Monthly Archives: November 2011

Embracing Wildness: Ina May Gaskin on Birth Matters

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As Minnesota’s change in season begins to show signs of death–longer periods of darkness, bare tree branches and frosted crops, last night, I had the opportunity to attend a talk delivered by Ina May Gaskin that addressed the joys and sorrows of birth. Considered “the midwife of modern midwifery,” she was exactly how I imagined her to be. I was enlightened by her easy-going presence and her dedication to empowering people through education and social activism.

Starting with a rather intense Youtube video of an elephant giving birth, she captured my attention right away and reminded me that like an elephant, my body has an innate knowledge and wildness that can also give birth to great things. But before recognizing the beautiful wildness of the human species or any species, she laid some facts down about the reality of what it means to give birth in the United States.

Ina highlighted some pretty astounding facts about our progress (or lack thereof) in the realm of infant and maternal mortality rates. While we have made steady improvements over the years, currently the U.S. ranks 41st worldwide in newborn death rates, and the maternal death rate is also rising (to be fair, USA Today kindly provides a defensive view on this figure). Regardless of where you stand, the numbers speak loudly. In 2010, according to a World Health Organization report, the U.S. ranked 50th of 59 developed countries. Ina mentioned from 1996-2006, maternal death rates tripled in California which has caused a number of people to be concerned, as they should be. This figure was alarming enough for the state to ask the California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative to perform a statewide review, which later discovered that nearly 40% of these deaths were preventable–which is big enough in itself for another day’s blogging.

While all of these facts are interesting and somewhat surprising, I already understand that we need a more holistic approach to birth and that mothers need more options (midwives, doulas, etc.)–what spoke to me the most from the talk was Ina’s comment about how powerful our minds are in the process of birth. When talking about pain related to birth, she mentioned that pain is accentuated by fear and that most women are fearful of giving birth because society has trained them to be. She mentioned that its common practice to pick on pregnant women and scare them. She added that we are pathologically afraid of birth even though a century ago, it was hospitals that were afraid of women abandoning hospitals to have home births, which was when midwifery was eliminated.

In addition to the fact society scares women of their bodies, Ina emphasized that education is lacking in the area of human anatomy and sex-ed. She said not enough time is spent teaching about preventative measures, how the body works and how miraculous it is. To improve this situation, she recommends junior high and high schools to teach kids early on about their bodies in a way that dismantles the dominant culture’s perception of the body and our ingrained  belief that we need to control every aspect of it.

When Ina talked about being afraid of our bodies, I turned to the lovely pregnant woman who invited me to the talk, and we agreed that there were aspects of our bodies that we felt uncomfortable with. Never before had I really thought of why I was that way, I just accepted it. With a new perspective about myself and society, Ina challenged me to increase my comfort level with my own physical body and not blame myself for being a product of my cultural upbringing.

Ina lastly reminded me, as an environmentalist, that I need to respect nature in a way that recognizes that women are a part of nature too– that women have the right to know and accept that their bodies are wild and that’s okay. Ina left the audience with one final piece of advice: “Be as wild as you can”–like the elephant in the video. She added, “your instinctual self is in your wildness,” and that women must go to the wildness to remember and trust that they really do know how to give birth.

For additional details on the statistics provided in this blog, the following websites were used:

Stanford School of Medicine

California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative

Trends in Maternal Mortality Report

Mary Oliver and Maya Angelou’s thoughts on Gratitude

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In honor of  Thanksgiving–Mandala Reflections would like to share a poem by Mary Oliver and a reading by Maya Angelou on gratitude. Instead of posting on Thanksgiving Day, I thought it might be useful to provide these reflections in advance for everyday pondering. Hopefully if anything they can allow for a pause in your day to remember no matter how bad it seems there is likely something you can be thankful for–in fact, maybe you will find enough reasons to create a list and hang it somewhere you see often.

As the light begins to fade in Minnesota, I have found myself to be in a place of deep reflection which at times can lead to less than grateful thoughts. Both the poem and the video help ground me when I find myself falling into habitual patterns of complaining. Both Mary and Maya remind me that part of well-being includes remembering and honoring what is important and practicing gratitude.

Mindful by Mary Oliver

Every day
I see or hear
something
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for –
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these –
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

One Percent by Maya Angelou

Lessons Learned from Joe Paterno

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“If you are here unfaithfully with us, you’re causing terrible damage.”  -Rumi

As Parker Palmer notes in his book Let Your Life Speak, “if we are unfaithful to our true self, we will extract a price from others.” He goes on to say that people around us will suffer if we do not act from a genuine place, for example, we make promises we cannot keep; we build dreams that turn into nightmares. Or in some of the worst cases, like Joe Paterno’s, we may let children suffer deeply, because we are too scared to act courageously.

Palmer also recognizes that social systems in place often force people to act in ways that do not reflect their true selves. For example, if you are gay, in some places you are supposed to pretend that you are not, if you are of color you are supposed to deal with blatant racism. Or if you are the head of a legacy football team, you may not want to believe or draw attention to the fact that your defensive coordinator may sexually abuse children. In all cases, big or small, essentially you do not want to “stir the pot.”

Yet Palmer reminds us that we cannot accept these social systems and must live “divided no more.” Palmer talks about Rosa Parks and how when she decided to sit in the front of the bus it was not an original act of service for others but for  herself–“her whole being was tired of playing by racist rules, of denying her soul’s claim to self-hood.” Palmer suggests that Rosa sat down that day because she had reached “a point where it was essential to reach her true vocation” and “live out her full self in the world.”

How does one get to this point? When does one decide that they can no longer keep their personal beliefs apart from public and professional life? Where do people find courage to stand up for what is right when they may suffer great consequences?

Palmer finds that “the punishment imposed on us for claiming our true self can never be worse than the punishment we impose on ourselves by failing to make that claim.” In the case of Joe Paterno, he now shares with the public a dramatic case of what can happen when we deny what we know to be true in our hearts and how this denial can affect ourselves and others in a negative manner. He draws attention to places in our own lives where we are dishonest and shows us how ignoring our truth can affect both our own health but also the well-being of others; he reminds us of our humanity and provokes reflection on how our actions and in-actions affect ourselves and the world.

This post’s ultimate intention is to advocate for listening to what your true self has to say, taking risks and taking action when necessary. Unfortunately for Paterno in this case he didn’t, and he along with 15 young men paid the price. No one action should define a person’s legacy, but for Paterno, this one probably will. After a career most regarded as wildly successful and highly honorable, it is a shame that one cowardice has had such a sad and harmful ripple effect.