when did we decide that we were bad at art?

Here are watercolors, she said. Paint.

birth retreat 1

Here are pastels, she said. Draw.

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Here is clay, she said. Create.

birth retreat 2A gathering of mothers. A time and space set apart. A whole afternoon to ourselves, to pause and pray and ponder what it means to approach pregnancy and childbirth as something spiritual.

At Peg’s retreat, I thought about birth and babies and becoming a mother all over again. But weaving between these weighty meditations were simpler sensations: the chalky smear of pastels on my fingers, the ghost-white trace of clay under my nails, the wavy curl of paper as watercolors dried.

When was the last time I let myself make art for an entire afternoon?

Sometimes I sit down with the kids at their small table in front of the sunny window and I doodle while they draw. Or I dip a brush and make soft strokes while they paint. Or I roll playdough into long coils while they squish and smash their creations.

But I never make art. Not on my own.

Why? Because I’m too busy. Because it’s not what grown-ups do. Because I’m not good at it.

. . .

All the way home from the birth retreat, I turned one question over and over in my mind: when did we decide that we were bad at art?

Many adults I know, who colored and drew and painted and pasted their way through childhood, no longer make time for artistic expression. It’s considered child’s play. Delightfully entertaining or developmentally enriching for little ones, but not a serious way to spend time as mature, productive members of society.

But when did this shift start? When did art cease to be an essential way we explored the world? When did it become reserved for the talented, the elite, the lucky few?

I used to love making art – at school, at home, in classes at our local art institute. I especially loved the pottery classes: the whirl of the wheel between my knees, the slippery slide of the glossy clay between my fingers, the surprising emergence of something new and warm between my hands.

But then I stopped. I can’t quite remember why – maybe sports seemed more important, maybe art seemed less cool, maybe the insecurity of adolescence whispered that I should shy away from somewhere I didn’t excel.

So now it seems daunting to start making art again – how? where? when? Why am I afraid of what used to seem so simple? Is it still the worry of looking like a fool? The intimidation of not knowing where to begin?

Or the primal, pulsing fear of failure?

. . .

Only six weeks left till the due date. Of course my thoughts wind birth-ward every day.

Heavy with baby, I watch my boys scrawl with sidewalk chalk, paint pages with watery doodles, color their latest crayoned masterpiece. I see how they trust themselves to create, how un-intimidated they are by the blank page, how much energy they pour into their work and how much delight they take in showing it to others.

At night when I dip into the childbirth books on my nightstand, I find myself turning over and over one question: when did I decide that I was intimidated by birth? When did this biological capacity become something to fear, medicate, suppress, or evade? Why do I have to psych myself up with the mental focus of a marathoner for a natural process that my body was created to do?

It’s a gross oversimplification of a complicated question, I know. The process of labor and delivery can be complex and dangerous, to say nothing of long and painful. Even if I had seen a hundred births in my lifetime, as other women my age would have in other cultures or eras, I might still be as terrified of the known as of the unknown.

But I can’t help but wonder what difference it might make to laboring women if we thought of ourselves as powerful co-creators.

If birth had remained at the center of our culture rather than being shoved to the side.

If we understood more about our bodies and their potential.

If we didn’t listen to the voices who told us we weren’t strong enough.

If we hadn’t decided we weren’t good at it.

. . .

I’m trying to practice, a little every day. (Easier said than done.)

Breathe, don’t balk, through the Braxton-Hicks contractions. Focus, don’t flinch, when the pressure of baby gets too intense.

Paint something, don’t write, when my mind wants to muse. Sit with the kids, don’t scurry, when they’re creating.

Step aside from the well-worn grooves of thinking one way. Sit with the possibility that there might be another path.

. . .

Yesterday afternoon my son came to me in tears because the tail of the monkey he was coloring had torn off.

“I can’t do it another way!” he wailed when I gently suggested that he might try coloring the animal before cutting it out, so that he didn’t have to color on such a skinny tail. “I only can do it this way!”

What if we tried it again? I suggested. What if he took a deep breath to calm down? What if we worked together to try a new way?

His bottom lip still puffed out in a quiver, he hesitated. And then he nodded yes as he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, fingers still stained from the morning’s markers.

What if we were all brave enough to try, again?

how to prepare for a birth day

There’s the hospital bag, of course. Pre-registration paperwork. The Kegels you’re supposed to be practicing ten times a day. Delivery room playlist on the iPod. Deep breathing exercises. Child care arrangements for your other kids. Out-of-office email reply waiting and set to maternity leave.

But does any of that really prepare you for labor and birth?

Maybe I’m lazier this time around. (Ok, assuredly I’m lazier this time around.) But I can’t bring myself to motivate for so many pre-baby preparations that have typically consumed my thoughts by this point in previous pregnancies: cleaning and nesting, stockpiling frozen meals, setting up the baby gear, washing tiny onesies and newborn diapers.

Now whenever I get a free minute? I mostly want to sleep.

And instead of pouring over childbirth preparation books or crafting the perfect birth plan to hand to the nurses upon arrival at the hospital, I find myself shrugging whenever I think about Delivery-Day. It will come, it will be unexpected, it will be hard. And then it will be over and our baby will be here.

But just as I might have missed the opportunity for deeper reflection upon birth’s meaning the first time around when I was nothing but scared, I don’t want to miss the chance to explore the spiritual side of this huge transition simply because it’s my third time through.

Whether unknown or known, childbirth is a defining moment of a mother’s life. And I believe it is one of the “thin places” between heaven and earth.

So I’m wondering how to ready myself this time. How prayer can be part of the pain. How meditation can be part of my mindfulness. How each contraction can remind me that Christ is within me and beside me and before me.

I’ve already gathered a trinity of prayers for labor and birth. But as Lent surrounds me in the last months before baby arrives, I also find myself thinking about simplicity and surrender. How to let go of any lingering expectations and free myself to enter into whatever God has prepared.

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In my latest piece for Catholic Mom, I wrote about the journey from feeling terrified at the prospect of birth to finding peace in what will be a painful but powerful day of discovery:

I’m starting to see the spiritual side of birth in ways that I never would have dreamed when I headed to Labor & Delivery for the first time. Birth as beginning, birth as sacrifice, birth as rite of passage – God is intimately wrapped up in all these ways we understand this work that women do to bring life into the world.

Being intentional about this process – a sort of sacramental preparation – has helped me to bring hope, not fear, to the prospect of bringing another baby into the world.

Lots of ink gets spilled in parenting manuals and glossy magazines about birth plans, birth preparations, even identifying your health care provider’s “birth philosophy.” But approaching a spirituality of birth invites those of us who carry new life within us – as well as those who love and care for us – to view this work as prayer and to place our trust in God who accompanies us from the first contraction to the final push.

Read the rest at CatholicMom.com

And next week I’ll have the chance to enter intentionally into this deeper reflection, thanks to Peg Conway’s retreat on the spirituality of birth. Nell of Whole Parenting Family and I conspired to bring Peg to the Twin Cities (since both of us are now expecting #3!), and I can’t wait for this afternoon of exploring the prayerful parts of this sacred journey.

If you’re local and want to join us, please find more information on Facebook or at Enlightened Mama in St. Paul, MN, where the retreat will be held. And if you’re too far away to spend Saturday, March 22nd, with us, check out Peg’s wonderful book – Embodying the Sacred: A Spiritual Preparation for Birth.

advent: an at-home retreat

One Sunday in early November, I started making plans for Advent. (I’ve learned I have to prepare to prepare or else I lose Advent under a pile of wrapping paper and Christmas cards.) I thought about what I’d like to do to enter into the season this time around. More prayer? More writing? Less rushing? Less buying?

Yes, sure, always, definitely. But how?

The thought that sprung to mind and clung there desperately, yelling to be noticed was this: I want an Advent retreat.

Silence and stillness, rest and reading, prayer and poetry - all the things I love most about Advent are what I love about retreats, too. Time and space apart to encounter the grace of God around me, to recenter and recharge.

But I didn’t even need to glance at my calendar to realize it was a laughable prospect. Every weekend in December was booked months ago with company parties, family celebrations, our own traditions. Sure, it probably signaled a spiritual problem that I couldn’t free up a day away. But the reality of my life right now is that I don’t have time to hole up in a peaceful retreat center and soak up hours of reflection all by myself. I wish, I want. But I don’t have.

In true fashion I moped about this realization for a while. I banged a few pots in the kitchen, got cross with the boys, started stealing joy out of the corners of our day. And then it hit me: why not have an Advent retreat at home? If I simply stretched out a retreat over the whole season, I had all the time and space I needed. As long as I did only one small thing each day.

So I sat down and made a list of all the practices and activities I love about retreats. Some were self-care: take a walk, take a nap, journal. Some were spiritual: do centering prayer, go to Mass, reflect on Scripture. Some were simple: light a candle, listen to music, breathe deeply. And some were just laughable: go to sleep, do no housework, enjoy a meal that someone else cooked.

I wrote each activity on a piece of paper and placed them into a bowl. I decided I’d pull one out on each night of Advent, since a few require a bit of preparation to make possible. However the Spirit guided my retreat practice, I’d go with the flow. Even if it meant dragging my kids to daily Mass or working a walk into a bitter cold December day. Advent’s about openness, about preparing mindfully but remaining open to God’s surprises. And I could jump in, one day at a time.

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Late last night I pulled out the first purple slip of paper. And laughed out loud. Because my retreat will be starting with tonight’s dinner being prepared by my husband. (Who only half-grudingly declared that he was going to start his own Advent retreat of having his feet rubbed every night, so long as we were shoving our spiritual practices onto other people.)

So here we go. Advent’s here, and I’m retreating. In the mess of my home, in the corners of my calendar.

Care to join me? (Even if your significant other doesn’t cook?)