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Day Three of my Health Activist Writers Monthly Challenge, and I’m thrilled to be taking part in it with my blogging buddies Marie Ennis O’Connor and Jan Hasak, two compelling writers who are truly inspired and inspiring in all they do.

Day 3: If you had a superpower, what would it be and how would you use it?

I remember the first time I heard about communing with the dead.  I was about 9 years old, and some children at school were talking about how they had received messages from “the other side” via a ouija board. I was both fascinated and frightened by the prospect of them sitting around it in the dark, their fingertips on a glass, nervously waiting for ghosts to spell out the answers to their questions. Superstitious and gullible, I may well have believed that indeed it was the spirits moving the glass to numbers and letters on the ouija board. I certainly wasn’t going to attribute it to children like me who were bored with school and craving a little out-of-the-ordinary excitement. Still, I was not allowed to play with a ouija board, which of course made the very thought of it all the more attractive.

Like Tarot cards and séances, the ouija board had something of a diabolical connotation. At the same time, paradoxically, the country at large embraced such other supernatural feats that included Tasseography better known to me then as  “reading the tealeaves,” or interpreting some meaning in the pattern left by tea leaves in the bottom of a china cup that had been turned three times. My mother filled my head (and she does to this day) with such superstitions as counting magpies  (“one for sorrow, two for joy”) and, in our long-distance chats, it is not uncommon for her to lead me into the mystic, recounting somewhat conspiratorially what she swears are prophetic dreams that have disturbed her sleep for years. My father, of course, thinks it’s a load of old nonsense. Still, it would be a bit disingenuous on my part if I were to distance myself from all of this or pretend not to take any stock in it. As my husband is quick to remind me, I am the same woman who had her astrological chart done last summer in California, in spite of his dismissal as  “a quack” the nice man whose hourly rate was the same as that of a really good attorney.

Going back to Northern Ireland, there were parts – and still there are – where many people readily subscribed to a belief in the mystical, supernatural powers of the “folk healer,” an individual who had “the cure” or “the charm” for whatever ailed us, and it came in all forms –  plasters, poultices, brown bottles. My father tells the story of one in particular that came in a Cantrell and Cochrane lemonade bottle. My mother availed herself of it some time before I was born, having being told by her GP that there wasn’t really anything he could prescribe for her bout with jaundice. Never one to take no for an answer even if it came in the form of a dismissal from a man with formal medical training, my father went deep into the Derry countryside to visit the man with “the charm.” Although my father accompanied him into the fields, he was of no help at all in discerning which wild herbs held the curing powers. Following this excursion, the healer returned to his kitchen where he used a stone to beat the juices out of the herbs and then mixed it up with two bottles of Guinness stout. No payment. Just faith that it would work. And he sent my father on his way with instructions for my mother to take every last drop of “the cure.” When I ask, as I did by phone this morning, my parents take turns regaling me with stories such as this, tales of the folk healer as last resort, consulted only after it was determined that the medical doctor had been flummoxed.  I am quite sure, as I write, that when news of my cancer diagnosis spread to extended family and friends back home, a charm may indeed have been considered, although not necessarily aloud. Odd it is to juxtapose this world with the one in which I find myself at this moment, a continent away with all the trappings of technology within my reach. So fascinated I am by how such folklore may have shaped me, I plan to read more about it in the aptly titled Folk Healing and Health Care Practices in Britain and Ireland: Stethoscopes, Wands and Crystals.

For now, it’s back to thoughts of the ouija board and the opportunity for just one more conversation with someone who is no longer with us. If I could harness  such a superpower, there’s a handful of women I’d like to talk to:

  1. mygrannyMy grandmother who died when I was just six years old. It was my first experience with death, and it crushed my little heart. When she was young and full of hope, she emigrated to America with my grandfather, and they settled in Connecticut. As my mother tells it, letters from home played a part in persuading the young couple to to pack up their family and return to Northern Ireland. So here they are in 1932, with their four little boys and their only daughter at the time, posing for the picture that would be placed in the family passport, stamped as they boarded the boat to go back, to forever abandon the possibilities and the promise of America. I don’t think my grandmother ever quite recovered from it. So I would like to tell her that although I didn’t have too much time with her, I still remember her and the details around her. The flowers on her apron and her good brown coat, the embroidered “As I lay me down to sleep” sampler that hung on the bedroom wall, ice cream sliders from McGurk’s shop, and Merry Maid caramels. Most of all, I woud like to introduce her to my American daughter.
  2. Princess Diana whose every turn was noticed and noted by a nation that often seemed absolutely besotted with her. How could we be so smitten by a stranger? Not much older than my teenage friends and me, Lady Diana Spencer set the standard for fashion and a fairy tale wedding in 1981. Transformed by title and massive media attention, she could not possibly have imagined the extent of her influence nor that she would have so little time on earth to truly leverage it. I think she’d enjoy a casual conversation in a bustling London restaurant. The kind of conversation that ordinary people have all the time, completely unguarded and of no interest whatsoever to the paparazzi.
  3. Susan G. Komen Her name will forever conjure up images of pink ribbons and hundreds of thousands of people literally racing “for the cure.” It is disquieting to acknowledge that she died in 1982, not knowing what caused her breast cancer, and that over thirty years later, we still don’t know. I’d like to talk to her about that and ask her what she would like to see done differently by the powerful and clearly political organization that bears her name.
  4. Rachel Carson In Silent Spring, she warned us about pesticides and their link to cancer. This was some fifty years ago, when I was just an infant. Like Komen, she also died from breast cancer. I’d like to be able to reassure Rachel Carson that in 2012 America, our policies reflect what she told us – that the health of our world is deeply connected to the health of our bodies. But that wouldn’t be quite true; in fact, just days ago the FDA decided that Bisphenol A (BPA) will still be used to make containers for the food and beverages we consume in this country.
  5. Janis Joplin Before my time, yet of my time, she will forever be the quintessential rock legend. Dead of a heroin overdose at just 27, she is remembered as much for the way her life ended as for her powerful rendition of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” which seriously makes the little hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up.  Against today’s backdrop of reality TV and the seemingly endless succession of people who, in spite of lacking any talent, have mastered the art of self-promotion.  I’d like to ask Janis, who would be 70 this year, to share her thoughts on what happens when fame and insecurity collide in front of a global audience.

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