I remember watching my mother make pie crust. First she cleared and cleaned the kitchen counter and sprinkled the surface with powder. It was only then, when she started rolling out the crust that I could really smell the delicious, dry, buttery smell of the dough.I remember the very particular physical movement that she made with her hands, which concentrated the weight of her arms and shoulders, into the rolling pin, that, in turn, flattened the pie crust out across the counter. This movement she then combined with smaller shifts in direction that caused the crust to form a rough circle beneath the rolling pin. I can still see how she sprinkled more flour, now and then, to ensure that the crust would not stick to the rolling pin, or to the counter. She did this with happy little flicks of her fingers.
To me, this has something to do with the essence of motherhood… but I suppose I must reluctantly admit that there probably are mom’s out there who don’t make pies.
More recently I had a disagreement with my wife – the other mother that I am honored to know rather well – who was convinced that it would be a betrayal of her maternal integrity if she did not insist that her sons learn to drive a stick shift. One of our sons (you don’t really need to know which) is a bit of space-cadet (to put it mildly) – so I was advocating on his behalf, timidly suggesting that maybe it would be safer if we acquiesced to his desire to learn to drive on an automatic.
She would hear nothing of it! She learned to drive on a stick, and her father learned to drive on a stick, and by God, her sons were going to learn to drive on a stick! They needed to be able to drive a real car, even if the rest of the world had already given up on real cars.
I had to agree with her.
I don’t think, though, that we have found our “essence of motherhood.” No doubt there are mom’s out there who don’t give a hoot one way or the other about the kind of transmission that happens to be operative in their son’s automobiles.
There are, of course, as many kinds of moms out there in the world as there are kinds of women out there in the world. As nostalgic and fun as it might be, we can’t say that the essence of motherhood is about baking or cars because, of course, these examples are culturally bound to our time and place. Plenty of mom’s don’t bake because they don’t even have a functioning kitchen, and the mom’s who are generous hearted enough to let their sons grind the transmissions of their Subaru Forester’s into second gear, are few and far between.
To introduce what I believe to be the essence of motherhood, I will now indulge in a luxury that I have not often allowed myself to do in a sermon. I propose to read a long excerpt from a book – a beautiful a book that I recently read. The book is called Braiding Sweetgrass and it is by Robin Wall Kimmerer – who is a Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology; and the Director of Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. In addition to being a distinguished botanist and a bestselling author, Kimmerer is also a member of the Potowatomi Nation, who have made their home, for many thousands of years, in what is now Indiana.
The first chapter of Braiding Sweetgrass tells the story of “Skywoman” – the primordial woman who, according to legend, helped to create the world as we know it. I have printed the excerpt in the bulletin for you to read along if you so desire – the reading begins on the back of the insert and ends on the back of the bulletin.
She fell like a maple seed, pirouetting on an autumn breeze.
A column of light streamed from a hole in the Skyworld, marking her path where only darkness had been before. It took her a long time to fall. In fear, or maybe hope, she clutched a bundle tightly in her hand.
Hurtling downward, she saw only dark water below. But in that emptiness there were many eyes gazing up at the sudden shaft of light. They saw there a small object, a mere dust mote in the beam. As it grew closer, they could see that it was a woman, arms outstretched, long black hair billowing behind as she spiraled toward them.
The geese nodded at one another and rose together from the water in a wave of goose music. She felt the beat of their wings as they flew beneath to break her fall. Far from the only home she’d ever known, she caught her breath at the warm embrace of soft feathers as they gently carried her downward. And so it began.
The geese could not hold the woman above the water for much longer, so they called a council to decide what to do. Resting on their wings, she saw them all gather: loons, otters, swans, beavers, fish of all kinds. A great turtle floated in their midst and offered his back for her to rest upon. Gratefully, she stepped from the goose wings onto the dome of his shell. The others understood that she needed land for her home and discussed how they might serve her need. The deep divers among them had heard of mud at the bottom of the water and agreed to go find some.
Loon dove first, but the distance was too far and after a long while he surfaced with nothing to show for his efforts. One by one, the other animals offered to help—Otter, Beaver, Sturgeon—but the depth, the darkness, and the pressures were too great for even the strongest of swimmers. They returned gasping for air with their heads ringing. Some did not return at all. Soon only little Muskrat was left, the weakest diver of all. He volunteered to go while the others looked on doubtfully. His small legs flailed as he worked his way downward and he was gone a very long time.
They waited and waited for him to return, fearing the worst for their relative, and, before long, a stream of bubbles rose with the small, limp body of the muskrat. He had given his life to aid this helpless human. But then the others noticed that his paw was tightly clenched and, when they opened it, there was a small handful of mud. Turtle said, “Here, put it on my back and I will hold it.”
Skywoman bent and spread the mud with her hands across the shell of the turtle. Moved by the extraordinary gifts of the animals, she sang in thanksgiving and then began to dance, her feet caressing the earth. The land grew and grew as she danced her thanks, from the dab of mud on Turtle’s back until the whole earth was made. Not by Skywoman alone, but from the alchemy of all the animals’ gifts coupled with her deep gratitude. Together they formed what we know today as Turtle Island, our home.
Like any good guest, Skywoman had not come empty-handed. The bundle was still clutched in her hand. When she toppled from the hole in the Skyworld she had reached out to grab onto the Tree of Life that grew there. In her grasp were branches—fruits and seeds of all kinds of plants. These she scattered onto the new ground and carefully tended each one until the world turned from brown to green. Sunlight streamed through the hole from the Skyworld, allowing the seeds to flourish. Wild grasses, flowers, trees, and medicines spread everywhere. And now that the animals, too, had plenty to eat, many came to live with her on Turtle Island.
It is not hard to recognize this story as a creation story – a tale that has within it the tell tale moments when all the parts of our world that are familiar to us – the land, and the vegetation have their sacred beginnings.
And yet, even though it shares these thematic qualities with Genesis story that we know so well, there are also crucial differences. The creator, in this story, is feminine. Creation is not something that is commanded from nothing, but rather a collaboration between a woman who comes from heaven, and the animals that already inhabit the primordial sea. Here, life is not something that is imposed from above, but something that happens down here.
Skywoman may come from the sky, and she may bring with her the parts of the tree of life that give sacredness to life – but creation itself happens in our midst.
Creation becomes creationing – a process that is ongoing.
This transformation from “creation” as something that happened in the past – to “creationing” an ongoing, perpetual act of creation – is to me, the essence of motherhood.
I do not say that this is the essence of being a woman – because, of course, you can be a woman without being a mother – but if – if we had no mother’s, creation would have ended as soon as it began.
Creation happened, happens, and will happen. It exists is the past, the present and the future. It is not done.
It is creationing.
And finally, we turn to our scripture reading – story of the birth of Moses and his redemption, from death, by the daughter of Pharaoh.
I refer to this elaborate tale of oppression, and rebellion as another example of “creationing.”
Creationing, this story shows us, is not limited to the act of childbirth.
Moses is born, like any other child, but Moses only survives, because the daughter of Pharaoh has an instinctive and ultimate allegiance that is far greater than any obedience that she may owe to her father.
Her father may seem powerful to some, but in the moment when his daughter lays eyes on the child in the basket – he is of no consequence – he is just a king who lives and dies in time. Creationing – the urge that she is obedient to, plays out across eternity. It is the primacy of life over death – the affirmation that all mothers, in every generation have surrendered their bodies, hearts and souls to. Creationing – the greatest collaboration that we can have with the divine.
The essence of motherhood –
the gift of life.