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Maybe the ‘R’ in the R Train Stands for Revelation

Penitent Mary Magdelene (after Titian) RELIQUARY Smallbany Gallery, Nov. 21st – Dec. 6th, 2021

This subway car on the R train is blissfully empty. On this hot July night, it’s just me alone with my thoughts, swaying back and forth in my seat with the rocking of the train. I’m going into Manhattan to see my childhood friend Kathleen. I hear the scream of brakes; feel the skip and catch of the train as it accelerates into the darkness; and hear the chirpy, recorded voice; STAND CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS! Down here the only way is forward. Thank God it’s air-conditioned. 

The subway is a church of a different kind; the seats remind me of pews and someone is nearly always proclaiming about Jesus. It’s a blessing to have this car to myself. I imagine the tunnels as arteries and veins beneath the asphalt skin of New York City: each train a vessel circulating blood; returning it to the heart to be pumped clean. I’ve been thinking about my heart these days, and about love. I’ve been questioning the idea of faith because I seem to have so little of it in myself. I’ve been seeking answers with the help of Kathleen who is a devout but progressive Catholic. She lost an eye to diabetes. Her faith is unwavering. Mine is half-blind.

Everywhere, we worship gods who promise to help us suffer less. 

*****

 

My adoptive grandparents’ house was an old mill in the hamlet of Williamsville, VT. Grammy served us pancakes while we watched the river rush by below, chewing silently: happy to be together. On Sundays, they’d take me to The Little Brown Church in the middle of the village. The wooden floors and the pews creaked with age. The church was wrapped in brown clapboard and the spire had a working bell. It was simple and right. When my grandfather opened his mouth to sing, his voice was so out-of-tune it hurt my ears. I’d gaze up at him and marvel at how he needed no one’s permission to take up space.

I spent a lot of time looking up.

This Vermont river once turned a wheel that ground wheat into flour, like Grammy used in our pancakes. The wheel caught the falling water in cups; the force of gravity spinning it and turning the millwheel inside. The waterwheel is disconnected and laying against the side of the stone foundation, rusting and overgrown. The house has been renovated to obscure any sign of the modest mill I remember. My grandparents are long dead.

I think about the wheel as a form of freedom, energy, and transport. I think of the sacred geometry of a circle and what it symbolizes––the sun, eternity, the womb, love. The ouroboros which promises a cycle of return; and the misunderstood pentagram representing the earthly elements; or the spiral of a Nautilus shell a symbol of the Fibonacci sequence that explains natural beauty by mathematical equation. I think about how nostalgia can transport us back in time, and the Aztec Wheel of Time with its calendars, both seasonal and sacred: a cosmic harmony.

Long before I loved the song “Down to the River to Pray,” my sisters and I would burst from the car, strip off our clothes and ignore our parents’ calls. We’d wade into the clear Vermont river, gasping at the cold water and walk upstream to sit on the slippery rocks near the waterfall. We’d let the river flow over our tired, dirty legs and feet. The water smelled like moss: primeval, alive, and fresh.

*****

 

The seats on the R train are light blue, the color of a baby blanket. They are neither dirty nor clean for the biblical mass of humanity that touches them every day. The heat is palpable and thumping. It puffs in each time the pneumatic doors open. The air is cloying and smells of body odor, bad breath, and perfume. This city is complicated and dirty. All these pilgrims, I think to myself. Where are they going? 

I think about how far I’ve come these past few years since my divorce, and how I feel free to move about the world in tandem with my grown children, but not connected to them daily. Still, I have mother guilt: it sits beside me, manspreading. 

*****

 

I have a complicated relationship with silence. It is an adoption-related abandonment trigger and a form of solace. I spend a lot of time in silence in my apartment listening to the thrum of blood in my ears. I think of myself as a baby; preverbal and likely left to cry and soothe myself in silence in the foster home before I was adopted. Silence is stillness, absence, oblivion, and secrecy. 

The child psychologist D. W. Winnicott was a proponent of the concept of the “good enough mother,” meaning, the mother who is imperfect but who creates a “holding environment” that becomes the foundation of her “ordinary” baby’s care. Winnicott considered that the “mother’s technique of holding, of bathing, of feeding, everything she did for the baby, added up to the child’s first idea of the mother.” These techniques went deeper than the physical. Holding in this case, also meant understanding, empathizing, and spiritually bonding. These things happen in a silence: they are unsaid, yet very real. The understanding goes so deep as to simply be known. 

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum called this silent contract “the highly particular transactions that constitute love between two imperfect people.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about imperfection and love. I’ve been working hard to love myself and to be able to accept love from another. I want to be held. I want to be known. I am slowly being shown the way.

*****

 

I struggled to find my “higher power” when I was brought to my knees by a family member’s alcoholism and suicidal ideation. Now I, a pagan, have become “faith curious.” I’m searching for the faith to trust my voice. I want to sit in stillness and understand my terror of silence. 

In exploring what faith means to me, I’m drawn to the lesser-known story of Mary Magdalene, who is portrayed as a sinful, penitent whore in the orthodox Christian narrative, rather than an equal intellect of Jesus. Most people know about the Madonna: the virgin birth, the pure mother. The Magdalene’s voice has been silenced. I want to listen into that void. I want to see signs. I want to hear voices. I want to punch the Madonna/Whore complex in the face. I’m not afraid to be called a hysteric.

As an adoptee, sin and shame haunt me. Perhaps that’s why I’m besotted with Mary. She was cast out, unwanted. I want to bear witness. I want to imagine her in myriad forms.

Getting closer to Mary means surrounding myself with her imagery and symbols. I see roses everywhere; I smooth rose oil on my face; I anoint my altar candles with frankincense; I adorn myself with necklaces and rings depicting Mary. I carry her prayer card in my wallet; I’ve noted her feast day on my calendar; I play FKA Twigs’ album Magdalene on repeat while I walk naked through my apartment waiting for my long auburn wet hair to dry. 

I’m what you desire. Come just a little bit closer till we collide,” sings Twigs. 

I’ve been alone with Mary Magdalene for months now thanks to the pandemic. I’ve barely seen another human being. I imagine my basement apartment as the grotto in Saint-Baume, France where Mary Magdalene spent thirty years in silent contemplation after losing the love of her life. 

I’ve been searching for the love of my life. 

I don’t want to die alone. 

Sometimes I stand naked at the window in my basement apartment with my hands clasped in prayer willing someone to peer in through the gauzy drapes. 

What in god’s name is happening to me?

*****

 

The Magdalene’s archetype is one of erotic devotion. She is a bold and tenacious witness. Like me, she is complicated and messy. Or rather that is the orthodox narrative which confuses purity culture with the idea of pure love. Pure love as Mary teaches is not a straight line; it takes patience and timing; it is the practice of gratitude without attachment; it’s about paying attention to small kindnesses and learning how to receive: how to witness.

The answer is always more love.

There is so much silence in Mary’s story. The scrolls containing her gospels were discovered in 1945 in the desert of Egypt near Nag Hammadi. According to scholars, these texts altered the worldview of the bible so much that “they looked like the theological version of Alice in Wonderland.” They upended the Christian narrative. And so, they disappeared. 

What remains of the Gospel of Mary looks like an erasure poem. Her texts begin on chapter 4 and many of her words have disintegrated off the pages. Or perhaps they were destroyed. The texts that survived were those of disciples Peter, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John––their voices were deemed worthy of being saved.

“… she discourses many times…,” said Peter. “Did he [Jesus] then speak secretly with a woman, in preference to us, and not openly? Are we to turn back and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?” … “women are not worthy of life.” 

Peter’s is the rock upon which the Roman Catholic Church is built. 

What is Mary Magdalene is trying to show me? 

How do we maintain faith when history bends its hard body against us?

I imagine the Magdalene as fairy tale, goddess, tarot influencer: as sorceress, chimera, corporeal woman, and erasure poem. My Mary is a Mary across multiple dimensions who defies the laws of quantum physics. 

I feel my heart opening, and from it emanates a white light like some sort of distant thunder.

*****

 

The screech of the brakes on the R train jolts me back into my body. The air conditioning is broken on the return train to Brooklyn. I’m guilty of the sin of gluttony with a belly full of food, wine, and dessert. In Little Italy I’d ordered a Bomba for dessert with Kathleen, hoping to crack the chocolate skin open and find the red maraschino cherry inside the ice cream: a sweet, tiny beating heart. Instead, it was served split open; that little cherry sliced four ways—same number as the heart’s chambers. 

The Magdalene really fucked with the idea of who a woman should be. She was a complex human who abided her desires when the overriding narrative was perfection. She was a “good enough mother.” The Madonna on the other hand is the binary ideal of womanhood and of pure love. 

I am in New York City housesitting my friend’s Brooklyn brownstone. I have the entire place to myself, including a garden that feels like a private Eden. I’d invited another high school friend to join me. We’d reconnected during the pandemic, and I’d confessed my abiding crush. To my delight he flew across the country to see me. Between, him, me, and Kathleen we had two divorces and a broken engagement, yet here we were returning to each other like no time has passed: a circle of friendship. When I opened the door to him, I remember thinking “you’re much taller than I remember,” before throwing my arms around him and cupping his face in my hands. “It’s you,” I said. “It’s really you.” I felt the familiar electricity of desire. I wanted our sacred geometries to collide. 

*****

 

The sweat is rolling down my forehead, stinging my eyes, and slipping through my facemask. I lick it from my lips, tasting the salt of my body. I feel nauseated but can’t tell if it’s the heat or the espresso. 

I remember flashes from the weekend with my crush. Us cuddling and sharing music on the couch; our fingers tangled in each other’s hair; my head in his lap; his forearm resting on my chest; the bolt of lightning from our deep kisses. I’d wanted our connection to be reciprocal, but the timing was terrible. 

He was healing from the hurt of a broken relationship: “a girl I’ve been seeing for the past two and a half years” is how he described it. She was in love with another man yet kept texting him; sending him nudes during what was supposed to be our weekend of reconnection. I took him for a midnight walk across the Brooklyn Bridge as July 4 fireworks shot into the sky. He walked far ahead of me taking photos and texting her. I felt deeply alone. I was furious. I turned back after going only halfway. 

“I don’t want to get hurt,” I’d said the night before, reluctantly pulling away from a kiss that I didn’t realize I’d wanted for decades. “Then don’t,” he said. We were both vulnerable. I was lovestruck by the idea of him; he was in love with the idea of not losing her. So, we filled our empty cups with desire. We both deserved more.

*****

 

I told another friend, a native New Yorker, about my delight at the empty R train and she laughed, “I had no idea that train even existed.” 

Maybe I’m riding a ghost train, I thought. If the timing was right with my crush, we wouldn’t be like two trains passing in the night. I remember the acts of love he showed me: flying across the country, holding car doors, guiding me to the shady side of the street, sheltering me from passing cars, holding my hands over dinner while I cried telling him how grateful I was to have him in my life again. He had the bartender make a special drink for me after we had a hard conversation about timing and love. I think the couple next to us thought we were breaking up. He later told me he hoped I could see in myself what he saw in me.

Maybe the ‘R’ in the R train stands for revelation. 

*****

 

Finally, my stop. The subway doors open, and I am released. I notice the water cascading as I ascend the second flight of stairs out of the station. I see the black maw of darkness above me. As I climb toward the street the rain hits my cheeks. I struggle to get my umbrella from my backpack. I don’t care that I’m getting wet. I stand under the awning of the bodega and open my umbrella, trying to orient myself toward home.

I step off the curb into the downpour: horizontal rain, thunder, and lightning so close I worry my umbrella will become a lightning rod. 

Earlier, as we walked through Tribeca, Kathleen had warned me not to step on the Con Ed manhole covers. A friend of hers had been electrocuted that way. She’d heard of small dogs being electrocuted too. 

I think of Topsy, the female elephant who was electrocuted in Brooklyn in the early nineteenth Century. Electricity was a novel invention used to illuminate Luna Park out near Coney Island. Popular myth says Topsy was electrocuted to show how strong AC/DC current was, but that’s untrue. Her execution was an act of sheer human savagery. 

People were fearful of crossing the newly constructed Brooklyn Bridge, so P. T. Barnum paraded his elephants from Manhattan to Brooklyn to show the public that the bridge could withstand human traffic. What better way to demonstrate strength than to walk a string of pachyderms, nose to tail, across the world’s longest suspension bridge at the time? As much as it seemed to be an act of service, Barnum was simply showing his audience the fastest way to get to The Greatest Show on Earth. 

Don’t Google “Topsy the Elephant” unless you’re ready to weep at the sight of a majestic pachyderm falling to her knees. She was murdered because she’d killed a spectator and charged her handler, whom they later found out was abusing her by extinguishing his cigarettes on her tender hide. We think elephants have thick skin, but we are wrong. Elephants skin is so sensitive they can feel a fly land on their back. Their trunks are the most sensitive organ found in any mammal. Baby elephants are prone to sunburn. If a baby elephant cries, the herd will rush to touch and soothe it with their trunks. Elephants remember. 

Across religions the sacred elephant symbolizes, grace, loyalty, patience, companionship, and wisdom. I have two of them in my altar. 

An elephant heart weighs about sixty pounds and beats at thirty beats per minute––the lowest recorded heart rate of any animal. Scientists measure heart rate by electrical impulses. I imagine Topsy’s heartbeat sounded like distant thunder. 

They fed Topsy carrots laced with cyanide and strangled her with ropes. The electrocution was just for good measure; to be sure they’d completed their deadly task. 

*****

 

A bolt of lightning cracks a block away from me, daylighting the sidewalk. They say if humans harnessed the power of one lightning strike, it could power a small city. I feel its electricity in my heart. I like that we haven’t harnessed lightning yet. Mother Nature will never be brought to her knees.

*****

 

Over pancakes, Grampy says grace. “Bless us, Oh Lord, for this which we are about to receive.” In church, I kneel between my grandparents, and we clasp our hands together in prayer. My grandparents close their eyes but mine remain open. I don’t want to miss the wisdom.

*****

 

I am in the dark and struggling to find my way home. The heat is steamy: the rain horizontal. The storm scares me for the violent lightning and thunder. My small pink umbrella is no match for this storm. I give in to the deluge. Why protect myself? I surrender. I breathe. My sandals squeak with every step. Instead of hurrying, I slow down. The runoff rushes over my tired, dirty feet. This feels biblical. 

*****

 

I watched the The Way last night: a movie about a man’s quest to find himself on The Camino, a pilgrimage in Spain. His soul is numb. He’s in pain and grief after losing his son who died attempting the life-changing pilgrimage. He walks and walks, all the time fighting with himself: his own anger a distant thunder. I see him begin to accept the offered gifts of friendship and kindness and finally his own vulnerability and grief. 

My crush plans to make this trip when his youngest is off to college. Many who walk The Camino end their journey at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, the famed church that receives pilgrims. The cathedral is built over the tomb of Saint James the Great, one of the apostles of Jesus and the patron saint of Spain. It was looted and burned to the ground in the late 900s, yet the relics of James remain, and a new cathedral was constructed around them.

YouTube has been my window into the pageantry of the priests hoisting the Botafumeiro high into the rafters. The silver censer is filled with a mixture of charcoal and incense. Even for Catholics it is a spectacle. The ceremony began out of the necessity to cover the body odor of the throngs of pilgrims who arrived sweaty and dirty from The Camino before there was air conditioning and bed and breakfasts along the way. People have made this pilgrimage since the Middle Ages. 

“No one walks The Camino by accident,” says my crush. I want to know more about his reasons. 

It’s not unheard of for pilgrims to fall to their knees and enter the cathedral this way. Kneeling is a form of submission, belief, and worship. 

*****

 

Kathleen and I are planning our own pilgrimage to France to walk in the footsteps of the Magdalene: to trace her sometimes-invisible path and contemplate her silences. We will visit Paris, Marseille, Provence, and Aix. We will descend into Mary’s cave at Saint-Baume. Her grotto is a geologic curiosity nestled inside a spectacular mountain range pushed upward by the seabed and protected by a cliff. One of the most ancient pilgrimages in the Christian world, it can only be accessed by foot. 

O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, In the secret places of the cliff, Let me see your face, Let me hear your voice; For your voice is sweet, And your face is lovely.” ––Song of Solomon 2:14

I am a beginner on this journey. I don’t know what I don’t know. I am a supplicant ready to submit: my cups are waiting to be filled. I will kneel.

*****

 

I lean into the rain a bit. I’m laughing to myself that I’m on some urban Camino. It feels like a small pilgrimage just to get from Manhattan to Brooklyn.

I put away my iPhone and read the street signs: 4th Ave. 11th St. 12th St. Make a left up 13th. Park Slope is easy to navigate because of the hills. There is up and there is down. 

I make it home and stand in front of the stairs to my friend Lily’s brownstone. It’s dark. No one is on the street. The rain is rushing. My clothes are wet. I stand in the spot between the gutter and the sidewalk letting the rainwater pour over my feet before climbing the stairs and letting myself in. 

I throw off my clothes and wash my feet under the faucet in the bathtub. I think of Mary Magdalene washing Jesus’s feet. 

*****

 

I underline the phrase “For where your heart is, there is the treasure” in my book and text it to my crush. It reminds me of the message in The Little Prince, I said. “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

In French, the word ‘heart’ is loosely translated as ‘nous’, which is a concept in wisdom teaching often translated as “mind.” The ‘nous’ is a property of the heart, not the mind––the heart is classically regarded as the organ of spiritual perception and his is blocked he says.

The ‘nous’ is the eye of the heart; “a kind of mystical intertidal zone in which divine spirit and human spirit are completely interpenetrating.”

I think of a circle and how two people can walk similar paths from across the country and feel like they’re holding hands. What a marvel it is to reconnect with both high school friends. We’ve grown and changed after thirty-six years, yet it feels as if no time has passed. I think about the interconnectedness of the Universe and how nothing is random. This feels radiant. I feel enlightened: revelatory. I want my crush to feel my heightened vibrational pull from across the country. I want him to come to me again. We’ve both been changed by each other, haven’t we? 

*****

 

I take my coffee into the garden the morning after the rain. I’ve been out here each day to read and write. It’s my own borrowed Eden. I notice a painting on the back brick wall of another brownstone that I hadn’t noticed until this morning, my last day here. A Rubenesque woman reclines naked on a red pouf. Her skin is radiant and pale. Her lips are pursed, her belly is soft and round, her hair falls behind her in waves and she has gentle, purposeful eyes. She reminds me of Mary. Her gaze is contemplative. She’s been watching me this entire time. 

I go upstairs for a shower. The morning light is diffuse and pink in this borrowed bedroom. I shed my clothes and stand naked in front of the mirror, my hair hanging almost to my nipples. I grab my phone, throw my arm above my head, and bend gently backwards. I begin to take photos. I turn my body to the side and see the outline of my ribs in the light. This ribcage was designed to protect my heart, I think. My breasts are firm and full: my nipples pink and hard.

I see what my crush saw. My body is a gift. 

*****

 

Mary was considered an early Gnostic. The word gnostic comes from the Greek ‘gnosis’ which means knowledge…

For now I see through a glass darkly, but later face to face; now I know in part, but later I will know even as also I am known” she writes.

“It is not just a knowing from the head; it’s a knowing with the entire being,” writes Cynthia Bourgeault in her book The Meaning of Mary Magdalene. “Gnosis speaks of a complete, integral knowing uniting body, mind, and heart—and by its very largeness connecting the seen and the unseen.” 

The Hebrew term for gnosis translates as da’ath, which is also the word used for “lovemaking.”

“… Gnosis is about stages; it is integral knowledge brought about by the slow unification of one’s being.… the slow and persistent overcoming of the ego through a lifelong practice of surrender and nonattachment.

*****

 

I turn around and take photos from behind. My ass is a juicy apple. It is plump and pink-skinned like I’ve been lightly spanked. I admire the slope of my strong shoulders. I see the youthful dancer I was in the grace of my arms. My skin is pale and creamy, my auburn hair cascades to my waist in waves. 

Is this what revelation feels like? I feel holy.

Cover Art: Eye (I), by Despy Boutris

Megan Culhane Galbraith

Megan Culhane Galbraith is a writer, visual artist, and adoptee. Her debut memoir-in-essays is The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book (Mad Creek Books/Ohio State University Press, 2021.) Megan’s work was listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2021 and 2017 and was recognized by Poets & Writers in their “5 Over 50” issue. She is the 2022 Writer-in-Residence at Adoptees On. Her essays, interviews, reviews, and visual art have appeared in BOMB, The Believer, Hyperallergic, ZZYZYVA, Tupelo Quarterly, Hobart, Redivider, Longreads, Hotel Amerika, and Catapult, among others. She is the founding director of the Governor’s Institutes of Vermont Young Writers Institute and an alumna and the Associate Director of the Bennington Writing Seminars. www.megangalbraith.com

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