Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Pilgrimage to Lynn: Finding Fellowship with Margery Kempe

"Every evyn and morwyn 
Richard wyth the broke bak 
cam and comfortyd hir"

The Book of Margery Kempe

The Pilgrimage of Tears

It began in the bathroom of an queer bar in Iceland. I was in a stall, bent over crying in fits of mild panic. A few hours earlier, I had entered the club with a gaggle of LGBT medievalists here for the biannual New Chaucer Society meeting. It had become a tradition that each NCS would host some night of fun and community for its queer scholars. The club was an easy choice and easy to pick out among the buildings of Reykjavik. Covering every foot of the bar's exterior were the colors of the rainbow in their neon glory. At first, most of us stood around talking sipping drinks. I had a diet coke because of a mild alcohol allergy I had passed on to me from my Polish ancestors. As the night went on, the club filled with more locals. The room got crowded, the music loud, and the room hot. Many of us who remained shed out of our coats and piled them by the window, behind a curtain. Although I was down to a clingy black and white dress, I kept my cell and purse close to me; either in my hand or tucked into my bra. From my years in Washington DC, I knew to be careful of pick-pockets. Yet anyone who has spent time with things stashed in their bra will know, things can get very sweaty very quickly. When the digital clocks on the phone (blurry with perspiration) passed eleven, a few of us decided to shed a few articles and hand-held devices, including my phone. We stashed them in our deftly hidden clump of coats. Within the hour, we had all gotten so tired that we were ready to head back to our hotels and hostels. Putting on my jacket, the pockets felt light. I patted them. Flat. Nothing in them. I checked under the pile but even after everyone had claimed their clothing, there was nothing left. I searched the floor between the moving legs. Nothing. As the others offered their condolences or hopes that it would be found and left, I asked the bar and the DJ. They hadn't been given any lost items and warned me of what I already knew to be true. The phone was gone. Taken. In this community of queers, who I had mistakenly felt enough fellowship to drop my standard safe guards, I had been pick-pocketed. I felt betrayed by the community. I felt like a foreigner, alone in a foreign land, unable to call home for help. Left to myself, I found my way to the bathroom to cry before I hit the road. Now, as ever, I felt a kinship with Margery Kempe, a medieval woman on whom I had just given a talk earlier in the day. She too knew about feeling alone and betrayed when traveling abroad. Despite our differences, our tears brought us closer.

I was not thinking of Margery Kempe as I walked home in the cold through the streets of this Icelandic city. Clinging my coat closer to me, for comfort more than warmth, I felt vulnerable. While my phone had limited capacities in another country, it gave a sense of security while I was far from home. In a pinch I could call my partner or family, who I desperately wished to have with me now. I could distract myself by searching the internet for things to do when you lose your phone in a foreign country, except I had no phone. This sense of being cut-off from safety nets compounded the feelings of violation at having someone enter uninvited into my bubble of self, touch my things, and take something away. All this was stressful but perhaps would have felt more manageable if I didn't already have an ingrained sense of exposure and vulnerability as a transgender woman walking the streets alone at night in unfamiliar area. Similar walks at night down sidewalks close to home have gone worse, even with a way to call for help. The revealing dress I was wearing under my other things didn't feel cute anything. I felt like a walking target waiting for someone to take a shot. My coat pulled close, I walked quicker than usual across the cobblestone road back to the hostel where I was staying. Once I got in, I pulled a big sweater over my body, cocooning myself as much as I could then took my computer into the lobby. Booting up Skype and online messengers, I tried my partner. Even with the time difference, it took me a while to get her on the line. Eventually, she calmed me down but only after unleashing some rage at the situation. I vicariously got something from her anger. She left me with an assurance that I would be safe and that she couldn't wait until I got home. I talked to my mother next (who remains one of my best friends and confidants) and she gave similar sentiments. By the end of that night, however, I had come to the conclusion that next time I traveled abroad, I did not want to travel alone. I concluded much the same thing that Margery did when she felt betrayed and on her own in Jerusalem: as much freedom as one experiences striking out on your own, traveling greatly benefits from fellowship.

By the time I was invited back to NCS, next time in London, I had made my decision to find whatever means necessary to bring my fiancee alone with me. I compiled a set of plans on how it could be done, taking into account our finances and family (the kids would be staying with their father around the same time) and presented it all to her. To my relief and joy, she said yes. Then another thought occurred to us. What if we invite my mother to join us? Her and the Reverend (my fiancee) had become much closer by frequent texts, calls, and visits. We had long been discussing asking her to move in with us once we found a place big enough. When the Reverend said it was a good idea, I couldn't wait to give my mum a call. And again, I was delighted, after some back and forth on her end, when she said she would love to join us. We had a team. Three of us would take on England. Over the next two years, we planned the trip that would begin after I finished at NCS and would take us to various sites. Over the week we would visit the places authors and religious figures lived out their lives. Among those added to the list, almost last minute, was a trip to visit King's Lynn/Bishop's Lynn, the home and parish of Margery Kempe. It seemed as though everything was working in our favor, until suddenly it wasn't. A few months prior to the trip, the Reverend began to experience health trouble. It started as a complication of an existing condition but soon escalated. By a few weeks before the trip, she was in constant pain and her mobility was radically decreased. Getting out of bed or chairs, lifting, and walking were all limited greatly by how much pain she could endure. On a couple nights, we just sat together wordlessly crying. The doctors were stumped at first about what was going on or what to do. Eventually, with the advocacy of my nurse mother, we got some treatments that would give some minor relief in the long term. All figured, however, the trip seemed more and more like a plan that was quickly seeming like a fading fantasy. Yet, somehow, even when it seemed like it would be sheer torture, the Reverend showed the characteristic that time and again makes me draw on comparisons to bears and amazon warriors: she wouldn't back down in the face of pain that would stop others in their tracks. This wasn't my decision, or my mothers, or even the doctors. We all offered our help whatever the decision that was made but in the end it was my fiancee's decision to go.

And so, in a fellowship much resembling the pilgrimage of Margery Kempe and her bent back companion Richard, we set off on our pilgrimage. I arrived a week ahead of the rest, so I could attend NCS and give a talk. When the Reverend and my mother arrived, they were both exhausted and perplexed. No sooner than they had arrived, the challenge of the trip affirmed that it was not just an irresponsible worry. Rachel's medications (none of which were for pain) were lost on the plane. As I traveled to find them in the hotel we would be sharing, they were occupied with finding an urgent care that would give us a refill. This is to say that once we got settled, we had to cancel some plans just to give everyone some time to care for ourselves and each other. The whole of the trip lay ahead of us and more or less in tact but come Saturday, while my mother swam and the Reverend rested I was sent off to complete at least one of the objectives set for the day. The destination was largely symbolic but would frame the ethos of the whole trip. I was to visit a museum currently showing two treasures that had inspired the whole map of the latter part of the trip. Getting off the Tube underground rail nearby the museum, I exited onto Gower Street. Seeing the favorite medieval poet's name gave me some sense that whatever the challenges, we would see ourselves through them like the pilgrims of the fourteenth and fifteenth century. Turning off of Gower Street, I entered the museum and found the exhibit hall. Navigating through a maze of video, audio, and tactile installations I arrived at my target: the lone manuscript of the Book of Margery Kempe, resting beside a manuscript of the Showings of Julian of Norwich. These women formed an unlikely coupling centuries ago when Margery set off on her own pilgrimage through England. Together, they found comfort in a world not built for them and often antagonistic. They navigated challenges of the body, society, and country through the comfort and strength their unlikely fellowships offered. Their homes and places of worship would close out our trip and their books, displayed in front of me, had in part inspired the trip. They were the reason I had gone to Iceland and why the three of us were together in England. I said a silent prayer of thanks to these extraordinary women who would offer us a model of pilgrimage on our journey.



The Pilgrimage of Margery Kempe

While pain and abandonment can force us apart, by making ourselves vulnerable our struggles can be points of connection with others who like us crave fellowship. When abandoned on pilgrimage in Jerusalem, Margery Kempe prays to God for assistance. God responds by turning Kempe from normate society to the disabled on the margins. “Than anon, as sche lokyd on the on syde, sche sey a powyr man sittyng whech had a gret cowche on hys bakke,” records the Book, “He seyd hys name was Richard and he was of Erlond” (30.1769-87). The bent man, “brokyn in a sekenes,” is alienated from society for his body as Kempe is for her mind. Deeming them unproductive, the forces that put Kempe and Richard on the side of the road did not expect them to leave their place. The placement of non-normate bodies on the margins of public space, “on the on syde,” gives a shared experience of disability not as something innate to their lives but impose when a social environment does not regard them as not central to its cultural production. One may not regard fellowship with Kempe or Richard without making a mad turn into the margins and making community there. The partnering of Kempe and Richard is a mad-thought and mad-made relation that defies the social meanings and positions assigned to them. The creature tells him, “ledith me to Rome” (30.1778). "Nay," he responds (30.1779). Richard is aware of the dangers of the road, especially for a mad-thought woman and a man mad-made disabled by social dangers and erasures imposed on him due to his a bent back. “I drede me that myn enmys schul robbyn me and peraventur takyn the awey fro me and defowlyn thy body,” he admits (30.1782-3).  In addition to being mad-made physically and socially vulnerable, they fight an internalized belief of disabled peoples’ unproductivity. By grace, Kempe moves him to her side. Beyond material gifts, the social support they share is critical. The Book of Margery Kempe records, “every evyn and morwyn Richard wyth the broke bak cam and comfortyd hir as he had promysed” (30.1795). This coming together and comforting of one another is integral to the work of mad-making associations and fellowship in the Book that empower mutual a liberation from the margins. 

The pilgrimage with Richard to Rome marks a turn in the Book, especially the narratives following Kempe’s travels, where she moves from fellowship with ablebodied companies to making partnerships with the disabled and marginalized. Richard and Kempe were primed to replace the previous fellowship not only by sharing a similar language, English, but also similar cultural experience. By the time that Kempe uses the word fellowship in the Book, there already existed a sense of sharing similar conflicts, from the Middle English of fellow, “felaȝe-,” meaning “ One who shares with another in a possession, official dignity, or in the performance of any work, ” and -ship, meaning “the state or condition,” “office, position, dignity, or rank,” as well as “skill” or “power.” Together the word means, “[p]articipation, sharing (in an action, condition, etc.); ‘something in common’, community of interest, sentiment, nature.” While Richard and Kempe are distinct people, their experiences are of the same kind and facilitate fellowship making between them. This fellowship also alters their condition, quality, and power once formed. The word’s Old Norse origins develop this sense of collective merging and bargaining of abilities, from “feoh-”, meaning “property, money,” and “–lęcgan”, meaning “lay,” together meaning, “one who lays down money in a joint undertaking with others.” While Richard fears he is unable to protect Kempe, or himself, by laying their capacities together they are able to do more than they can individually. This is another way that fellowship making is really a kind of creation: something exists that did not exist before with powers greater than the sum of its parts. This fellowship has qualities all of its own that has the ability to strengthen and change those of its members. Part of this collectivity is to use the traits that those in the fellowship share to function as catalysts for the communication of capacities that are distinct to one member and not another.

Margery and Richard are bound together by the struggles they share but move forward because they can offer one another abilities that the other does not or would not possess. Beyond the supernatural element of their union being foretold, the convenience of Richard’s country of origin, “Erlond” (30.1769-87) was a miracle for a woman who often has trouble understanding and being understood by others. Richard understands Kempe’s language and can give her a comfort that other travelers cannot. Literacy and language ability is a running theme throughout the Book as it plays with the significance of Kempe’s madness. Being set apart by her disability, normate society can have trouble understanding her. There is a certain fluency and comfort that another person with a disability, also excluded from society, can give. Mad-thought and a broken back are not identical yet are mad-made neighbors in a shared social position and discourse much like how Ireland and England have importance differences and conflicts, yet find themselves connected by experiences and narratives. While Kempe demonstrates the abilities her madness gives her to overcome these challenges, she enjoys a certain co-dependence with Richard that allows them both to move from the margins and across borders. Because of Richard’s ability to be like Kempe in some ways but not in others, he is able to translate and advocate for her in social situations. When the two are traveling to Rome, the encounter a wealthy woman traveling with a company of knights who might as well passed by the mad woman and broke back man on their way. Yet by making a relationship with Richard, Kempe is able to make relations with this group, “the brokebakkyd man, went to hir, preyng hir that this creatur mygth gon wyth hir to Rome and himself also for to be kept fro perel of thevys” (31.1846-48). Fear of assaulters and thieves was one of the great anxieties that Richard names before Kempe and him set off. Although Richard fears he could not defend them against such threats physically, he as an ability to reason with others in order to get them protection in another way.

Fellowships can the ability to reshape how we live and how others engage with us. We come to defy the expectations of society, expectations that we may come to believe. In the end, the accomplishments of a fellowship may not be ours alone but by allowing for our own vulnerabilities and dependencies, the equation of power changes. We become more by rejecting demands that we be all. By making a mad relation with a broke-back man, Kempe is able to recreate a fellowship and a mode of travel that she had lost among a more able bodied company. This point and counterpoint is made explicit when Richard and Kempe arrive in Rome. “Whan the forseyd creatur was comyn into Rome,” records the Book, “and thei that weryn hir felaws beforntyme and put hir owt of her cumpany weryn in Rome also and herd tellyn of swech a woman was come thedyr, thei had gret wondir how sche cam ther in safté” (31.1849-52). This passage is a moment of vindication for a disabled woman before an ableist community that thought her madness was an impediment to their travels. Evidently, ableism likewise led the old party to believe that a mad woman could not have made it to Rome at all. By encountering them, without words Kempe is able to demonstrate the alternative forms of community and power the mad and disabled can muster through the making of mad relations. From chapter thirty to thirty three, the various things that are describes as mad in the Book all work to turn the normate towards the disabled, form new relations, in order to derive more love, comfort, and understanding. While Kempe and Richard’s pilgrimage from Jerusalem to Rome occurs many chapters in the Book before the creature’s mission to the Lazars, this bent narrative demonstrates the recursive nature of madness making more madness. Far from being a rational close circle, Kempe’s mad recursion brings more and more people into her network and through her into God’s network of Creation. Encountering the Imago Dei in her visions and prayers, Kempe is being made by what she sees and through imitation becomes an Image of God that fashions new things by turning them away from their rational course, draws them to cross boundaries of embodiment and even time period (as we will see), to go to the margins, and bring people back into relationship.



The Pilgrimage of Fellowship

The journey had taken another unexpected turn. We were pulling out of Marylebone Station on a train north. Months ago, the three of us debated how we would get around once we got out of London. Trains had won out because of their relative simplicity. My mother stacked up the luggage around her making a kind of fort. The Reverend gingerly sat across from her and started to sleep. Soon our peace was unsettled. As we were halfway to our next stop, the conductor came by announcing that the line would be ending and we would have to travel by a series of buses for the remainder of the trip. Besides having to wake up and prematurely take apart my mother's fort, as we lugged ourselves onto the bus we discovered that it did not have any sort of fan or air conditioning. England was experiencing an unusual heat wave, turning the bus into a giant oven and us into roasts. Worst off, the heat was triggering the Reverend's condition and increasing the pain she was already managing. By the time we piled out at our next destination, a few hours south of King's Lynn, we had all come to the conclusion that there would be no more buses and as few trains as we could manage. At the hotel, we consulted our contingency plan. Renting a car had been proposed some time ago but had been over-ridden. Now it was back on the table. Unfortunately, because we hadn't explored the option further, we had neglected to account for the fact that all the available rental cars were manual transmissions. On the phone, my face went pale. Driving on the other side of the road was odd enough but I had clue how to begin to work an non-automatic. All of us didn't want to get back on a bus, however, and least of all put the Reverend back in one. After I announced the situation to the others, my fiancee looked around at my mother's and my down-trodden faces with nonchalance. So? She asked. I know how to drive manual transmissions! And with that, suddenly, the road north was back on the table.

I can confidently admit that the rest of the trip could not have been completed without the Reverend's unexpected abilities. Now, when we squeezed into the little blue car and fought to find room for the luggage, I was sufficiently nervous. Already the more nervous rider, my fiancee put me in charge of making sure she did not turn into the other lane at intersections and roundabouts. I would remind her of this request when I would call out "left side! left side!" with modulated anxiety. Eventually the roundabouts were more of an annoyance than a worry. We had invested in a GPS that would take us the rest of the way to King's Lynn and onward but with roundabouts every few miles the electronic voice repeated the instruction to "turn into the roundabout," "exit the roundabout," and "continue for 2 KM until the next roundabout," with a frequent rhythm. To drown out this necessary but grating voice, we engaged in other traditional pilgrim activities: talking, storytelling, and song. The storytelling was a bit different than the sort Chaucer's pilgrims would have known, as audible played the "Angels and Demons" audiobook from my two-year old cell phone; although playing out tension between the Church and science, would have been understood. Likewise, the musical "Hamilton" is not likely to be sung by the Prioress but we did chant along as a group as those in Chaucer's company most likely would have. More than anyone, perhaps, the plot if not the form of our journey would have been readily understood by Margery Kempe. In her pilgrimage with Richard, she knew the value of a diverse fellowship. When a dramatic turn set things off course or one of the members ran up against a personal limitation, the various gifts of a diverse community rise to the surface. Without the research I had done, without my mother's even temper and nurse's care, and without the Reverend's perseverance and driving acumen we may not have made it all the way to King's Lynn. What's more, without the comfort and fun we made together, the pilgrimage would have been a lot less enjoyable. Against some tricky challenges, just as we arrived at the coastal town and saw a blanket of rain come rolling towards us, we pulled into our destination.

Walking up to St. Margaret's Church, the very place Margery Kempe attended services, we were weary yet relieved. Coming out of the small car, all of us felt achey and some more than others. We were hungry, a little dehydrated, and needing to use the bathroom but once we saw the Church looming over the surrounding buildings we didn't want to stop. Once again, we fumbled over cobblestones and turned the corner to see the courtyard and cemetery in front of the church. Before we could enter, however, we were stopped by something we hadn't planned. A group of about three police officers were surrounding a man in drab clothing, slumped against the gate into the courtyard. As we maneuvered around them, we heard a bit of the conversation. The police were asking the man about his health. How was he feeling? Could he walk? Compared to some of the antagonistic conversations I have overheard between cops and the homeless in the States, this dialog seemed a lot more subdued. As we passed them, we heard the man say that he felt fine but could go for some food. Going into the church, we did not hear any more of the conversation for some time. On the way out, the four of them were still standing around the man but now the man slumped against the gate was enjoying a sandwich. A lot could be said about this exchange but within the context of our travels, this felt like a fitting welcome to Margery's home parish. This was the home who struggled to accept and affirm a woman who wailed and cried, who preached and practiced various failed businesses, who had a house full of her children and wore the garb of a virgin, and who walked across lands as a pilgrim, seeming mad and homeless to many. The word pilgrim comes from the Roman word for foreigner and signified the poor or disenfranchised; those who lacked local support networks. Police bringing a man a sandwich is hardly a solution to the problems of economic divides or  the public erasure of the most vulnerable. Most likely the man would be removed, like Margery, when he presented an unwelcome presence at the church. But in this moment, for a few minutes, there was compassion and care. As we learned throughout our journey, before we can solve systemic problems (or not) we often need to attend to the immediate needs and dignity of one another.

The immediate effect of entering the massive church was the feeling of smallness that reminded us how diminished our struggles and accomplishments seem in the grand scheme of the world or even one community. In a word, we were humbled. One can imagine how a woman in the fifteenth century could break down crying in front of everyone from an overwhelming awareness or relief. There was an experience of history here, that your life was not such an isolated thing but an interwoven thread in traditions spanning many lifetimes.  We were small but a part of something big. Our pain and anxiety was being received and shared by those who came before and those who will come after. Beginning to wander, the Reverend found the local priest who spoke to her about the current life of the church. After asking who we are and where we are from, he confessed that he found it strange that most of those who find their way to King's Lynn in search of Margery Kempe hail from the United States. While my fiancee and the priest shared their experiences as pastors, I proceeded to the choir seats near the alter. I sat for some time until my mother came over and asked if I wanted a picture. Kneeling down I performed an imitation of Margery's weeping. Getting up, I told some of the story of her life and ministry. She asked me what about her called me to come here. I didn't really have a canned answer for that. Like my encounter with her book back in London, I just stood there, looking, and feeling more than thinking. My mother accepted that and sat down next to me. A little while later, the Reverend joined us and stood next to us for a minute. Here we were. A woman who prayed, journeyed, and wrote centuries ago had brought the three of us together and all the way to King's Lynn. I rose and my fiancee took my hand, kissing me on the cheek. Pulling away, her lips were slightly damp as so was my face. Of a different sort from the mock show I enacted earlier or the anxious weeping of Iceland, these tears had a significance all there own. Even now, I don't have their full meaning. But whatever their meaning, it is one I share with my partner, my mother, and Margery Kempe.



Coming soon:

Pilgrimage to Norwich
Pilgrimage to Oxford
Pilgrimage to the Kilns


1 comment:

  1. I was fascinated by your description of Lynn and the Minster: seeing what is home-town familiar to me through 'pilgrim' eyes. And this point you make from the 'local priest'- "most of those who find their way to King's Lynn in search of Margery Kempe hail from the United States". I am one of the exceptions in that I am locally based and interested in her but you are right. The US seems to value her much more than her home country and town. I wonder why that is.