My oldest daughter was born on New Year’s Eve, and, hugely pregnant at Christmastime, I was often in mind of Mary. I felt bodily what it meant to submit oneself to the creative force of the universe. I felt what it meant to live with expectation, the giddiness and fear and uncertainty. I’ve been pregnant two times and have had two healthy children. Like Mary, I have also been heavy with, as the Apostle John called Christ, the Word. Pregnant with brainchild. And while I have not experienced the awful tragedy of miscarriage, I do know on a creative level the loss of something precious and inward, something I tried to give life to, but that somehow failed to thrive.
We’re in Advent season, a time of active waiting. My friend Ryan, also my pastor, says that Advent is deeply counter-cultural because the zeitgeist is feasting and consuming. We keep a frantic pace and expect two-day shipping. But for liturgists, Advent is a fasting season, like Lent, and it’s about longing, hope, anticipation. It’s about living with the uncomfortable ache of empty bellies and unfulfilled desires. O come, O come, Emmanuel.
I feel this right now. The world feels more broken and the future more uncertain than ever. The night feels darker. Losses I’ve been too busy to feel have been catching up with me.
Last year I spent Advent in prayer and fasting, in hopeful anticipation for the outcome of a creative project I had spent years working on. Eight years. I was pregnant with this idea before my flesh and blood babies were born. When Christmas finally came, I embraced the joy of the holiday. But nothing changed with my project, except that I received some very complimentary rejections.
And now another year has passed. The project has languished with no prospects and no foreseeable future. I think of the afternoons sacrificed to a library carrel and an open laptop when I could have been at the zoo with my family. I think of the dark mornings when I rose hours before sunrise to work before my children woke. I think of the things I’ve given up, believing that the payment comes at the end, believing that my choices will make sense only after the risks have been taken. And it feels like a miscarriage of faith that here I am, nine years from when I began, and it looks like all this will have no viable outcome. A stillborn dream.
What is perhaps hardest is that, as I have gone back to teaching full-time, I don’t have the time or the energy to produce a creative replacement, something on which to transfer my hopes. The unsustainable pace of my days—preparing meals, getting the kids to school, prepping my classes, grading, running errands—keeps the sadness at bay. But then, in an unscripted moment, I’ll be in the pharmacy parking lot and it hits me hard: I’m not writing. My project is tabled. I don’t know when I’ll create again or what it will be. How did this happen?
I decided to fast story this Advent. I know that sounds strange, but I devour books. When I don’t have time to sit and read, then I get audio books through the library. I put them on in the car, when I’m doing dishes, whenever I can. I’m never alone when I have a story, never bored.
But I’ve been convicted that my consumption of entertainment keeps me full of others’ words and ideas rather than open to new ones of my own. I don’t give myself time to sit with my own pain, to let prayers rise up from the silence, or to nurture tiny sparks of imagination. So I’m opening that place within me. No solitaire in the grocery line. No podcasts on the half-hour drive to meet my husband for date night. Honestly, it’s uncomfortable. My brain wants amusement and teaching and stimulation. I’m good at studenting. Instead I have to face hard thoughts and boredom. When it all suddenly seems like an arcane religious rite, I keep telling myself that I’m creating open spaces in my mind for words to come, and I’m opening doors in my soul for the Word to dwell.
On the edge of this grief I feel the stirring of new life. It’s microscopic and deep inside me somewhere, below layers of skin and organs. But I know something is different in me, expanding. I know I am stronger and more skilled from what I’ve gone through, and that I have more things to say in this life, though I don’t know yet what form they’ll take.
And I am Mary again, but this time more aware of how fragile, how terribly and wonderfully fragile these acts of creation are. How much courage they take once you know the worst that can happen. I’m not Mary at Bethlehem. I’m Mary at the Annunciation, saying to the angel who told her of the virgin birth, “I am the Lord’s servant. Be it unto me as you have said.”
I am saying, Yes, I will bear life again. The pain and the wonder of it. The labor and the joy. The risk that comes with hope.
I take heart that we celebrate the Christ child coming at the darkest time of the year. He was born, not into a palace, but a place of poverty. A place without adequate resources. Just as I feel now, without anything to give.
Yet still I say, “Be it unto me.” And wait with all my doors flung open.
J.M. Roddy is a freelance and fiction writer and a pursuer of whole-hearted living.