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The Goddess of Willendorf & Does My Uterus Make Me Look Fat?

“Loving, knowing, and respecting our bodies is a powerful and invincible act of rebellion in this society.”
~ Inga Muscio

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Replica on my birth altar.

I do not remember the first time I ever saw her, but I do know that I have loved the Goddess (Venus) of Willendorf sculpture for many, many years now. I consider her almost a personal “totem.” I do not see her as a literal representation of a particular deity (though when someone uses the phrase, “Great Goddess” or “Great Mother,” she’s the figure I see!), I see her more as honoring the female form. I love that she is so full-figured and not “perfect” or beautiful. I like that she is not pregnant (there is some disagreement about this and many people do describe her as pregnant) and what I like best is that she is complete unto herself. She is a complete form–not just a headless pregnant belly–I just LOVE her. She represents this deep, ancient power to me.

In a past assignment for one of D.Min classes, I wrote:

I have a strong emotional connection to the Paleolithic and Neolithic figures. I do not find that I feel as personally connected to Egyptian and Greek and Roman Goddess imagery, but the ancient figures really speak to something powerful within me. I have a sculpture of the Goddess of Willendorf at a central point on my altar. Sometimes I hold her and wonder and muse about who carved the original. I almost feel a thread that reaches out and continues to connect us to that nearly lost past—all the culture and society and how very much we don’t know about early human history. There is such a solid power to these early figures and to me they speak of the numinous, non-personified, Great Goddess.

I know ancient goddess figures are commonly described as “fertility figures” or as pregnant, but most of the early sculptures do not actually appear pregnant to me, they appear simply full-figured. One of the things I love about the Willendorf Goddess is her air of self-possession. She is complete unto herself. She may be a fertile figure, but she is not clearly pregnant and she does not have a baby in her arms, which indicates that her value was not exclusively in the maternal role. Early goddess figurines are usually portrayed alone, it is only later that we see the addition of the son/baby figure at the mother’s breast or in arms. The earliest figures seem independent of specifically maternal imagery, it is later that we begin to see Goddess defined in relationship to children or as exclusively maternal. I think this reflects a shift that women continue to struggle with today (in Goddess religion as well as personal life) with the mother role see as exhaustive or exclusive. In contemporary society, the only mainstream representation of the Goddess that manages to survive under public recognition is the Madonna and Child and here, not only has Goddess been completely subsumed by her offspring, but she is no longer even recognized as truly divine.

This image has been a potent affirmation for me many times in my life. One Mother’s Day, my then four-year-old son Lann found a IMG_0636little green aventurine Goddess of Willendorf at a local rock shop: “We have GOT to get this for Mom!” he told my husband and they surprised me with it that afternoon. It still makes me get a little teary to look at it, because it was such a beautiful moment of feeling seen by my little child.  When I found out I was pregnant for the third time, my husband surprised me with a beautiful, large Goddess of Willendorf pendant. I was holding onto that pendant during the ultrasound that told us that our third son no longer had a heartbeat and during my labor with my little non-living baby, I wore and held onto the pendant. It went with me to the emergency room and I could feel its solid, reassuring weight against my chest when dressed in just a hospital gown and receiving IV fluids as blood continued to come from me as my body said goodbye to my baby. I buried a goddess of willendorf bead with my baby’s body and put a matching one on his memorial necklace.

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Bead ready to go in with my baby.

On Mother’s Day the following year, right after finding out I was pregnant with my rainbow baby girl, my husband gave me a beautiful new Goddess of Willendorf ring. I was little scared to wear it, because what if she too, became a sad reminder of a pregnancy lost (I have only worn the pendant again a tiny handful of times since the miscarriage-birth experience, even though I took a lot of comfort in it during that time), but wear it I did up to and through the moment when I caught my sweet little living girl in my own grateful, be-ringed hands.

The website that he bought the ring from went down shortly after and I’d not ever seen another ring like it for sale. However, I signed up to become a retailer for Wellstone Jewelry in 2011. While on the phone making an order, I requested one of their Venus of Lespugue pendants. The woman on the phone told me, “we don’t sell very many of those. She seems to make people uncomfortable. In fact, we used to make a ring too. A venus of willendorf ring, but no one ever wanted her. I think because 1057she is ‘too fat’ and she makes people feel weird.” Oh my goodness, I replied, I think I have one of your rings! I emailed her a picture of my hand and sure enough, though discontinued now, I’d coincidentally gotten one of the last ones ever made. She said they could get the mold out of storage and make some more custom rings just for me. Since I’m a business genius (what? You said they never sold? Sign me up for a dozen!), I immediately said yes and she shipped me several beautiful Goddess of Willendorf rings, which I then sold to several friends. (I still have two left if anyone wants to buy one! I would wear them all if I had enough fingers. My favorite ring ever!)

What does this have to do with my uterus making me look fat? Well, I’ve had the experience of wearing this ring and having another woman, a wonderful, peaceful, healer of a woman, laugh at it, like it was a joke ring. My mom sold a pottery sculpture version of the Willendorf to a man at our craft workshop and he laughed at her too saying, “this is hilarious.” Hilarious? Because she is fat, I guess? Several years ago, I read a post online titled Does My Uterus Make Me Look Fat? and I thought of my beloved Goddess of Willendorf, She of the Ample Uterus. While I can no longer locate the article itself and the post I had linked to in my drafts folder takes me to a re-direct site, I remember the article talking about how even pre-teen girls have a slight swell to their bellies. The author of the post was like, “duh, a flat belly IS NEVER POSSIBLE. THERE IS A UTERUS IN THERE.” When I read it, I thought about the jewelry woman’s comments about women not liking the goddess of willendorf ring because she is too fat. And, I saved a couple of quotes, the first two from the Our Bodies edition of Sage Woman magazine (Spring, 1996):

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Batik Goddess of Willendorf from a friend at my blessingway.

“…so it has been: women’s power has declined as woman’s belly has been violated and shamed…5,000 years of patriarchal culture has degraded belly, body, woman, the sacred feminine, the soul, the feminine sensibility in both women and men, native peoples, and nature–all in a single process of devaluation. Because our belly is the bodily site of feminine sensibility, our patriarchal culture marks the belly as a target of assault, through rape, unnecessary hysterectomies and Cesarians [sic], reproductive technology, legal restrictions on women’s authority in pregnancy and childbirth, and belly-belittling fashions, exercise regimens, and diet schemes…a culture that literally hates women’s guts…” –Lisa Sarasohn, The Goddess Ungirdled

“Our bodies are vessels of the sacred, not the homes of sinful urges. Our bodies create and sustain the sacred. And that sacredness does not equate with any artificial notion of bodily perfection. All of us are fit habitations for the divine, no matter what the diet doctors, fitness gurus, health good fanatics, New Age healers, and the fashion police try to force on us. If we don’t take our bodies into account in our expression of [our religion], then it becomes a mere shadow of itself. When we are fully present in our bodies [women’s religion] becomes a three-dimensional, vibrant, fully fleshed-out expression of the divine…” –DeAnna Alba in How to Flesh Our Your Magick

And, perhaps from the original Does My Uterus Make Me Look Fat article, I had this quote saved as well that addresses the “love your body,” rhetoric so often expressed, including, I suppose, in even the quote I chose to open this post:

“the fact that “love your body” rhetoric shifts the responsibility for body acceptance over to the individual, and away from communities, institutions, and power, is also problematic. individuals who do not love their bodies, who find their bodies difficult to love, are seen as being part of the problem. the underlying assumption is that if we all loved our bodies just as they are, our fat-shaming, beauty-policing culture would be different. if we don’t love our bodies, we are, in effect, perpetuating normative (read: impossible) beauty standards. if we don’t love our individual bodies, we are at fault for collectively continuing the oppressive and misogynistic culture. if you don’t love your body, you’re not trying hard enough to love it. in this framework, your body is still the paramount focus, and one way or another, you’re failing. it’s too close to the usual body-shaming, self-policing crap, albeit with a few quasi-feminist twists, for comfort.”

–saved from this post

March 2014 023
Even though I am a goddess sculptor myself, I have never been able to make my own version of the Goddess of Willendorf that satisfied me. I tried polymer clay, I tried pottery clay, I tried making my husband make one for me. None of them were right. Finally, just this month, my husband said, why don’t you make one, but using your own style? This was an ah ha moment for me and guess what, it worked! I successfully used the same technique and structure I use for all of my sculptures, but with a Willendorf-style-twist and I finally made my own sculpture that I’m really proud of. My husband made a mold and cast her in pewter and I’m wearing her right now. Her uterus might make her look fat, but to me, she is one of the most powerfully affirming images of womanhood I have ever encountered and there is nothing funny about her.

        “Your body is your own. This may seem obvious. But to inhabit your physical self fully, with no apology, is a true act of power.”

–Camille Maurine (Meditation Secrets for Women)

March 2014 022  March 2014 038

International Women’s Day: Body Prayer

I roam
sacred ground
my body is my altar
my temple.

I cast a circle
with my breath
I touch the earth
with my fingers
I answer
to the fire of my spirit.

My blood
pulses in time
with larger rhythms February 2014 040
past, present, future
connected
rooted
breathing.

The reach of my fingers
my ritual
the song of my blood
my blessing
my electric mind
my offering.

Breathing deep
stretching out
opening wide.

My body is my altar
my body is my temple
my living presence on this earth
my prayer.

Thank you.

I wrote this poem in the spring of last year and was very pleased when Trista Hendren, author of the children’s book The Girl God, wrote to ask permission to reprint it in her new book: Mother Earth. I received my copy of the book last month and wanted to offer a mini-review of it today, International Women’s Day, because as Trista says, it is “a beautiful tribute to the world’s first ‘woman.’” Mother Earth is theoretically a children’s book, but it offers an important message and call to action to all world citizens. Along the top of the pages is a story, written as a narrative experience between Trista and her daughter Helani, about the (human) mother’s need to rest. The story evolves into a message about the Earth and the care and rest she is crying out for. Each page features a large illustration and below the illustration is a relevant spiritual quote, poem, prayer, or message.

February 2014 038(I got a big kick out of seeing the company I keep on the back cover…Buddha, Hafiz, the Dalai Lama, Starhawk…Molly Remer?!)


I’m still wrapping up the school session as well as preparing for a big event next weekend. I feel taut, overcommitted, crabby, snappy, distracted, and out of time for writing even though I have a pile of ideas for things to write about (always!). Trying to remember that this is normal for me during the week of final paper grading and final exam giving and does not indicate a permanent state of imbalance requiring mass quitting of everything, but that is still how it feels in my (tired) body. It was nice to revisit this poem and take some quiet time to read the whole book.

I wrote a prayer for mothers last year on International Women’s Day:

See your worthIMG_8522
hear your value
sing your body’s power
and potency
dance your dreams
recognize within yourself
that which you do so well
so invisibly
and with such love.

Fill your body with this breath
expand your heart with this message
you are such a good mother.

via International Women’s Day: Prayer for Mothers | Talk Birth.

It is also important to remember the sociopolitical purpose of this day:

International Women’s Day is not about Hallmark. It’s not about chocolate. (Thought I know many women who won’t turn those down.) It’s about politics, institutions, economics, racism….

As is the case with Mother’s Day and many other holidays, today we are presented with a sanitized, deodorized, nationalized, commoditized version of what were initially radical holidays to emphasize social justice.

Initially, International Women’s Day was called International Working Women’s Day. Yes, every woman is a working woman. Yes, there is no task harder perhaps than raising a child, for a father and a mother. But let us remember that the initial impetus of this International Working Women’s Day was to address the institutional, systematic, political, and economic obstacles that women faced in society.

via How we miss the point of International Women’s Day–and how to get it right. | What Would Muhammad Do?.

In years past, I also wrote about the connection to birth as a feminist issue:

“The minute my child was born, I was reborn as a feminist. It’s so incredible what women can do…Birthing naturally, as most women do around the globe, is a superhuman act. You leave behind the comforts of being human and plunge back into being an animal. My friend’s partner said, ‘Birth is like going for a swim in the ocean. Will there be a riptide? A big storm? Or will it just be a beautiful, sunny little dip?’ Its indeterminate length, the mystery of its process, is so much a part of the nature of birth. The regimentation of a hospital birth that wants to make it happen and use their gizmos to maximum effect is counter to birth in general.” –Ani DiFranco interviewed in Mothering magazine, May/June 2008

via International Women’s Day, Birth Activism, and Feminism | Talk Birth.

Happy International Women’s Day! May we all find the space in our day to take a deep breath and honor our bodies, our families, and women around the world who are working, working, working every day to make the world a gentler place to live. (Even if we sometimes get snappy while doing it…)

November 2013 061

Thesis Tidbits: Birth as an Initiation

“We owe it both to our children and to the world, to conceive, birth and welcome our children with as much love and prayerfulness as possible.” –Jackie Singer (Birthrites)

“Childbirth is a rite of passage so intense physically, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, that most other events in a woman’s life pale next to it. In our modern lives, there are few remaining rituals of initiation, few events that challenge a person’s mettle down to the very core. Childbirth remains a primary initiatory rite for a woman.” –from the book MotherMysteries

via Thesis Tidbits: Birth as a Shamanic Experience | Talk Birth.

I recently finished reading a short book called Return to the Great Mother, which is very specifically focused on giving birth as an initiatory event. It includes a variety of birthing women’s voices and experiences with accessing the energy and wisdom of the “great mother,” be it archetype, an inner resource, or one face of the Sacred. The author, Isa Gucciardi, writes:

Giving birth is one of a series of important initiations a woman may experience in her lifetime. Initiations are intimately tied https://www.sacredstream.org/components/com_virtuemart/shop_image/product/b0e92ae33095ca07867acb0a841a9f05.jpgwith change. They bring the initiate from one state of being into a new state of being. Initiations accomplish this task by putting the initiate through a series of experiences that challenge them in a particular way and bring them into new ways of being and of understanding. The initiate must meet these challenges and overcome any obstacles in order for the initiation to succeed in bringing about these changes.

Today, many people going through initiations and many people managing initiations do not have a clear understanding of the nature of the power and vulnerability that is at the heart of initiation. Initiates must render themselves vulnerable to initiatory processes in order for initiations to become complete, and the power in that vulnerability must be managed carefully and thoughtfully. Most importantly, for an initiation to be successful, that power and vulnerability must be safeguarded and dedicated to the initiate.

The process of meeting an obstacle and overcoming it in order to ultimately gain greater insight and power is described by Joseph Campbell as the “hero’s journey.” The “hero’s journey” is an initiatory experience. Every woman takes this journey when she gives birth and it can be the primary initiation a woman undergoes in the course of her life.

Often a woman encounters herself in an entirely new way during the process of giving birth. She may encounter the effect of traumas long buried, or she may encounter fear long denied. She may also discover power deep within herself that she had never imagined.

When the processes of birth are allowed to take their course, a woman with the proper care has the opportunity to come to terms with whatever may arise. In doing so, she may experience a shift into a new way of being or understanding. Yet, when the birth process is interrupted, or not properly held, the power of the initiation is often lost or distorted… (p. 10)

We know that women do not always have full and free choice when it comes to decisions about their birthing bodies and childbearing years…so, how does this impact the initiatory process? Isa writes:

In modern births, the power of the initiation of birth is often co-opted by doctors, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, and hospitals. It is also co-opted by the fear of pain and the influence of friends and family. It is difficult for women to hold onto the power of the initiation of birth under these circumstances. The unfortunate implication here is that the subsequent initiations of women interrupted in this way will be affected by their inability to hold onto the power of their birthing process.

Based on the level of interruption of the birth initiation caused by unnecessary interventions in the birthing process today, it seems reasonable to suggest that many women experience incomplete initiations when giving birth…

(Personally, I would clarify that it is not that women are unable to hold onto the power of the birthing process, but rather that it is often systematically stripped from them.)

Each of my children’s birth experience was an initiatory event for me, but in varying ways. With my first, it was the initiation to motherhood, the mystery and anticipation of giving birth. The crucible moment for me with him was actually my journey through the harrowing landscape of postpartum. With my second son, giving birth rapidly and with great intensity and power, the initiation felt like it was in letting go and hanging on for the ride—letting my mind stop and my body go. With my third birth, which was my first miscarriage, the initiation was in the physically grueling and bloody aftermath of his birth and then the broad, deep, unknown, transformative path of grief and change. I still feel as if this was one of the most powerfully initiatory experiences of my life. (And, I did have an encounter with one face of the great mother.) After Alaina’s birthday this week, I was talking to my husband about my memories of this last birth and telling him that I do not review the details of her birth with the same sense of power or initiation as the births of my other children. It doesn’t hold that same “touchstone” energy for me as the births of my boys—experiences that I continued to draw strength from as I went on into other events in my life. I don’t return to her birth for strength or courage the way I remember returning to the births of each of my sons. And, then I said it was because with her, the pregnancy was the initiation. The long, long, path of pregnancy after loss and all the fear and all the hope and all the strain of feeling the feelings and doing it anyway. Her birth itself was the moment of relief. The end of a trial, rather than the triumph or peak experience of the births of my first two babies. So, while of course I still carry powerful and potent memories of her birth as well, it was the journey of pregnancy that holds the talismans of initiation for me.

In her classic book Shakti Woman, Vicki Noble describes giving birth as a central shamanic experience and perhaps the root of all shamanism:

“I believe I underwent an initiation of the most ancient variety, birth as a shamanic experience, the central act of female shamanism—the quintessential act that offers a woman a completed experience of facing and moving through her fears to the other side. It isn’t that birth is the only way for a woman to experience this initiation—many women climb mountains or face other kinds of physical endurance tests and also come through it reborn into their power. But biologically birth is a doorway, a given for most women on the planet. It is fundamental opportunity to become empowered. Most of us giving birth today do not have the full experience, which is co-opted and distorted beyond recognition, changed from an active process into something that is done to us, as if we don’t know how to do it ourselves. Reclaiming the right to birth in our own instinctual way is a shamanic act of courage that has unfortunately become as remote to us as our ability to fly through the night in the form of an owl or heal the sick with the power of the drum. It wouldn’t hurt if we began to think of our birthing and child rearing as central parts of our shamanic work…” (p. 223).

via Thesis Tidbits: Birth as a Shamanic Experience | Talk Birth.

I just finished a new sculpt for a medium sized version of our classic birth goddess pendant and Mark cast and finished some of them last night. I woke up this morning with a phrase from a past piece of poetry floating through my mind over and over:

Soft belly January 2014 088
no longer bearing children
I am pregnant with myself
ripe with potential,
possibility, power
I incubate my dreams
and give birth to my vision…

I also thought about what I hope to communicate to others through my sculptures and when I took the new pendant down to the woods with me, a little song emerged to go with her:

Birth mama
birth goddess

reaching out
to join the circle of mothers

feeling her way
finding her place
in the web of women

Birth mama January 2014 050
birth goddess

hold strong
hold steady

make way for baby
make way for baby

Body opens
heart opens
hands open to receive

Birth mama
birth goddess

she’s finding her way
she’s finding her way…

Disclosure: I received a complimentary digital copy of the book for review purposes.

Thesis Tidbits: Birth Mystery

“Women’s mysteries, the blood mysteries of the body, are not the same as the physical realities of menstruation, lactation, pregnancy, and menopause; for physiology to become mystery, a mystical affiliation must be made between a woman and the archetypal feminine. A woman must sense, know or imagine herself as Woman, as Goddess, as an embodiment of the feminine principle…Under patriarchy this connection has been suppressed; there are no words or rituals that celebrate the connection between a woman’s physiological initiations and spiritual meaning.”

–Jean Shinoda Bolen

“Birth, like love, is an energy and a process, happening within a relationship. Both unfold with their own timing, with a uniqueness that can never be anticipated, with a power that can never be controlled, but with an exquisite mystery to be appreciated.” –Elizabeth Noble

While the phrase “birth is a mystery” may sound illogical on the surface, since birth is a normal, physiological process experienced every day by thousands of women around the world, at an emotional and experiential level it rings very true. No matter how many children we birth or how much we ​know​ logically about birth, each birth unfolds in its own unique way with its own unique timing and its own unique lessons. Most births require the crossing of a threshold of some kind—possibly emotional, usually physical, often spiritual, perhaps all at once. In my reading of Nané Jordan’s thesis Birthdance, Earthdance as I collect my research and thoughts for my own dissertation, I particularly enjoyed this quote about the mystery of birth:

Birth really invites ​mystery​ into our lives if we can, or want to, receive that. Wound up into that ​mystery​ is personal and societal fear of death, which birth, as female shaman Vicki Noble has stand, stands at the doorway of. So much of medical birth practice is about diverting this ​mystery​ into knowable forms with time-tables, charts, clocks and interventions. Yet birth is older and wiser than our clocks and technological tricks. Every birth unfolds in its own way in its own time. Birth inherently asks a ​mystery​ of us, women in particular. This is a true gift of listening to it’s calling, allowing the ​mystery ​to be present and unfold in our lives as the new being emerges into our arms.

Jordan also lyrically describes her own journey deep into the heart of birth and the spiritual connection she found there:

…I was alone in myself with my baby. It was like the water guided me into a deepening trance of ‘open and give over mumma,’ by holding and relaxing me in her substance. I was a babe held in the womb of some Great Goddess, even as I held a babe in the waters of my own womb. And open I did. Instinctively mt hands were working with each sensation, palms up and open, hands out of the water and raised, like a salutation to the Goddess herself, ‘yes I feel your presence Mother as I am Mother now.” These actions were what came to me in the tub as I did what is known as ‘active labour.’ I would more describe it as a multidimensional dance of the universe, a meditation beyond meditations. I found myself hissssss-ing as each sensation built low down and then up along the sides of my womb. There was no mistaking this ssssssnake-like ssssssound that guided my body into birth, my palms stretching into an ancient salutation of forces greater than myself yet no bigger than myself…

I loved this depiction of ​forces greater than yet no bigger than myself​. I experienced this moment in birth as well. It reminds of a quote from an unknown writer: The power and intensity of your contractions cannot be stronger than you, because it is you. As others have written, ​I met myself in childbirth​ . And, I liked her. I’ve continued to learn from, draw upon, and reflect upon these birth experiences throughout my life to date (my oldest child is now ten).

“Birth is one of the most profound teaching experiences life offers. It touches us in the depths of our souls, the most private recesses of who we are. It requires that we respond with more creative energy, more conviction, more trust, than almost anything else we do. Birth requires an intensity that is rarely demanded by other experiences…And through it, we can learn more about ourselves, our strengths, our weaknesses, our relationship patterns, and our needs than through almost any other experience we will face in our life.” ~Nancy Wainer Cohen (Via: Peaceful Birth Project)

Have you met yourself in childbirth? What did you learn? How have you carried this forward into your own life?

 

Related past post: Birth Mystery | Talk Birth

Crossposted at Pagan Familes.

 

Birthrites: Ritual

October 2013 021“This is my body; this is the temple of light. This is my heart; this is the altar of love.”

–Sufi song (quoted in Birthrites)

I received a lot of wonderful books for Christmas this year. One that particularly caught my attention was Birthrites: Ceremonies and Rituals for the Child-bearing Years by Jackie Singer. While it doesn’t contain any ritual outlines, per se (which I had been hoping for), it does contain a lot of thoughtful information. I especially appreciated that it includes information about creating ceremonies to acknowledge a variety of outcomes during the childbearing year, including infertility, abortion, and miscarriage, as well as full-term birth. Two quotes from Birthrites about the value and purpose of rituals in general:

Making ritual diverts our attention from the everyday tasks of survival, and for a brief time allows us to notice and comment on where we are. Faced with the awesome experience of findings ourselves conscious in an unpredictable universe, making ritual is a noble attempt to confer rhythm and coherence to our lives…

…there is a paradox inherent in the whole concept of new ceremony, because part of the power of ceremony is that it has the weight of tradition behind it. In times of continuity, ritual would be something handed down by the elders. Perhaps this is an ideal, but we do not live in times of continuity. Rather than abandoning the whole idea of ritual as irrelevant, we need to respond to the challenges of our fast-changing age by renewing ritual practise in a way that honours the past but makes sense to us now.

This reminded me of my own previous post about blessingways and the role of ritual:

…We’re blessing each other. When we “call down a blessing” we’re invoking the connection of the women around us, the women of all past times and places, and of the beautiful world that surrounds us. We might each personally add something more to that calling down, but at the root, to me, it is an affirmation of connection to the rhythms and cycles of relationship, time, and place. Blessings come from within and around us all the time, there’s nothing supernatural about it.

I also think, though I could be wrong, that it is possible to plan and facilitate women’s rituals that speak to the “womanspirit” in all of us and do not require a specifically shared spiritual framework or belief system in order to gain something special from the connection with other women.

In another book I finished recently, The Power of Ritual, the author explains:

“Ritual opens a doorway in the invisible wall that seems to separate the spiritual and the physical. The formal quality of ritual allows us to move into the space between the worlds, experience what we need, and then step back and once more close the doorway so we can return to our lives enriched.”

via Blessingways and the role of ritual | Talk Birth.

This post is part of a four-part series of short posts from Birthrites.

Thesis Tidbits: Mary Christmas

Mary Goddess with child Paola Suarez sm

Mary and Child painting by blogging friend Paola Suarez

“…When I say painless, please understand, I don’t mean you will not feel anything. What you will feel is a lot of pressure; you will feel the might of creation move through you…”

– Giuditta Tornetta in Painless Childbirth

I am outsider to Catholicism and other branches of Christianity, but I see Mary as an aspect of the sacred feminine that weaves its way through a variety of religious traditions and practices. As a Unitarian Universalist myself, I believe there are many ways to touch the “chord of the sacred” within each of us and that we can find threads of commonality and expression in most religions. Since it is Christmas today, I wanted to share some intriguing excerpts from several different Mary-themed blog posts that touched me this week and that also relate to my dissertation topic of birth as a spiritual experience…

The first is from a birth blogging friend Kelli, who writes with love and tenderness about what the Christmas story can teach us about giving birth:

Another thing that Mary surely understood was that she was specially chosen to bring this new life into the world through the capabilities of her own body alongside that unconstrained power that placed him there in the first place. For birth is about releasing expectations and trusting that you are supported. It is knowing that just by the way your body was designed and grew this life, you are capable of bringing this life forward. In our modern world, what birth is all about hasn’t changed. It isn’t about dreading pain. It isn’t about wondering if “they” will let you do this or that. It isn’t about enduring it until it is over. It isn’t about being afraid and resigning to hope simply for a healthy baby. The child you carry is destined to impact the world. We may not know how, but we can know it is for certain. As the mother of this child, you matter. Mary is revered as holy by many of varying faiths. If giving birth is not sacred work, then what is? Birth, mamas, is about knowing. How this special and amazing child you carry comes into the world matters a great deal. How this child’s mother is revered before, during, and after the process of birth matters a great deal…

via How Can the Christmas Story Teach Us About Birth? – Confluence Mama.

Then, from a pagan blogger from whom I borrowed my post title today, this post about being pregnant with divine potential:

What could be more magical than conceiving, gestating, and giving birth to the embodiment of Christ consciousness?

What could be more magical than birthing the return of light into a darkened world?

What could be more magical than dissolving shame and restoring the brilliant shine to a woman’s life?

For all its shrillness and glitter, the Christmas season offers us images of Mary, big-bellied, pregnant with the Power of Being, however you might name it.

Allowing ourselves to deepen into those images might well dissolve the shame that so often obscures the light imbuing our bodies. Allowing ourselves to resonate with Mary might well unleash the life-celebrating energy already radiating from our bellies, our body’s core…

via Mary Christmas! Being Pregnant with God – PaganSquare.

And, of course, the breastfeeding activist in me thrilled to read this article about Pope Francis supporting public breastfeeding and this juicy, relevant snippet caught my eye about the image of the nursing mother—Mary—as historically symbolic of God’s love:

The cultural shift was so great that even Catholics soon came to regard the breast as an “inappropriate” image for churches. Instead, the sacrifice of the cross – the suffering Jesus – became the dominant motif of Christianity while the Nativity was sanitized into a Hallmark card.

“Ask anybody in the street what’s the primary Christian symbol and they would say the crucifixion,” said Margaret Miles, author of “A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast, 1350-1750,” a book that traces the disappearance of the image of the breast-feeding Mary after the Renaissance.

“It was the takeover of the crucifixion as the major symbol of God’s love for humanity” that supplanted the breast-feeding icon, she said. And that was a decisive shift from the earliest days of Christianity when “the virgin’s nursing breast, the lactating virgin, was the primary symbol of God’s love for humanity…”

via Pope Francis backs public breastfeeding! And that makes him traditional… | Sacred and Profane.

On a related note, I also recently enjoyed seeing a picture on my Facebook feed of one of my birth goddess sculptures standing on shelf next to a Lego Pope and a lovely nativity set.  🙂

Merry (or Mary!) Christmas to you and may we all celebrate the birth of divine potential as we greet the dawning of a new year.

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Thesis Tidbits: Cut, Stapled, and Mended

Recently I found myself totally absorbed by Roanna Rosewood’s birth memoir: Cut, Stapled, and Mended. In an unexpected overlap with my thesis project topic, in many ways Rosewood’s book is about a journey to the sacred feminine within herself. This thread of the discovery of the larger forces of what it means to be female that runs throughout the book makes a perfect connection to my thesis topic about birth and spirituality (though, I’ve actually switched my topic again and am returning to using birth as the subject of my dissertation instead). Writing about the blessingway ceremony her mother and some friends had for her, Roanna wonders, “After the initiation of birth, will I feel comfortable in the world of women?” (p. 33).

Later, after her second cesarean, she hears from other people the comment that so many other women experience when they experience disappointment or trauma in birth: at least you have a healthy baby. Roanna writes, “I lift the corners of my mouth in silent submission, ignoring my heart’s protest: Birth is not an accident, to be celebrated when you make it through alive. Birth is a rite of passage. There was something I was supposed to do. I am not strong enough to bring life into this world, not good enough. I am unworthy of procreation. Incomplete. An actor playing the role of a woman” (p. 89).

During the birth of her last child, she feels the might of creation pass through her and feels she is herself inhabited by the Divine: “Only then does the Divine come, taking my body as her own. I am no longer alone. There is no fear…I experience completeness. I find religion. Infinity is tangible. Generations of children, their dreams, passions, defeats and glories—they all pass through me, converging here, between my thighs…” (p. 146-147).

She touches on this theme again as she concludes her beautifully written book:

“I understand why we fear birth and seek to make it a sterile and planned event. But doing so denies us our greatest opportunity: partnership with the divine. It’s not possible to numb oneself to fear, pain, and death without also numbing ourselves to courage, pleasure, and life” (p. 160).

Speaking of my thesis/dissertation, sometimes my mind boggles at how wonderfully the Internet “smallens” the world. Nané Jordan, who I quoted in my original thesis proposal, happened to find my blog post and offered to send me a copy of her own dissertation and thesis on birth/women’s spirituality related themes. The package arrived today from Canada and I am very much looking forward to digging into her work. I’m also sending one of my own pewter goddess pendants back to her and I love to know how we’ve made this connection, through words, from across the miles. 🙂

“This is a pilgrimage into women’s wholeness and holiness in giving birth. A journey into re-weaving human connection to the Earth and to each other through birth.” –Nané Jordan in Birthdance, Earthdance

And, this quote caught my eye via The Girl God on Facebook this evening:

“The only people who should run countries are breastfeeding mothers.” – Tsutomu Yamaguchi; Hiroshima Survivor

Tuesday Tidbits: Breastfeeding and Menstruation

I actually meant to make this post last week following my LLL meeting, but the day (and the week) spiraled away from me and before I knew it, it was already Tuesday again! As I mentioned in my last post, at our meeting we started out talking about breastfeeding and intimacy, which led into a discussion of breastfeeding and fertility as well as many other interlocking topics. It reminded me of some saved items-to-blog-about, especially this post from Lucy Pearce:

I don’t know about you, but I rarely see anything written about breastfeeding and your moontime, I mean how mamas cope with the ups and downs of their cycle while giving to their little ones 24 hours a day? Is it just presumed that if you are breastfeeding then you don’t have a cycle? I know this is true for many women (I’ve known women not bleed for 2 years!) but for me, my bleeding time has always returned after a few months, despite exclusively breastfeeding.

Most days breastfeeding is such a joy, I love the oxytocin high I get when I snuggle with my little one and feed all night long- BUT the days and nights just before my moontime, I feel touched out, wound up by the constant demands and I JUST WANT MY OWN SPACE!

…I have some ‘rules’ that I adhere to on my Sacred 1st Bleeding Day- I DON’T cook, clean, wash or do any ‘housework’, I DON’T work (although occasionally you might find me peeping in on Facebook!), I DO eat simple nourishing foods, I DO some gentle exercise- sometimes a bit of yoga, more often a walk in nature, I have a period of SILENCE to listen in to my inner wisdom- sometimes that has to be a few mins with my eyes closed while feeding.

I know- I’m lucky to have a supportive husband who accepts this- I think because I would take ‘Sacred Days’ when he first met me, he knew the score! So he is happy to take on household duties and extra childcare on these days to support me- and in the bigger picture, by supporting me on these few days I am able to be there for him and my family the rest of the month! (This is possible as we both work part time, so we can support each other, share childcare and housework)

via Blood and Milk – Self-Care for Breastfeeding Mamas who are Menstruating | The Happy Womb.

My presentation about “moontime” was very well-received at the LLL of Missouri conference in 2013 and I’ll be doing an encore presentation in 2014. However, I did not include anything in it specifically about how to handle being a menstruating, breastfeeding woman—time to make some additions! And, speaking of Lucy Pearce, I’m right in the middle of her amazing new book The Rainbow Way, which is about mothering and creativity. I’m getting my blog post finalized for her Carnival of Creative Mothers and I’m just loving this book, this topic, and this creative life I am weaving with my family.

Speaking of creativity and mothering, a lot of my energy has been going into creating some new sculptures to be cast in pewter for my collaborative project with my free-range husband. I feel like I’m frequently patting myself on the back about them, but I just can’t help myself—I feel so pleased and really kind of impressed that we’re doing this. I didn’t know we could and yet…look!

1459073_10202506420051769_817650504_nNovember 2013 100 November 2013 101 The first and last photos are of new designs that I created after our fall women’s retreat this past Saturday. The last one (which I’m currently wearing!) reminds me of this quote that I read today for one of my classes:

“I can be a strong woman and laugh loudly and sing joyfully and dance wildly occasionally. I can imagine incredible things and weep if I need to.”

(woman speaking in the book To Make and Make Again: Feminist Ritual Thealogy, on why rituals matter)

And that reminded me of a lovely recent post by a friend about her sacred work:

She speaks the words and I hear the rumble
Rumbling, within me
It IS a calling
For it calls to me
Deep in my soul, my heart, my sleep
It is in every fiber of my being

via Sacred Work | Midwives, Doulas, Home Birth, OH MY!

Okay, so now I’ve moved totally away from my post theme and I don’t really have time to pull it back. Nor can I re-title it and start over, because it does segue..so, for now, I’ll bring it around the circle by mentioning that last week on my way to class, I listened to my favorite podcast, Voices of the Sacred Feminine. The first topic of the night was Women’s Spiritual Power by Hilary Hart (whose awesome sounding book Body of Wisdom went immediately on the top of my Amazon wishlist). She speaks about both menstruation and breastfeeding as powerful spiritual openings for women. Menstruation as a time of “cleaning out,” both emotionally and physically, not just for the mother, but for the whole family. She said mothers “process” the whole family’s emotions each month and clean the house, semi-metaphorically, for the family to renew and begin again. She spoke of breastfeeding as this relational, spiritual act that holds deep power. She also talked about birth and the power of birth as a creative, spiritual act. I enjoyed her thoughts because she doesn’t have children herself and nor does the host of the show and it was interesting to hear them touching on topics that I care about so much, but that they are viewing from somewhat of the “outside.”

The second topic of the night was the Sexual Politics of Meat. It may not sound that connected, but it did, in fact, tie right into my Birth Lessons from a Chicken article (in the podcast connections are made between the exploitation and domination of women and the sexual exploitation of female animals. In my article, I make the connection between the mothering and “birthing” behavior of the chicken and the birthing needs of women):

Then, one morning when my husband went to feed the chickens, he heard a funny noise. He looked at the broody hen and from beneath her, a fuzzy head appeared. Then two. Eventually, four. In this cold, cold weather at the wrong time of year with the wrong kind of feet and the wrong kind of eggs, she did it! We didn’t trust her, or believe in her. Our book and the experts didn’t either. However, her inherent mothering wisdom won out—it trumped us. At the risk of excessive personification, it truly seemed that she had believed in herself and trusted her instincts (or perhaps, that Nature believed in itself).

via Birth Lessons from a Chicken | Talk Birth.

Birth Mystery

“Whether a woman knows it or not, she is a vessel of great magnitude born capable of reshaping humanities destiny if she only knew the true depths of her innate gifts. Be prepared now to see the fierce face of the feminine rock as her inner geographies of volcanic strength erupt from a love she has held in her belly for life all of her days. This is not a gasp of her last breath. It is her birthing cry into her wise leadership on our planet.” –ALisa Starkweather

“Birth, like love, is an energy and a process, happening within a relationship. Both unfold with their own timing, with a uniqueness that can never be anticipated, with a power that can never be controlled, but with an exquisite mystery to be appreciated.” –Elizabeth Noble

“Birth is not a cerebral event; it is a visceral-holistic process which requires all of your self–body, heart, emotion, mind, spirit.” –Baraka Bethany Elihu (Birthing Ourselves into Being)

Last weekend, I taught our final Birth Skills Workshop of the year. While I know I have been writing about my sense of separation from birth work or the phase of “moving on,” in which I find myself, this workshop was an excellent experience. The women were so beautiful and interested and anticipatory. The couple working together was so loving. My doula co-presenter was so present and grounding. I came home feeling really positive and enthused and I also found myself considering new birthwork-related ideas and new possibilities, including something that I’m really excited about, but don’t feel like I can share publicly just yet. This work is in my blood, my roots, my heart and my soul, regardless of how direct the services are that I offer or the primacy/priority of face-to-face birthwork in my life. I will never not care about birthing women. They’re too amazing. They’re too important. And, my own sense of being, my spirituality, my thealogy, is too intimately entwined with my own embodied experience of gestating, birthing, lactating, and mothering, to ever make a full separation from it. After I got home and looked at my few pictures from the evening, I realized that in eight years of teaching birth classes, I have exactly zero pictures of me doing so! But, here is one of some of the mamas were enjoying a much deserved relaxation session after a lot of active birth practice. 🙂

October 2013 036This photo reminds me of the amazing benefits of co-teaching a workshop with another birth professional. SO much better than teaching alone ever was! Doula Summer of Peaceful Beginnings Doula Services and I have been friends for a long time (we also co-founded Rolla Birth Network). She has helped me when I’ve needed help and I’ve helped her when she’s needed help, but our helping skills/abilities rest in different areas, which is why we work extremely well together with a workshop like this one. I provide the information and structure, Summer provides the gentle presence and soothing hand. A good workshop needs both!

I also re-discovered how I do enjoy putting together a nice information packet! 🙂

October 2013 023

In addition to my workshop-related epiphany, I had a lightbulb moment with regard to my M.Div thesis. It suddenly seemed clear to me that rather than create a scholarly, academic discourse proving a theory about birth as a spiritual experience, I need to integrate my theories with my birth art sculptures. I need to frame my work within this sculptural context, this personal experience, this lived reality of the might of creation. I have 234 pages of possible content for said thesis, all saved in an intimidating word document waiting to be sorted through and added to. It is overwhelming to even open. With my new idea of framing my thesis through my own art, I feel a pathway emerging through the information, a pathway that integrates the academic and the personal and that results in something uniquely my own…

October 2013 011

Some of my sculptures-turned-pewter-jewelry.

“Be soft. Think of [labor] as a fine silvery stream, not a raging waterfall. Follow the stream, have faith in its course. It will go its own way, meandering here, trickling there. It will find the grooves, the cracks, the crevices. Just follow it. Never let it out of your sight. It will take you.” -Sheng-yen

“We vibrate to that primordial rhythm even before we have ears to hear…We vibrate to the rhythms of our mother’s blood before she herself is born. And this pulse is the thread of blood that runs all the way back through the grandmothers to the first mother.” – Layne Redmond (August 19, 1952 – October 28, 2013): Drummer/Composer, Author and much more (via The Girl God)

“Within the womb of every woman glows the consciousness of Mother Earth.” –Roslyne Sophia Breillat (via The Girl God)

Thesis Tidbits: The Wise Women Behind, Within, and Around Us

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“The Childbearing Year” sculptures cast in pewter.

When I first described my thesis project about birth as a spiritual experience, I described my use of the word “spiritual” in this way:

When I use the word “spiritual,” I mean a range of experiences from a humanistic sensation of being linked to women around the world from all times and spaces while giving birth, to a “generic” sense of feeling the “might of creation” move through you, to a sense of non-specifically-labeled powers of Life and Universe being spun into being through your body, to feeling like a “birth goddess” as you pushed out your baby, to more traditional religious expressions of praying during labor, or drawing upon scripture as a coping measure, or feeling that giving birth brought you closer to the God of your understanding/religion, or, indeed, meeting God/dess or Divinity during labor and birth).

via Birth as a Spiritual Experience (Thesis Project) | Talk Birth.

Just this week, a mother shared a link to her birth story on my Facebook wall and there, embedded within the body of her narrative, was exactly the kind of thing I’m exploring with my thesis:

The pain was deep and blinding at this point. I was still pacing. I felt out of control, my primal being had been unleashed and it was a spirit I could no longer cage. I yelled that I couldn’t do it, I begged for help. In my mind I was screaming, I wanted to claw at my eyes, rip out my uterus, jump off a cliff and end my pain.

Then something happened… I don’t remember what was said, but the walls around me rung with words of encouragement from my men, and from the wise women.

All of a sudden it didn’t feel like we were just 6 people, but the very ground beneath opened and the walls melted and the ceiling cracked to reveal the sky and what I saw were the souls of billions of women who had come before me, gathered together in support of us. I opened my eyes and suddenly it was as though I was immeshed in a tightly woven tapestry of all the mothers who have ever existed- all my sisters and grandmothers- that had birthed their children before me and they held the space- I found myself surrounded by souls from every time and place. These were women of the cities, of the jungles, the sierras, the ghettos, the caves, the shores… these were mothers from every single culture, every walk of life. Starting deep and low and getting louder and louder was a chanting, and in my mind’s ear I heard some ancient song that these mothers sang to me- and it brought me one message: I can do this. I am doing this. I am safe. I have the power. I am protected by all the mothers who have come before me and I will hold the space for all the mothers who will come after In that moment, I was protected and supported by every mother who had ever existed- they stood around me in a circle and from them, I drew my strength.

No more fear. No more pain. I banished the negative feelings and harnessed all positive energy. I opened my eyes and looked deep into the eyes of my child and I was moved by his wisdom- Joell smiled back at me and a universal truth made itself known to me in that moment: all children are deeply connected to birth. Something in his eyes told me, “You can do it, mommy”. They understand the universe in ways we cannot fathom. They are the wise ones, and from them we have much to learn.

via A Slightly Twisted Fairy Tale » A Perfect Circle: The homebirth story of Carmelo Cypress, pt. 1.

I’ve also been catching up with issues of Midwifery Today and noticed the following quote in the article, “Searching for Ancient Childbirth Secrets” in Midwifery Today Autumn 2013. Tsippy Monat writes:

“Anthropology describes trance as a condition is which the senses are heightened and everyday things take on a different meaning. Communicative competence with other people may increase or may not exist. Facts of time and place are revealed differently than in normal everyday consciousness. This description reminded me of situations encountered at birth because birth is a condition in which the mind is altered. When I accompany births, I experience the flooding of oxytocin and endorphins. In Hebrew, the root of the word birth can also mean ‘next to God'” (p. 49).

And, in an essay based around an article about an old Gemanic/Jewish naming ceremony that I wrote for a different blog, I wrote:

If power does indeed rest in the stories that are told, how would the birth culture in the US change if we did have stories and rituals like the Hollekreisch (with original connection to the Goddess intact, of course)? In their book Milk, Money, and Madness, Michels and Baumslag explain: “In western society, the baby gets attention while the mother is given lectures [emphasis mine]. Pregnancy is considered an illness; once the ‘illness’ is over, interest in her wanes. Mothers in ‘civilized’ countries often have no or very little help with a new baby. Women tend to be home alone to fend for themselves and the children. They are typically isolated socially and expected to complete their usual chores, including keeping the house clean and doing the cooking and shopping, while being the sole person to care for the infant…” (p. 17)

This is in contrast with perhaps the original function of the Hollekreisch ceremony which acknowledged the mother’s vital role:

“The consistent connection of the ritual with the motherʼs rise from childbed, and the home-based nature of the ceremony, seem to indicate that the Hollekreisch ceremony gave the mother an important role. Hayyim Schauss, whose research was based on interviews, eyewitness accounts, and historical writings dating from the seventeenth century, indicates that in some areas of Germany, a synagogue ritual preceded the ceremony. The mother of the child walked to worship with the local rebbetzin and donated a new wrapper (wimple), with the infantʼs name sewn onto it, for the Torah scroll. This allowed the mother and her ability to give birth to be celebrated along with the new child—which may be precisely why the ceremony became associated with, or was originally rooted in, the legend of Frau Holle” (p. 66, emphasis mine).

via Hollekreisch: Honoring Childbirth.

Also in a new family project that actually has deep roots in my personal experiences with birth as a spiritual experience, Mark and I have been working on making pewter versions of some of my birth art sculptures. This one is my pushing-the-baby-out sculpture, the original of which was created to help me prepare for the birth of my last baby:

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I am a wild woman
and the spirit of every wild woman
coalesces in me
for we are each wild women
and we are all the spirit
of the wild woman.
I will follow the voice in my heart.

~ Melissa Clary, quoted by Raising Ecstasy

(via Journey Of Young Women)