QUIET PLEASE: A (Still) Birth Story

By Nina Capille

This article was originally published on MUTHA. Click here to read it on their site.

Later I thought of it as the walk of shame. A nurse led Tommy and me from a hospital observation area to a baby delivery room at the end of the hall.

When we walked into NYU hospital that day I was terrified. But something in me held on to the hope of an emergency c-section, after which we would meet our child. Instead we were ushered into a room where a nurse said they would reassure us by showing us the heartbeat. She looked for it with a doppler stick, but, having trouble, switched to the larger sonogram wand. Tommy and I watched, suspended in the not knowing.

Nearby there was a loud, solid, thumping of another baby’s heart on the monitor. Our nurse asked for the volume to be turned down as she searched for ours.

It took three nurses and a staff doctor. After searching for the heartbeat, they each went to find someone else to have a look and we waited silently, dreadfully, hopefully. But it was gone. I didn’t know you could lose a baby so late in a pregnancy, after the due date, after 40 weeks.

Later my husband confided that, in addition to the bewilderment of grief, he felt shame. Shame that we couldn’t do what so many of our friends had just done—bring a baby into the world. At this, too, we had failed.

We walked down the linoleum hallway and I looked at my pregnant belly. It suddenly seemed deflated, diminished. We were shown into a delivery room. We would be induced. As Tommy said, we would begin to re-write the narrative of our lives without a child in it. The door was closed behind us. it wasn’t until much later that we saw the sign outside that said, “Quiet please. The family in this room has lost a baby.”

I was bewildered and had no idea what to expect, despite the fact that our doctor and nurses talked us through what was coming. Through medically-induced labor we would deliver the baby within a day. At that point perhaps we would have some answers about the loss, but so far the blood tests indicated no known cause. We were told that we could see the baby and hold it if we wanted to.

Around 4 o’clock in the afternoon I was given pitocin, the drug that would bring on labor and contractions, and an epidural for the pain. Tommy and I made some phone calls to our families and then waited out the night. Neither of us could sleep. To be fair, the doctor offered me sleep medication, but I didn’t like the idea of taking it and leaving Tommy on his own, wide awake on the hospital reclining chair.

The night seemed endless. The dark city through the large picture window, the dull pain I felt through the epidural, the confusion and the waiting all made it feel like Sartre’s play No Exit.

At some point we turned on the TV. There was a marathon of Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr. on PBS. We watched strangers learn about their ancestors and backgrounds. There were branches on their family trees that ended abruptly when someone died in war or of tuberculosis or when a marriage didn’t include children. We both thought of those branches in our own families—my great-uncles who died in World War I, Tommy’s great-cousins who died in pogroms in Russia before his family came to the US.

I watched and felt surprised that I managed to have been born into the world at all. My maternal grandmother had three children but also had two known losses. Her mother’s mother lost three of her six sons in the war. My paternal grandmother spent ten years trying to conceive each of her two children. Her mother buried three babies before they reached the age of three. How had I been delivered awake and alive from these two lines?

A few days before my due date, I had discovered Ina May Gaskin, thanks to the recommendation of a friend. I read two of her books voraciously, in a matter of hours. I loved reading the details of births. It was like an initiation into a sisterhood. I couldn’t wait to know what my birth story be. Would it be an adrenaline rush like one woman described? How would I respond in the height of the pain? I felt curious and opened up to the possibility of the experience in a way I hadn’t been able to before.

But when the staff doctor told us that there was no heart beat, a dichotomy of understanding broke inside of me. Some things became very clear and others became blurred and distorted. I had almost immediate clarity that Tommy and I would come together in the loss or risk breaking up completely. I also had an instant feeling of connection with all of humankind and thought of all of the women and parents in all of human history who had experienced such a loss. But I couldn’t assemble my thoughts when it came to other things. Birth and delivery fell into that category. I knew people who had lost pregnancies early on. But as far as I knew those losses resulted in anonymous bleeding, terribly sad and psychologically painful, but different from delivering a newborn infant. So I could not understand that I would go into labor and push and breathe and use the things that we learned in our birthing class. But we did.

The pushing lasted almost an hour. Before it was done we had an answer. The baby had gotten tangled up in the umbilical cord. We weren’t sure at first if we would want to see the baby. In my fractured mind, anything could have happened—a car accident in my womb that left the body bloodied and mangled, for example. Thankfully, rationality took root and we decided that we did want to see her.

A nurse walked gazing into the swaddled baby’s face. Later Tommy said the nurse was like a great actress, endowing the baby with life. She handed the baby to me. I stared into my daughter’s face, trying to memorize it and trying to figure out who she was, what kind of person she would have been. Tommy held her and told her he loved her. We named her Emily.

I thought I would cry more and there was, of course, unspeakable grief. But there was something else too. There was the sense of awe that parents feel when they see their child for the first time. Seeing how whole and healthy she was helped to verify that losing her was a freak accident and nothing more. Seeing her face and feeling the weight of her—nearly nine pounds—and having a photograph of her also helped me through the next weeks and months in moments of total bewilderment when I needed something to prove that I was a mother after all, but that my child had slipped away.

We said hello and goodbye in those moments. We left the hospital just a few hours later. We walked out of the hospital on to First Avenue holding hands and into the unknown ahead…

What we may Need Now Even More than #prayersforparis

By Nina Capille

This article was originally published on Elephant Journal. Click here to read it on their site.

I was in New York on September 11, 2001. Afterwards there was a trail of black smoke that blew from the World Trade Center out over Brooklyn (and right over my apartment) for days.

Later that fall a woman in Canarsie (a neighborhood six miles farther from ground zero than my Park Slope apartment) showed me papers that fell from the smoke trail and landed like leaves in her backyard. They were unremarkable pages with charts and numbers on them although some also had handwritten notes.

I also remember the compassionate feeling that lasted amongst New Yorkers for days and weeks afterwards. People regularly held the door open for each other in public, at places like banks where we normally rushed in and out anonymously. Shops with copy machines donated printing in an effort to help to people who were looking for lost loves ones and posting flyers with photos all over downtown. There was a pause and a thoughtfulness that came over us—suspending the city’s wonderful chaos and usual fast pace—and it felt as though we were responding as a community.

Since then, I’ve been much more attuned to the innumerable terrorist attacks all over the world. Lately I’ve been thinking about how we as a global community respond to terrorism. Are there common characteristics of our responses to these attacks and, if so, are we doing any good or are we just contributing to the chaos?

As we all saw online, in the attacks on Paris on Friday, November 13th, there was an immediate outcry of compassion, sympathy and solidarity on social media. Many responses included the hashtag #prayersforparis. Within hours people were asking why the same empathy was not being extended to citizens of Beirut who had just suffered a similar attack. And the very same night the attacks in Paris became an opportunity to claim relevant-ness of a number of controversial social and political agendas, as described in a New York Times op ed. Suddenly our communal response had been re-directed from compassion for other human beings and toward divisive issues like gun rights, patriotism, Syrian refugees, abolition of religion, institutional racism and more. These issues deserve consideration, discussion and debate but I wonder about the rapid breakdown of unity.

I’m trying to understand what I saw happen on social media. I can’t help but observe that the amount of time we were united in response to the attacks had been reduced from a number of weeks after September 11th to a number of minutes after November 12-13. For a few moments we all came together around shared values of human life but it dissipated so quickly. As long as we allow this kind of breakdown in shared empathy to happen and as long as we respond to each isolated act of terror—city by city and incident by incident—the breakdown itself is becoming the central shared characteristic of our global response to terrorism. As a global community we express compassion for a brief moment and then are driven into vitriolic pockets of isolation. Is it possible that this kind of breakdown is precisely part of what the terrorist movement is relying on?

For a few moments on Friday night, everyone–even the people who found an opportunity to talk about their personal political, social agenda—were united in one thing: compassion for love of our fellow man and woman, pain and outrage that innocent human lives are being lost. I wonder if we—all the people of the world who were united in grief and outrage at the loss of innocent lives in Paris, in Beirut, in Kenya and everywhere—need to create a unifying global response to terrorism. Can we collectively ask and identify what it is we really care about and are outraged about and define a global response and movement that transcends national boundaries, religions and other passionate points of view?

Here’s what I fear: I’m afraid that hashtags like #prayersforparis #prayersforbeirut and #prayersforkenya have the result of driving us into further isolation, and worse, into self-interest, rather than unifying us in love for life, love for humanity, love of justice. Ultimately all of the bereaved and enraged responders believe in the same things: that terrorism is wrong, we are sick of it and we don’t stand for it anywhere or it being inflicted on anyone. Might the force of our shared compassion serve as the foundation for a global movement more powerful than that of terrorism?

It seems clear that the way we collectively respond to terrorism now is not having a forcefully positive effect. But it also seems clear that we have shared values to build on. Instead of one-off, localized responses, what about a global unified people’s response to terrorism? What if we start with hashtags like #prayersforhumanity #onelove #imagine #humanityaboveallelse? What if we build our lives around the compassion and shared values that we recognize in moments of crisis? Can we create a new way of responding before too many more lives are blowing away like leaves in the wind?

The way we respond on social media will just be the tip of the iceberg, but, together, maybe we can make a difference.

The Princess and her Power: a fairy tale about surviving childhood sexual abuse

by Nina Capille

The piece was originally published by Rebelle Society. Click here to read in on their site.

Once upon a time there was a princess who lived carefree in the countryside. She had four brothers and three sisters. The little princes and princesses loved to run barefoot in the brown fields and play hide and seek in the apple orchard. They lived in a big farmhouse and slept in a cozy room with eight beds in two rows. In the winter time, when it was too cold to play outside, the children loved to paint giant murals on a glass window that looked out over the fields. They painted the glass with colorful wildflowers and fairies and elf houses and all of the things they loved. In their farmhouse a family of robins had made a nest in the attic and squirrels had settled in a long unused chimney. They lived this way for a long time.

But one day a gray cloud blew in over the countryside. The princess’s father, the duke, was called away to help make peace in a faraway land. Her mother the Princess was beckoned to the royal court by her grandmother the Queen.

The young princess was sad to leave the brown fields and the robin birds and the berries she picked and ate right off of the bush. But she and her brothers and sisters packed their bags and waved goodbye to the farmhouse and all they had known there.

The court was in the city and there was a great castle there. It was very big. The children all had their own rooms.

There were new rules and customs at court. They must always wear shoes. They must not have animals because they made the queen sneeze. The children must spend eight hours each day in school. The princess and her sisters had their own teacher and their brothers had another tutor of their own. At night, when the queen was at home they must read quietly or practice their music lessons. But when the queen was away, they would run and play.

Not too much time had passed when the princess made a frightening discovery. A dragon lived near her bedroom. At first she heard it breathing and herr-umphing in the night, but no one else did. After a while she saw fire-y red eyes looking into her bedroom. When she jumped out of bed to chase it away there was no sign of the dragon anywhere.

Then one night the princess dreamt of a giant serpent. She woke up and screamed and saw the dragon’s spiky tail as it left her bedroom.

Everyone in the castle ran to see who had cried out in the night. But when the queen heard the princess’s story she just sniffed and said, “Silly girl! There is no such thing as a dragon – especially in my castle! Work harder at your studies and your mind will be less idle” and they all left.

The princess was angry and she was alone. She didn’t sleep at all that night.

The next day something strange happened. While the princess was practicing the flute she discovered a magical power. All of her confusion and all of her anger and pain flowed out of her mouth and through her instrument. She played and played and played. Suddenly the castle walls disappeared. She was running barefoot in the brown fields and she was free. It was as if her music was a magical horse that took her wherever she wanted to go. When she stopped playing she was surprised at what she saw. She was alone in her gray stone room at the castle, wearing shoes and trembling with her flute in her hand.

She played again the next day and the one after that and the day after that too. It was always the same. The music took her away from the castle and set her free.

She couldn’t keep her secret for long. She told her brothers and sisters. Soon they all spent every spare moment playing their instruments. The queen did not understand but she thought it was good that the children were occupied.

Before long the princess was one of the best flautists in the land. He brothers and sisters excelled too. One was invited to perform as a soloist in a beautiful land. Another was offered a commission to write beautiful music. But the princess had a plan and her brothers and sisters agreed. The best thing to do would be to share their secret with all the people in the kingdom. The planned a great event. They would dance through the city and play their instruments and bring all of the people with them.

But on the night before they were to play their music, the dragon appeared again in the princess’s room. This time he crept close to the ground and snuck up to look at her while she was sleeping. Feeling hot breathe on her face, the princess woke up and saw the dragon staring at her with its mean, red eyes. Without thinking she grabbed her flute form under her pillow and sounded a long, loud, clear, high note. She looked the dragon in the eyes and played. But this time he didn’t leave. He reared and roared. He snorted and shook. And the princess played and played and played.

This time when the queen came to see what the noise was all about she saw the dragon with her own eyes and backed away in fear.

The little princes and princesses ran from their bedrooms. They saw the terrible dragon and they heard their sister play. They ran away as fast as they could.

As the princess played the sun began to rise. To her surprise her siblings came right back, running into her room. Every single one joined in playing their own instruments from her biggest sister on the violin to her littlest brother on the triangle. Like the queen before him, the dragon began to back away.

The princess and all of her sisters and brothers kept playing and marched through the castle and down to the street. By now the sun was shining brightly. At first the people stared at the royal children who they had seldom seen. But when the princess and her ensemble began to dance they unlocked the hearts of the kingdom’s people. Children joined them, whistling through reeds and clacking together sticks. Grown men and women joined in too. Those with instruments played. Those without sang and whistled and danced.

The princess and her family wouldn’t stop until everyone in the land heard the music and learned the secret.

By the time the sun was high in the sky, the princess was dancing barefoot in the brown fields. Her brothers and sisters climbed trees in the orchard and called to the birds in song. Every person in the land was in the place that made them most fulfilled and if they didn’t already know where that was they were well on the path to finding out.

SHE poem #2

“That’s the truth” she screamed at noon on the beach.

She waved her arms in front of her face, opened and closed

her hands like she was trying to grab the words that had just

come out of her mouth to show him the evidence.

“That’s the end” he thought and stood up cooly and stretched.

You can’t argue with a mad woman. He finished the

Heineken and, fingers looped around its green neck, tossed it

toward a trash can.

But he missed. The bottle shattered. The round flat bottom

Fell into the sand like a coin. The jagged top pinned a seagull.

She saw blood and howled and fell to her knees in the sand.

The bird twitched and then stopped. When she could breath

again it was over, all over…

How to Raise a Nature Lover in the Big City

By Nina Capille

This article was originally published on Elephant Journal. Click here to read it on their site.

I grew up on a small farm in the countryside. My earliest memories include the smell of fresh plowed earth and the sight of brightly colored fresh-picked vegetables in wooden bushels.

I can play some of these memories in my mind like a stockpile of family movies on demand. In one, I am five years old and looking into a large silver tin container filled with water. My grandmother pours a few dozen bright green peppers into the tin, and they tumble around as she adds water from the hose to give them a good rinse. After they bob in the water, she plucks them out and plunges them into a container of water with a little mineral oil added, which makes the fruit shiny before we send it to the local farm stand.

In another, my little brother and I stand in awe at the sight of hundreds of autumn gourds laid out on a white tarp. Gourds are like fingerprints—no two are alike. My grandfather would pick the most exceptional gourds with eccentric colors and shapes and put them aside for us to hold and wonder over. The bulk of the gourds would be shellacked and sent to the local farmer’s markets right before Halloween.

My mother took us for nature walks in the forrest behind the farm, and my father grew flowers in greenhouses all year round. The whole family conveyed a high regard for nature in different ways.

Now I live in New York City and have my own child. I want him to have a relationship with the earth like the one my family helped cultivate in me. But how do I do that in the middle of an urban landscape? Our neighborhood includes the smell of sanitation trucks in the high summer heat and the sight of rodents scurrying along train tracks. If I value the earth and our relationship with her, I have to search for things to share with my boy. I have to work hard to make it a priority.

“Have you reckon’d the earth much?…
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun…”  ~ Walt Whitman, “Leaves of Grass”

Walt Whitman walked down the streets of our neighborhood and lobbied for the creation of our local park. I try to think of him when we walk through the city, and I wonder what he noticed.

When we walk our boy six city blocks to his school, we point out the cherry blossoms in May and rose of Sharon in August. When we’re at the park, I hope we’ll score a sighting of a pair of red-tailed hawks that live there. (We see them about four times a year.) Wherever we go, my son picks up stones, bark, wood chips, herb leaves and wild berries to put inside his toy cars as passengers. When we have the chance to leave town, we think about a place where he can run barefoot in the grass or build castles in the sand.

At home, we look for art and culture that support our love of the earth. We have a volume of children’s poetry, and each season, we use markers to handwrite a poem from it and post it on the door in his room. Last winter we posted Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Right now, we have “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams. This fall, I’m going to put up “Autumn” by Emily Dickinson.

Children’s songs also help create a culture of environmentalism. One of my favorites is called “The Earth is Our Mother,” which perfectly captures the essence of loving nature and our role as stewards of its well-being. We also talk about the seasons as they change and sing silly made-up songs about having gratitude for our bath water.

“Give things the dignity of their names…. When we know the name of something, it brings us closer to the ground…. it connects us to the earth… If I walk down the street and see ‘dogwood’, ‘forsythia’ I feel more friendly toward the environment.”  ~ Natalie Goldberg, “Writing Down the Bones”

We have a great luxury and a rarity for city dwellers in our parts—a tiny back garden. My husband grows shade plants in a small triangular patch, and I keep an herb garden in pots. I love showing my son how to rub leaves between his fingers and then smell the scent the mint, basil or rosemary leave on his skin. Our little garden gives us the chance to teach our boy the names of plants like hosta and fern, of trees like birch, elm and magnolia and of birds like the cardinal and mockingbird.

When we go farther afield, naming things becomes really fun. We recently went to the city’s botanical garden. While we were looking at native plants, we talked about a limestone ledge we saw and also about Canadian wood nettle, among many other plants. Plant names already sound like poetry, but when they come from the mouth of a toddler, they take on a whole new dimension.

“If we can see our body as a wonder, we also have the opportunity to see the Earth as a wonder, and healing can begin for the body of the Earth. When we go home and take care of ourselves, we heal not only our own bodies and minds, but we help the Earth as well.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh, “Love Letter to the Earth”

This passage really speaks to me and honestly challenges me. It’s easy to get caught up in the lightning fast pace of the city, and I often do. I love Thich Nhat Hanh’s words because they give me even more reason to slow down and take care of my body. That’s certainly something I want for my son, so I have to note it as an area that I can improve for his sake and my own.

The other day my little boy said to me, “Listen, mama, you hear the bird?” I hadn’t heard the bird, and he made me stop and pay attention. I’d missed an opportunity to connect with nature, but he was already there and created an opportunity for me.

My son is around the same age that I was when I began logging memories. Will he remember calling my attention to the bird in our backyard? Will his earliest memories include any element of communing with nature? I don’t know for sure, but I do know that the related values are so precious that I have to try.

IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Was A Teenage Beauty Queen (And It Was Nothing Like I Expected)

By Nina Capille

This article was originally published on XOJane.com. Click here to read it on their site.

I was not a likely candidate for the beauty pageant world. I was a literary nerd who haunted the local library and was fascinated with learning about art. I was decidedly not interested in the temporary nature of fashion, artifice and beauty trends – which is how I summarized what I saw in the pageant culture of my hometown of Atlantic City, NJ.

But my high school drama teacher, who knew I wanted to be an actress, said I should enter my local pageant. To get used to rejection, he said. It would fortify me for a future of not getting the gig for long stretches at a time, was the idea. It seemed simple enough: sing, talk and walk. How hard could it be? So I did it.

I had no strategy, no craft, no idea what came next. And I won.

There were a few things that came with winning. First, I received some scholarship money – which I very much needed. Second, I had to complete a year of service, appear in local parades and at charitable events. And ultimately, I was to compete in Miss New Jersey, one of the state pageants leading to Miss America.

I don’t remember exactly when the discomfort set in. But in the weeks leading up to Miss New Jersey I became intimidated, scared even, of the other women and of the experience of being sequestered with them for four days of rehearsal and competition.

My feelings were not without cause. That year I met lots of other local pageant winners. I learned that the previous year’s contestants were notoriously competitive. There were stories of sabotage – girls rubbing cold cream on each other’s dresses. There were rumors of drastic plastic surgery – one woman had a rib removed so her waist would appear smaller. Because those women had all aged out (outgrew the pageant’s requisite 17-24 age range) I never met any of them. But I still brought back-ups of clothes just in case.

I packed my bags one day in May and went to an orientation event. I wore my make-up like a suit of armor. The women I met were chatty, girl-ish and complimentary after each contestant performed on a small stage. I was sure they were being phony and kept to myself. I wanted nothing to do with these people – they were shallow, catty, crown-grabbers.

This is what I remember most from that day. A slender dark-haired woman sitting next to me spoke to another girl when she returned to our table after her Polynesian dance.

“I loved that! Where did you learn to dance like that?”

The woman said “Baby, I came out shaking!”

We all laughed. But the image of a hula dancing baby emerging from a vagina was emblazoned in my mind permanently.

The first day we were assigned roommates. Mine was a soft-spoken aerospace engineering major at Princeton University. I judged from the cigarette holes in her spring jacket that, like me, she could use the scholarship winnings to get through college.

During the first of many photo-ops, a lovely couple paused by our group of thirty and said, “And what are all these beautiful young ladies here for?”  A girl in the front told them “we’re here for a pageant”. The women asked “what pageant would that be?” I rolled my eyes and whispered “Miss Texas” under my breath. The girl next to me laughed and suppressed a snort.

At the end of the first day I realized something strange was happening. I felt comfortable around the people I had met so far. I also realized that in less than 12 hours I had been snarky, judgmental and had brought an irrational number of evening gowns with me because I was motivated by fear. Was it possible that I was the bitch I was afraid of encountering?

I couldn’t keep up a facade over the next four days. Things happened to which I couldn’t hide my responses. For one thing, vagina jokes (there were so many!). Also, the girls I met defied the stereotype of pageant bimbo. They were irreverent. Fun. Scary smart. One woman worked in the state legislature house. Another described her career goal as being a walking medical encyclopedia.

I began to actually have fun. It was like a giant sleepover with thirty girls – smiling on stage one moment and telling bawdy jokes backstage the next. In short order I felt like I had made friends.

At 17 I was one of the youngest in the group. I had been expecting a super-charged version of high school snobbery, but that’s not what I experienced. No one laughed at me when my fake eyelashes fell off my face and into my coffee saucer. I was not made to feel like a pathetic loser when I struggled to keep up with the group dance routines. Backstage, even in the blind rush between phases of competition, girls were doing each other favors and looking out for each other.

On the night of the actual pageant, between talent and swimsuit competition, women were stripping off evening gowns and shimmying into bathing suits. When I had my suit on someone guided me into a line of girls.

When I got to the front another girl said urgently “Give yourself a wedgie!”

“What?!” I could not fathom what she was talking about.

“Give yourself a wedgie! You have to spray your bathing suit to your butt or it will slide all over when you’re walking on stage.”

Literally everyone was getting their butts sprayed, so I guessed this was kosher. I gave myself a wedgie, she sprayed my butt with hardware store glue and then another woman showed me how to carefully place the edges of the suit where I wanted them to semi-permanently stay. We ran to our entrances and our bathing suits didn’t budge.

The swimsuit competition is the fastest part of the evening, so when it’s done all hell breaks loose. Women step into the wings and start running to their changing stations and ripping their clothes off on the way. Someone made sure that I covered my bottom with baby powder. If I hadn’t taken that step, I was told that my pantyhose would never come off again.

By the end of the night, everyone is on stage in evening gowns. That’s the moment when the top ten are announced. Those ten women stay on stage. Everyone else leaves. Twenty of us who didn’t make the cut, feeling like losers, returned to the back stage area to find a massive table full of food – bowls of chips, chocolate, all kind of junk – arranged by a committee of women who were part hosts, part chaperones, part surrogate mothers to us that week.

I never won Miss New Jersey. I didn’t even place in the pageant. But in five years I won three locals and placed in two others. With my winnings I paid for one full year at one of the country’s most expensive private colleges – the equivalent of over $20,000.

Maybe this is the true beauty of the experience for me. I fell into the pageant world carrying stereotypes about women and about female relationships – stereotypes I didn’t even know I had. But my experience showed me that we beauty queens are not all mean, catty and competitive. We are warm, generous and fun. We are not shallow, superficial and dumb. We are creative, literary, ironic. We are as complex and multi-dimensional as every woman in the world.

And if f you’re not personally convinced I’ve got a vagina joke that will change your mind forever…

Missed Connections on the New York City Subway

By Nina Capille

This article was originally published on Elephant Journal. Click here to read it on their site.

So, here’s the thing about living in New York City:

Space is hard to come by, and New Yorkers make the most of it.

Take the subway, for example. On any given day you see editors marking up manuscripts, actors memorizing lines, artists taking pictures, young professionals checking their e-mail, young women putting on makeup, kids doing homework with their nannies, men clipping their nails, women praying and on and on…

Somehow, through an unspoken code of New Yorker’s ethics, we all do these things in relative anonymity.

Even though you might not be able to slide a piece of paper between yourself and the person next to you, it is accepted that a drawn a boundary allows us to behave privately, without interruption.

At any given moment, thousands of New Yorkers riding mass transit are all acting privately in a public space.

Why is this so?

Is it because we are so close to our dreams that we cannot stop pursuing our visions even for 20 minutes? Is it because we’re so driven that we must always be multi-tasking? Is it because we’ve learned excellent time management skills? Is it because we all live so close together that we have to draw a line somewhere? Is it simply because there is a premium on real estate?

I don’t know.

Sometimes, though, the boundaries get blurred. I’m thinking most especially of when someone begins to cry on the subway.

I’ve lived in New York City for 15 years, and at least once a year I’ve seen someone cry on the train.

It’s almost always the same experience: while I’m immersed in my own private world, something inexplicably draws my focus up, almost always to a women sitting next to a window. She is looking out placidly, stoic-ly. And then something changes. The expression on her face moves. Something passes over her. Her brow creases. She composes herself, puts her hand to her face. Then she breaks. She cries. In public. Sitting next to strangers. In plain view where dozens of people can see her. Where I can see her.

What is she thinking of? What is she going through? Is she breaking up with a life-long lover? Is she sick? Is she losing someone or something she loves? Has she simply been struck with a feeling of unbearable loneliness in this city of 8.406 million people?

And what do I do? Do I break out of the unspoken agreement that we are in private space? Do I ask her if she’s okay? If she needs a tissue? Do I touch her arm and simply look at her with compassion? What do I do? And at what cost?

Here’s another thing about living in New York City.

The people who live here are tough. Famously tough. Infamously tough. “Hey!-I’m-walking-here” tough. “I’m-willing-to-live-in-a-city-with-an-outrageous-human-to-rodent-ratio” tough. “I’ve-crossed-continents-and-am-bringing-my-family-members-here-one-by-one” tough. “I’m-not-afraid-to-tell-you-to-back-off-and-mind-your-own-business” tough.

And I feel stuck. Stuck in the hard place between my private world and hers. Stuck in the broken border land of intimacy and ache that is visible from the island of self-sufficiency. Stuck between the pain that rises in my chest when I see her cry and the self-protecting impulse to defend my bleeding heart from a possible outlashing.

Up until now the risk of doing something and being told to shut up has outweighed the fact of living without doing anything. But I still have the same feelings. They don’t go away. The woman who is crying on the subway has become an archetype for me—a symbol of human distress and utter isolation. And compassion without action is no longer something I can live with. So the next time this happens I have to take a risk and reach out.

I feel resolved. But when I imagine this future encounter I also  feel very, very vulnerable. “She” might thank me. She might tell me to get lost. She might grab me and cry harder. She might even ignore me. But in this moment, she is, in fact, more vulnerable than I am. And I must find a way to be guided by my sense of compassion and not by whatever it is that I imagine she will do, however I imagine she will respond.

Because this much I know: I have seen women crying on the train. But I have also been that woman crying on the subway.

And in that moment, I do not want to feel alone.