“I Will Give You a New Heart and Put a New Spirit in You”

Author’s Note: This is a long one. Let’s consider it all the blog posts of the last six weeks wrapped into one. I think you’ll understand. Thanks for being here. –Ev

Some things are difficult to write about because they are too tender, too confusing, too personal. This is one of those things. It’s tender and confusing and personal. I don’t shy away from personal stuff, because I think it’s important in a culture of perfectionist parenting to be honest. We wrap ourselves in unrealistic expectations, protecting our image for others, bullying ourselves into pretending everything is hashtag blessed. Sometimes, instead of finding empathy, we look at our peers and think But I won’t be like that. I’ll be better. It makes me think of this passage from Ezekiel that we read in church recently: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”

I’d been very sure of myself and my plans for the future—arrogantly so. It turns out that in my planning and my rightness, I’d been coating my heart in minerals. And lately I’ve been trying to find that space, that fleshy soft spot, from which I can peel off the calcified exterior, the same way you press your thumb into the soft whiteness of a hard-boiled egg, getting under the skin to take away the shell.

I got pregnant on ParaGard.

ParaGard is an intrauterine device (IUD)—a long-term, non-hormone contraceptive that’s inserted into the uterus. It’s reported to be incredibly safe and effective. There’s a less than one percent chance of getting pregnant.

The week before I figured out I was pregnant, I had had a familiar conversation with my husband, “We are so done. Why did I ever think I wanted three kids?” I looked at families with three kids and thought, What were they thinking? I saw newborns and my heartstrings were still. I had no desire to touch their soft skin or smell their sweet scent. Looking at a newborn, for me, was like picking up a book written in Aramaic: interesting, but unknowable.

My breasts started to hurt. I started to feel nauseous after breakfast. My sense of smell was deafening. I had strange thoughts filtering through my head: Maybe it wouldn’t be terrible if we had a third. Also, I really, really want tacos for breakfast.

I like to keep some pregnancy tests on hand. Before K-Pants was born I ordered a bunch online for about $1.50 per test, and they’d been helpful in relieving anxiety at various times. Recently I ran out. So one morning, after the I-really-want-tacos thought, I took some pee in a tightly sealed Tupperware, dropped the kids off at school, and headed to Dollar Tree. I had it on good authority from the infertility community and the Catholic moms that the dollar store was the place to get your tests.

I was there before they opened, so I stood outside for a minute with another guy, like a half-hearted October Black Thursday stampede. Luckily he wasn’t headed to the pregnancy tests or there might have been a rumble.

I did the test in the car.

It didn’t say I wasn’t pregnant. You may know that if there’s any sort of second line that appears, no matter how faint, you’re juiced. But I was in denial, and I sat there with the false uncertainty. Luckily I had an appointment with my naturopath right afterward. She did another test: “Looks like you’re pregnant.”

The naturopath suggested I call my OB-GYN right away, which was wise, because when I called they said, “How soon can you get here?”

Looking back on this particular Thursday, everything is slow and focused, as if a gentle snow were falling–quieting everything, allowing me to see only a few feet ahead.

I had discussed ParaGard with my midwife the year before and felt good about it. I was most concerned with lasting side effects on my health, which apparently were non-existent. We hadn’t discussed the fact that, according to the ParaGard site, “Although uncommon, pregnancy while using Paragard can be life threatening and may result in loss of pregnancy or fertility.” That discussion didn’t seem necessary, because chances of getting knocked up were so small.

Intrauterine devices do a very good job of making sure an embryo doesn’t implant in the uterus, which means that if you do get pregnant, there’s a good chance the embryo has implanted in the fallopian tubes—an ectopic pregnancy—which is very dangerous. An ectopic pregnancy is not viable, and will eventually rupture the tube, causing serious internal bleeding that can be fatal if not treated right away. The doctor I saw when I came in that day guessed that the chances of ectopic pregnancy were 85%, although I learned later they were closer to 50%.

Because I caught the pregnancy very early—only four-and-a-half weeks along—hormone levels were the only hard information we could rely on to determine if the pregnancy were ectopic. The hCG hormone is an indicator of placental development, and in a normal, uterine pregnancy the level will roughly double every two days. In an ectopic pregnancy, it will behave erratically and level off. I started Thursday at a reading of 275. I don’t know if that was 275 milliliters, micrograms, neurokilowatts. Whatever it was, it was supposed to double. On Saturday I was on a nice walk with my friend Sara when I got the news that the hormone level had gone up to 750. Looking good.

Two days later my husband and I went in to get the results of the next hormone reading, which should have been around 1500. I saw the numbers on a scrap of paper in the doctor’s hand: 275, 750, 866. Not good: 866 was not good.

My midwife had left the practice, and I didn’t have a rapport with my new doctor. “It’s not viable,” she said flatly. Then she gave us information for a drug called methotrexate, a chemotherapy drug that is designed to stop cells from dividing. It would be administered through a shot to a muscle in my leg, and it would eventually stop the embryo’s growth. The doctor left us with the paperwork. I needed to sign it, get my blood drawn to make sure my kidneys and liver were functioning normally, and then the methotrexate would be set up for that afternoon.

Just the week before this I had been pushed to the brink of sanity by my two boys and was feeling affirmed in the fact that our family was complete. Now I was trying unsuccessfully to stop the flow of tears as the doctor described the lab results and the shot of poison. As soon as I’d seen 866, my heart sank. In the days since we’d found out I was pregnant, I’d felt strangely peaceful, as if fairy dust had been scattered over me to calm the storm.

We didn’t want to expand our family. God changed the plan. I was reminded: I am not in control.

The winds around our house have been strangely intense for weeks. We’re surrounded by unkempt trees, so the winds are profound gnarling through their branches. Our trees are beautiful and beloved; but if trees could be feral, then these would be those wild, frothing beasts. They blow and beat their thin branches along the house. Their more substantial limbs break and thump to the ground or land jaggedly in other trees’ canopies. I’m not in control of any of this wild beauty.

Methotrexate scared me. The shock of needing to have it administered on Monday, the 866 day, was too much to handle. When the doctor left, my husband held me as I cried. “What do you want to do?” he asked. “I want to wait two more days,” I answered. I needed time to adjust to the fact that we’d had some powerful magic appear in our lives, and it was turning black. It seemed logical to do one more hormone reading. The doctor agreed to the plan. “But if your hormone levels were higher, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” she said.

This was Monday. Tuesday my husband was leaving for Thailand on business. The plan to wait longer with my health potentially at risk seemed perhaps ill-conceived, but no choice sounded good.

That night I started to have more intense pain on my right side. I knew the tube hadn’t ruptured because I was told that pain would be very, very intense—unmistakable. But the additional pain scared me, especially with my husband leaving the next day. We had decided from the beginning that my health was the number one priority, and all decisions needed to be made with that in mind. Suddenly I was in increasing pain with my husband going out of town in the morning, and I could have already taken the methotrexate. At least then I wouldn’t be sitting with mounting uncertainty. I called the doctor, and also my friend Karen who is a high-risk OB-GYN. We made a plan for me to go in the next day for an ultrasound.

It turns out I would be at the doctor’s office every day that week.

On Tuesday the ultrasound showed maybe something in the tubes, maybe something in the uterus. Totally inconclusive: It was still too early. On Wednesday, I was mentally exhausted and ready for methotrexate. The hormone level would come in, I expected, and it would tell us not viable again. But it went from 866 to 2200. “Well, I don’t know what to do with you,” said my new doctor (I had broken up with the first one). “It could be ectopic or it could be viable. We can’t say.”

I had prayed for a miracle. Now this miracle seemed scarier than the methotrexate. My husband was out of town and I needed to wait two days to get another reading. In the meantime, my fallopian tube could potentially rupture. My rising anxiety was telling me I was being cavalier with my health and putting the whole family at risk.

“Do you feel comfortable sending me home?” I asked the doctor. “No,” she said, “but what are we going to do? There’s a chance this is viable, you live close to the hospital, and you have good care set up: You’re not going to bleed to death at home.”

This was vaguely reassuring.

I called my friend Karen. “We have to consider that the 866 reading was erroneous. It wouldn’t be unthinkable to request another ultrasound for Thursday.” She felt like if it were ectopic, something might appear, and if it were normal, there could possibly be a sac in the uterus.

Thursday there was a gestational sac in the uterus. Thursday’s doctor—I’d been put with whoever could fit me into the schedule—was nonchalant. “I would not have recommended methotrexate,” she said. “And looking at your readings, they are potentially normal given that hCG really doubles every two to three days. Come in for your hormone readings tomorrow and Monday, and then another ultrasound a week from now. You could have a normal baby in there.” I was in shock. “Things could be normal?” I asked, “Because on Monday I was told to take methotrexate. Now things could be normal. You could tell me that you’d seen fairies or pigs on the ultrasound and I would believe you.”

She laughed. I broke up with the second doctor and went with this one. Plus, this one had a kickass nurse. I also started referring to whatever was growing inside me as the fairy pig.

Friday I got my blood drawn again. The level had gone from 2200 to 3700, and by Monday it was 9600.

Starting on Tuesday after my husband left, my friend Mana came with me to all my doctor’s appointments. She also talked to an OB-GYN friend of hers, who made it clear that in a situation like this, when you get pregnant on an intrauterine device and discover the pregnancy early, it’s basically a waiting game. You use all the data you can—hormone and pain levels and ultrasounds—to slowly figure out what’s happening. It reminded me that all will be revealed in time. But also you could start to bleed internally and require emergency surgery while your husband is in Thailand.

A week later I was walking around with my fallopian tubes intact, and my husband was home. We went in for the follow-up ultrasound: there was a yolk sac in the uterus, and nothing in the tubes. Two weeks later we had the last acute ultrasound. There it was—a fast little heartbeat palpitating on the screen.

As my husband and I waited after the ultrasound to meet with the doctor we chatted about mundane things, and tears kept soaking steadily into my shirt. The little fairy pig was here, had a heartbeat.

I could start to lightly release the tension on the knobs that had wound the violin strings of my soul to their tautest state.

I am now in the second trimester of this fairy-pig pregnancy. God keeps reminding me that I am not in control.


Last-but-very-very-not-least: I am so grateful…

For Hannah, who was the first person after my husband whom I told I was pregnant, because—as I knew she would—she greeted the news with jubilation and sympathy. And then she came and sat with me at my last blood draw.

For Mana, who rearranged her schedule to come with me to every doctor appointment while my husband was out of town. She knows more doctors and nurses in my clinic than most patients do.

For Leslie and Brita and Vivien, who picked up my boys from school and brought them to their houses whenever I had an appointment.

For my sister Hillary, who changed everything in her life in order to stay with me and organize support until my husband got back.

For my family, who came and helped and brought food and took the boys and did whatever needed to be done.

For Maru and Maddie, who spent nights at our house and played with my boys.

For my friend Lauren, who has an incredible wealth of early pregnancy knowledge and also a humorous and wise take on everything.

For Karen, my friend who is an OB-GYN who specializes in high risk situations. She made all the overwhelming details accessible, and helped guide me through difficult medical questions.

For Brandon, for marrying Karen and setting up an instant conference call when I asked.

For our priest, who prayed with me and gave me the image of being bathed in golden light. That is a powerful image.

For everyone else who offered prayers, empathy, and support along the way.

The Touch, the Feel of Whining—the Fabric of Our Lives

My favorite movie soundtrack is from City of Angels, with Meg Ryan and Nicholas Cage. I saw it in college with friends. The movie is lovely, especially in college, but the soundtrack is killer: U2, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Sara McLachlan.

I imagine some of my favorites, in a recording studio, wearing comfy Saturday-morning clothes—a flannel, a fitted t-shirt, sweats—laying down the tracks to my life. There they are: Natalie Merchant, Plumb, U2, Mumford & Sons, putting in coffee orders, getting the cut in one or two sweet takes.

They’re elevating the mundane, making it soulful, mystical, purposeful.

Sometimes I steal away to my home office, sitting at my beautiful yellow desk next to the diaper changing table and across from the crib, and I watch Pandora’s little white circle go round and round, wondering why my latest computer update has stolen the music site’s ability to let me float away.

Probably it has just given up, because it knows the soundtrack to my life is whining. Constant whining. With some occasional Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus audiobook for variety.

Baby Woww is three. At three, children stay healthy and balanced through the sound vibrations produced by whining. It must take a lot of energy to keep it up. When Baby Woww is done, which is not often, K-Pants starts. It makes it very hard to enjoy them. When K-Pants is doing hilarious, creative stuff, Baby Woww is in the background, serenading us. I want milk. Where is my milk? Get my milk now. Aaaahhhhhh! Now. I want my milk! [Toddler arms crossed, in a huff, then arms out, reaching for crayons to throw on the floor.]

You might think, Have you tried not responding to the whining? Have you tried giving him positive redirection? Have you tried modeling regular speech? Have you tried…?

And I would say, Meet me where I am, man. I’ve tried it all.

The whining is taking over my life and breaking my brain down into those frozen digital picture squares made by a scratched DVD. Things that seem easy are attempted in fits and starts between gasps of whining, and are generally left undone. Simple things, that, when done, give people the impression that I’m a socially acceptable human being (sending a text message, putting on pants…).

So I just want to say: Please don’t be offended if I don’t get back to you for a year-and-a-half, which is when, based on experience, I predict the whining-to-speech ratio will return to marginally acceptable levels for an hour or two at a time.

In the meantime, if you want to see if I’m alive, just text me something like the following:

Yes.

J

These Are the Days

Please don’t respond.

These kinds of messages are generally able to navigate the broken, moving blocks of my mind. You may even receive a string of punctuation in response.

{}<,(—)

Incredibly Simple Applesauce

Organic Oregon Apples. MomsicleBlog

I am a very lazy cook, and I have a few questions for you.

Why peel your apples for applesauce? That seems like a lot of work. Also, isn’t there fiber in the peels? That’s how I justify my laziness.

Why add sugar to applesauce? I mean, that’s one more step. Also, sugar is killing us. Hasn’t the Internet told you that lately?

Why cook applesauce on the stove? You could forget about it and burn your house down. That is some serious bad news right there.

So…

  1. Core some apples and pack them into your slow cooker.

  2. Turn your slow cooker on low and let it hang out until some point in the future when you remember it’s still on.

  3. Blend up your cooked apples.

Simplest Applesauce. MomsicleBlog

You could add a tiny bit of water. Over-achiever. I add cinnamon, because if I do this at night, I can let the slow-cooker-plus-apples-and-cinnamon make my house in the morning smell like I’ve been baking apple pies all night. When in reality I’ve been sleeping. It’s a nice trick I like to play on myself.

Once I tried wrapping mulling spices in cheese cloth and adding that to the apples. Then I forgot about the spices and accidentally blended up that fragrant cheese-cloth ball. My blender did not like it. So that’s my warning against taking unnecessary extra steps.

I did once leave the slow cooker running with the apples in it for 24 hours. The sauce was more of an apple butter with nice caramel notes. So that’s my endorsement for extreme laziness.

Let me know how it goes. Or if you have other apple recipes that are one step above complete entropy.

Once I Went to a Wedding

Once I went to a wedding on Oahu.

Photo Credit: Evelyn Shoop, 2014

Once I stood in line for a rental car next to a bride flying in for her wedding on Oahu. She was carrying a garment bag with her gown, standing mundanely in line, with something so precious slung over her shoulder. Hers was not this wedding.

Photo Credit: Heather Park, 2014

This wedding was grown on Oʻahu.

Photo Credit: Heather Park, 2014

For this wedding, time got so slow so it could savor every meal.

Photo Credit: Evelyn Shoop, 2014

Time got slow so it could smoke meat and put ginger flowers in silver vases.

Photo Credit: Heather Park, 2014

Time got slow so it could hold the moon over the night divers.

Photo Credit: Heather Park, 2014

Time got slow so it could take air in through its leaves and through its roots, water.

Photo Credit: Evelyn Shoop, 2014

Time got slow so the party could linger on,

Photo Credit: Heather Park, 2014

And on.

Photo Credit: Heather Park, 2014

Somehow I was able to waft in while no one was noticing and fill a paper bowl with poke and venison.

Photo Credit: Heather Park, 2014

For the price of a blister on my hammering hand, I was allowed to eat eggs and rice and pork and learn to swim in the ocean, that incredibly overwhelming beast.

Photo Credit: Evelyn Shoop, 2014

Some days go on forever.

And ever, pouring healing oils on the soul.

Happy one-month anniversary, Lauren and Syd.

Photo Credit: Heather Park, 2014

***
Want more? Instagram: #babesnboyland #botosnboyland
Photo credit for these beautiful pics goes to Heather Park. Additional photo credits, Evelyn Shoop. (Roll over photos to see.)

Can I Tell You a Funny Story?

This Is What I Look Like a Lot. MomsicleBlog

If you feel like you know me a little better or a little weirder after today, then choose the appropriate response that I will happily offer you later: Yay. Hug. I’m sorry.

It rains one day out of each Oregon summer, and on that day, I canceled my outdoor plans and decided to pack up the kids and head to the science museum with my grandma (her flexible schedule, need for adventure, and tolerance for fossilized levels of snacks and clothes in our car are a great fit).*

*I would add her picture and profile to the Chaos Team, but she doesn’t really like the Internet and all of its over-sharing. It’s already too much that I’ve divulged that I have a grandma and that she occasionally gets in my car. So if you see us driving around please don’t be like, “Grandma! What up!? You are owning it on the blog!”

So we picked up my grandma, but I realized I had forgotten my wallet in my husband’s car and he had flown to California for the day. So we headed to the airport parking lot, used the key beepie-thing to find the car, retrieved the wallet, and finally headed to the museum.

When we got to the parking lot, I had this moment when I thought, I would like to feel like a grownup today. It was a crazy thought, but I indulged it: I grabbed my purse—a real, adult purse—and threw my wallet and a back-up diaper in it. Then I, with Baby Woww on my hip and purse on my arm, K-Pants, dressed in a soccer uniform in case a field should appear, and my grandma, all headed through the driving rain to the entrance.

As we trudged toward the museum, the anticipation of potato chips and giant Lego blocks and a roof over our heads keeping us moving, I realized I was in trouble. It was my womanly time of the month, and—let’s cut the euphemisms—I was bleeding and it was about to get noticeable in a way that all women dread.

The rain, the wallet, the bleeding…

[Scene pause. Clouds are dark. I look up dramatically at the sky. “Can’t a girl get a break today, God?!” Thunder clap. Whining.]

We blew past the crowds and I headed straight to the bathroom where I dug around in my purse for a pad or a tampon. Nothing. Nothing! Diaper!

Well, it would have to do. I would wear Baby Woww’s diaper. It was just the amount of super-absorbent material I was looking for, frankly, and the skinny jeans I was wearing did a bang-up job of smoothing out the bulk. This is as close as I’ve ever gotten to a butt-lift.

Newly padded, I met up with the crew, and we headed off to eat lunch and see the dinosaurs. At lunch I was snuggling up to Baby Woww, and I realized that he seemed rather lithe in his toddler sweatpants. Of course! We’re potty training him, and as I ran out the door I forgot to put a diaper on him as I’d planned. He was going commando. A toddler with no diaper is a ticking time bomb. My cute adult purse was empty: I was already wearing his diaper.

[Scene pause. The cacophony of the science museum cafeteria freezes. A spotlight shines down on my super-absorbent body. God says, Take them to the animatronic dinosaurs. Let them be scared out of their minds. Leave when Baby Woww wets his pants.]

So we did the animatronic dinosaurs. The boys were terrified. We saw one, and my grandma said, “I know people who look like that.”

Then Baby Woww peed in his toddler sweats and we headed for the car. Like Milli Vanilli, this one gets blamed on the rain.

I’m not sure if this is more dignity-busting than the time I sent K-Pants to preschool with some Victoria’s Secret panties velcroed to his coat, but it’s a photo-finish.

This Is Hard. You’re Doing a Good Job.

I took my kids to the doctor last week. It was a new doctor’s office. I had to fill out hundreds of pages of questionnaires: Do you keep your children away from open windows and moving cars? Do you feed your children junk food and red dyes for breakfast? Do your children know how to draw a feral cat with no body and crazy circle-spike legs?

These questionnaires are designed with all the latest research in mind. According to the doctor they would be used to assess my children’s development and compare my parenting skills to the newest and best practices. In reality they’re like the SAT: more a litmus of how savvy and affluent you are than a dynamic measure of capabilities.

I’m savvy. So I aced the parenting SATs, and the somewhat awkward, childless doctor told me that I was doing great. It should have made me feel nice inside, but I had checked out long before.

My disengagement prompted the doctor to explain, “The reason we have you fill out all these forms is because there’s no way I could spend enough time with you to find out what I need to know.”

That’s what it feels like to me to be a parent—lots of advice based on a little bit of information. I am awash in empty praise and empty criticism.

A quick glance at my test scores, a few hours with my kids, a passing conversation: Everyone has ideas how to fix whatever they see. A book, better rules, stricter standards, more compassion.

All I want to hear is, “This is hard. You’re doing a good job.”

This is hard. You’re doing a good job.

Isn’t that what we all crave? I can’t think of an overwhelming situation it wouldn’t apply to.

I was at the acupuncturist the other day and she said, “Can I recommend a parenting book to you?” “NO!” I blurted out. It was as if my fist had reached up and struck her, such was the fight-or-flight force of my response.

I don’t need another book that would passive-aggressively show me my flaws and hold me to a higher, impossible standard. This one happened to be called Parental Effectiveness Training. I’m sure it is the parenting-strategy bible that she says it is, but I’m so awash in pressure to be the most compassionate, positive, flexible-but-stern parent that most parenting books share the same title when I see them: You’re Still Not Doing It Right.

You may not feel like I’m doing a good job. I get it. A lot of times I don’t feel like I’m doing a good job either. If we catch each other on an off day, just stick with, “This is hard.” Maybe say it twice.

The only way that I can take in advice—and I think this goes for me and the feral cats—is if you’re willing to start by sitting at my side and being present, without judgment. It’s a truly terrifying and difficult thing to do, because we’re taught that for every problem there is a solution, and in parenting in particular, there is a way. When you encounter a struggle, there is a way out. If you’re not coping well, you probably just haven’t found the right way. As an opinionated person, I am often among the first to offer advice. But it turns out all I want to hear is:

This is hard. You’re doing a good job.

This is hard. You’re doing a good job.

Did I mention you’re doing a really bang-up job? Well you are. And it’s tough.

Dispatch from Zambia: An Interview with Claire Albrecht of Kasama Micro Grants

Kasama Micro Grants Zambia

I met Claire Albrecht last December, in Hawai’i (below), when she was home visiting her family before she and her partner Justin Hostetter traveled back to Zambia. (Imagine you’re in South Africa. Go north to Botswana, and then jump north again over either Zimbabwe or Namibia. Zambia! You’re there.) Hawai’i was a serene and somewhat momentous intercession for Claire and Justin, because this time, heading back to Zambia was for good. They had plans to build a small house in a village, reinvigorate their nonprofit Kasama Micro Grants, and eventually start a family.

Claire Albrecht and Justin Hostetter, Kasama Micro Grants. MomsicleBlog

I’m adventurous and adaptable, but Claire and Justin struck me as jump-in in a way that I have a hard time wrapping my mind around. My roots in the Northwest are broader than my tree’s canopy and deeper than its height, for however much I might fancy myself a wide-eyed explorer. I admire their thoughtful relocation, and since I love to feature adventurous, bold women on the blog, Claire let me pepper her with a few more questions than I had time to ask on our beautiful hike in Hawai’i.

First, pictures and a map.

Kasama Micro Grants Zambia

Zambia and Kasama, courtesy GoogleMaps. MomsicleBlog

Kasama Micro Grants Zambia

Now, an interview with Claire, writing from Zambia.

Me: Where are you living?

Claire: At the moment in Kapata, a small village about six miles north of Kasama, the provincial capital of the Northern Province.  (The non-profit operates in Kasama.) We are currently searching for a small piece of land in a rural area, hopefully on a river, where we can have a small farm to teach organic farming methods, and to learn from local, knowledgeable Zambians about the traditional methods of subsistence, construction, and culture.

Kasama Micro Grants Zambia

Me: Where are you right now and how did you get there from the U.S.?

Claire: Our story begins in 2008, when I joined the U.S. Peace Corps. Justin and I met here (he was my nearest Peace Corps neighbor—about 22 miles away). We fell in love with Zambia and one another, and have wanted to return ever since we left in 2010.

In 2009 my Dad and I started Kasama Micro Grants to help girls from Nkole Mfumu (the village in which I lived as a Peace Corps volunteer) go to school in Kasama. We noticed that the few families who could afford to send a child to secondary school chose boys, both because of patriarchal trends, and because women share a larger load of household work, and thus are relied upon more and harder to part with.

The program successfully helped some women graduate, but from abroad, we found that we were not able to provide appropriate support to these girls.  What have we offered if they graduate with no option but to return to their village? (Not that living in a village is a bad option—it’s what Justin and I want to do—but options are key).  So Justin and I moved here–mostly because we love Zambia and want to live here and share our lives with the wonderful people here, and also to help deepen the program.

We offer tutoring sessions, workshops, and one-on-one attention to help our grantees develop skills with technology, networking, career planning, and other attributes that will help give them options after graduation. We are also offering continued help to graduates—moral, emotional, and financial—so that they may continue their educations or find a career path leading to financial independence.

Me: I know you and Justin think reflectively and dynamically about being non-natives who are hoping to help change lives for the better. Tell me about how your perspective has evolved.

Claire: Our main evolution occurred during our time as Peace Corps volunteers.  There is something presumptuous and arrogant in assuming that college graduates can come to the Zambian bush and offer trainings and teachings to people in these areas about how to live. When I arrived, I had never been a teacher, but I was supposed to train teachers how to teach. Instead of being the teacher, I became the learner. I found that the traditional knowledge and gentle ways of the Bemba people with whom I lived offered more to me than I could reciprocate.

As we return to Zambia this time, we talk of our non-profit, but generally we just speak of wanting to live in Zambia. We speak to Zambians of how wonderful we think their country is, and how happy and fortunate we are to spend time and share our lives with the beautiful people of this country. This is very well received, and very unusual, as most foreigners in this culture speak of the work they are doing (which, almost inevitably, is focused on developing–changing may be a better word–this culture).

The whole idea of development rests on the assumption that our culture is better than theirs. We are trying to shake the mold of what foreigners do here, and shift the perspective from which Zambians see us and them. In doing so, we are working within the educational system to help young women become empowered, while also trying to create ties to traditional leaders and elders, who hold time-honored wisdom that is quickly being lost in the rapid rush towards “modernity.”

Kasama Micro Grants

Me: Share with us the future of Kasama Micro Grants, and a story about someone who’s been touched.

Claire: There is an incredible demand for secondary schools in Zambia. The majority of students who pass their grade eight exam and are qualified to pursue a high school education (even if they were able to find the means to do so) would not find a space.

We dream of someday having a school where traditional knowledge is valued and taught alongside basics like reading, writing, and arithmetic, as they say. But the Western system of education is often not applicable to the majority of youth in Zambia, who find themselves living a subsistence lifestyle in a rural area. We dream of working with Zambian friends and partners to develop a program which values ancestral knowledge, local wisdom, and time-held tradition as highly as it values innovation and modernity.

Many of the grantees that we work with are orphans.  Interestingly enough, the concept of an orphan did not exist in the Bemba language or broader Zambian and African contexts before colonization. With the comforts of a more “modern” lifestyle come challenges, and orphans are usually taken in by a family member, be it their grandparents or an aunt or uncle.  As many family sizes exceed the U.S. norm, sometimes a family may take on the responsibility of as many as nine children, often suddenly. This puts incredible strain on families, and with Kasama Micro Grants, we help to assist so that a young woman’s education is not sacrificed in the name of financial necessity.

One young woman is Christine Chileshe. I met Christine while I was working at Nkole Mfumu Basic School. A strong, but quiet presence, Christine stood out in classes for always putting the most into her assignments.

After getting to know her, I learned that Christine was living with her uncle in a village some eight miles away from the school. It took her over an hour each way to get to school. Christine was the first in the house to wake at 5 a.m. in order to sweep the yard, wash the previous days dishes, and prepare meals for the family. Then she made the journey to school and back, prepared supper, and was the last to go to sleep.

Christine was one of the inspirations for starting Kasama Micro Grants, as the little money (given the context of our relative wealth and the strength of U.S. dollars) that it would cost for her to room and board at Kasama Girls School would make all the difference for the rest of her life.

Christine passes her exams with the highest score of any girl in her class, and was accepted into Kasama Girls’ High School. Being in town at a boarding school meant that for the first time in her life Christine was relieved of the burden of housework and food preparation that many young women carry for their entire lives. Suddenly, someone was preparing her meals for her: Her job was now to study, which meant focusing on herself and the betterment of her life. For the first time in her adolescent life Christine was not responsible for her younger siblings and cousins. This transition in itself results in great physical changes in a person.

My contract with Peace Corps expired, and I left Zambia. With the help of our local partners, we managed the program remotely, but I returned in 2012 to conduct my master’s degree research and facilitate the first workshop with KMG.  To see the physical transformation that Christine had undergone brought tears to my eyes. She had gone from a hard-working, young, shy girl, to a confident, well-rested young woman.

She was vocal in the workshop, and has remained vocal and confident in the time since. In 2012 Christine passed her grade 12 exams and received her certificate.  She is currently living outside of the capital city of Lusaka and caring for her two young sisters while she teaches at the local community school. Financial restraints and family obligations have kept Christine from pursuing further education, but she is so proud to have completed high school. She is the first woman in her immediate family to do so. She now serves as a role model for the young women in her family under her care, as well as the pupils at the local community school where she teaches.

Kasama Micro Grants

Me: I know that Africa’s countries, terrain, and cultures are incredibly diverse, but only the worst headlines win the battle for news coverage. Help stretch our canvas, and paint on it with different colors.

Claire: Zambia is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. The Bemba people I have had the pleasure of knowing here are the friendliest, most genuine, and joyful people I have ever met. While some stereotypes about material shortages do ring true here, the bottom line is that at the end of the day you’ll find people laughing, smiling, and sharing time with family and friends.

In the United States, there is a growing movement towards reviving ancestral and indigenous knowledge. We are starting to realize that all of the “intelligence” in the world is not necessarily going to result in any wisdom. As we start to look back at the cultures which have lived sustainably and symbiotically with one another and with nature through spiritual and natural wisdom, we begin to question some of the long-held assumptions about material acquisition prevalent in our society. 

In Zambia, we have the opportunity to visit rural areas where much of this wisdom is still intact, and people understand how to live within the means provided to them by Mother Nature. Thus, despite what the news will tell us about starving Zambians (well, Africans) and uneducated populations, I have found that people in Zambia have considerably more to teach me than vice versa, and I firmly believe this trend holds true for our cultures at large. Zambia offers a wonderful opportunity for people to switch their line of thinking, from How can we develop these backwards people? to How can these people shift our understanding of what development really means?

Kasama Micro Grants

There’s no quota for how many awesome organizations to like, so find Kasama Micro Grants on Facebook here. Claire will love it. She checks in from Zambia.

Learn more about Kasama on their website, where there is a link to donate if you are awe-inspired. 

Let’s finish off with their newly minted mission. Bravo, Claire and team!

Kasama Micro Grants strives to empower young women to become progressive, self-confident, and socially involved leaders of a changing, more-equitable Zambia by cultivating education and livelihood while fostering balance between modernity and tradition.  By embracing a strength-based, culturally relevant approach that combines the cultivation of healthy relationships, access to contemporary resources, and pride in ancestral wisdom, KMG gives support to young women from rural Zambia by providing educational opportunities, school support and resources, and interpersonal mentoring.