It’s been 8 years since I was last in Europe; time for a revisit. This summer we are spending in Rome, working for the Paideia Institute, and toting around our two five-month-olds. Rome is a city I know well, and it’s full of ghosts; some are mine, and some belong to us all.
Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust; the dust is earth, of earth we make loam — and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer barrel? Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away, oh that the earth which kept the earth in awe, should patch a wall t’expel the winter’s flaw.
Just walking down the street in Rome, you pick up a sense of an ancientness which is not like other ancientness. Rome is of course old and beautiful and charming and many other things, but still it is different – even different from the old and beautiful and charming places. The Middle East is older, and generally grander and more impressive; in France everything is more beautiful – even the ruins are more beautiful; places like Ireland have a coziness which really is quite charming. But Rome is different – different even in a surprising way from every other city in Italy. It is not just that Rome is old – as I have said, the Middle East for the most part is older – it’s that Rome is garbled, wildly garbled, by having been so important for so long. It is all awry. Things have been reused in so many wild ways, by so many odd minds, that the result gives the whole place the appearance of a chess-board after little children have been playing with it: it is chaos afterwards; it no longer even looks like a proper game of chess; any chess-player knows that this is not even a remotely possible position for the pieces. In Rome it is a kind of weirdness which is in many ways ugly and disturbing – as well as beautiful and reassuring — but certainly mad. I can imagine re-using an ancient column in a building; but I would re-use it as a column, finding a place for it where it was needed to support a span. There are many such re-used columns in Rome. But there are also others that are simply used in place of bricks, built right into the middle of a wall, and no longer serving the function of a column at all, but instead the function of a curtain – an utterly wrong use for a column. And often the owner of the building will break the stucco-work to reveal the bits of antiquity inside the wall – which only contributes to the sense of insanity.
This is true for the whole city – there are arches in the brickwork where there need be no arches, chunks of carved marbles used as brick or ashlar, corbels or cornices where there is neither any need nor any imaginable need, courses of bricks laid on top of things which should never have been considered proper foundations for them. The ruins are not just old – I have seen old ruins all over, and they don’t look like these ruins. The Roman ruins are actually hard to understand – even the normal old houses of Rome which are not ruins are hard to understand. Part of it is that archaeologists and owners have peeled layers off, sometimes removing towers and additions that explained certain things that were present. But there is also a weird madness the Romans have had in using ancient fragments – a madness which I will exemplify by the pedestal of the statue of Cola di Rienzo on the Capitol, though this is only a single example, and the madness is everywhere in Rome (I will add some more pictures, but myriads more could be adduced, and in Rome the effect is produced by the ubiquity of the phenomenon). The statue, erected in 1874 at a time when Rome was not short of building materials – when in fact the quarries of Italy were producing marbles for the whole world, and when Rome the new capital was flush with capital; and particularly not short of pedestals, of which there are a thousand unused ancient ones lying around in the Forum just on the other side of the hill from the place of this statue; and yet the Romans saw fit, for this expensively commissioned bronze, to cobble together a pedestal of perhaps twenty different pieces of different types of marble, held together by brickwork, some of the pieces with clashing and elaborate decorative motifs, one of them with large legible letters of an unintelligible ancient inscription. A ten-minute stroll through the Forum could probably produce seventy or eighty tons of marble fragments which would at least match – but the Romans saw fit to do otherwise.
And almost every single medieval Roman house contains at least some wall-fragment built in a similar insane way. Walking through (very medieval) Trastevere we could see them – bricks that don’t match, columns inserted into walls, marble fragments stuck into place; Catherine espied what looked like a marble mouse built into a wall, but not in an obvious place, in a place that was neither ornamental nor out of the way, as if a parent had asked a child where to put the mouse in the wall, and the child had responded in a way to make the parent regret the offer, putting it in the least artful place possible. The art of it, one might say, consists precisely in the utter artlessness of it.
And it’s not that the Romans needed to use, or believed in using, every fragment available to them: everywhere there are more bits of antiquity to be had. Broken bits lie in the vestibule of all the old churches; all over the Forum and Palatine and all the “archeological” areas; whenever a pit is dug in Rome some piece of something is turned up.
It all contributes to a sense of Rome as irrational and callous, even ferocious: to leave the beauties of the past so utterly to chance and caprice, to reuse them utterly without reverence; to take the noble dust of Alexander to stop a bung-hole.
Si sal evanuerit, in quo salietur? – Jesus
Dinner-time conversation in my house, as is custom for those who have already found wedded bliss, occasionally strays to the topic of personal solutions to our unwedded friends’ singledom. For one of our friends the solution seems obvious: “Mr. Darcy” – and why not have some fun and call him that? – “should just do more yoga. He should just make the rounds of all the NYC yoga studios, where there will be lots of cute liberal disposable-income women who look good in yoga pants, and isn’t that really all he wants?” “I told him that, but he’s found too often that a crazy factor that attaches to yoga – the ‘it’s so sad anyone has to die of cancer when they could’ve just drunk wheatgrass juice, which cures cancer in like three months but the Hillary-Rodham-Clinton-establishment won’t let you know that because chemotherapy is like the single largest business in America right now.’” “Oh,” Catherine replied, “so he wants falsifiable yoga chicks.”
She said it as if to say, “I give up, your friend has no chance” but I thought it was a good, workable goal. I actually googled it, because I thought someone might have started a Falsifiable Yoga Studio, where the yoga instructors limited themselves to claims about yoga or life that could be substantiated, but I got zero results. Having a religious streak myself and hence having to deal with people who have religious beliefs, I do appreciate the problem. The world is an amazing place as it is, and it gains immeasurably in its mysteriousness and capacity to fill us up when allowed to be itself; whereas all our projections and fictions are far less interesting.
I feel the same way about writing about Italy: it’s a real place with real problems, and to reduce it to gastronomico-sexual-artistico la-la land does not interest me.
So my demons got roused when Catherine said, apropos of our first meal in Italy, “My God, even the salt tastes better here.”
Now I know that salt is salt – the salty part of it is just sodium chloride, and it’s the same everywhere. You can flavor salt and add silly little minerals and things but that’s not what makes it salty. Nothing but salt is salty. “If salt is not salty,” said Jesus, “how the hell will you salt anything?”
But I had to pause because – well, it did seem like the salt tasted better. And not like anything else – just particularly salty.
Now it may just be because it was warm and our bodies had lost some salt while sweating and so we craved the stuff. But it sure did taste nice. I put a pinch of it into my hand. It also looked different: it wasn’t like the big flaky sea-salt products, which always seem to me to just bounce off food anyway, and it wasn’t like the regularized factory-perfect salt cubes either. It was highly irregular: irregular as to size, and irregular as to shape, many of the fragments elongated into odd shards like daggers. Looking at it, it actually reminded me of the grains of the Roman bread I had next to my plate: in the bread could be seen all kinds of irregularities, large bits of chaff, much of it of the same elongated, dagger-like shape. The Italian mechanisms for grinding may produce a similar, nation-specific shape for both salt and wheat. It is also possible that this was some specially milled salt: it was just the salt that was in the shaker in the apartment we rented. We know nothing else about the stuff.
Looking at it I concluded that it was possible that the shape of the salt meant that it probably bounced less and stuck to food more, with the result that we were eating a bit more salt than we were used to. It certainly did taste good.
But who knows, perhaps falsifiability is impossible in Italy.
Memory is fickle: inaccessible when we need it, so ready to hand when it is redundant. Here we were, in Rome, and now, for the first time since I was gone, I could remember it all. The espresso bars opening onto the streets, the pairs of professional women making comments as they walked down the streets, the long legs and short shorts of the German tourists, the blue skies, the cool breezes of the morning – it hadn’t changed at all, and it wasn’t new to me – I remembered it all. Now it seemed strange that I had forgotten. The dusty darkness of Viale Trastevere; the sidewalks of broken asphalt lined with dirty travertine; the broad, trafficked modern streets and the crooked, narrow, medieval ones; the worn, stained, cracked, sun-bleached stucco, ten times repaired and in every sense showing its age; the madonnas looking down on the compiti; the dull, slow thunder of the Trastevere tram, and dull, impassive faces of its morning riders, the universal face of all commuters; the way every Italian man wears long pants no matter how hot it is; the way every woman’s clothing shows her figure; the little lava paving-stones, each and every blessed one of them slightly irregular and I presume chiseled by hand; the way the temperature drops ten degrees when you step over to the shady side of the street; the way the motorino riders weave past narrow gaps in stopped traffic, pointing the wheel now left and now right, their feet scraping the ground; the smell of bread mixed with olive oil in the air; the electric grind of contractors’ saws, the distant clink of silverware, the chainsaw-buzz of motorinos and the cheeping of swifts in the air; it was all as if I had never left it. Even just walking a few blocks down off Viale Trastevere we saw all the crazy brickwork of Rome, the random bits of antiquity that looked like they were eroding out of the walls, the walls built in four different types of brick from four different centuries, the look of deranged decrepitude that tinged all the beauties – something ferocious and human and a bit mad.
So there we were, standing in the Piazza della Piscinula, where there is a church, San Benedetto in Piscinula, whose name makes no sense and no one knows where it comes from or what it means – Saint Benedict in the Little Swimming-Pool – looking for the apartment we had rented. Google maps had pinned it here, but we couldn’t find it. The Airbnb address was number 9, and we were near 200 in this spot. So we asked an Italian woman who happened to be seated in the piazza on a Corinthian capital doing nothing – of course she was – and in true Italian fashion she warmly and pleasantly directed us in precisely the wrong direction. So we walked in that direction and found nothing; then back in the other direction, a long way, before I finally dropped the bags and left Catherine on the steps of Sant’ Agata, now converted into a baptist church, so I could move more quickly, doubting if the information we had been given was correct. I also decided to call the proprietario of the place to see if I had the address right. He didn’t answer, and I was beginning to fear a fraud. But then he called right back, and in fact the Airbnb address – we looked at it again, we had not made a mistake – was entirely wrong. The map, however, had been correct. We doubled back to a place near the woman on the column, where our host Alessandro was waiting for us.
The place was entirely to our liking; perfect in every way, in fact. I suppose it had better be, considering how much we paid for it. A kitchen and a living room open up onto the lovely and lively Via della Lungaretta, the main pedestrian thoroughfare of that part of Rome which Augustus Hare calls “the least altered from mediaeval times, and whose narrow streets are still overlooked by many mediaeval towers, gothic windows, and curious fragments of sculpture.” A perennial passegiatta of people goes by under our two front windows; but at the back of the apartment a bedroom opens onto a private patio, hemmed in by massive brick walls and sealed off from the noise of the street. We are here only for a week, before the rooms booked for us by the Paideia Institute open up; which I am sure will be even nicer. We put our bags down and Catherine nursed the kiddies while I went to get us some food.
Even sixteen years ago, when I spent a spring in Rome, there were rumblings that a change was coming to the Roman lifestyle. The first supermarket had opened in the Campo Marzo, the central, medieval quarter of Rome, and it was beginning to succeed. It used to be that grocery shopping would take an hour or more: you had to go to the butcher for meat, have some small talk with him (he was not very fast); then a cheese-store for cheese, where you went through the same thing; then a baker for bread, a wine-shop for wine, a grocer for fruit (and he or she would choose for you, mind you – no touching the fruit), and if you wanted sweets or processed foods those were in other stores too. It was complicated and very very fun. But even us tourists who had time on our hands knew how nice it was to just go to the supermarket, where you could get it all in one stop, and get better prices too. By 2007, the last time I was in Rome, the supermarkets had cannibalized most of the small businesses in the older parts of town, and the old bakeries and frutterie were gone, replaced by tourist knick-knack shops or bars or other things. But here at least on the Via Lungaretta the old way was preserved, in part because the shopowners had accommodated to tourism: our place was opposite the “Antica Frutteria,” which survived by selling not only fruit but drinks to the tourist crowd; down the street was an espresso bar, which survived by selling beer and wine in the evening; a tiny grocery; a bookshop, which had added books in English; and a bakery, which also sold cheese and sliced meats. After a short trip down the block I not only had food for us but had introduced us to all the shopowners.
After some breakfast we all took a brief nap, and then I got up to head off to a meeting for work. I had to go to the office, which was up on the Janiculum above Trastevere. It was not far from where Reginald Foster used to teach, so I was going over much familiar ground. It amazed me how little it had changed – the Bangladeshi men were selling clothing in precisely the same spot, perhaps under the same tents, the restaurants were all in the same place, there was still a supermarket down in the basement of a department store – though the names of both had changed, the thing itself had not. Those old plane trees still reminded me of Paris, though the Romans had filled up the sidewalks in various ways – seating for cafes, open-air markets, parking – and the walking was not nearly so pleasant. Going up the hill I could feel my body start to sweat in the Roman heat. It was just as it was in the past – to me a kind of pleasant heat, excessive for sure but nothing my body couldn’t handle. It was appropriate for summer.
Finding the office proved a bit difficult, the way everything is a bit difficult here. I was looking for number 70. The numbers went on one side of the street from 65 to 71, with a building in between, but that building had no entrance or any other information. On the other side the numbers were in the 20s. Of course the place I was looking for was on the other side, several blocks away. 70 was several blocks away from 71. But I found it eventually, did the meeting, and soon was walking back home to my wife and children.
In Rome you can so easily find yourself in a place you’ve never been before. The city is quite big enough to keep a person going for several lifetimes. When I first came here as an eighteen-year-old I decided I would, in a day, walk the old city walls to get a sense of the place. I failed miserably – did not even walk half of the circuit, in fact. I am told it is only a twelve-mile hike, but of course it’s not all easily followable on foot – the roads don’t necessarily align with the walls – and it’s complicated by all kinds of later additions to the city, such as the Borgo – the area around the Vatican, which is now walled in. Anyway, I found myself walking along the old Trastevere walls, on the outside of them, in a place I had never been. It was amazing, seeing modern life in such an ancient place – a Heating and Cooling Repair shop called “Madonnina” tucked into the old defensive bends in the walls, warehouses, and so forth – and seeing the botany of the place for the first time. The last time I was in Rome, I knew no plants; now I could see things. There were capers (Capparis spinosa) growing on the old walls, with impressive flowers as staminate as a protea and looking like white St.-John’s worts; and what looked like some kind of violet or lobelia; and acanthus all over the weedy shaded slopes. Some had bemoaned the loss of the flora of the Colosseum – the archeologists had the plants ripped out, though they had been celebrated and book even written about them – but the walls of Rome still had a rich flora, if someone would walk them and examine them.
I couldn’t go through the city without some memory intruding – of something done or undone – which filled me with both happiness and a certain melancholy. The life that I have had in Rome has seemed, for a long time, to be far away. It’s not like life in the Catskills, here; and I like the more natural, more physical, and more genuine me that has developed in the past nine years since I last was in Rome. But I get the sense that now I am capable of revisiting and reincorporating much of what for a long time was merely past. I read a very wise saying not long ago, which went as follows: “You cannot change your future; you can only change your past.” This is brilliantly paradoxical – the literal-minded will simply scoff – but for those who know what it means, it cannot be put any better. Most people are caught by their past, and have no room to transform it, or transform themselves. This is really what most of us are hoping for in life: a present which somehow allows us to change our past. Because that is the part of us that most needs changing.
I feel I have been given an opportunity here, and I want to try to grab it.
We expected trouble when we boarded the plane with our four-month-old twins. It was their first flight, a nine-hour transatlantic redeye to Rome. It seemed so obvious that it would be a miserable trip that my boss had given us a travel gift: a pair of talismans with a glass depiction of an eye, to ward off the malocchio. “People are going to be giving you such looks,” she said, “getting on the plane with twins. Everyone’s going to be saying, ‘Please please don’t be sitting anywhere near me.’”
This ended up being precisely the opposite of the truth. We were given terrible seats – crammed in the back, on either side of an aisle, hence not even actually next to one another, with people passing through the aisle and hitting the kids’ heads all night long -but we were surrounded by Italians – a group of eleven Sicilians flying back to Italy after a month in America. They considered it the great blessing of God that they were seated next to such “bellissimi bambini.” “Davvero! Sono gemelli! Che bello! Complimenti! Sei fortunato!” and on and on. They held them; they played with them; they entertained them as no one had ever entertained them before. They were screaming with laughter – all of them, twins and Italians. I learned all kinds of things about how to entertain them – the materfamilias had a great trick I’ve since used, of saying “a-CHOO!” at them, faking a sneeze, which the kids found the single funniest thing that had ever been done in human history, a pure piece of the divine joy. I’ve been doing it for days afterwards and it just works and works and works. This part of their childhood will be over when it stops working, I suppose.
Meanwhile I had a serious conversation with another Italian, a Milanese, in the row ahead of me, about how special Rome was. He agreed it was unique and amazing. Something then came up regarding Italian history, and I decided to ask him what the hell all those street names in Rome actually meant – Via Venti Settembre, Via Venti-Quattro Maggio, Via Quattro Novembre – we expats always used to make fun of these names, which seemed such silly names for roads, but we never even really knew what we were making fun of. He began by proclaiming that Venti Settembre was the date of the freeing of the city from the Nazis, “dagli Americani” – but then he began to hesitate. He asked a man three rows away – “Lui e molto intelligente” – but got no good answer to the question, and soon five or six men – all men – were in a spirited discussion about the significance of those dates. No conclusion was reached, though many plausible theories were hypothesized.
It continued like this. In short, the flight was delightful, because it was full of Italians. The problems all came from the airline itself. The seat was atrociously small for a man of my size; there was no room in any of the overhead compartments for baggage, so we had our carryon bags at our feet (they did not fit under the seat in front of us); the flight was absolutely packed and they had made no special accommodation for our two lapchildren (often a bulkhead seat is reserved for travellers with young children, but not in this case). Nevertheless the children were delightful, quiet and playful and in good cheer the entire time except for one incident.
About two-thirds of the way through the flight, when it was three in the morning Rome time and the lights in the cabin were all down, I was walking through the aisle with Mary, when, right in front of us, a man began shaking violently and foaming at the mouth. His wife grabbed him and started shouting, “Chris! Chris! Are you all right? Chris! Don’t stop breathing!” His body began going stiff. Immediately a rustle of panic went through the entire crowd; people got up from their seats to look, people started asking each other what was going on, et cetera – it was not loud, but it was certainly a commotion. Mary immediately turned to me and threw her mouth open and began crying, which increased the general sense of confusion. I took Mary out of the situation immediately, right to the very back of the plane, and going up to a flight attendant told her that the man in that seat where the commotion was appeared to be having a seizure. Doctors were called, and it turned out to be only a seizure, which was good; I had feared it could be something like a heart attack as well. The man was restrained for awhile, and the fit passed; he was fine when we got off the plane three hours later in Rome.
Meanwhile it took Mary a good hour to calm down afterwards, and I was impressed at how these waves of emotion can pass through crowds, and how completely tuned in to them Mary – in particular – was. John had been nursing at the time, and Catherine said he noticed the commotion but kept nursing. Mary was closer to it, of course, but this has been a consistent difference between the two, that Mary seems to be affected by the emotional atmosphere around her more than John is. We are very much herd-animals: an alarm is raised, some kind of sound is made that is different than normal, and soon every human being within earshot is aware that something is wrong. Babies can be very terrified when they know something is wrong.
Eventually Catherine nursed Mary and all three of them fell asleep, while I could not sleep at all. I did not want to turn on my light, for fear of waking them, and I could neither read nor write in the darkness; so I just sat there and counted minutes, most unhappily. But eventually the cabin lights came in; the flight attendants came by with coffee and chocolate croissants; we descended into Fiumicino. The Italians all around us declared positively that ours were the best and most beautiful bambini that had ever ever been. Thinking about the flight later – the combination of human warmth and a general sense of social eventfulness – I determined we had already been in Italy for several hours.
When we were on the ground they brought out one of those rolling staircases and we walked down the steps onto the tarmac, and there they were, the umbrella-pines of the Campagna, and the low, flat, somewhat unappealing ground of Fiumicino. I will confess I had some anxiety about returning to Rome. It was a place I had fallen in love with decades ago; now I was coming back; it was like getting together with a high-school flame twenty years later, hoping for love to still be there. Looking for an apartment for us to stay in, I had been appalled at the prices – they were fully twice what they were eight years ago, and three times what they were twenty years ago. Twenty years ago we students would be eating six-dollar dinners at good restaurants every night; now the euro had joined with a massive tourist industry to align Roman prices with other European capitals (especially in summer), airbnb had turned the whole centro storico into a hotel and there were no Romans anymore, the middle of the city was now filled with Australian bars like Ned Kelly’s selling overpriced pints to drunken English college students who had turned Campo de Fiori and Trastevere into public latrines. I could go on like this, because I had seen some of the changes beginning myself, and had heard about it from many others: expats who were thinking of getting out because the city had been transformed into Cancun for the British Isles, a spring-break destination for meatheads. I had heard about the incident of the Brit who had stripped himself naked and was parading around in puris naturalibus when he was attacked and beaten by a Roman mob who had had enough of this behavior and left him for dead; apparently there had been other incidents as well.
And in addition, everyone said the city had become more expensive, more “European,” less Roman, less Italian, and so I was unsure what to expect.
We came in the doors of the airport terminal and found a vast – an unbelievably vast – line for passport control. It went so far beyond the area for passport control, we were at first unsure that was what it was. We walked all the way down its length, and then had to walk all the way back. Lines like this drive me crazy, because of course passport control can know in advance precisely how many people will be going through at any given hour, based on flight times. So lines like this at 6:30 a.m. on a weekday in perfect weather are a sign of terrible management. And we had two little babies who had just done so well on a nine-hour flight; now we were facing a multiple-hour wait just to get a passport stamp. We waited and the line barely moved. It was utterly dispiriting. And then a woman came up to us and said we had babies, we were special travellers, she pulled us out of the line and walked us past what must have been more than a thousand people and put us on a special line that had about three people on it. A smiling, barbate Italian man at passport control made all kinds of funny faces at the babies, praised them as bellissimi, told us now we had “una coppia” (a boy-girl set) so we were done. I told him we were Catholics of the old school, we were only done when nature said so, and he laughed and said that then “e ben cominciato,” he stamped all four of our passports, and we were through.
As we walked away, Catherine said, “Well, that made that a lot easier.”
“Now we have to get our bags,” I said. “Who knows how long that will take.”
We stepped into the baggage claim area, where all the fire alarms were going off. Signs were flashing INCENDIO INCENDIO INCENDIO. Absolutely no one cared. Guards with AK-47s were standing around, wearing green combat fatigues with blue feathers stuck in their caps – I am not making that up – and doing absolutely nothing, as if the alarms had always been going off, and for all I know, they always are. Needless to say, after a few minutes of it – compounded I suppose by the fact that I had not slept at all – I felt I was beginning to go crazy. We went to our baggage claim area and found that the conveyor belt was not working: bags were coming out of the outlet, but just piled up on top of each other, creating a massive jam. People were scrambling onto the jammed bags trying to sort through them, the fire alarms were going off, guards with AK-47s and blue feathers were just standing around joking with each other – my God, I thought, nothing has changed in Italy at all. I began to take off my little baby-carrier, presuming we would be there for a long time. But then Catherine saw that our bags were there – right there, at the bottom of the pile, but visible. Both of them were there, right next to each other. And then the belt lurched forward, then stopped, then lurched again, and fitfully began to move, but in the wrong way – taking the bags through a doorway and out of sight. I couldn’t move – I had a baby half-on and half-off – and Catherine lunged and grabbed both bags, including my bag which had about forty pounds of Latin dictionaries in it.
We couldn’t believe it. We were through passport control; we had our bags. We walked out of the airport – the fire alarms going off everywhere, our ears really beginning to hurt. Catherine began wondering what this was doing to our children’s ears. We went to the train station, alarms blazing. Minor chaos – there was a ticket office, a bar, a private ticket agency, another private agency, and a newsstand, and every single one of them had big signs in English saying they sold train tickets there. Every one except the actual ticket office, that is. I smelled a scam. We got on line at the ticket office, but the line did not move at all. I went to a ticket machine while Catherine waited; they only took cards, not cash, but did not take my card (I tried two machines). Catherine had still gone nowhere. I realized we would miss the train. So I went to the newsstand, bought the tickets at their face value, we convalidated the tickets, and then we got on the train.
We were bound for Rome. And I could tell already it was going to be everything it ever was.
Today is Good Friday, and an unusual one: it’s also March 25th, the day of the Annunciation, traditionally New Year’s Day by the Catholic calendar. It was believed to be the day God created the world, and hence the day He began it again with the Incarnation; the day of the Passover as well (in Exodus it says that this month should stand at the head of the calendar, hence it was the first month of the year for Christians).
Good Friday fell on March 25th in 2005, but don’t let that make you think it’s a normal occurrence: it won’t happen again this century, and the last time it happened before 2005 was 1932. The most famous concurrence of this sort was the year 1300, when it so impressed Dante that he made it the day the Divine Comedy started.
And so I call this a “Venerdi Dantesco,” and we’ll read some of the Commedia today in his honor. The conjunction of the Annunciation and the Crucifixion and the commencement of Dante’s interior journey seems like a day worth commemorating. Whether the Creation of the World occurred on this day is a bit less certain, but it must have happened sometime, and if anything’s worth celebrating, it’s that.
And now our children were safely born, we looked around us. The midwives were cleaning up. The children’s water had not broken until they were being delivered, and for our daughter that meant right on the bed. The amniotic fluid was mixed with blood and formed a pool in the center of the bed where Catherine lay. The midwives just used a bowl and scooped it out, putting it all into larger bowls we had provided. It amazes me to say this, but there was not a drop of any kind of stain on anything when the midwives left. We had used our good sheets which we had brought from New York – we don’t really have many possessions, and so we use the ones we have – and they were in perfect condition. The midwives had all along been placing mats and moving Catherine around to make sure this would happen, but it had happened so unobtrusively that I hadn’t even noticed it going on. The sheets got more stains the day after the birth than the day of.
We were exhausted, but also filled with a nervous, joyous energy – how could we have slept at such a moment? – And so I called Catherine’s family, and invited them over. It seemed like they arrived in a flash – but time had already begun to change, and move more quickly – and since she has a large family, all of a sudden the house downstairs was full of bustle. Mom and Dad were there, and five sisters, and one sister’s fiance, and two grandmothers, and an aunt, and a cousin, and some people I didn’t know but they were welcome too. They were cooking, they were talking, they were opening bottles of champagne. By ones and twos they came up to visit Catherine and the two new little people. They set up a big table downstairs – our little dining-table seated only four – and were eating, and were happy, and the babies were brought downstairs and slept in their arms. Simply to have someone cook us a meal in that moment was a sublime act of kindness – Catherine in particular was hungry – but there was more to it than that. I loved seeing my children this way – surrounded by people who loved them. I loved the life of it – the wild, crazy, vitality of it. When the children’s grandmother and great-grandmother arrived – people were arriving by carloads – I was carrying out a bucket of blood to dump onto the compost pile. While the wine was flowing and people were laughing and picking at their plates downstairs, there were still bloody rags in waste baskets upstairs – I had stopped the midwives from cleaning out some things, so I could sort things out for the compost – and the large, bipartite fused placenta which had fed the children for months was sitting in a bowl. Some other bloody bowls sat in a cold room upstairs, to be brought to the kitchen later and washed.
I realized even then, in my relishing of the crazy vital humanity of it, how I had been transformed. All during Catherine’s pregnancy, I had expressed some skepticism about fathers who were overly involved in the actual birth. What did I know about childbirth? And how much knowledge could I really acquire? It would always be something I could only observe, not really know inside me. I thought the man’s place, when it came to birth, was downstairs with his whiskey and cigars. And to tell the truth, I was brave about many things, but things medical and bodily were not among them. In seventh grade – I still remember it vividly – we watched in science class a video of open-heart surgery and I had to leave the room, I got so sick seeing it. It was there for the first time that I got the strange feeling that I always get when I get queasy – and it is only medical things that do this to me – I feel the skin at my elbows is too tight, and they feel weird and weak, as if the marrow is about to flow out of them and onto the floor. Scenes of torture in movies, blood in real life, dissecting lab animals, and people discussing their surgeries, all produce this sensation in me. When I’ve had blood taken – even just the small amounts required for blood tests – I’ve always felt faint, and twice I’ve passed out. When I heard friends both male and female talking about birth – the blood, the flesh tearing, the pain – I’ve always felt my place would be in the next room, pacing. Otherwise I would just faint right away.
And yet here I was, carrying this bucket of blood and amniotic fluid through the kitchen where dinner was cooking, and out to the compost bin, after my wife had actually given birth right on top of my body, and I was doing it all blithely, joyfully, without even batting an eyelash – something had changed. I could feel it: I could feel that my understanding of what it meant to be human had altered. People often think that people have a hard time being religious, or being spiritual, but I think for most that is the opposite of the truth. It is easy to conceive of yourself as a spirit, and to think of the flesh as really just a series of indignities and obstacles and uncleanliness. It is much harder to be human: to reconcile yourself to having and being a body, to reconcile yourself to the fact that the stuff flowing through your veins, the minute it is delivered of your little boundaries, belongs on a compost heap: with the ends of the carrots and the paper towels and the unpopped popcorn kernels. It’s not a very dignified place in the universe, it seems. The body is so distressingly weak – just a thin bag of water constantly in danger of being punctured – that it is hard to relate it to this proud thing that I am. You don’t want to see your blood spilling into the gutter, or getting turned into fertilizer – I’d always rathered [sic] see my blood get absorbed by little medical gauze pads, thrown into one of those “bio-waste” receptacles that make it seem like our bits and pieces are radioactive and dangerous and important, and be “properly disposed of” – whatever that means. It wasn’t me, it was biowaste – I was a spirit, not some quivering mass of blood and guts. Even to think of the inside of a body was disgusting to me. But not anymore. Now I felt different – I felt my blood belonged to the soil, and the soil belonged in my blood – I felt far more part of things than I had before – my body included. In that house food was coming in, and blood was coming out – of course. Why not? Wasn’t the blood just food in a different form, transmuted by the processes of digestion and blood production? The upstairs still looked like a crime scene – the bloody rags, the lump of placental flesh in a bowl – while the people feasted and rejoiced downstairs. This too felt right. If I were just looking at it, it might seem crazy. But there was more going on than that. I was looking at it, but I was also looking from it. It was my flesh and blood that had just been born out of that woman; it was my flesh and blood that was to be fed from those cookpots in the kitchen. When you look from reality, rather than just at it, you see in an entirely different way.
Over the next few days, I would see people hold my babies, or change their diapers, and I could see my old discomfort with the body in some of them. A baby was weird and alien, fragile and breakable to some – and I saw that, and recognized that I had been like that. But other people were different – a baby sat naturally in their arms, as if it were an extension of their own body – which, of course, it really was. Some people found the whole business of changing a diaper, and having to clean someone else’s genitals and posterior just a little bit – uncomfortable. But for others it was no more trouble than it would be to bring the carrots in from the garden and clean them. And I had now become one of the latter group. I had seen birth – I had really seen blood and sweat and tears, and piss and poop and amniotic fluid and just about everything else. A woman had in fact given birth right in my arms, while I held her up – now I was going to be put off by changing a diaper? I felt prepared for anything now.
This may well be a universal experience – it would be hard for me to say. Birth is so private in our society, and it’s not that much talked about to begin with; and new parents are too busy and exhausted to write very much about the experience; and as time goes by the freshness of the impressions fades, and the lessons are internalized and are hard to put into words. But it is definitely the case, I think, that parents do have an altered relationship with the body, one which is far more intimate and less standoffish. For me it was an obvious transition because it all happened at home, in the room where I slept and in the kitchen where I cooked. I really could not have imagined myself before the birth being comfortable with leaving a bloody bowl in the room next door – “ah, we’ll get to it in the morning” – or sorting through blood-stained paper towels to see what should get composted. And yet I was. I most definitely was. And I was so happy – so happy and alive.
A few days after the birth some friends were arguing that Christ did not teach, and Christianity did not imply, pacifism. I disagreed with this position, and one of them called me out on it: now that I was a father, did I not understand violence? Would I not have done anything to save my children from someone attempting to harm them? And I can say I don’t know what I would do in any given future situation, but what I felt, after the birth, was quite the opposite of any kind of homicidal protectiveness. I felt that every human life was sacred: that it was terribly, frighteningly sacred: that even a marauder who broke into my home was some woman’s son, and his mother labored over him and laughed and cried when she saw him for the first time. He too had a day when he was born, and the light came into his sacred and venerable eyes just as it came to my daughter and my son. Having seen God’s power to create, I did not wish, even for a second, to countenance the thought of destroying it. When I heard of death – a young boy washed up on a beach, a man shot by police – my thoughts were: my son, my daughter. And I do not think that I was wrong.
I’ve already gotten some fairly vehement criticism for being party to a home birth. So far, I’ve been told that I was a “wack” who had “subjected your children to unnecessary risk so it could be a subjectively prettier event,” “an aesthetic decision that put others at risk needlessly and recklessly.” And that any other viewpoint was “sophistry” and “rationalization.” Needless to say, beforehand there were a number of people who told us their, similarly critical, opinions of home births.
Opening yourself to criticism is the cost of offering a public account of anything. And making a choice can be taken as an implicit critique of anyone who chooses otherwise. I did not intend to criticize much of anything when describing the birth of our children – in fact, I left out our reasoning on why we chose home birth entirely, because I was not (and am not) attempting any kind of polemic here. I’m interested in the experience of birth – the one I attended was in a home, but a birth in a hospital I’m sure I would find to be quite an experience as well.
But I do want to offer some data, so others can evaluate whether or not home birth is reckless, first of all in absolute terms.
The best data I’ve seen available – a study dealing with millions of births – did indeed find that home births were more dangerous. In fact, on Webmd you can find the sum of the data: “The risk of a baby dying is nearly four times higher when delivered by a midwife at home than by a midwife in a hospital, according to a new study.” Four times higher is a pretty significant amount – an overwhelming amount, in fact.
But that’s only because the risks are so low, in general. The raw numbers are:
The researchers found that the absolute risk of a baby dying at birth or in the 28 days following delivery was 3.2 per 10,000 births when a midwife delivered the baby in a hospital, compared with 12.6 per 10,000 births when a midwife delivered the baby at home.
The death rates are, therefore, .032 percent, and .126 percent. Hospital birth, in other words, is just under one-tenth of one percent safer than a home birth. Hospital birth is 99.97 percent safe, and home birth is 99.87 percent safe.
Now, this is uncontrolled (“absolute”) data. My guess would be that controlled data would favor hospital birth even more – because hospitals have to deal with all pregnancies, whereas midwives can be picky, and high-risk births probably overwhelmingly take place at hospitals. There could be some factors to offset things – certain religious groups who eschew all medical treatment might bring mortality numbers up for home births – but in general I accept that controlled data might look even worse. But the numbers are still there: home birth is 99.87 percent safe.
The numbers were enough to convince us that home birth is generally safe. Then the next question was whether or not it was wise for us. That we based on Catherine’s health, the position of the babies, the fact that the pregnancy had been without difficulties, family history of successful home birth, our comfort with the midwives, and the availability of secondary options in case of emergency. Categorical claims were not enough for us: we used our judgement. Could Catherine, specifically, do this safely at home? There were no specific and credible reasons why she could not. We determined that home birth was right for us.
And of course, it worked out well, which for many people constitutes an argument in itself. But even if it had not – the risks were part of the calculus – I felt all along that our decision-making was sound. There was never a time when either one of us sensed any specific danger to our children: just a general sense that we were involved in something difficult, which could not be taken lightly, and which we were going to do as well as we could.
That might be worth reading, before moving on to the actual account of the birth. Because human birth is an intense experience. It is 99.87 percent safe even at home, we learn, but for most women there is nothing breezy about it. This appears to be true no matter where it occurs.
It was a cold night, one of the few cold nights we’ve had this winter, and the house needed to be very warm for the birth. I opened all the vents on the stove in the living room, threw some logs into it, and then started a fire down in the basement, similarly opening all the vents. You can’t really have a lot of clothes on during labor in general, and I knew Catherine would be wanting to take showers, and here in this house there is only one shower, down in the cold basement. And it’s a drafty old house in general, with no oil or gas burner, the only heat coming from the wood stoves. Once I got the fires roaring, I got out our “birth kit” and began the routines we had been reading about for months. The pulling of the uterine muscles causes lower back pain, and so I took time to either rub Catherine’s back or just put my hand on it, which sometimes was enough; and at other times I tidied up the house a bit in preparation for the arrival of the midwives, and probably a thousand other things that I can only barely remember now.
By six a.m. she was in the shower, sitting on a rubber exercise ball, and the contractions started taking on tremendous intensity, the beginning of one coming less than three minutes after the beginning of the last. I texted the midwife telling her so, and she said it sounded like maybe she should come. I texted back, “Yes,” and she said she was on her way.
She arrived about an hour later, which was a relief, because I was beginning to feel out of my depth. Pregnancy is one thing; it is about the abundance of life, growth, the future, etc. It produced a glow in Catherine’s face and, I think, in the people around her as well. But birth is something else. It’s much less civilized: it’s wild, and godlike, and unpredictable, containing as the wild and divine things do all its own opposites. Catherine was mostly concentrating on the contractions themselves, but as an observer I was immersed in the emotional mood of the house; and what I felt was that when labor really kicked in, death was present as well.
This is first and foremost because labor is dangerous, and fear is a major part of the experience. For experienced women who have gone through multiple childbirths, that fear may be less of a factor, and of course some people are just naturally less fearful than others, but it would have to be a rare woman who is not somewhat afraid of childbirth, and a rare man who would not be afraid of watching someone he loves go through it. The presence of death sometimes occasions a general unease – I’m sure some of my bustling about the house was just burning off excess energy created by the apprehension, and the technological show of control which hospitals project is also usually part of this immense human discomfort with mortality. The show of control is to obfuscate the fact that all our lives point in a direction we would not choose – death. For some reason birth clarifies the basic terms of our life, and makes them hard not to confront. A home birth might intensify this feeling, but probably it makes little difference: wherever your first child is born, it is likely that there will be aspects of it that are like a near-death experience. It is a walk between death and life.
But fear is not always the primary emotion you feel, even in the presence of death. Some of this is because death can come in limited ways: as sacrifice, as the ending of a possibility, as the giving up of some things for the sake of the thing chosen above all. The fact that labor is not easy is almost unfathomably strange to the thinking mind, and probably significant. You would think that all nature would conspire to make nothing so easy as birth: after all, isn’t reproduction what nature wants? Perhaps for some living things, reproduction is cheap and abundant; but for human beings it is not. The difficulties of labor indicate the preciousness of the child. Your body does not tell you, “Eh, don’t worry, you can always make another one.” Your body says: “These are impossibly difficult and dangerous to get to this world, so take care of them once you’ve got them.” After you’ve been through the ordeal, you don’t think of dumping this one you’ve got and getting a better one later. You think of sacrificing whatever you must for this one. Or perhaps – you think, “I’m not even up to the amount of sacrifice this new life demands of me”: the humbled realization of people who feel they must give their children up for adoption. But one way or another, you understand that in every direction, sacrifice is required: acceptance of limitation for the sake of a goal. There is no easy way. You know this beforehand, but when the moment really arrives you are aware that quite suddenly everything is at stake, just to bring one new life into the world.
Seeing the midwife approaching the house, looking calm and collected, carrying her little duffel-bag of perfectly organized implements, broke the intensity a little bit, but in a good way: now someone who actually knew something would be responsible. I told her I was happy to see her, gave her a brief on the situation, and showed her into the birthing room (our bedroom). I gave her the birthing kit – the basic things needed for delivery, which remained here just in case the delivery occurred before the midwife arrived – and indicated where anything else she might need was. She set up her things and once she was ready she diagnosed the situation. Catherine had an amazing 8 cm. of cervical dilation, which meant that the work of labor was mostly done (the cervix has to dilate to 10 cm. for the child’s head to pass through). Things had gone splendidly and easily.
But for whatever reason, here Catherine’s labor reached a kind of plateau, and she remained at 8 cm. for nearly the next 8 hours. This was difficult to watch, because she had not plateaued at at easy point: the labor remained overwhelmingly intense, but it went on and on.
Apparently this is relatively common, and our books had mentioned it: dilation progresses up until a certain point, and then stops. The books suggested that psychological factors were the single most important cause for this stoppage. The theory behind the books about birth which we read is more or less that a woman’s job at this time is merely to relax: you have to allow the uterus muscles to work inside your body, and not attempt to oppose them, despite the fact that they are pulling on all kinds of things inside of you and the sensations are stronger than anything you’ve ever experienced, while also being unlike anything you’ve ever experienced (I’ve heard several assever that the uterine muscles are the single strongest muscle group in the body – whether that’s true or not, they certainly are capable of exerting tremendous force, and that involuntarily, which is difficult to have to undergo). Ina May Gaskin’s book has a page about “sphincter law” and how relaxation is the basic thing you need to get a sphincter (like the cervix or vagina) to open. During pregnancy we had done various breathing and relaxation exercises in preparation.
And up until this point, Catherine had done an amazing job staying relaxed. But it’s a lot easier at the beginning. As the morning wore on, we seemed to be entering an area not really covered by the playbook. You can tell someone to endure something hard and painful, but in the end I’m really not sure how someone can relax into something hard and painful. I’ve had some bad experiences with dentists, and I got through them by tensing up so hard I stayed in position: in other words, by the opposite of relaxing. And I could see Catherine doing the same. She started pinching her hand so hard with her fingers, during contractions, that I thought she’d split her hand in two. And then what am I supposed to do? Do I tell her that tensing up is not good, and not acceptable according to the Bradley method? Or just shut up and let her do what her body tells her to do? Similarly there were times when she jumped out of bed and started shaking her entire body because it made her feel better. That didn’t look like “relaxing into a contraction” to me. Nor did almost ripping the headboard off the bed, or the bannister off the stairs, which she almost did. But I hardly felt qualified to tell her to lay back down and just take deep breaths, you know, like the ones we practiced. The truth is that we were off the script. And getting back onto it seemed utterly impossible.
This may be because of the fear, or because the sensations of labor are so unfamiliar, or simply because of the pain. Catherine kept saying, “It’s not pain… it’s just… so… weird…” But it certainly looked painful to me.
And some of it probably is the social aspect of labor. I don’t think it was completely coincidental that Catherine’s labor progressed well while it was only the two of us. Catherine was completely comfortable with me. But as soon as she had a relative stranger giving her cervical examinations, she herself was less comfortable (even though she liked the midwife). She told me afterward that she was worried that she was taking too much of the midwives’ time, and wondering if they had enough to eat and drink, or were comfortable in that chair, etc. She also had enough self-awareness to criticize herself, at the time, for even thinking something so silly. Nevertheless it was what she felt. Distractions and psychic discomfort are often considered one of the reasons women have trouble giving birth in hospitals: but it’s not like being at home is without distraction.
In the end, there are a million good reasons why relaxing through birth is difficult. There is the fear for the children’s lives: Catherine said she hated it when the midwife would monitor the children’s heartbeat, because, of course, it was terrifying: something could be wrong. There is the discomfort of having one’s vagina examined, and of exposing one’s body to other people. And during labor the mother’s body is not only exposed but also largely out of control. Catherine started groaning in a strange way, a low, continual moan, which was identifiably human, but not a sound that civilized, polite society would recognize. It was straight out of our animal nature.
In the meantime, a second midwife had arrived. This was the famous Freida Miller, the senior midwife in the community, who had assisted at more than three thousand births over her long career. She came because a second midwife, and particularly the most experienced and expert one available, was thought desirable for a twin birth. She was, like Jena, not talkative, and of course she hadn’t come to this birth to make small talk with me. I let her do her work. But I was very curious about her. All the families I met here in Scio knew her, and thought very highly of her. But (as I discovered later) she had also been in jail at least once, because, though not a doctor, she carried with her a prescription drug (pitocin) that could save a woman’s life in the case of serious hemorrhaging. In the case she went to prison for, she had used the drug, apparently correctly and in fact saving the life of the mother, and dutifully reported to the emergency medical staff that she had done so. Her imprisonment was, I am told, the occasion of large-scale protests here – one of Catherine’s sisters remembered going down to the prison to sing outside her window. There was no question of malpractice; the drug was used properly on the occasion, all were safe in the end, and her record of safe deliveries even in cases requiring sure judgement made her celebrated in her field. I know she has been flown all over the country to attend births, her skills and experience considered second to none. I think she could furnish the materials for a fine profile piece, but needless to say this was not the time to do an interview. I had other things on my mind at the time, but now with reflection I can see how amazing it is, the way our legal system will punish uncredentialed skill and good work, while meeting with impunity credentialed error and even murder. In the past years not only have several police officers shot and killed human beings, but while protected by a badge and “police protocol,” they did not even have to face trial; Freida, for saving the life of a woman, was not only put on trial but found guilty and imprisoned. Once she was out of prison (I believe her term was a year, though I don’t know if she had to serve all of it), she resumed her practice, where she was and is still valued as one of the best midwives in the country.
But she was older now, and really only there for her wise counsel in case of difficulty: it was really quite beautiful the way she let the young midwife handle everything, only occasionally answering the young one’s questions. It was necessary for the new midwives to have experience with twins themselves, and Freida sit back and let it happen. Some of it may be calculated bedside manner (I will note that in the link I used above she professed uncertainty about the law regarding prescription drugs, but I suspect she may have feigned ignorance or simply not cared about the law, because she was obviously a woman of tremendous presence and intelligence and orderliness), but Freida seemed entirely unperturbed by the proceedings. In fact, she took a chair in the birth room and did her accounts for the year, presumably in preparation for her tax filings. She radiated a sense of confidence and ease, that there was nothing here out of the ordinary or to be worried about. From time to time she took out a Bible, and read in that as well, seeming to believe she was using her time well, and again, there was a radiant sense of purpose and strength in her.
As I say, this may have been calculated to produce an impression, and to reassure us for whom all this was new and difficult. I can say that it was not at all like labor on television: there was no screaming, there was no coaching, no grabbing of hands and yelling, “Push! Push!” But that’s not to say there was anything pretty or easy about it. In fact, it was most like a television torture scene: like torture, labor comes in spurts, spurts where the pain is so intense Catherine could not speak or think or anything else; if she had eaten anything in between contractions, she would throw it up during them (eventually we gave up trying to feed her, and she just had some fresh-squeezed lemonade mixed with honey that I made); she might lose control of her bowels or bladder; and then there would be periods of repose afterwards, with a kind of distressed lucidity, of the sort that torturers employ as a window for asking questions. And then after a few minutes of rest Catherine could feel another contraction approach, and her face took on a terrible, imploring look, and I’m sure that if I had the power to stop the contraction she would have begged me to do so. But she knew there was nothing I could do, and all she could do was whimper and suffer before God or the universe or whatever it was that had brought this on the daughters of Eve.
The midwives took all this as being quite normal – and it is – and did very little about it, even to the point of me getting upset about the situation (though I kept my mouth shut). My thought, as a New Yorker and as a man, was, “Hey! She’s in pain! Fix it! That’s what you’re being paid for!” Occasionally I was afraid that because I was a man, they felt they couldn’t truly ply their trade unless I was out of the room, and so I was interfering. But I’m sure it wasn’t that. I left the room often, to keep the fires stoked, to get food and drinks for myself and others, to send updates to people, and to move my body to dispel some of the stress. They weren’t doing anything different when I was gone. Instead it was just a difference in outlook: they saw their work as catching the baby, not taking away the difficulty of labor. There were things they could do to ameliorate things (Catherine was getting continual backrubs, hydration, reassurance, and help with standing up or sitting down or whatever she wanted to do) but the basic pain and difficulty was going to be there regardless. But my first reaction to labor – whatever the predispositions that may have created this reaction – was that it was a problem that needed a solution, not a passage that had to be traversed. I wanted a cure for labor; what they offered was care for the woman in labor and for the arriving child.
And so I can say that I took from the experience a general understanding of any woman who would not want to go through labor, either by not having children, or by seeking some kind of medical amelioration of the natural process. The midwives, when the time came, showed that they had skill, but in general they had no magic wand that would wave away the things that made labor labor (a word which in Latin means not just work but “work that involves suffering”). Of course from the birth stories I’ve heard from elsewhere, it seems hospitals don’t really have a magic wand either. No matter how it’s done, it is, frequently, the single most physically demanding thing most people will ever see a human being do.
And this work was really Catherine’s to do. And it was difficult. The fact that it was a twin birth may have had something to do with this; the uterine contractions may not have moved the babies as much as they would have if there were only one child in the womb; there may have been more congestion at the birth canal. Or it may have been the psychological considerations I have enumerated. Or birth may simply just be like this. I have heard that the average labor for first-time mothers is twelve hours; Catherine was in labor for something over thirteen (I have also heard other numbers cited as average, but in general, it’s hard to get controlled data; one source says six and half hours is normal for first-time mothers now, but it also notes that two-thirds of American births are chemically induced, which changes the biological clock). Perhaps if it had been quick I would have reacted differently; it certainly was long enough to be transformative for me (I will return to this later, in part three of this series).
One of the most difficult things for those who watch labor is what the Bradley books call “the third emotional signpost” of labor: self-doubt. It is strange to me that this emotion should be so universal as to be included as a technical stage of labor, but it certainly arrived on time, though in Catherine’s case, she stayed in that stage for a long time. The Bradley book indicated that around 7 cm. of dilation women begin to doubt that they can go on with labor, and in fact that did appear to be the case with Catherine. She seemed to be continually disappointed that she had worked so hard and it wasn’t done yet; and uncertain that she could do it; and frustrated. I was glad I had been prepped for this stage, though as with almost everything with labor, the actual intensity of it was more than I thought it would be.
Sometime in the afternoon I brought Catherine downstairs for another shower, and I think that helped her, both because the warmth relaxed her, while the upright position brought gravity into the equation. When she came back upstairs she had even more intense contractions – these were truly impressive – and dilation was (as measurement later showed) resuming. Sometime around four o’clock the dilation was at 10 cm. – ready to push – and the Freida decided to take control of the situation. She asked the younger midwife if she had brought a birthing stool.
“No, we don’t typically–”
“–Use them for first time mothers. I know that.” A birthing stool, which again uses gravity to aid the delivery, sometimes causes more skin to tear because it makes babies come out quickly.
Freida turned to me: “Do you have a straight-backed chair?”
“Sure.” I went downstairs, grabbed one, and brought it up.
“Sit on it,” she said to me. Jena was moving pads onto the floor in front of me. She waved Catherine out of bed. “Now Catherine I’d like you to squat in front of your husband. John, put your arms through her armpits and hold her up. Good. There.”
And then Catherine, squatting in front of me, had a series of massive, incredible contractions, every muscle in her body straining, as I held her upright, every muscle in my own body similarly taut just to keep her steady. I have no idea how long this went on, but I’m sure it wasn’t long. “It’s burning!” she said.
“Yes, yes, that’s the stretching – the baby’s coming out!”
Catherine’s face was distorted with pain, and her entire body felt like a stone statue, it was so tense. And in just one or two pushes more, out came the baby.
Even if I couldn’t see over Catherine’s shoulder, I would have known it from the complete transformation in Catherine’s body. Her body instantly relaxed: every single part of her knew what had happened. The midwife – I don’t know which, I only saw the child – held the child, back to the ceiling, the little face contorted into noiseless crying, and forgive a father’s eyes, but the most beautiful newborn I’ve ever seen: baby-colored right out of the womb, not blue, clothed in very little blood, the blond hair on the head just a little wet, with long fine limbs – and then the air filled his lungs and he began crying, good, powerful cries, that showed he was here and had an opinion about this whole enterprise.
I cried – I just couldn’t believe, after all the uncertainty and pain, that a child so perfect could possibly have been the result. That he was healthy was immediately obvious. I helped Catherine back into the bed, while the midwives cleaned him, and by the time she was lying down again our son was in her arms. From here the sequence is hazy in my mind: I know the cord must have been clamped, and cut, and I know I was offered the honor but deferred, believing that the midwives have the traditional right to that task. What I remember was Catherine’s face, beaming, all the pain and distress of the past fourteen hours was entirely gone, calm and happy and radiant, able to converse easily, and seemingly entirely well. I couldn’t believe the transition. The midwives appeared to be correct: all I had seen was entirely normal, and entirely within her capacity. It didn’t feel that way to her at the time, but now just a minute after the birth, she seemed to just shrug the whole thing off as if it were nothing. She asked for food and water – but not like a person recovering from a serious illness – she just asked like someone who was hungry and thirsty. She didn’t even look or sound tired anymore. Of course there were endorphins involved, and in fact she would have recovery to do, but the experience of it was truly shocking. I’m sure there’s no other physical transition so shocking in our lives.
Our little boy was in the crook of her arm, looking up at her, his early cries early stilled. His face was active and alert and intelligent: he looked into the light and wondered. He had the most beautiful long fingers – not chubby like a baby’s fingers, but entirely like an adult hand in miniature, and the hand of a long-fingered pianist, at that. I was amazed at how calm he was: as soon as he was on his mother’s chest he was quiet, actively looking around. Catherine tried to get him to nurse, because nursing stimulates uterine contractions, but he was not interested.
The midwives checked the heartbeat of the second child, and it was around 135 beats per minute, healthy for an infant, though slower than the first baby’s (around 150). This was a consistent difference: one had consistently had a higher heart rate for all the prenatal visits.
“Girls often have slower heart rates,” Freida noted. “It may be a girl.” But as long as all was well, Catherine could relax before the second birth.
During this time something less than a half-hour passed, and then the next birth began. All of a sudden Catherine’s face changed from beaming to distressed just as suddenly as it had changed from distressed to beaming. The second twin was coming down into the birth canal. This time Catherine was laying on the bed, and I brought out a shaving mirror, since Catherine had wanted to see the actual birth. For the first twin she had been so preoccupied with the pain that it would have been impossible to focus on anything else. But this time I could tell things would be different. And after just a few contractions, the baby began to come out, not forcibly, but slowly, gently, causing less pain, although the burn of the first birth burned again. Catherine had been left lying down, which helped keep the birth slow and gentle, which ended up begin good, as the child’s umbilical cord was wrapped around the neck, and the midwives carefully unwound it as the birth proceeded. This birth looked gorier: the head came covered in a strange blackish-red stuff, which had apparently been in the birth canal after the first birth, which contrasted with a very pale body. Again, back to the ceiling, the child was held up: we saw the wrinkled face, and then a series of weak cries. Our second child: safe and well, another big baby, with the same long limbs.
“It’s a girl,” said the midwife. She was washed, and laid in the crook of Catherine’s other arm: again, perfect, and beautiful, and so different. Her hair was darker, her head a different shape, her body had gone from pale to quite red, her face very different from her twin brother’s: she looked more like a newborn, eyes less open, wanting to put off the world a bit longer. Her crying was weaker than his, but she seemed less contented: she looked angry at the indignity of the whole thing. And a girl – we had a daughter as well as a son. I had wanted, once we knew we had twins, to have a boy and a girl – and God granted this wish. I wanted to name a daughter after my mother while she was yet in this world – and God granted this wish.
Two healthy, full-sized babies, John Sibelius 7 lbs. 7 oz., born at 4:15, and Mary Cecilia 7 lbs. 2 oz., born at 4:46. Little Mary took more of an interest in the breast, and after nursing some, contractions began once more, and the placenta passed through the birth canal; the expulsion was painful – that same burning – but not difficult. The midwives placed it in a bowl, and while we cried with joy and wonder looking at our children, they inspected the placenta with interest. Freida in particular took to interpreting it, explaining it to the younger midwife; how it was two placentas joined, how the connection to the uterus w as larger in the case of twins. She took particular interest in the umbilical cords, which differed visibly: his was larger, thicker, almost braided, while hers was thinner and more simple in appearance. I wish now I had listened a bit more attentively to what they were saying, but I had other things on my mind.
There I was, watching my beloved wife holding our two babies – our son and daughter, not just an idea in our heads, but two people we could pick up and hold and look at and listen to, who had already been baptized in their mother’s blood and their father’s tears. Holding them up to the fading light at the window, it made no sense to me: we had known they were coming for months and months, and now that they were here, nothing could explain it: where did they come from? No answer seemed adequate to the mystery of it. We had not made them – we would not be equal to the task even of putting the folds of their ears in the right places – but somehow they were born of our desire, and now were in the hands of our love. It was one of those moments that contained all the earlier moments, that changed them all, that washed away so much of their sadness: all the empty nights, the profitless tasks I had engaged in, the dead-ends, the unhappiness, the loneliness, the failed attempts and uncertainties, decades of hope and longing, much of which had amounted to very little: I could feel all of it yielding to tears, that I had lived to see my children, flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone. That the longing of the previous decades had pointed to this, and this wish had not merely passed from me, but I had a new joy in the fulfilment: and now, as it never had been before, seeing these lives made of my life, my heart was full.
[part three is here]
One of Richard Rohr’s spiritual dicta is that how you do one thing is how you do everything: that there tends to be an organic unity to people, and even to cultures. The same problem tends to resurface everywhere.
Another of his dicta is that you don’t think your way to a new way of living, you live your way to a new way of thinking. Action really is what is transformative: a change in lifestyle, an alteration of habits. That changes your thinking, in the end.
And so one of the observations I would like to make is that if the United States merely solved its agricultural problems, it would in the process probably have to solve all its other problems. The problems of agriculture today are: 1) consolidation of the entire food supply into the hands of few corporations 2) elimination of middle-class farmers and failure of small farms 3) government regulations which vastly favor megacorporate farms over small farms; the ownership of government by large corporations 4) exploitation of immigrant laborers without any legal rights 5) expansion of machinery and displacement of workers 6) extensive reliance of that machinery on finite petrochemicals 7) use of additional petrochemicals as fertilizers in place of natural replenishment of the soil 8) use of chemicals in place of interspecific and intraspecific diversity as a means of preserving the health of food plants and animals 9) massive amounts of pollution caused by the production and application of all those chemicals 10) destruction of surrounding ecology due to those chemicals – including, as we now know, the pollinators on which the entire system is based.
I could go on, but that will suffice. All these problems are present merely in the meals that you and I eat every day, just as the problem of slavery was present every morning in the 19th century when Americans got up to put on their clothes, or gave a piece of candy to a child, or put sugar in their tea or coffee.
And here is another way that agriculture is symptomatic of all the ills of our contemporary society: 80% of our agricultural land is taken up by annuals. In other words, four-fifths of our efforts are put into the short-term, and the immediate, with tremendous input requirements of chemical fertilizers, and the like: sacrificing the future for the present. Annuals by nature do not cover the soil for almost half the year, causing tremendous wastage of topsoil. In nature, annuals appear in disturbed, damaged land as a mere band-aid, and are quickly replaced by other vegetation. But we are a culture of band-aids and short-term investment. Wendell Berry (in this fine interview) says that we really need to change our agriculture to have four-fifths of our agriculture provided by perennial plants, and only one-fifth in annuals. There should be more pasture grasses, more fruit orchards, more nut orchards, more crops that require long-term investment and stabilize the soils and require fewer inputs. But that would require us to focus four-fifths of our being on the long-term, which would be a complete cultural revolution. As Berry says, “for Americans to talk about sustainability is a bit of a joke.”
[This was originally begun January 10th, but it took ten days of editing and tinkering for me to finally cut the whole essay in half and post this first half. The other will follow shortly. [it is here]]
I’m disregarding, as I write this, the good advice all new parents disregard. Like most wise counsel it is wonderfully rational, but just doesn’t seem to take into account the fact that we human beings have emotions. It’s late in the evening; snow is falling on the fields outside, and I’m sitting in front of the fire. My newborns are asleep upstairs, and I should be sleeping too. That’s the advice every new parent hears: “Sleep when they sleep.” But I just can’t do it. I’m exhausted, of course, but also charged with energy. I can feel the tension in my shoulder and neck muscles, which no amount of hot showers or muscle rubs seems to ease. When I lay down, I end up tossing and turning, or looking at my children sleep. And I think of how much things are changing already, after just a week – the kind of thing that makes a writer want to stay awake and write it all down.
Catherine and I came to Ohio for the birth of our first child, just under a month ago. Eight days ago she gave birth – not to just one, but twins, with all healthy, here in this Ohio farmhouse. I am aware that I have now seen something that not many people today have seen: the natural birth of twins in a home. Home births are rare enough as it is: I know several women who have done natural births in birthing centers, but I don’t think I know any woman of my generation who has had a birth at home; it was not common forty years ago, when my mother had me, and it’s still not common now. One friend mixed her worries in with her congratulations when we announced the safe delivery, confessing that she had three friends who had tried home births, but all three “had to be whisked to the hospital at the last minute, with the baby’s heartbeat slowing to a whisper,” and now that we had made it past the crisis she could confess her fears.
This was what we had come to Ohio for, and in fact there’s probably very little chance we could have had a home birth of twins anywhere else: very few other midwives would have been likely to attempt to deliver a first-time mother’s twins at home. Here is the short version of how this all came about.
We had wanted to do a home birth from the beginning; a hospital being almost precisely the opposite of the kind of human landscape we want to spend time in. It might be necessary at times, but to us it was worth avoiding if we could avoid it. I had been born at home and four of Catherine’s siblings had as well. We both agreed that a winter birth at the cabin was too much: even beyond the questions of risk it simply not did offer sufficient comforts for something so physically difficult. There were then two obvious options: in New York City with my family, or in Ohio with Catherine’s. Since I was born in the same house my mother lives in now, and I desired to pass on to my children the privilege of being born New Yorkers, I voted for New York; Catherine thought this was great. She went down to the city to meet with potential midwives: which ended up being not very easy. The cost was very high – sometimes as high as ten thousand dollars, and insurance was complicated. None seemed to take our insurance; some said we could switch our insurance to one they accepted; one normally didn’t take medicaid but maybe was willing to wade through paperwork because she didn’t want to just serve the wealthy; but nothing was really easy. “Talk to my biller,” said one. The midwives talked about payment a lot and wanted to be paid at each visit, because they warned her that as a first-time mother their services were probably redundant – she would almost certainly have to deliver at a hospital anyway. So they wanted their money up front: if it was in their pocket already there would be no billing disputes afterwards when she felt that she had just thrown away several grand on a home delivery that took place in a hospital anyway. She despaired of ever having anything better than a bureaucratic relationship with people who gave her 80 pages of paperwork to fill out and said, “That’s to get you started, we’ll do the rest next time.” And the general impression from them all was: this is the new New York City. A home birth is a luxury product. Not everyone gets one, and you too may not be worthy of it. So don’t count on it. Success in this town is for the few.
I could tell by her complaints about the process that she was not happy. “Why don’t you go to Ohio, and meet the midwives there,” I told her. “If they’re no better, then fine, we’ll stay here and see how it goes.”
So Catherine made an appointment with the midwife group that her mother had used, and in September she drove out to Ohio and spent a few days there. From the very first meeting there was no question. I could tell on the phone that Catherine had the right midwife for her: someone comforting, simple, and confident but not because of an ideology: confident merely because she had never thought not to be confident. The midwife seemed to have no doubt that Catherine could deliver the babies at home: she was Mennonite, and part of a community where most babies are born at home. The paperwork was minimal, and the cost was less than one-tenth of the cost in New York.
When Catherine got back, I got a chance to review the packet the midwife, named Jena, had supplied. I hadn’t met her, but the packet was very promising. “I can’t believe,” I told Catherine, “how much of this I agree with!” Agreeing with things other people say is not a luxury I get to indulge in very often, so I noticed it. Catherine was happy about this, because birth is one of those things which could potentially divide a couple. You don’t really know beforehand if you really agree when you get down to details. But we apparently did. The packet contained all kinds of information about diet and taking care of your own body, stretches, massages, etc. Its knowledge of herbal remedies was beyond anything I had seen (“white oak capsules”?) and yet it did not strike me as fruity or far-out in its thinking – there was no “wheat juice will cure your cancer” stuff. Witch hazel to help with hemorrhoids – well, yes, that made sense, now that I thought of it: I’d seen witch hazel presses almost magically reduce the swelling in my fingers. And hemorrhoids were basically just swelling. Never heard of it before, but it made sense. And the principle of the whole packet – all the information on diet, exercise, and remedies – was quite explicitly spelled out in the beginning:
Homebirth is for responsible people who take care of their bodies. Pregnancy is not a sickness, but it is extra work for your body, therefore you need more food, water, and rest.
Homebirth is for mothers who believe God created all things well. From the beginning, women have been giving birth. It is a natural event, and trying to make it a medical one is doing more harm than good.
I like to see the women I will be helping through birth periodically to ensure that all is going well. Your urine, blood pressure, pulse, weight, and general well-being are checked each month, as well as position, size, and heartbeat of the baby. Your hemoglobin levels are checked at least once. Visits are closer together as you enter the last two months.
Homebirth is for couples who wish to be free to experience totally natural childbirth. Birthing a baby is hard work, but it is also a time of great excitement and joy. Having the mother (and baby) drugged decreases from the experience.
When you are admitted into a hospital, you are pretty much turning over to them the responsibility for your health and the baby’s. At home, YOU remain responsible and free to make the choices you feel are right.
She was offering just enough medical expertise to allow us to be free and do this in our homes, and no more. Ultimately, we were taking responsibility for the event, instead of paying someone else to be responsible. And that was something we believed in.
The food recommendations – mostly meat and vegetables – not only seemed correct, but they made me glad. For almost the whole of Catherine’s pregnancy she had been eating out of our garden, and from our neighbors’ bounty – several servings every day of our own fresh-grown arugula, lettuce, ramps, peas, radishes, spinach, parsley, basil, cilantro, rosemary, garlic, potatoes, carrots, currants, kale, raspberries, blueberries, ground cherries, pears, apples, pumpkins, and tomatoes. And from neighbors we had gotten rhubarb, corn, squash, persimmons, eggs, cabbage, plums, grapes, pawpaws, and all kinds of other treats. And the Hudson Valley provided fresh, local meat and dairy. This was precisely the kind of eating the midwife was recommending – and indeed, Catherine seemed healthy and glowing all this time.
We arrived in Ohio after my work at the nursery was done, in December. Catherine immediately began her regular visits to the midwife. It was my first time meeting her. The midwife was what a New Yorker would call an Amish woman – she wore one of those caps – but technically she was a Mennonite, which could basically be described as the least strict of German non-conformist/pacifist (=Amish) communities in America. She was an interesting mix of old and new – which I liked, perhaps, because I was a mix like that too. She wore the cap but had a car and cellphone; she was young and pretty and sent texts like a teenager (“c u in 10”), but was demure in a way that I have really only read about: she typically would not look me in the eye unless I really insisted on it by staring at her. She was gentle and patient, and her speech (and indeed her whole style) was accurate but very simple. She would not come in bubbling with news or questions. She certainly never asked us a personal question. There are plenty of words for her, but they’re not the stuff of modern Hollywood heroines: patience, simplicity, tranquillity, modesty. She could have been a farmgirl in any 19th century novel: and yet she was younger than the two of us.
So it was surprising to us that after examining Catherine in our first visit she suggested that we probably wanted to get an ultrasound. She had not recommended one before, but in this instance she thought it would be useful. She suspected Catherine was carrying twins. “In fact,” she said, “I’d be surprised if it wasn’t twins.” She had not been able to locate a second heartbeat (neither had the obstetrician back in New York, despite looking), but just looking at Catherine she thought there were two in there. And she measured her “fundal height” (the term of art for those who deal with pregnancy) at 43 cm. at 37 weeks. Typically this measurement indicates the number of weeks of pregnancy: a woman will get to 40 cm. at 40 weeks. To be a good 6 cm off in such a linear measurement was quite unusual.
We had been through eight months of pregnancy, from the Catskills to Johannesburg to Dakar and New York City, but this measurement caused the first real substantiated worry of the pregnancy. Of course when your wife is pregnant you are worried generally; but earlier we worried without particular cause. Now we knew that Catherine’s condition was the most feared of all conditions: an abnormal one. She was too big. Now we were going to make the rounds of the experts to get an explanation for the abnormality.
This led to the next worry. Getting an ultrasound of course meant a dip into the medical system, and there was no way that was going to be easy. Obamacare works via “state exchanges”; it apparently does not cover out-of-state medical visits; we would have to pay out of pocket (or pay even more to go back to New York). Figuring that out took a little time. Then we had to deal with the fact that the medical establishment was not terribly helpful; it was not obvious anyone wanted anything to do with a woman eight months pregnant already (presumably this means some exposure to liability); only one hospital anywhere near us had an obstetrics unit at all (most have abandoned obstetrics due to liability concerns), and they claimed that it would not be possible to get an ultrasound for several weeks, which would be after the baby’s due date; we got a prescription for an ultrasound from a doctor, but he said he did not know where we could take it to get the procedure done. We could wait for the hospital, but he was quite sure Catherine would deliver before we got the ultrasound. It was impressively frustrating: no one wanted to help and we were on our own. In the end we had to drive more than two hours away, to Ohio’s capital, Columbus, and go to a vanity ultrasound place (“Ultrasona”) which did high-quality images and videos of babies in utero. No prescription was required and appointments were available.
The day we headed for the appointment Catherine had an egg on toast, and did a double-take as she dropped the egg into the frying-pan: it had a double-yoke. “A lot of jumbo eggs have double yolks,” she pointed out, but it was noticeable nevertheless. And when we got off at the exit in North Columbus for the ultrasound place and found that the exit was called “Gemini Parkway,” Catherine was quite convinced that these coincidences were a sign. Whatever the acausal connecting principle in the universe is – and wouldn’t we all like to know – in the end the coincidences were indeed prophetic. “Oh yeah,” said the ultrasound technician, “that’s another head there.” We were having twins.
We were overjoyed, for several reasons. First of all, in fact it came as a relief. We didn’t have an explanation, before, for why Catherine was so big; now we did. And in fact people had been telling us this for months already. In Africa, when Catherine was four months pregnant, she met a woman who was eight months pregnant with about the same size belly; the woman did not believe Catherine when she said she was only four months. People in the supermarket would come up to Catherine and say, “Twins!” My niece said, “I think it’s twins!” My employer’s wife commented, “Are you sure it’s not twins?” When we asked my nephew whether he thought it was a boy or a girl, he said, “Both!” Now we had an explanation for all this.
But more than anything it was good news because it was news of life: first of all, the abundance and fertility of it, that two whole new human beings were going to come into the world at a single stroke. And it was not only quantity but vitality: twins are different and cool and interesting and odd. We all know the stories about how they can be a thousand miles away and both order the same thing at a restaurant or know what the other is thinking, and in general have some unfathomable special connection. My mother liked the idea of children being spaced and being given their own experience; and I approved of that, but of course it also made me curious about the other side of things, where children are close together and share experiences and build a bond. Twins are the utmost example of that.
Both of us like surprises, and both are willing to have to adjust plans. And that was the next process: figuring out how we were going to have to adjust. The most immediate question was how it would affect our plans for a home birth.
We had gotten information about the babies’ positioning while getting the ultrasound: they were both head-down, in perfect position. We found out they were in two separate amniotic sacks in the womb – a crucial point. If the babies are in the same sack, their cords frequently get tangled, causing problems during birth. As long as they were in separate sacks, and both in the proper position, a twin birth should not be much more difficult than a single birth. The reasons for the home birth had not changed, our commitment to the midwife had not changed, and we still believed Catherine was capable of delivering them safely at home. I re-read all the emergency procedures I needed to know, and kept the card in my pocket at all times; I paid especial attention to the “plan B” for where we were going in case of difficulty; but all in all, we felt good. Catherine’s pregnancy had offered all the normal discomforts but no special complications, even into the ninth month. The ultrasound technician had estimated their weights at around seven pounds each: two healthy, full-sized babies.
In fact, Catherine said she was glad that she didn’t know it was twins until near the end. She might never have believed she could carry them to term, were it not for the fact that she already had. We could have marched into a hospital right there, and delivered two healthy babies. All they lacked now were some of the womb’s finishing touches. And not only had Catherine carried them to term, but she had brought them to Africa, climbed mountains in the Catskills, tended a garden, done the cooking and cleaning and washing and managed our little homestead, while bringing them to term. In fact, all that physical activity had probably helped them, but if she had been anxious the whole time about her double pregnancy, she might never have done it. Cicero writes in his De Divinatione about how useful to human beings is our ignorance of the future; and that might have been the case here. We felt that we found out only when we really needed to know. Similarly we did not ask the sexes of the babies, not finding that information necessary at present.
So we went back home, told our news to our friends and family, did some basic additional preparation (we needed a second birthing kit, more clothes, more diapers, etc.), and got back to the active waiting that is the end of pregnancy. It was Christmastime and we were around her family; there were all kinds of events to attend and people to see. We tended to be home early, but I went to work (helping a carpenter) and she kept the house and saw people just like normal.
It is unusual for twins to go to full term, but ours did. Catherine went into labor in the fortieth week, just five days before her due date. We went for an unusually long walk the day before she went into labor. I awoke at three in the morning to find her on the phone with the midwife, talking about contractions. She had been discussing her “Braxton-Hicks contractions,” which are preparatory uterine contractions and not part of labor proper, with the midwife for weeks now. I disliked the use of the term “contractions” for these muscle spasms, because it made it seem like labor had begun, and I presumed she was still discussing them with the midwife. I thought this was a bit much, waking the midwife up at three in the morning to talk about what was a routine physical preparation for labor. I looked at her dimly in the darkness and said, “You’re not in labor,” and rolled over to return to my sleeping. I don’t remember what convinced me otherwise – I think it was just her telling me so. All I can remember is that all of a sudden I was out of bed, got dressed, and things were serious. Labor had begun.
[Continued in part 2].