The mama purse

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This one has been simmering for awhile. It’s hard to know what to say about a return after three years of living somewhere else. I really liked it when a friend of a friend took me aside and said, “it’s kind of like two different planets, right?” I don’t know enough about the person’s story to know her own experience of planet switching, but she gets it. Yes, another planet. One where a ton of grace and a non-anxious presence is key for survival.

I have been attempting to enter into life on this particular planet with a lot of curiosity, taking note of changes I see around me, and trying really hard not to judge them. One change that has been huge for me is the cultural difference around mama identity, (what the cultural expectations are for who a mama is and what she does). It’s best explained by the two bags I most commonly used a) before we left for Mexico three years ago and b) while in Mexico. I hadn’t remembered the size of purse a, and when I unpacked it from a box, I thought to myself, “wow, what all did I have in there??? (answer: diapers, extra clothes, sippy cups, books for entertaining, snacks for filling gaps, a glasses case for my husband who doesn’t carry a bag etc).”  My first reaction elicited dread and regret, and an adamant declaration to my spouse and my mama, “I am NOT going to be using this one again!”

While purse b is a gathering place for essentials; keys, wallet, glasses (all my own), purse a was a place where I gathered all the things I was carrying for other people. It’s a symbol for me of what it means to be a mama in America at this point in time, where we carry many things that do not belong to us, both physically and figuratively. As I have conversations with mamas I am related to, go to church with, or brush elbows with at the pool, the confusing haze/different planet experience is beginning to lift. I now have a vague recollection of talking about sleep training with enthusiasm, keeping a list of goals I had for all the other people in my household with strategies of how to get them there, and enjoying long conversations on the subject of home renovation. But for now, these still feel like foreign subjects (like a language I haven’t studied for years), and I feel like an alien as I reluctantly enter back into them.

I was amazed by the conversations I had with moms at the pool this week. Each one told me (without my asking) that their goal for having their kids in swimming lessons was so that they could learn to save themselves if they needed to. I felt too strange and silly to say my own truth, “I signed my kids up so they’d have lots of fun learning about something they love.” I just smiled when the swimming teacher said to me, “your kids are so relaxed!”

I know being a mama in the US was not always this stressful, but I also know that it always had its challenges. A student giving an oral heritage report in one of my classes last week talked about the difficulty his mama lived through as a divorced Latina in Brooklyn in the 1970s. He said she survived by forming community with those around her, and somehow, together, they all got through it.

The story took me back to a moment the first Sunday we returned to our church. Something about the experience, absorbing the pain and beauty of change, made me want to hold a baby and cry in a corner, so I did. In the midst of that experience, two mamas sidled up next to me, not saying a word. I don’t know if they saw me crying, but their quiet peaceful presence held me like angel wings.

So, to all of you mamas living in the US out there carrying bags way too big for your shoulders, I see you. We are in this together. If you ever need to pause and take a deep breath, you are welcome to come sit by me.

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The Monster at the End of this Book

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We are in the midst of our last moments here in Mexico. At this time next week, we’ll be flying northward. We are down to the uglier parts of a move. The taking apart of our house piece by piece (we’re having a yard sale tomorrow), the excruciating goodbyes (the ones we’ve put off until the last possible moment). These are the bittersweet moments we will cherish and look back on with fondness; the ceremonies of food, the sending blessings of lavender-doused basil and the cleansing egg washes to help us prepare for our journey (all a critical part of an inculturated good-bye). In the meantime we are trying our best to feel the deep wide feelings, and then let them go in order to be ready for the deep joyful hellos that wait for us on the other end.

In the midst of all the shifting happening at our house, we found a book that had been lost behind our bed, “The Monster at the End of this Book.” It was one of my favorites as a kid, where Grover gets wind of the fact that there will be a monster at the end of the book, and the entire book consists of him pleading with you to stop turning the page. Of course, this only elicits mischievous cackles from young readers as they continue turning pages. The threat is low enough (what can a monster do to the reader, after all), and the fact that Grover is more scared than you are is somehow refreshing. In the end, as it turns out, Grover himself is the monster at the end of the book and he smiles and says, “I told you there was NOTHING to be afraid of!”

Finding the book at this moment feels a little magical.

Our ending parallels the plot of the Monster at the End of this Book. We knew it was coming all along. At various points along the way, we have wanted to stop turning pages, to keep the pieces of our lives together a little longer, to resist the realization that these pieces will never fit together in the same way.

But in the end, after all that taking apart, after the bitterness of selling our kid’s bike, after giving our beloved Raggedy Ann doll to some friends in the countryside, after letting go of the identity we created for ourselves in the work we have done, after leaving behind all the elements and people that make up who we conceive as “us,” while it feels like what we will find is a monster of nothingness, what we actually find is our own selves.

Beloved children of God.

Even though all the giving up feels like a kind of defrocking, what it actually boils down to is the freedom to see ourselves in a truer light. Worthy of being. Worthy of giving and receiving love.

And if I can trust in God’s movement in this process, if I can turn the pages confidently, if I can laugh out loud at my own resistance (like we do at Grover’s fear of turning pages), then I can enjoy the end product, the me-est me who has ever been.

Thank you loveable, furry old Grover, for this invaluable life lesson.

My grief is in the particulars…..

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My comadre, Lucy, pushing our girls and their friends at a graduation ceremony.

One afternoon about a year ago, I was walking down the street thinking about what it would be like to return to the US; how it’s changed, what I might miss. And as I was thinking, a woman in a wool skirt passed by me. The skirts are worn by women from a neighboring village called Chamula. They are made of long black wool strands that stick out, and as the skirts are long and about 5 feet in diameter, the feeling of the skirt as it brushes by you (on the bus, in the market, on the sidewalk), has become very familiar and endearing. Suddenly considering the idea that such a world exists where these skirts are not a part of everyday life, felt physically painful. I feel the same way about eating fresh tortillas, buying beans by the local measurement of a homemade tin can, and the smell of mole tamales.  It’s the particularities that make loss the most poignant.

When I try to explain this to someone who has never made such a move, they often say, “yeah, but can’t you buy tortillas in the US? They have Mexican food there, don’t they?” The answer is, yes, of course. But what I can’t do is take all the atoms of particularity that make up San Cristobal and reconstruct them in a different place. It just can’t be done, no matter how hard one may try (I didn’t spring for the skirt, but I did buy a shaw in the same style as the skirts).

One of the most brilliant things I have ever read about grief came from a student, who had lost her son and decided to write about it. I will never forget the line where she describes her deep longing to smell his dirty football jersey just one more time. Of course. No one can recreate that same smell, as human body odor is a mark of our unique imprint on this planet. It was so effective at marking the way life will never be the same again.

And although this is nothing like losing a child, there is still deep sadness that surrounds this transition. I have a few houses here in the city where I visit and time stands still. I don’t go unless I can spend at least three hours there; any less just wouldn’t make sense. These are the places I will ache for when I am far away. I was talking today to one of the inhabitants of these houses and she said, “I can’t believe you’re leaving. Your girls (she is a godmother to one of them) probably won’t even remember me.” I was struck by the sense of betrayal in her statement. And she’s right. I am letting her down in my leaving. It doesn’t matter that we signed a contract for three years, or that we told everyone it was temporary. We have loved deeply, and that has made everything wonderfully complicated. Recently I was explaining to my youngest that when we move, I’ll speak to her in Spanish at home. She said, “Yeah, I know, and I know why.” “And why’s that?,” I responded. “Because you love me,” she said. Love for her? Love for Mexico? Love for my comadre (my daughter’s godmother) who will always be in our hearts and just a phone call away? Yes, yes and yes.

The only way we can begin to let go of the physical particular places, people and things around us is by promising that we will never, ever, ever forget them.

Product design and wrap up

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Sewing up a storm in the village of San Juan, Cancuc

One of the things I love about people from the countryside, everywhere I have been, is that they are a very practical people (perhaps it’s my own rural upbringing that draws me to this quality). In cities we can spend days talking and philosophizing. But if you have something to say in the countryside, you better have a clear end product that can improve the quality of life of the people.

That was our challenge when we set out to create these workshops. We had a lot of personal experiences and inner wisdom, but we also needed to create a product that addresses what women need. With the rise of the corner store in the highlands of rural Chiapas, disposable pads and tampons have become readily available for purchase. But they are, for many, an unnecessary expense that some months they are not able to afford. The other critical point is that there is virtually no trash collection in rural villages. When I began asking questions about this one woman said, “since we don’t have anywhere to dispose of them, we do what we do with other trash, we burn them in our kitchen fires.” There is an obvious breakdown here that has serious implications for environment, economy and physical health.

The women of the countryside have been convinced they need a product that they have no healthy way of disposing of, which the earth has no healthy way of absorbing. This problem has been imposed on them, and they deserve a solution. We look at the factors that have created this injustice, and we burn with anger.  And through that anger, we have found an engine to fuel our work.

There are lots of different styles and patterns for reusable pads on the internet, and local availability varies. But what we have come up with is a base pad made out of cotton on the outside and nylon on the inside (to prevent leakage), then a soft cotton insert on top that can be switched out multiple times. I calculate that we have made about two hundred of these over the last two years, and have sold many kits for making more at home (we usually make one or two in the actual workshop but encourage women to make more in order to have enough on hand). We have lovingly named our product, “telunas”(moon cloths), taking into account the ancient relationship between women and the moon observed by mayan and other people groups.

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A sample of a finished teluna.

We had a rare opportunity last month to present our work at a local university here in San Cristobal. Although adapting the material from the village context to the city was a little clumsy on our part (we didn’t turn our paper images into a powerpoint!), we were surprised by the receptivity and even need on the part of the 50 participants to talk about this subject. The group sponsoring our lecture had asked us to make the telunas during our time there. When we explained that the process is too laborious to make 50 in one afternoon, the group took to the internet instructions and made 50 of their own pads to hand out as a gift after the lecture.

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A basket of plenty for participants of the university lecture!

As I look back and reflect on what this work has meant to me, I am drawn to the image of the seed. The seeds we are born with in our wombs, the few that may become our babies, the many that lovingly fall to nourish the earth. Then there are the seeds we birth in the form of ideas; the ones that are cared for and changed by our communities, which then give birth to different seeds. I am filled with gratitude for these and other images that have nourished me, and I look forward to seeing what new seeds emerge.

What I learned from a full moon ceremony

by Erica Vanessendelft

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On a warm August night in north-western Ontario, I was walking up a hill when I saw, barely above the treetops, a supermoon. Just coming off the horizon it was large and golden, lighting our way to a full moon ceremony.

 

In 2014 I had the amazing opportunity to participate in an Indigenous Peoples Solidarity delegation of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) to Kenora, Ontario where we visited Grassy Narrows First Nation. It was a time to “walk in solidarity, live out reconciliation, support indigenous land defenders, and learn what it means to be an ally.”

 

It was a last minute invitation to the full moon ceremony once some women connected to CPT met us and said we (females only) were welcome to participate. Not wanting to pass up this opportunity, me and the other female on the delegation accepted the invitation. It was like nothing I had never experienced before. I felt honored to be invited into the sacred space. I felt honored to be a woman–in this world of sexism, it is not everyday that I feel valued as a woman.

 

…As the full moon rose higher in the night, women started gathering at the Women´s Place Kenora. We formed a circle around the sacred fire and in a fluid clockwise motion the circle turned, giving each woman present an opportunity to be at the head of the circle to offer up a prayer of tobacco to grandmother moon. There was young. There was old. There was me, in the middle of a full moon ceremony, a sacred ritual. I prayed for the strong and fierce women in my life. I thanked God for the phases of the moon and the beautiful connection it has to a woman´s cycle, to the creation of life and the sanctity of it.

 

I chose to participate in the Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Delegation out of the sense of needing to recognize my role as a North American white woman in the world. I had (and still have) this inherent need to know who I am, where I come from, the land I grew up on, and what I call home. Knowing that the First Nations of Canada and Native Americans of the United States have a painfully parallel history drives me to learn more, no matter where on Turtle Island I find myself.

 

For over 500 years the Indigenous cultures have been suppressed into the shadows of this land under the influence of the Doctrine of Discovery. What if we were to start listening and learning? What if we started seeing what God can teach us through our Indigenous neighbors?

 

Do some Indigenous cultures and rituals have things to teach Christians about God and ourselves? I think so. We can learn so many beautiful things. It is the spirit of rituals that has helped me feel God the Creator’s presence in my life; it has helped me feel connected to my faith again. I, as a settler, have much to learn from the hosts of the land.

 

I find it helpful to come back to a question my former colleagues and I debriefed with after attending the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Vancouver: “Equipped with the testimonies of the survivors, what in your life will you turn away from, and what will you turn towards God? How will you back this repentance up with action?” What I am turning towards is a holistic engagement of myself. Not just physically being somewhere, but also mentally, emotionally and inviting God into that space. I hope to continue to holistically engage with Indigenous cultures by rejecting the the Doctrine of Discovery and embracing the Spirit´s presence in the rich connection of Indigenous rituals.

 

Chief Lawrence Hart, in the book Buffalo Shouts, Salmon Cry, reminds us that “The biblical story in the first chapter of Genesis invites us to do the same [sing]: ´God saw that all that he had made, and pronounced it good.´ From a Native American perspective, the created earth is a song made visible…the song of the Creator. We should be so inspired by her (Mother Earth) that we sing, too!”

 

My heart sings praises to God every time I see a full moon.

And then we remembered that human life is sacred

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There are a great many Mayan traditions that are guided by moon phases; when to plant (either during a full moon or a new moon, depending on what you’re planting), when to harvest, when to procreate, and many other things (it makes me wonder where my grandmother got the practice of only perming her hair after the full moon had passed). One of the parts of my job is to occasionally accompany an Indigenous Theology Movement, begun in the early 90s, in order to share common practices and to preserve such traditions.

During an assembly based on the theme of rituals around “Mother Moon” (“Chu’ Metik” as she’s called in the local language), one young woman stood up and talked about a time when she saw her grandmother out in the garden at night, in the dark of the new moon, doing something. She snuck out of bed and went to her and asked what she was doing. The grandmother told her, “I’m giving thanks. Thanks to God for giving me this life-giving force. I’m returning my blood back to the earth so that this cycle of life is complete.”

The meaning of this story, though perhaps clumsily interpreted and lost in translation, changed my relationship with menstruation. Thanks to friends’ recommendations in college, I had been using a menstrual cup for about 15 years. One friend even told me that the blood collected is full of protein, and it can be diluted and used as a fertilizer for plants. But I still held onto the shame of it, hiding the mixture during the day and taking it out early in the morning or late at night, so my family members didn’t see me. I was missing the part about gratitude, and the way this cycle connects us with our life-giving force as women. I hadn’t yet embraced the sacredness of the process. So I changed my practice.

I will always remember the first time I knelt in the garden with my girls, explaining to them the origins of their life; an egg and a seed. And the way each month my body begins the cycle again, a cycle of life. If the egg isn’t fertilized by the seed, it gets put into the ground and nourishes the plants. Then I said a prayer of gratitude for this holy moment.

It became normalized in our household, and the girls are used to seeing this monthly process. It has served as a baseline for a later conversations, like when one of them came home and said a classmate told her private parts are yucky (asqueroso!) I could tell her with confidence that it’s not true. When she asked why I simply said, “because private parts are where we hold our capacity to create new life.”

There is nothing about this practice that is easy. But I find a fresh clarity in beginning with the belief that human life is sacred, and basing my way of life, my parenting, and our workshops, on that deep truth.

It began as an invitation

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My colleague, Elena Gomez Martinez (center), speaks with some women after a workshop in the village of Chanal.

A few weeks after I joined the team here at INESIN in 2015, my colleague, who is a Tseltal and Tsotsil (two indigenous groups here in Chiapas) social psychologist, approached me saying, “I can tell you have a lot to offer. I feel like I have a lot to offer too, and I think we can work together to make something great.” It was one of the most honoring professional invitations I’ve ever experienced.

We sat down and I told her a little about me. We quickly learned that despite our differences, we had things in common; we both come from rural contexts, where, especially in church, women are viewed (sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly) as a little bit less than men. We talked extensively about how that played out in our different lives, and the paths that took us from those rural contexts and placed us here and now. I told her about my MA thesis for seminary (exploring, through the image of Wisdom, possibilities for using female imagery for God). She told me about a co-op she had started, where they were experimenting with a reusable feminine hygiene product that would better honor the menstruation process as it connects with Mayan spirituality and creation care.

We decided to design some courses around these questions we were asking; “What are the theological myths we have learned in church that have made us feel a little less than men?” “How has our menstruation process been socialized in us to confirm this feeling (i.e. as a sickness, as “our time of the month” when we’re a little less human)? “What would happen if we reclaimed our menstruation as a powerful, sacred, life-giving process?”

With a tiny budget and some institutional contacts we had, we began working with three groups of indigenous women in the countryside. Along the way we have been invited to share with other communities and other organizations. It has been an interesting complement to other development organizations (for example, one working on human rights, another working on appropriate technology in the countryside).

Through it all, I’ve been invited, not just to teach, but also to learn. Here are some of my favorite learning moments:

I loved the moment when, out beyond the circle of women on the hillside, I saw a few men peeking from around the house to hear what I was saying. I knew culturally I couldn’t invite them to the circle, but I did speak a little more loudly, and tried to make sure they could see the images I was using. From them I learned the importance of being open to the participation of men in exploring these ideas.

In one workshop, when we were explaining the concept of a menstrual cup, women were lamenting not having access to see what one looked like. I happened to be carrying mine in my bag, so I pulled it out to show them. When they said they wanted to touch it, they invited me to confront my own resistance and socialization (because my first reaction was “ew, no way!”)

At one point during the training, we always ask the grandmothers to speak. To tell us the ways things used to be; before tampax, before the corner store. I am always aware of the sacredness of these stories. One woman said that in her sheep-herding village, women used to spin their own pads out of wool. Another shared that before they didn’t use anything, and the blood would just return to the earth. She said they’d still perform community tasks like searching for wood, and that if men noticed blood on their legs or feet, they weren’t embarrassed or ashamed, because it was just part of who they are.

Part of who we are

Reclaiming menstruation as part of our life creating process as human beings; that is our ultimate invitation.