Mother’s Day and the Joy of Turning

A Mother Holding Onto Her Son - Mother's Day - by Nathan Anderson from Unsplash

The Mess in Our World Today

Thinking about Mother’s Day this year, I feel sad. A month ago, I wrote a song for the holiday, reflecting that it was, in some ways, a good thing  my mother isn’t alive to see the mess we’ve made of our political and denominational world.

In Unitarian Universalist circles, we still struggle to address race issues much as we did in the 1960s when the “black controversy” divided us. Now, voices are again raised in anger over our association’s “white supremacist culture,” while others defend themselves.

In the United States, we are more divided than at any time except perhaps during the 1920s. Back then, the Ku Klux Klan returned in force, prohibition led to bootlegging, workers couldn’t earn a living wage, organized crime gained a foothold, and greed and nativism were rampant. Like now, meanness and pettiness were common.

A Mother Holding Onto Her Son - Mother's Day - by Nathan Anderson from Unsplash

Our Divided Country

Communities on both sides of our country’s divide are agitating and arguing in ways we haven’t for years. People who have been oppressed, ignored, and mistreated for centuries are naming the wounds and abuses, while those who have used power to ease their own lives at the expense of everyone else fear the loss of their lifestyle.

In the midst of this uproar, poor white men and women feel confused, ashamed, and beleaguered. As was true when the wealthy divided the Irish immigrants from their black neighbors by convincing them it was better to be white and poor than to have dark skin, so poor whites who, after the union uprising, felt once proud because they could support their families at well-paid industrial jobs, now accept that the enemy are immigrants and people of color. Feeling hopeless, frightened, and angry, they’re losing the world they knew, and they don’t know how to cope. [1]

The Disaffected on Both Sides Push Back

As the liberal push for open immigration, equality for women, racial justice, prison reform, and limitations on gun ownership has started to change the country we live in, a large group of white men and women, are scared. And we liberals don’t feel very sympathetic toward them.

So this large group of disaffected, angry, and frightened people reacted against this cultural shift by voting our current president into office. Some of us might think they were crazy to do so, that they voted against their own interests, but these people are grieving their lifestyle, their comfortable view of the world. They trusted that our current president would make things right for them.  [2]

For years, we liberals have been complacent, but no more. Now we shout, march, break things, write letters, sign petitions, and donate money to progressive causes. Our voices are strident, emphatic, and self-righteous. Just as stridently and self-righteously, our enemies hurl their voices back at us.

My mother and her generation helped pave the way for civil rights, worker’s rights, and equality for women. If she were here to see how our governmental leaders are stripping us of these rights, she would feel devastated.

Thinking of my Mother

“She would have cried today, reading the news. She would have railed against leaders who choose to kick the poor and drop the bomb, feed the lies and whip the storm. I miss her, but she died before she had to see how bad we can be.” [3]

My mother used to say we humans are like two-year-olds. We have temper tantrums, react before we think, and treat the world as if it all belongs to us. My mother couldn’t understand why people choose to hurt one another, why people are so greedy and unkind.

“She would have asked the gods why people lose their sense of common decency, respect for life, their sanity.” [4]

In this dangerous world, where poverty is increasing, where nuclear war again looks possible, and where environmental protections are being eroded, how can mothers respond? Or fathers, aunts, cousins, sisters? Anyone who cares about someone who is small and young? What can we do?

“Mothers hold your children while you can. Love them while they laugh and sing and dance. Love them when they sin, when they wail and when they win. Love them when they fail, when they beg you for their bail. But help them see the promise of the joy that turning brings. Hold onto the good you see, for through it all, the skylark sings.” [5]

Wisdom, Perspective, and Death

Today, I don’t feel so hopeful as I did when I wrote those words. It would be nice to have my mother with me, now, for though she would be upset, and though she had an irrepressible naivety, she also had a wisdom and a perspective I would appreciate.

I’m reading Swimming in a Sea of Death by David Rieff, the son of writer, academic, and philosopher Susan Sontag. In the book, he tells the story of his mother’s diagnosis of cancer and her eventual death at the age of 71. Rieff describes her love of life and her furious fight to keep it. She never stopped setting goals and making plans for books and articles she would write. Hoping to live to be 100, she did everything she could to beat the cancer. She never gave up until death took her.

Indeed, the last thing she said to her son was, “I want to tell you . . .,” a phrase that begs for more, for a dialogue, for something that goes on and on. She never managed to share what she wanted to say. Instead, she waved a hand, let it fall to the blankets, and fell asleep. She never spoke to him again.

Helplessness and Letting Go

In the face of his mother’s illness and death, Rieff felt helpless. I, too, felt helpless at times while caring for my mother during her decline from Parkinson’s disease and vascular dementia. Gradually, she lost her will to do anything except lie in bed. She started talking about family members who had already died. Eventually, no matter what I said or did, she stopped eating and drinking.

On a Thursday and Friday, I wrote a song for her that invited her into the next realm, into peace. [6] Saturday, I sang it to her. Sunday, she died.

Although grateful I had that moment with her, that time of sharing and blessing, I also felt bereft, as we do when, no matter how much we pray or cling or swear at fate, we lose what we hold dear. Rieff could not help his mother survive; I could not hold onto mine. Death is stronger than we are. We children can’t keep our parents alive forever any more than we parents can keep our children safe. If our children survive into old age, it’s not because we have magical powers. Sometimes we are lucky; sometimes we are not.

A Mother’s Day Plea

On this Mother’s Day, I cry out for peace, sanity, and a recognition that greed, addiction, and trauma hold us hostage. When I say “us,” I mean all of us: the poor and the rich, the Republicans and the Democrats, the white supremacists and the people of color, the parents and the children. The abused are traumatized, but so are the abusers. When we perpetrate crimes, we destroy our souls. All of us need comfort, understanding, and the healing power of love.

Unfortunately, not all of us are able or willing to take in that love, to acknowledge our hurt, to reflect on our sins, to open ourselves to the healing power of our mothers, fathers, or god. Some of us are too broken.

Nonetheless, we all need peace and kindness. We all need open communication. I don’t know that we’ll get it, but I continue to hope. Because although our president shows no sign of gaining wisdom, other voices rise up day after day. People name the wrongs, decry the abuses, and demand reparation. Perhaps we will convene reconciliation counsels and, in this way, restore friendship and justice to our homes and communities. Perhaps we will heal one another through music, art, dance, story, solidarity, tears, witnessing, and laughter. Repairing the damage of trauma in our individual lives is hard enough. Trying to heal the trauma of our country is even harder. It may be impossible. But as long as we live, we must keep trying. The alternative is endless desolation.

Mothers Hold Your Children

As a mother, I continue to hold my children, to pray and speak out and love. Always, I continue to love. At least, I try.

For you whose mothers didn’t you them, may your empty hearts be filled with the compassion and respect of your community, your neighbors, and your god. If you, as a mother, can’t nurture your children, reach out for healing so you can learn to care. If you aren’t a mother, you can still hold those who cry and rage; you can love and listen and understand. We need you all.

Hold the children. Love them, no matter what they do or say. When we threaten, argue with, and fight one another, our connections shatter. Joy flees. Yet when we hold out the promise of joy that comes from turning back to love, kindness, and generosity, we can change hearts and soothe souls. For true joy comes from connections, from healing relationships, and from knowing who we truly are.

On this Mother’s Day, on this day of peace and hope, let us all seek the joy that turning brings.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. See “The Dark Side of the 1920s,” Roaring Twenties Reference Library, ed. Kelly King Howes, vol. 1: Almanac and Primary Sources, UXL, 2006, pp. 94-116. U.S. History in Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3448000015/UHIC?u=j071909004&xid=d385e019, accessed 10 May 2017.
  2. Green, Emma, “It Was Cultural Anxiety that Drove White, Working Class Voters to Trump,” The Atlantic Monthly, May 9, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/05/white-working-class-trump-cultural-anxiety/525771/?utm_source=atlfb, accessed 10 May 2017.
  3. Stevens, Barbara, “Thinking of You,” April 2017. A song written for my mother, Dorothy Mooney.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. “Climb the Stairs: For Mutti,” August 2015.

Photo by Nathan Anderson; Unsplash

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