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.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. sobercatholic
    Jul 20, 2019 @ 20:49:12

    “Liverwurst and mayo?”

    “Miki’s Lives of the Saints.” Sure to be a best seller on EWTN’s Religious Catalogue.

    Seriously, this story on ‘Finding your Crazies” is epic. Thank you for sharing this twisted 😉 episode.

    Like

    Reply

  2. Mary Daugherty
    Jul 24, 2019 @ 21:03:17

    God Bless you . . . . . not only do I love your humor and your way with words. . . .I miss it when you don’t do it often. . . . I pray for you and wish I could do more for you. . ..

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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