Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

I wrote the poem below about this time last year and sent it out to all the folks who subscribe to the e-newsletter that I deliver once or twice a month. For those who have read it before, I hope you discover something new. For those who haven’t, I hope it brings extra richness to this Christmas season. For those of you dislike poetry, give this one a try. For those of you who find the subject matter scandalous, uncomfortable, or offensive, I hope you’ll leave a comment and help me better understand where you’re coming from. At all costs, enjoy.

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

His seventeen-year-old fiancé sleeps,
he drives south. Exhaust seeps through
holes in the floor of their Chevy pick-up,
a rusted deathtrap that he curses.
She wakes, she vomits twice, she needs
to pee every two hours. He feeds more
oil into the engine, a scared dog
that shudders above fifty. He watches
her watch the black river of asphalt flow.
Folks back home would be buzzing with gossip
by now. He glances at her
swollen belly, nine months large, not his.
“There’s only one way a girl gets knocked up,”
his best friend’s words pop like distant rifles.

Her water breaks as they pull into town,
a one-stoplight speck, Bethlehem,
Pennsylvania, with no proper hotel
or hospital. Joe ducks inside a bar
to ask about a doctor. Darkness seethes
with folks like them, out-of-towners
needing beds. No vacancies anywhere,
no clean sheets at a bed and breakfast.
Emergency room? Epidural? None.
They hold hands, he prays, “Don’t let Maria
or the baby die. We’ve tried so hard
to do what’s right. People are calling her
a slut and me a fool. You are
our only refuge, our only hope.”

A tap on the window. The bartender
in flannel and jeans nods, “I think I can
help.” They follow him out to pastureland.
He’s called ahead. His wife’s father was
an ob/gyn. She’s cleared off the tool bench
in the garage and spread a faded quilt.
“We’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way,”
she smiles. She has hot water, dish towels,
rubbing alcohol. Joe follows orders.
Maria’s lost more blood than he’s ever
seen, even butchering a deer. He cuts
the cord with a carpet knife. “Tearing
could have been much worse,” she observes.
He’ll believe anything right now.

A crowd has heard somehow and gathers
outside. They sing those happy hymns, laughing,
Glory Hallelujahs, Holy Holys.
He kneels, Maria kisses his fingers
one by one. He wants most to be slow, gray,
kissing her cheek, recalling this night,
terrible, brimming over, okay now,
after he’s known for years that she was
telling the truth, that this really happened,
that he was the one who wiped blood off
the face of God with his busted up hands
and heard in the baby’s first cry
laughter of the Most High, Creator,
Doer of impossible joys.

“Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all

”

Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel, one of my favorite bands, wrote these words for the song “Oh Comely,” which appears on the album In the Aeroplane over the Sea. If you know anything about Neutral Milk Hotel, any connection between the band and Christmas will seem unlikely, yet, I’ve so often felt those words, that sense of vague unworldliness, during the Christmas season.

I like to reread first twenty verses in Luke chapter 2 and meditate on the story. Believers have heard this story so often that it has lost its strangeness and power. I won’t presume to know what unbelievers think and feel when they read about a virgin giving birth to a boy. Perhaps wonder, skepticism, or disgust?

When I stop and consider that two thousand years of faith have for a linchpin this immaculate conception, I can’t help but think how fragile, how absurd, this passage is—the very idea that the Divine put on flesh and came into the world in a burst of fluid and blood! To use one of Tolkien’s favorite words, the whole business is “fey.” We have no cozy place to file, and thus dismiss, it.

Yet, I believe that it happened: too many other stupid, impossible occurrences in my life point back to this dirty birth in a barn, not the least of which are my relationships with friends, family, other writers, and many of the people who read gu.e.

Thank you for supporting me in my passion. It has been my joy to share my work with you this year, and I hope you will keep coming back, especially as I’m re-launching the blog on January 3 with a new look, a new mission statement, a free book about becoming a prolific writer, and some other surprises.

I wish you peace and joy during this holiday season. May your hearts be generous, and your minds, in awe of this enigma called existence.

Austin

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4 Comments

  1. pacellaml
    Posted December 4, 2010 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    As someone from an area of the country that is rife with loss, both of life and of industry, I found your poem terribly beautiful. It reminds me of the 17-year-olds I knew in a former life, driving through the night, through the rust, trying to find refuge.

    It has always felt strange to me to have faith in a God that I can’t understand. I don’t feel that I’ve gained permission yet.

    Thank you for sharing.

  2. betsy
    Posted December 4, 2010 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    Great job, Austin. I was touched by your 20th c. update of the old, old story

  3. Austin L. Church
    Posted December 7, 2010 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    What you said reminds of a quote from Rev. Maclean in A River Runs Through It:

    “Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them – we can love completely without complete understanding.”

  4. Austin L. Church
    Posted December 17, 2010 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Mrs. Piper. An old, old story. An ancient future.