Tag Archives: Seasons

One Year Later: I Made It, and I Didn’t

This morning I awoke at 7am to a still-dark sky holding a perfect half moon. I had been awakened by gently insistent church bells from the village of Gissey sur Ouche, 200 km west of the French border with Switzerland, where the boat that I am aboard with my family had tied up for the night. The canal that we are traveling, the Canal de Bourgogne, was constructed some 200 years ago to connect the river Yonne at Laroche-Migennes with the river Saône 242km away at Saint Jean-de-Losne. Once an important commercial artery, the fact that this distance can now be accomplished by car in a day has rendered the canal the province of pleasure-seekers and those otherwise committed to inefficiency in their travel, which I certainly am.


My sister recently pointed out to me that it has been a year since my last post here, which is as good an excuse as any to begin writing again. During the years that I lived in China, so full of travel, love, and outward explorations of the world, I would often think, “Now this is what it means to be living.” In the year that has passed since my last post, I have had times of great happiness, but they have occurred in the context of being truly lost, overworked, sleepless, and even despairing. As I stood on the deck this morning — the cold air heavy with fog an undeniable sign that autumn is here, an unmistakable reminder of the winter that is coming — I felt a tiny dread, an echo of last year’s endless winter that broke my heart and presided over the utter disintegration of my personal life. This too, is what it means to be alive, a part of the “life’s rich pageant” to which my father increasingly refers.

One month ago I passed my comprehensive exams and national boards, which means that I have graduated and am now a Certified Nurse-Midwife, just under five years after I first realized that I was not going to work in public health forever and began hatching a plan for change. In the past year, I have provided prenatal and gynecologic care to hundreds of women, attended to the health of their newborns, lost track of the number of births I witnessed, welcomed several dozen babies into my hands. I learned how to diagnose and treat infection, how to repair lacerated skin and muscle, how to prevent death by hemorrhage, how to dislodge a baby stuck behind the pelvis, how to revive a baby who comes into the world and does not breathe. I began to learn how to tell a woman that the pregnancy she thought was healthy is now over, how to tell her that her diagnosis of infection means her husband has been unfaithful, how to tell her that she may have cancer. There was rarely a day in which I didn’t make a mistake; thankfully these usually didn’t cause irreparable damage.

I am awaiting the arrival of my license to practice midwifery in New York, regrouping mentally and physically, and looking for work.

In the course of finishing my midwifery training, I was required to do some writing by my program director, lest the entire period pass without deliberate self-reflection. I now have time to look back over this writing and I am struck by how much sadness and fear it evinces, instead of the joy you might expect from someone finally learning the craft that she had admired for so long. Perhaps this is a product of the innate seriousness of the work of caring for women and babies. Perhaps it is a product of the shadow that came over my life when I learned how to care for strangers but forgot how to care for those closest to me. It certainly reflects my ongoing criticism of the damaging institutionalization of maternity care, which does everything in its power to remove power and agency from women and transfer it to the institution itself. I hope that it doesn’t reflect taking for granted the happy outcomes — a healthy woman, a healthy baby — because I have learned how far from certain these outcomes are.

So I will begin posting some of that writing here, and maybe you’ll tell me what you see in it. Next time I’ll start, at least, on a high note: the final birth I attended as a student.

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Ripping Off the Band-Aid

When I moved to China in 2009 with the intent of writing about my experiences there, I believe I began simply by beginning. When too much has happened in your life, you begin to feel as though you can never catch up in recounting it all — meaning that perhaps you never try. So now, as then, I’ll just begin again, and hope that the stories of the past year that I have wanted to share will simply surface.

If this is the first of my posts you’ve read, let me save you a little trouble: when I moved back to America in 2012, I tried writing about nursing school as it was beginning — but what ended up coming out was a lot of narishkayt about how much homework I had. It’s true that in the past 16 months I’ve sat through lecture upon lecture, studied for hours and days on end, and passed my nursing boards a few months ago — but so did everyone else in my class.

I’m now in my second semester of midwifery school, and since this past week I had my own patients for the first time (as in, alone in a room with a pregnant woman doing her 20-week prenatal visit), I have been thinking about the many firsts of the past year: the first patient I cared for as a nursing student (a 54-year old man with liver failure), the first patient whose body I bathed (an 81-year old woman with a small bowel obstruction), the first patient I had who made me feel so insignificant and incompetent that I cried in the medication room (a 16-year old girl — of course — with bone cancer and a serious attitude).

The first patient I had who died in my care. She was 3 years older than I am. I was alone in the room with her, my hands on her chest.

The first patient I had whose life I knew I had changed, and who in turn changed me. She was a Chasidic woman, and though I have now seen perhaps 75 women give birth (not many, in the life of a midwife), this woman immediately held some special power over me. I stayed with her for 12 hours as she labored with her 6th baby, predicted to be not much larger than the 7 lbs of each of her previous children. She labored all day, struggling with her daughter still inside her, doing the slow dance of the birthing woman that speaks of a deep and private pain. Towards the end of her labor she lost almost all of her English, speaking only Yiddish, a language in which I could not then communicate — but she dropped her head on my shoulder and wailed to me that she could not, that this work was not possible. And somehow, with the low words that were all she wanted, I helped her to believe that indeed she could. She gave birth to her 11-pound daughter not long after, and the love I felt for that moment, for her strength, is still with me. One of the great moments of my life.

I began learning to speak Yiddish in earnest a month later, and found a deep ethnic identity that I did not know I had lost — another first. Perhaps more about that later on.

*****

Autumn has arrived in earnest in the past few days, and it’s approaching midnight — both of which I will blame for the mawkish turn of this post. I used to write poetry, and this moment in my life is a time that is probably deserving of such attention, but I’m finding it enough to read the poetry of others. I recently found Rachel Eliza Griffiths’ slim volume,”Miracle Arrhythmia,” on the shelves of a second-hand bookstore in Brooklyn. Recently I’ve been thinking of ordinary things that anchor a life — of food, of sleep, of mending tears in a shirt. This is what I read tonight:

Portrait of a Sunday Woman

Once I saw your mother as a wife.
Sunday morning she stood at the stove,
pressing her wrist simply against her hip.

She wore a robe, red as temper.
Her shorn hair glowed like a burn. Fire
haloed the filter of her cigarette.

One bare breast welcomed the sun; steam
curved from the tin kettle. She wiped
her eyes, over and over.

Turning her head, silent as a bird, your mother
lifted a wedge of lemon and sucked
the dull dream from rind.

By then I had been kissed by a man and knew
something of the crumple around the corners of
the mouth on those godless mornings.

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Nobody Puts China in a Corner!

As this is my first Christmas in China (last year I went back to NYC), I was all prepared to deal with it by mostly ignoring it. Since people here mostly wouldn’t be celebrating it, I assumed, this wouldn’t be that difficult.

Ahahahahaha!

It turns out that, with the building of new shopping malls, comes Christmas – even to places where almost nobody knows what Christmas is. The number of new malls and fancy stores that have opened in my neighborhood in the past year is staggering, and means that instead of one instance of Christmas unicorns, this year every shop had pasted up in its windows snowflake decals and cutouts of Santa’s rosy visage.

Santa at the local drug store

Fake Christmas trees are ubiquitous.

Perturbed by this sudden outpouring of holiday cheer, I took to asking random people what they thought Christmas is. The answer I got was mostly, “I have no idea.”

Do you know who that fat guy with the white beard is?

Do you know who Jesus is?

Do you know why your shop manager is making you wear an ungainly red suit and jaunty little hat this week?

You can probably guess what the answer to these questions was.

It turns out that the fancy malls with international brands had got wind that what you do at this time of year is put up styrofoam snowmen in your stores and offer big discounts, and that this increases your business. Then, of course, all of the smaller shops wanted in on the game – so they did the same thing. And enough people here have seen American movies featuring Christmas that they know it’s some international, or at least Western, thing to do – so of course they want to participate.

In case you should think this is a weird, Christmas-specific phenomenon, think again. Why did every company in China have World Cup-themed ad campaigns over the summer, despite the fact that Chinese people don’t really like soccer and China wasn’t even in the World Cup? Because it was a big deal internationally, and China doesn’t like to be left out. Why was the Olympics the most massive event in post-1980’s Chinese history? Because hosting the Olympics means that your country has been recognized by the international community as being worthy of positive attention. Why is the Chinese government particularly mad about this year’s Nobel peace prize? Because the government freakin’ LOVES the Nobel prizes – international recognition of the highest order! Except when it doesn’t make you look so good.

So of course, with something as internationally massive as Christmas, being left out of the fun simply won’t do – even if none of your citizens have any clue what it’s all about, to the extent that signs saying Merry Christmas 2011! are all over the city, because people assume that it must be some sort of new year’s event.

In fairness, it seems as if a few local traditions have begun springing up around Christmas that I simply wasn’t aware of. For example, apparently in the past couple of years it has become tradition to sell very wet and messy cans of Silly String on the streets of Kunming in the couple days before Christmas. Then, on Christmas Eve, massive crowds gather in the streets and public squares around the center of the city (where I live) wearing Santa hats, and spray each other, and random foreign passersby, with the noxious stuff. I think it’s meant to resemble snow (not that it ever snows here).

Or anyway, this is what I found out after I had barricaded myself inside my apartment last night and looked at the local news. But did I know this when I was walking home after dinner? No. And so when a few jerky valet parking guys at a local karaoke bar started spraying me and RP with Silly String, did I accept it as just a bit of local fun? Uh, no.

Instead, I started beating them physically around the shoulders with my gloves, shouting WHAT! THE! FUCK!

(Not my most glorious moment, I admit. But I’m trying to be honest here.)

Anyway. You can probably tell that I’m pretty peeved about Christmas in Kunming. I hate the ignorant and superficial appropriation of other cultural groups’ traditions, and that is unfortunately what mainstream Han Chinese culture seems to specialize in. The only thing that’s saved me from intractable Scrooge-iness is having stayed up until 2:30am last night watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” – it really does make everything better.

So Merry Christmas from me to you! And China wishes you a Merry Christmas too, even if it’s not sure why.

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First Thanksgiving in China

Actually, this is my third Thanksgiving in China – but the first year I ignored it and the second year RP and I went and ate Hui food at a local restaurant (there was a duck involved, so it was sort of Thanksgiving-like).

This year we had a huge American feast, courtesy of my friend Matt.

…and this photo doesn’t even show the two kinds of pie he brought out for dessert, including a blueberry cheesecake the likes of which I have not tasted in – how long have I been here? – ah yes, a year and a half.

(I could really take a cue from Matt. There are some people, like me, who complain about the things they miss about home. Then there are those people who suck it up, spend the money, and just buy the things they miss at the one store around here that sells such things at a large markup.)

I find, as I get older, that I’m thankful for the clichéd things everyone always mentions – but I really mean it! (just like everyone else!) – particularly: my parents and sisters who love me even though I live on the other side of the planet, and all the new family members I gained this year by getting married. Every year, as a person who used to have a truckload of health problems, I’m thankful for my health. But I’m also thankful for this unique time in my life in which RP and I often get to travel on a whim to new countries and cultures and, because we have simple lives and Kunming is a cheap place to live, we never worry about money.

(…which reminds me that I still haven’t put my photos up from Vietnam…soon!)

RP has already passed out from the quantity of food that we consumed tonight, and I’m about to follow suit. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! As someone who lives in the future and has already learned this lesson today, trust me: take it easy on the pie.

 

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This Year I’m Springing for Wellingtons

A peaceful weekend.

The rainy season is in full force here, but that didn’t stop me and RP from taking a much needed break from work and our little city to spend the weekend hanging out in the hot springs of nearby Anning – I challenge you to name a better way to relax than sitting in an overly hot pool of lime green water vaguely scented with mint. We get the stupidly cheap package that allows you to sit in the springs all day, get your feet massaged and then get a VERY vigorous scrub down in the changing rooms by a kindly woman wearing exfoliating gloves. (You will be all red, but very soft, at the end.)

A quick detour here to discuss nakedness in China (I’m sure you’re curious!): As modest as the sexes are around one another in public, when things are gender segregated in a locker room people let it all hang out. I actually find it very comforting; people stand around naked, a little towel thrown over their shoulder, laughin’ and scratchin’ (as my dad would say). No one tries to hide their bodies, and no one appears to be embarrassed, unlike similar situations in the US. (Why is it that I know how to change from street clothes to a bathing suit without baring any skin?! So unnecessary.) Take note, America: it’s really so much nicer when you’re not ashamed of your body.

Ahem.

The weekend was made all the better since we got to stay in a mysterious and empty hotel (hotels in China are often empty – the mysterious part was the suit of armor guarding the rickety wooden staircase lined with faux-Euro oil paintings) totally free of charge. Something about the father of one of RP’s friends having good guanxi with the hotel owner. My new motto in China is: Don’t question it, just say thank you.

On top of that, RP and I took out an entire barbecued chicken basically in one sitting, walked through the woods in the pouring rain, and zipped back to Kunming in time for a home viewing of Reds and a very rare dinner meticulously cooked on our hot plate. (Have I mentioned that we don’t have a kitchen so we never eat meals at home? Seeing me stirring a pot over here is like spotting a jackalope.)

I’m sorry I haven’t been posting very much – life has been quiet and busy. I’m working hard and RP is writing his book. In between we’re hosting visiting friends and making wedding plans, and I’m realizing that I’ve seen this season before, which means that soon I’ll have been in China for one year. More on that as the anniversary approaches.

In the mean time I’m enjoying the many new and strange sights brought on by the damp weather, like this guy, who didn’t think a lightening storm was any reason not to tote a motorcyleful of inflated balloons through the streets:

Happy Father’s Day everyone! Dad, all of these are for you:

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Rabbi Tarfon Sayeth: Damn, Your Kharoses is Awesome

If Passover had a flavor, for me it would taste like kharoses. Although I was a little short on certain key seder ingredients (there’s horseradish in wasabi paste, right?…) I was not going to go without kharoses the way my family  always makes it. I didn’t have the recipe and it came out a little chunkier than normal since I got a little lazy after cracking open an entire bag of whole walnuts, but after 26 years of seders I can basically make it up:

A zisn Peysakh, everyone! Wish I were with family today.

P.S. I took the occasion of Passover to learn a handy new sentence in Chinese: “摩西率领以色列人脱离在埃及的奴隶生涯.” (Moxi shuailing Yiseliren tuoli zai Aiji de nuli shengya – Moses led the Israelites out of their bondage in Egypt.) I swear if someone doesn’t ask me what Passover is about and make it worthwhile that I learned that sentence, I’m just going to go up to someone on the street and tell ‘em.

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Friday Love List

  • Spring. I will grant you that it never gets very cold in Kunming, but Spring is finally here and I haven’t worn a jacket to work in a week. Aaaaah!
    This image does also show you the other side of living at a high altitude; how am I supposed to dress for a 40-degree difference between night and day…?
  • The casualness of Chinese dress. The first time you get invited to a wedding in China you will probably make a fool of yourself by wearing, say, a tie. Then you will get to the banquet hall and notice that all the rest of the guests are wearing jeans and sweaters and basically look like they just rolled out of bed.

    Chinese people around here almost NEVER get dressed up and, for foreigners like me, this is a little confusing at first. But we’re going to a business meeting with a top government official – don’t you want to comb your hair?…But you’re interviewing for a Director-level position at our organization – don’t you think it would have been wise to put on a sport coat?…But you’re OUTSIDE YOUR APARTMENT – don’t you think you should have changed out of your pink pajama set and giant fluffy slippers before going to the bank? (True story.)

    But at this point, I like it; it’s sort of like living in a giant dormitory. Everyone is relaxed about their clothing all the time. I never worry that I’m inappropriately dressed for a social activity, or a restaurant, or a business meeting. And should I ever feel the need to get a bowl of spicy noodles in the middle of having my hair done, as apparently the woman sitting next to me in a restaurant yesterday did, I won’t worry about people staring at me even if I’ve got rollers on the bottom half of my head, little sheets of folded tinfoil pleating the top half of my head, and a shiny salon gown still wrapped around my neck. Because hey, you’ve gotta eat. And that salon gown handily doubles as a bib when you spill chili oil down your front.

  • My white hairs. I think I spotted my first white hair when I was a teenager – although it soon fell out and I never paid much attention to it – but this is the first year of my life that I have a couple of white hairs that are always there. When I first noticed this I made a decision not to be self-conscious about it, and in fact have noticed that all of my twenty-something friends have a strand or two of white. Coincidentally, I usually part my hair in a way that doesn’t show my white hairs. But even when they don’t show, I periodically go looking for them; I seek out the single strands and hold them up to the light, inspecting their lack of color and their slight coarseness. There is something about them that I find inexplicably comforting. Plus, they remind me to get a move on: I won’t be young forever.

Devilishly speaking of which: Happy 30th Birthday, N! Wish I could be at the festivities with you all tonight.

P.S. I put my first post on this blog about a year ago, months before we moved to China. Read my first post from snowy Brooklyn here.

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