Born of Dust and Silence

Several months of silence have elapsed since I last showed up to pour my thoughts into this space. Much has been unfolding that is more personal than I am able to explore in this format at this time, and I trust that as stories arise that want to be shared, words will accompany them. For now, know that much is shifting beneath the surface, and perhaps the surface itself is shifting, the landscape of my life changing shape a little, taking on new elements of beauty and fascination and curiosity to marvel at.

I have wondered on and off if it is time to retire from blogging for now. It seems I have less to say here than when I was a student, and it is at least as much personal as it is about midwifery. And then, at the ACNM Annual Convention last week, I spoke with no less than a dozen people (many current midwifery students, or new midwives) who told me that my blog was instrumental to them choosing this profession, or helped them through the rough waters of school, or reminded them that they were not alone. And I realized that I could still do that, even though I am in a very different place now than six years ago when I first sat down to write about my excitement about becoming a midwife and explore my journey towards this career, this calling of mine. Six-years-ago me could not have imagined that I would be sitting down during a lull on a call shift (I didn’t say the “q-word…” I learned never to say the “q-word!”) after a busy day in clinic to blog about being a midwife and becoming myself. Or, perhaps, could have imagined it, but not what it would be like from here.

But six-years-ago me isn’t the part of myself I’ve recently been most strongly connecting with. Ten years ago this summer, I was ill to the point of bordering on death. I look back at the photos of my emaciated body, hollow eyes staring at me through a decade of time, and I have so much I want to tell the person I was then. Last week, I went back to my childhood home (one of them) to visit my parents and my sister, and I spent some time connecting with myself. It felt like a deep healing sort of magic, to be able to send love back through time to myself when I desperately needed it.

Brene Brown put it this way:

A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.

A number of those things happened to me a decade ago. I was newly out as queer, and newly in love with the person who would become my wife. I was living in a place where I did not get to express my queerness with a sense of safety or acceptance of who I was, and I managed to internalize the unspoken message that I needed to be small and take up less space. Combined with some undiagnosed physical health issues that spiraled together with anxiety and systemic oppression and not feeling a sense of belonging or knowing where home was, I made myself small. I lost 70 pounds in a year, dropping from an average weight to one that I still cannot believe I could survive at. I broke. I fell apart. I got sick.

I didn’t know if I would get better, or if I could, or even if I wanted to. I could not conceive of a life where I got to be my whole self and was loved exactly as I was and where delight was a theme woven through my days alongside the complexities of sadness and beauty and loss and heartbreaking joy.

I remember a singular moment that felt like a tipping point, where I sat alone in my room, my stomach raging in pain and nausea, gnawingly empty. I watched the pulsations of my aorta through my gaunt belly as I sat staring at a banana and trying to decide if I could eat it. I sat with that banana for hours, feeling like choosing to eat it despite how ill I knew I would feel was an affirmation of my intent to stay alive in the world, and uncertain if I had it in me to say yes. I journaled about this inner chaos. On July 1, 2007, I wrote of how “frighteningly low” my weight was (below 100 pounds), and described all the medical interventions that were on the horizon if I couldn’t force myself to eat, and what my choices were there. And then three small words at the very bottom of the page: “I choose life.”

I ate the banana. I somehow pushed through walls of pain and mountains of fear and kept eating. I left home and built a little family and fell in love with my life again. I didn’t die. I dreamed big dreams and from the depths of myself found the courage to follow them. I moved again, by myself, went to school, got divorced, became a nurse, became a midwife. And here I am on my couch at 11 p.m., pager clipped to the waistband of my shorts, hundreds of babies later, blogging about it.

In my grand tradition of writing letters to my past selves, here’s one specifically to me in that moment when I was sitting there with that banana:

Dear Rob (yep, that’s your name now; hang on),

I see you. Where you are at right now SUCKS. You feel sick constantly. Your body is wracked with pain and your mind with terror. You can’t imagine ever feeling alive again. You are eating your own flesh to stave off death for a bit longer, uncertain how much more you have to give. You are possibly the loneliest you’ve ever been, there in the solitude of your descent into illness.

I know, trust me I know, how much you don’t want to do this. You know how sick you will feel if you eat. You know what it will cost you. But just for a minute, I want to plant the seed of the idea that you not eating will cost me everything I now have. I need you to survive. I need you to do whatever it takes to keep your body alive. I can go back and repair anything else, can return with new perspectives and skills and coping strategies and will happily clean up any messes left behind. I just need you to feed yourself.

If I could, I would give you a glimpse into what lies in store for you on the other side of not dying. In the way that time is not as linear as we think it is and magic is weird and knowing that I went back last week with the intention of reconnecting with you, I’ll give it a shot. If you eat that banana, and keep eating, and keep doing whatever you need to do to stay in the land of the living, I promise you on everything you know to be holy and good that you will come alive again. This is not where your story ends. Far from it. You will keep writing.

In a couple of months, you will move to California, and you will meet people who won’t bat an eye at your queerness. A year from now, you will be married. You will put on a dress (sorry, next time it can be pants) on International Women’s Day and say “for today, and for the days to come” to a woman you love, and you will mean every word of it. You will explore together to the end of your exploring, and your paths will diverge, and you will be sad, and you will feel broken, and you will crochet and write and cry and study your way to feeling whole again.

During this time you will have moved again, to Seattle, on to one of the biggest challenges you’ve ever given yourself. You will dream a seemingly impossible dream, and you will have no idea until you’ve actually done it whether you can. From where your emaciated body sits, banana in hand, you can’t fathom being able to take on the role of caring for anyone but yourself, but you will do it. You will kick ass at one of the most accelerated intensive nurse-midwifery programs in the country. You will rise to the challenge of the dream your grandmother offered you. You will sit in a session at a midwifery conference ten years from now and hear her whisper, from somewhere, that you are her wildest dream, and you’ll realize that she gave you yours as well.

You will get a job that will stretch you and teach you a lot about how to be and how not to be a midwife. You will stay there until you need to leave it, and then you will go to a new place. You will bring your whole self to your work. You will receive babies into your hands and stories into your heart. Your presence with your patients is being cultivated by the quality of the ways in which you are showing up for yourself right now. So keep showing up. Keep doing the hard work of staying alive in the world.

Know that you are not alone. I promise that I will come back for you. Ten years from now, I will return. I will sit in the bedroom you spent your adolescence in, and I will bring all of my accumulated love and wisdom and magic with me. I will sit in the living room eating an apple (because I can’t stand bananas anymore), and I will feel the weight of your frail body sitting there with me, and I will reach out a hand to you from across the decade and lend you all of the strength I have built in the 80 extra pounds of muscle and fat and blood and bone and life I hold in this body you now occupy, and through our collective tears I will call you home again. I must leave home to stay alive, and I promise I will come back for you and through some time-warp magic I will reach back through the past and whisper courage to your palpitating heart, the courage you need to stay alive so you can grow into me and I can go back for you.

Your (my? our?) pager will go off while you write this, and you will go catch a baby and not come back to finish blogging for another week. What will remind you is a sunset that is so astonishing in its simple brilliance that it will move you to tears. You will stand in a spot a block away from where you now live, the fading light of day dropping down over the Olympics before you, and the way the sky makes a perfect silhouette of a sprig of Queen Anne’s Lace will flood your cheeks with saltwater because you are alive to see it.

You will be listening to “Turning Wake” by Ayla Nereo right then, and you will stand still with the cool evening breeze caressing your face as she croons,

I’ll be dancing’ with the ones who remind me
we are born of dust and silence
we are made of ancient songs
and there are ones who’ll keep us sleeping
and there are ones who bring the dawn
put your back to the birch and your mind to the matter of a
listening kind of way
we are born of dust and silence
we are made of ancient songs…

I will stare into the lens of my camera in that moment as if I could look through ten years of history and catch your eye.

I will gaze unblinkingly at the memory of your dying body as tears pour down my cheeks, and I will smile because (spoiler alert!) I know you made it out alive. You can’t know that now, and that is terrifying. Your body will indeed die one day, love, and you will return to the dust and silence you were born of. But not yet. This is not where your story ends.

 

I will stare back across a decade and hold you with limitless compassion, borne out of all of the precious life I’ve lived in the 3644 days between these two photographs. I will grieve with the embodied memory of what happens when I try to take up as little space as possible. You have no idea what you are capable of, how you will proceed to gleefully and unapologetically refuse to fit into anyone’s boxes, how in claiming your authentic wholeness and all the space that is yours to occupy you will create for yourself a life that you can thrive in.

I imagine myself with you in my lap. I would kiss the top of your head and stroke your bony cheek and tell you stories of the life you will live if you eat that banana. I would whisper in your ear the names of every single baby your hands will catch. I would sing you songs you have yet to learn and recite to you some of the poems you will write. You have to stay alive, love, because the world’s best cat has yet to be born, and yours are going to be his favorite shoulders to sit on.

Oh, my love, the tales I have to tell you of who you are becoming! You have so much life left to live. I wish I could tuck you in at night with stories of how brave you are, how resilient, how you will create a home and a life and a chosen family for yourself. It will be a long, tough rode; I won’t lie and tell you otherwise. Dozens of healthcare providers, well over a hundred appointments, several surgeries, and countless medications and treatments of a variety of kinds will be required to keep your body alive. You will do so much inner work, filling journal after journal with your thoughts and reflections. You will come face to face with your own shadow and welcome it. The journey of a lifetime is to integrate all that you have seen and done and experienced and been in the world, and I promise you that you have within you a seemingly endless well of courage that you will draw from again and again to show up and do the work.

Your beautiful queer self belongs in this world, Rob. Despite what you grew up hearing and what you still hear: there is a place for you at this table. You will discover, as you do the work of staying alive, just how much the world is in love with you. Oh, I wish you could take just a tiny glimpse into my bank of memories from the past decade! You have no idea what a ridiculous life I’ve built for you to come home to. I need you not to give up on living just yet, because there are full moons to admire and queer humans to kiss and mountains to hike up and songs to dance to and heart-shaped rocks to discover in all of the places you go. There are books to read and baths to take and poems to take your breath away. There is love to give and receive and make and fall into and fall out of and do it all over again. There is so much delicious food to eat (I promise that nourishing yourself won’t always be as hard and painful and scary as it is now). There is this incredible body that you get to inhabit, and as you put in one of your poems, “to live in this skin and come alive here.”

And so you will, dear one. You were born of dust and silence, and one day you will return to the same. But not yet. I came back for you. I came to bring you home with me, to carry you to a life you’ve made for yourself to thrive in. I left a heart-shaped stone behind so that you can find your way back to me. I’ll take care of you; I’ve learned how.

Come home with me.

All my love and magic,

Rob (roughly 5,247,360 minutes later)

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