This Is My Body

Have I got a recommendation for y’all.
A few weeks ago I was given the opportunity to read an upcoming book from Upper Room Books, This Is My Body: Embracing The Messiness of Faith and Motherhood by Hannah E. Shanks.
Oh my goodness. That’s only all I ever seem to talk about.
In her book, Big Magic, Liz Gilbert shares her theory on Creativity, who comes along and taps you on the shoulder with an idea. If you won’t or can’t give life to the idea, Creativity moves along to another soul who is willing or able to make the Creative Idea come into the world. When I read This Is My Body, I thought of this theory immediately, as Hannah Shanks has put to the page so many of the prayers and conversations my mama friends and I have been having. This Is My Body is the absolute book of my heart, and of so many other mama/theologian hearts. It’s the story of my past two and a half years, of so much of coming into motherhood. It’s a book as universal and exceptional as the experience of motherhood itself.
Hannah is a brave theologian. She wades into nitty-gritty, concrete, gross and glorious embodiment. Incarnational theology, ironically, is so often approached as an abstraction. But grounded in the minutia of physical changes in pregnancy and birth, this Christology can’t help but keep its skin and blood, its placenta and colostrum and sweat and mucus. This courage reminds me to muster my own, to remember that I, too–my life and motherhood and ministry and theological reflection–I am united with Jesus in all my bodiliness. Her theology roams beyond the initial topic of motherhood, dealing with fundamental feminist questions of belonging and equality, asking, “How, in a religion where God incarnate was physically borne, supported, and raised by a woman, did we come to a place where women were seen as secondary to men in carrying the gospel?”
And Hannah is a brave mama. She names conflicting emotions and the gut-wrenching mind/body connection of pregnancy pains and fears, postpartum struggles, and the mind-numbing exhaustion of life with a newborn. This courage reminds me that I, too, felt those things and hid them, worried about my solitude in my worry and ambivalence. The connections between pregnancy and postpartum with prayer practice and faith also connected with my experience. To be sure, breastfeeding all night felt like a vigil of hours, but that prayer was offered with unapologetic tiredness and sometimes, frustration. Hannah describes with so much grace and honesty how all of these feelings and experiences are bound up together.
Reading this, I found myself thrown into body memories, brought to tears and belly aches in recollection of the body immediacy of pregnancy, of labor and delivery, of nursing. My body was just so loud to me then, so demanding and strong. What’s more, as I read, I suddenly became aware of what I no longer know about God, aware of insights about Eucharist, even about myself and my son that are no longer known and lived in my flesh. That knowledge of “this is my body,” so acute, so sacred and earthy and bloody, has faded. I knew because my body knew. Now, “this is my body” means something else. The book left me with an invitation to discern what this life stage and embodiment, so different that the last, might have to teach me about God with us.
Thoughtful of her audience, Hannah Shanks acknowledges her social location and particularity as a cisgendered and reproductively able-bodied woman. She acknowledges the limits of her story. But a story told well, in its particularity, is a story that points beyond its teller to connect with many. She writes, “The parts of myself that I don’t want to reconcile aren’t left out of God’s radical work…Turns out, being made one with Christ means being made one with ourselves, too.” This good, hard news of grace and bodiliness and integration into God is good, hard news for us all, not just for the mamas. This book casts a vision for all of us to have space to say, “This is my body.”
The book will be out from Upper Room in May (preorder here) and I’ll be clamoring about it on facebook and instagram with links to buy. Get it for yourselves, for baby shower gifts, for your midwife, for anyone who likes to talk about bodies. There’s even a discussion guide in the back if you decide to go wild and make it a book club. Hmm… that’s a thought.

Having Kids and Selling Out

This week I’ve been listening to “How to Survive the End of the World,” a podcast by Autumn Brown and adrienne maree brown. It’s fantastic. Check it out.

In listening to their conversations, particularly about child- birthing and loss and raising, I realized that I’ve been struggling with my identity as a mom and someone who cares about and works for justice in the world.

Having S. corresponded with a shift in my work and life. I was starting seminary with a hefty commute, my partner’s organizing job was getting way more demanding, and a baby adds a new level of financial and emotional need. I had finished my time at Vanderbilt, where opportunities to plug into social movements abound, and where, as a student, I had the flexibility to give time and attention to those movements.

The emotionally intensive facilitation work I really got into before and during pregnancy went to the back burner. For the most part, we can only afford to have childcare for hours during which we are working or at school, for me).

Social movement spaces aren’t always conducive to young families — it’s a lot of long days and evening meetings for a baby or toddler — and I regularly choose consistent nap time and slow evenings and dinners for my son over, well, just about any other option. Especially at the beginning, his sleeping and eating was so easily throw off track, and a bad afternoon nap meant lots of night waking, lots of exhaustion.

But is that just a list of excuses? Have I sold out?

There’s obviously part of me that thinks so, or I wouldn’t be writing this. But Autumn and adrienne have been reminding me that the small stabilities and consistencies for my kid are also a form of movement work. I chose the part time hourly cubicle job that pays the bills and frees up my heart and mind, so I can replenish those emotional resources to respond to a toddler with patience and re-read that bell hooks picture book 17 times. That is the work of dismantling the patriarchy, for him and also in myself.

I’ve internalized the devaluation of (traditionally women’s) labor that focuses on the home and child, even within a framework that explicitly values the feminized and vulnerable, that claims liberation for folks to be able to do exactly this work: raise a child with peace and connection, take time to tend emotional intelligence and body and family.

The movement work will go on. There will still be groups to facilitate. There will be books to write. There will be gardens to plant and protests to join and classes to teach and hospital visits to make — all those works I have loved to do and will love to do again. Not now doesn’t mean never.

And now I can choose to remember and recenter the truth that this little guy — and the small moments like this morning, drawing circles and singing “peace like a river” while putting on his shoes — he is my daily work of justice and freedom.

EEK!

In my graduate studies and practice as a minister, I teach spiritual practices that connect the Christian tradition of scripture, prayer, and worship to emotional intelligence, embodiment, and mindfulness. As a mom, I hope to ground my young son’s faith in this as well.

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Eek! Said Amy by L.J. Zimmerman and Charles Long is one of the best tools I have found for this. The story explores body and emotions with a boy named Devon and Amy, his amygdala. They’re a great team, most of the time, but Amy sometimes gets in “red alert!” and Devon struggles with very big fear at some small things like a little bug, social anxiety, or stepping on a sidewalk crack. These worries are relatable for children, and so are the hopeful practices offered: a talk with mom, a simple breathing meditation, and some Bible verses to memorize and remember when things are scary.

I read this with my son who’s 20 months old, and while it’s aimed at older children, he was engaged with the book. He requested, “Amy?” “Emotions?” long after we put the book away. My five year old nephew connected more deeply, wondering if he has an amygdala, too, and practicing deep breaths full of God’s love along with Devon. This is a book to grow into, with layers of emotional intelligence, body awareness, and prayer for different developmental stages.

Also, it’s funny. The pictures and dialogue are clever, and I didn’t hate reading it five times in a row for a toddler. And let’s be real, mamas — that matters, too.

You can order Eek! Said Amy on Amazon or from Abingdon Press this week! I will definitely be buying a few copies for friends and family, and keep on revisiting it with my child. With the terrible twos around the corner, we can probably both use some deep breaths of God’s love and a gentle reminder that God can help us be brave through big emotions.

 

MLK Monday

Good morning! This is a real quick one, because my organizer husband is due on Jefferson St. in Nashville in an hour, representing his work on housing and transit at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day events and march, and I’ve got to get this toddler dressed and bundled up and down there as well.

I wanted to share again this resource I developed last year for families and churches to talk with children about Civil Rights, Martin Luther King Jr., and why we march today. Talk to your kids! It’s more important than ever for us to cultivate tools and intelligence around racial equality. Have more hope for their capacity to build a better world, than  fear for them in the one we’ve got. If you have questions or want reflect back on your experience today, comments are open!

Struggle, balance, vocation, etc.

Can we chat for just a sec about the mama/minister struggle? (If you aren’t up for a struggle ramble this morning, move along and peace be with you: I’ll post a sermon tomorrow!)

I was scheduled to preach at my sponsoring parish yesterday, something that is always equal parts joy and challenge. I love preaching, and I love going home, and I love that St. Luke’s welcomes me to the pulpit a few times a year, but getting to Cleveland is hard sometimes — either to take S solo, or for the organizer hubs to make space in his hectic work to solo parent at home or come along with us.

Then, on Saturday, S woke up from his afternoon nap sick. Like, grouchy, feverish, and not his normal self. I called the pediatrician, but they couldn’t get us in until Sunday morning. Thank God for a weekend appointment at all! I took the appointment, Austin came home early from a community event, and I loaded up and got on the road to my parents’ house to stay over before getting up bright and early to make to the 8:00 Rite I.

Y’all. Sunday was so great.

It was a sermon that was a “good enough” sermon, a sermon written with intention and prayer, but also a lot of time constraints and without the benefit of the Saturday afternoon polish.

But! But! The service was one of those when you get to a peaceful Spirit place right before the processional; when your body actually lets go of the shaky tight nervousness; when the presiding priest just casually reminds everyone that we’re here and Jesus is here and so it’s all good, really, and you believe it; when God is speaking in you and through your work but also in spite of you. I even had a meaningful conversation about theology and discipleship during coffee hour — basically the bigfoot sighting of parish ministry.

Afterward, I got in the car and checked my phone, called my partner to see how things were going.

Y’all. Sunday was so bad. Double-ear-infection-hundred-degree-fever-crying-all-night bad. I broke the speed limit so, so hard all the way back up I-24. My poor boys, one so sick and helpless, and the other handling the hardest kind of solo parenting and not calling to tell me, so that I could have that good ministry morning.

Sometimes it feels like you can’t win — and I know this is all working mamas, not just the pastor ones. Usually the ache of time away isn’t so obvious: so guilt ridden, so geographically separated, so feverish.

I was finishing up my MDiv at Vanderbilt when I was pregnant, and met weekly for a seminar group to debrief our field placements. Bless those folks, they got a much bigger dose of pregnancy angst than ministerial reflection from me. I remember saying something about knowing that I would have to protect my child from my vocation–saying no to a work that will sometimes take everything you offer and more–and protect my vocation from my child–in a culture that still has many voices denouncing my call as a woman and is more comfortable with a mama than a lady priest (much less a combo of the two).

I had no idea. No idea. 

I didn’t realize how distressing and complicated that would be, what it would mean to do that dual protecting.

Thankfully, I also didn’t realize what an ally I have in my partner, and how quickly I’d learn grace for myself when I can’t nail it.

So, readers — especially my priests, pastors, preachers, parents — when has this happened to you? What mantra and faith got you through? How do you have grace for yourself when you get the balance wrong? Who are your allies who get you through intact?

 

P.S. Baby is on the mend. Our pediatrician is great. Coffee is great. So is Elmo’s World in a time of trial.

P.P.S. In case this needs saying, I use essential oils on my kid to support his health. Sometimes I also use antibiotics and ibuprofen. Plants are good. Science is good. You do you, mamas.

Crash and Burn (or: Stop and Listen)

Well, it’s been crickets here at #seminarymama for a good long while.

Do you remember that post last summer when I talked about hitting my limit and letting go of some stuff, saying no to say yes?

That was cute.

Turns out I needed to learn that some more, and then some more again. Here’s the short story: I left my job as a children and family minister, missed a whole bunch of deadlines for school, got sick a bunch of times, and questioned just about everything in my life. I’m an achiever, and have been going turbo with graduate school, seminary, multiple jobs, internships, clinical chaplaincy, pregnancy and new motherhood, always working more than full time on emotionally intense, serious responsibility for about 8 years. No surprise, really. Turbo overachieving plate spinning works…until it doesn’t any more.

You know what I’m talking about? In recovery circles, this is what you call “unmanageable.”

I’m hoping to be done with the crash and burn for now, and am finding a lot more space for enjoying my son and partner, getting caught up on seminary work, and discerning what might be ahead next year. I got a Passion Planner for some organization, and I block out time for nothing.

And you know what’s just astonishing? There are all these things I had been missing and didn’t even know it. I have not been able to say “yes” to so many things that I love and value, and it’s like the minute I let the crash happen, I was reminded of what I hadn’t been making space for.

There’s space to make a lot more pancakes with S., even on weekdays sometimes, and read all the board books 15 times in a row without worrying about the other stuff I’m not getting done. There’s space to tell an overwhelmed mama friend to just come on over and have a tea and let the babies play while we talk. There’s space to journal and walk, to catch up with friends who live far away on the phone, to worship and pray in new ways. There’s space to rest as well as to stretch my soul and skills in ways I hadn’t considered.

To my surprise, an opportunity to say yes emerged in the fall and has sprung up in surprising ways. A series of conversations with my friend Michael led to the creation of Keep Watch with Me, the advent reader for watching and waiting and peacemaking. We decided to make the devotional that we had been waiting for on themes pertinent to the liturgical season and key in the struggles of our lives in the last while. We’ve been humbled and thrilled and freaked out to be joined in this endeavor by two dozen incredible contributing peacemakers and 5000 readers worldwide.

I’ll be posting today’s advent reflection, by yours truly, in a second post here, but in the meantime, if this piques your interest, you can sign up to receive daily reflections here, and join the “Keeping Watch Together” online community of folks reflecting and connecting here.

Weaned

Last year I had the joy of hearing Rowan Williams speak at my seminary. My partner had introduced me to his work years ago, and it was incredible to hear him in person, lecturing on Bonhoeffer’s Christology. After the first lecture, a listener posed a question to Williams about the sadism of the incarnation, God sending God’s child to pain, and how we can contend with the portrayal of divine willingness to suffer. Williams owned that this was a weak place in his theology, and moved on to address other questions. I was sitting with S slung on my chest, next to a friend and mentor who is a priest and mama. I grabbed her arm tight and whispered, “A mother can answer that question!”

What else could I do but split my mind, spirit, and body wide open and send him out into the world? What else could I do but feed him, again and again, sometimes easily and sometimes painfully? What else could I have done? And I would–and God willing, hope to–do it again in an instant.

How much more must our Mother in Heaven know that nothing else could be done but to send a piece of herself out into the world, to nourish and watch him grow, to then feed us, her people, in Christ, again and again?

The oils used at the very end of pregnancy to support healthy labor and delivery are the same ones that can be used to slow milk supply. Over the last couple of months I would lay on my side at night, soaked in peppermint and clary sage. Drifting off to sleep I would remember the discomfort of those last heavy pregnancy days and feel empty and light as the herbs slowly work to untether our last bodily lifeline.

We were lucky. Nursing was good for us. After a rough first few weeks and a tongue-tie procedure we were on track. S was a good eater and I had good supply. I nourished him and we bonded easily, deeply. I was only apart from him one or two days a week in his first year. The connection was the same and different each time. It changed from the early weeks where I did so much of the work, to the end where the toothy toddler would crawl over and sign for milk, pulling on the hem of my shirt, practically helping himself. First every two hours, then three, then four, then morning and evening, then once in the afternoon when we reunited from work and daycare.

We were lucky, too, that weaning was good for us. We were both ready. He wasn’t distressed, and I wasn’t engorged or infected. Nursing just faded away.

I’m a firm believer that some knowledge is embodied–cellular, behavioral, and elusively unspeakable. Those wild pregnancy cravings that were supplying nuanced nutrients to grow a body; the milk coming in and letting down on its own accord when it was time for S to eat; and those first days, nursing through lingering contractions as my womb worked to resume its size and place in the pelvis; my body waking up, feet hitting the floor and moving to his crib before he had finished the first cry. All unconscious, unarticulated. A growing and refining but fundamentally innate knowing.

What have I been knowing in my body about the heart of God, about incarnation, about Eucharist, that is now unknown?