Friday, September 20, 2013

Songs in the Dorian Mode

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
                             --T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

Truth be told, I was actually looking for the dance station. Between corralling the little ones during the twins' "RMS Titanic" practice and scrambling around looking for costumes, I was exhausted. I needed some good rhythms to keep me awake until I got home, or at least to someplace where I could get some coffee.

The interchange snuck up on me while I was flipping through the dial, and by the time I was safely on the right road and traffic had settled down again, the kids were engrossed in a radio drama on the Christian station.

It's been a long time since I've listened to much Christian radio, mostly because of a few too many "safe for the whole family" ads five or ten years ago. I want a magnificent, life-giving, holy Christianity, and "safe" doesn't always have a whole lot to do with it. Safe is good, but it's never enough, and I need music that will help me be brave. So usually I just do a whole lot of dial-surfing while I'm in the car, looking for good music wherever it may be found. Sometimes I have to switch the station pretty fast, and sometimes we need to have important conversations about things we've heard on the radio, but I guess I'm okay with that.

After a few minutes, the radio drama ended. Soon we were all singing along at the top of our lungs to "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," and it was a beautiful moment of family togetherness. I was so glad that my snobbery had been thwarted. This was totally better than "Gangnam Style."

But then the news came on, and suddenly I wished that it really was "safe for the whole family."

Kermit Gosnell had just been convicted, and the reporter described his crimes in vivid detail. In the space of time that it took my hand to go from the steering wheel to the radio dial, we learned more than we ever wanted to know about his methods for killing unwanted newborns who accidentally made it out of the womb alive.

I'm pretty open in what I talk with my kids about. We talk about war, and the economy, and just a few hours ago I'd spent most of the drive downtown fielding questions about gender and sexuality. But this was one conversation I wasn't ready to have with them.

Is it even possible to live and love and nurture tiny fresh souls in a world so full of ugliness and horror? My soul shakes, quavers. In a mad attempt to steady itself, the immaterial part of me grabs hold of something deep inside my belly, and jerks hard. In a moment or two, my eyes would blur and my hands would start to shake, but I am careful. I have lived long enough to grow a few callouses, and I deftly shift my knowledge of the dead babies over to the part of my soul that is already too dead to care. It's a survival mechanism, and I mean that quite literally. This SUV holds all six of my own babies, dearly wanted and very much alive, and if I'd like them to stay that way, I'd jolly well better be alert enough to hit the brakes when that maniac in the white Escalade cuts us off. Eyes on the road, Elena, eyes on the road.

With scissors? Why would he do that?”

I want to live in a world where scissors are for making extravagantly decorated paper airplanes and snipping herbs in the garden, a world where babies are always, always cherished and protected. I want my kids to go back to blithely filling the house with snips and scraps from their paper crafts without conjuring up images of horror and brutality. 
And the worst of it is, they probably will. Before too long, they will have grown enough soul-callouses of their own to go back to their games and crafts. Like as not, they, too, will get used to these things. This is not okay either, but it's better than the alternative.

I remember a walk that I took with my Daddy many years ago, when I was fresh home from the hospital after a nervous breakdown. We passed a crushed frog lying flat on the road. The creature had been exquisitely beautiful, so very alive, and now it was destroyed. The horror overwhelmed me. I vomited into the ditch, and Daddy finally understood what was wrong with me.

It's just a piece of frog leather, Elena. You'll be hurting all the time until you can learn to just see it as frog leather.”

But it isn't just frog leather. The hungry, mangled bodies and souls that fill this broken world aren't just blobs of pulsing tissue. The seeing is easier now that I know more of what I'm supposed to do with it. Later on I will sit down at my writing desk, and perhaps the pain will be transfigured into something beautiful, if I don't miscarry. But at times like this I have to just pretend that none of it matters, because getting into a car wreck won't help anybody.

Sing me some songs in the Dorian mode, courageous songs to sing for my children. Songs that will help us to see without being destroyed, make us brave enough to act with our eyes wide open, with the measured serenity that every true crisis requires.

I do not want to talk to my kids about abortion; not on this excruciatingly busy day, and certainly not in rush-hour traffic. But now I have to do it anyway. It is not good for the soul to think of such things, but it is worse for the soul to shrink back from them when they are there. This is the task before me, and I must be brave.

"Why can't they just wait until the baby is born, and then give it to an orphanage?"

I explain that it's not even a matter of orphanages; thousands of mommies and daddies are waiting in line, longing to give those babies loving homes. But it's not that simple.

It's not that simple, because it's so much more than nine-months waiting, more than a little womb-space. The gift of life is no small thing to ask of a mama. The child is formed from the transformation of her body, and his little soul unfolds inside her soul. For better or for worse, no matter what happens afterward, she will never ever be the same. To hold a child within one's body is terrifyingly profound, and to pretend otherwise does a disservice to everyone who has ever been born of a woman. No, it is not that simple at all.

And yet, in a way, it really is that simple. It's as simple as duty and honor and giving up your spot on the lifeboat, as laying down your life for the vulnerable.

It's as simple as that, and also as brave.

Sometimes I hear people say that birth is nothing more than a few inches travel. Biologically speaking, that's not quite accurate—after all, a baby's first breath is nothing short of a miracle!—but I get the point. A baby is a baby, and birth, for all its profound sacredness, doesn't change that. It's human life before, and it's human life afterward.

But when we reduce birth down to a matter of inches traveled, we commit the same error as abortion proponents when they talk about babies in terms of cells and tissue. This is not just any collection of cells, but a baby, and the space through which he journeys is not just any space, but the borders of a woman's body. Both mother and child are human, and both of their bodies are sacred.

I'm pretty sure that nobody intends to reduce women down to a set of dimensions. Nonetheless, the way we talk about these things matters, and my body bears the marks of what nice people can do to mamas when we trivialize birth. And even after all these years, I too, have a visceral response to scissors every once in a while.

We're both okay now, and that's what matters, right? A healthy mama and a healthy baby? But health is a relative term, and the scars are deep and jagged. Sometimes my mind still flashes back to the tray of sterile instruments, the dismissively mocking words. My own words haunt me, too. I was ready to be hurt for the sake of my baby, but when he said he wanted to cut me so that he could tug on my baby's head to speed things up and get home in time for dinner, I was startled and unprepared. Up until that point, I had honestly believed that my body was worth more than his schedule. Chastened and humiliated, I reassured him that since he was the doctor, he should go ahead and do whatever was most convenient. For a long time afterward, I hated myself for being worth so little, and I hated myself for not having been brave enough to tell him no. Because when I knowingly let him hurt me, in my ignorance, I let him hurt my baby, too.

Here, too, we get used to things; he was a nice man who loved helping babies be born, and I know he didn't mean to hurt me. Really, it was only just that he was so busy.

But this is a theme that I hear repeated in birth story after birth story: whenever we dismiss and ignore the mamas, babies get hurt, too. That's just the way it is.

Traffic slows to a crawl. My breasts flood with milk as my littlest begins to wail in the back seat. I stretch my arm back and jounce the car-seat behind me, trying to calm him down, trying to calm myself. I'm not sure if this accomplishes a whole lot other than torquing my shoulder, but I have to do something.

"If I study real hard, maybe I can become one of the people who make the laws, and make abortion illegal."

We can hardly hear each other over the screaming baby, even though we're practically shouting. Inch by inch, I steer toward the next exit.

I pull into a Wal-Mart parking lot, and get the baby out of his seat. His sobs shudder to a stop, and my own heartbeat slows as I bury my nose in his chubby little shoulder. My mind knew that he was just fine, but my body panics all on its own whenever my baby is upset and I can't hold him.

I settle in to nurse, his tiny feet tucked underneath the steering wheel. While the baby drinks from my body, the rest of us talk. We talk about abortion, and we talk about what we can do about it. We talk about aspirations for the future, and about the things that we can do right here, right now.

I tell them that even though good laws are important, they're not the only important thing, or even the most important thing. I tell them about how utterly, completely stuck a mama has to be before she'll even consider something like abortion, and how we can't just stop at "be warmed, be fed, and do the right thing for your baby." There's a place next to Kroger; I've been hoping to get over there to find out what they're doing and how I can help. Maybe the kids could come along and... I don't know... fold baby clothes or help organize the food pantry? Images of our own laundry pile, our own disorganized pantry flash before my mind's eye, and I wonder if those good intentions will actually materialize. None of this is easy.

Right here, right now, we're rush-hour refugees, stuck in a Wal-Mart parking lot with a hungry baby. We're not in a position to solve anybody's laundry problems, so we talk about laws; about good laws and bad laws, and the laws that never really turn out the way you want them to. I do not go into detail about the mama and baby who died in the court-ordered c-section, or the drug-addicted mamas who choose abortion over jail time, but I tell them that sometimes good intentions are not enough to make good laws, and sometimes we end up doing more harm than good. I remember how I cheered so hard whenever a state would pass laws mandating that the unborn be considered legally separate from their mothers. They were supposed to pull the ideological rug out from under the very idea of abortion, but now that the stories are trickling in, my stomach turns. It seems likely that some babies were saved because of these laws; we know that some babies died, and their blood haunts me.

Sometimes our cause is so massively important that we're ready to let Solomon use his sword just so we can make our point. Sometimes the principle of the thing seems so much more important than the particulars, and sometimes the mama's voice gets drowned out in the shouting match.

We have bigger things to think about. I get that. But the only reason any of this matters at all is that we care about the little people too. So we have to be careful enough to get it right, and we have to be brave enough to do the long, slow work of listening well to all the little stories.

And in the mean time, I tell my little ones their own stories, these stories that only a mama can tell. How they danced in my womb, each in their own particular way, everything that they are now folded up inside my belly. Every day as I get to know them better, I'm learning a little bit more about what it meant to hold them within me. I tell them, too, about the amazing transformation that happens at every birth; those profound sacred moments when they first took in the breath of life, when all the pain was swallowed up in the joy that a new human being had entered into the world.

What are these paltry words when so many thousands are hurting? But these are my five loaves, the two fish that I have been given. And so I offer them up with a prayer of thanksgiving, even (at long last) for the scars. 

* * *

May the judgment not be too heavy upon us
Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still. 
                                 --T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Not Far From the Kingdom: My Little Defense of Ponies

If you haven't heard about it already, the show "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic" is gaining quite the adult following.

And I think this is awesome.

 If it's a good show for kids, it's also a good show for adults.

I'm with C. S. Lewis on this one.  Lots of worthless things will hold a child's attention, but if something is actually good for kids, it's also good for grownups.

Some things that are good for adults are entirely unsuitable for children, and it's easy to slip into thinking that if something is for grownups-only, that makes it better than "kiddie" fare. This isn't true, and sometimes this can lead to absurdity. This kind of muddled thinking is part of the reason why young starlets must prove their maturity through their lack of decorum.

So then, either MLP:FiM is good for both children and adults, or kids shouldn't be watching it. Seriously, if you can convince me that I'm wrong to enjoy this show, I'll find something else for my kids.

But for now, we're having fun watching it together, because I'm convinced that it's good art.

I know that a lot of people are going to disagree with me on this, because the animation is so simple. In the same way that it's easy to conflate an M rating with actual maturity, it's easy to mistake complexity for excellence. There's a common assumption that complexity automatically makes something better, but it's simply (!) not true.

Complexity (by itself) is not a virtue.

If it was, my house would be a better piece of architecture than the Rothko Chapel. It isn't. =)

The animation of MLP:FiM is simple and clean, and works well within the limited constraints of its genre to produce something really beautiful. Lauren Faust has pared the world down to a few simple lines, clearing everything else away so that we can focus our attention on a few particular themes. This is what all (good) art does--it filters the massive glut of visual stimuli for us, to show us what was there all along. The way she distills facial expressions has changed the way I see my kids faces. My world is a little bit happier now that I've noticed the particular element of kid-cute that Lauren Faust loves.

Yes, the animation is simple. And it's good.

The simplicity of the story lines and ethical framework attracts as much criticism as the simplicity of the animation, but I'm not buying it.

There ARE things to criticize about the stories. There's no excuse for that episode about the Buffalo. But the problem there isn't that that the story was simple, but that it was untrue. The episode seriously misrepresented the conflict between European settlers and Native Americans. There may or may not be a story on that topic that is both simple and true, but if so, they certainly didn't find it. That episode was offensive and untrue, and I have no desire to defend it.

But when MLP:FiM sticks to pony-sized problems (like the ones that make up my own life!), it gets the simple stories right.
The ponies live in a simple moral universe where you really should love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you. Where if somebody slaps you on one cheek, the best thing to do really is to turn and let him slap you on the other cheek, because by repaying evil with good, you set the stage for evil to expose itself and lose its power.

I have yet to grow into these bromides and platitudes, let alone grow out of them.

The ponies live out the crazy notion that Jesus actually knew what he was talking about when he told us how to live.

If a whole bunch of people in my generation decide they want to organize their lives around that, well, glory hallelujah!

Now, ponies can't save anybody, and if that's as far as it goes, it's not going to work. The problem isn't that those simple ideas don't work, but rather that we can't actually live them out apart from the power of the Holy Spirit. It's just like the lame man laying by the pool of cleansing waters beside the five stoas--we can't do it until it's already been done for us.

But there really is hope, because it's just like the ponies learned in the first episodes of Season 2. The ancient snake with his tempting fruits (it's true that discord comes with chocolate rain!) perverts our virtues into vices, destroying any tools by which we might hope to fight him. But there is also an ancient book, and there you may find the jewels with which he will be defeated. If you try to use those jewels as mere talismans, going through the motions hypocritically, it will not work. No, first you must read the letters sent from heaven. Reading those letters, you must remember who you are, and use them to remind the others too. Only then can you use the jewels found in the book to defeat the snake.

My Little Pony is just pretend, but Jesus is real. And he has sent his Holy Spirit to teach us how to do all that he has commanded us.

Jesus' crazy upside-down idealistic ethic doesn't always lead to sunshine and roses. Sometimes it does (more often than you might expect!), but other times it leads straight to a cross. But the way of the cross is the way of resurrection, and sometimes the simple stories are the true ones after all.

Friday, September 13, 2013


In the empty spaces underneath her skin,
does she feel the phantom flutter of small feet
before remembering: this is not that fullness,
but only hunger, exploring its newfound room
to stretch and rumble? Now it is her breasts
that are swollen tight and round. Scalding milk
splashes on her belly's tender folds.
In a world that throbs with hunger, is there none
to drink from her and satisfy this ache?

How is it my own arms are so full?
In the blur of motion and need, there's hardly room
for thoughts to rumble, rearrange, but still,
through the spaces in between the clamor, cries
from Ramah work their way beneath my skin.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The thing about ponies is that they really do
shimmer absurdly, bizarre explosions of pastel
when the scorching August sun beats down and shatters
against each coarsly snarled strand of their tails.
Between the dust particles, infused
with dry manure, colors sparkle and dance.
In that flagellating light, it's too damn hot
to care that horses look like rainbows. I'm thirsty.
I am weary of ennui, burnt out on cynicism.
Grit stings beneath my eyelids, and I wait
for the sudden pearl-grey clouds to gather, burst.
Small rivers streaming down my dusty flesh,
I helplessly receive the mud and splendor.
The kingdom must be found as by a child.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

She would have blown out candles on the beach,
except the wind was far too strong for that.
The ice cream melted, but we ate our fill
of chocolate cake, and built sand walls
against the tide. I came home covered in salt,
peaceful and released; the sea tastes just like tears.
I guess that I was ready for the news.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Thank you, Holy Father, for the light
that skims along the surface of the deep
in waves more true and terrible than those
that churn beneath its pulse, and for the foam
that bubbles lightly underneath the air
and sighs in little rings out on the sand.

Thank you for the tiny pointed prints
of sandpipers and seagulls, and the chance
to make footprints of our own, and castles too,
that melt away, but touch the waves and wind.

Monday, September 2, 2013

When you were six months, finally old enough
for sunscreen, we played on the beach all day. We all
got burnt, except for you. The white cream caked
in your scalp like vernix, flecked with blood-brown sand.
Try as we might, the sea water wouldn't wash
the earth away from your body until it all
wore off on its own, leaving you bare,
vulnerable to the burning light.
We were very careful to reapply
every hour, until the earth itself
turned around to shield your shell-pink skin.
The light grew softer, colder, then was gone.
That's when we bundled you up and took you home,
back to the city with all its safer lights.