Friday, March 18, 2011

Her Name is Magdalene

A day of poetry.  But it didn’t start out that way.

I woke up at 5 am, my stomach in a knot.  Something’s been off since last week.  I thought it was the flu at first, then sudden-onset lactose intolerance, but the nasty symptoms wouldn’t go away.  I’m told it’s common for a woman fresh out of breast cancer treatment to panic at the first backache, joint pain, flu, cough, twitch, spasm.   So when I woke up in the dark, alone (Craig is still in Hawaii), feeling not so fine, the fear began its cat-scratching at my door.  The sirens didn’t help.  I could hear the wailing crescendo as the vehicles approached from town, swept by a mile down the hill on East End Road, heading east toward emergency (turned out a warehouse in the boatyard was ablaze).  I turned over on my stomach; no relief.  The fear, cat-like in its insistence, in its need, was in.  

I’m beginning to believe there is another voice growing stronger and more insistent inside me.  It finds a way in beneath the fear, and it whispers things to me.  This morning, in the dark, it said, “For this, you need poetry.  What about Jane Kenyon?  She had cancer.  Maybe she can help.”  I hadn’t read her poems in over a year.  She died of leukemia in 1995.  I quoted a few lines of her poem “Otherwise” in a previous blog post.  So I turned on the light and got out of bed and crossed the hall to my writing room, turned on that light and traced my finger along the spines of poetry books until I found it, her new and selected.  I pulled it off the shelf.  There it was, smoke gray, with a painting of a garden on the front,  the poem “Otherwise” printed on the back cover inside a box, like an epitaph.  When she and her husband knew she was dying, they had ten days to put this collection together, so that is what they did with her remaining time on earth.  Book in hand, I crawled back in under the covers and opened to the first poem, “Happiness.”  It begins like this:

There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.

And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.

Is there anything better than fear dissolving in the cool water of a poem?  Is there anything better than being brought back into the present by the words of a stranger, who in the night, seems to have sent a letter just to you, the exact words you need to hear?

Well, there’s also dissolving fear in an elegant scientific solution, too.  When it got late enough, I called my sister on the east coast.  She’s a doctor, and we’ve been puzzling over this stomach thing of mine.  I swear my sister could have been a detective, the way she sleuths out a set of symptoms to solve the mystery of an illness.  “Have you changed the supplements you’re taking?” she asked, after we considered possible food poisoning from sushi. 

“Actually, I’m taking a different calcium supplement.” 

“Does it have magnesium in it?”

“Actually, it has an awful lot of magnesium in it, four times more than the one I was taking before.  1200 mg.”

“Eva, think milk of magnesia!  That’s your problem.  Stop taking the calcium!”

Happy and relieved, it was now 7 am.  I called my friend Jo, who lives up the hill from me,  so I could read her the poem called “Happiness.”  Because we’re just so happy that we can call one another and know we’re only five miles, not five thousand miles, apart.  While five thousand miles apart, I called Jo sometimes in the thick of chemo suffering, and once, as I sobbed, she crooned to me, exactly as she would to a baby.  Soon after, she sent me this poem:


“I am the delight of the dove coming into the physical body.”--Mary Magdalene

The Magdalene, 
the other Mary,
well knows
to comfort,
to heal
the missing breast, 
the no hair, 
and not turn away.

The Magdalene,
Song of Song bride,
milky rose light,
opening the body 
to original innocence,
the sweet head of the newly born,
the union of breast and 
the absence of breast.

Absence and presence,
nothing and everything;
The Magdalene brings
to the pilgrim of healing
flesh to the soul in creation:
In the beginning was the Womb,
and the Womb was with God,
and the Womb is in God.

Perhaps Magdalene is the earthly Mary, the one who still walks among us.  Because she kept turning up today.  She was Jane Kenyon.  And she was my sister.  And she was Jo.

After I hung up the phone I got up and got ready for yoga.  Driving to town, it was just before 9 am, and Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac” came on.  It was the birthday of John Updike, and Keillor recounted aspects of his life.  He’s best known for his fiction, but Keillor read one of his poems called “Religious Consolation.”  I watched the pewter light on Kachemak Bay, morning sun on the wintry mountains, as he read the poem:

One size fits all. The shape or coloration
of the god or high heaven matters less
than that there is one, somehow, somewhere, hearing
the hasty prayer and chalking up the mite
the widow brings to the temple. A child
alone with horrid verities cries out
for there to be a limit, a warm wall
whose stones give back an answer, however faint.

Strange, the extravagance of it—who needs
those eighteen-armed black Kalis, those musty saints
whose bones and bleeding wounds appall good taste,
those joss sticks, houris, gilded Buddhas, books
Moroni etched in tedious detail?
We do; we need more worlds. This one will fail.

I argued with his last line in my head as I drove up Kachemak Drive.  My blog seems to be an argument against that notion.  What we need most is this world.  I grabbed my journal and in the minute left before yoga class began, I wrote my answering poem:

Perhaps our want
creates our god, perhaps
our prayer manifests exactly
what we’re asking for,
the way the little boy with leukemia
prays to a stuffed bear,
the way the woman with
breast cancer prays to her new
halo of white hair.

So though I disagreed with him profoundly, John Updike was Magdalene, too, and then Asia teaching yoga, reading us more Rumi, and then Nancy.

After yoga, Nancy and I met at Two Sister’s Bakery for tea and bagels.  We teach together in the UAA low-residency master’s program.  Like me, she writes non-fiction, but unlike me, she writes short stories too.  Fiction:  I’ve always considered it a godly talent.  She also writes cards.  She uses a pen.  She puts a stamp on the envelope and sends the card in the mail.  And her cards, most often with photographs of Alaska, arrived in my sister’s mailbox from time to time during my exile from home for treatment.  So it was happiness to sit across from Nancy, in the flesh, drinking tea, to watch the neon light of the “Open” sign streak her silver-white hair with red.  I almost thought she’d gone crazy and dyed it with magenta.  Nancy told me that a woman we both know, Helen Hill, the librarian, was moving away from Homer soon.  Helen.  Another Magdalene.

After a stop at the Bunnell Street Arts Center for tea with Asia and her husband Michael, I drove to Safeway, my first foray into a grocery store, for a few supplies.  As soon as I entered the door, I saw them.  Metal pails from which primroses, daffodils and tulips bloomed out of a bed of moss.  I put one in my basket, and after shopping, I drove to the library.  With the pail of flowers, I walked up to the front desk and asked if Helen was in.  “She is,” said Theresa, welcoming me back to town.  As soon as I heard that, the tears started coming.  Emotion welled, crested, and when Helen walked out of the hallway, I started to sob in earnest.  “Let’s go back in my office,” she said.

I’d never been to Helen’s office.  I’d never had a conversation with Helen in person.  I’d seen her in the library and admired her strong, beautiful features.  Helen, the perfect name for a tall, slender woman with intense eyes.  Now her hair was short, and silver, her face stronger.  On the recommendation of a mutual friend, I’d written to Helen last spring, before beginning treatment.  Two years before, she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer, and had undergone surgery, chemo, radiation and hormone therapy.  I asked her for advice about chemo.  She wrote back immediately, a long letter in which she included excerpts from instructions her naturopath had given her.  She even told me what kind of toothpaste to buy.  Before each new treatment, I wrote to Helen, and each time she wrote back.  Before radiation, she wrote to tell me what kind of salve to use on my burned skin.  For a treatment plan, we rely on our oncologists, who come to seem a bit god-like, holding our lives in their hands, but to deal with side-effects, women rely on one another, a network of women passing on wisdom hard-won, ingenious, of the earth, the way they’ve always done.  And now, here I was, sitting with Helen in her office, the real Helen, flesh and blood.  For an hour we talked nonstop about our cancer experiences as though we were incredibly thirsty people, and our words were made of the purest, coldest, clearest water.  I drank and drank and left the library brimming with courage, with happiness.  

If our prayers are their own answer, if want creates our god, today she was named Magdalene.  Today she was named Jo, Mara, Jane, John, Michael, Asia, Nancy.  Her name was Helen.


  1. I go to sleep holding the last line from today's blog....that mysteriously shows up on my email but not on the post here...."her name was happiness" my heart. Wishing you many days of Magdalenes and poetry and happiness.

  2. Oh dear, I may comment on several blog posts - now that I've found you - but what a wonderful gift you and Helen shared. And for my own sadness that she's leaving Homer; she was such a wonderful part of my life when I was there almost ten years ago. I feel lucky to have had a chance to know and work for her.

  3. Thank you Eva! On my way home from the library I was thinking about your visit with Helen. She and another coworker have gone through cancer treatment within the past few years. Watching them offer each other such tremendous support, and seeing them come through with such grace and vibrancy has done more to conquer my fear of cancer than just about anything. And now you.