God in the stairwell

Posted by on December 2, 2007

Snow over grass at night

Snow over grass at night © 2007 Julia Mason Wickes.

Today I helped host a baby shower for my friend Sarah. There were baby blankets, little leather shoes, a tiny handmade sweater. There were peppermint brownies, holiday cut-out cookies with sprinkles and red hots, spinach dip with crackers, a gum drop tree, spiced cider, cheese, and more. We played shower games, and also hung ornaments on a tree, each with a word of encouragement for the new parents. We used permanent markers to write funny messages on diapers for the newborn. Outside a snowstorm began and gained momentum, looking beautiful but icy, and at the end, after all the guests had left and taken their party favors, Kim and I helped load Sarah’s trunk with the abundance of baby things consolidated into large pastel gift bags, then quickly ushered Sarah to her car and brushed all of the snow off so that she– in her large pregnant state– didn’t have to. I drove home extra carefully on slippery, white-coated roads. When I got home, Jeff was holding Esme in front of the window and both were smiling and waving.

One mother that came to the shower with her four month-old girl was not able to participate because the baby was upset and crying the entire time, so she was in another room trying to soothe her baby. There were also several grandmothers present.

The shower went well but there were moments leading up to it when I wondered if I would be able to hold up my half of the preparations. I didn’t do any of my baking the night before and planned to begin first thing this morning when I woke up. I began my brownies from scratch and somehow, while Jeff and I were jostling in our tiny kitchen around Esme in her high chair at breakfast time, I elbowed the mixing bowl precariously positioned and all of its batter flipped downward into the sink. I watched the last of the sugar and butter I had in my pantry ooze down the garbage disposal and looked at the clock. I didn’t have time for this. Jeff, in the midst of his end-of-semester crunch, had to go to the library, so I was on my own with Esme. In the end, I threw her coat on over her footie pajamas and lugged her with me to the store. I snagged two boxes of brownie mix off the shelf, ran home, and threw the two batches together while simultaneously finagling the spinach dip and cookie cutters tied together with curling ribbon–one cluster per guest. Esme ran wilder and freer than usual, and as long as she was entertaining herself, I didn’t monitor her too closely, which explains why one of Jeff’s socks was later to be found in the toilet. I was flustered this morning, and, I admit, a little short. I was annoyed with myself for being better at crisis management than regular old management. Why can’t I just plan logically and with organized foresight?

Esme produced a very muddy (cloth) diaper somewhere in the middle of my brownie batter and curling ribbon, and as I was setting this formidable package on top of the diaper pail to deal with later, I remembered that it was December first, and that there was something else happening today besides this baby shower. A friend had written the day before to tell me to pray on December first. Her sister-in-law, who was pregnant and had been due in January, discovered late in her pregnancy that her baby was not developing normally and would live scarcely two days outside the womb. Later, just last week, in fact, she learned that the baby’s heart had stopped beating. She was to be induced this evening, to give birth to a stillborn baby. It would take place after sundown as the attending doctor is Jewish.

This remembrance came to me while I was standing in front of the dryer, by Esme’s diaper pail. I thought about all of the details that I had been attending to, rushing around to stores to find ornaments, cookie cutters, paper cups with Christmas trees on them, doing frantic searches on allrecipes.com. I thought about all of the things that had annoyed me that morning– the overturned batter and the fact that Esme had somehow run off with the kitchen timer and I couldn’t find it, then the sock I had to fish out of the toilet. I thought about the healthy baby boy to be born of Sarah, due right after Christmas, and the joy that people take in welcoming a baby into the world. I thought about how obsessed I am with myself and my life, and ideas about where my life is going, and what I want to do and create. I stood leaning on the dryer, thinking about the two things I had obligated myself to today– to help throw a baby shower, and also to pray for a mother whose baby had died just days ago in the womb. I wrote back to my friend and told her I would pray.

While putting Esme to sleep tonight, she didn’t go down easily as she usually does, and required some extra rocking and songs– probably because I had been gone all afternoon at the shower. I kept thinking about the mother who would have already been grieving the loss of her baby now for days, and the fear of such an unusual labor, such a contradiction in the order of life. I sang lines from the lamentations of Holy Friday over and over and over again while rocking Esme to sleep.

Today He who hung he earth upon the waters
is hung upon a tree.

Today…He who wraps the heaven in clouds
is wrapped in the purple of mockery.

After putting Esme down and closing the door to her dark room I opened up the Lenten Triodion hungry for more of this poetry we sing on the week leading up to Christ’s crucifixion, death, and burial, the week before Easter. Over and over again, the hymns talk of the “strange wonder” of God, the source of life, being laid in the tomb. All of creation stands in fear and trembling, witnessing this strange phenomena of life itself submitting to death and burial, the judge of all, submitting himself to be judged by Pilate, the Word who spoke the earth into existence being buried beneath the earth.

God who has adorned the whole earth with flowers,
is crowned with thorns.

While at the shower, I was happy for Sarah and felt the anticipation of her little boy’s arrival, sure to be tall, smart, resourceful, capable, and good looking like his parents. Another part of me, underneath, was thinking about the mother who would labor to give birth to her stillborn child this evening. It was strange to be thinking about both, and strange to be living in a world that manages to contain both within its perimeters.

I feel strongly that if there is a God, it can only be the God of both.

Shortly after September 11, 2001, I read something that I think about often– a specific phrase. Fr Thomas Hopko was answering the question: Where was God on September 11? He said that God was in the airplane with the people who went down; God was in the stairwell of the collapsing towers, with the people who were trying to get out. This phrase, “God was in the stairwell,” lodged inside of me as a summation, an ultimate explanation.

Everyone at the baby shower joined in a prayer for Sarah and her baby at the shower today, so I hope that God was at the baby shower–the God who adorns the whole earth with flowers. I think that God was also in the womb with the baby whose heart stopped beating last week, the God who is crowned with thorns.

  1. Brad
    December 2, 2007

    Very moving, Julia. One can never be brought too often into the awareness of the paradoxes of life contained in the person of the crucified Christ, and you have expressed that beautifully.

  2. Manuela
    December 2, 2007

    My tears are running down my face…

  3. anna j
    December 3, 2007

    oh, Julia–you hit to the core of my own thoughts today . . . this morning i was frantically trying to get ready in time to make it for practice before church [as i was late last week and still felt guilty about it]. so as i walked in, one of the refugees wanted to “talk” to me as usual, repeating native phrases that I speak back to him in our normal laughing ritual. i was impatient, rushing to show my face reasonably on time. and i was convicted by the selfishness of it all: my well-intentioned punctuality was keeping me from loving a refugee whose life has been one of REAL life or death struggle, who now lives in a project, here in a town where he knows no one, knows nothing about how to live in this country, and who has watched all the members of his family die at the hands of their Tutsi leaders.
    Sure enough, the sermon was about the realities of struggle for our refugee congregants. And I had arrived worried only about my image as a worship leader. I cried as we slowed the service–wishing my tears could be for the heartbreak of the faces in front of me but suspecting that they stemmed more from my own guilt at my repeated failings . . .

  4. Molly Sabourin
    December 3, 2007

    “All of creation stands in fear and trembling, witnessing this strange phenomena of life itself submitting to death and burial, the judge of all, submitting himself to be judged by Pilate, the Word who spoke the earth into existence being buried beneath the earth.”

    Oh mercy, the dichotomy of that is so stunning, so controlled (Christ’s complete and total reign over pride), so poetic. Your grieving friend is most certainly in my prayers.

  5. Ser
    December 6, 2007

    This is such a beautiful post, Julia. I can never understand it when people say things like, “I can’t believe in God because of all the suffering I see. What kind of God allows that?” Because I, like you, must believe in a God of it all, the God of the flowers and the thorns.

  6. Jenny
    December 6, 2007


    This is a wonderful, heartbreaking, expansive post. It’s comforting to be able to check in with you from Kona.

    I miss you.

  7. Julia
    December 6, 2007

    Thank you so much everybody.

    Jenny, it’s good to hear from you…I didn’t know if you were still in Chicago, in transit to Kona, or what. I hope you post on your own blog soon so I can hear about it. I miss you too and also miss just knowing that you’re in my neck of the woods (sniff sniff).

  8. Jamie
    December 7, 2007

    You are a heartbreakingly masterful at making such complex and unfathomable matters seem so simple, Julia. It is always such a comfort to read your words.

  9. Tara T. McIlrath
    December 8, 2007

    Julia, I am Brad Thames’ sister and I learned about you through Manuela. I find your blog to be most outstanding and quite enriching. Especially this one. I, too will pray for your friend.