Tag Archives: doula

Blood, Sweat and Tears (Part 1)

“Reach out your hand if your cup be empty. If your cup be full may it be again. Let it be known there is a fountain that was not made by the hands of men. There is a road, no simple highway. Between the dawn and the dark of night, and if you go no one may follow. That path is for your steps alone.”  The Grateful Dead

The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia has a one-of-a-kind exhibit that offers a larger than life model of the heart. It’s one of my favorite things at the museum – it invites you to walk through the whole heart, experiencing the inner workings of how blood flows. There are narrow steps that lead you up and down and all around through atriums and ventricles to playfully act out how blood is oxygenated and pumped in and out of the heart to the rest of the body. “The Giant Heart” is one of the features in the vascular exhibit, which is its own grand gallery in the museum. It’s like a romper room of real deal cardio-activities. You can crawl through arteries, or see how blocked arteries do, in fact, inhibit passage because they are filled with various amounts of plaque. It’s quite sobering. You can also step on a giant scale attached to a giant flask that fills with red liquid to display, based on weight, how much blood is coursing through your veins. It’s all so mesmerizing. Blood is a remarkable thing. I’ve stood on that scale more than a few times over the years and watched the flask fill up, topping off at about four and a half liters or so;  and I’ve realized I have little clue about what is really going on inside me at any given moment.

There’s a whole metropolis and countryside underneath my skin’s surface. All sorts of things are moving and grooving along highways, byways and rural roads; and I’m hardly aware of it. My heart is always at work, ensuring vitality from my head to my toes. It occurs involuntarily. It has to. It’s too important for me to be consciously in charge of it. I wouldn’t be able to think about anything else. There are times when I do (and need to) become conscious of my heart’s activity. During physical and/or situational stressors, my heart can start racing or pounding the pavement at an unsustainable or arrhythmic pace. I need to voluntarily respond with mindful repose (and possible cardiac consultation) to resume cruise control. My body’s vascular system has miraculous ways of not only clueing me in to step up and take action, but also calming me down to reconsider how to best continue the journey. Deep breaths are the first steps to refuel my heart with fresh perspective to carry on. My lungs assist my heart to do this; however, there are moments when I must metaphorically reach for the oxygen mask dangling in front of me to restore body and soul homeostasis. It’s like there’s this cardio-community inside me (and around me) that is always cheering me on, whether I’m aware of it or not. “Take heart” is more than a cliché to me. It implies that there is a force inside me (around me) that keeps me going, despite how stuck or shut down I feel. Am I willing to accept this reality? How consciously connected I am with this life force inside me (surrounding me) directly influences how intentionally grateful I am to be alive and to cheer others on to love their life as well. The writer of Hebrews in the New Testament summed it up similarly in this way:

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)

A professor in grad school once challenged my class to consider why women seem most attuned and willing to acknowledge heart issues. We speculated about a mother’s need to provide nurturing support for her children. “Think more primitively”, he said. We discussed aspects of birth, then pregnancy and still he shook his head, noting not all women experience such things. He provocatively prompted us to consider every woman’s forced relationship with herself every month. Ironically, a man helped me understand how menstruation is a primitive process that involuntarily volunteers me to attentively and compassionately relate to life. Not just physically but mentally and emotionally, as a woman, I have to consciously contend with waiting, timing, discomfort, catharsis, clean-up and resolution. I don’t mean to be crass in discussing this, but to underscore how life is constantly proving itself to be something that is capable of enduring, overcoming and thriving throughout the journey. Men are not excluded from connecting to life with compassionate notions – although this may be one of the notable reasons why God provided Adam a “suitable helpmate” in designing Eve (Genesis 2:18). Eve was formed from Adam’s rib, a bone closest to the heart (Genesis 2:21). There is a heart-to-heart connection among all of us. If we go deep enough, we will find it. Our internal and external functions do not always run smoothly and, at times, are more dysfunctional than we’d like to admit or deal with. We need help. I recently worked with a birth client who lost a large amount of blood during delivery that caused her blood pressure and platelets to drop to dangerous levels. She received a transfusion of one and a half pints of blood, which help a bit; but soon after that intervention, another transfusion was required to ensure healthy equilibrium. She received an additional two pints, which significantly stabilized her status. The Red Cross diligently facilitates blood drives to ready reserves for just such purposes. Hmmm, I know another cross that provided a much needed soul transfusion to ensure that we could keep living and loving.

For eons, the symbolic relevance of the heart has signified an emotional and/or spiritual reality that exists inside us and between us. The true essence of a person has often been believed to dwell in a person’s heart. When renown Scottish medical missionary, Dr. David Livingstone, died in 1873 in Africa, the African nationals buried his heart there before sending his body back to Britain for formal burial. Dr. Livingstone had dedicated his life to serve the African people. They were keenly aware of how much he loved them, so they wanted to keep his heart near them. This may seem gruesome, but it is a tangible tale of how we experience life, specifically love. Whether we will it or not, our hearts are designed to perpetuate life and even love. Our hearts are as scientific as they are sacred. They are part of an essential network, inside and out, that motivates us onward to keep going and even enjoy the ride. And we do not trek this journey alone. I find comfort in being part of this collective effort.

 

References:

  1. The Bloodmobile by They Might Be Giants (video featured at the Franklin Institute)
  2. Ripple by The Grateful Dead
  3. Visit the Franklin Institute Science Museum
  4. Human Biology by Starr & McMillan
  5. Lost Women of the Bible by Carolyn Custis-James
  6. How to donate blood
  7. History of Dr. David Livingstone

A Life Worth Living Again

hope

“The marvelous richness of human experience would lose something of rewarding joy if there were no limitations to overcome. The hilltop hour would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.”  Helen Keller
I recently witnessed a baby emerge from his mother’s womb. I am a birth doula, which is a fancy term for a professional support person who cheers on women and their families through the labor and delivery process and offers informational, emotional and physical support. I have assisted in dozens of births over the past four years and I never cease to be awestruck when a baby is born. As I watch such a momentous event take place, there are always at least a few tears that fill my eyes. I believe every birth is a miracle, no matter what the surrounding circumstances are; and I feel incredibly privileged to have a front row seat to see it occur. In fact, there are a few times when something so obviously synchronistic captivates me during the experience that I could easily start sobbing with overwhelming awe. My pre-emptive emotional gush could certainly be due to my extreme exhaustion, since some labors last a very long time and I get very little sleep…or it could also be the result of the residual hormonal release of o oxytocin that helps cultivate euphoria…but I’d like to believe that it is mostly an acute divine awareness that activates and compels me to acknowledge and celebrate the reality of life in all its beauty and scandal. This is how I have come to define resurrection, which is the best way of living that I can imagine. This most recent birth experience revealed this to me in a new way.

Resurrection is, indeed, a beautiful and scandalous experience. This provocative reality requires death in order for life to be re-born. Considering Jesus’ death and resurrection is certainly controversial; yet, I believe it is essential in making sense of life as well as enduring life with meaningful and triumphant purpose. I’m not going to attempt here to define or resolve the problem of pain (or why we die) in any over-simplified or sophisticated explanation. People have been doing this for millennia. Suffice to say, I am part of a long tradition of people trying to make sense of “why” and “why not”. Why does God allow pain to exist? Why not take it all away if God really is all-powerful? A beneficial book by Phillip Yancey explores the reality of pain and sums up the best question on the topic in its title: Where Is God When It Hurts? Such a desperate intrigue begs an answer, not from an existential perspective persay, but from a relational vantage point.

A similar question was asked and an explanation offered twenty five hundred years ago when Israel’s King David poetically penned Psalm 23. The first line defines God as a personal guide: “The Lord is my Shepherd (Psalm 23:1). From the start, a relationship is established. The identity and function of David’s Shepherd unfolds line by line to describe an ever-present and benevolent support. I am persuaded that any belief or description of God as anything less than good is not worth considering, let alone consulting. I must, from all starting points of understanding any part of life (its highs and lows), begin with the acknowledgment and acceptance that God is eternally good. Otherwise, I’m better off not believing in any such entity because it will only result in the worse kind of disappointment and disconnection. Death is the most disappointing and disconnecting experience. That is why God incarnated through Jesus came to earth. He lived a life not unlike our own – He was born, lived and even died, so that we never need say we are on our own. His resurrection is the everlasting reality that As a Good Shepherd, He walks with us through every aspect of our existence. His resurrection provides us the hope of life on the other side of obstacles as well as life after life – whether figuratively or literally. We can always overcome.

Pregnancy and birth are often used as metaphoric models of describing aspects of life’s journey. We wait. We mature. We suffer. We keep going. We think we won’t make it. We can’t take it anymore and then we turn the corner and we greet what we were waiting for. I have yet to birth my own children, but I have birthed a few life-transforming moments that came out of long suffering labors. A pastor told me in my twenties during a difficult phase of my life that “God does not waste pain”. I have come to embrace this promise, believing that God is good and He meant it when He created life and declared it to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31). I have sat on my couch, heart broken and beaten down by life’s disappointments and challenges, and have said aloud that “something good will be birthed out of this pain”. I take deep breaths and focus on that hope. That hope is its own healing – the expectancy of resurrection brings me peace to endure and press on.

During this most recent birth, the mama shared my faith in Jesus as something/someone special – a good Shepherd to help her along her journey. She selected a playlist of her favorite sacred songs to provide a sound track for her labor. Throughout her labor, they set a nice tone to the room and mindset with both peaceful or peppy melodies and lyrics like “You are my strength” and “I’ll never leave you alone” etc. At times, I would point out a line of a song to offer her encouragement. She smiled and sighed; and such sentiment seemed to resonate with her, as she notably had a peaceful resolve in her stature and movements. However, I did not anticipate how these songs would cycle during the delivery process to significantly offer encouragement to keep pushing onward. As each contraction surged and the baby began to emerge, she begged for relief. All she could really utter was “it hurts so much!” The doctor offered a few relief options, though she emphasized the most important option to consider was to just keep pushing because the baby would be born in a matter of minutes. So the mama kept pushing. Her husband placed the music by her head to see if that would offer reprieve. I’m not sure if she heard the song playing as she birthed her baby boy, since her efforts were very much focused on her task at hand. But I heard the song. It was an Easter themed song about resurrection, about Christ overcoming the grave and about how we, too, can live and thrive  because “He is alive”. I watched the mother in her agonizing attempts to birth her baby and heard her repeatedly cry “why does it hurt so much?” She also repeated that she couldn’t push anymore. As the song melody swelled to a climax and the lyrics reiterated the reality “He is alive”, I found myself in tune with both the mother’s longing for her labor to be over and the reality of how God endured pain to empower us to survive the valley and reach the mountain moment. I looked into that mother’s eyes and told her that not only was her husband, the staff, I and even her baby were with her to help her cross the finish line but most significantly that  God was with her. After a pause, I told her God purposefully brought her to this moment and placed the strength inside her to see it through to the other side. She took a deep breath and seemed to reach deep within to access that strength. She lifted her head and tucked her chin to her chest for a few final pushes and then the doctor placed her baby boy on her chest. The resurrection song played a few final measures and I thought I might start crying uncontrollably.

One of my favorite things about being part of this process with moms and families is watching the transformation on the mother’s face from before to after delivery. This birth was no different – I watched the mom’s face shift from intense distress and furrowed brow to a blissful glow of joy with softened lines and gaze. She sweetly greeted her little guy with gentle whispers of giddiness. Not unlike Mary did, as she stood outside Jesus’ grave that first Easter morning. The tomb became a womb and birthed a whole new reality for us to live life with renewed focus.  Resurrection keeps telling a story for me and is truly my inspiration to serve others – I love cheering people on to live like they are loved and are able to love deeply and can bring life into the world with joy that overflows and surpasses any and all grief.

Reference:

  1. Hope; pastel painting by Jamie Wasson 2010
  2. The Story of My Life by Helen Keller
  3. About Birth Doulas: DONA International
  4. Where is God when it Hurts? By Phillip Yancey
  5. Song: Forever by Kari Jobe 2014

My Beautiful Vision

joy

“It is only with the heart that one sees rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.” The Little Prince

Once upon a time in my early thirties, I visited the Camden Aquarium in New Jersey with my then three year old nephew. We stood in front of the expansive glass walled aquarium that housed and showcased numerous sea creatures. Watching them swim and swirl before my eyes, I pressed my hands and forehead against the glass to get as close as I could to look. So did my nephew. And soon I realized other children stood in solidarity with me in the same pose to see the majesty of what swam on the other side of the aquarium window. I also soon realized that I was the only grown up in this line up of awe struck admirers. I glanced over my shoulder and saw adults a few yards away milling around, presumably parents and/or caregivers of the children standing next to me. The adults kept their distance while keeping a close eye on their kids, who unabashedly smushed their faces against aquarium glass. I instantly felt a foolish blush, as I considered what a goofball I looked like, the only adult with such obvious wide eyed wonderment amongst giggling youngsters. So I stepped back. Though as soon as I did, my feeling of foolishness shifted to sadness. Truth be told, I’m legally blind.  Thus, I often position myself in such apparent poses to see things. Because I want to see – I really want to see. And yet, even in my efforts to ‘see’ something as it is, my observations are still limited to blurry glimpses, undefined detail and even misinterpretations. However, such shrouded encounters seem to offer a more enlightened perspective of what, how and why imagination is so essential to any of us really ‘seeing’ anything.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus emphatically proclaimed that the Kingdom of God belongs to children, that we must have faith like a child and that anyone who hurts a child is better off sleeping with the fishes (Luke 18:16, Matthew 18:3, Matthew 18:6). What do children possess that we as adults must not lose in our maturation process? How does being childlike help us understand God? Why are children always asking why?! I think the answers to these questions are less about infantilizing ourselves by discussing the value of vulnerability or the importance of remaining innocent and even being naive. I think Jesus is referencing imagination as an essential method to truly ‘seeing’ ourselves the way God sees us and, more significantly, seeing God as God really is. At the very least, imagination seems to be about trying to see beyond what is right in front of us. According to the dictionary, the concept of imagination is “the ability to form new images and ideas that are not perceived through sight, hearing, etc.”. In other words, imagination is that sixth sense of making sense of things. According to Jesus, imagination is not about pretending. It is about expanding our ability to perceive {to see} the big picture. Jesus’ descriptions of God’s kingdom throughout the Gospels invite us to look past the dust and rust of what surrounds us and be part of transforming ourselves into something divinely everlasting. This process requires imagination. Imagination requires risk in creating and re-creating, considering and reconsidering – looking at something in a new way. In practical Christian terms, this is referred to as the redemption process.

If you have ever spent more than ten minutes with a child, you may have observed their capacity to not simply tell a story but accentuating aspects of a story to create quite an interesting tale.  As an art therapist who has worked with children for over twelve years, I have no short list of such observations. Yet at times as an adult, I confess I respond to their ‘wild imaginations’ with patronizing aloofness – as if fantasy doesn’t play any role in developing a healthy sense of self and society. While pop psychology has veered away from any strict ‘study of the soul’ to pursue a more strategic neuro-scientific research approach, the practice of imagination cannot occur without body and soul working together. This cohesive relationship is reflected in the most primitive sense when a baby is born and placed on their mother’s breast. The baby can smell, taste, see, hear and feel their mother. Amidst these physical sensations begins the bonding process. Attachment theory experts suggest that within that embrace, imagination ignites for both mother and baby. The mother imagines whether or not she can be a ‘good enough’ mother. The baby imagines whether or not this source of care outside the womb is trustworthy. In this imaginative reciprocity, time seems to be a significant factor in not only determining the reality of reliability but also what makes such bond worth developing beyond childhood. In our spiritual development or redemptive process, imagination can help us maintain or even deepen the bliss we experienced when we were born again.

When God created mankind, let alone the whole world, imagination seemed to be both the cause of creation as well as the effect. In the book The Creators, the reality of mankind being made in God’s image is extensively reviewed. The creative genius of God is that He made us creative. God imagined a world, a relationship with mankind, that could be wildly experienced while always being good, never anything less than good. After the Fall of mankind, our imagination was altered to look away rather than stand in awe of God, fear rather than hope and deny rather than believe. But God never stopped imagining something good. Jesus, being both creative God and creative man, redeemed the power of imagination to be used for good and not for evil. Who would have imagined that being born in a barn, washing feet, dying and being buried in a stranger’s grave would be sequential elements in revealing the best idea ever imagined – resurrection. Jesus prepared his disciples ahead of time that such imaginative means to an end was coming But only after the fact did his disciples and followers begin to grasp the epic meaning. Some ideas are just too mind blowing to visualize all at once. They take time to sink in. Jesus’ follower Mary stood outside an empty tomb, overcome with grief not only because her beloved teacher was dead but now his body was missing. Did she ever imagine the alternative? Standing by his gravesite, she heard him say her name, turned and saw him. Then, she fully embraced the idea and ran to tell others. Wheels of re-imagining the world started spinning a new revolution. Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost and history ever since seem to be the unfolding revelation of God inspiring us to see everything with a new pair of glasses. The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to us to do so. God’s Spirit in us, with us, is our lens by which we can truly make sense of what we see – what God sees.

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church:

“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what the Lord has prepared. But by His Spirit, he has revealed His plans to those who love Him” (1 Corinthians. 2:9)

Paul was reiterating encouragement from the prophet Isaiah, written and recorded in the Old Testament (Isaiah 64:4). Overtime, imagination bridges the gap between what is seen and unseen. Time, as does redemption, offer us the opportunity to engage with the reality of God’s idea being realized.  Like a craftsman uses blueprints to construct an object, the Holy Spirit uses revelation as evidence of what was imagined. Are we eager to see what the Lord is building? Are we willing to be part of that construction? The thing about children is that you do not have to press them to imagine. They do it so naturally, maybe supernaturally. There is an instinctual sense of non-pretense when it comes to their ideas about things. They also are uninhibited about wrangling you into figuring it out with them. They ask why. A relationship is established, maybe even expected in order to create meaning.

Paul also wrote to the Corinthians that love is the most important mechanism by which we live out our imaginative efforts of making sense of things (1 Corinthians 13:13). Loving God is the first step in the pursuit of seeing. Paul noted that at this time “we see through a glass darkly” but he reassured that “in time, we will fully see” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Our ability to imagine becomes an essential part of our life span and redemptive process. The power of imagination children possess seems to be what Jesus prompts us to never lose as we become adults. The practice and protection of imagination become a spiritual discipline. As we mature, it may be useful for us to become more sophisticated in articulating what we are trying to imagine; but what is more advantageous is that we increase our care in creating something worthy of being called ‘a reflection of our Creator’s reality’. May I not be ashamed to press my face against the proverbial glass to see as much as I can. And what I cannot see, may I be inspired to take part in the creative process of revealing a new creation – in me and around me.

 

References:

  1. Joy: pastel painting by Jamie Wasson 2003
  2. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  3. Definition of “Imagination” – Google word search
  4. The Creators by Daniel Boorstin
  5. Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Newborn by Penny Simkin
  6. Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health: A Comprehensive, Developmental Approach to Assessment and Intervention by Stanley Greenspan
  7. Diary of A Baby; by Daniel Stern
  8. Childhood and Society; by Erik Erikson