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Oliver at the dairy farm.

The Milkmaid’s Tale

Pif’s in labour.

The pre-dawn text lights up our shoebox of a bedroom. I roll off the side of the bed so as not to wake my husband, grab my work clothes from a hook on the back of the door and get dressed in the living room to the light of the Christmas tree.

Let it be a girl. Please let it be a girl.

Thankfully science is on side. The genetic engineering seems to be working. Almost all live births now are girls. If it’s a boy we’ll send notice and the buyers will come to take him away.

My face looks back at me out the living room window, superimposed over the lights of Vancouver’s distant downtown. I use the reflection to pin back my bangs and notice my car at street level below entombed in a layer of ice.

Crap.

The universe maintains its indifference and I begin rummaging around the living room for a makeshift ice scraper.

People often ask how we can be so cruel as to send the boys away. I explain that Hammingview is a females-only world. “Theoretically we could sustain ourselves for a hundred years without a male in sight.” The next line of scrutiny is predictable and I try not to sound callous. “Sperm is stored in the deep freeze. It has no expiry date.”

So if Pif’s firstborn is a male I’ll do what I do every time a boy is born at Hammingview- I’ll rub my thumb over his cheek while he chugs down a bottle of colostrum, his eyes rolling to the back of his head with pleasure. Then I’ll step to the side when they come for him and remain willfully ignorant of how he meets his end.

People persist. They want to know if the mothers object when their newborns are taken. “Some do”.  We endure them crying out as we work. But most are conditioned to look the other way, their eyes large and silent, revealing nothing.

I circumvent further interrogation by redirecting focus to the Hammingview nursery. “A room chock-a-block full of baby girl cuteness,” I gush. “It’s hard to keep track of whose daughter is whose.”

The first time I walked through the nursery my eyes smarted. Yvonne was touched by my entry-level sentimentality. Hammingview 101. Then she hastened to warn me not to get over-attached. “They don’t all make it,” she said with feigned objectivity.

Within 24 hours I was over-attached.  It’s a mandatory pitfall for novices at Hammingview. A rite-of-passage for the uninitiated, if you will.

The newborn responsible for breaching the low-lying defences of my heart arrived into this world before the sun was up on January 6. I named her for the day on the Christian calendar when the three kings were said to have visited the Christ Child: Epiphany.

Pif for short.

The bond between Pif and me developed on the side like a secret between friends. She’d await my arrival each day and when Yvonne wasn’t looking I’d spoil her with cuddles, warmed-up milk, and extra rations of cereal. But most of all Epiphany loved it when I sang her dredged up and half-remembered folksongs from my childhood though I’d be careful to stop short of the end verses when things take a turn for the worst. Like when my darling Clementine drowns in a vat of brine down in verse six:

Ruby lips above the water, blowing bubbles soft and fine.

But alas, I was no swimmer, so I lost my Clementine.

While my attachment to Pif deepened so did a growing unease that I was setting her above the rule of law at Hammingview. “She’s got attitude alright,” a colleague offered when I asked. At Hammingview “attitude” is code for trouble. So as Pif and her cohort turned the corner on adolescence and prepared to move in with the other Hammingview teenagers I decided to make the break. There was no final good-bye. I simply didn’t show up for work the day of the move. Epiphany had come of age. This would be a new chapter in her life.

“Mom?”

I start. It’s Oliver standing in the hallway, his pyjama bottoms hanging off his lanky 16-year-old waist.

When I tell him about the text his eyebrows lift. He knows what Pif means to me.

Oliver was alarmed when he first heard that I had a job at Hammingview. Hires from the outside are rare for the industry. I had always worked in the non-profit sector with organizations designed to set society’s hard-done-by back on their feet. When burnout set in I craved manual labour that paid by the hour, gave me back my weekends, and asked little of my heart.

Which is how I mustered the courage to walk up the drive of Hammingview Farms unannounced and inquire about employment. Standing against a bleak November sky Yvonne looked at me suspiciously. “You aren’t one of those activists with a camera hidden inside your coat, are you?” The question confused me.  I thought I was applying to work in the most benevolent industry known to humankind.

My naivety served me well. Yvonne offered me a job on the spot and in keeping with expectations my first few days at Hammingview were exhilarating. The primal connection with this improbable community of lactating mothers was immediate and all in the context of the rhythmic pulsing of the pumps and the steaming-warm sloshing of life’s most sustaining miracle: milk. It had been years since I had weaned Oliver yet the travail of breastfeeding came back to me as though it were yesterday: the involuntary let-down, the frustrations with latching, the cracked and bleeding nipples that never get a break, the ever-lurking risk of mastitis, the engorged mammary glands when milking is delayed, hard as rocks and painful as hell.

“That industrial grade spatula might work,” Oliver proposes as a solution to my ice-removal conundrum before disappearing into the bathroom.

When he was four a Mexican playmate convinced him to set a basin of water and a shoe outside the back door on the eve of Epiphany. “While you are sleeping the Three Kings will stop by your house to give their camels a drink,” insisted his young friend. The next morning Oliver awoke to a tipped and emptied water basin and a shoe spilling with candy. He stood silent for a long time looking out through the slats on our back porch pondering all that had transpired in the darkness on our soggy, East Van lawn.

When he emerges from the bathroom he offers to scrape the car off for me.

“I’ve got it, buddy. You go back to bed.”

For months my decision to cut ties with Epiphany seemed sound. I stuck to the discipline of it, attending to the flow of new arrivals into the nursery as a way of filling the space made empty by Pif’s departure.

Then mid-morning on no-day-in-particular my resolve came up short. This was all the excuse I needed to abandon whatever it was I was doing in the nursery and go in search of her.  She wasn’t difficult to find, lying on the grass with a few friends, her black and white coat glinting in the early summer sun. It occurred to me then how clueless she was about what lay ahead and how these would be the most carefree days of her life at Hammingview. It didn’t seem right to interfere. I turned my back and walked away, glancing over my shoulder for one final look, and there she was!  Standing apart from the others, looking at me.

“Piffy?”

My half-whisper anticipated a well-deserved snub.

Instead Epiphany tossed her head and ran at me with such force I had no time to brace myself for the 700-lb display of adolescent affection. I was knocked to the ground on contact. Laughing I got to my knees and, just like in the movies, threw my arms around her neck promising never to abandon her again.

I wasn’t present when she was inseminated and only learned of her pregnancy when I saw her name on the board. It was in a list with others under the word “confirmed”. While this news meant that her unstructured days of running in a pack and watching the fields turn colour were at an end it also, and more importantly, meant she’d be allowed to stay on at Hammingview. At least for now. Some of the girls “don’t take”. Their names appear on the board under the word “open”. If too many open months pass their names are erased and that’s the last we see of them.

Oliver watches me pull on my boots.

“You okay?” he asks. He knows what’s at stake. 

Hammingview stories are dinner fare at our house. He’s well acquainted with the shortlist of potential outcomes, each with its own variation on misfortune.

There’s Tilly whose daughter was stillborn and Jewel whose wasn’t. Yet where Tilly let milk flow like a tributary of the Fraser River in spring, Jewel wouldn’t relinquish an ounce. No amount of pleading could switch on the oxytocin release mechanism in her brain. A week later the count was out and I knew Jewel had been taken.

Agnes stories are a favourite. I refer to her fondly as the Mother Superior for having given a lifetime of service. Her badge of honour is a limp. It won’t be long before the truck comes for Agnes.

Then there is Dori. Oliver knows it would please me if Pif had even an ounce of Dori’s spunk. She is legend at Hammingview for staging a revolt. It seems she had no intention of being impregnated a second time. Alerted by the syringe and latex gloves neatly laid out on the dispensary table she made a spontaneous break for freedom that left an air gate dangling by a hinge. We found her later that morning at the neighbours’ and had her home by lunch. The next day Dori was “done” and now her belly, like a ripening sadness, grows fuller and heavier by the day.

  “Yah. I’m okay.” I give Oliver a muted smile. “Thanks for asking.”

On my way to the door I stop on impulse at the alcove where our nativity scene is displayed through the Christmas season. The god-baby looks placidly out at the world from his fabled bed of straw.

“You shouldn’t have come,“ I say sullenly. “This world doesn’t do well with ambiguity.”

Oliver heeds my dip into despair before stepping over by my side. Then, with the deliberation of a chess master, he picks up the lone cow resting outside of the stable behind two sheep, removes the three kings from their place at the centre of the action, and sets the broad-faced matron-of-milking-mothers down in the coveted spot beside the manger within reach of the infant’s outstretched hand.

He holds the cow’s back for a moment as though to check for unforeseen danger. Then, releasing his fingers from the game board, he looks me in the eyes and punctuates the move with a grin.

So this is what I want to know. Why does my response to this 16-year old son of mine fall half-a-life time short of what’s in my heart? Why, when what I want is to give him one of those bear hugs that used to leave him laughing and gasping for mercy as a child; why, when what I want is to find just the right words to thank him for accepting me for the off-script mom that I am; why, when what I want is to let him know how fiercely I love him, do I manage nothing more than to hold up the spatula between us.

It’s not the response of my heart but when he gives the spatula the high five I’m looking for I know it’s response enough. I open the door and head outside into the frosty darkness.

* Story longlisted for CBC’s 2020 Nonfiction Prize

Sacred Stories in a Secular Age

After 20 years working with children and youth in a performing arts program that stages biblical narrative, I find myself wondering about the value of sacred stories.  Apart from giving shape to the religious tradition they represent what role do they play in culture?  Do sacred stories offer anything when it comes to the spiritual and psychological health of humans? Is the loss of a sacred story tradition one of the casualties of secularism in the west?  Are our children and youth suffering from sacred-story deficit disorder?

I was raised on Bible stories so I know most of the fault lines when it comes to sacred narrative traditions. Here are a few of the most commonly cited reasons from people I know who have abandoned the religious narratives of their childhood:

Fault line #1: Traumatic
When God comes across as scowling and vengeful in one sacred story after another it is hard to trust the purported loving side of this, or any other, divinely-appointed authority figure. Indeed, the punishing nature of God as portrayed in Bible stories has been such a source of trauma for some that it remains an open wound well into their adult life.

To this day my younger brother (now in his mid-40s) tells the story of the time as a kid he returned from the corner store where he’d gone raptureto buy a pack of gum only to discover that the house was empty. He walked around calling out and when no one answered he concluded to his horror that Jesus had returned and that for some wrong-doing in his young life he had been “left behind”. I came home 1/2 an hour later to find him balled up alone and crying in the corner of the couch.

Fault line #2:  Boring
For some Sunday School experience was a source of such unbearable dullness that they thought they would pass out for lack of oxygen before the class was over.moses

The issue isn’t action. There is plenty of action in Bible stories. The issue rather is plot. The fact that the outcome of all the action was too predictable. The end was always the same:
A God who had the unfair advantage of all the power in his court would inevitably appear on the scene to save the hapless human antagonists from themselves or condemn them to their misery.  Kids aren’t fooled by a story with tension points that are less than convincing.

Fault line #3:  Colonial                                                                                  Christianity has been thoroughly critiqued in our post-modern context for the way in which its exclusive claims on religious truth displaced indigenous story traditions around the world.

I grew up among the Kikuyu of central Kenya at a time when western colonialism wasn’t yet a full generation old. 14-03-02-g-2-kk-largeStill in that one generation the centuries old Kikuyu origin myth of the nine-daughters placed on the land at the base of Mt. Kenya had been all but replaced by the Garden of Eden origin story introduced by Christian missionaries.

Later in life when I moved to the west coast of British Columbia I learned that the local origin myths of Canada’s indigenous peoples had suffered a similar fate. The “white man’s” Adam and Eve was rolled out over top of creation stories such as the Haida’s account of the first humans being coaxed out of a clamshell by a raven.

Fault Line #4: Exclusive
One of the most troubling features of so many sacred narrative traditions are their harsh exclusions.  Whether on moral or cultural or political grounds it seems that too often sacred stories have a hidden agenda of advancing the political or social privilege of one group over all others.sodom

One of my brothers is gay and because of the blatant prejudice of stories like Sodom and Gomorra, historical context notwithstanding, he has felt marginalized, hurt and angry by the community of people who refer to these stories as “sacred”.

Fault Line #5:  Caricatured
Sometimes it seems that all that is left of Bible stories in pop culture is to spoof them. And its easy to do especially in their caricatured Sunday School version. The great greybeards and the bathrobes and the walking sticks and the all-important dialogue. What’s not to poke fun at.

A colleague who works with me in staging biblical drama showed this You Tube video to me a few years back. We laughed.

(If you find yourself offended (I was a bit defensive!) remember that parody is a sign of health for any thought system, religious or otherwise. It keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously.)

So if sacred stories are traumatizing and boring and colonizing and and exclusive and ridiculous what’s left?

I’d like to think a few  (maybe even important) things

Here’s a list for starters. You’ll notice that it’s based on my personal (i.e. limited) experience of having been raised on the stories from the Judeo-Christian tradition. It’s not meant to be an exclusive or a promotional or exhaustive list, but it is what I know. I would love to hear where your own list merges and where it departs, especially those of you reading from other faith/spiritual backgrounds.

1) Sacred stories create a capacity for the soul to hold and live with paradox.                                                                                                      Good sacred stories are honest about the complexity of the human experience and challenge our polarized modes of thinking where everything needs to be divided into the good and the bad andd2e2bb50a89a2523f360385541684409 separated out into the categories of the deserving and the undeserving. The ability to understand reality as non-dual has been described as one of the hallmarks of mature spirituality.

Example: The stories of David contain paradox. He was a conflicted person, who failed himself and his people again and again, yet this did not disqualify him from deep personal encounter with God.

The Shepherd David (E.Bouguereau,1895)

2) Sacred stories carve a pathway through loss and death.
The changing leaves of autumn are a reminder that decay, death and rebirth are an integral part of life at both the micro and macro levels. People need stories that show us a way through death. A strong sacred story tradition gives us the template we need to journey through loss into renewal with an open heart.

Example: The Christian story of Jesus’ journey through death offers a narrative path.

7cdb01593fb27200f88d10d99664a6f1Christ in Gethsemane- by Michael D Obrien

3) Sacred stories enable us to face our “dark side”.
Sacred stories want us to grapple with the truest version of our self including coming face to face with the tyranny of our own ego and the death it must go through for us to live beyond our fears and defenses. We live in a culture where it is second-nature to blame everyone else for our problems. Good sacred stories insist that before we turn our need for “someone to pay” outward we img_0517ask whether the thing that is holding us back resides within.

Example: The stories of the Jewish prophets exemplify this spiritual
practice. The starting point for their careers was personal inventory, i.e. acknowledging their own insecurities and fears before God before making a single pronouncement about the shortcomings of others.                          

Isaiah: “I am undone.” (Loren Balisky, 1997)

 

4) Sacred stories provide an arena for grace.

785px-rembrandt_harmensz_van_rijn_-_return_of_the_prodigal_son_-_google_art_projectI think of grace as a processing plant for suffering and pain. Grace is a
huge spiritual concept which includes confession and mercy and forgiveness and sometimes even reconciliation. Good sacred narrative will hold this almost impossible space without becoming simplistic or silly about it’s potential.

Example: The story of the prodigal son and the embrace of the watchful, non-judgemental father.                                                              

                                                                                  Rembrandt, Return of the Prodigal Son

5) Sacred stories nurture a relational connection to God/the Creator        In a study to identify what it is people value when they speak of their”spirituality”, researchers identified two things:

  • a sense of close personal connection to God (or nature or the universe or whatever term each person used for higher power)
  •  a vital source of guidance

Relationship with the transcendent/divine is at the core of spirituality and sacred stories reflect this.  They provide images for what this relationship can look like and biographies of those who have embraced (or rejected) the relationship.

Example: The story elements contained in the Psalm 23 would be a classic example of this. That one Psalm alone sums up the spirituality img_0516of many who live very simple lives of faith. My great grandmother, Betsy is a good example. As my Dad tells it her life was unbearably hard. She was widowed young, raised six children on her own, laboured at back-breaking jobs in commercial kitchens to the point of mental collapse. Somewhere along the way she stopped going to church probably due to a combination of weariness and social stigma. Yet in her old age she would stop my Dad, then a teenager, in his tracks, and say, “Ronnie, not a day of my life passes when I do not remember that the Lord is my shepherd.”

6) Sacred stories create an enchanted universe where everything belongs. 
Children live in an enchanted universe when they know they belong to it and it belongs to them. Like the Kikuyu whose creation myth tells them their people were created on location at the foot of Mt. Kenya and the Haida whose origin story tells them “two-leggeds” first emerged from a clam shell on the beaches of Haida Gwaii. Myths and rituals hold children and youth. They give them a place to land their own lives and know that they have not been cut loose in the universe to figure it out on their own.unknown-1

In the story guild program that I developed the kids say a prayer that goes like this “Thank you God that my story is held in your story.”

Example: Most origin myths of traditional peoples including the origin myth found in Genesis 1.

In summary then, here’s my case for sacred stories:

First, what they are not.  Sacred stories are not political platforms. They are not morality tales. And contrary to popular opinion sacred stories are not inspirational stories advocating up-standing character traits.

Sacred stories are metaphorical narratives that speak to the deep-level questions and longings of our soul.  At their best they give us a symbolic roadmap that helps us find a way through struggle and separation toward wholeness and community. They hold our lives at a sub-conscious level and fortify our minds at a conscious level. Sacred stories are about the greatest of undertakings whether individual or collective: the journey of transformation into the fullest expression of what it means to be human. 

To this end I would include epic narrative like The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars as contemporary forms of sacred story.

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Though I wonder how tellable they are, i.e. sitting on grandfather’s knee? (That’s a different blog).

Sacred stories were once considered essential guides into and through life’s so-called Big Questions. They are now on the endangered list in western, secular culture.  Good? Bad? Inevitable? Will it make any difference human development and thriving? I’m curious to hear your thoughts.