-Non-fiction by Christine Beck – December 10, 2018
Teacher. Nurse. Secretary. Three acceptable careers for a young woman when my mother was a girl. I became a high-powered corporate lawyer. Well paid. Respected. Even feared. This was my persona. This kept me safe. That changed in Paris, 1998, during a thirteenth birthday trip for my eldest daughter, Eleanor.
We entered the Louvre through a pyramid made of glass, sparkling light reflecting the ancient stone walls of what was once a castle. Designed by I. M. Pei in 1989, it wasn’t there when my mother and I toured the museum in 1974. Stunning, it burst like a fountain on a Parisian plaza a-swarm with tourists, an ultra-modern transformation from an Egyptian tomb to the entrance of an art museum filled with treasures from the past. Inside, I’d find a painting that would lead me to reject my career as a lawyer and become a teacher and writer. My journey began with a mystery about a Latin inscription and led me to embrace a side of me that had been as well-masked as that message.
We climbed the Daru staircase. A statue loomed above us—Nike, the Greek goddess of speed, strength and victory. Dating from 2nd century B.C. Greece, the Winged Victory of Samothrace is missing her head, her arms and one wing. What an odd icon to introduce visitors to the most famous museum in the world—an ancient statue unearthed in a foreign land, missing a vital part—her face, the sign of intellect, or beauty, or whatever we hold dear in those we love.
Nike conveyed a sense of motion. Although her gown was marble, it looked like wind had unfurled its folds. The position of her missing limbs has led experts to conclude that one arm was raised to call a victory at sea. Whatever her message was, it’s lost. She was “discovered” by Charles Champoiseau, a French consul who found her in 1863 on the Greek island of Samothrace. Champoiseau packed his treasure back to France. Apparently, he didn’t consider that Nike belonged to Greece or that finding something buried doesn’t mean it’s yours.
This statue of Nike reminded me of another broken statue—a torso of Apollo, which inspired a poem by Rainier Maria Rilke—“Archaic Torso of Apollo.” It begins:
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside.
For Rilke, the broken statue illuminated something spiritual, a connection to mystery. Apollo quivered with a message. The poem ends: “You must change your life.”
I wasn’t thinking of changing my life on that day in Paris. I was thinking about my mother and her death from breast cancer in 1978. She was fifty. A missing breast pales against a gigantic statute of a Greek goddess missing her head. But it was personally more devastating. I’d stood here—right here—with my mother on a trip we took in 1975 when we knew her cancer had recurred. We made a whirlwind tour of London, Paris and Amsterdam. Two women, mother and daughter, stood in this exact spot twenty years before Eleanor’s birthday trip.
Grief has a way of lying dormant, seemingly controlled and classified. Then it bubbles up, sometimes at the death of someone else, often in a trivial moment. The body holds kinesthetic memory. Mine remembered the Daru Staircase, all the words between me and my mother, words said, unsaid, the coming pain, the slow inexorable march of a dreaded outcome. And finally, the day when in the hospital, my mother stopped asking about the weather. The weather had become irrelevant.
When my mother died, in the early morning one gray January Monday in 1978, I was in Manhattan, getting ready for work. I’d visited the day before at Princeton Hospital. The doctor told me, “not much longer now.” The words didn’t register. Time. We still had time. When I called her bedside phone, the phone rang ten times. As she was bedridden, I knew what that meant. Eventually, a nurse picked up the phone. “Are you sitting down?” she asked.
By Wednesday, I was back at work. My supervising partner offered condolences, told me to “go home.” “Thanks, I appreciate it, but I’m okay.” I packed grief into my briefcase and twirled the combination lock.
On the Daru Staircase, my tears unlocked. As I choked back sobs, frozen between the glittering pyramid below and the broken Nike above, Eleanor put her arms around me. She waited.
We resumed our climb to Winged Victory, turned right and followed the crowds to the Mona Lisa. She was smaller than expected, presiding in a gallery of her own, crushed with flocks of tourists clutching checklists of the obligatory sights.
Outside the gallery was a grand hall where hundreds of madonnas were displayed floor to ceiling. Overwhelming in their similarity, these sweet-faced madonnas with porcelain skin all beamed at Jesus, who looked sometimes like an infant, sometimes like a tiny man. But it was clear: Jesus was the primary attraction. Then a painting arrested me: La Madonna en Justice, painted in 1630 by the Italian Bernardo Strozzi. Posed on a stone balustrade, wearing a dark blue robe capped with red silk, a stiff white color at her neck, she ignored a naked Jesus at her side, who lifted his arms, as if begging to be picked up. La Madonna gazed forward, oblivious. Imperious, she pointed to a huge open book. It had three words in large cursive letters: Suprema Lex Esto. This madonna looked like a ruler with an urgent message: where the enemy is hiding, the location of the missing chalice, or a revolutionary slogan.
“Suprema Lex Esto, what’s that mean?” asked Eleanor.
I translated the Latin: “The Law is Supreme.”
“Why would she say that?” asked Eleanor.
“I have no idea.”
Why would Mary praise the law? Why didn’t the crowds bustling by see this as extraordinary, even sacrilegious? Mary is known for mercy, not justice or the law. She might as well have proclaimed: “God is a Carrot.” Whatever Mary’s law was, it was not my law, the one I had practised for twenty years, rules enshrined in books, my scramble to arrange words to please clients, supervising partners, the courts.
My decision to become a lawyer in 1972 had been as random as happening across La Madonna en Justice. I was graduating from college with a degree in linguistics, my only job skill as a secretary. My boyfriend at the time was in law school. So law school it was! Justice, working for reform or helping the downtrodden did not occur to me. I liked school. I thought I loved him. Done deal. We broke up before I finished my first year.
I quickly adopted the persona of the male partners in the firm–driven, tough workaholics. This meant dark suits, a briefcase, long hours, and learning to brag about the vacations cancelled, the ballet tickets wasted because work came first. Law was all logic and no emotion. The prestige of representing big corporate clients on mergers, acquisitions, anti-trust enforcement, SEC investigations spoiled me from considering “women’s law,” divorce, child custody, law that called for compassion, patience and building a network of women. I was playing with the boys!
The law was a respectable profession. Then it became a trap. I was dependent on the male partners to funnel clients and projects to me. The typical methods of client development—golf and baseball games, the drinking at the bar, the off color jokes—were not available to young women. If we tried it, we risked being thought a flirt or an easy lay. But I was lulled by the money and the prestige. It was as if I were lying in a cozy hammock, swinging. When I found James Wright’s poem “Lying in a Hammock on William Duffy’s Farm,” I recognized my predicament:
. . .
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
Who knows if I would have quit my law career if I hadn’t been pushed out of my hammock by circumstance? Shortly before our Paris trip, the company I worked for was sold. A cash payout gave me some time to decide what to do next. I knew I didn’t want to go back to practising law, but I was drifting.
I longed for a job where I could express some creativity, feel a connection to the feeling expressed by Rilke in his poem about Apollo. My friend Susan was a minister and a neighbor. She was also a spiritual director, kind of like a counselor. Susan had close cropped curly hair, brown flecked with gray. No makeup. Birkenstocks. Khaki pants. Serious. I was probably wearing strappy summer sandals and white shorts, my blonde hair naturally streaked by sun.
She welcomed me into a closet-sized room in the church basement. There were two rocking chairs, a knitted afghan, maybe a poster on the wall. It smelled like the nursery school down the hall, a combination of kids’ sweat, play dough, and damp underpants. If she hadn’t been a friend, I would have run.
“So Christine, what brings you here?”
“My lawyer job has ended and I’m not sure what I want to do next.”
“I’d be glad to help with that. Have you prayed about it?”
“I’m not big on prayer.”
“OK, well let’s start here,” she said, “close your eyes and visualize God. What do you see?”
I closed my eyes, took a few deep breaths, tried to get a picture in my mind. Instead, lyrics of songs kept popping up. “Ain’t no mountain high enough,” I startled her with a Dianna Ross song. She kept a steady gaze.
“Try again,” she encouraged. I tried harder.
“I see an old man with a white beard on a mountaintop.”
“What is he saying,” she asked.
“I don’t know, but whatever it is, I don’t want to do it.”
“How does that make you feel,” she asked.
I was stuck. My feelings vocabulary had three words in it: happy, sad, mad. I felt mad. I was mostly mad at Susan because I didn’t know how to play the feeling game.
“Ok,” I countered, “why don’t you give me ten feeling words and I’ll pick one?”
Snarky, but I was off balance. She spoke a foreign language. I didn’t know enough to ask where the bathroom was.
“Think harder. Breathe. What feelings bubble up?”
No bubbles. None.
Weeks went by. God wasn’t talking. Neither was I.
A few weeks later, I saw my neighbor Lynn at church. I knew she was on the board of the paralegal program at the Hartford College for Women. It occurred to me: maybe I could teach a course there – contract law, mergers, bankruptcy. “Funny you should ask,” she said. “I’m on the search committee for a new chair of the department. We just made an offer after a full year search, but her current school made her a better offer. We are literally back at the starting point. You’d be perfect for the job. Want me to put in your resume?” I wasn’t looking for a full-time job. But the drama of the chase was irresistible. A whirlwind week later, I’d completed five interviews and was offered the job. It paid less than the half-time legal job I’d just left. Did I really want to teach at a tiny women’s college? I was Yale material! I related my dilemma to Susan. “Christine,” she said, “women are people too.”
I’d like to say that I took the job because I realized she was right. But actually, it was the staircase. The main building of the college had been the stately home of the Butterworth family. The foyer of Butterworth Hall was dominated by a huge mahogany banister that led forty feet to the second floor, like the stairs a bride would descend. Here were the elegant surroundings of Hartford’s former glory, a different type of prestige than big clients with multi-million-dollar problems, but still an image of something I longed for, a connection to a family, even if it wasn’t mine.
La Madonna en Justice began an inquiry that ultimately led me to conclude that whatever Strozzi meant, the painting was a message for me, one of those coincidences that can be forgotten but bubble up, like grief. Mary was telling me, like Rilke’s Apollo told him, “You must change your life.”
After I got home, I tried research online. Not much there. Strozzi made the painting in 1630, apparently commissioned for a wealthy Italian. No one knows why he decided to highlight a huge book and connect it to Mary. Women in Jesus’ time didn’t read or write any language, didn’t go to school, didn’t have libraries. And they certainly weren’t teachers—someone to point to a book containing a supreme law. This portrait was as much a mystery to me as the Mona Lisa has been for centuries to those trying to decode her famous smile.
One source said the law referred to is the Old Testament. This struck me as improbable. Would Mary praise the power of the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament? Under the Torah, women were chattle. The book of Leviticus contains hundreds of rules. One rule sets the penalty for rape—the rapist has to pay the father of the woman he rapes a fine. That’s not a law I imagine Mary would have approved of.
I researched the phrase “Suprema Lex Esto,” and discovered what Strozzi might have known, that Cicero, in 58 B.C., had coined a Latin slogan “Salus Populi Supreme Lex Esto,” which translates as “The welfare of the people is the supreme law.” If so, Strozzi would have known that he had written half of Cicero’s aphorism. Strozzi should have identified some particular goal or moral to be supreme: “Something is the supreme law,” not “The law is supreme,” as I had thought. Ultimately, I decided to fill in the blank myself: Respect for Women is the Supreme Law.
Teaching women taught me profound respect for working women. My students were mostly working women taking classes at night, sometimes to change careers, often to complete a bachelor’s degree they had foregone to get a job, marry, raise children, even put those children through college. Typical undergraduates are thrilled if a class is cancelled or ends early. Not these women: they wanted their money’s worth, even if it meant sitting in a classroom until 9:30 at night, still wearing pantyhose and pants suits from their day jobs with nothing for dinner but a stale candy bar from the vending machine.
Teaching was my first turning point. Creative writing was another. During that two-year period after Paris in 1998, I’d taken a few writing courses. In a poetry workshop, I started to write about La Madonna en Justice. I rewrote the first poem in workshop after workshop, trying to wrest meaning out of image. It took a lot of time and patience. As I struggled to connect the “law” with Mary, the image of a baby’s foot appeared. I recalled being pregnant and feeling my unborn daughter’s foot jut out on my right side. I’d gently push her foot back, reminding her it wasn’t time yet. This became a metaphor for my process of writing poetry and allowing Mary to reveal herself. I allowed her to question her role in the Biblical stories. She was a mother first, and sometimes she was angry at being manipulated. I allowed her to become a friend.
I wrote a poem in which I envisioned Mary’s robe as a symbol of her oppression and her doubts:
“Beneath her robe, she chafed at its raw underskirt,
threads of chambray, stiff and frayed.
The robe concealed her ankles, knees,
her doubts about divinity.
I alternated poems about Mary and Jesus with my life as a mother. Mary had bathed Jesus’ toes, perhaps played “piggy” with them. I imagined Mary’s reaction to Jesus’ disciples washing his feet at the last supper:
his toes now touched by reverence
by those who barely know him
disciples longing to capture his divinity
by handling his feet.
When Jesus is resurrected, according to the Bible, he appears to his followers—his male followers. There’s no mention of his seeking out his mother. This struck me as the final insult. In my poem “This is Not a Prayer,” I wonder:
why Christ returned to show the men the holes that breached his hands,
yet never thought to find his mother.
One night in 2010, leaving a poetry reading, I tripped over a curb and sprained my ankle. Bedridden for a weekend, I realized I had a book in me, one that explored Mary’s life as a mother and an object of patriarchy and her connection to my life. I decided to go back to school to study writing. Three years later in 2013, I graduated, and the year after that, I published “Blinding Light,” a collection of poetry that braided together the story of my life and my search for Mary’s law.
My editor sent me a painting she thought would make a good cover for my book. It showed a huge sun falling into the sea.
“Perfect,” I said. “What’s the name of the painting?”
“I’ll check with the artist and let you know.”
The next day, I got the answer: “The painting is called Blinding Light.” Coincidence? Then another: the painter, Laurel Daniels, lived in Austin, Texas, as did my daughter Eleanor. On my next visit in 2014, I looked her up. When we met, Laurel gave me the original of the painting: It looked different from the copy my editor found on the internet. The sun was more yellow than orange.
“Laurel,” I asked, “is this a sunset?”
“No, it’s a sunrise.”
An ending was actually a beginning, which seemed fitting for my book, which presented a new vision of the historical Mary.
My mother died before I had children, but through poetry, I connect them. My signature poem at poetry readings is called “Swans and Hearts.” The central image is of long strands of pink yarn on the inside of a hand-knit sweater.
My daughter asked for a sweater when she turned five.
She wanted swans and hearts. I, mother of the quick fix,
the good enough, always sure the inside wouldn’t show,
was stumped. Swans and hearts would take some planning.
I found my mother’s needles in her knitting bag, faded stripes
of silk with narrow pockets sewn inside.
Did I have it in me, the knowledge of the fingers, which way
to wrap the yarn, how to transfer stitches, cast on, cast off?
I picked bright pink, with white swans on a turquoise sea,
coaxed out a pattern, calculated colors, knit one row at
a time. The swans and hearts began to grow, separated
on the right side, but underneath, linked by strands of pink.
Eleanor is now a mother herself. She has a two-year old named Elizabeth, who has recently learned how to navigate the large staircase in her house in Austin. Elizabeth climbs up and down the stairs, a stuffed mouse in one hand and a plastic box of blocks in the other. Today I feel my mother’s presence. She seems incarnate in my two-year old granddaughter, who flings her arms around me in exalted joy.
Writing poetry has unlocked both this joy and the buried grief of my mother’s death. The core of loss emerged by coming at it “slant,” in the words of Emily Dickinson, through images, such as the Buddhist begging bowl in the poem below.
After the news that she will die
After the bargaining: take me, take me
After the cruelty of unearned pain—
What then, of comfort?
What of hope?
Fill this gaping bowl with just enough to live today
Force out my fear, scum at the bottom. Lift it
up to overflow the rim. Let our connection–
the cord between mother and my center–
Let this be comfort.
Let this be hope.
My journey to wholeness began with a staircase, a broken statue, a mother and a daughter sharing a private grief, and a painting of the Madonna.
About the Author – Christine Beck
Christine Beck holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree from Southern Connecticut State University and is the author of Blinding Light (Grayson Books 2013), I’m Dating Myself, (Dancing Girl Press 2015) and Stirred, Not Shaken (Five Oaks Press 2016). She is the poetry editor of The Perch, a journal of The Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health.
Christine Beck teaches poetry, creative writing and literature at The University of Hartford and in private workshops. She is a former president of the Connecticut Poetry Society and currently directs its monthly series at which poets moderate a discussion about a well-known poet at the Hartford Public Library. She was Poet Laureate of the town of West Hartford, CT from 2015-17. More information about her many activities is on her website: www.ChristineBeck.net.