Sunday Morning~On The Road Again

Whew! Another airport.  I’m sitting at gate B3 which is decorated in stars and stripes, looking more fourth of July-ish than Memorial Day. It’s the only gate that is decorated. I wonder what that’s all about? It looks like it might be a contest, and they are the sure winners. Glittery garlands are along the backs of all the seats, there are stars and stripes balloons around the screen that announces the flight behind the service desk, and fireworks displays along the countertops. I must say I’ve not seen anything like this.  Perhaps it’s the gate where some returning military are coming in.  That’s a possibility.

I’m here early. I was worried about getting the rental car back in time, and the roads are so easy to navigate, it was a breeze getting dropped off and to the gate. A week in the southwest and it seems like a month. I’ve done a lot. The conference was great, as usual. It feels so good to be among peers and (mostly) women working toward the same goals. Having worked alone for so many years, it has always been a much needed dose of peer-sharing for me. It helps to know others share similar frustrations, though there is a  sense of preaching to the choir. That’s what motivated me last year to do the TED talk. I thought, we are all working to change things, but it’s not going to happen until the general public gets this same message. We’ll see what comes of it.

At the end of the conference I was meeting friends in Santa Fe, but had a free night on my own. On an impulse, I rented a car and drove 4 hours to Chinle, Arizona to visit some Peace Corps friends who’ve been living and working there for the past six years. I hadn’t seen them since 1993 when we were building our house.  They’d come to visit us in Maine with their four kids, sleeping in a tent while our place was a construction site. As I recall, the older kids slept in the shell of the house we were building. Probably some huge hazard we chose to ignore. We had similar child-rearing philosophies and since our kids were all the same ages, and they’d had a baby born in Malawi as well, we had a lot in common. Great friends.

As the kids got older and life got more complicated, we traveled less to visit each other. For several years we kept in touch by Christmas cards, back in the day when we hand-wrote long letters in each one. When my husband left, I called to tell them the story; I think I wanted instant shock and support and couldn’t wait for a response by snail mail. I don’t even think I was doing email back then. It was a long phone call, probably two hours of me pouring out my sob story. At one point I said pathetically, “I don’t know what I did to deserve this.”  And Steve retorted, “Will you stop that Catholic guilt shit? What does a three year-old in Iraq do to deserve to get bombed?” Well, that made me stop my whining. It was the slap in the face I needed. It was the end of the pity party. That one comment, the sort only a great friend can deliver, changed how I dealt with the situation and I’m eternally grateful.

I love these people. I love that we can go years without seeing each other and be instantly connected again as if it were only last week. I was there for all of 16 hours, seven of which were spent sleeping, and it was so worth the trip. We managed a walk with the dog, hours of reminiscing, great dinner, a hospital tour, and a desert hike. It’s amazing what you can fit in to a short visit. And of course, there were the plans of future visits in exotic locations. No visit would be complete without that!

My life has been filled with so many wonderful friendships, and again, I’m filled with gratitude. I arrived in Santa Fe and met up with Margie and Patti. It was on Patti’s list to visit the Georgia O’Keefe Museum and we were there to share it with her. I love being this age. I love being able to set goals and accomplish them. I love sharing that with those I love.

On my way home to see my love and get ready for the next adventure.

Life is good.

Sunday Morning~Digging Deep

Ah, there is so much more room in my brain this morning! I’m in flight on my way to a week with 2,000 midwives in Albuquerque. This conference is my annual booster shot of enthusiasm for women helping women.

Yesterday was the TED talk! What an experience that was; holy smokes. It has been my dream to take this message to that forum and having the chance to do it was a life-altering experience. I am truly grateful for that chance. I feel like I’ve gotten an entire post-graduate education in two months, and have learned so much about myself and how to push my limits in a new way. I was not expecting this. There was so much investment by so many people. I felt buoyed and supported and it’s been such a gift.

The dress rehearsal was possibly the most scared I have ever been in my life. I thought if I blew it there I would be ruined for the next day. Just ruined. I had been up on the stage several times since the last rehearsal where I froze in the lights. I was getting to like it up there. I was getting comfortable with not seeing the audience. But the stage looked totally different. Big. TED-like. Hollywoodish. My inner self starting doubting whether little ol’ me was supposed to be up there. There was a big red timer on the monitor  where we could see our slides.  I panicked. I had no idea where I was supposed to be in the script at every minute and I thought that would throw me  off. I was afraid of dropping the clicker. I was unprepared for what my voice sounded like with that type of mic. Whole new world. Very, very savvy and skilled tech people were all over the place. I wondered if they often saw people in this state or it was just me.  You’d think after all these months of practicing, by the day before one would be ready for anything.  They told us this is why they have a dress rehearsal. Yes, of course, they know what they are doing, but I was sure no one else was a scared as me.

I messed up once during the rehearsal but was able to cover it and that boosted my confidence a little. I was not prepared for that level of anxiety, however, and the fact that my lips would not move over my teeth.  My mouth has never been that dry. It was like my teeth were covered in sandpaper and my lips were stuck to them and I struggled to make the words come out of my throat to the air in front of me. It was like having to push every word out into the world. It was surreal. I learned that lips are very important and it’s nice when they move freely. I won’t take them for granted anymore. I do a lot of public speaking and have had dry mouth before, but this was in a class of it’s own. Desiccated.

Yesterday was also the thirty-sixth birthday of my firstborn. His birth happened in Malawi when I was a Peace Corps volunteer. I was twenty-three years old and caught between two cultures. Peace Corps insisted I travel to the capitol city for the birth and be attended by one of the two obstetricians in the country. I wanted to be with the midwives, but since I was American and the standard of care here was a doctor, that’s what I had to agree with or be sent home. I didn’t want to go home so I reluctantly complied.

One of the obstetricians was a Catholic nun and she remains one of the women I admire most in the world. I was completely comfortable with her. She made me laugh, was kind and caring, and listened to my frustrations. It was above and beyond the call of duty, since she had hundreds of women in line waiting to see her.  I was naive and had no idea what was in store for me. I remember asking her how long she waits before cutting the cord, and she told me, that was like asking what shoe she put on first in the morning. She said they don’t usually call her unless there was an arm and a leg hanging out and the woman had almost bled to death. For her to spend time with me was an incredible waste of her skills, but she never acted as such. I really, really wanted her at my birth. The problem was she would be on home leave when I was due and I would have to be attended by the other OB who I hadn’t met. That was hugely disappointing, but I think it had been something like six years since the poor woman had gone home to visit her mother, so I dug out some compassion from my naive little selfish heart.

The birth was traumatic. It really didn’t need to be.  Everything was fine; my baby was fine, but labor was taking a long time, as first babies often do, and OB#2 was not strong in the patience department. He kept trying to convince me to speed things up with Pitocin. I kept refusing. He was getting annoyed with me. I was getting scared of him. I was afraid he’d just say I needed a c-section so I kept trying to stay quiet and not complain. The Malawian nurses didn’t understand my desire to have my husband there. This was contrary to their culture.  Men were never in the delivery room and they kept trying to get him to leave. I kept telling them this was our culture. In retrospect it was an interesting exercise in cultural education, but at the time I felt powerless and lost.  And labor flipping hurts! I was developing a whole new respect for women who ever did it a second time. I thought you’ d have to be out of your mind to ever do that again.

By the time I was ready to push, OB#2 had completely run out of patience. I asked him a question and his response was, “You seem to have all the answers. Why don’t you tell me?” I lost the battle. He cut me and pulled the baby out with a vacuum, and then, since “I was so intent on doing everything naturally,” he sewed me up with no novocaine. I swear he was enjoying my screams. I hate that man still.

It took me a long time to get over that. I had to figure out a way to turn it into something good. Upon her return from the states, I dumped all of my grief and frustration about the experience onto the wonderful sister OB#1, as if she didn’t have enough to do saving women’s lives. My baby and I were alive; I felt like I shouldn’t be complaining, but I couldn’t stop. She told me to go home and become a midwife and work to change things for women. And that’s what I did.

The irony that my dream of doing a TED talk would become a reality on the anniversary of that birth was hard to get my head around. I went for  a walk in the morning trying to calm my nerves.  I felt like I had one nine-minute chance to get this message out and if I blew it, the chance would never come around again. I walked in the sunlight. I put my hands on my hips and threw my shoulders back. I walked in a Wonder Woman pose hoping I’d feel more confident that way. At some point during the walk my thoughts shifted from fear of blowing my only chance, to excited anticipation for sharing this message with a compassionate audience. I thought of all the times I’d helped women through that last stage of labor when they universally say, “I can’t do this anymore.” I’d always say to them, “Yes you can. You’ve got the strength in you. Dig it out.” It’s what I wished someone said to me that day 36 years ago. No one said it then, but I heard it yesterday. Many times.

I got dressed and went and pushed that baby out.

Sunday Morning~Old Friends

I’m in Boston and have spent a fair chunk of time in graduation traffic. I’d considered taking the T, but I was getting a late start and erroneously thought it would be quicker to drive to an appointment on Friday of the BU graduation weekend. Big mistake. I didn’t know about the graduation. It was Friday! I thought everyone would be leaving the city! Graduations have been off my radar for a while as have Red Sox schedules. Oh well. Love That Dirty Water.

I was on my way to meet the people at Seed Global Health, the organization I’ll be working with next year. Though, I was very late due to the parking lot that was Storrow Drive, I was welcomed there like an old friend. I felt instantly at home and knew this was a great fit. When I first heard about this organization I knew I wanted work with them, and am excited about the upcoming year. I got some guidance with filling out licensing forms, some general information about my job for the year, and some very wonderful vibes about the team I’ll be part of.  New adventure! Meaningful work! New friends! This is a list of things that make me thrive. I love going forward into the unknown. I love trying to figure it out when I get there. I wonder where this came from?

Walking around the city, once I got the car safely out from under me, brought back so many good memories. I love this city. It is familiar, despite the changes. I met a college friend for dinner in the North End. As we walked there from Government Center, I though of how ugly that whole area was when I was in college. There was a huge elevated highway over what is now a beautiful park. Getting into the North End in those days was not a pretty experience. Once you were there it was  great; it was like it’s own little world, but trying to cross into it from Haymarket? Treacherous. Now it’s a stroll.

I thought about my college friends. Most of them were roommates or in my nursing class and once we got through everyone’s weddings, we’ve only stayed in touch via Christmas cards and those are getting fewer every year. I’ve missed most of my college reunions. I’ve either been away, or couldn’t afford it. Walking around the city, with the dogwood and magnolia in full bloom, made me wish I could see them all again. I wonder how to find them?  I guess Facebook is a good place to start. Maybe I’ll try that before our next big reunion in two years.

The college years are so formative: the breaking away, experiencing newness on your own, figuring out finances and food. All the life lessons that had been softly provided, are yanked out and left dangling until we can reconnect them to suit our personal need.  My high school was such a small pond. Those friends were my family (and still are) but this new big world had so many more to choose from. I savored it and thrived. I made many good loving friends. I wonder why I lost touch the way I did?  Lives in various parts of the country with kids and jobs and houses and mortgages?  Not sure, but walking those streets made me miss them. For awhile I wanted to be back in the 70’s and see what would have happened if I’d made different choices when I’d had the chance. I wonder what my life would be like now, knowing I have very few regrets and am happy. Still, I sometimes make up a story of my life’s trajectory if I’d chosen one thing differently. It’s where my mind went as I wandered and waited for dinner in my old stomping grounds.

Sunday Morning~Hey Mom, it's me calling.

It’s Mother’s Day, and yes, I miss my mom. It’s been five and a half years, and I still feel like calling her on Tuesday evenings. This week, I thought of that and imagined telling her about leaving for Malawi in July. I would have to brace myself.  I’d have to practice the lighthearted voice making it sound like a cruise to Mexico, something she (not I) would love! I’d have to keep up the banter for a bit, highlighting all the points that would reassure her. I’ll be in a big city this time! I’ll be teaching at a University! (that’ll sound secure) I’m not going alone!

This would give her a chance to hide her concern for me, her frustration with what she called “my need to do crazy things.” Though she tried, she couldn’t understand or relate to my lifestyle.  She did learn though, to stop trying to talk me out of it. And I loved her for that. It always helped that her friends thought what I was doing was great. That, and her faith. She was a good mom. Before I left for Congo and was frantically getting the house ready to rent, she wanted me to give her a job that would be helpful. She was quite infirm by then and couldn’t do any lifting or cleaning, so I placed a large basket of fabric in front of her, and she carefully folded and stacked my precious scraps so I could pack them away. She never admonished me for saving them or questioned the value of the smallest piece. She simply smoothed them out on her lap with crooked fingers, folded them, placed them in a tidy pile beside her, then reach in and pull out another scrap. It was such a labor of love.

But the question did come up this week, “Why are you going away NOW?” And I had to stop and think. Why am I going away now? The reasons start going through my brain. I shake them out, fold them and start stacking them in a tidy pile.

  1. I want to go, and why wait?

2.I’m about to stand in front of a potentially worldwide audience in two weeks and declare that if we want maternal mortality to decrease we need to have more midwives. Shouldn’t I help train more midwives?

  1. I’m addicted to Africa and I am constantly thinking about how to go back.

  2. I’m craving another adventure.

  3. I don’t want to start something here and then leave it, so I might as well go now.

  4. I’ll write the book better there.

  5. Why do I have to explain this? Isn’t it my life to do what I want with? I’m turning 60 for Petes sake. When do I get to do “crazy” and not have to explain it????

Then I think, I don’t have time to think of this! I need to memorize, practice, apply for international license, get shots, get medical forms done, practice, practice, practice. Find someone to rent this house. Practice.

So, about that practice. I’ve done a lot of public speaking since the book came out, and I love it. The only time I’m nervous is just as they are introducing me and I feel my heart beating what seems like, way too fast, and I think I am going to have a heart attack. I think, I am going to stand up and try to walk to that podium and I will have a heart attack. I also cannot think of what I am supposed to say. My mind is completely blank. I sense panic coming on, but then the introduction ends, and I get up there, and as soon as I start talking it all vanishes and I feel like I could stay up there forever. The time evaporates. It really is a rush. So I did not think my nine minute TED talk would be something that would cause anxiety until the walk to the stage. I was wrong. (A line from the talk. One I have down pat. One, I’m sure, George would love to hear me say more often.)

This week was a rehearsal on the stage. A big stage. With bright lights shining in my face. Light sabers. Search lights looking for my soul. It was completely disarming. Funny, that I would use that word, disarming, just now. Yes, it takes away your armor. Those hand gestures I do automatically? The lights turn them into a disorganized, uncoordinated dance that the audience isn’t enjoying. I was frozen. I felt like there were light sabers pinning me to the spot, so my legs stayed still, but my head started sweeping from side to side like a Weeble. That did go through my head, I am acting like a Weeble who wobbles but won’t fall down. I told myself to take a step, but I couldn’t!  I actually couldn’t! My feet were pinned to the stage! So I used my hands more. That doesn’t work well. I pointed to emphasize my points. Bad, I thought. This is bad. I’m scolding the audience. It’s not their fault the maternal mortality rate is rising in this country. Stop it. But I couldn’t. The more the lights disarmed me, the more I felt like fighting. (They said to pick out a friendly face in the audience. I couldn’t see the audience! I could barely see the theater! They were like interrogation lights!) That is foreign country to me, up there, the stage.

Afterward, I felt like pleading for forgiveness. I thought, dear Kathy, who has given so much of herself to help me, is going to kill me. I just chucked everything she told me out the window. She is going to kill me. She’s going to turn her back, walk back to Tennessee, and declare me a lost cause. I used a feeble defense. “I haven’t been on a stage since the stupid little part in the chorus of Oklahoma! in high school!” (She, of course, had a lead in that play.) “You were on a stage last week!” she fired back. (Notice the military language here. This really did feel like combat.)  I defensively and pathetically retorted, “Not like that stage!” She didn’t even bother replying. She was trying to figure out what the hell to do with me.

I left for the Maine Democratic Convention where I was a delegate for Hillary. I worked on memorizing in the car. I appealed to some goddesses for help. I only have one chance and I don’t want to blow it.

I’d never been to a party convention before. In my 60th year, I thought I’d acquire some new experiences, and I believe in Hillary. To me, she represents all the women I am fighting for. Poor women are judged and blamed unfairly for their lot in life–––they don’t work hard enough, they should leave the abusive husband, they don’t show up for appointments, they should get themselves off drugs. I hear it over and over and it makes me want to puke. These women are trying to survive in a system that abuses them. The system that is supposed to help them, treats them as criminals. And while Hillary Clinton is certainly not poor, she is judged and blamed unfairly for her lot in life. She’s abused by a system she is trying to change. She’s the most qualified candidate ever and she’s treated as a criminal. And it makes me want to puke.

I went off to the convention thinking I would be energized. After all, we are all striving for the same goals, I thought.  Instead, I came away deeply disturbed. The vitriol and disrespect for opposing opinion was deeply disturbing. I get the vision. I want it too. I want universal health care. I want equal rights for women and minorities. I want fair elections. I was impressed with the format of allowing 4,000 people a way to participate. At the beginning I thought, “Wow. This is true democracy.” Two microphones, line up to speak, three in favor, three opposed, two minutes each. Fantastic. Until the speakers at the opposing microphone had to spend a minute of their two, drowned out by booing and cat calls. I sat in shock. I turned to the intelligent-looking, booing-people behind me with a look of utter disbelief. They stopped, but they scared me. Hundreds of others did not stop. This was an arena full of people who had just been espousing the right for every voice to be heard. The irony was beyond description.

Barney Frank was the speaker for Hillary, and he was subject to more of it. Huge heckling and booing. Shameful. Embarrassing. I looked around at the people with Hillary signs, quietly waiting for the speaker to be allowed to resume.  Something in me froze. The hostility was worse than those lights.  It’s not like he couldn’t handle it, though, and when he stopped his speech and said, “Excuse me, what is it about this democratic process that you have a problem with?” On the stage, with bright lights shining in his face, he was not disarmed. He deflected the arrows. He took heckler’s questions! He let them have a voice. He handled it with grace and incredible wit and I thought, “Yes.”

I stayed for the Bernie speaker, who was the drummer for Phish. I was surprised at the choice, but assumed they wanted someone who isn’t a politician, who Bernie has inspired. I wanted to hear what he had to say. I wanted to be respectful. I, more than ever, do not want to be like the people booing an invited speaker. That is not who I want to be. I learned a lesson I thought I already knew. Sitting in the midst of rancor was very different from watching a clip of it. This energy is moving from passion to hatred, and it’s scaring me. I get it when you feel your voice isn’t heard, that feeling of needing to say it louder, angrier, harsher, and accusingly. I get that. But there is a line that is being crossed and it’s scary. I’m grateful for this lesson.

I want to push forward with the grace and wit I see in the candidates I support. I’m proud of the team I’m on.

I’m ready to learn how to live with those lights.



Sunday Morning~How it all Began

The Sunday morning letters started in January 1979. We were a group of twelve young Peace Corps volunteers who had just landed in Blantyre, Malawi, all eager to see and change the world. One of our first instructions was to write home every Sunday.  Our country director held up a thin blue paper that could be folded into thirds, sealed around the edges, and sent to parents to reassure them we were fine and happy.  This would relieve the Peace Corps office of having to deal with frantic phone calls from worried parents with exotic fantasies about their children’s whereabouts. I was (and pretty much still am) a very good rule-follower. From that moment on, for the next two and a half years, I wrote home every Sunday, filling the blue paper with the week’s news.

In the late 60’s, Peace Corps had been asked to leave Malawi when the President-For-Life felt the Americans were filling the young people’s heads with ideas of free-speech. We were the first group allowed back in and were warned about comporting ourselves in a way that would ensure our longevity there. We were never to talk politics. The women were forbidden to wear trousers and skirts had to be below the knees. Men were not allowed to have facial hair. To minimize risk of corrupting the young, our jobs were only in health and agriculture, not education.

It was a great assignment. The twelve of us spent three months together in a vacant store building in the village of Salima, learning the local language and cultural norms. We became a family. Then we were launched to different sites to begin our two year commitment. We’d have official family reunions once a year at Club Makokola for  discussing our projects and I can’t remember what else.  I vaguely remember a lecture on how to brush our teeth correctly, and one on avoiding acquiring an STD, and there were a sundry of other topics that I have no recollection of. I do remember frolicking in the lake during breaks and plenty of drinking at night. And, of course, laughing. Members of the twelve are very funny people.

It’s been over thirty-seven years since we met in Chicago in December of ’78. When we left Malawi at the end of service we went our separate ways, traveled different routes home, and settled across the country. We made lives for ourselves, married, and had families. We stayed in touch through Christmas cards and a newsletter that a few of the more creative put together. There were years when the correspondence was thin, but the ties were always there.

I was a public health nurse then, fresh out of school and bursting with excitement. During my nursing training in the 70’s I was appalled by obstetrics in the US and vowed never to work in that specialty. Fathers were just starting to be allowed into the birth and they had to take a special course to be allowed to do so. Women labored four or more to a room with no one supporting them.  They were often screaming. When it was close to delivery time, they’d get wheeled into a delivery room, get a spinal, have their legs strapped onto metal stirrups and the fully-gowned doctor would come in and deliver the baby by forceps. It was hideous. Occasionally a woman would deliver so fast they wouldn’t have time to do all these things to her and she’d be scolded for messing up the routine. I thought I’d never work in obstetrics.

Then I got to Malawi and worked with the nurses there who were all midwives. I watched how they cared for women in labor and what natural birth really was. It was a female centered activity, for sure. They couldn’t believe I would want my husband there for my child’s birth. We had hours of cultural exchanges about this, sitting together in the room where women labored together. It was where the women hung out when there was nothing else to do. It was open and breezy, and though the sanitation at the time left a lot to be desired, the whole process was so much more humane than at home. It’s when I decided to become a midwife. I knew I’d be much more effective in helping women in developing countries if I worked to make birth safer for them. When I left Malawi I went back to graduate school to study midwifery and made a very satisfying career with it; a life change that started in Malawi thirty-seven years ago…

So it’s a little ironic that I’ll be going back there in July to teach midwifery at the nursing school in Blantyre. We got our country assignments this week and, yup, we are going to Malawi. I had wanted a different country. Africa is a big continent and I wanted to experience more of it. I’d lived in Malawi already and I’ve always wanted to go to Uganda and hoped we’d get placed there. But we don’t have a choice in this, so will go where assigned. I’ve been thinking what a full circle this will be, going back to teach in a country that changed my life. I did my Peace Corps assignment in the far north in a village called Karonga. Blantyre is in the south and the largest city in the country. I’ve only been there twice, once when we landed, and once when shopping for supplies to take to Karonga just after training.  I’d gotten food poisoning and spent the time there curled up in a ball vomiting. All I saw of the city was the toilet at the run-down guest house. I remember being grateful it was a real toilet since I spent the whole day with my face in it.

We got our country assignment on Thursday this week, and Friday we gathered in Pacific Grove with seven of the original twelve. In the past, I’ve tried to describe the bond we share and always fail to get it right. You really have to see us together to get a sense of our connection with each other. The stories are so close to the surface and we are so eager to recount them, to finish each other’s sentences, to add a vibrant missing detail. Our lives are intertwined and intimate in a unique way. We are not afraid to ask each other anything nor afraid to share the most sordid details of what went wrong in life. We know we’ll be loved and accepted. We eagerly tell of our kids’ lives. We welcome new partners with open arms. This is a unique family. It’s such a blessing.

It was bittersweet saying goodbye this morning. We vowed to do this more frequently.We’re grown up now. We’ve got some money. We can pay for accommodation and meals. It feels important to nurture and sustain the relationships as we move to another stage of life. We joked about how fun it would be to have the next reunion in Malawi, knowing that isn’t going to happen. But George and I will come back with new stories to an eager audience. We’ll be ready to fall into the familiar arms and voices, smiles and hearts.  I’ll keep up the Sunday morning letters.

Life, again, is good.