Waiting for Little Goudeau

We got the email from our adoption agency a few months ago: “There’s a little girl, are you interested?” We were. We are. We are smitten beyond our capacity to bear. We have been matched in the system in China and we are now, horribly, eternally, unswervingly waiting.

I can’t show pictures for now and I don’t want to reveal details for awhile. My heart is gratefully relieved in some respects. I have done extensive research, both before and after this referral, about the China Special Needs program, our agency, the specific orphanage, the region, the director, the medical team, the charity that supports the children, the medical need she has–this is as ethical an adoption as we could ask for. It’s also a perfect fit for us.

While the debate rages online about how to approach adoption in an ethical manner, the fact remains that there are still children who need a home or they will grow up in an orphanage. Our little one is one of those.

Anyone who has been around me for longer than five minutes has probably heard my spiel, but I want to say something briefly about why we picked the program we did: In the past, China’s one-child policy meant that there were hundreds, even thousands, of healthy girls available for adoption. In the last decade, that fact has changed tremendously. The one-child policy has been relaxed (my understanding is that the enforcement of it varies by regions). Many people who are themselves only children are allowed to have two children; since that’s almost a generation of people, the amount of healthy girls being abandoned because of their gender are becoming fewer and fewer. In another very encouraging turn of events, domestic adoption within China is also on the rise. I talked with a pediatric physical therapist who just got back from China (where she evaluated our little pumpkin); she told me 30,000 kids were adopted domestically within China last year. That is fantastic and as it should be.

The demand for adopted children within China rarely includes girls OR boys with medical needs. While there are a few cases of baby trafficking and exploitation in the system (believe me, I’ve read about all of them–I’m a tad bit obsessed), in general, the China Special Needs program helps get those children, who face stigmatization and institutionalization in their home country, into loving international homes. It’s an imperfect system, of course, but good agencies working with good orphanages whose work can be independently verified mean that it’s also one of the most transparent international adoption processes on earth.

This matters to me because, from the beginning, I didn’t want to adopt children that were “poverty orphans.” My experience at Hill Tribers and my research into educational development make me convinced that the secret in many regions is to work on a holistic level to enable mothers and fathers to have better maternity care, economic resources, educational opportunities and community support in order to help kids stay with their families or relatives or villages.

Adopting a child from China because of the political situation and strict (though changing) socioeconomic caste system is very different from adopting a child from another area. And in general adopting special needs kids is very different from adopting healthy young ones. Many of my friends have made different decisions about their adoptions and I love and support all of them in what they chose to do for their families. Adoption is very, very complicated and I don’t want my words to imply that China Special Needs is the only choice–there is much, much more to say, but the reality of the choice we’ve made has hit home for me in the last few months. We are very much at peace in this decision. For a researchy girl like myself, that is a huge relief.

This is what works for us. This is the journey we’re on now. We’re excited and nervous all at once.

And oh my word, I cannot wait to get my baby home. We are all systems go. Now we’re just waiting on bureaucracy to get the green light to travel to China in November or December.

As if that weren’t enough, my dissertation is almost done. I want to defend before we go get little Goudeau and to do that, I’m going to work like a freight train on fire for the next two months. I turned a copy of my dissertation in to my committee chair several weeks ago.

20130724-052917.jpg

I don’t mind telling you, I was more nervous about that than almost anything I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve been writing on my own for almost two years (which seems to me, at least, pretty unusual) and my fear that I had somehow drifted off course or written terrible arguments had me convinced that they’d politely ask me to leave the program once I turned it in. I might have been a teensy bit crazy at that point.

(Dissertations turn people into purple minions from Despicable Me 2. It’s a little known fact.)

I got extensive feedback from my professor last night. It was really good, actually, very encouraging with some nice happy adjectives thrown in, but of course there are modifications in every chapter and an intro and conclusion to finish. And the bibliography.

Y’all. The bibliography.

Oh, and did I mention that Hill Tribers’ fall line launches soon? And our big flagship show, which my co-founder and I plan every year, is November 16? Artreach is awesome, but it is not a cakewalk.

So, in order to keep my sanity and to be ready when we ALL (that’s right, all four Goudeaus) go get our new little one in Shanghai, I’m going to take my own forty day break from social media.

No blogging. No facebook. No twitter. Not till at least September 22, when I’m planning on turning a copy of my dissertation in to everyone on my committee to get ready for an October defense. (You guys. My heart just stopped writing those words. I am READY to be done.)

After that, I’ll hopefully be back, full of righteous indignation and teary rants about injustice and poverty and all the happy things you always come for. I miss blogging terribly but there are just not enough words in my head right now and I need to protect what’s left.

Because that little girl we’ve seen in the videos our agency sent us, with her fat, fat cheeks and her forehead wrinkling while she concentrates, that girl is keeping me awake at night. That pumpkin is worth waiting for and she’s worth finishing for so that all we have to do when she gets home is schedule surgeries and plan therapy and just sit and gaze and get to know each other for a while.

Waiting for this little Goudeau is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

Honoring Our Mothers

This post was originally posted on the Hill Tribers blog by my co-founder Caren and I asked her if I could share this with you. In addition to being a brilliant graphic designer, jewelry designer, business partner and jack (jill?)-of-all-trades, Caren is also a fantastic writer. I have cried every time I’ve read this post. I lived these hard months with Caren and it hurt so much to lose her precious mother to cancer. The world needs more women like Cheryl Frost–strong, determined, creative warriors who know how to enter the mess and love with abandon. Caren is a woman like that and she continues to amaze and bless me.

*****

Each Mother’s Day, we celebrate and honor the women in our lives who have made us who we are. It’s a day to say a heartfelt “thanks” for all the blood, sweat, and, surely, tears poured out on our behalf by our moms. As a mother myself, I look forward to the handmade cards written by my barely literate Kindergartner, the macaroni necklace handcrafted by my preschooler and, if I’m lucky, a long nap.

But it isn’t always the easiest day to celebrate for many of us. Last year, Mother’s Day came right on the heels of losing my Mom after a short (but fierce) battle with pancreatic cancer. (My dad shares more about her life and how it connects to the Hill Triber story here.) Everything about that first Mother’s Day felt heavy. Perhaps because I was 7 months pregnant with a girl who inherited a strong dose of fierceness from my mom.

Mother’s Day is not an easy day for those of us who have lost our mothers, or for those who have struggled for years to become mothers themselves, or for those who grew up with a less than ideal mother figure. But it’s a day we choose to celebrate each year with the Hill Tribers. All of our artisans (except our lone man, Htoo, of course) are mothers or expectant mothers. How they are able to fold their work into their mothering and how Jessica and I fold our mothering into our work is a key component of why we do what we do.

Our sweet Zadie Jo was born in July and she showed her fierce nature by crying through most of her waking hours for the next 4-6 months. My husband and I zombied our way through those intense days and nights. The next fall, as I juggled the effects of losing my mom and losing my mind over my colicky baby, we began meeting with the artisans once a week to prepare for Artreach. I would bring Zadie along. She would cry. I would tear up. Without fail, Nang or Huang or Heh Ler would take the baby and pace the floor, soothing her and shushing her and giving me blessed moments of respite. One night, Nang took a turn holding her. She fought off the others (elbows may have been involved) to spend some time with my fussy little girl. When she handed Zadie back to me, she said with tears in her eyes, “Her stomach hurts.”

(Nang comforting Zadie during class)

I cried the entire way home. From the outside, this little exchange may have seemed insignificant, but the way she cared for Zadie reminded me of the way my mother would have. That small group of women rallied around me through some of my darkest days. Their love and affection and, at times, motherly pats and advice, buoyed my spirits beyond anything I’ll be able to express. There were no casseroles, floral bouquets or Hallmark sympathy cards. But I’ll never forget the sincerity and empathy in the eyes of my friends when I needed it most.

When I left class that day, I thought, “This is what community is.” In this community, women who have experienced loss which far surpasses mine reached out to me in my grief. In this group, mothers carry babies around on backs while creating stunning work with their hands. Here, an older artisan takes extra time showing her niece the art of backstrap weaving, holding tightly to the strings of tradition she received from her mother. I’m asked from time to time how we find time to work with Hill Tribers while we raise our kids. I find myself looking back over these 6 years and wondering how I would’ve done it without them. This community of hard-working mothers teaches me how to be a better one, and I’m forever grateful to be a part of an organization that celebrates who they are and how far they’ve come.

Pwe Loe and one of her sons, Htee Che outside their home in Austin.

As you take time out to honor your mother this year, let your Mother’s Day present honor another mother working hard to establish a new life for her family here in Austin. If you order products in our Etsy shop by May 5, you can use code MOMSDAY13 to save 15%. Plus, we’ll ship in time for Mother’s Day, May 12. 

Decembering

This month needs to be its own verb. The lists alone are ridiculous. I keep meaning to update, but haven’t had five minutes to think. I’ve been…

…birthdaying!

Noelle and I have birthdays four days apart in December. Here are her packages waiting to be opened (it’s spy gear. She loves it. New post soon about the gendered boy/girl aisles at Target.)

image

She also got her ears pierced, a long-awaited milestone. When I asked her if she wanted me to get my nose pierced so that she wouldn’t be the only one, she said, “No, then I would cry.” Thinking she was being sweet, I said, “Oh, are you worried it would hurt mommy?” She just tilted her head, “No, I would cry because I would be embarrassed. You just don’t have nose ring style.” She begged me the whole time not to get my nose pierced. At least it distracted her from worrying about her own ears!

image

For my birthday, Jonathan and the girls bought this beautiful antique locket from our favorite store on South Congress, Uncommon Objects. This is me laughing at myself while I take my own picture. I love my locket, though.  And I love layering it with my Hill Triber jewelry. It’s to put a picture of the new baby in when we finally get matched from China before we get her. That’s the time I’m most worried about–I hate waiting.

image

We have her stocking up with her first little present from us, the Hill Tribers doll I love. When we hung up her stocking, Joy said, “I sure really miss my new sister.”

Me too.image

And then, when I’m not handling birthdays and pre-school programs and Christmas parties and teacher gifts and adoption paperwork, there are my two constant active verbs…

…hilltribering. We have had outrageous Hill Tribers sales (we’re at 250% growth in website sales alone). Sometimes Caren lets me come play at the shipping center with her awesome tape gun.

image

…and dissertating. I am editing the heck out of chapter 2 to send in a draft before Christmas. I think my post-it note system is genius. Jonathan is pretty sure I’m becoming the guy in A Beautiful Mind.

image

But I spend a lot of time scribbling in the margins because I have to be finished in the next six months. I want to reclaim December next year. Only fun writing from now on.

image

So if I’m not updating in the next few days, it’s because I’m Decembering my heart out.

Coincidences

I hadn’t planned on going out at all. It was the Friday after Thanksgiving, late afternoon. We had been having a lazy, movie-watching, game-playing kind of day. I had a few things to drop off at some Hill Tribers’ houses, but it wouldn’t have mattered if I waited till Monday.

I almost stayed home.

But the girls were getting bored and whining loudly outside the room where my husband was working from home. So we left him upstairs, bundled into the car and took off.

We hung out with Hela and her kids for a few minutes. The girls watched cartoons and ran around the living room while I caught up on their holiday. (They had a Burmese barbecue for Thanksgiving day–yum.) We chatted about a friend we’re both worried about. I asked about her mom in the refugee camp in Thailand. Their Christmas tree was twinkling in the corner.

On a whim I decided to add one more apartment because my girls wanted to see their little friends.

We walked across the apartment complex full of shrieking children. We skirted the soccer game in the cul-de-sac. We waved at friends. I tickled Boe’s side while she rode by on new her bike with training wheels. We climbed three stories to the top apartment where one of our artisans lives.

My littlest climbs the stairs with all the confidence in the world. She knows exactly where we’re going.

When we got there, the teenage girls told me to sit down and wait–their mom was coming back. I told them I could go, but they kept insisting I sit down. My girls were already full-on into the game of hide-and-seek they play there. This artisan has six children and the last two are the exact ages of my girls.

The artisan came home a few minutes later. She is not always the easiest for me to read–there’s not the instant connection between us I feel with some of the other women. But I could read her face clear as a bell that day.

She was devastated.

The story came tumbling out through her oldest daughter. She ran to the store for a minute. She left her wallet in the grocery shopping cart. She forgot it, got halfway home before she realized and raced back. By then, of course, it was gone.

In it were her food stamp card (it works like a debit card), her Texas ID, and cash she had just gotten that day.

Without the food stamp card, there would be no food.

I sat right down and pulled out my cell phone. The competence of her teenage daughters is astounding–one grabbed a pen and notebook, the other sat by her mom to translate. As I talked first to the food stamp office and then to the police department, I would ask the girls questions and they would write down the answers quickly: address, food stamp account number, social security number, details about the wallet. We reported the theft and cancelled the food stamp card.

When I repeated to them what the food stamp office said, that it would take seven business days to get a new card, the girls widened their eyes.

Seven business days means more than a week in which their family can’t go to the grocery store.

Here’s an important fact about this family: they are extremely hard-working. The dad has worked himself into extra hours and better pay in the kitchen at a local institution. The oldest boy works; the girls plan on college soon. This is not a family I could take to a soup kitchen. They don’t do handouts. They work hard for what they have.

Which is why the $80 in cash the mom had just earned was such a loss–she was making and selling things to friends and that money was as much as she could earn in a week, easily.

This is where the grand coincidence comes in–had I not been in the room that day, had I not gone on a whim to play with refugee babies, I might not have known about this situation. But we had just finished processing checks from Artreach and this particular artisan made more money than almost anyone else at the event.

It was in my power to give her money that she had earned that would tide them over nicely.

Hundreds of dollars. One of the single biggest pay checks we had ever written to one woman in the history of Hill Tribers.

(I told you she was a hard worker.)

Two days later, I was back. It was a late Sunday afternoon and I took my littlest with me. We brought the artisan a check and some more work.

It’s sometimes hard to read my friend, at least for me. She smiles politely in a way that doesn’t meet her eyes most of the time. Otherwise her expressions are fairly stoic. I’m used to it–warm personalities are rare in the artisan group we work with. And I have seen her laugh until the tears come with her friends.

And every once in a while she pats my shoulder or squeezes my arm.

When I handed the check to her, I expected the usual–a polite nod and careful folding to put it back in the envelope. Instead she looked at it, looked at me, then looked at it again. Quietly, her eyes filled with tears.

Just for a minute.

Then she started ordering the big girls around. They ran to the fridge and got out orange sodas.

We celebrated the occasion with hugs and orange sodas all around.

These are the coincidences I cannot explain away. Sometimes I show up in an apartment in the middle of a story playing out I could never anticipate. I have felt the goose-bump thrill of knowing that in that exact moment, events were happening that I could not explain.

Could this family have made it without my bringing them that check? Probably. I was going to deliver checks today anyway. But the stress and lack of dignity that would have come from scrambling for food or going to a food pantry was avoided because I came.

I’m an academic, an intellectual, a skeptic by nature. But I’ve been converted again and again and again by tiny, unexplainable coincidences. I have become addicted to them. In a random apartment on the third floor of a complex most middle-class people would drive by on their way somewhere, in the midst of a community that is half-forgotten and rarely understood, the real story is playing out.

The center of the action is in the margins of my life.

And it’s so gorgeous, the narrative being woven in the out-of-the-way corners of Austin, that I sometimes fall to my knees at the holiness of it all.

Hill Tribers All-Hands Meeting

They come from across the city and they’re ever-moving. To gather all of our artisans in one place is not an easy task. We made phone calls, asked all the translators we could find to come, figured out bus routes and van routes and carpools, for this: Our first ever Hill Tribers All-Hands Meeting.

 (My favorite thing about this picture is that from left to right, it’s same-same-same-JESSICA’S HEAD-same-same-CAREN’S HEAD-same. Taken by the fabulous Kelsi Williamson.)

There was a party feel that night in our church’s foyer, the only space big enough for these women and two men (Dr. Salai, our translator, and Htoo, a grandfather who watches his five grandchildren and sews bibs and Christmas ornaments for us–he’s in the back on the left, 8-10 in). Several of the artisans do not speak the same language. They come from hill tribes scattered throughout Burma and in their mountain villages, hundreds of dialects are spoken. Our more educated artisans, the ones who came down from the mountains for school or lived near larger villages, speak Burmese. Several of them do not, so they only know Karen or Karenni or Chin or Kachin or the many different dialects within those people groups. And yet, when I look at this picture, they are all mixed together, Karen next to Karenni, Kachin beside Burmese. There are few distinctions among them. They are a tiny diaspora in the middle of Texas, these hard-working hand-crafters, the keepers of their culture, the anchors of their homes.

I love them so much it makes me ache. Seeing so many people I love in the same room does me good. We filled out questionaires slowly, slowly–many of them don’t know their addresses, their social security numbers, or how to spell their children’s names. Several of them are illiterate, so the ones who can read and write filled out questions for the rest.

We showed them our plans for the fall, the prototypes we’ve been working on that we’ll be asking them to make over the summer. Some of the women have been designing new products and they have already begun teaching their friends how to make them. They are gorgeous and I can’t wait to show you. We’ll have sneak peeks up on our Facebook page every Friday until our new product launch August 28–like us to get the inside scoop. Here’s the sneak peek from last week:

I need to be really clear about something: when I talk about products on this blog, it’s not because I love to sell things or want to make you buy stuff. None of the money from the product sales currently goes to Caren or me; we’ve recently been awarded a grant that pays for the small, small amount of money that we make for 10 hours a week of work (10 hours a week-HA!). At some point if our business grows enough, we might include operation costs into the price of the products, but we haven’t gotten there yet. All of the money goes for two things: 30% for supplies and overhead, 70% to the woman or man who makes it. We keep just enough to keep going so that these brave artisans can actually earn some money for their families since the vast majority of them cannot work because of children at home or health problems or illiteracy or many other issues. This is it, the one thing they can do, and we are helping them carve out new lives with their traditional skills.

Here’s why I will spread the word, push to sell these products, knock on doors, peddle things out of the back of my car, do whatever it takes to get the word out: I love these artisans. I admire them completely. Their courage in the face of adversity is a never-ending source of encouragement to me. They have survived war and persecution and darkness beyond anything I can imagine and they smile with such joy, it breaks me every time.

Those faces, those people I love, are the reason for all of it. I will do whatever it takes to spread the word that these women and men are worth supporting. Their work is beautiful, their lives even more so. Being in that room that night confirmed it for me for the thousandth time–I’m so grateful to be in a place where I can watch the story of this group unfolding it all of its beautfy and complexity. And I love getting to tell that story to you.

Find out more on our website, Facebook page, Twitter account or follow our new product development on Pinterest.

And oh my word, the gorgeous things they’re creating–it’s amazing to watch true artists at work. August 28 is going to be good.

Bob the Creeper

The last time I talked to Bob the Creeper was in a parking lot surrounded by small boys he was loading up in his pick-up truck to take to the “store.” It is the clearest instance in my life of literally standing up to evil. Bob had been a friend and a trusted ally in our fight to help our refugee friends carve out a space, which made the fact that I stood before him shouting and shaking with rage even more painful.

It took us a long time to realize Bob was a raging pedophile.

When we first met him, he was introduced by some other volunteers at a different church as the man who knew all of the refugees. There was no reason to think anything of his actions; we loved the fact that this ministry brought us in contact with people who were so different from us. A single truck driver in his 50s and a bunch of young people in their late 20s banded together, called each other often, and combined their efforts to change their neighbors’ lives. Bob was the heart of what we did.

He knew each of the children by name. He made sure their families had groceries and paid their bills. He had a map in his head of the apartments they lived in. They all had his number and called him frequently to come over and help.

He even babysat the young children of single mothers. That’s how giving he was.

Bob was a photographer who took really lovely pictures. Most refugees I know hang snapshots on the wall with a piece of tape, no frame. Their living rooms walls are like dorm bulletin boards. You can see their history in the change from grainy snapshots of their family members or themselves shot by someone in the refugee camps to the later, better quality pictures they take in the States: school portraits, pictures of them posed rather shyly by a wall, pictures from cell phone cameras. To this day, some of the best pictures I see among my refugee friends were taken by Bob the Creeper.

Most of them are of the children, especially the young boys.

The picture of Bob above is the only one I have of him in which he’s not standing next to young boys, in fact. Obviously I don’t want to publish their faces on the internet (his name isn’t really “Bob”). He’s standing next to one of the single mothers whose son he “helped” frequently, praying. He is wearing the traditional Karen shirt given him gratefully by one of his Hill Triber friends. His camera is slung over his shoulder, ever ready.

Jonathan, my husband, gets the credit for first suspecting the truth. At a baby shower for a friend that we helped organize, Jonathan noticed that Bob spent most of the evening with his arm draped around the shoulders of one of the more effeminate fifteen-year-old boys. It was casual–I often put my arm around the children I love too–but there was a possessiveness to it that sent off warning bells. We asked some members at our church what to do; they sent us to the Family Watchdog website while they looked into it from their end.

On the Watchdog website, I found a picture of Bob with several convictions for indecency with young boys. I’ll never forget my shock at seeing his familiar face in a mug shot. We had suspected it, but the depth of the truth hurt. He had been on parole for several years. After calling the police and talking to CPS, everyone expressed horror, but no one could do a thing. Legally Bob’s parole did not include the clause that he avoid groups of children. It was up to us to set up a hedge of protection around families that loved and trusted Bob completely.

When we asked him about it, with his pastor beside us (the story of his church’s response is another layer I don’t want to get into), he became angry and resentful for awhile, then cried at his inability to stop himself, but he never denied it.

He never denied that he was sexually attracted to the young boys he was helping. He swore nothing had happened, but the fact that he wanted to, that he himself thought he was dangerous for them, was the most frightening thing. Of course things happened. We’re not idiots. We’re not blind.

The next several months became a nightmare of chasing a man we had once trusted in a community who had no idea what we were talking about. We held a community meeting with their refugee agency. They had three different translators repeating the words in the three languages represented. From the English-speaking agency director through the Burmese, Karen and Karenni translators, the message went to the group: This man is evil. He will hurt you. He will hurt your children. From the group back through the translators, the message was clear: We don’t understand. He buys us groceries. He plays with our children. He helps us with our bills. He is the person who knows us best.

We found out he was the contact listed for all of the elementary school children.

It’s hard to describe from a Western mindset the refugees’ reaction, but most of them are from a place where the people in charge have tried to kill them. They have an inherent distrust of authorities, of banks, of police, and of larger institutions. Sometimes this includes the refugee agency trying to help them. The people who are trustworthy are the ones who are deeply involved in their lives, like Bob the Creeper was. Far from banning him from their homes, they still called him frequently for rides and for babysitting.

We made posters with his picture. We talked with the community leaders. We made impassioned pleas with tears in our eyes.

We still ran into him, awkwardly, in the apartment complexes. He was asked by his pastor to stop immediately; several confrontations ensued between them. He was eventually disfellowshipped by a church he’d loved deeply because they had run out of options. He no longer represented them in the community.

But it didn’t stop him. He was determined. He was sneaky. His actions proved the depth of his addiction to this group. Trusting young boys who can barely speak the language, basically unmonitored for hours after school, who wouldn’t have a clue how to get out of the situation–the draw was entirely too powerful.

He was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He worked hard to gain the trust of the tenderest lambs.

There is not a chance in the world he was NOT molesting those children. But we couldn’t prove it and we couldn’t stop it. Believe me, we tried.

And then we finally saw him that day, loading up the boys in his pick-up truck.

To be continued…

Stick It to the Slumlords!

It’s just not fair. Sometimes I get so mad.

There are so many times I’ve seen injustice up close since I began working with refugees. There are things that happen to the working poor that those of us who are middle-class never face. Their landlords treat them in ways my landlords have never treated me.

Our church and two other churches have been renting an apartment for three years now that we’ve used as a community outreach center to the many refugees living in this particular apartment complex. We’ve had homework help and Hill Triber meetings and potlucks and parties. It’s been a great space, even if it’s a tiny 1-bedroom apartment.

We’ve had silly, sad, scared, sweet, sacred moments together in those rooms.

We’re moving out, closing up shop, in June. We’re glad because it’s time to move on–many of our refugee friends are living in different apartments in Austin or have moved to other cities. We’re sorry to see this time come to an end.

But one thing I remain is angry.

In the time we’ve been renting this space, we’ve had the tiniest taste of what it is like to work with property managers and landlords in low-cost apartments. We’ve also helped our friends in apartments across the city–though management styles vary widely, many of the stories remain the same.

We’ve been lied too, blatantly, against all facts and reason.

We’ve seen slow responses that were devastating on important issues, like bed bugs and drug-dealing neighbors and water that was leaking down the living room wall like a grotesque waterfall.

We’ve had the same window kicked out or broken into six times in one year. Right now it’s covered in a trash bag and duct tape and has been for four weeks.

We’ve seen refugees huddled around a single heater in record-breaking freezes because the super couldn’t be bothered to fix their thermostat. For 9 days.

We’ve seen children playing outside in parking lots filled with broken glass.

We’ve seen corridors that were pitch black at dusk because the drug dealers didn’t want anyone to see who was coming and going or because the landlords couldn’t be bothered to put new lightbulbs in the external lights. Any of them. In the whole building.

Right now, several of our friends are in a building where the gas was turned off and hasn’t been turned back on again in over a week. They’re taking cold showers. I have no idea how they’re cooking food. None of them ever eat out.

The landlord who owned their apartment complex sold just one of the buildings to a new company who has barely been in touch. No one knew where to pay their rent or how to get things fixed. When they asked at the apartment office (the one they’d been paying rent to since they moved in), they were told to “google it.” We’ve been trying–we finally found someone, the same person who turned the gas off last week.

Theoretically they’re going to come tomorrow to turn it on. And maybe they’ll fix the lights and the windows. But it’s been week after week of unsafe, inhumane living conditions and frankly, I’m tired of it.

We’re googling, all right, property rights and the owner’s name. We’re on this, my friends. Sometimes we look at the injustices that are brought about only because of poverty and we feel so overwhelmed we can’t do anything. But we sure can figure out why the heck there’s no gas.

This is our new motto:

*My friend Constance tweeted me this image last night and I love it.

I might not be able to up and move to Kenya to work for International Justice Mission like some awesome people I know. But I can at least assist said awesome person as she looks into the background of this situation. Kelsi’s been on the ground, kicking bootie and taking names this week. Constance has been the go-to girl for the whole situation. And if you remember Kelsi’s and Constance’s posts about poverty, you know they practice what they preach.

I’m not sure how much help I’m going to be, but I’m mad enough to start making calls. Better watch out.

We’re going to stick it to these slumlords, y’all.

(Or just call them nicely to ask them what the deal is.)

***Updated to add: It was an amazing day. I did confront the new property manager and what happened next floored me. We’re going to be watching it over the weekend. Come back on Monday for the rest of the story.***

Congratulations to Sae!

Published originally on the Hill Tribers blog.

We were planning on writing a bit more about our product development, but we wanted to interrupt with late breaking news about one of our Hill Triber family. Sae is a 19-year-old refugee who just had her first baby here in Austin yesterday. Her young husband called their English on Wheels partner Tandy when they found out the doctor wanted to induce. Despite the fact that their family had just returned that day from a trip, the amazing Tandy went straight to pick up Sae and Soe and take them to the hospital.

Sae’s mom, who is also part of Hill Tribers, was at home with her other children, so Tandy took her place as a surrogate mom. Tandy called us several times to fill us in–when the Pitocin started, getting connected to the language line, what the doctor said, how the husband looked. When I asked her if she needed anything, she said, “I’ve got my granola bar, water and a camera! I’m ready!” Early the next morning, Sae and Soe became the proud parents of a handsome baby boy.

It wasn’t that long ago that Caren and I were visiting one of our first friends in the hospital at the birth of her baby boy. We remember the look of bewilderment on her face; though doctors got the language line up and running (each hospital has access to a line where a translator is waiting to help translate for the patients), it’s still a nerve-wracking experience. I was nervous in the births of each of my girls, even though my family was all around, in my home country, with a doctor I knew and trusted, and with my husband by my side. I cannot imagine how much worse it would be to have your first baby in a new strange place.

We also had a Burmese friend here who went into labor without being able to call anyone. She gave birth to a baby alone in her bathroom in her apartment in North Austin. An ambulance came later, with all of the ensuing chaos and lights and noise. I still regret that she had to go through that and wished we had known her better at the time to go with her.

Over the years, we’ve spent a lot of time in local hospitals. It was a relief and a joy to have a friend like Tandy that was there by Sae’s side the whole time. As Tandy said in her facebook update, she’s so blessed that her family was in the right place at the right time. We’re so blessed that her family is so ready to participate deeply in the lives of these friends that we love. Tandy and her family are a gift. They’re part of why we love our communities here in Austin and are so excited to see them merge together into an unlikely fellowship.

We had one other baby born that night, a baby girl to one of Sae and Soe’s neighbors from Burundi. We’re so excited to welcome these bundles of love to our little village and can’t wait to see them grow up together! Congratulations to both of our new moms and special thanks to our fantastic volunteers!

Taking a Minute

Sometimes in the mad, mad rush of my daily life, giving my babies my all and squashing the rest in the tiny margins I leave, I  breathe in and am grateful.

It’s not easy, but I’m doing this thing. I’m raising these babies with this intriguing man who fascinates and pushes and engages me daily and who loves us enough to hold two girls in his lap at lunch so I could finish my taco in peace.

I’m writing these words. I’m teaching these students. I’m loving these women with whom I’m forging a beautiful and unlikely community.

I think that if little Jessica could have known those many years ago when she worried where she’d end up, she’d be pretty glad.

Walking down this gorgeous hallway outside my cube, in the cool of a spring evening on my way to teach, I felt deeply, deeply grateful to be this girl in this life with these people.

April Showers Bring “Meh” Flowers

This week I’m double-blogging here and on our Hill Tribers blog. I’m excited to share with you the stories of some of my favorite moms as we get closer to Mother’s Day.

We’re going to be featuring a few of our mothers in the weeks leading up to Mother’s Day. While many of our artisans have small children they stay home with, I want to start with Meh, one of the matriarchs of our group. Meh is standing on the right with her arm around her daughter Say, who serves as a translator for us, and occasionally as a model. Because she is both smart and gorgeous.

Meh's daughter Say models some of our favorite products

To the left of Meh and Say are two women, both named Oo. The one on the far left is Meh’s sister, the one in the middle is their sister-in-law. To keep them straight, we call her Oo the Second. They’re all part of a large extended family that moved here together–most of them have Meh as either their first or last name, so we call them the “Mehs.” Their family is part of the Karenni hill tribe, one of the many tribes targeted in Burma and systematically persecuted till death or exile. Meh is the oldest girl in a family with nine children; all but two brothers live here in Austin. They buried their father last year. Their mother is still alive, a tiny wrinkled woman who greets me with a large smile every time I walk in their apartment. She winds the yarn for her daughters while they weave.

Meh is a widow, the mother of five children. Her baby is still in high school. The oldest two daughters, Say and her sister, support the family. They are responsible, helpful, kind and communicative. They are the type of girls I want my own daughters to grow up to be.

I love the above picture of Meh because you see a glimpse of her as a mother. She is affectionate. She is loving. She is funny. She is also fierce. In the long trek through the jungle, while being chased by the junta across land-mine infested land, Meh had to help her sister deliver a baby. They stayed behind the rest of their fleeing family, just Meh, her sister Koe and Koe’s husband. In an abandoned hut in another ransacked village, Meh helped Koe bring a daughter into the world. The next day they ran together to Thailand and relative safety.

Meh brought her five kids up to be the people they are today. She showed them the kinds of sacrifices a mother makes in the face of adversity. She has been like a mother to her many nieces and nephews. She weaves every day in her home, like her mother and grandmother before her. Say and her sisters and brother still have a sense of who they are through the work of their amazing mother. Her artistry connects them to the past, giving them the roots from which they will grow in this new culture.

This week we honor Meh, as one of our favorite and fiercest mothers. We hope you will join us in honoring her too.

momsdaypromo