Category Archives: Womanhood

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. 

Amnesia: Thoughts After the Morning After the Election

After my husband announced the results of the 2016 Presidential election to our daughters when they came barreling downstairs the following morning, they thought he was kidding. Like this was some kind of April Fools’ Day joke. “Mommy, tell Daddy to stop and tell the truth!”

When we showed them the headlines, it became:

“I’m going back to bed; wake me up in four years.”

“I’m gonna need a LOT of Cheerios!”

and, “See, I TOLD you they should let kids vote!”

Then, we prayed for President-elect Donald Trump: that his heart would be soft and that he would be a good President.

You probably gleaned two bits of information from this anecdote: First, that our family did not support Donald Trump in this election, and second, that we’re Christians — not just the social, church-on-Christmas-and-Easter type of Christians, but the type who actually believe this stuff.

You’d be right on both counts.

To clarify a bit: While my husband and I were definitely not Trump supporters, neither were we ardent Hilary Clinton enthusiasts. It’s just that our tepidness over Clinton was outweighed by our horror over Trump. (Also, we thought it would be pretty great for our four daughters to see a woman elected President.)

And those four daughters, who range in age from 3 to 8 years old: we allowed them to reach their own conclusions about this election. We live in a small town in Vermont, we do not have a television, the only periodical we receive is our local paper, and we homeschool our two oldest daughters, so they were exposed to remarkably little media hysteria relative to other children in this county. Furthermore, politics are not a major focus of our family’s conversations; because beloved members of our immediate family vote on both sides of the aisle, our rule is “no talking politics at the dinner table.”

Nevertheless, based on the information they did have, our daughters reached the independent conclusion that Donald Trump would not have received their votes for President.

That’s where we were on the morning after the election. So we prayed. We talked. We put one foot in front of the other. I asked the same questions that many were and are asking: How did we get here? and What do we do now? 

Because I have to do most of my feeling and thinking while simultaneously feeding, caring for, teaching, and chauffeuring four young children, ideas bounce around in my head quite a bit. But somewhere in between washing the dishes and scrubbing the bathroom sink, I came to the conclusion that these two questions,  How did we get here? and What do we do now?, are grounded in the same fundamental issue. That issue is our amnesia: the collective amnesia of our country, which is perhaps the collective amnesia of the human race. We got here because we forgot, and what we can do now is to remember.

I believe the things we have forgotten can be broken into three broad categories:

  1. We have forgotten the lessons of history.
  2. We have forgotten the lessons of childhood.
  3. We have forgotten the lessons of Jesus.
  1. We have forgotten the lessons of history.

On the morning after the election, I was reminded of some verses from the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel, which our pastor had preached on some weeks before. To set the scene, it’s somewhere around the 9th century BC, and the Israelites have just asked Samuel, one of their priestly judges, to choose a king to rule over them:

1 Samuel 8: 10-18  So Samuel told them, delivered God’s warning to the people who were asking him to give them a king. He said, “This is the way the kind of king you’re talking about operates. He’ll take your sons and make soldiers of them—chariotry, cavalry, infantry, regimented in battalions and squadrons. He’ll put some to forced labor on his farms, plowing and harvesting, and others to making either weapons of war or chariots in which he can ride in luxury. He’ll put your daughters to work as beauticians and waitresses and cooks. He’ll conscript your best fields, vineyards, and orchards and hand them over to his special friends. He’ll tax your harvests and vintage to support his extensive bureaucracy. Your prize workers and best animals he’ll take for his own use. He’ll lay a tax on your flocks and you’ll end up no better than slaves. The day will come when you will cry in desperation because of this king you so much want for yourselves. But don’t expect God to answer.”

19-20 But the people wouldn’t listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We will have a king to rule us! Then we’ll be just like all the other nations. Our king will rule us and lead us and fight our battles.”

21-22 Samuel took in what they said and rehearsed it with God. God told Samuel, “Do what they say. Make them a king.”

So, even as early as 1000 BC, people were looking for human leaders to solve their problems, despite clear warnings that human leaders were more likely to come at a cost than to offer salvation.

My daughters and I have been studying the Middle Ages worldwide as part of our homeschool curriculum, and they’ve picked up on the repeated patterns of history: One or two good and unifying rulers, followed by centuries of corruption, weak rule, and decline. “Oh no! Bad idea!” they exclaim, when they see the fall coming.

Why do we fail to remember this? Why do we never see it coming?

Throughout my forty-one years of life as a United States citizen, every new President has been elected in reaction to the previous administration. Every new President brings the promise of change. And the people who voted for that new President always think: “At last, we’ve found the one who will solve all of our problems!”

And every single time, they are disappointed. Sometimes the disappointment is vague, as when a President is merely ineffectual; sometimes it’s more acute, when Presidents lead our country into choices and conflicts that we’re still struggling to untangle.

This isn’t just a pattern in United States history; it’s a pattern throughout human history.

But the world is still turning. I’m not denying the atrocities that have resulted from dangerously evil human leadership, both in ancient and recent history. But somehow, still, people have gone on, have had children and planted gardens and found joy in small things, and — for a time, at least — been more cautious about the leaders they choose.

It may be that we’re on the downslope of this particular, tiny moment in history. And nobody wants to be on a downslope. But wherever we are, we’d do well to remember these lessons from history: That, thus far, no human leader has solved all our problems, nor has any human leader ended the world.

  1. We have forgotten the lessons of childhood. 

One of the most instructive and potentially positive lessons from this election year was that it opened many of our eyes to the number and breadth of people in this country who feel threatened and disenfranchised. There are the young, white, non-college-educated males who suffer from a lack of employment, purpose, and opportunity. There are those who feel that our country has gone off the moral rails. There are racial, religious, ethnic, and sexual groups who feel the oppressive hatred of prejudice. This year we were reminded that our country has yet to overcome the evil unleashed by slavery and segregation. The leering specter of sexism reared its ugly head as well.

How we got in this mess is complicated. It’s the human mess that we’ve been dealing with since the beginning of time, but it’s a mess that’s found particularly fertile soil in today’s American culture, with its lust for wealth and power. This culture is perpetuated by a free market capitalism that values only growth, at the expense of our communities, our environment, and our health and happiness. We want more: more money, more stuff, more food, more and bigger houses, more technology. To quote Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, we just keep on “biggering and biggering.”

It strikes me that we could have avoided much of this — or at least failed to be surprised by it — had we simply remembered some of the basic lessons of childhood. These are simple tenets of kind and responsible human behavior that we teach our preschoolers, and I don’t even have to leave Dr. Seuss’s oeuvre to lay them out.

There’s Yertle the Turtle, in which the title character, a turtle king, insists on making a teetering tower of his fellow turtles so that he can be the highest of all. Lesson: If you try to get ahead on the backs of other people, you will topple eventually.

There’s The Lorax, in which unrestrained greed leads to environmental destruction. Lesson: If you try to get ahead on the back of the environment, everything will topple eventually.

There’s The Sneetches, in which segregation leads to a ridiculous race for sameness. Lesson: We should celebrate our differences, not use them as divisive power plays.

And, of course, there’s Horton Hears a Who, which reminds us repeatedly that, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

One possible way forward out of the mess we’ve made is offered in a lesser-known Dr. Seuss poem, called “What was I Scared of?” In this story, the main character continually has frightening run-ins with an ominous “pair of pale green pants with nobody inside them!” Finally, he comes face-to-face with the pants:

“I yelled for help. I screamed. I shrieked.

I howled. I yowled. I cried,

‘Oh, save me from these pale green pants

With nobody inside!’

 

“But then a strange thing happened.

Why, those pants began to cry!

Those pants began to tremble.

They were just as scared as I!”

It’s this realization that they share a fear of each other that dissolves that fear and paves the way for a happy ending:

“And, now, we meet quite often,

Those empty pants and I,

And we never shake or tremble.

We both smile

And we say

‘Hi!'”

We can allow this election to increase our fear of each other; to become more divided along party, racial, sexual, economic, educational, and religious lines. Or we can recognize that, if we share nothing else, we share fear. We all fear the loss of dignity, of life, of livelihood, of freedom. We all fear for our children. Maybe, if we can start there and meet face-to-face, the fears we have in common might even begin to dissolve.

  1. We have forgotten the lessons of Jesus.

And now, a few words for my fellow Christians (although, even if you don’t share my particular set of beliefs, you’re still welcome to listen in!)

Throughout this election cycle, I heard Christians on both sides loudly, passionately endorsing their candidate as the more Chrisitan choice, implying that those who thought otherwise weren’t “real” or “good” Christians.

Whenever I hear or read some version of the question, “How would Jesus vote?” I chuckle a little. Not because we shouldn’t attempt to figure out how to vote in alignment with our spiritual values, but because if we claim to have a lock on whom Jesus might elect, we’re forgetting who Jesus was.

How would Jesus vote? The fact is, Jesus never voted — he never had the chance. Jesus was born into the family of a humble tradesman in a small, backwater town in the far-flung reaches of the Roman Empire. The Israel of Jesus’s time was chafing from a combination of abuse and neglect by Rome, and one of the reasons that people overlooked Jesus as a possible Messiah was because they expected any Messiah worth his salt to overthrow Roman rule.

That Jesus did not overthrow Rome and had no intention of leading a political revolt is clear, both from history and from his famous exhortation to “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

So, if we’re looking to Jesus for political guidance, we’ll have to stick to how he lived. He hung out with the lowest, most despised, least touchable elements of his culture. Lepers, prostitutes, common fishermen, women, and corrupt officials who did Rome’s dirty work — these were the people Jesus spent the most time with. And he urged others to do the same: To feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and love our neighbors (even, especially, when that neighbor was a member of an enemy ethnicity.) Jesus was always direct about telling people to turn from their sin, but he was never not loving and respectful to these marginalized individuals. His harsh words were reserved for the religious leaders of his day.

The only time that Jesus came face-to-face with political power was when he was being dragged around by an angry mob that was demanding his execution on false pretenses. And what did Jesus do when he had the full attention of Herod, of Pontius Pilate? Launch into a theological defense? Urge them to change their policies? Lament the injustice of his treatment?

Nope. Jesus barely spoke to these political leaders. If we look at all four Gospels, we see Jesus making roughly four statements to Pilate in which he essentially confirms his identity, and nothing at all to Herod. By thus refusing to engage with the political powers of his day, Jesus effectively condemned himself to death.

American Christians, are we really following Jesus’s lead? I don’t know; a lot of Christians I see seem to have the idea that our mission should be to make this a Christian Nation, that the country should be run entirely based on a set of cherry-picked Biblical priorities.

Here is how modern America has tended to experience Christians in the political arena: We complain that we’re “under attack” because the country is failing to conform to some (primarily conservative) vision for our nation that we ascribe to God. We want this country’s laws to reflect our religious beliefs. We insist that others should respect our (primarily conservative) moral code so as not to offend our delicate sensibilities. We demand respect from people with other lifestyles and belief systems, without in any way affording them that same respect.

Where this behavior came from, I don’t know, but it sure wasn’t from Jesus. Among his last words to Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus wasn’t interested in power or politics. He was in the business of changing hearts, not laws. And, while I can’t say for sure, I have a feeling that Jesus would be puzzled by a two-party political system that seems to force us to prioritize either the rights of unborn babies or the rights of women, minorities, the sick, and the poor – but, apparently, you can’t choose both.

A word about abortion before I close: The Christians I know who supported Trump almost always cite abortion as one of the most important issues influencing their voting. They hoped that a vote for Trump would result in the repeal, or at least the rolling back, of this country’s abortion laws.

I am a huge fan of babies and children, having four myself. I would not characterize myself as a “supporter” of abortion. But I also understand that abortion is never a lighthearted act. The reasons a woman might choose to obtain an abortion are myriad, running the gamut from economic and lifestyle concerns to trauma and health issues. I imagine that women enter the doctor’s office for an abortion as a result of panic, agonizing decision-making, or something in between, and that they feel a mix of relief, sorrow, fear, and anguish. But I cannot imagine that ever in history has a woman received an abortion because she thought it would be something fun to do in her free time.

Do we, as Christians, consider all of these things when we advocate outlawing abortion? Do we consider the women? And, most importantly, do we consider what really causes so many women to end up with unwanted pregnancies?

Blaming promiscuity and moral laxity is too simple. I point my finger at a culture that tells our children in a variety of ways, at ever younger ages, that their worth is determined by their bodies, that affirmation is to be found only in relationships, that loving relationships must necessarily be sexual, and that the purpose of life is to do what makes you feel good. If our country’s culture continues to separate people from community and meaningful work and good affordable healthcare, to separate relationships from anything other than pleasure, and to separate sex from fertility and partnership, is it any wonder that so many of our young women end up with unwanted pregnancies?

It seems to me that Jesus would deal with these heart issues, these root causes of abortion. And he’d do it within the context of relationships, not in the halls of power. American Christians want to make laws, because, frankly, it’s easier. But outlawing abortion treats only the symptoms, not the cause, like offering a Tums to someone who’s dying of starvation.

And I may be wrong, but I doubt that electing a President who has made a career of presiding over beauty pageants, who speaks of women as bodies rather than people, who refers to his own daughter as “smoking hot,” and who attempts to normalize offensive comments as “locker room talk,” will help us make strides towards addressing the root cultural issues underlying abortion.

But here’s the good news: As Christians, we of all people should not be surprised to find that there is great evil, injustice, and darkness in the world. It’s what Jesus said all along. And we’re supposed to be lights in this darkness, remember? Something else to remember: The most repeated phrase in the Bible is, “Do not be afraid.”

And those two exhortations — to be brave and be light — are not the exclusive property of Christians. They belong to us all.

 

California Sabbatical: Some Lessons of Sabbatical

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I was not exactly looking forward to our family’s sabbatical in Berkeley, California. Our five-month sojourn was a year-and-a-half in the planning, so my mind had plenty of time to run through every nightmarish scenario imaginable. I worried that we couldn’t possibly find a comfortable and affordable home for a family of six. I worried that I would be stuck in this uncomfortable and expensive home all day long with four bickering children and no breaks. I worried that I would miss our life back in Vermont and become depressed.

Yet, even as I worried about these things, here’s how I expected the narrative to unfold: We would arrive in Berkeley, and everything would be fine! All of my worries would prove unfounded, and – as has happened repeatedly in the past – I would say, “I don’t know why I worried so much!”

Imagine my surprise, then, when in fact everything I’d worried about came true – and then some! A few weeks into our sabbatical, not only was I depressed, missing Vermont, and stuck all day in a cramped and expensive rental home with four bickering children, I’d also been blindsided by unexpected setbacks. I hadn’t expected to fracture my foot on our second day in California. I hadn’t expected my husband and children to miss Vermont as much as I did. I hadn’t expected to find the Bay Area – where we’d lived for five years – infinitely more challenging than I remembered because we were no longer used to city life and lines and traffic. I hadn’t expected our California friends to be so very, very busy that it would take months to see some of them.

“It wasn’t supposed to go this way,” I told my husband tearfully. “I worried, so everything was supposed to work out.”

It took nearly the full five months for me to realize that sabbatical was an enormous gift to our family.

Click here to continue reading about the lessons I learned from our sabbatical in this week’s “Faith in Vermont, California Sabbatical” column in The Addison Independent. (This will be the FINAL California edition of this column — actually filed from Oregon, where our family is on vacation before heading back to Vermont!)

 

An Open Letter to the Citizens of Berkeley

Good People of Berkeley:

I’m here from out of town, although I used to live among you. So, I’m prepared to tell you how the rest of the country thinks of you. Mention “Berkeley” to most people, and they immediately conjure up an image of progressive, liberal, peace-loving descendants of the 1960s hippie movement, eating artisanal whole foods while dressed in tie-die and smelling of patchouli. It’s a stereotype, sure, but in my experience it’s a stereotype that the population of Berkeley does little to discourage.

Except for the “peace-loving” part.

Berkeleyites, never have I been among a more stressed-out, rage-filled group of people.

How do I know that you’re stressed-out and rage-filled? Because never in my four decades of life have I been as scolded by complete strangers as I have been in the past five months that I’ve spent among you.

I have been chastised for my driving (usually for not being aggressive enough.) Other people have scolded my children for minor offenses, and then turned and criticized my parenting. And, just this morning, I was barked at for not realizing that the proper system in the bakery where we had taken our children for breakfast — where the line snaked out the door — was not to select your items from the open bins first and then take your place in line (which, confusingly, is the system when the line is shorter), but was instead to wait on line first and select your items as you passed the bins.

Now, I recognize that angry, stressed-out scoldings of total strangers are not unique to Berkeley, but the fact is: I’ve only experienced them here. Sure, I come most recently from a small town in Vermont where everyone knows everyone, which tends to encourage kindness (in public, at least.) But I also lived in Manhattan for seven years. And never once, in all that time, was I lashed out at the way I have been in Berkeley, where I’ve averaged at least one scolding a month.

Let me also say this: The people I actually know in Berkeley are kind, and peace-loving. These scoldings all come from people I don’t know, which, frankly, makes them worse. I can take correction from my husband and close friends, whom I trust to know me, but scolding from a stranger who has no idea of my struggles (although they are generally apparent in the four wiggly young children surrounding me) seems completely unjust.

And do you know who the worst offenders are? Affluent-appearing Caucasian men and women in their 60s and 70s; in other words, the very people who were alive during the Summer of Love and “Give Peace A Chance” and “Imagine” and “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.” The very people who gave Berkeley the stereotype it still bears.

I understand that it’s stressful to live here: You have to sit in traffic and wait in lines for everything – even if you wake up at 8 AM on a Saturday, the bakery line still stretches around the store. I understand that this degree of congestion fosters the idea that other people are aggravating impediments to your own personal muffin consumption, in much the same way that you might take compassion on one ant in your house, but when there’s a line of ants marching across your floor you have to annihilate the suckers. I understand that, in order to live in a city where the median home price is in the $800,000 range you probably work long hours creating technology that encourages human relationships to be played out over screens. I understand that living in a place with a reputation for progressive thinking might encourage a certain aggressive self-righteousness. But here, as an ambassador from small-town Vermont, are two simple suggestions for you, Berkeley:

  1. First, let’s just agree that we should never, ever, EVER take it upon ourselves to correct other people’s children or give unsolicited parenting advice. I think most parents of young children would agree with me that the only times we welcome interference or advice are: 1) If we’ve asked for it, or 2) if death is imminent (i.e. my child is running into traffic.) Otherwise, not to put too fine a point on it: BACK OFF.

No, my children are not perfect. That’s because they are children – they are works in progress. And guess who’s responsible for raising them? ME, that’s who. I’m doing my best to raise responsible adults, but we’re not there yet, and it’s hard work.

My children aren’t perfect, but neither are they monsters. And, if you stopped a moment, you might think that they’re kind of cute. Maybe you could even smile at them, because one thing my children and I have both noticed is that nobody smiles at them here. You might feel better if you did.

So, lady in front of us in line for the gas station bathroom, next time you see a mother surrounded by four young children and one of her children neglects to cover her cough: Before you lash out at mother and child, perhaps consider that this mother has a lot on her hands, that maybe she was about to remind her child of proper hygiene before you stepped in, and also this is a gas station bathroom and those germs are surely not the worst ones around.

  1. BE KIND. The people around you are just as complicated and sensitive as you are. They have hopes and dreams and struggles, just like you do. It behooves us all to consider one another’s humanity as we interact. The things you say and the way that you say them have an impact on people.

Back to my bakery experience: When the man in line barked at me for what he perceived as my cutting the line, he had no idea of my story. And when I apologized and explained that we were from out of town and hadn’t known the system, it made absolutely no difference in the tone he used with me. When my eyes strayed behind him in hopes of finding sympathy elsewhere, I saw that the man behind him was snickering at me, presumably at my stupidity.

These were grown men, and they made me feel like I was back in junior high.

And you know what? It ruined my morning. My scone felt like sand in my mouth, my heart rate was elevated for the next hour; I felt like a bad person. And all we were trying to do was to take our daughters out to a special breakfast.

Berkeleyites who read this might be thinking: Grow a tougher skin. Don’t let one jerk ruin your breakfast. To which I submit: Is that really how we want to be with each other? Grow tougher skins so that others can spew their rage all over us without consequence?

Berkeley is one of the most innovative and creative regions in our country right now. You don’t have to let people steal your muffins, but don’t tell me you can’t come up with more polite methods of correcting people.

There are signs up around Berkeley now that read, “Drive Like Your Kids Live Here.” My daughter saw one of these signs and misread it: “Mommy!” she laughed, “That sign said, ‘Drive Like Your Kids!’ They want you to drive like your kids!”

It was a hilarious misinterpretation that’s become a family joke. But I can’t help thinking how it’s indicative of the Berkeley way of life. All of the signs – the face Berkeley presents to the outside world – seem to encourage responsible and kind cohabitation. Yet in reality, many Berkeleyites are driving like their kids – both literally on the road and metaphorically in their interactions. They bash into each other and cut each other off and honk their horns like a bunch of preschoolers on the playground.

Because the truth is, your politics don’t make you a peacemaker. Neither does your money,  your intelligence, or your success. Peacemaking comes from recognizing that every single person out there was created special and deserving of respect. That’s what we teach our kids, right? So let’s drive like our kids live here.

Five Misconceptions About Sabbatical

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And just like that, Thanksgiving’s over. Before we had a chance to toss out the dried-out autumnal gourd decorations and boil the turkey bones for broth, there were wreaths around town, Christmas carols playing in the stores, and – could it be? – Christmas trees blinking in our neighbors’ windows. With a mere two days between Thanksgiving and the start of Advent, the holiday season seems to be upon us in an even more breathless rush than usual.

But that’s okay: I can keep breathing. It’s not like I’m also preparing to move our family across the country for five months, during which major renovations will be happening on the house we’ll move into after we return, while at the same time our current house goes on the market.

Oh, wait a minute! That’s exactly what’s happening!

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