Faith, Family, & Focaccia

A faith and culture Mommy blog, because real life gets all mixed together like that.

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Yoga and Eucharist (and kisses)

I have been feeling pretty negative about bodies lately.

What I mean is that I have been visited by recurrent imaginations about how great it would be if human beings could somehow exist without physicality – without all the horribleness that comes from having all of our experiences filtered through the fragile medium of corporeality. In part this has been a reaction to my own body going through a bit of a rough patch. Along with some of the common annoyances that come with moving into my late 30s I have been struggling with an emphatic recurrence of chronic back problems. It feels like I should be used to this after twenty years of on and off problems, but this time I’m just done with the whole thing.

I am done with pain that invades my day (or my week) and prevents me from really enjoying anything that is going on in my life, no matter how good.

I am done with laying on ice packs and taking stretching breaks every hour in order to still be able to walk and to move my arms by the end of the day.

I am done with having to tell my kids “Mommy can’t do that” for things I really want to be able to do with them.

I am done with having to constantly check my instinct toward snappiness and irritation that has nothing to do with the people around me and everything to do with the nagging drain of aching pain.

I am just done with it.

Except I can’t actually be done with it because my back is what it is, and I can’t really live without it, and “doing the work” to live a posture-conscious lifestyle seems to actually be increasing the pain in the short-term. So, I just have to accept it and try to figure out how to be the person I want to be even in an imperfect and sometimes pain-filled body.

It’s not just my personal pain that is bothering me, though. Back spasms are nothing compared to the horror of what we humans are doing to each other’s bodies for a whole host of entirely insufficient reasons. I can barely get through a commute’s worth of Morning Edition without crying. Bodies removed in pieces from shelled apartment buildings in Gaza. Bodies being picked over by looters after being shot out of the air in their commercial jet. And we are not even talking any more about the bodies that were snatched from their school rooms and have been suffering the ravages of so-called “marriage” now for months.

And I can’t just be “done” with all of this horror either, because turning off my radio just makes me apathetic. It doesn’t do anything to heal all the broken bodies – or all the souls left behind in anguish by their loved one’s absence.

So, instead, I am writing. It’s not a very profound thing to do, and it probably will not make any difference at all to all the broken bodies and broken lives whose stories are breaking my heart every day. But writing is my therapy – my way to reach into myself and give my soul room to breath and observe and stretch and strengthen.

I guess for me writing is really more like yoga than therapy.

I’ve just recently taken up a weekly yoga practice again, which has provided a little help with the back pain. More than that, though, it has been encouraging me to reconsider my reactive rejection of the physical. My instructor repeats the same phrase each time she calls us to tune into our bodies.

“Become aware of your body and notice anything it might be saying to you, any areas of tension or discomfort. No judging, just awareness.”

No judging, just awareness. That’s a hard one for me. My instinct is always toward judging – not in the sense of a self-righteous desire to condemn, but in the sense of identifying the problem so that I can fix it. If some thing is wrong I don’t just want to be aware of it. What good is awareness? It just makes the pain worse because it removes the numbing effects of distraction. If something is hurting I want to conclude that it is wrong and then do something to fix it.

But in my third week of community yoga last night, as I did my best to breath into the mantra – no judging, just awareness – it finally started to sink in. The knot of pain between my shoulder blades was screaming for attention, and my response all day had been to frantically try to stop the screaming – through stretches and ice packs and finally a few ibuprofen tablets. Nothing was helping. As I sat in the stillness of a light-filled yoga studio, however, I stopped trying to adjust my position to relieve the pressure and I just breathed. I noticed the tension, and I accepted it, and I let it accompany me through the rest of the practice.

I’d love to say that this was some magic cure, but of course it wasn’t. I went to bed last night in pain and woke up with pain as my faithful companion.

But there was a change. I was no longer experiencing the pain as an invasive force that I had to resist with all my might. I understood the pain as part of my own body, and that makes a difference. When I was fantasizing about the escape from physicality I was rejecting the fact the embodiedness is fundamental to humanity. Pain is horrible – I will even be so “judging” as to say it is wrong – but that doesn’t make bodies wrong. Bodies are human.

And when this very simple truth finally broke through all the physical and emotional and moral frustration that has been tying me in knots, I immediately remembered a point from a sermon podcast I listened to last week. The pastor, Nadia Boltz-Weber – a woman who has walked her own rather convoluted path regarding what to do with her body – was talking about the way that the physicality of the sacraments speaks to her.

Having grown up very “low church,” sacraments were never a very central component of my faith. Christianity for much of my life has been much more about “what” I believe, or maybe “who” I follow. The “how” of historical religious activities has at best been in the background for much of my faith journey. But when Nadia talks about taking bread and wine, her voice crackles with emotion. The gratitude she feels for this practice throbs in the way she describes the miracle of physical reminders of God’s presence, in her gratitude for how God was and is embodied in fragile physicality. Eucharist is no formal, religious form – it is an intimate act of awareness. An intention to notice the way in which God tore away all divisions and entered completely into the human experience, including the experience of ultimate brokenness.

God’s participation in our brokenness is not a solution to the problem of human fragility and pain. I am starting to realize that maybe solution is not really what I need. Ways to prevent it whenever possible – yes! Always! But the fact that bodies break, that pain hurts – these are not really solvable problems in this time and space. What I need is a better ability to live in the physicality, a way to accept the pain, to notice it, and then to allow it to be part of me as I continue the practice of living. Yoga is helpful in this. A God whose broken body speaks to me every week, telling me that I am not alone is even more helpful.

At least one other thing is helpful too. When my son cups my face in his little hands as I kneel for a hug before leaving him at preschool for the day… when he purses his impossibly soft lips and presses them against mine for one more kiss… when he demonstrates for me with perfect childhood wisdom how essential it is for love to find expression in bodily contact… then I can remember again what a gift it is to have a body.

And by some miracle, tonight’s writing has been both yoga and therapy for my soul and my body. My back has stopped aching. Thank you God!


Anthropomorphizing Worms: On Politics, Religion, and Projections

I have never been very fond of worms. My first up-close encounter with the little, wriggling, invertebrate monsters was on a fishing trip with my High School bestie and his grandpa. We had two bait options: salmon roe and live worms. Without question the worms were vastly more attractive to the fish in our particular lake. I DIDN’T CARE! There was no way I was going to pick up a live worm with my bare hands and feel it’s mushy, squirming slitheriness on my fingers for the rest of the day. NO THANK YOU!

I have lived almost twenty years since that squeamish afternoon on a lake and I am thankful to say that I have matured a bit. I can now appreciate that worms do me a valuable service in my garden and I do not squeal or jerk violently away when one is unearthed by my digging. All the same, I am still not eager to touch them. I think it is the way they move – so snake-like. I can’t help feeling like their blind bobbing heads are searching for a way to wriggle up my sleeve to send shudders of revulsion down my spine.

The Gigglemonster also squeals when he sees worms…. but for a totally different reason. He is delighted by the icky little things! During recent spring weekends spent in intimate contact with the dirt of our flower beds the Gigglemonster has gotten giggly with excitement every time I unearth a new specimen for his inspection. He eagerly scoops them up with bare fingers, exclaiming over the way they undulate across his palms, and even crooning to them in his softest, most nurturing voice (the one he uses with babies and puppies).

The delight I cannot explain – unless by an allusion to the old nursery rhyme about what little boys are made of, and I try to make a point of resisting such gender stereotypes. The crooning, however, has a clear reason. He wants to reassure them. In his mysterious little four-year-old brain this comfort is clearly necessary because the worms are scared. After all, my violent spade work has just turned them out of their homes. What is more – apparently – they miss their Mommies. This is the reason he does not cherish any of his new “buddies” for an extended friendship. He has to put them back in the dirt so that they can find their Mommies again, “because little boys don’t like to be away from their Mommies.” (By the way, worms are all boys, according to my son, because they have no hair and girls have long hair. We haven’t gotten into the question of what the mommy worms look like. I don’t think my worm aversion could deal with the visual).

I share all of this with you not because my child is unbearably cute and the world needs to have evidence of that fact, but rather because his adorable anthropomorphic assumptions have me thinking.

It is easy to laugh indulgently about the silly ways that little boys ascribe human feelings and motivations to very non-human beings like worms, but perhaps there are parallels in adult life that are not nearly so silly. The particular inspiration for that conjecture is the Gigglemonster’s comments about little boy (worms) missing their mommies. It does not take a very long mental jump to interpret the reason for that belief. The Gigglemonster has been reacting a bit to my recent return to the workforce. Nothing too extreme, but he is clearly feeling the stress and needing even more reassurance and comfort than is normal for my already clinging youngest child. “Missing his Mommy” is how he feels, and he projects this feeling onto a very dissimilar being with only the thinnest veneer of justification for doing so. This is the pattern that suddenly struck me while simultaneously cringing and grinning at his one-way conversation with his worm friends.

It is just so easy to convince ourselves of the external reality of projections. So easy to believe that the attitudes or motivations we perceive are accurate. So easy to see another person – one much more similar to ourselves than a worm – and to honestly believe that we know where they are coming from. But, these beliefs are not necessarily any more accurate than my son’s deduction about the gender of hairless worms.

I am thinking particularly of the areas of human interaction that can exist in the absence of strong personal relationships, because relationships require some level of intimacy. When we know another person as an individual we have some awareness of their differences from ourselves. We experience them a separate. But our shrinking, digitized world is increasingly providing us with opportunities for interaction that lack this interpersonal, relational element. When those interactions also have the capacity to elicit strong emotional reactions we have a recipe for projections run wild.

I am thinking particularly of politics and religion.

Politics and religion. They have always been somewhat taboo subjects for polite conversation, of course, because of their tendency to engender strong emotions. In the age of online comment feeds, however, the taboo has been lifted. Why worry about being offensive when you are screened by the anonymity of a computer screen? And why consider the humanity of your adversary in a vitriolic word battle when those words are typed at arm’s length from your keyboard, or your smart phone screen?

Of course, it is not always apparent to us that we have stopped seeing other people as actual people – people with different thoughts and feelings than ourselves. In fact, on the surface it seems abundantly clear that we see nothing but their differences. But this is exactly the impression that the Gigglemonster’s worm-friendships helped me to recognize as a fallacy.

“Projection” is the term psychoanalysts use to refer to unconscious interpretations of another’s feelings or beliefs that arise not from that other person but rather from the person doing the interpreting. So, when we are engaged in a twitter battle with some faceless representative of the opposite side, and we are certain that we can precisely pin down their nefarious motivations for holding such an untenable position, the situation begs the question of exactly how we can be so sure. When our argument is not with a personal we actually know – someone with whom we have shared the kinds of interpersonal interactions that allow us to recognize them as a separate person who thinks and feels differently than we do, on what is this assurance based? Chances are, that sense of certainty is actually derived from projections.

In making these projections we have a least two possible paths to take.

The first is to imagine what feelings or attitudes we would be experiencing if we were exhibiting the behaviors we observe. In a sense, this is what I am doing when I squirm away from the wriggling residents of my garden. I see frantic-seeming motion and I subconsciously believe that I am interacting with a being under the influence of fight or flight instincts. My own heart beat elevates; I feel the sympathetic rush of adrenaline that tells me to lash out to protect myself; and I know that I want nothing to do with a creature acting under those kinds of stress. I am tapping into my less charitable tendencies and therefore ascribing antagonistic motivations.

In the case of garden worms, this does no real harm, of course. With people… it is not always so innocuous. I observe someone arguing for a position that I could not hold with moral integrity because of my belief system, and I assume they must lack moral integrity. I read arguments that from my lips (or typing fingers) would be ignorant, or arrogant, because they misrepresent the reality that I have observed, and I assume that willful ignorance or arrogance are character traits that define my opponent. I do not recognize the personal, individual humanity of the person with whom I am arguing and so I do not see that their position might come from a position of integrity within their own experience. And I know I am not alone. I have only to read one of the various open letters to some straw man archetype (“The mom on her iPhone” or “the gay supporting Christian”) to see evidence of this kind of projection. It is so much easier to win an argument with someone who does not really exist.

Of course, there is another way that projections can operate – one that is a bit more charitable. When my son projects his feelings onto garden worms he does so in an empathetic way. He looks for information about the situation they find themselves in and he projects onto that situation the way he would feel. This is a projection that elicits sympathy and efforts at understanding, however misplaced. In the end, he is probably no more successful at actually understanding the worms than I am, but his reaction to them is nurturing rather than antagonistic. He projects not his darkest side, but his most vulnerable, and therefore he reacts with compassion.

I don’t know that there is really much hope for genuine human dialogue in the realm of cyber communication. We are not conditioned to get to know one another before we challenge the comment we read after a news article. That takes too much time and actual human contact. All the same, if we are really going to be dealing with our own projections rather than the actual person on the other end of the comment thread, perhaps we could all take a tip from the Gigglemonster. Rather than projecting our hypothetical motivations for the words we read, let’s try projecting our empathy for the kinds of experiences that could produce such different beliefs.

I, for one, want to try…. at least with humans. I still don’t like worms.