“One Small Year”

April 2, 2013

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The evolution of self doesn’t end. I thought I had done a lot of it, but now that I’m a mother (12 months to the day,) something fundamental in me has changed, deepened. My heart feels broader. On Shawn Colvin’s album “Whole New You” which she released after becoming a mother, she sings, “One small year… It’s taken all of me to get here.” The first year of my son’s life has indeed taken all of me and more, a good bit more.

Through the ups and downs of gaining a new equilibrium, I’ve become a better person. Perhaps only perceptible to me, but I feel more whole and more humble. Because of my immense love for son, I’ve surprised myself with the level of selflessness and responsibility I’ve been able to sustain. While I’m far more caffeinated, scattered, overwhelmed and quick to resentment, I’ve also experienced far more joy than I’ve ever known before.

Strangely, during this most precious year of my life, I’ve felt less connected with God. I don’t have a lot of time anymore to sit with God in silence, yet I’m also pretty sure God has been powering my mothering. There is no way I could have done this on my own.  Perhaps this year was more about doing God’s work than feeling God. Even though, every single day, I am amazed at and indescribably grateful for the gift we have been given from the Lord Almighty.

Recently after a particularly challenging week of our baby son being sick at the same time my husband was working nights, I sat on my yoga mat and didn’t do anything except breathe and “be”. I was relieved and grateful to set down my screw-ups for a few minutes. I felt calm, strong and myself – the me that exists underneath all the striving to be a good mother, wife, leader and employee. The me that needs a break sometimes. The deep me I’ve always been and the one I’ve become over the past year. These few moments were a respite from thinking I need to be anything other or more than who I really am.

My dad told me once during a difficult life transition to “lighten up,” and not take myself so seriously. Last year comments in an anonymous work survey said that my “intensity” might be intimidating for others.  My sister likes to tell me to “relax!” While it is still a beast I battle, motherhood has lessened my perfectionism, and I’m grateful to be easier on myself and others. I do, however, like the part of me that takes my life seriously. I consider my time on Earth, and with those I dearly love, to be short and precious. I know that my way of being and what I write about isn’t comfortable for some, but I’m not sure I can or want to change that part of me.

I will acknowledge, though, that one of the most wonderful things about motherhood is that around my son, I “lighten up” naturally. It comes without effort. He is so joyful and so much fun, I can only respond in kind. Sometimes the tables are reversed, he needs me to be that way first. And… he thinks I’m hilarious! So I milk it and I love it. I enjoy the fun part of me. It is my husband who is really the funny one in our family, but my son laughs at my jokes and slapstick comedy as if I’m the funniest person on Earth!

Becoming a mother and a wife have been the two largest “need to step up my game” events of my life. Despite the saying that we are all replaceable, I don’t believe we are all interchangeable. There is something I’m supposed to give my son, my husband, and the world that only I can give. These two people I love the most make me want to become the very best me I can be.  Working motherhood doesn’t leave a lot of time for all of the supports I used to use to de-stress and center myself, but I have learned that it is essential to make time for those that most influence my ability to be loving and happy for my husband , my son and myself – yoga, meditation, prayer, listening to others’ spiritual journeys, and writing. I like myself more when I love them well, or at least try.

This piece doesn’t feel too polished or quite finished, and I’m not sure I’ve accomplished Benjamin’s Franklin’s “write something worth reading,” but it is my baby son’s first birthday and I have to sweep before his party. I just wanted to acknowledge my gratitude for this sweet boy and my amazement at this “small year” by posting today.

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What must they be feeling?

February 9, 2013

I try to imagine what the families of the murdered Sandy Hook Elementary first graders are feeling. How are they surviving the vicious taking of their children whom they will never hold in their arms again? I stop far short of really opening my heart to the bottomless well of their pain.

When my husband and I married, my stepmother gave a toast on behalf of my late father. She said to me, his youngest daughter and someone who struggled for years to understand his love, that I would never know the depth to which my father felt my every joy and sorrow.  Indeed, I had never imagined that my Dad loved me in such a visceral way. Perhaps, then, his anger at the choices I’d made while growing up was born from the pain those choices caused me.

When I had my own child, I began to understand on a much deeper level what my stepmother meant. My baby son feels like a living, breathing part of me who is no longer physically attached to me (except when he’s nursing!) There is an energetic connection between us.   When he is away from me, a central part of me is elsewhere. My heart beats now in and outside of myself. When he cries, I ache.

At four months, when I clipped his thumb instead of his nail, and he began to wail, I sobbed as if I could feel his pain with him. “This is what she meant,” I thought.   At five months, when I had to leave him behind in the daycare room for the first time, I felt like I was leaving the core of my being behind, taking only the weeping outer shell of myself to work, wondering what I was doing.

It holds true on the joyous side as well – when my son laughs, smiles his wide-open grin, talks his sweet sounds, or beams with pride at his newfound ability to stand, my heart expands beyond measure. Being in his sunny presence is the most simple, pure joy I’ve ever known.

Our son is wholly his own, he loves his growing independence, and he is still part of me and my husband. Is this physical, emotional and spiritual connection because we (and God) created him, he grew inside me, he feeds from my breast, he snuggles his little body against mine, and rests his sleepy, curly head on our shoulders? I don’t think my Dad did much of that beyond help create me, but apparently he felt love for me at a profound level. Something I had never understood, until now. And something I thought was perhaps just true for mothers, until watching my husband with our baby boy.

When I told my mom about the thumb-clipping incident and surmised that these intense feelings for my son would lessen as he got older, she said no, they wouldn’t. Her five daughters are now in their 40’s and 50’s. They haven’t gone away. It seems that feeling another’s pain and joy as if it were our own is a lifelong part of parenthood.

Because of the tragedy of Newtown, I’ve wondered about the potential for unfathomable pain in loving my son so deeply. Will I lose him? I have friends whose children have died very young, their time together cut impossibly short. I’ve realized it could happen to anyone and could happen to me.  No amount of prayer or begging seems to make a difference. I tell myself there is nothing to do except cherish everything about him and be awake to each present moment. Let this “little Zen master” (as Jon Kabat-Zinn calls children in the home) teach me over and over about the preciousness of now, and impermanence.

The joy of being his parent is so great and the privilege of caring for his heart so tender, it is worth the horrifying risk of unimaginable heartbreak. Perhaps that is how the Sandy Hook parents are living through this nightmare, able to survive their grief because of the unforgettable sound of their children’s laughter, the physical memory of small, sweet arms wrapped around their necks, heart-filling pride at the little people their children already were at six and seven years old, and an all-encompassing love that continues.

Conflicted, but not really

December 7, 2012

In a recent Sunday morning yoga class, my teacher invited “the presence and manifestation of truth and love” into the room. I like her teaching. She speaks cleanly, with conviction, of complex ideas that inform the larger meaning of my practice and how I may take the wisdom of my body into my life.

Lately, yoga is the 90 minutes of the week when I most consciously connect with God, perhaps because I’m able to slow down enough to feel God there. Being a new mother, I believe God is ever present, but I often think my son’s care, safety and happiness are all up to my husband and me. In class, I’m reminded of a larger force for good, available to help us with this monumental task, raising a child.

You likely know that I get pretty frustrated when God is exclusively referred to as “Father” and “He,” even though I recognize it is easier to use a masculine pronoun than none at all. Ironically, when I sense God near me in yoga, a “he” appears. Jesus, in fact. He’s usually sitting in lotus about five feet in front or to the side of me. He’s quiet and waiting, being present and emanating truth and love.

Perhaps this is Jesus’ way, showing up for me even when I repeatedly push aside the possibility that he could be a real and acknowledged part of my faith. I’m shy about even saying his name for fear of being misidentified as someone who uses Jesus as an exclusionary tool to separate the “believers” from the “non.”

Is my faith in Jesus an accident of geography? Was I just trying to fit into a traditional southern city the last few years of attending church and going to a women’s Bible study group (which I loved)? Or was God working on me? Is my imagination just choosing to see Jesus instead of some other image of God because he is such a part of popular American life? Would Mohammed appear during yoga if I lived in Pakistan? Does the fact that the question arises for me at all make me less of a Christian, if indeed I am a Christian?

I don’t know exactly what “Jesus is my Lord and Savior” means. It’s such a big (and often public) statement. Is it just easy to say to fit in with a church? I wonder what depth is behind that statement for others. I’m curious about their personal “being saved” experiences. Are their lives totally devoted to Jesus?

The thing is, I do think he’s real. I just feel I’m out on the intellectual ledge saying it. Though I have a hard time crediting him out loud (especially to my family), I believe this “presence and manifestation of truth and love” filled a long-term hole in my heart and made me ready for a lasting relationship with a kind and caring man. I do think he “saved” me.

I’ve wondered about the purpose of this blog post, of telling you about my Jesus dilemma. Who cares? Shouldn’t I be spending my time thinking about my family or my work? But in this short human life, what I think about and my relationship with God both matter to me. I also feel a need to figure out what I can say with integrity about my belief in Jesus because I would like to baptize our son. I’d like to ask for God’s blessing on him and promise to raise him in a spiritual home even though I believe he is loved and protected by God whether we baptize him or not.

There are a few people whose ideas about Jesus have made me think, “Whoa, this is something I can believe in.” I am not enough of a Bible reader or a theologian to have gotten there myself. What I know on my own is that I like Jesus’ vibe. He seems calm, deep and eminently patient – unless he’s mad about a social injustice. I like and respect that about him too.

And now that we’re headed towards Christmas and I’m listening to John Denver sing about the baby boy king and his own sweet little baby boy, I think, “Why not just let this beautiful, scientifically unproven magic be a lovely and meaningful part of my life?” I’d like to think that my New York Times-reading, Volvo-driving, Starbucks-drinking, liberal self could have an honest, tender and questioning relationship with Jesus.

Maybe he keeps showing up in yoga to remind me I can have that kind of relationship. And he’ll be there whether I can say his name out loud or not.

Speechless

August 16, 2012

my sweet son at four months

Because I’ve yet to create adequate sentences or time to capture how it feels to have been entrusted with mothering this precious child, I hope you won’t mind if I borrow, for now, from Cheryl Strayed’s essay “Baby Weight”:

“My life was a private pleasure dome of self-fulfillment, of doing what I wanted to do when I felt like doing it—or not.          

Which is how I got the shock of my life when, at thirty-five, I had a baby of my own and loved him so entirely I couldn’t honestly remember what I thought my purpose had been on this earth before he came along.”

A New Way Forward

March 14, 2012

I am 37.5 weeks pregnant. As I gradually become a mother to this growing babe and soul within me, my spiritual life has both deepened inwardly and been thrown off track outwardly.

I’ve only been to church a few times in the last nine months. I miss it, yet when I go to regular services, I wish it were different. Since taking part in this new creation, I want now more than ever to hear the feminine honored in church.

When I worship in community, I want to hear “Mother”’ as much as I hear “Father.” (I believe this would make a significant difference in how women are regarded politically, in this country and around the world. But that’s a topic for another day.)

Early in pregnancy and after reading Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, I had a dream that the Mother Goddess, wearing khakis, came to visit me. In the dream I felt torn, as if I were abandoning the Christian God for the Mother. Doesn’t the all-encompassing entity I believe in include the Mother?

Some have said to me, “What a shame you can’t get past the words.” Yet the words I speak aloud in prayer or proclamation are important to me. Authenticity, especially in my relationship with God, is my lifeblood. It’s made me wonder if most others believe God is male or the words just don’t matter to them. I acknowledge that Jesus of Nazareth was a man. But beyond the span of that individual life, I don’t know. I hope Jesus Christ, the representative of God, is something entirely larger than mere male or female.

For Christmas, my brother-in-law gave me the New Zealand Prayer Book, an Anglican Book of Common Prayer that is intentionally and respectfully gender neutral. In the introduction, R.G. McCullough writes:

“We have gradually been compelled in our pilgrimage to start searching for ways to address God in language which is other than masculine and triumphal… Even new words are only a vehicle for the worship of God, so that we might reach for the things beyond the words in the language of the heart.”

My spiritual unmooring isn’t just about church liturgy. During pregnancy I’ve had to surrender control over my body to the mystery taking place inside me and to look there for God. During the first five and a half months of growing this baby, nausea kept me off my yoga mat, a sacred place that had previously helped me stay grounded and calm in my daily life. Once the nausea went away, I was able to resume a new kind of practice surrounded by 15 other round-bellied women one evening per week. Especially now that my days are quite busy preparing for my maternity leave from work, I’ve needed the permission to go within and connect with myself and with my baby.

I’ve been working on this posting for months, wondering all the while when it would say what I meant to express. I had a sense that I shouldn’t post it until after the recent WomanKind conference – a glorious, deeply meaningful day of 500 women exploring and celebrating their faith and their questions, led by wise female clergy and lay volunteers. Even while worrying about the impact of my changing spiritual places and practices, I’ve consistently felt protected by a power greater than myself and I knew that the day would hold answers for me.

Reverend Lauren Winner, Assistant Professor at Duke Divinity School and author of the beautiful Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, surmised in her closing WomanKind sermon that perhaps God was saying to us through the Exodus story, “You have already done more than enough. Now I simply want you to be with me.” Perhaps I’ve done enough in pregnancy simply by being a vessel for this Divine new creation. Perhaps now I can just be with God for the last weeks of this spiritual, physical and emotional journey.

Thankfully, when I meditate in the morning, God always shows, sits with me, and says to me, “It’s all going to be OK. I love you. I love that baby. I’m right here.”

This journey of pregnancy is almost over. Two more weeks to wait seems very long, though, now that my belly is big, my walk is slow, and my muscles ache. Yet there is still fat to add to my sweet boy’s body, cells still to develop in his brain, and tiny lungs that need more time to practice before they take their first breath of air.

Ten years ago, I took a Zen writing and painting workshop. During class, I drew an ink painting of a mother’s pregnant belly with a round melon-like baby inside. Along the curve of the belly, I inscribed a quotation from the Zen Buddhist teacher Dogen that reads “You should understand the meaning of giving birth to a child.”

I don’t yet, but I believe I’m on my way. When it comes time, I’m excited for my God-designed body to take over and birth not only a son, but a mother, a father, a family and a new way forward.

Leaning on Something Greater

July 11, 2011

This morning in church I received more than I gave. For a mere two-dollar offering and two hours of my time, I was reminded that God is in charge of what grows when we humans sow seeds. After a few weeks’ absence, I was grateful to have pulled myself away from the New York Times Style section, put on a sun dress and lip gloss, kissed my studying husband goodbye, and made it out the door by 9:53 on a Sunday morning (when I’m usually still in my PJ’s). It was good for my soul to be there. Surrounded by a lot of people I don’t know and a few smiling friends, I felt part of a community. I prayed more deeply today than I’m normally able to in church. I always blame my inability on the bright lighting, the dress clothes, and the feeling of being watched. This morning I must have needed humility and God more than I needed to hold onto my excuses for not surrendering to prayer.

As I looked around, I wondered if my fellow parishioners rely on their belief in God as much as I do while, like me, not really knowing for sure if there is a God. I wondered if they were feeling overwhelmed by the pressure of work and life “to-do’s” and the immensity of big goals they hope to accomplish. Do those who come regularly feel calmer because they believe a greater power is here, available to us, at all times?

I can’t tell if it’s from drinking too much iced green tea or if I’m really experiencing anxiety, but lately I’ve been thinking I need to find some calm inside me. The doctor of a dear friend once refused to give her anti-anxiety pills until she changed the pace of her life. Good doctor, I thought at the time. Lately, I need to follow her prescription myself. My mind and my heart feel jam-packed during the week trying to make things happen – good things, fulfilling things, just a lot of things. At night, I’ve started dreaming about work, colleagues, papers shuffling around before me, and unread emails. This is my fear: “What if I don’t get it done? What if I can’t make it happen? What if I don’t succeed?”

The thing is, I find myself thinking there is only one “it,” one version of success. Today I was reminded that perhaps God’s ultimate design is unknown to me right now. So I do my best in the sowing and then let go. For me, this kind of trust is only possible when I give myself some down time – time to be instead of do.

On weekday mornings, I often take a walk before work and listen to sermons by Rob Bell or the Brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist. It grounds me in the deeper calm and bigger picture of Love. Their prayers remind me that I’m human, not the machine I expect myself to be. And I forgive myself for not doing things as well as I wish I could.

Save for sivasana at the end of yoga, I haven’t meditated on a regular basis in quite a while. I miss connecting intimately with God through breath, presence and an open heart. This weekend, I made time and I feel a bit healed. It feels similar to coming home at the end of a stressful day and resting in my sweet, strong husband’s hug. I completely lean on him, he makes me laugh and it all feels instantly better.

I’ve preached the being/doing balance to others many times without knowing how hard it was until I was put to the test. My apologies if I’ve done that to you. I do believe it is critical for our health, happiness and effectiveness in the world to regularly lean on some greater power while we take a break. I’m practicing right beside you.

Because it’s important

June 19, 2011

I was sad to learn about the recent passing of Mr. Beverly W. “Booty” Armstrong, one of the first people I met in Richmond and someone who made a lasting impact on me. During my rounds of informational interviews, a potential employer suggested that I speak with Booty about his work with the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation – at the time, the Foundation was raising capital to renovate and expand a historic downtown theater. I asked what motivated him to become involved with the project. He replied, “Honestly, I would rather be at a football game than watching a performance, but I do this because it is important for Richmond.”

I’ll never forget that straight-shooting and honest statement about why he was doing what he was doing. As I came to know my adopted city, I found Mr. Armstrong to be among a generation of Virginia gentlemen who cared deeply about the community in which they built businesses and raised their children, and who hoped it would continue to be a city in which their grandchildren would want to live and work. (I mention the men because at the time, they were more visible in corporate leadership than equally- involved and -philanthropic women.)

While meeting with this slightly intimidating yet humor-filled man, he also said to me, “You’re quite comfortable talking with wealthy people, aren’t you?” I was taken aback, and hoped I had not been so informal as to be disrespectful. I had just moved from Aspen, where people of different socioeconomic levels mixed on a daily basis, mostly on a recreational level. Friendly, real interaction with people of wealth who cared about their community as I did had been integral to my eight years of non-profit fundraising in that town. However, there is always deference involved when asking someone to invest their hard-earned money in the common good. Even while I firmly believe that it takes many people playing different roles to create good change in the world – those who ask for funding, those who provide it, and the experts and participants who use it to make change happen – I still find it humbling when donors say yes.

I only spoke with Booty a handful of times after that exceptional first meeting, and I hadn’t seen him for several years. However, he continues to be a role model for me in his commitment to issues he considered critical for the health of this city. I suspect we had different political views, but I’ve been repeatedly surprised by the ways that we in this town can come together to work for what is important.

I do my work primarily because I care about creating equal opportunities for people who do not have them. I also do it because I feel affection for this old, traditional, southern city: a city with injuries so deep they will always be felt, and at the same time a city with promise so great it has yet to be fully realized.

Richmond, along with many other high-poverty urban areas, has problems that are too large for us to solve on our own, either as individuals or as small groups. I think these are problems that require God’s help to solve. But I also believe God wants us to give it our best shot, and at least try before depending on divine intervention to cure our ills.

During my workday, while driving from meeting to meeting, I’ve begun asking for knowledge of God’s will for our community and for God to grant us the power to carry it out. While sitting at a table with colleagues who are working towards a common goal, I sometimes ask the Holy Spirit to come into the room with us. I’m not sure it works, but I sense that my own will relaxes and I become open to our creating something greater than any of us can envision on our own.

I will miss Mr. Armstrong’s presence in this city. Though I didn’t know him well, I believe his big spirit and his example will live on as the rest of us continue to care for this place we love.

Some Kind of Naive

May 31, 2011

Please forgive the long pause I’ve taken in my writing during months of wedding planning and my busy day job. My brain was at max capacity. Our wedding was glorious, making it worth every spreadsheet created and to-do list tackled!

Since then, I’ve been wondering when the inspiration to write would return. However, three people told me yesterday they missed my blog (not counting my Mom!) That felt like a nudge from above to keep taking the risk.

This all relates, at least in mind, to the topic for today: naivety.

At my wedding reception, a college friend distributed a lighthearted and mildly embarrassing “Eleanor” quiz, and when I read the entries the next morning, I was surprised and a bit hurt to discover that one of my sisters had described me as “naive.”

According to the Free Dictionary “naive” means: 1.) Lacking worldly experience and understanding, 2.) Showing or characterized by a lack of sophistication and critical judgment.

Pretty sure that inflicting pain was not my sister’s intent, I asked her if she would explain what she meant by her choice of words. She said that I approach the world “leading with trust, rather than caution or fear” and that I am willing to learn my lessons as a result. I admit, indeed, I do and I am.

She also wrote “goofy” when the survey asked for three adjectives that describe me. Now, not many women in a wedding dress would take well to being labeled “goofy.” So again, I asked what she meant; she responded, “open, in touch with glee and humor.” Well, yes, I like to think this is true too! I love to laugh more than just about anything, and luckily I’ve married someone who makes me do so on a regular basis.

I haven’t always been this way. In my twenties, I approached life with fear instead of trust. Fear of the future. Fear of inadequacy. Fear of scarcity. Fear of others’ opinions of me. When I turned 26, I decided this was no way to live. I was wasting my precious time on Earth being sad and scared. Since then, with the help of innumerable influences, I’ve made conscious choices about how I want to live each day and how I hope my spirit will feel as a result.

This way of living is not for the faint of heart. I’ve been willing to experiment. I have royally screwed up things that have taken years to fix. I’ve embarrassed myself repeatedly and in ways that seem even more mortifying when I look back on them. Even now, when I share some of who I really am at staff meetings, public events or in my Bible study, I doubt the wisdom of doing so. Every time I send this blog to you, I wonder if I have said too much and risked some of my pride.

Many years ago when I lived in DC, I once rode my bike from Capitol Hill to a park in Alexandria. I stopped along the Potomac, stretched out on a grassy lawn and read Hugh Prather’s “Notes on Love and Courage.” In it, he writes, “People need people more than they need pride.” It struck me as truth then, and it still strikes me as truth now, though I have questioned it through the years.

That’s why I participate openly in life and love. I hope that if I do so, someone else might too. I treasure realness.

So, when I speak up, am I doing so for my own good? Or does it, could it, help someone else? Should I share my dreams out loud, risking embarrassment or pity if they don’t come true? What if I kept silent – would I be more powerful were I a private person?

When a question is posed to a group and I have an answer, should I contribute to the conversation or leave more space for others to step up? What if they don’t want to? What if their strategy is to play life closer to the chest?

I try to make conscious decisions about baring my soul, yet I don’t always think through what I might later feel about having done so. Is this naivety?

I share my thoughts, my heart and my experiences because I feel grateful and humbled when others do the same. I believe that if I give what I can of me, my experience of life will be richer. I like hearing your big questions, your hurts, your lessons learned and funny thoughts, your sweetest hopes, and your joys. I’m amazed when you invite me in to see who you really are. So that’s why I do it too.