On Community and Belonging
I had finally arrived, I felt. This was it. This was the community I wanted, the community to which I yearned to belong. Babies crawled bare-bottomed over the grass, pulling up clumps of it with their tiny fists and watching wide-eyed as the same fists slackened, as though the fists were not under their power, and the blades fluttered back down. Other babies flopped happily in natural-dye wraps and carriers, and toddlers were free to follow a butterfly’s path or caterpillar trail with the mild caveat that the creek bed was awfully steep. “Animal carcasses” were strictly prohibited foodwise but a vegetarian feast arrayed the folding tables under the copse of trees that sheltered a picturesque rope hammock. Nipples were freed liberally and many had a baby, toddler or preschooler latched on. There was a lovely clear-running creek nearby and it seemed to be a tacit rule that swimsuits were verboten and belonged to a shame-saturated, prudish world outside from which this peaceful enclave of divine feminine empowerment was absolutely unshackled. A majestic teepee stood in the center of the field. And everything was so green, was that deep rich succulent green that abounded here in the Missourian equivalent of the tropics. I had stars in my eyes. These are my people, I thought. I have arrived. And on the surface, it was perfect, this community built around natural home birth and all the concomitant practices.
But the hostess, a revered midwife, terrified me. I regarded her with a sort of holy awe. She was petite, but energetically and emotionally occupied an imperious berth. A chestnut French braid, threaded with silver, fell halfway down her back. She bore the sort of regality that demanded her respect be earned, as it wasn’t about to be freely given. I don’t know if it was me, unworthy as I felt, or her, or a combination thereof, but I felt sized up and found wanting. Politesse was not her game. The friend who had brought me to the gathering introduced me to her and effused about what a privilege it was to be there. “It IS a privilege,” the midwife said emphatically, sending a pointed and lofty gaze in my direction.
We soon gathered around the campfire and space was offered to share whatever one felt moved to share. The friend by whom I’d been invited encouraged me to tell the traumatic story of my son’s birth. Although it had been 19 months prior, the wound was still suppurating and as the narrative slipped stutteringly from my mouth the tears came too, unbidden but inextricable from the story. I was also twenty weeks pregnant with Arrow, so, you know, hormones. But the pain was still fresh enough, and the feeling of profound violation and assault: how the doctor had ordered the nurses to hold me down while she forced her hand up into my uterus and scraped Israel’s placenta from my screaming body. I blubbered and sniffed and someone kindly handed me a tissue. “They should NOT have done that to you,” one woman sweetly offered.
When I got myself together and cleared my eyes enough to look up I saw the midwife staring at me stonily, unmoved. I felt like she found my weakness distasteful. She quickly rallied the other women around me and insisted that I crouch in a birthing squat and imagine pushing out my baby triumphantly. She stood behind me and braced herself against me, her arms hooked under my armpits. She breathed heavily into my ear, a rhythmic bellows into which the rest of the group weaved their own breath, peppered with grunts and moans, the guttural dirge of childbirth. “Your baby is crowning! She’s crowning!” the midwife yelled.
I tried, I tried. But even the simulation of giving birth again in this tribal ceremony into which I’d suddenly been swept gave rise to an irrepressible sorrow within me and as it erupted I sank to the ground limply, sobbing, my very essence possessed by defeat. A giver-upper. A weak one. A loser. I was back on that hospital bed, torpid and dazed, washed up on the shore of something resembling life from the raging sea of Israel’s birth. Dead-eyed, hollowed-out, raped, left for dead. My own strength would never be enough.
“THAT!” the midwife demanded, slapping the back of one hand against her palm, referring, I assumed, to my disintegration. “What is that?!”
“I don’t know,” I cried. I was desperate to give her the right answer, but I just didn’t have one at all. “I don’t know.”
“Well,” she said in disgusted resignation, shaking her head. “I don’t know, either.” She looked straight at me. “But you’re not going to make it.”
Those words. Her words. They stung like few others could have, maiming my already enfeebled sense of power and self-possession and the inchoate hope that I’d begun reservedly tending since I found out I was pregnant again that maybe I could, maybe I would push this baby out. Maybe I could go into this fire - if not willingly, then at least resolutely. Now I had no hope. If this woman, who’d caught hundreds of babies, coached hundreds of women through birth, didn’t believe I was capable of it, then I clearly wasn’t. She pointedly ignored me and my child the rest of the weekend and I had an odd feeling of being shunned. I’d failed the vision quest she’d foisted upon me. I’d failed the prerequisite for joining. I didn’t belong.
About five months later, I pushed my daughter out of my body into a birthing tub in our living room. Soon afterward, I felt a compelling need to write the midwife and tell her what I’d done. See?! I wanted to say, if not plainly, then in subtext. I did it! You thought I couldn’t, but I did! She wrote back with a cursory congratulations, and I felt vindicated. A little. Somewhat. Not really. The aftertaste of my excommunication that weekend, based on my performance - or lack thereof- lingered. I had so badly wanted to be counted, wanted to be among the chosen.
It was more than five years ago, this experience. I learned a lot, lessons which took a few years to spin out and coalesce fully. I wonder: is community that requires certain criteria be met before one can be accepted really community at all? Is a community really a community which is not based on a fundamental ground of acceptance and love? It seems to me that a community built on anything other than the Gospel will be hostage to the fickle shifting sands of power grabs, elitism and fear.
I reread this wonderful but very slim little volume by Jean Vanier yesterday, “From Brokenness to Community”. It’s really just a manuscript of two short lectures he gave at Harvard about his experiences living with severely disabled people in a community called L’Arche. “Community is a wonderful place, it is life-giving; but it is also a place of pain because it is a place of truth and growth - the revelation of our pride, our fear, and our brokenness,” he says. But that growth can’t occur when our belonging is tenuous. Jesus is always inviting us into communion with him, Vanier says, a communion which begins with a call of “Will you come with me? I love you. Will you enter into communion with me?” He never says “meet my standards, and then I might deign to hang out with you.” When we’re uncertain of our fundamental acceptance in a community, when belonging is not assured, but performance-based, vulnerability is too costly. And without vulnerability, there is no real communion and thus no real transformation. A performance-based community is a shallow and fruitless one.
The older I get, the more I realize that I do not usually choose my community. Community chooses me, or rather, God chooses my community for me. I generally don’t lust after being part of this or that group anymore because I trust God to place me in the midst of life-giving community. It’s not always easy. Just as Jesus called his disciples and invited them to be in community with one another, so God calls the sick, the lonely, the outcasts, the cowards, and the desolate to be with Him and one another. Human love is imperfect and will fail. There will be conflict and destructive forces within and without. But a people whose hearts are given to God, Vanier says, trust that He will defend them. In all things, we trust that God works for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. (Romans 8:28).
Perhaps the community I felt shunned by was fruitful for some, I don’t know. But there was just a sense that only the strong, as narrowly defined, were welcome. Only the adherents of certain parenting practices were welcome. There wasn’t space for disagreement, space for weakness, space for the poor in spirit. But the Gospel is different. The Gospel says we must be weak first, we must realize our own dependency and vulnerability and miserable poverty to be gloriously reborn into childlike trust, abundance and the power of Christ, made perfect in that weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). Come with me, be with me, you don’t have to be strong, Christ says. My yoke is easy and my burden is light. And that’s Good News.