Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Images of Childbirth

"When a woman withdraws to give birth the sun may be shining but the shutters of her room are closed so she can make her own weather.  She is kept in the dark so she can dream.  Her dreams drift her far away, from terra firma to a marshy tract of land, to a landing stage, to a river where a mist closes over the further bank, and earth and sky are inseparate; there she must embark toward life and death, a muffled figure in the stern directing the oars.  In this vessel prayers are said that men never hear.  Bargains are struck between a woman and her God.  The river is tidal, and between one feather stroke and the next, her tide may turn."

Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel

Reflecting on a conversation the other evening at home with dear friends... 

She spoke of images from the Kathmandu British Embassy traditional Christmas carols voicing the pain of birth placed in the construct of a morally corrupting world.  Her words echoing her doubts about the value of such Western religious teachings.  

Her gentle Buddhist compassion wondering why the Bible, source of so much of our Judeo-Christian values, chose to expel women from a sacred and serene Eden through a scene of such vehemence and violence.

While, for me, those words recalled a passage of childbirth set during 16th C. Tudor England (above) I'd recently read with the fictional voice of the very factual Thomas Cromwell not far from my internal ear.  

The Christmas carol quoted the ancient Hebraic words describing the imposed pain of a woman's childbirth.  The price women have been told they pay for taking an apple from the Tree of Knowledge in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  

Genesis 3:16

          "I will make most severe
           Your pangs in childbearing;
           In pain you shall bear children."

Rather than seek to understand the heavy-handed theological punishment of this Biblical curse, I thought instead of the silent, darkened shelters, tents or rooms where our mothers, wives and sisters must have gone for the agonies of their intimate child labor during the early centuries of our nascent civilization and kulture.  

A place apart, hours of uncertainty, loneliness, isolation and, sometimes, premature death...  

I remember a passage from Tolstoy's 'War and Peace' where Count Pierre stood anxiously outside the door while his second wife, Natasha, cried with pain and fear during childbirth, from early 19th C. Russia after Napoleon's armies had marched toward St. Petersburg.

Or Rilke's beautiful passage from his "For the Sake of A Single Verse",

          'For the sake of a single verse... one must have memories... of many nights of love,          of the screams of women in labor, of light, white, sleeping women in childbed, beside the  dying...'

quoted in the Ben Shahn powerfully evocative lithographs on the emotions, experiences and passages of life.  

And, I sit here gazing outside toward those cowsheds in the remote mountains of Nepal where pregnant women, young and old, still go...

Are humans the only creatures so aware of the hope and risks of childbirth?  Do other animals moan and cry with the conscious pain that we know?

Do they dream of their hopes and fears for their newborn?

Why has the universe, nature or our idea of G-d created only women, not men, to give birth for our species to carry the seed of our existence and aspirations?  Why are we designed so?  Is there a purpose?  Is there a reason?  Is it arbitrary?  Without cause?

Or, is there meaning for us to find?  

Why is it that women can't release their children without the pain and agonies that accompany the passage from womb to life?

Why did the ancient Hebraic writers draw so much attention to the pain accompanying childbirth and attempt to give it a meaning?

Why don't we squirt out like fish in the sea from where we came?  (Asks the son of the Ob-Gyn...)  Do other animals endure the torment and risk that humans experience?  Or, is their childbirth more subtle, understated and without thought or reflection?

Why such a gulf between us and our fellow creatures?  

Is there a reason we have to go through more physical strain -- both mother and child?

Is there an unseen, unknown unconscious relationship between our painful passage into this mortal life with our higher moral mind?

Why, too, are the highest saints or prophets of religious tradition born without the travail of we lesser beings?

Moses' birth mother lost in the myth while he appears to us floating in a wicker basket on the Nile to be raised in the Pharaoh's family.

Why was Gautama Buddha born with his mother holding on a tree branch from her side with apsaras and devas pouring lotus petals on the ground?

Why is Jesus famed for his immaculate birth?  Mother Mary, distinct from other women, pure as the driven snow not suffering the agonies and fears of childbirth?

What is the tale or teachings of Mohammed's birth or Krishna or other avatars of pure insight, wisdom and consciousness?

Can't the miracle of life be less uncertain or anxious?  

One wonders... 

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