Contemplation on not-ending, not-concluding

My residency in motherhood

Many months ago, I set out to understand what a “small utopia” meant to me. Prompted by the birth of my son, and against the backdrop of social and political upheaval the world over, I strove to reevaluate what matters to me and how I could better dedicate myself to improving the little sliver of the universe around me.

And then, as these things go, life happened. And life ceased. Or perhaps it’s better to say that life does what it always does. It changed and took on new forms.

My mother passed away in June. She died from cancer — a kind of excess of cellular life. Fortunately, I could spend over a month with her. She met her grandson. She was with close family members. And in the end, she left on her own terms and without pain.

When you lose your mother, you can both say everything and nothing. No words suffice.

In the weeks since, it has felt that what I had been reading and thinking during my residency was secondary and inane. Who cares about material economies when your mother is dead? What difference does it make if we live under a dictatorship or democracy or something in between? Capital is central to how our world works, yet it means nothing.

It is only now, nearly two months later, that I can begin to discern where these things overlap and do matter.

Before you give birth, there are all manners of ways one can prepare. There are courses and books, stories from friends, advice from doctors, and in general just the internal pep talks to ready yourself for the inevitable day when you are no longer pregnant.

However, in that diabolically dialectic way of the world, you can both be prepared and nothing can prepare you. 46 hours after going into labor, my son was born. One can’t even compare that duration to a marathon, because it was ten times longer.

So how do you cope in that process, or even in surprising ways, find joy in it? One level was personal: I had to find my breath, my presence and my peace with it all. “I am here. There is only this moment. Each breath brings us closer to each other.”

Another level was interpersonal. My husband, the midwives, the doctor in the room, as well as the friends and family sharing their support from afar. The love and care of these people made me feel grounded, safe, and able to do it.

And for this to be a healthy birth, there was a less visible yet vital other level: universal basic services. The professional staff with their state-funded medical schools and training, the facilities and nursing paid for by public health insurance, the prenatal care and the midwife’s house visits also covered by health insurance, the compensated time off of work protected by law and paid for by the state, and the hundreds of other “behind the scenes” ways that my baby and I could be healthy and fully there for each other: drinkable water, clean air, hygienic spaces and supplies, affordable food, reliable infrastructure, and on and on.

My mother benefited from similar medical services, paid for through her status as a military veteran. This was a huge emotional and financial relief for our family, as it enabled us all to focus on the shared moments together without fretting about bills and administrative burdens.

And so, despite the sadness and the loss, isn’t that kind of alleviation a utopia?

Life is in the present moment. It’s the only time we really have. To experience it, you have to be here, now.

Therefore, I have resolved to be present for myself, for those I love, and for those I may interact with and affect directly or indirectly. I want to be peaceful and compassionate in every moment and not distracted by past regrets or tomorrow’s worries.

Furthermore, I am resolutely convinced that it shouldn’t be a luxury to have the time and means to be mindful. The ability to live in the moment without material hardship should be universal.

And so I am coming to the conclusion that the purpose of organized society is to cover the basics so that individuals can fully focus on the life they choose. Government should take care of “the stack” — by providing excellent universal basic services.

People should have access to excellent food, shelter, medical care, education, infrastructure and more. These services must be delivered in the context of peace, with a free press, transparency and democracy. Then we citizens can live the lives we choose, without the strain of making ends meet.

The material means to deliver universal basic services (UBS) do exist. In the UK, for example, the University College of London has outlined how to make a form of UBS a reality, a plan which the UK Labour Party is using to inform its thinking. UBS is about political will and the structures to deliver it.

In a place like Germany, the foundation for these universal basic services is available. It is a social democracy with a strong economy. The mainstream parties are committed to providing at least some configuration of these services, even though the details vary greatly. And while the current implementation is far from perfect, there still seems to be a widespread understanding that when more people in society have their basic needs met, we can all be safer, healthier and more prosperous. More human.

I recall a quotation from Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Buddhist monk and peace activist in Vietnam. “We need the vision of interbeing — we belong to each other; we cannot cut reality into pieces. The well-being of ‘this’ is the well-being of ‘that,’ so we have to do things together. Every side is ‘our side’; there is no evil side.”

Maybe ideas like UBS have to be truly universal in their design. They must go beyond national borders, as our lives already do. These services should be something that everyone on the planet, not just citizens of wealthy countries, benefit from. Imagine if everyone had access to food, shelter, education, health care and more.

Isn’t that a utopia worth fighting for?

In some ways, my residency has simply led to my continued intention to be intellectually engaged in the world — not knowing answers but being mindful about asking and searching. My son has brought into focus a specific responsibility that was previously diffuse and generalized: I now know that I want to be fully present and compassionate towards my fellow beings.

And my mother remains a guiding light for how to live a life of curiosity and questioning. She was a teacher and lover of books, happily quoting Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales to tell me that she would always “gladly learn and gladly teach.”

I am thankful to all the friends and family who encouraged me throughout my residency. Your recommendations filled me with joy, and your thoughtful conversations propelled me onward.

In the end, there is no end. I am still a mother, a curious human, and someone endeavoring to be better to those around me. May my residency carry on as a commitment to reside in mindfulness.

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