Samson’s Birth

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I wanted to take some time to reflect on the incredible event of the birth of our son. Positive birth stories can sometimes be few and far between, and I always appreciated a good birth story when I was pregnant (and still do!). In fact one of the best books I read to prepare me for birth was Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery, which is basically just a collection of birth stories. Anyway, without further ado…

The last trimester of pregnancy was actually really enjoyable for me. I generally felt comfortable (and mobile) even in the Charleston heat and had lots of energy… so much so, that I decided to take advantage of my free time and take a Maymester/Summer intensive Anatomy & Physiology class at our local community college! I loved the subject matter and did extremely well considering I haven’t been a student in quite a number of years. I was feeling relaxed, content and at peace – a good place to be leading up to labor. The second half of the course was due to finish about 10 days before my due date. I knew that I was cutting it a bit close, but I thought it was a risk worth taking (plus I had the permission of the instructor to take the final exam late in case the baby came early). All was looking good to finish the course with plenty of time to spare… that is, until the weekend before finals…

I had my 37-week appointment on a Thursday, the week before finals, and to my surprise I was 1cm dilated and nearly 100% effaced! The midwife assured me that it could be days or weeks before I went into labor, so I decided to try to remain calm and not worry about going into labor early. The next morning, however, I lost my mucus plug, and by that evening I was having irregular crampy Braxton-Hicks contractions. All my plans to remain calm, relaxed and worry-free went completely out of the window – I still had three days of class left (including two final exams), and I was desperate to finish before I went into labor! I spent the entire weekend in bed, trying to decide if I should be calm and let things take their course, or continue to freak out so that the adrenaline would put a halt on me going into labor. I sort of went the route of stress/adrenaline, although of course I’m not sure how much control I actually had! It seemed to work, however, because I managed to get through my exams without baby making an early appearance.

Enjoying a moment of peace after my final exams

Enjoying a moment of peace after my final exams

I went into the following week trying to enjoy being on “maternity leave” and making the most of my last days before baby’s arrival. David had planned to work a three-day week, finishing on Wednesday, and was telling everyone that I would go into labor on Thursday. Rather than rolling my eyes at him, I found myself expecting the same thing. And so did my Mom, who spent that week madly cleaning the house and getting everything in order! (I had already done my crazy nesting/cleaning weeks before.)

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39wks 2 days. Instagrammed the day before I went into labor.

Early that week, I lost my mucus plug again – because apparently it can re-form – but I didn’t think much of it. The thing that was mostly occupying my attention was the fact that I managed to pull an intercostal muscle during a brief but intense coughing fit. I was in so much pain that it hurt to breathe, and I seriously wondered if it was going to affect my ability to labor. We went in for my 39-week checkup on Thursday morning, and I guess I was having some mild/crampy BH – enough that I remember leaning over the table when the midwife came in the room. I was still only about 2cm dilated, and baby’s head was engaged, but I wasn’t really thinking anything of the contractions – after all, anything was par for the course at that point.

As the afternoon progressed, I realized that my contractions were forming somewhat of a pattern. By 4pm they were about 10-15 minutes apart but still mild enough to where I could move around comfortably. I spent some time walking up and down the stairs outside. It was a cool-ish sort of day (for July at least), and it felt good to be in the humid air. We decided to go for a swim in the pool as swimming had been my favorite way to relax during pregnancy. It was early evening by this point and the wind had picked up, making the water feel a bit too chilly for me to relax. After a couple of minutes I got out and went upstairs to run a bath. The contractions were now coming around 10 minutes apart – definitely crampy, but I was feeling them all in the front, low down. I wasn’t sure if this was real labor or not, and I remember someone saying that having a bath/shower will stall the contractions if it’s false labor or speed things up if it’s the real thing.

The bath felt wonderful, and after waiting a while, the contractions seemed to be coming more frequently – maybe 8-10 minutes apart. It was around 7pm at this point, and we decided to text our doula to let her know where things were at. I wasn’t in pain, per se, but I was starting to need to breathe through the contractions to stay relaxed. I kept changing positions from the bath, to leaning over the bed, to being on my hands and knees. The contractions were definitely getting stronger and closer together, and I was starting to make some noise with them – low breathing sounds to try to relax my mouth and bottom. I know my parents could hear me – they were probably dying to know if I was okay, but they respectfully gave us privacy – and I tried my best to ignore them and not worry about the noise. Around 8:30 we asked Kelly, our doula, to come over. By the time she got here I was really having to focus and breathe. She arrived just as I was getting out of the bath, and I apologized for being naked and said I didn’t want to get dressed. Haha.

The contractions were coming stronger and stronger, still low down and a lot of pressure in the front, and I was not able to talk much while they were happening. Kelly rubbed my back for a while we debated when to call the birth center. They had told me to wait until contractions were 3-5 minutes apart, lasting at least 45 seconds, for 1-2 hours. David had been timing them, and they had been like that for probably about 30 minutes by the time Kelly got there. I was getting a little antsy about calling the birth center. I just wanted to get there as soon as possible, and I was dreading the 40-minute drive in that stage of labor! We called around 10:30pm, and they told us to meet at birth center at 11:30pm. David got everything ready, I put on my finest baggy t-shirt and Dale Jr. boxer shorts, and we made our way downstairs. My parents were waiting to see us off, looking a mix of worried, freaked out and awe-struck.

The car ride was rough, but I made it to the birth center without (a) throwing up, (b) waters breaking and making a mess in the car, and (c) starting to push. Thankfully the crew (midwife, student midwife and nurse) were already there when we arrived and were getting things set up. I walked in, leaned over the back of the couch in the foyer, and said, “When can I take my clothes off?” I think I proceeded to strip down then and there! I was in the thick of it at this point – contractions coming thick and fast, very focused and feeling tons of pressure on my cervix. I was relieved to finally be at the birth center where I could let things take their course. I was led to the birthing suite, which was like a spa or a cosy hotel room – large four-poster bed, lights dim, the sound of water filling the birthing pool. They had me lay on the bed while they checked me (6cm dilated) and monitored the baby’s heart rate for three contractions. Everything looked great, so they said I could go ahead and get in the pool.

Getting checked out

Getting checked out

I had been looking forward to this moment for a long time – the relief of being in the water during active labor – and it was one of the main reasons we chose a birth center birth. However, almost immediately after I got in the water, it felt awful! The water was really warm, as was the room – I was so hot and uncomfortable! I promptly got out of the pool, and the midwife suggested that I might like to sit backwards on the toilet instead. It wasn’t how I had imagined spending most of active labor, but the cool of the ceramic brought a little relief. I don’t remember much from this point as the contractions were very intense and I was very much “in the zone”. I do remember saying at several points, “I don’t know if I can do this anymore.” Each time, someone would encourage me saying that I AM doing it, that my body knows exactly what to do, and that when it comes time to push it will be a relief. When I made noise and groaned during my contractions, David literally growled along with me in the same way he play-growls at the puppy. It was funny, and surprisingly it kind of helped. Apparently he told me, “I love you so much,” to which I replied “Go away!… I’m sorry.”  At some point, someone asked if I wanted nitrous oxide. I said yes please, but they wanted to check first to see how far I had progressed. 9cm – I was so relieved to have made it that far, but they said the nitrous oxide wouldn’t really do much at that point. So back to the toilet I went.

A brief capture of laboring in the pool. We didnt get any toilet pictures :)

A brief capture of laboring in the pool. We didn’t get any toilet pictures 🙂

After a short while, the pressure was intense and down in my sacrum and rectum as well as on my cervix. I started to feel like I needed to poop… REALLY BADLY! Which was slightly terrifying, because it felt like I would poop out my entire insides if I let it go… let it goooo… (darn you, Frozen!). I knew what this was – I had always wondered what the urge to push would feel like. One of the midwives encouraged me to follow the leading of my body, so I let myself push a little. Apart from encouraging me to trust my body, the midwives gave me very little guidance (although if they were talking to me I was obviously ignoring them!). I don’t remember how long I was on the toilet, but one of the midwives came to check on me and gently asked if I wanted a Toilet Baby or a Water Baby – it was clearly time to push.

Go time

Go time. And yes, David does have shorts on.

I got back in the pool despite it being uncomfortably warm, and David got in with me. With each contraction, I pushed, and could feel the baby start to move down the birth canal. Thankfully I had a few seconds to collect myself in between. Our doula helped keep me comfortable with icy towels and sips of water, and one of the midwives monitored the baby’s heart rate with a doppler. As baby’s head moved down I started to feel that “ring of fire” that everyone talks about. It was mighty intense… I don’t really have words to describe it, other than the fact that all of my focus was consumed in what I was doing. After what seemed like forever I started to feel increasingly panicky and could no longer stay relaxed. I also groaned loudly with each push. I was desperate to GET THAT BABY OUT! Apparently with each contraction I pushed twice, and baby’s head would move back up a little. David told me later that the midwife said, “This baby knows exactly how to be born”. He was gently stretching my tissues rather than coming all at once. Finally his head crowned, and it took all my patience to wait for the next contraction. With a huge, primal cry I pushed his head out. One more breath, one more contraction, I pushed with all my might, and out slid his body. The midwife said she was going to pass him under the water for me to bring out. I said, “I’m not sure if I can do that!” I was exhausted by that point and was afraid of dropping him back in the water! I brought him out of the water (with some other helping hands) – a boy!! 7lbs 3oz, born at 1:57am on July 4th.

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First breath – life is a miracle

We sat in the water for a couple of minutes while he took his first breaths/cries and they cut his cord. I think my placenta must have been coming out quickly, so they (or David… I don’t remember) took Sam to be cleaned up while they helped me out of the pool. I felt extremely weak and dizzy when I stood up and started shaking with chills. It felt like such an odd experience – here I just birthed my long-awaited baby, but I didn’t feel that rush of emotion like I expected to feel. I was just so exhausted, and also relieved that it was over. My labor lasted roughly 10 hours from start to finish, and I pushed for a total of around 30 minutes. Not bad for the first time!

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My memory of the next part is slightly hazy. The nurse/midwives helped me to the bed where I delivered the placenta. They gave me a shot of pitocin (I think I had lost a bit of blood), and checked me out while David lay next to me cuddling Sam. They put Sam to my chest while they gave me a couple of stitches for a partial second degree tear. Sam was squirming and rooting around for quite a while. I remember saying something like, “Can someone help me here, I have no idea what to do!” Someone helped Sam get latched on and commented on how he was such a good eater and is going to love to nurse. While Sam nursed, David and I talked about what we should name him. We both knew that Samson was his name but were afraid to name him that (Samson is also the name of my parents’ golden retriever puppy). We just decided to have some courage/balls and go for it, as it was a name we had been thinking about for a long time.

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"How do you do this?"

“How do you do this?”

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I was still feeling pretty unwell. They suggested that David go get us something to eat as we hadn’t brought much in the way of protein. Funnily enough the only place open at 4am was Waffle House! I remember thinking, “I just pushed a baby out of my vagina on the Fourth of July, and we are celebrating by getting Waffle House at 4am!” (hashtag America) While David went to get us food, they swaddled Sam so I could close my eyes for a bit. After David got back and I forced down a few bites of egg, sausage and hashbrowns, the nurse had me get up to try to pee. I thought, “I am never going to be able to push anything out of any opening down there again!” She encouraged me that I would feel better once I peed (as well as hydrated and ate). After waiting patiently on the toilet and trying to forget that I just pushed a baby out of my vagina, I was finally able to pee and indeed feel a tiny bit better. We spent the next couple of hours in bed resting as well as going over important information like what to do with your baby when you go home, of which I remembered about zero. Around 6:30am I was feeling a bit better, having drunk a lot of electrolyte water and eaten what I could of my all-American breakfast. David collected our things and put Sam in the car seat, and we were given the okay to go home. I’ll be honest, I was a bit terrified of taking home our newborn baby, partly because I was still not feeling 100% and also because I had no idea how to take care of a new baby. I knew that I would feel better once I was home in my own bed and could get some proper nutrition into me. I also took comfort in knowing that they send a nurse to your house the next day, so I only needed to keep Sam alive for at least a day. 🙂

We got home, were greeted briefly by the thrilled grandparents, and went upstairs to our own bed. It was a beautiful sunny day, and David tucked me into bed with a sleepy Sam at my side. I was desperate for a snack with some real/nourishing ingredients, so David made me a smoothie… with a small piece of my placenta we had taken home with us. Now before you spit out your coffee/tea, ingesting the placenta is actually a relatively common practice in other cultures as it is loaded with nutrients and other good things and is perfectly tailored to your own body. And no I couldn’t taste it. After my smoothie I felt amazing – whether it was the fresh fruit/yogurt or the placenta, I don’t know. I felt like I was coming back into myself, and I no longer felt dizzy or weak, just energized and sleepy (if that combination is possible). Those first few days were spent tucked up in bed, sleeping when Sam slept (which was a lot – we had to set our alarms every 2-3 hours), learning how to nurse him, and generally marveling in disbelief that we had a son!

Our beautiful, sleepy boy

Our beautiful, sleepy boy

Looking back, the birth was a very special and wonderful time for me. It was my own personal liminal space, that period of time between worlds. It was the saying goodbye to myself in the form I had known my whole life and becoming a new form, a mother. Also it was truly awesome to experience what the human body can do without help from medical interventions or from the rational part of the brain. Let your body do what it already knows how to do.

When people ask how the birth was, they do so with negative presumptions: “Was it hard? Was she okay? How bad was it?” And I love smiling and saying, “Actually, it wasn’t bad or hard!” It was certainly intense, and for the first several days afterward I was still a little shocked/traumatized by the intensity. But that faded quickly, and I was able to reflect on the birth with gratitude and realize that it was actually a calm and peaceful experience. It was painful, yes, but it was a different kind of pain… one that leads to good, that means that your body is doing exactly what it is made to do.

A Long Advent

Apologies for the long silence. Sometimes life takes us through seasons where pausing, reflection, and inward stillness are the most appropriate responses, and outward processing takes a back seat. Such has been our journey this autumn.

As we moved into October, our second month of unemployment, things were looking very bleak indeed. Every day felt like it would never end, and to make it to the next day provided our only sense of achievement or movement. Anyone who has spent any time being unemployed knows the humiliating and dehumanizing nature of the job-searching process. The more I set goals and tried to apply myself, the more I teetered on the edge of falling into a dark depression. We felt like yet again the world was crumbling down around us. We could not see a way out.

In desperation we asked our friends to pray for us. There was an aspect of the whole situation that felt very much like a ‘spiritual attack’, and whatever our beliefs were about that, we felt like we desperately needed prayer. Funnily enough, our only sense of guidance from above was a very very vague, small voice that we should try to get pregnant. Which was obviously hilariously irresponsible/ridiculous. Not only were we unemployed, depressed, and stripped of all our vision and hopes for the future, but my menstrual charting* told me that physiologically I could not get pregnant. [I had ongoing problems with my cycle which had been given different diagnoses by different doctors without a real solution, but basically which pointed to some kind of infertility.]

We mentioned this to our friends in asking them to pray for us. Little did we know, but it turns out we likely conceived THE VERY DAY we asked our friends to pray. And here I am in my 15th week of pregnancy.

I still can’t believe everything that’s happened. The fact that we were able to conceive is one thing, but the fact that I was able to stay pregnant for 6/7 weeks with crazy low progesterone levels is also miraculous (I didn’t find out I was pregnant until a good 6-7 weeks in – and thankfully my doctor had the wherewithal to test my progesterone levels right away. Low progesterone especially in the first trimester is a cause of miscarriage, and for some reason most doctors don’t check it as a matter of course). Obviously discovering that we were pregnant did not magically solve everything – but it did give us a real sense, in spite of all that we had been feeling, that God is with us.

The same week I found out I was pregnant I got offered a job I had interviewed for ages back and had forgotten about. David also started working for a government contractor, albeit part-time and for minimum wage. For me, the pregnancy was like a massive burst of hope that allowed other smaller rays of hope leak in. It’s not that everything was suddenly perfect and solved, but we felt that God was with us, and that was enough.

Emmanuel – “God with us” – is a central message of Advent, and my first trimester happened to coincide nicely with the season of Advent in the church calendar. With themes of darkness and light, disillusionment and hope, waiting expectantly, and of course literally making room for a baby, we felt like we were having our own personal advent. [I should add here that for me much of the first trimester was filled with anxiety about being able to stay pregnant. Physically my only symptoms were fatigue and a loss of appetite – I am thankful for that, but I definitely did not feel pregnant. Going in for a scan at 8 weeks was terrifying as I was convinced that there would be no heartbeat. Hearing that heartbeat again last week (at 14 weeks) was truly wonder-ful.] 

And now as we move through Epiphany and into the new year, we are reflecting on what 2014 might hold for us. We have decided to move back to Charleston this spring (or before) to be closer to family, and because, well, it’s Charleston! David has a promising interview at an Anglican church. I have the option to work with a cousin to build up a yoga business. Our baby is due July 7th.

Even with the momentum of God-with-us and these wondrous events, it’s still easy to worry and presume the worst. Although the pregnancy anxieties have eased a little, I find myself thinking things like, How are we ever going to afford to live in Charleston? What if David’s job doesn’t pay enough and I can’t afford to go on maternity leave? What if I have a miscarriage in the second trimester? I haven’t quite worked through this theologically, but for a long time I’ve believed that God doesn’t promise that things will be okay but that he’ll be with us.  And because things have been pretty shite for a lot of the time, my default position – a kind of protection mechanism, maybe – is to presume that God will, by default, always let bad things happen. But I don’t think that’s healthy or even true thinking. The message of Advent for us this year has been about the impossible becoming possible; about God’s light and goodness – his crazy good kingdom reality – breaking into the places where we had given up hope. I really feel and want to continue to believe that 2014 will be a year of hope and of expectation, that God loves us and indeed wants to surprise us with good things.

“See! The winter is past… The season of singing has come” – Song of Solomon

*During the 3 months leading up to getting pregnant, I learned the Creighton Model of menstrual charting. It’s a mucus-only method (as opposed to sympto-thermal, which relies on basal body temperature as well, which can be notoriously tricky) and is incredibly helpful for monitoring fertility and achieving or avoiding pregnancy. I was just starting to work with a NaPro doctor on figuring out what was wrong with my cycle before I got pregnant, and we had already determined that I had a luteal phase defect, low progesterone and likely low estrogen, but had not gotten as far as determining the cause. If anyone reading this is by chance struggling with fertility or gynecological problems I cannot recommend NaPro and the Creighton Method enough. Their methods actually try to get to cause of the problem rather than just prescribing the Pill or other meds as a one-size-fits-all answer. 

Prince George Converts!!

In a surprising development, the royal baby Prince George of Cambridge has been baptised into the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, symbolising and completing his conversion to Christianity from agnostic paganism.

“It’s true,” said the young prince, through an interpreter. “I’m all about Jesus now.”

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Rumours have abounded among royal-watchers that George, the third in line for the throne of whatever-is-left-of-the-kingdom-by-that-time, has since his earliest days displayed an alarming proclivity to wild living.

“Frankly, he was a boob man,” admitted Mike Tindall, England rugby captain turned crooked-nosed royal. “And we’ve always been concerned that he’s tended to search for solace in a bottle.”

As is traditional, Prince George slept through most of the christening service, only waking up as the waters of absolution were dribbled onto his head by Justin Welby; the Archbishop of Canterbury having first dropped the baby three times, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

To the delight of onlookers, George cried loudly for the remainder of the day.

“Through these tears of repentance, he has really come to terms with the cost of forgiveness and the price paid in substitutionary atonement by Christ on the cross,” confirmed George’s uncle and new godfather, Prince Harry, wearing a ‘comedy’ Borat mankini. “But we remember that those who sow in tears will reap in joy.”

Amen.

God Speaks Through Kiteboarding

So… We’re still here. Lots of things we’re mulling over, just hasn’t been the right time to blog about them.

I wanted to share something that happened last week. I managed to go kiting last week for the first time in ages two weeks. After having seven straight days of rain in the beginning of October, the return of the sun brought a crisp northeast wind (which also coincided with my birthday), so I thought it would be rude not to take advantage of it.

Haven Beach on the Chesapeake

Haven Beach on the Chesapeake

The wind started strong but died down after we had been kiting for an hour or so, and as my little 7m is not keen on light wind, I swapped it for my buddy’s 10m. As I’m still very much learning the ropes (pun intended?) of kiting and learning to fly different types of kites, I found this 10m so completely foreign. I could feel its power, but for some reason it was feeling really sluggish and could hardly keep me out of the water. The conditions were already slightly tricky as the wind was on-shore and there were obstacles in the water, and I was really struggling to fly this kite. I could tell from the indecipherable hand gestures that my kite buddy was a little anxious – probably for his kite as much as my safety – so I decided to come in. I felt pretty stupid, but I was exhausted from fighting the kite, and figured I could use a break anyway. I won’t forget his words after he landed me:

“You’re so used to muscling your kite around and working it hard. You can’t do that with my kite – it will lose all its power. You just need to let it take you where it wants to go, and then when you feel its power, gently guide it upwind.”

Boom. This was my life, in a nutshell. I’ve been muscling through life and working hard and striving – for a career path, for success, for God, for everything. I’m exhausted for trying to do things my way. I felt God saying that he wants to give me a new kite, or at least a different way of flying. One that’s easy, effortless, that I don’t have to strive for.

VA Beach on a choppy day

VA Beach on a choppy day

The kite analogy continued the next day during our weekly prayer session. I could see Jesus on the beach path where I grew up – he asked me if I wanted to go kiting (of course!). I walked down to the beach to see that it was a beautiful, summer windy day with calm waters. I associate the summer, when the winds are out of the southwest, with consistent winds and calm waters – i.e. perfect conditions for easy kiting. The winds shift in the fall and winter to the northeast, which usually makes for chilly, gusty, rough kiting. Because I’m still a beginner, my survival instincts tend to kick in fairly strongly when I kite in a northeast wind – it’s still kiting (which I love), but it’s exhausting and there is also some amount of fear and dread (especially in big gusts). I felt like Jesus said that he wanted to change the wind direction of my life – from northeast to southwest. That I’ve been going for so long in gusty conditions and rough waters – I’ve been surviving, but there has been little joy. I feel like he wants to give me back the joy that comes from knowing that I’m safe, that I’m not on my own, and that if I get into trouble he’ll be there to rescue me.

The Puddle on Sullivan's

The Puddle on Sullivan’s

Are you tired? Worn out from surviving? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you a different way of kiting. Walk with me and kite with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. In fact I’ll give you a new kite that flies effortlessly. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.  (Matthew 11, The Message, paraphrased by me)

Food journeys

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A modest feast at Sitty’s

I am frequently  was once asked, “How did you come to be such a good cook?” and “How did you learn to eat and enjoy weird food?” You’re in luck, dear reader, because today’s blog will be an exploration of the relationship between food and health, our personal journey through nutrition, anthropology and ecology. If this sounds pretentious, you’re absolutely right. But don’t be afraid, because I’m really just going to tell some stories and slap some memes around.

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Growing up in my family, we apparently ate very well, although what I remember most was going to Burger King frequently and eating Kraft macaroni & cheese at least twice a week (sorry Mom). My favorite meal up until the age of about 16, which I would order every single time we went out to a restaurant, was chicken tenders with honey mustard sauce. At the same time, there was the Lebanese food culture in my family:  the epically huge potluck feasts on holidays; afternoon dinners at Sitty and Jiddy’s (my paternal grandparents) where days were spent in preparation and 5 or 6 main dishes were the norm; and the ubiquitous Lebanese salad dressing, present at every meal – the holy trinity of garlic, lemon juice and olive oil, that most catholic of condiments that accompanies every vegetable dish from green beans to broccoli. Alongside our mac & cheese suppers we always had a Vegetable. Instead of our Daily Bread, it was our Daily Salad, and I remember my brothers and I fighting over who got to lick the garlic off the mortar (or the pestle, whichever it is. It’s the pestle).

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My parents weren’t food nazis – there were plenty of foods each of us hated, and we were never forced to eat what we didn’t like. They also never made a fuss over eating “healthy” or otherwise (although I’m guessing the only people who knew about “healthy” eating back in those days were from California). However I was never particularly adventurous – I liked what I liked and I didn’t stray far from that path. Apart from my love of chicken tenders, I also loved everything Sitty made, and my favorite was and still is laban immo, a garlicky yogurt-based lamb stew. It sounds weird, but it is the ultimate comfort food. I believe it translates to “mother’s milk”. When Jiddy was alive, he would tell me to “Slow down, darling” while I was eating it – I loved it so much that I would figuratively* inhale it as quickly as possible.

As my brothers and I got older, my parents had more time and energy to spend on cooking (i.e. no more boxed mac & cheese). I came to appreciate my parents’ attitude towards food – the reliance on simple Mediterranean flavors, the use of very fresh ingredients, lots of fruits and vegetables, and a little bit of wine. I think I started drinking wine my senior year of high school and haven’t looked back since. There was a general ease to cooking and preparing food every day – it was never a burden, and it was always a family-involved process. Dinner-time conversation always included some kind of discussion and/or critique of the meal we were eating (which for some reason David finds very strange), before digressing into a heated debate about politics, religion, or anything else controversial – those of you who know my family will know what I mean here. Food had become a focal point in our family life – not only the actual substance of what we were eating, but the whole context of sharing meals and time together as a family.

When I moved away to Edinburgh and had my own (shared) kitchen, food was more about keeping warm and keeping going than anything else. I probably ate some form of chicken curry with naan bread, rice and Daily Salad at least three days a week, and a pre-made pizza (with Daily Salad) the other days. I was okay with the monotony (or routine), because I just needed to survive.

Then halfway through my time in Edinburgh I got sick. What started as a stomach bug continued on as chronic nausea and diarrhea for weeks and months. Every time I started eating, I would immediately feel sick. It was pretty awful, and food became my enemy in a way. The doctors said it was probably due to stress, but even years later when I wasn’t feeling particularly stressed, I would still have the nausea. Luckily it was manageable with medication, but in 2011 my doctor told me I would probably have to be on meds for the foreseeable future. I thought that was a bit pants.

So in early 2012, partly in response to my digestive issues, David and I tried the Paleo diet for a month. It meant a lot more cooking from scratch than we were used to. It was fun, David lost a fair amount of weight, and we both felt pretty good. We continued to be Paleo-ish for several months afterwards – we avoided wheat for the most part, as well as processed foods and vegetable oil, and added in other grains like rice and corn. I continued to feel good, so I thought I would try weaning myself off the medicine. To my surprise, I was able to get off completely with no more nausea. It’s been more than 18 months and I am still nausea-free!

Evolution fail 1

When I see the Paleo diet being talked about in the news or online, whether in positive or negative light, most part of me rolls my eyes because I do think it’s become a bit faddish. I think a lot of the science behind the Paleo theory is questionable (for instance I don’t think we really understand the evolutionary mechanisms or time frames when it comes to humans adapting to different types of food), but there are also some very good things we’ve taken away as well, most of which can be boiled down to: Eat Real Food.

One very important part of my journey that came out of Paleo initially and later through reading Weston A. Price is basically food anthropology:  the traditional ways of preparing and eating food, the different foods that are usually lacking in the American palate (including organ meats, animal fats and fermented foods), and also the social and cultural context of food. By looking at traditional food cultures, I saw not only “healthy” eating in terms of nutrition and nourishment for the body, but also the context that is created when real food is prepared – a food experience that nourishes the soul as well.

jandi intestines

In traditional cultures, such methods of food preparation as soaking, pickling or fermenting are fundamental, and the benefits of these methods are numerous. Lacto-fermentation, the method I’m most interested in because it’s kind of miraculous (and has nothing to do with lactose or dairy), is the process of harnessing natural bacteria found on the surface of all living things to preserve and store food safely. Using salt, water and spices, it provides a way to preserve vegetables and fruits long past their growing season without needing a freezer. Apart from preservation, it also produces beneficial bacteria – those same probiotics you take in a pill – and increases and releases the vitamin content in foods. But most importantly (for this story at least), it adds a depth of flavor that makes your average American meal seem pretty darn boring.

So I began to (intentionally) acquire a taste for fermented foods and organ meats. I learned to make kimchi and pickled vegetables. I learned to love liver pâté. I make yogurt once a week using Sitty’s starter culture that has been in our family for at least a hundred years. And in learning these things, I was put back in touch with the context of community, learning and history that is lost when food is just a product to be bought. I could go to a store and get Chobani Greek yogurt, for example, but that would deprive me of the privilege of some day teaching my children to make laban using their family’s unique “heirloom” starter culture and the pinkie finger trick that Sitty taught me. Passing on these things is a right of passage and a relational bonding experience. I’ve been asked so many times for the recipe for so-and-so Lebanese dish, and I kind of laugh because I know what is involved in learning to cook Sitty’s food. Indeed, one does not simply make Lebanese food by following a recipe.

boromir

I learned Sitty’s recipes by watching and cooking with her countless times, and trying and tasting and feeling my way through. It’s a process that’s so embedded in context that it’s almost impossible to separate the recipes from the family history. And almost every cuisine in the world has all this richness of culture – it makes me want to eat and sample and learn!

If we’re talking about connectedness, there has to be a conversation about ecology and where our food comes from. There is so much more to say on this subject, but for the sake of this blog already being wayyy too long, let’s leave it for people who are smarter than me. In short, it matters where our food comes from. The condition of the land where food is grown matters. It matters from a taste perspective. The first time I ever had carrots from a local CSA/veg box was in Edinburgh, and I had never tasted anything so carrot-y delicious before. Indeed it was like I had never even tasted a carrot before then. I think the condition of the land also matters hugely from a health perspective. I’m not just talking about “certified organic” or the lack of chemicals. It’s about the fertility of the land impacting the quality and nature of food. It’s also about the relationships between farmer and community and animal. It’s all connected, man.

noshiraz

Middle class problems. Who puts Shiraz in a Bourguignon anyway?!

I believe that the context of food – the growing, preparing, learning and sharing – is every bit as important as the actual substance of the food itself. This is why I don’t think the Paleo diet for us was sustainable – food is the ultimate social experience, and it’s super lame to have to decline food because you can’t eat what someone else eats. However – and maybe I’ve just turned into a food snob – having gone to a few shared meals at church or wherever lately, I have been supremely disappointed by the “home-cooked” food that has been offered. It’s not that people weren’t trying their best (bottled salad dressings aside), but I think there is a lot of context that is missing from American food culture – and our health and taste buds suffer from it. I’m not saying that everyone should own their own cows to milk to make cheese, but can you compare store-bought taco shells, “economy” ground beef (with taco seasoning packet spices), pre-shredded lettuce, and Kraft three-cheese blend to proper Mexican braised pork tacos with salsa fresca and homemade tortillas? We can do so much better. And yes, you may slap me now in the face for having written the most pretentious run-on sentence you will probably read all week.

What I’m saying is I’m aware that cooking from scratch requires a bit more time and effort (and, sadly, money) than mixing something from a packet, and there are plenty of nights where I’ve taken the easy option because I’ve been too tired to do anything better. But if that’s all you do, and if that’s all you know, the creativity, the flavor and the context of food (and I would also argue our health) is so much poorer.

So every once in a while, let’s investigate something new, let’s explore a new cuisine, let’s learn from that Korean grandmother that lives on your street that probably buries her kimchi in the back yard. The world is such a rich place, it would be such a waste to eat only chicken tenders.

*I wanted to say ‘literally’, but David has issues with the word “literally” objects to the idea of his wife sucking up food through her nose.

August Update: On not-so-heroic failures, marriage, and a poem

It’s been a heck of a summer, which I will try to sum up as briefly as possible.

We moved to Fredericksburg on June 24, and started work at Lockhart Family Farm a week or so later. As a new startup, the margins were always going to be tight – we knew that. But then a little over a month ago, we lost nearly half of our turkeys to coyotes, and thus a large chunk of income for the farm.

Needless to say, this put a big dent in the farm’s precarious budget, to the point that, in order to find a way to pay our wages and stay afloat, the Lockharts (who had already cut their salaries) were planning to take on additional part-time jobs. We felt awkward at this: that it would put too much strain on the people who are actually a necessity to the farm for the benefit of those who aren’t. So (with their agreement and blessing) we decided to release ourselves from our contracts and cease to be Lockhart Family Farm employees.

The date we set was the end of August, which was yesterday. We now have no jobs. Don’t you just love adventures? We don’t.

This is not the first time that the metaphorical rug has been swept from under our feet and our best laid plans have done the thing that best laid plans often do – in Cornwall (2010-12) and in Charleston (2012-13) our attempts to set achievable goals and work towards them were also thwarted. It leaves us feeling halfway between bemusement and despair, wondering whether we really are this spectacularly bad at making life decisions, or whether this is what following God (which is what we are attempting to do) looks like.

bookofheroicfailures

We’re working on our own version of this book…

There is a lot I could say, and this month we have run the entire gamut of emotional responses – from real despair and depression about having lost a livelihood from which we were hoping to build our lives and expand our family, to excitement for the opportunities that are hopefully ahead of us, to plain ole’ worry about where (and when) the next paycheck will come. There have been sleepless nights of crying out to God together, and there have been days of having a little more hope and trust in him than we did the previous day (although I want to point out that it has not been an upwards or linear trajectory).  It’s been really, really hard. We still feel quite bewildered, but we are trying to carry on the best we can.

The one thing that stands out to me through all of this is that David and I love each other more than we did two months ago. I don’t know if it’s because of all the shit we’ve been trudging through lately (literally and figuratively), or if it’s because we’re approaching four years of marriage and are finally figuring things out a bit. Please understand that I really dislike sentimentality of all kinds and am hesitant to write about marriage in a gooey type of way because (a) marriage is fucking hard, and (b) feelings come and go on any given day/month/year. But this love that I’m standing on, that is keeping me going, is nothing of my own doing (or David’s). I think it is the grace of God in very very hard time. And for that I am grateful.

I will leave you with a poem that David wrote for me for our anniversary last year, which has been in my mind lately.

You are
My spar
To cling to;
To hold when the waves get too much,
And my feet lose touch
With the safe sand.

For you have crossed oceans
Buffeted, burned,
But still buoyant.

Driftwood from a distant tree
Drifted to me;
To clutch
And not let go.

Let’s take our dogs to the beach
Running in the bluster,
Skipping over the tide.
To find
Other isolated sticks,
Spars washed up
From their wearying wanderings.

Pile them together with ours
And strike a match.
See the flames reach into the night.
The centrepiece
Of the feast.

The Ocean is my comforter

kitestorm
The Ocean is my comforter-
I run to her
When I am all run out of words
When I am at the end of myself
Exhausted from trying to figure out the magic words
to make life open up to me.

She welcomes me with open arms
She is big enough to hold my doubts and fears and failures
and endless tears
My tears becomes her own tears,
My turmoil her waves
It’s okay, she says, I know, she says,
Let me hold you in my saltwater embrace;
I plunge in and let her carry me for a while.

She is not gentle – she is rather fierce
My waves of sorrow are no match for hers
She is no stranger to my wild grief,
For she carries the troubles of the world in her vast bosom,
The tears of all creatures are contained in her depths.
Your troubles, she says, They are not too much for me

Every day I run to the Ocean
I need something bigger than myself