Where ARE You, Mary Riley? by Regan Burke

Where ARE You, Mary Riley? by Regan Burke

Vehicles on Ridge Road held landowners and families, deliverymen, trash collectors, handymen, maids, sheep and no others because the country road rolling along the distant end of our north shore Chicago suburb past big old generational homes like yours, one modern (mine) and one sheep farm disinvited disturbances to the quiet outside while inside Meet the Press murmured on Sunday mornings before Mass and the nightly news narrated the evenings before dinner, but you, Mary Riley, clomped 5 miles down Ridge Road on your horse and brought another to me so we could trailblaze in the sheep fields and eat wild raspberries in season then ride through the back brush to your barn spying on your mysterious brothers and their polo ponies, making the best of memories in a time that held the worst for me inside my family’s rented mid-century modern that reeked of cigarettes, Scotch and Budweiser—outside, chlorine rose from the pool my mother cleaned for us so we could swim after horseback riding in the summer—then in the fall Sacred Heart Academy took us in navy blue blazers for French and Religion, The Mikado and recess and lunch with the nuns and Cuban girls from the revolution; after school I avoided the shame of the empty ice box and food cabinets and met you on Ridge Road to ride our bikes with my baby sister Stacy on the handle bars past the sheep farm to the seven-kid Burns family compound for softball and ping pong, joking around and drinking cokes in the Burns family kitchen watching horses in the fields and chickens in the coop, a respite from my house down the road where talking was dangerous and lies took over and my father was absent for long stretches, commuting to the city and flying to Mexico on extended business trips, and my mother drank all day and night and I wondered if she was still alive in the morning because she didn’t wake to wrap peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in wax paper and boil soft eggs— what about yours? she had something wrong with her, did she drink too? was she sick?— then learning to drive on the macadam driveway in the white station wagon when my little sister Erin ran over her kitten, splat! hysterics all around except me—I went numb, wise to parents not giving a damn behind the flat walnut door to the Mies-like architecture where danger lurked and drunks stumbled but where, once, pointing out the bathroom window at eye-level with a tree limb, my mother showed me a robin’s nest holding blue eggs, and when I told you, you said, my father told me your phone is disconnected because you didn’t pay the bill, and Boom! that was the end of our friendship, right there at the lunch table in front of the muchachas who didn’t speak English and the Cuban girls who did and the French nuns Mon Dieu! alarmed but inept at how to reprimand you, you double-crossing rat bastard—whatever happened to you?

Thank you, Kevin Coval, for the brief but spectacular teaching.

Does Anyone Really Like to Read This Stuff?

Does Anyone Really Like                                 to Read This Stuff?

From the backseat of my earliest memories I hear, “Why did God make me? God made me to know Him and to serve Him in this world and the next.” It’s the first lesson I memorized in Catholic grade school, before I could even read. Sometime in my early life I heard about the Bible but our religious lessons were taught from the Baltimore Catechism with no mention of the Bible. Nuns told me Jesus was my friend, but never cited Scripture to back up the claim. Some have said the Church of Rome never wanted the Flock to read the Bible lest they start thinking for themselves, rather than having their theology managed by priests.

UnknownAt Sacred Heart Academy the high schoolers were graded on their verbatim delivery of the 1700-word Passion of Christ from the Gospel of John. Seventh graders were required to sit through a recitation of the Passion as part of Religion class. I never listened at Sunday Mass, so my first hearing of Bible passages was the torture and execution of my friend Jesus. These bloodcurdling passages sparked a morbid curiosity about the rest of the Bible, but I didn’t have a Bible to read on my own. My parents, indwelled with a long lineage of Irish-Catholic hatred for non-Catholics, refused to have a Bible in the house “like those Protestants.”

I borrowed a Bible when I enrolled in a Bible course, part of the initiation rites of the born-again cult I belonged to in the 1970’s. The elders used Scriptural passages to confront me and my live-in, abusive boyfriend with an ultimatum to either marry or separate. We chose marriage because neither of us could face life without sex. For a wedding gift, we received a gilt-edged Harper’s Study Bible, inscribed in gold, with my name misspelled (Reagen). Owning the Bible exalted me into the fellowship I craved, and I feverishly used that Bible for the next three years, marking the margins with exclamatory words, folding over pages and bookmarking meaningful passages.

I didn’t reject the Bible when I left the cult, rather I never liked the Bible and was even repulsed by it. Aside from my own bad experiences with it, the Bible’s first book, Genesis, talks of God creating Paradise and throwing out the first humans because they wanted toth be gods themselves (who wouldn’t?). Then, that couple had two boys and one of them killed the other. Most of the rest of the Old Testament describes violent gangs warring over territory, an angry God, and thousands of flawed people wandering in the desert.

In February 2013, I heard Catholic contemplative Richard Rohr say to 1,500 retreat-goers that Bible stories are myths to provide insight into human nature. The simple transformative act of spiritual hearing jolted me into a surprising love for reading the Bible—the same Bible that has been there all along.

Take My Breath Away: Love of Art

Take My Breath Away: Love of Art

Neatly arranged parchment sleeves hid small prints that slipped out and overwhelmed me like guests at a surprise party. The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art responded to my 7th grade request by sending a thick envelope with sacred works by Titian, Bosch, Jacometto, Raphael, Durer and Fra Angelico. As I gingerly sifted through this unexpected bounty, I gasped with awe and gratitude-grateful that God had given me such a gift and awe for beauty I had never before known.

IMG_1076 (1)Mother Ann Cleary at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in suburban Chicago set the class to writing a description of a classic painting including information about the artist and personal impressions of the artwork. In my 1959 mailing to the Met I simply re-stated the assignment and asked for help. I suppose the name of my school prompted the curator at the other end of my letter to choose representations of New Testament stories. That was the year I won the all-school prize for best writing.

After this intoxicating initiation into the eye-popping wonders of art I thirsted for more. I read the back section of Time Magazine every week for news on the art world and scoured the library for books on lives of the artists. I was prohibited from hanging anything on the rented walls of my bedroom so I made square cardboard boxes and pasted works of art on each side. I strung-up the art boxes from the overhead light, curtain rods, door hinges – any place where I could gaze at my magazine-clipped reproductions.

My first art purchase was a print of Picasso’s Boy with Pipe. It shared wall space with art posters from places I visited – a Roger Brown from the 1985 Navy Pier Art Expo, a Toulouse Lautrec from an Art Institute exhibition. In the 1990’s my job required frequent travel around the US and overseas. To protect myself from on-the-road temptations I stole free time and scurried through backstreet art galleries and street markets. I brought home img_0678suitcase-compatible originals such as a small clay maquette of an Easter Island head by Oslo artist Marian Heyerdahl, Thor’s daughter. In 1997 I signed on to EBay. Within hours I was hooked on outsider folk art, bidding on heart-stopping works like a multi-colored turtle made from a hubcap.

Love of art freed me from the inclination to decorate my home for the approval of
others. In my petite apartment the walls are crammed with oils, pastels, watercolors, shadow boxes, metal sculptures, retablos and ceramic tiles. There is so little unadorned wall space that I string up paintings from the curtain rods in my wall-to-wall windows. An oil of Johnny Depp as the Madhatter by Chicago artist Anne Brandt blocks the curiosity of neighboring eyes.

George Carlin once said “life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by those moments that take our breath away.” By that standard I surpassed my quota long ago.