By Claudia Ricci
It is very possible that after you read this chapter, you might decide that Sister Mysteries has gone on too long. Or maybe you will decide that you just don't believe what I'm writing.
Even though I promised never to tell a lie again, at least not on the Sister Mysteries blog, you might think that I am breaking my promise and making all this weird stuff up.
No. I promise you that I am not making any of this weird stuff up.
What happened on Tuesday night happened exactly the way that I am going to say it happened. If you don't believe me, you can ask my sister Holly Ricci, who was on the phone call with me and my friend Denise.
If you have not yet read Chapter Eleven, then you should read it before you read this chapter. (Duh, obviously, Chapter Eleven comes before Chapter Twelve!)
If you DID read Chapter Eleven, then you know that I spent about 1,500 words discussing the issue of "binaries" in my novels, and in stories in general. I wrote about Claude Lévi Strauss, a famous anthropologist who, no, did not invent dungarees.
Rather, he's considered sort of the Father of Mythology. After studying myths all over the world, he published an IMPORTANT BOOK (Structural Anthropology) in the mid-20th century. One of his principal ideas was that all myths and stories have the same basic structure, that is, they operate as a series of binary or opposing ideas or forces. Among these binaries are life vs. death, man vs. woman, rational vs. irrational, love vs. hate, sad vs. happy, and so on.
One of the most famous of binaries, one that fascinates and infuriates femininsts, is the so-called virgin/whore binary. According to experts who study this kind of thing, the virgin/whore binary has existed since ancient times. Women are cast either as Madonna figures, like the Virgin Mary, or as seductresses, like Eve in the Garden of Eden story from the Bible.
(Another seductress might be the flamenco-dancing main character, Ronda Cari, of my new novel, Seeing Red. Ronda has a fling with a Spanish guitarist, and she ends up pregnant. But that's another story.)
My new blog novel, Castenata, also features at its core a very obvious "virgin/whore" binary: Sister Renata, a devout nun living in 1883 in California, keeps donning flaming red flamenco dresses, and seducing her cousin Antonie. Of course, Renata denies all this, and says repeatedly in her diaries that Antonie is crazy as a bedbug; his syphilis is making him psychotic. He weaves these wild tales about his nun cousin, painting her over and over again as a seductress.
OK, so I wrote a chapter on binaries and I thought, that's enough of that.
Except it wasn't.
Last night, I had my regular weekly phone call with Denise D, an extraordinary healer who lives in Vermont. I have worked closely with Denise ever since December, 2002, when I was recuperating from lymphoma. Denise works with energy systems; she is also a fervent advocate of Gnosticism, a set of ideas that incorporates the unifying principles of all religious practices around the world. It's impossible to describe exactly what Gnosticism entails, but suffice to say that if you were to adopt a Gnostic approach to life, you would be far more likely to get along with your loved ones, to be at peace with yourself on a day-to-day basis, and to live a healthier and happier life, minimizing unnecessary "drama" with other people.
My sister Holly and I have been taking a weekly phone class in Gnosticism with Denise ever since August of 2006. Sometimes, like Tuesday night, Denise leads us through simple relaxation, meditation and chanting exercises. Sometimes, she reads to us from Gnostic texts. Sometimes she lectures to us about Gnostic ideas. Sometimes our phone conversations go on forever, and we just kind of gab about our lives, and what is holding us back.
On Tuesday night, Denise led us through a wonderfully relaxing 45-minute meditation. I was so relaxed that at one point I fell asleep. I heard her say, "we will now do a mantra vocalization using the letter M." The next thing I knew I woke up, and I was listening to complete silence on the other end of the line. I didn't know how much time had elapsed. I decided I would chant the MMMMMMM sound and finally I heard Denise say it was time to finish.
I have found chanting a superbly healing technique. I started chanting during that horrific summer of August, 2003 when that SOB at Sloan Kettering told me that if I didn't have a stem cell transplant, I would die. I refused the treatment and sought a second opinion from an older, wiser and more experienced oncologist at Dana Farber. I also consulted a medical intuitive who, like Denise, also happens to live in Vermont -- in Stowe. That reading turned my world upside down. I have never looked at medicine or the human body or illness or anything else quite the same way. I believe that the medical intuitive who did my reading, a woman named Karin Novak, is truly a clairvoyant.
In the month leading up to my medical intuitive reading, I did so much chanting that I got to the point that I could hold my notes for about three or more minutes at a time. My husband would be chanting with me, and he would run out of breath and I would keep booming away for another couple of minutes!
When I wasn't praying to the Virgin Mary -- I prayed to the Virgin Mary around the clock that month asking her help so that I would not need that damn stem cell transplant. I would wake up in the middle of the night and right away, I would say my Hail Mary's. Anyway, when I wasn't praying, I was chanting (Denise had taught me how.)
I chanted in the car. I chanted in bed. I chanted with my husband standing around in the bedroom. I chanted with my kids. I chanted every single moment that I wasn't praying because Denise had convinced me that vocalization would help clear my chakras and any blockages that might be there.
I chanted the sound AHHHHHHH (to clear the energy that might be blocking the lung chakra -- that was the place after all where the cantaloupe-sized tumor had originally appeared in my chest!)
I chanted EEEEEEE. I chanted AYYYYYY. I chanted OMMMMM.
I chanted MMMMMMM. I chanted OOOOH. I chanted SSSSSS.
Anyway, Tuesday night, during our weekly class, Denise led us in a lovely meditation. Then we chanted together. All very relaxing.
But then, when that part was over, Denise quite out of the blue announced that she would do a short lecture on....
The moment she said that word, I felt a nervous flutter in my chest. Ever since I started writing this book Sister Mysteries last month (it was only November 14th that I started, and I have 12 chapters already!) I have been experiencing weird situations that I cannot explain. For lack of a better word, I call them coincidences.
The first one, described in Chapter Two, occurred the day earlier this month when my writer friend Peg drove out from Massachusetts and brought me, as an early birthday gift, a beautiful tile with an image of the Virgen de Guadalupe on it. I couldn't believe she had bought it, or brought it to me THAT PARTICULAR DAY. It was Thursday, November 11th when she came, and I had just just just started writing Sister Mysteries. I had just committed to the Albany Times Union's Writing in Motion project, in which seven of us stalwart writers committed PUBLICLY to finish the books we had been trying to write for so long.
I have been trying to finish Castenata (the novel about Sister Renata) and Sister Mysteries, for almost 16 years.
Peg has read almost every word of every version of those intertwined books. And she had in the past given me Virgin presents. But it had been years, literally, since I had been actively working on these two books. It had in fact gotten to be kind of a sore subject for me, as I had developed severe writer's block and I had lost a lot of confidence trying so hard to write books that didn't seem to want to be written. Whenever the topic of the NUN NOVEL came up, Peg and I would just kind of laugh and make jokes and generally skirt the issue because it hurt so much for me to think about these books that I could not write, no matter how hard I tried.
So the fact that Peg had brought me a new Virgin Mary tile, when she hadn't known that I had just started writing the books again, was a little hard to explain.
And the fact that she had brought me the Virgen de Guadalupe, in particular, was really a bolt, as it was that specific Virgin image that had inspired my first attempts to write the Sister Renata tale way back in 1995.
Anyway, the books are going like gangbusters now. I get up each morning about 4 a.m. so that I can write a new chapter of Castenata or Sister Mysteries. (I really do try to force myself to stay in bed until five a.m. but usually I've got a chapter going like galloping stallions in my head, so I just get out of bed and write it down.)
The second weird coincidence happened a few days after Peg's visit, when (read Chapter Three of Sister Mysteries) I was having lunch with my friend Nina, the woman who originally inspired me to write the Sister Renata tale (Nina suffered from a severe case of breast cancer in 1994, and shortly afterward, I got this nutty idea that I would write a story to help distract her from the misery of chemotherapy.)
At lunch a couple of weeks ago, I was telling Nina that I had just started writing the nun novel again, and suddenly, Nina started to tell me about her good friend Teresa, who had earlier in November called up an ex-nun in New Jersey. This ex-nun is a psychic who transmits information from dead people to their loved ones. (I haven't written that chapter yet, but just wait, it will make your head spin!)
When Nina told me that she had a very dear friend named TERESA who was speaking to an ex-nun who was communicating information from beyond the grave, I almost fell off my chair.
SISTER RENATA'S BEST FRIEND IN THE CONVENT IS NAMED SISTER TERESA. Originally I spelled that character's named Theresa, but a while back, for some unexplained reason, I decided that I absolutely HAD to change the spelling of the character's name to TERESA.
OK, so it goes. There are these weird coincidences that keep happening.
Last night, without any warning, Denise began to lecture us about clairvoyance; as she defined it, clairvoyance is, as the word suggests, "clear vision," the ability to see beyond the physical world as most of us know it.
"A person sees some playing cards, face down," Denise said. "A clairvoyant can see both sides of the cards." She went on. "A medical intuitive is a clairvoyant. A medical intuitive like Carolyn Myss, for example, can see with clear vision what is going on in somebody's body."
Carolyn Myss is hugely famous for being able to diagnose illnesses from a distance, without ever having met the person she was diagnosing. Working with a physician named Larry Dossey, Myss was able to diagnose medical conditions in patients she had never met. She did not know a thing about the person she was diagnosing; like my intuitive, all she had to go on was the person's FIRST NAME. And yet, she was accurate in diagnosing Dossey's patients about 80 percent of the time. Read the books the two of them have written about Energy Medicine.
Denise's discussion of clairvoyance then took a turn, and it was that turn that threw me for a loop. "Clairvoyance," she said (and I was taking careful notes), "depends completely on the ability to work with the creative imagination...in order to develop our supersensory faculty of clairvoyance, we need to cultivate our intuition." The single biggest obstacle to cultivating intuition and clairvoyance, she said, is our incessant fixation with
BINARIES. Polar opposites.
I wrote furiously. My head was spinning. Was she really talking about binaries when I had spent all morning writing about that very subject? Had she read the post I'd written a few hours earlier? Why had she chosen this subject tonight?
"All day, we spend hours bantering back and forth with our intellects, with our reason. We are constantly having a battle of 'opposites' going on in our heads."
Why are we so bogged down in this business of binary thinking?
Because, she pointed out, we live in a world that is dominated by intellectualism and reason. "The Age of Reason started with Aristotle, it peaked with Kant, and just now, it is starting to give way to the Age of Intuition."
"Clairvoyance completely depends on the ability to work with the creative imagination," she said. But in our world, skepticism tends to reign supreme and, as a result, "our intellect berates our imagination" and defeats our intuition.
As it turns out, Denise had not read the post I wrote about binaries. When I called her the next morning, she told me that she had just decided, Tuesday morning, the same morning I was writing my binaries post, to focus on the issue of...binaries.
I emailed her back this message:
I know from my doctoral work in narrative theory that Denise is right about Aristotle. It was Aristotle who first pointed out that our language dictates our thinking in binaries. Consider the fact that when we call a chair a "chair," we are automatically implying that everything else is not a chair. Our language embeds in our thinking the idea that there is a thing AND automatically there is the OPPOSITE OF THAT THING.
If a chair exists, then everything around it is NOT A CHAIR.
So one could argue that we think in binaries in large part because of the way language works.
Certainly we know from a practical standpoint how a thing implies its opposite. A person who is white tends to see the world as being, dominantly, white. Everyone else in the world is, by definition, non-white, which gives rise to the idea of the "other." Similarly, heterosexuals tend to dominate the world, so those of us who are not heterosexuals are once again "othered," and are often viewed in a negative light.
OK, OK, enough lectures on language and narrative theory.
I was so damn weary when I finally got off the phone Tuesday night that I could barely speak. I had scribbled down 18 pages of notes on Denise's thoughts on binaries.
What did Denise recommend to take us beyond our "binary thinking?"
In meditation, she says, "We create a blank mind. We fix our mind on one thing [the breath, for example] and then we achieve a deep contemplation of one object."
We let go of language. We let go of thoughts. We let go of the incessant chatter of that inner voice we call the intellect. We go beyond the binaries. We go beyond our "selves" We achieve a unity with the universe. With our breathing. With our blank minds.
We sink into a very peaceful state and find ourselves deep in contemplation. Occasionally, we emerge with remarkable intuitive insights.
Or we just get off the floor feeling more calm. More at peace. More loving toward other people.
OK, folks. It's time to light the Hanukkah candles.
And maybe it's time for me to start meditating not just in the morning, but also, for a few minutes each night.
Sister Mysteries, an on-line book, is part of the Albany Times Union's Writing In Motion project. The project features seven writers committed to completing writing projects by the end of 2010. Sister Mysteries is connected to a novel called Castenata -- a time-travel murder mystery featuring a nun, Sister Renata, who in 1883 was falsely accused of murdering her cousin Antonie. Renata's version of the story is contained within her diaries on the Castenata site.