There are multiple miracles depicted in this photo. If you believe that birth is a miracle, there are two miracles growing in the bellies of my friends Jen (center) and Stella (far right). The fact that Jen and Stella, themselves born on the same day, just happened to get pregnant at the same time, are due on the same day, and have a due-date within a week of the birthday of another of my friends in this picture, Ji Hyang Sunim (far left), is also pretty miraculous. To see six Zen Center women, five of them from my heyday as a Zen Center resident, in a single photo is pretty miraculous: going left to right across the front row, Ji Hyang, myself, Jen, Miranda, and Stella all lived together at the Cambridge Zen Center between 1995 and 1998, and yesterday we found ourselves together again. In the second row in the picture is Cathy, who moved into the Zen Center after I’d moved out: she represents the next generation of Zen Center women, a fresh start for the Dharma.
Babies and baby showers, of course, represent the ultimate sort of fresh start. Considering the prospect of bringing a new life into the world, parents (especially first-time parents) invariably think about reforming their lives: now that someone else is relying upon them, they’ll take better care of their health, their finances, their home. The jalopy that was fine for single and child-free married life will be replaced with a safer, more sensible vehicle. Beer money will be funneled into an indispensible Diaper Fund. And inveterate night owls and party animals will find themselves transformed into another kind of creature: bleary-eyed parents. Babies represent the ultimate fresh start for humanity: outside of this secluded garden, the world goes on with its warring ways, but Baby will be rightfully sheltered from those realities as long as is humanly possible.
One of the women at yesterday’s double baby shower referred to the tribal nature of the event: how very primitive it seems for all the women in a local “tribe” to come together to make sure a mother-to-be has all the supplies, know-how, and moral support she needs. Yesterday’s tribe was a far-flung bunch: I drove to Massachusetts from New Hampshire, Stella’s sister came from New York, and a handful of well-wishers, including one 3-month-old fellow who was eagerly welcomed into the all-female crowd, hail from Korea. Herself Korean, Stella remarked how her family didn’t have this tradition of a “baby shower”: her husband, Won-tak, in fact, was particularly flummoxed by the women-only aspect of the event. “What sort of party is this that no men are invited?” he asked. “It’s a party for the baby!” Stella replied. “But the baby isn’t here yet,” Won-tak countered, still confounded by this strange and unusual phenomenon.
Both Jen and Stella are first-time moms, so one important aspect of yesterday’s shower was the transmission of the complicated lore of babies and baby-dom. “What’s a receiving blanket,” someone asked, and someone answered. “What is this?” Stella asked upon opening a box of Dreft. “It’s special detergent for the baby’s laundry,” her older and wiser (at least in the lore of baby-dom) sister-in-law answered. “Everything the baby wears or comes into contact with needs to be washed in a gentle detergent, in case the baby has allergies or sensitivities.” Stella’s expression was simultaneously grateful and a bit overwhelmed. “I need baby detergent?” she said.
Luckily humans are adaptable and quick-to-learn; by shower’s end, both moms-to-be could articulately explain to their childless peers the merits of hooded baby towels. Like any tribal ritual, baby showers exist to pass along the traditions and values of a particular community: here is what we value, what we believe, what we share. In my mind, the most miraculous moment of yesterday’s shower was when my friend Ji Hyang, a Buddhist nun who is notorious for her aversion to having her picture taken, rushed to be in that group photo: she even removed her ubiquitous hat. Ji Hyang and I might be childless by choice, but we know full well the value of babies and baby-dom. Babies are a fresh-start and so is friendship: reuniting with housemates from years past is its own sort of miracle, a chance to redeem time by returning to the best of our own human nature. Child-bearing or childless by choice, we humans are tribal by nature: it’s something passed down from generation to generation, from culture to culture, stamped into our cells like genes. Circled around the life-fire of an infant or two, in the presence of friends old and new, we find our faith in humanity and humanity’s world restored.