Motherhood: Inception, Alchemy, and Option. Part Two of a Short Series

I believe, perhaps too strongly, in living a life with a plan. Not for me, the aimless floating in the Flow! Rigorous self examination is a constant. So, in an effort to keep my life, including relationships and work, on a productive trajectory, I ask myself: What is my goal? Who am I trying to reach? Why?

I’ve landed on this: I am hoping use the stories of my own life to connect women to each other, for I believe it’s in authentic connection with a medley of others that we create the sort of beautiful song that our lives are meant to be. Old and young. Faith-led and ambivalent. Married and single. Mother and not.

When a woman becomes a mother, there’s an alchemy at the soul level: love fuses with fear; self-awareness morphs to other-awareness. We are changed by becoming mothers. But as the mother of an adult daughter who is not sure she will ever choose motherhood as well as a daughter who embraced it at the by-modern-standards-young age of 24, I bear witness to the power of the life lived on either side of the coin. It is beautiful to watch a woman exercise choice over this profound condition called “Motherhood.”

Becoming a mother is, for many of us, a beloved experience. Not for all, I know. There are women for whom motherhood is a burden. Maybe for practical reasons like health dangers. Maybe because the partner is cruel. Perhaps because there is not enough money or danger lurks in surroundings. Becoming a mother is, for some of us, impossible. We all know a woman whose empty arms ache. Some are forced to make the bitter choice of whether to carry a terminally ill baby to term. My heart hurts for all of these women.

There are women who become moms through adoption or fostering. That’s its own damn miracle. And sometimes, men do all the parenting themselves and it’s pretty amazing.

Lots of babies are born by C-Section. Equally miraculous, and not one whit less blessed or authentic. My pregnancy and childbirth story just happens to be a bit more conventional. I love it, because it’s my story. I bet there are elements that all moms share, no matter the route to motherhood: the sweetness of holding a child, the agony of watching a child be ill or injured, the long nights of worry and wakefulness.

For me, becoming a mother was magical. Of course, many moms both cherish the experiences of pregnancy and childbirth, but shudder a bit, too. Let’s get real and honest: it hurts. Growing a baby is wonderful, but it also stretches your ligaments painfully. Feet swell. Rings get tight. Backs ache. Braxton-Hicks contractions twinge. Stuff leaks out your lady-plumbing. Hairs grow in previously smooth places. Comfortable sleep becomes quixotically impossible.

My first full term pregnancy was pretty easy- my body responded to growing a child with a lot of enthusiasm. I was a college student, so I did all my projects ahead of time, to be ready. I nested by waking up one night, just a few days before labor, and scrubbing the baseboards of our student housing apartment with a toothbrush.

The second pregnancy was less peaceful. We discovered I was pregnant while my husband was in the hospital, recovering from a near-fatal bout with viral spinal encephalitis. I had confided in his doctor that I suspected I might be pregnant, and worried that his disease might have gotten to the baby. He assured me that that would not be the case, but tested me anyway. I wore a pacifier tied around my neck when I went to visit Travis in his hospital room. and his face first showed confusion, then joy as he realized that he was alive, and he would be a father again. We were facing medical bills and unemployment, but those mountains seemed insignificant against the knowledge of just how close he’d come to dying. 

The third, though, her birth was my favorite. We had looked into a home birth for purely monetary reasons. My husband worked for a church that did not provide health insurance, we were living in a state where my teaching certificate was not valid,  and any part time job I could find didn’t pay enough to cover child care costs.

In 1994, home birth was definitely a fringe undertaking, more so than even now. We researched and met with a midwife named Ruth, she was very nurturing, but also pragmatic. She would not brook any argument on one issue, in fact, I had to sign a document on my first visit: if, at any time, she felt I or baby were at risk, I had to follow her directive to go to the hospital. This was the very assurance that was at the top of my wish list, I knew I did not want a midwife who was so committed to the global cause of home birth and natural medicine that she would put my baby’s life at risk to prove a point. I had one visit with an MD, then spent the rest of my pregnancy with Ruth overseeing my care.

Libby didn’t seem to want to be born. At church, our preacher took the pulpit after a rousing rendition of “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,” looked over at me, and kindly (and laughingly) proclaimed that “When the roll is called up yonder, Kim will still be here.” Waiting for the baby, her meant. The congregation had a good chuckle- they were anxious for that baby to arrive, and a little worried about our unusual birthing plan.

On a September Sunday, I awoke to the sound of a popping cork; labor had begun. We called Ruth, then did what we had practiced: I walked the little house for hours, Travis following behind with a towel (thank God we had wood floors) and squatted deep at each contraction. Our other two kids awoke just at the moment I needed to start pushing, so , we bundled them off to church with neighbors, and then got to work.

On a bed covered with protective sheets, Travis leaned up against the headboard, I planted myself between his knees, and had the most primal and beautiful experience I can imagine. Sunlight was streaming in through the windows, and when Libby crowned, Ruth laid her hands on Libby’s head and prayed her into the world. Libby was born wrapped in blessings.

That blessed baby is a now a mother. I held her right knee and coached her during the births of both of her children, and watching my grandchildren enter the world has been a gift of immeasurable value. Libby is a woman who has fulfilled one aspect what womanhood means for her.

I have another daughter. She is walking a different path. She has, for now, chosen to build a life of independent creativity.

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She is a writer, a filmmaker, and an explorer who jokes that her projects are my grandbabies, for she labors intensely to bring them into the world. I love that. She digs deep into the heart of feminism, she stands strong at the intersection of activism and art. She, too, is fulfilling what womanhood means for her.

These women, these creators-of-art, pioneers-of-independence, activism-as-caregivers have always been among us.

We haven’t always appreciated them like we should, instead assuming them to lonely and unfulfilled, we’ve pressured them to conform.

I believe the act of creation is what changes us. Whether it’s a child or a book, a family or a film, magical alchemy occurs when it’s done with the intention of love. It may even be both: motherhood and art. May we embrace and bless the women who choose motherhood, and also those who walk a different path. Fulfillment is not, after all, found only in tradition; it can be found equally in divergence.

She Was A Voice: A Review of “The Book of Longings”

“Lord our God, hear my prayer, the prayer of my heart. Bless the largeness inside me, no matter how I fear it. Bless my reed pens and my inks. Bless the words I write. May they be beautiful in your sight. May they be visible to eyes not yet born. When I am dust, sing these words over my bones: she was a voice.”
― Sue Monk Kidd, The Book of Longings

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The reclamation and rediscovery of my voice have been the driving throughline of my life since 2011 when my vocal cords were damaged resulting in a year of silence. I already felt pretty invisible in my daily life, as though I was seen and heard only by my husband and kids. Though I regained my voice through the miracle of a silicone implant, the trauma of the muteness has never fully left the deep recesses of my heart and soul. Those who have known me in an up-close way, or who read my work know this truth about me.

In her latest and most audacious work, inspirational author Sue Monk Kidd imagines another invisible and unheard woman, telling a life of her creation, a wife of Jesus during the period of unknowing: the years between his temple conversations with the rabbis and the day he stepped into the river Jordan to be immersed by John the doomed prophet. Only an undiluted curiosity undergirded with a fertile and open mind will be able to read this beautiful fiction unthreatened.

We meet Anna as a teen, full of restless joy and enormous dreams of writing, a voracious reader who had begged her father unrelentingly to be taught how to read and write. Anna is a young woman of expansive ideas trapped in an ancient patriarchal culture. I recognized her heart-cry immediately, I too was once a young bookworm with a passion for justice and a tendency toward the favoring the underdog.

The Hebraic culture of the New Testament era comes vividly alive in the author’s adept hands. Ms. Kidd revealed in an interview with researcher Brene’ Brown that she spent 14 months of eight-hour days immersed in history and religious study, joking that she was smitten by Roman aqueducts in Galilee; her daughter finally intervening with an exhortation to get on with the writing. Her dynamic descriptions of the terrain, the architecture, the food, the daily life are so real I expected to see dust on my sandals and to smell olives on the breeze upon lifting my eyes from the page.

Anna is to be married to an old man in a play for power by her father, a wealthy, landless scribe in the court of Herod Antipas, the tetrarch who would eventually see Jesus in his court. Events twist and turn, and Anna is instead married to young Jesus, a man so full of compassion and the spark of joy that he is utterly captivating. I have wondered since I was young enough to watch Sunday School stories be told by puppets and felt board cutouts what the young man Jesus might have been like, and this imagining feels completely credible.

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Ms. Kidd is careful to craft a plot that is fully supportive of the sparse details of Jesus’s life that are written in the Biblical gospels, she doesn’t rewrite or recreate Jesus and his ministry, she simply attempts to create a fictional idea of what might have been, and in doing so, she provides a feminine window into the early Christian world that has not often been seen. Anna is, in truth, a proxy for all the women who have ever felt absent in the Jesus story, who have been unheard in the power plays and overlooked in the histories executed by men. “The deeper we go into our own experience, our own journey, the more likely we are to hit the universal,” says Ms. Kidd.

As a companion read to The Book of Longings, Ms. Kidd’s spiritual memoir, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, is a remarkable deep dive into the fracturing and rebuilding of feminine faith; it too is universal. I have been working through it for some time. I say “working,” because the truth of what Brene’ Brown calls her “mid-life unraveling” is unfolding in my own life, and has been for a period of long years. It was only in the last three that I began to tiptoe from the desert created by church trauma to embark upon newer vistas of grace on my way back to verdant faith. Reading the final chapters of Dissident Daughter simultaneously with Longings scored the truths of both deeply into my heart in the same way that Anna inscribed her prayers into a bowl: women are deeply, tenderly, radically loved by God.

If a reader can access her imagination and be unafraid to ask “What if?” there is abundant grace, wit, and courage in this gorgeous novel. What a bold, yet humble gift is Sue Monk Kidd. I encourage all to read, and to listen to her episode on Unlocking Us. Its radical, gentle message is both balm and benediction.

Brené with Sue Monk Kidd and Jen Hatmaker on Longing, Belonging and Faith

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Seattle: Smiling Bag Lady

Today, I am having a bit of a blue day, a day in which, by 10:15 in the morning I had already called myself “stupid” and gotten a gentle reprimand and hug from my husband. Anyone else ever have those days, when you feel like nothing you do is going to work, none of the dreams will come to fruition, that you can’t match the success of others? I do. That’s today.

So I went to look at my photos. I do that often, my pictures remind me of good stuff, important stuff. I bumped into this lady in a pocket park in Seattle on a day that my husband and I were wandering around aimlessly, looking for a spot to eat the picnic lunch we’d just bought at the Amazon Go store.

She’s humorous, smiling and a bit wiry, sitting beside her own bag. We enjoyed our lunch with her company. Seattle is a great city.

I think I will go have a good day. Not going to say great- I don’t want to place undue pressure on myself- but good. That’ll do.

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Cathedrals: Fifth of Series

I saved St. Patrick’s in New York City as the finale of the series because it’s the first cathedral I ever saw. I was raised in the suburbs of Dallas, where evangelicals dominate the religious life of the community, and smaller church homes were the norm. Dallas suburbs haven’t really been around long enough to have storied, historic cathedrals. But a visit to the Big Apple opened my eyes to a whole world of diversity and art. I love New York City more than any other in the world.

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One of the things I appreciate about St. Pat’s is how crowded it is, tucked in among the Fifth Avenue crush of skyscrapers and traffic lights, cab horns blaring, tourists gaping, and black-clad New Yorkers hustling to work. It’s not quiet inside, one doesn’t feel an immediate hush inside its walls. Nevertheless, holiness is there.

One might wonder why, if I have left behind organized Christian religion, I have been photographing and visiting cathedrals. What draws me, beyond the intricate gothic architecture, the turrets and gargoyles and limestone? It is simply this: I still love God and Goddess. I know, without a doubt, that the Divine One still loves us. She grieves for us. She waits and watches for us to love.

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Cathedrals: Fourth in a Series

Ah, the Grande Dame of churches, the towering structure that has loomed over the Seine for around 900 years now. 900. As an American, citizen of a country where we’re amazed to find a building still standing from just two centuries ago, a country where we demolish the aged to make room for the new (in architecture, in cars, in people…), this church just rocked my world. It’s crawling with tourists now, I would have loved the opportunity to visit in stillness.

In April, much of the world watched in horror as the cathedral burned, we worried about the safety of people, but also we grieved what seemed to be a complete loss of a monument to faith and architecture that’s been visited and loved by countless children of God for nearly a millenia.

But praise and blessed be! Only her roof was destroyed.

Do I understand that the Catholic Church has some things to answer for? Yes. And rightly so. But I separate the Godly house from the inhabitants who have abused. Instead, I think of the penitents and faithful who have found comfort, wisdom, and fellowship within those stone walls. May we all find our own holy place, be it cathedral, woods, meadow, or home.

 

Notre Dame Cathedral Paris

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Cathedrals: Third in a Series

I loved this photo because of the juxtaposition of dark towers on blue sky. It’s the towers of Catedral Metropolitana de Quito in the capital city of Ecuador. My husband and I were wandering the streets of old Quito when we happened upon this enormous edifice, the sun was beginning its descent in the west, and the gates were locked to visitors. What struck me then was how quiet the churchyard was. I had visited St. Patrick’s in New York City, that church is teeming with tourists and congregants, the steps are crowded with families snapping photos. But the Catedral was whisper quiet, the only sign of life the black birds hopping in the courtyard or flying above our heads.

When I visited Notre Dame in Paris, another cathedral of double towers, I remembered Quito and its holy hush, so opposite of the clamor at ND. Both sacred, though. The Divine can be found in both whisper and shout.

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If you’ve never traveled to Ecuador, it’s a beautiful place. Learn more about the Catedral here:

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Cathedrals: The Second in a Series

“History and beauty lie in the baroque wrinkles of old cathedrals, mosques, synagogues, temples and faces whose stories are told without a single word.”
― Khang Kijarro Nguyen

I left organized religion years ago, but find that cathedrals still speak to me. I believe it’s the vast and varied stories that each cathedral holds that draw me close. Somehow, I sense the histories of those faithful, and the vibrations of their prayers.

When I visit a new place, I make it a point to seek out these edifices, and find a few moments to sit it their peace. This particular cathedral is St. Paul’s in Melbourne, Australia. It’s located just down the block from the National Gallery of Victoria. The day was quite cloudy, mid-winter, and perfect.

I was particularly struck by the large banner hanging on the church building’s side, proclaiming that the church welcomes refugees. Just this morning, my husband observed that so many religious and conservative organizations seem driven by fear, it is comforting to see that this church body is driven by kindness. Like Jesus himself.

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Cathedrals: The First in a Series

The Salisbury Cathedral in southern England is over 750 years old. Though I no longer profess to be an Evangelical Christian, my soul still hears the whispers of the Divine. This beautiful edifice resonates with all the devout prayers offered by centuries of the faithful.

https://www.salisburycathedral.org.uk/

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Mary Oliver’s Poems and Sacred Trees

This morning, I awakened to a gift. A poem that my eldest child, my daughter, sent to me. It was by Mary Oliver. I read it. I was stunned. And then I was intrigued. So I decided to find some more of Oliver’s work. What followed was no less than a descent down a white-rabbit tunnel into a wonderland of beautiful words and exquisite thought. It seemed I had found a poet who spoke to my soul. It turns out Mary Oliver is also a deep-thinking, dream-driven introvert who loves nature, and she has drilled deeply into the questions of Divinity. God’s nature. God’s revelation in nature.

Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Fred Hammond described it beautifully, and he quoted author Kathleen McTigue as well:

“Kathleen McTigue writes regarding Oliver’s theology, ‘By that word [theology] I mean not only what her poems reflect of her beliefs about God, but what they reflect about a host of other religious questions: What is holy? Who are we? What are we called to do with our lives? What is death, and how do we understand it when we turn our faces toward its inevitability? These questions matter to all of us. And the answers in Mary Oliver’s poems feel so resonant and so true…’”

These are the questions that have become the very litany of my new existence. I now have an empty nest. It’s just me and my husband and our two dogs knocking around the house. I always believed my calling to be a mom was holy. I know it was. But it’s pretty much over. Now I wonder what I am called to in this new chapter. And with each arthritic pain and new wrinkle, I am forced to turn my face toward the inevitable. My parents are gone, my husband’s parents are slowing down. Beloved aunts and uncles seem so much older. These days, my heart is tender. Tears hover behind my eyelids, waiting just out of reach for a bit of tender piano music or the sight of a mother nursing her baby to call them forth, dripping down my lined face.

I have begun to embrace the idea that I am holy, in and of myself. Not my motherhood. Not my wifehood. Not my artistry. Not my vocation. Not my voice. Not even my silence. I am all of those things. All of those things are holy. But even without them, I am holy.

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And trees are, too.

This poem moved me to tears:

When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

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I love trees. I love them. I just got back from a walk, and the photo above is where I walked: a quiet lane completely enfolded in green leaves and branches. The trees whispered in the spring breeze. Like Oliver says, trees save me. Daily. All my life.

I have always loved trees. The first tree with whom I fell in love was a locust that lived in my neighbor’s yard. My seven year old self, a neighborhood pariah, would climb into the tree and nestle in its branches, eating the little brown beans that grew in pods, watching the kids play without me from the safety of my perch.

My ten year old self adopted the tree in our new house, wedged into the V shape that just fit my scrawny behind, Beverly Cleary and Madeleine L’Engle books nourishing my lonely little soul.

Near my house there was an enormous weeping willow, and I would stand in its fronds, imagining that I was in a safe and magical world where no one could find me. I recently visited that street. Both of those precious trees were gone. I grieved.

In the yard in front of the house where my husband and I  spent most of the child-rearing years of our family, there was a giant oak tree whose leaves created a canopy outside my bedroom window. All of every spring and summer, I felt like I slept in a tree house. I kept a chair on the balcony just outside my bedroom, and when my spirit was angry or in despair, I sat in that chair and simply let the tree speak to my soul. I hugged that tree. Literally. I hugged her. And when we left that house, I had to spend time with her, saying goodbye and thanking her for taking such good care of me.

Psalm 52:8 says: “But as for me, I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the lovingkindness of God forever and ever.” I think that oak tree in Shenandoah, Texas was a gift from the Divine One, to show Her lovingkindness for my soul.

Have you ever seen a giant tree? Maybe a California Redwood? When I visited Sydney Australia with my younger daughter, we found what I think might have been a giant gum tree in the Royal Botanical Gardens. It was stunning. I almost couldn’t walk away. I had to stroke her trunk and talk to her a bit, much to my daughter’s amusement. She’s a bit more pragmatic that her older sister, who balances her chakras and talks to trees like I do.

My daughters, my son, my husband, our parents and grandparents back and back and back have created, as have all families, forests of family trees. Roots go deeper than we can imagine, soaking up nourishment of love like water. Branches reach toward the azure sky and the vibrant sunshine as the seeds of dreams are created and carried. Sometimes there is disease. It might cause a branch to fall, or perhaps even need pruning. That is the great cycle of life that the Divine One has created and set in motion, isn’t it?

What I know today is that my walk amongst the trees fed my spirit, so will the rich poetry of Mary Oliver. Her inner monologues, as revealed in her poetry, just seem to affirm that there are other introverted and tender souls out there who are like me. God has given me my soul, Mary’s poetry, and gorgeous trees to hug. His lovingkindness is everlasting.