When the Words Came

My friend Kim once said that running naked around the Internet saved her.

I’ll never forget the day she ran past my window naked, and I was all ME TOO, and then stripped down and ran out after her.

With words, I mean. On the blog—about serious things like infertility and pregnancy loss, and all the ways in which those experiences leave us vulnerable and stripped down and theologically confused. She used the word “suck” a lot, and I started using grown-up words like “ovary” and “egg” on what had been a previously silly and mindlessly entertaining blog space.

But this very public form of therapy connected us to each other, plus an entire world of others, and it was nourishing to be honest, to offer and accept support, to renegotiate perspective and narrate the experience on our own terms.

Also, sometimes it just felt real nice to stand there naked like, SO? THIS THING CAN’T SHAME ME.

And/or—

I’M VERY, VERY SAD. PLEASE SOMEBODY GO GET ME SOME CLOTHES.

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It’s been nine months since I wrote anything. In fact, the last words typed onto this page were in the spring after we lost our first and only pregnancy a month before Mother’s Day, following our first round of IVF.

I’ve spent the last six months looking for the right words to replace those other (guttural) words hanging there naked on the page.

Somehow they needed to just breathe.

They needed to breathe even through a happy and grace-filled summer full of visitors. They needed to breathe through two more rounds of IVF.

And they’ve hung there still, breathing, through six months of pregnancy during which I had real trouble making coherent sense of anything or producing a vocabulary that included pregnancy words.

I just can’t believe it.

Right now a foot-long, pound-and-a-half baby is inside me. She is hearing sounds and trying to open her eyes and sucking her thumb and kicking my bladder.

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Last weekend Jeff and I retreated to the north woods in Wisconsin to gather our thoughts and go outside. I willed myself to reflect and write, but the words wouldn’t come.

And then I read this:

Hiding is a way of staying alive. Hiding is a way of holding ourselves until we are ready to come into the light…

What is real is almost always to begin with, hidden, and does not want to be understood by the part of our mind that mistakenly thinks it knows what is happening. What is precious inside us does not care to be known by the mind in ways that diminish its presence

2015 © David Whyte

This was the sentiment that explained three-fourths of a year of Internet silence, the blog vacuum, half a year growing a baby. My mind could not make sense of what was happening, and words would only diminish its presence.

And by “it” I don’t mean the baby. By “it” I mean the pool of mercy I find myself swimming in every day.

The baby was never the thing. The thing was God’s presence revealed to me in a bottom-of-the-barrel moment that still has me asking, Why would He do this for me?

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After the miscarriage in April, we did two more rounds of IVF treatment through the summer and into the fall.

(We were only able to do IVF, by the way, because we moved for Jeff’s job to a state that miraculously mandates fertility coverage by insurance companies- our heads are still spinning over that unplanned provision.)

Without slipping into all the medical jargon, round two produced dismal results—low egg quantity, maturity, fertilization rates and poor embryo quality, which we brushed off as a fluke.

But then round 3 produced the same results.

On the day of our last embryo transfer, we had 4 embryos that were supposed to have reached the 8 or 10-cell stage, but were all stuck at 4 and 5 cells—just like the round before. The doc suggested we go ahead and transfer three instead of one or two since the odds of success were below 1%. The 4th embryo arrested, as all the others had in rounds before. He patted us on the back with a “better luck next time” sentiment. It was a punch in the gut.

I made a list that night and every night of things that I knew would still be true and good when this test inevitably came back negative two weeks later:

Tacos are still tacos
Fall is still fall
Coffee is still coffee
Jeff—always Jeff
Travel
Fleece
Hoodies

These are the things that would save my life.

But the morning of the blood test, it seemed impossibly cruel to go through the motions of a blood draw knowing there was zero chance of a positive test, then waiting several hours for a nurse to call and tell me no, and then starting the whole process all over again with little hope of a different outcome.

Meanwhile people in my life were signing over rights to four-year-olds I adored and would give anything to care for, and people all over Facebook were like, WHOOPSIE! WE’RE HAVING OUR THIRD OR FOURTH OR FIFTH BABY ON ACCIDENT! or LOOK AT OUR MIRACLE BABY WE CONCEIVED NATURALLY ON THE FIRST TRY AND ALSO WE ALREADY HAVE ONE.

In fertility world, 85% of people get “miracles” and 15% never do. Is God selective? Or is the norm that our bodies are supposed to produce babies and the world is depraved in such a way that some people’s bodies are defective in the same way crime happens and cancer comes and earthquakes hit?

The word “miracle” feels like Christian magic sprinkled sparingly—you get one, he doesn’t. I became acutely aware of my use of the word when a college friend and I were exchanging stories about our families. My dad had cancer when I was young, was given 60 days to live, everyone prayed. He was healed and lived. A miracle! Her dad got cancer when she was young. Everyone prayed. He died.

What gives?!

All of life is a miracle, I guess. Flowers are miracles—they grow out of the ground, you know. Snow is a miracle— I mean, tiny ice crystals fall from the sky and don’t hurt us. It’s a miracle we don’t all kill ourselves every day on the interstate driving around in three-ton machines. It’s a miracle God gave us brains that have evolved to being able to harvest eggs and sperm and put them into the bodies of women who desperately want to carry what their bodies were designed to do in the first place. The presence of the baby is science. That a soul was breathed into that body is a miracle.

It’s just hard that in the context of fertility, for every eight people declaring their miracle, two people are left confused and unseen.

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I cried on the bus to the clinic that morning, cried as they drew my blood, cried all the way home, cried as I got ready for work, cried all the way to work.

I stood on this precipice (or on the bedroom floor in my towel) of believing definitively: God doesn’t see me, and God doesn’t care about me. But I didn’t want to believe that, and I thought I should probably run that by my support counsel first.

So I called and texted Jeff and a few close friends and family to ask for help—something I had never done before, acutely. I prayed for two things: peace, and a sign that God saw me. I needed something clear and supernatural. This, I thought, could potentially mitigate the No that would be coming from the nurse around noon.

No thunder boomed.
No lights flickered.
But I was reminded of this poem by Denise Levertov:

I had grasped God’s garment in the void
but my hand slipped
on the rich silk of it.
The ‘everlasting arms’ my sister loved to remember
must have upheld my leaden weight
from falling, even so,
for though I claw at empty air and feel
nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted

At 10am, I sat in my office trying to figure out how to move forward, waiting for the peace to come. At 10:30 the nurse called.

The test was positive.

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The next several days, and then several weeks were all Isaiah 55-

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.

You guys, ALL THE TREES OF THE FIELD WERE CLAPPING THEIR HANDS.

Not only had God seen and heard me, but also a baby was in there.

Even at the appointment that confirmed the heartbeat, when the doc said this was just the first step and there were a million hoops to jump through between now and the next one—I didn’t even care.

 Every waking conscious thought was gratitude and peace.

“Joy is not made to be a crumb,” my friend Kim had said, “Eat up!” So I gobbled that joy right up in the first few weeks without reservation.

Jeff and I celebrated with each other and we told our families, which we had not done the first time out of fear, and then regretted it when the baby was gone.

In the strangest way, I equally never feared the loss of this baby and always thought it might die—because the baby was simply the thing God used to show me he had seen and heard me. I thought the baby might just be the symbol, and that even if the baby miscarried, I would always know God saw and heard me that day in my towel on the bedroom floor.

In fact, I recalled a blog Kim had written about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the “even if” part of faith-

They are Jews in exile in Babylon and when the king declares that everyone must worship an image of gold, they refuse, despite the king’s threats to burn them alive in a furnace. They respond like this to the king:

“If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17-18).

It’s the but even if he does not that haunts me. It’s one thing to believe that God can save us; it’s quite another kind of faith entirely to believe even if he does not. That’s the kind of belief that I knew that morning. It wasn’t intellectual assent. It wasn’t something I felt. I just knew in that moment, in my gut, in my bones, that I believed. That this was the Really Real.

Even if we lost the baby… I still believed.

(Though in full disclosure, I’m still terrified to type that. We pray incessantly for her protection, and I won’t tell you how many times I’ve been to Labor and Delivery because I thought something was wrong. Fine. Just the one time.)

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At about the 8-week mark I started getting a little zonky.

I would come home bracing to lose the baby because I did something wrong that day. I lied, or I said SHIT two times, or did something I knew was selfish, or I ate blue cheese, and it would only be right for God to take the baby back.

I knew it was shaky theology, but the fear was creeping in.

Then I read this poem by Hafiz (sent by Kim, per usual. Please find yourself a Kim and add her to your support counsel):

The sandalwood tree shares its lovely scent with any who come near. God is like that.

Does the tree ever think to itself, I am not going to offer my fragrance to that man over there because of what he did last night,

or to that woman who neglected her child, or because of what we, we might have ever done?

It is not the way of God to hoard. He is simply just there, emanating freely what He is, if we wish to grab a handful or fill the basket in the eye.

Don’t hold back, have no reservations, take full advantage of His attributes, exploit His nature and that tender part of His soul.

YES, OKAY.

And this one by Denise Levertov:

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so I would learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace

OKAYOKAYOKAY.

Nothing I did earned God’s presence. Nothing I did earned the baby. Nothing I do can take those things away.

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Since that time, both hope and fear, each protective, have settled themselves into their right places in my heart (Kim again, and Elizabeth Gilbert ;)

So. Like I said above, I have basically been swimming around a giant pool of what feels like mercy. That God saw me the morning of my test in the most despairing place and gave me comfort was the miracle; the I see you message in the middle of pain and confusion was the miracle. The baby that followed is simply a merciful gift.

God owed us nothing, yet six months later, we’re still carrying this gift.

Tiny clothes are hanging in a closet on polka-dot baby hangers, and all these words are finally finding a way out of hiding…

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Ice Cream, God

It’s Friday and I feel almost normal.
The hormones will baseline in about a month, the doc told me.
But I’m smelling coffee for the first time in 3 weeks without the impulse to barf, and my heart opens up just a crack to peek outside.

In a few days I suspect bananas will come back, too, and chicken and Life cereal and eggs and all the other strange things that left.

Today instead of 8 weeks pregnant, we are 1 day post-loss.  A week ago we learned our fresh 7-weeker didn’t have a heartbeat. Continue reading Ice Cream, God

There You Go Lifting My Load Again

A bunch of women sit in a café on a Saturday morning.

“I want to have a second kid,” one says. “But my sister is getting married this fall—she is flying us all to Paris!”

Oooooh! The others marvel.

“February is my next chance to get pregnant, though. Should I try? I wouldn’t be able to fly for the wedding. Or should I just skip a month? We really want this… but we also really want to go to Paris!”

Equal amounts of Wait! and Go for it! ensue, with lots and lots of math and antidotal travel stories. Even more success stories of baby planning around various events and life transitions and budgets.

“I know,” one says, “Get pregnant in Paris!”

Everyone laughs, and it’s settled.

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A girl sits at the table next to them swirling her [decaf] coffee. Continue reading There You Go Lifting My Load Again

PLZ SOMEBODY HOLD ME, and other prayers

Have you seen the movie Gravity?

This is J and me, tethered together in outer space floating the month away, all hott and adorable like George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, while we forge a panicky plan to stay alive and the entire world roots for us.

Oh, minus the hott and adorable part, and minus the staying alive. And minus the whole world because only about 26 people read this regularly—but I’m positive the 26 of you are rooting for us. And minus the outer space. Oh yeah, and minus the panic for Jeff.

Add back in the panic for me, because this is how I do the unknown: I NEED MORE OXYGEN. WHERE THE F IS THE SATELLITE? CAN ANYBODY HEAR ME? PLZ SOMEBODY HOLD ME.  Continue reading PLZ SOMEBODY HOLD ME, and other prayers

Updated: Love, Trash and Mardi Gras

My friend Amy wrote a few days ago: “It’s my 2 favorite times of year, the bookends of Mardi Gras and Lent. King Cake and ashes. Shouting and silence. Decadence and penitence…”

Ditto that.

And also, this post, which I share this every year, because every year it’s still true:

“I imagine myself in life, how I must appear to God, like that street. The aftermath of Mardi Gras knocking on the door to church on Wednesday morning. I’m (metaphorically, of course) sloshing beer and dripping gumbo all over the place, dragging a string of broken beads caught on my shoe, dressed in an Oyster outfit, fat off of King Cake, momentarily sidetracked by tiny little ponies and fire blowers. And God opens the door, and I see him, then I see me. Then I see him, then I see me. And I’m like, Maybe I should wash my hands.”

Post:  Love. Trash. Mardi Gras.

Advent For When Your Stuffing Is Falling Out

One of my favorite Christmas songs is Selah’s O Come, O Come Emmanuel. It’s all mysterious and dark and heavy.

(So, exactly opposite of what people love most about Christmas.)

It sings deep notes of suffering and waiting and captivity, with a tiny sliver of light that bursts into rejoicing in every chorus. But not even rejoicing because Jesus came right there in the song. It’s a rejoicing because He will come. He’ll come and disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and put to flight death’s dark shadows. He’ll bring victory and save everyone and we’ll all be winning!

But right now in the song? Israel waits. In either exile or slavery, hungry and grumbly, and cold? I think, yes, they must have sometimes been cold.

This is why the Advent is so fascinating to me. Because right in the middle of all the candle-lighting hope and anticipation is lament. In my Advent book, Enuma writes, “In its peculiar way lamenting is an act of faith because it speaks to our understanding that things are not as they should be.”

Almost nothing is as it should be. Families, bodies, the earth’s temperature, justice, my humidifier which has dumped a couple gallons of water all over my floor three nights in a row…

And so we wait (most days) in full belief that God will show up and fulfill his promises. In fact, Enuma writes, the reason we are called to wait on God during Advent is because God always shows up.

He has done this for me time after time, and I continue to be the worst at waiting. Also, suffering. I would never have made it as an Israelite. I’d have been that a-hole in the back whining first for food, then complaining about the manna (God, we just had this yesterday), then wanting to go back home TO SLAVERY because I’m too short-sighted and anti-suffering to understand things like the promised land, which lay just around the corner. Everyone would be blaming me for the entire 40 years.

And so acknowledging my own lament and then lighting a candle that physically demonstrates patience and hope and the belief that God will show up feels like a sliver of light that bursts into a dark and gloomy nothing-is-as-it-should-be world.

Nothing makes me say Come, Lord Jesus more than drunk phone calls from my brother. We’re a disheveled bunch, my family, held together by thin threads with giant gaps at the seams and stuffing falling out all over the place. It’s not a coincidence that Christmas is when all our stuffing falls out, by the way.  With all the expectations and hopes of Christmas-movie-merriment trying to work around divorce and mileage and scheduling and kid-sharing, with a drug addiction or two thrown in for good measure some years, plus a case of Coors Light. If you’ve known me for a few years, you’ll remember my spoofy Holiday mailers in ’05 and ’06 about the magic of watching Mortal Combat III with my brothers on Christmas Eve by the light of a 4-foot fiber optic rotating tree my dad’s girlfriend of 3 months had decorated the apartment with. I should post it, yes? Anyway, disaster, is what I’m saying.

(Which is so opposite my in-laws, it’s comical. Last year J’s family talked through how we would all feel if our gifts to one another were supporting various charities instead of gifting and opening actual things. I personally love selecting and wrapping the perfect gift, and so my sentiment was equally Great Idea, and Oh.  This happened to be the same year my brothers all called one-by-one wanting to cancel Christmas because everyone was in a tight spot and felt they had nothing to give.

I was like: I got it! Why don’t the Hartmans gift to the Wilsons?!)

Come, Lord Jesus.

And it’s not just us. I have friends who will be running in circles collecting their own handfuls of leaked-out-fluff. Friends who are not in relationship with one parent or the other, or who will be celebrating their first Christmas without their brother or mom or six-year-old or never-was-year-old, who will be lamenting the unfairness of breast cancer, or trying to keep grandma out of the liquor cabinet. Someone I know will inevitably spend Christmas Eve at Taco Bell.

And so as we stuff each other’s fluff back in, and we find the guy out in the cold somewhere addicted to something and beg him home, and narrow down that perfect hour when all three nieces are available despite their sugar comas and other families, and we manage double the amount of parents, step-siblings, grandparents and ex-wives than normal, and we overlook past resentments, and we choose to open the doors for each other instead of closing them, and we mourn those things lost among us and the ones that never were, and we agree to focus on something other than the brokenness for just a minute: we light a candle.

The flame will represent equal parts lament, waiting, and hope.

Things are not as they should be, we’ll say. But we are waiting for God to show up.  We believe he will, and we sure hope he restores everything.

Same Same, But Different

Well. It’s really hard to come up with an organized thought about a second horrific genocide history (Cambodia) so soon after leaving the first (Rwanda).

I can’t help but view Cambodia’s genocide through the lens of Rwanda’s, because I can’t unexperience my time there, and the world opened a little wider for me after. It’s hard not to compare.  It’s hard not to measure loss in numbers and time frames.  In perpetrators and methods. And it’s hard not to find value in the loss by what’s been restored or redeemed—which seems to be the entire country of Rwanda, while poor Cambodia feels a little bit like Southeast Asia’s forgotten child.

These are the ways we try and make sense of nonsensical things like genocide. Kigali’s genocide memorial had an entire floor dedicated to genocides in other countries I’d never even heard of.  It’s kind of like a shirt everyone wears here— Front: Same Same  Back: But different.

As I walked through the S-21 school-turned-torture site and the Killing Fields in Cambodia, the sights and sounds bounced off my eyes and ears and fell to the ground. Not a whole lot made its way inside—not even the shreds of clothing or encased display of teeth.  Not even the tree used to kill little babies. I didn’t really allow myself to picture how things were carried out or what a person must have been feeling standing on that same ground forty years ago.  Same Same, I thought, But different.

On the inside, my heart and brain were tripping over each other to close all the blinds, pull the shades, lock-up, and post a blinking neon sign: No Vacancy. We’re full.

(They’re currently up there writing a want-ad for tiny monkeys dressed as humans, rainbows, and baskets full of puppies. Those the only openings we have at the moment.)

monkey-baby

It shouldn’t be this way, right?  We should have endless reserves of compassion and empathy. There should never be any compassion fatigue.

Or wait. Is it that there shouldn’t be so much evil? Maybe we weren’t designed with the capacity to absorb the intentional deaths of several million people in two countries at the hands of other people.

The thing is, God makes good people.  Right this minute 250 babies are being born worldwide. Each one is hand-crafted and carrying so much potential. And each one is deeply loved and cherished by the artist who created it.  But over the course of their lives—if they were a microcosm of Rwanda and Cambodia combined— some portion of 200 of those babies will turn around and kill 50 of their counterparts.

What a painful experience for the guy who designed and created them.

I can only relate it to how it would feel if my best friend and my husband hated each other. My best friend is my favorite. My husband is my favorite. Together, we’re the three best friends anyone could ever have.

IMG_7290

They find value in each other because I find value in each of them. When Jeff is funny and Sprinky laughs, I’m in heaven. When Sprink refers to Jeff as her best-friend-in-law, my heart soars.

I think this is how God must feel when relationships are forged between each of us. We are his favorites— all of us. When we find value in each other, when cultural differences are celebrated and cherished, when we share and encourage and love one another, he must be delighted.

And by the same token, how awful it must feel when one bullies or intimidates another one. When one crashes a plane into three-thousand other ones. When one shoots another one with skittles in his pocket. When one sets off a bomb at a marathon and kills another one. When a group of ones are owned by another group of ones. When three million ones are tortured by a few other ones. When one entire race wipes out another entire race.

It’s a double loss. His favorite destroyed his other favorite.

In Cambodia, about two million people were killed—that’s one in four—during the four years of the Pol Pot regime. Two million of God’s favorite creations. When the Khmer Rouge took over, schools and factories were closed within 48 hours. Phnom Penh was empty. Everyone was forced out of the cities and into collective farms and labor camps in the countryside.

People were targeted on the basis of their intellect. Provincial living was valued, and education was despised, so anyone who was a teacher, artist, lawyer, doctor, or intellect in any capacity, who could speak a foreign language, who had glasses (because it was assumed this person could read), who had soft hands (because it was assumed this person held a white-collar job and therefore was educated) was captured, tortured and killed at one of the 300 killing fields throughout the country.

One of God’s favorite creations used his skills and passions to build a field in order to kill another one of God’s favorite creations because of his skills and passions.  Wait, what?!

I remember the first time I heard about this. It was a few years ago when a friend of mine was traveling the world for six months and kept an entertaining blog.  I had totally forgotten all about Cambodia and that blog until I was with my writing group a few months ago, and we got out the manuscript of Jackie’s posts. Erin flipped to the Cambodia section and found a comment I’d left, which I’ll share in a second.

Before the comment was found, I had been telling the group how weeks before we were preparing the interns for this Cambodia trip, and how we were all assigned different sections of Cambodia’s history to present to the group. My section was post-Khmer Rouge, and a good chunk of it was the fall of the Khmer Rouge leaders through the UN-backed tribunals. Because I only had 2 minutes to present forty years of history, and I wanted to keep the group entertained, I assigned nicknames to all key players, like Prince Nordy and Prince Randy and Hunny for Prince Norodom, Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen.

For Duch, I simply added an “e” at the end and pronounced his name Doosh, seemingly appropriate for the man responsible for the torturous deaths of 12,000 people at S-21, and who was given a 35-year sentence, appealed it, and was re-sentenced by the UN for life. Yeah! The group said, feeling both silly and justified. I thought it was pretty funny. This usually happens before I bite it, socially.

When the presentation was over, one of the interns said, “It’s actually pronounced Duke.”

What are the chances that her parents went to the church of the Cambodian pastor whose parents, brother and sister died in the regime, who met Duch at a Christian Leadership course, led him to Christ, baptized him, stood with him at the killing fields as he confessed to his crimes and asked for forgiveness, and is now advocating for his release?!

Uh…

It was too late to take back that little “e”.  The irony is yet to come. As I had forgotten all about Jackie’s blog, and as I was telling the group this story about how it turns out God can redeem killers and I shouldn’t call people douches, and as Erin was flipping through the book, she said, “Hey! This comment is from you a couple of years ago:”

April 11, 2011: Wow! Prayers for you two and Cambodia. I had no idea that happened. It’s hard to comprehend God knew and loved each person in that cave and mass grave, and he knew and loved every killer. So strange and hard to understand.

Mercy for my current situation from my past self before my past self knew I would need it.

This one’s a hard one to get out: God loves killers. They are his favorite. And He has the ability to redeem anyone, sometimes even using the pastor whose family the regime killed… Sound familiar?!

Duch is the only regime leader to date who confessed to his crimes. Before his arrest, he went back to his village to start a house church with 14 families. He is still serving his life sentence.  Here is an unbelievable article from TIME called The Killer and the Pastor about Pastor LaPel and Duch.

When I left Rwanda, I wished I could take the banner from the memorial site and wrap the entire globe in it: If you knew me and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.  Yes, Cambodia. You too.

And as I leave Cambodia in the next couple of weeks, I’m left with this from Frederick Buechner: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”  Pastor LaPel and Duch exemplify the entire spectrum.

A few pictures of the Killing Fields memorial are here.

Bracelets at the memorial
Bracelets at the memorial

On and On and On It Goes

Hey guys.

I keep waiting for inspired, insightful B to pop out and organize all my thoughts and experiences about our last two weeks in Rwanda. Instead, famished B jumped out and ate 5 million pastries for a week in Europe, and then exhausted B slept it off, and rain-logged B wasted all our time outside planting flower boxes when we came home and it was 85 and sunny, then bug-hating B felt compelled to clean all the floors so we could spray for spring bugs, freezing B just wants to drink hot chocolate and wear sweatpants and shiver since it’s all 55 and rainy, and professional B is preparing to leave for Cambodia in less than a month.

Indulge me in this very public form of therapy while I go in there and find her, okay?

Part of the tucking-away is that we spent the last two weeks in Rwanda in a fog of institutionalized mourning. You might think you can imagine this, but it’s really hard to describe. It was entirely opposite of all our other bright, cheery experiences in Rwanda up to that point, and the somberness of it all moved in quickly over the country like the shadow of a storm front. Literally the skies turned to rain and clouds, the streets emptied, everything closed—businesses, grocery stores, restaurants. Music was not played during memorial week and TVs remained off in public places. Armed guards appeared at roundabouts and other random places.

We noticed when we first arrived in the country that almost nobody used the word genocide. Most people spoke in terms of “the event” or “the tragedy” or “our country’s history”. Nobody refers to a differentiation of any ethnic group ever and, in fact, doing so can be considered genocidal ideation and is cause for arrest depending on context.

But during the memorial period, which lasts 100 days beginning April 7th, the phrase Genocide against the Tutsi was everywhere. Banners, signs, ribbons, etc.  It’s almost like the entire country functions as normal 265 days of the year and reserves all of its collective grief for the months of April, May and June. Even the weather follows this pattern, as the genocide occurred during the long rainy season, and each year the rains and gray skies come in April as they always have.

During the first week, the government hosted country-wide memorial conferences facilitated by local government and church leaders. People were off work, kids were out of school, curfews were enforced, and everywhere we looked groups of people were huddled in buildings, parking lots, tents, schools, soccer fields and parks. Most were listening government leaders speak on different topics like justice, forgiveness, unity, and self-reliance, which (we learned from survivors) was difficult for some. The people who facilitated the genocide were the government. And although this is an entirely different government, the fact that the government is facilitating reconciliation can be a trigger in itself. It’s institutionalized programming. It must sometimes just feel eerie.

Foreign involvement in the different local services is tricky and requires special permissions and security, considering varying feelings of foreign abandonment and the fact that the country continues to process in the presence of such an international community.

Amazingly (as we were initially told this would not be possible) the country director of ALARM obtained special permission from the government leaders in our neighborhood to bring us to one of the memorial services in our district.  We understood in advance there would be no pictures, no translating, and the service would be entirely in Kinyarwanda. We would be flies on walls there, and we agreed.

We pulled up to an empty field and parked under the solitary tree. There were four sections of benches forming a square around two giant speakers in the middle of the field and a microphone. There were 500-600 people sitting in all the benches and crowded in rows behind the benches. People hardly made any noise, even the kids. It was 3pm in the blazing sun. Quiet, calming genocide music played with an airy woodwind instrument and lyrics that said things like: Never forget the genocide of the Tutsi, as people sat and listened reflectively.

We approached the set-up from across the field, and as people turned to look at us, I can say with certainty: I have never felt so uncomfortable or out of place in my entire life. What are we doing here, I whispered to Jeff. We should never have come. This is not our memorial! But as they ushered us to a seat and we waited for the program to begin, it occurred to me that attending an event that commemorates the violent killings of a million people should probably not ever feel comfortable—no matter who I am or whether or not I belong there.

The service was 4.5 hours long and in the blazing sun. The site was surrounded by four armed guards, and the first speaker was a Commander in full uniform speaking about security, followed by the Vice President of the Senate and the former coordinator of the Civil Society in Kigali City. The theme of the 19th Commemoration was Self-reliance, and the speakers encouraged each individual person, family and village to be responsible for their own security—food, shelter, safety—in their own villages and homes. Poverty leads to dependence and reliance on others, both at a personal level and as a country on an international level, which leaves everyone vulnerable. Rwanda is on a fast track toward development post-genocide.

The VP of the Senate directed her talks toward the youth. She reviewed the history of the country and she narrated events leading up to the genocide from 1959 on, compelling the youth toward resilience and unity. She reminded the crowd that not all Hutu were involved in the killings. For the Tutsi to even have survivors, it was because there were moderate Hutu who fought tirelessly and courageously to rescue others and refuse involvement. She also reminded the youth that 100 years had passed (1894-1994) that Rwandans were not themselves. Prior to colonization we had a solid leadership, she explained. But colonization divided us. That was not who we are. The VP then challenged everyone to see everyone as human. Both sides. All we need to be human, she said, is to value each other.

We knew all this not because we understood it as it was happening, but because we got into the car when it was all over to a hearty round laughs and back-pats from our friends who said, Brooke and Jeff can now write a paper on how to persevere! Almost five hours in a field under the sun listening to speakers in another language on a tricky topic in the middle of a questionably welcoming crowd. And how to communicate in a language you don’t understand, another friend chimed in. They laughed and said something about praying for the gift of tongues, or at least the gift of interpretations.

In the end, when the VP and other government leaders, along with many of the people attending, came up to shake our hands and genuinely thank us (in English!) for our interest, attendance and respect despite all the barriers, we didn’t even know what to say. We had been a mix of fear, embarrassment, grief, sweat, and confusion. But it meant a lot to attend, for both sides, and we were so thankful to have been granted the opportunity. J and I breathed sighs of relief and looked at each other like, Did this really just happen? Such an intimate event in the lives of the friends we had met, and so hot!

In the car on the way back, along with the jokes about tongues and interpretations, the speeches were translated and our friends also explained that the attendees were a mix of ethnic groups, with more Tutsi than Hutu. Among the officials there were no Hutu.  I thought this might be good, but our friend explained that when all the talks are led by one side (Tutsi) they sometimes have difficulty, even though it would make sense that the oppressed side would facilitate the memorials. Doing that is how the whole system was maintained in the first place, though.  It’s better for all when the officials are a mix of both groups.

So. After memorial week, the rest of the 100 days is typically spent caring for the survivors around the country, visiting some of the other memorial sites, and for us, visiting the country’s pre-genocide historical sites, like the Kingship Palace, the National Art Museum and National Forest—these are the things that make Rwanda Rwanda.

And this is where I started to get a little bit lost inside.

I consider myself to be mostly aware of my limits, and I function with a relatively high emotional IQ, but seriously. I’ve been all confused and jacked-up ever since our last [death-defying] trip to the National Forest* wherein we didn’t actually see the National Forest, but the Murambi Memorial. Murambi: 900 bodies preserved in limestone exactly as they fell at one of the most horrific massacre sites in the country. About 45,000 Tutsis were killed at the brand new technical school, which sat on a beautiful and isolated hilltop, first lured out of hiding by the Bishop and the Mayor with promises of protection by the French Army, and then days later, two hours after the French Army left, locked inside and killed. Here’s where it gets crazy. The French Army returned after the attack with equipment to dig mass graves, buried the bodies at this site, then BUILT A VOLLEYBALL COURT ON TOP OF THE GRAVES AND PLAYED VOLLEYBALL to hide their negligence.   I’m sorry, what?! And in the nineties? How does this happen?  And how have we not all decided that a) we shouldn’t probably kill each other or allow others to be killed in our presence, but in the case that we do b) it’s totally inappropriate to play volleyball on top of the graves of the people we just implicitly killed.

Anyway.

We saw the graves, the actual bodies—two entire classrooms of children—the clothes, the glasses, the pens, the tufts of hair.  And we saw the equipment. We saw these things on the exact date the Bishop and Mayor beckoned the community to the school nineteen years ago under the pretense of safety.  You can imagine how eerie it was to walk from room to room to see the bodies and to read the storyboard of events with dates like April 16thon April 16th!  We also came home after the first church memorial in Ntarama to hear news of the Boston marathon bombing, which got all mixed up in the shadow of the horror we had just seen and would continue to see during the weeks at the memorial sites and services.

Even harder was traveling to and from the sites and the forest with our friend who described how he had fled on these exact roads, hiding with his wife, infant daughter and two-year-old for eleven months, because although the institutionalized genocide lasted 100 days, attacks continued for a decade before and after the actual genocide! In 1997 a girls’ school was attacked, and 17 girls who wouldn’t separate into ethnic groups were shot and killed. We’re all Rwandan here, they said. A month before that? A primary school. It wasn’t until about 2000 or 2001 that many Rwandans felt safe and secure from Hutu insurgents sneaking across the border.

This was a very bad roadblock here, our friend would say as we drove toward the forest, or There is the house that sheltered us. Other friends told us from time to time, That river there was red from all the blood.  We learned at the Murambi site that the pastor who married our friends was killed there along with his family. I wondered as we walked from room to room if any of the bodies we saw belonged to the pastor or his family. A genocide looks totally different when dealing with a specific face or name. This is why an entire room is dedicated to photos of each victim a the Kigali memorial. A million people were not killed during the genocide. One person was killed. And then another person. And another person. And another person.

BRK_3054

I remember thinking after that week: I don’t have any words for this. I don’t have words for the 900 bodies I just saw OR for an 8-year-old who was bombed. I don’t feel like I can share all the thoughts or pictures or the things I read. But I wished I could take the banner from the memorial site and wrap the entire globe in it:

If you knew me, and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.

Instead, I wrote a status requesting an antidote of baby monkeys dressed as humans. The baby monkeys never came (which is weird, because when I asked for one million cute puppies on a different bad day, people posted piles of adorable puppies on my wall for days…?).

What came, though, was so much better. It was a song, which confirms my theory that God moonlights as a DJ. At least in my life, God speaks to me in that way. I was at church the following weekend, a non-denominational service with a 50/50 mix of Rwandans and ex-pats, which means half the songs are in Kinyarwanda and half are in English. I’ve heard this song a million times, but for some reason it gave me a brand new hope that Sunday:

Higher than the mountains that I face
Stronger than the power of the grave
Constant through the trial and the change
One thing… Remains

Your love never fails, never gives up
Never runs out on me

And On and on and on and on it goes
It overwhelms and satisfies my soul
And I never, ever, have to be afraid
One thing remains

In death, In life, I’m confident and
covered by the power of Your great love
My debt is paid, there’s nothing that can
separate my heart from Your great love…

.

As Rwandans and ex-pats lit 19 candles in remembrance of the genocide while simultaneously worshiping with each other—many alongside nationalities that not only didn’t help, but literally and figuratively played volleyball on top of their graves—I felt like I was witnessing a miracle. Humanity is a crapshoot, and God loves us anyway. Through His love, we somehow manage to love each other.

His love never fails, never gives up, never runs out.

It doesn’t run out after a genocide. It doesn’t run out after or a bombing. It doesn’t run out after a drug binge. It doesn’t even run out when you leave your 2 y/o on a porch at 4am (left field, I know, but it’s what a friend was dealing with on that day).

ON and ON and ON and ON it goes
ON and ON and ON and ON it goes
ON and ON and ON and ON it goes
ON and ON and ON and ON it goes

Did you know that?!

God’s restorative love is moving. Sometimes in Rwanda and sometimes right here inside. Sometimes like a torrent, sometimes like a trickle, sometimes in the survivor and sometimes in the offender, sometimes bright and sunshiny, sometimes quiet within the rain and tears, sometimes so intense it shreds us to pieces and splays us out there, and sometimes so tender it carries us and tucks us away.

***
For the feature article Life After Death, written about our entire experience in Rwanda before, during, and after memorial week, click here.

For a personal narrative of the Rwanda’s history as I understand it click here. It’s the very next post, and it’s in my own words, so nobody quote me! It’s important to include for the many Rwandans who long to be known for more than the country’s tragic history and do not wish to be defined by the genocide as the nation continues to develop and grow. Rwanda existed before and after colonization.

Footnote
* You know, the 12-hour Lampoon-type trip where we were stuck driving inside an actual cloud up and down mountains around Nyungwe Forest in 50-degree pouring rain, our driver manually wiping his side of the windshield with one hand while driving the stick shift down the slope with his other hand, stopping every 15 minutes to ask a roadside stand for a screwdriver to fix the wiper. Every time we stopped the battery died, because it was disconnected every single car-swallowing pothole we hit- Jeff on one side of the backseat holding my neck steady to mitigate the nausea that started on our way up the mountain, and me crunched on his side too, because it was raining inside the car on my side. For the last two hours: pitch black with thick fog, driving through densely populated areas (a refugee camp, for example) with no visibility. Yes, that trip.

Confessions. Blast!

So, I’ll just get to it.  Lots of things are a little bit off. For starters, I am having a hard time balancing. It’s (surprise!) difficult to experience, article-write and express my own sentiment all at the same time. I sort of thought this would all be in the bag. For optimal quality, each task requires being fully present, and my brain is evidently only capable of two things at a time. I can experience and internalize, but not fact-gather. I can fact-gather and express, but without much sentiment. I can internalize and reflect, but I can’t, in that moment, be experiencing. We are always experiencing, and I am totally backlogged.

Here’s the kicker: I process through writing. So backlogged means I am currently a jumbled mess of girls’ schools and street kids and TV antennas made of metal padlocks and vocational centers and genocide and escape stories and reconciliation stories and coffee communities and traditional dance and outdoor kitchens and church services and landscapes and moto bikes and rainy season and memorial sites and stretchy green bread and music and orphans and polygamy and widows and ancestral spirits and gorillas and laundry and language and ways in which the ancestors screw up fertility.

Plus, when your job becomes your former hobby, you get kind confused about which content belongs where. I feel safe writing about scarves and Wait, what? moments, but I haven’t even told you the basics like where we’re living, or who we’re with, or the type of work we’re doing, or what we’re eating, or what the weather is like!

To make things even more complicated, the World Wide Web is— as you might have guessed— worldwide. Everyone is on Facebook and WordPress and twitter. Gone are the days when I could see something and throw it on the Internet for all 8 readers to vicariously experience without risk of harm. Today we’re all right here in the same space—you, me, and the person or community I’m writing about. I post a story, WordPress publicizes it to Facebook and twitter, and my host sister is reading it ten seconds later in the next room. This takes a special kind of crafting, understanding, permission and respect. I refuse to be a reckless observer.

And a layer below that? It’s about to get real.

Because I refuse to be a reckless observer, I don’t feel competent. What can I possibly offer that hasn’t already been written or expressed about Rwanda? How can I share these things—the history, issues, people, stories—accurately? I can’t wrap my head around the genocide. And, once I stop trying to put that piece together, I can’t wrap my head around the fact that life continues on the other side. That people are working and eating, walking along these same streets and attending these same churches, that kids play and women do hair and taxis commute and bikers bike and people laugh and sing and purchase data plans and watch 24. All this with an entire ethnic group almost entirely wiped out of the population, resting in mass graves under this very ground.

Everywhere I look I can see the stories I’ve heard playing out in my mind’s eye. In my field, we call this vicarious trauma. A tiny corner of my heart feels bruised every time I walk out of the house and look around me at the land, while the rest of it functions as normal in present day.   I just can’t make sense of it.  The only two thoughts I have, and they’re not fully developed, are this: here is an entire country demonstrating the reality of post-traumatic growth.

If you look at the Disaster Response Phases graph below (provided by my pal Mary, who teaches the Foundations to DMH class at the Red Cross in Indy) you can note the different responses a person or community has pre, mid and post disaster. There is a new term emerging, though, after a post-traumatic event called post-traumatic growth, wherein the person or community, on the very far right of this graph, actually ends up at a higher level of functioning than they were before the event. So, the person reaches a level a growth that would not be possible had that event not occurred. This country is living out that term.  This doesn’t mean things are spectacular.  There are still—and will always be—triggering events and memories generations deep, but I have met people coping and forgiving at a level I am not even able to comprehend. They are not doing this in spite of the event, but because of it.

God restores, is my point.

DMH Graph ARC

My second thought is the truth in this statement, which was originally printed in my NOLA church bulletin on the 5 year anniversary of hurricane Katrina, adapted for Rwanda as we head into memorial month: We will remember [the genocide] and give sacred honor, but in worship we inherit all things anew for this day.

Yeah, you do, Rwanda.  I am so thankful for all things newly inherited by you today.

…And then (you thought I was done?) someone posts this article, which cracks open another forgotten corner of my heart, and I remember where I was and who I was three weeks ago, which seems like at least ten years ago. That familiar ache returns for a minute, and I can’t find the words for the prayer.

The world spins, I can’t make anything fit into any categories, my brain and heart are totally unorganized, and I am tethered by a poem shared last week by my friend Kim (I’m always snatching content from her, but God uses people, I think):

You can only pray what’s in your heart.

So if your heart is being ripped from your chest
pray the tearing

If your heart is full of bitterness
pray it to the last dreg

If your heart is a river gone wild
pray the torrent

Or a lava flow scorching the mountain
pray the fire

Pray the scream in your heart
the fanning bellows

Pray the rage,
the murder and
the mourning

Pray your heart into the great quiet hands that can hold it
like the small bird it is.

-Elizabeth Cunningham

In Wonder, Love, and Praise

We are safe and warm and well-fed in Kigali. Before I surrender to jet lag, I want to share a prayer I read somewhere over the Atlantic from Walter Brueggemann’s Prayers For A Privileged People:

…We pray for good departures,
In the way our ancestors left Egypt,
That we may leave the grind of productivity, and the hunger of ambition, that we may leave for a place of wondrous promise,
Visited en route by
bread from heaven
and water from rocks.

We pray for big departures,
Like those of our ancient parents,
That we may leave where we have been and
How we have been and
Who we have been.
To follow your better lead for us,
You who gives new place,
New mode,
New self.

We pray, each of us to travel in mercy,
That we be on our way rejoicing, arriving in wonder, love, and praise.