For so many, our hopes and worries never leave the confines of our own minds, whether because they feel too weighty to utter or too trivial to dwell upon.
Mary Finlayson had a brilliant solution, one rooted in her deep faith: she kept God boxes – containers she filled with little notes and prayers for her family, her friends, herself, the world. They ranged from thoughts about interior design choices for her daughter’s home to a prayer for a cure to her own blood cancer.
Finlayson’s daughter, the author and marketing executive Mary Loy Quinlan, discovered her mother’s God boxes shortly after her death, and they offered her a new way reflect and grieve, and learn more about the wonderful woman her mother was, as well as the great belief she had in her.
From this experience came Quinlan’s New York Times bestselling book “The God Box,” and from the book came Quinlan’s one woman show, which has held sold-out runs off-Broadway at the 59E59 theater and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland.
From today, October 13, through October 30, Quinlan is taking “The God Box” on a tour of Ireland, the homeland of her ancestors. Proceeds from all nine of the performances, in Portlaoise (Oct. 13), Cork (Oct. 14), Kilkenny (Oct. 15), Tralee (Oct. 21), Limerick (Oct. 22), Sligo (Oct. 27), Roscommon (Oct. 28), Longford (Oct. 29), and Dun Laoghaire (Oct. 30), will go to the Irish Hospice Foundation, which for 30 years has offered crucial services to Ireland’ dying and bereaved. (See all show dates, locations and ticket info here.)
Right before she headed to Ireland, Quinlan told IrishCentral about the incredible journey on which “The God Box” has taken her.
In your time bringing "The God Box" from text to stage, have any new perspectives come to light for you?
I wrote “The God Box” as a tribute to the unbreakable bond I shared with my mother and as a tribute to her compassion and her lessons of letting go. As a New York Times bestseller, that book has been given as a gift to thousands around the world. But the process of developing the companion play dug into my own struggle as a daughter losing the woman I loved most in the world.
My co-writer and director Martha Wollner put me through months of creative exploration – she calls it “writing on your feet” – where I was emotionally thrown back into those devastating rollercoaster moments such as after Mom’s death, discovering her handwritten notes about things we’d never talked about. So the script follows the deeper psychological journey of the very human struggle between holding on and learning to let go – very cathartic.
Have you noticed any differences performing in the US vs Ireland? What has the feedback been like?
Audiences on both sides of the ocean laugh and cry and afterwards tell me stories of their own family memories, happy and sad. But the one difference that I noticed is that sometimes in America, we seem uncomfortable talking about death and we keep grief to ourselves.
In Ireland, even from the stage, I can feel a kindred acceptance of grief, almost a wave of emotion from the audience that sighs, ‘we understand.’ One young guy at the Limerick show last year came up to me and said, “I feel like you walked into an Irish wake, put your elbow on the coffin and told the truth.” Can’t beat that. And after the show, I got a kick when so many in the Irish audience hugged me, saying, “My mother's name was Mary too.”
What led to you devote this Ireland tour to the cause of the Irish Hospice Foundation?
This is a story of Irish-American connections. My husband Joe Quinlan (a graduate of the Masters program in Irish and Irish American Studies at NYU) and I were both aware that Loretta Brennan Glucksman and Tom Moran had hosted a big NYC event a couple years ago to highlight the need for hospice care in Ireland. Loretta had been profoundly touched by the beautiful care provided by the Cork Hospice during the last months of life for her beloved husband Lew Glucksman.
Then in 2014, Joe attended the Ireland Funds conference in Belfast and met Sharon Foley, CEO of the Irish Hospice Foundation. We decided to dedicate two performances in 2015 to IHF to test the waters in Limerick at the Lime Tree and in Dun Laoghaire at the Pavilion and this past June, we raised funds for the Northern Ireland Hospice at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. Audience reaction convinced us that we needed to expand our message in Ireland. So the October tour includes nine cities, all raising funds for local hospice through the Irish Hospice Foundation and in addition to the big cities, we are taking it to the midlands, to Portlaoise and Roscommon and Longford.
Does performing the show with that cause in mind feel any different?
"The God Box, A Daughter’s Story" is true. Both of my parents were comforted through hospice here in the States and I expose those final days in the play so yes, I am personally invested as I perform. And sadly this year, Joe lost his mother on Mother’s Day, also in hospice care. So the message is even closer to home now.
What are your hopes and goals for this Ireland tour?
Beyond raising funds and awareness for local hospice, I hope that this show brings healing laughter and comfort and community wherever I go. Often families, particularly mothers and daughters, sisters and best friends attend together and I can see the hugs in the hall and the recognition that time is short and relationships are precious. Many, even those estranged from their mothers, tell me, “I am going to go home and call her tonight.” My mother Mary would be smiling. She always was.
Have you encountered any readers or audience members who have been inspired to start their own God Boxes?
Absolutely. The idea of creating a little box and tucking your handwritten prayers and concerns inside is a ritual in many cultures, a universal and human concept. It was my mom’s way of getting worries off her shoulder and turning them over.
Often I meet people who bring photos of their God Boxes or who write me on Facebook to say they’ve started one for their children or for a newly married couple. It’s easy for anyone to try, especially in today’s stress-filled world. (And for those who feel they have no time for paper and pen, we created a free app called “The God Box” on iTunes, your own mobile God Box where you can tap in your messages and save or send them to others. A God Box on the go!)
Thank you, Mary Lou.
Visit the God Box Project website for more information.