Today is my birthday. So much has happened since I exited my mother’s womb those many years ago. The story of my birth and my mother’s labor are lost forever. All I have are a few hazy details.
“Oh I had twilight sleep,” my mother told me. “No memory of any of it,” she said, shaking her head each time she mentioned it, as if trying, again, to summon the experience that her body had, to shake it out somehow. “They told me I said really awful things,” she confided once. “The drugs make you crazy.” She also said it was good thing, of course. She’d felt the pain of childbirth before; I’m not sure how many of her births were “twilight” but I’m pretty sure at least one of her preceding birth experiences had happened too fast for many interventions. Maybe she really chose twilight sleep, willingly. I don’t know, and I cannot ask her. Why give birth with pain? Twilight sleep was the modern way. Like formula was modern, better than anything a woman’s breast might produce. I can see how she would choose that, or maybe feel there were no other options.
I read up on twilight sleep. From the distance of the years (it was abandoned in the late 60s/early 70s) it sounds like the stuff of nightmares, like some kind of awful date-rape drug, a mixture of Morphine and Scopolamine. It erased any memory of labor and birth, but did not eliminate pain. Often women became panicked, or even psychotic, and attempted self-harm. They were routinely restrained to their beds with lambskin-lined straps, to prevent bruising as they thrashed, a common thing when the dose was wrong.
But the body remembers even when the mind forgets, and a shadow always crossed my mama’s face when she talked about my birth, about the twilight sleep.
“It was the strangest thing,” she said. She seemed to disappear as she said it. Her face misted over, like a mirror fogged.
“In twilight sleep, sensation is still present though in diminished degree; the patient feels the pains of uterine contractions, frequently she moans, draws up her legs, and in other ways shows that she is suffering, but these painful sensations are not recorded in the memory cells… if asked a question, she will answer often in a dazed and confused fashion.”1
Today, on the anniversary of my birth, I’m thinking about pain, about the necessity of feeling what you feel—emotionally and physically—in order to move toward wholeness and health. Of course, seeking pain relief is not a bad thing. But there’s the issue of agency. Who is deciding that this is the best thing? (The same people who decided midwives and unmedicated births were a menace, that’s who.) Even if it was what Mama chose, I struggle with the issue of awareness, and the idea of not having a loving advocate while in a state where you will not remember what is done to you. (Remember, husbands paced in the waiting room back then, banished). I imagine having twilight sleep presented as the only ‘sane’ option available. Of being railroaded and gas-lighted.
While my own birth-giving experiences were not without interventions, I remember them all and I consented to each one. I felt tremendous pain, which I lived through and processed. No shadows cross my face when I remember the births of my children. I’d do things differently now, given the chance, but I made my own decisions, and had my then-husband with me the whole time.
Reading about trauma taught me that what is not processed, felt and released properly becomes trapped. I think of the trauma of being split from your body as you give birth. Far from being forgotten, unprocessed trauma lies in wait. Perhaps it was the cause of my mother’s battles with depression. Perhaps it was the cause of mine, too?
Suppression of feelings is what leads to deep despair. But I’m not depressed anymore.
Now I hunger to feel what I feel, in real time. Still, I find myself retreating into old patterns of escape. Patterns so fine I cannot even see them. Perhaps they were died into the wool of me, during my twilight birth? Knitted in during childhood experiences that divided my mind from my body? Unraveling takes time.
Last summer, I worked with a life-coach in her final months of training, as her test-client. The coach asked me lots of hard questions. Questions like: “and how do you feel, right now?”
I often answered in meandering, rambling ways, embroidering. She’d cut me off. “Where are you? I’ve lost you,” she’d say. “Just tell me how you feel, and where you feel it.”
Often, I didn’t know. This stunned me. Really? I didn’t know? How could I not know?
“Say you don’t know,” she coached. “Say you feel confused.”
Slowly I wake. Reams of paper, hours of walking and thousands of sun salutations later, that “where do you feel it?” question still often makes a shadow pass over my face, still frequently dazes and confuses me, still makes me shake my head as if that will help the right answer emerge from the fog of disconnection.
With another birthday comes new threads of silver hair and some bit of wisdom. I see one thing, anyway: the heart of anxiety, or my anxiety, anyway, is avoidance of feeling what I am feeling.
Or maybe: the heart of anxiety is not feeling safe in your own body.
Or maybe: the heart of anxiety is being told how to feel, to having your lived experiences denied.
Or maybe: the heart of anxiety is feeling your body is not yours to control. To have men in power who want to take away your birth control, free your rapist/harasser (if you dare to speak up at all). On a day when we have an overt misogynist in the White House and many, many other such men leadership positions, when social media is filled with #metoo hashtags denoting individuals who have been sexually assaulted or harassed, I think of the assault of not remembering the day you gave birth. Of the men that decided that was a good idea, and the women who really didn’t get a lot of choice about their birth experiences, as men made those decisions for them.
“Even if I had been asked what I wanted during childbirth,” one woman who was given twilight sleep shared, “I wouldn’t have known what to say.”2
I think of the islands of memory that were considered a ‘side effect’ of twilight sleep. Of the women I read about, laboring alone for hours in a drugged haze, feeling the pain with their bodies, who afterwards could only recall being shouted at to be quiet. Of women with eyes bandaged shut, ears stopped up, so as not to have ‘sensory memories’ to latch onto. Of the fear their bodies surely remembered, while their mental memories were magic-erased by scopolamine, a drug made from deadly nightshade. I think of the breach of trust inherent in this treatment. Birth? Oh, who’d want to remember THAT? I read about a woman, surely not the only one—who didn’t believe the baby given to her was her own, and subsequently had no attachment to her baby. I read of children born as perhaps I was, struggling to breathe (a side effect of twilight sleep), whisked away from their mothers for hours because the mothers were under the influence of dangerous drugs that made their behavior unstable, and robbed them of memories of their own experiences. Of the fathers who were also robbed of the experience of being there during birth. Of the way misogyny wounds women, and also men.
I think of my mother’s obstetrician, the same one who told her twilight sleep was the way to go, the man who weighed her at each visit, insisting she keep her weight gain under 25 pounds, and berated her when she gained too much. Because he was watching out for her, so she could “regain her figure.”
That’s a whole other layer of #metoo.
How am I feeling? Grateful for my mother’s incredible strength. Wistful that I can’t ask her more questions about how she felt. Angry at the continued denial of cultural misogyny by so many. Happy for another year of feeling what I feel, and saying what’s on my mind, what’s in my heart—or doing my best to learn how, anyway.
Better late than never.
Vaguely heartshaped, that’s how you described her face, and I always imagined her—with my child’s-eye, literal imagining—as having a face the color of a pink valentine’s candy heart, a face with a pointy chin and also big eyes made of chocolate, because you said hers were brown and melty.
That’s how I saw her, my grandmother I never knew.
The photos were all lost in the legendary house fire, so I never got to see her, how she really looked. I used to long to be able to visit her, like my friend Annie did her Nana. I thought that the first thing I’d do was crawl in her lap and tell her how much you missed her and how much you talked about her. It seemed that would please her, and the way your face looked when your talked about how her singing made the moon rise, how she played a mean game of cribbage and could bait a hook with one hand made me want to know her, and please her.
Later, when I was near-grown, everyone began to remark how like her I was. I used to pull my dark curls away from my face and look for signs of the tell-tale sweetness emerging, but to me, the eyes reflecting back in the mirror were cold as the glass itself, cold as any Canadian January. My face itself was more of a pillow shape. I began to wonder what sort of sieve memories run through, to sugar them so.
Much later still, describing you to my own children, I honeyed your brown hair, I made your eyes the color of the ice on a bright day in March, that fresh slate color, and I made your hugs as warm as raisin-oatmeal cookies fresh from the oven. I waited for them to pepper me with the questions I once would have asked.
My children were raised on your photographs, though. Raised, too, on reality TV and iPods and textbooks, not fed random poetry and left to wander woods and libraries alone, the way I was.
I thought I was doing the right thing, educating them, drilling them with the math facts that I myself could never pin down, the after-school tutoring, summer enrichment programs, sending them to the Catholic school for good discipline and rigor.
But I think I made them blind.
This short piece was written from a prompt in workshop, using the Amherst Writer’s and Artists method.
I, too, am from a sift of lost faces
from patterns I can’t untangle
from an endless string of cats purring
from tall pines and the hum of box fans in the window
from Carolina humidity and red dirt
and Spanish moss dripping everywhere
like paint from my sloppy brush, messy
And now, I am from here.
(snippet from a writing prompt using the classic George Ella Lyon poem, Where I’m from, a poem that has inspired many, many poems, and is one of my favorites.)
back through time
I lumber back through time unrooted
over boulders gap-eyed water glinting pink sunset
unrooted I slide through mud
into sand into lake
stone wash hillsides caving in
I am caving in
all I have to hold onto
all I can carry
this basket, sweet-grass woven
Inside is my pacifer
rubbery round I sucked hard to make the world
go away, and a half-empty pack of Marlboro Lights
that got me through the night
and my mother’s dark gaze, and the way I waited and waited
but she died when I left
In the sweet, sweet basket, a satin ribbon, blue of my father’s
wave and smile from the hospital bed in Kettering
I want, I think, to keep that?
I want to keep the window seat and the slanting roof top
on Cornell Place, keep it in the basket so I can climb back
lie, watch the sky with handfuls of clouds sliding by
I want to keep the way you said “why do you think you’re crazy?”
I want to keep the puzzlement of that
sweet belief sparkling
floating like golden moats in the sunset
I want belief, a thin film of it like magic dust
I want to carry my children’s laughter, and every single hug
and the brick of anger I lobbed through the glass window of us
I want to keep that, too, to remind me
broken is something to keep, too
But mostly I want to keep those giggles that skipped like stones
across the mirror lake
that shone like a string of lights in a summer garden
I want to keep every purring swirl I ever held
and even the ghost who stood there
watching me heartbeating fast, pretending sleep
It’s my basket. I can keep what I want.
The above was written in a twelve-minute fastwrite from a prompt developed by one of my classmates at Amherst Writers & Artist’s Workshop Leader training in Chicago this September. Along with my fellow students, I delved into the AWA method, which you can read more about here. I was drawn to the method, based on the work of Pat Schneider, because of her bedrock belief that every single one of us is born with creative genius, that EVERYONE is a writer/storyteller (regardless of educational level, age, or socio-economic status). Writing that moves us, inspires us, makes us feel, makes us laugh, makes us cry—such writing is the result of connecting to our deepest voices. Our true selves.
I already knew this to be true—that everyone has within them a unique and creative voice. I learned it from the skilled leaders and community at Cincinnati’s Women Writing for (a) Change, where I found my voice (which I had all but lost) in core classes, workshops, and retreats.
This summer it became clear to me that what I most wanted is to learn ways to unlock that magic for others. All kinds of others. People who aspire to write books, people who have written many books, people who want to write poems, people who don’t think anyone wants to hear their stories, people who think no one is listening, or that no one cares. The act of expression—genuine, authentic expression—is an act of liberation. For me, it is transcendent.
Writing is when I connect to my soul-self.
At AWA training, my classmates and I learned about taking creative risks, about creating an environment that welcomes the seeds of new ideas and allows craft to bloom. It was a transformational week.
I’m happy to say I’m a certified AWA Workshop Leader now!
Tonight I led my first small-but-mighty AWA-method workshop at Clifton Cultural Arts Center.
I think I will put tonight in my basket, and keep that, too.
Never lose hope, my heart, miracles dwell in the invisible.
love poem to the world, #16
The way my brain flares as I dream of you, electric
while purple finches sleep hidden in dark branches
how egg met sperm in warm depths and became you
while the soul of my mother sang in the breeze
the soft ocean roar when you press an ear to a silent conch
how sunny laughter spreads, fanning like spores on the wind
oh, see: the perfect geometry of snowflakes and crystals? what is
more beautiful than the curve of a femur or a rib or your smile?
I’m in love with the snaky way freshwater travels seaward, undulating
with the mystery of my fingers knowing before my mouth can say
and how patterns repeat: rivers and streams forking, ever narrower
like the web of arteries and veins inside my body, your body, every body
and the churning of the world, tides washing to and fro, forever
to and fro, to and fro, beating inside my heart, your heart, every heart
Dear Senator Portman,
Can you tap into that part of your soul that unlocks and opens up with compassion for your neighbor? You did once.
Part of me, that hopeful, naïve girl raised in a suburb that was “nice” and had “good schools” believes you can. That’s the sliver of me that tenaciously refuses to let go of the notion that at heart, a man like you with every advantage, a man like you with faith, a man like you with power — will try to be compassionate. That surely, surely, you would not be complicit in ending the fragile protections afforded the Dreamers among us.
And yet: you turn your back. You coat yourself in political Teflon and try to slide under the radar. You want it both ways. You want to be obedient to your party and your president — and also be seen as a fine Christian conservative. I wonder how you manage this juggling act. Are you hoping redemption will save you, in the end? Are you hoping that denial can allow you to be complicit in great injustice, and still, you can claim, somehow, to love your neighbor as yourself?
I invite you to try a thought experiment. Remember when your son told you and your wife that he was gay? You had an epiphany then, a spiritual awakening: suddenly you could see that gay people are simply people with different sexual orientations, and that they should be able to marry if they choose to. Suddenly, through the eyes of your son, you saw that the policy you firmly supported denied him something you valued very much.
Back then, you said it like this: “Jane and I were proud of him for his honesty and courage. We were surprised to learn he is gay but knew he was still the same person he’d always been. The only difference was that now we had a more complete picture of the son we love.”
Okay, here’s the experiment. Imagine back to when you and Jane were new parents with small children. Perhaps when your son, Will, was 11 months old. Close your eyes. Really, really think. Remember how oftentimes Will was only comforted in the arms of his mother? Remember how he’d stop sobbing and burrow his head into the crook of her arm, how his whole body would relax into a deep sigh, feeling safe and held? Remember how you’d well up, feeling the palpable love, seeing that bond, being part of that circle of love. Did your chest expand as it filled with fatherly pride? Would you have done anything for that son, for that wife?
Breathe into that. Feel it in your body.
Now imagine the next moment there is a knocking at the door. ICE agents are there to examine Jane’s papers. Only now Jane, in this thought experiment, was brought to this country by her uncle when she was nine. She’s as “American” as you are, but not to the ICE agents. You are not a Senator in this experiment. You are just a working man, a brown one at that. But inside you are you and Jane is Jane and they are taking her away and Will is screaming for his mama and you cannot afford a lawyer and it wouldn’t do you any good even if you could and now they are deporting her — sending her to a country where she knows no one. Leaving you with your heartbroken son. Perhaps Jane was still nursing your son when they ripped her away — she didn’t get to pack a bag, or kiss you or the children goodbye. Stone-faced, they took her away. Locked in a windowless cell, her breasts fill with milk; they swell and ache and grieve along with her heart. You imagine her there, alone, and feel angry, powerless. You pray to God for help.
You write to your senator, pleading.
A miracle! Your senator answers: “the overriding message of love and compassion that I take from the Bible, and certainly the Golden Rule, and the fact that I believe we are all created by our maker, that has all influenced me in terms of my change on this issue.” (1)
And the senator who previously towed the party line — why, God must have spoken to him, for now, he speaks up for you, a helpless father, because he cannot bear the idea that a person brought to this country as a child would be expelled, for no good reason. That a mother would be ripped from her child. For an accident of birth.
The senator who previously stayed silent or tried to atone by speaking up for sex trafficking victims sees that you, the bereft father with the crying children, living on the edge of extreme poverty — and sees that you are his neighbor too. Your senator sees that he can, and must, speak truth to power.
Or else lose his own soul, supporting policies designed to terrorize those not born the right color or orientation. Supporting a president who would pardon a man known for his cruelty and abuse. Suddenly, in an amazing moment of grace, the senator rises up and does what is right.
Oh, it’d be a miracle if you read this. I know that. A miracle if you’d put yourself in a Dreamer’s worn shoes.
But there’s a sliver of me, foolish and hopeful as Anne Frank once was, who believes in miracles, like Anne did, before the political powers of the day refused to speak and act for her: “I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
And so: are you? Good at heart?
Before you answer, think of Riccy Enriquez Perdomo and her 11-month-old baby and the ICE agents that tore her away, and will tear her away again, if you and others like you remain silent. Imagine the anguish of her husband. Think of them and multiply by 700,000 or so of your neighbors. Make the calculation; square it with compassion. (2, 3)
Look into your loving heart and ask yourself if you can really turn away this time. (4)
4. silence on DACA http://americasvoice.org/press_releases/sen-portman-not-on-letter-for-daca/