Live Virtual Group Session: 6pm EST January 11th 2021

Welcome to our first Narrative Medicine VGS of 2021. Nine first-time participants joined this evening’s group of thirty-seven. We were so glad to return after a three week hiatus and gather around a text about new beginnings, an excerpt from the chapter “Birth” in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman (you can find the text below).

After welcoming both new and seasoned participants we presented the dense, descriptive first paragraph of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. A participant read to us and then we took another minute to re-read silently. As we opened the discussion, several participants raised their virtual hands to contribute their “take” on what we were reading. We began by diving into the rich visual images and focusing in on the scene of homebirth in Laos. The act and the description of this birth brought on many associations for our participants: “a familiar place”, “a place where the character can be independent and have control of her body”, “a process of delivery that wasn’t medicalized”.  We observed the ‘tone of silence’ pervading the poem, and reflected on the depiction of a modest, self-sufficient, caregiving woman giving birth (“admirable” for some, “idealized” for others, given the “absence of any messiness”). Our reading came with a recognition that what we read was decontextualized, despite the many earthly and biological elements abounding: dirt, earth, feces, water.

We noted that the book begins with “if”, followed by a newborn’s name and proceeds to focus on mother’s actions. We paused to imagine the possibilities. What is the “if” referring to? Does the sentence beginning “If” suggests Lia was not born where her siblings were? Where was she born? Was the born? What could have been? Some participants recognized this as a classic nonfiction medical humanities text assigned to students in healthcare.

Five people read aloud what they wrote to one of the two prompts:  “Write about a space of new beginnings.” Or “Write about being at ground level.”

These texts explored: 

  • associations, memories, and meaning of walls
  • desires of continuity
  • our notions of beginnings
  • spaces of emptiness, silence, waiting 
  • burdensome thoughts put on metaphorical shelf
  • walking and breathing allowed new perspective
  • grounded in being human
  • relationships of prime importance

Here’s to new beginnings, and to growing our relationships and community in 2021.

Participants are warmly encouraged to share what you wrote below (“Leave a Reply”), to keep the conversation going here, bearing in mind that the blog of course is a public space where confidentiality is not assured.

Also, we would love to learn more about your experience of these sessions, so if you’re able, please take the time to fill out a follow-up survey of one to two quick questions!

Please join us for our next session Wednesday, January 13th at 12pm EST, with more times listed on our Live Virtual Group Sessions page.

“Birth” from “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” by Anne Fadiman

If Lia Lee had been born in the highlands of northwest Laos, where her parents and twelve of her brothers and sisters were born, her mother would have squatted on the floor of the house that her father had built from ax-hewn planks thatched with bamboo and grass. The floor was dirt, but it was clean. Her mother, Foua, sprinkled it regularly with water to keep the dust down and swept it every morning and evening with a broom she had made of grass and bark. She used a bamboo dustpan, which she had also made herself, to collect the feces of the children who were too young to defecate outside, and emptied its contents in the forest. Even if Foua had been a less fastidious housekeeper, her newborn babies wouldn’t have gotten dirty, since she never let them actually touch the floor. She remains proud to this day that she delivered each of them into her own hands, reaching between her legs to ease out the head and then letting the rest of the body slip out onto her bent forearms. No birth attendant was present, though if her throat became dry during labor, her husband, Nao Kao, was permitted to bring her a cup of hot water, as long as he averted his eyes from her body. Because Foua believed that moaning or screaming would thwart the birth, she labored in silence, with the exception of an occasional prayer to her ancestors. She was so quiet that although most of her babies were born at night, her older children slept undisturbed on a communal bamboo pallet a few feet away, and woke only when they heard the cry of their new brother or sister. After each birth, Nao Kao cut the umbilical cord with heated scissors and tied it with string. The Foua washed the baby with water she had carried from the stream, usually in the early phases of labor, in a wooden and bamboo pack-barred strapped to her back.

(C) 1997 Anne Fadiman All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-374-26781-2