Welcome Hawk! (A Birth Story)

One month ago, Hugh Archer Whipple Callahan came into the world.

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Our little man was originally due on September 6th, smack in between our wedding anniversary and my birthday.  Considering the advice that second children often come sooner than first and knowing my history of a late first arrival, Liz and I prepared ourselves to have a due date baby.  Yes, he could be early or late, but the smart money (i.e., our midwife, our doula, our OB/GYN friends) put their bets on the ‘on-time’ category. And so, we were ready. Not that there was much to prepare this time around; we knew how little he would need in the first few weeks, and we already had all the baby gear anyway.

His due date came and went. And, day after day we waited. Evenings brought increased fetal movement and thrills of excitement. Was tonight the night that I’d wake everyone up at 2AM with labor pains? No. Morning after morning I got up to report that I slept shockingly well; there was no baby. To encourage the little man along, I tried evening primrose oil, pineapple, bumpy car rides, pumping, eggplant Parmesan, acupressure, and red raspberry leaf tea – all to no avail.

And so, at forty-one weeks and three days, I headed to the hospital for an induction. It was strange to arrive to the hospital in such a state of preparedness. Here we were, hospital bag in hand, no contractions yet, bellies full of breakfast, childcare in place, everyone calm. Based on Elliott’s birth, I had come to see childbirth as a crazy ride of “expecting the unexpected.” Curiously, the planful approach of an induction was so very expected that it felt even more unexpected to me.

I started on an IV drip of Pitocin and waited. At the time, it felt a bit annoying; after days of anticipation, the hours remaining grew even more difficult. But, in retrospect, Sunday morning was a beautiful time to build relationships with the people who would attend my son’s birth later that day. Looking back, I can see how, person by person, my crew slowly assembled. I started this whole adventure with Liz at my side. Aunt Kate and Grandma both showed up in advance to take care of Elliott; they gave me the opportunity to yield last obligations and focus entirely on this birth. Then, upon arrival to the hospital, we added the Labor and Delivery nurse who started my IV and would finish the day coaching me through pushing. Soon my doula joined; she intuitively knew what I needed and was on my spiritual wavelength. Finally, the midwife with decades of experience and lots of pragmatic love arrived.

By the early afternoon contractions began, gently at first and then increasingly. Liz and I walked the halls haltingly, stopping every minute or so for a contraction. Each time a contraction came, I grasped my IV stand, picked a point on the wall for visual focus, and breathed through it. Reflecting upon Elliott’s birth, I remember the contractions only as pain to be endured; this time, I felt them more as energy moving through me. It was almost as if spirit was pouring energy right into the top of my head, through my body, and out my vagina for the purpose of bringing this baby out with it. If I hesitated or resisted, that flowing energy would get stuck. If I let it simply course through me, it felt painful but also useful.

As I rode contraction after contraction and came to see that pain differently, I knew: This is what I had hoped for in childbirth. I had hoped to learn things about myself, about pain, about presence, about motherhood, and about life through labor. This was a fundamental human experience, consistent over the ages. I wanted to experience every aspect of it. I wanted to receive the wisdom of generations of women participating in this process. I wanted to see what I would learn from it and how I might evolve.  My underlying assumption was that I would learn the most by having a natural birth; drugs would disrupt and obscure what I was meant to experience.

Yet as the birth progressed, my fears crept in. My biggest fear was not the pain of the current contraction; I had found my way to be present to that. Instead, my biggest fear was the expectation of where those contractions might go. How much longer would this take? How much more intense would it be? Would I be able to be stand the sensations? How much did I believe in myself? Aspirationally, I wanted to do all of it without drugs; I wanted to trust in nature and to believe in myself that much.

But I didn’t. Eventually, my question turned from whether I would be able to be with the pain to why I was choosing to experience it in the first place. While laboring on all fours on the bed, I uttered out loud “Why am I doing this?!” for all to hear. I asked: Why am I bearing such pain when there are options for relief? Is it better for me? Better for the baby? Was there really some great spiritual insight to uncover?

And so, around six or seven centimeters, I got an epidural. Part of me is still tempted to judge myself for doing so; I feel that only I had been stronger, braver, more spiritually centered – then I would have had the capacity to be with the experience. And yet, I have to let that go. As in all life experiences, my learnings came not from running some externalized gauntlet – in this case, giving birth naturally.  Instead, learnings came from more deeply being with the experience that was right in front of me and the struggle that it prompted inside of me. My real insights came from seeing how an expected plan can still feel unexpected, from challenging my views of necessary and unnecessary suffering, from reconciling the coexistence of spiritual fullness and modern medicine in my mind, and from examining my assumptions of where and how spiritual growth occurs. Ultimately, it was not about some womanly secret revealed only if I endured; it was about me in the here and now.

Labor progressed swiftly from that point; and by early evening, I was ready to push. At that point, a fair amount of assistance was required to ultimately deliver the little man into the world, but this was less of concern to me. By that time, I wasn’t focused on my learning anymore. I was focused on having a healthy baby – and it was time for the little man to come out.

And so, my son joined us at 7:05pm as healthy as could be. He had none of the complications that Elliott experienced (meconium in the amniotic fluid, jaundice shortly after birth). And in the month since his birth, he’s proven even stronger. He’s made breastfeeding easy, he’s gained at a remarkable rate, and he’s even giving us some reasonable opportunities to sleep.


So welcome to the world, my little Hawk (a nickname derived from his initials – HAWC). In giving birth to you, I learned new lessons beyond those I learned giving birth to Elliott. The experiences may be similar, but the edges of learning are all new and unique. I know that I’ll continue to learn new and different things from parenting you as you grow; I’m excited for this journey together with our whole family.

With love,
Your Mommy, Meredith

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We Wish You a Merry… Ritual

This December, I find myself reflecting upon a holiday many years ago when I played the role of an angel at my church’s Christmas pageant. I remember receiving instructions to gently cradle my offering of plastic grapes for baby Jesus and to approach the nativity scene slowly, deliberately, and in step by my fellow blue-robed angel. I was not to look at or wave to my family members as I passed them.

This was the first time I was charged with the solemn execution of ritual duties, and I followed through with a level of commitment absurd for a six-year old in a tinsel halo. I was stone-faced and serious, committed to the importance of the ceremony and my role.

Over time, my interest in ritual only grew. As a child and teenager, I served as an acolyte, carrying the cross in processionals, lighting and extinguishing candles, and helping prepare the Eucharist. Later, in college, I was the sacristan at my college chapel, a role which had me arriving early to arrange chairs and candlesticks, staying late to disassemble the ritual space, and learning how to get wax stains out of altar linens in my dorm room (Hint: an iron and newspaper do the trick).You know, typical college kid activities.

Though the church was an obvious focus of ritual life, my ritual devotion extended elsewhere, particularly to the intersection of ritual and food. Family dinners were sacred to me, and I would insist we turn off the television every night. I threw my first formal dinner party before the age of ten, immersing myself in cookbooks, napkin folding manuals, and etiquette books to get all the details right. I started the first of many dinner party clubs in high school and wrote my college thesis on parallels between the Eucharist and other ritual meals. Today, we ritualize our family meals by sharing gratitudes before eating.

And this Christmas, we celebrate it with all sorts of rituals – those from my family, those from Liz’s, and those we have created together. We open the advent calendar with our chocolate-ravenous child each night. We think about loved ones around the world and send Christmas cards with well-wishes. We, like Liz’s grandmother, burn bayberry candles. And we make ‘miracle loaf’ – a truly miraculous combination of refrigerated crescent rolls, bacon, eggs, and other artery-clogging items that Liz innovated. Each ritual sanctifies the season and makes our wintry days feel special.

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What is it, exactly, about ritual?  To me, there’s something incredible about how you can intentionally invest meaning in some of the most mundane, tangible aspects of life – movements, words, objects, food, and space – and thereby create something transcendental. It is a way of bringing the holy (however you may define it) into the everyday. I see it as the alchemy of meaning: by enacting ritual, you take everyday life and make it special.

And so, this past fall, I started classes to become a celebrant. A celebrant is someone who creates and performs rituals for others. This can include anything from the weddings and funerals you might expect to baby blessings, divorce ceremonies, business openings, and seasonal rituals. Celebrants do not bring any particular religious bent to their work, but instead focus on crafting meaningful experiences to fit the needs, values, and beliefs of the ceremony participants. Come spring, I’ll be certified and look forward to bringing more ritual into my life and being of service to others.

Whatever you believe and however you ritualize it, I wish this holiday season is transformed into something special and meaningful to you.
Meredith

To learn more about celebrancy, check out the Celebrant Institute and Foundation here.

 

On Tattooing

At Yale, my favorite class was my senior seminar with all the other Religious Studies majors. We read canonical works on the definition of religion and ritual theory, supported each other on our senior theses, and frequently caught up over kosher meals at the on-campus Hillel. We celebrated turning in our final papers by nailing the front pages, Luther-like, to the front door of the department. We even nicknamed ourselves “RelStuds” – which, while an apt shortening of our major, perhaps belied how cool we were.

One of the things I most valued about that group was the diversity of perspectives we brought to the table. We each had a distinctly different touch point with religion – some of us aspiring to be priests or rabbis, some of us fascinated by ritual and meaning-making, some of us investigating the intersections of church and state.

I remember being particularly struck by one classmate whose senior thesis focused on Christian tattooing. She looked at the interpretation and theories of tribal tattooing and applied these to modern-day biker tats. This topic completely bent my brain. First, I found it such a paradox that tattooing (which, at the time, seemed radical and edgy to me) could carry the message of Christianity (which seemed conservative and traditional to me). Further, her whole approach reframed tattooing from the artistic to the spiritual, from the arbitrary to the meaningful, from the ephemeral to the enduring. Instead of being an impetuous act of youth, a tattoo could be a lasting, unyielding reminder of a core value or purpose. Instead of being something which one might regret, a tattoo could be an essential reminder in the future. I feel in love with the idea of tattooing as an act of inscribing life lessons onto one’s body in a way that could never be lost or forgotten.

I first thought about getting a tattoo immediately after I graduated, but it took a full five years for that first tattoo to come to fruition. I’ve learned, after a few sessions under the needle that coming to the right tattoo takes time. Each of my tattoos represents an insight, experience, or value, inscribed upon my body with thought and consideration. Because of this tie to my life and my development, I can’t plan ahead from them. Instead, as life progresses, I sometimes get the feeling that a tattoo is coming (almost of its own volition), and, over time, the reason and design unfold before me. I have to let them happen instead of declaring that “It’s now time to wrap up that life lesson and write it down!” As you probably know, that’s not how being a human being works. Instead, I surrender to the tattoo.

Since that first tattoo in 2008, I’ve had three more, each at an utterly unpredicted and completely perfect moment in time. This past weekend was my most recent addition. After dropping Liz off at the Denver airport, I knew what I had to do. I drove to Boulder, found a tattoo shop on Yelp, and was soon sitting down with my new friend Sam. Being a bit squeamish, I always need to find the stronger person inside of me to make it through the tattooing process, but I once again proved that I can be braver than expected when it’s really needed.

Now, the ‘charm bracelet’ on my left wrist is one step closer to encircling it, with a newly drawn dot and flourish trailing off to the left. Perhaps someday we’ll talk about all the meanings. But, in the short-term, it’s another step in life, never to be forgotten.

With love,
Meredith

The dark ink is the new tattoo, adding onto the line of the old piece, which you can see to the top left.

The dark ink is the new tattoo, adding onto the line of the old piece, which you can see to the top left.

Goodbye Perfect

San Diego, CA

It was only an off-handed comment, but I remember it so clearly.

It was around 1997 and I was in high school. Specifically, I was hosting a dinner party at my parents’ house (as one does at sixteen). I set the table with china and crystal, carefully arranged the linens according to my recent studies of napkin-folding, and cooked up three different pasta dishes as a sort of ‘pasta bar.’ I was chatting with one of my guests when she turned to me and delivered bluntly: “You know, Meredith, if not for one thing, I would want your life.”

I felt wonderfully validated by the compliment. “You want my life?” I thought. “Well then I must be doing something right!” But beyond that, I became immediately fixated on this one exception: “Wait, what part of my life could she judge and find wanting?” I reflected. “I should definitely fix that right away.”

Much of my early years were spent striving to perfect myself. I worked hard in school for academic achievement, certainly studying more than necessary to get along. I poured myself into an appropriately diverse and engaging set of extracurriculars. Yet my definition of achievement wasn’t focused on resume-building alone. In addition to being the smartest and most accomplished I wanted to be the most well-rounded too. I journaled about my experiences and build a strong sense of self-reflection. I spent time with my family. I built emotional intelligence skills around listening and connecting. I committed to reading the Bible every morning and night as I plumbed for spiritual depth.

While I had a broad view of life, I had only one metric to measure every dimension against: excellence. Was I getting A’s on tests, devotedly going to the gym, cultivating both breadth and depth in my relationships, calling my parents, and taking on leadership roles? Was I being the best? My goal was to do everything required to become a ‘complete human being’ and to do it all well. Like my friend’s comment, I would know I was on track if people looked at my life and said “Gosh, I want what she has.”

There are plenty of issues with this worldview. To begin, this perspective set me on an endless quest with predictably unsatisfying results. I learned that there will always be someone who is smarter, funnier, more empathetic, better-read, more well-rounded, etc, etc, etc. It’s tough to be good at one thing, and much it’s harder to be the best at all things.  Given that I didn’t always find myself at the top of the heap, I also had to become an agile mental gymnast to preserve my sense of self-worth. I looked for ways to reestablish my identity when I lacked hard proof of relative superiority (like test grades). One trick was to subtly reframe and recontextualize what types of excellence really mattered. “Yes, it’s important to be smart and emotionally intelligent like me,” I would think to myself, “but it’s not that important to have a great fashion sense or win at chess. So, in a way, I’m still the best.” I picked the constellation of things that I would judge on; it meant that I could still define myself as comparatively excellent in any range of situations.

Though this worldview drove my achievements and gave me worth, it became clear that these subconscious patterns didn’t help me connect with others. It’s no fun to sit in a room silently cataloguing the reasons why I’m smarter than this person, more engaged than that person, and more emotionally aware than that other person. I didn’t want to be constantly striving for more – or perpetually reframing why my slate of achievements are just as good as the next person’s.

So I’m working on giving up those old habit patterns. I’m redefining success away from ‘excellence, comparative superiority, and enviability’ to simply ‘authenticity.’ I used to make authenticity a sub-goal of my overarching quest to be the best (i.e., “Goal 283: Be the most authentic person around”). But I know it’s far more powerful when authenticity becomes the dominant lens. Who am I? What is innately valuable about me? And how do I sit with all the parts of me instead of trying to perfect them?  Frankly, I don’t want you to covet my life. Instead, I want you to live your life fully, just as I want to live my life fully.  With all it’s real messiness and imperfection.

This focus on authenticity neuters my reliance on external validation. I began my journey with a sense that if I made myself good enough then others would want my life; they would like me and I would have done well.  But you remember my friend from high school and her one reservation about wanting my life? She said she would love to be me except… “you worry too much.” And so, as I throw out the idea of perfecting my life, I’ll also throw out my biggest worry about doing so: the fear that unless I make myself better and better, then I might not be worthy of your love and approval. Hopefully, striving for authenticity means that love and approval don’t need to come from you anymore; I should be able to find them independently.

It’s so easy for me – for any of us – to present only the Facebook veneer of a sublimated life: the travels, the engagements, the meals, the beach days with impossibly beautiful Californian weather. But regardless of what you see on your smartphone, here is the truth: I am not perfect. There is messiness and brokenness and not-all-put-together-ness in me. And far from being something I need to polish and perfect, I am more and more embracing those imperfect parts and loving myself even more. It has taken me until my earlier thirties, but I have learned that I don’t so much want to excel at life.  I just want to live it.

With love,
Meredith

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Try to Stop Trying

I’ve realized that I’m always trying.  Trying to do, trying to be.  Trying, trying, trying.

The whole idea of ‘trying’ has value to me because I believe that I have agency – a lot of agency.  When I work towards my goals with enthusiasm, intelligence, and emotional-awareness, my efforts are typically correlated with results.  All my experience supports this:  I send emails, stuff happens.  I make slides, stuff happens.  I talk to someone on the phone, stuff happens.  It’s a pretty straightforward view of the world.  Further, it’s a view of the world that has allowed me to be happy and successful to date (since I’m so good at trying).  Keep trying, and there will be success.

But what happens when I don’t try?

When a friend asked me that question last weekend, it leashed an avalanche of defensiveness and self-justification.  “Not trying?!  That’s inconceivable!” huffed The Defensive One in my head.  (I imagine him wearing an old-school British barrister outfit as he argues each point.)  “That’s an incredible betrayal!  It controverts the very idea of intentionality, one of your core values!”  He gets only more flustered and riled as he continues.  “For heaven’s sake, why invite the Queen to tea if you’re not going to show up?!”

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It’s true; after observing the effort/result correlation enough times, I’ve been duped into believing that voice.  I’ve come to see that the world moves forward when I try – and therefore, I have convinced myself that I must keep trying.

So what happens when I don’t try?  With this worldview, presumably nothing.  And yet, I increasingly observe that’s in fact the case.

This Wednesday was a good case in point.  I worked all day developing a new piece of training content, figuring out the flow of the module and tailoring each exercise so it would serve the learning goal.  I sat in front of my computer, revising text, swapping slides, changing pictures.  As I finished the day, I had the sense that something was mildly off.  I decided to step back, take a break, and go for a pedicure.

Thus I found myself an hour later, sitting in the pedicure chair, feet in a shallow pool of water and journal on my lap.  I was writing about whatever craziness I typically journal on.  And I was giving myself a self-congratulatory pat-on-the-back for creating time for self-care.  But then, with three of ten toes bright orange, I realized:  “Ahh!  I know exactly what needs to change in that module!  I see how to reformulate the question to really make it sing.”

I’ve worked for so long under the belief that my efforts, directly exerted upon the task at hand, will create the most movement.  But I’m learning that sometimes there’s more movement when you stop trying and let things be effortless.  This isn’t just true because the subconscious parts of my brain get a chance to process the information (as in this example), but also because things external to me seem to work in a different way when I stop trying as well.  People line up to support a new idea.  Someone sends an email with the information I need.  A new offer comes to the table.  It sounds crazy and semi-magical, but something happens when I stop trying.  And much of the time, that force moves the world forward more powerfully than my trying ever could.

So here’s my challenge:  I am going to try to stop trying.  Or, phrased more positively, I am going to see if I can relax and let go.  That way, I may just find my way to that productive and elusive place where trying and not trying meet.

Meredith
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