Sometimes life hurts. Sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes we dive deeply into darkness. Sometimes we fall.
Sometimes our lives line up so perfectly we can’t help but sense the hand of the divine helping us clear our paths and point us toward wonder. Other times we plan and work, make vision boards, bullet journal, dream journal, gratitude journal, think positive, dream big, and repeat affirmations until we finally take in the joyful chest-inflating breath of a goal welcomed.
Sometimes we can’t help but see the roles we’ve played our experiences, how we’ve drawn certain experiences into our own lives. We see how those experiences have impacted our lives for pleasure or pain, but almost always (if we are willing and able to work with them) for our growth.
Sometimes we do everything “right” and end up disappointed. Sometimes we float along without intention and land in the “right” places.
The past few weeks, I’ve been sitting with the many layers held by the concept, and the manifest reality, of mother, mothering, and motherhood. Mother is seen in the divine feminine, in the cosmos, and in the sea and the glow of the moon. She is held in our genes and our histories and the eyes of our children. She is found in archetypes of healing, nurturing, and comfort, as well as in stories of criticism, coldness, and abuse. She is the soft one who tends grief and holds hands and braids hair, and she is the unbreakable one whose labor and caregiving is taken for granted in most areas of her life. We carry our mothers with us in our DNA, in our stories, and in the way we navigate the impacts of intergenerational trauma.
She doesn’t always appear in our stories in simple or easy ways. Some of us mother children we did not or could not grow in our bodies; some of us birth babies who are now mothered by others. Some of us are not mothers at all. Some of us had mothers who could not love us unconditionally, or did not have mothers in our lives, or had mothers who brought us more pain and humiliation than comfort, from whose effects we are still recovering, are still healing. Others have mother wounds, mother blessings, that escape delineation in a single blog post restrained both by its word count and the sometimes-limited imagination of its author.
Mother is a tough concept for me. My own relationship with my biological mother was a source of confusion and heartache for years; the resolution of that internal conflict left me feeling cut off from my maternal grandparents, whose influence on my early life was wholly positive, loving, and stabilizing. Connecting with my ancestors is a part of my spiritual practice, so this loss was present with me, in my heart and waking meditations as well as in my rich dream life, which included frequent visits to my grandparents’ home. Each morning I’d awaken from a dream spent in that space to the stifling realization that their home – my childhood home for my earliest memories – had been torn down years ago…
Last week, I had the incredible privilege of sitting vigil with a friend in hospice in her final hours on this earth. She slept for most of the time I was there, but her waking moments were lucid, if brief. She whispered how good the fresh juice tasted (it had been made for her by a friend), and she seemed to prefer having my hands on her back to pain medication. In the last hour I was with her before leaving, a mutual friend joined us and played gentle, lullaby-style music for her on the kalimba and guitar. As he sang softly to her, I could barely make out his words; the intention was pure, the moment was intimate, and I felt honored to be present for such a profoundly sacred moment.
Speaking with another mutual friend who had held space for Maria in her final days, I mentioned that as I was at hospice I had felt an awareness of priestessing the priestess. Our friend agreed, and said she’d had a similar sensation. “That’s who Maria has been for many of us, whether she claimed that title or not.”
Maria and I were not part of a shared formal congregation or spiritual community in the traditional sense. We were both part of an informal network of friends in a variety of communities whose membership and interests overlap – sacred movement, ecstatic dance, ancestral healing, sound healing, and alternative spiritualities. It’s a network that is both leaderless and full of leaders, as its inherent diversity of beliefs and practices lends itself to members who are specialists in one tradition, students in another, and generalists in deep compassion, holy presence, and unconditional love.
Yesterday, Time Magazine announced that its “Person of the Year” for 2017 would be “The Silence Breakers” – the name it has given to those women who helped launch and made headlines in the #metoo movement. This movement was started by activist Tarana Burke in 2006 to highlight the sexual abuse of women of color and was sent viral by actor Alyssa Milano in 2017. It speaks volumes that this designation falls exactly one year after Time awarded this honor to Donald Trump for the political shift heralded by his defeat of Hillary Clinton.
This defeat that was fueled, at least in part, by the way Trump’s own normalization of sexism, harassment, and assault played on the fears and bitterness of misogynist voters hell-bent on preserving what racial, gender, and economic privilege they could continue to hoard for themselves and those like them. This defeat, and the ensuing glorification of a sexual predator and rampant misogynist, in turn fueled a movement of people, mostly women, tired of being scared into silence to protect the powerful who abuse.
When the movement first picked up steam a few months ago, I found myself thrilled by the momentum. With each news report declaring a new power player whose reign of manipulation had fallen under the weight of multiple corroborating stories of abuse, I would cheer. “Let ‘em fall like dominoes,” I’d mutter to myself, too realistic from years of supporting survivors of rape and sexual abuse to feel the joy necessary for schadenfreude. After a while, though, as more and more abusers were identified among the ranks of leaders, celebrities, and crowd favorites, it became overwhelming to consider both the magnitude of the shift occurring as well as its impact.
Some of the most brutal weapons ever used against me were crafted and wielded by my own hands, forged in grief and self-loathing out of the words of others. In my better moments, I recognize that while another’s frustration with me frequently may be justified, any cruel words towards me never are, and are more a reflection of their speakers’ relationship with themselves than of any facts about me.
The parent who criticized me for being a “crybaby” saw in me a freedom of emotion that challenged the stoic denial of their own pain. The friend who criticized my optimism as “naïveté” and ignorance resented their own lack of hope about their future. The loved one who lashed out against my precious family deeply wished to experience that profound sense of belonging and acceptance that they’d not yet allowed themselves to feel…
Over the past few months, a precious person has come closer into my family’s life in such a way that their presence in my home, among my loved ones, has come to feel natural and easy. This is someone I love, someone who adores my children and appreciates my partner of 18 years and whose sweet spirit and vibrant laughter have added joy and mirth to our family home.
Yesterday, they rode with me to drop my freshly-mohawked teenager off at a farm to help with preparations for an upcoming arts camp. I introduced them by name to the camp assistant and walked over to chat with the camp director for a bit. Later, as we got back into the car to head to lunch, I asked what they thought of the farm.
“It was nice,” they said. “I’m glad your children have a place like that. Also, while I was chatting with the camp assistant, she asked if I was family.”
“What did you say?”
“I said yes.”
They weren’t wrong.
The meaning the word “family” holds for me is something I’ve given much consideration over the years.
Last month, I attended a series of workshops on self-care, family dynamics, and recovery from complex trauma. In one session, someone asked the facilitator, a counselor with over 30 years of experience in mental health fields, how to balance faith, confidence, and belief in recovery with the reality that sometimes healing can be a rocky road, with missteps, false starts, and restarts. The counselor noted that one of the key concepts he’s reinforced in working with people on their recoveries is that to keep moving forward – to forgive ourselves when we make mistakes, to not give up on ourselves when old patterns resurface, to sustain the energy needed to continue The Work in the face of obstacles, doubt, and fear – we need to be able to hold two truths at once. We need to expand ourselves such that we can hold two realities – that our hope in ourselves is not misplaced, that we are strong and can overcome adversity, and that we can move through our lives with grace and skill; and also that we may slip up and fall short of our ideals, that we sometimes may feel fragile and overwhelmed, and that recovery (from trauma, grief, substance abuse, or illness) may include steps backward intermixed with the forward movement.
This concept was especially powerful for me. As someone who spent my childhood and young adult years mired in black-or-white thinking, my personal healing and much of my spiritual practice has been built around reconciling seeming opposites, not by blurring difference such that the unlike becomes like, but by digging into the ways in which the tension between opposites is itself fertile soil for the activity of creation and growth, art and brilliance. Since creation is, for me, the sacred in action, and understanding of self in the context of the cosmos is sacred practice, this gives the tension of two truths a spiritual meaning and the fluid give-and-take that holds them in balance a spiritual wisdom…
I’ve been thinking lately about grief – about broken expectations and heartache and fear and anxiety and all that we’re told those things are supposed to mean or be to us. There’s an underlying current of thought in American culture, put there by hundreds of years of bootstrap theology, patriarchal models that privilege mind over body, and positive thinking pop psychology, that tries to convince us that grief cannot coexist with joy, that humor cannot coexist with sadness, or that anger cannot coexist with love. We are told that these things cannot go together, and thus we must choose, pick which one we want to give power in our lives, as if the experience of one emotion, of one way of being, precludes all others… as if allowing ourselves to feel deeply, to be present in our bodies and their experiences, is to betray the cultural expectation to be okay, always okay… as if allowing ourselves to feel regret means we have no gratitude, or questioning shows insufficient faith in a loving God’s goodness…
In 2011, the Anglican Theological Review published arguments for and against same-sex marriage. “A Theology of Marriage including Same-Sex Couples: A View from the Liberals,” co-written by Deirdre Good, Cynthia Kittredge, Eugene Rogers, and Willis Jenkins, presents a rationale for same-sex marriage that is surprisingly traditional, grounded in scripture and doctrine, understood and interpreted “in the company of patristic interpreters as well as in the company of readers long silenced by the tradition.” Part of the liberal view explores the relationship between eros and caritas, and how the marriage vows, which “mark marriage as an arduous form of training in virtue,” teach us to love and “offer a means by which God may turn eros into charity.”
As someone for whom eros is both a modality of intimate communion and manifest expression of divine love, the idea that it would need to be transformed into something less sensual, more socially acceptable, seems an arbitrary sanitization that positions eros as untamed and dangerous, in need of redemption by sexless ideals of Christian charity. Admittedly, my aversion to scrubbing eros of its rawness likely comes from my own understanding of the word, which might differ from that of traditional Christian theology, and which is inherently tied to the ways in which I’ve known the divine more deeply through expansive, mystical, erotic experiences that engaged my every sense in the coolness of rivers and grazing touch of mountain breezes.
Last month, I attended a lecture by Anglican theologian Adrian Thatcher on his recent book, Redeeming Gender. In this book, Thatcher draws upon the one sex and two sex theories described by Thomas Laqueur in his book, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Laqueur posits that until the eighteenth century, it was believed that women and men were two expressions of the same basic sex – that women were men whose reproductive organs were similar but found in the “wrong” places. Ovaries were internal testes, the vagina an inverted penis, and the labia a parallel for the scrotum – all making women flawed expressions of man.
This sets up a continuum in which there is one sex rather than two, with men as more perfect expressions of man, and women as inferior expressions. Thatcher argues that if the language, liturgy, and doctrines of the church arose in the context of the one sex theory, then Christianity’s foundational beliefs and practices are already compatible with acceptance of a spectrum of gender identity within a one-sex model, opening up new interpretations that allow for full participation of women and LGBTQ+ people within the church. While the old one sex theory as described by Laqueur is a spectrum from more to less perfection, from more to less like God, the spectrum Thatcher proposes is clearly progressive – one in which all places along the spectrum share in the same equality.
And yet it is still a linear spectrum, with extremes envisioned as opposites, as distant from each other…
“This has my signature all over it.” Tear-swelled eyes lower toward creamy swirls in your now-room-temperature latte, and for a moment you look as if gravity might betray you.
I rest my hand on the table, palm-up, an invitation, and notice how quickly it disappears into the weave of your fingers, hands laced together into a mesh of unsettled fear, aching with guilt.
You tell me how her struggles tear at your mother’s heart, this adult child wearing the shadow-eyed mask of addiction, and how painful the recognition of each line in her face, each rationalization in her argument. “I know this darkness,” you say, eyes shifting as you remember things you’d rather forget.
“This has my signature all over it.”
Our sweaty hands are clasped tight. I don’t pull back. My own eyes shift — was that a memory?
Chewing my lower lip, I search for the right words — words that could heal or soothe or enfold — and come up short.
When I was 19, I fell hard into the kind of deep depression that hits college kids whose unstable upbringings, rife with inconsistency and trauma, left them ill-prepared to face the self-direction and responsibility of independence. I didn’t grow up religious despite my father’s attempts to turn visitation weeks into conversions, but had started attending the local Episcopal cathedral months earlier after seeing its stunningly beautiful windows on a historic tour. Having taken basic stained glass courses when I was 18, I’d been mesmerized by the artistry and would sit in a different pew each week, drifting into and out of awareness of the service, eyes trained on the nearest window, lost in contemplation, love pouring in.
When the darkness became too much and I sought more of that love through spiritual care and reflection, I walked into the church library and thumbed through the directory looking for resources, and was hopeful to discover that the Episcopal Church had convents. That afternoon, I dialed the number for the nearest convent, and in that especially dramatic way of depressed 19-year-old artist types with backgrounds in theater, I declared that I couldn’t handle life in the world anymore and that I might want to become a nun. Sister Ann told me that their order was less an escape from the world than a new way of being fully present in it, but invited me to spend Christmas at the convent.
What started out as a holiday visit became several months of me spending every day that I wasn’t in class or at work at the convent, living in the guest house, attending five services a day, helping with maintaining the grounds, and spending as many waking hours as I could in the library, face buried in the works of medieval women mystics….
Christmas morning. I don’t usually have Sundays free and our family holiday celebrations lean nontraditional, so I’d come to a special ecstatic dance celebration and brought my 9-year-old daughter with me. As the music started and people all around us began to flow and move, I reached out to touch her hand. As if she’d been doing it for years, she shifted into a beautiful contact improv flow with me, rolling her arm down and across mine as she beamed love and radiance right into my heart.
This child brings up so many feelings in me as I watch her grow.
On many occasions at ecstatic dance, I’ve looked around the room and been overwhelmed by the beauty of the dancers and their joyful embodiment. When delight, peace, and ease are conditioned out of many of our bodily relationships through past traumas, body issues, or simply living in a disembodied or misembodied culture, feeling comfortable in our own skins is simultaneously an intentional act of cultural resistance and a profound act of self-care and self-love. Being present in the ecstatic dance space with lovely people moving confidently in fluid, sensual, emphatic, and silly ways fills my heart to overflowing on any given dance day.
Being present in that space with my daughter, looking around the room and imagining what it must look like through the eyes of a 9-year-old girl, gave it a whole new hue of meaning…
I’m tired in that way that happens when mind-overload, followed incautiously into concrete corners, limits the ability to conceive of solutions and dig up hope. I’m tired of reading commentary and I’m tired of thinking about the seeming impossibility of resolution, though I seem to be doing both compulsively. I read the news and it is overwhelming. I read theory and it is immobilizing: the more I learn, the more I realize how every possible choice of action is complicated by its impact on some person or power structure.
I’m tired in that way that happens to people who take in the world just as fully through their bodies – through touch, sound, breath, feeling, and movement – as they do through their minds. I’m tired in the way of those whose hearts well love and grief that flow up in gentle washes or powerful surges until they must escape in sighs and sometimes tears.
We live in tiring times.
We love in tiring times.
For several years, I was a leader in New Thought churches that held strict adherence to the “Law of Mind-Action” – that we change the blueprint of the universe to manifest according to our thoughts and beliefs – and the “Law of Attraction” – that we attract all experiences into our lives based on our thoughts and beliefs, whether conscious or unconscious. Under both of these principles, the material world, and thus the body, are subject to the will of the mind – subservient, docile, and reactive – just as women (traditionally associated in many cultures with the land and processes of the body) were considered inferior to and expected to remain subservient to men…
In my other writing for Feminism and Religion, I’ve discussed how a key focus of my spiritual path involves dancing within the tension of opposites, finding ways to move mindfully and freely inside the orbit of sacred circularities in which every curve leads into and out of its inverse, with infinite shades in between. Two areas of my life in which this tension has informed my lived experience are socioeconomic class and education. I’m only two generations away from factory workers and electricians, and three generations removed from a long line of poor farmers. Both of my grandparents on my mom’s side – with whom I lived as a child and whose influence on my life is felt every day – dropped out of school to work on their families’ farms.
And yet I was the little nerd in the gifted program, in two grades at once, through most of my childhood, even as my parents worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. By the time I left for college, I’d worked hard to rid myself of my Southern accent, not wanting to be flagged as uneducated or backwoods.
Whatever the markers for “poor” or working class in any given region – accent or dress or dialect – they frequently are coded as less intelligent. The impacts of these assumptions are felt early, as children from low-income or minority families are often overlooked for and underrepresented in gifted education programs, and the impacts are later reflected in graduation rates and college attendance statistics by demographic. Even as colleges work to provide opportunities for lower-income kids to attend, the dialogue typically focuses on how access to a specific, Western model of education can raise up underprivileged kids, and not on how getting smart kids from a diversity of backgrounds into the university system can expand the very boundaries of how a field understands itself and the framework within which it conducts its research…
Over the past 20 years, I’ve been blessed with many moments in which fully aware or embodied presence has intersected spiritual transformation, both in my own life and in the lives of others. In my work on a crisis hotline, I’ve held space for strangers to open up and speak freely about pain, grief, and despair. In my work as a minister, I’ve held a couple’s hands as I blessed their marriage, and I’ve held space with the dying and their loved ones.
In my work as a doula, I’ve supported women draped over my arms as they pushed new life into being; I’ve also held crying fathers in hospital hallways while their lovers were being prepped for emergency surgeries. In my rape crisis work, I’ve held the hands of women in hospitals through fear and sorrow, and I’ve facilitated support groups for survivors to reconnect with their own embodied sexuality and the fullness of its complexity as they worked toward greater compassion for themselves and their processes.
I’ve worked to build a practice of presence and compassion in my life that extends beyond my family, even beyond people. Last spring, I was late to a party because I’d stopped to help a stumbling fawn out of the highway. Seeing that it was unable to move, I sat with it at the edge of the woods and sang it to its sleep.
Each of these experiences has transformed me, my way of viewing the world, and how I see the role of touch and presence in friendship, service, and worship…
Several years ago, my disillusionment with the spiritual communities available locally bubbled over. Nothing felt like a good fit for me theologically or culturally, and yet I yearned for intentional connection with similarly seeking and passionate people. I needed a community.
My embodied understanding of divinity and search for a non-theological, non-hierarchical, quasi-spiritual community eventually led me to the discovery of flow arts after seeing Beth Lavinder hooping at a public event, recognizing that there was something powerfully transformative happening in her in her hoop practice, and talking to her about how she learned to hoop and what it meant to her. That year, in 2009, I began to take hoop classes with Ann Humphreys, now of Line and Circle. Over time, I worked in a few classes with Baxter from Hoop Path. I became friends with people who spun poi and did aerial silks and worked with fire and felt out the boundaries of the body — how it moves through its connections with other objects and through space.
What I found in the flow arts community was a shared sense of meaning. The meaning itself wasn’t shared, exactly; just the shared and passionate realization that each of our lives had meaning beyond the minutiae of everyday living, and that this meaning could be explored through the metaphors of how we move through and interact with our tools, how we discipline our bodies to respond to our tools, and how they become extensions of our body once we reach a state called “flow.” In the act of community-based hooping, I found acceptance (of each of us with all our varying levels, ages, and bodies) and cheering of our current skills and encouragement as we learned new, more difficult skills. In the hooping itself, I found new ways of understanding my body, greater patience for myself as I made mistakes on the path of learning, and those cherished moments of bliss in which my body disappeared into the hoop and it into me.
In the hooping community, I found a model for seeking out and creating heart-based community in which people are invited to bring their authentic, whole selves to their work as well as their play. There were hoop classes and hoop jams, but there were also fire festivals and potlucks and social events at which people were able to share who they were, how they were facing challenges, and what they were learning about themselves and their lives. The social was spiritual, in the sense of acknowledging a deep sense of purpose and offering fertile soil for meaning to be sowed and co-nurtured among similarly-impassioned (if not like-minded) people.
While my schedule left me in the periphery of the hooping world for a few years, I returned to a similar community in early 2016 when I finally started attending ecstatic dance. What initially drew me to it was feeling tired of being out of community and anxious socially, and wanting a place in my life in which I could explore interpersonal relationships and communication in a safe space, with safe people. Ecstatic dance, at least in our community, is a 90 minute “dance wave” of music that starts with slow, meditative sounds, works its way up to a high-energy, upbeat middle, and then gradually expands back into a mellow close. Some people come and dance alone for the entire dance each week; others prefer partner dancing. Many make plenty of time for both solo and partner dance. There is no talking on the dance floor; consent is essential, emphasized, and negotiated nonverbally, though just like in everyday friendships, a comfort level emerges with those who dance together regularly and consent becomes less mechanical. Anyone can decline any offer to partner dance gracefully, with no hurt feelings. Gender becomes part of the play, and many who attend consciously break up gender norms in their dress, behavior, and approach – men dance with men, women with women, women with men, and a host of gender-nonconforming folks with everyone, with no expectation that one will lead and the other will follow. Instead, the focus is on paying close attention to your partner’s nonverbal communication and allowing your bodies to match movements, falling into a dance that is comfortable and fun for both of you.
Sometimes this means partner dances are quite intimate – I’ve danced with my body entwined with another, have been part of the swirling 20-person multi-partner dances that sometimes spontaneously occur (I call this phenomenon “the amoeba”), and have ended more than one ecstatic dance wave lying on the floor in the pile of people we like to call the “cuddle puddle,” eyes closed, absorbed in shared bliss, unsure who was holding my hand or whose limb was thrown over my shoulder (or whether it was an arm or a leg). I once spent an entire song with a partner/friend and I holding each other, barely moving except to match the rhythm of our breaths. (The number of people with whom I share this level of intimacy on the dance floor, remains small and controlled – all within my comfort zone.)
Other times, partner dances are silly and fun, interspersed with childlike humor, games of peek-a-boo, laughter, and make believe. Sometimes, someone does something playful – starts marching around, or honks like a goose, or takes a friend’s hand and begins a chain of people that weaves in on itself – and others join in, welcoming the chance to play. In our ecstatic dance community, there are performers, singers, voice teachers, artists, and dancers. There are counselors, therapists, psychiatrists, and yoga teachers. There are accountants, architects, teachers, developers, researchers, and web designers. There are people in their early twenties, “senior citizens,” and people of all sizes and body types. Each dance flow feels like a lesson — a classroom in which social anxiety, interpersonal skills, jealousy, fear, friendship, and love can all be examined through the lens of dance metaphor.
In this community and the open, safe space it has provided, I have found much of what I had been missing in terms of spiritual community, even as much of my personal theology expresses as solitary activity and I’ve only in recent weeks even attempted to begin to articulate some of my personal beliefs to others. There are no dogmatic rules in ecstatic dance, although non-judgment, freedom of expression, and consent are key ideals. We don’t discuss theology or religious worldviews at dance as a routine, though a sense of gratitude and wonder about the universe, the shared ecstatic bliss of the dance space, and universal and personal growth patterns are regularly discussed as part of our closing circle. In social events outside of official dance spaces, we take opportunities to discuss how we are working these ideals into our larger communities and how they affect our lives. For those who aren’t huggers, none are expected. For those who enjoy touch, long hugs and leaning on friends are the norm.
There’s a lot of crossover between the hooping, ecstatic dance, and other flow arts communities, and many of the friends I’ve made in one of those circles are also involved in others. Talking to them, I know that they also see the connection between flow arts, dance, and the embodied spiritual traditions. If Spirit expresses into the world through us, our words, and our bodies, then conscious exploration of movement and sound, of mindful focus and unthinking ecstasy, and of where self and other meet in communion become ritual acts of growth and devotion to a manifest Love and embodied Divine. Shared in a community without dogma or hierarchy? Just what I needed.
A significant part of my spiritual practice involves exploring the tension of opposites – learning to create and grow in the space between polarities without feeling obligated to choose one over the other as my truth. Immanent or transcendent? Both. Embodied or abstract? Depends on the context. Intellectual or spiritual? Yes, please.
My panentheistic view of divinity means that I find truth, wisdom, and spiritual insight in the manifest universe, how it works, and the principles that underlie its transformation. This makes my spiritual worldview embodied, in the sense that the divine is found in my body, in the bodies of those I meet, and in the cosmos as the body of God. It also brings sacred meaning to intellectual pursuit and development…