Category Archives: Babies

On Birth (part 1)

I want to tell you all how excited I am that I am pregnant, that we are expecting, that our life is going to continue to change and stretch and mold us—but in order to do that, I have to tell you so much other stuff. Because if you had told me—not too long ago, perhaps last winter or early spring even—that I would be OK with getting pregnant, I would have laughed in your face. Last time I was pregnant, I developed a life-threatening condition called HELLP and almost died (and my daughter was born nearly 2 months premature). The doctors told me right away that if I got pregnant again, I would have a 1 in 4 chance of recurrence of HELLP. After all that drama and trauma, I thought the answer was easy: we would adopt through foster care when the time came.

Our perspective on that has now changed (a painful, but needed decision) which I plan on writing about in the future. For now, though, I feel compelled to write about my first birth experience, because it is something I have never done before. This is your chance to stop reading right now. I know birth and babies are full of trauma for so many—infertility, stillborn children, broken dreams, crushing disappointments—and I won’t feel slighted in the least if you choose to opt out. But one of the reasons I decided to write about all of this is that we so rarely do talk about the trauma. And that, partially, might be why I was so surprised at what happened to me.

I was 25 when I got pregnant, two years into being married to the best boy. There are only a few pictures of me looking pregnant. We just didn’t think to document it at all, we thought we had loads of time. I just knew I was going to be one of those people who go late, who blow up like whales, who waddle into the last stretch. When I was about 30 weeks along, in the middle of the summer, I ran a basketball camp for all of the kids in our apartment complex (this is hilarious for many reasons, not the least of which I know absolutely nothing about the sport). My friends and neighbors would gather in the shades of the trees in the park and watch me run around, directing the volunteers and blowing whistles at the unruly children. The mothers would urge me to sit down, and look worriedly at my expanding belly. But I felt fine (I thought miserable was the baseline, after all), and I was determined to go on as if life was not changing. When I tried to plan a trip to the beach with a bunch of neighbors the next week, they all politely declined. They told me that they would not be going anywhere with me until after I had the baby. I was mystified, and more than a little put out.

Right around that time, my legs started swelling. At the end of a long day of being on my feet, selling over-priced chocolate inside of a high-end mall, I would have what can only be described as massive “cankles”—which my husband and I would laugh over. At first, the swelling would be gone by the morning. Pretty soon, it never went away, and began to creep higher and higher up my legs. I would go to see my midwife (remember, I lived in Portland, where everyone has a midwife and is bound and determined to never use drugs or the hated “medical interventions”). She would caution me about my sudden weight gain. “But I’m not eating any more food!’ I would wail, despondent to see the numbers creeping up. She was hurried, brusque, and unfailingly optimistic. Just lay off those sweets, dear! She would tell me. When I told her who I wasn’t feeling so great, how the swelling was getting worse, she consoled me that these were just normal symptoms. I started to realize that maybe I wasn’t one of those glowing pregnant people. Maybe I was just one of those miserable ones.

When I was almost 33 weeks I woke up and my face was so swollen that I couldn’t even open my eyes all the way. I took a picture of my face and texted it to my husband, who was already at work (he did doubles on Saturdays). He thought it was kind of hilarious, but that maybe I should just call my midwife to see if it was normal. I called her office, but was routed to an answering machine at the hospital that she worked out of. I left a message detailing my swelling and how I felt, and hung up. She called back a while later, and again told me that this was all normal, nothing to be worried about (I didn’t know it then, but she was currently on vacation in Central Oregon). I hung up, resigned myself to my puffy-faced fate, and got ready to go hit up some garage sales with my mom.

I got a call from the hospital a short while later. The doctor on call for the weekend had heard my message and wanted to check in with me. I told him my symptoms and he urged me to come in, just to get my blood pressure checked. Ok, I said, I’ll try and come in sometime this morning. My mom swung by our apartment and we hit up a few sales on the way to the hospital (I bought a bunch of yarn, probably with the intent to make a bunch of lumpy, ill-fitting hipster baby hats). When we got to the hospital, we were ushered up to labor and delivery. A nurse put me in an empty room and took my blood pressure. It was slightly high, but nothing too terrible. She told me was going to wait 15 minutes, then take it again. She did, and she frowned slightly. It was higher. We waited another 30 minutes. It was higher again.

The mood shifted in the room. The nurse got me a sandwich. She said I would probably be there for a few hours while they kept an eye on me. But every time they checked me, my blood pressure continued to climb. They brought me forms to fill out: I was being admitted. They did blood and urine tests, but I didn’t know why. I was texting my husband, who was still at work, and I didn’t understand what was going on.

At some point, later in the afternoon, the on-call doctor, the one who had told me to come in, came by. I don’t remember this very well. In fact, from here on out, I hardly remember anything at all. He must have explained what my symptoms were—how I had something called HELLP syndrome, which is a trifecta of bad news—red blood cells breaking down, elevated liver enzymes, and low platelet counts. In practicality, it meant this for me: my body was attacking itself—my liver had shut down, causing all fluids to be retained in my muscle tissue (hence the weight gain), I was at a great risk for stroke, and the only cure was delivery of the baby. Plus, if I didn’t do it soon—with my platelet counts dropping—I was likely to bleed out during birth.

But I had 2 months to go! I didn’t have a crib. I was supposed to go to work that day. My husband wasn’t responding to his texts. My dad and my sister were out of town, and my other sister was in Africa. My mom listened to the doctor and asked all the questions that I could not form. I had a hard time grasping that this was a serious situation, but I was trying. The doctor, who I suspect was trying not to frighten me, seemed exceedingly calm about it all. I murmured some things about birth plans and natural birth and he said I could be induced and we could try for it, but it would most likely end up in a c-section anyway. I don’t remember this but I guess I called my husband’s work and demanded to be put through. But I was crying too hard to talk to him, so my mom got on the phone. You need to be here NOW, she said, and he left right away.

He got there, looking as scared and bewildered as I was. I was given a shot of steroids to help the baby’s lungs (the last organ to be fully developed). How long can we wait? We asked the doctor, scared first and foremost for the baby. The doctor did not want to commit to an answer; we settled for getting my blood drawn every 3 hours and watching the levels closely. We tried to sleep. The next day, Sunday, we spent waiting. I don’t remember anything about that day. At some point, they must have put an IV in me. At some point, they put me on magnesium, to keep me from having a stroke. The nurses were so quiet and careful with us. We didn’t know this then, but I was too sick to be transported to another hospital, and the one we were at was not equipped with a NICU. If the baby needed more care, she would have to be transported while I remained behind. In the morning, my levels were dropping fast enough we had to make a decision. The doctor did not hem and haw any longer. We need to do this now.

I was alone when they wheeled me into surgery, as alone as I have ever been. I felt like I was dying, which is exactly what was happening. I lay on my side on the cold metal table as they inserted the hollow needle into my spine. If I wasn’t so miserable, I thought, I would be pretty scared right now. I can’t be sure, but it seems like I was thinking about terrible Christian artwork–you know, the kind where there is a man, slumped over, being held up by a beatific Jesus. I was thinking about the halo-ed light, I was thinking about what it means to be alone and not alone, I was thinking about what it means to have faith that you are being carried by someone you cannot even see.

My husband came in with scrubs on, and held my hand. I was too sick to be very worried. Everyone was very fast and quiet. I just wanted to know if the baby was ok. They cut me open, and I couldn’t feel it. They tugged and pulled and it was so strange and horrible and miraculous too; then they were telling me I had a baby girl, and she was crying, and it felt like a dream that I was just a minor character in.

My husband says they took her to the incubator to check her lungs; after it appeared like she was doing fine, they washed her up and did a few tests. They bundled her up and someone held her close to my face. I think I gave her a kiss. She was tiny, 4 pounds, with sharp little elvish features. My mom, who badgered her way into the room, took our first family picture.

 

 

 

 

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She was fine, she was fine, she was fine. Relief was the overwhelming feeling, and to this day it lingers, and it colors the way I want to tell this story. Because I want to end it here, in a happy place, I want to show you that we are well we are doing now. But the truth is I almost died that day, and I ended up being so sick that I don’t remember the first time I held my daughter, I don’t remember feeding her, I don’t really remember the first week of her life.

 

 

I was saved, she was saved, but I was also robbed of so many dreams of my own. In the end, that matters so little. But it is still worth saying aloud.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Next week I will write about what happened after the birth. And the week after that I hope to write about our journey through the foster care system. Thanks for reading along).

 

My favorite site for getting an overview of HELLP/how to raise awareness is here. (but be warned, some of these stories are unbelievably sad).

 

 

 

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Coming in May, 2015 . . .

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Oh don’t worry. I will be writing about it.

 

 

 

 

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Write Like A Mother

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Do you know what that is, sweet pea? To be humble? The word comes from the Latin wordshumilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground. That’s where I went when I wrote the last word of my first book. Straight onto the cool tile floor to weep. I sobbed and I wailed and I laughed through my tears. I didn’t get up for half an hour. I was too happy and grateful to stand. I had turned 35 a few weeks before. I was two months pregnant with my first child. I didn’t know if people would think my book was good or bad or horrible or beautiful and I didn’t care. I only knew I no longer had two hearts beating in my chest. I’d pulled one out with my own bare hands. I’d suffered. I’d given it everything I had.

–Cheryl Strayed (as Dear Sugar)*

 

 

 

//

I have two friends who are very pregnant right now, and both of them are writers. They are smart, thoughtful, beautiful souls, and when they pour themselves onto the page you just want to stop everything and sit with them. They both have other children (beautiful, loud). And they both told me that with the upcoming birth of their next child, they felt like the writing part of their life was going to be over.

I understand where those thoughts come from–the hormones, the panic, the sleep deprivation that acts like a very bad batch of drugs for a very long time–but I can’t condone them. I know my friends, and I know the work they have produced, and I know what is in their future. They will experience the mess and the chaos of birth and newborn land and shifting, growing families. They will cocoon inside of themselves, for months and even years perhaps, pouring out their bodies as sacrifices of love, rocking and shushing and feeding and cleaning and wiping, all while they tend to the endless minutia of everything else they are in charge of in their lives. They will continue on in that long obedience of selflessness, the continual little deaths and rebirths that parenting is comprised of, and one day they will lift their heads up and find that their head is clear and their mind is itching. They will start writing again. And they will be better than ever. Their babies will make them better writers.

 

//

 

If you asked me, point blank, what my thoughts on motherhood were, I would hem and haw for as long as possible. I have nothing eloquent to say, except that it wrecked my life in so many ways, and it healed it in just as many. Marriage for me was no big adjustment, just a lot of fun to have a partner to roam the world with, and we made a lot of space for us to be our individual, introverted selves. But motherhood was the great shedding of selfishness that I didn’t even know existed, it was the time of confronting how very tied up my own identity was in being productive for God: helping others, loving my neighbors, teaching ESOL classes, volunteering with refugees, working full-time. Then I got pregnant, developed a rare-and-life-threatening condition, and found myself both very ill and with a premature baby to care for. Suddenly, I could not do most of those things that had always defined me as me. I was alone with a sad baby who was not quite ready for the world, and it was my job to keep her alive.

When she was 6 months old, possibly 8, I started to write. In earnest. The hours of being alone-but-not-alone, of rocking and shushing and swaddling and feeding and cleaning and walking and breathing, had built up to a point of pressure in my mind. I started, for the first time, to objectively look at my life. To assess my background, how I grew up, what I was taught to believe, and what that meant for my life choices. My baby, with her round-the-clock-needs, turned me into a bird that soared high above my own life. It was the first time I was able to step outside of it. The first time I realized how important honesty and vulnerability were to be in my life going forward.

I wrote for her, that chubby-cheeked spitfire sitting on her bumbo on the kitchen table while I slowly started sending pieces off into the void. And she helped me, in so many ways, push beyond the narrow confines of what it meant to be in the world, of where my value came from. And this, my friends, is the backbone of what it means to have prophetic imagination, of what it means to be a creative in a very conforming world.

I learned to write when I became a mother, because that was my vehicle for stepping outside of myself. For you, perhaps it was something else; something tragic or wonderful (or some combination therein). Something that helped you to see your small place in a very big world, to wonder at what your response might be to it all. Motherhood certainly doesn’t necessitate great art (in fact, many can cling to the trappings of motherhood as yet another symbol of productivity in the world) but I have known enough great writers now to know that it spurs you on towards the deepening of things.

Motherhood, for me, has been my agent of becoming small, of living a true upside-down life, of whittling away at my draughts of self-absorption. I am more afraid than ever, and yet I continue to do very brave and hard things. And I just want to say to all of my friends out there, the ones who adore and fear the changes coming: write like a mother. Write like the souls that you are, the ones who were put here to notice whatever it is that God placed in front of you.

The kingdom of God comes through babies, I imagine Christ whispering to his disciples as they tried to shoo the unkempt, uncouth, loud and beautiful children away. They didn’t understand, because they so badly wanted to be doing something so good for him, their savior. But later, through their own forms of death and rebirth–watching Jesus slowly die as a failure in front of them, huddling up in an empty room together–they would be cracked wide open by the pain and joy of being so connected to everyone in the world.

And luckily for us, some of them stopped and wrote about it.

 

//

 

a little present i have been making for some dear friends . . .

a little present i have been making for some dear friends . . .

 

 

 

 

*to read Strayed’s entire advice column (of which I “Christian-ized” a bit in this post–sorry, Sugar!) go here. You will not regret it. While you are at it, why don’t you go and read all of her columns? You will not be left the same.

 

 

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when i go out, i want to go out like elijah

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Yesterday my friend sent me an old picture of hers from Instagram–a photo of my daughter, age 1, crawling around the floors of our apartment. my friend said “I just want to be back at [your old apartment complex] with you, drinking French Press and getting scratched by your cat Huckleberry. SOB. Can we go back in time a bit when life was simpler? I’ll meet you there.”

The picture, and the sentiments, stopped me cold in the middle of my day. My baby–so little, so adorable, such a weird little mullet–I had almost forgotten what she had been like at one. Then there was the apartments: the well-kept low-income housing complex where we lived for four years in SE Portland, which in my minds eye seems cleaner and quieter than anything we have experienced since (a dishwasher! no cockroaches! my husband’s life only got threatened once!). I remember the huge windows, the natural light streaming in (even if it was a bit cloudy), sitting on my orange corduroy couch and drinking coffee with my friend. How we agonized about our lives, how far they were from our ideals, how we were always itching to get on to the next phase of life.

And now here we are. My friend and her husband moved to Uganda, their lives are a mishmash of experiences I cannot even imagine, her photo stream filled with joy and sweat, me wishing I could reach out and touch her. Me and my grown-up baby and my husband moved across the country and plunged ourselves a further bit down the ladder of the American dream, our lives a beautiful jumble and we can’t keep track of all that we have learned or all the ways we have been changed. And as much as I love my life now, I still, just for a moment, longed to go back in time. To sit with my friend, clutching my baby, in my beautiful cozy apartment surrounded on every side by refugee friends and neighbors, to drink coffee and to appreciate the day for what it was.

I told my husband about this. Remember when we lived there? I said. It was a great time to be alive. We were so happy.

I don’t know, my husband answered slowly. You always seemed a bit lonely to me.

 

 

 

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There is another picture I thought of the other day, which I tracked back to my Myspace page (oh my word do you remember those?). This is me when I was probably 20, maybe 21. I am untroubled by the world. My face is smooth and unlined, my hair short and swingy, a beautiful baby strapped to my back. i was no doubt running around tacking up flyers for the kids homework club that I started, visiting various families, sitting on floors and eating with my fingers, sitting on couches and being ignored, just showing up week after week for this amazing life that I had discovered in the pockets of America. I did not have angst. I was pleased with myself, pleased with the part I was doing in the world, pleased to know I was using my gifts well.

On second thought, that isn’t quite true. I was, after all, there to “practice” on people before I moved overseas, before I really dedicated myself to God, when I had all my theologies sorted out and a team and legitimacy in the eyes of the world. I was testing it out, seeing if I was any good at it, slowly becoming suspicious of all of the people I knew who loved to talk about mission but couldn’t be bothered to come once a week and help refugee kids learn basic math. I discovered that I was not good at a whole lot of things: proselytizing, supervising homework clubs with 50+ kids and no other volunteers, doing it all on my own without getting bitter. I was more than a little bit lonely. And instead of being good at anything, I began to realize how much pleasure I found in being with people who were different from me.

 

//

 

I’m thinking about all of this, because the angst has never really left me. Even in this season, it is here, lurking underneath. I recently watched Ragamuffin, the story of Rich Mullins (a personal hero of mine), and it left me more than a bit uncomfortable. I recognized so much of myself in him, both his depths of unhappiness and fierce propulsion to continually move forwards. How can somebody continually have revelations from God, write songs about his love, and then have moments of being completely unconvinced of that truth? But this is how it is, this is the reality of the world. We hear revelations, and we forget. We experience love, and we forget. We witness the miracles of forgiveness and resurrection, and we forget. We see the kingdom come, we are filled with love for the church, we are content to be little mustard seeds and then–it all flows away like water.

I have no doubt that in three years time I will look back at this time, this day, this season in my life with nothing but kindness. Through rose-colored glasses I will only see the good, will only see the revelations, will choose to not see the clouds of forgetfulness. I will be kind to my un-perfect self, realize that if I spent over 20+ years of my life willing myself to be the one who goes out and saves everybody then it might be realistic to think it would take some time to gently undo those faulty beliefs and all the relational brokenness that comes out of them.

If I could go back in time–ten years ago, three years ago–what would I tell myself? I would probably say:You can move across the country, sell all that you have and live in a poorer neighborhood–and you will still feel that restless urge. You will not be able to outrun your demons, the sense that you are never doing enough. You will continue to fluctuate between deliriously happy in the love of God and what he is up to in the world and being crushed by the inaction and apathy of so many around you. The angst is not going to go away. The love will continue to grow until it engulfs you. You will be crushed, and you will be resurrected, time and time again.

 

You will still be so very lonely. You will still be so very loved.

 

I am writing this here to remind myself. There is no doubt in my mind that I will soon forget.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Book That Changed Claire’s Life

I woke up to a world in disarray (to be honest, it has been all this time). I think this is as good as time as any to read a beautiful piece on The Giving Tree, a book that I to this day cannot read to my own small daughter without sobbing. I remember the first time I read it, at my grandparents house. Setting it back down on the shelf, 8 years old, I remember feeling immense sadness and gratitude, as well as thinking “well, that certainly wasn’t a KIDS book”. Claire (an amazing writer/editor who I have the pleasure of being in a IRL writing group with) brought me back with this piece. Feel free to leave a comment on your own Giving Tree story–I know there must be others out there!

 

 

 

 

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The Book That Changed My Life

by Claire DeBerg

 

This book did not change my life. This book transformed my life. The youngest of three, I would sit enrapt with my siblings as our father recited long passages of poetry to us each evening. I can’t remember if I was mesmerized by his remarkable ability to recite verse after verse after verse of poems he’d kept sealed in his heart his whole life or if I was caught up in the adventures of different poetry he shared, but having a father who was a writer and poet and pastor meant the mellow, oaky boom of his deep bass voice was calming and comforting and home.

My father loves language and wit, which is why the books of poetry by Shel Silverstein were such a critical part of our literary repertoire growing up. We three siblings would page through Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic giggling at the wild images enjoying how funny phrases would somersault in our heads plastering us to our beds imagining the wonders of the small worlds Shel created in perfect rhyme.

So when my father first settled me into bed to read me The Giving Tree for the first time I was confused by the lack of a rhyme in the first several pages. I interrupted the story to check out the cover—yes, there was the odd wonderful name “Shel Silverstein” scrawled on the cover as though he signed the book himself. Yes, there was the simple line drawing on the book cover—the comforting signature of his art. So convinced this was indeed a Shel Silverstein book, I let my father start from the beginning again with his deep, sweet voice touched with echoes of the southern drawl his grandparents had gifted him, “Once there was a tree…”

And I loved the beginning because I immediately identified with that little boy as most of my childhood was spent in the trees and woods on our property. Despite the lack of rhyme, I thought I knew why my dad had chosen this book…he was seeing how my tomboy shenanigans were aligned with this little boy. He knew how much I loved sitting in the deep sand pit next to our garden carving out tunnels, he knew how I protected the pussy willow from being stripped of her buds by the hands of the legions of boys traipsing around our neighborhood. I knew my father read me The Giving Tree because he saw me climb Jennifer’s Tree scaling it with grace and care and hugging Jennifer’s Tree before bed each night in the summer.

And then he read, “…the tree was often alone.” The “alone” was a balloon just slipping from my grip and there was a pause where my father let me watch it float away. And my tiny little eight-year-old heart splintered, deflating. I could never leave my tree unattended. But the story continued and became for me a warning tale because in the story, the years tumble forward and the tree remains a steadfast giver each time the boy returns as the unapologetic taker.

The Giving Tree can be read in about nine minutes or less and when my father first read it to me I was exhausted at the close having surged through all the emotions my childhood heart could manage: love, grief, hurt, anger, mania, hurt, love again, longing.

I cried by myself after my father left the room and switched off the light. I distinctly remember feeling as though I needed to choose which I would be: the boy or the tree. Would I give with utter abandon until I was used up? Would I always look forward to someone even if they used me? Would I be the boy—always clear about what I needed? Always wanting bigger and better?

I was afraid to page through it again and instead let it sit on my bedside table for a week. Only after that time could I manage to let the story break loose inside me once more until I was withered and teary all over again. The heartbreak of the story and the gruff author’s image on the back cover frightened me for years until eventually I moved out of my parents house at 16 to board at my art’s high school. As I considered the stack of books to bring with me to high school I held The Giving Tree in my hands but didn’t crack it open because just holding it transferred the simple power of the story so I tossed it away from me and it stayed shelved at my childhood home until I myself became the home to a child.

I was pregnant and so was the dog when I returned to my parent’s house as a 22 year-old. I’d gotten pregnant in a scary way and was entering a dark night of the soul trying to decide if I should keep the baby or place it for adoption. I considered the dog at my feet in the kitchen her belly full of seven puppies she’d nurse for several weeks and never see again and I tried to see this pregnancy as simple as that—just birth and give your puppy to someone else to raise.

There were lots of late nights that winter where my family and I sat around the kitchen table discussing the plight of my life: single, poor, pregnant, minority, jobless. Finding hope in the folds of a Minnesota winter with taglines like those trailing my every move was very bleak to say the least. And being newly pregnant I discovered insomnia so I dove headfirst into my parents’ library reading everything by Wendell Berry and working my way through Barbara Kingsolver and eventually Walt Whitman.

And then one night I found and read The Giving Tree and I cried and cried and cried for the boy and for my baby. I cried for myself and for the tree. Her ideas about life were subverted as the boy grew. Each of her welcomes were ignored.

I wanted my life and body back. I wanted to be happy like the tree and the little boy at the beginning, to keep life as it was where everyone in my family had a place and nothing was changing—each day there would be apple-picking and branch-swinging and hide-and-go-seek and then we’d do all over again the next day and be happy.

But my body was changing, that baby was growing and demanding I make choices and face truths and be honest. The boy was echoing what this baby was already saying into the core of my body—that they would love me and leave me, “And so the boy cut down her trunk and made a boat and sailed away.” I just remember reading that and weeping softly in the room where I’d slept during my childhood. I considered my unsettled life and the reality of birthing a being that would cut down my trunk and sail away from me. I asked myself if I could allow such a thing, if I could permit the possibility of growing the heartless little boy and not the beautiful loving tree…I asked myself if I could manage the burden of choosing a person who might possibly be the taker of all of me.

I didn’t decide that night whether to keep the baby or not. But eight months later when I was sitting on my hospital bed with the beautiful little brown girl I had just met by pushing her into the light of the world…when I was sobbing and whispering to her my apologies and asking that little person for an ocean of forgiveness—I was reminded of The Giving Tree: the truth that it is quite possible to have a beautiful life and to choose to give

 

and give

 

and give

 

and give

 

and give

 

and give

 

and give away…

…and still be happy.

 

And I am happy. I am happy to live into a life where someday I can invite my sweet daughter to, “Come…sit down. Sit down and rest.”

 

 

 

Claire DeBerg headshotIf Claire DeBerg isn’t writing snappy copy for her commercial writing biz or managing content and timelines as editor of the magazine, Timbrel, for Mennonite Women USA, she is eating an ungodly amount of peanut butter right off the spoon, prepping for a modeling shoot, biking on a 1950s Schwinn Suburban with her pre-teen, playing a Chopin piano prelude, discussing the merits of the uncooperative chair with her toddler or trying to behave as much like Elaine Benes as is socially appropriate. She’s put over 3,500 miles on her legs after training for and running 7 marathons (including Boston!) but now she needs to put some miles on her fingers and finish writing her novel (for the love). She forever adores her sweet littles, Gloria and Harold and always her beautiful husband, Darren, and occasionally her hairy airedale, Velvet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other posts in the Book That Changed My Life series:

Night

Walking on Water

Jesus For President

With Daring Faith

East Of Eden

 

 

 

 

 

The Book That Changed Amy’s Life

Well, I will be straight with you: this one is a doozy. I SO identify with everything my good friend Amy writes here– missionary biographies were my JAM growing up. However, Amy highlights some pervasive lies we swallow in regards to vocation that have serious consequences for us all. As someone who devoured these types of books with fervor (and realizing how they have shaped me) I am so glad that Amy is working on a book-length project (!) that deals with all of these sorts of issues. I cannot wait to read it.

 

 

 

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The Book That Changed My Life

by Amy Peterson

 

 

 

 

This summer I’ve been re-reading the missionary biographies I devoured in childhood. Amy Carmichael was my favorite missionary, not only because we shared a name, but because she was as imaginative, daring, and heroic as Anne of Green Gables and Nancy Drew combined.  Amy Carmichael started a Bible study for “mill girls” on the margins of Irish society, traveling through neighborhoods considered unsuitable for proper young ladies. Eventually 500 girls attended her Bible studies.  In India, she snuck disguised into temples to rescue girl-children destined to be temple prostitutes.  She adopted the Indian way of dressing, assimilating at a time when few missionaries understood the importance of entering a new culture as a learner.  She wrote poetry. I loved her- her rebellion, her zeal, her heroism, her red hair, all of it.

But when I opened With Daring Faith: A Biography of Amy Carmichael this summer, to re-read it, my breath caught in my throat at the author’s dedication. It was to her daughter:

To Katherine Joy Davis

with the prayer that she will hear and

answer a call from the Lord

to a foreign mission field.

I tried to imagine praying that for my daughter, Rosie, when I put her to bed at night.  Wouldn’t hearing that prayer send a seed into the soil of her heart, implanting the idea that I believe (or even that God believes) that overseas missions work is the best thing you can do with your life? What kind of pressure might that put on a child?

 

 

I wondered if Katherine went.

***

Before I continue, there are some things you need to know.  Chief among them is that when I was twenty-two, I moved to Southeast Asia to “teach English.”  When I say that books like With Daring Faith changed my life, what I mean is this: when it came time for me to decide how to live an adult life, I could envision no more interesting, meaningful, or heroic work than missionary work overseas, and I blame that mostly on the books.

Sure, if you had asked me, I would have said that there was no division between “sacred” work and “secular” work — that working as a copyeditor at a publishing house could be just as meaningful and worthwhile as moving to a foreign land for God — but I didn’t really believe it.  How could I?  No one wrote biographies of copyeditors.  Accountants never snuck into temples. Housewives never changed the world.

Sermons that talked about living lives fully dedicated to God rarely held up sweeping the floor daily as an example of dedication.  They seldom lauded people who responded to emails punctually and thoughtfully.  They didn’t praise those who regularly attended conferences for professional development so that they could be up-to-date in their fields.

I wanted an extraordinary life, flush with spiritual vitality and adventure, fully committed to God.  I wanted to be the greatest.  And the only way I could see to find that life was by going overseas.

***

How does a child begin to believe that one way of life is more spiritual than another?

***

I read the dedication to the book, and I wondered about that daughter – Katherine. How old was she when she found those words?  What did they mean to her then? What do they mean to her now?

My daughter is five, and I’m not sure she knows what the word missionary means.  I ask her.

-Have you ever heard the word missionary?

-I think, maybe, once.

-Do you know what it means?

-No.

-A missionary is a person who goes to another country to tell people – people who have never heard about Jesus – to tell them about Jesus.

-Oh. {pause}.  Like, if Mae Mae and Papa didn’t know about Jesus, and we went to visit them and told them about Jesus?

 

 

 

 

Yeah, like that.

***

I confess: then I googled her.  I googled the author, and found her on Facebook.  Her daughter Katherine is married now, maybe a few years younger than I am.  She has an art degree and lives in Michigan with a husband and a baby.  There’s no sign that Katherine ever heard a call to foreign missions.

***

I’ve been wondering if I should put missionary biographies on the shelf for my daughter.  She’ll be old enough to read them in just a few years. Do I stack them next to Nancy Drew and Half Magic and A Wrinkle In Time, or keep them in my office?

***

I went overseas, running face-first towards what I thought was the will of God. I hit a wall of thorns, landing flat on my back, the God I thought I knew quite well wilting like a punctured balloon animal next to me. I went overseas looking for adventure and found tragedy. God was silent, and I spun into a dark night of the soul.

That’s why I’ve been re-reading these books from my childhood.  I had to know: did they leave the tragedy out when they wrote the stories for children?  Why had I expected adventure but not opposition, spiritual success but not sorrow?

Here’s what I found: the hardships are there, right there in the stories I read as a child.  Gladys Aylward leading a group of starving children through mountain passes. Elizabeth Elliot losing Jim. Eric Liddell dying in an internment camp, hardly having spent any of his adult life with his wife and children. The heartache was there, plain as day.  Why hadn’t I remembered it?

I hadn’t remembered it because missionary biographies shaped my imagination in my formative years, when I could understand heroism but had no framework for tragedy.  The intrigue and daring had stuck with me, but the losses and struggles had gone in one ear and out the other.  I had no way of comprehending them.

It’s like this: you read Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth before you have your first baby, and you feel confident in your ability to give birth: you hear these stories about women strong and in touch with their bodies and their babies, and you think, I can do that, too.

Then you go into labor.

And when you read Ina May again after having given birth, you notice things that slipped right past you the first time.  Oh, in this story her labor lasted for thirty-six hours.  Oh, one woman said the pain was orgasmic, but another described it as the worst feeling of her life.

Before, your mind had attached to the successes, but now, when you read about the thirty-six hour labor, that detail doesn’t go in one ear and out the other.  Now, you know exactly what that feels like.

So should we encourage women to read Ina May before they give birth, knowing that they won’t really have the framework to understand the stories?  Should we encourage children to read missionary biographies?

I haven’t decided whether to put the books on the shelf for Rosie yet.  I still have time.

***

 

If I ever dedicate a book to my daughter, I’ll say this:

 

To Rosemary,

the beloved of God,

with the prayer that she will grasp how wide

and long

and high

and deep

is the love of Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Amy Peterson teaches ESL and works with the Ockenga Honors Scholars at Taylor University. Read more at her blog, or follow her on twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other posts in the Book That Changed My Life series:

Night

Walking on Water

Jesus For President

 

 

 

 

 

Women, Infants, Children

us, just trying to survive.

us, just trying to survive.

 

It’s been a rough few weeks on the internet. I have wanted to write about violence, #yesallwomen, abusers, rape apologetics, and #howoldwereyou; instead I wrote an essay about WIC.

 

Of course, it really isn’t about WIC (or Whole Foods for that matter). It’s really about a much bigger issue that creeps into my bones: how much I would like to forget about the most vulnerable. In my life, there have been a few times I have been confronted with this, and in the end it is better to face it than explain or medicate or wish it away. The world has always had a hierarchy that was very much at odds with the kingdom of God, and it still continues to do so. Every day I see the fruit of this, teaching English to women who were never allowed to step foot inside a classroom before–due to outright discrimination or due to the constraints of crushing poverty.

I suppose this piece comes out of a renewed sense of wondering how our family is going to grow and the frailties inherent in all of our options. I am also thinking about the meals my daughter eats at the park, all the children who come to get fed. I am thinking about my own #howoldwereyou story, which I would much rather forget. I am thinking about a God who is so relentlessly for the vulnerable that I feel nearly swallowed up in his love.

So it’s not really about WIC. But it is about the good news, for people who tend to not experience very much good in our current world.

 

 

Here’s the beginning of the piece:

 

Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. - Jeremiah 22:3

The other day, I walked into a Whole Foods to pick up a few items, my WIC vouchers in hand. I have the luxury of thinking carefully about my food purchases. My husband and I do not want to support the torture of animals, and we do want to put money back into the hands of our local economy. We try to eat more in-season, locally, organic, fair-trade. We still, however, sit somewhat close to the poverty line, and we have had to make a few sacrifices. Less meat, more beans. Rice and pasta to tide us over. Eating what is on sale, doing without non-essentials like alcohol or snack foods.

The WIC vouchers help too (especially in more expensive stores like Whole Foods). I wandered the aisles, looking at the beautifully stocked shelves, until I found a clerk at the back of the store. “Do you participate in the WIC program?” I asked. He had never heard of it before, but his female co-worker was sure that the store did. I didn’t see any of the tell-tale blue stickers placed under the proper cereal boxes or bags of dried beans, but I took her at her word. As I queued up to pay and saw the look of confusion on the cashier’s face (male, hipster glasses) when I handed over my voucher, my stomach started to sink. As the line piled up behind me I tried to explain what the WIC program was.

The boy was interested, but he had never heard of it. He called his manager and confirmed what I already knew. Whole Foods did not participate in the program. I left my small bag of groceries at the register and walked out the door, trying to keep my smile bright. I went home and e-mailed the customer service team, who responded to me within several days. “Unfortunately,” they wrote, “we cannot participate in the WIC program” due to conflicts with “quality” in regards to specific products such as infant formula. It was short, conciliatory, dismissive. It was clear that they did not need my business, nor the business of anyone who found themselves in need of a little assistance when feeding their children.

The e-mail brought me back into those harrowing first months of my daughter’s life: due to a vicious medical emergency, she was born nearly 2 months early and I was left without the ability to breastfeed her. I was sad and shaken up by my traumatic birth experience, grieving the loss of my ability to feed my own child. I remembered the price of formula, the staggering realization that it would cost us upwards of $150 a month. Due to both my medical emergency and the financial strain of losing work hours, WIC was a godsend in the area of feeding the baby. I had never felt more vulnerable in my life, both physically and financially.

In a flash, as I deleted the e-mail from Whole Foods, I was reminded of my vulnerabilities all over again. And I did not like it.

//

Go on over to Christ and Pop Culture to read the rest.

 

 

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the children are the first in line

An old favorite song of mine is “Fathom the 9-fruit Pie” by the Danielson Familie (one of the greatest bands in existence, no doubt, more for their content than the actual sound of their music). I have thought about these lyrics again and again in the past few years, ever since I became a parent (and a real adult) myself:

we’re marching in the nine-fruits pie
our yoke is mighty easy.
the children are the first in line
adults are always welcome.
when you got the log in eye you
talk and walk in nine-fruits pie
our Lord of the dance will call…
“time to eat, come and get it, time to eat.”
Love and Joy and Peace and Patience,
Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness,
Gentleness, and Self-Control,
time to eat, come and get it, time to eat.

and here, in the upside-down kingdom, i am amazed at how it is the children (and the child-like) who are the best at receiving the all the good gifts, who know how to accept the love of a very good Father in the midst of a very hard world. and on that note, i thought it would be a good idea to write a bit about the truest person i know, the one i spend an awful lot of my time with.

to my little glory, with love.

//

your hair is fine and shaggy and blonde; you don’t want me to cut your bangs yet you detest clips, so it hangs long in your eyes, and every so often you swipe them to the side dramatically. you wear polka dot dresses with striped leggings. you hate wearing socks, even though we live in one of the coldest places in America. you wear dirty Hello Kitty boots every day. it takes hours to get you out the door, you always seem surprised at the amount of layers it takes to get us ready for the outside world, you protest and wriggle and whine and sometimes throw yourself on the floor. you shall not be hurried.

i got you all natural wooden blocks, a doll made by refugee artisans, tasteful melissa and doug playsets. you play with none of it, never, unless i start to give things away.  you are an only child, wandering wherever i go. you want to help cook, you want to write something, you want me to close the computer and pay attention to you. you are the happiest when i am reading you books, books we have read a million times over, books where you know exactly what will happen, books that you could recite to yourself forwards and backwards, books that make you feel safe and secure in my lap, my arms around you, my eyes only for you.

you like to dance. you like music, are starting to branch out from the yo-gabba set and you can tell me who Lorde is, Sufjan, Macklemore, Gungor, FUN., Elizabeth Mitchel. you really hate it when i sing aloud, and you always have.

you love playing “english class” or “school”, you love it when i teach you any little old thing. i spend my mornings going over the ABCs with people who may or may not ever be able to remember them; i come home and you have somehow learned all the letters and their corresponding sounds without my even trying. you bang on the computer keys (just a minute, i’m working on something) you dump glue and glitter on cheap faded construction paper, you are serious about your little “journal” where you write down what you are thinking. and you are always, always thinking.

we go visiting in apartments and our friends always give you things, shower you with smiles and squeezes, plastic tiny mermaids who break the second we get them home, dirty plush Tweety birds that you instantaneously fall in love with. you soak up the affection, the foreign foods, the exotic music, the blaring PBS, the cans of fanta poured into glasses for you, the adults who crowd around and smile with every bite you take of their food, their culture, their life. you thrive in these places, just like i do.

you know people who don’t have money. you know little girls who don’t have any mama’s. you know gaggles of older women who adore you, you beg to come and visit my classes. you know our neighbors who are sick and hardly ever come out, you know which ones to run up to for hugs and those who seem to look right past you. you want everyone to be safe, to be in love with you, but you already know that’s not true. you stick tight to my legs, until you see a friend.

you don’t seem to notice the fights, the shouting, the lack of a yard, the small apartment. you do notice when mama is anxious (“did you forget that God is always with us?”) or when the cockroaches are getting bad again or how your name is not Mohammed. you are starting to comment on our skin color, on how some people’s apartments look different from ours, how some people have families and some people don’t. you are starting to ask about brothers and sisters. you are starting to cry more when we fly away from our beloved aunties and grandparents, you ache that we can’t all be together.

your emotional intelligence is sky high. the other day you told me you were concerned about me. why? i asked, amused. because you are so frustrated, you said, matter-of-factly. you are so frustrated, mama, because i can’t stop whining. girl, i thought to myself, you just get me. tonight, when i put you to bed, you asked me to never be firm or frustrated with you ever again. i said i was sorry for being frustrated, but that it probably will happen again in the future. can you forgive me? yes, you said, and i stroked your hair. i prayed over you, and then it was your turn to pray. you shouted into the air “happy christmas, Jesus!”, and then turned around to tell whisper to me “i just told Jesus happy Christmas”. i love you so much, my be-draggled, wicked-smart cherub, the only baby i have. i keep stroking your head until you finally tell me: mama, you have to go now.

 

 

and so i do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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you are the first in line

in the upside-down kingdom.

 

and

you are teaching me how to come and eat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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marriage is work

When I got engaged, my mom was worried about me. I was so stoic, chin up, accepting congratulations with a quiet dignity. No hysterics, fussiness, wild delusions of bliss for me, no. My mom took me aside and asked if I really, actually did want to be married. I was shocked. What sort of question was that? I knew I was supposed to marry this boy, no matter what. That was obvious. But did I want to?

Mom, I said, marriage is hard. Like, really hard. It’s a lot of work. It’s probably the most difficult thing I will ever do in my life.

I had no illusions of the lovey-dovey years: all I could see was two sinners, sharpening each other for all eternity. Romantic, right?

My mom nodded her head, a little smile creeping up her face. 

I got married, in love and grimly determined to roll up my sleeves at the enormous amount of work that a successful relationship takes.

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Six years in, and I am having the time of my life. We get to have adventures, snuggle, and make ridiculous jokes together. We share a common vision about God’s dream for the world, and we are trying to live it out together. We are best friends, tag-teamers, baby wrasslers, each other’s point of sanity and mirth.

We know the absolute worst and best parts of each other, and I wish I could go back 7 years and tell my serious little self: the good far outweighs the bad. 

 

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I have been surprised, in every way, just by how fun it has been to be married, to this one particular boy.

 

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Here’s to another year (and decades more) of fun, adventure, crazy-times, growth, silliness, and joy.

And to work that never, ever actually feels like work.

 

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Happy anniversary, dude.

 

 

 

 

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I’m a Downward Mobility Dropout–Guest Post by Stina KC

Stina and I are real-life friends (our babies are besties, too). We met at the little Mennonite church she talks about in this here essay, and I am so glad we did. Stina and I were recently talking about this Downward Mobility series, and I expressed my disappointment that there weren’t more posts about the struggle of it all. Oh, I can write about that, she said. And boy, can this girl write.

I’m grateful for her honesty, which is so hard to share in public. So often we just want to hear the stories of the out-and-out-successes. But I am drawn to the stories of hunger, of struggle, of inner conflict and even failure. Because there is a lot of “failure” in the upside-down kingdom, at least by empire standards. I am learning to make friends with it, however, one little day at a time. 

 

 

 

http://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20130327/new-york-city/babywearing-101-classes-sprout-across-city

 

I’m a Downward Mobility Dropout

by Stina KC

 

 

When my daughter was born, we lived in the most diverse neighborhood in America. She learned to walk in the hallways of an apartment building filled with cooking smells from our East African neighbors. During that bleary first year of motherhood, I would pace the noisy streets outside our apartment building with my baby strapped to my chest, praying that the drone of cars and traffic would lull her to sleep. I would shield her little face from cigarette smoke and exhaust fumes as I walked by strangers on the street. People were often drunk at the bus stop one block away and prostitutes hung out at the corner when the daylight faded. I would keep walking, moving quickly to avoid contact with my neighbors.

//

My husband and I first moved to this neighborhood when we were recent Christian college graduates, young and idealistic about Jesus, Shane Claiborne’s “Ordinary Radicals,” and downward mobility. We didn’t make much with our AmeriCorps stipends and social service salaries, but we didn’t care. We shared duplexes with friends, saving money on rent to buy fixed gear bicycles and shop organic at the co-op. We belonged to a house church with other young misfits, going dumpster diving and holding clothing swaps. But even though we lived in the most diverse neighborhood in America, we didn’t really know anyone who wasn’t like us.

After our house church crumbled and our faith began its slow cynical drift, we started attending a small Mennonite church a few blocks away. On that first Sunday morning, a gray-haired man with kind eyes thanked us for coming and gave us a fair trade soup mix, a special gift for visitors. I knew we were home when, in our first hymn, we sang about becoming “midwives of justice.” During the sharing of prayers and concerns, a man asked for prayer for immigration reform. Another shared the news of South Sudan. I relaxed in my pew.

//

I listened to my voicemail message one evening in late October after putting my daughter to bed. Something about the lead test results. I should call this number, it’s urgent. I sat down at the kitchen table, hitting redial.

Someone answered: “Your daughter’s lead test came back elevated. Do you know how serious this could be for her development?” I didn’t know anything about lead. I googled it and a shot of fear like ice water raced through my body. Behavioral issues. Long term learning disabilities. Brain damage

As the man on the phone rattled off some tips for limiting exposure, I wrote manic notes on a discarded envelope. “What’s your address?” he asked. He looked it up on the city’s database. “Oh, yeah. You’re in a high impact area. You live at 2825 Park? I see cases of elevated lead at 2828 and 2830 and, wow, it’s all over the place. The blocks around you, too.”

The county sent over a woman with a smoker’s cough to test our floors and windows for lead dust. (“I love the fixtures in here,” she said. “We get to see so many old homes.”) We got the results a week later. Our bedroom window well, the same spot where our daughter loved to slap her hands while watching city buses and bike commuters, had lead levels of 38,700. Safe levels are below 400.

I thought about our neighbors on the third floor, the Ethiopian Pentecostals with two small children who hosted prayer meetings on Tuesday evenings, shoes in a pile outside their apartment door. I thought about the Mexican family who lived across the street in the house with the broken steps and abandoned toys in their yard. I wondered about the kids who get picked up at the bus stop on 28th and Columbus. Have they been tested? Do their parents know?

At first, my moral outrage fueled conversations about petitions and tenant rights and lawsuits. We could stay and fight. But then I started leaving the apartment for most of the day, camping out at my parents’ house so my daughter wouldn’t be tempted to play at the windows. Soon, we were apartment searching and then signing a lease and suddenly it wasn’t my problem anymore.

We moved two and half months later, in the middle of January. Our Mennonite church friends helped carry our craigslisted couch down icy steps and load it into a Ford pick-up. Three hours later we stood in our new apartment across town, surrounded by boxes and Rubbermaid totes from Target.

The next morning I took my daughter outside, her snowsuit zipped up to her chin. As I watched her toddle along the sidewalks, I thought about my old neighbors and their kids and the lead dust they were breathing. I never really knew them, only a handful of names in my memory, and we were gone now.

//

This story is painful to recount. I have felt guilty for leaving, for not fighting my landlord like the “midwives of justice” that my church sings about. I know it isn’t God’s will for my daughter to breathe in lead dust. I also know it isn’t God’s will for any child to breathe in lead dust, to live in poverty, to attend crappy schools.

Jesus’ call to downward mobility felt so obvious when I was in my early 20s. But over the years, I never put in the daily work of building mutual relationships with my neighbors and so, when the crisis came, it was easy to leave them behind. Now I panic that I am becoming one of those wishy-washy Christians I always belittled, their faiths flimsy and fearful. I worry that my faith is drifting, that if it isn’t radical and downwardly mobile it’s just ash in the wind.

Still, I return every Sunday to my old neighborhood for church. I smile at the corner stores and familiar graffiti murals from my car window. I keep showing up, singing the hymns, making small talk over coffee cake. I keep leaning into the body of Christ, this holy community of which I am one imperfect part. And I pray small short prayers, asking God for more faith, another opportunity. Asking God for courage and obedience and grace.

 

 

DSC01407Stina is living up the last year of her 20s by doing things that scare her, like writing for strangers on the internet. She is an angsty Anglican/Anabaptist hybrid who likes to use words like “intentionality” and “marginalized” in everyday conversations. Stina lives in the American heartland with her husband and daughter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.

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