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Guide to Summer Reading: A Conversation with Michael Paterniti

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Paterniti2Before Michael Paterniti ’86 earned eight National Magazine Award nominations; before he told the unforgettable tale of driving Albert Einstein’s brain across the country (Driving Mr. Albert); before he was tapped as the writer who has shaped “the voice of modern long-form journalism”—before all of that—Michael Paterniti was 26 years old, with an MFA in fiction freshly affixed to his résumé and a proofreading job in an Ann Arbor, Michigan, deli, when he discovered a piece of cheese that would change his life.

Just not right away.

Though he didn’t know it at the time, Paterniti’s unlikely discovery of Páramo de Guzmán would set him on an even unlikelier journey—Quixotic, if you will—that culminated, 22 years later, with the publication of The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese.

Only The Telling Room isn’t just about those marvelous notions.

Matt Jennings spent a few hours talking with Paterniti on a sun-soaked afternoon earlier this summer. This conversation, supplemented by email exchanges and a phone call, has been edited and condensed.

Matt Jennings It must drive you nuts when people casually ask, “So, what’s this book about?”

Michael Paterniti  [Laughs] Not at all. Because when you’re reading it, you’re not really sure. It starts off as this weird, epic journey in search of a little piece of cheese and ends up being a much larger quest for meaning and understanding. In a weird way, it becomes a quest to go backward. At a time when we are all hurtling forward, relentlessly, here’s an opportunity to feel deeply connected to something, where you have this intense sense of oneness with your environment and with the people, even if you don’t speak the language, even if you don’t share a common history.

Jennings And it began in a deli in Michigan…

Paterniti Yeah. I was just out of an MFA program, still hanging around Ann Arbor, completely broke, writing fiction, teaching a little. And I got this job at Zingerman’s Deli.

Jennings Is it true that they said you’re not qualified to make sandwiches, but you can proofread?

Paterniti Yeah, I couldn’t get the sandwich job. That really bummed me out.  I remember thinking, this degree really counts for nothing.

Jennings And, honestly, I’ve never heard of a deli hiring a proofreader.

Paterniti Well, that’s the thing. The owner, Ari, was this fascinating guy, and he wrote these great newsletters. One of the things he was doing with Zingerman’s was he would go and recover these foods from around the world, and he’d then harvest their stories. And this newsletter was one way to tell these stories.

So I was proofreading the newsletter, and one month he had brought back all of these Spanish products, and there was this little four or five paragraph entry for a cheese, Páramo de Guzmán. It was just an outline, but it sounded like the beginning of a fairy tale.

It was about this guy named Ambrosio, who was using a centuries-old recipe to make this cheese, and it was said that when people ate it, they were overcome with memories.

The cheese was made by hand. Ambrosio would milk the sheep himself. He’d bring the milk up to this little stable, where he’d make the cheese. And he’d age this cheese in his family’s ancestral cave. I remember reading that and thinking, who has a family cave? I certainly didn’t know anybody who had one.

Jennings  So, did the cheese have this magical effect on you?

Paterniti Oh, I didn’t try it; I couldn’t afford it! It was the most expensive cheese ($22 a pound) that Zingerman’s had ever sold. But when that newsletter came out, I ripped out the section on Páramo de Guzmán and threw it in a file.

Jennings And then…

Paterniti Eight years went by. I went through all of these moves, and I kept it with me. There was a point I had it in my wallet. Then it was in a file, then back in my wallet.

I didn’t really know why I had it. But one summer, in 2000, I was in Spain on assignment [for Esquire] to profile the chef Ferran Adrià. And for whatever reason, I pulled this clipping out of my wallet, and with the help of my friend Carlos Gomez (who was translating for me), I discovered that the village of Guzmán was two-and-a-half hours north of Madrid, up in the highlands of Meseta.

We knew we were going to have a day off during this extended period we spent with Ferran, so Carlos basically called the village bar, tracked down Ambrosio, and we made arrangements to go see him. I remember Carlos asking, “How are we going to find you?” And he said, “Don’t worry, you’ll find me.”

And this whole time, I’m thinking, this is so random. It wasn’t like I was obsessed with Castilian culture. Or that I was hell-bent on writing about the best cheese in the world. It was just that there was so much meaning that had accrued in this little nugget of a fairy tale.

I guess I went up there that first time not knowing. It turned out that Ambrosio didn’t make the cheese anymore, but he did have this story, and he told this story that first night in the telling room.*

Jennings So that night was the first you heard anything about the story? You arrived having no idea?

PaternitiPaterniti No idea. We arrived in Guzmán that afternoon and went looking for Ambrosio. Eventually somebody pointed to the cave. We went up and knocked on the door, which he slowly pulled open. And in we went.

Those telling rooms are so otherworldly.  They’re just these limestone holes, like snowdrifts or something.  They’re really close to each other, and inside there’s a wood-plank table and a candle, maybe a fireplace to use in the winter. It’s ancient—the room, the way everything is done, even the way they start to roll out stories.

Jennings Trapped in time.

Paterniti Totally. You really have this feeling when somebody is telling a story in the telling room that they’re telling a story that goes back to the beginning of history. So immediately that story of betrayal and revenge and this murder plot, it was echoing with all this history, all this Spanish history. And not just that but the intractable conflicts of our entire world history seemed to be there, too.

For me, it was also metaphoric, right from the start. I was transported and transfixed, as if I was under a huge midsummer spell.

Jennings In that moment—that night or the next morning—what’s happening in your head?  You’re in Spain to do this Esquire piece. And now you’ve heard this story. It’s almost like you’re caught between two worlds.

Paterniti It was weird. We were in the telling room with Ambrosio for about eight hours.  We walked out at close to 2:00 in the morning, and we drove down the hill from this beautiful shrinking village made out of limestone. It was —

Jennings A village of 80 people.

Paterniti Eighty people, this dying village on a hill. The one thing that I thought immediately in Guzmán was, this is better than I could have imagined. This guy is better. He’s bigger. He’s a wilder character. He tells a better story than anyone I’ve ever met. I’ve studied storytelling for years and to suddenly be in the presence of somebody whose stories echo with centuries of tales . . . it was pretty amazing. That’s what hit me right from the start: How do I get back here?

At the same time, I didn’t get ahead of myself at all because I had to go back to work. I was committed to the Ferran piece, and I was lost in that world. So it seemed like a dream afterward; I wanted to go back just to see if it was real. I wanted to hear Ambrosio tell that same story again, just so that I could verify it. At the same time, somewhere behind this elaborate tale I knew what I was going to find. This story had deeper meaning.

Jennings You’ve described Ambrosio as being like Falstaff…

Paterniti He’s totally Falstaff. When you’re with him, it’s like you’ve been swept off your feet and you’re lost in this rambunctious world of stories and jokes and drink and food. At that moment you’re living life in this alternate reality that has nothing to do with taking out your recycling.

Jennings And to tell this story effectively, you really had to live in that alternate world.

Paterniti For a little while, before I knew if I was going to do anything with this story, I’d visit Guzmán whenever I was in Europe on assignment. And then I eventually bought a ticket just to go back. By that point I was thinking, What is this? How do I get closer?

There are flaws in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, but what I do love about that book is the immersive quality of it, the willingness to get dirty and to also allow the story to carry you wherever it goes. This work that we do carries us to these worlds that have their own energy, and then you begin to see and understand deeper things that you didn’t know when you first got there.

The more closely we observe things—things we fear and things we revere—the more complete we become.

Jennings You use a lot of footnotes in the book. It’s a clever way to introduce the reader to the Castilian method of storytelling, full of digressions.

Paterniti One of the things that I really wanted to have happen was this narrative battle for whose book it was. So, Ambrosio being the storyteller, like the ur-storyteller, I wanted him to own the first two-thirds. And that’s how he told a story—all of these trapdoors that take you to other places. Then I think maybe in the last third of the book, a lot of the footnotes just drop away. It becomes very American. Otherwise there’s no way. You can’t do footnotes within footnotes within footnotes and plow the field.

Jennings I’d like to go back to this battle over whose book it is. One of the tensions as a reader is over how much of Ambrosio’s story can we believe?

You say at some point that you had allowed the skepticism that existed in your day job as a journalist to just melt away; you were there to listen, not poke holes.

Paterniti Right.

Jennings But at some point you had to confront that. When did you reach that moment?

Paterniti I tried to avoid it for so long. I think it took about six years. I didn’t want to know the other side of the story. I think the moment where I began to realize I needed to step up to this was when I had written a number of drafts, and they all ended in 2003,  the summer my family lived in Guzmán. I wasn’t willing to go past that. I had five different versions of the first 180 pages, and I was driving myself crazy.

My wife, Sara, pointed out the obvious reason. There was another side of the story that I was refusing to consider. I had to go find Julian, the best friend. Sara said, “You have to do what you do every time you go out on assignment. You have to actually report and stop living the story so completely.” So there is that conflict between what is material and what is your life. Where do you draw some of those lines?

Jennings You were writing this book for 10 years—

Paterniti It didn’t feel like 10 years.

Jennings Really?

TellingRoomPaterniti I just felt like I was waiting for things to unfold in a way that seemed organic. So in a way, just on the subject of time, time is something I’m obsessed with in the stories I write, like how in a single minute your life can be completely flipped, especially in the big tragedy stories or the war stories.

You have traumatic events changing the course of a life very quickly.** In Guzmán it was slow living, and it was slow unfolding, and it was slow storytelling. It took 10 years to get the real story.

Sometimes you have to wait. Sometimes it happens right away. Sometimes you go to Nanjing and you’re on a suicide bridge and some guy tries to jump within the first six hours of your being there. And sometimes you’re there for 12 days, and you see nothing. Or it may be that someone doesn’t come to jump, but there’s a gesture. There’s something that opens the seams of the world for one moment, and you see that pain or that joy or that, I don’t know, connective tissue that makes us one thing.

Then once you have that, for me at least, then I can go back into everything I’ve accumulated and try to imbue it in some way with meaning, knowing what I know having waited it out.

Jennings Part of writing literary nonfiction is making use of the fiction writer’s toolbox.

Paterniti I see it as trying to create a language of your own to tell these stories that matter the most to you. So when you have a man who’s poured every waking hour of every day into this one grape vineyard—because that matters more than anything to his family, to drink that wine at the end of the season—and then this vicious hailstorm comes through and rips everything apart, and you’re there for it, then you have all these elements, all this reporting and understanding. And how you write that, what similes and metaphors you choose to use, all of that stuff is yours, at your complete disposal.

There are very distinct lines between the genres, but I’ve always thought of them in my own writing as very blurred. That doesn’t mean you get to make anything up, that you get to create your own version of it. You take what you have and you make something from that.

Jennings After living with a story that is so personal, that has consumed more than 20 years of your life, what do you hold onto now and what do you let go?

Paterniti There are these strange, loopy left-hand turns we can take in life that will lead us through portals that eventually lend clarity to the world. That’s what this book, this experience, did for me, for my family. Underneath it all, it goes back to a certain set of questions—like, are you destined to be shaped by the forces of the world or do you have the capacity to shape the world around you?

So all of that stays with me. As for the book itself, it’s like some little shard that’s going to be there someday in the ruin that was my life. People can look at it and try to figure it out; someone may pick it up, others may not bother with it, but the thing is that there’s some evidence of a life lived.

Jennings And not just evidence of a life lived, but evidence of a way of living life.

Paterniti Yeah, it makes you think. It seems like we live in an age of 24-hour memories. The viral video of the day, the erosive flood of metadata. And we keep losing the deeper past and with it our sense of place and identity. We keep forgetting what we were supposed to remember.

Jennings Perfectly said.


End Notes

*We don’t want to give too much away, though you should know that as Ambrosio’s cheese began to gain a world following in the late 1980s/early 1990s, he could no longer produce it by himself. He brought in other people, including his best friend, to start a business. Only the best friend betrayed him and cut Ambrosio out of the business. His family cheese stolen, Ambrosio began to plot the murder of his best friend. Really.

**Among other stories, Paterniti has written about the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 1998 crash of Swissair Flight 111, and the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011.

Cover Essay: What to Read?

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

COVER-ESSAYI’m a lover of books, great ones and not-so-great ones. And I also love lists. So it didn’t surprise me when Amazon recently came out with its “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime.”

I was, however, more than a little shocked by the list, which included a few classics, such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, squeezed alongside Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Really? And do you think The Very Hungry Caterpillar should sit on the shelf of must-reads-before-dying with Pride and Prejudice, the great masterpiece by Jane Austen?

If you’re looking for guidance on the books that you should read in your lifetime—and are considering using the summer to get started—this topic is worth exploring further.

In the novel category, should one read Jacqueline Susann’s truly terrible Valley of the Dolls instead of, say, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or—the greatest of all novels— Middlemarch by George Eliot? For poetry, Amazon recommends Shel Silverstein instead of the poems of Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, or Emily Dickinson. For a great biography, we get Robert A. Caro’s admirable life of Robert Moses. But what about James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, arguably the finest biography ever published?

Certain books here are familiar to high school students, including To Kill a Mockingbird, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Catcher in the Rye. I don’t like any of these much, if truth be told. One of my sons recently graduated from high school, and he complained that in the past six years he had been asked every single year to read To Kill a Mockingbird. Surely there are other books about race relations in the American South?

I did like certain choices that Amazon made: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is certainly the best book about Vietnam; more than that, it’s a dazzling work of art. John Irving’s The World According to Garp will always deserve readers, as will The Road by Cormac McCarthy and Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

So, if this is the summer to get started on your reading quest, I suggest reading Thoreau’s Walden, which didn’t make Amazon’s list. It’s a sublime work of literature, better than any of the memoirs included here. And read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin before you read The Liars’ Club by Mary Carr or The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. The latter are fine books, but they should not crowd out Thoreau or Franklin.

It’s sad to see that Shakespeare and Tolstoy don’t make Amazon’s 100. Nor do Updike or Bellow. I’d say that only about a third of the books on Amazon’s list are in any way essential reading. Now, I’m not arguing that you should spend vacation time reading work that I or others consider essential. But if you are interested in “must reads”—life is short, after all—rip this page out of the magazine and take it to your local bookstore. Or order online, if you must—just don’t let the online store choose the selections for you.

This essay first appeared as commentary on CNN.com.

Colophon: The Politics of Torture

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

MassacreSpread
In 1624, the English East India Company authorized the publication of a sensational book, A true relation of the unjust, cruell, and barbarous proceedings against the English at Amboyna in the East Indies: by the Neatherlandish governour and councel there. The book was part of a pamphlet war between the English and the Dutch and was reprinted throughout the century.

The frontispiece depicts the torture and execution of English traders in one of the spice islands of what is today eastern Indonesia. Both the English and Dutch were new to the lucrative trade in cloves, mace, and nutmeg and were vying for their control. A recent treaty had supposedly settled matters, allowing the English to trade alongside the Dutch, but mistrust was in the air.

In early 1623, the Dutch governor of Amboina accused English traders, Japanese mercenaries, and a Portuguese slave overseer of plotting a coup. The Dutch used torture to extract confessions. They bound each man to a doorframe and tied a cloth around each face so that little water could escape. “That done, they poured the Water softly upon his Head until the Cloath was full up to the Mouth and Nostrils . . .  so that he could not draw breath, but he must withal suck in the water:  Which being still continued to be poured in softly, forced all his inward parts, to come out of his Nose, Ears, and Eyes, and . . . brought him to a swoun or fainting.”

When waterboarding was insufficient, they lit candles under armpits and feet. The author points out that the torture resulted in false confessions and unjust executions. When the book was printed, it caused outrage in England and fueled anti-Dutch sentiment.

Download: Why I Love Cycling

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

IZI0030535The saying goes that there are two kinds of cyclists: those who have crashed and those who will crash. In 2013, I ended a 25-year streak of staying upright and crashed three times, breaking more bones in my body than I had in 20-plus years of playing rugby. When asked by friends and family if I would get back in the saddle, my immediate response was “of course.” Their looks of bewilderment have made me wonder what it is that I love about cycling. It could be the fitness aspect or the fact it is the only way I have ever successfully lost weight. It could be the daily reminder of how fortunate I feel to live in Vermont as I ride

Addison County’s quiet country roads. Perhaps it is the burning in my legs and lungs as I crest a gap and live up to the cycling mantra of “if you’re not suffering, you’re not doing it right.” It might be the satisfaction of keeping up with “those guys,” or simply the enjoyment of meeting close friends at sunrise on brisk mornings for a pre-work ride. Or maybe it is the Zen of pedaling and propelling yourself down the road through your own means, totally disconnected from our wired society.

No, I think the essence of what makes cycling special is that every ride takes you back to a moment in your childhood when you first discovered cycling and the freedom and independence that came along with it. All my children have discovered it at one moment or another and promptly took advantage of exploring their surroundings, escaping to friends’ houses or disappearing into the woods. I have been off my bike for a week because my doctor, and riding buddy, just removed the pins from my elbow from one of last year’s accidents. Even though I know some of my kids and friends will fall at some point, I can’t wait to be back in the saddle next week, feel the fresh Vermont air on my face, and revel in that sense of freedom that we all remember from childhood.

Up Front: Faculty Votes Against K12

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

At a meeting on May 13,the faculty of Middlebury College voted 95-16 in favor of a nonbinding motion calling on Middlebury to end its relationship with K12, Inc, Middlebury’s partner in the for-profit-online-education company Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL). Paula Schwartz, a professor of French, introduced the motion, which stated in part that “the business practices of K12 Inc. are at odds with the integrity, reputation, and educational mission of the College.”

Middlebury and K12 formed MIL in 2010 as a joint venture, with K12 taking a 60 percent equity holding. The company has grown significantly over the last four years. In 2013 it moved its headquarters from Provo, Utah, to Middlebury, and currently employs 75 people. Today, nearly 175,000 students in 1,200 school districts across the United States use its online language programs. Writing in The Campus on the eve of the faculty vote, President Ron Liebowitz said Middlebury entered into the venture for three reasons: to retain leadership in language teaching, including in online education; to expand access to language education for pre-college students; and to develop new revenue sources to support the institution.

The partnership with K12 has been somewhat controversial from the beginning. Some faculty raised objections to the fact that noted conservative William Bennett was one of the founders of K12. (He parted ways with the company years before MIL was created.) In recent years K12 has been the subject of several shareholder lawsuits, none of which has resulted in a finding against the company, though at least one was settled.

Following the vote, Liebowitz said it was important to understand the distinction between K12, which is a publicly held company based in Virginia, and MIL, which is an independent company, partly owned by Middlebury. He pointed out that even as a minority owner, Middlebury has considerable influence over MIL’s product and marketing strategies. He also said that he understood the faculty’s concerns and that he would continue to engage the Middlebury Board of Trustees on the issue.

The Challenger

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Shenna_Bellows_005

Can Shenna Bellows ’97 stun the political establishment by upsetting an entrenched incumbent and winning a U.S. Senate seat in Maine?

Shenna Bellows ’97 is cold. This is not the sort of brief chill that passes now and again: It’s the deep, bone-shaking kind that both racks her slight frame and causes others nearby to shiver in sympathy. I am surprised for two reasons: First, Shenna knows Maine weather well. She grew up here, in a house that didn’t get electricity or running water until she was in fifth grade. When she and her siblings got home from school, their chore was to relight the woodstove. As often as not, though, they would huddle under the bedclothes, doing their homework until their parents got home. It is also surprising because the feeling she usually exudes is not contagious cold but rather infectious, friendly warmth.

Right now, though, Shenna is freezing. We have just gotten in the car after an election-campaign visit to Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, right on the Maine coast. She didn’t check the weather this morning and didn’t bring a coat on this blustery, sprinkling spring day.

As the heat comes on in the car, she settles into the backseat; her staffer-driver and I ride up front to give her space to work. She stops shivering, takes off her shoes, tucks her feet under her, and resumes her most frequent activity: typing on her iPhone.

Sending texts and emails whooshing into the ether is key to Shenna winning what she admits is “an uphill battle” against United States Senator Susan
Collins, a three-term Republican incumbent with a big bankroll, who is widely expected to win handily. Even more crucial will be Shenna’s idea of what a candidate and a campaign can be.

Her vision has paid off before. While heading the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, she co-led the 2012 statewide same-sex marriage referendum that made Maine the first state to approve marriage equality at the ballot box. (Maryland did the same that day.)

The ACLU of Maine lobbied for and won major legislative victories too: passing a first-in-the-nation law requiring police to get a warrant before tracking suspects with cell-phone data, defending transgender Mainers’ rights, limiting police use of drones, and protecting women’s reproductive health rights.
She is still campaigning—and gaining national media attention and donations—for civil-rights protections, economic opportunity and justice, constitutional freedoms, and environmental protection. She is bringing together what she calls “an unusual coalition” of people who, like her, hold positions that transcend stereotypical political divides.

On the left of most Democrats, she backs universal single-payer health care, legalizing marijuana, “bold, visionary action” on climate change, and student-loan debt reform as a means to boost the economic prospects of young college graduates, who face the toughest job market in decades.

In the middle, she supports Internet neutrality and equal pay for women.

And well to the right—at times on turf occupied only by the libertarian wing of the Republican Party—she insists on ending the National Security Agency’s domestic-spying program and repealing the USA PATRIOT Act.

We have been friends for years; when she asked me what I thought would be the hardest thing about her running, I told her she would have to ask people for money not to support a cause, but to back her.

***

As a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama from 1999 to 2001, Shenna helped give microloans to artisans in a remote community. And, more recently, as executive director of the ACLU of Maine for more than eight years, she was responsible for raising its annual budget of around $750,000, as well as for contributions to the various campaigns the group joined.

But even now, Shenna is not running for herself. She says that she wants her candidacy to be viewed as a revolutionary rethinking of how campaigning—and politics—can and should work. And her plan for victory is very much like her previous public-service efforts, most notably that 2012 same-sex marriage campaign.

Then, supporters had hundreds of thousands of individual conversations with their friends, neighbors, and communities, making personal connections to explain the importance of marriage equality. The strategy gave backers strong talking points they could repeat in their own words, multiplying the effectiveness of the campaign’s direct appeals to the broader public.

Shenna’s fundamental idea, one adopted by few on the left (though many on the far right), is that elections can be won by the power of human connection and fidelity to one’s ideals. (And integrity. Having spent years working for marriage equality, she refused to get married until all Maine couples could; her September 2013 emailed wedding announcement ended with a request: “And please… no gifts. For real,” with a link to the Federal Election Commission’s campaign-finance rules.)

And she believes that beyond being funded by small, individual donations for regular-person candidates (which Tea Party candidates espoused), campaigns should be staffed by actual humans, who have real lives and families amidst the fray.

Hearing Shenna talk about both unseating Maine’s senior senator and upending a broken electoral system is strange not because it’s so divergent from cynical national political punditry, nor because critics might call it naïve, but because it’s oddly empowering. It sounds rational, reasonable, possible. It’s an idea whose time, like Shenna’s, may at long last have come.

Rebirth

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

midwifery1

Once considered an ancient practice, midwifery is experiencing a resurgence across the United States.

When Fernanda’s car rumbled up to the Holy Family Birth Center in Weslaco, Texas, it was past midnight, and she was already dilated to six centimeters. Though she’d given birth twice before, the look on her face, said her midwife, Hannah Epstein ’05, was one of deep terror. Fernanda had crossed the border from Mexico just a few weeks ago, leaving her husband and two children behind as she took the perilous trek, led by coyote, through the desert and across the infamous, swift-flowing Rio Grande (or, to those south of the border, Rio Bravo: the Angry River). Now in Texas, Fernanda was, as far as Epstein could tell, renting a room from total strangers. All this so she could have her baby in the United States: not just for the papers, explained Epstein, but also for the low-cost, high-quality care promised by the Holy Family Birth Center. As several of Epstein’s patients had told her, because of the spike in border violence on the Mexican side, fewer and fewer doctors are willing to leave their homes in the middle of the night. Now, without English skills or immigration documents or anyone she knew or loved, Fernanda was going to give birth completely alone.

Except for her midwife.

Between contractions, Epstein carefully walked the laboring Fernanda to a birthing room, one of four freestanding structures spread about the humble Holy Family campus—a small, windswept ranch cradled between a main Rio Grande Valley thoroughfare and tractor-trod cornfields. Once in the birthing room, with its low lighting, small bed and tub, Fernanda felt her knees completely lock. She couldn’t move. Despite minutes of gentle coaxing from Epstein, Fernanda stood in the middle of the birthing room, stone-faced and perfectly still. She wouldn’t budge. Using a trick she’d learned in nursing school, Epstein placed Fernanda’s arms upon Epstein’s shoulders and began swaying just slightly, almost as though they were dancing. “It can help to ease the pain,” she explained.

“At that point, the look in her eyes was, ‘I have nothing. I can’t do this,’” she recalls. But all of Epstein’s training as a midwife told her that Fernanda could birth a healthy baby, and that somewhere inside, Fernanda knew this too. Epstein’s job was to help bring this knowledge to the surface.

For the next two hours, Fernanda crisscrossed the small, candlelit room, wrenching with each contraction, terrified of what was coming and too bashful to take her clothes off. Epstein encouraged her to get in the tub—water births are becoming more and more common in many midwifery practices, and they are a Holy Family mainstay.  “Once you see a woman give birth in a tub,” said Epstein, “you’re sold. The difference it makes in terms of being able to cope with the pain is miraculous.”

But Fernanda wasn’t interested. She labored on for two hours in agony, when Epstein suggested again that they might try the tub. Fernanda agreed—she’d try anything at this point. Epstein helped her into the warm water, and the effect was instantaneous: She immediately became quiet and peaceful. Each time a contraction came, she let loose a low moan and furrowed her brow, eyes closed. “You go into your own cocoon in the tub,” said Epstein. “It’s this private space; outside the tub is the chaos of the world, but when you get in the tub, everything goes inward and focuses.” Within 30 minutes, Fernanda got the urge to push. Three minutes later and with Epstein’s help, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

***

midwifery2A hundred and fifty years ago, midwives attended the vast majority of births in the United States. But as the medical field expanded and professionalized in the late-19th century, the process of giving birth, once seen as a normal physiological process presided over by women midwives, was turned over to the medical institution (presided over, at the time, by men), and birth became regarded as an experience requiring medical intervention. But today, the ancient practice of midwifery is making a resounding national comeback.

In 2012, nurse midwives were responsible for nearly 12 percent of U.S. vaginal births (7.9 percent of all births—midwives do not perform caesareans.) This is an increase of more than 2 percent since 2000; meaning that, though progress is slow, midwives—both certified nurse midwives, like Epstein, and non-nurse midwives, who work outside of hospital settings—are becoming more common.

And in certain circles, midwifery is even becoming trendy. Just as scheduling one’s birth via cesarean, like calendaring a haircut or oil change, has risen in popularity, so has searching out a midwife in order to have a holistic, natural childbirth. A 2012 New York Times article, “The Midwife as a Status Symbol,” touts famous mothers like models Christy Turlington and Gisele Bündchen who, even though they could likely “afford to purchase an entire hospital wing,” instead hire upscale midwives. “And like any status symbol, a pecking order has emerged,” the piece reads. “Just as getting your toddler into the right preschool requires social maneuvering, getting into a boutique midwifery clinic has become competitive.”

“We just thought it was so funny,” Lucy Chapin ’06, a midwife who studied at Yale and now works at a private practice in Ithaca, New York, told me, “how this ancient profession is being looked at as this cool new trend.”

And, in fact, midwifery in America is currently thriving at opposite poles: among the health-conscious wealthy—those who can afford to pay for midwives, which often aren’t covered by private insurance companies—and within poor communities, rural and urban. After graduating from Middlebury, Chapin worked with Frontier Nursing Project in Kentucky, which has provided midwifery care to impoverished communities in Appalachia for decades. At Holy Family, almost 100 percent of Epstein’s clients received Medicaid benefits.

While private insurance rarely covers midwifery outside the hospital setting, Medicaid is now required to reimburse for midwifery care in every state—be it in hospitals or birth centers. So to have a baby outside a hospital setting in most states (Vermont being an exception), a woman must either be wealthy enough to pay the hefty out-of-pocket fees or poor enough to receive government benefits. Moving midwifery past the 8 percent fringe will require both a cultural renorming of midwifery care and filling in the middle of these two demographic polarities. This is just what these Middlebury midwives—Middwives!—and their contemporaries are working toward.