Three days after my last blog post, one of my dearest friends was killed in a car accident. Any words I write feel insufficient. Briana and I talked on the phone that afternoon while she and her brother were driving home for Easter. Within the hour of our conversation, she was gone. Her broken body left on the side of the highway.
I met Briana on a beautiful April day in 2008. Tess, my favorite botany study-buddy, insisted I meet her sister—a young single woman my same age—who had just become a midwife. We decided to celebrate the end of the semester by lounging in the grass, soaking up the warm sunshine. When Briana arrived, she sat tall in a cross-legged stance. She looked me in the eyes and listened as I told her about my interest in birth. After a few questions, she tore a page from her notebook and began writing: the best doula course to take, the essential books to read, the websites to reference. On our second visit she gifted me a copy of Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery. It was my first birth book. Months later Bri invited me to witness my first homebirth, to inspect my first placenta, to perform my first newborn exam.
Saturday, April 16, 2011. Briana had an apron tied around her waist and a phone cradled between her ear and shoulder when she came to the door. Her counter tops were crowded with scrumptiousness she’d spent days creating, in preparation for the “Momma Party”. I helped put together a blood orange salad and placed the shortbread batter into the oven. The house was flooding with women and babies who Briana had, or was, serving. I loved looking at them all, and hearing them talk of their birth experiences. Bri asked us all to introduce ourselves; she expressed that when she looked at each of us, she saw powerful women. She encouraged us to share with one another our thoughts on true power and womanhood.
The hours of good conversation and delicious food passed quickly. As people left, Bri took photos with the women and children and sent the families home with platefuls of baked goods. In preparation for moving, she was pairing down her belongings and had items for the taking: books, a child’s easel, plastic dishes, napkins…
By mid afternoon, Bri and I were the only ones in the house. It was an uncharacteristically warm and sunny April day, and so we decided to soak it up by lounging in her back yard. She grabbed John’s childhood blanket—the one she always chose—and we spread it across the grass. Bri sighed a deep, relaxing sigh, and said how happy she was with how the party had turned out, but said it was hard to have everyone all together only because she wished she could have spent more individual time with each momma and baby.
Our conversations that afternoon bounced from topic to topic, as we drifted in and out of lazy summer sleep. We laughed at the love-struck quail that lived in her bushes. We talked about her family and her excitement at spending the upcoming Easter holiday with them. We talked about relationships. We talked about the value of change. I asked her to describe her ideal birth experience, and she explained how it had transformed over the course of her midwifery experience. She used to want the midwife with the most knowledge and skills. Now, she figured, she just wanted to be accompanied by those who had the most compassion.
I remember watching her as she lay there, eyes closed, grinning up at the warm sunshine. She was bathed in light. I remember her saying, “It has been such a perfect day. I just feel so full.” She repeated it with a soft smile. “I feel so full.”
Saturday, April 23, 2011. I played phone tag with Briana that morning. She called while I was at yoga. I called while she was busy with pre-travel plans. When she called back, she asked if I could do her a favor. She wanted to pay her tithing before our church boundaries changed. She explained that she didn’t have a tithing slip, but had left two checks in her house, and asked if I wouldn’t mind filling out some slips for her and delivering them to the Bishop. She was only going to be gone a week, so I thought it was a little odd, but of course it wasn’t a problem. I asked for Candice’s number so I could call and make sure someone was home when I went over. The phone conversation was brief.
A few hours later, when I called Candice to ask if it was a good time to pick up Bri’s tithing, I learned the heart-wrenching news. Briana was dead.
That Easter Sunday I handed the Bishop the most meaningful tithing slip I think I will ever touch in my life.
I know I am not alone in missing Bri. I only knew her for three years, but she absolutely changed my life. Two weeks after her death, I started school to become a midwife. Briana wrote one of the letters of recommendation for me, and it was because of her that I had sufficient birth-related experience to enter the program. But more than that, she was a kindred soul. Few days go by without me wishing I could just call her, to hear her voice, to ask her advice, or to share a story that would make her laugh.
Looking back, I am struck by the similarities between the first day I met Bri, and the last day I spent with her. They were both gorgeous April days, full of sunshine. They were both spent lounging in the bright green springtime. They were both days that felt full of goodness. That is how I will always remember her.
Shortly after her death, I saw Briana in a dream. She was beautiful. I was struck by how radiant she looked, fully cloaked in light. She didn’t say anything, but just looked at me with soft compassion. As if she recognized my pain, but wanted me to know that she is ok. Her face was full of peace.
A few weeks later, in another dream, she knocked on my door. “Briana!” I gasped. I pulled her into a tight squeeze and whispered, “I have so many things I’ve wanted to ask you!” In my dream I asked, “Have you seen God?” She looked at me with smiling eyes and laughed as she responded, “Of course I have.”
Briana still exists. This has become a familiar mantra to me. I look forward with hope to the day when I can again embrace her in my arms and share stories that make us both weep and laugh. Until then, I am trying to be a better doula, midwife, sister, daughter, teacher, friend, and woman because of her.
This is a photo I copied from Briana’s website: http://www.fernmidwifery.com
On my morning walks to work there are many familiar faces. I don’t know anyone’s name, but they have become regulars in my life. The TRAX driver who smiles so good-naturedly when he opens the door for wheelchair-riders, the orange-clad construction workers huddled around the Chuvi-Duvi taco stand, the sister missionaries dutifully filling two-by-two onto Temple Square, the pan-handlers assuming their posts with their worn cardboard signs, the man with the two-foot-long silver ponytail who just stands at the corner watching traffic go by.
And, somewhere between 1st and 4th south I cross paths with a wide-eyed, shaggy-haired man in 80’s-length running shorts. He has some of the longest, skinniest legs I’ve ever seen. Or is it just in relation to those short shorts? Today he stopped maybe 4 yards ahead of me. He swooped to the ground and picked up a small object. I didn’t see what it was, but only that it went straight into his mouth. An indulgent grin spread across the man’s face. He looked so contented with his apparently jack-pot-of-a-find that I couldn’t help but smile for him too.
I grinned all morning remembering that startling encounter. How many busy morning walkers passed right by that anonymous morsel before the hungry man seized the treasure? …Sweet goodness appearing at his feet, just as the dews from heaven. How many of us would have thought to eat it? The children of Israel had to be taught to recognize their heaven-sent food. According to Biblical record manna was small and white like coriander seeds; it appeared as hoar frost and had to be collected before it was melted away by the sun. The name for this bread of heaven is said to have come from the question, “What is it?” or “Man hu?”
Other scholars suggest the name is derived from the Arabic word for plant lice, man. They suggest that when the travelers in the wilderness saw manna they stated, “Man hu. This is plant lice.” Some breeds of scale insects produce a type of honeydew. Such a meal would have provided Moses’ people with both a sweet mouthful and a complete protein. Other scholars cast in votes that manna was a type of lichen, or fungi, or a kosher species of locust, or the sap of an appetite-suppressing plant.
I won’t rule out the possibility that manna was a celestial concoction altogether different from any other earthly thing, BUT there is something thrilling to me about the notion that a group of God’s chosen people subsisted for generations on wax-secreting insects. And, honestly, who wouldn’t call an insect a celestial wonder?
Waxy scales from plant parasites and unwrapped mouthfuls on dirty sidewalks don’t make me anxious for lunchtime. But maybe they would if I was intensely hungry. Or maybe they would if I knew the source from which they came. My fellow morning traveler has inspired me with a desire to wake up to the heaven-sent morsels at my feet. I worry I too often mistake celestial gifts for earth-crawling commonalities.
I want to be aware enough of the path under my feet, and hungry enough, that I too can unhesitatingly drop to my knees and graciously savor empyrean gifts. In honor of the lesson from the man with the familiar face, I’ve decided to re-name my blog: Manna to my taste. With the same spirit of James Montgomery’s famous poem, I will use this blog to record the manna in my life.
Light is fascinating. In honor of the Perseid Meteor Shower‘s peak tonight, I wanted to share some of my playing and learning and loving of light. This summer I came across something I wrote back in the early 90’s:
So I’ve liked bright things for a long time. Quite possibly my favorite bright thing is the moon. (Some day I’ll probably name a daughter Luna). Recently I was lying on my crusty grass, shooting hopelessly inadequate photos of a full moon, and I made a discovery. A long shutter speed makes is possible to paint with the moon! Here’s a little collage of a sampling from my first round of paintings (I’m particularly proud of the letter “A” that I drew):
The only reason I can say that the moon ranks higher on my list than the sun is that they really are the same light source. One of my assignments at work is to help design an exhibit about photosynthesis. Richard Feynman has been a great source of inspiration for this project. I recommend you take 4 and a half minutes and listen to this Nobel Prize-winning physicist talk about light. He is a brilliant teacher. The sun, moon, plants, fire…it’s all pretty similar when we look through the lens of energy. And, some notable text would add that the same light of the sun, moon, and stars are fueled by a more transcendent light. “And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings; Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space— The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things” (D&C 88:11-13).
A week ago, camped along Bullfrog Basin at Lake Powell, I captured some images that rival my moon paintings. Four small children, siblings, were giggling as they ran in the dark parking lot. Each one had a small headlamp.
That same night I captured my first lightning bolt in film. I love light.
My article entitled “The Sacrament of Birth” was published today in Square Two. I think it’s a lovely celebration of Earth Day. (Particularly relevant to Earth Day is the section of the paper entitled “Another Mother” ).
This is how the editor of the journal introduced my piece:
“… one of the most beautiful essays we’ve been privileged to publish here at SquareTwo. It’s by Analiesa Leonhardt, who helps us to recast the international issue of egregiously high maternal mortality rates into the spiritual issue it really is. Leonhardt does so by providing a exegesis of scripture concerning the earthly ordinance of birth. We promise that you will never think about birth the same way after reading this eloquent article.”
Here is a link to the online journal, where you can read the paper that has been rolling through my mind and heart for the past year and a half. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.
Happy Earth Day to one and all!
Last night Mother Nature blessed me with an opportunity to pull out my new boots again so I could tromp through the unexpected ice storm. And, this morning I awoke to a charming winter wonderland:
I may be in the minority here, but I love when spring takes her time in fully enveloping us. It tempers my fear that time is moving too quickly, that irretrievable moments are just whizzing by me. Sporadic winter visits calm my heart right down. The vascillations between the two crossing seasons give me time to say a proper and thorough farewell to winter, while spreading out the excitement and anticipation of spring. One of my favorite things about living in a land of four seasons is this magical transition time, and I am grateful that this year the passage from winter to spring is taking its sweet time. To me, the snow storm this morning felt akin to getting a second day of Christmas.
who day by day
Unfoldest blessings on our way,
O praise Her! Alleluia!
The flowers and fruits that in thee grow,
Let them Her glory also show.
O praise Her! O praise Her!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
In the midst of a great failure in my life, I have been spending considerable time pondering this topic. Three documents have been most influential in directing my thoughts:
1) This Harvard Commencement address by J.K. Rowling (I recommend you read or listen to it):
2) The December 2009 issue of WIRED Magazine (also highly recommended)
3) This book of scripture (brilliant book)
I have spent the bulk of my life fearing failure. That fear misguided my motivations in school; with regret I admit that too often what kept me up late studying was not a desire to learn but a desire to avoid any wrong answers. I have spent far more effort worrying and conjecturing about others’ perceptions of me than I have spent determining whether I myself was living authentically. This preoccupation with perfection too often kept me silent when I had questions to ask and thoughts to share. My misunderstandings about failure contributed little to self-improvement. I am quite convinced that these fears of failure have done more to thwart my personal progression and growth than any other force outside of me. In her commencement address I cited above, J.K. Rowling stated eloquently, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.” In the wake of my most recent heart-wrenching failure, I have learned more about the human heart, more about the sacredness of human relationships, and more about our relation to God than any success of mine has ever taught me. Would I ever want to go through this again? Not a chance. Would I give up what I have learned from it all? No way. I believe I have no choice but to embrace failure.
Outside of my own inner-workings, I am also on a mission to inspire the middle-schoolers of Utah to embrace failure too. In attempting to encourage these budding young people to just play with our interactive science exhibits, I come against so many walls, so much resistance to just explore. My favorite question to ask right now is, “What have you discovered?” How can we have hope for discovering anything new if we are not willing to take risks? I was ironically comforted by studying science because I thought of it as a rock of objective certainty. I say ironic because in the field of science, I am continually learning, the vast majority of time is spent failing. I doubt this is unique to just the field of science. But, anyone interested in a science-inspired-fist-pumping-heart-pushing-mind-expanding read about the value of failure in the scientific realm should check out the December 2009 issue of WIRED magazine. I read the entire thing on my last flight home to Wisconsin. Even though it was a gift for my brother, I couldn’t help highlighting inspiring thoughts and folding over pages I wanted to revisit. The goal is not to avoid failure. The goal is to understand why something failed and to use that new knowledge to our advantage. Many of the worlds greatest inventions and discoveries were born from utter failures.
I was given some wise guidance a number of years back: “Success in life is not measured by an absences of problems, but is measured by your response to those problems.” This same person assured me my life would be full of problems and difficulties. Just what you want to hear, right? I am slowly coming to accept (and trying to embrace) that a life ‘full of problems’ is not really a problem at all. If the focus is to avoid failure, the result will be an avoidance of life. In the parable of the talents one man took the single talent he received from the Lord and buried it in the earth because he was afraid. God called this guy “wicked and slothful.” The sin was doing nothing. He was afraid and didn’t try. I presume it would have been fine with the Lord if this guy had just lost the talent in an honest attempt at growth. Instead he was punished for doing nothing (Matt 25:14-30).
This month I read the book of Job. I thought if I reminded myself that my life is not nearly as bad as his was, maybe I would feel a little bit better. What I learned from the reading is that God’s manner of teaching is unlike any other. ‘God is great, and we know him not.’ Most of the chapters in this book are dedicated to conjectures on why bad things happen to good people. In response to all this hypothesizing on why God does something or allows another thing to happen, God responds with a slew of questions that makes Job ‘lay [his] hand upon [his] mouth’. Here’s the first line of God’s questioning, “Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding…” The questioning continues through chapters 38, 39, 40, and 41 . I read them as if this beautiful onslaught of questioning was directed at me. Try it yourself. It’s humbling to say the least. Our human understanding and our vision are limited. Our reasonings very often just fall short. We must trust God. With this trust we can confidently move forward. We will inevitably fail. But who cares? That’s not the point. If we open ourselves to learning, we will inevitably grow. Success demands failure.
This past week my mom and grandparents came out from Wisconsin to meet the newest (great) grandchild. It was a full, mind expanding week for these small-town Midwesterners. At one point I introduced my mom to some co-workers who apologized on behalf of the smoggy, cold Salt Lake weather. My mom replied in our heart-warming accent, “Oh, nO, this feels like spring tO us. This weather is great. We are just trying tO get Used tO all these big buildings. Da barns in WiscOnsin are nOt this big.” (I think she was joking, but that line still makes me chuckle. My mom is actually very well traveled).
Later that weekend I sat between my grandparents with my laptop and showed off some videos and photos from my work’s website to help them get a better idea of what I do. After the science-loving show-and-tell the following conversation ensued:
Grandma: “Harold, ask her to show you Moji Port.” (I learned that’s where my grandpa had been stationed in Japan during the Korean War, and just recently one of his closest buddies from that period of his life called him up saying that he could go on the internet and see photos of that same port).
Grandpa: “Oh, no, she’d need the internet for that.”
Me: “Actually, I am on the internet right now.”
Grandpa: “Well, do you have (pause) The Google?”
Me: “Why yes, I do have The Google!”
I proceeded to show my grandpa (who has never touched a computer in his life) the wonder that is Google Earth. We zoomed from satellite images of the farm where he grew up and raised his own family, to the other side of the globe where he served as a soldier 50 some years ago. This quiet man, who is usually just observing from his lazy-boy, kept pointing and telling stories, which trailed off in mutterings of “I was there… Gosh it’s changed a lot….” We found more photos of Moji Port on Flickr, which stirred more memories. I think we were all marveling at the wonders of modern technology and the impact it was having on my grandpa. After some time of silence my grandpa threw out a seemingly random question, “So, does anyone know what DNA looks like anyway??”
“Oh Grandpa, we do! Let me show you!” My grandparents only have high school degrees, and by the time the double helix had been discovered they were putting in long hours on the farm; DNA was familiar in name only. Using images I found on Wikipedia, I attempted to help my grandparents understand how it is possible to trace a strand of hair back to it’s original owner, and how it is possible to tell just from DNA samples how closely related two people are. My grandma was asking, “so the same exact DNA that in in my toe nail is also in my eyeball?”, when my little 2-year-old niece turned to show me something. She was playing a game on her uncle’s i-phone. While my grandpa will likely leave this world without ever using a computer, his great granddaughter will never know life without them.
The wonders did not stop there. That Sunday I witnessed the crumbling of a 30-year wall. When my mom joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, her Catholic parents were furious. They threatened to disown her as their child. She was the oldest of ten kids, raised in a home where holy water can be found at each entrance of the house and where a cross hangs above every door frame. While my mom continued to return home and we grandchildren were embraced with loving arms, we all note the silent tension when religion is spoke of. My grandparents didn’t attend our baptisms, strictly forbid other children from attending worship services with us, and frequently gave my mom anti-Mormon literature. In fact, my grandma would fly out to Utah only on the condition that they went to Mass on Sunday.
Last weekend, I was assigned to give a 10-minute talk on Christ-like Service during church, and I gave my grandparents an open invitation to come listen to me speak. When Sunday morning came, we attended Catholic Mass with my grandparents, and afterwards they joined us for Sacrament meeting, so they could listen to my talk. So simple. And so beautiful. That simple act of openness and love is still blowing me away.