Monday, November 30, 2015

Thumbs and Forefingers

Boothbay Harbor, Maine
30 November 2015 
And the Lord God said, It is not good that the human should be alone; I will make a help meet for him (Genesis 2:18, KJV).
Back in the day, the rabbis often translated this verse this way: "I will make a helpmate opposite him."  A friend tells me the sense of the Hebrew is something like a thumb opposite the forefinger.  We are given to one another as partners, opposites, opposing forces, contrarian spirits.  And in this way, we come to love one another and make love together and create patterns and homes and futures complex and beautiful.  The energy of Genesis isn't around the duality of male and female: it's not about sex and marriage.  

It's about relationship and renewal, this ancient text; it's about collaboration and community.  And all of this involves friction and tension, opposite thumbs and forgiving forefingers.  All of this is pleasurable enough sometimes, and frustrating at others.  We get it right, we get it wrong.  And this is what it means to be created in the image of God.
Mom and her 9 grandchildren

This week I am my mother's nurse, pulling off disposable diapers and sitting her on the toilet.  This week I am cooking for her, though she eats very little, and covering her with blankets because her thin frame is so cold, so easily, and so weak against the first winds of winter.  At night I sleep beside a monitor, listening closely for the sound of her breathing, her sleeping, her dreaming perhaps.  And in the morning, I wait for the rustling of sheets and her sleepy voice calling my name.  She's sad and embarrassed, but deeply, profoundly grateful at the same time.  

When I stumble early to her bedside, round about six-thirty, she's relieved to see me.  Glad.

She's always been a bundle of contradictions, my mother.  I really can't tell whether she wishes to live or die now; but her will is undeniably weak.  All I can do, this week, is human and basic and momentary: a clean diaper, a warm wash cloth, a decent bowl of soup, a kiss on the forehead at the end of the day.  And love.  Lots of love. 

And this is what it means, this too is what it means to be created in the image of God"It is not good that the human should be alone."  So God gives us helpmates, mothers, sons and neighbors.  Contrarian spirits.  Thumbs and forefingers.

Across our fifty-three years, we have been helpmates and we have been opposing forces.  I have railed against her addictions, and she has turned away.  She's also communicated, in the best and deepest ways she knows, her undying affection and love.  And I've treasured that love, saved it away, counted on it.  I've undoubtedly failed her in many ways: failed to intervene effectively, and failed to speak compassionately in seasons of crisis.  And she's failed me too: this awful, warped pattern of addiction and deception and distancing, over years and years, over decades.  We've hurt one another.

"Pattered Woman Blue" by Belina Wright
And yet, the image of God -- the tenderness of God, the grace of God -- remains.  In my mother and in me, and between us.  This week, around the edges of resistance and defiance, she says, I'm sorry.  Really and meaningfully says it.  And I hear her, my soul hears her.  And I say, around the edges of my own frustration, I'm sorry, too.  And in the look in her eye, even at the toilet, in all that moment's vulnerability and fragile intimacy, I see the two of us, mother and son, doing our best.  Helpmates.  Something like forgiveness finds us here, this week.  And in the touch of my lips to her forehead, I feel something like glory, something like vocation, something like the full force reality of incarnation.  The Word made flesh.  

We are made in the image of God, my mother and I.  And there's nothing easy, nothing particularly heroic about it.  You won't find us on "Oprah" or in the pages of "People" or "GQ."  It empties me, this raw kind of caring, this forgiving; it empties me of so many well-cultivated illusions, empties me of immortality and fantasy.  This emptying is devastating, and it's somehow liberating, at one and the same time.  On my knees, with my mother, at the toilet, I am who God has made me to be: a helpmate opposite her, a friend of Jesus getting it wrong and doing it right, figuring out that none of that even matters, only love and kindness and generosity.  In moments just like this.  Emptying myself of everything else so that only the image of God remains.