Life in the Shut-Down Lane

 

Going? Not going? A single day passed and no matter the destination whether Walgreen’s or Mexico, the decision was made for me. I’m not going. No one’s going. No one’s going anywhere. 

The questions alone open an empty space in my head that fills quickly with a laugh, a giant cosmic laugh that says, “You used to have a choice!” Now there’s no dilemma about where to go, who to see, what to do, what time to do it. 

Today, I am my existence. I maintain my essence built over a lifetime; fretful sleep, overeating, wasteful showers, obsessive reading, TV ’til two a.m. And, I build anew. I make tuna salad sandwiches, stir-fry zucchini with onions and go to meetings on Zoom. Henry the dog and I walk to new places like Michigan Avenue where we give six-foot hellos to neighbors we don’t know, will probably never know. In an unfamiliar park I break the law, unleashing him to run the crunchy March earth. We’re lulled into concluding some rules no longer apply. He trees squirrels. I hear a woodpecker

2148C23E-1940-4F0A-8931-D36076E8D4AD
Henry Sheltering in Place

(tomorrow binoculars). T.S. Eliot wrote “Time past and time future what might have been and what has been point to one end, which is always present.” I have time on my hands. It cannot be washed off, nor sanitized away.

Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim believed fairy tales help children cope with their existential anxieties and dilemmas. I’m grateful for my new-found fairy tales on Acorn and Netflix. They’re satisfying, even intoxicating. “Vera” quenches my thirst for relief from today’s threat of a mad virus loosed on an unprepared society. She always catches the killer, within one episode. And “West Wing”’s President Jed Bartlett reassures me, “There are times when we’re fifty states and there are times when we are one country and have national needs.” Fairly tales are indeed a good shield.

A friend yelled at me on the phone, “I just want to go to a restaurant!” 

Who doesn’t? I live in cafe society— exchanging gossip, ideas, medical records and laughs in half-public coffee shops, restaurants, hotel lobbies, church halls, run-ins at shops and malls. It’s part of my essence, my existential cover, a baby blanket of being. I need it. 

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” said Blaise Pascal whose health problems left him no choice but to sit alone in quiet for long periods. He tried to solve some of humanity’s problems. Perhaps if he’d lived longer he’d have given us more than pensées.

To preserve my sanity, I usually sit quietly in a room for thirty minutes every day consciously telling myslef I do not own all of humanity’s problems, nor do they own me. But now that I’ve been sitting in a room alone for days, I’m concocting brilliant and crazy solutions to humanity’s problems. Pascal would be pleased, but I’m afraid I’ll go from here to the psych ward. 

Or run for office.

Money Money Money Money

Money Money Money Money

The first time I received payment for a piece of writing, I screamed at the check when I pulled it from the envelope. Screamed. The sight of $175 from the Christian Science Monitor payable to “Regan Burke” evoked all the screaming emotions. Jumping-for-joy shock. Amazement. Pride. They all belted out of me at once in three syllables: OhMyGod.

And they stayed with me for days. Weeks.

I sent my writing teacher a note riddled with that forbidden string of exclamation points!!!! She told me I’m officially a published author. I updated my Linked-In profile to “Published Author,” to notify the public that I’d been paid for words I’d written.

I waited for the world to notice that I’m officially a writer. The world. Not my friends, though they ARE important. The world. I expected a big shift in the way perfect strangers treated me. It wasn’t until I finally settled down that I realized a shift more monumental had happened, not in my exterior world but inside myself.

Money has been problematic in every family I’ve been a member of. My parents were grifters who presented themselves outwardly as monied people but had no honest wages. My first marriage was riddled with money arguments so unsettling that I claimed no alimony or child support when we divorced. After the end of a second marriage, I left everything and moved a thousand miles away. When that ex-husband called to ask where to send my portion from the sale of our house, I screamed,Never call me again”, slammed down the phone and forfeited the money.

I once had a high-paying job and a company car. I wore business suits and high heels. Co-workers congratulated me on landing a contract to build a military base in Diego Garcia, a remote island in the Indian Ocean. I congratulated myself. And as soon as a political campaign kicked up dust for a candidate I admired, I quit. I joined the quixotic Gary Hart for President campaign with the promise of a salary. All the money in the campaign fund got sucked into television commercials. I never got paid, used all my savings and maxed out credit cards, a practice that became surprisingly easy in succeeding years. When it was over, I limped into a friend’s office begging for a job in his construction company.

images-2I hated money. When my father insisted I send my twelve-year old son to boarding school in the late seventies, I relented because I was afraid my father would stop paying our rent. My son resented me openly and I resented my father secretly. I’ve spent a lifetime declining requests from friends to join them in a subscription to the ballet or a share in a vacation beach house. Why? Money, that necessary evil that separates me from others.

I fight to maintain balanced books. Fight is the word. I fend off my parents’ goading from the grave to spend more than I have. When those demons win, I ignore my checking account and “insufficient funds” letters show up in the mailbox. This week I donated to the Valerie Plame for Congress campaign after clicking on her badass internet video. I gave no thought to outstanding checks or bills. There’s always a political campaign, or a friend’s charity, or a piece of art—different temptations than my parents’ houses, jewelry, and cars–that appeal to my genetic code to blow the budget. 

Yes, until now I’ve hated the entire money apparatus. A friend recently applauded me for having a second career in writing. A career? I’m sure I never said that. I don’t even think of myself as having a first career. Maybe she’s right though. The first career, managing  political campaigns, construction projects and government offices, has resulted in enough pension income to pay bills and lunch with friends.

Nothing beats this second career though. After all, I’ve been paid for my words.

I am a published author.

_______________________________

Watch: Valerie Plame

Listen: The O’Jays, For The Love of Money

Out of the Closet: I Am A Christian

Out of the Closet: I Am A Christian

“We have this totally warped idea of what Christianity should be like when it comes to the public sphere, and it’s mostly about exclusion….no matter where you are politically, the gospel is so much about inclusion and decency and humility and care for the least among us. (How does ) a wealthy, powerful, chest-thumping, self-oriented, philandering figure like (Donald Trump) have any credibility at all among religious people.” – Pete Buttigieg

The Moral Majority, established in 1979, was predominately a Southern-oriented organization of the Republican Party’s Christian Right, but its national influence grew throughout the 1980s to the point where I was embarrassed to call myself a Christian. It was already hard, since I grew up in the Catholic church where only Protestants called themselves Christian. Catholics never did. Because of Democratic Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s reclaiming Christianity for the Democratic Party, I can finally come out of the closet. I am a Christian.

When I marched into a church confessional and announced to the priest I no longer believed salvation was available to Catholics only, he said, “then you are no longer a Catholic.” I expected more of an argument, but at age 18, I felt I’d been set free. And adrift.

Until that moment, through all the alcoholic parental rages, multiple midnight moves, changes in schools and churches, only one place made me feel at home—the pew on Sunday morning where I heard Jesus loved me. 

Daniel and Philip Berrigan were my heroes then. The brothers were Catholic priests who’d been convicted of destroying military draft records in protest to the Vietnam war. I searched for a pew in their radical faith, but stumbled instead into the despair of drug and alcohol addiction. Another patriarchal Christian (but non-Catholic) church found me and delivered the familial message, Jesus loves you. Desperate to belong, I swallowed their conservative biblical fundamentalism for four years before I fled that oppressive pew. 

I tried to be a non-churchgoer. It was impossible. I’m at home in a pew on Sunday morning. I sought a simple pew in a simple church. They are easy to find, those simple churches. I hopped from one to the other long enough to know people by their names, feeling satisfied but longing for a more high-octane Jesus message. A lot of post-Watergate Christian pulpits were delivering bromides—safe words and a kindly gospel. Where was the social gospel of the Berrigans, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King? Where were the Christian anarchists?

I lamented to a friend who suggested Fourth Presbyterian Church. For the first few years FourthPresbyterianChurchChicagoat Chicago’s Gold Coast Gothic Revival landmark, I arrived late and left early. I sat in the last pew, never opened the pew Bible, the songbook or recited the prayers. I didn’t belong there. I didn’t have the right clothes, right politics or right job. Indeed, I had no right to sit in well-ordered Presbyterianism.

Gradually I moved closer to the pulpit. I wanted to catch every word of Reverend Elam Davies’ sermons. Davies was slight of build, but a mighty orator. His spoken words came from deep inside his heritage, as if the whole of his native Wales was belting them out.

The first ten minutes of every sermon had me in sorrow. Sorrow for my selfishness, sorrow for my recklessness, sorrow for my sins. The next ten minutes had me laughing. Laughing for joy that Jesus knew all those sorrows and loved me anyway. The last ten minutes moved me to action. Action to protest policies that deprived people of basic human rights, action to help relieve indignities suffered by the victims of such policies.

When Elam Davies retired in 1984, I thought I’d be on the prowl for another pew. But each of the succeeding preachers have delivered similar bedrock messages that tell me every week: Jesus loves you. It’s been almost forty years since I first hid in that pew on North Michigan Avenue. I may not belong there still, but I no longer hide and the preaching makes me feel at home.

Blest Be The Ties That Bind

I haven’t seen Rick Ridder in years but loved reading his 2016 book, Looking for Votes in All the Wrong Places. I bought it to add to his sales numbers, support him in my own 81JbkJ1jA8Lsmall way. We both survived the 1980s Gary Hart presidential campaigns. So when it comes to making room on the shelves for other sympathy books, the ties that bind keep Rick’s book in place.

My built-in bookshelf clings to the entire southern wall of my small living-dining room. It’s stuffed. Books, old Vanity Fairs, photos, souvenirs, dog sculptures, used conference binders, scrabble, dominoes, a small portable heater and my writing notebooks all collide on the faded white sagging shelves. 

When the time comes to rack the newer books, stockpiled on all the flat surfaces in my living space, I painstakingly pull the old prisoners from their slots on the shelves. They sit on the floor for hours, days, weeks, awaiting sentencing. I stare at the titles. Agonize over their fate. I wish then, more than at any other time in the hours before twilight, for a piece of someone to discuss the disposition of the hoard and share in my decision-making.

“What about this one? Remember this? Dimitir by William Peter Blatty. Mark suggested it when I told him Blatty named the girl in The Exorcist after me. Did I read it? Should I save it?” 

“Oh, then there’s: Age Doesn’t Matter Unless You’re a Cheese. Jeanette gave me that when I turned 70. Maybe there’s something in it I can use for my writing.”

“Oh yeah. Listen to this. Ram Dass: ‘I used to have a sign over my computer that read OLD DOGS CAN LEARN NEW TRICKS, but lately I ask myself how many more new tricks I want to learn—isn’t it better to be outdated.’”

“Outdated! Is that how I should think of these old darlings?”

Oh, I tried long ago to get help with this salvage operation. It broke down, however, when I plunged into the stories behind my keepsake books. No matter how good a friend I netted, my stories bored in the telling and the telling and the telling. I sit alone now on a stool wheeling around the wreckage from title to title. 

“These? Oh no, must save Ian Rankin, my favorite mystery author. Oh, c’mon, Regan. It’s not as if they’re going in the garbage. Put them on the bookshelves in the laundry room. Someone’s bound to enjoy them before they get carted off to the used book sale at the Newberry Library.”

“Ok, these can go—two books by David Ellis. Oh, well, maybe. He’s the lawyer-turned-mystery-writer who prosecuted Rod Blagojevich. A good lawyer. And a good writer.”

“Richard North Patterson’s, Exile, needs to go. It’s old and smells. Musty. But I’m so grateful that it helped me understand the Israel-Palestine mess. Maybe I’ll read it again.”

Loneliness has its price. Out of this last 24-book pile-up, only one goes to the graveyard: The Complete Book of Food Counts.

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.

1971, 25 Years Old and Still Alive

In June 1971, I turned 25 years old and celebrated my first six months of sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous.

That same month, the release of the Pentagon Papers set off a firestorm of I-told-you-so outrage by Vietnam war protesters like me. All through the 1960s Washington insiders had been leaking to the press that the White House was lying about our involvement in the war in Southeast Asia. Anti-war organizations published newsletters and held NYT-pentagon-papermarches screaming at the government to pullout of Vietnam because there was no good reason for us to be there. When my son was born in 1967 I started sending streams of letters and postcards to the President and Congress begging them to end the draft. I didn’t want my son growing up in a world where he would be forced to kill another mother’s son.

My imbalanced emotional connection to the 60% of Americans who were against the war drove me to protest, argue, march and drink myself into oblivion. In December 1970, defeated, I finally collapsed, failing to escape the world of war, within and without.

Then, in my first year of recovery, the Pentagon Papers confirmed that Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson all lied about why we were in Vietnam. We stayed simply to save face, refusing to admit defeat. Troop numbers fell from 500,000 in 1968 to 156,000 by the end of 1971, the year The Pentagon Papers were published.

And so what? The world went on. Jim Morrison died in his bathtub in Paris. I read The Exorcist, rocked out at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh and women were allowed to run the Boston Marathon.

The Pentagon Papers’ exposure of the government’s lying treachery slow-cooked beyond my consciousness. My AA meetings in Point Pleasant, NJ, seduced me with a new recipe for living, replacing the bitter stew of the wearying world. A wise woman at my meetings gave me two pieces of advice: 1) don’t comment at meetings about outside issues and, 2) wear a bra. I did both and managed to attract a ne’er-do-well fellow AA’er, ten years older. Ed professed some kind of love, so I moved in with him.

Julius Roehrs Garden Center hired me to make terrariums in glass bowls, a new fad. It 805160-03-1was my first job as a sober adult. I spent all day in a greenhouse planting miniature sedum and echeveria while having LSD flashbacks and dancing around to tunes only I could hear. My son, Joe, had been living with his grandparents for his kindergarten year and came to live with Ed and me. Disney World Orlando had just opened, so we read up on how to camp, then packed our new tent, camp stove and sleeping bags into Ed’s Mustang and drove down I-95 to the Yogi Bear Campground.

It rained. Ed and I fought. He got drunk and disappeared.

I drove Joe home—1,000 miles back to New Jersey.

When Ed showed up a few months later, we got married.

First Impressions of Bill Clinton

In August 1991, twelve Democratic leaders and influencers, were seated in leather armchairs at a walnut oval table in a small dining room at one of downtown Chicago’s private clubs. I was the only woman. When Governor Bill Clinton entered the room, his th-2tall navy-suited body seemed to shift the atmosphere, moving the dust molecules away from him and clearing the air as he moved. He gave a hardy salutation and proceeded to introduce himself to each person while he circumnavigated the room, one-by-one. I was halfway around the table, and when he reached me I stood and looked up to his bemused rosy face, full of laugh lines. He had a big red nose, like Santa Claus. As I tried to introduce myself, he interrupted me by saying he knew who I was— the Executive Director of the state Democratic Party. He asked if I knew my name was the same as one of King Lear’s daughters. “Yes,” I said, “My name came from her.” He leaned over and whispered let’s keep that between us since she wasn’t such a great character. And just like that we had a best-buddies pact.

He finished working the room, told us why he was thinking of running for president, and asked us to support him. He never sat down.

A few weeks later, Bill and Hillary entered a crowded 2nd-floor meeting room in a Chicago hotel with about 50 curious political activists who gathered to meet them for the first time. He neither ushered her in ahead of him as a well-mannered (albeit chauvinistic) gentleman nor did he make her walk behind him as an ill-mannered boor. Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton (L)
Side-by-side they came to us. We all jumped to our feet and cheered before he even said hello, before he shook one hand. It was two months before he announced his candidacy for President. His nascent message stressing personal responsibility for welfare recipients echoed what I’d learned in Alcoholics Anonymous — to acknowledge that I am responsible for the choices I make in my own life. Later in his presidency I despised his welfare reform policy but for now this seemingly spiritual insight vaulted my commitment to a new height. This was my guy.

The first week in October, one of Clinton’s many Chicago friends asked me to join him in driving Bill Clinton to Midway Airport. We’d been at a 100-person meet-and-greet where Clinton learned I was moving to Little Rock to work on his campaign. He looked back at me in the car and asked what my boss said when I told him I was quitting my job. My boss hoped I’d change my mind, so I told Clinton he wasn’t happy.  Clinton picked up the car phone, called my boss, thanked him for letting me have this opportunity of a lifetime and said he was happy to have me on board. He ended the call by inviting my boss to bring his family down to the Governor’s mansion for a weekend. In the back seat I imagined throwing my arms around his neck and kissing the top of his ever-loving head.

I was in Little Rock by the end of the week.