Monday, December 24, 2007


tradition: the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs from one generation to another (from tradere, to hand over).

My baby sister Anne got married this week. It was a beautiful ceremony. The whole thing was outside in the snow and we were freezing our collective buns off, but it was beautiful and I’d do it again in a second for Anne and Scotty. We were up in the mountains and everything was white and muted. The sun was out, and although it wasn’t warm enough to break through the skin, it was enough to make the air sparkle. I felt a new affinity to the Celts and their Winter Solstice rituals.

The best part of the ceremony (even better than when Anne’s dog brought out the rings around its neck) was when my father walked out holding Anne’s arm. My sister is well into her 20s. She’s an attorney now, living in another state, and by most measures a full-grown adult. (She does still jump off 3,000 foot cliffs on a regular basis, a vestige of immaturity I must say, but other than that, she is far removed from the little Annie Bananie we grew up with.) She hasn’t lived in my parents’ house for several years. But it was still fitting to see my father “give her away” to her new husband. It’s a tradition that carries a lot of symbolic messages, and—as traditions do—it passes these messages on to the next generation along with the transition of child to bride.

It is now the morning of December 24th and we are in the thick of the most tradition-laden time of the year. Since Ken and I have been married, we have collected Christmas traditions—some from our families, others of our own. We use them to mark the season and make it special. Our kids know what to expect and they look forward to certain patterns and customs. The traditions decorate our lives—the tree, the train, the nativity sets, the stockings—but they are more than décor. They are a very real transfer of beliefs and values.

Last night we started what I hope will be a new tradition: we ate dinner by candlelight. Gabie has proclaimed himself Electricity Tzar and has gone from one obsession with power cords to another with making sure we aren’t wasting electricity. He patrols the house, turning off the lights in every room whether it’s occupied or not. (I’ll spare you the holy fit he threw on Saturday when everyone kept ignoring his total ban on light usage and I told him he could not tape all the switches into the off position) Last night he wanted us to conserve by using candles at the table so we went along with his decree. It was lovely. I don’t know if it was the soft lighting or the scents or just the fact that we are all looking forward to Christmas, but it was the best family meal we’ve had in a long time. Ethan called it “utterly relaxing.”

I’ve decided that we need to do this more often. And it’s too good of a tradition to save for just Christmas. Why not do it every week? I told the kids that my mom used to get out her china on Sundays and we would treat the meal as a special occasion. It may be my tendency to romanticize my childhood, but I envision her cooking a pot roast and homemade rolls every single week. (Mom, am I imagining things?) I do remember the Spanish lace tablecloth and the china and the fact that the food was all transferred to serving dishes (something I never bother to do; I just plunk the pots and pans right on the table to limit my cleanup later). I’m seeing now that these meals helped me—more than a sermon ever could—to treat the Sabbath as a day set apart from the rest of the week. Mom was willing to sacrifice a few pieces of china over the years to pass this message on to us.

Much of the art depicting the childhood of Christ centers on religious traditions and rites of passage. We see the presentation at the temple, the circumcision, the training of young Jesus in the workshop of his earthly father, his learning to read from his mother, and another visit to the temple at the age of 12. With each episode, there’s a transfer of beliefs or information from one generation to another.

In this painting of the Presentation at the Temple by Mantegna, Mary enacts a literal rite of passage as she hands her son’s life over to God by presenting him to the High Priest. The hand off is only temporary, but it shows the principle of sacrifice and Mary’s understanding that her son’s life is dedicated for a higher purpose. There are allusions in the painting to the fact that Mary will eventually see the full, painful extent of this dedication. The swaddling bands, which I’ve written about before, are one hint. Another is the way Mary hugs her child to her chest, almost as if she’s not quite sure she wants to go through with it.

The Catholic feast celebrating Christ’s Presentation at the Temple is called Candlemas and is traditionally celebrated 40 days after the birth of Christ. Because Christmas is now set on December 25, this means Candlemas falls on February 2nd. What a happy coincidence that this religious holiday (at least in the United States) has evolved into Groundhog Day. We have strong beliefs about Groundhog Day in our home and treat it with great respect. Ken and I have made our pilgrimage to the Holy Land of Groundhogs (Punxsutawney PA) and every year, we mark the day with our own kind of liturgy, the ceremonial watching of the sacred film.

In December, we mark midwinter and celebrate the birth of light into the world. In February, we look forward to the arrival of spring. These are traditions that give deeper meaning to the passage of time and the flow of seasons. In the process of celebrating them, we bring together in a satisfying union two of the great realities of life: some things are always changing and some things will always stay the same.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

maria lactans

I began reading blogs regularly in August of 2006. Nora was only 3 months old and I was up with her often in the middle of the night. I needed something “to do” while I nursed her (no, I am not the kind of mom content to stare sweetly at her child while breastfeeding; I get bored. I must multi-task). So I began reading blogs and quickly got addicted.

I remember vividly one topic which spread like wildfire over the blogosphere that August: whether a photo of a woman nursing her baby on the cover of a certain magazine was indecent. Many mommy bloggers wrote about the topic and several even sent in photos of themselves breastfeeding to this site. I was amused and then intrigued by the discussion. Reading these posts, I realized that I had very few memories of my mother nursing her babies despite the fact that she breastfeed all 9 of us. The many, many diapers? Sure I remember those. But there are no pictures (in my mind or on film) to document all those hours she must have spent on the couch with a child to her breast.

When I decided recently that I had had enough of the human starfish and I began weaning Nora, I made Ken take a few discrete pictures of me nursing her. I’m not sure what I’ll do with them. No I don’t plan to post them to the internet. I’m just happy to have some kind of record that shows a part of who I was and what I did—what I spent many collective hours doing with (and for) each of my children. I have nursed my children on the couch, in my bed, in nursing lounges, in bathroom stalls, in hallways, on a public bus, in museums, in the house of every friend or relation I have, in the library, while watching Lord of the Rings in a crowded theater, at the zoo, in several national parks, in the car pulled over on the side of the freeway, in tents, on boats, on airplanes, and on trains…but not in the rain or in a box or with a fox (just in case you were wondering).

Anyway, my point is that I’ve spent a lot of time nursing over the years and I figured, why not get a picture of that? I hope someday at least Nora will appreciate having the documentation.

This brings me to today’s painting of Mary, Jesus and Saint Luke by Rogier van der Weyden. It isn’t unusual at all in art (especially after the 13th century) to see Mary as a nursing mother. These “Maria Lactans” images show the humanity of both the mother and child, and they carry the weight of heavier symbols as well: charity, spiritual nourishment, and salvation. Art historians make the connection between the Christian imagery and earlier pagan depictions of nursing goddesses, but that’s another story.

What I really like about this painting is the fact that Luke is kneeling there drawing a picture of the event. He is recording the life of Christ, just as he did in verbal form for his gospel (a text we read over and over, especially at this time of year). But now Luke is documenting the simple truth that babies get hungry and mothers feed them. In Christian art, Luke is traditionally shown as a painter, but here he just holds a sketch book and pen. Maybe Luke was planning on painting something more dramatic—a posed family portrait with peace gestures or something iconic—but before he could get out his paints and brushes, it was time for another feeding. And it looks like Rogier van der Weyden imagined Luke saying, “Now there’s something worthy of at least a little sketch.”

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Christmas with a budding iconoclast

This is what our Christmas tree usually looks like. Note the shiny beaded garland, the crowded assortment of ornaments, the village below, and the train track that runs around the village. (Also, not visible in this shot but a HUGE part of Christmas for the boys is the working train engine and cars).

And this is what our Christmas tree looks like this year. A bit sparse, you say? We didn’t even bother with the train or village. We skipped the garland and went easy on the ornaments. Why? The only clue you need is a good look at the two-foot swath across the bottom of the tree where all the ornaments have been picked bare. The height of this section, not surprisingly, coincides with the reach of a certain 19-month old little girl. Yes, Nora the Explorer has been here.

Nora also climbed up on the piano where this week I finally put out just a few of my 20 different international nativity scenes. Once there, Nora re-enacted the little-known Bethlehem Earthquake of O BC. She also relieved my Spanish Mary and Baby Jesus of their gold paper haloes. I had no idea they offended her that much.

I actually really like haloes. I think they’re a great example of one of those things in art that tries to express the inexpressible. How do you say that a person is divine using a language and materials that are earthly? You do your best and resort to symbolism, something even Christ used extensively in his parables.

In this Duccio painting, I like the way the halos serve as the spiritual counterpart to the gold crowns worn by the secular kings. The royal crowns are painted realistically with a bit of shading and a rudimentary form of linear perspective to give them depth. The third king has even removed his crown and placed it on his arm as he kneels, bareheaded and humbled, before the King of Kings. The haloes, on the other hand, stand out from Mary and Jesus’ heads like flat disks. It doesn’t matter that the faces of the holy mother and child are turned in 3/4 profile; the gold circles hang parallel to the picture plane and perfectly wreath the heads from our angle, for our benefit. They are not crowns or physical objects of any kind. They aren’t even really in the scene itself. The haloes represent a higher reality.

Some people see medieval art as primitive or undeveloped because it lacks the realism of later styles. But I love it for its honesty. Duccio and other artist of his era expressed the belief that there are certain things (like camels and mountains and crowns of kings) that are okay to illustrate with tricky, illusionistic techniques. And then there are other things, like the holiness of the Son of God for example, that require a symbolic language.

Then there are the artists from the Renaissance who want to have it both ways. I’ll try not to sound too smug about it, but frankly, they amuse me. Here’s Andrea del Sarto’s Holy Family as an example. Judging from the maternal appearance of Mary and the cute, head-tucking gesture of the baby Jesus, del Sarto wanted to make the scene as believable and human as possible. Then he got to the haloes and, not willing to throw them out entirely, he put them on like party hats. Jesus’ halo reminds me of those wire ones won by the kids playing angels in Christmas pageants. Del Sarto’s adept use of perspective is a testament to his talent, but not to the holiness of the Holy Family. I think del Sarto’s painting is beautiful, but it falls for the mistaken notion that man is the measure of all things.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

star light

Ever since the heart-stopping incident with the lamp of doom, I have been ultra cautious about the electrical outlets in Gabie and Nora’s room. Frustratingly, Gabie has become even more obsessed lately with extension cords and the urgent need for a genuine Christmas Village Electrical System. About a week ago, he swiped some extension cords and plugged them into his various outlets in his room. Then he built an “electricity box” out of cardboard and tied the cords together using masking tape. He strung yarn from the box up to his windowsill where he draped several strands of it across the houses in his Christmas Village like a bunch of power lines. Good grief.

I, of course, got to play the mean village fire inspector who visited the power plant and shut it down for code violations. I took his box apart, undid the tape and explained to him the dangers of playing with electricity. I let him keep the yarn in his Christmas village. The next day, there were cords all over his room again in an all new complicated power grid. At least this time he had used twist ties because, as he argued while I took them apart, “they won’t catch fire as easily.”

Sure, I could just lock up every cord in the house, but (as we all know) Gabie can be pretty persistent and I suspect if I quash his natural curiosity about electricity he might start sticking silverware into outlets or something. So I have relented part way. He can keep two cords and plug things into them as long as he follows certain rules. I’m hoping that he will soon tire of this fixation and move on to something less dangerous. The other night after watching our Blue Planet DVD, Gabie informed me he’d like a baby blue whale for Christmas. Now there’s an idea.

So now, on any given night when I go to tuck him in, Gabie has the following things operating in his “electrical system”:
  • his Christmas lights
  • the baby monitor (which we normally don’t turn on at night since we leave their door open but now Gabie insists that it must be plugged into an extension cord so he can rest it on the floor really close to Nora’s crib just in case we want to hear her eyelashes move)
  • a humidifier that Gabie says must be on since he feels like he’s “probably coming down with something”
  • Ken's old cell phone (which doesn't really work but Gabie charges every night) with the cord dangling from a hook on his wall and looping over his headboard
  • a nightlight
  • the lights in his Christmas village on the windowsill
  • his CD player
The CD player also has a double headphone jack plugged into it with one set of headphones going to Gabie’s head and the other set (the ones with only one working ear) going to the head of Georgie the Giant Panda because Georgie apparently can’t sleep without a little one-eared serenade from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

I wait until Gabie and Georgie are both asleep and I go back into the room and gently take off the headphones, untangle the cords, lift the giant panda off Gabie's face, turn off the CD player, get down the cell phone, and one by one, unplug everything. It has become a little ritual and I can’t sleep until it’s done.

One night, Gabie had moved the nightlight from the outlet next to Nora’s bed to the outlet next to his. His bed is already pushed right up against the wall, so he had to squeeze the light in. Before I went to bed, I moved the nightlight back where it belonged. The next night, Gabie had moved it again. I put it back. On the third night, I told Gabie that there just wasn’t room for the nightlight to be squished behind his bed and he started to cry. “It’s my star!” he said. “Whatever you do, don’t unplug the star.” I was about to force the issue and insist on moving it again when I took a good look at his wall. Sure enough, the nightlight—because of the way it was reflecting against the side of his bed—was sending groovy disco rays up the wall. It looked a lot like a star. I let him keep it. What's a genuine Christmas Village Electrical System without a star?

Since the star is a big part of the Christmas story, I thought I’d mention a painting by Giotto that includes a famous star. The star in Giotto’s painting of the Visitation of the Magi has a long bright tail, like a comet. In fact Giotto's inspiration came from a recent sighting of Halley’s Comet (in 1301). I’ve always thought this was a pretty nifty connection. The European Space Agency thought so too, and in 1985 when they launched a space probe to take pictures from inside the nucleus of Halley’s comet, they named it Giotto, of course.

Monday, December 10, 2007


I was reading a magazine yesterday (the December Ensign if that means anything to you) and came across this quote from Channing Pollock:

"Some of us must wish. . . that we could be born old, and grow younger and cleaner and ever simpler and more innocent, until at last, with the white souls of little children, we lay us down to eternal sleep."

I'm not so crazy about the "eternal sleep" part of the quote, but I do like the rest, especially that sense of reversing the process of complication that is life and winding up more simple and pure than when we started. I do wish for this. I wish that instead of collecting clutter along the journey (see Julie's dream journal episode 12.7) I could be shedding layers like those insects that get more streamlined and beautiful each time they molt.

The quote made me think of my favorite nativity scene from Rembrandt: an etching owned by the university where I teach. As my eyes are drawn to the center of the print, they follow a path from busy and detailed to subtle and uncomplicated. Baby Jesus is in the center, of course. Rembrandt depicts him as simple and white-souled, as if he is the source of all light and innocence.

I wrote about my first experience with this etching and why I love it during last year's Christmas Art Advent. I'll leave you with a link if you'd like to read it.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Claiming baggage

Last night I dreamed that I was at the baggage claim section of the airport. I was trying to collect about a dozen suitcases and most of them had somehow split open on the flight and their contents had spilled out everywhere. So there I was, madly trying to gather up my stuff and track everything down. I was scooping shoes into suitcases and collecting stray papers and cans of food that were rolling all over the place. And all the while (and of course this made perfect sense to me at the time) I was also trying to catch a black poodle who was running wild through the airport. The most vivid part of my dream was when I saw there was a line of people still waiting for their luggage. I could tell from the frustrated looks on their faces that they were completely fed up with me and my huge mess.

Nora’s coughing woke me up. She has had a cough for over a month now and some nights she seriously sounds like she’s trying to hack up a lung. I checked on her, gave her some water to sip and went back to bed…where I pulled the covers up to my neck and proceeded to stare, wide awake, at the ceiling for over an hour. I hate that. I was clearly tired, but my stupid brain was racing: Nora, cough, $20 copay, final exam, McKay’s homework, piano recital, blog, dumb things I said at book group, no clean socks, dinner, Christmas gifts, my dad, bills, emails, Ethan’s missing gym shorts, a new idea for my book (Write it down now…No, I’m too tired to get a pencil…You’ll forget it by morning…Not if I can manage to stay awake like this for three more hours…You’re an idiot...) It went on and on.

My mind was full, cluttered, completely overloaded with imperatives and concerns. It wasn’t until the morning, after waking up groggy and slightly disoriented (what was up with that stupid poodle?) that I saw the obvious metaphorical connection. If my brain is a suitcase, clearly I have exceeded the allowable weight limit. I'm carting around too much mental baggage.

I’m a big believer in the symbolic nature of dreams. Naturally, I’m an artsy kind of gal and I see pretty much everything as symbolic, but I’ve always thought that dreams give us an uncensored, deeper view into our own psyche—as warped and messed up as that psyche may be.

In scripture, dreamers are often prophets and visionaries. Joseph of the Old Testament was always having crazy, symbolic dreams. Joseph of the New Testament had important dreams too. It was “in a dream” according to Matthew, that an angel of the Lord told him to accept Mary and take her to wife. I’m not sure why he got the dream, while other members of the Christmas story (like Mary and the shepherds) merited personal, open-eyed visitations, but when it comes to receiving guidance and clearing up confusion, I think most people will take whatever they can get.

In Georges de la Tour’s painting of Joseph’s dream, he focuses on the light as a symbol of understanding. Joseph has apparently fallen asleep while reading. Maybe he’s been brushing up on his Mosaic law and worrying about what to do with Mary. His brow is furrowed and he has nodded off with his fingers pressed to his temple like someone with a big decision to make. The angel appears and catches the light from the candle with her body and arms, reflecting a glow onto Joseph’s face. When he eventually wakes up, he will know exactly what to do.

I wish I could say that my dream has given me some kind of new clear vision of my life, granted me some kind of light-bulb moment equivalent to Joseph’s candle of truth moment. But the fact is that the whole “my dear, you are stressed and mentally overtaxed” message is old news. I can’t think of a single woman I know who doesn’t feel this way. I don’t need a dream to tell me that if I don’t lighten up, I’m likely to start splitting at the seams like a piece of old luggage. But in all honesty, I can’t simplify my life any more than I have. I’ve already relaxed my standards on housework (isn’t that a nice way to put it?). I don’t volunteer at the kids’ schools like I used to. I don’t attend parties, faculty meetings, or extra church activities of any sort unless I think they will directly benefit my family. I have let a lot of things go, including my pride since I’m even learning to ask for help and accept it whenever it’s offered.

So I'm fairly sure I'm only still lugging around the truly important things. But unfortunately, right now there are lots and lots of truly important things in my life and they also happen to be heavy and hard to handle. The only comfort I get from my dream is that maybe I can ignore the sense of judgment I feel about the other people waiting in line at the baggage claim. Because seriously, who are they to get all huffy and impatient with my mess? Did any one of them lift a finger to help me chase the poodle? No. They did not. So to them (and to the part of me they represent) I say: chill out. I might be a little overwhelmed here, but I’m doing the best I can.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Jesus once was a little child

When I was young, we used to sing a song in church that went like this:

Jesus once was a little child
A little child like me

So far so good. It’s a sweet song. But then come the next lines:

And he was pure and meek and mild
As a little child should be.
So little children, let’s you and I
Try to be like him. Try. Try. Try.

It’s a lovely song, but let’s face it, it is also adult propaganda at its finest. Are little children always meek and mild? I don’t think so. Would we like them to be meek and mild (especially when sitting in church, thus the true motive behind the singing of this song)? Sure. But is it fair to give the little kiddies a guilt complex because they just can’t be like Jesus in this regard no matter how hard they try try try?

I love paintings that show Jesus as a real child, one with slightly impish tendencies. Yes, he was still perfect but he was also human. This painting by Rogier van der Weyden (Madonna in Red c1440) is a great example.

I love the way Jesus is pawing through the book like a real baby. He’s just plain curious, and not too concerned about bending the corners of the pages or getting in trouble with the grouchy librarian. The look on Mary’s face is priceless. She’s perfectly content to let him play with the book. Or maybe she’s just plain tired. I wonder if she’d be labeled as an overly permissive mother if she lived in my neighborhood. My word! That Mary. She lets her kid do whatever he wants. He’s always wandering off and “going about his father’s business,” whatever that means. Once she even lost him on a trip to Jerusalem and didn’t even realize he was missing until they were half-way home!

If you look at the top and bottom of this painting, you can see that Mary and Jesus are set into an architectural niche—the kind of space where you would usually see a sculpture. It’s as if van der Weyden has replaced the stone figures with ones made of real flesh and blood. He has warmed them up and given them a bit of humanity. I think that if we want to be like Jesus, it’s nice to have images of him that remind us he was once a little child, a real child.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Been there

When I found out I was pregnant with my first child, suddenly there were pregnant women everywhere. I had never noticed them before. Now they were crawling out of the woodwork (or out of the Walmart aisles or parking lots or library bookshelves). I actually lived in the baby delivery capital of the Western World but I had just never paid that much attention to all the bulging bellies around me. Now that I was keenly aware of my own growing discomfort and this amazing baby inside me, I developed some kind of ultra-sensitive pregnancy radar that was going off every time I saw another woman in my same condition. I started keeping tabs on maternity fashions, something I had never given a second thought to. I also noticed for the first time that there were different ways to carry a baby: up high, down low, all over the place (my method of choice). I compared girth. I’d jab my husband and pester him for an opinion “Tell me the truth, honey. Am I really as big as her?”

Once I had been pregnant, I could never ignore a pregnant woman again.

Something similar happened when we were shopping for a new van. The week we narrowed down our selection to a Toyota Sienna, suddenly we noticed Siennas all over the place. I’m sure they had been on the streets all along, but it took a personal connection for them to stand out.

On an even more shallow level, when I’m debating whether to grow out my bangs or chop them off yet again, every person I meet becomes a hair model. My friends probably wonder why I never look them in the eyes when I’m talking to them. I seem to be strangely fixated with their foreheads.

In Piero di Cosimo’s painting of The Visitation (c1490), he shows us the moment where Mary and Elizabeth meet while they are both pregnant. The two women clasp hands as cousins and friends. Mary pats Elizabeth on the shoulder in a gesture of sympathy and understanding. They share more than kinship. They look into each others eyes (note that there’s no hair exposed to distract them) and I think that they see something familiar. Miraculous, surprising events have brought them to this point. I wonder if along with their sacred pregnancies, they carry thoughts and emotions that they have been hesitant to discuss with anyone else. What a relief and comfort this visit must have been to both of them.

Cosimo paints the scene as nearly symmetrical. He balances each element on the left with something of equal weight on the right. In the foreground, Saint Nicholas reads on one side and Saint Anthony writes on the other. Behind Mary is a tiny foreshadowing of the Nativity. Behind Elizabeth is a foreshadowing of the massacre of the innocents. Trees, buildings, space: all mirror each other. It’s as if the women in the center are looking at their own reflections. But Cosimo's side by side treatment also highlights the contrasts. They meet in the middle, but the women come from different places. They are separated by several decades in age. Elizabeth is more stooped, more wrinkled, and her skin is more tanned. Elizabeth raises her hand in a gesture of blessing; someday her own child, John the Baptist, will defer to his cousin Jesus and say he is unworthy to loose his sandals.

The painting makes me think about empathy and the unique insights we gain into the experiences and suffering of others when we have felt something similar ourselves. Ordinarily, we live too much inside our own heads—too separated from strangers, from our neighbors, our friends, or even our family to truly feel what they are feeling. But I’d like to think that everything I experience in life (the good, the bad, and the hairy) grants me more capacity to empathize with others. What I then do with this capacity is up to me.

One more thing that makes this paintings especially fitting for the Christmas season is the fact that Piero di Cosimo included Saint Nicholas in the lower left corner. This is the same Saint Nicholas who has since become associated with Santa Claus. The original Nicholas gave many anonymous gifts to the poor. Even after his death, people in his village continued to make anonymous donations that were often attributed to Saint Nicholas. And thus a tradition of generosity was born. Not a bad legacy for a guy who (from the looks of things) never spent much time worrying about the bangs/no bangs problem.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Mary mystified

It’s December again, which means that mental tesserae will once again transform itself into a Christmas Art Advent Blog. To me, there is no better way to keep the spiritual side of Christmas alive than to look at the many beautiful images of Christ found in art.

Today, I’ll start with a new favorite: The Holy Family by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1910). The more I look at this scene, the more it captivates and confuses me.

All the members of the Holy Family are here in the painting, but they are strangely disconnected. Joseph stands in the shadows. This is his home, as evidenced by the wood shavings in the foreground, but this is not his moment. It is Mary who sits, pale and thoughtful, in the center of the room. Her arms are empty. Her hands, clasped together and resting on her knees, hold nothing. Instead, they point in a kind of plaintive gesture in the same direction as her gaze: outside, towards a glowing light that enters the room from a partially curtained doorway on the right. The presence of the baby Jesus is simply hinted at by a pink and white bundle resting on the rug at Mary’s feet.

It’s an odd painting, quite unlike most nativity scenes where the figures cluster together as if posing for a family portrait. I think that’s why I like it so much. The painting leaves many things undefined. Faces are hazy, as if seen through a veil. Walls and ledges are rough hewn. Corners are rounded by shadows. The scene is mysterious and puzzling, but isn’t this exactly how it should be? Mystical things cannot be (should not be) reduced to visual clichés and readily absorbed messages. We miss the point of a miracle if we try to make sense of it with logic or scientific principles.

Mary, especially, seems mystified, a word that means both “confused” and “made mysterious.” Tanner painted her as the central feature, and with his treatment of light, he focuses our attention on her expression and body language. She is caught in a moment of rapt attention and contemplation. She is serenely transfixed by an unknown source of light and perhaps by the thoughts in her own mind.

If you follow the line of Mary’s veil as it flows from behind her back and over her head, she forms an arch, a shape repeated just to her left where a pointed archway leads to another room. Mary then is equated with a passage. A corridor. In fact, now that I look at it this way, the painting is just a series of three thresholds—two of them literal on either side and one metaphorical in the center. Does Mary understand any of this? Does she know her place in time and eternity? Is she sitting there, completely at peace with what she must do, must raise, must eventually lose and regain? Or is she just in shock? Is her expression the familiar one of a mother overwhelmed by the weight of a responsibility she feels ill equipped to bear?

We are left to wonder all of these things and this is why I’m haunted by this image of Mary. Today, right this moment, I am craving clarity and definition. I wish I knew the exact contours of my future so I would know what is worthy of my time and what is not. I wish I knew why people I love are falling ill and have an uncertain path ahead of them. I struggle with the fact that I have to muddle through shadows and find my way without clear knowledge, relying instead on impressions and feelings and my own limited understanding. I could do without the mystification—both sides of it: the confusion and the mystery.

I think Mary is doing a bit of pleading herself. She prays with her hands and her eyes. Her face is leaning forward expectantly into the light. And the light responds. The curtain does not open up, but it billows softly in her direction and lets the light seep through the cracks and pour in from below. The source, whatever it is outside her doorway, spotlights Mary and the child at her feet. And even if it does not bring answers with it, at the very least it brings warmth.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Who's that kid with the Oreo cookie....?

My friend Tara is still in town and I'm going to waste the rest of the day away with her, but I do want to poke my head into the blogosphere this morning and say hi. Here are two photos from our weekend's activities. We went a little crazy with the Oreos. The whole family got into the chocolate dipping spirit. See if you can tell which tray is from the adults and which one comes from the kids.

And yes, that is real snow behind the tray. We thought we'd welcome Tara from Arizona with a little old-fashioned Utah winter storm. There's nothing like flying from 70 degree weather into an arctic freeze to make a gal feel at home.

I just have to add two more things and then I'm really out of here.

1) The title of my blog post comes from an old Oreo jingle - an annoying little tune of which I have the entire lyrics memorized. I can't remember my kids' names, but I have a whole slew of dedicated brain cells hanging on to the Oreo song. How pathetic is that?

2) When we were working on the Oreo dipping, Nora pulled up a chair, took an Oreo cookie from the bag and proceeded to break it in half and lick off the white filling first. She has never seen anyone else do this. As far as I know, she has never attended an Oreo Consumption Class. Clearly the proper way to eat an Oreo is simply an inborn trait.