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.

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.

 

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?

This week in Lent

Matthew 11:28–30
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

From A Room Called Remember by Frederick Buechner
To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken. But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless. Even in the wilderness — especially in the wilderness — you shall love [God].

I recently told a friend, “Nothing will make you pray to Jesus like having a baby.” And it’s true. Not always in some profound way, but often like “Dear God make him sleep” and “Lord have mercy, I don’t know if I can keep nursing him with all these teeth,” and “Keep me kind, keep me sane.”

In these weeks of teething, rocky sleep, and small but strong opinions, parenthood is breaking me, sapping me of what I thought I had to offer, what I knew, what version of self there was before, what capacities for accomplishment were wrapped up in my life and work. I’m deep down in my bones and deep down in my spirit tired. I haven’t done laundry, much less checked in with God beyond those stretched-thin mama pleas for present grace.

In the above passages, two of this week’s readings for Wednesday Eucharist, there was so much deep acceptance for those stretched-thin mama pleas for present grace. The difference between my tired efforts and the efforts of God in me is blurred, brokenness and wholeness together all at once. In the Ash Wednesday liturgy we are reminded, “to dust you shall return,” and I am dust and dirt, all broken up and low, and at once rich and full of life, more promising and complex than meets the eye, nurturing the next things in myself and in S.

Tomorrow…

My baby boy has been this side of the cervix for 201 days. Probably 100 days of this I have talked to him about being kind; about using words in conflict; about how it’s ok to be afraid or sad. I tell him that want him to feel all of his feelings but that he’ll need to learn to express them in healthy and responsible ways. I tell him that his dad and I are doing our best and that’s the most anyone can do in this world. I tell him that he has been unjustly given power and he will have to learn how to give it away, and I tell him that we baptized him because he has also been given grace, which is very different, and also needs to be given away.
Tomorrow I might cry and wonder why and how, but then I will tell that little white man all these things again, and then we will march.

The child, the child, sleeping in the night…

Last advent, I was a few months pregnant and consistently a weepy mess about anticipating birth and the fine line (if there is a line at all) between the immanent and transcendent.

This year, the wonder of my sweet babe at Christmastime has been undercut by the anguish of teething, final exams and papers, and one head cold after another cycling around the family. Between shopping for gifts, work gatherings, and our diocesan clergy conference, the spirit of Advent has been elusive, hiding behind the irritation and mundane.

Then this past Sunday, S. got to be the baby Jesus for the St. Augustine’s Christmas pageant. He was the fattest snaggle tooth Christ child you ever did see. I wept with pride and I will hunt down every single picture that was snapped of the precious scene. Poor pastor’s kid.

IMG_4783.JPGBut the real magic of it all happened on Saturday, when we headed over to pageant rehearsal. We were running late, and when we got to the chapel, the full nativity scene was on display, sans costumes, and the narrators were running lines from the lecterns. As we walked down the center aisle, one of the directors said, “Look everybody, baby Jesus is here!” And all those kids stopped and turned with audible “Oooooh”s and a few “Hooray”s. Mary and Joseph held out their arms for him and marveled over his toes, his fuzzy head, his Santa jammies. After the run through, there was a short line of 9 or 10 year olds who wanted turns holding him. The smaller kids wanted to see and touch him too, with the parental admonishments of “Gentle!” or “Just one finger!” “Don’t touch his face!”

In childhood, there’s a beautiful blurring of factual and mythical. The different kinds of true and real that we more efficiently categorize as adults are somehow spun together without contradiction. Suddenly S. is not just Miss Claire’s baby that we see every week (although, of course, he is). He is the baby Jesus (although, of course, he isn’t). And this incarnation stops them in their tracks, trumping the glamour of the King Herod costume and the hilarity of the three-person camel suit.

The complete awe and focused attention of a stage full of children snapped me back to attention. Not attention to my own child, really, but to the icon of Christ he can be. S. points to all the complicated mess of incarnation in all the sweetness and frustration of babyhood. Jesus arrives in ice storms and head colds, with diaper rash and reflux and sore gums, calling our attention to the presence of God in the inconvenient. 

Term Papers

In conclusion, S., aged five months and one week, has grown two teeth and suffered his first cold over the last week and a half. This has resulted in an incredibly grouchy attitude to the detriment of my schemas of meaning-making and resulted in a sense of alienation from, rather than connection to, my larger community. He wants to nurse every hour and a half, refuses to be consoled with anyone but me, but yells at me just the same. We could, in fact, be construed as the parishioners who are brought into unwilling Eucharistic solidarity through the breaking of a body (his) and the ingesting of a body (mine).

Incidentally, it takes approximately forty-five minutes to: settle him into an adequately distracting activity; use the restroom; fix a cup of coffee; answer a text message; settle him into a new adequately distracting activity; and sit down at the computer. This hour and a half circuit routine has extended into the nighttime hours. My sense of belonging to larger community constructed framework of time has also been demolished. I am trapped in a cycle that eliminates any semblance of futurity.

I am in need of a profoundly embodied and communal sacramental grace to move me through the transformation of this theodicy, so it is in the spirit of theological praxis that I request that you waive the additionally required 5 pages for this essay.

Copaiba Vitality for S., Clarity for Mama.