An Excellent Adventure Begins

Today I am inaugurating a “Garden 2015″ category on this blog! Stepping into rather unknown territory, Joe and I have rented a plot at the nearby community garden. It’s the fourth season for the garden, and every year I’ve wistfully considered signing up but each previous year have concluded that we didn’t have sufficient time or interest to take it on. For nine years, we belonged to a CSA that required weekly work hours, which I really enjoyed and learned so much from while the past two summers we’ve enjoyed local produce through a weekly pickup that carries no work obligation. However, increasingly I found myself missing the activity of tending soil and plants, and we thought about a little garden in our own yard to keep things simple, but the presence of a 7′ fence at the community garden as a protection against deer finally sealed the deal. Within a week or two of signing up, self-doubt surfaced.  I have no idea how to go about this. It’s going to be so much work. What have we gotten ourselves into? What was I thinking?

But I have already learned that “community” is a key feature of this gardening experience. A friend and fellow gardener mentioned she and her husband would be working their plot on Saturday afternoon if we wanted to join them. So on Saturday, a sunny first full-day of spring, we spent two incredibly joyful and productive hours with Kathie and Pete preparing our plot for the season. We turned over the soil with shovels, pulled some weeds and plant remnants, then roto-tilled, added compost (conveniently provided for all of us, another “community” advantage), roto-tilled again, and voila it’s ready for planting. Can’t wait!


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Women’s Bodies, Christian Wisdom

Interview with Marcia Mount Shoop, author and theologian

MarciaShoopI’m always on the lookout for spiritual or theological works related to the body, especially if pregnancy or birth is involved. A recent discovery is  Marcia Mount Shoop’s Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ, which presents welcome new thinking about how we might know and access the totality of our bodily selves, and bring this full awareness to the practice of Christianity.  Today’s post is an interview with her about this topic and her other work.

A graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School, Marcia was ordained in the Presbyterian Church, and her current ministry involves teaching, preaching, leading retreats and workshops, facilitating and consulting, and writing. Let the Bones Dance is addressed to Protestants, but its message is relevant to many if not all Christian denominations. The heart of the book’s concern is that Christian practice is largely focused on the intellect and reasoning at the expense of the body. This disembodied state creates a dis-ease that makes us uncomfortable in our own skin, a condition with wide-ranging consequences for ourselves, our communities, and our planet.

ShoopBookSurprisingly perhaps, but clearly and convincingly, the book draws on three female experiences — rape, pregnancy and motherhood – to explore more general features of all human embodied life and relate them to Christian life and worship. Rape exemplifies the tragedy associated with bodily experience and invites compassion. Pregnancy illustrates how bodies are in relationship and invites appreciation of our inter-dependence. And motherhood shows ambiguity, which invites a sense of adventure toward our lives as we take in conflicting aspects of events and experiences. Shoop’s lyrical writing deftly connects these academic-sounding concepts to concrete, accessible examples.

1. What inspired you to write Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ (LTBD)? 

All of the experiences I use as windows into embodied life in the book (rape, pregnancy, and motherhood) are experiences I have had. These experiences have been my teachers, my guides to what life as a body is about–so much more than what we are conscious of and have cognitive access to. As someone who grew up in an intellectual tradition and in an academic family, this deep embodied knowledge opened me up to layers of experience that I had not made room for in my view of the world and of human life. So, really it was my own healing journey that inspired me to write it.

2. It is rare for women’s experience to be used as a model for all human experience, especially where bodies are concerned, but your book does just that. To what extent do you find that people, whether men or women, are able to appreciate the universality you are conveying? 

Every time I am teaching or speaking about LTBD in the company of men, I get the question “what’s in it for me?” I am always thankful when someone asks that because it opens up an important dialogue about our unconscious biases about embodied normativity and gender. As a woman studying theology I was supposed to read the tradition (Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, etc) as speaking to my condition as a human being even though the tradition was written pretty much by men. They never qualified their constructions as only speaking to men. Women’s experiences are provisional, yes, but so are men’s.  The limits of particular experience should not stop us from noticing the spark of recognition these particularities give us about all bodies.  I constructed the book with this important dynamic in mind. We need to attend to the unique and particular–that is the nature of our universality–that we are always and already unique and particular.  And the way we are made allows us to claim that irreducible nature of our uniqueness with new gusto.  I encourage men to open themselves up to where they connect with the tragic, relational, and ambiguous nature of their bodies. There are many things that surface–time in combat, their yearning for deeper emotional connections with the people they love, cancer, struggles with masculinity, sexuality, and the list goes on.

3. Here’s what I took away from the book overall (and found really,really helpful): The whole of our bodies is greater than the sum of its parts. Our bodily life encompasses anything and everything that we experience as ‘”inputs” whether we realize it or not. Only a portion of these inputs to our bodies rises to the level of analytical thought or named emotion. That’s why present events can trigger emotional and physical responses relating to things that happened in the past. By expanding our sensitivity to this broader scope of our bodies, we can ‘re-member’ ourselves and become more attuned to God’s presence. Is this a fair summary of the main theme? What would you add or subtract?  

Very good distillation!  You have described one of the hardest concepts that I invite the reader to embrace–that cognition is not bulk of our experience. This is a difficult things for Westerners to take in because of our Cartesian heritage–“I think therefore I am.”  The body tells us a very different story–and it holds the intricacies, ambiguities, and possibilities of our shared world.  When we start to watch for these glimmers of embodied wisdom, it is startling to realize how much we neglect the way we are made and our capacity for redemption.

4. How do you live an embodied faith? What practices or approaches do you recommend to individuals for their daily lives?

An embodied faith is a fluid and response-able way of life. And it takes practice, practice, practice. I practice being present and living relationally, and I have moved away from static principles as the governors of my ethics.  Our bodies tell us that we are at all times deeply connected to all that is around us; this embodied fact of my existence means that everything I am, everything I do, everything I become effects everything that is. It is a radical way to understand ethics–no longer are ethics about decisions, but they are about being and relationship.  I have found, therefore, that the most important things I do to cultivate an embodied faith is to practice, practice, practice what it feels like to be present, to be open, to be connected, to let mystery and embodied connection have space without the need to explain and describe.

Yoga has been very important to me. I spend time everyday with animals and children. These beings keep me grounded in an immediacy and in an unspokenness.  My horses, dogs, and cats are so intuitive that they cultivate a different kind of attentiveness in me. Interacting with them keeps me from spending my whole day in my head. Breath work and other kinds of energy work are also important to me. Any practices and room that I can give to my sentience–essential oils, breathing, art, stillness.  These all help habituate me to a deeper connection with the world that calls me to feel at home here.

5. Can you describe embodied worship practices that you have experienced or that you lead when you preside? How can the Eucharist be celebrated such that we are ‘re-membered’? 

These experiences are hard to describe, and so very rich. I can tell you about one I did for a few years on a regular basis. While I lived in North Carolina I led a weekly weeknight worship service in called Deep and Wide.  We gathered with all kinds of different music–sometimes Taize, sometimes gospel, sometimes hymns, sometimes instrumental. We then had a short reading–often something that someone would come with that evening. This reading would take us into 20 minutes of silence.  Our silence was broken in different ways–sometimes a song, sometimes a touch, sometimes the Lord’s Prayer.  And we moved from our silence to the Eucharist.

There was no reading from a paper allowed at the Eucharistic Table. We told the story of the Last Supper in different ways. Our Great Prayer also was always different–sometimes shared stories, sometimes corporate prayer, sometimes intentional listening.  And our Communion was always something everyone took part in receiving and sharing–we looked each other in the eye, we stood close. We attended to the bodies around the Table.  And we ended our evening by taking any left overs and distributing them among us to use for a life giving purpose–some people took bread home to their children, others took it out onto the street outside the church and offered it to people there, others ate more themselves, others fed the birds or a pet.

There are many more… Really it is about being available to the Spirit’s generosity and not trying to control the space.  Practicing surrender, improvisation, and incompetence also are important spiritual skills in traditions like Presbyterianism that are so habituated to order and everything being scripted.

6. At present there is an exodus, especially of younger people, from the institutional churches. What connection, if any, do you make between this trend and the tendency toward an intellectualized religion?

I wrote LTBD because I see a direct connection between the disembodied dynamics of Mainline Protestant worship and the languishing of these churches.  There are many layers to this disembodied ethos–one of the most telling is our lack of racial, ethnic diversity. Mainline traditions have held a normative status in the American religious landscape for generations so those vested in these communities can be oblivious to their own culturally derived biases and practices.  In the second half of LTBD I explore some marks of our disembodied dis-ease in terms of the ways our communities are formed and the way our practices are normed. So many of these norms and practices reflect white culture–but that is not a common understanding for those within these institutions. This obliviousness to our own cultural biases and practices are, I believe, connected to the church’s waning resonance in our world today–a world that is getting more diverse, a world where the voices of those who have occupied marginalized spaces are becoming more and more audible.  All of this is intimately tangled up with bodies.

7. How can we form our young people to know full, healthy embodiment in a culture where rape is common and sexual activity is often disconnected from relationships?

This is a huge and complicated question. I am currently engaged in a three year consultation with Vanderbilt DivinitySchool around these questions. We are exploring together what it can look like and feel like to be a community with a healing intention around sexual violence. The focus of our work so far is on power–how we use it, abuse it, are unaware of its subtleties and quiet brutalities. Our work, of course, focuses on bodies and all the ways we hold and enact power–especially unconsciously. LTBD is our theological framework. And the work has been rich so far.

8. How does a disembodied faith relate to the global climate crisis?  

These things are profoundly related.  My pregnancy chapter is really dedicated to this dynamic. Our cellular interdependence is really the core of this connection. Our estrangement from our own bodies and our estrangement from the earth are tangled up with each other in devastating ways.  In my pregnancy chapter I use mercury poisoning of unborn children as one example of our intimacy with creation.

9. What are the types of retreats or workshops that you lead? 

I lead lots of different kinds of retreats and workshops like Wandering Home (a retreat for women) that centers around cultivating Christian community for people who have felt, at times, exiled by the tradition; and the In-Forming Communities of Healing Initiative at VanderbiltDivinitySchool that I mentioned above. I also do workshops and exploratory sessions about whiteness and racism, trauma healing, cultivating cross-cultural community, and embodied spiritual practice. I have also been doing a lot more with sports themes lately because of my newest book, Touchdowns for Jesus.

10. Tell me about your second book, Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of the Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports (TFJ). 

In the book I look at fanaticism, race, gender, higher education, and Christianity in big-time sports. I wrote this book in a much less technical way than LTBD in hopes of connecting with a broader audience of sports fans. These are pressing issues, not just in the world of sports but in our world in general. The crux of the matter is how power is used and abused and how we can make space for more redemptive ways of building communities and institutions.  In that sense, it connects to the core hope in LTBD as well.  And this book reflects another reality of my life–I have been married to a man who is a football coach for twenty years.

11. Any plans now for another book? What topics capture your attention at this time? 

I just turned in another manuscript a few weeks ago. That book will be coming out this fall from Wipf and Stock Publishing House. I co-authored this book with DukeDivinitySchool theologian and ethicist, Mary McClintock Fulkerson.  The title is A Body Broken, A Body Betrayed: Race, Memory, and Eucharist in White-Dominant Churches.  This book uses Eucharist as a template to explore white culture and race in white-dominant churches in Mainline Christianity.  Eucharist surfaces some of our unconscious practices that avoid truly dealing with the wounds of race. Eucharist also can provide a template for some new embodied practices that can help us cultivate spaces of healing around these same wounds.


Posted in Birth, Motherhood, Prayer and Practices | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

Oxytocin has acquired a rather racy reputation in recent years as a “love” hormone. Over the past two decades, headline-grabbing research has touted oxytocin’s role in mate selection based on animal studies and its role in building trust, social connections, and empathy. The consumer marketplace responded with spray products of this “miraculous molecule” to create bonds in the workplace and raise one’s self-esteem as well as attract members of the opposite sex, despite cautions from scientists about unknown effects on humans from long-term use. One study involving an investment simulation showed that after using the spray, people entrusted larger amounts of money to a banker. Other studies have examined how oxytocin might be used in the treatment of autism spectrum disorders.

IMG_0262[1]Often in such coverage, but not always, a perfunctory nod is given to oxytocin’s role in childbirth and lactation, as if acknowledging the boring and mundane before moving on to the truly fascinating. Last October, Fox News didn’t even bother to mention the birth aspects in a subtly lurid piece about findings based on a study of mice that oxytocin regulates female sexual behavior. The story focused solely on the female’s response to males. In a revealing contrast, major news outlets did not cover the release in late January of a landmark report on the role of oxytocin and other hormones of birth. While the non-birth oxytocin research is mostly speculative in attempting to discover how oxytocin may or may not work in settings other than childbearing, this report amply demonstrates that it actually plays an essential role in healthy birth and breastfeeding.

The report reviews all the scientific evidence on the hormonal physiology of birth and includes more than 1100 references. Overall, substantial research supports the idea long put forth by natural childbirth advocates that to ensure optimal outcomes for mother and baby, disturbances to the natural flow of birth hormones via technological interventions should be kept to a minimum.

Oxytocin plays a role in the labor, birth and postpartum transitions of both mother and baby. Before labor, oxytocin receptors in the uterus increase. Released into the mother’s bloodstream during labor, oxytocin causes contractions throughout and provides a late-labor surge that aids the pushing stage. It also creates calming and analgesic effects in mothers and babies from labor through the postpartum period.  In the hour or so after birth, skin to skin contact between mother and baby increases oxytocin’s effects, including stronger contractions for the mother that may lessen the risk of hemorrhage, natural warming of the newborn through dilation of blood vessels in the mother’s chest, and facilitation of breastfeeding by reducing stress in both mother and baby.

On the other hand, synthetic oxytocin is commonly used to start or augment labor contractions. It is not believed to enter the mother’s brain, so the calming and analgesic effects would not be realized. Conversely, synthetic oxytocin may cause overly strong contractions that increase pain and may deprive the baby of oxygen. If used for a lengthy period of time, synthetic oxytocin can desensitize uterine oxytocin receptors, reducing the power of contractions and leading to an extended pushing stage, possible use of instruments for delivery, and/or postpartum hemorrhage. Epidural anesthesia is another common practice that reduces oxytocin production in the mother, leading to use of synthetic oxytocin with its attendant drawbacks.

Various reasons could account for mainstream media’s disregard for this research. Childbirth is a common experience, so the natural working of women’s bodies is not deemed noteworthy. The findings pertain more directly to health care providers rather than consumers, perhaps making it less newsworthy for a general audience. Such criteria reflect the values of our culture, where birth is treated almost exclusively as a medical event.

However, even in this limited context, information about how to make the process as healthy as possible ought to be widely disseminated because we encounter pregnancy and birth so readily among friends, family, and co-workers. As all humans are born the same way, it’s surprising that approaches to create healthy births are given so little emphasis. Birth outcomes affect all of us, men as well as women, right now and into the future. Recognizing this fact, the report sponsors have created booklets, handouts and posters to educate families and health care providers.

Going even further, indirectly this new report also invites reflection on birth in a context beyond the merely clinical. Its 224 pages addressing three other birth hormones in addition to oxytocin show very clearly that birth is not an illness needing treatment but rather a natural process (involving pain and risk, to be sure) representing a profound life passage, for which the human body — the mother interconnected with baby of either gender — is powerfully and intricately designed.

An ancient story told anew every single day all over the world, whether the media notices or not.


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Discoveries from a Blogging Expedition

I’m in the middle of an online course called “Blogging for the Writer” through Creative Nonfiction magazine, and a recent assignment asked us to “poke around the Internet” for blogs we like in the topic area of our interest. I found this a useful project, because it prompted me to be more objective and analytical about my blogging.  In the interest of turning over new ground beyond the familiar Catholic terrain, I focused my research primarily on Christian blogs by women.  Sharing my findings here in case you are looking for something different too!

Rachel Keefe  – She calls her blog Write out of Left Field, specifically because she’s “tired of people thinking the Christian Right represents the whole” and wants to “write from the ‘left’ side of things.” An ordained minister for more than 20 years, she posts weekly, by Thursday, on the lectionary readings for the following Sunday. Actually, she uses the readings as writing prompt; her posts are not sermons. She has written several books, and there’s a link to a separate site where they are featured.

Micha Boyett  – I first came across her writing through Patheos, an umbrella site for many blogs on varied faiths.  A year or so ago, she changed the name of her blog and went out on her own. Her first book is coming out in April, and she is available for retreats/programs. I like how she has grouped certain posts into Series and has a category for them across the top. She also has very colorful and attractive images throughout. She seems to guest post elsewhere a great deal, which I found a little annoying as a reader, because the posts jump to another site after a couple paragraphs, though as a blogger I see the appeal.

Rachel Held Evans – She is a bestselling author and a leading spokesperson for feminist Evangelicals, and her site achieves a high level of engagement. She uses “we” when talking about the community of people who read her blog and herself. She has hosted actual events like a Rally to Restore Unity (advocating Christian civility) that invited readers to submit photo collages, raised money for a well in Africa, had guest posts on the blog and a synchroblog. When she traveled to Bolivia on a mission trip, she wrote answers to questions people submitted in advance and raised money to sponsor children there,  She also has thematic series, including a round-up of “around the blogosphere”, women of valor, and Ask an [expert in something] interview posts.

“Ain’t I a Woman blog” by Kendra Weddle Irons and Melanie Springer Mock – It’s rare to see a two-person blog in the category I was looking at. These two women are academics, one in religion and the other in English. The blog’s subtitle is “De/Constructing Christian Images” and its purpose is “to examine ways that Christian culture lets women know exactly who they should be.”  Their posts are sporadic but often time-specific in response to an event in the news, and I find their perspectives thought-provoking. They write with a lot of sarcastic humor and irony that I also enjoy.

Chris Glaser  – The lone male in my research and another ordained minister who writes books and speaks/leads programs. I like how he states his purpose as a writer “to encourage the ‘thoughtful pause’ in his readers, to help them think of spirituality in fresh ways.” He posts on Wednesday mornings and writes about all sorts of subjects related to faith, from responding to events in the news or books to personal events/milestones in light of faith to scripture-related posts.

The Mudroom  – This is a just-launched group blog whose focus is on stories and authenticity. The writers, all women, seem to have Christian leanings but it’s not front and center in their purpose. They’ve posted a list of monthly themes and are soliciting posts. I’m interested to watch how it unfolds.


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Feminist Boot Camp for the Catholic Hierarchy

Dear Pope Francis, Cardinals and Bishops:

Your just concluded three-day meeting on the theme of “Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference” painfully revealed once again just how wide the gap between clerical perception and women’s reality, not surprising since you have limited contact with actual women and your knowledge of women’s history is severely outdated. As a result you are unable to understand women’s diversity and leadership in the present or the past.

The recent meeting was attended by seven women and upwards of 50 men, so the potential for new ground being broken was remote at best. Closed processes cannot open hearts. So, while I absolutely believe you should study the full spectrum of feminist theological writings and women’s history, I chose the following resources from the realms of literature, visual arts, music, and public life in hopes of evoking a personal response rather than just an intellectual one, that you might see in full color what you currently view only in black and white.

I invite every one of you to set aside time each day during the upcoming seasons of Lent and Easter, to engage with these works prayerfully as you would any sacred text. Perhaps you could have an online forum or Facebook group in which to share new insights!

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant is a novel of biblical women published in 1997. The story is told through the voice of Dinah, who is mentioned only briefly in the Hebrew scripture story of Jacob and his family, and imagines a full picture of ancient female life, the joys and sorrows.  The book was made into a Lifetime mini-series also.

Elizabeth Nourse, a 19th century native of my own Cincinnati, moved to Paris for most of her adult life to pursue her vocation as a painter. Her 1892 Self-Portrait reveals her determined character, and this 1983 article fills in the details not only of her artistic career but her outreach to others, especially during World War I.

Fannie Lou Hamer helped African-Americans register to vote in Mississippi in the 1960s. Though she was fired from her job, threatened, arrested, and also beaten for her efforts, she persevered in dedicating her life to civil rights advocacy. Her gifts as an orator are now being rediscovered. This video shows her speech to the Democratic National Convention in 1964.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin is a novel published in 1899 that portrays a timeless internal conflict for women, between tending to oneself and fulfilling duties to others.  The themes remain completely contemporary. Though not a long work, it invites profound reflection, especially with the ambiguous ending.

Septima Clark made a major though often unrecognized contribution to the civil rights movement as an innovative teacher.  She created curriculum and taught adults the literacy skills they needed in order to vote, at great personal risk. These were called “Citizenship Schools.” Her first-person narrative in Ready from Within provides a fuller perspective on this part of history.

“The Language of the Brag,” a poem by Sharon Olds from her 1984 collection Satan Says, presents childbirth in an earthy, powerful manner. Proud of the accomplishment, she does not romanticize it in any way. As a contemporary response to Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” the poem speaks in a strong female voice about women’s bodily strength.

The Succession of Mary Magdalene, a set of paintings by Janet McKenzie, puts women in the picture of early Christianity as partners in ministry which has clear implications for today. McKenzie is known for painting biblical figures as people of color, inviting more inclusive images of the divine.

Jann Aldredge-Clanton is a contemporary musician and minister whose songs, many of them offering new inclusive lyrics to familiar tunes, provide inspiring options for worship. Midwife Divine Now Calls Us and Praise Ruah, Spirit Who Gives Birth are just two examples.

I put this list together based on my own experiences. If you asked women all over the world for their suggestions and stories, you would collect a highly varied array of material upon which to reflect.

Peg Conway



Posted in Art and Creative Expression, Divison in the Church, Uncategorized, Women Leader | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Groundhog Day

I seldom pay much attention to Groundhog Day, preferring St. Brigid’s feast the day before and the Presentation as occasions for reflection. But I came across this poem through Abbey of the Arts and just had to share! To celebrate the hope of spring, I also just ordered the collection from which it is taken,  Bread and Other Miracles. 

Groundhog Day
By Lynn Ungar

Celebrate this unlikely oracle,
this ball of fat and fur,
whom we so mysteriously endow
with the power to predict spring.
Let’s hear it for the improbable heroes who,
frightened at their own shadows,
nonetheless unwittingly work miracles.
Why shouldn’t we believe
this peculiar rodent holds power
over sun and seasons in his stubby paw?
Who says that God is all grandeur and glory?
Unnoticed in the earth, worms
are busily, brainlessly, tilling the soil.
Field mice, all unthinking, have scattered
seeds that will take root and grow.
Grape hyacinths, against all reason,
have been holding up green shoots beneath the snow.
How do you think spring arrives?
There is nothing quieter, nothing
more secret, miraculous, mundane.
Do you want to play your part
in bringing it to birth? Nothing simpler.
Find a spot not too far from the ground
and wait.

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Small Steps

I promise that very soon I am going to blog about something other than Red Boot topics! But it’s new and rather fascinating to me, so my thoughts land here a lot and I feel drawn to write about it. Founder Molly Barker was in town to launch our first meeting, and 15 people showed up to try it out. After some introductions and background, we formally took up the script that guides Red Boot meetings everywhere. Its simplicity is deceptive, because although the ground rules are few in number, they are hugely significant to creating the safe space essential to the whole endeavor. Someone reads them aloud at each meeting.

  • Stick to statements like “I think,” “I feel,” and “My experience has been . . .”
  • Keep your comments brief.
  • Never cross talk during the meeting; let everyone’s words and stories stand on their own.
  • Refrain from sharing details shared by a specific person outside the meeting.
Molly Barker reads from the Red Boot script at the kickoff Cincinnati meeting

Molly Barker reads from the Red Boot script at the kickoff Cincinnati meeting

Next we went around the circle reading all 11 Steps aloud before taking up the first step as the main topic of the meeting: We came to see that despite sometimes feeling helpless, angry and even apathetic about the current course of human events, we each play an essential role in our communities, families, our lives. We matter. Molly posed a few discussion prompts (also from the script): How do you matter? Who do you matter to?  People shared about all kinds of things from their family and work situations to interactions with neighbors and others.

But the process doesn’t end there. Shortly before the one-hour time allotment was to end, Molly asked, “With the remaining time, let’s talk about how you plan to practice and live today’s step in your life? What ways or tactics will you use to put this step into action?” Acknowledging that preoccupation with my own tasks and priorities can make me oblivious or impatient, I stated an intention to be friendlier to people I encounter out in public, like at the grocery store. Be careful what you wish for! The very next morning, at the crack of dawn, I departed on a flight to NC to meet up with high school friends for the long MLK weekend. My words of the night before echoed in my ears as a young mom carrying a whining toddler sat right across the narrow plane aisle from me, then again when the pilot announced a fog delay and later a diversion to a remote airport in TN, and even more so while dealing with airline staff to work out an alternate travel plan in the wake of cancellations. That morning I found it wasn’t so difficult to be kind and patient, perhaps because the meeting environment had been supportive, not judging.

This past Thursday, a dozen people gathered for the second meeting to work on Step 2:  We came to see, that despite sometimes feeling small and powerless, we possess the power to positively influence all those with whom we come into contact, which on any given day can be literally hundreds of people. We are empowered.  Who did you positively impact today or recently and how? Who is in your circle of influence that positively impacted you recently? What small action did you take that “made someone’s day?”

To practice this step in the week ahead, my thoughts turned to a need for balance between virtual interactions and live, in-person ones. The tantalizing array of blogs and articles and videos available via Facebook distract me far too easily!!  Attending the Cincinnati Pops concert on Friday night for a program called “American Originals” reinforced this awareness — such a joy to sit in the historic concert hall and give my undivided attention to hearing the wonderful orchestra and amazing vocalists. The program featured primarily the work of Stephen Foster, who lived for a few years here in Cincinnati and worked along the river for his brother’s shipping company while also writing songs influenced by varied styles that he encountered here on the border of north and south. I learned to play several of Foster’s songs back when I took piano lessons (as an adult); hearing them performed reminded me how playing the piano used to clear my mind of jumbled thoughts. Another way to stay balanced.


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Being the Change

True conversation is so much more than words. Authentic exchange creates connection, imparts wisdom, provokes thought, and inspires action.  This weekend Joe and I had the pleasure of this experience with a small group of folks from our parish, convened by another parishioner, a religious sister seeking input on behalf of her community in preparation for their quadrennial assembly this summer. Ranging in age from late 20s to early 70s, the group’s responses to her questions about how we envision the world and religion/spirituality over the next ten years and what suggestions we would offer to their community pointed to strong awareness of division and polarization, as well as heartfelt desire for understanding across differences, especially among Catholics of varying viewpoints.

RedBootsCourageStrikingly, this discussion mirrored very closely what transpired during the gathering that I helped convene back in August under the theme “Re-Visioning American Political
Leadership,” at the impetus of Molly Barker, founder of Girls on the Run, which I introduced in a previous post. Over the past several years, she has been exploring ways to address the partisanship and polarization in national politics, a project that led her to embark on a month-long cross-country driving trip — called the “Red Boot Tour” — to talk with people about the situation.  (Why red boots? Molly once received a pair and discovered that wearing them lent courage and confidence, a sentiment others have since shared with her.)

Though familiar with Girls on the Run, I had not heard of Molly Barker until spring 2013 when my friend, a GOTR coach, shared Molly’s Letter to Congress” TEDx talk on Facebook. I seldom watch videos on Facebook, but for some reason that day I watched through the whole 18:16. Tears spilled down my cheeks as Molly shared her heartfelt vision of authenticity being realized even in the political world. I began following her on Facebook and read with interest of her evolving efforts to bridge divides. I felt this bond with her and harbored a secret hope to meet her someday. When the Red Boot tour was proposed, uncertain of how much time or effort it would require and whether I could pull it off, I tentatively replied, “We would welcome you in Cincinnati.”  Less than a month later, she was right here in my neighborhood leading meaningful conversation.

11StepsThe Red Boot Coalition 11 Steps for dialogue and/or personal reflection emerged from what Molly heard from people while on the tour. Engaging the 11 Steps creates an inner peace that can only ripple out to positively impact any setting of which we are a part. Integral to the movement is ongoing Red Boot meetings where people discuss one step each time, creating safe spaces for genuine interaction. In addition to the several such weekly meetings in Charlotte that Molly has started, they are also underway in Winona, MN; Columbia, MO; Chicago; Payson, AZ; and Winston-Salem, NCThis Thursday, Jan. 15, the first Cincinnati Red Boot meeting will take place at Pleasant Ridge Montessori school with Molly here to help us kick it off!  All are welcome. 

In the face of so much violence, fear, and division, the Red Boot Movement provides a way to “do something” right where we are.  

Learn more:
Interview with Molly on NPR in Charlotte (begins about 30 minutes in)
Meeting script
The Red Boot Coalition on Facebook
The Red Boot Coalition website 

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Stepping into the New Year

It’s really unusual that a whole season of Advent passed without my writing a single blog post about it!  But even so, I observed the four weeks with intention, following Jan Richardson’s online retreat which provided daily emails featuring her vivid  painted images, one for each day, along with her lyrical reflections and signature blessings.  The days of Christmas so far have been enjoyably full of times with family and friends, but the turning of the year invites renewed contemplation.

IMG_0519[1]In late November my husband and I had accomplished a minor rearranging of our office space that returned an easy chair to a corner vacated by our now moved-out son’s desk. Within the first few days of Advent, I noticed myself distinctly drawn like a magnet to this particular spot for retreat reflections at the start of each day. Unlike my longstanding custom of sunrise morning prayer in our eastward-facing living room, this chair in the study looks toward a north window.I sat with this awareness, wondering about it. Then the phrase “changing direction” came to mind, a literal description of my physical action and also the title of my blog post about deciding to withdraw from regular Sunday mass attendance. That seemed interesting.  Visually, the move on a compass from east to north presents a straight up and down axis, looks balanced. It’s actually more of a pivot than a complete change of direction.

IMG_0513[1]I remembered reading somewhere that in Native American spirituality the four directions are associated with the four elements, so I did a little research and learned that the North is identified with the element of earth (though this can vary), which conjured a number of positive associations, like “being grounded” and “embodiment,” along with an image of a path. All of these provide much needed antidote to my tendency to over-analyze and get lost in thoughts that delay or prevent decisive action. Stay on the path, close to the earth. Attend to the tasks at hand. Take the next step.

Although New Year’s can be a bit contrived as an occasion, I still love the sense of crossing a threshold into something new. I’m not making actual resolutions, at least not just yet, but want to stay attuned to earth-path awareness. Perhaps specific ideas will emerge.  To mark this intention, this afternoon Joe and I walked our “neighborhood labyrinth” on the grounds of a convent just 10 minutes from our house. One step at a time.


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Everyday Sacrament: Eucharist

IMG_0476[1]I am delighted to feature a new book by Laura Kelly Fanucci called Everyday Sacrament: The Messy Grace of Parenting. The mother of three young boys, hers is the kind of feminine theological voice I craved at that time in my life, and though we sit at opposite ends of the parenting cycle, the warmth and wisdom of her Mothering Spirit blog drew me in when I chanced upon it several years ago. (I also had the pleasure of meeting her earlier this year.) Her book is really an open invitation for everyone to see the sacraments in ordinary moments. Fireflies on a summer night as flashes of the Spirit. God’s healing presence through hands-on care from other people. Spontaneous sharing of bread in the kitchen as a rite of reconciliation.

I definitely saw our family life in the parenting experiences she draws upon to reflect the sacraments, both the funny and the frustrating. Her account of putting lunch on the table after church one Sunday evoked such vivid body memory that I felt nearly breathless when Laura finally sat down!  “In my last dizzy spin around the counter while they’re clamoring to eat, I grab forks, spoons, napkins, four glasses, one bib, and a sippy cup; I plop everything at the table, myself in a chair, and look up at the grimaced faces waiting for grace.” (p. 55)

Intellectually, it’s not difficult to associate our daily meals with the Eucharist, yet as Laura points out, the pressures and pace of life often preclude our notice of this spiritual richness. The Second Vatican Council’s document on the church calls the Eucharist “the source and summit of the Christian life,” and from my newly empty nest perspective, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the dinner table is the source and summit of family life, in our case beginning in a rather literal sense with the actual piece of furniture at which we eat. During our marriage preparation process (23 years ago) with a couple from the parish, one evening I admired the beauty of the table where we sat across from one another to discuss our responses to the FOCCUS questionnaire. When they replied, “It’s for sale,” at first Joe and I assumed it was a joke. Then we quickly agreed to buy it. Two months later we were married in an afternoon ceremony and began our domestic life together by dining that evening at our table.

IMG_0127[1]With the birth of our first child the next year and two more subsequently, we embarked on the multi-tasking meal era of babies and toddlers that is Laura’s present stage. And yet, even in such chaos the Spirit led us to make one of our most important parenting decisions, evident now in hindsight. Kieran and Michael were about 1-1/2 and 3 when we began requiring that they ask to be excused before leaving the dinner table.  If the request to “be ‘scused” came before everyone was finished eating (or at least the little ones), the reply was “Not yet. Stay at the table a few more minutes.” Gradually they learned not to ask until the answer would be “Yes, you may be excused.” When they grew into larger bodies, we pulled out one of the table’s sides to provide more elbow room. Their personalities also emerged, and we arrived at a marvelous point where they stayed around the table talking and teasing long after the eating was finished, until someone would sigh and push back their chair saying “I’d better get going on homework.”

As first one, then another left for college, the table took on added resonance as the place of reconnection at holidays and breaks. But when the youngest graduated high school last spring, I began to mourn the imminent loss of our family table as a day to day reality. A profound three-part exodus occurred in late August and early September. Over 10 days we drove one to his first year of college 740 miles away, sent another to a semester abroad in Africa, and finally, moved the recent college graduate to an apartment and job in Chicago. I accompanied him in the U-Haul and assisted with unloading and unpacking, then rode home the next day on the Megabus, by this time totally spent from the physical and emotional labor of these transitions.

IMG_0348[1]It seemed quite fitting that our empty nest life would kick off at dinner time. When Joe and I conferred on the phone during the bus ride, I said, “I want to eat at home, and I really want to shrink the table.” Earlier in the summer we had discussed reducing the table back to its original size once the kids were gone. All at once this gesture seemed imperative, a necessity to actualize our new reality. On impulse we also folded up the table pads and table cloth and brought out place mats we’d hardly ever used. Sitting down before the beautiful dark wood we’d admired all those years before, just the two of us once again, time seemed to telescope as a sense of peace and wholeness enveloped our meal and set a hopeful tone for the ensuing days.

The Vatican II decree on ministry states that the other sacraments as well as all the ministries and works of the Church are connected to the Eucharist. “For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church.” Likewise, as a place of sharing and relationship, the dinner table encompasses the spiritual good of the family that gathers around it, however large or small, young or old or in between. In Laura’s words, “Here is where we practice communion: giving thanks, breaking bread, feeding the hungry. Here is where we teach and forgive and celebrate and praise. Here is where we love in flesh and blood.” (p. 56)



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