the way back

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As I got into bed last night around 2:30am, I told my husband that I felt like I had fallen through a hole in time and landed in an alternate reality. Like the dystopian fiction my father introduced me to when I was my tween daughter’s age: Huxley, Orwell, Bradbury, Camus. As if real life were still moving forward somewhere in the place I had fallen from, and I just wanted more than anything to find my way back there.

I lay awake for a while, knowing sleep was going to be elusive even though I was physically, mentally and emotionally sucked dry. I thought of all the people celebrating the 2016 election while I was lying in shock, the depth of sadness I feel today only barely registering. I practiced the words I would tell my daughter in the morning, when she woke up and realized that we hadn’t woken her up from sleep to hear the victory speech of the first woman president.

I don’t believe people are inherently bad, but I do believe that when we act from a place of scarcity rather than abundance, of fear instead of trust, of individualism over connection and collaboration, that we can do incredible harm and create rifts that can take generations to heal. I don’t want to be a part of that.

I woke up this morning and recognized a familiar feeling. It’s hard to describe, but it reminded me of the day over eight years ago when I woke up from a dark and brief sleep and realized that I had – the night before – said goodbye to my baby daughter Tikva as she breathed her final breaths. In that remembering, I felt a combination of shock, bewilderment, disbelief, the beginnings of a grief that I would (will) never quite completely shake, and this question:

How will I ever reconnect with hope?

There is one difference between that morning in 2008 and this one today. I have the gift of hindsight, the gifts of my experience, and the big picture of all I have gained since then. I know how I found my way back to hope.

It was a dark time, and for days, weeks, months, and even years I felt it all – anger, sorrow, fear, regret, doubt, hopelessness, aloneness, grief. So much grief. I cried and I wrote and I cried and I wrote and I questioned every single moment of my daughter’s short life and I screamed WHY at the universe, which had no answers for me.

And then, as I did all those things, I began the long, slow work of healing. And I did it, without realizing at the time, like this:

I connected. I met other parents who had lost their babies. It was painful and terrifying because all of a sudden there were a million ways babies can die, and I became aware of how often it happens and how many cracked hearts there are in the world. But those parents – they saved me. We saved each other. Connection saved us. It saves us every day.

I wrote. I wrote as if my life depended on it. I shared my experience for my own survival. I shared in others’ experiences as a witness, as a friend on the most difficult road. I put aside shame and self-consciousness and fear of not being good enough and I spoke openly about my experience. And I heard from others that they understood, that they felt understood. And I was able to turn some of my pain into a love that I could share with others.

I owned my story. I took responsibility for it, recognizing it as the greatest gift my daughter had given me. I started to practice radical self-love, forgiving myself for the ways I thought my body had let her down. I told my story in a new way – as a story of the mighty power of unconditional love. As a story of resilience. Even as a story of hope.

I reached way beyond my comfort zone. I sat with the discomfort until its edges softened and ease sneaked in. I trusted that I could contribute to the collective healing even as I was struggling to heal myself.

I became relentlessly determined to be a light in the world. Because I have held both life and death in my arms, and I don’t take anything for granted. Because on my daughter’s headstone are the words, “Love is all you need.” Because I know that I came here in this lifetime simply to love and to connect.

This morning I said to my husband, “I really need to read something today that is going to give me guidance on how to move forward. How to regain hope in order to dissolve the fear and sadness I feel.” I held my children tight before sending them off into a world that feels changed from how it felt yesterday. I went on Facebook and found comfort there, in community. I cried. I listened to Paul sing Let It Be and Hey Jude. I cried some more.

I don’t know that I’m going to find that single piece that will tell me what to do because I think the knowledge of how to move forward is going to come out of each one of us – together. But I am determined to find my way back to hope, so I promise you this:

I will connect.

I will write.

I will be responsible for the story I choose to tell and the words that I use.

I will dare to do uncomfortable things and put myself in uncomfortable places in order to bring about justice for all people.

And I will remain relentlessly determined to be a light in the world.

Will you join me?

notes from the mothership

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I had the most amazing dream this morning between 6:32 and 7:00 a.m. I won’t describe the vivid convoluted details; I know how boring it is to listen to the play-by-play of another person’s dream. Plus, after a few minutes of trying to hold on to the feeling it left me and capture the details on paper, it started to fade even for me. But I was left with this:

A woman in her twenties or thirties or forties. From a country with an oppressive fundamentalist government, one where women’s voices are silenced through violence. She is rebellious. She is a threat to them and wanted by them and she lives in hiding, somewhere in another country where she can be more free, or sometimes underground in her own country. She is followed the world over by fans and friends via social media. She creates videos that celebrate women’s voices, men’s voices, freedom and sexuality. People support and celebrate her courage by sharing their own videos, speaking out about things that are taboo, things that bring up fear, things that keep us down. I get lost down the rabbit hole of her social media universe, read her words, watch her videos and those of others who are drawn to connect with her. I follow the connections all over the internet and the world, realizing that there are so many people out there who are listening and sharing what she has to say. Social media is so powerful it cannot be silenced by governments. Her statement is about rebellion, but not mindless rebellion without a cause – rebellion that is about celebration. Celebrating freedom of expression and existence and diversity and sexuality. Celebrating the power of connection and love.

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Once the house is quiet after the kids and the husband are off to school and work, I sit at the computer with my tea and let myself noodle around on the mothership (my laptop) around the universe (the internet) for a while as I wake up. Sometimes it’s boring – you know those days when your email inbox and your Facebook feed are just REPETITIVE and DULL. Other days, like this morning, I stumble onto some gems, the kind that launch a thousand thoughts and stories of my own.

A courageous young woman telling her very real story about the ways she has been degraded, threatened, controlled, and violated by boys and by men. I read her story and remember the two boys in first grade who would run up and kiss my cheeks as I waited to go back to class from recess, how I dreaded ending up at the end of the line, their easy target, and how their unwanted kisses would make me cry. We all have those stories. I won’t rewrite her post with my own stories, but I could. I’m pretty sure every woman I know could.

I sit with my tea and I think about what it means to me to be a woman. I think about how complicated it can be, the mixed messages, the struggle to find your own voice and the freedom and courage to use it. I think about bodies and food and fear, about weight gained and weight lost, about being unsure about what I see sometimes in the mirror. I think about sexuality and fertility and motherhood, things that as a girl I imagined would be easy, things that are actually complicated and wondrous at the same time. I think about grief and pain and depression, how we sometimes hold the weight of the world in our beautiful cracked hearts. I think about illness and health and fear. Again the fear. I think about connection and friendship and love.

I think about my adolescent daughter and all I want her to know and believe and trust about how amazing she is. I think about what stories I will tell her that I have lived, what the lessons are that I want to teach her about what it means to be female. I want her to know how to exist proudly and safely in the world as a woman, how to hold on to that incredible wealth of confidence she has always had as a girl. I want her to always allow herself to shine her bright light – powerfully – in the world. I want her to trust herself. The mama bear in me wants to shout out to her from the rooftops: Don’t ever let anyone push you down!

Then I find the video below. Another courageous young woman says everything that needs to be said about our allowing ourselves to be BIG in a culture that wants us to keep ourselves small. (Take the three and a half minutes to listen to her poetry, it’s worth it.)

And I think about my young son and all I want to teach him about being a man, about how to engage with women in a world that tries to dismiss and control us. I think about what I want him to know about being black, things I cannot know first hand as his white mama. But things I can try to understand. I think about everything I still have to learn about raising a son, about raising a black son. I think about the forces conspiring against black men today, here, and I worry for him. I think about how, like my daughter, he is all possibility. I see the greatness within him. And I shout out: No! You will not push down my black son.

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It’s as if the protagonist came out of my dream this morning, and she’s really really real, because she is actually every woman. Every human. She is me. She is my children. She is every human drawn to connect, to share stories, to speak out. Drawn to rebel and to celebrate. I swear she’s out there somewhere. So many versions of her.

on fear and courage

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I went ziplining with my daughter and a small group of women and one man a few weeks ago. My daughter was the only one I knew well in the group, but there is something about cruising 210 feet above the ground in 30 seconds, between two trees that stand a quarter mile apart from each other, that brings people together.

I was absolutely terrified but I knew I had no choice but to try it. I’m not much of a fear of missing out kind of person, for me it was more of a fear of disappointing myself, a fear of regret kind of thing. I knew that if I had the opportunity and didn’t take it, I would be letting myself down.

I told myself that I had already done something much more terrifying: I had jumped out of a plane on a tandem skydive for my 25th birthday, an unforgettable experience. How much more frightening could ziplining be? But then I told myself that I was almost 20 years older now, a wife, a mother, more personally aware of things like pain and suffering and loss… and death. I’ve noticed something about inhibition as I’ve gotten older: Certain things are more scary now than they were when I was in my twenties, while others feel so much more surmountable.

There was nothing logical about my fear. I knew that if anyone had died or been seriously injured on that zipline, the place would no longer be in business. I knew I wouldn’t fall. I knew I wouldn’t crash into a tree or fall off a platform. I knew that the worst thing that could happen was that I would spin around, go too slow and have to drag myself in at the end – basically that I wouldn’t get to go fast enough to have the most fun possible. Our guides were phenomenal and professional, I knew I truly had nothing to fear.

But I could still feel my heart thumping, fast and hard and loud. I still couldn’t believe what I was about to do.

My 11-year-old daughter was 100% totally and completely unafraid. She knew there was no real risk, so why waste a second being scared? She was excited and confident and I did my best to follow her lead. The other people my age and I were not surprised; we talked about how invincible you feel when you’re a kid – of course she was undaunted and brave. That’s also her personality – she came into this world with things to do and she has never looked back.

I asked myself when that changes, when fear enters in and why. I told our guides I would need to be one of the first to try the first zipline in our group of nine because I knew that watching eight people go ahead of me would give me too much time for further freak-out. My daughter said she would go first, and I would go second.

There were seven zips, and there was the option to stop after three. The fourth and fifth were the longest – the quarter-mile ones that last for 30 long seconds, provide the most beautiful views and are the most exciting. I knew I had no choice but to do all seven. Not because of any pressure from my daughter, but again… that fear of regret thing. And the determination that I could turn my fear into one of those surmountable things.

I was shaking and about to cry after the first short zip. I knew that my response was purely physical, it felt beyond reason and out of my control. I wondered what had just happened in my body chemistry as I experienced fear, and as I overcame that fear enough to do something absolutely frightening. What was going on inside my body that caused my hands to shake and brought the tears I did everything in my power to breathe through – all of these physical feelings I was having after having successfully crossed the first line and reached the second platform? Why was I clinging for my life to that tree trunk, afraid beyond logic of being so high up while I could see, not six inches from my face, the harness that would keep me from falling?

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I shook a little less after the second zip across, and by the third I was no longer shaking and I no longer felt like crying. Then I found myself staring down the fourth zip – the longest, highest, fastest one. The one where the opposite platform – my destination – was so far away that I couldn’t see it nor the guide who would be waiting there for me. We were told to look to our left at the incredible view of the Smoky Mountains as we zipped across, that it was breathtaking.

My heart raced, and I surrendered to trust, lifted my feet and told the guide on my platform that I was ready and she could let me go. My body felt rigid but I was determined to stay straight and move gracefully across. I could hear myself breathing as if I were laboring to birth one of my children – rhythmic breathing, consistent, loud and determined. I did look to my left and I did see the view, quickly, afraid that if I turned my head too much I would start to spin. It was breathtaking. And then I was on the other side. And I almost cried, but not from fear. From elation, from relief, from pride in myself.

I zipped back across that same distance on the fifth run. By then I felt like the fear was no longer a part of my experience, a thing I had surmounted. The sixth and seventh zips were short and easy and I even let go completely of my hands and let myself spin and play. The final tree’s platform sat way high up and the tree was small and swayed in the wind as it held us – 8 women, 1 man and 2 guides. I can’t say I felt stable until I was back on solid ground, but by then on that final platform, I knew completely that I was safe.

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I’m not sure exactly when, but sometime in the last few years I’ve become increasingly aware of the finite nature of the years I have ahead of me. That is assuming, of course, that nothing unexpected happens and I get to follow in the footsteps of my paternal family and live an abundantly long life that takes me almost to 100. Ninety-something is a lot of years, and yet it feels like not enough as I find myself about halfway there. I have moments of panic where I think, How did I get to my forties already? Have I done enough already? Have I wasted time I can never get back? My usual response to calm myself down is to think of all the things I have done – the big things – and tell my story in a different way: My, how full and abundant the last 44 years have been! Look at me. I am so incredibly lucky.

Still, I feel closer to aging now than I ever have. My father struggles with a degenerative disease and I can’t help but wonder how long I have left when I can still call him on the phone. I think about my beloved great aunt who died two years ago at almost 96, how even though she lived overseas I could always call her and hear her voice, and how even though I can’t anymore it still feels like she is close. My parents’ generation has now become the grandparents, and my generation – we are the grownups. We are the ones holding the challenges our parents once held – the aging parents, the mortgages, life insurance policies, illnesses. We are the ones becoming aware of our fragility, of our finiteness.

I ask myself if it’s death I am afraid of. I’m not sure. When I was a child, maybe around my daughter’s age, I was sometimes afraid of going to sleep, fearful that I wouldn’t wake up. I’m not sure where that fear came from and I don’t remember ever speaking to my parents about it. I was a bit of an insomniac then, and I would stay up very late, the last one in the house to go to sleep. I would lay thinking and sometimes I would worry, and eventually sleep would take over. I felt relief in the mornings when my parents would wake me up and I was still very much alive.

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I heard a story once about a very old woman who was on her deathbed. Someone was interviewing her for a magazine article and they asked if she was afraid of dying. She had a smile on her face and a sense of peace in her entire being, and she responded that she wasn’t afraid at all because she would at last be reunited with her baby. She had lost a child over 65 years before, at birth, and decades later she still waited to see her again.

Tomorrow will be seven years since I held my daughter Tikva as she breathed her final breaths. She feels closest to me in the most full and courageous moments of my life – which are sometimes also some of the most challenging moments. It’s as if she is saying to me, Yes! This is how to live your life deeply. I could feel her spirit whirling high up in those trees I zipped through. I knew very soon after she died that the grief I had to work through was for me, not for her – that she didn’t need me to spend the rest of my days sad and bitter because she was gone. I knew that I would honor her life most powerfully by living my life well. By truly living.

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I consider myself an emotionally courageous person. The hardest parts of life don’t scare me, and I have been through my share. I am an easy crier, tears don’t scare or worry me, my own or others. I worry more when I’m going through something difficult and I can’t seem to cry, because it usually means I’m stuffing something down that will eventually catch up with me. (And it always does).

In seventh grade peer counseling class, I learned about active listening, and I found a language for something that already came easily to me. I know now that I was learning then about the power of compassion, about unconditional love. I learned early that connection is what I live for, that friendships feed my soul. I don’t shy away when those around me are going through something challenging. I can sit with emotional pain, with loss, grief, sorrow and anger – others’ and my own. In this space, I am unafraid.

But I have always felt much braver emotionally than I am physically. At least that’s what I came to believe. Maybe that’s just the story I’ve been telling myself and it’s actually just that – a story, one that isn’t really true.

I used to say that I can handle any amount of emotional pain, it’s the physical pain I can’t do. But then I gave birth. And I had shingles. And I’ve struggled with an autoimmune condition that at times has been incredibly painful. And I’m still here, a little scarred, a little cracked, but very much intact. Still courageous. Perhaps more courageous now than before. Definitely much more aware of the preciousness of life.

I used to say that I my strength is in my heart, in my mind, not in my body. But it takes great strength, great courage, great faith and fearlessness to live with a chronic illness – and to live well. And I think of all the physical things I have tried at different times in my life: Skydiving. Ziplining. Boxing lessons where I sweat more than I ever had before, and which made me feel like a total badass. Dance classes where I had so much fun even while getting tangled in my feet. Rock climbing at the climbing gym and feeling mighty and high (and totally badass) as I looked way down to the floor. Lifting weights with my husband when he was a personal trainer, spotting him on weights twice as heavy as those I lifted myself. In perfect form on the pilates reformer, unleashing the strength in my core. That moment when I had done yoga long enough that even the most challenging poses came with ease. And even those six months I spent trying out running before I acknowledged that it wasn’t for me.

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where fear originates, and also what creates fearlessness. I’ve been thinking about the true meaning of courage and all the ways every single one of us is courageous. I’ve been thinking about aging and death, and what it is that scares me when I remember, Holy shit, I’m 44?! I’ve been thinking about how fragile we all are, and how mighty we are at the same time.

I don’t think they are exactly opposites, but perhaps fear and courage are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps they need each other, cannot exist without each other. Perhaps it is fear that inspires courage, and I needed the fear to push me off that platform and across those trees.

It’s been a strange summer, one in which I have spent a good deal of time extremely aware of the fragility of life. The days I sat at my father’s bedside last month reminded me of the days I spent in the NICU sitting with Tikva seven summers ago, as she struggled to breathe and even on those days when she breathed a little more easily. I remembered the fear I felt in those moments when doctors and nurses would rush to her bedside in response to a code pink, and also the grace I felt knowing that she was held – I was held – by something so much bigger.

I held the image of the red tail hawk so tightly throughout Tikva’s short life, and seven years ago tomorrow I released it as her spirit was finally able to soar. When I went skydiving almost 20 years ago, what I loved most were the moments before the parachute opened up, the moments that were the closest thing to soaring I have ever experienced, when I was literally floating on the wind.

I tapped in just a little to that feeling as I zipped across the trees two weeks ago. Even in those moments of fear and courage, I knew I was held. And like my Tikva and the red tail hawk, I knew that it was up to me to play.

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the way we birth

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When I was preparing to give birth for the first time more than 11 years ago, I made a birth plan with my husband and our midwives. I deeply believed in my birth plan. I was going to have my baby naturally and at home. I was going to eat and drink if and when I wanted to. I was going to walk around my apartment freely, unencumbered by an IV. I was going to trust my body and my baby to know how to do this. I was going to breathe, as I’d learned in our homebirth class, for as long as it took. I was going to avoid bright hospital lights and cold floors, doctors I didn’t have a relationship with. I trusted myself, I trusted my baby, I trusted my partner, and I trusted my midwives.

And none of that trust changed. But the plan did.

I did labor at home – for 32 hours. In between contractions, which were all in my lower back, I took occasional bites of bagel with jam and drank juice diluted with water. I sat on the exercise ball in the shower with scalding water aimed at my back for so long that I had scars afterwards. An acupuncturist friend came around hour 28 and put 16 needles into my lower back for the pain. I got to 8 centimeters but no further, for hours.

Then I looked at my husband and our midwives and said with 100% conviction and clarity, “I want to go to the hospital.” It was noon on a Tuesday.

I left the dark cocoon of our bedroom for the first time since the previous day at 5:30am to get into the car. It hurt. And the outside world – going about its business as usual all around me – felt surreal, like it was moving full speed while I was in slow motion. My sister dropped us off, my husband got a wheelchair that I didn’t use because it hurt too much to sit and I’d already been sitting for 20 painful minutes. I walked into the room and lay down on the hospital bed. I got an IV and a monitor was wrapped around my belly.

When the anesthesiologist walked in, it was as if an angel had just entered. “You’ve been laboring for how long?” “32 hours,” I replied. “Let’s get you that epidural. We’ll skip your blood work and get on with it.” All these years later, I can’t begin to describe the sensation when the medicine began to take away the pain I had been in for a day and a half. All I remember is relief, and the colorful woven hat that the anesthesiologist wore on his head.

Finally able to relax, I dilated to 10 centimeters and the doctor said I could push whenever I felt ready. Then she stepped back and let me do the work, guided still by my midwives. My daughter came out an hour later, pink and beautiful, head covered in black hair, right hand coming out “fight the power” style immediately after her head. She was pregnant herself, the doctor, 32 weeks with her first. She was a third year resident so less experienced than my midwives, who had between them attended so many births. She watched the whole thing, respecting the relationship I had developed with my midwives during my pregnancy, and the work I had done already at home.

My daughter almost did a flip off the little metal table as they checked her Apgar scores. They gave her tens, clearly this one was just fine. Four hours after she was born, the three of us were back home in the bed where I had labored. Parents. A radiantly healthy energetic baby who hated swaddles and slings and anything constricting from the second she was born. We were a family of three.

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With everything I’ve experience related to birth since then, I can’t help but view my first daughter’s birth through rose colored glasses. It wasn’t what I had planned, but it had turned out so well. Immediately following her birth, however, I gave myself a tremendous amount of grief that I had given up” and stopped laboring at home, that I had chosen to have an epidural and go to the hospital. I told myself that if I had just kept going, I could have had the homebirth I had planned.

I held this disappointment for two and a half years, until I took an 8-week midwifery course with one of the world’s most renowned homebirth midwives. I sat with her during one of our lunch breaks and told her my daughter’s birth story, and I asked her if she could tell me what had happened – why I hadn’t been able to progress past 8 centimeters no matter what I did, no matter how much time went by and how many contractions I endured, no matter what my midwives tried or what position they guided me to labor in. And her eyes got wide and her body got really still and then she popped out, “Deep transverse arrest!” “Deep transverse arrest?” “Deep transverse arrest! Go home and research that this week and you can teach the class about it when we meet again.” And I did.

A deep transverse arrest is when the baby’s head is engaged a little off in the pelvis so that its head doesn’t hit the cervix quite right. This means that the cervix, which relies on the pressure of the baby’s head along with the mother’s contractions to open fully, can’t open fully. My daughter’s head was turned just slightly, and her right hand was next to her left cheek for most of my labor (causing the painful back labor). Her head was engaged enough to get me to 8 centimeters, but no further. And with each contraction, instead of relaxing to open and create space for her to move, I literally contracted and tightened and she got more wedged in.

“You were right to go to the hospital and have an epidural, because then you could relax and make space for her slightly turned head to shift into the right position. Your body knew what it needed and you listened,” she told me, this decades-long experienced homebirth midwife. In that moment, all of my doubts and disappointment in myself dissolved and I felt peace.

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It amazes me how much we are capable of torturing ourselves as mothers about the ways in which we failed to follow our birth plans, our supposed hopes and dreams for the beginnings of our babies’ lives. It amazes me how deeply my ego was invested in the outcome of my plan – and how much of it all is just that: ego. The idea that we can actually plan how our children’s births will go, that we have any control.

I planned two homebirths and had none. A few years after my daughter was born, I miscarried another pregnancy at 10 weeks. A few years after that, I was pregnant again with Tikva, and again I planned to birth at home. And again the universe laughed. Tikva was diagnosed in utero at 21 weeks with a life threatening birth defect. She would not only be born in the hospital, but she would be born in the operating room, so that a team of neonatologists, obstetricians, anesthesiologists and nurses could be prepared for anything she needed. So that she could be put on a ventilator within minutes of her birth because she wouldn’t be able to breathe on her own.

An hour into my labor, I asked for an epidural. My labor was short – just a few hours long – and for weeks after Tikva was born I second-guessed myself again, thinking I had not needed that epidural, could have birthed her without it. But this is the thing: In that moment, I was terrified. I was about to release from the safety and warmth of my body a baby I knew would not be able to breathe or eat on her own. Inside me, she had been safe – I breathed for her and ate for her and could hold and protect her; outside, she was not. She could live for just a few minutes after her birth, or she could live a whole lifetime – none of us had any idea what was ahead, and I was scared. And I was stressed. And I did not want to be distracted by the pain of labor. And I didn’t think this through in actual thoughts, I just knew. And I fell instantly in love with that anesthesiologist too, an amazing third year resident who was so gentle and precise, and who gave me just enough medicine so that I was still able to feel the moment when Tikva came out.

The second she was out and the cord was cut, she was whisked away through a window in the wall into another room where she was put on a ventilator and given paralytic medication so she wouldn’t destabilize herself. I would really see her about an hour or two later for the first time, intubated, feeding tube in her nose, IV in her arm. My beautiful girl.

And then, our real story together began. 58 days long and every day since she breathed her last challenging breath almost 7 years ago. For those few months we were a family of four.

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Three years later I was pregnant with twins. Twins! Twins that came to us with help and with work. Twins who were all promise, all hope, all healing – for their mother, their father and their sister. Twins who would bring a beautiful whirlwind of baby energy into our home. Twins who would be closely monitored to ensure a safe pregnancy, ultrasounds and amnio and bloodwork and frequent appointments. Ten weeks in, one of them stopped growing. At 18 weeks – on Valentine’s Day – I no longer felt the other one move. A few days later, I went to the hospital to be induced and 24 hours later I delivered my very small babies-to-be. And a few hours later, after holding the one who had grown enough that he was fully formed, only just the size of my hand, we left the hospital without our babies. These beings I had also labored to birth, whose ashes I would sprinkle on the same beach where I had walked during the very beginning of my very first labor so many years before.

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I birthed my son in my heart, and another woman that I will forever be grateful to conceived and nurtured and birthed him from her body. He came out 6 weeks early by C-section. He was tiny and he was perfect. He always breathed on his own and he learned to take a bottle in a few weeks and we brought him home. He never breastfed, but I nourished him with my love and formula till he was ready for food. Two years later, he eats like a teenager and is so heavy I can barely carry him.

And we have been, once again since his birth two years ago, a family of four, surrounded by the beloved spirits of the babies we lost.

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This is the thing: You may be able to set an intention for how you’d like things to go, and you may be lucky when it all goes “right,” but it’s all just so random and out of our hands. I thought I was responsible for how healthy and strong my first daughter was, that it was all because of how well I had taken care of myself during pregnancy. But then that means I was also responsible for how fragile and sick my second daughter had been. I have no idea why her diaphragm didn’t form correctly, and neither do the doctors. I have no idea why my twins didn’t make it, or why I miscarried all those years ago and again before we adopted our son. What I know now, though, is that when it does work out well, and that healthy baby is born – it’s an incredible amazing miracle of life. And that miracle is as arbitrary as when things go another way.

I cry tears of joy and relief every time I learn about a baby who has been born healthy. If I know a friend is in labor, I take a deep breath and I exhale when I hear that all went well.

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There’s a way we talk in our culture about birth after it’s happened, and I think that way is skewed. I’ve heard it from men who have witnessed and supported their partners’ labors, referring to the women as warriors because they labored naturally, at home in a birthing tub, without pain medication or medical intervention, and gave birth to a healthy 9 pound baby that immediately knew how to suckle and nurse. I’ve also heard it from women who have been through labor – talking, like I did, about the ways in which they felt they had failed – because they hadn’t been able to do it naturally, because they had needed help, or because their babies had died. So we are warriors if it goes one way, and we are failures if it goes another. Or we are warriors in the eyes of everyone but our own critical selves.

But this is the thing: We are all warriors. We are warriors when we birth, however we birth. We are warriors when we need help to birth. We are warriors whether or not we nurse. We are warriors whether we wear our babies or sleep with our babies; whether or not they sleep through the night. We are warriors when our babies are conceived with assistance. We are warriors when we are not able to conceive or carry a baby to term. We are warriors when someone else carries our babies for us. We are warriors when we miscarry. We are warriors when our babies are born still. We are warriors when we mother by caring for our babies’ graves. We are warriors when we choose not to have babies and we love in other ways. We are warriors when we are allies for other women. We are warriors in how we nurture the world.

We are warriors because, in some way, we choose to love. Whatever that love looks like. However it is birthed.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of the warriors out there. I hope you know who you are.

the myth of perfect, or: you are not alone

GalFlying

I sat down to write yesterday, laptop on a pillow on my lap, in the armchair in my office space off the kitchen. The house was quiet and the birds sang to the spring outside. It took about 3 minutes before I surrendered and let my eyes close, because that is all they wanted to do. I wasn’t completely asleep, but I wasn’t completely awake either. Catnapping with my reading glasses on, laptop now closed on its pillow, half aware of how good it felt to just rest, half aware that I should be doing more with my precious time. I dozed for about 15 minutes, then went to take a walk around the block. That will wake me up, I thought. As I walked, I wondered why I was so tired at 11 o’clock in the morning. No answer came except, Just tired, no reason. No need to figure it out.

I’m going to be 44 in a month and a half. Not much different psychologically than 43, I am still officially middle aged. But I am aware of the process of aging in a way I don’t think I have been at other times in my life. The grays in my hair and the tiny lines around my eyes are not new, but their presence is in sharper focus, consistent. Sometimes I still get pimples, which feels like a cosmic joke, my body saying, Hey, at least you’re still a little bit of an adolescent. But what’s different at almost-44 is this: I don’t really trip out about it all very much anymore, not in the way I used to.

A wise friend who is now in his mid-seventies once told me – as I bemoaned the auto-immune challenges I have lived with for 20 years – that it is an illusion to think that it’s possible to attain perfect health while occupying a physical and very human body. Think about that: There is no such thing as perfect health. Bodies are machines, and machines get old and slow down and start acting up. And some act up long before they are supposed to – like my Tikva’s fragile little body that struggled so hard simply to get enough breath; like my friends who have courageously battled cancer in their thirties and forties.

It’s liberating, though, the idea that I don’t need to get to perfection because perfection doesn’t exist. Liberating to accept that I can still feel good – even thrive – within the container of an imperfect, fragile and slightly beat down body. I look at my 11-year-old daughter and see myself at her age, before the regular beat down of life had begun and I never even thought of the state of my health because it simply was. I think of that time and realize just how lucky I am that I could take for granted what is not always guaranteed – healthy and abundant food, warm clothing, shelter, safety, community, friends, family, love. Health.

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I used to search for solutions, grasp at ways to heal from all that ailed me, ways to achieve the mysterious perfect, radiant health I was convinced everyone else around me had attained. I haven’t given up on the idea of radiance, the idea of thriving. But I’ve let go of perfect. And I no longer attach my wellbeing to a specific way of eating-being-living. I get annoyed, now, at the thousands of messages all around that promise complete healing of fill in the blank if only you eat fill in the blankavoid fill in the blank and do fill in the blank every day, because if it worked for fill in the blank it will definitely work for you and me, guaranteed. I don’t trust it anymore, not simply because I’ve tried it all, but more because the only thing that’s been consistent for me no matter what magic bullet I’ve tried is that I get neurotic and obsessive and end up feel deprived because I can’t enjoy the things I love. I used to follow a doctor and author on Facebook who wrote about hormones and health for women. Once she posted on her feed the five things to stay away from in order to feel great and be healthy. They were: sugar, caffeine, gluten, dairy and alcohol. I had to laugh because… Really? Honestly, what is the point of life if you can’t enjoy chocolate and cheese? I stopped following her feed.

I can’t help but be in awe of just how fragile we are in these temporary vessels; how incredibly miraculous it is that so much works when it works; how impossibly difficult it can be when it doesn’t; and how every single one of us – when we are truly honest with ourselves and with each other – struggles with something. There have been stories out there lately, brave coming out stories where people of all ages write about their struggles with illness, sharing on Buzzfeed or HuffPost or Salon about what they have always kept private because they thought they were the only ones struggling – because we can feel so much shame about being sick. The thing is, there is no failure in struggling in our bodies or with our emotions, and there should be no shame. Our culture is afraid terrified of death, and so we shy away from looking illness straight-on. We deny it, we chase after the illusion of perfect health – the magic cure that will bring perfection – and we feel like failures when we don’t achieve it. We keep our illnesses to ourselves, we feel alone. Until one brave young woman posts a picture of her colostomy bag on Instagram, leading hundreds of other young people to come out publicly as courageously as she did; and hopefully some of the shame dissolves and we feel less alone in our fragility. Did you see them, those posts? I couldn’t take my eyes off them – these gorgeous young people who have struggled, some since childhood, with irritable bowel disease, a lifetime of hiding their shame and their challenges with a hidden illness while they struggled to simply feel well. And did you see the incredibly badass pictures of women baring their mastectomy scars; turning society’s shame on its ass, turning it into pride, into strength?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s this: The moment I have honestly and compassionately shared my own struggles with another person, I’ve let that person know that it is safe, acceptable and normal if they are struggling too. I’ve let them know that struggle is easier when you aren’t going through it alone. I’ve let them know that shame has no place where there is compassion.

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I am not an athlete. I’ve tried many things, some for extended periods of time – boxing, rock climbing, dance, pilates, yoga, resistance training, running – but I’m not someone who craves exercise and keeping at it is not where I am most disciplined. In spite of this, though, I still feel active. At 5’5″ and 118 pounds, I can lift my 28 pound son up and down the stairs with one arm, full laundry basket in the other. Don’t get me wrong. I am entirely capable of tripping myself out with plenty of I should exercise more, my legs are flabby, I should eat more leafy greens, the pimples are hormonal and I need to get my hormones in balance and eat less chocolate, I’m scared of what the medications I take might do to my body long-term, etc. etc. etc. All that goes along with the house is dirty and I need to mop, I should be writing every day instead of a few times a week, tomorrow I will be more patient when my children are whiny, I need to make more time to be outside, there’s nothing in the fridge for dinner, etc. etc. etc. I’m human and the nag of perfection still whispers in my ears too.

I try to be gentle, though – something I hear myself asking my friends on a regular basis: Are you being gentle with yourself? What did you do today that is good for you? I try to remember to praise myself for all I do, for all I am. I try to express gratitude for my health even when it feels tenuous. I thank my (flabby) legs for carrying me (and my son) up and down the stairs, for walking me around the block. I try to let myself nap in my chair if that is what my body needs, and I enjoy a cup of coffee on those mornings when my son decides to wake up and stay awake at 4:30am.

To my friends and those I don’t know who are struggling, who want nothing more than to feel better in your bodies, who are fighting for your lives, who are feeling in a deep place all the pain that is everywhere around us:

I honor you.

I honor your struggle.

I honor your wellbeing.

I honor your good days and your shitty ones.

I honor the shame you long to release.

I honor your deep desire to feel better.

I honor your perfect imperfection.

time keeps on…

Mix Tape

Cue the Steve Miller Band on a mix tape, followed by Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car, and I am 17 again, driving across the Golden Gate Bridge in my white 1980 VW Rabbit with the baby blue vinyl seats, windows down and arm out to catch the wind.

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Sometimes I feel like I have to be a little crazy to be parenting a toddler at my age. I’m too old for this crosses my mind daily. Too old for tantrums in the grocery store. And yet… I have a different perspective about it all this time around. I can usually remain calmer through the tantrums. I know now that 99.9% of the time there is no need to fix them. My son keeps me young, even if at 43 I am not so young.

It all makes me hyper aware of age, of aging. I’m not always sure what to make of time, the strange way it moves. How it all seems to exist all at once, in a way. I am 43 and I have an 11 year old daughter and I can also remember vividly being 11. That was the year that nasty bully made up that name he insisted on calling me well into late high school. It was also the year I met my best friend. And it was the year I had my favorite teacher, the one who taught me that, If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. I am 43 and my 71 year old father has Parkinson’s disease, and I can remember when he was 43 and the disease had just barely started to show up in his body but I still didn’t know. I am 43 and after dinner, when the kids are in bed, my husband and I talk about how we are saving for our retirement, what we want for our own future care. When I am my father’s age my daughter will be 39 and my son will be 30.

One night during my daughter’s first year of life, as I nursed her in the dark in the rocking chair, she placed her tiny hand on my arm and fell back asleep. As I looked down on her hand and my arm, a flash of future memory traveled through me like a wave. It was a split second vision but so vivid and true. In it, I was in a bed in a peaceful room and I was very old, in my nineties. She sat next to me, in a chair by the bed, and she, too, was older, in her sixties. Her hand was bigger, older, the skin around her veins thinner and more translucent, the veins themselves more pronounced, but it rested still on my arm. My daughter. At the foot of the bed there was another chair and in it sat a man. I could not see faces, but I knew these were my children.

I hope beyond hope that I make it to that moment. It has brought me comfort at times, knowing that I will live into my nineties accompanied by those I love.

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I used to think of myself as an extremely nostalgic person. A song or a smell would set me off and I would find myself years in my past as if no time had gone by, deeply moved by the same emotions. I still time travel a lot but without longing for a moment or experience I can never get back. Any song by Journey and I am in middle school again instantly. I heard an NPR piece once about why this happens with the music from that time in our lives – that we are at our most cognitively impressionable during our adolescent years and so those end up being the songs we remain most connected to (and which can make us most nostalgic) as we age. I am 43 years old and happily married to the love of my life and Foreigner’s I Want To Know What Love Is can still bring up a twinge of pubescent longing.

As I’ve gotten older, though, I understand nostalgia differently. I think more than anything, I have always been especially aware of the movement of time; even as a child I had a sense of myself moving forward in time into my future, an understanding that the current moment was fleeting. I paid attention to my parents – to their dynamic with each other, to their moods, to their needs. I still remember the last time I noticed my parents kissing, several years before their divorce. Maybe all 11 year olds are this aware? So much imprinting into my soul during those years. Stories forming.

I was one of those kids who really liked hanging out with grownups. I found them interesting, compelling. I loved going to movies with my mother – she introduced me to James Dean, took me to R-rated films I barely understood: Fanny and Alexander, Chariots of Fire, The Hotel New Hampshire, Hair. I remember Natassja Kinski dressed in a bear costume, some man savagely doing something to his wife from behind, Treat Williams opening his mouth for a sugar cube… I was a popular kid among the parent set, precocious, intelligent, a sponge for connection. When I got bored playing with a friend at her house, I would go into the kitchen and talk to her mother. Babysitting during middle school, I would put the kids to bed and do the dishes (yes, I did the dishes), serve myself some ice cream, and then walk around the house and observe how other families lived. I’d look at the wedding photos in their frames and imagine my own marriage, my own future family. I’d look in the medicine cabinet at pill boxes and condom boxes and diaphragm boxes. Once I stumbled onto a turquoise glass bong, though I didn’t quite understand what it was. It was pretty and it smelled musty.

It moves, time. I think in a way the nostalgia transforms to a longing to have some of that time back. How did I get to 43? What happened in the last 40 years since I started retaining my memories? Or at least, what do I have to show for myself from the past, say, 20 years? What would I do differently if I could go back in time and change some things, make different choices? I was speaking with a nurse friend who is in her fifties, telling her that if I were 20 years younger I would go to nursing school. Or social work school. Or even medical school. I would take all those science classes I avoided that I am now so curious about. My friend replied, You can still do it, you know.

My daughter asked me recently, What’s the one big thing you want to do in your life? Besides motherhood? Write a book. I want to write a book.

I feel the fire under my belly now. The deep need and desire to leave my imprint; a meaningful, lasting, loving mark on the world. Time is moving faster now that I am on this side of 40, now that I am in midlife. There is so much I want to do. Confidence and a belief in myself that I have finally deeply connected to after all this time. Trust in my 43 years of life experience and the wisdom I have to share, which comes from all I have lived, from the challenges and overcomings and life lessons and adventure.

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In Montessori classrooms, children learn in groups of three grades at a time. The classroom more closely mirrors the real world, and older children help guide the younger children while learning how to mentor and lead. I don’t think we are meant to connect only with people in our age group. I love my friends who are older than me, who are examples of how I want to move forward in my own life. I love my friends who are younger, for they teach me too. So do my children.

I hope I can teach my children well. Teach them to age gracefully, to grow confidently into themselves, to not fear or dread the passage of time. I hope they will believe me when I tell them that the wisdom that comes with time is worth every wrinkle and stretch mark and crack in their souls. I know from my own elders that out of this wisdom can come ease and grace.

I’ve been writing my book in my soul for a long time. Gathering the pieces of life that have started to form a mosaic. As my best friend since fifth grade once said, Living my life for the story it will tell. For me, at 43, nostalgia has turned into something beautiful: a desire to tell my stories aloud, to write them down into something significant. Sharing stories gives my life meaning. That is the imprint I want to leave behind.

courage and fear

I’ve learned a few things about myself in the past week since my January 26 post about my personal process around immunization was picked up by the Washington Post and printed in a shorter version as a Sunday Op-Ed.

I’ve learned that I am courageous. I don’t mean that in a boastful way, but I think we spend waste a lot of time doubting our own courage, keeping ourselves quiet. And we are often courageous in small and unexpected ways that are important to recognize. I’ve done plenty of that – keeping myself smaller than I know I can be.

I’ve learned that I have a voice and that I should use it. A sincere voice that speaks to more than my family and friends, but also to people I don’t know. Several older and wiser people in my life have told me that your forties are the best decade because you’ve released many of the insecurities of your previous decades, you know who you are, you have less tolerance for bullshit, and you’re not afraid to speak up. I accept their wisdom as permission to believe I know a few things and should make use of what I know.

I’ve learned that I am a peacemaker, that I take seriously the desire not to offend, not to condemn, not to alienate, not to preach. I’ve learned that I am sensitive to criticism. (Is there anybody out there who’s not?) I’ve learned that when your piece appears in the Washington Post and generates 557 comments (or comments to comments), it’s a good idea to stop reading those comments after about 50. I’ve learned that some people love a soapbox from which to speak preach rant and attack, and that it takes very little courage to do so from an anonymous ID in the comments section of a major newspaper. I’ve learned that fear (and prejudice) can sometimes lead people to be really nasty to each other.

A piece by David Brooks on Conflict and Ego in last Friday’s New York Times was helpful.

I’ve learned that it takes great courage to share a very personal story in such a public way; and that it’s much easier to criticize or dismiss someone’s personal journey, and to project your own fears, judgments and beliefs onto them. Reading what some of my commenters – critics and supporters – projected onto me when they read about my experience was shocking, in a way, and I had to remember that their words spoke more about them than they did about me. It took turning off the computer, putting down my phone and going outside to garden and play with my children to remind myself of who I truly am at my core. To remind myself of where my heart is. I don’t think I will ever read a personal essay in quite the same way again. We are capable of being so deeply moved by a piece that, in the best of circumstances, we connect and feel understood; and in the worst of circumstances, we manipulate what we read to simply prove our biases, prejudices and fears.

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There is so much fear around this conversation about immunizations. I won’t even point out that the fear is on “both sides” of the conversation (which I think is obvious to anyone who is reading anything about it) because I think the fact that the story is being told as “this side vs. that side” is a symptom of fear. We fear what we don’t understand, and we don’t seek to understand what we fear. It can be easier to place ourselves in contrast to the other, to see ourselves on one side while “they” are on the other side. The problem with that simple equation, though, is that there are never just two sides. If you see it as a debate, it is two-sided. But I see it as a conversation, one that we are all a part of. 

In an interview with Vox last Friday, On Immunity author Eula Biss spoke to how this conversation, the responsibility we have to protect each other, involves all of us. Even those of us who are not parents making vaccine decisions for our children. She spoke about the “complicated backstories” that lead each of us to make very personal and often complicated decisions, and how in the case of vaccines our decisions go beyond ourselves. That, right there, is what I think makes this whole discussion incredibly complicated (and fascinating) – it’s messy; like debates about abortion or circumcision, the personal becomes political. But unlike abortion and circumcision, we immunize ourselves not just for our bodies but also for others.

“We live in at least, I, live and participate in a parenting culture, an upper middle class, usually white, well-educated parenting culture, that really encourages and supports fear and fearfulness. Fear is understood as a sort of intelligence in this culture. Promoting fear in another parent or mother is seen as a kind of favor. If you don’t think somebody’s feeling afraid enough, your job is to scare them. I think the other way into empathy is to look at how scared people are, and to think about why they’re scared, and what’s happening culturally to support and encourage that fear.”

That’s Eula Biss in the Vox article. I spent most of my Monday following the Washington Post Sunday publication hyper aware of my own fears. I poured out the remaining contents of a bottle of mouthwash because its neon blue color had been haunting me, as if screaming out, “I am filled with chemicals and they are getting into your body and you don’t know what they might do!” I chewed on a piece of gum my daughter gave me, then spit it out about 3 minutes later because I worried what artificial ingredients were responsible for making a piece of chewy stuff red and cinnamon flavored. I questioned whether I had sold out my belief in all things natural, beliefs I never questioned very much until recently. I don’t question those beliefs because all of a sudden I think chemicals are better for me than natural ingredients – all the cleaning and beauty products in our home (except for the blue mouthwash) are still free of that long list of offensive ingredients you see everywhere these days. But I take medication daily and weekly for my auto-immune condition; I have to prioritize what is most important in terms of organic and grass-fed when I buy groceries because I don’t make $1 million a year; I drive a 12 year old car that isn’t electric or hybrid; and I’m not going to keep my kids from eating pizza and cake at a birthday party because the cheese contains hormones and the frosting is made of partially hydrogenated oils.

I think we do what we can to make the best decisions possible – decisions that have to feel right not just in our heads but also in our hearts. We make choices based on what we know in one moment, and cannot blame ourselves later for what we didn’t know then that we do now. Sometimes our decisions change, and to me that is a good thing. One of those same elders in my life once told me when I was in my late twenties, “Consistency is overrated.” There is no medal given to the person who succeeds in holding the same beliefs their entire life. We are here to grow. Our thoughts and understandings evolve, and sometimes we surprise ourselves with where we arrive. And then when we think we’re done because we have arrived, we continue to change.

That takes courage, and courage is defined as “a quality of spirit that enables you to face danger or pain without showing fear.”