Friday, March 22, 2013

the practice of being here (sometimes I don't like my neighbourhood)

Can I be honest tonight as I write and try to process a bit?

Sometimes I don't like my neighbourhood, especially on Friday nights.  I don't enjoy walking my two kids past the bar hosting "waitresses", the topless kind, or seeing men driving slowly up and down the street I live on, looking for sex.  I didn't like it when the (hopefully) drunk man walked at the same pace as me from across the street, lifting his shirt up when I gave him the "please don't mess with me, sir" stare, (all the while I'm planning what I will shout/scream at him should he cross the street).  I wouldn't miss the momentary heart palpitations, the feeling that my children and I aren't safe at 5:30pm as the sun shines bright.  (I'm pretty sure we are, it just doesn't always feel that way.)

I'm not sure if us living here, on this street, is really making any kind of difference.  Two years we've been here, I've watched quirky little businesses be born and close up their windows, I've seen women hang around for a few months and be gone, I think the bars are even getting more business than before, with university girls crowding outside, stumbling drunk and yelling at guys.

All I can think is that somehow this place is holy, just how it is.  It's so holy that it deserves a witness: to it's blooming and dying, the coming and going of God's children, to see how the rain floods the streets, how the clouds are massive and white heading towards the ocean and the breeze is near constant and soft.  We should take off our shoes.


And maybe it's just about my presence, the practice of being here.  If you come and pick up a woman in your SUV, I will be walking by you with my double pram full with kids, and we will see you.  As you walk into the bar with your buddies to lust over some topless women, I'll look you in the eyes as I pass by.  I'm not trying to shame you or even judge you, I'm just trying to take a walk in my neighbourhood.  This is where I live.  The shalom of this place is all tangled up with my own.

I'll ask you, neighbour, if your cat is feeling any better today, I saw you trying to coax her down from our garage roof last evening.  I'll stop in your shop and buy that elusive ingredient for tonight's dinner and ask you how you've survived here for fourty years, your business, your marriage.  Tell me.  How is your newest granddaughter?  I know you're so proud of her.  And if you are standing on the corner waiting for a man to come with some cash, I'll see you too; I'll smile and wave and we'll connect at least briefly, our eyes for sure but hopefully more.

I'm learning to be a better neighbour here, slowly.  I'm learning to ask good questions, to linger a bit longer, to remember things from past conversations and let people know what's going on with us.  I'm learning from the collective wisdom of years put in here without some grandious dreams of redemption.  People are just here because they're here and that's a pretty good reason I reckon.

Sometimes I really, really want a little house and a yard with green grass under toddler feet.  Sometimes I want a park free of graffitti and no drunk men urinating on the play equipment, no beer bottles or needles in the grass.  I don't want my kids to witness sexploitation or see used condoms on the sidewalk or to overhear the shouting of expletives as a decade-long feud erupts from time to time.

But I do really want my kids to be apart of a neighbourhood: to know the names of shop owners and call the guys next door "big mate".  I want my kids to know the way to their friends houses on foot, friends who look different than us, who might speak different languages and drink their coffee darker than us.

I want my kids to grow up praying for our street, not as some sentimental gesture but because that's where our own safety and sanity lies.  No bar fights this weekend?  We'll all sleep a bit more soundly.  The shalom of this city is all wrapped up with ours. 

This evening, friends brought us dinner: tender lamb in spiced rice, hummus and home-made baklava.  They're about as different from us as you can get, her face covered, his eyes respectfully cast down from mine.  They brought going away presents for the kids as we are headed to SE Asia soon, they knew exactly what my son is obsessed with these days.  Our nations of origin have ideologies set against each other, we can't even get visas to each others homes.  But here, it's different; we are neighbours, giving and receiving friendship, letting the webs of our little families get tangled up with each other.  We don't have to, but we do.  It's better this way.

Sometimes I don't like my neighbhourhood.  And sometimes I wouldn't want to live anywhere else.  Beauty and pain, like always, are wildly intertwined.

Tonight, at least for now, I'll take it all.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Love is always too much. (to chris)


It was our first date in a good long while and we enjoyed it: eating "fush and chups" in the grass by the lake, then dangling our legs off the dock, smiling and remembering and talking about nonsense and not trying to solve any of our problems, not trying to reconcile any of our differences.  Just being together under the same sun that's always been there, before we knew of each other, before even our parents had met.

Dr. Kelley Flanagan, whose blog you love, writes about the dangers of escalation, in It Takes Two to Tango (But it Only Takes One to Love).  Whether it's the "you yell first, I yell louder" of negative escalation, or the "you do something nice, I do something nicer" of positive (but equally unhealthy) escalation, the truth is

"When our behavior in marriage is dependent or contingent upon what has been done to us—regardless of whether that behavior is positive or negative—it results in the destruction of relationship."  [Flanagan]

The past few months have brought on the pressures of money, visa stress and uncertainty of the future, two toddlers who are delightfully destructive and the messy house they help create, lack of sleep (we could write a book on this) and preparing for two months in SE Asia with those wakeful, messy toddler-people.  It's been tough, I know it has. 
We've found ourselves escalating in ways that have surprised us, becoming people we didn't want to be or maybe just seeing who we really are: keeping tallies on sleep-ins, arguing about night-wakings, frustrations about money spent and bills to pay and intimacy and whose days are more tiring–not feeling heard or understood, not feeling cared for or valued enough.  Maybe it's because we can't vent to the bureaucracy or the virtual bank teller or our children that we've been spewing it out on each other.  This is not how we want to be. 

Blame it on stress but that's not going away anytime soon.  It's just the normal pressures of life, not even long-term sickness or a troubled child.  This is just what the world spins round on and there's no hunkering down for the end of the storm. It's fairly calm waters, the ocean just happens to be a risky place.  Some stress is because of lifestyle choices we've made, some because of babies we've made and some because of our inherent priorities, but there's no looking forward to an easier time.  Children make your hair grey and your bones tired, money is elusive for most of us and there are so many things in life that will keep us up at night.  

Remember the old story we told ourselves again and again when we were dating, when we were planning to marry?  How when God's people were living as refugees in Babylon, when they were traumatized and scared, fearing future days of possible extinction, when they were in that place they didn't want to be in - the prophet Jeremiah told them to build a house, plant gardens and eat the produce; get married and give birth to children and give those children in marriage when they grow.  When everything in you says keep your boxes packed and be ready to run,  you hang curtains instead, you throw seeds out in the garden, maybe even plant olive trees.  Isn't getting married one of the scariest things we've done, one of our craziest confessions of hope, thinking maybe Love is possible, even here?  So many people we admire have divorced recently - it's foolish to think we can do this.  And the vulnerability of having children, of having real live humans so terrifyingly dependent on us… what were we thinking?

We've not suffered like actual refugees and most likely we never will.  In some ways that old story will never be ours, it belongs to much of the world, people who experience the hardships of life very differently than us.  But somehow, and maybe that's the miracle of story God-breathed, it is our story and it's meant to be.  Vulnerability is implicit in healthy humanity and choosing that story (and for us it's a choice) we are choosing the way of God with His people.  Risk is daily, there's no blueprint to follow, we try to make good choices and hope we are.

How do we walk this road well?  How can we recognize this vulnerability (which is heightened by children and visas and upcoming travel) as a gift straight from God, an invitation to release the stress we think we have to manage.  To let it be drawn back to sea like the tide going out, hands wide open and dust blowing away.  If I can't love the one person in the world I've actually chosen to be with, what can I expect from anyone else?  What hope do I have for nations torn by war, families torn by violence or unfaithfulness, relationships broken by bitterness and regret.  This is important, the stuff that makes us.  The position of our hearts towards each other, the words spoken and not, the forgiveness released,  justice and mercy arriving - it may seem like the daily grind but it's holy, it's sacrament, it's quiet confessions of good future and hope.

I want to reclaim it with you, put our roots back down where they've been dug up in anger, dug up in fear.  It's okay if you're scared.  I am too.  We can do this together, sinking or swimming, we'll create space right here for each other, with room for the world.  

Remember the poem that Nathan read at our wedding, the words from Wendell Berry that we wanted to never forget?

"Our bond is no little economy based on the exchange
of my love and work for yours, so much for so much
of an expendable fund. We don't know what its limits are--
that puts us in the dark. We are more together
than we know, how else could we keep on discovering
we are more together than we thought?...

... Like the water
of a deep stream, love is always too much. We
did not make it. Though we drink till we burst
we cannot have it all, or want it all.
In its abundance it survives our thirst.
In the evening we come down to the shore
to drink our fill, and sleep, while it
flows through the regions of the dark.
It does not hold us, except we keep returning
to its rich waters thirsty. We enter,
willing to die, into the commonwealth of its joy...."

Let us drink again of that deep stream of love, always too much, always strangely out of place, with so much potential to disarm, to baptize, to make new.  Let's release our roots down deep again and be bold in our planting, always growing our expectancy.  

Let's drink in the dark from the stream that is love, always enough, always too much.

Friday, March 8, 2013

baptize my eyes (mercy triumphs over judgement)

I made a friend on the internet called D.L. Mayfield.  She's a fantastic writer (read this about the birth of her daughter - I've been hooked ever since)  and I love the questions she asks about God's kingdom, justice and choosing to live a different dream than the American one.  She's got a great series happening on her blog at the moment and I'm guest-posting there today.  It's my first guest-post ever (oh the healthy pressure!) so please stop over, have a read and add your thoughts to the conversation!  And you should subscribe to D.L.'s blog cause it's consistently good stuff.

Off you go!

-b

Saturday, March 2, 2013

If Mary Could Do It, Why Couldn't I? (some thoughts on the variables of birth)

You know what I think one of the biggest Christmas miracles is?  That Mary, the mother of Jesus, didn't die during or after Jesus' birth.  She was likely a young teenager, giving birth in less than sterile conditions, her first pregnancy.  I'm not sure who would have attended her birth, I'm assuming some aunties at least, was anyone skilled in case there was an emergency?  I highly doubt it.  Birth, at that time in the world, would have been a fairly dangerous activity.

But Mary did it: without a syntocinon drip, without pain relief, without a tub of warm water or the peace of mind that she could be rushed to the hospital in case of an emergency.  She did it.

Why couldn't I?



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I sat around a cafe table with five women I love, two of which had mysterious babies pushing their skin thin, their bodies past comfortable, their hearts ready to welcome into arms aching.  A baby shower of sorts.  We were celebrating the last moments with babes inside over coffee and fondue, words flew across the table fast from many mouths and among other topics, the last few year's labours were recounted.

I like hearing my friends' birth stories, but I have to deal with my jealousy, my insecurities come poking, I have to choose not to compare.  My births were harder than I imagined they would be.  Both required some amount of synthetic oxytocin (ie, 'the drip'), my first birth ending in an emergency vacuum delivery, extremely painful and traumatic.  I carried a lot of shame for his first year of life, about my inadequacies in childbirth, that we almost lost him because I couldn't push fast enough, or hard enough. 

Our surprise pregnancy with my daughter 8 months later encouraged my fears to face me, I wrote out my advent confessions, I felt ready to give birth only in the 11th hour.  I haven't written about her birth, maybe someday I will; it ended with a gorgeous baby girl immediately resting on my chest, glad cries of deliverance abounding, sweet nursing within minutes and I couldn't have been more relieved.  But I didn't get there without some painful interventions, a hormone drip to finish the work after 16 hours labouring that nearly did me in.  When I compare with my son's birth it was so much better.  But I'm still not sure why my body doesn't seem to do birth well, why my daughter turned posterior in active labour and I stopped progressing, why both times my waters broke so early on but my contractions didn't cooperate.  I can pick apart my births and decisions that were presented to me as the only options available and I think I did have some interventions that could have been delayed or were less than necessary.  But in those intense hours of pain and emotions and uncertainties, they seemed like the best decisions my husband and I and our very skilled midwives could make.

I have two children with me now.  My second birth was a non-instrumental vaginal birth with a baby girl who still breastfeeds well.  I'm so, so very grateful – grateful, but also interested with how it all works and how it doesn't seem to work for some of us.  I have helped many women bring their children into the world, in a handful of beautiful places (although not necessarily tourist destinations).  I understand the physiology of birth.  I had very easy pregnancies, I exercised (kind of), I gained the right amount of weight - and I am an extremely optimistic person.  I was pretty sure, both times, that I would have a surprise accidental home birth after using the bathroom sometime around 40 weeks.  I thought very positively, I let God come to my fears (which was much more costly and freeing the second time around) and I practiced active birthing, you've never seen someone walk so much in early labour.  My husband was an incredibly comforting presence, hands marathon-rubbing my back and praying in my ears, we were a team like never before.

If there was a formula, I would have aced the exam.  Unfortunately, I wasn't the only one who was participating that day, and even over my own body I wasn't in control; isn't that the surrender of bringing new life from earthen vessels?


Many cultures celebrate easy births with proclamations of how strong the mother was during labour.  Isn't she amazing?  She was born to do this!  Look at her, no drugs - wow, what an incredible woman!  In some cultures it's more pronounced, with a woman's worth being extremely intertwined with the amount of children she can produce for her husband.

What does that kind of language mean for women's births who didn't turn out the way they planned?  The hospital transfer and cesarean birth after 30 hours labouring at home?  The 15 year old Ethiopian woman who's birth ends with a stillborn child and a debilitating fistulae?  The woman who takes an epidural after 20 hours of posterior labour with little progress?  Or the woman who's desperate to be pregnant and has not yet conceived?

Midwives talk about the variables surrounding birth.  There's the powers, the passenger, the passage and the psyche.  The uterus needs to produce contractions that are increasingly stronger, longer and closer together.  The baby inside has a say as well, a good position is optimal and some ways the baby can lie make it down-right impossible to be born vaginally, no matter how long you labour for, or how hard you push.  The passage, the pelvis and birth canal, can vary in size and shape and malnutrition, rickets, puberty, and female genital mutilation can all cause difficulties, fistulae, and even death for women in the developing world.  And the woman's psyche plays a role as well:  trust, confidence, and a safe, supportive environment are all vital components, tipping the scale in multiple ways.  We all experience pain in different ways, some of us have endured abuse and trauma that can surface during labour and birth.

Many of those factors are out of our control. 
Some women birth babies with ease, like the older lady at church who told me her second child was born basically with one contraction, no pushing (or even labouring) necessary.  Some women labour for days, giving it all they've got, and their baby is born via emergency cesarean.  And there are stories of suffering and loss, especially in Africa and Central Asia but even close to home.  Even our western obsession with control will never tame pregnancy, birth and the thin space between rejoicing and weeping.

Recognizing the variables of birth helps me come to terms with my birth experiences; I did my best but there were other factors involved that I could not control.  If I give birth again I might have the home birth experience I would like; or I might need the hormone drip again to give my powers what they need to bring the passenger through the passage.  Or I could have a scheduled cesarean.

When things go as planned people say we are strong, capable, incredible. When things don't go well in birth it's so common to blame ourselves. The truth is there are so many variables at work outside of our control. 

I do think God's intention is for women to have healthy, vaginal births.  The prophet Isaiah declares of God's redemption in the world:

"Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years… They will not labor in vain, nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune."  (from Isaiah 65)


Unfortunately, I don't think God's will always happens in the world.  Not yet, anyway.


I wish I could control the variables, for all of us bringing babies into the world, for all of us living with our bodies in the 'not-yet' of God's healing reign.  There are things we can do that contribute to natural childbirth:  learning as much as you can about birth is an important thing, being empowered in knowledge about your body's capabilities, hearing positive birth stories from other women,  having access to a skilled birth attendant, avoiding unnecessary interventions, being well-nourished and giving birth when your body is finished developing (17+), having supportive people around you during your birth, processing through abuse or trauma that you've previously suffered.  But even if we do all of those things (and more), there is no guarantee that we can push our baby out without help.

I rejoice with my friends and acquaintances when they have the births they desire, when the variables all align for the good and the baby comes screaming.  I also honour my friends who give birth differently than they would have hoped, and I support them as they grieve and process and heal.  A healthy mom and a healthy baby is nothing to take for granted, but ignoring our feelings of disappointment doesn't help us move forward.

 We are amazing, all of us, not because of what we do, but because of who we are.  We are women, made in the image of God; a God who loves and creates and labours in a world with things out of Her control, and is sometimes left disappointed.

----


I will sing for the one I love

a song about his vineyard:

My loved one had a vineyard

on a fertile hillside. 
 
He dug it up and cleared it of stones

and planted it with the choicest vines.

He built a watchtower in it

and cut out a winepress as well.

Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,

but it yielded only bad fruit.
 
“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,

judge between me and my vineyard.

What more could have been done for my vineyard

than I have done for it?

When I looked for good grapes,

why did it yield only bad?  
 
 
Isaiah 5:1-4

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I would LOVE to hear your thoughts, whether you gave birth in the manner that you expected, or if things turned out differently than you planned.  Does any of this resonate with you?  What are your thoughts on how births turn out?  What am I missing?