Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Feast of Mary Magdalen: Celebrating Incarnation

On July 22nd, the height of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, fruits and vegetables ripening, sun baking or steaming, cool waters beckoning, warm nights full of stars and fireflies, when our senses are so engaged, the Roman Catholic, the Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox churches all celebrate The Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene. Or Magdalen, as some prefer. I know her as Maeve, the Celtic Mary Magdalen. This summer marks the twentieth anniversary of my first encounter with what might be described as an archetypal force, or, as one reader called her, an imaginary friend.

She first showed up as a line drawing: an ample woman sitting naked in a kitchen drinking coffee. (Someone recently asked: is she always naked? Answer: yes, because I can’t draw clothes.) The truth is I couldn’t draw at all. I was doodling because I had just finished a novel and was clean out of words. Madge, as she introduced herself to me, did not have the same problem. Speech balloons burgeoned. Line drawings gave way to full color, including fiery neon orange for her hair. (Madge-ic markers were our medium.) The ample flesh required an ample supply of a shade called peach. Madge liked to do everything naked from eating chocolates to painting (she founded the whole-body-no-holds-barred school of art) to making outrageous theological pronouncements about the unmentionable members of the body of Christ. She made no bones about working as a prostitute to support her career as a painter. During the first Gulf War, she became a peace activist and founded such organizations as POWER (Prostitutes Opposing War Everywhere Rise) TWAT (Tarts With Attitude Triumph) and WITCH (Women Inclined To Create Havoc).

I was enchanted with her and begged her to be in my next novel. She rejected all my book proposals as far too conventional (ie, boring!) until one full moon night I made an imaginative leap. Madge…Magdalen. Red hair…Celt. Celtic Mary Magdalen. Hey, I said, would you be willing to be in a book about the Celtic Mary Magdalen? Yes! she answered. That’s the one! “One” is now three published novels and a fourth and final one (yes, I said final!) almost complete.

Mary Magdalen, who makes brief, dramatic appearances in the Canonical gospels and has a Gnostic gospel ascribed to her, has always appealed to novelists, troubadours, and other legend makers—including popes. My Maeve, an impenitent, pagan Celt who is nobody’s disciple, differs from many traditional old and new age depictions of Mary Magdalen. Yet I suspect those of us who love her may have more in common than not. Isn’t her appeal that she was incarnate, a flesh and blood woman, whatever we know or don’t know about her, who loved a flesh and blood man, however we want to define that love?

I would like to declare July 22nd a feast day to celebrate our incarnation on this earth, something all of us alive and who have ever lived share with all life and life to come. We are made of the same substance; we are subject to the same joys and sufferings of the flesh. From a laboring woman’s body we were born; and the mystery of death awaits us. Madge/Maeve/Mary Magdalen(e) is our companion and witness, too, or whatever name you want to call your imaginary friend, the force that sparks you. On July 22nd dare to eat a peach. Swim naked. Open your palms to the sun, rain and wind. Stand barefoot in the dirt. Give thanks for your incarnation.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sacred Text(ing): Staying in Touch with Adult Children

When I became a mother, I’d heard plenty about the terrible twos and the anguish of adolescence. The phrase empty nest syndrome was also well-known to me. But nothing and no one prepared me for having fully grown, independent children in their twenties who don’t consider it compulsory to call their parents once a week.

With my mother, the once a week call was an ironclad, if unspoken, rule. If I failed to call, she would call me, her voice cool, subtly reproachful, unsuccessfully denying a need which I now understand all too well. Sometimes I ask my children (with mock-incredulity) how they dare to flaunt this law of the universe? Occasionally I am more direct: call me once a week. So far it hasn’t happened.

I once had lunch with an advice columnist for a local paper. “Ask me something,” she said. “I get tired of making up my own questions.” Ok,” I agreed. “How do I get my adult children to call me?” This veteran mother and grandmother looked at me as if I were an idiot: “You don’t,” she told me. “Leave them alone. They’re busy.”

Even though I have heard similar things from other mothers who have weathered this phase and from younger friends who also don’t call their own mothers, I get weird after a couple of weeks of no communication. Nature abhors a vacuum, and a mother can fill a silence with all kinds of worries and projections. It is even worse when I break down and leave a voice mail or send an email that goes unanswered. Low-level anxiety becomes a backdrop to my life, like a funny sound in the car I know I should get checked though the car still runs.

Last time my daughter visited, she decided to teach me how to text. I am a Luddite who has resisted (and finally succumbed) to every new technology from old-fashioned answering machines, to email to cell phones. I insisted texting was where I drew the line. But my daughter was determined. “Too funny!” she laughed in delight at my clumsiness. (Her laughter is one of my favorite sounds in the world.) So I learned (more or less) though I still don’t know how to back space and find the process so laborious that my messages are necessarily brief.

Here is the wonder and the glory: My children text back! “It is one hundred and one degrees in the shade,” I texted my daughter last week (long message for me). “Yech,” she texted back. “Same here. I can hardly eat or sleep in this heat. But I am watching Spain play Germany and Spain is winning!” I was over the moon. My daughter is alive! She is watching a soccer game. I realized that is all I needed to know. It’s not that I wouldn’t welcome knowing more about her life, but I don’t need to. If there is anything she wants to tell me, she will. Since she did respond, I can also short-circuit the endless loop of: what did I do wrong as a mother? If I had been a better mother, they would be closer to me, they would call me.

Really, it’s not about me. That’s what texting is teaching me. They’re fine. They know I’m there. I’m the background of their lives, not the focus, the harbor to their open sea, the boulder or tree that serves as a point of reference. That is as it should be. Also, I am making a rule (for myself only) out of respect for the sacred text: Not to do it more than once a week (or maybe twice!)

Note: next week in honor of Mary Magdalen's Feast Day July 22nd), I will be writing about my twenty years with Maeve (aka The Celtic Mary Magdalen)