Maya Angelou wrote about her life in several books, but we also read her heart in her expressive face. She knew the power of her voice and had pride in her many accomplishments. I was awakened to Angelou’s powerful gift when she read the inaugural poem On the Pulse of the Morning in 1993. That was the first and last time I ever bought an entire poem as a book; I read it and re-read it and sometimes it still feels new to me when I read it again. What strikes me the most when I read about Maya Angelou’s life is her fortitude. She never, never gave up. In a wonderful public interview with George Plimpton for the Paris Review, she said, “There is, I hope, a thesis in my work: we may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated.”
Over many coming days, there will be a great many lists of powerful quotes and tributes to this amazing artist. Tonight I would like to leave you with just three. They might not make anyone else’s top ten, but they leapt out at me. The quote on the top picture is a stanza from On the Pulse of the Morning; I believe it is worth a great deal of thought. And action. I chose that picture from the inauguration because it reminds me of that wonderful moment. The Washington Post obituary contains a fabulous gem from a speech at a conference called Families Alive at Weber State University. There are plenty of rainbows jumping out of clouds these days, but this celestial picture adds an unexpected layer to the text: When I read the full transcript of the speech after I made this graphic, I discovered that the lead-in to the first line completely fits: “We know that rainbows, stars, all sorts of illuminations, comets and suns, are always in the firmament. But clouds get so low and dark that you can’t see the illumination.” I may have to make another graphic to work that in, but it’s getting late. Instead I’ll give you a quote that goes beyond pictures, from the Paris Review interview:
I’m working at trying to be a Christian and that’s serious business. It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy—it’s serious business. It’s not something where you think, Oh, I’ve got it done. I did it all day, hotdiggety. The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it, and then in the evening if you’re honest and have a little courage you look at yourself and say, Hmm. I only blew it eighty-six times. Not bad. I’m trying to be a Christian and the Bible helps me to remind myself what I’m about.
Peace be with you.
I’m not a mom. Yet. I want to be, but my husband and I have been walking through the perils of infertility on our way to parenthood. It is most likely that we will adopt or become foster parents. Or just the best godparents, aunt and uncle our fifteen nieces and nephews could ever want.
So Mother’s Day is a little tricky emotionally. Not quite as much as it might be for women who have recently miscarried, like one of my friends or this particular rabbi who would really, really like us to tone it down. And she’s at least half-right. There’s a lot of pink, a lot of painful reminders about what isn’t. What isn’t in our arms, what isn’t the way we’d thought it would be.
But then there is what is. An awesome husband. Understanding parents. Sweet in-laws. Four sisters and two sisters-in-law who are amazing mothers. A new sister-in-law with her own wonderful, charming mother. As I said before, FIFTEEN nieces and nephews.
So I celebrate that, even as part of me mourns. It doesn’t help to pretend that the holiday isn’t happening. There will be a lot of chocolate and flowers floating around this weekend. I’m excited to visit and share the holiday with my sister and my mother, and we will be having some of that chocolate together. But it would help to acknowledge that motherhood is a bit more complicated than often portrayed in popular media and in our churches.
For one thing, not everyone has a mother to celebrate. One of the searing memories of my mother’s childhood is being forced to make a Mother’s Day card after her mother died. In her day, that’s what you did in a first grade art class, apparently, whether or not you had anyone to receive your folded paper gift. There are mothers who generously give their babies to adoptive parents and foster mothers who are mothers for the moment. And then there are the people who bear the scars of mothers whose abuse still costs them and can not be celebrated.
There are mothers who triumph against the weight of their destructive family histories, and mothers who struggle to lose that baby weight. There are mothers who find themselves pregnant, and single, and lost, and mothers who love being pregnant way more than parenting. Mothers who love the baby part and others who rock the teen part and mothers who just juggle the best they can until their kid learns to juggle too.
Sometimes we have this picture of motherhood that does not involve vomit or blood or meetings in the principal’s office. All of those things seem to happen to most mothers at some point. They also happen to teachers, who get an entire national week of appreciation (often organized and facilitated by the school’s mothers). One single day in May hardly seems enough, and it isn’t. We can never tell our mothers that we love them too often. We can never try hard enough to honor them through our behavior and accomplishments.
But we also can not forget the women who aren’t yet, and may never be, mothers. We must not forget the mothers who have buried their children, and those who are waiting for them to come home. We can acknowledge the mothers facing challenges they never expected. We can remember those who are mourning the death of their own mothers. We can count our own blessings, and open our arms and hearts to others.
Photo credit: zenera / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)