Marilla Cuthbert, Teach Me to Pray

Hello and happy summer! Have you watched the Netflix series Anne with an E? My sister and I were HUGE fans of the 1980s Anne of Green Gables mini-series, which we watched every time one of us was home from school sick. I think Gilbert Blyth was my first literary crush.

Anyhow, I started watching the first episode and I had to stop halfway through to scribble out this essay on Marilla Cuthbert, Kathleen Norris, and my devotion to a Catholic prayer book called Give Us This Day. You can read all about it here in my Skeptic's Guide to the Spiritual Practices column. 

It starts like this:

"Last week I started watching Netflix’s new adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. I was skeptical. Having been raised on the 1980s version starring Megan Follows, I couldn’t fathom another actress embodying the iconic role of Anne Shirley in quite the same way. But as I watched the first episode of the new, grittier series, I felt a rush of fondness for actress Amybeth McNulty as she delivered Anne’s lines with passion. Who wouldn’t love a child quoting Jane Eyre on the train ride to Avonlea, her lonely carpetbag folded on her lap?

Even greater than my love for Anne, though, is my attachment to Marilla Cuthbert’s character. Marilla is the strict yet tender spinster who becomes Anne’s adoptive mother. In the ’80s version, she had a twinkle in her eye, a roundness to her face, and a quick retort (“What a fine kettle of fish this is, Matthew!” and “For heaven’s sake child, hold your tongue”) delivered in just the right tone—firm, yet goodhearted. Growing up, I wanted her to be my adoptive mother; I wanted to bury my face in her ample calico-ed bosom after a good cry. This new Marilla, however, has a thin face and a meanness I don’t recall from the original. (“Did you steal anything?” she asks Anne, grabbing her bag to search its contents. When she finds a twig with live blossoming white flowers from the nearby cherry tree Anne took as a memento, she takes it out and shoves it into the cooking stove fire.)

But Marilla won me over in a scene where Anne reveals that she never says prayers before bed or anytime."

Read the rest here.

Hurry

It's a late Sunday afternoon at the start of spring break and I am thinking about time - how it's passing so quickly, how it drags between the hours of 4 PM and my kids' bedtimes, how I both savor and feel drained by this season of parenting small children. This year the Minnesota winter was mild and ended so gradually that I hardly noticed. These first warm days of April feel unearned - less like Resurrection and more like Grace.

Sara Kay Mooney is emailing out a poem per week during Lent, and I can't stop thinking about this one called "Hurry" by Marie Howe that she sent recently. It goes like this:

"We stop at the dry cleaners and the grocery store   
and the gas station and the green market and   
Hurry up honey, I say, hurry,   
as she runs along two or three steps behind me   
her blue jacket unzipped and her socks rolled down.   

Where do I want her to hurry to? To her grave?   
To mine? Where one day she might stand all grown?   
Today, when all the errands are finally done, I say to her,   
Honey I'm sorry I keep saying Hurry—   
you walk ahead of me. You be the mother.   

And, Hurry up, she says, over her shoulder, looking    
back at me, laughing. Hurry up now darling, she says,   
hurry, hurry, taking the house keys from my hands."

I both love and hate this poem, seeing it's truth while pushing back and saying "how can I possibly not hurry when I have stuff to do? Where is this mythical perfect balance of unhurried living? Who can possibly be present all the time?" But I know its wisdom as I think about my harried impatience while dressing my kids, getting them into the car and out the door for preschool or for daycare, even while going for a walk to the library - I often hurry hurry hurry them and not always for good reason.

Yesterday I got the latest Geez Magazine in the mail (do you subscribe? you should) and lo and behold, the issue is all about time. The magazine bends toward to the slow movement - slow church, slow food, slow relationships - over the economized notion of time and instantaneous connection (and distraction) we encounter via technology and the internet. I am no Luddite; I have daily interactions with people via my smartphone that are as real and meaningful as those I have in my physical life. And yet, I know my relationship with the internet can easily slip into addiction as I seek out a quick escape from the monotony of the present. My perception of time is often one of scarcity -- there is never ever ever enough! --and yet I somehow manage to spend a good chunk of it scrolling my Twitter or Facebook feeds.

As I wrestle with "hurry" and my relationship with time, I am looking into apps that limit my social media use to a certain amount of time each day and implementing rules for my smartphone use (like locking it in the office from 5-8 pm.) I am certain there is no fool-proof answer; that perfect balance is a myth that drives modern mothers into the mud of guilt. Still, I know it's a conundrum worth wrestling.

I can't deny that my spiritual antennae are more attuned to the Holy Spirit when I have "moodling time" during my day -- when my mind is free to drift. When I can step back and wonder at my daughter's voice as she makes up a silly song, or my son who picks up every rock along the sidewalk.

From Dislocation to Resettlement

Yesterday, in church, a woman from Ethiopia stood up to share that a relative of hers had just crossed the sea from Libya to Italy in one of those dangerous migrant boats. She asked us to pray for this family member who now finds herself in a camp in Italy. Even though I have first-hand experience with migrants and refugees in both Kenya and Egypt, I was jolted by her prayer request. The enormous numbers of displaced people around the world - these numbers that get thrown around like popcorn - can feel meaningless to me. Yet here was a human being in my church, telling us about a dearly loved family member who represents one of the millions making dangerous journeys out of desperate hope for a better future. Worshipping and praying alongside immigrants, refugees, and asylees has changed my understanding of God as the great consoler to those who suffer.

Once upon a time (ahem, 10 years ago) I lived in Egypt and studied global migration for a year-long graduate program, trying to make sense of the internship I had completed a year earlier with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Kakuma refugee camp, as well as my experience working in refugee resettlement in Chicago. It was such a privilege to live in Egypt - to receive a stellar education, to experience life as a minority, to brush up against a culture I knew very little about. There is nothing like being an outsider - racially, religiously, and otherwise - to build empathy for others who live in that reality.

I wrote this month for the Public Justice Review about what I have learned about refugees, specifically about the journey a refugee takes from displacement to resettlement. If you are curious about how a refugee gets from life in Somalia or Syria to being resettled in Minneapolis, MN or Omaha, NE, you might find this article illuminating. I hope you'll read it and that it will inspire you to push back against the misinformation and fear mongering out there about refugees.

It starts like this:

"Once I had a job where I asked people to tell me, in great detail, about the most traumatic experiences of their life. In 2005, I was an intern with the United Nations in Kakuma refugee camp located in northwestern Kenya, and my role was to screen individuals for refugee resettlement. The majority of my caseload were people from the Oromo ethnic group who, despite being the majority in their home country of Ethiopia, experienced systematic oppression by the ruling government. Many of the people I interviewed were torture survivors, student protesters, and victims of sexual violence."

Read the rest here.

On Finding Lament

Happy Lent, everyone. Oh, wait. Maybe dour Lenten greetings is more appropriate?

I love the season of Lent, these 40 days set apart for fasting, prayer, and remembering our mortality. There is a delicious melancholy to Lenten liturgies, where we abstain from "Alleluias" and spend extra time in silence. Journeying with Jesus in the desert for 40 days is the best set-up before revisiting the Gospel stories of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and - finally - Easter. I love being tied to the church calendar, knowing that Christians around the world are reading these stories with me.

Lament

I didn't always love Lent, probably because I didn't understand the role of lament in Christianity. In fact, I am still learning what it means to sit uncomfortably with pain and sorrow. I wrote a little about what it has meant for me to discover the Biblical practice of lament for the Stories from Exile blog. 

Here's how it starts: 

"When I was in middle school, I went on a summer wilderness trip at Bible camp. At the end of the two weeks of canoeing and backpacking through the buggy Wisconsin woods, I spent 24-hours on a “solo” - a time of prayer, fasting, and Bible reading on my own, equipped with a tarp, some twine, my sleeping bag, a flashlight, water bottle, Bible, journal, and a pen. As I sat in the woods under a pine tree, my laced up hiking boots folded beneath me, I wrote in my journal: When I go back home, I will have a quiet time every day. I will read the Bible. I will pray.

When I got home to my comfortable bed with the striped comforter, I sprawled out on my stomach with my Bible in my hands. I didn’t have a particular devotional to help guide my scripture reading, so I ran my thumbs along the page edges, sticking my thumbnail into a spot at random, opening the page and blindly pointing at a verse. It’s kind of like the Christian’s version of the Magic 8-ball. You swirl it around while asking a question, waiting for the triangle to appear with an answer: “It is certain,” “Ask again later,” “My reply is no.”

My finger landed on the first page of the book of Lamentations. This was a book of the Bible that I had never read before. I had never heard a sermon preached on it or a verse shared in devotions during youth group. It started like this:

Bible

“How deserted lies the city,
    once so full of people!

How like a widow is she,
   who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces
   has now become a slave.”

It only got more dour from there, describing the exile of the daughter of Zion, the filthiness of her skirts, her torment. Lots of tears and groaning.

It wasn’t the answer I was looking for when I opened the Bible willy-nilly. It didn’t tell me how to deal with my insecurities or how to find a boyfriend or whether I would ever run Varsity cross-country. There was nothing motivational about it. I slammed the Bible shut, declared myself a failed Bible reader, and proceeded to feel guilty about breaking my summer camp pledge for the rest of the year."

Read the rest here.

Longing for Resettlement

This has been a big writing week for me - I don't think I've ever posted on this blog two days in a row, but here we are. I wrote a long piece for Sojourners about a topic near and dear to my heart: refugee resettlement. Since the Executive Order banning refugee arrivals was enacted in late January, I have felt helpless to do much of anything to fight back against a policy that unfairly scapegoats people I dearly value. Sure, I have marched in protests, written letters, and called my senators, but I wanted to do something bigger. This essay is my attempt to do that - to hopefully educate people on refugee resettlement and what it's like for people waiting in refugee camps around the world. It's also been a means to work through my view of America as a place of hope for those refugees who make it through the vetting process and start a new life in this country. 

Dadaab refugee camp. Image via Bjørn Heidenstrøm/Flickr.

Dadaab refugee camp. Image via Bjørn Heidenstrøm/Flickr.

I hope you will click over to Sojourners to view it. I am always honored when people read my words.

The Skeptic's Guide to the Spiritual Practices: Spiritual Direction

It has been quite a couple of weeks. The constant stream of outrageous acts from our new President - from causing chaos at airports by barring legal residents entry to firing the Attorney General for questioning that Executive Order - has left me incensed, wrung out, despondent. I wrote this piece on Spiritual Direction before these recent events, but I think it is a message that carries forward to today. How do we combat despair? Where do we find hope? How do we trust God in the midst of so much outrage? 

One thing that has helped me is the scary-silent room of my spiritual director. I wrote about it in my latest installment of my column "The Skeptic's Guide to the Spiritual Practices." (Also, side note, check out the image my publisher chose to accompany this essay! Way cooler than my current frumpy-mom look.) It starts like this:

"Mary’s house is clean. She has no laundry piles on the couch, the floor is free of Legos, and a white pillar candle is always burning on the coffee table when I creak open the front door. It’s a peaceful place, but the stillness never fails to shock me. Her living room seems to exist outside of reality; a room that stays quiet while the world is screaming.

She offers me coffee or tea, and I cradle the warm mug in my hands when I sit on her overstuffed couch. I look around at the framed pictures on the wall; I feel unsteady in the stillness. Her home has no background noise to muffle the discordant edges in my day. Now it’s time to face the silence. I breathe in. And out.

Mary is a slight woman with warm blue eyes. She listens with those eyes, the way they gleam and radiate. She starts with a prepared reading. Sometimes it is Scripture; other times it is a poem or hymn.

Today she reads the words to “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” I close my eyes as I listen to her voice; willing my mind to focus. After the reading, the room returns to quiet. I can speak if I want, or not.

I sit on the couch, uncomfortable, and the thought scuttles in the corner of my mind: What exactly are we waiting for? But I turn to look at Mary, and her face is slack and serene. She exudes confidence that God’s Spirit will blow in.

I follow her lead, trying to be open; steeling myself to what the silence might reveal. How potentially dangerous it is for numb people to feel again, the sharp pins and needles returning to fingers and toes, extending life to otherwise dead tissue.

Annie Dillard wrote once that, instead of velvet hats, we should “all be wearing crash helmets” to places of worship because the God we so blithely invoke in our church prayers “may wake someday…[and] draw us out to where we can never return.” In this silence, will God draw me out to where I can never return?

Yet that is exactly what the practice of spiritual direction does: It dares to invite the Living God into an ordinary living room. It dares you to trust that God will, indeed, show up, and it gives you an accomplice in the consequences.

I stay still, listening to my breathing. Mary is here, so at least I am not alone."

You can read the rest here.

The Skeptic's Guide to the Spiritual Practices: Retreat

Happy Advent! It's time for another installment of my column "The Skeptic's Guide to the Spiritual Practices" for Off The Page. This month, I wrote about the discipline of retreat. I have to say, this was a tricky one to write. My year-long experiment of implementing new spiritual disciplines has gotten off to a rocky start, and it's hard to admit when things are not going as planned. But, I figure I am just embodying Wendell Berry's words in the poem "Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front:"

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.

Here is how my essay, The Skeptic's Guide to the Spiritual Practices: Retreat, starts:

"Last month I arrived puffy-eyed and haggard at a writers’ workshop on Whidbey Island, just north of Seattle, Washington. The emotional whiplash from the presidential election a week prior, combined with work and at-home stress, had left me feeling crunched and shriveled and no good. The first day of the workshop I nursed a low-grade headache that would not let up. Even my sleep was restless; the retreat center’s silence was unsettling and I missed the sound of city traffic.

The first morning I took a walk through the Legacy Forest on the island, which towered with slender Douglas firs. The sky was gray, with a classic Pacific Northwest drizzle, and my boots squelched through puddles and mossy earth along the lush, green trail. I tried to listen for the voice of God as the wind moved through the trees, but all I could hear was chattering within myself. It sounded like a trapped squirrel, a noisy and unrelenting voice that bounced from worry to worry—intrusions left and right.

As I walked, my mind jumped to items on my to-do list; my thoughts scrambling and scratching. So used to stimuli at home—children asking for breakfast, dishes to be washed, emails to answer, the dinging of my smartphone—that my spirit no longer had the capacity to enter the quiet. The silence of the forest was lost on me. I might as well have been walking in the middle of a city street."

Keep reading here.

The Skeptic's Guide to Spiritual Practices: Introduction

I am starting a new series for Off the Page about doubt, skepticism, and reclaiming spiritual practices. These actions - tangible expressions of our faith - seem especially important these days. Right now I am in deep lament after the outcome of the presidential election, but soon I am going to start looking for sprouts of hope. We have so much work to do.

Here's how my essay, The Skeptic's Guide to the Spiritual Practices: Introduction, starts:

"This spring marked ten years since I graduated from a conservative evangelical college. It is where I met my husband back when he still believed in God. Friends I haven’t seen since graduation, the ones whose faces I remember only from their profile pictures on Facebook, have been asking if we will make the trip to suburban Chicago for our ten-year reunion this month. The event is over Homecoming weekend, but my husband and I haven’t made plans to go back. I can’t garner up much sadness; I never attended a college football game when I was an undergraduate, anyway.

It’s not that we are opposed; it would be fun to see old friends, to revisit old landmarks around campus. We might go to the student center, walking into the cozy fireside room where I used to do my morning devotions, reading My Utmost for His Highest. We might walk through the Stupe, a coffee shop with old diner-style booths, where I once interviewed my husband for the student paper. We might walk over to the mailroom, the one with all the tiny post office boxes, where I would check mine after chapel, the walls lined with colorful flyers for prayer meetings and spring-break mission trips.

My husband and I met at this school when we were just twenty years old. Babies, I think now. We have changed so much.

Milestones like this always bring up my reflective side. College, I realize now, was a time of intense spiritual saturation. It was easy to be a Christian then, when Bible studies were conducted on every dorm floor, when we held “mocktail” parties (orange juice with seltzer, anyone?) because we all signed a college-wide pledge not to drink alcohol, when we prayed before each class. I would go to chapel three times a week, to church on Sunday, and again on Sunday evenings for World Christian Fellowship. Spiritual disciplines didn’t take much discipline—the school structured them for me. Anywhere on campus I felt as though I could stretch out my arms and smack into Jesus.

Life after college, by contrast, has felt like windmilling my arms into the wide open air. After the legalism of Christian college—the proverbial checklist of Scripture reading, prayer, fasting, and worship, to name a few—the freedom and disillusionment I experienced after college had me slowly shedding these spiritual practices, one by one. While I still attend church, I haven’t cracked open my Bible in ages. I often feel as though my faith is limping along; it doesn’t help that my husband’s is gone completely. I struggle with cynicism, with heartache over how different my life is from what I expected it to be.

All I know is that I want to find Jesus again, but I don’t know how to find my way back to what Richard Rohr describes as a “second simplicity”—a faith that embraces mystery, that names its doubts, that transcends legalism, that soars in the wide open air.

Keep reading here.

Some Thoughts This Election Eve

When people ask what my major was in college, I somewhat sheepishly mention my B.A. in Political Science. I haven't done much with my degree; the classes I took titled "Campaigns and Elections," "2004 Iowa Caucus," and "Political Philosophy" have not been particularly applicable to my recent jobs in non-profit communications. 

I look back fondly at my college years when I was more idealistic, more politically engaged. I can't put my finger on exactly what changed since then. Is it cynicism about my ability to change the world? My exhaustion from taking care of small children? The relentless 24/7 news cycle that reveals only slimy scandal after another? Whatever it is, I have been checked out this election season. I even wrote about what I am doing to survive until November 9th.

The thing is, I have felt prodding from the Holy Spirit for some time now to speak out against Donald Trump. I have felt guilty for staying silent after hearing his misleading and untruthful statements about refugees and immigrants during the presidential debates, especially given my experience in these communities.

Our Lives.png

Last week I visited the school where my husband is a middle school science teacher. On the door to the bathroom was this sign: "Our lives begin to end the moment we become silent on the things that matter." Wham. I knew I needed to do something, but what?

Then, yesterday, Donald Trump flew into my state of Minnesota for a few hours to speak at a rally where he made inflammatory statements about Somali refugees. He claimed that we are "suffering" because of our large Somali refugee community.  I got so mad because I know his words will only stoke the hate against refugees who have already endured so much trauma.

The good people over at Sojourners let me write for them about it. You can read my article "I Used to Screen Somali Refugees. Here's Why Trumps' Latest Statements Are Wrong" on their site.

So, happy election eve everyone. I hope that those of you who are still waiting to speak out - whether it's to your family members, on social media, or to a coworker - decide to say something. 

The Ministry of the YMCA

I met Danielle Mayfield in a church basement in Minneapolis. As I shook her hand and introduced myself, I recognized in her the look transplants to Minnesota sometimes get in the middle of their first winter: a little wild-eyed, pale, desperate for warmth in both mind and body. But as we chatted while balancing paper plates with popcorn and generic brand Oreos, our eyes darting to keep track of our daughters (mine, age one; hers, age two), I felt sparks of connection. We both worked with refugee communities and lived nearby, we both were trying to survive winter while parenting strong-willed daughters, we both needed friendship in a season of isolating cold and loneliness.

It wasn’t long before I learned that Danielle was none other than D.L.M., the mysterious writer who I had been following on McSweeney’s, where she wrote hilarious and troubling columns about her relationships with Somali Bantu refugees in Portland, OR. I saw myself in her stories as the bumbling do-gooder trying to navigate complex cultural boundaries; I was drawn by her self-aware critique of her own missionary impulses. Before long, we were doing childcare swaps and playdates around the city, chatting about refugees and poverty on the messy fringes of young motherhood.

Do you like how I coordinated my shirt with the book cover? Click over to read more about this amazing book: http://www.dlmayfield.com/book/

Do you like how I coordinated my shirt with the book cover? Click over to read more about this amazing book: http://www.dlmayfield.com/book/

One afternoon, when I came to her apartment to pick up my daughter after a childcare swap, we stood at the kitchen counter talking about her latest blog series on downward mobility. I told her how much I loved the series, but how I struggled with my own choice to move out of my old inner-city neighborhood. “You should write about it and send it to me!” she told me, her voice emphatic.

The piece I guest-posted on her blog was the first time I’d written anything personal on the internet, and the experience was life-changing. Writing, it turns out, even about my angsty and overwrought mind-loops, was a way of finding community and sanity. Though I spent my days as disheveled stay-at-home mom who rarely held an extended adult conversation, I could write about things that mattered to me.

Yesterday, I am proud to say, Danielle’s first book was launched into the world. It’s called Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith and you should buy it or request it from your library, stat. In it, she writes about unrecognized ministries - the kinds that are quiet and bland, the ones that click into place when you realize that doing “great things for God” isn’t what the Gospel is really about afterall. To celebrate her new book and say thanks for being my gateway drug to the writing life, I wrote this little essay on my favorite unrecognized ministry: the YMCA.

...

It’s Thursday morning and I am here at Our Lady of Grace, the YMCA. She beckons me inside with her friendly red block facade; an elderly man with tufts of white hair opens the door for me as I balance my slippery toddler and gym bag on my hip. Instead of receiving a bulletin, I swipe my card at the front desk and carry my son down the stairs to the childcare room in the basement. The capable staff hold out their arms to take my baby for the next two hours and I am so grateful. My son walks over to the giant plastic slide, his current obsession, and barely registers my wave goodbye. I walk away lighter.

There are a cast of characters here, and as I spend more and more mornings running on the treadmill, I start to recognize them. The cleaning lady with an easy smile and friendly hello. The man with developmental disabilities who walks very slowly on the treadmill. The Somali woman in full hijab who uses the elliptical machine. The pair of chatty stylish grandmas with silver coiffed hair and knee-length down parkas, getting ready for their water aerobics classes.

Today I run my thirty minutes on the treadmill. Sometimes I pray and watch the airplanes through the large picture window; other times, I am moody and distracted so I watch House Hunters on HGTV. After, I shower and change in the women’s locker room. It always feels luxurious to bathe and dress without my children underfoot, to adequately wash and rinse my hair under hot water. The women in the locker room are all shapes, colors, and sizes; some - like myself - walk with a towel wrapped tightly, while others walk naked and unashamed to the group showers. I watch their confidence, their total comfort with what God gave them - jiggly bellies, droopy boobs and all - and I find a new kind of body goal.

People sit in the lobby after exercising, like I am now, happy for a minute to read or write or chat while their children are in childcare. Others watch their kids through the pool window, the tell-tale smell of chlorine in the air. Sometimes I write, sometimes I work, sometimes I schedule doctors appointments or edit a friend’s essay. I look around me at the elderly men and women who crowd around the coffee dispenser and talk about their surgeries and grandchildren’s tennis match and I think: it’s like church, really.

It’s a place where people come to get highs - some you could say spiritual, but it’s probably just endorphins and free caffeine and childcare. Like a fellowship hall, people sit at round laminated tables and share peanut butter pretzels and hot coffee in styrofoam cups. It’s a social place, a place where community happens. Mothers with young children, the unemployed, the recently retired, the disabled - all looking for conversation, or a moment’s rest, or to chase down a runner’s high.

A friend once told me that we all need a third place. We all have work, we all have home, but there has to be a third place to find community: a weak cup of coffee, a commiserating chat about the weather, a person to inquire about last week’s vacation. I still attend my local church and find hope there, but I find myself being ministered to by the YMCA in the most unusual ways: the body positivity, the intersection of immigrant teenagers and old white men and jubilant children, the childcare worker who tells me what new thing my son did that day, the luxury of a solitary shower. Here, people are jumbled together in ways that other self-selecting communities are unable to achieve; cardiologists run next to single moms on food stamps, landscapers lift weights next to English professors. There are all kinds at the Y, and I am just grateful to be part of it.

Wax

Philando Castile died one mile away from my childhood home in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. In this piece for Off the Page, I wrote about a prayer vigil and march to the site where he was shot.

It starts like this:

This isn’t my first march. 

Growing up, my dad would bundle my sister and I up in our puffiest coats, wrapping warm scarves around our necks and packing extra mittens in his black patched backpack alongside a few cheese sandwiches and a thermos of coffee. The third weekend in January often coincided with below zero temperatures in St. Paul, but it was important to my dad to participate in the Martin Luther King Jr. march and we were Minnesotans after all, so we went out in the cold and bore it because that is what hardy northern people do. The brilliant blues of the January sky would set the white snow twinkling like a thousand diamonds and our breath would puff out like white clouds and, sure, my sister and I would complain for a bit but then we’d go quiet as we watched the marchers all around us, moving so strong and steady, singing old spirituals and freedom songs. People would carry signs and someone would keep rhythm on a drum and my dad, sister and I would fall into step behind the long, snaking line, like a river whose current pulled us along.

Read the rest here.

 

Drishti Prayer

Hey everyone. It has been like crickets over on this blog, and I am sorry about that! I just started working for my dream organization, the Collegeville Institute, and the transition from stay-at-home mom to works-part-time mom has been stretching.

I am pleased that my first piece for Off the Page is up today. It's about how I started praying again after a long, silent period.

It starts like this:

March 15

I was running on the treadmill, my legs struggling to keep up with the fast moving belt, when I looked up and saw a plane through the window. My eyes tracked the thumb-sized aircraft as it climbed slowly across the sky until – poof – it was gone, swallowed by a cloud. I let out a small gasp, my eyes scanning to where the plane might exit the clouds, hoping to see it emerge again. There it is, still visible but partially cloaked in haze, there it goes again, vanished into the white and grey.

It kept happening, plane after plane, ascending, passing in front of the clouds, then disappearing, then reemerging, then disappearing again. They all made the same journey, and something about it stirred me uncomfortably. I felt sadness when they vanished; I kept returning my eyes to the same place, hoping for another sighting.

Read the rest here.

Blessed are the Agnostics

I have a new piece up at Her.menutics and, to be honest, I am a little shaky thinking about people reading it. It is the first time I have written online about my husband's faith loss, which is an extremely vulnerable and tender reality for me and my family. It starts like this:

"I sat in the high bleachers, my lower back aching. I was listening to the final keynote speaker at a conference, so far back in the nosebleed seats that I had to squint to make out the tall, tattooed pastor standing on the stage. I shifted in my seat, listless and ready to stretch, but before I could move, the pastor launched into a final benediction—a blessing-riff on the Beatitudes.

“Blessed are the agnostics,” she said. “Blessed are those who doubt. Those who aren’t sure, who can still be surprised.”

I barely heard anything after that. My mind fixated on the phrase “blessed are the agnostics” because my husband doesn’t believe in God anymore, and there are moments when I don’t know what I believe, either. His deconversion happened a few years ago, throwing our marriage and family into a tailspin."

Read the rest here.

Surprised By Fear

I have a guest post up today at You Are Here Stories, a collaborative blog of some of my favorite people on the internet who spend each month writing on a specific theme. My essay is tied to the theme of "Mess and Place." It starts like this:

"I walked out into the alley behind our house to dump the trash into the dumpster, only to nearly miss stepping on a used condom. It, along with the torn Trojan man package, was directly in front of our back gate. My daughter, age three, was right behind me–in bare feet.

“Oh no, honey,” I said pushing her backward with my hand. “You stay inside the yard. You don’t have shoes on; there might be broken glass.”"

Read the rest here.

Comfort and Dis-ease

I am over at the Good Letters today with a blog post about my surprising need for comfort.

The essay starts like this:

When I was in college my theology professor, lecturing on the Kingdom of God, turned to me and asked, “So, Stina. When you are older and own a home and have a perfectly good kitchen and dining room and so on, I want to know: Will you spend thousands of dollars updating it? Redoing it?”

When I was the invincible age of twenty-two, the thought of having thousands of dollars to spend on anything—let alone owning a real home—seemed a million years away. And what a silly question: Of course I wouldn’t spend my fictitious money on frivolous home renovation projects. I wouldn’t settle for a domesticated life of fine things.

We were talking about the Kingdom of God, after all. About upside-down priorities—of the last, first. Of giving all that we had to the poor. I never imagined myself wanting comfort; I who grew up with it and never knew life without it. My head and heart were fixed on higher, nobler things.

“No,” I replied to my professor, my voice bold before my classmates. I looked around importantly. “No, I would never do that.”

Read the rest here.

The Year of Being My Baby's Person

The first year of my baby boy's life has already come and gone. There is nothing quite like that year carefully measured in months and milestones: first smiles, first crawls, first teeth, first time sleeping longer than three hours. This year of unpredictable schedules, of near-constant sleep deprivation, of alarming bodily indignities -- it's like getting lost in a thick haze, where days are barely distinguishable from one another. I've hardly known the day of the week, sometimes not even the season.

I read once that there is no such thing as a baby singular, only a baby plus a person. A baby could never survive without a caregiver to hold it, feed it, change it, protect it. We love to post pictures of these darling babies on social media, so helpless and dimply cheeked and soft-skinned, and we have the illusion that this baby exists by itself. But really, it's like we've posted a photo of half a head, or someone's toes (and not in some artsy, avant garde fashion). We don't see the person who makes the baby's very life possible - the mother or father or grandparent or auntie - standing just outside the camera's shot, wearing a faded bathrobe with smeared snot on the sleeve. The person with the slightly manic look in her eye, her heart swollen with love for this little sweet-smelling appendage, her hands clutching a mug of coffee gone cold. Don't let the cute baby pictures fool you: they aren't the full story.

2015 was the year of being my baby's person. It has been an honor and a struggle and frankly, I am glad to be on the other side of postpartum. My body has shifted into its new normal, my baby is somewhat regular in his napping and sleeping. He is one now and so I'm getting back to it -- this job of being my own person. It's a slow process.

Earlier this week I went up to Du Nord (which literally means "the north"), which is a clustering of cabins along the border wilderness with Canada. On the last day of our vacation my husband and I went for a morning cross-country ski while my parents watched our little ones (bless them), and we hit the trails hard. It's impossible to overstate the beauty of northern Minnesota in winter, especially when you've just had a few inches of deliciously thick snowfall. We took turns breaking trail along the track to Slim Lake, the tips of our skis breaking upward through the snow like shark fins cresting in water. It was a grey morning; it had been a grey couple of days. We crossed the frozen lake and all was still except for the sound of my muffled breath and the wind. 

As we skied along the shoreline, looking for the Druid Pines trail entrance, my mind wandered. For once I wasn't thinking about my son, about whether he had eaten enough for breakfast or if I should be concerned about that diaper rash or how long it was until he needed to nap. I didn't wonder if my daughter was getting enough attention or if she had brushed her teeth this morning or whether we had read enough books to her last night. No, my mind was as blank as the unbroken trail through the towering pine forest. As my husband and I skied together, taking turns leading, I felt untethered. I climbed a small hill, my skis making herringbone v's in the snow, and I turned around to look back at the woods. Over the tops of pine branches I saw it: a patch of cerulean sky. Sunshine was cutting through the grey. 

We smiled at each other, my husband and I, as we paused to let the wild and quiet and light wash over us. It felt luxurious -- to let my mind and body exist in space beyond my children. It was a shifting moment: one small milestone on the slow road back to being my own person.

Birth Story, Part Two

It was around 4 PM when they started, the achy pains that swept across my abdomen, down my thighs and around to my lower back. I am not someone who welcomes pain. I don't push my body to do CrossFit or regularly run long distances. In high school, I was on the cross-country team but was notorious for starting out really fast then getting winded and pained halfway through the race. But, with every 30 second contraction, I found myself smiling. There was ample time in between to send a few text messages (I am having some contractions, mom!), to throw my toothbrush into the bag I had packed for the birth center. After so many days of anxious waiting, I hardly dared to let myself believe this was finally it.

If you’ve never been in labor, imagine that you are running hill intervals. You start at a slow jog, then kick up the intensity as you sprint up the hill – your legs and abdomen cramping underneath you, your breath shallow - until, at last, you crest the top, and plod down the hill to the other side. Now picture yourself doing those intervals once every 10 minutes for a few hours, then every 7 minutes for a couple more, and so on. Imagine that the hills get gradually higher and longer while your rest time in between gets shorter. Imagine not knowing if you have one more hour of hill intervals or 10 more hours until you can finally stop. No, wait. Not stop. Until you can PUSH A HUMAN out of a very small hole in your body. It's crazy.

When the contractions started, Josh ran out to get pizza while I puttered around at home. I remember thinking: I better get some calories in now, I might have another 54 hours (the length of my first labor) ahead of me. When he got back, we ate pizza right out of the box, grinning like fools, daring to hope we would have our baby soon.

A few days earlier, we brought home a $10 live Christmas tree from Menards. It was lopsided and spray-painted green. We propped it up in the corner of our kitchen, though it still crashed over onto the kitchen table a few times. As the hours of early labor went on into the evening, I laid down on the couch with the overhead lights off, staring at the crooked strand of twinkly lights on our tree. It was calming, watching the soft glow. Josh lit candles. The contractions were becoming more intense, but there was plenty of time to recover in between.

But they kept coming and, at around 9 PM, we called Melanie. She said she would come over in an hour.

Labor. Looking back now, it’s hard for me to really remember it. I know that it got more painful, that I needed Josh and Melanie to rub my legs and lower back during contractions. I took a bath. I tried to rest by lying on the couch upstairs. I sat on the birthing ball; Melanie gave me a foot massage.

The contractions hurt, they did. But they weren’t getting any closer together, still just 5 to 7 minutes apart. Because my first labor was so painfully long, I began to anticipate hours and hours ahead. I was anxious and tired. At 2 AM, Melanie suggested that we go to the birth center. "Maybe," she said, "once you're in the place where you know you will give birth, your labor will pick up."

We piled into our car and drove the 10 minutes to the birth center. It was 2:30 AM, so there were hardly any cars on the road. The 35-W bridge took us over the Mississippi river; I remember looking out over to the historic Stone Arch Bridge, the old flour mill ruins cast in an orange haze from the street lights. I had one, maybe two, contractions in the car. Melanie leaned over the seat to help massage my legs while I concentrated on my breathing.

Josh drove into the alley behind the birth center. Martha, one of the midwives, was waiting for us at the back door, her arms wrapped around herself for warmth. It was a clear, cold, snow-muffled December night. There was no one else at the birth center.

We entered the birthing suite: a large room with a king-sized bed, a couch, a rocking chair, and a giant water-birth tub. I had decided earlier not to have my cervix checked to see how dilated I was during labor; I was afraid that if I wasn't making much progress I would be easily discouraged. (Women who have vaginal births must dilate to 10 centimeters before they can push the baby down and out. In my first birth, I was stuck at 6 centimeters for 9 hours.)

I got into the birthing tub for a while, then moved into the shower. Melanie and Josh took turns feeding me small bites of cheese, frozen blueberries, spoonfuls of yogurt. I sat on a stool in the shower for what felt like hours. Melanie encouraged me to relax my face and shoulders, to groan downward -- deep, low, out. Still, I was getting tired. My contractions were about a minute long and only 5 minutes apart.

I was sitting in the shower, naked, exhausted. I turned to Melanie and said, "I can't do this anymore. I just want it to stop, it's not working. Just take me to the hospital now."

Melanie looked at me closely, her brown eyes locking with mine. "I know," she said, carefully. "It's really fucking hard. It fucking hurts. But you just need to get through the next contraction."

I closed my eyes as I felt another contraction slowly coming on, I motioned to Melanie to rub my legs, I breathed down and low and deep.

I got back into the birthing tub; the water felt wonderful on my tired body. At one point I turned to Melanie, "My contractions don't hurt as much in here. Maybe they're not working?"

She encouraged me that it was okay if they were less painful, that I was doing great, that my contractions were doing the job they were supposed to do. All I needed to do was keep eating, keep resting in between contractions. I gradually started feeling stronger, fortified by the small bites of food and small sips of coconut water and gatorade that Josh and Melanie kept offering me.

The hours blur together now in my memory. I was in a trance-like state, my mind entirely present to the moment. I didn't make eye contact with anyone; I felt entirely folded inward. We had sounds of ocean waves playing on our ipod; crash, crash, crash.

After a particularly hard contraction, I vomited all over the bed. It was one of the most encouraging moments of my entire labor. Finally, I thought, I must be really working hard. I must be getting closer. I was desperate for any sign that my labor was productive.

Martha, the midwife, had mostly left us to ourselves. ("You guys are such a great team!") But after we had been at the birth center for 4 hours, she asked if she could check my cervix to see how things were going. She promised not to tell me how dilated I was. I agreed, and after the exam, she couldn't stop herself from smiling widely.

"Stina," she said. "You are so close. Your bag of waters is bulging, it should break during your next few contractions. After that happens, you can get back in the birth tub. You will be pushing this baby out soon."

I didn't really believe her at first. I was still having contractions at only 5 minutes apart, and I had it fixed in my mind that they needed to be coming every 1 or 2 minutes before I was fully dilated. But then I had a super painful contraction, one that wretched down my back, and I was forced back in the animal present of breathing down, low, out. After a few more like that, I felt a popping, then a rush of fluid. My water had broken.

Josh and Melanie helped me get up, supporting my arms as I climbed into the birth tub. After a few more contractions, there was a pause in my labor. Martha had alerted the labor nurse and midwife intern that we were close to pushing, so two more women joined us in the room wearing scrubs and long gloves.

Suddenly, I had an overwhelming urge to push. And by overwhelming, I mean absolutely uncontrollable. I would feel the beginnings of a contraction, then a crazy powerful rush of energy down, down, down. Josh climbed into the tub with me, he straddled my back and supported me as I pushed.

I distinctly remember thinking, in between pushes, I am having a baby right now. I am pushing a live human out of my body.

In the same pattern as before, I would push for a minute, then rest for 4 or 5 more.

"I can see the head! Reach down, you can feel it."

I pushed again and felt a huge burning move downward, and then back upwards inside. With each push, I bellowed a loud, terrifying yell. I couldn't have stopped it if I wanted to.

"That's good, just like that."

A few pushes later, and my son's head was born into the water. I waited like that for a few minutes: my son's head outside and under the water, the rest of his body still inside. He kept moving his head back and forth; apparently, babies have the instinct to move their heads to help navigate their way through the birth canal. It was the strangest sensation of my life.

One more giant push, and he was out. Born into water. Dark purple and mewling and slippery on my chest. I held his sweet head against my collarbone, barely seeing more than his sticky hair; Josh held me from behind, reaching around my body to touch his head.

My son, he was here, born at 8:43 AM. I had just finished the longest, hardest endurance race of my life.

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This is Part Two of my birth story. Click here for Part One.

Birth Story, Part One

It feels strange to return to this space after my son was born four months ago. It feels strange because I had a beautiful birth this time, a birth so unexpected and different than my first one. I think about what I wrote about God as a laboring mother and find it difficult to connect those essays to my latest experience, which was astoundingly good. A writer-friend remarked to me once that I like to write about failure. That struck me as devastatingly true -- I do tend to frame stories by my mislaid expectations and the crashing disappointment of real-life-living. Even the title of this blog, "What Life Does," refers to a quote that reflects that sense of disillusionment.

But I don't want to be a person who always frames her life in terms of failure. In writing out this birth story, I am taking a small step in exploring the positive in my life.

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I was overdue. I was approaching the deadline, 40 weeks plus 14 days. Instead of needing to produce a paper or article, I needed to give birth. By December 4th. Otherwise I would become a “high risk” pregnancy because there is greater chance that the placenta may atrophy once you pass 42 weeks. And, if you’re high risk, you can’t deliver at a birth center, you have to deliver at a hospital.

I had my daughter at a hospital three years prior and the birth hadn’t gone the way I had hoped. Somehow, I had it fixed in my mind that giving birth in the hospital again would mean re-experiencing the same birth I had the first time. I wanted a different birth. I wanted to deliver at the birth center.

It was December 3rd and I wasn’t in labor. I woke up in the morning feeling angry. Contractions still hadn't started. I had been doing all the things people tell women who are waiting for their babies to come: have sex, take castor oil, climb stairs, eat spicy food, acupuncture. The midwives at the birth center told me that, if December 3rd came around and I still wasn’t in labor, I could go into the birth center to have my water broken manually. Something about a knitting-needle hook that would be inserted into my cervix. A friend of mine had delivered at the same birth center and had the procedure done to help jumpstart labor; her daughter was born 10 hours later.

I was desperate to have a different birth. I wanted to deliver at the birth center.

I called my doula, my friend Melanie, a friend who I have known for years. Our families have lived together and we’ve seen each other at our best and at our worst. We’ve had fights over unloading the dishwasher and cried together during house meetings and watched each other parent our babies. We’ve talked about our family issues, about old hurts and ways to move beyond them. She has influenced me so much in the way she mothers. She knows how to grow beautiful plants and run a greenhouse, the little seedlings bending toward her careful knowledge and light. I trust Melanie in the way you can trust someone who has known you, who you’ve watched caretake vulnerable things: small children, small plants. The way she nourishes life, gives it the light of her attention, the water of her diligence. And she knows a lot about maternal medicine, having doula-ed countless births.

So I called Melanie, and she didn’t give me advice straight out, but I could sense she didn’t agree with the breaking your water strategy. If your water breaks, you have 24 hours before the risk of infection rises and before medical professionals will hook you up to Pitocin to jumpstart labor. Choosing to break my water could open up my birth to the possibility that I would need more interventions later.

Still, not breaking my water would mean that I would be delivering at the hospital, it would mean that my dreams of a birth center birth would go unrealized. And I wasn't ready to let that go.

Melanie came with Josh and I to the birth center to discuss the procedure with the midwives. I remember being in one of the birthing suites, seated on a couch, and sobbing as I finally chose not to get my water broken to induce labor. I was letting it go, I thought I was deciding to have a hospital birth. It felt like giving up, it felt like history repeating itself.

The hospital was across the street from the birth center, so we walked over icy sidewalks to visit the brand new Mother Baby Center. It’s a new wing of the hospital, done up in rainbow hued glass and futuristic couches. It looked fine, it was all fine, but I longed for the soothing green walls of the birth center, the tasteful art, the giant water-birth Jacuzzi-style tubs. I know, in retrospect, it may sound selfish and privileged to be whining about where I give birth – a top-notch hospital is among the better places (or so I imagine) to have a baby. Yet, I'd been picturing myself delivering in another place for months; I had all my prenatal appointments at the birth center. Switching to an unfamiliar hospital at the very last minute made me tense.

After touring the hospital, Josh and I tried to decide what to do next. My three-year-old daughter was staying at her grandparents for the day. Should he go back to work? Should I take a nap? Try something else to get labor started?

Melanie suggested we visit an herbalist midwife friend of hers. I wasn’t sold on the idea, but I was desperate. There was still a slim chance that I could go into labor that very day and be able to deliver at the birth center.

So we went. Her office was in her home, the upstairs of a duplex, beaming with light, with hanging plants and warm neutral wall hangings. There were bookcases lined with Ina May Gaskin’s books and several copies of Birthing from Within. She asked us a few questions, she scoffed at the birth center’s rigid two week post-due-date time frame (your gestational length is perfectly normal! There is no real reason NOT to keep waiting, besides for insurance). If you were my patient, she said, we wouldn’t be trying anything to get labor started. We would just trust that it would start in the next few days. And then I felt guilty for not having chosen a home-birth in the first place.

She had me stick out my tongue and she listened to my pulse. She pulled out black eyedroppers full of herbal tinctures and placed a few drip-drops on my wrists. She gave me a few brown bottles of "strong uterine herbs" that are supposed to jumpstart labor. I felt foolish when I wrote the check for $50 – we were barely making our monthly budget – and wondered if this would work.

We went home, I took the herbs, I took a nap. I felt utterly depleted, my tears and decision to deliver at the hospital feeling like giving up on my hopes for a beautiful birth. But when I woke up an hour later, I was having a contraction. And then another. And then another.

Overdue

It's the first Sunday in Advent and I couldn't bear going to church this morning with my ten-days-overdue belly. Of course everyone understands that babies don’t follow any kind of schedule (at least mine don’t – inside or outside the womb, for that matter); of course, normal gestational length can vary by as much as six weeks. Still, when you pass that magical date that you’ve been spouting out to curious well-wishers for the past few months, everyone starts getting antsy. It's enough to make me want to hide forever. Hide from questions and small talk, hide from hope that he will be here soon.

I know there are many parallels to entering the season of Advent with being "overdue" with child -- but frankly they make me grouchy, even if they are apt. Yes, waiting for this birth reflects the greater waiting we are doing for Jesus' birth, for the Kingdom to come, for peace to reign on earth. But in the actual calendar season of Advent, I know Christmas is coming on December 25. It will come on time. I already know that story; I can make plans.

This physical knowing I will give birth but not knowing when? This is different. With Advent, I can intellectualize its meaning. I can check out emotionally and passively move through the season until Christmas morning. I can even skip ahead to joy by playing Christmas music early and setting up our tree. But there is no sneaking in snuggles with my baby before labor; this is a wait in utter darkness.

Up until this weekend, I have felt okay waiting. I’m not physically uncomfortable or roiling in pain. Sure, it has been wearying -- the not knowing, the wondering if I should do a big grocery shop or make play-dates for my toddler, the pressure to be doing things to go into labor (primrose oil, walking, doing stairs, eating spicy food, castor oil, acupuncture, squats and lunges to name a few). I have known that, no matter what I try, there is always the underlying reality that nothing that I “do” will push me into labor until my body is ready.

But the past two mornings I woke up at 4 AM with panic so thick in my throat that I thought I would choke. Somehow I had it in my mind that the baby would come this weekend; that the baby would be born before December 1. Instead of waking to labor pains or to the rush of my water breaking, I blinked awake to hope unmet and stomach acid. Nothing was happening.

I’ve been surprised by the anger that I have felt at having my hopes misplaced.

The unease I feel now is more of an agitated readiness, a frantic desire to meet this being who is sharing my body, to endure and be done with labor, to finally have the anticipation put to rest. It’s a thirst to move forward, not remain stuck here in limbo, in wondering.

For so many days now, I’ve been on top of everything house related – all the dishes done immediately, the toys always picked up, the manic check-things-off-the-list mentality driving me forward, lest we go into labor. Ask my husband; he will tell you about how we dusted the tops of every kitchen cabinet this morning.

I had been so hopeful that my baby would be born by today. Every Braxton Hicks contraction pain has stirred anticipation -- is this it? But nothing real has happened, nothing tangible. I feel despondent, uncertain whether to keep preparing or sink into hopeless grief.

December is nearly here; my baby is not. And, though the parallels make me grouchy, I wonder if this is exactly what Advent is supposed to feel like: an angry anticipation for the thing we most long for, a discontent with the ways of this world, a bitter hope teetering on despair for wrongs to be righted, a desperation for light to overcome all this darkness.

It’s this restless hope that is forcing me to pace the hallways of my apartment building, to do circuits of stairs wherever I can find them. It’s forcing me into a more active wait, not a passive one. It’s forcing me to try small things to get labor started, though I have no ultimate control in this process.

I keep going through the motions, though the oil in my lamp is burning low. Draw your flame a little closer, wait with me.

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Image via Flickr’s Creative Commons can be found here