Thin Places: Between Heaven and Hell

Expectant mothers take note: People may tell you that you will forget the pain of childbirth as soon as you behold the wonder of your newborn, they lie. The fruit of my womb are now both consenting adults and I love them dearly, but I have never forgotten the near-death place that I visited as they entered this world. While I am the first to note the benefits of natural childbirth’s spiritual odyssey, I am forever changed by the experience. Associated words, for example, have been completely redefined.

Last night a friend suggested that I write about transition, specifically, she noted, about transition from the perspective of mid-life women making substantive life changes. As I embody my 50th year and listen to the stories of those who sit beside me and those who go before me, I realize that my own (albeit distinct) transitions are hardly unique. We who are blessed to find ourselves in health and in the moment at midlife are mostly likely to be experiencing transition. Marriages or professional identities may be traded in or redefined as the work of raising children is now quiet and our focus returns to the callings that often lie deep within. Although the changes that have cavorted in my life seem monumental, I am humbled always to learn that when we share our stories we see ourselves in one another. The conversation was empowering and I was eager to sit at the keyboard this morning and ponder the implications of transition with gray hair and growing wisdom.

“TRANSITION” by Suzanne Cheryl Gardner

But as I sit with the word ‘transition’ this morning I feel primal fear more clearly than empowerment.  As I consider the action behind the event, I am once again 29 and terrified as my body begins to turn (quite literally) inside out in order to push a baby into life. Transition is that place of death that a laboring woman touches between the sustainable birth pangs of Hollywood fame and those that are not humanly endurable; it is that place where the internal organs that have not already moved aside are compressed and the body begins to convulse. If one is awake to take not of this place, it is only to wonder if one is still alive. Transition is hell.

As I consider the prolonged labor and final spasm of transition that brought me to this current place of new life, the parallels are uncanny and so too the promise.  A seed doesn’t emerge as new stalk without first dying, splitting open, and experiencing total (wrenching) transformation.  And perhaps we should expect no less.

For women, especially for women who turned to mind numbing substances in adolescence, there is a very real way in which our spirits were put on ice just prior to our emergence.  We were forced to make choices between authenticity and cultural norms, choices that pitted identity against itself.  Whether the wounds were inflicted with bodies or words or innuendos, the resulting loss of self was similar.  For far too many of us, the woman who emerged was only a partial self.  More like cryogenics than still birth, what we discover in midlife is that we can return to these forgotten bits of self and reclaim them.  As we reassemble the pieces of our soul that we’ve repressed along the way, the seed of self is nurtured into stunning new growth. But like the seed breaking open deep underground, the transitions in our lives will introduce searing pain before the stalk emerges.

The inside out promise, of course, is that if we allow ourselves to be broken open, new life will emerge from the deepest fissures.  This is the lesson of our bodies and the earth itself, it is true also of our spirits. As I sit at the keyboard this morning I realize that my shoulders are no longer hunched into my neck and I type with a smile from within meeting the sun on my face, I realize that (at least for today) I’ve passed through the place near death.  The birthing is not yet over, no doubt there is pushing still to come.  But I’ll save the challenge of that metaphor for another day.