Saturday, March 29, 2014

Sister Sharing Circle

Sister Sharing Circle was a revelation.

Developed by Esperanza Dodge and her colleagues at Young Women United, the Sister Sharing Circle experience was conceptualized by women of color for women of color. Sister Sharing Circles are hosted by YWU's Luna Sagrada, a collective that offers free support to low-income families of color in pregnancy, labor, postpartum and breastfeeding. Part support group, part consciousness raising session, part dinner party, Sister Sharing Circle is a monthly two-hour program on varying topics of urgent interest held at YWU's welcoming offices on Gold Street in the heart of downtown Albuquerque.

This month the topic was Breastfeeding/Chestfeeding, and I'd driven down from Santa Fe eager to participate as an ally, grateful for the opportunity to help get the word out about this foundational work, and looking forward to confronting and challenging my own vast ignorance on the issues, e.g. lesbian mama  co-nursing, community cross-nursing, and the miracle of transgender nursing. In truth, I'd been craving just this kind of purpose-driven socializing. We may no longer meet daily at the village well or riverbank, but we women have no less need of each other's easy company than previous generations who did.

“A newborn baby has only three demands. They are warmth in the arms of its mother, food from her breasts, and security in the knowledge of her presence.” --Grantly Dick-Read

We shared a delicious meal (free to participants) from Buca di Beppo—pasta, salad, bread, and mini-connoli in chocolate sauce. As women happened in from work or school, some with their children in tow (childcare is provided, also free of charge) we chatted and ate heartily. After a time, Esperanza asked a “check-in” question by way of introducing ourselves: “If you were an ice cream flavor, which would you be?” The answers were as lighthearted as the query: “Rocky Road, because it's a little bit of everything;” “Rainbow Sherbert, because it's fresh and light;” “Cookie-dough anything,” said the UNM grad student in Public Health to knowing smiles, no explanation needed.

We read together. Aloud, we took turns, and then discussed what we'd read: “Is Slavery Why Black Women Aren't Breastfeeding?” In a word, Yes. While not the sole factor, the persistent legacy of African-American chattel slavery with its blame-the-victim stigma and collective trauma of “wet-nursing” remains an enduring cultural barrier. But the low breastfeeding rates among African-American mothers have real and often severe health consequences for their babies. The benefits of mother-to-baby transfer of Colostrum, the rich milk of protective antibodies that is produced in the first days after birth, cannot be overemphasized—even a single ounce.

YWU has a library of resources available for loan, including this title.

These are not simple choices for some parents,” Esperanza explained. “They carry a lot of weight. And it won't be fixed by information. There are things the mother won't say. She might not tell you that her mother told her about breastfeeding, 'That's for poor people.' She might just say, 'I can't.'

Knowledge of history,” Esperanza explained, “acknowledges a person in their background. It's especially important because in New Mexico our initial breastfeeding rates are higher than average, then they drop off. The key factor is support.” One woman, herself a midwife, told us that given her profession, at first her mother was reluctant to say too much, didn't want to get in her business, so to speak. But as a newly nursing mother, she needed her to do just that. “It was my mother who showed me how to hold my breast so the baby could latch on; she was the one who showed me the C-hold and how to get the nipple flat enough; she told me to make it like a sandwich and put it in his mouth. She drew me a picture!”

Without support it can feel overwhelming, especially for women whose babies are at home while they work all day. Taking lonely breaks in the ladies room with her breast pump, one woman recalled her past attempt with disgust. “I made a mess at work!” Not all employers are as baby-friendly as the University of New Mexico, which provides lactation stations atseveral campus locations where parents can feed their babies, or pump and collect their milk for later feeding. Both the current and future administrator of UNM's Breastfeeding Support program participated in the Sister Sharing Circle that evening.

UNM's lactation stations are designed to take the stress out of breastfeeding.

Some women spoke about their insecurities as to whether they would be able to produce enough milk, or fears about knowing whether the baby was getting enough, or expressed concern about receiving conflicting advice from family: “When I think about having a baby, I think about returning to my family, to the village. But everyone will be there and everyone will have a different thing to say. How will I know what's right? I'm torn between wanting the village and feeling it's too much.”

There's a coldness, a harshness coming from the medical profession,” one woman shared. “They'll say to a new mother, You're not making enough, why don't you just supplement? They can be so insensitive to the new mothers' feelings. It's no wonder the numbers are so low.” Sometimes babies are not released from the Natal Intensive Care Unit unless the mothers agree to supplement with formula, which can undermine a mother's best intentions.

With a deeper understanding of both the difficulties and rewards of breastfeeding, Esperanza asked us to write down on brightly colored notepads what words we would use to encourage a breastfeeding parent. A cascade of beautiful words rained down on us:

You are not alone. How can I help? What do you need?
Every drop you give is wonderful.
Baby steps are what’s important. Don’t give up.
 Keep doing your best, your baby appreciates it more than you know!

One woman reminded us that encouragement can come non-verbally too. “I sent a beautiful picture of a woman with tattoos breastfeeding her child, to my cousin who was having difficulties and also had tattoos. It meant a lot to her.”

As our time together drew to a close, Esperanza asked us to each articulate what we had valued most about this Sister Sharing Circle.

Hearing the stories...everyone's experiences...learning about the history... learning what resources there are...being able to share... practicing what I might say to someone needing support... feeling the compassion and kindness...expanding my knowledge...I'm feeling more's not so embarrassing to talk here...listening to all the wisdoms...remembering my work is important...the chance to speak directly to pregnant women.

As if we hadn't already received more than enough gifts—nourishment for the mind, body and spirit—the Sister Sharing Circle ended with a prize giveaway—nursing pads, a journal, baby sun block, a nursing apron, and a promise. The promise was given to the woman who had “made the mess” the first go around, who dearly wants to breastfeed her second baby due in August, who feels committed to try again even though it didn't go well for her last time.

Esperanza (whose name means hope) said the words that could just make all the difference for her and her newborn: “This time you have us. We will definitely be there for you.”

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

James Boyd's Streets

 Photos by Frances Madeson

My darling neighbor, artist Jeffery Pierce, decorated my car for our funeral procession to meet the Emergency Protest. Vice News covered our plans. And the Santa Fe New Mexican's Uriel Garcia came to give us a beautiful sendoff.Two of Julia Goldberg's journalism students at Santa Fe University of Art and Design are also working on a story which I'll post when it comes over the transom.

It was a long and passion-filled day in Albuquerque, a city I'm coming to love more and more. Sadly, by the time my car rolled safely home the Albuquerque Police Department had shot and killed another victim. Citizen's Arrest Warrants have been issued for the mayor, the police chief, and some of the very, very bad apples.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Oriana Lee: Bringing the Light

 Photo by Frances Madeson

Oriana Lee wasn't planning on becoming a New Mexican, but that great teacher Life instructs  us quickly and early that some occurrences are simply larger than mere plans. One day perhaps we'll laugh about the factual coincidence that the state bird here is the Great Roadrunner, but that day is not yet here, not by a long shot. Oriana is awaiting trial, or ideally the dismissal of the trial, in connection with events in Taos County that pretty much everyone in the whole world knows about by now. If for some reason the story has passed you by, here is a short version of the hair-raising video seen by hundreds of thousands of viewers the world over.

The lawyers, judges and affected parties will sort it all out in time, but from the peanut gallery it seems highly unlikely that NM State law enforcement would risk looking even more brutish and foolish than it currently does by pursuing a trial or attempting to further incarcerate the single mother of five (one girl and four boys) beyond the fourteen days they already held her in the county lock-up. A petition is circulating to help them reach that very conclusion for those who would like to add their names.

If Oriana goes on the Barbara Walters Show or is interviewed by Diane Sawyers or one of the other big-profile major media outlets that are courting her for her presentation of the sensational story, she can reveal publicly some of the distasteful experiences and humiliating privations she witnessed and endured while jailed in Taos County. But Oriana being Oriana would also tell of the guards who treated her fairly, who did their jobs properly, and who sometimes demonstrated caring and kindness. She would emphasize that not everyone who can does abuse power, cruelty though often evident is not the only possible modus operandi even in a harsh and punishing environment. And I hope modesty will not prevent her from telling how she exerted a calming influence on her fellow inmates, how she spoke with them about empowerment and solidarity, how on the day she was released they circled her and promised her they would hold on to the peace they'd all come to share in her presence.

Photo by Frances Madeson

The family is settled in a rental house in a quiet residential neighborhood, the house is furnished with most of the basics they need cobbled together from thrift store bargains and some donations, which are very appreciated. When they arrived here they had three big suitcases filled with their clothes and shoes, boxes of school supplies and some few treasured personal items. Books (some fascinating titles) sit on tables and counter tops in every room. (While so-called "paraphernalia" was reported, which could be a range of things, including sacred altar items for spiritual practices, no contraband was found.) She keeps a close eye on Craigslist for acceptable furnishings to feather their spare nest. She's not pleased that her children currently sleep on air mattresses or that their comforts are few, but they're grateful to be together, and frankly just happy to be alive.

She's applied for a full-time job whose prospects looks promising but until she hears for certain she's offering workshops and teaching ad-hoc classes in various areas of interest and expertise such as Vision-Boarding, Child Rearing With the Divine Feminine in Mind, and Mexican and African Birthing Traditions. She's also a performer of original rap and spoken word compositions which are available for sampling on her website.

By O

eye rip raps; on same microphones poetry.
eye balance formality with artistic integrity.
eye close deals, book shows, then pen prose.
eye cook meals before heading to post bills.
eye read to the youth; record to the beat.
eye flow, consult, lecture, teach & speak.
eye blog & tweet; send messages to senders.
eye fool to the internet; slave to lender.

eye write for the love. 
eye fight for the write. 
eye am a writer.
eye write.

Oriana struggled for a long time with her decision to leave her home in Memphis to set out for LA to pursue her dreams in the entertainment business. And this detour hasn't been an easy one—among the many expressions of support extended her way both on the internet and in person, she received vociferous hate mail after the late October incident. She was called a “dumb bitch” who “deserved to die.” One writer said that he "wished she'd been shot for teaching her kids to go against cops." Disturbing messages that she's had to shrug off in order to keep bringing the light.

In Memphis she'd been active with various volunteer and advocacy groups so naturally when she found herself a newcomer not by design in a town where she knew only one friend, she reached out. She's had her disappointments from organizations she hoped would be allies—some groups had conditions attached to their assistance, conditions that challenged her loyalties which she could not go along with. Most of the kindnesses she's received have been from individuals, people who recognize the difficult spot she's in, bound to remain in New Mexico while the legal machinations unwind beyond her control. Fortunately she's very keen on her lawyers and is confident she's receiving excellent representation.

Cooking with Kush back home in Memphis

The children are finding their way socially. It's a little more challenging for her teenagers than for Kush, her 12-year old son who has a special interest in all things culinary, and her two younger boys who like to play Legos and chess as well as making everybody laugh every chance they get. But her big boy, 14, was accepted into a dance crew which was exactly what he needed Oriana told me, and they're all going to check out the skate park. Her daughter, a beauty who graduated high school at 15, is thinking about culinary school or maybe make-up classes, or possibly pursuing modeling. 

I haven't been in wondrous New Mexico that long myself, but long enough to know there are many loving people here who would welcome the opportunity to embrace this family and even help out financially to tide them over until things break better for them.  Any and all angels should please feel free to donate to help the family relieve some of its burdens through Paypal using the address:

When I told Oriana how moved I was by seeing her children heroically come to her aid when she was being manhandled, especially Hezekiah who so easily could have borne the brunt of the officer's out-of-control rage, she smiled as if to say That's who he is. If it had been you, or someone else in trouble, anyone, he would have helped. That's the kind of person he is.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Doña Isabella

Around the time Willa Cather was composing her great New Mexican novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, muralismo was the prevailing art form in Old Mexico, on the rise in the years subsequent to the Mexican Revolution. Meditating on the architecture of the novel, which is structured in prologue and nine books, several with numbered scenes within, it occurred to me that this may have been Cather's interesting and formally ambitious stab at creating a contemporaneous literary equivalent. Certainly some of her descriptions of natural phenomena are lucid to the point of hallucination.

Muralismo typically depicts significant, often legendary, historical scenes, especially as seen from the point of view of indigenous peoples, and conveys social messages meant to speak to the ages often painted in vivid, sometimes lurid, primary colors. This is no less true in Cather's verbal compositions, perhaps the most brilliant and exciting of which is the passage in Section 4 of Book Three, The Mass at Acoma, in which Cather relates how the pueblo people summarily dispensed with one despotic and carelessly lethal priest. His downfall is described dispassionately in plain, spare, almost methodical language evoking an atmosphere of  utter detachment.

They carried him down the ladder and through the

cloister and across the rock to the most precipitous

cliff — the one over which the Acoma women flung

broken pots and such refuse as the turkeys would

not eat. There the people were assembled. They

cut his bonds, and taking him by the hands and feet,

swung him out over the rock-edge and back a few

times. He was heavy, and perhaps they thought this

dangerous sport. No sound but hissing breath came

through his teeth. The four executioners took him up

again from the brink where they had laid him, and,

after a few feints, dropped him in mid-air.

There's much to admire in the writing of this brief passage, the double meaning of refuse for instance, the tyrannical priest as “such refuse” (garbage) and the peoples' refusing (resistance) of his casual act of murder—or the very few adjectives that somehow generate so much foreboding: “precipitous,” “broken,” “dangerous,” “hissing.” It is part of Cather's linguistic genius that in “hissing breath” can be found both the condemned man's ultimate voicing of disapproval, and the final wheezings of a criminally unholy gasbag.

Muralismo often includes portraiture of iconoclastic figures whose deeds are worthy of contemplation, exemplars whose lives and accomplishments merit scrutiny over Time. Often unsung heroes who have fought the power in one way or another, or who have opened up new vistas of thought or creation. Book Six, containing the fewest pages of all the books in Death Comes for the Archbishop, is titled Doña Isabella, and at first it's difficult to perceive how this trivial-seeming character fits into the social landscape, or why she should be singled out at all and elevated to the status of her own book. Since she's no notable personage, what exactly is her character a portrait of?

In the first of the two sections, Cather describes her as the second wife of a prosperous ranchero who returned to Santa Fe from New Orleans with “his American wife and a wagon train of furniture.” From the get-go she is situated as ornamental, decorous to her new surroundings, and she's drawn as vain on several counts. Most especially because she indulges a pretense about her age which she doesn't quite manage to pull off. Cather focuses us on Isabella's hair which was “a little silvered, and perhaps worn in too many puffs and ringlets for the sharpening outline of her face.” Ringlets that she takes care to pin back before entering the company of her dour adult daughter Inez, altering her appearance by toning it down and becoming more churchly.

Doña Isabella is generally the subject of gossip but of a trifling nature, mostly concerning her fashion sense (she's said to be something of a clothes horse) as well as conjecture about possible extra-marital dalliances. Cather seems keen to make us notice both her flightiness and her whiteness as reflected in her choice of pop songs such as La Paloma (the dove), La Golondria (the swallow) and “the Negro melodies.” Near the close of Section 1 when Doña Isabella plays her harp at the end of a long party sequence, Cather narrowly avoids the bird in the gilded cage cliché with a bracing splash of surprising language: “She was very charming at her instrument; the pose suited her tip-tilted canary head, and her little foot and white arms.”

In Section 2, Isabella is now the widow of the prosperous ranchero who brought her to Santa Fe. His brothers are challenging the will which would leave the bulk of the hefty fortune to her and Inez (and in time, the church) on the grounds that she is too young to be Inez's mother, her own lie used against her. Pride prevents her from admitting the truth, even if it means forfeiture of the inheritance. Cather is cruel, extending her whiteness to oblivion, dressing her “in heavy mourning, her face very white against the black, and her eyes red. The curls about her neck and ears were pale, too—quite ashen.” In Cather's hands whiteness itself becomes a kind of lived delusion, one that is openly acknowledged by the other characters. “Tramping home,” Father Vaillant says to Bishop Latour that, “he would rather combat the superstitions of a whole Indian pueblo than the vanity of one white woman.”

Subsequent scenes serve as nuanced reinforcements of Vaillant's considered conclusion. We turn the page on Doña Isabella, frozen in her panel: a none-too-flattering yet starkly iconic portrait of enduring white female privilege.