Faith

Black Lives Matter: 91 Books by Authors of Color

As an American living abroad, I am watching my homeland with equal parts disgust and hope. Disgust at the hatred, the evil, and the willful ignorance so rampantly on display in recent weeks. And (wildly) hope. Hope that this is the moment when real change begins.

The US is not unique in its widespread culture of racism and systemic injustice. It is unique in that it is one of a few countries with the influence and authority to denounce human rights violations in other countries while willfully ignoring the human rights violations “lawfully” carried out on American soil every single day.

I do not think the world needs to hear my voice right now except to say that I fully support Black Lives Matter. I believe that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. I believe that change requires work, and I believe that those of us who are uncomfortable with this are the ones who need to hear it most.

There are many excellent resources that speak directly to systemic racism, the criminal justice system, police brutality, and the lived experiences of Black Americans. I’m not one of them. The one small thing I have to offer here is a list of books written by authors of color that I have personally read and can recommend.

I am not speaking from a place of authority and certainly not from some moral high ground. There is so much I do not know or understand. All I want to do is share one small change I’ve made in one small area. Over the past few years I have made an intentional effort to read more diversely. In 2014 I am ashamed to say that out of the 62 books I read, only 2 were by authors of color. For the past few years, 25-30% of the books I’ve read were by non-white authors. I can still do so much better, but I have found it personally enriching and rewarding to read voices and perspectives from authors who do not look like me, sound like me, live like me, or believe like me. I have also found the more I’ve read that almost all books written by authors of color implicitly, if not explicitly address race and racism.

The words/thoughts/messages/perspectives we consume, even for entertainment, influence our thoughts and beliefs. Our thoughts and beliefs dictate our actions.

Books in bold are those I highly recommend.

Books by BIPOC Authors:

Nonfiction

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown

Heavy by Kiese Layman

Notes From a Young Black Chef by Kwame Onwuache

From Scratch by Tembe Locke

The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clementine Wamariya

Hunger by Roxanne Gay

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Becoming by Michelle Obama

We are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Year of Yes by Shonda Rimes

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Fiction

Children of Blood and Bone by Toni Adeyemi

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jessmyn Ward

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo

Poetry and Short Stories

What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Leslie Arimah

How Long Til Black Future Month by N. K. Jemison

Love Poems by Nikki Giovanni

Non-Black Authors of Color

Nonfiction

Good Talk by Mira Jacobs

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino

Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

Yes, My Accent is Real by Kunal Nayyar

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

Fiction

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X. R. Pan

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

The Boat People by Sharon Bala

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

There There by Tommy Orange

Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin

Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

The Immortals of Tehran by Ali Araghi

Family Trust by Kathy Wang

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali

A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Exit West by Moshin Hamid

The Wangs Vs. The World by Jade Chang

Poetry and Short Stories

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang

The Undressing by Li-Young Lee

Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur

On Becoming a Mom: Juniper’s Birth Story

Juniper Evangeline Dunn was born on October 24, 2019, at 5:49 AM at United Christian Hospital in Hong Kong. Big thank you to everyone who has supported and encouraged us on this journey so far. We can’t believe she’s ours.

This is really long and a bit TMI, and I know not everyone will want to read this, but I also know some of you are really interested in birth stories. I decided to write it all out for my own memories and share it here for anyone who is interested. I will write a separate post that is specifically about my experience with the Hong Kong public hospital system.

10:45 PM – My Water Breaks at Home

On Wednesday, October 23rd, I had a normal day at work. I met some friends for dinner afterwards and got back home around 10 PM. Around 10:45 I was sitting at the table, texting with my little sister. She asked if I was about to pop, and I said yes. Little did we know how literally true that was. A few minutes later, I felt a warm gush of fluid as my water broke. I turned to Jonathan with wide eyes and said, “Either I just peed my pants or my water just broke.”

We were both a little in shock. Even though we knew from 37 weeks on that she could technically come at any time, everyone always says that first babies are usually late. I had mentally prepared myself to go over my due date. I was scheduled to keep working until 3 days before her due date. I was only at 38 Weeks, 1 Day.

We had been told in our birthing class that if my water broke at home I might need to go to the hospital sooner than normal, but that I should monitor to make sure the fluid was clear, and unless there was evidence that it was mixed with meconium, we didn’t need to rush to the hospital and could still labor at home for a few hours. 

Jonathan and I both showered and started charging all of the electronics. I was wandering around the apartment trying to text and talk to people and pack up any last things. The amniotic fluid continued to come out in gushes for the next few hours along with my mucous plug. I went through so many pairs of underwear trying to stay dry enough to move around the apartment. 

About 15 minutes after my water broke, I started having contractions. The first two were about 20 minutes apart. Then 12 minutes. Then very quickly down to about 5 minutes. We were trying to time them in the middle of everything else going on. At that point they felt like strong period cramps and I could talk through them. They were lasting anywhere from 30 seconds to over a minute, but not consistently. Around 1 AM, my contractions were consistently 2-5 minutes apart, but the length and the intensity were both inconsistent. Jonathan and I decided that since it had already been more than 2 hours since my water broke and the contractions were close together, we should go ahead and go to the hospital.

1:30 AM – We Arrive at the Hospital

We took an Uber to the hospital (about 15 minutes away) and arrived around 1:30 AM. They had me fill out some paperwork and then hooked me up to some machines to monitor my contractions and the baby’s heart rate. The nurse said the doctor would come to examine me in about 30 minutes. The nurse asked if I had a birth plan. I said no, but that I wanted to do whatever bloodwork was necessary so that I could have an epidural later if I wanted one. She told me there was no guarantee I could get an epidural. I told her I understood, but I wanted to do the bloodwork so I would have an option. She said to tell the nurses in the labor ward once I was admitted.

I laid in the bed with the monitors hooked up for 40 minutes and then the doctor came in to check me. During that time I continued to have contractions every 3-5 minutes. At this point they were stronger than period cramps, but I could breathe through them. The doctor came in to check me (so uncomfortable) and after digging around for what felt like ages, she said I was 2 cm dilated, but that the membrane was still thick and it would probably be awhile. They would move me to the antenatal ward to wait.

At this point I was a little disappointed thinking we had come a bit too early, but I was glad that I was at least dilated a few centimeters. Part of the reason we wanted to avoid coming too early was because in Hong Kong, if you are not in active labor, you go into an antenatal ward with a bunch of other women and your husband cannot come with you. They wheeled me out and we met up with Jonathan in the waiting room. He was able to walk up to the antenatal ward with us, but then they advised him to go back home and wait there since it was the middle of the night. “Get some sleep, it will probably be awhile,” they told him. I would have my phone and would call him when things progressed.

I could tell that Jonathan really didn’t want to leave, but since it was the middle of the night it wasn’t like there were any coffeeshops nearby or other places for him to wait, so I told him I was fine, and he reluctantly left. 

2:45 AM – The Antenatal Ward

They wheeled me into the antenatal ward where I was put into a room with 5 other women. All of the lights were off and everyone was in bed. By this time, I already felt like my contractions had ratcheted up a level. As they settled me in the bed, the midwife asked me, “How would you rate your pain level? 0 is no pain and 10 is you’re dying. So… like a 2?” she suggested. At this point I was thinking at least a 4, but I had no way to compare how bad it was going to get. She had she suggested 2 and I was only 2 centimeters dilated so I reluctantly said, “I guess a 2 or a 3.” Inwardly I was freaking out thinking, “Dear God, is it going to get 4-5 x worse than this?!” They settled me in the bed and said they would come check on me every 4 hours, but to come get them if I needed something before then. 

My contractions were about 2-3 minutes apart at this point and I could not understand how the other women in the ward were just laying there. I tried to lay down for a little while and “rest,” but during each contraction I had to fully focus on my breathing, and since they were so close together, there was very little “rest” time. I also felt like each one was stronger than the last. After about 45 minutes of this, I walked down the hall to the bathroom where I realized I had started bleeding quite a bit. I stayed there for awhile, just to be sitting in a different position, then went back to the bed.

I noticed several of the other women in the ward were sound asleep and actually SNORING. I was baffled. Were they feeling the amount of pain I was feeling? How were they sleeping through it? Was I just a wuss? Were we all feeling level 2 pain? I tried to lay back down, but the pain was steadily increasing with only 1-2 minutes break between each contraction. I writhed around for a bit, then stood up and leaned over the bed for awhile. Finally I decided to go back to the bathroom. Once there, I started to feel a strong urge to push. Like most people say, it felt like I needed to use the bathroom, only so much stronger it was almost impossible not to push. I remember sitting in the bathroom stall with my head leaning against the wall and starting to cry thinking, “I can’t do this for much longer.” 

Knowing they wouldn’t give me anything for pain until I was in active labor, I was a little afraid to ask and be told I hadn’t progressed at all, but I went to the desk told the midwife the contractions were much stronger, that I was bleeding. She asked if I felt an urge to push and I said YES! She said she would come to check me, but I could tell that she didn’t think it had been long enough, so we were both surprised when she finished the check and said I was 6 cm dilated. “Call your husband. We are taking you to a delivery room.”

I was in a lot of pain, but was also so relieved to hear I was all the way to 6 cm and felt somewhat justified that the level of pain I was feeling was definitely not a 2. 😉 

Poor Jonathan had been waiting at home for about 2 hours without hearing anything from me. He had expected me to be in touch once I was settled in the antenatal ward, but the combination of being in the room with all the lights off and dealing with near-constant contractions had made me forget entirely to get my phone out. I called him now and said, “Come now. It’s time.” He was a bit confused since it hadn’t been that long and I was not being a particularly good communicator, but I kept repeating. “It’s time. You need to come.” 

4:33 AM – The Delivery Room

My best guess is that I went into the antenatal ward at about 2:45 AM. According to Jonathan’s phone records, I called him at 4:33 AM. He got in an Uber at 4:38 AM and was at the hospital 10-15 minutes later. By that time, I had been moved into a delivery room. When I got there, the midwives asked about my pain level, “0 is no pain, 5 is ‘I want to cry,’ “ she said. “Six!” I shouted. 

They got me into the bed and asked if I wanted gas and air (standard offering for pain relief in HK). 

“Yes! I want something!” I yelled. They gave me a mask that I could self-administer by putting it over my nose and mouth and breathing in during each contraction, then taking it off when the contraction finished. The gas does little or nothing to dull the pain, but it does alter your perception of the pain in a way. 

 The gas was mostly effective because it gave me something to concentrate on during each contraction other than the pain itself. The best way I can describe it is that without the gas, during each contraction my mind was thinking, “I’m dying. I’m dying. Ow. Ow. I’m dying.” With the gas, my mind was thinking,” I’m breathing in. I’m breathing out. I’m trying not to push. I’m pushing anyway. I’m shouting. I’m doing these things because I’m dying.” Lol. The effects of the gas wear off within 20 seconds after you stop breathing it, so I was constantly taking the mask on and off.

By this point, I couldn’t seem to stop myself from groan/shouting at the peak of each contraction. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be pushing yet, but it seemed impossible to stop myself.

Jonathan arrived and stood by my side. The next part is all a bit hazy for me, possibly just because of the pain and intensity and possibly a bit from the laughing gas, but I remember him coaching me to breath and not to push. I remember him asking me if I wanted to change positions, but at that point I was so in the zone and the contractions were right on top of each other and I couldn’t imagine being able to move myself into a different position. I also remember that I had reached a point of not caring at all who was in the room, what noises I was making, or whether or not I pooped on the table. 

Probably 20 minutes after I got into the delivery room, the doctor came to check me. She told me to go ahead and try to push with my next contraction, then said I wasn’t ready yet and to hold off pushing and everyone left. After this, my contractions started to feel slightly different. I couldn’t really explain it, but there was almost a burning feeling to them. I wondered if this was transition. About 20 minutes later, Jonathan buzzed the midwife to ask if I could get some water. When the midwife came in, she asked if I wanted to push and I said, “ YES!” (I’d been wanting to push the whole time). The team of midwives and the doctor came back in to check again and said, “Ok, you’re ready to push. Go.”

I pushed for about 15 minutes, which was honestly a relief because I’d been wanting to push so badly the whole time. The midwives were coaching me the whole time and Jonathan was telling me he could see her head. That final big push when her body was delivered along with a huge rush of fluid was the most relieving feeling in the world. 

5:49 AM – Junie is Born

Juniper Evangeline Dunn was born at 5:49 AM on October 24, 2019 weighing 3.22 kg (7 lbs 1.5 oz). Remember that I called Jonathan from the antenatal ward at 4:33 AM and was 6 cm dilated. Which means I dilated the remaining 4 centimeters AND pushed her out in about 1 hour and 10 minutes.

The midwives took Juniper to a station on my side for a minute to make sure she was breathing and to wipe her off a little. She didn’t cry at all. Then they brought her back and showed me her little bottom, “See! It’s a girl!” before they put her on my chest, Suddenly I was looking down at this perfect little creature who had impossibly just come from my body.

She laid on my chest for a while, but eventually they had to take her away because they were having difficulty delivering the placenta. After 3 doses of pitocin, it still wasn’t coming out and the doctor eventually had to reach up in there and dig it out. Reminder…I had had no pain meds. It was…unpleasant. 

Juniper and Jonathan left and I spent about an hour massaging my uterus, trying to get it to contract and to slow the bleeding. Finally, the bleeding had slowed enough for them to stitch me up where I had torn during the delivery. 

The worst part of the actual delivery was that I tore relatively badly while pushing her head out, and since I did not have an epidural or other pain meds, I felt each rip very distinctly. The doctor did not give me an episiotomy, though it may not have helped anyway as the tearing was more extensive than just the perineum. Thankfully, they did give me a local anaesthetic before stitching me up. I vaguely remember the doctor telling me she used one continuous stitch to sew up all three layers, which might be more sore, but would heal better in the long run.

After what seemed like ages, I was moved to the postnatal ward and they brought Juniper to me. I am the last person who ever thought I would someday go through natural childbirth, much less in a foreign country. It was almost exactly 7 hours from when my water broke to when she was born. I am so incredibly thankful that labor went so quickly and so smoothly and most of all that my sweet girl is here and is healthy. 

And now, the real adventure begins!

About Juniper’s Name 

We chose the name Juniper partly just because we like it. 🙂 But the more we researched it, the more reasons we found to love it. Juniper is a botanical name, like mine, and it has a similar sound and rhythm to Jonathan’s. It means “evergreen.” One of our favorite connections to Juniper is from the Bible when the prophet Elijah fled to Horeb and was saved by hiding himself under a Juniper tree. We love the image of an evergreen – full of life and hope – also being a place of safety.

Her middle name, Evangeline, means “good news.” We’ve been pretty open about how much of a surprise her existence was for us. In the beginning, we (I) didn’t honestly feel like it was such good news. We love thinking of Juniper as someone who will bring the Good News to others, but the name is also meaningful to us as a way to speak over her that SHE is good news. To us. And to the world.

Evangeline also has special meaning to me because of its ties to Louisiana and to Cajun culture. I am originally from Lafayette, Louisiana, the place the Acadians settled when they were forced out of Nova Scotia for their religious beliefs. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote an epic poem called Evangeline telling the story of one of the Acadians, beautiful Evangeline and her lost love Gabriel. Evangeline became a cultural staple in my hometown and a symbol of Cajun heritage. The name is often used in the names of streets, businesses, schools, etc. So having Evangeline as part of her name is also a touchstone to where I came from.

 

No Effs to Give: On Body Image at Eight Months Pregnant

I recently posted a few pictures on Instagram from our babymoon in Thailand. A few people kindly commented on how confident I looked. At first I thought they were just being nice, but looking back at the photos, I can see what they mean.

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It’s true that I’m not self-conscious about my body or about how I look pregnant. It’s not that I look at my swollen belly and my stretch marks and think, “I’ve earned these tiger stripes,” or whatever it is the mommy bloggers like to say. I know I look huge. I am huge. But it’s also abundantly clear why I’m huge. And there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it.

My confidence is that of a person who has zero effs left to give. And I realized that that is a far cry from who I was nine months ago.

***

Back in January, I wrote this post about how very much I was struggling with my body. I had reached an all-time low, exhausted by self-loathing and feeling powerless to make any lasting change.

I spilled my guts about my desperation, and six weeks later I found out I was pregnant. Hilarious, God. Truly.

As you probably know, my initial reaction to the news was not positive. I admit, one of my first panicked thoughts was, “I can’t be pregnant now. I am the heaviest I have ever been in my life. I am going to be HUUUUGGGE.” I understand that extra weight and a changing body are a small price to pay for creating a whole new life, but at the time it felt like one more way my life was being taken from me.

Now here I am 8 months pregnant and it turns out that losing control has been one of the best things that’s ever happened for my relationship with my body. I have felt freedom from self-criticism and self-hatred for the first time since I was ten years old and became aware of my body as female and of all the expectations that go along with that.

Some pregnant women are filled with love and appreciation for what their bodies are capable of as they move through the stages of pregnancy. And yes, it is miraculous. But for the most part, I have not felt this way. Most of the time I feel this odd combination of being intensely aware of everything going on in my body while also feeling like a stranger in it. I feel every ache and pain and jab and stab acutely, and at the same time I have the sense that I am floating around inside of this vessel I do not recognize, just waiting to get my life back. While this distance from my body has been isolating in some ways, it’s been healing in others.

Let me be clear. I have not particularly enjoyed pregnancy. I do not feel beautiful, sexy, or powerful the way some women seem to feel during pregnancy. I don’t particularly likethe way I look pregnant and I definitely don’t like the way I feel. But I’m also not disgusted by my body the way I was pre-pregnancy. I just honestly don’t care.

For the first time in my life, what is happening to my body is really and truly beyond my control. I could eat organic kale for every meal and workout twice a day and I would still going to have this giant belly. Since there is nothing I can do to change what my body looks like right now, I have no brain space or energy to waste worrying about it.

My expectations of my pregnant body are so vastly different from what my expectations of my body have always been. As an adolescent growing up with the mixture of societal pressures and the targeted messages of purity culture, I was constantly aware of the wrongnessof my body. There was the shame of not being attractive enough, along with the shame of being inappropriately attractive. I felt the expectation to simultaneously figure out how to be thin, toned, feminine perfection, and to dress in way that protected helpless men from that thin, toned, feminine perfection.

As I got older, I stripped off some of the burdens of purity culture, but struggled as my weight fluctuated and my self-worth rose and fell with the expansion or shrinking of my thighs.

Now for the first time, my attractiveness is utterly irrelevant. I take up more space than ever before. People are hyper-aware of me and my body. And at the same time, I have never felt more invisible. I feel no expectation, from myself or from anyone else, to be attractive. My body is no longer an aesthetic object, it is pure function. I am an incubator. That’s all.

Of course, I don’t want to feel this way forever. I don’t want “mother” to become my identity. I don’t want to disappear. I want to walk down the street and have someone think (but maybe not say) “Daaaaayummmmn, girl!” But there are also things I hope I take with me from this time.

I hope my base level expectations of my body have permanently changed. Instead of valuing myself based on arbitrary measures of attractiveness, I hope my foremost expectation of my body is for it to be healthy and strong so that I can do everything I need to do. No more. No less.

I want to feel attractive again someday, but I hope that feeling is based on confidence and acceptance, not meeting an external expectation. I think it can be incredibly attractive for someone to say, “My body is just my body. I look how I look.” If I can accept without difficulty the fact that I have blue eyes and small hands, could I also accept whatever shape my body ends up being when this ride is over?

I don’t know what to expect or how things will change post-partum, but I’ll be sure to keep you updated.  Whatever the next part of the journey looks like, I kind of hope that I’ll continue to be fresh out of effs to give.

Living in a Land of Protest: An Expat’s Take on the Hong Kong Protests

At 10 PM every night the shouting starts. The voices of men, women, and children mingle together in a passionate call and response. People lean from the windows of their flats or shout from where they are walking along the street. The courtyard below my apartment rings with cries that bounce from highrise to highrise and echo off the soft waves of the bay. 

For 10 minutes each night, the people of Hong Kong stop what they are doing and raise their voices together in a moving show of unity, chanting protest slogans like, “Reclaim Hong Kong: Revolution of our times!” I open my windows to hear it, and feel I am bearing witness to something intimate and holy.

This summer has been a season of upheaval for Hong Kong. In June, millions of Hong Kongers began a series of demonstrations to protest a proposed bill regarding the extradition of criminals from Hong Kong to mainland China. (If you’d like more understanding of the background to this conflict, this video from Vox sums it up very clearly).

On the day of the first protest, my parents were visiting Hong Kong. We were all returning from a weekend trip to Cambodia and were not aware of the build-up to the protest. We arrived at the airport and learned that there were major traffic jams on Hong Kong Island. We took a taxi home and didn’t encounter any protest activity along the way. Later, we watched the footage online of what turned out to be a peaceful march of over a million people, including many families with children.

“Good for them,” I thought. I was inspired to see so many people joining a peaceful demonstration against what seemed to be a problematic policy. Like most Hong Kongers, I had no idea then that this was only the beginning. 

Over the last 13 weeks, protesters have continued to assemble for organized marches, rallies, and demonstrations every single weekend. Over these weeks, the situation has escalated, becoming quite violent at times as police have indiscriminately used tear gas, rubber bullets, and excessive physical force to try to control the situation. In response, protestors have grown angrier and more destructive, lighting fires and smashing windows. Many people’s faith in their government in general and in the trustworthiness of the police force specifically has been shaken. More than 1800 rounds of teargas have been deployed this summer, often in residential areas and several times (very dangerously) inside of MTR stations. 

Aside from the marches, there have been dozens of different protest activities designed to disrupt daily life in Hong Kong. Several targeted campaigns have caused disruption to the MTR and bus systems that Hong Kongers rely heavily on for transportation. Protest action at the airport successfully brought the eye of the international community to the situation in Hong Kong.  

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An example of a Hong Kong protest schedule

The protests are about the extradition bill, but they have also expanded into something much bigger. Ultimately they are a fight against perceived corruption in the government and the police force and against the steadily growing influence of mainland China on Hong Kong’s government, economy, and social structures. The protesters have declared their five demands:

  • The complete withdrawal of the proposed extradition bill
  • The government to withdraw the use of the word “riot” in relation to protests
  • The unconditional release of arrested protesters and charges against them dropped
  • An independent inquiry into police behaviour
  • Implementation of genuine universal suffrage

The people are angry, and they are also determined, and they show no sign of backing down. Last weekend the police arrested several key protest leaders and denied the permit for a planned assembly. In response, thousands took to the streets all across the city in what turned out to be one of the most violent weekends so far. The city is splitting at the seams in constant conflict, not only between the protesters and the police, but between citizens who support the protesters and defend them and citizens who support Beijing and defend the police.

There are endless news stories you can read about these events and all of the various angles and opinions. I’m not a reporter and I am not equipped to talk about the political and social nuances of a government and a culture that are not my own. I can only talk about my experience. 

It’s strange, sometimes wonderfully so and sometimes frighteningly so, to be living in this city at this time in history. In some ways, these events affect my everyday life. I am alert to disturbances and spend most of my Sundays at home, not wanting to be caught in the crossfires of any conflicts between police and protesters which more and more often make their way into MTR stations and other public areas. 

There have been times when my commute to work was lengthened because the MTR service had been suspended. One morning I thought I would not make it to a doctor’s appointment because of wide-scale disruptions to the transportation system. An incredibly kind and generous couple offered me a ride even though it was out of their way. Last Saturday, my afternoon classes were cancelled and I went home early to avoid protest activity taking place near my work.

At the same time, I have not had to walk through tear gas to get home and I have not witnessed any violence. Most days I carry on with my life as normal. At 31 weeks pregnant, I am especially mindful of my safety for the sake of my little one. And yet, I am not afraid for myself. I continue to feel much safer in Hong Kong than I ever feel in the US. 

I honestly have no idea how this will resolve. Sometimes, I cannot imagine a way forward. What I know is this. I am moved, sometimes to tears by the hundreds of thousands of people who are risking their safety and their future to stand for what they believe in. Over 1,000 people have been arrested, some under rioting charges which can carry a ten year prison sentence. This is not a temper tantrum. These are people who are love their home and who love their people and are willing to risk great loss for the hope of a better future for themselves and for their children. 

I can’t help but wonder, have I ever held a belief so strongly that I would honestly risk my safety or my future to defend it? The largest march this summer had over 2 million participants. In a city of 7 million people, that is over ¼ of the population. Can you imagine of ¼ the population of the US cared deeply enough about something to take to the streets and raise their voices relentlessly until something changed?

There is so much injustice in the world, but what do I believe in passionately enough to act on and to keep acting on until something changes?

****

Just as I have finished writing this, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, has announced her intention to move for the final withdrawal of the extradition bill. This still has to be voted on by the legislative council, but it is the first glimmer of any kind of concession from the government.

If social media is any indication, the response of protesters has mostly been, “Too little too late.” The streets continue to ring with the slogan, “Five demands, not one less!”

Do you hear the people sing?

6 Lies Y’all Told Me About Pregnancy

I usually roll my eyes at “Things nobody tells you about x, y, z” posts. First off, they very rarely contain information I haven’t heard before. (Just because nobody told you something doesn’t mean nobody is talking about it. Maybe lots of people were talking about it and you’ve just never paid attention). I also usually roll my eyes at listicles. But…I still write a lot of them for my side hustle. So this post is a listicle, but it is not about things supposedly nobody told me. Instead this is a post about what I would like to call “Lies.” Mostly told to me by people like you. Possibly you yourself. (If you think it might have been you, you’re probably right). Fair warning…there’s some TMI here.*

Lie #1: “Morning sickness gets better as soon as you reach the 2nd trimester”

Liars go to hell! I thought benevolently, pouring sweat and streaming tears as I wretched into an outdoor public toilet at 16 weeks. My nausea and aversion to all food did dissipate between 18 and 19 weeks, but let it be known that that was 6 weeks past the date I had been promised my salvation. And I am one of the lucky ones. I have a friend who threw up every single day of her pregnancy and others who had to be hospitalized for dehydration. 

Lie # 2: “Your boobs will look amazing.”

First off, I’m not into big boobs on me. I find them annoying to keep covered and also think they make me look like a Pillsbury biscuit canister that has exploded and is oozing biscuit dough out of all of the crevices in the previously vacuum-sealed container. 

Second…this is clearly being spoken by someone who has only ever seen pregnant boobs in clothing. 

Early in pregnancy, your areolas get larger and darker, ostensibly to provide a “landing pad” for the baby to aim for when breastfeeding. In other words, my boobs now look like two pieces of salami ringed by a tiny rim of regular boob flesh which is mottled with bright blue veins and the beginnings of stretch marks. Additionally, my previously perky boobs now point straight down. So when I’m sitting down, I can rest my nipples on my belly-shelf. Sexy.

Lie #3: “Now that you’re in your second trimester, you are probably experiencing a sudden energy boost!” (Quoth “TheBump.com”)

False. If I could sleep 22 hours/day, I would. I am much more tired than I was in my first trimester. I may or may not have fallen asleep while teaching a class recently. (Don’t worry. I think the kids believed me when I said I was just thinking really hard).

Lie #4: “The sex is great!”

Also false. I mean, it’s not not great, but mostly, the sex is…complicated. Not only do you physically have to negotiate what works and what does not anymore with your constantly changing body, but also, it’s hard to feel sexy when your unborn child is kicking you in the vagina, reminding both you and your spouse of their presence there with you in your special moment. 

Another factor in this…grooming the lady bits becomes significantly more difficult when you cannot see them. Lately I’ve just been going at it blind, trying to use my intuition. My “Lily Tingle” if you will. (10 points if you catch the reference). Results have been…suboptimal.

Lie #5: “When your baby kicks it is the most magical feeling in the whole world”

I admit, I really like being able to feel the baby move and know it is OK. What I’m not wild about is feeling like there’s a basket of snakes moving around inside of me. 

When the movement is near the surface, it feels like involuntary muscle spasms. Like when you drink too much caffeine and your eyelid won’t stop twitching. Except much bigger. And in your abdomen. Not something to make me weep in wonder, but not a big deal. 

But when that kid goes for your organs? Uh-uh. My child believes in expressing themselves by alternately grinding a heel into my bladder and ultimate punching me down the vagina. I swear sometimes the shock waves radiate down to my kneecaps. If you have not experienced this, it’s like when you go in for a pelvic exam and the doctor hits a sensitive spot, but instead of pulling away, he punches you there. Sometimes I swear a little hand or foot is just gonna pop right out.

You say magical, I say akin to having a vengeful alien take over your body as its host and show no mercy. Tomato/Tomahto. 

Lie #6: “You might experience more vivid dreams”

Not a lie. Just not nearly warning enough.

After a friend showed me her engagement ring which had been custom-made from some family pieces, I dreamed that she had entrusted me with these precious family heirlooms and I had had them set into a diamond and sapphire encrusted molar. Yes, a molar. As in a tooth. I kept my fancy molar safe in the back of my mouth and then one day it fell out! And some of the stones came loose. I was distraught. My friend had entrusted the family jewels to me. What to do?! Luckily, I was able to track down the little old man who had made the molar in the first place and he successfully put the stones back. (Incidentally, he looked just like the guy who fixes Woody in Toy Story 2 complete with the big magnifying glasses). How I got the molar back into my mouth, I’ll never know. 

I also recently dreamed that my baby fell out. Like whoosh, just fell right out there. Fully clothed in a onesie. And I was just chilling there for a while and then remembered Hey, it’s not supposed to come out this early, I should put it back. And then I kept trying to put it back in there, but an arm or a leg kept falling out like it was a baby doll I couldn’t quite fit into the toy chest. And then I had an epiphany Wait a minute! You’re not supposed to put them back once they come out!  Then I started panicking about how early it was (I think I was 20 weeks at the time) and decided to take a closer look to see if it was OK. I took it back out and laid it on the bed. It was a completely normal-sized baby, except its legs were only 2 inches long. 

This is like every night, y’all.

***

If you’re pregnant or have ever been pregnant, maybe you can sympathize. Or at least laugh at me. If you’re thinking of someday being pregnant, take this as an alternative truth, And if none of these things apply to you, I sincerely apologize for any damage this has caused your psyche. Just wait til I tell you about some of the unique experiences of being pregnant in Hong Kong.

____________________________________________________________________________

*Obligatory Disclaimer: I know that every body and every pregnancy is different. The liars are probably speaking “their truth” or whatever. And also, please note that I’m really not complaining. Much. I’m very thankful for a (so far) uncomplicated pregnancy. Please take this in the spirit it is intended. 

 

Expectation and Entitlement: Basically a Ton of Questions and No Answers

I grew up believing in a God who bestowed favor on his children in all kinds of tangible ways. When I snagged the last pair of shoes that just happened to be in my size and, surprise, they were on sale…divine favor. When the vending machine accidentally dropped two bags of chips instead of one…divine favor. When the closest parking space to the door became available just as we pulled up…divine favor.

We prayed big prayers with loud voices. We lifted our hands and we claimed the “promises of God,” whatever we thought that looked like in a given situation. We were bold in our requests and confident in the outcome. We cursed the devil and all of his works, from cancer to witchcraft to democrats.

We were like horsemen, using prayer to direct a mighty power, the way the rider uses reins to tell his horse which way to turn. 

In college I discovered theology for the first time. I learned about different forms of biblical interpretation and different faith traditions, and I started probing into the “why” behind what I believed and how I expressed it. Along with many other things I questioned, I started to feel like there was something pretty arrogant about telling God what you’d like him to do and how you’d like him to do it. 

If the favor of God* was evidenced by material gain, physical comfort, or what many would deem “good luck,” what did that mean for the mother trapped in a cycle of poverty, unable to provide for her children and hopeless to find a way out? Or for the child who was abused while the world looked the other way? Or for the man who was shot and killed because the color of his skin sparked fear in the heart of someone more powerful? I could not accept that God was answering my prayers and showing favor by arranging a convenient parking space while another woman died from a lack of clean water. 

The result was that over time my prayers became more vague. Now I pray for peace. I pray for God’s presence. I pray for direction. I pray for the faith to trust in God’s provision. I rarely ask for anything specific. This is partly from the theological conviction that we are not God’s puppetmasters, but if I’m honest, it might also partly be to protect myself from his silence. If I pray “God, please help my husband find a higher-paying job,” I am set up for disappointment if it doesn’t happen. If I pray, “God please be with me,” I am guaranteed a positive answer. God is always with us. Crisis of faith avoided.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I am living through a season of tremendous uncertainty. Every plan I had for the future and everything I thought I knew about the shape my life would take has changed. In about 4 months I will become a mother. On a very practical level, I do not know yet how we will provide for our child financially, what our childcare situation will be like, how my mental health will be impacted postpartum, or how long we will be in Hong Kong. These are concrete questions that need concrete answers. But I find myself unable to ask God for any of these things. I haven’t prayed for a higher salary or that I wouldn’t get postpartum depression. I’ve just prayed for “provision” and “peace.”

Is it a theological issue of believing it is wrong to pray for the things I want? Or is it that I no longer believe in God’s ability to impact real-world scenarios? Do I pray in big-picture terms for God’s provision because it isn’t my place to try to dictate how God should provide? Or is it because I don’t believe he is powerful enough or interested enough to change my circumstances? Do I dare ask God to provide a way for me to stay home with my baby and still save money for our eventual move home? Is that an arrogant request in the face of a world with so much real need and real suffering? Or is it holy boldness? The kind that gave Peter the confidence to say to the lame man, “Stand and walk” ?

Can I ask God for something and believe wholeheartedly that he can make it happen without believing he should make it happen? And if so, how do I ask with expectation-with hope–but without entitlement? ________________________________________________________________________________

*I wrote a post a long time ago now about how my understanding of divine favor has changed. You can read it here.

 

On Unplanned Pregnancy: When You Don’t Have the “Right” Feelings

I want to begin this post with both an announcement and a content warning of sorts. If  you’ve been wondering where I’ve been for the past few months, this might explain some things. At the beginning of March, my husband and I found out that we are expecting our first child. The baby is due at the beginning of November and will be born here in Hong Kong. The content warning is this: This was an unplanned pregnancy and I have complicated feelings about it that I am going to share in this post. I am incredibly mindful of how emotionally sensitive so many issues surrounding conceiving, pregnancy, the decision to have children, and parenting are. With all of my heart, I do not want anything I say about my own thoughts and experiences to cause pain. Please don’t feel you need to read this if you are someone who is walking through infertility, miscarriage, waiting for an adoption, or any other situation that makes hearing about my pregnancy painful for you. Wherever you are with these issues, and whatever your feelings are, they are valid. I wish I had the words to heal those wounds. You are seen, you are loved, and you are enough.

Much Love,

Lily

***

When I hear the phrase “unplanned pregnancy,” I tend to think of teenagers who didn’t practice safe sex, or a woman who became pregnant but does not have a relationship with the baby’s father, or a couple who are in that young, wild, and free stage of life and weren’t ready to settle down. Part of what makes these situations so difficult is that the parents (or mother) often do not have the financial or emotional stability necessary to raise a child. But what about when an unplanned pregnancy happens to a happily married couple in their 30’s who both have stable jobs?

Believe it or not, I had thought about this scenario many times and had always assumed that if it ever happened, I would be shocked, but would quickly become excited. Frankly, this has not exactly been the case. Not only have I been trying to process everything I’m feeling, but I’ve also been hit hard with guilt over feeling anything other than joy, excitement, and gratitude.

If you know me at all, you know that I’ve thought about having kids A LOT. I’ve had several people tell me that they’ve never known anyone who has thought about it as much and as in-depth as I have. Over the last (almost) 9 years of marriage, I have wrestled with so many questions. Should we or shouldn’t we have kids? What would be our reasons for having kids? Are those good enough reasons? What would our life look like if we don’t? Is it selfish to have them? Is it selfish not to have them? I could never seem to reach a resolution. My husband and I have actually said to each other before that if we ever got pregnant accidentally, it would be a relief in some ways because it takes so many of these questions off the table. Little did we know…

Early one Saturday morning at the beginning of March, I woke up and took a test. That plus sign popped up immediately and everything in my life changed in that instant. I confess, the first words out of my mouth were, “Oh shit.” Then I paced around the apartment, alternately laughing and crying and staring at that little white stick. When I told my husband, another round of crying and laughing and more crying ensued. And that’s pretty much how it’s been ever since.

When I say this pregnancy was unplanned, I don’t mean, “We were thinking about it, but we weren’t expecting it to happen so soon! What a surprise!” I mean, without going into the gory details, we were planning on not getting pregnant, and it was statistically unlikely to happen.

Beneath all of the other feelings, there is a kernel of awe and wonder that this has happened at all. There were several factors that had led me to believe it would not necessarily be easy for us to get pregnant if we ever decided to try. And yet, here it’s happened and in a fairly improbable way. For the first month or so, I couldn’t fully accept this as reality. In spite of being quite sick, I continued to think of it only as a “potential baby” until we’d heard the heartbeat and seen the little bean wiggling on the sonogram screen at 8 ½ weeks. Only then did I start trying to wrap my mind around what this all means.

There are moments when I feel truly excited and curious about who this new person will be. But I have also felt a lot of frustration, anxiety, and even anger. The best way that I can describe it is that, even though this is a direct result of my and my husband’s actions, this feels like something being forced on me. In a weird way, I feel betrayed by my own body. On the one hand, it is amazing that my body knows what it is doing without me having to tell it. On the other hand, it is extremely unsettling. It feels like something is being done to me, to my body and to my life, without my consent.

One of my greatest fears in life is being stuck. Being denied choice. I have always been terrified of being in a situation I feel I cannot get out of. Ironic, right? The hardest thing about pregnancy so far (besides all of the puking) is that I feel like I have lost agency over my own life: what my career will look like, what we will spend our money on, what kind of travel we will do, and what is going on with my body. Of course, we will still make decisions about those things, but in many cases it feels like the baby is dictating those decisions. I’m a firm believer in fitting the baby into your life, not shaping your life around the baby, but the truth is that what happens next in my career and in my husband’s career will be whatever best allows us to provide for the baby. Travel will depend on how much money we can put towards it with the additional costs of having the baby as well as balancing the desire to go home more often to see our families and friends against our desire to travel. Because I will be having the baby in a public hospital in Hong Kong (something I can explain more about some other time), I will not have the luxury of choosing the kind of birth I would like to have. I will have a safe birth with excellent care, but I will likely not be able to choose how I want to labor or whether I can have an epidural. After the birth I will stay in a ward with at least 8 other women and their babies and my husband will only be able to visit for 2 hours/day. No agency. No choice.

I know some of you reading this will be very tempted to point out all the things I have to be grateful for. And you are right. I do. Especially when there are so many people (including several dear friends of mine) who would be overjoyed to be in this position. I have spent a lot of time beating myself up for feeling these things. But at the end of the day, I don’t think it’s helpful to try to force myself to feel the “right” way. I think I can be grateful and amazed and excited and also be frustrated and anxious and tired.

I am sad to be having a baby in a foreign country where I have no family and very few friends.

At the same time I am humbled by and grateful for the love and support my family and friends have shown me, even from so far away.

I HATE that I do not have control over what is happening right now.

But I also need the reminder that I am not God and there are so many things I am not in control of.

I want to drink wine and eat soft cheese.

But sometimes being an adult means doing things you don’t want to do…or not doing things you do want to do…because you know the long term results are more important than the temporary satisfaction.

I hope in some way this encourages you to let yourself feel your feelings. You don’t have to let them rule your life, but it’s ok to acknowledge that you don’t always feel the way you’re “supposed to” feel.

I am having a baby, and that is a miracle, but at least half of the time, I do not feel excited about it. And I have no doubt that I will love this little person with everything in me. Both of these things are true, and for now that will have to be enough.

 

The 300th: An Ode to Failure

This is my 300th blog post.

Three hundred separate times, I’ve sat down and written a thing and posted it on the internet. Sometimes they were words I couldn’t keep in for a moment longer so that they spilled out in an almost violent rush. Sometimes they were words I spent weeks weighing and measuring, trying to say something true, but in the most careful way I could. And sometimes they were words without any great weight behind them – snapshots of the moments that make up my days.

Today is also my 31st birthday. I have so many things to be thankful for in my life. Without being too mushy, I will just say that I am deeply loved by some of the most wonderful people on this planet and they do an amazing job of showing me. That is all I could ever ask for. But this post isn’t about how lovely my life is.

It’s about failure.

In reflecting on the last year, I’ve had many wonderful and meaningful experiences, but I’ve also failed in a lot of ways. I don’t believe I’ve ever tried to project an image of perfection here. I’ve been honest about struggles and difficulties. But I also don’t know that I’ve talked much about real failure–as in the things that are entirely my fault and entirely within my control.

There are the small things:

  • I accidentally betrayed a confidence. I didn’t do it intentionally, but I should have been thoughtful enough to avoid the topic entirely instead of assuming what the other person already knew. Nothing catastrophic has come of it, but I still should have kept my mouth closed.
  • I completely forgot to check in on a friend who I knew was having an important appointment. I genuinely wanted to know the outcome, but I failed to follow up with her which communicated that I didn’t really care.
  • We have a four-cup coffee maker (which in my house is actually a two-cup coffee maker) and a few days ago I heard Jonathan waking up, so I ran to the kitchen and quickly poured the last cup of coffee into my mug before he came out so that I wouldn’t have to wait 5 minutes for a new pot to brew.

And there are the bigger things:

  • I recently shouted at a family member in moment of self-righteous fury that was both ungracious and unnecessary. Also, I am not a shouter. A very animated talker, yes. But not a shouter.
  • I kept a secret from my husband for the better part of a year because I was so ashamed of it. Me. Someone who would identify authenticity as one of my core life values. I kept a secret from the person I am closest to in the world. Like a lying lier who lies. This was just one factor that led to a serious and scary breakdown in my marriage, something I always thought was too rock solid to be shaken.
  • I quit on an important project that I care deeply about and want to support, but simply couldn’t get my shiz together enough to participate in fully.
  • A few weeks ago, I had a conversation where I speculated on someone else’s sexuality. Even though I sincerely believe this to be an unkind and above all unnecessary thing to do, I did it.
  • I am really struggling with resentment towards someone in my life. It has nothing to do with them. It is entirely my problem. But at least 50% of the time, I want to punch them in the face for daring to exist.
  • I set out to write a book a long time ago, but I do not have the discipline or the work ethic or the perseverance to see it through. Every time I try again, I end up quitting.

I promise, there is a point to all of this. The thing I’ve learned the most over the past year is that there is no such thing as a failure-free life. As a recovering perfectionist, this is hard for me to accept. I am programmed to believe I should always be making progress. I like to think I can outgrow failure, or at the very least, that I can learn not fail at the same thing twice. Experience says otherwise.

Failure is inevitable, but it’s not the end. It’s an opportunity to identify my priorities and to really ask myself if my actions reflect my goals, my values, and the kind of person I want to be. It is humbling to admit to being wrong and to ask for forgiveness. And it is beautiful to receive forgiveness from others and from myself.

The other great gift I’ve received from all of my failures is that, in my better moments, it has given me greater compassion towards others. Understanding my own inability to stop failing makes it easier to forgive other people’s failures too. It’s so much easier to live believing that those around me are doing the best they can, but, despite our best efforts, we all still fail sometimes.  We all need the grace of God, myself as much as anyone.

In the next year, I hope that I will grow as someone who is kind and genuine and generous and gracious. I want to invest more in my writing with the goal of one day being self-employed as a writer. I want to make peace with my body and manage my mental health better. I want to love the people in my life well. I want to explore more of the world and to have new adventures, but also do a better job of appreciating all there is to explore and appreciate in my everyday life.

I will probably (definitely) fail in both small and spectacular ways at all of these things, so along with all of these hopes, I am thankful to be in a place in my life where I feel secure enough to fail. My worth and my worthiness are not dependent on my successes or failures. I only need to be humble enough to admit my failures, to ask for forgiveness where necessary, and to have the courage to try again.

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Featured Image via Ted.com

 

 

We Must Risk Delight: Or How To Combat the Devil One Tattoo At a Time

Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all bound by routine. Even the most spontaneous of humans cannot escape the cycles of time and nature. Repetition–of the sun each day, of the moon each month, of the seasons, of new years–creates a rhythm to our days. For me, these rhythms always include the ominous beats of depression and the frenzied syncopation of hypomania.

Sometimes depression is triggered by a specific event that I can point to, but most often it creeps over me slowly, the way the sun sinks slowly to the horizon at the end of the day until, seemingly all at once, it’s gone. For me, depression is caused by carrying an excessive amount of pain just as much as it is by synapses misfiring in my brain. When this happens, I am also consumed by guilt. I feel that it is wrong for me to be weighed down by pain and sadness when by most measures I live a safe and wonderful life. It has only been in the past few years that I’ve come to understand that the pain and the sadness I carry is often not my own.

I am a highly empathetic person and I am deeply affected by the feelings of those around me both in my daily life and in the world at large. I am particularly sensitive to their pain and suffering. This is not something I have the power to turn on and off; it is part of my nature. I cannot help absorbing the feelings of those around me the same way a sponge cannot help soaking up whatever moisture it touches. Often, I do not even consciously recognize that I am doing it until one morning I wake up feeling crushed by the weight of it all.

Last year I experienced relatively long periods of depression. In spite of many beautiful moments, the undercurrent of my days was heaviness and sadness. There was so much sorrow and injustice in the world in 2017, and I wrestled with the question, How do I dare experience joy when there is so much pain and so much grief in the world? One day as I listened to Elizabeth Gilbert’s fantastic podcast Big Magic, I heard her quote the poet, Jack Gilbert in his poem “A Brief for the Defense.” It spoke beautifully to this exact question. I immediately found the whole poem and read it in tears at least a dozen times in a row.

A Brief for the Defense
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
                         -Jack Gilbert

I still cannot express how much this moved me except to say that I knew immediately I wanted these words with me always. Without a way to burn them into my heart, I settled for inking them into my skin.

IMG_0418

Umm…so it is really hard to take a picture of something on your upper ribs without things going downhill really fast. It is actually straight in real life. Many thanks to my husband/photographer for making this look as appropriate as possible.

This poem gave me the answer I desperately needed, and the fog of depression slowly began to lift. We all have a responsibility to acknowledge the real pain and suffering of others and to do what we can to alleviate it. One way that we fight despair is with delight. “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.” The question then becomes not, How dare I experience joy in this terrible world? but How dare I not?

More joy in the world is always a good thing. More hope in the world is always welcome. Experiencing peace does not dismiss the reality of suffering. Instead it points out that pain is not the only way, and it calls out injustice as evil. Perhaps the way to fight the devil is the way of the Who’s down in Whoville whose Christmas was stolen by the Grinch, but who sang in spite of it. Perhaps fighting the devil is having the courage to embrace joy instead of letting despair win.

When we see goodness for what it is and we dare to enjoy it, we give glory to the giver of every good and perfect gift. We bear the banner that says Hope still exists. Peace is not a fairytale. Joy is alive. This is a sacred calling. I do not know if this knowledge can ever save me from depression, but I believe that this is true: We must be brave. We must risk delight. We must admit there will be music despite everything. We must cling to Joy on behalf of those who cannot.

I’m Kind of a Superhero and Other Things I’ve Learned From Bipolar Depression

Last week one of my students called me out. “Mrs. Dunn. Why you in such good mood today? Last week, you seem tired. Today you are hyper. Why you so happy?” (I teach students who speak English as a second or third language).

“I’m in a good mood because it’s Friday,” I told him. “I’m excited for the weekend. Believe it or not, teachers love the weekend.” I was surprised by how perceptive my student was. The truth was that I was in a good mood because finally (finally!) the heavy fog of depression had lifted for longer than a few hours or even one good day, and I felt hope and energy and excitement that I had not felt in nearly three months.

In truth, I was in a short burst of hypomania that often comes just after a depression for me. I am Type II Bipolar which means I never experience full-blown mania with psychosis or delusional beliefs and reckless behavior, but sometimes experience a milder form of elevated mood called hypomania. My bipolar disorder is marked by very regular periods of moderate to severe depression and occasional bursts of high energy/activity accompanied by high adrenaline and impulsivity. For me, hypomania is subtle enough that it can easily be taken for just a very good mood, though it’s often accompanied by spending sprees, new tattoos, sleeping less, trying to do ALL THE THINGS, and being increasingly social or chatty. Hypomania isn’t necessarily a bad thing for me (it ‘s sort of like what I imagine being on speed would be like) as long as I can be aware that I am experiencing an elevated mood and can keep my impulsivity in check.

Over the last nine months I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make sense of the last 12-15 years of my life. There is still so much I do not know, but here are a few things I’ve learned.

• I might never be “healed” and that is OK. Along with the “You don’t seem bipolar” comments, another common response I receive from well-meaning friends and family members is something along the lines of hoping that I will get better or believing that God can heal me. These are beautiful thoughts, and I don’t want to make light of them. I also believe in a powerful God. But it is not helpful for me to think of my illness as a condition I might suddenly be healed from. The nature of bipolar depression is that I go through seasons of depression and seasons of stability, with occasional bouts of hypomania in between. Learning that I am bipolar and that I am likely to experience bouts of depression chronically for the rest of my life has actually given me an incredible sense of hope. The best way I can describe this is that it is like having seasonal allergies. People who suffer with allergies can treat them, but there is rarely a permanent cure, so they are also not surprised when they flare up. Before I knew I was bipolar, I still experienced depression. Every time depression lifted I believed it was gone forever, and every time it came back, I believed I had failed in some cosmic way. Knowing that depression is likely to recur makes me feel intense gratitude for the stable times. It keeps me from believing that the depression is somehow my fault, and it also gives me hope when I am in those seasons because I know that they will end. In the past calendar year I had two long bouts of depression lasting a total of about 5 months. During the first depression, before I knew about being bipolar, I truly thought it might never end, and but during this most recent season, which lasted nearly three months, I knew that one day I would feel better.

• Having bipolar depression has taught me to show greater compassion, to others and to myself. I try to live believing that everyone around me is doing the best that they can. Because 98% of the time I am doing the best I can. Often it is not the right thing and it is not good enough, but I really am giving everything I’ve got. It’s not up to me to judge how hard someone else is trying based on their performance. I have no idea what’s going on inside their minds or in their personal lives, so I choose to believe that they are doing their best, just as I am doing my best. As part of self-compassion, I am learning to celebrate small victories in times when small things are taking all of my energy. I have a few encouraging pep talks for this.

o For example, “You are so awesome! You got out of bed and then you put on a shirt AND PANTS! PANTS! You could have just given up and stayed in bed all day, but instead, you are doing the thing. You even brushed your teeth. You should write that on your To-Do List and then cross it off. Cause you did that. Cause you can do things. You overachiever, you.”

• Some of the things I like most about myself are directly related to bipolar disorder. I am deeply empathetic. While I don’t get my own feelings hurt easily, I cry easily and often when I sense someone else hurting, even if that person is an actor in a commercial. It is this intense empathy that makes me good at my job and (I think?) is one of the things that my friends appreciate about me. It is also one of the things that is likely to spark depression. Often, depression begins when I have reached a level of empathy saturation I can no longer sustain. I am constantly absorbing the feelings of people around me, especially of those suffering all over the world. While that isn’t necessarily a good thing, I firmly believe that the empathy is a gift. Basically, I like to think of it as a superpower—like Dr. Charles Xavier’s except less useful.

• “I have a condition!”is a magical phrase for explaining to your husband why you have gone completely limp and are requiring him to physically drag you into the bedroom and put you to bed because you are “too tired to go to sleep.”

• I am not alone. This, mostly thanks to many of you who have told me so.

There is so much that I am still learning about myself and about how to live the fullest, richest life I can. I am not defined by my illness, and yet, it is as much a part of me as my terrible dancing and my freakishly small hands. Today I find that with all of the things that are hard about living with bipolar disorder and (perhaps even more so) wearing that label, I am profoundly grateful. I am grateful that there is an explanation for the things I feel and that it’s no longer a mystery. I am grateful for treatments and for coping strategies. I am grateful that I pushed through the fear and the shame and started talking about this, and I am grateful for all the love and understanding waiting for me here. Most of all, I am grateful for a family that is immensely supportive and for a faith that, though feeble, is still somehow enough.