I swear I’m not making this up for the sake of a Christmas letter — I didn’t actually plan to write one until it happened. But a few days before Christmas, I met a baby named Messiah. Mmhm, yeah. Two-weeks-and-four-days-old Messiah … with his unwed, poor teenage mother in a girls’ group home in L.A.
I’ve been visiting the site with volunteers for a new arts-for-incarcerated-youth program I’ve been getting rolling, and that night was more than the usual chaotic. We’re never sure until we arrive how many girls we’ll be working with, or how many babies and toddlers might be in the room to make the arts workshops more interesting. This night a few days before Christmas, a crowd came in to greet us but most cleared out fast for an off-campus outing. The departing group stayed long enough to ask about my Nana’s cookies like I’d brought the last time (I’ll make more), they asked why I was dressed like a model (work clothes left on from my day job at a very different school), and they speculated about the young woman I’d brought to teach them costume design (“Waait, Miss … that your daughter??? She look just like you!” “No way, she ain’t,” “Yeah! Hey you guys got the same eyebrows!”). All of this teasing, a hug from one, the passing off of babies, some hard digs at each other about who’d get sprung for Christmas home visits, and the chaos cleared out.
The rest of us (yes, led by my baby Anabel, 17) went on with the workshop we’d scheduled, and when all settled down I realized only one resident girl had remained with two staff and the two of us volunteering. I’d seen her before, always draped with a big blanket over her torso and a silent bundle in a Baby Bjorn strapped to her body. I’ll call this young mother Dee. With Anabel’s guidance, the rest of us attempted to sketch and paint costumes for characters in our daily life as they might appear in another decade. The adult staff (who are around age 22) and I got pretty into it, and we all chatted up each other and Dee, who was there more for the company, the time-passing. She was counting hours until she’d get out of there for a Christmas visit to her aunt’s house, hoping that would mean access to her “baby daddy” but not sure how they’d swing it. Dee is 17, he is 21, and the trouble that landed her in the group home this time (after multiple runaways since young childhood) came after the hospital staff figured out their age difference when Dee gave birth those short weeks ago. Her greatest excitement now was about turning 18 in the coming spring, and her hope to get emancipated from the system so she — and her baby — wouldn’t have to stay in a place like this. No plan beyond that.
It sounds like a mess, I know. But here’s the rest of the night —
Anabel and Dee talked about being 17, finishing high school, and when their birthdays are. These two girls born the same spring, such different days to live now. But that knowledge of losing parental protection before they were ready? That inner call for emancipation? Same.
And when Dee unwrapped her bundle at one point, amazed by the extreme heat he suddenly gives off, I scooted closer while Anabel gave me a look (for not being able to turn off my inner baby magnet). The little person that emerged, fuzzy brown curls above a perfect smooth cocoa face, was Messiah, Dee told us. Her boyfriend got to choose the name if it was a boy, they’d agreed while riding the train one day, and that’s what he picked. “Because he’s our savior. You know … he’s keeping us from going down the hill.”
On every measure I’ve come to use, these two parents have it.
To know how suddenly you can find yourself in messy circumstances you didn’t plan and to find the miracle in them … is It. To listen to the internal voice that tells you this uncomfortable place where you sit can launch you on a path that holds much better, much truer joy … is It. To open up your heart to a new person who shows up at first as alien to you … is It.
I got to stare at this Messiah’s beautiful tiny face with fat-plum lips and fine swooshes of dark hairline. I got to join Dee in recounting the crazy, power-filled trip of birth and the pull it keeps having on us. So you might accuse me of romanticizing the moment and its obvious parallels to the Christmas story, which I don’t mind. Leaving it at that would be easy, but incomplete.
The battle ahead for this mother and baby is enormous — and no more or less of the full human experience that we’re all here to immerse ourselves in until our bodies give out. The list of what-could-go-wrongs is always an option of focus for us, no matter how our lists vary from each other’s. It might include the worry of financial hardship, the dependence on love and attention from unreliable sources, the witnessing of pain or disconnection in others, the fear of physical incapacity from illness, global disaster, local disaster, political disaster … And still our daily choice, no matter the apparent severity of the threat, is the same. No matter how it arrived in our laps, we all decide what to believe about the work and our capacity to do it.
I know something about plans changing and the intense fear that can in-capacitate (but only temporarily if you’re stubborn). I didn’t plan to raise and educate three kids on my own or grow so much from what it teaches me (Like their sister, the boys, Mason at 14 and August at 11, are evolving individuals — musical, hilarious, athletic). I didn’t imagine I’d find vocational balance in school administration, spiritual guiding, and grassroots activism all at once. I didn’t think I’d fall in love in the places I have, and I didn’t know who would have the stretchiness to love back. I didn’t, like you, think our country and world would have to tackle some of these particular hardships in 2017. I still haven’t landed, and I finally understand that’s not even what I’m supposed to be trying to do.
The unmistakable, unshakable truth is, though (and it’s entirely up to your own unique interpretation): A savior always comes along and reminds us how to focus in all that mess. Find yours anywhere and love, love, love, love.
Wishing you a Merry Christmas and
Happy, Power-Filled New Year –