Recently, I was in Berkeley, California, floating at midnight in a traditional Japanese bathing tub under the stars, surrounded by broad palm leaves waving between moonbeams, as I pondered the unfolding mysteries that had carried me so far from my little cottage in the woods of Missouri.
Earlier in the year, Diana Paul and I were at a conference where she introduced me to a lovely Japanese woman whose daughter, Aya, was expecting her first baby mid-summer. The child would be Marsha’s first grandchild. Marsha was a labor and delivery nurse and had come to the conference for support and balance from the pressures and increasing medicalization of birth in her daily work life. Marsha had had Aya at home three decades ago. But the world turns, especially the world of birth, and Marsha was reaching out for support as a nurse and also as a grandmother-to-be.
Diana Paul is a filmmaker, a birth advocate and a gifted human conduit. “You have to do something for your daughter!” she told Marsha. “Let’s have lunch with Sister MorningStar. She teaches about village prenatals. You have to do something like that for your daughter!”
Marsha and I met over lunch, with Diana’s enthusiasm leading the conversation deeper into intimacy and vision. “Let’s bring Sister to Berkeley to do a village prenatal for your daughter!”
Marsha was hesitant. What if Aya didn’t like it? What was a village prenatal, exactly? Who else might come? There were so many questions, but Diana insisted. “Birth is being taken over by the medical community and we must do something to reclaim it. This is your daughter! We have to do something for our own daughters!”
I listened and answered questions and empathized with Marsha’s tentative steps into grandmotherhood. I had six grandchildren at the time, with one still in the womb. I was well aware of the delicate dance of staying emotionally engaged and wisely available, and allowing for the respect of distance and perfect timing as our daughters find their way with birth in a world so different from the one into which we had birthed them. I marveled at Diana’s unrelenting clarity. “If not this, then something. You must do something! It is your daughter. If Sister is willing to come, why not this?”
We all pondered and continued our mutual dialogue over e-mails after leaving the Midwifery Today Conference in Eugene, Oregon. I sent Marsha my writings on village prenatals. I looked at my tight travel schedule and wondered how I could make it happen even if Aya was interested. Diana talked to Marsha. Marsha took courage and talked to Aya.
With more questions and more dialogue, the energy started to build in harmony. Curiosity and excitement followed. Yes, said Aya. Yes, said Marsha. “Say yes,” said the Great Mother to me under the stars one night.
Diana booked the ticket before sunrise.
The planning began. “We need wise elder women who birthed in power. We need young women who recently birthed in power. We need pregnant women who want to birth in power. We need birthkeepers who can leave their professional minds at the door. We need sacred space, nature, sacred cloth, candles, feathers, drums, a talking stick, body clay or paint, pillows, blankets, nutritious feasting foods, open hearts, calm minds and willing spirits. We need anointing oils, smudge sticks, foot-washing bowls and the freedom to howl. We need a home with a bathroom and a kitchen and floor space for creating ritual and listening to baby. We need the four elements, sacred feminine energy, privacy and women only.”
“We need time with you to prepare!” said Marsha. We decided to schedule the village prenatal on a Sunday so that on Friday night I could meet the family and Aya, and then on Saturday we could prepare everything. I promised to bring some of my community icons and encouraged them to gather elements of their own. Diana began inviting participants. Aya invited other pregnant mothers from her circle of friends and birthing class. Marsha offered her home.
How to tell the men? Marsha and Aya talked with their husbands. Jeremy, the father-to-be, offered to make sage smudge sticks from their permaculture gardens. The multi-generational compound Jeremy and Aya live in includes a charming, tidy tiny house with a beautiful red slate rock patio, all of which they had built themselves from recycled elements. Aya and Jeremy live in the tiny house and sleep in a loft.
After much discourse and many decisions, I arrived at sundown. Marsha retrieved me at the airport in Oakland and Mori, Marsha’s husband, received me at the door of their home. He studied my eyes deeply and then gave me a bear hug welcome. Soon I was introduced to Jeremy. We sat and talked for hours getting to know one another, building relationships, building trust. Aya arrived and instantly the warmth of our bodies created another warm hug of acceptance. How beautiful was her glowing face, radiant health and rounding belly baby! How proud, excited, curious and bonded was this growing blended family of traditional Japanese values and an urban, modern, sustainable, practical lifestyle. I thought I was in heaven.
Then Mori spoke quietly to me. “I have prepared a warm traditional Japanese bath for you in our tub reserved for family. We invite you. You will sleep better after the bath. Shower first.” I accepted and then I really was in heaven. I am not used to urban settings. My heart is happiest in my woods near the creek. I am a tropical woman and I don’t like to be cold. It was like magic to be floating in the warm cedar tub under the stars surrounded by green lush shimmering in the moonlight. I vowed in the morning to have them give me a tour of the gardens so that I could see what was waving at me. Meanwhile, I sank into a deep meditation of peace. Is this how birth shall be reclaimed within communities? I wondered.
The next morning, I asked Marsha to please take me on a tour of the back of the compound in the middle of Berkeley. I was overwhelmed with interest. Thousands of plants were growing! I knew many of them but many were new to me. I asked, “What do you do with this and this and this?”
Mori weaved around us, moving chickens from one space to another, checking the fish pond and working his magic with the immense garden spots. “Well, not much,” he answered. “We grow and eat our food—the vegetables, the berries, the fruit of the trees, the herbs, the eggs. We are always learning.”
I got excited. “What if we gather some of these magnificent plants and spread them out to dry and bless them into a healing oil tomorrow with the women’s circle? Then in one year, you could all come back together and harvest the rested healing oil and share it with one another for the wellness and goodness of your families?” Marsha loved the idea. We grabbed our baskets and scissors and gathered comfrey, lavender, borage, sage, clover, roses and on and on. “Do you have olive oil?” I asked. We spread the beautiful herbs on a canvas to dry. We found a gallon jar and a gallon of olive oil. Diana was on her way, bringing candles and pillows and foods. The power and mystical unfolding of the village prenatal was happening.
In our tour of the gardens, I found treasures. I found a clear globe and decided we could use it as our crystal ball to ask the mothers to tell us of their ideal birth. I found deer horns and decided we could place them on the altar to show the strong arms of the men who encircle these families. Diana found feathers, and she made a talking stick whose power and beauty could have come only from the artful hand of a wise elder woman.
The energy kept building, and so did the ideas and ideals. One of the mothers had her baby and couldn’t join us. Diana’s niece, who had just experienced a homebirth, brought her new baby and joined us. Another mother from Venezuela, due in three days, also took courage to come. Her mother had just flown in to help her and asked to join. Birthkeepers came running. Sarah, Aya’s friend, also came. Aya had been at Sarah’s out-of-hospital birth with her second child. When my own community asks, “Sister, who will be with us?” I answer, “Just the right people will come running.” The magic was happening here, too. Just the right people, perfect timing, perfect place and perfect purpose. The Creator was watching over all.
Mori was taking note of all the activities and planning. He made a bold and wise decision. “While you women are doing things to help the young mothers find their power and be nourished by others, I will take my new son on a hike up the mountain where I can talk of fatherhood. We will talk of exhaustion and putting others before oneself, of changing diapers and carrying a baby skin-to-skin, of reaching your edge and not taking it out on others and we will talk of wonder and growing up.”
I was speechless. There is women’s work. There is men’s work. Although we can share many things, there are some things that cannot be done by the other. Mori took the wise lead to do with his son what cannot be done by women and to respect and honor the work of the women that cannot be done when men are around. I knew I was in the presence of a wise elder. I smiled and said so.
Aya came home from work on Saturday afternoon late and saw the transformation draping the various rooms of the main home. She felt the excitement and expressed her gratitude and excitement. Ideas of what to gather from the garden and prepare for food the next day began. The sun set and all was better than expected.
We had become family. We cared about one another. After dinner, I offered to midwife Jeremy, Marsha, Mori and Aya to palpate the baby’s position and listen to baby with my fetoscope, womb chime and Jeremy’s ear. Aya was open, trusting, gentle, secure and eager to share this special gift she was carrying just under her heart. In the quiet intimacy of the room, we listened to the little filly heartbeat of her own womb child—Aya first and then Jeremy, Marsha and Mori. Marsha and Mori are both retired nurses with many skills. Soon they will also master the skills of grandparents. My goal was to help Jeremy hear the heartbeat with his ear so that each night he and Aya could talk with their baby in this way. Mission accomplished.
The next day went so fast. The candles were lit; flowers were gathered for the altar. One by one our guests arrived, greeted first by Diana and Marsha who ushered them to the back where I smudged them with word medicine unique to each woman. We began our introduction with, “I am MorningStar, daughter of Eledia, daughter of Lillian, daughter of she who lived beside the river, and my people are Cherokee.” One by one we welcomed the female ancestors of these great women. We drummed and sang the She-Bear song. Then we made healing oil together, adding our shared knowledge of herbs and blessing the oil with this blessing:
Light of the moon, spiral of love. Fill what is below with what is above.
Like a feather landing softly on the water and then sinking slowly and steadily to the bottom, we let the energy of each shared experience create sacred unity, sacred harmony, sacred peace and sacred space for the new mothers to bring forth their truth. We washed their feet. We massaged each other’s feet with sacred oil. As our hands worked, we shared our powerful birth stories. Power flowed. Tears flowed. The unspeakable was spoken.
Then we listened to baby and drew the baby and placenta with mineral sand and colorful body paint. We sang to the new mothers and listened. I handed them the talking stick and asked them to speak to us of their concerns and fears. They did. Our response: We are here for you. I handed them the crystal ball and asked them to speak to us of their ideal birth. They did. Our response: May it be so!
We danced around them and howled to the moon. We feasted. We reclaimed birth within community. Emotions rose. Decrees were made to do more for more women. Every heart was a grateful heart. Mine, too.
I left them with a prayer of my people. May your baby have a soft landing. May it be so. May it be so for them. May it be so for you who are reading. May it be so for us all.