Find Your Tribe: Go Where the Crazies Are

So, this is how it happened (as I recollect):

This Irish chick named Dymphna was being raised in clannish privilege, since she was reared by a medieval Catholic mother and a godless Gaelic brute of a father, which likely meant in truth that she got more butter than the other kids, and the straw in her mattress was changed more often. At some point, Mom got sick and took a dirt nap, and Dad went apeshit cuckoo with grief and boredom, which seriously sucked righteous balls for Dymphna because she looked just like Mom – carbon copy, by all accounts – and Dad decided that she’d make a perfect replacement for his deceased wife in his straw-ticked mattress. Ewww…. So, Dymphna goes to see her priest-confessor for help, who also just happens to be her private tutor, and he evidently has a thing for her, too, because he’s already thought this shit through: he puts Dymphna on a boat in the middle of the night and they head for the Continent, incognito-like.Well, this enrages Dad, who obviously has a boat of his own and a bunch of people scared enough to kill themselves in exhaustion making hay to catch up to Dymphna and the Dead Meat Priest. So, Boat #1 lands on the sandy shores of Belgium with Boat #2 bearing down on it’s aft end, and Psycho Dad jumps out of Boat #2, runs to catch up to Dymphna and her unfortunate escort, slices Dead Meat Priest to ribbons, and starts screaming like a maniac (picture your favourite Lord of the Rings army of Volunteers character, or an Orc, here) at Dymphna to get in the boat to go back to the shire so Daddy can make more inbred babies and start calling her Mom. And Dymphna says….

“I shall not sully my lily white soul with your perverted gilded thingamabob, you filthy hoohah! Get thee hence, O Foul Spawn! For I am the bride of Christ!”

And Psycho Dad says, “I’ll show you Christ!” And cuts off her head before abandoning her crumpled body on the beach and heading home unscathed and unhinged to find someone stupid enough to let him do his nasty business without poisoning his corn flakes in retaliation.

Well, you’d think that’s where the story would end, but no. Because in Catholic faerie tales, the ending is always happy. So the church ladies in the port of Gheel, Belgium, go drag their good-for-little husbands out of the pub and make them take that poor beautiful girl’s body up to the church, and they do her up a proper wake because, even though none of them have ever met her, and this happened before the days of the telegraph, newspaper journalism, the internet or celebrity sprung from having a pointless Instagram following, everybody already knew the score: Beautiful Catholic Virgin + Dead Meat Priest + Psycho Pagan Daddy + Untimely Brutal Murder = Sainthood (cue choirs of angels). End of story.

Well, it gets better: the faithful of Gheel stick Dymphna’s rotting corpse in a cave, light a bunch of candles, ask GOD to give them a sign and, voil’a! All the crazy people at the local sanatorium are instantly healed. Thank you, St. Dymphna! Makes perfect sense to me. No, seriously. It does.

So fast forward a few centuries.

My first trip to Ohio sans Grandma was in the Spring of 1999 when I was trying to decide whether or not I would go back to St. Kate’s, finish my Masters and keep working in healthcare, or make a speedy exit and go hide myself in a nunnery. I needed help. A retreat at Entheo brought nothing, so I decided to go on pilgrimage. Father WhatsHisButt suggested St. Dymphna…where is the Shrine of St. Dymphna? And why St. Dymphna? What are you trying to tell me, old man? A trip to the library revealed my destination: smack in the middle of the Massillon State Hospital campus for Abandoned and Warehoused Peoples in Massillon, Ohio. WTF….

Sidebar: President McKinley figures into this story; he forked over a substantial chunk of cheddar to help build this place. Why, you ask? Because his epileptic wife, Ida, became a stark-raving nutter from physican-assisted malpractise when some wingnut with letters behind his name thought it’d be a great idea to give her bottles of barbituates and laudenum to ease her grief after one of her two young daughters died. Her therapy-healing strategy involved sitting in a dark room with the remaining daughter, smothering her with kisses and horrible guilt-laden tales about how GOD was punishing her for being a bad mother – when she wasn’t passed out cold from the drugs – and how sweet living daughter must never stray out of sight, lest GOD kill her, too, and drive Mummy Dearest totally whackadoodles. … 0_o …. I think your attending physician already took care of that one, Sunshine….

Anyhoo, it’s 1999, and that’s all I know about the Massillon State Hospital and it’s long-gone residents of note, besides the fact that it used to waste the lives more than 4,000 invisible people at once. How lovely….

So, a pilgrimage is supposed to involve suffering, sacrifice, and contemplation. I’m too lazy to walk to Ohio, so I get this brilliant idea: Greyhound. I can take a bus, hit all three criteria in one fell swoop and best of all? A one way ticket to anywhere in the country is only $36 plus taxes and fees. WOOOHOOO!!! So I get Mavis to drive me to Minneapolis and I buy a seven-day advanced ticket.

A week later, I board a smelly bus at 4:45am with my rucksack, a bottle of water, a bottle of Dr. Pepper, three liverwurst and mayo sammiches on rye bread with lettuce, an apple, The Imitation of Christ, my wallet, five pairs of clean panties and my tuffsbrush. This shit is about to get real!

In Eau Claire, with several stops in between, we picked a giant clan of not-freshly-bathed Amish people. I was already in the back of the bus, doing penance by sitting directly in front of the blue water potty from hell (I take this shit seriously, no pun intended), so I’m safe.

No, I wasn’t.

A pimply faced girl in a blue dress and a black apron sat down next to me with a big grin on her face, and she didn’t shut up until her people got off the bus in Canton. I’m not kidding.

That girl up there with the head smaller than all the others? That’s her twin sister. That boy in the green shirt? Don’t think bad of him because he got kicked in the head by a cow when he was six, and now he does unspeakable things with all the mules in the community. Not the horses; he leaves them alone. That woman up there? She’s her Aunt Gemma. Gemma makes the best preserves and the best peach cobbler in the whole world and all the English say that she should enter in the fair, but she doesn’t because that would be prideful. Oh, and who am I talking to? This little 80lb springwired ball of nonstop verbal diarrhea is Addie and she’s 17 and so is her twin (not shit! Ya don’t say….) and that’s why they were in Eau Claire because some elder in the community wants to ship those two girls off to marry two square-jawed cornfed farmboys up Nort’, so the whole family came along to see if they’re any good a’tall. They’re on they’re way back to Perry Township to pray about things and let their daddy come up with a fair dowry to offer….

By the time we reached Canton three days (or weeks…I lost track) later, my ears were ringing, I was convinced that Addie’s kingsized brother Thomas was going to make a play to throw me in the back of that hay wagon out in the parking lot and take me home, and the bus smelled like the end-off-season jockstrap of a high school linebacker (you do not want to know how I know that. Let’s just say I went to school during a time when detention was nothing like the fanciful bullshit in The Breakfast Club, and indentured servitude of minors was pefectly legal with a signed parental permission slip…I got a lot of them.

When the bus finally arrived in downtown Massillon, it was around noon. We had passed by an apple orchard at some point that was deep green and pink, heavy with blossoms, but for some reason I remember it felt hot as Hades…in hindsight, I kinda wish I had remembered that better. I asked the station steward where I could find a cab, and without skipping a beat, he said, “Cleveland.” So, I went to the payphone and went straight down the list calling all of the local Catholic parishes to find a ride to the State hospital. Believe it or not, this is more difficult that one might assume because it wasn’t until I called St. Joseph’s that I got a church secretary who didn’t ask if I was an escaped patient in need of a police escort….Jesus, people are so jaded.

So, the nice lady from St. Joseph’s comes and gets me, and asks me where I’m staying, and I tell her I don’t know yet. And here’s where it gets depressing….

The State hospital chapel is a squat, stained, used-to-be-white-maybe concrete building with few windows that looks for all the world like an old jail (this is actually wrong, but it’s what’s in my head). The lady drops me off and says she’ll be back in two hours to pick me up. Inside, the building that houses the chapel is even dingier, and the ancient miniature secretary, Ruth, at the reception area is easily the Cryptkeeper’s mother.

Father Herttna has been here twenty years, give ir take a decade, and he’s never had a pilgrim come, she says. Go in the chapel, she’ll have to find him….The chapel decor dates back to the early 70s and I know this can’t be right, but I remember the dirty frosted glass geometric windows that lit the place to dull twilight being a horrible shade of pea green. What an absolutely vile place to house the relics of a murdered virgin.

Eventually, an elderly, tired looking, thoroughly-Jesuit-clad priest appeared by the pew where I sat and asked me why I was there. “I’m looking for answers,” I said. “You won’t find them in this place,” he answered darkly. You don’t know that, ya lunatic….To be fair, this man was overworked and had a beeper that went off constantly. I may have caught him on a bad week.

The nice lady at St. Joseph’s twisted someone’s arm and got me a private room at a nearby battered women’s shelter. I stayed for three days, and every day at lunch time the lady from the parish office picked me up and took me back to the undignified shrine where the soul of some long-dead girl murdered by her own father offered prayers of intercession for peace of mind and healing for the mentally tilted. When I was done sitting silently in the gross chapel, asking for guidance, I went back to the shelter and sat at an old picnic table in the backyard where the ladies gathered to smoke and talk about their horror stories of abuse and manipulation and abandonment and grief. They were just like me. A few, in fact, were college educated. One had been left for dead in a field behind a movie theatre, and would sit smoking cigarettes that she tucked into the lip of the fiberglass cast that held her thumb and wrist in place, just two weeks out of the hospital. I wanted to hug every single one of them, but didn’t dare.

The third day I went back to the shrine, Ruth asked me where I was going next, and I said I didn’t know, yet. An hour later, I finished my devotion, and began walking down the dark corridors of this old, dank building. And then I found it: a magazine rack on the wall by an empty office door had a May 1990 issue of the Catholic Worker newspaper, and Dorothy Day is my beloved spiritual mother. A sign? I took it out of the cubbie, and turned around and there on the shadowed wall behind me was an ancient, dusty embroidery in a frame, a colourless ring of flowers surrounded black block letters in cross-stitch which read: “IF YOU WANT TO BE HEALED, SERVE.”

I was stunned. Wasn’t that what I had been doing for years? I carried the paper back to the chapel and sat there and thought for a few minutes. I closed my eyes, opened the paper at random, set it down on the pew in front of me, said, “Please, Father,” and put my finger on a spot on the page. Iowa. St. John of the Cross House, Cedar Rapids. I was going to Iowa.

It probably wasn’t the best plan for rejoining the Catholic Worker Movement, but that’s what I did. I left the paper there on the pew, filled out the member card for the St. Dymphna Prayer League that Father had left for me with the tiny Ruth, and went back to the shelter to gather my things before boarding another bus bound for Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Two months later I was in a Benedictine monastery in Scranton, Pennsylvania, finding out the hard way that I don’t do well with authority in any context, and not long after that (more than six months, but I don’t recall exactly) I was back at the Catholic Worker, this time in New York, looking for GOD in the subways and amongst the pots and the pans, being given wads of cash by Guidos on the street who regularly mistook me for a nun and asked for my prayers for their own souls. In New York, I once faced off with a half-crazed guest wielding a hatchet when he was trying to kill his girlfriend…and I thought immediately of St. Dymphna….Today I went to the Troll Hole (a tourist trap from 70s hell, worthy of at least one looksee if you’re ever in the area), and the crazy bleached blonde hippie lady who runs the place reminds me of the guest who once used me as a human shield against her would-be axe-swinging attacker, and I thought once again of St. Dymphna. I don’t talk much to saints anymore, but I decided to go find her.

The Massillon State Warehouse for Broken Peeps closed in 2001 and was bulldozed into grassy nothingness, thanks be to GOD, and St. Dymphna’s National Shrine was moved to a far more fitting, dignified, joyous place in the big red-brick Victorian rectory that sits in the shade of the stately grey quarried-stone ediface of St. Mary’s parish in downtown Massillon, with the cool musical bell tower and the peaceful old cemetery that sits behind, her relic housed in the big church itself along the Gospel side of the nave.I thanked St. Dymphna today and kissed her relic one more time (yes, I had permission). I have yet to find peace. Definitely lacking in the sound mind department. But how odd and yet fitting to find myself here, tucked into the foothills of Appalachia, just a stone’s throw from where I first began my journey. Life is twisted, indeed, and not at all predictable if you’re really paying attention. Who would have thunk it? St. Dymphna finally found her home, maybe I will still find mine.

Birth of Bliss

“I would always rather be happy than dignified.” ~Charlotte Bronte

If you grew up in 1970s America and did not have at least one summer camp experience learning how to tie-dye, you were deprived of one of the best things to come out of the Age of Aquarius. For me, it was Shannon Fleming’s mom, a sheep rancher and textile artist, who taught me to set a warp and weave and use a drop spindle and make macrame and do tie-dye.

My mother hated the Brownies and Girl Scouts mostly, I think, because our local troups were dominated by snotty, elitist Mormon girls and their pearl-clutching mothers, so I was forced to join the Bluebirds instead, which was populated by healthy Baptist and Methodist farm girls and utilitarian mothers who were 4-H leaders and Home-Ec teachers and all things self-sufficient. As a result, Bluebird summer camps were always hosted at someone’s farm for a week, and tents were strewn across the acreage under trees and between temporary clotheslines curtained with sheets and old blankets to shield us from the road and leering brothers.

These weeks were packed with activities where earning badges was an afterthought to learning life skills, like baking sourdough bread in an iron skillet on the side of a campfire, sewing our own rucksacks out of big grainbags donated from the elevator, and learning how to make a fire in a teepee that didn’t smoke you out or burn the damn thing down.

The summer we did camp at the Fleming’s farm, old grey, splitery picnic tables were set up under the cottonwood trees before we got there, laden with dozens of labelled feed buckets filled with every imaginable colour of smelly Ritz Fabric Dye and dozens of pairs of steel tongs. Now the reason I’d been sent to camp with a pair of pink Playtex rubber gloves and a lawn bag with arm and neck holes cut out of it made perfect sense though, in the end, I don’t think it really helped much, judging by the slow-to-fade dye job I sported on my arms, legs and face for the rest of the summer.

We were each given a brand new white teeshirt, and told what we were going to do, and Mrs. Fleming and the other leaders helped us twist and bind the fabric, tying it in segments with yarn remnants spun from the Fleming’s own fleece. Whilst we set up our shirts, Mrs. Fleming explained how fabric dyes worked, and told us to picture in our heads the colours we wanted to use and what we imagined our shirts would look like when we were finished, before we got to the dying part.

I’m not gonna lie. My first attempt at tie-dye was a godawful disaster. I chose purple and green as my colour scheme, and by the time I was finished prepping my shirt for the dye buckets, it looked like a misshapen ball of very tightly packed little yarn knots. Back then, dying fabric was a multi-step two-or-three day fiasco, and my imagination ran wild with visions of the most beautiful little starburst teeshirt the colour of lilacs. Imagine my disappointment when, on the third day of camp, I snipped hundreds of ties to reveal a brown, muddy splotch-fest of a teeshirt that looked for all the world as though I had simply thrown that nice white shirt into the irrigation canal and waited a year before retrieving it….

After many tears and then stuffing my first tie-dye foray into the back of my tops drawer, my mother decided to fix it by ironing on a big colourful decal of Raggedy Ann holding a bouquet of daisies that read, “I’m a Real Doll,” and it seemed like a great fix in my 13-year-old mind until Mr. Hill, my perpetually screaming, red-faced walking stroke of a P.E. teacher, told me that the shirt fit, “because a doll is a stuffed idiot.” (Don’t worry. He was rude to everyone; I wasn’t being singled out.) After that, the shirt became a nighty.

Years later, Mavis started working at the fabric store for the employee discount and began collecting every clearance-item craft supply known to mankind, and we got to work making shit for fun and profit. Year in, year out, scrapboooks, quilts, pillows, afgans, fake stained-glass, real stained-glass, beaded everything, embroidery and crewel and decoupage came and went through our hands out into the world. Of course, Mavis collected a massive box of Ritz and Tulip fabric dyes and once, when Mavis moved house back in the late-90s, I got yelled at by the realtor when Mavis told her that it was my fault that the downstairs bathtub, bathroom floor and walls looked like a psychedelic parrot had exploded in there. Needless to say, my dying skills have improved with age and practise, and I usually do it outside now. It also helps that some genius in the industry has managed to simplify the process; gone are the days of pilfering catchup squirt bottles from the drive-thru and trying to asphyxiate oneself with ammonia in enclosed spaces.I’ve been washing a lot of bolts of fabric lately, getting ready to make some new clothes for myself. My dresses are threadbare and getting far too big for me, my pinafores are in tatters, and I am overdo for new. I decided this past Winter when I unpacked Mavis’ dye collection that I was doing up at least a couple of bolts of muslin for pinafores and curtains, and I’ve had a lot of fun doing it.Later on today, these two pieces that I dyed last night will become new pinafores in the fashion of me….

This past week I had a once-in-a-blue-moon discussion with an old friend who let slip that meanspirited gossip and nastiness about me continues from quarters where honesty and chivalry should reign, but doesn’t. I was saddened, but not surprised, by this revelation for a few days, before I decided that I don’t really care, I’m going to keep doing what I actually do, and they can make up all the stories they want to, I’m still living a wonderful life in spite of their projected misery. Who cares what they think? I haven’t had contact with those self-righteous, narrowminded toads in years; they don’t know me!

Life is allegedly short, so I will continue to read Chesterton novels aloud to my chickens, sunbathe in the pastures with my dogs and goats, forage in the forests for treasures of green, wear purple and loads of tie-dye and make midnight margaritas with my own tintured absinthe instead of tequila without any thought about how it looks to others or how they can twist it in their own shallow imaginations like a muddy brown shirt.

Bliss is borne in doing what matters, doing it with heart and leaving the rest of the world to it’s own pessimisms. I haven’t got time for that latter mess; there’s too much to make beautiful in these days I’ve got left and not enough time to do it! As the saying goes, the best revenge is a life well-lived….

The Days to Come

“…And in all of the days to come, her heart would beat in this land, and she would be content….”

It took me a full year to find it, in a sparsely populated place called Bachelor Road tucked like a forgotten ruby amongst the cascading treed hills of Rose Township along a tiny dot of a long-dead settlement called Morges just on the edge of my beloved Appalachia. It’s almost precisely ten miles due North of my place in the long, green valley, a few miles East of a pretty little New Englandish floodplain town called Magnolia where they make tiny batches of real ice cream at the drug store and a smithy twists glowing hot iron into lawn art for Amish-seeking tourists.

…Just behind the social hall rolls out a serene sunny pasture of shimmering green populated by a healthy herd of white-faced, razor-backed Red Hereford cows with their calves. The matron of this family is a well-muscled dark burgundy lady with a shamefully docked tail who looks to be somewhere between 16- and 20-years-old and shows all the signs of old aged neglect though she is still heavy in gestation. Just over the fence on the East end of the churchyard is a well manicured cemetery neatly sectioned up and down the hillside and filled with stately rows of long-forgot Caspers and Darrs and Brankels all sleeping silently under the graceful copper-clad white steeple of St. Mary’s Church.

An anonymous priest comes every morning at 9 to say low Mass before locking the door and disappearing. Stained glass windows sparkle like jewels in the morning light, and I have frequently felt rather lucky and a little bit spoilt to be the only one here when two lone candles are lit and the Canon is said.

Baby likes to come with me and sit in the shade under the row of lithe, elderly emerald-gowned black locusts that separates the brown brick social hall and the cows, leaning sleepily into my hip whilst I watch the white clouds billow and roil across the southern horizon, listening to the birds and the rustling music of the trees whilst the cattle switch their tails and chew cud.

This parish is not listed on any map I have seen of the diocese. I stumbled over it going up to the farm one morning early this Spring to collect my beautiful milk. A small wooden sign dressed in peeling white paint and small black lettering that pointed down a tiny road I had not noticed before announced the parish’s existence, so I made a sharp right turn on the way home, half-gallon jars filled with yellow Guernsey milk clattering dangerously with loud voices in protest.

The day was cold, damp and overcast, heavy steel-grey clouds hanging low in the sky. The cattle were chatty that morning, and nosed Baby’s face with friendly interest and he quickly learned how to avoid the electric fence so that he could frolic in the tall grass with the Spring calves. An hour after we arrived that first time, the priest came and unlocked the door. He said nothing when he eyed Baby lying quietly at my feet in a pew towards the back, and he has said nothing since, only looks up occasionally with a vague smile. Every now and again I see the man who tends the cemetery; he calls me “Babe” and Baby “Baby,” and Baby likes to follow him amongst the big granite headstones whilst he runs the weedwhip, and comes back to me when the scary mower comes out.

Except for the traffic along Bachelor Road which grows with the hours of the day, this place is idyllic. Scott recently said with a chuckle that he couldn’t figure how how I could stand to live out here. This tiny, nearly 200-year-old parish is one of the reasons why. I only wish I had found it sooner…..

I want to stay here forever.