I’ve been especially missing Jeannine Parvati Baker this past week. It’s coming up to 3 years since she died on December 1, 2005 and her memories live on around here. There’s the outrageously bright purple silk shirt she gave me, the feel of it reminds me of how slim and light she was. A meal to her was a tablespoonful or so of brown rice and three lentils. Also, there’s the photo she sent me when she knew she didn’t have very long to breathe–it’s a polaroid picture of her in her younger days nursing another woman’s baby while her 6 month old twins played in the bed beside her waiting for their turn. Her big smile lit up a room. These tangible reminders of her, I treasure along with her books, her website and video/audiotapes.
The first time I heard her do a presentation “live” was at a Waterbirth Conference in Portland, Oregon. Her entourage consisted of her partner, Rico, and her five children. Other midwives see a trip away to a conference as a good respite from their families but Jeannine took the gang with her.
I’ll never forget being in that big room with Jeannine moving about like a ballerina and spinning us all into a trance with her “word magic”. She brought her education, her First People’s folklore, and her Jewish heritage into the mix of linguistics, humour, wisdom and vision. We were completely enthralled. She had no script and no Powerpoint, just words from her heart that flowed forth into that room. It meant everything to her to be asked to speak to American midwives. She was shunned for many years for daring to speak up for the unassisted birth pioneers. She loved being a midwife but didn’t do it with any compromise of her values. She was fond of the idea that midwives should attend only one birth per month. Her idea was that limiting the number of births allows the midwife to integrate the miracle and deeply savour the lessons of each birth. In this rush, rush world, we need to be reminded to stop and smell the tops of the babies’ heads. She also liked to say that she only kept one chart for each birthing woman and that was her astrological chart. She often said that “Every mother is a midwife” and then proceeded to further alienate herself from most other midwives by asking the rhetorical question “Why would I pay someone to be paranoid for me?” I always loved these provocative one liners from Jeannine. Every profession needs someone to shoot straight from the hip and bring the profession back to a state of humility.
Inventing new language was one of her pet projects. She coined the term “intactivist” for those who speak up for baby boys genitals. She became firm friends with Marilyn Milos of Nocirc in the 1970s and the two women led us all into the modern revolution of ending circumcision. They marched together in many protests and found partners across the country to forge a movement of birth workers, parents, gay men, nurses, doctors and other advocates who would join them in getting out the word about this diabolical human rights crime. When she could barely speak in our last phone call, I told her that she could go and know that we would finish her work and that I wouldn’t stop until it was done.
I brought her to Vancouver to teach workshops in 2002 and 2003. In the last workshop, she did a yoga class for the women. The last exercise was a posture like a shoulder stand but with one leg touching the floor over the head while the other foot bicycled upwards and, then, reversing the legs. I don’t know if that describes it adequately but, needless to say, it was a very challenging yoga move. Only one woman, Joanna, was able to do it. It was so beautiful to see Jeannine, 54 years old, doing yoga with a young woman in her 30s and looking absolutely delighted that she had another being with whom to bicycle through space. Little did any of us know that she was ill with Hepatitis C and it would claim her life in two years.
Just before she died, Mothering Magazine named Jeannine Parvati Baker a “Living Treasure”. The midwife who came through in a miraculous way to assist Jeannine into her dying was Babz Covington, a true angel in the body. Jeannine, I miss you in so many places. There will never be another midwife quite like you.