Thursday, December 16, 2010

Second-Half Maternity Leave Reading List

Here's as much of a list as I can remember of what I've read over the last five months of my maternity leave. Those looking for lots of theology/Biblical studies/church history from this pastor will be disappointed (though not entirely). Lots of fiction, a memoir or two. Delicious, delicious, delicious.

First-Time Reads
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Davita's Harp by Chaim Potok
The Gift of Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan
Life of Pi by Yann Martel (okay, the first half...I stalled out in the second half when things got weird)
The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture by Wendell Berry
Feminism without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese
Home Economics by Wendell Berry
In My Father's Court by Isaac Bashevis Singer
My Life in France by Julia Child

Re-reads
The Best of A.W. Tozer
Soul Feast by Marjorie Thompson
Joy in Our Weakness by Marva J. Dawn
The Good Earth by Pearl Buck
Master & Commander by Patrick O'Brian
Post-Captain by Patrick O'Brian
The H.M.S. Surprise by Patrick O'Brian
The Chosen by Chaim Potok
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I loved almost all of the first-time reads. I had been wanting to read Amy Tan for a long time and, while sometimes pained by the tragedies she recounts, really enjoyed her re-creation of Chinese family life. With so many Chinese neighbours and friends here, I found the books widening what is becoming a familiar world. Chaim Potok's books were both brilliant, as I expected. The Chosen is still my favorite, but I thought Davita's Harp especially brought profound insight into general struggles and passions of the human soul (even for people who have given up on the notion). Wendell Berry is ridiculously good. So wise, so big-picture and connecting. I think everyone should read him (and I will re-read him, I know).

Barbara Kingsolver's book was disturbing. Gripping, but disturbing. As Miss Maudie says in To Kill a Mockingbird, "You are too young to understand it... but sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of (another)". Watching that play out on paper in Kingsolver's book was a bit terrifying and humbling--to me, and I think to anyone else connected by similar beliefs to the character of Nathan Price. It will be awhile before I reread the book, but I will...if for no other reason than to critically consider my own Jesus-following.

With so much richness in first-time reading, there wasn't much time left for re-reading (my usual modus operandi). I love to re-read books. I have a select few that I reread every year, but this time around I included a few I hadn't read for awhile. The best of these was To Kill a Mockingbird which, I'm ashamed to say, I hadn't read since high school. Now after re-reading it more than a decade later, I'm sorry it took so long. Obviously it's a classic, but some classics I read and just shake my head in dismay. To Kill a Mockingbird was breathtaking. If I am anything like Atticus Finch when I end my life, I will count it a life well-lived. And that being the case, his family's story will join the read-every-year-to-nourish-my-soul books that share the place of honour on the top shelf of my bookcase: one of the few places in the Smedley house that is safe from little hands!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Marching On

I've actually written three posts since the last published one. But I haven't put them out for public scrutiny, mostly because they didn't stand up to my own. I would get well into writing a post, and get to the point where it needed major revision, only to have Ephraim wake up from his one-nap-a-day or have Finnian come home from preschool.

And since time with my two, painfully sweet, brown-eyed boys is increasingly limited, I just stopped writing. So they remain unpublished.

I go back to work in three weeks. A year of maternity leave gone in the blink of an eye. We decorated for Christmas at the end of November, at Finn's holiday-passionate behest. I was away at a movie with Isaac while it was done, and when I came back home to a glittering, ornamented tree and five strung stockings I thought, "How can this be happening? Wasn't Christmas just a few months ago?"

Christmas a year ago was my last hurrah, the beginning of the end of working outside the home. It was preparation for and celebration of Christ's birth but also, as it so happened, for Ephraim's. This year, Christmas is also the beginning of the end, but it's the end of being home full-time. And while I'm glad to return to work in January I am, naturally, also sad to be three-days-a-week leaving my little boys.

So I've been on an unplanned blogging hiatus. Unable to perfect and so refusing to post. Playing games (mostly cards) with my game-loving four-year-old. Following my very mobile, very inquisitive 10-month-old around the house as he discovers everything in his ever-increasing reach (jars, books, cans, CD's, and the like). Catch-up doctor's visits, big breakfasts, and doing massive house and basement clean-outs to make sure we aren't keeping anything we don't need (knowing, without a doubt, that I won't have time until spring to do it again).

It has been a good year. I have caught myself, more times than I can count, breathing a prayer of thanks for the very ordinary moments afforded by a year at home with my children. Thanks for Ephraim's curly head pressed against my shoulder. Thanks for Finnian's hand holding mine as we walk, his laughter and comforting kisses when he discovers he's beaten me in a game. Thanks for Isaac talking out his grade 2 troubles with me, for showing me even in his more confident and less affectionate age that he still needs me. Thanks for the pleasure it is to care for my family with a day's worth of energy and time to devote to the task.

I know Right Now will be gone very soon. Replaced no doubt by Something Good. But it is for Right Now that I give thanks, with all of my heart, while it is still mine to give and mine to enjoy.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Working Women: [God's] Work

I was watching a new episode of The Office last Thursday, and was surprised to see that it was set (of all places) in a church! And the pastor of the church was (of all people) a woman!

And here's my confession...as soon as I saw this [fictitious] character, I immediately started making all sorts of assumptions about her, her theology, her church, and her appropriateness as a pastor.

Which, of course, is odd, given that I too am a female pastor. But there it is. And this is the story of how it came about, for me.

I didn't grow up thinking women could be pastors (and that view entrenched itself terribly well, hence my spontaneous judgment of women pastors even today). In my childhood church, the pastor was a man, and the elders and deacons who gave the communion and offering meditations were also all men. My Sunday school teachers were women, and women would lead the singing portion of worship from time to time. But those in "positions of authority" were not women. I don't remember thinking anything was particularly odd about that, nor do I remember thinking that the exclusion would apply to me. On those unique Sunday mornings when my parents allowed us all to have "church at home", I jumped at the chance to preach or give a meditation before communion. Call it my first ministry experience. My parents didn't stop me, didn't discourage me, didn't indicate during "church at home" that it should be my brother doing the preaching instead of me. Perhaps they, or those at my church, would have nipped that preaching inclination in the bud had we stayed there through my adolescence. But they never got the chance.

Just before my 13th birthday we moved. And, providentially, ended up in a Church of the Nazarene, a strange and beautiful little Protestant church that has, since its inception over 100 years ago, ordained women as pastors. Not that it has always done so wholeheartedly, not that there haven't been barren periods where women were doctrinally welcome but practically unwelcome to the pulpit. But still, the church in which I spent some rich, formative years as a teenager was a church that ordained women.

Even then, I didn't think I was going to be a pastor. I preached and spoke at our youth services and on mission trips, and had the good blessing of a wonderful female youth pastor. But I didn't have the sense that I would be in ministry as a lifelong vocation. And then, when I was fifteen, I had a remarkable divine encounter wherein I knew I was called to serve God in missions. Missions, mind you, not pastoral ministry (which I naively thought had nothing to do with each other).

I followed that call down the prescribed path of education and experience, doing a B.A. in religious studies at a Nazarene university and serving in various church and student ministries. I was encouraged by professors and fellow students to consider further education and, emphatically, to continue working towards full-time ministry. Missions remained my goal, but the idea that maybe I could be a pastor started to creep in. One very dear professor and friend, after hearing me relate some unexpected, blessed times of visiting families in hospital, asked whether I might not be called to pastoral ministry. "Maybe," I said out loud and pondered in my heart.

After university, Matt and I married and, a few months later, packed all of our worldly possessions into a U-haul. We drove halfway across the country to then-frozen Kansas City to begin a Master of Divinity, the standard degree for missionaries and pastors. People would ask me what I planned to be, and as I still planned to be a missionary I would tell them that--often to their great relief! Most Christians are perfectly comfortable with women teaching others about Jesus in cross-cultural settings. And most Christians are positively uncomfortable with women teaching others about Jesus here in North America. This paradoxical theology occurs for many reasons...reasons I don't have time to go into now, but of which I am certainly aware.

It was in Kansas City that I was first allowed to formally preach. I had spoken and preached as a teenager and college student, but rarely in the context of Sunday morning services and only then to share about my own missions experiences (with the one exception of preaching a few times at church overseas...again with the strange paradox). But in Kansas City, three men and one woman made it possible for me to preach. And here, let me be explicit in my thanks to these men and women: Ralph Johnson, Bill Gue, Keith Wright, and Alice-Piggee Wallack. These four individuals took seriously the need for me to explore my gifts and calling. Pastor Ralph invited me to preach at his church--my first proper preaching attempt, which was a big gamble on his part! Dr. Wright, hearing it had gone well, encouraged Pastor Bill to let me have a go. Pastor Bill invited me to preach on James, and that experience solidified in my heart, mind, and soul that God had called and gifted me to preach. Shortly thereafter Pastor Alice invited me to preach at her church in inner-city Kansas City, giving me more preaching experience and, as importantly, providing me with a living model of a female pastor. All four pushed me down the road I may have cautiously considered, but may never have started down on my own. They affirmed in me a call to preach, the defining call of a pastor in the Church of the Nazarene. To them I owe a debt I can never repay.

I completed my Master of Divinity at Regent College, and served as an associate pastor here in Vancouver. Along the way I had other mentors and encouragers: Wes Campbell, the District Superintendent, Grant Zweigle,my senior pastor at First Church, Dr. Barbara Mutch, a pastor and professor at Carey Theological College. They treated me as one called to pastor, and gave me the opportunities to live out that call: I preached, taught, exhorted, prayed, administered the sacraments, visited the sick and dying; all the remarkable, precious tasks of pastoral ministry. After five years (some part-time, some-full-time) I was ordained: set apart by God and His church for life-time service.

So here I am. Well, here I will be--I still have two months left of maternity leave before I return to a paid pastoral position.

Which brings me, as a final thought on the subject to the deeply intermingled roles and realities that are part and parcel of being a female pastor.

I have preached with morning sickness. I have preached with a pregnancy-induced migraine (and oh, that was a fun sermon! I stumbled and stuttered over more than one sentence, let me tell you). I have given pastoral care, led meetings, and prepared worship the same week I miscarried a baby. I have had staff meetings while breastfeeding. I have (very FOOLISHLY) attended a theology class two weeks after giving birth. I have visited a parishioner's newborn baby in the hospital two weeks after I was due to give birth to my own lost baby. My female-embodied difficulties have been a consistent part of my female-embodied ministry.

And because of that, I have been told by concerned parishioners that I was taking on too much. I have had people apologize for taking me away from my children. I have had fellow believers take over Bible studies because I was still bleeding from a miscarriage (sorry for the details, but it is a necessary part of the Grace Tale I am relating). My female-embodied ministry has highlighted my female-embodied difficulties, and my congregation has nurtured me even as I thought I was supposed to be nurturing them. I don't take that for granted. I know some pastors who have been emotionally neglected or run over by their congregations. That has not, thankfully, been my experience. A great part of that is having a compassionate, caring congregation. But I wonder sometimes if it has also been because I, as a childbearing woman, have so obviously needed compassion. The image of Moses's arms being held up by others is often used to explain why we as pastors need to share responsibilities with lay leaders, how we can't lead the church alone. I have often thought that the natural weaknesses of female biology has made the need for pastor support more obvious to the brothers and sisters for whom I am pastor. And that being the case, it highlights the gender-inclusive truth that ALL pastors need back-up, need support, need compassionate care from their congregations.

I can think of no better way to conclude then to say, as Paul once did, that God's grace--administered in many ways but certainly through His church--has been sufficient for me. His strength has been perfected in my weakness. Not just my general human weakness either, but very plainly in my female-specific weakness. And that being the case, I will, as Paul did, boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Working Women: Labor [and Delivery]

I was with a group of moms this morning talking about our kids, school, etc. Normal mom stuff. And it came up that one of the moms had just discovered her daughter's teacher was pregnant.

Eyebrows went up. The due date? During the school year. Hmms and hahs and general derision...the effects of losing a teacher mid-year, the legal inability of a school to not hire a teacher based on pregnancy. Surprising to me, given we are all, after all mothers. 21st-century mothers to boot. Disturbing.

But thanks to these moms, I proceed with extra vim and vigor to the next topic of women at work: our biological ability to bear children. Women, unlike men, conceive, carry, and give birth. It's not new. And negotiating work loads and responsibilities along with that biological reality is also not new (no really, conservative pundits, it's not new.) Whether paid or unpaid, women have always had to negotiate work responsibilities whilst negotiating the physical demands of giving birth, breastfeeding, and raising their children (or, as is still the case, negotiating the emotional and physical demands of infertility or miscarrying or delivering stillborn children).

I easily accepted this as the way things were for many years, playing the "this sucks" nausea/sleeplessness melody with the "what a privilege it is to have children" harmony. And no doubt would have continued to, until my older church friend Gerry, upon hearing I was throwing up at least twice a day due to morning sickness, announced with the straightforwardness of a Depression-era man, "I've always said you couldn't pay me enough money to be a woman."

It is better now, but it is a perilous thing, physically, to be a woman. Fertile or infertile, our road is laden with potholes. The positives of having children are obvious: the love, the snuggles, the sheer pleasure of watching your children learn and grow and realizing how desperately they can love you back. The negatives are obvious too: the physical discomfort of bearing, birthing, and nursing, the threat (or realized) loss of your children, the sleepless nights. When it comes to work, the potholes for women are especially deep and wide, even in our day and age. We have earned our equality, and want to prove it was deserved, whether we are vomiting, miscarrying, or heavy with child. It is perilous for us to not carry on well when our biology is holding us back, and it is perilous for us to try and bypass our biology. The most effective means of birth control are female-centered, so judgments on choosing, delaying, or avoiding children is female-centered as well. Both the power of prevention and the condemnation that follows if birth control fails is disproportionately directed at women.

Thanks to the availability of (usually) successful birth control methods, children today are a choice. And because they inarguably make messes, cost money, and seriously inconvenience our plans, they are often put off or limited--across economic, educational, and religious bounds (with a few notable exceptions). It is sensible these days to have one or two, acceptable to have three, insane to have four or more.

Perhaps you can work out in your mind why that is; I have my own thoughts. In a culture that assigns a dollar value to every one and every thing and touts overpopulation statistics with the self-righteousness of the Pharisees, having children easily becomes a means of disrespect and disregard. Children can be put off. And I find a great deal of sympathy in the decision to put them off, versus the shocking indignation when they come to those of inconvenient financial situations, relationships, or ages.

A woman with a demanding career or demanding educational road will often be encouraged to put off having children. I have heard an academic advisor say as much. And having completed a degree in the same time period in which I carried and bore my oldest sons, I understand it. The two responsibilities are difficult, and I would imagine can be mutually exclusive. But here again, it is a perilous road for women. Delays can turn into barrenness. Children, longed for but put off, may never be conceived. And we usually don't talk about that possibility until it is realized, and then it's too late.

What's a woman to do? I cannot change the perils, and I cannot make the choices for all women everywhere. God help the person who thinks they can. But I think there are some ways of thinking that will help us, as women and as a society, better negotiate the perils.

First, we need to be honest about the perils themselves. Assuming that having, or not having children, is the blessing/problem of the woman and her partner alone--and therefore that the difficulties accompanying it are also their problem alone--is uncharitable and irresponsible (particularly as Christians, though I think we all would do well to widen our sense of responsibility). Morning sickness is a pain and makes life really difficult. Miscarriage is hell. Infertility is devastating. Post-partum can be traumatic. How can we help each other, in light of the real perils that accompany the blessing of our biology?

And second, we need to stop viewing children purely through the lens of choice. I'm not referring specifically to abortion here, although that certainly is part of it. Our construct of pregnancy as a choice affecting only the mother has more dangers to it than we ever could have realized. Children are now an acceptable target of disdain. They are valued or devalued depending on their timing and whether they are wanted. The seemingly-benign question, "Was it planned?" is on the same philosophical path as the recent Chinese decision to forcibly abort an eight-month old baby in its mother's womb. Value based on choice only half-protects the one choosing, and cannot protect the one being chosen. God sees both child and mother, and values both. Throwaway people are never throwaways to Him, whether they are addicts or sex trade workers or unborn children or the handicapped. My Christian conviction says that if He sees and values someone, we should too.

Treating children as a choice also opens the door for burdensome, unnecessary judgment on women in regards to their work and educational choices. The mothers hemming and hawing over the pregnant teacher do so out of an ideal of choice and individual power. The teacher could have and therefore should have waited until a better time to have a child (or she shouldn't have gotten a job a few months beforehand...how dare she!) The student could have and therefore should have waited to get pregnant before pursuing her degree, so we assume she is stupid or does not really value her education or future. The successful couple who waited until career, education, and home were in order before having children could have and should have waited until now to have children, and isn't it smart that they did? We make the most amazing judgments about women and their partners using this construct of individual procreative power without pausing to think that the construct might just be wrong.

Don't get me wrong: I don't long for the days of women having twelve children or dying in childbirth or being unable to be educated or work because of the overwhelming physical demands of caring for a large brood. Nor do I long for the days when infertile or by-choice childless women were treated with derision. But I think we stepped into a minefield when we wholeheartedly co-opted individual choice as the primary consideration of having children. And who doesn't get injured in a minefield? It's not just the kids, but us as well.

There are places of refuge, culturally speaking. Women cannot, as aforementioned, be discriminated against in hiring if they are pregnant (although it still happens). They cannot, so far as I know, be kept out of an academic program if they are pregnant or plan to become pregnant during their course of study. They cannot lose their jobs in this country so long as they come back to work after a year (and after 12 weeks in the States...and when the heck is it going to get better than that? Rise up, my American sisters!!!) They cannot be fired if they are, by right of pregnancy-related difficulties, unable to come into work. They cannot be fired if they miss work to go their doctor's appointments. That certainly isn't true in other parts of the world, and I offer a thunderous THANK YOU to the legislators who worked so hard to make it so here.

But let's not end there. Legislation is all well and good, but until our attitudes towards women's biology change--as women, as men, and as human beings--unnecessary dangers will remain. Let's hold off the judgment and treat our fellow pothole-dodging women with compassion. Let's cry with the woman who delayed having children and is now infertile. Let's find ways to help the woman who is pregnant with her fifth child, rather than maligning her judgment behind her back. Let's support the pregnant teacher in charge of 20 boisterous kids and volunteer to help out instead of ruing the effects it will have on our child's education. Let's give a shower for the single mom and offer to babysit rather than blithely encouraging her to lie in the bed she has made. Let's kill the stupid comments when a woman does have a surprise pregnancy ("haven't you figured out how to stop that yet?"). Let's celebrate the mother who chooses to stay at home with her children, rather than disparaging her choice (and, under it all, de-valuing the children to whom she has chosen to devote herself).

And again, let's stop viewing children purely through the lens of choice. Having (or not having) children is painful enough. It is very, very good, and yet it is a very complicated venture that doesn't always end well, for mother or child. Rather than wasting our energy bemoaning or celebrating the wisdom of bringing another child into the world, let's collectively do our best to welcome that child. God knows the world would be a better place if we did--if the throwaway vulnerables, precious in His sight, were precious in ours as well.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Working Women: Working Girls

Last week I went on an early morning walk with my oldest son and our dog. At a quarter to seven, while the sun was painting the sky over the mountains and we were making our way through the park, we came across some surprise neighbours: two prostitutes, and their pimp. They were directly in our path, the women standing in their easily identifiable work clothes and the pimp laying himself down on the steps going up to the playground. They were talking as they smoked pot together, and as we walked by and I "good morning"-ed them, they paused only to "morning" us back before continuing their conversation: how male prostitutes, doing what they do, make more money than female prostitutes.

The park we were walking through is just a block from Kingsway, a thoroughfare in Vancouver that, among many other good things, has the distinction of being frequented by sex trade workers, their pimps, and the johns who purchase their services. Kingsway is the street I walk from my house to my church, so while I've not seen these particular women before, I've seen and spoken with several of their coworkers. Somehow wage inequality never came up...

And while that could transition me painlessly to the general subject of wage inequality between men and women, (and which is, to be sure, a very real problem in the legal working world) I want to linger in this post on the often painful subject of these working women. On their lot. On the lot of so many like them around the world. And it's ironically appropriate for this series of posts, for just as housework continues to be carried out mostly by women in the home, prostitution continues to carried out mostly by women in the streets.

Theirs is not a nice life. I hear rumours (and read articles) of professional sex trade workers who love their jobs and have chosen them as careers of their own free will. I have no argument with them personally, though I certainly wonder if they have always (and will always) feel the same way. But the women I see...the streetside workers who sleep on our church porch and do their work in alleys and parks, dumpsters and school playgrounds...the women who follow their bicycle-riding pimps from the Downtown Eastside to Kingsway and back again...the women who grow haggard and shoot up and look for all the world like they could fall down dead and no one would care...I cannot imagine they chose their life. And while I'm sure they've failed themselves in many ways, I often feel that we as a society have failed them more. What desperation, pain, trafficking powers or addictions have driven these women to the darkened corners and the cars of strangers? If those women were to disappear, God would know it...but would we?

On our walk through the park, Isaac didn't notice the clothes of the working girls, or their bawdy conversation. He only noticed that they were smoking pot. "Mommy, why were they smoking?" he asked.

"Do you know who those women are, Isaac?" I asked in return. "They need drugs so badly they are willing to sell their bodies to get them. But God loves those women and he wants us to love them too."

Isaac listened patiently, then promptly changed the subject: "I wish I could live in the mountains."

And that's the perennial temptation, isn't it? To see the pain, then change the subject. To discover drugs play a part in the destruction, and then to mentally condemn the addicts to their own terrible ends. It is certainly my temptation: when the needles of the prostitutes are left out where my children play; when a car slows down alongside me on Kingsway to see if I'm for sale too. Prostitution is ugly. It endangers not only the women who engage in it but all women, everywhere. It is not "the world's oldest profession" but the often-abusive slavery of sinfully objectified women (this is one of the few points on which radical feminists and conservative Christians agree).

Which is why it's important, amidst the chaos of the drug-use, self-destruction, and endangerment that is part of prostitution, to remember that the women engaging in it are women: created in the image of God just as I, and every other woman, are created in His image. Most of us women find that paid work affords us an extra dignity in the "real world". For prostitutes, it's the opposite. Their work makes them criminals in most societies. It makes them home-breakers (theirs and others'). It perpetuates their slavery to drugs and to the men who use and abuse them. I acknowledge that, but believe in the same breath that their work, whether chosen or forced upon them, does not negate their right to respect and dignity, nor does it exclude them from the reaches of God's grace (though it may, tragically, keep us from extending it).

But it can be very difficult to discern what exactly are the respectable and dignified ways of dealing with prostitution (and, inevitably, the prostitutes themselves). The same morning of our walk in the park, Isaac and I walked on to a coffee shop ten minutes away. After we ordered, I noticed the front page of a newspaper declared a victory for sex trade workers in Ontario. Prostitutes there are now free to solicit customers and conduct their business indoors without fear of police prosecution. Proponents and opponents from around the country have weighed in, and for my part I agree with this article, which questions the logic of simply de-criminalizing the sex trade, noting that in countries where that is occurred there continue to be illegal, criminally-funded and operated brothels where the prostitutes are no more safe than they were before they were legal. Instead, the author advocates continuing to prosecute prostitution as a criminal offense, but to do so by criminalizing those who purchase sex (i.e. the johns) rather than those who are themselves purchased (i.e., the prostitutes). Practically, this policy has worked to reduce both prostitution itself, and the dangers inevitably associated with it.

It's not easy to know what to do...I'm the first to admit it. But I hope we can agree that it is unacceptable for prostitutes to continue being disposable, throw-away women, here in Canada or elsewhere. I disagree with much of the arguments made by proponents of legalized prostitution, but I wholeheartedly agree with them that the welfare of the prostitutes themselves must play a huge role in the legislation and enforcement of policies related to them. I believe this, as a feminist who hates the oppression of women in whatever form it exists, but more primarily as a Christian. My walks to work on Kingsway have afforded me the brief, priceless gifts of speaking with the women themselves. Mother Teresa spoke often about seeing Jesus in the poorest of the poor, saying "Every one of them is Jesus in disguise"...and I swear to you, I feel I am standing on holy ground when the working women of Kingsway meet my eye and speak with me. That may seem like weird theology, but I can't imagine Jesus excluded prostitutes when he told us we were caring for Him when we cared for "the least of these". Surely the oft-abused, vulnerable working girls and women on the street corners qualify for that title. God is not only the great Rememberer of those the world forgets, the Seeker of the lost, the light that the darkness cannot overcome. He somehow, in some miraculous way, is there with them...and if He is, how do we as individuals, and a society treat Him? May He grant us the grace to find a better way.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Working Women: Labor [Division]

My husband and sister both pointed out that my last post started out promising great thoughts, only to drop off suddenly into an oblivion of laundry.

Yes. Exactly.

If we're talking about women and work, the laundry (or dishes, childcare, etc.) inevitably comes up. It is still a [big] part of the picture. Which makes the division of household labor in the 21st century an appropriate place for me to start reflecting.

In spite of all the economic and educational advances, laundry, cooking, cleaning, and childcare are still, practically and statistically speaking, "women's work." Not just when a woman has voluntarily taken on those tasks as her vocation (housewives, stay-at-home moms, etc.) As recently as 2004, studies showed that if a full-time working man and a full-time working woman share a home, most (if not all) of the housework will still be done by the woman.

This is known as the "double burden." Women have earned the right to education, to vote, and to work for pay (among many other things). But then, having earned all those rights and privileges, three out of four women who exercise them come home and still do more housework than their husbands or partners. (And of course, this doesn't take into account those women who work all day without pay at home, and then continue to work all evening without pay at home after their partners return.)

Matt and I had six sessions of premarital counseling, and one was devoted to preventing this "double burden" phenomenon. We divided up the household responsibilities as evenly as we could on paper. And, once assigned, we we were instructed never to nag the other person about "their" chores. Rather we should willingly, and quietly, just do it ourselves if it bothered us to have it undone.

I'm sure some couples, somewhere, have managed to carry out that plan without the aforementioned nagging or arguments. (And, if so, can you please tell me how on earth you managed it?) We, however, did not. Dividing up unpaid labor is not, as it turns out, an easy thing to do in 21st century North America, even for two well-intentioned, egalitarian-minded people.

I asked Matt two nights ago if it would have been easier if he'd married a woman who wished only to stay at home full-time (and, therefore, do all of the housework, bypassing that whole "your chore, my chore" difficulty).

"Yes," he answered without hesitation, "Of course it would have been easier."

I don't let these things go, you see; not in paper, and not in real life. And it makes things...difficult at times. In our nine years of marriage, the primary source of conflict, hands-down, has been the division of household chores between Matt and me. And it's not because Matt is a slacker who comes home and sits in front of the TV all night, or because I boss him from my comfy couch. We both work hard, in and out of the house. But in the crucible of exhaustion, needy kids, and a house that needs attention, things get difficult. Jobs are left undone and somebody has to do it. And since I'm more easily annoyed, I'm often the one doing it.

(Even as I write I picture millions of women around the world putting down their babies, their buckets, their burdens galore, and asking "What the heck are you complaining about? Your husband sometimes does the dishes. He always helps you with the children. And you got to go to school. Stop whining!")

Thank you, and of course, you are right. My situation is not worth whining about. But I hope we all agree that the massively difficult situations of many women in the world do not erase the need to consider our own. I'm not satisfied with the underlying logic that North American women have it good now and it's equal enough.

The question of "double burden" especially must still be addressed (particularly if the stats are right, and three out of four women experience it without any recourse available other than leaving the relationship...in which case the work/economic load increases and the situation gets even more complicated).

I have an idea. Since most women have to do the housework anyways, women should just stay at home all the time!

Let me be honest. In the many different work/home configurations Matt and I have tried, the most peaceful (argument-free) resolution has been for me to stay at home and do (nearly) all the home/childcare myself. I like doing it, not only because it seems to bring the most peace, but because I get to be with my kids. That is a gift, and I know it.

In spite of that, I don't believe it is the end-all, be-all answer to the problem. First, not all women want to stay home, whether they have children or not. I have watched women be psychologically crushed staying at home full-time, for multiple reasons: isolation, dissatisfaction, lack of respect and financial power (and these, I recognize, point to greater societal ills). Second, some women simply enjoy (and are good at) their work away from home and, in order to continue engaging in that, opt not to stay at home full-time with their kids. That will be me in four months, when I finish my maternity leave.

Even those women walking the path of stay-at-home motherhood of their own free and happy choice will stub their toes on surprising attitudes and economic realities. The simple question, "Do you work or do you stay at home?" ignores the reality that homemaking/mothering is indeed, work. But this disparaging attitude is helpful in that it reminds us of the inherent risk of being a stay-at-home mother in a society that hinges on material independence. Stay-at-home motherhood works as long as the other person in the relationship can supply the necessary income. That is never guaranteed.

And that brings me to the fourth point: many women have been thrust back into necessary, paid employment through the death, divorce, abandonment, disability, or unemployment of their spouse or partner. They have to work; there is no other way. A large part of the early feminist movement's call-to-education dealt with this very real problem: women can't always depend on male financial support. Life doesn't offer that promise. And that being the case, women have been rightfully encouraged to educate themselves, and avail themselves of the opportunities of paid employment so that they can care for themselves and their families when they need to.

So again, just having all women stay at home all the time (and the preceding, equally unhelpful suggestion to not educate them per some conservative critics and the Taliban) is short-sighted and ultimately unhelpful.

We need other options as well. And for those other options to work, we need the willingness and creativity of both men and women. Fortunately, many men know this, and are working (literally) for change. Some groundbreaking sociological and economic changes are already happening, not the least of which is the increasing reality of supportive (and supported) stay-at-home fathers. I've had a close view of them, as both my husband and my brother-in-law have, of their own free will, been stay-at-home dads for two consecutive years (and the percentage of men at home in America is like 2% of all stay-at-home parents, so it's an unusual privilege). Their willingness to do so enabled my sister and I to work full-time outside the home in our respective careers (she as a teacher, me as a pastor). Not only that, but it afforded them a very unique-in-history opportunity to serve as the primary caregiver for their children (which, as an unexpected blessing, meant that my husband became very deeply bonded with our second son, who was an infant at the time).

Matt staying home with our kids was not what I pictured coming into marriage. To tell the truth, I didn't know how it would work. We're all kind of figuring it out as we go along, aren't we? But I see the increasing phenomenon of stay-at-home dads as one of the great, society-turned-upside down results of the 20th century's revolution in gender roles. That it is even an option is still astounding to me at times.

Which is why it's probably a good place to end. Because the subject of labor division is not all doom and gloom. There are creative options being discovered and practiced: flex time; maternity/paternity leave; non-traditional hours for education and retraining with grants and scholarship to do so (this is important especially for women--and men--on their own who desperately need better job prospects to support themselves and their families, and are unable to do so with their current education); and the already discussed stay-at-home fathers and mothers (who often later switch out with their spouses when life calls for it...another amazing phenomenon).

And there are already, lest we forget, a quarter of all North American working women who come home after (paid) work and share, equally, in the (unpaid) household chores with their partners--not because they are required too, but because they are convinced it's just the right thing to do.

We are all on a steep learning curve. Mistakes have, and will be made. But we are in a remarkable time in human history, with the remarkable opportunity to raise our children in a society where women and men can face each other as equals, not only in school, at the ballots, or in the workplace, but where I think it counts the most: in the home.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Working Women: An Introduction

In the last week I attempted to write two emotionally draining and time-consuming failures-of-posts reflecting on the massive subject of women at work in the 21st century. The inspiration (or more accurately, the motivating fury) was an article posted by a childhood friend on Facebook.

But I couldn't do it. In my heart, there are three big, passion-filled roads that meet right in the middle: faith, family, and gender (lots of side roads and alleys too, but I'll save those for another time). And, because I'm a female pastor with children, the subject of "work" lies right at the intersection of those three things. Reading an article like Ms. Goff's makes me think so many things all at once that posting about it in one shot is a bit like shoving an elephant in a washing machine. My husband has listened to me for hours and hours, at various points in our marriage, on the subject of female equality as it relates to biological responsibilities (conception, gestation, labor, birth, breastfeeding); to work (hiring and wage discrimination, miscommunication, male culture vs. female culture); to faith (egalitarianism vs. complementarianism, reproductive rights/wrongs, feminist criticism and its place in orthodoxy). And, spoiler alert: women still, for all of our economic, educational, and civil rights progress, end up with a bit (or a whopping heap, as the case may be) of a raw deal. When I stare at the rawness of the deal long enough I walk away wounded.

So, rather than take the Mammoth-view of the reality (or even part of the reality), I'm going to pull back and look one bit at a time. Not as a research paper, but as reflective integration of what I've learned and seen on being a woman at work in 21st century North America. And as a good feminist, I will identify myself first, acknowledging that I speak not as an authority for everyone everywhere, but with a particular perspective that is, I hope, a helpful one.

I am a middle-class, white, Protestant, American woman living in Canada. I am heterosexual. I am able-bodied. I am married to a very egalitarian-minded, egalitarian-practicing husband who is also middle-class, white, Protestant, and American. We have three boys, ranging from an infant to lower-elementary in age. I completed both university and graduate school, getting my B.A. in Religious Studies and a Master's of Divinity. I am an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene, currently on maternity leave but planning to return to work as an associate pastor in an urban church in January 2011.

So I have, along with many women in my class, race, religion and nationality, been given massive educational and economic privileges. Let me say from the onset: I KNOW IT. I am grateful for all of the privileges, for all of the progress, for all of the hard-earned rights and legal recourse we possess that have previously been denied women for most of our collective existence. And I am as much, if not more, grateful to be married to a husband who has not only treated me with respect and love, but who has proactively encouraged me in my education and work (not to mention working with me at home).

(Then what was all that garbage about raw deals and wounds?)

That's coming. While the whole picture is not a raw deal, the rawness is certainly still there...part of that massive picture I was talking about. That's what's perhaps hardest about the whole subject: It's not all bad, but it's not all good. There is equality mixed with inequality, with the equality rearing its courageous head unexpectedly at times and the inequality encountered as a toe-stubbing rock. We are all, as I must frequently remind myself, negotiating very unchartered territory.

And speaking of work and unchartered territory, I'm going to take my graduate school-brain and egalitarian hands and go sort the laundry and make breakfast for my sons.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Ode to Sleep

Ephraim has been getting up every 1-2 hours, nearly every night, for the last month and a half.

All I want to do is sleep. When I wake up in the morning, when I'm making dinner at night, when I'm doing the laundry, when I'm at the park. I just want to sleep. If someone said, "Kadee, you can sleep for two days, but you won't have food for a week", I would agree without hesitation.

In fact, when I finish writing this (and, more importantly, when Ephraim quiets down and takes his afternoon nap) I will head straight to bed. In the meantime, a poem:

A (Badly Written) Sleep Sonnet from a Deprived Lover
Dearest, Most Darling, Most Beautiful Sleep,
I long for you so, I feel I shall weep

I hunger for you with each waking breath,
And I can't understand how you symbolize death.

But that being said, I would happily die,
If it meant I could hours-on-end shut my eye.

I jest--
well not really--
I miss you so much!
Companion and comfort, I need your restful touch!

But I fear, Dearest Sleep, we cannot now be friends,
Someday--doubt it not--I shall make my amends,

Though husband and sons and chores call me away,
I will stay with you faithfully through night and through day.

In the meantime my love you need not fear to keep,
My Dearest, Most Darling, Most Beautiful Sleep.

Friday, August 13, 2010

In the Kitchen

This past Sunday, in honour of my 31st birthday, my husband presented me with three perfect (and completely of-his-own initiative) gifts: an 8-lesson mp3 Introduction to French, the 75th Anniversary Edition of The Joy of Cooking, and Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

The mp3's are to help me practice French with our oldest son, who is in French Immersion at the elementary school two blocks from our house. The cookbooks are a tribute to my twin passions for cooking and the movie, Julie and Julia. I love languages, and I love cooking, so needless to say I was thrilled with all three gifts.

These aren't the first cookbooks Matt has given me. The first came at a very, very different season of our lives, when we were dating long distance and finishing our final year of university. Matt and I met while we were on a study abroad program in Israel in 1999. We started dating shortly thereafter, and it was for Christmas of 2000 that Matt gave me my first cookbook: Cooking for Dummies, an ugly, unhelpful cookbook with unhelpful, unappealing recipes. As an added touch, the cookbook came wrapped in two frilly aprons.

I stared at the gifts in disbelief for a few minutes. And then, I threw them across the room.

Matt very nearly lost his girlfriend over that cookbook and those two aprons. We were in a rocky stage as it was and the gifts made it ten times worse. Of course, it wasn't the cookbook per se that sent me reeling, or the aprons themselves. It was everything that I saw wrapped up in them, particularly at that vulnerable, volatile stage in my life when I was trying to figure out what Matt expected of me as his future wife and what I expected of myself. Grad school, not the kitchen, was on my horizon. Ministry, not housework. And with those aprons and cookbook I really wondered: was Matt for me or against me? They did not feel like encouragement but damnation, a push back to a lifestyle I did not want, a servitude I could not embrace. And so I (quite literally) threw them off...

I was a bona fide female dualist: In my mind women either liked to cook, or liked to think; you were either happy in the kitchen or you were happy in a "worthwhile" profession; you knew how to prepare food well (thereby enslaving yourself to your husband and children) or you refused to learn how to prepare food well (and, in some strange way, were free). It's hard for me now, ten years later, to re-enter that mindset. Even as I write my stomach churns with the ferocity I felt as an early-twenties woman about any suggestion that I "belonged in the kitchen". I didn't want to be there, ever. I needed the freedom hard-won by generations of women before me, and somehow the kitchen (and my presence in it) was a threat to that freedom.

I don't feel that way anymore. Obviously, since I am so jubilant about the cookbooks that will keep me longer in the kitchen! What changed?

First, I was given space and time (without expectation to change) by my husband. And in that space and time I discovered the "Joy of Cooking." Not the cookbook, of course (if you were paying attention you'll know I just got that a few days ago). But the joy of cooking itself. Cooking, it turns out, is a good thing to do; a life-giving, ordinary venture set amidst other necessary, sometimes life-draining ventures that come with Mommy/Wife/Foodie territory.

The road to that discovery was greatly helped by the grad class I took on Women's Faith and Development. I could probably post every day for a year on the gems I unearthed in that class. (Maybe that should be my next post-series?) Among the many gems, one that I carried around for years afterward came from a fellow student, while we all sat enjoying a meal together during a class break. She, like I, had first avoided the kitchen as a liberated young woman and wife. She, like I, had encouraged her husband to do most of the cooking as a tangible sign of their egalitarian state. But, a few years into their marriage, she had re-entered the kitchen, and during this meal we were sharing some of her delicious home-baked bread. And as we munched, we mused over the whys and hows of her cooking and its place in her life now.

"I think I first had to be able to choose not to cook, so that I could freely choose to do it now," she said. "I needed to be able to cook not because it was expected, not because I had to, but because I wanted to."

I agree. Maybe it seems silly to need the freedom to choose what, the world over, is assigned to women. But I am thankful for the choice. Just as a teenager sometimes needs to leave the home in order to grow up and appreciate his or her parents, I think women sometimes need to leave their historically prescribed roles in order to return to them in freedom and appreciation.

Barbara Kingsolver, in her magnificent book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle puts it this way: "Cooking is a dying art in our culture. Why is a good question, and an uneasy one, because I find myself politically and socioeconomically entangled in the answer. I belong to the generation of women who took our youthful rallying cry: Allow us a good education so we won't have to slave in the kitchen...But kitchens where food is cooked and eaten, those were really a good idea. We threw that baby out with the bathwater. It may be advisable to grab her by her slippery foot and haul her back in here before it's too late."

And so I shall.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Nuclear

"Isaac's mom!" our neighbour girl called to me a few weeks ago when I came outside to check on my boys. I have been "Isaac's mom" to her for the four years we've lived here, and despite having added two more sons to my brood will probably remain "Isaac's mom" until we move away.

"Yes?" I asked, looking out from our upstairs porch to where she stood, on her upstairs porch.

"Is it hard taking care of three kids all by yourself?"

Her question caught me off guard for a few seconds...she knows I'm married, even knows Matt (or "Isaac's dad" as he of course is called). But then it struck me, as I looked at her and she looked at me: in her eyes I was taking care of the kids all by myself. And I answered, "Yes. Sometimes it's hard," before returning inside to do the rest of the housework.

My neighbour girl, like many in Vancouver, lives with her extended family. Grandma, grandpa, two sons, their wives, and the grandkids all together in one of the two-story houses you find throughout the city. Our neighbours on the other side are another family who live "on their own", but Grandma and Grandpa are over every day--literally, every day--to help cook, clean, and take care of the grandkids. Both families are new immigrants to Canada.

And then there's us: the North American, nuclear-family-with-no-other-family Smedleys. No aunts, no uncles, no cousins around. Grandparents come once or twice a year. I remember a time when I felt like that was normal, but the longer I live here the more abnormal it feels. Especially with three little children to take care of. I have several friends here who are also "on their own", separated from their extended families by oceans rather than land borders. And they have all, by right of that fact, limited their number of children to two. "It's too hard!" they complain after I tease them about adding another baby into the mix. "If I was back in my home country, no problem. But here I am all by myself."

They've said that for years, but it wasn't until this month that I really understood them. I went to stay with my sister and her family last month. We were in the same house for two weeks: my sister, her husband, myself, and the six kids between us. It was, as you would expect, chaos half the time. But it was manageable. My sister had to have surgery...my mom and I (and a good, practically-family friend) stayed with the kids. She recovered...my brother-in-law and I took care of the kids while she did. Errands had to be run, kids had to be bathed, food had to be cooked, but just having one extra adult in the mix made it all so much easier. And the best part was the lack of awkwardness I have always wrestled with when asking my very good, helpful friends here for back-up. I could, without guilt, throw my baby to my brother-in-law. I could, without guilt, ask my sister to check on my older kids while I cooked dinner. I could, without guilt, leave my kids with both of them so I could run to the grocery store. And I was with the people I loved all day, every day, working hard until the evening when we could settle down together to a movie or a game.

My return home, back to reality, was a painful one. I was very, very glad to see my husband again. But the first night I was home, he took the older boys to the park while I cleaned up the kitchen. And the baby started crying. And there was no one to take him so I could finish. And that simple circumstance, so normal to me for much of my motherhood, suddenly crushed me. I wanted my back-up, I wanted my family. And they were, by their choice and by my own, not around. Such is the nuclear family of 21st century North America.

When Matt returned from the park he found a weepy wife. A wife pondering her neighbour girl's weeks-old question, "Is it hard raising three kids on your own?"

Yes. It is.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What I'm Reading

I haven't been in the blogging world long, but I've noticed that some of my favourite bloggers will, from time to time, post what they're reading at the moment. That strikes me as a remarkably fun thing to do, and since I've been reading an extra amount of just-for-me books since I've been on maternity leave, I think I shall join in.

My Recent Reads (not in chronological order):
Women, Food, and God by Geneen Roth.
I started reading this book standing in a book shop on Orcas Island. I read almost the full first chapter before I could put it down and drag myself away. When I got home I ordered it from Amazon. It was a few weeks later before I actually had the book in my hands, but it was worth the wait. A phenomenal, wake-you-up kind of book that guided me back to thoughtful eating after months of nursing-encouraged gorging on Nutella. It was also, as a side note, the thing that got me to write my series of "Food Journey" blogs last month. My one criticism is that Roth throws out, fairly frequently, some New Age statements that strike me as totally preposterous. I respect a great deal about other faiths, but I have little respect for nonsense. And the book ends with this line: "In each moment of kindness you lavish upon your breaking heart or the size of your thighs, with each breath you take--God has been here. She is you." Kindness to oneself: good. I am God: nonsense. Still, read the book if you can--there is a world of wisdom hidden among some of the less-than-wise statements.

The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien. I read this book because I love Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, which I've read more times than I can count and will no doubt read it again soon. I can't say I loved The Silmarillion so much as I appreciated its help in grounding me better in the history of Middle Earth. It's a book that I needed to read once, but probably won't read again for awhile.

Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. If half of what this book claims about Mao Tse-tung is true, he was (to put it mildly) a Very Bad Man. He orchestrated the deaths of millions of Chinese, Communists and non-Communists, bourgeoisie and peasant alike. And not, as we would like to think, because of adherence to a particular ideology, but because it served his own hunger for power. Someday I will blog a bit about the many, many, many thoughts I had while reading this book. It suffices for now to say that it is a good book to read about a terrible life and the horrifying effects of that life given the power he held over so many.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. This is a delightful book. I devoured it in less than a day, then read it again. That being said, I doubt I would buy it or check it out again from the library. It's what you might call a Pavlova book...very tasty and sweet, but not particularly filling. Still, it's a lovely travelogue, engaging and warm, and I for one liked it a lot, even if I am content not to read it again.

The Longest Way Home by John Grogan. This is the memoir of the same man who wrote Marley and Me. It wasn't the best memoir I've ever read, but it was helpful in that it gave me the perspective of a person raised by parents of faith (in this case, very devout Catholics), who rejects that faith as an adolescent and adult.

My Current Reads:
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. I first read this Pulitzer-Prize winning book in 2003 as part of a class I was taking at Regent. At that time, I despised it. I couldn't for the life of me figure out what the brilliant Ms. Dillard was talking about, so I hurried through it and was very glad when it was done. I pulled it out again a few weeks ago and discovered, to my great relief, that I have grown up enough in seven years to not only understand but appreciate Annie Dillard. She draws from theology, science, and her own painstaking observation of the created world around her into a stunning account of the extravagance and terror of nature. It is a wide, high, deep, beautiful book and I'm wading through it as thoughtfully as I can.

Eat This Book by Eugene Peterson. Peterson has been one of the most formative theologians for me as a pastor, and I'm really enjoying this latest book of his. The basic idea is that the Bible is not to be read the same way as other things (newspapers, maps, textbooks, etc.) I'm only on the second chapter, but I'm already being encouraged in my own Bible-reading to slow down and meditate on the life-giving words. Which brings me to my last book...

The Bible by God and friends. I read the Bible year-round. Every day, if I can. Currently I'm camping out with the prophet Isaiah and my constant companion, the Psalms. Two of the Poets, the God-friends through whom and to whom God spoke. And He's speaking to me too, as I listen in.

Monday, July 12, 2010

In Sickness and Health

I got the plague last week.

Really Mommy? four-year-old Finn would ask.
What's the plague? six-year-old Isaac would ask.

And to answer my boys' questions, the plague was a bad disease that used to kill a lot of people all at once, and no, I didn't really get it.

But I did get sick. I held hands with the boys as they coughed and sneezed their way around Cypress Falls park. And, as any good public health nurse would have predicted, I ended up coughing and sneezing myself. As an added bonus, I ended up with a fever, sore throat, and body aches, too, and that's why I didn't blog last week. I was busy surviving.

It takes a lot more work to survive as a parent than as a non-parent. Non-parents can call in sick when they have a fever. Non-parents can go to bed when they want and get up when they want when their doctors prescribe "rest" as the best treatment. (Please don't take this as a bash, any non-parents out there. I don't mean it to be, just a description of a reality I've discovered as a parent, having been a non-parent once myself).

I am blessed to be the mother of three little boys with varying degrees of me-dependence. That is a lot of chaotic joy when I am well, but it's incredibly stretching (read, DIFFICULT) as a sick woman. Amazingly, my children did not disappear and fend for themselves just because I got the flu. So I got up when they did, sore throat and all. Cooked breakfast when I wanted to go back to bed. Got them out of the house for day camp and trips to the park, hacking and trying not to plague the neighbors all the while. And of course, I also cried a lot and pitied myself. But my tears availed little; life did not change in the few days I was sick. I had to carry on as Mommy Caregiver.

St. Paul, in his letters to...well, pretty much everyone, writes a great deal about the greatness of love, and the necessity of Christ-like putting others' needs before your own. If you can't do this bit of soul-strengthening naturally (and, let's be honest, most of us can't), I suggest you have children. Because short of walking away and abandoning them (which, of course, does happen from time to time), you will have to put their needs before your own just by right of being Mommy or Daddy. It will probably be a shock to your system (it certainly was to mine), but eventually you will find the rigors of day-in, day-out forced selflessness to widen your capacity for compassion and care. Marriage does this too of course, if you let it, and friendship as well. But both have built-in breaks. Kids don't stop needing you, not when they are little. You can't walk away and know that they'll be okay. You have to stick it out and just keep on caring, for their little sakes.

I learned this well in one of those crucible moments, not so very long ago. When Ephraim was 3 weeks old he picked up RSV, a common respiratory virus that is very dangerous in children under one month of age. He and I ended up in hospital together, his vulnerable little body strapped to monitors and pricked with needles as the doctors and nurses watched him 24/7 in an isolation room. I stayed with him in a little cot next to his bed, watching his chest heave up and down as the infection worked its way through. It was one of the scariest weeks of my life.

It was also one of the most physically difficult weeks of my life. I had a breast infection at the time, so when we were admitted I had a 102.7 degree fever and was running on very little sleep. Neither Ephraim nor I got much more sleep over the next few days in hospital thanks to the nurse check-ups, monitor alarms, and other-patient noise. And I was never away from him for more than 30 minutes at a time, and then only when a friend or my husband relieved me to go eat.

One night, I was nursing Ephraim (an extra challenge, given the little wires stuck all over his body and the IV pulling away from his little foot). When I finished, I wrapped him up in his blanket and held him in my arms, hymns emerging from my mind, long-kept there from 30 years of worship. I sang every song I could think of as I tried to get him to sleep. And, as I held and rocked him, one of my favorite hymns came out of my mouth:

Brother, let me be your servant
Let me be as Christ to you,
Pray that I may have the grace to
Let you be my servant too.

As I sang the words and looked at my baby, I realized that there, in the hospital, those sleepless hours in the isolation room were serving as an answer to the song's request. Ephraim, 3 weeks old, was letting me be his servant. Or, perhaps more accurately, God was letting me be a servant to His little child, who also happened to be my son.

I know mothering isn't all servant-hood. It's a lot of shepherding, too: nurturing, guiding, comforting, disciplining. But mothering, and fathering too at its best, involves a great deal of "servanting". Laying down our lives, sometimes literally, but daily figuratively, for our children. It's for our children's sakes, of course; but I think sometimes it's for our sake as well. A means of "working out our salvation with fear and trembling," stretching us to be like Christ in ways more difficult, and effective, than we might ever have chosen on our own.

Friday, July 2, 2010

O, Canada!

My apologies to those of you who attempted to read another post of this same name. I wrote the post last night when Matt and I were switching off on grumpy-Ephraim duty. A few minutes after publishing it, I reread it and decided it was remarkably boring! So it has been shoved to my draft section and will, more than likely, remain there for a very long time.

I wrote the post in celebration of Canada Day--which was, in case you weren't aware, yesterday (July 1). Normally we take in a Canada Day event of some kind that includes face painting, junk food, and lots of red and white. Yesterday, under Matt's direction, our family instead went on an afternoon hike at a beautiful little place called Cypress Falls. And we were reminded, in the midst of the ferns and the falls and the hundreds of light-and-shadow greens why our current place of residence has the audacity to call itself "The Best Place on Earth."

We came to Canada somewhat serendipitously. Matt and I were in grad school in the States and, for reasons I won't bother with here, decided we needed to be somewhere else. We had friends at Regent College in Vancouver, BC and I had come in contact with Regent professors through some of their excellent writings. So we applied, were accepted, and made our way across the border in August of 2003. I was five months pregnant at the time.

One surprise after another made us love Canada. The first came just a week or two after we had arrived. We were sitting at a table at Regent with the international student advisor, talking through my pregnancy, private insurance, pre-existing conditions and how on earth it was all going to work. And, as we voiced our concerns, the advisor asked me my due date. Hearing it was December, she told us, quite calmly, "By the time the baby is born you will be on MSP (BC's health insurance)."

Matt and I looked at each other in disbelief. We couldn't believe--literally couldn't believe--that we would be eligible for such comprehensive, affordable care. After she had left us, we looked at each other silently, with tears in our eyes and stunned quiet in our hearts. When Isaac was born in December 2003, we were card-carrying members of the provincial health care system. We paid $100.00 a month for premiums and nothing else: no hospital fees, doctor's fees, co-pays, or deductibles. The radical difference between that and our Stateside health care experience turned us into Canadian health care evangelists (annoying at times, I'm sure, but we could hardly contain ourselves).

The second big surprise (well, it was really more like the 10th or 11th, but I'm skipping ahead a bit) came on November 11, 2005. It was Remembrance Day in Canada and a friend of ours was in one of the military parades taking place not too far from our house in Richmond. I was pregnant with Finnian at the time and it was one of those miserable, wet November days; I thought seriously about just going home and apologising to our friend later. But just as things got colder and wetter and more miserable, the Remembrance Day service started. And it was nothing like I expected it to be. The main speaker that day (I have no idea what his name was) shared in somber tones his experience as a Canadian soldier:

"We saw things no one should ever have to see, and we did things no one should ever have to do."

He went on to affirm that, though their military service was necessary, he hoped that the world would become a place in which it no longer was. The rain and the cold faded away for me at that moment. I had expected patriotism, and mourning for those lost: I had not expected mourning for the terror of war itself. But that's what Canadians do on Remembrance Day...and thus they wear their poppies on their lapels for a month before, hearkening to the remarkable poem, "In Flanders' Fields."

Once when I was teaching English to an older Iraqi-Canadian woman, she voiced what so many immigrants appreciate about Canada, and what is reflected (I think) in the way Canadians remember their war dead and make policies now: "Canada is peaceful," she said. "We came to Canada for peace."

The third surprise for me (or possibly 20th, I'm skipping ahead again) dawned on me at various points over the past few years, but is currently being realized in my daily life. Working women in Canada are, after 500 hours of employment, eligible for one year of paid maternity leave.

One

YEAR

of

Paid

Maternity

Leave.

And that includes me, temporary resident though I am. My last day of work was on January 15 of this year, and I am currently in my blessed, beautiful fifth month of leave. I am at home with my little baby, able to breastfeed full-time and care for him in these precious days. And I can do so with the security of income (paid by the government, through its remarkable Employment Insurance program), and the added security of my job being held for me by my church as a legal requirement until the year is over. I could go on about this surprise for days...let it suffice to say that it is one of the many things I think Canada does right.

We came to Canada, as I mentioned, serendipitously. I never expected to come, much less stay for seven years (and counting). But as it so happens, my family and I are here. As daily witnesses to the good and the bad of Canada we can still, without hesitation, celebrate this very great country in which we live. I'll be celebrating the very great country in which I was born in just a few short days...with fireworks and singing and fried chicken, if I can. And on these close-set days of their respective births, I am thankful for the chance--and the myriad reasons--to celebrate them both.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Food Journey: Final (finally!)

"You have to take everything he says with a grain of salt", my mother-in-law said as she handed me a purple and black hardcover book. I looked at the title and author...Kevin Trudeau, the infomercial guy who tells you the FDA and its cohorts are conspiring against the health of Americans. Finnian was just two weeks old, and since I was spending lots of time on the couch nursing him I had plenty of downtime to read. So I read Kevin Trudeau. And his book changed my life.

Now, to be fair, the guy comes across as a total psychopath. Any conspiracy theory stuff sounds a little crazy anyways, but he takes it to a new level with his claims to have inside connections with...well, everybody. Government officials, the FDA, pharmaceutical CEO's, you name it, he claims to know them. Which he may very well...but he writes the thing like he's God's gift to the world, so I understand why some people dismiss him.

That being said, Kevin Trudeau was the first to put this revolutionary idea in my head: processed foods and prescription drugs will hurt your health, "real" food (fruits, veggies, meats--all organic) will result in good health. He says about a million other things too: do cleanses, don't eat pork or shellfish, throw out your microwave. The one that changed my life was his encouragement to only eat foods with ingredients you could pronounce (he's not alone on this: Michael Pollan, among others, says the same things). I read those words and took them seriously. At the same time, I received a cookbook from my sister-in-law called "More With Less", which encourages people to eat simple meals made from scratch, not just for our health but for the good of our planet and its people. Together, those two literary voices caused a minor revolution in the Smedley household: I started cooking almost everything from scratch. Slowly but surely, the kitchen became my own personal adventure zone, the revolutionary hotspot out of which a whole series of changes were set into motion.

First up on the revolution: breakfast. Out went the boxed cereal and powdered coffee mixes, in came from-scratch waffles, pancakes, and scones. (If you're looking for the return of Kadee the Food Nazi at this point, you will be sorely disappointed). Next up: lunch. Out went the highly processed pasta-in-a-bag, and in came Annie's organic mac and cheese, with every single ingredient being one I could read (not a big change, I admit, but still a change). Dinner was the most transformed meal: the cookbooks that had been gathering dust on the shelf were suddenly pulled out en masse. More With Less, my two Jewish cookbooks, and good old Rachael Ray all gave me masses of wonderful, from-scratch ideas. I started making my own pasta sauces, rolling my own tortillas, pressing lots of garlic, experimenting with spices, and going through gallons of olive oil. Holy cow, it was such a mess and so much fun. Matt, always one to encourage a good thing, took the boys off my hands at dinner and left me to my kitchen fun, stepping in only when needed to get the meal finished.

Other things came into play at this time: after Finnian was born I developed a cow's milk allergy, so I had to learn to make foods without dairy. I noticed I was feeling less irritable, and I wonder to this day whether I had been slightly allergic for awhile and just not listening to my body. Matt went to see a naturopath, who gave us some other practical directions like cooking with alternative flours (spelt, buckwheat), using coconut oil instead of margarine, eating fermented vegetables like kimchi, buying organic if possible and local at best, and avoiding Western-style restaurants. It helped that we moved back to Vancouver at this time and into "Little Saigon"--a section of East Vancouver with lots of Vietnamese restaurants. And last, but certainly not least, I did two cleanses that were amazingly effective in doing what they claim to: cleaning out my body, as well as breaking my emotional dependence on sugar. The fruits and vegetables that had been afterthoughts for so long were suddenly vital parts of our day, most of our trips to the grocery store made because we needed fresh produce.

Every little change added up to a big difference. I noticed after awhile that I was far less irritable, better able to fight sickness, and generally more energetic. I felt good after eating meals instead of lethargic. And the biggest, and most obvious change, was that I was happy as a clam when I was in the kitchen. I loved the feel of flour and oil, the kneading, the chopping, the sound of garlic sizzling and all the wonderful, alive smells emanating from the pots and pans and cutting boards. Food and I were finally friends, from the grocery store to the kitchen to the table and into my stomach.

And we're still friends. And, unfortunately, that sounds a bit ridiculous to me at this moment. How is it that I have written six, very abridged posts on my relationship with food? Even as I write, I feel the stain of luxury that comes with being born and raised in North America at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. We have so many food choices and so much food-related pain. We can starve or stuff ourselves silly, to our heart's discontent. Where else in the world is that possible? What kind of a culture is it in which a 30-year-old woman can write about learning to cook and eat properly as if it were some kind of miracle? What does it say about North American culture that food epiphanies are necessary at all?

Perhaps just that...as it stands, they are necessary. Right or wrong, most of us in North America need food epiphanies. We need waking up to what is good about our relationship with food and what has gone terribly, terribly wrong. We need the words of the prophets: Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, and those long-suffering, long-wise Mennonite brothers and sisters. It is indeed a luxury to be able to casually consider what we eat, to seek a good "relationship" with food when so much of the world dreams only of having enough. But in view of the mind-boggling abundance around us, and the perils that go with such abundance, thoughtfulness is a necessity. I didn't know it at the beginning of my food journey, but I certainly know it now.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Food Journey: Part V

I've been delayed in writing this next post by some recent crises, not to me personally but to friends and family. My brother-in-law was in a moto accident in rural Cambodia and, after much delay he was finally treated for a broken shoulder and leg, and is now recovering in Thailand. More recently I received word that a former classmate of mine was caught in the chaos that erupted in Osh, Kyrgyzstan over the past few days. (See here for that story). He and his family escaped, with the help of Kyrgyz believers, via a cargo plane. Please keep him, and Kyrgyzstan in general in your prayers.

Needless, to say, it felt a little silly for me to be posting about my eating habits with all that going on! So I opted to hold off posting for a few days, and pray my way through the worries instead. I'm thankful to have good endings to report for both of those loved ones.

There is a connection between my last post and all that's happened. That Central Asian country I mentioned last time--the one where I lived for two months--was Kyrgyzstan. A beautiful place with beautiful people, and I'm very sorry to hear of all the violence in its midst right now.

I left Kyrgyzstan in August 2001, got married in November, and in January Matt and I drove a U-haul full of goods halfway across the country to Kansas City, MO, where we had both been accepted to Nazarene Theological Seminary.

That is, by the way, the only reason we would live in Kansas City (no offense, any Kansas City-ans who may read this).

We moved into a very poor neighborhood, just a five minute drive from the school. The day after moving in, we walked up to the school together and a woman in her car slowed down beside us. "Excuse me," she said, "You shouldn't be walking here."

"Why not?" Matt and I asked.

"This is a really bad neighborhood--do you want me to give you a ride?"

That's when we knew we were in for a rough time.

We lived in a teeny, tiny house with a huge backyard. Rent was $325 a month. Nearly every night we heard sirens and helicopters flying overhead. The women walked through our neighborhood carrying large sticks to fend off any attackers. The closest businesses were liquor stores and laundromats. City services were poor where we lived, and so were the people. Matt and I got jobs in nearby Overland Park, and commuted back and forth between a veritable ghetto and the safety of the suburbs.

We cooked, of course, in the ghetto, in our tiny little kitchen with its 1-foot by 1-foot countertop. We used our stove to stack our dirty dishes, which wouldn't have been a big deal except that I am fairly OCD when it comes to the dishes. I didn't really know how to cook, but I learned to make a few, tasteless meals. Matt was a decent cook, but I would berate him (my poor, wonderful husband) for using any "extra" pans to make things taste a little better. We both grew very thin, I'm ashamed to say, living on fare that was quick to make and quick to clean up.

To add to the food difficulties, we shopped in the ghetto, and that was an experience all of its own. The prices were best at a nearby Wal-Mart, which I hear has since been shut down. As well it should have been. It was always chaotic. Always. After making my way through the store (and strenuously avoiding the deli section, where the ladies would snap at me if I asked for anything), I would wait in the checkout line a minimum of 30 minutes before actually being able to pay. I came to dread shopping there, dreaded the chaos and the yelling and the general misery that abounded. And yet I kept going back to pay rock-bottom prices for food I didn't enjoy.

The best food moments in Kansas City came when we went out to eat, which wasn't very often but always enjoyed. Middle Eastern fare at the Jerusalem Cafe, Thai food in Westport, and the Macaroni Grille in Overland Park. I was still a bit of a fat-phobic, so we only ate the famous KC barbecue once, and never did venture into Stroud's fried food paradise or our favorite Kansas City restaurant from afar called Git Yo' Chicken (no, I am not making this up).

I shudder to think how long we would have starved at home and eaten well only at restaurants, were it not for a blessed, life-changing event: I got pregnant. Unexpectedly, and shortly after we had decided to transfer to Regent College in Vancouver, BC, we found out that I would be having a baby in December of 2003. And for the rest of our time in Kansas City, I bought as much food as I wanted, and ate whatever sounded good. Our food expenses doubled along with my appetite, and both of us started gaining much-needed weight.

We arrived in Vancouver in August of 2003, to a land flowing with dim sum and naan. My appetite more than any budget governed what we ate, and I ate a lot. The all-you-can eat vegetarian bar at a Punjabi restaurant was my favorite place to fill up, but I also ate eggs fried in bacon grease at home, whole milk, whipped cream lattes at coffee shops, and this delectable, buttery chicken dish from our Pennsylvania Dutch cookbook. I even started eating fast food again--McDonald's, to be specific--anything to help manage the remarkable appetite I had suddenly gained. 40 pounds piled on my body, mostly baby but also lots of good old-fashioned fat. I looked pretty awful but I felt great, and I dearly, dearly loved food. It helped that I had come to Regent College, a place nearly as passionate about good eating (in every sense of the word) as it is about theology.

I finished my first semester at Regent on December 19, and gave birth to the most beautiful baby boy I had ever seen on December 26, 2003. We named him Isaac Matthew and brought him back to our one bedroom apartment a few days later.

I've written before about the post-partum depression that unfortunately followed (see my Grown-up Mommy post). Depression affects different people in different ways, food-wise. For me, my voracious appetite stopped not long after I gave birth to Isaac. I dropped all of my baby weight and then some within a few weeks. Food meant very little to me. There were days when I would forget to eat until well into the afternoon, when suddenly I would feel weak and realize I had skipped the first two meals of the day. All of my attention went into feeding my son, with lattes from Starbucks being the only thing I was very interested in. Looking back, I know how cyclical the whole thing must have been...very little food leading to exhaustion, with exhaustion re-enforcing the depression. Those were very difficult days, for Matt and me both.

I was diagnosed with depression when Isaac was nine months old, and put on antidepressants. Most of that year is a big blur to me, especially because it was the same year that my dad passed away. I have no idea what we were eating or how much. Matt was doing most of the cooking, if I remember right, and I grew very, very thin, especially after I lost my dad.

Three months after he passed away, I became pregnant with Finnian. Food became my necessary companion again, although this time I gained only 30 pounds since we were so much poorer and couldn't eat out as much. I gave birth to Finn in February of 2006, almost one year to the day after I'd lost my dad. And, as I will share about in the next post, depression stayed far away and something very important happened in my food journey: I finally learned to enjoy cooking.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Food Journey: Part IV

I was all set last week to plow through more of my food journey when, in a bit of ontological irony, I caught a stomach bug. Not a good time to think about food! But now that my stomach is back to normal, I'm in a better frame of mind to think about my food journey again.

Hmmm...where was I? Ah yes, my return home from Israel. The first noticeable change my family saw in me was my considerably darkened skin and my considerably lightened hair. I had returned from the sunny Middle East to the rainy Pacific Northwest, and I looked different. But it wasn't too long before they noticed a difference equally significant to my skin and hair color: I was a good 20+ pounds heavier than my identical twin sister.

It's a funny thing being a twin. I tried so hard to differentiate myself from my sister for most of our shared life. But when I came back from Israel I found the obvious weight difference too much for me to stomach. People in our small town told me I looked "healthy" for once. And they were probably right, I had been chronically underweight for most of my life. But "healthy" quickly translated itself as "big" in my mind . Not because I actually was big...I knew that I wasn't...but because I was big compared to my very petite twin sister.

It didn't help that my mom, who had watched us grow at similar rates all of our lives, began buying everything too big for me now that I was larger than my sister. Poof (my sister) would get an extra-small, I would get a medium. The medium didn't fit, but I kept it and wore it because I felt bigger than I actually was. It was part of the strange, constantly comparing counter-reality in which I had begun to live. I returned to my American college with a bit of a complex, a tentative sense that I wasn't quite the way I should be. And I responded with something Michael Pollan calls "orthorexia": an obsession with "right" eating. Partly it was to make sure my Israel tummy trouble stayed away, but mostly it was to bring under control the overeating that had plagued me so many years, and which had finally resulted in a body bigger than the one with which I was most familiar (and which I could see, every day, when I looked at my sister).

I can tell you exactly what I ate every day because every day it was the same: Breakfast--a plate of fruit and a bagel with cream cheese. Lunch--a cream cheese bagel loaded with fresh veggies and fruit. Dinner--A spinach salad topped with cottage cheese, sunflower seeds, various veggies, and raspberry vinaigrette dressing. I drank only water, juice, and skim milk, and exercised almost every single day. My one indulgence was a cookie after dinner, and when I had the money, a skinny caramel latte. Under this regime my body trimmed up and, better still, my tummy trouble went away.

As I type up this 10-year-old menu, everything sounds delicious. And, to be fair, what I ate back then was really working for me, digestively speaking. I even enjoyed what I ate, most of the time. But there was a problem: the unvarying rigidity with which I ate everything. One of my good, blunt friends watched me bring my plate of fruit to breakfast one day and pronounced me a "food Nazi." He was right. I was so rigid and controlling about what I ate that any deviation sent off alarm bells in my poor mind. If, for example, I had a second cookie, I would immediately start marching off towards the land of Self-Loathing.

I was dangerously close to becoming a citizen of that land, for good. One night, after I ate something that wasn't on my tightly controlled menu, I came home feeling overfull. It was a feeling familiar to me from years of overeating, but one that I couldn't stand anymore. So I did what many North American girls do: I went to the bathroom, shut the door, and knelt down in front of the toilet to get rid of that overfull feeling. Finger down, gag reflex up...

And God intervened. This will sound crazy to some of you, but I can give no other explanation. I did not succeed in my efforts to disgorge my stomach. I became aware, in that moment in front of the toilet, that if I started down the path of binging and purging, I wouldn't be able to come back. "Kadee," I heard clearly, "You will be giving the devil a foothold."

I listened. I took the words seriously. And in another split second, I got up, turned off the light, opened the door and walked away. The food stayed in my stomach. It was the closest I had been, and ever would be, to an eating disorder. And it is an Intervention for which I will be forever grateful.

The summer before my senior year I traveled with a drama group, and my diet was largely in the hands of the camps and churches that fed us. I was still very careful when I could be, and still very preoccupied by fat content, but my need to control everything I ate was sundered by the inability to do so. And that was a good thing. My senior year of college I ate more normally, not overeating as I had for so many years, but not living with the rigidity of the year before.

After I graduated, I packed my bags and hopped on a plane for a country in Central Asia. Just before leaving, I started eating meat again for the first time in five years. It was a practical decision. I knew that I would be eating at other people's houses a lot, and, not wanting to offend them, decided I had better get my stomach used to meat again before I left. It took a few tries, but slowly and surely, meat became a regular part of my diet.

And just in time! I had a veritable food ball while I was in Central Asia. I ate all the local fare: meat dumplings, meat-and-rice, thick breads and yogurt soup. And I ate the Western additions too: mutton hamburgers, Italian gnocchi, and Hawaiian pizza, delectable foods I would have avoided like the plague just a year before. I ate when I was hungry, which was often, because I was walking everywhere and walking far. Food was fun again, thank God!

I came back home in time for my sister's wedding, and just a few days later got engaged myself. In November of 2001 I got married and in January 2002 Matt and I moved halfway across the country to Kansas City, MO, where he and I would have a crash course in Cooking On Our Own. Or, as I like to think of it, Nearly Starving on Our Own. But I'll save that funny tale for the next post.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Food Journey: Part III

Ahh, college. So good and so crazy--the best of times, the worst of times. Emotional highs and lows, strung together by sleep deprivation, classes and amazing conversations. I made some incredible friends in college. Food, unfortunately, was not one of those friends.

My first year of college I was at a small Bible college in a Seattle suburb. The food was...interesting. Okay, it was pretty bad. The main perk of this particular college, for me at least, was that they had a vegetarian option every meal. But still, it was bad, which is why it's surprising that I ate a whole heck of a lot during my time there. Whether it was to compensate for the sleep deprivation, or simply to stretch out my mealtime with friends, I ate a lot at every meal. What exactly, I don't remember. What I do remember is that I gained weight...still not too much, my metabolism worked too well for that. But enough that when I looked at pictures of myself I saw a rounded-out face and didn't like it.

I transferred schools the next year, and the rounding out continued. I ate a lot--too much--at all of my meals, probably still for sleep-deprived, socializing reasons. I gained more weight. Not a noticeable amount to most people, but, as luck would have it, it was that year that a Bad Man came into my life; and he noticed. To be fair to him (I hope he has changed) and to spare all of you, I won't say too much about Mr. BM. Except this: Mr. BM took it upon himself to comment on the extra pounds I put on that year, particularly about my face. "Power cheeks" he called them, without grace or affection. And I took his words seriously. It was a terrible year for a lot of reasons, but as regards my food journey it was particularly bad. Perhaps to spite Mr. BM, or perhaps to numb the pain, I buried myself in homework and in food. And, of course, neither made me any happier. I didn't enjoy my meals and I didn't enjoy my life, and that is a very bitter combination indeed.

I retreated back home when the year was finished, back to my family and friends, the rivers and the beach. And in August, thankful above all else to not be returning to school and the emotional plague of Mr. BM, I got on a plane bound for Tel Aviv, Israel. Knowing just two other people, I began a semester study abroad in Jerusalem, for some of the greatest months of my entire life.

What happens when you meet some of the most incredible, grace-giving people in the world in one of the most incredible places in the world? You stop escaping through food, for one thing! It helped that the food at our school in Jerusalem was mostly the same, day in and day out. Rice, salad, pita, and some meat mixture for lunch; rice, salad, pita, and some meat mixture for dinner. There were always olives and fruit too, and between meals there was plenty of pita to snack on. In the mornings we had veggies, eggs, toast with an unidentifiable (but delicious) white cheese spread, and lots of cereal options.

I ate on autopilot, putting food into my mouth because it was there on my plate. I adored the people around me and would linger at meal times as long as I could to be with them, eating all the while. Because I was eating an inordinate amount of complex carbohydrates, I started having digestive problems: lots of tummy trouble, and rising and crashing energy levels. I fell asleep often during classes, and gained the most weight I've ever gained in my life outside of pregnancy (15-20 pounds). The tummy trouble scared me, as well it should have, and I tried to remedy it. But as far as the pounds went, I didn't pay much attention because I knew I was walking lots every day, and hiking and swimming on the weekends. And frankly, I was too happy to care.

Also, Matt Smedley didn't care. It was in Israel that I met and, within a short time, fell in love with him. I had a sense, though he never said so much in words, that I was beautiful to him, rounding cheeks and all. And despite the ever-increasing pounds on my hips and stomach and face, I felt beautiful to myself, too. You see, I encountered God in Israel: not for the first time, and not for the last time, but in a life-changing, soul-healing way. God became my beloved in Israel, as I had always been His. I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I was His child, my whole life illuminated by the Light of His love. And, in that Light, things like pounds and curves and "power cheeks" lost their damning power. What I saw in the mirror was good: not perfect, but good. And though my relationship with food was not great, as evidenced by my stomach problems and waning energy, it was better in that food held no more power as a weapon of self-hatred.

I would need His Light in the days to come. Because, of course, I had to leave Israel. Leave the incredible community, the grace-filled, grace-giving people who had encouraged my faith and life in so many ways. I had to go back home to my American school and a family who had always known me 15-20 pounds lighter. And that would prove a surprising challenge and twist in my food journey greater than I would ever have anticipated.