Faith and Charlie Horses

It’s hard to explain faith. Someone–an acquaintance from college–recently wrote that they were doing me a kindness by not considering me evangelical and writing me off.

The truth is, I don’t mind being written off. But I am concerned about being considered evangelical. Because I’m plenty busy with keeping myself in line without getting involved with what anyone else is doing. (Unless those someone elses are trying to devastate large parts of humanity. Then I get upset and noisy.)

I can’t tell you exactly why I’m a person of faith. What I can tell you is that it has little to do with identity politics, or what I was born into, although those things are real and provide context.

It’s a million lonely moments. Times when I was crushingly without direction and full of anxiety. For some time just after 9/11 I lived alone above a little violin shop in Germantown. Muslims in America had gone from mostly unremarkable to public enemy #1 virtually overnight.

I had recently gone through a divorce, having found out that my (now ex) husband was involved in some behavior that, beyond wrecking everything I thought I’d known of him was just downright….creepy.

I was working a lot, running an evening clinic on top of my day job. And I was fighting to figure out where all of the energy to keep going was going to come from.

And the weirdest thing started happening. I’d been praying, for solace, out of desperation, I’m not sure exactly, except it was a space of peace. But I could never wake up for the pre-dawn prayer. Until I started getting charlie horses–muscle cramps in my legs at the exact time of the pre-dawn prayer, so intense it felt like my calf was being wrung out like a rag but someone forgot about the bones. First time in my life I had had them and I though I was dying; they’d wake me out of a dead sleep.

Once, a mouse trap went off just at the right time–the violin shop was next to a dive-y Chinese take-out place. Kind of terrifying because I can’t handle mice. It wasn’t always idyllic, but it was my small, strange conversation with something bigger than myself. I had asked for more equanimity, more comfort, more steadfastness and the morning prayer was it for me. It anchored something that had come unmoored, maybe something that had always been unmoored. It was the honey of my spiritual life, if only I could manage to wake up for it.

That period in my life revolved around a conversation more intimate than I can describe, made of dreams and mousetraps, pain and laughter and tenderness. And, you know, that’s what my faith is forged in. Not in what or how anyone else believes, not in a text or a cultural tradition, but in those minuscule, unimaginable, ridiculous moments of intimacy with the Divine in the form of charlie horses at 4 a.m.

My life is a lot different now, noisy with two young children. But the sweet nourishment of that time is what everything else is built on. It’s the well that I drink from; it’s how I make meaning.

My Body

I had an ectopic pregnancy in 2009. It was a pregnancy I wanted desperately. When the pain started, I tried to tough it out, thinking I could manage a miscarriage at home.

When the bleeding and the pain continued to worsen, I was triaged to the head of the line at the ER and immediately administered methotrexate, a cancer drug meant to break up the cells rapidly multiplying in my fallopian tube. Without the methotrexate, my fallopian tube would have burst and I could have died as a result. Despite what some idiot legislators think, ectopic pregnancies are not viable and can not be “moved into the uterus.” I am super glad that methotrexate stopped those cells multiplying; and am still shocked that no follow up care or support was offered. Instead, I painfully passed a bloody mass later in the week in a bathroom stall at work. I worked for the rest of the day because I was out of leave time and no one talks about miscarriage, forget ectopic pregnancies. The hormonal cascade of lost pregnancy was nearly unbearable; no one prepared me for it.

Then, I had two lovely babies, one born at 31 weeks and the other born at 35 weeks. Both required extensive and expensive oversight and treatment in the NICU for weeks or months. Without excellent insurance, without a supportive family, without a loving partner who had a stable job, I would never have been able to care for those two beautiful babies who are now rambunctious kiddos. Preemies require endless months of living in that newborn phase of no sleep, constant feeding, pumping and nursing where possible, extra monitoring, extra hospital and doctor visits, and plenty of skin to skin time. After my second baby was born early for reasons still undiscernible, I knew I could not risk another pregnancy.

We have a society with devastatingly inadequate health access, no right to paid parental leave, no adequate or affordable child care, and no in-home taxpayer funded maternal support or newborn care. Our public education system is crumbling, we have a school shooting crisis and we treat/pay teachers terribly. We have not created any of the infrastructure that would suggest we care at all about the lives of children, or their mothers.

Women are, without question, the only people in a position to make decisions about their bodies, their health, their ability to carry a pregnancy to term, and their ability to handle the risks and responsibilities of childbirth and raising children. This is especially true because in our broken society, we place nearly the entire burden of caring for pregnancies and for children in the hands of mothers, and we spend very little (almost nothing compared to other industrial countries) to support them.

As for people out there who feel like they need to save children, they can start by busting kids out of immigration internment camps, then they can demand legislation to create national health care, affordable and high-quality child care, robust paid parental leave, taxpayer funded in-home newborn and maternal support. Then they can reform labor and delivery practices so they are humane and make breastfeeding support widespread. When those are established, they can get to work on better housing and food subsidies, gun control and a robust public education system.

What We Have Now

North Americans and Europeans have created entire countries full of climate refugees and entire countries full of refugees from brutal colonial violence in South and Central America and the Middle East. We maintain the colonization and suppression of vast underclasses of Black Americans and First Nations people (and also often “immigrants,” by which we mean brown people). The only sound response, the only ethical response, is to open borders to those whose suffering we have, ourselves, created. And to engage in reconciliation and reparations to the internally colonized, including large transfers of land and power. The pressure and the brutality will not stop at our borders as climate crisis and late capitalism make it harder to sustain a middle class, and the first to suffer are always those who are already vulnerable. It would be a mistake to think it will end there. It’s not so complicated. This is not charity. This is our last best chance of us saving ourselves, or really anything about our societies worth saving.

Arguments about viability and limited resources are just code for “me first” in a moment of diminishing resources.

We are a lot like our leaders, in the end, I think: hoping to hang on to our own wealth and our own comfort, whatever we have of it, even if it is just routine and stability, jobs and homes and grocery stores and plastic bags for as long as we possibly can. I don’t blame us; the alternative is unpredictable and terrifying. I say we because it’s absolutely me, too. I can’t figure out just how to live a life of future sustainability in the present, or how to effect change in a system that operates at levels of money and power to which I have no access. I don’t even know how to set expectations and give encouragement to my children given the uncertainty that lies ahead. But I do know that we will all do terrible things, and fail to do the right things, so long as we remain most concerned about maintaining what we have.