Kim Gryphon & Niomi Fawn – College of Arts & Sciences
27. A Portrait of Moma
Olivia Maeve O’Hallaran satisfied the impossible childhood vision, a dream percolating since age 8, when she, piously positioned in a church pew, memorized the prayers pronounced by her pastor & devoured incomprehensible homilies [as though an old man's opinion translated true meaning of the divine]; she loved & coveted all church practice offered her. She yearned to hold the rapt attention of faithful [ignored those parishioners who fell asleep or doodled, because they'd surely be eliminated come revelation], to authorize absolution [pick your sin: masturbation to murder & she’d summon forth the state of grace] & of course: magic, mystery, miracle―to turn wine to blood, bread to flesh―biological alchemy. The wooden benches put her butt to sleep, a necessary trial the path to righteousness. She sweat in summer & shivered in winter, but she attended service as a steadfast, follower on principle [blissfully ignorant of actual religious doctrine] & fervently committed to her future vocation: a shepherd of souls.
Her parents, Catholic by culture & heritage [not for harboring any particular zeal], bemused and endeared and unaware of the depth of their daughter’s secret desire, shredded her dreams like the parmesan cheese sprinkled over the spaghetti they ate for dinner. Between slurps of semolina, they pointed out the furthest her ambition might carry would be to the garb of a nun. The men of the cloth, in fact, could only be men.
In the face of doctrinal discouragement, she never lost her faith; never fell for Nietzche’s adage that god is dead, even when her folks died. Her pops, the heroic fire-fighter, gave his breath and flesh away in a blaze before she hit puberty. Her mom, old-school & heart-broken, slowly lost her life to grief; she walked, dead, for a few years in a haze of liquor. The slow poison promulgated her consumptive demise. Olivia O’Hallaran, orphaned, ran off-the-map in the 1970s. She discovered elusive and amorphous gods outside the cathedral. The father-son team [backed up by one holy ghost], too rigid and repressed for her pubescent, hormonal instincts, alienated her so she rubbed elbows with divine deities unimpressed by Catholicism. She chuckled with a monkey god and danced with Hari Krishnas. She found a bodhi tree in the Commons near Emerson kids playing frisbee and bottle collectors sleeping away empty afternoons. She waxed philosophical with blue-eyed Jesus-impersonators on acid. She travelled the world-over, within the confines of the greater Boston area.
Olivia grew up hard. Rotating hard-wood floors of friends and strangers, hard-times finding work/feeding herself [stale-bread hard on teeth when she bit down], hard-knocks in the face delivered by older men whose lies sounded sweet in their beginnings, caused her to encase herself in a hard-shell by the time she hit 18. The armor did not prove impenetrable: a little seed slipped right into her uterus [donor unaware/did not care] and love divine sprouted in her belly.
A miraculous event to Olivia despite the obvious: her anatomy contained the blueprint for creating life since the start of her menstrual cycles. The mundane miracle of childbirth took responsibility for her own life, the lives of all ancestors, as a common course in human events, but her personal pregnancy made Olivia dumbfounded and ache for a path and purpose at the end of the 1970s. Morning sickness distracted her with dehydration and delirium unlike any drug she’d yet consumed, compounding her growing sense of desperation. On a cold day in May at the end of her first trimester, she randomly returned to the parish in Union square. The dark tall walls [smaller than childhood dared recall] broke into bright shafts of light, tinted by stained-glass depictions of biblical moments to make Olivia feel ten years younger and correspondingly innocent. Mid-afternoon Monday, the church walls hushed after the demonstration of deliverance a day prior, abandoned and quiet. Her footsteps echoed. She stood under a portrait of Jesus writhing in anguish and blood [thorns-penetrating-brain/spear-impaling-torso/big-metal-nails-driving-through-wrists and feet] as she thought we do this to those who are good & full of love. Mary the mother knelt down in the corner of the scene, witnessing the siege of an army over one man, once boy-learning, once baby-growing within her own flesh, as she contorted with mourning at his impending death. Olivia exercised selective memory [forgot the 3-day-turnaround for this particular death] & empathized deeply with the pieta, eventually her essential embodiment engendered a new wave of worry.
Why bring life into this world of struggle and death? She prayed for an unconsidered reason, elusive as god almighty and all desperation realized resonance in the realm of conscious thought and action. From birth, entering into the spiral of suffering, her role of mother required responsibility for the spill of blood to surely occur in the baby’s lifetime. She couldn’t go on with this rule, unless she walked onward to the bridge over the rail-line for the commuter train, tracking back behind the square. She ran out of the church. Possessed in flight, anxious to reach that height where she might catch the rush-hour train rolling down track, she heard the rumble of heavy steel hurling forward and anticipated the smack of oblivion.
Free-fall cut-short by divine intervention as Olivia’s visual sight consumed in the spit-fire of flaming rain. She opened her mouth wide to yell out against an impossibility blocking her descent into limbo. Her O-ring of lips created circumference enough to compose an unlikely landing-zone for a fire-ball. She swallowed the consummate mass. All turned to burning: mouth-throat-esophagus and down to a belly of fire. Her core emanated sacred flame and she became [temporarily] impervious. The commuter train knocked her aside like a ping-pong ball into a dirt alley littered with sacred trash and blessed with graffiti scripture. Memories of all the pentecost services years back came flooding and she knew, she knew, the holy ghost filled her. Olivia O’Hallaran was saved.
She slept for three days in that undisturbed spot, warm and protected by the divinity fostered within. She experienced no hunger, nor thirst. Sunlight dimly signaled the passage of time and trains screeched past, muffled by the fuzzy faraway feeling of slumber, until she woke on a Sunday morning, elated at the sensation of holy ghost coursing through her veins. She wafted back to the church, half-corporeal and half-ethereal, eager to divulge the details of her miraculous transcendence. The requisite congregation already gathered for mass as Olivia confidently walked in and strode up the center aisle to approach the altar. The priest performed his own miracle as he transfigured the eucharist. The little wafer waited, due to become Jesus flesh in an estimated two minutes and counting, when the father paused, with subtle shock as he registered the presence of a dirty, ragged, homeless girl with wild eyes, ready to interrupt his ceremony. He nodded to an usher to act as security and clad in a neat shirt and tie, the large man wordlessly complied with the order. Big hands gripped Olivia’s shoulders to expel her from this house of god. Without time to weave the tale’s true nuance, she tried to proclaim a pithy self-justification: “I’ve been filed with the holy ghost! A burning miracle straight out the sky!”
Her truth landed on deaf, skeptical ears; the congregation assembled from an array of seasoned city-folk, schooled in the art of intentional ignoring, combined into a community of repressed Catholics, with keen eyes for recognizing blasphemy. With reactionary speed, they forcibly ejected Olivia from the church. She took the act to be papal excommunication and vowed to never again enter those walls. Undeterred, convinced and confident of the sacredness within, she carried her truth into the streets, walking aimlessly with no particular direction, despite purity of purpose & motive. Nothing coincidental could occur, she told herself and therefore did not become surprised to find Terry prowling city-streets, pushing a stack of pamphlets to pronounce the holiness of Jesus Christ, lord & savior. Terry’s eyes leaked the threat of excessive zeal, invisible to Olivia, who sought to sip the true-believer tonic. She anxiously awaited encounter with one receptive to her immaculate infusion. The fervor in Terry’s eyes turned to tears as he confessed to be overcome by the profundity of her brush with the almighty. Linked up with an organization of evangelical Christians, Terry swept her up from unwelcome streets to the embrace of his community. They gave her rebirth with a second baptism and her unborn child [already “awash with sin”] followed the contractual procedure in November. She complied, named the child Lily & lived in Greenfield for the subsequent several years. Her life changed seasons.
Olivia O’Hallaran fashioned herself into a true-believer. Her devotion figured Jesus into the only husband she desired or required while the little girl she birthed grew into a tiny elegance emulating that of the flower she’d been named after. The world outside blurred, until not even memory sketched silly caricatures of her past. The bible told all necessary truths: any & every word she needed to know printed neat and uniform, black-ink on white-paper. She drank deeply from the spouts of liturgical fountains and spat back its distilled nuances into the thirsty mouth of little Lily, an open and hungry baby-bird. All simplified as complexity and contradiction triggered categorical disavowal. Time stopped and all stood on the ever-continuing brink of perfect completion. Under such idyllic circumstances, destruction of folkloric delusion loomed and bloomed the world-crash of crisis.
One uncharacteristic night [freezing February, which by itself did not form the strangeness as the month mobilized chill as a defining quality more often than not], Terry visited Olivia’s tiny apartment, fresh from a pilgrimage to Providence, eager to espouse details about all the sinners he’d witnessed. Lily, serene and asleep in the bed she shared with her mother, stayed unaware of the situation, which did not yet constitute a situation. Olivia, trusting and ever-traditional, opened a can of Campbell’s soup and stirred the processed liquid in a sauce-pan on the stovetop while Terry sat, in a patriarchal pose at the kitchen table. As usual, his eyes gleamed [only Olivia did not recognize the connotation: the fine-line dividing zeal from lust] and she comfortably turned her back on his gaze to continue preparation for their late-night dinner. She unwittingly opened prime opportunity for him to take her from behind, with a force that immediately chained her in captive to his advance in terrified passivity and learned femininity internalized & pulled inside-out to externality over the years spent in Greenfield. She gripped the stove-top, enduring and praying for the grace to let time pass and allow this terrible moment to be over while the soup boiled over and burned the sensitive skin of her hands. She submitted.
Terry the betrayer [Lucifer-lurking/Judas joining to form two jubilant and malicious faces/neither honest], strolled out, casual and belligerently self-satisfied as though everything lived in right places and on even levels, like the world never tipped side-ways, like canned soup didn’t scald and scar shaky hands. The rising sun slid over the eastern horizon and the illumination of dawn brought Lily out of sleep, driven by an urgent need to pee. Olivia stood still, a statue [immobilized and torn apart], as she listened to her daughter’s feet romp out of the bath-room and into the kitchen.
“Hey Mom! Are you Ok?” Lily asked with a high pitch and energy, charged by sleep. She sensed her Moma’s trauma without understanding of the how and why.
“Honey, we need to leave,” Olivia’s tight, terse voice tasted like bitter tea without milk and honey.
Lily embodied sweetness, held her mother’s bruised and not-broken heart, hurt by pain enough to send her injured spirit into shock. Olivia acted as if baptized into cold sea in February, sending frigid chills & body-spasms [unmanageable inward-pain making so she couldn't see the world around her], but Lily, the honey, the sweetness, kissed her arctic visage and by virtue of unconditional love, became the reason. Why bring life into this world? An ironic crux encountered in years past, but the question endured and she recognized the holy ghost stirring within her, in spite of betrayal and pain, walking around the kitchen in the shape of a little girl, reinforcing the strength and resolve of her heart.
“Where will we go?” prodded the confused but accepting Lily.
Olivia thought fast and fell back on the age-old back-up plan for personal redemption, another baptism and shot at rebirth. She told Lily, “to the ocean.”
“Yes. Get your things.”
Excited and uncritical of seasonal limitations, she asked, “Are we going to swim?”
“To the horizon.”
“What’s a horizon?”
“The edge of the world.”
Olivia lost her blind faith, but kept her haughty holiness, a goddess-becoming, like the moon after the passage of two weeks time [for Olivia, the vessel of her human form called for the requisite nine months], she transformed, pregnant and living in another life. Disappeared in the death of her pious persona [burning in the pyre of salt-water tides], Olivia mama-bird-phoenix hatched a Peanut from the cracked-shell of her womb’s nest-egg. Mama-bird rose up from the ashes of charred past.
Living life as lunar cycle called an arc aimed to Somerville, magnetism manifest and propelling motion [the magic potion], as the whole, newly formed flock flew home. Three chicks roosted back in the city, countryside completely erased from consciousness and traded for the Red line on an elevated platform, subway cars blinked fluorescent illumination, zooming tin-cans flickering city fire-fly light in night. She waitressed in Central and lived in Davis square, so the T transported her before and in exhausted aftermath of her three to eleven evening shifts. The crisis apparently over, the situation settled into place [peaceful and protected] by the arrival of a booming buddy, Baker who kneaded home-hearth bread to feed family flock―Cornelius Baker bopped into their lives, a good man. He quit the restaurant not long after Olivia’s arrival. Artist and activist [living the in-between], he kept his home around the corner from the harbor site of the Tea Party [1773 silly political action when the white man-faction dressed as kitschy colonial appropriations and dumped their commodified politics into the ocean: the property-owning revolutionaries worth recording history books], but Baker couldn’t trace his genetic roots in the city to colonial times and neither could Olivia. Truth-told, not many folks in the city could. Ancestors haunted imagination, but the familiar city felt like home for Olivia’s many past lives. Holy ghost & guardian buddy, with two little chicks, lived the good life. She grew used to the stability and for a time forgot that nothing lasts forever.
Their connection crystallized in the right place, right time. She needed a lookout, a friend to help take care of her family and Cornelius responded a new occupational calling, away from pastries: a cab-driving radical, quoting Marx [at absurd length] during his fares. He caught the drunkies and the businessmen off-guard when he brought up Gertrude Stein, paid homage to Chomsky and Zinn and tossed around his revisions of Hegel’s dialectic. Foucault found life-after-death in the winding, late-night drives around the city. Olivia moved into Baker’s communal spot [3 birds in a bed + 3 roomies + a drooling dog marked the spot] and she leveled out, secular and free to pursue other avenues for inspiration and devotion.
The commotion of her faith shifted into tranquil realism. After the children drifted into sleep, on Tuesday and Thursday nights, Cornelius Baker would orate. He drank a scotch, neat and theorized. He wound up the loose threads of thought to spin possibility for social change. He deliberated, reworking gemeinschaft, the German term to describe the primary, slurring off the loosened lips of a drunk and dysfunctional Durkheim, to describe family, a way of knowing folks for their quirks and characteristic foibles instead of role/status/vocation. When he sat down to eat at her work, Olivia acted as economic facilitator of sustenance, impelled by power to play the capitalist opus, but the ruse did not assume totality because love reminded him that she formed his family. He said that modernity internalized gessellschaft [the secondary, community] because the city depended on the forces of [colonial/imperial] exchange and spare change: buy your needs. Rent the house you didn’t build, eat food you never grew or maybe never cooked, dress in clothes stitched up at fast paces in places beyond vast oceans. You never met all the folks making it happen, hear stories, perceive personalities and when you get face-time, the system solicits strict business. Function and utility make bodies into instruments in the orchestra of power. Apply that [percussive rhythm of racism, clashing classist symbols and sexism singing from woodwinds], Baker said, to the Boston-block, city-beat, practicing on global scales and national anthems. Cops, the owners, CEOs, middle men dressed up in stock-trading suits and politician/lawmakers/pushers living large and in charge, with the power and the money turn form and material life into second-chair trumped by function. Baker sickened as he thought and talked of death and disparity [enhanced by the effect of his bottle of booze] as his chorus of oppression crescendoed in the sound of him puking his brains out. Those nights seemed, to Olivia, a morning sickness in reverse: mourning sickness.
Lily grew graceful and stern with an inquisitive mind and infinite attention. She helped: little-kid transitioned to older-kid, ready to lend a hand. She learned basic skills of adulthood that carried her and little bro through teenage years.
A decade stretched out before them and Olivia graciously got to know this blooming-artist Lily and nutball-crazy-kid Peanut, who jumped off any height he could climb and broke dished, mirrors and picture frames with slight touches. They days did not conjure seamless, folksy perfection and nothing aimed for the ideal, but they lived and they loved.
Peanut jumped off high places; the kid soared, a strong uncontrollable force. Bold bird could take a hit and bounce and roll onto the next round and pound of pavement. Seven years-old, little boy [called girl] fire-cracker ran round crazy spins all the days long while earth recreated the motion round sun and electrons invisibly humored the cyclic pull in defiant, creative spirals. In hot heat of summer with light quality warmed by sunset, Peanut leaped from the edge of Somerville castle. Late in the day and wound-up, the kid cleared 15 feet and Olivia’s searching eyes found her child in mid-air. Her impulse elicited a shriek and terror tremors turned into a vibrating wail. Peanut collided with pavement [not quite clearing enough distance to roll down the hill] and his two unbroken legs crouched on the ground. Siren Moma couldn’t see him through the impact’s surprise spark, like the strike of a kid-sized match. A crackling arc across evening sky, a flash over as fast popped up. Little boy calamity [who Olivia persisted on calling girl] acted out the impossible and beckoned Olivia to train memory in sensible, active forgetting.
Baker kneaded bread, ethical sustenance for the folks coming up and they lived in the mutual care of a communal oven, living material perfection [merely through the act of loving] in a duplex. They built a chicken coop, tended a garden on the porch, composted from kitchen scraps, a hidden home within a viral-corporate-city [Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts plaguing each block] and gentrified by white-collar college alumni. He kept reading, kept talking, kept organizing.
Cornelius knew he’d die, spoke like a ghost haunting their lives. Past-present-future existed in blurred simultaneity as Baker’s body drove a taxicab into his thirties, a decade which also drove him into the bottle of scotch, with the family of little birds forced to witness.
The CIA took out Cornelius Baker, combined with paranoia and alcoholism. He’d only speak his truth when he worked down a good quarter of the bottle. The Central Intelligence Agency [those fuckers] infiltrated and destroyed the US revolutionary movements and thwarted subversion abroad, sending insidious aid to the military in Bolivia to straight-up hunt-down Che’s guerrilla squad. When Cornelius got heated up, he’d spit fire about anarcho-communism, mixing the Spanish Civil War with feminist break-beats, all to the tune of Marxism. His breath reeked of revolution and liquor.
Half-way through the fifth moved on to conspiracy theories. Man never landed on the moon: an elaborate Cold War hoax. The photographs clearly inaccurate to the real lunar terrain, they convinced the population that modernity kept its promises. Their loneliness and sadness easily absolved by quick consumption and gimmicks, priced at-cost. They pushed folks speaking truth to power onto the fringes―marginalized crazies. They squashed any emergent movement with secret CIA tactics. He believed his phone to be monitored on the surveillance grid; they were after him.
Booze in the bottle nearly drank down to completion, final ounces swishing around with backwash from Cornelius’ obsessively orating mouth [creating more saliva with each swig] he became the fool. Cornelius, the coordinated lush, balanced coffee mugs late into the night with red and bleary paranoid-clown eyes. Giggling, he remarked:
“Cameras aim down from clouds & record our movements. The stars are secret, dim spotlights.”
“My ideas are do-gshit and I’m the stray who defecates in the streets.”
“Icarus’ wings weren’t molded from wax, really…They materialized from pure will. Turns out, that melts in the sun too.”
“When my feet turn to fins I’m going to swim to the bottom of the Atlantic and pray over lost ancestors.”
“…” He acted as a mime and encased himself in an invisible box.
Death manifest as destiny when he disappeared. He dropped clear off the grid. Olivia and the kids denied the reality of Baker’s disappearance. As weeks went on, they scanned the police reports and called around to hospitals [with no word from their lost buddy] until they experienced the psychic shock. Spasm and lost control of body, muscles clamping up and pain acutely isolating with power enough to overwhelm. Initially vibrating on the emotional level, Olivia’s shot up to physical scale one afternoon in the grocery store. Wham-Bam-SHOCK!
The holy ghost abandoned her! The fellow flew from out her mouth in a giant whoosh of escaped breath. The holy ghost caught the wave and surfed out. The total loss of control sent her sailing into a previously perfect display of Campbell’s soup. Lily nor Peanut could snap her out of the shock, so the manager called for an ambulance [who no one could afford to pay], which scooped her up and drove her to Mass General.
History: she went in and out evermore. In the absence of her defender, she appealed to an old flame, Jesus Christ [Terry stalked back into their lives] and she seduced a new lover: Venus, visiting as valium-spiked-vodka. Another decade and some change rolled on. Living.
Dying. That last dose meant to soften the blow after Buster’s death should stopped her heart-beat and sent her to the eternal land of cat-cuddles, but instead she pulled through in a familiar state of psychic shock. This shock, the feeling of living, betrayed all her nerves with the searing pain of external environment, the whole-wide-world. Too much pain, past and present, enough to abandon all hope for futurity, enough to want to disappear, follow the imagined path of Baker, old buddy. The fixed resurgence of shock, somewhere along her self-destructive denial, defied the power of reality: magical invisibility.
Initially, she feared herself, so she fell back on Terry’s support and sat in the passenger seat, only discernible by the floating seat belt, while they drove to Greenfield. Upon arrival, recognition dawned: she was the holy ghost. Not something she ingested, not someone she birthed, the holy ghost hovered in her singular soul. Intangible to everyone around, no one could discern her exact location, until she came to them and held out a hand or wrapped her arms into a protective hug.
As the holy ghost, she took up her sacred duty to enthuse and turn the people into cheerleaders for Jesus. She flew the Greenfield-coop and took her holy spectacle on the road. She deferred disciples because in her transcendent state, she proved impossible to follow. She built no church, but Massachusetts provided an institution to gather folks for her message.
“Jesus can be a buddy when you’re feeling lonely!” she called out. Confused commuters on the T looked around to see the strange lady who spoke oddities.
“When you need a hug, remember the holy ghost holds you and protects you all the time,” she announced and strode along the train. She saw a tall young man, vaguely familiar and holding onto the subway bar for balance. His eyes searched for the voice’s owner, so Olivia gave him a great-big-hug.
Ricky bounced into the air and bumped his head on the top of the train, causing him to curse, “Goddamn-What-the-Fuck!”
Olivia gracefully rubbed a hand on his throbbing head while Ricky lay, sprawled-out on the floor. He felt surprised, but certainly by this point in their journey, a minor slight could not generate shock. He swatted at his head as though Olivia was an annoying fly. “For real, lady. What in the hell??”
“Heaven, my son. Not hell,” Olivia persisted.
“Actually,” said Peanut, sitting above them on a bench-seat. “I’m your son.”