Selected Writings

A selection of my published pieces…

Fiction:

Year of Conor McGregor (Hobart)

Bad Babysitter (Cease, Cows) Nominated for The Best Small Fictions 2018

The Guide to Good Apple Self-Care (Drunk Monkeys)

Chicago Rides For Michael Jackson (here)

Nonfiction:

Maintaining Self-Esteem and Motivation in a Year of Rejection (Brevity blog)

The Unbeautiful Ones (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Ancestral Hunger Pangs (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Modern-Day Mike Finks (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Writing Anxiety and the Wisdom of Improvisation (The Masters Review blog)

Lady Folk (Tiny Donkey: Brief Essays from Fairyland) 2nd-place winner in “Once Upon a  Cartographer” contest

Dad’s Honor Flight: A Father’s Second Homecoming from the Korean War (Medium)

All Apocalypses, Bitter and Sweet (Literary Orphans) LO’s Tavern Lantern site has been hacked; until it’s fixed, check out my masthead for link to this piece

New Mexico: Freedom on the Ground (We Said Go Travel)

Walking with the World on the Camino de Santiago (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Women of Ireland (Encyclopaedia Britannica) More of my Britannica blog articles are available at this link.

Louise Erdrich “Daily Spot” entry (Booma: The Bookmapping Project)

Frank O’Hara “Daily Spot” entry (Booma: The Bookmapping Project) My other Booma contribs can be found here.

Walking to the Well (AranIsland.info)

Island Luck (AranIsland.info)

Writing and Wayfaring (personal blog — defunct)

Poetry:

Putting on Eyeliner with PTSD (Awakened Voices) Republished at Memoir Magazine

The Buffalo Return to Illinois (Rose Red Review)

Periphery (Thank You For Swallowing) Based on Edward Hopper’s 1939 painting New York Movie

The Subject and the Stranger (Ekphrastic: writing and art on art and writing)

Bioluminescent Bay, Aisling, and Coconut  (The Writing Disorder)

Transference (Middle West) (Eunoia Review)

Golden Day (Literary Orphans)

The Fading of the Heart and Australia (Wilderness House Literary Review)

Interviews:

Interview with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, poet (Tiny Donkey)

Interview with Kelly Vivanco, artist (Tiny Donkey)

Interview with Ram Devineni, filmmaker and comic book creator (Priya’s Shakti) (Tiny Donkey)

Other:

Editor at Tiny Donkey, October 2016-October 2017

Volunteer fiction/nonfiction submission reader for The Masters Review, January 2016-September 2016

Played the role of Marcy, the art school prof, in TV pilot “The Artists

Photo: Coumeenole Beach, Ireland (Rockwell’s Camera Phone)

Photo: Untitled (Rockwell’s Camera Phone)

Chicago Rides For Michael Jackson

The day Michael Jackson died, I broke a window in an apartment that wasn’t mine. It was midsummer and the hottest day in Chicago that year. The apartment belonged to my friend Beth, who was away in rural France for a yoga retreat. It seemed to me a long way to go for exercise, especially since there was a yoga studio on the first floor of her apartment building, and I said as much when she first asked if I wanted to stay at her apartment to look after her gerbil while she was gone.

“You don’t get it, Kathy,” she said. “I’m getting out of the country. Off the continent completely.” It was a phone conversation but I knew she was rolling her eyes at me. We’d known each other 7 or 8 years by then, long enough to know each other’s quirks blind. “It’s the only way I can really get away from Julian and all that…awfulness.”

Julian was an ex-fling of hers, though I’d never define him in that way to Beth’s face. She wouldn’t have minded the ex part. It was classifying him, and by extension her and what happened between them, as a fling that would have hurt her. But I’d never met Julian, and from what I did know about him—a 38-year-old computer programmer with highlighted hair according to his Facebook profile, a gaslighter and worse going by a couple emails Beth had forwarded to me—I didn’t think he deserved a more romantic or generous designation.

But Beth was putting something together. “Remember Yellowstone?” she said.

“Yeah, I remember Yellowstone,” I said, though I’d forgotten about it until now. Yellowstone was her last attempt at a vacation in the States and the last vacation she took post another disastrous relationship. Two and a half days into it, that year’s ex had managed to track her down by text out in the wilderness, spotty cell phone coverage and all, and pester her into a Skype call. He sent some texts alluding to regrets, said he needed to set things right with her. “Immediate as possible,” he wrote. Beth said he even used the word “vulnerable.” It was all a bit much for her, for probably any woman, to resist. She decamped that day and drove all the way to Jackson Hole to check into a lodge, only for Mr. Vulnerable to tell her he’d just gotten engaged to a woman who was opening him up to the redemptive potential of cleaning up his karma, former flings and all. He even tried to introduce his fiancée to Beth through Skype, but Beth slammed her laptop shut before she got more than a glance of this woman hovering at the edge of her screen.

“I can’t let something like that happen again,” she said now. “This yoga retreat is totally off-grid. No possible tech interruptions. So I need to know Zowie’s in good hands cuz I won’t be able to check in much while I’m gone. Hopefully not at all.”

I nodded. She couldn’t see me doing it of course, but it seemed like the right thing to do. “I love Zowie,” I said.

She was quiet then for longer than I expected. When she spoke again her voice was a little distant. “I’m hoping the week away will bring me some clarity about the whole thing. I’m just tired of things always ending badly like this with guys. Having no power, no say so where things stand. Over and over I pick guys who let me down. Just like my dad.”

I didn’t have an answer for her. This was becoming more than I’d bargained for. She’d called, after all, just to ask me to watch her gerbil, told me I could stay at her place in the city for the week, something she knew I’d appreciate since I’d been marooned out in the suburbs for some time. My life had turned to deadweight out there to be honest. So much so that even watching someone’s pet rodent for a week in a cramped, barely one bedroom, stale-aired city apartment seemed like a sudden windfall, an opportunity as maybe-golden for me as off-grid France was for Beth.

Beth spoke again. “You’re lucky you had the parents you did, Kathy,” she said. “Do you know that?”

I blinked. “How can you ask me that, Beth? Especially now.”

She sighed. “I’m sorry, Kathy, I didn’t mean it that way. But you know…it’s been a year. I know you still miss her but you need to move on.” She was quiet and I knew she was waiting for me to say something. But I couldn’t. All I could do was sit and let the silence stretch between us. Finally she said, “I know, I’m in the same boat as you, Kathy. We both need to move on. I’m sorry but it’s true. It’s time.”

I used to live only a few blocks from Beth, in a cramped, barely one bedroom of my own, on the third floor of a red-brick building with a park right across the street. No yoga studio below me, but there was a library nearby, a supermercado, and an old candy factory that sold its goofs out the back door on discount. From one window I had a view of the park, from another a low rooftop where a nest of city cats slept the days away. I worked as a barista and took classes to get my degree in baking and pastry. I dated sometimes, went to music and improv shows when I could afford it, rode the el to school and work in the winter and my bike in the summer. I was independent, a little lonely, and close to the happiest I’d ever been.

I left all that because the year before Michael Jackson died, my mother died too. She was diagnosed with cancer of the spine shortly after Christmas in ‘07. She died the opposite of my father, who was there one day, gone the next from a heart attack when my sister and I were still in our teens. Mom died agonizingly slow, then heartbreakingly fast, in 4 months, 28 days, 9 hours, and 11 minutes. It was Sheri, my sister, who figured that out, who actually took a calendar and counted out every day and minute from diagnosis to death and wrote the final tally down on a small slip of paper that she put away in her wedding album. “Why would you record something like that?” I’d wanted to ask her. But I didn’t because, truthfully, I admired her ability to concentrate hard enough to count anything at all, even in the depths of grief.

“I feel relieved more than sad, Kathy, don’t you?” she kept saying for days after the funeral, her eyes welling up all the same.

I never answered the question but for the record, no, I didn’t feel relief when Mom died. If only I had. Those days of her dying were too vague…I can’t quite explain it. Like they were too boundaryless for any sense of ending or release when she was finally gone and out of our lives and constant care, out of pain. The only structure was a sloggy foundation of forced hope and positivity, of last-ditch chemo treatments and buckets of pills and casseroles and coffee cakes from neighbors and cheap, multicolored ribbons (we could never figure out which was the color for spinal cancer so we decked the house with a rainbow of them, one color good as another, after all, when a case is terminal). When May came, Mom’s death month, it was as if someone spun a dial to the 10 notch and left it there. Mom drifted in and out of consciousness for two weeks, giving Sheri and I, who barely left her side, nothing more of her to cling to but the bare, final spendings of her pain. And then it was just Sheri and me, and Sheri’s family, her husband and 8-year-old daughter, and the leftovers of my former single city girl life.

I left the city to move back with Mom when she got sick. Then I moved in with Sheri after Mom died, on her request, in her suburban townhouse in a neighborhood where the trees were still too young to give shade and there were no paths for walking, but instead a golf course that rolled all the way up to Sheri’s backyard. It was supposed to be temporary. It should’ve been temporary. But as of the summer of 2009, I was still staying there.

Sheri loved it. She’s the need-to-be-needed type. You’d think a husband, kid, and house would be enough to absorb the need, and it did until we buried our second parent. When Dad died, Sheri had just graduated from high school. She spent the summer angry, wild, and blaming the world for her loss and grief, then went away to college in the fall, met Dave her second week and never let him go, never raged or floundered or sprung so loose again. In time, we became so different. She called me every day now—yes, even as I was living in her house. Whenever I broke away to a Starbucks or the mall or the other end of the golf course for no reason but to be on the other end of something, I could count on her call to break the moment of freedom. She didn’t need a reason but she’d act as if she did, pretend like she needed me to pick up something for her or had lost something at home and wondered if I had seen it. I’d always answer, despite the transparency and annoyance of her need, despite my desire for a little time alone. She’s my sister, after all. She was all I had now.

In suburbia my motivation took a death dive, my brain became mush, and I spent my days in mush-brain death dive ways. Riding my bike in circles around the cul-de-sacs, looking for the damn outlets. Running errands for Sheri and Dave while they were at work. Babysitting Hannah. Tidying up the messes left behind every morning after everyone else left for their jobs or school. Missing Mom, missing Dad like I was 13 again. Some days I was pretty sure I’d regressed to 13, to my own sister’s second child, older and bigger than her other in superficial ways only.

No one was more concerned about the health of all this than Dave. One night while I was washing dishes with Hannah, the grownups were watching a reality show in the living room. In a brief break between the shouts of advice and criticism from the reality show judges, I overheard Dave say, “She needs to get back out there. On her own, Sher.” With all the noise from the TV, all the reality and the faucet going on and off, the dishes being racked, I wondered if Dave thought his words would be drowned out or if he’d chosen the moment well and wanted me to hear. If Sheri said anything, she was keeping it down low.

I handed the last plate to Hannah to dry and went into the living room, sitting on the far end of the couch from Dave. It was the worst seat for watching TV because the side-view angle made the screen look like a funhouse mirror. And it was always available, always empty except for the implication that this was the space in the room reserved for me, the lingering aunt, the lost adult child, the side-car side-angle sister-in-law. In the Lazy-Boy Sheri sat with the same guilty, owl-eyed expression Mom used to make whenever Sheri and I embarrassed her in public by whining too loud. I wanted to tell her it was OK, that Dave was right and I was all right with what he’d said. But it would mean admitting to eavesdropping, to crossing a line of privacy we were still pretending hadn’t been crossed and completely erased.

The next day Beth made the offer to stay at her apartment. I waited until the morning I was leaving to tell Sheri and Dave, appearing before my sister in the kitchen with a backpack and the keys to my bike lock. “Why didn’t you tell us before?” she said, following me into the garage.

“I thought I did,” I lied. I swiped at some cobwebs around my bike handlebars. Spiders in the suburbs worked so fast and I didn’t ride my bike as much as I used to.

“You’re riding all the way into the city?” Sheri said. I pressed the button on the wall to open the garage door.

“Of course not. Just to the train station. I’m locking it up there. It’s the suburbs, it’ll be fine. Or maybe I’ll bring it on.” The truth was I was afraid if I told Sheri sooner she’d get Dave to drive me into the city, and even more afraid I’d accept. It was better this way. Harder, but better.

When I arrived in Beth’s neighborhood I went around her block once before going to her building. It’d only been a few months since I was last around, but things had changed. A taqueria where I once went for Beth’s birthday was now a baby boutique, and a Swedish bakery famous for its limpa had been turned into a place called Mmmm that made their own Pop-Tarts and Little Debbies. There was a help wanted sign in the window, beside a fold-out poster of Irene Cara like the kind in the teen magazines Sheri and I collected in the 80s. Through the window I could see a genuine Easy-Bake oven on a shelf near the door and posters of Pinky Tuscadero and the cast of Good Times. Beth hadn’t told me about this place, though she did say I should bring my resume and try to score some interviews while I was here.

I went on to her building and she buzzed me up before I even rung her bell. “Am I late?” I said as I walked in the door. “I thought you said 11.”

“No, just so ready to be away from here. I was looking out.” She hugged me then shut the door. I backed up and felt my backpack knock into something solid but unsteady. Beside the door was a human torso, the seamstress’ kind, wearing a lacy kitchen apron and a pattern of red handprints all over it.

“Oh don’t mind that,” Beth said, steadying the torso then patting it like it needed comfort. She left me to gape at it and went into her bedroom. I dropped my bag on the couch in her living room and spotted another torso, in a corner beside her bookshelf, spotted with more handprints, vintage medals, and cut-out hearts from beauty magazines.

Beth came out of her room pulling her suitcase, a yoga mat tucked under one arm. She had a carry-on already by the door, and she reached down to shove a journal and a French-English dictionary into it. “Beth?” She stopped and looked up. I tried to keep my eyes from wandering over to a torso. I remembered Beth mentioning something on Facebook awhile ago about considering art therapy. Was this the time to ask? I had no evidence, but I saw Julian and Mr. Vulnerable and Beth’s father all over these torsos. Every handprint or torn-out magazine heart might as well have been the name of some guy who’d hurt or disappointed her. It suddenly struck me how little attention I’d been paying attention to her, to my friends this past year, in favor of paying attention to my own grief.

She was waiting for me to say something. “So…what do I need to know about Zowie?”

His cage was in the living room. We looked in at him—small, fat, two years old, black and white and cute all over, sucking on his water tube. “I cleaned his cage and changed his bedding yesterday. So you don’t need to worry about that. Just feed him and change his water every day. And scoop out his droppings and messes. Here…” She opened her hallway closet. A cloud of plastic bags tumbled out. “Use one of these to put his dirty bedding in.”

She led me through the rest of the place explaining the instructions and rules regarding all appliances—stereo, TV, microwave, oven, air conditioner, as if I never operated anything more complicated than a doorknob before. How much had the smell of regression been stamped on me that she’d think I didn’t know how to work an air conditioner? “It’s gonna get hot next week you know,” Beth said when we went into her bedroom where the unit was installed. “You can sleep in here if it’s more comfortable. If you’d rather sleep on the couch, I have a fan you can use in there. Just don’t keep the fan or air on while you’re out and don’t turn the dial on the air conditioner past 7. It makes the walls shake and you might fry the motor. Plus Shauna will complain about the noise.”

Shauna ran a yoga studio on the first floor. “Even at night?” I said. “She doesn’t hold yoga classes in the middle of the night.”

“No, but…just be considerate. I don’t wanna jeopardize the free classes.” She checked the time. She was taking a bus to the blue line to O’Hare, and with weekend traffic she really needed to get going. I helped her with her bags down to the street. When we saw the bus coming I had to ask her, “Are you really going off-grid?” I realized I was gripping the handle of her carry-on like it was someone’s hand. Suddenly I didn’t want to be alone here in the city, even though Beth was still standing beside me. “What if there’s an emergency with Zowie?”

She turned to face me. “There won’t be any emergencies, Kathy. Zowie’s easy.” The bus pulled up to the stop and I surrendered Beth’s bag. She came in close to hug me. “Wish me a better time than Yellowstone,” she said as she pulled away. Then she was on the bus, and I was free.

That was Saturday. Michael Jackson died on Thursday. That morning, before the news hit, I lay in Beth’s bed well past 9, the air conditioner blasting, obliterating all sounds from the street. Since moving back to the suburbs I’d gotten unused to the city noise at night, and Dave wanted the air conditioning on nearly all the time. He said he liked the feel of cool carpeting under his feet. I liked the white noise of Beth’s window unit myself and had braved only half a night on her couch with the floor fan blowing hot air on me, circulating the staleness of the apartment and the chippy smell emanating from Zowie’s cage. Shauna had yet to complain about any noise, and while part of me was relieved, another part was miffed she hadn’t even noticed.

I hadn’t done a thing with myself since staying here. Hadn’t looked for jobs, hadn’t gone for a ride or looked up other friends and old haunts. Hadn’t done much other than go out for an iced coffee and food now and again and look after Zowie. Beth, meanwhile, really had gone off-grid. Every day I checked my email, expecting something from her, even a note to say she’d arrived safely or was just checking in on her pet. But nothing. Lke the sum of my accomplishments this week. I ended every day feeling I’d failed in my side of a bargain. Thursday morning I lay in Beth’s bed promising myself to finally do something.

My phone rang then. I knew it was Sheri, even though it was early for her usual call. She told me she was taking the day off for a dentist appointment. I got up from the bed, turned the air off, and walked with the phone to Zowie’s cage.

“Hey,” I said, as much to my sister as to Zowie, lifting him out of his cage.

“So what’s on the agenda for today?” Sheri asked. Since Saturday I’d been making up various activities so Sheri would think I’d been keeping busy. I didn’t want her to know how uninspired and lost I was feeling, even here, back in the setting I’d missed so much. There was no longer the excuse of suburbia, of no sidewalks and too many chain stores, to blame for my apathy.

“I actually was just about to leave.” I said, from the position of laying on the couch with Zowie on my belly nibbling a button on my pajamas. “There’s a bakery in the neighborhood here and I have an appointment to talk with the owner.”

“Kath, that’s great! Why didn’t you tell me yesterday? What kind of bakery is it?”

“You remember what our room looked like in the 80s?”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ll tell you later. I really need to get going if I want to get there on time.”

She totally bought it. “Call me right after the interview,” she said, and I knew now, because I said it to my own sister, I had to make it all true.

I got dressed in the most presentable outfit I could put together on a hot day without ironing. The cold air from the air conditioner had already dissipated in Beth’s bedroom. It never had an effect on the air in the rest of her apartment, where the air was relentlessly stale and warm, like the inside of the front pocket on a pair of tight jeans. I sometimes wondered if Zowie noticed the heat. Did he notice a difference whether the air was on or off, the window open or closed? Did he drink more water on a day like today? I stopped at his cage just before leaving. He was curled up in a ball, one eye open, watching me. Was that a look of sleepiness or sluggishness? “Maybe I shouldn’t leave you,” I said. He’d pawed away some of his bedding in one corner, leaving the floor of the cage exposed. Maybe it felt cooler there, and he knew just the right thing to do for himself. I pet the space between his ears with my forefinger. “Wish me luck, Zo. Promise I won’t be long.”

There was a small crowd inside the bakery, huddled around a guy with a laptop sitting at a table. They all looked up as I walked in, then dropped their heads back down to focus again on the laptop. A song I hadn’t heard since the 80s, Human Nature, played on a radio behind the counter and competed with some music coming from the laptop. I looked around the café. Old Pillsbury Dough-Boy ads were interspersed with posters of Mr. T and the cast of WKRP in Cincinnati, and there were a few more shelves with vintage Easy-Bakes.

No one seemed to be working. I looked past the counter to the back of the shop, then back at the laptop crowd, catching a glimpse of Michael Jackson moonwalking to Billie Jean across the laptop’s screen. “Can I help you?” A short woman with straight black bangs and a Wonder Woman tattoo peeking out of the left sleeve of her black tee stepped away from the laptop.

“I saw the ad in the window.” The woman with the bangs looked me up and down. I held my resume out to her. “The baking assistant job. Here.” Immediately I regretted how I was handling this, a basic introduction, how rusty at social skills I’d become. But the woman barely seemed to notice, looking only briefly at my resume, at me.

“Sorry,” she said, looking back at the others. “We’re just…shocked.” She laughed nervously, like she’d been caught writing a crush’s name on a wall.

“What?” I looked at my resume in her hand, at the group, at a dough boy on the wall.

“Haven’t you heard?” a man with black-rimmed glasses and a white apron said. “Michael Jackson died.”

I looked at the woman with the bangs, who nodded and held out her hand, inviting me to join the group around the laptop. That was all it took.

“You must’ve been a big fan,” the laptop guy said, as we all watched Michael Jackson singing, Michael moonwalking, Michael spinning, Michael grabbing his crotch, Michael balancing on his toes. My eyes brimmed with tears. I shook my head at the guy’s comment, said, “No…it’s not that. I mean, it’s just so unexpected.” Truth was, it wasn’t unexpected—people lived and then they died. Why would anyone expect a pop star to be any different from your own mother and father, from anyone else you’d once had in your life for long and not long enough? I just didn’t know what else to say.

“I know, it’s unreal,” the man with the apron said. “It feels like my childhood just died.” He moved away from the group and began dusting the Easy-Bakes, swaying to the music as the woman with the bangs went behind the counter and took out a binder with photos of cakes and pastries. She gestured at another table, where I joined her and looked through the binder with her.

“I’ve been getting a lot of off-the-street resumes and applications since I put the sign up, but yours is the first with some actual pastry experience.” Her name was Michelle and she co-owned Mmmm with Miguel, the guy with the apron.

I flipped through the binder. There were photos of beautiful tiered cakes with fresh flowers and fruits, of Miguel kneading mounds of dough, of Miguel and Michelle slicing loaves of golden-crusted hearth breads. I wanted to ask why they didn’t put these pictures on their walls.

As if reading my mind, Miguel walked past and waved his hand at the wall posters and Easy-Bakes. “What do you think of our décor?”

“Well, I am an 80s child,” I said, trying my best Mary Lou Retton gold-winning smile.

“Kitschy, right?” Michelle said, making that nervous, apologetic laugh again. “But we’re much more than that. It’s just kitsch is what brings people in, what gets ‘em off the sidewalk and past the door. We’d like to do more. More wedding cakes and sweet table, hearth breads. Miguel’s the bread expert.” Miguel smiled and made a beauty queen wave from behind the counter. “We’re adding more menu items for the café and launching Miguel’s artisan breads next month, in time for fall.” She closed the binder, took my resume in hand again, smiled to herself as her eyes skimmed over what I considered a pretty paltry list of accomplishments. I believed her smile though, found something contagious and comforting in her nervous energy, like she and Miguel were maybe my kind of people—fellow pastry nerds, 80s kids, MJ fans, misfits, but with a mission, something I could get behind.

Michelle offered me her hand to shake. “Come in tomorrow at 6 am,” she said, “We can start you off on a two-week trial. See if we have a fit.” We both stood up, and Michelle’s eyes drifted to the window at the front of the shop. She shook her head. “Man, Michael Jackson,” she said. “What a day.”

On the way back to Beth’s, it seemed as if all the city had become a Michael Jackson song, all the neighborhood the opening beats of Billie Jean or the groove of Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough. Cars went by with their windows dropped and radios blaring. The King of Pop was dead, gone to the same unreturnable place Mom and Dad had gone, and I had my first job in years. Just like that. Heartbreaking one moment, moonwalking the next.

There was mail in Beth’s box when I got back to her building. I pulled out what looked like a bill and a letter with a handwritten return address but no name. I studied the handwriting on the envelope. I knew it was from Julian.

I flipped it over once and thought about writing return to sender on it and putting it back in the mailbox on the street corner. I could only guess what this letter had in it, waiting for Beth when she returned from her peaceful, off-grid, French yoga vacation. “I think it’s time you went off-grid, Julian,” I said softly, tearing the envelope in half twice and throwing the pieces in the garbage can outside the front door. Then I went up to Beth’s apartment.

I’d forgotten to leave the windows open a crack. Her place was broiling. I went straight to Zowie’s cage. He didn’t look good. I reached in to pick him up, hoping he’d spring to life at my touch. He barely nudged, so I cuddled him in one hand and turned on the fan with the other and held him a few inches away from the wind. The fan’s air was as hot as the apartment, and Zowie felt warm and droopy in my hand.

I held him against my chest and ran to the kitchen, grabbed a small bowl, filled it with cold water from the sink, grabbed an ice tray from Beth’s freezer, and knocked all the cubes out with one blow into the sink. I popped a cube in the bowl, stirred it with my finger, and put Zowie gently on the counter. Was he dying or just sleepy? He barely stirred on the counter, slumped with his head under the lip of the bowl. I dipped my finger in the bowl and dabbed Zowie’s mouth and nose, wetting them over and over until his nose wiggled and he stuck a crumb’s portion of his tongue out, licking the water drops on his face. “Don’t die today, please don’t die,” I kept whispering.

I picked him up with the bowl and fast-walked to the bedroom, setting bowl and gerbil on the bed and turning the air on. It would take a few minutes to feel anything, so I dabbed more water on Zowie’s mouth then went to the window in the other room.

There was no difference even with the window wide open, no air at all. The screen had to come out, but it was stiff and had probably never been taken out before. I hit against its edges with the heel of my palm as a car went by trailing the beat of Billie Jean out its windows. Poor Michael Jackson.

When that song came out, Sheri and I spent days trying to learn the moonwalk. We’d practice in the basement where no one could see us and judge our clumsiness. I’d try, then Sheri would try, taking turns eyeballing each other’s attempts, failing over and over in cracking the code of the movement. “How the fuck does he do it?” Sheri said. She was 14 to my 11 and swore a lot around me then. When Mom walked in on us once, we nearly burned the house down blushing. But she just started moonwalking herself—or trying to, looking more like Chuck Berry duckwalking backwards across sand than MJ backgliding weightless on the moon. Completely oblivious to how bad she looked, she insisted to us that this, girls, is how you do it.

“So when did you become a moonwalk instructor, Mom?” Sheri said. I clapped my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing. Mom said, “Oh girls, I’ve been around longer than your Michael Jackson. I saw Elvis at the International Amphitheatre when I was your age, Sher. I wasn’t supposed to go, but Theresa took me.” Theresa was Mom’s older sister, her Sheri.

Mom started morphing through various other moves. She favored the twist, I noticed that, getting down real low for a woman who, in 1982, would’ve been nearly 40, not much older than Sheri was now. Sheri stood with her arms crossed, studying Mom, not smiling but not laughing either. Within a year, she’d be throwing Michael and the moonwalk over for Prince, then Robert Smith and The Cure. Mom grabbed my hands and had me twist with her, me and Sheri’s moonwalk moment completely out the window. Sheri’d say later how she hated when Mom did stuff like that, how she always had to bring all her sixties boomer shit into everything, to bring her time into ours.

Mom said, “I saw Chubby Checker too, at the Arena in Milwaukee. Theresa drove us, me and our cousin Sarah and our dates. Mine was a boy Sarah knew and he was as dull as dishwater for conversation. But we all danced the whole show long and had the best time!”

I never liked the twist. It’s too easy and repetitive, like the dance floor version of a suburban lifestyle. But Mom was good at it, loved doing it, love dancing no matter the style, no matter the types of moves, regardless of whether she could pull them off well or not at all. She loved the way dancing made her feel. Then she got cancer and died, and now Michael Jackson was dead too, no matter all the things he could do with a pair of dancing shoes and two seconds of backbeat. I thought of all this as I struck against the window screen, the videos they were playing on the laptop in Mmmm, all the energy, all the anger and grace, and I thought of those awful last months and weeks of Mom’s life, her death. I pounded and pounded at the damn screen.

When it gave, it almost fell all the way out, angling towards the sidewalk by Shauna’s doorway. I caught it last-second after knocking it out of the frame, then heard my phone ringing. I yanked at the frame, turning it every angle until it bent where it wasn’t supposed to and I could pull it inside the window.

The phone was Sheri. “How’d the interview go?”

“I got the job, or a two-week trial at least.” I said. I propped the screen against the couch and went into the bedroom to get Zowie. There was so much happiness for me in my sister’s voice. It was something I needed, like a cooling cloth or the softness of Zowie’s fur on my arm as I sat on the bed and cuddled him. With the air on, there were no more Michael Jackson songs coming from outside.

Sheri started talking about him. “I just can’t believe he’s dead. I feel like crying, but it would confuse Hannah. She’d ask me who I was crying about and what would I tell her? For someone I didn’t even know?”

“You have Man in the Mirror as your ring tone. You could tell her it’s that guy.”

“Thanks but I think that would just confuse her even more.” I heard noises that sounded like TV news reports in the background. “Everyone’s crying,” she said. “I get it, but it’s so strange. Even my dentist was crying.”

I looked at Zowie. Zowie wasn’t crying. He seemed OK now.

Sheri was quiet a moment. I sensed she was distracted by her TV. Then she said, “How do you feel about it, Kath? You loved him when you were a kid. You had pictures of him all over your bedroom wall. Remember? You played his music all the time. You drove us crazy.”

“I didn’t play it all the time.”

She started laughing. “You even went to the Victory tour concert. With that little redheaded friend of yours. It was your first concert.” It was true. Dad took me and Jenny, my best friend in those days, and we made homemade sparkly gloves to wear on one hand and screamed our voices out and pretended like my dad wasn’t with us the whole show.

I felt tears coming at the memory of my dad and how I’d treated him that night. I got up from Beth’s bed and carried Zowie into the living room. Why couldn’t I have been a more thoughtful kid? Or a better adult, more like the kind my parents had been?

I heard the volume on Sheri’s TV get lower. Her voice was distant when she spoke again anyway, as if she was still watching the TV if not listening. “People on the news keep saying the same thing, how they feel like their childhood just died. That makes me mad, you know? They’re our age, these people. Their childhood has been over for decades but it takes the death of a celebrity to force them to grow up? I wish we could’ve had that luxury, Kathy. Childhood ended for me when Dad died right after my graduation. And you…you were only 13!”

I was sitting down on the couch now, one of Beth’s torsos in my line of vision. The torsos seemed so less strange to me than they did a few days ago, so more explainable in light of the day it’d been, between Michael Jackson dying and the bakery full of Easy-Bake ovens and Julian’s letter and Zowie and the window. Instead it was my sister who seemed strange to me, so different in life experience and outlook. I focused on the handprints on Beth’s torso, the vintage rock buttons. The problems Beth had. Her lousy boyfriends and father. They say Michael Jackson had a bad father too. I’d had a good one, but he’d been taken too soon. And I felt no less messed up, no more together than Beth or Michael Jackson or anyone else. “I don’t know, Sher,” I said. “I kind of think a person’s childhood is the one thing that never dies.”

“What are you talking about, Kathy?”

“Sheri.” I took a deep breath. It wasn’t that this was difficult, this conversation. Just long overdue. We were sisters, with both our parents gone now, but we should’ve started talking like this long ago. I needed a breath because there was so much catching up to do. “Sheri, do you really think I’m anywhere near to being grown-up? Seriously. You really don’t notice how much I’ve regressed since Mom got sick?” I immediately regretted speaking in questions, like I was asking my big sister’s permission. Even if that was the point.

She was quiet for too long a beat. When she finally spoke, her voice was like the breakable but determined one she’d used to get through Mom’s wake and funeral, the voice she forced out of herself in answer to all the “I’m sorrys” and “My condolences” and “Our thoughts and prayers are with you girls.”

“Kathy, this bakery job is good news,” she said, hitting those last two words hard. “You’ve got to start thinking positive, start looking forward. The same goes for me. Dave has talked to me about this.”

“He has? When?” I began stroking Zowie a little too hard than before.

“It doesn’t matter, Kathy. It’s between us. I didn’t tell you because I knew you’d think it had something to do with you staying with us, and it doesn’t really. It’s a marriage thing. Believe me. Kathy, there are so many good changes headed your way now. I know it. This was just life. I mean, it wasn’t. It was death, Mom’s death. But that’s life. We learned that a long time ago, the hard way. Didn’t we, Kathy? You took care of Mom. You did what life and love demanded of you. And now it’s time to move on.”

When one person tells you something, you can take it to heart or you can ignore it. But when two tell you the same thing, you only have one response really. My sister and friend were both right. Not that what they were telling me was easy to take. Just necessary. There were a lot of changes headed my way. Or at least, a lot of things I needed to get doing. Beginning with fixing the broken window.

I ended my sister’s call, telling her I loved her and her saying it back to me, and rooted around in the apartment for tools for the window screen. It was mostly a tape job, layers and layers over the little cracks where the bugs might get in. I was thinking about Beth’s reaction and how much this would cost to get fixed, and the relief of a paycheck finally to fix things, when I saw Shauna on the street below with a group of cyclists. About 10 of them were stopped in front of her studio and wheeling short spurts up and down the street, pestering the traffic. Someone had a radio attached to the back of their bike playing Thriller.

I watched Shauna take a bike out of her front door, her right hand sporting a bike glove studded with sequins. I called down to her, and as she looked up, so did half the bike crew, a couple other sparkly gloved hands going up in the air to wave at me.

“What happened to Beth’s window?” Shauna said.

“I got a little impatient with it earlier,” I said, trying to shrug so she’d see it. “You know the building manager’s number?”

Shauna nodded and then the cyclist with the radio leaned close to her. He had no sparkly glove but a red leather jacket with zippers all over it. I noted some of the other fashion choices among the crowd. Sparkly socks, zombie makeup, a t-shirt like the one I bought with my babysitting money at the Victory Tour concert, all the Jackson brothers in bright-colored shredded clothes emblazoned across the front like a prairie fire, Michael’s sparkly glove at the center the fire’s brightest flame.

“What’s going on?” I called to Shauna.

The radio guy held his hands up. “It’s Chi Rides night. You got a bike? Come out and join us.”

Shauna said, “We’re doing a ride for Michael Jackson tonight. We’re riding to Lincoln Park first and meeting with all the north side riders there then heading downtown. A group is getting together to do the Thriller dance around Buckingham Fountain tonight. At sundown.”

“Come down and ride with us!” Radio guy said, so excited, so animated and fresh, even in a leather jacket on the hottest day of the year. He looked no more than 20, like someone who wasn’t even born yet when Bad or Dangerous much less Thriller came out. “Got anything glittery?” he said.

“Join us, Kathy!” Shauna said. I thought of my bike, locked at a suburban train station. Though Beth did have one hanging on her wall.

“I didn’t know you were such a fan, Shauna.”

She brought her ungloved hand up to her face, nodded. “I’m devastated. I studied dance. Before yoga.” She gestured at the studio door. “I know every move in every video he ever made.”

Suddenly radio guy gripped the handles of his bike and raised the front wheel in the air. “Rhythm is revolution,” he shouted, everyone else in the group watching him now, readying to ride. “Tonight, Chicago rides for Michael Jackson, King of Pop!”

I nodded, like I understood any of it. You mourn in your way and I mourn in mine, I thought. The radio switched to ABC and the kid in the red leather jacket took off, Shauna smiling up at me and following the crowd up the street, 12-year-old Michael’s voice leading and trailing, all the way.

I would’ve loved to join them. But I couldn’t leave Zowie just now, and I had a job to wake up early for in the morning. It felt like something in me went with them though, like an invisible string or rope was unwinding from inside me, getting pulled along to the center of the city with the cyclists and the song. It felt so good and so painful. Necessary is the only word I can come up with to describe it, even today. I wondered if somewhere in France, Beth had felt the same thing when I tore up that letter from Julian. I wondered if she’d heard about Michael Jackson. I bet she had. There was no chance otherwise, no matter how hard she tried. A person can only get away so much, can only go so far off-grid.

1683-slides

Two Girls in 80s Gear: One With Michael Jackson Shirt, One With Police Buttons and Jellies. Somewhere in the 1980s.

MJ Playlist:
Billie Jean (Motown 25th Anniversary performance)
Billie Jean (Madison Square Garden, featuring audience cameos by Liz Taylor, Macauly Culkin, and Liza Minnelli!)
Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough
Human Nature
Man in the Mirror
I Want You Back (Jackson 5 Ed Sullivan appearance)
Rock With You
They Don’t Care About Us
Thriller (When I was in the 7th grade, my school had a special after-school assembly just so we could all watch this. When the video started, a bunch of macho bullies started making fun of MJ, using homophobic slurs, etc, annoying those of us who were really excited about seeing the video — by the middle though those boys were as rapt as everyone else.)
Beat It
Michael Jackson does the robot
Upside Down (MJ crashes Diana Ross at her concert in 1980)
Prince and MJ crash a James Brown show…Prince embarrasses himself
I’ll Be There
Carrie Brownstein (Sleater Kinney) eulogy to MJ on NPR
?uestlove Remembers the Times: 132 Michael Jackson Memories

Selected Writings

A selection of my published pieces…

Fiction:

Year of Conor McGregor (Hobart) forthcoming

Bad Babysitter (Cease, Cows) Nominated for The Best Small Fictions 2018

The Guide to Good Apple Self-Care (Drunk Monkeys)

Chicago Rides For Michael Jackson (here)

Nonfiction:

Maintaining Self-Esteem and Motivation in a Year of Rejection (Brevity blog)

The Unbeautiful Ones (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Ancestral Hunger Pangs (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Modern-Day Mike Finks (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Writing Anxiety and the Wisdom of Improvisation (The Masters Review blog)

Lady Folk (Tiny Donkey: Brief Essays from Fairyland) 2nd-place winner in “Once Upon a  Cartographer” contest

Dad’s Honor Flight: A Father’s Second Homecoming from the Korean War (Medium)

All Apocalypses, Bitter and Sweet (Literary Orphans) LO’s Tavern Lantern site has been hacked; until it’s fixed, check out my masthead for link to this piece

New Mexico: Freedom on the Ground (We Said Go Travel)

Walking with the World on the Camino de Santiago (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Women of Ireland (Encyclopaedia Britannica) More of my Britannica blog articles are available at this link.

Louise Erdrich “Daily Spot” entry (Booma: The Bookmapping Project)

Frank O’Hara “Daily Spot” entry (Booma: The Bookmapping Project) My other Booma contribs can be found here.

Walking to the Well (AranIsland.info)

Island Luck (AranIsland.info)

Writing and Wayfaring (personal blog — defunct)

Poetry:

Putting on Eyeliner with PTSD (Awakened Voices) Republished at Memoir Magazine

The Buffalo Return to Illinois (Rose Red Review)

Periphery (Thank You For Swallowing) Based on Edward Hopper’s 1939 painting New York Movie

The Subject and the Stranger (Ekphrastic: writing and art on art and writing)

Bioluminescent Bay, Aisling, and Coconut  (The Writing Disorder)

Transference (Middle West) (Eunoia Review)

Golden Day (Literary Orphans)

The Fading of the Heart and Australia (Wilderness House Literary Review)

Interviews:

Interview with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, poet (Tiny Donkey)

Interview with Kelly Vivanco, artist (Tiny Donkey)

Interview with Ram Devineni, filmmaker and comic book creator (Priya’s Shakti) (Tiny Donkey)

Other:

Editor at Tiny Donkey, October 2016-October 2017

Volunteer fiction/nonfiction submission reader for The Masters Review, January 2016-September 2016

Played the role of Marcy, the art school prof, in TV pilot “The Artists

Photo: Coumeenole Beach, Ireland (Rockwell’s Camera Phone)

Photo: Untitled (Rockwell’s Camera Phone)

Selected Writings

A selection of my published pieces…

Nonfiction:

Maintaining Self-Esteem and Motivation in a Year of Rejection (Brevity blog)

The Unbeautiful Ones (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Ancestral Hunger Pangs (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Modern-Day Mike Finks (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Writing Anxiety and the Wisdom of Improvisation (The Masters Review blog)

Lady Folk (Tiny Donkey: Brief Essays from Fairyland) 2nd-place winner in “Once Upon a  Cartographer” contest

Dad’s Honor Flight: A Father’s Second Homecoming from the Korean War (Medium)

All Apocalypses, Bitter and Sweet (Literary Orphans) LO’s Tavern Lantern site has been hacked; until it’s fixed, check out my masthead for link to this piece

New Mexico: Freedom on the Ground (We Said Go Travel)

Walking with the World on the Camino de Santiago (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Women of Ireland (Encyclopaedia Britannica) More of my Britannica blog articles are available at this link.

Louise Erdrich “Daily Spot” entry (Booma: The Bookmapping Project)

Frank O’Hara “Daily Spot” entry (Booma: The Bookmapping Project) My other Booma contribs can be found here.

Walking to the Well (AranIsland.info)

Island Luck (AranIsland.info)

Writing and Wayfaring (personal blog — defunct)

Fiction:

Bad Babysitter (Cease, Cows) Nominated for The Best Small Fictions 2018

The Guide to Good Apple Self-Care (Drunk Monkeys)

Poetry:

Putting on Eyeliner with PTSD (Awakened Voices) Republished at Memoir Magazine

The Buffalo Return to Illinois (Rose Red Review)

Periphery (Thank You For Swallowing) Based on Edward Hopper’s 1939 painting New York Movie

The Subject and the Stranger (Ekphrastic: writing and art on art and writing)

Bioluminescent Bay, Aisling, and Coconut  (The Writing Disorder)

Transference (Middle West) (Eunoia Review)

Golden Day (Literary Orphans)

The Fading of the Heart and Australia (Wilderness House Literary Review)

Interviews:

Interview with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, poet (Tiny Donkey)

Interview with Kelly Vivanco, artist (Tiny Donkey)

Interview with Ram Devineni, filmmaker and comic book creator (Priya’s Shakti) (Tiny Donkey)

Other:

Editor at Tiny Donkey, October 2016-October 2017

Volunteer fiction/nonfiction submission reader for The Masters Review, January 2016-September 2016

Played the role of Marcy, the art school prof, in TV pilot “The Artists

Photo: Coumeenole Beach, Ireland (Rockwell’s Camera Phone)

Photo: Untitled (Rockwell’s Camera Phone)

All Apocalypses, Bitter and Sweet

This nonfiction piece was originally published at Literary Orphans on Easter 2014, as part of the journal’s Irish-themed “Jonathan Swift” issue. Earlier this year though, the Literary Orphans website was hacked and wiped, including its nonfiction Tavern Lantern channel, where this piece was posted. The journal editors are still working on restoring the Tavern Lantern site. Until then, I’m sharing my essay here, because of all the pieces I’ve published so far, this is the one I’m most proud of, and I want people to be able to read it.

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I

A woman who keeps bees is a woman I’d like to know. I think she’d be able to tell me a lot about the secrets of surviving this world. For starters, how to disregard the stings and cultivate the sweetness of life. I wouldn’t mind also taking a few lessons from the bees themselves. But we speak different languages, the bees and I. You might say we travel in different circles. They dance through air, I tread on earth. Their lives are short, sweet, and purposeful. They enjoy a profound intimacy with the world’s great beauties, the flowers.

Me? I’m 40 years here on earth—living, stumbling, bumbling, mistaking, basically wasting time. Intimacy of any kind is hard to come by, much less turn into something fruitful. The same goes with resolve. And effort. Between you and me and the bees, there are times when I’d rather stick my hand into a hornet’s nest than risk a flight at trust or hope or gumption, and a flight away from bitterness and fear.

A beekeeper is someone I’d bet on to have good advice and answers. But I’ve never known one to ask. The closest I’ve come to even meeting one was in visiting the alleged church of an alleged beekeeping saint who allegedly lived on an island off the west coast of Ireland long ago. This rumor of a holy hive-keeping woman is all I have to guide me.

II

Her name was Gobnait. A uniquely Irish name. To American ears, like mine, its pronunciation sounds something like what you might shout upon being stung by an insect. So of course a woman with a name like that kept bees. And it was the kind of thing holy people did back then, in the 6th century, when Gobnait had her turn on earth. In those days in Ireland, holy people were all around, almost as common as bees themselves. A land of saints, as they say. Some of those holy folks lived like honey bees, clustered together in communities of hundreds or more. Some were more like the bumble variety, settling with only a dozen or so kindred spirits. And some, like the carpenter bee, were solitary—self-marooned on lonely little rock islands or hidden away in dark and dinky caves.

Gobnait was something of a hybrid of all holy varieties, depending on where she was at in her life and on earth. On Inis Oírr, the western Irish island where Gobnait’s story first gets going, the locals say she arrived there from County Clare, just a few miles across Galway Bay, to escape an enemy or a family squabble. Who her enemy might have been, what the problem was, what sort of punishment or consequences she was running from, and whether she was ever found or followed by her pursuers—nobody knows. Not a word more about Gobnait’s life pre-flight has survived. If there ever was more to the story of Gobnait’s escape to Inis Oírr, those details have vanished or fallen away, like the features on a face carved out of stone many centuries ago.

Maybe Gobnait was already religious before leaving home. Or maybe it was her desperate dash across the bay that made her so. Maybe religious devotion was a comfort she conjured after living out on Inis Oírr—a small and thoroughly stony place, almost totally treeless and therefore shadeless, and in times of harsh weather, rather merciless. If this was where she started keeping bees, you couldn’t blame her for wanting to bring some sweetness to the surrounding bleakness. But as with her life in Clare, no one really knows what Gobnait did with herself on Inis Oírr, or even how long she stayed there. All the islanders can say is that she stayed until an angel appeared to her in a dream and told her to move on. This island was not the place for her. She was to seek out a place where there were nine white deer grazing. There and then she would find the place of her resurrection.

You don’t argue with angels. Not when there’s a heavenly reward, on earth or otherwise, at stake. Gobnait went back to the mainland so, where she wandered the country for a while, keeping her eye out for the nine white deer and the place of her true belonging. The story goes that she stopped in Kerry and Waterford and Cork, giving her name to a church here, a village there, like a child dropping crumbs or clues just in case she lost her way. Or perhaps in case anyone was looking for her. Was anyone looking for her? Wouldn’t there have been? No one seems to ask in the Gobnait story. The point has always been what she was looking for. And where she found it.

Gobnait’s reward of resurrection actually came in increments, in teases, like a dancer dropping the veils covering her body and revealing herself one inch of skin at a time. She found three deer first, in Clondrohid in County Cork. Then a herd of six at Ballymakeera, a few miles roughly northwest. Then finally nine after crossing into a village called Ballyvourney over the River Sullane. There she stayed, built a convent, and made a reputation for herself as a healer who had a way with the bees and a holy woman capable of performing miracles. Among her miracles are the time she kept a plague away from Ballyvourney simply by drawing a line in the earth along the village’s eastern borders, and another occasion during which she caused some cattle thieves to flee by letting her bee friends loose from their hives. That latter miracle might seem obvious and ordinary enough—anyone can poke a stick into a few bees’ nests and rouse their fury after all—hence, no miracle at all. But Gobnait turned her army of bees into actual soldiers, you see, and for an extra dose of no-nonsense she hurled one of the hives at the fleeing thieves and made it change into a helmet as it flew through the air at the bolting crooks.

It can be hard to square such violence, such unapologetic vengeance, with the modern notion of what a saint should be. Saints are supposed to be nice. Mother Teresa smiling on the cover of a magazine nice. St. Francis of Assisi holding a kitten in someone’s backyard garden nice. Not necessarily without backbone, but not vindictive to the point of throwing potentially murderous heavy objects at people’s heads either. Even after taking into account old stereotypes about Irish tempers (and there are stories of other Irish saints, besides Gobnait, who also liked to throw things and start up a brawl every now and again), there’s something both extraordinary and extraordinarily admirable to me about Gobnait’s flashes of anger, something so correctly drawn about a woman once chased from her home now chasing away others, making lines in the earth, marking boundaries, protecting her turf, defending the place of her resurrection from thievery and greed and disease, from any chance of being spoiled or taken away from her, especially after it took such wandering for her to finally get here.

She had a right to be so territorial. For in the end Ballyvourney was indeed her place of resurrection. Her grave is there, near the traditional site of her convent, and near a holy well, a cemetery, and a statue of a rather downcast and dull-looking little woman wearing a long cape and rosary beads and standing on a stone hive. The statue was erected in 1950, a representation more of its time, of how Ireland once wanted its women to be—modest, devout, unchallenging—than of the territorial and spirited woman who guarded 6th-century Ballyvourney.

III

I have never been to Ballyvourney. That’s a bold confession on my part, as Ballyvourney is of course the go-to spot for Gobnait groupies and devotees. On her feast day, February 11th, locals and visitors make pilgrimage to Gobnait’s grave there. The day is marked with a turas, in which pilgrims visit designated stations at the monastic site, moving around them in a clockwise direction and saying the usual prayers—the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be—as they go. There’s no re-creating of Gobnait’s more memorable life moments—no hive or helmet-throwing contests, no banishing of plagues, no running or wandering. Not as far as I know. Since I only know Gobnait-devotion through the place she ran from, not to—through Inis Oírr.

On Inis Oírr on Gobnait’s feast day, the islanders huddle inside the small, roofless, stone church dedicated to her for a special mass in her honor. It’s usually a small crowd, and mostly women. Very unlike the outdoor mass in June for Inis Oírr’s patron—and male—saint, Caomhán, held in a larger yet also roofless church in the island graveyard.

St. Caomhán’s church may just get more attention because of its obviousness. The graveyard in which it lies—and I do mean “in”—is on a high dune just off the beach and the island’s tiny airport. The church has long since sunk into the sand of the dune, and the islanders used to have to clear away the sand regularly until grass was planted around the church to keep the sand back a bit. Climbing up the dune to the cemetery and coming to the edge of the church ruins is like stumbling upon and looking down into the world’s largest and most worn-out treasure chest, its top ripped off and its contents emptied out with just sweepings of dust left in the remains of the frame. Despite the church’s deathly surroundings, it has an association with luck. There’s a belief that if you can fit through the very narrow open window above the church’s stone altar, you’re bound for heaven when you die. Near the church is a small house-like structure that protects Caomhán’s grave. The islanders say if you spend the night lying on it, especially on the eve of his feast day, you’ll be cured of all illness.

Gobnait’s church, on the other hand, is hard to find. It’s in a field among many fields that cover the island, all separated from each other by high, hand-built stone walls that give the island fields and roads a maze-like appearance from above. It’s easy to get lost looking for Gobnait’s church. Which may be what the runaway saint would have wanted. And even if you do find your way, there’s little luck to be won there. Beside the entrance to the field of Gobnait’s church are a well and a tree with a bad reputation. Now on an island as barren and rocky as Inis Oírr, you’d think a tree would be seen as a blessed thing, a miracle even. After all, you can count the number of trees on the island on one hand. But the tree by Gobnait’s church is an elder, one of several tree varieties in Ireland often associated with fairies and all the tricks and mischief fairies like to get up to. Worse, Gobnait’s tree is actually a twin elder, two trickster trees grown into one. Double the trouble.

As with Caomhán’s church site, there are graves at Gobnait’s church, or maybe they’re outdoor altars—no one can decide for sure. There are also the remains of a clochán, a very small stone hut that must have kept some sacred or solitary-loving soul on the island out of the rain long ago. It has no roof now, same as Gobnait’s and Caomhán’s churches. It’s almost as if there’s a moral to be found in all these roofless old structures on the island: Stick around this place long enough and you’ll lose your head. Just wait for it.

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IV

Gobnait’s church site was my favorite place on Inis Oírr in the days I lived there. That was many years ago, but hardly as many as when Gobnait did. I came to the island from the opposite direction than Gobnait, from America, from Chicago. I wasn’t running or escaping anything—not yet. I was just looking to spend some time in a foreign country I had visited once before and wanted to get to know better. When I went to Ireland to live and work, I expected to end up in Dublin or Cork—in a city at any rate. I never dreamed I’d end up on a tiny island off the country’s west coast.

How I landed on Inis Oírr is a story for another time. If nobody knows how or why no less a figure than St. Gobnait got there, nobody really needs to know how or why I did. There was a job there on the island, in a hotel over the summer, when I went looking for one and couldn’t seem to find one anywhere else in Ireland. That’s really all there is to it.

Though I would spend the next three months living and working on Inis Oírr (and several more summers to come), it took me awhile to come across Gobnait’s church site. I don’t even recall if I found it the first summer I was there. But once I finally did, it became my favorite spot to get away from it all. (Yes, I know, as if being on a small island on the opposite side of the Atlantic wasn’t getting far enough away from it all to begin with.) There’s a low hill in the corner of the field of Gobnait’s church, and I liked to sit there and read or look out at the pieces of the sea and mainland and horizon you could see from the hill between all the island walls. Once in a while I’d go to Gobnait’s field and find someone else, some tourists or such, already there—taking pictures, inspecting the old church and graves, maybe resting on the hill themselves—and I’d feel jealous and frustrated. How to get rid of them? How to make them buzz off?  I never really tried. Despite my big-city background, I’m not a confrontational person. I’m Midwestern, and Midwesterners don’t make waves. We never learned, what with no ocean around us.

When I found someone else intruding on my favorite spot, I tended to just walk on. Maybe I’d come back after a while to see if the intruders were gone, but usually I’d just accept it and find somewhere else to read or watch or brood. The back of the island was usually a good bet. It’s entirely uninhabited—by people, at least—and wild. At the back of the island, the stone walls are mostly tumbled down and crumbled away, leaving messy hurdles of rock for walkers to climb over only to land on more rock—great, long, fissured blocks of limestone jutting out into the sea. There may be a couple islandmen around collecting seaweed for fertilizer if the tide is out, and there may be a few tourists who’ve found their way out here—but the sound of the sea generally drowns out their chatter and the clicks of their cameras and tends to humble them into either high-tailing it back to civilization at the front of the island or finding a cranny in the rocks to cower against, as sea and stone duke it out in the fight for elemental supremacy. This part of the island can make a scaredy-cat out of a street tough and a hermit out of an attention whore.

Gobnait picked a good place to run away to, is what you think while exploring Inis Oírr. Even if it wasn’t the end place for her, it was a good hideout, a good place to recover from whatever personal apocalypse drove her here to wait for news of resurrection.

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V

There are women I know on the island who refuse to believe the negative superstitions around Gobnait’s bad-luck double fairy tree. There are women on the island who in fact will go to Gobnait’s field to “sit with Gobnait” whenever they need time and space to think or reflect—they’ll go to Gobnait’s church over the modern church on the island or even Caomhán’s church any day. I myself never heard anything bad about Gobnait’s tree or field from the islandwomen. It was a man who told me. An islandman and a one-time sweetheart of mine.

Once while holding hands with this sweetheart and walking on the road past Gobnait’s church at night, I mentioned to him that it was my favorite spot on the island. “You know there’s a lot of superstition about that tree,” he said to me. “Lots of people here say they get a bad feeling passing it after dark. They say they don’t trust it.”

I didn’t have much to say in response to that then. I was, after all, a girl in love, young, quite inexperienced, and giddy with the romance of walking at night under a starry sky with one of the island’s handsomest men. All I had on my mind was the fire in my heart, not the cool tone in his voice. It was only two days later when he would betray me badly and break my heart.

Did the tree jinx us? Was it the double tree who double-crossed me? Or was it him? Or me? Something I said, or didn’t say, when my islandman and I passed the tree by? Perhaps there are cautions on the island against women who stand in spoken solidarity with trees. Reaching as that may sound, consider that one of the only other trees on the island had a stone beneath it dedicated to the mná na hÉireann, women of Ireland, in honor of a visit by Ireland’s first female president, Mary Robinson—and the stone was broken in half, replaced, and broken again. They say the “women’s tree” was eventually blown away entirely, in a storm. Maybe it blew all the way to Resurrectionville, Ireland, itself: Ballyvourney. Maybe it found refuge there, replanted itself, and grew to cast loving shade over Gobnait’s grave. Maybe it even shelters a beehive in its branches.

I dream up these notions of renewed life for a lost tree because I’m too proud and too bitter to dream up notions of renewed life for a lost love. After getting my heart broken, I became a running and wandering woman, same as Gobnait had been. But where she ran to Inis Oírr, I ran from it, and I wouldn’t return for years to come. Nor would I find my place of resurrection, despite hops around America to Australia to Bolivia to Mexico to France and Spain. And I never lent my name to any of the places I passed through, didn’t drop clues for anyone who may have been looking for me…though all along I wondered if someone might be, hoped that someone would be. I’ve also yet to come across any white deer—though other miracles, in other forms, have certainly been abundant. The most unexpected, most bitter and sweet, was seeing the face of the man who betrayed me, back in Ireland, over a decade on. He didn’t bring me resurrection. He brought a handshake. Likewise I didn’t bring forgiveness. I brought a hug. These things come in increments, in teases: one step, two steps, three steps…three deer, six deer, nine deer…a few inches of skin, a few inches of self-exposure, trust, and courage at a time.

VI

Gobnait was by all accounts a nun and a virgin, so she may have been innocent of the disasters of love affairs. Yet her legend begins with a running, a fleeing, the kind women do when disaster is fresh and raw as a still swelling sting. Any woman who’s ever been burned can understand the desire to give it all over to God, to scorn men for solitude or society for a nunnery, to trust no one but the bees. Every woman has her own Ballyvourney ahead of her, and behind her, her own Inis Oírr. Considering that in Gobnait’s time Ireland was swarming with saints (Wikipedia’s list of medieval saints numbers well over 100), one has to wonder how much of it came down to holiness and how much to heartbreak.

VII

Whatever their motive in the old days, holy people are a rare breed today. In Ireland, in America, perhaps everywhere, people just don’t get up and maroon themselves on an island or in a desert for the sake of the sacred anymore. Our times produce few saints. They’re almost extinct. And word is that the bees who once kept their company aren’t far behind.

It’s called colony collapse disorder, this large-scale vanishing of the bees, and it’s a red-hot topic. I could have written a whole essay here about it, written as many paragraphs as above examining all the reasons for what’s killing the bees off and the consequences for us humans and what we can do about it. I’m sure there are readers who would tell me I should have written about these things, who would tell me a personal heartbreak and the life of a long-gone holy woman are much less worthy topics of discussion in the grand scheme of things and, for further convincing, might toss off a quote that’s been going around lately (attributed to Einstein, though it’s never been verified) that says humans won’t last even half a decade if a beeless planet comes to pass. I admit this prospect is a much more pressing issue. I also admit I’m not so interested in the pressing issues.

There’s already a multitude of people shouting a multitude of questions and answers and opinions on the disappearance of bee colonies. They shout things like: Pesticides! Viruses! GMOs! Also: Climate change! Monoculture! Cell phones! Bee malnutrition! Indeed, the list of culprits gets longer as more bees disappear and more people take notice. Still, the shouting may not be loud enough, the message not yet focused enough or crystal-clear to cut through to people’s serious concern. Perhaps there’s still time for the shouters to prove themselves heroes and life-savers, or they may suffer the fate of tragically unheeded sages, of failed missionaries, of hoarse-voiced street preachers ranting and raving about the loss of faith and the coming end times.

I for one don’t doubt the urgency. I like bees. I dig their buzz. I don’t want to see them go away. I like honey, and I like all the fruits and nuts and such that bees pollinate for the world. But all the same, I’ll leave it to the know-it-alls of science, biology, and the environment to fight over the various reasons and solutions for colony collapse disorder. They can work on saving the world’s source of sweetness. I’ll work on resolving my personal store of bitterness. So I’d rather turn to that back-page place where women’s stories and women’s glories so often get buried. I’d rather investigate the mystery of a little-known female saint in a little country than the tragedy of something so large as a worldwide apocalypse.

Besides, St. Gobnait’s story is something like an apocalypse. For every life that’s ever sparked and ended is an apocalypse of sorts. So is every creation that’s ever crumbled or vanished or come to lose meaning and appreciation in time. Really, we’re all apocalypses—men, women, bees, bad-luck trees, holy people, hives, half-hidden churches on islands, and deer herds straight from a hermit woman’s dream. All runnings and vanishings are apocalypses as well. All arrivals, resurrections, and fumbles at forgiveness. All wishes, answers, shoutings, and conversions. All love affairs too…especially love affairs.

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Selected Writings

A selection of my published pieces…

Nonfiction:

Maintaining Self-Esteem and Motivation in a Year of Rejection (Brevity blog)

The Unbeautiful Ones (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Ancestral Hunger Pangs (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Modern-Day Mike Finks (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Writing Anxiety and the Wisdom of Improvisation (The Masters Review blog)

Lady Folk (Tiny Donkey: Brief Essays from Fairyland) 2nd-place winner in “Once Upon a  Cartographer” contest

Dad’s Honor Flight: A Father’s Second Homecoming from the Korean War (Medium)

All Apocalypses, Bitter and Sweet (Literary Orphans) LO’s Tavern Lantern site has been hacked; until it’s fixed, this link goes to a cached page

New Mexico: Freedom on the Ground (We Said Go Travel)

Walking with the World on the Camino de Santiago (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Women of Ireland (Encyclopaedia Britannica) More of my Britannica blog articles are available at this link.

Louise Erdrich “Daily Spot” entry (Booma: The Bookmapping Project)

Frank O’Hara “Daily Spot” entry (Booma: The Bookmapping Project) My other Booma contribs can be found here.

Walking to the Well (AranIsland.info)

Island Luck (AranIsland.info)

Writing and Wayfaring (personal blog-now defunct)

Fiction:

Bad Babysitter (Cease, Cows) Nominated for The Best Small Fictions 2018

The Guide to Good Apple Self-Care (Drunk Monkeys)

Poetry:

Putting on Eyeliner with PTSD (Awakened Voices) Republished at Memoir Magazine

The Buffalo Return to Illinois (Rose Red Review)

Periphery (Thank You For Swallowing) Based on Edward Hopper’s 1939 painting New York Movie

The Subject and the Stranger (Ekphrastic: writing and art on art and writing)

Bioluminescent Bay, Aisling, and Coconut  (The Writing Disorder)

Transference (Middle West) (Eunoia Review)

Golden Day (Literary Orphans)

The Fading of the Heart and Australia (Wilderness House Literary Review)

Interviews:

Interview with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, poet (Tiny Donkey)

Interview with Kelly Vivanco, artist (Tiny Donkey)

Interview with Ram Devineni, filmmaker and comic book creator (Priya’s Shakti) (Tiny Donkey)

Other:

Editor at Tiny Donkey, October 2016-October 2017

Volunteer fiction/nonfiction submission reader for The Masters Review, January 2016-September 2016

Played the role of Marcy, the art school prof, in TV pilot “The Artists

Photo: Coumeenole Beach, Ireland (Rockwell’s Camera Phone)

Photo: Untitled (Rockwell’s Camera Phone)