Friday, December 03, 2010

Chapter Thirteen: What's with this WEIRD and Mysterious Connection to Saint Bernadette?

"She is a mystery to me my sister. Without words to describe her, I resort sometimes to pictures. One snapshot I've got of my sister, Heather Ricochet, was taken on that calamitous day that she was baptized."

OK, so those lines you have just read represent the original opening of the very first version of Sister Mysteries, the book I began writing in 1995, the book I am determined to finish, as part of the Albany Times Union's Writing in Motion project, by the end of 2011, that's write, I mean, right, in the NEXT 28 DAYS!

I have been writing this book for the past 16 years. I have devoted more time and energy and paper and ink and toner cartridges and self doubt and worry and blood and sweat and tears to this project than any human being should EVER devote to any artistic project. I hate to think about all the trees I destroyed trying to get it "write."

And yet, here I am, still writing, still determined to finish this sucker. This time, I'm not writing it as a novel. This time, I am writing the truth.

So like every morning for the past few weeks (I've written 13 chapters in 19 days) I got up about four a.m. This morning, I took out of the hallways closet that crate with the blue satin shawl where I keep all the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and HUNDREDS of discarded pages from early versions of Sister Mysteries.

I keep that crate covered by a blue satin shawl adorned with bright red flowers. I keep that crate safely tucked away in the hallway closet under a black garbage bag that is torn and overflowing with rags. I keep that crate next to the vacuum cleaner and the ironing board.

Anyway, I got up to dig very very very deep into what I call "the Sister Mysteries crate" in order to find the original opening of Sister Mysteries because ...

because of St. Bernadette, and because of the very strange strange strange strange email that my wonderful friend Kellie Meisl sent me yesterday quite out of the blue. I will get to St. Bernadette and to Kellie's bizarre email, I promise you. But first you need to know more about the original version of Sister Mysteries.

My husband always loved the opening line of Sister Mysteries, and every so often he will say it out loud to me, or I will say it out loud to him. In our house, the first line of Sister Mysteries is a rather famous first line.

"Ah, she is a mystery to me my sister." We say that line out loud in part because it is a sentence with so much rhythm. We also say that line simply because it is part of our shared history. My husband, bless him, has lived through me doing so many revisions of this damn book that well, he kind of knows the whole story. I mean it was 1995 when I started it. Our kids, who are now grown and out of the house, were just small children.

In the first version of Sister Mysteries, I constructed a torturously convoluted story about two wacky sisters, Heather and Malvina Ricupero. Malvina was ten years older than Heather, and she filled a motherly and protective role in Heather's life, because their real mother had passed away.

And in this version of the story, Heather was supposedly "channeling" the story about Sister Renata, the nun falsely accused of murdering her cousin. That nun story, Castenata, has never ever changed, all these year.

Anyway, I want to share a few paragraphs of the Heather Ricochet story. Heather was trying to get her skeptical sister, Malvina, to be her "scribe," that is, Heather wanted Malvina to write down the nun story as she was channeling it from her sickbed.

Heather's goal was to turn Malvina from a skeptic into a believer.

It was just one of the weird things about my character Heather Ricochet.

As a child, Heather had been very sickly, and then at 13, she became wildly religious and believed that she had had a visitation from St. Bernadette. In her twenties, Heather made another radical transformation. She changed her last name from Ricupero to Ricochet and she launched a wildly successful career as a rock star. She did lewd things on stage with microphones.

Even as a baby, however, Heather had been "marked." Here is a snippet from the scene I wrote about her baptism day, with older sister Malvina narrating:

It is June, a steamy Sunday morning, and baby Heather is lying in my arms bawling her head off. Her face is dark pink, the color of a boiled hot dog, and warm and clammy-looking from crying so hard, and she looks lost in her long white christening dress. What isn't showing in the photo, curiously enough, is the elliptical shadow that appeared in the center of Heather's forehead right after the priest dribbled holy water on her scalp.

When Noni saw the shadow appear, she yelled out 'il maloch'io! il maloch'io! (the evil eye!)" Lurching forward toward the white baptismal font, Noni fell to her knees and immediately began praying out loud in Italian. The priest interrupted the baptism and asked my father rather pointedly if my grandmother wasn't going to need help, immediately. Wasn't it time to get her out of the church?

"No, no, I stay," Noni responded, getting to her feet.

"I'm sure it's nothing, Father" Pop told the priest, and the baptism continued.

Later in the story, Malvina tells the reader about Heather's adolescence, and how Heather found religion:

"It was Halloween, and Heather had put on her white confirmation dress and she had draped a sheet over her head. When she came downstairs in that get-up, I asked her what she was supposed to be and she just shrugged and looked at me mysteriously and said, "At least now I'm ready."

"Heather was a little too old to go trick or treating so I figured she meant that she was ready to hand out candy with me at the door. But she spent the entire evening dressed up in the white garb greeting trick or treaters. The next morning when she came down to breakfast, she was still wearing the white outfit, only she had bound one strip of an old pillow case tightly around her forehead so that she vaguely resembled a nun. When Pop asked her what was going on, she said that Saint Bernadette had appeared to her in a dream.'"

"And so began one of the most frightening periods of Heather's life. It is painful to me to recall all the times I feared for my sister's well-being or her sanity. And how Pop, for the most part, managed to ignore the whole thing. I will never forget, for example, the day that Heather revealed her stigmata to me. My sister's hands oozed small quantities of blood and pus from a dozen tiny holes in her palms. And her forehead sported a ring of what looked like insect bites. Pointing to the pinprick-sized series of wounds, Heather said in a dreadful monotone, 'These are the wounds of Jesus Christ.'"

"The blemishes on her teenaged forehead I chalked up to pimples, since her skin was a pubescent mess. But the wound in her hands, they definitely had me worried."

"However, only a few times did Heather do things that were dangerous to herself or others. She set a fire in the girls' bathroom at school, apparently trying to light a votive candle. And a month later, she took one of Pop's torches out of the wrought iron welding shop and scorched her bedroom wall with a giant crucifix. As a rule, though, Heather confined herself to quiet but dramatic expressions of religious fervor. At any time of the day or night, I used to find my sister lying in the corner of the living room near the maroon mahogany cabinet where the old Victrola was housed. With her eyes closed, she would stretch her arms out to either side and assume the shape of a cross. In that position she listened endlessly to one of my father's old 45s. The record had Maurice Chevalier narrating the story of St. Bernadette and how the child's visions of the Virgin Mary led to the discovery of the miraculously curing waters at Lourdes.

"Chevalier's voice was distinctive. When he spoke, I would get this vision of him throwing his head back and gargling up his English as if it was mouthwash in the back of his throat.

"The Frenchman Chevalier didn't do a thing for me. But Chevalier's distinctive accent -- and his spooky story about the Virgin sightings -- clearly enchanted my sister. For months, she would only answer to the name BERNADETTE. When she wasn't listening to the 45, she was kneeling, staring into a thick white votive candle and mumbling prayers in her own throaty imitation of Chevalier's French. She was always taking baths, too, soaking herself in what she called hold water. After hours in the tub, Heather would rub herself carefully with incensed body oils and then dress completely in white."

When I first wrote the Heather Ricochet story, I had no idea that there was a very deep and important link between my character and St. Bernadette. And me.

I will never forget the day I discovered that link.

I wrote most of the material about Heather Ricochet in 1996 during a stay at Montalvo, a writer's colony in northern California. At the time, I thought perhaps that Heather's and my fascination with St. Bernadette had something to do with the fact that as a child, I myself listened to a 45 about St. Bernadette.

My dad (who worked at the local radio station) had picked up the vinyl record with the weird Maurice Chevalier voice, and brought it home. I remember my brother and I sitting and listening to it, for HOURS, as we were both enchanted by the weird music and the story of the little girl who had visions of the Virgin Mary (we went to Catholic school, my brother and me, but that's another weird story.)

But the connection to St. Bernadette, as I was to discover, went a lot deeper than that the old vinyl 45.

One afternoon at the writer's colony, I went on an "outing" into town with my wonderful poet friend Suzanne Wise. We were walking, as we often did that month, to a local bookstore. (I recently reconnected with Suzanne when she came here during the month of November to do another writer colony stint at the Millay Colony near my home in Austerlitz, N.Y. I think Suzanne's arrival in Austerlitz had a LOT to do with my resurrecting the Sister Mysteries story, but more on that in another chapter.)

Anyway, back to Montalvo, where I had just started the Heather story. I was very, very excited about this character, and I'm sure I must have been telling Suzanne about Heather. I loved writing about Heather's bizarre behavior, the way, for example, she performed on stage. I am pretty certain that I probably shared with Suzanne a few details of the scenes I was writing, where, for example, Heather's sexy and sacrilegious performance at the Hartford coliseum -- she did weird stuff with microphones and ended up falling off the stage there -- earned her the censure of the Roman Catholic archbishop.

When we got to the bookstore, I decided that I would find a book about saints and do a little "research" on St. Bernadette. All I really knew about the famous French saint when I started writing the Heather material was that she had had visions of the Virgin Mary, and she ended up with the healing waters at Lourdes.

Standing at a bookshelf, I pulled out a book about saints and looked up Bernadette's history. I read, and then I almost dropped the book. What I read astonished me.

I was flabbergasted to find out that St. Bernadette, like Heather Ricochet, suffered from asthma. I had had absolutely no idea of that connection when I created the character.

I remember that I carried the book over to show Suzanne.

And then it hit me. My mother has suffered from asthma all her life.

It was only much later, after I had my medical intuitive reading.">an incredibly astonishing medical intuitive reading in 2003, that the full significance of St. Bernadette's appearance in my book, and Heather Ricochet's life, began to make sense.

The medical intuitive, in addition to pinpointing precisely the location of my cancer, had asked me if my mother had "a serious lung ailment." I was shocked that she knew this; I answered, yes, she had asthma my whole life. (And I spent many many days beside her bed, watching her gasp for breath, and wishing I could help make her breathing easier.)

Well, said the intuitive, "you must work out the resentment you have toward your mother about her illness." According to the intuitive, I needed to forgive my mother, and work through the ways in which her illness had terrified me when I was a child of four or five, and taking care of my little sister Karen because my mother was bedridden.

That experience had turned me into a scared child, and an anxious adult.

Well, so, I've working on all that.

But what happened yesterday with my friend Kellie Meisl, well, so. Here you go, the St. Bernadette connection.

Kellie is the artist whose image, "Shattered Cups," appears on the cover of my new novel, Seeing Red. She is also a dream artist, working in a fascinating intuitive fashion, drawing on her dreams at night and what she calls her "waking" dreams, or visions, to construct images and stories that heal her life, and the lives of others. I once went to a dream workshop with Kellie, and her partner, my friend Connie Caldes (they live in Pittsfield, Massachusetts). The two of them lead incredibly dynamic dream workshops. Both of them are very, very supportive of women in the arts.

OK, so here is the email I received out of the blue from Kellie, who has been reading this new blog version of Sister Mystery, a true tale of all sorts of strange coincidences and other weird events that are occurring as I hurry to finish this book and the "nun novel" -- the Sister Renata story contained within the book, Castenata. I've got to finish both by the end of the year!

Kellie has never read a SINGLE word of the original Sister Mysteries book. And I never talked about any part of the story or any of the characters with her. Kellie had absolutely no idea that I spent years writing about Heather Ricochet and her fascinating relationship with St. Bernadette.

So in the subject line of yesterday's email Kellie wrote:


and then came the email (the reference to connie is to her colleague and my friend, Connie Caldes, a woman I met when I was recuperating from cancer. Connie too had breast cancer and a mutual friend introduced us.)

"had a dream last night that involved a tattoo on a leg of a woman that referenced the number 30, connie immediately picks up on a saint reference, the woman's name was ann, ann was mary's mother, right? then connie says, because of the leg, 'I get a bernadette feeling, bernadette "saw" mary! but read this...notice some interesting things about bernadette???

BERNADETTE? Kellie, are you serious?

I was at my office when the email popped into my gmail account. I was incredibly busy at work, with students and other stuff, but I just stopped. I just sat there and just stared at the name


I just couldn't believe it.

How had Kellie and Connie picked up on St. Bernadette, and her critically important role in this story?

I wrote this email back to her:

oh holy shit. BERNADETTE WAS HUGE IN MY FIRST EARLIER VERSIONS OF THIS NOVEL & BERNADETTE HAD ASTHMA just like my mother...I"m kind of afraid to open this link kel :(

a couple minutes later, after I read the link, I wrote Kellie again. I told her that my brother and I used to sit and listen to the St. Bernadette story.

And then I googled Maurice Chevalier and St. Bernadette and I found the performance archived in a Westinghouse performance way back in the 1950s. It was from that performance, apparently, that they later made the 45 that my brother and I listened to sitting in the living room.

According to that website, "the first episode of the Westinghouse-Desilu Playhouse aired in October 1958, was "Lucy Goes to Mexico," a Lucy-Desi Hour with guest star Maurice Chevalier. The following week the first dramatic hour premiered, "Bernadette" (a biography of Saint Bernadette, the young girl claiming visitation from the Virgin Mary in 19th century Lourdes..."

And so, this is how St. Bernadette came to be in my early life. And this is how, now, St. Bernadette has come back. She has returned here to Sister Mysteries, thanks to my friend Kellie's dream and thanks also to my friend Connie's incredible intuitive interpretation of that dream.

I am so grateful to my friends, who have helped me along this journey, writing Sister Mysteries. Please know, all of you, how much love and affection and gratitude that I have for all of you!

And I am grateful too, to St. Bernadette. Welcome back Bernadette.

Let me say, officially, right here: if you have more to teach, please just let me know. Go ahead, send me an email. Or drop me a letter. For heaven's sake, just give me a sign.

Meanwhile, I just packed up all those hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of discarded manuscript pages and piled them all back into the Sister Mysteries crate and then I draped the crate with the blue shawl.

And while I was doing that, I flashed on the Torah, and the way that it is rolled out on two wooden spools each week during Saturday morning services at my temple. I saw in my mind how the Torah, when it is not being read in the congregation, or during Saturday morning services, it is covered under a beautiful tufted satin cloth bag. I saw in my mind how carefully the Torah is stored, within its satin bag, and in the Ark, a wooden and glass closet designed precisely for that purpose: to hold the Bible (for those of you who don't know, the Torah is the Jewish Bible, it consists of the first five books of the Old Testament).

And while I wouldn't think to compare this crazy Sister Mysteries crate to the beloved Torah (I am a converted Jew, I made my conversion after my son Noah was born 21 years ago and I do love this religion I am fortunate enough to be part of), I do see some connection.

It is curious to me how we separate out certain texts. We put them in special places where they are held separate. By doing this, separating the texts, putting them into special places, special containers, we make a separate and a sacred space for them in our

I am not trying to say that Sister Mysteries is a sacred text. It is not.

I am saying however, that I have made a special space for it in my life.

And now that I have done that, the book seems to be writing itself.

Time to meditate.

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