I’ve been feeling a little blue this Christmas season. I haven’t really been able to pinpoint a reason why, but if I’m being honest I think it all boils down to money, which is sad. I know that Christmas isn’t about money—I know that it isn’t about gifts. It never was for me growing up; some years we didn’t get gifts at all and I don’t remember ever feeling sad about it, because for us Christmas was more about being together, making music, laughing…. I felt like it was a day for us to reset ourselves to our default mode before the new year got underway—a day to remind us all of the people that we really wanted to be and the folks that were most important to us.
This year, though, I’m having a hard time focusing on that. Maybe it’s because I have an almost three-year-old who has started to notice Christmas for the first time, and this will likely be the first Christmas that she remembers. Maybe it’s because I have a new baby, and even though he won’t remember this Christmas I will remember it—and I want it to be beautiful and special just like Maren’s was. Maybe it’s because I haven’t seen my brother and father in almost a year, and sometimes when you’re sad and lonely you just want to be somewhere where you know that you are loved best of all.
Maybe it’s because all of our friends and family members have had good years, are celebratory and happy, are chit-chatting about their awesome plans and trips, and the fabulous gifts they are buying for each other (and for us), and it makes this knot in my stomach pull so hard on my heart that I think it could crush my lungs. Because 2012 has not been a very good year for us—in a manner of speaking, of course.
I line up my blessings—I had a son, I was told that I could have cancer and ended up having a UTI, I was in a nasty car accident and walked away from it with minor injuries, we moved to where we wanted to raise our family and we both got jobs in a terrible job market—and I know that all I should feel is overwhelmed with blessings. But… there’s a practical, cynical side of me that also looks at all those blessings and sees the price tag attached to each. Hospital bills—holy hell, hospital bills. Credit cards we maxed out to move. Nine long, scary months where I couldn’t find a job—any job. Dropping money we didn’t have on interview clothes, then having to upgrade my wardrobe from jeans and company polos to professional attire. Gas prices that keep going up, and up, and up. Student loans entering repayment. Daycare for two kids. And on, and on, and on, infinity plus one.
This morning as I make my lists and check them twice, I do have the stress attached to being able to afford Christmas presents for my own children, let alone five nieces and nephews, extended family that are precious to us, our parents that have been generous and loving this year, co-workers and bosses and bla bla bla…. But my bigger stress is wondering how I will fill my gas tank to get to work next week. What I will do when Gavin, who grows like we are trying to fatten him up for Christmas dinner, grows out of his latest batch of clothes. How I will possibly avoid defaulting on our student loans, or bouncing a check to our gracious daycare provider. How I will continue to feed my children the healthy meals that they are used to, that nourish Maren’s growing body and provide the right nutrition for the milk that is my son’s only food. It’s enough to drive someone crazy, and I finally have started to realize why some people turn to drinking or other vices to relieve the pressure of this crazy world, of this crazy season; why some people are full of bitterness and ugliness for the hard years they spent trying desperately to turn it all around, only to have a car accident, or sudden illness, or other surprise take control out of their hands. I see now why some people would rather shut out the holidays and spend them alone then have to face other people’s unbridled joy.
One of my favorite Christmas carols is The Little Drummer Boy. The line that always gets me is, “I am a poor boy, too.” I remember my Dad telling us in some of our harder years, “There will be no Christmas in Mudville.” I don’t have a single bad memory from any of our Christmases—I don’t remember ever feeling disappointed or let down. But I know now, as a parent, that even so, the weight of those years must have pressed heavily on my parents’ chests. They must have put on brave faces Christmas morning, and for days and weeks prior they must have been plotting, scheming, and searching their every resource for a way to give their children a bright and beautiful holiday. Things are tough. It’s exhausting.
Last night I went to a Christmas concert at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, and they had a beautiful backdrop that featured a nativity scene. And I found myself thinking about something I’ve never thought about before—Mary and Joseph, and how they must have felt that day. Maybe it’s because I have a new baby myself, but I found myself feeling so much empathy and big-sisterliness towards Mary, even if you don’t believe in all the supernatural stuff. History tells us that Mary was a teenager—probably only 14 or so. She was pregnant and unmarried—a major no-no in those days. She and her fiancé were ordered by their government to uproot and return to the place of Joseph’s birth to register for taxes—so they dropped everything to make the trip, even though Mary was suuuuuper pregnant (I once drove from Omaha to Minneapolis 8 months pregnant and thought that I was going to die. Imagine taking that trip on a damn donkey). As the story goes, when they got there, they went to an inn to find a place to stay and it was full, presumably from all the other people coming home to register. So the innkeeper, who I always thought of as kind of a jerk, was actually being kind when he told them they could stay in the barn (which, as I have been informed by one of my pastor friends, was actually probably a cave).
They went to the barn, and Mary had her baby. The Bible doesn’t tell us much about that—Holy Scripture is decidedly unlike Facebook in that we don’t get to hear any of the grisly details of Jesus’s birth. No TMI. No placenta pictures or snapshots of a dazed looking Mary holding the Prince of Peace while he was still covered in gore while Joseph high fives the anesthesiologist.
But, as mothers, we can imagine and fill in a few blanks. Maybe she had been in labor on the donkey for a few hours, maybe even all day, and either didn’t notice or didn’t complain. Maybe they got to the inn, collapsed in the barn, exhausted, and as Joseph began to snore, she began to feel labor pains. I picture her sitting up, her hands on her tummy, waiting, waiting, waiting… biding her time until she knew that she was right. And then turning to him and saying in a soft, quavering voice that it was time.
What I can tell you as a mother was that she was definitely terrified, and that Joseph was probably not much help (I’m sure he’s a nice guy, but let’s be real. He’s a carpenter, Jim, not a doctor). In fact, culturally, Joseph probably left all together. It’s possible that Mary had witnessed other women having babies at some point, but not definite. In those days, women were a tight knit group—probably Mary had been imagining this moment surrounded by her mother, her sisters, her cousins. Older women with experience that could help her. The Bible doesn’t mention if any midwives were summoned, or if the innkeeper’s wife came out to help. Childbirth is a woman’s battle, after all, and the Bible was written by men. And lo, the King of Kings was born in a barn, amidst manure and dove droppings, spiders and noisy chickens. It was probably dark. It was probably really hot. No matter what the Christmas carols say, I bet that it was awful. It sounds like a total freaking nightmare to me.
If Mary was anything like me, I bet that she was feeling the kind of full-on happiness and full-on despair that parents are so used to. Flooded with love for her baby, I bet she felt desperate, and frustrated, and terrified for him. I bet that her fingers trembled when she swaddled him, and that tears ran down her face while she counted his fingers and toes, held him against her body to keep him warm, brought him to her breast to nurse. And I bet in her mind she was thinking, “What am I going to do?” Maybe she was even angry with God—by all accounts Mary was a woman of deep faith, but if anything will test your faith it is being totally responsible for the life of someone else and not knowing how you will manage it. I wonder if she, like me, thanked God for this beautiful blessing, but in the same prayer cried out in anger—something of a medieval, “REALLY?!?!?! I delivered the Son of God in a barn?!?!”
I bet that within a few minutes, that stubborn hard-heartedness set in. I bet that she took a couple of deep breaths, and focused on the joy radiating from deep within her being. I bet she watched his eyelids fluttering, and listened to his breathing. I bet that she told him, right then and there, “Nothing will hurt you, little Joshua, my son. Everything will be all right.” I bet that she was being one of my daughter’s favorite made-up emotions– scave—when scared is what you’re feeling, but brave is what you’re doing.
The older I get, the more that I realize that being a parent is the most important work of my life. It’s 20 or so years of super intense, all-in, full-time work. It took me a long time to come around to realize that there are parts of my life that I value deeply that simply will not matter as much to the world as this part of my life. I’m a good singer, I’m a decent writer, I’m a very good teacher, but all of those vocations are just background noise for the Big Show. I am Maren and Gavin’s mother. There is no word holier to me than “mama.” That’s my real job.
Don’t get me wrong—I am no Mary. My children are not Jesus, although it is amusing to imagine the toddler Jesus refusing to potty train (ahem). We all entertain ideas that our children will grow up to cure cancer or invoke world peace, but the truth is that we are just as fiercely proud of them when they end up becoming teachers and business consultants, musicians and parents. Regardless… they are like royalty. Because they are the best hope for our future. I could not love my children any more if an angel had come to me in a dream and told me what they would become. I love them because they are.
And the amazing thing about being a child—they don’t know about my stress. They don’t know that I’m scared. They don’t know that sometimes I feel lonely, or beaten down, or disappointed with how things have turned out. They love me, too. Because I am their mama. I am their safe place. I don’t know if Jesus knew as a newborn who he was. But I know that when he opened his eyes and saw his mother, he knew who she was. Because that is part of the magical journey that is parenthood. We recognize each other. We know. In a world of surprises and doubt—it’s a certainty.
Did you know that the word “Amen” means “so be it” (or, for you trekkies: “make it so.”) When I found that out, I felt like it was kind of bossy. I felt like God is the one who gets to say “so be it,” and we are the ones who deal with whatever-so-becomes. We don’t tell God what to do—we tell him what we’d like and we thank him for what we have and we hope for good things to keep on coming.
But last night at the concert, while I was listening to hymns and thinking all of my melancholy thoughts, I thought that maybe it’s more of a supplication than I had thought before. More of a ‘let it be so’ than a ‘so be it.’ I thought about the word, ‘hope,’ and what it means. I thought about prayer, and how much of our prayers are tenuous deals about such silly things struck with the creator of the universe. I looked down at my hands in my lap. I didn’t feel ashamed. I felt better.
Here is a lyric from one of my favorite songs last night:
“In your goodness, you have made us to hear the music of the world. The voices of loved ones reveal to us that you are in our midst. A divine voice sings through all creation. Alleluia. Amen.”
The night of my car accident, I was lying on the couch with my eyes closed, trying not to sleep because of my concussion, trying not to feel the pain that I couldn’t treat because I am breastfeeding, and trying to be happy to be alive even though what I was really feeling was fear for how we were going to get through the next year without declaring bankruptcy. And Mitch—my rock—said, in despair, “What is God trying to teach us?”
When you have a baby, there is a scary silent moment after they are born when you are waiting to hear them cry—the cry means that their soft, unused lungs have swept into action. Neither of my children were in any particular danger when they were born, but even so that silence stretches on and on. Everyone in the room gets quiet while you wait—and it’s only a couple of seconds in most cases, but it feels like an eternity. With both my children, I felt that that first cry was their declaration, “I’m alive! I’m alive! I’m alive!” Hearing their voices for the first time was more of an affirmation of faith than anything I had experienced in my life. Being in the birthing room is a like a super concentrated droplet of the stress and terror of everyday life. Because even after all your careful plans, the care you took in preparing for this moment, anything could go wrong. There is so much pain, so much confusion, so much fear. And yet… Out of all the ugliness of the birthing room—here. Here it is. The voice of God speaks, and says, “Let it be so.”
I can tell you with no question that the voices of my children are what make me believe that the world is still beautiful. My college choir director once told me that he could tell when I sang that I had heard the voice of God. I wonder sometimes if my voice has changed ever so much since having my children, when I hear it every day.
I feel that my job as a mother is a constant, continual prayer. I feel like I look at my beautiful, perfect babies, and I just think something that Mary must have thought on the first Christmas. I look at them, and I think— there! Here it is!
My masterpiece, my sonnet, my opus, my blood, my tears, my life’s worth. Everything good inside me has a second chance—an opportunity to rise up away from the bad things I also own, and rule. These children are my sacrifice, my prayers, my trials, my joy. They are my only hope. They are my assurance that there is a God, that He is paying attention.
And their perfect bodies will grow, and they will be strong. And their quick minds will be bright and brilliant. And their voices will reveal to the whole world that there is something of goodness left to be had. They are my music. They are my songs. These are my gifts to the world. The angels told Mary how special her baby was, so she knew what she was carrying. I haven’t had any nighttime visits from winged trumpeters, but I know how special my babies are. And my babies know—in the eyes of their mother, they are the most important people in all the world.
And because I have been blessed with them—because they will ultimately bless the world—there must be a reason to keep smiling and laughing, and making music and trying to make it. Christmas morning will be bright and beautiful because we love each other. Because I, like Mary, live in an uncertain world, and am surrounded by things that I did not picture for myself, or plan for my life, but have found a reason to be happy, to be joyous, to be forever thankful. In your goodness, you have made us to hear the music of the world. The voices of loved ones reveal to us that you are in our midst. A divine voice sings through all creation.
Let it be so. Let it be so.
And to those who are hurting, like I am hurting…. Merry Christmas. Keep the faith.