Hope Means Everything Changes: Thoughts on Advent and Sorrow and the Painfully Human Mary and Joseph and Jesus

It’s Christmas day, and when I opened my door on this quiet morning our neighborhood was covered over with a bright, soft glitter of snow. My house is quiet this morning because we did our major family celebration yesterday, complete with stockings and presents and Super Smash tournament and our traditional Christmas breakfast. It was one of the best days of my whole year. Every single one of my children was home at the same time, all happy and healthy, all glowing and loving each other. 

When I was first divorced it felt like a disastrous compromise to have Christmas celebrations the morning of Christmas Eve, but I have grown to enjoy the rhythms of our Christmas seasons, making space for our children to spend as much time as possible with as many people who cherish them as possible. The better I learn to separate myself from comparison, from a story of what “should” be, the more joyful these sweet, dark days at the end of years have become. The weeks leading up to this particular Christmas have made the work of stepping away from the wretched story of what “should be” nearly impossible, though.

In response, I have taken the Advent season very seriously, pondering the wait for Christ’s birth, contemplating on the promises of the Christ story offered at the beginning of this liturgical year: hope, faith, joy, peace, love. These flickering candles have been the lights guiding me forward. And, oh, how I have needed guidance. For reasons I cannot fully detail in such a public space, the weeks of the Advent season and many weeks before that have been riddled with fear, anger, conflict, despair, crisis, want, sorrow, regret, and the desperate self-doubt that seems to always accompany difficult times for me. As the winter has crawled toward its deepest darkness, so have I. I have been covered over with darkness, hot and achy and pregnant with the desire for relief, for change, for things to be different, for me to be a different person or to at least be somewhere different, living some imagined life where I made all the “right” choices and landed myself in a place of comfort and ease and bliss. 

So, I have been thinking a lot about Mary, the mother of Jesus, a young woman pregnant out of wedlock, swollen and achy and desperate for the relief of birth as she rode on a donkey to the town of Bethlehem. Of course the divine interventions and manifestations make the story hold together differently and for some they are the whole point of the storyan angel appearing to a beatific Mary who accepts God’s will for her, an angel reassuring Joseph that his betrothed was, indeed, carrying the Son of God, angelic heralds singing to shepherds as they watched their flocks at night. But it is the humble grace and metaphoric significance of the very human story of Mary and Joseph and the birth of their child that calls me this year. 

Mary was probably unable to hide her pregnancy from her community, unable (and probably unwilling) to go on a face-saving campaign to tell all her neighbors that she was pregnant with God’s Own Son! and not just knocked up with either Joseph’s baby before they were married (gasp!) or the baby of some other man (gasp!). As if anyone would have believed her if she had tried to tell them. 

Joseph had many options at discovering his betrothed (whom he’d apparently never known) was pregnant. Public shaming and stoning were definitely among these choices. Instead, he determined to break up with her quietly and not make a fuss about it. Then, upon learning things may not be as they seemed, he chose the simple faith and grace of remaining by her side and supporting her despite his utter lack of control over the situation. 

In this state, they journeyed to Bethlehem, not for a nice couple’s retreat, but to pay taxes forgoodnesssake, knowing Mary was likely to give birth in an unknown city without the comforts of family or a good midwife or her favorite pillow. And when they arrived and Mary was clearly going to have her baby right now there wasn’t even any room in a noisy, crowded inn for her—only a dank, dark cave of a stable filled with the stink and noise of animals. The birth, I imagine, was like any of the births I’ve witnessed. There was probably pain and growling and blood and puke and mucus. And after all of this, in the midst of the hormonal upheaval of the postpartum period, she had to entertain a bunch of strange men who wandered their way from fields outside the city to the little hovel where Mary and Joseph had hoped to rest.

Yes. There may have been a bright new star in the sky. Yes. There may have been herald angels singing hallelujahs, frightening shepherds with the news of a glorious birth. But Jesus was not born glorious—a fully-formed God like Athena sprung from Zeus’s head. He was born Emmanuel, God With Us, born just like us—a squalling, pink and helpless infant adjusting to the lonely life outside the womb where he had to figure out how to breathe and communicate to the people around him when he was hungry or cold or wet or otherwise uncomfortable. He, like us, just had to trust his parents to care for him and keep him alive. His parents, like us, just had to do their best to fumble through caring for a tiny human. 

It is these deeply human, incredibly painful and uncertain moments in the Christ story that bring me comfort this year. There may have been miracles later, atonement, resurrection, promises of eternal life. But in the figures of Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus I see myself in all my fear and uncertainty and hope and hopelessness. The birth of Jesus was not the end of Mary’s suffering. Her hope for release and relief as she rode that bumpy rode on the back of a donkey was not answered with comfort and ease and all the answers to all of her problems. Her hope was met with a baby who needed all of the courage and hard work and faith she could muster. This baby was not, at this moment, any kind of answer. Jesus in the manger was not a resolution. He was only possibility. Baby Jesus represents faith through darkness, joy despite the constant change that is the fundamental nature of human existence, the peace of accepting things as they are right now rather than clinging to the time-traveling urges of regret or worry. 

Neither Jesus’s birth nor his life forced the world to fundamentally shift to a place of love and peace and righteousness where all are fed and sheltered and loved and welcomed. This was the message, but it has not been the outcome. Yet. For some, the hope of Christ is the hope for a Someday, after this life, where all these things are made better. That is understandable and well and good. But that, for me, is not heaven. That kind of hope feels like looking around and deciding that I’m already in hell and the only way I’ll ever truly be happy is if this Christ story turns out to be true in all the ways I hope it is. That’s not enough anymore to get me through bleak Decembers like this one. 

As I sit alone in my living room this morning, enjoying the peace and sweetness of tree-lights and bits of wrapping strewn about, I am grateful for the beginning—when nothing was certain, when Mary and Joseph had just endured one of the hardest trials of their lives with all their clumsy human grace, totally unaware of the difficult trials that lay ahead. The Jesus who fed a thousand with just a few loaves and fishes will come later in the story. Today I am grateful for the endless, unfulfilled possibility of a baby who needed to be fed—God truly with us in our helplessness and loneliness. Today I rejoice in divinity made manifest in schlubs like us who wade through darkness, embrace change, fight through fear, offer what help and relief we can, and hope for our own transformation into the kinds of people who make this world more loving and just and gentle for everyone.

To Be a Pioneer

“Zion Ho” by Minerva Teichert

I’ve done a lot of pioneering over the last few years. It has meant agonizing decisions, loneliness, fear, leaving the lull of security, and striking out with a feeble faith toward truths that friends and loved ones haven’t always understood or supported. Away from easy truths I thought I’d never lose.

In June of 2013 my then-husband and I went on a pioneer trek with a group of teenagers. Our role was to act as a ma and a pa for some amazing kids. It was dusty, sweaty, difficult work; I had feet covered with blisters, and heat rash all up and down my legs. Along the way, we learned stories about the Mormon pioneers and their sacrifices. I gained perspective and a reverence for their bravery and the sacrifices they made to come to a zion they hoped would mean peace.

As a ma during our pioneer trek, I wanted to help our little group feel their worth, learn to love God and humans, and trust to the grace that I believe is one of the organizing forces of the universe, whether it wears the name of Jesus or Brahman or the unearned rain that falls on flowers and fields. I spent much of my time at odds with my husband and tending to my own crumbling belief, so I don’t know that I did a good job. I also didn’t know that it was me who would most need those truths, that I would soon pack a handcart and leave the life I’d known in hopes of finding a place in the world that I could settle, feel free from fear, and call my own.

Some would say the Mormon pioneers were foolhardy or duped, especially the handcart pioneers who left far too late in the season to make a safe trip. But what is life if it isn’t a choice to pack our handcarts with the basics of survival and pull slowly toward the things we love, the truths we’re willing to be wrong about? Some pull with reason and logic, some with faith, some with anger, some with joy. Some plod, footfall by footfall, along the path in hope they’ll one day understand why they keep going. And we make mistakes—I’ve made plenty of my own over the last two years—and we hope our faith and our follies will help us learn to make a zion.

My great-great grandparents, James and Jessie White Murray, left Scotland in 1862 and traveled across America as Mormon pioneers. Jessie’s parents were distressed by her choice to join the Mormons and told her as she left that they hoped her ship would sink. James lost his wife, Mary, in Echo Canyon—almost within sight of the Salt Lake Valley. Jessie helped him care for his children; they later married and lived near Tooele in a place still called Murray Canyon.

I wonder if they ever wished they’d stayed safe in their Scotland homes. I wonder how much grief filled their days, how much they longed for lost ones. I wonder if Jessie’s parents spent days staring west and wishing for just one chance to tell their daughter of their love for her.

As I continue my pioneering and wonder, like Carol Lynn Pearson does in the following poem, if I’ll ever find my place, I think sometimes about my people, my brave pioneer grandparents and feel grateful to know that courage is my heritage. I may not walk the paths they walked, or trust to the same truths, but their faith helps me lace my shoes, pack my cart with what I need, toss heavy things I cannot carry, and head toward my horizon.

Pioneers

My people were Mormon pioneers.
Is the blood still good?
They stood in awe as truth
Flew by like a dove
And dropped a feather in the West.
Where truth flies you follow
If you are a pioneer.

I have searched the skies
And now and then
Another feather has fallen.
I have packed the handcart again
Packed it with the precious things
And thrown away the rest.

I will sing by the fires at night
Out there on uncharted ground
Where I am my own captain of tens
Where I blow the bugle
Bring myself to morning prayer
Map out the miles
And never know when or where
Or if at all I will finally say,
“This is the place,”

I face the plains
On a good day for walking.
The sun rises
And the mist clears.
I will be all right:
My people were Mormon Pioneers.

––Carol Lynn Pearson

The Longest Night–A Winter Solstice Poem

photoThe Longest Night

What do we do on the longest night?
We weep. We stand at the mouth
of a snowy canyon, cursing God
through our sobs as the long dark
of this year, so cold, sinks deep.

Then, we hold each other, laugh.
We kiss and whisper secrets, gently
caressing the tender hurts in the dark
beneath each others’ skin.

We sleep the sorrow of midwinter,
dream spring and wake
with wet eyes that watch
the light grow longer each day,
each new minute the promise
of a bright-shining, knife-bladed spring.

by Heather Holland

Grief and Love and Waking

“Instead of asking ourselves, “How can I find security and happiness?” we could ask ourselves, “Can I touch the center of my pain? Can I sit with suffering, both yours and mine, without trying to make it go away? Can I stay present to the ache of loss or disgrace-disappointment in all its many forms-and let it open me?” This is the trick.” —Pema Chödrön

I woke up happy and filled with peace this morning. I read poetry and Pema Chödrön, meditated and cried happy and cathartic tears. I felt grateful for my life—this life, right now, not the life that I waste comparing to what it used to be or wishing away until it gets better. This is significant. One happy waking day is more than I’ve had in months.

Most days I wake up wrapped in sorrow and grief. Each waking is a rush of reminder: I no longer live in the home I loved for over a decade; I am divorced; I feel isolated from many of the communities I’ve spent years building; my faith has taken a beating and is finding new forms; I will never see my brother again in this lifetime. By bedtime I’ve reminded myself of the reasons for my choices, I’ve taken baby steps forward. I’ve nurtured my heart enough that I know I will be okay, then I sleep and forget. Then, I wake and remember.

But today I woke up happy. Today I was so grateful for my life, my body, my home, the sun shining on my face, my bedside table, my best friend’s metaphors, Buddhism, and wonderful people who talked and listened and loved me last night.

You can’t have love without grief; this world of impermanence packages them together. And the deeper the love, the deeper the grief. Sometimes I’d like to choose a lessened grief, but not if lessening grief meant lessening my deep and burning capacity for love.

Solstice: Light and Dark

rock_canyon_5-13-06

On the last winter solstice, the longest night of the year, I sat in a car at the mouth of Rock Canyon with my best friend and cried until my eyes were salty and stinging and dry and my chest ached from the heaving and my lips were cracked. Then I stepped out into the cold mouth of the canyon, cried some more, and yelled at God—a long string of angry sorrow and curse words. I stood outside in the dark and yelled until my voice was hoarse and my fingertips were numb. I stood in the cold and felt like a wisp, a shell, such a fragile thing. I was fighting for my life right then, holding on to the edge of a cliff and constantly working to convince myself that I could survive the pain, that I could find happiness, that I was worthy of love. So often I felt that my pesky needs for love and emotional safety and authenticity were making everyone around me miserable, that life would be better for others without me around. Tightly tucked into the dark and cold of the longest winter I’ve ever known, I didn’t know if I’d ever make my way out. I just kept waking up to one more minute of light each day, watched as the day’s light lengthened, hurt and hoped. 

Today was summer solstice, the longest day of the year. I slept in until 11, went to lunch with new friends at my favorite park, washed my quilt at the laundromat, rode the train to Murray to visit my Aunt Gwen who reminded me how loved and supported I am, how grateful she is for me, how she admires me. Just past sunset I drove to Rock Canyon again. I walked into the mouth of the canyon to sit on a boulder and cry. There is still so much pain (and more and different pain) but it is softer around the edges, and I am stronger. I talked to my little brother, told him how much I miss his sparkly eyes and his mischievous giggle. The warm breeze blew through my hair as crickets sang their night song. Orange light beyond the lake faded as the stars peeked out through clouds that moved softly through the darkening blue. I talked to God, whispered a dozen thank yous for the beauty of this world, for this life and the labyrinthine journey I’m taking. After the crying and the whispered prayer, I found the tiny stage of an amphitheater and danced to Regina Spektor, sang, bowed to the applauding stars.

Tonight I held myself tight in love and compassion, reveling in the treasure that is me—that beautiful and imperfect person who is always here at the end of each day and each grief, the friend I’m learning to cherish with each waking. As sorrow and anger and loss have ravaged me this year, as so many of the outer trappings of my identity have fallen away, I’ve finally learned to love myself without condition. It is new love: fierce and soft and open and grateful. Tonight there is such light, such light, such light shining through the cracks and the flaws of my wandering soul. 

And then there was joy…

Today joy peeked its head through the soil again, as it always seems to do. Hooray! And today felt like spring. I’m grateful for spring and joy like crocuses that find their way through hard, snowy ground to the light.

I’m grateful I got to cry today. It cleared a lot of things for me.

I’m grateful that I got to babysit Emerson, a sweet one-year-old who “helped” me load the dishwasher tonight. Grateful for his wonderful parents who are two of my dearest friends—two of those rare people in my life that I never feel like I have to pretend with.

I am grateful that I got to hold my sweet Matthew on my lap tonight and stroke his hair. He is so sweet and wonderful and growing too fast.

Life is so good, especially when I choose to believe it is so.

So, so grateful

Grateful today for the way my children love me so unconditionally. Even when I’m a little off my game or out of sorts. 

Grateful for snuggling and singing and dancing.

Grateful for my Kaitlyn’s incredible sense of humor and the gift of laughter.

Grateful for math jokes, like Scott’s favorite: “Math, I’m not a psychiatrist. Solve your own problems.”

Grateful for a sweet dog. I love our Rusty dog.

The Cold Pulse of Sorrow: In Praise of Sadness

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This winter is cold and hard. And my endless search for a story where I’m perfect enough or wise enough to avoid pain is met in my mind with a friend’s soft voice: I’m sorry, darling, but you’re human. 

Tonight I walked in black clogs along the river trail, my ankles bare and bitten by icy air beneath my long, gray skirt. The bare trees jutted their limbs and sticks into the chill of river and sky, and mallards’ burnished backs and green heads floated on the running water, their quacks and taunts floating up to join the smell of wispy woodsmoke.

The cold pulse of sorrow enclosed me; one warm tear fell down my face. I don’t cry often these winter days. More than one tear and I am drowning in a deep and endless well, surrounded by stones of choices and stories and impossibles, things done and undone, words said and left unsaid, all that is aching and unsustainable.

Why must this be a world of sadness and sorrow?

The river flows on. The sky fades gray, then orange, deepens to cerulean and indigo. Here, even here, I am grateful—not for how I’m filled, but for how I’m emptied. Sorrow is the gift of being hollowed out for hope and future joys. This jagged joy of being human is more than joy. It is also joy’s counterpoint—sadness, sorrow. All of it is a call to gratitude. All. All. All.

This moment. Even this.

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Quick Gratitude: 19 January 2014

So very much to be grateful for today:

-The feeling of being loved for exactly who I am
-Spanish mass and the opportunity for new cultural experiences
-Worship and praise
-Avard Fairbanks and his gorgeous sculptures—Oh! How I love his work!
-His grandson, Dr. Fairbanks, who repaired my middlest son’s broken jaw after he fell out a window
-Companionship and connection
-The peace of cemeteries
-Running down hills
-Music, guitars, beautiful alto voices

Stark and Beautiful

photo 1
Today I feel grateful for barren winter trees and how they feel like sisters and kindred spirits right now. They look so bare, so stark and lonely. And yet… And yet… What green does spring have in store? I think they are so beautiful, just as they are, but also beautiful because of their promise of spring.

Also, grateful for this poem by Carol Lynn Pearson that has been coming to me a lot the last few days.

My Season
by Carol Lynn Pearson

Seeing the tree
Beneath a baptism of snow,
You may call her barren.
But is it so?
And for all your watchings
On a March night
When the twigs seem dark
And the bark
Feels cold to your hand —
Can you call her fruitless
And so leave?

She smiles,
Calm in the station
Of seasons
And in the ordination
Of sun, and sap, and spring.

As for me?
You turn away,
Impatient with the promises you’ve seen.
But — inside I fill
And pulse and flow
With the urgency of green.

I’ve a season,
Like the tree.
And all your
Faithless doubts
Will not destroy
The rising spring
In me.