Existence Day

One year ago tonight I made a list of things I knew would still be true and good one year ago tomorrow when we would receive our negative pregnancy test following our fourth round of IVF.  The list is as follows, which is a total reflection of the things that are important to me:

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

The rest of the story is here, but at 10:40 tomorrow morning the test was positive and all of a sudden Havi was in our world. If you’ve read anything in this space at all, you know my friend Kim assists in holding a good portion of my pieces together a good portion of the time, and I sent her a screenshot of this message from last year.

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I also (finally) three and a half months after I received it, read the letter Kim wrote to Havi the day after she was born. Some emotions are just too big to face head on, and Kim crafts words that bring me to the ugly cry in 10 seconds flat, so with all those hormones flying around, I knew I had to wait for my sanity and emotional stability to return- which took no less than three months (and counting)- to read it.

Tonight I felt like I finally had some breathing room in my heart for her big words and wanted to somehow memorialize the moment our world went from No Havi to Havi, so I opened the letter. It turns out no amount of time guarded me from the ugly cry.

Kim described to Havi so sweetly how she had been loved and wanted long before she was born- how we woke up before the sun and lit candles and whispered prayers in our dark, quiet kitchens for years. How we bought clothes and books for her and tucked them away, knowing that one day she would be here. And how we all cried when we got the miraculous news that she was finally on her way- one year ago tomorrow. She announced Havi as having been born into a tribe of people who knew what it meant to hope, and that we had hoped for her.

She reminded Havi that we lived off the idea that joy is not meant to be a crumb, so eat up!

And so we did. We do. We fill up every day on the joy of her existence.

Happy Existence Day, Havana.
I made that one up.

**And we are thankful for so many who celebrate her with us (read: put up with our oversharing on social media).

 

 

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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.

///

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.

///

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?

///

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.

///

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.

///

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.)

///

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.

///

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…

Enough Grace for You and Me

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall—
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

—Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings

This is the exact way the world moves forward:

How three weekends ago we were in Tampa—a trip booked the day we discovered our babe had no heartbeat and begrudgingly changed our pregnancy-announcement-to-dad weekend into a spring getaway with lots of booze.

How two weekends ago, we had planned to surprise my mom on her birthday with our 12-week announcement, but instead shopped and ate and celebrated with regular old birthday gifts.

How the week of Mother’s Day— during which I had planned to anticipate all the complex feels and process them in advance—a school I work at experienced the sudden death of a teacher and I spent the week scooping up wailing 6th graders, in addition to my own regular caseload.

How on Mother’s Day weekend we had planned to share the news with Jeff’s family, which would have been so precious on Mother’s Day, but instead carried out business as usual with birthday celebrations and brunch and stories around the table of our own moms.

How a handful of cards and two perfect ultrasounds are tucked into the top drawer of my jewelry box underneath a pile of bracelets and watches I’ve worn since then, underneath the laundry card and the Hartman Inn & Sweets sign we use for visitors—evidence of all the life that has happened since.

How I’ve walked back into the apartment every day since our loss to the same old prayer card sitting on the kitchen table from a dining out group we joined back in January during which each person wrote their prayer onto an index card and passed it to the person on the right. The card I recieved? “Prayer for my friend to get pregnant and have a healthy baby.” OK God, her baby.

How friends who have made it to their own 12 and 13 and 14-week marks are posting their baby announcements and belly pics online with my same due date, holding a mirror to our exact loss.

Life goes on, yes.
But death goes on, too.
A person who is dead is a long, long story (Elizabeth McCracken).

///

In four years of infertility, I’ve always been able to separate my life from other people’s lives, making sure my baggage didn’t make others feel uncomfortable. For me, other babies were other babies. Other moms were other moms. Nobody’s anything cost me mine.

Also, I have a pretty durable sense of humor.

Elizabeth McCracken writes in her memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, “The frivolous parts of your personality, stubborner than you’d imagined, will grow up through the cracks in your soul.”

Yes. So many cracks. So much humor. Enough grace to feel undeservedly happy about life 95% of the time.

Also, like her, I felt a strange responsibility to make sure everyone knew I was not going crazy with sorrow. NOTHING TO SEE HERE. EVERYTHING IS FINE.

My biggest fear (put into words by my friend Kim) has been the assumption that the heart is a zero-sum game, capable of holding only so much emotion—that if our hearts are split between happiness and grief, there must be less happiness. But it’s not true. It’s possible to hold both all the happiness for others and all the disappointment for ourselves in the exact same space. God grants us that gift, somehow.

Kim once wrote about “living in the tension” as sitting in the discomfort of two conflicting thoughts or feelings and refusing to try to rationalize one away or reconcile them dishonestly.

I manage almost all the tension almost all of the time. But on Mother’s Day this year, as McCracken put it, grief came unexpectedly knocking, compounded with interest. PAY UP, it said. I didn’t know what to do. The sadness actually got me by the throat.

It all came down to the one question I couldn’t definitively answer: Was I a mother or not? Did I count or not? Was this day for me or not?

On the one hand, I wanted to tell myself: Of course you’re a mother. These lives are never ours to make or keep. We are not in charge of whether we have them for days or weeks or months or years. In fact, when I first discovered we were pregnant, our odds were so precarious I thanked God for 3 days with that little embryo inside, and then 15 days, and then 25 days and 50 days, because I understood it could be gone at any moment. Even after the kid is born, nothing is guaranteed. Anyone with living children knows this fear.

One of the hardest things for me to accept is that while Jeff and I were laughing about the ridiculous things we’d name the baby and saying goodnight to it and trying to figure out how we’d fit another person into our 700 sq. ft. one-bedroom apartment, our baby was already dead, and our hearts were already broken. We just didn’t know it yet. I’ll never know what happened. The chromosomal analysis came back normal. “I just wish we had something to hang our hats on,” the doc had said.

Jeff once asked if I felt attached to that specific baby, and I said no. I never even knew that baby. But I miss that baby’s ghost. There’s a hole. It’s person-shaped and it follows me everywhere, to bed, to the dinner table, in the car (McCracken).

Maybe on November 4th, I’ll miss that exact baby. In November I’ll think about how everything in our life is supposed to be different. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, it will be me, Jeff and the baby that was never born.

On the other hand, I tell myself (word-for-word from McCracken’s painfully accurate memoir) I’m sorry, no, it’s tough luck, he died before you met him, people keep track of such things, and if we call you a mother, then where does it stop?

I never physically cared for the baby one could argue, not really- though every decision I made about what to eat or drink or exercise or sleep revolved around the protection of that life for a short time.

Sometimes I wonder if it was even real. If there was really life in those first ultrasounds. If I’d really puked and had heartburn and stopped eating bananas and coffee and chicken.

But then people in my life—many who have suffered their own losses, living babies, pre-term babies, husbands, parents—reached out on Mother’s Day and made it real, offering proof.

They said Happy Mother’s Day, and I’m thinking of you, and I’m so sorry—words that will always lift some of the weight. To know that other people were sad made our baby more real.

One friend right after the surgery, understanding the feeling that the whole world was spinning and I was just standing still said simply, “I am stopping right now with you.” The sentiment took my breath away. I imagined the two of us in two different cities standing still together.

This is why you need everyone you know after a disaster, because there is not one right response. It’s what paralyzes people around the grief-stricken, of course, the idea that there are right things to say and wrong things and that it’s better to say nothing than something clumsy (McCracken).

Saying nothing is the worst thing.

But even for that, there can only be grace. You would not believe how many times I’ve shied away from someone’s intense grief because I couldn’t understand it, I didn’t want to make it worse, and I had no idea what to say.

If that was you, I am so sorry.

///

Last night after a long break, I started back on meds in the hopes that we’ll try again at some point. Miscarriage after IVF is so complicated and exhausting. It took us four years just to reach this point.

I cried the entire time I was laying all the meds out because I am terrified. I am terrified the exact same thing will happen again. I am already right now afraid for next Mother’s Day.

And it’s in such stark contrast to the same journey’s beginning last December, when we felt excitement and hope and thrill. But as I’m going through the process with docs and nurses and techs like I have for the last several years, my history has changed. This time when they ask, will this be your first pregnancy? I’m like, No. I was pregnant once before.

McCracken writes, after the stillbirth of her son, “I want a separate waiting room for people like me, with different magazines. No Parenting or Pregnancy, no ads with pink or tawny or pearly smiling infants. I want Hold Your Horses magazine. Don’t Count Your Chickens for Women. Pregnant for the Time-Being Monthly.”

I get her.

My impulse here is to spare your feelings, the twelve of you who are reading this, by ending with a bright and hopeful redemptive point. Something more than The Hows and Whys of Losing One’s Shit on Mother’s Day.

But sometimes sharing our own story is the point.

*Much of what I reference in this post is from Elizabeth McCracken’s memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. Her thoughts and sentiments after the stillborn death of her son put such accurate words to my own feelings and confusion, I’ve incorporated them into my own sense-making. Suffering can be so poetic when transcribed, and then the poetry so healing.

 

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.

///

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

Tiny Falling (flailing?) Things

It’s the middle of October, and I’m still struck with awe when I catch a handful of tiny yellow leaves falling in the sunlight toward the ground on a dewy morning or late afternoon.

So much beauty and grace, and yet my heart is a little bit seized in the realization that I’m watching these tiny beautiful things die. Oh man, but they die so brilliantly. The dying part is the most spectacular! Bright and fiery, yellows and reds, hikes and camping and bon fires and Halloweens and Thanksgivings…

I see these tiny beautiful things, and even as I’m enjoying them, I am simultaneously bracing for winter. It will be cold and barren, and all the living things will curl up underground, and we’ll be subjected to endless Februarys and Marches, and just when we think spring is coming, it will snow in April.

All these thoughts make that little yellow leaf’s beauty a dull ache in my chest.

I can’t even enjoy it, because I want to keep it forever. But if I could keep leaves on trees forever to avoid winter, this particular one would not be beautiful and falling…

///

Today I lost my shit in the Indian Buffet. Continue reading Tiny Falling (flailing?) Things

When Your Void Shows Through

People from my writing community (who don’t even know I exist) sometimes whisper truths into my ear (unbeknownst to them) an entire year after they first put the truth on paper.

This one in particular held my hand last week:  here

(Go ahead and read it—I’ll wait.)

Me? Here’s my truth: 

I don’t know about the seven-week ultrasound.  We’ve never made it that far. There is not a single baby waiting for us in heaven. 

I could tell you about the follicle-measuring ultrasound. The one where the technician is both tight-lipped and extra chatty, discussing everything except how great and normal things look.  Continue reading When Your Void Shows Through

Between My Closed Eyes and the Tip of the Spear

Most days, I live inside a fantastic free fall of optimism and delight.

Don’t believe me? Check out Car Moments with Jeff and Brooke. We could entertain ourselves through the entire state of Utah and wipe out world hunger if food was measured in puns and laughter.

Reading consecutive road signs out loud to each other:
Watch for strong crosswinds
Well YOU watch for falling rocks
No, you watch for wild animals
Why don’t they just make a sign that says Be Alert?
Why don’t they make a sign that just says Watch It, Buddy?
Why don’t they just make a sign with a big eyeball?

Hiking in the canyons:
How did those holes get in the walls, I wonder.
Prehistoric fish swam into the walls and bumped them.
I know what they said, do you?
What.
Dam.

___

But then there are other days, and weeks and entire months, when I can feel it bubbling up inside me, the discontent. It starts out slowly—a steady drip in the same thin spot, until my resolve caves and the sadness pours in.

When my third brother announces my fourth little niece or nephew, and I am equally through-the-roof ecstatic and doubling over from the sucker punch.  When we make it through Mother’s Day unscathed, and get blindsided by loads of infants and adorable first dads infiltrating the internets on Father’s Day. When a 101 y/o Nepali prophet and host mom—neither of whom know our story—claimed blessings and Exodus 23:25-26 over our lives…

25 Worship the Lord your God, and his blessing will be on your food and water. I will take away sickness from among you, 26 and none will miscarry or be barren in your land. I will give you a full life span.

…And it doesn’t work, for the 30th time. Literally, the 30th time.

A wave of grief builds in my stomach, grows through my chest and crashes over my head.

For a split second, I’m floating, unanchored. Hopeless. Confused. Bewildered.  This is not who I am, I think, in that bluish underwater twilight.

But at the same time, I just want to feel it. The pain and sadness and despair, raw and scratchy, fierce and scary, suffocating. I don’t want to rationalize or sublimate or uproot it; I don’t want to deny it or spiritualize it. I want to let it roll me up and drag me across the sand. We are broken. And this is what brokenness feels like.

I believe every right thing about God because I know it’s true.

But I don’t understand it, and nothing makes it okay. Not Rwanda, not Cambodia, not even Nepal or Cupcakes or Cuba. Not new friends, not old friends.  Not stories of adoption, not tiny Chinese babies flung across the ocean in slingshots straight into someone’s heart, or miraculous spontaneous naturally occurring pregnancies from people post-adoption or post-IVF or from people who thought they might never conceive. In fact, your stories are the worst because they’re not mine.

(Sorry, you.)

Mostly I reach for antidotes from the sandy floor. I dig deep to find What is Saving My Life Right Now—in July it was an unexpected visit from intern Anna and the coke she brought that day. I put on my Heartometer3000, or at least sit on my heart’s porch with a shotgun. I pray away the bitterness in Jesus’ name like I saw that guy do at the Leadership Conference. Last September I wrote in my journal that I was 30 days clean of bitterness. I knew it would come back, but in the name of Jesus, I had planned to rip that shiz right out again. Here I am only three months later, and my garden is overgrown.

Eventually I’ll burst through the surface, spitting and flailing. At these moments you can find me eating donut holes in parking lots and yelling at people for spilling dillweed.

Or I may simply wash up on the shore when it’s all said and done, quiet and curled up in the Nook.

Either way, we are living this maddeningly complex life where God has provided for all our hopes and needs in measurable and mind-blowing ways, and where he has simultaneously withheld our single greatest one.

My writing group buddy wrote a breath-stopping piece once about the sweet moment in the morning right after she opens her eyes and before she feels the tip of the spear at her chest. This is where I live most of my life. Between my closed eyes and the tip of the spear.

Why does God not either remove the spear or remove the pain?

I don’t know.

In the meantime, I guess J will continue to carry the torch of hope while I weed the bitterness out of the garden…

Hikes and Home visits: A forehead hug

*Make it to the end of this one, it’s where the goods are.

There came a day in Cyimbili when Jeff and I were so tired of the rain and the porch sitting, we took off in reckless abandon. It had cleared for a split second, I put on warm clothes, and we started hiking. Fifteen minutes in, the sun came out, and it was instantly unbearably hot. We had not put on sunscreen. Daggers! After a quick u-turn, a change of clothes, sunglasses and SPF, we again set out on the open dirt road.  We would hike somewhere. Anywhere. We grabbed rain jackets, too, because we have learned, finally, to take the raincoat everywhere no matter what the skies look like. We are on our way to learning this about the sunscreen, but my peeling neck, arms and ears make me feel a little bit brain-dead.

We hiked a giant hill that afternoon, trailed by 35 kids collected along the way— one or two at a time, a little face peeking around the corner, an excited muzungu!, one more kid added to the single-file procession up the hill, all the way to the top. This little (out of focus) bebe was very last and very angry the older kids kept leaving her behind.

bebe

Other kids

At the very top, we were escorted by a couple of teenagers to a footpath that led to spectacular views of the plantation and Lake Kivu, where the skies immediately opened up on us—thunder, rain, the works.  We ran down the mountain, and felt very proud of ourselves when we got home. We told others we had hiked to the top of the hill. Yes, they said, smiling.

View

Imagine our surprise when, two days later, we set out to visit one of the supervisors we had interviewed the day before. A 30-minute walk, they told us. No biggie. We climbed that hill yesterday!

We began walking in the direction of the giant hill, and as we turned onto the dirt path that led up the hill, I thought to myself: Wow, the supervisor must live on this hill. What a steep walk to work and back every day. If only we had known yesterday, we could have visited him while we were just here…

As we walked past all the houses on the hill heading toward the very top, I thought: Wow, the supervisor lives on the top of this hill? So far! And he walks the hill every day? Yesterday we were so tired and proud to have made it. Silly us.

Then we walked over the top of the hill and down the other side toward a village. I looked back at Jeff and thought: No way! He lives up the hill, over the hill, and in the village on the other side? So far! I can’t believe he walks this every day…

Maybe you’re sensing the pattern. Maybe you also wear sunscreen and always carry your raincoat.

As we walked through the village on the other side and continued down toward the main road, I started really wondering. He walks up the mountain, over the top, through the village on the other side and down to the main road?! I can’t believe this.

But then we continued on the main road, past a little girl wearing a Packers T-shirt and another kid pulling a cut-up pill container on bottle cap wheels, onto a steep dirt footpath, and I was like: Whaaaat? He lives up the mountain, over the top, through the village on the other side, down the main road, and up the next ridge? Omg. Where’s my water?!

Packers

toy

When we walked up the dirt footpath, up the ridge and through the next village, I was sure this would be it. But we kept walking…

Three ridges, three valleys, three villages later, lots of kid-trains and muzungu squeals, over an hour from where we started, we arrived at the supervisor’s home! We were promptly greeted with chairs and Fanta, and in our cartoon lives, they were fanning us with giant leaves, wiping our sweaty faces.

We spent time with the supervisor and his wife along with all the neighbors packed into the tiny, but clean and welcoming house. Over and over, each person shared how excited the village was to welcome us—many muzungu had visited the coffee plantation, but none had ever gone walking to the villages! Especially not one so far!  Many had never seen muzungu before in person, right here, they said! They hugged and prayed and smiled and offered us more Coke, saying they were so encouraged and blessed by our visit. They insisted we take their greetings home to our families, and we shared greetings from all of you to them.

Spv house

In the most simple display of connection and community, we were all just happy to be sitting there together each enjoying the other’s company.

This supervisor and his wife have been married for 15 years without kids, he had described in his interview the day before. They had been to various doctors through the years, but could not find an answer to their infertility. Here in Rwanda, like so many other cultures, infertility is viewed as a curse, and often leads to isolation of the woman by others. We shared with the supervisor the day before how our own experience had been so difficult, how we would commit to praying for each other, and we sent him with hugs for his wife.

When I found myself face-to-face with the wife that day, she greeted me with a more intimate but familiar greeting of three hugs and cheek touches—left side, right side, left side—but then there was also something I had never been included in until that moment: forehead to forehead, eye to eye, and we rested there for a moment. It was more than a hug. It was like the insides of her soul reaching out to the insides of my soul, through our eyes and foreheads. She and I, in that moment, the same.

Wife

Yes, we will pray for those two- these who have put at least two orphans through school and help support several village “moms”- and we believe they will pray for us. We offered each other peace and truth in spite of those blasted ancestors…

Aaaaaaaand then we hiked the hour-and-a-half home at sunset, back through the villages and the valleys and the ridges, collecting another muzungu parade of kids, just like the supervisor does every day to and from work, rain or shine, and I think his quads are probably ripped!

Sunset

For the entire photo album, click here!

But in the meantime, how about some cute twins who were terrified of us?

Twins 1Twins 2Twins 3happy twins

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