Pardon My Portuguese: An email I will never forget

Beyond the joy of getting to see you, I can say that I sensed some unease in you. It probably carries a sense of rejection, of loneliness, and, at a fundamental level, a sense that your life has turned into something morally wrong (blah blah blah).
Pardon my Portuguese, but fuck ‘em. If someone can’t handle you as a human being because of your life, they have no business moralizing to you. No one knows what they’re doing. Really. No one has a clue, and doctrines are a mighty fine way for people to act like they do.
You’re not in control of what’s happened in your life, nor are they, and that’s okay, because no one has any idea what they’re doing as they try to make it through everyday on this planet, drinking coffee and eating food pretending they’re not on a spinning orb in a random corner of a universe that may be heading towards dissolution and there’s no guarantees of what happens after your body stops letting you drink coffee, desire other bodies drinking coffee, and think about the tunes of Paul Simon.
So, never apologize for your life, for who you are and what brought you to this point. While the loneliness and rejection from people in the Church is disconcerting, I’ve found that there’s far more people who are ready and willing to meet you as you are, as a human, than there are people telling you you’re not getting your spiritual vitamins.
Anyways, know of my love and support for you always.

* * * 

Wanted to share these wise, irreverent words, which came to me months ago in an email from a friend who I’d caught up with after years of being out of touch, in case they offer as much solace as they brought to me.

Experiencing divorce and annulment within the Catholic Church – which I have – is not an easy thing (please don’t misunderstand me: I realize that it ought not be easy).  In addition to whatever trauma and pain lead up to the decision to end an avowed relationship, the social reaction thereof is a bitter cup to drink from. Fearfulness in one’s contemporaries is masked with biting assumption, and/or uninformed judgment. It has shown me a saddening, though not surprising, side of human nature: one I am not unfamiliar with in myself.

For a long while I felt the urge to explain myself, to explain the situation, even while deeply desiring to maintain my privacy and that of my ex’s. Neither he nor I owe anyone details about what specifically happened, but I was told on one occasion that it was gravely misleading of me to publicly share about the fact of our divorce without giving exact details. For the sake of avoiding scandal, the faithful had a right to know why this had happened in my life. One woman told me she and her husband would never be able to listen to my music in quite the same way: “I’m just so shocked. This is just so painful for me to hear.” (I remember resolving in that moment to never again make someone else’s grief and misery about me. If you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything. Just sit with them, listen, be for them.)

The judgment, pity, and – at times – the smug pleasure I read in the eyes of others was sometimes more than I could patiently endure. The sweeping assumptions, the quiet withdrawal, the unfair suspicion, the sense of being fodder for gossip under the auspices of “prayer” – it was tiresome. It made my shoulders tense up and scoop forward; my body was trying to make me smaller. It made me cry in bed a few days.

But I have to say that the most cutting remarks have come from people who do not know me or the situation. They have come from people hidden behind Instagram handles who wield a so-called muscular Christianity that is sorely lacking in wisdom and compassion.

I am sad for these people. I say that with no contempt, no sarcasm. It would be a hellish prison to be so consumed by fear that one is unable to consider that his or her operating system may be fatally flawed. I operated similarly for many years of life – so I know. It is an anxiety-ridden, colorless mental space to occupy that requires one tenuously maintain rigid control over a categorical concept of no less than God, no less than grace.

In a word: suffocating.

When such a system is threatened by reality, people get uncomfortable. Deep down, beyond their tickled pride or their human curiosity, they ask – could this happen to me? Could my vocational trajectory fall apart – my life, my social circle, my community? Could God perhaps not be a vending machine? Could grace perhaps not be something I either know how to “do” or “not do”, akin to tying my shoes?

(I am so damn good at tying my shoes. Please let it be as simple as knowing how to tie my shoes. I’ve memorized the CCC. I know more Aquinas than you do.)

(You are bristling as you read this, perhaps. A faint feeling of annoyance. You think I am over-simplifying? Maybe. But I am willing to bet money that if you’re a serious Catholic, you have serious control issues.)

Those who know me, however, have spoken differently. Those who know me have met me with measured eyes, they have wept with me over the phone. They have reached out to me repeatedly. They have sent me care packages packed with wild honey and pickled green beans, they have planned to float down the river on inner tubes with me in the summer months. They have told me about their trials and sorrows, they have remembered the whole of me, they have rejoiced in the restoration of my heart and life. They have given me thoroughly honest feedback when I have pressed them for it. They have dropped a few f-bombs in anger for my sake. They have had the humility to say, “I don’t know why this has happened,” and the directness to say, “You deserve to be loved and you deserve to feel safe. Full stop.” They have given me advice – when I’ve asked for it. They have flown thousands of miles to be with me, they have let me love them, they have trusted me, they have sent me emails like the one shown here.

These are the people who have broken my heart open in the right way; the ones who have left me walking out of the rubble a more honest, confident woman than I was when I walked into it.

You know who you are. Thank you for being Christ to me.

The rest? Pardon my Portuguese.

 

 

 

Advertisements
Standard

Pleasure and Principles

This evening I was listening to a fairly popular podcast geared toward Catholic women. The host, a woman, had invited two other women onto the show as guests to discuss “love, sex, and orgasms”. Toward the end of the episode, the conversation focused in on orgasm within the married context, specifically the experience of female orgasm. A listener had written in with a question regarding what is/what isn’t appropriate when it comes to sexual pleasure from the Catholic perspective, and one of the guests answered the inquiry by first giving a definition of “woman’s orgasm.” I will share her definition here, as I remember hearing it while listening, and will then give my rebuttal, because I think her perspective is a dangerous and unhealthy one that’s worth challenging.

“What is the meaning of a woman’s orgasm? … It’s a moment for you to show your husband how wonderful he is. In the best possible situation what you want is not to have an orgasm for your own pleasure, for your own satisfaction, for your own enjoyment, but because it’s this moment when you’re showing your husband how wonderful HE is, right? It’s an affirmation for him.”

This is an oversimplification, and a problematic one, at that.

While sexuality is meant to happen within the I-Thou context, it is also a deeply experienced aspect of the subjective person – it is something that, on some profound level, is incommunicable.

Sexuality is more than one’s genitals, obviously. It is bound up within the very personality of an individual. Orgasm is more than the stimulation of said genitalia: it is a bodily, psycho-spiritual experience that occurs within a specific moment in time to a specific embodied person.

While orgasm – mutual or staggered – is affirming for a partner to see and experience (I believe it’s validating for a man when he can “please” his partner, as female orgasm is a tad more elusive than male), he is, nonetheless, a witness to his partner’s ecstasy. He cannot experience it for her, nor is he meant to. The body is impervious to true union, in this sense: while the genitals are the one set of organs that are incomplete on their own, and while sex unifies the complementary sets, nonetheless the experience of sex and orgasm are uniquely male or female, and neither can fully understand the other’s experience of the act (including the pleasure). There is a reason why, from time immemorial, tales have been spun about people who shape shift (I’m referring here to Greek mythology) so as to discover which sex experiences greater pleasure: we witness the Other’s ecstasy, and we wonder at it. We realize that we are seeing our beloved in a uniquely vulnerable moment of self-expression. It is a sexual expression, no doubt, but it belongs to them uniquely, as an individual. It is an expression, indeed, of their personality. And so to insist that the purpose of female orgasm is to affirm the male is tantamount to asserting that she, a persona incommunicabilis, is a means to an end. This flies in the face of the fundamental ethic that each person is and end unto him or herself: and so, it won’t do. 

This is not to say that a woman can’t bear her husband’s self-confidence in mind as she surrenders to the moment of intoxication brought on by his embrace and his touch – she would do well to do so. But I’d wager that a man feels plenty satisfied upon seeing the woman he loves reveal this most particular part of her personality – the wild, self-forgetful, full-to-the-brim, vibrant prism of her pleasure. What’s more, I believe it is a pleasure for a man to pleasure a woman, and vice-versa; and that, in the context of a respectful, loving relationship, there is no need to overcomplicate this matter by cerebralizing the life out of the sexual experience.

If a woman were to follow this problematic line of thought thoroughly – that female orgasm primarily exists to affirm the male – then there would be no point in her discussing with him the details of what is preferable to her, what is uncomfortable, what relaxes her, etc (though such open discussion is an essential part of a healthy, trusting relationship). Her personal preferences, in this purview, must take the backseat. Her pleasure (which, one of the guests said, is “gratuitous, anyway – we shouldn’t take it for granted”) must be at the service of his self-assessment. (It’s also worth noting that if a man were to make this same assertion – “My woman’s orgasms are all about me, yessir, and that’s how it should be” – he’d be quickly labeled as a masochistic pig, a selfish jerk, a childish loser. The heartbreaking objectification that is part and parcel of the stance would be immediately evident.)

I also want to note that, at one point, the other guest on the podcast chimed in during the discussion to say that a woman’s experience of orgasm should mirror, in some spiritual way, the creative ode that is Mary’s Magnificat (or the women of the OT).  Her point, as I understand it, was that orgasm happens more readily when a woman is fertile and this makes sense spiritually because, in her words to me, “what we see all over Scripture is conceiving a child is the most joy-inducing thing, on a natural level, that a woman can do.” This is both bizarre and untenable, not to mention, alienating  for those who cannot conceive. Further, it is predicated on a specific interpretation of Scripture that not everyone shares. 

Sex happens between the ears before it happens between the legs. A woman’s brain is her biggest sex organ: what she holds in her thoughts will bear itself out in bed. So if she is mentally obsessing over somehow imitating the Mother of God, whom the Church regards as having been a perpetual virgin (not to mention entirely without sin), or some other scriptural figure, in addition to regarding herself as a willing martyr for her husband’s satisfaction, there’s a chance her experience of sex will be painful, perhaps in more ways than one. So, too, the pressure of having to hold in mind the purported idea of the Biblical notion of the conception of a child as being the “most joy-inducing” event in her life is, while a lovely ideal, one that could easily give rise to intense cognitive dissonance for a woman who either cannot conceive (but still finds orgasm deeply pleasurable), or for a woman who conceives in a situation that is fraught with external stressors (for example, poverty, illness, etc). I myself can say that upon realizing I was pregnant with my son, I felt a complicated mixture of emotions. Joy was among the strongest, to be sure; but there were also significant feelings of fear, stress, and anxiety. Do I see this as a moral failure on my part, an inability to properly align myself with the highest good? By no means. Point being: human situations and experiences do not always lend themselves to unequivocal statements.

What you believe about sex, what you believe about pleasure, what you believe about the body – that matters. While it is fine and good to read works like Theology of the Body, Love and Responsibility, et al., and to strive to incorporate the ideals therein, I believe it is crucial to police the human tendency toward abstraction – because it has real ramifications.

To summarize:

Orgasm, and the pleasure that it brings, is something an individual experiences as an expression of their personality: it is a subjective experience that is unique to each individual. This subjective dimension ought not be dismissed via over-emphasis on the communal dimension of sex & sexuality; it ought to be regarded as part and parcel of it.

I wouldn’t say pleasure is the primary purpose of orgasm, because that’s too reductive. But I do say that pleasure is essential to it, in a way that is unique among other pleasures. Eating, for example, is indeed pleasurable, and it serves a function – to nourish the body. Female orgasm doesn’t need to happen in order for conception to occur – in a sense, it’s “useless.” That, to me, says something profound regarding the design of the female body, and what the purpose of orgasm actually is.

Certainly, it is meaningful for a partner to see it and experience it. It is a gift for them, in that sense. But also certainly, it’s incredibly fun – just because. I think this is beautiful, worth celebrating, and that it ought to be remarked on more often.

There’s a great deal more that could be said on the subject, but this will have to do for now. I just felt it was important to offer a slightly more nuanced view on the matter. I acknowledge freely that I may have misunderstood what these women were trying to say: but I will not admit that, if this is the case, it is entirely due to my inability to comprehend the complexity, orthodoxy, and theological fittingness of what they were saying (one of them felt the need to point out to me that the other has a Graduate degree in theology after telling me I have slandered both of them and misconstrued their meaning and intention). I believe their language was imprecise and that their beliefs are problematic. And so I felt the need to respond as a matter of conscience. Desiring to slander or misrepresent doesn’t enter into it.

Now, I need to make some tea.

 

Standard

An Open Letter to Everyone, Probably, From Everyone, Probably

e7f7b6939f9e5c3ee7cb019cceb334ec.jpg
[Below is an open letter to anyone regularly consumed by Schadenfreude upon learning of the misfortune or anguish of others, and/or who is regularly consumed by envy upon learning of the joy and abundance of others.]

 

Dear Sir or Madam,

Your heart appears to be turning to stone. Left unattended, this will inevitably have an adverse affect on your over-all posture.

Sincerely,

potential friends you’ve scrutinized but have not yet truly seen.

il_fullxfull.1388166570_ecqx

Standard

Lewis’ Birth.

 

Around ten pm on November 28 I took a few last pictures in the mirror, standing to the side: “For posterity.” As I laid in bed afterward, I told the baby that he could come that night – that I was ready for him, and so was my body. He responded with a few of his throbbing kicks and jolts. In my bones I felt a heavy peacefulness settle over me, and as I fell asleep I focused my mind on the visual cues I’ve been meditating on throughout pregnancy: a wide circle fashioned out of water; a flower coming into bloom; an endless crashing of waves.

Around midnight I woke up suddenly and completely. My water broke as soon as I stood up – though initially I was skeptical that it was just that, despite the amount. I’d already told myself it wasn’t likely my water would break at home – it doesn’t happen nearly as often as they make it out to be in the movies, believe it or not, replete with elated screams and shots of the dad running out the door with a pair of shoes tied around his head in confusion. But the heavy feeling in my bones – an imperturbable, preternatural sense of “knowing” – was far more certain that any lingering questions I had about just what the fluid was indicating.

The breaking of the membranes was accompanied by contractions. After timing them for awhile I went downstairs to make myself something to eat, sensing that I only had a brief window of time to get something in my stomach before things became too intense. The cats followed me down, screaming and leaping around as usual; I fixed them their breakfast (saying it like that makes it sound as though I made them crumpets and jam) and then got myself some toast topped with peanut butter. Mid-way through the toast I had a contraction that got my attention – it was markedly more intense – and finishing the food wasn’t enjoyable, but I knew I’d need the stamina so I forced it down.

After that I phoned my doula Mary to let her know what was happening. We both agreed to go ahead with the plan that I labor at home for as long as I felt comfortable doing so, and after that to notify the midwives and hospital. We hung up, and I felt a mixture of reassured and excited: so this was really it.

I drew a bath for myself and got a glass of wine. The warm water was such a welcome relief; I hadn’t quite registered just how painful the waves (i.e., the contractions: semantics mean a great deal to me, so throughout labor I referred to the contractions in my mind as “waves”: hearing the very word contraction elicits a bodily response in me, making me more prone to tense up) were becoming.

By this point, time as I’ve ever known it was beginning to cease, and I entered a very instinctual place mentally. I had the presence of mind to ask K to put Audrey Assad’s Fortunate Fall album on, and in between waves I could still talk with him somewhat casually. But eventually the waves progressed to the point that I couldn’t speak through them, nor could I focus my eyes on anything in particular: it was like the eyes of my body had been replaced by a deeper set of eyes, as odd as that sounds; and my visual way of understanding and apprehending data was replaced entirely by some other mechanism. My focus went entirely to the waves as they came over my body. They were so all-consuming that distracting myself from them wasn’t even an option. I began to tell myself with each wave, “This is one contraction I will never have to have again,” “Each wave brings my son closer to me,” “I’m ready to meet you, my son.” I reminded myself again and again that I could trust my body and trust the process – that in this moment, I was more connected with the natural flow of things than possibly ever before. I kept my jaw slack and my mouth in a circle, and found that making low mantra-like sounds – “oh, oh, oh” or “sh, sh, sh” helped me move through each time.

3c5bfbea1fc39f18d2b4b04def77c3ee

There were moments when the pain was so great that I wasn’t able to keep my voice low and steady. At one point, after getting out of the tub, I went into the closet to grab something to wear, and a wave came over me that made me fall to the ground. I don’t remember feeling panicked at this; more just surprised at the force of the experience, surprised at just how pervasive it was – like every cell of my body was being engaged in it. I let myself cry out in pain, figuring that expressing that now was better than suppressing it or pretending – even with myself – that it was less painful than it truly was.

I’ve been trying to find words to describe what the pain of labor is like, and have been finding that, as with the topic of time, it is decidedly difficult to describe. Perhaps that has something to do with its relationship to time, on a cosmic scale. (My inner Jimminy is berating me, now, saying that if I were to try to probe too much into that line of thought I’d undoubtedly end up sounding like a total roob.) But take that for what you will.

The best I can describe it is to say that the pain of labor is the most focused, all-consuming, overwhelming, terrible, progressive, creative, sensational, and personal pain I’ve experienced. It was “being done unto me.”

I went into the bedroom after getting dressed and climbed into bed, thinking maybe I could find a position to labor in comfortably (by this point my thoughts, as I mentioned earlier, were becoming less clear). As soon as a wave began, I dropped onto the floor and turned so I could cling to the side of the bed; with my arms outstretched in front of me across the mattress and my head bowed, I moaned through until it passed. K came in then, sat on the bed and gripped my hands as the next wave came on; I found that having a resisting force to pull against helped me relax throughout my body, even as it was being racked by the contraction. (In Australian birthing centers, it’s common for birth-rooms to be equipped with thick ropes hung from the ceiling: this allows women to support themselves and work with an opposing force while bearing down in the squatting position – which, from a gravitational stand-point, makes a great deal of sense when pushing out a baby.)

I have no idea how long this part of the process lasted. Eventually I knew we shouldn’t stay at home any more, and I told K it was time to head out. On the way out the door I forgot my toothbrush, but I did remember to pour some food for the cats (who were, once again, leaping about and screaming excitedly. I tell you, they knew something was happening).

The drive to the hospital was a bit tortuous. K drove as fast as he could while I writhed in the passenger seat. The contractions were very strong at this point, and I couldn’t force myself to relax through them because of how uncomfortable the car was (sitting at a 90 degree angle during labor isn’t jolly fun). I couldn’t bear to be touched and felt like my body was being torched from the inside-out with each wave that came: I was sweating profusely beneath my puffy and fleece, but in too much pain to get them off. Each contraction was accompanied with a wall of intense nausea, and I wondered if I would vomit. I thought, at the time, that maybe it was the wine that was making me feel nauseated – ridiculous thing to wonder, given the context of the situation; but I didn’t realize then as I do now that I was in active labor. Additionally I felt the urge to bear down, which alarmed me: I knew what I was feeling was my son, pressuring against my body, on his way into the world.

The drive felt neither short nor long. It just was, and being secondary to the event of labor, I hardly registered it.

After a quick check-in I was wheeled into a tiny room where they took my blood pressure and checked how far dilated I was. What a relief to hear I was already at 7 centimeters! Had it been less than that – say, something totally depressing like 2 centimeters – I’m not sure if my spirit would have stayed strong. The pain was great and the waves were unrelenting at this point – maybe 30-60 seconds apart – and in between each one, my body convulsed and shook involuntarily. “It’s hormones,” they told me, “Very natural part of the labor process.” Needless to say, I’d been in labor for only a few hours and was already feeling exhausted, both from the mental effort of relaxing through each onslaught and from the physical demand of forcing a human through my body.

qghulqyh3ne-david-cohen

Jen, my other doula, came in shortly thereafter. Her joyful demeanor and familiar face helped calm me into a rhythm, although I couldn’t speak much at the time. The nurse took my blood pressure several times, as she was alarmed at how high it was; Jen told me later that her first assessment upon coming in was that my contractions were very intense indeed, and she wondered what kind of night lay ahead.

Soon enough it was time to go to the birth room. It was dimly lit and everyone spoke in soft, confident tones – except for one brusque nurse who, by the end of her shift, had seared herself forever in my memory as a mortal enemy (not really. But kind of). She was just trying to do her job, which required her to make constant check-ups on my and the baby’s vitals – but her manner in doing these tasks was harsh. I could feel my body tense up a great deal whenever she was near – my focus would weaken, I’d go rigid with irritation, and the pains would become less embraceable. We were all relieved when she went off-duty and took her grump elsewhere.

The emotional setting in which a woman labors makes an enormous difference on how things go down. Each person present gives off certain emotional “vibes” (no, I am not a chakra advocate) that consciously or subconsciously affect the woman’s ability to relax. Giving birth is a tremendously vulnerable experience – maybe the most – and, while it has the potential to be perhaps the most empowering event in a woman’s life, it also has the potential to be deeply traumatizing, depending on a number of factors. Some of those factors, medically speaking, are outside of the mother’s and birth team’s control – but others, such as the emotional and psychological climate of the room, can be planned for in advance. This was a huge part of the reason why I knew I wanted a doula. Even before I was married, let alone engaged, I asked my cousin Mary to be present at my first birth: not only is she an intimate friend who knows me well, but she’s also a mother and experienced birth-coach. She knows my history, my joys, my struggles, and my hopes. We share values and beliefs regarding life, death, birth, and most things in between. And – perhaps most crucial of all – she is also a woman, and has an understanding that goes beyond words and procedure. I was lucky to have Mary’s sister-in-law Jen present during my labor, as well – Mary suggested she come in case she (Mary) got tired out during my labor as a result of being nine months pregnant herself. Fortunately my labor didn’t go very long, so they were both able to be present throughout the duration.

After getting positioned on the narrow bed and laboring for a little while, Jen drew a bath for me. It was a relief to step in – especially that first moment of lowering down into the warm water. I was comforted being in a smaller space with two trusted women. We put my birth playlist on and, in between waves, they discussed how things were progressing. Sometimes my mind cleared enough during the brief pauses between contractions for me to enter in to the conversation: mostly I just listened or went inward, gathering up strength for the next wave.

1479951220_large-image_klimt-mother-and-child-twins-lg

 The one song I can clearly remember hearing was “How Can I Keep From Singing” – in particular, this line: My life goes on in endless song above earth’s lamentation. I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation. Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear its music ringing. It finds an echo in my soul: how can I keep from singing? In that one moment I felt total peace, a peace beyond understanding. A wave was gripping my body and I surrendered to it completely. I sang the words aloud as I swayed back and forth with the sensation of the contraction: a slow build, a peak, a falling away. I thought of everything I’ve been trying to surrender in my life this past year – so many enormous, painful things – and I let my body express that surrender, because that is what it wanted to do – it’s what it needed to do.  “Don’t be afraid to go into that pain,” Jen would say, quietly. If my eyebrows began to knit at the start of a wave, she would reach out and touch her fingers to my head, saying, “let your face relax.” Often being given just a simple instruction – such as relaxing my facial muscles – buoyed my spirits enough to face the wave with the right mixture of determination and acceptance. Relax my face – I can do that. Relax my body. I can do that. Bear this boy. I can do that. Don’t fight my body. I can do that.

When I was a child, I came up with a coping mechanism for physical pain. I found that, if I thought of it with an attitude of curiosity and openness, it didn’t cause me mental anguish. It just “was”: it was a sensation to experience, a sensation that would eventually fade. This probably sounds odd, especially when you consider it occuring in a child – I remember describing this mental process to my mother, and she definitely looked bewildered – but it’s served me well through life. While I was walking the Camino, during the most physically taxing moments I would envision the pain as “someone” I could “invite in for tea” – basically, I assessed that, even though I was in great pain, I wasn’t in any danger; and I didn’t need to be afraid of the feeling. I could rework my thoughts regarding the pain such that, in a sense, I had a certain agency in the matter – I was choosing it.

Don’t mistake me: I’m not a fan of pain. I don’t go looking for it. If one of my arteries were severed in some unfortunate event, I wouldn’t be calmly saying to the sensations coursing through my brain and body, “Care for a cup of Red Rose, imminent death? Come in for a visit! Tell me about yourself!” But I have found that it pays off to be objective – as objective as possible, any way – about what kind of pain I’m experiencing in my body. This step of assessing pain and the danger it presents – or lack thereof – has prevented a lot of unnecessary suffering.

There’s a difference between pain and suffering. The difference is the presence of anguish – that is, mental, spiritual, and emotional distress. Childbirth, for as painful as it is, is a natural process. It is innate to my physiognomy. Maintaining the perspective that the pains of childbearing are ultimately creative, not destructive (barring medical emergencies and other health complications that can occur when things don’t go as they ought) was one of the biggest pieces in achieving a satisfying labor.

After awhile in the tub, the urge to bear down became very strong. Under the midwife’s direction I changed positions so that I was more directly aligned with the contractions: I leaned forward with my arms resting on the edge of the tub. Mercy – the pain was great. But I felt safe and loved.

As intense as labor was at this point, the room was filled with peace. Looking back now, it reminds me of a time I was hiking in the Adirondacks. I was standing on the bank of a wide, tumultuous river. The water was moving with incredible speed and ferocity. It looked dangerous, mighty, and much more powerful than I. Yet it was exactly as it should be, and in that, it possessed some kind of restfulness. As I watched it flow by, I felt a tinge of sadness, almost like envy but without the weightiness: how I wished to know my part in all of it, to move with that same confidence and serenity, unafraid of the gifts God has given – unafraid of letting his power crash its way through my life.

I have often felt that way when I’m in nature. I’ve never seen a tree going through an existential crisis –  It must be nice to be so rooted, physically and metaphysically. But God became man, not a tree; so I’d rather take the tension.

Mary and Jen sat on either side of the bathtub, and the midwife, Sarah, sat at the head of the tub, unobtrusively keeping an eye on my face and body language as I breathed through the waves. All three of them abided with me as I worked to bring my son into the world. It was one of the most reverent experiences of my life – an experience of sisterhood and community unlike any other.

“I want to push,” I declared at one point. I was afraid Sarah would tell me to wait, but she seemed confident I was at that point. She checked my dilation and said it was a go: “Push whenever you want to.” I felt a rush of adrenaline at those words, hardly believing that things had progressed to this point. To think that my little boy would be in my arms so soon – that I was almost there…

The pushing took about two hours. My sense of time was totally nonexistent through this portion of labor: each time I looked at the clock I was shocked to see how much time had passed. With every wave I pushed as hard as I could. My whole body was soaked in sweat from the effort, and I could feel my hair curling around my face as heat radiated from my body. My lips and throat were as dry as the Gobi desert, but Jen stood by my side and offered me little sips of water and gatorade after each contraction had passed. The smallest gestures of love can be acts of great magnitude, depending on how you look at it.

There were moments during this phase when the weariness I felt went beyond the limits of my brain. I would look to Mary and simply say, “I am so tired. I am so, so tired.” It was a mercy that my sense of time was nonexistent: I wasn’t able to consider the thought of not continuing. I was totally in the moment, and when the moment found me exhausted and spent, I simply remarked on it. Mary’s response was unwaveringly the same message of confidence and love: “You are tired. You’re working really hard and you’re doing a wonderful job. You’re so strong, Alanna. Soon you’ll see your son.” Other times, if I had a moment of fear, I would look to Mary and she would simply look back with complete understanding. As helpful as the midwife’s instructions were – her style was more task-oriented and challenging – the most helpful thing of all was that look of silent compassion from Mary or Jen.

d8bfe4995a4bf4f9b5d417c3504093d2

It seemed that nothing was happening – that all I’d been doing was pushing with little to no progress. I had a moment of wondering if my child was anywhere even close to making his way out of my body, and felt frustrated and confused because the sensation of needing to bear down was so intense and immediate. Was there even a baby to be had? If so, why wasn’t he moving? “Tell it to me straight,” I said, finally, “Is he actually getting any closer to coming out or am I just about to have a huge shit?” I was half-joking, and meant to make them laugh; but I was also serious and a bit desperate. They did indeed laugh and said, “Feel.” I reached down and felt something that was definitely not me. “That’s your son’s head. He has a thick head of hair, by the way.” Something about feeling my child for the first time, and learning about a distinct feature of his – a thick head of dark hair – brought me a feeling of deep elation and courage. My resolve was strengthened again, and I went back to pushing with greater determination.

But still, he wasn’t able to move past the pubic bone – things were just too tight. I won’t go into details regarding the methods they tried to get him through, but let’s just say it was by far the most excruciating part. Finally, when his little heart was slowing from the effort and the contractions had begun to wear off (I was pushing out of sheer grit for the final forty-five minutes or so) the midwife informed me they were going to proceed with an episiotomy. For those unfamiliar with the term, this means they get some scissors and, um, use them. Frankly I was relieved when she finally said this, because I’d figured it would come to that point anyway, based on my genes and physique. I was so bruised by this point that I actually didn’t feel anything except for a popping sensation, almost like when you’ve fastened a button just a tad too loose and the fabric suddenly becomes un-done and your shirt flies open. Within moments after that, with a couple more pushes, my son was set free. 

I don’t know how to describe the feeling of a baby leaving your body. It is unlike anything else. The physical sensation is tied intimately with the psychological reaction – relief, disbelief, wonder, elation, complete & utter accomplishment. It almost felt like a water balloon bursting – a water balloon filled with a small person.

He’s here! He’s here! Here is your son!

Your beautiful boy!

I heard his first cry – a watery, determined, bewildered cry. They laid him on my chest and covered us with warm blankets. I held him and kissed him, comforted him – “It’s done now; you’ve made it. You’re here with mama.”

It was 7:41 am on Nov. 29.

(PS: I’ve noticed an alarming amount of vitriol and dogmatism surrounding the topic of childbirth. In particular, there seems to be a trend that encourages people to perceive “shaming” when there isn’t any: for example, I’ve read a handful of blogs from women who chose to get epidurals and who insist that every other woman is judging them unfairly because of it. In my experience, I’ve never actually come across any woman giving her account of natural labor at the expense or belittlement of women who have chosen differently, whether for medical or personal reasons. The wonder of carrying a little burgeoning life inside one’s body is astounding: and it’s something every mother has experienced. The wonder of meeting your child for the first time is also a shared experience, regardless of what steps were taken during labor to achieve that first sweet encounter. That is the thing that ought to be celebrated and rejoiced in: the bringing forth of new life, the start of a new chapter. Why do we waste our time and our hearts on something as petty as who’s “more badass” as a woman? This is apples and oranges, here. It just doesn’t matter. Let’s just build one another up, and bite our tongues unless we have good things to say, things that will really help one another.)

How Can I Keep From Singing

Standard

To be Loved, To be Free: Mothers & Sons

I am carrying a boy beneath my heart.

In coming to realize more and more that I am responsible for another life – in realizing that I will be his first experience of “love,” for better and for worse – I want to empty my heart and my body of every knot of unforgiveness, resentment, and hatred. Or, at least, I want to want that.

I will be my boy’s first experience of home, of love, of beauty, of woman. His first place of repose and acceptance. My feelings toward every man of significance in my life will some how, some way color my interactions with my son – if not at first, then eventually, in myriad idiosyncratic ways. Now is the time to examine these feelings, conclusions, and convictions; to beg to know what is true in my concept of Man and what is false or harmful.

Surely, sometimes the truth is painful: men hurt women, women hurt men, all of us thrash around like the bull in a china shop. But however painful the truth of Man & Woman may be, the truth is not destructive, stifling, or calculating. It is clear-eyed, expansive, red-blooded, agile. It is not a friend of the fickle subterfuge that sits in a corner, arms crossed possessively over an increasingly frozen heart.

What is more tragic than a mother with a cold, distant heart? What is more monstrous than a mother with an insatiable, possessive heart?

Not one of us can untangle ourselves from our mother, not one of us can fathom her influence as “the starting point.” Of this I am keenly aware. 

Woman! All she has ever wanted is to be loved and set free. What devastating cages we begin to build when we are small, from the first moment we see indifference, lust, or amusement in the eyes of a man. We adhere with devotion to a pattern of gridlock from such a young age, without ever stopping to ask, “But is it true?” We thwart every honest attempt that comes our way, subconsciously accepting the bars (that is, the disappointment) that will surely follow every expression of “love”, to the point of retreating into the cell of our own making: only to then throw ourselves at the four walls surrounding us, wildly seeking release and demanding freedom, accusing everyone standing with out of forcing us in.

wyethhenrietta

I feel my son moving within me now, as I write. What he knows of me at this point is simply water, warmth, safety, and life. My body knows, better than my mind, how to embrace the reality of “loving and setting free.” My body has quietly and constantly knit and nourished this little boy, cradling him without question. And one day soon, my body will set him free, doing what it is built to do, without pausing to consider “the options.” Without pausing to consider, “But is it true?” My body knows better than to build a fence around love made flesh.

To be loved and set free. Over and over and over again. This is what we all want, men and women alike. This is what we crave throughout life, from the moment we leave the gates of her body to the moment we rest in the earth. To be loved, so as to be set free. And we look to her to show us how, long before we recognize we exist apart from her.

It takes all of my courage to make this prayer to God – but even in offering it, I sense him answering it.

God…Father. Help me to live in the sole conviction that I am loved: that I am set free. Pump the red, hot blood of compassion into all that is frozen in me. Dismantle the pattern, the gridlock, the walls. Let me sway in your love like the green tendrils that sway in the sea – anchored but agile.

Let me teach my son that to be loved is to be set free. Whatever that means, again and again and again: to be loved, to be set free, season by season and age after age, until he is laid to rest in the heart of the world.

hawkingwyeth

Standard

Golly Gee, I’m Glad I Saw That Sex Scene

I admire authors and artists who are able to convey the full, gritty gamut of human experience without falling prey to either gross moralism or gratuitousness. Tolstoy, Greene, Chekov, Leonard Cohen (sans some of his erotic poetry), Andrew Wyeth, John Steinbeck, Flannery O’Connor, etc possessed an incredible talent for maximum expressiveness with the minimum of means. Hemingway, when describing a sexual encounter under the stars between a man and a woman in “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, simply wrote, “and they were both there, time having stopped; and he felt the earth move out and away from under them.” You understand what he’s saying, here. Your mind takes that information in, appreciates the lyricism and frankness of it, and appreciates the role of sex in human experience. There is no need for obscene imagery to convey the weightiness of the encounter; in fact, Hemingway’s self-control and economy of language imply a sense of respect and reverence toward the intellect and imagination of his reader; as well as a true mastery of his craft.

(CRUCIALLY IMPORTANT DEVIATION/RELEVANT ASIDE: This is also part of the reason why Alien is such a freakin great movie: it’s what you don’t see that utterly devastates your nerves and draws you into the story. The subterranean terror of a hidden presence speaks volumes within the viewer without needing much help from gimmicks.)

The human mind flourishes when it is challenged by subtlety, nuance, hiddenness, implication, and suggestion. It deteriorates when it is exposed to sheer vulgarity. Those who say that the explicit sex scenes in GoT serve to tell the story (or are easy to overlook and forgive) are apparently forgetting that the creators of the show are surely shrewd enough to know what kind of culture we live in. This is a culture where having the wrapping violently torn off is celebrated; a culture with a voracious appetite for porn; a culture unfriendly to women. A culture with a palate so over-salted by sex and sensation that it no longer knows how to distinguish true artistry from a peep-show. Shrewd, yes; imaginative, no.

Explicit sex scenes – many of which display disorder – are not necessary to carry a narrative; nor are they neutral. They have an intention – and I doubt that intention is to plunge the viewer into a heightened state of awareness. Though I’m not a fan of Nietzsche’s philosophy, I hear wisdom in his line, “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” You become what you ingest. No one is invincible to that. The very volume and vehemence of the protestations of those who staunchly defend the “artistry” of pornography – wherever it may show up – belies a myopic attachment that in and of itself might need some attention.

To quote Roger Scruton: “The camera lets the world in. The temptation is to encourage a kind of ‘reality addiction’ in the viewer, to focus on aspects of real life that grip or excite us, regardless of their dramatic meaning. Genuine art also entertains us; but it does so by creating a distance between us and the scenes it portrays: a distance sufficient to engender disinterested sympathy for the characters, rather than the vicarious emotions of our own.”

In Greek tragedies, famous sculptures throughout Europe (think the Rape of Proserpina), and countless paintings and tales, actions are not real but rather represented, and however realistic and unsettling they may be, they avoid becoming the stuff of fantasy. The purpose isn’t to make death, rape, murder, etc less weighty than it is, but to keep it within the realm of our own imaginations. With torture porn and every other sub-genre of porn, the interest shifts from interest in the embodied person to interest in the body itself. Pornography obsesses over a fantasy interest, whereas erotic art addresses an interest of the imagination. Pornographic sex is explicit and depersonalized, while eroticism invites us into the subjectivity of another person, relying on implication and suggestion rather than explicit display.

Now, George R. R. Martin treated these subjects with greater sensitivity in his books, and it goes without saying that the man has created a rich story-line that’s unique and enduring. I’m not out to ridicule anyone or cast aspersions on him as an author. The purpose of this post is to examine the visual medium of television and how it depicts sex and all things related, and why it’s worth examining who we become as consumers of the show.

Erotic art – art that uses veiled terms, creating a distance so as to allow rumination on the person who is the subject of the piece – is a triumph that frustrates the voyeur’s intention to objectify, consume, and dominate the object of his or her fantasy. And honey, we all got that creepy old Peepin’ Tom inside of us, to some degree or another; and caring about other persons as persons is a life-long work that doesn’t come instinctually. Our daily diet either gives that interior Peeping Tom a leg-up to glance through windows that are better left alone, or else it starves him and weakens him. 

Before you get your underwear in a twist, let me say that this isn’t about religion or how such-and-such might “tarnish your soul” – that’s not the conversation I’m looking to start, here, cause that’s just a turn-off. I’m as sick as the rest of you with the snarky, sanctimonious blog-posts about how people who watch GoT are spineless tools with no moral compass, or geeks who ought to be shoved into lockers. This is, rather, about what’s art and what’s not: and from where I stand, porn isn’t art. It lacks value and sneers at our innate need to be challenged and confronted by that which isn’t readily apparent; to be vexed by the possibility of significance beyond nerve-endings.

Sex and sexuality are hugely valuable: I’m a big fan. They ought to be expressed artistically because they play an enormous role in who we are as persons. But I doubt anyone will look back fondly on all the explicit sex scenes they saw during their lifetime as they lay dying (which could be any day) and say, “Gee, that really helped me figure myself out as a person.”

 

Standard

This Fleshly Faith.

You can’t crucify a projection anymore than you can marry one.

There’s nothing like human love – ordinary, corrupt, insatiable, feckless human love – to remind one of the sheer folly and honesty of the Incarnate God. A man born into poverty, available to poverty: and not the poverty described by Dickens’ with removed, romantic flourish, but rather the poverty of the pervert, the adulterer, the atheist, the pornographer, the drunkard, the handicapped, the forgotten, the unremarkable… A man who knows this fragile frame, these tired limbs, that ravaged heart, those beleaguered eyes – and shows no partiality. A man, solid, enfleshed, warm with virile strength – unafraid of what we call grotesque, unafraid of the bloodiness of it all, taking it unto himself as only the most honest of realists could do. There is no escape hatch, no pre-nup agreement, no measuring life out “in teaspoons.”

And as I stand in a dark church, candles sending lapping light against the eerie statues with their sightless eyes, with the familiar form stretched across those cruel beams above the altar, I am unavoidably confronted again with the claims this man made. I look at the lines of the body (a form I have seen and cherished in the way of a wife, a form I have felt), at the brutal nails and the blood, the gently drooping head bound in thorns…and I think, “Wish-fulfillment? What kind of wish would take this form? What kind of dream would find its satiation in this anguish?”

Who, but You, who truly love would affirm the lovability beneath the shadows, the blood, the dying? Who but You who truly love would come in such a bodily way – knowing that this makes such sense to me – in order that I might know what it means to be truly alive? Who but You who truly love would refuse to shy away from our inveterate nakedness by becoming utterly naked Yourself? Who but You who truly love would give us exactly what we ask for: and then call to us through the rubble of our attained desires?

The epiclesis. The bite of wood against my knees. The consecration. Elevation. “Domine meus et Deus meus.” It is too real for me to comprehend, too solid for me to touch: but I believe (help my unbelief).

“I made myself available to those who did not ask for me; I appeared to those who did not look for me. I said, ‘Here I am! Here I am!’ to a nation that did not invoke my name.” Isaiah 65:1

Standard