Announcing a Labor

I have begun working on a new website for myself to reflect the expanded directions that my writing and work have been taking for several years now. It’s scaring me to death! The process has provided the inner critic a whole new platform for challenging my capabilities and undermining my confidence. This morning I realized that the discouraging voice is way up in the clouds, floating and formless. Escaping it requires coming back down to Earth. To my body. To the world of the book I am writing: a memoir of early mother loss and rippling grief. The new website will highlight this writing and re-focus my birth and spiritual work. I’ve evolved a great deal since I started this blog in the fall of 2010!

IMG_0261[1]When I was in labor with our third child, labor proceeded smoothly from five cm to 8 to almost 10. I wanted to push the baby out right then, but there was this lip of cervix still in the way. Pushing against it would cause swelling and impede delivery. The midwife wanted me to get on all fours to aid this last bit of dilation. At first I whimpered in resistance, fearing the pain I knew would be unleased. But there was no going back. Only forward. I breathed through a couple more contractions and then told my husband, doula and midwife I was ready. Lots of loud vocalizing ensued along with their calm soothing (a la Call the Midwife) as instinct accompanied searing pain.  I soon delivered our son.

The new site is like a new me, and I’m birthing them both. This post is me in labor, saying out loud that there’s no going back, shifting positions to invite creative discomfort and trusting that gut-level intuition will carry me forward. I can’t wait to welcome you to my new site! Stay tuned.

 

Posted in Birth, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Mentor’s Legacy

A dear mentor and friend died unexpectedly last week, and I was very sorry to be unable to attend her funeral yesterday. For 22 years that included my young adult and parenting stages, Rosemary Conrad was the director of religious education at Bellarmine Parish. Our relationship began with a simple invitation, from her to me, to be a sponsor for an adult seeking initiation into the church in the RCIA program. Intrigued and flattered to be asked, I started showing up on Thursday nights and quickly became immersed. As a child of the immediate post Vatican II era when catechesis was shifting quickly and hadn’t yet arrived anywhere substantive, I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know about my church, and I loved learning in the communal setting. I did sponsor someone, which IMG_0236[1]got me to my first-ever Easter Vigil service the following spring, and it was life changing. The readings, the rituals, the euphoria, the resurrection. Alleuia!! Jesus Christ is Risen Today. The Vigil became instrumental to my life and then our married life after I got Joe in on it. At Rosemary’s encouragement, we later brought our kids starting when they were in grade school, so it was a family tradition. They resonated with the liturgical drama also and especially loved the fun of staying out past midnight snarfing down brownies and meatballs at the party afterward.

During my RCIA time, the subject of the communion of saints captivated my interest, and Rosemary directed me to further resources. Then, much to my surprise and delight, a few years later she invited me to be the presenter on a Thursday in early November for the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. Who, me? Yes. Rosemary was an easygoing, cheerful person who laughed and smiled all the time, but her face took on a solemn expression when she spoke with intent on a serious matter, such as telling you that you could take on a role you never thought you’d be able to do. In these moments, her heavy lidded eyes looked straight at you, conveying gravitas, as did her subdued tone of voice and economy of words.

IMG_2534I remember this so well too from a conversation we had about the timing of our daughter’s first communion. Born in October, Kieran had started school later, so she was seven years old in first grade, and we wondered if she could go ahead and make her first communion that spring rather than waiting another whole year. I felt totally comfortable approaching Rosemary about it, and right away she said yes, I think she’s ready, nodding her head, looking at me in that serious mode. Nothing more needed to be said. We were in sync. She knew our child. The rules or customs were not an impediment to doing what was best. A few months later I attended the parent night regarding first communion preparation. Kieran attended a private Catholic Montessori school at the time so was not enrolled in the parish religious education program (the parish does not have a school). This was a common occurrence, so Rosemary offered a homeschool option. She presented the materials, offered some suggestions and then passed out the booklets, offered help if needed, but the underlying assumption was that we knew what to do or could certainly figure it out. Trust yourself, you are your child’s first and most important teacher. She didn’t have to say it a lot, because her actions spoke so loudly.

Rosemary approached training leaders for Children’s Liturgy of the Word with the same empowering style. She provided materials and orientation, and she emphasized: This is worship, not craft time or school. You are presiding at worship. You are preaching the word to these children. They have the right to hear it in words they can understand. You can do it. Her trust in me allowed me to trust myself.

This weekend I was on the road, first in northern Indiana for a retreat with an ecumenical group called Christian Feminism Today, and then Milwaukee for my nephew’s graduation from Marquette on Sunday afternoon. It’s just too long of a drive to make late at night to return for a Monday morning funeral, but in that ephemeral way of saints, Rosemary was profoundly present to me during this time. Rather unconsciously, I added two liturgical music CDs to the collection I was taking in the car and began the trip to the familiar lyrics and tunes of Bobby Fisher’s One Breath. I was immediately transported to Bellarmine in my 30’s and 40’s and got choked up remembering it all – singing at mass, belonging to a vibrant community, and re-experiencing the ways that Rosemary was important to me, the things she taught and empowered.

The focus of the retreat was the Gospel of Mary, one of the many extra-canonical texts from the first two centuries after Jesus that have been re-discovered in more recent times. As two CFT members presented background and history, I might have been once again on the second floor of the Bellarmine parish center, learning with Rosemary, knowing the thrill of connecting dots and discovering new interpretations in the company of others which I have not felt toward my tradition in a long time. On this particular day, a slide listed all the extra-canonical writings from the early Christian period that have come to light. It filled three columns on a landscape page, but only 27 of them are in the New Testament. One presenter noted that the term Christian may even be anachronistic for this time period. Jesus followers or something might be more appropriate. They are stories of people and how they related to Jesus. That really struck me. I have now completed a whole year of not attending Sunday mass, not even Christmas or Easter. Like menopause, I’m a year without church, so perhaps I’m officially post-Catholic. Clearly I’m no longer canonical, but maybe there’s a place for me in relation to my faith origins.

Rosemary. I felt her standing off to the side, nodding her head, encouraging, with that serious expression on her face. She retired about ten years ago, and recently I’ve seen her infrequently. I never talked with her or even told her when I stopped attending church but she probably knew. Deep down, I always felt that if we had talked about it, Rosemary would not have judged me or made me feel guilty. I’m certain she would have said that she and the community missed me. On this day, I felt her wanting me to always know that I belong.

Posted in Communion of Saints, Funerals, Healing, Saints, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

A Grieving Child for Life

PrinceHarryPrince Harry’s recent revelation that he’s been in therapy to address long unprocessed grief about his mother’s death startled the world with its frankness on this vulnerable topic, especially from a member of Britain’s royal family. He described how in his late 20s, he began to have chaotic emotions, especially unexplained anger and panic, that after talking with others over time, including a therapist, he was able to trace back to the death of his mom when he was twelve. His story struck such a chord for me as my mom died of breast cancer when I was seven. I was aware she was sick but did not know it was cancer or that it would be terminal, so my dad’s announcement one morning that “we have an angel in the family” came as a tremendous shock, an abandonment.

Like the Prince I was puzzled in my mid-20s by unusual emotional reactions. Mine were clearly triggered by the trauma of a dear friend being hit by a car as a pedestrian immediately after I’d dropped her off on a downtown street. Though injured, her survival was never in question. Even so for weeks afterward I was weepy and shaky, lost inside as though in free fall, sensations that were strange to me yet also somehow familiar. Soon I recalled that’s how I’d felt in the aftermath of my mom’s death. Also like Prince Harry, I talked with friends and sought help from a therapist. A key insight I gained is that the unexpressed grief resided in me as a seven year old, the age I was when my mom died, even though I was 25 when it began to surface. I needed to let that inner lost girl vent and cry over a period of years before the deepest sorrow was released.

I am curious about how Prince Harry’s grief journey will continue to unfold and hope that he discovers even greater resilience and peace over time. For me grieving has spiraled through my entire adult life ever since the day of my friend’s accident. Ultimately, becoming a mother and providing nurturing that I missed to my own children brought powerful healing. However, every time I believe I’m mostly “through it,” another new milestone or transition, such as moving to a new house or the departure of children to college or the death of an elder relative, prompts another recalibration of my life in relation to grieving mother loss. I’ve learned that such recurrence is typical and would offer that awareness to Prince Harry.

He went public with his story to encourage others to seek help in hopes of removing any stigma associated with mental health issues, an initiative I applaud. But more particularly, his experience shines a bright light on the often overlooked needs of grieving children.  According to the Children’s Grief Education Association, 4.8 million children in the United States are mourning the loss of a parent to death. It need not take twenty years to feel one’s feelings in order to cope with mother loss or any other death during childhood.

Children grieve differently than adults. At young ages, they may be sad one moment and then shortly afterward resume playing as if nothing has happened. They may require repeat explanations that death is permanent, that their special person is not coming back. Older ones may act out in ways that are not obviously related to grief, and it takes sensitive adults to help them understand their emotions.  At all ages, bereaved children need to be told the truth at whatever level they can comprehend; otherwise their imaginations will fill in with fearful or blaming thoughts. It’s also common for grieving children to feel  different from their peers and therefore very alone.

Prince Harry attributed his delayed grief in large part to his being so in the public eye as a 12-year-old dealing with his mother’s death. Then he refused to think about her or his loss for nearly two decades, rationalizing that feeling sad would not bring her back. I’m not certain why my grieving was delayed. For sure, my family did not openly deal with difficult emotions. I also wonder if I just was not ready to take it in completely as a child, so the grief waited for years until I was. That’s how grief is. It never, ever goes away. It can only be felt, and sharing with others can bring great solace at any age. In that spirit I am hard at work writing a memoir of childhood mother loss. As Prince Harry put it, “The experience I have had is that once you start talking about it, you realize that actually you’re part of quite a big club.”

Childhood Grief Resources:
National Alliance for Grieving Children
Six Reasons Why You Should Focus on a Grieving Child
How Children Grieve
Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman
The Loss That Is Forever by Maxine Harris, Ph.D.

Posted in Healing, mother loss, Motherhood | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Library Love

It’s National Library Week — April 9-15         NationalLibraryWeek

On a recent weekend away with several high school friends, around the outdoor fire pit one night somehow we began sharing stories of our early experiences with libraries. I thought I was just weird in my heartfelt devotion to these sacred spaces, but it turned out each of us holds treasured stories of interacting with librarians, loving books and feeling attached to a particular branch.

I vividly recall applying for my first library card when I was about six years old. My mom had been working with me for weeks to teach me how to sign my name, the major prerequisite of the application process. She and I sat together at the kitchen table as my chubby fingers clenched the pen and laboriously imitated the letters she had demonstrated. At times I cried when I couldn’t shape them to my satisfaction, but I kept at it. My mom was mostly patient and encouraging, though she occasionally sighed at my outbursts of frustration. Finally I achieved success, and one evening after dinner we went to the Northern Hills branch, where I proudly reached up to the desk to hand over the green cardstock form. The librarian smiled and told me I could take out two books that night on a temporary card until my actual one was sent in the mail.

I don’t know if I asked for the library card, sparking the signature lessons, or if my mom initiated the idea. Either way, I love this memory. It is one of only a few specific recollections that I have of the two of us, because she died of breast cancer when I was seven. A year and a half ago I began working on a memoir about grieving mother loss, which for me didn’t really begin until young adulthood. As part of the writing process I felt drawn to re-visit this memory in greater detail, so I took a field trip. Now called just the College Hill branch library, it’s 15-20 minutes from my home, so one morning last January I set off to visit. I hadn’t been inside since childhood and only drive past it occasionally.

IMG_1549It’s a low rectangular structure made of light brown bricks in varied shades with a covered entry supported by distinctive pillars made of cement with decorative stones in shades of brown and gray. The pillars create curved arches inside the building and outside under the overhang. On the day of my visit, the library was bustling with people working at the computers, getting assistance with their searches and how to print a document. There were people checking out books, reading materials at the tables, and several filling out forms. One may have been a job application; forms for various assistance programs were available and tax forms too. A friendly, busy energy permeated the place. I felt welcome but not particularly noticed, which was perfect.

On the way in, a historical marker by the side of the parking lot explained that the land occupied by this branch of the library, the public elementary school next door and the “commons”/park behind the parking lot were originally part of the Crawford Farm. John Crawford, who fought for the Union, donated the land for a rest home for black soldiers of the Civil War, which later merged with a facility for African American women. The library was built on the site in 1966, making it only a few years old when I applied for my first library card there. African American history awareness continued inside the building with a poster on the right wall over the copy machine describing a slave escape of the Underground Railroad that occurred in the area, the largest one, 28 escaped slaves transported by posing as a funeral procession.

Following my brief tour, naturally I browsed the shelves and left with several mysteries, savoring the familiar richness at having a stack of new books to dive into. After my mom died, our neighbor up the street who drove us home from school each day would take us along with her two daughters to the library every few weeks. I spent a lot of time with this family on many outings and visits, but even then these regular library trips meant the most. Books were a refuge for me. Mysteries like Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames. IMG_2382Historical fiction like the Little House books, the Betsy-Tacy series, and Little Women. I also read a lot of biographies of men and women, especially presidents and their wives such as Lincoln, Washington and Kennedy, as well as other historical figures like Elizabeth Blackwell and Helen Keller. Often after school I curled up in the corner of our family room couch with an apple and read until dinner. When I became a mom myself, taking my children to the library and eventually applying for their own library cards brought special satisfaction. My love of libraries continues to this day, and it’s a real joy to trace this lineage all the way back to my mom.

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Libraries need our love! For the first time, National Library Week includes an advocacy component in the form of Take Action for Libraries Day on Thursday, April 13. All are urged to speak up against cuts in federal funding to the Institute for Museum and Library Services.  Learn what you can do. 

 

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What Is Essential?

On Thanksgiving Day, a dear friend sent an email greeting containing a link to this short reflection by Parker Palmer that included an amazing poem I’d never heard before, called “The Almanac of Last Things” by Linda Pastan. Kind of a reverse bucket list. The poem’s title alone spoke viscerally to me as  a writing prompt. What is most essential? What is meaningful? These are the questions that beckoned. Sitting in my study relaxing between family gatherings on Thanksgiving, I just had to start writing. I worked on this poem a little bit each day of the holiday weekend and feel moved this morning to share it here.

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From the almanac of last things,
I choose coffee with real cream,
In solitude or community,
Warmth that suffuses my body, grounds the day

I choose the sunrise, and the sunset
First, a greeting,
Every day is birthed anew
Then a surrender,
Comes the night with nurturing dark.
Enter rest and be renewed

I choose immersive water,
With salt, with chlorine, with sand
To buoy my body,
Renew my soul

I choose memories
To embrace, not clutch
Touchstones of joy,
Entwined with sorrow.

I choose today
To receive the present moment as gift
To show up for my life
Now, always

 

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Grappling with Body Image

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Akagera Nat’l Park

Recently I spent 10 wonderful days in Rwanda with my 22-year-old daughter. She studied there for a semester during college, and this trip was a chance to re-trace her steps and introduce me to the people and places she fell in love with two years ago. Likewise, it quickly became obvious that her host parents Hortense and Athanase along with their network of friends and family had fully embraced Kieran in return.

The first morning after our arrival, Hortense’s sister Immaculate stopped by and her words of greeting to Kieran completely startled me. “Wow, you’re big!” She spoke in a marveling tone, stepping back and looking carefully, assessing. What!? Kieran is not fat! We would never say that here, even if we thought it, though Immaculate’s tone mirrored the way I might exclaim to a friend, “Wow, you’ve lost weight! You look great.” Later when we were alone I interrogated Kieran, “What was that? Why did she say ‘you’re big’!?” “It doesn’t mean the same thing here, Mom. She was telling me I look good.” Sure enough, it happened two more times in the ensuing week, with a friend of Hortense’s who we ran into at the grocery store, and then during a visit with the director of Kieran’s prior study program.

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Kieran with Celine, her study program director, and Hortense, and Celine’s new baby.

A little research turned up that plump, buxom, rounded women have traditionally been seen as desirable in many African cultures, to the extent that young girls were sent to “fat farms” before marriage, to gain weight. They sat around, no activity, and were fed (force fed in some descriptions) high calorie foods like dates, couscous, etc. This practice apparently continues to some extent in the present. From a patriarchal perspective, large bodied women signify the wealth of her family and her fitness for childbearing.

Witnessing my daughter’s encounters with three African women of today, all in their 30s, I heard pride and celebration in their voices. Near the end of the trip, still shaking my head a little in disbelief, trying to imagine telling someone at home, “You’re big!” and having them feel pleased about it, I brought it up with Hortense. She hardly even understood the question, as though why would I wonder about something so ordinary. “They were saying that she looks good, that she’s grown up. When you studied here two years ago, you were still a girl.”

How about that? Acknowledging the natural process with pleasure. I am practically overcome by the chasm between “You’re big!” and the American cultural icon of beauty as skinny and emaciated, straight lines rather than curves. All I can say is “What if?” What if all women adopted this attitude? What if all cultures believed it and actually lived it? Real health consequences are at stake. In the US, the incidence of eating disorders rises each decade across all ethnic groups, with serious health effects ranging from blood pressure changes and tooth decay to loss of bone density, kidney failure and gastric rupture. While there is no single cause of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating, research clearly links media exposure to the thin ideal with the development of these conditions. The effects seem to be stronger on young adults than children or adolescents both female and male. Interestingly, in an exception that supports the rule, Hispanic and Black girls and women who watch more Black-oriented television have higher body satisfaction. In addition, with increasing globalization studies indicate that as countries become more Westernized – with more mass media exposure – eating disorders increase.

I listen to the women complimenting my daughter during our stay in Rwanda and hear an invitation to embrace my body as it is, which includes caring for it as best as I can, lovingly, gently, without criticism or disdain for its expanding girth. What would it take to celebrate roundness? How could this change be brought about? I think we’d need new images, new icons of beauty. I’ve just read several articles and watched part of a video about ideals of beauty through different historical periods. Ancient Egypt revered thinness while the Italian Renaissance had high regard for full hips and breasts and rounded stomachs. But these just reinforce that an externally defined ideal is precisely the problem. Thin women during the Renaissance would have the same problem of dissatisfaction that I do now. The key is to revere what you have.

So, roundness is what I’ve got. What would it take to celebrate it? One autumn day a few years ago when I was doing work hours at the local farm where we were CSA members, I received a clue. It was a misty, chilly October morning, invigorating and peaceful both. As we returned to the shed dust-covered after pulling turnips from the ground, a seasonal display to the left of the door suddenly caught my peripheral vision. I almost gasped aloud at the voluptuous orange pumpkin juxtaposed with other gourds in deep green, clean white and even a rich purple. In a flash of intuitive clarity, I understood middle age as the autumn season of life, how this stage could be vivid and beautiful in its own way. Jewel toned against a softer light rather than the intense colors of summer’s fiery height.

Just this past weekend I was in Washington DC with Kieran as she departed to a year-long volunteer commitment here in the states and twice “roundness” caught my eye in the Hirschorn Museum sculpture garden on the National Mall. The image on the left is called Seated Yucatan Woman by Francisco Zuniga and on the right is Evocation of a Form: Human, Lunar, Spectral by Jean Arp.

Author Alice Walker is credited with coining the term “womanist” to denote African American women’s experience and reflection as distinct from feminism dominated by white women’s stories and concerns. Her 1983 book In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens includes an expansive definition of Womanist that in its third definition speaks poetically to the matter of body image: Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.

 

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What Comes Next

In the wake of last week’s terrible tragedies I have been reflecting yet again on how I respond to such events. I had a sudden recollection of hearing of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 when I was a stay at home mother of a toddler and preschooler. They were napping and I sat down on my bed and simply cried, trembling at the realization that acts of terror could be “here” rather than far away. I wonder now how I heard the news. I think a friend told me and then I probably turned on the TV. Now more than two decades later, the news is ever present via my iPhone, and shootings and bombings are sadly ubiquitous. Sometimes I cry and mourn, other times it’s too 346445375_8efe3e3f27_mmuch and I become numb or just avoid it altogether. Since becoming conscious that certain tragic events receive greater coverage and public outcry than others, I’ve tried to be more aware of all the places that are suffering beyond just those that connect to me personally in some way.

The Dallas shootings last week coincided with a night that I already could not sleep, and the news came to me well after midnight via text from my oldest son who was visiting friends out on the west coast and forgot the time difference. (Why I was looking at my phone in the middle of the night will have to be a different post!) Friday dawned and I was a complete wreck with exhaustion. By blessed coincidence  Joe and I had already planned a weekend away, about an hour from here at a place his family has owned since his childhood, fondly known as the Farm. It’s a number of acres in rural Ohio where we have many memories and there is no Wifi. Awake very early on Saturday morning my mind was going at a million miles an hour. I couldn’t let these tragedies go by without doing something. Should I write my legislators again? Write to the whole Congress? Join Black Lives Matter? Initiate new Red Boot meetings? All of the above? Around and around it went.
Hints of a beautiful sunrise filtering through the window shade called me to get up even though it was only 6:00 am. As the coffee brewed, I did a few stretches and walked quietly around the house, looking out the windows. Stepping outside, I moved a chair into the field for the best view of the sunrise. Dew chilled my feet, darkened the foot beds of my Birk sandals. The symphony of birds and insects sounded distinctly different than at home. Light of the emerging sun reflected on the barn. I just sat there surrounded by cool clean air with clear blue sky above. Then a rooster crowed from down the
road! Just as the sun peaked over the horizon. Increasingly bugs began to nip at me, buzzinIMG_0778g angrily as if I were disturbing their turf so I moved to the patio. Following the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 the wisest words I read came from Buddhist teacher Susan Piver: “Using ideas to treat or metabolize feelings is ineffective. Then what? I’m afraid that there are only a very few things we can do other than to be absolutely, irredeemably heartbroken . . . I’m not saying we shouldn’t act. WE  SHOULD. But before we act, we should feel.” In this interlude of serene beauty at the Farm, space opened up for me to feel my actual feelings. Somewhat to my surprise, the strongest emotion was Fear — of guns, of violence, of hate, of what might happen next. Then I understood how  Fear takes me to a black and white, either-or mindset, as though now is Bad and there was some idealized time before that was Good. Fear wants me to yield to that spiral, to fall further and further into helplessness, ever more tightly wrapped in paralysis, wringing my hands. “Oh no, nothing can be done. We’re doomed.” Fears pushes me to numb, to distance, to hide, to label.

But Hope says instead, stay open. Open your eyes to the beauty all around you. Open your heart and let it be broken by the pain of so many, including the very Earth beneath my feet. Go ahead and cry, lament and grieve. But also hug and garden and write and gather together with real live people to work for change. Offer healing and hospitality. Hold space for all of it — the pain, the beauty, the loss, the violence, shots fired, man down, plants growing, children laughing. The sun rising and setting day after day.

Returning home the next day I had an email from a friend looking for companions to attend the Black Lives Matter protest and march downtown that very afternoon. My inner Yes came from a completely different place than my previous frantic musings about “what to do.” and I approached the event with greater openness, fewer expectations. Standing beneath the beating sun outside police headquarters, I listened to stories from family members of people killed by police that were heartbreaking. I listened to harsh statements about police that were hard to hear because of my work in local government and friendships with police officers. I walked through the streets of downtown in a massive crowd of people chanting “Black Lives Matter”,”Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “No Justice, No Peace.” I placed a flower at the site where Timothy Thomas was killed by police in 2001 which sparked riots. In the end I was just grateful for the experience of being there, for the presence of people speaking up and taking peaceful action, and I’m open to whatever comes next.
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Bring Forth Your Birth Story — Free Download

I’m very excited to share a free Mother’s Day self-guided retreat on birth stories!
Bring Forth Your Birth Story is an invitation to step into your own sacred space and create your unique birth story in a powerful, empowering way.
Download it here:  2016BringForthBirthStory
Please share with others!

IMG_0648[1]I’ve long dreamed of a common language for telling birth stories, a unifying way to share about childbirth as a personal rite of passage regardless of where it takes place, how it unfolds, who is there or how many years since it occurred. Birth in our culture is treated mostly as a medical event, so clinical language often is the mother tongue for describing the experience. Sometimes it’s related as a war story, told with relish and drama, while for other women the process is so distressing as to be silencing. Women who birth without medication or intervention, possibly at home, bring a different vocabulary that may seem foreign, off putting even, to those unfamiliar with it. Their stories can spark difficult emotions in women for whom birth was disappointing or even traumatic.

What if we drew a big wide circle around all mothers and called every single experience just “birth”? Could we metaphorically join hands and create such a circle for ourselves? This mini-retreat hopes to do just that.  Happy Mother’s Day!

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Easter, Unexpectedly

I read a great blog post by John Pavlovitz the other night that precisely captures how I feel about the Easter Triduum, once my most beloved time of year:

When your beliefs begin to shift or when doubt creeps in, those dates on the calendar that used to bring such joy, that once set the steady rhythm of your spiritual journey each year, suddenly don’t provide the familiar comfort they used to.

Instead of being more deeply connected to God and to your community of faith than ever during these highest of holy days, you tend to feel more like an orphan; a former insider pushed to the periphery of the party, no longer sure whether to jump back in again or walk away for good.”

We were just home from the Holy Thursday mass at our parish, and I remarked in the care on the varied emotions and reactions I experienced during the service. There is such beauty in the hand washing ritual that our parish does on this night instead of foot washing, so that everyone can participate. I love witnessing children pour water over their parent’s hands and then dry them with the fluffy towel in a reversal of the usual daily routine. It was touching to see a couple I’ve known for many years, the wife now quite infirm, as her husband guided her through the ritual with quiet help from others. The woman who offered a reflection on scripture presented a compelling message about how to imitate Jesus in our daily lives, not only in “service” settings but all the time. But the atonement language of the liturgy  and the absence of women from the Last Supper narratives bother me a lot.

In this high holy season I find myself still looking for an “answer” to my “religion question.” What am I?  Am I still Catholic? Do I want to call myself Christian at all? Would I feel more peaceful if I just let go of Christianity altogether? By clinging to Christianity from the periphery, am I just coaching my emotions into something more manageable? Instead do I need to roar a big No, Goodbye! to all of it, the patriarchy, the misogyny? Who AM I? (Does this question even matter?)

imageThe next morning, on Good Friday (on which I did not go to church), a quiet, almost trite response gently surfaces: Person on a journey. I am a person on a journey, no more and no less. Let the labels fall away. This image rather ironically  brings an immediate association with the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. I’ve always loved the inherent mystery pulsing at the heart of that encounter, and I am amused to realize that following the Easter events, the followers of Jesus likely felt similar to what Pavlovitz described which resonated so strongly for me. Confusion. Sadness. Loss. Not knowing who they were. A sense of not fitting back into their old box without a new box to belong to — maybe not wanting a box anyway.

Presently the image of myself as a person on a journey is also true in a very literal way as my husband and I depart Tuesday on a three-week trip to Europe that we have been planning for almost a year, primarily in Germany and Poland. We are able to do this because he is on a one-semester sabbatical from teaching, and we seized the opportunity in celebration of our 25th anniversary earlier this month. Between packing for the trip and covering responsibilities here at home, I feel buried in details at the moment, but I look forward to stepping across the actual threshold of this adventure and getting underway. Open to mystery!

(The WordPress app is on my iPad so  international posts are possible. Stay tuned.)

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A Season of Epiphany

imageSomewhere in my online reading of late, the phrase “season of epiphany” sparked my curiosity. A little searching uncovered that some Protestant churches observe the weeks starting with the feast of Epiphany on January 6 until Presentation/Candlemas on February 2 or until the start of Lent as the season of epiphany. I find myself very drawn to this concept and have in fact been observing it already in a symbolic way, by leaving up select decorations from the Christmas season. Just like Easter has a season, this practice gives more presence to Christmas, more gravitas beyond the secular celebration, and it serves as a kind of bookend to Advent.

At our house the strands of white lights on the deck remain lit for weeks (sometimes months, on automatic switch) but the colored lights of the Christmas tree are put away after January 6. By then the twinkling red, green, blue and orange bulbs along with shiny tinsel and ornaments seem garish, and I’m very ready to return them to storage downstairs. Actually this year the tree had white lights and we took off just the ornaments and this plainer tree is lit right now to my left. Very cheery in the dark mornings. The nativity scene is left up but the colorful add-ons like decorative trees are no longer present. Our daughter’s collection of painted wood nutcrackers is put away, as are the St. Nicholas and Santa figures and the red candles, and the jingling bell and red bow on the front door knob.

I haven’t thought much before about why we do these things. Upon reflection, I see that it has to do with connecting to the natural season. At some point I realized the Christmas centerpiece needed at least four candles. The feast of light in the darkness could not have fewer illuminations than the preparatory season after all. Then it seemed quite normal to extend it beyond even the 12 days of Christmas. Again, January is dark. I’ve experimented for several years now to find a candle arrangement that suits for this time of year. I’ve tried re-purposing the Advent wreath with different candles but somehow that hasn’t felt right. In a less is more scenario, this year I just used a random assortment of pillars and tapers that I had in the cupboard and the varied heights and sizes somehow work perfectly.

imageEpiphany means to show or make known. What is being revealed to me this season? A lot actually, as I contemplate. I’m seeing all the more clearly that the truest knowledge comes from within. This new year I joined a guided online writing group that kicked off with identifying my key values. “Trust” topped my list and has become itself the source of epiphany in this season. Trust what’s percolating from within to guide the writing, the decisions about my mother’s health care, the planning of next steps on projects I’ve undertaken. Take in what others are saying, notice what’s going on, but let those outer inputs meld with intuition, then act from the clarity that results.

Not surprisingly the Gospel readings for this season of Sundays offer up vibrant examples of intuitive faith. The magi surely acted on a gut feeling when they set out to find the newborn king by following his star at its rising. And in subsequent weeks the stories of Jesus suggest that he was listening to a still, small voice – going to the Jordan to be baptized by John, changing water to wine at the wedding in Cana, proclaiming the Torah and announcing his own calling as God’s anointed (nearly being stoned afterward).

Yesterday I walked our dog at nearly 6:00 pm and it was still dusk, not yet full dark. The days are lengthening. Soon we will close out the season of epiphany, storing away the winter feasts’ final remnants as the wheel of the year gradually turns toward spring.

Read more about the various observances for February 1 and 2.

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