Sandoval Signpost
An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988
  Featured Artist
 

Signpost featured artist: Mary Carter

Grounded, surrealistic painting, by Mary Carter

Mary Carter’s A Non-Swimmer Considers Her Mikvah

—Oli Robbins

Since the late Nineties, Placitas artist and author Mary Carter has produced numerous paintings that feature a “goose girl,” a female figure with the head of a goose and a body in a state of transformation—somewhere in between realistic and abstract, woman and animal, past and present. Carter created these images almost automatically, without analysis. But looking back, she realizes that the series is representative of her own metamorphosis as she transitioned to Judaism. She considers the many components of this journey in her recently-published book, A Non-Swimmer Considers Her Mikvah: On Becoming Jewish After Fifty. Her reflective essays will provide comfort and guidance to others who are considering embracing Judaism, but they will also resonate with anyone who has questioned identity or undergone profound personal change.

Carter, who for many years worked as an advertising copywriter, is married to Placitas web and logo designer (and stereogram-creator) Gary Priester. The two fell in love at first sight, or as Carter writes, “Near enough.” Though Jewish, Priester and his family never persuaded Carter to convert, and did few things “Jewishly” other than marrying and burying with a rabbi. Over the years, Carter did learn bits about secular Judaism from the Priesters, such as the primacy it seemed to place on critical thinking and questioning. Writes Carter, “Nobody will entice you to join the tribe. You have to make your own decisions, think your own thoughts, question your own motives.” Carter appreciated such an approach, as she was never one to blithely accept ideology. She remembers once asking her mother, “But Mama, what about all the Hindus and the Buddhists and all the people in China who might be good people, living good lives? Will they burn in hell if they do not accept Christian doctrine?” Her mother’s answer was firm and clear: “No. They will not burn in hell if they are not Christians. It doesn’t work like that.” For Carter, this was a defining moment, “My mother set me free to think for myself... to ask difficult questions, to explore, to learn, to change, if need be.” Carter’s mother instilled within her the strength to study and evolve, to mindfully embark upon a path of self-discovery.

Carter believes that there is Jewish ancestry in her bloodline, and includes an essay on her family’s history (part-recorded and part-imagined). But while she continues to research her mother’s family, the Zimmermans, she’s found little with regard to origins and traditions. And with such scant evidence, Carter could not be granted a “ritual return to Judaism.”

“So,” she writes, “I will proceed with Introduction to Judaism classes and study with the rabbi for another way to join.”

As a student of Judaism, Carter has enjoyed pockets of revelation, to which she responds viscerally. Writes Carter, “Sometimes when I experience an ‘aha moment,’ I giggle inappropriately... To me it feels like it starts in my heart… It is the same way after many of my Introduction to Judaism classes. I leave class smiling as I walk to my car. Sometimes, inappropriately given the serious nature of some of the lectures, I giggle.” Carter was met with these giggles as she emerged from her mikvah, a “Jewish ritual bath used for the sanctification of a conversion.” But before the giggles, she was terrified. That Carter decided to call her book A Non-Swimmer Considers Her Mikvah demonstrates the significance of the mikvah for Carter, a woman who does not—can not—swim. Writes Carter, “...the mikvah drove more terror into my heart than the contemplation of God.” She prepared by dunking her face in her studio sink. She considered taking swimming lessons, even asking for a dispensation. But ultimately, she did it. And upon entering the water, her fear melted away and an intense “buoyancy” reigned. Writes Carter, “On my fourth dip I plunge in, almost euphoric... Uncertain now of only one last thing: that it might not be okay to laugh, to giggle.”

As an artist, Carter invites inspiration, intuition, and spontaneity. She writes, “I am accustomed to working from my right hemisphere. Even in my career as an advertising copywriter, the best headlines pop into my brain without so-called rational thought.” And it is this same process that carried her into Judaism, the commitment to which she calls “a Eureka Experience... a pure aha moment of existential relevance.”

Carter points out that a word is rarely “just” a word, as many are inextricably attached to implications. She writes of the power of one particular word with which she is often associated: convert. Taking issue with this label, she notes that the word “carries with it many negative connotations,” such as the historical periods in which Jews were pressured to convert away from Judaism. To Carter, she was a convert for only an instant, before she surfaced from the mikvah waters. But “forever after,” writes Carter, “she is a Jew.”

Carter will be discussing her book at several upcoming events. You can hear her speak at the Placitas Community Library on February 7, at 2:00 p.m., at Congregation Albert’s Author Introductions Panel on February 15, at 3:00 p.m., and at an evening book presentation at Congregation Albert on April 7, at 6:00 p.m. Learn more about her book by visiting www.tovah-miriam.com. Copies can be purchased from Arte de Placitas or Amazon.com.

 
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