Interview: Margaret McCallum talks about Soul Midwife's Journal
Margaret McCallum began her working life as a primary teacher, but soon swapped it for raising her own three children in multi-ethnic Porirua. She enjoys whatever ‘work’ she finds herself in, whether that be mentoring, writing, clutter-clearing, helping run a community centre or conducting a funeral. For ten years she moved about the UK, listening to life’s call and gathering an assortment of trainings and experiences. Since returning to Aotearoa-New Zealand eight years ago much of her focus has been on researching and pondering our approach to death and dying.
Margaret talks to NZ Booklovers about her book Soul Midwife's Journal.
Tell us a little about your Soul Midwife’s Journal.
When you have accompanied people through death, you are changed. My parents died suddenly in a motor accident, so I missed their deaths. Perhaps this is why I was determined to be with my dear old Uncle Bob in his final weeks. And then I was hooked! Other experiences opened up, and I discovered there were even trainings I could learn from.
People approach death in widely different ways, so each has been a huge learning for me. The seven experiences I share are unique to the people involved.
Being around death stirs the emotions – anger, grief, joy, relief – and I found myself writing poems that distilled the wonder and the bitterness of what I was experiencing. I have included these poems along with the stories, as poems touch us in places where prose does not.
What inspired you to write this book?
On the basis of my experience as a soul midwife, or death doula, I was invited to speak to a group in a small North Canterbury town. They wanted to develop their understanding of death, and learn how they could support people who were dying. Rather than tell them what I’d learned, I took them to the raw material and told the stories of my experiences. The exquisite attentiveness of these folk, mostly well into their senior years, and their ready questions and comments, had me wondering if others might find interest, understanding and inspiration through my sharing the stories more widely.
What research was involved?
The book didn’t really involve research per se, as it sprang from my own experiences. I have done a fair bit of reading and some trainings along the way, but if this work draws you it draws you.
Several of the stories did involve my getting back to one or more family member to check out how they remembered things. While finally these are my experiences, where others were closely involved or written about, I wanted to locate them where possible and have their agreement to publish.
I asked a handful of people to read the stories and give their responses. My request to them was, ‘Tell me what strikes you, moves you, challenges, informs, or stirs you as you read these stories?’ I then included a selection of their reflections following each story, as I felt it would add another dimension to the book. I make the same invitation to the reader, and provide space in the book to record his or her thoughts.
What was your routine or process when writing this book?
I am not really a routine writer. Essentially, I chose to write it during a particular period of time, and fit it around other activities and responsibilities.
What do you hope readers will take away from reading Soul Midwife’s Journal?
Ah, my favourite question! I hope readers will pick up through the pores of their skin something of what it means and entails to accompany someone who is dying. Stories have staying power in a way that informing doesn’t, so perhaps even many years after reading the book, people will find they have embedded a willingness and capacity to walk alongside loved ones who are dying. I hope many readers will discover how gentle, beautiful and connecting dying can be, especially when those involved accept it as a natural part of life.
For anyone who is a death doula themself, or considering the possibility, I hope they find a richness that expands their own experience, or helps them become clear if this is work that really calls them.
What did you enjoy the most about writing this?
I relished having the chance to re-live these experiences. Not all were easy or pleasant, but in all of the re-experiencing I was enriched by the memories, and there was a deepening of my own learning. And the times that were touched with joy and peacefulness filled me again with wonder.
What did you do to celebrate finishing Soul Midwife’s Journal?
I find this a hard question to answer as there have been so many ‘finishings’. I guess the most obvious one so far was the day I collected three boxes of the book and sat with publishing friends over a cup of tea, discussing the ins and out of the book production process, all I’d learned, and how I might approach it next time around. I then took a first copy to the friend who had offered to host a book launch for me, and we celebrated with a hug and another cuppa!
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
My favourite would have to be Mr God, this is Anna. I found the book in a Lilliput Library, which is somehow utterly fitting. A few days later I had to return with two books which I hoped would make a legitimate swap. I did not want to ever part with that book.
Mr God, this is Anna, is the story of a child aged somewhere between her chronological five to seven years, and her innate wisdom age that most of us never reach. The young man who finds her in the London docklands, and his mother who takes her in, provide a backdrop and holding as Anna’s innocence and touching chats with God untangle all manner of meaty questions about the nature and meaning of life. It is a true story, read by many in the 1970s and 80s, but by me only months ago.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
Concurrent with the production process of this book, I was writing the next – Death’s Invitation: ‘Little’ Death and ‘Big’ Death come longing to be welcomed. Once that has found its way into the world, which I am working towards now, I shall return to the book that started all this writing. It is a piece of action research about what Kiwi baby boomers are up to in regard to engaging with death in fresh and meaningful ways.
Soul Midwife's Journal is published by Mary Egan Publishing