Belonging

At the beginning of this month, I read a book that, like most books I read, I picked at almost random from the library catalog, put a hold request on it, then took it home and cracked it open.  (Since I work at a library, it actually makes it harder for me to just go look through the books anymore… I just ask someone else to pick it up for me and put it on the shelf with my name on it so I can grab it on my way out the door.)

http://www.amazon.com/Flight-Sparrow-Novel-Early-America/dp/0451466691

(I can’t insert a picture for some reason… this is why WordPress and I don’t get along sometimes)

Flight of the Sparrow, by Amy Belding Brown is about Mary Rowlandson, who was famously kidnapped by Native Americans in the 17th Century.  She went on to write a book about her experience, but the author felt her story didn’t seem quite right.  She had read some suggestions that Mary may not have written her story alone, and that she may have been expected to say things she didn’t believe because of the strict Puritan culture.  Many of the “morals” of her kidnapping, the author notes, seemed contrived and didn’t line up with what was being said.  So Brown chose to take the story with Mary’s name attached and derive a similar but different story–the one Mary would not have been able to tell, and would not have told.

In the story, Mary goes through the horrifying, traumatic experience of losing her sister, her daughter, and most of her friends in a gruesome attack, and is then taken as a prisoner to the Native American camp.  At the camp, she is no longer the high class and respected preacher’s wife she was in her community–she is a slave.  Her captor is cruel and strict about certain things, but Mary begins to contrast her life in the Native American camp with her life at home in a surprising way.  She notes that while she was a free woman at home, she really had no freedom to speak her mind to her husband or others, or to even leave their front porch without her husband expressed permission–which he did not grant readily.  In the Native American camp, as a slave, as long as her work was done, she is free to wander as she pleased, she could even speak her mind at times (though she still needed to beware her owner’s angry ways).  She feels the solace of being close to nature, even in her deep sorrow.  When she is eventually ransomed back, she finds herself flung back into a world that she doesn’t want, and that doesn’t really want her.  Being a captive made her different.

The book plumbs the depth of sorrow that Mary feels at her experience–she feels loss on levels that I have never felt and hope never to feel.  Watching one’s friends and family literally torn to pieces and burned, and then being sold into slavery to watch your child die–that is the deepest grief I can imagine.  The aftermath of her traumatic experience is so tangible to me, though.  The author captures her emotions–which she must keep bottled inside, more or less, at her husband’s insistence–in such true forms.

More than that, though, the author clearly shows the “otherness” that the former captives felt in their former lives.  One of Mary’s children struggles the most with being returned from captivity, and he often wanders off for days on end to be close to nature again.  Mary’s husband often reprimands his formerly-captive family for their behaviour–which is foreign to him because he did not undergo what they did.  Worst, everyone who would have otherwise been happy to be friends with the minister’s wife withdraws from Mary as if she is “soiled” from her experience–most people assume she was at best bewitched by the Natives, and at worst raped by them.

“Otherness” in literature is usually race, gender, sexual orientation, or similar, but “otherness” is anything that sets out a person from the crowd and makes him or her not “fit in.”  Going through deep grief makes me feel “other.”  Those who fit into the crowd see a woman grieving for a dead child–an experience they don’t understand and don’t want to understand–as almost an affront to their way of living.  This is something that doesn’t fit into their perceptions of the world–this deep grief–and withdrawing from “the other” is easier than incorporating her into their group, is easier than listening to her and not being judgmental of a real experience and real feelings associated with that experience.  I resonated with Brown’s depiction of Mary’s “otherness” and while mine pales in comparison to what she must have felt, it was tangible.

The part that has stayed with me and that I suspect will always stay with me: Mary’s husband is constantly trying to derive meaning from their capture, and his interpretations come across as heartless.  He is constantly explaining the the Native American attacks on the settlements are “God’s chastening hand” on His people–that God is trying to punish sin in the Puritan communities and reform them from their own “heathen” ways–a sort of witch hunt, almost.  Mary expresses that if God is chastening them, it is for their outright cruelty and lack of love for others, not for the suspected sins that he thinks are going on in private.  At one family lecture, as the minister is lecturing his family on “God’s chastening hand” the son angrily replies, “Sometimes things just happen!” and storms out.

Sometimes things just happen.

While I am a firm believer in experiences having meaning and that most experiences require meaning for us to cope with them, this statement is important to me.  If something horrible happens, sometimes all it means is that something horrible happened, and we must just fit that into our lives now–along with the fact that it has changed us, that we are “other” now.

Maybe someday we can derive meaning from tragedies, but if we can’t, it does not make the tragedy unimportant, it does not mean the tragedy did not transform us.

The most substantial and important bit I gleaned from this story: Grief is difficult on faith, but experiencing grief and feeling “other” does not negate our connection with our faith.  It was easy for Mary’s husband and their community to look at Mary and the children as having separated from their religion because their ordeal was too big and their grief too complex for others to reconcile to the joyfulness of being Christian.

I have experienced this as well–the easy justifications from those around me that I am not “thankful” for the grief I endured because I do not look like it; I am not grieving “correctly” because I am not doing this, that, or whatever.  I’m not always even sure what is expected of me, but it is wrong because it doesn’t fit into the box that they have made for me (not Christianity itself–but some individuals in their own minds).  I am “other” and I don’t belong.  And yet, look at Christ’s grief at Lazarus’s death (who He rose from the dead shortly after), Mary’s grief at Christ’s death, David’s continual cycles of grief and joy (often at once) in the Psalter.  I read the texts of the Church and I see grief and loss.  Everything does not always neatly tie up into a moralistic Aesop’s Fable, or Christian fiction book.

I cannot be a the poster child for handling infant death perfectly and graciously (which, I will be honest, was what was blatantly expected of me, and why I continually disappoint others with my struggles with grief and meaning) any more than Mary Rowlandson could be the shining beacon of exquisitely interpreting God’s movement in her own life (which was also expected of her–and which the book she herself wrote indicates, with much forced interpretations).

Grief is hard, and sometimes things just happen.  And “otherness” can be a lonely road.

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Taking things personally

There is a lady in my office who is pregnant.  Normally, this would bother me a little, but because of who it is and because of the way she handles herself, it is absolutely unbearable.

Ever since the first week of November, she has complained CONSTANTLY about this poor little life growing in her.  Before she was pregnant, she complained from time to time about wanting more kids (she has a son with severe ear and respiratory problems; she is an avid smoker, and though I am not BLAMING that fact on her first child’s issues, it is noteworthy).  I have had to hear every single little thing about this baby–and I just live in a closet in a corner that no one visits!  One lady who actually has to work next to here expressed a desire to get a big jar of rubberbands and shoot them at her head throughout the day.  I wanted to tell her that would be fantastic.

Based on the number of doctor’s appointments she has and the amount of information she gives us about this child daily, I assumed she was due in April, May at the latest.  I have been hoping every day she gets put on bedrest because I simply cannot handle dealing with her constant baby monologue.  (I have panic attacks at work sometimes because I feel like I can’t get away from something that is very stressful.)

Today in our staff meeting, someone asked when the baby was due.

I was so shocked, I was nearly sick.

She’s due in July.

Not only does that mean THAT MUCH LONGER that I have to deal with her (unless she gets the blessed bedrest), but her due date is just three and a half weeks before my last baby’s due date (around the time we figured the baby would be born, provided he was early like Seraphim), had he not died a month ago.  That makes her right around 17-18 weeks pregnant.  We’ve had to deal with her since the day she missed her period.  If I were still pregnant, I would definitely still not be telling folks–especially at work!–that I was having a baby.  I was set on 20 weeks, or after.  Probably till I had a baby in my arms, really (although I suppose I might tell my boss a little before then…).

She also sees the same doctor I did.  Which means that doctor saw HER before she was 12 weeks pregnant, but refused to see me.

I could scream.  At this point, the child feels like a personal insult to me on so many different levels.  No one there has EVER asked about my baby, even though I have a picture next to my computer of him because he helps me get through my day.  Even though they knew I was gone for seven weeks.  Even though they knew I was pregnant this time last year.

I need something to change so badly right now.

Birthday gift

I know that giving is a good way of opening up the soul to love.  I would like to give back to the world, but nothing had really stood out to me.  I have read about others giving clothing to children their own children’s age.  This does not sound appealing to me, and so I know that’s not for me.

I was thinking about how thankful I was that the hospital gave us such a sweet little hat for Seraphim to wear, and how I wish I could give back by passing on similar things to other bereaved mothers.  I have thought about this so much in the past week, it has become nearly obsession level.  However, the problem with obsession when you have no motivation is that you don’t get far and it still keeps turning around in your head.  I have found a couple of websites that seem to do this sort of thing, but I will need to contact them.  Beyond that, though, I wondered if the local hospital (or the one Seraphim was born at) take donations, or if groups coordinate donations.  If anyone can give me pointers on how I should pursue that, that would be great.

I would really like to make some baby things to give in celebration of Seraphim’s 1st birthday.  I doubt I will have any significant leads or have enough time to really get anything sent by then, but I hope I can do something soon.  Since I know there are other mothers out there who are going to experience what I did, I’d like to pay what kindness we have been shown forward.  I think that would be a good birthday gift for my little boy.

Blessings

I’ve thought a lot about “blessings” in the past year or two.

I’ve always shunned that a “blessing” is something 100% good.  I believe that blessings teach us something good, and sometimes they come from something that is not 100% good.

Losing a job can be a blessing if it was a bad place to work, or a great opportunity arose, or if something we’ll never know about happened sometime in the future there that might have wrecked the course of our life had we stayed.

Losing a car can be a blessing if the insurance payout allows us to buy a nicer, safer car–or perhaps there was something internally wrong with the car we will never know about and that never affected us because the car is gone.

Losing a friend or a love interest can be a blessing.  I would venture to say a lot of times we don’t know precisely why, but many years down the road, we can often chalk it up to that.

It is wrong to think that a blessing only happens when we get the job of our dreams or we’re healed of a certain illness or everything in life works out just the way we think it will.

If blessing were only good, then only those who do good things would receive them, while those who did not “earn” them would not receive them.  It is easy to look around and see that sometimes the best people we know suffer the most, and the worst people we’ve seen have everything they’ve ever dreamed of.  (This is a generalisation, though, since it is even easier to look at others’ lives and see what we want to see of them and nothing else.)

Orthodox Christians believe that a blessing is anything that causes us to look up.  Sometimes good things cause us to look up and thank God.  Sometimes bad things cause us to look up and cry out to God.  Both are blessings, and neither have anything to do with the “right” or “wrong” we have done in our lives.  God doesn’t punish us here in this life for bad behaviour or faithlessness (though our bad actions can have a chain reaction and punish us instead!).

On January 1, St. Basil’s Day, (which was celebrated yesterday on the Old Calendar, but since I’m not Old Calendar, I will just have to excuse myself by saying it has taken a lot of thinking to say any of this) in the churches we serve vasilopeta–St. Basil’s bread.  Usually a coin can be found in it, called the “blessing.”  I always thought it was a little silly to think that finding a coin in a bit of bread was considered a “special blessing,” but the more I think about it, the more I think that it is a reminder to look for the small joys in life–especially the ones that surprise us.  In 2013, I remember finding the coin and thinking, “This is the year that I will marry my beloved!  Of course that’s a blessing.”

By the end of 2013, though, I was laying in bed thinking about “blessings,” and if my marriage itself was the blessing, or if the baby that came from it might have been.  The baby definitely taught us both to “look up.”  His favourite place to be was church, and he was allowed to be buried in the monastery’s cemetery where he is always surrounded by holiness and prayers.

It has been THE MOST PAINFUL year of my life and I often feel like it would’ve been a much better blessing to have my baby here with me now, but this is one of those blessings I don’t get to fully know.  I can be thankful for his existence and know that he is still surrounding me with love from where he is now even as I reach out with my heart to hold him again.

I get to be sad that my child is no longer with us, but I know he was a blessing and I don’t want to lose that.  I don’t need anyone else to remind me of that because I know it deep in my soul and I can wrestle with the meaning of it all on my own without anyone’s help.

I cling to blessings like I cling to beauty–with a death grip because I know that without an ability to recognise these things, I will perish.

The same old thing

Why is so hard to do anything when you are grieving?  Is it because everyone else’s lives are moving forward and yours is standing still?

Getting out of bed is a challenge.

I trudge to work in the morning like I’m going to my execution.

If my husband isn’t home, nothing around the house gets done.

My projects sit half-done, no matter how much I want to work on them.

I hardly cook, I rarely eat.

Applying for jobs takes so much energy I almost can’t hit the “submit” button for fear that I’ll get a call and have to interview.

The Christmas decorations are still up because I can’t bring myself to do anything and my husband likes them too much to put them away.

I need to go to the doctor, but I don’t have the energy to make a phone call and talk to some lead-hearted receptionist who thinks she has better things to do than schedule appointments.

I want to believe a change of pace will help me shake off some of the sad, get out of this rut of the daily disaster.  Maybe I secretly hope running away will give me a chance to be someone “new.”  I would like to make some friends, and I don’t see it happening around here.

I wish I had a camera that took decent pictures so that I could spend the precious few hours of daylight I see looking for little bits of beauty in the world.  Beauty, it seems, holds the world together, and lately I’ve been sorely lacking in it.

Reassessment

When I was younger, not so long ago in the grand scheme of things, I ached very deeply for something that would make me “complete.”

I threw my heart around to at least a dozen not-so-deserving young men who quite honestly didn’t know what to do with it, and looking back on it now I can somewhat understand their predicament.  I might have found whichever young man absolutely perfect for me, I might have devised ways to rearrange my life to make a life with him work out, but he simply was not into the plan.  I was his friend, nothing more, and never would be anything more.

I will hasten to add that I think a number of these men truly did me wrong in a few different ways.  First, every last one of these might-have-beens had led me into thinking I was something extra special to him.  The attention and what I interpreted as advances (some could truly be interpreted no other way by a reasonable woman) instantly caught me and I didn’t want to let go of what I saw as something pretty good.  The problem always was that these young men didn’t see anything “special” in me aside from a friend that he could talk to about music, literature, theology, or life in general.  I was easy to talk to and available, so we became friends.  Nothing more.

This broke my heart over and over again.  Why wasn’t I “good enough” to be loved by this young man?  Each loss compounded, and I felt like a failure.  I recognised very readily that I was young, but I also realised that plenty of young people have made some pretty dumb decisions that have upset the course of their lives–and I had already tried to make some pretty serious blunders.

The thing that bothered me most was knowing that I was on the verge of menopause at 22, and that multiple doctors said that I would not have children easily, if at all.  If I was going to have a family, I needed to get on it.  This rationale probably seems silly to most, but it was and still is important to me.  I feel a little vindicated that the Orthodox marriage ceremony mentions children so often, because I feel like the two, in a normal world, go hand-in-hand.  That was what I wanted for my life.  If children weren’t in my future, then marriage was probably not either.  Monasticism was a good choice for me, but it wasn’t the best choice.  My heart wasn’t there, and I couldn’t make it work.  Not then.  I have to admit, I look back and wonder what would have happened if I had chosen monasticism.  I would have still considered the might-have-beens, I’m sure.  I think I could have had a good, productive life as a monastic.  But it didn’t quite fit and I couldn’t force it to.

It was about a month after I returned from the monastery with the direction from the abbess to “get back out there and see about finding a husband,” that I met my husband.  He was the first truly good, wholesome young man who had ever pursued me–and without much push from me.  I actually rejected his advances initially, like had happened to me so many other times in my life, over things that were big both superficial and not.  The point was that at first, I was not willing to give him a chance.  I wrote him off like others had written me off.  Under the direction of a good priest, I decided to give this young man a cautious piece of my heart and we started very seriously getting to know each other.  Two years later we married.

Looking back on these events, especially now, is almost overwhelming.  I was certain so many times that these young men I carefully selected were perfect for me, and if they disliked certain aspects about me (usually my weight), then I was determined to change to make me like them.  I knew at the time that changing in order to garner someone’s love (unless it is a flaw–then change away!) was completely wrong, but I couldn’t let go of the dream that I created for myself.

Do you know what didn’t help me get past the heart aches, though?  Being told, “You’re young,” or “Someone will come along,” or other such statements that would either discredit my desires or wrongly give hope.  I knew (and know) plenty of women who wanted to marry but frankly never did.  The “right guy” never showed up.  Then suddenly they weren’t young anymore.  Yet I wasn’t willing to just marry anyone either.  I would rather not marry the right man than marry the wrong one.

Reflecting on all of these things makes me so thankful for the man I married.  I think about each of the might-have-beens that I “missed out on” and thank God I didn’t ever gain any of their attentions despite my efforts.  Had I married a man who didn’t like “fat” women, or who thought I needed to be cheerful and positive at all times, I would likely be alone or perfectly miserable right now.  Losing a child is a huge, life-changing experience.  If the love between a couple isn’t well-founded and selfless, it’s likely to just dry up.  My husband and I have had to cling to each other more and more since Seraphim’s death.  We have fought a lot (especially August through November), but we’ve gotten a lot of experience at forgiving each other.  Sometimes I feel a tinge of “crazy,” and my husband loves me just as much and tries to help me through the pain, thoughts, and struggles.  He isn’t perfect; sometimes the best he can do is listen to me and tell me, “I don’t know what we can do.”  But do you know?  The listening is what I need the very most right now.  I need to be heard.  I need what I say to matter, even if it is a little unreasonable, or if there is no solution.  Sometimes I need to give voice to what I feel so that it has value and can be handled better.

I have the absolutely best husband I could have ever hoped for in the decade of my hopes and heartbreaks.  He is so good, sometimes I fear I will drive him over the edge and lose him, but he is so selfless and forgiving that I think if this is the worst it gets, I shouldn’t worry about that at all.

The only thing I ever needed to hear all of those years was: “You need a man who, when things get harder than you can possibly imagine, will support you and love you more than ever before, who won’t expect unrealistic or superficial things of you.  If that man doesn’t come along, you’re better off without one at all.”  This seems practical, but that isn’t what we usually tell young women who are heartbroken.  And sometimes they don’t need to be told anything–they just need to be heard.  I sure do, even (or especially) now.

If I could meet up with younger me, I would tell her what I said above, but not much else.  I think the young men I fell in love with and who broke my heart made me better, and were good experiences–even the worst of them.  On one level, I read books and listened to music I never would have known had it not been for my idolisation of those young men.  I learned many important things from our conversations and see the world differently because of them.  I regret very little of any of it.  It was part of my life; it made me, me.

I hope we can cling to the lessons about life we’ve learned from our children who have come into our lives for such a short time and then out again.  I will always see the world differently because of them, too.

And I’m glad I married the man I did every single day.

“Better this than parting.  Better to be miserable with her than happy without her.  Let our hearts break provided they break together.”  The Four Loves, by C.S. Lewis

(I have been thinking about writing this for a while, but this song popped up on my Pandora station an hour ago and I realised how fitting it was.

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Control

Something I didn’t realise losing a child would do to me: feel like I am losing control over every aspect of my life.

I have never felt as vulnerable and helpless as I have this past month.  A straw could knock me down.

I cried tonight to my husband over how badly I wish I could just drive myself places.  Losing that bit of freedom and control not only makes me feel like a burden to others who feel their act of charity is to cart me around, but also impedes on my ability to apply for jobs outside of the easy-to-get-to radius where the bus runs without transfers.  This severely limits my options to banks, a juice plant, the County, and some hotels.  My absolute reliance on the bus also makes me fearful to get a job anywhere with a strict start time (especially if it’s 8:00) since the bus can be unreliable (as is my ability to get up at exactly the right time every morning) and being 10 seconds late turns into 30-45 minutes late far too easily.

My fears over driving turn into fears over finding a new job, which then turn into fears over providing for my family adequately.  In the fall, my husband will be working on his student teaching, which means we pay thousands of dollars for him to teach for free–a time when he is not allowed to (and shouldn’t) have an additional, wage-earning job.  Our plans are to move so that we can get away from here for a while–a change I need so badly it hurts–but if I can’t find an adequately-paying job, we won’t be able to afford living elsewhere.  I might have to stay here while he moves away for a spell, which would completely defeat the purpose of moving in the first place.

I search job postings constantly, looking for something better than what I’m doing so we can put away as much money as possible the next six months, but so few of them are in my “range.”  I find myself doing the same thing I did when Seraphim died: “Well, if I don’t have a baby to care for, I guess I’m taking college classes again.”  This time, though, it’s: “Well, if I’m not going to be pregnant or having a baby this summer, then I guess I need to find a better job.”  If I don’t, though, I might need to stop taking classes next quarter and get a third job instead.  My over-stressed, over-worked self is crumpling at the suggestion, but I feel an obsession with taking care of my family.  I was supposed to be taking care of a baby right now, and if I couldn’t keep him alive, I now need to make up for it by working myself to death to take care of us this year.

I don’t know how anyone does this.

I want to feel like a whole person again, not just crippled by fear.  I need a long vacation, but it’s simply not an option.  All I can hope for is that my endurance doesn’t wear out before I get a chance to take a break.

I think the loss of my life as I knew it is the biggest loss I’ve felt.  I’ve lost babies, my friends, my support system, my confidence.  I suppose these constituted “my life.”

I am so grateful that my husband is always there.  He’s the last person on earth I can tell just about anything to.  But he’s still grieving, too, and he does so quietly.  It’s hard to balance the give-and-take in a relationship when you feel all you have strength for is taking.  There must be enough grace in there for both, somehow.