There Is No Nature Without Mother - Memoria Press

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What I Learned From My Mother

Julia Kasdorf

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars                              5
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears and
peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins and flick
out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know                    10
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.                            15
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.                        20
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.


Ezra Pound shrewdly reminded aspiring poets to “go in fear of abstractions.” He was trying to convey the necessity, when crafting verse, to speak about abstract truths by means of particular things in the natural world. In Kasdorf’s poem, “What I Learned From My Mother,” we find a beautiful expression of the love and grace inherent in mother nature, harnessed in mothers, and richly taught to children through particular, physical acts of empathetic love. The result is a poetic homage to motherhood, nature, and compassion—not to mention a most useful guide on how to really live.

Take a moment to read Kasdorf’s poem. Now that you’ve read it, let’s begin our reflection with the proto-Mother, Mary, as depicted in the icon at left. Christ’s mother, the Theotokos (“God Bearer”), provides an archetypal example of how to “love the living” (ll. 1-2). For the life and rebirth of mankind, she accepted God’s calling. She risked ridicule, doubt, and marital strain. She parted with her earthly passions. She loved her Christ child as only a mother can, yet she sacrificed a normal relationship with Him for the life of the world. In a certain sense, the “God Bearer” died for her Son, who died for us. Magnificently, she modeled how to “love the living” by bearing and caring for Him who bore the dark weight of the world for love.

Presence, the act of “being there,” contains remarkable power and restorative potential. Mary, present at the foot of the cross, shows us how to “ease the awful pain” (ln. 16) of this world’s insidious sting.

From this archetype of motherly love we can better understand the particular, human manifestation of being present:

I learned to believe I had the power to ease awful pains materially like an angel. (ll. 16-17)

The word “materially” implies the concrete, the physical—but it is nothing without the spiritual, the abstract—made evident by the simile “materially like an angel.” The spiritual sustains the material, for nothing comes into being or remains so without the work of God and his dominion of spiritual helpers, as Matthew 10:29-30 reminds us, “Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.”

So, just as we learn how to love from our proto-mother Mary, we also learn such profundities from our earthly mothers. Sure, some mothers are not good, as some people are not good. But in this poem we see that Kasdorf’s mother taught her much. After all, motherhood derives from mother nature. A mother fulfills herself most fully through nurturing, not by, for example, workplace accolades, which provide only ephemeral, delusive power. The opening line, “I learned from my mother how to love the living,” veritably illustrates the magnitude of maternal influence. Corporate success, academic degrees, worldly possessions, physical pleasures—none of these have the ability to teach a child how to love the living.

So how did Kasdorf learn to “love the living” from her mother? Was she taught to coexist? Give Peace a Chance? Eracism? I’m afraid the world of the abstract bumper sticker is much too easy. After all, as Elder Zosima reminds Madame Khokhlakov in The Brothers Karamazov, “It is hard to love particular humans and not just humanity in general.”

coexist

In the spirit of Zosima’s point, Kasdorf learned from her mother how to love particular individuals. In her poem she reveals a series of concrete, physical actions that convey such love:

… to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. (ll. 2-5)

Here we recognize the blessing of offering a vase and flowers to someone suffering ill health. The fact that black ants remain on the buds implies the haste with which we must attend to the one in need. Do not fuss; cut the flowers and go. The freshly cut blossoms invigorate with their fragrance; the lively ants transmit being and vitality.

In lines 10-13, Kasdorf relays a simple, yet profound lesson from her mother:

I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy …

The act of attending a viewing of someone we do not know warrants consideration, and the activity leads to a most purposeful end: the healing offer of sympathy.

The poem continually expands our circle of typical behavior, moving us beyond ourselves toward authentic love for others, which we find perfectly represented in the poem’s highest theme, lines 14-15:

I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.

These lines, rich in implication, proclaim an essential point: What are words not given body, made flesh? So for the uncountable sacrifices that mothers make, and in honor of mothers everywhere, I affirm: You have chosen to do more than just speak words, you have given them particular body. “Whatever we say means nothing.” The world is changed and continually upheld by your meaningful presence. All of nature derives from your particular actions and profound being.

Specific acts of compassion and charity, like those Kasdorf can now offer others, are in large part made possible because of mothers.

Likewise, the unifying principle of reality, the Logos, was made flesh. Christ didn’t just send down words of love and forgiveness. He came to earth; he was present with us, before and after the resurrection.

The poem’s closing lines reinforce the exigency of concrete, specific love:

To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.

 


Originally published in The Classical Teacher Summer 2015 edition.

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