Lessons in Loving
Hardback: Abingdon Press, 2017
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Reviewed by Janna Lynas
I shift my weight on hard wood floors, beneath middle aged knees, offering pleas to the air, because he’s in the air, God is, for my children. There are a whole litany of requests and generalities, but sometimes things specific and so guttural I can barely get the words to pass over dry lips. There are prayers of thankfulness and scripture that are repeated because it is truth and is as much a prayer over my babies as it is story from long ago. And it’s in these moments I find myself, as Barbara Mahany suggests in her most recent book, Motherprayer, wrapped in the “shawl of prayer… with utterances that come from our most stripped-down essence.” (4)
Mahany explains prayer as so centering to who she is, it is how she breathes. It is listening, describing it is as a cradle that latches us tightly to the God we came from so quietly. It is as if the act of praying can be found not only in words or sitting in silence, waiting on revelation, but in acts of play, sharing meals (which Mahany includes several family meals of personal significance), and in the common caring for our loves, those born of us or not.
Motherprayer is a reflection back on the years of childbirth, years of loss and desperation for more and the lessons learned from loving well, of teaching her own.
Likening she, a Catholic woman, and her Jewish husband’s children to the world of birds, Mahany, begins each section with “Field Notes,” from nest building, to birthing, to brooding and finally to taking flight. In these pages, she wonders back on the years of mothering, of praying over each part of her beautiful boy to the day she asked her son, “Do you ever talk to God?” And he answered matter-of-factly that yes, indeed he does, recalling those times on the playground when an extra measure of courage was needed and he knew the place from where that required courage came. Mahany remanences, “My little boy had learned how to pray. He was off on his own, my heart told me… And I never could have imagined how glorious it would feel to let go, to stand back and watch him soar.” (55)
I am most thrilled with three pages, entitled, “It’s All About the –ing.” If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the years of mothering three littles born of my body and one born in my heart through adoption, it’s that to do this well, I need the help of other mothers. We need each other desperately. You don’t have to be a mother in the biological sense to be a mother. Have you ever bandaged a bleeding knee? Have you babysat a friend’s children to give a tired mama a night away from diapers and bottles and one more story? Have you watched to make sure a wondering child found his mother? Then Mahany and I both suggest, you too, are a mother. Mahany would add the “-ing” to Mother’s Day, inviting all who mother, to be honored on that day, detailing the intentions of Julia Ward Howe, a modern day activist in her time, as she wrote (during the bloody Franco-Prussian War) and proclaimed a day to celebrate Mother’s. Howe appealed to women everywhere to, “rise up and demand an end to war.” (28) She went on to state the grand place in which all women are called – to teach our sons to respect all life, not to take it – would be the hallmark of who women are. But Mahany nods to the ways in which we take something so pure and holy and make it lucrative. Be it cards or gifts, we’ve forgotten that from which the day was birthed and made it for those who have eggs, plus sperm, that make a zygote. And then she asks this question: “Have you not been deeply mothered by a friend?” (29) Memories flood this mama’s heart in which I was cared for in my own sickness and in times still today when I rely on the help of friends and family to help me mother well.
There is wisdom in these pages and there is proof. Proof of the love poured into little hearts, prayers falling like blankets, that tuck in and warm us in our joy and in our grief. And there is the coming home with which Mahany leaves us. It is the return of a much older son pouring into the life of a much younger brother, the culmination, the circle come to complete a motherprayer for family. As Mahany recounts the year of brothers, spent cheering on, shoulder to shoulder, attending to a grieving father draped in prayer shawls, she finds a treasure greater than flowers or hand-drawn cards. This year, a family of four together… “I’ve lived and breathed a year I never expected. In the short story of my life, there will always be this one radiant whirl around the sun.” (193)
I’ve found in these pages of recollection, a life whose very breath depended on prayer –a thought, or spoken word, or a recognizing of the presence of God. It is in these prayers, sometimes shot straight up or sometimes floating gently from the ground to the heavens, that, “maybe in thinking hard and deep and ponderously…we might look down and see that our hearts have grown deeper and wiser and wider than we ever imagined. Maybe we’re one iota closer to the glorious magnificence we were meant to be.” (4)
As humans, as women, as mothers, inching closer, ever closer to what we were meant to be. A beautiful place to sit for a moment in the midst of a splendid retelling of mothering days and consider our own.