A Haunted House Can Be a Home

A Haunted House Can Be a Home

I hadn’t set foot on the property since completing a stealth moving process during the winter of 1995. At that time, the ruined brick bungalow in the Northwestern Chicago neighborhood of Dunning was nearly seven miles away from my widowed grandmother’s apartment in North Center. That’s where my younger sister Jennifer resided with our mother Gloria, who’d left our father Gregg in 1993. The home-turned-hovel that mom and dad destroyed together was also nine miles from the high school Jenny and I both attended.

I missed my sister. I was tired of getting up at 4:00 am every weekday morning to catch the Irving Park bus to Nanni’s place – for a shower and some breakfast before classes started. And because my father hadn’t paid the gas bill for several years running, I was also tired of being cold, eating food from a microwave and living beholden to the mood swings of a bipolar, hoarding, gambling-addicted father.

The cover story I used for my escape involved our cat Snuggy, a pet that Gregg seemed to love almost as much as himself. The Windy City winter of 1995 saw an average daily temperature of four degrees Fahrenheit – a climate not fit for animal or teenager. But I knew that appealing to my father on the basis of my own discomfort was a non-starter.  I had no appetite for a tirade about loyalty, abandonment and weakness. So I told Gregg that I was moving Snuggy to Nanni’s house, “just until spring,” with no intention of ever returning. This was not the first or the last survival scheme I would orchestrate before legal emancipation at age 18.

Without a cat carrier, and toting a minimal amount of personal belongings to avoid suspicion, I cradled Snuggy in the passenger seat of my dad’s latest beater as he drove us to Nanni’s place. I wouldn’t be welcome there either, and in fact a few months later, Gloria outright suggested was “time to go back [to what, Mom???].” But for as long as I could manage it, Snuggy and I would be clean, warm, fed – certainly safer than we were living in the fire trap shanty.

The house on Eddy Street was finally repossessed in 1998 and sold as a foreclosure in 2000 – the year I graduated from college. Never one for realism, Gregg failed to accept his eviction until the very end (because banks are famous for tolerating property damaging freeloaders). He took very little with him when the proverbial sheriff showed up, and the rest of us were never allowed to return. Mentally and spiritually, Jenny and I said goodbye to the haunted house where our photos, mementos and formerly treasured personal items were sacrificed on an altar of failure, built with reams of newspaper, animal waste and cigarette butts.

I still see the brick bungalow in dreams. Sometimes it looks as it did before we took over in 1984 – well-cared for by the previous owner, and full of promise. At other times, I’m frantically trying to clean and organize the place, racing an unseen clock. I never reach my goal.

For many years, the house on Eddy ceased to be a living thing for me, and it remained so until last Saturday. En route to a tour of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park with my husband Bob, I looked up and noticed our coordinates. I tried to keep my voice even as I mentioned familiarity with the neighborhood. My partner looked at me with puzzlement, and we exchanged the following brief dialogue:

Bob: “Yeah? Where? When?”

Me: “It’s that house and it’s around the corner.”

Bob: “Oh. Oh…..Do you want to show it to me on the way back?”

And for some reason, after years of running, I did want to stop and open this literal and figuratively dark, cold space to let Bob and his light in. Instead of a drive-by, I felt strong enough to get out of the car, grab my husband’s hand and engage that crepuscule in a staring contest. But I left Eddy Street that afternoon with much more than I expected.

I failed to anticipate how it might feel to meet Mike, a Polish immigrant newly arrived in America in 2000, full of hopes and dreams, presented with a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to buy a foreclosed home, sight unseen. According to the man who painstakingly rebuilt and improved the brick bungalow from the ground up, a shady lawyer paid Gregg a sum of money to give up his claim, took possession of the property and resold the dump to Mike.

It would be months before he could move his own family in. He’d been given no indication of the ruin he’d find. Some people destroy and walk away with cash and a clear conscience. Others create from less than nothing. And none of it is fair. As Mike and I conversed, an old and familiar shame returned. I wished to hand over the money my father was paid to walk away from the mess.

It was also impossible to predict the overwhelming gratitude that accompanied Mike’s lack of personal animosity toward me. The child of the cretins who’d played a large part in his fleecing shows up unannounced and he’s…welcoming?  Although I’d been a kid with little control over my parents’ behavior, the stubborn codependent in me will always struggle with feelings of responsibility for, well…..everything.

And if given hours to absorb the news, I couldn’t have stalled the emotions that overtook me when Mike dropped a bombshell. 18 years after decluttering the foreclosed home of most of its contents, he still had several boxes of books that belonged to my family. He didn’t have the heart to relegate Encyclopedia Britannica volumes, Time Life animal publications and other literary treasures to a dumpster. He went into the house, gathered these materials (in surprisingly good condition) and handed them to me. It was like a second chance, a return to the day in 1995 when I absconded with little more than a beloved pet and the clothes on my back. This time, I could carry some of the images and words that shaped me.

The house on Eddy Street is much changed. I didn’t go inside, and didn’t want to. Seeing the exterior was more than enough for one day. Mike built upper and lower decks at the rear of the property, perfect for enjoying western sunsets. The yard is planted and full of life. But the biggest change of all is the warm and gracious man caring for the place, raising a happy family and making new memories to replace the frightening ones of last century.

I returned to the car with Bob, convinced as I walked away that this was no longer a haunted house. It’s the happy place of people more deserving of being entrusted with its care.

And I left that old shame on the curb.

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And For My Next Trick…

I have a problem. One that is entirely First World in its privilege, but challenging all the same.

I’ve been a personal blogger longer than I’ve been any other kind of writer. It was the easiest place to start on a campaign that began in 2009 (however unwittingly) to finally figure out my truths and learn to live them. Then as now, blogging platforms were democratically accessible and mostly free. In addition, I was in such a bad place nine years ago – personally and professionally – there was no want of material for such a creative endeavor. I was so lost in life, so inexperienced with the craft, I didn’t know enough to feel self-conscious – about fledgling skills or the nakedly intimate topics doubling as cries for self-help.

I actually went looking for my first-ever blog post on Which End Is Up Today?, a brief project on which my sister and I collaborated. It was a fun union of two close, but distinct voices – Jenny’s suburban mom with a broadcasting career; I the childless, urban dwelling, semi-starving artist. However the platform has been dormant for so many years, Google stopped indexing the site. That’s probably for the best.

My early work, while charmingly guileless, is fairly cringe worthy in form, structure and content. For one, I wrote under a pseudonym, a handy metaphor for the near-complete lack of self-awareness with which I was stumbling through life at the time. For example, if you dare, just gaze upon the hackneyed, uninteresting and fundamentally dishonest bit of autobiography on display here in early 2009. There are reasons beyond artistic self-flagellation for keeping these early efforts alive. I have always believed that the road to self-improvement is paved with recycled asphalt from wrong turns and dead ends.

Back to my present problem. While I remain an unmalleable square peg, with the help of abundant group and personal therapy, as well as hard labor, I’ve found the holes where I fit. I’m not only comfortable in these spaces, I luxuriate in them. Although it’s taken years of repeating empowering mantras until the syllables lose meaning, I deserve this recent comfort in my skin, this confidence about my place in the world, at home, at work and in Chicago’s literary community.

But though it’s an amazing feeling to discover one’s own version of equilibrium, it’s taking a while for new order to jibe with the fight or flight panic that characterized 36 years. Sometimes I’m still unsure what to do without the consistent, existential burn caused by fear, lack and overwhelming envy.

So it was that during a moment of unattached boredom, I found myself Googling, in vague search of answers to a question I never thought I’d ask.

“What’s next after achieving all your goals?”

The precursor to this interrogation of the World Wide Web was wrestling with a few philosophical queries on my own:

  • What’s next after marrying the love of my life last year, my true spiritual partner in all things, the one who respects and supports my complicated past and present quirks of character? I chased the wrong men for three decades. This self-defeating past-time consumed a great deal of energy. Three years into a more healthy and balanced love, how do I channel old frenzy into the new, healthy maintenance habits our marriage deserves?
  • Bob and I have a beautiful home that is fully representative of us. We’ve spent three years converting his divorced guy bachelor pad into our mortgaged happy place – paint, furniture, linens, multiple rounds of decluttering, infrastructure repairs. Our condo is clean, everything works as it should and I’ve had ample time to let go of old fears that I could be dumped/evicted/foreclosed upon, forced to rebuild alone. What’s next after achieving hard won domestic security? Am I supposed to set goals higher than what’s already more than enough?
  • After years of toiling as a poorly paid freelancer, working temporary or otherwise unstable jobs to make ends meet as I waited for my “real career” to begin, I recently confronted a truth. “One day” has fully arrived. Once certain I’d never find fulfillment in a corporate setting, I work for a publicly traded company that entrusts me with challenging work matching passion and skill set. My day job provides me with the financial stability to underwrite riskier, less remunerative creative efforts to which I’m no less committed. Like say, teaching an adjunct English class at my alma mater that’s designed to help students turn liberal arts degrees into jobs. Or publishing a once-in-a-lifetime charity book project about the Chicago Cubs’ 2016 World Series with a friend and colleague. I sit on the boards of two vitally important Chicago-based communications organizations that put me in regular networking contact with brilliant creatives. As a whole, my career is more well-wounded and rewarding than ever seemed possible. But I am a born striver. Do I even know how to stop wanting more than I need?
  • After sustained efforts at breaking toxic, co-dependent relationship habits, I’m blessed with healthy, supportive friendships and good relationships with the family members I choose to include in my life. For the most part, I’ve given over obsessing about the estranged, broken and bizarre bonds with my parents that used to make me feel ritual, low-grade shame and discomfort. Is it ok to let go?

If you’re are wondering why the hell one would overthink success and contentment, I couldn’t agree with you more. But I suspect this quote from a recent article on the Lifehack website gets at the heart of the real issue. It’s about fear – of losing what I’ve gained, rather than failing to accrue addition:

“What do you do once you achieve your big goal and make it to the top? This can become a big problem if it looks like the only way you can go is down…The problem can be one of maintaining the position [if this is what you want], or figuring out where to go next while avoiding a big letdown.”

I’ve worked so hard to get to this place, I don’t want to disappoint anyone, myself most urgently of all.  After a life of operating (correctly) like I had nothing to lose, I’m somewhat confounded by today’s emotional, physical and spiritual plenty.

Nature and Nurture Argue in the Stairwell

In the early spring of 1996, my mother, younger sister and I moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. At the time, my parents had been separated for two years (they have yet to divorce – closure was never their thing). Yet mom continued to pay the mortgage on the dilapidated childhood home in which my unemployed father squatted (see previous parenthetical snark). The housing budget was tight.

We’d been living with family, but the free rent that came with my maternal grandmother’s flat in North Center had become a price too high to pay. Never a fan of her only child, my mother Gloria, Nanni’s vindictive bitterness toward her two granddaughters became more pronounced with age and the mental deterioration caused by stroke and Parkinson’s disease. When Nanni spread a rumor across the block that I’d borne and hidden a secret child, even the emotionally sedentary and intellectually resistant Gloria could perceive change was in order.

Uptown was a few years away from full gentrification in the mid-1990s and so while a bit snug for three nearly adult women, two cats and a freakishly large 140-pound golden retriever, the apartment we chose had original wood detailing, a separate living room and dining room and a full kitchen pantry. We may not have loved all of the circumstances that brought us to Winnemac Street, but my sister Jenny and I had mad affection for our new place. With its natural lighting and dissociation from the destructive hoarding of our father, and mercurial bullying of Nanni, 1262 West looked and felt like the sweetest freedom $475 a month could buy.

The excitement of setting up home, several months before I’d leave it for the choral adventures of South Africa, followed by freshman year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, still shines brightly in memory. Several years from discovering our mother’s long-running identity theft scheme, which put me in bankruptcy court, and left Jenny and I to rebuild on our own, peace and freedom felt possible as never before.

My younger sister and I put our belongings wherever it felt right – calling out to each other as we unpacked, singing loudly along to CDs blasted from a boom box. In sprit and practice, it was just the two of us. Gloria worked a third-shift nursing job. Jenny and I readied for school, prepared dinner, studied and slept, dodged Jehovah’s witnesses and army crawled across the floor to avoid windows as Chicagoans riotously celebrated the Bulls’ latest NBA Championship. Just us and our pets. A couple of young urban women undertaking a dry run at adulthood.

I remember a few other things quite vividly about that spring move to Uptown. One of them is the sound, more like a death rattle, of my mother attempting to carry her half of a chest of drawers up a single flight of stairs. The highboy-style bureau had belonged to my grandfather, Poppa, who died in July of 1993. In 1996, my mother smoked three or four packs of Virginia Slim Ultra Lights per day. This was a rather neat trick considering she worked in a hospital operating room for 75 hours a week. But I suppose if one avoids healthy food, exercise, house cleaning, bill payment and certainly, the conventions of parenting, it frees up extra time.

The afternoon my mother tried – and failed – to move the dresser left a vivid imprint on my 17 year-old imagination. And of late, I return to the memory more often. On that day in 1996, Gloria was 39.5 years of age – the same spot on the progression of life I presently occupy. She had two teenage daughters (versus my own childlessness) and had long given up on expecting days better and more exciting than ones already passed. The hopelessness was conveyed by the programmed end to end lighting of cigarettes that occupied her waking hours. She was chain puffing her way to conclusion – with internal resignation and a blank stare for the world around her.

The memory of Gloria huffing and gasping, grip on the tall dresser slipping between sweaty hands after a mere seven stairs, is endlessly depressing. Even at the arrogant, immortal-feeling age of 17, I knew a 39 year-old was not, in common practice, an old woman. But there she was, almost fully gray-haired, wearing disheveled, dirty sweats, DDD-cup breasts swinging low and saggy in their bralessness, lighting up her next smoke even as she was clearly unable to breathe. And I hated her intensely in her disregard – the lack of self-care matched by unconcern for the example offered. I thought to myself, swore rather, “That will never be me. I will never let myself go that way.”

Reader, you probably know what happened next. Flash ahead 22 years to the first morning of 2018. I’m 39.5 years old, 30 pounds overweight and pathetically out of shape. Bob and I live in a third-floor walkup condo building and I need a couple breathing breaks to travel those stairs. Every morning I look out the window of our North Center home office, and into the fourth grade Pilgrim Lutheran school classroom where Gloria and I both studied.

When my husband and I walk Jude together, we pass the same two-flat on Wolcott where Nanni played her Machiavellian head games. I may not smoke cigarettes – completely turned off as I was by mom’s perpetually bad breath, yellowed skin and nail beds – but on New Year’s Day, I face an uncomfortable reality. The roads to 40 might travel on different metaphorical continents, but she and I arrived at the same physical health destination. I look, sound and probably feel more like Gloria than I’d promised 17 year-old Becky I’d allow.

And yet for all the unwanted physical parity, my mother and I are different women. At 39, she lived as though she’d already died, while I know I’ve only begun to reach full potential. Our symbolic duality reckons with a self-aware determination that marks my character alone.

2018: It’s Here, It’s Blear and Full of Sneer

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2018 burst out of the gate spraying bizarre and unpleasant phenomena like so much buckshot. At the national level, it’s fairly clear that our President is an unstable, corrupt, half-literate, white supremacist. Understated facts seem to pass for fashionable dissent this year, as congressional cynics and ignorant voters pretend this is patriotic American status quo. So here goes. Donald J. Trump is bad for the country in every conceivable moral, secure and rational sense – 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365. He needs to be removed from office while we still have a country left.

At the regional level, Chicago has been so uninhabitable this first week of January, our famous rats are freezing to death. Back in the late 1990s, there was a joke making the pop cultural rounds (memes were not yet a thing): in the end times, we’ll still have rats, cockroaches and Cher. With the ex-Mrs. Bono/Allman strutting through a 2018 concert tour while Windy City rodents give up the fight, she is now the likeliest of resilient species to survive deadly climate change.

The first week of the new year has also presented a variety of personal challenges for me. Some of these were consciously chosen, for example selecting January as the month to simultaneously give up carbs, sugar and alcohol. Others hurdles are happenstance, like my estranged, mentally ill father bombarding my inbox with four senseless Yahoo! E-cards in five days.

All I can tell you is that the confluence of crap that flew this week (which assuredly includes the national and regional stressors) resulted in a cleansing Friday morning sob – catalyzed by a missing sock. Equilibrium is in short supply.

Perhaps this week’s jarring, frigid threats have adopted a heightened intensity because they follow the most mellow and unstructured 10-day accord in recollection. Online and in real-life, I rarely stop moving. Depending on which day you ask, I’ll say this is because I’m hustling to create community and opportunity, or that I’m the victim of my own subconscious dysfunction. A darker self addicted to achievement, operating in perpetual fight or flight mode to avoid some undefined danger. Either way it’s productive.

This way of life also produces acute periods of burnout. And when I bid my day job a 2017 adieu on Thursday, December 21, I felt fully particularly singed by the following events:

  • Bob and I married on August 19, an only-in-the-movies perfect summer day that was nonetheless the culmination of a three-month engagement and planning gauntlet.
  • We took exactly one day off after the wedding weekend before I was asked to leave the husband to deal with a monthlong, international corporate crisis. The trip was canceled three days before boarding owing to a separate, more acute, local panic that lasted until Thanksgiving. In between there were rush immunizations, a flurry of shopping and packing, and much hand-wringing over a long separation from the man to whom I’d just said “I do.” All that adrenaline for naught.
  • At the same time post-wedding employment chaos unfolded, I co-wrote a non-fiction book and met an October 1 manuscript deadline. Anyone who’s ever completed a long form work of journalism, which requires interviewing, transcribing and developing coherent, connected stories from numerous sources, knows the unique mix of excited rush and sheer terror.
  • The #MeToo movement. I don’t need to explain to women what this season-long and still unfolding sociopolitical movement has asked of each of us – publicly and privately. The grappling with the horrors large and small that dot our pasts, the pre-holiday thrill of watching ensconced, menacing, powerful perverts topple like so many fetid dominoes, even as we wondered if there would be real, lasting change after the purge.
  • Did I mention Donald Trump stubbornly remains the humiliating, heartless and vacuous President of the United States?

By contrast, during the last glorious week between Christmas 2017 and New Year’s Day 2018, time and cold reality suspended. For the first time in years, languishing through unplanned, relatively news-free days (by deliberate choice), I rested. I lived in the moment. I had an indoor honeymoon with my best friend and the love of my life. I read the most recent issue of The Atlantic cover to cover; binged watched quality television while Bob and I held hands. We were an island of simple pleasures, removed from winter’s assault and the frenzied business of an exhausted mind in perpetual motion.

The peace was so – to use an incongruous word that is no less accurate – intense, that 2018’s opening sprint of national, local and personal madness still assumes manageable proportion. I’m clinging to the shards of a zen hangover with everything I’ve got.

The Year in Tears, Fears and Cheers

I’ve done a lot of the right kind of crying this week – big, fat tears of hope, awe and relief. More fantastic than the cathartic sobs themselves, however, is the direct connection between them and national politics. For most of the year, emotional inspiration from the country’s elected leaders has been in short supply.

The lion’s share of 2017 blubbering has been of the traditional disappointment/rage strain. It’s been a tough year with many challenges to moral authority, character and justice. It may seem incongruous to sexist hate mongers like defeated Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore, but a liberal, atheist, feminist can also believe that standard codes of conduct should straddle all walks of human life. Righteousness is not the spiritual property of Bible-banging, racist, homophobic straight white men who condemn everyone outside their circle of privileged ignorance.

Regardless of gender, faith, geography or race, there should be a few universal agreements. We should reject white supremacy, violence, sexual assault, pedophilia, corrupt looting of the public treasury, heartlessness toward the poor and the war-torn.  When an American territory is ravaged by natural disaster, we should offer all forms of recovery assistance and skip the Ayn Randian self-reliance lectures. We should support science and research and take care of the only Earth we have. When hundreds are publicly gunned down at a concert and children are not safe in school, its way past time to ask ourselves if the Second Amendment should supersede all other rights.

Moderates, cynics and self-styled realists will be quick to say that we must make our way through the world as it is. Indulging idealistic daydreams is a waste of time. To which I reply in the words of my favorite former Vice President, Joseph R. Biden III: “That’s a bunch of malarkey.” Despite the unaccountable example elevated by President Trump, we can admit when we’re wrong. We don’t have to live with the choices we’ve made when empirical and experiential data illuminate error. If we’re not here to try our best to build a greater and more just world for ourselves and our children, what’s the point? If all we’re meant to do is take what we can and run, what sets humans apart from scavenger species like rats and vultures?

2017 has made it painfully clear that at the highest levels of American government and industry, a shared vision of social justice and opportunity has fallen out of favor. The Trump administration has appointed numerous leaders to public agencies with the express purpose of making it harder for us to breathe, receive a quality education or equitable treatment within the justice system, among other taxpayer scams. See, as just one absurd example, the decision to install Scott Pruitt, tool of the fossil fuel industry, as leader of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Never in modern history has it been so obvious that the public trust and tax dollar are being misused. The heavy-handedness of it all has elicited buckets of my impotent, despairing tears throughout the year. It’s been overwhelmingly tempting at times (Charlottesville, Republican tax “reform,” a sexual assaulter as POTUS) to view the country’s oligarchic, cynical tailspin without hope.

I recently took a personality test shared via link by a Facebook friend. I scored high on the quiz’s concept of reverence. Although the word has taken on a religious connotation, as applied in the personality assessment, it denotes a humbling of the self in respectful recognition of something perceived to be greater. I recognize this existential need. I’m a devoted planner and tactician, but always in service of a motivating larger concept. Shake my faith in the efficacy of action and I’ll quickly devolve. More Law & Order marathons, less self-confidence and movement. Reverence and I have been estranged for months at a time this year, replaced by tears of bitter shame as 45 debases this great nation with Twitter feuds, misogyny, bigotry, feckless and dangerous domestic and foreign policies.

But as we approach the end of the calendar year and the conclusion of the first twelve months of the Trump presidency, I’m starting to get my reverent groove back. On Monday night, Bob and I went to the Chicago Theatre to see the aforementioned Joe Biden on the Windy City leg of his book tour. Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose, according to The New York Times Book Review, “splices a heartbreaking story with an election story and a foreign affairs story. And in so doing, he offers something for everyone, no matter which strand draws you in.”

Reading the words of Joe Biden is a privilege. Hearing his earnest, human good sense and compassion live is better still. The 75 year-old public servant is an American hero. A man who has weathered enormous personal tragedy with grace, intelligence and a steadfast commitment to bending the arc of humanity towards justice. I was, am and will always be inspired by Papa Joe. The choked sobs I released on Monday were full of gratitude – for Americans like the longtime Delaware senator, and for a husband who knew that walking down Obama/Biden memory lane would sooth my battered soul.

Then last night, voters in the deep red state of Alabama rejected a twice-sacked, child molesting, bigoted judge in favor of a pro-choice Democrat with a demonstrated commitment to civil rights. Much has been made in the media about urban and suburban white distaste for Moore. But the real story is the 93 percent of black men and 98 percent of African-American women who overcame all disenfranchisement odds and pundit expectations to put their state on the right side of history. As Esquire columnist Charles Pierce noted:

“Voter suppression is a scandal and a crime and an offense against the Constitution. John Roberts’s declaration of the Day of Jubilee in Shelby County v. Holder was an act of historical butchery. The laws enacted since that day should be torn out, root and branch, and burned to cinders. However, what the results from Alabama demonstrated is that, with good candidates and a solid message and tireless work, you can swamp the bastards and all their works just by showing up.”

2016 went out for me with a disillusioned, distressed whimper. Hillary Clinton’s loss was my despair for the country, for womanhood, for immigrants and any chance of addressing the nation’s increasingly stratified economic and social opportunities.

At the end of 2017, I’m rediscovering reverence for the American proletariat. The wise and compassionate words of a retired public servant and the empowered, forward-looking agency of Alabama voters make great holiday gifts.

A Foggy Feminist’s Clarity

A couple of weeks ago, on Saturday, October 21, I delivered an address at the Fall Conference of the American Association of University Women’s (AAUW) Wheaton-Glen Ellen, IL Branch. Or as Bob characterized it while watching a video replay of the speech, “Beckytime at the Apollo.” The clip betrays awareness of speaking to an audience comprised of my supportive, social justice-minded mother-in-law, a gaggle of former students and an army of elderly, pissed off academic women. If ever there existed a friendly crowd for the subject I was invited to engage…

Comfortable showmanship aside, my passion for the material was as real as it gets. Because October 21 was an important day in recent feminist history. Exactly nine months after the international Women’s Marches of late January 2017, local AAUW leader Danielle Byron asked me to speak about the impact from a female journalist’s perspective. The group had two questions about the largest protests in U.S. history: “What has happened in the last nine months? And what is being ‘birthed’ for the future?”

So many ways to respond to these questions as an objective observer of a cultural moment, and I did use research and statistics to point to positive trends such as the 17,000 women and counting since Election Day who are looking to run for office. I discussed the ignominious downfalls of a growing list of bipartisan pigs who have built powerful careers on the abuse of women and children. The encouraging, growing social awareness that predators do not deserve our celebration and silence.

Yet I’m not an impartial observer of my gender, of the battles it has fought and must continue to fight, am I? By virtue of my anatomy, experiences and growing activism, I am both participant and recorder of this moment in history. Thus my AAUW address was sprinkled with quotes from my writing and started where any larger narrative offered with individual interpretation must – with my own story.

As longtime readers of this blog are well aware, I had a distressed childhood, raised by two mentally ill parents. Our home was one of addiction – substance abuse, compulsive gambling and my father’s obsessive compulsive disorder which manifested itself in hoarding rituals. These were the physical challenges, which were rivaled only by complicated psychological ones – pervasive, often counterproductive dishonesty, simmering rage and tribal divisions where the sides were always subject to change.

These formative experiences taught me a few important lessons that were perversely empowering as I grew into an adult:

  • Resilience: fall constantly, get right back up, regroup and charge forward again
  • An admiration for honesty and order versus cynicism and lies
  • A curious lack of awareness regarding traditional gender roles

I’ve reflected on the third lesson more and more often from the position of a 39 year-old woman growing in enlightenment (or trying her damnedest).

My father was the more ill parent and my mother, a registered nurse, was the family breadwinner. Neither parent taught me to sit pretty and wait for the proverbial knight to come along. I was encouraged to apply myself to, and excel at everything – studies, sports, music, fist fighting. My father in particular, was just as proud if I came home with an “A’ grade, a trophy, or a swollen lip from scrapping with a neighborhood bully of any gender identification. I knew intuitively and from my parent’s example that I was going to have to fend for myself in every sense of word. Everything would be a fight.

Frequently the fights occurred between myself and my mother, who established a competitive and adversarial relationship with her eldest daughter. Ritual shame came early and often as I worked to avail myself of opportunities Gloria never perceived herself as having. My rapport, such as it was with mom, was marked by a curious and painful Catch-22. I was driven to excel at everything I took on, yet if I shone too brightly at any effort, it was somehow an affront, evidence of arrogance. I was a source of bragging rights, or a cypher for my mother’s own bitter sense of wasted potential.

Well into my 20s, if you’d asked me which gender suited me better, I would have proudly and unselfconsciously replied that I was a “guy’s girl,” a tomboy who enjoyed sports and verbal sparring more than the color pink and making myself pleasant to everyone else. I never had more than two close girlfriends at a time. Like the young fool lacking in self-awareness that I was, I convinced myself I was more comfortable with men than women. It would be years before hard knocks, therapy, and an adulthood free of the bizarre, warping influence of my mother exposed a programmed traitor to my gender and its systemic inequality. I did nothing because I felt nothing. Because I was convinced all doors were open to us if we were ready to walk through them alone.

How awesomely, pitifully naïve. How sadly ignorant.

We will kick the unopened doors alright, but we won’t do so it solo. With each passing year, I embrace the “feminist” label attributed to my work in terms both derisive and admiring. I continue working to synthesize the shame and gender isolation I once felt, with gratitude for the opportunity to discover pride in my womanhood. The chance to continuously learn and grow, the privilege of being able to use my words and physical presence to agitate for change.

Toward the end of my AAUW remarks, I said this regarding the immediate future of our gender. But I was also painfully aware of personal challenges that lie ahead:

“We have so much work to do. So much in fact that it can be demoralizing. It can cause anger, paralysis, fear and plain old fatigue. It’s normal and it’s ok to give into it now and then. We need our rest, our quiet time, our emotional releases. It’s ok to ask why in the hell we still have to fight these fights.”

Stepping Out

This is going to be my last post on BeckySarwate.com for a few months. As readers who know me offline are aware, I’ve been contracted to write my first non-fiction book with friend, colleague and Lost in the Ivy author, Randy Richardson. We’re headed into the intensive drafting phase (at least I am – the always on top of things Randy is already six chapters in), so I have to step back from my baby here for a bit.

The book, with a working title of Cubservations, will be a collection of perspectives from high-profile fans about what it means to bleed Cubby blue. Naturally, the work was greenlit because in November 2016, the team permanently shed the Lovable Losers mantle and millions of long-suffering fans were granted a dream fervently nurtured, but scarcely imagined. When Randy, who has published multiple novels in his career, first told me about the project, I thought myself audacious in volunteering to serve as a reader. The moment I comprehended his offer to co-write remains frozen in time, an unbelievable, overwhelming flash of unreality.

Since April, supported by the solid research and detection skills of our own Brian Walsh, I have interviewed a collection of talents and personalities admired, in many cases, for decades. How is it possible that the weird, snaggle-toothed nerd who pored over fantasy league stat sheets with her father throughout the 1980s and 90s, a young girl who wept openly over Cub heartbreaks in 1984, ’89, ’98, 2003, ‘08 and ’09, would get to discuss 2016’s unbridled joy with the legendary Bob Newhart?  A combination of amazing fortune and most excellent taste in friends and collaborators.

The time for conversation with Mr. Newhart and others with whom I never imagined corresponding, is winding down. Now I must start organizing all of this rich material to tell the stories of these successful Cub fans – locals and transplants, genetic die-hards and rebels, believers and skeptics. It will be hard, rewarding work and I look forward to resurfacing when the book is ready for primetime.

In addition to expressing my gratitude to Randy and Brian for opportunities and support already amply given, it would be an egregious oversight not to recognize my fiancé. I said at the beginning of this post that it would be my last for a while. But I haven’t published to the blog section of this website since October 2016, not for lack of anything to say.

Today is Bob’s 37th birthday. And in just 17 more turns of the sun, the love of my life and I will marry in front of 32 of our dearest ones. For years I bled my feelings, struggles, tragedies and triumphs all over the Internet. I had to in order to survive. Writing my life was more than therapy. It was a guarantee that the story would be told and recorded, that I would not be forgotten across almost a decade of lost isolation. With word and reflection, I looked for the escape hatch from a vortex of bad decisions, health struggles and a continually shattered heart.

I’m not finished searching. I am not done with blogging. And those who know me away from the screen can confirm I’ll never have surfeit of oversharing. But I’m evolving, growing into a better woman and hopefully, a more stable, confident creative.

Nearly a year ago, Bob and I began intensive discussions about our future, our home and our time together. In tandem, I made an unconscious decision to reclaim a complicated, messy, busy and satisfying analog life. I continued writing about politics, sports and the Chicago theater scene. But it no longer felt necessary to process my relationships and trajectory via the World Wide Web. Instead I can turn around and talk to a smart, loving and loyal friend, who’s also, I might add, pretty to behold. The computer can’t compete with that.

Anyway, I’ll still publish the occasional theater review even as I shut down for what is certain to be a novice author’s anxious and exhilarating writing, editing and publishing process. And I’ll still have plenty of succinct commentary to share on Twitter and Facebook. In the meantime, Brian will keep the lights on here with regular Missing in Action updates.

I appreciate your constant support of this website and my journey as a writer. See you soon.