Category: Uncategorized

Stand Mixer and Prayer

Michael Giaetto, I’m putting this up for you because you liked it so much! 

Five years ago, I had more counter space. The counter wasn’t that big to begin with, and now roughly an eighth of it is taken up by a state of the art stand mixer in stainless steel, which is supposed to make me a better mother.

My friends call this thing a Kitchen aid, the way that a copier is called a X-rox machine even when it isn’t; the way a soda is a Coke, in some places, even when it is a Sprite. But my mixer is not a kitchen aid, because my husband got gift subscriptions to both Consumer Reports and Cook’s Illustrated years ago and now he’s hooked on both. And so, in an effort to please me and validate my role as a mother and nurturer, and because of his deep, deep belief that one cannot truly embrace an art without the right tools, he got me the mixer that is ranked the best overall by both publications; best for making breads and cakes of all kinds as well as mixed meat dishes.

I am not bothered by the nature of the gift. I like practical things. And this was something I had been wanting for roughly five years, while he wanted a food processor. Nearly every recipe in modern cook books—and by that I mean anything published after about 1990—begins with in the bowl of your stand mixer… or in the bowl of a food processor… because it is a given that anyone who really cares about cooking has these things. The budget and countertop precluded getting both. So when he surprised me with this Cuisinart mixer for our tenth anniversary, it was a good thing; romantic, even. A gesture of surrender. It said “Your cooking and baking needs are more important than my hobby.” I felt touched and victorious.

Roughly the size of a Buick in the 50s, this mixer can do it all. The bowl has a 5.5 quart capacity, it comes with four attachments, and the top flips open so you can add a meat grinding attachment. There are twelve speeds on the dial and a separate button for “fold,” and a digital clock and timer that supposedly can be pre-set to mix while I’m away.

I have now used the mixer to make two different kinds of sweet bread, a cake, meatloaf, wheat bread, and blueberry muffins. Here is the thing: it’s bugging me. The paddle doesn’t reach down to the bottom of the bowl, so you have to detach the bowl and use a spatula periodically anyway. If the batter is thick, it all gets stuck in the paddle. It’s loud, so I can’t use it when anyone is asleep, which is often when I want to use it. And I got to thinking: it may be ranked best in function, but it looks like an aircraft carrier. Plus, I’m not going to grind my own meat. And why on earth would I mix batter while I’m away?

I started thinking of metaphors. Writers like metaphors, and I still want to be a real writer someday. My prayer life is like this mixer. I keep looking for something that will make my prayer life better; some tool, albeit a spiritual one. I grew up Protestant, so I’m still more comfortable with free-form prayer. My Evangelical friends’ prayers are of the casual, me-and-God-are-pals variety, which start off something like “Hey, God? I just wanna thank you for this awesome day, Man, and for giving us Jesus for our friend and brother…” I like the familiarity, but I think the language of prayer ought to reflect the depth and richness of the faith; I’m not comfortable using the same banter with God as I do with Dave at the filling station, although I suppose God vastly prefers it to no communication at all.

On the other hand, many Catholics seem to think that prayer, or at least public prayer, is a quick Hail Mary, rattled off so quickly that fruit of thy womb sounds like fruit of the loom, and without much sincerity. Or that a “real” prayer has to include “thy” and “unto” and sound like St. Augustine himself thought of it. Which is intimidating. So I tried getting into contemplative prayer, because the name appealed to me. Maybe this was a solution, a sort of modern style, but sanctioned by the Church. It is similar to meditation, in that you empty out your mind of everything and repeat a word or phrase over and over in order to come closer to God. Turns out it is frowned on in some circles, and only recommended if you do it right, otherwise it can lead to a sort of new-age-ish emptiness. It’s fine if you don’t go nuts. Like yoga.

Finally, I gave up. I recently sat down to pray a little in the morning, because my day was not going so well, and I ended my little prayer with “oh, and God? Teach me to pray better.” The answer came loud and clear and instantly. God does not usually send me memos so quickly; usually he gives me a little time to search for the truth, wait for His will, come closer to Him, and figure things out in good time. But this time the answer was instant: I opened my eyes and the first thing I saw was a soccer cleat, muddy and left in the living room. A Nike soccer cleat. That little swish instantly triggered God’s truth in my head: Just Do It. (As a side note, I recently learned that the swish is supposed to be wings, as in Nike, the goddess of speed and victory, who is usually depicted with wings. Who knew?) I really believe it was God talking to me through a muddy cleat that was seriously bugging me. He was saying Stop thinking about it so much and just DO it. Pray more. Pray now. Pray again in a little while. Just do it. Do it the way you’ve always done it; you don’t need anything fancy or new to help. Just do it. And soon you will do it better.

I thought I would return the mixer. The store had a happiness guaranteed or your money back policy. I thought I’d use it a few times just to be able to say I gave it the old college try, and then take it back. So I made pumpkin bread; three loaves of pumpkin bread at the same time, and my arm didn’t get sore from all the mixing. In fact, I left the room at one point to edit somebody’s paper on Holden Caulfield’s angst and put a load of whites in, and it kept mixing, and turned itself off so as not to over-mix. I kept it, and in that time, everyone living in this house outgrew napping anyway. (Except me. I grew into it.) They’re teenagers now, and if my mixer is making noise while they sleep in on Saturday morning, so be it. Pick any apocalypse scene from a movie, and if it were really happening, my kids could sleep through it. Plus, I care about letting them sleep until eleven about as much as they care about putting away their cleats. And the mixer is really not that loud. It has been years now, and I can’t imagine not having a stand mixer. So no, you don’t need fancy machines to do what you can do yourself, and you certainly don’t need anything fancy to pray, but if it helps you get the job done, use it. Just do it now.

I never returned the mixer. The store had one of those happiness guaranteed or your money back policies, so at one point I asked if I could return a mixer I’d been using for two years. The the guy asked the reason for the return and I said, “I thought it would make my life better. I thought $300 would make me a better mother. Turns out only me and God can do that.” It was the perfect thing to say, because his eyes got slightly larger, indicating that he was secretly thinking uh-oh, this is one of those crazy religious people, you gotta let them have whatever they want… and of course he said yes. But I didn’t return the mixer, I’d grown used to it. Counter space is overrated, and there was a sale on food processors.

 

Crying Next to Pretty Mom at Soccer

I started crying at my son’s soccer game yesterday. Not rocking back and forth blubbering, and not silent-hiccup sobbing, just a sort of leaky-eyed thing in the second half. Only one other mom saw, and of course it had to be the really pretty one who probably looks great when she cries. The one that looks like Lauren Graham when she was skinny on The Gilmore Girls. Our sons’ team was losing, and I’d been perfectly fine a few minutes before, so of course she put her (perfectly manicured) hand on me gently and said, “Oh, don’t take it so hard! That penalty kick wasn’t even his fault, this ref is crazy!”

I didn’t even know there had been a penalty kick against my son, because I’m the mom who knows nothing about soccer except that you’re supposed to kick it into the net. I thought the ref blew his whistle to keep up morale, or to signal that they were all doing great and it was time for a five-second break. He seems to blow it all the time for no discernible reason, so this was a valid conclusion.

Seeing my confusion, and more tears go down my cheeks, pretty mom changed tactics and went with, “Or… is it allergies? Are you okay?” I could see it dawn on her that this was something deeper; maybe I had recently lost a friend. A friend who played soccer, perhaps, making it all just too painful. I saw the wheels turning in her mind and the thinly veiled look that said she’d just caught a whiff of my crazy, and, wanting to reassure her, I nodded at the field and said, “They’re just so great, aren’t they? These kids?”

I assumed she’d know what I meant. Sort of. She was a mom of a thirteen year-old, too, who is every bit as smart and handsome and awkward and darling and goofy as mine, and I thought she would get it. But I was, admittedly, sort of PMS-ey and she was probably at whatever time in a woman’s cycle makes you your most confident, capable and logical self, so she did what anyone would do: she said, “Um, yeah, they’re awesome!” And then she pretended to be doing something very important on her phone.

She doesn’t have older kids, though, so besides being very not PMS-ey, she also doesn’t know what I know about thirteen-year-olds: in a few short months, you can’t protect them from anything, and they are leaving soon. Right now they are all limbs and they leave stinky socks everywhere and have rather bad skin, but mostly their lives are okay. They may not be the popular kid, but they have friends and they do fine in school and you can buy them Clearasil. But by this time next year they will be in high school.

And here is the thing about high school: it’s real life, with just as many disappointments and figurative land-mines to navigate. There are teachers who will dislike your kid for no reason, and think they are lying when they say they are late because they stopped to help someone pick up their books–you want to call up the teacher, but you can’t. There are teachers who will yell at your kid for asking too many questions, and then tell them later, you should have asked–you want to intervene, but you can’t. There are friends who will suddenly be mean for no reason, for weeks, and break your kid’s heart–you want to call them up and say what the heck, but you can’t. There are assistant principals who will give your kid a uniform slip on Halloween for her Robin Hood costume when the tunic went all the way to her knees, but not write up the seniors being playboy bunnies in shorty skirts and fishnet tights–you want to slap them upside the head but you can’t.

There are pop-quizzes on material that hasn’t been covered, creepy boys who walk right up to the line of harassment but only cross it with their big toe, and bottom-lockers that force your kid to crouch beneath a much larger one under someone who has no intention of hurrying even a little–you want to fix these problems but you can’t, it’s high school. There are people who disagree with your kid’s views because they are not what theirs are, and then call your child intolerant–you want to enlighten them, but you can’t–it’s not your fight.

Despite all the John Hughes movies that taught my generation that high school is strange and surreal but it all works out in the end and the pretty girl falls for the nerdy guy or vice versa, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes all the hard work doesn’t pay off. Sometimes the teacher is just mean. Sometimes it doesn’t all make sense in the end; Molly Ringwald doesn’t get asked to prom and has to just go with that weird guy who was probably gay and not hot at all, but a good friend.

And there’s nothing you can do about it. You are Sampson without his hair; your hands are tied, you are rendered powerless, because it’s high school and you have to let go. Which is good and right: our job is to help them grow up from home, not jump into their lives at school. We pick them up and brush them off and send them back out there like Rocky Balboa’s coach, whose name I would know if I cared about sports at all.

Which brings me back to soccer, and the game that had nothing to do with the tears. It was about seeing my eighth grader out there laughing with his teammates as he played–and doing this weird floppy thing he does lately when he runs–and knowing it’s all ending soon. This darling awkward phase when he’s still a kid and I’m fairly involved in his life, even if I don’t know what a penalty kick is. (They seem to call penalties when any player falls down now? But isn’t that part of the game? Occasional falling?)

High school is around the corner and that goes in the blink of an eye. One minute you are wondering where to drop off your freshman and the very next second he is looking at colleges, talking about majoring in international relations. Boom. Childhood over. So of course I cried a little. It was like the time my daughter sent off for caterpillars, and we got to see them (Wanda, Trixie, Tracy and Glen) right on the cusp of turning into butterflies. The kids on that filed were short and tall and heavy and skinny and all kinds of awkward; one the size of a fourth-grader and one with a beard, but all of them wonderful. Mine in particular, as I’m sure all parents think. They’re all the kindest, funniest, smartest kid in the world, and pretty mom is just going to have to cut me some slack. “Hold on to this,” I want to tell her. “This is it. This moment, despite the dirty socks left on the floor and the forgotten social studies work sheet. It was boring anyway. But this, this is awesome. Don’t blink.”

 

 

 

There’s This Purse

There was this purse I saw, and I thought it could change my life, and maybe it will. I’m not usually a purse person, possibly because of my grandmother on my mother’s side. My relationship with her was not ideal, and her purses were horrible.

She was prickly. Not abusive or even mean, just prickly. She’d visit and bring you a present, but tell you how you should be grateful for it. She’d send twenty-five bucks for your birthday, but the card said to be sure to let her know what you spent it on, and don’t squander it away. When I was a senior in high school, she praised me for my nearly straight-As report card, and then told me to be careful because I was getting chunky. (I weighed 119 pounds at the time.) She once voiced relief that my sister was attending the Naval Academy for college because maybe among so many men, she’d find a husband who would overlook “all those awful freckles.”

I don’t know what dysfunction in her own upbringing caused her to lace her compliments with criticism, but I know this: her purses were awful. There was a big cream-colored one I remember from my childhood, not so much ivory colored as pale mustard, with black buckles. There was a black monstrosity that was her every-day purse, covered in something dark and shiny that was peeling off in places, revealing something like cardboard underneath. And her “nice purse,”  the giant white one she carried in her old age, made of vinyl that she said looked like “kid skin,” which made me think somewhere out there existed purses made of children. They were all horrible, and not for lack of money, since one thing my grandmother did very well was invest. She read the Wall Street Journal Every Day and had done well for herself, but carried purses that would not sell at any thrift store, anywhere.

The handles of my grandmother’s purses were too short to wear over her shoulder, so she wore them over her left arm, resting in the crook of her elbow, rendering that arm T-rex-like and useless, with the hand sticking up idly, Monty-Burns style. Her purses were spacious, and she took pride in showing you how they held her wallet, her checkbook, a small pack of tissues and her glasses with room to spare. Enough for a mid-size Buick.

So I tried, my entire life, to carry as little as possible in the smallest bag possible. In high school I carried a tiny wallet and a lip gloss in a bag the size of a sandwich bag, with the enviable GUESS triangle on it. In college I went all student-scholar, with only a backpack, except at night when I would cram some cash in my pockets (if I went out at all).  The diaper-bag years of my late twenties and thirties offered a respite, because a diaper bag screams THIS IS TEMPORARY I HAVE A BABY, but still, even my diaper bag was a a plain brown backpack. And when the kids were all old enough to carry their own stupid sippy cup, I got something called a mini-crossbody, a tiny little thing that says See? I don’t even need a purse anymore!

But last week I saw this purse. I was not shopping for purses, but that day I believe my car keys and phone were sticking precariously out of the shallow pockets on the back of my pants, making my butt look the size of Mrs. Doubtfire’s, and my wallet was tucked under my arm so I wouldn’t have to carry it, giving me a lop-sided gait as I shopped. The purse was in a shoe store, where I was waiting for daughter-one to try on ten pairs of Sperrys that all looked the same, so I had time to wander and browse. And there it was, beckoning me to come forward and touch it’s buttery softness.

It was small, as “bags” go (bags, I have learned, being different from purses), but large enough to hold a wallet and an i-pad, or a tattered copy of the short stories of Edna Ferber. The leather was real and soft, but not floppy and flimsy, and it smelled like libraries and tobacco and nostalgia; like Indiana Jones. There was a pocket on the front perfect for a phone, but not so perfect that it seemed to scream phone pocket, so you wouldn’t have to dig in the main compartment and fish out your phone in the grocery check-out line when you heard a text come in from a child at home, who asked you if he could use the creme brulee torch to melt a plastic bottle into a Frisbee. (This really happened.)

The closure at the top of the bag was one of those discreet, magnetic button thingies that manages to close the whole bag while also providing instant-open technology, should you want to fish out a lip gloss as you pull into the parking lot at soccer practice and see that your son’s assistant coach is a guy you haven’t seen in twenty-five years, who sat in front of you in high school civics class and doodled pictures of famous athletes in his spiral. (This really happened. His favorite was John Elway.)  There was even a little lip stick pocket at the top, near the magnetic button thingy, so the lip stick would nearly leap into your hand in such I-forgot-makeup-today emergencies. And the magnetic button thingy then closes with a quiet little thud that says, “I got this.”

I don’t know enough about fashion to say if the purse was tailored or preppy (is that the same thing now?) or vintage-like or contemporary, but it spoke to me. Possibly, it had an urban-cowboy vibe, appealing to the dichotomy of my Colorado roots and current city of dwelling. It was simple and streamlined and sleek, with no tassels or buckles or nonsense, and the strap was long enough to carry over the shoulder with the bag resting in the little niche where your waist goes in, instead of banging against the hip. No T-rex arms or Monty Burns hands. And the best part: the bottom of the bag was a slender, banana-shaped wedge, making the bag stand up alone when you set it down. Holy crap.

I did not buy the bag. I had an impressionable teenage girl with me, who has a propensity to let money burn a hole in her pocket, and the bag was not cheap. It was not really even reasonable, though purse-people would probably disagree. I cradled it lovingly, and put it back, and I have thought about it for weeks. But today is my 45th birthday, and because I do not have to pick up a child anywhere after school or make dinner, I am going to go see if it is still there, and I am going to buy it. When I get it home, I’m going to lovingly load it up with my wallet and a lip-stick and a collection of short stories by some bad-ass female writer like Edna Ferber. I will be gentle with the purse, but not too gentle, because this purse can take it. If Amelia Earhart was a suburban mom, she’d have this purse. Or Meg Ryan, when she was a super-cute bookstore owner in You’ve Got Mail. Or if Indiana Jones had a daughter who had four kids, she’d have this purse.

It is time for me to let go of some stuff, like my grudge against purses, and my grandmother. It is time for me to embrace who I am, which is someone who needs a purse smaller than a suitcase for an international flight, but larger than a snack-sized sandwich bag.  I love that this purse looks good, but more than that I love that it feels right and smells good and holds exactly what I want and can stand alone when I need it to, which, it occurs to me, are some things I love about my husband. But about this purse: I think it could change my life. I think it could be one thing that is exactly what I want, when life is unpredictable and sometimes harder than you thought, and I think it could remind me that I am exactly me, not more and not less, but very capable. I just hope it is still there. Wish me luck.

 

 

On Motherhood: Being Tommy Lee Jones

It seems to me that motherhood is cool again. Mommyhood’s day has arrived, and it is cool as long as you have the right accessories. There are blogs and vlogs and articles and whole books about mom-ing (not to be confused with motherhood, which is not the same thing). Cool moms are in the movies, cool moms are writing blogs, cool moms are starting their own companies that sell cool mom stuff. Celebrities, being humans, keep reproducing, and we see and hear about their offspring when they are small. Somehow, without wanting to or meaning to, I have absorbed knowledge of celebrities’ kids’ names, from Lourdes and Apple and Coco down to North and Saint West. I don’t even want to know these names, but I do. Having babies and being cool and stylish and thin is in.

With the exception of Suri Cruise, we don’t hear much about celebrities’ kids once they have turned seven or eight. Having older kids is not as cool; they are not an adorable accessory anymore. Moms of babies can write about the challenges of those early years; lack of sleep, schedules and napping and tantrums, and the cute stuff (first day of kindergarten, first tooth fairy visit, first disastrous birthday party) with a “we’re all in this together” voice, and it sells. If you slim back down after the baby and your nursery is cool and your diaper bag is cool and–this is key– you put up with the not-so-fun stuff like tantrums and melt downs with patience and humor and wine (because hey, it takes a village, right? And a screaming, thrashing toddler in the grocery store should be just ignored, right?) then you are a cool mom. A middle aged woman in size 12 jeans writing about parenting teens? Not so much.

It is not cool to be a forty-seven year old mother of three teens, or a fifty-two year old mother of two high schoolers and a late-in-life baby who is now eleven. Forty may be the new thirty, but forty-seven is just forty-seven, nothing cool about it. And fifty-two? Forget it. Not only does your body betray you in countless tiny ways, your children become complicated people with un-cute problems. Plus they do not let you dress them. The clothes they wear are not what you would have chosen for them, and their rooms are not cute, particularly if they are boys. Their smiles–at least the ones directed at you–can be as rare as a lunar eclipse, and when they are sad, you cannot make it better. It is not in your power; do not even try.

The moms who find beauty and joy in parenting teens are such superheroes, such workers of magic, there ought to be thousands of blogs and vlogs and books and articles devoted to them, too. I sort of want to write one; I sort of want the world to see the imperfect coolness of my life. These beautiful kids that are smart and funny, with razor-sharp wit (and stubble), and the admirable way I listened when one of them unloaded about the stress in their life and did not tell them that sometimes their own choices cause them stress. That’s right: I just listened; it was damn-near heroic.

Or I could blog about the cool accessories of my life: my repainted kitchen, done on a budget, the flea-market find that is now a nightstand, the grilled cauliflower we had last night that blew my mind. But something happens in your forties: you grow up even more. You no longer want to be the one raising her hand in the front row, waving it in the teacher’s face to say I know! I know! Or, in this case, I’m cool! I’m cool! Maybe it’s fatigue. Maybe all of our energy is devoted to the parenting itself. Just this week my teens have mentioned things going on in their friends’ lives: stress, cyber-bullying, sexual harassment, cheating, death of a family member, alcoholism, an eating disorder, gender-confusion, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. And that doesn’t even include the more subtle things we must diagnose and help with as parents: spiritual development, character development, work habits, nutrition, etc. So yeah, those years when I had four kids under the age of six were a little hard sometimes, but they were so cute, and there were answers. There was curious George and cherry popsicles, reading stories in a home-made fort, taking nature walks and naps in a quilt. When they were sad, sleep was almost always the answer, or maybe just a graham cracker. And whatever the problem was the stakes were not very high.

But now are the years when we must put on armor, not to protect ourselves from our teens but to stand in front of them and jump into oncoming arrows. When you have success at teaching them something, or when you see the fruits of your efforts in a teenager who refuses to cheat, is kind to the friendless, a good listener, a hard worker or a healthy eater, it is a glorious thing. The clouds part and the sun comes through and you rip the armor off for a moment, hair blowing in the wind, and you give your mighty, barbaric yawp–or you smile a private smile and make their favorite dinner. But then you put the armor back on because here come the mortar shells and arrows again, and they will not relent and you must fight them, fight them, silently and without seeming to intrude. It is a delicate dance and you must dance, dance and never tire, never give up and never rest, except to sleep. When they are grown and you look back and see those cute blogs and articles about organizing Legos and outgrowing naps, you’ll be like a grizzled, used-to-be-handsome General having a look at new recruits; you’ll be Tommy Lee Jones, chuckling. You remember that, and it was awesome, and so simple. But your smile is tight and wistful, because you know the road ahead is wonderful and terrible and difficult and glorious and you wouldn’t change a thing.

 

 

 

 

Poem-in-my-forties 1

A toddler in a red jacket bends

down to pick something up in the street,

wind blown hair hiding her face, his face, I cannot tell.

The mother tugs hard on the little hand, come on, her lips say,

the child’s wrist and body follow with one backwards glance at the wanted thing.

 

The little red jacket stays with me, familiar, though I don’t think any of you had one. I do

remember a small purple sweater, an orange windbreaker, a green raincoat, but

the red jacket is all of them

all of you

trailing behind me to pick up a rock, a bottle cap, a feather,

my lips saying Come on, the light is changing, a car might come.

 

I failed to see, she fails to see

the wind-blown hair as magic, the

whole moment magic, the

little red jacket sacred; the scarf or the jewel in a Vermeer.

 

She is thinking of laundry and how dinner

will not make itself and the chaos

of bedtime before rest

But I watch, unseen, behind a rain-smeared windshield, the beauty

pinning me to my seat, helpless and heavy-limbed

with memories.

True Grit

The Holiday Season is here, and the T.V networks are trying to work in a few feel good movies now and then, squeezed in between bad sit-coms and perverse cop shows. Last week an obscure cable channel aired Gone With the Wind and I caught the end while sewing on a stubborn cub scout patch (I Sold Popcorn 2014!!).

My favorite scene in Gone With the Wind is where Scarlet must deliver Melanie’s baby, alone, while Atlanta is burning outside. It is one of the first scenes where we see Scarlet begin to transform from a shallow girl who does not even dress herself, let alone do hard work, into the woman who swears, with her dirty fist in the air, never to go hungry again.

I say it is my favorite scene; really it is just the one I remember the most. I first saw the movie in Mrs. Shiplett’s seventh grade classroom, because she deemed it a worthy and accurate portrayal of the Civil War, and because she had a lot of papers to grade. When the little slave girl says she ain’t never delivered no babies, so Scarlet does it herself, I had the epiphany that childbirth must be difficult and terrifying and dirty  and—because everyone was so happy when the baby girl was born—wonderful, and I remember realizing that Scarlet was changing, that she was different. You had to kind of respect Scarlet after that; she’d just rolled up her sleeves and done what had to be done.

The novel was the quintessential best seller and the movie won Best Picture in 1939, and we’ve been comparing every heroine to Scarlet ever since. Perhaps because she was not perfect, but man was she strong when it counted. Strength has been a common denominator in literary heroines, going all the way back to Medea and Antigone and Lady Macbeth and all the others I can’t quite remember. But of course none of them were good or pure. Purity of heart is something we say we want to strive for, but the good characters are always a little boring. Jo March and Elizabeth Bennett were cool; Melanie was a little boring. We’d rather watch someone a little more sinful; a little more human.

Maybe this explains why, for all the reverence that Catholics have for the Virgin Mary, we forget to think of her as fully human. True, she is the only person other than her son to be born without sin, but her son was divine, and Mary was not. She was simply human, like you or me or the lady next door. Byzantine and Renaissance art is partly to blame: she is always pictured in a gauzy blue veil, looking passively down at her hands. In the Byzantine renderings, she looks angry or kind of queasy, and in later WEstern art she looks pure, and bored, and boring. And in her most famous scene ever, so to speak, when she gives birth to the savior of the world in a stable, it is warm and inviting, she is clean and dry and looks like a pretty on-looker.

Anyone who has ever had a baby or worked on a farm knows that childbirth is not tidy. And to give birth in a stable, realistically, would be cold, dirty, and frightening. It may even have smelled bad. Surely it smelled bad. Bethlehem was crowded! The stable wasn’t being cleaned hourly, and there were animals in there. Then there’s the pain of it: perhaps Mary was spared the actual pain of childbirth because she had no original sin,  but even if she felt no physical pain, it would have been a messy, exhausting, bewildering affair, with only Joseph to cut the cord and clean up and help. (Imagine—to be chosen to cut the umbilical cord of the Son of God himself!) Yet Mary did it, because God asked her to and she looked straight through her fear and said, “Yes.” And all the other famous lines of all the other heroines in the world pale in compression.

Maybe she did wear a blue veil. I suspect that when she covered her head, it was with some neutral color, and that when she gave birth to Christ, her hair was messy. We make her look beautiful in the Christmas cards out of respect, and that’s as it should be. But I like thinking of Mary looking up, not passively down at her hands. I think she had a sparkle in her eye that puts Vivian Leigh’s to shame, and a spirit in her heart that makes all the other heroines I’ve ever read about seem dull. I know she had no sin, but I think she was just as fun as Jo March and Lizzy Bennett and Anne Shirley, and that like all of them, she changed into something stronger. Though her heart was pure the whole time, I like knowing that she went from a frightened teenager, who was surely scorned by some who knew her, to a mother who gave birth in a cave next to farm animals, only to watch her baby son grow up to be rejected and crucified, to the Queen of Heaven, with one foot on a serpent, a crown on her head and her eyes on fire with love for the world.

I will try to remember it this season, when my reality isn’t what I want pictured on the Christmas card. I want the cookies baked and the children in matching outfits, with homework all done and the house perfect and myself with not a hair out of place. Though I will never, ever be sinless, I will try to remember that real heroes get past the mess and the fear and the imperfection, and see only God’s will. They’re dirty sometimes;  mud on their faces, hair flying wild. I will try to remember that if I fail, I can try again. I can change, and grow, and become the woman God wants me to be, dirty hands and messy hair and all. All I really have to do this season is say yes to God. Where there’s His will, there is a way, and it is always perfect.

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