Chan’s Birthday

It is Chan’s birthday today. He would be 24, but I never think about that. It feels silly to me. He was never seven or eight or nine — nevermind 24.

This story is already part of Now You See the Sky, but I wanted to share it today in honor of Chan’s birthday and in honor of all mothers and their birthing experiences. Birth stories are disproportionately underrepresented in our literature, an expression of our culture’s fear of all things related to the female body.

Chan’s Birth Story

At the time of Chan’s birth in the middle of 1998, we were living in my then husband’s home in a small town in Thailand, and I had gained all the confidence two years of mothering full-time had earned me. I was ready for a home birth in a culture where hospital births had become the norm as recently as only a decade before. My husband and all his siblings and cousins had been easily and simply received into the world in their mother’s beds. Why shouldn’t our son?

One woman, thin and bent with age, but wiry and clear headed, spoke with us as we stood in her clean-swept yard of packed down dirt. Around us the rice fields stretched away under the bright cloudless skies all the way to the distant hills across the river. She told us of how she always gave birth in the field as she worked. Squatting down and putting her hands below her crotch, she demonstrated the correct position for catching your own baby. She reminded me, “Don’t forget to tear the membranes with your fingers after its born. Your new baby will need to breathe, so you must remember to do this.” And she curved her forefinger and middle finger into a hook and tore open the imaginary bag around the imaginary baby between her legs.

We invited our midwife from Maine to travel to Thailand for a midwife’s vacation. She would attend the birth and we would host her visit. While she stayed with us and we waited for Chan to be born, we drove around the countryside in our 1966 Land Rover, visiting remote villages and granny midwives who told us stories of their lives and the mothers and babies they’d assisted. They were seemed so relaxed about the whole process of birth. Even when I asked about situations where the baby or mother had had complications, the response always seemed to require an effort on the part of the midwife to remember more than one instance of trouble in her fifty or more years of attending births. How much of this was a combination of optimism and the elusive quality of memory, and how much was designed to support my positive visions of the birth, I do not know.

I loved visiting these midwives, listening to them, feeling them lay their hands on my huge belly to find the baby’s position and announce him perfectly ready to be born. I drank in the relaxed confidence with which they talked and moved. “It will be an easy birth.” I heard this phrase repeated from each strong, wrinkled woman we met. I hoped they were right. An hour from any real medical care other than our midwife and our local ill-equipped hospital, I was banking on an easy birth.

When labor did finally start, three weeks after my due date, I sang through the contractions. Trying to keep the words and the tune gave me something to try to hold onto with my mind while the pain progressed. Life I love you. All is groovy … As the intensity of the pain increased, I increased the volume of my voice to match it.

During the first part of labor I kept searching for the best position to lessen the pain: on my knees, on my back, on my feet, but, of course, there was no comfortable position. The pain wasn’t going away. After a couple of hours of arguing with this fact, I realized I had to accept it. After this, I surrendered and things went much better. As the contractions came stronger and closer together, my singing turned into toning, louder and higher as the contraction built, dropping away as the pain diminished.
I knew the neighbors in this town where our houses crowd just a few feet from one another could hear me, but no one seemed to mind the singing cries that arose from behind our house every three minutes. I kept saying how this labor was so
much easier than Cody’s. It was so nice to be relaxed, not panicking, knowing my body would release this child.

The pain intensified. I threw up twice. I remembered Schyla’s telling us in her birth class two years before that that was a great sign of opening and moving into transition. I toned loudly. Schyla waited for a chance between contractions to put her fingers in my cervix to see how much progress I’d made.
“This baby is about to born,” she looked at me her eyes wide and smiling. “You’re 9 cm’s dilated! I can feel his head and the water bag bulging out.”
Dtaw and I looked at each other and laughed. I hadn’t expected her to say that at all. Things just hadn’t gotten that bad yet, not nearly as unbearable as they had with my first Pitocin-assisted labor with Codte.
For this birth, we had decided to have the birth in the bedroom where the oxygen tank was ready in case the baby needed it. Schyla ran to unwrap her sterilized tools and prepare. While she was gone, Dtaw and I joked happily. When she returned, I waited for one more contraction to pass, before standing to make the slow, heavy walk to the bedroom. Schyla was a little worried I’d have the baby on the way. I did have a contraction in the living room and had to hang on to the arms of a chair for support as my body told me to squat as the contraction moved through, Dtaw at my side.

I got to the bedroom and up onto the bed on my hands and knees with the baby still inside. Schyla said, “OK, your water will break, and then you’re going to have the baby.” She went out to wash her hands. A contraction started to build. POP! KERPLOOSH! The bag of water inside me exploded and water gushed all over the clean sheets, far beyond the edges of the square of absorbent plastic and cotton we had prepared.

Then another contraction started, and I knew I had to push. I suddenly felt the unmistakable sensation of the baby’s head against my perineum. “Ow! Ow! It hurts! It hurts!” I cried in anguish. This pain was much worse than the contractions. It was sudden, raw, unfamiliar pain. “Ring of fire.” Schyla’s words floated up from the long ago birth class. Despite the almost unbearable pain, I knew I had to keep pushing to hurry up and get the baby out so the pain would end.
“OK, do you want someone to call Codte and Jew so they can be here for the birth?” Schyla asked.
“I don’t care. Just get this baby out!”

Then suddenly he was. I felt the joy of relief and looked behind me to see a little baby on his back on the wet bed, blue umbilical cord spiraling up from his belly button into me. He was crying. They wanted to give him to me.
“It’s OK.” I just wanted to catch my breath. I didn’t need to hold him. His daddy had him. Then they started to pass him to me.
“The cord, the cord,” I said.
They brought him back around and handed him to me through my legs.
Somehow I got up onto my knees and back onto the pillows.
By now Tong and Cam along with their seven-year-old daughter, Teng, big brother Codte, cousin Jew, and my mother-in-law had all crowded into our small bedroom, all watching, waiting to see the placenta pushed out to signify the completion of the birth.
Chan was already pink as I held him to my breast. Schyla clamped the cord with the tools Dtaw had boiled during labor, and Dtaw cut through the blue and white cord with the sharp scissors.

Now I could turn my attention to our new boy. Codte and Jew stood beside me on the bed, little hands resting on each shoulder, watching Chan at my breast. My mother-in-law mom was tying a piece of white cotton string around his tiny wrist to call all 32 of his spirits in to ensure his good health. Cam was taking photos. I was asking Schyla if it was OK that Chan hadn’t nursed yet. Through it all, he looked quietly around, taking us all in.

Schyla called Mom. Cam called the cousins down the street. Dtaw’s sister called us.
Schyla weighed Chan, 6 lbs. 8 oz. Dtaw’s mom hugged Schyla, and with tears in her
eyes thanked her. Then suddenly everyone was ready for bed. “How could they be
tired?” I thought. Things were just beginning! It was close to 1:00 a.m. and Dtaw and
Chan and I were alone together in our bed. Dtaw brought me a bowl of soup. I had a bath. We lay and admired our new baby til dawn. He was four hours old when we all finally fell asleep.

When I woke early the next morning, everyone else was already up. Tong had steamed the rice and washed the blood from the sheets Schyla had put into tubs of cold water the night before. Cousins and family sat on the front porch near our bed chatting.
Cody came into the bed to see his new brother, so gentle and sweet as he touched his head and hands and spoke softly to him. By the end of the day he had already grown fond of kissing and stroking baby’s head and keeping him informed about what his big brother had been up to. “Codte’s had a bath, baby. Codte went to the market, baby.”

A little later, I sat up on the bamboo bed and the neighbor women came to admire and laugh and talk and admonish me not to get up at all from my bed, but to let Dtaw do everything for me. They said it was so important to just rest and not lift anything. I almost got teary the way they came with so much warmth and support for me and Chan. The time after the birth, when the new mother sits by the fire and eats only certain foods, and drinks certain teas, and bathes in special water for several weeks, is traditionally the
only time in a rural woman’s life when she is allowed to rest from hard physical labor and be completely taken care of. These women took that quite seriously.

When I said how well how felt, they asked hadn’t I torn. They couldn’t believe I had neither stitches nor tears. Dtaw’s aunt announced that that was impossible, that whether a little or a lot, everyone tears.
The neighbor behind us said she thought one of the foreigners at our guest house must be drunk when she heard all the singing. The woman who makes sausage next door heard only my cries when Chan was crowning and then his first cry.

Schyla said in all her decades of midwifery, it was the most text book birth she’d ever attended. “The perfect birth,” she said.

–Catharine H. Murray

Memoir 101: Writing the Stories of Your Life

Starts September 14, 2022

Wednesdays noon – 1:30 PM.

Click here to register.

Workshop This Saturday

Hello and Happy Spring!

On Saturday I will be teaching at a day-long zoom workshop put on by the Chaplaincy Institute of Maine (ChIME) for End of Life Care Partners. As one of the facilitators, I will teach a one-hour class on using writing as a tool for healing and self-care.

Classes on yoga for grief, bedside singing and nature as restorative support will also be available. And my colleague and dear friend, Arline Saturdayborn, will be teaching a class on Sustainable Compassion through meditation.

If you know anyone who would benefit from these resources, please pass this information along.
For more information click here:

From ChIME

“Join us on Zoom for a day of teachings and conversations that will invite you into practices of body, mind, and heart that will support and sustain your spirit for the difficult work of supporting people through life and death.
In a day of inspiring sessions and meaningful connection, attendees will develop resources, experience relief, and build resilience for managing the grief and stress that accumulate in their lives.
If another day on Zoom feels daunting, be assured that the schedule has been developed to ensure ample time away from the screen and the keynote and breakout sessions will be interactive and experiential.”

Cost: $75


I hear it all the time. “Do my stories really matter? Does anyone want to read what I have to say?” My answer is a resounding YES. But only if you tell your stories well, only if you write with passion, vulnerability and honesty. And that is something you can learn to do with instruction, practice and encouragement. If you write from your heart, your stories will move people. They will help others to make sense of their own past by reading about yours.

When you start writing your stories in this way, you may be surprised to discover more than you expected. Not only will you access memories you thought you’d forgotten, but also by reaching back into your past and bringing into the light memories you have been ignoring, you can move forward in your life with more clarity, power and awareness. By writing about events of your life, you are able to witness them from the perspective of your older wiser self as you make space to process, reflect on and release them.

This can be a powerful act. As Richard Blanco said to Melanie Brooks, author of Writing Hard Stories, “It’s either writing a memoir or therapy. But even therapy can’t compare to writing a memoir. Writing one memoir is worth ten about ten years of therapy!”

So when you find yourself discouraged by the hard work of writing, keep going. Keep writing from your heart. Keep looking back and writing your way forward.

Catharine H. Murrray

Author, Now You See the Sky, Akashic Books, 2018

Join me for Memoir 101: Writing the Stories of Your Life.

This 5-week live online course, will begin on Tuesday, January 26, 2020 at 10 AM. Click here for more information and to register. Enrollment is limited, reserve your spot early.

Saying Goodbye

I am sharing with you a link for a radio show I hope you will listen to.

As 2020 draws to a close and we find ourselves in that place between the holidays and the New Year, we may be in a kind of no-man’s land of emotion. This year the pandemic and the emergence of deep social and political divisions brought losses and feelings of grief, anger, confusion and dismay. As we move through these final days of the year, we may find ourselves even more emotionally depleted and disoriented than usual.

Saying Goodbye, currently airing around the country on NPR stations, is a show about how to be with our loved ones as they are dying. And yet I think this show speaks to all of us, addressing that tender place of grief that surfaces from time to time, whether from old losses or new.

As an author of a memoir about grief, I was interviewed by host Anne Hallward about saying goodbye to my son. That 7-minute interview and a reading of one of my poems occur near the end of this hour-long show.

I hope you will take some time for yourself to listen to the whole show and be moved and inspired by the stories in it as they strengthen your sense of connection to our one human family.

Save the Date…

Memoir 101: Writing the Stories of Your Life, the 5-week live online course, will begin on Tuesday, January 26, 2020 at 10 AM. Click here for more information and to register. Look for a message from me with more about this next week.

Still Grieving Sometimes

Monday I felt at sixes and sevens all day. I tried everything. I changed the sheets, did the laundry, cancelled a credit card, dusted the bedroom, cleared some clutter. I even glanced in the fridge for food that should go. I found left-over rice, hard like Styrofoam, grains of white stuck to the sides of the glass container, and threw it in the trash. I emptied the dishwasher, watered the garden and called a friend to complain. And still I could not shake the feeling of things being not right, like something inside felt crooked, jagged, not settled.

When my fiancé sat down and held me close at the end of the day, I still felt cranky and prickly. I couldn’t put my finger on it. “I should be happy. My life is awesome. Why do I feel so crummy today? I’m such a baby,” I told him.

“You’re not a baby. You’re just having a hard day.”

And then I remembered: the date. June 22nd. As the reason I couldn’t get comfortable in my skin dawned on me, the tears began to seep through. “Tomorrow is Chan’s birthday,” I said.

And then I recognized that this feeling of being unsettled, not right, irritable, was nothing more than sadness. Heartbreak covered over with a thin veil of unconscious denial.

Of course there was denial. Why would I want to remember what tomorrow would be? Why would I want to remember such pain?

But the truth I have to face up to again, year after year, is that my beloved little boy died. Fourteen years now. He would have been twenty-two this year, but I never bother thinking about that. I never try to picture him just a little younger than his handsome, quiet, complicated big brother, a little older than his skate-boarding, skiing, mountain-climbing little brother. I don’t try to see them laughing together as men as they always did when they were little boys.

That night when I found myself crying about the boy I’d lost, I found myself grieving not so much for when he died, as for the life we’d all had together in that little town on the banks of the Mekong River. As the memories of mothering my young family kept floating up to feed my sadness, I felt a sense of the richness and depth of that life, where we lived among dozens of family members, where we were so tightly held in the fabric of that small community, where we walked down the street each day to visit the boys’ great-grandmother and aunt and uncle and cousins a few blocks away.

As we walked by each house, people sat in front usually on a wide bamboo bench in the shade of their doorways, two or three generations together, a toddler playing with an aunt or grandmother, an adolescent boy massaging an old uncle’s tired shoulders, a feisty grandmother sweeping the dust from her doorway, teasing the neighbors with her snappy remarks. All of them were people my then husband had known his whole life. Some were cousins or aunts or uncles, some only neighbors, but all of them shared our joy in the life of our young family. They laughed and called out to the boys, commented on how tall or handsome they were getting. They invited us to stop for a bite to eat or a chat.

Children are all that matters there. The center of everyone’s universe, the children.

In the morning when my mother-in-law entered the yard each day shortly after dawn, she called out to the three boys that lay cuddled in bed with us, “Codte, Chan, Tahn,” Ma mei! Ma sai baht! “Come, it’s time to offer food to the monks.” And off they’d rush to wash their faces and brush their teeth before Cody led the two littler ones running down the lane to their grandmother’s house.

Each night at dinner, family and friends gathered around the bamboo tray of dishes seated on grass mats on the verandah floor with family and friends. The children climbed from lap to lap being hand-fed balls of sticky rice topped with the best morsels of nourishing food by the grown-ups. Afterward, while two or three adults cleaned up, the rest would play with the children, horsey rides on hands and knees, children laughing and tumbling off strong farmer backs, running squealing to statue quiet during hide and seek when the big men pretended they thought they couldn’t be seen in plain sight or failed repeatedly at finding them, and the children laughed and laughed at the adult’s clownish stupidity.

At bedtime, the children chased one another around the bed, under the mosquito net, laughing and shrieking as their daddy tried to catch them while they pummeled him with pillows. And when they finally settled in around him for story time, the laughter from their lips was like rain on the desert of my lonely childhood soul, listening as he made up silly stories for them to dissolve into fits of delight night after night.

All that mattered there were the children.

So I cried and cried that Monday night, remembering the life we had before Chan died, before we moved to the US, leaving the family we loved behind, before the divorce, before my boys grew up, sometimes sad and quiet, sometimes silly and sweet. Before this life.

I know this life I have now is good. I know boys are supposed to grow up. I know mothers are supposed to move into the next stage. I love my life. I am lucky. It is good. And I only miss Chan sometimes.

When I met with the group I teach each Monday night, Women Writing to Heal, it was good to have a place to talk about this. It was good to know that these women, all of them grieving losses of their own, would understand. So I shared with them my sadness, and they nodded knowingly. It was good for them to see that even so many years later, when the grief bubbles up, there’s nothing we can do but receive it, let it move us, cry.

At the end of Monday’s class, when it was time to offer them a writing prompt, I asked: What would your beloved say to you about your own grief?

I wrote:
Oh Mama, I know our family changed. It changed when I died. But it would have changed. That’s what happens. Children grow up. There’s no way around it. Cody and Tahn love you. They will be OK. They have a good daddy and you and a good family all around. There was nothing you could have done to save me. I was sick. I was only meant to be around for a little while. They learned a lot just like you learned a lot. It’s OK.

And you’ve done an amazing job. You’ve healed so much.

It’s Ok for you to be happy mama. It’s OK for you to move on. Embrace your new life.

I think you’re right not to waste time and tears wondering what I would be like if I’d lived to 22. I didn’t. I lived to six-and-a-half and that was enough. That was a good life. That was a beautiful life. Of course you miss it. Of course you miss me. You are human. It’s Ok to be sad today and tomorrow if you need to. But it’s also OK to be happy.

I love you. You were such a good mom to me. You can always be proud of that. You always have me with you. I’m always in your heart. You can call on me whenever you need me. I’m not really gone. Because you loved me that much. And, of course, I loved you with a fierceness that time could never defeat. That is still inside you. Don’t ever forget how much I loved you. Don’t ever let time erase from your heart the memory of how much I loved you. Why do you think I showed it so well? Why do you think I worked so hard to show you all the time?
You can’t forget that, mom. I love you still.

Catharine H. Murray, Author Now You See the Sky, Akashic Books, 2018

June 23, 2020

On July 23rd, I will be teaching another 5-week Series of

Memoir 101: Writing the Stories of Your Life.

This Zoom class will meet each Thursday morning from 10 – 11:30 AM for 5 weeks.

No experience necessary.

Click here for more information and to register.

Surviving Social Slow Down: First of three Ideas

Some of us are having a hard time. Parents with children home all day have to suddenly negotiate a new family system that may demand more time and attention than before. Workers furloughed with no return date in sight are wondering how to keep a roof overhead and food on the table. All of us have to find ways to stay connected to those we love when we cannot touch each other. Many of us are afraid of illness for ourselves, those we love and those we’ve never met.

We are facing new ways of being, working and communicating, new situations that challenge our minds and our hearts. And for some of us, this can be very hard at times. Many of the places we used to go to find solace or camaraderie have been taken away from us. A close friend’s warm shoulder, a cold beer at a cozy bar, our favorite latte at a lively coffee shop, a bargain at a stylish store, none of this is accessible now.

So rather than avoiding our inner discomfort or having it soothed by the distraction of a friend or a drink or an ice cream or pair of earrings, we now have the very uncomfortable job of being with our own feelings. When there is no where to rush off to, we might notice vague feelings of fear or dread or boredom or loneliness rising up from the places within us we can usually keep out of sight.

There is always the TV, the fridge, the internet and the endless work of home, so we could keep hiding, keep busy, keep ourselves from hearing the insistent voices inside that ask for our attention. But after a while, screens begin to feel less inviting, food loses its appeal, chores exhaust us, and we find ourselves, again, alone with ourselves.

This can be a hard place to be. But the good news is, it can also be a deeply nourishing place to be if one makes the time and effort to pay attention. If we can, rather than flee from our discomfort, sit still and invite it in, we may find some powerful learning takes place, some healing we didn’t even know we needed.

It can be helpful, perhaps essential, to approach our difficult feelings with the clear sense of a container. A container both in terms of time and space can give us the reassuring sense that we don’t have to sit in these difficult places forever, that we will enter into contact with the thoughts and feelings, recognize and allow them, let them be transformed by our loving presence, and then we will move back into the present. So for the three methods I will describe over the next few days, the three containers, be sure to set a timer before you begin any of them. Start with just a few minutes, five or even one, whatever feels just at the edge of your comfort level. And as your practice becomes more regular, extend the period of time you work.

Meditation is one of the oldest forms of opening to the wise part of ourselves. It is a time-tested and effective tool for making space to increase peace in our lives and access inner wisdom. When we stop for a few minutes, sit still, and let the business of our minds settle into relaxed, loving, curiosity, we begin to see and feel what lies beneath the usual speed of our lives. If we do it regularly, we will have better access to our own intelligence.

When we meditate, we make room for thoughts and feelings to arise. And we lovingly receive whatever, I repeat WHATEVER, comes up. We let go of judgment, and we witness the mischievous mind’s offerings, saying to ourselves, “Oh that thought. That’s not me. That’s just the mind.” Or maybe we say to ourselves, “Sweetie, I’m so sorry that this has been here. That is hard. You’re doing a good job despite these thoughts that try to set you back, despite the difficult memories you’ve tried to avoid. Don’t worry. It’s only the mind. You’re just right. There’s nothing wrong with you.”

When the timer rings, acknowledge your good intention in sitting still, in pushing against a lifelong pattern of moving away rather than toward what’s hard. Be pleased with your efforts.

Doing something new that’s good for us, that we’re not used to doing, even for a few minutes once a day can be difficult. I think of each of my life-long patterns (procrastination, negative self-talk, reluctance to be in the spotlight) like a huge tanker moving across the ocean, steady with a tremendous amount of inertia. When I take up a practice to reverse the vector of the pattern, it’s like turning a that ship around. It doesn’t turn on a dime. It takes time and energy to slowly pull it off its old course and onto a better one. But once the turn begins, the inertia has shifted, and the ship is headed in the right direction at last.

After you do the work of nudging the ship in the right direction, reward yourself. Recognize your efforts for the hard work they are. Plan some pleasant, rewarding task for when you finish: water the plants, take a walk on the beach, cook your favorite soup, sit down to a bowl of ice cream.

Being with the parts of ourselves we have avoided for long periods of time is work that requires courage and patience. Be especially kind to yourself, knowing you are working hard to bring your best, most nurtured self to this challenging time.

Memoir 101: Writing the Stories of YOur Life starts Tuesday, January 26th, at 10 AM EDT

In every Memoir class I teach, I am astonished by what individuals can do when invited to unleash the power of their voice in writing. I witness over and over what sharing our stories does to create confidence, healing and transformation.

I invite you to join the next cohort of writers starting tomorrow, Tuesday, January 26th at 10 AM EDT for this live five-week online class. Partial scholarships available.

“This class has changed my life. I have the confidence and inspiration I need to see this project through to the end.”

Live Reading Sunday, january 10th at 8 pM

I will be reading from my memoir Now You See the Sky (Akashic Books, 2018) at the Stone House Readers’ Series Sunday, January 10th at 8:00 PM.

Stonecoast MFA alumni BRADY KAMPHENKEL (poetry) and JOHN CHRISTOPHER NELSON (fiction) will also read. The event is free and will be streamed live on the Stone House Readers’ Series Facebook page. I plan to spend some time after I read answering questions about the process of memoir writing.

If you would like to attend but don’t have facebook, send me an email at, and I will set you up with a zoom link, so you can watch from there.