Brownies, The Virgin, and a Cat

THE ANNUNCIATION: ADVENT

Two years ago, I was making a series of drawings for my church for Advent. I had been recovering from tick-borne disease for a few years, and had made little art during that time. I was feeling better, and with weekly deadlines for drawings, I was learning again to bring my sketchbook with me everywhere I went.

One evening, my daughter’s Brownie troop was hosting “Girl Scout History Night” for the younger Daisy troops. Before the event would begin, our girls were setting up stations for the guests to explore traditional games. Anticipation was high. Thirty younger girls were expected to show, along with four older girls who had volunteered help. So far, only the eleven girls from our troop and their mothers were in the room, but it was already bursting with female energy.

To stay out of the way, the mothers were stacked up against the walls. They were all pitching their voices at each other above the chatter of girls, except for me. I squatted in a small chair behind a table, offering verbal support to the girls who manned the station there as Daisies began to drop by. I tried to affect a beneficent, serene expression like Michelangelo’s Pieta as I kept my face looking down into my lap. Only it was not my child, or the crucified Christ whom I held there: it was Mary on the day she conceived him.

I was working on my drawing for the third Sunday in Advent. The interested, listening look I tried to affect was like what I would wear as a girl drawing in class at school. At first, I felt as awkward drawing in that small chair as I felt at thirteen years old. I imagined I was drawing Mary while all the others shouting above my head were concerned with something utterly else – a boyfriend, which friend would invite her on vacation, possibly even the book the class was reading — and I didn’t know how the others might feel about my doing something that carried me so far away from our world of girls and women as drawing did. But the females level with my head right now were mostly eight years old, and they peered curiously over my shoulder and whispered surprise and admiration as did kids in school when I was their age.

At age thirteen or fourteen, when we girls began feeling ourselves becoming women, the others stopped noticing my drawings, and it was mostly boys left to appreciate my work. The boys noticed it because (believing drawing was the most attractive thing nature endowed me with) I flaunted it at them. I developed an obsession with a boy who did nothing all day but twirl drumsticks and practice on his drum-pad. He was already so monumental as to have left his first name behind in childhood: like a star, he was known by only his first intitial: Z.

I played guitar poorly myself, and I knew a few folk songs. I avoided playing in front of Z., but I offered to make a portrait of him. As I drew Z., Joan Baez singing the sorrowful words “black, black, black is the color of my true love’s hair” looped through my head. At home, in Z.’s absence, I would play the song and sing along to keep myself company. In Z.’s presence, the painful song sung silently was the only conversation I had with him while I drew his black hair.

Z. did not mind serving as my model for many weeks: it helped him practice being admired while he worked at shaping himself into a star. I overworked the drawing, wearing a hole through the paper with my pencil. I did not want to leave Z. in the middle of the white paper alone, untouched, and I wanted him to keep posing for me, so I made rays radiate out from his head. This made him look as if on the cover of one of my parents record albums from the sixties: he appeared like a guru or a god. When I could add absolutely no more to my drawing, and Z. had acquired flesh several shades darker than he bore in life, I gave him the drawing, and he humbly received it.

Z. worked his way through several of the school’s young women who were far less creative, and far bolder in their methods of admiration than I was. I was puzzled over how he let himself be so easily had. I thought he was deeply intelligent because he was silent as a stone. I assumed he must be my soul-mate because of what I was certain lingered in that silence. At times, what certainly lingered and radiated in the air around him was smoke from marijuana. He may have been stone-silent at times simply because he was stoned.

Many years later, a teen-aged girl conceived Z.’s child, and he married her. At twenty-five, I ran into him on New Year’s Eve when he was playing at a bar next to the studio my husband and I had just bought. Z. looked like he had been on a journey: a beard of biblical proportions covered his face. He was happy to see me. Over champagne and soggy stuffed mushrooms, we smiled at each other and congratulated each other on still possessing the one thing we had shared as teenagers: the creative dream.

But this Advent, no matter how I tried, I was not able to create a sense of Mary. And as I drew her while surrounded by young girls, I wondered if there was anything we shared in adolescence other than celibacy. Mary’s purity was something rooted both culturally and internally, and was cultivated by her faith. When I was a young teenager, I was not a Christian yet. Steeped in a secular private school environment, my chastity felt like something external – a judgment – a letter worn on my chest – perhaps a “D” for “Dork.” This time in my life of utter confusion and shame was the time in which Mary was chosen by God, visited by an angel, and humbly conceived Christ. How could I ever understand Mary at all?

At my church, we had been studying the lives of biblical characters in adult Sunday school. The other women spoke of what they saw in Mary, while I kept silent. She was humble. Not like me. Certainly, she was silent and serene. Not. She saw what others spoke of her son, and what he did, and, rather than yelling, “What are you doing, Jesus?!” to control his behavior by knocking down or building his self-esteem, the Bible says she simply “treasured these things up in her heart.”

I was still trying to know how to be comfortable in silence after being sick and alone in bed for so long. I was still trying to not need constant reassurance from others, and to learn that when God and other people are silent, they are not giving me “the silent treatment.” Every facet of my identity: the child of God, the girl, the woman, the mother, and the artist had been fragmented by getting so sick I had memory loss. I feared what I could remember of my girlhood would not allow the inviolate Mary to materialize for me.

I thought if I ever “got” Mary it would be a miracle, as while a teenager I thought getting a boyfriend would be. To try to get Mary, I felt my best bet was not to try to approach her from a role rooted in my gender, but to send my artist after her to draw her. (After all, this was the way I “got” what there was to get of Z.) The artist-part of my identity was still the one I trusted most to put some kind of order to all the broken pieces in my head and make someone recognizable, and even admirable, out of them.

Meanwhile, in the library, my glances at my daughter and the other Girl Scouts, buzzing like bees with the kind of desire both natural to and healthy for girls, filled me with health. This gave me the strength to tune the girls out again, look down again, and keep trying to draw Mary.

At the Annunciation, Mary was likely still more girl than woman, and it seemed to me the angel found her alone doing whatever girls do while alone. Could Mary ever have the luxury to work at something for seven hours with her hands, I wondered, like I had been on my drawing? Perhaps on a loom, flirting with beauty while making clothing? I didn’t want to draw a loom, and I decided to make Mary sitting on the floor, resting, because in 1 or 3 B.C. or B.C.E. they didn’t have chairs like we do. Because most girls in the world then and now don’t spend time at libraries and Brownies meetings – they cook, clean, and fetch water – I figured Mary would only would be resting if she had just been working. And so I finished drawing her broom leaning against the wall as the self-determined, bossy-sounding banter of Brownies playing hard at work encouraged me to find something more to add to my own.

I gave my Mary a cat. I don’t know if her family would have had one, but not knowing who she had to comfort her in her adolescence, and wanting someone to, I drew the cat for her. I also gave it to Mary, I think, because at that time my priest’s wife still was wanting a cat. At least Angie would see a cat next to her beloved Mary on the church bulletin. And if Mary could have a cat, someday Angie would feel like a girl again and have one, too. Drawing the cat was something of a prayer for Angie. (A month after Christmas, her husband got her a cat for her birthday.)

My drawing was finished by the end of the Girl Scouts event.

As an innocent girl, my Mary is simply relaxing with her cat. She is not singing songs about the color of anyone’s hair or threatening to waste away if she never sees him again. She is certainly not obsessing over Joseph when the angel comes. She holds her arms up in a gesture of both power and surrender because when the angel walks in, she feels her true love – the One who by seeking to love her is seeking to empower her in her own mind and in the minds of others – come down close. She already felt wedded to him for a long time, perhaps as long as she can remember. She knows he will always care for her – through Joseph, or if Joseph will not raise her lover’s unborn child — in some other way.

About to voice her consent, Mary remains seated vulnerably on the floor, waiting with all of her will still intact. The cat notices a shadow approaching and Mary’s initial internal spark, and suspects there will be mating soon. But, being a cat, he sees no reason to relinquish his place in the composition. So he merely blinks and stares at what is coming.

THE ANNUNCIATION: ADVENT

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