Word Magic

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.

Jeannine Parvati and two youngest children protesting circumcision.

Jeannine Parvati and two youngest children protesting circumcision.

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.

Jeannine Parvati and Gloria Lemay, Vancouver 2003

Jeannine Parvati and Gloria Lemay, Vancouver 2003


14 thoughts on “Word Magic

  1. Thank you for this lovely post Gloria. You and Jeannine have both been huge influences in my midwifery journey here in new Zealand. I am not currently working as an active midwife and am being at home with my 3 “babies” (now 5,3,and 1). Ironically, I think the main thing I learned from you both was about “unlearning” many things I’d been taught and also about the importance of mothers knowing themselves best in pregnancy and birth.
    I am about to make a major geographical move and have to give away the pomegranate tree that I planted when Jeannine died. I know just the un-midwife to give it too as well.

    Thanks to you Jeannine and to you Gloria

  2. Well its major for me, but still within New Zealand. We are moving from just North of Wellignton in the North Island to just South of Dunedin in the South Island. Major because it involves containers and shipping etc. It will be too cold for my Pomegranate where we are going.

  3. Dear Gloria,

    I do so remember Jeannine and her family in Wash. D.C. in 2001, and I’m sure I met her in Chicago in 1999 at the NOCIRC conference. She had a special way of helping people.

    There was one year after that when I sent Marilyn Milos some money for someone to be able to go to a NOCIRC conference, and she gave it to Jeannine. I was quite happy that I had helped her, of all people, but it wasn’t planned.

    This is another one of those times I think, why her, and not me?

    In the meantime, I’m VERY thankful for you!


  4. gloria,

    we each have our own version of jeannine stored within us, and while each is unique, they all honor her power, love, and connection as well as remind us that we, too hold this. it was beautiful to read yours; it made me cry and miss my mom all over again.

    thank you,

  5. I have deeply missed her as well. I often speak to her and listen to the silence for her word tincture. This last year has been very painful for me, I long for her wisdom. Thank you for your blog.
    Blessed Be and DO

  6. thank you for this, Gloria. I too feel blessed that I was able to journey to Utah with my friend Jeff to see and visit Jeannine in her last months, bringing a few gifts and necessities, such as organic vegetables, fruits, and herbs, handmade soap, and mostly an opportunity to just visit and “be folks.” Jeannine was one of those founding mothers of our rebirth of birthing, so to speak, a pioneer and trailblazer in the reclaiming of family life as a spiritual path.

  7. Thank you, Gloria, these are beautiful and eloquent glimmers of Jeanine, and yourself, that you shared. Until today, I did not realize she had passed. Somewhere around ’88 to ’90 I met Jeanine when the Turtle family hosted her for an abortion healing ritual (monster stories or dances?) on the Washoe rancheria, near Markelyville. It was a very powerful experience because of her personal energy, as well as her enormous capacity to encourage others to empower themselves.

  8. Thank you for posting this blog and allowing us all to remember JP. Her Spirit is remarkable and I can still see her bright smile. I loved being able to send her Sour Gummy Vitamins… ah, the wonderful memories! Thank you.

  9. Thank you Gloria for helping me take the time today to remember jeannine with reverence and love. So much power in such a little, light package ! jeannine touched my life deeply , starting in 1976 when pregnant with my first baby I discovered and daily used her “prenatal yoga ” book. It really instigated the idea that pregnancy is a sacred time and that women have the power to birth their babies . Thank you Jeannine for opening a path of light and delight..
    Then later meeting her in Vancouver ,when you invited her, she instilled in me a trust in learning directly from Birth ..listening to intuition and being the guardian of normal birth, keeping the sacred space.
    You and jeannine shaped a big part of who I am today . I am so thankful to have met you both.
    With infinite gratitude, Charlotte

  10. Thank you Gloria, for giving me more memories og Jeannine.

    I never got to meet her or contact her, it wasnt until the near the end that I “discovered” her. Even though, she midwifed me during my UP/UC in 2006. I drank in her word-medicin, over and over. I read her book, viewed pictures of her, read he articles. I believe I read Prenatal Yoga over 10 times during my pregnancy.

    Just as she prescribed in one of her articles (or was it a dream, I never have been able to find that article again), the Breath was my main nutrition. I have memories of me, taking walks og lying in bed, filled up with that bubbly, juicy Prana, filling me and running so delightful through my body that it tickled me insie out. Ohhh, and that smile on my face.

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  12. Hi Gloria,

    Thanks-you so much for sharing this.

    I recently emailed your tribute to a woman in Italy who has started a FaceBook tribute page for Jeannine. She asked if she may be able to post this to her page to share with Jeannine’s fans-would you mind?

    With love,

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