#31: Margery of Kempe and Starting Over

A year later, and being between vaccines

Approximately one year ago I sent out my to-date-most-read newsletter on Julian of Norwich and staying inside your four walls. It’s not hard to see why Julian’s biography hit a nerve with me, hit a nerve with a lot of people who were just getting used to keening mosquito-whine of anxiety and the dull ache of separation that’s been with us for a full year now.

In that letter, I also briefly talk about Margery Kempe, another (absolute favorite) 14th-century British mystic and the author of the first English-language autobiography. She visited Julian of Norwich, and writes about it in her Book. Margery was 40 and just setting out on her spiritual journey, Julian only about three years from death.

Let me tell you more about Margery. She was a middle class medieval woman, born and raised in Norfolk, and for the most part, led an absolutely normal life. She was married, to the long-suffering John Kempe, had 14-ish children, had a failed business as a brewer and with a grain mill, was illiterate and, if her biography is anything to go by, plain-spoken and rather funny. However, after the birth of her first child, something happened: the 8 months following his birth, she was plagued by visions of demons, a disappointed Christ, and suicidal ideation. From there, her life pulled her along in the tidal flow of childbearing, keeping a growing family alive, a loving relationship with her husband—it’s plain between the lines of her autobiography that she’s plagued by lust for her husband—able to put off her desire for increasing closeness and devotion to God, or at least subsume it into everyday life, until once again, Something Happens. In 1413, shortly after the death of her father, Margery decides to do two things 1) Negotiate a chaste marriage with her husband John and 2) Go on pilgrimage. It is on the first leg of this first pilgrimage that she encounters Julian, who affirms her visions, her desire for a more pious life, while cautioning her that all her work had to be in the service of all of Christendom, not just her own faith.

Margery of Kempe did not literally write her own memoir, she hired someone to take dictation, but I do really like this image, so sorry to historical accuracy.

This is the point where Margery’s life explodes into possibility—she travels to the edges of the known world, spending time in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Assisi, Rome, Santiago de Compostela, Gdansk, Aachen, Calais, and various holy sites in and around England itself. She hires a scribe to help her set her wild and blooming life down on the page, to give herself the power to explain her visions and her devotion. Her life is not without peril or difficulty. Throughout her travels she often gets in trouble for her preaching, for her sobbing and emotional reactions to Christ, for being a woman, for being plain-spoken, for interpreting scripture, for heresy, for impersonating a nun, for believing she could make an intercessory prayer. When John Kempe gets sick in the 1430s, she returns to him and nurses him until his death, a period she describes as tender, if difficult. After his death, she hits the road once again on pilgrimage. Her life was greater, and wilder, and stranger than the life we might imagine for any medieval woman, especially one that was not wealthy.

But let me go back to 1413, this year that feels like the hinge in Margery’s life, the moment of meeting between these two incredible mystics whose words have somehow survived centuries. Julian’s world was constricted to the walls of her cell, even as war and plague raged outside. Margery’s world was as wide as she was brave enough to make it. It feels like this month is that point of meeting between these two women: we are just emerging from a tremendously difficult winter, full of isolation and challenge and loneliness, and we are emerging into a spring full of promise and hope but also a lot of strangeness and wildness and untrod paths.

I got my first shot a week or so ago in an empty K Mart, I’ll get my second shot in two weeks in a hospital in the suburbs. The woman who gave me my first dose of the vaccine was named Queen, the vaccination center was packed at 10:30 on a Saturday morning, everyone calm and kind and patient, masks over their noses and anxious eyes, whatever our last year had looked like. I cried a little bit before I got my shot, a little bit after, in the observation period.

Just as the shape of my life today was unimaginable to me a year ago, the shape of my life in a year is unimaginable to me now. This year has been exhausting and traumatic and strange for all of us, lined by grief and loneliness, and now our doors are ever so cautiously swinging open, revealing the entirety of a changed world to us. It’s been pointed out over and over again that “normal” is not what we are, or what we should be aiming for, but I do know that these open doors, a tenderly reopening world, represent an opportunity to build for ourselves, for each other, a better world, space for each of us to have beautiful and blooming lives in the aftermath of our loss.

I’m not going to lie—this is an opportunity that feels far away in a way the end of the pandemic doesn’t. We, collectively, every single one of us, failed so many people so profoundly, we let our government fail so, so many people, we have been failing people, collectively, since the beginning of this country and none of the news out of Washington is making me feel like that’s going to stop. But I also look at my local mutual aid, I look at all the ways our communities have stepped up, all the ways person to person we have figured out how to take care of each other, all the weird wonderful art that happened, the different ways we learned to be with ourselves.

It’s kind of a div school cliche that apocalypse comes from the Greek for “unveiling.” The price of this new knowledge, like so much new knowledge, came at a high price, but it will be a higher price still if we try to forget this hard-won lesson. As we stand here, on the hinge of the world, it’s time to visit our mystics and elders, time to reach for wisdom to ensure that as we rebuild the world, find new shapes for our lives, that we build it in ways that serve all of us and not just ourselves. We need to allow ourselves to have been changed by this strange, terrible year as we venture out, pilgrims into a new world.

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Reading List:

As a reminder, I make a small commission off these sales:

  1. The Book of Margery Kempe I honestly would just recommend reading this, cover to cover. It’s so strange and funny and has such a voice, coming from hundreds of years away.

  2. Margery Kempe by Robert Gluck. Extremely different vibes, and yet this book showed me what I’ve been trying to do with the saints all along.

  3. Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard. I don’t know, I’ve been thinking about this book a lot lately, it’s very short and strange and maybe what it looks like to be a mystic today.

  4. Joyful Militancy: Building Active Resistance in Toxic Times. A good book on how to do the people parts of building a better world, which, let’s face it, are very fucking difficult.

I’m also going to throw in the entire list for the Julien of Norwich letter, just for kicks.

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A small housekeeping note—this will likely be the last edition of Ojos de Santa Lucia that occurs on Substack. It’s increasingly apparent that this platform, like so many others, has chosen to make vague handwaving notions about the idea of freedom of speech rather than protecting trans women from absolutely despicable attacks. Unlike other platforms however, they’ve given transphobes ENORMOUS advances on their newsletters, legal protection, etc. and that’s really not ok. I need a moment to gather my wits and figure out how and where to migrate, but I’ve done it before and will do it again! It’s important to note, again, that I don’t make money from this newsletter other than the occasional commission from Bookshop purchases so this is largely a symbolic flouncing off, and yet, off I flounce.

I’ll be sending another note thru Substack when the change goes through to let you know and let anyone who falls thru the cracks have the opportunity to jump back on the bandwagon.

No new writing from me this month, turns out it is very difficult to write things.

As always, feel free to forward, share, tweet about, email me, literally whatever—I cannot tell you how much I enjoy hearing from people who read this newsletter!


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