Birthing blessingways

When I was an expecting mother, a friend threw a birthing blessingway for me and it was one of the most treasured ceremonies ever thrown for me.  This friend is quite gifted in leading rituals and blessings and she taught me (possibly without knowing it) the incredible beauty of honoring time, honoring seasons of life, and bringing a community together to bless an individual facing a transition.  The space she created for me, with women who knew me intimately and loved me well, was indeed a blessing. 

My friend left Uganda a couple of years ago, and I have tried to fill the gap she left in our community by hosting birthing blessingways for other expecting mothers. Now, this ceremony has become absolutely sacred to me and is always a time I feel a great sense of Connection.  In no other ceremony do I feel as many goosebumps trickle up and down my arms as I do when I am with a group of women who surround a creator of life and honor her coming transition, honor her body, honor her excitements and her anxieties.  The spirit created in these circles of women is beyond expression and it has truly become the most sacred ritual I take part in.

Below, I share some suggestions for hosting a birthing blessingway for an expecting mother in your life.  When done with a spirit of reverence and community, I know it will bless all who attend.

A birthing blessingway is quite different from a baby shower.  Gifts are not necessary, although they can be incorporated if the host or the mother wishes.  Rather, this gathering has an emphasis on emotional and spiritual support for the expecting mother by those women who are closest to her.  It is not a gathering for the whole family and all of her friends, but rather a gathering of the women in her life from whom she feels the greatest love and support.  It is important that the mother make the guest list herself.  Preferably, it should be a rather short list to make for a more intimate gathering. 

It is also best not to incorporate time for guests to dole out advice for the mother.  Chances are, she's already overwhelmed by the unsolicited advice she has received from everyone else.  Encourage this to be a time of simply listening to and validating the mother.  It can be hard to hold our tongues with advice we want to give because we want to "help" our friends, but encourage guests to notice if the advice will truly serve the mother or if it might be coming from a place of making the advice-giver feel better about their own motherhood knowledge.  This can be a tricky line to draw, but it is one that encourages mindfulness in our interactions with women bearing life and facing many emotions.

Here are suggested elements to incorporate into the blessingway ceremony:

  • Ask guests to write a blessing to the mother before the ceremony, which they will read aloud.  In this blessing, they can include characteristics they see in her that will make her a great mother, what they will pray for, and what they wish for her, etc!  If you would like, you can ask the guests to arrive earlier than the expecting mother and when the mother arrives, the host can blindfold her and lead her through a line of women, who will each hold her hand and read their blessing to her one-by-one.  Collect the cards and papers these blessings were written on and give them to the mother.
  • Invite guests to bring a bead with them to the ceremony that reminds them of the expecting mother or represents a blessing they would like to give to her.  For example: "This is a red bead and red is a strong, bold color.  You are one of the strongest women I know and your boldness will serve you well in motherhood."  Each woman will give their bead and their explanation of it to the mother.  String these beads together for the mother to have with her during labor to remind her of all the women standing with her and to squeeze in her hands during a contraction!
  • When guests have been seated, go around the circle and have them introduce themselves through their maternal heritage as far back as they remember.  (You may want to give them a heads up on this so they can look it up before coming!) For example: My name is Dani and I am the mother of Leo, the daughter of Ruby, the granddaughter of Ruby, and the great-granddaughter of Blanche.
  • While each women introduces herself, pass around flowers and a piece of ribbon.  Each woman should wrap the flowers in the ribbon during her introduction, adding to each other with each woman to eventually make a flower crown.  At the end of the introductions, crown the expecting mother!
  • If the guests did not read their blessings to the mother as she entered the gathering, you can go around the circle again and do this.  Perhaps you can provide a ribbon that each woman wraps around her wrist after reading her blessing.  When all the guests have finished, note how the ribbon literally ties all the women together and remind the mother that all these women are here for her during this season of life.  You can then pass around a pair of scissors to cut the ribbon so that each woman can tie it around her wrist as a reminder to pray for the mother.
  • Provide a time for the mother to share about anything on her heart and mind regarding the coming baby and birth.  Invite her to share her excitements, fears, and emotions about anything from the changing relationship with her partner and other children to finances or the birth itself.  Encourage the guests to listen well to the mother without interjecting pieces of advice.  Don't rush this time - the mother may find herself processing emotions she has not had the time or space to acknowledge.
  • While the mother is speaking, one woman (or multiple women!) could draw a henna mandala tattoo on the mother's belly!
  • Say a final blessing or prayer over the mother.  This can be done by "anointing" her belly with oil - perhaps a special essential oil.

Do you know a mother you would like to bless, but you live far from her?  Throw her a blessingway from a distance!  Ask her for the contacts of her closest female friends and invite her to write out her thoughts and emotions about the birth and baby.  Share her thoughts with these women and ask them to send the mother a card with a written blessing, as well as a bead, as explained above.  It is sure to encourage her and remind her of the women in her life who will support her through this time.

Here I am at my blessingway, surrounded by very special women and feeling more than blessed.  I do, however, acknowledge that I look more hippie than ever with my flower crown, labor beads around my neck, henna belly tattoo, and rainbow California shirt! Ha!

Here I am at my blessingway, surrounded by very special women and feeling more than blessed.  I do, however, acknowledge that I look more hippie than ever with my flower crown, labor beads around my neck, henna belly tattoo, and rainbow California shirt! Ha!

A poem passed on

This morning, as I did yoga in our small library, Leo crawled around me and explored the room like active babies do.  At one point, he found the shelf with my old journals and yanked one out, leaving it open on the floor.  I went over to pick it up and it turned to a page where I had transcribed a poem given to me by my mother, to whom it had been passed from my grandmother and to her from my great-grandmother, Blanche Horner.

In the journal, I wrote: "My mom said that my Great-grandma Horner liked this poem so much that she sent it to all 10 of her kids.  She said, 'If you read it carefully several times and sort of take it as a philosophy in life, perhaps I will have served just a little.'"

Here is that poem, one withholding much wisdom, passed through the women of my family:

The Pleasure of Serving

All nature has an eagerness to serve.
The cloud serves, the wind serves, the furrow serves.
Where this is a tree to be planted, you plant it;
where there is an error to be corrected, you correct it;
where there is a difficult task that everyone shuns, you accept it.
Be the one who removes the stone from the road, hate from hearts, and difficulties from the problem.
There is the joy of being honest, and that of being just; but above all, there is the beautiful, the immense joy of serving.
How sad the world would be if everything in it were already done!
No rose bush to plant, no enterprise to undertake!
Do not feel called to do only the easy tasks!  It is exhilarating to do that which others shun!
But do not fall into the error of thinking there is merit only in doing great things.
There are small things that are real service; to decorate a table, to put books in order, to comb a little girl's hair.
That one criticizes, this one destroys; you be the one who serves.
To serve is not just a job for inferior beings.
God, who gives the fruit and the light, serves.
It would be well if He could call you, "(S)he who serves."
With His eyes on our hands, He asks us daily, "Did you serve today? Whom?  A tree, your friend, your brother?"
-by Gabriela Mistral of Chili, 1945

P.S. After further digging, it seems that Gabriela Mistral is quite the woman.  I'll be ordering Madwomen, a book of her poems, very soon.

A local gem: Gene Stratton-Porter

For someone who...
...craves nature
...devours books
...loves photography
...believes in the power of women
...wants to uplift the local,

it was exciting to re-stumble upon the life of an incredible woman, Gene Stratton-Porter, when investigating local sites around my home in Indiana.  I felt a connection with this woman just after reading about her online, so I knew I wanted to visit her cabin as soon as the weather warmed up.

Sure enough, April 1st, which happened to be the day her cabin at Wildflower Woods opened for tours, turned out to be the most beautiful day of the year so far.  Eric and I ventured over to this historical site to learn more about the woman who...
...studied nature with a passion and worked to conserve the wild
...wrote several popular novels and turned many of them into movies
...photographed the world around her
...broke limiting gender stereotypes and became wildly successful
...made her career in northeast Indiana.
 

 
 

After sitting in the sun and watching the many birds flit among the trees around this site at Sylvan Lake, we took a tour of Gene-Stratton Porter's cabin and grounds, all of which she designed herself and purchased with her own earnings - certainly an accomplishment during a time when her husband had to write to the bank, telling them she had his permission to own land.

We learned that this spunky woman would put on her pants (quite the act of rebellion) and spend all day in nature, often with only her camera and notebook.  With no zoom lens at her disposal, she would sit in a branch for hours near the nest of a bluebird until it got used to her and carefully snap a close-up.

Gene Stratton-Porter wrote 12 novels in her lifetime, many which still inspire today's writers and readers.  Weaving compelling stories and characters together with nature and the environment, her style reminds me much of Barbara Kingsolver, one of my favorite contemporary novelists.  In fact, J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, listed GSP as one of her best inspirations.

Her true love, however, was writing nature studies.  Knowing that her novels were much more popular and lucrative than nature studies, she eventually made a deal with her publisher to let her write one study for every novel, and so she completed 9, in addition to other poetry and essays.

Her novels became so popular that Hollywood wanted to turn many of them into movies, but Gene couldn't stand the thought of her stories being misrepresented, so she moved out to Hollywood herself and became one of the first women owners of a movie production company.  Her most popular book, A Girl of the Limberlost, has now been turned into a movie 4 times.

 
 

It's funny how we are often unaware of the places of interest in our own area.  I vaguely remembered this place from a time I came with my sister's Girl Scout troop when I was very young, but I had never thought of visiting since then.  I am so glad we made the effort to explore the cabin, grounds, and life of Gene Stratton-Porter.  I walked away with a book tucked under my arm that I can't wait to read and a whole lot of inspiration from this creative, confident, inspiring woman.

 
 

Are there any sites in your area that you may have overlooked, but just might love visiting?

Inspiring Woman - Sister Rosemary

Last year, I helped develop a leadership development curriculum for university students and it was my privilege to be assigned to finding great women leaders who exemplified each leadership characteristic we covered.  Unfortunately, I was only afforded 21 slots for 21 women, although there were so many more to feature.  While reading and writing about these women, I felt as if they were surrounding me, whispering in my ear all their inspirational words and encouragement.  I felt their courage seep into me as I read their stories of bravery, conquest, and compassion and I couldn't wait to share with our students what I had found, particularly about the many incredible women in East Africa.

Earlier this month, during a conference for university student leaders throughout East Africa, we had the honor of hearing from a friend of ours who is one of these East African women powerhouses - Sister Rosemary.

Sister Rosemary began her work in Northern Uganda during Joseph Kony's reign of terror.  She provided a safe haven for the young women and girls affected by Kony's violent army, teaching them crucial skills for self-reliance, recovery, and prosperity.  She and the other sisters at Saint Monica's Vocational School humbly worked with these women for several years before anyone recognized the impact of her work...but that has all changed.  In 2007, she was named a CNN Hero and just this year, she was named one of the top 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine, nominated by Forest Whitaker.  While staying with a friend in San Diego earlier this year, we turned on the Colbert Report and watched her challenge Stephen Colbert to a boxing match while raising awareness for the #BringBackOurGirls campaign.  She has since been on a demanding speaking schedule in the U.S., spreading her joyful spirit everywhere she goes while sharing her inspiring story of bravery and compassion.

In February last year, I joined Sister Rosemary and other African friends in Virginia for a gathering, which happened to be the same time as the super bowl.  I asked her who she was cheering for - the Ravens or the 49ers?  "Oh I can't watch this and I can't cheer for either team,"  she responded, "because I have friends on both teams and I don't want either to lose!"

Indeed, Sister Rosemary has true friends on multiple teams in the NFL and the NBA, through her connection with the organization Pros For Africa.  When I was with her a couple weeks ago, I asked her about the many issues the NFL and its players have faced lately with domestic violence, child abuse, etc. and if she could play any role in speaking into these issues with the players and the league.  She brought up the case of Adrian Peterson, one of the players with whom she has a personal relationship, and although she acknowledged the troublesome actions of his abuse toward his child, she also reminded me to have compassion for these players, many of whom never had great role models themselves. 

This unique woman, a nun from a village in northern Uganda, who has helped countless young women recover from the horrors of a brutal war, now has influence on some of the most famous people in my own country - the sports stars who so many young people look up to.  She is influential, indeed.

So with all her international fame, Sister Rosemary decided to spend an afternoon with us at our Africa Youth Leadership Forum, speaking to the upcoming East African youth leaders.  Of all our speakers over the 4 days of the conference, I know she was the most loved and inspiring.  Most of these students had never heard of her, but after listening to her speak and share her story, she quickly became a friend and a role model to all.

I encourage you to purchase her book Sewing Hope and learn more about this incredible woman.

Friendships, Not Walls - Goma, Congo

We arrived in Goma with 100 young people, mostly from Eastern Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda, all attending a conference put on by our program for university student leaders - Africa Youth Leadership Forum.  For three days, we listened to inspiring leaders from the region and we discussed topics relevant to becoming better leaders for our communities and nations.

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