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OLD DOGS CAN LEARN NEW TRICKS, but lately I ask myself how many more new tricks I want to learn—isn’t it better to be outdated.’”

“Outdated!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.

A People’s History of Chicago

kevin-coval-peoples-history-chicago

Chicago poet Kevin Coval came to a luncheon of forty older adults in the Gold Coast to read from his new book, A People’s History of Chicago. This was not Kevin’s usual audience, which is young, disaffected and enlightened high school kids from the neighborhoods. After his reading, he passed out small notebooks and pencils and asked us to write a list of what you see when you walk out your front door. Then he gave us 8 minutes to write a poem.

Kevin is the Artistic Director at Young Chicago Authors, an ongoing free workshop that meets every Saturday at Milwaukee and Division. He invited all of us to the workshop, saying “we need you.”

And so the next Saturday I climbed to the 2nd floor high-ceilinged room of bare brick walls and planked floors. Twenty chairs were arranged in a circle in the middle of the room and loose, unlined sheets of paper and pencils were in a box in the middle of the circle. This is not just organization, it’s respect.

Poet-teacher Jose Guadalupe Oliverez sat on a chair in the circle and as people emerged from the staircase, he motioned to them to join him. He asked us to state our first names, age and our high schools. A group of 16-year-olds from Crane High School and their spoken-word coach, a 19 yr old poet from Calumet City, a 16 year old Lincoln Parker home from boarding school and a 20 year old jewelry maker made up the group. I apologized, “I’m Regan and I’m old. Thank you for letting me sit in.” Jose prompted us to write lists, reading various poems for inspiration about truth and lying. He gave us 8 minutes to write. At the end, each of us recited one poem.
_____________
Lying

I get on the bus
See a cohort
Where you goin?
To the March at Trump.

You go girl, he says
thinking I’m alive in pursuit of justice

Am I? I dress for the day
with buttons and banners
Tell others I’ll see you there!
Notify on Twitter and FaceBook

Then go downtown and what?
I tell others it works
to be in the number, to yell
This is What Democracy Looks Like

I write letters, make calls, send emails
Proclaiming the what and why
but then in silent spaces
I doubt.

Does my voice matter?
I tell others theirs does, mine does.

I doubt.
Will it get better?
for me
or you
or them
or us

Am I acting, lying?
What about the rest of ‘em?
Are we all just hoping, acting, lying?
_______________

Hot and weak at the bus stop I was thinking about the racism-felt poems I’d just heard from the young poets. A woman in a McDonald’s uniform came along complaining, “Where the fuck is the bus?” She asked if I had been to the new Division Street Target and before I answered, she added, “I can’t go there. They tore down my home to build it.”

I beseeched God, “when will it ever end?”

What Is My Work, You Ask?

What Is My Work, You Ask?

 

1962. My work is to stop laughing like a nervous little girl and start smiling like an unflappable young lady in the coffee shop on the Asbury Park boardwalk. To turn away from the seagulls fighting over dead fish on the beach and write “pancakes” and “bacon” on my notepad. To pay attention to the old telling the story of the 1934 wreck of the cruise ship SS Morro Castle on the beach. To save money for tickets to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the Asbury Park Convention Hall.

1967. My work is to read Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care and apply its 51hjigsfuol-_sx309_bo1204203200_commandments to week-old smiles, cries in the night, a nine-month old sprinter and a child who eats only chicken. My work is to stand my ground in the whirlwind advice from mothers, aunts and grandmothers. To learn to ride a baby on the back of my bicycle. To animate words as I point to clouds, trees and cars as if I’ve never seen these things before in my life.

1976. My work is to bypass the door to the secluded basement with its graveyard of empty vodka bottles. To surrender to my new single-motherness. To trust my untrustworthy father and move from a sandy Jersey Shore cottage to a downtown Chicago highrise. My work is to know this is the best plan for a nine-year-old boy’s future happiness.

1982. My work is to dress up in business clothes, act smarter than I am, eavesdrop on everyone’s conversations in a boiler room full of political operatives, ask stupid questions and digest enough information to schedule Nancy Stevenson in places that help win votes for her husband’s campaign for governor.

1990. My work is to be a motherless child. To lament the loss of my uterus and ovaries, and, my boyfriend. To escape to Paris and London with my twelve-year old niece. To atone for all my past sins.To feign self-confidence while running the Illinois Democratic Party.

1993. My work is to take Prozac on the way to Washington to join the management class of the Clinton Administration. To imagine I have power and to hide humiliation when I’m exposed. My work is to honor the ruling class. To recognize they are human. To protect myself from evil-doers and self-promoters. My work is to mourn the loss of naiveté.

2006. My work is to shield myself and others from Cook County Government officials who believe if you are happy at your job you’re not working hard enough. To cherish those I lead for what they are today and not for what they will be tomorrow. To protect them from those who refuse to know their names.

2017. My work is to record how far my shadow falls behind me. To tell the truth about myself and trust God with where the words go and what they do when they get there. My work is to proclaim the US Constitution guarantees me the freedom to assemble publicly and express myself openly without retribution. My work is to say I love America and when the saints go marching in, oh! how I want to be in that number.

Inspired by “An Address to My Fellow Faculty,” by A. Papatya Bucak, from brevitymag.com

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.

You read that out loud in class?

Safe & Sound blog

Regan-Burke That’s Regan, today’s guest blogger, peaking out of her hood at a Chicago bus stop.

It was a lucky day for me when Regan Burke turned up for one of my memoir-writing classes. A civil rights activist, Regan was a White House staffer during the Clinton presidency and has colorful – and moving – stories to tell. She files away unusual words she hears and cleverly shoehorns one or two of them into each essay – you’ll find one here in her guest post about the value of honesty in memoir-writing.

There’s a Lacuna in My Story

by Regan Burke

Sometimes I email the essays I write for my memoir classes to a good friend.

She tends to find my work imprudent and irresponsible.

”You read that aloud in class?” she’ll ask. “Yep,” I answer. “I did.”

I have a strong motivation for writing the truth. A book by Dr…

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