Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Switching on all the Lights

My mother believes her body is out to get her.

In fairness, her body has been trying to kill her since she was 23 years old, when she was first diagnosed with lupus. Systemic lupus erythematosus turns the body against itself. If AIDS can be explained as the massive failure of the body's immune responses, lupus is the equally massive overachievement of the immune system, in which the body's own defenses recognize internal organs as intruders, and start to eat them. There isn't a cure.

Back in the 40s, when Flannery O'Connor was diagnosed, they sent you home to die. In the 70s, when my mother was diagnosed, they gave you choking doses of steroids that could slow the disease's progress, if they didn't kill you first. The steroids didn't manage to kill her, and neither did the lupus; for some reason best known to God, the killing machine in her body ground to a halt after it had eaten her kidneys and just as its maw was stretched wide for the final bloody chomp. It was like that moment in the Ten Commandments when Charlton Heston stops the terrible machinery of the pyramid-building just in time to save Martha Scott from being crushed to powder beneath the huge stones.

I watched this scene in the Ten Commandments a lot when I
was a kid. I'm sure that doesn't explain anything.
The narrative of the almost-death, the almost-absence, the I-could-be-gone-again-at-any-moment, dominated my childhood. Because that's the thing about lupus; just as it can stop at any moment, so it can restart, for no reason at all. The switch can be flipped, the gears can whirr again, and the assembly line you are strapped to can start chugging you toward the steel teeth once more. I say all this to make it clear that when I say my mother is a hypochondriac, that doesn't mean her body isn't actually trying to kill her, because it is. Like the woman who survives a mugging only to visualize an attacker behind every tree, my mother has no more reason to trust the medical establishment, pharmacology, or her own body.

She hyperventilates if she experiences gas pains. A slight fever is a certain indicator of death, and any pressure in the chest means she is having a heart attack. If she is winded on the stairs, there is fluid in her lungs that the scans just aren't seeing; if her eyes burn, she is having a drug reaction. Sometimes, to tell the truth, I feel as though the lupus did kill her—or at least, the part of her that I never got to know, the part that was joyful and fearless, the part of her that didn't keep careful maps of shark attacks in a hundred-mile radius whenever my children go to the beach, the part of her that didn't know how many armed robberies occurred at every fast food restaurant in her city, that didn't see an asteroid hurtling to earth behind every cloudless day.

On a practical level, this makes her a pain in the ass when she is actually sick.

I've been spending the summer helping her through post-surgical recovery from a knee preplacement (one of the joys of longterm steroid use being its destruction of your joints) and let me tell you, we are getting on like a house afire. Several houses, actually, maybe the whole block. With flaming people hurling themselves out of upper windows screaming, and dead pets.

People who say sickness brings people closer together know jack shit about being sick. Or maybe they're right, and I'm just an asshole. Pull it together, I wanted to shout at her last night in the emergency room. We were in the emergency room because she had decided that she has stomach cancer, because the pain meds have been tearing up her stomach for days. And with every reassuring pat I gave, I got angrier. Why couldn't she be brave? Why did she have to cry like that? Why couldn't she just suck it up? And even if she were dying, why did she have to act like death was the single most awful thing that could ever happen to someone?

As a parent, there's really only one thing I want to teach my children, and it is this: Be not afraid. In both Hebrew and Christian holy texts, the first moment of a theophany is always those words: Be not afraid. Fear not. God is the mother walking blithely into a darkened room ahead of her child and flipping on the light switch. See? I told you there were no monsters! If we have one job as parents, it must surely be to say those words over and over and over to our children, in capital letters: Be Not Afraid.

We say it because we know that fear is the single most destructive path we can walk as humans. It's the path that leads to hate, ignorance, and darkness. God is constantly peeling our tight fists away from our faces and leading us into the sunlight. See what a beautiful world I have made for you. Be not afraid.

We should not ignore, in this discusion about the destructive power of fear, that other great holy text of our days, Finding Nemo. My kids will tell you my ability to watch this movie without breaking down in tears is next door to my ability to kill and dispose of a cockroach unaided, which is to say, never going to happen in this dimension or any other. Because Nemo is all about fear, of course: Marlin's fear for his son, Marlin's fear of loss, Marlin's fear of threats from the world beyond. I just wanted nothing to ever happen to him! he shouts in despair, and Dory just looks at him and says, well, that's kinda weird, because then. . . . nothing would ever happen to him.

Nemo is also about how your dad and his gay best friend are not
going to get together, ever, and you should probably stop wishing it. 

As I was holding my mother's hand at two in the morning in the emergency room last night, I wanted to say so many things to her, none of which I said. I wanted to say, a lot has happened to me, and all your fear never bought me a single minute of safety. I wanted to say, I wouldn't trade any of it, because it was all wonderful, and messy, and terrifying, and mine. I wanted to say, let go. Be not afraid.

But I didn't.

I argued with doctors and nurses, and cried with her when there was pain, and gritted my teeth at her when she complained, and wrapped her in a warm blankie when I didn't know what else to do. Soon enough, it will be me small and helpless and curled on a bed, and one of my children will be writing some blog about how annoying I am, and why can't I just be a better person. I don't know. There isn't some pat ending here. None of us wants to die, and all of us do it, and it sucks. I guess we just keep swimming. I guess we try not to be afraid. I guess we swim with the current, and bounce off the jellyfish, and hope like hell we can get where we need to go, and hang onto the people we need to love.

But I'm afraid.

Monday, July 22, 2013

God Save Us, Everyone

I've considered about four different captions for this,
but really there just are no words.
Here you go, a royal story that has nothing to do with the new baby. Back in 1953, when Queen Elizabeth II was crowned, there was television, but no transatlantic cables that could transmit it (much less satellites.) So the American film crews that had been on hand for the coronation had to stuff their footage into cans, race to the plane, and edit it over the Atlantic so it would be ready to roll the minute they were wheels down in New York.

It was the world's first major international event to be televised, and I once read an interview with William S. Paley, head of CBS at the time, from a couple of years before his death in 1990, in which he reminisced about it. He talked about that flight, and how they set up screens in the back of the plane, frantically splicing and editing, and he said at one point he looked around, and every single tech, journalist, and editor on that place was gathered around watching, riveted, many of them with wet eyes. And at that moment, he said, he got it. He realized that what they were watching was the closing ceremonies of World War II. He said there was a real sense, on that plane, that this was the final closed door on that whole awful period: that somehow, watching that slight young woman say those solemn words was the nail in Hitler's coffin. Because of course, if Hitler had had his way, there never would have been an independent England at all, much less a coronation. And just as images of London standing unbowed under the blitz inspired the free world to stand firm and continue to resist, so Elizabeth in that moment stood for all who had died, as well as all the living who vowed to move forward into those "broad, sunlit uplands" of which Churchill spoke.

So yes, I do think we should care about this royal baby. I think we should care tremendously, because it is tremendously important. I think the British monarchy is tremendously important. It's true that the U.S. is not a member of the British Commonwealth, having left the realm in rebellious circumstances. But we are the de facto leader of that Commonwealth, the eldest daughter, if you will. Where Canada and Australia and New Zealand and England and South Africa and India stand, there assuredly stands the United States—bound in that same brotherhood of shared history, language, and culture. It may be an uncomfortable family, and elbows might get thrown around the holiday table, but in the end we know who our mother is.

Symbols matter, and as symbols go there aren't many older than the British monarchy. At some point in this little baby boy's life, God willing, he will stand where his great-grandmother stood in Westminster Abbey and take that coronation oath. He will be raised to take that oath, raised to be consecrated to the service of his country. It's a mind-boggling, almost barbaric idea. He doesn't have a choice about what he is going to be. I'm not sure that there's enough money and privilege in the world to compensate someone for the loss of that choice. We like to think that everyone born into our world has a choice about the direction of his or her life, but the bitter truth is, for many children born in the world today, the idea of choice is a mockery. I would suggest that this little prince, in all his privileged choicelessness, can serve as a reminder—a powerful symbol—that there is a nobility to that kind of life. You can be robbed of your choice before you are even born, and still you can live a life of dignity, worth, and ultimate humanity. The choiceless life can be a grace-filled life.

America has been acting her part of periodically estranged, continually conflicted eldest daughter today: for every excited exclamation of delight about this royal baby, there are (by my completely accurate head count on various social media) at least seventeen thousand of righteous disgust—protestations that we fought a war not to have to listen to this shit, that they're all just mindless parasites, that none of this matters today. And maybe all that's true, to a degree. But symbols matter. History matters. In celebrating this baby we can celebrate all children born to a choiceless life. In acknowledging the line of history that this baby stands in, we can affirm the continuance of history's march, and our own place in it. I don't apologize for caring, and for all its occasional silliness, I think the media coverage of this royal baby has been a good and unifying thing. I think the world can do worse than to care about a baby being born.

So good luck, little prince. We may sing the wrong words to your national anthem (yeah, we don't know where Tisavy is either), we may have serious disagreements about spelling, and we may be giving your family the side-eye over here, but we're still the cool aunt who will splash gin in your lemonade and sneak you cigarettes underneath the table. You stick with us, little guy. Everything's gonna be fine.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Dark Knight trilogy

Now that the horrors of Aurora have been eclipsed by the horrors of Newtown, is it possible, one year later, to have a conversation about Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy that just discusses the films? Probably not. And that's probably as it should be. The Batman story itself was born of the gun control debate, back in the Golden Age of comics, as a nation traumatized by the rampant gangster culture of the 20s and 30s began to celebrate heroes who won their victories without guns, and whose mission was to destroy weaponized violence. Superheroes are the anti-gun, and none more so than Batman, who has no special powers to rely on to replace those guns: no X-ray vision, no superhuman strength, no resistance to pain and disease.

That debate is front-and-center in the final film in the trilogy. "About that whole no guns thing," says Selina Kyle, shooting her way to Batman's rescue. "I'm not sure I feel as strongly about it as you do." Batman himself may never touch a weapon, but there sure is an awful lot of shooting in Nolan's movies, and Batman's surrogates Catwoman and Robin are pretty comfortable slinging heat. That's just one among many sources of uneasy tension in Nolan's trilogy.

I'll be honest: I deliberately did not see these films when they came out. They looked like dark, murderous glorifications of violence, which felt like an insult to the meaning of Batman. I was also wary of the reboot for fannish reasons. I have loved comics, and the DC universe in particular, since I was a kid, and I didn't particularly want to watch some over-teched, slicked-out, hollow shell of a new incarnation. And also: Michael Keaton. What can I say, I'm loyal.

But there was plenty that I adored in Nolan's films, and plenty that only a true lover of this mythos could have produced. Let me just say Ra'sAlGhulRa'sAlGhulRa'sAlGhul!!! in a high-pitched squealy voice as many times as possible while flapping my hands, because man. Man. Did Nolan ever do justice to that villain, capturing the part of you that wants to love Ra's, wants to adore him. And doing justice by Talia — I really didn't see that one coming. Maybe I'm overly dismissive of Hollywood reboots, but part of me was surprised the writers even knew the name of Talia Al Ghul, much less the complexity of her relationship with Bruce Wayne. Every single villain was just spot-on, throughout this.

What else was awesome? The toys, of course. I realize every Batman reboot is under the technological gun to make the toys better and more exciting, but this really delivered. Nightwing said it best: the great thing about running with you, Bruce, is the toys. Gary Oldman was another gigantic slice of wonderful. His voice! I kept listening to that accent for any flaw and there never was one, not a single misstep. It was completely beautiful. He is the actor's actor, the male Meryl Streep, and anyone who said he wasn't beautiful enough to play Sirius Black should be punched in the face. (Though what is it, a law, that he has to wear that mustache alla time?)

I was less in love with some of the other parts of this trilogy. The loving attention to canon we saw with the villains was completely dispensed with when it came to Robin, and though I realize Joseph Gordon-Levitt's police officer gig was a nod to Nightwing's day job in Bludhaven, it still felt like we were creating Dick Grayson out of whole cloth instead of respecting the material. One of the biggest problems for me in any Batman reboot is its inevitable ignoring of this most basic element of the story: the push-pull tension between Batman as Lone Wolf, and Batman as family man. When he's not busy brooding on rainy rooftops and sulling in the Batcave, let us not forget the man does manage to raise four boys. That tug in two directions is the most complicated part of Batman's story, but it's not one I've ever seen handled well on the screen — well, the non-animated screen, because Under the Red Hood is the most beautiful and thorough exploration of that whole painful family dynamic out there. (No, Val Kilmer taking in Chris O'Donnell in Batman Forever did not count, because explain to me who does not take in seventeen-year-old Chris O'Donnell.)

However, on the plus side was the suggestion of "Robin" taking on the mantle of Batman after Bruce's retirement. That much is canon, and that was fun to see. But all that goodwill the film was building in me got torn down by Anne Hathaway. Don't get me wrong: she was faaaabulous. Anne Hathaway could pick salami from her teeth and I'd still watch, and she was worth it and more in this. And then. . . she kissed Bruce Wayne. I'm sorry, was there anyone sitting in the theater who believed that one? Really? Mmmkay, that woman who lives with her and whom she defends and with whom she fleeces unsuspecting guys and who was just feeling her up three scenes ago — that was her cousin, right? Because I'm sure the studio didn't just slap some heteronormative bullshit on the gayest character in comics. Least sexy kiss in all of movie history.  

Only wood here is the acting, sorry.
Of course, that could have been a way to sew up the Alfred storyline tighter than it was, because that whole thing was left hanging like a four-year-old's pants after a potty trip. No two ways about it: Bruce treated Alfred shoddily. Alfred's sobs at Bruce's graveside tore my heart because they made me hate Bruce that little bit more, right in the final minutes of the trilogy, when the film really needed me to love him. Sorry, I can't wrap my head around a Bruce who treats Alfred poorly. BUT, if when Bruce sees him at that Florentine cafe, he had gone over to him, put a hand on his shoulder, sat down and said, "Alfred, I'd like you to meet my lesbian wife" — well, I feel like that would have gone a long way to setting things right between them.

But really, I've just been kicking sand around what truly bothers me about the Nolan trilogy, and that's Christian Bale. Look. I realize the cosmic unfairness of saying to an excellent actor, "Okay, we are going to wall you in a black Kevlar fortress so you can't really move your head and neck, and the only part of your body that will show is your lips. And then we're going to shove you onto the set and stand you next to Gary Oldman and Heath Ledger and Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman (and then, because we're not done kicking you in the groin like Batman in the final minutes of a hand-to-hand with Bane, next to MARION FUCKING COTILLARD) and then we're going to say, okay, ACT! And we will tilt our heads funny and make squinty faces because we're just not feeling it from you." So I recognize it's in many ways unfair to say that Bale's performance was the least exciting thing about this reboot, but there it is. Unfair to call a performance wooden when Batman is made of polished oak, but again, there it is. Bale was consistently stiff and awkward where Bruce Wayne needed to show emotion and vulnerability, and open and emotive where Bruce Wayne needed to be a closed wall. It was confusing at best.

I would like to think the plot holes are going to be resolved when Man of Steel, which Nolan is executive producing, comes out this summer. I have to say I'm with the legions of fangirls on this one: clearly, Batman was snatched from the blast radius by Superman. I know this because there is only one way to travel six miles in one minute forty-seven seconds, and that is safely tucked under Superman's well-muscled arm. It's just a commonplace of the DC universe that Batman will regularly feel the need to crash into something on a suicidal mission (a rocketship into a meteor in Public Enemies, the Watchtower into Earth in Justice League) and Superman will just as regularly rescue him, to Batman's intense annoyance. So this is how I know for a sure and certain fact that Clark Kent swooped in at the last moment to clear him from the blast radius while Bruce was shrieking, "You asshole, I'm goddamn gonna kill you!!" and Clark was sing-songing, "I'm the bigger he-ro, I'm the bigger he-ro."

Anyone around here have a measuring tape? 'Cause we
were just gonna, you know, um. . . compare some stuff. 
Hey, speaking of plot holes, how about that five-inch-wide one in Batman's ribs? You know the one, where Talia Al Ghul shoved her knife in between those armored plates and twisted that motherfucker? Yeah, it can take HOURS to die a painful death from that, and she sure looked like she knew what she was doing. That scene was exquisitely thrilling: oooh, I thought, it's going to be just like that final scene in Gladiator when evil Emperor Commodus shoves the knife under Maximus's breastplate and he has to go out there and fight while slowly bleeding out but he wins anyway even at the cost of his life because he is the goddamn Batman! Except not. Talia shoved her knife in, and that was the last we saw of that wound. Batman goes on to wrestle an armored truck and fly a nuclear bomb, because that Talia Al Ghul, she knifes like a girl. People who complain about abdominal wounds, they are just pussies I guess.

Nevertheless, my love for Nolan's vibrant re-imagining outweighs my reservations. "I loved everything about it but Bale" is as good a summary as any. Sometimes there is such a thing as being too beautiful, and finally I think that's Bale's problem. He just needs to let life punch him in the wide puppy-dog eyes a little bit more before he can sell me on Batman.

Still the prettiest, though.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Both Wax and Fire

Christopher Smart is in my head today.

Smart was an 18th-century poet who spent six years locked up in insane asylums. He got locked up because he prayed too much — like, all the time. In public. Apparently he would drop to his knees on the street and just start talking to God in a really loud, hard-to-ignore voice. Understandably people began to think he was not right in the head, or Baptist. The line between those not being clear, he was confined first to St. Luke's Asylum in Bethnal Green and then to Potter's Asylum, an altogether dingier, darker place.

Mental health care in those days was not what it is today, and if you know anything about mental health care today, you know how bleak a statement that is. By all accounts Kit Smart was a gentle, self-effacing, kindly soul, but for several years Smart was denied all visitors, even family. His cat was his only companion. Not all his friends agreed Smart was really mad, though. Samuel Johnson said this about him:

My poor friend Smart shewed the disturbance of his mind, by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place. Now although, rationally speaking, it is greater madness not to pray at all, than to pray as Smart did, I am afraid there are so many who do not pray, that their understanding is not called in question.

While he was locked up, Smart wrote some of the most lyrical, haunting, whimsical verse in the English language, that challenged the bounds of verse-making and rearranged convention. "To My Cat Jeoffry" is probably the best known, but the Jeoffry section is just part of a much longer piece, the Jubilate Agno, which was not published in its strange, wondrous entirety until 1939. Some of Smart's verses have become hymns in the Anglican tradition, including my particular Easter favorite, "Awake, Arise." These verses in particular haunt me:

His enemies had sealed the stone
As Pilate gave them leave,
Lest dead and friendless and alone,
He should their skill deceive.

O Dead arise! O Friendless stand
By Seraphim adored
O Solitude again command
your host from heaven restored!

It's hard to miss Smart's focus on the entombed Christ as "dead and friendless and alone," and harder still to miss the idea that that may be exactly how he saw himself, locked in that hellhole of a madhouse, abandoned by all, knowing himself to be (as he always maintained he was) sane, but without hope, without any glimpse of a resurrection. It's a powerful spiritual thought, that in contemplating the passion, death, and resurrection of his Lord, Smart may have felt the greatest identity with the dead Jesus, locked in quiet.

I've always thought that Smart's imprisonment was a geographical mishap more than a mental health issue. The biggest indicator of his "madness" appears to have been the uncontrollable religious ecstasy, and if he had just been born in another time and place, things might have turned out differently for him. Smart's story reminds me of one of my favorite Hasidic tales, about a young Hasid who dutifully tries to attend the beit ha-midrash every day to study Torah, but always has to stagger outside after the first two words of the verse under discussion are read. He would lean against the wall of the building and shake with holy laughter and joy, hugging himself, repeating over and over: Va y'omer! Va y'omer! (And He said! And He said!) It was Smart's misfortune to be born into 18th-century England, one of the most unforgiving times and places to be a religious ecstatic I can think of. Had he been born just a little south of there, perhaps across the channel in France, he could have found his way into a religious order — maybe as a mendicant friar, maybe as a Carthusian mystic rapt in prayer in his cell.

Angela of Foligno ate nothing but scabs, lice, and pus
for a period of about ten years, skating right past
crazy to gross.  
For myself, I don't trust religion that has no place to put its crazies. Religion is a fundamentally crazy endeavor, at bottom; no one truly and soundly sane would ever be involved with it. Trying to dress it up like it all makes sense just makes you look more crazy, like the guy who draws detailed maps on beer napkins to explain how the Federal Reserve and the USDA are conspiring to launder the kickbacks from illegal feta-cheese shipping.

 I've also found that the more liturgically orthodox and ritually conservative a religion is, the more tolerant it is of craziness, of noise, and of chaos. Watch the kids in a Russian Orthodox church someday; one of their favorite tricks is to find a forest of low-hanging lampadas and race in, knowing some heedless adult is going to concuss themselves trying to chase them down. Places like that are always full of squirming and talking and general low-level anarchy, from the adults to the kids. Why? Because they have regular, intimate contact with the divine, and that turns humans a little weird. So they tend to tolerate weirdness when it bleeds out at the edges, whether it's in their fourteen unruly kids or their mystic great-uncle who argues aloud with God on his way to the grocery store.

It's only when religion pretends to be rational that it turns intolerant of anarchy. The more liturgically liberal a religion is — the more modern and reformed and humanistic — the less likely it is to be the sort of place your kids can make noise. Those are the places intolerant of craziness, and I use the example of kids because they are the Apostles of Anarchy, and you can tell a lot about a community's comfort level with chaos (and thus with God) by how they treat their little ones. If a congregation of any religion is so full of bleating anklebiters it sounds like a petting zoo, then relax, you're in the right place: crazy is okay here.

Simeon Stylites spent 37 years on top of a pillar in the desert.
People sent food up to him in jars on ropes.
He is the patron saint of tetherball. 
Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, and Orthodox Judaism are all pretty safe places to be crazy, and they have long experience with how to handle crazy Uncle Mort (or Uncle Haralambos or Uncle Giuseppe.) They would have been able to absorb Smart, as well. It's a fun head game to play: who do you know who really belongs somewhere else? Who do you know who missed the era that would have been able to make sense of them by a few hundred (or thousand) years, or the country they should have been born in?

Smart eventually got out. His friends (among them Johnson) had been agitating for years to free him, and one night they persuaded the warden of the asylum to let Smart come to a dinner party, as long as they provided him a constant escort. So they came to get him for this party, and then they just never brought him back. Smart was a free man.

He lost everything, though: his wife had left him (her father was the one who had originally committed Smart, possibly because of debts or a dispute over publishing rights) and taken their children while he was locked up. He lost his ability to write, too. After his release, he never wrote anything of significance again, and never completed things when he did begin them. There wasn't much left in his life but his God and his freedom, and eventually he lost that again, when he was imprisoned for debt. He died in a debtor's prison eight years after his release from the asylum, in pain and penury. Crazy doesn't pay. Loving God is a dangerous business. There's no happy ending or easy moral.  

And yet, everything he wrote was of joy. Joy bleeds out from his writing just like the crazy does. Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, Smart calls, over and over in his poetry: rejoice in the lamb, rejoice in the name of God, rejoice with the redbird, rejoice with the blackbird. It's as though the smaller and narrower his life got, the larger it got. The interior and the exterior of his life had nothing to do with each other. That's crazy, or it's something else.

Sancte Christofore, ora pro nobis. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Happy Female Literacy Day!

Annunciation of Jacquelin de Montlucon, late 15th century.

Today in the Anglican and Catholic churches is the feast of the Annunciation, which wins for best art ever, or at the least wins the numbers game. There are probably more Annunciations out there than any other religious subject, because the drama of the angel Gabriel intruding on a startled (yet piously reading!) Mary to give her the good news of Jesus' birth has proved an irresistible subject for just about every major European artist since the invention of dirt, or at any rate Christianity. None of these paintings ever show Mary doing anything less pious or remotely ordinary; she's never surprised while doing the laundry, or eating falafel.

The Annunciation got the artistic wing-up on other subjects because it was understood as the beginning story of Christianity, and so it usually got depicted as the first illustration in medieval Books of Hours. It's a common misconception that these books were always gorgeously illuminated, impossibly expensive prayer books for the very rich, and it's true that some of them were. But many more, especially after printing got going, were mass-market, cheaply-produced factory products, and in book-obsessed England, just about everyone had one, from the scullery maid to the King. Even the non-Latin literate owned copies of this book, because first of all when you hear prayers every single day of your life you come to understand them inside and out, even if you don't know the finer points of grammar (ask any Jew who's ever failed out of Hebrew school but knows every word of Unetaneh Tokef.) And secondly, the books had plenty of pictures to prompt both your memory and your devotion. For the wealthy, these would be hand-illuminated, richly decorated pictures of sometimes extraordinary quality. For you and me, the pictures would be prints of woodcuts, often with some red color daubed on at the bookbinders, if you felt like paying the extra coin for that. But the Annunciation would have had pride of place in both high-end and low-end copies, right at the beginning of the book.

 This decidedly up-market illo is from the 15th century Bridewell Hours, made for an English buyer. The text underneath is the opening lines of the first Hour of the day: Domine, labia mea aperies, et os meum annuntiabit laudem tuam (Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise.) The verb "annuntiabit" connects the text to the picture, so that just as the angel announces the good news, so the reader announces his praise. Thus the reader begins his prayers for the day where the Christian story begins, in a neat symmetry that allows the reader to feel not only connected to salvation history but inserted in it, since Mary herself is usually depicted anachronistically reading her morning prayers as well.

 This sense of the Annunciation as a new beginning isn't just in the visual arts, as Tolkien geeks will be well aware. It isn't accident that has Frodo casting the ring into Mount Doom, vanquishing evil, and ushering in the new golden age on the 25th of March, by Shire reckoning.* And in his Appendix, Tolkien says that this day became New Year's Day from that point on: the new beginning of the world. The uber-Catholic Tokien did not pick that date at random; it was picked for him, by centuries of Christian devotion to Lady Day, as this day was commonly known.

Here is the El Cheapo version of a Book of Hours illo, in which you get the Visitation in a twofer.

 John Donne wrote one of the most beautiful sonnets in English about this day, some three centuries before Tolkien:

Salvation to all that will is nigh:
That All, which always is All everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo, faithful Virgin, yields himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though he there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet he will wear
Taken from thence, flesh, which death's force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created, thou
Wast in his mind, who is thy Son, and Brother,
Whom thou conceiv'st, conceiv'd; yea thou art now
Thy maker's maker, and thy Father's mother,
Thou hast light in dark; and shut'st in little room,
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.

What's interesting about this poem, besides its heart-stopping beauty and exploration of paradox, is what it reveals of Donne's Catholic sympathies. Donne was born a Catholic in anti-Catholic Elizabethan England, and even when he left his native faith for the path of preferment and eventual prosperity, he retained much of that faith's architecture, which is always peeping out at the corners in his writing. For instance, check out line five in the heart of the sonnet above: in affirming the sinlessness not only of Jesus, but of the Virgin Mary (he there can take no sin, nor thou give,) Donne neatly articulates the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, a belief not held as binding on Catholics until 200 years later, but commonly held as a matter of devotion among pious Catholics for centuries. Belief in Mary's sinlessness from the first moment of her conception was, of course, firmly rejected by the European Reformers, because it was thought to undercut Jesus' work of salvation by implying Mary got some kind of special pass.

Donne got away with this kind of thing because well, he was Donne, but also because lots of Englishmen, even into the latter part of the 16th century and beyond, shared his sympathies. The rejection of Catholicism in England was a political maneuver by government elites for reasons of state, and Reformed Christianity remained deeply unpopular among the people, who for many years were loth to surrender their rosary beads, their blessed candles, their devotion to beloved saints and their shrines, and yes, their precious Books of Hours. Protestantism really didn't get thoroughly beat into the people's heads until the 18th century, and even then Catholic tendencies kept cropping up in the oddest places, so that the government authorities were constantly playing theological whack-a-mole. Eventually English Catholicism erupted with a vengeance in the 19th-century Oxford Movement, and today much of what goes on in Anglican parishes would make Cranmer weep snot-filled tears. Beauty is hard to kill.

One of the most stunning works of art to come out of the English Late Medieval period is the Memling altarpiece, painted by Flemish artist Hans Memling for Yorkist apparatchik Sir John Donne, collateral relative of John Donne the poet.

 Much in this triptych is conventional: the patron Sir John and his wife Lady Donne (nee Elizabeth Hastings, sister to William Lord Hastings) kneel before the Virgin and child, surrounded by the heavenly court. The side panels are the two St. Johns, heavenly patrons of Sir John: John the Baptist, shown gesturing to the (literal) Lamb of God, and St. John the Evangelist, shown blessing the Eucharistic cup, since John's gospel is associated with explicit Eucharistic devotion (e.g. I am the Bread of Life, etc.) I am less sure about the female heavenly helpers standing on either side of the Virgin, but my guess would be St. Margaret on the left (holding the sword) and either St. Elizabeth of Hungary on the right — St. Margaret because of Sir John's attachment to Margaret of Burgundy, sister of Edward IV and patroness of Hans Memling, and St. Elizabeth because of Elizabeth Donne (notice the protective hand she extends over her namesake.)

Take a look at the books Lady Donne and the Virgin are holding: for Lady Donne, her Book of Hours, and for the Virgin, a breviary. (The double columns of the Virgin's book are characteristic of the breviary, which is just the fuller, multi-volume version of the single-volume Book of Hours.) It's an interesting commentary on female literacy and piety that it's the women who are shown reading their prayers; St. Margaret's sword directly behind him associates Sir John with action rather than reading. Depictions of the Annunciation and the reading Virgin primed audiences to associate women and reading, and in Western art the most common depiction of St. Anne, mother of the Virgin, show her teaching her daughter to read from her prayer-book. For millennia the passing on of basic literacy has been understood as "women's work," and before you dismiss that as outdated, go to your local elementary school and count the number of male teachers there. 

The point to be made is that even as Western society continued to disenfranchise, sideline, and subjugate women, it consistently exalted female piety as a kind of ideal or model — and depictions of the Annunciation are both a reflection and a cause of that respect for feminine devotion. There's a good argument to be made that that respect was the groundwork for all later advances in women's equality. So, in honor of Lady Day, no matter your religious persuasion, go read a good book. And if you know how to read, chances are there is a mother or a female kindergarten teacher to thank for that. Give them a call and thank them today; go ahead, make Frodo proud. And Happy New Year!

*In case you were wondering, yes, I know today is not the 25th of March. But should it fall during Holy Week, among Western Christians the feast of the Annunciation gets displaced to the first Monday after Easter Week, so the Virgin got bumped this year to the 8th of April. The date of the Annunciation is arbitrary anyway, based on the establishment of December 25th as the celebration of the birth of Jesus — thus making Mary the only woman in history to give birth on the exact date predicted.