How do we give birth to things or people that we will have to let go of one day? How do we enter into that suffering, knowing our creations are born to die?
When I looked into both my son’s and daughter’s faces after each was born, I couldn’t fathom the reality that these little beings that I had prayed over and labored to bring into the world would one day leave me, would maybe even leave this world before me. When I read my poetry aloud for the first time in sixth grade, and again last week, now in my early 40s, I put my soul on the line, and knew that I had no control over my creation’s effect or destination.
What did Mary think when she gave birth to Jesus? No matter which version of the nativity we choose to envision, whether angels, cattle, or best friends and cousins witnessed the birth, the moment when Mary held her first-born and looked into his face and thought of the entire struggle that brought them to that moment, what was that like for her? Joseph had married her because of an angel’s persuasion. She and her new husband had traveled across the wilderness to a town that wasn’t her own, been denied a room at the inn, delivered the baby and placed him in the feeding trough for the livestock. Or, maybe Jesus was born back in Nazareth and family and friends were close by, and the writers of the Gospels construed the details of Jesus’ birth to make sense philosophically and politically to first century Christians. Either way, when Mary looked into her tiny son’s face, she knew that he was destined to die, and that no amount of mother-love could change that fact. How was she going to be mother to this son of God?
A few years ago, I attended a women’s retreat that focused on Mary, the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. I had recently moved to Texas, and knew only one other woman at the event. At night, we slept in a cabin with no heat and shivered in our sleeping bags during an early and unexpected freeze. Between sessions, I walked on the frosty trails, watched armadillos scuttle through the fallen November leaves. I wondered about this Mary of Nazareth, and what she meant to this twenty-first century woman, one who was comparably affluent, attending a church retreat in central Texas, anxious about who to sit next to at lunch, someone with two children back at home and several journals full of unpublished, unseen-by-anyone, poetry. Mary seemed far away.
Then, near the end of the retreat, another woman, a musician also with two children at home, who was putting her heart on the line as she neared middle age and trying to break into the music scene in Austin and Nashville, picked up her guitar and sang to us. She sang Patty Griffin’s song “Mary.” We wept. Whether we had children or not, in those few moments, we understood Mary. We became her. We knew what it was like to offer ourselves, to give birth to our creations, whether books, ideas, our voices, our children, or our time. We understood how fragile it is, how vulnerable, to speak out, to love, to mother. We realized in hearing the song lyrics and watching the sun brush across guitar frets and long, agile fingers making music for us, how strong we all were, and how much we all risk and suffer for the things that we dare showing the world. Every time we look into the face of that newborn child and feel the pang in our heart that this gift, this creation isn’t meant for us, but for the good of the whole, and we faithfully release it, we are Mary. The world, “the good of the whole” that we sacrifice this precious, beautiful part of ourselves for, is not always kind and that hurts.
“You greet another son, you lose another one, [o]n some sunny day and always stay, Mary” (Patty Griffin, “Mary”). Mary looked into her son’s face and felt her strength and her worst fear all at once. Then, she hosted the shepherds and the wise men, as they came to gaze upon this miracle. She fled to Egypt and back and knew that other thousands of holy, innocent, other sons had died. She raised her son. She left him in the temple, and then went back to find him there, and felt pride and fear as she saw him teaching the rabbis. Then, he couldn’t stay at home any longer, and she watched him leave, and heard rumors of his struggles and successes. Mary asked Jesus to turn water to wine at the marriage they attended, because she knew him. For her, he was like the best wine at the wedding. She tried to take him back when she and the other sons found him teaching in the village, and when he said, “Who are my brothers? Who is my mother?” she understood, even though it hurt. She made no apologies for him, and when he was beaten and killed, she was there, too. Even when Jesus pushed back the stone and lived again, he wasn’t hers, and he didn’t stay, so she went to live with his best friend, John, to try and keep his memory alive, to keep telling his stories, her story.
Mary’s story is difficult, but it is our story every time we mother a relationship, or a project, a child. We look to Mary to learn how to better steward our gift, how to be brave, how to persevere even when the odds are dreadfully against us. “Mary she moves behind me. She leaves her fingerprints everywhere. Every time the snow drifts, every way the sand shifts. Even when the night lifts, she’s always there” (Patty Griffin, “Mary.”) Now, when I think of Mary, I marvel at her audacious but quiet bravery. I marvel at her trust that sharing the gift God had given her, even when everyone around her failed to notice her or even mocked her, was her calling. I am captivated by her faith and inspired to conceive and birth new ideas, to trust that the work I create has divinity woven throughout. So, I send my creation off into the world and pray that it will be treated with kindness, but release it fully knowing that it was never wholly mine.
Lyrics: Patty Griffin, “Mary” Flaming Red (A&M Records, 1998).
Kristin Carroccino is a writer, editor, and photographer who lives in Seattle with her husband and two children. She volunteers for Mustard Seed Associates and is doing her best to carve out more time to write poetry and fiction. She edited and contributed to A Journey toward Home: Soul Travel from Advent to Lent and A Journey into Wholeness: Soul Travel from Lent to Easter, both MSA publications. She is also the co-author of Boats without Oars: Ancient-Future Evangelism, An American Road Trip, and Collected Stories of the Episcopal Church. Visit www.carroccinocollective.com for more about her books and other creative pursuits.