The Useful and the Beautiful in the House That I Have Built

The midwife comes home to a many-roomed house; dim lights illuminate the windows even when she is away at her work. After a day that began before sunrise, the door to the house comes open easily. She turns no key; there is no lock. As she enters, the scent of the house comes over her: cool, humid, gently salty, as if just inland.

She reaches her hand out in the barely lit entryway and leans her weight against a section of wall painted in a woman’s hot exhalations, the exhalations that came when she insisted that all of her strength was gone. She feels for the switch of a lamp in the corner and the light appears as the pale yellow of a woman’s closed eyelids, her head thrown back against the pillow, resting atop the mountain of her success.

Underfoot, the floor is an intricate network of wooden inlay: a late gush of blood interlocking with an urgent grip on the midwife’s arm that leaves a bruise the next day. A sharp creak as she ascends the stairs; one finger held silently at a woman’s lips — Please, he can never know. Her house is this way: drawing the curtains for the night, a woman’s long black hair held away from her neck, damp with sweat. Sinking heavily into the bed, pulling starched sheets up over her legs, the delicate weight of a newborn laid in her arms — We did this together. Somewhere in the house is always the first birth: a back-issue magazine consigned to a high shelf or a deck of stiff playing cards in the side table drawer.

She can’t remember the day the house was finished — wasn’t it built by some other midwife? Some years ago she spent a single night in one of its small bedrooms looking out onto the street, the sidewalk dark and damp with late autumn rain. Over time she spent so many nights in the house that it simply made sense to stay; one day she finds that she has carved her initials into the soft wooden banister. She recalls no single moment in which this became her home, no date on the calendar to distinguish the before from the after.

But if you have time, let me tell you a story of before and after.


A nurse approaches me on the labor floor, tapping a ballpoint pen to the clipboard she holds tightly in front of her. “Twenty-one years old, baby number one, 32 weeks pregnant, not feeling the baby move,” she reports. She rattles off the woman’s vital signs and most recent lab results. “She’s not ours,” the nurse sniffs — that is, she does not come to us for prenatal care. “She’s in triage room 20 whenever you’re ready for her.”

Rising from my desk I cross the floor and take a moment to read the electronic fetal monitor displaying the pattern of the baby’s heart. I watch this jittery yellow line proceed across the screen, its occasional rises and returns painting a reassuring digital picture. Below that, a line reflecting the electrical activity of the uterus: flat, quiet, no contractions at all, just as I would hope for in a woman only eight months pregnant. Without laying eyes on the woman I know that her baby is likely in fine condition.

I casually consider what I will tell her; I am also thinking of the previous two women who have appeared in triage with the same concern. I am also half-considering: a training on breastfeeding that I need to complete; the birth I attended yesterday and what I could have done to prevent the hemorrhage; the anthropological text on birth practices in south India that I haven’t yet finished; a letter I’d like to write.

Entering room 20 I find a young woman seated on the exam table; she is outfitted in clean, dark leggings, a tidy yellow sweater and glasses framed in navy plastic. Her hair is smoothed into a tight, shellacked bun. The mildly chemical scents of dandelion shampoo and laundry detergent perfume the air. I know that I will find her skin softly clammy with cocoa butter; she is presenting her body for examination.

I introduce myself and ask her what has brought her to the hospital this evening. She stares at the pastel walls of the triage room. “I don’t feel the baby moving so much,” she says. She is hoarse. “Also I think I have the flu.” I help her lie back and see her wince when her shoulders reach the worn, brown plastic of the exam table. I ask her if she is in pain. “Oh yeah,” she says flatly. “But it’s nothing new. I hurt all the time.”

As she pulls up her sweater and I place my hands on her abdomen I immediately feel the unmistakable form of a fetus changing its position, its intentions unknowable as it flexes and extends, as it draws fluid into its lungs and then expels it, an imitation of breathing. I gingerly take the woman’s hand and place it atop the mound of her belly. “Do you feel this?” I try to look her in the eye but she has shifted her gaze to the ceiling. “This is your baby moving.”

She is quiet, and I am quiet, and the grainy, electronic representation of the fetal heart is the only sound in the room, rising and returning. A thought crosses my mind of a woman’s complex perineal laceration that took me an hour and a half to repair; I wonder if she is healing. 

”Oh. Yeah well I guess I do feel him now.”

I take in the picture of this woman on the table: no sore throat, no vomiting, no diarrhea, no chills or malaise. The nurse has already told me her temperature but I place my hand on her forehead — no fever. She closes her eyes under the weight of my palm and tears begin to drop heavily from the beneath her glasses; I pull a cheap cardboard box of tissues from a drawer beside the table and touch one of the thin, white squares to her cheekbone. She takes it from my hand and covers her eyes.

I take the bulky monitors off her abdomen and wipe ultrasound gel from her skin. “Your baby is just fine,” I tell her, “and I don’t think you have the flu.” The corners of her mouth tense; her eyes are giant with tears as she stares at the fluorescent light fixtures.

“But you are not fine,” I add.

And the words surface in my head: And I am not fine. They are new to me and are quickly submerged beneath the memory of a man who assaulted his wife in triage last month, trying to pull out her IV before we called the police.

She shifts to her right and pushes herself up awkwardly to sitting. Nudging her glasses up her wet nose, she looks at me. “Doctors always say the baby is fine. I come in and they check the baby, they say the baby’s fine and they send me away. But I think I’m dying.”

And I am not fine — the thought turns over in my head.

The details tumble out: bulging discs in her spine that make it hard to walk or sit, prescription pain medications that she has been warned against taking while pregnant, chiropractors and physical therapists refusing to see her until after the baby is born. Severe depression for which her physician will no longer prescribe her medication because “it might hurt the baby.” Counselors that are angry at her for missing appointments; she doesn’t want to get out of bed anymore. No one at home to help her prepare for this baby that she doesn’t want, no one to put a hand on her lower back. Pain in her mind and pain in her body, each intensifying the other until she has come to this moment in which it seems that she is dying or would like to be. Then she asks if, when the time comes, we could please numb her and do a c-section so that she won’t have to feel anything.

I exhale heavily. Another black man was shot by the cops for no reason last week; today’s news is full of images of the protesters. And then there is this woman in front of me.

I tell her that see her terrible pain and that I will not send her out of the hospital without making a plan for her to feel better; I tell her that she is a human being not an incubator and that she deserves to feel well. I ask her if she has a plan to hurt herself or someone else and she says that she does not. I ask if she would agree to speak with our social worker and she says that she would. I ask if she would like me to take care of her for the rest of her pregnancy — she says yes, and the yes feels like a bright green tendril in the dirt.

She and I sit over a clean sheet of paper and make lists: the medications it is safe for her to take; the ways to soothe her back pain until our medicine clinic can evaluate her; names of friends and relatives that she can call on for help; problems she would like to talk about with a counselor. We write this all down because it is something for her to hold on the way home, to keep in her coat pocket, and because in writing, unlike in thinking, you must eventually come to a stop. I make her an appointment to see me in the prenatal clinic the next day at eleven o’clock and, because no one knows what a midwife is, she says: “You’re the first doctor who ever listened to me.”

I am aware of a growing pain in my chest, a crackling like circuitry on the fritz.

As I watch her leave the labor floor I imagine: the next three women who will appear in triage with the same concerns; the next birth during which there will be a hemorrhage; the long run I will take when I get home. I think of the woman whose labor I will be inducing later this evening, wonder when the first labor was successfully induced with modern medications, and think how interesting it would be to read a social history of the induction of labor. My boss’s comment to me during my recent job performance review appears in mind: “Even during an emergency we look at your face and can’t tell that there’s anything wrong — that’s a good thing.” Because I am not fine. Some time later, my shift comes to an end.


The next morning in the prenatal clinic my breath feels uncomfortably humid. There is a bitter taste on the back of my tongue; my body is electric and ungrounded. It is 10:50, it is 11:00, it is 11:10. I have no sooner realized that the woman from triage is never coming to her appointment than another woman’s chart appears on my desk for review. I stare at it blankly.

There is a knock at my clinic room door and, before I can answer, the midwife next door has stuck her head in the room. Katherine is a senior midwife and a comfortable presence: she speaks with calm and deliberateness; she places her hands surely. She outfits herself in soft knits and delicate beads and sits with the stillness of a cat. I see her mouth begin to form its typical inquiry into my day, “You doing ok?” — an offer of her experienced perspective, should I need it — but she sees something in me and stops, her face arranging itself into concern. Slipping into the room and seating herself next to my desk, we look at each other the way animals do, without fear or social grace. Her eyes are serious and unblinking as I recount the story of the woman from triage room 20, of my hours spent with her, of her hopelessness, of her failure to appear today as if she has broken a promise to me.

“What’s her name?” Katherine asks me.

“Her name?”

I search my memory and find only the crackling of circuitry on the fritz. Some low panic comes over me — what is her name?

I have been told that I have a memory like a steel trap: so sharp that it makes those close to me nervous. I will remember: the unstable living conditions of a woman I met once three months ago; the exact wording of an argument I had last summer; the exchange of vitamins and minerals in the kidneys as explained during a lecture in graduate school three years ago. But for the first time in months I find nothing in my mind at all — no thoughts of tasks to be completed, no blood tests or chest x-rays to be ordered, no clinical questions to which I’ve been meaning to look up the answers, no reminders of books to be added to my personal reading list.

After some pause, I say all that I can manage to Katherine: “I can’t remember.”

She trusted me, she told me that I had helped her, and today I can’t even remember her name; we are strangers to each other, after all. I cover my face with my hands and find that my cheeks are damp with single tears.

With no preamble, Katherine tells me that I have burnout, and asks me how long I’ve been at this job. I protest that it’s been less than a year, so burnout is impossible.

“And how long ago did you attend your first birth?” I don’t answer.

Yes, that first birth: five years and two months ago, as a doula in a public hospital in China’s Yunnan province. That I will always remember — the woman, her birth, her son, his name: Gabriel. Born into my bare hands because there was no one else, because the instinct is to reach out hands to catch a baby falling into the world. Dabbing my cheeks dry with a paper towel, the room smells faintly of the thin Himalayan air at 11,000 feet.

“I remember this moment when I was a new midwife,” Katherine says plainly, “before I understood about the trauma.” She outlines a plan for how I am going to complete this day and for what I will do when this day is over. I want to be listening because the plan sounds like a good one — something about rest and self-care — but I can’t, because I don’t believe her. What trauma? That total exhaustion, that dim view of humanity, that pop psychology explanation for being not strong enough or compassionate enough — that doesn’t sound like me at all. I tell her as much and she looks at me with an expression that goes some distance beyond pity.

And so, because the will to excuse our own dysfunction is so strong, that is not the moment between the before and after of this story. It is only some days later, after yet another night shift with its bleary sleepless hours punctuated by the adrenaline of birth, and after a long drive out of New York City, up the east coast to New England and back again — the miles passing beneath my feet opening some meditative corner of my heart — that it finally comes. I find myself at home slowly returning to their rightful places all of the untidy objects of my apartment: the mail that has accumulated on the glass coffee table, the shoes lying on their sides in the hall, the empty teacup on the window sill. My whole body hurts. I roll a mat out on the living room floor but there is no way to stretch out the pain; I give up and begin to fold my clothes instead.

As I sit turning back shirt sleeves I feel slow a heat come over me, rising up my spine, up my neck and behind my ears, finally settling in my forehead. For a moment I think I’m coming down with something; I actually get out a thermometer but there is no fever. I go to the mirror by my bed and, leaning towards it, hope to see the face of someone familiar to me: one who comforts a woman with a warm and steady hand, one who brings her a measure of peace. Instead, I see for the first time what Katherine saw: a tension in my face that I barely recognize; I am not fine. Although it should have been clear, although it is everywhere in my writing, I only now take in the full picture myself in this moment and on my face I see: the terrible violence in women’s lives, their stab wounds and HIV infections; their stillbirths on the sidewalk, their babies brought onto the labor floor in plastic buckets; their babies born having seizures; their babies born addicted to drugs; their infections and lacerations and hemorrhages that I have worried are my fault. I look in the mirror and see these things for what they are. I call them trauma and it sounds, suddenly, correct.

I close my eyes and feel my mind go silent, as if the plug has been abruptly pulled on that crackling circuitry, all of the painful energy draining from me in an instant. My body is cool and quiet, a long fever finally breaking.


I awake in a darkness like the pupil of an eye. Throwing off my heavy blankets and feeling my way out of the bedroom, I enter the kitchen and put my hand into an open drawer, withdrawing a box of matches. I strike one and it springs into flame. Moving to the kitchen window I touch the match to the wick of a short, white taper candle waiting upright on the sill, and then to another. Long shadows appear behind the objects of my kitchen: a purple glass vase in the shape of a woman’s gratitude; she says I took away her suffering. A thin trail of sulphurous smoke from the extinguished match curls through the air: the first time I surreptitiously leaned in to inhale the finely scented skin of a newborn’s head, feeling like a pickpocket. I move from room to room in this way, lighting candles, lighting lamps.

What is this house that I have built? On what date did I see these rooms for the first time, and when did I come to dwell in them? That first day when they said Get the midwife! and they meant me? — no, years before then. My first birth of midwifery school? — no, even before then I had laid the foundations. The first time I was taken in to a woman’s confidence? — perhaps then, although that is a memory long since faded.

There is certainly this: five years ago, when I said that I would one day do this work, women began to tell me the stories of their own pregnancies and losses. So eager were they to unburden themselves that I found I needed only to hold out my hands and women would give me their stories of pain and triumph like bricks and bolts of cotton, like lengths of pine and knotted rugs. I never thought to choose among these stories or to put them aside; I collected them all in case I disrespected a woman by forgetting her, in case I might need them again, and because it was it was possible to keep them all when there were only a handful of such women, before they became fifty, then a hundred, then five hundred. When my arms could no hold no more, I stacked the bricks into walls and laid the pine into floors; I built a house from the intimacies of women, sewing the cotton into pillows and rolling out the rugs beneath my feet.

I was reminded recently of William Morris’s admonition that we should have nothing in our houses that we do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. Standing in the light of incandescent bulbs, taking in the walls of what has become my home, its objects illuminated by a dozen tiny fires, I see instead of such curation the horror vacui that I have created over the course of years: books stacked from floor to ceiling, all of the infections I have cured; a hundred landscape paintings, women’s internal places of retreat during the pain of labor. Paper bags of bric-a-brac wait in the hall: recollections of hard night shifts destined for delivery to the doorsteps of unsuspecting friends and lovers. My cheeks burning in this recognition, I am nonetheless grateful that in the diagnosis lies the cure. Settled at my broad mango wood table during quiet evenings and the long hours of a post-call afternoon, I am now turning these objects over in my hands: does it serve me to remember those mistakes that caused a new mother’s fever? Is my life more exquisite for the addition of a new father’s prayerful exclamations at the birth of his son?

I have a fear of the cold and dark months, associating them with the theft of my freedom, with being forced indoors away from the freezing rain. And so I am amazed to find, for the first time in years, that I feel no dread at the close of these short December days but feel instead a peace like the quiet whistling of a kettle on the stove.

In the dark of this winter, at this turn of the year, I am giving away these possessions.

The Way the Day Begins

I sleep, unwisely, right next to a large set of windows. On these long summer days, I’m woken in the morning by the diffuse, white sunlight before I need to be up for work — a terrible curse for a sleep-deprived midwife. I could move my bed, of course, but I just can’t give up staring at the stars at night. As a child I had a skylight right above my bed and I seem always to be trying to get back there.

Today I wake up slowly after a 5am rain to the sound of cars passing lazily through the puddles down below, convinced in my half-sleep that it’s the sound of waves breaking on the beach. I roll over to the open window and lay my head on the sill. The dregs of last night’s activities on my tiny street are still playing themselves out: a single firework from an unknown location explodes in a sharp crack, upsetting a yappy little white dog occupying a window frame across the way. A pair of teenagers sing to each other in a tipsy drawl. A woman wanders slowly up the sidewalk repeating, sing-song, Somebody please heeeeeelp me, somebody please…

Scenes of yesterday’s prenatal clinic replay drowsily in my head: the muffled feeling of babies’ elbows and feet rearranging themselves in utero under my probing hands. The woman with an infection so severe I can diagnose it on smell alone from five feet away. The minute I take to compose myself before telling a woman that her fetus has Down Syndrome. The Syrian woman whose previous prenatal records I try to obtain before she gently stops me: The hospital over there burned down, miss. Everything burned down.

I resign myself to being awake and push myself up against my pillows. I give a glace to the other side of the bed, to the place that used to be occupied by my husband, back when I was a wife. I pull on the worn jeans and white t-shirt that will be wet through with sweat by the time I finish my hour-long walk to the hospital in the early morning humidity. I am ready to leave my apartment in minutes.

I love my walk to work; I am treasuring it particularly now that I will soon be moving to a neighborhood far from the hospital where I was lucky enough to find a job a few months ago, my first real midwife job. My mornings will consist of a long subway journey from one end of New York City to another, overground and underground, and I’ll miss the strange landscape that I now wend my way through each day, making note of the objects strewn across the sidewalks like props leftover after the actors have taken their bows:

A stiffened brown sparrow that the flies have taken to; an open bag of half-eaten green grapes; a small pile of watermelon rinds right on the concrete corner. A single stiletto in matte gold, upright on its needle heel; a boxy TV overturned on its face. A calico deli cat, ears flattened in displeasure at my approaching step. Tiny ziploc baggies that last night held heroin or cocaine.

The faintest whisper of a particular sickly odor reaches my nostrils and I hold my breath before it can overwhelm; it is the smell of dead animals that leaks out from under the rolling metal shutters of a storefront market selling poultry, rabbits and guinea pigs.

On my right I pass a caged basketball court containing a teenage boy practicing his dribbling before-hours, the ball tied up tightly in plastic shopping bags to keep it looking brand new. The train clackety-clacks relentlessly overhead, mostly empty of passengers at this hour, as I turn the corner towards my hospital. I arrive at the front doors breathing heavily, full of energy, as the hot sun punches through the clouds overhead.

Telling Hard Birth Stories

Today is a quiet one on my narrow New York City street; the still, cold air, thick with snow, seems to be keeping everyone indoors. From my window I can see a lone soul scratching at the sidewalk outside his doorway with a shovel; the dull sound of ice giving way from the concrete echos distantly. Such days put me in mind of birth, of the calm needed to allow a woman to proceed unmolested, of the womb-like protection that should surround the mother. A day like today, on which I feel so grateful to be sheltered by four walls and roof, makes me want to shelter others, to bring everyone in from the storm.

For the past few months I have been wanting to use this space to tell stories from the end of my training as a midwife, but I’ve hesitated because they are often difficult stories. They are not the joyful, life-affirming tales of an eager, almost-midwife. Instead they reflect my state of mind at that time: sleep-deprived; constantly worried that I wasn’t skilled enough; convinced that I going to harm a woman or her baby.

As I was finishing my training, I was preoccupied with the transition to the very serious role of becoming a clinical decision-maker, and my concern over what would happen to the women and families that I cared for became all-consuming. All of which is, of course, a recipe for the burnout I then experienced and from which it took several months post-graduation to recover.

I’ve been wanting to tell the story of the last birth I attended as a student, mostly because it was so glorious, such a ringing high note on which to end my training. Instead of the sudden complications and near-disasters I had been witnessing, that last birth went so beautifully that there was almost nothing for me to do but admire the woman in her elemental elegance. No one laid an unnecessary hand on her, and she gave birth to her baby “in the caul” — that is, still encased in the bag of waters — like a goddess giving birth to the moon. For those of you who aren’t squeamish about human birth, here is a video of what that can look like:


Not long ago I realized that I had also been wanting to tell that happy story first in order to cushion the blow of all of the hard stories to come. I hadn’t wanted to scare off the students or aspiring midwives that read this blog, to have them think that this tremendous work is all anxiety and sleeplessness and heartache. But I do want to record how I actually experienced that time of transition, so I will begin with a snapshot of what happened to me at the end of last summer, when I slept very little, and with a promise that these stories won’t last forever.


I am starting to forget things.

I always remember to check total weight gain, blood pressures, immunization status, but it’s all the other things — my parents’ anniversary, what time I’m supposed to be at the dentist’s office, which day last week I met with a friend…I’ve lost my makeup case three times this week. I definitely remember going out for dinner last night, and I definitely remember coming home and eating blackberries on the couch — and then I woke up in a haze at 8am. I have a vague recollection of announcing, at 11pm, that I was “just going to take a little nap.”

I read through a woman’s prenatal chart and see my name at the end of two of her notes; there is proof that I’ve seen her before, though I have no memory of it. I see a woman in the clinic elevator and put on the cocktail party face meant to meant to communicate all things to all people: that I’m a friendly stranger, that I’m happy to meet you, or that I’m so pleased to be seeing you again. I wait for her reaction to tell me which one is the case.

Five hours is starting to sound like plenty of sleep to me, and I’m beginning to wonder if I’m the only one unable to function after a few days of so little rest. On days off when I can sleep for eight or nine hours I wake up feeling like all is well with the world, and then wonder what on earth I would do if I had small children and couldn’t sleep for eight or nine hours on these days off. The next night I get five and half hours again and feel as if I haven’t slept in a year.

Normal people, the non-future-midwives, can’t understand why I start getting nervous and looking at my watch at 9:00pm the night before a shift. And I can’t understand how the seasoned midwife who has been on for the past 24 hours greets me looking so fresh, makeup recently reapplied and hair repositioned just so.

On the nights when I lie awake for a few minutes before sleep, after reciting the Shema, I think of Keats: “Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords/ Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;/ Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,/ And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul.”



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.

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.

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.


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.

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.


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.


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:

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.

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.