I am myself when I write; the hours when I’m writing are the best part of my day, a place of satisfaction that I want to occupy. The rest of my day can feel like prelude and postlude to that important time. But writing is also a constant hum in my brain, an enclosing bubble, and I am always in there, musing, waiting impatiently to sit at my desk, preparing myself with jottings, reading, and thoughts. My brain feeds me a narrative of sentences and I am happily distracted by that tinnitical chatter. In that sense, it was inevitable that I would write about the Virgin Mary—she is ever-present for me—but it struck me recently that I hadn’t examined her meaning to me as icon. Although I had done a cull of my Mary statues, they were gathering in my home again, and I wanted to examine the significance of these special Marys. And I needed context—hence the backdrop in my piece of the moving statues, of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and of the mistreatment of women in Catholic Ireland.
The first impulse for the essay came to me in the local church—I needed succour and I went to stand before Our Lady of Clonfert. I lit a candle and my internal natterbox fed me a sentence: ‘This is a flame of gratitude; I asked and I received’. When lines arrive like this, sometimes I reel them in and sometimes I don’t—out of laziness or lack of interest. But this I wanted to explore: why do I worship Virgin statues? What does Mary mean to me now, and what has she meant to me in the past?
2020 was supposed to be a different year in my life. I turned fifty, I planned to step off the treadmill of book work—promotion, teaching, literary events—and I planned not to write a novel. I saved for years and pre-booked holidays for 2020 in Ireland, Wales, Nashville, and Greece. The pandemic, of course, took care of most that—I was firmly pushed off the treadmill. The holidays—mostly—were not taken. So, with nowhere to go and no novel-plan, I followed the flush of nonfiction that had begun to flow for me last year. It felt easier to write about things I knew well—loss and hope, mostly. Mary, as symbolic, caring mother, seemed to fit with the inward-looking essays I had already written concerning pregnancy loss, perimenopause, the meaning of home, workplace bullies, crying, what clothes mean to me, and so on.
I wrote the Marys essay quickly. My notebook shows I explored many possible threads but, like all writing, sometimes it’s better to listen well to the aspects of a topic that sing loudest. Leslie Jamison suggests that ‘What’s your pleasure?’ is as profound a question for the essayist to ask herself as ‘What’s your damage?’. In my essay, I wanted to find out why exactly statues of Mary please me so much and I hope I answered that.
NUALA O’CONNOR lives in Co. Galway, Ireland. Her forthcoming fifth novel, NORA, is about Nora Barnacle, wife and muse to James Joyce; it appears early 2021. Her new chapbook of historical flash fiction, Birdie, is just published by Arlen House. Nuala is editor at flash e-zine Splonk.