Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Gone to look for America...

My mom turned 55 this past weekend which, apart from the obvious truth that we have been blessed to have her around for more than half a century, meant that my brother, sister, and all of our families were together for the first time in three years. We were in the States from Thursday through Tuesday night, mostly hanging out with family. It was wonderful and exhausting and very, very good.

On the way back up, we stopped for dinner at a little place in Nisqually, Washington called Norma's Burgers. And there I experienced what may have been my most intense reverse culture shock in the seven years I've been coming back across the border from Canada.

The menu states what is obvious the minute you step into Norma's: "We consider ourselves patriotic supporters of our military. Because we are at war and are located near the military installations, we decided to do a patriotic theme of red, white and blue."

They were successful. There were American flags everywhere in Norma's restaurant: embedded in the wallpaper borders, framed with patriotic poetry, coupled with soldiers and soldier-supporting slogans. Red, white and blue dripped from the ceiling all the way to the floor.

"Patriotic" is most definitely an interpretation though. Because, along with the flags (which make sense of the theme), FOX news was being played on the centrally located television. And, in a gut-kicking display of political theology, a monster King James Bible was placed prominently on a bookshelf above us, sandwiched between the writings of (I kid you not) Sean Hannity, Oliver North, Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter.

We had unwittingly landed ourselves in right-wing heaven. The food was good, the service impeccable, and the restaurant immaculate. But I had the eerie sense that, were some of my political views known, I wouldn't be welcome there. I wouldn't have been surprised if the bathroom doors had indicated "No liberals allowed" .

Sarah Palin was being featured on the O'Reilly Factor, which meant that I very rudely watched the TV through lunch instead of paying attention to my family. That perhaps explains the bit of nationalist chaos that suddenly erupted from my boys' mouths while sitting there at Norma's Burgers.

"Are we still in America?" Finn asked, munching on his grilled cheese.

"Yes," I whispered, my eyes still fixed to Bill O'Reilly.

"Ohh, I hate America!" he responded, grimacing.

(My eyes left Bill and my stomach dropped...were there gun-toting patriots waiting for fighting words like these?)

"I want to go to Canada!" Isaac chimed in.

"Shhh..." I whispered, loudly, my face flushing.

"Canada! Canada! Canada!" they yelled together, as they did during the gold medal hockey game just a few months ago.

"Shhh..." I whispered, more loudly, "You can't say that..."

I tried to think of a reason, apart from the obvious fact that they weren't in Canada. Patriotism, in the circumstances, wasn't polite. But figuring they wouldn't understand that, I just sh-shed them some more. Eventually they turned their attention back to their food, and I surveyed the restaurant to see if we had angered or irritated any of the other people eating. Nobody, I was glad to see, seemed to have heard.

Bill O'Reilly's show had, by this time, moved onto the recent Arizona initiatives cracking down on (persecuting?) illegal immigrants. Some Arizona representative was proposing, among other things, higher scrutiny of teachers with Spanish accents and denying citizenship to the American-born children of illegal immigrants. O'Reilly, to his credit, thought the rep was being ridiculous and told him as much.

My boys' ill-timed Canadian patriotism, the Arizona rep, and Ann and Rush's books above wound a web of concern around me. I was, to my dismay, nervous in my own country. I doubted that the very nice waitress or the polite fellow guests would actually DO anything to my very vocal Canadian children. But--let's be honest here--the American-Canadian Smedleys no longer fit in. And if we no longer fit in, were we still welcome--at Norma's, or in America at large?

On the way out, I took a moment to view the rest of the patriotic art of Norma's. There were many tributes to soldiers, prayers for soldiers, all very appropriate for the theme they have claimed. But hanging on one wall, close to the exit, was a cross painted with the American flag. This is, I'm sure, a common bit of Americana art now. But as one who worships the Christ of that cross, and who does so in the company of many, many non-Americans, it made me very sad. God loves Americans, to be sure...but, lest the folks at Norma's Burgers forget, His love extends to peoples far beyond the land of red, white and blue. And the more Americans, or the citizens of any country, remember God's love is not bound by borders or ideology, the better off the world will be.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Womb Cry

This is the blog topic about which I am unsure of posting. But, for the simple fact that it is so little talked about and so widely experienced, I will lean uncertainly on the side of saying too much, rather than saying nothing at all. I will avoid being gross about what is, to be sure, a very embodied and therefore sometimes gross reality...at least I will try.

As I see it--or rather, as I feel it--I have five children. Three living. Two dead. That is not, I recognize, how the much of the world sees it, and I'm not on a persuasion crusade to change anyone's minds. The babies I lost, I lost early--one at 7 weeks of pregnancy, the other at 11 weeks.

The word we commonly use to describe my loss is "miscarriage," although "abortion" is the term written on all of my medical charts. "Miscarriage" slides over the horror of its own meaning...it was only when talking with an ESL student of mine that I felt able to convey its traumatic reality. "I had a miscarriage," I told him, in response to his query as to why I had missed our Conversation Club. "A what?" he asked, looking blank. (They don't study "miscarriage" in intermediate English classes, apparently). "A miscarriage," I repeated. "I had a baby in my stomach. It died. It came out." Hand gestures accompanied these words, and the shock of understanding slowly showed on his face. Part of me wanted to repeat the conversation with those who heard the news with less discomfort. What I had experienced was horrifying.

In the first instance, my body naturally "expelled" my baby. In the second, there were 3 1/2 weeks between the time my baby died and the time an ultrasound made me aware of it. The doctors called it a "missed miscarriage", and if miscarriage itself is an uncommon topic of conversation, missed miscarriage is even more so. Most people, myself included, didn't know it could happen. Wouldn't you be able to tell? No. Even the morning after I knew the baby was dead, I woke up with morning sickness. As if he/she was alive. It was a bit of a cruel joke...a bad pun (mourning sickness?) A terrible reality.

The first recommendation in BC for a "missed miscarriage" is to take an abortifacient drug to get things going. I will not...cannot...bear verbal witness to that horror. Maybe someday, but not now. At any rate, it didn't work completely, and I had to go into the same hospital where I bore my living children that they might completely remove my dead one. About that I can also say very little now.

What I have in its place is a poem I wrote the morning after I came out of hospital.

In Memoriam
February 1, 2009

What silence can bear witness to
This silence?
This non-being?
This dead before alive.
Lost before found.
Broken before whole.
I weary in claiming my baby as
My baby.
Weary in defining him or her in
Loss. Only loss.
When for me, she or he was
for five precious weeks
My baby.
My treasured secret.
My joyful confidence.
My happy future tucked away safely in my heart.
Happily nestled in a sunny pink
future that was
blown out by the words
of a technician.
Pointing to a black hole
A nothing
An emptiness
while my hands pressed fullness,
A belly rounded in anticipation
And nourished by great love.
Today, a week later,
Black has been replaced by
Red. Her lifeblood squeezed out
by medication
Caught by me.
And yet refusing to leave entirely,
as I refuse to accept entirely
the end of my baby.
So back to hospital.
To a technician.
And lifeblood is removed,
definitively,
when I am asleep.
I awake to the reality of emptiness.
And hearing and feeling my dear husband
I cry.
It is finished.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Mother's Day [A]musing

Yesterday, as probably everyone reading this is aware, was Mother's Day. But perhaps not everyone is aware that there is a fundamental question that every family should ask itself BEFORE Mother's Day comes along, in order to ensure a happy Mother and happy Mother-ful family:

What time does Mother's Day start?

Now, you might think that Mother's Day starts at 12:00am on whatever Sunday in May it is scheduled for that year. And technically, you would be right. But, as I discovered yesterday, depending on how big the bang with which Mother expects the day to start off, the practical start time must be must better understood by all involved.

I grew up in a family where Mother's Day started before my mother woke up. Which, because she and Dad woke up(obnoxiously) early, was before 5:30am. So every Mother's Day we kids would drag ourselves out of bed at 5:00am to prepare Mother's Day Breakfast. Breakfast In Bed. We'd set our alarms, head to the kitchen and, with much to-do and clanging of pots, make some kind of breakfast for our mother. (Did you ever eat it, Mom? Because I shudder to think of what we could possibly have cooked for you). One of us would run and get a flower or two from the (neighbour's) yard. We would retrieve all of the Mother's Day crafts and cards we had made from their various hiding places. And when it was all out and breakfast finished cooking, we would pull out the breakfast-in-bed tray that we used only on Mother's Day, arrange everything as nicely as possible, and deliver breakfast in bed to our Mom who, quite graciously, stayed in bed longer than usual to receive this stumbling gift of love from her three children.

Years of doing that is what led to a funny bit of marital un-bliss yesterday morning in the Smedley household. Ephraim awoke at 7:00am. I brought him out after feeding him and found the boys were already awake in their rooms. Knowing my mom would soon be gone to church, I had the boys call her on the phone to wish her a happy Mother's Day. This, of course, had a second, slightly devious purpose: to remind the boys that it was Mother's Day at all. They quickly ran to their hidden cards and brought them to me, with hugs and kisses and general 4 and 6-year-old enthusiasm. And, having received that, I waited on the couch until 8:00am to see if Matt would come out and make me breakfast.

8:00 came...and went. Matt, who had spent an exhausting weekend fasting with his teens for the 30-hour famine, stayed in bed. Knowing that, and knowing that we also had to get ready for church, I went into the kitchen and began dejectedly making breakfast myself. Ten waffles later, the boys were eating and I told them to please go get their dad...which they did...and sleepy Matt came out in his bathrobe and wished me a Happy Mother's Day.

To which, I'm afraid, I didn't respond with much happiness.

["Where's my "You're the best wife/mother in the world" card?" "Where's my present?" And, most loudly, "Where the heck is my breakfast in bed?"]

I didn't SAY any of those things...just thought them. And thought them. And thought them. And, as I always do, I mentally fought back with my attempts at reason: Matt had had a busy week. Asking my angry questions wouldn't help. And, breakfast in bed or no, Matt did love me.

So instead of asking, I fed Ephraim again, left him with Matt, and went to the bathroom to shower and cry my tears of self-pity.

Matt and I said very little to each other the rest of the morning. But as he was getting ready to take the boys to church (while I waited with sleeping Ephraim to come later), he asked me if I was mad because he didn't get up for breakfast. "No," I said in my wobbily, still-sad voice, "It's because you didn't do ANYTHING for Mother's Day."

"Well no," he said, "Not ahead of time. But tonight I'm going to take you to Milestones and then to the beach."

He looked a little peeved...Milestones is on the extravagant side for us, and the beach is my favourite place to go. Pretty good plan, eh? What the heck is Kadee so upset about?

I crawled on his lap and cried a little more. I wasn't so much sad over my lost Morning-Mother-Glory as upset that we were having such a grumpy, misunderstood start to our day. Matt, with much dismay, hugged me and kissed my cheek before heading out the door.

The day got much better. (Thank God!) Matt took me to Milestones, which is a nice restaurant overlooking English Bay in Vancouver's downtown West End. We had flatbread appetizers with goat cheese and fruit salsa, and I had butternut squash ravioli for dinner. The boys did not act out too much. I got to drink a yummy fruit-juicy drink. It was lovely. And on the car ride home from Milestones that night, in an attempt to better understand the sometimes-mystery that is Matt Smedley, I asked him what they did for their mom for Mother's Day when he was growing up.

"Ummm..." he said. And, after about 30-seconds of Matt Smedley thinking pause said, "We told her, 'Happy Mother's Day?'"

As soon as he said that, I was struck by the memory of the only Mother's Day I've ever spent with Matt's family. Everyone woke up and...the mothers made breakfast. The mothers cleaned. The mothers made lunch. And, at the end of the day, in what felt to me like a bit of an after-thought, the dads took the mothers out to dinner. Mother's Day, in Matt's family, did not start in the morning, and certainly not with Breakfast in Bed and a big to-do. I was shocked at the time, but now, having experienced our funny morning debacle, was thankful for the memory. It made sense of the now.

Next year, I think we'll both be more ready. At least I will, to save us both some misery, be more clear about my expectations! And, to get things off to a good start next month, I will be having a long talk with Matt tonight about what he expects for Father's Day.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

In the meantime...

We live in a little space. 800 square feet is a generous estimate. Vancouver was recently rated one of the most (if not the most) expensive places to live in North America and, accordingly, we pay a tidy monthly sum to live in our little attic apartment. With so little space taken up by three little boys, two adults, and a small black dog, there's no real "hiding out" option. And it also means that, when Ephraim is sleeping, any chores that need to be done within his little quarter of the house are put on hold. He's sleeping now, so while the kitchen and bathroom have been cleaned, the laundry (which requires me to make noise just outside his window) and the vacuuming (which blares its noisy way through the door to his sleeping ears) will have to wait.

And so, in this little bit of time afforded me by our little bitty space, I will write a brief tribute to it: the place the Smedleys have called home for four years this month:

To get to our home, you have to climb a fairly treacherous flight of wooden stairs at the back of the house. There is a very small deck that overlooks a beautifully kept yard (thanks to our landlords who are also our downstairs neighbours). When it's warm, the deck doubles as the boys' second play space and our dining room, and it's also the starting point for our clothes line.

From the deck, you walk into our house and are immediately greeted by a pile of shoes and a rack filled with coats and hats. We have been in Vancouver long enough to have fully absorbed the custom of taking off our shoes upon entering any home, including ours. Immediately to the left are two large bookshelves, filled to the hilt--mostly with theological and biblical studies books, but also a fair amount of classic novels and Judaica. Moving forward (think in tiny increments--this is, after all a small space) you are in the living room. At the moment, two clean cloth diapers are hanging on our old school radiator heater. A small fan is perpetually turned towards the heater, as it's the only way we've found to get warm air circulating on chilly Vancouver days.

The living room is, as it sounds, our main living space. Ephraim's bouncer, the boys' toys, and clothes that need to be put away are mixed with the computer, the TV, and pictures on the wall. I try to keep the living room as clean as I can--not an easy feat with so many small people--because when the living room is dirty the whole place feels ten times smaller. When it's clean, my mind is calm.

Almost as calm as when the kitchen is clean. I inherited my mother's obsession with having the dishes done, so the eye of our sometimes messy-house-storm is the kitchen. The kitchen is, by far, my favourite room in our little place. Our home's one south-facing window is in the kitchen and a beautiful little stained-glass square hangs over it, letting the sunshine stream through its colours every morning. The kitchen is also our dining room, which is a blessing for me--the table acts as extra counter space. We have very little cupboard space, so Matt has constructed a shelving system that lets us store all of our dry goods and appliances. When I am stressed out or feeling overwhelmed, I pack myself off to the kitchen and do the dishes. Whether it's the light, or the relative quiet, or the simple fact of working with my hands, I always feel better after I've been cleaning in the kitchen.

Our bedroom is the second largest room. It's big enough to fit a bed, Ephraim's little bassinet, two dressers, and our wardrobe. Not much else, but it works. We've been steadily adding little bits of beauty to make the bedroom more of a sanctuary: pictures of the Oregon coast, bright curtains, a cheery bedspread. Now, because Ephraim is with us, a rocking chair is also in the room, and since I spend a fair amount of time feeding him there I work extra hard to keep it a place of peace. Since Mr. E was born, Yofi (our dog) spends most of her time in our bedroom, seeking a bit of respite from the boy-chaos that erupts fairly often.

The bathroom is next to our room, and, apart from noting that it's a very good sized room compared to the rest of the house, there's not much more to be said!

Finally, there's the boys' room. A funny, very little space filled with shelves and boxes to accommodate the masses of legos, dinosaurs, Tinker-toys, and other toys that the boys have been given over the years. My very creative husband erected a loft bed for the space--Isaac sleeps on the top and, underneath, there is a play space complete with a colourful mat and a swing. It's an uphill battle, but I try to clean the boys room once a week so that they enjoy playing there.

I forget sometimes how relatively small our space is until people come over. And then, invariably (and usually politely) people comment on how small it is. "You really have made this space work well" is a common one. "Does it bother you living in such a tight space?" is also one we hear a lot. And, to answer the second question, no, it doesn't bother me. Not usually. Every once in awhile, when we go to visit family in noticeably larger houses, I am overwhelmed by how much space they have. Our boys run delightedly round and round and round, and I go to a corner of the house and...can't hear them (!) After those visits I return home and, for a few hours, our little space feels very little indeed.

But, like most things, having a little less often means having a lot more. Such small space has forced me to think well before buying new stuff. Such small space has forced Matt and I to be extra-creative in the ways we utilise the space we have. And, best for my character, having a small space has been an antidote to my lifelong tendency to slob-iness. I have to keep things clean (and cleaned out) much more here than I would in a place with more corners and hidden spaces. I still fight (and often lose) the battle against clutter, but I usually go to bed with a pretty clean little home.

The boys, after visiting my mom a year ago, have gotten it into their heads that we will someday live "in the forest." I have no idea where they got the idea. It might be just the thought of adventuring in the woods, or it might be a longing for a bit more breathing room in the house we call home. And, while I share their longing for nature and more space for our growing family, I can with all honesty say that I am very content where we are now. It's a kind of comforting chaos, a tight bit of togetherness held in harmony by love and work. I don't know how long we'll be here, but when we move to a bigger spot, as we no doubt will with three growing boys, I know I will miss this little place.