Category Archives: Death

BORGES REMEMBRANCE AND NOSTALGIA

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Thirty years ago no one used yet such terms as internet, e-mail, nor cell-phone in Latin America. The most advanced in technology available then for popular use was compact discs, which of course represented a luxurious expense for the great majority.

The night of June 14th, 1986, trapped inside the passionate DX mania, so strange and ancient nowadays, completely antediluvian and left behind in the last century for most of the young, I was listening to Radio Suiza Internacional, found by mere chance after playing with the dial, transmitting from Berna. The overwhelming news was: Borges, the great Jorge Luis Borges, who never received a Nobel Prize even though he deserved it much more than the great majority who had obtained it, has just died in Geneva.

That fact left a mark on us for all time to come, given that there would not be any talking of any other topic in the Special Literature subject. From the following day on, Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges Acevedo would be, for all of us who represented the specialty of Social Sciences, the great torture or the great passion, according to the characteristics of each of those fifteen-year-old spirits who knew little to nothing about the author of El Aleph. Assignments, monographs, expos, research, essays, mandatory readings (and for that reason not so pleasant as those that arise from the feeding need of a bibliophile) left some of Borges in us: in the case of the author of these lines were his mark, his circling ruins that from time to time raise again to involve and enfold us in oneiric worlds from which no one ever knows how to emerge, or from which one emerges, as in La Flor de Coleridge, disturbed forever and carrying material evidence brought from those orbs, forever tempted to return and disappear in the magical forcefulness of their complacent idealism.

We were only a few, of course, very few, who remained so marked by the fact, that ever since then we would never abandon the Borgesian world, because we would even discover later, as enthused as the one who makes a discovery by his own even though others have already done it before: the Kafkaesque condition of Borges’ literature, and years later the Borgesian condition of Eco’s literature.

From him it was, top and paradigm of the writer, from whom we learned that books are extensions of the thinking and the mind of the human being. The book, the magazine, the newspaper, as extensions of the thinking, must so keep that condition of word and human ideas’ vehicle, must serve as means of broadcasting of those ideas among all cultures, for only so we will be able to move forward on this cosmic journey without losing track, without getting lost nor ending up buried under the uncontainable avalanche of data and images.

Thirty years since his death, the Argentinian tiger, the most universal gaucho, still rests in Geneva, though his work and his name are now more immortal than ever. To me, though Borges did not live to see it, the current world is full of his fiction. For example, if someone wants to meet/know the aleph, they can read and read again that Borgesian tale, but can also connect to the internet from a computer or a cell phone, and in that precise moment converge at a single spot, all the spots around the world.

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Remembranza y nostalgia de Borges
Por: Rodrigo Aguilar Orejuela

Hace treinta años nadie usaba aún en Latinoamérica los términos internet, correo electrónico ni teléfono celular. Lo más adelantado de la tecnología al servicio del consumo popular suntuoso era por entonces el disco compacto, que por supuesto resultaba aún demasiado oneroso para las grandes mayorías.

La noche del 14 de junio de 1986, atrapado por la manía apasionante del diexismo, hoy tan extraña y antiquísima, tan del siglo pasado y para la mayoría de los jóvenes completamente antediluviana, escuchaba por esas casualidades del dial Radio Suiza Internacional, que transmitía desde Berna. La noticia fue contundente: Borges, el gran Jorge Luis Borges, aquél que nunca recibió el Premio Nobel aunque lo merecía mucho más que la gran mayoría de quienes lo obtuvieron, acababa de fallecer en Ginebra.

El hecho nos marcó para siempre, pues no se hablaría de otro tema en la materia de Literatura Especial. A partir del día siguiente, Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges Acevedo sería, para la gran mayoría de quienes conformábamos la especialidad de Ciencias Sociales, la gran tortura o la gran pasión, según las características de cada uno de esos espíritus quinceañeros que poco o nada sabían del autor de El Aleph. Trabajos, monografías, exposiciones, investigaciones, ensayos, lecturas obligadas (y por ese motivo no tan placenteras como aquellas surgidas de la propia necesidad alimenticia de un bibliófago) dejaron en nosotros algo de Borges: en el caso del autor de estas líneas fueron su marca, sus ruinas circulares que de cuando en cuando vuelven a erigirse para envolvernos e involucrarnos en mundos oníricos de los que nunca se sabe cómo emerger, o de los que se emerge, como en La Flor de Coleridge, para siempre turbados y portando pruebas materiales traídas desde aquellos orbes, para siempre tentados a retornar y desaparecer en la mágica contundencia de su idealismo complaciente.
Por supuesto que fuimos pocos, muy pocos, quienes quedamos tan marcados por el hecho, que desde entonces jamás abandonaríamos el mundo borgiano, porque además descubriríamos luego, con el entusiasmo de quien hace un descubrimiento por sí solo aunque ya otros lo hayan hecho antes: la condición kafkiana de la literatura de Borges, y años después la condición borgiana de la literatura de Eco.

Fue de él, cima y paradigma del escritor, de quien aprendimos que es el libro una extensión del pensamiento y la mente del ser humano. El libro, la revista, el diario, como extensiones del pensamiento, deben por ende mantener esa condición de vehículos de la palabra y las ideas humanas, deben servir de medios de difusión de aquellas ideas entre todas las culturas, pues solo así podremos avanzar en este viaje cósmico sin perder el rumbo, sin extraviarnos ni quedar sepultados bajo la avalancha incontenible de la información y las imágenes.

A treinta años de su deceso, el tigre argentino, el gaucho más universal, aún descansa en Ginebra, pero su obra y su nombre siguen más inmortales que nunca. Para mí, aunque Borges no vivió para verlo, el mundo actual está lleno de su ficción. Si alguien quiere conocer el aleph, por ejemplo, puede leer y releer ese relato borgiano, pero también puede conectarse desde una computadora o un teléfono celular a internet, y en ese mismo momento tener en un solo punto todos los puntos del mundo.

 

RODRIGO AGUILAR OREJUELA
Bio: (Ecuador – 1970) Writer, ghostwriter, journalist, editor, columnist, I have worked as a journalist of opinion and information for twenty five years at different press media institutions from Ecuador. In 2004 I was the absolute winner in the First National Essay Contest. My books: Colombia-Ecuador: an Example of Coexistence (2004), The Charm of Cuenca (editions in Spanish, English, French, and German, 2005), Market, Barrio and City: History of the Ninth (2009), The Hummingbird’s Flight (2011), Like a Thistle: spoken portrait of Eudoxia Estrella (2013), Monologue of a Castaway (2016).

GROWING UP IN THE SHADOW OF A LONE WOLF KILLER by Unni Turrettini

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Anders Behring Breivik grew up a twenty-minute drive from my parents’ home near Oslo, Norway. We frequented the same movie theaters and cafes and no doubt crossed paths at some point. Although he didn’t look like a terrorist then or does now, he murdered seventy-seven people and wounded hundreds more five years ago, on July 22, 2011. In shock and disbelief, I asked myself how something like this could happen in my native country. How, in Norway, the second wealthiest nation in the world, with the second highest gross domestic product per capita, and its Nobel Peace Prize?

Breivik was not born a killer. In fact, the psychiatrists who observed him as a child concluded that Breivik was a docile boy, showing no signs of violent behavior. So how did he become one of the worst mass murderers in history?

Any country can produce madmen, one might argue. Unconvinced by that easy explanation, I went on a mission to discover how this seemingly normal young man could become a mass killer. I needed to know if there were any way to stop the next massacre by the next Breivik, regardless of his country.

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As I studied other lone wolves, including the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, I discovered that the lone wolf doesn’t murder for fun, profit, or as a shortcut to suicide. This killer is so shut off and shut down from humanity that the only way for him to matter is to connect so completely with a cause that he is compelled to kill for it.

Breivik’s childhood could match that of anyone growing up in Norway in the 1980s, including mine. He was born in 1979 to economist Jens Breivik, a diplomat stationed in London and Paris, and Wenche Behring, a nurse. Soon after Breivik’s birth, the marriage fell apart, and Wenche decided to return to Norway, settling in Skøyen, an area within Oslo’s affluent West End.

So far, there was nothing exceptional about Breivik. But underneath the appearances, his childhood differed from mine. Before entering grammar school, when he was three years old, his mother began showing signs of erratic behavior. Neighbors gossiped about her smothering her son with inappropriate affection, having him sleep in her bed with her, and then suddenly turning on him with a mix of anger and fear, as if she were frightened for her own safety.

Due to exhaustion, Wenche requested help from the State Center for Child and Youth Psychiatry around the time Breivik turned four. Child Protective Services, upon hearing that she was frightened of her small son and that she was emotionally unstable, recommended that young Breivik be sent to a foster home. Breivik’s father made an attempt at obtaining custody, but the court decided in favor of Wenche, and Breivik remained in her care.

In school, Breivik’s hunger to succeed and be recognized found little nourishment. A misbehaving or openly ambitious child was quickly put in his place by the teachers and fellow students. Sticking out, even in a positive way, was unacceptable in Norwegian schools, and Breivik experienced both bullying and exclusion.

The attachment issues Breivik experienced as a young boy with an unstable mother and a distant father no doubt contributed to his difficulty in developing meaningful relationships and his rejection from every group with which he tried to connect. Breivik’s childhood was not worse than many others, but the lack of emotional nourishment was catastrophic for his development.

All the lone wolves I researched were intelligent and highly sensitive. Some psychologists refer to them orchid children, because of their fragile personalities. If neglected, orchid children wither. But if they’re nurtured, they not only survive, they flourish.

Few people recognize the killer among them when that killer is a lone wolf with no paper trail. Had I sat in a classroom beside Breivik in those early days, I doubt that I would have found him unusual, let alone dangerous. I might have even related to his need to be more than a sheep following the rest of the herd into Norwegian mediocrity. Perhaps that is one reason I wrote my book—to understand how a culture contributes to the making of a killer. More important, I wished to find a way that will allow law enforcement to identify a killer like Breivik before he strikes.

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Norwegian born Unni Turrettini is an attorney and the author of The Mystery of the Lone Wolf Killer: Anders Behring Breivik and the Threat of Terror in Plain Sight from Pegasus Books.

Mass Shootings:  An Action Plan – By Delinda McCann

 

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In my last article I insisted that we can change the direction our society is taking in allowing mass shootings.  I called for dialog and a definition of the problem along with some hints at how to engage all sectors of our communities in productive prevention.  What can you do?

First, realize that you can make a difference.  I made a difference in the world of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.   We all have our gifts, the things we are good at doing.  I’m okay on computers, so I developed the first web site on earth to teach about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.  I didn’t have much information, but I shared what was available at the time.  My information reached around the globe as government officials and public health workers contacted me for more information.  Soon, I had them talking to each other about what they were doing.

People who are good at computers can organize the wider community to work together, sharing information, advocacy materials, and how-to lessons for approaching legislators and businesses.

Schools will play a huge role in prevention.  They already identify at-risk youth.  They need funding and community support to develop educational opportunities to keep at-risk youth engaged whether this be drama, band, wood or auto body shop or classes in Movies and Culture.  Our schools know which kids will not be able to participate in such projects, and they need to be pro-active in supporting parents to get the kid into counseling and keep him there.

My friend and colleague, Jocie DeVries, was a woman on a mission when advocating for individuals with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.  She would go anywhere and talk to anybody.  She followed her instincts to meet the people who needed to know about the behavioral aspects of the disability.  Some people can talk to anybody.  Those people need to start talking to school officials, the mayor, the newspaper, their legislators, or maybe the woman in the office at the end of the hall.  When we start to talk to people, we don’t have to have all the answers for solving our problems.  We just need start the dialog and then listen and learn.

Everybody can write a short note to their legislators, newspaper, mayor, council representative or state representative asking for research on the topic of mass shootings and for public dialog on how to meet the needs of people at-risk for perpetuating violence.  The dialog needs to happen at the community level in order to access available community resources and find the weak places in the community structure.

Do some online research.  Who is doing research on gun violence?  You will find that congress has placed limits on what the Center for Disease Control can do or say.  Can you find federally funded research on gun violence?

Of course, as you start talking about preventing violence, you will run into many if not most people who will tell you the task is impossible.  The correct response is to ignore them and move on.  When working in advocacy, we used to say, “Step over the dead bodies and move on.”  That phrase probably isn’t the best when talking about gun violence, but the advice is still good.

Before writing this week’s articles, I wrote a frustrated post on Facebook.  (1) Basically, I mentioned five things that I could do to raise awareness of the issues around gun violence.  I got back several thoughtful, concrete suggestions about what we as individuals can do to change attitudes about gun violence.  Yes! This short piece was exactly the sort of dialog we need to be having.  Some people shared ideas of services have worked in the past to keep at-risk populations engaged in their community.  From this short experiment, I could see that others focused on the mental health aspects of the problem.  Is that were the bulk of our population thinks we need to go with prevention?  As I read through other dialogues on Facebook about the issue, I noticed that people defined four categories of perpetrators and had some idea of how to serve those categories to prevent those vulnerable people from acting out in violence.  Some people pointed out the cracks in our systems that allow the vulnerable to slip through our network of services.  Yes.  This is what we need to learn in dialog so that each community can move forward to fill in the cracks and build healthy communities.

In my online research, I found an action plan proposed by Bernie Sanders (2) focusing on things government can do to make us safer.  If his legislative plan or any other government plan is to be implemented, it will need public support to overcome the resistance of those who profit from gun violence.  Public dialog can generate that support and fine tune the legislative ideas to make them more effective.

You may well notice that the advocates, teachers and mental health workers focus on mental health and social issues, while the politician focuses on gun control.  This is why we need dialog.  Our public servants need to know what we the people want.  It looks to me as if the people in my small sample want to build healthy communities while the government wants the quick answer of gun control.   We had a similar problem when working with FAS advocacy.  Politicians thought we wanted respite care.  Parents wanted appropriate diagnosis and appropriate school services.  These miscommunications between citizens and public officials can be prevented with appropriate dialog.

I am impressed with what I learned from talking to others.  People do know what they want and how to achieve those goals.  What we need in order to get from here to there is communication that leads to action.  We’ve done this in the past.  We can do it again.  Now, the responsibility for preventing more domestic terrorism is in your lap. What will you do to build the type of healthy society we all want?

 

Delinda McCann is a social scientist with over forty years experience in working with at-risk populations.  She started with a program for migrant workers children, moved on to working with at-risk teens in a street program and finished working in the field of developmental disabilities and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.  She has worked on committees for the State of Washington and been an advisor to several foreign governments. She currently writes novels that touch on social topics including politics and social justice.  Web site:  http://delindalmccann.weebly.com/index.html

Superoldie

I’m just back from my native land, where I laid my 90 year-old stepfather to rest. He had spent the final month of his life in a residential home that specializes in the care of the dementia from which he had come to suffer. It was an excellent place – The Hollies, in Southborough, England – where the staff treated him and every other resident with dignity, and showed that they cared for them and about them all.

The experience of finding the place, and then visiting it, got me thinking, among other things, about the way the very old are treated in literature, on those few occasions they are allowed across its hallowed portals. All too often, it seems to me, they are treated with condescension and sentimentality. Rarely do you find an attempt to get inside their heads, particularly if they are suffering from dementia. That’s hardly surprising, perhaps, since people with dementia are not in a position to explain themselves clearly, let alone write about their experience and feelings. This opacity is touched upon in a rare acknowledgement of it in a book I read recently: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, so kudos to him, and even more to Delinda McCann for a more thorough treatment in Power and Circumstance. As an author, I’m as guilty as anyone else: the only really old person in my writing is the retired spook Franco Tira in Murder by Suicide, but he is a negative character, and no more demented than he had been in his prime.

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To counterbalance this, I’m thinking of writing a tale about a very old person with superpowers, ones that will be put to no good use. That way I can satirise our attitudes both towards the “paranormal” and towards old age. I shan’t give the powers to Franco Tira, for he is too bad to begin with, but I might give them to a fellow inmate in the hospice, perhaps someone whom the overbearing Franco tries to bully, only to get his come-uppance. I’d welcome suggestions for superpowers with which to endow “Superoldie” and how he might deploy them in slightly mean ways that we can nevertheless sympathise with. Personally, now that I’m old enough to get taken advantage of by shop-keepers and market stall-holders, I’d like the power to make the coins or notes I hand over to them burn the fingers of the ones who short-change me. Is that too mean?

 

Bryan Murphy is a British writer who lives in Italy. He is perhaps best known for his Sean Linehan series [http://www.free-ebooks.net/search/bryan+murphy] which looks at the topical issue of corruption in international sport, as well as racism, redemption and how to survive being kidnapped.

Keep Your Heart Open by Louise Malbon-Reddix

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On 8-8-08 I married the love of my life. I lost him tragically and so unexpectedly on 12-07-09. Some people say there is a limit to grieving. To them I say, “You have never lost a piece of your heart.” Surely some losses are easier than others to go through. But, when you lose that special someone, you will be spending some considerable time mourning and grieving. Even when you think you are finished, you aren’t. There will always be that street called familiar. Perhaps you’ll hear a favorite song, or notice something very special that was once your loved one’s, that will start the grief again.

And if you are one whose loss is fresh; as in it happened yesterday or a few weeks ago, or just over there in the distant past; I want you to know that here is one who truly understands.

Turning back to a page of my own story, not sure of the exact page, but somewhere way back now, about 5 years ago when the loss of my own beloved was so, so, so fresh, I found sleep to be elusive. Grief tormented me.

Oh to have a word or a way to come to terms with this pain. My heart and mind could not find lovely words to use to explain how to cope. A friend of mine did find those words. They are “keeping my heart open”. In retrospect, flipping back through these pages, that is what you are doing as you travel through this tumultuous time in your life.

You see, I had never been in this place of deep loss before. Never (even though I have had other losses in my life) had I been in such stark, raving grief. Not knowing what to do or what to say. Exhausted. Trying to come to terms. Scared and in pain. Still in love, but so terribly alone. Yes, still in love! Night after night, and day after day, because at some point I didn’t know if it was night or day. Still holding on to the essence of that pure and perfect person who had entered my life and now left me so suddenly and without warning—with no chance to prepare and no chance to say goodbye. My life and times of being unconditionally loved and desired now gone, just like that.

I could tell more, but I will stop except to say, “Yes, I still love him, still live with the soul of that love.”

Is this perchance your story? I call this whirlwind of emotion a dance with the Divine. Only at times, I feel like God is playing my 33 1/3 album at the speed of a 45 single, and I’m still trying to do the two-step. And I don’t feel like bopping and all of that snapping of my fingers and doing the jitterbug. I go on because grief has a way of making us feel that we must, that we have no choice.

Looking back, I know that agony was a time of learning how to “keep my heart open.”

At the time, crying, and more crying, was all I could do.

This is what I know now: tears are the only way our soul can speak when it is so profoundly and deeply hurt. Tears are the only language the mourning soul has. Let them flow. It is okay! Let your soul say all it wants. We dared to love, and love is huge. It has many expressions, times, and ways. So wonderful! When we feel its loss, our grieving reveals wounds that never show up on the body. But they are there, deep and more hurtful than anything that bleeds!

So, my grieving Sister or Brother, no more words for now. Please know that yours is a dance with the Divine. Just like with any other long, emotional dance, there are going to be some physiologic things that will happen; they are the adaptive responses of our bodies. Not being able to sleep is one. Headaches, fast heartbeats, and sweats are a few of the others.

Both your soul and your body are learning how to deal with grief and loss. Things like sleep and rest and good food can help the body.

But what of your your soul? It still has some pages to write. Let it! Even while life somehow is still going on around you, it will write on. God made us that way. The sun still will come up and day will come. The sun will go down and night will come. But during this time of pain and sorrow, the soul doesn’t understand all that. It just knows what it knows, and you will have no choice but to let your grieving soul take the time it needs.

During these five years, I have learned there are some things that will come. Grief is like a river, it flows until at some point you can come to a place where you can allow yourself to catch up with the speed of life. Now I know why God has put banks on the sides of rivers. As with any river, grief may overflow its banks at times. Don’t worry. Allow yourself the time you need to learn again how to “Keep Your Heart Open.” Know that it is still a dance, and you will learn the steps to this dance, too. Like the river, flow along and “Keep Your Heart Open.”

I hope these words give you some relief, for a moment or two, or maybe more. Day by day, you too will learn just how to “Keep Your Heart Open!”

Louise Malbon-Reddix is the Author of Stand In Your Anointment-This Too Shall Pass. It was written with the hope of coming along side of others to help and guide safely as they navigate through a time of unimaginable pain, grief and misery.

Do Words Change Our Responses to Violence and Injustice?   By Joyce F. Elferdink

Doublespeak_From a book cover on Doublespeak by Matthew Feldman                                      cover

Scene 1; Take I

 Awakened by my alarm set for WHYD 89.9 FM, the station that usually bore me gently back to the living, instead shocked me into a fully awake state today with this news flash:

A bomb exploded last night in Our Savior Catholic Church, killing at least 220 persons. Most of the dead are high school students who were practicing for a fundraising concert to continue Mother Teresa’s work in Calcutta. No group has yet taken credit for this heinous act, although evidence points to an anti-gay group. Our Savior’s priest who allowed the church to sponsor meetings of Until Love is Equal is among the dead. Most of the families of the dead teens were already reeling from the announcement last week by Heinz Distillers NA that positions for 700 of the 1476 currently employed locally will be abolished by month end and the lines moved overseas. With unemployment in the area already at a twenty hear high, the surviving family members will become poor overnight. The company’s CEO, Nicholas Nastii, defended the firings as necessary to remain competitive. He was quoted as saying, “Our wage expenses were too high, especially when the jobs required a level of expertise unavailable. We’ve contracted with Employment Services to help those being downsized find more suitable jobs.”

 

Scene 1; Take II

Awakened by my alarm set for WHYD 89.9 FM, I brushed my teeth as I half listened to the announcer discuss last night’s news. Something about an incident that occurred somewhere in the area…

Student workers—as many as 220–have been reclassified as collateral damage. The youth were practicing for a concert in a faith-based facility when the mishap occurred. This comes at a very bad time for most of the families. Many of the teens and their parents were employed by Heinz Distillers NA. The company, the region’s major employer, just last week announced plans to outsource fifty percent of its bottling unit to the U.S., a very large end user and said to have cheaper immigrant labor. Surveys of families affected by the mishap and downsizing indicate the majority will be forced  into the ranks of the economically disadvantaged.  Heinz CEO says that is not so. “These people only need to revise their employment expectations. Those who are willing to work will be able to afford all necessities.”

How differently did your mind and heart respond when the news reporter used the following terms instead of plain English: Collateral damage  instead of  death and property destruction; downsizing instead firing; economically disadvantaged instead of poor; mishap instead of catastrophe. There’s also outsourced and faith-based, which some would label doublespeak.

This is my attempt at doublespeak, a term that combines George Orwell’s ‘doublethink’ and ‘newspeak’ that he originated for his political novel 1984.” As he saw it: “Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” (George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 1946)

In 1974, the National Council of Teachers of English established a Doublespeak Award, given annually to “public speakers who have perpetuated language that is grossly deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing, or self-centered.” Recipients have included the CIA, Exxon Corporation, the U.S. Department of Defense (three times), Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Glenn Beck.
[Retrieved from http://grammar.about.com/od/words/a/Doublespeak-Soft_Language-Gobbledygook.htm]

What person or organization would you nominate for the Doublespeak Award, whether public speakers, writers, or  other “taxpayers”—oops, are all citizens taxpayers? And please explain the criteria for your selection.

 

Joyce Elferdink’s Bio:

This author thinks of herself as a teacher, apprentice, traveler and activist. Her inspiration comes from life experiences and an overactive imagination (nothing new to authors) and by the diverse novels she reads (but primarily science fiction). This summer she was stunned to receive an Excellence in Teaching award from her employer, Davenport University. Now if she could only get one of those equally prestigious awards for her novel, Pieces of You or the one just begun, The Battle of Jericho, 2035. Actually, her primary purpose for writing is to make readers think about questions we all may be asking.

 

 

 

 

THE O’CONCHOBHAIR BANSHEE By T.R. Heinan

For TR Sept 24 banshee-public-domain

  My great uncle had just celebrated his eighty-second birthday but he was dressed in his old police uniform, resting in the kitchen of his house on Chicago’s south side.  Until my sister lifted me, all I could see was a fair allowance of flowers and his nose sticking up past the rim of his coffin.  I recall thinking that old people sure had a lot of hair in their noses. It was that night, at his wake, after the grown-ups offered fifty-thee “Hail Mary’s” and more than a few toasts from some bottles of Jameson’s, that I first heard the word “banshee”.   The deceased was from the Walsh side of the family, a common surname indicating that some ancestor had once emigrated from Wales to Ireland.

The Walsh brothers, and one sister, my grandmother, traveled one by one from Ballylongford in County Kerry to Chicago, the lads each joining the Windy City’s constabulary soon after stepping off the train from New York.  The last to arrive, in 1889, was little Mary Ellen.  Twenty-three years later, that girl with the black pin curls and Irish brogue became my mother’s mother after marrying Edward Conners, an Episcopalian member of the Ó Conchobhair clan. She liked to say that she had rescued him from several generations of Orangemen who had so “miserably butchered” the family name.  According to my aunts, Catholicism was Grandma’s gift to Edward and the O’Conchobhair (O’Connor) banshee was his gift to her. Grandpa could be forgiven for saying there was too much superstition among the Catholics.  Too often, that was true. Being devout was not the same as being well instructed. On the other hand, it was his family that claimed to have a banshee.

Given the times and the Troubles, my grandparents seem to have done a remarkable job of removing bigotry, resentment, and prejudice from their lives.  Edward, a bridge tender for the railroad, admired the dedication that his wife’s Catholic brothers put into keeping the peace.  When Prohibition arrived, they all had enough rank to make sure you could still even have a drink in peace. They may have been guilty of accepting some “gratuities” but they weren’t afraid to put their lives on the line. One of them died in the line of duty trying to rescue a young girl who was being attacked in an alley.  Grandma shared her husband’s religious tolerance.  She admired the pioneering spirit of Grandpa’s family and would at least allow that the outhouses in England probably didn’t smell any worse than the ones in Ireland.

Grandma was not altogether unfamiliar with Protestants even in a Catholic village as small as Ballylongford.  She grew up only a few doors away from the childhood home of Horatio Herbert Kitchener, First Earl of Khartoum, and Great Britain’s Secretary of State for War. While city folk might dismiss Ballylongford as merely a wide spot on a road that followed the estuary of the River Shannon, our family knew it was home to Earl Kitchener, home to the former Jesuit writer Malachi Martin, and home to Grandmother Mary Ellen Walsh Conners.   It was also the first village in Ireland to have a refrigerator for their pub.  Nobody from Cork or Dublin or Derry could claim any of that!

Some of this might have been part of the conversation the night of my great uncle’s wake.  I only remember bits and pieces, scenes frozen forever in my mind, snippets of conversation.  I was a child, and had the scene not seemed so very peculiar to me, I might have forgotten it entirely.  Perhaps the only reason I remember any of it was that I was quite sure we never ever kept a dead guy in the kitchen at our house.

“Did he hear the banshee?” my mother asked.  No doubt, some of the retired cops in the room smiled, perhaps even smirked at the question.  I don’t recall.  What I do remember is my Aunt Harriet saying, “She means was he prepared.”   At the time I couldn’t begin to imagine how one prepares to recline and remain motionless in a wooden box while dozens of folks cry, laugh, pray and talk about you.

The Walsh brothers may have scoffed at the notion, but to my mother, the banshee was very real, a family spirit that came to help you prepare for death.  Apparently there is no Walsh family banshee, but the tradition of the O’Conchobhair Banshee has been passed on for centuries.  The O’Briens, the O’Neills and the O’Gradys each had their family banshee.  The Fitzgeralds, I was told, were not allowed to have one.  I don’t know if that was a blessing or a curse. Often in literature and film, a banshee is a terrifying creature. To some Irish families, a banshee is a fairy-like being. To others it is a frightful female spirit that sounds like the mournful keeners at an Irish funeral.  Our family banshee was always portrayed as an angelic spirit who came with a beautiful song to remind you to repent, to forgive, and to let go of earthly attachments.  My grandmother claimed to hear the banshee shortly before she died.

The tradition of the banshee goes well past the shores of Ireland.  It can be found in Scotland and Wales and some Vikings even carried tales of the banshees back to Norway.  Once out of Ireland, banshees appear to no longer tie themselves to clans or families.

According to my mother, Grandma Conners attended Mass every Sunday before praying the rosary.  After that, it was her tradition to sing as she prepared Sunday brunch for her husband, son, and five daughters.  The song she sang was always the same, “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”.  “I never heard that song in Ireland,” she would say, “but I think it’s so beautiful.  If ever I hear the banshee, I pray she will sing something beautiful like that.”

I don’t know if Grandma really heard a banshee.  I don’t know if they are the stuff of fairy tales or actual manifestations of heavenly spirits.  What I suspect is that in a society where we tend to avoid thinking or discussing preparation for death, the song of the O’Conchobhair banshee might just be worth hearing.  The simple fact is that sooner or later we all die. I suspect that no matter what we believe, or even if we believe in nothing at all, we would probably have a better death if first we forgive others and let go of our resentments and earthly attachments.  Like it or not, the day of the banshee is seldom as distant as we want to believe.  My own hope is that some spirit will remind me of all that before I get stuffed into a wooden box, be it in a Chicago kitchen or elsewhere.

T.R. Heinan is the author of L’immortalité: Madam Lalaurie and the Voodoo Queen, a reflection on justice and compassion set in the historical context of a haunting 19th century New Orleans legend.http://www.amazon.com/LImmortalite-Madame-Lalaurie-Voodoo-Queen/dp/0615634710