pines to assuage the darkness
by Marvin Bell
We need some pines to assuage the darkness
when it blankets the mind,
we need a silvery stream that banks as smoothly
as a plane’s wing, and a worn bed of
needles to pad the rumble that fills the mind,
and a blur or two of a wild thing
that sees and is not seen. We need these things
between appointments, after work,
and, if we keep them, then someone someday,
lying down after a walk
and supper, with the fire hole wet down,
the whole night sky set at a particular
time, without numbers or hours, will cause
a little sound of thanks–a zipper or a snap–
to close round the moment and the thought
of whatever good we did.
* * *
I missed Poetry Wednesday this week. Now it is already Saturday, so this will simply be a poem posted on a Saturday.
It seemed a good one for summer, because, after a few readings, I realized it must refer to the experience of camping. I have not been camping yet this year and wonder if it would be worth a try with a highly mobile fifteen month-old. But I have set up tents on beds of pine needles before and heard the sound of zippers in the dark, coming from sleeping bags just after everyone has said good night, so I easily resonate with the mood of the poem.
On Monday of this week I joined a gathering of women who were meeting to talk about natural and home birth. I have not really given much thought to the topic of childbirth for well over a year. I have not had any reason to, and given my past experience, I don’t really want to think about birth unless I have to. But a friend of mine was hosting this gathering with her midwife who is visiting from Boston, and I thought it would be a nice time. I was also curious to meet her midwife, in any case, because I had spoken on the phone with her once before Elsa’s birth and she had been very helpful to me, and even made me cry with her words because they were so respectful and comforting, and contrasted so sharply with what I was experiencing from my obstetricians at that time.
Birth stories swirled around the room, and I was surprised by how many of the women there who had set out to have a natural birth in some form or another had actually wound up with a c-section. I wondered to myself which was easier for me to hear– the stories of triumphant natural birth, or the stories of disappointment and surrender to medical intervention. I left feeling slightly detached from and bemused at all of the emotionally charged data that was shared that evening.
Nevertheless, I liked so much of what the midwife, who was so clearly an incredibly bright person, said when she was questioned. She said that a mother should remember that she is a spiritual being giving birth to a spiritual being, and it is her role to create a space around her baby’s birth that fully acknowledges the spiritual reality of what is happening. It is not simply a mechanical process to be treated as merely mechanical. She said that whatever your faith or spiritual practice is, whatever your religion, you should treat birth as an event within your own spiritual development.
I couldn’t help looking back and evaluating the birth of both of my girls in light of her words. Many external forces broached the space surrounding both of my girls’ births, and I wonder to what extent I could have protected that space more vigilantly, praying more, and surrendering to God rather than fretting and trying to control things so much. Perhaps a wiser me would have simply realized that it was more beneficial to preserve a peaceful mood surrounding the births than to struggle with the details of the mechanics, or, rather, to struggle with unsupportive doctors who wanted to control the mechanics in ways that I did not want, and who, in their attitudes and words were unwittingly contributing to the spiritual nature of the experience nonetheless.
Because ironically, the birth of my first baby was as mechanical as could possibly be– a scheduled cesarean–and yet I look back on it as being far less emotionally complicated. It was as much a spiritual, mysterious event as anything I have ever experienced. And that serenity no doubt came from the fact that I was in harmony with the people who were going to travel with me into that birth space: doctors. Doctors are very pleased to be able to provide a controlled outcome to the birth event, which is otherwise so uncertain, and for them a surgical birth is perhaps that biggest guarantor of a controlled outcome, so perhaps (consciously or unconsciously) they love this method of birth more than any other. When the events leading up to the birth of both of my babies started pointing to the operating room, I could see obvious relief in the countenance of my doctors, a twinkle in their eye even as they expressed their sympathies to me, and a spring in their step. It was undeniable. And on some level I do not really blame them, because if birth is indeed a mystery, as wise midwives who have attended hundreds and hundreds of births claim, then everything within the hospital environment works against that mystery, and I imagine that this is difficult for doctors, who are simply trying to keep everyone safe, and do not really have the necessary resources to enter into everyone’s personal mystery with them and do whatever it takes to protect that mystery, which can vary greatly from woman to woman, and convince that psychologically motivated sphincter muscle to open up and let the baby out.
I would be dishonest if I did not confess that it feels terrible to be in conflict with doctors, and it feels very good to be in their good graces. The seamless harmony that one can achieve as a patient by complying with doctors ensures a feeling of serenity around a birth, and this is precisely what a birthing mother wants to feel when her time comes, even if, for some women, this might mean forfeiting all or some amount of confidence in her own body.
When I left my friend’s home on Monday evening, her midwife was sitting with her on the sofa, massaging her swollen feet. I knew that they were very comfortable in each others’ presence and that they would simply hang out at her home, eat meals, and go through the day, or many days, in all the ordinary ways until her contractions began. If she were in the hands of doctors right now, I do not doubt she would be facing pressure to be induced, because she is well past her due date. And even if she simply refused to comply, on some level something would already be lost, because she would be in conflict with the very people responsible for her care. Instead, she was sitting at home, no one pressuring or badgering her. She would simply go from an ordinary day or an ordinary night amidst familiar surroundings, her icons, her furniture, her sons’ things, into labor. She would experience that seamless feeling of harmony during the event of her birth, but without having to forfeit all confidence in her own body.
As the group dispersed that night, I left my friend’s home feeling ever more mystified by the mystery of childbirth. I also left feeling happy for her. Someone was getting to experience the world a bit more closely to the way it should be.