Category Archives: Womanhood

American Girls

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On the second day of 2019, because everyone else had returned to school but our homeschooling family was taking a full second week of vacation, because our eldest daughter complained that “we never go anywhere,” and because we needed a change of scenery, we packed the minivan for an overnight trip to the Boston suburbs. It was a hastily conceived voyage, designed loosely around the goals of:

  1. Providing some sort of enrichment for our children
  2. Spending time with extended family
  3. Getting our youngest daughter to quit begging us to visit an American Girl doll store

That we were able to accomplish all of those things in less than 36 hours and live to tell about it seems near-miraculous. And it turned out to be a journey through the landscape of the American girl.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column (the first of 2019!) in The Addison Independent. 

I Just Can’t Get That Song Out of My Head

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“I want to play you a song, to see if you know it,” my husband said to me at breakfast last week.

My husband is what we jokingly call a “binge listener”—he’ll latch on to a song or the oeuvre of a particular artist, and listen to it on repeat for weeks on end, until the rest of us are clutching our heads in desperation, praying that he’ll move on to a new obsession.

If my husband and I shared musical tastes, it wouldn’t be so bad. To be fair, there are artists that weagree on, but over the nearly two decades that we’ve known each other, our tastes have diverged dramatically. When I’m able to listen to music thatIenjoy (rather than what my daughters are demanding from the backseat), it’s usually something in the alternative/folk genre; anything heartbreaking with a banjo, fiddle, and a twangy voice will do. My husband, on the other hand, likes music that he can play (on repeat) while he works: jazz, classical, rhythm and blues. One of his constants throughout our relationship — and a song that I will never be able to embrace, no matter how much I love my husband — is Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out.”

So, as my husband hunted down his latest favorite on his tablet and pressed “play,” I braced myself.

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

“The Best Part”

Our family has been making an effort to spend less time online these days, but the other morning – right before a full day of dropping two daughters at gymnastics, running errands, picking up a daughter’s friend, and taking five girls to the lake – I decided to take a quick peek at Facebook.

When I first saw the news headline that had been posted by three friends, my first thought was: That HAS to be a mistake. Or some kind of sick joke.

The news was that Ryan and Lora Smith, dear friends from our Berkeley days, had been killed along with their 4-year-old son, Caleb, in Georgia (the country, not the state.)

To say that they were dear friends may seem strange, since we hadn’t seen them in person since 2011 (aside from a Skype session I did with Lora back in 2014.) We’d met them in 2009 at our church in Berkeley and for a couple of years our worlds collided. Lora volunteered with Project Peace, the nonprofit I was working for at the time, and Ryan and my husband met several times to discuss both the business and spiritual aspects of Ryan’s future plans. Then they moved to Georgia in order to start ReWoven, and we moved to Vermont. Their family was out West, so whenever they returned to the States they flew right over us.

But there are some people with whom you continue to feel connected despite time and distance; the Smiths were like that. We kept up with them through their regular email updates: they were building relationships within their community and with Azeri rug weavers, they were so committed to Georgia that they became dual citizens, and just this past fall they finally moved into the house that they’d built in Marneuli.

Aside from these updates, Lora and I kept up an irregular email correspondence, mostly about things like childbirth and childrearing (since she seemed to assume I knew anything about either!)

If you’re getting the impression that Ryan and Lora were filled with light and life and love, you’d be correct. But they were also shadowed by death. Their first daughter, Shannon, died in 2012 at just nine days old. When Caleb was born in 2014, we all rejoiced. But then Lora suffered through several miscarriages – the most recent one this past September. I marveled at the strength and faith with which Lora handled these losses; despite her pain – or perhaps because of it – she poured herself into caring for other mothers and children. Still, I always hoped that she’d have some great, joyful miracle in her life – maybe another child, maybe something else –  just anything to counter-balance the suffering. Because, you know, she deserved it.

Wouldn’t it be nice if life’s mathematics worked out so neatly?

What happened instead does not compute. It is senseless, violent, horrific, brutal. After I read the news, I took my daughters to gymnastics, ran errands, picked up friends, and went to the lake feeling like someone had punched me in the gut; I couldn’t breathe right. The lake was so lovely, with swallowtail butterflies flitting around and laying their eggs on the sand, and I couldn’t understand why the world wasn’t howling with anguish. Why didn’t the sky rain down fire at the moment of their deaths?

I still don’t understand. Just like I don’t understand why Lora lost her babies when so many of us were praying for them. And the only way I know how to process my lack of understanding is to sit in the discomfort of knowing that life’s mathematics are much more than what we can see or imagine.

Lora knew this, so I leave you with the words that she wrote to me after Shannon’s death:

I don’t know why, I guess it’s just a way I’ve looked at the world in a broad scope for so long.  But I guess I’m an optomist at heart and have always looked at the ‘bright side’ of things. And never reaized until I’m writing this to you, that even in this, I am seeing the best part… Shannon in heaven, by-passing this life of ups and downs and getting to live and dwell in perfect love and peace forever. She’s lucky. I still want her here and to be her parent, but that’s not happening, and I’m having my own roller coaster of emotions with that fact.

I think these words express how so many of us are feeling about losing the Smiths. Below, I’ve also reposted something I wrote after Shannon’s death, which seems to still apply as we wrestle with “the best part” of this latest loss.

 

THOUGHTS AFTER A FIGHT

Some weeks, faith feels like the middle miles of a marathon, or the transition stage of childbirth, or 4:30 PM everyday in our house: when you say to yourself, “I just don’t think I’m going to make it.” This has been one of those weeks.

A beautiful baby’s fight ended this morning. We met her parents several years ago at our church in California. Around the same time we moved to Vermont, they moved overseas to work as missionaries — missionaries with a deep respect for their host culture, who wanted to know their community and be helpful in meaningful ways. Her mama started work as an English teacher at a local school, and her papa was researching various business ventures. Shortly after they moved, they sent out an email announcing the happy news that they were expecting their first child. And shortly after that, the trouble started: about halfway through the pregnancy, her mama started leaking amniotic fluid. She was put on bed rest and received various treatments, but things didn’t improve. Miraculously, despite low fluid levels, the baby continued to thrive. And then, about a week ago, their baby girl was delivered two months early. She was born with a systemic infection that affected her vital organs, and a lung condition that prevented oxygen from being absorbed into her bloodstream. This sweet newborn was put on a ventilator in intensive care, where she fought for her life. Hundreds of people all over the world were praying for her by this point. Her life ended today, at 9 days old.

Her parents’ faith, as expressed in their email updates, appears to be Teflon-strong. But then, they’ve been in the middle of a fight. I know from experience that, faith-wise, it’s often harder to watch a fight from the sidelines than to be one of the participants — at least while the fight’s going on. When you’re dodging blows and trying to land punches, you don’t have time to think about whether it’s fair.

Here’s what I think, though (not that anybody’s asking): What’s up with THIS, God?!? Here’s a faithful couple that’s just trying to do everything you told them to do — to love and serve others — and what did it get them? Stranded in a faraway country with a high risk pregnancy and a premature baby, THAT’S what it got them. This was your chance to pull out all the stops, move some mountains. Miracle Time! WHERE WERE YOU?!?

This type of situation is where my faith starts to fray. And I know I’m not alone. Of course, there’s lots of suffering in the world, and all of it is tragic. But when it’s a baby or young child who is sick, suffering, dying — someone who’s barely had the chance to live — what’s the point? I can’t think of anything more unjust. As a mother, I can barely process these stories, because they’re the worst of my worst-case scenarios. Then I look at my three healthy daughters, and it’s an embarrassment of riches. It’s. Just. Not. Fair.

Frankly, God doesn’t give me a whole lot of help here. One example of many, which we tend to gloss over in the joy of Christmas, is that a direct consequence of Jesus’s birth was the Slaughter of the Innocents: King Herod ordering that all babies under age two be killed. What’s up with THAT, God?!?

I have no good answers. I have nothing helpful to say to our friends, these mourning parents, other than: “I’m so sorry. We’re still praying for you.”

But it’s not all radio silence from God, either. Because, the same week that this baby girl was born, I happened to be reading Annie Dillard’s essay, “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” in which she writes:

It is difficult to undo our own damage, and to recall to our presence that which we have asked to leave….What have we been doing all these centuries but trying to call God back to the mountain, or, failing that, raise a peep out of anything that isn’t us?…At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world, Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening. After a time you hear it: there is nothing there….There is a vibrancy to the silence, a suppression, as if someone were gagging the world.

Oddly, reading this passage started to reweave my fraying faith. Annie Dillard reminded me that when we wait for answers that don’t come, it’s not because that’s just how things are; it’s because things are wrong. People end up in trouble far from home, babies get sick and die, and nature itself is gagging.

Wait a minute, you may be thinking, that’s the GOOD news? Well, yes. That things are horribly wrong at this moment in history doesn’t disprove the existence of God, or his ultimate goodness. Because the wrong-ness of a baby having to fight for life, and of nature’s silence as recorded by Annie Dillard, IS answered, almost directly, by Isaiah 55:8-13 (This is for my mom: See, Mom, I’m listening!) I’m going to quote the entire passage, because it’s good stuff:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of the thornbush will grow the pine tree, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow. This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign, which will not be destroyed.”

I’ve mentioned before that Erick and I help our daughters — and ourselves — grapple with the unanswerable questions of sadness and fear by paraphrasing from The Return of the King: One day everything sad will come untrue. Praying for this baby, and then reading Annie Dillard and Isaiah, I realized that I often dwell in the everything sad, but I have so little vision for the will come untrue. Isaiah 55 helped me color in that vision a bit. Mountains and hills bursting into song? Trees clapping their hands? I tend to read that as poetic hyperbole, but what if it’s literal? I can hardly imagine singing mountains or clapping trees that don’t look like some corny CGI effect, and every day I see mountains and trees when I look out my window. What if that’s what actually happens when nature regains its voice?

And if mountains are singing and trees are clapping, what might this baby girl be doing on that day? You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.

I usually forget to remember that when we pray, we’re praying for eternity. Not just for what will happen tomorrow, or next week, or next year. Our prayers stretch out of time through forever. My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. God has all the time in the world to make wrong things right, sad things untrue. And when that’s what we’re praying for, I have to believe that the answer will always, eventually, be YES.

I took all the photos in this post during a 2007 trip down the California coast (I was pregnant with Fiona but didn’t know it yet). They seemed strangely to fit.

Love in the Poultry Yard

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“I think those hens are about to start a #MeToo movement,” my husband said, coming in one night after tucking our chickens into their coop.

Yes, spring fever has struck our poultry. Watching the chickens and ducks act on their hormonal urges, I can almost hear the voice of Friend Owl in Bambi: “Nearly everybody gets ‘twitterpated’ in the spring!”

In that Disney-fied, animated world, being “twitterpated” involves a lot of animals fluttering their eyelashes, blushing under their fur, and slinking off into the flowers. That is not the truth; at least, not in our poultry yard.

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.

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. 

The Cow on the Wall

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The cow was hanging on the wall, opposite the checkout counter at the Sweet Charity resale shop in Vergennes, and I fell in love with it immediately.

That I was in Sweet Charity, without children, on a Saturday afternoon, was due to a series of anomalous events. My husband was in Chicago for work, so a generous friend had taken pity on me and invited all four of my children over to her house to play for a couple of hours.

Faced with two precious hours of free time after two days of single parenting, I did what any woman would do: I went shopping for home furnishings with my mother, of course.

Click here to continue reading my latest “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.