Category Archives: Holidays

Missing Santa Claus

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Our family missed Santa Claus this year.

Ever since we moved to Vermont seven years ago, our family has attended the “Very Merry Middlebury” festivities in downtown Middlebury on the first Saturday of December. This annual celebration, designed to welcome the winter holiday season, includes a hot chocolate hut, horse-drawn carriage rides, a scavenger hunt for themed ornaments in Main Street’s shop windows, and various craft fairs. The Sheldon Museum’s spectacular model train diorama is open to the public, as are the impressive entries in the Vermont Folklife Center’s gingerbread creation contest. Inspired children can make (and eat) their own graham cracker “gingerbread” houses at Ilsley Public Library.

Santa Claus himself begins the day, riding into Middlebury atop a town fire engine.

We look forward to the Very Merry Middlebury tradition every year. But this year, there was some consternation among the adults in our family when we noticed that the schedule listed Santa’s arrival at 9:15 AM.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.

Dead Mom Walking

This is my birth story: The story of how I became a mother for the first time. I wrote it five years ago, in honor of International Women’s Day, and it appeared in the On the Willows blog. 

I am posting it again because the other day this article appeared on my NPR news feed, featuring a mother who had the exact same conditions that I did, but whose birth story didn’t end as happily. When I first wrote this story, I was focusing on child and maternal healthcare elsewhere in the world, in less developed countries, but this NPR story happened RIGHT HERE, in my own country. 

Today is Mother’s Day, and for the past couple of days I’ve been walking around thinking about mothers who won’t have the chance to be celebrated today, because their birth stories ended badly. I dedicate this to them, with the prayer that we will advocate for quality maternal and child healthcare throughout the world AND right where we live. Every mother should have the chance to celebrate Mother’s Day. 

Me, about two weeks before Fiona’s birth.

It’s a miracle that I’m sitting here, typing this right now, because I should be dead.

That’s not an exaggeration; I’m not trying on a dramatic opening line for effect. I should be dead, and in any other time or place, I would be.

I’ve never written about the circumstances of our first daughter’s birth before, because my husband Erick was the one writing all the updates during and after, so here goes:

I had a fairly easy, uneventful first pregnancy. No morning sickness, no notable symptoms of any kind aside from an insatiable craving for movie theater popcorn. When they took the 20-week ultrasound, the doctors noticed that our baby was a little on the small side, but nobody worried much about it. “You’re a small person,” they said, by way of explanation.

Then my doctor went to Korea for six weeks. The two substitute doctors I saw in the interim noted that the baby was still measuring small, “But you’re a small person,” they kept saying. Other than smallness, both the baby and I seemed healthy.

When my regular doctor came back and the baby was still lagging behind in size, he was nervous. This doctor, who saw me through three pregnancies, is long on brains and short on bedside manner — which was fine by me. Imagine a very, very pessimistic, Korean Mr. Miyagi, and you’ve captured him. (His introduction to genetic testing was: “Sometimes, baby is born with no brain.”). He sent me to a specialist in high-risk pregnancies for another ultrasound, and he prescribed a weekly non-stress test (where you sit for an hour while a nurse monitors the baby’s heart rate — then it was boring, now I’d call it a vacation). The baby continued to measure small, but everything else was a-okay. I tried to eat more and move less.

Skip ahead to Saturday, November 17, 2007 — two weeks before my due date. I noticed my heart racing a little bit that morning, and my ankles and feet were suddenly very swollen, but I didn’t think much of it; both seemed within the realm of normal third trimester symptoms.

The next morning, which was to be the day of my baby shower, I woke up with what I thought was heartburn. Again, a normal pregnancy discomfort. Skipped church, did some work on the couch, sent Erick out for Tums and 7-Up. A few hours later, when the heartburn seemed to be getting worse, Erick suggested I call the advice nurse. I did so, reluctantly: I have this fear of annoying nurses with silly concerns, which comes from decades of people-pleasing. But I figured that maybe she could hook me up with some prescription-strength Tums. “You’re pregnant with chest pain,” the nurse told me bluntly. “You need to go to the ER.”

We obediently went to the ER (me looking at my watch in annoyance to see how much time was left until my baby shower). When the intake nurse took my blood pressure, it was much higher than usual — much higher than it had been at my checkup three days earlier. I noted this, but he told me that increased blood pressure was normal in late pregnancy. The EKG was normal. I was sent to the outpatient clinic.

It was at this point that my “heartburn” became excruciating. The people in the waiting room thought I was in labor, and, having been through three subsequent labors, I can tell you that the pain was right up there. I remember very little from this point on, just that they took my blood pressure again and it was even higher than before. Suddenly, a nurse was running with me in a wheelchair over to Labor & Delivery, cursing the people at the ER who hadn’t thought to send me directly there in the first place.

The Labor & Delivery nurses hooked me up and started running tests. These nurses were amazing; I remember asking them two things: “Can you please make the pain go away?” and “Do you think I can make my baby shower? It starts in 30 minutes.” They made the pain go away, but one of the kind nurses said, “Honey, I think you’re going to miss your baby shower.”

It turns out I had sudden, severe preeclampsia. Preeclampsia is pregnancy-induced high blood pressure. In my case, preeclampsia was combined with a condition called HELLP Syndrome, which is an acronym for Hemolysis (the breakdown of red blood cells), Elevated Liver enzymes, and Low Platelets. Possible outcomes of this combo include hemorrhage, liver and kidney failure (my “heartburn” was, in fact, my liver swelling), pulmonary edema, stoke…and death. The only cure is to deliver the baby immediately. Fiona was delivered via emergency c-section. At 37.5 weeks, she was full term, but she weighed in at 3 lbs. 11 oz.  She spent one night in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for observation, and was released the next day, completely healthy.

The first picture ever taken of Fiona.

Because I was recovering from a rather traumatic birth, and because I suddenly had a 3 lb. 11 oz. baby to care for, I didn’t initially spend a lot of time reflecting upon what had just happened. And I still don’t, since that baby was followed very quickly by three others. But here’s what I know now:

The causes of preeclampsia and HELLP Syndrome are unknown. Researchers currently suspect insufficient blood flow to the uterus, immune system problems, or poor diet as possible causes. My case was a little strange, both because of its sudden and severe onset, and also because I had only one of the usual risk factors for preeclampsia: that this was my first pregnancy. Nobody has ever been able to explain Fiona’s tiny size, other than that it must have had something to do with the preeclampsia. (And our other three daughters weren’t exactly linebackers when they were born).

According to the Preeclampsia Foundation, preeclampsia affects at least 5-8% of all pregnancies, and HELLP Syndrome accompanies 15-20% of cases of severe preeclampsia. While preeclampsia rarely causes maternal death in the developed world these days, it is a leading cause of worldwide maternal and infant deaths. Conservative estimates are that preeclampsia is responsible for 76,000 maternal and 500,000 infant deaths worldwide per year.

It’s not just the numbers that get me. Since Fiona’s birth, I’ve read several accounts of preeclamptic women in third world countries who died (along with their unborn children) while waiting for medical care outside of health centers. I’ve even read of a woman who died from preeclampsia in this country during the last century. So, every once in a while, I will stop and think, “If I’d been born in just about any other time or place, I would be dead right now. And so would Fiona.”

Erick and me with Fiona, the day after her birth. You’ll notice I don’t look so great, because I wasn’t.

I’m writing this on March 8, International Women’s Day. (It’s a shame I didn’t write it in time to actually post on International Women’s Day, but that’s how life is these days). Thinking about International Women’s Day got me reflecting on Fiona’s birth, because even though this is a personal story, the conclusions I draw from it are quite global:

1. I am so stinking grateful for health care. Sure, the hospital made a few snafus in my case (they should’ve sent me to Labor & Delivery right away, for instance), but Fiona and I were able to get quick and appropriate medical attention to save our lives. The nurses and doctors who cared for us were competent and compassionate, and during most of the experience I had confidence that everything would turn out okay. It did; I came out on the other side, and followed up with three completely normal and healthy pregnancies, labors, and deliveries. So I think of myself as a “Dead Mom Walking.” Then I look around and realize that I know a whole lot of Dead Moms Walking: women who, like me, would be dead had they not received appropriate medical care during their pregnancies and deliveries. I bet you know a bunch of Dead Moms Walking — you may even be a Dead Mom Walking. Childbirth is, and always has been, a very risky proposition; it’s a luxury that, in this time and place, most of us go into it covered by the assurance that everything will likely be well.

2. I think it’s absolutely unacceptable that so many women in the world don’t have access to the health care that I do. Why are so many women and babies still dying from a condition that my baby and I lived through? A condition that can be cured by a timely c-section? Why are some of these women dying on the sidewalk outside of health care centers? I can imagine why; if I’d had to walk to the hospital, or if we’d had to take time to figure out how to pay for my care, or if the hospital didn’t have the capacity to do c-sections, it would have been too late. I believe this reality fits squarely into the definition of “injustice.”

There are a few excellent initiatives and organizations involved in preeclampsia research, and working to address the imbalances in maternal health care, like the aforementioned Preeclampsia Foundation, The United Nations Foundation, and the Million Moms Challenge. I wish there were more. I would love to see those 5- and 6-digit death figures diminish to near zero: more Dead Moms Walking, less dead moms. If I were First Lady, or Miss America, or Angelina Jolie, this would be “my issue.” And I guess, even though I’m just me, it still is my issue.

Fiona today.

When You Feel Like Your Family is Killing You: Thoughts On Washing Feet (and a Little Bit of Politics)

Have you ever felt like your family was killing you?

I don’t mean killing with intent, of course; I’m talking about a slow and steady nibbling away at your emotional, physical, and spiritual health. The sense that your blood is flowing directly into their veins, and your breath is being sucked up by their lungs. The fear that it might really happen: You may not be able to take one more step, answer one more question, or get out of bed tomorrow morning. The joy-sucking realization that you’re giving and giving, they’re taking and taking, and the equation will probably never be balanced.

I have felt this way. My neck and shoulders become cement and I feel like I’m carrying three times my body weight — the combined total weight of my people. My people, who want me to answer “How long does it take to get to the Moon?”, slice them an apple for snack, listen to their latest piano piece, and admire their newest Lego creation — all at the same time. My people, who throw themselves down screaming in front of a whole schoolyard full of people when I won’t carry them to the car — because I’m already loaded down by three backpacks. And that was just yesterday.

The endless dishes, crusty countertops, overflowing baskets of laundry, popcorn and Cheerios crunching underfoot: These things seem to sit on my chest and crush my breath.

Many’s the time I’ve longed for a diagnosis — not a terribly bad one, of course, but one in which the doctor says, “I’m sorry, the only cure is for you to spend a week in bed, in total silence.”

The last time I felt sure my family would kill me was two days ago, in the pre-dawn hours between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Earlier in the day, when I wasn’t homeschooling two daughters, shuttling everyone else back and forth from activities, or hosting two little friends who were over to play, I was hustling to get five apple trees and two blueberry bushes — which had arrived the day before and needed to be planted within 48 hours — into the ground.

When I collapsed into bed that night, I was looking at about six hours of sleep before I had to wake up and do it all over again.

At about 12:30 AM, the screaming started.

One of our daughters was scared. So scared that she woke up two of her sisters, who had to be soothed down. So scared that she couldn’t sleep.

At 1:30 AM, after three trips up and down the stairs, doing all that I could to comfort and reassure (prayers, back rubs, silent meditation, etc.), I dragged my pillow and an extra quilt upstairs and made a “bed” by pulling two beanbags together.

My neck and shoulders had become cement, and I settled in for a long, sleepless night on the floor. My daughter continued to cry on and off, and I cried, too.

They are killing me, I thought. This is SO UNFAIR. 

It wasn’t until the next day that I realized the parallels between my night on the floor and this Easter holiday that we’re celebrating.

(I’m going to write a little bit about Jesus now. If you don’t celebrate Easter, or don’t believe in Jesus’s spiritual legacy, please don’t stop reading; This is a story to which I think anybody can relate.)

***

In the hours between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the Bible tells us, Jesus also spent a sleepless night. Jesus also cried. He was stretched out on the hard ground of the garden of Gesthemane. He’d just celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples, and he knew he’d been betrayed by Judas – one of that chosen family of disciples – to Jerusalem’s religious leaders. He knew that those leaders were coming at any moment to arrest him and lead him off to death.

The differences between Jesus and me are clear. Jesus never said, “This is SO UNFAIR!” He was distressed. He asked if God could take away what was coming. But, unlike me, Jesus didn’t whine.

Also, unlike me, Jesus actually was about to die.

***

After this realization hit me, I recalled the conversation I’d had with my daughters the night before.

We were reading about the Last Supper in the Gospel of John. We read about how, before Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples, he took off his robe, put on an apron, and washed their feet. Their filthy, smelly, walking-on-dirt-and-dung-strewn-1st century roads feet. He told them to be servants like him; to wash each other’s feet and love each other.

Next, Jesus predicted that one of the disciples would betray him. When asked who would do such a thing, Jesus dipped a piece of bread in wine and handed it to Judas Iscariot. Judas promptly left to collect on the 30 pieces of silver he’d get in exchange for Jesus’s life.

“Wait,” one of my daughters interrupted, “So, was Judas there for the foot washing part, too?”

In all my years of reading about the Last Supper, I’m embarrassed to say, this thought had never occurred to me.

“I guess he was,” I answered. “The Bible says Jesus was gathered with all his disciples. Judas was a disciple, so he must’ve been there the whole time.”

And it felt like a punch right to my gut: Jesus washed the filthy, smelly feet of the man he KNEW was going to cause his death.

***

As I staggered around, exhausted, that morning after my sleepless night, I thought about how Jesus, knowing he was actually going to die, washed the feet of his murderer and spent a sleepless night of agony without whining.

I am far from being Jesus, but maybe I could try to cultivate those same attitudes with respect to my family.

Maybe, just maybe, we could all try to cultivate those same attitudes with respect to each other.

***

It’s not just our families that cause us sleepless nights: Especially now, at this particular moment in history, it’s almost impossible to keep from worrying over the state of our nation and our world. Terrorism and genocide headline international news. Political parties — and their supporters — refuse to listen, talk, or work together. Emotions are high in my own little town over a controversial speaker who was recently invited to speak at Middlebury College.

These things can slowly nibble away at our emotional, physical, and spiritual health.

Everywhere you look, we are divided: nation against nation, race against race, gender against gender, party against party, humans against world. The list goes on, until all the “against’s” crack open and release a flood of vitriolic social media posts, strident position statements, nonsensical legislation, and anxiety-provoking newscasts.

I have been divided against myself as well. Shortly after the U. S. Presidential election, I read something online — I can’t remember who wrote it — the gist of which was: “Now, more than ever, we need writers to give voice to what’s going on.”

I’m a writer, I thought, so I guess I should write about what’s going on. Otherwise I might be complicit; I might become part of the problem.

I wrote a couple of posts about the state of our nation. People who agreed with me were complimentary, and those who didn’t agree either don’t read or stayed gracefully silent.

But I never felt quite right about these posts. So, for the past few months, I’ve stuck to my usual subject matter: Vermont, my children, birds and trees and weather, quaint happenings in our small town. All the while, I’ve felt terribly guilty that I wasn’t addressing Bigger Things.

As I thought about sleepless nights, Jesus, foot washing, and family, I realized the source of my angst: By adding my political opinions to the mix, I feared becoming part of the problem. By choosing sides publicly, I would be complicit in deepening the already deep divides between us. Because at the bottom, the problem isn’t Trump, or ISIS, or Charles Murray: The problem is that we are all picking our sides, digging in our heels, writing our posts and statements against each other.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t care about injustice, or that we shouldn’t speak or act against assaults to human rights. This is to say that we need to choose our issues and how we address them with care.

And it may be that the most important things we do to fight injustice are not done publicly, or on social media. Things like washing feet.

Jesus showed love to Judas, who was about to kill him, by washing his feet. I don’t want to cheapen this act with an overused word  like “love” or “grace;” but perhaps if we applied a little more of  “whatever it takes to wash the feet of your killer” to our lives, our politics, our world, we might see radical change.

“But, Faith,” you say, “Jesus did that, and he was killed anyway.”

Yes, he was. And — regardless of whether you subscribe to the resurrection or the religion that arose after his death — I think most would agree that the world was radically changed.

***

So, for now, I will continue to write about things that are true and beautiful: Vermont, my children, birds and trees and weather, quaint happenings in our small town. And I will continue trying to do “whatever it takes to wash the feet of your killer” when I feel like my family — both the family in my house and my family in the world — is killing me. Given the choice, I’d rather live out what I’m for, rather than write about what I’m against.

Happy Easter.

Surprised by Love

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The weekend getaway was a surprise Christmas present from my husband.

Throughout our 18-year relationship, my husband has excelled at surprises. While we were dating, he orchestrated a “traveling surprise birthday party” for me: As we walked through lower Manhattan, we kept “accidentally” bumping into friends who joined us for dinner, coffee, cake. It was only when everyone converged at a late-night bowling alley that I realized the staggering amount of coordination my husband-to-be had put into the evening, which was anything but accidental.

Our engagement was a similarly impressive covert operation. No picking out the wedding ring together for us: Instead, my husband (then boyfriend) capitalized on my cluelessness to lure me to a Connecticut jewelry store, where my ring finger was measured on behalf of his cousin in California, who apparently had to have a ring from this particular boutique. On the evening of our engagement, the friends with whom we were supposed to have dinner cancelled at the last minute due to “illness,” so we ended up having a romantic dinner alone before strolling around New York City to view the Christmas decorations. It was only when my husband dropped to one knee under the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree and held out a (perfectly sized) ring, that I had any idea of what was happening.

I like surprises, which has served me well in this relationship.

Click here to continue reading the Valentine’s Day edition of my “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

Teaching Our Children About History

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One afternoon earlier this month, my daughters and I gathered around our kitchen island for a snack. I began asking my eldest daughter about a book she was reading. After a few one-syllable responses, she was tired of my questioning. Looking me right in the eyes, she said:

“’Every man his own priest,’ Mommy.”

She was quoting the followers of Martin Luther (“The original, not King, Jr.,” as my daughters are fond of saying.) During the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe, Martin Luther started a movement that changed many of the practices of the Catholic Church and put the Christian faith more firmly in the hands of the people. “Every man his own priest,” was the rallying cry of those who advocated translating the Bible and making copies more widely available, so that people could read and interpret it for themselves.

In other words, my daughter was using a cheeky historical reference to tell me: “If you’re so interested in what I’m reading, read it yourself!”

One year ago I started homeschooling my two oldest daughters, who are now in 2nd and 3rd grades. As much as I’ve taught them over this year, they’ve taught me more. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is just how much children love history.

Click here to continue reading this week’s latest “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.

The Stars At Night

by Campbell Gong

Drawing by Campbell Gong

The other night, I took the dog for a walk down our driveway.

The job of walking our dog after dinner usually falls to my husband; on these frigid winter nights, he dons hat and gloves, ski goggles and earmuffs, snow pants and winter parka, before disappearing into the snowy, blow-y dark. “Hope you make it to base camp!” I’ve been known to holler (unhelpfully) into the mudroom after him, while our daughters collapse in a pile of giggles.

Those daughters are the primary reason why my husband is the designated evening dog-walker: I’m usually occupied by dinner dishes, bedtime stories, and tuck-ins.

But on this particular night, a few days before Christmas, I needed the fresh air and the quiet. My vision was getting fuzzy from all the gift-wrapping, baking, and holiday logistics. Besides, I had a few last-minute Christmas cards to put in the mailbox.

So, after donning my warmest gear (minus the ski goggles and earmuffs), I set out down the driveway with Gracie, our clinically anxious labradoodle.

Let me set the scene, for those who have a more suburban vision of the word “driveway:” Our driveway is a ¼ mile-long, dirt-and-gravel road. We share its initial length with a neighboring house; about halfway down, the driveway branches in two, with one section leading left towards our neighbors’ house, and the other section winding to its conclusion at our front door. The driveway is unlit, as is the main road where it ends. At night, the only light comes from the single bulb outside our front door, and a handful of lights from neighboring houses – the neighbors with whom we share our driveway, the farm beyond the trees, and one or two homes across the main road.

All this to say: At night, the walk down our driveway is dark – very dark. The journey may take upwards of ten minutes round-trip, because ice and snow on the gravel drive make it necessary to step carefully. Ten minutes in single-digit temperatures can feel like a long time.

The night I walked our dog was cold and dark. It was also a clear night, so when I looked up about halfway through my walk, I gasped aloud.

We don’t see the stars much these days, do we?

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

A Brief Meditation on Failing Christmas (Again!)

Every year, I make a concerted, intentional effort to keep Christmas low-key. I buy only four gifts per child (something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.) I try to keep our schedule reasonable and open. I attempt to keep expectations — my own and my family’s — low. I wrestle to emphasize the quiet, reflective practice of Advent, and de-emphasizse the unwrapping frenzy of Christmas morning. I would not touch an elf on a shelf with a ten-foot pole.

So, here we are on Christmas Eve. The boxes are checked: Tree and decorations up. Presents bought and wrapped. Advent candles lit and calendar doors opened. Goodies baked. Christmas cards with smiling photograph of family addressed and sent. My children will likely be dressed, with hair (mostly) brushed, when we attend tonight’s Christmas Eve service. There is even, as I write this, a perfect snow falling over the fields.

It would look to any outside observer like I’ve nailed another Christmas. But I know better: I’ve failed. Again.

I’m not referring to minor logistical slip-ups (I forgot stocking-stuffers for the grandparents, we didn’t make it to the train display before Christmas.) I’m not even referring to more noble goals (We could’ve done more for the needy in our community.) I’m referring to my heart.

Every year, I expect to reach Chrismas Eve filled with a sense of inner peace, of quiet joy, of spiritual renaissance. I expect to feel the way that every nativity scene Mary looks: Serene. Holy. Full of love.

Instead, I feel unsettled. Stressed. Frustrated with myself and others. Exhausted. All the Advent devotionals in the world can’t made me feel more holy. If you were to look inside, I would appear more Lady MacBeth than Mary.

One thing is different this year, though: This year, it hit me that it’s okay to approach Christmas feeling broken. Not only is it okay, it’s kind of the point of Christmas. Christmas is, after all, about a light shining in the darkness. And me? I’m part of that darkness.

It’s a good thing to try and downsize Christmas, to deemphasize consumption and packed schedules and all of the other perfect trappings that we expect from ourselves. But it’s important to recognize that we can’t, by ourselves, like up to the ideal of a peaceful, holy, “Silent Night” kind of Christmas, any more than we can expect piles of gifts and mounds of food to fill up our emptiness.

We are the darkness. And if we’re trying too hard to be the light, then we’re not letting the real light — the real point of Christmas — shine as brightly as He should. We’re the moon, not the sun. And the moon by itself is just a dark lump of rock.

Put another way: The baby Jesus was laid in the straw of a feeding trough in a dark cave-stable, and that was good enough for Him.

When I remind myself of this, then I can relax into my unsettled, imperfect Christmas. I hope that you can, too. Maybe this will be the year when we rejoice at having failed Christmas, again.