Ever since I was in elementary school “Mary Worth” has provided a quasi-mystical framework for my day. Were the characters in the strip happy? Good omen. Were they nervous? Me too. Mary’s generically sound advice (“Everyone needs to feel important”) often appeared to address my own specific needs. If I woke up worried—as I often did— because my parents were arguing, or because I was fretting about a friend, or because I wondered whether I’d ever be able to afford college, reading Mary made me breathe easier in the morning.
Unlike others who practice meditation, engage in yoga, or center their lives around the daily consumption of kale, my need to understand the mysterious powers of the universe has always led me to back to the one oracle I do consult on a daily basis: The funnies.
Yes, as others might turn to a crystal orb or a harmonizing fountain, I turn to the comics page. Why not? It lightens my spirit; it makes me feel part of larger community; it helps me focus my attention. How many spiritual communities can offer as much, especially over morning coffee. Mary Worth is like the Tao Te Ching: the lines might appear random, but I can always find a way to apply them directly to my own life.
The Tao Te Ching tells us “I have three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion” and Mary Worth tells us “The world needs so much healing, so much compassion!” Unlike Lao-Tzu’s text, however, Mary Worth’s comes with graphics and a strong storyline, often involving somebody who needs a whole lot of advice about family, money, liquor, or love.
Is it really a surprise, then, that before I focus on anything else in the morning, I focus on the wisdom of Worth?
When other kids talked about reading cereal boxes or watching television, I talked about reading the funnies; this habit has been with me since third grade, which is when I first discovered “Peanuts” and found a soul mate in the character of Lucy Van Pelt. (And, yes, the fact that I know Charlie Brown’s dark-haired fussbudget friend’s surname proves my dedication to the comic’s page.)
But I now find the company of Mary Worth—white-haired, levelheaded, and nonplussed as she is—particularly enriching. As one friend says, I’m a Worth Nerd.
So what do I admire about this character?
A widow in her 60s, Mary lives alone—happily alone, refusing proposals of marriage and offers for romance—in the Charterstone Condominium Complex in “Santa Royale,” California. Mary volunteers at a hospital, loves dancing, dining out, reading, and is a passionate advocate of self-reliance, community organizing, and fund-raising for charitable causes. She’s healthy, smart, astute, engaged, and independent.
Okay, fair enough: Her profile could act a template for Match.com—except that Mary is already busy enough with all her beaus and besides, the Charterstone resembles Quattrocentro Florence in its internecine intrigues. There’s stalking, adultery, hoarding, addiction, and women who just won’t take “no” for an answer.
Let’s just say it’s not called a “Complex” for nothing.
Only Mary can help these unfortunates. Mary is the healer, the soothsayer, and the mother-confessor for this crowd. She doesn’t call herself that, of course, but there are lots of strips where Mary Worth is a stand-in for, and a cross between, Mother Teresa, Simone de Beauvoir, and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.
Female healing figures are not known, however, for their quick movements; some anti-Worthies lob that complaint at the strip, saying it moves too slowly for their tastes. “Nothing EVER happens!” they whine. “It moves in geologic time. It takes three weeks for Mary to decide whether she wants salad with dinner,” they complain. While that’s not exactly accurate, it can take more than a month for a plotline to resolve itself. So? Are these the kind of people speeding their slow-food classes, too?
Yet it’s true that, in contrast to a world of 24-hour-news cycles informed and individualized by the persistent electronic monitoring of everything from our heart rate and our stock portfolios, the world inhabited by Mary Worth is soothing in both its pace and its depth.
But the cult isn’t too exclusive: Syndicated by King Features and appearing in papers around the country for more than 70 years, Mary Worth is a distinctly American icon. She’s been parodied and satirized by everybody from Carol Burnett to “The Simpsons”; she’s the subject of scholarly articles, feminist conferences, blogs, and fan-fiction. Her stories and aphorisms are a sieve through which the culture is sifted.
The more personal point of my mindful seeking of Worth is that every morning with the paper in front of me, I feel connected, I feel amused, and I feel defiantly, wonderfully self-indulgent. And that’s what Mary and I both believe really matters.
Adapted from a short piece in Whole Living; with additional applause and thanks to Terri Trespicio, the terrific writer and editor.