Nurturing Seeds of Self-Care

Its always fun when several interests converge in a single project. I enjoyed that experience writing an article about an innovative project called Vitality Cincinnati, launched by a group of folks led by our friend Brian Shircliff. They make Healing Touch and yoga and other self-care approaches available to all at affordable prices. Avidly following their
progress for several years, I wondered how or if I might ever get involved. Then last Vitality3summer Brian and Vitality volunteers began offering Healing Touch at the food pantry where I help out as a shopper on Wednesdays, and I became more
intrigued. In the fall, after much deliberation (Should I do this? Maybe I shouldn’t.) I took the first level Healing Touch training and immediately became converted to its amazing potential to promote relaxation and well-being. I eagerly responded to a suggestion that an article about Vitality be submitted to Energy Magazine, an online publication that explores this field of healing  which works with the subtle energy fields of the body.

The article just came out today in their July/August issue!

An excerpt  appears below, but you can read the entire piece by signing up for a free Energy Magazine subscription at http://energymagazineonline.com/subscribe. It has beautiful images and interesting content about holistic health topics, relevant to anyone.  (It will be publicly available on their website in two months.)

In a converted storefront on a main thoroughfare in Cincinnati, one-hour Healing Touch sessions are available by appointment several evenings a month at a nominal fee. A long rectangular-shaped open room with soft lighting and instrumental music playing contains four treatment tables arranged with pillows and blankets. Meditation cushions and yoga mats stacked along the edges of the room are evi­dence of other uses for this contemplative space, and hot tea is available at the kitchenette in the left rear corner. Clients are welcomed quietly in the entryway and then ushered to a table.

Just a few miles north, desks are moved aside in a second floor classroom of the parish center housed in a converted apartment building to create three Healing Touch stations. Each consists of two folding chairs facing each other. Despite the hustle and bus­tle of the Wednesday afternoon food pantry under­way downstairs, serenity prevails. Clients are greeted with gentle warmth and quiet assurance that they will not lose their place in line as a result of diverting upstairs for 20-30 minutes of Healing Touch before shopping the pantry shelves. Foreheads nearly touch as the seated pairs confer. Soon the practitioners stand, set down the clipboard, and move their chairs out of the way to begin Healing Touch for the clients who remain seated.

Two contrasting settings in two distinct urban neigh­borhoods, but both are the work of Vitality Cincinna­ti, a small non-profit with a cosmic vision for “inviting transformation neighborhood by neighborhood, per­son to person, and breath by breath through gentle and accessible self-care: Healing Touch, meditation, journaling, yoga and Bones for Life.”

Living up to its name, Vitality is always growing! The article concludes by announcing a then-new program in Walnut Hills that just graduated its first group of interns. And I’m growing too, thanks to Vitality. This spring I joined Brian in offering Healing Touch at the pantry once or twice a month.

Vitality5

Posted in Healing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Taking in Tragedy

The tragedies of this week are too much to take in. A young white man consumed by racial hatred kills nine African-Americans in a historic church in Charleston on Wednesday night. Here in Cincinnati on Friday morning, a veteran police officer with an exemplary record is shot and killed in a residential neighborhood by a young man who intentionally lured officers to the scene through a fake 911 call. I am heartsick. These terrible events feel surprisingly personal to me, I realized, because of my experiences as a council member in Amberley Village.

ConfederateJon Stewart struck a chord with these words in his non-comedic monologue the night after the attack: “The Confederate flag flies over South Carolina, and the roads are named for Confederate generals, and the white guy’s the one who feels like his country is being taken away from him.” Amberley has a significant number of Jewish residents of all denominations, as well as several synagogues and temples and a Jewish community center open to everyone. As a local official and as a person interested in religion, my awareness of anti-Semitism past and present is well developed through many encounters and relationships that mean a great deal to me. How would it feel to have the Nazi flag flying in front of our municipal building? I raised this question with a Jewish friend last night, and he was nodding his head in understanding before I even finished speaking it. Extremely uncomfortable, threatening even, is how it would feel.

RememberFallenThe killing of a police officer in our area hits even harder. Amberley is unique in the friendship that many residents have with our police officers, who also comprise our fire department, but as a council member and chair of the Police/Fire committee I have an even closer appreciation of them individually and of how they work. Though small in size, the department deals with the same issues affecting law enforcement everywhere such as use of force and officer safety. The past two years while attending National Police Week ceremonies, I’ve witnessed the bond among officers across jurisdictions during this annual commemoration of the fallen. Yesterday on Facebook, our police/fire chief posted that he had been at the hospital all day, among those providing support to fellow officers and the family. Of course, I thought. He is a person who goes toward that which is upsetting or challenging or dangerous, motivated by concern for others. Just like Officer Kim on Friday morning, and like every officer on every shift. That’s what it means to work in public safety.

Posted in Public Affairs | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ingeniously Watering the Garden

Our community garden plot continues to be a source of satisfaction and enjoyment! The lettuce and kale will be ready to harvest soon I think, and the broccoli is coming along (faster, I wish!). About a week ago, we planted some herb seeds — basil, cilantro and dill– whose appearance we eagerly anticipate. A run of drier weather and higher temperatures has necessitated watering of the garden, and I don’t take for granted the ease of accomplishing this task.  The community garden is located on a former country club golf course with “former” meaning “pretty much abandoned” in the sense that the club house is closed up and there’s no electricity or running water.  Even so, illustrating that sometimes less is more, the property is well loved as a peaceful oasis for walking and in regards to the community garden, an ingenious and practical rain collection system partners with mother nature to provide water for the plants.

Click on the first photo to begin a slide show with captions explaining how it all works.

Posted in Creation, Garden 2015 | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Ritual for Earth Day

On the eve of Earth Day, Joe and I seized the coincidence of lovely weather and an unscheduled evening to enjoy a walking ritual at a park near our house. In a sort of mini-pilgrimage, at points along the way we read aloud blessings for each of the four elements. The blessings were adapted from Christine Valters Paintner’s book Water, Wind, Earth, and Fire: The Christian Practice of Praying with the Elements. (Only brief excerpts are reproduced here.) 

Blessings of wind be upon me.
May I breathe deeply the gift of inspiration.

IMG_0782

The day was even breezy so that we could fully experience the element of wind!

 

Blessings of fire be upon me.
May the flame of love burn brightly within me.

IMG_0778

Facing west in the late afternoon, we paused to enjoy the sun’s warmth.

 

Blessings of water be upon me.
May I be carrried by the flow of the great river of life,
to the shores of the sacred and renewed.

IMG_0784

No swimming allowed in this pond, but I dipped my hands and sprinkled each of us as a gesture of baptismal renewal.

 

Blessings of earth be upon me.
May I live in awareness that all life
depends on caring for earth’s abundance,
in harmony with all creation.

IMG_0786

Last stop, our plot at the community garden. I took a moment to dig out a few nettles out of the damp soil.

 

IMG_0787Returning home, we enjoyed a meatless meal of bean and quinoa chili. Before saying our usual grace, we recited blessings written by Jewish poet Marcia Falk.

Let us bless the source of life that brings forth bread from the earth.

Let us bless the source of life that ripens fruit on the vine.


A beautiful sunset provided a perfect closing rite.
IMG_0797Amen!

Posted in Creation, Prayer and Practices, Ritual | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

A Brief Burst of Beauty

IMG_0698In this Easter season of celebrating resurrection, the natural world teaches about the paschal mystery. Visiting Washington DC this week for my first-ever  Cherry Blossom Festival I learned the Japanese word hanami, which literally means “to view flowers” but usually refers to the viewing of cherry blossoms. For more than 1000 years, the Japanese have revered the cherry blossoms. Their practice of hanami consists of picnics with family and friends beneath the branches, and each spring they eagerly monitor blossom forecast maps to be ready for the all too brief season that lasts no more than two weeks.

The first gift of 3000 cherry trees from Japan were planted around the Tidal Basin area and other sites in 1912, and an American version of this tradition has evolved here in our nation’s capital since 1935. For several weeks in late March/early April, the festival includes tours and programs related to Japanese culture as well as cherry trees, live performances, a parade and a street festival. Images of the iconic flower proliferate throughout the city, from stickers affixed to bike rental stands and house windows, to shops selling magnets, water bottles, t-shirts and more, to theme banners on public buildings.

Now I understand all the fuss. The actual trees truly inspire awe! Joe and I strolled partway around the Tidal Basin on Wednesday, and chilly, cloudy conditions did not obscure the beauty of the blossoms. Peak blossom time is occurring this weekend, and the sense of anticipation was palpable along with the growing crowds.

IMG_0696In contrast to such outward frenzy, hanami beckoned quietly. “Practice viewing cherry blossoms.” On Friday we heeded this inner voice, rising early without stopping for breakfast or even a cup of coffee to walk several blocks to the Tidal Basin, past the Washington monument where there are also cherry trees, on another misty, chilly, overcast morning. Exquisite beauty rewarded us! Compared to our previous visit just two days before, we noticed some trees completely in bloom, to amazing effect. Their soft snowy fullness embodies piercing vulnerability as well as graceful abundance. A sign of spring re-birth, unflinchingly they witness to the fleeting nature of life.

In the 9th century, Japanese poet Ariwara no Narihira captured this realization in just a few lines of verse.
IMG_0688If this world had never
known the ephemeral charms
of cherry blossoms
then our hearts in spring might match
nature’s deep tranquility.

To embrace such loveliness in full knowledge of its short-lived nature is to be forever changed by death and loss, he seems to say. Friday morning as we came full circle around the Tidal Basin, our son texted that college basketball player Lauren Hill had passed away from the brain cancer that afflicted her since late 2013. It seemed fitting to remember Lauren, who impacted the nation with her courage and in the process helped raised more than $1 million for cancer research, in a place of such contemplative splendor. “What a life she lived,” I texted back. We returned to the hotel and ate breakfast in the restaurant while a tribute to Lauren played soundlessly on ESPN. Later these three quotes from her grabbed my attention via Facebook:

“It was a dream come true to play on the college court. And it was so thrilling to get there and be able to put my foot down and feel the roar of the crowd and the vibrations of the floor boards and I love it so much.”

“I’m spreading awareness and also teaching people how to live in the moment because the next moment’s not promised. Anything can happen at any given moment. What matters is right now.”

“What’s happening now is not going to help me and it’s not going to help everybody else right away. But it’s going to help in the future, and it’s eventually going to make something happen.”

Like the cherry blossoms, Lauren Hill embodied a too-brief burst of beauty that is transformative and unforgettable.

IMG_0703

Posted in Creation, Liturgical Year | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Patron Saint for Autism

In honor of World Autism Awareness Day on April 2, I am pleased to share a guest reflection below written by my cousin, Ellen Wimberg Cicconi, the mother of two sons on the autism spectrum.  Among her many advocacy activities around autism, for more than ten years she and her family have entered a team in the Walk Now for Autism Speaks fundraiser in the Pittsburgh area where she lives.  Her annual appeal mailing has become a welcome rite of spring, because she always shares something of her journey along with the request for contributions. This year’s brought a true gem of real-life theology.

I have adopted St. John the Baptist as a personal autism patron saint. The parallels between John and people on the autism spectrum are quite striking. Consider what we know about him:

  • IMG_0641His parents were of an advanced age when he was conceived, a known risk factor for autism;
  • He had a very selective and unusual diet;
  • He wore the same clothes daily either unaware or unconcerned about his personal hygiene;
  • He lived apart from mainstream society;
  • He was drawn to water;
  • He perseverated on topics that either did not interest or just bothered others;
  • He was unrelenting in his message and was unconcerned that he gave offense;
  • He was verbally and physically abused (bullied) to death.

John was an outsider, he was different, and yet his cousin Jesus started his ministry with him. Jesus loved his cousin and saw what was beautiful and true in him, what was unique and important for the larger world. Jesus saw beyond John’s difference and recognized God’s love, grace and power acting through John. God blessed John in a special way. The life of St. John the Baptis serves as a reminder that each of us has a place in our church and in our world. We are special and beautiful instruments of God. 

LIUB-HORIZ

On World Autism Awareness Day, Autism Speaks celebrates its international Light It Up Blue Campaign. Thousands of iconic landmarks, communities, businesses and homes across the globe unite by shining bright blue lights in honor of the millions of individuals and families around the world affected by autism.

World Autism Awareness Day was adopted by the United Nations in 2007 to shine a bright light on autism as a growing global health crisis. Autism is one of only three health issues to be recognized with its own day by the United Nations. WAAD activities increase world knowledge of autism and impart information about the importance of early diagnosis and early intervention. Additionally, WAAD celebrates the unique talents and skills of persons with autism around the world.

Posted in Saints | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Magnolia Speaks: A Poem for Spring

IMG_0623[1]I am full and ready to burst with growth
Reach up and out with my whole being
Put my whole self out on this limb
Vulnerable, I know, to wind and storms and cold

Reach up and out with my whole being
Free and unafraid, confident of my beauty and purpose
Vulnerable, I know, to wind and storms and cold
I openly embrace all that is

Free and unafraid, confident of my beauty and purpose
I put my whole self out on this limb
I openly embrace all that is
I am joyful and eager to blossom

– Peg Conway

Image and poem both emerged through activities of the Abbey of the Arts’ online Lenten retreat. 

Posted in Art and Creative Expression | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

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!

 

Posted in Garden 2015 | Tagged , | 4 Comments

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.

 

Posted in Birth, Public Affairs | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment