Saturday, November 7, 2009

Building cathedrals, being a mother and bad (or not very good) poems

A friend's mother sent her this little essay or poem, and she forwarded it to me. Apparently it's from Nicole Johnson's novel, The Invisible Woman. I think that there's a lot of beautiful, loving intention in this, but I personally don't like it. And it's so easy to rant and I don't like it when I do that either.

Read it before you read the rant--

I'm invisible.

It all began to make sense, the blank stares, the lack of response, the way one of the kids will walk into the room while I'm on the phone and ask to be taken to the store.

Inside I'm thinking, "Can't you see I'm on the phone?"Obviously not. No one can see if I'm on the phone, or cooking, or sweeping the floor, or even standing on my head in the corner, because no one can see me at all.

I'm invisible.

Some days I am only a pair of hands, nothing more: Can you fix this? Can you tie this? Can you open this? Some days I'm not a pair of hands; I'm not even a human being. I'm a clock to ask, "What time is it?" I'm a satellite guide to answer, "What number is the Disney Channel?" I'm a car to order, "Right around 5:30, please."

I was certain that these were the hands that once held books and the eyes that studied history and the mind that graduated summa cum laude -but now they had disappeared into the peanut butter, never to be seen again.

She's going ... she's going ... she's gone!

One night, a group of us were having dinner, celebrating the return of a friend from England. Janice had just gotten back from a fabulous trip, and she was going on and on about the hotel she stayed in. I was sitting there, looking around at the others all put together so well. It was hard not to compare and feel sorry for myself as I looked down at my out-of-style dress; it was the only thing I could find that was clean. My unwashed hair was pulled up in a banana clip and I was afraid I could actually smell peanut butter in it.

I was feeling pretty pathetic, when Janice turned to me with a beautifully wrapped package, and said, "I brought you this." It was a book on the great cathedrals of Europe.I wasn't exactly sure why she'd given it to me until I read her inscription:"To Charlotte, with admiration for the greatness of what you are building when no one sees."

In the days ahead I would read - no, devour - the book. And I would discover what would become for me, four life-changing truths, after which I could pattern my work:
* No one can say who built the great cathedrals - we have no record of their names.
* These builders gave their whole lives for a work they would never see finished.
* They made great sacrifices and expected no credit.
* The passion of their building was fueled by their faith that the eyes of God saw everything.

A legendary story in the book told of a rich man who came to visit the cathedral while it was being built, and he saw a workman carving a tiny bird on the inside of a beam. He was puzzled and asked the man, "Why are you spending so much time carving that bird into a beam that will be covered by the roof? No one will ever see it."
And the workman replied, "Because God sees."

I closed the book, feeling the missing piece fall into place. It was almost as if I heard God whispering to me, "I see you, Charlotte. I see the sacrifices you make every day, even when no one around you does. No act of kindness you've done, no sequin you've sewn on, no cupcake you've baked, is too small for me to notice and smile over. You are building a great cathedral, but you can't see right now what it will become."

At times, my invisibility feels like an affliction. But it is not a disease that is erasing my life. It is the cure for the disease of my own self-centeredness. It is the antidote to my strong, stubborn pride. I keep the right perspective when I see myself as a great builder. As one of the people who show up at a job that they will never see finished, to work on something that their name will never be on.

The writer of the book went so far as to say that no cathedrals could ever be built in our lifetime because there are so few people willing to sacrifice to that degree. When I really think about it, I don't want my son to tell the friend he's bringing home from college for Thanksgiving, "My mom gets up at 4 in the morning and bakes homemade pies, and then she hand bastes a turkey for three hours and presses all the linens for the table." That would mean I'd built a shrine or a monument to myself. I just want himto want to come home. And then, if there is anything more to say to his friend, to add,"You're gonna love it there."

As mothers, we are building great cathedrals. We cannot be seen if we're doing it right. And one day, it is very possible that the world will marvel, not only at what we have built, but at the beauty that has been added to the world by the sacrifices of invisible women.

I do know we are called to die to ourselves, to find our lives by losing it. I do know that this is not just some heroic intention, some dramatic call to martyrdom so that we forever find a pathetic way to get sympathy and admiration. This is a real call to love, and it's hard and feels like death and it does sometimes play itself out in making peanut butter sandwhiches, in sleepless nights with children, in giving up pursuits of fashionable clothing or other, in creating a home that is welcoming, loving, nurturing. But this essay feels like it falls a lot further on the side of martyrdom in a way that is not healthy for anyone in the family. As if it is important for mothers to become invisible. I don't believe that creates healthy children. And I don't believe that is "cathedral building."

On the other hand, I am very drawn to the idea of building cathedrals--and of that metaphor as a way to understand being a Christian artist. That is what I want to learn. How can we, as Christian artists, go against a long culture of artists that says the ultimate for the artist is self-expression and instead grow a conception of ourselves as in a community that is building something beautiful and grand and far far beyond ourselves and yet coming from our very selves. I am so grateful to be part of a family and a church--to be in a community where I am not the center of the universe but where I give what is me to what is bigger than me. And still, I am still longing to find myself and other artists creating more within that community.


Anonymous said...

I am humbled. I got this forward a couple years ago and promptly put it out of my head. The best comment I could come up with for it at the time was, "O, barf".

You are so very good at redeeming broken works of the self-obsessed. I should send some of my writing for you to fix.


Jenny Jiang said...

Hi Carrie,

"redeeming the broken works of the self-obsessed" is beautiful writing and really ought to be my constant prayer --since that is exactly what I need christ to do in me (the self-obsessed one).

Thanks. would love to read more of your writing.