Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work. So taught the poet Jason Shinder, may his memory be a blessing, and that sentence has become one of my mantras. It works for me on both a poetic level (whatever is obscuring the poem I think I need to write, that very thing is probably what I really ought to be writing about) and a spiritual one (whatever life "stuff" is getting in the way of my spiritual practice needs to itself become the spiritual practice.) The work -- of creativity, of spiritual life, of living -- is made of whatever I experience in the moment, not whatever I imagine I ought to be experiencing, or whatever I had planned to experience.
Lately what's getting in the way of (at least some of) the work is latent anxiety about the certainty that our son will experience pain. This has arisen for me because we've had a few medical adventures recently, and as a result I've been newly-confronted with reminders that just as everyone who lives in a body sometimes experiences pain, so will our little boy. Intellectually I can tell you that nothing he's experiencing is a big deal. (Really, really not a big deal.) But emotionally, the prospect of our son suffering stops me in my tracks. I would do anything to forestall or prevent that, if I could. As would any (healthy) parent; the sentiment is so obvious that it's banal. Of course I wish I could protect him from pain. And I can't.
I know that his minor bumps and bruises and routine procedures are vanishingly insignificant, and that not all children are so fortunate. Take those two little boys who are sick, about whom I wrote back in the fall -- a six-year-old with leukemia; a four-year-old with a brain tumor -- just to name two examples from within my online circle of friends. (Sam appears, thankfully, to be doing great. ETA: As of the next day, Sam's leukemia has relapsed. Gus is finishing chemo; please read his mom's latest update, which talks about their journey and the other kids they've met along the way.) There are so many sick kids in the world. I ministered to a few of them when I was a student chaplain. I know that I would have a much harder time with that part of hospital chaplaincy now that I'm someone's mom. I know in my head that children suffer, but I can't bear to know it in my heart. Or: I know it in brief flickers, and then I put at least a partial lid on that knowing, because I can't inhabit that knowledge and also function in the world. My heart feels too tender.
Several of my friends have been reading and discussing Sonali Deraniyagala's book Wave (see, e.g., Lorianne DiSabato's post after Wave at Hoarded Ordinaries, or Teju Cole's review A Better Quality of Agony in the New Yorker.) Deraniyagala lost her entire family in a tsunami: husband, children, parents, everyone she loved. Wave is her memoir and her remembrance of them and of what she lost. I believe that the book is powerful and well-written and important, bit I don't know if I can bear to read it. There, too, I'm operating out of heart rather than head. I'm inhabiting the realm of yetzirah, emotions, rather than briyah, intellect. Intellectually I believe that Deraniyagala's book is tremendous. Emotionally, I don't think I can face it. At least not right now.
"Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body." I've seen that quote floating around in various forms for years. (It's attributed to Elizabeth Stone, author of A Boy I Once Knew.) Granted, it's a cliché to say that I didn't wholly understand it until I had a child, but I suppose there's a reason why some clichés endure. Yes: some part of my heart is walking around in the world, learning and trying and striving and falling and laughing and wailing and doing all of the things that children do. A part of my heart is out there, independent, living on his own. And I can't spare him suffering, even though I wish I could. It's a kind of emotional and spiritual exposure, as though some part of my own heart and spirit which had been safely tucked-away were now open to the world, to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, to the physical suffering which every body comes to know.
In the Counting of the Omer, today is the day of tiferet she'b'chesed, harmony and balance within lovingkindness. The quality of chesed, of overflowing love, is one that (the kabbalists teach) we and God share. "Parent" is one of our foremost metaphors for God. God is the Parent Who births all of creation, who feels our joys and our sorrows, who suffers when we suffer. And God also manifests through the quality of tiferet, harmony and balance. Today is the day when, as the kaleidoscope of the Omer turns, the two qualities reflect and refract one another. The day of balance within the week of lovingkindness. Lovingkindness filtered and framed through the kind of harmoniousness which arises when everything is in balance.
Maybe my work today is to (re)learn how to imbue chesed with today's quality of tiferet, to temper my overflowing openheartedness with the harmony which arises when good love has good boundaries and balance is reached. Suffering is real, and children experience suffering, and I wouldn't want to be the kind of person who doesn't feel tenderhearted dismay at remembering that reality anew. But today is a day for finding balance within that space of tender heart. Maybe I can find it through celebrating the caregivers, parents and grandparents and nurses and doctors and friends, whose loving hands manifest the presence of God in caring for all of the children in need.