This morning’s mandala started with a dark circle at the centre. A black hole with no highlights and no intricate designs to lend it beauty… just void.
It felt odd to start that way. Usually my mandalas are infused with bright colours. Almost immediately, I found myself wondering how I could lend light to the darkness, beauty to the ugliness. I felt uneasy, not wanting the darkness to take over.
Around the edges of the circle, I started adding smaller circles in increasingly lighter, brighter colours – trying to redeem the darkness, trying to edge it toward light, trying to move on to colour, variation, and hope.
And yet, when I neared the edges of the paper with bright yellow bursts emanating outward, it didn’t feel right. The uneasiness continued. I closed my book. I didn’t like it. It didn’t feel like the place I’m in right now – neither the darkness, nor the feeble attempts at bringing in light.
After a bit of time, I opened my book again. Almost without knowing what I was doing, I picked up the black crayon and started shading over the coloured circles. This mandala was calling for darkness, not light. The light looked too garish against the dark – unwelcome in it’s boldness.
And then I knew what was emerging. Not a black hole, not a void, not an ugly place at all. Instead, a womb – a safe warm place for gestation, growth, and waiting for birth. Not unwelcome shadows, but rather the beginnings of growth. I thought back to the circular name-tags we were given in childbirth classes sixteen years ago – 10 centimetres; the amount our cervixes would have to dilate before we’d be ready to give birth.
This mandala was my birth canal, readying itself for the birth of something new.
It occurred to me how pertinent the birth metaphor is at this time of year. First we celebrated Winter Solstice, the emerging out of darkness into new light.
Then, in close succession, we celebrated the birth of Christ – the birth of hope, the birth of new life. Surrounded, quite appropriately, by our own families of origin, and, in particular, the women who birthed us into the world, we celebrate the hope of Jesus bringing grace and redemption through His birth. It’s a birth that changes us all, that shifts our paradigms and overturns our power structures.
Next weekend, we celebrate the birth of a new year – the turning of the calendar, a chance to start fresh.
Always, something is waiting to be born, and born again, and again. Sometimes we ourselves are in the birth canal, sometimes it is our dreams and vocations. Sometimes we are waiting, gestating, growing, and sometimes we are dilating, pushing, emerging.
The season of Christmas and the dawning of the New Year offers us an opportunity to reflect on what is waiting to be born for us now.
What has been gestating?
What is ready to emerge?
What will die if we don’t let it out of the birth canal?
How can we prepare ourselves for the birth?
As you prepare for the New Year, consider asking yourself these questions. Pick up some crayons and markers, create a mandala, and see what emerges. (And then come back and share it with us.)
“Are you sure you don’t want a ride to the camp? You can just skip the rest of the kilometres for the day, rest up, stay off your blisters for awhile, and start fresh tomorrow.”
We heard that often along the 100 km. walk. Well-meaning organizers, volunteers, and medics wanted to help us avoid some of the pain we were experiencing. They wanted to give us short-cuts, assuring us there was no shame in missing a few kilometres.
Every offer only set our resolve deeper, though. It even made us reluctant to visit the medics when the blisters got particularly ugly. We weren’t there to do 87 km – we were there to do 100.
Yes, it was painful. Yes, there were toes on our feet that were hardly recognizable as toes anymore. Yes, there were moments when there didn’t seem to be a single muscle in our body that was exempt from the overwhelming ache.
But we were there to complete the journey. We were there to test the limits of our endurance. We were there to be present in every painful step.
We live in a culture that likes shortcuts, especially when it comes to pain. We try to rush through grief, thinking that we’ll be better off if we can just put a bandaid on it and get back to real life. We over-medicate, thinking a dulling of the pain will help us feel “normal”. We short-circuit the birthing process (both literal and figurative), with unnecessary c-sections and inductions. We over-consume, thinking that shopping therapy will dull the ache of loneliness or heartbreak. We clamour over quick fixes and fill our lives with cheap throw-away solutions to our problems.
We prefer ten easy steps to one thousand painful ones.
But it’s the thousand painful steps that will change us. It takes those thousand painful steps for us to grow into what we’re meant to be at the end of the journey.
In ten easy steps, we can build little more than a house of cards, not the rich, beautiful temple we are meant to become. A strong wind blows away the house of cards, but the temple withstands the storm.
A fascinating thing happened at the end of our three day journey. We three women, walking together every step of the way, always within about 100 steps of each other, all began to menstruate before the end of the day. In just three days, our cycles aligned (though I wasn’t expecting mine for another week and a half and I’m not sure about the others). Interestingly enough, the next day was the full moon.
I’ve lived with enough roommates, daughters, and sisters to know that it is not unusual for women living in community to end up with cycles that are in sync. I’ve never seen it happen in such a short time, though. Three days of sharing an intense, painful experience, and our bodies were in tune with each other.
Extrapolate that story forward, and you have three women, living in community, whose bodies are preparing to go through the pain and glory of childbirth together. It’s a beautiful, poignant story. Expose three women’s bodies to shared pain and they find a way to support each other that goes much deeper than words.
Women, we are amazing vessels. We birth children and carry each other’s pain. Every month, we shed blood – our little painful sacrifice for the beauty we bear within us.
As an added element to this story, it was pain and childbirth that brought these three women together in the first place. Cath’s loss of Juggernaut led her to a place where walking helped her live through the pain. Christina’s deep compassion for her story and sharing of her pain made her want to support Cath on the journey. My own story of the loss of Matthew bonded me to Cath and made me want to be with her for the journey as well. It was pain that bonded us, pain that we journeyed through together, and pain that caused our bodies to align themselves with each other so that we could most fully support each other.
Our bodies carry wisdom that our minds know nothing about.
Our bodies understand the value of pain.
Without the pain, we don’t have the beauty. Without the blood, we don’t have the birth. Without the sacrifice, we don’t have the growth. Without the sharing of agony, we don’t have community.
We can’t shortcut through the pain. It’s not serving any of us. Shortcutting through our own pain makes us careless of other people’s pain. It makes us careless of the pain we cause Mother Earth.
Mark Nepo talks about pain as the tool that carves the holes in our bodies to make us the instruments through which breath blows and beautiful music is made. When we are present in the pain – when we don’t try to take shortcuts through it – our holes are seasoned and polished and the music comes out sweet and rich.
Imagine an orchestra playing on half-finished instruments, with holes that had never been polished and strings that had never been pulled tight. The music would be dull, lifeless, and out of tune.
Pain begets beauty.
Pain shines the edges of the holes through which God breathes.
The next step may be painful, but it must be taken nonetheless.
I only hope that your next painful step will be taken in community and that you will be supported in your pain.
And when the pain subsides and you can stand up straight again, let God breath through you and make your music beautiful.
“In stories and in life, pain is our friend. It’s an unwelcome friend, but a friend nonetheless. The good news is if we make friends with our pain, it won’t stay long and it will leave us with a gift. But if we avoid pain, it will chase us down until we finally accept the gift it has to offer.” – Donald Miller
Note: Full disclosure – I did take a few painkillers along the way, so I don’t want to paint myself as some kind of martyr. AND I do not want to stand in judgement of anyone who accepted a ride – we each must choose our own thresholds for pain and our own values and reasons for completing a particular journey. There is no shame in being supported through the roughest parts of your journey.
Another note: Cath has created a beautiful offering to help you walk through your pain, called Remembering for Good. She is letting her pain be turned into music.
Last night was my daughter’s first rugby game, and let me tell you, she was FIERCE! She threw herself into the game just the way I knew she would – with her whole heart and body. She dug her feet in and pushed with all her might against the opposing team in the scrum (what you see in the photo – but that’s a borrowed photo and not her team). She pummelled any opponent who dared to run by her carrying the ball. She dashed across the field whenever the ball was tossed to her… and she SCORED! In the last seconds of the game, she made it across the line to score her very first “try” (like a touchdown in football) in her very first game.
I thought I would be scared to watch her (this is the girl who tore a ligament in her knee and had to have surgery because of a soccer injury – partly because she is such an intense player), but the truth is I LOVED IT!
I LOVED the energy on the field. I LOVED the way that those young girls get to live out their fierceness in such a healthy and fun way. I LOVED the way Nikki would not back down from even the biggest opponent.
I’m a little ashamed to admit this, but I used to be afraid of her fierceness. I used to think it was my job as her mom to help her cage it in some way. I used to cringe when I’d watch her get fouled out in basketball or get penalties in soccer. It was hard to watch that fierce look in her eyes when she’d throw her passion into a sport, because I was afraid she’d get hurt or that she’d hurt someone else. I’d tell her, when she’d come off the field, “can you be a little less vicious? Tone it down a little.”
But now? I am thrilled for her that she has found a sport that honours that fierceness in her. I told her last night, “Honey, don’t ever lose that fierceness. Find healthy ways of using it, but don’t ever let people tell you it’s wrong.”
Because I realized something last night as I watched her. Somewhere along the line, I let my fierceness be caged. I let the expectations that I be a “nice girl”, a “well-behaved girl”, a “quiet girl” put me inside a cage and it is taking me years to break out of that cage. Even now I still fight those bars, trying to break out into freedom. Even now I keep silent when I should be shouting, I make choices that limit me because I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, I tell little white lies because I hate offending people with the truth, and I bottle anger inside because it scares me.
After the rugby game last night, I read Ronna Detrick’s magnificent post about the vision, the roar, and the muse and I knew what I needed to do. I need to ROAR! I need quit trying to bottle the fierceness inside me. I need to quit letting myself believe I have to be polite and nice and never hurt anyone’s feelings. I need to challenge those people who dare to bottle my truth just because it scares them. I need to let my inner warrior CHARGE forward with courage and strength.
This morning, as I ran, I had a flashback to the birth of my second daughter. In the depths of labour, after I’d let out a fierce, primal scream, a nurse told me, with a measure of impatience, “if you keep screaming like that, you’ll have no voice tomorrow.” Instantly, I went to that place I go when I’ve dared to step out of the role of “nice, respectful, quiet” girl and someone calls me on it – I went to shame. I bottled the next scream deep inside because I didn’t want to cause anyone annoyance, I didn’t want to embarrass myself, and I didn’t want to risk tomorrow’s voice.
But you know what? Later, after I held my daughter in my arms, I thought, “BULLSHIT! WHY would you tell a birthing woman to keep silent? If you can’t scream in childbirth, when CAN you scream? And what kind of nonsense is not screaming today because it might hurt your voice tomorrow? If today needs a scream, well then, dammit, SCREAM!”
I can’t go back to that moment and let out that next scream I bottled, but I can choose to not let anyone bottle the next scream that needs to erupt from that primal place in me.
And I will sit on the sidelines and CHEER as my fierce daughter charges headlong into a sport that may very well hurt her. Because DAMMIT if she can’t relish her fierceness now, then some day she will be lying in a hospital bed and letting a nurse silence her primal scream.
“How do you get to be so free?” Caterpillar asks wistfully of Butterfly.
“Surrender,” Butterfly whispers as she flutters by.
“But… I’ve read all the books, taken all the classes, and I just can’t seem to get off the ground.”
“What do you mean – surrender? Surrender to what?”
“To the Mystery. To your Creator. To your own DNA.”
“How do I do that?” Caterpillar frowns.
“Climb up in that tree, let go of the branch, and spin.”
“But I don’t know how to spin. Do I need to take a course? Is there a manual?”
“You’ll know. Once you’re up there on the branch.”
“I’ll know? How will I know?”
“It’s written in your DNA.”
“What happens next? Do I have to spin my own wings?”
“No, silly,” Butterfly giggles. “You spin a cocoon.”
“A cocoon? I’ve never heard of that before. What do I do with it once I’ve spun it?”
“You don’t do anything. You just wait. Inside the cocoon.”
“What good does waiting do? I have too much work to do to sit around waiting in a cocoon. I have housework to do and children to feed and… well, that’s just ridiculous.” Caterpillar turns away, her eyes back on the ground.
“Well, then you’d better give up your dream of flying, because that’s the only way to get up here.” Butterfly’s wings carry her a little higher.
Caterpillar glances back at the sky. Her eyes fill with tears. “But… I really want to fly. Can you tell me a little more? Please. What comes next?”
“The hard part. The surrender.”
“So we’re back to surrender again. That doesn’t seem very helpful. And it’s kind of confusing. What am I surrendering?”
“Everything you ever knew. Every cell of your body. Every story you’ve ever told yourself.”
“I have to give up EVERYTHING?! Isn’t that asking a bit much?”
“Yes, but it’s worth it.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Oh yes. It hurts.”
“How do you handle the pain?”
“You won’t like the answer.”
“Tell me anyway.”
“Surrender. And trust. You have to surrender to the pain and trust the process. You have to give up control and let your body turn to an ugly gooey mushy substance while you wait for transformation to happen. Your friends (those who haven’t learned to spin yet) will turn away because they won’t recognize you. It will be the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do.”
“I don’t know if I can do it. I can’t handle that much pain.”
“Do you want to taste the sky?”
“Oh yes. I really, really do.”
“Then you have to let go of the ground.”
I’m excited to announce a new series called “Let go of the ground & taste the sky”. I’m gathering stories of people who’ve learned what it means to surrender (in big or small ways) to the Mystery. I’ll be sharing those stories here in the coming weeks. To get this off the ground, here’s one of my own stories…
p.s. If you’re learning to surrender, I’m cooking up an offering (I hesitate to call it an e-course, but it’s something like that) where we can learn and practice together. Look for details soon!
There have not been alot of words making their way onto my blog lately. The reasons are both simple and complicated. The simple reason is that I’m still crazy busy these days. Most of the busy-ness is work-related, but there have been other things. Like facilitating another leadership workshop, making Halloween costumes, dealing with indoor soccer schedules, and then all those other things that show up unexpectedly. Throw in a little business travel, and I’m just about maxed out.
The complicated reasons aren’t so easy to explain. Maybe one of these days I’ll come on here and explain a little more about what’s going on, but for now let’s just say it’s a bit of a personal spiritual journey, combined with the birthing of a new creative “baby”.
This figurative birthing process has made me reminisce about my literal birthing experiences – the three that resulted in my beautiful daughters, and the one that resulted in my beautiful, though lifeless, son. The memory that’s been with me today is that of my coming into motherhood experience.
Nikki had a really difficult entry into this world. I still find myself – nearly a dozen years later – getting a little emotional when I remember the intensity, pain, frustration, worry, seamingly endless agony, and yet ultimate joy of that experience (and a whole lot of emotions in between). It started out with me being induced because a fetal assessment showed (rather incorrectly) that she was a little on the small side and that my fluids were getting low (a week after she was due). Inducement led to hours of waiting for something to happen, followed by nearly 36 hours of labour (there’s the “endless” part), three hours of heavy duty pushing, followed by an urgent call to the only obstetrician in the city who could do the necessary procedure to to deliver her without a c-section, lots of tearing and stitches, and then finding out that she had to be rushed away from me to be treated with antibiotics because there was a risk of infection.
When she was finally born, after all those hours of pushing, I had gone almost completely (though thankfully temporarily) blind. It turns out the agony of pushing for that long can mess up the muscles around your eyes so badly your vision gets messed up. They put my baby on my chest, but I had to rely on Marcel’s description of her and the touch of my fingers to know anything about how she looked.
Not long afterwards, she was whisked away, and because it was late and we all needed rest, I was returned to my room and Marcel and my mom left the hospital.
The memory that has been clinging to me today has been not so much about the delivery but about what happened later that night. I awoke in the middle of the night and was suddenly filled with the most intense body-aching loneliness I had ever felt. My family had gone, and the baby that had moved in my womb for the last nine months was way down the hall behind nursery room glass. I’d given birth to her, gone through nearly unbearable pain to introduce her to the world, but I didn’t even know what she looked like.
My eyesight had returned and I knew I HAD to see her. I knew it with the deepest longing imaginable. But I was in so much pain, I couldn’t even figure out how to shuffle my body up in the bed in order to reach the call button to get the nurse.
But there is little that can get in the way of a mother who needs to see her child. I struggled for what seemed like an eternity, but I somehow managed to get my body up off the bed and down the hall. The nurses looked up in amazement as I passed them and entered the nursery. I’m sure there was a rather desparate look in my bloodshot eyes.
I found my baby. And I wept at her loveliness. She looked so tiny and vulnerable, hooked up to all kinds of wires and hoses, lying nearly naked in an incubator. Truly, she was not a beautiful baby – after what she went through to get into the world, it’s hardly surprising – but she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
I reached out and touched her skin and knew that I had fallen completely and irreversibly in love.
I’m not sure why this is on my mind today, but I’m sure it has something to do with this creative birthing process. Some of it is painful, and it’s possible that what comes of it may never “live”, but at this point, I have to believe it will be beautiful.