How many families will recreate the Nativity in their living rooms on Christmas Eve? Impossible to even guess. Some will use baby dolls or teddy bears for Jesus; others will use real babies. Many wannabe angels will be cloaked in sheets and crowned with tinsel halos. Shepherds will drape a towel over their heads, secured with one of Dad’s ties. The wisemen might wear aluminum crowns and bathrobes. The children will likely get impatient and giggly. The mother might get frustrated, though she’ll try to hide it. The father (it was always Dad in my family) will read the Christmas story regardless–all the way to “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”
We can only imagine what Mary pondered, but with these visible reminders of the Christ’s birth, our imagination grows. The tinsel, the bathrobes, the doll are merely emblems to remind us of a glorious night when a manger held the Son of God.
In my husband’s family, my humble brother-in-law was actually willing to wear his wife’s temple dress when he pretended to be an angel. Since then, his wife has died, and is buried in that dress–which is no longer a symbol of heavenly messengers, but of who she was as a Latter-day Saint, and of how faith informed not only her life but her death. Everything she wore in her coffin she had also worn in the temple, when she imagined entering God’s presence.
For years, I was an actor. I played Helmuth Huebener’s mother in Tom Rogers’ play, and got to know the martyred Huebener’s friends–the real ones–who had helped him circulate anti-Nazi flyers. Both Karl Heinz Schnibbe and Rudi Wobbe came to the play. It was a strange, remarkable intersection of truth and fiction. Karl Heinz addressed me in German after opening night, and I had to tell him I didn’t understand what he was saying.
I portrayed Aldonza/Duncinea in Man of La Mancha, and went through a nightly redemption as I moved from “I was spawned in a ditch by a mother who left me there” to “This is my quest, to follow that star/No matter how hopeless, no matter how far/To fight for the right, without question or pause/To be willing to march into Hell, for a Heavenly cause…” It was a sweet time of my life, and that role, that nightly redemption, made it sweeter.
I portrayed Hermione, a Shakespearean character I love, who seems to be resurrected on stage after her friend instructs Hermione’s deeply flawed husband, “It is required you do awake your faith…” He does, and Hermione, who has appeared to be a statue, returns to life and blesses the daughter she thought she had lost.
For each role, I would do things to help me imagine what the character’s subtext was. Sometimes, before going on stage as Huebener’s mother, I would read passages from The Brothers Karamazov. Or I would read from Ann Frank’s diary. I would imagine an unimaginable world–unimaginable because it was not the world I REALLY inhabited. I would become Maggie again after the audience left, and walk home with my own little insecurities, no longer bearing the burden of my son’s death sentence. In fact, not only did I have no son, I had no romantic prospects at all, though I had a huge crush on the kid who played Huebener.
I don’t do much stage acting anymore, but I do write stories and will soon be starting (at last!) another novel. I hope to bring characters to life well enough that some chord in my readers will resonate as something familiar, the hint of a song they once knew. All of us who attempt anything artistic depend on the imaginations of those willing to take the journey with us.
Recently, I heard Mark Mabry, creator of the photographic exploration of Jesus’ life in Reflections of Christ and his new Another Testament of Christ tell how he helped his actors imagine their roles in the scene wherein they approach the newly resurrected Lord, feel the prints of the nails in His palms, and receive his embrace. Of course, Mark explained, the man (Robert Allen) portraying the Savior was himself only an actor–but with some imagination, each man or woman pretending to be a character from the Book of Mormon could imagine being embraced not by Robert but by Christ.
The result was a sacred thing for many involved–and is recorded (in Spanish with subtitles) on Mabry’s site www.anothertestamentofChrist.com. Actors talked about moving beyond their assigned roles to a full-hearted imagination of the moment–being enfolded in the Savior’s robes and feeling actual arms around them.
Whether we’re the creator or the audience, imagination is our tool to bridge the gap between ourselves and another–through our own experience and the gift of empathy. “It must be like this…” “They must feel this way…” But of course, we can never know precisely how “they” feel. There will always be a holy gap. But the embrace is real.
I have had opportunities to hold one of my children for a long, long time during a hard period in that child’s life. That was all I needed to do–just offer my maternal arms. No imagination needed; my arms were real enough. And I told stories. I started with this, oh-so-familiar one:
“And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed, and all went to be taxed, everyone to his own city. And Joseph also went up…with Mary, his espoused wife, being great with child.”
With my arms around my own suffering child, the words “And Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” had new resonance. It was easy to imagine that the Savior was encircling us both, mother and child.