Immaculate Conception painting by Miki de Goodaboom, 2010
I don’t get Mary.
I mean, yes, I recognize that of all the women that ever lived, the peasant girl Mary was singled out to be the host womb for the human birth of Jesus Christ. There was that terrifying visit from the archangel Gabriel to tell her all about it and everything. I understand that Mary is a critically important character in the story.
I guess what I don’t get is how Mary’s story unfolds.
I don’t get why she wasn’t yet married to Joseph at the time, and instead had to go through the trauma of hoping he, their families, and the entire community, would believe her impossible story. I don’t get why she was forced to travel to Bethlehem at the end of her pregnancy. Surely our omniscient Creator could have timed either the pregnancy or the census differently. I don’t get why she gave birth, alone, in a stable far from any familiar supports. I don’t get why shepherds, not rabbis or governors, were the first to pay honor to the Lord of Lords upon his human birth.
Unlike my cradle Catholic sisterfriend, Mary, I have spent most of my life engaged in expressions of Christianity that are decidely non-Catholic. Marian devotion is not at all widespread beyond Catholicism. Mary only tends to come up around Christmas, and while she is super important to the story, teachings I have had about her make it clear that she is a supporting character.
My understanding is that the Almighty chose this scenario for Jesus’ birth in order to blow the minds of the folks who were expecting their King of Kings to arrive in a of blaze of glory. The Jews wanted some sort of warrior king to bring them salvation from an oppressive government. The Jesus they got was a whole other kind of Savior. The King of the Jews, who would save them–and all humankind– not from a government, but from death and sin, started his earthly life as an infant in a carpenter’s family. Mary’s humble stature, her extreme ordinariness, is meant to highlight that point.
No preacher I have heard, no devotional I have read has suffiently explained why it was so brutal an experience for Mary, though.
I have little understanding of the Catholic teachings about Mary’s own miraculous birth without original sin, for living the remainder of her life perpetually a virgin, and for then ascending into heaven without first dying a natural death. I have many, many questions.
For today’s Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, I have learned that I am far from alone in my misunderstandings of this feast day. This is not about Jesus’ conception, but rather about Mary’s. This is the day that commemorates Mary’s conception as the moment that she was set apart to one day be the mother of Jesus.
Catholics believe that at the moment of Mary’s conception, the Creator marked her, exempting her from Original Sin. “Sin” has gotten a bum rap, becoming synonymous with “wrong,” “breaking rules,” or being “bad.” If one understands sin as “separted from God,” though, it gives Mary’s story a whole new lens angle.
Can you imagine this? At the moment of Mary’s conception, she was protected from the inevitable separation from God with which all humankind since Adam and Eve have had to contend. What must that have been like to have always known, really known, your Creator? How different would life be, knowing that God is with you?
So it begins. My Advent is off to a rather inauspicious start.
Last year, inspired by my studies of Celtic Christianity, and some blossoming friendships with women who are far more crafty than I am, I made an Advent wreath out of evergreen clippings from my garden. It was a small project that I found to be quietly meaningful.
I thought I would do the same thing this year.
It was with a happy heart that I took my clippers and 5-gallon pail out into my yard yesterday. I gathered holly, juniper, yew, boxwood, and winterberry. I spread most of the juniper and yew on my mantle and bookcases, as an evergreen backdrop for my collections of nutcrackers and nativity scenes. I also filled a tin bucket used for collecting maple sap with some holly and the winterberry to bring some holiday cheer into my bedroom.
Now, I was ready to put my Advent wreath together.
I pulled out the nifty swirled glass dish that a former student gifted me. I lined it with juniper, filled the edges with holly and holly berries, and covered the gaps with boxwood. Now for the candles. I head to the closet where I store the candles. I can only find three candle holders, and no taper candles. Sigh.
I grab my coat and head to the dollar store. They have no candle holders suitable for tapers, and while they have dozens of candles, the only tapers they have are brown or sickly yellow. I head next door to the discount store. No luck.
I try another store today, and again I strike out. Plenty of candles. No tapers. Who would have thought that taper candles were out of fashion?!
I was increasingly upset, because it’s the start of Advent, and I dared say to you all that I would write about my experiences through this season, and here I am having not gone to church this morning, and now I cannot even find candles for my Advent wreath, and one day in I am already failing, and…
I fled to our home office and began puttering (and pouting). A while later I was called downstairs. My husband, knowing just what to do for me, had put up the Christmas tree, strung it with lights, and set the angel on top. Around the base of the tree, he wrapped the beautiful, hand-quilted tree skirt his sister made for us when we first got married. He pulled out the boxes of ornaments, grinned at me, and simply said, “Your turn.” I decorated our Christmas tree with the antique glass bulbs that were his grandparents’, and the handcrafted ornaments our children made when they were tinies, and the oddball collection of decorations that we have been accumulating over the past thirty years together. Each one a memory. Each one a blessing. Each one a prayer.
And then I was ready to come back to my Advent wreath. Bucking traditions and protocols, I used what I had. I put a white pillar candle in the center. It is surrounded by 3 forest green votive candles and one white votive candle that I got during the trip I made to the Yankee Candle Village the morning Mary first came to my home to meet me in person. They smell wonderful, and they remind me of the truly delightful visit we shared. To complete my wreath, I added a truly lovely blown-glass bird. I have a thing about birds. For me, they represent freedom and lightness and now, here in my wreath, the Holy Spirit.
It doesn’t look anything like the Advent wreaths I’ve known. It doesn’t even look anything like the Advent wreath I intended to create. I find that it feels like one, though. As I lit the first candle—and the center, “Jesus candle,” because, well, I’ve already thrown tradition out the window, and figured inviting Jesus to my meditations could not be a bad thing—I was filled with a lightness I did not expect after getting everything wrong.
When it came down to it, I ended up where I was supposed to be, quiet and contemplative. My preparations did not look like I expected or wanted them to, but they still made the way—and isn’t that the point of Advent?
The name of our blog came about from a conversation Mary and I were sharing with some writer friends a year ago, as they were discussing their Advent practices. Most of the folks in the discussion were enthusiastic about the season and the celebrations for Christmas. Several had suffered catastrophic illnesses and losses, so were struggling, but still looked forward to the joys the season has always brought them.
Mary noted that for a whole host of reasons, including mothering children who rely upon consistent routine to get through their days, the holiday season has become something she endures, rather than truly celebrates. She quipped, “I guess I’m just made for Ordinary Time.”
To my surprise, I realized that I agreed with her.
See, I absolutely love the trappings of Advent and Christmas—the traditions, decorations, the cookies, the eggnog, the celebrations… I am one caroling-party away from being a character in a Cable Network Christmas Movie. Underneath all the trimmings, though, I have to confess that I am always let down by the season. The extra demands on my time and attention exacerbate my health problems for starters. More critically, though, is my ongoing wrestling with the Almighty to hang onto my faith. Advent forces you to contemplate your beliefs, ideally in expectation of rejoicing in birth of the Savior, and in the promise of the Second Coming. When you wake up on Christmas morning not sure of who or what you believe in, well, it’s a bit dark, eh?
I would like to say that this year, here in this public forum, I will finally figure it all out. I’d like to believe that this year, someone—perhaps a charming-kid-next-door type with an adorable dog—will come into Mary’s life and show her and her family the Meaning of Christmas so powerfully that their hardwired anxieties will be overcome in an hour-minus-commercial-breaks.
This is no holiday television special. That’s not how any of this life business works. We know. So, for this Advent, we share a more modest goal:
Find the bits of light that come this season and pay attention to what they illuminate.
We invite you to join us as we struggle along the way in the dark together.
Everything about this makes me cry with joy. I love the look on the custodian’s face. I love the beauty of sign language. I love seeing little kids try to keep a secret. I love communal shows of appreciation. This will make you happy.
I love this story about more than 200 volunteers forming a human chain to help a book store move locations in Southampton last month. Community spirit chokes me up anyway, but picturing each beloved book passed hand to hand to hand makes me want to bawl in the best way.
To continue our November discussion on the ways we remember the dead, Kristen and I chatted with our friends Kristy Burmeister, Shana Hutchings, and RV Miole. Check out their bios at the end of the article.
The conversation has been edited and rearranged for clarity and flow.
We began by sharing our first experiences of death and funerals.
Mary: My first experience of a funeral was that of a nun we knew. I was about 3, and services were held at the convent–very staid and reserved. So when my grandpa died when I was 5 or 6, and we did the whole Irish Catholic thing with drinking and laughing and parties, I thought death might be kinda awesome, at least for those of us still alive. I got to stay up late, have sips of wine, swim in the hotel pool. Sweet. Then as an adult, we went to my husband’s aunt’s funeral in a southern Baptist church. It was very different; people were crying over the casket and hugging the deceased. When we first walked in I told a joke to my brother-in-law in the back, which I don’t remember but was good enough to crack myself up, and when I laughed everyone in the place turned to look at me. I thought, isn’t this supposed to be a party? It was just a different culture.
RV: I think Irish and Filipino celebrations of death must be very similar. My mother was diagnosed with a pituitary tumor when I started high school. She’s had four brain surgeries over the course of eleven years; her last one was in 2010 and recovery was difficult. She was placed on a ventilator and became septic at the convalescent home where she was recovering. She died two months before my wedding and I’m still processing the very difficult and confusing spectrum of emotions I felt that year. My experience with funerals in the family prior to that were always a mixture of grief and joy. With my mother’s, it was a feeling of unrelenting flatness, of being stuck.
Shana: My first funeral was when my grandma died very unexpectedly. She was 52. I was 16. At the wake, I remember how flat her lips looked. My uncle had the hardest time and I remember hearing him crying and talking to her and saying that he had present from Jeff, his son, and placing Jeff’s first grade picture in the casket. My uncle was a single dad and Jeff was his only son. Years later, Jeff died in a car accident at the age of 19 and I couldn’t stop thinking about that picture. Jeff was really into Motocross and snow machines, so we had a snow machine he’d been building at the funeral and we all signed it. He was buried in his motocross racing uniform and his grave has his number (20) and his helmet.
Kristen: When I was in sixth grade my Grampie died from cancer. My mama sent me and my brother to a neighbor to protect us from the wake and funeral. I wish she hadn’t, because I imagined horrid things. When my other grandfather—my Pop—died at the end of my freshman year in high school, I went to the wake and funeral, and the gathering afterwards. I talked my mama into buying me my first cup of coffee instead of going to the graveside service. (Pop was my Dad’s Father. My mom and dad were newly divorced.) So, I guess I had some unarticulated fears about death, eh? At any rate, both were Irish Catholic funerals—so equal parts keening (well, mourning, my family does not make an emotional fuss) and uproarious laughter. My Grampie’s, I’m sure, was filled with all sorts of people—he was friends with everyone from politicians to garbage collectors to bums. Oh, and my grandmothers and aunts take attendance. Showing up matters. NOT showing up really matters.
Kristy: I’ve always lived too far away to attend most funerals, but I try to do my own thing. My great-aunt was the first person to pass that I had any real memories of. We lived in different states, but we wrote letters back and forth over the years since I was about 10. She sent me a copy of our family tree when I was 16 and got me interested in genealogy. I’m the family historian now and I feel like preserving her research and continuing it is a way of honoring her.
My grandfather (my great-aunt’s brother) passed away last year on Christmas Eve. I couldn’t make it to his funeral either. On the day of his funeral, I spent the day watching old home videos he’d taken of all his kids and grandkids over the years and telling my daughters stories about him. My sister, my daughters, and I were able to make a trip down there a few months later and went to the train museum where he used to volunteer. He was locally a little “famous” for a while for his tours and the conductor’s costume he wore. I wanted to take my daughters to a place that had meant a lot to him so they could get to know him better that way.
In what other ways do we honor their memories on a regular basis?
Shana: My cousin Josh committed suicide the week of Mother’s Day in 2007. We’d always been close and his life had been so hard. When my father called to tell me, I instinctively grabbed my belly because I was newly pregnant with my first baby. He didn’t have a funeral. He died on a bridge above the Rogue River in Oregon. Josh was this guy who always called people “tools” if he thought they were too preppy or whatever. He had this great sense of humor, so when I randomly discovered a Rogue River Brewing Company beer called Dead Guy Ale, I knew I had to incorporate that into my yearly remembrance of his life, so I always have some on his birthday and on the anniversary of his death. It just fits his personality.
RV: Shana, food is such an important way for me to remember my mom. In the Philippines, you’d take food to the cemetery on All Souls and eat it there, inviting your dead family members to eat with you. So I made her favorite recipes this past year, lit some incense and candles, and had dinner with her on All Souls’.
Mary: I’ve tried to say daily rosaries for my parents since they died (my mom this last March, dad the July before that). I could almost feel my dad standing next to me at daily mass one morning (I don’t go often). The priest gave a one-sentence homily that dad would have approved of, and during communion he gave me two hosts. It gave me the chills. Then one time between their deaths I was eating chocolate covered cherries alone in the house (my dad’s favorite) and I could have sworn I heard a mattress creak followed by footsteps upstairs. I know it was the house settling, or squirrels or something, but it made me smile.
Shana: My grandma had this clock in her house and the night of her funeral, NO JOKE, the whistling changed from the clock’s normal sound to her whistling. Josh and I were sitting on the couch and said, at the same time, “Holy shit!”
Kristen: Twice since my Dad, Sir died 8 years ago, I have smelled the smoke of Marlboro cigarettes (he chained smoked them for my/his entire life). Eerie.
Kristy: It’s important to me that I document and preserve our family’s history. It’s sort of like a never-ending memorial. When I learn something new about one of my ancestors, I understand them a little better, and I understand my living family and myself a little better.
Kristen: Beautiful. I, too, see a connection between “place” and “person”–geography matters.
How large a role does heritage play in honoring our dead?
Mary: Our heritage has been questioned, and I don’t really know what it is now. I feel like I’ve lost a crucial way to relate to those I’ve lost, and those I never knew. Anyone experience that?
Kristen: I have not had that experience, exactly. However, I have had the experience where the mythology of my family history was finally revealed as that–mythology. It took a while for me to get past “the lies!” Now, I fully embrace the family stories for the beautiful narrative that they are.
Kristy: I moved around constantly while growing up, so I don’t have a hometown and I’ve mostly been absent from my extended family. Being part of some larger group was always important to me, so I really latched onto my Irish heritage when I was younger. Supposedly, we were mostly Irish. Turns out, we’re not. But when I found that out, I also discovered an entire Cajun branch of my tree I didn’t know anything about. Now I have about a billion cousins. It bums me out sometimes that I was so invested in an identity that isn’t really mine, but even if I don’t belong there I do belong somewhere. (But we won’t talk about how boringly English I turned out to be, though.)
Kristen: Similarly, this summer, when I went to Guernsey (to bury his mum’s ashes), and my stepdad shared HIS stories with me, it was the first time in our 33-year history together that he treated me like one of his own children. He’s never been bad to me, but I was 19 and out on my own when he met my mama. So, he was never a father figure to me. From the get-go, he was Grampie to my children, and his mother was a grandmother to me, and a great-grandmother to my kids. We called her Nan. As she was dying, I think he was deeply moved by how we treated her. So, that trip to Guernsey was his way of grafting me into his family history. It was an astonishing experience. Now, none of his family (he has 3 half-siblings and a bunch of nieces and nephews through them) is “mine,” but they have become mine.
Kristy: One other thing is there’s family ethnicity and then there’s family tradition. If my family started doing something before me, that’s still part of our tradition, even if it’s not technically part of my ethnic makeup.
Kristen: Kristy, what you said about traditions–that completely sums up how I can now embrace the B.S. family stories. It’s TRADITION that one of the aunts or cousins tell the story of my grandfather’s escape from Belfast on July 4th during The Troubles. The story is largely folk tale. It’s OUR folktale, though. So we keep telling it, even though we now know it’s not his actual story.
RV: So over the past two years, my purely academic interest in animism and indigenous Filipino folk beliefs and practices has transformed into something that’s resonated with me as actual spiritual practice. In particular, the indigenous Filipino concept of kapwa, meaning ‘togetherness’ is essentially an animist outlook. I’ve seen others translate it as ‘fellow-being’ or seeing ‘the-Self-in-the-Other’ and it has important implications for how I view death. The sense of interconnectedness whereby other people are not truly Other but part of what one is means that each time you memorialize their death, you deepen your understanding of yourself.
Over Thanksgiving break, I came around the corner to find my daughter and her wife sitting side-by-side, crocheting. It almost brought me to tears, this quiet creative camaraderie in the middle of the kids’ chaos. I love everything about this–they were here with us; they were creating separately, together; they were making gifts with their own hands. It ties me to my grandmother, who taught me to crochet when I was young. It links us all to needle crafters everywhere, who practice their art slowly, carefully, often over decades.
If you have the chance this year, please make someone a gift. It can be a scarf, or some cookies, or a poem. Anything. Practice your craft. Share your heart.
I love the fall here in New England. I love gathering for a feast (I didn’t marry a chef because he’s cute.) I love turkey with all the trimmings. It is one of my all-time favorite meals (and my absolute favorite leftovers).
I love it when the college kids in our family and neighborhood come home for the long weekend. I especially love when they stop by to see “Mama & Papa Allen” (me and my Personal Chef).
I love football (well, really, I love half-time marching band performances).
I love pie. I really love pie.
And however dorky it may sound, I love taking time to think about the things I am thankful for, and when possible, to demonstrate that gratitude.
Like Kristen, I usually love Thanksgiving. I’m a side dish girl, and there are more at Thanksgiving than at all the other holiday feasts put together. (Now that I’m in charge of planning, I make sure there’s four times as much as we need of each so we have leftovers for days. DAYS! Mwahahaha!)
We keep it very casual, watching the parade in the morning followed by the dog show, serving mini buffets for breakfast and lunch, and hopefully running around outside.
I’m not sure if the kids will feel too old this year to make handprint turkey hats, but I may sneak one on my own head.
K: Traditionally, we celebrate Thanksgiving with my husband’s family in Maine. Just over a dozen of us will gather this year, coming from all over the country. The ongoing conversations online, planning the meal and other visits over the weekend has already brought my husband and me so much joy.
M: We live far away from our families of origin, so we tend to stay put for the holidays. This year it will be just our immediate family, but we’re so thankful that will include our oldest daughter and her wife. We don’t get to see them as often as we’d like and it’s a treat to have all our kids under one roof.
K: I am really looking forward to this time, even if it won’t be all of us together. Several of our clan have to work over the holidays. Others live too far away to make the trip. Their absence will be felt.
It will be less chaotic, less messy without so many kids, grandkids, and dogs underfoot. It will be a more peaceful day, for sure. For me, though, it is a loss. I love my husband’s cousins. I adore the nieces and nephews, and their children. I will sorely miss the conversations about books, school, music, sports. I will miss the laughter.
“I miss Grandma and Grandpa’s house,” one of my kids said to me this morning.
“But I miss Grandma and Grandpa more.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
We’ve got some holes in us this Thanksgiving.
Two years ago my parents moved out of the old homestead, the best possible place to grow up. It was sold and torn down. Shortly after, my dad died. A few months later (this past March), mom died.
This particular kid has this conversation with me several times a day still. Sometimes it’s followed by crying, sometimes by a change of topic. Today it’s followed by a joke about Grandma and Grandpa being zombies, and a request for dessert.
We all grieve differently.
How do I stay thankful through the holes?
K: We have some holes, too. I will miss Aunt Evelyn and Aunt LaVern, the last of my husband’s aunts, both of whom passed away this year. I recognize that I was not as close to them as the rest of the family were. Others have certainly suffered far more than I in their grief. And I certainly cannot compare this to the loss of parents.
I think it is a sign of lives well-lived, though, that still I feel their absence. The aunts touched my life in a real way. Knowing that I will never again hear LaVern poke fun at my mother-in-law in that gorgeous southern drawl of hers; knowing that Evelyn’s deadpan dry humor is gone forever seems like a small thing, maybe.
Among the things I’m thankful for this year are the memories of thirty years of family gatherings with my husband’s people. Each encounter has enriched my life.
M: But the holes are still there. They pop up when and where we don’t expect—in the debate about raisins in stuffing, in the Snoopy float in the parade, in the doggone handled grocery bags that Dad loved and took home with him because they made recycling his newspapers easier. Even though I know the holes are coming I’m not sure yet how to handle them.
K: Right? I’m going to miss the childlike squabbling my father-in-law shared with his “baby” sister, as if they are still a pair of school kids. And those quiet moments after the dinner, once the dishes are done, but the pie hasn’t yet been cut? That is usually when Aunt Evelyn and I catch up on each other’s lives. I don’t know what will fill that time this year.
M: Perhaps I’ll take a tip from the kids—speak the holes out loud, peek through them together, wiggle our fingers around in there, and have another slice of pie.
K: Yes. More pie!
However you fill your holes this year, we two wish you all a happy Thanksgiving!
While I was in Washington, DC recently for the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s annual conference, the newest members of the 116th Congress arrived for their freshmen orientation and class photo. For the first time in history, there are more than 100 women in the US Congress. This includes the first Native American women and the first Muslim women to be elected to Congress.
I cannot tell you how it felt to be in our capitol city, knowing that I can now show my daughter, my sons, and my students representatives in our government who look like them, who look like Americans everywhere.
I may not agree with every stand they take, or every vote they make. I don’t have to. It is enough that they were voted by their constituents into Congress, and that they are committed to serving our country representing all of the citizens of their districts.