May 17, 2007

The Sea is Calm To-Night

Just now I am reading The Known World, by Edward P. Jones, and it is very interesting; historical fiction set in the antebellum south, about slavery. It's not your average book about slavery, but that's beyond my immediate point. My immediate point is that currently in both my work and play reading I have been thinking about life as a slave... a lot.

And in the midst of all this thinking (and this is a little meta, and I'm sorry about that--don't mean to be grandiose), tonight I was in the other room while Brandon was singing a makeshift version of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Brandon's version was not actually about heaven and a chariot, but rather about how great it is to suck your own toes (which is indeed the kind of thing that, if your child does it joyfully enough and often enough, moves you to song). But somehow these lines, which I have heard and sung my whole life, clicked in my mind in a whole new way:

Well, if you get to heaven before I do
(Comin' for to carry me home)
Tell all of my friends that I'm comin' too
(comin' for to carry me home).

And I just felt so sad: so sad for all the people in the world, in the history of the world, whose lives were threatened at every moment by permanent separation. In the novel I'm reading, slaves are constantly having to say to each other, "well...I'll see you in the hereafter!" Because they are being separated by forces beyond their control, and they don't know when or if they will ever see each other again. And it struck me so powerfully that this is what this verse is about: how much heaven means to you, if it is the only place you can imagine where your friends and family will be together, and safe.

Mothers talk a lot about trying to savor every moment: about knowing that the time you can truly be intimate with your child is limited. And it is. Entropy works its sad magic on everything. Time and space conspire to break down not just every physical body, but also every family and every friendship. What to do on this darkling plain?

Matthew Arnold would, let us be true to one another. He's right. But tonight I'm also grateful that my sadness is mostly existential. The philosophical sadness that's in my life is very real, but it's real in a different way than the sadness that was in the hearts of the slaves who wrote "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." No one is coming to take my child away from me. What a lucky thing for me--really, what a rare thing in the larger scope of the world--to be a mother who knows that my baby is sleeping in his bed, and will still be there--safe--when I go scoop him up in the morning.


Beck said...

I found that book very thought-provoking, too. That realization that we are lucky in our safety is a humbling one, isn't it.

Alesia said...

We are lucky in our safety. But haven't you felt, since you've become a mother, that there is a shadow behind every ray of light? Having your own child really sharpens the senses to the possibilty of loss and separation. When has anything ever meant so much to us?