Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Reading Time With Pickle

I got back to reading this year. After more than half a decade of caring for very small children, I finally worked out a compromise between maternal duties and literary pleasure. (I was going to remark on no longer having any children in diapers, but frankly, that hasn't been especially helpful in this regard.) The list below is what I got through in 2010, in as thorough detail as Goodreads and I could manage.

Manhood for Amateurs, Michael Chabon
American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld
Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen
Sh*t My Dad Says, Justin Halpern
Dry, Augusten Burroughs
I Am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe
Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher
Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin
The Giant's House: A Romance, Elizabeth McCracken
Case Histories, Kate Atkinson
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery
The Night Listener, Armistead Maupin
The Last American Man, Elizabeth Gilbert
Sorrow Floats, Tim Sandlin
Forever, Pete Hamill
Le Divorce, Diane Johnson
Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger, Lee Smith
This Is Where I Leave You, Jonathan Tropper
Everything Changes, Jonathan Tropper
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer
Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Charles J. Shields
The Help, Kathryn Stockett
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modern Bestiary, David Sedaris
On Writing, Stephen King
Little Bee, Chris Cleave
Juliet, Naked, Nick Hornby
Werewolves in Their Youth, Michael Chabon
Sarah's Key, Tatiana de Rosnay
No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith (most likely; I'm halfway through)

I'm excited for next year's book list to be even longer ... unless I'm too busy writing my own.

Monday, December 20, 2010

O Night Divine

My perception of Christmas has changed since I had a child. I don’t mean in regard to the stress and bustle and increased costs, but my perception of the Christmas story itself. Since I became a mother, I’ve been unable to consider the historical circumstances of Jesus’ birth without letting my thoughts linger on Mary’s story.

I imagine a heavily pregnant young woman – a child, to our modern eyes – traveling on the back of a donkey for ninety miles. It’s a trip that would take days, perhaps even a week or more. I imagine the pain, the swelling, the heat (most historians agree that it was probably not actually winter), the unpredictable swings of hunger and thirst, all experienced on the back of a lumpy, itchy animal. And when the trip finally ended, and her body surely ached for a soft place to lie down and rest, there was nowhere for her to go. The only shelter available was made for livestock. I can’t help thinking that, as well as being stinky and uncomfortable, this option was especially insulting to a young woman already suffering the social stigma of being unmarried and pregnant.

And then, the worst happens. Away from family and caregivers, and perhaps surrounded by said livestock, she goes into labor. There’s no description of her experience in the famous telling by St. Luke, no actual birth story from the world’s most famous birth (somehow I doubt an account by St. Lucille would skip over this part). Although I would probably guess that teenage girls were more familiar with birth in Caesar’s day than ours, I have to believe she was still scared and feeling very alone. This is just assumption, of course, but as something of a minor expert in first-time mothers, I’ve seen a level of universality in this area. No matter the age or race or economic background, every new mother is terrified of what birth will be like, and I have yet to meet one who had any idea what she was going to do afterward. If those fears persist in our comfortable, sanitized, nurse-assisted world, how much more powerful must they have been in a young woman giving birth alone in a barn?

But that, I guess, is another assumption. Perhaps she did have help – a village midwife called out by the guilt-ridden inn-keeper, maybe. And despite all the pageant-driven ideas about that night, I’ve never read anything that actually says there were animals around, or that the stable was in use for that purpose at the time. I know birth wasn’t the fetishized ritual it is in today’s middle-class society, and I’ve heard plenty of historic anecdotes about farm laborers squatting down to birth in the middle of a field.

But still. An unwed girl in a strange town, laboring in a dark, dirty place. Far from family, criticized for her circumstances, and not even a bed to lie in when it was all over.

“O Holy Night” is my very favorite Christmas song, partly because, intentionally or not, I feel it captures both the joy and the frightening unknown of birth. If you replace the word “world” with “mother,” it could describe any woman, at any time, seeing her child for the first time.

Long lay the world
In sin and error pining,
Till He appeared
And the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope,
The weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks
A new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees,
O hear the angel voices!
O night divine,
O night when Christ was born!

Whoever you believe that baby was – a savior, a teacher, a random Jewish boy – the power of Mary’s story holds true. And for me, this season is about the hope and awe inspired by that young mother bravely bringing her son into the world.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

With Every Christmas Card I Write

Dear Friends, Family, and Various Googlers,

It’s Christmas card time again, which for me means taking the time to sit down, reflect over the last year, and feel guilty that I don’t have the street addresses of anyone besides my parents. I so like the idea of sending out cards, but it’s been years since I mustered the time, energy and mailing supplies to do so. I say this not so much as an apology as a plea: if you are among the few valiant luddites who still put an actual stamp on an actual card and drop it in an actual U.S. postal service mailbox, please, please don’t take me off your list. I love getting Christmas cards. Whether you live across the country or in the next ZIP code over, it makes me happy to see your name on an envelope. I like seeing the card you chose to represent your good wishes. I even enjoy reading your year-end summary letter. I think it’s a lovely tradition, and I hope that the dwindling numbers in my card display rack are due to my semi-recent move and not a major drop in holiday correspondents.

With best wishes to you this season and throughout the new year,

The Secret Agent Mom family