On Being a Midwife

egg nest-843231_1920Today is a special day. April 18th. The anniversary of David’s death.

But this year, it’s especially meaningful because that date falls on the same place in “time” that it fell on the day David passed. Easter Saturday.

Knowing that this sacred season is filled with special graces, I’ve been taking it slow, going within. Paying attention. And I’ve received one heck of an unexpected, insightful gift. From an unlikely source. The popular Netflix series “Call the Midwife,” based on Jennifer Worth’s memoirs of midwifery in 1950’s poverty-stricken East London

First off, I should explain that I’m always behind when it comes to watching anything on TV or otherwise. So, you’ll understand when I say I’m only on season 1. Last week I was watching episode 7, a Christmas story about a newborn being abandoned on the convent steps by an unwed teenager. But it was the scenes around the tragic life of Mrs. Jenkins that held my unexpected gift.

Years earlier, newly widowed with five children to feed, Mrs. Jenkins had made the excruciating decision of turning herself and her brood over to the “care” of one of England’s notorious workhouses. All of her children had died there, malnourished and mistreated. Now she lives in abominable conditions, neglecting her health and hygiene, and the midwife/nurse Jenny Lee is sent to care for her.

In one particularly moving scene, Nurse Jenny, joined by Sr. Evangelina, comes to her home to bathe her. Like a silent intruder, I watch as the two women attempt to remove Mrs. Jenkins’ shoes, stuck to her feet after all these years, and tenderly disrobe her for her bath. With her thin, naked back exposed, O Come, O Come Emmanuel plays over this intimate undertaking. Surely this is God dwelling with us and in us, so evident by the love and care with which these two women lower Mrs. Jenkins into the bath, cover her frontal area as they sponge her back so that she will not feel any shame or discomfort. She appears wide-eyed in disbelief over what they are doing for her.

I cry easily. This selfless act strikes my heart open. No doubt because it’s achingly beautiful.

But it’s something more.

Something deeper that I can’t yet express or identify. The removal of Mrs. Jenkin’s shoes, the tender touches the two women applied to her body. The water and washing.  The one who had difficulty accepting and receiving such care.

It’s all so familiar.

It takes a few days before I understand this scene’s personal significance. Before another tender scene involving water and washing surfaces in my memory.  A scene involving someone who also had difficulty receiving. My husband.

It’s January 2009. David is cashing in on a silly gift I’d given him for New Year’s Eve: a handwritten, magic marker-colored I.O.U. for a foot bath and massage.

David was the serious one in our relationship. I was the let’s-find-some-new-adventure half of our marriage. While he provided stability and focus, I dabbled in creativity and wonderment. Knowing that he would ignore this holiday, let it pass without any fanfare, as he would have so many others if not for me and Davis, I decided to come up with a novel idea. Create a stack of I.O.U.’s, each one a personal treat: a free backscratching, dinner at his favorite restaurant, homemade breakfast any weekend. He chose the foot bath and massage first.

foot-massage-2133279_1920It’d be an understatement to say I was surprised. David – agreeing to such indulgent treatment? David, the guy who could barely handle receiving attention on his birthdays?

But I was grateful. Grateful for this opportunity to lavish him with care.

And months later, I would be grateful for this memory.

As I prepared the footbath, David sat waiting quietly in his favorite easy chair. He wore his terrycloth robe – the one article of clothing I would hold onto longer than anything else he’d owned, as if his scent would never fade. I placed the footbath on the carpet before his feet. And now, this man, this devoted husband who’d given me so much through our years together, allowed me to kneel before him and lovingly wash and caress his tired feet, to gingerly massage his toes, bent and inflamed with diabetes, to rub lotion on his calloused heels, hardened by years of neglect. In giving this to him, I received in return his humble appreciation, visible in his moist eyes as he simply said afterward, “Thank you, honey. That’s the best gift you could’ve given me.”

It was the last gift I would give him. And it turned out to be his gift to me.

Less than three months later he would die unexpectedly. A heart attack taking him too soon on that glorious Easter Saturday morning. A morning not unlike the one I experienced today.

Call Jennifer shell broken

In the Midwife episode, after her bath, Mrs. Jenkins appears to be renewed. Wearing the new coat Nurse Jenny obtained for her, she walks upright, no longer carrying the weight of shame. She’s recognized something in herself through the eyes of love. Through their tender attentiveness, Nurse Jenny and Sr. Evangelina had practiced a different kind of midwifery.

A midwife is an intermediary, someone who meets you in the middle of what you’re expecting and assists you all the way through it to the other side. Hadn’t that been what I had done for David, without even realizing it? Holding that in-between space for him? Helping him to receive and accept the selfless, abundant love that awaited him over the threshold he would soon cross?

The irony is that David had been an arbitrator, a labor relations mediator. He had been the one who’d calmly held this in-between place for others, the place between what is and what is possible. He had taught me how to be that for him.

Eleven years is a long time. I no longer grieve as I once did, no longer fear that the well of grief is bottomless. It isn’t.

I have learned that love takes many forms. That it truly is stronger than death. That every act of self-giving love, of selfless service, brings us closer to the threshold of waking up into who we truly are. The Beloved in God.

Maybe I did walk David home.  Maybe I helped him cross that threshold.  And maybe once again, it’s David who’s given me the real gift.

walking each other

The Heart of the World

20171010_184558 (1)
Artist’s image of the Sacred Heart I “happened” upon while on retreat

Sometimes I need to reground. Connect with my center again.

 

With all that’s been surfacing lately – within the world and within myself – I knew I needed a day away. I planned it for October 10th – my 36th wedding anniversary. A day when I feel especially held and embraced by love.

I knew I’d feel the spiritual support I needed.

I chose my favorite place – a Franciscan retreat center in New Mexico. A place with real wide-trunk trees and leaves that actually curled and floated to the ground, crunching underfoot, making me feel like fall has truly arrived.

It’s no Sevenoaks (in Madison, Virginia), but it’s probably as close I’ll get to it around here.

Holy Cross tree
A wide-trunk tree is cause for joy in New Mexico

Why? Because I hear the invitation.

I hear an invitation to let go of “distractions,” like Martha in the Gospel story, distracted by so many things when only one thing matters.

The Divine invites my mind to rest. My heart to awaken. My soul to remember.

arise-beautiful-one-solomon

Only when I am still and my mind is silent can I remember who I am and whose I am.

Only then can I “hear” the voice of the Divine calling me “beloved.”

 

And from this place, I can reflect more easily on this heart of God. The heart that I’ve been asked to receive in that meditation. This heart of the world that bleeds for all, yet doesn’t die. This heart that never stops loving.

But in reflecting on this heart, I also hear another invitation. An invitation to let down my boundaries. The self-imposed ones I created to protect me, to keep me safe. I recognize them very clearly in this place. I see how they’re holding me back.

What if I cross these boundaries?

Is that the invitation I’m hearing now? To cross the boundaries that prevent me from knowing who I am eternally in God? Boundaries that prevent me from knowing myself “hidden with Christ in God forever”?

What if I then discover that we all belong to this Heart? That no one and nothing can exist apart from it? That we are never separated from the heart of God? Even when we’re unaware. Or we reject it. Or we think we don’t deserve it.

No one and nothing is excluded.

Sacred Heart

It’s one heart. And it’s the heart of the world.

I’ve created my own collage of this heart. Cutting out photos that cause strong reactions in me. Pasting these tiny pictures into a heart-shaped image. A sacred heart where everyone is included.

Everyone.

From innocent children to violent gang members. From poets to presidents. From Mexican immigrants to poverty-stricken Nigerians. From Jihab-wearing women to white supremacists. They all fit in this bleeding, bulging, beating heart.

It causes me to weep. And to soften, so that, ever so gently, I can move beyond my self-imposed boundaries. Into the very center of this sacred heart.

And I just may find that I wake up on the inside of understanding the intimate immediacy of the One who calls me “beloved.”

 

20171011_225025 (1)
My collage of the sacred heart of the world

The Voice of the Beloved

belovedness_claim

 

Since today is my birthday I decided to write about something special to me. The voice that calls me beloved.

It’s what brought me here. It’s what sustains me.

And it’s what speaks to me from the depths of any confusion or concern, fear or uncertainty I may experience. Calling me to be still. And know my belovedness.

I experienced it again over the weekend when I came up against a tough, unavoidable situation, in which, for various reasons, I wound up being alone in the house to deal with a very miserable guest. As this woman began projecting her blame and misery onto me, I felt her negative energy threatening to zap my own. I struggled to stay grounded and centered in the midst of it. I envisioned a circle of light around me for protection. And I avoided her as much as possible. But it was tough.

On Sunday a reflection from Inward/Outward showed up in my email box. As I read Kayla McClurg’s words, I heard the voice of love calling me back to remembering who I am. Towards the end of her reflection, Kayla quotes Raymond Carver’s poem “Late Fragment” — a short poem he wrote on his hospital bed when he was dying.

By the time I got to the last line, I knew what I had lost sight of in the presence of the energy-zapping woman.

raymond carver_best fragment

Kayla then asks: “Are we, too, learning to call ourselves beloved, to feel ourselves beloved on the earth? Are the fragments making us whole?”

In the midst of her questions, an inner voice asked, Do you know yourself as the beloved? Do you allow yourself to feel it, to take it in, and to live with the truth of this in your soul?

In all honesty I knew that, on most days, I did not. And I suspect that I’m not the only one who has difficulty with this.

But Spirit fully intended for me to get the message this time. Later that evening, when I picked up Henri Nouwen’s book Discernment, hoping to read a little before going to bed, these lines came up within the first paragraph:

“Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us God’s beloved. Being the beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.”

The core truth.

The crux of our existence is that we are beloved.

The voice of Love tells us this. Again and again and again. Until at last we can accept it and fully take it in.

This being Holy Week in the Christian tradition, I was reminded how, at the end of his life, Jesus was certainly surrounded by negative energy. Daggers of hatred. Projections of fear and misery. Yet always he walked the earth grounded in the love of the One who sent him, able to hear the voice that called him the beloved. Despite what was going on around him.

So, in my meditation, I ask Jesus, “Did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?” Tears forming as I ask the question because I know the suffering and intense humiliation he endured. “I can’t imagine why you would have…”

And then the answer comes: “Yes, because I drew you to myself.”

A response so beautiful. So loving. So beyond what I can fully understand. Unless I know myself as the beloved.