Book Recommendations · Grad School · Personal · Religious

“Birth, Breath, & Death”: A Brief Book for People Who Appreciate Precious, Everyday Miracles

Image source for the title image. This post is firstly a review of the book and what it’s taught me, and secondly, some words on what I’m doing to keep building on what I’ve learned: a 5-week online class held by the author, Amy Wright Glenn, entitled “Holding Space for Pregnancy Loss” this July. (I’m so excited!)

“I am captivated by the study of life’s thresholds. What is more mysterious than the great unknown existing beyond the frontiers of birth and death? Through the bodies of women, we are all born into time and space. Each one of us must also walk through that great, uncharted door of death.” – Amy Wright Glenn

This summer, before starting my chaplaincy internship, I had the pleasure of reading book after book – just for pleasure. (You can practically hear the Hallelujah chorus, no?). Some were just for fun, having nothing to do with spirituality or the work that I’ll be doing, but some were written by chaplains to share the kind of joys and pains that they have experienced with people who are ushering in life or preparing to exit. One of these books was “Birth, Breath, & Death: Meditations on Motherhood, Chaplaincy, and Life as a Doula” ($10-11 on Amazon) by Amy Wright Glenn. Amy Wright Glenn is the kind of person who’s done a little bit of everything – if you can think of a cool and life-impacting job, she’s probably held the title and lived out the practices. As a future hospital chaplain (I think!), of course I was most interested in the chaplaincy chapter, but truly, the entirety of this book is for anybody who wants to become more comfortable with the uncertainty and immense beauty that life holds at the beginning, middle, and end. It’s for spiritual seekers who think that the everyday happenings of life are miracles in and of themselves, or people who want to understand how the ambiguity is part of what makes life a precious gift worth appreciating.

“Children remind us of the potential of a long journey, and elders remind us that all human journeys end. It makes sense to cry when honoring both ends of life’s spectrum. Indeed, the pace of life’s dace is enough to make the little boys inside of grown men weep.” (96)

51NEf6L6rtL.jpgThere are various chapters in this book about her different adventures as a yogi, comparative religion and ethics high school teacher, doula, chaplain, mother, and seeker of beauty in the ordinary. Though the adventures are different, the themes are the same throughout: the importance of opening ourselves up to the joys and pains of life through breath and softening our hearts; the miracles of breath as a driver of birth and death; and the walks through our past that can help us head toward our future in more loving and open-hearted ways. She began her life as a Mormon in a strict household where questioning wasn’t encouraged and has ended up being a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church, a group which is well-known for respecting the sacred in whatever forms/Form it may be seen as in each individual life. Reading about her respect for others’ experience of the Infinite in the many terms she is an expert in as a comparative religion scholar was enlightening and especially important for the work that I’m doing this summer and perhaps my entire life: allowing others’ experience to “craft their own sacred keys,” and to support them as they follow where their light leads them. It is possible to see this as an overly individualistic approach spirituality and religion, but there is universal in the particular, and in the particular is the universal. Every person I meet, though they will have unique stories, hopes, letdowns, and souls, wants something that is similar to the person in the room next to them. This book, full of both her textbook knowledge and her wisdom from her lived experiences and those she has witnessed in her various roles, has helped me to tear down some of the walls that religious traditions can erect (and the walls that I buy into too easily out of comfort and discomfort alike) so that I can see the commonality more.

“Although it’s human nature to sort through stories for meaning, I agree with Joseph Campbell when he asserts the supremacy of experience over meaning. He writes, ‘People say that what we are seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive… so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.'” (84)

Now that I’ve read a few of her experiences, new to me especially in regards to her miraculous and joyous experience of being a mother, I’m excitedly looking forward to learning more from her in her 15-hour, 5-week online class entitled “Holding Space for Pregnancy Loss.” I know that working as a pediatric chaplain will mean that I’m working with people who want to have children, people who have had pregnancy loss, or people who have babies in the NICU and are fearing loss or lifelong health struggles for their child if they do survive. This is an area that I, as of yet, know very little about, and it will be a powerful way for me to grow. I’ll be learning more from her as well as the author of “Ghostbelly,” Elizabeth Heineman, as I read her book ($16 on Amazon) along with my online classmates. Elizabeth Heineman was brave and generous enough to document her experiences of the stigmatized and all-too-common life event of having a miscarriage and grieving the loss of an unborn child. (Most often, people struggle in silence, but thanks to people like her, and the research of Brené Brown that suggests that shame only wins over us if we keep it in the dark, people are becoming more open.) After having read “Ghostbelly”, barely being able to put it down, I can say that it was an excellent and highly important contrast to Amy Wright Glenn’s raw, yet blissful meditations on the crucible of motherhood in “Birth, Breath, & Death.” Her memoir also served as a reminder that these words that Amy Wright Glenn writes about being a chaplain are key:

“Simply sit vigil next to a person.

Place a hand on the back.

Have a listening heart.

That is enough.” (40)

I am so grateful for the wisdom from lived experiences that people like Amy Wright Glenn are willing to write down for the world to benefit from. I have been blessed by her openness, awe, and appreciation, and am trying to emulate her in facing birth and death – especially death – by “pray[ing] to bow in gratitude for the grace of having known even one day” (98). May you be similarly blessed in your reading of this book (and “Ghostbelly”, too!), and hopefully, we’ll be classmates in “Holding Space for Pregnancy Loss” together.

“I faced many of my fears about death and birth by exploring these thresholds, by experiencing their power. I rely less on the construction of meaning as a result. As [Joseph] Campbell asserts, it is the experience of a life fully lived that matters. I’ve found that the experience of love transforms and heals. This truth shines unburdened by any metaphysical proclamation. It simply is.” (85)

Disclosure: I wrote this book review in exchange for a discount on the $350 online class I’ll be taking in July. Thank you for your flexibility and generosity, Amy Wright Glenn! And thank you for helping me to fulfill something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time: write about some of the beautiful books I’ve read about thriving, despite the many challenges of living.


“I know one thing clearly – without love we are irrevocably adrift.” (85)

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