How would you answer that question? Finding an answer stops my over-eager mind, momentarily at a loss for the right words. My first thought was the Mystery, or That Which Has No Name. Then, a flood of others: God, the Infinite, Christ-consciousness, which makes me think of Krishna, and before you know it, the intention of the meditation is somewhat lost in the word avalanche of deities and attempts to name that which has no name.
Pretty soon I’ve forgotten what I already knew, which was the simplest possible answer to the question. Or not. Hint: It’s love.
Did you guess? See what I mean by simple? Or, given the nature of that big word, not simple at all?
Beyond Love: Soothing Songs for the Soul is also the title of a CD that my daughter Johanna has been working on for the past year. She’s a yogi and singer who practices her meditations musically around the country in participatory concerts called kirtan.
When she was a baby my favorite book was Love is Letting Go of Fear, which pretty much explains itself. Johanna was the child who loved going down the slide face first. I joked that “she never learned a decent sense of fear.” I coped and nagged and guided, which was my job at the time, apparently.
As a woman, even though life has handed her challenges and accidents, Johanna has learned caution and bravery. She discovered the power of singing for healing after being hit by a drunk driver. Her early risk-taking has transformed into single-minded focus and bravery on her own spiritual path. This music is a result.
I know sound like a proud mother. I am. And I’m also a proud daughter. Two weeks ago I sat with my mother, who is slowly dying. She seems to be in her own process of letting go of fear as she lets go of life. I played the CD to her with my ear buds. She has little speech left and doesn’t respond to much lately, but when the phrase “Beyond love…is love” played, she looked in my eyes and nodded.
I figure she should know.
I’ve always found the peekaboo stage of development fascinating in babies. Right around a year, they’re so easy to entertain with no props but a blanket or scarf. Developmental theorists have a lot to say about what they’re learning, things like fear of abandonment by adults or “object permanence.” First lesson: People go away and then come back. I’m safe. Second: Things (and people) exist even when I can’t see them. I’m guessing it was hysterically funny when my mother played it with me as an infant, but I can’t say that I remember it.
But who knew it’s a lesson that deepens over time? My mother is coming and going now, mostly going. Sometimes when I get in her visual frame and wave she doesn’t see me…or anything outside of her, apparently. Then I move a few feet and come back and there’s instant recognition.
I’m no longer disarmed by this. Our roles have shifted in this “Now you see me, now you don’t” relationship. The other day I greeted her without a reaction. Then I walked around her back and waved again as I sat down by her other side. She grabbed my hand and said “Did I ever tell you what a beautiful child you were?” I was stunned. This is the first sentence she had put together in three months. (And although I’m not sure she had ever told me, I’ve never needed or even thought about that subject.)
I have so many questions about this late life peekaboo. On the top of the list is: who is it who sees me, who remembers to say things, when her brain is obviously so scrambled from her stroke that she strains mightily to just utter a word?
My mind has finally given up trying to make sense of it because at one level it makes perfect sense. There’s a way she and I connect that is beyond words. It has always been like that.
AND there’s something very familiar about the way our minds work. When I pay close attention to all the places my mind comes and goes (Oh! The places it goes), I see my non-stroked mind is much the same. It cycles in and out of thoughts, creating a trance of its own making. Past. Future. Fears. Things to solve. It’s an ongoing practice to call it back to the current moment.
It’s so sweet to have this in common with my mother. We have minds that are simply not trustworthy. Without relying on our minds for connection, the game is over. What’s left is deep, soulful, and simple. For want of a better word, I’ll call it love. Straight up.
My mother has one-and-a-half feet in another world now. I’m meeting her on the other half-foot, when she’s here, and joining her in the dreaming world when I can. In between times I’m moving through the layers of her life, thing by thing. I see a photo of my grandmother in a familiar dress, holding me as a baby. Did I remember that far back? Just as I’m about to take credit for an astounding memory, I realize I’ve seen it recently. In a quilt made by that very same grandmother in the 1950’s, now residing in my closet awaiting guests.
This is how it’s been. These last few months I’ve traveled sixty years back and forth in random order, time shifting. Time sifting, as I pick up each piece of her past. And what has emerged is a pattern far more subtle than the one that I’ve been holding together in my mind all these years.
I can practically name the day, or at least the evening in 1970 when the “click” went off in my head and I began to see the oppression behind the traditional role of women. I giggled almost hysterically when I realized I had become a “Women’s Libber,” a somewhat derogatory label assigned to early feminists by the culture at large. Ever since that epiphany, I’ve held a specific belief about women raised in the rural Midwest in the early half of the last century.
I’ve run their stories through my filter about their oppression, including the ways they wasted their time on unappreciated “womanly” domestic arts. After all, my credentials as a judge of them are impeccable. My mother was the president of FHA, Future Homemakers of America. “All I ever wanted,” she told me many times, “was to be a wife and mother.” For years it has been abundantly clear to me that the size of this role was way too tight, and way too under-appreciated for my own future liberated self.
The proof of her conditioning by the culture early on was all around me as I stood knee-deep in her apartment. Starting with the bib with her detailed embroidery for the birth of her only sibling, a brother. She had been nine years old. Then an “autograph book” she assembled when she was twelve, filled with other girls’ cards and jingles about getting a husband. Then there are the yearbook and scrapbooks from high school singing the praises of her beauty and kindness (with tips for keeping that man). All of these keepsakes were especially repugnant when I was a young feminist, tainted as they were by male privilege and patriarchy.
After all, everything led to the pinnacle: her carefully planned wedding at 18, and a not-so-planned baby (me) when she wasn’t yet 19. But I had much more proof of her oppression, based on my life as a little girl and helpmate. There was her ordinary grueling life, in the rural Missouri 1950’s. The life where she raised us and canned tomatoes all day in 120 (F) degree heat. The life where she washed the laundry (on Mondays, as the tea embroidered tea towel said), in a wringer washer and then hung it in the cold attic to dry while three of us under five years old vied for attention.
Then there were her duties as the wife of the school principal, not even 25 years old yet. A few years later, there’s the announcement in the tiny town newspaper about her return to college, with a quick reassurance that she would only be taking classes when her kids were in school. That degree never got finished because making another baby was just too hard to resist. This has always been the punch-line in my story of her demise.
But, as I’ve looked again these past weeks, there’s something else. I see the ways she (and many of the women of her generation) stitched together the social fabric through a myriad of little gifts of time and attention. My mother, and many others before her, planned and pulled off weekly Sunday fried chicken dinners on the farm for a large extended family. This in itself looked easier from a child’s view than it turned out to be in my reality as a young mother, when even a potluck was over my head.
And then there were the less routine but deeply significant duties. She delivered pies and casseroles when tragedy struck, which it did often.
A friend’s son, a teen who fell from the water tower, trying to mark it for the class of ‘54.
A father who fell from his tractor right in the way of the combine.
A carload of liquored up kids, six dead, from a head-on crash.
My dad, their coach, left to tell the parents.
What may have come from basic social duty transformed her life into something larger. She, and many women like her, held the network of community together as they actively comforted, appreciated, and showed up for all of life, day to day, in big and little ways. They stitched together lives of meaning, piece by piece, like the patchwork quilts they left behind.
Last week I uncovered bundles and bundles of letters she wrote to lifelong friends in longhand, just because. The thoughtful gift, the thank you notes and cards. Many were left behind, written in her shaky hand, still waiting to be sent, as well as boxes (and boxes) that will never see that signature. I couldn’t even give them away to family members because, apparently, sending cards or letters through snail mail is a dying art.
But something of that history remains in my world. Although most of my correspondence is digital, I still keep a ragtag file of cards for such occasions. Sometimes I even write them, stamp them, address them. And I relish each one I receive nowadays, from friends and neighbors, placing it on my altar and lighting a candle to complete the circle.
There is such subtle tenderness and grace in a life of weaving and re-weaving the connections that bind us together. Now, more than ever, in an anxious and uncertain world, I’m embracing this part of my heritage. It supports me in remembering what’s important.
Life. To the fabric we weave from its beginning to its end. To the cards and letters and gifts of ourselves that spread and hold the love. To the holiness of this calling.