Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Hopes and Fears of All The Years

I finished The Birth House, by Ami McKay, on the plane back from Florida this week. (Swimming in the sea in the days before Christmas is a childhood memory come back to life. Somehow it seemed right. One particular swim, just after dusk on the Tuesday evening after the eclipse, was marked by the bloodred rising of a full moon out of the belly of the Atlantic. The moment was mystical. If I were Aztec, I would have fallen to the ground in fear. As it was, we all stared in awe at this orb rushing out of the horizon; even the waves seemed to forget to roll.) But back to this beautiful book about a remote Nova Scotian fishing village, Scots Bay, during WWI and the decades beyond, and its women healers who helped "sing the babies down."

Dora Rare, the first daughter to be born to a Rare man in generations, is taken under the wing of Miss Babineau, an aging and wise Acadian healer and midwife. Miss B. trains her to take her place among the women who marry, birth and die in Scots Bay during the 1920s and 30s, before running water, electricity and hospitals with maternity wards.

Dora's experiences are revealed to us partly through her journal. I was moved by her entry for December 26, 1917:

December is a month shadowed in darkness and fear. With every lamp blazing, with oranges and stockings, ribbons and holly, whether Christians rejoice or not, this is the truth of the season. As a young girl, I felt the shock of the annunciation, my belly sinking into hurt every time I listened to Gabriel standing winged and menacing over Mary. The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee . . . Not once did sugar plum faeries dance through my window on Christmas Eve. Instead, my dreams were filled with the hiss of Gabriel's whisper bringing the terrible message that heaven had made a mistake and I was to take the Blessed Virgin's place. With a blanket over my head, I would wait for the dawn knowing that poor Mary must have suffered more than anyone ever knew. That in that hour, she swallowed the spirit of the Christ Child down into her belly, crying into the night, knowing He would have to die. [Some] might call it blasphemy, but when I told Miss B. about it, she said, "That's a sacred dream. The blood you share with the Holy Mother is what sets you achin' like that. The same blood she shares with all women."
Having and raising children must be perhaps the most faithful work ever. After all, we cannot see their particular end. No matter how hard we try, we cannot even control their particular path. Too often we find ourselves kicking up against the immovable force of who this child really is. And, there are times when we have to stand and watch, knowing that the particular steps are their journey to take. We cannot take those steps for them. To try to is to deny our children the benefit of learning through experience those things that cannot be learned any other way.

Yet, there is something I believe we mothers can do. Dora tells it this way.

She and Miss B. are preparing to help Mabel, "a plain living and dependable" mother of two, birth her third. Dora cannot help but notice Mabel's effect on her family as she sends her children to her neighbors so that she can concentrate on "do[ing] what she needs to" without "frettin' over givin' them a fright."

Her belly almost too wide between them, Mabel leaned towards her shy, quiet husband, giving him an awkward kiss on the cheek. She tousled the hair on her little girls' heads saying, "You be some good for your auntie. Mind your daddy and say your pleases and thank-yous." Two little strawberry-blond heads nodded together as they looked up at their mother, smiling, reaching out their hands to rub the roundness of her one last time. . . . Big as a barn and nearly ready to drop, Mabel Thorpe still made motherhood look easy. Miss B. says, "It's a mama's faith what keeps her children right. I'm not talkin' 'bout the churchgoin' kind, neither. Miss Mabel's got faith in goodness. Tell me you can't help but believe in it too just by lookin' at her."
Faith in goodness. That's within our grasp, to believe utterly that at the root of this world and the hearts of others lies goodness, and to show our children that this is so.

Merry Christmas.

Title, from "O, Little Town of Bethlehem."

Monday, December 13, 2010

Tomorrow Never Knows

I am a very capable person. I know how to work hard. I can even work smart sometimes. I'm good at solving problems. I know how to plan for all eventualities: Say we go to the lake, in the middle of July when the temperatures 105. Well, I've got extra towels, a flashlight, toys for nieces and nephews, sweatshirts and pants of all sizes (even sizes my kids are not), enough food for two meals—in case we decide to stay overnight or maybe the glacier pulls loose above Stewart Falls and blocks the canyon road, I don't know. I coach soccer with two extra jerseys, of both home and away, two extra pairs of socks and shin guards, three water bottles, two goalie jerseys of different colors and an extra pair of goalie gloves. I like being (over)prepared. It takes the guess work out of everything for me. There are no unimagined eventualities. Call me pessimistic, call me anal, call me compulsive but knowing that I have a pair of cleats, or shin guards, or three pairs of socks, and a 401K in the back, allows me to relax, and focus on the task at hand.

For the capable, like me, faith as a working principle is not really a necessity. When you're well-educated, married to a good man, the daughter of good parents, and the mother of healthy, mentally stable children who haven't yet flown right off the edge of the cliff when they've tested their wings, faith as a working principle is more of a purse dog. You carry it around, it looks pretty, but it doesn't really have to do much work. By this I mean, my life, its traditions, culture, communities and people, have prepared me to be able to make my way. And if I can't make my own way, I know people who can help me find the way. The future has always taken care of itself, because I have been able to take care of myself.

Lately though, the future's been a little less controllable, a little less viewable. Despite all the counting, the scrutinizing, the planning and knowing and extra pairs of shin guards, there are some days and months even I can't see how it is to be done. By "it," I mean anything really—finding employment, envisioning a child's future, making sure he hands in his assignments in college, carrying out necessary educational goals, meeting financial obligations, preparing for the next soccer game, trying to teach moving off the ball into passing zones, or procuring the fiancĂ© visa from the American Embassy in Amsterdam in time for a wedding—anything where intellect and reason cannot see, let alone make, a way through. You know those moments (days or months): when you look ahead and it's like your life screen suddenly switched to Aux2, and no amount of pushing the remote is going to get it to play Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.

It's not a place I'm comfortable in. "I don't know," is not an expression that sits easily. On those rare days, in my employed state, when I could see the edge of the abyss and had no solution, I have traditionally resorted to hyperventilation, then chocolate and white bread. Loads of chocolate and white bread. That's not a healthy place to be. Filling the hole in the center of me with food and chocolate, while questions in the vein of "what am I . . .? what are we to . . . ?" run through my head. It's the controlled panic of those with a little faith; people like me who keep faith groomed and tucked, like a Shih Tzu with a pink ribbon, in the Sunday bag next to the lesson manual and a spare bag of Swedish Fish.

Lately, I'm learning to stand in a more faithful place. It's really hard work to stand there, and remain there. This is no miniature schnauzer faith. This is blue heeler, English pointer, Kentucky bloodhound faith. Faith that keeps eyes fixed forward, nose tilted in the air, body low to the ground. Faith that listens for whistled or spoken commands from a voice it knows and trusts. Faith that moves forward, following a whispered scent of something that passed that way before.

I used to watch sheepdog trials on television when I was a teenager. (Television had just come to South Africa. We'd watch anything including sheepdog trials and bowls a.k.a. lawn bowling). A huge hillside, a group of long-legged, black-faced sheep huddled on one side of the bowl, a small pen tucked somewhere on the other side of the valley from where a single figure and a single dog stood. The camera would focus on the dog, on its eager eyes, its tongue hanging out, its body low to the ground, just waiting for a command. Could be a whistle, a low "walk on" even a hand gesture, and off the dog would race, down the hill, across the stream, like a streak of black-and-white against the green. From above you could hear a string of whistles and chirps as the handler directed the dog toward the sheep at just the right angle to start the corralling process. Sometimes the sheep would head straight for the pen, sometimes they'd run, like startled chickens. The dog kept on working, head cocked, making adjustments, right turn, left turn, creep slowly forward, dash to the rear, its eyes would never leave the sheep. Listening, always listening. That's working faith. Faith that waits, at the ready, listening. Then moves forward steadily, into space, moving toward a pen it sometimes cannot see.

What does Margaret, black-and-white Border Collie, think, when she sits there, at the crest of the hill, next to the leg she knows so well. Down below she sees the pen and the sheep. Do thoughts of "You seriously want me to get those sheep into that pen . . . again? " Does she recognize the stubborn ewe with the white socks that always, always takes at least three others with her somewhere else, and roll her eyes? Does she worry, "What am I going to do with that ewe? Why can't you get a different group of sheep?" Does she, eyes closed, lower her head onto her paws in fear that she just won't be able to get those sheep in the pen this time?

When she hears, "walk up" coming from the hill telling her to approach the sheep in a straight line, does she think, "I really think I ought to go right, around that knoll and sneak up on them from behind. Walk up's kind of a dumb approach to take right now. Besides if I walk up, then I've got to go through the thistle, and that hurts." When she hears, "take time" and knows her handler wants her to put more distance between her and sheep that are easily spooked, does she barrel on forward because she wants to get those sheep in the pen as fast as she can. From what I remember, Margaret sits, enjoying the sun, sensing the change in the pulse around her, catching the wafting scent of lanolin on the air. Waiting at the ready, trusting that her handler will send her and direct her as he always has in the past.

I recently finished Matterhorn, by Karl Malantes, a novel set in the Vietnam War. In one chapter, two black soldiers, who have opted not to go on a nighttime mission (which is sure to mean death for at least one of the squad), start a conversation in the silence they are left in when their platoon leaves without them. This exchange captures for me the hard work of a working faith.

"You think we go to heaven when we die?" Jermain asked.

"I don't think nothin'. I believe Jesus take care of us when we die." Cortell looked at Jermain. "Believin's not thinkin'."

Jermain took that in for a while. "What if you're wrong?"

Cortell laughed. "What if you wrong? You been worse off than me all you life. I got the safe bet, not you."

"I didn't say I didn't believe."

"No, you just playing it safe and not choosin'. Jesus don't want you to play safe. You don't get anyplace if you don't choose."

"I don't want to go nowhere but back to the world."

"Yeah, I be right there with you." Cortell said. He was silent for a moment. Then he said, "Ever'one here think it easy for me. I be this good little church boy from Mississippi with my good little church-going Mammy, and since I be this stupid country nigger with the big faith, I don't have no troubles. Well, it just don't work that way." He paused. Jermain said nothing. "I see my friend Williams get ate by a tiger," Cortell continued. "I see my friend Broyer get his face ripped off by a mine. What you think I do all night, sit around thankin' Sweet Jesus? Raise my palms to sweet heaven and cry hallelelujah? You know what I do? You know what I do? I lose my heart." Cortell's throat suddenly tightened, strangling his words. "I lose my heart." He took a deep breath, trying to regain his composure. He exhaled and went on quietly, back in control. "I sit there and I don't see any hope. Hope gone." Cortell was seeing his dead friends. "Then, the sky turn gray again in the east and you know what I do? I choose all over again to keep believin'. All along I know Jesus could maybe be just some fairy tale, and I could be just this one big fool. I choose anyway." He turned away from his inward images and returned to the blackness of the world around him. "It ain't no easy thing." (Karl Malantes, Matterhorn, 466).


I live surrounded by flowers. As the sun shifts lower into the sky, and the temperatures break from ungodly hot to blissful, the garden beauties are having their last hurrah. The pot plants have burst into a second blooming now that the scorching mid-summer sun has passed over head. The Echinacea, the English daisies, the fall asters, the foxgloves, nasturtiums, bellflowers, zinnias, and English geraniums, even the scullery maid petunias, are giving it all they've got left on the back slope and in the front beds. The immigrant sunflowers, who've taken root at the edges and hems, are pushing ten feet, despite the limbs and heads they've donated for my vases all summer long. All these plants need is water, light and soil, in the right ratios and consistencies. Give a foxglove morning sun, afternoon shade, and long, soaking water, and it's remarkable what it can become. Give the Russian sage relentless heat all day long and little water, and it thrives, turning dry places, like Las Vegas traffic islands, into cloudbursts of lilac.

Matthew tells us to consider the lilies of the field, "they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet, I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." Matthew goes on to admonish, "Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, 'What shall we eat? Or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? . . . Take no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself."

Just what exactly is it we're supposed to consider about these flowers. I think it's the grace and steadiness with which they grow and prosper: "they toil not, neither do they spin." This capacity to become, without wasted effort and worry, I am coming to learn so very slowly, is part of a working faith. I'm coming to know from the pit of me that when, like Cortell, I choose to continue to believe, the necessary happens, not through my own efforts, but through generous divine attention that has noticed me and will cause events to come together in a way that my "morrow" is sufficient.

Sometimes, I try to envision what the creation of this earth must have looked like. The creative team is told to cause the dry land to appear, to cause the sun and moon to appear, to cause the earth to be filled with moving creatures and all forms of plant and animal life. What must it have felt like to stand, at the edge of uncreated space, and to start in motion the movement that would cause the earth, the oceans, the skies above to appear? That's the faithful place. The place inside us where we stand and choose to believe the story and to speak the words, when ahead—as far as we can see—is only raw chaos, unrefined, unmoulded, a nothingness.

It's the time between the spoken word, the articulated need, and the response that is my greatest schoolmaster of faith. I've filled this space with panic and pleas. It doesn't do anything except make me so nervous I can't breathe. Yet time goes by all the same. Whether I choose to breathe deeply or to hyperventilate has no effect on when the manna comes. As I look back on this learning curve, I am half-embarrassed at my flailing, my wailing, and my nervous motions as I wait for God to work his will. I almost don't doubt that God will be able to work things; but, it's as if I must have been convinced that the volume of my distress (the sighs, the deep breaths, the panicked walking up and down the mountain, the talk-talk-talk at Kevin) could somehow speed up the response time.

I only wish I could have been more poised in my faith place. I'm getting there. Being a part of conclusions that are more than the sum of what I am or can do creates poise, because I come to know, again and again, that all I can do is walk and work towards and into. The manna always comes.

Title, "Tomorrow Never Knows" by Bruce Springsteen.