Wednesday, January 30, 2013

B's get Degrees

Truth bomb: I don't become more positive by reflecting on my seemingly inevitable trend towards negativity and kvetchery.

This is a bizarre paradox of therapy, for example: to be able to stop hurting myself over the things that make me angry, I had to feel like I had permission to be angry about them. Paying someone handsomely to listen to me recount the ways in which the world was effing my ess up, and had been since roughly the mid-eighties, has allowed me to feel validated enough that I can, occasionally, get over myself and focus on something other than my weight, my GPA, the status of my resume, and/or the response of those around me to any or all of the above.

I still bitch when I get a B, but since, no joke, the fourteen year old iteration of myself had to be reassured that said getting-of-Bs didn't constitute grounds for suicide, my feeling is that my therapist deserves the large amounts of money I've directed her way since moving to New York. (Perhaps you were under the impression that resolving problems that are actually non-issues could be done expediently; if so, I'd hazard a guess that you are not now and have never been "too fat to sit down".)

Anyway, I much preferred the identity I established about midway through high school, when I decided that grades were stupid and flung myself into the business of learning the things that interested me (and, less admirably, ignoring the things that didn't).

The approach was only partly right. To maintain my sense of self, I was sometimes (often) pretty overzealous and obnoxious in rejecting Things I Don't Care About. I was also fairly seriously mentally ill at that point -- possibly, though not certainly, more so than your average sixteen year old -- but if I missed a few opportunities because I was just too busy to turn in my chemistry homework on time, I needed, very much, to believe that grades did not matter, that learning was what mattered to me and that my sense of identity did not live or die according to my class standing.

And, for what was a pretty glorious half-decade, considering how sick I was in other respects, I basically did believe that, for better or for worse.

This needs to happen now, because my first Peds midterm is in less than a week, I still have a hundred-fifty pages left to read, and everyone around me is starting to unravel and stress.

I don't want another B+, because, since college, I've slid into a new, different identity in which nothing but perfect will do. But the thing about dealing in absolutes is that you either have to seek out some sort of external, "objective" measure of what constitutes perfect, or you have embrace the kind of myopia required to not only privilege your own standards and expectations, but to assert that these standards are absolute.

I'm not reading the rest of these chapters, or getting up at 4 to do it, because I want an A. Not really. Or, if I do, the part of me that wants that is the part I care about least -- the same part that wants to weigh 100 pounds forever, the part that would rather do what it's told than take responsibility for who I am, and value that person.

The A or B I get in Peds actually will not affect my nursing practice, and if I am studying in order to get an A, one might argue, I'm going into my nursing practice with a philosophy of care that is dominated by my need to feel good about my performance. This is poison.

I need to know about how to care for kids, so I'm going to study as much as I can in order to do that. If I do that, and don't do well -- well, with all due respect to SUNY Downstate and their thoughtful pedagogues (and if you know me, you know I almost never say this), the problem may not be with me this time.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

getting over myself, or, how I did not spend my winter vacation (but should have!)

I like to do things for other people, but I often have a really hard time seeing or hearing them over the sturm und drang going on in my head at any given moment. Facebook is actually really awesome for me, since I am more thoughtful and restrained when I write than when I talk (just imagine....)

Anyway, judging from their status updates, it seems that, given the opportunity and resources, most people assemble lives out of things that make them happy. This is a sort of recurrent epiphany for me, but it has probably been the case, if not always and everywhere, at least in those times and places in which almost everyone has all kinds of things at their disposal and the variations between social strata have to do less with whether you have anything and more with the nature of the things you have. When I was working with kids who lived in poverty, I was surprised by how many things they had -- how many phones and Uggs and bags of chips; how many opportunities to play tennis or be tutored or participate in Summer Search. 

(This isn't to minimize the difficulties of poverty: people, particularly children, need specific things at specific times, and many of these things are intangible and non-negotiable. Without them, all the downloaded songs from iTunes and public library access in the world is not going to get the job done, if, by "the job," one means the production of reasonably healthy and satisfied adults.) 

But enough about them, here's my (first world) problem: I've always had a really hard time being made happy by things outside myself. If an item or a hobby or an activity is not sufficient to define and lend Ultimate Meaning to my life, I am at a loss as to how to fit it into my life, other than to stash it on a shelf somewhere and go back to looking for The Answer. When I am at my least manic-depressive, I generally think that this is the thing I'd most like to change about myself, should a genie show up and offer to spare me the inelegant tedium of growing, myself. 

The thing about isolation -- particularly the tenacious kind of isolation that thrives in addicts -- is that it keeps the isolated party from every really confronting how many other, richer, more pleasant ways there are to do things. That is to say, rather than obsessively looking for ways to Fix Global Poverty/ find gainful employment / Effect Meaningful Change / Be Worthwhile, a person might:

sit and listen to a new kind of music, 
learn to knit,
read a book,
cook a meal,
do yoga. 

One might be made happy, not by deriving answers to questions about life and God, but by watching Argo, re-reading Dangerous Angels, writing a poem, learning to paint. 

One might even develop friendships with people who spend their free time learning to make new things (noodles, blankets), or eating cookies and watching TV, or reading about Things That Happened Today and having opinions about them, rather than attempting to force themselves and their lives into the shape of other, more impressive people and lives, as if 1) that were how people were made and 2) one can treat a thirty-year-old identity as raw material to be pounded down and shoved into a better shape. 

There are all these things -- like art, and vacations, and TV, and dancing, and crafts, and book clubs, and games, and singing in choirs -- things that allow one to feel that life is good even when the Big Important Things feel overwhelming or insubstantial or untenable. And I wonder, sometimes, if I struggle so much to know the Big Defining Things about myself, and to live with those things, because I have been so quick to dismiss every little thought and feeling and preference and interest I have had as irrelevant. 

So, since I have already fleshed out the Big Important Parts of my week, here's some stuff I'm committing to do to feed parts of me unrelated to my anxiety disorder and unfortunately contingent sense of self:

1. Buy yarn and needles, or hooks, in order to learn to knit, or crochet. 
2. Return picture books to library; obtain additional picture books to read with my son. 
3. Watch a movie, during which I will not study, troll craigslist for jobs, or attempt to Read Something Meaningful. 
4. Go to sleep when I feel tired. Wake up after 5 am. 
5. Go to yoga. 

While I hope that you are one of those reasonable individuals who strives to enjoy life by identifying and incorporating people, places and things she finds enjoyable, you may find that your balance of Circuitous Mania and Stuff I Like is off-kilter today. If your brain doesn't do that for you on its own, life often will.

If this is the case, take this post as encouragement to go watch reruns of Arrested Development after work today, or to bake brownies or read People or jazzercise (people like that!) I'll feel better if all the cool kids are "wasting their lives" on minutia alongside me. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

the understood rules of teaching, or how I spent my winter vacation: the epilogue

Saturday was my first day in the classroom in a long time. Strictly speaking, it was the closest to being in my own classroom, to being a "real teacher", that I'd ever been, in the sense that I had two classes of my very own (DOE teachers, you can roll your beady little eyes right back into place).

I was literally wailing into my balled fists at our kitchen table Friday evening, in despair over my job search, when the assistant-director of one Ivy Something -- a private test-prep school that pays its teachers in cash and prepares the children of Bay Ridge to dominate their undisciplined Kaplan-attending peers -- called me and asked me to show up at 1:00 pm the next day.

It was amazing.

Evidently, I will need to be clamping down on my students leg-twitching and holding my ground when it comes to eating between sessions, but: amazing. Even though my teeth were literally chattering by the end of the SAT course (according to The Understood Rules of Teaching, teachers dress "decently, if not elegantly"; I suspect my puffy jacket with the unidentified white powder smeared across the back qualifies as neither), even though it seems that the all-male 7th grade group is not yet ready to deal with the word "aversion".

I spent the rest of the weekend wishing I were still there. There's this line in one of the Weetzie Bat books, which I had all but memorized by the end of tenth grade, where the amazing Francesca Lia Block describes a group of dancers running through the city, looking "like their feet hurt but they don't care because they've been dancing". Which has always been how I feel when I get done teaching, even back when I was teaching the little Blairs and Chucks of the city in their claustrophobic penthouses.

This is why I take the unskilled and indifferent teaching faculty at my nursing school so personally. My mind is blown by a life that encompasses both nursing and teaching nursing, let alone teaching nursing to the kind of eager, mildly insane students who comprise our class. For any given exam -- even the ridiculous Community Health exams, with their questions about whether believing in the evil eye constitutes magical, religious, or magico-religious thought -- at least two or three of us will produce and share a thirty-to-forty page outline detailing the reading assignments, preprinted lecture slides, and any half-hearted contribution made by the professor as she sleepily scrolled through them. I regularly attend study groups where I show up at eight am, leave at six pm, and am neither the first to arrive or the last to bail. Your typical college professor would be at a loss regarding which of us potential pets to adopt.

I worked in charter schools, after-school, and ed reform long enough to have internalized their party line: that what one does always matters enough to do it really, really well. That it is your job to do it really well, well enough that it actually works -- that your students learn, that they pass their tests, that you have something tangible to hold up and say: lookit, I did my job.

I believe that this set of beliefs is even more critical for nurses to have. People will suffer less, and die less, if those charged with their care treat that care like its importance is both paramount and non-negotiable.

Honestly, by the end of my last clinical rotation, I'd pretty much lost any sense of that. I was annoyed that no one seemed to care whether I was learning, that our professor started class at fifteen past and showed up late and disoriented to clinicals. I was sick of being treated like I'd done something wrong by wanting to learn and do well. A spoiled student my first time around, I was used to professors talking to me like I was valuable and interesting, like I had the potential to do many excellent things and they were happy to help me do them.

I don't know why those nurses who choose to train other nurses seem to resent and dislike their students so much; presumably no one is forcing them to accept these jobs and the checks that come with them. But I do know this: no matter what insipid drama is going down in the classroom, on the class mailing list, in the locker room where we pre- and post-conference, what I do for my patients always matters enough to do it really, really well.

This inexplicable privileging of excellence for its own sake is not the norm in nursing, however many classes we have to take on Healthy People 2020 (or 2010; what, you thought someone would update the slides?) At least, it's not the norm among the nurses training us or looking to give us jobs (or not).

So my first Understood Rule of Nursing is this: Even if no one around her cares -- even if they appear threatened or outraged by the fact that she cares -- the nurse cares about everything she does.

No one's going to make me do my job well; no one, it seems, can be counted on to care whether it's done well or not. Being an excellent nurse may not even be an advantage in getting a nursing job, as I had assumed it would be.

But: do it well anyway. Care anyway. Be excellent anyway.

There's nothing a boss or professor -- even the best boss or professor -- could give me as motivation, that I can't find a way to give myself.

Friday, January 25, 2013

effing with the Jesus

(Apologies to the Cohen brothers.)

This is like the third attempt to write this post about my other New Year's Project (not resolution!), which is to read the Bible.

I can't tell whether to attribute all my false starts to how I don't have anything useful to say about the Bible/God or to the fact that most people don't want to hear what anyone has to say about either -- and, should they ever (want to), the ratio of them to people who want to share about both is seriously unbalanced. Ride the subway, or walk down Fulton Avenue past the Jesus Christ is Universal Church, and you'll be set until about 2017 (or the Seond Coming -- which, the the kids on the street have it right, should get here well before then).

Anyway, one might not be able to tell it from my potty mouth and general malaise, but God is important to me. And I originally had started this blog in an effort to get myself to actualy engage all the Bible stuff I was reading because honestly, I always start with Genesis, and I always get to that part of Genesis where Jacob steals his brother's birthright, or maybe not even there -- I remember the chapter about scoping out Rebekah and buying her (because she is so eager to water this guy's cattle, and also a virgin: nine out of ten patriarchs love that in a lady!) being super long.

So, this month, I actually got to the end of Genesis, though not to the end of Leon Kass's probably brilliant philosophical treatment of Genesis, which I fully expect to take me roughly until 2014, especially now that I am back in nursing school and supposedly reading about twelve chapters on pediatrics this week. As it turns out, Genesis actually is a  cathartic read for those of us who were raised on mental-health-precluding verses like "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect", but who are imperfect enough to be comforted by the fact that, at least, we are not pimping out our hired help to our husbands or  our daughters to gang-rapists.

Anyway, while I'm not yet ready to say that my husband is right about about religiously instructing our kids -- though those of you who are betting women should probably put their money on it that I will; my penchant for being totally unreasonable and arbitrary when provoked ensures that, given time, I almost always concede exactly that -- it does seem like the goals of said instruction and the realities of child development are at odds with one another.

Given that a young child's immediate interest is most often (always?) how a given situation applies to him or her, it is naturally that kids would understand each Bible story as an imperative. (Regarding the tendency of adult Christians to do basically the same thing: you got me. Email if you figure that one out). From Adam and Eve to the parables, pretty much every Bible story I recall from my childhood concluded with some variation on the same theme: Don't be like [X] and do [Y]. Or, do be like [A] and do [B].

There is the fun-to-remark-upon reality that pretty much everyone is more inclined to do [Y] than [B]; but I've always been more troubled by the fact that a lot of times, the moral imperatives to Do B seem a little contrived. Do be like Abraham and attempt to kill your child? Do be like Lot and ensure that any rapes that go down are heterosexual? Do be like Noah, get drunk, and condemn your kid to perpetual slavery for walking in on your naked, drunk behind?

To me, though, the theme of Genesis, and of each of these stories, that works best is this: God seems kind of arbitrary. Not a particularly astute observation -- this other occasionally blind, often cranky convert got there first.

I don't think that Genesis works as moral instruction -- one reason I've historically been loathe to mine its pages as a guide when I'm in the mood to write discrimination into law . I do think that, taken as a whole, it's a useful primer on the difference between Be and Seem. Wallace Stevens readers might recall that Seem is what concerns us most of the time; those familiar with "being a person" will probably note that our tendency usually to conflate the two. God seem arbitrary; God is arbitrary.

For me, today, my understanding of faith and grace both rely on being open to the idea that Being and Seeing are not the same: that God seems arbitrary only because I'm able to see only a small part of God -- or, you know, of anything else.

For this, Genesis is useful, and because of this, as a mature reader of 30 (!), I am more interested in what it says about God than about what it says about me, or about how I should handle angel-rapists. (I'm still unconvinced that the problem there is gayness, but whatever; as it turns out, I'm not in charge of other people and their interpretive foibles. Talk about grace, amiright?)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

resolutions, take 2

So, nursing school started up yesterday and it's already wrought havoc on my 2013 Intentions. If you recall that my big Goal/resolution had to do with fixing global poverty, you also may have noticed that I'd either downgraded my ambitions considerably or -- like any number of resolvers whose intentions to change are anemic enough to sit and stay until January 1 -- just didn't really mean what I said.

Well, I mean, I did start sponsoring Hardthaven and I am choosing fair trade gifts now, when I buy gifts, which is rare. But, as I have kvetched about before, the solution to global poverty generally seems to be to gve people money, and, as I am not working, I have none of that. My suspicion is that in this case, a more helpful New Year's resolution might have been to set more realistic goals. (Why does no one ever choose that)?

And then, of course, there's The Kid. As in, I wish I could pick up overnight shifts at your homeless shelter, but: The Kid. As in, I should have straight A's in nurseing school, but: The Kid. In this respect -- and only this respect! -- parenthood is the new bulimia. Who is really going to argue with this excuse?

As it turns out, you know, people. People will, if not argue, at least insnuate that having a child  is just another excuse, akin, maybe, to relying on public transportation or having a flu that won't go away. Officially, we can't say you blew it, but don't expect our sympathy when you stop getting scheduled at work or can't get a new job or are no longer Accomplishing Anything with Your Life. What, did you think it would be easy? If you didn't want to career around the subway with twenty pounds of squirming mewlery in your arms, your entitled ass should have gone on the pill.

To be fair, there are people -- awesome people -- who point out to me that, as a mom, it may be unnecessary and counterproductive to predicate my self-worth on the number of starving Ethiopian children I've saved or cases of malaria I've prevented or the number of nights I spend with the homeless. These people have always been of the (questionable!) opinion that I am a valuable and excellent human being, regardless of the impact I'm not having on The World and Its Problems. Their presence in my life is one of the most constant and inarguable examples of grace that I know.

So, of course, I keep them in a little pocket of my mind and give the subway-sprawlers and devotees of Just Being Honest free reign to make me miserable.

It has occurred to me at some point -- while walking The Kid along Pacific Street at 4 am? While trying to drown the inevitable despair of checking my empty email-box with another cup of coffee? -- that People Who Help People, really, those people I beat myself up for not being, usually are not doing it in order to feel okay about themselves. That my resolution itself -- to help faraway and desperate people while not losing sight of my own life -- may be in need of an inversion. Maybe I need to:

1. Learn to appreciate and experience the things I already have in my day-to-day life, and to value myself in relation to those things, before

2. Looking for concrete ways to help people who -- however concrete and real they are in reality -- are essential abstract to me

Sunday, January 20, 2013


From about seven years old on, I've been anxious about money: getting it, having enough of it, and what will happen to me if I can't. Now that I have no income to speak of,  I spend much of my time trolling web sites and applying to jobs, convinced that if I could just find one, the clawing feeling in my throat will go away. Which, I guess, is more effective than trying to bury that feeling in toaster waffles (my strategy of choice for most of the Oughts).

On the other end of this continuum are my parents, who have worked hard their entire lives, budgeted carefully (I remember the twice-monthly trips to Taco Bell on payday; I remember assuming that everyone went school shopping at Goodwill), and, until recently, were the American success story that exists so rarely: high school graduates who grew up dirt poor, worked hard, and made a life for themselves. They had savings; they went on vacations every couple of years; their kids went to college (on borrowed money, but still). The fact that I am no longer seriously eating-disordered has much to do with my dad's ability to wrench care for me from a behavioral health care system which, at the time, was uninterested in providing treatment to anyone not requiring a feeding tube.

But officially, that story doesn't exist. The rhetoric of "economic justice" kind of hinges on received truth that the American Dream is illusory: according to it, anyone who is able to improve his life through hard work is actually just blind to this own privilege.

Sure, my parents grew up in poverty; sure, they spent their early married years moving wherever my dad could find work, doing whatever work they could find -- repossessing other people's belongings, picking mushrooms, cleaning other people's toilets. But their willingness to do those things, and to do them while living off welfare cheese and carrots at the end of the month, and dried pintos and Ramen at the beginning -- that's not how they got where they are. They were just lucky. And, of course, white.

So now, my dad is one of the "richest" Americans to whom Obama's economic penalties are limited. He's worked for the same company for over twenty years, and for many of those years, his raises have been going into a shared retirement account, rather than his paychecks. When he got sick a couple of years ago, and his doctor advised him to stop working and go on disability, he kept working -- but he also started watching this account, thinking: maybe after a few more years.

Only under Obama's new tax code, I guess, his company can no longer get a tax benefit for this account, so they're closing it and requiring their employees to cash it out now, while they are still working, as a lump sum -- which means that it'll be taxed at the highest possible rate, since he'll receive twenty years of savings in a single year. Money intended to support my parents once my dad has no salary is being added onto his current salary; to the IRS it looks like any other windfall.

Effectively, he's losing about 40% of the account to the government -- whereas, since he had anticipated withdrawing it ten years from now, when it would have been his only income, he was expecting a much lower tax rate.

Then, of course, since he is withdrawing it early, he's subject to an additional 20% penalty designed to keep people from taking their retirement money out early and using it for other things. In his case, keeping the money in the account is not an option -- the account itself is being dissolved by his company -- but the employees are still subject to this penalty.

It's really shitty, basically, and I feel stupid, because I had pretty blind faith that Obama's plan to fix the economy was really only going to hurt the very wealthy. And I listen to my father and how angry he is, how scared and betrayed he feels, and I understand how people become vulnerable to ideologies about "those people".

And... I don't know. The part of me that wants to live with grace, wants to find a way to be loving in the face of this, to fight the frustration that people who try so hard, who work through migraines and exhaustion and nerve damage, should end up in the same place as people who can't, or don't, find work.

I don't want to face the ugly part of me that thinks: well, my dad should have peace of mind, should have a comfortable retirement -- even if other people are going without. He's worked hard every day of his life for it; he's done things other people wouldn't do to ensure it. The jobs other people "can't be expected" to take? He's done those jobs. Situations that make it impossible for other people to become, or remain, self-sufficient? He's pushed past them. He didn't believe there was another option. Now, in order to help people who didn't, or couldn't, do what he's done, he loses out.

And I get that that's what it means to redistribute the wealth. But I didn't think it would affect the people I loved: stupid. Nullum gratuitum prandium. 

Unless, I guess, you find someone with "more than enough" lunch money, and help yourself. Happy Inauguration Day.

Friday, January 18, 2013

sexy parties, or, how I spent my winter vacation, part 3

Hi, I'm Amanda Birdwell. You might remember me from such anxiety attacks as "What if I get Lou Gehrig's Disease" and "Quadriplegia and Me".

Seriously, one of the reasons I care about new moms is that, after I managed to work out my breastfeeding issues (and then some -- see Enough with the Boobs; see also my son at 12, 1, 3, and 6 this morning), I still had about 5 weeks of maternity leave, much of which my son spent sleeping. This freed me up to panic about medical conditions I did not (do not) have that scare me.

In a sort-of-desperate effort to feel in control of a "situation" (one which your average non-anxierty-disordered person might instead call a "non-issue" or "kinda insane"), I started emailing the New York City Spinal Cord Injury Association, asking if there was anything I could do to help them. It seemed to me that if I couldn't walk, but could still work, and get around, and care for my son, I could feel okay. So I wanted to help people who are finding ways to do that.

The thing is that people who actually have to deal with something like a spinal cord injury do just that, and end up pretty good at finding ways to help and advocate for themselves. While they are actually super friendly and not too weirded out by my emails (I hope), they often don't have a lot of roles for volunteers who don't have a spinal cord injury.

So imagine my surprise and delight this winter vacation when one of the leaders emailed me, invited me to their general meeting, and asked me to help with their Fat Tuesday fundraiser next month! While my track record for attending evening events (which require me to miss Bedtime Routine and risk messing with the bull/getting the horns of Mac's fury) is generally pretty poor, I managed to drag myself to Mt. Sinai for their meeting on Tuesday.

It was actually totally awesome, both because it made it seem to me that while injuring one's spinal cord is a drag, it is one of any number of shitty things that can be dealt with when one is smart, resourceful, funny and confident. Given the choice between a party of people in wheelchairs and a party of people who obsess about wheelchairs, I know which one I'd choose.

Moreover, I'm now able to tell everyone about their awesome Mardi Gras party fundraiser, at which I will be volunteering and there will be all kinds of music, free food, and a cash bar. Speaking as someone who obsesses about how to do good, I feel the world would be better were there more opportunities to do good while eating Cajun food and getting drunk.

So, I learned something today. I learned that, whether one must use a wheelchair to move from place to place or an elaborate system of coping strategies, crutches, and rituals to keep one's shit together, having a party is almost always a solution.

Obsessive googling, on the other hand, almost never is.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

enough with the boobs! or, how I spent my winter vacation, part 2

So, ironically enough, while I spent a chunk of time each week trying to help moms start breastfeeding, the much bigger project in my life this January has been trying to get my son to stop breastfeeding.

It is hard, much harder than getting the kid to nurse in the first place. At least, when we were getting into this mess, my son and I were on the same page. Now, I'm like the mama bird attempting -- feebly -- to push my little birdlet out of the nest, only the nest is immediately below my clavicles -- eye level when he's sitting on my lap.

Additionally, while I went about learning to nurse with the kind of fatalistic grimness with which I approach every task at which I have not already succeeded, now, my ambivalence is about as subtle as one of those Baby Genius toys Mac's already figured out and discarded. Given the choice between slapping Mac onto a boob at dinnertime, or:

1. heating a balanced baby-food meal,
2. testing said bland and terrible meal to ensure it's not too hot,
3. checking the label to ascertain what I am supposed to be telling Mac he's eating,
4. swooping futile airplanes of said meal towards my child's face as he attempts to shriek through clenched teeth, then
5. giving up and scouring the cupboard for foods that, when paired with La Yogurt, would be considered a "meal" for the purpose of, say, an ACS home visit,

I'll breastfeed the kid until he moves out.

And yet, Mac's needs are becoming more complex. At times, particularly those times between three and six a.m., they seem practically existential. And the Booby Solution, while still almost universally effective, isn't really keeping pace. In the past twenty four hours, in addition to the typical hungry/sleepy/soggy triumvirate of Things to Melt Down Over, we've contended with:

Not Allowed to Eat Plastic Wrap
No Aluminum Foil, Either
Can't Have Mommy's Glasses
Don't Want to Play on the Floor
Don't Want to Play on the Bed
Mommy's Not Holding Me
Mommy's Arms Are Confining
Can't Eat the Bath Drain
Hate this Room
Hate this Room More
It's Nine Thirty, Where is Mommy?
It's Ten, Where is Mommy?
It's Midnight, Where is Mommy?
Are you there, Mommy? It's me, wailing!
Three-Thirty! Mommy!
Wait, I Don't Want to Be Awake Now!
It's six! Where's Mommy?

None of these problems are directly or indirectly solved by my breasts. And yet, breasts were invariably believed to be the solution. Had my son lived in ancient Galilee, his unswerving faith would no doubt be immortalized in a parable.

But I need my son to know that things are okay. Not because of my boobs. But because that is the nature of things, however fucked they seem at any given moment: to be okay.

If I could set a single intention for him, and for my parenting, it would be: I will raise a child who knows Things are Okay. Because I couldn't quite believe that, not for almost thirty years. And while thirty years is not the longest time spent deeply afraid that Things, in fact, are about to go to shit -- some people go lifetimes afraid of that -- that isn't what I want for my son.

So, during the day, I tell moms: keep going, because things are okay, and you can do this. And at night, I tell my son the same thing, and he is often as unconvinced as your average under-medicated sixteen-year-old new mom, confronted with a white lady intent on Helping her.

But that, too, is okay. This feeling, it's only right now. And we live in a world with lots of solutions. And when none of them fit just right, we can always make a new one, ourselves.

Monday, January 14, 2013

boob reprise: or, how I spent my winter vacation, part 1

Top five awesome parts of Winter Vacation, No. 1.

Breastfeeding! You may remember that Mayor Bloomberg has decided that he wants all New Yorkers to be healthy (but especially the poor ones!) so he's hatched a plan to keep formula away from poor moms in hospitals -- which is to say, he wants the hospitals to stop handing it out for free, like dealers, which often permanently screws up the mother's supply of breast milk, interferes with the baby's learning to nurse, and ensure Enfamil a steady clientele for the foreseeable future. Not for nothing is formula locked up like guns and cigarettes: those shady mothers will steal it in a heartbeat, since they have literally nothing else to feed their babies. Except, of course, for the free, already mixed and heated milk that comes out of their boobs on demand. (Or would.)

So, initially, I thought Bloomberg's plan was another thing that put pressure on moms without offering them support, thereby setting them up for failure and non-moms (or those privileged moms among us whose kids started breastfeeding way back in 2011 and appear unlikely to stop before seventh grade) for another great opportunity to sigh over our lattes that Poor People Just Don't Get It. And I don't do well with the cognitive dissonance of insisting that something is Really Important for you to do, but not, you know, important enough for me to help you. So I started working with the Lactation Coordinator at one of our public hospitals in an effort to actually help the moms breastfeed, instead of just telling them how they should. 

Well. Whatever the breastfeeding issues that moms in Park Slope or Tribeca may be facing, if those moms care to deliver in a city hospital, they will be able to lay their burdens down and embrace, instead, the larger issue of Lady, I Got Bigger Problems than You and Your Baby, I'm a Pediatrician/OBGYN/Charge Nurse on a Mother-Baby Unit.

So the first weeks of January were, in part, spent scribbling away a manifesto that hopefully will help frame our breastfeeding efforts in 2013. Because honestly at this point, I'd be advising new moms not just to ask for formula but to hoard it for themselves, since things like obtaining food trays for patients who are no longer NPO are considered low-priority.

Other low-priority items on the average postpartum worklist:

  • helping babies latch so they can breastfeed (obviously; moms report that their nurses tell them "the breastfeeding coordinator is on vacation" when they ask for assistance),
  • helping parents determine where their babies are and helping them get them back. The hospital not only offers but encourages "rooming in", which is to say, keeping mom and baby together, to promote bonding and prevent bored well-baby nurses from pouring Supersized bottles of formula down baby gullets. However, for any number of reasons, roughly 40 to 60% of mother-baby rooms contain only mothers on any given shift. When moms are asked where their baby is, they usually know "the nursery" (we have three). When asking "why?" or "which one?" or "when are they coming back?", expect a blank, vaguely suspicious look: don't you know? 
  • giving mothers pain medication. Yes, this includes mothers who have had a c-section. Were you providing care in a nursing education video, a mom who is c-section day one would likely be on IV medication, maybe Toredol or morphine. Or, she may have an epidural still in place, because 1. someone just cut open her body, removed a fetus, and scraped her uterine wall, and 2. her uterus is roughly the size and shape of a deflating basketball at the moment and is attempting to scrunch itself back to the size of her fist so she does not bleed to death. 

At your average city hospital, however, the MO is Tylenol 3, PRN. Wondering what PRN means? It means, when you ring your call bell and ask nicely for it. Maybe. Unless I, your friendly postpartum nurse, am angry that you have the audacity to insinuate that I'm not caring for you well, in which case I will badger you into "admitting" that you really just have gas and give you some Motrin instead.

(Why give Motrin for gas? Well, why give Motrin for postoperative pain? I'll leave you to speculate. Let me know if you come up with a plausible explanation that does not rely on the phrase "to [not] give an eff", as I'll want to get that one down).

In reality, while it is fun for moms who deliver at Methodist and Lennox Hill to kvetch about Bloomberg's paternalizing and the feminist implications of telling moms they really should be using their boobs to feed babies, the city law is probably not going to affect them that much. Hospitals that treat patients who show up in L&D with social capital, private insurance, families at the bedside, and/or white skin and white babies typically are already doing what the program asks: encouraging breastfeeding, badgering moms for "medical reasons" why they are supplementing, making the free formula optional. These moms are also less likely to realize, a week post-discharge, that the freebies are gone, WIC only covers 2 bottles of formula, and they now get to divert a sizable chunk of their family's resources to Similac, since they really don't have enough milk now.

The great thing about any kind of standards, however particular, is that it really brings to light a huge number of issues that contribute to the overall failure of a system staffed by people who don't care about what they are doing.

Breastfeeding or no, you should get pain medication after you have abdominal surgery. Your doctor should know whether or not you're getting that medication (but I said 4 hours, PRN, said one resident upon being told that her CS Day One patient had had no pain medication at all since admission to the unit). When you are allowed to eat for the first time in 3 days, someone should call the kitchen and find out why you have no food tray for breakfast or lunch, and fix it.

This should be the case, yes, even if you are poor. Even if you don't speak English. Even if it is your fifth child and you are only twenty-three and your nurse thinks you must just not care about your baby, as she does not care.

It's not. Hence, my manifesto (not this; another, less snide one, sent to my boss during some furtive four-am-moments while the baby slept).

Today: my first day back at the hospital after sending. For the next forty-five minutes, I choose to believe that caring deeply can be enough to somewhat ameliorate the limping, teeth-sucking, ass-sitting indifference which our patients encounter on a daily basis. 

Friday, January 11, 2013


So, I was going to write about Hagar, and that amazing moment in her story in which she

1. becomes the star of a story in which, up until now, she has been totally central as an object and utterly peripheral as an actual human being (welcome to Being Female; enjoy the next six millennia!)

and 2. not only renames God, but renames Him in reference to herself. For Hagar, God is, specifically, the God who sees [her].

I love this. I love that these moments of reversal, of subversion, don't start with advent  and Jesus but are the stuff the Bible was talking about all along. Without making any unequivocal claims about whether the Old Testament is intended to be a literal record of things that happened, let alone events that God endorsed (there's a lot of "sex with my dad" and "drunkenly sentencing my son's offspring to slavery" to understand it that way), I think that, as a story about what God is like, the Old Testament may be more illuminating when we focus less on the fact of God's vengeance and more on details like this.

It can be the case that terrible, painful things happen in the world and also that there is still meaning in the world, still an end towards which, from our limited perspective in this specific moment, we are all moving -- however many deserts and disasters we have to get through first. It can be the case that the complexity of an infinite God allows for these horrible moments without compromising that God's absolute goodness; that Hagar finds something more valuable in the desert than Sarah and Abraham could have given her by having slightly less horrifying understandings of labor relations. The total awesomeness in which Hagar is not only rescued but seen -- in which God hears her and sees her and extends to her her own version of the promise He made with Abraham -- it wouldn't exist or mean anything outside the imperfect system that put her at Abraham's mercy in the first place.

... anyway, I got sidetracked for a little bit by this bullshit (the modesty website itself, not Jen's enjoyable and trenchant mini-deconstruction of it). Because honestly, being visible is not all it's cracked up to be, when the one seeing you is not God but instead a bunch of consultants claiming to speak for Him. And the reactionary flavor of our entire culture right now -- evangelical Christianity included, though I think they're no better or worse than secular culture about trying to plant built their ideological castles on my body-sand -- makes me wish I could be the silver Human Being mascot on Community, instead of a human trying to live in this intractably female body.

But that stuff is small and temporary. And I am also seen by a God who isn't looking at, and does not care about, my boobs or my skirt or the opinions that your everyday Random Internet Stranger may have about either.

The absolute democracy with which the internet allows individuals to weigh in on the other people's wardrobes and bodies doesn't actually make those individuals more relevant. It's not me they are seeing when they look at my jeans or my swimsuit or my breasts as I use them to feed my child. From that angle, I think, they're not able to see me at all.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

cry it out

Back when I believed that I was going to be a Good Parent, I thought, but didn't say, that I wouldn't let my baby "cry it out". This is the method endorsed by most sane parents, which is to say, parents whose love of their children coexists with the belief that they, too, deserve things like sleep and actual meals, eaten at a table, before ten pm.

Still woozy from labor and hormones, I looked at my perfect, tiny son and thought, very quietly, in the privacy of my postpartum home: I will love my kid so much that I will stay up with him no matter how long it takes. My son will never cry for me and not know where I am or why I won't hold him. And then, once he can understand English, I'll just explain to him that it is bedtime, so he knows that while I'm the boss, I still love him.

HAHAHAHAHAHA. and HA. and, wait, hold on: HAHAHAHA.

Mac, preparing for his hit single, You Failed Me.

My son, now a year old, has no interest in understanding any language that is telling him things he doesn't want to hear. Still just as adorable as he was at four hours old, he will curl sweetly around my growling stomach as I nurse him, his face settling into happy baby sleep face. And I will gently carry him to the crib, and whisper that I love him, and he will sense the way my arms tense as I pull him away from my body to set him down, and the jig, my friends, is up.

So last night I just couldn't. I basically failed at everything I tried to do yesterday: jobs either rejected me or have hours I can't work because of school. Husband came home to find the house full of chores I said I'd do, still undone, and my bleary with a cold and crabby in the way I can only truly be after four solid hours of job-searching. I ate not a single meal but a random assortment of foodstuffs, most of them some form of complex carbohydrate, re-establishing myself as both Mom and Fat in my own eyes.

And so, after about thirty minutes of cooing and back patting and up to nurse and down to sleep and then up to wail accusingly, I took my precious child, set him -- not even very gently -- in his crib, said -- not even very gently -- Good Night and I Love You, and walked, not tiptoed, from the room.

It was neither a Come-to-Jesus moment in my house nor a Critical Parenting Failure. He sobbed with the tenacity and bravado that reassured me that, though I may now be the Enemy, my son will one day be a formidable and tenacious foe.

I have no opinion anymore on whether "sleep training" is a good thing or a bad thing. But I don't feel like a worse parent than I did before abandoning my child in his pack and play. And fortunately, 100% of the self-appointed parenting consultants with whom I've been blessed this week seem to agree that, on the list of things I Should Think About Doing This Other Way, "cry it out" is unlikely to even make top five anytime soon.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

nurse-tastic! part 1

I decided to become a nurse because I remain hopeful that my preoccupation with stupid, trivial things (the number of calories in yogurt, for example, or the width of my knees) is a character flaw that I can somehow "manage", rather than an immutable fact of who I am. I love to write, and for a few years in college and shortly after, I thought I would be a writer or an academic. Most days, though, I am hard-pressed to convince myself that anything I have to say is going to make anyone else's life better. And while there may be enough therapy, yoga, and issues of Bust for me to live comfortably in a world with obstetric fistula, for example, I don't want to be the kind of Amanda who could do so.

Since the people I love all live here in the continental United States, where women mostly have babies that live, and are not permanently disabled in the process, I wanted to find a way to be of use to people who are suffering, regardless of geography. And while the health concerns in American communities are arguably less devastating that those in the developing world, they are still overwhelming, and unnecessary, to the point where we're again treading on that uncomfortable terrain of God-math: is it okay that a woman gives birth terrified and in pain and then has her baby taken away and "cleaned" by strangers, since at least she's still continent and her baby is still alive? Is it comforting to a parent whose child died of an asthma attack to know that his odds, though ultimately losing, were better than those of a child who contracts HIV in South Africa?

In the moments in my own life in which I've been sick, scared, terrified, or grieving, I have needed every bit of care I received -- despite the fact that many people do go without that care, despite my white skin and economic privilege. When my grandfather was dying, what he needed, right then, outweighed the ocean of needs going unmet in Sudan and Cambodia and Uzbekistan. And what I love about nursing is it allows you to enter the lives of others at the very moments in which you are most needed, in which your patient's need is absolute and you are uniquely positioned to meet it, if only because of proximity. You can get their their medication; you can keep them clean; you can make sure the phone call gets made, the chemo gets hung, the order for Zofran or a tray of food or stronger pain medication gets put through.

One day, when my child no longer wakes up at 3:30 ready for action and at least the apex of my mountain of student loan debt is eroded, I hope to find a way to help all children get immunized and all women have babies safely myself, and not just with my money. But now, even as a student in Brooklyn, I've found a way of living my life in which, if I just show up, I find myself in a position to improve a particular person's life at this moment. And since -- whatever the status of eternity -- all I have been given to work with is this moment, nursing is the best way I've found of experiencing grace, of participating in God.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

moral relativism

My husband and I have these recurring talks about what we're going to tell our son about God. In between these talks, he lives his life and engages the world around him, and I make a concerted effort to do the same, while carrying on a sometimes-rewarding-often-exhausting internal monologue about these conversations.

It seems that it is very easy to introduce children to a concept of God that they will either vehemently reject or simply abandon as irrelevant later in life. After that, it seems like the question becomes whether the children in question are going to become, like, secular humanists, who manage to care about those around them and construct a self-referential moral code by which to live, or, I don't know -- new atheists? Nihilists? A breed of people for whom compassion and kindness is optional: they may choose to give a shit, if they feel like it, but don't tell them they should.

I've had encounters with people who subscribe to both of these views. The first challenges me to re-examine my own view of God, love, and goodness. The second just makes me feel like I am speaking to someone in a language I thought I understood, but actually don't. At this point in my life, I'm not really able to seriously engage the idea that human beings are essentially all programmed to be self-serving, so that giving up one's career to raise a disabled child, for example, is the moral equivalent of taking pole dancing classes in order to embrace one's sexuality.

I think that it is one thing to say that my moral view is not the only one, and that I don't know everything, and another to say that every set of priorities is equally valid, or that people who act out of concern for others are really just doing what they want, anyway, so it's all the same.

Or, to put it more simply: I think it matters whether you spend your weekends building habitats for humanity or having sexy parties or drinking beer and watching reruns of Archer. This isn't to say that any of those things are unquestionably, unequivocally bad ways to spend one's life. But it matters which of them one chooses to do.

Matters to whom? To God? If that's what I believe, I guess, it makes total sense that the statement is self-negating when presented to someone who doesn't believe in God. And I do understand that it is a serious problem, the way people who believe that there is a God and that that God privileges some life choices over others, also tend to understand God as privileging those choices they prefer to make.

But: I don't think that is the only way of understanding God's will, or even the most common. It's probably both the most comfortable, convenient way, if "God's will" is your jam, and the easiest target for critique, if it's not -- so it ends up being the most visible manifestation of this belief that I Should be doing something particular with my life, that my personal preference is not the best indicator of how I should spend my time.

But if discerning my own will is an ongoing challenge for me, discerning God's will, as I understand it, is probably even more fraught: maybe I would just rather do x than y, but I also want the feeling I get from believing I'm doing the Right Thing. Maybe it is easier for me to justify doing x if I think God wants me to do it.

Maybe. But I don't believe that. And I don't want my child to believe that. I believe it is important to make distinctions in life, especially when our way of communicating information seems bent on eroding our ability to do that (it is news that Obama is tightening gun control; it is also news that Kim Kardashian is pregnant). And to the degree that it is okay to be deliberate in instilling specific values in another human being, I believe he will be happier and the world better if he grows up believing that goodness is a real thing, not just a floating signifier for one's personal preference; that the happiness engendered by ice-cream-sandwich eating is of a different -- yes, lesser -- quality than the happiness engendered by cheering up a friend or donating money to an animal shelter.

Monday, January 7, 2013

case of the Mondays

I've had the pleasure of re-encountering iterations of the following message at sixteen, eighteen, twenty-one, and every couple of years, since: This doesn't matter, where "this" ranged from expressing my sense of terminal uniqueness with liquid eyeliner and bindi stickers on my forehead to triple-majoring in college to whether or not the cookies I am conscripted into baking come from a box.

And still -- still! -- even when one accounts for how many things cause grief that is actually totally unnecessary (because said things are irrelevant): Life is really hard. Even when you live comfortably, securely; even when you are privileged/blessed. 

Life can just be really hard. 2013 seems to be making it its personal business to remind me, and those around me, of that fact. A week in, and I'm already like, malari-what? Things are a big difficult painful mess right here among our immunizations and clean water, where babies won't sleep and significant others won't behave and the things we construct our lives around won't stay, heel, or come when they are called. 

So here's what I got, to get through Monday: a couple of things that are unambiguously Awesome, True and Good. 

#1: Malala is okay!  If you missed it -- this girl got shot in the head for trying to get an education, because sometimes, people are just mind-blowingly awful and one doesn't know why. But sometimes, though not always, the world responds with resounding "pound sand" to the awful people in question, and fifteen-year-old students turn out okay. (You will love the part of the slideshow in which Malala, undaunted, passes her hospital stay with her scandalous girl-nose in a book.)

#2 Kitties! Sometimes, kids just love kitties, and save up their entire freaking allowance every year to help kitties find homes. Evan's letters are amazing and included holiday-themed song clips, as well as a detailed rational for his growing kitty-saving donations. 

#3 Bears. And a certain Brendan Leonard's blog-tribute to bears, organized around the thesis that bears are awesome -- a delightful truth bomb which I really hadn't thought about a long time. 

So, Monday morning reprise: bears are amazing, the world is amazing, and really -- really -- things are going to be okay. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

mom is the new fat

Which is not to say that I'm entirely over the old fat, though that would be terrific. It's just that now, the yardstick by which I measure myself and am found simultaneously inadequate and excessive is a newer, lonelier one.

Before I had my son, I was so afraid of losing my pregnancy that I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about how I would be as a mom, about how one goes about being a mom. This is a reflection of my incredible good luck: among the crop of women who don't get pregnant at twenty, there are a lot of us who have more time than they like planning for motherhood as we wait for our bodies or our bank accounts or our monthly income to get with the program.

In my case, though, I lost one pregnancy, did a lot of stuff to avoid thinking about motherhood, found I was pregnant again, and was lucky and/or blessed the second time around. The list of things I did not do when preparing for my baby includes: decorating a nursery; reading a single parenting book; making friends with any other moms, let alone moms of infants. While, so far, these shortcomings don't seem to have seriously compromised my son's well-being, they have all made my life more difficult, to varying degrees.

Hands down, though, the thing I was least prepared for as a mom was this: you just don't matter anymore. The idea of you matters: Moms matter, at least, when they are screwing up. Moms of all types -- moms who don't read to their kids, moms who breastfeed too long or on demand or not at all, moms who feed their kids McDonald's -- are to adult culture what "fat" girls and "ugly" girls and "slutty" girls were to the seventh grade. But individual women who are mothers are, in and of themselves, totally irrelevant, until and unless it becomes apparent that they are back on the market: a MILF, maybe, or a cougar.

That sounds like I am complaining, which isn't my intention. It's as it should be that my son obscures what was my life, once -- my opinions and ambitions and passions -- because he is more important than they are to me. Given the choice between reading to the children of incarcerated parents or coordinating fundraisers for fistula repair, on the one hand, and dinner-bathtime-story-bed, on the other, I will choose the latter because my life without my child is no life for me, now.

But the first two activities are a positive source of identity and the latter one is not. When I was a tutor, a manager, a program specialist, my identity was comprised in some part by the things I did. But when you are a parent, unless, maybe, you are a stay at home mom, being a mom is, officially, only a small part of who you are, an optional add-on to an identity that is expected to be complete without it.

This is inconvenient on those days -- and there are many -- when you feel like parenting is all you do. You wonder: other parents are parents and also doctors, lawyers, recording engineers. What's wrong with me? Why can't I manage that?

You wonder: my single friends have been over five minutes and, in that time, have identified three needs my child is having that I hadn't managed to meet. What is it I'm doing with my time?

You start to feel a little bit like one of those stay-at-home moms who employs a full time nanny: what is it, exactly, that you do?

I think that that's part of why we have this huge crop of women who are vehemently defensive of the notion of "complementarianism" -- which is, as far as I can see, the twenty-first century reprise of "separate spheres". Because even if someone is telling you that God made men to need respect and validation and made you, as a woman, to give them those things (but not, apparently, vice versa, because men and women are different!) -- if that person is also telling you that the things that have come to dominate your life, the diapers and sleep training and trips to museums your kids don't yet care about, are uniquely valuable, are legitimate life's works, you will listen. 

Honestly, it's okay with me that my opinions, goals, and all the things I thought I'd contribute to the world are no longer The Point. It's hard, yes: When my husband comes home and talks about his job and I see that he is good at it and that that matters to other people, that is what the kids call "a growing experience". But I think it's a growing experience to which I am particularly suited, since, paradoxically, I think I may be likely to do more good in the world if I am less focused on Who I am and What I Want and What it Means.

However, I would like for motherhood to become as aspect of one's identity that exists less entirely in the negative. I'd like to be able to think of myself as a mom and not preface the word with adjectives like "shitty" or "lousy" -- and while it's true that I struggle to feel good about myself regardless of context, the vocabulary for recognizing the ways in which moms are being good moms, are doing an important job well, is pretty impoverished. I'd like to believe it matters whether or not I read to my son, not just when I fail to do it, but also when I am doing that instead of being out changing the world. I'd like a frame of reference in which mothering is a constructive activity, one worthy of my time and attention -- in which it is as legitimate to do art projects and field trips with my son as it is to do these things with other people's children.

I believe there are spaces for those things to happen, and that a step in balancing the things I cared about before I was a mom with the things I care about now is to find them, so I can rework my own sense of who I am now that I'm not volunteering and working seven days a week. But I feel like we should probably also have more of those spaces for all moms and dads; like creating those spaces might be a more productive use of time that publishing additional lists of Top Parenting Mistakes and If You Did This, Your Kid Would Be Sleep Trained by Now.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD.

I'm a little self-conscious about the Biblical epigrams. I suspect that people who enjoy my personality and way of writing don't want the Bible up in their snark and introspection, and that people who enjoy blog posts that start out with Bible quotes are less enthused about the workings-through of anxiety disorders and existential crises. 

And yet: my thoughts suck, to be honest. They are the closest thing to oppression that this privileged girl is likely to experience. They hold me back, make me lame, and are to no purpose whatsoever. So it is a profound relief that while I flit like a doomed moth from fear about my own moral failings to fear about never getting a job to fear about my student loan debt, God is... wherever God is, fearful about exactly none of the above. 

If God thought like me, we'd be well effed, is what I'm saying. 

Those of us who don't enjoy the certainty of either devout, literalistic Christians (God is like this, Heaven will be like that) or devout, literalistic atheists (God is a Lie, Heaven is a Myth) do, for the most part, enjoy some level of certainty that there exists something larger than our thoughts -- however incomprehensible that thing might be. This is not always reassuring to me, and my preference in those times when it feels terrifying is to attend to what is happening to me at this moment with all the unreasonableness and small-mindedness I am able to summon. 

But when, like a very small child, I am able to peer over the edge of this panic, I can see that I am not all there is, that now is not all there is, and that no amount of condescending memes on people's Facebook statuses can make it so. And however I feel day to day about the possibility of knowing God, of having what the kids call a "personal relationship" with God, there is also this: no matter how insistent and abrasive and ugly my thoughts become, they are never the final word or the authoritative word or even the loudest word. They are only the nearest to me.  

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

At the moment, 1 Peter 2:10 is not only among my favorite verses in the Bible, it's up there with "The Snow Man" and "Law Like Love" for my favorite things people have done with words, period. If Christianity appeals to me because its claims about my limitations resonate so loudly, it saves itself from becoming just another exercise in self-deprication by virtue of the things it frees me from caring about:

Once I could not abide in a body that weighed more than one hundred ten pounds; now I have received mercy.

Once, getting an A- meant I was stupid and worthless; now, I have received mercy.

Once, I compulsively disparaged people whose ideas and opinions felt threatening to me; now, I have received mercy.

Once, I  prolonged every conflict I encountered until I found a way to "win"; now, I have received mercy. 

Once, my desire to help those around me was inevitably subjugated to my need to be central in their lives; now, I have received mercy. 

Once, I was so adept with my tongue-claws that I cut people down without a first thought, let alone a second. Now? Mercy! 

The religious tradition in which I grew up wasn't liturgical. Church was dominated by fifty-minute sermons, the content of which depended on the individual pastor, and prayers were composed in real time, as the Spirit moved. As a result, I have limited experience with the ways in which ritual and repetition construct meaning, infuse meaning, seep into one's person so that faith becomes a matter of identity, of who one is, rather than of affiliation, who one claims to to be. 

And as a result of that, until recently, I hadn't really experienced grace itself, grace for its own sake: not the promise that I've been rescued from a somewhat implausible, supernatural future, but the reality that once I was this way, and now, at this moment, I am this other way, if I care to remember. 

Once, I was defined by my weight and my grades and my resume and the corrosive insecurity that still flares up like a virus from time to time. Now, I am defined by my humanity, by my relationship to God, to the universe He made and the other creatures with whom He filled it. And evaluating my own worth has been taking off the list of unpleasant tasks I am compelled to do -- along with attempting to control the size of my ass or getting other people to like me. That, to me, is a mercy more potent than I could have imagined before I experienced it. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013


So, before I launch into the awesomeness of HardtHaven, I should preface this entry by acknowledging that, according to GiveWell, if you're interested in bang for your philanthrophic buck, housing and educating AIDS orphans is not the way to go. With the money invested in a single sponsored child at HardtHaven ($25 for medical sponsorship plus $25 for nutrition sponsorship plus $25 for education sponsorship plus $30 for basic needs sponsorship), you could be buying 26 malaria nets a month, and all you need in order to keep kids from dying of malaria is a malaria net.

(To clarify: I'm not being the least bit ironic, there: malaria nets are $4 apiece and they will keep little kids from contracting and dying of malaria. If you want to make the malaria nets and saved lives happen, go to Against Malaria's website -- Against Malaria is one of just three charities that got GiveWell's unqualified approval last year.)

If you're a sucker like me, who can't quite dismiss the complicated work and often ambiguous outcomes of, say, raising the kids of parents who died of AIDS, HardtHaven is a little school for nineteen kids in Kpando, Ghana.

These kids lost their parents to AIDS; about a third of them are HIV positive. They are, as you will see if you click the link above, beautiful and amazing.

I am inept at the kind of calculations required to determine if they are, or are not, "worth" the potential lives saved if you were to spend your money on malaria nets instead of sponsoring them. Moreover, my effing ladyfriend responded to my New Year's resolutions with the suggestion that I resolve to be kinder and gentler to myself, and the above is precisely the kind of quandary I intend to avoid in an effort to so.

So I subscribed to Hardthaven's home expense fund, which pays for rent, upkeep, and staffing at the orphanage. There's no personalized thank you letter, like you get if you sponsor an individual child's expenses, but it appeared to be the area with the greatest need; my subscription should bring them to 17 of the 100 subscribers they are aiming for. It's also a smaller financial commitment, leaving me with more money to spend on mosquito nets (one can hope) or, you know, bills. But not sushi, because I'm ringing in the New Year with a sushi fast (to facilitate the net-buying, etc).

We'll see how long that lasts. Hopefully long enough for me to find a non-monetary way of helping the global poor. If you have thoughts on that, please send them my way. For both philosophical and financial reasons, I'm a little unnerved by the kid-in-a-candy-storeness with which I keep perusing Global Giving.