Turning Thirty: Lessons Learned While Aging Beautifully

source: gutsygeek.com
source: gutsygeek.com

There is a general dread in our culture of aging. Often in my life I have heard the reminder, “te estas poniendo vieja!” when a birthday comes around. It is usually in a mocking, teasing tone trying to conceal all the things we have come to hate about getting old: wrinkles, white hair, dramatic body changes, menopause, and ultimately death. I tend to celebrate turning a year older with a lot of reflection and praise, embracing the gift of experience and lessons that come with the passage of time. I usually take an inventory of the year that is coming to a close but with turning thirty this year, contemplating 10 years worth of evolution has been emotional, to say the least.

My twenties were one hell of a rollercoaster. From my perspective, I changed drastically in this decade. I began it not being quite a girl but not yet a woman. I was 20 in 2005, two years into my undergraduate career. I was adjusting to my family living in Albany and all that came with that. I was celebrating my 2nd year with my chapter sisters and enjoying my college life. By this time I was already a Black Studies major; I was experiencing rapid leaps in my understanding of my identity as a Black person in the United States. My first physical manifestation of the pride I was developing in my African roots was the return to natural hair the year prior. At twenty, I feverishly wrote poetry and was part of the poetry scene at SUNY New Paltz.

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21 came with the ability to drink at my leisure and also with the shattering of an illusion. One of my clearest memories of that summer were standing on the porch as the idea I had of my father imploded. I made choices from then on that showed a lack of worth in my self and a loss of innocence that I’m now understanding more and more. I got to meet poets from around the country that year through being a part of the slam team in college. The next year, I would graduate from college in December 2007 and was deep into my spiritual practice. I had begun delving into yogic traditions for a year or two but by this point was into what is considered “alternative”. My yoga practice influenced my understanding of the universe and was also my first stepping stone out of Catholicism after the couple of years I spent after 17 grappling with the idea of divinity. This change in worldview affected my diet and fostered my understanding of the mind-body connection.

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I took a class called “Women in the Caribbean” that set the stage for my book, “Hija De Mi Madre”. In that class with Denise Oliver-Velez, I identified as an Afro-Latina for the first time. This was the capstone for me, as I had become a Black Studies major shortly after crossing over into my sorority as an 18 year old. My twenties had a lot to do with embracing my African heritage as well as untangling the story of how I came to be Dominican. I am still learning. Becoming a Black Studies major marked the end of two decades full of self-hatred based on my skin tone. I often consider that major my personal major; that is to say, that being a part of the Black Studies department was more of a healing and transformative choice than for my career. Wonderfully, my Black Studies education has informed pretty much every career move I’ve made after graduation.

Post college was the most difficult adjustment to date. The first tumultuous moment after graduation was the beginning of the conflicts with my mother. In retrospect, much of that conflict that persisted for about 7 years because of a couple of reasons. I was not the daughter she expected to return from college. I had become more African-centered, more liberal, un-Catholic and everything she had not raised me to be. My mother was 4 years into life as a diagnosed bipolar person. I hadn’t lived with her most of those years and didn’t know how to relate to her. I think we both yelled and reacted to each other from being in extreme spaces of trauma. It was in the last year that I stopped blaming her for all the problems and truly took accountability for my role in our relationship. There was a lot I didn’t understand about mental illness, both my own and hers. My true understanding and in turn compassion for my relationship with my mother, for her and for myself is ever expanding.

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I spent four years as an art model. That was a very intense and also mindless job. Last night, I sat in bed contemplating why I chose to do that for so long. Part of it was this fascination I had most of my life with my naked body. It was a journey in my nudity as art. It was also the manifestation of how detached I was from my body. It was an object, regardless of the artists’ intentions. I made myself vulnerable to potentially fatal situations by spending time naked with men I barely knew and trusted way too much. I wasn’t connected completely to the sacredness of my nudity, I needed to make money, and on some level the attention was intoxicating. I don’t regret the photographs that exist of my bare body and in the same breath, understand that it was harmful even with the lessons I gained. From the experience of art modeling, I did cultivate a deeper appreciation for peculiar jobs that involve sexuality. It opened my mind to be less judgmental about the choices others make with their bodies.

My twenties saw my heartbreak several times. I was governed by my desire to be wanted and, discovered later in therapy, my relationship with my parents. Ultimately, that culminated into one particularly painful relationship that took the last 5 years to recover fully from. I know that I was not mentally well enough to stop the pain sooner and yet, the experiences I had with this individual have taught me a great deal about myself. Being violated on all levels cracked me open to be able to get to deeper root reasons for who I was being. I still find myself triggered when I least expect it. I know now, five years removed, the metaphysical reasons for it and though it was far from okay (it was fucked up), it doesn’t define me.

The last half of my twenties is when my mental health took a different turn from the downward spiral I can now look back and identify as my path. I began to go to therapy in 2011 and have been happy about what I have learned about myself and my anxiety troubles. I’ve been a huge advocate for mental health wellness. In the same vein of healing, I also incorporate my spiritual health as the foundation for my mental wellness. I have been able to gain control of my mental faculties. My mental health has been greatly improved by my devotion to the Ifa/Lucumi spiritual tradition. I cannot stress enough the ways in which disorganized spiritual faculties can greatly distort and affect everything. The moment I began to study this African spiritual practice, my life began to change for the better. It is the root of much of my inner freedom, and dictates my mission as a radical birthworker on the planet.

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I became deeply invested in my womanly body. From years of detaching from it, I simultaneously also studied on my own about my menstrual cycle and reproductive system. Through my studies and healing of my trauma connected to my body, I tapped into a deep wisdom that my body contained. That wisdom contained my dreams and passions, including affirming my role as a healer and teacher. This realization in college is what propelled me to become a doula and then, more recently, a midwife.  Healing myself made me want to help facilitate the same healing for women of color. My twenties, particularly my late twenties, saw the full transition from girl to woman. In that transition, I gained so much from reading about my womanhood as a Black Latina woman on a political level, which contextualized my experience out of a vacuum and into contemporary times. The personal is always political; while I can access other levels of understanding my self and body as a woman, I know that advocating and fighting for the rights denied to us in healthcare and in society are important in fostering that understanding for myself and for others.

Becoming a birthworker brought that all together for me. I understood my mortality. I understood that only birth and my own body can cause such a profound change to my whole being. I felt connected to women through generations and circumstances because of the honor I have had to attend births. It has made me have a deeper reverence for mothers, become a fierce advocate for human rights and give deeper thought to becoming a mother myself. There is so much about my power that I will get to discover when I take this step as a woman. I have experienced death and birth already in my experience transitioning from being Carmen to being Ynanna. I know that what I know of spiritual death and birth is a preparation for the physical birth(s) I will have one day.

I enjoyed my twenties and feel only a slight amount of nostalgia for them. I don’t want to go back in time and relive any of it. I am focusing on coming to peace with everything I experienced in the last decade. At 30 years old, I feel more whole than I ever have. I get to start this new decade of my life with a wonderful partner, a mature view on my life and what I must do to get it on its feet, a lot of compassion for myself and those around me, and my womanhood in full bloom.

 

photo by Vixon John
photo by Vixon John

 

 

 

 

Community Birthworking and Accessibility –

source unknown
source unknown

 

I met a Bronx momma one Sunday to check in. We had a prenatal visit in her car one afternoon by a park. Reclining her driver seat back, I asked if I could touch her growing belly. I felt for baby’s back and head, showed her where and how to feel for them. She told me about this ache near her groin; I explained about the ligaments that support the uterus and how normally they aren’t stretched the way they are in pregnancy, that this can cause some pain but it’s normal. I kept touching her belly and my hands went instinctively to where it ached, massaging. I kept talking to momma about birth and that I understood why she was scared of the pain and gave her some advice about taking the last couple of weeks to disconnect from everything and focus on the last precious moments of having her child this close to her. I saw the tears. I heard the all-too common statement that rarely does she receive attention and touch in this way. I think about her and how she is one of many women who would not have this moment if it weren’t for community doula grants and organizations that advocate for every woman, regardless of finances.

Though some of the systems of making this happen are not perfect, they are an attempt to support doulas financially who would love to completely dedicate all their time to moments like this.  For me, it seems that the women who can afford to have me at their births are those who are in a financial position to do it. While I do not make anyone wrong for this ability nor shame doulas who market themselves to demographics who can afford their rightfully deserved fees, I think about women like the Bronx momma who cannot afford me because of the different systemic barriers that come with being a Black low-income woman. I think that as a birthworker, I must tread carefully the line between being paid what I deserve and knowing there are women who truly cannot afford it who I want to serve. I often wonder why I haven’t managed to completely support myself on what I love. I am reluctant to pursue higher paying clients because I know that with money comes the ability to have easier access to this service, and to be completely transparent, I want to attend Black and Latina women in my community. This is also not to say that Black and Latina are inherently impoverished but the chances of them suffering from economic disenfranchisement are pretty high. Because of this, they are more likely to birth in subpar hospitals in their communities and run the risk of not being informed about their options nor anything being done to them.

Recently, I had to pay a visit to Lincoln Hospital and memories of the cruel and unusual treatment (read: torture) that I witnessed with birthing women came flooding back. I won’t go into detail about them but the awful bedside manner and proceedings that I saw have been enough to drive me up a  wall just with the thought of it. Hospitals are my least favorite places but I also know that in a couple of situations, I was at the very least able to ease the blow of these circumstances. Ultimately, I wish they could have birthed at home on their own terms and with a much more compassionate team of healthcare providers at their feet. I am reminded of this as I figure out my next steps in my career. I want to find a way to continue to reach women who need women like me to help them. It is my hope to have more moments where a woman’s gratitude is the most rewarding thing after a prenatal session.

Bottom line is, there continue to be many barriers that keep women from having the care and support they need. I would like to see the red tape that keeps the funding from some organizations that deeply desire to do this. I would like to see there be less debate on whether a woman has the money for it and more emphasis on doing the work while keeping in mind the element of not being taken advantage of (that’s real). Above all, I want to have more experiences like the one I opened this stream of consciousness up with: homegrown community connections that truly matter and have an impact.