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.

Essay in Yellow Arrow Journal

Pleased to announce I have a new essay published in the latest issue of Yellow Arrow Journal. You can visit Yellow Arrow Press’s website to order a beautiful hard copy of the journal, purchase the Kindle version, or learn more about this fabulous mag and other projects from the publisher.

The essay, “Susquehanna,” deals with a period of time when I lived on the Susquehanna River. It begins with the memory of a neighbor apologizing for hating me, something her rehab program was encouraging her to do, yet I had never spoken to her until that moment. It comes in at just under 1,000 words and is accompanied by some outstanding works from fellow prose and poetry writers. Grab your own copy today!

“Bullets Into Bells” event in PGH

I had the honor of participating in The Bridge Series’ event at City of Asylum in Alphabet City for the book “Bullets Into Bells,” an anthology of poetry and essays addressing gun violence in America. The book was edited by Connecticut poet Brian Clements, husband to a teacher who survived the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. We were joined by my friend & survivor Gina Lodato Pelusi, a leader for Pittsburgh’s Moms Demand Action teams who captivates a crowd with her story of love, loss and hope. I joined Brian & Gina on a post-reading panel as both the co-lead for the local Moms Demand Action and as an contributor to the online conversation happening on “Bullets Into Bells” website. A collection was taken at the door, and $260 was donated to Moms Demand Action.

I am continually humbled to be involved in this work. I feel inspired by everyone who shows up and asks how they too can get active, because we can end gun violence.

Photo Credit: City of Asylum

Welcome to the Movement to End Gun Violence

“If Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were alive today, they’d be my age,” is what I say because using terms like “gun violence prevention” and “activist” just elicit drawn out ohhhhhs and wows from people stumbling through some awkward variation of “thank you for working on that really important issue.” But wow isn’t in reference to importance; it’s in recognition of danger. Then there’s a turn, a distinct switch to gossipy whispers as they ask why I became an activist for gun violence prevention. What happened to me? I see a series of images in mind, each a reason why, each either too private to tell or not mine to tell. So I pick a story that makes me seem like the vapid white suburban lady who knows nothing of gun violence aside from what she sees on the news. I pick a story that belongs to us all.  

A year before Columbine, there was Jonesboro. Two boys attacked their middle school, one pulling the fire alarm, the other a sniper on the perimeter picking off kids as they filed outside. I was in 10th grade. The next time the fire alarm was pulled at my school, I walked outside with two friends. One led us to the center of the crowd. “Better get in the middle in case one of us turned psycho overnight and is across the street with a deer rifle,” my friend said. We laughed. I added, “It’s funny ‘cause it’s true,” and we laughed even harder.

The day after Columbine, things changed. The mood, most of all, changed in our school. Our spring-time tradition of Color Week, filled with pranks and intra-class water gun warfare, was suddenly not so innocent. We lost freedoms we didn’t even know we enjoyed. We were locked up, but in no less danger. 

Have I mentioned I went to high school in Amish country, where a man would massacre a school full of girls a few short years later? Or that I was on the college campus where I worked, listening to the eerie tests of a new emergency

broadcast system blaring from campus-wide speakers, when news of Virginia Tech broke? Or that I was 8 months pregnant with my first child when Sandy Hook happened? Or that my son came home from daycare the Monday after the Pulse nightclub shooting, told me how safe his school was, and I couldn’t agree with him? 

It wasn’t any one of those that made me finally join the movement. It was all of them, and more. 

Can I tell you about the unfathomable shame I felt the first time I attended a memorial for gun violence victims in a black neighborhood? The first speaker looked at my friends and I and said, “Oh good, white people care. Maybe now something will happen.” It was a punch in the gut, and I deserved it. 

Communities of color have long endured an epidemic fueled by illegal guns, obtained through shitty laws and loopholes kept in place because there’s profit in their death. I feel the awesome weight of responsibilities white people have shirked for so long, in so many ways, on this subject and others. But we also applied this violent indifference to our own communities, endangering  ourselves too. In our wake, no one is immune. 

I am not solely responsible for this, but neither am I innocent. I have long felt an internal rage for being so foolish for so long. I feel this rage for others too, for the people desperate to get involved after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. I welcome them, joyously, at meetings and rallies and online forums, because we need them. But I’m still pissed. Do they think Parkland’s teens are the first ones to feel this way? I hear that the outspokenness of high schoolers has woken people up, headlines read “now there’s no more excuses.” I wonder what were the excuses when I was afraid of being shot in my high school? These aren’t the first students to live with this fear. If I give voice to this resentment, will it turn people’s anger inward when it should stay focused on the gun lobby?

If Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were alive today they would be 36.

When my son enters kindergarten in the fall he’ll practice ALICE drills, hide in the closet of his classroom and be scolded silent because everyone’s pretending an active shooter is on campus. He’s sure to come home and talk about it. He’s sure to notice that once again his mother can’t assure him he’s safe. He’ll be the second generation of his family to live with this fear. The second generation to go to school with the understanding that evil can walk in, armed with military-style weaponry, and massacre him along with his friends. The second generation to know that the leaders of his country can’t be bothered to value his life. 

Is this the time to tell you I’m a gun owner? That’s really why I joined the movement. As a white, suburban mom I know the gun lobby pretends they speak for me, and most people assume they do. But the gun lobby speaks for gun manufacturers, so I bear the responsibility to make it known otherwise. 

When I tell people I work on gun violence prevention because I’m a gun owner, they are always surprised. I want to look at them and say, “I grew up in rural Pennsylvania. My family hunted to fill our freezer each winter. Of course I own guns.” So many Americans do own guns. Pretending this is a “gun owner vs. anti-gun” argument is to prolong it, to play into the hands of those who profit from our fear and our deaths. We are part of the problem when we are unable to imagine anything other than this typical “us vs. them” debate that turns Americans into extremists. So sometimes I short-hand it and say, “I’m a gun owner, not a monster.” 

My activism is comfortably occupying all my conflicting identities while educating and organizing people to lobby their elected officials for effective and sustainable legislation. I wield the privileges my race, income, and zip code afford me. I recognize I’m armed with this power by an oppressive and unjust system, so I must use it for the good of those in more danger than I am.     

There is evil in this world. While we’re squabbling among ourselves, unable to imagine a society with more than a dichotomy of parameters, that evil has access to high-powered firearms. When I want to know about evil, I turn to my church. When I want to keep evil from obtaining lethal weapons, I turn to my government. I hound my government. I badger my government. I nag, pester, and bother. It’s not glamorous or sexy. It’s often tedious. It never feels like enough, but it works. Slowly than it needs to, but it does work.

Let this be our call to action. All of us. Disarm our rhetoric, our keyboards, our agreements to disagree. Disarm our violent resentment towards communities that look different from our own. Demand our government, our elected officials, our leaders protect us from evil. Show up, again and again. Evil will always be among us, but our government can keep it from waging war so efficiently, so effortlessly, for so long. Believe it. Commit to it. Now.