A Poem for Mother’s Day

The Lanyard – by Billy Collins

“The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly-
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-clothes on my forehead,
and then led me out into the air light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift – not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-toned lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.”

I don’t recall ever giving my mother a lanyard, but I fear there may have been more than one macaroni necklace.
Thank you for everything, Mom, and I love you!

Experiencing the Mass, Old and New

We were in Houston this weekend for the memorial honoring Craig’s Uncle Wade (which was lovely), and lo and behold, there was a Syro-Malabar rite Catholic Church about three miles from our hotel.  We had visited the Hindu temple and gone out for Indian food the day before, so we decided to make it a trifecta: the First Official Baker Family Cultural Awareness Weekend…or something like that.

Background:  the Syro-Malabar church traces its founding to the missions of St. Thomas the Apostle.  The story is that St. Thomas evangelized India, and that these communities have been Christian as long as anyone, anywhere.  Their church has a complicated history, but now is in full communion with Rome.

So we were prepared for a different sort of liturgy during the Mass (which they call a Qurbana, from the Aramaic word for sacrifice), and for being the only white people in the room, and for heavy accents that made understanding the homily difficult (Clare was convinced the priest was speaking another language until we told her afterward that no, it was just rapid, heavily accented English.)  We were prepared (and excited) to see the gloriously beautiful saris.  We were not disappointed in any of these things.

We were surprised to find ourselves in the midst of a youth Mass.

Surprised, but not disappointed.

I admit Craig and I exchanged glances when the liturgy began with “Bless the Lord Oh My Soul” – Matt Redman’s 10,000 Reasons.  And from where we were sitting, near the back on the left side, it looked like the whole building was filled almost exclusively with teenagers.  What on earth had we gotten ourselves into?

This is what we eventually figured out: there is a 9AM Mass, which is in Malayalam and (most of) the adults attend.  (Malayalam is the vernacular – the Mass was said in Syriac until the 1960s  when it was translated.  The English translation we experienced is from the 1990s, and was made for the diaspora church which less often spoke Malayalam in daily life.)  This service ends around 10:30, and at 10:45 another Mass begins for the young people.  When we arrived at 10:30, there were no parking spaces available.  At 10:40, when we made it inside, there were hardly any seats left.  All but the last few rows were filled with children and teenagers, seated by age, and essentially without adult chaperones.

Before the Mass (or possibly after, it wasn’t clear to me), was the Catechism class, which all these hundreds of children attended.  Our parish in Baton Rouge was at least the size of this one, and Lucy’s CCD classes averaged 15 students.  (Many others went to Catholic schools and got their religion classes there, but still.)  What was abundantly clear was that this community is focused on a goal: to pass on the faith to the next generation.

It’s not a perfect community, I’m sure.  Craig tried to ask the teenagers seated in front of us how to follow the service in the missal, and they said they didn’t know how either.  (Thankfully the young woman next to him took pity on us and helped us out!)  There were some of the same slouchy postures and wandering stares that I see often enough in “white church.”  And the priest did stop at the end of Mass to warn the First Communion class that if they didn’t think the Mass was important enough for them to be still and attentive during it, then maybe they should wait until they felt the proper reverence before approaching the sacrament.  He suggested he would be happy to give them their First Communion whenever they were ready, but that they would be better off to wait until that time.

As he pointed out, yes, Jesus is your friend, but He is also God.  And He ought to be treated with the respect due to God.  Which the liturgy itself, I have to say, makes abundantly clear.  Over and over the congregation is encouraged to “Listen attentively,” and there is an emphasis on the greatness, power, and mercy of God which shines through simple, straightforward language.

So there is all of that.  But what it really brought home to me was, as I said, the focus this community puts on its youth.  There have their traditions, ancient and beautiful traditions, but they are not so strict about them that they can’t accommodate the tastes of the youth and make them feel welcome.  The youth Mass is celebrated in English.  (Which is why we were at it instead of at the earlier one!)  They organize a massive CCD effort.  And, even though a good part of the Mass is chanted, the incense is there, the priest faces East with the people…the readers were youth.  The ushers were youth.  The praise and worship band was made entirely of youth.  Here was a place that both encouraged the parish’s young people to participate, and held their participation to a high standard.

The combination of old and new, Indian and American, was totally unexpected for us, which just goes to show how narrow our experience and imagination are.  On the other hand, it was a blessing that we (and our kids) were able to participate in the music confidently, even without hymnals or song sheets.

The whole experience reminded us how wide and welcoming the Church can be, if we let go of our preconceptions and personal preferences long enough to let her.

Everything you ever wanted, all in one club

Lucy was going through an old notebook this afternoon, and found a club she and Clare made up for themselves a couple of years ago: the VSDG group.
Which stands for the Vegetarian Spy Detective Girl Scout Group. (They left out the “S” for some reason.)
This is one in a litany of clubs they’ve made up over the years, of course. This one lasted roughly two days.
Clare gave up being a vegetarian when we had hot dogs for dinner. Goodbye VSDG.
The next iteration of the Baker Girls Club is in discussion as we speak. We’ll see if they can outdo their past efforts.

Jacob’s Baptism

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We had a good day yesterday – the rain finished early, and we had a beautiful baptism at St. Charles Borromeo in Grand Coteau.  (Worth the trip if you’ve never seen it – the inside is painted and so beautiful.)  Below are our family and Jacob’s godparents’ family.

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Officiated by Fr. R.B. Williams, O.P., our favorite Dominican.  (Sorry, Fr. Thomas!)

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All followed by a party at our house – truly so much to celebrate!  We counted 31 kids and three priests…didn’t count the adults.  And, thank God, no rain!  It was a good day.  Jacob agreed.

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Resonance. Yes.

“It’s been crazy but also strangely wonderful to have the arrival of my daughter and the release of this book coincide. I’ve spent the last few months in this wintry baby cave—spending all hours of day and night with this tiny creature, learning the exquisite rhythms of her being, her milk breath and shuddering sighs and fluttering eyelids when she dreams about… what? What are her dreams? I am so close to her in these bodily ways, so swollen with love, and yet so much of her is a mystery—and language doesn’t quite summon much of what we are experiencing. That said, I have been so hungry for other peoples’ stories of childbirth and early motherhood, in a way that only deepens my faith in how much narratives matter—which is so much of what this book is about, and so much of what my desire to be a writer is about. Of course, the world is full of narratives about motherhood and writing as antagonistic forces, hell bent on destroying each other—I want so much to believe in all the other ways they can intersect.”

-Leslie Jamison

You can read more of the interview I snatched this from (not G rated but so thoughtful) on LitHub.  And thanks to Image for bringing it to my attention.

The Body Knows

I think it was the second time we visited Jacob after I was discharged from the hospital.  I was still hurting a lot, even with more pain medicine that I was really comfortable taking.  My moods were all over the place.  We came into the dark, noisy (so much beeping!) NICU, scrubbed in, and walked over to Jacob’s isolette.  We talked with the nurse, and got ready to “kangaroo” – which means I take off my shirt and they put Jacob on my skin and cover us up with blankets.  We stayed for an hour, or a little more.  I slept, Craig took pictures and read to us.  Then it was time to go.

As we walked out of the hospital, I began to realize: my pain was practically gone.  My mood had lifted – there was no danger of a flood of tears at the moment.  It had never occurred to me till that moment: the drug my body needed was my baby.

Of course I have known, in my mind, the importance of mom and baby being together, but I usually thought of it as being for the sake of the baby more so than the mother.  Then I remembered going back to work after I had Lucy, and again after I had Samantha, and how hard it was to hand them off to someone else for a little while.  But I hadn’t had such a visceral reminder in a long time of how much we need each other.  My body never forgot.  It’s amazing how I make twice, three times as much milk if Jacob is in the room than if he’s not.  My body knows.

It’s a lesson I’ve learned before.  My body knows how to birth.  My body knows how to care for a newborn.  It knows how to heal.  We are all truly fearfully and wonderfully made, gifted with bodies that, if we listen, tell us how to care for ourselves and each other.  Such a gift God has given us.

And still, as much as I loved being home with my other children the rest of the day, as much as I loved spending the evenings with Craig, the hour or two I spent in the hospital with my baby brought peace to my day.  I just kept looking forward to bringing our feisty little bundle of peace home with us.

Little Hands

Ah, the things we learn from the wee ones.

For those of you who have ever nursed a newborn (sorry guys!), you know about those precious little hands.  The ones you want to kiss and spend hours admiring.  And swaddle within an inch of their life so they will stop getting between the baby’s mouth and your breast when he’s hungry.  Because the hungrier he is, the more likely those sweet little hands are acting as appetizers…except they don’t take the edge of baby’s hunger, they just make him more frustrated.  And who has enough hands to hold up the baby, position the breast, AND gently hold two little hands out of the way?

Thus the swaddling.

The poor child just doesn’t realize that if he would put aside his desire for his hands (even though they are great for munching most of the time), something much more delicious and nourishing would suddenly come this way.

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And now, for the slightly forced analogy to the spiritual life.

We never quite grow out of this tendency, do we?

Maybe it’s a not-so-great relationship, but we’re afraid that if we let it go, we’ll be alone.  Or a job we hate (or which simply isn’t good for us), but we’re afraid of not finding something that pays as much if we quit.

And then, of course, there’s sin.  What sins do we cling to, because they feel good, or maybe they just feel comfortable?  What do we fear if we let them go?

Are we too busy holding tight to our pride to seek God’s help and forgiveness?

What if we were to move our hands out of the way, and let God nourish us with his goodness?

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It’s Lent, and lots of us have given something up (sleep in my case – thanks Jacob!).  Hopefully we’ve been able to clear away something that was actually in the way of our spiritual growth.  It’s a good time to reflect: How well have we used this opportunity, this little emptying, to allow God to nourish us?  What are we still clinging to, blocking God from filling us with his love and goodness?

Bonus:  Here is a great article about the little hands and breastfeeding – which makes me feel bad about all the swaddling, but sometimes I get desperate.  Still, it was illuminating, and helped me be less frustrated with hands-in-the-way phenomenon.