Welcome to Greenville

Already the relentless moon has pulled me five months away from Madison, and I don’t know if it feels like yesterday or forever. When I close my eyes, Ramona is in the backseat of the Rendezvous and we’re driving down Whitney Way towards Woodman’s grocery, or I’m beside Lake Mendota, cold September breeze and Norway maple’s bright yellow hands and the memory of my womb, full of life. I remember the rough carpet in our apartment and the hexagonal sandbox below, catalpa blooms along Lake Mendota Drive in June, the Lakeshore bike path all the way downtown to First United Methodist Church. I remember bao at Orient House on South Park and ming sabai at Sa-Bai Thong on University Avenue. So much life, those seven years, moving from newlywed into parent.

Now, I am more, always expanding into newness. My poetry is more central to my life than ever as Ramona goes to preschool, five full days a week. From the chilly attic of our Greenville home, I’m writing about change and reading Chen Chen and Naomi Shihab Nye and Elizabeth Bishop; I’m applying to MFA programs, lining out my 20 best poems across the tan tile floor.

Summer turns golden, and then we see frost in the morning at the school bus stop. Consistently, the days are about ten degrees warmer here than in Madison. I still check the Wisconsin weather from time to time, think about snow. I’m looking forward to winter here, wondering what it will be like. I’ve never lived so far south before, and yet still this is the midwest? The world is so large. The world is so small.

This small town grows on you, its people close-knit in the small streets around the square, stitched up Beaumont Avenue and into these few hills that look out to a land of flat. The sidewalks here remind me of my hometown, the small Illinois village of my childhood, tree roots pulling up the corner of the concrete, flowers and weeds waving from every lawn.

The trees here are better than our Madison apartment, where the west sun glared through the living room window all summer long. Here, our backyard is full to bursting with leaves and twigs, so shady that the grass barely grows. The tulip tree stretches taller than a four-story building. I am comforted by the age of the trees, this old house, the years that this place was home before it was our home. Our Madison apartment was a place of transience; grad school housing where we were limited to no more than eight years renting. Having lived there for seven, we were the longest remaining tenants in our building. But here, this house was the world for one woman, the space where she raised her children and lived into widowhood. This attic room was one of her children’s bedrooms, “E’s room,” according to the note on the breaker box in the basement. The house is heavy with her stories; it makes it a warm place to live.

As I walk Oak street past Dairy Queen and our neighbor’s wilted garden, the burning bush still vibrant with autumn red, I find Greenville a good place to be. I hardly miss my before, my large home of lakes and liberal politics. It only takes a few months to remember how lovely a small town can be, even if it doesn’t have huge public libraries and what seems to me now endless restaurant choices. What it lacks, it makes up for in friendly faces and a sort of informality, a nonchalance about keeping up the yard and having the trendiest wardrobe. I am not anonymous here, and as someone who often chooses silence yet still wants to be seen, the lack of anonymity cheers me.

Making Bracelets

I tie tiny knots one after another, hours following patterned arrows on a chart—forward knot, backward knot, one half hitch to the right and one to the left—until the colors of the embroidery floss twine and wind into patches, rows, chevron, diamonds. I spin without clock, the pattern laid before me like the strange wheel of the orb weaver in the breezeway lamp. The spider is she who creates beauty not for its sake: the beauty is incidental to the nature of the web, a hunter’s tool. And what tool do I tie in a small band of color around the wrist of my daughter, my lover, my mother? In each knot, a prayer, a thought of the other—hands at keyboards and fingers around crayons and palms on greenware clay, age spots and caresses and the wringing out of all days. In the belly of the knots, the bracelet holds the sweat of a whole summer, soap residue of every shower in which for a moment, the shoulders relax. I tie knots to bind my fingers around the wrists of everyone I love. I hunt for the caress of cotton, for 4 a.m. fast asleep, for the yes to days’ work, inexplicable. Inexhaustible. The eye catching on the color of the banded wrist—there, my small prize of pleasure.

Ramona’s birth story, four years late.

[Trigger warning: childbirth trauma, medical details. Disclaimer: I have no medical training. This post comes from my records, what I remember, conversations I had later with my doctor, surgeon, and anesthesiologist, and Google searches.]

Four years ago today, I was two days past Ramona’s due date and three days away from “giving birth” to her. I put that in quotes because I felt, right or wrong, that I actually had no part in her birth.

I’ve never shared her birth story in its entirety here on the blog. It was a horrific thing, and I know I am not alone in experiencing a traumatic birth. One of the things about trauma, though, is that it’s easy to feel like there’s no way anyone else could understand what you went through. Really, I think the only one who can understand is Zach because he was there and went through his own personal hell watching what I was going through.

I’m glad I live in a day in age that women rarely die in childbirth. I try to be thankful for medical intervention because it’s possible that Ramona and/or I would not have made it through otherwise. But I can’t help feeling that I failed. I still feel it four years later, even after reminding myself thousands of times that the way Ramona was born does not invalidate my motherhood and does not make me a failure.

The way in which I feel I failed was in not giving voice at any point to my objection. Once Zach and I checked into St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, I felt my power and autonomy were completely stripped from me.

We were first put in an exam room to wait for them to ready a birthing room for us. I told them I wanted to have as natural of a birth as possible and that I wanted a room with a tub. No problem, the nurse said, all our rooms have tubs. Except they don’t all have tubs. And there was only one room available for us, the one room that only had a shower. I wish at this point I would have said, “No! I’m staying here until you find me a tub.” Irrational, perhaps, but I labored for eight hours in the hospital before I asked for an epidural and waited another two hours before I received one. If I had spent–been allowed to spend–those ten hours in the exam room, perhaps by then a room with a tub would have been available, and perhaps that could have held me off from the epidural at least for a while. Instead, we took the room without the tub, didn’t raise any fuss even if I was very disappointed. It’s the first what if in the birth story.

I was dilated to six centimeters when we arrived at the hospital on the night of the 19th. I asked to not have frequent checks, and through the night this was respected. Early in the morning of the 20th, they checked my dilation, and I had barely dilated any further. I think this is the moment I gave up. It is the biggest what if moment that I go back to over and over again. I was so tired, in so much pain. But what if I could have endured? What if I could have been patient? If I had given her more time, would Ramona have found her own way?

I asked for drugs and then for an epidural, which I received some time after 8 a.m. The doctor told me to rest, but I was still in a lot of pain and I couldn’t sleep. When he checked in on me a few hours later, my labor was still not progressing. I was exhausted, worn thin with no resistance left in me, so when he said he was going to break my water (yes, it still hadn’t broken), all I said was, “Okay.” Again, what if?

Still there was little progress throughout most of the day on the 20th. I don’t know when exactly, but some time in the afternoon, the doctor decided it was time to speed things along. He said he was going to give me oxytocin to hopefully move me from active labor into the transition stage. Again, all I could find was a placid, weak “Okay.” What if?

At this point, Ramona had no choice, no time, and because of the oxytocin, increasingly no room. She became wedged in an early stage of shoulder dystocia. The doctor tried numerous times to manually turn Ramona by literally inserting his hand and rotating her head, but every time I contracted, she only got more wedged in that position. So he called the surgeon.

All throughout this, I continued to have a lot of pain. Not as much as I would have had without an epidural but much more than the virtual no pain some women experience with an epidural.

The surgeon assessed the situation and told us there was nothing we could do but a c-section. Ramona was too far up to be safely removed with forceps or vacuum (one of the things in her birth that I thank God for because I know how horrific that often is!), and she continued on using scare tactics to get us to agree: “Your baby is tired. She will be in distress soon. And if you continue to labor, you could become incontinent.” I mean, really? Really? I think back to this, and I am so angry at her lack of compassion.

I so did not want a c-section. Earlier in my pregnancy, Ramona had been breech and I cried many times when I thought I might not be able to have a vaginal delivery. If you’ve never given birth, I think it might be hard to understand how I felt about this. And many women have c-sections and are happy about it, and I am happy for them, without reservation. That just wasn’t me. I thought I was stronger than this. I had more faith in my body than this. My mother had fairly easy, by-the-books vaginal births, and that’s what I’d expected for myself.

So I cried, and I talked with Zach, but what could we do? At this point, we were out of options. I had to have a c-section.

Next comes one of the most insensitive parts of the whole birthing process. While I lay devastated and helpless in the hospital bed. the aides who were prepping me for surgery were having a race to see how fast they could get me ready and down to the operating room. I really can’t say anything else about this. To say I am angry, still angry, at their lack of compassion, their inability to even see me as human doesn’t begin to describe it.

If this was the end of the story, I think I could have healed better. If I had gone into the c-section, had a normal, lucid surgery, and been presented with Ramona when she was born, I think I could have gotten over all the what ifs, I could have forgiven myself and the medical profession for the way Ramona’s birth happened. But all of what happened before the c-section is nothing compared to what the surgery was.

If you’ve been given an epidural and are then taken down for a c-section, the practice is that they ramp up the dosage of analgesic and do surgery without a spinal block. They warn you that you’ll feel some tugging. The epidural had been dulling my pain to a point, but I was still having quite a lot of pain during contractions (frequent from the oxytocin). When they upped the dosage, I no longer felt the contractions. Before the surgeon begins to cut, they will test to see if the analgesic is working well by pinching you, once low on your belly and once higher. In the best case scenario, you won’t feel either of these pinches. I felt the higher one.

If a woman feels only the higher of the two pinches, the surgery begins, under the assumption that by the time they are cutting at the higher position (about ten minutes in), the analgesic will have kicked in up there, too. This is only an assumption, though. Not a guarantee. For me, the analgesic did not cover the higher portion of my belly, not right away and not ten minutes later when they were cutting. I won’t go into the details here. You can imagine enough on your own. I will say that after 24 hours of labor, my membranes were very thin, and when one of them tore, the surgery had to continue whether I was in any small semblance of comfort or in complete agony. If they didn’t continue, I would lose too much blood.

They did dose me up with enough other drugs so that at some point, my memory of what continues is washed away, forgotten in what feels like a hallucinogenic fog. Zach says that they very briefly presented Ramona to us before intubating and suctioning her airways (I had meconium-stained amniotic fluid–another reason for the c-section). I don’t remember it. I don’t remember the moment my daughter was born. The moment that’s supposed to be so amazing, that’s supposed to erase the memory of all the pain, and barring that, at least make it all worth it? I didn’t have that moment. I didn’t have any moment. I can’t even remember what time she was born. I always have to look it up in our records or ask Zach. It was some time between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. on the 20th.

The moment I did have was an hour or so later when I woke up and saw Ramona clean, dressed, alien, somehow mine though there was no way for me to know this other than that I was told this was the child I gave birth to. I held her and said, probably more to myself than to her, “It’s okay, it’s all over now. We’re going to be okay.”

And we are okay. Ultimately, we are okay. I just still wish it all could have gone differently, and I want all the mothers out there who’ve gone through any similar or different form of trauma during childbirth to know: you are not alone, and even if no one else can truly understand, I hope we all as mothers can stand together, because this mothering thing is not easy. It’s not easy on day one or day one thousand or day ten thousand (okay, I’m guessing on the last one, but my mom could attest to this, I’m sure). I woke quickly to this truth, maybe others wake to it more slowly. I only know my own experience.

I keep reminding myself that in the end, the most important things came out okay–that Ramona and I recovered and are healthy, that we are together, and that no matter what happened on September 20, 2012, every September 20 since can be a happy one because it’s another year that God has blessed me to spend with my energetic, smart, empathetic little girl.

Excess and Ashes

When is the last time you bought something for yourself? Today? Yesterday? Last week? For me, it is usually no longer ago than “last week,” and that is hard for me to admit. It is, I think, an admission of my selfishness. I buy not because I lack anything but because of some perceived deficiency or because there is some further convenience I crave or because of some less definable hankering that urges me to amass more things for myself. 

And it makes me angry that I do this. Not only is it selfish, but I also believe it is degrading, both for me and for those I exploit in order to buy often and cheaply (think underpaid factory workers, poor environmental standards that lead to health hazards and climate change, perpetuation of unequal wealth distribution, etc.).

I recently read an article in The Anglican Theological Review because the title seemed to speak so directly to me: “The Struggle for Human Dignity in a Consumer-Oriented Culture” by Beverly Eileen Mitchell. Mitchell writes:

In the United States, a leading player in the global economy, too many of us have overspent, going into debt to buy according not to our basic needs, but to manufactured wants. What is insidious is the growing link that has developed between our sense of identity, value and worth and the products we purchase. We no longer buy products simply for themselves, but because we fall for the illusion that they will enhance us or make us into who we would like to be and fear we are not.

In what way did I imagine a new tablet cover would “enhance me”? Did I buy a fancy tea kettle that heats the water to specific temperatures for various kinds of tea because I needed it? Certainly not. I could argue that I bought these things for the added convenience they provide in my life; in fact, that is how I justify the purchases to myself. But I think, if I don’t want to deceive myself, I must also admit that I bought them so that I would look a certain way to others, so that I could bolster up my image of myself as a smart consumer or a tea aficionado or some such foolishness.

I want to be a real person. I don’t want to buy because I’m told to, and I don’t want to cut myself into some prefab shape so that I can be acceptable to society.

In fact, isn’t a prefab person often something of a turnoff? Isn’t someone who is uber-fashionable/always “put together”/always ready to show off their newest electronic marvel, isn’t that person somewhat unapproachable? Do the clothes I put on in the morning make me look good? I think so. But is it possible that some of the choices I make when I am getting ready for the day–when I am putting together an image of how I want to present myself to the world–actually make me seem aloof or arrogant? Could it be that the way I present myself turns some people off from talking to me, smiling at me, sitting next to me on the bus?

What I really want is to be down-to-earth and open. I’m not very good at this. And much of it is my own fault. I put on armor all the time. It’s an armor made of things: my clothes, my electronic gadgets, my choice of highly marketed snack or beverage, even my damn tea kettle and tablet cover. I want to say there’s nothing wrong with looking good and feeling confident, but shouldn’t this be innate within us, as individuals created by a loving God, not a confidence and beauty we must manufacture with all the stuff we buy?

So for Lent this year, I’m choosing to abstain from the culture of superfluous spending. For forty days at least, I’m going to step back and stop. I’m not going to buy anything for myself.

I’m a fan of the band Giants & Pilgrims. They’ve got a new single out for Lent this year, and they’ve posted it online along with a short reflection by pastor Jeff Cook. It really spoke to me, and I hope you’ll take a moment to listen as well, to start off your Lenten season with a deeper contemplation of what it means to be a soul in a body, what it means to subtract the excess, and what it means to celebrate with ashes, which are a symbol of destruction–something we may need to do to our insatiable desire to buy. The reflection is first, followed by the song:

http://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/album=3531241630/size=large/bgcol=ffffff/linkcol=0687f5/tracklist=false/artwork=small/transparent=true/

L’Engle and the Child Still within Me

I’ve been re-reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water with my mom, and this week, I read this passage from her chapter “A Coal in the Hand”:

Only the most mature of us are able to be childlike. And to be able to be childlike involves memory; we must never forget any part of ourselves. As of writing this, I am sixty-one years old in chronology. But I am not an isolated, chronological numerical statistic. I am sixty-one, and I am also four, and twelve, and fifteen, and twenty-one, and thirty-one, and forty-five, and…and…and…. If we lose any part of ourselves, we are thereby diminished. If I cannot be thirteen and sixty-one simultaneously, part of me has been taken away.

The way this hits me is as a call for grace–grace for ourselves, our selves, past and present.

It’s so easy to glance back and blame/condemn/scold/dismiss my past selves for their foolishness. And it’s amazingly difficult to love who I was in the midst of my biggest mistakes. But I think L’Engle is on to something: I cannot be whole if I cannot love myself with God’s love–even as time gives me the hindsight to have a thousand if-only-I-had…’s.

I must set the tearful, timid, selfish girl that I was at five upon my lap, let her rest her head upon my shoulder.

I must wrap my arms around the lonely, self-deprecating, depressed college student and hold her tight, as she so needed.

I must hold the hands of the laboring mother and look deep in her eyes and say, “It’s okay, it’s not your fault. This failure doesn’t make you a failure, doesn’t void your motherhood and womanhood.”

I must forgive myself for the things that are most difficult to let go of because all these selves are me: I am the result of them; their lessons are mine. Their thoughts and cravings and perspectives are under my care, and they flesh me out into a roundness of cold and hot and happy and sad and gut-wrenching and fist-pumping and still, slow breaths.

If I forget who I was, I truly am diminished. If I hold all of me and accept all of me and forgive all of me, I grow to fill the wholeness God intended for me.

Dear fellow woman,

When you got dressed this morning, when you took a quick look in the mirror before doing your hair or eating breakfast or changing a little one’s diaper, what did you say to your body?

Did you say, “Thank you, dear body, for being strong hands to keep my loved ones safe!”

Did you say, “You are absolutely gorgeous, you sly thing!”

Did you say, “Look at that brave and capable woman!”

Because you should have. It takes a lot of practice to see yourself as beautiful. It takes daily reminders; and you have to be willing to revel in yourself, your fat and creases and stretch marks and wrinkles and messy mop of hair.

It takes vigilance to see all those advertisements with size-zero women–selling everything from lingerie to beer to dentistry–and remember there are myriad ways to be beautiful, in every body of every shape and color.

It takes strength to look at other women and see them as beautiful allies rather than threats or targets for your thousand judgments.

May we learn to stand together as women, to remind each other to be true to ourselves, despite cultural standards of beauty and femininity. May we sing in every harmony our brave song of beauty.

Putting it into Practice

I love to buy new stuff. I love wandering thrift store racks, searching for skirts with eclectic patterns, for vintage dresses, for name-brand purses. And I love to buy shoes on Zappos. I love waiting for packages from Amazon. It’s really the best, pulling from cardboard something bright and shiny, something that still smells of warehouse and factory.

But I don’t believe in buying new stuff. Buying another thing I don’t need–duplicative purses, more skirts than days of the month, shoes in every color–it’s not healthy for me. Because no matter how many purchases I make, the hunger for unboxing never abets. I am never sated.

When I spend my time and money on new stuff, I’m encouraging and living out of my discontent. I’m also exploiting underpaid workers and feeding a system that undervalues the humanity of the targeted consumer. I’m accepting the religion of upward mobility, of upper middle class-ism, of a hierarchy that values the rich and the privileged and, at best, ignores the needy and the oppressed. What about living out of contentedness, Christianity, love, and justice?

I have been pointed to the blog Un-Fancy by several people in my life, and most recently by this mom’s post. As I read, I thought to myself, You know, you need to start acting on what you believe. You need to simplify and you need to stop buying. So I was inspired to start by raiding my closet.

I didn’t do the capsule wardrobe. Instead, I decided I’d get rid of 3/4 of my clothes. And then I wouldn’t buy anything new until something I had wore out. (My old friends will remember I did something like this sophomore year of college! I made it most of the school year before buying some pants at Gap.)

Bagging up all those clothes, many of which I still liked a lot, didn’t feel good. And now sometimes I miss some of the things I got rid of, but I still think it was the right move for me. I want to feel good about the person that I am and the things I put my time into. Putting so much emphasis on presenting myself just so through an ever-growing wardrobe was not something I wanted to spend my time doing.

Really, emptying my closet was the easy part. The hard part is not filling it again–and not just shifting my focus from clothes to other purchases. After dropping off about six packed garbage bags of clothes at St. Vinny’s, I bought a new water bottle. And a week later, I ordered a new backpack online. No good.

It was hard for me to stop spending money. It’s such an enjoyable pastime! I knew I needed to resolve myself to more than just a small wardrobe. I had to commit to a small everything–to the idea that one of something is enough, to the mindset that I am a good seamstress and I can fix what I have to work well enough. To the belief that I don’t need new to be happy–that, in fact, new will not make me happy even if I indulge in every purchase I desire.

After all, the center of my existence is not my investment in capitalist America. It’s my belief in a Jesus who loves and accepts us (everyone!) along with our crazy, my faith in a God who has set in my heart passions for words and for the craft of my hands. The center of my existence should be spreading love and justice, writing poetry, creating beautiful things. (And here I think, Ah, if only money didn’t make the world go round….)

I want to start a new pattern, to recommit to truth and beauty and justice. To meditate on this Bible verse: “Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.” (Philippians 4:8-9, The Message)