The Dangerous Divide (Library Philosophy and Practice): This is an academic paper I published about how libraries are closing the gap in the digital divide for older adults, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic when lack of access to the internet has had deadly consequences for this population. This was a final project for an MLIS course taught by Bill Crowley at Dominican University.
Tales of Old: A digital resource and annotated bibliography of representations of older women in folk and fairy tales. This was created for an MLIS course taught by Janice Del Negro at Dominican University.
Played the role of Marcy, the art school prof, in TV pilot The Artists
Yesterday was St. Brigid’s Day, the feast day of the patron saint of Ireland. Brigid has long been revered in Ireland, and her day is marked with many special rituals and traditions to honor her. This year marks the first time her day will be recognized as a public holiday in Ireland (on February 6), a recognition surely long overdue.
Outside Ireland, many Catholics and Christians know little to nothing about her and may not even be aware there are other Irish saints (patron or otherwise) beyond Patrick. Maybe it’s sexism or maybe Brigid’s devotees just need some better PR.
There’s no shortage of great stories and miracles about her to spread around. Some stories claim she was originally a Celtic fertility goddess whose cult was Christianized and whose pagan festival of Imbolc, which honored the coming of spring, was turned into a Catholic holy day. The Church says she was a real, historical woman who lived in the 5th century and founded an important abbey in Kildare. Irish folklore tells of Brigid liberating women from servitude and concubinage–though maybe it was really Brigid who was sprung from slavery, since her mother was said to be a slave and her father a chieftain. A more unusual legend tells of Brigid healing a blind nun, who asked to return to “beauty of darkness” after realizing “the clarity of sight blurred God in the eye of the soul.”
In honor of this day, I’m sharing a story I wrote about recently for an article in the January issue of Sojourners magazine. It’s a piece on the Magdalene laundries in Ireland–specifically, an advocacy group that seeks justice for the survivors of the laundries: Justice for Magdalenes Research (JFMR).
For the article, I interviewed all five members of the group. I also interviewed a woman involved with Clann Project, a JFMR joint initiative, Mary Harney. Mary’s mother had been incarcerated in a Magdalene laundry, which resulted in Mary being taken away from her and incarcerated in an industrial school. She grew up to become an activist for many causes, including the cause of justice for her and other survivors of Ireland’s religious and institutional abuse.
Another woman whose story was included was that of Catherine, who had been in a Magdalene laundry as a young woman, before emigrating to England and then the United States. Catherine passed away several years ago, but not before forming a friendship with one of JFMR’s members and finally sharing her story that she had long kept a secret.
Mary and Catherine’s stories were both left out of the final version of my article. As someone who has worked in publishing for years, in many different roles, I understand why such decisions get made. There are space limitations in any print publication, plus different angles get highlighted and centered depending on the readership. But of course, it’s still disappointing. Mary and Catherine’s stories are important to know not least so that people in the Church–and anyone concerned about human rights–understand that church and state abuse in Ireland is not a problem of the past but very much still impacting survivors’ lives and Irish society.
It’s also not exclusive to Ireland. Catherine’s story alone tells us there are women who survived the laundries living among us in the U.S. The experience of JFMR’s founder Mari Steed, who was born to a Magdalene survivor and trafficked from a religious institution in Ireland to a family in the U.S. as a child, as well as Mary Harney’s tells us that thousands of their children live among us too. Steed’s life story in particular is a reminder that there were Magdalene asylums for “fallen women” in 20th-century America.
The experience and testimonies of Ireland’s survivors of church and state abuse should also be known to any American concerned about the future of reproductive rights here in the U.S. Our own federal law that gave women reproductive freedom was overturned last year, and more and more state laws are being overturned or changed to severely limit women’s freedom. These changes in laws have occurred due to the relentless efforts of so-called “pro-life” groups and individuals who claim to be doing God’s will. (Never mind, I guess, the rights of our fellow Americans who don’t believe in God or who have a very different conception of God than the fundamentalist Christian one.) Now that the “pro-life” movement has finally gotten its way, many of them are assuring the rest of us that adoption is the answer to all our concerns. Well, Ireland’s past and present can tell us something about how that tends to work out too, once church and state start to get too cozy.
When I spoke to Mari Steed, it was only a few days after Roe v Wade was overturned. It felt pertinent to ask her about the significance of the work she does through JFMR and the road ahead for activists in the U.S. On the so-called solution of adoption, Mari said, “At what point do we stop commoditizing women and children and childbirth and satisfying the desire of childless couples? We’ve got to get away from this mentality that, number 1, everyone has a right to a child.” She also pointed out that Ireland’s system stripped the choice away from many mothers in more ways than one. Of the children who were taken away from women in laundries and mother and baby homes, “many of us were not unwanted. They weren’t given the choice to do that.” Is this really what pro-life America wants? Do they have any clue?
In honor of St. Brigid’s Day, I thought I’d share those stories that got cut from my article here. I don’t have the reach of a national magazine, I know, but maybe a few readers will find this and be inspired to learn more about this issue in Ireland and in the Catholic Church. Maybe they’ll be inspired to lend some support to survivors in Ireland or the U.S. or to activists for reproductive rights anywhere. Working or writing for a number of religious publications over the past few years (even those that consider themselves progressive and centered on social justice), I’ve become accustomed to seeing women’s voices get censored or “polished” for tone. (The published version of an interview I did for one Catholic magazine with the novelist Louise Erdrich was edited to cut her comments that she supports women’s reproductive freedom and the authority of women to serve as priests in the Catholic Church. I’m still incensed about it.) Meanwhile, simplistic stories of “hope” and “endurance” serve to mollify anger about religious abuse and rightful demands for effective redress.
I think about St. Brigid’s reputation in Ireland as a woman born to another woman in bondage, as a woman who liberated other women, yet also as a woman who sheltered another woman from seeing the world clearly so she could see God more vividly in her soul. I think Brigid’s story is an eternal one of someone who rises to do mighty work. I think if there’s one certain blessing, it’s that there are people in modern-day Ireland still doing mighty work. You can read about them below.
When Mari Steed began searching for her birth mother in Ireland, she knew little about the system of secrecy and abuse that would lead her to co-found a social justice group to right its many wrongs. Born in 1960 in a convent-run mother and baby home in County Cork, Mari was one of more than 2,000 “banished babies” adopted from Ireland to the United States beginning in the 1940s. At 18 months old, she was taken to Philadelphia.
As a teen, Mari became pregnant and was put in a Catholic-run home in Philadelphia and made to give up her child. In the mid-1990s, after raising two more children, she decided it was time to find her adopted daughter and birth mother. Her American family were “decent people,” she says. “I don’t have any serious qualms with my upbringing. But I did begin to search for my mother to find out more about where I’d been.” She created a website to connect with other adopted people of Irish birth.
Eventually, she learned her mother, Josie, had given birth to her out of wedlock and was born to an unwed mother herself. In Ireland, such circumstances put Josie on the full “merry-go-round” of church-and-state institutions before the age of 30: a county home, an industrial school, then 10 years in a Magdalene laundry, then the mother and baby home. Steed, now living in Virginia, recalls she at first had no clue what all this information meant. “‘What are laundries?’ I didn’t even know what that was at the time.”
The answer led her down a rabbit hole of secrecy and obstruction. Originally founded as places of refuge for “fallen women” in the 18th century, Magdalene laundries evolved into institutions where women and girls labored for no pay as penance for transgressing Catholic Ireland’s moral and class codes. Unwed mothers, poor women, orphaned girls, women and girls who were seen as “promiscuous” or a burden on their families. The laundries were run by four religious orders in Ireland, with state oversight and funding. Survivors testify to having had their names changed and their hair shaved off. Their children were boarded out or adopted or sent to industrial schools. Some of the children, like Mari Steed, were subject to vaccine trials (conducted by the Burroughs Wellcome Foundation, now GlaxoSmithKline) while in the mother and baby homes. More than 10,000 women and girls were incarcerated in Magdalene laundries between 1916 and 1996, when the last laundry in Ireland closed and when Mari was searching for her mother.
She found her in 2001. “She was overjoyed and had been waiting patiently for the day I would find her,” Steed wrote in Ireland and the Magdalene Laundries, a book published in 2021 by the members of Justice for Magdalenes Research, a survivor-led advocacy group with the mission of helping Magdalene survivors and other Irish institutional survivors find their truth and gain justice.
Steed co-founded Justice for Magdalenes in 2003 with two other Irish adopted people: Angela Newsome, whose mother had spent nearly her entire adult life in Magdalene laundries, and Claire McGettrick, an adopted persons’ rights activist. In time the group shifted members a bit. Newsome is still a committee member, but two academics and a human rights lawyer signed on—James Smith of Boston College, Katherine O’Donnell of University College Dublin, and Maeve O’Rourke of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland in Galway—and the group of five is now known as Justice for Magdalenes Research (JFMR).
JFMR’s tireless advocacy has led to a state apology for Magdalene survivors in 2013, a “guerilla archives” of testimony and information that counters the Catholic Church and Irish State’s secrecy, and a greenlighted project that will turn a former laundry into a national site of conscience. JFMR’s members most recent book, Redress: Ireland’s Institutions and Transitional Justice, edited by O’Donnell, O’Rourke, and Smith, includes the testimonies of eight survivors in Ireland, the United States, and the United Kingdom, with all royalties going to the Dublin-based nonprofit Empowering People in Care.
How does an advocacy group that blends survivors and academics maintain its balance and keep their eyes on the prize of justice? And how do they persist when, as anyone paying attention to the ongoing reckoning of abuse in Ireland can see, the Irish church and government continue to throw so many hurdles in the way of survivors’ demand for redress? The answer may be in JFMR’s “melding of deep skills and personal experience,” as O’Rourke describes it—a mix of political activism, formal academic research, and grassroots organizing.
Claire McGettrick was born in Ireland in 1973 and adopted in-country at 6 weeks old. Since Ireland operates a closed, secret adoption system, in which adopted people have no effective right of access to their birth records, McGettrick grew up with no knowledge of her origins. “I had no information about myself whatsoever, including my original name, for example,” she says. Like Mari Steed, she went looking for her personal information in the ’90s and began campaigning for adopted people’s rights with Mari and Angela Newsome in a (since disbanded) group called Adoption Ireland. But McGettrick says their interest in Magdalene campaigning was ignited by a 2003 exposé in the Irish Times about 155 Magdalene women whose bodies had been exhumed.
In 1993 in Ireland, outrage erupted over revelations of a rushed exhumation of women buried in a mass grave on convent grounds in Dublin. The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, who operated a Magdalene laundry in the inner north side suburb of Drumcondra, had petitioned to sell some of their land after the congregation fell into debt. But the Magdalene women who had been buried on their grounds, in an unkempt area entirely separate from the nuns’ cemetery, were in the way of the land deal.
The plan was to exhume their remains, cremate, and rebury them in a public cemetery in Glasnevin, which required an exhumation license from the Department of the Environment with a list of the names of those scheduled to be reburied. Despite discrepancies between the number of remains found and the number of names on the license, the exhumation was rushed through. After this travesty, the Magdalenes Memorial Committee (made up of survivors and advocates) organized to install a bench in the women’s memory in St. Stephen’s Green, with a ceremony attended by then-President Mary Robinson.
But as Steed says, it felt as if more needed to be done. “It kind of felt like, ‘Is that it?’ That just seems so little for women who were literally slaves.”
Ten years after the exhumation, investigative journalist Mary Raftery took another look for the Irish Times. She discovered that unbeknownst to the public, an additional 22 remains had been exhumed in 1993 and there were numerous discrepancies between the names on the exhumation license and the names on the headstones at Glasnevin Cemetery. Even worse, some had been cremated and bundled two or three to a grave to save on costs, resulting in commingled remains (a practice outside of Catholic teaching). Attempts to hold the congregation accountable proved fruitless.
Raftery’s investigation galvanized Steed, Newsome, and McGettrick into action. As adopted people whose own identities had been obscured or erased, they realized “this could be any one of us,” says McGettrick. “We had to do something.” She adds, “The way I look at it, the same system that took my identity away is the very same system that held women against their will, forced women to work without pay, and let women and children die.”
One of their first projects was the Magdalene Names Project, which offered a narrative honoring those who lived and died behind Magdalene laundry walls. The trio photographed the gravestones at the reburial site in Glasnevin Cemetery and then posted the names as a memorial in an online adoption support group. Later, McGettrick compared them to newly released materials from the 1901 and 1911 census, revealing lengthy periods of confinement. By building a “guerilla archives,” as McGettrick calls it, they gave survivors and families a means to start accessing their information. The archives also documented the truth of what had happened to thousands of Irish women. When JFMR’s political campaign for a state apology and redress got under way in 2009, the archives helped counteract the official narratives that women in the laundries went into them willingly, that none were incarcerated for long periods of time, and that their experiences “weren’t that bad.”
Boston College associate professor James Smith teaches courses on Irish literature in the Jesuit university’s Irish Studies program. Irish literature is known for giants like James Joyce and W.B. Yeats, but Smith’s course readings focus on the outsiders in his native country, those who were controlled or hidden away through the system of industrial schools, adoption agencies, mother and baby homes, and Magdalene laundries. (In full disclosure, I was a student in one of Smith’s courses in 2004, the first I began hearing about many of these places, even after having lived in Ireland in the 1990s.) Smith became involved with JFM while researching his first book, Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment.
When I ask about the group dynamics of involving non-survivors in a survivors’ advocacy group, all members bring up JFMR’s twin core tenets: “It’s about the women” and “Do no harm.” As survivors and co-founders, Steed and McGettrick are the ethical heart, and the other members defer to them and to those who come to them to seek justice.
Smith also points out the benefit of having an academic at a Catholic university on board. For years, JFM’s mission was being stymied by Irish government and church alike. The archives of the Catholic orders in Ireland were—and still are—closed. Through BC, Smith had access to historical archives that proved without doubt the Irish state sent women to laundries and were financially complicit in their abuse and injustice.
Smith’s work also got the attention of a survivor named Catherine Whelan, an Irish woman in her 70s who lived 20 miles from Boston and phoned Smith up at the college one day in 2008 after reading his book. “How do you know my story?” she asked him.
Catherine had been dropped off at a laundry at age 14 by her father. She labored there for four years before fleeing to England and then the United States, where she kept her ordeal in her home country a secret. She worked as a nurse, never married, kept pets, and read avidly, especially books by Catholic thinkers and presses, which may have been how she found Smith’s book. “Her shame was the denial of her education,” Smith says, adding that Catherine had regained her faith after a great deal of therapy and was a daily communicant by the time she met him.
Catherine recorded a testimony with JFRM, who applied for a pension on her behalf. Because she had received no wages while laboring in the laundry, she fell below the full pension threshold and ultimately received only $7.11 a week for her troubles. Catherine became, and remains, a source of personal inspiration for Smith, a human face in a dehumanizing system and living proof that the issues of JFMR’s work is one of concern for the Irish diaspora and the international community.
Maeve O’Rourke was introduced to JFMR while working on her master’s in human rights law at Harvard. “That was our turning point,” says Steed. In her early 20s at the time, O’Rourke “completely dedicated herself to the mission. She was not about to let any minister talk her down or treat her like some young thing who didn’t know what she was doing.”
O’Rourke is also credited with bringing an international human rights lens to their political campaign. But if it wasn’t for survivors’ testimonies, her focus might not have landed on the human rights issues in her home country. O’Rourke says she remembers clearly the evening in 2009 when Michael O’Brien, a former mayor and survivor who had testified in the government’s inquiry into the treatment of industrial school children (which was published in 2009 as the Ryan Report), spoke out live on television about the abuse he suffered as a child and being called a liar by the congregations. O’Brien’s fierce, emotional statement left O’Rourke at a loss for words. Watching at home at with her father in Dublin, she said, “I don’t know why I’m going anywhere [else] to work on human rights.”
O’Rourke also realized there were “gender differentials” when it came to redress for survivors. The Ryan Report focused on child victims of male clergy but ignored the women of the Magdalene laundries and women religious. She began working with JFMR. Her master’s thesis was the legal submission to the Irish Human Rights Commission making the case for human rights violations against Magdalene survivors, accompanying Smith’s research.
After the Irish Human Rights Commission ignored the case, she brought it to the United Nations Convention Against Torture (UNCAT) in 2011. There, JFMR met with success. UNCAT affirmed JFMR’s case and selected it as one of four urgent cases that required action and correction within 12 months. The international pressure for the Irish state to own up to its systematic abuse of women was on. Finally, the Irish government began a formal inquiry. But to really make a legal case for survivors, JFMR needed testimonies.
Katherine O’Donnell was director of the Women’s Studies Center at University College Dublin when Smith got in touch with her to join JFMR’s campaign. Originally, O’Donnell was attracted to JFMR out of admiration for their work. Her advice to her students interested in social justice work on feminist issues had always been, “Pick the good people you want to work with. It doesn’t really matter what issue, there are so many to choose from.” Then she met some of the women. “There’s an Irish phrase called faoi geasa, and it means being under an obligation. It’s a very ancient phrase, and it also means someone has kind of put a spell on you. It felt like a very intense sense of obligation once I met Magdalene women.”
Her role within JFMR has centered on oral histories. She says as the state was conducting its inquiry, it was crucial for JFMR’s campaign to gather testimonies from the women right away, because the government had placed the Ryan Report survivors under a gag order before granting them any compensation, under penalty of a steep fine and two years’ imprisonment. In the event that an apology and redress weren’t won for Magdalene survivors, O’Donnell wanted a bulwark of voices to counter the official narratives of Irish history, which still leave out so many voices. “So even if we lost the campaign to get a state apology, we had a history.”
On February 19, 2013, Ireland’s Taoiseach Enda Kenny formally apologized to women who had been incarcerated in the Magdalene laundries. Smith says for survivors like Catherine Whelan the apology was transformative. “A cloud evaporated, a shadow disappeared. She applied to the Magdalene restorative justice scheme,” Smith wrote in a tribute to Catherine in the Irish Timesafter her death.
But the redress scheme saw major bungling and stalling. And the Irish state spoke out of the other side of its mouth, as the saying goes, in its official report released after its apology, the McAleese Report. The report claimed women weren’t held in laundries against their will, were not used as slave labor, were not subject to abuse, did not spend lengthy sentences or lifetimes in them but only about three years on average.
How did JFMR—and survivors—respond? First, in 2018 JFMR organized a two-day event in Dublin to honor Magdalene survivors. More than 200 women participated, many returning to Ireland for the first time in decades from North America, Australia, the United Kingdom, from everywhere the Irish diaspora has made its way. On the second day, O’Donnell led a listening exercise that gathered the women in groups to ask them three questions. What do they want people to know about their experience? What lessons should be learned? How do they want to be remembered?
Again and again, the women said they want younger generations to know about the laundries so that history won’t repeat itself. It should be taught in schools, they said. They also want the church and state to open their archives and allow survivors and their families full access to their information. Lastly, they want more than just a statue.
On July 4, 2022 in Ireland, the Dublin City Council (DCC) voted unanimously to turn over a former Magdalene laundry to the Office of Public Works for a national site of conscience. Known as the Sean McDermott Street laundry, the 19th-century building was operated by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity from 1887 to 1996, when it became the last laundry in Ireland to close. Located in an economically struggling neighborhood with a long and layered cultural history in the heart of Dublin, the laundry is also at the center of the Open Heart City project.
Led by O’Donnell and Hugh Campbell, head of the School of Architecture at UCD, the Open Heart City project successfully stopped a proposed sale of the former laundry to a budget hotel chain. Instead, the site will provide a repository for national archives of records related to Ireland’s church and state institutions. Plans include lecture and performance space, a memorial garden, and affordable housing. O’Donnell says the name comes from the idea of opening people’s hearts and intervening to bring an open heart to “the atrophied chambers of our inner cities,” as one would in open heart surgery.
JFMR is hopeful about the future of the project, although McGettrick hopes the national archives at the site will include adoption records, and she continues to advocate for Ireland’s decriminalization of adopted people seeking their personal information. O’Rourke also hopes the recent focus on the site of conscience won’t ignore immediate needs that have still not been met. Among these are effective and swift redress for survivors of all Irish institutions, including those sideswiped by the latest commission into mother and baby homes, which resulted in similar denials of culpability as well as a 30-year seal on the commission’s records. O’Rourke and McGettrick’s initiative, the Clann Project, formed in partnership with the global law firm Hogan Lovells to offer free legal aid to survivors testifying before the commission. Post-commission, they continue to advocate for survivors and push back against the church and state’s secrecy and obstruction.
“That’s really, I suppose, when injustice and I first met.” This is how Mary Harney describes the moment when she learned from “a kind priest” that her mother wasn’t dead like the nuns in the industrial school had told her. When she went back to the nuns to confront them and demand her mother’s name and information, she says “That’s when it began, when I became an activist.”
When JFMR’s members talk about the future for Ireland’s survivors of institutional abuse, they say they believe the Irish state is hoping the issue will go away on its own, as the former Magdalene women die off and the rest just wear themselves out with frustration. But the Irish state clearly didn’t count on Mary Harney.
She identifies as “a resister.” Born in 1949 in the same institution as Mari Steed, Harney was taken from her young, unwed mother at age 2 and a half, on half an hour’s notice, and fostered out to a couple who neglected her. At age 5, she was put into an industrial school that also housed a Magdalene laundry. She was nearly 17 when she got out, soon moving to the UK to find her mother. “I loved her, and she’s my heroine to this day, and she loved me,” she says. But their reunion couldn’t replace the close bond from separation.
In the UK, Harney joined the British army. “I was institutionalized,” she explains. “I was comfortable in an institution because there were rules and you obeyed them and that was that.” After the army, Harney worked as a fire department dispatcher and got involved in trade union activism, then women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and AIDS activism. In her 40s she moved to Maine to earn her BA and learned about JFMR. Harney first gave her testimony during the Ryan Report commission (“an awful ordeal”). When she heard about the mother and baby homes commission, she contacted the Clann Project, who helped her to give her testimony again. She has also shared her testimony in Redress. Even as the state’s final report denied the full truth of what happened to people like Harney, she resists. “I thought when the commission’s report came out that I could hang up my Doc Martens and stop boots on the ground activism. But I can’t. For me, I have to keep going. And it’s with the support of JFMR—we all support each other.”
Today, Harney is back in Ireland, pursuing a PhD in human rights in her 70s. She works with Maeve O’Rourke at the Human Rights Centre in Galway helping people gain access to their records and is the community organizer to a group of students who have developed lesson plans to add Ireland’s history of survivors to school curriculums. “I love all these young people because they’re the future,” she says, her voice filled with affection and pride. “They are the people who will get the word out, the young people who will see that our legacy for justice doesn’t die with us.”
“In life, there is no real safety, except self-belief.” –Madonna
So…another digital mag that I had a piece published in a few years back has gone down. The piece, an essay called “Mixed Messages,” about Madonna for the music memoir mag Memoir Mixtapes, is still available through a direct link but is otherwise not searchable.Memoir Mixtapes’ website is disappeared, though their Medium site, which featured shorter memoir-form song recommendations(including a few of mine)is still accessible.
With the main website going defunct, and with Madonna’s birthday coming up in a few days (August 16), I thought I’d reshare the essay here. The theme for the issue it appeared in was “Back to School.” So I wrote about a boy I had a crush on back when I was 12 or 13, who I once slipped a note to with some questionable Madonna lyrics. Along with unfortunate puberty-fueled crushes, the essay gave me a chance to think about the influence that Madonna–a megastar to Generation X kids and to the world, really–had on me. I was a fan.Of her music–and of her.
In this day and age, as Madonna has entered definite senior citizen status and a multitude of female pop stars who most definitely drew from her look, style, and sound have risen to fame, it’s become a trend to deride her mercilessly. On social media, dopes leave cruel and gross ageist remarks on her posts, and people call her desperate and irrelevant. I don’t get it. Madonna was unapologetically ambitious, sexually confident, and femme-presentingin a time when many female musical acts and celebrities could still not be all three at once–and definitely not the first two. Seriously, it was her and Grace Jones. She shattered sales records, concert records, chart records–for female music artists and for music artists in general. If that wasn’t enough, she advocated for gay rights and AIDS research at a time when there were literally only two celebrities publicly speaking out. It was her and Liz Taylor. Less remarked upon is her longtime championing of artists from her home state of Michigan–over the years, she’s supported Eminem, Michael Moore, Iggy Pop—as well as Black, female, and LGBTQ artists. A few years ago, she gave a brilliant speech on what it’s been like to be a trailblazing woman in the music industry at a Billboard Music event honoring her. And she rightly continues to NGAF and keep on keeping on no matter all the ageism and sexism lobbed at her by the cluelesscrowd online. Because of course, one day, they’ll find out themselves.(AndI hope I’ll still be around to remind them what jerks they were.)
In my essay, I wrote a bit about what it was like to hear Madonna for the first time and follow her story–this upstart who grew up in a large, lower-middle-class Catholic family in the Midwest with audacious plans to rule the world, as she said on her first appearance on American Bandstand.Madonna’s gay male fanbase is well-known, and still fiercely supportive of her, but I can’t be the only Gen X Midwestern Catholic girl who also adored her, taking subconscious note of how she represented and challenged all the “mixed messages” thrown at girls and women in American culture.And Catholic culture.No music artist challenged the church’s misogyny and hypocrisy so boldly as Madonna–until Sinead O’Connor came along. It’s a pity the two women (supposedly) don’t like each other and never collaborated. They have more in common with each other than not.
This essay is as much about being a girl on the verge of becoming a woman. It’s written more from the viewpoint of that age, but with some interfering adult humor and wisdom–so I guess it has some mixed messages of its own. I’ve included some videos that weren’t in the original issue, which was released with a playlist of all the songs written about all the contributors.I’ve restored a couple instances where edits were made to my essay that I didn’t really agree with. My crush’s name is a pseudonym, both in the original and here, just FYI. I hope you enjoy.
The first love poem I ever gave a guy I stole word for word from Madonna. The “poem” was the lyrics to “Burning Up,” an intensely lusty number off her first album, and the guy was a boy at my high school whom I thought looked like Sting.
His name was Craig [not his real name], and like the woman whose song I gave him, he had a reputation.
Back in the 8th grade, when I started crushing on him, he’d been a jock verging on burnout, or maybe a burnout verging on jock. Thirteen is that kind of liminal age when you can easily embody two personas, no matter how contradictory, like a honey-sweet A-side with a dirty-horny B-side spinning away underneath. If you’re a boy, that is. If you’re a girl, still inexperienced and unsure of yourself, yet already developed, already drawing the kind of attention better suited to a woman twice your age, it’s not so easy. People will say you’re giving off mixed messages. They’ll call it “attention seeking” or “showing off.”
Craig was popular and I wasn’t. He was on the football and wrestling teams and I wasn’t on anything. He reportedly hung out in other kids’ basements after school to drink and smoke. After school I went to more school, to CCD, aka Catholic education for kids whose parents couldn’t afford parochial tuitions. Craig had spiked blond hair and acne, was twice the size of most the other boys, and wore a near-daily attire of black concert tees advertising one metal band or another. Metallica, Slayer, Iron Maiden…bands I never listened to or got near in my musical taste. Bands I probably wouldn’t have even known about if it weren’t for their appearance across the muscles of Craig’s chest.
My thing was pop music, like top 40 radio hits and heavy rotation MTV faves. I liked songs you could dance to. Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Prince, and yes, Madonna, whom I took a special interest in for a completely inconsequential and self-centered reason. We share an unusual name. Madonna is my middle name and my mother’s first name, and I had never known anyone else called Madonna, other than the Virgin Mary—which, in an era of classrooms crammed with Jennifer Lynns and Julie Annes, only made the name even more extremely weird and uncool.
Until “Holiday” came along.
I was 11 when I first heard it, on the radio one winter Sunday while listening to Casey Kasem’s countdown. Not listening actually, but dancing. Alone, in the room I shared with my sister A, four years older than me but the closest to me in age of my five siblings. We’d been roomies since I was born, sometimes even sharing a bed in the very full houses we’d grown up in, first on the northwest side of Chicago and then in a suburb known for nothing but a don’t-cough-or-you’ll-miss-it mention in The Blues Brothers.
I remember hearing Casey’s introduction to “Holiday” and thinking I misheard the singer’s name. Once the song started, I fell immediately for its peppy beat and message of celebration and togetherness. I was a misfit kid, a bookish loner who got bullied at school for my weight and glasses and crooked tetracycline-stained teeth, and my outsider experience made me a sucker for any song that pleaded for people to come together despite their differences, even for “just one day out of life.” Dancing, like books and music, was an escape for me, from the crowded physical spaces of home and the perpetual sense of social awkwardness and ugliness I felt at school. Dancing was where I could pretend I was someone else, someone graceful and beautiful and cool. All it took for transformation was a good song.
After the song’s fadeout on the countdown, Casey repeated its title and the singer’s name and where she came from: Detroit, meaning the Midwest. Same as me, I thought. And in the easily impressed way of young misfit girls, that was all it took. I was a fan.
It wasn’t long before I got to see this doppelganger of mine, on American Bandstand, lip syncing and skipping around to that same great song from Casey’s countdown. If I’d been under the notion she and I had much in common, her appearance on Bandstand quickly put an end to that. Her look was streetwise, not suburban schoolgirlish. She wore all black, lots of makeup, and fabulously messy hair. Her skippy-kid dance moves didn’t seem hard, but when I tried them later in my room it proved a challenge keeping up that energy for a whole song. She may not have been impressive vocally (live or on record), but there was something magnetic about her, something almost feral in her facial expressions that jarred with her song’s utopian lyrics but fit perfectly with her disco-punk-gypsy getup.
Then there was the confidence—sexual, professional, just all-around. To this day, I’ll maintain that’s what rubs people about Madonna, what explains the perpetual trashing she’s gotten since 1983—her audacious, undeniable, gender-role-busting self-belief. After her performance, as Dick Clark tried to interview her over the screaming kids in the studio, she couldn’t stop smiling and giggling at her success and sudden popularity. When Dick Clark asks her if she was scared to go out on her own as a performer, she answers, “Not really. I think I’ve always had a lot of confidence in myself.” Then she lays it right out for us. “What are your dreams, what’s left?” Clark asks her. “To rule the world,” she says, capping it off with another giggle.
“Look at this girl,” one of my older siblings (a baby boomer to my Gen X) said dismissively, making disparaging comments about her bared bellybutton and visible bra straps. Like, who did she think she was? Going on TV, enjoying herself, dressing slutty, dancing around, plotting world domination.
I don’t think it’s possible for me to understate the significance of that Bandstand performance, the seed-planting, what it was like as a suburban Midwestern Catholic girl to see this other suburban Midwestern Catholic girl who’d not only escaped to something bigger and better but was demanding more. Without apology.
My sister soon got Madonna’s first album, but I got more use out of it, dancing to it in the basement every week. Madonna may have been too local for A’s taste anyway. She was mostly a Brit-band kind of girl. When she hit her teens, she’d begun covering the walls of our room with Star Hits tear-outs of Duran Duran, Howard Jones, and Culture Club. They took the place of my Muppets poster and her small B&W cut-outs of Matt Dillon from the Chicago newspapers’ weekend movies section. On our closet door hung a huge poster of that blonded-up post-punk trio The Police, A’s favorite. We fought over this space—I wanted it for an MJ poster featuring the King of Pop in white slacks and a yellow cardigan and matching bowtie. When A didn’t relent, I took her stick deodorant and defaced Sting and Co’s faces with it. As it turned out, deodorant scrapes right off poster paper (who knew?) and for years I had to contend with falling asleep under the sexy-intellectual gaze of The Police’s lead singer night after night. Subconsciously, I must have started seeking that same gaze among the boys at my school. Because one night, when I was just turned 13, it struck me while staring back into Sting’s eyes: with that blond spiky ‘do and those cheekbones and muscles, he kinda sorta looked like that one tall guy at school. Metallica guy. Craig.
It was too bad Craig was all wrong for me. As in cool, popular, and rebellious where I was shy, self-conscious, and unknown. We had no classes together, nothing in common socially, and I was sure he didn’t know I was alive. He said as much when someone squealed my crush on him. “I don’t know who she is,” he said, according to the girls who told him. Later, presumably after someone pointed me out to him, he told our one mutual friend, “She’s too nice.” And I couldn’t decide which was worse—being invisible or being innocent.
Something had to change and that something had to be me. I wanted so badly for it to be me.
The truth was my life had become overwhelmed by changes. After turning 13, I got my first period, having already developed physically—breasts, hips, height, the works—beginning around 10 or 11. My older siblings started getting married off. And most life-changing of all, my grandmother had had a stroke and had come to live with us. She was given the room I shared with A, and all our music mag pics were taken down and replaced with pictures and statues of the Holy Family and various Catholic saints—Madonna for madonnas, you might say. A moved into a room formerly occupied by one of our brothers, and I moved into a tiny tandem room off hers, about the size of a large walk-in closet. After school, I had to be home to help look after my grandmother with my siblings, as our parents worked full-time.
There comes a time in every young girl’s life when she senses things aren’t under her control, that there are rules she’s supposed to abide by that she didn’t make and expectations she has to live up to that she can’t possibly meet and taboos she shouldn’t break that she suspects wouldn’t even be on the radar if she were a boy. Most girls react to this realization head-on, and many by trying to take control over the one thing that all these rules and expectations and taboos seem to apply to—her body. I was no different. If I couldn’t stop change from overwhelming my life and overtaking the space I’d tried to carve out for myself, I could at least try and make it work for me.
So I lost weight. A lot. I did it my way and the textbook teen girl way—dancing for hours to records in the basement after school and eating as little as a scoop of cottage cheese for dinner and a milk carton for lunch every day. It was only the beginning.
After graduating junior high, I spent the summer getting ready for high school reflecting on possibilities, on the dream of having a completely different look, a completely different social life—really, any social life. Meanwhile, A was going away to college, giving me her room and everything in it she left behind. Her last couple years of high school, she’d begun replacing her music mags with fashion rags, bookmarking spreads of stylish women whose looks she wanted to copy and elegant rooms whose décor she wanted to surround herself in. She’d always had a fashionable touch that I lacked. Studying her leftover, well-thumbed through copies of Vogue and Mademoiselle, I knew such transformation was hopeless for me, even newly skinny as I was. I was too hungry for high fashion—hungry to be noticed, to be loved, to stop being so invisible and innocent.
Who else could I turn for a role model but to Madonna, by now the queen of everything, not just a pop star but a cultural tornado-exploding-supernova. I didn’t know if Craig liked her. I mean, looking back, reminiscing on all his death metal tees, probably not. But I don’t think it even occurred to me. The point is I liked her.
So freshman year of high school saw a new me—dressed in extra-small tank tops I converted into ultra-short miniskirts (I’d pull the neck part over my hips and tuck the straps in at the sides) and visible bra straps and, yes, even rosaries worn as necklaces. Did Craig notice? Because I know my grandmother did. She complained about it to my mother, who was either too distracted by her new role as caretaker to her mother to notice her youngest child’s increasingly provocative attire or had raised enough kids by now to know a phase when she saw one. The only thing my mother objected to was the rosaries. “Those aren’t jewelry,” she informed me one morning as I was heading out of the house for the bus. And like the good Catholic girl I still was underneath, I obeyed and put the rosaries back on my grandmother’s bedstand where I’d borrowed them.
If Craig wasn’t impressed by my new look, maybe a good old-fashioned note would do the trick. But what to say to a pot-smoking, Slayer-loving, teenage Sting look-alike on the football team who I’d been obsessing about for a year now? I didn’t trust my own words, didn’t think I could put my schoolgirl feelings and hormonal yearnings into anything eloquent enough to convince him of the urgency of my love and lust for him. That was where music saved the day. I mean, he liked music. I liked music. What could go wrong?
After hitting on my epiphany, I spent a couple afternoons poring over all the songs in my record collection, reading all the lyrics on the liner sleeves, trying to determine the perfect song to snare Craig’s attention and devotion. At some point, I don’t know when—but I wish I did, to better determine just what I was thinking—I settled on “Burning Up.” It was from Madonna’s first album, same as “Holiday,” already an oldie in the wake of two more albums she’d released. Unlike “Holiday,” it hadn’t been a hit, but in some ways it had solidified Madonna’s hypersexual reputation more than any other song from her early career. The most notorious of the lyrics went:
Do you wanna see me down on my knees? Or bending over backwards, now would you be pleased? Unlike the others I’d do anything I’m not the same, I have no shame I’m on fire!
Over time, serious music critics would suggest that the song’s love interest was really a metaphor for fame or power. The video seems to back this up, showing Madonna writhing around as if in sexual agony on a street intercut with some dude driving her way—until the last shot sees Madonna behind the wheel of the car, sans dude and smiling.
Metaphor or no, I took the lyrics literal af (especially the line “But you don’t even know I’m alive”), and diligently copied down the lyrics (where Madonna pants in the song, I remember I wrote “heavy breathing”), and got a friend to pass off this surefire love tactic to Craig in the hall one day. “This is from René,” I told her to say. “Cool, thanks,” Craig reportedly said, shoving the note in his pocket.
I don’t know what I was expecting in return. A request for a date? A note with some favorite lyrics of his own? To be taken seriously? I mean, really? It got back to me eventually that Craig told our one mutual friend he started laughing when he read my note—to his credit, he also told our friend not to tell me that. She did anyway, because she thought I should know.
Regardless of whether Craig noticed me, others definitely had. I’d been frequently teased by boys, but now girls were talking about me too, making fun of me, even the nice girls and other misfit girls. And even before I’d lost weight, even before the new clothing choices, around the time I’d begun gaining inches in height and curves, I’d started to get a certain kind of attention. One boy at school would lift up my skirt as I walked down the hallways. At the library I’d been followed into the stacks and groped by a man. These were just a couple incidents I’d experienced. I didn’t know what to do when these things happened, other than run away and then blame myself for “leading guys on” or tell myself maybe I should be flattered.
Looking back, I refuse to say I was confused. That I didn’t know what I was doing, like why I’d picked an embarrassingly horny song to give to a boy and why I started dressing like a girl in a music video, why I’d veered so far (so it seemed) from the innocent girl who just wanted to dance her cares away in her bedroom on a Sunday morning. On the one hand, I tell myself I compromised my true self for a boy’s attention, a ploy that didn’t even work. On the other hand, I know I was trying to take control and ownership of the changes overwhelming my life and the expectations and rules overwhelming any girl. I was trying to take a cue from my name doppelganger—Madonna, the Michigan girl with an uncanny ability for taking every rumor, criticism, or slut-shaming insult thrown her way and wielding it to her advantage, to power.
Within another year or two, life would throw more changes my way. By 15, my father had been hospitalized with a heart problem, my grandmother died, and I became an aunt for the first time. As for Craig, I finally had a class with him and picked up on some crude remarks he made, and some rumors that he’d hurt someone after school one day. I forgot him. I started to put weight back on and dressing in loose, dark layers. Began reading poetry and Irish and French history and listening to The Cure and New Order. I made pen pals with a boy on the south side of Chicago who sent me rap lyrics and detailed his graffiti-writing exploits to me. We started spending all night talking on the phone together, when everyone else in our houses was asleep. I was depressed and curious and artistic and still unconfident, but cared less whether people noticed, whether it was my job to endlessly please the world as a girl was supposed to do.
There’s a temptation now to disown the girl I was at 13, to say “I don’t know her.” I’d do as much with Madonna in the years to come, pretending I no longer liked her or her music, denying to myself the leaps her best songs made my heart do and the moves her beats once made my body do. But some things are just undeniable, like the person you were when you were on your way to learning how to be yourself, or a girl’s desire to prove she’s the one in control of her life, or an infectious song beckoning everyone to forget about the bad times and put their troubles down, for just one day out of life. To this day, nothing does it for me, nothing connects me to the better moments of my girlhood, like “Holiday.”
When I was in my 30s, I ran into Craig again, in a bar in Chicago. I was attending a book swap event, and he was a bouncer, checking IDs as all us bookish grown-up former misfit types entered the bar. We recognized each other right away, though he had to read my ID to remember my name. He didn’t look like Sting so much anymore. And I didn’t even recall the note I’d given him, or the girl I’d been, until thinking about my run-in with my old crush later that night. Once the memory surfaced, the lusty lyrics to “Burning Up” churning through my brain, I was mortified. And then I laughed, liked Craig himself did, like Madonna after promising she was going to the rule the world on American Bandstand.
Three days ago the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, a decision made in 1973–just one year after I was born–that essentially made abortion a legal right for American women.
This is devastating news. It isn’t hyperbole to borrow from FDR’s statement about the day Pearl Harbor was bombed: This is a day that will live in infamy.
Make no mistake about the fallout from this decision. Women and girls will die due to lack of access to full reproductive health care. Women will lose their livelihoods since so many will no longer be able to make a fair choice between holding down a job and bearing a child–with, of course, women in lower-paying jobs and jobs without health insurance getting boxed into a corner the most. Many girls will lose their education, no longer able to make a fair choice between continuing their schooling and bearing a child they are not prepared to take care of, being so young themselves. The circumstances that led to their pregnancies, whether from a loving relationship or from rape or incest, will be moot. Some women and girls impregnated through rape may even be sued by their rapists for custody of a child not even born. It’s already happening. Women will be imprisoned for trying to exercise bodily autonomy, as will doctors in many states for trying to help women and girls, for essentially taking their medical vocation seriously and treating their female patients as equal, sentient human beings capable of making decisions about their own life and health. Women’s clinics in states that still allow abortion will continue to be targeted for violence, until the entire country is “pro-life.”
I know nobody’s waiting to hear my take on this. I’m an ordinary American woman with a pretty average (maybe even below average) level of individual power. I’m not rich, I’m not famous, I’m not connected. I’m also middle-aged, just a few months short of 50, and post-menopausal as of the fall of 2019, with no daughters (or kids at all) of my own. Which means that today’s Supreme Court decision doesn’t affect me in the same way it would have just 10 years ago. I’m not married and never have been. Socially, I’m a lifelong loner. I’ve never been pregnant. I have cats. I’m the kind of invisible woman our country and culture ignore except to ridicule once in a while.
I’m a survivor too, but let’s face it–even in this era of #MeToo, with a current president in charge who co-authored the Violence Against Women Act (I will always respect Biden for this), our culture still doesn’t give a shit about survivors. If it did, this Supreme Court decision wouldn’t have happened. If it did, two men credibly accused of sexually assaulting/harassing women wouldn’t be on this Supreme Court. If it did, the corrupt, failed former game show host, and verified woman abuser who appointed one of those justices would’ve gone to jail where he belongs instead of the White House.
But I’m a woman all the same, and an American citizen, not to mention a human being–which should be self-evident with the phrase “I’m a woman,” but going by June 24, 2022’s decision, clearly some people still don’t think “woman” equals “human.” So of course, today’s decision does still affect me. It affects every American, everyone living in this country–red state or blue, citizen or immigrant, documented or undocumented, male or female, young or old.
I was at the march alone, but surrounded by people of all genders, races, and ages as we marched slowly through the Loop. There was everyone from moms marching with their grade school age daughters to older women with gray hair and thick waists. The majority of the people around me though were younger, looking to be in their late teens to 20s. So part of me felt a bit out of place. I wondered if this was my march to participate in, even being a woman. Maybe this is a young generation’s fight, I thought. I wondered if I should just stand off to the sidelines and cheer them on, as I saw others doing.
As we marched along chanting “My body, my choice” (the female marchers) / “Their body, their choice” (the male marchers), I remember one very young woman behind me shouting her part to the point her voice was straining. She was the loudest person I heard at the march, chanting like her life depended on it. Because it does. At one point she passed me up or I fell back, and when I saw her it surprised me just how small and slight she was, given the volume and strength of her voice. I’d put her on the Supreme Court in a minute.
It also struck me then how fortunate I had been, despite never having had to deal with an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy (though believe me, as a survivor, the risk was there). I’d been born a year before Roe v Wade and made it all the way to menopause with full reproductive rights. These girls and women around me had suddenly been stripped of this freedom, no matter which state they live in. Fifty years of precedent, just gone. Because of the unfair and hateful biases of six justices, a ruling that can’t be easily changed back (we’re stuck with them for the long haul, like a varicose vein), the girls and young women marching around me may have decades ahead of them of fear and worry and fighting for a right that should be self-evident, like our Constitution says, a right that is unalienable, that comes with simply being human. The thought of it overwhelmed me to the point of near-tears.
But it wasn’t all despair. I was just as much moved and humbled.
Roe v Wade was not an overnight success story, to put it kind of cheesily. It came through the backbreaking justice efforts of countless women born before me. Women of the Baby Boom, Silent, and Greatest generations, and the generations before them. Many of those women are long gone now. Even those who didn’t live to see Roe v Wade back in ’73 still left this world a better place. They left it as heroines. What a trampling on their graves and their legacies this evil turn of events is.
Meanwhile, many of those heroic women are certainly still alive. I saw them in downtown Chicago on June 24. The women with the gray hair and thick middles, marching too or raising fists from the sidewalk. Women who can’t get pregnant anymore may seem out of danger from the cruelty of this decision–but for subverting their freedom and that of their daughters, granddaughters, younger sisters, and younger female neighbors, for wasting all their past work, this injustice delivered a slap across the face to them too.
(Necessary not-digression: No matter how anti-child the pro-life movement may like to paint feminists and abortion rights activists, many of these women were/are mothers and grandmothers. I see these women–and it’s important to see them, to not erase them or brush them aside but make them visible–and I’m reminded of those elderly ladies, 100+ years old, born before any woman had suffrage in the U.S., who came out hell or high water to vote for Hillary Clinton, who had actually lived long enough to see a woman become president. And then…what happened? Their tenacity, grit, and pride all trampled on by the corrupt cronyism of former frat boy jerks like Cheeto and Co., Tucker Carlson, and now, Brett Kavanaugh with his creepy high school calendars tracking beer bong parties like they were as integral to his life as, say, tracking a period is to the girls he bullied.)
(Hillary still won btw. And Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill? They told the truth.)
How hateful it is to treat the humanity and justice work of all these women, younger and elder alike, like a leaf that can be just flipped over recklessly by six supreme fools. What an anti-life decision. Because there is nothing pro-life about anti-abortion laws. It is all misogyny. All cruelty, control, and power grabs.
So how do I know this? How do I know how bad this is and how bad it’s going to get? I know because I’ve seen it elsewhere. For a time, when I was much younger, and at the age most affected by anti-abortion laws, I lived in a country with such draconian systems.
I went to Ireland to work and live in 1995, when I was 22. At the time, not only was abortion still illegal in the country, but also divorce and same-sex marriage. Contraception had only been legalized a few years prior. Yet birth control and condoms were still hard to get outside the cities, and many of these social issues were still not discussed openly. Mid-90s Ireland was a country still controlled by the Catholic Church–its schools and education system, its hospitals and health care system, its government. The seeds of dismantling it were just being planted at the time, mainly through the testimonies of a few brave church abuse survivors, who’d be joined by hundreds of others in the decades to come.
In recent years, many of these horrific laws and systems have been subverted, beginning with divorce in 1996 and leading up to abortion as late as 2018. Not even five years ago. The damage caused by this deeply misogynistic and abuse-riddled church-and-state system is hardly over. Survivors of clerical abuse, of the Mother and Baby Home system, of Magdalene laundry institutions, including adoptees to families in the U.S., are still fighting for their rights to compensation and redress and to their own identities through access to birth, church, and state records that remain locked away from public view. Even just six years before abortion was legalized in Ireland, a young woman died as a result of not being allowed to terminate a very much wanted but unviable pregnancy.
Back in the 90s, I was as aware of these issues in Ireland as I was oblivious to them. Ireland was (and is) a beautiful place with a rich culture and many generous-hearted people. That’s what I chose to focus on. But I saw news headlines, heard stories, noticed the wall-to-wall religious iconography in so many homes and even on the street in the heart of bigger cities like Dublin.
And I was a young woman myself. A very inexperienced and naive young woman, but a foreign one on her own, with no local family to offer me a social buffer from gossip or judgment. It was just assumed by more than one man I encountered that I was “loose” and worldly. That if I tried to make male friends or even talk to a man of nearly any age for even the most mundane few seconds of conversation that I was “chasing him” and desperate. Sometimes men would harass me or follow me home or say crude things to me, and when I tried to tell someone, people would joke about it or act unsympathetic. Like I deserved it…for what? Like I was a punchline. I was all at once too nice, too naive, too forward, too bold, too aggressive, too shy, too virginal, too teasing, too friendly, too trusting, too stuck-up, too aloof, too this, too that. Never just a person. Never just a potential friend. It was a confusing time in a culture controlled by a church viciously hypocritical towards and deeply confused about women.
I told myself I was lucky though. I was only passing through. I could–and did–always go home to a country that offered more rights for women, a country with separation of church and state declared right in its Constitution. In reality, I took the reproductive rights in the U.S. for granted, and as a still practicing Catholic at the time, sometimes I even questioned their rightness, though never to the extent of voting against them. Yes, you can be Catholic and support women’s right to choose—not to mention a Constitution that does what it claims to do by refusing to preference one religion’s belief above others.
Maybe I sound smug to compare myself to the women I met and knew in Ireland back then and call myself lucky. For one, there has always been a huge disparity in the U.S. between how rights are doled out to some women than others, based on race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, language, geography, religion, ability, education level, and citizenship. The rights I was so smugly proud of in the U.S. privileged some women (i.e., white chicks) over others, founded as they were on oppression and hypocrisy.
They were also already well under attack.
The first time I went to Ireland, a year before I worked there, was in 1994. I was 21. While there I met three other American women, a mother and her adult daughters in their late 20s and early 30s. (Funny how they seemed so much older to me then.) I distinctly remember waiting with them at a bus stop (in Waterford, I think) while the younger daughter read through a copy of USA Today she had gotten her hands on somewhere. I remember her suddenly shaking her head and making a disapproving noise, reading out loud about how “another doctor” was shot to death by an anti-abortion zealot. In Florida, she said.
Rewind another ten years or so and I’m with my parents and one of my sisters in Florida for a vacation. I’m about 12 or 13. We’re in the state over spring break to visit Disney World (my one and only time, and I’m admittedly a bit old to enjoy it), Epcot, Daytona Beach, and my mom’s close friend Joyce, who lives in Fort Lauderdale. Joyce takes us around town, including to her “clinic” for a tour. When we’re inside, I note all the classic posters showing images like a man with a baby bump and messages saying, “Would you be more careful if it was you that got pregnant?” and somehow I put it together that this is an abortion or birth control clinic or something. But I don’t really know yet what that means. Apart from the vintage posters and the picture of Gloria Steinem that Joyce keeps on her office wall, the most memorable part about our little tour is Joyce’s story of a protestor who showed up one day claiming to have a bomb with him (of course it was a “him”). Joyce tells us he waited quietly for the police to come and arrest him, and she points to the chair where he sat waiting. Fortunately, he didn’t hurt anyone that day, but Joyce still needed to start wearing a bulletproof vest to work.
Back home in Illinois, I make my Catholic confirmation a few weeks later, but I don’t think it occurs to me to worry whether visiting an abortion clinic makes me a sinner or anything. It’s not until another year or two later when some anti-abortion people show up on my high school campus and hand out graphic leaflets to us girls walking on the lawn and minding our own business (I remember a teacher or someone coming out and chasing them off) that I start to worry and feel confused.
But in my sociology course, I have a teacher who rails at us about knowing our rights and tells us rape is never the victim’s fault and how the “morning after pill” works and how one of her closest friends died of AIDS, and she assigns us homework like going to a store to locate and price out the condoms and OTC birth control or developing a catchy but educational advertising strategy for a form of contraception and then presenting it to the class. (My group came up with a Rockettes idea for a month’s worth of birth control pills, standing in a kickline complete with top hats and legs.) She seems kind of extreme but at least she’s never boring. In hindsight I often wonder how many of her students’ lives she saved, how many of us she kept from a situation that would’ve robbed of us our youth and health. And she did it not through prohibition or restriction or guilt and shame, but through honesty and education.
Joyce passed away several years ago from cancer, and my sociology teacher has long since retired. Is there an America for women like them anymore? Could my former teacher be allowed to teach the way she did in a school today, or even just a few years ago, as anti-choice and anti-woman laws straight out of mandated transvaginal ultrasound hell ramped up.
And now here we are, regressed to the barbarities of the past.
It startles me and frightens me to think where we are and where we’re headed. I think of the place Ireland used to be for women. I’m happy for the freedom and justice women in Ireland have won (though there is still so much to be done for survivors there, and note, we’re only talking the Republic of Ireland here—many restrictions remain in place in the North). But I’m horrified for what women here have just lost and what’s still to come from this court. Ireland’s grim past is what the likes of Amy Coney Barrett and Clarence Thomas want for America’s future.
If there’s any silver lining, it’s that strong voice of that young woman marching behind me on Friday, the sister and granddaughter of those elderly women who marched in their own day.
Back in 2018, when Ireland was gearing up for the popular referendum that would finally result in the country’s legalization of abortion, Irish citizens living around the world planned trips back to Ireland just to vote. (Absentee or mail-in voting is not allowed in Ireland.) For Irishwomen under age 50, this would be the first time they could vote in a law affecting their own bodily autonomy, as the last such referendum had occurred in 1983. Like those old women intent on voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016, many Irish emigrants moved hell or high water to make it back to Ireland and cast their vote. Literally, just to cast a vote. Those who couldn’t make it back helped fund flights back for others, sent messages of support, and organized walks and fundraisers where they lived abroad.
In Chicago, a small group of young Irish people were among those who held a walk to show their support for the Yes vote back home. They were even kind enough to allow Americans to walk in solidarity too, which about four or five of us did. We walked along Lake Michigan all the way from Montrose Harbor to a pub in Lincoln Park (you knew it had to end in a pub). The news that came a few days later from Ireland was an amazing testament to the power of the people and proof that even the darkest days can come to an end.
Not even five years on, dark days have come for American women. They can’t last, or America won’t last. There is nothing American about taking rights away from half the population. Six Supreme Court justices have earned themselves nothing but infamy. (That includes you, Miss Stepford Wannabe, Illegitimately Appointed, Can’t Even Name The Five Basic Rights In The First Amendment Amy Coney B.)
But if it can change one way, it can change another. So godspeed the reproductive rights movement in the USA.
If you want to learn more about what still needs to be done in Ireland and the history of church-state oppression against women and ongoing justice work there, these are survivor-led organizations that you should check out and support:
Unless you’ve been living under a rock or in a hard-core Luddite community a million miles from the grasp of the internet (bliss!), you’ve probably heard about the kidney story. I won’t rehash it all here, but long story short: The New York Times ran an article recently about a dispute between two up-and-coming writers, one of whom plagiarized from the other’s Facebook posts to write a fictionalized “takedown” of the plagiarized writer’s experience as an altruistic kidney donor.
The Times article received lots of attention, with follow-up think pieces and heated Twitter convos galore about what counts as plagiarism, what personal stories an author has the right to mine from someone else’s life, classism and gatekeeping in the writing world, literary mean girls (and guys), and ableism and health privilege. The last issue may have produced the most revealing and necessary conversations. A lot of people became newly aware of the kind of marketing and networking asked of organ donors and recipients alike to save people’s lives. The promotional posting and sharing done by the plagiarized writer/kidney donor only seemed “cringe” or “narcissistic” to those lucky enough to be so ignorant of the urgent realities of organ donorship.Also, a lot of big-time writers really showed their ass.
I probably don’t need to say I’m Team Dawn on this. Also Team Anyone Who Helps Out Someone In Need of an Organ. I have family members and friends whose lived were saved by receiving an organ transplant, family who suffered terribly through years and years of dialysis, and family who risked their own health to donatean organ.They all can talk and share and post about it all they want wherever and whenever.Serious health issues will teach you there’s far worse in life than coming across as “cringe”to the cool/mean kids.
Reading about “the kidney story,” including the contested story in question (“The Kindest”), reminded me of an organ transplant story of my own, “The Guide to Good Apple Self-Care.” I wrote it in 2014 or so and got it accepted at Drunk Monkeys in 2015. It’s written from a sense of heightened, metaphorical reality (it’s about a woman who receives an apple transplant in place of a heart and her ensuing recovery). I honestly don’t remember what inspired it, but I went back to look at it to see if I approached the issue of organ transplant with any more or less respect than “The Kindest.” I thought I’d share it here on my site for anyone who follows my posts here to judge. I’d really welcome the feedback. I don’t write stories like this so much anymore–I’ve moved away a bit from metaphorical, magical stuff–so I can’t say I’d write something like this today.
The Guide to Good Apple Self-Care
The day after my heart crashed, the doctors told me they’d have to take it out and replace it with an apple. “Don’t ask why,” the head doctor told me. “You’ll never understand.” The head nurse was nicer. She patted my hand, gave me a pamphlet to read later with tips for good apple self-care. “Don’t you worry,” she said. “An apple works just as well as a heart.” The doctors concurred. “In the future we’ll all have apple transplants!” they joked, as I breathed in the anesthetic. Just before the blackness took me, I thought I heard the head doctor mutter, “Apples…or alarm clocks.”
I woke 5 hours later, with my apple installed. That was nearly two years ago—since then it’s been nothing like I thought it would be. For one I thought it would make me sweeter, having an apple for a heart. With a crisper personality, whatever that might be (I figured I’d find out). But that’s not how an apple for a heart works.
There are advantages, that’s for sure. I can take a knife to my apple and cut away the bruises, whereas with my heart I had to suffer its accumulated injuries all times and forever. I’ve a little door on my chest now, like a small square flap with a latch that I can open, so I can view my apple every day and check out the shape it’s in. And the skin I can peel away, if the blush on my apple ever gets too deep, too bold, and threatens to spread to my face and give my feelings away. Because my feelings are still centered there, in that spot beneath my left breast, more than ever I think. You see, before a heart was just the word I used to mean the emotions generated from my mind—that and the thing that crashed on me. But now it’s become more complicated. My heart is an apple. My apple has become my mind. My mind is in my chest, beneath a small flap-door…I know I’m not explaining it well.
This is what I never expected, what the experts forgot to mention in the guide to good apple self-care—the way this would mess with what I used to call “speaking from the heart.” After my transplant I wanted to be honest, and I wanted to be accurate. I wanted to know how to juggle staying true to my experience with talking about it to the curious and concerned. So I went to a therapist. “I can help you,” he said. “But it will take at least 10 sessions, at $80 a session, to get to the heart of the matter.” I found a new therapist. I found I was the problem. “Take heart!” the new therapist would say. I’d set my jaw. “Recovery is not for the faint-hearted.” It would go on like this—sometimes I’d swear I was being set up. I’d swivel my head around, look for the hidden camera. Instead the therapist’s alarm clock would go off. “Time’s up! See you next week?” I walked out after the third session without giving a yes or no, went back to my car, and sat for a while carefully cutting away my bruises.
I have had some luck, though, in the love department. I met a woman while at a St. Patrick’s Day parade who’d had a few. So I felt I could talk to her, open up about my apple. She said: “I’ve got a friend, a big cider drinker. I’d say he’d fancy you.” I laughed, thinking it was a jest at my situation, and a rare good one at that. But she was serious, and she was meeting up with him that night, so she invited me along. Well, I knew him from across the bar. He reeked of apples (I’ve developed a high sensitivity to the smell of my stand-in heart). And his face was as red as one too. You may laugh, but a connection is a connection. It was like someone had opened up the door to my apple and held a mirror up to it. I looked at him and I saw everything I’d been through since the transplant. I saw a man who’d understand.
We went out for a while, for a few months, until the leaves began to change colors on the trees. It’s funny because I was feeling such a fullness in my apple around the time it ended. The days were growing shorter, the leaves were dying on the trees and rustling to the earth, and there was a coolness coming in the wind—but I was under the impression the world was really blooming. Our love was growing, ripening, ready…I was sure my cider man felt it too. But he ended it and moved on immediately to another girl. She came from Michigan, right over the border. Her father owned an orchard. We’d gone there only a few weeks before the break-up, for our 6-month anniversary, when the McIntosh crop had just come in. It was there I told him I loved him, and where he stripped the leaves off a branch of Red Delicious and wove them into two crowns, one big, one small. “For your russet hair and your apple heart.” He met her as we were leaving, while he was paying for our bushels. I had gone ahead to the car to open the door on my chest and fit my apple with its crown. I never saw it coming. Last I heard they’d gotten hitched and were growing an orchard of their own. I don’t like it, but I get it. Why settle for one of what you love when you can have it in bushels?
In time I got over him. I cut away my bruises, peeled away my shame, and put a lock on the latch to my apple until a new skin grew and a new year began. I kept myself busy, took on anything to ward off those feelings that I’d been eaten up and spat out, discarded like something rotten, misunderstood once again. I learned to cook, I learned to bake, I learned to garden, I learned computers. I even talked to the head nurse at the hospital where I’d got my transplant and asked if I could write a new and improved guide to good apple self-care. I found I was fit for all kinds of things—all kinds of activities, all kinds of plans and dreams.
Still I waited for some sign that I’d fully recovered. Every day I looked in on my apple, and I’d think about that time in the fall, when I felt such a fullness, such a ripening, and I wondered if I’d ever know such happiness again. The weeks went by, and I ticked off the days on my calendar seven at a time. The week of St. Patrick’s Day, I marked off the day of the parade with ink as red as the skin of a Red Delicious apple.
Then in April the head nurse left me a message. “Your guides have come in from the printer. Come in to have a look at them…and schedule your next check-up.”
I went in the next morning. The head nurse had stacked my guides on the counter where the patients sign in. She came out and placed another stack in my hand. The doctors came out too, and the staff in the waiting room and even the patients all crowded around. “Looks good!” said the head nurse, using the same tone as after she’s checked my vitals. Everyone congratulated me and took a copy, and an old man asked me to autograph his. The head doctor leaned in to me as the old man was called in by a nurse. “He’s scheduled for a transplant next week,” he said, placing a hand over his heart for a moment, before miming the act of biting into a Jonagold. I brushed off his thoughtless gesture and left with my stack of guides.
I sat in the car with them, flipped through the stack, read a copy front to back, admired the smell and visuals, and placed them all square in my lap. I stared down at them, thinking about all my effort and what I’d made. I wondered if they’d really be a help to anyone, to other apple transplant people like me. I’d never helped anyone before, never been regarded as an expert at anything in my life.
I clutched the stack to my chest and looked out my car window. I noticed a few buds on the trees and robins singing in the little park beside the health center. It was late in the afternoon but the sun was still strong and bright. The days were getting longer and spring was on its way. But it all seemed so strange to me. Because my apple was suddenly acting like it was autumn, like it was once again becoming full after so many months of waning, throbbing in the way my heart had before it crashed. I clutched my guides tighter, right against my apple. I didn’t need to open the little flap-door to see what was happening. My apple was growing. It was ripening to the red of an October sunset, shining like a skin that had never been bruised, blooming like an orchard full of brand new apple hearts.
Hi! I have a new project that I’m trying to get the word out about. It’s a newsletter at the new publishing platform Substack called Island in the City.
To semi-quote myself in the About page of the newsletter, I started it for fun and community to cope with the continued social isolation. The newsletter will dive into topics that have preoccupied my mind during the long days and nights of the pandemic. Stuff like creativity & productivity, loneliness, favorite artists, places & people, aging & ageism, class & classism, storytelling, and the life and geography of big cities & tiny islands.
I already have my first post up, about the Chicago outsider artist Henry Darger. Please check it out. This is also a two-parter post–you can expect the second part to go up next week.
What makes this different from my website and the occasional posts here?
A few things. The newsletter will be bi-monthly at the most, monthly at the least. That’s much more frequent than my posting here on my personal site.
You can also subscribe to the newsletter and get an email whenever a new post goes up. There are links to subscribe in the newsletter at Substack, and you can also do it here.
You’ll notice there’s a payment option. For now, my posts will be free. Maybe they always will–this is brand new journey and I haven’t a clue what’s around the corner with this. For all I know, there are no corners. Anyway, Substack was created as a self-publishing platform like Medium, WordPress, and Blogger, but with more of an ability to earn income for your writing. If you’ve been paying attention to changes in media and publishing over the last 10-15 years, and certainly if you’ve worked in media, you’ll know how changes have set so many media professionals adrift, especially many of a certain generation (cough, Gen X, cough). Layoffs and scale staffs, newspaper foldings, media conglomeration, the rise of blogging, the glut of blogs, free media, social media, unpaid internships, the decline of print–all of this has turned publishing, journalism, and media careers upside down and affected many writers’ income. Substack, like Patreon and other “content monetization platforms” (ugh, what a phrase–but it is what it is), allow for writers to charge for their newsletters to give some of the power back to creators.
I’m under no illusion that anyone wants to pay for my ramblings. But since the option is there, if you’d like to show your support by paying, I’d of course feel grateful and encouraged. The subscription cost is $5 a month or $50 a year. Should I ever start charging for the newsletter, it will most likely be the model most other writers are using: some free posts that all subscribers and visitors to the site will get, mixed with some locked ones for paying subscribers only. There is also an option for me to “grandfather in” my original free subscribers so they continue to get the newsletter for free even if I start charging–a gift for the support of loyalty.
What can subscribers expect to read about?
Here are some topics that I plan on writing about beyond my first posts about Henry Darger:
Chicago outsider artists Vivian Maier and Lee Godie
the Chicago Riverwalk, its bridgehouses, and the Technicolor Man of downtown Chicago,
Jean-Baptiste DuSable, city segregation, and the sundown towns of Illinois
Tim Robinson and the Aran Islands
the islands of Chicago (Goose, Northerly, Stony, Blue)
learning a minority language (Irish) in America
the sand dunes of Indiana, the boy who fell inside one, and the Girl X case that broke Chicago’s heart
the Green Mill and Michael Mann’s/James Caan’s great film, Thief
the Pigeon Man of Lincoln Square
informal economies and the vanishing Chicago hot dog vendor
maybe more (Chicago graffiti art, Ronnie Woo-Woo, Jazz Record Mart (RIP), other Irish islands I have known, who knows?
How to subscribe and connect
To subscribe just go toIsland in the City, click the Subscribe button, and add your email. If you like a post, please share. And if you like the newsletter in general, please tell all your like-minded friends.
As a gift for reading this, here’s a deer pic for your enjoyment. And there’s more where that came from. 😉
I wrote this creative nonfiction piece a couple years ago and sent it around to some lit mags but couldn’t get it placed. So I’m sharing it here.
This is dedicated to Roger, Mrs. C., Maria, Vladimir, and Mariann.
The longest relationship of my adult life has been with a local bakery: a Polish mom and pop in a Chicago suburb where I’ve been employed on and off since the early ‘90s, a few weeks before I turned 21. At the time I’d been working minimum wage jobs since high school, with no college degree and not much sense of where I belonged in life. But for fun I liked to bake cookies or whip up some fancy French toast the odd weekend, so I got it in my head to go to cooking school and become a chef or baker. Something like that. The local bakery seemed like a good place to start.
There’s a “sick burn” quote from the third edition of David Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of Film (1994) about movie goddess Michelle Pfeiffer: “She still carries the rather stunned, obedient air of an ex-checkout girl at the El Toro Vons supermarket.” Personally, I never noted such an “air” about Pfeiffer nor any of her screen incarnations, not even when she played a deglamorized diner waitress in Frankie and Johnny. But back in the ‘90s, when I was knee deep in mandatory hairnets and the impossible promise of guaranteed customer satisfaction, Thomson’s comment seared into my brain.
A film buff and bookworm, I spotted his book at the library, checked it out, and bulldozed through Thomson’s hundreds of acerbically funny and perceptive entries on Hollywood’s luminaries. Like the movies, Thomson’s wit was a welcome escape. But his entry on Pfeiffer unnerved me. Not because I was a fan of hers, but because it confirmed my fears that as far as the cultured people of the world are concerned, you can take the girl out of the working class but you can’t take the working class out of the girl. Or, in the case of any woman who’s worked a service job, that “smile and say ‘Have a nice day’ or you’re fired” reek of subservience. I mean, if the stunning — not “stunned” — Michelle Pfeiffer couldn’t convince someone she was born for better things than bagging groceries, even with all the transformative power of Hollywood’s dream factory backing her, what chance had someone like me, a Midwestern bakery girl of no special talents, looks, or connections?
Bakery girl. When I started cooking school (really, an associate’s in culinary arts program at a community college), I may have aspired to the title of chef or baker, but my domain at the bakery was always the store, not the bake shop in the back. And my title was “store girl.” That’s what the owners called all of us who set up the store starting 5 a.m., sliced and bagged the bread, boxed the donuts, weighed the butter cookies, stocked the shelves, rang up the purchases, made the coffee, carried out the cakes, answered the phones, took orders, wiped down the counters and tables, and swept and scraped (the latter on our hands and knees) the store floors before closing every night.
Store girl. Never mind that our ages ranged from 15 to early 70s.
There were no store boys, not in the 1990s. All the males worked in the back, meaning they did all the baking (and dishwashing and wholesale delivering). It sort of made sense, given all the heavy lifting and industrial equipment involved. The huge mixers, the lead-like buckets filled with custard and buttercream icing, and a wide-mouthed, revolving, floor-to-ceiling oven that warned away kitchen newbies with its perpetual fiery glow. It was heavy-duty baking, and heavy-duty baking apparently was no job for a girl. The only back of the house jobs any women did were packaging for wholesale, strawberry hulling (an endless job, fresh strawberries being the most popular choice of cake filling), and cake and pastry decorating.
The crew in the back wore bakery whites and heavy black shoes. We store girls wore a pink and beige smock with a matching hair scarf, white pants, and white thick-soled sneakers. The touch of pink was vital, underlining the distinction between us girls and the macho bakeshop crew.
We barely ever sat down — even on break, when there was a long enough lull to take one. My first day I brought a novel with me to read, imagining there’d be an official breakroom, like at the library job I’d had when I was 18, or somewhere private, like the popcorn room at the movie theater job I’d had when I was 17. But at the bakery there was no breakroom. Just a side room where baking tins and racks of fresh butter cookies were kept, plus some empty buckets you could pull out for a few minutes’ rest and a quick cup of coffee or instant soup. Never a donut though. You got sick of them fast. “I could never work here. I’d eat everything and gain a hundred pounds,” customers were always telling us. They didn’t seem to consider the concept of too much of a good thing, that even the smell of so much sweetness day after day put you off it all by the end of your first week.
Not long after I started I changed my goal from baker to cake decorator. Partly because it was the decorators who impressed me the most. They were like wizards — creative, inventive, fast. They made it look so easy. Carving geometric shapes, faces, and household objects out of soft blocks of cake, squirting elegant calligraphy out of parchment pastry bags, molding the tiniest, most detailed features out of marzipan and rolled fondant, blending colors and fruits and flavors like alchemists mixing elements to make gold. And they were almost all women.
In his book Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain expressed his admiration for “studly women” who could “hang tough” in the high-testosterone world of professional kitchens. When the book came out, I had friends in the industry recommend it. By then I was a couple years away from the bakery, finishing up a bachelor’s degree in English at a state university and working in a mall department store. I’d applied for both, the mall job and college, telling myself I was done with food service work — and hopefully, soon, service jobs of any kind. I thought I might want to teach. Or work in an office. Somewhere I could sit down, somewhere I wouldn’t have to wear a name tag, somewhere I could nurture the bookish side of me I’d been hiding for off-hours, somewhere my confidence could grow.
But out of curiosity I tried a couple chapters of Bourdain’s book. His macho tone turned me off, his implication that women don’t belong in the restaurant industry unless they act like men.
It would be years before I’d see in Bourdain what others idolized. Like the way he championed food service people whether they worked at a famous five-star restaurant or a Waffle House. And Bourdain, to his credit, eventually owned up to some of the problematic elements of his first book, writing an essay near the end of his life expressing regret for the machismo he’d once (perhaps unwittingly) celebrated, finally calling out food service sexism for what it is: “meathead culture.”
Bourdain didn’t lie. In the service industry jobs I’ve had over the years, this culture took the form of male co-workers who’d freely talk about “the price of hookers” and joke about the smell of female genitalia in earshot of women workers. There were guys who wouldn’t allow a female co-worker to do anything that required too much physical exertion — they meant well but their thinking was that all women were weak. And there were guys who’d ignore you if you did ask for help — their thinking being that you wanted to work in this job didn’t you, so do it yourself like a man supposedly would. Then there was the young, hot-shot and hot-headed chef I worked with who once threatened “She’s in danger of becoming a battered woman someday” about a teenage waitress he said asked too many questions, was too mouthy. (Later he said he was just joking. Hahaha.)
This was just the back of the house sexism. Out front there were male customers who’d hound you for your number or stalk you by waiting for your table or turn at the counter or calling the store or restaurant, convinced your friendly customer service was really flirting. Which was probably the worst part of the job, much more than being on your feet all day or scraping up crumbs. You had to smile through it all. Even while being leered at by a man “just reading” the name tag on your breast. Or being called “sweetie” by a well-manicured woman pretending you have no name at all.
Machismo is only one flavor of sexism, only one style of disrespect. Women, in their own way, can be just as guilty. From the young, self-described “foodie” bride-to-be who left a thousand-word bad review of the bakery on every online ratings site because her wedding cake samples came in plastic cups, to the middle-aged professional who threw a fudge-iced éclair at a store girl because she didn’t like the way it’d been handed to her. (The iced side hit my co-worker right below her collar, just above her name tag, leaving an oblong-shaped brown spot the rest of her shift. After getting the manager to fill the rest of her order, the customer walked over to the store girl on her way out the door and jeered, “Have a nice day, hon.”)
Or maybe rude customer behavior has nothing to do with sexism. Maybe there’s another ism to blame — classism, capitalism, narcissism. Or maybe some people have impossible expectations. Maybe some people are just jerks.
Maybe Bourdain, while wrong, was also right.
Deep down, Kitchen Confidential riled me because I’d come to believe I wasn’t cut out for professional kitchen work. I was too intimidated to a fault. I didn’t have the cockiness or confidence for chef’s work, baker’s work, industry work. I didn’t know how to hang tough. I was a store girl, extra, out of her element.
David Thomson and Anthony Bourdain exposed a truth, or at least a perception, about women like me that hurt to face up to, much less confront. When I went back to school, it was in a core lit class that I finally saw some representation of the life I’d known, the same life I was trying to get away from, but this time it was cloaked in comfort.
In an American lit course we were assigned a Raymond Carver story, “A Small, Good Thing.” The story is about a middle-class couple whose young son dies on his birthday after a hit-and-run incident. Bookending the story, however, are two visits to a bakery. In the first visit, the mother orders a cake for her son’s birthday. In the second visit, the couple go to finally pick up the cake, three days late. Actually, they go to confront the baker, who’s been prank calling them about the forgotten cake over the three agonizing days since the boy was hit by the car and left lingering in a coma. The story ends with the baker hearing about the child’s death, apologizing for his cruelty, offering stories about the supposed lonely life of a baker, and feeding the couple some of his freshly baked rolls. “You have to eat and keep going,” he tells them. “Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this.”
I liked a lot of the stories I was assigned in my lit classes, but this one I actually appreciated. I read it more than once — not for study purposes, but to decide what I really thought about it, how authentic it was based on my experience. I couldn’t wait to talk about it in class.
I remember wanting to talk about some of the more contrived aspects of the story. Like why didn’t the baker, someone who’d clearly been in the business awhile, make the mother pay for the cake upfront, at least put down a deposit? Like we did at the Polish bakery. And why didn’t he just mention the cake in any of his phone calls to the couple? Or just say, “This is the bakery calling.” Again, like we store girls did at the end of the day with any orders still waiting pick-up.
But we never got to the story in class discussion. I never got to talk about it with anyone. It just became one of those stories of the American canon that I was supposed to file away and make sense of — its perfection, its meaning, its influence — on my own, like an interrupted dream or a lost ambition.
I decided it was good. What I liked was how dynamic the baker character is, how much he becomes the emotional heart of the story, evolving from the unyielding front he shows the mother at the story’s beginning, to cruelty and self-pity in its middle, to remorse and compassion by the end. To giving.
I decided his prank calling of the couple, unlikely in real life, was his assertion of his own value, of his worth as a worker and human being. He took the time to take this woman’s order, to make the cake just like she wanted, to put in the time and labor for a family he didn’t know and a child not his own. Never mind his “I’m just a baker” apology to the couple. He’s the only character in the story with something to offer the mourning parents beyond condolences or platitudes, something they can hold in their hands, smell and eat, nourish and comfort themselves with. Even their son’s doctors couldn’t give as much.
So Carver’s baker isn’t, in my experience, a perfect, authentic representation of bakery life. Maybe nothing is other than the life itself. But in terms of working-class respect, Carver’s story certainly beats Thomson’s quip. Carver himself grew up working-class, his father a millworker, his mother a sometime waitress and retail clerk. She could’ve been a woman I worked with. She could’ve been me.
(This past year of pandemic, like people the world over I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights. Nights of worrying and fear. Nights that lead your mind to the past, because the future is so uncertain. My mind would sometimes stray to cooking school, to my first days at the bakery, to Carver’s baker… Could I have been Mrs. Carver’s son? Or Bourdain, with more ambition and talent, more confidence and dark sorrow? How about the dead boy’s mother in “A Small, Good Thing”? What contrivances or curveballs would have to be written into a story or a life to make Carver’s lonely baker turn out a worldly legend like Bourdain? Or to make Bourdain turn out like Carver’s baker — lonesome but surviving, overlooked but still alive?
Or to make me a baker, any baker, instead of the girl who rings up the baker’s orders?
How about Michelle Pfeiffer? In the ’90s she seemed straight on the Oscar path. Decades later she’s yet to get there, nevermind her knockout looks or knockout performances. Was it something on her resumé? That supposed miscasting as the diner waitress in Frankie and Johnny? Or maybe the time she played, for real, a supermarket checkout girl. As Thomson said, maybe she played that role too well, too obediently. Unlike lonely bakers, who can find their way back to human connection, working girls can’t expect to live their common beginnings down, not without an enduring confidence or a long fight.)
Two things life teaches you is that plans barely ever pan out and rescues almost never lead you to the promised land.
After college I got the office job I thought would rescue me from service work for life. It was a bargain cookbook publishing job, and surprisingly, I was told they were more interested in my community college culinary arts degree than my brand new university B.A.
I didn’t adjust well. There were no windows in the part of the building where my cubicle was marooned. There were days when I had maybe ten minutes of work to occupy an 8-hour day. And it turned out offices have their own brand of hell situations to survive, from gossip and cliques to the farce of performance reviews, to back-stabbing. None of the working-class camaraderie I’d known in every service job I’d had, the got-your-back bonding that transcended even the sexism and male chauvinism when it came to surviving especially brutal busy days of churning out high-volume orders and facing throngs of customers.
There were nice breakrooms though, that was a plus. But also self-described “foodies” who’d hunt me down in those breakrooms. Offices, I learned, are filled with foodies. People who’ve never worked in a restaurant or professional kitchen a day in their life, but who watch lots of cooking shows, or read lots of gourmet magazines or restaurant reviews, or spend lots of time in the aisles of specialty grocery stores. Not that there’s anything wrong with all that. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t enjoy the satisfaction of a good meal or the thrill of a cut-throat cook-off. But foodies are people who like to show off what they think they know. And the minute they hear you’ve worked in the industry or gone to cooking school, they want you to prove it. Which means, in the spirit of office passive-aggressiveness, they want to compete with you. Which means being hunted down anywhere in the office for recipe secrets or arcane ingredient advice or the low-down on local hot restaurants I couldn’t afford to eat in or chefs I didn’t know — then being challenged or negged on any experience or opinion you do share.
My first office job, I lasted less than a year before bolting for a full-time job in the deli and kitchen of a Whole Foods. It set a pattern for years to come. Ping-ponging between offices and kitchens, between jobs with health insurance and jobs with surprise health inspections, between higher-status “real jobs” and lower-status jobs that the world really can’t do without.
At some point, after a few years, I went back to visit the Polish bakery. It was during the Christmas season. I’d been working in publishing, but for not as much pay as I expected I’d be making back when I thought an office job was the answer. The bakery staff said they’d welcome any extra help to handle the holiday crowds. So I worked a few shifts, including Christmas Eve day.
It was just like old times, easy to get back in the groove of boxing donuts and slicing bread.
Yet things had changed. One of the brothers who owned the bakery had died. The other brother’s kids had grown up, were being groomed to take over. Prices had gone up. Almost no one wrote checks anymore — everything was put on debit cards. And all those cooking and baking shows that had flooded cable TV in recent years meant customers coming in with more elaborate orders, show-stopper cake designs, foodie-fed dreams of over-the-top sweet tables and multi-tiered cupcake trees and gourmet donut buffets. God knows what Carver’s baker would’ve made of such demands.
And there were store boys. Mostly high school kids. They wore paper caps and aprons. The store girls wore aprons now too. The pink long scrapped for maroon. The bakeshop foreman I’d known in the ‘90s was also long gone — he’d left to start his own business. There’d been a series of male, classically trained, high-end hotel pastry chefs who’d been chewed up and spit out by the bakery’s heavy-duty production rate. Now, in their place, was a Greek woman and a familiar face, one of the lady pastry wizards who had dazzled me back in the day. She wasn’t studly, she didn’t hang tough or make gross jokes about female anatomy. She was a mom and a new grandma.
Maybe seeing how a mom and pop bakery could change planted a seed in me that I could change too. That maybe class isn’t destiny — at the very least, not identity.
Working in cubicles, I did a lot of daydreaming. About being my own boss, maybe starting a business of my own. Back in the ’90s I used to work extra shifts to earn money to travel. In cooking school, I spent a few summers working abroad in Ireland in hotels and cafes. I hit on a travel business idea — specializing in group tours for women. I was thinking of women who didn’t feel like they fit in on family tours or couples tours. Or maybe women who just didn’t feel they fit in period and wanted to get away for a bit, to stretch their sense of adventure, to test their confidence. I intended to turn my back on office life and the rescue and dream that it never was forever.
As I researched the travel biz, became a certified tour manager, set up a business and website, started organizing tours, all along the bakery was there for me. Three years on, when the business failed, the bakery was still there. I felt like a failure, again, but my bakery colleagues waved that off. “You tried,” the store girls said, without a trace of snark, as we stood at the counter folding boxes. “That took courage, starting a business,” one of the older women said.
There were more changes anyway — the kind that kept you from dwelling too much on failure even as they broke the bakery family’s heart piece by piece. One of the wizard decorators, who started at 16 as a store girl, opened a competing bake shop. A fire burned down the restaurant next door and left us working out of a temporary facility for months. The matriarch of the family who owned the bakery died. A young man who worked in the back and a dear friend to all of us was murdered. And one November, two days before Thanksgiving, a longtime store manager said goodbye to us one night at closing: “OK, I’ll see you tomorrow, girls.” She never came back.
She’d been with the bakery since it opened doors in the 1970s. Truly, the original store girl. My first day, back when I was 20, she’d been the one to take me around the bakery and explain every single pastry to me, every flavor and filling, every shape of roll, every kind of bread.
That day before Thanksgiving, when she didn’t show up to work for the first time in decades, we still had to serve the crush of customers. We were stunned, obediently quiet to the news of death. But we store girls and store boys still had to smile, still had to say, “Have a happy Thanksgiving,” over and over and over again. We took turns going in the back to cry. So many of us had never known a Thanksgiving at the bakery without Mariann.
The crew in the back set up a buffet on one of the workbenches. Some had brought tacos. The owner roasted a turkey in the revolving oven. His daughter sliced a loaf of buttercrust white and one of seeded rye. Somebody added cans of cold pop, a bag of chips, salsa, a slab of butter, some butterflake rolls. Front of the house and back of the house took shifts eating from paper plates, standing up at the workbenches and back counters, sitting on empty buckets.
The bakery would be closed the next day for the holiday, but the store would be packed with customers ’til closing time, waiting for their pies and breads, waiting for us. They were counting on us. So we ate to keep going, to endure.
I wrote a short article for a religious mag about my mother’s old church cookbook collection. It’s also about trying to keep a sense of community and celebrate Christmas this year while so many of us are separated from our families due to the pandemic. You can read the article here (note: I didn’t write that headline).
I enjoyed writing this piece. It brought back some sorely needed fun memories.
I used to be in the business of cooking and cookbooks. After graduating from high school, I enrolled in a culinary arts program at a community college. Our textbooks were about 4 inches thick with technical instructions for working with and repairing industrial kitchen equipment and recipes that yielded much higher quantities than in the average coffee table cookbook.
After cooking school, I found a job as an assistant cookbook editor at a publishing company just outside Chicago. The cookbooks were the kind sold in catalogs or found in the bargain books section of chain bookstores. They relied heavily on brand name products, and there were all sorts of rules about which brand’s recipes could run on the same page with another’s and how to order the list of ingredients and what made a particular ingredient “index worthy.”
I remember attending photo sessions where a professional photographer and food stylist set up shots of perfectly sized cookies with just the right number of stray crumbs and an impossibly frothy glass of milk in the background. (The froth was created by mixing liquid soap into the milk.)
I remember other cookbook editor tricks like the time we came up short for recipes for a slow cooker cookbook (we didn’t have the licensing to use the term “Crock Pot”) that was supposed to feature recipes submitted by “real” home cooks across America. We resolved the problem by pulling recipes from our database and making up names to go with them using the editors’ pets’ first names combined with the married editors’ maiden names followed by some random town.
Out of the whole mix, we had to pick a winner from the recipes by actual home cooks and run a special “spotlight” with a picture of the winner in their home kitchen and a mini-interview. As this was my first publishing job, I wholeheartedly believed someone on staff had tested the recipes to choose the best one. My boss had to break it to me that what we picked was the recipe by the closest cook, not necessarily the best one. “What, you think it’s just a coincidence the winner lives in Gurnee?” she said.
Apart from my professional cookbook experience, I’ve worked off and on in a local family-run bakery going back to before my culinary arts degree days. A real old school kind of place. A lot of the cake and pastry decoration ideas came from Pinterest and Cake Boss, but the recipes were the genuine passed down from generation to generation variety. They were kept in a battered black book that was locked in a safe.
The best thing about writing this article though is that I got to name drop some of the parishes I grew up in as well as one of my beloved family members, my great-aunt Florence Fagan. Florence was my maternal grandfather’s sister. She lived all her life on a farm in Iowa. She and her husband, Francis, had four children: Ruth, a Franciscan sister in Dubuque; Marie, who has her own farm in Iowa; Joe, a former priest who founded the activist organization Iowa Citizens for Community in Des Moines; and Jean, a teacher New Orleans. Florence, Francis, Jean, and Joe have all passed away.
The New Melleray Abbey cookbook mentioned in the article has at least a dozen recipes by Florence–nearly all desserts. For the curious, here’s her “Forgotten Cookies” recipe in its original “parish cookbook” form:
Several years ago I published this poem at Eunoia Review. It’s about my maternal grandfather, who died from cancer when I was about 7 or 8 years old. He was raised on a farm in Iowa and came to Illinois, first to Rockford, then to Chicago, after marrying a girl from a neighboring farm. He and my grandmother stayed in the city about three decades before moving back to Iowa.
I thought I’d share it now, at the tail end of November, the month in the Catholic Church when we remember the dead (Granddaddy Collins was a devout Irish Catholic). And I thought I’d share it in memory of all the grandfathers and grandmothers we’ve lost this year due to COVID-19 and our culture’s disgraceful disregard for the elderly and vulnerable.
I’m sorry for anyone who’s lost an elder this year. I live in perpetual worry and fear now about my own mother (87) and father (92). I believe in ancestors more than I believe in anything else.I hope this pandemic is gone soon, and I hope in 2021 all those in our government responsible for letting it rage unchecked throughout the country feel the wrath of the people their negligence took from us. (Both my grandfathers were staunch Democrats too.)I hope our ancestors watch over the rest of us, especially the ones working to rescue the world from this horrible plague and those of us trying so hard to shelter our elders.
Here’s the poem.
Transference (Middle West)
Where I live the corn and the wheat are made of steel. Their stalks stand a foot for every week my grandfather the farmer’s son has been in the grave. I’d like to lie down at the bottom of the corn in the spaces between the stalks to get close to grandfather and watch the stars watching right back at me but the soil here is too stiff. It’s unyielding to a body tamped to death as yesterday’s minutes gray and comfortless as an ocean without a shore.
Though there is an ocean here that’s not an ocean and shores that are comforting shores and there are burning bushes here and burning trees that do not burn. The flames of these wear black masks and cherry robes and holy names. They mate and molt and sing a song like rain bouncing backward off the solid gaps in a liminal wilderness or between the growing grasses of a vanished prairie.
The air at dusk here fills with lightning that is not lightning with delicate and black electric bolts the size of front teeth. They glow a green very unlike the green of young corn and a yellow very unlike the yellow of ripe corn.
My grandfather knew them these lights. He caught them in his farmer’s son’s hands very alike my city girl’s hands long ago and last summer. This was before his eyes caught the lights that crown the steel stalks and needle the stars here where I live before he left Iowa its true corn its cut and dried fields and cut and dried past for this concrete prairie, this thresholder’s town this farmer’s granddaughter’s birthplace Chicago.
He handed me down a beginning. I’ve inherited the transformation.
Sharing this poemfor Labor Day. I published this a few years ago in a journal called Thank You For Swallowing. The journal was started by Cat Conway in response to a poem by a male poet that began with those same words as the name of the journal. It featured protest poems by mostly women writers and poets. I wrote this ekphrastic poem about Edward Hopper’spainting New York Movie, 1939. It’s also inspired by my first job, as a movie theater usherette, when I was 17. I wore a uniform actually very similar to the girl in Hopper’s painting.
She’s been told she belongs in pictures twice already tonight. It averages three, four times a shift. It’s a line, but no lie…just look at her. Yellow Harlow hair, formidable Crawford shoulders, long legs dressed Hepburn style in slim straight trousers, and high heels like the kind Ginger Rogers danced in backwards all through the Depression days. On slow nights, like tonight, she thinks Ginger’s not the only one who can do her job backwards. This one, in her sleep even. She minds the attention from male moviegoers a little less than her manager’s come-ons. The moment the picture starts the customers forget she’s there and she can be left alone awhile at the periphery, beneath the three lamps beside the red curtain and sworled blue stairs separating the dark plush dreams of this movie palace from reality and all the rest: World War talk and World’s Fair frenzy, dull dates, heartaches, mother’s meddlings, the manager’s pinches and leers. He puts her on the late shift on purpose, keeps offering her a lift home after midnight. She’s taken to telling him she’s meeting someone, somewhere down the street and no she doesn’t need a lift there either. But tonight it’s no lie, not just a safety line. Standing at the periphery in the wall-lamp glow she counts the minutes to the closing credits. Marlene Dietrich is dying in Jimmy Stewart’s arms. Maybe this new guy will stick around longer, make her laugh tonight or take her dancing, backwards or forwards, any direction so long as it’s away from here. If not, there’s always the pictures…she belongs in them so she keeps getting told. And she thinks some night she may prove her admirers right: wait for the closing credits, turn up the lights, wake the audience from their dreams, usher them out, close the red curtain, then climb through the big screen. She figures if they insist on looking and leering, she’s gonna direct the angle they see her from, at least. What she wants is to rewrite the script, change the ending. She doesn’t want Dietrich to die. Forget what the men in the seats want to see. Let the heroines live. Make the pictures belong to the girls for a change. She has ideas…not just dreams.
All the glow a woman basks in when no one’s looking. All the good ideas to be got from the periphery.