Playing My Best
On Johnny Cash, Jesus, and birth
One of the most basic things about me is that I’m extremely into Christmas. Joe says it’s because I’m a mom now, which is both true and not true. I was also into Christmas before I became a mom, but being a mom has given me a more socially sanctioned reason to embrace the season. Lights in darkness, trees indoors, gifts in secret—all of it is extremely my thing, but what is mostly my thing is that it’s a holiday about a baby, and having a couple babies recently has tenderized me to the nativity aspect. And by tenderized, I mean I’m playing Johnny Cash’s cover of “The Little Drummer Boy” again and again until I’m crying and my threenager demands I stop playing that song, and I refuse, and she tells me I’m being rude.
When Johnny Cash sings, “I played my best for him,” his voice cracks a little on the word “best,” like he’s getting choked up, and it gets me every time because that’s also the point in the song where I get choked up. Apparently, we’re not alone. When I Google, “i played my best for him,” I find signs and pillowcases emblazoned with the phrase, and briefly contemplate buying an “I played my best for HIM” T-shirt before reminding myself, as we often must this time of year, that I can appreciate something without purchasing related accessories, that I can simply sing the song, for example, to my 7-month old at bedtime. She still smiles when I sing, like Baby Jesus smiled at the little drummer boy. A medical professional might say Baby Jesus’ smile was just a “reflex smile” because babies don’t smile that early, but I imagine Jesus was probably precocious in several ways. At the same time, he was just a baby, a real baby, like the one I hold while I sing, and I think how babies inspire the same universal reaction wherever you go: people want to make them smile because smiling is one of the only things babies can do; they’re completely helpless, the opposite of gods. And to worship that seems right to me.
Another Christmas carol that gets to me, and which I used to sing to my older daughter before she forbade me from doing so, is a lesser known one called “The Cherry Tree Carol.” The first and only place I’d heard it before seeking out alternate versions was Peter, Paul, & Mary’s holiday concert from 1981, which my mom taped on VHS for her annual December viewing and singalong. This spectacle used to embarrass me when I was younger, much in the way I imagine I now embarrass my 3-year-old. But apparently, Christmas Moms beget Christmas Moms, because now I can’t get through December without Peter, Paul & Mary, nor can I get through “The Cherry Tree Carol” without crying. It’s an apocryphal story about Mary asking Joseph to pick her some cherries while she’s pregnant and Joseph getting angry. "Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee,” he says. So Jesus speaks up from Mary’s womb and asks the tree to give her some cherries. The tree bows down, and Mary says, “Oh look now, Joseph, I have cherries at command.” That’s the part that kills me, I guess because it’s so human. Mary’s being a little petty, and Joseph is, too, and how could he not? His supposedly virgin wife was carrying someone else’s child, and it couldn’t have been easy.
Mary’s pettiness is a little harder to understand, or at least, was for me until I gestated and birthed babies of my own. Then I understood it so clearly that it hurt. There is a basic inequality in how babies are made. Fundamentally: some bodies can make them and some cannot. I wanted desperately to make a baby, was scared for a while I wouldn’t be able to, and the fact that I was able to make not just one but two is by far the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s also the scariest, most painful and traumatic thing that’s ever happened to me. I kept waiting, in my first pregnancy, for the moment when birth would make more sense to me, where my body would feel ready and prepared, and it didn’t come. I know it does for some people, but it didn’t for me; it always struck me as terrifying and impossible, and yet I did it because at that point I had to, and then I chose to do it AGAIN, because my desire for a baby still outweighed my fear, although it was only slightly less terrifying the second time around. (Now my fear definitely outweighs my desire, and I will not be having any more babies.) I'm lucky to have my own Joseph by my side, and it’s been amazing to watch him undergo the parenthood transformation as well. At the same time, it’s been an unequal transformation by basic biological fact. And that’s probably our main source of conflict these days, just as I imagine it is for many couples in which one person has experienced pregnancy and birth firsthand while the other has not.
On the one hand, Joe’s been able to maintain full bodily autonomy through the process of becoming a parent, while my body has been occupied by either pregnancy or breastfeeding for the past four years. On the other hand, my body was able to do this amazing thing that his can’t do, and there’s power in that as well (albeit, power that our society is constantly trying to subjugate and deny, but that’s a subject for another essay). So I feel like I know what it means to have “cherries at command.” Motherhood is a ridiculous gift, an embarrassment of riches, and ALSO an enormous bodily trauma and commitment. And the way “The Cherry Tree Carol” ends with Mary poking Joseph, gently but cruelly, in response to his gentle cruelty, sums up what pregnancy and parenthood has felt like for me, both the miracle and the rift. Ultimately, we’re flawed human beings trying to deal with something too big for us, and I’m into the way Christmas encapsulates this.
Some other seasonal things that move me:
James Merrill’s poem “Christmas Tree,” which he wrote while dying of AIDS.
This defense of Santa by Chanel Craft Tanner from The Remix newsletter.
I’m naming this newsletter after one of my favorite movies, Mike Leigh’s ANOTHER YEAR. My goal is to update it monthly with a vaguely seasonal topic. As anyone reading this probably already knows, we just moved to western Massachusetts after almost a decade in San Francisco, and are thus experiencing distinct seasons again, which I’m excited about and excited to get my kids excited about, so I imagine I’ll continue to be able to link my thoughts at least loosely to this theme. I’m still writing things that I hope to publish in more traditional forms, but have also been craving a more intimate, immediate place to share my writing, so this will be that place. I plan to keep it free and would be honored if you subscribed.