From the Washington Post comes an article entitled, “Linguists identify 15,000-year-old ‘ultraconserved words,’” and in part it says: 

The traditional view is that words can’t survive for more than 8,000 to 9,000 years. Evolution, linguistic “weathering” and the adoption of replacements from other languages eventually drive ancient words to extinction, just like the dinosaurs of the Jurassic era.

A new study, however, suggests that’s not always true.

A team of researchers has come up with a list of two dozen “ultraconserved words” that have survived 15,000 years. If you went back that far and spoke these words to hunter-gatherers in Asia in any one of hundreds of modern languages, there is a chance they would understand at least some of what you were saying.

They would understand “to hear” 
They would understand “ashes”
They would understand “man”

And they would understand “mother.” 

That’s the news from the Washington Post. The word “mother” persists and seems indestructible despite evolution and the weathering of time. And that’s what we’re looking at this morning: the unique energy of mothering–what I want to call “motherlove.”

So very powerful. 

As I see it, motherlove is like sunlight, and it fills the green leaves of our lives with joy, and we are filled with the juice of joy, and all we can do in response is grow. We grow, and it feels right. We grow in confidence and there is no apology. We are soothed in our pains, we are increased in our gladness. We know who we are, because the sunlight has streamed through our green leaves and it has known us more intimately than anything else and we are shining together, we shine together, we shine together, we shine. 

sunlight through leaves

Some of us got this in full measure while growing up. If we had a biological mother, maybe we got it from her. This sunlight. Or maybe it was a father who loved you like this, with maternal affection. Maybe you have two dads. Maybe it is a mom, but she adopted you at some point, or she’s a stepmom. 

Fact is, motherlove is not tied to any specific biology or family structure. No one owns sunlight. Sunlight shines free. And if you got this in full measure growing up, Mother’s Day is a day you want to stand up and cheer. 

Unless you’re grieving. Unless the one who gave motherlove is lost to you somehow, through death or dementia or in some other way. Your feelings this day are poignant, and mixed.

And then there is this situation: when the one upon whom you imprinted “mother” was decidedly not sunlight to you. She was a complex mixture of sun and shadow, or perhaps nothing at all but shadows….

There is a picture on the wall of my older brother’s home, of me smiling, and one of my teeth is missing because I’m six, and my hair is blond, and it’s carefully combed. Unless you are me, you would never know how deeply that boy in the picture felt like an orphan, felt awkward in his life, had gotten used to grim sadness and loneliness. You would never know that he lived a compromised life in which a part of him still hoped to be cherished by his mom but another part of him, a harder part, knew he needed to be practical and needed to acknowledge reality. So he went to school everyday, he went through the motions, he allowed himself to get caught up in his life, and gradually, over the years, he lost his feeling for the other part of him that was soft and soaring and never stopped hoping for cherishment and was full of tears, tears like an ocean….

Me and Rob

She was all shadow to him. To me. 

Mom died 13 years ago, back in 2007. Lots of grieving, lots of healing since then, including coming into awareness of something I had long ago forgotten: how deeply I yearned for motherlove. How deep the yearning is in all of us. The body we had as infants was so so tiny, but inside our tiny bodies was an entire universe of need for sunlight. Back then we couldn’t generate it on our own. Back then we couldn’t even think of ourselves as separate. But we could feel the moments of separation. We could feel them, and what they felt like was darkness and despair deepening into a sense of utter annihilation.

My mother. I think she was sexually abused. I know she was mentally ill and a lifelong drug abuser. I also know that she wanted to stand up in her life but could never see a way to get up off of her knees. 

Some of us today just don’t want to cheer. We want to cry. Maybe we want to boo. I completely get that. But I don’t want to boo. I feel gratitude that my mom was the door through which my spirit and my body entered this world, and she has been a profound teacher to me, even as the lessons have been very hard. 

Maybe all this is why my colleague the Rev. Becky Edminston-Lange says that “the minister who thinks she or he can deliver the perfect Mothers Day sermon probably needs their medications adjusted.” 

The issue of mothers is complex. Cheers. Tears. Boos. And everything in between. 

And moms themselves know it. Do they ever.

From almost 4000 years ago–from ancient Egypt–we hear this ode to mothers: “Thou shalt never forget thy mother and what she has done for thee… For She carried thee long beneath her heart as a heavy burden, and after thy months were accomplished she bore thee. Three long years she carried thee upon her shoulder and gave thee her breast to thy mouth, and as thy size increased her heart never once allowed her to say, ‘Why should I do this?’” 

This comes from 4000 years ago, and I need to admit my suspicion here: that this ode was composed by a man. Because mothers themselves can feel ambivalent about mothering. It’s not as clear cut as the ode from ancient Egypt makes it out to be. Friends of mine have described getting pregnant and they say it’s like an alien force has taken over your body and it’s upsetting, at the very least. But then you feel guilty for feeling upset, because a “good mother” would never have anything but good feelings about being pregnant and about your kid. It’s hard. 

Mothers also know full well their child’s profound need for motherlove and how fragile a vessel they are for that.  

Listen to this story that comes from blogger Renee Trudeau. “I have a visceral recollection,” she says, “of the day, ten years ago, when my husband returned to work after being home with me and our newborn for two weeks. Sitting in our dark, quiet kitchen, holding my baby boy, listening to the kitchen clock tick, and blanketed in a postpartum haze, I thought, ‘This is it. I’m all alone.’  It was a frightening and devastating realization, and I have never felt the absence of maternal nurturing more than I did then. But then, I heard a comforting voice whisper from within, ‘Renee, it’s time to start mothering yourself.’ That moment was a catalyst for me and the beginning of my journey to learning to both nurture and nourish myself.”

Everyone needs motherlove, especially people giving the motherlove. They need to receive it right back. 

Whatever your history has been, however full of shadows, whether or not you are yourself a mother figure, we all need mother love. 

Green leaves never stop yearning for sun.

And while an infant experiences the vast universe inside its skin as devoid of light and cries out to be nourished by a mother figure’s closeness, as adults, our experience can be totally different. Our growth through the years has put inside our hearts our own inner sun. The infant does not have an inner sun but we adults do. We can generate mother love for ourselves. We can nourish ourselves. 

At first, when I realized this, it made me sad. It just felt like more of having to slog through my lonely life. More of always having to work so hard because all I got from my mom was shadows. 

But then I thought about the literal kind of eating. As a baby, your arms just aren’t capable of lifting spoon to mouth. You really do need someone to feed you. But physical growth takes a baby beyond this to a place where they can feed themselves and they can take on the responsibility for monitoring their own hunger and then satisfying it. This is a good thing. Who knows us best but ourselves? 

If this is the case with our physical hungers, why not our emotional hungers? There is no shame, I said to myself, in taking care of one’s own heart. It’s not a sign of abandonment; it’s a sign of empowerment. I don’t have to passively wait on others anymore. I can take action myself, in ways that feel good. 

This reminds me of a moment several years ago. I was trying to get to my daughter’s college graduation, held in Atlanta at the Georgia Dome. It’s Saturday morning and you’d think traffic on a Saturday morning is going to go smoothly, but no, this is Atlanta, 5 o’clock traffic happens pretty much 24/7 in Atlanta. I’m running late. I’m supposed to meet up with everyone at 11:30am, and I’m running late, and my heart is pumping like crazy in my chest because I’m silly like that, and I’m starting to think and say un-pastor-like things to the people in the other cars, and it’s not pretty. But then I stop myself. Suddenly I see how I’m just like a child about to have a temper tantrum. I need some motherlove to comfort me, calm me down. I put my hand on my heart, rub it for a while. Take some big deep breaths. It felt good. And the rest of the story is that I had hurried up—risked life and limb–only so that I could meet up with the family and wait for an additional hour before things started, because of course they started late. 

Of course. So it goes. 

But at least the way there didn’t have to be so painful. Life will go as it goes; but the going goes better if you know how to tap into the inner sun, experience some of that motherlove for yourself. 

Feed yourself. Learn how to soothe difficult feelings without relying on anything that’s destructive, like alcohol, or workaholism, or other kinds of addictions that distract you, take away the pain, yes, but they steal from you too. Self-mothering soothes without stealing anything. It’s just sunlight on green leaves…

Other ways of self-soothing come from life coach Cheryl Richardson: 

  • You give yourself a nap or put yourself to bed before you feel overtired. 
  • You prevent stomachaches (and negative self-talk) by stopping yourself from overeating when you feel full. 
  • You take a “time out” when you feel frustrated, angry, or impatient so you can settle down and think clearly. 
  • You speak gently to yourself when you’ve made a mistake. 
  • You reassure yourself that everything will be okay when you get scared or when you feel lonely. 
  • You remind yourself to be kind, not only to others, but also more importantly, to yourself. 

Somehow, many of us got the idea that self-criticism is an effective motivator. This did not come from good mothering or fathering but from bad mothering or fathering. 

We came to believe that harshness towards ourselves gets the job done. 

We learned to fear failure and to keep on losing faith in ourselves. 

We accomplished great things, but we ended up feeling completely miserable about it. 

Again, this is not what good mothering and fathering leads to.

Self-compassion is the better way. 

“In my own worst seasons,” writes Barbara Kingsolver, “I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window.  And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.”

This is what I mean by good self-mothering, in the mode of generating good feelings for yourself. Not waiting for it to be done unto you. Do it yourself.

And, yes, at times we have to force ourselves to look hard at a single glorious thing. There are so many ways to get caught up in suffering. I can’t tell you how many people I know who live alone right now and they’ve become hypervigilant about what’s happening in the news and there gets to be a breaking point. There gets to be a point you’ve got to let go. You’ve got to look hard at a single glorious thing to get your perspective back. You’ve got to. 

Just as Barbara Kingsolver says, “Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.” We can do that too. Send yourself outside to play in the fresh air and sunshine on a regular basis. Give yourself regular treats like an afternoon movie or a game with friends. Pay attention to what inspires your enthusiasm and generates vitality, and do more of that. 

Whatever your history has been, however full of shadows, whether or not you are yourself a mom, we all need motherlove. We all need to feel soothed in our pains and increased in our gladness. And we can do it ourselves. 

There is a reason why the word “mother” is ultraconserved, why it’s 15,000 years strong and counting…. 

Sunlight streaming through our green leaves. 
Sunlight, that knows us more intimately than anything else. 
We shine together, we shine together, we shine together, we shine.