"To bring anything new into the world is to open one’s self and therefore to take on risk, to contaminate oneself with the other, to be made vulnerable. This requires not just courage but many things, among them faith, hope, help, companionship, grace—in a word, love."
While living in one of the world's most impoverished countries, Rachel Marie Stone unexpectedly caught a baby without wearing gloves, drenching her bare hands with HIV-positive blood. Already worried about her health and family, Stone grappled anew with realities of human suffering, global justice, and maternal health.
In these reflections on the mysteries of life and death, Stone unpacks how childbirth reveals our anxieties, our physicality, our mortality. Yet birth is a profoundly hopeful act of faith, as new life is brought into a hurting world that groans for redemption. God becomes present to us as a mother who consents to the risk of love and lets us make our own way in the world, as every good mother must do.
"Ask me what this book is about and I will struggle to give you a simple answer. It is about pregnancy and birth, anxiety and despair, blood and water. It is memoir and history, poetry and theology. Ask me, though, why you should read this book, and my answer is very simple—because you are a person with a body in and through which you bear pain, fear, and failure. Read this book for its necessary wisdom. In our most desperate vulnerability, when all we can do is endure, God is there too."
"Birthing Hope drew me in from the first page to the last. Rachel Marie Stone’s masterful interweaving of family story, theological truth, and personal reflection on birth, life, and loss puts her in the company of writers such as Rebecca Solnit and Eula Biss. I will return to this book for wisdom, beautiful writing, and encouragement that, even in the face of loss and sorrow, it is good to give ourselves to the light."
"We all carry fear with us in our bodies. Some of us try to escape it, some excel at denying it, and others attempt to bully it into submission. Rachel Marie Stone’s shimmering writing instead invites readers to recognize the ways in which fear shapes us (and sometimes breaks us) as human beings. Birthing Hope reveals, with honesty and grace, the ways in which holy, embodied hope can re-form our response to fear."
"Rachel Stone writes with power in this captivating reflection on the legacies of pain, procreation, and promise that echo through women’s (reproductive, emotional, and familial) lives. Part memoir, part travelogue, part time travel, Birthing Hope kept me glued to its pages. Highly recommend!"
"I’ve been waiting for a book like this one for years, and no one could have written it more beautifully and wisely than Rachel Marie Stone. With the skill of a poet and the patience of a doula, Stone invites the reader to look straight into the face of fear and find in it the spark of hope. There are words and phrases from these pages that I will go on pondering for years. Theologically rich and carefully researched, Birthing Hope is a book for everyone, but as a new mother it proved life changing—the kind of book that leaves you breathless."
"Every woman who gives birth knows that it is a profoundly spiritual experience. Something in us changes as our bodies bring life into the world. Rachel Marie Stone puts words around the ways the birthing process pulls women into the depths of pain, but also identity, fear, mercy, and even death. In doing so, she offers a clear look at the physical, emotional, and mystical messiness of birth."
"Profound theology, deep psychic insight, and the kind of wisdom that only emerges from immersion in life and the Scriptures—Rachel Marie Stone's book is a treasure, unforgettable, entirely compelling."
"Why do so many movies and TV shows portray birth so laughably poorly? It's as if we've all agreed the real thing—the most elemental human reality—is too raw and inelegant, too terrible and ecstatic, to be honest about. Rachel Marie Stone upends this conspiracy in this feisty, smart, theologically illuminating book. In her hands, birth is not only a sacrament of solidarity, a sign of hope amid the chaos of doubt and fright, but also a reminder that, for all our talk of immortal souls, we have and are bodies, fearfully and wonderfully so."
"Birthing Hope will plumb your depths and, if you let it, bring rise to something new in you. Reading this book, I rediscovered pieces of me I had hidden away, dusted them off, and found that they were now different from when I had last concealed them. These are powerful words crafted by a tender heart and hands. Rachel Marie Stone has written a book for our souls. I urge you to spend time with this book."
"I love this book. You needn't have given birth to love it. Maybe you don't even have to be curious about God or life as a human being to love it—the prose is that strong and compelling that perhaps even the God-and-human-uncurious might love it. My copy is going on my read-once-a-year shelf, after Jane Smiley and before Robert Penn Warren."
"A quiet memoir on hope as the most paradoxical of virtues."
"The book is, itself, a kind of dreamscape. Stone's narrative is at once focused—specifically, on the aftermath of a single episode in a Malawian birthing room—and, at the same time, incredibly diffuse in scope. As her reflections circle on the recurrent motifs of birth, fear, divinity, and mortality, Stone touches down on many different chapters in her own life: her lifelong struggle with an inherited bone disorder, and her children's experiences with the same disease; her grandmother's alcoholism and her mother's bipolar disorder; her childhood fears, pets, playthings; her work as a doula, a writer, an English teacher; her sojourns in Germany, Scotland, and Malawi. Her experiences become a kaleidoscopic lens through which we view her most salient themes."
"Stone is, above all, in a raw, faith-inspired, and benevolent relationship with the enduring metaphors of birth. . . . Stone's book makes clear that suffering, struggle, and deliverance are very much a part of the human story."
"English teacher and author Stone . . . writes movingly about childbirth and its meaning for women in this wistful memoir. . . . Her description of birth as both painful and joyful, and her exploration of how the two emotions feed each other, are highlights. Stone's style is reflective, making the book more of a meditation than a traditional memoir, and the prose is evocative throughout. . . . Readers will be gratified by how Stone turns the process of birth into a metaphor for her own personal and spiritual evolution."
"While Birthing Hope is filed as a Christian book, Stone’s story is so universal that it also fits generally among memoir, women’s health, and parenting titles. Stone’s faith is a large motivator for her and something that is woven throughout the book, but her story is relatable and its themes sympathetic regardless of religion or belief system."
"In these profound reflections on the mysteries of life and death, Stone unpacks how childbirth reveals our anxieties, our physicality, our mortality. All who are born or give birth will someday die. Yet even in the midst of our fears and doubts, birth is a profoundly hopeful act of faith, as new life is brought into a hurting world that groans for redemption. God becomes present to us as a mother who consents to the risk of love and ultimately lets us make our own way in the world, as every good mother must do."
9. The Odds
15. Till We Become Real
I trembled and clung to my father’s neck by the apartment pool and would not consent to be taken into the water. He said he would hold me the whole time, but going into the water, even in his arms, was unthinkable. I was sure we could not pass through it and live to tell. The photographs of my baptism, in the Sea of Galilee, when I was seven, show me smiling, but with spindly arms and legs all right-angled, tensed and clinging to my father’s arms as he immersed me—you are buried with Christ in baptism—and raised me, splut- tering seawater; eyes squeezed tight against the brilliant Middle Eastern sun. I could not yet swim.
Until I was eight, I lived in New York City. Now and then my parents and I went and stayed for a few days at the small beach cottage way out on Long Island, built by my dad’s grandma, my grandma’s mother, the year that my dad was born. It sat among the native vegetation, all scrubby pines and dune grasses, full of pale buttery light, and the sounds of the Atlantic’s waves through the open windows: no frills but these. The surf was rough, too rough, by my parents’ estimation, for swimming. I dug holes, sculpted sand, hunted beach glass, and let the waves bury my toes with sand at the high edges of the tide. When the waves were rough, I ran in terror, as had my father before me, in his childhood summers spent on that beach.
One summer, my mother brought her sewing machine to the beach house and made a dress at the same sturdy table that had held dozens of summertime meals, clusters of sun- pinked children gnawing corn on the cob and mincing their overcooked hamburgers—which they called “meat cakes”— into bits, which they mixed with ketchup as lubrication. An only child, I sat in the white wicker rocker with the huge spring cushion, reading book after book, and waiting to go down to the sea again, and begging to go see the dead whale.
The whale had washed up dead on the shore and stank with a terrific stink. It was also unimaginably large, especially by my lights. I couldn’t stop myself from looking at it, from taking in the awful stench of it, the massive size of it. A living thing so enormous was a part of this world, just as I was, and other living things, huger and stranger, occupied the dark vastness of the ocean, which, from there on the beach, was beyond endless for all I could see. Now the whale was dead, stopped, just lying there and rotting and fertilizing my imagination. What kind of whale was it? What did it die of? What will they do with it now? I asked questions until my parents, worn by my incessant inquiry and not in possession of any further knowledge of this whale or whales in general, said I wasn’t allowed to talk about it any more. Had there been a children’s adaptation of Moby-Dick on the beach house’s plentiful shelves, I might have buried myself in it, but instead my mind itched, reaching for information and for a narrative when there was only a presence (the whale) and an absence (its life) wrapped in mystery and malodorous blubber. I could think of little else.
We moved from New York City to Eastern Long Island, in a house facing not the wild Atlantic, but the largely becalmed Peconic Bay. A short walk in almost any direction led to beaches or docks: on one side, the bay, on the other, the Long Island Sound. Still I feared water. These waves slapped lazily at rocky beaches, cresting and breaking only on exceptionally windy days. I collected rocks resembling food—lamb chops, baked potatoes, peas—or else tried to skip flat, smooth rocks across the surface, once, twice, thrice, the way my dad did so effortlessly. I dug many deep holes, and mostly avoided getting wet.
Once, I was playing with a small group of children at a calm swimming spot on the bay. Schools of minnows swirled in the shallows, so thick they could be scooped up in a plastic pail. I gathered a pail of them and nestled the pail’s bottom in the sand, in a spot in the sun so I could see the minnows well—fragile-looking fish lips like the buttonholes of a filmy silk blouse, gaping and pursing, little rainbows playing off their scales; tiny black eyes somehow serious.
I could look at minnows for hours, just as I could play with one patient ladybug for the better part of a summer’s day, letting it hike over the tall grass of my arm hair, tickling its way to my shoulder, from which I’d transfer it to the other hand and so on. One afternoon, I cried when my dad asked me to leave my ladybug in the garden outside the nursing home, where we had come to visit the elderly. He was the Baptist pastor in the small town, and some of the old saints now resided at San Simeon, by the Long Island Sound. He relented.
Just keep the bug. Try not to let anyone see that you’ve got it.
I wandered the halls, shaking hands and smiling and receiving kisses and listening to half-remembered stories, all in the secret, pleasant company of my ladybug. We always washed our hands before we left: my dad explained, well out of earshot, that when people got very old, they might not remember to wash their hands after they went to the bathroom. So we washed ours. My ladybug rode home in the car in my hand. Later, in the yard between home and church, it flew away, and I felt a twinge of loneliness and loss. I said goodbye, as I always did. It wasn’t kind to hold on to wild things, I knew.
I would have liked to take the minnows home that day, but they’d have died in short order had I tried that. As I studied my minnows, some of the other children began digging holes and pouring buckets of minnows into them, covering them quickly with sand. They laughed. I screamed at them, tears hot in my eyes.
You’re killing them for no reason! Stop it!
They stared, stunned by my fury, but perhaps also amused at my carrying-on and annoyed that I was taking their fun so seriously. A grownup left her beach chair to investigate, and told the other kids to stop.
I was aware of my own drama and enjoyed it a bit: casting myself in the role of heroic minnow savior. But I was also sick at heart, thinking of those little buttonhole mouths gasping their last in the rocky sand. Images like that stuck with me for days: an injured pigeon, a limping dog, a dead deer. A dark, cavernous hollow would open inside me, and I sensed doom. One evening, as I walked my dog around the yard, she barked and lunged at a stray cat, who made for the other side of the street and was hit and killed before my eyes. I couldn’t look at my dog for days, and the moving picture of the scared cat flying dead from under the tires played on a repeating loop in my head.
“I’d rather just go to the Lewises’ pool,” I’d whine, when my parents brought up the question of my learning to swim. I didn’t swim there, either—just bobbed around in an inflatable ring in the shallow end once arm floaties and goggles and nose clip had all been secured. These layers of protection were embarrassing, since all the other kids were playing Marco Polo and swimming in the deep end, apparently not fearing death by drowning. I fantasized about an ordinary bathing suit with floatation pads discreetly sewn inside it—it would hold me up, and it might make me look portly, but I’d look more like the other kids, and I wouldn’t have to learn to swim.
My mom said I’d have an easier time learning to swim if I tried it at the beach. Salt water helps with buoyancy, she said.
I knew this; we’d visited the Dead Sea in Israel, and I watched as our friends waded in and then stretched out, heads lifted, as the sea lifted them high, like ducks. I dipped my feet in but went no further. “Dead” Sea is a creepy name, and the water was milky with salt, not quite transparent. Who knew what might be lurking beneath?
I like pools better, I told my mom. With a pool, you can see to the bottom. You know nothing is under there about to get you.
My dad was sympathetic. He didn’t learn to swim until he was twenty-seven; when he was a child, his own father had dragged him, screaming, into the roaring Atlantic, which didn’t exactly eliminate his fear of water. As he did with other things that terrified me—Ferris wheels, summer camp, roller- skating—my dad didn’t push. But everything that scared me also attracted me. I pictured myself gliding along the lake on water skis, but couldn’t get out of the boat; I imagined taking off across the skating rink gracefully, but always clung miserably to the rails along the perimeter. I was the crying, runny-nosed child for whom the carnival ride operator had to stop the roller coaster she thought she could brave.
Eventually, I doggy paddled, without even the arm floaties, along the shallow end of the pool. The next summer, I was swimming. Later, feet encased in protective neon-colored water shoes, I braved the calm waters of the Peconic Bay, where the occasional jellyfish or unseen pinching crustacean or imaginary sea monster would scare me ashore, sometimes for the remainder of the season. But I learned to scamper and swim quickly out of the shallows to where my feet no longer touched. I’d stretch out my arms and arch my belly to the sky, closing my eyes to the sun, enjoying the sea-muffled beach sounds of gulls and children and tubular aluminum-frame beach chairs screeching open. In those moments I felt I was being held in the womb of the earth. I exhaled forcefully, to see if I could make myself sink. Instead the waters, or the Lord, held me like a babe in arms, rocking, rocking; giving me again and again to the light.