Our Lady of Sorrows

pietaI confess to a certain amount of bitterness, when faced with images of a beautiful young madonna and her cherubic child. One such statue stands in a Lady Chapel which is otherwise one of my favourite places on earth. But before that very young woman I feel deeply sad: sad that my own babies are no longer babies, that the magical days of their toddlerhood are behind me. Not that those times weren’t exhausting and often vexatious. But amidst the thousand small things that the littlest ones need doing for them, there was magic. I didn’t need anyone to tell me that I would miss those days, difficult as they sometimes were: I knew it.

Fortunately we have Mary rendered for us in a number of different ways (particularly in iconography), and she was not always the young mother delighting in her baby child. Motherhood also involves loss. Each new stage of development, while (usually) welcome, involves leaving behind traits of childhood–aspects of that precious way of being in the world that is unique to children. And when our children suffer, we suffer with them.

Looking at the pietà (by Giovanni Bellini, 1505), I see myself. The lines in her forehead show the passing of time, the work of motherhood, and decades of letting go. This, also, is motherhood. The painting invites me to join in this sorrow, this tremendous grief, to feel Mary’s sadness. Later, when small losses seem overwhelming, and the longing for my little ones bites deeply, I will turn to Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, and know that I am not alone.

A blessing and a curse

When I was about 7 years old, I was deeply troubled about the people I heard about in Africa. I still remember distinctly the conversation I had with my mother. (Probably, I’ve written about it before, and if you’ve heard it already, I apologize.) I wanted to send food. No, she said: it would not be let in the country. I wanted to send money. No, she said: it would end up in the hands of the wrong people, and would not help the people I longed to help. But, she said, you know what you can do? You want to be a doctor. When you grow up, and you’re a doctor, you can go and provide medical care, which is something much-needed.

Sure. But I wanted to do something NOW. (For the record, I never made it to med school, but still support Doctors without Borders.) Anything I could have done would have made my little heart happy. Now, I read about kids who do these incredible things to raise money for charity, and I’m so glad for them. And  little envious, of course: would that I had been able to get outside of the box my mother unwittingly set me in that day.

Even as a grown-up, I’m still struggling with that box. The desire to do something has never left me, and I wonder what on earth a theologian struggling to make ends meet can possibly do in a world whose needs are cavernous, seemingly infinite. I pray, of course. It’s free, and it’s in my skill-set, if you can call it a skill. But I still want to do that thing, that big thing that will make a real, tangible, visible difference in the life of someone, somewhere. I want to see some obvious change. I want results.

This is both blessing and curse. I can’t wish away the gift of a desire to make a difference, the gift of caring about the world and all the people in it. It’s the way I have borne that desire through the years that makes it a curse. Because I am a huge fan of George Eliot, and of the very end of Middlemarch, in which she observes that things are not so bad for you and I because of people like Dorothea, who ‘lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’ It’s not the big things. It’s the little things. But these things make no obvious change, they seem to be very tiny drops in a vast, empty bucket. In everyday life, I can carry no more than an eye-dropper full of difference-making, and the bucket is bigger than I am.

So usually I find myself frustrated that I am not making headway. In fact, many, many days, I seem not to be doing anything to make the world a better place. Even the little things, the small kindnesses to those in my household and neighborhood…some days I fail to do. And then the curse comes at me, full force, cursing: you’ll never make a difference. Why try? It’s pointless. How can you imagine that the world will ever be any better because of anything you’ve done? You can’t even be nice to your family!

Maybe not. At least not unfailingly. And yet, failing doesn’t have to mean I ought to give up. I have to remember I am still the kid who kept asking: but couldn’t we do this? couldn’t we do that? The blessing isn’t the ability to change the world (for the better) in big, obvious ways. The blessing is the ability to get up, when yesterday I failed utterly to do anything kind or encouraging, and to think that today, I still might.

glad to hear it

I don’t do politics. My British husband knows far more about American politics in the last 50 years than I do. (Before that, I have a slight advantage, having done far more American history, and having studied American religious history. But still.) But today I read a couple of articles about Mrs Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine.

Now I know that there’s much I don’t know. And I know that I don’t even know what I don’t know. And I am sure that the New York Times is likely to paint him in a good light. Still, I am finally less despondent about the presidential race. Maybe Mr Kaine is just as ambitious as Mrs Clinton (though I can’t imagine ‘more ambitious’ than Hillary). Certainly he’s flawed.  Of course he’s not perfect.

But usually I complete those online questionnaires during election seasons and find that only the crazies (you know, the people who still believe in the Marxist revolution or want to settle on Mars) fit my particular constellation of what matters. Years ago, my father lamented that I was a bleeding-heart liberal. I thought I might have a T-shirt made with that emblazoned on it, along with the Sacred Heart of Jesus. So I am happy about  a Roman Catholic who opposes abortion (yes, I know he isn’t overturning Roe v. Wade; neither am I–not because I think abortion is ok for other people, but because I think we are stuck with Roe v. Wade and the battle needs to be fought elsewhere) and the death penalty (yes, I know about his record in VA). I don’t know much, but I know enough to know that he’s not crazy, and we’re on the same side.

Maybe I will send away for my absentee ballot after all.

What Anna taught me this week

Earlier in the week, I attended a celebration at Anna’s school, a school for children with special educational needs. There were music performances and awards given, smiling children and proud parents. Anna sat in the front row and watched it all go on.

I was a bit disappointed, myself. Why doesn’t my child get any awards? Before I could get myself too worked up, though, I realised that Anna doesn’t mind. She can enjoy the success of another without envy. Some people might say this is to do with having an intellectual disability. Maybe so. But I think also that it is a gift. Would that I had it, too.

Why I write

Bracketing out all the violence and tragedy in the world just now–of which there is too, too much–I’ve been remembering why I started writing in the first place.  I was thirteen, and didn’t have a ‘best friend’. So I picked up a pen and a pad of paper (I think it may have been pink; I still have it somewhere), and began.

Throughout the long trial that is the teenage years, I wrote. I wrote out of anguish and confusion. I wrote to figure things out, hoping that understanding would make me feel better. Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes I just became more frustrated. Once I threw the three-ring binder full of all my musings and very bad poetry. It hit the wall and opened up, scattering paper all over the room. Why I collected it all and put it back, I have no idea. It was nothing, just the produce of a troubled head, including some pretty exquisite examples of terrible teenage poetry.

Over the last 30-odd years, I have continued to write. Mostly out of anguish, still. Sometimes because I wanted to reflect on the days speeding past, as they do with young children. I never wrote enough of that: I wish I had written more about their first words and first steps, and the silly things they did. I rely on my faulty memory for all that, and it is no good–a source of maternal guilt (read: anguish). And so I write. It doesn’t always help. But the pen has become my trusted friend over the years, and a blank page can sometimes feel like an open door to a familiar place. After all, I have made myself at home and poured out heart and soul on college-ruled (yes, never wide-ruled) sheets, and books (preferably blank, not lined), for more than two-thirds of my life.

After all that time, I might expect to have above-average self-knowledge. At least. Maybe even excellent self-knowledge. But no: I still pick up a pen to find out what I think, what’s really bothering me. Usually, my soul yields up its secrets to the paper. None of it is earth-shattering: I discover that I am feeling guilty about something I have done or failed to do, or I am worried about something that I ought to do. Occasionally, I am surprised to find that ideas are bouncing around in my head, desperate to make their way to the pen and out onto the page.

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a writer. So I became a writer. Nobody pays me to do this writing. Only very occasionally do the ideas that escape the confines of my brain make it to publication. Heck, they hardly ever make it onto the blog, even. But that isn’t what defines me as a writer. When I was 17, I went to a writers’ conference held (I think) at Loyola Marymount University. B. Kliban was there, talking about his cats and his surfing. John Irving was there, reading from A Prayer for Owen Meany. (I admit I have still never read the book.) But it wasn’t those that stayed with me. It was the lecture by Richard Mitchell, on the topic, ‘Write for your life’. I bought the cassette tapes. I can still remember the last words clearly, though I can’t explain perfectly how he arrived at them. He must have been telling us something about originality, I suppose, because as he drew to a close, he was comparing the moon and the sun. He finished with, ‘Do not shine. Do not seek to shine. Burn.’ I don’t know whether I burn or not, but I still want to.

I’m still a writer, not by profession so much as temperament and habit. I’m not even really sure why I am writing this on my blog and not in a journal to be shelved and never to see the light of day. Perhaps it is because I hope that someone else will say (even if not aloud), ‘Yes, I know what you mean’. Maybe it’s because somehow, when I write (even if I am writing on a page nobody else will ever see), I find out the most important thing of all: that I am not alone.

Just this

This has been a blurry season. You know, the space of weeks or months when mostly you’re chasing things–a never-ending to-do list, a house that seems to generate mess even when nobody is in it, and the work projects that crawl along at a snail’s pace when you needed to finish them yesterday. And you look back and wonder what happened to that space of time, and can’t see any of it clearly. That’s the blurry season. I hate it, because time is so precious and so fleeting. I feel I ought to seize it and make use of it, to make every little job an opportunity to be glad that I live and breathe. But it’s cold and grey, the sun mostly refuses to shine, and I can’t seem to appreciate the little things.

Well, most of the little things. I did appreciate an article in the New York Times (as you do) on marrying the wrong person. It was liberating, in much the same way that writing my post ‘fifteen years’ was liberating. Because it reminded me that normal is not always being happy. It’s sometimes staring at the lemons and griping about them for a while, whining about the lack of sugar and being too frustrated to fill a jug with water. Eventually I’ll get around to the lemonade. But today I’m just going to complain that I really wanted a fresh, ripe, sweet, juicy peach.

And I think that’s probably ok.

The end of modern medicine?

Let me first say that I am grateful for advances in medicine and science: without the kinds of procedures and drugs that have become available in the last hundred years, I would surely have lost my eldest child many years ago. She was born with a congenital heart defect (AV canal defect) and has been hospitalised for pneumonia three times, and that’s just scratching the surface.

Nevertheless, I have long been troubled by a certain sort of triumphalism in our attitude to medicine. I wonder whether we have not come to believe that health and life are a kind of entitlement that medicine delivers. Sometimes it seems that death itself might be conquerable, given the right technology. To age and to die, and to suffer along the way, seem somehow inimical to life as we have we have come to imagine it. But it just isn’t so: death is integral to our life as earthly creatures, just as birth is. Avoiding suffering when it can be avoided is understandable, and fighting with everything we’ve got against suffering that arises as a result of oppression and violence is our duty, not only as Christians, but as interdependent human creatures.

27GERM-1464299636802-master768Against this backdrop, I was fascinated to read an article in this morning’s New York Times about increasingly resistant bacteria. The ‘spectre’ of bacteria that would be resistant to every antibiotic in ‘the medicine cabinet’ looms large: the Department of Defense science blog covered it, and President Obama’s administration has begun planning the US response to such a threat. Although such an infection is currently extremely unlikely (but wash your hands well, anyway), it’s scary enough to attract attention at the highest levels of government. I couldn’t help but think, as I was perusing these documents, of a theme of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (the novel is well worth reading): ‘life escapes all barriers. Life breaks free…life finds a way’ (p. 159). Bacteria are like the dinosaurs on that island off the coast of Central America, adapting to the changing circumstances just like we are.

Of course, I expect that scientists will work very hard to keep pace with these tiny organisms that threaten us. But we shouldn’t try to stop them from reminding us of our mortality.