As mentioned in a previous post, I’m sharing pieces I wrote for a digital journal called Tiny Donkey, which was shut down in 2017 and whose site has more recently been taken down from the internet.
This is the first piece I wrote for Tiny Donkey, before I served as a volunteer editor. The journal hosted a “Once Upon a Cartographer” short essay contest, and this is what I submitted. It’s about two Irish women: Lady Gregory, the Anglo-Irish playwright, folklore collector, and cofounder (with Yeats et al) of the Abbey Theatre; and Biddy Early, the Irish-speaking purported witch/wise woman. This one 2nd place in the contest.
Biddy Early peered down a bottle’s neck to see the future. One wonders if she ever saw Lady Gregory coming decades down the road, gossiping with Biddy’s old neighbors, collecting astonishing tales about this wise healer woman of western Ireland. Biddy Early was already legendary before she died—accused of witchcraft once, eternally at odds with the local priests, married four times over. She didn’t need Lady Gregory to make her famous-slash-infamous, or whatever the liminal space is where wise women dwell.
But Gregory needed Biddy. Her name lent authenticity to the cast of banshees, blacksmiths, and other characters in Gregory’s folklore collection Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920). And her neighbors’ trusting chattiness about their own peasant practices and beliefs eased Gregory’s aristocratic guilt.
Both women were western Irish—Biddy born Bridget Connors in County Clare in 1798, Gregory born Isabella Augusta Persse in County Galway in 1852. Biddy was born the year of an uprising in Ireland against British rule—a fitting start for a figure of female rebellion. Gregory came into the world at the end of the Great Potato Famine, a time when 1 million Irish died by fever or starvation. She grew up only 25 miles from Biddy’s humble cottage, but she was a member of the gentry, an Anglo-Irish Protestant not only protected from the ravages of the Famine but a benefactor. The man she married, Sir William Gregory, was a member of Parliament with a Galway estate called Coole Park—a place of lakes, limestone, woods and wild swans. At the height of the Famine, Sir William drafted a clause in the Poor Relief Laws that led to the eviction of thousands of peasants in the west. These were among Ireland’s poorest population, the ones who suffered the Famine’s worst destitution, the most deaths. And the strongest bearers of the old Gaelic folkways and language. Biddy’s people. With their decimation, would Ireland’s folk culture follow?
Biddy survived the Famine, dying around 1872 with a priest’s blessing in exchange for breaking her magic bottle. Lady Gregory was widowed in 1892. Within a year she was immersing herself in the Irish language and folk culture and soon professing Irish nationalism. She sometimes paid her peasant storytellers small tokens for their memories—but never stopped collecting their rents.
Maybe Biddy’s chatty neighbors did trust Lady Gregory. Or maybe they were simply squaring another uneven exchange with a landholder—embellishing their barter by telling tall tales. Perhaps Biddy Early also managed to square an uneven barter. Maybe those glass shards beside the blessed deathbed belonged to a decoy bottle.
As mentioned in a previous post, a digital literary journal that I contributed to and served as volunteer editor for a few years ago has gone offline. It was called Tiny Donkey, and it was an offshoot of the Fairy Tale Review dedicated to very short non-fiction pieces about folklore and fairy tales. The journal shut down in 2017, but was still available to read online up until recently. With its disappearance went all the writing of its contributors, including some essays I wrote and commissioned and interviews with other writers and artists. I decided to share a few of my own pieces here over the next few weeks.
This one is the first editor’s note (but not essay) I wrote for Tiny Donkey, about the American pioneer folklore anti-hero Mike Fink. I wrote and published this literally days before the 2016 election that saw Trump rise to power.
As a personal note, after writing this and giving it to the other editors to look over, one of the other volunteer eds called it “weak.” So for a long time I felt ashamed of this piece. That particular editor was one I didn’t see eye to eye with (this editor had a habit of trying to rewrite or delete whole paragraphs of other writers’ work, for no discernible reason), and since then I feel more ashamed that I let this person doubt what I was aiming to do with this piece. (Fortunately, the journal had a terrific founding editor, who ultimately always kept us on track and was always fair and fantastic.) It’s written in an intentionally understated, matter-of-fact tone, to match the speaking tone and verbal style of the people in the part of the country where Mike Fink lore comes from, for better or worse–Midwestern people, Mississippi River people, people like my family, like my many Iowa and Illinois relatives, and like me. So here it is: “Modern-Day Mike Finks.”
Once I tried reading a 900-page book called A Treasury of American Folklore, by the folklorist B.A. Botkin. But I only got 60 pages in before dumping the “treasure” at a book swap.
It was the stories of Mike Fink that did it, a Mississippi River boatman of the post-American Revolution era celebrated for his outrageous boasts and pranks. His boasts were of the variety that he could “outrun, outjump, outshoot, outdrink, and lick any man in the country.” And his pranks? Well, he had a curious sense of fun, this Mike Fink, and a suspiciously specific kind of targets. Like the time he shot an African-American boy walking by in the heel just because he didn’t like its shape, and the time he shot the scalp-lock off a Cherokee man’s head for acting too proud, or the time he made his wife lie in a pile of leaves and set them on fire, letting her go just after her hair and clothes started burning, all for looking at another man.
Botkin labels Fink a “pseudo bad man” without explaining what that means. Along with many other folklorists who’ve written about Fink, he tries to assure us modern folks that Fink wasn’t real, or at least, his pranks weren’t. They couldn’t be, could they?
Though I’d never heard of Mike Fink before this, I don’t need any academic or historical investigation to know he was real. That he is real. I’ve known him. Maybe you have too. Maybe like me, you see him every day on the news, in life, in the memory of personal experience. Sometimes he wears a badge, sometimes a suit. Sometimes he’s followed me on the street or leered at me on the train. When I was young I sometimes encountered him on the playground or in the school hallway, trying to lift up my skirt or grab some part of me. More than once I’ve loved him and forgiven him. Sometimes he’s the picture of everything all good and charming. Oftentimes he’s put in charge of things, more than just riverboats, like committees, laws—and bodies, usually black, brown, and female.
I think now, this election year, he’s too close for comfort to being put in charge of the whole country.
I dumped that treasury of American folklore because I was too angry and ashamed to see what else was in the folk history of the United States, what further ugliness my country’s mythology had to reveal. The book confirmed what I’ve always known about my country, and my place as a woman in it, but don’t often like to face. I can’t afford to ignore the truth and cost of such “treasure” anymore. Mike Fink is deserving of dumping. America needs the coinage of a new, transformative folklore.
It’s nothing personal, of course. These places where this happens tend to be small, entirely unfunded journals and sites that the creators/founders/editors are working on in their little free time as a labor of love. Eventually, either they find they have less time and energy to keep the journal going or feel they’ve accomplished just about everything they first intended when they created the journal or maybe more personal, pressing issues come up in their lives. In any case, they shut down the journal/site and all its poems, essays, artwork, and stories disappear from the internet forever. (One outlier case of a journal where an especially favorite essay of mine was published, the website was hacked and the journal only got back its poetry and fiction content–the non-fiction section of the site was just wiped out and never got back. So all its non-fiction content pre-hacking has remained erased.)
Whenever this happens–and again, it seems to be happening more and more in the past two or three years–I feel torn between just being grateful I had work published to begin with and disappointed that stuff I was finally able to successfully place somewhere keeps disappearing from potential readers’ view. It brings up a lot of conflicting feelings in me about writing and my self-worth: If I were a better writer I would be getting published in more stable venues. If I were a more ambitious writer I would be writing and submitting more and getting published more often and have more work out there to balance out the stuff that vanishes. If I were a smarter writer I would pick journals that have a print option for their issues, so even if the digital version comes down someday, I always have my print copy as proof of publishing.
And all of this is true–if I were better, faster, and smarter and less lazy or less insecure, anxious, and self-doubting, I’d be a whole different person. A much more successful person. Probably someone without a homemade website. Probably not someone with four cats who sits on her cheap foam-stuffed couch and writes emotive third-rate poetry and overly-Irish-focused essays and quirky short Midwestern-suburban angst stories that get an acceptance at a rate of one maybe every other year or so at this point before suddenly getting deleted like they were never written or read or accepted or published to begin with.
Or maybe none of its true. I learned several years ago that my pace of doing things is my business and no one else’s. The same goes for my voice–speaking, writing, creative, or IRL. (I’ve had a recurring stammer and a quiet voice since childhood, and if you knew some of the things I’ve heard and dealt with from people because of the way I speak…)
I’ve resolved these cases of disappearing publishing credits by just re-posting the stuff on this site. But because it’s happening more and more now, I thought I should post something to explain why this stuff keeps getting add to my own site.
One digital journal that I had a piece accepted in a few years ago, and then served as a volunteer editor at for a year, seems to have vanished in the past couple months. As volunteer editor, I contributed a few more pieces from that initial essay published on the site–several editors’ notes and interviews–plus one essay I commissioned from a fantastic American poet living overseas whose work deserves more recognition in the U.S. About three of these pieces I was especially proud of. The journal actually closed down a few years ago, around the time my and the other volunteer editors’ tenure there was coming to a close anyway. The founding editor decided they had done what they wanted to do when they first started the journal and was ready to move on–which I respected then and respect now. The journal, however, was hosted by a larger print and digital lit journal, so the site (and all our work as writers and editors) stayed “alive”–up until recently it seems. I have no idea what happened–I suppose the larger journal just felt it was time to close the section of their site devoted to the smaller, defunct journal. It’s their prerogative, and it’s a choice to be respected, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to feeling disappointed.
I found this out only because I’ve recently mustered some bit of confidence again–after about a year and a half of anxiety issues that kept me from much productivity at all–to finish and submit some pieces and was looking for examples of past work to highlight for any editors/venues that might accept my new stuff. It’s always nice to be able to show to a potential future editor that you’ve been able to find readership for your work in the past and there are other editors out there who’ve taken a chance on you.
Because of the personal satisfaction I gained from working on some of those pieces for this journal, I’ll be posting them over the next few weeks. But this yet-another-ghosting of work has got me thinking of how to take better control of my writing, and in a way that doesn’t lead me down a road of self-doubt or irrational guilt.
A couple years ago I started to consider seriously getting a collection of some of my work together to publish, either with a publisher or DIY. I decided on a DIY route and started putting a manuscript together and researching reputable self-publishing methods. I kept putting off finalizing the project though because there were still a few more pieces I was working on and wanting to complete and include in the collection. Would it make you lose all respect for me (assuming it was there to begin with) if I admitted I’m still snail pacing my way through one of those pieces? And that in the meantime I’ve maybe diverted myself by writing other (less pressing, in terms of fitting into the DIY project) stuff?
But these vanishings of time, heart, and work–of labor, there’s no less of a word for it–bring back to me the urgency of finalizing the project. Whether or not any of these disappeared sites and journals ever come back, and whether or not I keep re-posting my vanished work on this site, I want something of my gathered work in print that myself and others can have in hand as a record of my labor and proof of the importance of my voice as much as anyone else’s in this world. I want something that the fickleness and transiency of the internet can’t erase. And I still prefer print anyway. I’ll ride or die with print.
So here’s hoping by the end of the year I can get something together and make some print collection offering a reality, something that will include a few of these pieces that the internet has ghosted away.
Island Luck (AranIsland.info) Since their blog seems to be down these days, I’ve reposted this here.
Booma “Daily Spot” entries: These are short “bookmapping” pieces I contributed to Booma: The Bookmapping Project on the places mentioned in works by Carl Sandburg, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, J.M. Synge, Frank O’Hara, and Wendell Berry. A lot of good stuff by a number of different educators and writers at this site — check it out.
Of all the stories whirling around Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery, the best one, meaning the most Chicago one, isn’t about ghosts or superstition but class. Hauntings and horror stories are a staple of cemeteries the world over, but only a city with a labor struggle pedigree like Chicago’s — site of the 1886 Haymarket Riot, setting for Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle,and birthplace of the International Workers of the World — could spawn a cemetery legend like the one about George Pullman.
If you don’t know the Pullman Graceland legend — or even who Pullman was — you’ll hear about him here in due time. There are some other people I want you to know about first. Some people just as important in my book of Chicago history, who share the same resting grounds as Pullman: my great-grandfather Karl Ostberg and my great-grandmother Anna Nelson Ostberg.
Like George Pullman, Karl and Anna each have a plot in Graceland Cemetery on the city’s north side — though “plot” isn’t quite the word for Pullman’s spot, as you’ll see.
Karl and Anna are buried in graves marked by small, flat, rectangle-shaped slabs with nothing but their names and birth and death dates for an inscription. They lie in the southeast section of Graceland, with a cemetery road marking one boundary of the section and a wall where Chicago’s red line elevated train runs along marking another boundary. My great-grandfather lies right up against this wall, right at the cemetery’s perimeter. Which means to visit his grave, you’ll inevitably have to endure the roar and rattle of the el passing by at some point. The el tracks are so close, the train shakes the wall. My great-grandmother lies a few rows in from the wall, near a tree, but still close enough that her grave bears the train rumble night and day too.
Almost all the graves around them are like theirs. Flat and simple with just a name and date inscription and the occasional “Baby” or “Mother” or “Father” — or “Mutter” and “Vater,” as this is a section of immigrants. Many of the names end in “son” or “sen” or “berg,” which suggests the place of origin for these people was Scandinavia. This was true for my great-grandparents. Karl and Anna were emigrants from Norway who came to the U.S. in 1906 along with their four children: my grandfather John Trygve Ostberg and my great-aunts Alfield and Astrid and great-uncle Victor. After arriving in Chicago, they lived not far from Graceland, near Southport and Byron, and the children were enrolled in a school nearby (James G. Blaine). In Chicago, Karl would find work as a carpenter. Anna would have one more baby, Dorothy, but wouldn’t live to take care of her. She died during childbirth in 1912. Karl died in 1927.
The gap in time probably explains the gap between their graves — perhaps their graves would’ve been closer together had they died with fewer years between them. More likely it was an economic issue.
Karl and Anna were working-class people. Their children wouldn’t do much schooling beyond grammar school. As an adult Trygve, my grandfather, was drafted into World War I and afterward worked as a mechanic and then as a janitor during the Depression, World War II, and into the 1950s. His son, my father, was born almost a year to the day before the stock market crash that ushered in the Depression. He and my aunt ensuingly had the kind of childhood you’d expect given the national economic circumstances and their status as first-generation Americans born to uneducated working-class immigrants. Dad worked as a child (and I do mean child, not teenager), selling Christmas trees out of a lot during the winter, selling flowers in taverns in the summer (the idea being that people who’d had a few might be more likely to part with their money). He and my aunt took turns going to the local bakery every day to ask for the old bread, a task they both hated for the shame of it. For a time they lived near a coalyard and railroad tracks and my dad and his friends had a better time waiting for coal cars to come and go so they could gather the coal pieces that fell off the cars. Once my grandfather even drove with my dad beyond the city limits to farmland to try and steal a few ears of corn out of the cornfields (they were able to nab a few ears, only to find out it was cattle corn).
My dad’s family lived in Lakeview, but it wasn’t much like the Lakeview that people know today. They lived in a series of homes over the years, getting evicted from one after another for not being able to pay the rent, each home more run-down than the next. There are a couple pictures of my dad and my aunt from those days, about 8 or 9 years old and standing outside the house they were currently living in. You can see the house behind them, with a big gaping hole in the side of it. Not an open doorway or cellar door or anything — just a big gaping hole that they were too poor to get fixed properly. This was the house by the coalyard and railroad line, in the 3300 block of N. Racine, a back lot house. These days the fashionable term is “coach house,” a kind of property in high demand. The coalyard and railroad tracks are gone from that neighborhood, and according to some real estate sites the “coach house” has been thoroughly rehabbed and now features a skylight, a Jacuzzi, and “cathedral ceilings.” When my dad lived in it, its features were a rat and roach problem and no tub or shower for washing yourself.
It might sound to today’s generations like something out of a sad book or movie, a cliché, maybe even a joke. Well, it wasn’t and it isn’t. It was his life and his childhood, and anyone who really knows Chicago history — its full history, its people’s history — knows this was how it was for thousands of its citizens. Chicago wasn’t always a city of wine bars along the river, “craft” donuts and breweries and coffee chains, and banal You Are Beautiful “street art.” Not even close. Still isn’t, despite the best efforts of the city’s wealthy and gentrification.
All of this is to say: My great-grandparents got the gravestones and burial plots they and their children could best afford — and they probably had to scrape together every penny just to buy them.
But a gravestone is worth it. Gravestones are important. Even poor men’s gravestones like the plain ones at the periphery, in the “cheap seats” so to speak, of a cemetery. So scrape together is what the survivors do. In Western cultures, a gravestone is a record of a life lived, a proof of existence and a marker of respect and humanity. Karl’s and Anna’s humble plots showed my great-grandparents were here, on earth and among the community, and that someone cared about them. That they were loved and respected enough to be buried properly, to be identified and represented.
Gravestones are so important, so symbolic of the bodies and human life they literally guard over, when one gets vandalized — toppled or broken or written on or stolen — it’s considered a major desecration and dishonor. The idea of someone messing with your loved ones’ burial plots produces horror in most sane-thinking people. There’s no justification for damaging the resting plots of dead people, and we know it and we have laws against it as well as social taboos. We write horror plots about it, knowing audiences will viscerally react to the notion of the living taking advantage of the dead.
Likewise, we pity people who died too poor or alone to have any gravestone. There’s a difference between a person who chooses cremation or a “green burial” and someone who just has nothing or no one to even make the choice of what happens to their body after death. An unmarked grave is a mark of shame — at the very least, we feel sorry for the unknown souls who went out in such an anonymous fashion. In Graceland, a good example of this is the burial plot of the brother of one of the most famous and influential writers in the English language. Augustus Dickens’, brother of the great novelist Charles Dickens, led a life as colorful as one of his brother’s characters, but he died destitute in Chicago in 1866. He and his common-law wife and their children were all buried in unmarked plots — small, flat, round markers with just the plot number on them — in a section on the west side of Graceland Cemetery. While Dickens’ brother’s fate was no secret — the cemetery keeps records of all the people buried there, even if the plots don’t give a name — it was still seen as a sad and pathetic, that the close family of someone so famous and revered was lying in a pauper’s grave, not far from the great mausoleums of others so famous and revered. Until about 15 years ago, when some fans of Charles and descendants of Augustus decided to pool together some funds and momentum to buy Augustus and his family a proper headstone. Why did they do it? Out of respect and humanity. Because that’s what a headstone means to most people — my own family, including Karl and Anna, no exception.
One more comparison now. Between Karl and Anna’s plots (or even the Chicago Dickens’) and railroad magnate George Pullman’s. Pullman’s gravesite is in another section of Graceland from my family’s. While Pullman’s also has just his name and lifespan dates on it, it’s a headstone, not a flat stone, standing maybe a foot or so above the ground. Oh and behind it is a monument — an actual monument, also with Pullman’s name, only this time in huge letters, and a towering Corinthian column on a platform with steps leading up to two curved benches on either side. It’s not exactly easy to miss, in other words.
Surrounded by trees and lawn, Pullman’s monument is neighbor to the tombs and mausoleums of some of Chicago’s most wealthy and influential former residents: Daniel Burnham, Potter Palmer, Marshall Field, the McCormicks, Joseph Medill, Charles Wacker — the kind of folks everyone in Chicago knows by name, since these are the names plastered all over the city, on street signs, on hotels, all over downtown Chicago. The people who built Chicago, you might say — so long as you don’t take the word “built” too literally. So long as you don’t reserve it for anyone who actually builds things…say, a railroad laborer or a carpenter.
The contrast between graves like my great-grandparents’ and those of people like Pullman has always, in my opinion, been what made Graceland Cemetery such an interesting and revealing place. Same cemetery, same city, but the contrast in the spaces allotted to Chicago citizens from opposite ends of the class spectrum shows what a divisive and unequal place Chicago (and by extension, America) has always been. And still is, as the people who run Graceland have recently made clear.
A year ago my parents and I went to Graceland only to discover we couldn’t see or even get to our family’s graves anymore. They hadn’t been removed — not as far as we can tell. Instead they’ve been completely covered over with a wide patch of weeds over six feet tall and too thick to walk through or even see the ground, meaning the graves themselves.
When I say “completely covered” and “too thick to walk through” I’m not exaggerating. That day, I tried to get through the weeds to Anna’s grave but I may as well have tried sprinting through the deep of an ocean. And even as I started to try, it occurred to me I had a good chance of a snake or rat or coyote leaping out at me (no, not hysteria on my part — a family of coyotes has been regular visitors to the cemetery for years now, tolerated for helping to keep the rodent population down). The back wall by the el, where Karl lies, was also drowning in weeds and thicket, and frankly it all looked like a mess. My dad stood in a path in the middle of all this looking one way, then the next, confused and trying to figure out what happened to his grandparents’ resting place.
Who did this? And what is this?
Apparently, this field of weeds is Graceland’s “prairie restoration project.” Or “prairie installation.” Something like that. Graceland started installing it in 2014, with the accomplishment of a design firm called Wolff Landscape Architecture and a landscaping contractor called the Pizzo Group.
The “prairie” covers 2.5 acres, specifically the entire southeast section (where my family’s graves are), a section of probably at least 100 graves. It has not been planted near any of the graves in the sections where wealthier people are buried, nor has any part of it been installed in an empty section with no graves (more on that in a minute). It extends from the perimeter wall (by the el) to a couple feet before the lawn (or at least, what used to be the lawn) meets the cemetery road. There are a couple “paths” mowed through the weeds that leave a few graves exposed, but otherwise all the plots that stand for the human beings buried there are completely invisible and inaccessible.
There is also no sign anywhere that lists the people buried there, nothing acknowledging them for visitors and descendants to at least read and reflect on, much less to aid in locating specific graves. Instead, the Pizzo Group has installed 3 or 4 informational signs about prairie flowers, birds, trees, and their project itself throughout the section. Their name is on every sign. Not the names of the people who rest here and whose families bought these plots — just Pizzo.
That day, while trying to figure out what had happened, the only person around to ask was a caretaker or security guard at the front gate who told us if we wanted to see our family’s graves “all we have to do” is call ahead a couple weeks and the cemetery would be happy to “mow a path” to our loved ones’ graves so we could pay our respects. In other words, from now on we need to ask the cemetery’s permission to see the graves my family bought and paid for and nag the cemetery about mowing a path to even get to the graves. Which also means we’d have to trust that someone will actually follow through with this by the day we’d been given permission to come and see our family’s graves — and that the “path” was mowed to the correct ones. Same for the descendants of anyone else buried in that particular section.
Graceland’s and the Pizzo Group’s grand idea is to “bring back” the prairie to Chicago. Because a long long time ago this is supposedly what Chicago looked like before being settled by Europeans: a big random weed thicket on top of old headstones.
In actuality, most of the land that we now know as “Chicago” was more swamp, sand, and woodland than prairie. Prairie was the landscape of areas farther south and west of city limits. Also, while the people who lived here long ago (i.e., Native Americans) did indeed perform controlled burns as a way to manage the land and plant and tree growth, for the love and respect of all things sacred they probably didn’t do it where their dead ancestors were preserved or buried. To flagrantly disregard a site set aside for remembering and keeping the bodies of the dead by setting fire to it, throwing down some seeds, and nailing up some informational signs would have been viewed as immense disrespect for one’s ancestors and community.
If I sound angry, it’s because I am — and so is my father and the rest of our family.
The day my parents and I discovered what had been done we went home stunned and upset. We took pictures, we told the rest of the family (my 5 siblings and my father’s sister and cousins). We made some more attempts to contact someone at the cemetery (and Pizzo Group) by email and phone to find out more about this project, who had green-lighted it, if anyone had asked the descendants’ permission—but we never got any response. My parents returned to the cemetery a couple more times over the winter and spring to see if the “prairie” looked any better or had been tamed a bit — maybe the cemetery responded by clearing some of the weeds away a bit, my dad hoped. But it all looked just as bad as the day we discovered it last summer. If anything, outside of summer, when the weeds have no flower blooms, it all just looks even rattier and bizarre.
Since then my father has brought up the problem numerous times. He cannot believe this has happened to his grandparents’ graves, in the city and neighborhood he grew up in. He doesn’t know what to do about it, doesn’t know how Graceland’s board and these landscaping contractors can just steamroll ahead with a project so flagrantly disrespectful and poorly thought out.
And that’s the most apt word for this project: desecration.
It makes little difference whether anyone finds this so-called “prairie” pretty or “natural.” Or what the intentions were of everyone involved. Though it’s hard not to question those as well.
If the Graceland board and Pizzo and Wolff et al really thought they were doing something so “beautifying” and environmentally progressive, why didn’t they get the word out about their plans ahead of time? Why didn’t they announce their project beforehand and give others — namely, the descendants of the people buried in Graceland, especially in the affected section — a chance to give feedback or have their say? Why didn’t they ask permission? Which, to make it clear what’s so wrong with this project, they didn’t do. They didn’t ask permission.
Most of the information about this project is only on the Pizzo Group’s and Graceland Cemetery’s websites, rather than in the larger Chicago news, or anywhere the larger community could have seen it and commented on it. There’s undoubtedly a reason for that. Descendants would’ve been pesky about it. They would’ve pointed out what a bad and disrespectful idea it was and is.
Also not in the project masterminds’ “good intentions” favor is the fact that this “prairie” was not installed in one of the empty sections of Graceland. Why not? Wouldn’t that have made more sense? Take a section where no one is buried, where no headstones are, and plant the seeds there. No one is disturbed in their eternal rest, no families are blocked from future viewings, no one gets upset or disrespected. But my guess is this: $$$$. No one gets paid either. Those empty areas of the cemetery are potential plots, meaning future income for Graceland. Meanwhile, they already have Karl and Anna’s money. And I guess it’s just too bad Karl and Anna and their children (and all the other people buried in the southeast section) gave Graceland their trust as well.
Same goes for descendants like us. Even if Karl and Anna didn’t have the grandest gravesites in the place, my family (certainly my dad) always took a bit of pride in the fact that they were buried in such a beautiful and famous cemetery. My ancestors may not have been rich and famous, and most visitors to the cemetery probably weren’t even aware of or interested in the section where they rest — too busy beelining to the mausoleums (as well as some of the creepier-looking, supposedly haunted graves on the grounds) —but as far as we were (and are) concerned, Karl and Anna count just as much as any and everyone else buried in Graceland.
And we, the descendants, were a living presence in the cemetery too. My family has been coming to Graceland to visit Karl and Anna’s graves since before I was born — my five older siblings all have childhood memories of visiting. After my father got married in 1954, he and my mother lived in an apartment just a few blocks from Graceland, at Clark and Byron. Even as they moved farther away over the years, to the Dunning neighborhood and then to the northwest suburbs, they never forgot Karl and Anna’s graves. I visited Graceland as a child, as a teen, and as an adult. I’ve visited with my parents and siblings, with friends, and on my own. When I lived in Lincoln Square between 2000 and 2008, I used to walk over on the weekends and visit Karl and Anna. I’d often find their graves covered in dirt and leaves, sinking a bit into the earth, and I’d do my best to scrape off the mud that was starting to cover them. When my aunt June (my dad’s sister) came back to Chicago to visit from Iowa, my dad would take her to Graceland to see their grandparents’ graves, as well as to their parents’ in Edens Cemetery. My siblings have also visited Graceland as adults, on their own or with their families.
With a cemetery as famous as Graceland, one that has such famous people buried in it — architects, dancers, athletes, city planners and builders, inventors and entrepreneurs — it can be easy to forget that there are ordinary Chicagoans buried there too, and ordinary Chicagoans still visiting there, for non-starstruck reasons. It’s not all just tourists and ghost hunters. Some of us in the city and surrounding suburbs actually have family resting there, family we remember, care about, and still take the time to go and pay our respects too. Isn’t that what a cemetery is for? If you’re in the cemetery business, or serving on a cemetery board, for any other reason than protecting and honoring the dead buried there and the wishes of their descendants, you’re in the wrong business. If you’re in it for tourism, for example, or for landscape architecture awards or environmentalism kudos, you’ve got no business being in the business of the dead.
Why did the Graceland board allow this? What were they thinking? Who do they think they serve? Who do they think a cemetery is for? I’d really like to know, because when I research this project, I find weird remarks like this one from the head of the landscape architect firm (Wolff) to the other landscape firm(Pizzo): “Everybody who is involved with the project is blown away by how quickly it looked so good. This includes, I’m sure, if I could only hear them, tens of thousands of riders per day on the CTA Red and Purple Lines, who look down into the cemetery on their way to and from the loop.” And all I can say is, I really have to wonder if the speaker of this opinion has been on public transit a day in his life, especially the red line, if he thinks those of us financially or otherwise limited to relying on the el and buses of this city spend our commutes fawning all over cemetery landscaping. But yeah, Ted, it looks so good and stuff. If you could only hear us.
It angers me, as I’m sure it angers my parents, that my father, Karl and Anna’s grandson, has lived to the age of 91, survived the poverty of his childhood and the Great Depression as well as serving in a war (Korean), raised 6 kids and more than a dozen grandchildren, and successfully did so without his children or grandchildren suffering the poverty he did, only to see this happen — to see his immigrant grandparents’ graves treated like a science experiment and used as an entry in some local landscaping competition. Did it occur to anyone at Graceland that some of the descendants of the dead in the desecrated section might have considered being buried themselves there someday? Or considered buying a new headstone for anyone in that section (like the good folks who funded Augustus Dickens’ headstone)?
Would any of the people on Graceland’s board and staff or Pizzo and Wolff’s staff want this to happen to their family graves, without even the courtesy of permission? I can confidently say the answer is no — no they wouldn’t. If they wouldn’t want it done to their family property and resting places, they shouldn’t have done it to anyone else’s. That they did is disturbing and shameful. Worse yet, no one has bothered to respond when any of my family has reached out for answers. No one has even asked if there could be a solution.
The last thing I want to say is that I realize I promised some kind of George Pullman story, a class tale — so here it is.
George Pullman was a wealthy businessman who made his fortune in the railroad industry after inventing a luxury sleeping car. His invention came just as the first transcontinental lines were laid down and changed America forever. But Pullman didn’t just hit upon the right idea at the right time — he went on to monopolize the railroad car business and build a model town on the south side of Chicago for his employees to live in. It was called Pullman of course, his name stamped on the town same as it was on the side of his sleeping cars. But Pullman the town became better known as a model of American-style feudalism than the happy worker-bee hive the bossman tried to pass it off as. His workers labored 16-hour days and were paid starvation wages, especially the African Americans who made up his crew of train porters. Exorbitant rents (automatically deducted from his workers’ pay) and company-planted spies were as much a feature of the town as its neat little red-brick rowhouses and fancy Victorian-style hotel.
When a financial panic hit in 1893, Pullman laid off workers and cut wages but refused to lower rents in his cutesy feudal town. Which led to a railroad workers’ strike in 1894 that spread throughout the country, ending up in riots, arrests, and federal troops storming the streets of Chicago to break the strike. Afterwards, Pullman’s reputation never recovered, even if he did “win” the strike. He was ordered to sell his town by the courts. And when he died only three years later, he left instructions to be buried under tons of concrete, to ward off desecration and revenge by all the workers he’d screwed over.Fortunately for them, history has taken over where a concrete grave foiled the common man. Today in Chicago, Pullman is remembered as a “fat cat” at best and a tyrant at worst.
Where was he buried? If you’ve been paying attention earlier, you’ll know: in Graceland. Which is fitting, given the cemetery’s recent developments. Extra care was taken by Graceland to protect the resting place of this uber-wealthy railroad magnate. It only makes sense, sadly, that no care was taken by Graceland to protect the resting places of 100 or 200 poor.
To all the people who worked on Graceland Cemetery’s “prairie restoration” project: Shame on you. From the great-granddaughter of the ones whose graves you desecrated. Consider this essay a well-deserved haunting.
Island Luck (AranIsland.info) Since their blog seems to be down these days, I’ve reposted this here.
Booma “Daily Spot” entries: These are short “bookmapping” pieces I contributed to Booma: The Bookmapping Project on the places mentioned in works by Carl Sandburg, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, J.M. Synge, Frank O’Hara, and Wendell Berry. A lot of good stuff by a number of different educators and writers at this site — check it out.
This poem was published at Rose Red Review in the fall of 2016. Unfortunately, Rose Red Review has closed permanently and the website has been taken down. I’m really proud of this poem and wanted it to remain “out there” though, so I’m re-publishing it on my site. This poem will also appear in an upcoming book I’m publishing, Heartlandic.
The Buffalo Return To Illinois René Ostberg
The earth keeps score of what it’s been and who’s its friend. That field
connected to the crumbled lot where a shuttered Shell fed the chevys of Chicagoland getawaying west runawaying north disturbing the dust longsettled on the Illinois blacksoils deep-soaked with Sauk blood and pioneer sins and Potawatomi bones
knows it was once prairie
long ago when it was flush with ferality and friends, a million and many loves cowbirds bobcats kingsnakes coyotes crickets a place unmapped unnamed unforsaken
and it loved nothing so deep and doomperfect as the buffalo.
It remembers the way it liked to lay itself long thick and level waiting its black-bearded beloveds, and the way it trembled when a herd approached hooves shuffling wildgooseneck tails twitching the prairie’s skin itching tickling with the bisons nibbling and calves gamboling young and ferocious chasing extinction out of the milkweed out of the tallgrass away from the purple clover and smoke.
Every night the field calls for its old friends buffalo lover friend dream lost gone buffalo come back into the rumbled wake of auto exhaust putting the rustle of weeds to blame for the racket should anybody ask, or on the gas attendant ghosts and unresolved underearth clashes of white bloodguilt and redsouled resistance.
But weeds or no weeds guilt or no ghosts the field will not speak of those years when the buffalo were hunted away only to tell any other earth corners who’ll listen that as the hunting turned to slaughter and the prairie turned to a killing field it drank the blood of its black beloveds into itself like milk and rain and revenge melting
to raw remembrance.
Tallgrass timberland skinned penny thin Lincoln slim plains scalped fenced farmed within an inch of forsaken
a bo-peep place now bare bisonless
mapped now but missing its mighty herds unknown unloved ununderstood
All it wants is to tremble once again under the weight of a thousand black hooves.
It was a recent October morning. When the field woke to thunder groans and hooves. Two dozen black tongues licking the Illinois air. Black snouts glistening soft like constellations on a fogged-in flatlands night black beards bristling the slickening skin off the gas attendant ghosts. The field wept joy in butterflies and coneflowers welcomed its old friends in rusted meadow murmurs and the buffalo lay their glad heavy heads down to let the old prairie sing a new plainsong of tallgrasses trembling and reclamation.
This is another essay that was published a few years ago at the Aran Islands Info website, which is down these days, so I’ve reposted the story here.
On Inis Oírr, to walk west means to walk towards home or to walk towards the well. By home, I mean America—for me anyway. By the well, I mean Tobar Éanna—the holy well of St. Enda, patron saint of the Aran Islands. On this smallest of the three islands, there are actually a few wells. But it’s only this one, Tobar Éanna, that has the power to heal.
I come from we have no holy wells. America is not a Catholic country, and
Chicago people are not a very spiritual or sentimental lot. If we cry over
anything, it’s things like baseball scores. And if we pray for anything, it’s
most likely “please, God, no more snow” when we’re still shoveling it out of
the way in April. The rest of our emotions, our hopes, our sorrows, our pleas
and praise, we leave to our city’s blues legends to express for us. The average
Chicagoan wouldn’t be moved much by a well, much less bend at the knees at one.
would say maybe we Chicagoans simply take the presence of water for granted,
what with the mighty Lake Michigan bordering the city on the east and a river
running right through downtown. Often the more you’ve got of something, the
less you see it as anything special or sacred. But then again, Inis Oírr is an
island with the Atlantic all around it. And being an Irish island, it soaks up its
share of water from the ever-present rain clouds in the Irish sky. It has its
own lake too, on the opposite end of the island from Tobar Éanna. Though it’s a
small one by the standards of the North American Great Lakes, even if the
islanders do call it Loch Mór.
if water’s not the magic ingredient, what’s so special about Tobar Éanna?
one, the islanders say Tobar Éanna never runs dry. For another, there’s a story
that if you go out to Tobar Éanna, walk around the well seven times—praying the
rosary all the way—look into the well, and spot an eel in the water, you will
be healed of whatever ails you. But only if you see the fish. It’s the eel that
seals the deal. That’s certainly pretty special.
story of the eel and the rounds around the well reminds me a bit of the story
about the church of St. Caomhán in Inis Oírr’s graveyard. It’s said that if you
can figure out the way (and believe me, there is a way) to squeeze through the
tall and very narrow window at the front of the church—going from the outside
in and stepping onto the stone altar—then you are guaranteed to go to heaven
when you die. So, pushing yourself between the stones of a crack in the wall of
a centuries-old church and stepping all over its blessed altar. Well, that’s
certainly pretty special too—and rather torturous if you think about it.
Torturous and complicated enough that sometimes I wonder if all these rituals
and traditions, as told to visitors by the locals, are really the islanders’
way of having a little fun with us “blow-ins.” Besides, I never personally met
anyone who spotted the eel in the holy well, though I have known quite a few
who fit through the window in the church, including myself.
nice to have reassurance that you’ll go somewhere good after you die. But if it
were my choice, I’d rather have the healing here on earth than heaven in the
afterworld. I’d rather have spotted the eel in the holy well than fit through
the window in the church—if only because it’s clear that as tricky as it is to
get into heaven, it’s healing that’s the real trick of life, that’s truly hard
to come by.
I suppose this is why I used to walk out to the holy well quite often, far more than I did to St. Caomhán’s church, hoping that today would be the day I’d catch the well in one of its miracle-giving moods. Don’t even ask what I needed healing for. If it means experiencing something magical, I’ll force an injury if I have to—drop a stone on my shoe, chase a bee, stare into the sun until I go blind, break my heart over an islandman, whatever it takes. I usually went walking in the afternoon, in between work shifts at the island hotel, and sometimes at sunset to watch the sun falling on Inis Meáin on my way to the well. I’d start by the beach, walking up the road to the pier, past Tigh Ned, up a curve by the Fisherman’s Cottage, past an old pier half-sunken in waves and strewn with rotting fish bait and stinking lobster cages, then past what seemed to be a quarry (never mind that building a quarry on the Aran Islands is like installing a Jacuzzi in the ocean), and finally straight on to the well, with stone walls built up by the islandmen on my left, stone piles built up by the sea on my right, all the final way.
There were no signs pointing the way to the well. It was a matter of just walking until you stumbled across it. It’s a small island after all. You’re bound to find what you’re looking for at some point. The only way I knew I had reached the well was the sight of a distinctive-looking boulder—shaped almost like a giant egg—that was set on a high stone wall by the path that led to the holy well. I counted on this big odd stone. It always led me to the well. Except once, when I went walking out to Tobar Éanna and walked and walked and never sighted the stone nor the path. I ended up walking all the way to the back of the island, then retraced my steps up and down the road. It was all just walls, with no openings or paths or anything. I finally headed back to civilization—i.e., the “beer garden” in front of Tigh Ned. I told one of the islandmen, a big fella who ran a B&B and hostel and who was chatting with an annual English tourist, what I had seen, or rather, not seen. “Do you think it’s the fairies playing a trick on you?” the islandman said to me. There was a long pause of silence between the three of us. I sensed something of a challenge in the quiet. “Maybe,” I said. The islandman answered me with a solemn nod—and then a shadow of a smile. He left us after another few minutes of conversation, and the Englishman immediately leaned in to me. “You shouldn’t have said that in front of him,” he said to me, in the tone of a concerned father. “He’ll go out tonight and tell everyone about the daft American who couldn’t find the well and blamed it on fairies, and they’ll all laugh about it.” Bless this Englishman. He meant well. But this happened perhaps the third summer I spent on Inis Oírr and he was far too late to save me from a reputation.
Maybe the same could be said for Tobar Éanna. A holy place, a healing place, but not powerful enough to turn back the hurtful tides of time and talk. A humble place too—just a small natural spring a foot or so deep, protected by stacks of thick flagstones and dug smack in the middle of a stony field dotted with tiny white daisies and yellow buttercups. If you could touch a wand to it and turn the well into human form, of the medical persuasion, it’d transform into a midwife, a trusted local nurse, an old wise woman with a store of healing lore in her head—certainly not a world-famous surgeon, puffed up with importance and arrogance and the gleam of new technology. There’s no special halo-glow to the place, despite its supposed sacredness. Yet it demands and draws respect from a visitor, by its spareness, isolation, and come-as-you-are—whole or hurt, damaged or daft, hopeful or just curious—character. A bit like the island it lives on.
worth the walk anyway, worth a little dip of the hand into the water, a sign of
the cross, a simple request to whatever powers-that-be in the holy spaces of
this world to “give me a little help or relief here, will ya?” No real need to
go round and round the thing seven times—unless you’re up for some exercise or
some eel hunting.
And maybe it’s a blessing to never spot the eel in the well, to never be granted the gift of a miracle healing. To be healed would mean to never need to return to Tobar Éanna, and never need to return the place that gives it shelter—Inis Oírr. And for a girl from Chicago—where there are no magic wells, no mischief-making fairies, no miracles of any kind—that would be the most unwelcome wound of all.
This little essay was published a few years ago at the Aran Islands Info website. Their blog seems to be down these days, so I’ve reposted the story here. Enjoy.
“Fish, fish, fish,” says Tomas, as he dangles a fishing line over the side of his small, white boat and into the Atlantic Sea. He gives the line a wiggle, throws a wink to me sitting up at the bow, and repeats the magic charm. Me and my friend Angela, balanced on the edge of the boat at the stern, wait in silence and watch the line.
Nothing. Not even the mirage of a tug. “Sometimes it works,” says Tomas with a sheepish smile. But today the fish aren’t buying any Irish charms.
Angela and I are lucky, even if we have been out on the water half an hour without catching anything. Not only are we getting a private tour with a local around Inis Oirr—the smallest of the three Aran Islands that lurk off the west coast of Ireland—we’re also getting a lesson in fishing superstitions of the islanders.
Angela and I are working for the summer in Inis Oirr’s only hotel—a small, family-run place with 15 rooms, but no Room 13. Instead, the numbering goes 11, 12A, 12B, 14…. On a day off we’ve finally managed to nag Tomas, a local fisherman and friend, into taking us out in his boat. It’s an adventure I’ve been after since working here the summer before, but with little luck—and luck is just the problem. Western Ireland abounds with superstitions about red-headed women, an unfortunate club to which I belong. Sure enough, the fishermen of Inis Oirr think no good can come from bringing a ginger woman out in the boat. I’ve already been blamed for one fishing mishap. A couple weeks ago two brothers took me out in their boat for a short spin one morning to check their nets, only to find their motor broken down later that same day. “Can’t figure out what’s wrong with it,” one of the brothers said to me, his eyes taking on a glint of suspicion as they drifted off my face to my strawberry blonde locks. “It was working fine when we took you out a few hours ago.”
But Tomas either has more confidence in me or less in the power of superstitions. Perhaps it’s because he and another fisherman took me out on the sea on a previous occasion, with some actual success. Or maybe it’s because he’s heard I’m really a brunette who colors her hair. In any case he agreed to meet Angela and I at the slip by the beach this afternoon, and now for the first time we’re really fishing—and not just along for the ride.
He’s steered the boat to places on the sea where the seagulls have been circling overhead and floating along with the waves. “Look for the birds. That’s where the fish are,” he tells us. Once he stops the motor, he takes up the oars and rows us out a little farther and then lets Angela and I have a go at the fish. We use a long line with a small weight at one end and several bait hooks. More than once I get excited when I think I feel a tug on the line, only to have Tomas take the line and tell me it’s got caught in the rocks underwater. Angela, meanwhile, becomes more interested in steering than fishing. Tomas restarts the motor and lets her guide us where the sea is deeper, where there’s less chance of our line getting caught up in rocks, and where we can see puffins bobbing on the water. There’s a large colony of them living amongst the cracks and crags of the mighty, moss-covered Cliffs of Moher, just a few miles from Inis Oirr on the mainland. Today is a classic Irish summer’s day—some sunshine, some clouds, some gray skies, some blue—but the wall of the cliffs is so massive that even the gray moments can’t dull the bright green of the cliffs. From the edge of Inis Oirr the cliffs look like a giant green flag, rippled by the wind.
When Angela stops the boat, Tomas pulls out another Irish charm for fishing. “Has anyone been to mass lately?” he asks us. Angela hasn’t been in ages. I’m a hit-or-miss mass-goer myself, but I did make it out of bed to the island’s one small church a couple Sundays ago. “I’d say we’ll have some luck so,” says Tomas and hands the line over to me.
Sure enough, in a few minutes I’m feeling a tug—the real deal. Tomas helps me pull up the line, where a pollock has met its fate. I snap a picture of Tomas holding up my prize. Angela takes the line then for a short while and lands a tiny baby of a fish, not much longer than a cigarette. Before throwing the baby back into the sea, Tomas shouts, “Photo! Photo! Get the camera!” “Well I caught one anyway,” says Angela, not able to hold back a proud smile.
Tomas lets Angela console herself by taking over the steering again. We end up going for a trip around the whole island, only 4 square miles and nearly all limestone, just a big floating chunk of the stuff. The day brightens as we pass around the coast of the island where, across from the Cliffs of Moher, an old, hulking wrecked freighter rests—The Plassey, stuck there since a bad storm in 1960. We go on past a lighthouse and the uninhabited back of the island, where the sea has pounded and eaten away Inis Oirr’s limestone into large, step-like columns and slabs fit for a giant’s tread.
Three-quarters around now, the island’s coast is all tumbled-down boulders. I spot a small, rusted vessel marooned on the rocks. Tomas says it’s a boat that drifted up onto the island during World War II. Inside was the body of an American soldier, never identified. His grave is a little farther inland from where his boat landed. The islanders buried him there, not far from a holy well, or natural spring, dedicated to the Aran Islands’ patron saint, Enda. “Why didn’t the islanders bury him in the cemetery?” I ask. All of Inis Oirr’s other dead lie in a graveyard built around the remains of an old church on a high dune off the beach. Tomas explains that since the islanders didn’t know who he was, they had no way of knowing whether he was Catholic or even Christian and didn’t want to risk burying a “heathen soul” in consecrated ground.
When we get around to the front of the island, Tomas takes over the steering and guides the boat past the pier and up to the beach. He gets out of the boat—his feet protected from the waves running up to shore by a pair of wellies—and pulls it up onto the sand. Angela, in bare feet, leaps from the boat onto the shore. I’m more hesitant, worried about getting my shoes and socks soaked. Tomas notices, tells me to wait where I am, and wades over to lift me out and carry me farther up shore where I’m safe from getting wet. He then takes our big haul of one pollock, guts it for us, and washes it clean in the sea. Even with that head start it will take Angela and I, city girls both, a Dubliner and a Chicagoan, well over half an hour to figure out how to further dress the fish for dinner.
In the evening, after a feast of fresh pollock, potatoes, and carrots, Angela and I meet Tomas in the hotel pub to hear the locals play traditional music. Tomas has beaten us to the chase for rounds and already bought us each a drink. But once that round is nearly done, I run up to the bar to buy a pint for Tomas. “That’s for carrying me out of the boat today,” I tell him, setting the pint down in front of him. For a moment he looks politely modest and surprised. Then he reaches behind his back and fakes a look of agony. “How about paying the doctor’s bill for me broken back?” He beats us to laughing at his own joke. Then the music starts up and drowns out any more jokes and laughs. It’s been a lucky day.
This nonfiction piece was originally published at Literary Orphans on Easter 2014, as part of the journal’s Irish-themed “Jonathan Swift” issue. Earlier this year though, the Literary Orphans website was hacked and wiped, including its nonfiction Tavern Lantern channel, where this piece was posted. The journal editors are still working on restoring the Tavern Lantern site. Until then, I’m sharing my essay here, because of all the pieces I’ve published so far, this is the one I’m most proud of, and I want people to be able to read it.
A woman who keeps bees is a woman I’d like to know. I think she’d be able to tell me a lot about the secrets of surviving this world. For starters, how to disregard the stings and cultivate the sweetness of life. I wouldn’t mind also taking a few lessons from the bees themselves. But we speak different languages, the bees and I. You might say we travel in different circles. They dance through air, I tread on earth. Their lives are short, sweet, and purposeful. They enjoy a profound intimacy with the world’s great beauties, the flowers.
Me? I’m 40 years here on earth—living, stumbling, bumbling, mistaking, basically wasting time. Intimacy of any kind is hard to come by, much less turn into something fruitful. The same goes with resolve. And effort. Between you and me and the bees, there are times when I’d rather stick my hand into a hornet’s nest than risk a flight at trust or hope or gumption, and a flight away from bitterness and fear.
A beekeeper is someone I’d bet on to have good advice and answers. But I’ve never known one to ask. The closest I’ve come to even meeting one was in visiting the alleged church of an alleged beekeeping saint who allegedly lived on an island off the west coast of Ireland long ago. This rumor of a holy hive-keeping woman is all I have to guide me.
Her name was Gobnait. A uniquely Irish name. To American ears, like mine, its pronunciation sounds something like what you might shout upon being stung by an insect. So of course a woman with a name like that kept bees. And it was the kind of thing holy people did back then, in the 6th century, when Gobnait had her turn on earth. In those days in Ireland, holy people were all around, almost as common as bees themselves. A land of saints, as they say. Some of those holy folks lived like honey bees, clustered together in communities of hundreds or more. Some were more like the bumble variety, settling with only a dozen or so kindred spirits. And some, like the carpenter bee, were solitary—self-marooned on lonely little rock islands or hidden away in dark and dinky caves.
Gobnait was something of a hybrid of all holy varieties, depending on where she was at in her life and on earth. On Inis Oírr, the western Irish island where Gobnait’s story first gets going, the locals say she arrived there from County Clare, just a few miles across Galway Bay, to escape an enemy or a family squabble. Who her enemy might have been, what the problem was, what sort of punishment or consequences she was running from, and whether she was ever found or followed by her pursuers—nobody knows. Not a word more about Gobnait’s life pre-flight has survived. If there ever was more to the story of Gobnait’s escape to Inis Oírr, those details have vanished or fallen away, like the features on a face carved out of stone many centuries ago.
Maybe Gobnait was already religious before leaving home. Or maybe it was her desperate dash across the bay that made her so. Maybe religious devotion was a comfort she conjured after living out on Inis Oírr—a small and thoroughly stony place, almost totally treeless and therefore shadeless, and in times of harsh weather, rather merciless. If this was where she started keeping bees, you couldn’t blame her for wanting to bring some sweetness to the surrounding bleakness. But as with her life in Clare, no one really knows what Gobnait did with herself on Inis Oírr, or even how long she stayed there. All the islanders can say is that she stayed until an angel appeared to her in a dream and told her to move on. This island was not the place for her. She was to seek out a place where there were nine white deer grazing. There and then she would find the place of her resurrection.
You don’t argue with angels. Not when there’s a heavenly reward, on earth or otherwise, at stake. Gobnait went back to the mainland so, where she wandered the country for a while, keeping her eye out for the nine white deer and the place of her true belonging. The story goes that she stopped in Kerry and Waterford and Cork, giving her name to a church here, a village there, like a child dropping crumbs or clues just in case she lost her way. Or perhaps in case anyone was looking for her. Was anyone looking for her? Wouldn’t there have been? No one seems to ask in the Gobnait story. The point has always been what she was looking for. And where she found it.
Gobnait’s reward of resurrection actually came in increments, in teases, like a dancer dropping the veils covering her body and revealing herself one inch of skin at a time. She found three deer first, in Clondrohid in County Cork. Then a herd of six at Ballymakeera, a few miles roughly northwest. Then finally nine after crossing into a village called Ballyvourney over the River Sullane. There she stayed, built a convent, and made a reputation for herself as a healer who had a way with the bees and a holy woman capable of performing miracles. Among her miracles are the time she kept a plague away from Ballyvourney simply by drawing a line in the earth along the village’s eastern borders, and another occasion during which she caused some cattle thieves to flee by letting her bee friends loose from their hives. That latter miracle might seem obvious and ordinary enough—anyone can poke a stick into a few bees’ nests and rouse their fury after all—hence, no miracle at all. But Gobnait turned her army of bees into actual soldiers, you see, and for an extra dose of no-nonsense she hurled one of the hives at the fleeing thieves and made it change into a helmet as it flew through the air at the bolting crooks.
It can be hard to square such violence, such unapologetic vengeance, with the modern notion of what a saint should be. Saints are supposed to be nice. Mother Teresa smiling on the cover of a magazine nice. St. Francis of Assisi holding a kitten in someone’s backyard garden nice. Not necessarily without backbone, but not vindictive to the point of throwing potentially murderous heavy objects at people’s heads either. Even after taking into account old stereotypes about Irish tempers (and there are stories of other Irish saints, besides Gobnait, who also liked to throw things and start up a brawl every now and again), there’s something both extraordinary and extraordinarily admirable to me about Gobnait’s flashes of anger, something so correctly drawn about a woman once chased from her home now chasing away others, making lines in the earth, marking boundaries, protecting her turf, defending the place of her resurrection from thievery and greed and disease, from any chance of being spoiled or taken away from her, especially after it took such wandering for her to finally get here.
She had a right to be so territorial. For in the end Ballyvourney was indeed her place of resurrection. Her grave is there, near the traditional site of her convent, and near a holy well, a cemetery, and a statue of a rather downcast and dull-looking little woman wearing a long cape and rosary beads and standing on a stone hive. The statue was erected in 1950, a representation more of its time, of how Ireland once wanted its women to be—modest, devout, unchallenging—than of the territorial and spirited woman who guarded 6th-century Ballyvourney.
I have never been to Ballyvourney. That’s a bold confession on my part, as Ballyvourney is of course the go-to spot for Gobnait groupies and devotees. On her feast day, February 11th, locals and visitors make pilgrimage to Gobnait’s grave there. The day is marked with a turas, in which pilgrims visit designated stations at the monastic site, moving around them in a clockwise direction and saying the usual prayers—the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be—as they go. There’s no re-creating of Gobnait’s more memorable life moments—no hive or helmet-throwing contests, no banishing of plagues, no running or wandering. Not as far as I know. Since I only know Gobnait-devotion through the place she ran from, not to—through Inis Oírr.
On Inis Oírr on Gobnait’s feast day, the islanders huddle inside the small, roofless, stone church dedicated to her for a special mass in her honor. It’s usually a small crowd, and mostly women. Very unlike the outdoor mass in June for Inis Oírr’s patron—and male—saint, Caomhán, held in a larger yet also roofless church in the island graveyard.
St. Caomhán’s church may just get more attention because of its obviousness. The graveyard in which it lies—and I do mean “in”—is on a high dune just off the beach and the island’s tiny airport. The church has long since sunk into the sand of the dune, and the islanders used to have to clear away the sand regularly until grass was planted around the church to keep the sand back a bit. Climbing up the dune to the cemetery and coming to the edge of the church ruins is like stumbling upon and looking down into the world’s largest and most worn-out treasure chest, its top ripped off and its contents emptied out with just sweepings of dust left in the remains of the frame. Despite the church’s deathly surroundings, it has an association with luck. There’s a belief that if you can fit through the very narrow open window above the church’s stone altar, you’re bound for heaven when you die. Near the church is a small house-like structure that protects Caomhán’s grave. The islanders say if you spend the night lying on it, especially on the eve of his feast day, you’ll be cured of all illness.
Gobnait’s church, on the other hand, is hard to find. It’s in a field among many fields that cover the island, all separated from each other by high, hand-built stone walls that give the island fields and roads a maze-like appearance from above. It’s easy to get lost looking for Gobnait’s church. Which may be what the runaway saint would have wanted. And even if you do find your way, there’s little luck to be won there. Beside the entrance to the field of Gobnait’s church are a well and a tree with a bad reputation. Now on an island as barren and rocky as Inis Oírr, you’d think a tree would be seen as a blessed thing, a miracle even. After all, you can count the number of trees on the island on one hand. But the tree by Gobnait’s church is an elder, one of several tree varieties in Ireland often associated with fairies and all the tricks and mischief fairies like to get up to. Worse, Gobnait’s tree is actually a twin elder, two trickster trees grown into one. Double the trouble.
As with Caomhán’s church site, there are graves at Gobnait’s church, or maybe they’re outdoor altars—no one can decide for sure. There are also the remains of a clochán, a very small stone hut that must have kept some sacred or solitary-loving soul on the island out of the rain long ago. It has no roof now, same as Gobnait’s and Caomhán’s churches. It’s almost as if there’s a moral to be found in all these roofless old structures on the island: Stick around this place long enough and you’ll lose your head. Just wait for it.
Gobnait’s church site was my favorite place on Inis Oírr in the days I lived there. That was many years ago, but hardly as many as when Gobnait did. I came to the island from the opposite direction than Gobnait, from America, from Chicago. I wasn’t running or escaping anything—not yet. I was just looking to spend some time in a foreign country I had visited once before and wanted to get to know better. When I went to Ireland to live and work, I expected to end up in Dublin or Cork—in a city at any rate. I never dreamed I’d end up on a tiny island off the country’s west coast.
How I landed on Inis Oírr is a story for another time. If nobody knows how or why no less a figure than St. Gobnait got there, nobody really needs to know how or why I did. There was a job there on the island, in a hotel over the summer, when I went looking for one and couldn’t seem to find one anywhere else in Ireland. That’s really all there is to it.
Though I would spend the next three months living and working on Inis Oírr (and several more summers to come), it took me awhile to come across Gobnait’s church site. I don’t even recall if I found it the first summer I was there. But once I finally did, it became my favorite spot to get away from it all. (Yes, I know, as if being on a small island on the opposite side of the Atlantic wasn’t getting far enough away from it all to begin with.) There’s a low hill in the corner of the field of Gobnait’s church, and I liked to sit there and read or look out at the pieces of the sea and mainland and horizon you could see from the hill between all the island walls. Once in a while I’d go to Gobnait’s field and find someone else, some tourists or such, already there—taking pictures, inspecting the old church and graves, maybe resting on the hill themselves—and I’d feel jealous and frustrated. How to get rid of them? How to make them buzz off? I never really tried. Despite my big-city background, I’m not a confrontational person. I’m Midwestern, and Midwesterners don’t make waves. We never learned, what with no ocean around us.
When I found someone else intruding on my favorite spot, I tended to just walk on. Maybe I’d come back after a while to see if the intruders were gone, but usually I’d just accept it and find somewhere else to read or watch or brood. The back of the island was usually a good bet. It’s entirely uninhabited—by people, at least—and wild. At the back of the island, the stone walls are mostly tumbled down and crumbled away, leaving messy hurdles of rock for walkers to climb over only to land on more rock—great, long, fissured blocks of limestone jutting out into the sea. There may be a couple islandmen around collecting seaweed for fertilizer if the tide is out, and there may be a few tourists who’ve found their way out here—but the sound of the sea generally drowns out their chatter and the clicks of their cameras and tends to humble them into either high-tailing it back to civilization at the front of the island or finding a cranny in the rocks to cower against, as sea and stone duke it out in the fight for elemental supremacy. This part of the island can make a scaredy-cat out of a street tough and a hermit out of an attention whore.
Gobnait picked a good place to run away to, is what you think while exploring Inis Oírr. Even if it wasn’t the end place for her, it was a good hideout, a good place to recover from whatever personal apocalypse drove her here to wait for news of resurrection.
There are women I know on the island who refuse to believe the negative superstitions around Gobnait’s bad-luck double fairy tree. There are women on the island who in fact will go to Gobnait’s field to “sit with Gobnait” whenever they need time and space to think or reflect—they’ll go to Gobnait’s church over the modern church on the island or even Caomhán’s church any day. I myself never heard anything bad about Gobnait’s tree or field from the islandwomen. It was a man who told me. An islandman and a one-time sweetheart of mine.
Once while holding hands with this sweetheart and walking on the road past Gobnait’s church at night, I mentioned to him that it was my favorite spot on the island. “You know there’s a lot of superstition about that tree,” he said to me. “Lots of people here say they get a bad feeling passing it after dark. They say they don’t trust it.”
I didn’t have much to say in response to that then. I was, after all, a girl in love, young, quite inexperienced, and giddy with the romance of walking at night under a starry sky with one of the island’s handsomest men. All I had on my mind was the fire in my heart, not the cool tone in his voice. It was only two days later when he would betray me badly and break my heart.
Did the tree jinx us? Was it the double tree who double-crossed me? Or was it him? Or me? Something I said, or didn’t say, when my islandman and I passed the tree by? Perhaps there are cautions on the island against women who stand in spoken solidarity with trees. Reaching as that may sound, consider that one of the only other trees on the island had a stone beneath it dedicated to the mná na hÉireann, women of Ireland, in honor of a visit by Ireland’s first female president, Mary Robinson—and the stone was broken in half, replaced, and broken again. They say the “women’s tree” was eventually blown away entirely, in a storm. Maybe it blew all the way to Resurrectionville, Ireland, itself: Ballyvourney. Maybe it found refuge there, replanted itself, and grew to cast loving shade over Gobnait’s grave. Maybe it even shelters a beehive in its branches.
I dream up these notions of renewed life for a lost tree because I’m too proud and too bitter to dream up notions of renewed life for a lost love. After getting my heart broken, I became a running and wandering woman, same as Gobnait had been. But where she ran to Inis Oírr, I ran from it, and I wouldn’t return for years to come. Nor would I find my place of resurrection, despite hops around America to Australia to Bolivia to Mexico to France and Spain. And I never lent my name to any of the places I passed through, didn’t drop clues for anyone who may have been looking for me…though all along I wondered if someone might be, hoped that someone would be. I’ve also yet to come across any white deer—though other miracles, in other forms, have certainly been abundant. The most unexpected, most bitter and sweet, was seeing the face of the man who betrayed me, back in Ireland, over a decade on. He didn’t bring me resurrection. He brought a handshake. Likewise I didn’t bring forgiveness. I brought a hug. These things come in increments, in teases: one step, two steps, three steps…three deer, six deer, nine deer…a few inches of skin, a few inches of self-exposure, trust, and courage at a time.
Gobnait was by all accounts a nun and a virgin, so she may have been innocent of the disasters of love affairs. Yet her legend begins with a running, a fleeing, the kind women do when disaster is fresh and raw as a still swelling sting. Any woman who’s ever been burned can understand the desire to give it all over to God, to scorn men for solitude or society for a nunnery, to trust no one but the bees. Every woman has her own Ballyvourney ahead of her, and behind her, her own Inis Oírr. Considering that in Gobnait’s time Ireland was swarming with saints (Wikipedia’s list of medieval saints numbers well over 100), one has to wonder how much of it came down to holiness and how much to heartbreak.
Whatever their motive in the old days, holy people are a rare breed today. In Ireland, in America, perhaps everywhere, people just don’t get up and maroon themselves on an island or in a desert for the sake of the sacred anymore. Our times produce few saints. They’re almost extinct. And word is that the bees who once kept their company aren’t far behind.
It’s called colony collapse disorder, this large-scale vanishing of the bees, and it’s a red-hot topic. I could have written a whole essay here about it, written as many paragraphs as above examining all the reasons for what’s killing the bees off and the consequences for us humans and what we can do about it. I’m sure there are readers who would tell me I should have written about these things, who would tell me a personal heartbreak and the life of a long-gone holy woman are much less worthy topics of discussion in the grand scheme of things and, for further convincing, might toss off a quote that’s been going around lately (attributed to Einstein, though it’s never been verified) that says humans won’t last even half a decade if a beeless planet comes to pass. I admit this prospect is a much more pressing issue. I also admit I’m not so interested in the pressing issues.
There’s already a multitude of people shouting a multitude of questions and answers and opinions on the disappearance of bee colonies. They shout things like: Pesticides! Viruses! GMOs! Also: Climate change! Monoculture! Cell phones! Bee malnutrition! Indeed, the list of culprits gets longer as more bees disappear and more people take notice. Still, the shouting may not be loud enough, the message not yet focused enough or crystal-clear to cut through to people’s serious concern. Perhaps there’s still time for the shouters to prove themselves heroes and life-savers, or they may suffer the fate of tragically unheeded sages, of failed missionaries, of hoarse-voiced street preachers ranting and raving about the loss of faith and the coming end times.
I for one don’t doubt the urgency. I like bees. I dig their buzz. I don’t want to see them go away. I like honey, and I like all the fruits and nuts and such that bees pollinate for the world. But all the same, I’ll leave it to the know-it-alls of science, biology, and the environment to fight over the various reasons and solutions for colony collapse disorder. They can work on saving the world’s source of sweetness. I’ll work on resolving my personal store of bitterness. So I’d rather turn to that back-page place where women’s stories and women’s glories so often get buried. I’d rather investigate the mystery of a little-known female saint in a little country than the tragedy of something so large as a worldwide apocalypse.
Besides, St. Gobnait’s story is something like an apocalypse. For every life that’s ever sparked and ended is an apocalypse of sorts. So is every creation that’s ever crumbled or vanished or come to lose meaning and appreciation in time. Really, we’re all apocalypses—men, women, bees, bad-luck trees, holy people, hives, half-hidden churches on islands, and deer herds straight from a hermit woman’s dream. All runnings and vanishings are apocalypses as well. All arrivals, resurrections, and fumbles at forgiveness. All wishes, answers, shoutings, and conversions. All love affairs too…especially love affairs.