Protected by a Child

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood

I have a license to carry concealed fireams!

Jeff pulls out on the highway in front of a speeding Corvette, and he and his wife become the targets of road rage. The furious motorist charges at them across the shoulder of the road, screaming; and Sandra Steingraber, seven months pregnant, climbs out of her seat and says to him, “We really are sorry.” Her words don’t stop him. But her baby does:

…he’s not listening at all, but, instead, has become transfixed by my enormous belly…

He shakes his head slowly. Then he starts to cry.

He walks backward toward the Corvette. The door slams. He peels out. I get back in the car.

I was moved to tears by this story. How many times do my children protect me from harm? How does their innocence move me to seek innocence? Their natural desire to explore, learn, grow and create often protects me from losing context. One of my boys eats snow–EEEW! The neighbors have dogs; we live next to the highway and downhill from a city street; I don’t want him to get sick. There is a part of me that wishes he could just let go–that we could all heap plates with this winter’s record-breaking snow and cover them with maple syrup, as Laura did in Little House in the Big Woods. But while we live in the same world as Laura, and in nearly the same place, we don’t live in those days.

So I try to rein him in, but he still eats snow. I love the total abandon my children bring to life, and in their process of learning, I am challenged in my own thinking. In “Hay Moon,” Steingraber is finishing up her book tour in Alaska, and spends the chapter dealing with “persistent organic pollutants” (POPs–including DDT, PCBs, and dioxin), delving more deeply into the the poisons that circulate in the air and snow and human bodies of our world. In the midst of all the technical detail, what strikes me is how much the baby growing inside of her dictates her actions, her thoughts, and her concerns. At seven months, she is becoming more and more aware of her baby’s presence and independent rhythms, developing a sense of herself as a mother in relationship with her baby, a new “motherselfhood.” Doing this in the context of her research brings hers something else as well:

…another kind of identity shift. Call it mother-earth-hood: an awareness of how my own doubled self is contained within the body of the world….The glacier’s meltwater fills the inlet that feeds the fish on which we two both feed. Prenatal care means taking care of water, fish, and glaciers. There is no other world than this one.

There! I feel a shimmy! Another shimmy! And two kicks in quick succession! I laugh out loud. Across the bay, the glacier pours itself slowly into the sea.

I believe that even in utero, children can both ground us in our own selves and challenge us to see things beyond ourselves. In an Alaskan midwife’s office, far from her familiar city-hospital setting, Steingraber becomes aware

…of how different a prenatal checkup feels when the trappings of medical technology are removed….In the presence of plastic tubing and partitioning curtains, I shed my identity and become someone else–a patient who responds obediently but who can’t formulate intelligent follow-up questions. But in this room, I am still myself.

The midwife’s hands read her body and her baby’s body, allowing Steingraber to feel her baby’s head between her hands. Children have a way of helping us to be more real, of removing formal trappings and connecting us to ourselves. They protect us from disconnection–not only from our own bodies and selves, but from the world around us.

How easy it is to sit on the banks of the unfishable, undrinkable rivers of Illinois while munching a McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish and sipping bottled water. But in rural Alaska “elsewhere” is so remote from life here as to be irrelevant. The food from this place has to feed me and my baby for another week. The food from this place will become the body of my baby. It is irreplaceable.

Children allow us–force us! to become more intimate with our world. Are there children in your life who do this for you? Are children present, and children’s concerns recognized, in the institutions (businesses, churches, governments) of your home place? For as we seek to nurture, include, care for, and protect our children, they protect our awareness of the vital connections that sustain us all.

“There is no other world than this one.”

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  1. I thought that was a great note to conclude on: There is no other world but this one. I think that if we all put that quote on our doorposts or lintels, like the Jewish Mezuzah, we’d all live a lot lighter on the land we inhabit.

    The Mezuzah, oddly enough, resembles Steingraber’s quote in a number of ways. Basically a scroll containing the two chapters of the Torah, the main sentence, and the main essence is: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one God. Fleshed out and implicit in the rest of the scroll is the idea that God is unique, and takes care of us, and should thus be honored, loved and obeyed.

    I think much of the Heavy Living we do on the earth relates to our inability to hold in our minds at all times these concepts. In Jewish tradition, you touch the little box holding the Mezuzah every time you go through your door. If we paused each time we left our house to contemplate the God, and the earth, that made and shelters us; and further thought how we might best live in honor of that Creation, we’d likely walk much more in harmony with both. And with each other.

  2. I went off and did a tiny little bit of research about the Mezuzah after I wrote the post above, and in the process was reminded that part of the scripture included on the scroll is the command that these words be hung on the doorposts: “And you shall inscribe these words upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.”

    As is so often the case, many people take this to mean that blessing will come by simply hanging the scroll in its case on the door, like the protection promised by a charm or amulet. But the scripture is pretty clear that the words are not meant to impart protection to a passive believer. The intent of the words is to engage the believer in active cooperation, and the command is actually to keep the words constantly in mind and heart. Hanging the Mezuzah is the means to that end, not at all an end in itself.

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