I have terrible timing, writing about new life and birth, just as all the leaves are dying along with our hopes of sunshine and light jackets for the next four months. But babies, I’ve discovered, have their own timing, and new life often comes, not as a tender shoot or a ray of sun, but as an intense, unstoppable, astonishing movement that will carry you along with it, ready or not.
My friend delivered her first baby, a son, in her home this past Sunday, and I was there to witness it. More than witness. I was part of an event that still leaves me a little stunned. I will never use birth carelessly as a metaphor for anything else. It just doesn’t fit so neatly anymore.
I have no children. (Yet). I’ve used birth as a metaphor for countless projects, thesii, essays, poems, cakes and other creations that I’ve crafted and brought into the world. I’ve compared the angst of not finding the right words, or being afraid to let your work go into the daylight for all to see, to giving birth, and the process of creation as a kind of parenthood.
And for that, I’m truly sorry, because like so many of our most profound human experiences, real, natural, specific birth is indescribable. Which means we writers have fair warning – taking up the powerful, primal and beautiful experience of a birth and comparing it to anything other is pure foolishness.
What we can do, and what I hope to do in writing this post, is offer thoughtful reflections on how the indescribable affects us. And for the sake of privacy, and respect, I am not going to give details of the miraculous birth I saw Sunday. I don’t want steal someone else’s story. A story that is specific, tender, astonishing and breathtaking. I feel honored just by participating.
I feel transformed by it. This birth, this commonplace, universal human experience, this messy, intense, painful, rushing river of pure, present moment has put me in my place.
I saw a friend transformed also, strong, impassioned and utterly focussed on accomplishing something that will turn her life upside down, and caused her intense and overwhelming pain.
Birth is the death of self. For the mother, it’s a giving away of her body, time, convenience, and strength to another. She, in the throes of labour, is completely embracing the idea of service, and is fully committed, with every contraction, to ushering in the life of another, and then nurturing that life, at the cost of vanity and self-preservation, and physical comfort.
I was a bystander, with no concept of the feelings my friend was facing up to, both physically and mentally.
But I experienced a small, tiny measure of that precious call to selflessness. I cancelled all my plans, rushed home, dressed as practically as I could, and ran over to her home, to make myself available, with no agenda or expectation. Prepared to do anything and everything, including walking right back out the door if she didn’t want me there, no questions asked.
Working together with the masterful midwives, addressing each moment of need as it came, we fell into a rhythm of alert waiting, reaction, preparation and encouragement, carefully controlling our excitement. Being with a group of women like that, all devoting ourselves to the present, fluid moment, was invigorating. A towel here, a hand gripped, a picture taken, a warm cloth, a shout of encouragement, a quick rearrangement of pillows, a deft clean-up, a pair of hands to hold the baby, be a body to lean on, pour champagne, enfold in blankets, all was pleasurable duty.
All these actions occurred outside of normal time – it was magnificent, truly ordinary time, measured in centimetres dilated, exclamations of pain and instruction, underscored by the frenetic, gorgeous heartbeat of an almost-born boy.
He was born at 2:59pm. He leapt his way into the wide world and was immediately carried from womb to breast, where his cries of insistent aliveness subsided. Our urgency gave way to awe, and shock, the good kind, the kind where you’ve suddenly crossed over into a new country with one single step, and find yourself looking at a whole new landscape you never imagined possible. But you’re in it. There’s no denying the present reality. A child is born.
And I want more. Not just babies. I want to run headlong into more of these indescribable, ordinary moments: giving myself wholly to a present, an event, an experience in which I am committed to just being there, no agenda, no plans, no rewards. I was completely enveloped in the present while my past, my future, my angst and existential problems went missing in the action. I was sharing in experience that required my alert presence, my full attention.
We were all born once. And we are meant for so much more than patterns of consumption, habit and self-preservation. We are meant to engage our hands, our feet, our imaginations, our hearts and our souls in the present moments of need in the lives of others. To be truly human is to be present in this life, right now. Giving our time and ourselves to the holy, bloody moments of opportunity, whether it’s delivering a baby, truly listening to story of another’s heartbreak, enjoying a meal together, sharing a burden, comforting in the midst of illness, completing a task in the fellowship of hard work.
Even a helpless infant, minutes old, has the powerful gift of presence. Totally unable to do anything but breathe and be alive, his arrival drew us all into a beautiful, sudden, changed present, a perfect gift of now.