Swallowing the Moon
Yesterday, I came across the following poem on one of my favorite literary sites, Words Without Borders.
Every time the moon rose, she prayed.
Finally Wol-nam’s mother, at forty, bore a son.
In dreams before pregnancy,
she swallowed the moon.
After her son was born, Wol-nam’s mother
would lose her mind
every time the moon rose.
Late at night, washing dishes,
she’d smash one bowl-
the moon then hid in a cloud
and the world grew blind.
From Ten Thousand Lives by Ko Un, published in 2005 by Green Integer Press.
Ko Un is a Korean poet and Buddhist monk who writes primarily on pastoral and spiritual themes. My first reaction to this poem was both admiration and frustration. I found it stunningly beautiful in its simplicity, yet disappointingly predictable in its reliance on the trope of female insanity during pregnancy/motherhood. I rolled the words around in my mind throughout the day, trying to figure out exactly why it was speaking to me. I kept coming back to the line “In dreams before pregnancy,
she swallowed the moon.”
In my own dreams before pregnancy, I experienced similar symbolic moments– images that both made perfect sense and were highly impossible. I dreamed of incubating lush gardens in my abdomen and of giving birth to fully formed humans who verbally thanked me in multiple languages immediately after exiting my body. Like the images in my dreams, “swallowing the moon” is the epitome of impossibility, yet it somehow captures the anticipation, trepidation and (metaphysical) appetite I experienced while we were trying to conceive and, to an even greater degree, now that we await her arrival.
As fate would have it, I had my first “crash and burn” pregnancy moment last night. In my 33 weeks of pregnancy thus far, I’ve felt nothing but happiness and gratitude. Every day I think about how I am in the minority of pregnant women on this earth– I have access to top-notch healthcare and my in utero child appears to be completely healthy. I have a highly supportive mate, a family that is beyond wonderful, a fulfilling and flexible career, and the intangible and tangible resources to raise my child according to our priorities as parents. Mostly, I am grateful for the chance to be a mother, no matter what the circumstances. These are the thoughts that have prevailed over the last 8 months.
However, last night as I was rounding the couch to sit down, I jammed my hip into a sharp corner, causing me to stumble and (uncharacteristically) burst into tears. I rubbed my bruised hip and slumped down onto the sofa, letting the tears roll down my cheeks and my moral rapidly spiral downward, unable to stop either. Michael moved closer and took my hand. “What can I do?” he asked.
“I’m tired. I’m impatient. I want her to be here. I have deadlines to meet before she comes. I’m clumsy and can’t make it up a flight of stairs without getting winded.” As soon as I heard the words escape my mouth, I felt ashamed. I had become the stereotypical, self-indulgent First World pregnant woman. “But I know that I have no right to be crying,” I quickly added, as if to absolve myself of all that I had already uttered during this state of temporary insanity.
“You can cry about whatever you want and for as long as you want,” he said. “You’re so beautiful and I am grateful for everything that you are doing for our daughter.” I remember hearing his words and feeling him kiss my forehead before quickly falling asleep, my head and body heavy.
This morning I awoke with the sun and a new perspective. Who among us has not experienced a moment of temporary loss of control, the feeling of surrendering to something completely illogical? Instead of self admonishing, perhaps I should focus on the universal aspect of “swallowing the moon”– recognizing that these moments of temporary insanity happen to most of us, pregnant or not, parents or not, across cultural boundaries. Forces beyond our control drive us to mental and physical exhaustion. At times it feels as if the “world grows blind,” but our resiliency prevails. Like the moon, we cycle back around.