The Long Road to K.

With Saturday’s dawn streaming through our windows, we lay in bed for a long time. “Everyone keeps saying to enjoy the sleep now, that we’ll miss it when the baby comes.”

Eventually, we had to move. I had asked V to take some specific maternity pictures. As I was four days from the due date, we had little time and knew it was this weekend or never.

I had had Braxton Hicks contractions for a couple of months. While their frequency increased as weeks passed, they were never painful. By the end of posing for many pictures and being on my feet and knees for quite a bit of time, I began experiencing sensations that were slightly different. Not wanting to alarm V or call these feelings the onset of labor when they weren’t, it was only after a few hours that I decided to tell him. “Whatever this is, it makes me feel like I need to run to the bathroom for a bowel movement.” With only a handful of these having occurred, we decided to continue with our plans and head into Seattle for a holiday/birthday party hosted by a co-worker.

I dressed in dark clothes and a flowy shirt, adorned with the crescent moon necklace I bought when learning I was pregnant and an accent braid in my hair. The solstice was Sunday; it would be nice to have our daughter on the darkest day of the year, I thought. I shot a picture of myself and sent it to my girlfriends with a message: “I’m trying to conjure the baby’s arrival. Feeling witchy tonight.”

We stopped at Trader Joe’s for a bottle of wine and cookies, and I had a nice conversation with an older employee. He was surprised my due date was days away and shared a story of another customer to whom he asked the same question. “They just sent me back from the hospital,” she said sullenly, her labor having stalled. He chuckled, saying he was glad the store could be her second home and mine too. En route to the party, V called his father who wondered if we were traveling too far. “No, it’s fine Dad,” he reassured him. “It’s not time yet and we are only about thirty minutes away.” I winced through another small contraction not worth mentioning, focusing on the Space Needle and its Christmas lights in the distance.

Throughout the party, I stayed seated. That’s quite rare for me, especially because there were many nice new people who were itching to talk. As the party was getting very loud, I was chatting with V and a woman named Rachel when I suddenly went to a very internal place. I had some more physical sensations (nothing too painful), but a shift occurred. Although I was in the presence of so much activity and energy, I was suddenly and profoundly alone. I commented on this shortly after, Rachel saying she noticed that I changed. V and I were getting excited, knowing this really could be the start of labor. We went home soon after.

In bed, the contractions became more frequent. We had been told constantly that labor could be a long time and that we should try to sleep when it begins. At about 11 pm, the pain started. Most of the contractions ran down my thighs, a sensation I didn’t expect. I would bend my knees, my thighs drawing close to my abdomen, and then push them away, the counter pressure providing relief somehow. Between these I did get some sleep, but much of it wasn’t very deep or restful. Instead, I focused on remaining meditative, refusing to look at the clock, breathing deeply, and attempting to store my energy. When V would wake up to my little cries, I kept encouraging him to go back to sleep. I could handle these on my own and I knew I needed him later. My anticipation grew thinking about welcoming our daughter on Sunday, never imagining that we still had days ahead of us.

On Sunday morning, we started to time contractions in order to have more information to provide the midwife-on-call. After about two hours, I was clocking durations of about 20 – 40 seconds, 5 – 8 minutes apart. It was necessary for V to help me through some of the larger ones now. The most soothing position was him pushing on my back and I lay over a yoga ball on the floor.

When we finally called at 10 am, Jenn received our message. I had seen Jenn for many of my prenatal appointments and I liked her warmth and style very much. While I would have been happy with any of the three midwives on my rotation team, she was my preference. We gave her the update and she said to call back when my contractions move to 4-1-1 (4 minutes between, 1 minute duration, over the course of 1 hour) or if my water broke. Many hospitals ask you to come in at 5-1-1, but the birth center suggests this pattern for first time moms as most progress more slowly. We knew all of this information from our birth classes, so we hung up feeling confident that we would call her later in the day. But that isn’t what happened, and the next 40 hours are a blur of weariness, exhaustion, and, ultimately, desperation.

By the afternoon, my pattern changed and I had some large gaps between contractions. While in a fifteen minute pause, I wondered if the sensations would stop all together. Perhaps this wasn’t real labor, I thought. Maybe this was prodromal and would continue for weeks. My mom offered to fly out that day, but I asked her to hold off in case this was a false alarm. Knowing she would only come for a week, I wanted to save those precious days in case there was a problem with the baby or with my healing.

V and I took a walk as instructed, but my contractions nearly stopped during the whole thirty minute experience; when we took a couple moments of rest, however, they would re-appear full force. In the evening, we realized we had very little food in the house. V offered to go on his own, but I decided to join him at the last minute, initially thinking I would stay in the car. I wound up wanting to walk around the store, hoping to increase the intensity. By the end of our excursion, the time between contractions reduced to just three and four minutes. As we checked out, the cashier politely asked how we were. By now, I was a mess, having been in a series of confusing contractions for eighteen hours. I was wearing yoga pants and a giant oversized sweatshirt with the hood up. I had already started saying to V that I felt like a ghost, a sense that would keep increasing throughout the duration of my experience. “I’m in early labor,” I told her. As we finished the order and she wished us luck, I was overcome with a longer, stronger sensation, and I ran to the nearest wall and urged V push on my back.

Jenn checked in with us just as we got home at 8 pm. We updated her and she asked to call again before the next midwife began her shift at 8 am Monday. Between that call and her next one at 6:15 am, I managed to eat spaghetti and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream (Strawberry Cheesecake flavor), watch the movie Saved!, and get through a night of frequent, but not frequent enough contractions. I believe there were a few hours where my contractions slowed back down with some fifteen or thirty minute intervals (I wasn’t timing them at this point). Early in the night, I was awake by myself, but later V could not sleep through them and the frequency picked back up. I hated lying in the bed because with each contraction I would jump up and fling myself over the yoga ball. It proved difficult, especially because of the leg pain. Eventually, I had to move to the floor. Setting up a little nest of blankets for us, V joined me and we made it through the night, albeit even more bleary eyed.

During that Monday morning call, Jenn asked if we would like to come in to the center for an internal exam and discussion. We jumped at the chance, and I had a teeth gritting ride to the center. I was so used to having V assist me through these more intense contractions that being in the car felt torturous.

Jenn wanted to perform a non-stress test immediately after speaking to us. This is typically something that women who go beyond 40 weeks of pregnancy or have extenuating circumstances like pre-eclampsia go through, so I was not familiar with it. When she said I would need to lie in one place for twenty minutes so that the machine could monitor the baby’s vitals through a series of contractions, panic immediately came into my eyes. I could not stay still for that long with what was happening inside of me. She opted to do an internal exam instead and said that I was 4 cm dilated and very squishy/soft, that the baby was at station 0 (meaning in position and very low), and that she could feel the baby’s head and a bulging bag of water. We left the center with the same instructions – eat, rest, walk, call when they are closer or the water breaks – but with some renewed hope as the contractions were confirmed as real and that my body was indeed progressing.

My mom began her journey, booking a series of flights that would land her in Seattle at about 10 pm. V packed the items on our last minute list into the birth bag. I primarily tried to rest, finding that sleeping upright in a chair was comfortable because I could simply fling myself forward onto the waiting yoga ball. My contractions also slowed again. My sister suggested I write to my Facebook friends for support, and everyone really came through. Between contractions, I would read messages that would come in on the thread or privately. It was so helpful to know there were people all over the world cheering for us; the notes served to lift my spirits for a few hours.

By 1 pm, I started to spot red blood (I had spotted brown since the day before), so I called the new midwife. She simply said it was a good sign of progress, but to keep waiting and to follow the same protocol.

Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

Now, I was exhausted. The contractions were really hurting. I hadn’t had proper sleep in days. I continued to eat, but only as a chore. V wanted me to walk or to take a shower, but by this point I was actually scared of having more contractions. He helped me through these feelings and we eventually did take a walk. Again, the feeling that I was a ghost crept up on me, although I could not completely explain it. I felt embarrassed walking through the parking lot, having to stop a few times and grab onto trees or poles, crying and wondering why my body wouldn’t move the contractions along like they were “supposed” to do. The fear that my labor was a problem or an emergency was increasing. I figured that I wouldn’t be having my daughter at the birth center, that I would be cut open…

We watched another movie that night (Wayne’s World) and decided to relocate into the living room so I could “sleep” on the chair. My mom had delays and flight changes, so she came in the door at 1:00 am or so. She witnessed a few contractions and we talked for maybe an hour. We all agreed to try to get more sleep. I had my standing appointment at the birth center at 10 am. We all wondered if I would finally be admitted.

V put the birth bag in the car on Tuesday in case we would be staying. The third midwife, the lead on the team, came to the room for my appointment just as I was mid-contraction. She immediately said, “Woah. You are in labor. Let me get Jenn as she will be the one seeing you.” In a strange way, it felt so validating to hear her say that. She knew just by the look and sound of me. For days, I kept feeling like I wasn’t in labor because I wasn’t following the standard protocol for progression. It was like my body was failing. I wanted to trust my body. The midwife hugged me and I cried in her arms for a moment before she found Jenn.

Jenn came and I told her that I felt like a ghost. She gave me a very social worky response that made me laugh, “Well, if my son said that to me, I would ask him, ‘What is it that is making you feel like a ghost? What part of you feels like a ghost? What does it mean to be a ghost?’” I didn’t really know how to answer. Maybe I was looking into the future and seeing my howling cries. It may have been because I felt like a shell. I longed to feel strong, but I simply didn’t. I had envisioned myself centered and confident in labor, similar to how I tapped into those feelings on my wedding morning despite people telling how frantic and chaotic the experience would be. I longed to channel goddess energy that I associated with the beautiful magical mystery of birth and all of the women before me that partook in this journey. I felt disappointed, not in birth, but in myself.

This internal check pronounced that I was 6 cm and very squishy. Jenn offered to admit us on the spot, but also suggested the alternative of going out for one more meal and some ingredients for a castor oil cocktail that I would drink later to induce me further. “If you really need to stay though, you absolutely can,” she assured me. V, my mom, and I decided together to leave for that extra bit of time. We stopped at a grocery store, V and I staying in the car while mom got the smoothie ingredients along with lunch.

At home, again, I was scared. I didn’t want to eat, but I knew I had to so I did it very quickly. I was nervous to nap, thinking it would slow things down – which it did – but it was totally necessary to get through the next several hours. Honestly, I don’t even remember this time that well because V and mom took care of everything and I tried as best I could to simply follow their instructions. This was my first step in surrendering, a sense I hoped to give into during the hardest parts of my labor.

Around 4:30 or 5 pm, we were stumbling back into the center with all of our gear and supplies. Armed with my preferred midwife, stationed in my preferred room, it was almost time to drink the smoothie, a combination of castor oil, an herb, mango juice, and almond butter. Anxiety set in before I drank the concoction. “I thought castor oil didn’t actually work. I read online that women try to induce with it, but it is just an extreme laxative.” Jenn said that while this was true when taken randomly, for women actually in labor it can be the thing that makes them progress further. She left the room. V, Mom, and I sat together around the bedside. I really didn’t want to drink the smoothie. I was so tired. I was scared. What I really felt was that the drink would not serve to kick me into full labor, but that it would simply intensify things and that it was a step closer to having a hospital transfer. They tried to soothe me and I finally said, “Let’s pray that it works and then I’ll drink it.” So we took a few moments of silence and I asked God for assistance to make this process move along and help me to meet our daughter. Then, I drank. It took me about two tries to get down the whole drink – about 12 ounces – and I mixed drinking that with coconut water to hydrate myself.

The contractions continued their confusing arc, and we continued our process of coping with them. The birth team would come and go, checking in on us every so often. While on my side in bed during a contraction, I was hit with sudden extreme sickness. “I feel nauseous.” Mom tried to get the garbage can, while V applied pressure to my back. Only a couple seconds later, vomit rose up and I released all over the floor, on V’s hands, and on a stuffed Curious George’s little red hat, coating it fully in the light brown concoction. Magically, they cleaned up the spot extremely fast (although it remained a bit slippery through the night due to the castor oil and I occasionally witnessed people gliding on it).

Time was certainly playing tricks on me during the next couple of hours. With so many days of labor, lack of sleep, intermittent food and drink, and now vomiting, an IV of fluids was offered to hydrate me. I had discussed that intervention before and I knew some women who reported that it turned their labor around. I was comfortable with it so long as I could still move about the room freely. I certainly preferred it to breaking my water manually, an option that had been mentioned, so we opted for it rather quickly. I remember being in a “fuck it” kind of place at this point. I was sprawled over my yoga ball and I was not watching as Jenn attempted to get the IV in. The first and second attempts led to veins bursting. V helped with the third, this time on the right arm; while the needle went in fine, the adapter was problematic and the IV couldn’t be hooked up. Ultimately, she pronounced my veins squirrely and we took a break from more attempts. My mom wondered if we should continue this course of action as it was painful to watch these failures. For me, however, I simply kept my face buried, feeling like we would be on our way to the hospital any minute. I believe this is when I stayed on the ball for a while, alternating between painfully singing along with songs like Sia’s “Breathe Me,” and contracting with V’s assistance. After a half hour or so, Jenn came back with Kajsa, her birth assistant. This time, as I lay in bed, they were able to get the IV hooked up.

More contractions. No pattern. When contractions would come on, I’d often say I wasn’t sure if it was truly one or not until the wave of pain had fully consumed me; by this point, I had so little trust in the process and even my perceptions. I remember telling my mom to stop reporting the time as it just made me angry and upset to know there was still no pattern. I don’t recall this moment, but I told V that I was done. In our birth class, our teacher had suggested using a code word to indicate when a woman is really and truly done. V and I joked about using a word that we’ve employed to eject from awkward social situations since the early days of our relationship. I didn’t use that word. V knew how important it was for me to have a low intervention birth and to stay at the center if possible. He wasn’t going to let me give up, especially when he felt that we were getting closer.

The team returned, now with Farrah, a student midwife I often saw for appointments. V whispered over me, mid-contraction, telling them that I was feeling desperate and needed more support. They really kicked it up. I remember many moments of them commenting on my strength. When I said I was failing, they said so many others would have given up by the point. They told me to have courage. They let me know that I would meet my baby soon. All this encouragement served to quiet my doubts as I fought to listen to and believe their words.

An interesting note here is that I rarely thought of the baby during the process at the birth center. I wish I had thought of her more. Since a few weeks before the labor, when I was having increasing discomfort, I kept a little sock with me to remind me of her. Often, she would stretch and straighten her legs inside of me and her feet would stick out so far through the side of my waist. I’d hold the little sock – almost eighties looking, a gym/aerobic style sock with multicolored stripes – and imagine putting it on her little foot. In early labor, I kept it with me and tried to derive some strength from it, clutching it in my pocket. As the labor went on and on, I got further away from this strategy and further away from remembering what this whole ordeal was all for anyway. By this point, it was just painful sensation without end and streams of incredibly negative self-talk.

Jenn suggested that I go to the bathroom and sit backward facing with legs spread for four contractions. The pains still, after all this time, typically began by feeling like a bowel movement. I would often say in an alarmed voice, “I have to go to the bathroom!” and everyone would remind me to calm down and get ready for the next contraction. The hope for the toilet was that I would feel more comfortable and that gravity in that position would facilitate more downward motion.

En route to the bathroom, I was having contractions and hanging around V’s neck as we stood up. My mom noticed a problem with the IV; blood was going up into the tube. It took changing the bag to have it function properly again. Finally, on the toilet, Tool playing, my contractions almost stopped. I was also given another mixture of castor oil, this time far less diluted, perhaps 4 – 6 ounces, and instructed to sip it down. God, I hated being in that position. I made it through two contractions spread out extremely far at this point, perhaps fifteen minutes between them. I was battered and weary. Jenn finally said she wasn’t going to force me to stay there and that I could get off the toilet if I wanted. I said yes, please. It was then that she gave me a pep talk and told me to leave my despair in that bathroom. I was to walk out a renewed sense of strength. I tried to do that so much, but it was incredibly difficult. The team all led me to the bed. Jenn asked if it was ok for V to play with my nipples in front of my mom, to stimulate contractions. There was nothing sexual about it to me, it was completely manual, so I said to go for it. The contractions soon resumed.

The team left. The three of us remained. Some contractions were just 3 ½ or 4 minutes apart. Now, I was shrieking. V was crying through some of these. Jenn reappeared and wanted to check me after an unknown amount of time had passed. She said that my noises were different. I remember them well, but could not possibly imitate them. Inside of me, I felt like I was hitting some scared vibration and I was screaming and almost singing now. I remember saying a lot of Oh… God!s. After a couple more contractions, they got me on the bed. “You’re ready to push!” she reported after checking me.

Even writing that now, I want to cry. I was in denial. I figured my screams had altered because I was exhausted and not even fully conscious; with every pause, I entered a semi-sleeping state, but even the contractions felt quite hallucinatory. I immediately cried back, “No! I can’t push! No!” This wasn’t because of fear of pushing, but because I didn’t think it was possible. I sincerely thought this point would never come.

“Yes, you can! You can do it.” The team gathered on the bed. I was primarily on my back, but maybe leaning a bit more on my left side. They told me to wait and push during the contractions only so as to not waste my energy. “See that dresser,” Jenn said, pointing to the large piece of furniture beyond the bed, “On this first push, I want you to break your water and hit the dresser! Get us drenched.” I beared down as the wave of intensity came over and quickly felt a gush of fluid. I didn’t hit the dresser, but that immediately made me feel powered up. With each contraction, I was to bring my leg close to me, holding it under my thigh (someone was holding my other leg), take a breath in, hold the breath and bear down. I could do this three times during each contraction. When the contraction would end, I’d have a fair amount of time (maybe 3 – 6 minutes) to regain myself. V and I would deeply kiss one another, him behind me. That was so amazingly grounding that I didn’t care that everyone else was in the room; it brought me to my senses.

After several rounds of this, perhaps 30 minutes or so (though it didn’t feel that long), the team suggested moving to the birth stool. I was quite happy to do this. I didn’t like lying in the bed one bit, particularly as there was no good access to my back for the application of counter pressure. We moved to the floor, and I had several strong, productive contractions. I remember Jenn telling me to get back in the bed, but I said no. I learned later that first time moms are sometimes discouraged from the stool because of tearing risk; they just wanted me there for a few pushes. Jenn looked me in the eyes, said I could stay there, and said, very seriously, “If I tell you to hold back and slow down, you HAVE to do it, ok?” I agreed.

As I went through a couple contractions, I could feel the baby’s head in my canal. “Don’t push!” “I don’t know if I can help it. I don’t know if I am or not!” I yelled. I had to wait literally minutes until I could push again, knowing my baby was right there. The team reassured me that it was okay as they continued to check her heart rate and her level was fine.

“Just wait for the next contraction.” David Bowie’s Space Oddity played. For here, am I sitting in a tin can. We waited. It came. I did three pushes again, Jenn saying to slow down during one, and then her head was out. “Wow!” a team member said, “She’s already trying to cry.” My mom watched from behind the team, the first important person to see our daughter’s face. I waited until the next contraction, pushed, and then…

… everything changed.

I’m not kidding.

Suddenly, there was a baby on my chest. I felt a cord rubbing against my belly. I was being ushered back into the bed. I was awake.

It was 10:20 pm.

Never have I had such a radical shift in consciousness so quickly in my whole entire life. Some moms report feeling instant love for their babies. I didn’t have that. But I did have awe and amazement. There was a high, and I was very alive and present. What was this little alien on me already suckling away on my breast? I never thought it would happen. I truly believed the terrible voices in my head, but my body still proved them wrong.

A shot of pitocin was administered into my thigh, a result of the extremely long labor and my increased risk of hemorrhage or collapse. Blood was wiped away. A few photos snapped. Some examination was done down below that I can’t even recall. V cut the umbilical cord with Jenn’s guidance. Eventually, the baby was moved to V’s chest, and I was led to the bathroom, nude, being wiped down and shown how to use the peri-bottle for after-care cleaning. I returned to the bed and she was in my arms again. I was told to eat, so V fed me mashed potatoes and chicken from his hands. Kajsa asked if we would like a tour of the placenta. We thought this was a bit odd, not having known this was an option, but figured why not. She guided us through all its part, remarking on how healthy and beautiful it was, a testament to my lifestyle and the body’s ability to make something so robust. She asked if we wanted to keep it, but we declined.

By 1:30 am on Wednesday, K, was diapered, dressed, and packed into her car seat. Considering how long the whole labor ordeal was, it was so strange and wonderful to be ushered quickly to the car and headed home after her arrival, a benefit of choosing a birth center over a hospital. As I hugged Jenn goodbye, she joked, “And just think! You weren’t supposed to be here because you never hit 4-1-1.” I got into the car’s backseat and held my sweet daughter’s hand the whole five-minute drive home.

One of the only appropriate photos taken that night, a quick cellphone capture before heading to the car.
One of the only appropriate photos taken that night, a quick cellphone capture before heading to the car.

 

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Shaky and seeking.

I’m sitting at this computer, trying to remember how I used to let my fingers dance across the keys.  Shouldn’t there be some memory?  A muscle memory?  Let me try to find this rhythm again, but I’ll take the advice I often give: fake it ‘till you make it.  Jump right in.

This blog is about transitions.  That’s what nearly all my blogs have been about, since I started writing them back in 2001 on LiveJournal.  That’s why I always loved this name The Leaves Change, because they always do and they always will. Change and the seasons of life are the forever truths of our earthly experiences.  And I find blog spaces to be open grounds to mark and write about these transitions.  I can come to this space, crack myself open, and spill myself out, either drop by drop or in a deluge.

I was linked to this Onion article a week ago and couldn’t contain my smile.  People around me have complained, forlorn about the dip in temperatures as they signal the coming of winter (the article even ends with the emergence of Mr. Wintertime Asshole Man).  Woah, WOAH! I say.  We’re just hitting autumn (my absolute favorite season) and we’re not even going to enjoy it?  We’re just going to rush right into and cry about winter?  This cannot be how it all works.

My friends took to calling me the Plan Nazi at about age 15.  I organize my life and achieve goals, both short and long, by planning them out and taking measurable steps towards them. I’ve been this way for a long, long time.  And it has benefits, sure.  But this anticipatory nature comes with some difficulties too.  It’s difficult to just sit right here and be ok with sitting right here.  I experience intense emotions or discomfort when the unexpected arises, be it a simple shift to a social arrangement or a sudden illness.  When I see some kind of change, challenge, or problem coming in the future, I have a habit of shifting, scaling back, or, let’s be honest, completely throwing away my efforts too early and thinking, desperately, maybe I need a new plan? or even, what’s the point?</i>  Call me Ms. Future-Oriented, Fearful Lady.

Scotland, August 2013
Scotland, August 2013

I first studied meditation when I was 17.  In the upstairs of Main Building at Vassar College, my Introduction to Eastern Religious Traditions professor led us, an interested offshoot of class students who signed up for an additional mini-course, through our first sitting practice.  We sat cross-legged, eyes just barely open, gazing at the patterned carpet in front of us.  I still remember the lessons and feelings from that very first experience, the most weighty being that there are a lot of distractions and that meditation really is a process-based (rather than results-oriented) exercise.

And these are the lessons that I keep finding myself needing to learn again and again and again.  Be sure.  Be steadfast.  Be still.

Autumn does indeed signal endings, but it hits me with the promise of renewal as well.  Maybe my mind holds onto the school schedule that shares its beginning this month.  Maybe it’s because we clean out and prepare our garden beds and put things to rest.  Maybe it’s because the promise of change and transition is so evident and encapsulated in these three glorious months.

I’m still here.  Shaky, sure, but ever excitedly seeking.

Transpiration Communication

This blog has been neglected, and that’s okay. The great thing about these forms of writing is that one can pick up right where she left off.

Over the past few months, many things have transpired. V. and I are preparing for our wedding in the Catskill Mountains in October, a matter alluded to in my New Year’s post. I traveled back to the US in March, and to Slovenia with my aunt in April over both of our birthdays. I was accepted to a Yoga Teacher Training program at Kripalu with a very helpful stipend. I depart from Germany just in time to arrive for the course start in July and I will not return here until I am a married woman.

Bled, Slovenia — April 2012

Life in Germany is comfortable. We have a nice group of friends who we see regularly, while frequently meeting new people. Our German speaking and comprehension improve slowly. Since February, I have facilitated a group of German women learning English, and I realize this is an activity I enjoy and hope to do more in the future. I graduated from my first German course and moved on, skipping a level and now fighting (in a motivating way) to catch up.

I continued writing beyond my last use of this medium, attempting to post articles on a professional development social work website and increasing my private writing output. For a while now though, I have felt lacking in my writing and without a real desire to record words. I tend to think of writers’ block as some lame copout; if one really sits, she should be able to get some words out (I’m doing it now, aren’t I?). However, I think my problems emerge more from a greater purpose and determining where I should put my focus in terms of the blueprint of my career and life. I also struggle with a lack of confidence and feel that I’m not an authority to be writing on many matters; for example, I’m not working in the SW field currently, so why do I think any contribution of mine would be valuable? (I know this is not true intellectually, but it is an emotional and raw thing). I’ve been battling some anxiety in the past few months, and restricting myself to a solitary desk to pump out redundant thoughts wasn’t striking me as particularly helpful either.

The sun has come out here in Germany and, like every recent spring, I feel like a plant reaching, achingly, towards it, and it is helping me to release these darker things that have gripped me. The change my being is undergoing is almost shocking, although I should know this about myself by now. (The leaves change with each season, after all.) I’ve resumed my weekly Aalbäumle hikes and have upped my physical activity in general as I prepare for my upcoming coursework. I am trying to accept and find a balance between being a person who thrives when working with and for others and an independent writing type, all while living in a place that, while generally comfortable, is still not easy to navigate.

I hope you are all doing well out there.

Language Learning Langsam

I arrived in Germany on July 14. That was exactly four months ago.

Mein Deutsch ist nicht gut.

Granted, I spent my six weeks in Germany preoccupied by my social work licensing examination. I returned to the US for two weeks. My German course only began on September 26.

But still, shouldn’t I know more by now?

About two weeks ago, I began to assess my language learning barriers. The most obvious culprit is my course. While I enjoy the nonthreatening environment it provides to practice speaking, the course is painfully slow. With eleven languages, students who have never been students, students who play multiple roles outside the classroom (mother, worker, caretaker, etc.), and students who are perfectly happy to speak anything except German every moment they are outside the classroom, so much class time is spent repeating material that could easily be drilled at home or practiced in the community. Considering that we are in the classroom fifteen hours per week, I feel that we have learned far too little.

However, I know that I cannot place the burden of blame simply on my course. V. takes a course that meets even less frequently, but he is progressing quite well. He has put many hours of time studying on his own. We both began the computer program Rosetta Stone, but he is much further along than I am. He also approaches the endeavor differently, carefully studying the lessons and seeking answers to parts he does not understand fully. Since realizing this, I have recommitted myself to the program and I already notice that my knowledge is growing. I also keep my dictionary near and when I think of any word that is important to me I look it up, knowing that this vocabulary will help in future conversation and writing.

V. also goes to work, thereby having the whole day to encounter the language. I, on the other hand, typically come home from school and immediately reach for my computer. Here, I can read any news I desire in English. I work on my website, which is in English. I long for social connection and I can instant message, e-mail, or Skype with any of my English-speaking family and friends. Before this era of connectivity, I would have been faced with stumbling through German much more often if I wanted to remain the socially curious individual that I am. My new remedy to this is actively getting out of my house. I noticed that when I go grocery shopping alone, it forces me to speak German and encounter it in signage, so I know I must actively seek out similar experiences. Through my town’s international society, I have been linked to two area college students for language exchange. I also started to attend yoga class, which is an excellent method to hear the repetition of German words very slowly. I am trying to read the community newspaper more. V. and I are even spending some time at home speaking to one another.

It is also difficult to get practice in because many people love to speak English. When I started to meet with my language exchange buddies, for example, it would be quite easy to spend our hour simply speaking in English. They are both excited to learn about the United States. Their English is already quite good, but they want to know more about the subtleties and slang of conversational English. Honestly, I would love to spend the hour speaking about all of these things with them, but I’ve told them that I really must practice my German. Additionally, the friends we have made are primarily through V.’s job, and they are primarily young and educated, which means that they also speak English. It is so easy to default to English speaking because there is just so little that I can convey in German right now. I cannot have an animated conversation in German about politics or feminism, so I excitedly turn to English during every social encounter and our friends don’t seem to mind.

Perhaps I could title this post Language Learning with a Weak Ego. When I assess my difficulties honestly, I know that my lack of confidence is a major contributor in my slow acquisition of the German language. Ever a perfectionist, I prefer to use sentences that I have carefully crafted and confirmed as grammatically correct rather than generating sentences spontaneously. However, German sentence structure is odd and changing, and there is simply no way I can memorize the variety of sentences. I know I must experiment. I must ask my conversation partner to slow down (langsam bitte) or repeat her sentences (Kannst du es nochmal wiederholen?). I must trip over my words and listen to the constructive criticism of my audience. Most of all, I must remember that in any new learning endeavor, we all begin as a beginner. Ich muss es einfach akzeptieren is my new mantra. It essentially means I just have to accept it.

Die schönen Wälder von Baden-Württemberg - Oktober 2011

In my German class, there is a 75-year-old man from the Ukraine. He is obviously outgoing and joyful, but he speaks no English so our interactions are extremely limited. One day, he passed a note to me. “Ihr seid Elstern.” He pointed toward me and my classmate, a woman from Taiwan with whom I sit and share notes and laughs throughout the daily class duration. I reached for my German-English dictionary. Elstern means magpie. He was calling us birds because of our chatting and giggling! We crafted our response: Du bist unartig! He followed our lead, grabbing his German-Russian dictionary, wide-eyed as he noticed the meaning of unartig: naughty or wicked. Warum? (Why?), he wrote back. Ihr seid nicht Elstern! (We are not birds!), we retorted. He concluded, Ich bin lustig (I am funny) and sealed it with a smiley face.

Language presents the opportunity to connect with others. With the help of our dictionaries, I was able to laugh and get to know someone from a completely different place, with a very different life from my own or others with whom I am intimate. Imagine the stories he could share and the conversations we could have if we both knew more. This is my motivation.

The Bigger Things.

As of now, my days are scheduled fairly clearly. My primary objective is to study for and pass my licensing exam. In addition to this, I fit exercise, letter writing, reading, and cooking into my days. However, my mind is starting to wonder about my post-exam life and the bigger things.

One of the most powerful exercises I have ever participated in was during my studies at The Institute For Integrative Nutrition. During our first weekend session, Debbie Ford led us in a practice of writing out our lives. First we wrote about three things we wanted to accomplish tomorrow, then a week into the future, then three months, then a year, five years, ten years, twenty years, and thirty years. None of us knew how far she would make us imagine; I remember hearing some sighs in the audience and watching people put their pens down. It was a difficult process, but it was important and revelatory for me. This now reminds me of an exercise I found later, namely Stephen Covey’s (founder of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) idea that we should craft our own eulogy that attends to four areas: family, friends, work, and community. This relates to the second principle: Begin with the end in mind.

I am neither a proponent nor denier of self-help gurus and works. I am an advocate of doing what works. What has always worked for me is having a vision. Purpose and meaning are of utmost importance to me, and I get frustrated and feel defeated when I have too many days that aren’t assisting in the movement towards some greater goal.

The thing is that right now, my goals are a little muddled. There have been drastic changes – destructions and reformations – in my life since I did that initial life outline. I engaged in a couple of true revisions where I tried to rearrange the details of my life’s outline in a concrete way. As I have again experienced a great, unexpected shift, I think it is time to do that process again.

Part of the problem is that because I’ve experienced all of these changes, I feel that my mind may try too hard to account for all the potential future game changes. I feel that there are endless formulations, and choosing a specific direction depends on multiple factors. So, what I’m trying to do now is sift through all these ideas and find the consistencies. What are the things that have always mattered and been attractive to me? What are the areas that I always want to pursue? What is always meaningful? Also, I think it is time to look at those longer-term goals – the ten year and twenty year ones – and figure out how I can attend to those today.

One goal that always remains: Take more and better photos

An important topic of discussion at Integrative Nutrition was working with clients that fear making big life decisions (like choosing a career path) because they worry about making the wrong choice and being locked in forever. (Side note: check out this recent New York Times article on Decision Fatigue that includes the etymological link between decide and homicide). We were encouraged to assist our clients in looking at their long-term goals and remind them that what they choose today does not mean they have to do that same thing in twenty years. We have to be gentle with ourselves and remember that it is ok to readjust. However, the bigger things – our values, dreams, and purpose – those don’t change and they are important guides for us in the difficult times.

So, it is time again to consider my values, dreams, and purpose and craft some plans.

(When In Doubt) Practice, Practice, Practice.

My days are filled with study. Usually, this is for my social work licensing examination, a test that I take early next month when I visit the United States. The license is not particularly helpful or necessary for any jobs that I could secure while here, but the thought of sitting for this exam in two or five or ten years when I return from Europe is even more daunting than preparing for it now. My typical weekday involves a whole lot of reading. I decided to banish the reading of novels, just as I had to do when I was in graduate school to ensure my sharpest reading attention was reserved for textbooks. Before my proclamation, I finished The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (that deserves a post all its own), choosing to lose time in that rather than Direct Social Work Practice and Contemporary Human Behavior Theory. It is not that I do not enjoy these books and the ideas they contain (I actually do like it a whole lot!), but rather that the prospect of the exam weighs on me heavily. I am quite worried about failing, slightly shocked by how often I come across questions where I deliberate between two answers that seem feasible to me. Doesn’t the absence of black-and-white, good-and-bad thinking mark a capable, effective social worker that is able to employ empathy and refrain from judging clients? Is it not the nature of social advocates to question right and wrong and encourage discussion to come up with the best solutions? Perhaps I am stretching a bit here, but this reframing sure makes me feel a bit better. Practice.

We have spent time with a few of V’s colleagues now. We visited someone’s house for dinner during the week and went to the lake to barbecue with a few others on Sunday (although rain required we move to a backyard halfway through the event). Both of these engagements involved such massive amounts of food, that I am continually shocked that I have seen only a handful of obese people in Germany. Additionally, the hospitality of all of our new friends continues to fly in the face of stereotypes of Germans as cold to newcomers. Everyone is quite generous with providing rides and food, helpful and patient as we practice our German pronunciation, and tolerant and even charmed as we ask questions that may be construed as inappropriate or invasive, but that are important as we orient ourselves to life here (Can we have a tour of your apartment? How much does this car cost?). I dream of when I know Deutsch better so that I can interact with far more people and on a better level. When my intensive classes begin at the end of September, I know my attention will go towards that. However, I can already recognize that I have a major hang up about appearing foolish and this inhibits me from engaging. Mistakes are inevitable and the longer I wait to speak, the more I will miss out on, I know. Yet, there is an intelligent mind and emotional mind disconnect. Practice.

A final development is that I assisted on my first wedding shoot. Early into our time here, someone at V’s job asked him to take some photos on their wedding day. It was not a grand ceremony, just the sharing of vows at town hall and a dinner in the evening, so between these events the couple wanted some portraits. Midday Friday, the bride and groom scooped V up from work and me from the hotel and we rode up the hills to a beautiful field. Each time we are lucky enough to ride out of Aalen I am awestruck at the green beauty of this place that I now live. With V’s encouragement, guidance, and vigor for photography, he is reigniting my own love of it. While I was just the backup for the particular day, I was pleased to come up with a few ideas and frame shots behind the camera. I am learning more of the technical aspects now and I hope that my emerging skills will enable me to bring the vision I have to life better. Practice.