Laurita Dianita

Reflections and art on the topics of public health, social justice, and love

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On Love and Obligation

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I took this iPhone pic of Ida as she air sucked (continuing to nurse even after she fell asleep and I pulled her off the breast), asleep in my arms on the beach

Written April 5th in Princeville, Hawaii. Ida Luna is 10 weeks old.

On Love and Obligation

I have experienced two new realizations about love lately.

One is that I have never felt love anything like this before. This full, this large, this deep. It is not intense in the way that falling into romantic love is intense – like a bonfire, like an explosion. It is, rather, a slow flame that can’t ever be extinguished. It feels as though it comes burbling up from a fuel source deep inside my body and beyond my body (I think people call that the soul) and it fills me up, fills my head and face and chest and gut. I love this baby with my heart splayed open. I love this baby with my hands held open, always ready to pull her to my chest, to respond. Which brings me to the second realization…

I think that love and responsibility come from the same source. They’re intertwined in a way that makes them feel like the same emotion, the same physiological and psychological and spiritual process. My obligation to Ida, to meet her needs and let her know always that she is loved and safe, to stimulate her brain and make sure that she is healthy and strong and smart, my obligation to follow her through all of her growth and protect her and teach her the skills to protect herself, this feeling arises in me just as the feeling of love does.

Although this is my first time feeling this so strongly and certainly my first time being the primary person responsible for any child, I have encountered this nature of responsibility-love before. As a third-grade teacher, I felt a deep debt of responsibility to my students, and I loved them.  I suppose I shouldn’t have played favorites in any way, but I couldn’t help but love most those who needed it most, those for whom I felt the most responsibility to offer help with socio-emotional and academic needs. Especially S, who would run to my classroom crying because the children in her classroom bullied her and she would fight with them, S who eventually just joined my class even though she didn’t speak Spanish because I made sure that my students treated her with respect and that she could learn in peace, S whose grandmother beat her and then punished her after I reported it to Child Protective Services. I loved her the most because her soul was radiant and full of kindness and hope despite everything, and I loved her most because I felt the most responsibility to her. (Little 23-year-old me, I wanted to adopt her, but it wasn’t an option.)

This love–responsibility feeling is something born out of our evolution as a species. Empathy, compassion, and protection of the young is a requisite for our survival. As I heard a biologist once say, it is “survival of the kindest.” It is produced by pregnancy, by the prolactin and oxytocin that flow through us as we labor and give birth and breastfeed and hold our babies to our chests, by the hormones present in our partners and family members who surround our children’s birth and early life, by the hormones and impulses that can be produced in anybody—blood kin or not—who cares for a child.

But obviously, that isn’t all. If that were all, everybody would be a responsible parent (well, except that high intervention birth and formula feeding do, on a population level, place some barriers between many parents and these natural processes—nothing impossible to overcome, but a formidable issue). We have to be well enough cared for ourselves and with the resources to offer such care to children. Our brains, if they are too damaged by our own childhood torment or by drug addictions or severe depression, struggle to produce those same impulses.  And we have to be equipped to translate those brain/hormone messages into action; that is, we have to be supported in our roles as caregivers, with knowledge of successful and culturally-affirming parenting passed on, with practical and emotional support available, and without an endless torrent of competing demands placed on us by a callous economic system. There are, unfortunately, many things historical, political, economic, familial and intergenerational, that interfere with this love-responsibility feeling for children and being able to put it into action. And of course, even when we do try to put this into action, we will mess up in all sorts of ways. Lord knows I can attest to that —especially as a teacher. Or we will do our best but the messages we receive about how best to raise children places contradictory demands on us (this is what I am going to write about next). We are up against a lot in caring for children, especially in countries with a high degree of inequality.

This means, I think, that part of this love-responsibility feeling for my baby Ida Luna must extend beyond her and add to my motivation to undo the many barriers that stand in the way of good parenting and healthy childhoods.

But for now, for these last two weeks of maternity leave that we are spending here in Kaua’i, my focus will simply be on feeding and connecting to our baby girl as much as possible, filling her body and brain with a sense of connection and security, holding her to my chest as she is right now, asleep, and observing this well of love that keeps burbling up. (Okay, admittedly, I am also reading a book about trauma and addiction, and also working on getting back in shape, but Ida attachment is my main focus).

Oscar ( took this photo of us at Anini Beach. (But don't worry--we were only in the sun for about 45 seconds. She's too young for sunscreen yet.) Ida squirms most of the time that she's awake and sometimes while asleep, and is doing so here while eating.

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April 6th, 2014 at 10:13 am

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Our daughter, Ida Luna Avellaneda-Cruz, about 3 hours old. All birth photos by Ash Adams

Baby has joined us on the outside.

She is the most beautiful, amazing little blessing I could’ve ever imagined. Oscar and I love her so much and are having fun figuring out this parenting thing—despite a lot less sleep than normal.

Here’s the story of how little Ida Luna came to be born. I’ll spare you much of the graphic detail, but if you are squeamish about how our species reproduces, you might want to stop reading here.

Her due date was Monday, January’s 27th. My last scheduled day of work was Friday the 24th. However, I had a feeling she might come early, and that Tuesday morning, the 21st, I had requested a cervical check, which showed that I was 1 cm dilated and 70% effaced, but with a firm cervix, meaning that I could go into labor in the next few days or maybe in over a week. I went to prenatal yoga on Thursday night, the 23rd, where I received a beautiful sendoff from our instructor and all of the other women there. I was ready for whatever was going to happen.

The beginning

That night before bed, my mom texted me to tell me that she had two women in labor. So when I woke up at one in the morning with what I thought was broken water, I figured I could call her cell phone because she would be awake. Luckily by then, one of the women had already given birth at the hospital and another midwife was with the second one at the birth center, so my mom headed over to my house with test strips. It appeared that it was amniotic fluid, but the findings weren’t super definite because apparently mucus plugs can change test strips too and the color wasn’t super dark. She advised me that we both needed sleep if I was going to be in labor soon, so I managed to sleep a few hours and we agreed to meet at the office in the morning. The second, more accurate (slide under a microscope) test at around 9 a.m. did not show clear signs of fluid, but by then I was having contractions every 10 minutes. So I spent the morning at home getting through the contractions in the shower with Oscar spraying me and then in bed, trying to sleep.

Early labor

During this period of early labor, the technique I used to cope with the pain and to breathe was a Kundalini breath meditation I had learned during prenatal yoga. It is a structured series of four breaths and I was able to get through about two cycles of it per contraction. It really helped me be at peace mentally and physically during this stage. It continued like that, with the contractions coming about five minutes apart, and then four, until I started puking. By that time, which was around 12:30 p.m., my mom had arrived to check me and I was 4 cm dilated and 95% effaced. With this happy news, we headed to the birth center.

Active labor

After checking vitals and fetal heart tones, texting our friend Ash to come, and having a few contractions in bed and one more good puke, Oscar and I headed to the shower. There I labored sitting on the birthing ball, on hands and knees with my arms on the birthing ball, and laying down with pillows for the next two hours. Oscar had on his knee pads so that he was able to help me in whichever position, spraying my hips, back, and pelvis with the shower nozzle. I was very specific about which parts of my body needed to be sprayed because my hips and back and pelvis hurt a lot with each contraction. Ash took photos and he and Ash took turns giving me water or juice or ginger ale, and ice water rags for my head. My mom and the other midwife, Trina, came in to check baby’s heart tones with the fetal Doppler and suggest position changes.

Oscar used the shower nozzle to relieve pain and keep me warm as I sat on the birth ball or tried various positions.

During this stage of labor, I practiced two basic coping techniques. The Kundalini breath had stopped being useful as the contractions had intensified, so my breath had become vocalized with low sounds accompanying each exhalation. I kept my eyes closed most of the time through contractions in order to visualize. Now, I am not very good at deep, in-depth visualizations like many techniques teach. However, I had discovered during pregnancy that if I had to cope with some sort of pain (usually related to my carpal tunnel syndrome), that a very simple visual of heading up a grassy hill bathed in golden light with an apple tree on top seemed to help. I turned to this hill while laboring in the shower. I discovered I needed to include baby in this visualization because what we were doing was a partnership—me birthing baby and baby cooperating nicely and being born. (And baby was definitely doing her part—heart tones stayed normal and, being who she is, she kept wiggling and kicking). I also wanted to stay focused on the purpose of all this, which was meeting our child, who we loved so dearly. For these reasons, I imagined myself carrying baby up the hill during each contraction. Not yet knowing baby’s name, I thought of baby as baby Riolda, as my cousin Lilia had jokingly called her—a combination of our boy name Rio and our girl named Ida.

Each contraction stood by itself. Each one was a journey uphill and, as far as I was concerned during the contraction, it was the only journey up the hill before I could head downhill. I had to take each one at a time. I did think a few times, “Wow, this could last a lot longer. How will I get through it?” But my answer to myself generally was that this is how the species has reproduced for as long as we have existed, so it will work out fine and I better just concentrate on the contraction at hand and trust that everything will progress as needed.

Oscar was smart and brought kneepads. My sister said they are now inspired to buy some to keep at the birth center for labor partners and they can nickname them “dad pads.”

As the pain intensified, this imagined hill became the tundra-covered last uphill of the Lost Lake race. And as it intensified further, I realized I needed to use a different coping technique, so I turned to what Pam England, the author of Birthing From Within, calls non-focused awareness. It is just non-judgmental attention to the sounds around you, to the things that are touching you, to your breath, and to whatever you see with your eyes in one spot.  So I listened to the meditation music on the iPhone, the sounds of murmuring voices, the sound of the water hitting me and draining, and I opened my eyes to stare at the silver and black of the light contraption that Ash had set up in the bathroom. I also then melded the two techniques, telling baby Riolda that for this hill, we are going to play the listening game and we would go uphill playing the listening game together. After Trina or my mom–I can’t remember who–had explained to me that changing positions helps the baby move down and get into the right position, I told baby, “Now we are playing the moving game” or “now we are playing the you-turn-into-my-pelvis game as we go up the hill.”

Eventually, Trina told me that I should get out of the shower and move around to help baby move down into my birth canal and to cool off. I trusted the whole time that my cervix had been opening, but I hadn’t thought about needing to bring baby down with gravity and movement. I realized that this was a perfect opportunity to shift the tone and my coping strategies and to enjoy the labor and delivery dance mix that I had made back in the fall (after realizing that dancing through pain helps during kriyas in prenatal yoga, so it would be of use in labor). When the music started – music that I had carefully chosen because not only can I move to it gently, but because it is filled with beauty and optimism and joy – I felt enlivened. I moved my feet and hips dancing in between contractions.  I also ate mango popsicles and even chatted a little in between contractions. During contractions, I held Oscar’s forearms while he held mine and we swayed together, me with my head down, usually moving from my toes on one foot to my toes on the other, stretching my hips out, moaning and breathing deeply. For my mental coping during contractions, I listened to the lyrics (whether I understood them or not—there were quite a few songs in Portuguese, Japanese, and various Malian and Nigerian languages). I listened to the music. I let it infuse me with its joy. While moving through contractions, I also listened to Trina telling me that with each movement I was bringing baby into position, and to Oscar telling me he liked my smile (I had asked him beforehand to kindly remind me to smile) and liked how I was swaying, and all of this felt really affirming. Man I am blessed with who I had there.

Oscar helping me dance through contractions.

Interestingly, in this period of labor and all the others except for early labor, I could not stand for Oscar to touch me in any of the ways I had thought I would want, such as acupressure points on my sacrum or hip squeezes to help my back. My back and hips hurt, but I could only stand to be touched on my hands and arms and sometimes neck. The contractions that hurts the most were the ones where I felt panicked about something being wrong, such as when I asked Oscar to squeeze my hips but then realized my mistake, or when I thought that squatting would help my back as it did throughout pregnancy, but it just hurt more.  Those brief feelings of needing to control something quickly so that it would get better put me back in a state that was not surrender, that was not peaceful acceptance, and so the pain was sharper. Luckily, I can count these moments on one hand.


After dancing for a while and then pain getting much more intense with each contraction, the midwives asked me if I felt like pushing. I said I didn’t quite, but it did feel very different than before. They told me to reach up and feel my baby’s head. It wasn’t all that far up there and I could feel a sizeable piece of it, which told them that my cervix must be pretty wide-open. My mom checked me and I was complete. I said I was starting to feel like pushing, and I wanted to push wherever it would hurt less, which meant in the tub. As they prepared the water, I had a few contractions on the bed on hands and knees with Oscar’s face only inches away, telling me nice supportive things.


In the tub, to help my back, I tried to remain on hands and knees for as long as possible, but had to shift to my side eventually so that the midwives could watch baby and be able to reach down if there was cord around the neck or anything like that. Pushing at first felt strange and unproductive. But after not too long, I learned to smile and breathe and relax as deeply and pleasurably as possible between contractions, and then start each contraction with deep inhales and strong pushes. A few times, I opened my eyes and smiled at the people gathered around—my mom and Trina, the birth assistant, Victoria, who I was so happy to see had arrived (and who checked baby’s heart tones frequently), Ash with her camera, Oscar in the tub holding my leg and looking at me with such confidence and belief.

The coolest, most amazing thing about the birth experience was when my mom told me to put my hand on baby’s head as I pushed. I did this through a few contractions and got to feel the progress that I was making. After that, pushing became fun and exciting and something that I looked forward to in my rest period between contractions. Feeling all of the hair on her head made her very real too, very much Oscar’s child, which we all sort of laughed about as we saw her thick black hair. I didn’t feel like talking at the time, but I was thinking, “I need to tell them how awesome this is.” I eventually got to feel her crown, and fortunately she stayed there long enough that she could stretch out my perineum so I didn’t have to purposely not push to avoid tears. It worked out beautifully, and my perineum stayed intact.

For the early part of pushing, we lit the tub with candle-like lights, but turned the lights on for the later part. It was more or less the same to me; I was in my internal space.


Of course it hurt when she came through what people call the “ring of fire.” I said, “Ow!” very loudly. But it wasn’t so bad because I knew that she was about to be in my arms. My mom told me, “Probably with this next contraction she will be born,” and I can’t imagine a better inspiration to keep pushing hard. (I pushed very hard, by the way, and my mom says very efficiently. This came at the expense of my throat, which still hurts a little, and I burst capillaries in my face and chest–and yes, I know that pelvic muscles do not require my face muscles, but oh well, I can perfect my technique for next time.  But I got her out efficiently and, the midwives observed, with probably a great deal of abdominal muscle help.) Her head was fully born with one push and the rest of her body with the next, and then she was coming up towards me. Oscar helped bring her up to me along with my mom. This was 6:09 p.m., and this might have been the first time since the morning that I knew what time it was.

My two midwives: my mom, Barbara Norton, CNM, and Trina Strang, CNM embrace after the birth

Meeting our daughter

It was so amazing to meet her on the outside at last. At that time we did still did not know whether she was a boy or a girl. We made sure she could cry and her skin tone was good, and once we know she was well we took a look and saw that she was a girl, and called her by her name, Ida Luna. I remember feeling both incredible excitement and love that we had our daughter right there on my chest, and also immense relief that labor was over. They drained the tub, my mom helped Oscar to cut the cord, and they got their cord blood samples to send off. My mom handed Ida off to Oscar so I could focus on birthing the placenta. It came out easily and was kind of beautiful and gory at the same time. I looked at Oscar holding Ida with tears in his eyes and in that moment, just like at our wedding when I had looked up at Oscar’s wet eyes, I felt it too, the gravity and completeness of what had just happened and what we had now in our lives.  Oscar can always ground me in the significance of the experience.

Mi amor always manages to ground me in the emotional significance of an event, as he did when I saw him looking at Ida with tears in his eyes.


My sister, Claire, meeting her niece while I chow on a coconut popsicle and Ida chows down on her first meal of colostrum.

As I was preparing to get out of the tub, I started losing blood, so they gave me first one shot of Pitocin and then another—as the bleeding continued— in my leg, and they did bimanual compression to make my uterus clamp down. I went to the bed where we hung out as a new family for the next few hours, eating popsicles and animal crackers, drinking juice, being fed pho broth through a straw by Ash after my sister arrived with dinner, trying with very skilled and patient help from Victoria to get Ida to suck on my nipples (it took her a while but eventually she did, which helped my uterus clamp down better). They kept doing bi-manual compression on my uterus and finding it firm, but since I kept passing blood clots in between, they put me on IV Pitocin and fluid. I had gotten pretty dizzy and vaso-vagal and had to lay down for a good while.

While we all cuddled on the bed and tried to get Ida to feed, my dad (who is a pediatric radiologist) and the Geneva Woods staff did Ida’s newborn exam, weighed her, etc. My mom was delighted and surprised to find that Ida weighed the exact same as I did as a baby–7 lbs., 10.5 oz. My sister came and visited, as did Jen Allison with a post-partum gift and a hand-dyed rainbow onesie. It was so great to be in this warm, peaceful place with people I loved and trusted for the four hours after the birth, and then to go home that night with my dad camped out on the couch to help take baby’s and my vitals every few hours.

My dad meeting his granddaughter for the first time.

Lessons learned

Labor was not easy. It was painful. But it was beautiful and powerful and peaceful and so worth doing it naturally. What made it that way? Here’s what I believe helped:

  • Loving and competent and confident support from Oscar (thanks to who he is and also thanks to wonderful preparation we received through childbirth classes and prenatal visits)
  • Conversations over the last few months with Oscar about how we might best communicate during labor
  • A friend there to offer quiet help and take awesome photos
  • Being able to trust completely in the competence of the midwives. A few times I thought, “Hm, they’re talking to each other—should I be nervous?” or when baby was moving too much in utero to get consistent heart tones, I considered worrying for about a millisecond and then thought, “Nah, being afraid is not my job. Worrying and thinking is not my job. My job is to breathe and release positive birthing hormones so baby can be born.” I knew that me being nervous or even asking a bunch of questions about my progress would serve no one. So I just did my mama job and let them do their midwife job (and later, let Victoria do her birth assistant job). And they all did a damn good job because they are intuitive and evidence-based and safe and compassionate. I want care providers like them for every birthing woman.
  • No one trying to make me afraid
  • The right music
  • Being in a birth center where I could make as much noise as I needed to without being self-conscious and without any nurses giving me the stink eye
  • Being in a birth center where they use dopplers for fetal heart tones instead of making me lay in bed on a fetal monitor belt, and where I didn’t have to listen to machines and where, as Oscar said, I didn’t have to look like I was sick or be treated like a potential surgery patient
  • Being in shape. I used my core muscles to get baby out! It also helped for maneuverability that I had only gained 22 pounds during pregnancy and didn’t feel burdened by my body’s size in any way.
  • An arsenal of available coping techniques that made sense for who I am
  • No rigid ideas about the “right” way to birth (e.g. silent and stoic, must do “hee haw” breathing, hypnobirthing breathe-your-baby-down-you-don’t-need-to-push, etc.)
  • The understanding going into it that pain serves a purpose for the hormones of birth and that pain is okay, and one need not suffer due to pain (the latter being a particularly useful insight I learned from Vipassana meditation)

For these things, I have to thank the Geneva Woods “Childbirth Basics” class taught by Janie, “Birthing From Within” class taught by Jen Allison, the book Birthing From Within, awesome prenatal care, the birth stories of my friends who have had natural and empowering births, the stories that other dad friends have shared with Oscar, prenatal yoga at Open Space studio, the confidence that my community and all of my people have instilled in me, and of course, my midwife mama for helping me filter out all of the fear and misconceptions about birth and birth intervention that are rife in our society and in U.S. medical practice.

My mama midwife, holding her granddaughter for the first time.

Most of all, I’m grateful to my partner in life and parenthood, to my body and mind, and to our wonderful, healthy little baby.

My favorite photo. This is our family now.

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January 28th, 2014 at 5:42 pm

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Week 33

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A Christmas-decorating night at my parents' house and another left-handed drawing. I am getting a little better with my left hand.

Being an informed birthing woman and finding the right care provider, part I

The photo series Oscar made of me for this week with my parents relates to a post I have been planning out and wanting to write for a long time now, but will have to truncate tonight in order to finish setting up baby’s crib and get to sleep. I want to write about and offer some useful websites and other tools for helping to find the right prenatal and birth care provider. I want to share some thoughts and interview questions for distinguishing whether a provider is, on the one hand, overly intervention-happy and doesn’t fully support mothers’ ability to birth naturally and make choices for herself, or, on the other hand, if the provider is out there and not evidence-based and puts moms and babies at risk by doing too little. At least here in Alaska, there are plenty of folks on either end of that spectrum. How to determine who those folks are and what the risks are may not be so apparent. I think through open dialogue, we can help make this process more transparent.

What does this have to do with my parents? Well, being raised by Bradley Cruz, a pediatric radiologist who is much more critical of the many arrogances of his profession than most in the field, and by Barbara Norton, an RN-turned women’s health Advanced Nurse Practitioner (ANP)-turned Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM) who teaches and advocates on reproductive health issues, I feel that I’ve been blessed with a lot of tools and insight in this arena. By critically taking apart health care systems and health issues at the dinner table, by helping me do my 8th grade biology report on herpes or my persuasive argument in high school speech class on continuous fetal monitoring, by my dad asking for my help with language interpretation or my mom bringing me in to help her create lectures on the c-section rate, aby learning from me about the areas of health research and practice that I am involved in, and most recently, by being available to listen to baby’s heart rate or answer questions about this pregnancy, my parents have gifted me a certain comfort with, access to, and ability to engage critically with health care systems and health research.

My mom in particular has prepared me, over many years, to be excited and realistic about birth, to better understand the options out there, and to be a smarter consumer of information about perinatal and women’s healthcare.

So that is what I intend to share with all y’all (with the hope that you will add to it).

Next week.

Good night for now.

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December 10th, 2013 at 8:55 pm

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27 weeks

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Oscar and I played in the Anchorage airport on my way to Sitka for a three and a half day work trip. Making the most of travel, even when I want to be curled up at home.

The Need to Nest

I am in Sitka, Alaska as I write this, in a gorgeous bed and breakfast with delightful food, surrounded by some of the most beautiful ocean and landscapes I have ever seen, in between days of meaningful and exciting work. And I miss home. Seriously.

There is something about this time of preparing for baby that makes us want to move inward, to protect the young and to be protected, to “nest” in the full sense of the word. I have been feeling this for a while but over the weekend my friend Saagulik, whose baby is four weeks old, helped me articulate and understand this feeling of needing insularity during the pregnancy, birth, and postpartum periods. Nesting includes, of course, the instinct to prepare the physical “nest.” But it is also, I am finding, about wanting to be with my people, my dogs, myself, and my baby as it wiggles around inside me. I want to share space and time with mi Osquitar, my mom, my family members, my close friends, and other pregnant women or new parents. I want to be near those who love and care deeply about babies and children and pregnant women and who have a caring, compassionate nature.

My mom the CNM checking baby's position (head down, fortunately) during family dinner night. Thanks, Oscar, for capturing this by iPhone.

I find that I have even less energy than normal for being around those who are cynical or mean-spirited, or even those who may have their hearts in the right place but who are disconnected from how to listen to and care for others. I find myself being very sensitive to these traits in people and really pulling away and pulling towards home, towards the people who make up a sense of home.

This pull feels instinctual, like a need to protect baby and to protect and prepare for the internal mental space I will need in the birthing process. As Oscar and I learn in our birthing classes how to create a mini-environment of calm, acceptance, and support for the birth process, I find myself wanting to invest in cultivating that space. This reminds me of how I wish we had policies in this country to provide some paid antenatal leave to allow mamas this time for moving inward, but that is another post…

In a more practical sense, I also find that preparing for baby and maintaining my health for baby takes up a lot of time. This makes it hard to find the time to even call and/or see people I do love and who do care for me. There is a very careful partitioning of time that has to happen to prepare for life with baby, and it means being careful and choosy, even for things and people I like—and trying not to be racked with guilt for this. It is practice, I suppose, for making baby and his or her many needs and many diaper changes a priority.

If I had the chance to offer two bits of advice to those who are friends with or work with or otherwise interact with pregnant women or parents of very new children, it would be this:

  • Don’t take it personally if it seems that they don’t have much time for you. They probably don’t, and they probably miss you, and they probably feel guilty about that fact. Maybe you can help assuage their guilt about this. Practically speaking, it’s also probably easiest to spend time if you can do with them the things that you both need to do, like grocery shop or exercise, or if you help them with some of the things on their plate, rather than having them meet you for coffee (unless that’s their thing)
  • Be extra kind, be extra gentle. Of course, this is true always and for everyone—“the soft animal of your body,” as Mary Oliver says, the tenderness of your and everyone’s soul aches for it, needs it. But to someone who is now carrying inside them or carrying, swaddled on their chest, a tiny, sensitive little person, the kindnesses and cruelties around them have so much more weight. From the scientific point of view, we know that prenatal and early life stressors can have life-long impacts on babies’ health. From the point of view of many mothers-to-be and new parents, they don’t want to be around you if you are not kind. Bite your tongue every once in a while if you need to, and more importantly, look inside yourself or around you for some source of love that will allow you to move from that. We can feel it, and we truly truly appreciate it; I promise.

The beautiful place I am in

My little family back home that I am missing

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October 28th, 2013 at 8:18 pm

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Mama’s in the Mountains

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My article with Oscar‘s photo a month ago in The Anchorage Press:

Mama’s in the Mountains

For this Mother’s Day, we celebrated my mama the way we celebrate all holidays as a family: with a hike in the Chugach Mountains. We trudged for five miles up and down the steep, muddy trails, looking out over Anchorage and the Cook Inlet through bare birch trunks and last year’s cow parsnip stalks.
This is what we do on holidays. This is how we prepare, in the morning, for a Thanksgiving Feast, and how we give thanks. This is how we recover from Christmas breakfast. This is how we celebrate anything: with nature and sweat. So of course this is the most natural way to celebrate my mama on the occasion of Mother’s Day. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

She is, after all, the mother who broke her ankle at age 48 while bouldering on the South Side of Flattop, but didn’t want to cancel the glacier camping trip we had planned soon after. So while we skied up the glacier’s slope, not wanting to be left out of the fun, she got out of the sled in which she was being towed and crawled up the slope. This is the same mother who subconsciously knew when I was hungover as a teenager and would drag me out on 16-mile runs to the Williwaw Lakes or up Wolverine Peak. She is the mother with whom, at the age of 54, I had a harrowing camping trip in the Chugach in which we got lost and hypothermic, but made it out okay after climbing about 7,000 feet of peaks with wet backpacks on. She is the mother who broke her humeral head 6 weeks ago skiing from Arctic Valley to Indian, and had to hike uphill for an hour holding her broken shoulder—this at the age of 59. Of course, arm in sling, she was back to hiking a few weeks later.

I’ve been thinking of my mother’s tenacity, strength and wisdom leading up to this day that is meant to honor mothers. Quite different from its current, highly commercialized face, Mother’s Day’s has its origins in an 1870 declaration by Julia Warde Howe in response to the loss of so many husbands, sons and fathers in the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War. In Howe’s declaration, she called for mothers to have a role in shaping sane public policy and promoting peace, and asked that people listen to women’s wisdom. I find this a very appropriate way to honor mothers, and so I found myself reflecting, as we hiked past the spring shoots and ice-splintered mud of the Bicentennial Park, on the wisdom that my mama’s relentless desire to be in the mountains teaches me.
She teaches me, and everyone who knows her, that aging is not that land of maladies and lost opportunities our culture so often portrays it as — that no-mans-land of kitsch and irrelevance that is the stuff of comedic stereotypes. In a youth-centric, media-driven society such as ours, aging is seen as undesirable, as something to avoid at all costs. This is especially true for women, who don’t get lauded as being “distinguished” looking as they age, the way that men like Sean Connery or George Clooney do, and they certainly don’t play action heroes into their middle age. Just as I hear people my age afraid to get old, I also so often hear people much younger than my mom limit their outdoor activities or use of the stairs, saying—“Oh, my knees; I’m too old for that.”
Now, I know that there are many reasons—genetics, environment, structural inequalities, etc.—that contribute to people having disabilities that truly can limit physical activity. But I’ve always been puzzled when I hear people name age as the culprit for those limitations. It doesn’t make sense to me after I’ve spent so many years watching my mama, whose wisdom has been to eschew the notion that aging is weakness and serious limitations are inevitable, and who has just kept playing. This is, perhaps, a later-in-life version of the way she ignored her father’s admonitions that college education was a waste of time for women, and went anyway. As a result of her resolution, my mama’s broken ankle healed far beyond any of the grim predictions offered by the doctors. She and my dad can still enjoy long excursions into the mountains together, and she has remained tough, fast, and lean as she approaches 60.

As an athlete, a nature-lover, a midwife, a vocal advocate for women’s healthcare, and someone actively engaged in politics, my mama demonstrates that people don’t have to lose their passions, their relevance, their power, or their ability to have fun as they age. So in honor of Mother’s Day and Julia Warde Howe’s 1870 cry to elevate women’s wisdom, I offer you the wisdom of my mother: keep playing, keep yourself connected to nature, and keep on keepin’ on, no matter what people might say.

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June 10th, 2012 at 3:59 pm

Posted in health

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Things I Learned in Colombia: a List

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Partly from guilt but primarily from curiosity, I can’t travel without needing to learn about the places I go and learn from them. And since my learning is never as solid when it’s only bumping around in my head without being organized onto paper (or the blogosphere, as it were), I have felt some of that guilt creep in. I spent months this fall in Colombia with Oscar, living with his grandparents and getting to know his country and family, and I have not yet organized my thoughts into writing longer than my photo captions on Flickr. It is time to do so, but in the simplest format I can, in order to make the task less intimidating for myself: So here’s a list!

***But before reading it, I should tell you that I don’t think I or my culture or family or country or state or city are above the things I observed in Colombia. Many of the phenomena I observed there are similar to things that happen back home, and I try to relate them as much as possible. I also don’t think I am an expert, by any means. Some things I learned, but most things provoked questions about what’s left to learn***

Things I learned in Colombia (in no particular order):

1.) How to cook creatively with available ingredients

El Jardiñero

The challenge of not having a refrigerator and the blessing of having a large garden, tended to lovingly by Oscar’s abuelitos, pushed us to be more creative and resourceful than usual about what to cook (or me anyway; I think on the road Oscar acquired the ability to cook with whatever was available, no matter what). Therefore, many meals involved soups made from whatever we had to use before it went bad + whatever there was plenty of in the garden + what we could pick up at the corner store or farmer’s market and, on one occasion, the rabbit that Oscar and I hunted and skinned (it was delicious).

A few highlights:

coconut fish squash soup

  • The coconut fish soup pictured above, made with fresh coconut that Oscar broke apart and dissembled & plenty of hot red chilies (ají, as they call them in Colombia) from the garden
  • Cuminy spicy soup with acelga (a green leafy vegetable similar to bok choy) from the garden that we cooked with beef bone, cubios and chuguas
  • Breakfasts of arepas de choclo (like fluffy sweet corn pancakes) with fresh farmer’s cheese, eggs, fried plantains and mangos

2.) To be careful when calling people on their racism

This isn’t the first time I’ve learned this lesson, but I certainly had an enlightening experience in Colombia of how not to go about it. The consequences weren’t dire, but it certainly gave me an opportunity to reflect on how self-control is key to effective social change.

The backstory is that we had been spending a bit of time with Oscar’s cousin, Juan José and his wife, Dinaluz. They work in advertising/commercial media and were some of the most educated and in some ways, curious and exploratory members of the family. However, we had also noticed that they would make offhand comments about “negros” or “maricas” (the constantly-used, both derogatory and “affectionate” term for gay men in Colombia). One day, after a long and somewhat frustrating day of biking, we spent a few hours in Oscar’s auntie’s house with them and others when I was exhausted and wanted to go home and sleep. His auntie fed us some delicious soup and we were finally preparing to go. Dinaluz, wanting to aplogize for her eating and dashing, said, “Indio comido, indio ido.” It roughly translates to, “Eating like an Indian, leaving like an Indian.” She turned to me after, smiling, and explained to me that this is an expression in Colombia and it means you are being very rude for eating quickly and going away. The fact that Indian/indigenous/Native was being associated with rudeness and lack of manners had not escaped me.

Now, in that split second in my head, I—righteously angry, empathetic, overly-sociological me—am going through my mental Rolodex of incidents of anti-indigenous racism I had seen or heard in Colombia, in México, in the continental US and Alaska and all of the ways in which anti-indigenous racism has been transformed into children’s songs and expressions or the “Cigarillos Piel Rojo” (“Redskin Cigarettes”) or “Land of Lakes Butter” logos and my role as a white ally in changing this and before I know it, I blurt out—sleepy, exhausted, frustrated, impulsive me—“Pero ésto es racisto.”

In that split second in my head, I should have asked myself for a time extension so I could have thought of a better way to get at this point, perhaps through asking questions and helping Dina to get there herself. But I didn’t, and I imagine that this made her put up some defenses. Her first defense was that it wasn’t about feather-on-the-head and [hand moving over mouth making stereotypical “indio” sound] indios; it was just about rude people. When I asked her why the word “indio” was used for rude, and then explained that I grew up hearing similar expressions such as “Indian giving” or “Indian cuts” or the “Ten Little Indians” songs, she conceded that the expression had something to do with indigenous people. But  I had not succeeded in making her enthusiastic about discussing white/mestizo privilege. Nor did it endear me to the new family.

We had a very different experience with Oscar’s auntie and cousins in Palmira, a small city in the state of Valle–maybe in part because I was on better behavior, maybe because they have been exposed to different people and experiences.  After we bought delicious boiled squash-like fruit from an AfroColombian woman on the street, Oscar’s cousin, Hadie, told us about the importance of this fruit to the largely AfroColombian and indigenous populations in the Pacific states who suffer high rates of poverty and even starvation. She spoke about racial disparities in a way that was reflective and critical, and spoke of wanting her niece to have an open mind about Black Colombians. Clearly, in Colombia just as in Alaska, despite the ubiquity of racist ideas or comments (and in Alaska, believe me, racism’s ubiquity shows when people spit out “drunk Native” like a slur, and if you’ve been around long enough it’s hard to avoid hearing this slur), people can come to think critically about it. Hadie did. Colombian human rights organizations do. So my task is to figure out what role can I play as an ally (and in this case, as an outsider First Worlder) to ask the right questions and provide the right information, to help people at least step back and look critically. I don’t know what that involves, exactly, but I know it involves patience, impulse control, and a few more seconds to think.

3.) What it’s like to have grandparents again.

Tía Abuela Rosa


Although it made me miss the elders in my life that I’ve lost, it was so beautiful to spend time with Oscar’s abuelitos (grandparents) and tías abuelas (great aunts). They have so much energy and knowledge and giant, generous, loving hearts.

4.) How much I love the combination of yellow and turquoise, & the complexity of development

yellow & teal

I was drawn to these Aqueducto workers initially because of their turquoise-colored jumpsuits and the beautiful yellow rainboots and hats they wear. I was also fascinated by what they represented about the Bogotá government’s efforts to make the city more efficient and beautiful and to provide jobs. In some ways, the investments made by the government are great for the people (potable water, expanded & modern public transportation, bike lanes everywhere). But in some cases, development investments seem to favor the wealthy and shut out the vast majority of Colombians who work exceedingly long hours and make, on average, only four or so hundred dollars a month. Development of malls, cineplexes, and fancy restaurants may provide jobs, but they also seem to increase consumption without a proportionate increase in salaries for most workers. (Two notable exceptions are the local, pricey franchises Bogota Beer Company and Crepes & Waffles, who employ low-income female heads-of-household and pay them quite well.) Although produce was inexpensive, many things were not, especially imported items. I am suspicious of mainstream capitalist measures of development, such as consumption, when increased consumption may mean more debt. To better understand the Colombia that I observed from my own experiences, I’d love to look at measures of income disparities for Colombia; that seems to be a key issue in Bogotá and even more so between urban and rural areas.

Obrero de Acueducto


5.) How to get by with very little and take very short showers

It’d be nice for us First Worlders to get a refresher on this every once in a while from developing countries, because we sure do consume a lot of resources (myself included). People are ingenious there. For example, Oscar’s abuelitos had incredible rainwater catchment systems.

6.) That there’s a connection in Colombia, as in other places, between sexual & domestic violence, political violence, and poverty

Oscar’s cousin, Gina, who manages a rose production facility, sat across our small kitchen table over a cup of tea and told us about the low-income women who work in her rose factory—their frequent pregnancies by different men, their black eyes, their days of work missed because of abuse at home, their defense of the men in their lives, and the government aid they receive. Trying to look past the filter of her judgment, I could see in these women’s stories certain familiar patterns of internalized oppression, poverty and violence.

An article in La Semana, a weekly magazine published by the major Bogotá newspaper, described an alarming recent study. This study found that the majority of Colombian residents and the majority of public servants (police officers, judges, public health officials, etc.) blame victims of domestic and sexual violence. Large percentages of them believe that men can’t control themselves when angry, that women are at fault for inciting their husbands to anger or sexual provocation, etc.

Billboards over the main highway through Bogotá show a woman whose face blooms with bruises and cuts, the text reading something about how domestic violence is never okay. This is a relatively new campaign, trying to pick up steam and support in a country that has largely ignored the issue, but a country in which brave women and men feminists like those we met at a reproductive rights rally are organizing to create change.

día internacional para la legalización del aborto

It would be hard work, I think, combatting intimate violence in a country that has suffered violence of every type (often in ways that implicate the First World). Colombia is a country that endured colonization by the Spaniards, centuries of slavery, prolonged civil war and political violence, and training in human rights abuses by the US-run School of the Americas. Colombia is the country with the most displaced people in the world, where millions leave their homes because of guerilla and paramilitary violence (violence fueled by the First Word drug consumption). Therefore, I believe that the violence of guns and drugs and kidnapping that pushes people into homelessness and poverty also creates a culture of violence that places people at risk for abuse. Gina’s accounts of women speak not only to engrained psychosocial patterns of abuse, but also to the vulnerability to violence experienced by women and children living in poverty and in war zones, an issue seen throughout the world. In Colombia, the violence of poverty, of housing insecurity and unsafe working conditions, of houses in the poor communities that keep getting crushed in mudslides, and of militarism, is linked in complex ways that feminists are always trying to unravel to the violence of rape and battering.

We know in general that in war zones and prisons as well as in areas with lots of gang activity and police violence, there is more rape. We know that in military families, the rates of domestic violence are five times higher than in non-military families because you can’t train someone that it’s okay to kill people (including those  “collateral damage” civilians) but then assume it’ll be easy for them to be peaceful with their families.  We know that in times of job loss, domestic violence increases, and so we can imagine that the mass displacement and job loss experienced by over 2 million Colombians because of the violence has not contributed to family well-being.

However, it was clear from the article in La Semana and from victim-blaming discourses we heard from people we met and in the media, that it’s not only the poor and displaced, or the military/guerilla/paramilitary who abuse and suffer abuse. As in the US, violence against women and other forms of intimate violence are perpetrated and justified and excused away at all levels of socioeconomic status. This is because it is linked with patriarchal social structures, gender ideologies, militarism, and many other overarching cutural phenomena. This is true in all of the places that have high rates of sexual and domestic violence, such as the US. (By the way, not everywhere has high rates; in fact, there are some traditional societies in which sexual violence is almost unheard of, and most developed countries have  lower rates than the US.)

In Colombia in particular, I couldn’t help but wonder how much everyone’s attitudes and viewpoints were influenced by the years of political violence they’ve suffered, including massacres only a few decades ago (the ones Botero paints so hauntingly).  Oscar and I found that strangers in Bogotá were often standoffish and rude, which, as an Alaskan, upset me. But we wondered if, in addition to just being a big city, the terrifying political violence and corruption Bogotá faced not so many decades ago could have been affecting them. I wonder if it’s affecting them in their intimate relationships. I wonder if there is un-accounted-for trauma and historical grief, aggravated by ongoing violence and poverty, and propped up by machismo, the powerful church, and cultural norms to not talk about it.

I wish I understood all of the mechanisms by which poverty, colonial and political violence, and patriarchy influence sexual and domestic violence and how that works in Colombia, in the rest of the world, and in Alaska especially, but clearly I don’t. These are just observations from Colombia strung together with the research I’ve been pouring through lately for my job studying intimate partner and sexual violence affecting Alaska Native people. What I think I learned from seeing some of the attitudes and conditions surrounding violence in Colombia is that intimate violence is intricately and painfully linked together with larger, more institutional forms of violence.

If you have some insight into this, please please share it with me.

6.) I learned a lot about myself, my wonderful husband-to-be, and about communication as a couple. But that’s another story…

Okip.s. Some books I’ve found recently that explore some of the topics in the last section really well:

Shout Out! Women of Color Respond to Violence, edited by Maria Ochoa and Barbara K. Ige

Domestic Violence at the Margins: Readings on Race, Class, Gender and Culture, edited by Natalie Sokoloff with Christina Pratt

And I could give you a long bibliography of other readings and films and websites on sexual and domestic violence if you’re interested.

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January 28th, 2011 at 11:00 am

I love my parents because…

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(photo by Oscar Avellaneda)

In kindergarten, Ms. Clutz asked us to write an “I love my mother because…” paper with a drawing for Mother’s Day. In the big open space on top of that newsprint paper with the lines, I drew a ferris wheel and wrote: “I love my mother because shez gona tak me to the Dixn May Fare,” or some such partially-invented spelling. (Oh how I wish I had the paper with me to scan and post here!) When I found this piece of writing as a wisened 5th grader, I thought, “How shallow I was! I thought love was just about her doing little things for me!”

But tonight, I began a little list in my head of reasons I loved my parents, and they were all small things like that. Of course I love them for big, giant reasons—reasons as big as the lessons and patterns of my life, reasons like the way they’ve helped form my character as a strong woman with integrity or the way they accept me. But I find that little things are powerful in themselves, and powerful as symbols of something larger.

So here goes a very short list of the little reasons that came into my head tonight.

I love my parents because:

  • We share fruit and cheese from Costco. One of us goes to Costco and then we split up the food and the receipts. They have the money to buy excess fruit & such, but they don’t like to waste. And they know that I hate to waste food and loathe spending more money than I need to, so they agree to sharing food from Costco runs, as inconvenient as it may be. It’s kind of cute and communitarian of them.
  • My dad helped me move furniture on Friday night even with his thumb in a brace. Half-way through, I fed him green curry which he said looked like second-hand food, but smelled good. We ate in silence as he read, with rapt attention, this book I have on foods from the African diaspora. Then we carried more furniture, using my shawl as a sling to make up for the un-opposability of his thumb. My dad, and both my parents, are so tough and adaptable, so curious, and ready all the time with wry, sometimes caustic, sometimes obscene humor.
  • My mom and I just went and saw “The Kids are All Right” and then talked about it over beer and dinner. To me, the message of the film was about how marriage is hard and it takes work and you can’t let problems pile up without addressing them consciously and compassionately. It was a message shared poignantly in the film. But I was grateful that it was also a message I grew up hearing, grew up understanding from my parents. I love them for demonstrating that you can’t sweep problems under the rug and that the work of love is worth it.
  • I love them for being reticent with their support when I was in the wrong relationships and generous with it now. I love my dad’s enthusiasm for making beer (“Hoppiness is Wedded Bliss Brown Ale,” as he has already named it) and black currant wine for Oscar and my wedding and my mom’s eagerness to help cash in miles to get me to Bogotá to see my amor.

There’s more, there’s always more, and it’s good to stop and note it at times. My kindergarten self, as egocentric as I may have been at five years old, recognized love in the little things, and wrote it down.

(Left, at a District K forum with legislators. My photo.)

(Right, playing Pictionary on Christmas 2009. Photo by Oscar Avellaneda)

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August 1st, 2010 at 10:01 pm

Stopping to observe

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It is Thanksgiving and I am in Kaua’i with my family. This morning I went on a run alone through the brush, past herds of chickens, and down a steep hill to the beach. When I arrived, I did something that my family used to do a long time ago when we were children but stopped doing–either because we got older or maybe because we all got into running and other endurance sports and started to take our heart rates so seriously:

I stopped.

I strolled around. I used a stick to examine some small jellyfish with football-like white stitching on them that had washed up onto the beach and died. I sat down in the sand to watch the waves. I observed. I breathed in the way the waves came in diagonal sections of brown upon the shore and behind them, strips of turquoise and behind them, the steel grayish blue of rain clouds. I had brought no camera, no iPhone, no drawing supplies, and so I just watched and took the time and love to etch into my memory what I was seeing.

This doesn’t sound like much, but it has become sort of an axiom about being a Norton-Cruz that we are always running around and doing or learning, and that when we are exercising we don’t take breaks. So I am returning to an older Norton-Cruz tradition where we used to explore the tide pools of California and play in the sand. And returning to the Laura that makes art from what she loves. So this is what I made, upon returning to the house:


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November 26th, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Posted in art

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