I was already late when I got to the site of the Occupy Wall Street Forum, a building that appeared to be a prayer room of some kind or perhaps a community theater. The room was well lit but cold—most people kept their jackets, shawls, or oversized sweaters on—and smelled vaguely sweet, like pineapples and patchouli. I noticed bowls of fruit on a table by the kitchen along with Dunkin Donut’s coffee and slices of challah bread. Another table was slowly filling up with pamphlets, schedules and sign up sheets. Also on the table was a white 10 gallon bucket slowly filling with dollar bills marked up, in protest, with red sharpie. The bucket boasted a sign: “Help us keep the lights/heat on.” Evidently they hadn’t earned enough for the heat, yet. I threw in a couple bucks. In the center of the room, chairs were arranged in a large circle around two microphones and a small, low stage. Nobody stood on the stage, but people sat on the steps in front of it. I was reminded of the “cafetorium” in my elementary school where we used to put on school plays.
I didn’t need to worry about being late—the program began a full hour behind schedule. No reason was given, but we were all corralled to sit in the front circle while eating our breakfast. A short woman with poofy grey hair wearing a knit forest green sweater with wide sleeves and expensive hiking boots made it her mission to beckon attendees to the front. Her welcoming Mother Earth vibe coaxed even the shiest and newest attendees to follow her lead. Sitting near her was a mom with a harelip and a hairstyle that was kind of hippy-punk: she had short, cropped hair in back with one long strand in front that had at one point been dyed green but had faded to a kind of greasy chlorine color. The mom was loosely feeding and entertaining two girls, approximately six and three years old. The younger one had a harelip just like her mother. They both had uncombed, straight brown hair and big brown eyes. They provided much of the entertainment before the Forum began. The three-year-old, seeing all these people gathered, asked if we were going to sing. It was only when the moderator started the “Gender/Health/Care” Panel that I realized all four of these people were family—and they were the presenters.
The grey-haired Earth Mother began by professing how she’d found her newest cause–what she called a family–when she joined the Occupy Wall Street Movement. But her oldest cause was to be a midwife. She gave birth unassisted, alone, on an island. By choice. She repeated that several times. By choice. She and her daughter help women breastfeed and have natural home births. She asked everyone: “Where did your grandmother give birth? Or if you are in your 20s or younger, where did your great-grandmother give birth?” I thought about Baba in San Francisco putting Grandma in a bassinet on the potbelly stove to keep her warm in December 1932. This is what Earth-Grandma wanted to return to?
“We are midwives; we are wise women,” she said of herself and her daughter. “And, we believe in ancient ways and lost know-how…in short we are witches.” She smirked and licked her finger to turn to the next page in her notes. She looked around as if to show everyone she was in on the joke, but really, to let us know the joke was on all of us. Then some of the attendees did something odd: they raised both hands to about the level of their chin and wiggled their fingers in a kind of mystical jazz hands. Apparently, this gesture of agreement (like saying “Right on!” or “Amen!” in a Southern Baptist church) was well-known by the Occupy Wall Street crowd. It reminded me of how members of the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association (OSCA) would gently rap twice with a fist on the table to affirm or agree with a comment. This practice started in OSCA meetings, but some students began using it in class to approve of something another student had said particularly eloquently.
Earth-Grandma turned over the presentation to her daughter who discussed breastfeeding and how children need the contact and warmth of their parents from the first few minutes of life. She described birth in a hospital as “traumatic” for babies who are whisked away to infant units and to mothers whose pregnancies are medicalized and treated as anomaly or illness. (The rise of C-sections and induced labor is certainly a sign of this.) While I have heard and agree with many of these issues with “Western medicine,” I kept thinking about how 25-30% of women used to die in childbirth. Is this the wise past of community partnerships and inter-generational birthing experiences that we want to bring back?
Meanwhile, as the Earth Mothers talked, the two little girls fidgeted, kicked their legs, and munched stickily on strawberries, brown-shelled hardboiled eggs, and square pieces of Nori, the seaweed paper that’s used to make sushi. The littler one squealed, interrupted, and fought for her mother’s attention. Finally the mom began to breastfeed her, while talking about being a “Lactivist” and doing a “nurse-in” at Facebook’s headquarters to protest Facebook forcing a woman to take down pictures of herself nursing her new baby. This news was very interesting to me, but in an A.D.D. moment, I found it impossible to focus on what the woman with hair the color of chlorine was saying because of her daughters’ distracting behavior. At the end of their presentation (in which anyone who ever fed a child formula at any point must have felt like a heartless cog in the Carnation corporate machine), the six-year-old shared some drawings she had made: “Here’s a mom nursing a baby. Here’s a water birth. And here’s the baby sleeping in the bed with the parents.” Her mom and grandma beamed with pride.
The next speakers talked about various topics on health and LGBT issues and how they related to problems of capitalism and other concerns of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The little wiccan children played a noisy game of Parcheesi in the middle of the talking circle, danced around, doodled, and dropped their half-eaten hardboiled eggs on the floor. Earth-Grandma and the mom tried to shush the girls on several occasions and ended up bribing the younger one with a fresh sheet of Nori.
As cute as the girls were, I found it very hard to take seriously the Midwives’ tearful entreaties to stop hospital births and let everyone breastfeed their kids until age four when their own children were so poorly behaved. The follow-up speakers were two very reasonable young women who formed a child care coop for working women in New York City. They spoke in favor of “inter-generational spaces” where seniors, adults, teens, and kids would interact and go about their business. As they talked about the benefits—reminding adults that play is good; teaching children to be comfortable around different people—many of us in the audience were looking ruefully at those two little free spirits who, by acting as children act were completing distracting the adults from the purpose of the Forum. When the hippy mom finally took the girls out after the first workshop session, there was a noticeable sigh of relief, even among those who had raised their hands when asked if they had ever witnessed an in-home birth.
Earth-Grandma stuck around for the entire day of workshops. She recorded the speakers on a small tape recorder that she would push around the room with a great show of tiptoed discretion. Whenever a speaker said something particularly profound, she would nod her head vigorously, her grey poofy hair buoyed by the shakra of her mind. She scribbled notes intently. Her devotion to Occupy Wall Street and changing the world were patently clear from how much she smiled, reacted, laughed, spoke. It took me a long time to figure out what I found so oppressive and distracting about this open-hearted, motivated woman. Eventually it hit me: she is so confident in her own lifestyle, choices, affinities, opinions, and thoughts that there is no room for doubt, for capitulation, for ambivalence in others. She professes tolerance for everyone but believes that the world would turn best if everyone lived like her. She is open to the extent that she believes anyone, regardless of race, creed, gender, etc could follow her path. In fact, look how easy she’s making it for everyone! How much wisdom she and her daughter are sharing with the women of New York! How many communities she’s part of!
Even sitting in that room, I struggled with this notion of community, of joining, of casting my lot in with others. I sensed no similar reluctance on Earth-Grandma’s part. It’s easy to be part of a larger community when you think everyone is one epiphany away from living as pure a life as you. What inspired me most about the Forum was its diversity. Yet, many of those who spoke up about “change happening from the inside” and about “choosing to live differently” did not acknowledge the position of privilege that allows them to make such choices. Their convictions did not leave room for others to fight in a different, more pragmatic manner. Earth-Grandma’s demeanor professed tolerance, but her tone and her smirk condemned the choices of those who lead a more middle class, mainstream, or bourgeois lifestyle– people who might nonetheless be class-conscious and hope to fix income inequality, health care, and other systemic injustices, through more practical, short-term means. People who were sitting around that circle, patiently watching her naturally born, breastfed, nori-eating children be the center of attention when it was not their turn to hold the conch.