Fire in Her Belly

It was a simple print hung on the wall of a house I hardly knew. I was fourteen, I think, maybe fifteen, and I saw it as I was leaving. The black ink outline of a woman’s full, pregnant body, the orange flame of fire inside. I must have looked confused, or maybe I asked outright: “What is this?” because the woman who lived there tried to explain.

Mary, human body filled with fire, Jesus, Holy Spirit, pregnant with fire, flesh.

I wasn’t much older than fifteen because I was unable to understand. Art — like life — was still two-dimensional, and the idea that an image that wasn’t real could represent the true was too hard for me to comprehend.

I still see that image every Advent, burned into my memory like the fire in her belly.

Last Advent, I, too, was expecting my first child. I basked in the joy of sharing that time with the Church calendar, and I loved that we had much to wonder about. Many of our questions have been answered (she has Gabe’s eyes, my smile, and her own sense of rhythm), but there are still so many. Every morning, she wakes up new, and just when I think I have mastered this parenting thing, she changes the rules. I am grateful that we have been able to make her life beautiful and comfortable, even while so many parents struggle to fill their children’s tummies.

Last Advent, I sang in a stretched-thin gold dress for three nights. I ran out of breath on nearly every musical line, but my voice felt strong. The baby liked the music. I was happy to squeeze a six-month belly into my old concert dress.

This Advent, I had a dream of her sitting in the concert, her eyes wide with delight. I thought she would love it. Gabe, even, thought it was doable. So he dressed her in a plaid Christmas dress and tights and sweater.

She made it through the first song. She didn’t want to listen to us, she wanted to sing with us.

That’s the problem with a baby who’s used to singing: she doesn’t know when to stop.

I use the term “singing” lightly. She scream-sings, shout-sings, utters every single emotion she experiences with her voice. She doesn’t know how not to interact with people — how to just let them be — and so she is apparently a difficult concert baby (which is to be expected at nine months, I suppose).

I was sad to see them get up and leave the room, but also relieved.

Did you hear that baby in the back? Ruined every single cadence.

After Gabe took her out (they paced the entryway for a bit, went downstairs, listened through the floors), we sang a set about flowers, the idea of Mary as a Rose, Christ as a Rose. The lines flooded over me.

There is no rose of such virtue
As is the rose that bare Jesu,
Alleluia.

For in this rose contained was
Heaven and earth in little space,
Res miranda.

Here it was again: “For in this rose contained was Heaven and earth in little space.”

Fire in her belly.

Res miranda — marvelous thing!

As Madeleine L’Engle says, “I do not understand the incarnation. I rejoice in it.”

This is beyond my understanding. It is beyond my reason. I remember feeling the baby move inside me and wondering who this baby would become. How much harder would it have been to allow Jesus to become who he was? Just as I wrote last spring, she is her own, and Mary must have wrestled with the same feelings I have: This is my baby, and yet he is not. He was the fire in my belly, and yet…

I often think what a terrifying honor to hold the Son of God in your womb. Then I think what a terrifying honor to hold any human in your womb. I think of the women who desire a child but aren’t able to carry one. I think of the babies who aren’t wanted. I think of my own mother, the exhaustion, the stress, the deep ache of love. I yearn for a world where hearts are not broken.

Maybe we all have fire in our bellies.

Nighttime Writing

More than once, I remember walking down the dark stairs with a soft yellow light coming from the living room that told me: Mama’s up. It felt like the middle of the night, but it was probably just a dark early morning. What was I doing awake? Nightmares? Maybe. But often it was just the turning of my own mind, a good book that eased me both into life and out of it again, or the feeling that life was happening around me even as I slept.

I would turn the corner and see her sitting on the couch in the half-light of a small lamp. A candle burned on the coffee table, ushering in contemplation. A mug of hot tea steamed beside her. I don’t remember wondering why she was awake. I might have asked her, but what sits in my memory is curling up next to her — her book sacrificially (and I don’t mean that lightly) set aside for the curve of her daughter’s body against hers and the thoughts that came tumbling out of her mind and heart and soul.

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I am fairly certain this was before she started making me tea…

We share so many similarities, me and my mother.

I have been waking up around 3:00AM these days with restlessness in my bones. I am not one of those people whose creativity grows out of sleeplessness, nor am I productive in any tangible way when it is dark. But right now, I am sitting on my couch with a huge pillow behind my back. I have lit the candle my mother taught me created soft space, and I have a mug of loose-leaf tea steeping by my elbow. It is dark except for the candle, the glow of my laptop, and a faint light on the stairs. I can hear my husband breathing as he sleeps, the sounds of his in-and-out drifting down the stairs, making me not so concerned that I woke him with my movements.

Part of the reason I’ve been waking up is someone else’s movement. The little limbs that grow bigger every day, that seem to kick and stretch in perfect rhythm, over and over again like a drum. This is not frustration I feel. This is gratitude.

Lately, my participation in creativity has consisted of giving feedback to high schoolers’ essays, knitting one or two huge rounds of a baby blanket I semi-regret starting, and attempting to dress myself each morning despite me deep desire to crawl back into bed. No time, no time, no time. That is one phrase I am sick of watching run through my head on a tired reel. Perhaps this is why I’m waking up? There’s time now.

Because I don’t remember asking my mother why she woke up in the night, I am left to conjecture. As I approach motherhood, I am convinced it had something to do with little ones needing her constantly. What is alone time to a mother of four? Maybe she even woke herself up on purpose. Maybe she reveled in the moments of candle-lit darkness, the only ones that brought her quiet, ease, and a settling-in with herself.

And then I intrude, a little girl who never once thought: maybe Mama wants to be alone. It never crossed my mind, and she certainly never made me feel that way. She set her book or her notebook aside as though it had merely been filling time until I came down. She made me my own cup of tea. We rested awake together.

I do not yet have anyone to wander down the stairs and ask me to set things aside. I type away and am free to wonder what the future will hold.

Will I wake in the night on purpose to steal a few moments for myself?

Will I find time to write and think and be Catherine, even when most of my creative energy will be going into shaping and caring for and loving a brand new human?

Will I hold in one hand my desire for quiet contemplation and writing, and in the other welcome my child’s sleepy-but-awake body next to mine?

Somehow, I will do both, I am sure. I will learn how to work with the rhythms that come naturally, as well as create new ones that I need. I see my mother’s desire to steal away time for herself, but also her love for her children. I want both of these things.

And so, I start now. It was easy to swing my legs out of bed, to stop trying to fall back asleep. It was easy to create a warm space for me to finally put some words down.

With practice, I will be able to do this anytime, anywhere, with anyone.

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Practicing with my niece. She makes it seem easy.