Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Anapra Visit

In 2013 we opened a library in Anapra. It sits on a corner of two dirt streets in the center of this 10,000 person neighborhood of Juarez. Most people in Anapra survive on around $70 per week for six days of factory work. Public schools are not free, nor do they have libraries. Books are rare. Except at this library where the shelves are filled with over 1,000 titles covering everything from llamas in pajamas to what to expect when you're expecting. This corner of Anapra has become a portal to adventures and to learning. This little library tells a story, too; to the single mother, the elderly grandmother, the tired father, the confused teen, the curious child - that they are valued, worthy of investment, and have a place to belong.

Over the last six months we have added another large space in an "L shape" to help with the library overflow. The building sits back-to-back with the library with a door between the two. The main room is ideal for tutoring and game playing and crafting. The smaller room is great for guests to sleep or potentially a quiet place to read, when needed. For the first time we now have a safe place to stay that does not require inconveniencing our friends or crossing back to the U.S. at night. The space is bright and welcoming, though it is not yet fully finished. The floors are still bare concrete and the walls need paint. One thing at a time and patience, these are things Anapra has taught me.

The library, the new expansion, the books, the activities, none would be possible without Estela. She, and the small group of women she has empowered and entrusted with this ministry, are some of the most incredible leaders I have ever met. Despite their own personal challenges, despite the daily struggle to make ends meet and just stay warm, these women serve selflessly. They show up to open the library. They greet the patrons with hugs. When someone new comes they get to know them, they ask about their story, and they listen. Despite only having a sixth grade education Estela manages the library and the volunteers and the programming like a seasoned pro. She laughs about the unlikely role of 'librarian' but it fits her talents perfectly.

It comes as no surprise that Estela spends her time pouring into others. Glancing around her living room there are photos everywhere of family and friends. Her story is as rich as the array of photos on her walls. Someday I'd like to do it justice by taking the time to really write it all out. But again, one day at a time... one project at a time. For now she is busy running a library among other ministries, and taking care of her grandchildren. She has 17.

In the early days of ministry in Anapra Estela learned of a young mother whose palette house had burnt to the ground and left her and her five children homeless. Estela worked with her contacts in the US to build this mother a new cinder block home and they soon became close friends. Bertha and her five, now-grown, children continue to help Estela with ministering to the needs of others. Bertha hosts Vacation Bible School every summer which has grown to serving over 200 children on most days of the four-weeks that it runs. Two years ago Bertha suffered a debilitating stroke that left her badly crippled and blind. The people of Anapra and local nuns went into downtown Juarez to tell Bertha's story and request donations for a much-needed surgery. Donations received, along with those from the US, enabled the surgery to save her life and some of her sight. Recently Bertha worked with Estela to begin a Pajama Club at the library. Though she struggles walking long distances, and only has partial sight, her enjoyment of the children is all that is evident when she sings songs and reads stories to the little ones cuddled up on blankets in their pajamas.

Though much has been done in Anapra in the twenty-plus years Estela has been doing ministry to her neighbors, there is still more that is needed. As winter set in last year Estela visited an elderly woman who was living up on the mesa above Anapra. When she arrived at her house she was surprised to find the woman living in a palette house with her six grandchildren and no blankets on the beds. The woman explained that they had hung the blankets on the outside of the walls to try to keep out the bitter wind. Estela reached out to us and shared the story. As a minimum they needed a heater and blankets, but ideally we'd get a house built. We shared the story, we found donors, and a house was built. During our visit we piled into Estela's van and headed up the mesa to see the new house and to meet the woman and her grandchildren.

Lorenza is a petite woman. She was quite but grateful. Her six grandchildren sat quietly and watched as we stood in their 10 ft. by 20 ft. home, beds in each corner, neatly swept. Two more babies lay sleeping, more grandbabies who need watching while their mother is at work. The home sits a stones throw from the edge of the mesa, which is how one granddaughter ended up falling down the steep hillside and breaking her leg several months ago. Estela points to the granddaughter and notes that her leg is healing well. Lorenza tells us that she prays often for those who help the poor, then asks us if we would like to take a look inside of her old house, which she now uses for storage.

Entering someone's home is so personal, especially when they've built it with their own hands. When I was younger, before I had babies of my own and bills and real life experiences, I avoided looking inside a palette house too closely for fear of making the owner feel shame or embarrassment for their fragile dwelling. But Estela started in a palette house. When Anapra was first settled 30 years ago everyone lived in palette houses and those houses meant hope and space to raise kids and having your own plot of land, it is what drew Estela and her husband to this place. Now I know that putting a roof over your children or grandchildren's head is admirable, no matter how meek.

Before we leave the mesa Lorenza comments on William and his size. She tries to hold him but he is overdo on a nap and wants his mama. We walk to the mesa edge and take in the view. Lorenza tells us the best night is the 4th of July. The children line up along the mesa edge to watch the fireworks that light up the sky in the US. The proximity of such severe poverty against the green grass and malls and fireworks of the US has always bothered me. It is the accepted reality of life in Anapra.

Saturday is the busiest library day. The shaded patio out front is quickly filled with readers. A few children grab a game from the shelf and take it outside to play quietly together. Inside many mothers have found their book on the shelf, bookmark right where they left it. The elementary-aged children head to the new space where a long table awaits them. They line up for 90 minutes of tutoring from a local teacher. Nearly 100 people will visit the library from 10:00 to 2:00, and yet it is never chaotic.

After the majority of the patrons have left for the day we sit down to a lunch of homemade tamales and champurrado - a truly special Christmas treat. Several similarly delicious meals were served during our visit including empanadas, burritos and flautas. All wonderful and filling. But knowing the amount of work it takes to make tamales they were extra special.

Estela's son wants to make the visit extra special, so he offers to drive the big girls up to a new scenic overlook that was recently built in Juarez. Walking out to the domed portion of the overlook requires a special amount of bravery as the grating you walk on reveals how high above the road you are. Everyone wants to see the view so they are brave.

Border towns are unique in the blend they find between the two cultures they share. Juarez is no different. Estela and her family celebrate Thanksgiving every year, though they wait until Saturday since the holiday is obviously American and no one has Thursday off work in Mexico. This year was no different, and we gladly join the festivities. Rather than turkey we are served delicious grilled chicken with tortillas and mashed  potatoes. For our part we bring chocolates to share and a store-bought tres leches cake.

Sunday morning and seventeen hours of driving await us. We know the line at the bridge could be long so we should leave early. We give hugs and promise to return soon. And we take pictures, to remember.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

We've Moved

We signed the papers last Wednesday. The day before Brandon had been utterly wiped out with a horrendous stomach bug so he was pale and weak but the papers got signed. I had to hurry right back to work but met up with the kids and unlocked the doors to our new house by 6:00 that evening. By 6:01 Julia had vomited all over our new kitchen floor – and just like that the house was so, so ours.
The first few days were a mix of packing and loading and unloading and holding of babies, keeping a toddler from running through doors that were left open and changing lots and lots and lots of diapers. Wipes were sought but not always found. I may have used wet leaves in the yard in a moment of messy desperation to clean a baby’s bottom. It was a long couple of days.
At least a dozen generous, strong humans came to our aid by way of lending vehicles, moving boxes, painting, installing, advising and gifting us meals, childcare and general kindness. It was incredibly humbling and filled my soul way, way up.
The first night went smoothly, with everyone in their new rooms all tucked in and happy as clams. I, however, wandered aimlessly in the dark for a good long while trying to take it all in. About midnight a wave of intense anxiety washed over me as I blankly stared into the darkness of our new living room. A host of unhealthy and useless thoughts raced through my mind questioning all aspects of life and houses and finances; I decided it was probably a very good time to go to bed.
Over the next several days Brandon and I spent a spattering of hours going back and forth to get the odds and ends we had left at the duplex; the fossilized shark tooth from the museum gift shop and other items that don’t really have a proper place in the general packing of a home. After everything was out and it had been vacuumed and wiped down I drove over and walked from room to room to say my own little good bye. Most rooms were so different once empty that I kept it together, but the bedroom that had served as a school room for so many years choked me up as I stared at the wall where we had hung bulletin boards and alphabet posters and imagined our little eager learners and I got very sad. I decided it was probably a very good time to go to Starbucks.
It has now been a week worth of sleeps and this long-awaited and much-anticipated place is beginning to feel very much like home. The park behind our house gives us gorgeous views of deer in the mornings, the rooms are spacious and inviting, and the kitchen has already hosted many good conversations. I am overwhelmed with gratitude and full up with love. I hope to have a talented photographer I know snap some pictures to share very soon!

Friday, June 17, 2016


Julia and Carolyn in the living room 2008
When Brandon and I got married we did what many young, eager couple do and promptly bought a dog and a house. It was a perfectly wonderful little house and when we quickly found out we were expecting our first baby we prepared a perfectly wonderful nursery inside our cozy home. A little over a year later, with new jobs and new baby, we decided it was silly for us both to be driving 40 and 60 miles (each respectively) to work every day and we decided to sell our house. I cried, a lot. I did not want to leave the place I brought my first baby home to, where she learned to walk and had her first Christmas.

Alas, it was inevitable and thankfully we got a fantastic offer (literally months before the whole housing market crashed), with only one stipulation – a very quick moving date.

Left in a bit of a lurch with a toddler (and another baby now on the way) we scrambled to find a new home in Kansas City. As luck would have it my Grandma called and let us know she had a duplex that had just come available. Her renter needed to break the lease and would be moving out the following Saturday, which was precisely when we would need to be moving in. It was a convenient coincidence that we worked for the good of all involved.

I remember that Saturday, we were bringing our things in the garage as the former renter took things out the front door. With only a few years of marriage and one baby we didn’t have much to move, though undoubtedly I was overwhelmed. My Grandma offered to have new carpet put down but I reassured her that we would not be staying too long. I distinctly remember telling her “we’ll probably only stay for six months or so.” That was 2006.

Of course I could not have foreseen the ten years that would unfold before our fledgling family. Bringing home baby number two, starting a new job, cars needing replaced, cavities needing filled. I could not have anticipated standing in my tiny kitchen answering the phone call that would inform me that my Grandma had suffered a massive aneurism, or saying goodbye only a few days later. The holidays of that year were bleak and are now blurry, but the days continued to roll on. Then my gallbladder went bad and the mailbox seemed to bring a new bill on a daily basis for what seemed like a year. Meanwhile my babies kept on growing and now they had surely hunted hundreds of Easter eggs in the living room, carved more than a few pumpkins in the kitchen, and not only learned to walk but could now climb the door frames and slide down the staircase. At some juncture in it all I saw a dermatologist about some pesky acne which led to a mole removal which led to a phone call informing me I had amelanoma, which inevitably led to a lot of scars and more bills. By now it was 2011 and five years had flown by.

With more debt than I care to think about and hoping for an adventure we took a year-long assignment with my work to open an office in the Baltimore metro. Packing only what could fit into our four-door car we headed East and let our duplex serve as an over-sized storage unit as we recalibrated life. It was an incredible experience and gave us a lot of time to think about life, what we wanted out of it, and how we might get there. As we rolled back into Kansas City and climbed back into our familiar beds we had a renewed goal to buy a home, eventually… someday. 

After returning home from Baltimore we would occasionally stop by an open house or wander some acreage and imagine what might be, but the right place and the right timing did not come. Simultaneous to keeping an eye out for our perfect home we made a fairly substantial decision to have another baby (or two). This decision both stalled our house hunt and made it all the more urgent as we were quickly outgrowing our duplex. Once Gwyneth was born we set out in earnest to find a perfect home for our family, and even made an offer on one we especially liked. But, as we had seen many times before, life intervened as we were surprised to learn that we would be welcoming a fourth baby a bit sooner than we had expected. The house hunting stopped and we recalibrated once again. 2015 came and went with no new house, but a beautiful baby boy instead, amen.

So here we find ourselves… ten years later. Until recently I had this idea that if my overly optimistic twenty-five year old self was sitting in front of me now I would shake her and say “get a clue!” I imagined lecturing her on the importance of health insurance benefits, personal finance, and cherishing that last visit with Grandma that you never knew would be the last. But… I’m softening on twenty-five year old me lately. I am getting comfortable with being grateful for her optimism, appreciating that her na├»ve financial mistakes were lessons that are shaping the next twenty-five years of life rather than ruining it. And that last evening at Grandma’s house, it was a Tuesday, when I hurried out to soon – I will always regret it but I learned. I try so much harder now to slow down, admittedly not always well, but I try. I learned. I am learning, and progressing and trying.

Our six-months-turned-ten-years in the duplex are quickly drawing to a close. Soon we will be moving to a house that I am totally convinced is exactly where we are supposed to be for this next chapter of life. I am both crazy-anxious to start painting, organizing, and making new memories and yet incredibly sad to say goodbye to a home that has held so much meaning for us. Easter mornings, Christmas Eves, sunny days, cook outs, blizzards, dance parties, long talks with friends, four years of homeschool lessons, three new babies home from the hospital, first steps, paper airplanes, lots of messes, and so much love – all inside these walls.

It is a bittersweet few weeks ahead but, ten years later, I think we’re finally ready.

Monday, January 4, 2016

William's Birth Story

William’s birth was so calm and uneventful that I feel a bit odd about sharing it. I had hoped for something exciting like my water breaking in a theatrical fashion during an important Corporate America meeting, or a dramatic (but safe and healthy) home delivery as many of my amazing friends have experienced lately. But alas this was not our story.

I lamented the lack of excitement as we drove to the hospital at 5AM to be induced on the Thursday before Christmas. Brandon, likely just ready to be done with the whole final-weeks-of-pregnancy part (which is the WORST) assured me that this was the right timing for our family. After all, I was the one who had asked the doctor about a pre-holidays induction; having three excited little girls at home while I am stuck in the hospital over Christmas did not seem doable for my emotional well-being. Besides, the doctor suspected this baby boy would be big, and my body was already in disrepair from last year’s delivery of his hefty sister. Thus, on the Thursday before Christmas we arrived at the hospital in the wee hours of a quiet morning to welcome our baby boy via induction and I am still coming to terms with that so please be kind.
From there, as I mentioned previously, it was very calm and uneventful. The previous two weeks of on-again-off-again contractions had done their work and I was already at 4cm when we arrived. The doctor broke my water, a light Pitocin drip was started, and the epidural was begun. Julia had opted to miss school in order to be there while I labored, so we held hands and watched the Food Network. I progressed nicely and by 1:00 it was time to push. My sister had gotten off work just in time to walk in as the final preparations for William’s arrival were made. Remembering a few previous uncomfortable pushing moments from other deliveries I told my doctor that “I hate this part” but she assured me that this boy was not far off and if I gave it a few good pushes he would be here quickly. Not believing her, because I get VERY nervous and emotional when it comes to the part in life when you push a baby out, I said “are you SURE?” and she, having never delivered any of my babies answered “unless you suck at pushing, I am sure.” My type-A don’t-want-to-suck-at-anything personality was completely motivated and sweet William was out very (very) shortly thereafter.
As my doctor had suspected, he was a big healthy boy at 9 lbs. 7 oz. When they laid him, fresh from heaven, on my chest I realized that adrenalin and emotions and epidurally things make you a bit of a space cadet in these moments. I simultaneously wondered “does this goo come off the hospital gown, and my hands, very easily” and “are they sure it’s a boy” and “darn, that went so fast I kind of am sad it’s over.” The nurses began giving me elaborate instructions about his blood sugar, which would need to be tested at feeding intervals because of some concern about his size. As I lay there nodding but only taking in about 10% of the instructions I remember thinking “it is really odd that they think I will remember this, I hope someone else is listening because I do not understand a thing they are saying.” And then I held my sweet baby boy a little longer, and nursed him, and admired him, and was thankful.
After we had time to give him many good long looks and cuddles his sisters came to meet him, followed by grandmas and grandpas and aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. It was the most peaceful and serene of my deliveries, perhaps an indication of this sweet boy’s demeanor – or simply a Christmas blessing to a tired type-A mama. Either way, I’ll take it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

School: An Update

In order to protect my nerves and sanity I hadn’t let myself imagine it too much. My preconceived notions of what the girls’ first days of public school might include were largely shaped by my own experiences some 25 years ago plus a few good and bad stories I’d heard from experienced teacher friends. I acknowledge that this apprehension about something so daily for millions of children is ridiculous, akin to a mid-westerners avoidance of the ocean for fear of a shark attack. So on that first day of school I dove in and nearly forgot to watch for looming fins or ominous music, and no sharks have bitten as of yet.

My socialite, Carolyn, came home with a catalog of friends and very little recollection of any learning taking place. A big fan of the hot lunches, as well as the accompanying lunch room drama, she is LOVING school. Despite being stung by a wasp on recess, rehearsing the intruder drill (this terrifies me), and having to make friends with a sea of new faces she remains unruffled. To her, the biggest challenge thus far is in solving why one of the boys in her class doesn’t seem to enjoy her company. Day-after-day she makes a point to compliment his outfit or ask how he is enjoying his lunch and she seems to be met with eye-rolls and short responses. This will not do and thus she is on a personal mission to get to the bottom of his contempt; and I’m fairly certain she will (it might hurt a little). She has a fantastic teacher who appreciates her outgoing nature and free-spirit, not to mention having a host of fun activities planned for the year that kind of make me want to go back to fifth grade myself.

My introverted-academic, Julia, has struggled just a bit. She is not a fan (at all) of recess. By the fourth day of school she was a puddle of tears at the thought of braving the asphalt for twenty long minutes of friendship attempts. Her teacher and librarian worked together to find a solution in which she volunteers in the library during recess and she couldn’t be more pleased. By the ninth day she was doubled-over in tummy aches with anxiety yet again. This took a bit more digging, but with the help of wise family members and her fantastic teacher, we discovered that her perfectionism does not like the long wait between taking a test and seeing the results. This unknown waiting, coupled with the fact that her math assessment test was computerized and became harder the better she did, she had contrived a story in her sweet, anxious mind that she had failed her very difficult math assessment horribly thus the tummy aches and tears. Once we were able to talk through her results with her teacher her shoulders relaxed and her smile returned. Now we know: it’s hard to wait for test results when you’re a perfectionist!

Thus far I’ve observed several things:

1. School is really very different from when I was in 3rd and 5th grade. Obviously Oregon Trail has come a long way, but seriously the integration of technology is super exciting to me. Gamification for learning spelling words, exploring far-away places on Google Earth, even the adaptive testing all engage their learning so much more deeply than I remember. What’s more, the classroom is much more autonomous, with options to explore multiple avenues of learning and interests rather than being glued to your seat for the duration of the day. (I feel like my elementary education was a bit dull with the exception of Exchange City and that time our teacher read us the Orphan Train Quartet by kerosene lamp which I thought was all things that school should be and more, please also note that I fully acknowledge my memory could be extremely jaded and amiss).

2. I am not as worried about their grades as I thought I would be. This is probably one of the many blessings that homeschooling bestowed, because there were no grade cards I just enjoyed watching them grow as learners and seeing their enthusiasm for certain (but admittedly not all) subjects. Carolyn was riveted by Greek Mythology and World History, she begged to do science experiments even when it wasn’t school time. Julia flew through her math and loved to master the next problem or skill, she could write a poem or story that made her proud and want to share it over dinner or display it on the fridge. Brandon did grade tests regularly, but without a permanent record in some dusty school file it didn’t define them and only reflected progress rather than merit or worth. For me, a recovering perfectionist myself, grades are still important especially as they progress to higher levels, but I am not going to freak out about B’s (maybe even C’s) like I thought I would. In fact, my brother once told me that he would hate to be my kid because he was sure I’d be a tyrant about grades, and I agreed with him. I'm a growing learner too it seems.

3. It is exhausting. While homeschooling is a whole lot of work, Brandon bore the brunt of it and everything was generally wrapped up and put away before I ever got home each night. The flexible schedule allowed for piano and skating lessons to take place during the day as well, so our evenings were free. Lunch was at noon at home, no pre-packing or planning required on my part. Matching outfits were not necessary, nor shoes. There were also no backpacks filled with forms to fill out or homework to review and sign on a nightly basis. While Brandon was planning and executing the hard work of daily lessons I was blissfully unaware of the ins-and-outs of daily education and now I see that It.Is.Exhausting. To all of the teachers, homeschooling parents, and single mamas out there – kudos and a deep bow. I am impressed and in awe and exhausted just thinking about it.

Generally I am really impressed and grateful at the start the girls have had this year. They are excited, they have fantastic teachers, and there have been very few tears. The children in their school are all very kind, no bullies, no shark attacks. And they are growing as learners and friends. To everyone who has texted, called, and prayed – thank you. I am amazed by the friends and family who care so deeply for my girls and for their worried mama!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

An Awfully Big Adventure

My definition of “adventure” is broadening. 

As a young mom, and even still admittedly, I longed to give my children ADVENTURE. I wanted (er, still want) to show them ancient ruins and yummy foods and fine art. I envision a scrapbook full of ticket stubs and photographs that they can tote off to college and adulthood full of memories. I want their heads to be chocked-full of knowledge of a great big world and their hearts to be full of compassion for all of its inhabitants. But, alas, I also want to save for their college and pay for their braces and keep the darn lights on. So, adventure to faraway places is not as easy as Pinterest makes it appear.

Yet still, I am realizing, adventure is not so far away. Even in my own memories I had some of my greatest childhood adventures taking walks with best friends, swimming with cousins in imaginary underwater worlds, and eventually falling madly in love with my future husband. Certainly vacations, honeymoons and epic road trips have made their marks, but I don’t want to short-change the everyday adventures that happen while we are longing for the next big thing.

This broadened idea of adventure is indeed how I have viewed the decision to have another baby, and another. Where my first two babies were tasks to accomplish and life-altering daily challenges (I’m being brutally honest here), I have embraced Gwyneth differently. With the benefit of experience and invaluable therapy (more honesty) I welcome the daily needs of my baby girl as a delight, mini-adventures in wonder at her growth, curiosity at her crying, joy that she even IS; and to get to do it all again with a baby boy this December, what an amazing ADVENTURE.

So too, I am convincing myself, must be my view of the adventure that starts tomorrow as the girls attend their first ever day of public school. Our journey with homeschooling has been rich and rewarding, affording the girls the opportunity to travel on work trips to Baltimore and New Orleans and Augusta. They will always treasure the fact that their dad taught them to read, to multiply and divide, to make a hypothesis. They discussed Marie Antoinette and Martin Luther King Jr., geography and geology, and countless other important facts that have made them strong learners. But now they embark on a new adventure as they take their seats in third and fifth grade to encounter more of the world, new viewpoints from classmates and teachers, new facts, new experiences. Their bags are packed and they are very excited to embark first thing tomorrow morning.

For a whole slew of reasons, some rational and some not, I am more nervous about this than most anything they have done so far. “They will be fine” echoes off of every kind-hearted, knowledgeable friend. I am sure they will be, but I hope for more than “fine” in this next big adventure in their education. Just as with any great place they may go - I want their heads to be chocked-full of knowledge of a great big world and their hearts to be full of compassion for all of its inhabitants. I hope and pray that tomorrow begins just such a journey for them, I trust it will.