11 March 2023
Self-kindness and living like a eucalypt
Today I have re-worked an excerpt, below, from an essay that I wrote in 1994. I’m at the other end of my career now and in a new phase of my professional life, having recently resigned due to severe and irremediable differences from the Possums charity which I founded in 2013 and which I have loved passionately. Despite the shock and sadness, I remain deeply committed to moving forward with the NDC or Possums programs for parents with babies. A website landing page and invitation to subscribe to my newsletters (which will focus on the NDC/Possums programs, different to these Cailleach Diaries newsletters) are now at drpam.baby, and if you’re interested you can also follow my Facebook and Instagram accounts.
I wrote the essay A little extra something when I lived in Bullaburra, in the Blue Mountains. My children were very young. It took me a good six months and I thought about it day and night. In every spare moment, when my children were asleep or in someone else’s care, I sat in my cramped study overlooking the wild green Bullaburra gully with its raucous flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos, dreaming and writing, urgently. Then when I finished, I didn’t publish it. I had no idea who might be interested. I’ll never forget that Maureen Minchin kindly read every word and phoned me to say she really liked it. I shouted out with happiness into the bright gully air after we hung up.
That was the year I became an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, too. I’ve brought out A little extra something again this week to remind myself why I set out on the Possums journey all those years ago. It reminds me why I started and why I am continuing on with the NDC work, regardless. Here’s a part of the essay.
10 March 2023 Brisbane
Excerpt from my essay A little extra something, 1994
The human body is like a magnificent eucalypt that accommodates seasons of flood, bushfire, and drought. Until death we are animated not only by cycles of growth and decrease, but by a dynamic and powerful tide of healing, a sap of life which pulses up through the interconnected endocrine, immune and neurologic processes of a human being.
Shrouded in these physiological systems is a mystical land between lands, a verdant matrix of psyche and body, a mangrove where the roots of flesh and soul entwine, dark and wet and gravid. This is the germinative human core, a fragment of universal womb buried in body with immense potential for renewal. This is where our complex and malleable genetic template is subjected to the infinitely varied forces of environment, psyche, hormones, enzymes, so that genetic expression can only sometimes be predicted. This is where the cancer, the gastric ulcer, the schizophrenia, the diabetes, the depression – the many manifestations of wounded or disrupted body and mind – are rooted. This is a tidal land, home of the gods, a shadowy swamp where fate and flesh collide.
In my work as a doctor I have tracked the psyche across the terrain of body, tracked the body across the wind-swept wilderness of soul. I have watched for the contour of culture, the way great political and social movements, terrible and systemic cruelties and injustices and power structures and our profoundly disrupted relationship with this small blue planet shape our inner landscapes. Each of our cells is bathed in the hormones and immune factors and neuronal endings of psyche and family and society, every emotion is a bodily event. Psyche is a mysteriously beautiful blossom on the branch of body: soul too draws up the sap of the earth. Illness is born out of contexts as impenetrable, knotted, complicated, multi-layered as the growth rings of the ancient Huon pines in wild takayna forests. We can only stand with reverence before the mystery of illness and offer up our love.
In the midst of all this chaos there is also an inherent order to certain ancient biological patterns and we can follow these in trust. Wait, for instance, as the newborn stretches and shudders, slippery with blood and vernix on her mother's chest, wait as she bounces her wet little head, as she crawls down the breast, an ancient mammalian reflex coded deep in her bones, a tiny newborn animal who knows what to do. Wait as her mother’s hands contain her, wait as she licks and inhales the scent and opens her mouth to take the nipple. Failure to trust the innate inflicts its own kind of injury, though those of us who are trained to care for them must be watchful, too, for other kinds of disruptions or threats. That which appears chaotic and incomprehensible in the short-term, like the avid, frequent, highly irregular feeding of the newborn, has its own innate biological logic.
This land between lands in the human body is particularly vulnerable in infancy. There is evidence that the impact of primal psychic or physical wounds may reverberate here life-long. But this vulnerability needs to be understood in the context of the huge sociocultural powers which shape us as parents, and also the mysterious complexity of each human being’s immense capacity for healing right throughout the lifespan, though I am not naive. We do our best as parents, some days better, some days worse, and it helps to remember that our child’s life and journey is subject to powers much bigger than we are.
In the meantime, for as long as I am able, I will continue to offer my own small contribution towards changing those great sociocultural forces (in my case, perinatal clinical approaches and parent education) which make it so difficult to enjoy caring for our babies. There are vast powers at work outside and within me which are beyond my control, and the older I become, the more I learn to invoke a most profound and tender self-compassion, stumbling along day by day through this stunningly beautiful and terrifying world, trying to give of my best.
Maybe we can practice this kind of radical self-kindness, together.