Sunday September 16, 2012
First blog post.
Sunday Morning, September 30, 2012
I have never written on a blog before. Or written a blog. I’m not even sure how to use the word. I’m told this is the way to do things now. I’ll give it a try and hopefully figure it out.
Since returning from DRC I’ve felt a little lost on Sunday mornings. I felt like I should be writing about a week full of new experiences. I’ve used that time over the past four years to work on the book and now that it is finished, I guess I’ll throw my energy here.
The book is done and I am filled with excitement tinged with anxiety. I’ve known it was what I was supposed to do. I’ve always been clear about that. I promised I would tell their story and I try very hard to keep my promises. But having my story go out to the world seems a huge responsibility. It’s a memoir of course. It is my perception of events and the writer has the advantage of telling the story through their own lens. Some people there told me that they feel like the world has forgotten them. I know what they mean. The media have stories of Africa and their struggles on occasion. I hear them and think, “Yes! Keep going!” But how can anyone understand generations of hardship unlike any we have ever experienced in a two minute news story? I am always so frustrated when the story ends. It leaves those who have never been to the continent thinking it is too scary, too dangerous, and far too foreign to even consider for more than the blip on the screen that it is.
This is maddening. I want to tell everyone that yes; there are many many shocking things that happen there. The same is true here in our country. But we also experience the good parts of life here and so have a sense of balance. When we only hear horror stories and none of what makes the countries and the people so magnificent, yes, it does seem easier to just forget them. It’s too hard to assimilate all the snippets we hear of the tragedies and still feel like we can enjoy our own comforts, so we just forget them. It’s just easier.
I don’t mean to suggest that we give up our comforts. I just need to tell the story of the wonderful people I was fortunate enough to work with, the gorgeous landscape I experienced, and hopefully increase understanding just a little. That said, it is interesting to reflect upon how many of our comforts are factors in the conflicts around the world. I think of that when I fill up my car with gas. But I keep filling up my car with gas.
People at war are people not countries. They are individual people who have families and eat meals and go to work and plant crops and have babies. The Congolese I got to know and love knew I was writing about them. They were OK with it. I asked them. They never asked any questions; they said they were happy I was telling their story. The most honest way for me to do that was in a memoir, but again, I feel it is a huge responsibility. I did the best I could and I hope there can be just a little more understanding in the world. Just a little.
Sunday Morning, October 7, 2012
Last week my son Zack called and asked if I would do the biking portion of the triathlon this weekend. Thrilled that a) One of my children called me and, b) Wanted to do something with me, I said, “Sure! I’ll do it! As long as you don’t mind losing!”
This is a fundraiser for the Lions Club here on Mount Desert Island. It is a fun event, in a beautiful setting, on a gorgeous fall weekend. They have it every year. It involves a five mile run, thirteen mile bike ride, and four mile canoe or kayak. There are people here who do all three themselves, but most people make teams. Zack’s friend Nils was going to run, I would bike, and Zack and Nils would canoe. I was the only one of the three of us with a bike. There are some who take this very seriously, but most people are just having fun. There are family teams, girlfriend teams, and thrown together teams, as well as the out-to-win teams. It’s fun. I love to see everyone cheering and being friendly and supportive. Great community event.
Nils is pretty fast so I knew I’d have a good jump on the bikers. I also knew that meant that a lot of people were going to pass me. That is so disheartening, even when I kept telling myself they have faster bikes! They are half my age! They are more serious about this! Wow, their calves are like steel! I plodded along and did the 13 miles in less than an hour, which was my personal goal. I didn’t have a road bike never mind a racing bike. Mine is a hybrid. It wasn’t an ambitious goal, but I only had a week’s notice!
Every time someone passed me (and there were many) they’d say, “Good job”, or “You’re doing great”, or “You’re almost there”, and at the time I was thinking, “If I was doing so great you wouldn’t be passing me” but really, people are so nice. When I racked the bike and handed off the wrist band to Nils and Zack, and heard the “Good Job” from them, I was happy. Disgustingly out of breath, but happy. I can’t believe how much of a thirteen mile loop can be uphill. High school girls (some of whom I delivered) hugged me, cheered for me as they did for others, and I thought what a great community we have. What a hopeful future for this world.
Sunday Morning, October 28, 2012
Last night I fell asleep to the sounds of tsunami sirens going off in the distance.
I’ve missed a couple of Sundays here on the blog, despite my determined goal of posting once a week. I missed the morning of the 14th because I decided at the last minute to run the MDI marathon. I hadn’t trained for it so thought I’d bag the idea, but then thought, well, I already paid my hundred bucks, I might was well get the jacket, and it would be interesting to see if I could run it without training. The Women’s Center girls had put together a relay team to run as a fundraiser and I thought I could run with them for as long as I could keep up. Then I could either drop out or walk. I thought I could write the blog before I left for the race as I was eating my bagel and cream cheese.
At 2:30 that morning I got a call that a patient of mine was in early labor. There, that settled it. The race was not meant to be. But at 4:30 when I got the call that the labor was getting stronger, I thought, maybe I would take everything with me for the run just in case she delivered quickly. It was her first baby so the chances of that were slim, but I brought my stuff just in case. I figured I could run at least the first 8 miles with Tracy. That much I was sure I could do. Then I could go home and write on my blog. Or write my blog. Which one is it?
The baby came in to this world on that rainy Sunday morning swiftly and lovingly surrounded by a supportive family and wonderful nurses. I love my job. Everyone was all tucked in and breastfeeding by 6:30 a.m. and I figured I would go give the marathon a try and write the blog later. So I did. I ate my bagel in the car, picked up Tracy and headed for the starting line. I figured I had a good excuse for either dropping out or walking.
There is so much excited energy at the starting line of a marathon! When I got there I started really wanting to finish it. I, on the other hand, didn’t want to hurt myself since I was leaving for Hawaii two days afterward. I didn’t think a stress fracture would make for a fun vacation. I decided to take it slow and see how I felt. I could always stop if I felt something about to be injured. I felt fairly certain I would have some warning. I ran along with Tracy feeling pretty good! It was fun, and we chatted and the miles seemed to melt away. The rain wasn’t too heavy then. Eight and a half miles later at the hand-off to Katie I thought, I’ll see how the next ten miles go. Again, I could always stop. It was raining heavier then and I had to pee. There was no porta- potty for miles. Katie jogged in place in front of an alley we passed in town, cheering people to distract them while I scooted down the alley, and felt much better. Sure I could do another ten miles! By the end of those ten I was starting to feel it in my legs, but then I thought I was way more than halfway done and why not just finish it? I could walk the last part if I had to. I did need to slow down though and could not run the last leg with Carmen without slowing her down, so sent her off and did the last six miles in the pouring rain at my own pace. I finished though! In 5:08, which is not a great marathon time, but I was thrilled! And, the amazing thing is that I felt so much better than last year when I trained obsessively. And I didn’t lose any toenails like I did last year! A good thing since I’d be wearing flip flops for the next three weeks.
After the race I had an anniversary party to go to, so just didn’t get to the blog. Then I left for Hawaii for a little treat to myself for getting the book done, and I couldn’t find a place last Sunday that had internet. I fretted about it for the morning, then decided to just wait until this week when I was staying with friends on Maui. I knew they would have a connection.
I had been to Hawaii before on our way to Samoa and on our way back, spending a week on Mokolai and a week on Oahu, but I had not been to the big island before. I’m not a beachy type of person; I get bored as soon as I try to sit still for very long there. I also don’t like sand in everything and I don’t love to swim. I’m happy to look at the ocean, but I usually need to keep moving. Hiking with an ocean view is perfect for me. When my kids were little it was fun to be on the beach watching them play in the sand and swimming in the shallow water, but without kids I don’t understand anyone wanting to go sit on a beach.
I gravitated toward the mountains and the volcano. I’ve been hiking in the National Park on Hawaii and awed by the sights there. Watching land be created is an incredible feeling. Seeing new growth in a black lava field takes my breath away. There is nothing that says “hope for the future” like that sight. The island is so alive, and I don’t mean the animals or vegetation. I mean the earth. It’s continually rumbling and spewing and shaking.
Tsunami warnings here last night because of the earth rumbling further north. Storm warnings in the east because of the hurricane there. I have been imagining our planet without the human factor and watching in awe of what our earth is capable of. My friend told me last night that the last tsunami left behind a beautiful beach where there wasn’t one before.
Sunday Morning, November 11, 2012
When I was in Shamwana I often laid awake on Saturday nights thinking of all I wanted to write on Sunday. I couldn’t wait to get up and start pouring those stories out. I never had to think much about what I wanted to say. It was all bottled up and exploding out of me. It is interesting now, writing on Sunday mornings. I need to think more about it. In my Sunday morning emails from Congo I was just telling stories about my week. Doing that now doesn’t seem so interesting. Unless I were telling it to my mother, who would sit captivated while I recounted anything about my days. I miss her so much.
Now that the book has been out for several weeks I am starting to hear from people who have read it. The reports are favorable so far I am happy (more like thrilled) to report. I am so intrigued by the different responses and what resonated with different people. I love it when I hear that the book makes them feel like they are right there. That they feel my frustrations and even feel hungry or hot. I was hoping the reader would be taking the journey with me. Some friends of mine have told me they are sorry they didn’t write to me more often. That they feel badly about that. They said they didn’t think there was anything interesting here to write about especially since I was sending home such incredible stories. I didn’t realize how often I wrote in my journal that I was upset that I hadn’t heard from friends. I didn’t think I was dwelling on it. There are sentences here and there peppered throughout the book. I often closed my letters with a plea for return emails but since I included the journal entries in the book the emotion is a little more raw. I spent some time worrying that I didn’t have any friends anymore. You go a little crazy in a situation like that.
When my book group got together last month a couple of the women apologized for not writing to me more often. Now, it’s not like I have been holding this against anyone. I love my friends. I was surprised that this was the thing that stood out for them. I explained that I didn’t care if they thought their week was boring! I just wanted to hear if it snowed, or whose husband was having an affair. You know, local gossip. There’s never any shortage of that when we get together for book group! But to them it seemed petty in light of what I was experiencing. I get that now. Sitting down to write on Sunday morning here in my comfortable home, with my tea made with clean water which comes out of a tap effortlessly, with classical music in the background, seems a little dull. There’s no urgency. I have to think more about making it interesting, though I have no idea to whom. I don’t know who reads blogs or how they find them. I’ve still got a bit of a learning curve going on with that. I’ve never read a blog other than ones that get forwarded to me. But I did keep repeating, “You couldn’t just hit reply and type an H and an I?” They said,”We’re sorry.” It made me happy. Happy that I have such caring, loving women in my life who can be honest with me and I with them. And happy that they felt that emotion so strongly from reading the book! Yes!
It also gives me an idea. I think I will find something mundane that happens this week and write about it next Sunday…I wonder how boring that would be?
Sunday Morning, November 18, 2012
Three of my friends hosted an evening for me this week where I read from the book. It was a wonderful assortment of people from different walks of life, gathered in Betsy’s beautiful living room, sipping on wine and nibbling on cheese. Some I hadn’t met before, many I was acquainted with but didn’t know well, some were dear friends. Several of those there had received and read my letters as they arrived from Shamwana, but most there had not.
After getting our drinks and chatting as people arrived, we took our seats around the room. Some sat on the comfy overstuffed chairs facing the fireplace, some were perched on the bar stools that separated the creative kitchen, some were on dining chairs arranged in a semi-circle embracing the others. Two stood in the background. The room was warm and bright on this fall evening. Outside had been dark for two hours already and a couple of people didn’t come because of their reluctance to drive at night. Many of our houses are at the end of dirt roads that wind through the Maine woods. Navigating our driveways at night is a challenge. The air had that sharp chill that makes me feel like I should be doing homework, but it was warm and bright in this room.
I have never been to a book reading before. I have gone to hear authors speak in a public forum, but have not been invited to an intimate gathering where the author simply reads from their book. I wasn’t quite sure how it worked. I think I talked too much initially. I felt like I needed to set it up, but now that I look back, that probably wasn’t necessary. Everyone was intently listening. They were listening to stories about Beatrice and Geraldine and Mario. I thought, how happy those three would be to know this. I wanted to go back and say, “People here, at my home, in the US, sat and listened and wanted to hear about your lives!” The awe and wonder would be a sight to behold. I want them to know that their story is being told. It is only a fraction and no where near perfect, but all I have to offer right now.
When I left Shamwana, one of the aspects of life I was terribly reluctant to leave was the storytelling. Villagers, staff, anyone who could understand the language (and some who couldn’t) would sit for hours and listen to stories. It was how information was dispersed, how they learned what they could about the world. Some had radios and accessed snippets of news there; but the circle, the intense listening, the eyes wide in wonder of simple, simple stories (we have a machine that washes our clothes!), is magical. To someone from the western-sound-bite-world, it is magical. It forces us to look at our lives in a different way.
Betsy did a beautiful introduction, I tried to set the scene (Perhaps a bit much, but everyone was sitting there listening to me! I couldn’t stop myself!) and I read. Everyone listened. I am so grateful to Betsy, Mary and Jo for this; for gathering this wonderful, talented, caring group to sit and listen and discuss and share. In a world where it seems that stories get told in one-liners, this night was magical. I imagine an era where people gathered in a salon, reading and discussing and sipping on wine, valuing insights and experience. Where evenings like this were the norm; gathering to pass the word, share food and drink, and support each other.
Kate asked me if I would spend some time this winter reading the book aloud to her sister. I am honored. I am blessed. I am grateful. I want to tell their story.
Sunday Morning, After Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I love autumn and harvest, I love to cook, and I love to have family and friends here. I love a holiday where the focus is being together and eating and sharing and being grateful.
The holiday falls near my mother’s birthday and in years past we’ve had big family reunions here to honor her. We knew that would change after her passing. She was a lynch pin in many ways. Also, as our families grow and expand it’s hard to incorporate their traditions and work and travel schedules. Because our family spread out so much it was often the only time we saw each other, and then it was only every several years. Now because of social media, email, and being of the age when there are lots of family weddings, the air of suspense is not as intense. It’s still a time to relax and be together though, and with whomever is here, it’s nice.
Last Sunday, my good friend Zig and I butchered the turkeys. This was the second time we’d done it and we are getting pretty good at it! We both grow as many of our vegetables as we can and two years ago I decided to try growing the meat as well. Not having a big farm I can’t grow beef or probably even pork; I’m sure there is some zoning ordinance that prevents that, but poultry is OK. I thought if I want to continue to eat meat (and I do) I want to be closer to it, take more responsibility for it, know what it eats and how it lives. I will never complain about the price of a free-range organic turkey ever again. They are not cheap to raise; they eat about their weight every day it seems. Some people have asked me if it was hard to do, to have raised the bird then butcher it. The answer to that is, no. I don’t think I would have taken it on if I thought it would be hard. We had to do some figuring about how to actually DO it, but emotionally, it wasn’t hard. I think seeing the film Food Inc. helped with that. The birds weren’t pets. They didn’t have names. They were here on earth for this purpose and it feels like a healthier way to eat than buying a frozen turkey who has lived in squalor and never taken more than two steps in it’s life. There’s nothing humane about that and I felt if I were going to complain about that system, I shouldn’t support it.
Ah, then to follow through with my soapbox stand. Obtaining turkey chicks is easy enough. One short trip to the Ellsworth Feed and Seed and you’ve got them in a cardboard box in the car. They cost about $4 each as chicks. The feed gets expensive though. I need to keep them penned up or they’d eat my entire garden, but I throw them vegetable scraps with the feed and they seem happy. This year my main challenge was keeping predators away. Since my dog died two years ago this has been a huge problem. (I’ve got to get another dog!) Anyway, Zig and I have put aside the Sunday before Thanksgiving to do the butchering. The timing works well as the bird has to sit for a few days before cooking. The first time we did this, we were actually watching YouTube videos to see how to do it. It seemed a little crazy, but bolstered our confidence. We refined the techniques we saw to be gentler and neater. I told someone we do it rather girly. We wrap the bird securely in burlap like a mummy with it’s head and neck out for obvious reasons. We made a hole in a sheet rock bucket and put the bird in there and put the head and neck through the hole. Then we hang the bucket from a tree. I read that hanging upside down for a while anesthetizes them. Not sure if that’s true or not, but we did it anyway. I had water boiling on the stove and a big fire going in the outdoor fireplace. Because both of us value our fingers, we devised a way to keep our hands well away from the cleaver. We tie a little rope around the neck and Zig pulls the head and stretches the neck across a tree stump. One quick swipe and the head goes into the fire. We pour the boiling water into a wheelbarrow and once the bird is finished bleeding we take it down and dunk it into the boiling water. We pluck it easily and throw the feathers into the fire. Gutting it is the simplest thing and that all goes into the fire as well.
It is neat and tidy and organic and humane.
This year we did one for her and one for me. They were small since I had to replace them in August when raccoons and weasels got my first batch (They don’t have any qualms about killing, that’s for sure.) but 12 pounds each was plenty for our families. I only had a small crowd this year. As I prepared the meal: my homegrown turkey, potatoes, squash, onions, garlic, carrots, kale, and herbs from my garden, I had such a sense of satisfaction. I maintain that if we all were a little closer to our food, if we truly understood where it came from and how it got to our table, our population would have so many fewer health problems. I know that not everyone has the resources to grow all their own food, but if the understanding were there (a timeline!) I believe we’d have a better world. I know adults who have never seen a fresh vegetable! No wonder they don’t like them! One is also not inclined to eat to a gluttonous degree when you’ve put that much effort into it. Really, would we need lessons in portion control if we had to produce all we ate?
So another Thanksgiving has passed. I have a new son-in-law, a grandchild on the way, healthy children, adventures on the horizon, good friends ~ so much to be thankful for.
Sunday Morning, December 2, 2012
They are fighting again in Congo. The news comes in 30 second clips and seems exotic and foreign and far away. Someone asked me yesterday who I supported, the rebels or the government. I told him I don’t support fighting at all. And if I did, I would have no idea who to support. I don’t understand any of it, other than the fact that the huge discrepancies in wealth and comfort still exist, that suffering and needless death are still everyday reality, and the meager progress in stability keeps teetering and falling off. It’s so depressing.
The fighting is not currently in Shamwana but who ever knows what the fallout will be. I sit in my comfortable office with my hot tea made with pristine water and think of my friends there. The news of the fighting in Congo was sandwiched in between holiday shopping bullshit stories. How embarrassing. Thank God that will never be broadcast there. I imagine them fleeing with all they can possibly carry on their heads and backs, children carrying other children, women giving birth along the route…and am grateful they don’t know about the concern here for retailers profits for crap no one needs.
I spoke again this week at the library here in Bar Harbor. The room was full on the cold and snowy evening. I wasn’t sure anyone would even come out. I was blown away by the size of the crowd. I looked at them all and thought if only the people I knew and loved in Shamwana could see this. This huge group of people came out on this cold night to hear stories about them; to learn more of their lives and hardships and to become a little more worldly. They would have been so happy and maybe more hopeful. Hopeful for what, I don’t know. Hopeful that if more and more people understand what the trickle-down from our lifestyle means for those countries that produce it, it will somehow improve their lot? Probably not that detailed of a hope. Probably more like, wow, my life has worth. I’d like to think on some level that’s what it would be. But I don’t know. I just know it would make them happy. And that made me happy
Sunday Morning~ Reflections on Midwives as Women’s Advocates
The Maine Humanities Council started a Literature & Medicine program where health care professionals come together to discuss what they have read and relate it to their own lives and practice. It’s goal was to increase empathy toward patients, improve interpersonal relations between staff, and improve job satisfaction. It has been wildly successful and has expanded now to 25 states.
I was honored this week to participate in the group in Ellsworth who had read Sunday Morning, Shamwana.I am always taken aback when someone tells me what spoke to them in the book. It is often not the most shocking of things that I wrote, but very frequently some small incident that struck them. With all the anxiety I had about putting this story out there, this is always a huge affirmation.
A member of the group referred to a story in the book where a young girl had a retained placenta. There was potential for her to be treated inappropriately by a local staff member and I refused to let him touch her. It was pointed out that I gave this young girl a voice as I was finding my own voice. That comment took my breath away. I had never looked at it that way. The remark was referring to cultural norms but it made me reflect about how many times as midwives we do that in our own medical system.
An example that comes to mind is cesarean births. I do not argue that cesarean births are sometimes necessary. Historically, childbirth was the biggest killer of women and we have practices that have changed that. But our current standard-of-care prevents many women from having a vaginal birth when they are perfectly capable of safely doing so. I am talking about the practice of disallowing vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC) in many institutions even though it may be the safest way for her to deliver. There are women being forced into unnecessary surgery for convenience and financial gain. I see this as female mutilation sanctioned by western medicine. Women who insist on a VBAC have to struggle to find a provider and institution that will allow them that option. It is one of the most frustrating battles that midwives are now fighting within our system. I often feel the abuse of women in all medical systems goes on and on. It merely takes on new forms.
The Literature & Medicine group gives us all an opportunity to share these thoughts and frustrations, and to form ideas and solutions. We gain insight from writing and from others’ perspectives. It’s brilliant.
Sunday Morning, February 3, 2013
It is a cold and snowy morning here in my corner of Maine.
I spent a lot of time this week playing around with the computer trying to make a flyer to send out to bookstores. There are plenty of people around here who could have done that for me and I seriously considered handing the job over to them. I’m sure a third grader would have been happy to help. But when someone told me she loved the part of the book describing my struggles learning the computer in Congo, I decided to pretend there was no one else who could do it and relive that struggle. Not that I don’t struggle with technology every day at work, it’s just that my life doesn’t depend on it like it did in DRC. Well, in a way it does, but it’s a more comfortable way.
I spend a fair amount of energy railing against technology in our culture and in our medical system. I still maintain that electronic medical records are NOT an improvement. I am complying because I have to, but not because I believe it is better. In fact, I believe it is incredibly absurd. That said, I’m learning a new skill and try to appreciate that. But practicing the old way is something I vowed not to give up, like looking at a patient when she talks to you. (How old fashioned!) Complying with the new way though, well, it is time consuming. I have to look at the computer screen and click later. I’ve noticed my right wrist and shoulder hurt more now. First world problems.
I’ve been away for the past four weeks and didn’t write on Sunday morning. Traveling in Poland and Croatia wold have meant typing out an entry on my phone and that was just a little more than I could handle. I was traveling in a part of the world that has seen it’s fair share of war. The aftermath is so obvious and recovery is slow. Like a forest fire. It grows back eventually but in a different form. What is it about our species? Why is there this insatiable need for conquering others? When I pondered aloud my failure to comprehend how humans can inflict this kind of suffering on others, my son asked, “Have you read The Lucifer Effect?” I haven’t read it, but must and will soon. Does understanding human behavior mean we can change it?
Maybe by next week I will have learned to insert a photo or two. People are asking me what Mario looks like. He is beautiful and strong and I miss him.
Sunday Morning, February 17, 2013
Here it is Sunday morning again, quiet and cold and lightly snowing. I have all the time in the world to write. I have endless cups of tea, a comfortable chair, a desk with all my implements, a good light, and a serene view. What I don’t have is urgency to fill the page with stories before they are lost.
I spoke to a group in Camden last week and again, they were attentive and interested, and I wished so badly that I could tell everyone in Shamwana that people gathered to hear their stories. They cared. I have since heard that the village has been taken over by the military and everyone has either fled or been evacuated. I don’t know how accurate this report is. I got a short message on facebook, of all places, and it left me anxious and wondering.
People ask me if I’d ever go back. My answer is I would love to. I would go in a second. I often wonder how that would be possible with the lack of infrastructure to get there. And then what would I do? Back to the same job? Impossible to do on my own. And now that fighting has resumed? Impossible. And what good did I really do? I feel now that telling their story is what matters. To be a witness and know them was an incredible privilege. What does one do with that experience? Age-old question from those trying to find meaning in the first world problems we face.
When I was leaving there and having such a hard time saying goodbye, I stupidly told them I would try to come back. I meant it, but knew that it was such a long shot, the chances were good it wouldn’t happen. And it is not exactly IMPOSSIBLE. Nearly so, but I guess, nothing is impossible. Just going back to go back would be ridiculous. It’s not a tourist destination, though, in my opinion, that’s the only thing that would save that country. Or any country suffering from war and strife. Responsible tourism is the only motivation to keep the environment safe. I believe that about Haiti wholeheartedly. When people asked me what they could do to help there after the earthquake, I replied, “Go on vacation there.”
I finished reading Man’s Search for Meaning this week. I don’t know why I’d never read it before. It seems a better history book than most of what I read in school. It gave insight into how people can bear their suffering, how those can inflict it, and what can come out of it. No easy answers, but insight, and that helps.
Sunday Morning, March 24, 2013 ~ Spring Cleansing
Sunday morning here and the sap is boiling down to syrup on the stove. I can look out the window and see dead trees in the woods that need to come down as soon as the snow melts enough to get out there. I think about trudging out to cut some forsythia branches to see if they will bloom inside here by next Sunday. Maybe when it warms up a bit today I’ll get out and do that. I like to have blossoms in the house for Easter.
It’s Palm Sunday. I was at a medical meeting this week on Friday where breakfast was served. I made a comment to myself while going through the buffet about how much meat was there, and here it was a Friday during lent. Someone overheard this and said with surprise, “You still observe lent?” My initial response was almost apologetic. Like this was something I had to hide because it’s not cool anymore to believe in these rituals. My gut reaction was to answer as if I had to observe lent because my mother made me, or something ridiculous like that.
I told him I thought lent was a good time to reset the clock at a time of year when we are coming off a season of indulgence. Indulgence seems to be how we get through the winter here: heavier foods, sweets leftover from Christmas, melding into Valentine’s Day, melding into Easter. Lent is a good time for reflection of all we have and all we could live without. When the kids were growing up we required them to give up something for lent. I looked at it as a lesson in self control. It’s only forty days for goodness sake. It makes us appreciate what we have. And I love traditions. We have so few of them left in our culture.
In the context of relating this to the story of Shamwana, the absurdity makes me chuckle. Imagine explaining to them that we (a group who call ourselves “Christians”) sacrifice one small thing for forty days just for the ritual of it. A symbolic gesture, a hat’s off to Jesus fasting for forty days in the desert. In Shamwana their entire lives are one big fast. They wouldn’t understand. It would take a very long time to explain.
Imagine looking at our lives in a new way. Imagine explaining all we do, all we have and why, to a person who has never had more than the cloth around them and the food they could produce from the only patch of earth they have ever known. It is a good exercise.
In Malawi when someone asked me how many servants I had back at my home I told him none! I don’t have any servants! Very perplexed, he asked, “But who washes your clothes?” I told him we have a machine for that, and his wide eyes made me think of a washing machine as silly. Sillier still was how many clothes we own requiring one! I thought of telling him that we have rooms bigger than his house just for this machine! Then I started thinking, we have a machine that washes dishes too. We have one for cooking. We have a separate one just for making toast! We have buildings where we don’t even open the door ourselves. It opens for us! I found myself thinking our lives are ridiculous!
Now, I like my washing machine very much. I have no intention of living without it. But it is a very good exercise to step back and think about how hard it is to live without, say wine, for forty days. Pretty simple.
Boiling down maple sap into syrup I think of how differently people would eat if they had to extract it all from the earth themselves. Would we need entire classes in learning moderation? How to resist temptation? If you had two quarts of maple syrup for the entire year would you pour half a cup on pancakes every week? If you had to grow the wheat for the bread, would you eat an entire loaf in one sitting?
Maple sap will go from sap to syrup over many hours of boiling. It will go from syrup to candy in a moment if you are not watching carefully, and a moment later it will be a burnt mess. With a flick of my wrist I can create the flame to make the sap boil. I don’t need to worry about the fuel running out before it’s done. But when the fuel supply is constant, I can ruin my syrup very quickly if I am not careful.
Sunday Morning, April 21, 2013
What a range of emotions in one week. Incredible. I knew I had a full week in store and was preparing for it, but terrorism in my home city was nowhere on the radar screen.
I’m just going to run down the week as I can’t think of another way to go about it. On Thursday I had been invited to speak at a coffee shop on Deer Isle about my experience in the Congo. This place, 44 North Coffee, was started in 2010 by Melissa and Megan in the old school building in Deer Isle. They’ve been roasting and selling coffee from the Kivu region of Congo and it is fantastic. The coffee is delicious and they are supporting a farmer’s cooperative in the Kivu region, a place that desperately needs a lifeline and humanity.
Deer Isle is stunningly gorgeous and the drive there over a beautiful bridge and causeway in the late afternoon was reward enough for the effort. Seeing this sweet enterprise in a building happy to have life within, observing Megan and Melissa organizing this event, seeing the food they lovingly prepared, inhaling the rich aroma of roasted coffee, and being in the midst of a group of interested community members was quite enough to make my heart swell. Starting a business is a scary thought for me and I was filled with admiration for all they’d done. And they were organizing this community event and helping promote healthier ways of helping a country at war! I love Maine and the people here.
There were way more people attending than I had anticipated. Attentive and engaged, several of them had traveled in Africa, and one had lived in DRC for a month. Amazing evening. I think I talked too long but everyone was right there! It was hard to stop. I made the long beautiful drive home watching the last of the sunset on these small island roads and was filled with hope for the future of this planet. Good, good things are happening. Good people are making them happen.
It was work all day Friday, drive to Portsmouth in a snowstorm, visit with family for a bit, crash for what was left of the night, then to my hometown on Saturday where they were hosting a local authors event. It was fun there to visit with old classmates and chat with people who are new to the town that is so much a part of me. I took some time to visit my mother’s grave which is a landscaping dilemma for me. It was still cold, so decided to delay planting anything until I am back there in May.
Saturday evening I met up with an old friend I hadn’t seen for many years. It is very interesting to describe the past 35 years of your life to someone. Everyone should do that once in a while. It is a good exercise.
I spent the weekend in New York visiting with friends and my two oldest sons, then up to Yale New Haven where I was speaking at the nursing school in the afternoon and the Obstetrical Society in the evening. A very heady day.
I did not attend the Yale midwifery program (I actually didn’t get accepted) but worked at a private practice there for my first midwifery job in 1987. When I started that job I had five children under the age of seven including one year-old twins. I was making $31,000 a year and supporting a family of seven while my husband was in graduate school. I look back now and have no idea how I did it. I had forgotten I had to do sewing on the side to make ends meet, until the president of the OB Society introduced me and said that during my three years of working there I also made her dining room drapes!
Okay, this could not have been a more extreme contrast to the setting at 44 North Coffee, but the audiences’ attention was the same. I was blown away. To see the attending docs, whom I was in awe of during the years I worked there, sitting and listening to the stories of the people I loved in Shamwana was really an experience of a lifetime. I thought, if I could only let them know that professionals from a prestigious university came to hear about their lives, well, the smiles on their faces would light the night.
Many people asked me what my goal was by writing the book. The answer is: I didn’t have a goal. I did not do this the traditional way of writing a proposal for publishers with goals and targeted audiences. I did it because I had a story to tell. That was it. I wanted others to know the people I had come to respect and admire so much. I didn’t have any idea at all what would come of it. I wrote the book because I had to.
I spent the long drive back home reeling from the events of the week and the horror in Boston. When I walked in at 1 a.m. and checked my email I saw a subject line “Are you sitting down?” Very catchy subject line. A women’s book group had read my book and were inspired to do something to make a difference. They decided to take up a collection amongst themselves and donate it to the Fistula Foundation for fistula repair. One woman in the group was telling her dentist about it, and her dentist wrote out a check for $1,000! This combined with what the group has donated will repair the fistulas of four women. This is the difference between life and death for those women.
The circle widens.
Sunday Morning, May 12, 2013 Mother’s Day Thoughts
My day started this morning with a call at 4:30. A baby girl was welcomed quickly and peacefully as the dense fog surrounded our little hospital. The day brightened even though we couldn’t see the sun coming up. I thought what a wonderful way to start this day. I feel so lucky to be with women as they begin their journey into motherhood. I want their path to start as easily as possible though it is always hard work. I love being there, understanding what it takes to bring this baby out and knowing that life will go on because of these efforts. It is humbling and it is an honor. I am always left with a sense of awe at the strength and power women possess.
I had planned to write lots more about the day. About mothers. About their strength and love. About their joys and losses. But the thoughts wouldn’t come together in any sensible fashion. When is there a day when mothers don’t think about their children and how much they love them? When is there a day when mothers aren’t wishing happiness for them? How do the mothers who’ve lost their children bear it?
I guess having a day that recognizes this is a good-enough thing. It is a little weird to me having it marked by obligatory flowers and phone calls. How left-out do women who aren’t mothers feel? Is it the same as Valentine’s Day for those who don’t have a lover? Or is it worse? Interesting how much energy goes into this.
I have been so blessed. I always wanted to be a mother. As far back as I can remember I wanted a baby or five of my own. If I were a generation earlier I would have been one of those women with ten kids. I always saw myself surrounded by children. The question of overpopulation I chose to ignore. I felt like I was giving the world responsible loving citizens who would go out and do good. I remember making this argument to a fellow Peace Corps volunteer when she was questioning my desire for a big family.
Speaking this week in Vermont I was asked again about the availability of birth control in Shamwana. This question comes up often when I describe the conditions and risks that women endure during birth. I explain that it is very difficult to understand why you would want to limit the number of children you bear when so many of them die. The cause and effect is not evident to them. With a mortality rate of 40% for children under five years old, women cannot imagine limiting the number of children they bear because they feel they will end up with none. This is true even though they know that their risk of dying during childbirth is so great.
Again, I stand in awe of women’s strength. Their fortitude and power is amazing to me. Every day I find myself wanting to absorb their energy and spirit. I want to carry it around and dole it out to others in need as if it were food to share.
Sunday Morning~ Father’s Day and a new father was born
So much to tell. I should not let a Sunday go by and think I can catch up later. Note to self. Don’t do this again.
My first grandchild was born on Friday. Though the birth was certainly not about me, I found myself dealing with floods of emotion from my past. All my well planned “perfect” births that somehow never worked out the way I wanted. All the pain and trauma of women I’ve assisted, came at me like a ton of bricks when my daughter called to tell me labor started fast and furious and she wasn’t able to get up to Maine as she had planned.
I knew she was well cared for. She had midwives she’d been seeing during her pregnancy and they were perfectly capable of helping her through this event. I tried to let it go. I was on-call here and couldn’t leave. When I heard her ask in her timid voice, “Can you come?” my heart broke a bit while my anxiety shot up off the scale. I can’t just pick up and leave. I needed to find someone to cover call in case someone came in laboring here. The office patients needed to be cancelled and I was supposed to speak at the library that evening. I tried to think. Ok, I know I feel like no one can take care of her the way I would. I have longed to be the one to deliver my grandchild and was thrilled when she wanted me. It seems right. It’s the way of the world. Midwives deliver their children’s children. It’s always been that way. (In my romantic historical world. We’ve screwed that up royally in our culture.) When I was pregnant I wanted the person I trusted present at my labors to help me through my births. That never happened. Every time I was in a situation where I felt vulnerable and with people I hadn’t met. In the case of my first birth, I felt raped. I still do.
I also was dealing with the guilt of missing so many of my children’s events because of my job. Major races won excitingly at the finish line I would hear about from other parents. Concerts and graduations and class plays I would hear about later from my kids or from their teachers. I blamed myself for every trauma in my kids’ lives because I was so often away attending births. Missing this one was going to haunt me.
After several frantic phone calls I had someone to cover for 24 hours. I jumped in the car for the 5 hour drive. A half hour into it, I got a call that she was already 9 centimeters and was getting some pain relief. I was going to miss it. Okay. I thought, this is fine. If it is going this fast, I’ll just be happy for her, but I felt horrible that I wasn’t there helping her through it. I cried the entire way. There was much more bubbling up and out than just missing this birth. I was grieving for every loss in my life it seemed. I missed my mother, my marriage, my kids. I kept waiting for the phone call saying the baby had arrived. Then I figured, oh, they won’t call me. They will just let me get there to find out. They know I’ll be upset.
I gave myself a good talking-to about giving up control, give it up to the universe, there’s a reason for this, blah blah blah. I pulled into the parking garage and was baffled by all the signs on each spot. “Clergy Parking only”, “Currier Parking only”, “Laboratory Parking only”. Every time I went to pull into an open spot it had another category on it! WTF? I finally found one that said “Visitor Parking Only” and pulled in. Jeepers, how much did they spend on all those signs?
I ran to the entrance and found locked doors all around and no human being in sight. I pushed a button as I didn’t have time to read all the signs that were posted, and just hoped the button would get me somewhere. It did. A voice answered, “Can I help you?” I told them I was there to see my daughter in labor and they let me in! Yay! No fingerprints or anything! I ran into the room expecting to see a baby, but no, baby hadn’t arrived yet. I didn’t miss it!! Then I looked around the room and thought they were about to do a heart transplant on my daughter. Lines and tubes and monitors and catheters. Mother of God! I said, “What is going on in here?” Oh nothing. Just waiting for delivery. Attached to as many beeping machines as possible. How on earth has the human race survived? This scene (not totally unexpected) is nearly as hideous to me as the abject want I have seen in other places. The extremes of too much and too little, both obscene.
I helped her get comfortable on her side. She was attached to so many wires I can’t imagine her even moving herself. With the next contraction she felt like she needed to push. And she did, like a banshee. I have never been so proud of my daughter. With all her worries about being able to do this, it came as natural as breathing. She pushed and my beautiful granddaughter was welcomed into this world through my hands. Thank you, thank you birthing goddesses!
The rest of the stay there was a bit like a Woody Allen movie. I understand the need for some safety measures, but c’mon. It was back to the 1950’s or the next millenium, or a bizarre combination. How sheltered and spoiled I am in my little sea-side hospital where people introduce themselves and ask if you need help or directions. Where human touch and conversation and eye contact are still considered social norms. Not to mention basic manners! Where nurses actually take care of you, not just enter to silence (or not) a beeping monitor after it has woken you up from your much needed rest. I became sarcastic and, I am sure, loathed by the entire staff. “The Normalization of Deviants” was one of the lectures I went to in Nashville. This was it. This has become “normal” and I am chastised for pointing out the absurdity of our mechanized system. Any way we can eliminate the salary of humans and replace them with a beeping machine has been accepted as normal. Even those who also find it absurd (like the evening nurse who was amusingly sarcastic explaining the additional rules) comply.
Complying with rules created to promote an industry in order to receive a salary. Does this frighten anyone but me? Being told over and over that this is necessary in order to ensure your safety (though once you are home, who cares?) with utter disregard for common sense. Hello? Anyone but me go crazy over this? What is the difference between this and dictators creating rules to enrich themselves? All too similar to me. We’ve just put a cleaner face on it. The pharmaceutical industry is nothing more than a legal heroine dealer. The tech industry? More of the same.
So I long again for life in developing countries where just-enough is appreciated. I understand those who want to live off the grid. I struggle with understanding our need for social structure and wonder how to keep it sane.
A couple of people have asked me how it was to deliver my grandchild. Was it any different from all the others I have delivered? And, you know, it wasn’t. It was as special and beautiful as they all are. We all come into this world the same way, naked and vulnerable and equal. It is always an honor for me to be there to guide. It was just the same.
Sunday Morning in Baxter, Tennessee
What is the date? It’s all been a fabulous blur…
It’s early morning on the back porch of Kathy’s house in Baxter, a small country town near Cookeville, TN. I drove 1,400 miles to get here along the Blue Ridge Mountains and rolling farmland and it seemed like nothing. As I was leaving Bar Harbor I saw the lilacs were about to bloom and thought I’d miss their short, sweet spring song. I picked some buds to put in a bouquet for the car. I added some peony blossoms and bleeding heart in full bloom. I put in azalea blossoms and three perfectly ripe tulips. The lily of the valley wasn’t out yet or I would have stuck in a few of those too.
I was heading toward my friend whom I met the first day of seventh grade. We were eleven years old. We sat next to each other in French class and were best, best friends from about that moment on as far as I can remember. Kathy was the youngest child in her family and to me she was worldly and independent and talented and funny. I loved her instantly. My parents were incredibly strict and were always worried about me having any fun at all it seemed like. She was my life coach. I was her pet.
I was always worried about getting in trouble. Punishments at home were harsh. Kathy saw this as a minor obstacle, one that wasn’t going to stop us from living our adolescent lives to the fullest. I marveled at her bravery and strength. I would have followed her through fire.
The telephone at my house was a party line. My father, who was the optometrist in town, had an office phone that also rang at our house. My mother would book his appointments from the house and when the phone had the double ring, we kids knew not to pick it up and be quiet while my mother was speaking. Because of this, I couldn’t spend hours on the phone talking to my beloved. I would quickly call her and say, “I’m leaving now.” and she would say, “OK. Meetcha halfway.” and we would walk toward each other and meet at the lamp post (which was remarkably halfway I noticed last time I was there. We must have had the exact same pace.)
So fast-forward a mere forty-something years and I had this feeling on the highway that I’m heading toward my muse, meeting her halfway. The fact that it was 1,400 miles away didn’t phase me. I looked at my flowers in the little vase in my cup holder (making it a tad hard to shift) and saw the lilac buds wilting. They didn’t like being picked before their time. They hung their droopy little heads and I said I was sorry. Everything in its own time, girl. Everything in its own time.
Kathy was (and is) a natural-born leader. She could talk a dog off a meat wagon. She was on student council and was vice-president of the class. I was her campaign manager. I was shy and insecure and did NOT want to be on stage. I made the posters. We would laugh hysterically making up campaign slogans. I had to introduce her at the campaign rally. (Geeze, as I write this, I think this was rather sophisticated for a small mill-town school. Do they still do this?) I was terrified. She coached me for the two sentences I had to say, and though I balked, I would never say “no” to her. I did as I was told. Winning this election was essential. She, of course, won. I never doubted her. She could do anything. My heroine.
She had a boyfriend. We were eleven. She had a boyfriend. This was amazing to me. Once the election was in the bag, her next task was to get me a boyfriend. We would sit in her basement and play records and go through the list of potential mates. I played along knowing I would never be allowed to have a boyfriend. I wasn’t even allowed to shave my legs for god’s sake! I came dangerously close to not being allowed to have Kathy as a friend! That was when my parents found out that she was going to see Hair when it came to Boston. That’s how screwed up my childhood was.
Kathy now lives about an hour from Nashville where I am going to the ACNM (American College of Nurse-Midwives) annual meeting. When I told her last year that I would be coming to Tennessee, I asked if it would be possible for her to set up a little group that I could speak to about the book. Kathy was one of the recipients of the original emails from Congo and was incredibly helpful in making the book a reality. She also sent me really funny emails while I was in Shamwana and would make me laugh. Those often got me through another week there. For instance, she wrote to me, “What kind of china do they serve rat on?” And the much appreciated apology, “Oh, it’s really all my fault you can’t speak French better. I fooled around too much with you in French class. I feel so responsible.”
A week before setting out on my trip south I got a schedule from Kath. I read it and doubled over laughing. I had envisioned a women’s book group thing, and I see radio interviews, PBS television interview, my name on the big sign at the library, a book store gig, oh my God. This woman has to be seen to be believed.
I arrived in Baxter in the early morning and the coffee was ready and breakfast was in the oven. My droopy flowers went on the porch table and we did the screaming, hugging, rocking, ohmygodican’tbelieveyou’reheres. We caught up with essential gossip and secrets that only we know about each other while nourishing ourselves with muffins and homemade jams. Preliminaries. Then it was on to the first radio gig.
We got shown to the the dark studio and sat in there waiting for the host of the show. Memories came pounding at me like a sledgehammer. I turned to Kathy and said, “Look at us! Do you remember playing with the phone and pretending we were DJs?!” Double over laughing ensued. Can’t breathe laughing. Blow your water out your nose laughing. Kathy chokes out, “Can ya know it?” We fall down on the floor laughing.
We used to pretend we were DJs (well, Kathy was the DJ, I was the tech person). We’d pick a number out of the phone book and call and say they would win $100 if they could name this tune! Then I would put the needle on the record for a few seconds while Kathy held the phone to the record player. Then, in her perfect DJ voice, she would say, “Can you name that tune?” And then I can’t remember what we did, probably hung up and laughed for awhile. But one time Kathy decided I needed to be the DJ. I said, “No, no, no. I can’t do that.” But of course, Kathy doesn’t take “no” for an answer, and talked me into it. She’d say, “C’mon, c’mon, you’ll be really good at it. Really, I can see you being a DJ, I think you’d be really good.” And after a while I’d start to believe her, and think, well, OK, maybe I can! So my first (and only) attempt, I did the intro really well (I thought), and Kathy was the techie, and when she took the needle off the record I screwed up my line and instead of saying, “Can you name that tune?”, or “Do you know that tune?” I mixed it up and said with my brightest DJ voice, “Can ya know it?” and then, as if we were really on the air, I got mortified and hung up and would never do it again. It did take us the rest of the afternoon to stop laughing over it anyway, so we were finished for the day. AND I HAVE NEVER LIVED THAT DOWN!!! For years after that every time we’d have an argument over who was right about something, Kathy would turn to me and say, “Can ya know it?”
From the radio station we then headed to the coffee shop where she had scheduled a taping of a PBS show called “One on one.” While they were setting up the lights and I was thinking, “This is looking very official and I can’t believe this is me here.” Kathy said to me, “OK, let’s go into the bathroom so I can put some make-up on you.” The same memory-sledgehammer hit me.
I was not allowed to wear makeup in junior high. As I think back now, life must have been very safe and boring for parents to worry about stuff like that, but I know lots of women my age who weren’t allowed to wear makeup before high school. This was not to stop Kathy! She had her own little stash and before the dances, which were held in the afternoons, she would take me into the girl’s bathroom and put makeup on me. I’d be worried about being caught, and I remember the term “goody-two-shoes” being used, and would eventually acquiesce while trying to formulate a plan for removing it somehow before I got home. God! The stress I had trying to please everyone. Kathy felt this was essential in order to attract a boyfriend. At the dance other girls would look at both of us and turn to Kathy and say, “Hey, she looks good with makeup on!” And Kathy would turn to me and smile with that “I told you so” look and I would vow never to question her again. I was such a friggin’ wallflower. Kathy was my only hope. So here we were in the bathroom of the coffee shop, 56 years old and doing the same thing. My God, this trip has been a trip. Where would I be without this woman?
So I am having this experience of being immersed in memories and reliving experiences that obviously shaped my life, contrasted with public appearances about a passion for a devastated population I want the world to know. Going from silly to serious this many times in a day is quite the emotional exercise. It feels awesome.
I feel very strongly right now that telling the story of Shamwana is what I am supposed to be doing. Each group I speak to, each question I answer, each interview I do makes me believe that even more. Here in Cookville, Kathy has introduced me to some incredible people. They have started businesses and have taken risks while pursuing personal dreams. They are creative and engaged and enthusiastic about life. And, believe me, they know how to have fun. Hearing them ask me what they can do to make a difference makes me want to jump for joy. I feel the circle widening. I have not formulated the perfect response when people ask me what they can do, so I respond with, “Use your God-given gifts for the good.” It’s all I can come up with. I can’t make a laundry list of organizations to donate to or a road map for living life, so for now that’s all I say.
Kathy was voted “Most Dramatic” in the senior superlatives. It was a no-brainer. She had the lead in all the plays and musicals, could do stand-up comedy at the drop of a hat, and loved nothing more than to be in the spotlight. Our school system didn’t encourage her to make a career out of that, in fact, as far as I could see, they didn’t encourage her to do anything after high school. She got engaged our senior year. If you weren’t in the college-prep tract in my high school it was expected you’d be a secretary or housewife. Yet, she went off and created a theater production company. On her own. She most recently produced and directed The Laramie Project. She brings people together. She organizes community events. She believes in people and gives them a chance. She uses her God-given talents for the good. She’s one of the women I admire most in the world.
How grateful I am for that 7th grade French class.
Out On A Limb Productions/Kathleen Gilpatrickfirstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday Morning, July 14, 2013 Thoughts on being Catholic
Two people now have asked me about this after reading my book. Another something that has surprised me. When I wrote this book I was frantically explaining what was happening each week. I gave no thought to what my message or insight was. I wrote to save my life. Now as people read it and question something, it takes on a new meaning. Having to explain your beliefs forces you to look at them in a brighter light.
The question was how my politics and spiritual beliefs seemed to be in conflict. Meaning, I surmise, that feminism can’t exist in your psyche if you are Catholic. That is an assumption on my part, I’m not sure if that is what they meant. I just reveled in having an audience.
I am always intrigued by non-Catholic’s curiosity about our religion. Much, I am sure, has to do with the media attention it gets; also something that surprises me. The world’s fascination with the pope and the assumption that we Catholics unquestioningly do what he says always makes me laugh. I’m not sure his bishops even do what he says, never mind the millions of little folk like me. When election time rolls around and I hear commentators talk about the “Catholic vote” I snicker. What does that mean? I am a practicing Catholic and I am pro-choice and I am not alone. I also support gay marriage, and I am not alone. I say to myself, “Let them think we are all sheep. Fools.”
I think this might seem hypocritical to some. Maybe that’s it. How can I be part of an organization who has so many doctrines that I don’t believe or support? Well, I am American, too, but certainly don’t support everything my government does. Is that a conflict? Should we all leave the country when we don’t agree?
I am Catholic because I was raised Catholic, not because I believe that we are “right” and all other religions are “wrong”. That line of thinking more suits my idea of cult, not religion. I find the church to be a loving and accepting community and a huge comfort to me. There is something mystical and beautiful about sharing in an ancient ritual each week with like-minded people. It’s lovely to be greeted on Sunday morning by good salt-of-the-earth people from all walks of life. I love turning to those around me, shaking their hands and wishing them peace. It feeds me somehow and when I can’t make it to mass, I miss it. It’s fun watching the kids in the parish grow and flourish and marry and have children. When my granddaughter was baptized last Sunday, it felt wonderful to have the parish surround her and wish her well. People who watched my daughter grow up are sincerely happy to welcome this new generation and it feels good.
When my kids were teenagers and complaining about going to mass and being dragged through the sacraments, we explained to them that this isn’t a choice you make as a child. You don’t choose your parents and you don’t choose your religion. You also don’t get to choose the food you eat. You can do that later if you want. I told them they were free to reject it all when they left home if they chose, but at that time it was like seat belts – not open for discussion. If they chose to reject it all and in the future there was a longing, a need for a spiritual footing, or a community to turn to, the church will always be there and it will be familiar. It’s a gift we were giving.
Questioning and even rejecting your beliefs is an important part of spiritual growth. Accepting dogma hook, line, and sinker, without ever questioning it’s validity is a very low level of social development. I did reject it all during my college years at a Catholic University where a Jesuit priest was in full support and encouraged me to do so. I came back around and later, when my life was falling apart and I felt I could NOT get divorced despite the fact that my husband was gone, my parish priest assured me that he would never judge me and felt it was the right and practical thing to do. He told me not to look at it like divorce but like I was protecting my children’s home.
So I guess my experiences in the church have been very different from those who feel traumatized by it. I have always felt like it was a safe place for me where I was loved and protected. The nuns I know are strong, smart, and devoted women who are role models for us all. I feel more traumatized by my public elementary school education, but I don’t hold it against the school system. It was a different era with different social norms. It’s unfair to judge by today’s standards.
I put it to my kids this way: If you find yourself completely alone and have lost everything, you will always have someplace to go. You will have an instant community anywhere in the world. Stay open to it. You can take it or leave it.
In the end, does it really matter if a god, or heaven, or afterlife exists? If it is comforting to think so in this life, what of it? If I want to look at this scientifically, as I sometimes do, studies show that people with religion are happier. They are more apt to be leaders. But usually I don’t care about that. It works for me. I find a spiritual grounding each week and am grateful for it.
Honored to be named one of the winners of the ‘Best Book of the Year Award 2013’ by the American College of Nurse-Midwives
Sunday Morning and the circle widens~
One never knows the effect our words or actions will have. Each day we may influence someone without knowing it.
These have been words of comfort to me when I expressed the feeling that I didn’t do enough, or that my actions didn’t make any difference.
A women’s book group here read my book and invited me to come to their discussion. This is a group of dynamic, intelligent, successful women and the discussion was electrifying. I had plenty of apprehension when the book came out about a slew of issues. Would it be engaging enough at the beginning for people to keep reading? Would it be offensive to people? Have I told the story in a way that honors the people I so loved and admired?
It was so reassuring to be part of this discussion and get their feedback. I was stunned by the energy the book created.
About a week later I was contacted by a member to tell me they had done some talking about doingsomething with their energy to help women. They wanted to know if I thought fistula repair would be a worthy cause for a financial donation.
An obstetrical fistula is an opening between the urinary tract and the vagina, or the rectum and the vagina, caused by traumatic birth or rape. Once this opening is there, it causes leakage of urine or feces into the vagina and it drains out uncontrollably. In areas where women do not have access to obstetrical care, or even a skilled birth attendant, this condition is common. Not only is a fistula a huge health risk for infection, it is a social death sentence. A woman continually leaking urine or feces is often shunned by her community.
In many areas where fistulas are prevalent, western surgeons will go for a period of time to do fistula repair for these women. It is a huge undertaking. The women must undergo delicate surgery in a difficult setting. They must leave a catheter in the bladder for an extended period of time. They must leave their families for the time it takes for this to heal, often six weeks or more. The surgery itself is a specialty that not all surgeons perform; and it is expensive. It is estimated that it cost $450 US for one fistula repair. That is more than most people in developing countries make in a lifetime.
The Fistula Foundation is an organization devoted solely to helping these women. The money donated there goes straight to helping a woman get this surgery and a new life. It is a fantastic and life-saving cause.
My dream would be for all women to have access to obstetrical care and prevent this horrific condition, but until then, this is a worthy and targeted donation.
Not only has this women’s group donated financially themselves, they started a process to raise awareness and get others to contribute as well. They created a website explaining how this all came about and are inspiring others to do the same. www.readingintoaction.com
A member of this book group organized a community supper at her church last week and invited me to come and speak about the book. The event was free to the public but they accepted contributions to the Fistula Foundation. It was a Saturday evening in June and I was sure there would be a scanty turn out. There were loads of events going on that evening. A group of people from the church made a beautiful meal and people from all walks of life came! There was a scramble to set up an additional table as more and more people filed in. It was fantastic! And they raised over $900 for fistula repair! Enough for two women to be given a new life.
I am humbled, inspired, and deeply grateful to live in a community where such activism exists. I feel the circle widening. I hold my new granddaughter and tell her about all the women surrounding her who will guide and support her. I think about parts of our world where women lack essential resources and endure such injustice and inequality. I want my granddaughter to live in a better world. One word or action at a time. We have to do this for each other. This circle must keep widening. I can’t imagine accepting the alternative.
Sunday Morning~ Paying it forward
The bus station in Madrid has no tourist information booth. There was no map of the city aside from the one posted on the side of what looked like should have been a tourist information booth. I don’t know what the woman in there was doing, but she wasn’t giving out information to tourists. I asked. She said, “No”. I stomped away in frustration.
There was a long line of cabs and I could have hopped in one and given the driver the name of my hotel. The bus station was way outside of the city center and, even though I could afford a cab, I felt like that was cheating.
I walked over to the local bus stop on the busy street outside the station. I had no idea where my hotel was located. There was no wifi to get directions on my phone, not that I could have figured that out. If I could get into the city center I thought I could find an information kiosk and get pointed in the right direction. I asked a woman waiting for the bus which one I should take. She told me to follow her; she was going to the center as well.
Aboard the bus, watching the city unfold around me, she came up behind me and asked, “Where do you go?”
I showed her the name of the hotel. She nodded. “Follow me.”
We got off the bus and walked together for 20 minutes or so. I told her her English was very good and I was sorry i couldn’t speak Spanish. She stopped a few times to ask other pedestrians directions to my hotel. I told her I felt badly that she was going out of her way for me. She said it was no problem. She hadn’t anything urgent to do and was happy to show me the way. She said she had visited New York and people were very kind to her there. She wanted to do the same for me.
We arrived at the hotel and she shook my hand. I thanked her, happy that there was no information booth at the station.
Not quite Sunday Morning~Learning not to go through life with the flashers on.
It’s been a while since I’ve written. I went to England to the wedding of a dear friend and couldn’t possibly write from my phone. Well, that was my thought. I’m re-thinking what this blog needs to be.
I was away for two weeks and there were many moments I wanted to write about. I stored these in my internal hard drive somewhere thinking I’d write on Sunday morning and then it became too much when the house was full of guests and I’m distracted by new relationships and summer’s frenzy. Maybe I should work in short bursts.
Claire’s granddad is failing. I met him in 1981 while traveling in UK on our way home from Malawi. Joe (my husband then), Matt (who was 11 months old), and I worked our way home through Kenya, Sudan, Egypt, Greece, Italy, and UK. Claire wasn’t born yet. It would be two more years before she presented herself to this world. Her parents were recently married and brought us home to dinner. That’s when I met her granddad. A poised, cultured, intelligent man, he exuded love for his daughter and new husband and I instantly wanted to be part of that family. He made his own wine, which, he poured liberally throughout the meal. He treated us as if he had known us all our lives. I watched him interact with his lovely wife and at age twenty-three with a baby and husband myself, I thought, this is what I want our family to be.
Over the years with an ocean between us, our families grew and we saw little of each other. We somehow stayed close friends with just Christmas card letters (hand written and personal, thankyouverymuch) holding the binding together. As my children grew and wanted to travel on their own, they’d each go off on a European adventure and start with the Jones’. It was a safe place to start. My kids were individually met, fed, bucked up, and set off again to stranger lands by this loving family who have been a rock in my existence. Rock, pillar, stepping stone, they made it easier to let go.
Claire’s granddad couldn’t make it to her wedding this month. He is confined to his home now, and some days, his bed. That’s where he was when we went to visit two days before the wedding. Claire wanted to see him before she wed. We also needed cheese for the party and there is an amazing cheese market in Devizes. In addition, her grandmum has a fabulous collection of hats. Trifecta! The Yankee needed a hat.
He sat in his bed between perfectly clean sheets folded across his chest. He was propped on pillows with his pajama’d arms folded in front of him. He was dignity personified. He smiled at us. I hadn’t seen him since his daughter (Claire’s mum) was ordained several years ago. When I greeted him, he took both my hands in his and said he was sorry about the attack on my country in New York.
Claire’s grandmum had barely slept the night before. He’d had a rough night and she feared it might be the end. Her every movement captivated me. Her hair was perfectly groomed. She was impeccably dressed with jewelry that was the perfect compliment. She was grace personified. I stared at her earrings. I considered how I might be dressed in this situation if I were her. She’d spent the restless night in the bed next to him. An elderly couple devoted to each other. There is no more beautiful sight. She recounted the night with detail that may have had other women in tears or hysteria. But she described both the events and her feelings with such grace and acceptance – full of love, full of faith, that I thought, what a role model she is for women.
Claire made tea. Claire’s mother went up to visit with her dad.
Claire’s grandmum described how she had been coping. I told her I admired everything she was doing and was concerned that she hadn’t had any time for herself. She turned to us and said warmly with that accent I wish I could reproduce, “Well now, you can’t go through life with the flashers on, now, can you?”
And then, “Now, let’s look at hats. What color is your dress?”
Sunday Morning~ Close Calls
Someone recently said we should go out every evening and look at the stars to give ourselves perspective on how small we are, how short our lives are, how tiny and petty are so many of our concerns.
As a kid I was afraid a lot. I had frequent nightmares and I dreaded going to bed because of them. I’m not sure I ever explained that to my mother. I would lie pie-eyed looking at the sinister and evil trees outside my window. I was afraid of some imaginary nocturnal intruder, of getting in trouble, of not having friends, of getting a wrong answer, of disappointing my father.
When I was in sixth grade my Sunday school teacher said she believed there was a set day for us to die. The future was scripted and though we had no idea the outcome of the play, it was already decided. She used this as rationalization to smoke. I can’t believe she told a room full of sixth graders this as I look back at it, but I left that Sunday feeling better! It didn’t matter whether it was true or not. She was just sharing what she believed and that belief worked for me. I actually relaxed a little. Ah, the world wasn’t all my responsibility after all! Just because a well-meaning, chain-smoking volunteer said so.
My college Leadership professor said that all fears are a fear of death. She told us to wear death on our shoulder and turn to it when we were afraid and ask if it was our time to die. If the answer was no, there was nothing to be afraid of. This was another level of liberation. We could take risks! We could do public speaking! She changed my future.
There have been a few close calls in my life. There have been many instances when I have felt humbled and grateful for my life, but there have been just a few when I have spent days, weeks, and forever recalling a memory that makes me shudder. I shudder because I try to re-cork it. I literally shake my head to force it back into the bottle because it’s too hard to function when it emerges and turns to stare me in the face. The calls were just too close.
The initial hours are spent thinking about how differently the day could have ended. I imagine what activities would be cancelled, all that was so important and imperative –-me who always has something to get done. There’s no bargaining, no need for that, life has already been spared. I wonder why others don’t get that fraction of an inch. And then I wonder how many times in a day does this happen without us knowing it? How many giant meteors change course because of a celestial billiards shot?
What to do when you are given such a lesson? Is it all orchestrated after all? Was my sixth grade Sunday school teacher right all along? Give away all my belongings or buy a lottery ticket? For what purpose was I spared?
I just got back from an incredible trip to New Jersey, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and New Hampshire. All the colors of people’s clothing, all their smiles and expressions, every traffic cone, every half scarlet maple tree, seemed highlighted with a fluorescent marker. Every skyscraper kissed by sunlight was giving me a message; every stranger who opened a door, stepped aside, or smiled back seemed an angel; every image of my children, granddaughter, and friends seemed an otherworldly gift.
I heard someone reciting a line from Our Town by Thornton Wilder on the radio. “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?” I have never heard that on the radio before. I’ve never heard it anywhere except for a high school auditorium. I froze. My heart seemed to stop. The stage manager replied, “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.”
Sunday~ Common Ground
I spent three days last weekend at the Common Ground Fair and didn’t write. I had all good intentions when I got back on Sunday night, but then I tried to watch my interview that got aired on Thursday, had a visitor for awhile, and it didn’t happen. Too bad, I was on a roll, too. And I was pumped from being at the fair, which, is a fabulous celebration of organic living. Getting get back into the routine.
It was Wednesday before I saw the interview that took place while I was in Tennessee in May. I was a nervous wreck. Oddly, I wasn’t nervous about doing the interview (Or was I? I forget.) but I was REALLY nervous about seeing it. I had gotten some good feedback from dear Kathy when it aired, but I thought she might be “just saying that”. I had invited a friend over Sunday to watch it with me because I didn’t want to be alone. When it wasn’t up on You Tube yet, I figured we’d just take a rain check and try again when it was there. But I came home from my quilt group Wednesday and there it was and I couldn’t wait.
OK, I don’t generally consider myself someone who is overly concerned with appearances. Apart from my daughter’s wedding, I don’t obsess too much about what I look like. I don’t even have a full length mirror and don’t spend much time in front of the small one in my bathroom. I don’t wear makeup and don’t blow-dry my hair. I’m not sure what the self-image is that inhabits my head, but I will say that I was …shocked is too strong a word…surprised isn’t strong enough…somewhere between those two… about what I look like! This is so weird. I mean it’s not like I don’t see pictures of myself, but watching how I speak was crazy to me. I could see my father. That was scary. I had no idea my mouth was that big and my lips so small. I couldn’t stop focusing on these things. What’s with that?
I think I got my message across okay. Becky, the woman who interviewed me, was fabulous. She made me comfortable and I didn’t hear myself say “Um” at all. I was worried about that. But when I watched it the second time, there were some “Ums”. Damn! Kathy was right. Great, something else to obsess about.
I found myself wondering if John Stewart has makeup artists who can work with these flaws. Not the ums, but the lips maybe?
Sunday Morning~ Early Call
Early this morning, well before the sun was up, I got a call describing an impending tragedy on the labor floor. A young woman pregnant with her first baby was bleeding and contracting way too early. I had never met her, but was on-call and got up, dressed, and headed to the hospital.
As I drove and avoided deer trying to cross the road, I hoped that this wasn’t really labor. That she had eaten something bad and was having GI distress. In my own gut, though, I knew this wasn’t the case. I knew there was going to be a hard decision to make. I knew I was going to have to be the one to tell them. Still, I hoped.
She was very young and so was he. So was this little baby boy that we were about to know for a very short time. I called our outreach center an hour away. I explained the scenario to the doctor there. I needed someone to confirm that it was hopeless to send her; that this baby had no chance to survive. He agreed. One more week might have made a difference, but this was too early.
I went back into her room and could see in her eyes that her expectations were all wrong. She thought she’d be going to a place that could save her child. A bigger hospital with cutting-edge technology. A place where death is optional. I sat next to her on the bed and told her there was no hope. She would have her son soon, in the bed where she now lay, and he would die soon afterward. It’s too early, I told her. There’s nothing we can do. The news started to sink in as another contraction gripped her.
An hour later he emerged, tiny and strong and gasping. His strength might have come from his mother, who had been abandoned as a child and grew up shuffled from one foster home to another. She told me she had made a list of all the things she wouldn’t do as a parent. She had had so many bad experiences. She’d made a list of the cartoons he’d be allowed to watch.
She held him and told him she loved him. She looked at me and said, “Everyone leaves me.”
I said, “Life has been very unfair to you. You are a wonderful mother.”
I thought of how often this happened in Congo. Almost daily. There were no warm words. The mothers did not want to hold their dying children. They turned away as it was too much to bear. Another loss; one that is unimaginable to those of us with children who are healthy and strong.
Out at the desk the nurses and I cry and hug each other. We hold him until his heart has stopped, dress him and thank him for reminding us what is important.
Sunday Morning ~ Get me through September
This month had been full of such promise of new beginnings, friendships, and adventures. It meant apples, and better moods with football Sunday afternoons after big meals. It meant making fudge and long walks with softer daylight and colorful filters. It was happy Saturday nights with friends. It had the future bathed in a rosy glow.
Now that slant of the sun makes panic bubble up in me. The earlier sunsets and later rises have lost that meaning of promise. I’ve struggled to hold on to what I loved about this month, and still tell people that September is my favorite. It always had been. So why do I keep saying that when it evokes these memories of broken promises? All my dreams and visions for the future were abandoned when I got off life’s train at the wrong stop. The train left without me and I had to make a new life in a strange and lonely land. It was either that or die on the platform. That was in September.
I call it cellular memory. This feeling that seeps in from nowhere and nags at the back of my neck as if I slept the wrong way. Everything is fine! Great in fact! So why this subtle sadness permeating the good times? It seems that body and soul must have their memorial service each year. It’s not that these demons are tryingto ruin a perfectly good month; they only want to be sure their lessons are not forgotten.
I try to let it wash over me like a wave. It soaks me, makes me catch my breath, and I stagger out a little dazed. It might wreck my outfit or clean it off, I never know. But every year I come out alive again. Back then, through my tears and fears that I’d be trapped in that cocoon of sadness, my friend said, “If you can’t walk through it, grow some wings.” And I thought it was the most amazing thing anyone had ever said to me.
So why can’t that be the memory of this month? Why doesn’t that come flooding back when the light changes?
I pick the flowers that have finally bloomed and fill the house with them. It won’t be long before the first frost kills them and I grasp at their gift to me. I hear them saying, “Here, be happy. Take me!” And I am grateful. I want to tell them I’m sorry I still feel this way. It somehow seems a betrayal to the universe that has been so good to me.
The wave will come and go as it always does. When the page of the calendar changes it will recede and show me the treasures it washed up on shore.
Sunday Morning~ October 20, 2013
I hate admitting I can’t do something. Well, only the things I set out to do. There are lots of things I can’t do but have no desire so that’s not upsetting. But when I set out to accomplish something and then have to admit I can’t, well, it’s hard.
I feel like I am pretty good with power tools. I’m not afraid of them anyway. But I am trying to get some holes drilled in the joists in the basement and they are really hard for me. I found I could do three a day. I needed like 65 of them. Doing three would tire my arms out and then I would leave it and plan to come back the next day. I only did that a few times. A friend offered to do some. That was awesome. Got about twenty done that way. I did four yesterday, had eleven to go and thought I could pull it off. I did one and a half today. After the third time my wrist got twisted and smashed into the joist, I called it quits. I can hardly type. I hate this. I hate the feeling of being defeated. I considered going out and buying a new drill. After pondering that for a bit I am leaning toward paying someone else to finish it.
Why is that so hard for me? I pay the plumber to hook up the new heating system. I have no desire to do that. But it irks me to pay someone to do something I should be able to do myself. I could pay the plumber to do it but then I would have to admit I couldn’t get it finished. Right now it seems worth it. I’ll call him tomorrow.
Thirty years ago today I woke up in labor. I was eleven days overdue and was at that point where I thought I’d be pregnant forever. My two other children had been born on the 21st of the month and I had gotten it in my head that all our children would be. At 5 a.m. with strong contractions, I thought, “Oh, please don’t let this go on until midnight.” It didn’t. Eleven hours later Zachary emerged screaming and only rarely stopped for the next year. He was adorably cute so we forgave him. We called him “Wild Man Zack”. He could scream for hours. It was impressive how such a tiny being could put out that much energy. As soon as he could walk his frustration disappeared and he became the most wonderful toddler, child, teenager, and adult. I’ll bet he and I have walked several hundred miles together in our travels over the past 30 years.
I found a photo of us together taken this past New Year’s Day when we were walking the wall around the city of Dubrovnik. We wallowed in the magnificence of it–– the view, the church bells ringing, the sunshine glistening on the Adriatic. Later, we ate lunch at an outside cafe in view of a huge stage where a full orchestra played waltzes.
There. A much better image to end the day with. I’ll stop whining about the stupid holes and call the plumber.
Sunday Evening ~ Weddings
I just got back from a family wedding. Fourteen hours of driving––an hour of Jim Croce, two of Beatles, and eleven of public radio. While driving, I thought out the upcoming week, talked myself out of leftover resentment, and tried to assume the guy who cut me off didn’t realize it. I took a break and spent three hours with my baby and grand baby and am having a hard time wiping the smile off my face. But then why would I want to?
I love weddings. I love the detail, the story, the choices, the faux pas, the laughter. I love the tension even. I love to dance and watch others dance. I love that feeling at the end when guests feel close to each other. I love the promise of long and happy lives together. I love the flowers.
I was not involved in this wedding other than as guest. I didn’t help with anything. Just got dressed up, showed up on time, placed my gift on the table, seated myself for the ceremony and took in the beautiful view. I got swept up in the music, the sermon, the vows, the gowns, the big toothy grins.
I found myself wondering how our customs and rituals would appear to someone from another planet. What if this were the only view they had of us from some super telescope? They would think we were such a kind and loving species. So happy! So fun! They would wonder why the women would wear shoes that hurt them so much. Was this to attract the males? Was this a test of endurance? Why do some women then remove those shoes? Why is it that some music makes everyone get up and dance, then suddenly the music changes because of that man behind the table and most people go sit down? Then he changes it again and they all rush back to dance. Is this a game he plays with them?
I’m happy and blessed. I’m happy to see the next generation blossom and thrive…and I like that our generation can keep up with them on the dance floor…with our shoes on.
Sunday Morning~November 24, 2013
Yesterday was my mother’s birthday. She was born into an immigrant family and moved several times during her childhood because of her father’s work. I don’t know what his job was. I think he was a machinist or mechanic, I’m not sure. My grandparents didn’t speak English well and my memory of them is elderly, confused people who didn’t know my name. My mother’s family was a puzzle to me. She had an aunt who was a nun and an uncle who was a priest, and we were most connected to them. There were lots of others, second cousins, and cousins, and various faces at wakes and funerals (not weddings it seems; I didn’t get invited to those), but I never understood the relationships. They were kind, interesting people, all old (to me), and laughed a lot. There were a few talented musicians (one would play my violin when I was in fifth grade), and one sports reporter who was very funny, but I know little about them.
I don’t think my mother had an easy life. When I first started learning about the depression I would ask her what it was like. She would describe standing in line to get one potato as if you’d describe standing in line to buy a theater ticket. She made it seem like the good old days. She was in a terrible car accident when she was in her twenties. She was thrown from the backseat, through the windshield and broke her back and pelvis. She would describe the nurses turning her over once a day to pick all the glass out of her back. She said it was awful, but said it chuckling. I always had to pry these stories out of her. I would get angry at my father for his reckless driving that made her so anxious.
She was a strong woman with a deep sense of duty. She bore life’s injustices with grace and dignity. I didn’t realize this until much later. As a teenager I was angry at her for putting up with my father’s abuse and would scream at her to kick him out. She seemed weak and compromising then. At retirement age he left her for a younger woman and it was like she won the lottery. She looked and acted twenty years younger and no longer had the constant anxiety that personified her. I commented once that it was a shame he didn’t leave years earlier. She could have found someone else and had a much different life. She replied lightly, “Well, there’s no use whining about that now!” Her zen-like resilience amazed me. She came from an era when survival involved strapping your ankles and moving on.
She adored her grandchildren and would do anything for them. It made me so happy. Never having had a relationship with my grandparents, I envied my friends who described theirs lovingly. I am so grateful my kids had this with my mother. Always ready with open arms, she ensured they spent many days at her house while I either worked or traveled.
My mom died three years ago. I had been begging her to move to Maine with me for several years but she didn’t want to leave her friends. I worried about her as she got older and more unsteady. She had a fabulous network of dear friends who stopped in daily, but I (selfishly maybe) wanted her with me. After years of refusing my invitations, three weeks before her 90th birthday, she suddenly told me she wanted to come to Maine. “I’m ready”, she said. It was uncharacteristic of her but I loaded her things and favorite chair into my Jeep and we headed north.
She slept the entire drive to Maine. Passing the first toll booth, it was the first time ever she didn’t try to pay for the toll and I knew something was very wrong. “She’s dying”, I thought. I recalled the finality with which she said goodbye to her friends. “It was nice knowing ya!” she said with a little wave. The picture was coming into focus for me. I suggested we stop at the hospital before going home. I thought maybe her medication was off or she had taken too much. It was to be her final stop. Less than an hour later we discovered the large tumor obstructing her bowel. No symptoms. No pain. Her tissue was already breaking down. Three days at the most they told me.
I didn’t even know where two of my brothers were. I frantically started calling my sister and one brother to get here as soon as possible. I called all my kids with the same request. I flipped the pages of my mother’s address book to find a phone number for my youngest brother. I found him in California and told him that our mother had three days to live. He asked for the closest airport and said he was on his way. My oldest brother is a pilot and I never know where he is. I found him in London and he said he’d be here as soon as he could.
I was left with the dilemma of what to say to her? That they just told me you’ve only got three days to live? I had no idea what I was going to do. I walked into her room and she was propped up on pillows smiling and comfortable. I thought how sweet and childlike she looked. A nurse herself, she appreciated being cared for. She asked if we were heading home, never asking what they found on the CT scan. I told her no, I’d prefer she stay in the hospital until everyone arrived. I told her I’d called them and they were on their way. She never asked why. Just smiled and said, “Okay.” I wanted her to have some IV fluids. I thought getting her up the stairs at my house might kill her. I didn’t say that I desperately wanted to keep her alive until everyone arrived to say goodbye.
It was Christmas 1986 the last time my siblings and I were all together. Ordinarily I would be organizing and shopping and preparing bedrooms. This time I sat next to my mother and watched Wheel of Fortune. I massaged her arms and noticed how thin and papery her skin was. I asked if she wanted me to do her nails while we waited for everyone to get here. “Oh, where I’m going I don’t need my nails done.” she told me. I laughed. I guess she knows, I thought. She was so much wiser than I ever gave her credit for. I asked if she wanted communion. She thought that would be nice. I called the priest and asked if he should do the last rites now? “Wait until your siblings get here”, he told me. I appreciated the thought that they’d make it in time. We said a prayer together in her hospital room in our sweet little sea-side hospital where caring, loving people were willing to do whatever we needed. She folded her hands in prayer and looked like a little girl receiving her first communion. She was at such peace.
By the time everyone arrived she was too weak to move. My plan had been to bring her to my house to die as soon as everyone was here. But by then the idea was self-serving. It was pouring rain and cold and moving her would have been too uncomfortable. So twelve of us surrounded her in the little room and we ate pizza and drank wine and had one of the richest, warmest family times ever. We reminisced, we laughed, we watched my kids eyes bug out of their heads as they heard some of the more outrageous stories. I looked at them and said, “See? You thought I made all that up?”
Over the next 36 hours she was in and out of consciousness, more out as the hours went by. The hospital staff brought us food carts. We took turns leaving each other alone with her. We went through old papers and found some treasures: her father’s immigration papers, a hotel receipt for her wedding night, our homemade Mother’s Day cards. Fr. Joe came back and she received the last rites. We all placed a hand on her as he performed this ritual. For a woman of devout faith who loved her children and grandchildren more than anything, it was the perfect tribute and farewell, another gift she gave us as she passed from this life into the next. I will never stop being grateful for that.
Frustration with our medical system isn’t new. When I was in nursing school in 1976 one of our required readings was Reality Shock, Why Nurses Leave Nursing. The system was broken then and it’s broken now. Much of it boils down to the fact that little of what we do is what we are good at. Most nurses are drawn to caring for people and only a fraction of that is part of the job, especially since electronic medical records invaded our world. When I first graduated, I headed straight for community health nursing and the Peace Corps because the hospital culture was so anti-healing that I couldn’t stand it.
Obstetrics was barbaric. Multiple women were laboring together in one room, often being scolded by nurses for not cooperating. Husbands weren’t allowed in unless they had attended special classes, and all women were moved from the labor room to the delivery room as they were about to deliver. Anyone who has had a baby knows how inhumane that is. Women were paraded through the halls on a stretcher (just getting onto it was torture), bumped into at least three doorways, scolded if she was screaming, terrifying other laboring women, forced to move again onto a hard, cold delivery table, legs put into stirrups for the convenience of the doctor who emerges ceremoniously gowned by attentive women. Just thinking of it makes me want to puke.
With all the “progress” that has been made, there are still some doctors who do this. With a straight face they will argue that it’s important to keep the vaginal area sterile, even though there isn’t one shred of evidence showing any validity to this. They state it, no one questions them, women are misinformed and comply, and then treated as if their doctor provided them a great service. The more invasive the event, the more they got for their health care dollars. Never mind that this is akin to sexual assault –– sanitized and medicated –– but sexual assault.
Last Sunday I spoke at a local church here about my experience in Shamwana. I described the conditions in which women would travel for miles by bicycle or foot, sometimes bleeding heavily, dying in childbirth en-route. I explained that many of the pregnancies were a result of rape. I explained that my hope as I left Shamwana was that the local midwives would stand up to the local doctors and protect the women against abuse once they came for medical care. There were instances when local doctors would experiment surgically on women and perform violent exams during labor. There was shock in the audience. I acknowledged the horror of this, then explained that this happens here as well. We just put a cleaner face on it.
In our civilized western culture, women are often subjected to unnecessary surgery. They are misinformed and manipulated into consenting to invasive procedures, often for the doctor’s convenience. They have multiple vaginal exams they don’t need, increasing their risk of infection. Please tell me what the difference is between our medical culture and those that shock us. We have so cleverly disguised abuse of women.
In the U.S. today the maternal death rate is three times higher than it was in 1982. Most of these deaths are from complications from surgical procedures, mostly cesarean sections. Since the cesarean rate in this country has gone from 6% to (a shocking) 34% (some places higher), women can now enjoy a risk of pregnancy-related death higher than in other developed nations.
I’ve started referring to these unnecessary surgeries as what they really are–– female mutilation. We mutilate women in this country for convenience. We medicate them, anesthetize them, and perform major surgery because it is more convenient. In our scheduled busy lifestyle, chasing our tails to have more time to spend on I-don’t-know-what (facebook?) we have cheapened the value of women’s lives so they can deliver their baby conveniently.
For several months now I have been trying to put together an article for our local newspaper about this. I want women to be better informed and look at the actual risks they are taking with their lives. I am having a hard time containing my anger about the complacency of our system allowing it to happen. That makes for an article easy to dismiss. What do I do? How long do I keep up the fight?
I’m getting to an age where I want to pass this on. I went for a walk today with an old friend who shared some of the same feelings. “We are entering a new phase of life”, he said. “We’ve done what we could. It’s time to let it go.” A big part of me agrees. Another part won’t let it go. I’ve entered a time of soul searching and reflection about where I fit in, what my purpose is, and where I belong. What is the most effective fight? Or, letting go of that language, the most effective use of my energy? Will I still feel alive if I give up? Could I face myself? There must be a way to reconcile this. I’ll have to trust the way will come to me if I stay open to it.
Sunday Morning~ November 3, 2013 ~ Almost There
I just learned that when you hit return, instead of giving you another line in the title, it posts the blog. New skill.
I have many memories of being almost there. My childhood involved lots of road trips and I got car sick. I learned to recognize landmarks telling me the trip was nearly over. I remember the relief.
My father took us hiking. Those outings started with a breakfast I detested, then a grudging stop on the highway where I would throw it all up, then a grueling hike on short legs while having absolutely no fun at all. The sight of the summit was such ambrosia to me in those days. I was almost there.
Last Sunday I ran a marathon. I had no intention of winning it, making some great time, or qualifying for Boston. I’m trying to run one a year as long as I can. I love the rush crossing that finish line. The endurance test is thrilling and reassuring for me. I’m intrigued by what the human body is capable of. I feel the need to do something hard on a regular basis. It’s part of my psyche. I think it makes me feel worthy of all my blessings.
I had had a long full week. I woke thinking that ONLY running 26.2 miles would be easy. No decisions, no chores, no demands on my time, and no pressure. I’d just lope along following the crowd, chat with people, drink the water handed me by nice volunteers, and think a lot. A nice day, in other words.
I hadn’t trained much because of time constraints and other obligations. I was pretty sure I could finish it no matter what, but didn’t want to hurt myself. I started thinking that dancing for four straight hours in high heels two weeks before a marathon was a dumb thing to do. Vanity should be listed as a major health risk. The ball of my right foot hurt. I started wondering what kind of permanent damage I would do just to prove that I could still do this. When do driven people start giving up? I wasn’t sure.
An old college friend was at the starting line. It was great to see him as I was pacing around nervously and needed distraction. A few family members were coming but not until later. It was nice to see a friendly face.
I’ve always felt like I could do anything for five hours but I went out too fast. I got caught up in the crowd and didn’t realize my pace was quicker than it should have been. When I saw the clock at five miles I should have slowed down. Instead, I got cocky and kept it up. I started imagining myself with some awesome time and the crowd going wild with amazement. This should have been a red flag. I was delusional. At mile sixteen I started regretting my enthusiasm. My daughter jumped in with me and ran a couple of miles. We chatted and I got my second wind. She dropped off at mile 18 and went to nurse her baby. “See you at mile 24”, she shouted as she joined the others waiting there for her. I waved. I may have even smiled.
At mile 23 I started having less romantic images of crossing the finish line. I hadn’t experienced this negativity in my previous marathons and it made me nervous. I was nauseated. My calves started cramping. That had never happened before. Finishing didn’t seem so important. Who cares anyway? I started thinking I couldn’t do it. I tried to distract myself by considering what happens mentally when someone cheers for you. I was desperately craving a “Keep going! You can do it!” One quiet woman said, “Good job” as I went up what I hoped was the last hill. That helped.
I saw my family just past the 24 mile mark. Two more miles seemed utterly ridiculous. My nephew, taller than the others, was waving his arms over his head. My son-in-law swayed with my grand daughter. I looked at my daughter and shook my head. “I don’t know”, I said. She whipped her sweatshirt off, tossed it to her husband, and jumped in with me. I said it again. “I don’t know if I can finish this.” She said, “You’re doing great! Your time is great! You are almost there! Look we just passed someone half your age! Really fit people are all doing the same time as you!!” Perfect words. I thought of all the times I’d cheered on my kids. I kept running.
I told her my legs were cramping. She started chatting about her daycare center and little stories about the kids who spend the day with her daughter. Mile 25 passed. I pointed out a particularly gorgeous house on the water as we ran along the beach toward the finish. I thought, “This is good. I’m distracted.” I mumbled another “I don’t know about this.” She chatted on about how she had just enough time to breastfeed the baby between mile 18 and 24, how she had gone for a practice run the day before, about the Halloween party they’d been to. I started looking for any sign that this ordeal was over. I finally saw it, the 26 mile marker. I started chanting, “I did it. I did it. Almost there. Almost there.” She confirmed it. “Yes! You did it! You are almost done!”
Okay, so after 26 miles, you’d think two tenths would not be a big deal. Well it was. The finish line seemed an eternity away. She wasn’t there anymore. She’d trailed off to the side so I could finish myself. I thought I couldn’t do it without her next to me. I was hurting. When I saw that line way, way in the distance I thought, “OH SHIT! I can’t do it!”, then recalled the image of her whipping that sweatshirt off. I swear it was the only thing that got me across that line. The look on her face as she saw my doubt. It will stay with me forever. My sweet baby girl helping me when I was almost there.
Sunday Icy Morning~December 22
In this season of dark on this icy Sunday morning I take my snowshoes to a trail in the woods leading to the heath. The recent storms have given us an early winter gift and I relish the time spent in this enchanted winter scene. I know this forest and heath and have walked and run it’s trails many times. I’ve spent time lost and worried about finding my way out. I’ve done soul searching and decision making in these woods. I’ve foraged for edible mushrooms and lichen, and collected moss for gardens. I feel at home here.
I don my snowshoes and slide down the snowbank to the trail. I follow the tracts left by wild things who know this landscape in a way I never will. The snow hides familiar marks and I lose the trail many times. I find spots where I’m confused and know I’ve gone wrong. It’s wrong, it’s wrong. This rings through my brain and I trudge in the deep snow in a circle looking for the way: a clearer path, something navigable, something I know I can clear. I find a familiar mark and stomp around making a star pattern to remind myself not to take this path again. It was the wrong way. I recognize that now. Beautiful, yes. Always beautiful. But hard and confusing, and my strides become entangled and make me lose my balance. I find the trail again and wonder how I missed it in the first place. It’s so straight and clear and now that I’m on it the enchantment returns.
Sunday Morning~January 26, 2014
It all started at a class reunion five years ago. Paula’s parents had both passed away and she had nowhere to spend the few hours between the luncheon and the dinner-dance. So she and I walked around town, bought a six-pack and hung out with my mother for a while.
Our little town had a reputation for a terrible school system when we were growing up, but I didn’t know it back then. I was a happy little student, did well in school, and had good friends. It was the best part of my youth, actually. Our little mill town was inhabited mostly by blue collar workers and our graduating class was small enough that we all knew each other. There were the theater kids, the sports kids, the AV kids, etc., but my recollection is that we all got along pretty well and had a fair amount of teenage-respect for each other.
That particular reunion was well attended and a lot of fun. The guys were getting a little stodgy and most of them wouldn’t dance despite the alcohol anti-inhibitors, but we had great conversations and found some new shared interests. There were some marriages that were dissolving, others that were in bad shape, still more that had recovered from trauma and were healing. Paula and I were sharing some of these personal stories and thought we would get together for a winter weekend to keep it going. Joyce joined in the conversation and we made a plan, the three of us, to gather at my place on the long holiday weekend in January.
When I got home, Kathy called from Tennessee, and, unable to attend the reunion, wanted to hear every single detail. She knew I had wanted to hitch-up with an old high school flame who’d left his wife, and she wanted a blow-by-blow of my success. (That particular subplot was an abject failure and I left the reunion feeling as if I’d dodged a bullet way back when. In a drunken slur he told me he didn’t want me to leave as he wanted to “grope me later.” So flattering. As tempting as that offer was, I left and walked home with Joyce and Paula and firmed up our plans for January.) So I’m gabbing away into Kathy’s eager ear and told her of the January weekend plan. She wanted to know if she cold come too! Yes, she was going to be up north that week and could swing a little further north and join us! Yay!
A week later, Mike Valente went out on his back porch to have a cigarette before bed and dropped dead. Mike was in our class and married to Carol. We all commented on how great he’d looked at the reunion one week before! At the reunion Carol was telling us how he’d stopped drinking and their marriage was recovered and life had taken a wonderful turn for the better. And boom, gone.
Mike’s death freaked us all out a little. We all had aging parents, and many had lost one or both, but now our classmates were keeling over? Were we that old? We decided to invite Carol for our weekend to get her away. She gobbled up the invitation. We all needed to debrief.
I got an email from Tricia who’d heard about the weekend from Joyce who is married to Tricia’s cousin. She hadn’t made the reunion either and we hadn’t seen her for years. She just happened to be free and wanted to know if she could come? Why sure!! Plenty of room! Then Patti got in touch because her son was at the University of Maine and she could come up and visit him and come on over for the weekend. Then she asked if she cold invite Margie who was full-time caretaker for her very sick husband and needed respite. Then Margie called to thank me for the invitation and wanted to know if she could invite Doreen, who never gets away, and could really use a break.
So that’s how nine of us ended up cuddled beside the fire on a snowy winter weekend in January five years ago. Somehow, without a plan, we went around the room and shared our story since high school, and with jaws hanging open, became a family. This was not a group who had been a clique or a gang during those formative years. We all knew each other and had various bonds and shared experiences (four of us had been cheerleaders together), but after graduation had gone our separate ways and had little more than a polite conversation for 35 years. But we knew the players. We knew the setting. We’d shared the same teachers and parties and sidewalks. Most of us went to the same church. Wait. We all went to the same church! Wow, that was really a homogeneous community! Good lord!
We knew that weekend was magical as it was happening. We wanted to bottle some of the support and camaraderie. We vowed to do it again the following year, and we did. And the year after that. And the year after that. Last year, after God-knows-how-many bottles of wine, we started talking about bucket lists. We (in a drunken rally cry) decided to travel ever-other-year for our gathering to a place we’d always wanted to see. Yes! That would be so awesome! Let’s do it!
Instead of starting with something simple, like say, New York City, we chose Iceland for our first adventure. (Like I said, we were drunk.) I really wasn’t sure if, when we sobered up, we’d actually do this, but bless Margie and Patti for their enthusiasm and stick-to-itiveness, we pulled off an incredible adventure. I had always wanted to visit Reykjavik in the winter. Patti had always wanted to see the Northern Lights. Joyce had never been to Europe at all, and Margie had a new freedom since David died and wanted to take advantage of the years we have left.
So we boarded Icelandic Air and spent four days exploring and sharing, reading and learning, laughing and listening, gazing and gawking. We also spent some time hanging on for dear life when the horses bolted. But we did hang on, and when we stopped shaking, added that to our great repertoire of stories.
Our long full weekend ended at the Blue Lagoon. This is a unique spa which was accidentally formed in 1976 by a geothermal power plant nearby. When people started bathing in the warm sea water, they noticed it had a healing effect on their skin. The place is a huge tourist attraction now and we were not going to miss it. I wish I could capture the sound escaping the lips as each of us submerged our bodies into the steaming aqua water. Through the warm mist I could make out the surrounding ring of snow-capped mountains and gave in to the relaxation as we watched the winter sun rise at 11 am. We coated our faces and arms with the silica and let it dry. We used the grainy volcanic mask to give each other foot massages. We found the steam cave carved into the lava rock, it’s wooden door looking like a hobbit hole. Inside were wooden benches and hot steam came up through the floor. We stood under the waterfall where the falling hot water massaged our shoulders. It was glorious.
Throughout the weekend I kept thinking: Who could have imagined 40 years ago saying “We’ll all be riding horses one day in Iceland together!” or soaking in the Blue Lagoon! I’m still a little awe-struck at times at how life came back around to bring us together. My admiration for these women knows no bounds. Their courage and strength inspire me and make me deeply grateful. I feel loved and cared for. I feel accepted. I feel buoyed by them.
Conditions didn’t allow us to see the Northern Lights, so that’s still on the list. There was a full moon and the clouds were too thick, or as our horseback-riding guide told us, “Heaven is not clean.” I look forward to writing about when Patti can check that off.
Kathy wants warm next time, so warm adventure awaits. It’s a good, good life. Thank you girls. Thank you universe.
Sunday Morning~ Odd how things even out
I don’t know much about numerology but even numbers feel a little better to me. I’m not sure why, but they do. The even-numbered New Year triggered thoughts of resolutions and regrets.
The piles of snow the past month means I’ve been out every day skiing or snowshoeing, with ample time to think. I don’t feel it’s necessary to make resolutions, but I’m a goal-oriented person and I rather like making them. This year I decided to take stock of regrets as well.
I have made plenty of mistakes in life for sure, but the big decisions: career, marriage, children, adventures, all fare well in my book of reflection. Based on where I am today I’ve got few regrets. However, on one particularly long ski I came up with a few things I wish I had done differently. I had about three more miles on an un-groomed trail and it kept me going.
- I wish I had gotten out of bed that night and caught my husband with his teenage girlfriend. I laid there thinking of doing it but something stopped me. I could have caught them. I don’t know how that would have changed the course of events but I do fantasize about seeing his face. God, that would have been good. That night was the end for me anyway, but it would have been great to have it explode in a burst of flame. Easy to say that now from where I sit, but maybe having my kids see their father go to federal prison kept me in that lonely bed. I personally, would have loved it, but then again I may have lost the house and who knows what else. It’s more not seeing their faces that I regret.
- I wish I had bought Matt that stupid Game-Boy he wanted for Christmas. At the time it was too expensive but he’s never gotten over it and it was just a stupid game and I irrationally blame all his troubles on that. Very stupid.
- I wish we had gone for a c-section for a particular birth that ended very, very badly. All hindsight, of course, I couldn’t have forseen the outcome, but if I could take back one day in my life, that would be it.
So, that was pretty much what I came up with. The remorse I feel for not being nicer to unpopular kids in school, or mean things I said to my mother as a teenager don’t really fall into this category. I also could have let more things roll when the kids were small, but that’s not who I was and these are perspectives that change with experience.
On January 3, 1993 our house burned down. In 2003 I got divorced. Both traumatic events; maybe that’s my aversion to years ending in 3. In 2013 nothing terrible happened but I’m still happy to say goodbye to the 3. Three’s a crowd.
So here’s to even-handedness and balance. Happy New Year.
Sunday Morning~A Letter to Beatrice and Gerardine
Dear Mama Beatrice and Mama Gerardine,
It’s hard for me to know nothing about where you are or what your life is like now. Do you remember how I would sit in the office and write every Sunday morning? Well, I do the same thing now, but my stories aren’t the same. In Shamwana, I was writing a long letter to my friends and family and would tell them about you and the stories of our weeks. This morning I decided I would write to you about what is happening here. It’s different because I don’t know when you will read this (and I will have to translate it into French first) but I am not giving up hope of seeing you again some day, and when I do, I will bring these letters with me and give them to you. I just got this idea this morning. Sorry it has taken me so long.
As I promised, I have written a book about my year working with you. I wanted desperately for the world to know you and know how hard you work to care for women. So far, the people who have read it tell me they have learned a lot and feel as if you are now their friends! I dedicated the book to both of you. Writers do that with their books. They say it is written for someone, and that is a gift. On the first page of the book are both of your names. It is my gift to you, though, I realize you may never know that. When my friend Carmen saw it she said, “Oh they will be so happy!” and I told her that it’s possible you will never know about it. That makes me sad.
Some important things that have happened in my life since I left you. My mother died (peacefully, having lived for 90 years), my daughter got married (happily), and now she has a healthy baby girl. So I am a grandmother! They live five hour’s drive from me, but I have my own car and the roads are very good, so I can travel to see them when I have holiday from work.
The book about my year in Congo is very exciting. I finished it a year ago and I have been invited to speak to different groups (some churches, schools, medical groups, and midwives) and when I speak I show pictures of Shamwana. The people are very surprised to see how hard you work with so few resources. They are also surprised to see how much suffering you have. It’s good for them to see this so they understand. We have so much here; you would be shocked to see what we have in our hospitals. Much of it gets wasted and that makes me frustrated.
It’s the same with our food. You would be shocked to see what we have in our markets. Most of our markets are big buildings and they have more food than you have ever seen in your life. More food than the people there could ever eat. It’s ridiculous, really. There is so much food that people waste it and throw it away. Much of the food comes from far away. It is brought here by trucks or airplanes that have huge cold packs to keep the food from rotting (like we did with vaccines only as big as the whole maternity tent!) It seems so crazy to explain this to you because you all worked so hard to find enough food to eat, but many of our health problems are because the people eat too much of the food and get very fat. Then their heart has to work too hard and their knees get painful. It’s a very strange way to live. It seems so unfair to me that some people have too much and others too little. In that way our cultures are the same, though, for us, even those with too little have more than you.
We are now having our cold season, which, is colder than you can imagine. Colder even than the big freezer that keeps the cold packs for the vaccines. Because I live far from the equator our daylight varies throughout the year. In this season, the days are short and the nights are long. But each day as we approach the warmer season, the light stays a bit longer and on the birthday of Baby Linda in March, the days will be the same as yours. It’s funny, I still call her “Baby Linda” but she is a young girl by now. I think of her and hope she is healthy and growing well. I wish I could tell her I think of her.
I also wish I could send this somehow and get a response from you, but that is not possible, so I will write each week and save the letters for when we meet again.
Next week I will meet with my family and we will do a sport called skiing where we attach pieces of wood to our feet and slide down a mountain on the snow. It must sound crazy to you but I assure you it is very enjoyable, even in the cold. I have been doing this since I was a child and I love it very much.
I miss you and hold you in my heart.
With Love,Mama Linda
Sunday Morning~ February 16, 2014
Whew, it’s been a while since I’ve been here and I almost didn’t make it today. Squeezing onto flights between storms, I’ve been to Nassau, Cleveland (and their respective environs), and back home in time for back to back blizzards and the babies they bring. I headed into the hospital last night just as the snow was really getting going and by the time the baby arrived, one look out the window told me I wasn’t going anywhere until morning. I hunkered down until the plows made my homecoming less of an adventure and my front walk all I had to wade through. And with 19 inches of snow “wading” was an accurate term. The frigid temps made the snow light, fluffy, and easy to shovel, and hopefully the trails will be sublime for a ski later today. It’s all good.
My recent travels have given me plenty of time for reflection about where my life has gone since that fateful decision to spend a year in Congo. I did not go there intending to write a book. Not at all. I went because I had an overwhelming need to offer my skills to those in dire need. It was one of the decisions in my life that I was absolutely sure of. No question. I couldn’t explain why, I just needed to go. It seemed selfish to me at the time. It was my need to go that drove me; it was as if my kids were calling. It was that strong. The book was a by-product of my attempt to reassure my family that I was okay. What started as a weekly account of my experience, turned into a story of a group of people who feels the world has forgotten them. What they don’t understand is that most of the world doesn’t know they exist in the first place.
There were many times I considered bagging the whole thing. I thought I couldn’t finish it, that no one would read it, that it was just too scary for some reason. But every time I got to that futile place, I saw the face of Gerardine in wordless disappointment. After all, I asked them not to give up, didn’t I? I told them the women depended on them; that the midwives were their only hope. They needed to protect the women.
I look out my window at the snow piled up over my porch and think of the times we sat around in Shamwana telling stories. I tried to describe what winter was like. I held up the cold pack that the vaccines sat on. “It’s like this cold pack, but on the ground! The ground is frozen and this ice comes down like rain!” And they sat captivated in a semi-circle around me trying to imagine what that must be like. I miss them so much.
I spoke to eight different groups in the past weeks. The Nursing School in Nassau welcomed me warmly and wanted to hear about all the challenges facing the midwives in Shamwana. One retired nurse told me that the stories have “squeezed her heart”. After a long career she’s still actively helping her profession. I wished I could tell Beatrice and Gerardine this. I spoke to three separate groups of students at the international school. The kids were sharp and engaged and asked questions that demonstrated a worldliness that gave me such hope for their generation. I wished I could tell Mario this.
I left the Bahama balmy breezes for Cleveland. Nothing like extremes to keep the senses on their toes! I had no idea where I was speaking when I got there, I was just focused on getting there. Despite a steady stream of snowstorms, I only had one three hour delay before making it to the open arms of an old friend. I was happy to be led around and deposited in front of whatever audience she had scheduled: University Hospital, Catholic Charities, Case Western Reserve School of Nursing, and the Ohio Affiliate of Nurse Midwives state conference. Wow. What reception! What response! After getting rejections from major publishers saying “The book-buying public is not interested in Africa”, I stood before hard-working, intelligent audiences, told the story of people who feel the world has forgotten them, and sold out of all the books I brought. People are interested! And someday I hope to be able to let them know this. The worldis interested! And I will continue to tell their story.
Sunday Morning ~ March 23, 2014
Dear Gerardine and Beatrice,
Friday was the anniversary of the birth of baby Linda! I remember well that day. It’s hard to believe six years have passed since the three of us welcomed her into the world together. I do pray that she is growing and strong and safe. I have not given up hope of seeing her again someday.
It was also the birthday of Dr Benson. I wonder where he is now. I heard via Lucille and Fabien that he is now an expat with MSF. That is so fantastic for him. I hope I will see him again someday as well.
I always remember the date because it is also the anniversary of the birth of my second child, Jacob. He was 32 years old on Friday. I can’t believe I have a child with 32 years! Except for the fact that my back aches now when I am bending for a long time at a delivery, I don’t feel more than 32 years myself.
You know, that makes me think. I don’t know how old you are. I never asked you that. I wonder if you even know. Did anyone record your birth year? I remember on the charts under “age” was just written “adult.” You both seem immortal and ageless to me––beautiful, strong, and capable women.
March 21 is the first day of the season we call “spring.” It is the day when our daylight and our darkness are equal and the sun is much higher in the sky. Where you live, near the equator, the sun remains high in the sky all year. That’s why your daylight always lasts 12 hours, equal to your darkness. As I told you before, the only time this happens here is in March and September. From now until June our daylight will stay longer and longer and the nights get shorter and shorter. In June, at 9 o’clock at night it is still daylight. You would be amazed at this! And in December, the night comes by 4 in the afternoon.
This week I received another invitation to speak about your story. This is very exciting. Did I tell you what my dream is for this book? If ever there is money from the sales of it, my dream is to use the money to do something for the women of Shamwana. I know this is a very big dream and I don’t know how I would accomplish it just yet. I don’t need more money than I already have, so I would like it to go back to you somehow. This may never happen, so I can’t start planning yet. It is quite difficult to make money with a book. Many, many people must buy it. More than all the people who live in Shamwana. But it is nice to have a dream, and it makes me think I might see you again. You can imagine all the jealousies it would cause. The men would want some of it, I know. It would be easier if there were so much money that everyone could have something, but that’s not usually how it works. I have to think more about this.
Everything is so simple in a dream. I envision a brick building with two rooms for antenatal visits. You would have your own stethoscope and blood pressure cuff! The beds for the clinic would be separated from the ones for labor and delivery. Imagine! I would want windows on all sides so a breeze can come through and it won’t be so hot. The room for delivery would be very big–– enough room for three or four beds so no one has to labor on the floor and as we midwives get older, our backs won’t hurt so much! Where we live, each woman labors and delivers in her own room but that would not be possible for you and not even appropriate, really. Your culture is very different and the women are accustomed to being close together. Maybe we can have curtains between the beds for privacy. You can advise about that. The postpartum area would also be a building–– no longer a tent that leaks in the rainy season. We can have many beds with mosquito nets. We’ll hire someone to clean it each day and we will have windows on all sides so the air will pass through.
I was also thinking that if women came early in their pregnancy to wait for labor, they could help with the chores to keep the area nice and clean. We could do that instead of hiring someone. If the pregnant women is too ill, her family member could do it. That way we wouldn’t need so much money to keep the clinic going. Maybe we could even have a garden and grow our own vegetables and some rice.
And what do you think of this? A school for girls and women. Something simple; it could even be just an open tukul. We don’t even need a building to start. I was thinking it would be nice to teach girls to sew and make soap and maybe read if we can get some books to share. I know we could get books, that would be the easy part. The hard part would be convincing the men that this is a good thing. And I wouldn’t want to turn anyone away, so how would we do that?
Here, everyone goes to school, even if they are very, very poor. Our schools are funded by a tax placed on people who own their own house. Each year we have to pay our local government some money based on the price of our house. That money gets used to keep the roads clear, as I told you last week, but it also gets used to pay for our schools. They are called “public schools” because everyone must be allowed to attend. We have behavior rules, and sometimes if there is a student who does something very much against the rules, he or she is banned from the school, but that is rare in most places.
I know this is so different from most places in Africa, not only Congo. Your students must find someone to pay their fees for school and this is how your teachers get paid. That means many children, mostly girls, don’t go to school. Our teachers get paid from the taxes we pay to the government. The building, the heat, the water, the books, all get paid by these taxes and it costs a lot of money. But we know that our society benefits if everyone is allowed to have an education so we continue to pay these taxes and support our schools. Some people complain about this, but it is the law. They must pay their taxes.
This is not something we are going to see for you in our lifetime, but I was dreaming about doing something small. Something that would give girls a little chance of making their lives better and have more worth. If they could earn some small amount of money from what they learn, they might be valued for something other than fetching water or collecting firewood and producing babies. I want you and your women to be more equal to the men. Again, it is a long time before that will happen, but it has to start somewhere. These are just ideas and dreams. I wish we could talk together about what you think would be the most valuable thing for women to improve their lives. You might think I am all wrong. And if you think that, I would want you to tell me.
Lots of mzungus have good ideas for helping people in Africa, but in reality, these good intentions often make things worse. I realize this. But in my dream, I see us working together to do something good for women. If the money came from your stories, then we might have more control and influence. Hey! I just got an idea! We could teach the women to write their stories! That would be amazing!
You always inspire me. I need to go to our hospital now to see the women who delivered on Friday, so until next week my dear friends…
With my love and respect,
Sunday Morning , March 16, 2014
Dear Gerardine and Beatrice,
I spent yesterday at a meeting of all the midwives in my region. We gather four times a year to discuss problems and ideas we have for our practice, similar to when you would gather together with Mama Marie, Mama Joseline, and Mama Astride. But my region, called Maine, is very large, almost the same size as Katanga. I had to drive for three hours to reach this meeting. I know, in Shamwana we would drive for three hours to reach Kishale, but that distance was very small. In Congo it took three hours because the roads were very bad. It was a distance of only 30 miles and we would leave at 7 in the morning and arrive at 10. Here, the distance is 170 miles for the same amount of time. Incredible, isn’t it? Our roads are very good, even in the cold season when there is ice all around. We have large trucks with big metal spoons on the front that move the snow and ice off the roads. They do this for many, many miles so we can continue to drive. Other trucks spread sand and salt on the roads so they won’t be so slippery. It is a huge service to us. Those of us who own our own houses pay money to the local government in order to keep this service. Otherwise we would not be able to travel until the snow melts in the warm season!
So yesterday I set off early, alone, in my little car to drive three hours to meet with my colleagues. I can stop for petrol in many places if I need it. They sell petrol all day and even at night so we can continue to travel when our supply is low. We can stop at a place called a “gas station” and put more petrol in the vehicle. These gas stations also have toilets we can use. The toilets are in a separate room inside a building and are warm. The toilets are cleaned by a tank that pours water in. Then the waste goes down a pipe into the ground and we never have to see it! There is also a place for us to wash our hands with water that gets pumped up from the ground. It is very convenient. The water is even heated!
We start our meetings with an education session. Yesterday, it was about helping women with depression and anxiety to have less suffering during their pregnancy. We have medications to give women who are depressed and because we have many to choose from, we need to know which ones are safe for the mother and baby. It must seem a luxury to you because you care for so many women traumatized and depressed beyond anything we can imagine here. We have so many resources that aren’t available to you. I think about this every day. We take so much for granted. Do you know what it means to “take something for granted?” It means that we assume it will always be there. Like you feel about the rains in November.
After our lecture, we have a meal together. We each bring something to share and we eat and talk and share news of our lives and jobs. Over the 22 years I have lived in this region I have become good friends with many other midwives, though, we see each other rarely. The distance is great between us and we are all busy with our own work. It is very nice to gather and support each other. I know you understand this.
We have many challenges as midwives in my country just as you do. Here the problems are a bit different, but I can usually find similarities. For instance, we have many doctors that support us and believe that we are important and see our care of women as superior and valuable. This is how I always felt about Benson and you. He knew well what intelligent women you were and how well you cared for women. But there are others who are continually feeling threatened by us and try to make our lives very difficult. They use their money and power to keep us out of certain areas that would give us more of a voice in helping women. It is very frustrating. I know you understand this as well.
So we discuss this and try to find solutions to the problems. The midwives are very smart here, too, and I admire them very much. We try to convince those in power that it is better to let women labor naturally and prevent complications caused by their unnecessary interventions. Remember how strongly I urged you to argue against unnecessary c-sections? Well, we have to do the same thing here. Doctors can make a lot of money with surgery and it is more convenient (as you know) to just take the baby out rather than wait for it to arrive naturally. Women have many complications from this surgery here as well, even though we have a very clean surgical suite and our women are not malnourished. They still can die of infection and embolism. It makes me very sad and frustrated. Many of the women believe this surgery is better because they don’t want to experience the pain of labor. The doctors don’t tell them how dangerous it is if it isn’t absolutely necessary. So this makes our job harder.
In our country it is illegal for a hospital to discriminate against women or treat them differently from men. But it still happens. The fight to prove it takes energy, money, and time, and often we give up. Every time I think I am too tired to fight anymore, I think of you both and you make me want to keep going, for women everywhere.
With my admiration and love,
Sunday Morning~ About Women and About Time
Dear Beatrice and Gerardine,
When I was speaking to a group last week about you, I explained that the women in Shamwana would sit together and make beautiful patterns in each others’ hair. They were also talking to each other but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I loved to watch this. I always loved to watch the women there together talking and supporting each other. I loved the way they made beautiful art with nothing but their hands, some string and their own hair.
In our culture, women gather in groups too. Because our houses are far apart and the weather is cold, we don’t sit around with just those women who live close by. I think it was like that here many years ago, but the culture has changed over the past 100 years. Now we all drive cars to visit each other more than walking to those nearby.
Our groups usually are formed by common interests. For instance, some women like to sew and make blankets from small pieces of colorful cloth. We call them “quilts” and women who enjoy this activity get together to share their ideas. Some women enjoy writing and will gather in a group to write together; or some sing and dance and will do that. Some women gather to talk about their family problems with a counselor. These gatherings usually have a beginning time and an ending time. Because most of us can drive even at night, our schedules aren’t dependent on daylight as yours are.
On Friday evening I had a party at my house for the women in my village. It is something we do every year now. We started several years ago because a woman here was very sad and traumatized when her husband left her for another woman. In our culture it is not legal for a man to have more than one wife as it is in Congo. Many men do take another woman, but it is not acceptable. This woman was so sad that we wanted to have a time together to talk and laugh. We made drinks from strong spirits and had a very good time. She was happier when we shared our stories about heartbreaks we had experienced and made her feel like her life would get better again. We had so much fun we decided to do it every year on the first Friday in March. We didn’t want to wait until someone’s husband did that again (though, it seems there is a man every year who does! I’m sure you understand this.)
This morning we have set the clocks ahead by one hour. This is called “daylight savings time.” That means we push the clock forward so it is later by one hour. This, of course, does not change the hours in the day, but it gives us more daylight in the evenings. We do this at the end of the cold season, and at the end of the warm season (in October) we put the clock back one hour again. The length of our daylight changes greatly over the year, very different from Congo. It is only in March and September that we are the same as you, twelve hours of daylight and twelve hours of night. In June here the sun will rise by 4 am and will stay in the sky until 9 pm. That makes the day very long. In December, the sun does not come up until after 7 am and sets before 4 pm. Our cold season days are very short.
I like telling you about my home. It seems when I was with you in Shamwana we had no time to tell stories. We were always working too hard. I wonder if you are still doing the same.
Yesterday was a celebration of women. It was called “International Women’s Day”. I thought of you and how much I love and admire you. I wish I could tell you that.
Sunday Morning~ April 27, 2014
Dear Beatrice and Gerardine,
Easter has passed and we are heading into our warmer season, but the temperature here is still cold. This has been an unusually cold and long winter. There are still patches of snow and ice here and this is the time we should be planting our gardens! We have to wait or the plants will die.
Many people here grow their own vegetables, but since the growing season is very short, there are only certain crops that survive. For instance, all the fruits that grow in Shamwana will not grow here. It is far too cold for them. Our roads are good, though, and large trucks bring fruit from the south where the climate is more similar to yours.
I have a room made of glass attached to my kitchen and it gets very warm in there when the sun is out. I plant my vegetables in this room in small pots and transplant them outside when it gets warm enough. This makes the season a little longer. I love growing my own vegetables. Remember I tried to do that in Shamwana? I wasn’t very successful there. Your climate truly is difficult for many plants and I lacked your expertise in working the soil.
My life has been very busy the past few weeks. Well, it’s always busy, but more so since my friend’s daughter died. We work together so I have to assume some of her responsibilities while she is away, and many women had their babies this week. I was up a lot at night. And we had the holiday weekend for Easter, so I had family here. It makes me happy to have my family here.
I did another talk this week about Shamwana and the work you do. I love to tell you how much people are interested in your story. Many people bought my book about the year I spent there. I’m glad to know they will understand a little better what your lives are like. I’m still hoping that someday I will be able to tell you this face to face.
A very large bookstore has requested my book. This is very exciting! They have stores all over our country and this means that more people will know about you. I tell people how difficult all lives are in Congo, but especially the women’s lives. Too many women suffer and die in childbirth in Congo. I know you are doing all you can to help them. It’s intolerable to me to see women there abused and tortured by the military and rebels. Things are unfair for women in this country, too, though nowhere near what you suffer. In my talk, I tell people how they can be more respectful to women every day and my hope is that little by little things will change. We have many politicians who want to keep women repressed and make laws that harm women. It is very frustrating. Rape is illegal here, but it still happens far too frequently. The system for women to bring their rapist to justice is very complicated and humiliating so many women choose not to pursue it.
Not all politicians are like that. Many people are very good and fight hard for women’s rights and equality. But it is exhausting to keep fighting the same battle over and over. You know this all too well. This week I am hosting a reception for a woman running for election to our congress. She is very intelligent and energetic and will work hard for equality for women. I believe in her as I believe in you. I am trying hard not to get discouraged. Every time I think about giving up, I think of you both and you inspire me to keep going.
As always you have my love and respect,
Sunday~ April 13, 2014
Dear Beatrice and Gerardine,
Hello my dear friends. Today I feel your spirits more than ever. I feel your strength and compassion for all those mothers who have lost their children. For all those who have had to face what we are never prepared for––our greatest fear.
Today was the ceremony for the daughter of my friend. It was raining very hard today, outside, as it was in our hearts. Many people gathered together in the church. There was beautiful music. There were beautiful flowers. Many people spoke about their grief and how much this girl meant to them and to us. They spoke about her beauty of spirit and mind. Her father spoke as well, and I wasn’t sure if he would be able to complete his words, as he has been very devastated and barely functioning. He spoke beautifully. He captured the love a parent has for their child; he captured the grief he is experiencing; and he captured the transformation he has gone through since her death. It was truly remarkable.
My friend had her daughter’s body cremated in the city where she died. This means that the body was burned and the ashes are kept. This is one of the ways we care for our dead. They can either be buried whole, or burned. The ashes are given to the family and they can decide what to do with them. Sometimes the ashes are buried like a body in a pot called an “urn”. Sometimes the ashes are scattered in a place that the deceased person loved, or sometimes they are just kept in the home in the urn or in a box.
My friend had to carry the ashes with her when she returned to Maine this week. She had to pass through a very busy airport where the security rules are very strict. I asked her if the officials were respectful of her daughter’s ashes. She said that they were very kind and very respectful. A strange man next to her asked what precious cargo she was carrying. She told them they were the ashes of her daughter who had just died in an accident. The stranger was a very important man and was very kind to my friend. He took her to a special place to wait for her flight where she could be in a quiet room with some food and drink. She was very grateful for his kindness. Since then when anyone asks her what they can do to help, she replies that they can show kindness to a stranger. That’s what she wants to come from her daughter’s death.
I told her I felt like there was an angel at the airport for her that day. I believe in angels. I also believe in the kindness of strangers.
All the women who know my friend are willing her all their strength. She says she can feel this.
You do this for women every day. Again, you have my admiration and respect.
Sunday Morning~April 6, 2014
Dear Gerardine and Beatrice,
It has been a very sad week here. My dear friend lost her daughter from a terrible accident. My friend and I work together and have been friends for 21 years. Our children grew up together and played music together. My friend’s daughter was very talented. She played the trumpet––an instrument made of brass metal that you blow through to make a beautiful sound. I love the trumpet, and this girl played it beautifully.
Every year at a parade we have to honor our dead soldiers, she played a song at the end of the parade called “Taps”. This song is traditionally played at sunset and at funerals of soldiers. This girl was chosen to play it at our yearly ceremony. My vision of her is playing this musical instrument as a very young girl. A big and beautiful sound coming from a small and beautiful girl. I can’t get the image out of my mind.
This girl was a talented seamstress, as well. You know how I like to sew. She helped me with my daughter’s wedding dress. She was very creative and made many designs herself. She also made jewelry. She was as talented as she was beautiful. But all of our children are beautiful, aren’t they? But when they die, their beauty becomes enormous.
So we were at work when my friend got the call. We work together in a clinic specifically for women. It is all women for staff as well, and we all have children. As you know, this is the worst news a mother can receive, and it was very unexpected, as she was a healthy girl. She lived in a city far away from us, so we couldn’t go there immediately. My poor, poor friend. My heart is broken for her.
We traditionally bury our dead near our homes, so my friend will travel to collect her daughter’s body and bring her back here. This is very different from Congo, where you bury the dead just where they die. We have a way of preserving the bodies so they don’t decompose immediately, so this is possible. There is a ceremony to remember the dead person and to help the family and friends say good-bye and grieve together. These ceremonies vary a lot as we come from many different cultures. Some are very elaborate and some are very simple. It depends on what the families desire.
I know you have to deal with mothers’ losing children every day. It is a much more common occurrence for you, and I am so sorry. It doesn’t make it easier because it is frequent. A mother’s heart broken over and over. It reminds me again how very strong you are to help women through this time and time again. I want to take my friend into my arms and protect her from it all. But these things just don’t go away, and we all need to be strong and help each other.
I believe this girl is at peace and is happy. She will surround her mother and family with her spirit and be with them always in every way. I don’t know why I believe this. I don’t know if I made it up as a child or if it was what I was taught, but for me it is the truth. It gives me comfort when I think this way about people I have lost to death. There is no suffering for them. It is only for us, who miss them.
I will write to you next week. Until then, you have my love and respect as always.
Sunday Morning in the Rocky Mountains~ Mother’s Day 2014
Dear Beatrice and Gerardine,
Today is what we call “Mother’s Day”–– a day to honor our mothers. I’m not sure when the tradition started, but it has much publicity, mostly because merchants make a lot of money pressuring people to buy gifts for their mothers. My children refuse to acknowledge it for this reason. I guess I taught them well, yes?
I am sitting by the fire in a tiny mountain town in Colorado, a state in the western part of my country. I came here to hike in the mountains for a few days, but we are getting a big snowstorm today and hiking is impossible. I thought I would be seeing flowers in bloom but here I sit thinking of you and all the mothers you have helped and saved.
I came here from another state called Wyoming, where they invited me to come and talk about my book. I spoke to two groups of school children and one group of adults, and I want to tell you how interested everyone was about you! The children were young, ages five through eleven and they were mesmerized by the stories of the children in Shamwana. They had many questions about your lives. I was so happy to see this! Every time I see groups who want to know more about you I get very excited!
The children wanted to know where your clothes came from and what your language sounded like. The adults wanted to know what they could do to help you. This is always a little difficult for me to answer. I wonder what you would respond to this question? There is no way to send supplies, but people can send money to MSF , which, might go to help you. But one never knows how that money gets allocated and it might not go to Shamwana. I know a group of women who donated money to the Fistula Foundation. That is a group who pay for surgeons to go and repair the terrible fistulas that women suffer. That is money well spent. The fistulas are so difficult to repair. My great wish is that we could prevent them in the first place by training more midwives.
I mostly tell groups to treat women with more respect in the hope that women all over the world will benefit from this. It will take a very long time I know, but I still feel it is important. It is not only Congo where women suffer.
One little girl sent me a letter after my talk. She wrote that she wished you could have enough food forever and wanted to go back with me to help the children. Another little boy told me he wanted to read my book, even though it is written for adults. Another girl of seven years told me she wanted to go and help when she got older.
These children made me so happy. You are inspiring them! The stories of your lives will change the course of others’ lives and that is very exciting!
I look out the window here and the snow is falling very heavily. I am so far from Shamwana. But it is Sunday morning and you are forever in my heart.
With love, respect, and gratitude for what you give to all mothers,
Sunday Morning~ Summer Solstice 2014
Dear Beatrice and Gerardine,
Well, the Chicago trip was grand. I was treated like royalty and loved every minute of being there. Many people have read the book about you! I was amazed! And they wanted to hear more stories! That was quite thrilling. One woman told me I had a lot of “Moxie.” That means she thinks I was brave to go to DRC. I don’t feel I was brave. They also said they feel as if they know you. Yay! That’s what I was hoping they would feel! They want to know what has become of you and are disappointed when I tell them I don’t know.
Now I am home and this week we moved into a new women’s clinic. For over 20 years we have been working in a very small building next to the hospital and we have been asking for a bigger space for a long time. The old building was drafty in the cold season, and there was not enough space for us all to work together. We had to work on alternate days because there was not enough room for the doctor and me at the same time. This has been difficult. So after many years of requesting more space and raising money for a new building, we finally moved in. Many people donated money for this project and it is a testimony to what women can accomplish when we work together. We will plant a garden around the outside which we will call a “Memory Garden” to honor all the women who have helped us along the way and have died before seeing it completed.
This makes me wonder what size your garden would be if you did something like this. To plant a tree for all the women who have died too soon in Congo would cover your entire country. I will plant a tree here for all of you. I want something that will bloom each year with thousands of blossoms. If every blossom represented one woman it still would not be enough, but I will do this anyway. I would like to see something beautiful and think of the beautiful women it represents. Blossoms are beautiful. The beginning of fruit. A symbol of life.
Sometimes I wonder if I think about you hard enough you can feel it. I wonder sometimes if you think about me. This is so strange in this day and age. Not to know.
With my love and respect,
Sunday Morning~ June 7, 2014
Dear Beatrice and Gerardine,
Hello my dear friends. I have been busy getting my garden planted since the weather finally got warm. Even though there is plenty of food to buy in the stores here I like to plant my own vegetables. They are much better when grown at home. I don’t put any pesticides on them or any chemical fertilizer. I have the manure from my chickens and that’s all I use. It is very satisfying for me to harvest food I have grown myself.
In America, big businesses are poisoning our environment by putting chemicals on everything that grows. There is a big movement (though not as big as the businesses) to stop this and encourage people to buy foods that grow without chemicals. Many of the chemicals cause cancer and other diseases but the businesses don’t care about people. They only care about making more and more money. They pay poor people from other countries very small wages to pick the food and they keep this practice hidden from the public. It’s very discouraging, but the poor people feel they don’t have any other choice. They are very poor and have been told many lies about the work and the pay. As you understand very well, it’s very difficult when people don’t have an education and don’t have choices.
So I plant my garden and feel like I am making my tiny piece of the country healthier. I don’t buy food from the very big markets that hurt people. If more and more people do this, they will make less money and maybe someday change their practice. It will take a very long time, but it feels better to live this way.
I am going to Chicago this week to do another talk about the book. This will be to a group of women who have already read the book. They have organized a group of people to come and see photos and hear your story. I have told you how much I love to do this. I am always so happy to see people interested in your lives. I have not given up my dream of educating the women in Shamwana. I still envision a small school for girls there that might give them a chance to have a richer life. Not necessarily rich with money (though you know that helps give them some power) but rich with more knowledge and understanding. We’ll see what happens this year. A very large bookstore has bought some books so there is a chance for more success. On va voir!
I am planning a travel holiday for September. My friend in England has a son getting married and I am invited to the wedding. That is at the very beginning of the month. At the end of the month I will run a race with my son in Poland, a marathon, 26 miles. So I have some weeks in between to fill and I am having fun dreaming about that. I feel so fortunate to be able to travel. I love being in a strange land and watching what life is like there. I might spend some time in France to practice my French. I want you to be proud of me when I see you again! That, I pray will come to pass in the next few years. I’m not giving up hope.
With my love and admiration,
Sunday Morning~June 21,2014
Dear Beatrice and Gerardine,
It has been two weeks since I have written to you but even on the Sundays when I don’t write, I think of you. In the days when I wrote with pen and paper it didn’t matter where I was. I would write anytime and anyplace. I always carried a pen and paper with me and wrote letters while I was waiting for things, or when I was on a bus or a train. Now I am accustomed to writing with this computer and I don’t do it when I am not in a convenient place. I think this is terrible. It won’t matter to you because you don’t see these anyway, but I still am uncomfortable when I don’t have access to putting the words down to be read. There are parts of progress that I like, but many I don’t like. I know computers can be helpful, but I am very unhappy with how dependent we have become on them. This is something I have no right to complain to you about. All my complaints seem completely absurd when I consider explaining them to you. I am sure you would be happy to have my problems.
I was at a meeting for all the midwives in the United States. We have this meeting every year and it goes on for five days. We have many education lectures and we discuss problems in our jobs and ideas to make women’s lives more healthy and childbirth more safe. It is similar to what we did in Shamwana, but there we were only eight women. At the meetings in my country we have two thousand midwives attending! We have it in a big hotel with many rooms. It is a lot of work to organize for so many people but I appreciate it very much. I look forward to being with other midwives and talking about our issues. I am the only midwife here at my hospital so it is fun for me to visit with so many others.
Now that I am back home I am busy getting my garden planted and getting the house ready for the warm season. I was thinking today how easy it is compared with your lives. I complain about all the chores I have to do to take care of this house, but in reality, it’s not that hard.
I can turn on the faucet and water comes out. I don’t have to walk to find water or pump it from a well. I have screens to put on the windows to keep the mosquitoes outside. I can sit inside with the electric lights on without being bothered by mosquitoes. I don’t need a net over my bed either. I have my own fridge in the kitchen to keep my food cold so it doesn’t rot quickly. I even have a big freezer to hold food for a long period of time. Each day a postal worker brings mail to my house. This worker brings mail to each and every house. Letters can be sent from anywhere in the world and this worker will bring it right to my house. I don’t need to go collect it. I think this is an amazing service. The person sending the letter puts a stamp on it which costs some money and that money pays for this person to bring the letter to the house. It’s really quite remarkable. More and more people send messages on the computer and not by the postal service anymore, but still they come every day.
Today is the birthday of my twins. They are my youngest children and have 28 years today. They live far from me so I don’t see them very often, but they are both healthy and are doing good work and that makes me happy. They were born by cesarean section after a very long labor. They were big for twins, both almost 8 pounds. Can you imagine? Most of the babies born in Shamwana were half their size. I ate a lot while I was pregnant with them and they grew very well. We had no famine and I had access to plenty of food. That is the case with most people here. There is enough food for everyone, but some people are too poor to buy it. Not everyone has land to grow their own food; people need money to buy it. And even in a country as rich as ours, there are people too poor to buy food. It’s not fair and it’s not right. It makes no sense.
When I try to explain our life to you it seems more and more absurd to me. I would love to hear your thoughts. I can hear you laughing.
With my love and respect,
Dragonfly carries illusion medicine. That is a Native American belief. What are my illusions and does it matter? Were all my youthful plans for the future an illusion? It all turned out so differently from what I imagined.
Dragonflies get into my greenhouse regularly. I listen to them battering themselves against the glass trying to fly away. I leave the door open hoping they will gravitate out, but so often they beat themselves to death against the glass or I find their bodies framed in beautiful spider webs.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking this summer about illusions. I wonder if that’s how we all get through life. We march on and on toward something unreal and shimmering.
This morning I climbed up on a table and was fascinated by how easy it was to capture the dragonfly in my hands, carry it gently to the open door, and set my illusions free.
Sunday Morning~August 10, 2014
Summer––that warm glorious train speeding by. In our little corner of paradise we have seasons where the days are dark and cold and seem endless. When the light and warmth arrives the social scene is so frenetically packed that the season is a blur. Each year I vow to find a balance and each year I fail. And I feel guilty complaining about this.
My first world problems:
1.Forced to choose between conflicting social events.
- Running only fifteen miles per week instead of the desired twenty.For Pleasure.
- Deciding what to do with the surplus I pick out of the garden.
- Having limited time with out-of-town friends visiting for short periods of time.
- Only being able to see my beloved grand daughter via FaceTime, something so miraculous, I feel like I am on Star Trek.
- Having to be on-call extra weekends so I can take the entire month of September off to travel.
- Will the sheets have time to dry on the line, or should I throw them in the dryer?
I sat outside this morning enjoying the omelet my chickens generously gave me and watched bees busily gathering nectar from my blooming oregano. For the first time in years I have ripe tomatoes in August. A hummingbird darted in and out of my scarlet runner beans.
As I dragged my butt on an eight mile run yesterday I tried to switch the focus from how crappy I felt to appreciation for physically being able to do this. Why do I have to concentrate to focus on gratitude? How do I make this come easier?
At mass this morning we had a Maryknoll sister describe her mission with the imprisoned criminals in New York and South America. She described their lives of abuse and neglect and how fate turned them to a life of crime. She listens to them with tenderness and for many it is the first they have experienced. I needed to hear that today. I’m grateful I went. I thought of Hector, a man I met in Tennessee, who forgave the murderer of his daughter after learning about the man’s tragic life and what led him to the drugs he depended upon. How grateful I am to have met Hector.
When I present my story to audiences they often sit a bit stunned and ask, “What can we do to help them?” I say we can live intentionally and be kind to one another. We can practice gratitude. I need to remember this.
Gratitude. We all have our story. Be kind. Do good work.
Cornwall~ September 10, 2014
Yesterday was my wedding anniversary. It was 36 years ago that I married the love of my very young life. I believed in him. I believed it when he said he wanted to travel the world with me. Our future together was so full of promise and possibilities. To this day it was the best wedding I’ve ever been to, so full of love and friendship and acceptance.
Last September I was overwhelmed with the sense that I was robbed of relishing the month that I loved so much. September had always been my favorite month. I think that’s why I wanted to get married then. I loved being a student and heading back to school. I loved the change in the sunlight and the chilly nights. I loved falling leaves and apples and my father’s good mood when his football team won.
For many years after my divorce, just the slant of light in the early morning would evoke anxiety in me. It was the month we married and the month he told me he wasn’t coming back. Until I could stop writing the date at the top of my letters, checks, and charts I would have a low-lying churning in my gut. I tried to let it wash away and ride it out, which, I did of course. October always came along eventually. Last year was worse for some reason. Possibly because I wasn’t happy with my job, possibly because I was starting a new relationship, or possibly because an old friend came back into my life and questioned many decisions I had made in the past. I found myself wondering who really was the love of my life. I hated last September but didn’t have the energy to get back into therapy. I resented that I was letting myself be victimized again. I have power over this right? I am responsible for my own feelings so why do I let someone else ruin it for me? I started planning to take the month of September and go away. Ok, yes, that’s what we did for our honeymoon, but I needed to change the routine. Get out of my self-pitying rut. Let go of worrying about who would pick my ripening vegetables, the dahlias that finally bloomed, and the cosmos bursting all at once. The pumpkins and squash would wait for me and who knows, with climate change, so might the tomatoes. Good bye garden!
Thus I find myself in Cornwall in glorious sunlight and landscapes surrounded by dear friends who were there for me in the worst of times. Over the past four years we have annually crossed the ocean to attend our children’s weddings and the most recent was last Saturday. Little Nathaniel who came to the states to visit when he was 11 years old and wanted to stay, married his English bride in the courtyard of an old farmhouse with the soft rolling countryside all around us. It was so beautiful. I’m so grateful to be part of this family, so grateful to know their friends and relatives, so grateful to have so much fun. I get to wear a hat! And it’s not dress up, they really wear hats to events! I love it!
So with the wedding at the beginning of the month and the Warsaw marathon at the end of the month, I have the perfect getaway. I merely had to fill three weeks in between. Such a lovely dilemma. Sarah suggested a week away for us together after the wedding. It has become their tradition to take a week away to recover and they were open to suggestions. Last year was southern Spain because they had another wedding there, but this year I wanted to explore more of UK. I wanted to walk. Yes, I need to do some training for the marathon, but walking all day suits me fine. I’d never been to Cornwall and there is a coastal path that goes around the entire peninsula, and it is breathtaking. And it is so doable and Hector the black lab can come along. I love that! No tents or coolers to lug. No sir-ee, a pub around every corner a short hop off the path. A church and a pub in every hamlet. And the pub is open all day, it’s actually what I consider an all-inclusive community center.
All day yesterday we went up, over, and around spectacular cliffs and moors, the trail way more challenging than I expected but exhilarating and gorgeous. Excellent cross training as well. And at the end, a cider and beer in the late afternoon sunshine, stretching our legs and waiting for our ride, watching the sun light up the church steeple and wondering how in the 1500’s they got those turrets up there.
Happy, happy anniversary.
More to come…
Sunday in England~ September 7, 2014
I thought I’d do a travel blog but the decisions surrounding that were too much to face as I prepared to get on my way for the month. Should I buy an iPad to type on? Carry my laptop with me? Use the ancient method of pen and paper? Or should I just chisel it in stone since I will have so much free time? All too overwhelming to consider. I decided not to buy a new toy that would require a learning curve when I was so desperately seeking a break from technology. I decided to use my journal and put it up here when I had access to a computer.
So here I sit, the English countryside outside my window, full of thoughts that never made it to my journal.
I dashed away after many nights on-call and many consecutive weekends spent in the hospital. I had thought that working extra this summer would be worth it to get a month away. By the end of August I wasn’t so sure about that.
I drove to Boston directly from work in order to have every moment squeezed out of this vacation. It meant I would have a day with my angel darling grand daughter before hopping on a plane. It was worth it, though I did spend the day wondering how on earth I did it with five children. I had a really funny entry written in my head about that day, but was way too exhausted to put it in the journal. Good lord. I have forgotten how much energy it takes to raise children. And I was just basically keeping her alive that day. Nothing superhuman. Although figuring out that monstrous stroller could be considered superhuman. I had to call for assistance on that one, which, deflated the ego I developed when I got the car seat attached to the car unassisted. Amelia happily played in a puddle while I struggled with all this. I probably could have figured out the stroller myself if I weren’t so preoccupied with wondering if it were illegal nowadays to let children play in puddles. I was afraid a neighbour would see us and report me.
Overnight to London, no erupting Icelandic volcano getting in the way. ( I had prayed it would wait until I was on THIS side of the Atlantic). I decided to spend the day in London, and made my way to Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. I stumbled upon a free concert at St. Martin’s of the Field and was consumed by that sense of gratitude I get when I am given an unexpected gift. The concert was magnificent. So was the National Gallery.
I walked way further than I expected to Victoria Station to catch a bus to Oxford. Two relatively sleepless nights were getting to me and I got very dozy on the two hour ride. I kept starting awake because I was afraid I would sleep past my stop and end up God knows where. Friends were waiting for me and I was anxious to be in their company.
As I walked up the hill from town, in the darkness I could see the outline of a man and dog walking toward me. I knew instantly from his gait that it was Chris and Hector coming to met me. I was much later than I expected to be and they were walking toward town hoping to see me coming. I felt like I was coming home. My dear friends, whose youngest son was about to be married, were welcoming me home again. I am so blessed.
Off to Cornwall tomorrow. Wedding stories to come.
Sunday Morning~ Piecing it together
October 26, 2014
The call comes, I listen and ask about the tone of voice as I’m used to detecting trouble in the cadence. Accurate, the latest screw-up is described with (I suspect) details missing which would paint him in a light dimmer than than the one struggling to survive. This omission diminishes that light even further and I see the stage about to go black. And we both know it.
A familiar sequence follows: the request, the plan, the apology, the admission of a wasted life. I’ve heard it all before. What is different this time is my reply. No. Done. I’m done. I’m not angry. I’m sad. He hears that and it breaks him, not for the first time, but there is something different now. He sees his options coming to an end. He is suffering, watching what he is doing to someone who loves him, someone other than me. The self loathing is evident, but for the first time he’s blaming himself. There’s progress, I say to myself. It gives me a glimmer of the hope that is on a continual and successful weight-loss program.
It is painful to watch someone you love on a path of self-destruction.
I go into my sewing room and pick up squares of fabric and sit down to sew them together. I have no regard for the pattern. I sit and sew. The machine hums and I pick up each piece, place it atop another, and combine fragments torn apart into something warm and beautiful. It’s a gift for my cousin who will soon have her first grandchild. I envision her wrapping this baby with my gift and rocking as her heart fills with an indescribable love.
I recognize this safe haven for me. I’ve gravitated here in other times of heartache when I piece fragments together into a quilt and it gives me comfort. It feeds the need in me to have some control. The need for a happy, beautiful ending.
Sunday Morning~Less than three weeks…
October 19, 2014
Ok, I’m freaking out about the election coming up. Here’s the letter to the editor I wrote today. I tried writing this blog but it was too depressing.
To the Editor,
While being politically active all of my adult life, this is the first time I have been compelled to write in support of a candidate. I am a certified nurse-midwife who has worked in women’s health for thirty years. Over that time I have seen many changes our health care system and have worked to improve the care that women need and deserve.
I have lobbied Susan Collins on issues regarding access to care for women, and have gotten verbal support from her, but when it comes down to voting, she isn’t there. The image of her as a moderate is a false one. She has consistently said the popular line and voted the party line, often at women’s expense.
I first heard Shenna Bellows speak at a local ‘friend raiser” last November. I went mostly because I thought it was a brave move to take on a candidate generally seen as unbeatable. I admire women who do brave things. I was hoping to get inspired and regain some hope in our system, because frankly, I felt like it was broken beyond repair. I sat in awe as I listened to Shenna speak. I knew then that she was capable of doing this. She has run a brilliant campaign and gone from an unknown to a viable candidate that Susan Collins now sees as a threat. Interesting that someone seen as “unbeatable” needs so many expensive television ads. Shenna does have enough voters in this state to win this election. She can defeat an incumbent who has benefitted handsomely from her position in this state and has consistently voted to deny that same privilege to other women.
Collins’s vote against raising the minimum wage to a measly $10.10 an hour is an insult to those who struggle to make ends meet in low paying jobs. Poverty is one of the biggest problems facing this state and this vote proportionally affects more women than men. Even more appalling, when women are paid 77 cents for every dollar a man is paid, Collins voted against equal pay for equal work.
Shenna Bellows has worked for civil liberties for citizens in this state. She has led the fight for basic human rights for women, gays, and the impoverished, which, republicans have consistently voted to deny. She has been a leader in the Maine Choice Coalition and the Coalition for Maine women. She believes in a women’s right to make her own decisions about whether and when to have a family, as opposed to Susan Collins, who voted in 2010 for the Blunt Amendment, which would have allowed employers to deny women access to contraception based on the employers personal religious views. And now with the Supreme Court gesture to further restrict women’s and voter’s rights, we cannot afford to be idle.
The maternal mortality rate in this country is now three times higher than it was in 1980. This is due in part to lack of access to maternity care, but also from unnecessary c-sections which are convenient and profitable. And, as we are sacrificing women’s lives for convenience and profit, the republican appointed, male, right wing branch of the Supreme Court has voted to impede women’s access to birth control and minorities’ access to vote. How have we allowed it to go this far? What year is this?
I keep hearing about how far behind in the polls Shenna is and that she doesn’t have a chance of winning. It is very discouraging to think there is no hope against the republican machine working to keep the poor poor, but she can win. She is gaining ground every week. And to win, all she needs is more votes. And since we haven’t voted yet, that is still possible. Right? I believe that is still the process in this state, yes?
Linda Robinson, CNM
I obsessed about this all day. Friends came to dinner tonight and told me it was fine, to just go ahead and send it. So I guess I will. Though they said it was too long for a letter and should be an op ed. I guess I’l send it and see what happens. I still think it could be better. I’ll sleep on it.
Sunday Morning ~October 12, 2014 The Guest Book
I always thought having a guest book would be a great idea. Over the years we’ve had hundreds of guests and it would be fun to have a record of their visits. But I never did it and probably never will.
On my recent trip I stayed with a family in Switzerland, two of whom had spent summers here with us in Bar Harbor. It was a fabulous visit, my first at their home, though my kids have been there at different times. We’ve stayed in touch over the seventeen years since they first came and the outpouring of hospitality was overwhelming. They had a schedule of activities for me over the six days and divided me up amongst the two girls and their mother. We went everywhere; hiking in the Alps, walking around Bern, Fribourg, and Lucern, touring chocolate factories, visiting quaint villages, and sharing wonderful meals. I never spent one cent. They wouldn’t let me.
On my last full day there they had planned the equivalent of our Thanksgiving dinner. This was prepared and served by the lovely matriarch after we had spent the whole day together exploring the area. We went back to her apartment late in the afternoon so she could prepare the meal before the girls arrived with their husbands. I helped as much as she would let me, pretty much just setting the table and sipping wine. We chatted as she cooked. She gave me the guest book to sign as she wanted to make sure I didn’t forget as I had to leave early the next morning to catch my train.
I took the book into the living room and sat down on the couch to sign it. I wanted to do it in French (she spoke no English) and knew it would take me some time. I started looking through the book, procrastinating. I always feel like I have to write something profound in a guest book and was trying to come up with the perfect message ––– one I would be able to spell in French.
The book began the year she married and I read messages of congratulations and good wishes for the first several pages. I could only read the ones written in French, but assumed the German ones were similar sentiments. I followed it through the birth of their first daughter, her baptism, and holidays. I could see when their second daughter was born, her baptism, and another holiday. Then I saw messages of condolences after her husband tragically died when the girls were 4 and 10 months. There were several pages of those.There was a gap of many years where there were no messages written. I don’t know if she had no guests during that time or if she hadn’t the energy to ask them to sign. I saw familiar handwriting in an entry dated March 1998. It was written by our mutual friend, Michel, who arranged for the girls to spend summers with us here in the states. He felt it would be good for them to learn English and have an international experience. I thought of how brave they were to embark on that journey. There were several more entries by other people over the next few years and then I saw handwriting that took my breath away. It was an entry by my ex-husband in 2001. I had forgotten that he went to visit them with my youngest son. It was a sweet expression of the good time they’d had and sincere words of gratitude for all the kindness they’d been shown. At the end he wrote, “I can’t wait to come back here with Linda”. That was one year before he left me.
Reading this shook me up. I was shaking. I found entries by my other kids and read through those and felt happy that we have this connection with this lovely family, who feel like family to me. But I couldn’t shake off that last line in Joe’s entry. It was sincere. It has shed a tiny light on the mystery of his disappearance. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering how long he’d been planning his departure. Now I know it was less than a year. Strangely, I’m comforted by that.
Sunday, October 5, 2014
A month away and here I sit, evening now, in my greenhouse, soaking my feet in epsom salts and watching the moon rise. The marathon was a week ago but this is the first chance I’ve had to pamper my feet. They did well! I think eight hours of walking a day was excellent training for a marathon.
There has been a major change in hotels in Europe since last summer. They no longer have computers to use in the lobbies. No one needs a public computer anymore. Well, I did, but I guess no one else does. I thought I’d sit and write from one of those computers but, nope, all gone. I didn’t try to write the blog on my phone, though I suppose I could have. I was taking a break from learning new technology. In fact, the only thing that stressed me out the entire trip was when I had to send a text message to Patricia to tell her what train I was on from Geneva to Bern. I could not get my phone to connect with a server and was getting more and more anxious since my train arrived at midnight and I had no idea where they lived. She was picking me up at the train station. After an hour of watching my phone say “searching…” I mustered up my courage and asked the woman across from me (in French) if she could send the text for me. I’d been watching her send one text after another and my French was good enough to explain my plight. She happily did it for me and that was the end of my stress.
What a great trip. Every travel goddess was with me and the worst thing that happened was having my contact lens solution taken at security in Bristol because it was 120mL and they only allow 100mL on easyJet. For four weeks and five countries, that was pretty darn good.
I’m amazed at how little I spend when I travel. I am fortunate that I have friends to stay with in many places and in countries like Switzerland where things are expensive, that makes a big difference. But I am so thrilled to see there are still affordable places to stay and because I don’t eat in fancy restaurants, I think I spent less on food than I do when I am home. And I ate well. And cappuccino is everywhere, cheaper than regular coffee, and the same word in every language. Loved it.
I thought I’d have life all sorted out by the time I returned. I’d been feeling burned out and restless and thought some stroke of inspiration would strike me while walking alone in some foreign gorgeous setting. That didn’t happen. I did plenty of thinking but didn’t see some divine message written on a castle wall. I was enjoying being on the road, taking in new sights, learning history, and visiting with old and new friends. I was getting worried about how little I cared about what was happening back in the states. I dragged out the homecoming as long as I could. I spent a day with my grand daughter, drove to Vermont to visit my 103 year old aunt, moseyed through backroads of Vermont and New Hampshire, and stopped for another visit with my son before the last three hours to Bar Harbor.
I was relieved to see I hadn’t missed the foliage. I drank in the beauty of the landscape, so different from the European one. When I finally pulled into my driveway I was relieved to find I felt happy. The first frost had not yet arrived and my garden was overflowing. I’ve been picking and canning and freezing all week. I filled the house with bouquets of flowers. My zinnias are magnificent. My kids arrived for the weekend for a friend’s wedding. I cooked. I woke early on European time and watched the sun rise on the trees, bathing my kitchen in gorgeous orange light.
I guess I am home.
Sunday Morning ~ Midwife means With Women
November 9, 2014
Feeling a little better. That’s what spending two days with 130 midwives can do. I just got back from our regional meeting, which, we hosted in Maine this year. Midwives from all of New England and New York gathered to share and learn from each other. Being in the midst of so much healing, nurturing energy is very therapeutic. We all felt it. In our careers we spend so much time caring for other women there is often not much left for ourselves, so forty-eight hours of supporting each other was very nice indeed. It was a booster shot to get us through until the national meeting in the spring, where 2,000 midwives gather and you can practically see the estrogen and oxytocin. Nice to have a little hit in between.
When I moved to Maine in 1992 I was the 9th midwife in this state. Maine is a huge state and we were spread out all over. We would drive hours to get together a few times a year to work on promoting our profession and overcome obstacles to our practice. There was a strong lobby from the medical association to prohibit our profession. They of course, had more money than we did and they were a formidable opponent. We kept our noses clean and head down, and kept doing what we do very well–––care for women. We also became savvy in the political process. We raised money with quilt raffles, hand made jewelry, and herbal products crafted by our members and patients. We hired a lobbyist. We gained hospital privileges and independent practice. We offered quality, safe care. We fought to have our names on birth certificates. We had better outcomes than doctors and could prove it.
There are now about seventy of us practicing in this state. We’ve come a long way. We reminded ourselves that one hundred years ago women did not have the right to vote. Midwives had no formal education and little access to the medical system. Childbirth was the biggest killer of women. Four hundred years ago we were being burned at the stake. So there is progress.
I was one of the presenters and told the story of how midwives must function when their country is at war. I described what it’s like for women to risk their lives just getting to a safe place to deliver. Many of them don’t make it there, or are too afraid and deliver unassisted at home. This isn’t just in Congo. It’s in Syria, Gaza, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. As we seem to be heading into an era of perpetual war, it’s time to ponder what this will mean for the world. Our future generations are being sacrificed on the altar of greed.
I looked out on the audience and wished again that Gerardine and Beatrice could know that midwives are listening and care. There is a special bond between all of us who care for women and understand how difficult it can be. One midwife came up to me afterward and said, “I saw the topic on the agenda and thought, ‘Oh great, this is going to be an hour of pie charts and depressing statistics.’ but I was riveted by your story.”
So this was a good start on my way to finding the spark to sustain me in my birth country, where hate speech, bigotry, misogyny and greed are becoming socially acceptable again. I’m scared of what this means. I thought I had no fight left in me, but these wonderful women reminded me of how deep we can dig, how far we’ve come, how many setbacks we’ve endured, and how we’ve found our calling. I’m blessed to be among them.
Giving up hope
I refused to listen to the cynicism. I guess that’s what happens when you surround yourself with like-minded people. I truly wanted to believe that there was a majority in this country who had the motivation to do the right thing, show up, stand on their principles, and vote. I never believed for one minute that there wasn’t a rig in the system. Florida, Ohio ––– fixed. Halliburton makes the voting machines. So I don’t think I was all that Pollyannaish, though there was this need in me to believe that I’ll come home one day and the family will be a happy one. Terrible week. I am so ashamed of this state. A governor who jokes about rape. Fucking moron. But people actually voted for him. That’s the scary thing. Not a majority, so I guess there should be comfort in that, but still, he got more than two votes and that is a disgrace. Misogyny is alive and well.
It’s so hard not to give up. I keep telling myself that I live in a country that is not a democracy anymore. Where will I go now? Must think. There is always something one can do. When the grief lessens we’ll get on with the work, but for now I shake my head at the stupidity and greed and have a hard time envisioning a future for my grand daughter.
Sunday Morning~ Onward!
January 11, 2015
Well into the new year, it seems like forever ago that I last wrote. 2015 has been full already!
My friends from England were here to celebrate the opening of Zack’s distillery and New Year with us. Although the party was a little premature with licensing delays and construction set-backs, we had a sweet celebration with our friend, Fr. Jack, doing a blessing of the building and business. He scattered holy water over the piles of construction debris, the guests, and the lovingly-made spirits. We toasted with whiskey and gin by candlelight––– the electricity still pending.
I looked at the bright young men who refused to spend their careers working in a system they didn’t believe in and had the courage to create a venture fulfilling their vision, and was filled with happiness and pride. What role models!
I looked at Chris and Sarah, who had traveled from England wanting to visit New York City, and arranged it around supporting Zack and his partners. I thought of how grateful I am for their friendship, how easily they step in to help, how comforting their presence is, and was filled with gratitude.
I looked at Jack and recalled walking the streets of Boston together in our college days. We walked more miles than we could count, for hours and hours, trying to sort out our lives and where we belonged in the world. My dear friend, who has talked me off more than one ledge, so right in his profession and calling, still there for me and my family all these years later. I am so comforted by his presence and spirit. He offered his blessing with words of wisdom and encouragement. I looked at him and felt blessed indeed.
After our toast to a successful future, all went off to their respective New Year’s Eve plans. Chris, Sarah, and I walked the streets of Boston to take in the festivities. They quickly saw how hearty one must be to survive New England winters, and the real cold hadn’t even struck yet! We admired the lights and ice sculptures, we braced ourselves against the wind, and then tucked into a bar with three open seats near the fire. At 11:30 we bundled up and walked to the end of Long Wharf and had a front-row view of the fireworks.
The end of the old year was filled with promise and love. The start to the new year was magical.
Our time in NYC was overflowing. I think Chris and Sarah saw as much as was humanly possible during our stay there. I had been invited to do a book talk at a retirement home in Connecticut on January 5th, and a visit to New York City worked in well. Making it synch with Chris and Sarah’s trip was frosting on the cake. In fact, the whole trip seemed charmed. Right down to the parking spaces in outrageously convenient spots. I took a photo of some of them because they were just too perfect.
I had been informed that my talk in Connecticut was from 7pm until 9pm. Two hours is perfect. It gives me lots of time to get all the information out, show the slides, tell the story, and answer lots of questions, which, is my favorite part. It demonstrates how interested people are and tailors the presentation to the audience. I have given presentations where the Q&A lasted well over an hour and no one made a move to leave.
So I was a little distraught to arrive and see the poster saying the talk was from 7:45 until 9. Opps, that cramps my style, but having had to conform to time restrictions, especially with medical groups, I rolled with it. The room was a tad formal, with stage and podium, but the IT system worked beautifully and I began. I tried to keep it to forty-five minutes leaving time for questions but it was getting close. This made the organizer extremely uncomfortable and he approached the stage during my presentation to ask me to hurry it along. Ok, THAT has never happened before! It made me paranoid that I was boring everyone, so I rushed to the ending, read an excerpt, and asked for any questions.
Many hands shot up reassuring me that people were listening and interested and I responded to two questions as succinctly as possible, seeing the fidgeting organizer in the front row looking at his watch. Was there another group that needed the room at 9, for goodness sake? This wasn’t a university class! He turned to the audience and said, “Only one more question!” (it was 8:55 I might add). I ignored his comment and answered two more questions when he approached the stage again and asked for the microphone. Confused, I handed it to him and he thanked me, told a meaningless statistic about how many babies I’d delivered and ended the presentation. I asked for the microphone back as I hadn’t thanked everyone and wanted to end the presentation with the statistic that really mattered. He looked at me and said, “I’ll take it from here.”
I was frustrated and angry about being cut off but didn’t know how to handle it. It felt symbolic of women being silenced. I wanted to say I wished I could let the people of Shamwana know that there was a room full of people listening to their story. That people cared. If I could tell them that somewhere in the world people were listening and interested, that people cared and felt moved, they would die happy. I wanted to say that.
I wanted to say that as I walked around ground zero with my friends, I thought of the outpouring of support from all over the world when that horrific event occurred. Three thousand people died in one day, and it is a landmark in history. The heroism and sacrifice that people made to help during that time brings me to tears to this day.
Three thousand women die unnecessarily in Congo every day. Thousands of women are raped and brutalized and die. Every day. There is no memorial to them. There is little outpouring of support, if any. Will that change? Unlikely. As they said to me before I left, “The world has forgotten us.”
What makes some lives more important than others?
That’s what I wanted to say. That’s the voice I want to give to those who have no voice.
So, I am looking at this as a good exercise at turning frustration into action. I’ll be better prepared if this happens again. I’m taking a lesson from the next generation and won’t settle for the status quo. I have a god-given voice and I intend to use it.
Happy New Year!
Sunday~ January girls weekend
It’s like Christmas Eve waiting for them to arrive. The sadness of losing baby Henry last week was soothed with the bed-maiking, bread-making, rearranging, shoveling, and wood-stacking. The tragedy of losing a baby, one so unexpected, so unfair, so shockingly unfair, sends me into denial and grief. “Do something for yourself”, I’m told. ”Take a walk or get a massage.” The something for myself is preparing for my friends. I feel better as I put things into order, clean off shelves, throw away old sheets, put fresh flowers by the bedsides. I’m driven to make sense of my surroundings, clear out the clutter and simplify, as if my feelings will follow suit.
Losing a child. No. Not fair. Not fair.
This is our annual weekend together. The annual Thanksgiving for the preciousness of our childhoods and our maturing friendship. This weekend has become sacred. I worried a little that my sadness would be a bit of a blight, but then realized there is no one I’d rather be with at this time. We’ve all had losses: sister, husband, grandchild, and they understand. We’ve seen each other through some rough times. An unlikely grouping of personalities that meld and season into the rich and savory bond that we’ve become. I’m so lucky.
They are out looking for lobsters and I’m just back from the memorial service. I see they’ve cleaned the kitchen, filled the fireplaces, and straightened up the living room. My girls. My dear friends. All will send their love and spirit to the new mom with empty arms, filling breasts, and broken heart.
Sunday Morning~ Snowed in with time to think
January 25, 2015
On February 6th I am invited to speak about the discrimination toward women in our health care system. I’ll only have 40 minutes and have been trying to figure out a focus, not wanting to cram a bunch of statistics into a short time. I took a long walk in the snow yesterday, slipped on hidden ice and fell twice, carried on, and got a little clearer.
It seems there are hidden risks in my job all over the place and it was an interesting metaphor. Carry on.
I’ve been very frustrated by a recent situation. Every time I try problem-solving, which, includes other departments, the solution gets sabotaged. Now, some of these concerns are legitimate, but they are also easily remedied. The remedy, however, involves someone else giving a little. Not getting any cooperation there. None. It’s roadblock, roadblock, roadblock.
I’m trying to figure out how to write about his without being boring. Let me see if I can distill this situation to the essence of the travails women face in our system.
An opiate addicted woman, in treatment and clean for many years, is having her fifth baby. The first three were vaginal births and the fourth was a c-section for breech. She smokes and has a high body/mass index. She is poor. She struggles with transportation to get to her appointments. She is required by the state to be in a program for her addiction and if she is not compliant she runs the risk of losing custody of her children. She is working really hard with all this and is doing a beautiful job. All her toxicology screens are negative. She is a good mom. Transportation is a problem, as is the care of her other children while she is in the hospital. I’m trying to help with that.
Because of the medication she takes to control her addiction, the newborn must be observed for five days after birth. The other community hospital near here refuses to take care of these babies, stating they don’t have the personnel to observe the newborn for five days. Mind you, this is a very basic observation and screening tool, well within the scope of any nurse. Our little hospital has committed to caring for these women, something I am very proud of, but then I wonder: why should this be a choice? Why should a hospital have the right to refuse to care for a certain population at risk? Yes, our small hospitals do not have the high-risk capability to deal with a newborn in opiate withdrawal, but then those babies get transferred to the tertiary care hospital an hour away. This is a very rare occurrence.
So many of these women come to us. Now add that she has had a previous c-section. The recommendation for a vaginal birth after cesarean is that all surgical team be present during this woman’s labor. Not a big issue in a big hospital where there is always someone in-house for surgery. But our little hospital has only on-call staff. This means that when they are on-call and a woman who has had a previous c-section is in labor, they must come in and wait until she delivers. They hate this. They get paid to do it, however, and they can sleep, watch TV, read, eat pizza, whatever they want, but their bodies must be present. I don’t see why this is such a hardship for them, but they complain bitterly about it and grumble as if we are ruining their lives. They are hospital employees. I think they should shut the fuck up.
We have one surgeon, who, though complains about it, is willing to support us, and be present. Oh, it’s always a psychological cluster-fuck. We have to listen to how hard this is for him, how many other surgical patients are inconvenienced, oh oh oh, just such a sacrifice. I listen to this, smooth his ruffled feathers, try to calm him down about it. The surgical team’s solution always is for her to just go have an unnecessary c-section. That will make everyone happy. Then they can all go home.
Really? A woman must have unnecessary, major surgery, to make the OR staff stop complaining? They, of course, don’t put it this way. They say it is a “safety issue”. They site (inaccurate) statistics about ruptured uterus in a very authoritative way. They talk about the “recipe for disaster” as if it has ever occurred. It never has. They ignore the 86% success rate we have with vaginal births after cesarean (VBAC) and the good outcome of the other 14%. They terrorize the women when getting consent with overblown risks of uterine rupture and death of the baby. This event is exceedingly rare and is most likely where the woman has no care during labor at all. Or when a doctor fails to come when he is called several times, as happened in our state and there was a major lawsuit settled against him. The result of that was, not for doctors to come as soon as they are called, but to refuse to let women have a vaginal birth after a cesarean. Is this discrimination against women? I think so.
The statistics of complications of surgery are glossed over. The fact that the maternal mortality rate in this country is three times greater now than it was in 1960, because of all these preventable surgeries, isn’t deemed a “safety issue.”
It is lucrative and convenient to do c-sections. Women are being mutilated in this country for time and money.
Now let’s add the weight issue. Obesity is a huge problem here. Poverty is a huge problem. The two go together. People can not afford to feed their family with healthy foods, or they see it that way. There isn’t enough teaching done, and they grew up in situations where cheap processed foods were filling and easy. So after I worked out all the logistics for finding a surgeon to be on-call when ours was away, the anesthesia department had to toss a few more nails on the road.
Them: “We need two anesthetist available because of her weight. It is our protocol and the second person isn’t willing to do it.”
Me: “So we are going to do unnecessary surgery on this woman for convenience?”
Them: “Linda, stop saying this is a convenience issue! This is a safety issue! Our protocols state that anyone who is three hundred pounds must have two anesthetists here for the surgery! We can’t force a second person to come in for this!”
Me: “Why not?”
Them: “He respectfully declines.” (As if it were a dinner invitation.)
Me: “I don’t recall this being an issue for others with this weight. But the “safety” is not about having two people here. If that’s what your protocol is, then I respect that. (Note to self to look up all other patients over 300 lbs and make sure they documented two people there). The “convenience” issue is that someone is refusing to come in for this.”
Head of the department: “I understand anesthesia’s problem with this. She should just go to the other hospital.”
Me: “She can’t. They won’t take her because of the opiates.”
I’m not dropping this.
To be continued.
Someone changed the rules!
It seems every time I contemplate what to write about I get some great metaphor. When I tried to log in this morning I saw that the format had changed. Of course I had no idea how this happened, but in this age of technology and electronic medical records, I am no longer surprised. A few years ago I would have panicked, sure that all was lost. Now I find it mildly annoying and consider it exercise contra dementia. I find that if I am willing to play around and tinker, I can often find the way out. It keeps the mind sharp and the body on-guard. It also creates a constant insidious level of stress. This happens on a regular basis at work with our new medical records. What I had struggled to remember last week will be changed this week. I’m not sure if it’s a game or a plot to drive me mad. If I regard it as a game I find I’m more motivated. I love to win so I changed my passwords to reflect that.
So this week her car broke down. She called in a panic saying it might be better if she just signed up for a repeat c-section. “It might be easier,” she said.
I told her that unnecessary surgery is never easier. Taking care of five small children after major surgery is not easier. It is not safer either.
“I panicked about the car,” she said. “I don’t have the money to fix it. I’ll be in trouble if I don’t make it in to my appointments.”
A blizzard was raging outside.
“No one is gong anywhere today,” I said. “You are not in trouble. You need to stay safe.”
I told her I was working hard to take care of her in the safest way possible. She said she knew that. She said everyone was telling her to just have the surgery. Then she won’t have to worry about the weather, or getting here, or setting up child care.
I didn’t tell her about the controversy over her weight. I didn’t tell her about the argument about who was going to be on-call. That is not her problem; it is ours. We are the ones who get paid to care for her, convenient or not.
“I’m so stressed,” she said.
“I know,” I said. “Your life is hard and nothing about it is fair. But you are doing a great job. You are a good mom.”
This case is not unusual. This is a regular part of my day and my week. It’s hard to care for underprivileged women. And the system is stacked against them. Our governor has blocked the medicaid expansion in Maine so all the services for mental health and addiction have been cut. So women must travel hundreds of miles in this huge state to comply with the rules the system has forced on them. Then the rules change. The end zone gets moved. And the privileged caregivers get cranky at the thought of driving here in their SUVs with heated seats and missing the super bowl.
I will be so happy to see her with her baby in her arms.
Sunday Morning and More Snow!
February 7, 2015
It’s snowing again, and again, and again. This is really winter and I love it. I want to be trapped in the house and forced to organize and clean and wrap myself in blankets and read and finish old projects and catch up on the movies I missed. I want to cook and curl up by the fire and sip scotch.
It’s not only snowing, but it is cold. Bone chilling bitter cold.
I went for a long snowshoe today. Breaking trail through the woods and out onto the heath, it felt wonderful to be out and moving and catching up with an old friend I haven’t seen in years. She is here to tuck in for a few days and have some winter activity. It’s been six years since we’ve seen each other and the stories to share are many. It’s an interesting process winnowing out the least important and deciding which to recount, trying to gauge how much detail to include and how to color it for interest and clarity. The stories chosen relate to each other, tit for tat, tat for tit, you then me, oh that reminds me, yes yes, I know exactly what you mean, same thing happened here, oh wait till I tell you, how did you make that, oh really, I didn’t know that, oh my god, you are kidding…
It weaves in and out rather seamlessly and the hours pass and daylight fades and the fire burns and it seems a rich and valuable gift, this long, long friendship. With years between visits or even conversations, the annual Christmas card or Facebook glimpse of milestones, events, adventures, and losses, are enough glue to hold us together until we revive the bond without it seeming like there ever was a lapse.
Sunday Morning~Blizzards and Babies
February 15, 2015
What happens when you get a weekend blizzard in rural Maine with medical staff covering two different hospitals 25 miles apart? Tension, difficult decisions, and anxiety.
It was bound to happen. A woman’s water breaks when she is at her due date. She is having contractions and lives a few blocks from our little community hospital. A blizzard is raging and it is the middle of the night. This wouldn’t be an emergency necessarily, except that she has had a previous c-section. In our world this is a problem.
She has a very good chance of having a vaginal birth. Her previous c-section was done in a big hospital in a different state where she wasn’t even given a chance to have labor. She doesn’t even understand why she had the surgery as it wasn’t fully explained to her. She told me she thought it was because she had asthma.
So our plan was to have a trial of labor. Then the blizzard hit, there was another emergency in the other hospital, and the surgeon said we can’t wait for her to deliver, she needs to have a repeat c-section so he can leave.
I was sick. I asked how we would document this? That she would have an unnecessary surgery because we are short staffed? How can we use that for rationale? He agreed it was a difficult decision. He said he would explain it to her. The case in the other hospital was urgent as well and couldn’t be put off all day. A few hours, yes, but not all day.
He made his way here through the blowing snow and presented the situation to this laboring woman and her husband. He recommended that she agree to surgery since there would be no surgeon here if an emergency happened during labor. I held my breath, waiting for coercion-type language. There was none. He honestly explained it is very difficult in rural areas with so few surgeons and this was not optimal, but he felt it was the safest thing to do. She looked at him between contractions and said clearly, “I don’t want surgery if I don’t need it. I refuse.”
He was stunned. (Actually, so was I.) This had never happened before.
This scenario is something we’ve always dreaded but have not had to deal with––the need for him in both places. In their pre-delivery visit with the surgeon, women are told they will have to succumb to a repeat surgery if the surgeon is busy with other cases and can’t wait for labor to take it’s natural course. They understand this, but always hope it won’t be necessary. Then today, with the worst possible driving conditions, here we are. And she refused. Awesome. Her husband backed her up. ”Nope, go do your other surgery, we’ll wait.”
So here we are, supporting her through a very normal labor with a very healthy fetus happily beating away. She breathes through each contraction and dozes in between. She is confident that her body will do it’s job. She believes in this process and is grateful for the support. I am grateful for her strength and courage. Grateful that she is using common sense and not fear for this process.
The data tells us this is a safer option than the risks of surgery. Pregnancy puts women in a vulnerable position and often makes them consent to procedures they don’t need or want. As women’s health options in rural areas become more and more scarce, we have a looming public health crisis. Will it be called a crisis if only women are affected? Is it considered a hardship for poor women to have to travel hundreds of miles to get obstetrical care? In a state where winters are harsh and unpredictable? Where jobs are low-paying and many can’t afford gasoline? When they have no child care for other children and have to travel on dangerous roads?
I write as I wait to welcome this child. His life will be a factor in changing the resources for women and their babies. I’ll make sure of it.