Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mary's Lullaby

I have no affinity for sappy extra-biblical Christmas songs that portray baby Jesus in pastels through soft camera lenses. I put those songs in the same category as 99 Cents Stores, teacher’s pins, Christmas lawn inflations, Macdonald’s hamburgers, Hallmark’s religious cards, pink stucco, and baby shower games. I can hardly sing a line of some such songs without whispering some snide remark as a tag-line to the person next to me.

“The Night is dark, with snow descending,
Bells gaily chime a festal song!”
You must mean cowbells. 
And what the heck is a festal?
“His Mother bending over him smiles
Upon his face sublime.”
Until it was burping time 
and then he spit up quite a bit,
 and it wasn’t sublime
“No warm, white covering in the manger
To keep the Babe from bitter cold;”
What is this? Siberia? 
They didn’t have a cloak?! 
What about the swaddling clothes? 
“Only cobwebs for the stranger
From rafter high they hang gray and old.”
Oh, I see. 
They wrapped the baby in cobwebs. 
Good thinking.
“He on the fragrant hay is sleeping,
Warmed by the breath of friendly cows;”
AH! Putrid!
“The oxen gentle watch are keeping
Around the little Child divine.”
And fourteen year old Mary is cool with these two-ton beasts crowded around her son, 
who’s lying where they normally eat lunch!

A Frenchman wrote that song. It’s called “Noel.” I think it should be called “Murder in Bethlehem Stable.” Oh dear. I get myself into quite a bit of trouble on Wednesday nights during choir rehearsals. Kathy Little tries to keep Kristy Cowell and me in check, but we’re as obedient as fourteen-year-olds. At least we know not to let cows near babies.

We doodle and whisper and giggle, then put on our straight faces for the next riveting song! Oh my! What will happen to poor baby Jesus next? I leave you to your own commentary.

"Amid the roses Mary sits and rocks her Jesus child,
While amid the treetops sighs the breeze so warm and mild.
And soft sweetly sings a bird upon the bough;
Ah baby, dear one, slumber now.
Happy is Thy laughter;
Holy is Thy silent rest,
Lay Thy head in slumber fondly on Thy Mother’s breast.
Ah baby, dear one, slumber now."

Aside from the dizzy feeling I get when I read these words, the melody is very soothing. It makes me think of uncharted waters like a construction worker considering biochemistry. There is a field of study in which I’m not well versed, nor am I accustomed to think it valuable, but I am wrong here. The carpenter shouldn’t think less of the biochemists because some biochemists choose their jobs and others are thrown into the mess without knowing the difference between an ectoplasm and a mitochondria. Nor should the carpenter think less of his biochemist friend because the carpenter can readily point at the fruits of his labor while the biochemist only hopes that his efforts will benefit the world someday. I am speaking of motherhood.

I know nothing of cradling a newborn, but the whole ordeal looks as delicate as catching soap bubbles on the tip of your finger. I’m reminded of how my little sister and her friend killed my brother’s hamster by squeezing it too tight. Oh dear. 

Their honeydew melon skin is transparent, their sleeping eyes look like brush strokes from a Japanese brush, their little mouths make their cheeks ripple like drops in a bucket of water. Such tiny things: one moment their inside, the next moment their out. There you go. Here’s your baby. Sustain it in this world of genocide, porno conventions, ego-trips, materialism, and broken hearts. Fear, hate, pain, and uncertainty: they will know all these soon. But until then… 

Before then… 

Ah baby, dear one, slumber now.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Pennies Thus Far

"The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But—and this is the point—who gets excited by a mere penny? If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kit paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way? It is a dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won't stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get." -Annie Dillard

My homeroom class of thirty-one has begun bringing pennies to class to help me support my World Vision sponsor child, Rocio, from Ecuador. I projected her picture on my LCD screen and told my students that I didn't want dollars, quarters, dimes, or nickels. I wanted pennies. Heights already collects enough money from the students for various reasons: needy families, the eighth grade D.C. trip, the homeless, a school in an Indian Reservation, technology updates... I didn't want to burden my kids with more incentives, so I made it simple. Bring in pennies. Help Rocio in Ecuador. What you don't bring in, I'll pay.

In the first week one boy brought two gallon-sized Ziplock bags full of pennies. I ripped the bags on the way home and spent all afternoon stacking them in their paper sleeves. The next week, if I'd forgotten to pass around the old salsa jar with Rocio's picture taped on the top, the students reminded me. When I forgot, they came up after class with their baggies full of pennies. I don't imagine that the pennies cost much for the students to give, but they support the livelihood of a six-year old child in Ecuador.

I'm finding pennies of my own as well: the golden fringe on the Crape Myrtle's leaves when the setting sun catches their color, the knock-knock of my neighbor's trash cans every Tuesday as the local trash-diggers search them for recyclables, the anticipated vibration in my coat pocket as my phone announces Phil's noon call, the juvenile layer of winter grass that grows beneath the hollow mustard in the Whittier Hills, the 7:55 bell that makes my heart quicken as if I'm about to give a performance, the ignored T-shirt lying at the foot of the bed every morning without fail, the fourteenth successfully completed Sudoku, and the suppressed giggles held back by lips that strain like the mouth of a balloon—I still cannot understand why Math is so funny to those second period girls, but if they can find humor in changing percentages to decimals, they'll find many more joys in life.