Published Pieces Online:
Zoom into the Marine Community Library’s virtual Poetry Crawl, held on April 18, 2020. I am the first reader on the program: https://www.stcroix360.com/2020/04/geese-frogs-spring-poems-from-the-online-marine-on-st-croix-poetry-crawl/
https://fmr.org/river-story-watching-river-flow Story Map of the Friends of the Mississippi River; https://www.fmr.org/writetotheriver/fall2018 Write to the River
https://www.issues.righthandpointing.net/122, “Parent-Teacher Conferences.”
http://www.baseballbard.com/authors/marge-barrett/, “Baseball for Ages.”
http://collegevilleinstitute.org/blog/this-white-pine/, “This White Pine.”
http://www.minnpost.com, “Patty Rogers: a spirited, loving gift — and teacher — to family and friends.” Also on MinnPost search Marge Barrett for short-short contest pieces
From Panel On Approaches To Spiritual Inquiry:
I grew up in the ‘50s on the plains, in a small town called Marshall, close to the Iowa and South Dakota borders. I grew up with physical and psychological space all around me, in a family of seven children, with a father of poor Irish descent from the small town of Glencoe, Minnesota, and a mother from the tiny town of Ghent, Minnesota, where her Belgian mother and German father had to escape from after the Depression. When I was a junior in high school, my family moved to St. Paul. After high school, I entered the convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, a French order, on the campus with the University of St. Catherine in St. Paul. After five years, I left the convent to answer other important calls.
My story is a personal story, but also a broader story of immigration, of the typical American movement from rural to urban centers, of upward mobility, of the buried roots of the ‘50s lively exploding in the ‘60s in the Midwest, the fly-over heartland of America.
It is also a spiritual story. It begins:
I have called you by name; you are mine. – Isaiah 43:1
In late winter of 1963, my senior year at Our Lady of Peace High School in St. Paul, our class went on a silent, three-day retreat. We didn’t speak to each other. We didn’t chatter going home after school, and at home, we didn’t converse with our families—a herculean task for teenagers. We truly tried to focus inward.
I remember sitting on a gray metal folding chair, on the last day of the retreat, a Friday afternoon, with the sun pouring in the windows of the school auditorium. Those enormous windows reached to the ceiling. Light streamed in, as it did in the paintings of the angel appearing to Mary the Blessed Virgin, asking her to be the Mother of God. I was sitting in the middle of long rows of girls, listening to the Retreat Master. His words echoed in my head: “You were put on earth to make a contribution; God wants you to give something back; this is God’s purpose for your life. He saved us and called us . . . Now you belong to Him . . . ”
And, suddenly, I knew. Knew that God had chosen me. I wanted to cry out, “No. Not me. Why me?” I didn’t want to be chosen, but there it was. He had called me, and what was I going to do? I couldn’t say no to God.
Why I couldn’t say no to God becomes the central story question. I asked myself other questions: How had I got here? Why did I listen to the call? I aimed for a full, rounded view—genetics and environment, history and culture—I examined the physical places where I grew up, my Catholic education, my family. I was also searching for an anchoring, for roots, for a sense of myself. The influence of my childhood was of utmost importance in the making of me, who would become the nun and the ex-nun.
My parents were models of good parenting; raising kids with initiative, creativity, grit, able to work hard to achieve goals, to contribute to their communities. My parents had high expectations for their children. In their own lives, they had overcome poverty, prejudice, personal challenges, loss.
Spirituality is tied in with my folks in both subtle and overt ways. For example, they instructed us in the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church for sure, but their instruction was much more centered on loving as a way of life. At one point, I tell about my mother’s reactions to her overwrought daughter, who after hearing the story in school one day of our Lady of Fatima appearing to shepherd children in Portugal, believed that the Blessed Virgin Mary was going to appear to her.
How could I tell Mom that the Mother of God, the Queen of Heaven and Earth, was going to appear to me? Probably right here in the living room. I hid behind the couch. I needed to plan in private. I figured I’d kneel down when she appeared, say, “Hello, Holy Mary.” I’d kiss her hands, place mine in prayer, fingers matching up. Would Mary speak? In Portuguese or in English? If in Portuguese, would I suddenly understand it? Another miracle? Would she wear the blue gown, the white veil, the tiara of gold or the crown of jewels? Would she smell like violets or roses or lilies of the valley? Would Mom know Mary was here? The living room would be transformed. The bright, bright light could even ignite the sofa and chairs and tables. I would have to scream “Fire!” Everyone would wake up.
Mom stopped ironing, looked up, said, “Margaret, come on out from behind the davenport.”
But I couldn’t come out. I couldn’t tell. I crouched in the corner, knees to chin, waiting. It grew later and later.
Finally, I peeked out from my hiding place. Mom was now working on my school uniform, my navy jumper, the black iron under her reddened hand smoothing out the white crumpled emblem of Our Lady.
“Mary’s going to appear to me like she did to Lucy,” I blurted out.
“What?” Mom said.
“Mary’s going to appear to me like she did to Lucy.”
“Oh . . . ” she said. Then, “Don’t worry. You’ll be all right.”
She didn’t offer any advice, just continued ironing until very late. Finishing, she came over and took my hand. “Let’s go on up, honey, I don’t think she’s coming tonight.”
My father was a man of faith. One description from the book:
Irish and Catholic, Dad believed. I never understood his deep, constant faith. He lived his religion quietly, steadily, without fanfare, never acting pious or self-righteous. He never made us kids walk his holy path. Because he was so kind and likeable, we willingly hiked along with him, imitating his gait and gestures, trying to live as large and lovingly as he did.
Dad lived the Golden Rule. Another description from the book:
He can be standing, or sitting, or walking, or smoking, but what he’s always doing is looking directly at others in the scene, leaning in toward them. Paying attention to them. He had a genuine interest in everybody he met. He asked questions about their lives. His intellectual curiosity was fed by all the ideas he learned through communicating with them. Listen. That’s what he did. Not out of politeness. He really wanted to hear what they had to say. People loved him for it. I wanted to be like him.
“Giving back,”(You were given much!) a concurring theme from my upbringing, also meant the calling of taking care, particularly of my sister Patty with Down syndrome and my bother Tom with mental illness beginning in his twenties. Along with my parents, they became other leading characters of the book—and spirituality is certainly tied in with these two also. My sister Patty knew my mother died before anyone told her, and at the moment of Patty’s death, we heard a rustling of hundreds of birds flying out of bushes around her group home. I also wrote about my deceased father being with me, watching over me, in a major car accident. There is a slight veil between the living and the dead. My brother Tom, who had a life not unlike Job, lived a courageous and giving life, witnessed by the many folks who commented on his death. One such remark:
“‘Great soul’ is the perfect description for him. With all his burdens, his first concerns were always for others. Can’t think of a time when I ran into him that the first question wasn’t ‘How’s the family?’ or ‘How are you?’ He was just a terrific person, and everyone who knew him will be very sad when they hear he’s gone.” (When I received this email, I thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Over-Soul,” how Emerson believed humans come from the biochemical stuff of which we have been made, and how we should look to ourselves and each other because God is living in everyone’s mind. While one part of my mind recalled Transcendentalism, however, another sang soul song titles: “Soul Man,” “He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’,” “You Lost the Sweetest Boy.”)
Entering the convent, of course, was an important step of my spiritual formation, especially living the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience at the time of great religious upheaval in the Church with Vatican Council II and with social and cultural turmoil. I grew up in the convent.
Now I realize the importance of “forgetting your people and your father’s house.” In order to truly grow up, we must set out from our homes, from what our mothers and fathers wanted us to be or do, to find our own callings. The Gospel call, again and again, is to leave home and family. The opening cover of the reception booklet, “Live in My Love,” and the ending, “And Love Is My Answer,” is the essence of being called. I believe I am still answering this call of Love.
I grew up in a family of love and then became my own loving woman in the convent. Leaving it, I was ready to fall in love; to marry, divorce, and re-marry; to have children and grandchildren; to teach and write.
“I like to be connected,” I say in the book. I wrote about sensing the presences of early Native Americans in a state park in Marshall and of Babi Yar in Ukraine, a site of the Holocaust, which has always been a deep concern of mine. At one point in Called, I stated:
“I was shocked by institutions I had believed in. I brooded over the lack of action by the Catholic Church. How could a spiritual, moral entity choose not to help millions of innocent, suffering people? How could it not witness their deaths? I was on my way: to challenge this institution while becoming a nun—involving myself by doing right by it—and much later, by becoming a none—belonging to no established church.
But traveling in Ukraine a few years ago on a mission to preserve ancient manuscripts, I realized I was not finished with my spiritual journey.
On a gray, misty, cold day, we got off at the last stop and walked out of the Kiev subway station into a large park, eventually finding the “Valley of Death,” where the Nazis executed more than one hundred thousand people. I stared down into the huge ravine, silently mouthing words from Yevgeny Yeytushenko’s poem “Babi Yar:” “Here all things scream silently / and, baring my head, slowly I feel myself / turning grey . . . ”
Suddenly, my hair stood on end. There was a dead man—a present-day dead man—lying at the bottom. Crumpled, head over chest, wearing something like a tattered lumberman jacket and worn boots, he looked like a large puppet. My husband ran down the side of the ravine and then up the other side, calling out, “Margaret, we have to notify the authorities.”
Standing on the rim, aware of the rain dribbling into the muddy chasm, the habitual beliefs of my childhood instantly surfaced. Surprising myself, I prayed. I prayed for this man who had joined thousands of others. I prayed for all those who had died, crossing over from darkness into light.
Interview in the Voices of Northeast video series, Friday, Nov. 4, at Eat My Words Bookstore
Talk about Called: The Making & Unmaking of a Nun on KFAI Write On! radio (90.3 FM Minneapolis; 106.7 FM St. Paul) Tuesday, May 24, 2016, 7-8 pm.
At the Bend of the Redwood History Mural: Located at the Corner of Third and Main Streets in Marshall, MN
“Shimmering Rows Golden Prairie Light”
Featured in the mural is a special design of stained glass made especially for this mural. Inspired by a poem written by Minnesota poet Marge Barrett, these words seem especially fitting for our rural community on our best weather days! Shimmering Rows Golden Prairie Light remind us of Marshall’s rich history and the beautiful natural backdrop that continues to nurture and define Marshall today.