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)

Between Earth and Sky

It’s been over a month since I last sat down to pour my thoughts into this container, and what a deeply moving month it has been. Each day has set before me an ever-changing landscape, and I have made it my intention to be present and deeply listen to what my life is asking of me. So far, what has been coming up is a request from myself to show up as my whole self wherever I am, and to take up all of the space that is mine.

It is the nature of my work to hold a lot of things. I accumulate so many stories during my clinic days and the nights I spend wiping sweaty brows and supporting perineums and welcoming new little lives onto the planet. I hold with my clients the intensity of pregnancy loss, the discomfort of aching backs and swollen ankles, the sweet relief of that first newborn cry. My hands guide babies safely into the world and their parents through the process of birth, mostly without excessive effort (aside from careful watching) on my part, though occasionally swift intervention to save a stuck baby from birth injury or a hemorrhaging person from complications is needed. I show up and occupy that space between life and death, and I feel it deeply when I do. I am learning that my education in science and the skill and training I received can coexist with my intuition and more subtle ways of knowing, and I am working at trusting them both.

I find myself in an endless process of becoming. I am in transition, now and always. I will never not be changing. Nothing feels solid to me right now, because I exist in the dynamic tension between beginnings and endings. There is a certain sweetness in just being in the discomfort of transition without having to know how the story ends, without having any idea if the paths I am walking will take me where I want to go, or even if where I think I’m headed is where I actually want to be.

I stand here in this singular moment in time, occupying this particular space between earth and sky, gravity holding me fast, feeling deeply into the strong force that unites the particles of matter that have come together to form this thing I call myself. I hold gently to my heart the groundlessness inherent in being human. I sit in the questions without having or needing the answers just now. I can breathe into the restlessness in my heart that wants to know what is going to happen, or if I made the right choice, or if it is all okay in the end.

Several times before in my life, I have felt a sense of being invited to do something by something larger than me, and of that being something I just couldn’t not do. I didn’t have answers, or even certainty that I would be able to do it. I felt this when I decided to come out of the closet 13 years ago. I felt it when I was deciding if I should go on the Equality Ride in 2006. I felt it as I was trying to figure out if I would be able to survive midwifery school. And I feel it now.

Mia Hollow put it this way:

every now and again,
you will feel a dull ache in your soul.
a gentle humming around your heart.
a longing for something without a name.
if i ever told you to obey anything,
this would be it.

listen to the call of your authentic self.
that part of you that lives just outside of your own skin.
let it have its way with you.

i have died a hundred times trying to ignore it.

I have learned to deeply trust this voice, because every time I have followed it, the subsequent journey it has invited me on has become a vital part of my becoming myself. It is a call to my deepest courage and most audacious visioning. It is, as Mia Hollow said, “the call of [my] authentic self.” And I have made a commitment to myself that I get to show up whole and take up space, which means claiming all of the parts of myself as mine and not making myself small to make other people comfortable.

Standing at the edge of this unknown, I feel a pull from what feels like a future iteration of myself whispering, “Yes, take this next step. You don’t have to see the whole path now. But take this step.” I also feel an immense surge of gratitude to my past selves for all of the times that I’ve shown up for these invitations with an open, curious heart, and how each of the steps I’ve taken so far have led me right here. There is a sense of continuity here throughout my evolution thus far, and as I sit with my own liminality, it is becoming clear to me that while the destination is uncertain, I know that I am coming home to myself.

This word that I’ve chosen for 2017, belonging, is already challenging me to show up for my life in brave ways. This afternoon, during a meditation on grounding, I felt a fierce sense of belonging as I sensed myself occupying the space where earth and sky came together. There was a wholeness, a continuum between the farthest reaches of space and the solid core at the center of the earth, and I existed in that expanse, taking up a miniscule fraction of it, but nevertheless belonging here.

So much is happening under the surface, and I keep coming back to a question posed by poet William Stafford: “Ask me whether what I have done is my life.”

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

I’m sitting here at the edge of the river, trusting the current, asking myself whether what I have done is my life, taking up space between earth and sky.

Tell About It

pay attention.
be astonished.
tell about it.
-mary oliver

Words have been hard to come by lately. This year has been a transformative one for me in so many ways, and I have found it challenging to find ways to describe my experience in language. I’ve spent this year doing countless things I’ve never done before, and I am doing my best to listen to Mary Oliver’s wise words. I have indeed been paying attention, and I am astonished over and over again. So here I am to tell about it.

This January is when I started dancing, which was the first time I ever really intentionally began moving my body. After a couple of decades of my muscles existing in a trauma-induced state of permafrost, I remember the exact moment (in the middle of dancing) when I felt them melt. At first, learning to dance was an endeavor of being in deep solitude in the middle of a crowd of people I didn’t know, but over the coming months, I developed a community of beautiful humans who have become family to me in ways I cannot begin to define in words. These people have gone on so many journeys with me, both in the container of an evening’s set list, as well as journeying with me into the wilderness of my humanity and vulnerability while exploring deep connection and belonging. I am unendingly grateful that this year brought dance to my world, and the people that have come with it.

February brought me to the end of one job–my first position as a midwife after graduation–and the beginning of another. That transition was an important one that afforded me much more time for self-care, as I am currently working much less than I was previously. My quality of life has drastically improved in this new role, and I view my decision to accept this new position as one of my most important life decisions thus far. I am grateful for the environment in which I work, the delightful midwives and nurses and other staff who make my workdays something I look forward to, and the precious individuals and families I have the privilege of serving. This month, I also met for the first time someone who became a member of my chosen family and one of the dearest humans in my world. The end of February was also when I learned that my mother had cancer, which would prove to be a thread woven throughout the remainder of the year.

March was full of cherry blossoms and poetry. This month ushered in my thirty-second year of life, and with it, the first labor I ever attended where the baby shared my birthday with me. That is a special moment I will not soon forget, and a hard birth that compelled me to dig deep into my reserves and hold exquisite space for what was unfolding. I went home to vegan cake with a small handful of special friends, and I felt loved. I also stood on a stage on the tenth anniversary of the start of the Equality Ride and told a deeply personal and hilarious story about my journey of self-discovery of my sexuality, which felt like an embrace of my choice of the word “storytelling” as my word of the year.

April involved a road trip that took me to a workshop that proved life-changing for me in several important ways. I met some people who made a big impression on me, and formed new connections that would push me to the edges of discovery and increased self-knowledge. I continued to become more comfortable in my new job, and kept building relationships as I met more people in the dance community I joined at the beginning of the year. April took me away from home to help me find home within myself in new ways.

May brought me love, and exploration, and curiosity, and growth. So many stories unfolded this month, stories I can’t begin to unpack just now. May was about mindful embodiment, witnessing my formerly trauma-frozen body continuing to melt and heal and open to movement and wonder and delight. I kept dancing, and catching babies, and writing poems, and falling in love with the world in new ways.

June took me out into the woods and brought me home again. The magic I created during my five days there left indelible imprints on my life. This month kept teaching me about relationship-building, and boundaries, and attachment, and family. June also contained some new trauma that shook me to my core for a while, and ultimately it showed me the importance of healing in community. I claimed very openly my whole self, and I lost some people I loved because of it. I saw how resilient I have become, and how even painful wounds can be tended to in ways that strengthen my wholeness.

July was about coming undone. The trauma from June seeped into my spirit, and I could not keep holding it all. I went into the woods again, and I fell apart. I set some clear boundaries in relationships that were not serving my wholeness. I grieved hard for what I lost. I felt everything deeply. July was messy and important.

August, again, took me out into the wilderness in search of something inside myself. I went to the coast alone for a week, and felt so very lost. I wrote my way back to myself there, and I came back home with thousands of pictures and hundreds of heart-shaped stones and dozens of ways I had reclaimed lost parts of myself. I went to dance camp this month, and explored movement in community. I allowed myself to be witnessed and held in extraordinary grief, and through this found the strength to go all the way through it to the end of my sorrow. Relationship creation and nurturing continued to be an important theme throughout the end of the summer, as did showing up in my solitude in the natural world and finding myself belonging to it.

September taught me more about healing and letting myself be held and loved by my chosen family. This month found me unearthing the courage to be vulnerable in my storytelling, to choose to unload shame that was not mine to carry, and to see myself through the eyes of the ones who love me the most. This month, I traveled to Oregon for the second of five times this year, and I saw my mother and her family and connected with them in the beauty of nature. I made memories of collecting heart-shaped stones from the beach together with my mother, which I will always cherish.

October taught me again about loss and grief. In the span of two weeks, I lost a dear mentor (a mother figure I have loved since college, when her presence in my life was instrumental in keeping me alive in the world) to cancer and two queer friends to suicide. I grieved their loss in my bones as I continued doing my work of baby-catching and community-building and working for justice. A bright spot in this month was getting the chemical structure of oxytocin, my favorite hormone, tattooed onto my forearm, reminding me to generate love and connection and relaxation wherever I go.

November was a hard month. Anxiety building up to the election, exponentially worse afterwards, gave way to an odd mix of paralyzing despair and dedicated action towards resistance. Two more weekend trips to Portland, and a third to Bainbridge Island, made this month full of travel. I stayed on friends’ couches and in guest bedrooms and in a gorgeous cabin in the woods, connecting with chosen family and my ancestors and finding belonging in the world I inhabit while continuing to work for justice in as many ways as my limited energy would allow.

And now it’s December. 2016 is close to over. This year of exploring storytelling has taken me into both my past stories, as well as giving me many new ones to write. Indeed, I think I am realizing that I write in ways that go much deeper than words. My presence in the world is writing epic poetry to the time I inhabit. My body is composing a love story to the land. My feet are dancing stories into sand, snow, dirt, grass, and on hardwood floors throughout the Pacific Northwest. The birth stories I witness unfolding and help to write with the families I serve may go untold, but they are writing themselves into my memory, not to be forgotten.

I may not have been writing as much this year, definitely not blogging as prolifically as I used to, which has required much gentleness and self-compassion on my part. But silence here does not equate to a lack of stories being lived or being told. I think I am just learning new ways of storytelling. I am seeing that the way I eat a ripe satsuma tangerine is a story. How I trace my fingers down the cheek of someone I care deeply for. The ways my body has learned to move to music and to rest in stillness. The quality of space I hold in my clinic and hospital rooms when important things are unfolding. The presence I give to the feeling of fall air on my face. The tenderness with which I welcome new people onto the planet. All of these are evidence of the ways I am becoming a more prolific storyteller and stepping into my greater wholeness as a member of the human family.

I have been paying attention. I am astonished. And I am doing my best to tell about it.

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At the End of Every Road

Fall came around again last week, as it does every year. I am usually sad to see summer go, especially in Seattle where summers are glorious days full of sunshine and fall means a return of the darkness and drizzly rains that envelop us here for much of the year.

This year, though, I am ready for fall. So very ready. I had a summer that was full of powerful growth, deep healing, significant challenges, wrenching grief, hot rage, fierce self-care, and radical love from my community and my chosen family. This whole year has been transformational for me as I have explored my word for the year (“storytelling”) and all the ways that going ever more deeply into my own wholeness has allowed me to connect in authentic, vulneraable ways with others.

In coming out more publicly as gender non-conforming, and especially coming out to my family of origin, I have dealt with the deep pain of loss. Telling the truth about my life has fractured some important relationships in ways that I don’t yet know how to repair.

I have come to a place where an absolutely non-negotiable part of being in relationships, for me, is that I get to show up in my wholeness. I refuse to hide parts of me that make people uncomfortable. I will not make myself smaller for anyone. I have fought for the right to take up space in the world–for myself, and for others who have been denied that right–and I am unwilling to give that away because my bigness is intimidating. Sometimes that means I lose people whom I’ve been connected to for much or all of my life, or for a brief time but who meant a lot to me. Sometimes, self-care looks like setting clear boundaries, like not engaging in relationships that don’t allow me to be whole, like not picking up the phone. Sometimes, that means that relationships can’t continue, or can’t continue in their present form.

Sometimes existing in my radical wholeness is a lonely proposition. But, even in moments of feeling isolated, I feel so much better existing as myself than I ever did pretending to be someone I could never be.

I have been doing a lot of reclaiming of the idea of isolation versus solitude. I can be alone without being lonely. Being with myself, truly and deeply present with myself, has taken me to some of the richest places I could have imagined. And now, I’ve noticed that I’m not trying as hard to fill the empty spaces in my life with just anything. I think of Warsan Shire and her reflection, “My alone feels so good, I’ll only have you if you’re sweeter than my solitude.” After my solo retreat to the coast last month, I feel the same.

And then I shift back into being in community with amazing people who see me and celebrate my authenticity. I see them and celebrate them as well. This year, of any year of my life, has been full of growing some of the most amazing connections with people. I have engaged in the deep, loving, challenging work of being in relationships with clear communication, boundaries, consent, accountability, and fierce love. I am flooded with gratitude for these people with whom I am co-creating the world I want to live in.

This summer was a huge one for me, both personally and within my community. I don’t yet have the words to speak to all that happened, or possibly the desire to share what I’ve been doing in my inner world. I’ve gone to some hard places and searched for whatever good I could find there to bring back with me. I’ve grieved, and grieved hard. I’ve raged at the violence and the unkindness that exists in the world and that has been and continues to be perpetrated against me and against people I love and against my community and other communities. I lost a queer friend to suicide. I had another that was viciously assaulted. Institutional oppression–in the form of racism, homophobia, transphobia, rape culture, classism, and so many more–continue to harm so many folks, and working to change the status quo is exhausting. Yet I don’t see any alternatives but to help co-create the world.

The last few lines of this song have been running through my head for weeks:

Maybe it’s all right
Maybe we won’t fight any more
Maybe love is waiting at the end of every road
I don’t know
I don’t know
But maybe
Maybe it’s all right

–Patty Griffin, “Mother of God”

I don’t know about every road; I haven’t walked all of them. But I know this road that I’m on is going home. And I know that love will be there, if for no other reason than that I am bringing it with me.

Greet Yourself Arriving

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
–Derek Wolcott, “Love After Love”

The time will come, and for me, is soon coming. I am leaving this weekend for a week-long solo trip to the Olympic Peninsula, to get lost and find myself in the woods, or something. I’m going to write, to explore what is inside of me that wants to exist in the world, to explore both my inner world as well as the world around me. I am taking my camera, and my journal, and my curiosity and anxiety and courage and authentic wholeness.

Nine years ago exactly, I was really sick. This body I live in now was eating itself for food; I weighed 70 pounds less than my current (very average) weight. I had a BMI of 13.7. I was aware that I was actively dying. I said goodbye to my life, and detached from everything that I loved and that gave meaning to my existence. I was ready. I remember vividly what death tastes like. I can feel the coldness of her shadow on my skin. I didn’t know what to expect, but I certainly didn’t expect to survive.

But I survived. Thanks to exquisitely-timed interventions from loved ones that involved leaving my parents’ home, moving across the country to seek specialty treatment for the leading expert and researcher in my particular condition in a place I’d never lived before, and being welcomed in my wholeness into a loving and accepting community, little by little over the next year I started getting better. And in my process of healing, I realized that I had the opportunity to rebuild my life in whatever ways I chose. I launched into an exhausting process of exploring every last piece of my life as I decided whether I wanted it to be part of what existed for me now. After not dying when I fully expected to, everything since that time has felt like bonus time, moments that I never thought I would get to experience. It was during that exploration that I realized I didn’t want to study childbirth academically as I had planned, but that I wanted to have a more hands-on role. And a year later, I was enrolled in prerequisites for midwifery school.

That period was a turning point in my life, setting me on a path that has led me to a place where I get to be my most whole self, doing work that I love, in a place I feel welcome and accepted, belonging to a community of people who see me, creating a family for myself out of chosen friends and loved ones. I have gone to the very depths of myself, digging into the deepest awfulness of human experience, and come back with fists full of unearthed treasures.

Some of what I’ve done doesn’t seem like it should be humanly possible, and when I look back, I wonder how I did it. I have so many stories of survival, of not just getting by but of actively thriving. I never thought I would be able to say that I love being alive, but I truly do, and getting here was a journey so full of rich stories that now want to be told. So I am going, in large part, to explore my stories. I did, after all, pick “storytelling” as my word for the year, and it is kicking my butt in all the best ways.

I am simultaneously terrified and fearless to go on this trip, to pay attention to every last bit of me that has stories to tell, to sit down with myself and “feast on my life.” I feel strong (hopefully strong enough to haul my pack on the trail!), both in body and in spirit, probably as strong as I’ve ever felt. I have no idea exactly where I’m going, other than that I’m taking myself to the woods to get lost and found again, and that I’m going away so that I can call every last part of me home.

It is time to greet myself arriving at my own door, after all the work I did to heal from my illness, and to address all of the physical and mental and emotional and psychosocial challenges that got me that sick in the first place. It is time now, after the intense work I did to heal, and to prepare myself for becoming a midwife, and actually studying and learning how to be a midwife, and becoming a midwife, and then working fiercely as a midwife for my first years in practice, and now finding myself settled in my second job and with more free time and energy to be able to bring some attention and gentleness back to myself.

Who am I now after that long journey? What do I want to do next in the world? What writing do I need to do? What stories want to be told? What further healing wants to happen in my mind and body? Where am I going, and what do I need to support myself on the journey?

These questions and more will follow me to the coast this week. I don’t know what I will bring back with me, but I can guess that there will be stories, and photographs, and likely more than a few heart-shaped stones. I’m ready to let the meteor shower make me feel exquisitely small, and for the trees to breathe me, and for the ocean to call my name and the ground to give me a place to rest. I’m ready to “give back my heart to itself.”

I will love again this stranger. I will find my way home.

whole

I wrote this poem the night I heard that a friend of mine was assaulted in a transphobic hate crime. In the gayest neighborhood in Seattle, one of the gayest cities in the world. Leaving a benefit event for the victims of the Pulse massacre in Orlando. During Pride.

I don’t have many words right now. This picture of the flower they were wearing in their hair at the time of the assault speaks for itself.

If you would like to donate to their healing, the link is here. Content warning: there are graphic pictures of what transphobic violence looks like on the fundraising site.

Michael's flower

 

whole

for michael, with love and healing

sticks and stones,
they said. sticks and stones.
but words
but
words

but.

words.

words and fists.

words and fists
break open
queer bodies,
the bodies of people
i love.

they hurt my queer body.

the queer body of the earth
weeps and trembles
weeps and trembles
and as i curl my
queer body
against theirs tonight
i weep and tremble too.

my calling is to be
the healing
of
the wound

but the wound
the wound is bleeding
queer blood
out onto the flowers
worn in queer hair
bleeding from gashes
in beautiful queer faces
bleeding from words and fists
and i don’t know where
the healing will come from
or where to start.

i guess i start here
with my rainbow Pride painted
toes tucked under
fuzzy blanket
with mint tea
with words
and healing hands open
to the sky
that is shedding fierce tears
as loud as my own.

i start here.
claiming my wholeness
in a world that wants me small.
i start here
embodying the name
i gave as a gift
to my truest self.

i start here,
refusing to hurt my queer body
choosing to love my queer body
making a home for my queer heart
creating a queer family to belong to.

i start with radical authenticity
i start with speaking my truth
i start with loving the hell
out of people
i start with kindness, and rage

i start with letting myself open
and be opened

i start by tiptoeing
outside
and kneeling in the wet grass
and burying my face in the body of the earth
and letting myself be held.

i start by feeling her rage
and by opening my eyes
to the truth that
when we hurt each other
and we hurt her
and we hurt ourselves
we all suffer
all end up broken and bleeding

hate and fear broke
my friend’s body
with words and fists
in a spot where i had
stood only hours earlier.

their body is hurt
my body is hurting
they are afraid
and so am i.
so am i.

and somehow
in the thick of the
grief
and the rage
and the sadness
and the fear
there remains a seed of kindness

and if i know
anything
it is that seeds grow
and blood dries
and gashes scar
and minds heal
yes, minds heal

i have but one seed
but one mind
but one body

and i don’t know how to
heal this wound
but i know how
to tuck my seed
into tear-soaked earth
and gently love it
whole.

perhaps that’s all there is
to do
just love things whole.
just love
all the broken things
whole.

Rage, and Be Kind

I wrote this as a Facebook status update this afternoon, trying to work through my body the grief and rage I feel at the murder of so many queer folks at Pulse in Orlando yesterday. I wanted to share it publicly as well.

Rage, and Be Kind

Note to everyone I love:
I cannot help you right now.
I can reach out my hands
And wrap them around you
And extend to you my broken heart
And witness yours.
But I cannot live in the mundane world today
Cannot hold the ordinary.
Fifty members of my family were slaughtered yesterday
And today I am trying to be a midwife
And not let my heart break open wondering if the babies my queer hands welcome
Will grow up to be queer and live in a world
Where they might still be slaughtered for it too.
I cannot bear it.
I can take a brief nap in the sunshine with my cats
And let the tears fall.
I do not know what I need
Other than to live in a world
Where I do not always need to look over my shoulder
Where families love their children exactly as they are
Where my people can pee without it being a political act
Where being myself is an act of fierce authenticity
But one that doesn’t risk my life or my safety
I want to live in a world where speaking my truth
and my name
Doesn’t cost me my family
And where going somewhere that should be a safe place
Doesn’t end in violence.
A friend asked how she could help
And all I could ask her is to raise her infant son not to rape and slaughter my people.
That is not an ordinary answer.
That’s where I am today.
Nothing is ordinary.
Please love hard.
Please be kind.
Rage, and be kind.

The Word Beyond Home

what is the word beyond.
home.
after home.
where is it. this word.
why can i not remember
how to say this
thing. this feeling that is
my whole body.
–nayyirah waheed

This is my first blog post this year. I have sat down many times to write and have found myself in a state where I am too full of stories to tell any one of them.

I am in transition. That is a story in itself. I am in an in-between place, where I am becoming more fully myself but not entirely sure what it is that I am becoming, where I am going, who I am in the world. I know I am a midwife; this part of my identity is solid and lovely to me in its reassurance that I know this much of who I am, at least. The rest of it feels like it is up for grabs.

In my last blog post, I wrote about the word that I chose to represent this year for me. I was anxious about choosing “storytelling” as my word, because I knew that it would ask big things of me and I wasn’t sure if I was ready. I was not wrong about either of those things. “Home,” my word for 2015, took me to some incredible places. This is a new year, a year for storytelling. This, for me, is the word beyond home.

This word, in under two months, has already called me to rise in ways that I cannot fully describe in language (ironic, given the word I chose). Committing to tell my stories this year is a radical, political act as well as an intensely personal one. I am making the intention of owning my whole self, every facet of my being, without shame. This authenticity and vulnerability is game-changing. For me to stand up and say, “This is who I am in the world,” and to be that person, involves a depth of wholeness and integration that is revolutionizing the way I walk through my days and show up in my interactions with other people.

You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done… you are fierce with reality.
–Florida Scott-Maxwell, “The Measure of My Days”

That is what storytelling means to me: claiming the events of my life, making myself mine. Being fierce with reality. And my reality has been fierce with me, to say the least. Those of you that know me in person or have followed my blog for a while know that my life has been full of some not-so-easy stories to tell. As, likely, has yours. I feel compelled to tell my stories, even the seemingly shitty ones, because I have found that my vulnerability bridges a divide that exists when we walk around in the world trying to pretend like we have it all together.

So I sit here not for the first time this year, but for the first time that I have been able to put words together in a form I can share publicly. I am taking Nayyirah Waheed’s advice and writing “the thing you are most afraid to write.” Almost. I’m not quite ready to share that one. Close, but not quite.

But I am ready to sit down with myself and write me a letter. I think of my fifteen-year-old self, closeted and lost in a mire of depression and shame, with unresolved trauma and a sense of never belonging. I think that person that I was needs to hear from the person that I am now.

Dear Robin (the 1999 version of you),

Oh, honey. Just to think of you brings tears to my eyes. I see you trying so very hard to make it, to make a place for yourself. You invented crushes (on boys who grew up to be gay–good gaydar you had!) because all of your friends were dating and you wanted to fit in. You went to church and Bible study and missionary kid youth groups, and you did your best to fit into the molds you were presented as the only possible good way to be. You sat and studied your Bible for hours a day, highlighting verses and taping them up around your room, and tried desperately to pray away parts of yourself that were becoming undeniably true for you. Parts that you knew, if you invited them into the open, would possibly cost you your friendships and family relationships.

I also see you desperately trying to stuff down secrets that wanted to come out of your body, stories you’ve held inside for too long, words you’ve told no one. I see you struggling to fight off the demons of shame and a sense of doubt in your value that comes from the violence you experienced at the hands of people who should have been safe for you. I see you holding these secrets inside you, piling food on top of them to choke them down. I see you gaining weight rapidly (a hundred pounds last year alone) in an unconscious attempt to be invisible. I still see you, and Robin: You are a lovely human. I know that the size of your body feels to you like it will make you safer. You have already internalized the sense that fat bodies are not seen the way that slender ones are, and the safest thing to you seems to be being unseen and unseeable. So your creative self, the you that desperately wants to stay alive in the world despite how hard and painful it is for you, came up with a solution. You survived, and I am proud of you. You did what you needed to do to make it.

Nothing about your body needs to change, though it will, and drastically, and soon. Over the next 11 months, you’ll lose more than half your body weight, as you lose your appetite for life and your ability to stuff anything down anymore. Your guts will literally turn on you (you were born with them tangled and “defective,” though you don’t quite know this yet), and you will have a long struggle ahead of you that will involve many invasive tests, a surgery that will take three times as long to heal from as anticipated, and a lot of pain and anxiety. And you will pull through it, and at the end, you will finally come up with the courage to tell someone about the violence you suffered through as a young child.

Sometimes the pain will feel like too much for you to hold. Sometimes it will burst out through lines traced in your skin, the blood leaking out a reminder that you are alive. There will be a time you “put the sharpness back,” as Mary Lambert so beautifully says.

Fathers and uncles are not claiming your knife anymore
Are not your razor, no
Put the sharpness back
Lay your hands flat and feel the surface of scarred skin
I once touched a tree with charred limbs
The stump was still breathing
But the tops were just ashy remains
I wonder what it’s like to come back from that because
Because sometimes I feel forest fires erupting from my wrists
And the smoke signals sent out are the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen

You will not have to wonder what it’s like to come back from that. You will come back. Do you hear me, love?

You. Will. Come. Back.

You will come home to yourself, in new ways, again and again and again. You will find words to attach to the deafening silence you’ve choked down for years. You will cling to stories of other survivors like life preservers. You will read Alice Sebold saying of her rape, “You must save yourself or you remain unsaved,” and you will set about the work of saving yourself. You will reach for the doorknob on the closet door, and you will come home to your queer self. You will find yourself with a new name and a new body. You will come to a place where you feel the permafrost in your muscles melting in dance class, and you will move in your skin and learn–little by ever so little–that you belong here.

You will do thousands of hours of hard work and self care that make it possible for me to do what I do now. Had you not invested so much into your healing, there is no question that I would not exist, either on this planet anymore or in my current role as a midwife. Death would have taken me ages ago if you hadn’t worked to keep her at bay. So you worked. You wrote. You put your pain into words on paper in dozens of journals that now fill boxes in my room. Your words pour off the lines into my memory and I send so much love back to you, back in time. I think of how much you despised yourself, how lost you were in shame and loneliness and grief. I think of the body that you hated and treated with such contempt, yet managed to keep alive. Here’s a secret: You will love this body one day. Joy and pleasure and happiness will show up beside pain and sorrow and loss, not taking their place but coexisting with them. You will expand your capacity to feel all of these things.

From where I stand, 17 years later, I am so grateful to you for your courage, and your strength, and your creative tenacity. You could have taken your life, and by extension, mine. You certainly thought about it. Your childhood friend did, last year, hanged in her closet full of despair after holding onto life as long as she could. Your closet reeks of pain, too, my love, and nevertheless somehow you held on. Thank you for holding on.

Thank you for somehow believing that there was a world with room for all of you in it. Thank you for making your way out of oppressive spaces and finding a path to a city and a community where you could be big. Thank you for following your passion to a profession where you get to do work that you love and make a difference in the world. Thank you for claiming your authentic self and wholeness in an environment that wanted you to be small and normal and ordinary. Thank you for the immense work you put into becoming me. I am in love with my life today because you did the heavy lifting and taught me how.

You are a goddamn tree stump with leaves sprouting out of it, reborn, my love.

And tomorrow, you will start your second job as a nurse-midwife, at a new hospital, with a new group of colleagues, in this city that is becoming home. You will continue to show up for your life and tell your stories. Day by day, year after year, you will become ever more yourself.

And so I send love back to you, in hopes that somehow it reaches some part of your psyche. I think of you with fondness and gentle compassion, in the complexity of the person you were and are. I think of the wars you fought and the bravery you showed just by showing up.

I have tried for a long time to escape you, because who you were at 15 is not who I am or want to be now, is not the life I want to live. I never want to return to your closet of death again. But I see now that running away from you is just running away from the person who would become me, and showing you kindness is cultivating self-care. In every way, you are me. You learn how to become an ever-closer approximation of your whole self. You live your way into you. Into me. You find your way home.

You find the word beyond home.

IMG_1591

The Soft Animal of Your Body

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

–Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”

I drove to work this morning lost in the drizzle and fog that has settled over Seattle as fall creeps on towards winter, and lost in my thoughts, and in the transitions my life has offered me recently. The overcast sky broke open just for a moment to reveal pink-tinged clouds and a huge V of birds heading south towards warmer weather. I thought of the quote I had read the night before:

When your world moves too fast

and you lose yourself in the chaos,

introduce yourself

to each color of the sunset.

Reacquaint yourself with the earth

beneath your feet.

Thank the air that surrounds you

with every breath you take.

Find yourself in the appreciation of life.

–Christy Ann Martine

As the tears slipped down my cheeks, and the rain fell on my windshield, I saw the sky open further to reveal thousands upon thousands of birds in formation. Mary Oliver’s words then crept into my mind. “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination,” she reminded me. “The wild geese…are heading home again.”

“Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

That is precisely what I have not been doing. I have been denying myself permission to listen to my body and respond to its requests. I have been minimizing the importance of self-care. Vegan marshmallows can only stuff down feelings for so long…

My relationship with my partner recently ended. I have had a lot of changes at work in the past few months. I’m still integrating my experience in Haiti. And I’m having continual health challenges. I am realizing that I am re-entering a period of transition in my life, which I seem to have the opportunity to experience with some degree of regularity. My resistance to where my life wants to take me (and thus, my lack of writing about it) has been more intense this time around. But then the sky and the geese and the rain broke me open, and now I’m here.

I’m here, not being good. Not crawling through the desert repenting. Just settling into the softness of my animal body, melting into my breath, reacquainting myself with the colors that the sun paints across the sky. Watching the wild geese head home. Realizing that I am finding my way home, too. As they made their way south and our paths crossed this morning, I remember standing still, captivated by their cries in unison. “Announcing your place in the family of things,” Mary Oliver asserts.

I, as much as anyone, as much as any of those birds in the sky or the cats in my bed or the patients on my clinic schedule, have a place here. I may not feel exactly what it is just now with any certainty, but there is a home for me.

Today was a good day. I got to see a handful of pregnant people in clinic in the morning before attending a miscarriage management workshop (complete with demonstrating manual vacuum aspiration on papayas!) in the afternoon and going to a Halloween party dressed as the notorious Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the evening. Just another day in my life!

I’m grateful for all of it, the whole beautiful challenging mess of my life. It is gorgeous, and exhausting, and fierce, and sad, and hard, and intense, and mine. All mine.

The Ocean Becomes the Drop

Today marks the end of our second day in Hinche. We got here safely despite a wild ride through the countryside and up the mountains. We all made it in one piece, which is more than I can say for other cars we saw along the way that were overturned and almost falling off the cliff! I managed not to feel carsick (miracle of miracles!) and had a nice chat with one of our translators in five different languages (English, Spanish, French, Haitian Creole, and the last remnants of my one semester of college Arabic)! I learned in one of those conversations (in Spanish, I think) that his wife was killed in the earthquake 5 years ago, and he is raising his daughter as a single parent.

It was fascinating to drive through the villages and see how life is here. Children were hauling jugs of water on their heads, women were selling things and doing laundry, men were selling sodas in the streets, naked little ones were running around with goats and chickens. The only pit stop on the 3-hour trip was just pulling over on the roadside (but I was so dehydrated that I didn’t need it! I’ve since ingested a few liters of water and I think I’m good).

The Midwives for Haiti house is a lovely place to call home for the next couple of weeks. I sleep at night under a mosquito net and slathered in DEET and oil of lemon eucalyptus. My bug bite count despite these interventions currently stands at eight. Sigh.

I’m glad I packed so many protein bars. There is a lot of gluten in the food so far. Dinner for me last night was two small bananas and one of my many protein bars. I don’t mind in the least, though–it’s better than being sick! And today, I was able to eat the rice and beans they made for lunch and save some aside for dinner as well.

I didn’t sleep too well last night, because my body still feels like it is too early to go to bed at reasonable times (jet lag, I guess), so I laid awake for a few hours and then didn’t want to get up in the morning! But then once today got going, it was busy!

Our day started off on a very difficult note. We received word that Carrie Wortham, one of the previous volunteers with Midwives for Haiti and a member of its board of directors, was riding her bicycle yesterday when she was struck and killed by a car. The 26-year-old was much-loved by everyone here and her sudden loss has been quite a shock. We have spent the day hearing stories about her life, including that she loved brownies, so I baked up a box of brownie mix this evening that I had brought as a treat, and everyone (but me) consumed them in Carrie’s honor. Word of her death spread quickly through town and we stopped several times on our moto-tour this morning for our translator to discuss the tragedy with people who had heard the sad news.

I also heard stories of how much she loved this cat named Ina May (after the famous midwife Ina May Gaskin) who lives here at the MFH house and has adopted me. Ina May gave birth to her kittens in Carrie’s dresser drawer, and folks called her “the cat midwife.” I have been petting the cat a lot today and trying to tell her that her person is gone. I get the feeling that she understands me somehow.

So, backing up a little, we started today with a tour of the town on motorcycle-taxis (the first time I’ve ridden much on a motorcycle since I was in Colombia). Teresa and I rode on one, and our translator/Creole tutor drove a second moto with another midwife on board. We toured the town, driving over bumpy streets with potholes filled with brown sludge from the thunderstorm yesterday. At least one black pig enjoyed sloshing around in the mud. Goats roamed freely, scavenging their meals from piles of trash and drinking from the potholes. Children saw us and called out, “Blan!” with glee or curiosity on their faces. Adults were heading to and from church dressed up in long-sleeved shirts and ties and their finest pants and shoes despite the heat and mud. We saw a family of six or seven piled onto a single motorcycle, with the little girls all in bright white tights and dresses (when I asked how they kept them so clean, one of our coordinators told me they are very fond of bleach!).

We wandered through the market to pick up some vegetables for me to cook for meals this week, since I haven’t been able to eat much of what they’ve cooked for us so far. I found cabbage, carrots, potatoes, beets, and some green squash-like vegetable that our translator didn’t know the name of in English, but he told me, “You cook it and eat it, and it’s good,” so that was enough for me.

The market was filled with tiny stalls crammed together under a roof made alternately of corrugated metal or of tarps strung together. The ground was sloppy with mud, which I got all in my sandals and up beyond my ankles. Stall after stall was filled with everything you could need: toiletries, sacks of grains, a few fresh veggies and fruits, shoes and clothing, and meats. I was startled to see a table covered in whole goat heads, their lifeless eyes staring back at me and their tongues hanging out of their mouths. Right next door, a woman was skinning an animal and hacking off bits of it to sell. Another stall contained a pile of chicken feet that a woman was peeling of their skin and nails before throwing them into a bucket. The smells in the market were indescribable.

We also stopped to walk around outside a huge Catholic church during mass and enjoy its architecture. It was truly beautiful. Numerous elderly folks sat outside under the shade of various trees begging for spare change.

After seeing the town, we came home briefly and then went on another moto-taxi tour to see the hospital. No pictures were allowed inside the hospital compound, so you will have to use your imagination.

We walked along the walkway outside the various wards, separated into an “emergency room” for urgent issues, separate surgical wards for men and women, medical wards again segregated by sex, a pediatric ward, a NICU (which the MFH director describes as the best in Haiti, though it looks very different than the technology-packed NICUs I have seen in the States), and the maternity and labor wards.

There are three maternity rooms: one antepartum, one postpartum, and one post-op for recovery from c-sections. Across the hall and around a corner, there is the delivery room (sal akouchman), with multiple delivery tables with stirrups vaguely hidden behind shower curtains (which were recently provided by MFH, and before then, there was no privacy). The air was stifling in the delivery room, and the fans on the walls were silent, due to the fact that the entire town of Hinche has been without power for quite some time now. The hospital lights run on generator power, but not the (also MFH-provided) fans. There were at least two women on the delivery tables when we toured the area, and one woman who had been laboring in the breezeway who was coming in to deliver as we were leaving. I had seen her earlier, squatting over a bucket she brought with her (either to empty her bladder or bowels, or to collect amniotic fluid), her skirt draped around her legs for a modicum of privacy, as she clutched the metal railing for support. Sweat poured down her brow in the afternoon heat. Several other women were in the throes of heavy labor (“travay” in Creole), some alone, some supported by a single friend or family member (only one person is allowed into the hospital compound with them, and they can only stay with them before they enter the delivery room; once on a table, they labor alone). The women on the delivery tables when we were in there were alternately singing to themselves or calling out for “Jesu!” or “mezanmi!” (my friends!) for help. The midwives wandered in and out. Through a gap in the minimal coverage provided by the blue shower curtain, I saw a pair of naked feet, caked with mud from the recent rains, gripping the stirrups and continually readjusting themselves in a fruitless search for more comfort on the sparse delivery table. On the other side of the curtain, I could see a woman’s face but none of the rest of her, and she stared at the crew of white midwives touring the delivery room while she was about to deliver.

I tried in vain to imagine this scene occurring in the US. No volunteers getting a tour of my hospital would see a patient in labor unless she was walking the halls to stimulate contractions. No patients would have to pay for their IV tubing or blood tubes before receiving a necessary treatment or test (such as a hematocrit that wasn’t done after a postpartum hemorrhage which necessitates blood transfusion, all because the patient’s husband had to go home to get money to buy the blood tube for the lab test). Birth here is free, except for the $2.50 fee per night spent in the hospital and about $1 for the hospital chart, called a “dosye” (without which you will not be admitted). C-sections are free. Patients do have to pay, however, for other procedures, such as a D&C, which is done without anesthesia (which I find hard to wrap my mind around).

I came to this experience knowing I needed to expect the unexpected. I have a feeling that I haven’t seen anything yet, and that I will have big feelings about what I witness. I am doing my best not to impose my own values on the situation, and to understand how things are in the context of the place in which they exist. Some of the practices are the way they are because they were imported by colonialists, or by various Western groups attempting to “modernize” the healthcare system. Some are traditional. Some are due to various financial and physical limitations. Some I might not understand at all. The anthropologist in me is working hard to get a sense of the bigger WHY behind what I see.

I came home from the hospital tour, ate some lunch, and immediately felt a sharp knot in my stomach. I went to lay down and rest, and found myself flooded with emotion. I noticed that my eyes were leaking, for the first (but certainly not the last) time this trip.

I had this overwhelming sense of being one tiny person trying to change an entire system. It struck me so clearly that I am not here to change birth for Haiti. My actions in these two weeks here might impact a few individual pregnant people and their families, hopefully for the better, but I know that the only way to make lasting change is from the ground up, not the bottom down. I am here to support a program that is training and empowering Haitian midwives (both women and men) to provide compassionate, dignified, skilled care to people who are literally dying without it. I have only been here two days, and I have already soaked up so many stories of what needs to be different, but I cannot make that change.

I feel like a single tiny drop in an ocean of suffering. How much good could I possibly do? But then, this afternoon, I remembered what Rumi had to say on the matter:

Everything you see has its roots in the unseen world.
The forms may change, yet the essence remains the same…

The Source is full, its waters are ever-flowing;
Do not grieve, drink your fill!
Don’t think it will ever run dry —
This is the endless Ocean!

Pass again from the heavenly realm and plunge into the ocean of Consciousness.
Let the drop of water that is you become a hundred mighty seas.

But do not think that the drop alone becomes the Ocean—
the Ocean, too, becomes the drop!

I am not here to save anyone from the entirety of their suffering. I can, however, be here to witness it. I can go out on the mobile clinic tomorrow in the MFH Land Cruiser with the midwives and check blood pressures and measure fundal heights and listen to fetal heart tones and do education on warning signs of problems and anything else we can think of (breastfeeding, nutrition, postpartum care), all these for women who would otherwise have no prenatal care at all and who are willing to walk several miles in the heat and wait for hours without food or water in order to get their check-ups. I can go to the feeding station where 80+ starving children have been brought by their parents for lifesaving nutritional interventions and love on those kiddos and help them swallow down protein gruel to nurse them back to health. I can go to the girls’ orphanage and hang out with dozens of children whose parents have died or are unable to care for them. I can spend time with the postpartum midwives and help them assess every mom and baby for their well-being prior to discharge from the hospital a few hours or a day or so post-delivery. I can interact with the new class of student midwives in class this week and in their first few days of clinical rotation in the hospital next week. I can even put on my big-girl scrubs and step into the Sal Akouchman, uncertain of what I will see or what I will be able to do about it, and give the laboring people there as much dignity and tenderness as my broken-open heart can muster. I can throw my single drop into this vast ocean, and allow the ocean to become me as well.

I came home this evening and made brownies after the rainstorm settled down, in Carrie’s memory. I played with the cat she loved on. I talked with the staff and volunteers about her, and celebrated her life with them. I sat down an hour ago to write down a few stories from the day, and watched as my heart trickled out onto my computer screen.

I feel like I do not know exactly why I am here, though the need to come was something that I felt in my bones the same way I have felt other things that I simply “couldn’t not do.” I don’t know what I will do, or how I will feel, or how my health will hold up, or what else will surprise me along the way. I do know that I will go home not the same person as when I came here. I am not entirely sure how this journey will change me. I do have the sneaking suspicion that I will be back again in the future.

 

Photos of the trip thus far are below. The internet is slow tonight, so I can’t seem to insert them throughout the post like I usually do. Enjoy!

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Me under a mosquito net at the guest house our first night in Haiti

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Our room at the MFH house

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Ina May the cat on my bed

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Eating brownie’s in Carrie’s memory

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On a moto-taxi

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Me with Teresa in front of the MFH compound

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Carrie’s brownies

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Ina May on my bed

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Baking brownies in Carrie’s memory

IMG_0323Ever-important hydration!