Part of our 18 days of Tesseracts, “Mom and Mother Teresa” by Candas Jane Dorsey was published in Tesseracts 9 and plays with religion in a comedic–and yet still poignant–way. I’m chatting with Candas about her story here as we each take turns talking about the story.
By Jerome Stueart and Candas Jane Dorsey
Jerome: I’m revisiting “Mom and Mother Teresa” in Tesseracts 9 and laughing. In the story, the narrator’s mother is often asking for more time with her daughter, specifically lifts to this place or that place, and her ear in order to complain about her life. It’s too much for the narrator. But into the mom’s house walks Mother Teresa and the story takes a left turn, as her home becomes HQ for Mother Teresa’s simple plan to do the most good with all these things the Mom already has. In Dorsey’s story, Mother Teresa helps everyone take seriously the things we all believe but in ways we don’t push ourselves to actually do. It’s like Pope Francis—actually taking seriously the Church’s stance on the poor, the needy, and ridding himself of extravagance—coming to America and telling Congress and Christians here that they need to, um, actually make the poor and the needy their priority.
Candas Jane Dorsey’s story is absurdist humour, an imaginative take on the appearance of a Real Religion, and a Real Religious Figure, in your fiction. What would you do if Mother Teresa stopped by? If she asked you what you were doing with all that ROOM in your house—a place that she can house 25 orphans, women with children, and single men, as well as a few nuns—what would you do?
There’s a playful fantasy here that floats just under the surface. Because it’s written at breakneck speed, and Mother Teresa’s actions are narrated like movements on the battlefield, we don’t take the story as a serious look into the real Mother Teresa. In this, Mother Teresa is a fantasy character—and she works much like Mary Poppins or elves do in a story. She alters the lives of everyone around her with something akin to narrative magic. She persuades you to do right and through her indefatiguable righteous labour—like a bulldozer—she transforms the mother into a nun whether she wants it or not.
I’m reminded of Bilbo Baggins at the beginning of the Hobbit, being overrun with dwarves for supper, with not even a hello to Bilbo or asking permission. They just help themselves as if his house is theirs. He is at the mercy of a whirlwind of dwarves, just as this mother is at the mercy of Mother Teresa and her nuns and the orphans and the, and the, and the…as they keep coming.
How does writing about Mother Teresa’s very serious work become absurd? How can Mother Teresa seem so much like a punishment on this mother—and, yet, we’re laughing?
Candas: Thanks for the kind words, Jerome! I had fun writing the story, which is not always true with comedic writing–it can be just as much like giving birth to alphabet blocks as any other kind of writing, but in this case I enjoyed coming up with new stuff with which to push the envelope of absurdity–and yet, as you say, how un-absurd it is, if you think about it.
First thing to notice is that the story is deliberately sited in time after Mother Teresa’s death. So that there is no ambiguity about this being fantasy. I put the date in to make sure that was clear.
The story came in part from something that happened to my partner and I while we were having a residency at the Leighton Colony at the Banff Centre. It’s a creative community that encompasses all the arts, and there was a filmmaker there who showed a film she had made about Mother Teresa. She had made it in and around other films she had been making. Whenever she was around Mother Teresa she went with a camera and did some filming. If I recall correctly, the filmmaker wasn’t particularly a Catholic but had become deeply intrigued by Teresa’s work and the controversies and image-making that surrounded her. So, this film (which I can’t track down on the Interwebz at the moment).
The thing that was striking about Teresa in this film was that she was extremely single-minded. She looked at what was there to be done and she did the next thing. She was almost simple about it: Here are orphans in danger. God will help us get them out of danger. We will put them somewhere safe. That’s all there is to it. The film shows many other settings but the orphans were multi-disability kids abandoned in an orphanage in a Middle East war zone, perhaps Gaza, that was being shelled–their caregivers had fled. She walked into the military area and demanded trucks. They said, “There might not be a ceasefire tomorrow.” She said, “There will be.” When the religious leader tried to override her she simply said that Jesus wouldn’t settle for anything less than doing the right thing. The filmmaker and cameraman went with her to the orphanage. Their first shot was the only shot all day, because Mother Teresa picked up a child from a crib and handed it to the cameraman with the equivalent of, “Here, do something useful for a change”, and so they helped all day to transport the orphans to a safe new place. The striking moment came at the end of the day. The camera was reclaimed and was focussed on Mother Teresa at a crib soothing a terrified, agitated, profoundly handicapped child. She spent about five minutes and he calmed under her imperatively soothing touch. Then her gaze moved to the bedframe. What she saw she didn’t like, so she picked up a cleaning rag and cleaned it. Right then, no waiting, no commentary. It was an amazing moment that acted as a metaphor for that kind of work. What you see in front of you that needs doing, you must do. That’s all. Not even just Christianity, though that was her spiritual home, and in many ways she also was a Christian mystic. But the lesson is ecumenical. Just do what is right and should be done to help others and don’t be selfish.
Driving back home we discussed this moment a lot. Compared with that kind of direct, effective intervention, the kind of complaints we and others around us were making seemed trivial. We wondered what Mother Teresa would say or do if she turned up at our door or at the door of some others we knew. When I got home I wrote this piece. While I took some elements from real people, and had some sly personal fun with that, the story is not really personal and the narrator is certainly not me–she submits much more gracefully than I would! But there is in it a kernel of hope that it will move people to see the need in front of them, and what they can do to help.
In my mind Mother Teresa is not, in this story, primarily a religious figure denoting a particular Christianity, but a symbol that helps deride hypocrisy in a hegemonically-Christian world (if that doesn’t sound too lit-crit and precious!) But it’s also satire. So it’s OK to laugh a lot at the jokes, too.
Jerome: Wow, you’ve really brought out the spiritual side of this story for me. It was always there, but hearing you talk about it, I know that the absurdity that we read in it is only because there are two worlds meeting in this story: our modern “what will I do with my life today” plea is being met through the sudden appearance of a woman who knows what to do, and what to do with YOUR life right now. The absurdity is how much, and much over, she meets that spiritual cry. She is overwhelming–but she’s overwhelmingly focused on good. The overwhelming part IS the absurdity.
But maybe it’s absurd only because we don’t think it’s humanly possible to do that much good in the world and Mother Teresa models that kind of “Do This Now” philosophy without worrying about how it will play out in the future. She’s meeting the need in front of her.
This is a story that lets you laugh while you are mulling over how much more a person can affect the world.
Mother Teresa has always seemed that kind of icon to me too–of someone almost mythological, a story of a saint before she was a saint. The pattern a person is supposed to follow but someone almost devoid of her own wants, desires, ambitions where they fall outside of the next thing she can fix, or do, or clean, or save in the world. She’s scary in that complete submission to the moment’s need. Certainly a challenge to everyone.
I’m assuming you crafted Mother heresa out of her actions—she’s such a figure that IS what she DOES that she’s immediately recognizable. You wouldn’t have to get a “voice” or a personality quirk just right. She’s not as scary as trying to write Jesus either. I’m always worried about Jesus opening his mouth in fiction: who am I to dare to place words in the holiest divinity-made-man? But I don’t remember much dialogue from Mother Theresa except questions about where she can remodel the home–and telling people what they are to do.
It’s a subtle story, Candas, and I really think you pack a lot into a few pages. It has a vignette quality, and yet the mother goes through several stages, and so does the narrator, trying to cope with what happens when Mother Theresa descends like a transforming fire on the house! You hide the message of “we could all do a lot more” inside the comedy. A reader could enjoy it for just what it is on the surface—but they can go deeper if they like.
Keeping that kind of tension between intentions, between styles, is really a cool feat!
Candas: Thanks! Just to add one more layer, and play Devil’s Advocate (pun unintended) for a moment, do we think that Mother Teresa is inherently more Right in the story? Do we really think that she has all the answers? She is attentive to the needs of the orphans and the homeless, but she doesn’t climb very far up Maslow’s pyramid of needs, does she? She is sure that her way is the right way, and brooks no argument. But has she healed the mother in the story, or the daughter, or their relationship not only with each other but with their world? Or has she just erased and re-written their reality? I am not suggesting one answer or another answer is right: discuss among yourselves!
However, having said that, I should confess that I am a moralist myself, and in fact, I did write the story as a morality play. I was raised in the United Church but I am not able to call myself a Christian for private doctrinal reasons. Nevertheless, I am not throwing the bathwater out with the Baby. I think as people in community, we have obligations to each other, and it’s too easy to profess charity for an hour a week and then lose track of the people around us who are in need. Those of us–us meaning almost everyone who will be reading this–those of us who have a roof over our heads and enough to eat (even if it’s not luxury food) and friends and/or family to talk with, who have books and art and thought and time, we are the fortunate of the world. Putting barbed wire fences around our houses, our lives or our countries does not make those in trouble go away. We do missionary work abroad but over 10% of the people in our own communities, even more of the children, live in poverty. We could simply act to help our neighbours. This, I consider to be vital to our health–spiritual health, community health, emotional health.
The very first poem I ever learned by heart was “Abou ben Adhem” by Leigh Hunt (James Henry Leigh Hunt, 1784–1859, an English poet of the Romantic period). Do you know it?
Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:—
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the Presence in the room he said
“What writest thou?”—The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered “The names of those who love the Lord.”
“And is mine one?” said Abou. “Nay, not so,”
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still, and said “I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.”
The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.
I was about four when I learned it, I think, and I still love it. I love the idea of “a deep dream of peace” but also I like Abou, who says, “Write me as one who loves his fellow men.” Allowing as one must in a period piece for its shortcomings, such as the whole “Man, which includes Women, of course” sexism thing, and the anthropocentrism (all of which are different conversations), that poem has over my lifetime had great meaning for me. It speaks of the spirit, but its expression of spirit is practical.
I really do laugh at the jokes. The world is full of them: ironies, allegorical sarcasms, incongruities–
and good sunsets. But I don’t concern myself with the Grandiose too much. if there is something after death, if there is something waiting for me, if there is someOne waiting to judge me or move me along on the Wheel or weigh my heart against a feather, I will find out then. Until then, it is all unknowable. So it seems to me to be simplest just to say: write me as one who loves my fellow–people, beings, and, when I can manage it, world. That’s the best spiritual practise. The rest takes care of itself.
Candas Jane Dorsey is a writer of sometimes-award-winning novels, short fiction and poetry in a lengthy career that also includes literary editing; book and magazine publishing; teaching/course development for literary and professional writing; advocacy and action in community, arts and social justice; and freelance writing/editing. She lives in Edmonton, Alberta.
(photo credit: Sima Khorrami)