by Karen Bjork Kubin
- impress or stamp (a mark or outline) on a surface or body:
“tire marks were imprinted on the snow”
– make an impression or mark on (something)
– fix (an idea) firmly in someone’s mind
- (of a young animal) come to recognize (another animal, person, or thing) as a parent or other object of habitual trust.
When I was pregnant with my oldest and reading everything I could about pregnancy and childbirth, I hit somewhere on the idea that it was healthier for the baby if I slept on my left side. Something about blood flow and circulation; the details are lost to me, but it seemed like an easy enough thing to do for my child. Each night I positioned myself on my left side, supremely comforted that it was the best I had to offer in terms of sleeping. I was rarely able to keep my body in compliance, waking during the night on my back or right side, panicking until I felt the baby move. Once I knew he was safe, though, I could fall asleep again in a haze of expectations about motherhood mingled with pleasure that I was already giving my best.
I repeated this pattern with all three children, multiple times a night for many months. And while the haze I fall asleep in now is tinged more with exhaustion and the memories of my own shortcomings, the sweetness I felt in those days has lingered. Before pregnancy I preferred sleeping on my right side. Now my left is my favorite, with a quiet fierceness I never would have imagined. Call it an imprint, maybe. I am glad for it.
A few months ago while helping one of my daughters clear a stack of unwanted clothes from her closet, I accidentally disturbed a nest of baby mice. We had already set traps for the parents, but as I picked up the babies to take outside, my daughters intervened. “Mom, you can’t just leave them out there to die!” I pointed out that we did not want mice loose in the house. That they were getting into our food and generally causing destruction, that the parents were not likely to return, that the babies would not survive without their mother. To no avail. I gave in. For more than a week we offered the tiny creatures Q-tips soaked in soy milk at regular intervals throughout the day.
You can imagine how this ended. But the babies did eat. They raised impossibly small pink paws tipped with even smaller claws to the Q-tip and nursed. My daughters named them and taught me how to tell them apart when I filled in as nursemaid, differentiating them by size, markings, and personality. We compared notes on how to extricate the cotton fibers of the Q-tip from their miniscule teeth when the babies bit instead of sucking. And at some point during the week, these feeding sessions awakened something in me. I knew this particular tenderness from nursing my own children. The gestures were familiar enough—holding such fragile life, the baby reaching up for its source of milk—and when the mice died I genuinely missed the feeding times. Caring for them left something behind with me. An imprint, I guess. I can only hope my daughters experienced something similar, and that it will reverberate later in their lives.
For months I have been thinking of these imprints. Of sleeping on my left side. Of nursing—the fullness in my breasts, the resting of a child’s hand as she drank, the warmth that filled my arms. I spent years patterning these things into my body, but also into my soul. And for years after they have echoed back, sometimes in familiar ways, sometimes in ways utterly surprising.
It might seem like this is a piece about being a mother, but really it is about what we create in our lives. About how, over the last year especially, I have been struck numb by the patterns of greed and selfishness that I see gaining ground in this country, and the role that professing Christians have had in empowering and strengthening these patterns. The more I see, the less I am able to reconcile it with what I believe to be good and true, and the words, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” are an almost constant refrain in my head.
While I am doing what I can to fight for what I know is right, it never feels like enough. My efforts and the efforts of others do not seem to make a difference—at least not enough of a difference. And yet every cell in my body knows how much it matters.
I have been playing violin for almost 43 years. I started early, at the age of 2 ½. My teacher, who also happens to be my father, was an early practitioner of the Suzuki Method in the U.S., which is based on the philosophy that pretty much anyone, even a very small child, can learn to play an instrument the same way they learn to speak their native tongue: through their environment and in very small steps, with much modeling, repetition, review, and positive reinforcement. The point of this is not simply to create fine musicians, but more importantly to develop fine people: people who through their deep study of music have learned deeply about love, compassion, empathy, joy, and harmony.
The point of this also is that things repeated become a part of you. As a musician I count on this—that careful practice builds new neural pathways that translate into new technique, beautiful music, deeper listening, and a quicker, more intuitive response to what I hear when I am playing with others. I describe this to my students sometimes as a path through the woods—it is created by people traveling the same way over and over, until it becomes the easiest way to get where you are going.
Maybe this really is a piece about being a mother, and about being an artist. Not directly, but in that both of these callings—which have absorbed so much of me for so many years—have taught me a lot about how to live. For example, how one acts matters. Not just in the obvious ways, but in the more abstract, farther-reaching ways as well. Love demands I feed and clothe my children, care for them when they are sick, teach them what is important. Love also demands that I see all other children, regardless of anything else, as equally deserving of these things. I cannot provide these things for my children and at the same time support systems, policies, and lawmakers that deny them to others. Love demands that the public and private sectors both work to ensure for others what I try to ensure for my children. If I take from others to give to my own, I have not let love reach all corners of my heart.
In the same way, if I spend so much energy and effort trying to create music or art or poetry that is meaningful, or beautiful, shot-through with light, grace, insight, and love, how can that not spill over into working for these things in the larger world? In communities, in societies, in systems and laws: beauty, grace, and love are at least as important in these venues as they are in works of art.
As mother, as artist, as Christian, as human being, I am distraught by what I hear in the news every day. The powerlessness I feel to stop it angers me, sometimes to the point of paralysis. But there is much we can choose, much we can cultivate. Embedded in motherhood and artistic discipline is the lesson of how change happens, how beauty comes about: however deeply they may be buried, the things we practice regularly become a part of us, ready to flicker to the surface bidden or unbidden. And it seems to me to be the fight of our lives, to lay down paths of love, of compassion, of empathy, of joy, of harmony. Now more than ever.
“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”
A violinist by training, Karen Bjork Kubin works as a free-lance musician, teacher, and conductor in a small Midwestern city. Her poems and essays have appeared in Rock & Sling, Whale Road Review, the Main Street Rag Anthology Of Burgers and Barrooms, How to Pack for Church Camp, and American Suzuki Journal, among other publications. More of her writing as well as links can be found at www.kbkubin.blogspot.com.