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



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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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In Stillness

This morning started off with a text from a relative telling me that a college student in the Chicago neighborhood where my son lived for two years was mugged, shot and killed last night at 8:00 pm.  Icy fear chilled my veins, and my insides clenched at this news, thinking of this student’s family and friends confronting such a terrible loss.  Tears leaked from my eyes as I shared it with Joe and acknowledged aloud a truth that came to me so plainly. Beneath my genuine sorrow for these people I don’t know lurks a desperate plea arising deep in my heart: “Please let this never be me.  May my precious ones always be safe.” A tragedy that strikes close to home because of the location and demographic (my son still lives in Chicago) means that I can’t buffer against the sadness.  Suddenly I understood the events of Ferguson and New York (and all the other places) at a more visceral level. Despite the considerable distress they engender for me, the outward differences compared to my personal situation allow me to maintain a protected emotional stance.  What if those barriers came down?

Back in August I responded to an invitation on Facebook from Molly Barker, founder of Girls on the Run, to participate in a new initiative she felt called to launch to address the political polarization that has led to gridlock in Congress.  She calls it the Red Boot Coalition because of the unexpected personal empowerment she found through the wearing of red cowboy boots received as a gift from her daughter. Molly spent the month of August traveling around the country talking to people in organized groups, like the one some friends and I held here in Cincinnati, and to individuals encountered along the way, from hotel workers to truck drivers.  At the end of that journey, she concluded that politics is just one manifestation of a cultural “us versus them” perspective that leads to fear, anger, and violence. The addition of technology, social media and round the clock news creates further distancing. We don’t know each other, and we don’t really communicate. In response, Molly has created an 11-step process for dialogue. She envisions regular “Red Boot” meetings where people come together to share their experiences in relation to a particular step.

Recently she has been sharing one Red Boot Step each day on Facebook with a request for responses; today’s step concerns stillness:  I have come to see that despite feeling stressed by the demands of life, taking time every day to be in stillness provides a “peace” that is essential to my well-being. I am more present, available and willing to see the mystery of serendipity and coincidence. I am loved.  For me, stillness is necessary to feel genuine emotion rather than avoid it. Today I chose to write in my journal and then compose this post, rather than bury myself in a novel for the morning.

Molly is coming to Cincinnati on January 15 to kick off the Red Boot Coalition in Cincinnati, and I am really looking forward to it.

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Threshold to the Sacred

I had the privilege of leading a birth retreat for young alumnae of a Catholic girls’ high school here in Cincinnati this past Saturday morning. The Embodying the Sacred mini-retreat seeks to connect the physical processes of pregnancy and birth with symbols of Christian faith to empower and celebrate women and is based on my book of the same name. Expressive activities like drawing and painting feature prominently as spiritual practices, and I hit upon the idea of providing blank journals for these activities, primarily as an organizational tool. Participants can then leave with a single item from the day that they can continue to express themselves in, rather than a jumble of loose papers.

In a lovely synchronicity, I eventually encountered a more theological rationale for using these journals, through the work of Jan Richardson, a Methodist minister/artist/writer. In the Sanctuary of Women refers to spiritual books as a “thin place” in the manner of the ancient Celts. Opening such a book, whether simple or extravagant, is to cross a threshold toward encounter with the divine in prayer. I am particularly captivated by Jan’s account of a discovery in Germany. A restoration team working on a former Cistercian monastery pulled up the floorboards of what had been their sanctuary to find a treasure trove of everyday items used by the community, including a collection of individual prayer books created by the sisters in the 1500s. While the books had elements in common, each was distinct and clearly intended for personal use apart from their communal prayer.

This framework resonated more strongly than ever at Saturday’s retreat as we gathered in the lower level of the historic school, a converted Victorian mansion, in a meeting space that for many years served as the school cafeteria. The architecture still echoes with the vibrancy of adolescent girls as well as the more subtle reverberation of the women religious who founded the convent and academy more than a century ago.

IMG_0120[1]After introductions and opening prayer, I passed out the journals and provided collage materials for participants to decorate the cover. Using fingers to dab the glue, they arranged torn bits of paper into unique and heartfelt patterns on their individual books. When they finished, I invited them first to hold them up so we could all see. In the individual sharing that followed, a threshold was indeed crossed. The morning passed quickly as the group actively reflected on creation and our bodies, on a woman’s body as sacred vessel, on the female pelvis as passage for birth, especially the pain involved in that process, and on the power of storytelling about birth. Our circle itself came to embody the holiness of female community, past, present and future.

“Across the centuries, women have carried prayers in our bones and in our blood. We have passed down the sacred stories from body to body. We have struggled to know our lives as sacred texts, to perceive the ways that God has written God’s own story within us, to understand how the Word still seeks to take flesh in and through us.” (In the Sanctuary of Women, p. 14)




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