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Venerdi Dantesco.


Domenico di Michelino Dante and His Poem (1465) fresco, in the dome of the church of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence (Florence's cathedral). Dante Alighieri is shown holding a copy of his epic poem The Divine Comedy. He is pointing to a procession of sinners being lead down to the circles of Hell on the left. Behind him are the seven terraces of Purgatory, with Adam and Eve representing Earthly Paradise on top. Above them, the sun and the moon represent Heavenly Paradise, whilst on the right is Dante's home city of Florence. The illustration of Florence is self referencial, depicting the recently completed and much celebrated cathedral dome inside which the fresco is painted.

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.

A Tale of Home Birth, Part 3 (of 3).


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.

Prolegomena to a Tale of a Home Birth.


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.

Home Birth, Part 2.


[Part 1 of this is here.  A third part is here.]

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]

How You Do One Thing Is How You Do Everything.


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.”

The View From Our Window.


Ohio Snowstorm

Scio, Ohio.

Home Birth, Part 1.


[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].



I’ve become aware in the past few days that this period of my life – the time when my wife is pregnant with our first child – is about to end. I’ve already started to get a bit sentimental, wondering if I’ve taken enough pictures, or enjoyed it enough. Soon it will be over, and something new will begin.

And that’s the way it’s been with every stage of the pregnancy – the changes within pregnancy itself are a kind of indicator of just how quickly human beings develop. Of course we all note how long it takes for humans to mature – not many other animals need so long as two years to reach sexual maturity, much less our twelve or thirteen years, not to speak of emotional maturity, which seems to postulate a purgatory, this life not being long enough – but human development is so complicated that over the entire maturation process there is almost continual change.  Experienced parents tell us again and again that the problems of being childrearing don’t really get solved: they just turn into other problems, quickly.  Whatever seems unbearable is made bearable by the knowledge that it will not last.

The division of pregnancy into three grand divisions, the trimesters, generally seems accurate. For Catherine there have been all kinds of physical sensations, both pleasures and discomforts, which have appeared and then gone away; but emotionally there have been just three main acts. In the first trimester, it all seemed too fragile and uncertain to make much of. There could be a miscarriage; who knew what would happen. We didn’t want to base too much on something that might not work out. And the physical discomforts – the nausea that affects the whole body and is hard to avoid or control – highlight the fragility of the whole thing.

The second trimester, for us, really was a golden period. The physical discomforts for Catherine seemed to vanish: in fact she had more energy than normal. We went off to Africa, and then came back and enjoyed a beautiful summer in the Catskills. The general feeling was one of overflowing vitality: the new life inside her was growing, and healthy, and she wanted to hike and work and do things. We were still careful, and she did in fact move more slowly than normal, but we both had the feeling that we could do this: that is was beautiful, and natural, and even easy.

That changed in the third trimester, however. Anxiety began to be a larger part of the equation. Catherine’s belly continued to grow, and looking at her, all I could see was vulnerability: I suppose this is some kind of instinct. I certainly became more protective and risk-averse. The meaning of pregnancy began to be clear: she wasn’t just pregnant. She was going to bring a new human being into the world: one that would have needs. One that would have opinions about things: at first just “hot” or “cold” or “hungry” or “uncomfortable,” but later things like “My dad is a ________” (loser? Hero? Failure? Hypocrite?) or “My life has been such a _______” (blessing? Disaster? Disappointment?). The feelings that I, as a father, wouldn’t measure up, that I wasn’t ready, that failure was a real possibility, that there was something I hadn’t done, that we didn’t have enough money, that we could make a mistake that would harm our child, that we would make the wrong choices, that the future would be a terrible place for children – all of these concerns became daily possibilities. I haven’t spent all of the last three months thinking like this, but those thoughts definitely have arrived, and for me they really arrived in the third trimester.

Now we have a blessed period where we have the time to await the birth in a beautiful, well-stocked country home, surrounded by Catherine’s family and friends. I’ve taken up some part-time work here, but it’s only three days a week with a flexible schedule, and all we’ve had to do is stockpile some more baby clothes, build a compost bin for the house, put in a bird-feeder, and visit people. As I write this I’m sitting on a nice couch staring at our wood-burning stove and little Christmas tree, with a little pile of books by my side. It feels like we’re cosmically lucky, and yet each night when I put my hands on Catherine’s shoulders, or she puts hers on mine, the tension and tightness is evident.

That’s part of the responsibility of being a parent, and I don’t think we’ll ever be entirely free from it, the rest of our lives. We know that in becoming parents we are taking up not only great joys but also new and terrifying vulnerabilities: we know that any parent would willingly take on any suffering, or any death, rather than watch his child suffer or die. But sometimes that power is not given us.

The third trimester of a pregnancy is also very public. It is visible, and everyone can comment on it; and it changes not only the couple’s behavior but the behavior of everyone in proximity. Some of the attention can be mortifying (having total strangers exclaim at you (“Oh my god you look like you’re about to pop!”) whenever you go into public is not what modest people want when they are going about their business (though I think I might enjoy it, myself). But most of it is really amazing. It calls forth so much love from other people: so many kind deeds, so much excitement, and so much happiness. Pregnancy is not just a private affair, and I don’t believe it’s supposed to be. Its very visibility suggests that it is supposed to be something known and shared. “Your children,” says Khalil Gibran, “are not your children.” You are bringing another human being to the world, and the world takes note.

And it seems that we all instinctually understand the happiness that children bring to parents. My mother always used to say was “Your friends are the people who share your joys.” When you are about to have a child it seems like the whole world is your friend: so many people congratulate you, and so many people seem so genuinely happy to hear your news.  And you are, indeed, the generator of the news, not the consumer of it: nothing happening anywhere else seems as important.

Amish Funeral.


Amish FuneralsThe latter half of Christmas morning I spent at a funeral. One of the Amish families had just lost their two-week-old baby. The family lived nearby – I had already met the child’s great-uncle – and I knew another family we knew here would be there. But there was another reason I wanted to go. Cicero, in his meditations on death, reports that the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras met the news of his son’s death calmly: “I knew, when I fathered him,” he said, “that he was mortal.” My life has seen an almost uninterrupted run of good fortune, and a great abundance of life, this year. But I feel the presence of that other thing, that mortality that bounds all we know and feel. I know that it is all fragile, and all destined to return to the earth. I just recently read a generally intelligent woman writing about what she felt was the absurdist cruelty of the Incarnation: that a child be born for the express purpose of having his life sacrificed. What wilful blindness in her, I thought – we are all brought into the world on these conditions. I felt a desire to draw closer to this truth, and look it in the face for awhile.

I did not know precisely where the burying-ground was, so I came down the dirt road carefully, looking in all directions, and at last I saw, up ahead, two large black masses by the side of the road: at first I could not tell what they were. As I got closer I realized that the further one was the row of black hearses, and black horses, parked at the edge of the field; and the nearer one the mass of black-clad mourners, gathered in a solid mass at the edge of the field. I had to drive past the mourners to reach the parking area, which made me feel terribly self-conscious, but there was no hope for it. As I drove by the ashen faces of the mourners turned to watch me. I continued to the parking area, and walked back toward the gravesite. The gravel of the road crunched beneath my feet, and embarrassed by the noise of my approach I climbed up into the field to walk on the silent grass.

I do not think I have seen any scene so purely mournful as this: the dark light of deep winter, the distant views of winter fields and gray skies, and the mourners closely gathered round, the women on one side, all clad in black cloaks and black bonnets, the men opposite them, in suits and brimmed hats of dark blue or black, their dark carriages and dark horses waiting for them in rows at a quarter-mile’s distance. As I approached I could see that my appearance made some disturbance in the assembly: I could see one woman lean in to her neighbor, looking at me, to ask who I was; I could see the other woman reply that she did not know. There were only two other men not in Amish mourning garb besides myself, both of them known to the others present. I was a stranger.

An older man with full beard and shaven lip and cheeks spoke the prayers, without book, all in German; I could tell only that it was about “the Prophet David,” and his “junge kinder” – I presume referring to the passage from Samuel, when David’s first child with Bathsheba dies:

After Nathan had gone home, the Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife had borne to David, and he became ill. David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground. The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground, but he refused, and he would not eat any food with them.

On the seventh day the child died. David’s attendants were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they thought, “While the child was still living, he wouldn’t listen to us when we spoke to him. How can we now tell him the child is dead? He may do something desperate.”
David noticed that his attendants were whispering among themselves, and he realized the child was dead. “Is the child dead?” he asked.

“Yes,” they replied, “he is dead.”

Then David got up from the ground. After he had washed, put on lotions and changed his clothes, he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. Then he went to his own house, and at his request they served him food, and he ate.

His attendants asked him, “Why are you acting this way? While the child was alive, you fasted and wept, but now that the child is dead, you get up and eat!”

He answered, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.’ But now that he is dead, why should I go on fasting? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”

In between the words of the officiant, a chorus of men sang a simple, repeated chant. Two young men worked the shovels, filling in the small hole made in the earth for the body of this child. It was the very smallness of the grave which made me tear up, when I caught a glimpse of it through the bodies standing around it. And even so it took an awful amount of time to fill the deep grave, one shovel-full at a time. The prayers continued, and the chants, for a time; and then the shovels worked in silence, and the people talked. Several of the men introduced themselves to me, and thanked me for coming out; they asked me about my situation, and I offered my condolences. One of the young men, the uncle of the child, told me the child had died from a chromosomal defect (the Amish are supposedly more susceptible to genetic problems, because of their small gene pool); but, he added, this was the first of the family’s sixty grandchildren to die.  “First death in the family,” he said.  The men’s effort to welcome me was truly noticeable and, I thought, laudable.

The women stood on the other side, gathering the children into their cloaks; some of the women were crying, but in general a stoic silence prevailed. There were no Mediterranean histrionics: these people suffered in silence. The black cloaks and bonnets of the women made their ashen complexions leap out of the darkness; I had never seen anything like them except in Northern-Renaissance paintings. When the shovels had stopped again, the officiant offered a final blessing, and the crowd slowly dispersed. People talked, but in a subdued way; the children (who were all silent and well-behaved until now) began running through the fields. Their black forms coursing up and down the hills were beautiful to watch.  The horses began to snort as their masters returned to them and untied them; and the clop of hooves and rattle of wheels began. The grave was left as a mound of earth, marked by two iron bars (which I believe were only to lower the casket and would be removed later); there were no flowers or other offerings. There were no other graves: it was a new burying-ground, and this had been the first body laid in this earth.  Many of the women took small stones from the gravesite and carried them away; I presume it is custom; some carried several in their hands as they walked away.

There was a reception afterward, at the family home, with food; but I had played the part of stranger enough, and I returned home.

Amish Funeral

In Amish Country.


I must say it is very striking to be living in a place where bearded men seated on buggies drive horses by at all hours of the day and night. We are now situated in one of the Amish districts of Ohio, the state which, in fact, has more Amish people than any other state. The area is by no means uniformly Amish: the Amish own many of the local farms and houses, but not so many as half, and the rest of the population probably resembles the population of any other rural district of the Midwest. I use the term “Amish” inexactly, as it would be used in New York City, to refer to the farming peoples of America, of Germanic ancestry, who speak German, practice a pacifist Christianity, and strictly limit their use of modern technologies. But the broader term is probably “Mennonites”: the Amish are a breakaway group of Mennonites, and are stricter in certain ways. From the outside the resemblances are more striking; I am told, however, that greater familiarity exposes the diversity of beliefs, lifestyles, and dress.

As a whole, they do not appear to have principled objections to all technological innovation per se: but neither do they believe, as we generally practice, that all technological innovations are good and to be adopted. And so they drive horses and buggies, but the buggies have electric taillights and headlights. There are certainly excellent reasons to reject the use of automobiles, not only for communitarian reasons but also for ecological ones. But those reasons apply less forcefully to the plastic taillights, and so the taillights are permitted. I presume that this is because it is legally required to have them in order to use the roads — and probably safer when you are in a slow vehicle sharing the road with cars. The Amish houses show a similar difficult-to-predict patchwork of technologies. Most do not have electricity, but many have vinyl siding.

I have been told that the predominant factor in their decision-making is the effect the new technology would have on their community. They are willing to put headlights on their buggies, but not rubber tires. Using rubber tires would put their own wheel-makers out of business, while they never had any tail-light makers; they can come up with no compelling reason to adopt rubber tires; and they are apparently happy with their wheels as they are.

All kinds of prudential exceptions are made for people in special circumstances: midwives, for instance, are permitted the use of cars, and also cellphones, because their line of work requires speedy travel and fast communication.

I might have thought that the Amish would be “early to bed” types, but buggies go by our house at all hours of the night. The hooves of the well-shod horses clatter on the roadway, and the metal-rimmed wheels make quite a roar coming up the hill. It’s a sound I know primarily from movies: and sometimes, sitting in the house, looking at the fire, hearing the clatter of hooves on the road, I think I could by force of will move time backwards a dozen decades: but then I turn to watch the buggy go past, and see the red taillights in the darkness, and at the edge of the horizon, the orange glow of a fracking platform. It’s 2015 all right. But there is something strangely beautiful about the existence of these people, who in their communities have really gone their own way, and tried to stay out of everyone else’s business. They all practice pacifism and reject military service: during World War II their men were drafted nevertheless, and put to non-military domestic tasks, but their pacifism was respected. They farm, make food for market, and log and build for money: but otherwise they wish mostly to be left alone, and in this country they mostly have been. In Europe they were long persecuted; but here they have long been mostly let alone. They now number in the hundreds of thousands, mostly in the Midwest.