Glory be to God for Dappled Things (Ziggy's birth story)

When I was in third or fourth grade, I had a recurring nightmare. The details varied, but the feel of the dream was always the same. I was outside at dusk. The light was violet and fading, and I was turning from side to side, trying to find something in the shadows. But I couldn't see. Everything was dim and out of focus. I would blink again and again, trying to open my eyes wider, trying to wipe away the blurriness, but no matter how frantic I became, my vision held only shadow and twilight.

In real life, I had just gotten glasses, and I had said to my mom, breathlessly, as we walked out of the optometrist, "I can see the points on the stars!" It was the happiest thing in the world. And apparently, once I could see clearly, my subconscious had some issues with it ever having been otherwise. But I don't think that was all there was to that dream. You know that story about how Mozart's mom would get him out of bed by playing an incomplete scale on the piano, because it would bother him so much he would have to run downstairs to complete it? That's me. I like resolution. Not just in my eyesight, but in everything. I like the sort of books about which critics write, "Everything was tied up a little too neatly." I like to analyze things; to classify them and to understand them. It's not that everything must be literal: metaphors with multiple interpretations are okay; open-ended symbolism is okay—as long as I can cobble together some meaning out of it, I'm fine. But deliberate obscurity? Purposeful lack of resolution? It literally gives me nightmares.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Let me begin again.

It wasn't easy being pregnant with our eighth baby. I don't mean to be insensitive by saying that. I know that any pregnancy is a blessing; and a healthy, normal pregnancy even more so. I certainly didn't have any discomfort bad enough that I'd feel okay complaining to a pioneer ancestor about it. And I am lucky enough to really like many parts of being pregnant! So when I say it wasn't easy, I don't mean more or less than this: it was uneasy. I was uneasy. Not in a foreboding sort of way, but in an unresolved sort of way: I felt like I had unfinished business, and it nagged at me.

Well…pregnancy is unfinished business by definition, honestly. So what was different? I don't know if I can describe it, and I always feel hesitant to share too much about questions of family planning. It's so personal! And it doesn't belong to me alone. But lately I've been feeling that maybe too little is said, collectively, on the subject, and then people end up feeling like they're the only ones struggling to figure it out. So I will just say that the decision about if and when to have more children has never been simple for us—nor do I think it's meant to be, though maybe it is for some people. For me, it's been a time when preferences and duties and abilities, hopes and insecurities and expectations, become all tangled up in the long strands of eternity, and my clumsy mortal fingers seem incapable of loosening those knots. 

This time it was no different. We prayed and considered and waited and disagreed and questioned. I kept telling Heavenly Father that I truly would sacrifice whatever he required! I assured him that I was ready to obey whatever course he had in mind for us. All I asked was that I could please KNOW what that course was. I felt I could handle anything…except uncertainty. And then of course I would think of those lines from Lead Kindly Light: Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see/ the distant scene. One step enough for me. And somehow I feared deep down that that was the sacrifice God was going to require.

And that's exactly what transpired. Moments of clarity between long stretches of obscurity; whisperings, large and small—but no road map. No vision of what was to come. Nothing tangible to grasp except a hundred quiet assurances and a repeated message which was beyond words but sounded something like: Wait, and you'll see.
I really would have rather seen RIGHT NOW, but I held on to that assurance through the months, before and after I found out I was expecting. And life was full, as it always is, of schedules and deadlines and immediate concerns. I alternated between busy days not even remembering I was pregnant, and long, wakeful nights where I was full of questions and fears. As when I was pregnant with Theodore, I wished for more time to sit and ponder, maybe to get some glimpse of who this baby was, but it was so hard to slow down and actually do that! Light and shadow, the summer raced on.
There was one, very small and silly, worry that I was able to let go of—so small and silly that I hesitate to even reveal it here. But it had been nagging at me for a long time. It had to do with symbolism. You're going to think it's so dumb! But I love learning about the visual and numeric symbols in the temple and in the scriptures. And as you may know, seven is a number that usually means completion, satisfaction, fullness—think of the seven days of creation, or the seven dispensations, or the colors in the spectrum, or the notes in a musical scale. And so it had always been a girlish dream of mine to have seven children and then…I guess…to know that they were a complete set. Ha! So being pregnant with an eighth…well, of course I knew it didn't matter, but my mind just kept circling around it. "But if seven is completion, then…what is eight? Just nothing? Just superfluous? What does it mean??"

I mentioned it, sheepishly, to Sam, and he proved his worth yet again by answering me like it mattered. He reminded me that eight has symbolic meaning too: often, it symbolizes rebirth. A new cycle; a new beginning. Think of the age of accountability, or Christ being resurrected on the eighth day. Furthermore, an eight-sided shape often symbolizes a mediation or conduit between earth and heaven. I hadn't known or remembered any of that, but it made me feel so much better! And I felt it brought just a few more pixels'-worth of resolution to the blurriness in my vision. I just knew there was a message for me in there somewhere—that somehow, this eighth baby would help me open up the channels between heaven and earth. Even though I didn't know quite how. Wait, and you'll see.

In August we headed up to Idaho for the solar eclipse about three weeks before the baby was due. I was unusually worried about the trip. I've had enough babies, and enough variation in their births, that I feel pretty calm about letting them come when they want to come. They've ranged from 2 1/2 weeks "early" to a week "late," so I don't have much of a pattern. But hearing everyone talk about how crowded and congested everything would be during the eclipse, I just kept having visions of having the baby on a crowded road, with no midwife, or in an unknown hospital, and I couldn't stop worrying about it! The worst part was that every time I started to pray about it—to ask that please, the baby wouldn't come until AFTER our trip—I felt constrained against such a request! The feeling of wrongness was strong enough that I changed my prayers, to ask simply for courage, and resilience, and the ability to accept whatever happened, instead. And that worried me even more!

But then, of course, as it turned out, the eclipse was amazing and wonderful, and the trip couldn't have been better! Seeing the "heavens declare the glory of God" was an experience unlike any I've had before. The sudden coolness, the change in the quality of light, the unearthly speed of the shadow racing towards us—well, I've written about it all before. But in spite of the signs and portents, what there wasn't was chaos. No apocalypse, no overturned plans. And not even a hint of a baby! So I couldn't even pretend to understand the constraint I'd felt before the trip.

We got home. The family endured my sudden and acute determination to contain all clutter behind peaceful, empty, white surfaces, and I got a remodeled laundry room out of it. And then suddenly it was Labor Day, and I was lying in a hammock listening to the kids laugh themselves silly as they fell in and out of other hammocks, and watching the nearly-full moon rise over my belly as the sunset lit the sky. (I already told you about all of that, in the prequel to this story.)

I sat on the porch swing and called Cathy, my so-much-more-than-midwife, and told her my water had broken and I was starting to have a few contractions. After my call, she started loading up her car and then, she told me later, suddenly felt a whisper of warning, and broke down crying to her husband. "I'm not going to make it in time!" But he hugged her and sent her off anyway, hoping. As she drove she called one of her students, Amber, that lives close to me. "Go over to Marilyn's. Hurry!"

Meanwhile, I went upstairs and woke up Sam. It was 6 a.m. "Is it time for a baby?" he whispered, and I shrugged and nodded and we smiled at each other, sleepy-eyed. Sam put on some clothes and started inflating the birth pool while I leaned forward onto the bed, and then sudden as lightning I felt a contraction tear through my back and legs and belly. I know you have to breathe through these things, but I couldn't breathe. I was too surprised, although surprised is too mild of a word for it. I felt like the world stopped. A hundred thoughts flashed, complete, into my head, like phrases written on a chalkboard with glow-in-the-dark paint:
The baby is coming NOW.
Cathy won't make it.
There is no time.
I'm not ready.

In all the shock and terror and endlessness of that moment, I looked up and met Sam's eyes, and he knew immediately. All he said was, "I'm not going to have time to put water in this tub, am I." And I shook my head and felt myself fall into the unknown.

Oh, I don't want to overstate it. I've been in this labor-space seven times before, and there is always a time when it feels too fast, too soon, and you think "No, wait, I can't, I'm not ready!" So it wasn't totally unknown. And the intensity—I've felt that too. Moments that just sweep you away, out of time, out of space; bridges you have to cross under your own power and alone. I've had labors that are slow and ceaseless and dreamy, and those, too, have their own shadowlands. But this was just…so soon. So sudden. All I could think, over and over, was I'm not ready; please, I'm not ready.

Even amid all the intensity of the moment, I knew this was unreasonable. This was nothing like the worry of a premature baby like some of my friends have had. This wasn't birth complications or emergency surgery or stillbirth. This was basically me just…stubbornly holding on to what I had wanted for this birth. I wanted Sam to give me a blessing. I wanted warm, soothing water. I wanted Cathy! I wanted time to breathe and pray; time to feel the angels I'm convinced attend every birth. I wanted THIS to be the culminating moment where my vision finally cleared, where everything came into focus and made sense. I'd been waiting all this time, trusting that unspoken You'll see. But here I was falling to my knees on crackly plastic in an empty birth pool, Sam by my side saying a little helplessly, "Wait…don't push yet…can you wait?"

But I couldn't wait. And it was terrifying, this feeling that all this was happening TO me, like being shaken and carried off by some malicious wind. I wailed again in my mind, "I just can't, not yet; I can't do it!" and it was almost like I heard Cathy's voice saying firmly, "Marilyn. You ARE doing it." And so I reached out between the surges of the storm and took my own breath back in one long shuddering sigh, and stopped fighting.

The pushing took over, like waves, and I knew I still wasn't in control but now I actively let it carry me, breathing myself down into the deep. Sam, his own moment of fear past, was confident again, and strong, telling me it was okay and just let go, breathe, let the surges come. I heard the front door slam and footsteps coming up the stairs as Amber, hearing the sounds I was making, dropped her bag and ran.
Instead of time running long and unbroken and continuous as it should, it felt like a series of unconnected moments; a slowing reel of stop-motion pictures, jolting me from breath to breath with only darkness in between. I prayed out loud, gasping out the words without planning them: "Help me, Heavenly Father and Mother!" But this time I let the disappointments fall away; didn't insist I wasn't ready. I just asked for a moment. One moment to collect my strength.

And immediately there was peace surrounding me, and the surges stopped. I breathed. The dawn light came in through the windows and time stopped and I prayed my thanks between heartbeats. And then as I felt my back and legs and lungs tense with the promise of another wave approaching, I gathered up all that gratitude and courage and whispered, "Okay. Let it come."

And at 6:29, twenty-nine minutes and an eternity from the time I woke Sam, I gave one last push with every scrap of power I had, and that eighth baby slipped out all at once, head and legs and feet in one motion, and I reached down and pulled him against me and collapsed back against the tub, shaking, crying, smiling, and saying, as I always say, "I can't believe it. We did it. You're here."
Gerard Manley Hopkins, poet and priest, wrote of shadow and light:

Glory be to God for dappled things – 
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; 
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; 
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings; 
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough; 
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim. 

All things counter, original, spare, strange; 
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) 
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; 
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: 
                                Praise him.

I read Hopkins in college and I thought I understood this. I thought he was praising…well, quirkiness, for lack of a better word. Praising a God that could love us with all our blemishes, glorying in the unexpectedness and peculiarity that arises from a diverse and fallen human race. 

But now I read it differently. I read it and I see myself walking a winding road through dense forest, leaf-shadow above me. I can feel the sun's warmth at intervals; I can see its light as it falls "in stipple" on trout and chestnut and finch's wings. But the branches block my view and I pass in and out of shadow, only sometimes ascending for a moment into a clearing where I can see my path unwinding ahead and the shape of the sun above me, only to descend back again into the dappled shade.

I see myself walking through the banded twilight of my childhood fears, blinking hard but still unable to clear my vision completely. And I see in this poem a wanderer that is aching to find solidness and meaning amid that shifting light and shadow, and only, at last, finding it as she accepts all as "fathered-forth" by God—"swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim"—all of it given, and all of it received.
It took me an embarrassingly long time to come to terms with this birth. I'm still waiting, in some ways, to feel the sense of resolution I so crave. Yes, the moments after the birth were sacred and beautiful, as they always are. The morning sun rose glowing through distant smoke, bright red over the mountains. "The heavens declare the glory of God," I thought, as I had thought during the eclipse. The other children crowded in to see the baby and delight in the excitement and newness of it all, and the room was full of noise and light and love. The baby, new and helpless and still attached to his cord, crawled up my stomach to nurse, and we marveled at the miracle of it. Cathy arrived and we cried a little together, and she helped Daisy cut the umbilical cord, and did the baby's newborn exam while I showered and then fell into bed with that particular exhilarated exhaustion that only comes after supreme effort. Abe ran downstairs to make pumpkin chocolate chip muffins, and Seb and Malachi debated names and who the baby looked like, and the girls clustered around us like a flock of little twittering, cooing doves. And I was happy, as I knew I should be.

But I felt disturbed, too, and unsettled. I couldn't shake a feeling that I'd done something wrong along the way; that somehow I should have known the baby would come so fast, and prepared myself accordingly. I still felt kind of numb and shaken from the intensity and speed of the labor. And, although I hadn't thought I'd had any idea of whether the baby would be a boy or a girl, when we discovered that he was a boy, I realized that somewhere deep down in my subconscious, I'd had an irrational conviction that it HAD to be a girl because there weren't any more boy names we liked (though luckily, we found one eventually!). I loved him—of course I loved him—but I felt an uncertainty too, like I was holding a little stranger instead of someone that had been part of my very being for the last nine months.
I thought, "These feelings are just a side effect of being tired and full of hormones. And they will pass." But I also thought, "Are any of my feelings real? Is there really any meaning to be found in life at all? And why is there so little light among the shadows?"

It was the second day, I think, that I looked down at the (still nameless) baby's little sleeping face, and watched my tears fall onto his soft little cheeks, and wondered who he was, and who I was. And suddenly he opened his eyes and looked right into mine, and smiled the most dazzling and glorious smile. It was as clear as if he said the words: "It's ME! You may not remember, but I do, and I have loved you for longer than these short mortal days." And then his eyes fluttered shut again, and I was left to stare at his peaceful sleeping face and shake my head in wonder.
Sometime a couple years ago, I wrote this to a friend:
I think I have this picture in my head of what “amazing” or “transcendent” experiences should look like. And in my head, I should be almost transported to some other time or place—somewhere apart from, or better than, the usual—when I am having those experiences. And sometimes that’s even how I remember them, too. I remember the amazing parts. “Wow, that was so cool and spiritual and full of wonder. So different from the everyday.”  
BUT—when I am actually IN those experiences I sometimes worry, “This can’t be THAT great or real of a spiritual experience because I’m not transfigured like I should be! My stomach is still growling and my mind is wandering and I’m having these self-conscious thoughts.” The mortal realities still intrude. Like when you’re in labor, for example. You think “Oh, this is amazing! The angels!” and then in the next second, “I need to go to the bathroom, but I’m too uncomfortable!” And it’s all mixed together. But later, you can almost forget the mundane stuff and remember the spiritual parts better. THOSE seem like the “real” parts, in hindsight. 
And maybe it all comes back to the weird mixed nature of mortality. For some reason, apparently, it CAN’T be 100% magical and full of communion and pondering. Maybe our desire for that is good, and God blesses us for it, but he also knows that spiritual experiences can come in the midst of ANY circumstance. So even though we wish he would just GET RID OF all the mortal clutter so we could focus on the spiritual, maybe he is trying to teach us something better—like how to find those moments of calm AMID the clutter?? And that such quick, snatched, intermittent moments are still…validly spiritual? Worth seeking?
It just shows how you have to learn things over and over again before you really grasp them, because here I am again a couple years later, struggling through the same confusion the moment my vision becomes obscured. I guess it's a truth I have to keep returning to: that miracles happen as flashes of light amid the darkness; not because life is all dark and unhappy, but because it is often dim and unresolved. Shifting. Dappled. The light of understanding comes as you most need it, but that might not be immediately as you are seeking it. And my desire for clarity and certainty and resolution—well, it's not wrong. Because those bright days will come. But until then, I just have to keep walking that shadowed forest path, stumbling from time to time, and trusting that it's taking me in the right direction. Still trusting that promise: Wait, and you'll see.
And I said miracles come as flashes of light, but maybe that's not completely right either. Maybe some of them come more like slanting rays of sun through the twilight, that time of day I so hated as a child because it wasn't clear enough. That angled sunlight, fighting to make its way through miles of dust and smoke and atmosphere, doesn't shine like noonday, that's for sure. But it's still worlds away from total darkness, and it's surprising how much you can see and accomplish even in an imperfect light.
And how can I be anything but grateful, after all, even when the sky is darkest—knowing that God has it all in hand, sun and moon and stars lined up just as he has ordered them, light always shining its way around the leaf-shadows? The dawn always comes, the cycle always renews itself, and creation is an unending process. We do see through a glass, darkly…but we see! God doesn't leave us blind. He never will.

So I have to say with Hopkins: Glory be to God for dappled things. I'll praise Him for the light however He sends it. And this Ziggy-boy of ours is shining with it through and through.


  1. Oh this is SO SO beautiful!! I can’t even comment because it just would fall so short. I wish I could copy and paste all the thoughts and insights and questions and answers I liked . . . but I’d paste the entire post. Anyway, you captured every bit of every aspect of this (including all the aspects that you don’t get to know) perfectly. So amazingly lovely.

    1. Thank you Nancy! You know how much it helps to talk it out with someone who understands. We muddle through together! :)

  2. I'm a birth story junkie, and this is the most beautiful story I've read.


  3. What to say? There is nothing that can be written. We need to get together soon. So much of this reminded me of my pregnancy with Annabel. My anger at the timing, my worry about the two babies being so close together, Annabel's spirit--her name. Just . . . too much. I love Zigs. I love you.

    1. Sweet little Annabel. I know some, but want to hear more about that pregnancy. I love talking these things over with you too!

  4. Oh, Marilyn. As always when I read your posts, I am without words. But I feel so inspired by your story and your style and skill at writing it that I have to say SOMETHING! First of all, how much did he weigh?? Every picture he just seems so hefty with roll upon roll of health. I can't imagine having a baby that robust from day one. In fact, everything about your birth stories is so vastly different from my experiences, I am riveted. Full-term, at home, natural childbirth? I can't begin to imagine what that's like. Yet your writing takes me there and I have so much joy in the experiences you have shared. Seldom do I read every word...of anything, really. Except here. Your metaphors, parallels, your descriptive wording. Everything draws me in. The one element that I feel our birth experiences have in common running through them is the steadfast presence of God. His orchestration of everything down to minute detail, and His expectation that we walk by faith with His very close involvement and support. That is a strong vein through each one of my birth experiences, as well. And you express this truth with such eloquence. I can attest to the fact that God will in time make everything clear. When we (I) grappled with that same question of how many more babies it was emotional and difficult. And only in one supreme moment did God show me that He had been with me every step of the way and I realized how close He really was, and always is. I know He does, and will do the same for you.

    1. Emily! I love hearing from you and I love this comment. And yes, Ezekiel was big! 8 lbs 14 oz. I kept marvelling at how...non-delicate he looked, too. :) A big difference from your 3-pounders (right?). But yes! It amazes me too, how it seems like every birth experience has that divine thread running through it. And, I love hearing how your own questions and worries about children have /are being resolved. That is so reassuring! I think because the issues are so personal, it's easy to assume everyone else has no problem figuring it all out. What amazes me most, when I do get to see a glimpse of God's involvement in other people's lives, is how carefully and perfectly He tailors his answers to their individual needs and blesses them in their specific circumstances. It's so hopeful to see the way He works!

  5. If I had to pick one gem . . . "But it's still worlds away from total darkness, and it's surprising how much you can see and accomplish even in an imperfect light."

  6. What a beautiful and generous piece of writing. Stabbed me right in the heart (in the best possible way, of course).


Powered by Blogger.
Back to Top