Surgery Sucks and Other Spiritual Truths

This morning I was up early praying for a friend whose baby is in surgery this morning. It’s major surgery, and it’s anything but routine, even though it will happen every six months until he’s an adult.

Major surgery. Every six months.

It sucks so much I can barely type it. The anger of this moment hits me every time even if he’s not my son (though I love him like a nephew, at least). I call my friend and ask her sometimes, how do you handle this? And I love her because she’s never trying to be inspirational or sappy. I wish I could describe how much she means to me and how much she teaches me; she has risen with grace and humor when lightning strikes (in her case, twice, and very hard). She’s real and they face surgery, squarely, every. six. months. They’re teaching their son to be both tender and tough. He’s smart and cute and funny and he’ll grow strong, but something is wrong with a world in which this is his childhood.

I’ve been praying too many times for babies in the NICU or babies in surgery or babies that don’t make it. There’s some kind of statistical anamoly with my friends–baby after baby after baby is born with rare genetic conditions, omphalocoeles, thoracic deficiencies, autism, cerebral palsy, and so many other things I don’t even want to list them. And it hurts my heart to type.

Today as I’m up early praying, I’m so sad about the things that suck. These aren’t some major concepts, some theoretical sense of suffering I had like when I was in college and I wanted to “change the world.” These are people I love. There’s been a difference between me and the person feeling this pain, and that difference is enormous. I’m not in grief, but I love some people who have grieved a lot this year.

This year, someone I love survived breast cancer like a boss.

This year, someone I love is spending as much time as she can with her mother who has pancreatic cancer.

This year, someone I love, who is 84, is working overtime to bring his wife here from Malaysia. They’ve been married 50 years. He hasn’t seen her since 2008. He already survived persecution and a hunger strike in a Burmese jail just to have a Bible. He got kicked out of the country by a government that has been systematically killing its people. These aren’t just people on the news–they’re people my daughter prays for every night.

This year, someone I love has uprooted their family yet again to move to a new city on the wisp of hope that there might be another job and better health care.

This year, someone I love was so lonely she could barely see her way out of it for months and months.

This year, someone I love, who is in elementary school, wrote beautiful poems about missing the father who abandoned her family right before the war that brought them to this country.

This year, someone I love was deserted by her husband and left to care for three tiny babies in a country whose language she can’t speak with no job, no education, no nothing.

This year, two different families I love lost two different baby girls, who will never be forgotten, who should be alive playing with my children now.

This year, someone I will love is being conceived or may already be born, and she will come live in my house and she will be my daughter and we will cry together about injustices in the world that are not concepts but real, life-changing awfulness.

These things suck. And there is truth and wisdom in lamenting with Job and David and Mary and half the other speakers and writers in the Bible that we live in this kind of world. And no truth at all in dismissing this pain or glossing over it with rainbows and sunshine on flannel graphs.

Because my babies have already been exposed to suffering as they pray for their friend in pre-op or his brother who was in the NICU or their other friends in surgery or their Burmese grandfather fighting tooth and nail to bring his wife here. My babies are already asking me, Why does this happen to my friends and not me? And I can’t answer those questions.

And no playtime with teddy bears or kissing boo-boos will erase the facts, which they already know in their wise little hearts.

Some things just suck.

Linked with The Extraordinary-Ordinary’s “Just Write” series.

Bracelet-Making and Other Skills

I said last week that I’d talk more about how starting Hill Tribers has changed my life, but so far I’ve found it hard to put into words. It has changed it, profoundly and utterly, but the examples I come up with are small ones. This morning I was looking around my house trying to think about what to write about it, and I realized how much my lifestyle has changed.

This ironing board with bracelets, spray starch, Scotch Guard and jewelry-making tools, has been out all weekend as I try to finish some bracelets.

I didn’t tat these beautiful things. They’re made by my friend, Huang, but I’m adding the finishings so that she can keep making them to have enough in time for our deadline this month. They’re our first wholesale products for one of our favorite vendors EVER (I’ll post more about that when they’re live on the website–I’m really excited). Lucky me, I’ve been wearing the prototype all week. You know, just to test it out.

In the past few years, I’ve learned how to use small pliers. I can shorten or lengthen a necklace in less than two minutes. I know how to fix earrings so that they’ll stay for a long time. I’ve learned about beads and brass chain and findings. I like 1 mm chain better than 2 mm; I prefer antique bronze to brass, but it doesn’t look as good in a chain as a bracelet clasp.

I’ve learned words like “product inventory” and “wholesale prices” and I know what they mean (the difference between “consignment” and “wholesale” took me awhile). My kids don’t think it’s weird that I count bags or earrings or necklaces, or finish bracelets, at night after dinner. They play “inventory” like other kids play “grocery store.”

I’ve learned what kind of yarn makes what kind of products: these are nylon, which is best if it needs to stay stiff, but cotton works better for bags and scarves and headbands.

I’ve learned how to set up a product display in less than two hours.

I’ve learned that there’s enough time in my life to help women who need it. I’m reminded, in this Lenten season, of the things I’ve given up and will keep giving up, in order to make room for these women. Like the corner of my living room where I’m making bracelets. Or tonight when we go to a jewelry-training class for our next line of products. Or when we get the call from a hysterical mom who needs help taking her baby to the emergency room. And each small step away from my self-centered life has been so, so, so worth it.

We never use our ironing board anyway.

Sesame Street Audience

Jonathan and I took the girls last Saturday to go see Sesame Street Live. They loved every second of the show. We loved every second of watching them. It was a lovely way to spend a cold, rainy Saturday night in Austin.

From eventmonster.com.

The amazing thing was the audience. It was easily the most diverse group I’ve ever seen. People from all walks of life, all races, all sexual orientations, all family sizes, were gathered to watch Elmo and his friends make music. It was enchanting.

The thing we walked away wondering: how can our church look more like this? What does Sesame Street do right? What are we missing? (And no, I don’t think the answer is full-body costumes). There’s something important about a utopian place where everyone belongs, whether you’re purple or blue, have wings or are in a wheelchair. I’d like to be a part of a group like that.

Part 2: Meeting the Hill Tribers

(Read about Part 1 here.)

I went back a few days after the fall festival with some friends from church. We tracked down Hela’s apartment and discovered was a large group of Burmese refugees living in the apartment complex. We started going over there to meet the women. There were more children without good shoes or coats. We brought them the clothes they needed and connected them with the nearby church whose fall festival we had attended, a tiny church with about a dozen members who still feed hundreds every Monday night. Our larger church had begun to partner with the smaller one, which is why we were at the fall festival the Saturday afternoon we meet the Burmese refugees.

Hela and her friends were Karen Hill Tribers, part of an ethnic group that extends throughout Burma and Thailand. There are members of several other hill tribes who fled ethnic cleansing in Burma. At the time, I knew only what I had seen of hill tribers in Thailand and what I heard from some missionaries about the courageous antics of the Free Burma Rangers. I had no idea how many refugees there were living in Austin. I learned as much as I could at night through my research on the internet. My increasing visits to the refugee families were constant sources of joy to me.

This is me teaching an English class to that first group of friends

By December of that year, perhaps six weeks after we first met the refugees, Jonathan and I were driving to Fredericksburg. Noelle was in her car seat, turned around for the first time in her life since she had just turned one. (This was in the good old days, like 2007, before children had to be strapped down in a back-facing car seat until they go to college. I loved the first time either of my daughters realized that the car goes forward, that there was a world out there that they could see coming.) Her squeals of joy peppered the conversation we had as we re-evaluated where we had been and where we were going with our lives.

The stakes felt really high in that conversation. In all my years of schooling, I don’t think I’d ever had a semester as hard as the one I had just finished. I was in the middle of a difficult doctoral program and I had taken the spring semester off to be with my daughter. Eight gloriously laidback months were followed by a fall semester so hard I cried before classes even began.

I was both teaching undergrads and attending my own graduate classes. I had absolutely no idea how to be a working mom. I was wracked with guilt at leaving my precious baby with a babysitter four mornings a week, but also glad to go back to work I adored. Staying ahead at my job, in my classes and as a mother was making me into a frenetic, driven person. Everything was falling apart, me most of all.

I still remember our arguments that semester as some of the worst of our lives. I pushed us to do things I thought we ought to do. We were parents, after all, and even if our daughter’s hobbies included blowing raspberries and sticking her finger up her nose, raising a child in the way she should go starts at birth.

We attended two church small groups, one in English, one in Spanish, every single week. There was cooking for the small groups, elaborate meals I convinced myself I had to make so no one would judge me as a working mom by my domestic skills. I thought we should be teaching classes at church. I worried about missing our friends; I would have planned something every night if it were up to me.

I would have pushed us even harder if my wonderful husband had not set up some serious boundaries.

I was convinced we needed to help the Burmese refugees. He was equally convinced we had more than enough on our plates. Exhausted and overwhelmed, we played hookie in Fredericksburg to escape for the day. Our daughter babbled and giggled at the trees rushing by. We talked over each of the activities we had committed to and tried to unravel our hectic lives. We unpacked dreams for the past that we had folded away for safekeeping years ago, dreams of turning our lives inside out for ministry before we had chosen secular careers. We used economic development terms we had not talked about since moving to Austin.

I remember coming up with the title “Hill Country Hill Tribers” just before we reached Fredericksburg. By then, we knew our lives had already been rearranged by these Burmese friends. Though we could have chosen to walk away, the door was too wide open, the draw too strong. Neither of us could get past Hela’s daughter and her cold feet at the fall festival. I heard myself saying I would give up some things. Whatever it took, actually. I knew already we had been preparing for this moment for years. The coincidences were too neat, the narrative arc of our lives too perfect, for us to ignore.

That doesn’t mean the path was easy.

Next week: How our friendships turned into a non-profit and how my life was turned inside out in the process.

Lent: Distracted from Distraction

These lines from T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” the first of his Four Quartets, have been playing through my head since I first read it in grad school years ago: “Distracted from distraction by distraction / Filled with fancies and empty of meaning.” As I watch TV at night while reading blogs on my computer and checking the weather on my phone, I think about it–distracted from the first distraction to another distraction, all of them filled with fancy, none of them with any meaning.

It’s like eating only cotton candy. Spun sugar nothingness that fills you with nothing.

It’s my greatest fear. At the end of a distractedly distracting day, I feel corroded and rusted by the expectations and emptiness of the words I’ve filled my mind with. I worry I’m flittering away the best parts of my life.We spend our lives trying to be one of three things: relevant, spectacular or powerful. Henri Nouwen talks in The Way of the Heart about how these are the three temptations of the world, the temptations that Jesus faces in the desert, the temptations that we are most likely to succumb to in our daily lives. Nouwen’s book has no distractions in it–it is filled with meaning, each line, each page. I have read it again and again and each time, I find myself convicted that in this “wordy world,” as he calls it, we constantly distract each other with our words that mean nothing.

I want something. I want to fill my day with substance. When I am with my children, we participate in a joyful meandering, a holy carelessness that is eternally focused on now (another phrase that haunts me: George MacDonald’s “the holy carelessness of the eternal now” means letting go of yesterday and tomorrow, as long as it is called Today). We cut things from paper, color them with crayons, and tape them to the table and each other. We play board games. We read books. We play hide and seek. We watch movies and cuddle. We admonish, in love and (sometimes) in patience. We encourage each other, we listen with our eyes and our ears. It is holy space and it is precious.

Being with the hill tribers is also something. It is standing in the gap of pain and poverty and saying with a held hand or a quick hug, “I see you. I know you. You were here and you were important.” There is something about seeing a room full of people who cannot speak to each other really laughing together. There is something about teaching a woman the one phrase she needs today, right now, to say a word to a teacher or her daughter. There is something about listening to (but not understanding a word of) a heartfelt prayer in Burmese for friends and family that have not escaped, that cannot be with us here. That is holy space, that is also precious.

There is another saying I can’t forget: faultless religion is both taking care of the orphans and widows in their distress and staying uncorrupted by the world. That verse in James will not let me go. It’s an attitude that sees and is aware of those people that everyone else ignores. It means not worrying about what is relevant or who is powerful, but loving those who have nothing to give you, who have no worldly value, who are not spectacular except in their suffering. For me, the verse has become very literal–we work with war widows, the mothers of orphans who, without a father, are as powerless in their refugee camps as they would have been in James’s time. We are bringing an orphan into our family who will become another member of our family. We’ll spend our lives seeing these people not as widows and orphans but as our friends, as our daughter.

But to be uncorrupted by the world? Surely that’s the hardest of all. This Ash Wednesday, the forgotten part of that verse in James, the part most people leave off in sermons and explications, has a hold on me. This is a distracting and distracted world. It’s full of fancies, empty of meaning. How am I supposed to stay uncorrupted? It’s my honest desire, the dark place where I struggle within myself.

This Lent, I’ll give up two things: The first is being on the internet while my children are awake.  No sneaky blog reading while I’m supposed to be playing games, no quick emails while I hide in the closet and my kids count outside. Just myself, my attention, on my babies before they grow up. Because five minutes ago my oldest was born and in ten more minutes she’s going to college and the fleetingness of these days leaves me breathless. I cannot lose a moment to the emptiness of distraction.

I’ll also give up the unholy beating-myself-up over my own sense of unproductiveness. I tend to make an idol out of getting things done. This dayplanner is not a fair measure of my day.

I’ll go to bed for 44 days and try to remind myself that, for today, being present was better than being productive.

God, may it be so.

Just Another Manic Monday

Mondays are the longest days for me. On Mondays I get up early to get ready: bag packed, shower taken, books ready by 6:30 or 7:00. I’m a stay-at-home mom in the morning. I spend as much quality time as I can with my little girls–today it was tent-building and bouncing on the bed, cleaning out their beds (why do they want to sleep with every stuffed animal they own?), picking up toys, starting laundry. Then dinner in the crock pot (apple, cranberry, and apple meatballs today), lunch for the girls on the table and a quick sandwich for me while we play “Go, Fish!” Joy’s started giggling with this funny little ch-ch-ch soun; she sounds like Ernie from Sesame Street every time she makes a match.

I hastily apply make-up and throw on a nice outfit in time for my husband to come home. We kiss, I grab my bag, and go to campus. We pass the baton on Mondays; he has the girls for lunch, nap times,and  a special Monday date. I come home from meetings and office hours and teaching class just in time to eat the dinner I stuck in the crock pot.

Sometimes Mondays flow smoothly, and I adjust easily to the transition from mom to professional. Other days there’s more friction in the hand-off, when I’m tired or when I’m sick or when I’ve had an off-day. Then it’s hard to just jump into another life. It’s like I forget the rules of one world heading to another, like I have hair bows and coloring books when I’m supposed to have research books and a computer. I wonder–can my students see my tension? Do they know that I’m really a mom inside? Did they notice when I tucked the My Little Pony back in my bag, a stowaway gift from 3-year-old hands? Do I tell too many baby stories? Do I use too many examples from Pixar movies in my literature class? Or am I really able to live these dual lives, professional and homebody, critic and cuddler, scholar and mom? Can I pull this off, the having-my-cake-and-eating-it-too?

I come home to exuberant babies drinking milkshakes from a date with Daddy and a late (for us) dinner together, and I breathe in gratefully. To have all of this at once–sometimes it’s too much, but it’s also just exactly and completely enough.

Still, I’m glad Mondays only come once a week.

Linked with The Extraordinary Ordinary’s “Just Write” Series.

Part 1: Meeting the Hill Tribers

The way she spit her betel juice surprised me the most, the short expert busts barely clearing her knees to land just to the left of where she perched in the grass. She squatted flatfooted, heels and toes to the ground, feet spread out to hold her weight evenly. Most Westerners I know can’t get our heels all the way down when we squat; it’s why squatty potties are such an adventure for us. The woman on the grass waited with an ease and self-possession that impressed me, her hot pink hand-woven skirt tucked up around her legs. Her eyes were sunk deeply in wrinkles that increased as she squinted against the sun. She worked the betel nuts thoughtfully in her mouth, surveying the scene with a mild irritation that implied she had been here for ages, spitting and squatting on a slight grassy hill, and the people around her had invaded her space.

She belonged in a misty mountain village in Southeast Asia, just outside of a bamboo hut.

The setting where I imagined our hill tribers, from httpwww.khrg.org

I was standing in a field of Spanish speakers, with a Spanish pamphlet about health care in my hand, watching the woman. Her presence at a fall festival in a poor neighborhood in Austin, Texas was surreal. The scene was inexplicable to me. I had spent two summers in Thailand in college, traveling a couple of times to some of the most remote, exotic villages I had ever seen. Deep in the forested mountains of Thailand, I visited an elephant village where Karen hill tribers lived in the same simple way their families had passed down for generations. The women weaved and cared for their children, some of the men made money taking furlongs (Thai for “gringos”) on tours through the mountain on elephants. Except for the handful of tourists who drifted along the paths through the houses, their villages felt rugged, primitive, untouched.

Circa 1999–my friend Ann and I wearing super cool hats about to ride elephants in a Karen village.

But here in front of bouncy houses and bobbing-for-apple booths, a hill tribe woman squatted in the grass. I approached their small group. I saw children that looked so much like children I had seen in the hill tribe village. Their cheeks were covered in what looked like cornstarch, the traditional powder mothers put on their children to keep their skin from being darkened by the sun. They looked at me shyly from behind their hands or their mother’s legs. The smell on their clothes was one that was both unique and familiar, wood smoke and a rich combination of spices.

That first day we saw the hill tribers at the Spanish-speaking fall festival, I talked to some of them; they smiled politely, ducking their heads bashfully without answering. After a few minutes, a man came up and translated for us. He was a Burmese man who served as both guide and shepherd for the group he kept referring to “these my people.”

These his people were Burmese refugees who had moved to Austin after fleeing persecution in their home villages. They lived in the no-man’s-land of refugee camps in Thailand before being resettled in Austin. I had heard things, vaguely, about refugees in Thailand. It was only later that I learned the depth of their persecution and suffering.

One of the women, Hela, had a kind face and a ready smile. Despite her lack of English, we communicated well enough to walk together through the fall festival. Her two daughters were four and two. My own daughter was ten months old. Hela walked slowly; she was pregnant, and would give birth to a big, beautiful son in January. Her youngest had on sandals despite the cold weather. She hugged herself against the cool air.

When we left, I told Jonathan I was going to do something about Hela’s daughter’s shoes. He reminded me that all of the children in the world were not my responsibility, but he already knew it was a lost cause.

He’s been married to me long enough to know the look in my eyes.

Adventures with Hill Tribers: Yarn Problem Solved

Remember my (overly) dramatic post about looking for new supplies? We found some yarn. It might not seem like a big deal, but for years we’ve been researching Thai yarn. It’s softer and it feels like the yarn the refugee women made by hand to weave into cloth for their villages. The supplier that we’ve found is doing amazing work in Thailand with Karen hill tribers in Chiang Mai. As we get to know them better, I’ll post more about them, but it really gives me goose bumps to know that our bags will be blessing hill tribe women from start to finish, the women who make the yarn in Thailand and ship it to us and the women who weave it into new bags and scarves here in Austin.

My friend Ann called and was so helpful getting better information about the supplier. It pays to have a friend decide to be a missionary in Thailand. Here’s their color chart: which colors would you pick?

The ever-talented, ever-cool Kelsi Williamson made us a color board  and we’re picking some great combinations for the spring and summer. Our goal this year is to standardize our products so that we can offer the same thing fifty times rather than just one thing by one woman. We’re really excited to go in this direction and be able to bring the quality of Hill Triber products up to a new standard.

Our next big purchase will be brass chain to make some new necklaces.

This is the chain from an etsy shop we’ve been looking at. We’ll finish making the necklaces soon.

We’re trying to find designs that fit the artisans’ skills and interests in a way that keeps the supply cost low and the time it takes to make them minimal. It’s not an easy thing to do, but I’m really excited about some new necklaces, bracelets and headbands we’re working on.

In a blog post coming soon: how a nerdy English academic began using phrases like “brass chain” or “yarn suppliers,” much less “standardization,” “operations processes,” “inventory systems,” or many of the other things I say pretty often now.

Really. I never thought I’d be doing this with my life.

Handmade

I come from a family of women who make things. My mother made her own clothes growing up and many of my clothes as a little girl. To this day, the sound of a sewing machine makes me relaxed, a result of the many nights of listening to my mother sew while I was falling asleep. She made beautiful outfits for my dolls one year for Christmas. She made dresses for my baby girls She sewed each of her grandbabies a quilt they love to snuggle under at night.

Noelle in her dress and bonnet on her quilt.

Joy in her bonnet…

…and her dress on her quilt. You have to admit, my mom is pretty talented.

My grandmother crochets. She taught me how to crochet one year and I made a scarf once. I thought of her with every stitch. The process of repeating stitch after stitch was joined with the act of remembrance. I made things because we had made things. It’s part of who we are.

I still wear this scarf sometimes–it’s ugly but warm!

How much more, then, when women have made the very cloth their lives depend on, the skirts and shirts and dresses and tunics that have clothed a village and defined a culture, how much more is passed on in the act of weaving. The line of weaver from woman to woman, passed down through generations, has been a part of the culture of our artisans since long before anyone can remember.

The daughters watched their mothers weave and learned from them.

A daughter holding a purse her mother made.*

One of my favorite parts of working with the hill tribers is that the daughters are still watching their mothers weave. They see it in apartment kitchens instead of dirt-floored huts. They see it in loud apartment complexes instead of busy villages. They see it now as a scrap of culture rather than a source of livelihood, a dying art instead of a practical way to make clothes, but still, the women are weaving. And their daughters are watching.

Meh weaves a new life for her five children.*

Some part of who they are remains, when they weave their new lives into the old, and make a new life here rooted in their past.

She is giving her beautiful daughter roots.*

Remember our drama about yarn? We have an exciting update, coming tomorrow.

*These photos are by Kelsi Williamson.

Adoption Conference

We went this last week to a fantastic conference in Austin:

One of my good friends was helping to organize it and we really enjoyed our time there. It helped us to confirm our choice in adoption agencies. And it felt so great, after so many years of praying and planning for this, to say we’ve started on an adoption journey.

It’s exciting to have made a decision.

On our date that night, Jonathan and I talked about how amazing it is to be around adoptive families. There’s an approach to life that we admire, a general willingness to go into places that other people might not ever think to enter. They’ve been to isolated and remote corners of the world to get their children. They’ve journeyed into dark emotional corners. They’ve wrestled with poverty and injustice and grief. They’ve changed lives. They have battle scars. They are tough and tender and inspiring.

Walking around at a conference like that, I’m humbled and blessed. And really, really ready. We have an orientation scheduled next week.