Mother of Stone

One thing we all have in common is mothers.  Whether it’s the mysteries of biology or something more spiritual than that, the connection lasts forever.  The thought occurred to me yesterday as we visited Columcille, one of those places that reflects a vision for a piece of land that transforms the ordinary into sacred.  Columcille Megalith Park is inspired by the standing stones of Celtic lands.  Open to the public for a suggested donation, the park consists of a stone circle and several menhirs (megaliths) arranged along paths through the woods.  Recognized by the Nature Conservancy as a sacred space and outdoor sanctuary, it draws thousands of visitors of all faiths with both recreational and religious rationales.  Throughout the park we found evidence of spiritual interaction with nature left on or near the stones.  But what has this to do with mothers?

One of the areas in the park is the Sacred Women’s Site.  As we lingered there yesterday, I reflected on the sacred nature of all women, and mothers.  That’s not to suggest that motherhood is for all women, but rather that our society has been slow to catch up with the idea that women show us the way.  Men have “had charge” for millennia now and look at where we are; cooperative ventures and peacekeeping efforts crumble as world leaders encourage the resurgence of exceptionalism.  We’d rather have an inveterate liar lead the nation than a politically able woman.  Britain wants to pick up its marbles and let the European Union disintegrate.  We seem to have forgotten that just a century ago a world war ended.  We need sacred spaces like Columcille.  We need to remember the sacred women.

One takeaway from our brief visit was that although there was also a grove for sacred men, that of the women was more peaceful.  The idea of standing stones making a site sacred goes back at least to the Bible.  Stone circles are found from ancient Israel to the far-flung Orkney Islands of Scotland.  Standing among them, whether modern like Columcille or ancient like the Ring of Brodgar, or yes, the more famous Stonehenge, there is a sense of sacred purpose.  Miles from Stonehenge stands Avebury, a town built around another stone circle.  There the megaliths were divided between female and male stones, with both required to make the ring complete.  Such places require a tremendous amount of work.  When they’re constructed, however, they give us places to think of mothers and the mystery of life.

For Mothers’ Sake

We try to be practical for Mother’s Day. I take my wife out to eat every year, but since we both work and Monday always comes earlier than we expect, we usually go on Saturday. It’s kind of a moveable feast for us. The patriarchalist nightmare of the past two years in this country makes it all the more important to celebrate our mothers. Our nation needs to be reminded that without women none of us would be here. When my wife chose an Afghan restaurant I didn’t shirk, although I had to admit I wouldn’t have considered cuisine from Afghanistan if the choice were mine. It would never have crossed my mind. The restaurant was nicely appointed, and busy. One the walls were posters with photos of the mountainous country and its people, stamped with the words “Free Afghanistan.” I realized Mother’s Day is about liberation.

New Jersey, apart from being the most densely populated state, is also the most diverse. Ethnic food here takes on a depth that leaves our days in Champaign-Urbana in the dust. I’d never even heard of an Ethiopian restaurant, let alone eaten in one, before moving here. And each of these diverse countries represented by their food has a story, often involving oppression. Mother’s children everywhere want to be free. The only reason they aren’t is that bullies exist in every language. You can’t go into the swamp any more without being overwhelmed by them. Such men—and they tend to be male—want to assert their control over others. They forget, it seems, that they have mothers.

I struggled to find a way to classify the food I was eating. Years of Euro-centric training led me to place it between the “Middle East” and “Far East,” which, skewed as it is, reflects that Afghanistan falls along the silk road from China to Turkey. Elements of West Asia blend with those of East Asia on my plate. There’s no war here—simply a harmony of tastes that should remind us that we’re all human. We all have the same need for sustenance and we all have mothers. If we thought of the fact that when we harm another we harm that person’s mother, we’d be appropriately ashamed of oppressing anyone. We would come to realize that the secret to being civilized human beings lies in honoring all our mothers.

Mothers’ Daze

Washington’s war on women has made this Mother’s Day especially poignant. As hard as it is to believe, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell had mothers. I can’t comprehend any male being anything but grateful and humble in a woman’s presence. Don’t accuse me of idolatry—I know women aren’t perfect. Neither are men. Especially not men. Mother’s Day isn’t an excuse to treat our moms as less-than-special other days of the year. We sometimes forget that life is a gift. And we should always say “thank you” to those who give. Pregnancy isn’t easy on a woman’s body. Indeed, until recent times childbirth was the number one killer of women. At some periods in history female life expectancy was only into the twenties. Giving birth is a self-sacrifice. We would do well to remember that daily.

Social organization outside the home was conveniently male early on, but not necessarily so. Without our mothers none of this would’ve been possible at all. Why do we fail to give back when we’ve been given so much? Yes, our moms are special to us, but women everywhere are mothers, daughters, and sisters to all of the men out there. To be human is to be both female and male. How could we ever forget that? How is it possible to use woman as political bargaining chips as if one person has any kind of right to tell another how to use her body? When we look at mom do we see only a physical body? Do we not see a mind? Emotions? Love? How can we look into the face of all that and claim that men are in any way superior or deserving of more than their share of power and prestige? Mother’s Day should be a revolution.

I don’t mean to be combative, but I’ve been pushed into a corner. From my earliest days I’ve felt women were stronger than men. Being raised by a mother on her own can be a revelatory experience. I emerged with nothing but gratitude for the sacrifices one woman had made to be called a mother. If any men have forgotten that lesson, use this Mother’s Day to repent. If you’re alive to read this, or to share it, you have a mother to thank. And tomorrow’s no excuse to forget that and act as if this one day were enough to show gratitude to those who have taught the human race to love. It’s Mother’s Day, but so should every day be.

Mother for a Day

In a world set on tearing itself apart because of its differences, there is one thing every single person has in common. We all have a mother. In societies enamored of domination and competition, we take one day out of the year to stop and remember those who gave of themselves so that we could live. We place this day on a Sunday, the most passive of days when it will not interfere with regular business. We give chocolates, flowers, fruit-baskets, and then go back to the same usual grind come the next day. At the risk of gender stereotyping here, I do wonder how much wisdom we must miss by relegating our mothers to the background.

Growing up, we all know, is inevitable. We need to release ourselves “from the apron strings” and learn to cope in a hostile world. Not only do those overseas, different from us, wish us harm, but even our neighbors become our competitors and although friendly, we look for a way to find our advantage. Motherhood is a reminder that there is another way. Families, at least ideally, are built on cooperation. A willingness to set aside our own personal agenda for that of those for whom we care deeply. Used to be that the largest families (before family became a weapon used by religion) were those best placed to succeed. You had a set of people who shared a common mother, who united in a cooperative venture. Capitalism has little room for such a dynamic. It’s “each man for himself.”

Although churches around the country will mention mothers in their services today, Mother’s Day is a secular holiday. Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Mormons all have mothers. Many religious groups, however, do not. Just last week some Roman Catholic women were ordained as priests here in New Jersey. Of course, the “mother church” disowned them, as priesthood is a male prerogative. Mother’s Day is not on the church calendar. It grew out of the Civil War with the sad realization that, left to their own devices, men will make wars that pit brothers against one another. Although I am stereotyping again, I have a hard time imagining a mother who would do such a thing. Mother’s Day should be an opportunity. Not only should we thank or remember our mothers, we should take to heart what motherhood means. I can’t help but believe the world would be a better place for it.

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Rosemary by Any Other Name

Rosemary

With NBC’s remake of Rosemary’s Baby into a mini-series in the news, I sat down to watch the original again. I’ve blogged about it before, but with most available funds being diverted to college, watching new movies will be a rare treat for some years to come. Besides, the original is a mishmash of religious ideas that despite their lack of coherence still leave the viewer somewhat disturbed. Since the last time I watched the movie, I’ve read several books on witches and have come to recognize the strange brew that Roman Polanski concocted for public consumption. Reaching back to the myth of diabolic witches, the original movie presents such witches initiating a new world by literally spawning Satan on a woman whose name is based on the mother of Jesus and who will ultimately care for the helpless little devil. The viewer, despite the knowledge that Rosemary is carrying evil incarnate, still sides with the vulnerable, pregnant protagonist. It’s the end of the world as we know it.

I’m not sure how you make a miniseries out of this thin plot. I suppose a nine-month pregnancy would lend itself to slow development, but haven’t we grown a little too old for witches and devils? In fact, Wicca is now a recognized religion in much of the industrial world, and the devil’s been on the run for decades. Religious movies, or at least movies based on religious themes and characters, are perennially popular, however, no matter what the secularists tell us. And why not open a series about pregnancy on the weekend of Mother’s Day? Nothing stirs the emotions like putting a young mother at risk. That’s perhaps the insidious side of the original movie—we silently side with the devil.

Rosemary is, of course, manipulated by her husband with the everyman name of Guy. This isn’t in any sense his child and, like any businessman, he stands to gain enormously from someone else’s labor. Exploitation is the cost of the continuation of the human race. It doesn’t take much to figure out that we’re watching a parable here. After all, the Time magazine cover asking if God is dead makes a cameo in Dr. Saperstein’s office. And the setting in Manhattan clues us in from the beginning that this is the place were many millions are asked to make a few very rich. There is a witchery in New York, and for those who know how to look, the devil may be found in the details.

Living with Art

A day spent among art can be more spiritual than a month of Sundays. Few become rich by being artists—in fact the opposite is society’s expectation. The masterpieces artists leave behind then become among the most valuable of all human creations when their often tragic lives end and it is recognized that no more genius is forthcoming. As a lifelong dabbler in the arts, I know that nothing like a perturbed state of mind serves to bring about the pieces I like best. Seeing the art of others, however, is a deeply satisfying experience. In a pre-Mother’s Day celebration, we met friends yesterday to revisit Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey. We’ve grown accustomed to gray skies this spring, so the fact that it was sunny and warm came almost as a divine sign that this was a day to spend outdoors among the artwork of both humans and nature.

As rational as we strive to be, emotion remains our main motive force. Psychologists and neuroscientists, approaching the human mind rationally, inevitably conclude that emotion and reason are hopelessly entangled in the psyche. Not only does this explain the persistent draw of art, but also of religion as well. If possible, pull back and try to listen to someone, anyone, describe their religion in rational terms. How quickly it breaks down! And yet, reactions against a purely scientific—and doubtlessly empirically correct—explanation of the origin and development of life on earth lead to very hostile reactions. For many such explanations are not emotionally satisfying. We need a little more magic in our imaginative diet. Art allows us to indulge without embarrassment in our need for emotional expression. In the art galleries I’ve seen, whether Edinburgh, London, Paris, New York, Milwaukee, Corning, or Hamilton, there have always been hundreds of others seeking something there as well.

What we are seeking can’t be purchased with money, and it can’t be grasped by greedy hands. It can only be held in receptive and hungry internal places—the space pre-scientific individuals called the soul. And there it will remain. The first time I saw the Mona Lisa and the statue of winged Nike will never leave me. Yesterday, wandering the acres of art called Grounds for Sculpture, once again artistic expression claimed another willing victim. In our money-fevered world where “real life” is squandered chasing material goods to outstrip everyone else, art, the spiritual quest, lies quietly awaiting the weekend. The time people value most. And those who spend that time among art will be the most blessed of all.

Gothic Mother’s Day

What does Mother’s Day have to do with horror films and religion? I serendipitously discovered last night. I generally run a few years behind the media, reading books after they come out in paperback and watching movies when I find a copy of the DVD. Last night as a family we watched The Sound of Music. I’d never seen this show until after I was married – musicals were not popular in my blue collar neighborhood growing up. Of course, I am now a veteran viewer. Last night, during mother’s choice evening, I noticed that if the music were removed (itself a weird concept) The Sound of Music is actually quite gothic. The interior settings, the use of shadow, the dark, Nazi threat, the stonework of the gloomy abbey – all of these things add up to a disturbing collage. In the mood for something more baldly gothic, I stayed up to watch Silent Hill.

I tend not to research movies before watching them since it reduces the visual impact. For those films based on books, I generally read the book afterward to see what was “really going on.” Silent Hill, of course, is based on a video game. I do not play video or computer games; “Pong” may have been my last serious attempt at doing so. Silent Hill, therefore, was a complete unknown. The gothic element did not disappoint, and as Sharon, the adopted orphan, began her sleepwalking scenes being shown beneath a lighted cross in the night, I knew that religion and horror were once again coming together. Indeed, the driving force behind the gruesome story is a religious cult on a witch-hunt that is set in a village based on Centralia, Pennsylvania. The cult, believing those who are different are witches, seems to enjoy the medieval pastime of barbecuing them. Centralia’s ongoing mine-fire was used to great effect. Rose, Sharon’s devoted adoptive mother, of course, rescues her daughter. The line in the film is “Mother is God in the eyes of a child.” (There is the Mother’s Day tie-in.)

Having been invited to present an adult forum to a local church on Christian themes in popular cinema, I have been recharging my attempts to test my hypothesis that what truly frightens people is religion. Silent Hill would support this hypothesis. I did not miss the significance of the names: “Rose of Sharon” is a popular biblical trope. The impotent father is named Christopher. Centralia’s predicament is often vividly compared to arcane ideas of Hell. And mother’s are, in the eyes of many children, saviors. Perhaps that last point is why we celebrate Mother’s Day on a Sunday. Although films such as Silent Hill may not make the best family viewing, even here where religion destroys, the divinity of motherhood is underscored.