On Refugees and Safety

 

I was safe.

There in my coastal college town where we worried about the skyrocketing price of housing, but little else. I dreamed of broader experiences for my daughters. For the diversity we sorely lacked. Of course, it's never the way you picture it.

It's messy and awkward and difficult and beautiful. But isn't that just like the Kingdom of God?

These are just a few stories from my experience moving to Nashville and living among refugees. 

***

I went back to school as an "older" adult. I was there with all the emotional and financial support of my husband and family to chase a degree.

They were there to chase a dream, in a city where they had landed by default.  

They did not choose where they were born. 

They did not choose to live in a land torn by war or persecution.

They did not choose to leave.

They did not choose which refugee camp to live in while the arduous vetting process took place.

They did not choose to live in the city I got to choose. 

They did not get to choose their house or apartment by its aesthetic appeal, or the way the light comes in the windows just the right way, or by the fact that it had enough bedrooms for their families. Or didn't. 

They were placed there, and they were in college working harder than most to simply write a sentence in English. 

I read their personal essays. I read their stories. I saw some of their pieces go from disjointed thoughts to published works in our college's journal. 

One Somali girl wrote about going to elementary school and getting lost walking home. 

"All the houses looked the same!" She laughed. 

She had wandered streets I still will not venture in my car after dark. Alone. A third grade girl. 

Finally, a police officer helped her, and she made her way back to the place she was supposed to call home. 

She told me that school had been difficult because she couldn't speak a word of English. 

"How did you do your homework? Did you have a translator? How did you even know what to do?" I asked. 

There was no translator. No one at home to help. Her parents were working all day and night, and they didn't speak English, either.

It was the school guard, a bilingual Somali man, who looked at her assignments every day after school as she left and told her what to do. 

I spent two days a week for a year with these precious new neighbors. 

Somali. Kurdish. Iranian. Sudanese. Burmese. Muslim. Christian. Fearful. Displaced. Hard-working. Dreamers. Loved.

Dangerous?

No.

***

At first I didn't want to be part of the new church plant. I didn't want to leave my friends. I didn't want to feel uncomfortable.

The new church began as a ministry alongside Burmese refugees. We shared meals together--meals they had often prepared. Many times, most of the time, the conversations were hard. 

At one event, a woman told me that she had been exiled to Hong Kong for reporting on women's rights in Thailand. She hadn't seen her family in ten years.

Whatever could I say? I kept chewing my rice noodles and just listened. Stunned. Mind boggled. Grateful that California is the furthest I have to travel to see the people I love. 

My husband helped organize a community garden at our church where the Burmese refugees could plant food. The apartment complex they are assigned to lacks green space, and many (most) refugees leave behind a rich agricultural experience when they are forced to flee their homelands. 

On the morning of the garden planting, my husband said they were all there early. Men, women, and children, ready to plant. 

He was there to help, but he didn't need to. They already knew exactly what to do. How to plant a seed. How to cultivate something rich and beautiful. 

Once during a worship service, we tried to say the Lord's Prayer together using the dialect of our Burmese sisters and brothers. It was displayed phonetically for those of us (all of us) who could not speak their language.

We began all together, but before we knew it, our refugee friends had finished the prayer.

The rest of us were still plodding along.

Struggling with the rhythm of the words.

Stumbling over missteps and mispronunciations. 

Sometimes, a proper Burmese word is rude American slang when spelled out phonetically. We laughed until we cried in what we had hoped to be an act of unity as we tried  to overlook our accidental profanity.

Of all things. The Lord's Prayer

And as I struggled to read and understand the words on the screen, I had a moment--a split hair of a second, in which I could imagine what it would be like to be a foreigner in a foreign land. 

Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.

On earth as it is in Heaven.

***

My daughter is ten years old. She is a ballerina. At her ballet school, there are dancers of diverse racial, socio-economic, and cultural backgrounds. There are refugees. 

Sometimes, we carpool. They giggle in the backseat as they open their snacks. My daughter tears away the foil at her yogurt. 

The other dancer opens the lid of a container holding a hot, fresh meal prepared by her mother. 

"That smells SO good," my daughter says. 

The dancer beams. 

My car smells like things I don't even know how to describe. Like spicy, buttery goodness. 

On stage, they dance like swans. All of them together. 

I cry when I watch my daughter. 

I cry harder when I see the face of the refugee mother watching her own girl.

***

Last night I went to Target. My newsfeed and my heart were full of the news of the day--refugees being detained at airports and families separated as the "temporary" ban took place. 

Target was busy. The lines were long and the aisles full. As I walked through the store, I noticed that many, many people around me were speaking languages I didn't understand. Many women were wearing head coverings. Ten years ago, this would have startled me. My quiet California college town is not the melting pot that a refugee hub like Nashville is. 

But as I walked the aisles, there was no fear. Not an ounce of anxiety for myself. Only worry and wonder over their families and if they would be affected by the recent legislation. 

And I wished I had some phonetic spelling on a screen that I could recite in every language. I would risk the potential profanity. The awkwardness and embarrassment. The fear. 

I would say:

You overcame. 

You planted beautiful things. 

Your daughters dance like swans, and you make my country--our country--great. 

 And I realized I had never been safe in my cozy town, with my cozy ideas. Not really.

Not in a Kingdom where the least is greatest and the greatest is the least. Where the lowly are lifted up and the rich sent away empty. Where the poor are blessed and the persecuted given eyes to see the topsy-turvy love of God where they are cherished beyond measure.

I would say:

Dear refugee, I have a lot to learn about safety.

Thank you for teaching me.  

Burmese refugees planting in the community garden at our parish 

Burmese refugees planting in the community garden at our parish 

Halfway

Dear Sera,

The minute I found out about you I cried. I have often tried to articulate this feeling—it wasn’t at all a sorrowful cry, but it wasn’t joyful either. I was in my apartment and your dad was in the other room. I looked at that stick and I screamed, “BABE!” You can imagine the same word and the tone it often takes when I’m yelling at dad to come identify a brown recluse spider or help me put out a stove fire.

It’s been hard to describe that afternoon and what it felt like to proceed with the knowledge that you were there: cells were dividing, DNA predicting, a heart getting ready to beat, all of this, totally outside of myself was happening inside of myself—to my baby while I slept—or didn’t sleep as was the case that first night. I already felt like I couldn’t protect you and I was so nervous, but that wasn’t the reason for the tears.

 9 years ago today, 9 years ago tonight, this very minute, I was in a hospital room in Cleveland, Tennessee staring at your dad and holding on for dear life. Labor was beyond my control, but the intense and driving force of longing pushed me past my limits and into motherhood.

You were not an easy baby. I do not wish to gloss over that fact because in doing so we lose a valuable part of our story. The first night I nursed you, you attached yourself for 4 hours straight. I thought I would DIE. The nurses were appalled. They said sweetly, “You can take her off you know.”  They were wrong. You screamed if we didn’t swaddle you, didn’t bounce you, didn’t pat your back, or if I was outside of the 2 foot radius of your mom radar. The only time you didn’t cry was if you were nursing or sleeping, the first of which you wanted to do constantly and the latter you wanted to do …never.

I am thankful that the difficult months at the start of our story taught me to love, for sometimes love is easy, but most of the time, it is not.

I think it’s also important to talk about our beginning, because it has a lot to do with the end. I know a lot of people pine for the baby days wishing they could go back. I would like to take this moment to apologize for being an absolute crazy post-partum wreck, and that, exacerbated by your affinity for never sleeping but always screaming, is a big reason I do not ever wish to go back to the baby times.

But it is not the only reason.

Tonight I took you to Target to spend your birthday money. As we drove, we listened to some ridiculously old mix CD of mine that includes the Beatles, Elton John, and Counting Crows (among others), and as you were perfectly singing the “ahs” of "Yellow Brick Road" I suddenly felt like I was going to cry. It didn’t help that the next song on the mix was Billy Joel’s "Lullaby," and my voice cracked as I tried to explain the reason behind the song. 

By the time Counting Crows’ "Long Decembercame on I was annoyed with myself for getting so weepy—and for being a cliché as I belted out the words to a such a distinctively 90s song. Nevertheless, I felt utterly connected as we sang together--I took the harmony (honestly, who doesn’t chime in on the “na-na-na-na-s?” People without souls. That’s who), and you kept the melody.

It's been a long December and there's reason to believe

Maybe this year will be better than the last

I can't remember all the times I tried to tell myself

To hold on to these moments as they pass

I reached back and held your hand in the dark, barreling down that highway.

Hold on to these moments

My girl. My sweet girl who sings Elton John and Counting Crows and who spends her birthday money on Lord of the Rings Legos and remote controlled robotic bugs. Who knew?

 … I think I did.

I think in some nook of my imagination, in a recess of my intuition, I hoped for you, exactly who you would be. Out of the spirals of DNA and swirling cells came the deepest pain and also the most intoxicating rapture I have ever known. And in that first moment of consciousness, not pain or joy but love, like a gladly appointed burden pressed out all my tears.

According to the laws of the United States, most of society, and probably your preference, I have been given 18 years to parent you. Here we are.

Halfway.

And although I still feel like I want to protect you, although it still feels very much out of my control, although I know we are barreling down a highway so much faster than I would like… I would never want to go back.

I do, however, want to remember this: to “hold on to these moments” even as they pass. I may only have 9 more years to keep you here, to geek out over fantasy fiction together on the couch every night, or to hear you wake up before me, but every year closer to goodbye is a year closer to you becoming fully you. I’m so excited to meet you next year, and the year after, and the year after that…

So excited.

9 years from now we might be driving somewhere together. I might be taking you to college, or you might be showing me your neighborhood. Or you might still be in your room surrounded by bird nests and Star Wars posters. But I know the burden will not have lessened. I will still love you fiercely, and I’m sure you will amaze, surprise, and delight us all.

And I really hope you will not be too cool to sing along with your mom in the car.

Goodnight my angel, now it's time to dream

And dream how wonderful your life will be

Someday your child may cry, and if you sing this lullaby

Then in your heart there will always be a part of me.

Under the Bold Red Tent: A True Story

 

It is a bright Nashville Saturday morning. I leave the kiddos with my husband (“It shouldn’t be longer than an hour or two!”), show up to a room at the local library in a pair of cowboy boots and a summer dress, and prepare to share my birth story at an event called, "Under the Bold Red Tent." It was advertised as a place to connect with other women and share birth stories.

Now, I love a good birth story and I love telling my own birth stories. The whole thing fascinates me. How a human comes out of, well, there is pretty amazing.  I love how like snowflakes, each story is different. Natural, medicated, c-section, vaginal, hospital birth, home birth, long labor, short labor, and everything in between. I love it all. I can't wait to hear the stories and share my own. 

I am one of the first to arrive. Introverts hate to be the first to arrive to anything. I don't know anyone so I immediately sit on the floor and pretend to be busy on my phone. It is then that the “Red Tent” presents some serious red flags:

First, I notice that there is an ACTUAL tent...or canopy..or fabric...whatever it is, it is indeed, red. I had thought the name was metaphoric. Apparently not.

Second, the tent is on a stage. There are no chairs, just a lot of open space.

Third, there is a boom box.

Fourth, As the women arrive, I notice that I am the only one not wearing yoga pants.

Lastly, I am also the only one wearing shoes. 

I have nothing against yoga pants and bare feet, in fact I sport that look a lot myself--but I do wish I would have gotten the memo.  Introverts don’t like to stick out. I jokingly think to myself that physical activity might be required. Ha! Now wouldn't that be funny.

Everyone is accounted for and we are guided up on the stage and encouraged to form a circle. 

On the floor. 

Cross legged. 

The uniformity of the circle and the cross-legedness makes me slightly nervous, but it’s not a big deal, we’ll soon start telling our stories and I’ll be home by lunch time happy for having gone and feeling nostalgic for the births of my daughters. 

We are told to grasp hands. By this time I am having minor heart palpitations. I don’t like where this is going.  

First of all, I’m not a big fan of group hand holding and when I’ve done it, say, during prayer I am so distracted (“Am I holding too tight!? Are my palms sweaty? Why won’t my hand stop shaking!”) that I can barely focus on the prayer.

Second of all, WHY ARE WE EVEN DOING IT?

OH. This is why. 

We are told to close our eyes and to “om”...

Again, California-born-home-birthing-daughter-of-hippies over here, but group “om-ing” is a little much, even for me.

Gracious, is that harmonizing

Yes, yes it is. 

Someone has begun to “om” in harmony.

Well this is Nashville, after all.

I am wrought with both fear and a fit of the giggles. They are oming in, oming out, and I am harkening my own labor strategies trying to “just breathe” through possible outbursts of laughter. 

I evaluate the situation. Any empowering birth conversation cannot possibly be worth what is about to go down. I sense this.  It is serious fight or flight time. I strategize an exit. Everyone’s eyes are closed, I can totally do this!

But it occurs to me that I'm on the farthest side of the circle form the door. In order to exit I’d have to move across the entire stage, and no amount of “oming” (no matter how loud or guttural) would cover up the sound of heeled cowboy boots fleeing on a hardwood floor.

UGH.

Why pick TODAY to be fashionable, Flo, WHY!? 

It’s too late for action. 

Everyone’s eyes are open. 

I start praying for Josh to call me with some sort of emergency--nothing serious of course--well, not too serious anyway. I so desperately want to say, “I’m so very sorry, but it appears one of my daughters has ingested 3 containers of play dough and the other one has had a significant diaper blow out.” But then I remember I married a superdad. There’s nothing he can’t handle. 

CRAP. Why did I have to marry such a capable man! This is what I get for being fashionable and having good taste in men. I guess this is it. I'm in it for the long haul. Besides, someone is telling their birth story and if I were to leave now the delicate balance of emotions would unravel causing a disturbance in the womanhood force. Believe me, you do not want to do that.

There are probably a dozen of us in a circle up on that stage, under that red tent, and one by one we tell our stories.  I’ve never timed it, but I’m guessing I could tell both of my birth stories in 10 minutes or less if I had to. Multiply that by 12 women and you get 2 hours of birth talk. That is assuming each women speaks for 10 minutes. Each woman does not speak for 10 minutes. Some speak for much much longer. 

I start wondering what time it is. Tears, rage, and life stories are shared.I am not prepared. I wish I’d packed a lunch. If my stomach starts growling maybe they'll think I'm just oming. When it’s finally my turn, and I tell Amelie’s birth story in about 30 seconds because I am faint with hunger.

“Used a midwife. Had a home birth. Buried my placenta under a rosebush. (come on, I have to keep that in) ...It was really great...super spiritual...changed my life...Are there any snacks?”

Okay, the last part I think to myself. 

The specifics are a bit foggy, but just about the time I was praising God for the last story being told, the leader makes an announcement.Turns out I was right to question the presence of the boom box.

She explains, “Now, not everyone has had this opportunity at other Red Tent events around the country (woah, around the country?? I had no idea) but I am happy to say that we have a dance instructor among us who has agreed to lead us this afternoon!”

I am AGHAST. Truly

I hate dancing in public so much I didn’t even dance at my own wedding. Dance instructor? I have no idea what this could possibly mean in this context! 

Oh, now I do.

We are asked to stand up, as she tells us to try to capture the feeling of our birth and let it manifest through dance in whatever way we wish.

Birth dance. GOOD LORD.

I try to make eye contact with someone--anyone--who like me might be wishing the earth would open up, but everyone is dancing. Everyone is loving it. It is a sacred congregation of mamas in yoga pants leaping, frolicking, and whirling like dervishes in a unified rhythm. I’m pushed along and caught up in the rip tide of hormones.

The only thing louder than that boom box zen music is the clickety clack of my cowboy boots as I stumble around the circle flapping my arms up in the air every now and then to give the appearance of “dancing.” I’m thinking I am NEVER wearing these #@&* boots again!I pray for some sort of supernatural time warp to carry me out of the moment, and just then the music fades.

We’re stopping!

God listens, y’all. 

Hold up.

What did she just say?

SWEET. MERCY.

I’m pretty sure she just told us to end our dance in ...a pose?

But wait, that’s not enough. 

We must each pose in a way that represents our birth. Together.

I look around for ideas. I’ve gotten this far, what's one more humiliation? I mean, if I actually survived childbirth I can do anything, right? Isn’t that what we always say?

I strike a pose. 

A birth pose.

I squat and throw my hands up in the air in victory.

For womanhood! 

For childbirth!

FOR GETTING THROUGH THIS AFTERNOON!

And then...the pinnacle (no, that actually wasn't just it) in the form of an announcement:

The words, “we have a dance instructor among us” can only be trumped by, “Oh lovely! The news reporter has just arrived.”

FOR REAL PEOPLE. 

There we are, all of us squished together, beaming, grimacing, squatting like birth warriors. News reporter is a guy. News reporter has his camera, of course. News reporter snaps a picture, and for the first time that afternoon I feel a surge of pride over my fashion decision...until I realize what the heck I’m doing. I imagine news reporter is totally scandalized and will go home swearing off procreation.

And just like that, we’re free to go. 

I look around at these mothers who I don’t know and who don’t know how close I was to jetting out the door, and I feel something. Not fear, or ridicule, or even relief for it all being over.

I feel solidarity.

When I get home 4 hours later, I’m met by 2 tiny ladies (and a tired husband) who are wondering WHERE the heck I have been all day.

I kiss their faces... and I remember how they came to be mine.

I remember labor as a complete combination of fear and joy, terror and laughter. 

I remember the fight or flight struggle, and the realization that the only way out would be to surrender.

I remember clasping hands with Josh and the guttural “oms” that surprised even myself. 

I remember the awkward dance of labor that I did NOT want to be doing but stumbled through anyway, somehow

And I remember that final push, holding my baby, feeling like the most victorious woman on earth.

***

I'm finally home, happy, and indeed feeling nostalgic for the births of my daughters. 

The Red Tent was crazy. 

But then again, so is birth. 

 

Beauty and the Mess

Recently a dear friend (and mama) rode in my car, but not first without my sincerest apologies for the state of the car, which looked something like this:

*The coffee cup in the back seat contains a banana peel. I discovered this when taking the photo... It's still in the car.

It's not like I thought she'd be offended, but I still felt compelled to hide the mess as I tossed trash and coffee cups into the backseat. She insisted it was fine, and in fact said something surprising. She told me it made her feel better. She had so far only seen the inside of my house which is kept, or appears to be kept in perfect order. One of my closest friends had never really seen my mess. This got me thinking...about mom blogs.

Every mom I know, including myself, reads mom blogs. There are even celebrity mom bloggers. They write eloquently, post exquisite photographs, journal their Food-Network-worthy dishes, knit, crotchet, sew and paint, all while teaching their dozens of whimsical children at home...And it is lovely. It really, really is.

I do not mean to satirize the mom blog. As an artist, I live to create beauty and to breathe it in and I am often inspired by these creative mamas. Neither am I condemning the blogging mamas themselves. I am one of them. I'm no celebrity, but I have definitely projected, through my blog and through my posts, a picture of a beautiful life. I am only suggesting that we think twice about the standard we create when we post only the good stuff. 

For example, another friend of mine posed a question about one mom blogger in particular, asking, "How do you think she does it all, and still has time to home school!?" With my current season being full--with writing and music and school and a family--several friends have made the same comments to me: "How do you do it all?" I can promise you this:

She doesn't.

I don't.

That "it all" you're so surprised we can do, is not the "it all" you imagine or that is displayed through a few well cropped photos and highlights from the week. We look with fascination at the mom who has it all together. She documents the meals she crafts, but not the dirt beneath the oven, she features the serene and never the chaos.

In turn, other mothers, regular mothers, tired mothers, new mothers, mothers with sick kids or stressful jobs or people like me who have a very, very low capacity for stress are left discontent, disheartened and wondering what mistake we must be making that our cups aren't overflowing with these lovely moments. What my cup overflows with is coffee...that I've stuck in the microwave 3786493 times because I'm freaking EXHAUSTED and I keep forgetting that it's in there.

Like I said, this is not a campaign against mommy blogs, and especially not a campaign against presenting lovely and beautiful things. I mean, I'm a big fan of loveliness: creativity, wooden toys and eyelet dresses, picnics in the sun, and handmade goodness.

I think it's valuable to open our eyes to beauty. But it's also valuable to open our eyes to the mess...to acknowledge the mess...embrace the mess..to even blog the mess (Messy Mondays anyone?) and I'm going first:

I've decided to share with you 10 examples of blog life vs. real life. I hope you are inspired by both the beauty and the mess. Keep in mind, the "mess" here isn't even close to the messiness that exists in my life, but just hasn't been caught on camera!

#1 - My Beautiful Home

diningroom.jpg

Pristine, no? well this was taken when NO KIDS WERE HOME.

Would you like to see my front porch?

porch.jpg

In case you were wondering, that is a rug from inside, a rained on sock and some pumpkins from October. I have no idea how long the rug or the sock have been there, but I'm sure my neighbors do and obviously the pumpkins are from...well...

October.

And they are moldy.

#2 - Homeschooling

This is a picture from that one year I home schooled...

This is a picture of the girls at their public school. Post homeschool burn out.

#3 - Wooden Toys

Wooden abacus, wooden puzzle. The types of toys I long for my children to play with.

Plastic VW Bug from Goodwill and a Barbie from Walmart. The toys my kids actually play with.

#4 - Food:

One morning, I made a frittata and I posted a picture of it.

 Sometimes, when I sleep in a little (ahem, every Saturday until 9:30 A.M.), the girls come into my room and ask for breakfast. Drool still fresh on the pillow and without opening my eyes, I manage to mumble, "Go ahead and get a snack out of the fridge...like a piece of bread." And they do. Sometimes they add jelly.

Not jelly I made myself. Not even organic.

Straight up

 grape jelly.

#5 - Costumes:

owl.jpg

One year, I stayed up until 2am crafting this very sweet crafty blog-inspired owl costume...that my daughter wore one time.

Screen%2BShot%2B2012-01-09%2Bat%2B1.40.02%2BPM.png

The next year, I bought a cheaply made yet overpriced and slightly scandalous Wonder Woman outfit off the internet and my daughter wore it 6 days in a row

#6 - Enriching Activities:

One day I made some paint. It was cute, and my kids had so much fun!

A different day I stared at Facebook for hours!

As evidenced by this picture I found on the camera while preparing for this very post; my bored-out-of-her-mind child had resorted to playing with my camera without me even realizing it.

This happens more than finger-painting with cornstarch.

#7 - Homemade Clothing:

One Easter I made this dress out of old sheets. How very mom blogger of me! I probably hand-make all of my children's clothes!

I didn't make this shirt.  Er, or the bed, obviously.

#8 - Family Photo

This was one of our Christmas photos. Gosh I'm such a serene mother goddess in my flowing skirt and side bun.

This was me on Christmas. And most of the time, really. Not gonna say anything else about having posted this, other than yes, I realize it was a bold move. (In a related thought: why won't my kids stop being the FREAKING paparazzi!?) 

#9 - Happy Children

Look at my kids during this "impromptu" moment! They are like this all of the time!

No, actually this is what they're like most of the time. The list could have been twice as long, with a picture for every situation...

fridge.jpg

For example, all of this healthy/organic/allergen free food that is also very expensive. So expensive in fact, we have to cut costs elsewhere--like replacing our broken refrigerator door pieces with duct tape. (Hey, it works!) But I want to leave you with this:

#10 - The Garden

The vegetable garden.

It is peaceful and lovely.

It is satisfying and nourishing.

It is blooming and it is plentiful.

 It is a summer garden.

 Other times, it looks like this:

Not so beautiful. And guess what? This is what it looks like most of the year. 

And this is the truth: Most of our lives are not fingerpaint and frittata. Much of the time, our lives are rained on socks and old banana peels, tears and defeat, life held together with duct tape of glory and beauty sprinkled here and there.

Some don't even have the time for discontentedness--they have bigger troubles, like lack of housing or very ill children. So yes, I am thankful for beauty.I am also thankful for the mess. For the moments not captured in a blog.

I'm thankful for the time my daughter told me she wished I wasn't her mom, because despite the hurt, I was able to hold her and let her cry it out, and model unconditional love and forgiveness...

Or that time I said something equally ridiculous ("You better clean your room with a cheerful spirit!") and I was able to model humility and repentance and my 5 year old heard "I'm sorry" straight from her mother's lips.

I'm thankful for this mess.

I'm thankful for the "winter garden" when the ground seems hard and cold, but important things are happening just beneath the surface.

I'm thankful for the "summer garden" when we bloom and laugh and when our cup overflows...

And, at the end of the day, by the grace of God, there is love, despite the beauty or the mess. And for this I am grateful.

Oh, and this too.