Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Rest, Recovery, Reflection, Renewal?

I am sitting on a hilltop in northern Italy, rather completely on my own. My dog is here. I'm surrounded by insects, animals (deer, wild boars, the odd wolf, badgers, and all that). I planned for a very active summer, running at least 40 k a week, which I love doing - running long distances is literally my happy place. But then some stuff happened and I got Covid and now I just feel cellularly tired. So every day I spend quite a few hours just sitting staring out at the view. 

And what I've been asking myself is that difficult, age old question: Who Am I?

When you spend hours alone, especially in a spot where silence is the overwhelming sound, you get a chance to really "dig deep" and find out what your questions are. I can't really believe that I have been inhabiting this body and mind and soul I guess for nearly 66 years and I still don't really know who or what I am. So, let me start at the beginning, well maybe not that far back but ... 

I guess you all know the story about how Toni Morrison got her name. Toni she decided on herself, after converting to Catholicism at age 12 and naming herself Anthony. Morrison was her husband's name and she was stuck with it because when her first novel was published she was still using it as her legal name even though they were already divorced. There's an quote floating around from 1992 that goes like this: 
"I am really Chloe Anthony Wofford. That’s who I am. I have been writing under this other person’s name. I write some things now as Chloe Wofford, private things. I regret having called myself Toni Morrison when I published my first novel, The Bluest Eye.”

Well, the same kind of thing happened to me. I'd always been Niki, or Nicky when I was very young. Or Nicola when my parents were mad at me. Then in my forties I had a brush with religion - not Catholicism - and I was persuaded to change my name. So I changed it to Rivka, a name I don't even like that much, but who gets to pick their own name. And then my work as a doula, birth companion, teacher, author and my whole birth persona grew wings under the guise of Rivka Cymbalist and there I was, and here I am, just like Toni Morrison (ha!).

So, for now, Niki is reserved for my family and people who knew me before the Great Name Change. But I'm kind of getting tired of inhabiting two separate lives so I may just change my name again.

Who knew? Bodies change. I thought the biggest change would be that infamous time when I grew breasts and got my period. Pregnancy was fun. I didn't have such a tough time with it, in fact I enjoyed growing babies. Birthing them was tough, but I really loved having little babies and children around, and breastfeeding, and those body changes didn't really bother me. Some fibroids, a touch of hyperthyroid. Nothing serious. 
Menopause was kind of a relief, no more monumentally Niagara Falls cycles. No more fertility, and I was ready for that, because I was happy with my five children. Did I think I'd overdone it? No.
But then, the thing is, everyone goes on about menopause because it's when a woman is no longer fertile and I guess biologically speaking no longer useful. But the body changes more dramatically and more quickly after the whole menopause thing is history.

I've written about this before, and I have to point out, it's not specific ailments that bother me - thank goodness - I'm healthy. But just like during puberty and adolescence, and I'm imagining anyone with body dysmorphia, I just don't feel right in my skin. Its like my clothes don't fit me right, except they do. My clothes fit, I still take the same size more or less, a medium. But it's my skin that doesn't fit. It feels weird, it's too loose, it's floppy, it doesn't feel like its mine. I look funny in the mirror, who's that old lady? Why is her skin all dry? damn it, why didn't I wear sunscreen for all those years? 

So that's the tunnel I can fall down when I don't remember to center and use moisturizer every morning. Yes, it is my body, yes indeed I am very grateful and proud of it, it's like an old car, just keeps on chugging. But I can't help it, it feels weird.

Oh goodness, could I just say I'm a witch? I guess not....but this is weird too because I think I studied witchery and magic my whole life, and science too of course. And poetry, and of course I learned all about having kids and all when I went ahead and had five of them. 
But my professional label doesn't exist, because I'm not a registered midwife. I'm a birth companion or whatever. My Impostor Syndrome kicks in frequently; sometimes I think my actual profession is "Impostor".
I've mostly been a mother. 

And the renewal part of this whole exploration? It's a deep, deep sense that change means pain, and from pain comes change. Life just doesn't stop, until it does. So, in a sense, my resting, my recovery, my reflections ... lead to a renewal of sorts which is a kind of an acceptance of the continually changing nature of my life: child, young woman, mother, older woman, mother, older woman, grandmother, mother, birth attendant, peace keeper, rebel, anarchist, runner, crone...

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Safe Birth?

These days, we have all become experts at reading articles in medical journals, or studies, and we casually use words like "exponentially" and "virus shedding" and "evidence-based". So, I am not going to go that route again, and quote this or that Cochrane review that will further convince you that I'm right. I don't even want to think in terms of who's right and who's wrong. I want to go deeper than that. Way deeper. I want to explore what makes birth sacred, and what keeps it sacred, and therefore safe.

I have witnessed three newborn deaths in my doula practice. Two in particular stand out for me. One took place in a birthing centre, and the birth was attended by midwives. I was the doula. When it was clear that the baby was in serious trouble, the midwives, in their fear and panic, became insensitive to the mother's emotional needs. They told me, the doula, to leave. Mother felt isolated, abandoned, and traumatized even more than she had to be. These midwives, don't get me wrong, did everything they should have done medically, to try to save baby's life. But they completely ignored the spiritual, emotional, transcendent nature of birth. Conversely, I was present when another baby died soon after birth in the hospital. The medical staff provided a space where the parents could hold their child and say goodbye. The parents wanted me there, so I hovered, as a good doula does. The fact that they even had spiritual needs was fully honoured by the doctor, the nurses, and the orderly. 

Both mamas lost their babies. Both mamas grieved. But both mamas were not traumatized for years. Because one mother felt safe during her birth experience, and the other did not.

So, what can we do to keep birth sacred? I believe if the sacred nature of birth is remembered at all times, then the attendants will be naturally drawn to keeping the mother safe at all times. Sacred. Just play with the letters a little bit. Scared. Being scared during childbirth is something that has a physiologic root. When our bodies release the stress hormones that initiate the "ejection reflex", our busy brains interpret those feelings as "scared". I have attended the most natural, undisturbed, physiologic births where I have seen the mother become afraid at that moment. It passes, it's transient because it's just a reaction to a physiologic event.

But I've also attended too many births where the birthing mother was actually afraid. She was actually made to feel afraid by the words or actions of her attendants. I often found my job as a doula to be one of shielding, holding the sacred space, creating a human sound barrier between the abusive staff and the birthing mama. Scared destroys sacred. It degrades sacred, pulls it down, tears it apart. Scared does not belong anywhere a mother is giving birth. Even if you're the primary attendant, and you are scared because of something that's happening, your priority is to keep that fear from entering the space.

If a birth attendant doesn't believe that birth itself is sacred, then we run into problems. If you think it's just another medical procedure, then it makes it more complicated. But every doctor knows that a happy patient heals quicker and better than an angry or lonely one. So even if we're not talking "sacred" because some people are scared by the word, we can still try to keep the birthing mother happy, right? And a happy mother feels safe.

Our maternity care system is broken. Too many women go into the experience with no understanding, and they trust their medical caregivers of course, because why not? And they are sadly betrayed. They're told all sorts of scary things: your baby is too big, you're too old, you have a something percent of this or that horrible thing happening, you won't be able to stand the pain, your baby is too small, you live too far for a home birth, there are no midwives, you have to pay $10,000 before you can even think of birthing here, and on and on. Many, many women give birth just fine within the medical system, often with the loving attendance of a doula. These women are a testament to the strength of the birthing mother. But too many do not give birth just fine. They leave the hospital or the birthing centre traumatized and confused. Some traumatic birthing experiences literally take years to recover from. Other women live their whole lives with feelings of inferiority and a damaged sense of worth. Still others spend their whole lives to make the birth experience sacred and safe for other women (Yours truly!). 

There is a growing number of women who are taking the situation into their own hands, and their own homes. They are saying "no" to maternity care that is based on fear, and they're giving birth on their own terms, in their own homes, with people around them who they trust. Keeping birth sacred. 

I don't believe a normal pregnancy and birth belongs in a hospital. Hospitals are places where you go when your health is at risk, or you need surgery. Normal birth is sacred and belongs at home. The undisturbed mother feels safe, and everyone around her participates in the sacredness of the event. This has become clear during the current crisis, where the role of the hospital has been clarified by the event. 

But if we bring birth home, where it belongs, then are we sacrificing another kind of safety? If we don't have midwives who are trained in the art and science of attending Sacred Birth, then every home birth will be a "freebirth". Which is fine for those mothers who want that. But many birthing women want to have someone present, who knows about the things that can and do happen during birth, when it is important to have someone attending who knows how to respond.  

I'm asking questions. I don't have practical answers yet. I am grateful for you doulas out there who are still attending births in the hospitals, and I strive to support you as much as I can. I am grateful to the birthing women I attended throughout my practice, who taught and continue to teach me so much about Sacred Birth. 

Let's talk this out! Let's strive for answers! Let's change birth and keep it Sacred!

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Ladies Pee in the Woods

A reasonably long time ago, when I just had two babies, we moved to a small village in Umbria, Italy, and lived for a few years in a medieval tower that was in the center of the village. 

Life was good. I hung out with the ladies of the village, the crones, and I learned Italian. One story that was told was about a very devout, good-hearted woman who was a child during the Nazi occupation of that area of Italy. A young German soldier came to her and asked her what the best leaves were to wipe with after having a crap in the woods. She carefully led him to a patch of stinging nettle and assured the poor young man from Heidelberg or some other urban center that this plant was definitely the best for bums. Luckily, there was no retribution, I imagine the young man was just too embarrassed.

But the takeaway is: be careful what you wipe with! My funniest peeing accident was when I was on a fantastic cross country ski trip. We were in a little glade so I told the group to go ahead as I had to pee. No wiping was happening: it was cold as balls and I just needed to get the job done. What I hadn't counted on, however, was the irritating fact that my pee would become a slippery slushy as it hit the cold snow, and so my skis became as wings and I shot off down the hill with my pants around my knees. Great hilarity!

About a month ago I got a call from an absolutely lovely woman who was consulting with me during her late pregnancy and birth. She had gone camping with her partner around her due date, and had wiped with poison ivy!!! I basically never wipe with anything that has a three-leaf pattern. Well, actually I'm more of a drip dry gal, but more of that later.

Poison ivy or any of the poison oaks are NOT something you want to irritate your vulva with, ladies! 

If we are talking poo, then learn about some of the common leaves you might want to use. Make sure you are hiking or camping with a latrine trowel, and if you're packing in and using toilet paper then you have to pack it out or burn it (depending on your opinion on the matter). Leaves that are good to use are mullein, or any mosses. 

For pee, for us women, we have a few options. I don't like squatting in the forest because I'm very conscious of ticks in my area. So I like to find a rocky or sandy spot, or I'll use my Shewee. This is a handy little device that helps you pee standing up. I know there are quite a few women out there who are good at directing their urine without help, but I find the Shewee invaluable. Wandering around some foreign town with no bathrooms in sight? Your male friend can just duck behind anywhere and take a leak? On a trail run where you don't want everyone to catch sight of your behind? In a tick-infested forest and you don't feel like squatting? Also, just saying, with five sons and a husband I do find it fun to finally be able to do what they've been doing since they discovered peeing: spray urine hither and thither! Best to practice in the shower...

 Shewee↗                          ↖Kula Cloth
If you just want to squat and for whatever reason you don't want to drip dry (chafing, especially while trail running, is a big deal), then please don't pack in wads of toilet paper or kleenex! No matter how well you think you've hidden it, it will reappear and pollute and look awful.

Enter the Kula Cloth! This excellent little anti-microbial, colorful, creative piece of gear is a must for all of us who enjoy hiking, camping, trail running, or any activity where you gotta squat and you don't have the tp. Living in a big city where public bathrooms are gross? Kula Cloth! Running long distances in urban spots? Shewee! 

Remember, if you're peeing or pooping in the woods, please be conscious of others. Don't poop within 70 steps of any water source, campsite, or trail. Don't pee near smaller creeks or ponds. If you're in a bigger river, lake or the ocean, feel free to pee!

Also, for those who are thinking of others less fortunate: when I was working in the refugee camps in Greece, the portapotties were very scary places at night, and filthy during the day... could someone without a home benefit from a sheewee? 

Wherever your travels take you, home or to far off lands, you'll always have to pee! Please, avoid the poison oaks, avoid throwing your tp around, and have fun!

Monday, May 23, 2022

Belonging and Ur: Thinking about Home

"You finally leave home, the Ur of we, and you find another we? Another place that's just like that, the substitute for that?" *

I know so many people who are drawn to a place. They consider it their home. I've never had that feeling about a place. Yes, I loved the smell of the market in Kampala when I returned 20-odd years later. I'm guessing it stimulated something in my amygdala that my lizard brain appreciated. And I do love the Rockies, as you all know. I love remembering the feeling of being young and fearless, and I love the feeling of recognizing how tiny I am in the bigger scheme of things. Oh, and I love hanging out in my house in Montreal, I love the couch, I love the smell of patchouli in the air from my morning baths. 

But drawn to a place? Having roots, like a tree or whatever? Not for me. I yearned after it for years. I ran to Africa and traipsed around there for a couple of years, trying to imagine myself at home. I joined various communities: the radical feminists, the Left, the Ultra-Orthodox Jews, the underground midwives. I created a large family and I generally feel "at home" when I'm with my kids and their spouses. I always feel at home with my baby grandson!!!

And I always feel at home when I out there running, placing one foot on the ground, then the other, then the exact same thing, over and over and over again, the farther the better. And I feel at home when I'm curled up on my couch, reading a good book. Or when I'm on a trip, going somewhere in a car or a train or a boat or a plane. In the Sahara desert in a truck. In the mountains of Morocco with a young girl who's leading me to a cool mountain stream. 

But I digress. These are all the places I've been ... not really places I actually could call my home, in any true sense of the word. Although maybe .... maybe what I feel is home just ain't what you feel is home. Maybe my wanderlust is deep, so deep that only when I'm moving do I feel "at home". That's why I speak English with a kind-of British accent; French with an Italian accent, Italian with an English accent and a couple of words of Hebrew with a Canadian accent... it's why I can have wonderful conversations with people who I've never met before, and with whom I don't share a language. We use sign language, love, and a willingness to understand and be understood.

I've met many people over the years who have had to flee their homes to settle in a completely new place. I've met families with young children who left a home that was destroyed, who walked for miles only to get on a leaky boat, and if they survived that they walked some more and then had to live in a tents for months and then they could start their new lives in a new country... and they always had their old home in their hearts, even if they knew they would never go back. 

I dream about the house I spent most of my childhood years in. But I don't look back and think "ahhhh, home." But if I just remember a feeling that I had in the back of a truck in Saskatchewan when I was fifteen, and I could feel the wind in my hair and I had no idea what was coming next ... "ahhh, home". Home, for me, is the movement from one place to another. It is never "we". It is always "I" and it can get lonely. I share my home with others - my husband shares it, and my kids and their lovers and my grandson. It's a big tent, but a moveable one. A nomad's home. A snail shell.

When I'm assisting a woman giving birth, one of my many goals is to create a "home" for her, for her baby, and for her circle. I do this in many ways: sometimes with my physical presence, sometimes with my knowledge, sometimes with suggestions for her about choosing her team of support. Giving birth to another human is about one of the biggest transitions a person can make, so if I can facilitate a feeling of being "at home" through that transition, I have done my job well. To clarify, when a woman is "at home" during her birth-giving experience, she feels as if she is at the center of that experience, which is exactly where she actually is. Many maternity situations these days successfully pull a birthing mother away from that center, and away from that home. Whenever she is told that she "should" or "shouldn't" do something; whenever she is made to feel ignorant or foolish; whenever she understands that she hasn't somehow lived up to other peoples' expectations of her, then a birthing woman will feel exiled from her home and pushed out of the center of that primal experience.

And I want to make clear that I am not saying that it's only experiences that are within hospitals, or with OBGYNs that can make a woman an exile in her own birth experience. It's more common within these institutions, for sure, but then again the majority of women now in Canada are giving birth within institutions. I am saying, however, that WHOMEVER and WHENEVER and for WHATEVER reason a birthing mother is spoken to, she must be spoken to with respect, with humility, with honour. There are social media influencers who are shaming women every single minute, with "facts" about her birth choices and her life choices that are just not true. There's a whole world out there full of people who want to drive a birthing woman from her home, by imposing their own personal choices upon her. 

We all need to find a home where we can dwell with some measure of peace. When babies are born in environments of fear or anger, they don't feel that peace. Good things can come from stress and desperation: women who have been torn apart are now trying their very best to repair and heal the birth environment for others to come. I love to do a big huge houseclean every so often: where everything is turned upside-down and cleaned before it is put back in its rightful place. I air everything out, make things smell nice, repair broken things, clean underneath.... maybe we need to do a little housecleaning! 

Please reach out if you want to be part of the new birth attendant course @mbcdoulaschool!

*from Philip Roth's masterpiece The Human Stain. 

Sunday, May 8, 2022

I Love Housework!!

It's true. Although you probably couldn't guess it looking at the state of my home right now. Cobwebs everywhere. And dog hair. (update: I got a Dyson, and I vacuumed all that shit up)

When I first started doing housework, my mother was working teaching math at the university, and doing art in her spare time, and being a proper wife and mother. I thought she was a slob, so I cleaned up. It was probably an obsessive reaction to being a misfit adolescent, but it did teach me the thrill of cleaning.

"Some people may regard the little details of the physical environment as mundane and unimportant. But very often, the disturbances people feel come from the atmosphere around them." This phrase from Chogyam Trungpa's book "The Sanity We Are Born With" jumped out at me when I first read it, and it affirms what I believe about the simple tidying-up that we can do as housewives, as friends, as mothers, as roommates, as doulas. 

The table I'm working on is a little cluttered. I ran this morning so there's my running detritus. My agenda. A vase of flowers and in the distance you can see some stuff on my kitchen counter. It mirrors my state of mind these days: a little cluttered, some half-finished business here and there, some worrying issues in the sink.

Mother's Day was originally conceived in 1872, and was accompanied by a plea to all mothers to rise up and end war. It took almost 40 more years until Mother's Day was made a formal North American "day", and the one that was accepted into the calendar began as a liturgical tradition in a Methodist Church. 

The original Mothers' Day Proclamation, Julia Ward Howe 1870

“Arise, then… women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.

From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: Disarm, Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence vindicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of council.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take council with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after his own kind the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women, without limit of nationality, may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient, and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.“

~ Julia Ward Howe

Today was Mother's Day. I began my day with a text from one of my daughter-in-loves. Then a son. Then another son called, and I got to have a long discussion with my grandson (who's ten months old, so our discussion was mostly da-da. Da-da-da. Da-da-da-da, and so on). Then another son and his partner invited me for brunch, but I wanted to go for a long run so I declined, then another son called, and another son's girlfriend texted. I went for my run.

So much love!! There's love all around us. And somehow, for me, when I clean it's almost like I'm shining and dusting and uncovering that love, brushing the cobwebs off my worries, shining up my compassion, scraping off my resentments and my hatreds. 

I did three loads of laundry, changed the sheets on the bed, vacuumed and washed dishes, I dusted the wooden furniture and shelves and I replaced the screens in the windows. I watered all the plants. These simple tasks help me stay reasonably sane, in an insane-seeming world.

Every single one of you was born from a mother. Some of you are mothers yourselves. Let's hold hands, in motherhood, in sisterhood, as housewives, as writers, as athletes, as bank managers, as painters, as machine operators, as ourselves. Let's dust off our hearts and spread the love!

Thursday, April 7, 2022

To Dye or Not to Dye

In the reflection of the reflection of the reflection you can see an older women with actual smile wrinkles who is participating in that age-old activity: vanity. I figured I would grow out my hair and wear it loud and proud grey. But then the grey looked yellowish and I was wondering how many women actually do have that lovely silvery grey I see around. Anyway I decided not to visit my old hairdresser because of Covid, so I snuck into the bathroom armed with a box of evil-smelling dye and turned my hair red.

I used to have beautiful coppery hair. When I went to Bali in 2012, it almost touched my bum it was so long. But then I started running seriously and it was too heavy to carry around, so I cut it medium length. Now it's around my shoulders and growing more slowly, I guess that's one other thing that happens as we age.

I am very lucky to have a group of friends who love to braid hair. When I go and visit them, I get sat in the fancy chair and my friend combs my hair and then another friend braids. It's such a lovely, comforting activity. I remember when I travelled around in Africa on my own back when I was just a twenty-something, I used to envy the women I would see sitting together everywhere, braiding each other's hair. 

I've been reading Iron John by the American poet Robert Bly. It is an exploration of the mythical fundaments of masculinity, but of course he also touches on the fundamentals of the mythical feminine. "If an ancient Greek saw a man who had Zeus energy, he would never say, "That man is Zeus." His mythology distinguished the layers. Now that mythology has collapsed, contemporary men again and again confuse a living woman with the Woman Who Has Golden Hair. A living woman with stomach, small intestine, and a disturbed childhood is not the woman of light. A person who discreetly farts in an elevator is not a divine being, and a man needs to know this."

Hair is very powerful. There is hair in so many of our myths and stories. Animal hair, human hair, men's hair and women's hair, they are all significant and infused with power and life force. Human newborns are (mostly) hairless, or if they do have hair it is only on their heads and shoulders, and it is thin and powerless just like the human babe.

So should I color my hair with powerful alchemical chemicals? Or should I let the grey grow out and wave my freak flag? For now, I'm voting for color, keeping the reddish tints alive, at least in my dreams and in my mirror. 

Sunday, March 27, 2022

It's A Free Country and Other Random Thoughts

We had a bunch of snow a few weeks ago and I was driving to work one morning when I saw what, to me, was a typically Canadian sight. A man in a little car had failed to turn left and he had pushed his car deep into a snow drift that was right in front of a construction site. The guy wearing constructions clothing - orange mostly and many layers so he looked huge - was trying to push the car out of the snowbank. The man driving the car was pedal-to-the-metal and spinning his tires in reverse. He looked confused. Traffic was at a standstill. Another car, a larger one, behind the stuck car, stopped and the driver put on his flashers and ran to help Construction guy push other guy's car out of the drift. The light turned green so I had to go but I'm assuming all ended well.

I saw a photo the other day of some young Afghani girls who are just starting to be able to attend school again (online of course). When Canada pulled its military presence from Afghanistan, they had no idea that the Taliban would regain power so quickly, or maybe they didn't care. Anyway women and girls there certainly took a beating, but hopefully we will see some change one day so that education will be available for girls and boys both.

Meanwhile, every step I take while training for a half marathon in April and a marathon in October is a step towards raising money to support Free to Go, which is an organization that provides girls and women in war-torn areas the opportunities to participate in sports. Running, hiking and learning about other sports help girls and young women to develop their independence and give them the strength and endurance they need to grow into strong, healthy adults. 

A final thought for today: be kind to each other, don't try too hard, let life unfold as it will, keep the peace, don't forget to laugh.