The Labyrinth Within

The stories of my ancestors are to me like pieces of a map to navigate my own existence. I grew up listening to my grandmothers and the women in my family tell tales about how they survived through the rough times, as well as how they managed to find joy in everyday life. 

Growing up in a big, loving Mexican family, I listened to stories, some of them I’m not so sure I was supposed to hear, while cooking with the women in my family. Most of them don’t resemble fairy tales or have a happy ending, but they certainly hold deep knowledge. This often happened in our sacred space – the kitchen. The kitchen was both shelter and prison, a place where magic happened: we were participants of the most exquisite alchemy when making mole or any other elaborate dish. We also shared a safe space for us to tell our stories, but also a place that seemed mandated for us, and only us, to inhabit, where we were confined to serve and work late hours to meet the demands of feeding and taking care of every need of my extended family. This was my very first women’s circle.

The day I was born, my paternal grandmother said: “Poor child, she’s a woman”. This simple but heavy statement still occupies my mind from time to time. I’ve come to understand that she wasn’t wishing me a bad life because I’m a woman, but expressing the deep resignation she felt for being one herself.  I learned that being a woman is something that hurts, that’s painful and brings great sacrifice but little glory. 

I live in a country where 9 women go missing every day. This undeniable and heartbreaking fact has impacted my life deeply by making me super careful of who I trust. I’ve also internalized a lot of fear within my body and I barely ever feel safe to walk alone at night. 

During my childhood years, I thought that being born in a woman’s body was some sort of curse since I wasn’t allowed to  do the same as men. While I helped out my mom in the kitchen (which I liked most of the time), my brothers could be in their room playing video games on christmas eve or stay out late with their friends. I had a stricter curfew . I understand that also has to do with the fact that being a woman in my country means being extra vulnerable, but it was also because some things were expected of me as a woman that implied me being “discrete” or “well mannered”. 

Adding to my own share of difficulties, when I turned 15, I was diagnosed with thyroid issues and everything changed for me. I started feeling awkward in my own body, I had significant mood swings and I felt lost and misunderstood since I was the only teenager in my environment struggling with such things. I started taking up to 15 pills a day, felt constantly dizzy and had my stomach wrecked by the same pills that were supposed to help me. During these hard times, I came across the realization that I needed to make something out of my pain. I started getting involved in my community, specifically with kids on the autism spectrum,  that gave me a larger picture and helped me understand that what I was going through. While it might seem like a lot, was just another lesson for me to embrace life in a deeper sense. 

By the time I finished high school, while trying to find my own path, I decided to go away to the mountains, to “La Sierra Tarahumara”, a place inhabited by the Rarámuri people. During the 2 years I spent there, my life changed for the better, particularly because it made me realize the importance of community in overcoming the hard times and also because I experienced a traditional home birth for the first time, planting the seed that would then turn into my life path. During the 2 years I spent there, my life changed for good. Not only did I start feeling called to service but also I saw a crushing reality with the narco culture, attended 6 child burials and witnessed the deep systemic injustice that “the forgotten ones” had to face every day. 

These experiences help me draw my inner map and to also comprehend it more as a labyrinth. More than trying to get to a particular place, I started enjoying every corner of my own life, knowing that every step I took, brought me closer to myself. This was deeply inspired by my time with the Rarámuri and all the richness of life and culture they shared with me. 

For centuries, indigenous cultures held rites of passage that were not just symbolic but also instructional: within them lessons around how to navigate life imprinted in the individuals while sending messages to their communities that they have changed and how they relate to them also did. For example a couple that chooses to spend their lives together among the Rarámuri have to complete some tasks in front of the community such as proving their commitment to each other or their will to be at service for others. After these tasks, an elder shares advice on how to be wise and loving in their new experience and also gives advice to the community to treat them with respect and help them grow.   In these modern times, I find that a lot has been lost when it comes to the sharing of generational wisdom. Most westernized “rites of passage”, like baby showers or bachelorette parties, have been washed down to consumption and disconnection instead of being safe spaces to listen to others that have been through the same life experience that we’re about to encounter. 

My experience with women’s circles outside my family started with a bottle of wine on a rooftop, surrounded by 4 women who would later become close friends but at that time were total strangers, while I was trying to make sense of an experience that changed my life: the beginning of my sex life. I remember vividly the full moon shining over us while we intuitively started to introduce ourselves, “My name is Paulina, I’m 20 years old and I feel lost and confused”, I remember saying. 

This meeting was accidental. We were actually gathered for another reason: we were planning a summer course for children in Rarámuri land to raise awareness about the true costs of mining. I was the organizer and had reached out to lots of people for that meeting but only the five of us showed up. We all  identified as women and we were all going through life changes and challenges that made us feel kind of lost. The sudden change of spirit happened when my dear childhood friend Sofía showed up with a bottle of wine to help us relax and feel safe enough to be vulnerable and share stories about our lives. 

I remember a few of us saying stuff like “I’ve never felt like this before among a large group of women” or “I usually have male friends. This is an unlikely situation for me” – a phrase that I would continue to hear in the coming years during women’s circles. By the end of the night, I felt transformed: for the first time in my life I felt like I had a safe space to be and that I could also be friends with any woman that felt safe enough to be vulnerable around me. I started thinking about creating spaces for us to share our experiences on purpose and how we could make some agreements  so everyone could feel valued, honored, respected and most importantly, safe. 

After this, I started inviting women around me (I was traveling a lot at that time) to join me for full moon circles where we would basically talk about what was going on in our lives, share food and drinks, and sometimes sing or play music all together. Shortly after, I started to realize the connecting dots  between our stories. While we might look different in appearance or may have come from different places, our experiences were so alike that I felt connected to  many of the women that joined us in such circles. Most of us had experienced inequality, machismo and unpaid labor during our childhoods and adolescence, while our adult life was filled with pain from failed relationships or struggling to get out of violent ones. This was my case. This brought us closer together and I started seeing these women outside of the circles. At this point, I barely knew what we were actually doing but it felt very powerful because every time this happened, I would feel grounded, supported and safe. Also, most of the attendees reported similar feelings.  So much so that I started dreaming (both sleeping and awake) about making this into something more than an occasional thing and maybe making it my life path.         

In another nook of my labyrinth, I started approaching projects and workshops that helped me get a larger understanding of how we are learning all the time and how each and every action has the potential to share knowledge with others. It took me one second to figure out a way to make sense of that in the women circle’s context but I started shaping a way of working within the circles (with the help and feedback of many others) this is still the foundation to most of my work. I realized that unintentionally, the circles were always safe and respectful because each and every time, we stuck to only sharing about our lives and tried to only listen to others while not giving unsolicited advice or over rationalizing our experiences.

After some time, I ended up elaborating on 5 agreements that shape our circles to this day:

  1. We only talk about our personal experience: meaning we stick to sharing our views and lived experience of whatever subject is being discussed.
  2. We don’t interrupt when someone else is speaking.
  3. We don’t give unsolicited advice unless it’s explicitly asked for.
  4. We self-regulate the use of time and attention: no one clocks the duration of our intervention but we try to stay on point and be mindful of others so we all get a chance to speak.
  5. Everything is confidential: whatever is shared within the circle stays in the circle.

Once this was established, it came to my attention that I needed to take this to the next level and dedicate myself to creating safe spaces for women. At this point, I had no idea how I could do it. It wasn’t until 2014, during a rainy August afternoon when I was struck by lightning and almost lost my life, that I knew in my heart that I wanted and needed to become a traditional midwife: to follow my heart and trust that I was granted a second chance in life because I needed to pursue this path. At this point I was very lucky to have met quite a few curanderos who always insisted on me doing so, but I was too scared to, because I knew it meant leaving my comfort zone and starting an unconventional way of living.  

Nowadays, I devote myself to the service of life not only by being a traditional midwife, but also by sharing women circles every week in a collective project called Comadreando. This work is rooted in the principle of changing our mindsets, de-normalizing pain and bringing joy and pleasure to the center of our lives. 

In the two years this project has existed, we’ve come to learn and remember so much, such as how we’ve internalized that being a woman equals suffering but that we can turn that around if we learn how to set clear boundaries, communicate better and leave places where we don’t feel respected or safe. We also talk a lot about the importance of having a community because it makes us stronger, wiser and happier.

Today, navigating my labyrinth feels more pleasant, enjoyable and deep as life goes by. Thanks to the stories and the strength I feel from my ancestors, I am constantly inspired and grateful that I’ve found my calling and I am following it with all my heart. Even though it doesn’t lack challenges, like the ones I’ve experienced recently, like losing close friends or witnessing child abuse and domestic violence. I call on my ancestors – and I hold to this one voice I heard while walking the desert one time that said: “Walk with confidence woman, you’re inhabited by all that once were, that now are, and those who will be”.

 Paulina Jiménez

I was born in Aguascalientes, Mexico in 1991. Mammal, human. Eternal apprentice of life and its wonders. Mystery seeker. Traditional midwife and popular educator. For 13 years I’ve been at service for women, in circle and also one to one. I’ve had the honor of many of them trusting me with their stories and the ones their bodies tell. Passionate believer that community is always better. I like to think of myself as a facilitator for the ceremony of life to unfold its gifts to help us remember we are life itself. Life that wants to live and already knows how.

I am deeply grateful to the Ecoversities Alliance Publications Initiative for giving me space to share my story, the editorial dedication put into it and all of their effort in making this happen.

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