The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 6

Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 6:

1 Let us follow the Prophet’s counsel: I said, I have resolved to keep watch over my ways that I may never sin with my tongue. I was silent and was humbled, and I refrained even from good words (Ps 38[39]:2-3).

2 Here the Prophet indicates that there are times when good words are to be left unsaid out of esteem for silence. For all the more reason, then, should evil speech be curbed so that punishment for sin may be avoided.

3 Indeed, so important is silence that permission to speak should seldom be granted even to mature disciples, no matter how good or holy or constructive their talk,

4 because it is written: In a flood of words you will not avoid sin (Prov 10:19);

5 and elsewhere, The tongue holds the key to life and death (Prov 18:21).

6 Speaking and teaching are the master’s task; the disciple is to be silent and listen.

7 Therefore, any requests to a superior should be made with all humility and respectful submission.

8 We absolutely condemn in all places any vulgarity and gossip and talk leading to laughter, and we do not permit a disciple to engage in words of that kind.

In other words, clean up your own house before you start pointing fingers at others.

GOD’s Garden Gnome Gone Home

A few years ago when my friend Bob Waldrop ran for local government in Oklahoma City, I had to laugh; lifelong political activist on the Libertarian front, self-described Anarcho-Distributist, founder of the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House, and deep, deep festering thorn-in-the-side of any government body that oppressed the poor, Bob would have been unstoppable in public office. He was an afflicter of the comfortable in the best ways possible, and the best lived example of the absolute power of voluntary poverty in action I have ever known. Of course, he lost the election…but he gained a sizable number of new benefactors and volunteers in the process, so, you know…he won.

Bob used to be my first call when we had snotty teenagers at Gilbert House in need of an emergency education. My phone calls always began with, “Bob, I have a crisis that needs to be handled.” And his reply was, without fail, “No problem! Bring them down, let’s have some fun!” No matter how many times I went to Oscar Romero House with brats in tow and a box of Benadryl half-consumed, the overwhelming smell of sheltered alley cats in the house was enough to make even the strongest stomach flinch (just breathe through your mouth until your nose gets tired, it’ll pass). Upper walls were knocked out of rooms and beams exposed to aid in passive heating and cooling. Piles of fresh vegetables littered the kitchen table and counters waiting to be processed. A piano, an organ, a clothes rack stuffed with men’s clothing, and several computers fought for space amongst castoff furniture in the cozy sitting area of the living room which was decorated in typical whirlwind Catholic Worker fashion: handmade posters from multiple anti-war protests, peace demonstrations, prayer vigils, scattered images of Bishop Romero, Dorothy, Cesar and Dr. King hung haphazardly on every wall with old flowers, strings of peace cranes, religious icons, and notices of things needed to be done and opportunities to serve. It was perfect, and the best place to learn about how blessed poverty can be.

If you went to Oscar Romero House, you were certain to be fed a wonderful hot meal made by the servant himself, given a lengthy dissertation recital on the evils of the capitalist war machine, entrenched as it is in drugs and fossil fuels and lies about scarcity, our birthright responsibilities as stewards of GOD’s Blue Jewel, the necessities and blessings of urban permaculture and food security designs, and the merciful dignity and joy of living in solidarity with the poorest of the poor. If that experience didn’t scare you off, and especially if your parents or your college advisor sent you, you were at last offered the linoleum floor in the spare bedroom to sleep on in the late hours. “Need a pillow,” Bob would ask imploringly with a smiling mischievous twinkle in his eye.

One of the funniest stories Bob ever told me was about the week the director of a Catholic studies department at one of the Eastern Universities paid big money to send a group of students to Oscar Romero CW for an intensive “poverty immersion experience.” Bob fed the boys, gave them tours of his gardens, the food warehouse where he oversaw weekly deliveries of groceries to the poor all over the metro, played the organ for them, and took them to church for Vespers. After his usual round of Clarification of Thought, he tucked them in the spare room for the night, spent a couple of hours working on his book project before going to bed, and when he woke the next morning all those spoilt rotten middle class servants to no one had fled the coop. No note, car gone, not even a thank you card.

“Evidently,” Bob said, “The reality of the bottom majority isn’t for everybody.”

Bob used to say that Dorothy Day saved his life and gave it purpose. In her essays about working to create mercy in an unjust system, and advising those who wanted to serve to start where they are, Bob discerned his life’s vocation as the Catholic Worker minstrel, directing the choirs and playing the organ at the local parish, turning whatever lucre was offered as remuneration into comfort for the afflicted in the neighborhoods around the tiny condemnable craftsman house on the corner that stood as a living, deliberate FU (though he would never say that) to every unjust property ordinance and regulation known to man, tomatoes planted in stacks of old tires hither and yon, mulberry trees and pole beans obscuring road signs and fenced driveway blinds, “grass” unmowed because it wasn’t grass, it was veg. Bob was an entrenched, well known, well loved example of passionate, tireless faith and love in action, an impossible one man revolution in full brotherhood with Ammon Hennessy and Cesar Chavez.

A couple of years ago, Bob was treated surgically for a large esophageal tumour that turned out to be an aggressive form of cancer. When he first told me about it, my heart sank because I figured that he wouldn’t last more than a couple of months. He was a type 2 diabetic with some complications, never a fast healer, and he had chosen to submit to the cut/poison/burn method of treatment because “that’s all the poor are offered, when they’re offered anything.” I’m grateful and glad that he got to continue to live and serve for as long as he did but, inevitably, the treatment was as bad as the disease and a body can only take so much before our share in Christ’s suffering kicks in.

Bob Waldrop’s motto was, “Do what you can where you are with what you have and GOD will multiply it. Look what He’s done with me!”

Just took at what he’s done. Eternal rest, my dear Brother. I’m envious. Our loss is Heaven’s gain. I pray for you.

On the Importance of Fidelity

“The world is very lovely, and it’s very horrible–and it doesn’t care about your life or mine or anything else.” ~Rudyard Kipling, The Light That Failed

The quote above is actually a misquote, but it’s close enough. In chapter 7 of Kipling’s novel, star-crossed lovers are having a meandering conversation about the search for meaning and Dick is pleading with Maisie to run away with him to the four corners of the globe so that she can see what he sees which, truth be told, ain’t honestly that much. In the end, Maisie stays put, and Dick blows his brains out. So much for love, fidelity and promises kept….

This past month. I changed my phone number again, hopefully for the last time. I cut my contacts down from an already fractioned 196 people to just two dozen. The same people who have my phone number, more or less, are also the only people who have my correct email address. I have been sifting, because the world is so painfully lovely, and so very, very horrible.

In case you hadn’t been let in on the secret, the Catholic prelature in the United Kingdom closed the investigation for the Cause of G.K. Chesterton last year, a fact that was finally publicized a couple of weeks ago at the annual conference I used to attend religiously. I’ve been dying to say this for months, and now I finally can: I am relieved, grateful and overjoyed that Bishop Doyle and his brethren made the decision that they did, and I truly believe that G.K. and Frances both had a hand in that decision as well.

Here’s my take on the matter: I first met Dale Ahlquist in 1994 when I was in the process of leaving the LDS Church and returning – possibly – to the Catholic Church. At the time I was drifting in and out of Protestant communities, reading the Early Fathers, and devouring Dorothy Day. I began reading Chesterton before I met Dale at the Cathedral parish because of Dorothy, the same as I had begun reading St. John of the Cross, Peter Kropotkin, Fathers Vincent McNabb and John Hugo, and the neglected Harold Robbins (not that one) for the same reason. By the time I met Dale he was already putting together what would become the first incarnation of the American Chesterton Society and giving small talks in the parish basement chapel and social hall. Later, when I moved to St. Paul, I deliberately found an apartment literally 146 steps from the Sacred Heart chapel entrance of the Cathedral because I felt this inexplicable tug to be there, though I didn’t know why. Very quickly, Dale assumed me into his scheme for this literary society, and when we had the very first “national” conference at the Brady Education Center at the University of St. Thomas, I was enthralled.

A whopping fifty people showed up. It was grand, and I’m not even exaggerating that; some of my favourite people on earth, I met at that conference. People who, like me, loved poetry and good books and bad wine and to sit talking and laughing until the sun set and rose again. It was very truly the best conference ever, before or since.

Over the years, Dale put me to work and I never said no because I grew to love him, I definitely loved G.K., and I most assuredly loved the people at the conference who I grew to regard as family. The conference was better than Christmas and Easter and the opera and cake all rolled into one, and I tucked pennies away and looked forward to it all year long, year after year.

Eventually Ann Stull began inviting me down to Chicago, and I was surprised to learn that I was not the only rebel in the mix; she took me on a trip to see her archives at a university where her years of work as a civil rights activist were housed, and we made several trips together to Madonna House where messy Catholic Worker ideals collide with the Baroness’ more orderly demands for how voluntary poverty should be lived. We’d go berry picking and sit in delis and talk about books, GOD, the meaning of life, the way Distributism should look in the modern world and at home. On the occasions when Frank Petta came with us, conversations turned to art, little brown babies unwanted by secular society, the way to make pasta the right way, and how to convince a mother not to abort her child. No matter what the subject, our time together always turned back to Chesterton, or Chesterton and Distributism, or Chesterton and the Church. As time went on, I realised that I had indeed found my family. Years later, when a Frank died, and then Ann, I felt (and still do) like I had lost my parents.

Everything changes, nothing lasts, nothing stays the same. Whatever is lovely in the world of men eventually dies or spoils and becomes very, very horrible, indeed. So, I suppose I should not have been surprised when shortly after Ann died, my relationship with Dale began to change. The old guard of the ACS was dying out; people who knew and loved Chesterton were being replaced with fans of the EWTN persona that Dale broadcast on the idiot box…people who were less invested in Chesterton and living Distributism than they were in hobnobbing with pseudo-intellectual snobs and looking down their noses at common folk. It definitely caused a strain, and it felt like a grand, demoralizing betrayal of everything Chestertonian and I definitely wasn’t handling it well.

My initial break with Dale happened on the eve of the Chicago conference in 2014. I was accused of being everything under the sun but Satan’s sister. A year later, I found myself calling Dale for consolation in the most painful moment of my life only to be met by an enraged, demeaning barrage of name-calling and more false accusations. I was accused of saying things I had not said, writing things I had not written and doing things I had not done, and it broke my heart when Dale told me that I had never been anything but a charity case to him.

In the years since that night, I have made my world very small. Like Dick in Kipling’s story, I truly want to blow my brains out, but I am currently contractually obligated not to do so. I have gone to great lengths to protect my heart in the meantime, and I want to set the record straight once and for all, and then I am never speaking about this again.

Tonight, I had a visitor from out-of-State who says that they got my address from the Chesterton Society member roster. For two hours they sat at my kitchen table telling me once again about the vicious gossip that swirls around the conferences, and how I have to “make it right.” As I told this person, that’s all I’ve been doing for years.

Since that horrific, surreal night when Dale repeatedly told me that I was poison and I decided to leave this world, I have been contacted by too many people to count who want to dish the latest gossip, tell me what a horrible person I am believed to be, or tell me what horrible things were said and by whom about me. For a long while, I said nothing; I kept it all to myself just hoping it would stop, but when it didn’t I had an epiphany.

For the past three years, I have been responding to the emails, letters and phone messages I have received, but there’s one thing you should know: I never responded to the people who actually contacted me. Nope. Not at all. I wrote the letters. Yes, I did. But as I stated very clearly in them, I despise gossip, and I despise people who gossip. In actual point of fact, the only “undisclosed recipients” in any of the emails I sent out during this period (with the exception of the last one to my friend Becky and her lying pals “the ChesterChicks”) were Dale and myself. Did you catch that??? Dale was the only person who truly knew what I was thinking and saying because in addition to leaving social media and deleting and blocking almost all of my personal contacts, my real response to the people who contacted me? I wrote my reply, then copied and pasted it into an email to only Dale and myself before sending the original stories and messages to spam, blocking the return addresses and writing these people off forever. I never talked to anyone. I never gave advice to anyone. I never said shit about Dale to anyone but Dale. I do not have contact with anyone still hanging out at the conferences but Dale. Capisce??? This means that if you heard that I said X,Y or Z??? It was actually coming from Dale. No one else. And I can prove it.

The reason that I am overjoyed at the Cause for G.K. being closed is because I know that he is a saint, and I do not think that an organization that has been so completely corrupted by snobs, bad actors (literally and figuratively), misguided social climbers and thoroughly dishonest, wretched hypocrites should be rewarded for their shitty habitually backbiting behavior towards others by the elevation of such a great soul as Chesterton to the public ranks of sanctity. Saints are forged in the furnace of heroic battle for the perfection of souls, not made by puny republics of church politick that twist what was once a lovely fraternal literary society into a hideous clique for snobs and liars; saints are saints whether the Church recognises them or not. And those who follow in the footsteps of the self serving tailcoat riders??? Those people never become saints. Why? Because their only fidelity is to their own egotistical pleasures.

The next one of you who shows up to my house??? It will not be a pleasant experience. Do us all a favour, and leave me the hell alone. I have had more than enough of your brand of Catholic “faithfulness.” Even more so your “friendship.” Remember: according to scripture, gossip and calumny are murder.

~Dale’s Keith

Princess Pea and Peter Pan Are Gettin’ Hitched! (and you’re my plus-one.)

“Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say ‘wolf,’ but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.” ~Charles Perrault, French Faerietale writer

Yesterday was my sixth wedding anniversary, and the fifth that I’ve spent entirely alone. Why, you ask? Because I married a fiction, a person who didn’t exist. Not really, anyway. In reality, I yoked myself to a conman who, in the end, finally admitted that everything he had ever told me had been an elaborate lie designed to avoid his own responsibilities as a grown man. Everything was an act, and the person I married was a character in a story.

So, the way I’ve celebrated all of my widowed anniversaries, like yesterday, is to spend the day making beautiful things, doing art and watching movies. Yesterday was no exception, and it was a beautiful, warm, peaceful day filled with fun and relaxation.

Last year, three weeks after my fifth anniversary, I received a declaration of nullity in the mail. I chose not to participate in the tribunal because when I got married, I meant my vows; I conveyed a sacrament, for better or worse, and worse was all that I ever received from that lying scoundrel.

Now, on Saturday, September 7th, precisely one year and a week from the moment that my own marriage was declared nonexistent, the same con artist I married is now marrying the woman who stood beside me at my own wedding as my maid of honour, my former best friend with whom I shared a home and a life for well over a decade. Yep. You read right. The two people who swore and scrapped tooth and nail that they had never had an affair during my own marital saga, despite quite a few eye witnesses who knew otherwise, and who both swear just as vehemently that they have no contact with one another, are going to stand in front of yet another priest and allegedly bestow another sacrament on each other.

I wish them well. I wish them every happiness. To that end, I have a favour I’d like to ask of you.

Last month and the month before, friends sent me copies of wedding invitations and registry lists. The registry lists still remain little touched. Will you do me the honour of selecting an item from these lists, purchase it and have it sent to the Bride, my former best friend and housemate for years, hereafter forever remembered as Princess Pea? I’d very much like to see them fulfilled. It would mean a great deal for me, returning kindness for evil, and putting love where none was given. You can find the links below.

To the Bride and Groom! May they be more faithful to one another than they have ever been to anyone else. Best wishes and good luck, Mary Alice Sunshine. You’re going to need it. ❤️

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.

An O’possum Named Turd Blossom

Very late one night, I was on the phone in the kitchen with Suzanne because she called, and the kitchen is where you’re supposed to keep the rotary phone. The guy from the phone company tried to strong-arm me into having the phone in the back bedroom, but that’s just because he was lazy and didn’t want to run a new cable under the house. He thought he’d get me to change my mind by screwing the phone cable around the outside of the house when I refused…he failed. So, I was sitting in the dark, gabbing with Suzanne, and I heard rustling out on the front porch. The longer we talked, the louder and more insistent the rustling became.

We had a very wet Winter, and I didn’t buy enough seed ration and alfalfa to feed the beasts until it was too late to transfer easily, so I had five big 50lb bags of whole corn, sunflower seeds, salvia, and more butted up against each other on the porch. Every time I brought feed home, the hillside was too slick to safely carry feed bags up to the barn, so there they sat, opened and inviting, lined up for the morning routine.

I told Suzanne to hold the line whilst I went to investigate the ruckus, turned on the lights, opened the screen door, and there on the porch with his whole body stuffed tightly inside an overturned feed bag was a big, fat, obviously well-fed possum with the shiniest, healthiest coat I have ever seen on a wild animal, especially in the middle of Winter. “Shoo, you!” I bellowed, grabbing the outdoor broom from its wall cradle, and taking a swing. The portly possum turned and snarled at me, beady black eyes glinting under the lamp light. “Nope! Not for you! Off my porch,” I yelled, taking another swipe. The possum growled and climbed up and over the side wall of the porch, then disappeared into the black night, grumbling angrily as he left.

Since that first encounter, I moved all the feed up to the barn in shifts using five-gallon feed buckets to lessen the risk of an injurious fall, but that has not stopped the possum from returning with shocking regularity. He likes to come drink the vinegar-laced water from the chicken feeder on the garden wall, he nibbles on my rosemary, chews my daisies into gummy bulbs of petal-less yellow paste on top of mangled stems and he steals my pansies even when I’m standing right there watching. He’s learned that my broom swinging is all bark with no real intent to beat him into compost material, twice now I have caught him at dawn curled up with Sissy in the broken farm store rocker on the porch after nights when she’s decided she’s not coming in, and he has met me on several early mornings at the barn door standing on his hindquarters, tiny paws held up imploringly, steel eyes daring me to refuse him, intent on sharing the chickens’ breakfast before toddling off to put himself to bed in whatever den he inhabits.

I have named this little monster Turd Blossom.

I don’t touch him, never pet him. I give him his own small pile of feed away from the hens when he comes begging breakfast so that Clarence (my rooster) is less inclined to peck him to death in jealous rage. I hate anthropomorphizing wild animals (mostly), but I’m pretty certain that he knows damned good and well that my declarations about letting him live only because he helps the chickens keep the tick population in check is total bullshit…I’m absolutely certain that I’ve caught him laughing at me on not a few occasions.

I haven’t seen hide nor hair of T.B. in over a week now, and I’m getting worried. For several weeks we have had intermittent torrential rains that have killed all of my veggie plantings and fostered weeds around the lilac bush that come up to my chest now. I went walking in my woods earlier this evening and found no scat, no tell-tale bark scrapings, no ravaged hens-and-chicks mushrooms hanging in shreds on the trees. I came back down to the barn perplexed and a little worried as I shut the chickens and the goats in for the night. I genuinely hope he hasn’t drowned or been eaten by the coyotes.

I’m such a pathetic soft touch, I left a pile of black oil seeds and sprouted oats on the porch wall tonight before going to bed. It’s raining cats and dogs, and another in a week’s long series of flash flood warnings broke the stillness of this night.

I love stormy weather, but this is ridiculous. If this weather has cost me my possum, I’m gonna be pissed. I really wanted to get him to the point where I could dress him up like Mrs. Tiddly Winks and take pictures….Damned rain.

Dandy Lion Pickin’ Time….

Late Spring and late Autumn are the traditional times to pull up danelions for their roots, and today is my day. The first flowers have all died and released their seeds and Butch’s brother-son, Bobbie, and the chickens have done a great job of mowing the front yard for me this past week, so the time has come to pull up taproots for food and medicine.

I didn’t pull dandelions last Spring because it was my first year here and I didn’t want to disturb the ground until I saw everything that grows. I transplanted some dock and St. John’s Wort already, and I’m waiting for this ugly Affrikan hummingbird plant, “Lucifer Crocosmia,” to send up stronger greenery before I move all of the corms to a better location. I dug up gnarly rose canes from old field roses that were evidently mowed down for years without being allowed to flower to live in their own bed along the front walkway stairs, and I dropped wildfower seeds and planted garlic bulbs in amongst them to help them along.

The ancient lilac bush above the house gave me one lone flower stalk; last year she gave me nothing. I’m torn about how I should proceed in trimming her back more effectively, as the chickens love to nest in her shady branches and find shelter there from the hawks, and I don’t want to take their refuge away from them, but I miss having lilacs, and the season for them is almost gone.

When I was growing up, my Grandma Susan had a lilac hedge that ran along the whole backside boundary of her acreage from the East to the West. Behind the hedge was a low, ancient white picket fence put up by her neighbour to the South, and a small, shallow, gurgling pebble-strewn creek that meandered through the backsides of both their gardens. There were violets and lily-of-the-valley planted in thick carpets underneath, and white and pink peonies every few feet that dropped their sugar syrup in thick, amber rivulets for hordes of tiny black ants that made a nuisance of themselves everytime I went under the hedge to read a book, take a nap, or dream up faerie tales in my head. According to her, Grandma’s own mother, my great-grandmother, Bessie Olive, had planted all of these things there whilst my great-Grandfather, Donald, was still building the house that had been passed down. At some point Grandma taught me how to trim the lilacs so that they would bloom ever more furiously the next season, and I eagerly set to work, standing precariously in barefeet on a tall upholstered kitchen stool with a squishy seat, whacking away with hedge trimmers and kitchen shears at the beautiful hedge every weekend during the season, stuffing the trunk of my parents’ car until it could hold no more with mounds and armfuls of lilacs that I would trim up and shove tightly into vases laced with aspirin, lemon slices and epsom salt so that my whole bedroom looked and smelled like a lilac bush had grown there. The sickly odor of the last lilacs turning sour and grey in my bedroom always marked the sad end of summer for me, and I have missed the opportunity of that experience for ages. But something absolutely has to be done about this bush if I ever hope to have lilacs in my bedroom once more. Sometime this next week I’ll pull out the hedge saw and start cutting back everything that doesn’t belong on a healthy plant in the hopes of new growth next year. For today, it’s back to the dandelion harvest.

Dandelions are only weeds when they are unwanted. In my yard, they are a valuable medicinal. The leaves when they are dried can be given to the chickens (they don’t like them freshly cut), and once the roots are scrubbed clean and dried, I can do myriad things with them – roast them for coffee, make tinctures for stomach upset and kidney health, grind them to dust for astringent drawing poultices to treat wounds won in all of my many bloody tangles with blackberry thickets and unseen gnomish attackers in the woods. Dandelions are the food of Springtime and, now that their harvested flowers have been steeped into tea and frozen until I have time later on to make wine, it is well to take the remaining harvest now before the weather heats up and their chemistry changes. Most herbalists like to wait until Autumn when all of the sap is drawn down from the summer leaves and the taproots become most potent, but for most things I prefer the less bitter, more mild harvest that I’ll get today.

I can think of worse ways to spend a cool, overcast Sunday afternoon….

Dogwood Days, Moonless Nights

My neighbours, The Trees, have started to fill out their summer canopies in a hundred-and-three shades of verdant brilliance, and my egg roosters have begun to fight like brothers do, so it won’t be a long summer for them; as soon as the first blood is spilt between them, into the freezer all but the best will go. I have four pullets that still believe they belong in the porch tub with the tiny-yet birthday birds, no matter how many obstacles I put up to bar their way, and hosing off the porch twice a day with a healthy splash of bleach has become a regular thing.

Carrie, my lethal Buff Orp egg mama, who regularly runs around with other’s blood on her jaded bully face, suprised me when she took on a hawk by herself a few days ago; the hawk made the unforgivable error of dive-bombing one of Carrie’s teenagers, and she wasn’t having it. There’s a first time for everything, and I watched this mean, nasty hen do something pretty damned close to genuinely maternal as she puffed herself like a fast-winged blowfish, talons flailing, grabbed that startled hawk in both feet and started ripping his wing apart in her angry little beak. A few seconds later, a pride-battered bird of prey with a giant hole and two long dangling feathers at the end of one wing was circling lopsided overhead and Carrie, spitting mad, was hopping noisily around the yard, wild-eyed, wings outstretched in daring posture, screaming at him to come on back down for Round 2. I suppose, then, that it’s safe to leave the flock unattended for short periods under Carrie’s capable supervision.

This is the time when the dogwood blooms and, lucky me, I found a stand of redbud I must have missed last year not far from the house along the road. I’ve missed Tennessee’s smoky redbud trees, especially the big, two-storey-tall deep violet one in Miss Robin’s back garden, but I’m not a big fan of dogwood. Once, when I was visiting the Benedictine sisters in Martin, Kentucky, I spied a plaque on the wall in one of the hermitages (where I’d been asked to change some sheets) that told “The Legend of the Dogwood Tree.” Totally ruined dogwoods for me forever. There’s a time to make correlations between faith and nature…turning flowers into the Wounds of Christ seems cheap and unsavory to me. Besides, everyone knows that the reason dogwood flowers look the way they do is because of the time that a dogwood tree fell in love with a marauding moth, so she made a gown to match his wings that she thought would please him so he would stay…but he got splatted on a windshield, never to return, and she and all her sisters have been waiting patiently for him every year since, not knowing his true fate.

I was going to have this place blessed on the Feast of St. Isadore, but I called the priest friend who was going to oblige me earlier today and cancelled. There are a few reasons for this, not the least of which is that a house blessing is supposed to be a celebration, and I’m not really in a place to do that right now. But I set out the ferns and geraniums, and my mostly-dead peace lily, bought some rosemary and lavender to put in along the front steps, and I planted some sunflower seeds down below. We’ll see what comes. Sunflowers always make sense, no matter what else is going on in the world. There’s always next year, maybe.

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