Selected Writings

A selection of my published pieces…

Books:

Heartlandic (forthcoming — hybrid fiction, memoir, and poetry) (This will be self-published/DIY/whatever you wanna call it…)

Fiction:

The Widow’s Quilt (Medium)

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 (Medium)

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)

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)

The Widow’s Quilt

When the Widow Quinn’s husband died, Mom was the only woman in town who didn’t join in the gossip, who didn’t whisper around that the Widow had surely killed her man, poisoned him or maybe smothered him in his sleep or even henpecked him to death. And when Widow Quinn herself passed away, on a Halloween Day, Mom was the only person named in the Widow’s will. Even the Widow’s grown son, Patrick, and her born-again sister in Idaho had been left out, as if they never existed, never meant a thing at all to the Widow Quinn.

She left Mom a quilt. Patrick brought it over the day after his mother was buried. He stood on our doorstep in shorts, snow boots, a red sweatshirt with a black armband, and a black wool scarf, with the quilt bundled in a black plastic garbage bag. His face was joyless and lined like a wall vent, his mouth straight as the horizon that brimmed our western Illinois town. Halloween had passed with the strangest spell of weather we’d ever seen in these parts. An inch of snowfall in the morning, hail at noon, a green overcast with high winds that set off the tornado sirens in the afternoon and postponed the trick-or-treating until dusk, then a roasting, midsummer-like hour sandwiched between twilight and moonrise—the very same hour, in fact, that took the Widow’s notorious soul away from this world.

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Poor Patrick looked like he didn’t know what hit him, between the weather and the rushed waking of his mother’s body, and the rude surprise waiting for him in her will. Dressed for everything and anything, he stood outside our door and handed off the garbage bag to my mother. “She wanted you to have this,” he said, then walked back to his mother’s home, pumping his arms all the way.

Mom was stunned when she opened the bag and took out the quilt. “The quality,” she whispered, running her hands over the patterns and colors. “The stitching,” she said, peering close at the quilt. “It’s expert.” She looked in the direction of the Widow’s house, her face a roulette of awe and confusion.

When Dad came into the room, Mom began insisting we hang the quilt on a wall. “You don’t just fold something like this up,” she said.

Dad took the quilt. “Why don’t you spread it over one of the beds?” he asked, holding it up, his arms spread wide. “Isn’t that what quilts are for?”

Mom shook her head and rolled her eyes. Silly men, I could practically hear her saying in her mind. We had that kind of connection, she and I—her youngest child and her only girl. She took the quilt from Dad. “This? This is not a bedspread. You don’t lay around under something like this. This is a work of art!” Mom had been an artist of some sort once, before she married and had children. So she knew a class effort when she saw one. “It belongs on a wall, like a Georgia O’Keeffe!”

The problem was we didn’t have much wall space. Ours is a small home, smaller than the Quinns’ even, which was built long ago during the nearly forgotten short-lived local rage for “miniature houses.” The neighborhood joke was that our home was the pip to the Quinns’ squeak. And it’s true, the Thorsen home is a noisily modest little place, tight-quartered, creaky and crammed with all sorts of folksy art and unusual castoffs Mom has collected over the years. Garage sales, flea markets, roadside ejections—she sniffs over them all, always on the lookout for a piece she can refurbish or rescue to give it the love and respect it deserves. This is another reason why, we suspected, when Widow Quinn was falling ill and taking stock of her life and leavings, she thought of my mom. She knew Mom would take the quilt and take care of it too.

But our walls were only fit for smaller masterpieces—toothpick-framed school photos, palm-sized dreamcatchers, little latch-hook landscapes and needlepoint platitudes measuring no more than one foot tall or wide. Above our living room loveseat were one of Mom’s best pieces—a watercolor of a long-lost photo Dad had taken during his service in the war (the exact location of the photo though, he wouldn’t say). It could have been replaced by a baby’s blanket, but not a full quilt. The only possible space was above our mantel, where a large mirror hung. It had come with the house, which had been ours for over 70 years, and we’d never tried taking it down, never tried moving it, or for that matter ourselves, from one space to another. We are not the restless kind. But the quilt changed everything.

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Mom said, “That mirror needs to come down.” Which made Dad go quiet. Or quieter than usual. He’s a quiet man by nature, and change especially brings out the introspection in him. Now, he retreated outside to our shed with a stool and a bucket of whittling tools, and there he worked at a piece of wood until he whittled into bits and shapes whatever thoughts and doubts he had about swapping his family’s mirror for a widow’s quilt. After a good hour, he came back in and asked Mom, my brother, and me to gather round. Mom was right about the mirror, he said. A change would do us good, and the time was now.

We had to thank the gracious mortality of the Widow Quinn for finally bringing us around. “Send a thank you card or coffee cake over to Patrick, will you, Anna?” Dad said to Mom, who was busy running her hands again over the quilt’s splay of colors and shapes. She nodded and smiled. She’d do it of course. It was only polite, even though Patrick was unlikely to welcome it or care. He kept to himself, as the Quinns always had. When the Widow’s husband died, no one sent condolences. No one sent coffee cake. Except for Mom and Dad.

Dad recruited Trygve, my brother, to help him take down the mirror. It was screwed into the wall, not just propped up on the mantel, so it took more effort than expected. They stood at opposite sides of the mantel—Dad on a short stepladder, Tryg on a tower of casserole cookbooks stacked on an old brown chest—and each took a side of the mirror and handed it down to me and Mom. As we carried it into a bedroom, Mom whispered “Careful, careful, Ingrid!” all the way. We slowly placed the mirror on the bed and threw a few thick old towels over it so it’d be safe, even with Ghost, our tabby, deciding just then to lay on one end.

Back in the living room, Tryg was down from the cookbooks but Dad was still on his ladder, holding his glasses up on his forehead and looking close at the wall. The space where the mirror had been was blazing white, whiter than all the other walls in the room, glowing brighter than the light-up snowman we put out every Christmas that Mom had rescued from a mall dumpster a few years back. When Mom saw the wall, she ran back into her room to get her sunglasses, while Tryg and I just stood there squinting with our hands shielding our eyes.

“Johann, don’t stare!” Mom said to Dad, trying to wave him down from the ladder. “You’ll blind yourself!”

Dad straightened up on the ladder and motioned for Mom to come closer. “The wall…feel it, Anna.” He took Mom’s hand and held it up close to the wall. “Ooh toasty!” she said, bringing up her other hand and rubbing them together before turning both her palms to the wall.

Dad rubbed his chin. “Strange…the walls are usually cold by now.” He was right. It was November now, and we lived on flat land, the ghostland of prairies and plains, where there was nothing in sight to stop winter when it came rushing cross-country. The Quinn house, just a speck of a thing on the other side of our mantel wall, did little for blocking the winds from the east, same as our house was useless in guarding the Quinns against the winds from the west.

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“So strange,” Mom said, lifting her sunglasses. “First the weather, now the wall.” Tryg and I dropped our hands from our eyes. All of us were nearly accustomed by now to the blinding whiteness of the wall.

“Well, let’s get the quilt up,” Mom said. “No use wasting time while we have the ladder out.”

Tryg climbed back up on his cookbooks and Mom unfolded the quilt. She and I each took a corner and attached a screwhook, then handed our corners up to Dad and Tryg. When the quilt was secured, Mom stepped back.

“How’s it looking, Anna?” said Dad.

Mom clapped her hands. “Perfect!”

Dad finally got down from the ladder, and we all gathered near the loveseat to admire the quilt.

“Yes,” Dad said quietly. He stood just a step beyond the rest of us, studying the quilt and rubbing his chin. Tryg tried to copy him, scratching at the fuzz on his own 15-year-old face. “She really did a fine job with it,” he said.

I had no words myself, only wonder. It was a strange and beautiful thing, the Widow’s quilt. It was mostly ocean blue, with white and pale green patterns like little white lambs and little green clock hands, and odd threads of a sandy gold and a red the color of dried blood. There was something moving about the patterns—really, truly, physically moving, as if the stitches were rivulets of colored water or there were pockets of wind or schools of fish rustling and running just beneath the fabric.

“Didn’t I tell you?” Mom said. “A work of art!”

She had Tryg help her put the mirror out by the shed. Dad stayed inspecting the quilt, and I left to feed Ghost. But when I passed through again, carrying Ghost to the kitchen, Dad was still looking at the quilt, standing closer, his right hand moving in a slow arc just a couple inches from it, as if blessing or comforting its colors and patterns and practicing a benediction—or maybe begging for one from the strange beauty of the Widow’s brilliant work.

 

That night was a cold and gusty one, though our house felt unusually warm. By midnight my room was roasting so that I sweated through my nightgown, and I passed the night dreaming passionate and vivid dreams, with all sorts of unspeakable scenarios far beyond the knowledge and notions of a 12-year-old girl. They were so alien to my understanding, yet so familiar when they were unreeling behind my eyelids. I did not keep a dream diary, like Mom did, but it wouldn’t have mattered, because I could not have explained them, the way they made me feel, if I’d tried.

By morning, I felt as restless and unsettled as if it had been me raging all over town, traveling back and forth cross-county, rather than the wind. I lay in bed an extra half hour, ignoring the smells from the kitchen and the calls from my family to come out of bed. Not until I finally got up and went into the bathroom did I understand what had happened to me in the night. How I had changed, so suddenly, just like the decoration above our mantel—a mirror for generations, then a widow’s quilt, just like that.

In the bathroom I looked close at my face in the mirror. Maybe what had happened was showing up there in some way—in my eyes, on my lips, in the shade or texture of my hair. After careful study, I decided I looked the same. But when I joined my family in the kitchen, Mom did a double-take. And I knew she knew, how I had changed, forever, overnight.

Tryg was at the table with Mom and Dad, everyone with the look of fox-haunted chickens on their faces, pale and a bit pop-eyed, something unruffled about them, and I supposed they had suffered the same restlessness as me through the night, if for different reasons. But Tryg wouldn’t even look at me. It was so unlike him not to greet me in the morning with some sort of joke or teasing. Instead, he bent serious-like over his toast, unsmiling, a darker shadow than usual on his upper lip and jaw, which looked sharper, tensed, more angular than usual. A man’s jawline. Like a man in an old western or an aftershave commercial.

Dad was watching Tryg close. He asked him to pass the boysenberry jam. Tryg looked up, looked at Dad, at the jam jar, and went back to scraping his knife across his toast. “It’s close enough already, isn’t it?” he said, his words punctuated by every scrape of his knife.

I saw how Dad’s eyes darkened, turning the color of a crushed black wing. But he kept silent. He folded his hands beneath his chin, kept his eyes on Tryg, while Mom kept her eyes on me. I could feel my face burning now, as if I had been caught at something terrible. I wanted to disappear or hide away, though I couldn’t quite say why. I took my own toast, buttering it as softly as I could and chewing it as quietly as possible.

We finished breakfast at different moments, Tryg leaving the table first, then Dad, then me, then Mom. One by one we joined each other again in the living room where the quilt was hanging bold and bright above the mantel. It was sunny this morning, a streak of light shining across the living room, bringing out the colors in the loveseat, the dreamcatchers, Mom’s artwork, the quilt’s lamb and clock patterns. Mom began walking slowly towards the quilt as if she was in an old church. Tryg sat center in the loveseat staring gloomily at it, his arms folded tightly, his jawline so tense and sharp it seemed to be cutting the air. Dad stood by me as I stood square in the shaft of sunlight.

I had done this often when I was smaller, woke early just to stand in the morning sunlight and watch the dust particles dance all around me, highlighting the hairs on my thin arms, my skinny legs. I suddenly wanted that memory alive again. So I stood and started waving my arms and hands slowly, shyly, like a delicate bird, in the light. I saw Tryg smirk, roll his eyes, Mom and Dad toss glances between themselves, their faces puzzled, almost horrified. I knew something was off about what I was doing. Something not just foolish but futile. For one I was bigger, almost grown, the shaft of sunlight no longer swallowing me, but I usurping it. For two, my pajama bottoms had become soiled, a red bloom bleeding through them, the same color as half the threads coursing across the Widow’s quilt. For even though I’d known what had changed about me in the bathroom before breakfast, I’d done nothing about it to protect myself.

Mom came up to me, holding her arms out as if to cover me with a blanket. She hugged me. “Ingrid, honey, come with me and let me brush your hair.”

Mom hadn’t brushed my hair for me for years now, except for special occasions like a cousin’s wedding in Iowa (I wore a French braid). Tryg and Dad knew what was going on, why Mom was really taking me aside. And as she led me back to the bathroom, my face went hot and tears welled in my eyes. I was gross, an embarrassment, making a mess of myself like a baby.  How could I ever face my brother and father again?

But Mom took care of everything. I couldn’t look her in the eye at first as she explained things to me in the bathroom. But she was patient, and when all was sorted with my new situation, she wiped my face with a wet washcloth and brushed my hair for me after all.

When we came out of the bathroom, I saw Tryg had on Dad’s old army jacket and Dad was following Tryg to the back of the house. He nodded to Mom as he went out the back door.

“Mom, what’s wrong with Tryg? Where are they going?”

She turned to me. “Come into the kitchen with me, Ingrid.”

In the kitchen, I could see Dad and Tryg from the window. They were out there with Patrick Quinn. Dad was talking, standing on the Quinns’ split and sagging wood stoop and pointing down to the planks in the steps. Tryg hung back with his arms still crossed and Patrick stood in his doorway, in the same outfit as yesterday, the screen door open just enough to let his head and shoulders out and keep the wind from coming in. Mom put the kettle on to boil, and Patrick suddenly came out of his mother’s house and went with Dad and Tryg in our red pickup.

“Where are they going with Patrick Quinn?” I said.

Mom pulled out one of the kitchen chairs. “Ingrid, sit down with me.”

She took out a couple mugs she had made back in her artistic days, blue and glazed and in the shape of a seashell. At least that’s what she told me they were supposed to be. I didn’t have the experience yet to know a seashell from an eggshell, not outside of pictures I had seen. After another minute, she placed the mugs on the table, filled with hot cocoa, the one for me loaded with a dozen marshmallows. We usually didn’t have hot cocoa in our family before noon, but Mom said, “It’s a special day,” which made me blush again. She put two fingers under my chin then, tilted my face up, and made my eyes meet hers. “No shame,” she said, shaking her head. “No apologies for growing.”

She sat down and was quiet with me while we drank our chocolate. Then she said, “Ingrid, tell me what you dreamed last night.”

I held my mug halfway to my mouth. “How do you know I dreamed anything at all?” I said. She suppressed a smile as I watched her face. I tried to remember a few moments or images from last night. But it was such a jumble—so confusing, and so embarrassing, to me.

“Well,” I said. I stopped for a few seconds. Mom waited. “There was a woman…in a bright red skirt. And a man with things stuck to his trousers.”

“What things?”

I didn’t know the word for them. I pointed at our mugs. “Things kind of like this, like a shell. But with spikes on them.” I thought a little more, then went on. Mom sipped her cocoa and listened. When I was done she set her mug down and nodded. “Me too,” she said. I raised my eyebrows. “I had the same dream as you.”

“You did?” I said. “The same stuff?”

“Not the same stuff,” Mom said. “The same dream. Same subject. You dreamed about the Widow Quinn last night, Ingrid. We all did.”

I didn’t understand what she meant, but something inside me knew it was true. It only made sense. “Even Tryg?” I said.

Mom nodded. “Even Tryg.”

Suddenly I felt a chill surround me. I began gulping my cocoa to try to make it go away. Mom drew her mug closer and cupped her hands around it, so I knew it wasn’t just me. The chill passed after another moment and Mom pushed her cocoa away. She asked me another question.

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“Ingrid, what do you know about the Widow? What have you heard about her?”

I blushed again and tried shrugging off her question. “It’s OK,” Mom said. “You can tell me. You told me about your dream…”

I told Mom what everyone heard, what everyone—including, I figured, Mom—knew. She listened just as she had when I described my dream, nodding every now and again in a way that I wasn’t sure to take as agreement or encouragement or just familiarity with all the town rumors. It wasn’t that she and the Widow had been friends. The Widow Quinn had none. But she and Mom had been cordial, like neighbors try to be, and I know Mom had talked with her a couple times, gone over and spent an hour or two over a cup of tea or cocoa in her kitchen. When she came back from the Quinns’ house on these occasions, Tryg and I had jumped all over her asking her what it looked like inside and was it really creepy and what did they talk about and was Patrick there and Mom didn’t actually eat or drink anything they offered, did she? Mom had just ignored us, shook her head and turned the topic to dinner. I remember I swore I saw her wipe her eyes as she prepared dinner, stirring the sauce for the casserole brisker than usual. Maybe she and the Widow had been closer than I thought. And besides, it was supposed to be bad luck or bad manners or something to speak ill of the dead. I felt cold again, clammy and ugly. I imagined the Widow working some black magic around me from whatever realm she had gone off to on Halloween. I started to worry about the night ahead of me. Maybe I could sleep with Mom and Dad tonight just to be safe—though that seemed impossible now. I was supposed to be beyond those things now. Since last night, everything had changed.

When Mom spoke then, I almost started, so lost and remote from her I was feeling, so suddenly swept up in confusion and uncertainty, in something I wasn’t ready for and didn’t think I would ever be. “You know,” she began, then paused. “You know she wasn’t from around here.” The Widow Quinn? I knew that. She’d had some kind of accent. Mom said she was from an island country, had grown up near the ocean. “She missed it, the ocean, the colors and the smell. She said there were mountains too. So different from here, the flatness and cornfields and everything,” Mom said, waving her hand as if dismissing all of Illinois and all the heartland. “I remember I asked her once if she wanted to go back to where she was born and she never really answered the question. Instead she just kept talking about the ocean, like the ocean was her home, her true country.”

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Mom said before the Widow came here, she’d gotten in trouble by some man and her family had sent her away to live in a place run by nuns, a place for girls and women like her. Girls in trouble. She was fairly young, Mom said, “though thankfully not as young as you.” Mom stopped for a long moment and looked at my face, almost like she was seeing it for the first or last time. Then she went on. The Widow had told Mom she had a baby in that place with the nuns, who told her to leave, go back home, go somewhere else, just go away after the baby was born. She never saw the baby. Not once. Her family sent her to America to the Midwest, where she had an older sister, the one now in Idaho. But her family didn’t know, and the Widow hadn’t known, her sister had a baby herself. Mom stopped again, but without looking at me. When she spoke again, her voice was soft as a lullaby. “It was Patrick, Ingrid. Patrick was her sister’s baby, not the Widow’s.”

We were both quiet now, for a long moment. Finally I said, “I don’t get it.” Mom was looking down at the patterns on our plastic tablecloth. She shook her head. “Neither do I to tell the truth,” she said.

“What happened to her sister?”

After the Widow came over, Mom said, her sister took off west and took up with some church out there, left Patrick with the Widow for good. The Widow knew where she lived, but they never saw or spoke to each other again.

“What about her husband? Mr. Quinn? Was he…”

Mom shook her head again. “He wasn’t the father. The Widow worked for him, in Rockford. He ran a bar and boarding home with a friend before his parents died and then he came back here not long after they married. He brought her and Patrick here with him. He’d been gone about 7 or 8 years in Rockford, and Patrick wasn’t even two at the time. Everyone assumed Patrick was theirs. Why wouldn’t we? I supposed that’s how all the rumors started. By people assuming and nobody just asking.”

“But why would Mr. Quinn marry her and raise someone else’s baby?”

Mom shrugged. “Convenience. Or kindness. I don’t know. She never said.” Mom looked in the direction of the kitchen window. “Your father knew Mr. Quinn pretty well back but he always said it was like Mr. Quinn put up a wall between him and everyone else soon after he came back from Rockford. Your father wondered about it. He went through that himself when he got back from the war but he worked through it. I remember. We both had to work through it. It wasn’t easy. He couldn’t understand what the deal was with Mr. Quinn but he wanted to—he just didn’t know how to broach it with him. Men don’t talk like they should, you know. Like women do, like women should.” Her voice trailed off. She looked at the cup she’d made with her own hands, stroking it lightly.

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“After talking to her I think I understood why they kept to themselves so much, but I never told your father. I didn’t want to betray the Widow’s trust. And it would’ve just upset your dad, knowing someone had been put through all that.” She took a sip of her cocoa. “For all I know Patrick doesn’t know either. The Widow told me she couldn’t bring herself to dump Patrick off at an orphanage. Not after what happened to her own baby. She also said she understood what her sister had done, but she’d never forgive her.” Mom looked towards the window facing the Quinns’ house again. Her voice had gone small, like she was talking to herself rather than me. “That struck me so hard, how she put that. The difference between the two, understanding and forgiveness—I’d never thought of it before, yet it’s so obvious.”

I laughed. I just didn’t know what else to do. Mom turned to face me. “Sounds like a soap opera,” I said.

Mom cocked her head. “Well it was her life, Ingrid.” I looked away from her and she looked away too, down at her mug. She stroked the blueness with her thumb, just kept stroking it, as if she hoped whatever the color contained, whatever it gave, would rub off on her. “We need to stick together in this world, Ingrid,” she finally said.

“Who?”

“People. Women.” She smiled at me. Still, I wondered if she was disappointed. I was 12. I couldn’t help but still think that everything in this world was about me, my fault, my responsibility. Like the way Tryg was this morning, the look on his face when I was dancing in the sunbeam with my own blood staining my pajamas. I asked about him. “Don’t mind, Tryg, honey. Just a mood.”

“But why?” I said.

Mom leaned closer to me across the table. She looked me in the eye. “It’s got nothing to do with you, Ingrid. With you growing up. It’s him and his own growing.”

“But where’d he and Dad go with Patrick?” I hated the pleading in my voice and questions. But life was presenting so much strangeness and complication in the past two days. All I wanted was some answers.

Mom got up from the table. “Patrick needs a friend right now. He needed one a long time ago.”

Just then we heard the pickup outside. Dad was back. I stood up to run outside but was stopped by the feeling between my legs. A gushing, thick, wet rushing coming out of me. I detoured to the bathroom, certain I had ruined another outfit. It was like another trick though, like the weird weather on Halloween or the movement creeping through the threads of the Widow Quinn’s quilt. There was no soiling on my jeans or underwear, and the pad I’d put there wasn’t soaked like I expected.

Still when I left the bathroom, I walked slowly and stiffly to the front door. “You’ll get used to it,” I heard Mom say. But when I turned to look at her, she was in the kitchen minding her own business, opening a bag of treats for Ghost. My eyes went to the quilt on the wall. Rippling away. Yes, it was definitely moving, there was no mistaking it, though I hadn’t yet opened the door.

I went outside and saw Dad, Tryg, and Patrick hauling lumber off the bed of the truck. It turned out Dad told Patrick he’d like to help him fix the broken steps on the Quinns’ front porch, as a thank you for the gift the Widow had given Mom. I wanted to help, but stood back from the men and Tryg. Poor Patrick looked lost with the lumber. His father, Mr. Quinn, had not been much of a handyman like Dad. Patrick handled the wood clumsily, trying not to drop it but coming close anyway.

Tryg stopped on the way to the shed with a plank in his arms and looked at me. He laughed. “Well don’t just stand there, Ingrid, get your coat and give us a hand!” He put the plank on the ground and took off Dad’s army coat and tossed it to me. “Here. We’ll switch places. I’m going in to help Mom with dinner. Patrick’s joining us.” He bounded up the stairs and into our house.

I put on Dad’s coat, picked up Tryg’s plank, and followed Dad and Patrick to the shed. I spent the rest of the day outside with them, stacking and preparing the lumber and listening as Dad described the project he had in mind for the Quinns’ porch. Once, I ran into the house to check myself again in the bathroom and found Tryg preparing a casserole as well as Mom’s mashed potato dish with cream cheese in it that I loved so much.

“Is that for me, Tryg?” I said.

Tryg smiled, his face softened compared to the way he was this morning. But he didn’t nod or say yes. “Just giving Mom a break,” he said. “She said she felt like doing some watercolors. Just in the mood.”

 

That night wasn’t an easy dinner. With Patrick there we all felt shy. Though Mom and Dad did their best to get a conversation going, talking about woodworking and watercoloring and all things artsy. Patrick ate two helpings of everything and Tryg and Dad wrapped up all the leftovers in Tupperware for Patrick to bring home.

After dinner, Mom led Patrick to the front door, wanting him to see how the quilt looked above our mantel. She stood stiffly beside him as they looked at the Widow’s work, her head slyly turning his way every few seconds to check out his reaction. But Patrick only nodded at the thing and nothing more. Then Mom said, “As much as I love it, Patrick, it doesn’t seem right for me to have it. I really think this should be yours. It is yours. It belongs in your house.”

Patrick laughed, the first we’d heard him do that. “Aw, the house is filled with ‘em. She made piles of ‘em. She made a few every year to give to the orphanages around the state. Sometimes she even mailed one overseas, to the old country.” He laughed again. “I got one just like this on my bed. Good for the cold weather we got coming round the corner.” He pumped his arms like an old man running and chuckled, then shook our hands and thanked us for dinner. “I’ll be over tomorrow morning to help with the porch, Mr. Thorsen.” And with that, he walked out our front door.

Of course, Mom was the first to look to the quilt. Standing dead-center in front of it, Dad and I on either side of her and Tryg behind us. We studied it in silence, knowing we shared the same thoughts, the same questions about it, like a common, universal dream.

 

That night, I struggled again to sleep, bewildered by all the events of the past few days. My mind raced with thoughts like the wind outside, howling through town, over the cornfields, across the darkened, diminished prairie. Patrick was right—the cold was really coming now, and though our house was warm again, I couldn’t stop shivering. Nor could I stop worrying about the blood coming out of me and ruining my bedding, but I resisted the urge to get up and check myself in the bathroom. Mom had seen me going in there more than once after dinner. “You don’t have to keep doing that, honey. It’s not as much blood as you think.” But Mom was wrong—maybe it wasn’t as much blood as I thought, but more blood than I ever would have known just two days before. I imagined my bed by now a pool of red.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the Widow Quinn as well. But not because I was afraid of her anymore. It was her life, so lonely and strange. And her sister, and between the both of them, the two children left behind. Which got me thinking about Patrick too, his face at our dinner table, in our living room, the blackness of his hair, the blue of his eyes, all the things about him I’d never noticed before. Thinking about him made me feel even warmer, in a way that was different from the warmth of the house, and made me shiver, in a way that was stronger, more unsettling than the shivering that comes from the cold. I lay in bed thinking and shivering, bleeding and listening, until I couldn’t take it anymore. I got up from bed and left my room.

I went to our back door and looked out the window. The moon was full, bright and bolted to the night sky, steadfast against the relentless push and pull of the wind. I opened the door and stepped out. It was so cold out, so bracing, my hair ached at the roots. I remembered Dad’s army coat and went to the front of the house to the closet. Crossing in front of the quilt, I noticed the moonlight shining in, nearly as bright as the sunbeam of the morning. It cut across the Widow’s quilt on the wall, making even the delicate blood and gold threads visible in the night. It was so cold out, Dad’s coat wouldn’t be enough.

Quietly, I took a chair from our kitchen and carried it to the mantel. I stacked some of the casserole cookbooks on the chair, and slowly, carefully, stepped up to reach an edge of the quilt. I unhooked one side of the quilt, let it drape, got down off the chair and moved it over, then climbed back up to unhook the other side. I did this shivering all the while, even with the wall emanating warmth like a campfire. I went again to the back door, taking the quilt with me and waiting until the last moment to drape it over me, until I stepped outside again.

The quilt weighed lighter than Dad’s coat, but it was definitely warmer, like a bath of amniotic love. I held it tight and closed my eyes, trying to wrap my thoughts, my new situation and understanding, tight as the quilt around my body. Was Patrick awake now too? Was he looking out and seeing me, with his mother’s quilt around me, or was there only the moon to notice me now? Was I, am I, alone, like the Widow had been? I thought of knocking on her door, of waking Patrick up to bring him out here in the night with me. I wanted him to know he wasn’t alone, never mind what the rest of the town put his family through. And I guess I wanted myself to know it too.

The wind pulled at my hair, pulled tears from my eyes. But with the quilt around me, the core of me burned as hot as if I had swallowed the sun. I was burning and I was bleeding. It made no sense to me yet, how I could be bleeding but still standing here strong and alive. I kept hearing that voice, whoever it belonged to—Mom, the quilt, the Widow’s ghost, maybe just my own imagination: “You’ll get used to it,” it said. But I told the voice no. I’d never get used to it, this life, this world, this woman’s body or new understanding. Not if I could help it. I’d stay out in the cold all night, with the Widow’s quilt burning all its beauty and secrets into me, before I’d ever again let myself take rumor for truth or any ghostwoman’s gift for granted.

Camino Anniversary

Seven years ago today, I began my Camino. I walked the Camino de Santiago in 2011, starting on this day in St. Jean Pied de Port in the south of France and reaching Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain on October 27. It’s a distance of 500 miles.

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St Jean Pied de Port, France

Every year since, I try to mark the date I began my Camino and the date I reached Santiago in one way or another, like going out for tapas or baking a tarta de Santiago or sharing my experience with a message to friends. Just minor gestures, but it’s a way for me to keep my experience alive and honor it. Also, note I don’t say “the date I finished my Camino” above — instead I say “the date I reached Santiago” because to say words like “finished” or “ended” in terms of the Camino is false. One thing you learn from walking a Camino is that your Camino never ends, no matter when or whether you reach your destination. Once a spark lights, the flame remains a fact forever, regardless if it’s “gone out.” You can’t negate or walk back what began and what happened — you can only affirm, accept, and walk on.

Which brings me to the reason I decided to walk the Camino to begin with. I decided to walk it as a recovery attempt. I had suffered a sexual assault back in 1998 and another one in 2008. The second one was more damaging than the first in many ways, not only because it compounded the emotional damage of the first assault, and not only because the second rapist inflicted more serious physical injuries on me, but also because the rapist was someone I knew, a supposed friend. Moreover, in the aftermath, as I tried to make sense of what he did to me and tried to confront him about it, he was extremely manipulative and inflicted further damage to me. One of the damaging and manipulative things he said to me (out of many, to vastly understate it) was that he would “carry [me] in [his] prayers.” It implied pity as well as some special exoneration or spiritual connection on his part, and it revolted me and added to the confusion and damage I had to work through. I struggled with a great deal of anger and anxiety and despair.

Eventually, I attempted to reach out to the rapist’s minister, who supposedly led a progressive church devoted to social justice (going by what their website advertised). The church was otherwise not a part of my own faith tradition — the church, pastor, and rapist are all Lutheran and I am Catholic. Still I thought the minister should know about what his church member had done and said and how it was affecting me. The minister however refused to see me or hear my full story, and instead sent me a rather long-winded reply that suggested my motivation was revenge and thus he, the minister, couldn’t “participate.” He also suggested I look into spiritual counseling elsewhere and gave me a list of other counselors to try — none of whom had expertise in sexual assault trauma or any connection to my particular faith tradition.

The truth is my rapist’s minister didn’t take me seriously, never mind his lengthy (and deeply unhelpful) reply. He was not only minister to my rapist after all, but a friend of his outside church, and he chose to privilege his rapist friend’s story over mine. And by hinging on some notion that I was out for revenge, he essentially used one of the ugliest, oldest stereotypes about women (“hell hath no fury…”) to give himself an out from seeing, hearing, and truly believing me. I of course had no intention of drafting the minister to “participate” in some revenge scenario — and also of course, the minister knew that deep down, but just pulled this out of his own unexamined reserve of sexist excuses, rape apologism, and gaslighting techniques. It served me and the spiritual issues I was having in no way whatsoever. It just gave him a convenient way out of confronting the truth of what his friend had done to me. His response to me was a failure and a disgrace — and the damage to me only compounded and compounded.

My response to this (along with continuing the real counseling I’d been undergoing at local rape crisis centers, by real, genuine, actually helpful counselors — unlike my rapist’s minister) was to walk the Camino. The Camino was actually one of several pilgrimage experiences I took in the aftermath of my second assault. Before the Camino, I visited pilgrimage sites in Ireland and France devoted to particular Catholic saints and Catholic rituals. I wasn’t so sure I identified as Catholic or even Christian anymore, but I guess I kept seeking out Catholic experiences in particular as a way of reclaiming my faith — or, at least, starting a conversation with my own spirituality in the kind of faith language I understood. After experiencing abuse and gaslighting by someone masquerading as especially holy or righteous or whatever, someone who showed me and my experience tremendous disrespect, I wanted to “fight my way back” to spiritual health the Catholic way, the Irish Catholic way especially. I’m still in the process of that.

All these pilgrimage experiences were some of the most beautiful experiences of my life. And the Camino was also one of the happiest. That’s not to say it was easy — physically or emotionally. There were many challenges and many times I wanted to quit. I also cried a lot in the times I was walking alone — not out of loneliness, but because I was in the process of sorting through so many crappy, horrible memories and traumas. I’d also gotten some surprising news literally days before starting my Camino that kind of threw me and added another layer to what I needed to work through — and walk over.

In the end, I realized my Camino was a way of giving up my faith, of saying goodbye to Christianity in a way that was respectful. The main issue that came up after my second assault in terms of spiritual damage was the issue of forgiveness. I couldn’t and wouldn’t forgive my second rapist and didn’t think I should. His minister suggested otherwise. And again, it’s hard for me to believe my experience and struggles were even taken seriously, considering not only did he maintain his friendship with my rapist in the years to come, he even had him stand up for him at his wedding. But I don’t forgive my rapist — I don’t forgive either of them. And walking the Camino was my way of coming to terms with rejecting forgiveness and affirming the value of unforgiveness. It was a way of affirming me. I struggled a great deal with the notion that I must be a bad person not only because of what people had done to me, but because I couldn’t forgive. I know that’s garbage though now — genuine qualified counseling did that for me and the Camino did too.

Now, seven years on, unfortunately I still struggle with memories. Especially in recent years, with all the news headlines involving Brock Turner, Trump, Julian Assange, Bill Cosby, the #MeToo movement, Brett Kavanaugh, it just goes on and on and on. It’s hard to move on. It’s hard to move past the anger and despair. I get tired of fighting. In the meantime, along with all the survivors’ voices coming up in recent years (which is a good thing), I’ve noticed many other people trying to position themselves as “allies” or some such thing. I’d be less cynical about that aspect of the movement if it weren’t for the fact that some of the very people who let me down and blamed me or dismissed me after I was assaulted are the same people suddenly jumping on social media sharing #believeher and #fightrapeculture and #dismantlethepatriarchy articles and hashtags, with no acknowledgment of their own past and present complicity. One of those hashtag warriors is my rapist’s minister, whose background photo includes my rapist, smiling away above all the posts about believing women and accusers and fighting sexism. If I didn’t know myself, I’d believe this person really was good and enlightened — if I didn’t still have his unacceptable response to me in my emails that is, and the terrible memories of what his friend did to me. When I see things like this, it feels like more than just hypocrisy, but like gaslighting as well, like being erased. What happened to me was real and traumatic and cannot be negated. It can’t be erased or healed with a few hashtags or social media posts.

The past few days I’ve been tempted to write some letters. I even started one and kept breaking down over and over writing it. It angers me that I’m still dealing with this years on, and that it’s still interrupting my life at times. Because right now, this week, today, I’m supposed to be just celebrating the anniversary of my Camino. In an ideal world, that’s all today would be about — the sunny day I arrived in the French Pyrenees, met my first fellow peregrino (a British soldier named Paul), and got my credencial.

To say it’s gotten better is a bald lie. It hasn’t, it doesn’t. The reminders and outrages and hypocrisies never seem to end lately. Just as a Camino never ends. You have to keep walking on, moving through it, working through it. So instead of finishing my letter (for now), I’m marking my Camino anniversary by writing this post, trying to make the Camino, something that was good, outlast something bad. Trying to start a conversation between the part of me that once believed forgiveness was a possibility and the part of me that knows some things are beyond forgiving and beyond any sense or redemption.

 

Anyway, if all that is too bleak for you, below are a couple pictures, and here is a link to an article I wrote about the Camino after I came back from Spain, originally for the Encyclopaedia Britannica blog (which has since lost connection to the pics), then picked up a year later by a little Camino blog: Walking with the World on the Camino de Santiago

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First Camino sunrise. Just outside St Jean Pied de Port, first day of walking.

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This is me in Santiago, Spain, with two peregrino friends, Manolo and Jeremy, after we received our compostelas.

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

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.

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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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