The Mother of All Mothers

I never understood Mary all that well before becoming a mother. One of many Marys in the Bible, we always refer to her as “Mary, mother of Jesus,” and being cast as the mother of all mothers is not a very relatable lens through which to view her even when you are a mother yourself. Plus it feels like the Catholics called dibs on her, like, a millennia ago, and there’s all these weird lies we tell about her. She’s both daunting and mysterious.

You can fall down a deep rabbit hole on the internet that’s all about the translation of the words describing Mary and whether or not she really was a virgin or young or perhaps simply unwed. Then there’s that whole thing where pretend she was a perpetual virgin and never talk about her other children.

me as an obnoxious baby

My mere existence seemed to irk my siblings.

The Gospels clearly name the four Disciples James, Joseph, Simon and Judas as Jesus’ brothers. I, who made sport of antagonizing my siblings, would be interested in examining the dynamics a familial connection would have wrought on the Disciples. Where’s that show, Netflix?

Basically the things I used to find interesting about Mary weren’t really even about her, and ain’t that a metaphor for motherhood right there?

I once sat in a high school class and listened to the two kids in front of me have a low-talking argument about how many ribs we all have. One said women have an extra set because in the book of Genesis God took a rib from Adam to create Eve. The other kid called bullshit. I felt then the same way I feel now about arguments like that. 

So what?

The number of ribs we each have, or the origins of Mary’s first pregnancy don’t change the overall message of the Bible. I understand that in the early days of Christianity when people were trying to sell others on the awesomeness of Jesus and validate his role as the promised Messiah, that perhaps throwing in “did you know he was born to a virgin mother” may have sounded cool, but did people believe it even back then? It’s clearly a thing invented by men, because only they would miss what’s so crucial about Mary. I mean she did birth babies and keep young snotty children with their terrible immune systems alive before modern medicine, so that in and of itself is miraculous, but there’s more. 

smiling Jesus in robe and red sash resting on sun lounger with glass of red wine in desert, looking at camera

Jesus, pictured on the beaches of Cana,  the morning after that wedding

The Bible often reads like a Steven Soderbergh movie script, dropping you into scenes with no context or background to help. This is certainly true in the second chapter of John when Jesus was attending a wedding in Cana. We don’t know whose wedding it was, or why he was there, or why his mom was there, or his Disciples. But for this particular story, we don’t need to know any of the background, because it’s the one where Jesus turns water into wine. We can all understand how bitchin’ that was. Who doesn’t want a friend with this skill?! All the party invites. Ever.

It’s Jesus’ first miracle, but he doesn’t chose to perform it. He was pushed. When the wine ran out, his mother simply told him, “they have no wine.” We all know how she said that factual statement. The force of a mother’s will is easily discernible to her children with just a look, let alone her tone. Jesus was a bit sassy, replying “My hour has not yet come.” Both Jesus and his mother knew he could perform this miracle, and they knew to do so would change everything. And in the most epically passive-aggressive move ever, Mary tells the servants to take the empty vessels to Jesus and “do what he says.” Jesus gave in. He turned that water to wine because his Momma told him to. 

There’s a lot of unintended conflict and shame thrown around in our modern American conversation about motherhood. I waded into it myself upon first becoming an aunt, then all but drowned in it by the time I started having kids in 2013. The best way I can illustrate this is to tell you about one evening at a women’s Bible study I attended. We were reading a passage about an especially sexist character in the New Testament (I won’t throw share at him because Paul knows what he did), and one woman said, “I have so much trouble examining anything he did because I’m a feminist and always so distracted by what a misogynist he ways.” A chorus of voices joined her, all women of a certain generation who agreed because their’s was the one to break a lot of gendered barriers in our society. They shared experiences where authority figures in their formative years would use things this Bible character said to hold them back. Then one lone, frail voice dissented. She was a much older woman who, it had been easy to learn over the course of several meetings, was still fresh with grief for a husband of over 40 years who had passed. She said, “I was always happy to take care of my kids and husband and the things around the house. I thought I was serving God at the same time. But I guess that’s not okay anymore.” 

There was silence and shocked faces. Clearly none of the other woman intended what they said to hurt. So I said (because I always have something to say), “There isn’t anything wrong with what you did. These ladies are saying it’s wrong to tell women they have to do that and only that. We should have a choice.”

I felt this one deeply because I had the same struggle via the world’s most obnoxious internal dialogue. I’m the willful gal who defined herself with her career, rising quickly in her field, only to walk away from it all upon the birth of her first child. And motherhood wasn’t anything like I’d assumed it would be. 

When my son was first born, I didn’t love him. Of course I didn’t, because I didn’t know him. Yet there was quilt at having this feeling that seemed perfectly logical to me. I did have surging hormones that filled me with anxiety if he wasn’t in my arms, and I often felt a bottomless fear at the thought that he’d be taken from me in a variety of horrible and elaborate, yet equally impossible, ways. I look back now and think what a fascinating adaptation strategy encoded in our DNA. The instinct to protect was there even when love was not. Love came anyway, quickly, but it was muffled by grief. 

I was bereft of a sense of self. One day a well-known and often-consulted member of the campus community where I both attended college and then later returned to work, the next day a stay-at-home mom to a baby I didn’t yet know or understand. 

What I did know is that I had to hang on to myself as tightly as I could. I knew desperately that I could not let my baby subsume me. I had sacrificed pieces of myself to him, quite literally, when he was in the womb, so how easy and alluring it was to sacrifice my identity in the continued creation of him outside the safety of my body. And I saw it happening, in the mothers all around me, but I fought it. 

baby free range

The main downside to being a free range baby is accidentally becoming a card shark.

I vowed never to make my profile picture one of just my children. 

I stood back when he struggled on equipment at the playground, even shooed away other women who assumed I was shirking my duties, because he had to learn to do it himself. 

I hugged and coddled often, so don’t think me a monster, but I was determined my son would be his own person.

And then I read that line Mary says to her son at the wedding in Cana. It was shortly before my son’s first birthday, and f I felt a direction in the haze of new motherhood. Because Mary got it. She knew. 

It is not our job to disappear and become known only as the mothers of our children. We must help our children become who they are meant to be. 

Yes, Mary is the mother of Jesus. But she is also the woman who pushed Jesus to become our Christ as he was meant to be. That’s how I chose to think of her, to remember her. And following her example is how I honor her. 

Mary, mother of Jesus. Mary, compeller of Christ.

God Supports My Feminist Agenda: a tale of two teeth

This 2020 pandemic story starts almost 13 years before on a night in Austin when I got blackout drunk, fell, and broke my top front teeth. It’s an embarrassing, uncomfortable story to tell mostly because I don’t remember it; for me the story starts waking up in the hospital the next morning. 

I flew home to Pennsylvania and got those teeth fixed right away. It was my first trip to the dentist as an adult—or at least a partially-functioning adultish 26-year-old—and as I lay back and let them apply the bonding that would make my mouth look whole, I thought about what happened to me. I’m not one of those “when God closes a door he opens a window” kinda gals, and I don’t throw around “everything happens for a reason” when shit goes down. But sometimes coincidences are too large to be anything but suspicious. You get that cosmic feeling the universe is trying to tell you something. 

This was not one of those times.

Oh this clearly had happened for a reason. I was making some super shitty choices in my life and they usually involved alcohol. Turns out you do not, in fact, mess with Texas.

Eventually I got better at making choices. I tucked away the story of my lost teeth, thinking of it as part of the 40-years-wandering-in-the-desert that was my 20’s. 

Then the pandemic happened. My family was fine, relatively speaking, but in the beginning we were on that emotional rollercoaster everyone seemed to be riding. As the second week of uncertainty came to a close, my 4-year-old daughter crashed her scooter. Hard. I was walking both our dogs, following her, and watched in horror as she zoomed down a big hill, wobbled several times, and then slammed face-first onto the sidewalk. I knew it was going to happen as she picked up speed, yet I was powerless to stop it. Felt like my little Nora was one big metaphor for our whole society. 

IMG_0617

You wish you were this cool.

I found her injuries surprisingly minor. Yes, there was a big dent in her pink bike helmet with cat ears, and a line of blood appeared on the inside of her upper lip where her teeth made an impact, but otherwise she was only frightened and in pain. 

So even though I rarely drank any more, I cracked open a few beers later that evening. My kids were safely in bed, and my husband and I were enjoying ourselves. The only thing bothering me were these silly acrylic nails I’d had for months. I absolutely loved wearing them, but they required regular maintenance. I was well beyond needing a trim and fill, and I didn’t know what to do. So I played. Nibble here. Pick there. One nail cracked. I bite on the crack to see what would happen. 

And after 14 years, the bonding on one of my broken front teeth popped off.

I was horrified. I made some horrible, guttural sound that was satisfyingly dramatic and drew my husband’s attention away from the TV. We were watching Tiger King and now I looked like a character from the world of big cats and few teeth.

My husband couldn’t stop himself from laughing every time I talked for the next two days. 

My kids were confused.

I kept having flashbacks to my past. 

I’d be cooking some of the $500 worth of Costco food I bought while having a legitimate yet minor panic attack the day before the world shut down, or sorting through that hopeless bucket of socks who’ve been permanently jilted by their partners that we all seem to keep around, and suddenly I’d remember my tooth was broken. A cold wave of fresh anxiety would break over me. Like where could it come from? How was my stress well that deep?

I whined. I broke out into random crying fits, sometimes with noise and sometimes just the kind where tears silently but steadily roll down your face while you go about doing your thing. 

I talked endlessly about how unhappy I was, and I felt justified because I looked like Jim Carrey’s character Lloyd in Dumb & Dumber. My nails were a mess. The kicker was that I decided to try an asymmetrical hair style earlier in the month as COVID-19 was barreling its away across the globe. A few nights in, I had a “fuck it” moment that can only break one of two ways; I took the family hair clippers to one side of my head and sheared a patch right off. 

tooth gal

Nailing this “pandemic hot mess” look that’s all the rage.

Then one morning as I sat across the table from my 4-year-old, she smiled and it looked like one of her top front teeth was grey. Or blue? I told her to brush her teeth. I watched her brush her teeth, you know, to make sure. 

I inspected. 

I Googled.

Turns out about 2-3 weeks after experiencing some kind of trauma, a tooth can turn bluish grey because it’s dying and flooded with blood. It had been 2-3 weeks since the scooter accident.

Everything was going to be fine. It was a baby tooth. No big deal. But the more I talked about it—telling her, telling her father, mentioning it on family Facetime—the more upset she got. She finally screamed at me “I don’t want to talk about it,” and ran away. My feisty little white-haired girl who I promised to raise to be the most empowered, badass woman the planet had ever seen, was self-conscious about her appearance. At age 4. 

And I did that to her.

Me: the woman who battles sexist pigs on the regular; who owns her own business; who volunteers in political organizations designed to empower women; who runs one of those political organizations; who fought the local Democratic Party’s entrenched “leadership” until Cecil Richards gave her advice to quit; who takes on the gun lobby, publicly, as a gun-owning hunter momma herself. I am a woman who ran for local office and won. I am a woman who had a vision of her confident daughter running proudly towards a sun-drenched horizon while pregnant and deep in meditative prayer. The woman who decided the biggest bullet-point in her feminist agenda was to raise the strongest girl the world had ever seen. That women had bequeathed self-consciousness and shame to a 4 year-old.  

Turns out my broken tooth was a message, and God supports my feminist agenda. 

At first I took that message to be “shut up, JR,” and that seemed to help Nora, but it wasn’t the answer. Doing something destructive and then suddenly ceasing does not repair the damage you’ve done. But I wasn’t sure how to fix it.

My mom is a pretty awesome woman herself, who blazed trails that inspire me. Even she couldn’t save me from a society’s worth of messaging that says girls aren’t good enough, pretty enough, skinny enough, blah blah blah, diet industrial complex, etc, etc… I mean she tried. Like that one time I stood crying in a department store changing room because none of the pants I liked in the Junior’s section would fit, and she told me it was okay because I had good birthing hips. Turned out she was right, but 16-year-old me wouldn’t discover that until I was twice her age, so thanks, belatedly, for at least trying, Mom.

While trying to figure out how to connect with my family, I decided to practice by reaching out to just about every woman I knew via cards. I shopped on Etsy for something unique to send, and ran across pretty little purple butterflies swirling around Proverbs 31:25, “She is clothed with strength and dignity and she laughs without fear of the future.” It struck me, in the way a pleasant surprise can make your day, and I didn’t have to browse any further because I knew it was perfect.

Proverbs are all those parables right after the book of poetry that’s Psalms, and this line comes from a section titled “Description of a Worthy Woman.” It continues in verse 26 with “she opens her mouth in wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.”

It was time to open my mouth. To be kind to myself. To laugh without worry about what I looked like here and now or in the future. 

I showed the neighbors my tooth when we were out for walks. I started video calls with clients by pointing it out, declaring “I’m self conscious about this, so I’m just going to call it out,” and they were amused. I put a little piece of dental wax over the gap for my Zoom calls with the local Board on which I’m an elected official. The first time I tried it, I turned my head to the side to sneeze, and my wax shot across the room and hit the window. Thank God I was on mute. It was mortifying but also hilarious. So I kept telling the story of sneezing my tooth out, laughing every time. Eventually, I was comfortable. I even got Nora to laugh with me about it. Perhaps teaching her to laugh about it is the best thing I’ve done for her as a Mom so far. Lord knows this job is hard. That’s why I needed help.

broken teeth gals

Teeth Twins!

Then, just as I was feeling settled, word came down that we all had to start wearing masks. Masks! Suddenly I had an excuse to hide my tooth the very few times I was around strangers. Didn’t seem fair. I’d earned my comfort with the tooth. But I’d also heard God, loud and clear, and so I guess it was time to give myself a break.

Besides, after I get my tooth fixed, I’ll still have my choppy hair and bad nails.    

OMG, did I just pray?

If you, right now, in this moment of global panic, are feeling alone, stop. We have been here before. Not you and I specifically, but all of us as a human race. As precious and special and worthy of self-care as you are, you are not the first to experience a pandemic, let alone a global-sized threat.

Motherhood

Don’t judge. We’ve all been there.

I have been thinking of my ancestors, especially the strong women just three or more
generations ago, who birthed children in their homes without epidurals and fed a family of 12 without a microwave or refrigeration. Some days my arms get tired just rolling out my yoga mat, and I’ve wondered “how did they do it?” I mean both the day-to-day AND the global pandemics, World Wars, and an Industrial Revolution all while the whole world was one giant mystery because science was in its infancy. 

But I already know how they did it. They had faith. My grandmothers especially, and who do you think they learned it from? The women who came before. Because despite all of the terrible things humans have collectively brought to our religions and done to each other over them, they stick around because they are a comfort to so many.

Many of us today don’t think this comfort is available. I know my friends in politically progressive circles will go out of their way to be inclusive to folks from minority religions, but would feel like a total hypocrite believing in their own family’s Christian faith tradition. Why is that?

In the late 1970s in America a whole bunch of assholes walked into the public square and declared themselves the authority on Christianity. That they did such a thing was antithetical to the very message embedded within the religion itself, but what’s worse is they were fueled not by a misplaced desire to aggressively spread God’s word to others, but out of a need to silence those who they perceived as threats due to their differences of identity and opinion. They had no name for themselves because they didn’t come from established denominations where structures of authority can keep out the crazies. So we gave them names. Evangelicals. Fundamentalists. The Christian Right. They preach a gospel of prosperity to their members, telling poor people they’ll get rich if they just listen and obey hard enough. They tell rich people they are favored by God and anyone trapped by our shitty economic system is there by their own fault. 

Counter Protester

Yikes. Who invited this guy?

In the political sphere they define themselves by who they hate; the impoverished, queer folks, refugees, women who make all sorts of personal choices of which they don’t approve, and any racial or religious minority whose very existence brings their hypocrisy to light.

So I get it. Nobody wants to get in on that.

It’s even worse if you have experienced personal or familial pain at the hands of someone who wielded their Christian faith like a weapon.

But I bet sometimes, in those moments of desperation or exasperation, you find yourself talking to God. You might scold yourself, and wonder if you’re going off the deep end because “OMG, did I just pray?” You probably have been spoked by this happening lately,in this global time of panic and grief, when you’re confused by the duality of being scared shitless but also loving the time to spend connecting with people in newer and deeper ways. After all this is how humans come to religions; with fear and great joy.  

I tell you now that it’s okay. It’s okay to both feel this way—to be weary of any acknowledgement of God and yet hungry for the comfort you know a little faith can provide.

I tell you now to say “fuck it,” forget everything you’ve ever heard about God from others and speak to God yourself. Use those mindful meditation tricks inspirational memes have taught you and manifest the shit out of a prayer. 

Because why let some assholes keep you from God? Sure, they say they’re the authority, and they’ve narrowed the definition of “Christian” to a noxious idea, but their scheme is the oldest one in the book. 

If this were a class and I asked if anyone could tell me about a time in human history when a group of people claimed themselves the arbiters of religion and that they, and they alone, could grant you access to God, every hand in the room would go up and they could all signal different answers. You can’t let that obnoxious #blessed neighbor with the caked make-up, or your uncle with his racist Facebook posts, or that Jabba the Hut cosplayer in the White House keep you from God. Don’t let them win.

When the angel (or perhaps angels, who knows because the books of the Bible are as contradictory and imperfect as we are) appeared to Mary Magdalene in the empty tomb and told her the good news that Jesus of Nazareth was risen and now Jesus the Christ as had been foretold, he said “Go, and tell the others.” 

We all know that sentence didn’t end “Go, and tell the others that corporations are people my friend.” Nor did he say “Go, and tell the others to make concentration camps on your border because Lord forbid we have more brown kids running around our country trying to live their lives.” He didn’t say “Go, and tell the other that ALL lives matter.” And he sure as hell didn’t say “Go, and tell the others that anyone with an interesting sex life should feel as if they are vile.” A great source of love and comfort, and a vehicle to do real good in this world, has been stolen from us modern, empathic, do-gooders in America by people who claim their evil is righteous. They berate you with cherry-picked scripture, and I get that it feels like you’re supposed to cede authority on this topic to them. 

But they are wrong. And there are theological arguments to make against them, mainly because they love misinterpreting the Original Testament. But they also claim to be Christians, and Christians acknowledge the Original Testament is the Law and Jesus gave us the Gospels to free us from the Law. But you don’t need to get into all of that just now. All you need to start is the simple understanding that none of that is God’s deal. Its our mess. The result of this big, beautiful, confusing, and dangerous world God created but does not Lord over like some reality TV show host. God’s power isn’t that he doles out cash prizes or roses or pain and suffering like some Goodle ad algorithm. 

God’s power is that God is there with each and every one of us at all times. Not like some creep lurking around, but a partner baring witness in our most self-destructive and vulnerable moments, or reveling in our joy and ecstasy. God sees everything and yet remains with us. The personification of unconditional love.

Portrait of pensive or sad young woman sitting at sidewalk cafeYou don’t need to make some declaration about believing this. You don’t need to stop your bad habits or even pretend you’ve stopped them. You don’t have to talk about it with anyone, or say it out loud. Faith isn’t something you do. It’s something you have. 

Through faith you will be saved by God’s grace. Saved from your own worry and doubt. Saved from the kind of self-loathing and regret that keeps you up some nights, or sneaks in to pleasant moments and ruins them. God has bigger things to worry about. Believe that and you’ll take one big breath without all those tiny weights on your chest. And what is life if not leaps of faith with the ones we love?