the years, his Kool-Aid obsession with the est Training led him to attend more exclusive retreats, outdoor survival excursions and seminars that would have led to his becoming an est Trainer himself. He relentlessly pursued fellow AAers, the doormen, his girlfriends, passers-by, my sisters and me to hop on the est bandwagon.

Joe loved and admired his athletic, yoga-practicing, Gucci-loafered, new-age grandfather. After my two failed marriages, I thought my father would make a good role model so we moved to Chicago. Before long, I capitulated and went to the est Training. The Trainer coerced me into confronting all the bad decisions I’d made in my life, which tore my soul to shreds and kept it tattered for years afterwards. I helplessly allowed my father to enroll Joe in the Training at age 14, and silently cheered when Joe walked out the first hour of the 60-hour course.

With est’s emphasis on the Self, my father drifted far away from his Jesuit-educated God-centered roots. His spiritual life ballooned into a reliance on his interpretation of the “god within” — that we are all our own gods and are capable of directing our own lives with no outside help. He preached at AA meetings to accept ourselves as we are in the present with no thought of what we’ve done in the past or what we will become in the future. People in AA tell me to this day his greatest influence on them was his constant reminder that no human power could relieve their alcoholism, that dependence on a higher power was essential to recovery. I never knew anyone to challenge him on his illogical, conflicting philosophies.

In October,1979, Pope John Paul II waved to my father as he flew by his 57th floor living room window in an open-door helicopter, his white robes flapping. The Pope landed in Grant Park to perform an outdoor Mass for 200,000 congregants. We watched the ritual on television and my father claimed that day as his reawakening to Catholicism. He didn’t return to Sunday Mass until the est organization dissolved in 1984. About that time I started noticing a slow disintegration in his character. His live-in girlfriends changed more frequently; he concocted fraudulent business deals, pitted my sisters and I against each other, sold his business and exaggerated his wealth.

In the end, he acted like he was his own god, unencumbered by moral obligations or the consequences of his actions. Perhaps he was like that all along.

Change Your Life with Lima Beans

Change Your Life with Lima Beans

     When I put the light green kidney shape in my mouth, my tongue moved it to my baby molars, gingerly munching up and down, side to side, until I felt a mushy bean pop out of the slimy skin onto my tongue. I gasped, and my reflexive inhale involuntarily pulled the glob to the back of my throat. I gagged on the paper-like skin, exhaling the sodden lump back through the front of my teeth and out onto my plate. My little five-year old body sat at that table until “you eat those lima beans.” After everyone went to bed, I dumped the loathsome things in the garbage. That night I vowed to forever hate lima beans and thus seeded a recipe for an unyielding, uncompromising, black and white life.

     Whatever possessed my mother to force me to sit at the table of uneaten lima beans for hours? Was it a doctor who told her that her children needed to eat vegetables? Or perhaps she was trying to introduce exotic foods into our menu so she could show off her three little girls and their sophisticated palates.

     My sisters and I all hated vegetables. The older, Mara, would feign putting a forkful of beans in her mouth with an air of superiority, a competitive streak born in her and never pruned. Erin, the youngest, figured out how to put her vegetables in a neat pocket formed by her napkin and dump it in the trash while no one was looking. Hiding unpleasant situations is perennially rooted in her life.

     When the self-actualization movement bloomed in the 1960s and ’70s with books such as The Prophet, I’m Ok You’re Ok and Be Here Now, I cultivated my deeper self by rooting out my hatred for lima beans. I tilled the soil for a backyard garden in Toms River, New Jersey, and planted the formerly-detested vegetables. When they sprouted, I thought the light green shape hanging from the stem was a single bean. After a few weeks, bumps appeared under the thick skin of the seed pod. I diligently hosed away aphids, leafhoppers, and mites, but I was sure my crop was deformed. Consulting Rodale’s Basic Organic Gardening book, I learned the bumps were actually beans – four lima beans per pod. After a few months, I pulled the bean pods from the vines, broke them open and started eating the sun-drenched crop right there on my knees in the garden. My neighbor flew out of her back door and yelled Stop! You can’t eat raw lima beans! They’re poison!

     Uh-oh.

     This was a new reason not to eat them, cooked or uncooked, but I was determined to use lima beans to crack open the hardened space between “what is” and “what could be.” I brought an apronful of beans inside, cooked, salted and buttered them and ate the day’s harvest for breakfast. They were good.

     Abiding in the distasteful takes practice. The once indigestible lima bean aerated my closed mind and paved the way toward a paradise of tasty, fresh vegetables.

 

The Exorcist: RIP

The Exorcist: RIP

Truth is Stranger than Fiction
…but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” ― Mark Twain
I was 24 years old and six months out of Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital in Monmouth County NJ, when I read the The Exorcist in 1971. Marlboro was a notorious looney bin where patients attacked one another, food-borne germs killed people, and the criminally insane were constantly getting loose. I landed there after a year-long binge on LSD and Boone’s Farm Apple Wine. My psychiatrist terrified me with photos of headless babies born to LSD-consuming mothers.

After my release, I went to AA meetings, lived with a friend, got a job making terrariums at Julius Roehrs Garden Center in Farmingdale and saved for a home for me and my four-year-old son Joe. He was living with my ex-husband and his parents.

I’d picked up the paperback at Main Street Pharmacy after dropping Joe at his interim home in Belmar. We’d played at our beloved seaside for our weekly visit and parted cheerfully. I drove to the Belmar Diner, ordered a grilled cheese and coke, and opened the book. An hour later I was in my VW van in the diner parking lot, bewitched by the reading.

The book’s demon-possessed 12-year-old girl is called Regan. I’d seen my name printed on report cards, paychecks, my social security card and driver’s license, but I’d never seen the name Regan in any context outside of myself. The author, William Peter Blatty madereference to Regan’s name coming from Shakespeare’s King Lear. My p
arents had told me my name came from King Lear. Exorcist Regan’s mother was an 51evfuyqtdl-_ac_us160_actress whose director, Burke Williams, visited frequently and drank too many martinis. My father’s name was William Burke. He loved martinis. Exorcist Regan lived with her mother in Georgetown. My family had lived in Georgetown after my sisters and I were born.

I finished the book in the parking lot as the sun set on the Shark River Inlet, then serpentined down the road to my mother’s house in my slow-moving van. I was having periodic LSD flashbacks in those days, and the dizzying words of Regan’s possession plundered my healing nervous system.

My mother, Agnes, sat up from her beer-soaked abyss as I blasted through the front door and slammed The Exorcist down on the coffee table. Who is this guy? How do you know him? Why didn’t you warn me about this? How could you let me read this?

Agnes, an avid reader but detached from pop culture or bestsellers hadn’t read the summer blockbuster. I told her about Regan, Burke, martinis, Shakespeare. She joked the author must have been one of those undergraduates who attended parties at our house in Georgetown when I was a baby. I consulted my father in New York, and he had no idea who William Peter Blatty was, though after The Exorcist movie came out he pretended he did.

Years later a friend ran into Blatty and asked him if he had named Regan after me. “Absolutely,” the author replied, “They had the best parties. That name always haunted me. Who would name their little baby after one of Shakespeare’s most craven females?”

RIP William Peter Blatty January 12, 2017. Vaya Con Dios.