So I’ll just start with the conclusion: I fucked up Easter. No, really. I don’t mean I forgot to buy candy for the Easter baskets or that I burned the ham.
No, folks. I mean I fucked up.
As in I went to Easter mass, stood in the aisle in the middle of a jam-packed church and yelled at an usher.
Yup. I fucked up in the most spectacular way possible. And if you aren’t finished judging my totally judge-worthy behavior, and want to know why a supposedly grown adult woman would yell at a church usher on Easter Sunday, read on.
I thought I had finally gotten it right. The baskets were filled with candy, books, and toys. The kids were dressed in Instagram-worthy outfits complete with jaunty hats. We had a nice, simple family breakfast and all managed to get out the door and to the church twenty minutes early for the 11:30 mass. Twenty. minutes. early. That is bona fide Easter miracle. We walked into the church, and not seeing an available usher we started looking for a seat on our own. And surely we would find one because I had earned it (twenty minutes early, people!). We wandered through the whole church and could not find four seats anywhere close together. An usher passed us without offering help. No one offered to move over and make room. The same usher passed us again. Others threw coats and purses in empty spots saying they were saved for someone. I was getting visibly agitated as I realized we were going to be relegated to the overflow mass in the school gym, sitting on folding chairs underneath a basketball hoop. The usher passed me again, and this time I ran after him.
“Excuse me. We’ve been all through the church looking for seats. Should we just go to the gym?”
“Yes. That’s your best bet.”
“OK. Because we’ve been looking for seats, and you passed us three times, three times, and never offered to help. You just walked right past us.”
And I stormed out of the sanctuary with everyone staring at me. My thought process that precipitated this crazy outburst? I can’t not get a seat. Don’t you see? I worked hard. I did everything right this time. I earned that seat. If I don’t get a seat, it means that doing everything right counts for nothing. That this world is not fair and just. That I am not in control. That there are no rules. Or worse, that I don’t know what the rules are and no one is telling me.
I have spent my whole life laboring in the misguided belief that if I could do everything right, if I could figure out all of life’s rules and follow them, nothing bad would ever happen. No one in my life would ever be sad, or get sick, or die. I know this is crazy, but I keep operating on this belief and every so often it results in yelling at church ushers. Well, this was pretty epic. Before this my worst public outburst was yelling at the barista in the campus library. Still bad behavior, but not “acting like a spoiled toddler in church” bad behavior.
After months of therapy, I know the personal roots of my neurosis, so that’s progress. The trick is learning new ways of quieting the anxiety so I don’t go into the spiral of scrubbing the bathroom floor with a toothbrush and then throw a tantrum when my cleaning efforts don’t result in well-behaved kids. (A PhD in rhetoric and I can’t recognize a faulty cause and effect claim.) It’s about getting comfortable with uncertainty. It’s about knowing that even if I fold all the towels just so and stack them in the closet so they look like a spread in Martha Stewart Living, someone I love might still get cancer or lose their job or just simply have a bad day. It’s about knowing that and being able to live with it. But our cultural messages don’t support me. The culture tells me that folding the towels right and getting those kids dressed up and to the church on time should mean something. And after my Easter morning outburst, I needed to find out why I kept getting told that lie.
So, this is the part of the story where I’m supposed to tell you that we went to the mass in the gym and was moved by the homily or something accidentally meaningful that my kid said. Sorry folks, but I’m still to much of a mental mess for that neat of a narrative. We did go to the mass in the gym, but immediately upon sitting down, the two-year old demanded to nurse and the five-year old kept dropping her toys all over the floor and yelping every time it happened. The husband managed to get one child settled in with her toys while I nursed the other. Then said two-year old noticed the basketball hoop, leapt out of my arms, ran over to it, and demanded to play ball. I managed to get him back to our seats somehow. I can’t remember, but there must have been kicking and screaming involved. Mass began. The two-year old started to fuss and then wail because he wanted his sister’s doll, which she was not about to give him. The husband took him out to the hallway and then outside to the school courtyard where, unbeknownst to me, they were locked out of the school and trapped in the courtyard. The five-year old then began hanging on me and begging to go home. By the end of mass, the husband managed to get someone’s attention through a window and returned to the gym. We collected our scattered toys and jaunty hats, and headed to the church side garden to take the happy family photo you see here.
Through all the chaos, I managed to catch one part of the pastor’s homily. Something about a line from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Wreck of the Deutschland: “Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east.” Not really my style of poetry, but I was interested in the connection the pastor was making between this line and our need to let go and be open to God’s wisdom. It sounded promising, so I made a mental note to look up the poem later. Turns out it’s is about the drowning of five German nuns exiled from Prussia in 1875 because of Otto von Bismarck was having some feud with the Pope, and of course, it’s a metaphor for Christ’s death and resurrection because Easter. Whatever. I just can’t get excited about the minor squabbles of German history and make them into some sort of religious message. What gets lost in this poem are the five nuns—the women who lost their their lives in a shipwreck because two men were fighting over control of Prussia. (Yes, I know that’s a gross oversimplification of the history. But yet it isn’t.) The lives of these women mattered more than the weird intertwining of nationalism and religion that dominates the poem.
And then I escaped to Instagram where I found this post by Glennon Doyle Melton of Momastery.
The Two Most Holy Messages of Christianity: 1. HE IS BORN. 2. HE IS RISEN. BOTH MESSAGES DELIVERED BY ANGELS TO WOMEN. THE WOMEN ARE THE FIRST TO KNOW AND BELIEVE. We always are. We are holy rascals. We are the hearers and believers and deliverers of miraculous news. We believe MIRACULOUS NONSENSE. We deliver it to the men and children. Our faith in nonsense heals the world. There should be a woman at the front door of every church and another on every pulpit as the first to announce to every congregation: HE IS RISEN! Alongside sisters all over the world today and on the shoulders of our ancient sisters (MARY MAGDALENE, Joanna, Mary of James and the others) who this morning visited the tomb and found nothing: I proclaim: THE TOMB IS EMPTY! HE IS RISEN! And so YOU- YES YOU- LISTEN! That tomb you visit everyday- that place of hopelessness – your pain, your failure, your addiction, that long lost love, your past- THERE IS NOTHING THERE! STOP VISITING! WHY DO YOU LOOK FOR THE LIVING AMONG THE DEAD??? YOU HAVE RISEN!! YOU ARE A BRAND NEW THING! LIVE LIVE LIVE LIVE!!! I cannot handle the joy and hope and truth and message of this day. I’ll be asleep by 3pm. EEEAAAASSSSSTTTEEEEERR!!!!
Now, I’m never that showy about my faith (just writing this post is making me queasy), but whenever someone as righteous as Glennon can be the the public face of Christianity instead of those asshats in Indiana, I’ll take it. As soon as I read it, I remembered. Of course, the women! Mary Magdalene. Magdelene—The Seven Devils by Marie Howe. That was the poem I needed. A meditation on what those devils were that Jesus cast out of her.
Ok the first was that I was so busy.
The second that I might make the wrong choice,
because I had decided to take that plane that day,
that flight, before noon, so as to arrive early
and, I shouldn’t have wanted that.
The third was that if I walked past the certain place on the street
the house would blow up.
The fourth was that I was made of guts and blood with a thin layer
of skin lightly thrown over the whole thing.
The fifth was that the dead seemed more alive to me than the living
The sixth — if I touched my right arm I had to touch my left arm, and if I
touched the left arm a little harder than I’d first touched the right then I had
to retouch the left and then touch the right again so it would be even.
The seventh — I knew I was breathing the expelled breath of everything that
was alive and I couldn’t stand it
This is just a snippet of Howe’s brilliant poem. I know there is academic debate about whether Mary Magdalene is the same Mary of the Mary and Martha gospel story in Luke, but I like to think they are one and the same, that Mary’s “devils” were not the sexual ones so often assigned to women, but ones of trying so hard to do right, to be perfect, that she made herself crazy, unable to engage in the human interactions that really matter. This is what she is freed from, and why when Jesus visits her and her sister Martha, Mary sits with Jesus, talking with him, while Martha scurries about the house cleaning and cooking. Martha is still trying to get everything right, to follow all the rules of womanhood. If you know the story, you know that Martha gets angry and asks Jesus to order Mary to help her, to which Jesus says,
Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.
There is no right thing to do, no material perfection to attain. There is only the command to be here now. I guess this is ultimately what I am trying to get at, that women have some power to throw aside this patriarchal bullshit. So often we hold ourselves hostage to these rules we think are out there because we want so desperately to feel some sense of power and control over our lives. We think if the laundry is done and folded just right and our body is the right size and shape and our children are excelling in the right activities that we can somehow earn our right to be here. That is the trick the patriarchal devils play on us. They make us believe we are fundamentally unworthy and at fault. If we had done things right there wouldn’t have been an abuser or an alcoholic parent or a partner that left us. I like to think Jesus called bullshit on that.
The corollary is that we can’t cast out these devils alone. For me the message of Easter is that God wants to help us without any conditions other than be. here. now. He gives that message to Mary. He tells Martha not to shame her sister, but to join her. The ultimate commandment is to love one another, and even if Jesus and God are not your thing, I hope you will be with me on this much: if we want to cast out our devils we must have compassion for ourselves and for all the other women who are struggling. Black, white, or brown; rich or poor; gay or straight; co-sleeping or sleep training; breast or bottle; and, all the other shit (significant and insignificant) that we allow to divide us—we need to stop that madness and support one another.
At the moment I lost my cool in the middle of that crowded church I felt completely and utterly alone. If another woman had stopped me and said “I know. It’s hard. You got them all dressed up and here on time. You done good, and you don’t have to do anything more.” I think I would have been OK. But it didn’t happen. And it rarely ever does. We stay in our cocoons, pretend we don’t see these little moments of daily struggle. I am as guilty as anyone, but I want that to change. If I can show more compassion for others, maybe I can learn to have that same compassion for myself and stop wasting so much time folding the fucking towels.
For my part, I’m going back to my roots and gathering inspiration from the counter cultural women of my Catholic faith: from medieval mystic Margery Kempe, who freed herself from the strictures of middle-class marriage, preached the gospels, wrote the first autobiography in English, and had sex with Jesus (no joke. read her book.) to the Nuns on The Bus, who fight for social justice across the U.S., and Sister Helen Prejean, who never tires in her fight against capital punishment. These are women who call bullshit on society’s way of doing business. Women fighting the good fight. More of this please.
I’m not a nun. I’m not Gloria Steinem or Angela Davis either. But I can break the cycle of patriarchal bullshit in small ways, by reaching out to the women I see every day and letting them know that they can put down the makeup brush, the mop, the spatula, the baby carrier, and the boardroom notepad—whatever perfection they are seeking—and reach out for that human support we all need so much so that we don’t feel alone in the crowd.