A blessing on Midsummer night (21st June 2010)

And did the Great Mother pass my house this evening? Did her skirts not brush my cheek? And did I not catch her scent? Surely it was Her who touched my soul as I watered the garden in the dusk of the day, bringing me to a standstill, gazing into the copper heart of the buckthorn, wrapt, amazed. Awed by beauty, blessing, wholeness; being part of the whole yet having a unique place in it. For a few precious minutes of eternity I lived in paradise and the cares and fetters of my life did not bind or bother me; like paper streamers they fluttered weakly in the wind. I gazed upon my garden lit in the subdued hues of midsummer night, so new, so young, yet so vibrant with the birth of a dream, and I saw her hand scattering her seeds of life and love.  I gazed once more into the buckthorn and saw her smiling face. And I smiled.

And there I would have stayed for ever and become a tree myself, but the door opened and a voice of love called me back into my world (‘Aren’t you coming to bed?’). Could he not see her? I turned slowly and came in.

The great Mother passed my home tonight and her skirts brushed my face, and she turned and smiled upon me and I carry her blessing in my soul.



The Midwife, the Prophet and the Broom Tree

Funny how you send out a cry for help into the universe and the answer comes back to you.  I found this article written as a speech for the ARM Conference Oct 2009.  I needed to learn the lessons again, so I share it with you.

Let me tell you a story. It is a story from the Jewish and Christian traditions – it is not feminist, it is not PC but in the tradition of Estes the Jungian psychologist and writer of Women who run with the Wolves, a psychological reading can give us food for thought and tips to help us take the things we have learnt today into our real lives.

I am calling it restoring the burnout midwife

For refreshment and recreation the man in my life enjoys choral singing. The corollary of this creativity is that his good wife must attend a variety of choral concerts. This is the concert season and last weekend I attended at the performance of Elijah. I like music of all kinds thankfully but most of all I love stories. And as I listened, I began to think and as I began to think I got out the original tale – I can really use this I thought.

The Elijah cycle are a series of traditional tales from the Jewish and subsequently also the Christian traditions. They are macho tales of daring-do really, formulated and written in an ancient patriarchal tradition, but in these tales, as I have discovered, are some real gems for women and men of the 21st century trying to transform the birthing world.

A bit of context before telling the tale and pulling it apart. Elijah was one of the old prophets of the North of Israel post partition. Unlike later prophets who wrote books or certainly caused their words to be written down, what Elijah left was a collection of stories and historical encounters – a bit like Robin Hood or King Arthur and his knights – I guess, but in his context it had such an impact on the history of the state that they were chronicled in the history books of the Kingdom and so we come to have them today. Elijah comes over as an archetypal figure striding across the country, telling off Kings and countrymen alike before having to flee for his life and then returning again to cause more political havoc – a sort of prophetic gorilla.

Now I don’t want anyone here to think that I am trying to bring religion into midwifery because this is not how I want to use the story. I want to delve into it in the way Estes does, Blue Beard and the girl with the red shoes or the crescent moon bear – using the ancient tale to teach us good lessons to be effective in our lives – whoever we are and whatever faith we do or don’t have. So if you are Christian or Jewish, please forgive the unorthodox treatment of this piece of scripture

The story that that I want to use today is one of those in-between tales. Elijah has just had the big show down with the priests of Baal imported by the wicked Queen Jezebel (who performs the function of the wicked Step Mother of English fairy tales). He lone prophet of God challenges all the priests of Baal to meet him on a holy mountain for a holy dual. They each build an altar to their God, set up a sacrifice and then must call down fire from their respective deity to burn the sacrifice. The Baal prophets go first and call and wave and shout, but nothing happens. Elijah one imagines, arms folded, mocks them – maybe he’s gone to toilet, maybe he is asleep, maybe he is on holiday? The prophets get more and more frantic using every trick in the book to arouse their deity, until Elijah says – enough! It is my turn. He restores the ancient altar of Yahweh, digs a trench, pours water all over the altar and sacrifice until the trench is full, then calls on God to answer his prayer. Fire comes down from heaven, the people of Israel are called back to their faith, and Elijah orders and oversees the execution of all 450 Baal prophets.

Needless to say Jezebel is unhappy with this outcome and in her fury puts a price on his head and sending a message to him says “May the gods deal with me ever so severely if by this time tomorrow I have not ended your life like theirs!” And here is where our tale begins. Elijah is fleeing for his life – this is not that unusual, as a gorilla prophet he is used to appearing and disappearing from the public scene for personal health reasons shall we say. But in this story it is different because Elijah has (in the words of one translation) “had enough”, he is tired, he feels old and alone and wants to die – and tells his Lord so.

Elijah, flees for a day, leaves his servant behind and carries on alone. Finally exhausted he sits under a lone broom tree. “I have had enough, I want to die” he tells his Lord and then falls asleep. – AS I hear these words my heart aches. Anyone here tonight who has birthed a babe, brought a babe to birth as a midwife, worked, campaigned, negotiated to make the world a better place, surely we have all sat under the broom tree at one time or another and said “I have had enough, I want to die”. – It is enough! I want to die! All is vanity!

Burnout. I have had enough. I want to die. All is vanity. We work and work, we give everything of ourselves, we may win, we may lose, we take the knocks we may get a heavy knock, we may see things change for the better or not as the case may be. But there comes a day when we go to the barrel and it is empty, there is nothing left, we have used up all our resources. Burnout. And then we may want to flee or maybe we want to shut ourselves in, but we sit under the broom tree and say “I have had enough . . . . .

This story is about first aid for burnt out midwives/activists but I also want us to take that further because prevention is better than cure – and think about how to keep our energy and passion flowing in the joys and challenges of bringing babes and mothers to birth. So let us return to Elijah asleep under the broom tree and see what happens next:

“All at once an angel touched him and said “Get up and eat”. Elijah looked around and there was a bread cake warm and ready to eat, with a jar of water. He ate and drank and went back to sleep. Then again, later, he was roused “Get up and eat, the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank once more.

What was Elijah’s first aid? Food, drink, sleep. When we get sucked into our mission we can forget the essentials of keeping healthy, balanced and well. And in a crisis, in our dark night, when we want to die, we forget the building blocks of life: food, drink and sleep. When the journey has been too much for us we need to feed the body in order to restore the soul. I know it is basic stuff but make sure that in a busy challenging life you take the trouble to eat and drink well, to stay well. Beware of too much fasting on the one hand and comfort glutton on the other. And in a crisis, in despair eating and drinking properly is an essential and sometimes comforting focus.

But under the broom tree Elijah was not just offered food he was given friendship – the food and drink was a gift, a gift of compassion.

I often wonder who this angel was. Was it a golden figure with wings and halo? Or could it have been his manservant, unable to abandon his master, secretly following him so he could minister to his needs. Or, since the angel was clearly a stranger to Elijah, could she have been a woman, learning of Elijah’s distress, a woman who took 2 days leave of her family to provide for his basic needs. She could not heal this tortured soul but she could cook a meal to restore an exhausted body and provide sustenance for the journey ahead of him, she could light a fire to keep him warm and watch over him while he slept. Surely these are the skills and duties of a mother, a midwife and nurturer?

In the big sweep of the traditional tale telling and the drama of Mount Carmel and Mount Horeb this detail is missed – as the role of mother, midwife and nurturer is often missed amongst the high drama of clinical action. But if you want to understand a mothers lasting gratitude to the good midwife, the child’s loyalty to a mother then here you have it: the glass of water brought to your lips, the believing you can do it when you have given up hope, the food set beside you where you can reach it, the kind face that appears when you open your eyes. And if you think back to your darkest hour, was it an angel who helped you through? Or was it the figure or figures in your life, who listened and loved, who gave you food and drink, who believed in you when you did not, who watched over you until you had the strength to carry on?

This is the sisterhood, the communion of saints, the comradeship, the team spirit – whatever you want to call it and it is essential to effective midwifery within and without the NHS and essential to any mother, midwife or other who wishes to be a changemaker in the world. We need to nurture, and support one another in fostering good births whether in the birthing room, in the management meeting or in the parliamentary lobby, whether we are mothers, midwives or full time activists. One night we may be sat under the broom tree with an angel ministering to us, another day we may be that angel. That is the way it is and the way it should be. And by being angels to one another we can prevent burnout and help restore those who suffer it.

Two short angel tales for midwives. One: a midwife told me how after an adverse outcome as they seem to be termed these days she tortured herself for weeks as to whether she might have spotted something earlier, that she could have done something different. At last one day a more senior midwife, quite a brusque character, talked to her about it and said “ Years ago I made a mistake that caused the death of a baby. You live with it for the rest of your life. But you have to carry on; there are more babies to birth. It is the risk we take in doing what we do.” The midwife who told me this tales said that it was not just her words that picked her up but the courage of this midwife both to carry on after that awful experience and to be willing to tell her story to encourage another midwife. Second. New birthing pool, the first midwife takes the plunge and – agh! -A third degree tear. And Oh! How it travelled about the unit – “ooh, hear you had a third degree tear in the pool”; you put a lady in the pool and had a third degree tear.” You know the stuff – natter, natter, natter. : The stuff that kills innovation in a birthing unit. One midwife said we should not be doing this so she went up to the midwife and said – “Hear you had a third degree tear in the pool – that’s tough but I heard you spotted it and dealt with it really well. Well done!” Angels. Sisters. Sweet tea, listening ear, homemade bread, words of encouragement, believing in someone when they don’t. This is first aid for burnout and prevents long term damage.

And the story continues. Strengthened by this sustenance he journeys on – forty days and forty nights – that old term for a long time – to the holy mountain of Horeb, where Moses received the stone tablets centuries before. There on the mountain side he finds a cave and sits in it all night. A lone figure returning to his roots, to the source of his faith . . . and he has a complaint to make.

There are a few things to learn here for the prevention and cure of burnout.

First of all, he could not sit under the broom tree for ever – in order to sort himself out he had to move on. Years ago, after 10 years of giving my all to a particular life and vocation it came to an abrupt and bitter end; a full stop. I was utterly devastated and spent some weeks and months in despair, broken. And then I heard a story about a man lost in the desert and suddenly in his wanderings he came across a beautiful desert flower blooming large and red, where there is a flower there must be a little water, and there was. And there he sat sustained by a little water, gazing at this beautiful flower. And it was such a beautiful flower, large and lustrous, deep red with a black centre. But the water could not sustain him and this beautiful flower and the flower began to wilt and he had to choose whether to stay and die with the flower or to journey on to the nearest city where he could find sustainable life. I remember realising that if I stayed gazing at the beautiful flower of my loss I would die there, and so I got up and started to make the long journey (500 miles) through my desert to find a new and sustainable life. We cannot sit under the broom tree for ever – we have to deal with the challenges we face one way or another.

Elijah’s solution was to retreat to his God’s holy mountain and to make a complaint. Retreat! – is the cry of an army losing a battle. It is no failure, faced with something that overwhelms you to retreat to a safe place where you can regroup, and redeploy your resources. It is a necessity of survival and if you don’t do it often your body will call time and shut down on your behalf. And this can be the cause of much illness and debility in some of us – it is the way we get a break. First Aid for burnout then is retreat, shut down, get away to gain some time to be refreshed, sort yourself out, work out a new plan.

If you recognise this in yourself as I did then a solution is to book your retreats in advance so you can miss out on the misery of being ill. Twenty or thirty years ago when the Basic Communities were in full action in Latin America, empowering peasants to gain justice over land, water and pollution as well as political emancipation, the leaders of these communities faced immense pressure and persecution. The sisters and religious that supported them in one area, taught and practiced regular ‘retreat’ or withdrawal to ensure the activists did not burn out. It was something like this – one hour in the day, half a day in the week, one day in the month, three days in the quarter, one or two weeks in the year.

I think this is a brilliant strategy to stay sane under pressure, it provides space at different levels and different intensities and in chunks that an ordinary person can manage. So much of monastic tradition in all religions is pretty aspirational for us ordinary folk but here is something we all can do – and indeed must do if we are changemakers wanting to avoid burnout.

I am always one for taking a good recipe as a guide and then making the rest up as I go along and so taking that structure as a guide I have found a way of structuring ‘retreat’ time, soulspace into my hectic life. I share this as an example; you will have to find your own way. So every day I try and do a couple of rows of knitting or crochet – I find this works better than meditation because it keeps my hands and chattering brain busy on the one hand and I look busy to the children so they don’t tend to interrupt! For years my daily retreat was listening to the Archers! I go to yoga on a Thursday and a meditation on a Sunday evening. Recently the pressure in my life has increased and I am finding that I need to make an hour’s knitting at a knitting group on a Wednesday morning also a priority. Notice the busier you get the greater the stress, the more breaks you need to keep a balance. Once a month I visit a therapist for massage or acupuncture or such like. I may not need to see her each month but I would need to see her if I didn’t go – if you know what I mean. I also spend an evening a month with some good nurturing friends where we consciously talk about deeper things. Every eight weeks we try to get away as a family for a either a weekend or 5 days depending on the seasonal nature of our business. Very recently we have had the courage to shut down the business entirely for two weeks in August and spend two weeks away together as a family – part of the retreat plan!.

This is no great shakes – this is survival rations for a mother of five children who runs a business, chairs an MSLC and is trying to change the world! It prevents burnout, prevents ill health, and manages stressors. And if something overwhelming does happen a restorative retreat is rarely too far away. Retreating isn’t failure it is the key to successfully maintaining our campaign for good birth.

But back on Mount Horeb, things still aren’t good for Elijah. He has retreated, back to his roots, back to the faith roots of his nation. This is then a physical and emotional journey to a Holy place – to the source of his strength and courage and his powerful and effective work. And in this special place, at the root of his soul he pours out his troubles: I have been very zealous for the Lord Almighty he declares, I have done all the right things, – but look my countryman have given up on their heritage and persecuted those who have tried to maintain it – and I am the only one left.

When we are overwhelmed, when we have lost our sense of purpose and vocation, when we are pulled in too many directions, when we do not feel we can cope any longer we need to return to the roots of our belief, what makes us who we are, whatever or whoever that may be – for some of us that includes a physical journey to a special place or person, for some of us it just takes time and space. But we all have roots and when we have had enough we need to go back to that place to find the answer to what we need. An answer we shall surely find, but as Elijah finds out the manner and the content of the answer may be unexpected and unlooked for.

Elijah says he has done his bit for God and some and for his pains he sees his brethren killed and has to flee yet again for his life. And he can’t do it anymore. And maybe he was looking for big show from his Almighty God, maybe he expected a dramatic vision, a proof of power and strength – but his God was not in the earthquake or the fire, his God was found in a gentle whisper. In A still small voice Elijah converses with his soul and finds his needs supplied, – a new mission, a friend and successor and a message to take to the King. And then once more Elijah bestrides the nation and his dramatic tale continues.

We need to return to our roots from time to time but when we do so at the point of despair I find that what I get is reassurance of my calling and a new mission. I am not retired – but empowered to carry on! I am not given laurels to rest on but walking boots for the next journey – and amazingly it works!

Some of you here today maybe be suffering burnout or be close to ‘jacking it all in’ because you have ‘had enough or maybe you have a friend who is going through it at the moment. So using the story of Elijah as a tool, here are some first aid tips to tackle and prevent burnout so you can survive and thrive amongst the challenges of today’s world:

Pay attention to the basics – food drink sleep

The care of an angel – be an angel receive and angle

Do not sit under the broom tree and die – get up and look for a way out

Retreat! Ensure times and places for recovery and refreshment in your busy life

Go back to your roots – the roots of your soul, strength, or vocation whatever it may be

The answer may come to you in unexpected ways from unexpected places

And you won’t be given laurels to rest on but a new journey, a new mission, a new task, a new inspiration.

I hope that this helps other burntout activists as it helped me – let us apply the lessons of Elijah of the lonely Broom Tree.

Fragments of Soul

What has happened?  Where did April and May go?  They flashed past in a flurry of activity and chaos.  Our busiest Easter followed by our busiest Whitsun.  Every pool out.  Working flat out.  The birth resource centre planning and action dropped and lost in the overgrowth of the business.  Where do the days go?  Another day and I have not read stories to the children.  Another day and the consititution is unfinished, the funding bids unwritten, another day another week and the blog goes unwritten.  Yoga class missed, meditation missed, lunch with hubby missed.

And slowly slowly inexorably I am worn down, pared away until I wake up one morning and there is nothing left, nothing left to give, creativity dried up, sense of humour abandoned, fragmented unfocussed.

Time to pay attention.  Time to read the story of Elijah – and how to deal with burnt out activists.  Time to go into the garden, time to sit on the bed with the children, time, time there is no time.  And yet if there is no time for the soul – there really is no time for everything else.  Soul time spins the yarn of time, it is how you find time, time for what is important.

And we who are mothers at home, we who are mothers dividing ourselves between outside work and the home, we who live lives of interruption and fragmentation, we will not grasp the bigger picture, we will not stay focussed on what is our true visions, we will not keep our balence and perspective, unless we learn the art of soul time.

Soultime is time in the garden, reading a good story with a child, a cup of tea stood by the open back door, a 2 hour slot doing an art class or a yoga class or a singing class, breastfeeding, listening to muisc, meditating, lighting a candle, gazing into an open fire.  Soul time is what nurtures and heals the bumps and bruises of the day and that is what I need, you need, we need – or else we will spend our time without really Living – and that would be a tragedy.

Tonight, was Choices, where several women and men got together and shared our knowledge of birth, and our visiting Independent Midwife, for the first time talked and talked about birth, everything everything and we all left at ease with the gift we have been given, the gift to birth.  And I thought this is really living,, this is the soul of birth, this is why I do what I do, and this is why I need soul time – so that these soul things can happen.

The birth of a birth centre needs SOUL.