Surrounded by Marys
I have felt her coming for me for years. In that church in Oakland, California that time by the candles. In meditation group, when she surrounded me with roses and cracked open my heart.
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Mary led me, through a series of astonishing coincidences, to Chartres Cathedral, where, as I stepped in the door She whispered, directly in my ear, “Welcome home.”
Every Tuesday, I write with Suzi on Zoom. I sit in my sun room. Suzi sits in her office, on the ground floor of her home. Behind her, in an alcove cut into the wall, twin monk statues bow, saluting the light in one other.
We write about the same things we’d write about if we were sitting over a table sipping tea and eating salad - the chimes outside the window, the husbands quietly working in the next room, our changing bodies, a bee crawling along a windowsill, God. Long before zoom or quarantine, Suzi and I have been writing together. What is it, twenty years now?
We write for 20 minutes. When the timer goes off, we read our work. We don’t comment (much) though now and then, we laugh or sigh or gasp at what the other has written. We write twice. We read twice. We say goodbye.
I look forward to writing with Suzi each week. It’s the only steady practice I can maintain these days. Today, as we began our first 20-minute round, I knew I would be writing about Mary.
I want to find words to express this unlikely but inevitable love affair - unlikely because I was raised without religion in the middle of a mostly Jewish community on Long Island. Inevitable because I have felt her coming for me for years.
There was that time, in that church in Oakland, California by the candles. That time in meditation group, when, eyes closed, I felt her come around me. Suddenly, the thick rich scent of roses as my heart opened and opened. I almost couldn’t stand it.
There was her presence - in the air and the soil of Santuaria de Chimayo, the New Mexico pilgrimage site where she vibrates through the ground. There, I dug a tablespoon of holy dirt from the spot where they say, She appeared. There, at the gift shop, I purchased a booklet of her portraits because the illuminated images — her heart on fire, her heart a diamond, her heart surrounding me as I looked into her face— brought tears to my eyes.
And then, in the summer of 2019, She called me from sleep and led me, still half dreaming, to the kitchen where I’d left my laptop the evening before. And somehow, standing barefoot in the dark, I booked a trip to Paris. In the morning, I found it on the screen. I had a plane ticket. I had hotel reservations. I told my husband, “I seem to be going to France.” And we laughed.
France is HER land.
She led me back through her streets, back through my own memory, to the corner of Place St. Michel where Id lived as an exchange student without once noticing there was an enormous statue of an archangel (THE archangel) on my corner. She led me to Montparnasse, where, so many years earlier, on our honeymoon, my husband and I had climbed steep cobblestone streets to our hotel. She led me back to the Louvre where I chose not to go inside. Instead, I stood in the courtyard, preferring the living art of children running, tourists milling, vendors selling ice cream and souvenirs. It was exactly what I’d done thirty years earlier when my mother and I came to Paris. It was her first time in the city. My third and my last. Until now.
This time, that summer before Covid, Mary led me, through a series of astonishing coincidences, to Chartres Cathedral, where, as I stepped in the door She whispered, directly in my ear, “Welcome home.”
I wanted to write about Mary. Instead, I wrote about what seems to be interrupting our connection and after writing it all out, and reading it to Suzi, I saw that, in its way, this was also Mary, who is not a person but a force, a love that infuses everything.
This is what I wrote with Suzi
I sit by the window that overlooks the driveway where people drive back and forth all day to visit their horses. (We live between a stable and a farm.) I watch and I read, from the pile of books that I stack and re-stack, on the windowsill, changing the order of the titles each day, placing the one that I want to read on the top and then worrying when the other one that I also want to read moves down the pile, day after day.
This morning, I decided to pick up Mary Oliver’s, Upstream, a collection of her essays. It seems to be holding my attention now that I’ve deleted the Facebook and Instagram apps from my phone and put a lock on my laptop so that I cannot, even if I lose my center, get onto those sites. The book which I found on my mother’s bookshelf after she died, and which is able to remind me that I am a human being and a part of nature, something I forget when I am captivated by a shock event in Washington and I find myself hunched over my cell phone, my spine curling inward as if protecting a great treasure or secret shame, trying to manage the anxiety of the planet by getting the New York Times Crossword Puzzle just right.
Since the siege on the Capitol, I have not walked outside. I have not strolled through the gates of the fellowship to greet the cows and the chickens. Have not noticed the shrill call of the rooster, who, contrary to myth, does not crow to greet the dawn but rather, cackles and croons all day long and often, into the night. I learned this when we moved here, across the street from a farm, 20 years ago.
Since the siege, I have not found myself standing at the top of the hill trying to decide whether to turn to the left and dive into the sunstreaked white birch forest or veer to the right and stumble my way down the pebble-strewn hill to the pond where a blue heron makes an appearance now and then. I have not passed the tractor with its gray peeling paint nor noted the absence of grazing cows, which seem to be staying inside for the winter.
Instead, I have been huddled by the window overlooking the driveway, disturbed by the state of the world and my inability to help.
In my book pile, just under Mary Oliver, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, by Jean LeLoup, which I listen to when I drive to Whole Foods, instead of listening to Rachel Maddow who, though she has taught me all kinds of things about politics and courage and humor in the face of the dark (I adore her) is unable to help when it seems that there is nothing anyone can do to stop a madman.
Mary Magdalene helps. LeLoup helps. This book, which I found in the footnotes of virtually all the other books on the subject, elevates a figure we all thought we knew from the sidelines to the center of the conversation.
This morning, as I was moving back and forth between these books of revelation, my husband woke up and lay down on the other sofa with his cell phone and, without preamble or warning, just started reading out loud from the screen.
I’ll be honest, my first thought was: Can’t he see I am reading over here by the window? Can’t he see that I’m engaged in a meditation with Love? I felt the cold wet tentacles of the news, the game, the app to which I subscribed, supposedly of my own free will reaching for me again. And I made a new decision.
I turned away from disturbance toward light. It was something that, pre Covid, pre US dictator, I wrote and taught. Something I understood to the tips of my fingers.
Something I’d forgotten but which, while reading The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, I’d started to remember. Something which Mary Oliver also seemed to understand.
Whatever happens, this is an invitation to love, from love.
And a car turned into the driveway, carrying a woman who is in love with horses up to the stables, where as she does each day, she will muck out their stalls, talking as she works so they don’t mind. She will refill their feed buckets and give them fresh water and feed them a peppermint from the palm of her hand.
This is what I wrote the second 20 minute block with Suzi
Suzi sits before two monks in endless Namaste. I sit surrounded by Marys. She reaches for me - Like Facebook, like the news of the world. Mary reaches through this image on a postcard, this page torn from a book. Mary reaches for me - only, unlike with Facebook, unlike with the evening news, when Mary connects I don’t feel as if my energy is being sucked out through my eyeballs. What Facebook takes, She gives. What my cell phone siphons away from me, attention, time, presence, She offers.
I am studying this. I will keep reporting back.
On my desk, also, there is a single Soul Call Card, a single word: Truth. It fell from the deck and I left it there. It reminds me, along with Mary Oliver and Mary Magdalene and the seven Marys on my desk, of something important I am trying to remember and hold onto as wave after wave of disturbance moves through the world, moves over my head.
Something that has to do with this image of a bee, on this card that I received from artist Suzi Banks Baum (another Suzi!) along with the image of a mandala she’d assembled out of fallen leaves and blossoms.
Something about direct connection to the divine - which needs no intermediary. Something about the bee, still making honey and the mandala of nature falling at my feet each time I step out the back door. If only I step out there.
And the seven Marys who surround my desk as I work, each Mary gazing slightly sideways, ever patient, impassive and yet, somehow, in love with me.
Now that I have turned off the Internet I am beginning to hear the music of the angels again, the high pitched buzzing, like a concert of voices singing one note, endlessly tuning up, endlessly readjusting itself - and me - to the frequency of love.
As I write, the scent of my face oil, perfumed with rose and helichrysum, which I blended myself with organic oils - jojoba, apricot kernel, calendula. As I write, I glance up at my Zoom screen, my connection to Suzi, two rectangles on a screen. Where we write. One of us sitting before a stone wall and an endless namaste. The other, surrounded by Marys.