December 21, 2014 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
In the divorce, my husband got the crèche.
It made sense. He was the Christian – a clergyman, which is to say a professional Christian – and I wasn’t sure I believed in anything anymore. He could not take back his name – Valley of the Stag, Nancarrow means in Cornish. It was a family name, our children’s name, and I chose to keep it.
But it made sense that he have the crèche. It was hand carved and from Ireland. He was the Celt, embracing Lindisfarne, Arthurian legend, the poems of Yeats. We divided a lot of things – the furniture, the books, the Fiestaware – but you can’t split up the Holy Family. So my ex-husband got the crèche, and I practiced Zen detachment.
I did have the nativity ornament that hung on our Christmas tree.
A small manger made out of unfinished pine with Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus inside, it came from the church we were married in. These days, while I am living with a friend and recovering from the economic meltdown that was my personal recession, it is buried in a box in my storage unit. (This picture is close.) At some point in time the round ball of wood perched on top of the tiny cone that was the Virgin Mary’s body – with its disk of a halo and little veil – detached.
Mama had a baby and her head popped off!
The chant was from a game my sister used to play with dandelions. Not everyone says “her,” but we did. I always wondered whose head was doing the popping off. Mary’s experience seemed to settle the matter.
Some years we would make Mary a new head out of a jelly bean, a pea of modeling clay, or a bit of tin foil from a chocolate kiss. Other years we would honor Our Lady’s decapitation for what it was.
I did not know I missed the crèche until I found myself stealing one.
It was June 2007, three years after the house divided for good. I was at the Cloquet Forestry Center in northern Minnesota, at a writer’s retreat with the Split Rock Arts Program. The theme was “Nature and the Literary Imagination.” There was a session in the morning, and one in the afternoon, then a gathering together again in the evening for reflection and critique.
The instructor was Patricia Weaver Francisco, author of Telling: A Memoir of Rape and Recovery. It was on her reading list that I first encountered photographer and Zen abbot John Daido Loori, who gave me the only creed I have really believed in since:
There is always an aspect of life, of art, of religious practice that is a little bit out of our reach. We can trust that. The three essentials of trust—trust in your spiritual practice, trust in the creative process, and trust in yourself—must ripen if we are to free ourselves. Give yourself permission to be yourself, and don’t be frightened by the unknown.
The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life
Pat also gave me back my crèche. Or let me take it.
One day we came into the classroom to find these:
“Write about what you see,” she said.
Staring into that first wedge of tree trunk, with its hole in the center that moves out to the edge, so that the ring is split and curved into itself, I saw Mary and Joseph, their heads bending close together over a small brown bundle, the child who made them more than coupled, made them a place for God to grow in the world.
No one was more surprised to see them there than me.
At our last class, I asked if I might take that particular slice of tree trunk home.
It meant something to me, something I needed to keep close by. Pat didn’t think anyone would mind, but I probably should ask permission. Technically it was property of the Center. I visited the administrative office, more than once, but no one was ever in. Finally, in my last hour on the campus, I stopped by the classroom once more. The door was open. I took my souvenir.
I was the one who saw the crèche. That would have to be permission enough.