I don’t talk about my research much on my blog because I am keenly aware of all the human subjects protections that surround what my research participants share with me in the confidence of our interviews. But, there are some moments that stick with me not because of the research itself, but because of my own response to the situations I encounter. This is one of those stories, although the details have been altered to insure confidentiality.
I choose to conduct research in the homes of people who agree to participate. I wasn’t really trained that way; in fact, I was encouraged to collect data in an academic space, or what I was told was “neutral space.” But, there is nothing neutral about making people take a bus (or busses) to a space far from their own communities, and to walk into an unfamiliar building filled with unfamiliar faces, and then reveal details of their personal lives and emotional experiences in an academic conference room. When I put myself in their shoes, I wonder why anyone would agree to participate under those circumstances. So, I have gravitated to conducting interviews in homes, and I partner with community service providers who share a similar ethic.
I am always appreciative whenever someone answers the door and allows me to come into their space. I have respect (and verbally acknowledge) the gratitude I have to be in their personal space. I have no shortage of memories of spaces that have surprised me, or awed me, or saddened me. But this particular day I recall, I really wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary. I had called before the visit and the young woman said she was waiting for our visit. She lived in a low rent part of town with older homes that, while sometimes run down, had a good amount of space.
My notes from my partner agency said that I was seeing someone in her third trimester of her first pregnancy. She had been receiving community supports and had self-referred to participate in this interview with me. I rang her doorbell, and waited. I waited for several minutes and rang again. I heard movement and the inside door bolt slid open. The door opened slightly to check my identity, then I was allowed in.
There was a spacious but empty room with an old sofa, and an empty car seat. There was a young woman barely 80 pounds and who looked to be about 12 (although she was over 18). She wore sweat pants and a t-shirt and carried a small blanket wrapped bundle. She asked me in and quietly whispered, “this is Anthony…we just came home yesterday. You’re his first visitor!”
I barely knew this young woman, but she moved close to introduce me to this tiny, perfect baby. Tiny fingers, long eyelashes. He yawned and cried and she held him close, her adolescence melting into maternal instinct. He was a beautiful baby, and I told her so. She beamed. I told her to sit, and found a place next to her. I had to regroup, because she was not supposed to have delivered yet. She had no record on file with the community organization of having gone into labor, nor of having delivered. And yet, here we were. Life had moved her forward and brought us into each other’s midst. I quickly switched gears, and told her I was happy to stay and visit, but that we could wait and do the research another day. “No, it’s fine” she said, “I wanted you to come.” We proceeded through the interview. My questions were interspersed with her rising, and diaper checking, and nursing her baby. She was all new to this, quiet and nervous but rising to the occasion. In between questionnaires, she spoke to me about her son, about her life, and about how joyful she was for what she had: space, diapers, food in her cupboard, her mother coming to visit after work that day, her beautiful, healthy son. She sat, in that room that seemed so empty, filled with joy.
I didn’t leave until she was connected with resources, and having finished the interview I was able to offer her a gift card for completion as well. I knew this could have been what motivated her participation, but there was something more, too. Like so many women I work with, she knew her story was heard. She had been seen and heard and acknowledged. This life was hers, and it was real, and she could choose to let me in or keep me out.
She let me in.
I saw her joy. I saw her need as well. But her joy resounded through the emptiness of her surroundings. It was an incarnate joy, emerging from the depth of life itself.
I have been doing a lot of reading this advent, and have found myself drawn to St. John of the Cross. Not coincidentally, we did a brief meditation on a short poem by St. John of the Cross last night at my vestry meeting:
Pregnant with the holy
Word will come the Virgin
Walking down the road
If you will take her in.
I couldn’t stop thinking about that young woman, and how her joy had been so palpable in the midst of the most meager surroundings. Over time, I have come to hold in deep reverence the many women I have encountered in my daily life as a social worker and now as a researcher. Women pregnant with expectation, carrying joy along with their struggles. Women who give birth to love, and to loss, and sometimes to both. Their stories are as natural as life, and as divine as the holy stories of a homeless young mother and her betrothed seeking shelter in a barn and using a feeding trough for a crib. You just never know what will emerge with expectation, and it usually is multi-faceted: fear mixed with confidence, worry intertwining with relief, isolation melting into moments of deep connection.
I think of these things tonight as we move through advent, approaching Christmas with the young couple making their way to Bethlehem. We are not sure where we will find shelter or company. We don’t know which moments will provoke fear, and which will embody joy. We make our way because the time is near, and life will carry us onward. Our confidence may wax and wane. But we are carried forward with the plodding predictability of a donkey through the dry land and a light guiding our path from above, and within. In this space also resides the promise of joy incarnate, about to bring forth in us qualities we never knew we had. Yet there they are: intuitive response, deep love, gratitude for plenty in the moment.
I have been changed by these holy encounters, too. This is my own incarnate joy on this segment of my journey.