A couple of months ago, I had a dream that I was Mary Magdalene. In the dream, Jesus (I knew it was him, though he looked nothing like I have ever imagined him to look) and I were sitting with our feet dangling over the edge of a rock wall, laughing and talking in that easy way between close friends. It was a dream, so the details are fuzzy, but I remember a moment when the conversation shifted and felt intense, and I said something like, "Are you ready for all of this?" He gave a little grin as his eyes flashed with something resembling mischief before he hopped down from the wall without answering.
The dream continued with me as Mary Magdalene following along as Jesus healed and restored and performed miracles like feeding 5000 people gathered to hear him preach, and each time, after the initial surprise and acclaim died down, and he walked on toward the next stop on his journey, I was there to hand him a drink of water with a smile and quick hug or pat on the back to say, "Nice work." I was there when he was betrayed, arrested, tortured, and eventually crucified right in front of my eyes. I remember even through the haze of the dream how I felt so powerless and sad as we walked the road to Golgotha, alternating between grief and outrage and numb acceptance without a glimmer of hope anywhere. I watched him die, and I remember sitting on the ground, wrecked by it but also thinking of what he would want me to do now: go with his mother to safety, figure out what the hell happened to Peter and the rest, and somehow keep breathing.
At that point I woke up and thought, "Huh. Well. That one's going to stick with me for awhile."
I frequently have vivid, powerful dreams. I talk about some of them with a couple of people I trust, some I write down in a journal, and some I keep all to myself. I dream all kinds of things about all kinds of people and situations. They stay on my mind until I make peace with them one way or another.
I dreamed I had a miscarriage the night before a sonogram showed no heartbeat at 12 weeks. I had a dream in which a person I looked to for guidance and support told me, "You need to own your own life," in a situation in which I needed to find my voice and use it--fast. I had a dream that haunted me about something horrible happening to my youngest daughter, so I was watching her with extra vigilance when I saw the door next to her carseat swing open as I was following my mom onto the highway (unaccustomed to having young children in the car, Mom had forgotten to engage the child lock). I honked and flashed my lights until I got Mom's attention to pull over, and then we all trembled at the near miss. For years, I had a recurring dream that I had to go back to high school for some reason, even though it was clear I had graduated years before and finished college and grad school. Still, there was something I missed the first time that I had to go back and complete; I haven't had that dream since I started my first job teaching high school in 2009. The dreams I had while pregnant were so real I would reference dream events in conversations, only to have the other person (usually my ex-husband) look at me with a blank expression until I had to ask, "Did that not really happen?"
There are logical, rational explanations for those dreams and the many others I've had. Our conscious and unconscious minds have to communicate at some level, and dreams seem to be their busiest intersection for me. I try to engage them in that logical, rational space most of the time because keeping them there helps me feel a sense of control over them. Certain symbols have established interpretations, and you can work backwards from those interpretations to understand what's going on--simple as that. I avoid wading too far into the mystical significance of dreams because I get freaked out and dread going to sleep at night for fear of having another one. It's a losing battle: I keep having dreams that leave me unsettled regardless of how much I try to intellectualize them.
My dream of being Mary Magdalene did stick with me, in part because of the strong sense of identification with her and how real the friendship with Jesus seemed. Naturally, the Holy Week observances of the past few days made me think of it again. I don't know much about Mary Magdalene really. She's kind of an enigma, though people have projected a whole lot of different things on and about her. The one thing that's certain is that she was important enough to Jesus to be mentioned in all four gospels, and she (with a couple of others or on her own) is the first person to discover the empty tomb and hear that her beloved friend had overcome death and darkness in the most triumphant, unexpected way.
Here's how John 20:1-18 tells it:
The Resurrection of Jesus
20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there,7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.
Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look[a]into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew,[b] “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
I can only imagine her disbelief when she walked up and saw the stone rolled away, and her frustration when Peter and "the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved" threw up their hands so easily. Her tears must have been bitter with confusion and anguish when the stranger broke through them to ask her what was wrong. All she wanted was to walk the rest of the road with Jesus's body, and now she couldn't even do that. Except then the stranger said her name, in a voice she would recognize anywhere, a voice she would follow anywhere, a voice she trusted and respected and loved. And just like that, everything changed.
Last year Easter fell on the Sunday before I had to appear in court to finalize my divorce. I knew the year ahead would be marked by the death and burial of a common life, a final dismantling of dreams that directed and drove me forward for decades, and fighting to hold on to hope. I lit my candle from the Vigil fire and tried to fully absorb stories about Creation and God rescuing his people from Egypt, following the thread of salvation to culmination in Jesus's sacrifice and ultimate victory. I thanked God for the promise that I did not have to get stuck in any of the shitty places along the road I was about to walk. A few days later I stood in a courtroom and answered questions from a judge in one of the loneliest moments of my life, and every day since has been a step further away from that desolate place.
Someone asked me not long ago if I believed that Jesus literally came back to life after being dead for the better part of three days. I gave the most honest answer I could: I don't know. I don't know if his lungs started working again or his heart resumed its beating. I don't know if it is true from a literal, scientific perspective, and honestly? I don't care. I've felt enough of Jesus in my life to know that the Resurrection is TRUE in every way that counts, and I'm happy to let the more fact-driven folks hash out answers to the rest.
Mary Magdalene came away from the encounter at the empty tomb bold enough to contend with the apostles' disbelief and willing to step out into an uncertain future without Jesus physically present to guide her. I wonder how many times over the rest of her life she replayed the sound of his voice saying her name. That precious memory must have run through her mind again and again, whenever she needed to feel connected to the one who showed her the way, the truth, and the life. Sitting here on Easter morning, as the resurrection of my own life gains momentum, I'm grateful for the dream that let me see with her eyes. Because of it, I can almost hear Jesus calling her--and my--name.
Closer to Fine
Carnival rides make me extremely nervous. I cannot be convinced they are safe, what with being taken apart, moved, and put back together again time after time after time. I swore I would never let my children ride them, and I kept that vow for quite awhile. However, as so many vows and resolutions in parenting go, I relented after years of begging and whining and accusations of overprotectiveness. To demonstrate just how far away we are from my original ban, one of those pairs of feet in the photo above belongs to my oldest daughter. I watched from the ground as she and my sister flipped over again and again, high overhead with nothing but metal and asphalt below them. I hid behind my camera, trying to detach from my panic enough to see the art in the moment. We won't even talk about my ride on the Ferris Wheel. I think my sister has video of my freak out, and I can only hope she decides to be merciful and delete it.
Yesterday morning I sat in church and participated in the special reading of the gospel for Palm Sunday: parishioners take the parts of narrator, Jesus, and other characters and read their lines with intermittent responses from the congregation playing "the crowd." We were the ones demanding that Pilate crucify Jesus, mocking and taunting a suffering man who had been nothing but merciful and kind, providing a demonstration of the fickle and painful-to-watch side of human nature I try to deny in myself, even as I know it lives and breathes alongside my better qualities. It always hurts me to say those words out loud, to know how everyone--the crowd down to his closest friends--failed Jesus at the crucial moment. I sit and wrestle with the guilt of it every year, knowing that I am neither better nor wiser than the people whose part I just read.
This year, no one stood up to give a sermon after the reading; instead, music from a cello started drifting down from the choir loft in the back. At first I thought it was an interlude of sorts; the church I go to has such unbelievable music that a gorgeous cello solo could simply be a segue from one part of the ritual to the next. I picked up my bulletin and started to read for a few seconds, until I registered this was something quite different. You could hear a pin drop and there was a stillness in the pews that doesn't happen during transitional moments. I put down my bulletin and focused on the music, and then I also grew still and actively silent so that I could listen.
I know next to nothing about classical music, so I have no idea what the cellist played. All I know is that the music cut through to the space in my heart where joy and pain take turns leading the dance. There were highs and lows and moments that felt like spinning around in a circle, and when the last note faded away, I sat with my eyes closed for as long as I could to let it all sink in. When I opened them, I saw the priest signal for everyone to stand up and continue with the liturgy, and so we went on.
I thought all day about the contrast between the cello and the carnival rides, two radically different metaphors for what it is to be human. Pretty much all of my life has been the carnival ride variety, with lots of whipping around and upside down and trying to keep it together and not pass out and embarrass myself. The specific framework of the roller coaster I was constrained to ride would be dismantled in one place and almost immediately constructed again somewhere else, and it took every last ounce of energy I could muster to hang on. I continued to hang on because I didn't know there was any other way; I assumed everyone was on their own version of the carnival ride, getting whiplash right along with me.
The last few years have been straight-up awful. The death throes of a volatile marriage and 20+ year relationship; a constant state of triage to bind up the most wounded among my children on any given day; job changes; saying goodbye to beloved friends; moving across the country; renegotiating life on terms I would never have chosen in a million years. Wise friends and family, several therapists, and kind and thoughtful priests told me to hold on, keep going, that there was new life waiting on the other side if I could slog through the morass. I wanted so badly to believe them, but I felt trapped on the carnival ride, freaking out and hyperventilating and begging for it to just STOP already.
But along the way in the past few months, I finally stepped off the carnival ride and onto solid ground. For the first time maybe ever, I can experience the highs and lows of life as an achingly beautiful cello piece--moved by beauty in both joy and pain but not allowing myself to be dragged along, kicking and screaming, on an unwanted ride. Learning how to meditate helped me get there. Time on a heart monitor in the hospital helped, too. Talking late into the night on friends' sofas helped even more. There are a handful of midwives who ushered me into this new way of being, and I am thankful for their steady, skillful hands.
Carnival rides are flashy and attention-grabbing, and they can be exhilarating. Plenty of people choose the carnival ride, and if they can handle it, more power to them. But for my part, I want the quiet cello solo and the priest gently beckoning me on, past my failures and fickleness, into deeper communion and fullness of life. That life is there if I choose it, and I'm amazed to find myself healthy enough to make that choice again and again and again.
I am living proof that wonders never cease.
(Title of this post inspired by the Indigo Girls: https://youtu.be/HUgwM1Ky228)
Mother, photographer, writer. Expert in making things up as she goes and figuring things out along the way.