Tuesday, February 23, 2010

February 22: Saint Margaret of Cartona

As a college writing teacher, I know about the healing power of putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. During my years in the classroom, I've read student essays about binge drinking, drug abuse, sexual violence, eating disorders, and gender confusion. (I've also read essays about gutting deer, fixing pickup trucks, killing goldfish, and kissing grandmothers. It ain't glamorous, but it's a living.) Above all, I've seen the expressions on students' faces when they share something painful or embarrassing. It's a combination of relief and fear, as if they've just revealed to me a vestigial tail or hermaphroditic sex organ they've kept hidden their whole lives. Baring yourself in all of your broken glory is like volunteering to be Zuzu the Ape Girl in a carnival sideshow.

Today's saint could be the patron of all the Zuzus of the world. Margaret of Cartona's story has all the ingredients of an 11th century Girls Gone Wild video. As a teenager, she ran off with a guy from a neighboring town, got knocked up, and had an illegitimate son. She lived in unwedded bliss for nine years, until her Tuscan stud was murdered. After returning home to her father and being rejected by him, Margaret and her son ended up receiving asylum at the Friars Minor at Cartona. Even living with a bunch of monks didn't curb her sexual appetites. I'm not Dr. Phil, but I would diagnosis this girl with seriously low self-esteem coupled with the possibility of abuse at a young age. (Cue the dramatic Law & Order: SVU chords. Dah-dum.) Eventually, Margaret went home on a Sunday and tried to "mutilate her face" to atone for her sins, according to my book. Saved by a priest, she became a Franciscan nun, nursed the poor, established a religious order, built a hospital, and had ecstatic visions in which she spoke directly with Jesus Christ. (Talk about an over-achiever.)

The fact that astounds me the most about Margaret's tale is how really fucked-up her life was. I got the feeling as I read about her that there's quite a few juicy details that the circumspect publishers of my Illustrated Lives of the Saints chose to omit. But that's human nature, to gild the messier side of life or ignore it altogether. That's especially Christian human nature, unfortunately, as if the last Judas in the world was named Iscariot. (I've always had a soft spot for Judas in the Bible. It might be my co-dependent nature, but I just think that a few home-cooked meals and maybe a couple of visits to Nazareth's red-light district might have made him less cranky.)

The kind of open-book quality of Margaret's life and the cleansing power I've witnessed of student essays makes me want to throw open the closet doors in my house and drag every last femur, tibia, ulna, rib, and skull into the light of day. My wife read Margaret's story and said, "I guess there's hope for me yet." Honesty is a mighty force. It can purge the soul of a lot of infected and broken crap (like cleaning out the attic in anticipation of a move).

When my wife and I were separated, I spent a lot of long evenings thinking about sex, sex addiction, sex addiction and the Internet, sex addiction and the Internet and pornography. (I also spent a great deal of time missing sex and the close, sweaty proximity of another human being.) I've always had an obsessive nature. So, during those endless nights of naval gazing, I started searching on the Internet. At first, I told myself I was only looking for my wife, trying to find her, connect with her, protect her, hurt her, whatever her. Those searches led me to adult websites. Those adult websites led me to more adult websites. Those adult websites led me to hardcore porn sites: blowjob.com, ratemenaked.com, titsandass.com, eatmeraw.com, pussygalore.com. Some nights, I would logon at 9:30 at night and logoff at 2 a.m. (Keep in mind, I leave for work at 5:30 in the morning.)

I knew I had a problem. My rational mind knew I needed help. But the abandoned part of me, the part that felt like the ragged socket of a tooth in a five-year-old's mouth, was not willing to give up the empty pleasure of cyber connection. Then, one night, I spent over eight hours pointing and clicking. I dragged myself into work and knew I couldn't continue.

I didn't try to mutilate my face. I slinked into my counselor's office and confessed the whole shitty, sticky business, expecting judgement and disappointment and shock. (My counselor is a good friend, and I truly carried a load of shame the size of a blue whale into that session.) What I got from her, instead, was understanding, compassion, some tissues, and a hug. (Pretty much what Jesus would have given me.)

I would like to say from that day forward I never clicked a mouse in an inappropriate manner again. Like any broken person, however, I have to take it a day at a time. Some days are easier than others. Some days are harder. That's the nature of brokenness, I guess. This blog is just another step on the road to wholeness.

So, I stand before you today--Zuzu the Hermaphroditic Ape Girl With the Vestigial Tail. Show times are 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Drop by the tent for a visit. The bearded lady in the next stall makes a mean blueberry muffin, and the Alligator Penis Boy across the midway always has the coffee pot on.

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