Mothering Ourselves

Rev. Heather Rion Starr
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 05/11/2014

“Now I become myself. It’s taken / Time, many years and places;

I have been dissolved and shaken, / Worn other people’s faces...”

—May Sarton 




PRELUDE                             The 23rd Psalm                                    SCUU Choir

                                    arranged by Bobby McFerrin


*GATHERING SONG #38                                      “Morning Has Broken”


WELCOME and ANNOUNCEMENTS                Susan Vaughan       


JOYS AND SORROWS                                                        [standard words]


OFFERTORY                        How Could Anyone                        SCUU Choir



Our Meditation Reading this morning is #552, “My Help Is In the Mountain,” written by poet and novelist of the American southwest, Nancy Wood.


My help is in the mountain

Where I take myself to heal

The earthly wounds

That people give to me.


I find a rock with sun on it

And a stream where the water runs gentle

And the trees which one by one give me company.


So I must stay for a long time

Until I have grown from the rock.


And the stream is running through me

And I cannot tell myself from one tall tree.


Then I know that nothing touches me

Nor makes me run away.


My help is in the mountain

That I take away with me.


MEDITATION SONG #396                        “I Know This Rose Will Open”

                                                            we’ll sing this 3 times through in unison       


SERMON                               “Mothering Ourselves”                 


My partner Cathy and I moved from Central Oregon to Washington D.C. almost two years ago now, in early September when it was still humid and hot, and with our 6-week-old, colicky baby, our first kiddo, in the midst of still absorbing the realities of what being Mamas entailed. In those first weeks when I didn’t know where the grocery store was or when I would ever have a chance to go there, and months before I figured out where to get my hair cut or where to go to the dentist, I remember pacing through the rows of boxes stacked almost to the ceiling in our living room, at many hours of the day and all hours of the night, holding our screaming kid, and wondering, often, why no one ever seems to talk about how hard parenting can be. I was exhausted and a little shell-shocked by the constant screaming, and the stress of caring for a particularly tiny and intense little being.

Now, I can look back and say: wow, we were just one of those sets of new parents who have a particularly challenging time in the first year. But then, I would look at anyone who had more than one child and just ask, point blankly: “Why?” “Having been through it once, why would you ever voluntarily go through this again?”

There have been other times in my life when I have also felt unmoored and plunged into a deep and disorienting downward spiral. One September several years ago now, I was away for a long weekend in Central Washington. I had stepped away from my life in Oregon at the beginning of the church year.

I was feeling daunted by the whole year coming up, struggling in my personal life and relationship, depleted before things had even gotten going. I was sinking into a depression; I felt very overwhelmed and alone. On the 6-hour drive up to Central Washington, I got exhausted, and it was dark and lonely when I got there. And up until then I had been relying on two things to cope, to give me strength and keep me focused: work, and food.

That weekend in September in Central Washington, I plummeted. I wandered around the acreage of the house I was staying at, I cried, I wrote my thoughts down on paper to no one in particular, I felt lost, I sat in an old abandoned barn and wondered about the point of it all. My spirit felt in free-fall. There was no one to talk to, call or e-mail, no way to connect. I had always thought I would enjoy a weekend alone in the woods, but at this particular juncture in my life, it just felt like falling into a black hole of gloom. Something in me chose to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Back home in Bend, in the weeks and months that followed, there were things to do, and that to-do list helped me at least distract myself.

But I also started living my life differently after that particularly bleak weekend. Some part of me recognized, that weekend, that my spirit needed more attention, more support, more loving guidance. I started going to the Tibetan Buddhist Dharma Center, even though its services were then at 7am on Sunday mornings—a totally inconvenient time for me, but I got myself there, and being

there, being able to let in a little bit of the words and the teachings and the presence of others beside and around me—that got me through the cold darkness of winter.

I went to Zen meditation on Monday nights as often as I could and struggled to just sit with myself and my thoughts, to give myself some reprieve from doing-as-a-way-of-coping, and I always felt a teeny bit lighter, even a little refreshed afterwards. I tended to my home and began to make my home more my own; one day that winter I took down a map I had hung on the hallway wall and pounded in 21 nails, one for every scarf and hat I owned to hang out there on the wall, where I could see them each day and gracefully choose from them each morning. I started reading mysteries for fun, which I had never done before, started going for long walks when I felt restless, started scheduling more visits to my sister in Eugene, started prioritizing time with myself at home, just hanging out. Those were some of the ways that I coped and created space in my life for my own growing up, for caring for myself.

And this is why this is a Mother’s Day sermon. My mother and I have a fine relationship now, but it’s taken a long time, I think, for us to be at peace with each other and way that we are. Many times throughout my life I have had to step in and take care of myself in the ways that I most need. Though I have been blessed by amazing and supportive mentors, ultimately I have to be the one to take care of myself. Nobody else can do this for me. Nobody else can take care of me but me. Nobody else can know what is healthy and unhealthy for me, what I need to do from moment-to-moment to truly love, nourish, and mother myself.

There is a song I was taught at continental Unitarian Universalist Young Adult conferences—the song that the Choir sang for our Offering this morning—

“How could anyone ever tell you / you were anything less than beautiful?

How could anyone ever tell you / you were less than whole?

How could anyone fail to notice / that your loving is a miracle

How deeply you’re connected to my soul.”

There is something deeply healing about this simple song, but also something difficult—because the truth is that we get messages all the time from all directions that we are less than beautiful, less than whole, disconnected from one another and from ourselves. These messages may seem preposterous to others on the outside, but we take them in; we absorb negative energy inside ourselves all the time. We continue to function with all kinds of disconnections and broken places within ourselves and within our lives.

When now-retired Rev. Marilyn Sewell spoke in Portland as part of a panel on reconciliation, she began her remarks with these words: “The word religion comes from the prefix re, meaning back and the Latin ligare, which means "to bind,” "to bind back" or "to reconnect."  One might say that the function of religion is to repair the illusion of our separation. Religion should play a natural,…logical role in reconciliation—to bind us together in common values of love, compassion, justice, and forgiveness.” …“The function of religion is to repair the illusion of our separateness.” Though religion is certainly used for a great many other reasons, this is its essential, timeless calling to us, and this the reason people keep seeking out spiritual communities in one form or another even when we’re skeptical about “institutionalized religion.” We are still-and-always spiritual beings, people with complex souls who need to be in genuine connection with others, with ourselves, with a sense of the transcendent, the larger-than-Us-ness. When we’re disconnected from ourselves—not taking care of ourselves or taking the time to identify what’s really going on within us or what we really need—we risk abusing ourselves in ways we would never allow someone else to do to us.

Amongst what’s essential for me as I keep striving for a healthier and more balanced existence is the inspiration of others. One such inspiring story is that of Monica Seles. Nine-time grand slam champion, Monica ruled women's tennis in the late 1980’s and early 90’s. At 16, she became the youngest woman ever to win the French Open and in a two-year stretch, she won seven out of nine grand slam tennis championships. Many thought she was destined to be the best women's tennis player in history. Her career came to an abrupt halt on April 30, 1993, when she was stabbed by a deranged fan of one of her chief opponents during a break in a match in Germany. The same month that she went to Colorado for rehabilitation, her father—who was her best friend, her coach, her trainer and support system, all-in-one—was being tested and diagnosed for the cancer that would eventually take his life.

During this incredibly traumatic 2-year period, Seles began to cope by eating first repeat trips to the freezer for ice cream on the couch, then eventually binging trips to the grocery store when nobody knew she was gone. She’d load up a grocery cart with salt-and-vinegar chips and chocolate chip cookies and eat whole bags in the car. She gained forty pounds while still trying to return to competitive world tennis. She was on a constant see-saw between binge eating and extreme dieting, and her emotions, personal life, and tennis game fluctuated just as wildly. Eventually she began to have injuries she sees as directly related to continuing the physically demanding game of tennis while carrying all that extra weight.

Along the way she had to deal with the wildly personal, continual barage of questions from the media and the unpredictable observations of fans. At one point a male fan wrote her a genuinely appreciative letter, impressed with her “power game,” and also observed that she’s “bulked up quite a bit.” He revealed that he’d been drinking protein shakes and lifting weights but “can’t seem to put on the mass” he would like. What’s her secret, he asked? How was she managing to “put on the mass”? After sorting through her sea of feelings and pondering the “bag of peanut-butter filled pretzels that had been keeping [her] company all afternoon,” she wrote him a response:

“Dear Bob,

The best advice I can give you is to eat peanut butter.

Make it your best friend.

Nothing will put on weight faster than that.

Good luck with your mission!” (137)

It took her nine years to fully acknowledge and address not just her

binge eating, but the reasons for her binging: her grief over her father’s death and the huge identity crisis of letting go of the tennis career that had been her passion since she was 6 years old. Her book about this journey is called Getting a Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self. In it she writes words I could have—and sort of did already in this sermon—write myself:  “Nobody was going to take care of me and my problems. Nobody on the outside could fix what was going on inside of me. I was the only one who could and would do it” (254).

She continues: “I’d lived my life in such extremes—seven-hour workouts followed by five-thousand-calorie binges—that I wanted a change. I wanted less.  Just the word ‘less’ sounds soothing when it rolls off the tongue.  I started carrying the concept with me everywhere, viewing the word ‘less’ as connected to the word ‘lesson.’ Every time I made a choice that emphasized the ‘Less is more’ theory, I gave myself a little…pat on the back. I was learning how to live my life more fully by choosing less” (260).

She continues: “After I had the time and space to grieve for my father and contemplate my life without tennis, I started to see that some of my weight issues were due to focusing on what I was eating instead of looking inward to see what was eating me. I knew I used food to cope with emotions, but just knowing it wasn’t enough to completely stop it. That’s why I created the twenty-second rule: before letting myself rip into a bag of junk food, I forced myself to sit down and count to twenty. Slowly. During those twenty seconds I made myself answer a very simple question: what was really bothering me? Almost every single time, I came up with the answer before the twenty seconds were up. The next question was: what can I do right this minute to help fix it? Do I need to call someone to sort out a misunderstanding? Do I need to get paperwork done? Do I need to run overdue errands? Do I need to sort out an account with the cable company that sent me an inaccurate bill? By the time I came up with something that I could do right at that moment—even if it was a tiny action—my urge to eat had subsided and I was tackling the underlying problem. Soon the twenty-second rule became a habit and it became easier every single time I used it. Every time I sat down to a meal, I could make a decision. Was I going to treat myself with love and respect, or was I going to sabotage my own happiness and health for a short-term rush? When I approached my meals from a place of empowerment, the decision was an easy one: I chose nourishment over destruction every time” (266-267).

Monica’s twenty-second rule is simply about taking a pause to check in with ourselves. My hope is that our Unitarian Universalist faith communities are also places that we do that—that we connect in new ways with one another and also with ourselves. Working together on a grounds clean-up project, going on hikes or having picnics together, weekly worship services, checking in before beginning the work of a meeting—all of these are opportunities to connect with one another and reconnect with ourselves. Truly taking care of, mothering ourselves, means prioritizing these parts of our lives as much as we do the tasks that others need us to do.

Take a moment, right now, and just silently articulate for yourself, in your own mind and heart, what you know you need to do in order to take better care of yourself. What is it you need to prioritize more in your life? What is it that the tender soul inside you is waiting for someone to name, someone to notice, someone to cajole you lovingly to do or stop doing? <…..>  My message to you today is that you are the one, you are the only one, who can actually make that change in your life, whatever it is.

May you make space for greater tenderness in your life in the days and weeks ahead. May you notice the countless sacred, loving acts that already fill your days, the routines that give your life a frame. May we all see in the daily-ness of life ways that we can tend more earnestly to our own bodies, our own minds, our own aching, passionate hearts. May we care for ourselves tenderly and knowingly, and wish for the whole world such honest and loving care.

May it be so.


*CLOSING HYMN #108     “My Life Flows On in Endless Song”

                                                                        first two verses only



When you leave this sanctuary today, find the sacred place in you that has been replenished by being here. Make a note of what part of you feels fed or energized. Take care of that stirring spirit of yours with all your devotion—you are the only one who truly knows how to tend the fire of your soul. May you be filled with love and act in peace.


Please join me now in our Chalice Extinguishing Words while Susan extinguishes our chalice.



            “We extinguish this flame, but not the light of truth,

the warmth of community, or the fire of commitment.

These we carry in our hearts until we are together again.”



POSTLUDE                           “Comfort Me”                       SCUU Choir