Elisabeth’s Friends

Note: This post was started a long time ago, then abandoned. I’ve just started knitting a new blanket and thinking about it again (which will make sense if you keep reading :))

I’m often surprised at what grabs my attention at Christmastime. This year, it was Luke 1:57-58:

“Now Elisabeth’s full time came that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son. And her neighbours and her cousins heard how the Lord had shewed great mercy upon her; and they rejoiced with her.”

I’ve been wondering about Elisabeth’s neighbors. Surely among them were one or two who had also longed for children they couldn’t have, to whom God had not shown the particular mercy he showed Elisabeth. It seems likely they would have been Elisabeth’s closest friends, sharing the pain of what they called barrenness, puzzling over and understanding together the unfairness of what others attributed to God’s cursing. Did they join in the rejoicing? How? At what cost in choked-down grief and forced smiles and quick exits for private sobbing? I once hosted a baby shower for a friend about 4 hours after having a post-miscarriage D&X–going ahead with it seemed simpler than calling everyone and explaining what had happened–so I have some small idea whereof I speak.

But my own mercifully brief experience with infertility and miscarriage is long past, so I’m not sure why it’s so much on my mind this season. Maybe only because it’s one kind of suffering I know a little about, and the contemplation of Jesus’ birth forces awareness that joy is rarely unalloyed; the suffering of His parents and other poor people are key narrative elements in the story of his birth, and the portents of His death and burial are present already in the myrrh and frankincense of the wise men (to say nothing of the slaughter of children ordered by Herod, which I am completely unable to deal with philosophically or any other way).

Perhaps it is also because this particular grief is one which seems omnipresent in a family-oriented church, and so many of my friends are grappling with it, at the same time as many others of my friends are welcoming babies and the new set of struggles that arrives with each one. I wonder how to be one of Elisabeth’s true friends, how to mourn with my friends who mourn while remaining ready to rejoice truly and deeply at the miracle of each birth.

For now, my woefully partial and inadequate solution is… knitting. I have a pile of half-finished baby blankets, and while I’m lousy at more conventional forms of prayer, I’m pretty good at thinking of my friends while I’m knitting and purling. And, although I ordinarily don’t think knitting in Sacrament Meeting is proper*, I always work on baby blankets on Sundays when babies are blessed–my friends know I am knitting for them, and it is a way to signal that I am remembering their hurt and doing the best I can to enter into it with them.

Strangely, graciously, it seems that as I stretch myself out in this tiny way, my puny attempts at charity have the effect of unraveling my own troubles, even when those troubles are not ameliorated in any tangible, obvious ways. This gives me hope that even though we can’t make sense of the apparently random suffering and unrewarded righteous longings of latter-day Zacharias and Elisabeths, the mere attempt to live up to our baptismal covenants has real power to bind up our wounds–that “having our hearts knit together in love” can begin to heal the ragged edges of our variously broken hearts.

Comments

  1. Kristine says:

    *I feel compelled to try to avert a threadjack by noting that I don’t mind at all if you (or your mother, son, or best friend) knit in Sacrament Meeting. It feels funny to me, so I don’t usually do it. Possibly, I am masking my embarrassment at my pathetic handwork skills in faux piousness. It happens.

  2. Gorgeous observations, Kristine. Surely there is a word for this experience, so much richer than just Schadenfreude inverted. It strikes me that a similar struggle is present for those who deal with severe anxiety, that enervating doubt or pain in the presence of one’s own happiness. Surely our theology of Atonement should encompass, perhaps even especially, these kinds of pain.

  3. And I take umbrage (though still I can’t reconcile myself to the existence of this word) at your implication that knitting in sacrament meeting is less than pious.

  4. I know it’s not hte exact tangent you were making, but I always feel a little like I am praying when I knit. (And I love to knit) There is something theraputic, and inward about the repetition and rhythm- almost like a Budhist chant or a Hindi mantra.

    I wish I could knit in Sacrament Meeting- I would probably get a lot more out of it than I do chasing my kids and trying to keep them “reverent = quiet”.

    Thanks such a thoughtful post. I’m glad you got around to following your thought through.

  5. Kristine says:

    Tracy, when they get just a little bigger, you can teach your kids to knit in Sacrament Meeting and all live happily ever after! (I learned to knit from my then 6-year-old!)

  6. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    Bittersweetly beautiful post, Kristine.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    The word “knit” derives from Old English cnyttan “to tie with a knot, bind, fasten,” which seems an appropriate image as you bind yourself to your friends with your needles and yarn.

  8. Kristine says:

    Tracy–when your kids get just a little bigger, you can teach them to knit in Sacrament Meeting, and then you’ll all live happily ever after. (I learned knitting from my son, when he was 7).

  9. Julie M. Smith says:

    I’m a little slow, so please forgive me–are these blankets for your infertile friends?

    This reminds me of a story: a dear friend was a decade past the typical age at which Mormon women marry. She went to visit her grandmother, who more or less hurled a quilt at her and said, “I give these to all of your cousins when they marry but I doubt I’ll live to see you married.” I mention this because we so rarely celebrate people (especially female people) and the few times we do are wedding and baby showers–what salt in the wounds of the single and infertile. I wish people made a bigger deal of adult birthdays, but I suppose that is another post.

  10. Kristine says:

    Julie, yes–the hope is that by the time I’m finished knitting (I’m slow!), they’ll have a baby to wrap in the blanket. I haven’t quite figured out what to do with the ones for friends who don’t every have babies–that’s why they’re half-finished.

  11. Steve Evans says:

    Kristine, a wonderful post and a great way of approaching the sentiment. There is some real pain out there, and knitting won’t solve all the problems in the world — but it’s a very, very good start.

  12. Thomas Parkin says:

    “Surely there is a word for this experience, so much richer than just Schadenfreude inverted.”

    Love?

    ~

  13. Beautiful post.

  14. Thomas, it seems I was being obscure. I meant pain at other’s happiness, not motivated by hatred or misanthropy, as is Schadenfreude, but motivated by one’s own deep sorrow.

  15. Yes, Schadenfreude inverted. Sometimes I find it easier to mourn with those that mourn than to rejoice with those that rejoice — if I’m coveting the object of the rejoicing. I love the image of you knitting during those times of joy-pain. During the next baby blessing, I will imagine you are knitting for me!

  16. Kristine, I once heard a documentary about a woman who “knitted in the service of God”. I love the idea of our handwork blessing those around us who are suffering as well as those who are celebrating. Thank you for this lovely post.

  17. This is a beautiful post, Kristine. Thank you. As I have gotten older, one of the things that I have appreciated most is those who are close to me that managed to celebrate and be happy for me or others close to me when there was every personal reason not to.

  18. Thomas Parkin says:

    Sam,

    Gotcha. Should have read closer.

    ~

  19. Thanks for this, Kristine.

    I wonder how to be one of Elisabeth’s true friends, how to mourn with my friends who mourn while remaining ready to rejoice truly and deeply at the miracle of each birth.

    I wonder about the same thing, sometimes. It’s not easy to support others in trial, particularly when my own dramas and difficulties too often take center stage. So I don’t always do right, or even intend right. But I do hope for improvement — that with time, I’ll better learn to see beyond my own troubles, and better become one of Elisabeth’s friends.

    Perhaps I just need to take up knitting. :P

    the mere attempt to live up to our baptismal covenants has real power to bind up our wounds–that “having our hearts knit together in love” can begin to heal the ragged edges of our variously broken hearts.

    I hope so, Kristine.

    Some pains, only time and eternity will heal. Others are helped by having friends to lean on or turn to for support. There’s much to be said for knitting, physical or virtual.

    Thanks for this post. Your virtual knitting made me smile, today. And I hope that the process of knitting has helped, just a little, to unravel some of your own troubles.

  20. Kristine–I’ve endured 6 years of infertility hell and if one of my friends gave me a hand-knitted blanket symbolic of their hope in my eventual fecundity, I’d weep for the beauty of their kindness and compassion.

    Interesting note on knitting: it helped invent the “modern” family model for infant/mother bonding. According to historicist Lynn White, parents during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries paid little heed to their small children. Toddlers often fell prey to hypothermia and pulmonary infection, and parents apparently felt reticent to form strong attachments. The humble invention of knitting gave parents a way to combat the high infant mortality rate. Mothers could take up needles and battle the cold, physically creating a protector as powerful as prayer. The resultant drop in child deaths (says White) was largely instrumental in creating a society where parents risked becoming what we think of as the “natural” family. It seems reasonable to surmise that the mother’s act of contributing to her child’s health deepened that bond; she knew the works of her hands could make a difference.

    You’re working at it from the other end, I suppose–symbolically just as powerful, I wager. Beautiful post, and much appreciate by this infertile gal. (BTW, I crochet in church and wouldn’t survive General Conference if it weren’t for the soothing motion of chain stitches.)

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