Open Letter to the Chestertonians

Dear Peeps,

I hope that this letter finds you in good health and good spirits in this new year.

I am writing to all of you to address some continuing concerns that have been brought to me, to tell you all where I stand, and to offer some heartfelt suggestions. You are more than welcome to share this letter with anyone you think that it may apply to.

I am acutely aware of the complaints about the entropy and stumbling of the American Chesterton Society, and the dissatisfaction that has been expressed regarding all of it. I know you’re all pissed with the turn taken by Gilbert Magazine over the years. I have heard and felt your disappointment in the wake of this past summer’s conference at Ft. Collins, as well as the irritation so many have over Sean P. Dailey being given a lifetime achievement award.

First things first: This past May, 2017, I had a lengthy exchange with Dale Ahlquist about the Society and reasons for the dismal sales of tickets to the conference. During registration, throughout the conference, and during and after the banquet, I was contacted by a number of people who were unhappy to find Sean present after Dale had told me that he was “out.” I was told that Dale had lied to me and, worse, that I had been “thrown under the bus” several times by certain persons in attendance, including Sean and Mark. First of all, I don’t agree that Dale lied; I think he didn’t explain his intentions clearly, which caused some people to make arrangements that they would have otherwise avoided. Since the close of the conference, Sean himself has said that Ft. Collins MAY have been his last one; please GOD that this is true, but if it isn’t, is it really worth your peace? So Dale gave him a statue, so what? In the grand scheme of things, it means nothing. It’s just a little bronzed fat man to collect dust on a shelf. Yay for kitch! Regardless, as slovenly and biased an editor as he was, Sean did work for many years for peanuts and bragging rights. Let him have his stupid award. Relatedly, Dale has repeatedly denied any knowledge of, or understanding about, “The Inner Circle of Chestertonian Elites,” as they have called themselves since the Conference in Seattle nearly a decade ago; let him, if it makes it easier for him to administrate this chronic mess. You all know who these conceited geniuses are; freeze them out, if it causes you consternation.

Secondly, membership has plummeted since the days we were last at the University of St. Thomas, and I’m going to let you in on a not-so-well-kept secret: THE RESPONSIBILITY FOR OUR EXPULSION FROM ST. THOMAS LIES SQUARELY ON MY SHOULDERS. *I* did it. Period. End of story.

It was my open letter in protest of the way that the Chestertonians were suddenly being policed that got us booted. And it was my insinuation that Archbishop Harry Flynn lacked a spine about the things that really matter (a charge I stand squarely behind to this day) that got Dale dusted by the university administration, many of the collegiate supporters, and several of the vendors, as well. The chancellor yelled at me, *twice*, to no avail, then Dr. Loome dressed me down to my face in front of my friends and demanded that I write a public apology in The Catholic Spirit (never going to happen, then or now) and, for the record, after a flurry of angry phone calls and emails from financial contributors, board members and a lawyer or two, Dale, to his credit, stood behind me for, in spite of the fact that I may have gone too far, what I actually said at the time was absolutely correct. So, for getting us kicked out of St. Thomas, I apologize to all of you because, like me, I know that you loved our summers spent on the university grounds, and they have been sorely missed. Whilst this was the beginning of the exodus, both for the Flying Conferences and the declining membership, however, one does not cause the other.

I think that the American Chesterton Society will mostly cease to exist in the near future, based on what Dale has told ma (and what I have heard from so many of you), if things don’t change, and I have identified a few of the core issues:

1. The Death of the Old Guard: The day that Dale called me to say that Fr. Jaki had died, I pulled over to the side of the road and cried. I miss Fr. Jaki; Kevin’s portrayal cannot even begin to do that sweet man any justice. I miss his funny little jokes, and the way he would stare down in silence those people who dared to arrive late to his lectures; I miss him bringing me books with notes he had written in the margins. I miss Frank and Ann even more, and the talks that we used to have; I still spend a lot of time at their grave when I drive through Illinois, even in rain and snow. The Livingstons, Gramps Johnson, even Mike Foster and Dr. Loome who are still living, but no longer present to us, I miss dearly. The shift that occurred after the first decade of the conferences is undeniable …but I think it can be found again if certain personalities who use the conference to hold court for their own personal agendas would get a clue, step back, and allow those with lived experience to be seen and heard. Humility can work wonders.

2. That cult of personality present at the past several conferences has really killed any feeling of fraternal good will. Seriously, so. And many people have complained about it over the years. Dale denies all knowledge of it, but we’ve all witnessed it. I can only think of one way to get rid of it, and that is to keep the focus off of the miniature self-appointed celebrities swimming in the puddle, and to find the reflection of Chesterton in the water. This means no more polarizing politics, no more current events about what the “I’s” are doing to promote themselves. “Ideas go booming….” But only when we focus our intentions. Only you can prevent forest fires, and only you can quash the megalomaniacs in your midst by walking away when they start gathering their favorite sycophants.

3. The Distributist Democracy of the Afterglow: Once upon a time, a son brought his father, his skateboard, and a basketball to one of the very first conferences in St. Paul. At the close of the first day, he asked where he could find some food, because he was hungry and had not brought enough money to eat meals at the refectory because he was but a poor college student from the jungles of Upstate New York, and most of his budgeted funds were needed to get him home in his father’s jalopy. He walked over to the local Highway Robbery Depot, laid some coins down for a package of cheap hotdogs, a loaf of what passes in this society for “bread,” and a bag of charcoal, and he came back, borrowed a match to light the grill in the courtyard, and made a pauper’s supper. Someone close to Frank pulled out a prune juice bottle filled to bursting with Concord Petta Poison, and someone else produced a bottle of brandy and a case of good beer. Yet another talked security into breaking into the refectory to steal ketchup packets, napkins and a fork for the grill. Bellies were filled, a return trip was made to the Depot, and liquor flowed whilst the swirling smoke from a dozen cigars perfumed the courtyard, and the sweet dulcet harmonies of tipsy Chestertonians singing Irish bar songs filled the night air. THIS was the first Afterglow, and it was started by Kurt Griffin and his father, David, as a matter of necessity. I know this because I was there for the first night, and then the second night, and the third. It wasn’t surprising when it grew into a tradition, because it was a very Catholic sort of thing to have happen…but here’s the thing:

When Kurt married Becky, they started preparing for the Afterglows in advance. Like the hospitality table laden with goodies baked up by the wives of members of the St. Paul Chesterton Society throughout the conferences at the Brady, Becky has arrived year after faithful year with a carload of homemade pickles from her garden, and desserts made from scratch in her kitchen, and meats and cheeses she saved to purchase …and the Afterglow has grown larger and larger until it has become a thing unto itself. Sometimes it resembles it’s humble beginnings as a shared meal amongst tired friends. Often, now, it does not.

This is your family reunion, you spoiled twatnozzles, and Auntie Becky (one of the truest “elites” amongst us) shouldn’t be the only one cooking, for crying out loud. It wouldn’t hurt any of you to show some sincere gratitude, and fork over some hospitality of your own at these things. Or a fifty dollar bill. But don’t give it to Dale, for GOD’s sake, because Becky will never see a dime of it!

4. Stop Complaining about Cost. I don’t know if you’re at all aware of this, but the Fat Man we all adore has been bleeding us into the red since the beginning of these little shindigs in the mid-90’s. The Conference has NEVER turned a profit, no matter how many people show up. EVER. The Ahlquists have usually paid for most of it, and often paid dearly. Laura once asked me to stop praying for her to have more babies because they couldn’t afford another kid and do the conference, too. What you get is comparatively cheap, all things considered. Have you ever looked at the killing made by the Lewis and Tolkein Societies??? No? You should. You’re all spoiled.

5. Dale Is NOT a celebrity, nor is he even close to perfect. I know this. I’ve seen him in his pajamas and slippers with his hair standing on end, as I’ve said many times before. Not kidding: he goes to the mailbox looking like that. He’s just like you …only taller and rounder. And over the past few years, I have begun to think that sleep apnea and the stress of sleep deprivation have severely impacted his memory, because unless you get him to write shit down and sign it with his John Hancock, he WILL NOT remember the things he’s said to you and/or done six days or six months from now. This man is going to die of a freaking stroke at the rate he’s going, and it might be nice if people stopped holding him to such an impossibly high standard. He’s just a guy, in love with a saint, trying thanklessly, most days, to give you a gift. Don’t get me wrong: I’m still pissed as hell at him right now; I want to forgive him, and don’t know how. But, c’mon! You people are the ones who grew his ego to three sizes too large, so you are just as responsible for the “legend” you’ve made. It’s unfair to expect so much from one person.

That said, I think Dale has made some horrible mistakes. I think the conferences and Gilbert Magazine need to return to their Chestertonian center, and that politics and box-stuffing of Chesterton’s work to fit personal agendas need to be deliberately eschewed. I think that Dale needs to formally dissolve the “partnership” he made with the Not-a-Chestertonian who caused me so much personal pain and lasting grief, and that he should never play matchmaker ever again for *anyone*, even peripherally. Ever. He’s not Jewish, and he has absolutely terrible taste in men. He shouldn’t make movies, either; it’s just a bad idea, and he’s far too idealistic about the talents of those whom he loves….And he needs to start using his damned C-PAP so that he can focus on the work that has chosen him, awake, alert, and clear-headed, before he blows an artery in his brainpan.

These are my thoughts. Do what you will with them.

As for myself, I am still reeling from the Betrayal three years ago. I am still having trouble with the cardiomyopathy that erupted out of that mess. I have told Dale several times now that I am still angry with him for bringing that person into our lives, as I am angry with him to a lesser degree for trusting certain other people who have caused pain and discord amongst us all. I haven’t been able to shake this anger, or my disappointments in what as happened to the ACS. I am sorry that so many of you have been disappointed and angered, too. But, truthfully? I think in many ways you take some of these things far too seriously, and so I am going to tell you all something that I have put off for far too long:

When I was “married” to that lying stranger in 2013, it was a leap of faith and trust, seated in a dozen Chestertonian quotes about the same, that was as stupid as it was heartfelt. I had ZERO attraction to the person who asked me to marry them. I had made it to 44 years old with *seven* lifetime proposals under my girdle and no weddings…and then Chesterton’s own words became my test: “An unloveable thing becomes lovable by loving it.”

I have come to learn that there are times when even Chesterton is entirely wrong. An unloveable thing often crushes your heart and destroys your life and your faith when you make the effort to love it. But just because he’s been wrong, that doesn’t make him any less a saint. That doesn’t make his work any less valuable, or his thoughts unworthy of your attention, admiration and emulation. Those of you who have left the ACS out of frustration and disappointment need to go back and revisit what it was meant to be, and help make it that. And those of you who have bailed from supporting the Society out of loyalty to me need to do the same. Yes, I am hurt, and I don’t see any end to that in sight. I know I’ve grown quite bitter in the aftermath. But by abandoning the American Chesterton Society you are hurting me even more. For many years the Conference was my family reunion, and meant more to me than anything else in this world outside of the Catholic Worker Movement. It was what I waited for all year long, like Christmas in the middle of summer. And, believe it or not, in spite of all the nasty things you have told me, including those things that have been said by others about me, you hurt me more by leaving, because at its heart? The American Chesterton Society Conference is one of the few things in this world that can honestly be called a real life door to Elfland. And when you turn your back on the Great Fat Man, you turn your back on the magic of his wonder, and a faerie gets its wings ripped off by a dragon, and dies.

Nurture your own local societies, bring what is good back to the ACS, and please stop telling me about all of it’s failures, because I cannot listen anymore. Stop bitching, and fix it yourself. My heart can’t take anymore and, from the sounds of it, neither can Dale’s.

The Western Wall

On the Day that the Great Flood began, Pacifica was in a rage because of GOD’s fickle ways, raining down on her in a cruel, choking torrent without even a “please” or a “thank you,” and she reached down with her foamy curled fingers, picked up the floor of her entire house, and threw it out, up onto the continental shelf in great blackened heaps, with all its carpets of mermaid grasses and the poor little starfish and snails who had nowhere else to go (and did not know how to get home if they did). When the fury died down and the floods ran back to their Five Mothers, the winds shifted as the angelic host set things right, and birds came to the Great Heaps of Floor, dropped seeds and planted twigs, and a lovely dewy forest sprang up along the western walls of Pacifica’s house to hide the tantrum she had had, as if it never happened.

Eventually, Noah’s children spread out over the whole earth, like a virus; then Lewis and Clark came to the northern end of Pacifica’s house, and they took word back to an brazen, arrogant man in a White House not nearly so grand as the one which Majesty had built for Pacifica and her children, and they told this wretched man of culture that everyone should see it. Then Merriweather Lewis, realising the folly of this advise, shot himself in the head for spite and justice, for he had a roiling, dark-clouded vision in which the Sons of Man did, indeed, come to see the great sunsets that crowned Pacifica’s wondrous head, and they built on her walls, spoilt the view and polluted her depths without thought or consent, and Pacifica thought to herself that maybe Majesty had not gone quite far enough in ridding the world of His mobile mistakes. She’s been cleaning up after these children ever since, without complaint but to GOD. Of course, He has very selective hearing.

The first time I ever heard of this place, it was from my Gram’s brother, Uncle Dale, who had come for a rare visit from England. Long, long ago when he was young, he turned coat on his uncivilized Nebraska farmboy roots, renounced his citizenship in the name of poor Lewis and the Holy Monarchy and, reclaiming his heritage as a Benedict, done got himself made a right proper, rabidly loyal subject of the Queen, complete with coifed pointy, sparkingly-white beard and soft, polished, saucy accent. As he sat with us children on the floor in the carpeted hallway of our home, dressed all prim and proper in his high starched collar and grey tweeded vest with its little gold pocket watch glinting under the ceiling light, teaching my brothers how to make the world’s best paper aeroplanes (with a British copper folded into the nose to weight it just right), he pointed to the messy riot of heavily annotated (in coloured crayon) National Geographic maps pinned amongst dried flowers and hair ribbons to the walls of my room behind me, and told me of a silver paved ribbon that ran all the way from Puget Sound to Mexico along Pacifica’s ramparts. He said that until you got to a place called Mallie-Boo, it was one of the most beautiful things left in the godforsaken wastes of America, and that I should endeavour to see it before the lumberjacks and developers ruined all the unspoilt parts. “The best thing left in America,” he said to me in a decidedly British tongue, “is it’s trees and wild places.” On this we ever still are mostly agreed.

The first time I drove to the head of the Pacific Coast Highway, I was seventeen. One of my illegal horses had won a race at Les Bois under Storey’s stable colours of blue and white, and when I picked up my half of the purse, I realised that I had enough money to live the entire summer as I chose. And I chose Highway 1.

This is the kind of place where magic shows itself only to those who dawdle and keep their eyes up. You need to begin your trip with a large thermos of coffee, a great chunk of very good cheese, a dense, heavy summer sausage, a tin of kippers, a jar of jam and a tin of really good crackers. Trust me on the tin…unless you like soggy crackers…which would make you odd. Make sure you bring your favourite quilt. And fill the gas tank. Stop for nothing but admiration and naps. Take full advantage of the 20 mph signage posted along the way (the very best speed to travel by).

The genius of this road is its turnouts; they give one the ability to wave high-fingered salutations to speeding imbeciles who don’t know the true value of a car horn, and the even better ability to turn around again and again, to go back and park at the places that need to be better seen. Every time I have driven this road, were you to trace it on a satellite map, it would look like a bumblebee was driving the car, circles and figure eights and pirouettes inching repeatedly up and down the coastal mountainsides and deep cravasses to the rocky shores below.

If you are a lawless renegade like me, you fill your pockets before you set out with penknives, rusty embroidery scissors, garden twine, fishing line, flower presses, blotting tissues, and jelly jars for stuffing with fragrant mosses, barks and twigs, snipped fern fronds, and the delicately extricated roots of this and that, obeying the Golden Rule of the Keepers of the Green to harvest no more than one third of any living thing, no more than one of any kind, and to say “thank you” before you depart. And if you are wise, when you see or hear a spring gurgling into the depths, you follow it to where it goes in the heavy green shade of perfumed pinnacled forest, careful not to wander into faerie rings, find a soft bed of shamrocks amongst the mossy ferns and fallen trees to lie down in, and listen for as long as possible to the most perfect peace you will ever know in this world.

The Washington head of the Highway begins on a wide, flat beach that gives way to dune marshes and rolling grassy hills dotted with seashore farms before snaking through the far western edge of a glistening rain forest. The northern half of Oregon is the same, but in reverse, and their beaches are white and dry. But the best section of this now-chopped-up route happens to be in California between Leggett (where loggers got bored the year after my grandmothers each turned a year old, and carved the heart from an innocent grandfather redwood so that they could drive a Model T through it and take a cheesy photo) and the presently not-so-jeweled, ransacked Glass Beach at Fort Bragg (at least Pacifica has a sense of humour about recycling). This is the section that Tolkien would recognize as borrowed from Middle Earth.

The craggy high cliffs fold in on themselves here like a morning tangle of blankets on a cozy bed. On a misty rainy day (when these trips are best), the green of the forests is a myriad cocophany of jeweled shades and shadows so deep one could cry at the beauty of it. The trees stand like choirs, draped in showy gowns of yellow-trimmed magic, with their arms outstretched and intertwined towards the silver-flocked skies above, their trunks dark brown-grey to black, deeply wrinkled and clothed in feathery skirts of mosses and ivys. In truth, if you are still and very quiet here, birds and chipmunks will come to take treats from your hands, if the dogs don’t snatch them first; the fish in the streams will even nibble on your fingers and let you pet them.

Every so often you will spy from the road a lone cottage or beach shack. In one favourite haunt, there is a tiny farmhouse tucked into the fold of an oceanfront mountain, painted white on top, turquoise on the bottom, with a red door flanked by narrow eight-paned windows, on which ancient climbing red roses cascade lazily up and over the front porch, and a tire swing hangs below a trio of grandfather trees in the small yard that gives way to a parched grass path, which leads into the unknown depths of the soaring forests behind it. These are places where faerie tales live. These are dreams that have really come true, where nightmares have no sting.

If you are careful, on your way back North, you can avoid the freeway and take the Avenue of the Giants through the redwoods up to Pepperwood. Slow down, find the county road to the left that crosses under the 101, and take it up through the coastal summits until it ends, looking out from a high black cliff over the deep wide waters of impossible blue, and stay here until your heart is quiet….

Three Graces Farm

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It definitely wasn’t supposed to happen this way. But here we are: me, Gretchen the goat, Mazie the dog, and Butters the cat. Starting new, beginning…

Source: Three Graces Farm

Three Graces Farm

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It definitely wasn’t supposed to happen this way. But here we are: me, Gretchen the goat, Mazie the dog, and Butters the cat. Starting new, beginning…

Source: Three Graces Farm

When Life Burns to the Ground

I have been asked why I bought such an old camper. The reason is this: It’s nothing that cannot be taken apart and rebuilt into something better. It has a Mopar motor, which I know how to work on, and it’s old enough that I can find parts for it almost anywhere for next to nothing. But there’s something else….

Remember when Henry David Thoreau went to Walden to learn how to live? When life burns down, that’s really all you can do; learn to live again.

I got hired for a job working on an organic dairy in Tennessee. I’ll be milking and pasturing a herd of Brown Swiss cattle come next weekend. I’m almost afraid to say anything about it because it seems like every good thing in my life somehow goes to shit the more earnestly I want it. Nothing I love or long for is ever easy.

A micro-poly farm is a lifelong dream of mine, and this seems like the first good step forward since my husband left. I’m moving to the area where we had talked about retiring to in another twenty or thirty years by myself. I’m at a point where I think that waiting for “when” and “if” is silly, and maybe even counterproductive. I want to live in this camper, rebuild it, make it more efficient, make it a home, make soap, grow herbs, keep goats, and find a new life amongst the ashes of the old. Maybe in the process I will become a wife worth having…a lover worth missing. And, if I don’t, at least I will have spent my time wisely.

I bought a camper so old because there was nothing else. When your life burns to the ground, you find shelter where you can, and begin again. That’s what I’m doing.

…Tomorrow, after Sunday Mass with my friends Michelle and Father Erik at St. James the Greater Church in Ogden, Utah, I will begin the long drive to Tennessee and, GOD help me, if nothing goes wrong, I will arrive in Knox County Wednesday evening and begin looking for roses amongst the ashes.

I hope that this is the right thing.

A “New” Turtle Shell

Today I paid a thousand dollars for a 1976 Dodge Bougham motor home from a young park ranger in Huntsville, Utah, and walked away with a dream. One more thing I can cross off of my bucket list.

Tomorrow, it goes to the shop to get the vacuum seals replaced, and then I can get it passed for emissions. Yes, it’s a piece of crap, but it’s my piece of crap, and I can’t wait to start making it my own.

It’s a bittersweet acquisition, given that it’s a dream that my husband and I share, and he has chosen not to be here with me. But it’s also kind of poetic; the motor home is the same age that he is, and I get to rip its guts out and rebuild it into something new, without judgment. All of the disappointment, hurt and anger welling up within me can be poured into creating a new “home” within the shell of the old.

It’s a good project for me. No rent, no house payments, no major bills but gas, oil changes and new tires.

I think I’m going to gypsify it. And it needs a name. It seriously needs a name. I’ll make a short video of it tomorrow,  and we’ll come up with a name. And maybe some new dreams.

In the meanwhile, I’m kind of distracted from the idea of killing myself today. It’s a good thing.

The Wedding Anniversary That Wasn’t

Today, August 3rd, was my wedding anniversary, and I spent it without my husband.

Other wives spend anniversaries alone because their husbands have gone to war, or are stuck on business in a far off city, longing to return home. I have no idea where my husband is, or if he will ever come back to me.

I spent my anniversary alone today because two weeks ago Sunday, my husband left me. No warning, no discussion, not even a fight. Just an email telling me that he was leaving, and one last “I love you.”

I have spent the past two weeks vascillating between tears, and sleepless, nauseating numbness, trying to discern how he thinks deserting me is loving. The day he left, I died inside, and then I fled. I just left everything. Nothing matters without him.

I understand how someone can die of a broken heart. I most definitely want to die. I have considered it at length. I have made plans that would make others cringe. But right now, in my heart of hearts, it’s an option. A good option. Living in the wake of being abandoned by the one person you trusted more than anyone else on earth is unbearably painful–like having a heavy, hot stone inside your chest that cannot be moved. It’s exhausting, and surreal, and leaves you with a sense of loneliness that cannot be described in any meaningful way. It has definitely made me question my faith, my purpose, my willingness to exist.

I spent my wedding anniversary alone today, and I want to die.

I love him so much, it has destroyed me.

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