I have a lot of newborns in my life, both in person (my nephew) and friends from college (here and here). New babies always bring to mind the fragility of life and the “risk of birth” (as Madeline L’Engle so eloquently calls it). Soon after my own daughter’s surprise arrival, some dear friends gathered around me for a “Mother Blessing,” each sharing something to strengthen and encourage me in my mothering journey. One of things that has stuck with me the most from that day is something my friend Christina shared, this passage from Kathleen Norris’ printed lecture “The Quotidian Mysteries” which elucidates the connection between birth and death. I have found it profoundly freeing to see my own beloved child as one who will certainly die one day—does it sound odd that I take comfort in that thought? I don’t mean to be morbid, but somehow the knowledge of this truth makes my time with her seem more precious and also reminds me of how little “power” or “control” I have over her. As powerful as my love for her is, and my desire to protect her, ultimately, I cannot—her life is out of my hands, literally. It is good to be humbled in this way, for me anyway. So I share this passage with you now in the hope that all of us mothers can encourage one another in the “long goodbye.”
We are asked to make all that we have been taught and trained to do—as nurses, educators, theologians, poets, doctors, secretaries, accountants or what-have-you—available to God. Especially when human need is at its greatest, and we know ourselves to be incapable of meeting that need on our own, we are asked to find our strength in Jesus Christ. And we are asked to make our most serious and intimate commitments with very little idea of how long they will last, or what will be required of us. The ordinary demands of a pregnancy, for example, require a woman to find the strength to give birth to a child who, even if it is healthy, will need daily nurturing for years, who will most likely devalue and rebel against that nurture in adolescence, and who will eventually leave home for schooling, work and a marriage of her own. At the deepest level, a pregnant woman must find the courage to give birth to a creature who will one day die, as she herself must die. And there are no promises, other than the love of God, to tell us that this human round is anything but futile.
In one of my poems, “Ascension,” I tried to restore a sense of gravity and beauty to the image of a mother and infant, which is often sentimentalized in our culture. I wrote the poem because of a simple juxtaposition in my life. On Ascension [the feast day celebrating Christ's ascension into heaven--more here] one year, my mother phoned to tell me that my sister’s water had broken and she had gone to the hospital to have her second child. And all day I couldn’t get the thought out of my mind that as Jesus was rising to heaven, my sister was pushing down for all she was worth. Here is the poem that resulted from that meditation:
Why do you stand looking up at the sky?—Acts 1:11
It wasn’t just wind chasing
thin, gunmetal clouds
across a loud sky.
And it wasn’t the feeling that one might ascend
on that excited air,
rising like a trumpet note,
and it wasn’t just my sister’s water breaking,
her crying out,
the downward draw of blood and bone…
It was all of that,
mud and new grass
pushing up through melting snow,
the lilac in bud by my front door
by last week’s ice storm.
Now the new mother, that leaky vessel,
begins to nurse her child,
beginning the long good-bye.
Excerpt taken from "The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women's Work" by Kathleen Norris, which happens to be one of my favorite books on femininity, depression and spirituality. I highly recommend it and anything else by Ms. Norris--she's one of my favorites! And here is the Madeline L'Engle poem that I referenced above. She is another one of my favorites!
THE RISK OF BIRTH
This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And a nova lighting the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honor & Truth were trampled by scorn--
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for Love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by greed and pride the sky is torn--
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.