Friday, October 30, 2009

In Defense of Organized Religion and Organization in General

This post may have nothing to do with pregnancy or childbirth. I'm not sure yet. But I have something to say and I might as well say it here.

I have plenty of friends who say that they love my spirituality, but they don't like organized religion, or say they believe in God, but they don't think organized religion is a good thing.

I have been thinking about one friend in particular who I dearly love. Let's call this person a him and let's call him Jack. I had this epiphany a little while ago that he is actually a member of an organized non-religion. I say non-religion because the doctrine they teach is not about God, more an amalgamation of native American rituals and some modern philosopher--I'm not really sure--I'm looking into it right now so that I am not ignorant about something important to him, but here is what I do know: I know that they have weekly meetings (arranged by geographical area)--he doesn't always go, but he goes when he's in need, when he feels weak or down; they also have weekend retreats in the mountains every 6 months or so; they have a hierarchy of leadership; and I have even seen Jack try to get others he loves to join his group because, he says, it would be "very powerful" for them. That is about as close to proselyting as anything.

I can see much good that has come from his association or membership in this group, and so I ask you, would this good have been possible without organization? Without the organization part of it, what would his Men's group be but a bunch of people camping alone. How does anyone accomplish a mission without organization and without unity?

Let's take the Red Cross as an example. Have you ever heard anyone say, "I believe in helping people, but I don't believe in organized helping people"? Religion has to do with God and in our case, Jesus Christ. Organization has to do with unity, which helps us be bigger and better then just ourselves.

It's true that one person can make a difference, but, as Joseph Smith taught, it is unity that brings the greatest blessings: “The greatest temporal and spiritual blessings which always flow from faithfulness and concerted effort, never attended individual exertion or enterprise. The history of all past ages abundantly attests this fact. …" (Teachings of the Living Prophets: Joseph Smith, Chapter 23.)

And the great effort that our organization is concerned with is, at its simplest, sharing the peace and joy that is the pure love of Christ--the kind of love that mourns with those that mourn, comforts those that stand in need of comfort, clothes the naked, and feeds the hungry. But that's not all. To truly emulate Christ is to heal a wound we did not inflict, to restore what we did not take and to pay a debt we did not incur. This is a beautiful goal, that we all fall short of every day. And that's why we go to church weekly. To be reminded of that purpose and reminded that we are beloved Children of God, no matter how far short we fall.

There are still the people who will say that "millions of lives have been taken in the name of organized religion..." To them I can only ask: Have you ever heard of "a front"? When the mafia wants to conduct nefarious business, they set up an innocent front company--like school buses, or a bakery. The devil is not stupid. Dressing evil in church clothing is not a new trick. Plenty of evil people hide out in religion. That's why Christ taught us to beware of false prophets and priestcraft (people who preach to get gain). I think the fruit metaphor is still the one to live by. By the fruits ye shall know them.

Of course, I can't say any of this to Jack, because it will just seem argumentative and I've learned that one can't debate anyone into a testimony of anything--even the benefits of organization. The only way his heart will change is if it is touched by the spirit. And when it is, he may be surprised to find that organized religion is alright. I'll love him the same then as I do now.

I'm not sure who said this, but I wrote it down during Stake Conference. I think it is beautiful and is all about what we are all about.

"If God is pure love, then the closer we get to him, the more profoundly we can experience love."

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

True Love

I have been thinking a lot about this poem by Sharon Olds.

True Love

In the middle of the night, when we get up
after making love, we look at each other in
complete friendship, we know so fully
what the other has been doing. Bound to each other
like mountaineers coming down from a mountain,
bound with the tie of the delivery-room,
we wander down the hall to the bathroom, I can
hardly walk, I wobble through the granular
shadowless air, I know where you are
with my eyes closed, we are bound to each other
with huge invisible threads, our sexes
muted, exhausted, crushed, the whole
body a sex -- surely this
is the most blessed time of my life,
our children asleep in their beds, each fate
like a vein of abiding-mineral
not discovered yet. I sit
on the toilet in the night, you are somewhere in the room,
I open the window and snow has fallen in a
steep drift, against the pane, I
look up, into it,
a wall of cold crystals, silent
and glistening, I quietly call to you
and you come and hold my hand and I say
I cannot see beyond it, I cannot see beyond it.

I realized that what makes this poem so beautiful, what makes it more than just a poem about two people getting up to pee after sex, is that she and her true love are bound to each other. In fact she uses the word bound three times. Bound like mountaineers. Mountain climbing is dangerous. You are tied with rope but also with a trust. Life or death is involved, and I don't think there is any greater trust than to trust someone with your life.

There is also the tie of the delivery room--their children, asleep in their beds. If you've ever had to be separated overnight from your little ones, you know that there is no greater peace than having them home, asleep and accounted for.

And then there is sex that binds them. What a wonderful feeling to barely be able to walk through the dark to the bathroom. I hope you all know it.

To me, this poem illustrates God's plan of happiness. It is God's plan that men and women be bound to each other and that they have families, "that they may have joy and rejoicing in their posterity."

I don't know if Sharon Olds knows God's plan of happiness, but it is working in her life. In the exact middle of the poem is the line "surely this is the most blessed time of my life."


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Curse of Eve

When I was pregnant I took a Hebrew Class. I had been wanting to learn another language, but never thought of Hebrew because of the different alphabet. But when I heard that a man in our stake would be teaching it through the Institute, I felt inspired to go.

I was actually the best in the class. I have a gift for languages. I know this. But I was surprised that even with my forgetful pregnant brain it came so easily for me. I haven't gone beyond beginning Hebrew since then because well, I had a baby and haven't had time to take any classes. But it was good for me. I can read it and recognize it being spoken, although my understanding and conversation skills are limited to phrases like: "Are you a teacher?" "No, I am a student" and "The world is my laboratory." This gets me in good with lots of Jews in L.A. That and "can I use your bathtub?" and "what a beautiful violin."

My goal someday is to read the Bible in its original Hebrew. But I'm getting way off course here. I was talking about Eve.

Lots of Christians believe that childbirth is supposed to be painful. That it has been since the dawn of time and that it is because of the curse of Eve. Didn't God curse her for eating the fruit by saying he would increase her suffering in childbirth?

Well, actually no. God didn't say that. Those are the words translators chose when translating the Bible later, at a time when the conditions surrounding childbirth were particularly awful. The Hebrew word etzev is translated to mean "labor, toil and work." It is used 16 times in the King James version of the Bible, but when it referred to childbirth, some translators interpreted it to mean "pain, sorrow, anguish or pangs."

And if you read Genesis in the original Hebrew, God never curses Eve exclusively. He used the same wording when speaking to Adam as to Eve.

Yes they would work hard in the real world outside the garden. They would have to labor and sweat and toil. And all of those words apply to childbirth--thus, the term labor is appropriate. But no mention is made of pain in any of the original Hebrew writings of the prophets. The Curse of Eve idea originated some time after 200 A.D. when contempt for women and women healers like midwives led to some pretty bad conditions for women. That is quite a long story which I won't cover here. But Marie Mongan does a good job with the history of Childbirth in her book Hypnobirthing, if you want to check it out.

I find this a fascinating example of how one word, translated incorrectly can effect the state of women so much and become embedded in modern Christian thinking.

That's why I love being part of a religion that encourages us to find things out for ourselves. Personal revelation. It's where it's at. I think this is the biggest misconception of Mormons and adherents to any religion--is that we are automatons, blindly following. But clearly, some people are--because that misconception didn't come from nowhere. Let this be a call to all you who consider yourselves thinking women. If you haven't questioned and at least examined your options for birthing besides the one where the doctor tells you what to do, now is the time.

I hear to many regrets about first births from people who just didn't know there were other options. Think of this birth as your only birth. And consult with the Lord. He cares how and where you will bring his spirit into this world.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Having a Baby and Ballroom Dancing

This weekend I traveled to go to the wedding reception of a dear friend and saw a person I hadn't seen in years. He was one of the first friends I made when I moved to New York City in 1999. Ethan is a friendly guy, and was probably the first friend of many people that have lived in the city. We were never b.f.f., but since the Mormon world is small, we have kept a loose association over the years. This was the first time I had seen him since I had my daughter. We talked a little and we danced (more about this later).

When we talked about old times he said, "You're much softer now."

"What do you mean?" I said, even though I knew.

"You were always nice when I knew you in New York. But you had a harder edge to you." He looked at me as if to ask, what happened?

I smiled and pointed at my daughter. "It was her," I said. "It was a complete transformation."

I hate to sum up the last four intense transformative years of my life in one sentence, but it was the best I could do during the break between songs.

In truth, it was many things. Part of my "hard edge" before becoming a mother had to do with my having lost my mother at age eleven. I was a survivor, a fighter, and for the most part, since then I had to take care of myself. While not all women experience the instant love of motherhood, there seems to be some kind of magic for a motherless woman when she becomes a mother. Hope Edelman interviewed dozens of Motherless Mothers in her book of that title and many of them say that becoming a mother filled a huge hole in their being and healed them a way they thought impossible. I definitely experienced that.

Another reason for the softening is that I am a little more God-broken now. But that, too is because of her. It was because of her that when my husband left at 12 weeks pregnant and I had to chose between becoming bitter or becoming better, I chose better.

I gave my will--no small prize--to God, and have had many of my sharp edges smoothed away or hacked off.

It's tough to break old habits, though, and I remember at one point, a few years ago, I wrote the word SURRENDER on note cards and taped them all over my house.

When the notes fell down, I came up with another reminder. I started ballroom dancing. Someone in the stake was offering free classes Wednesday nights to whoever showed up. I decided that I would go for two reasons. I enjoy simple pleasures, and watching my skirt twirl is one of them. Also, I thought it might be a good exercise in surrender.

I danced years ago in college, and back then I thought I was pretty good, but looking back, I don't think I was a great partner. I knew all the steps, but I was terrible at following. I was always trying to second guess or lead my partner. This time, I focused more on being led and not on the steps. That meant, if I got an unskilled partner, I just let it play out. Instead of resisting his mistakes and making him feel stupid, I just followed him and we created our own interesting dance.

If you haven't ever ballroom danced, the thing you need to know about being led is that it is not the same as being pushed around. You have to have tension in your arms. You have to push back a little. If you have no tension, then the space between you and your partner collapses. You become mush together and he can't lead you. On the other hand, if you push back too much, it is just a struggle. There can only be one leader, and she has to trust him. It's a good metaphor for marriage, too.

Back to the wedding reception. Ethan happens to be really into ballroom dancing in the last few years, and though it has been a year since I went to class and I don't remember any moves, I do remember how to follow. He was pleasantly surprised to find that I could dance and after 2 or 3 dances in a row, in which I think he was testing me, he said, "Wow, you follow perfectly." I just laughed. I didn't tell him it was because I had a baby, or that I am God-broken now. I just closed my eyes and let Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" wash over me and let him twirl me till it was time to go home.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Visitation

I was looking around online for something cool to put in the background on my blog and became sucked in to the vortex that is Google images. You would not believe how many different ways Mary's visit to Elizabeth has been portrayed. I was moved to see so many artists had attempted it. Some of them are stunning. I have much more to say about these two women, but for now, I thought I'd share some of the images. If any of them have been touched by the hand of God, I think it might be the first sculpture below. Breathtaking.

Way Better Than the Best

This week I received a birth story from a woman named Martha. With her permission I am posting a part of it here.

"I can’t dive into the details of Sienna’s birth without first telling you about my spiritual journey into natural childbirth. Stay with me here, I won’t get too fruity on you. It all began in about my sixth month of pregnancy when I was at a baby shower for two ladies in the ward. I was the only soon-to-be new mom and the others all had little kids. Someone asked me, “So, are you going to get the epidural?” I said, “Pshhh. Yes. That seems like a no-brainer.” The others laughed and agreed."

"About a week later I started reading The Birth Book by William and Martha Sears as recommended to me by my friend Brooke. When she handed it to me months earlier, I thought, “What’s there to know about birth? You just go to the hospital and the doctor takes care of everything.” Three pages into the book, I had an epiphany: I wanted to have a natural childbirth. No one was more surprised than me to discover this. Martha Sears was recounting each birth story of her seven kids. Her last six were without medication and the way she talked about those births in contrast to her first, where the doctor definitely “took care” of everything, was something else. It moved me spiritually and emotionally. I was on my lunch break reading the book and remember walking back to the office with tears in my eyes.

Martha has two heart diseases, and her OBGYN and cardiologist did not understand her desire to have a natural birth. She says,

"Dr. M and Dr. G had no stats or studies to back it up, but their main concern was the risk natural childbirth would pose to my heart. I could never really get to the bottom of it, but I was CERTAIN natural childbirth would pose no extra risk to my heart. I felt just the opposite, actually."
It is no coincidence to me that this story found it's way to me right after listening to Elder Holland's General Conference address Safety For the Soul, in which he speaks passionately about latter day dangers. "Think of the heart as the figurative center of our faith, the poetic location of our loyalties and our values; then consider Jesus’s declaration that in the last days “men’s hearts [shall fail] them." (Luke 21:26 and D&C 45:26)

Martha's heart did not fail her, in fact, I think her heart being just right is what saved her.

"Needless to say, this was a time of great confusion for me. Here I was, reading about this concept [natural childbirth] that no medical doctor I talked to could wrap their head around. I thought doctors were supposed to have all the answers and help me do what was in the best interest of my body. I felt so betrayed by the medical establishment and resented every appointment I was scheduled for. The final month was the worst because they made me have extra fetal monitoring twice a week which made me anxious and worried because each visit threatened induction because my amniotic fluid levels were all over the map. I knew being induced would put all hopes of a natural childbirth out of my grasp so I prayed more fervently than ever to be spared from induction."

"I found great comfort in Ether chapter 12. The more I learned about faith, the more I knew it was my answer. Faith precedes miracles and I needed a major miracle. Faith brought about the impossible, like moving mountains, and I needed a mountain MOVED. Each time after fetal testing, I was sent home. Each time I KNEW it was a miracle. I still didn’t know what the end would bring, but I just kept my faith fine-tuned and told God what I wanted and left it up to Him."
Martha's birth ended up being, in her words, "way better than the best." Someday soon, you can read the whole story in the book.

Thanks for sharing your stories. Keep them coming.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

"The main thing is to keep the Main Thing the main thing."

I heard this brilliant advice last night in a Saturday session of Stake Conference. The Main Thing of course, being the big eternal picture.

My Stake President quoted C.S. Lewis on man's Godly potential. C.S. Lewis is on of the people I would like to have tea with in heaven. If there is milk and honey and herbal tea in heaven, and time for such things.

"It is a serious thing," says Lewis, "to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no 'ordinary' people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations -- these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whome we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit -- immortal horrors or everlasting splendours." --from The Weight of Glory.

They were speaking primarily about marriage, but as I have gestation and birth on the brain, I kept thinking of babies and kids and I wanted to share a similar quote by Ina May Gaskin's husband Stephen, which is published at the beginning of Spiritual Midwifery.

"When a child is born, the entire Universe has to shift and make room. Another entity capable of free will, and therefore capable of becoming God, has been born. In that way, every child's birth is exactly like the birth of a world teacher. Every child born is a living Buddha. Some of them only get to be a living Buddha for a moment, because nobody believes it. Nobody knows it, and they get treated like they're dumb. Babies are not dumb. Just because they don't speak English doesn't mean they are dumb. A newborn infant is just as intelligent as you are. When you're relating with her, you should consider that you are relating with a very intelligent being who just doesn't speak your language yet. And you shouldn't do anything gross to her before she learns to speak to you."

What a beautiful thing to be reminded. If you're pregnant, there are a great many things (mostly physical) that conspire to slow you down. I learned to be grateful for this, because it removed everything from my focus but the one important task--to grow and nurture a baby. Once that baby is out, however, and your babymoon is over, things speed up again.

After I put her to bed is when I need to write, blog, pack her lunch, read a million books, call some people and maybe do laundry. But, as my friend Diedre says, there are things and then there is the Thing itself. The Thing itself, at this time in my life, is motherhood, and motherhood happens in moments. The things I have to do can wait. I will only have a chance to embrace this moment once, and so I lay heartbeat to heartbeat with her a little longer, and feel the soft breath of her eyelashes against my chest.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Availing Ourselves of the Priesthood

Avail is a great word. To avail one's self of something literally means: to use to one's advantage.

A few years ago my friend Kim told me that she had been married 8 years and had only asked for one blessing from her husband--when she was pregnant. I was shocked because I know her husband. He is a good man, and incidentally, I have had two very powerful blessings through him last year.

I thought that may be the problem was Kim. She's a beautiful return missionary who I know has a testimony of the priesthood, but she grew up with a non-member father. I thought maybe that was it--she have never learned how to ask.

But I had a realization last Sunday when I was talking to a friend at church about her week. Melissa is a professional woman who always appears to have it together, but she told me about how she felt very overwhelmed the week before. Overwhelm is often the state of a woman's existence in these times, but the look in her eyes told me it was something more. I don't know why, but I asked if she had gotten a blessing.

She said no. She was annoyed at her husband, who didn't understand all that she was going through, so she hadn't.

"Oh," I said.

Then I had this moment of clarity. I realized that because I have not had the priesthood in my home I have had to ask for blessings from other men, men I don't have to live with and be annoyed and otherwise effected by their imperfections. It is difficult for me to ask someone else's husband to come and give me a blessing--and between me and my daughter it seems like we need one every month. I always thought it would be easier when I had a priesthood holder in my home, but now I see that it might actually be harder.

The priesthood is perfect. It is God's power to men on earth. But men are not perfect, and this has kept me from asking for a blessing from certain people I judge as insensitive or who might feel put out. But it hasn't stopped me from calling someone else I judged as more perfect--like my old home teacher. (I remember being shocked one day to hear his wife say something about his annoying habits. I had forgotten that he was a real human, and a dude.)

So my questions is, how do we avail ourselves of the priesthood, knowing what we know about the men in our lives who hold it? Our husbands, fathers, brothers, friends. We may know on an intellectual level that it is not that man blessing us--it is God--but as with most things spiritual, intellect is not all that is involved. There are feelings, and if you are pregnant or postpartum, there are hormones.

One thought I have as I write this is that there is power in a routine. When I write every day at the same time, my body and mind are already getting ready before I sit down. I don't waste half an hour with false starts and procrastination. It is the same with my daily scripture study. So perhaps a monthly date with your priesthood holder is a good thing (especially while you are pregnant). It occurs to me that this is why home teachers are supposed to visit at least once a month, because the Lord wants the priesthood in every home at least once a month.

Of course, it is great to have the faith and humility to ask for a blessing when you feel you need one, but let's face it, many of us, despite great faith, won't ask--and it is those of us with this problem, who may need most to hear the words of God directly to us. A regular blessing date between you and your priesthood holder might eliminate some of the resistance to asking, give him time to prepare and be present, and bring you closer together.

I had some of the most powerful blessing while I was pregnant, and I know it was because there were two of us. I once had terrible anxiety thinking that my daughter might inherit some mental illnesses from her father's side. My home teachers came and blessed me, and in the blessing God promised that my daughter would be born "totally healthy and perfectly normal in every way." And I had no doubt after that that she would be. And she is.

Striking a Balance

I have been struggling with the difference between writing a book and writing a blog. I know how to write a book, but I have resisted blogging for a long time for various good reasons. The first is because as a writer, I don't believe in giving away my writing when I could publish it somewhere that will pay me (if we keep giving it away, no one will ever pay us) and that will make my resume longer, thus enticing other publishers to take a chance on me. There are also weird copyright issues I still haven't figured out (like the fine print on Blogger--do they own the rights to anything I post?) There is also the privacy issue. I'm a private person, and blogging seems like a way invite voyeurism. For some reason, I feel fine about publishing the most deeply personal essays in a national magazine or a book, but putting it on the web is altogether different and uncomfortable to me. Perhaps because there is no barrier to entry. In order to read my essay in print, a person has to hold a copy of the magazine or book in their hands, and they are unlikely to come across it while looking for something unrelated, say, porn.

But as I have been finding my way around the blogosphere I can see the appeal of an honest, personal record, with discretion, of course. It is the appeal of personal stories that is the reason that half of my birth book is made up of the personal birth stories of LDS women. It also has some good and researched writing by me, of course, but the reason I have included so many personal stories is because stories have the power to change us. They can lift us up out of apathy or despair. They make us see what is possible and inspire us to be better.

So, friends, be patient with my growth as a blogger as I try to find my balance between my own personal story, and sharing important information which I hope will inspire and change at least one woman's experience.

Monday, October 12, 2009

I Need a Massage

After their rub down.

When mine was just a wee babe, some friend and I did a baby massage class. Infant massage has all kinds of benefits for both the baby and caregiver, including relaxation, reduced pain, which means less colic, and great bonding. Also, the techniques I learned work on grown ups too, so one day I will teach her how to massage me. Though she's not an infant anymore, my little one will still occasionally ask me to give her the "poop massage" (also known as "the I Love You" massage, which is the abdominal massage that gets things going in the right direction.) Some sources will tell you it's okay to use baby massage oil or lotion, but we used edible oils like olive oil or vegetable oil. A little messier, but there is no worry about it being toxic.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Destiny of Your Child

There is an old tale from India about a queen who became pregnant. In their tradition they believe the soul enters the womb on the 120th day of pregnancy. On the one hundred and twenty fifth day of her pregnancy she became suddenly and violently ill. She was told by an oracle that she had attracted the soul of a demon who would wreak havoc on the kingdom and her life. Distraught, the queen went to her spiritual guide and asked if there was anything she could do or if she was doomed by karma.

Her teacher told her: “All is not lost. From this day forward, meditate on the name of god, and go out among your people and serve them selflessly, and practice the teachings of the ancient ways.”

So the queen went into the streets where she cooked and cleaned and fed and served the poor. According to legend, when her baby finally came, he came out peacefully smiling. The baby grew up to be not a demon but a saint.

It is possible for women to change or uplift the destiny of their child. And the womb is the place where this happens. I knew this on an intuitive level when I was pregnant, and was not surprised to find a scientific explanation several years later. In Louann Brizendine, M.D.’s book The Female Brain, she explains that the “nervous system environment” that a child (especially a girl) absorbs during pregnancy and her first two years becomes a view of reality that will affect her for the rest of her life. The scientific term for this is epigenetic imprinting. If a mother is highly stressed, or conversely, totally calm, her baby girl incorporates this into her nervous system. “This isn’t about what’s learned cognitively—it’s about what is absorbed by the cellular microcircuitry at the neurological level,” says Brizendine. (p. 20)

Studies in mammals show that this early stressed vs. calm imprinting can be passed down for generations. This may explain why some children born in times of stress have dramatically different outlooks than their siblings.

Therefore, the message is this: Take a deep breath. All that matters is right here, right now.

As you go plan your pregnancy journey, your birth, and the events that you can control in the first years of your child’s life, it is important to minimize stress, and provide a calm, supportive environment. To do this, you do not need money or luxury, merely consciousness. I have interviewed mothers whose situation could not have been worse during their pregnancy (war, extreme poverty, etc.) but they chose to be calm. Being calm is difficult, daily work. Some days you may fail—but only some. This is life.

You already know many ways to reduce stress: meditation, prayer, priesthood blessings, studying the scriptures and other uplifting books, attending the temple, calming herbal remedies, a soothing bath with candles, yoga, a massage, singing, dancing, long walks, and loosing yourself in the service of others. Since none of these are contraindicated, I recommend doing as many as you feel good doing. Take it easy.


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