This morning, I was welcomed as a member of First Unitarian (and during the welcome ceremony, was given the flower and book that you see above, pictured with Square Number 10 of the Mitered Crosses Blanket). This is something I’ve been meaning to do for a very long time – since before M was born, actually. I went to a UU church for awhile as a kid, and always felt very much at home amongst UUs. Though I’ve never been a theist, I’ve always had a fascination with religion, myth, and storytelling, and what we can learn from the stories we create and tell in order to make sense of our world and our place within it, and it was in the children’s group at the UU church we attended when I was a kid that I really got to nurture that fascination.
I drifted away, though, and wasn’t brought back towards it until I was pregnant with Madrigal. When my brother and his wife lost Ayden, I was shattered and filled with a complicated mix of grief and guilt and fear…and it occurred to me that one way that most people get through dark and scary times is through the support of their church. Which I didn’t have. I remembered the UU church, and googled and found First Unitarian, but never went past that. I just wasn’t ready to open myself up to strangers – though I’ve found this particular group of strangers to be the most welcoming group I’ve ever met, so it’s really too bad that it took me so long.
I mentioned in my post about M’s third birthday that I often feel as though I died, when M was born. It sounds melodramatic, but I really did feel completely and utterly lost to myself as I entered motherhood. Disconnected (kind of literally – I did dissociate during her birth, after all) and full of hurt, both my own physical pain (4th degree tears plus no pain management beyond ice is just absurd), the terror and confusion of the birth experience itself, and the complex mix of grief and guilt I felt regarding Ayden, which fed into what became PPD and childbirth-related PTSD in a probably predictable, but still terrible way. Those next two years were horrible. My aunt was diagnosed with ALS (I took M to visit her when M was 4 months old, which is the last time I saw her – she faded quite quickly. ALS is a horrendous disease.). Then my brother and his wife lost their twins, and during all of this, my own “community” of fellow graduate students evaporated, as each of them defended their dissertations and moved on (as grad students do). My world felt like it was crumbling. I should have reached out to the UU community, but I just wasn’t there yet. I started following along on their website, listening to recorded sermons here and there, putting the services into my Google Calendar and then not actually going to them.
A big part of this, I’ve realized, is that I was still in that detached sort of state that I think many graduate students end up in. When you don’t know where you’ll be living in a few months, when the future is as precarious as it is in those final years of dissertation-writing, when you don’t know what it holds but it seems obvious that whatever it is will involve moving away from your current home (because that’s kind of baked into the deal, in academia – you normally don’t get to stay where you studied)…well, you don’t tend to invest much in putting down roots. It’s hard to want to build new connections if you’re almost certain that you’ll be torn from them. But connections are what I needed, and craved, and I did start working to build them. You just can’t survive as a family without connections. Through mama’s groups, through M’s school, I started being braver about putting myself out there. I made this place, Rochester, my home – and through both hard work and a whole lot of luck, I was able to TRULY make it our home through my job in the Writing Program. When I said, in an earlier post, that this year in my new job is the first year I felt like my life belonged to me – this is a big part of it. Just knowing that this CAN be my home, and I can build connections to the community and they aren’t guaranteed to be ripped away from me…that I can start living the life that I want. I was finally ready to actually GO.
What I was craving was a sense of belonging, of community, and this is what First Unitarian is all about. They believe that pain comes from disconnection, both from our deepest selves and from the larger community, and they work to foster connections that can heal and fulfill – and they believe that it is our duty to be open to these connections and to all of the gifts the world has to offer, to listen to ourselves and others, and serve needs greater than our own. I can get behind that. If you know anything about UU-ism, you probably know that they are about “deeds, not creeds”, and that’s why I can be comfortable there despite being a non-theist. (In fact, the lead minister, Rev. Kaaren, describes herself as a “non-theist who believes in Grace”). It’s about a way of being in the world, rather than a particular set of beliefs. This works for me, non-theistic, skeptical-by-nature, but story-loving Humanist that I am.
During those awful years of early motherhood, while I was deep in the muck of depression, fed by shame, I was very lucky to have a few good sources of support (my therapists, and a few dear friends), who helped me find myself again. Something kind of amazing can happen when you are forced to rebuild yourself. You get to be intentional about it, mindful. You get to really consider what your values are, and who it is that you WANT to be. For me, what I realized is that compassion, kindness, supportiveness, and respect were absolutely core values for me. I affirmed that “who I am” is a person who does not judge, who is open and caring, ready to meet people where they are and, if they’d like it, help them get where they’re going. I’m a helper. A teacher. It’s not like I hadn’t had a sense of this well before I even became a parent, but when I say that the me who has emerged since walking through the fires of early parenthood is a “more ME version of me than ever”, this is what I mean. And in the UU church, I’ve found a community that shares these values, where I can both give and receive these gifts of kindness, compassion, and support, where I can join hands with them in social justice efforts that benefit our local community and the broader world…and it is wonderful. And not only that – I’ve found a place where M can be nurtured and supported as she grows up, too. The R.E. programs of the UU church are pretty spectacular, and though it is still years away, I’m excited to think that M will benefit from the O.W.L. program.
Anyway, I promise I won’t babble about church constantly here (or at least, I don’t plan to!), but I just wanted to share this development, and what it means to me, and how it is a big part of those “intentions” I wrote about for this year. Thanks for listening, friends!