Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
August 23, 2020Revised Common Lectionary
Welcome to Paintbox. If you're new to the site, you can learn more by visiting the about page. Each week you'll find links to interdisciplinary lessons followed by my collecting question for the week and then my personal reflection.
As I revisit the story of the midwives of Israel, I am thinking about how essential the work of midwifing is to us in our present experience of personal, societal, and global change. In times of great transition, holy presence is essential to help us navigate unknown passageways.
Arts & Architecture
Midwifing the Soul's Transitions
A commentary on the last episode of the current season of the PBS show, "Call the Midwife," in which Altomaro focuses on the role of midwives in both of the most important times of transition in human life—birth and death.
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History & Culture
Stitching Souls: The Documentary
History and Culture or Arts and Architecture
Documentary about how a community of quilters from Gee’s Bend, Alabama keep a dying art alive and use skills honed in the context of extreme poverty and racism to bring the strength of storytelling through the visual arts to people far beyond their own community.
For more information about the Gee’s Bend Quilters, contact coordinator, Anne Robertson at email@example.com
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Where do you see a need for midwifing?
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.” —Exodus 1:15-17
I have always associated the task of midwifing with birth. But there is another form of midwifing—walking with a person to the threshold of death. I recently finished Jesmyn Ward’s novel, Sing Unburied Sing. What Philomene asks her daughter Leonie to do in the story—to gather stones and herbs and preside at a ritual of crossing over— was an invitation for Leonie to be her mother’s midwife. The daughter whom Philomene had brought into the world would now accompany her mother to the threshold she would cross to leave this world.
In today’s arts and architecture lesson, Andrea Altomaro, a midwife herself, writes a description of the last episode of the current PBS series about midwifing, noting that we think more about midwifing births than deaths, yet in both moments, we need to be accompanied. Calling birth and death, “life’s great transitions,” Altomaro reflects on how vitally important these transitions are—in different ways—to the ones experiencing them and to the bystanders. All are caught up in truly liminal space, the threshold between worlds.
Midwives do their best work in liminal spaces. Those times in our lives between what we know and the new that has yet to arrive. In a way, all midwifery is a project of facilitating both birth and death. Whatever or whoever longs to emerge from the womb of a woman or of this world cannot come forward without there being an accompanying death. Death of the state of being pregnant, death of the world as it was before the arrival, death of the prior experience of the one being born. Birth and death coexist in moments of great transition in a symbiotic relationship. And both are communal, not solitary, experiences. Even for those who die alone, the truth is that they are not alone, but surrounded by a host of others, the saints in light, praying them across the threshold and welcoming them home. Sometimes our midwives are right at our bedside, and other times, we cannot see them. But they are there.
We need midwives—those who can summon the spiritual, physical, and communal resources we need to make the transition.
And when there is danger, as there certainly was in the story of Moses’ birth, we need fearless guides who can assure us safe passage and safe harbor. Shiphrah and Puah made sure that Israelite boys were born. And we can assume they were right there, alongside Moses’ mother, making sure he was hidden away in the reeds on the bank of the river for safe keeping. This is why the arc of the story of the people of Israel did not end under the rod of Egypt’s oppression.
Earlier this week, I received a link to a BBC broadcast (see history and culture lesson link) about a small group of quilters who gathered at Gray Center in Mississippi to be taught by seasoned quilting elders and experts from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, Mary Ann Pettway and China Pettway. The British guest who traveled across the ocean to attend the quilting retreat, Maria Margaronis, tells the story of the quilters of Gee’s Bend, who have led and inspired their community for decades as they are now leading and inspiring others—not with meetings and reports and speeches, but with needles and thread and scraps of fabric that, when stitched together, weave stories of history and maps to the future.
For years, these women have attended the death and the birth that constantly surrounded them in Gee’s Bend with an art form providing both literal safety in the form of warmth and safe harbor for an entire culture. Like Shiphrah and Puah, Mary Ann and China have hidden away lives in the fabric of their quilts so that the stories would not die.
The arts can offer us a tool for midwifing ourselves through grief we cannot even speak and through the birthing canal from the darkness of our vast amnesia into a new world where we are piecing together, often for the first time, the recollection of our true identities.
The time for tinkering with broken pieces of systems that have not served us while we languish in a sea of forgetting who we are has passed. This is a season of change like we have not seen in our lifetimes. Our institutions, our economy, our democracy, our communities, our planet—all are changing at a rapid pace and on a cataclysmic scale.
Call the midwife.
I’m quite serious. We need, like never before, people skilled at attending death and birth. We need people fearless to stare directly at the mess of it all and see the possibility embedded there; people who know enough about the perils of the past to avoid the trap of being bound by old conventions. People steeped enough in rich tradition to interpret the signs before them. People wise enough to listen and look for the smallest signs of where to go next. People humble enough to work with others with open minds, expecting to be taught something we do not yet know and urgently need to learn.
These are the skills by which we will navigate out of our present, dying realities into the new world that is taking shape beneath our feet before we have even comprehended its arrival.
None of us knows where this pandemic is headed or how many more lives it will claim. We do know our ways of gathering, of traveling, of working and living—are all irrevocably altered. None of us knows what is emerging in our struggle to become a more just society. We know we cannot go back to the way things were, even a few months ago. None of us knows what will happen in our political process. But most of us perceive that we are at a watershed moment, one that could change the course of this nation for our lifetimes as well as for those of our children’s children.
This is not the time to put off imagining a new reality to some distant day when we might have the stamina, the bandwidth, the creative energy to face such a daunting task. The day has arrived. Like it or not, we are dying. And we are being born.
Call the midwife. Labor has begun.