Mother’s Day, 2007

Sweatlodgeart1

Painting by Teachings of the Sweat Lodge by Aaron Paquette

I stand on the corner of Fulton Street and 9th Avenue in San Francisco early in the morning, March 2007, and I call home. It’s mid afternoon in Ireland and my husband, my sister and her family are gathered at my mother’s apartment to celebrate Mothering Sunday. My feet are sore. I’ve walked ten blocks in new shoes that are too high, a rookie mistake; no one walks anywhere in America. This call is going to cost a fortune but I don’t care. I need to hear my mother’s voice. She answers and a wave of relief hits me; by her voice I can tell that today is a good day. She’s feeling well. She’s buoyed by having the family over. Her grandchildren, my 3 year old niece and 1 year old nephew, are the lights of her life just now. They keep her going. My sister is pregnant again.

Mum is excited to hear my voice as well. I’ve only been away a couple of weeks but she misses me. We talk every day normally so the intermittent contact when I’m far away is different. She wants to know how I am, what I’m doing, where I’m going today. I keep it vague. She doesn’t need to know too much detail. It might make her worry.

The hustle and bustle of home makes me ache. I’ve left behind a Mother’s Day gift with my husband, Simon, to give to her. She thanks me. It’s a small book of paintings by female artists that I hope will inspire her to get her own oils out again. I’m always looking for things to keep her interested, to spark her fire, to keep her alive.

Since her cancer diagnosis two years previously, she has doggedly refused to contemplate the possibility of dying. She believes that God has promised to heal her, so we add our faith to hers with the hope that we have enough of it deliver the Divine promise. But she works less now, her energy is not what it used to be, she has days where she feels pretty bad. The loss of her best friend six months previously seemed to knock some of the stuffing out of her. She believes her friend gave in, gave up the fight. It was a huge disappointment. My mother is made of sterner stuff. She has my sister’s new baby to welcome in August and she has promised me that she will see my children when I decide to have them. She is only 59 years old. She has a lot of life to live yet.

Ever conscious of the cost, Mum is anxious not to stay on the phone. I’m reluctant to hang up. I’m blindsided by homesickness and a desire to be back in the safety of Mum’s home, looking out at the Irish sea. She puts me on speaker phone so that they can all chime ‘Goodbye’ together. I choke back tears and whisper goodbye. The phone clicks off.

I take a minute to pull myself together. I’m round the corner from my acting teacher S’s house and today, she’s taking me with her to experience a Native American Sweat Lodge ceremony. This is not what I thought I was signing up for when I got an Arts Council Grant to come to San Francisco to train with a renowned Method Acting teacher. I’m here for three weeks to observe and train in her boutique studio down in the Mission district. S is a protege of Lee Strasberg, she trained with Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel. Sean Penn has given Masterclasses at her studio. She’s edgy and raw and believes in acting as a supreme art form. She pushes her students to connect with their deepest selves. I’ve been surprised and delighted to discover that her teaching has an almost spiritual quality to it.

She burst out laughing when I told her that I was in training to be a lay preacher in the Methodist church. Her spirituality is nothing if not non-conformist and non-institutional and, while she gets that I have a sincere faith, she’s been encouraging me to broaden my horizons and open myself up so that, with an expanded sensibility, I can be a better actress. I’m going with it but I’m not telling Mum. No need to worry her that I’m dabbling in things that might be deemed unChristlike.

So here I am early on a Sunday morning with my swimming togs in my hand and Jesus in my heart, ready to dive into a new spiritual experience; ish.

S welcomes me in to her apartment and asks me to wait in the living room. She’s in the middle of a huge blow out with her teenage daughter who is refusing to come with us to the sweat lodge ceremony. She smiles as she exits. It’s a small apartment so I hear every word of their verbose exchange. I sit awkwardly, massaging my sore feet and wondering what the heck I’m doing here. I feel like crying, which always happens when I feel like I’m out of my comfort zone. After about fifteen minutes, S waltzes back in all smiles and announces that we’ll be going without her daughter. A beautiful 16 year old girl, with red rimmed eyes from tears, comes in to say hello. She’s sheepish when she realises I’ve heard everything but she stands her ground and won’t be budged. Like mother, like daughter.

Soon we’re heading out of the city and I hear about S’s mother/daughter woes. I tell her that it’s Mother’s Day in Ireland and share a little bit about my relationship with my own mother. Like S and her daughter, we are close, we have spats but we work them out. I reassure her that her teenager will grow to become one of her best friends. She sighs in hope and exasperation. She asks me if I want children of my own. I say that I’m coming round to the idea but that I’m damned if I’m going to be a stay at home mum. She laughs at the very thought. She’s seen me acting now and recognises my vocation.

Half an hour out of the city to the south and on the coast we pull into a forested area. We hike a short way up into the forest to a clearing where a fire has been lit in a pit surrounded by large grey stones. About ten women gather chatting informally around the fire and a couple wave to S as we arrive. I’m immediately a source of fascination being that I’m Irish, I’m an actress and this is my first sweat lodge ceremony. I’m also the youngest woman there. S introduces me to M, the medicine woman who is leading the ceremony. She is smiling and gentle but formal and remote. She calls the group to order.

We gather around the fire and are invited to choose a stone from the circle. M invites Tunkashillah, the Great Spirit, to be with us and tells us that our stones represent our intentions for the sweat lodge and they will be placed in the fire to heat. Then the hot stones will be put in the pit in the centre of the tent and we will go inside, in the dark to pray and to sweat.

Once the stones are in the fire, we sit on the ground and make little bags of tobacco with four different coloured cloths, which will hang from the ceiling of the tent to represent the four winds; north, south, east and west. It is a good hour or so before we strip down to swimming togs and crawl into the darkness of the circular tent to sit around the hot stones in the centre – enwombed.

The heat is intense and as each person prays aloud to Tunkashillah, The Great Spirit, GrandMother, GrandFather, All our Ancestors, voices crying out in the darkness, we sweat, and sweat and sweat. I expect to be freaked out but after a while it strikes me that this is actually just like the charismatic prayer meetings I experienced in my teens, so I relax and just go with it. With each prayer, each crescendo of painful intercession, the heat in the tent intensifies. One woman exits within the first thirty minutes, unable to take it – the heat or the extreme expression of emotion, I’m not sure which.

My turn comes to pray and I keep my voice quiet. I pray for my mum, I ask for the promise of healing to be delivered. I pray for my sister and her new baby forming in her womb. And, almost as an afterthought, I ask for a child for myself. I’d come off the contraceptive pill a few months previously with the attitude, if it happens, it happens. But I am aware all the time of Mum’s cancer and her determination to see my children. There is beginning to be an element of urgency now. So I pray. And I close, as I always do, with ‘Thy will be done.’

The sweat continues. I have no idea how long we are in there but a break comes and the fresh air outside is welcome. Before too long, we go back in and the cycle of prayer and tears continues.  There are times when I think I won’t be able to take it but then something shifts and I push through. Many of the women express deep emotional pain that has been holed up in their bodies for years without outlet. I know that for some, this is the only safe place they’ve ever had to face down their demons. We close, spent and exhausted but renewed and with our skin as soft as a baby’s, by sharing the peace pipe around the circle.

As we dismantle the tent and pack up, S keeps asking if I am alright. She’s either surprised or disappointed that I haven’t been overcome with emotion in the tent, I can’t tell which. I’m comfortable with how I’ve handled everything though. I’ve been moved by the pain I’ve witnessed, I’ve felt honoured to hold space for people’s prayers but I’m not teetering on the brink of collapse of my own faith. I think S hoped that I was. No, God has just got a whole lot bigger, that’s all. If anything, it has confirmed what I have always suspected; Christianity doesn’t a monopoly on the whole story.

We’re saying goodbye to the others when a woman I haven’t spoken to yet comes over. She’s Native American with long, black hair and a face that I can’t put an age on. She’s tentative when she approaches, shakes my hand and says she just wanted to say hello because she heard I’d come from a long way away for the Sweat Lodge Ceremony. I laugh but explain that I hadn’t just come three thousand miles from Ireland for that alone. In fact, I’d just driven half an hour from the city. She smiles and shyly says that it was nice for me to be there with them. As I turn to go, she says ‘Safe trip home. And have fun with your daughter.’

I stop dead in my tracks and instinctively reach out a hand.

‘I don’t have any children,’ I say. She blushes and shrugs.

‘My bad,’ she says. ‘Never mind.’ Something tugs at me inside to not let this encounter go so I take a step forward as she moves away.

‘No, what is it you were going to say?’ I ask, knowing there’s more.

‘Ahhhh,’ she smiles, looking sheepish. ‘I just saw the spirit of your daughter in the tent.’ And she waves and walks away.

As we drive back to the city that evening, we are both tired so conversation is kept to a minimum but just as we hit the city limits, S asks about my mum again. I tell her about Mum’s belief that, though the doctors have given her disease a terminal prognosis, God will heal her in His own time and in His own way. S tells me about Joao de Deus, the Brazilian healer, and I’ve heard of him but I know my mother will not go looking for healing outside of her own faith tradition. It doesn’t stop her from travelling to the healing ministries of Christian churches. In fact, she had been in California earlier that year to visit Bethel Church in Redding, known for its miraculous cures. S falls silent as we turn into her street. When she parks the car she turns and looks at me and says something that has haunted me ever since.

‘You better hope your mom gets her miracle,’ she says. ‘Or else she’s never gonna meet your daughter.’

This is an excerpt from a memoir I’m working on called Enough. 

Speaking of patron saints…

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While we are on the subject of patron saints, may I introduce to two women who have done more to restore my faith than any other. Love Warrior Glennon Doyle Melton and Anne Lamott come together on Linda Siversten’s wonderful Beautiful Writer’s Podcast and I had a total fangirl moment when I saw it pop up on my feed last week.

Both Glennon and Anne identify as Christian and they have both in their own different ways forged a path in authenticity and integrity both in writing and faith that I am so grateful for. This is a terrific podcast and if you don’t already subscribe I strongly recommend that you do, if you are in anyway interested in writing and the bigger stuff of life.

Linda Siversten and Danielle Laporte have created a fascinating insight into the lives of writers. I have found more lights to follow in the last six months and it has been so nourishing and profoundly helpful as I navigate the murky waters of creativity, spirituality and life in general.

Click here to listen to these two awesome women talk writing, faith, hope and love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pondering St. Patrick

stpatricksdayprep.JPGThis was the view from my seat in a cafe I like to go to sometimes on a bright, sunny day. It’s by the sea and I love nothing more than to sit and listen to the waves hit the beach, the chat of people as they walk by, the shouts of small children. This morning I was met with a view of giant inflatable slides and other fun fair fabulousness which were being set up in preparation for the annual celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. In all honesty, I can’t stand fun fairs and I avoid the seafront at all costs when this particular circus comes to town. This year we are escaping to the north for a few days where the celebrations are more low-key.

Is it just me or is it weird that in a country with such a toxic relationship with religion we’re still celebrating the man who brought Christianity here in the first place? Of course, there’s a meagre few who literally treat this as a religious holiday; the rest of a the country seem to take it as a lucky day off and an annual excuse to get completely blathered. Perhaps our toxic relationship with religion is the reason we drink ourselves into oblivion. The Christianity of Ireland is riddled with abuse, oppression, violence, secrecy and fraud, it’s enough to turn even the most abstemious of us to drink.

While I wasn’t raised Roman Catholic, my mother came from a very strict Catholic family in England and it’s not hard to see the litany of pain and heartache that came from the fear my grandparents had of the church. When my mother rediscovered the Christian faith  through the Anglican tradition, many in her family didn’t really understand her evangelical passion. I often wonder if I would have gone on the meandering spiritual path I’ve taken in the last ten years if she had not died.

The Christianity I see in Ireland has left me angry, hurt and disappointed and it is not what I recognise in my own examination of the person of Jesus Christ, or even the early church’s expression of his teachings. On more than one occasion, I’ve considered walking away completely as it’s almost shameful to admit that I am a Christian when all that some people see of that label is negative. Recently, at the end of my tether with frustration at the institution of the church as a whole, Protestant and Roman Catholic, and it’s collusion with patriarchy to oppress and undermine the female voice, I backed out of preaching engagements and stopped attending my local congregation. I needed space to see if there was a way forward for me within this faith.

Two voices have sustained me during this time; Fr Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest based in New Mexico and Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopalian minister and retreat leader from Maine. They collaborate regularly at Rohr’s Centre for Action and Contemplation. Their work on the doctrine of the Trinity, that mysterious idea that God is made of three persons in the shape of the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, has been so illuminating and liberating to me. (Richard Rohr’s book The Divine Dance is key reading.) I wouldn’t be able to do the depth of it justice so I won’t try; suffice to say, their vision of the Divine as a dynamic, self-giving force of compassion and creativity is a much needed thread to hold on to in these troubled times.

It’s something I believe that Patrick connected with in his dealing with the spirituality that he saw around him both in the time after he was trafficked to and enslaved in Ireland and on his return as a priest many years later. The ‘celtic’ spirituality would have seen the interconnected nature of life, the flow of the seasons, the cause and effect of how the land was treated. There was a rhythm of life around the cycles of the moon, the turning of the earth and an understanding that the veil between realms was very thin in certain places, that the divine presence was expressed through and in nature.

It was while he was a slave that he dug deep down in to his own Christian faith and by all accounts became quite the mystic with his testimony of visions and dreams.  When he saw the shamrock with its three leaves and one stem and used it to point to the dynamic three-ness of God, he was sharing in a language his listeners would understand.

 

I’ve often wondered how he could have returned to the country that in many ways destroyed the otherwise peaceful trajectory of a 16 year old Welsh boy, snatching him from his homeland and keeping him in slavery for years. He escaped in the end, his desperation to get away from the place extreme. Why would you go back somewhere that was the source of pain? The only thing stronger than hate is love.

I honestly believe that the Christianity Patrick knew in the 5th century, though already getting mired in Empire and power, was still a story of divine love and joy, peace and reconciliation and that his faith led him on a path of forgiveness. I wonder if what he saw in the people he was indentured to was that they already understood this God that he knew. What if the reason his faith ‘took’ here and grew so prolifically over the centuries was because it wasn’t something new or different, but because the Irish recognised the Divinity Patrick was talking about in Jesus, the energy he pointed to and they resonated with the love he shared.

Over the centuries, this energy has been suppressed and dampened by the noose of legalism and fear. We’ve lost touch with the core ingredients of what was a revolutionary movement that gave the weak, the ill, the disadvantaged and the disempowered a voice. Perhaps this St. Patrick’s day, instead of numbing our pain, we could follow his path and see if there is something to be salvaged from the wreckage of our religion. Perhaps we can reclaim our faith from the hands of the powerful and light the bonfires once again.

 

 

Radical feminism on International Women’s Day

img_5500This day last year, I launched this blog and podcast. I was undergoing a dramatic shift in my own creative life and was craving connection with other women, as they might know what I was going through. It has been one of the great privileges of my life to interview the nine incredible women on the podcast and it was like a balm that my soul needed.

I have so many plans for this site and for the podcast, a list as long as my arm of women I want to interview, ideas for how to build a community of support and encouragement and I loved the idea of doing a site relaunch today on International Women’s Day.

But.

One of the greatest flaws in our modern understanding of feminism is the emphasis on productivity and visibility. It’s hugely important that we see women rise, that we see women succeed and that we hear their voices, do not misunderstand me.

But often I think we do feminist as opposed to be feminist. I am  a feminist by virtue of the fact that I believe in equal rights for men and women. I believe that the capitalist patriarchal system we are apart of is deeply unjust, mightily oppressive and that it sets up men and women for failure. I think being a feminist for me means stepping right outside the parameters of the system and envision a completely different reality.

It’s what I’m exploring in my family, what I’m investigating in my creativity and what I’m excavating in my faith. What would life look like outside of the current system? What would feminism look like outside of the current system?

With that in mind, I’m erasing the word ‘should’ from my vocabulary with its connotation of obligation and coercion. I have long been terrorised by the mentality that I should do something, or should feel something or should be someone other than who I am.

I should be marching in Dublin today. I should be more involved with the grassroots feminist movement in the arts of which I am a part. I should be more active in challenging sexism and misogyny in my faith tradition. I should be a better mother to my daughter and my sons. I should be a stronger partner for my husband. I should be working to earn more money. I should enjoy by my work in the home more than I do. I should write this blog more often. I should figure out how to monetise this site. I should get it together. I should grow up and quit dreaming. I should dream bigger.

Well, today, on International Women’s day, I’m saying Fuck that Shit.

Today, I’m advocating radical self care of my feminist self in the form of  taking my antidepressant medication, catching up with a dear friend, picking my kids up from school and going to celebrate my youngest niece’s birthday, making dinner for my family (and you know what it might just be beans on toast tonight, shock horror!). I might go to bed super early or I might read my book. I might watch some shitty television.

I’ve written this blog post. It might be the first of a flurry of activity or it might be the last for a while.

IWD

I’m going to do what I know to be best for my body, soul and mind and that is the most radically feminist thing I can think of to do.