Published on November 19th, 2018 | by Shannon Greene1
Pain is Beauty: Imagining Motherhood
All of my life has been about me. The video camera of my childhood was, if not holding me in the frame, about my perception of things: my sister sledding through rare southern snow downhill away from me, the sound of her voice fading and my unsteady camera hands and breathing reminding me of myself, my self-ness. I was the oldest by two years. I appeared alternately as a Christ child in my family, haloed with a name that meant wisdom and a silent, observing nature, and as the deceiver when my quiet ways concealed mischief. My whole path was lit for me as a child, by my parents and my sister and the geometry of everyone around me: aunts, uncles, school, church.
And everyone has this story. Is it possible not to be the protagonist? I don’t think so, even to the very end. There’s this little thing called the ego. Father Richard Rohr, who founded the Center for Action and Contemplation, says, “We start looking out at life with ourselves as the center point. It’s the beginning of egocentricity. My ego is the center; what I like, what I want, what I need is what matters. Please know that the ego is not bad; it is just not all. The development of a healthy, strong ego is important to human growth.” The ego is important to the beginning. But it should not be the guiding force to the end.
I never wanted a child. I never wanted to be a mother. I was a child, and in many ways, I am still. No more do I attend church. Hours alone, reading poetry and prose, wandering the perimeter of the field against my house, I take my time, watch for deer tracks, lift rocks to watch the insects crawl. And it is all for me, for my understanding, toward the enlightenment of each of my moments, and if I’m doing it right, I believe, my whole self. Where, here, do I have space for a child?
It is not just me: I have a husband, Daniel. I turned 29, then 30, then 31, all while writing a novel. My novel is not complete. You can imagine a due date for a novel, but it will never work. A novel, like a child, is a living creature. Daniel and I storied the possibility of having a baby on weekend car rides, evening walks, times when we were spread out over ourselves and our soft ends exposed. I thought about showing a new human being what snakes felt like to touch, how to cast a fishing line as my dad taught me.
The topography of these conversations covered the terrain of our own lives, how a baby would add or subtract from the total harmony of the existing landscape. Daniel was ready to give it a shot before I was. My novel, for instance, was not finished. And I was afraid of the physical pain, the letting go, the loss of control. What is it like to go into labor, to have your body open up enough to let loose an entire, new human? In many ways, I would need to die, I knew, to bring about a new life inside me. Let me explain. A mother is a host, and I could not cross the boundary that allowed some women to see that as something more than the death of individuality, the death of all I felt I had been creating all my life – the self. And what if I actually, bodily, die? It sounds melodramatic, but the fear is real. Why would I willingly do this?
I have heroes: Annie Dillard, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Bronte, Anne LeBastille, Henry David Thoreau, Patti Smith, etc. They were or are writers, naturalists, explorers, psychonauts, priests. I use them as maps for my own life. WWVD (what would Virginia do)? She did not have a child. She, and the others, whether they had children or not, were devotees, saints of art. Saints don’t falter in devotion. And artists are notable for their individuality, and not their human offspring.
But here’s what happens with heroes. They are in the frame of the home video, and it is difficult to know them as full human beings. I hear my own breathing and unsteadiness behind the camera, diagram it in relation to what I pick out in the frame. I watch my favorite parts over and over, the parts that confirm my existing philosophy, and neglect problematic scenes. We all do it. At the end of the reel is Virginia’s death, her one-way walk into the river, weighted by pocketed stones. Decades of speculation about the why of her suicide fan out one over the other. Only she knew why. She was a full human being and to parcel pieces her life out like scripture, out of context with the whole, is to misconstrue a life. And, with death in the frame, I have to examine my own fears of ceasing to exist, my own why. WWVD? She walked into her own death. Whatever the reason, she gulped it like air. She felt that death itself was in some way essential, a choice she had to make, or she would not have taken those last soggy steps.
I am 31 here, and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that both freedom and control are illusions. Throughout my twenties and in my early thirties, I’ve congratulated myself on preserving what I could of my freedom by not becoming a mother, whether on purpose or by accident. It was easier to okay my shortcomings—student loan debt, being a millennial without 2,000 Instagram followers, my unpublished writing, being an unapologetic introvert, stubborn to a fault and prone to some kind of underdog pride in all these things–because I still had the freedom to take a walk alone in the woods after work and to spend my weekend nights neglecting laundry, drinking a beer and looking at the stars or reading or watching Netflix with Daniel. The crossroads appeared when I realized that if I didn’t decide whether to have a kid in the next few years, biology would eventually decide for me. It was also possible that biology had already decided. I didn’t want to start hoping for an impossibility.
But something was working in me. Writing a novel had an unexpected effect, to teach me things about life, to change the direction of my desires. For one: no one cares that this happens, gets completed, except me. And that needs to be enough. Writing a novel has been a lesson in self-will and faith, and I grew up Southern Baptist. You’d think I knew what faith was already, but I didn’t. What I thought was faith, was actually belief. Faith is what happens when you don’t, can’t believe. It’s what keeps one word going after the other on days when you feel like it’s all shit. It is a set compass to whatever is out there in the darkness, no matter how scary it is or unprepared you might be. The term “blind faith” is redundant. All faith is blind, and that’s the point.
One night, I stood by a bonfire in our yard, looking above the shadow tops of trees to the stars so many billions of miles up. Daniel poked at the fire with a stick, added more wood. A poem by Joy Harjo I had read earlier that day kept me coming back to it in different moments. In this setting, in the stillness with the fringes of autumn brushing my skin and the warmth of the fire and Daniel close by, it settled on me all at once with full meaning. The simplicity of the title, “Eagle Poem,” carries the same deception as the easiness of the poem itself, the looping and layering rhythm of the language and imagery belying its heft:
To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear;
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning
We pray that it will be done
The “true circle of motion” symbolized by the eagle looping over Salt River became a new frontier for me, a oneness I wanted to experience. I had been rooting around for the trail entrance of it my entire life, but my focus was all wrong. Ego had been blocking my way. I wanted to open up my whole self “to one whole voice that is” me. And in that moment I began to understand some part of the why of motherhood. I sipped my beer and let the full unknowing of life and death break over me like peace, chanting, let it “be done/ In beauty,/ In beauty.”
Around the time I found this poem, October 2017, my younger sister was pregnant with her first child. Motherhood was moving close to home, and I began to seek out poems and essays that might illuminate some aspects of it that I hadn’t considered. I wanted to empathize with my sister and feel close to her, as her pregnancy was a boundary between us. We had gone through almost everything in life together except this. My sister is also a reader, and she began reading and writing out of her new state, the potential energy she had gathering inside her. She spoke of death, of a realization that with this new life she also was creating a death. Some weeks later, I tripped upon an article in The New Yorker interviewing author Samantha Hunt, who is also a mother of three children. In it she says, “The part of sexism that bores and angers me most is the culling, the simplification of women into Hallmark cards of femininity. When I became a mom, no one ever said, ‘Hey, you made a death. You made your children’s deaths.’ Meanwhile, I could think of little else. It’s scary to think of mothers as makers of death, but it sure gives them more power and complexity than one usually finds.”
Death is not a new preoccupation for me, and the image of mothers as makers of death is alluring. The image is metal, to put it in no uncertain terms. It’s metal as fuck. It could be my lifelong fascination with ghosts and the afterlife, but I don’t view death as an experience divided from life. How else would fruit go to seed to engender new growth the next season? Human death is a bitter fruit, though, and tougher to swallow. It is a darkness we have yet to see into with any certainty, to journey and return.
What’s harder than death is living, in the shadow of death. And I think this is what Hunt really means to impart. Whether we accept or embrace or shun the thought of death, every second in our human skins reminds us of our own fragility. Something behind that, though, tucked as liquid light between membranes and sloshing through the intestines and wrapping the tiniest veins, is the beauty. If beauty as a word is still not doing the work here for you, call it god, the universe, the mystery. Whatever name you use, it is the cloth of your very being, your higher self, even. It’s what pushes you through the shit to learn what you need to learn, the only way to acquire that elusive diamond, meaning.
My dad told us, “if it don’t kill you, it’ll make you stronger.” Hearing it as a kid felt harsh and unfeeling. But the truth of it is this: if you don’t let struggle and loss numb you, if you can be present to the sharpest edges of pain, your body and spirit will learn the shape of the pain and become wise to it, through it. It is an initiation, a leveling-up. Learning to survive and thrive in the game with lower HP means you can get farther and help more people on the way. You will know this level when your spirit finally feels like the prow of an ancient Viking ship carved in the shape of a dragon. You will know when whatever words people have for you are like tiny arrows made of straw, and the glow around you is strong and impenetrable.
The only way to resilience of being is through, not around, the deep dark, the probable suffering.
So, I told Daniel I was ready. Let’s see what happens, I said. Just the motion of striking off into new territory was energizing. Whether we could or couldn’t conceive no longer held me back. My goal had changed from making sure I was on the right path for me, to letting go of ego and opening my “whole self.” In the words of Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic, I wanted to live “a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than fear.”
And, in June 2018, I held two positive pregnancy tests in my hand, not having believed in just one. And no matter what happens to me, no matter the bloodshed or the suffering, I want to walk forward through the dark with curiosity. I want to let go of the video camera and enter the frame of existence, a frame with no boundaries. And I pray that it will be done in beauty, in beauty.