The Birth of Mary Joy

28 July 2015

I don’t post on this blog anymore, but tomorrow is my sweet baby girl’s first birthday and the first anniversary of her birth. It was a magical and wonderful birth, though not Perfect like Leif’s. I have taken this year to reflect on it and on myself, and I think I’m a bit wiser because of her birth. Life is certainly a lot richer because of her birth, but mostly because of HER. So here it is… the long version. As I recall it, one year later.

Zwischen… Waiting in Readiness

My midwife called it “sensitive” and urged me not to dismiss it. Most people would call my mood at the end of my third pregnancy emotional or hormonal. This pregnancy was different, that I was sure of. Something seemed to be brimming, and with the advancement of my pregnancy, it was overflowing, surfacing as emotions I couldn’t understand or articulate.

BellyShots10

around 7 months pregnant

Pregnancy was always a spiritual experience for me. It’s a time when I feel close to God and bursting with life and creativity and focus, and then also deeply contemplative, and then sometimes wracked with fear. Birth Without Fear. That’s what we’re supposed to do. Well I could never do it. I tried. So, I had to do the inverse. I had to face my fears head on so they could be conquered.

So now that we’ve established how I am emotional, sensitive, and how pregnancy & childbirth is a spiritual experience for me, you can understand how when on the morning of July 27 it started pouring down large raindrops onto our Southern California home, why I would see that as a kind of an omen. Things were happening in nature—both in the sky and in my body.

This came after a long night that had brought me very little sleep. The Braxton Hicks contractions were coming regularly and kept me up. They didn’t increase like real labor, and by that morning I was exhausted and incredibly emotional.

Before the downpour, I had been walking outside. That was all I knew to do after that horrible night. Andy was worried about me but I felt restless and needed to get moving. As soon as dawn broke I was out of the door, sobbing as I walked the boulevard under a cloudy sky, the scant car whizzing past now and then, leaving me unnoticed, but covering the sound of my cries. When I returned, I felt more at peace. A quick nap and a hearty breakfast brought me back down to earth. I knew now that a night birth like Leif’s was not what I wanted. I am tired these days, and need to labor on a full night’s sleep. So I changed my requests to God, and started asking for something crazy: to labor during the day, after a full night’s sleep, with my children present. He knows my needs, so I trusted that He would give me either rest or unexpected strength. Turned out He gave me both.

This is probably a good time to point out that my babies have always been born either on a weekend or first thing Monday. I really believe this is because my husband has always worked rather far away. I think there is something in my subconscious that has always been afraid to let him get too far away from me, with LA traffic in between.

We went to church Sunday, and when we got home I took a nice nap. My midwife Lisa Marie came over that afternoon for a prenatal visit. She always grounds me and gives me peace. Whenever I start to feel down on myself, she reassures me that there is always good reason for everything I’m experiencing.

This whole weekend I had been walking, walking, walking. It felt good and it felt like I was doing something. The Braxton-Hicks contractions would start and stop, coming with more frequency than they had before. But it still didn’t feel like labor.

Somehow I managed to get a good night’s sleep that night. What a miracle! But I was awoken rather early by the contractions. Again unsure if this was real or not, I once again started doing every trick in the book to either speed them up or stop them. I rested, walked, bathed, ate a hearty breakfast… nothing was changing them now. So I figured I ought to text my midwife and let her know.

She canceled her plans to go to a family gathering in Big Bear that day, and at breakfast I asked Andy if he wanted to go to work. He said he wouldn’t go until he was sure that this wasn’t it. That put my mind at ease and so outside I went for more walking.

I started timing the contractions on the website my midwife had referred me to. It turned out they were shorter and farther apart than I had been thinking they were. This was actually a relief to me. In the past I’ve been a fast birther, but I was in no hurry this time. Birthing waves were increasing though. When I was walking I had to slow down and breathe deeply through them. I loved the feeling of my tightening belly as the sensations rippled through me.  And I say “rippling” with intention. My waters were still intact and the feelings definitely had a floating and spreading sensation to them.

In my previous two births, the first sign of labor was my water breaking. I was impressed that my waters were holding up this long—it had already been a few hours of this. I wouldn’t call it painful at this point but I did notice the slowness and increased pressure on my cervix.

Soon I went inside and the boys were preparing some sort of decorations out of construction paper and string, something to welcome the baby when he or she arrived. I loved this, but tried not to notice, so it would be a “surprise.” I prepared some postpartum supplies and bustled around the kitchen a bit. I checked on our birth supplies and made sure everything I needed was in the box. Then I thought it would be good to try to get a little of work done for my job.

First I headed into the den to play with the boys for a bit and I used the ottoman of our rocking chair to labor on. I loved draping my upper body on it while rocking it back and forth as my belly tightened firmly. Next I went into the living room with my computer and the birth ball. I bounced on it while trying to do a few last minute tweaks on the online course I would be teaching in less than a month. I was hoping to get as much done on that as I could before baby came. I was pleased that I had come pretty close.

I should interject for a moment here that having my children and other people around while in labor is not something I was used to or even an idea I was completely comfortable with. But I had asked God to let me be well-rested for labor and I guess that’s just all part of it. Our housemate David was around all morning and could hear me moaning and such but never gave it a second thought. He said he thought I was just doing a “pregnancy thing.” Ha! And I had to set firm boundaries with the boys not to touch me or talk to me “during the squeezing.” Even hearing them talk was much too distracting. Other than that, having the kids around was actually a wonderful experience. I was glad to be sharing the time with them, feeling their energy, letting them show kindness and love to me without me prompting them. It made me feel like I was doing a good deed for our family by bringing this person in, and in hindsight of course I now know that is true.

Andy was still being the captain of this ship, and he was busy giving the boys tasks to complete and starting to get things ready for the birth. Before long it will be time to move upstairs. But for now I was still sitting here on the birth ball with my computer pretending to be a professor, but not really doing much. Then suddenly I got slammed hard with several contractions in a row—BAM BAM BAM—much more fierce and powerful than they had been up to this point. I knew my work time was now over.

I know I didn’t tell Andy what was happening, but he must have somehow sensed it because he soon ushered me upstairs. It was weird going up those steps knowing I wouldn’t be coming down again for a few days, knowing that when I did come down, I’d be a different person. But none of that mattered now. I stumbled upstairs, pausing as I went, half-hunched over as I climbed the steep stairs.

My midwife Lisa Marie was on her way, and I could tell she was getting nervous that she wasn’t here yet. I never doubted her though! She was texting me for better directions and finally I just gave my phone to Andy. He guided her through while I continued to labor in the boys’ room. He handed the phone back to me and returned to the other bedroom to fill up the tub.

Lisa seemed concerned about labor progressing too fast. She feared she might not make it.  I was looking forward to getting into the tub, but she told me to wait. She suggested I lay down on my side to see if the contractions would slow down. I told her I’d try after we hung up. I was actually quite comfortable where I was, but I told her I’d try so I did. I laid down in Peer’s bed on my side and waited for the next pressure wave to come.

Even though labor had gotten quite intense a long while ago, I still wasn’t thinking of this time as painful. I was getting drunk on the overwhelming response my relaxed body had to the pressure. I listened to HypnoBabies a bit and that helped. But when I lay down on my side there was something about the pressure from that angle that hurt like hell! I have been trying not to think of the sensations as pain, which is a HypnoBabies trick. But in my mind I cried out, “Damn you HypnoBabies, this HURTS!” So that idea was over after one contraction. I returned to my previous position on my knees, head down, butt in the air.

Waters still intact. This is crazy. Still haven’t had my cervix examined but that’s ok because the plan was to avoid those checks altogether anyway. Plus the midwife wasn’t here yet. And clearly I’m heading rapidly into transition. Andy was filling up the tub and the boys were bouncing back and forth between the two rooms. I guess if I were in my right mind I’d be wondering if my mom was coming to watch the boys, but the thought didn’t even cross my mind.

BabyMaryBirthday_04

I was excited to be giving birth… really I was

By now the contractions were very very strong. I was moaning and swaying with my butt in the air, head down, resting my forehead on my arms, unable to move other than the gentle swaying of my pelvis. I was lost in laborland. All I could hear was the voice of the HypnoBabies lady on the audio track in my ears, but by this time to be honest it was starting to irritate me. The statements of “birthing is easy,” “you are totally relaxed,” and things like that just did not reflect what I was now feeling. That may have been true for the first several hours, but not now. I was still breathing through the contractions and relaxing, but they were so strong that it took every ounce of my mental and physical energy to confront them. It was hard work, very hard. When Lisa arrived I finally just ditched the stupid tracks on my stupid stupid phone.

My doula Lindsay arrived first. I wasn’t planning on having a doula for this birth, but Lindsay was a student and Lisa introduced us. We hit it off right away and since she was offering her services for free, I couldn’t not accept such a kindred spirit at my birth.

Finally the tub was ready and I got in. I must have put on my bathing suit too, but I don’t remember it. By this time my whole birth team had arrived—Lisa Marie my midwife, Lindsay my doula, and Kate the assistant midwife, whom I had meant once and really liked. I was very happy to have these three lovely women supporting me. I labored in the tub for a while. I was really looking forward to pushing because I knew that would ease my pain, but alas I still didn’t feel the urge. When I finally did start to push I remember saying to Lisa, “I guess I’m pushing now.”

Andy was still handling the boys and I was starting to wish he was here. I asked someone to go get him. When he came to me he had to explain himself. “I didn’t want to worry you,” he said. “I can’t get a hold of your parents.” “Oh that’s funny,” I said calmly. I could tell he didn’t expect that response. “Mine are here and they’re playing with the boys.” “Ok good. Thank you.” By that time I cared so little about our plan for who was going to watch the boys and all those details.

Whenever I talk about the birth with Peer, he always points out how he gave me fruit salad, stole a grape from it, and how he rolled a wheeled lego creation all over me like a massage. I can’t remember exactly when in the labor that was, but I do remember being in the tub.

BabyMaryBirthday_07

Lindsay gave me counterpressure when the contractions turned into back labor

For the rest of the labor, Andy was by my side and never left. He put his hands on me, and Lisa Marie held my hands. Since baby was ROA (right occiput anterior), she had to spin ¾ of the way around as she descended into the birth canal. This meant that for a while she was in a posterior position and that felt like painful back labor. Lindsay helped this situation by giving me counter-pressure on my lower back during the contraction. Soon I couldn’t imagine a contraction without her, and panicked if one was starting and I didn’t know where she was.

So I didn’t want any vaginal exams because I perceived myself as being a “hands-off” type of birther, (and to avoid infection). From an outside perspective there was no reason to perform a vaginal exam or for my midwives to get more involved. But in hindsight if I had been more open to it, or if I could have better expressed what I was feeling, a vaginal exam might have helped me better. My midwife was already getting involved more than I anticipated, and I liked it. I felt supported. Every suggestion, every touch, every instruction that I could hear was received with openness and gratitude. However there were many things I simply couldn’t hear.

Contractions were very strong and they developed a strange pattern. At this stage in labor, contractions are more powerful than they are painful and pushing often relieves the pain. That’s why I was looking forward to pushing. But these pushing contractions were very different from what I expected. Each contraction would begin with intense pain. If I tried to push during that, it would hurt worse. Then the pushing began on its own. Then the contraction would end and I’d keep pushing. I don’t know if I did that willfully or not. Another weird thing was that I pushed very very hard from the first contraction on. Usually a mom starts with gentle pushes that become stronger with time. But I was full strength from push #1.

photo 3-2

water is relaxing

This time I also didn’t get that paralyzed feeling during contractions. With each push I moved around, pushed my hand against the wall of the tub, etc. This labor felt wild and crazy. I started to say things like “I have to get this baby out.” In fact, that’s ALL I said. Over and over again. I wish I could have just told my midwife what was happening. But it never occurred to me. I think she sensed something intuitively because she did make me get out of the tub at least once and labor on the toilet. That seemed to help. On the birth video I heard her saying things like, “take your time mama…” but I honestly don’t remember that. I think I never heard it. Not a word. For some reason I couldn’t take it in.

I responded to this stage of labor the way I respond to many difficult things in life—with pure strength. No creativity, no flexibility, no asking for help, no communication of my needs. The result: a natural birth…healthy baby… but a wounded mama with lots to learn, and whose journey is far from over.

And by the way, my water still hasn’t broken!

waterbirth

Lisa Marie and Andy helping me through a contraction

But all this pushing was definitely moving my baby down. Lisa had been encouraging me to reach down with my fingers and feel around. She said I could pop the bag of waters myself if I wanted to. I had been scared to do this (after all I was raised a good Baptist!) but finally I did. It didn’t take much “searching” to feel the bulging bag of waters, still completely intact and then—POP! Not anymore!

In a startled but thrilling moment of fear and excitement I announced, “I did it! I popped the bag, I popped the bag with my fingernail!”

Then immediately I felt a huge pressure on my rectum and everyone knew the time was near. With one more push I felt a slight burn and pushed the head out. My hand was still there and I felt the head emerge into my waiting hand beneath the water. Then, a pause. I breathed deeply, stroking the silky, hairy head of this little being that until now had been only kicks and movements and hopes and dreams. Things were getting real.

I couldn’t believe I was here. From wondering if we would even have another child, to the decision, to pregnancy, labor, and now this moment. I psyched myself up, like an athlete waiting to hear the whistle, like an actor waiting for the cue. I’m going to push my baby out right now. With the next contraction. I’m going to do this and then my labor will be over.

It came, and I gave the biggest push I my life. Every ounce of strength in my body and soul and mind, with the strength of my previous two births, with the strength of every moment of triumph in my life, everything that led me to believe in myself as a strong person—all of that went into this one moment when I cannon-balled my baby out of my body and into the tepid water.

Then release. And eagerness.

“My baby, my baby, where’s my baby?” I found the baby in the water and lifted my baby into the air for the first breath of life. On the video you could hear me saying, “It’s over!”

I was filled with joy, no exhaustion to be found. With my husband at my side, I was so thrilled that together he and I had worked to bring this person into the world. We did it again—three natural births and three healthy, beautiful babies.

And then—oh yeah—the gender! I had nearly forgotten to look.

IT’S A GIRL!!!!!

What another amazing surprise. We have a daughter. I had a feeling this whole pregnancy that it could be a girl. I didn’t want to indulge the feeling though, because what if that was just my desire and not intuition at all?

Mary Joy Wahlquist. Welcome earthside, baby girl.

newborn Mary

It’s a girl!

Mary was born at 39 weeks and 1 day but she did not appear that way. Her placenta was very old and crumbly and she did not have any vernix left. All these are signs of a post-date baby, not one that is born a week before the due date. I think this testifies to the inaccuracy of due dates. It’s much better to think of a 5-week window in which to expect baby. Lisa determined that I must have conceived much earlier than I thought I did. Considering the fact that the number—40 weeks, 41 weeks, 42 weeks—really effects a mom psychologically (and socially), I am very glad I never knew I was farther along and that we never even told people how many weeks I was.

POSTPARTUM

BabyMaryBirthday_21But that is not the end. Oh no, for every end is another new beginning and that beginning is a transition and an initiation.
Remember when I said that there was only a tiny bit of burn and that I cannon-balled my baby out of me? Well that burn was stretching, and since there was very little stretching and a whole lot of force, I tore very, very badly. So badly that my midwife was not sure at first if she was even able to handle such a bad tear.

There was talk of a post-partum transfer to the hospital. Please God, no no NO! Transfer would mean possible separation of baby and I (scary enough), exposure to all those sick-people-germs we were trying to avoid with a home birth, and then of course the cocky attitudes of hospital staff who receive a home birth transfer.

But I got really scared when I heard my midwife mention the possible risk of a tear that didn’t heal properly—a fistula. Now I was getting REALLY scared. She called the office of a homebirth-friendly OB that she knew. He wasn’t very willing to come. 5pm on a Monday is not the best time to travel from west LA to Downey. Lisa was trying all she could to make the best possible choice for me and my health.

When the bleeding stopped, she took some pictures and sent them to other midwives she knew. She talked on the phone quite extensively to a couple of them. Kate the other midwife very wisely brought up the fact that just because we transfer doesn’t mean that we will get a skilled physician or even an OB-GYN to stitch me up. We might just get a standard ER doctor who has never done this before.

Then Lisa made her decision. She would go forward with this job, and stitch me up herself. She had a plan. She could tell that the tear was close to my rectum but not all the way, meaning she was legally licensed to do this, and after getting some wise council from others, she believed she could do this. So Kate and Lisa sat at the foot of my bed for at least an hour, very carefully and cautiously talking over every single stitch. Finally it was done. I really appreciated the attention that Lisa gave to this problem. This is a great example of the superb maternal care that a mom can get from an out-of-hospital midwife. There is no way I could have gotten this kind of care in a hospital from an OB.

My birth team

My birth team (L-R) Lindsay my doula, Kate the asst midwife, Mary and me, Lisa Marie my dear midwife and forever friend.

But the story is still not over. I bruised my bladder pretty bad during the birth and couldn’t pee for 2 days. I begged for a catheter and almost received a second one.

Andy weighing the baby

We waited until after I was stitched up to weigh the baby and do her newborn exam. She was 7 lbs 1 oz, 21 inches long

I felt like a prisoner. The fears that I had during my pregnancy came rushing back—here I was, trapped upstairs, severely wounded, barely able to walk even from my bed to the bathroom, in incredible pain, not able to care for my children, just like I feared. Luckily we did have some help, but feeling like I didn’t have any say in their care was still very frustrating for me.

Add on top of that the feeling that I had failed, that I had done a bad job with this birth. This was my last birth and I blew it. I didn’t relish it or enjoy it. Instead of savoring the sensations of my baby moving through my body and marveling at the power of it all, I simply “had to get the baby out.” I did a bad job with the birth, and I had the wounds to prove it.

By the third or fourth day things were really getting better. The tear still took a solid two and a half months to heal, but it was not a painful recovery. After a few days I also started to recover emotionally. I fell in love with my baby and I began to accept this birth experience for the strange and wonderful thing it was. My midwife prayed with me. I learned a lot from the experience, and I knew that throughout this year as I pondered her birth, that I would learn even more.

photo 1-1

Mary a few hours after birth

Then at 4 weeks postpartum, something strange happened. We went for a nature walk at El Dorado Nature Center. I overdid it a bit with this, and started bleeding and cramping again. I also had intense cervical pain that felt like dilation. Then I passed a large, meaty clot. It was so strange. I took pictures of it and sent them to Lisa. She told me to fish it out and freeze it. She would send it to the lab for biopsy to find out what it was. It turned out to be a “product of conception,” which kind of means it was part of the placenta. My placenta appeared whole when it came out, but I think this was tissue that is usually absorbed throughout the pregnancy but didn’t. Tammy my postpartum doula remarked how amazing it was that my body just passed it. What a smart uterus I have!

 

 

Oh but there’s more…

Breastfeeding was not really going well. My breasts were not bursting with milk like I thought they ought to be and my right one seemed to be withering away. Since I had had an undiagnosed thyroid problem throughout my pregnancy, I was afraid my hormones might be completely out of whack. I started using galactagogues (food and herbs that boost milk supply) and that did help. But I was worried. I imagined myself as the La Leche League leader who couldn’t nurse her own baby. And that this precious girl, whom I had longed for, might be the first of my babies to have formula. I really did not want that to happen. Mary’s weight gain was moderate and so were her diapers. I thought it could be better, but she wasn’t in the danger zone by any means.

BabyMary_74

my snuggly sling baby

I thought the problem was either my hormones, or it could be tongue-tie. The frenulum on her upper lip was awfully thick and when she nursed she couldn’t seem to flange her lip out the way she needed to. Like a dummy, I didn’t call the IBCLC friend I have because… I’m a dummy and I blamed myself. And I was in denial.

But then when she was two months old I led a La Leche League meeting and my co-leader who is an IBCLC was there. I eagerly had her look in Mary’s mouth and she confirmed the tongue- and upper lip-tie. I was relieved. I knew this would be a simple fix (though not cheap), and I prayed to God that things would improve.

I had to wait a while for the appointment and until then I continued to drink tons of water, eat lactation cookies, oatmeal, and take More Milk Plus supplements. We got by.

My dear friend Helen watched the boys for me when I took Mary clear out to Riverside for her appointment with the laser specialist. Dr. Jesse fixed the lip tie, but said her tongue was in normal ranges. I still question that part of the diagnosis. She cried during the 5-minute procedure, but after a walk around the building she fell fast asleep and stayed that way for the whole car ride home!

After that—thank God—everything did get a lot better! That whole week I felt overly full as my milk supply returned to normal levels. It felt great! Mary started putting on weight like a sumo wrestler and remains in the 90th percentile to this day! In hindsight, my mother’s instinct was right. I should have listened to it sooner. Another lesson that bears repeating.

I am so grateful to have this beautiful child in our family. She brings us so much joy every day, and we have such wonderful dreams and curiosities about the type of girl she will become. I am so grateful to have given birth to her at home, that I got to really live every moment of her entrance into the world. The good the bad and the ugly, we were there together for it all. I didn’t miss it. It’s just sometimes hard to see the forest through the trees. I was present, in all my imperfection.

And that much I can promise you always, Mary Joy.

THE END

…HERE’S TO MANY, MANY NEW BEGINNINGS

  P9

Share

I Love a Rainy Day

9 February 2013

Maybe some homeschoolers don’t like rainy days. I understand– it’s hard to stay cooped up inside your house all day. I am a busybody with two very active boys and they need the outdoors like they need food or air. But on a day like today I was especially glad to be homeschooling and spending my day inside with these two amazing individuals. I’m so lucky to be sharing my days with them. I love being able to sleep in until we all want to wake up, the three of us snuggled together in our family bed, warm together against the biting cold air of a winter morn. We enjoyed a relaxing breakfast, then headed back upstairs to get them dressed & teeth brushed. After a winding rabbit’s hole of imaginary games and stories (with one boy dressed, the other who remained indefinitely pajama’ed), and a lot of looking out the window at the rain, watching the puddles on the sidewalk fill up, counting seconds between thunder and lightening, and listening to the rain pound against our roof, our roomie David yelled upstairs that it was snowing! We rushed downstairs to the back door and saw the tiny pellets of hail bouncing around on our lawn. The little boys seemed un-phased by this phenomenon, even oblivious to it, but David and I were appreciative and in awe of the rare sight. Just as he hail was melting and the glorious moment dissolving away, CRASH FLASH!!! The loudest clap of thunder occurred simultaneous to a bright bolt of lightening that seemed to be attacking the lawn right in front of us! I screamed and started to run away impulsively before I caught myself, relieved no property of mine was now on fire. The bolt must have touched down no more than a block away from us, a notion confirmed by the fire trucks that raced down our street 5-10 minutes later. We laughed at our own silliness and said a quick prayer for those at the fire truck’s destination and went about our indoor, rainy-day homeschooling activities. What’s on today’s agenda? No, not pages of desk work, handwriting practice, sheets of math problems, or a spelling quiz. No review of classroom rules or treats for the child whose desk is the neatest and who can sit up straight with their hands folded. Our home learning environment today was filled with silly drawings that ended being an alphabet game, talking about weather and the water cycle, gazing out the window watching the ice on the rooftops turn to steam when the sun came out, construction of vehicles that can simultaneously deliver mail, collect garbage, and fly through the air on a helicopter (made by scotch-taping toys together of course), and lots more creative play than even this mama can document or keep track of. Sure, by the end of the day we managed to count a little money, knock out 4 pages in his math textbook, and whiz through all 8 of his little readers, sounding out lovely 3-letter words while marveling at the silly things cats, rats, and pups do, but that’s really not the beauty of homeschooling. In fact, those academic activities were probably the least educational and definitely the least interesting part of our day. When you are a homeschooling family, I think you are much more acutely aware of how deep and wide the learning experience is, and can appreciate the myriad of ways a child learns. I am so thankful to be aware of this. And I love most that on a cozy, stormy day like it was, that I can spend it with my two little buddies, who are making these memories with me, and I with them.

Share

Homeschooling Adventures

1 February 2013

Our schedule is changing again, which for this normally inflexible, routine-addicted mama means I’m a little emotional about it, and that this was a change that is long overdue. We ran out of money to keep sending PJ to the homeschool co-op that we were attending. I am really sad about pulling him out, and the loss of that regular community, but he has been particularly needy lately, and never seems to want me to leave him there anyway. So he’s not upset by it at all. I think we probably need more time together doing fun things that do not depend on time, schedules, or things like that. I need to build back up the trust I lost all the times I’ve dropped him off places, and we need to recoup the “us time” that we missed when I was working and directing the play. So we are quitting the co-op, and I signed him up for a couple of classes that the public charter is paying for (yay for free stuff!). Tomorrow we have a fun day planned of PE class in the morning and a playdate in the afternoon. I hope to start going back to our homeschool group park days once a week and I really want to get back into doing field trips every couple of weeks too. I am fortunate to have built up a great network of homeschooling families and like-minded moms who are a great support and sounding board when it comes to being the best mom I can be and navigating the unchartered, vast ocean that is the homeschooling experience. I think I’m getting over the mourning of our old routine and I’m excited to start this new one, looking forward to more quality time with my children, and focusing more on our life together. I love that homeschooling affords us the luxury to change our schedule and our outlook on life when what we’re doing isn’t working for us. I know the friendships we’ve made at the co-op are not coming to an end, and look forward to all the fun times ahead!

Share

A Civil War Christmas: A Retrospective

16 January 2013

President Lincoln, General Lee, General Grant, Wordsworth Longfellow, and the ensemble, all from opposite sides of the Potomac sing 'I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day'

This past fall I had the privilege to direct a very unique and powerful play, perhaps one of the most universally moving pieces in American theatre today. A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration is Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel’s first venture into the musical genre, and it is a real winner. I’ve talked before about how important this piece is, so I won’t get into that again. The show has come and gone–swiftly as sand through the fingers–and life since has moved on far too quickly. But the effect that the show had on all of our lives– those of us in the cast, in the church, and in the community– will be lasting and cannot be undone.

Our short 3-performance run turned out around 1,400 people in all, packing the house out at around 600 the last night. I proudly had to give up my seat in the upper balcony that night. The cast, made up of church members, members of our sister church True Vine, and a few random community members I met through Downey Arts Coalition, many of whom have never been in a play before, turned out surprising and powerful performances, which left raw emotions, and newly realized familiar old music lingering in the mind.

Worship Arts Pastor David Stanton portrayed the abolitionist, pacifist Quaker soldier, Chester Manton Saunders

The long process was a journey of journeys. We hit the ground running after a long and stressful casting period. It is not easy to cast a play with 80 characters spread out over 27 cast members, navigating scene overlaps, actor schedules, and costume changes. We didn’t receive either the rights to the play or the music until nearly halfway through the process (thanks Dramatist Play Service!!), and bearing the heavy weight of responsibility for such an important production proved to be a heavy burden on my mind and my family. Yet nonetheless, by the grace of God, a lot of faith, and the patient, steadfast support of those whose shared this vision, we saw this thing through until the glorious end. And it was worth everything.

To explain some of the pictures here, the visual look of the opening went through many phases. I finally settled on the above configuration in the eleventh hour. This is a good example of how the staging of this play was more complicated than I expected, with things happening all over the stage simultaneously, spanning different times and spaces, inter-cutting like a movie. So glad we had all the levels and staging areas that the FBCD sanctuary had to offer.

A young Elizabeth Keckley is taught to sew by her mother, desperate to give her daughter a trade that will make her valuable and save her life

Just want to point out a few very memorable performances. Newcomer Rafaela Ramirez turned out a heartfelt and moving performance as Aggie, the mother of Elizabeth Keckley in a flashback scene. Ramirez portrayed many characters and all her performances were solid as a rock. I was thrilled to direct our Pastor of Worship Arts and my dear friend, David Stanton (pictured above), as the abolitionist Quaker union soldier, Chester Manton Saunders. Working alongside him was another newcomer, Manual Garay, who brought a devastatingly delicate strength to the brooding Decatur Bronson, a black union soldier who carries a heavy burden of both rage and sorrow. Senior Pastor Steve Shangraw demonstrated once again his range and depth with the vast array of characters and songs he performed. Even the smallest role was fully realized both internally and physically. I told him if this whole pastor thing doesn’t pan out, he could always fall back on a career in the theatre. ;-) And lastly, youngster Daniel Frometa had great range and depth in his many roles, spanning from a wounded soldier who predicts the Lincoln assassination, to a young confederate willing to shed every drop of blood for his country.

The climax of the play struck a powerful cord as a soldier must face the horrid circumstance of a dark and angry vow

We had some great publicity, thanks largely to an incredible postcard designed by Andrew. We are also very grateful to The Downey Patriot for covering our play twice before the opening, and printing a review after. The church submitted a brief informative article that appeared in the Community section, and DAC member Marisa Urutia Gedney wrote a great piece after an interview with me that was prominently placed in the paper and I think brought a lot of attention to our upcoming production. Then after the show, Patriot contributor and DAC member Carol Kearns was so moved by the performance that she penned a glowing review.

Life for me personally got very stressful during the last few weeks of rehearsal. The last few weeks of rehearsal are always very stressful, of course, but around Thanksgiving I was called in to substitute at Cerritos College again, teaching Fundamentals of Acting twice a week for a 4.5-hour class. I was so pleased to take the job, but the timing was a perfect storm. Using a babysitter is hard enough for me, but the fact that our family was spread out between Fullerton, Brea (the kids), Santa Monica (Andrew), and Norwalk (me), and then having to collect the kids and rush back to Downey for rehearsal at night, made life pretty tough. I generally hate fast food, but I confess it was a necessity during that time! We all got sick afterward, the kids became very clingy and needy, all of which just made me feel incredibly guilty. It was a relief afterward to be able to throw myself headfirst back into mothering full time after finals and the show closing.

Yet through all this, I have no regrets and still count even the hardest moments as a blessing for our whole family.  Everyone had fun, and doing theatre together as a family (whatever that looks like) has always been a dream of Andrew’s and mine. I had the thought one night during all this, when I realized that I spend a couple of days per week right now warming up actors, critiquing scenes, and giving acting tips, I thought, “Wow, I’m doing it. I’m a real theatre professional. This is what I’m doing with my life.” Sure it’s not perfect. It’s at a church, my actors are amateurs, it’s “just Downey”… but on the other hand, by night I’m directing a new Paula Vogel play (!!), in a great space, with a very talented and dedicated cast, who will perform in front of a HUGE crowd, and by day I’m teaching college. It is not what I expected of my career when I began it 10 years ago, but it’s pretty great. I’m one lucky kid.

In addition, I was so proud that our five-year-old had his theatrical debut in this show. We really didn’t know if this would work out for him, because he is such a free spirit and isn’t that great at following directions, lol. =) But as the opening grew near, he became more and more eager to do it. The first night (dress rehearsal) a couple unexpected things happened for him and he ended up running around the stage looking for a spot to go to. I paired him up with a big kid the next night and all was well. I really think he is a performer at heart, so it was great to give him this inaugural opportunity. It was thrilling to see him get nervous, develop a plan with him, see him face his fears, and come out the other end feeling accomplished, excited, and relieved.

I’m so grateful to FBCD for believing in this play. It had a very powerful impact on so many people. I’m very thankful to all who supported the cast and crew in this effort. I’m thankful to all the community members who supported the production in a variety of ways, even just to come to the show. We really did something special in Downey that will have a lasting impact. We at the DAC have more ideas and plans for theatre in Downey, but none so huge as A Civil War Christmas. It will most certainly be the last of its kind for a while. But the future looks bright, and I am eager about what lies ahead.

Share

Civil War Spotlight: Decatur Bronson & Black Union Soldiers

27 November 2012

Fort Pillow Massacre

Our leading man in A Civil War Christmas, portrayed by the very talented Manuel Garay, is a symbolic character the playwright named Decatur Bronson. His name is a combination of two war heroes who fought bravely for the Union: James H. Bronson (1838-1884) and Decatur Dorsey (1836-1891), but his story is emblematic of the many black union soldiers who courageously and sacrificially fought and died in what many considered to be the white man’s war.

The real-life Dorsey and Bronson were both recipients of the U.S. military’s highest decoration, the Medal of Honor, respectively for their courage and heroism in The Battle of Crater and The Battle of Chafin’s Farm. They were both born into slavery, and upon obtaining their freedom, instead of relishing in it, chose instead enlist to in the Army. Our character references The Battle of Fort Pillow (also named The Massacre at Fort Pillow), at which neither of the historical characters fought. Fort Pillow, however, was an important conflict in the African-American story. It is considered by many historians to be the most racially charged battle of the war, and the few black soldiers who escaped with their lives remember it as a massacre– with none of their surrendering black comrades being spared. A congressional committee later determined that over 300 black Americans were slain that day.

Our character carries with him the burden of that day, along with all the injustices he has lived in his lifetime. His beloved wife Rose (play by the lovely and haunting Essence Brown) was kidnapped off their own front porch and in Bronson’s words, “every Confederate I kill is a bridge to reach her.” His motto– mirroring the slaughter at Fort Pillow– is TAKE NO PRISONERS, and he is determined to kill every Confederate he encounters.

His vow, along with his anger and obsession, carry him viciously through the war until one day when he meets a young wannabe Confederate boy with barely any peach fuzz on his face. Raz’s (played by Daniel Frometa) youthful innocence and desperate poverty reminds Bronson a little too much of himself, despite his race and politics. The two share a powerful moment that will be sure not to leave a dry eye in the house.

 

A Civil War Christmas by Paula Vogel runs Dec 14, 15, & 16 at First Baptist Church of Downey at 7pm. 8348 E. Third St., Downey, Ca 90240. Tickets are free. Visit www.fbcdowney.org or www.downeyarts.org or call (562) 923-1261.

Share

Civil War Spotlight: Elizabeth Keckley

18 November 2012

One of our leading roles in A Civil War Christmas is a name you might not remember from the history books. Nonetheless, Elizabeth Keckley was an emblematic representative of the arduous road to freedom traveled by numerous black Americans prior to emancipation. Played by Downey Arts Coalition member Aimee Calligari, you will be moved by the quite, strong grace of both the actress and character.

Born into slavery, Keckley was a strong, motivated woman. She said in her autobiography that when she was beaten as a young girl, she resisted her master and refused to cry or yell during the beating. Her master was eventually moved to tears by her fortitude, begged her forgiveness, and swore never to beat her again. Later, she was raped by a white man in the community and bore a son. Keckley named him George after her stepfather. Later in life, George joined the Union army and sadly died in the first battle he fought.

Keckley learned to sew at a young age and by her teenage years was adept at dressmaking. She spent most of her hours practicing this trade as a slave and hired woman. Playwright Paula Vogel often has her speaking of “putting her hands to use.” This skill became very useful to her, as it kept her from doing more laborious slave duties, built herself goodwill among important women, and eventually she used her earnings to buy her own freedom, and that of her young son.

She and her son later moved to Washington DC where she built a profitable business making dresses for the most elite patronage. Her career culminated when she became the seamstress to none other than Mary Todd Lincoln, the First Lady of the United States.

It was not only her career that soared, but also her personal life. She and Mrs. Lincoln became fast friends and remained so for most of their lives. Keckley was known to be the only woman who could handle Mrs. Lincoln’s erratic moods. She was a confidante to her and the whole family.

It is exciting to feature this important woman in African-American history in our play. She was a pioneer for her race and her gender, breaking down every barrier known to her. She is remembered for her grace and fortitude, meekness and strength, and her ability to answer tragedy and hardship with courage and endurance. Be sure to catch this incredible portrayal, and see how she “puts her hands to use.”

 

A Civil War Christmas by Paula Vogel runs Dec 14, 15, & 16 at First Baptist Church of Downey at 7pm. 8348 E. Third St., Downey, Ca 90240. Tickets are free. Visit www.fbcdowney.org or call (562) 923-1261.

Share

Civil War Spotlight: Mary Surratt

12 November 2012

One of my favorite characters in A Civil War Christmas is the small role of Mary Surratt. She only appears in one scene in our play, but she was a major player in the real-life theatre of the American Civil War. Mary Surratt owned the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and his buddies (one of whom was Surratt’s son John) were known to have plotted to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. An ardent confederate sympathizer, her role in the conspiracy is still debated today. This  controversy is amplified with tragedy, as she was found guilty of conspiracy in a trial that many considered hasty and extremely biased, and then later became the first woman executed by the United States government. She was hanged alongside three others found guilty of conspiracy, including Lewis Payne, who also appears in our play. Her son, John Surratt Jr., was out of the country during this time, and upon his return was tried and acquitted of the same charge.

Played in our production by the lovely Lynn Hauer, Mary Surratt is depicted as a passionate and loving mother. We are not alone in this interpretation– in Robert Redford’s 2011 film The Conspirator, Surratt puts her life on the line when she conceals her son’s wrongdoings and whereabouts during her trial. Playwright Paula Vogel draws a clear comparison between our two southern belles– Mary Surratt and Mary Todd Lincoln, pointing out that both women grieve deeply the losses in their hometowns.

In our own moment in American history, many mothers are also grieving. We too have lost many to the horrors of war, and too many mothers and wives have been handed sorrow in the form of a folded up flag.

As we remember our veterans tomorrow for Veteran’s Day, remember also these women. Mothers and wives, and all the loved ones of those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom. They also serve and our freedom is carried in their grief.

 

A Civil War Christmas by Paula Vogel runs Dec 14, 15, & 16 at First Baptist Church of Downey at 7pm. 8348 E. Third St., Downey, Ca 90240. Tickets are free. Visit www.fbcdowney.org or call (562) 923-1261.

 

Share

Two Years

9 November 2012

Yesterday my little boy turned two.

Two Years.  That is how long my baby has been in my life. Feels like a moment, yet the time before we knew him seems to be as if it were another lifetime. How someone who makes the world so rich, so meaningful, so warm and wonderful could have simply not existed two years ago boggles the mind.

Two years ago he was just a tiny mewing infant, small enough to be held in one arm, yet fragile enough never to do so. He spent his days mostly eating and sleeping and eating and sleeping. The boy we know now is so different. He roams through the wide world with eyes wide open, taking in and investigating every possible adventure or fascination. Things we take for granted, or don’t have the interest in studying, Leif brings to our attention with wild amazement, reminding us daily that the world is truly a place full of wonders.  He is patient enough to give his attention to one project at a time for long stretches. He is curious enough to repeat everything he hears with remarkable precision, putting together sentences that seem far too complex for such a young mind. He observes how others play and have fun, and is quick to join in with his own version, never doubting the activity to be any less than thrilling.

It’s hard to believe it has been two years since my homebirth. My Perfect Birth. I remember so vividly the first time I laid eyes on this beautiful child, and I will never forget the peaceful and powerful way he graced us with his grand entrance. The grace and peace that I was given that day will be a lesson I will never forget. I am so lucky that despite all our struggles, he still craves his mommy’s breast and that I get the privilege of staring into his beautiful eyes as he fills his tummy with sweet milk.

Yet often as I watch him lying in bed sleeping, I get a strong sense that he is rapidly growing from a baby into a boy. My heart is overwhelmed with pride and sadness. But with each tear that is shed in mourning over the loss of his babyhood, my heart is doubly filled with elation over the person he is becoming. It is a privilege to watch him grow, to bear witness to his life and development, but the greatest honor is that I am blessed to nurture him through it.

Last week, I was embaressingly clumsy and took a pretty bad dive as I tripped over a toy in our playroom. Both boys saw it, and as I lay on the ground in pain I watched them rush over to me in fear. Leif reached my head first and I saw the fear in his eyes as he yelled “Mommy!” and looked down at me, tears welling in the eyes and heavy breaths waiting to be released. I was fine, but it was so humbling to experience for a moment the depth of his love for me. How I ever deserved such love I have no clue. But I am thankful, and pray that I will be a good mother to him throughout the years to come.

So here’s to many more happy years! However fast they come, I promise to relish every moment, always thankful that I am your mother.

Share

Pumpkin Cheesecake

6 October 2012

20121006-161752.jpg

Share

Finding Downey’s Voice

17 August 2012

I stumbled upon A Civil War Christmas by Paula Vogel one year ago. I shared it with our Christmas show production team at First Baptist Church of Downey, and we all immediately fell in love with its themes of forgiveness, loving one’s enemies, unity, and race relations. We immediately applied for the rights and waited. Meanwhile, a few significant stumbling blocks at the church made it clear that producing this show would be impossible this year. In hindsight, this was a godsend, as I was still working on my MA thesis and needed the fall months to complete it. God knows what He is doing.

During the last year and a half, my husband and I have been running the Downey Arts Coalition, a collective of artists, activists, and arts & culture lovers. Our activity with the DAC has been a tremendous introduction to a city we’ve known our whole lives. We have been involved more actively in the community than ever before, and we have been privileged to not only meet many wonderful new friends, but also to admire the collective diversity and unity that is unique to the Downey community. I must admit– now more than ever– I love my city. This community is quite special.

Local communities are the building blocks of this country, but if you look at our nation as a whole, we are divided. We are polarized. We avoid those whose ideas and opinions differ from ours. We demonize the other side. Even Christian brothers and sisters divide themselves along ethnic, denominational, and political lines.

Downey, this is not who we are! And for Christians, it is certainly not how the Bible calls us to live. We ought to remember our commonalities, rejoice in the fundamentals of our faith and values, and love one another. Even if there are enemies, Jesus admonished us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

It is these principals and themes that ring out strong in A Civil War Christmas. This is a play that follows several different story lines and tells the tales of many important individuals in and around Washington DC, 1864.

There is Bronson, the Black Union Soldier who worked his way up to Sergeant but carries a grudge like a heavy burden. His motto, “take no prisoners,” gets challenged by the very words of Jesus on stage.

Then there is Elizabeth Keckley, a strong and determined former slave who bought her own freedom from the money she earned as a seamstress. But she also carries a heavy burden– her only son was killed in battle and she feels his death is her punishment for teaching him the hate she harbored in her heart.

Then there is Raz, the young confederate boy eager to fight and win a battle everyone says is lost. In the end, he will be shown a grace greater than any sin.

Mary Surratt is a passionate confederate sympathizer who owns the boarding house where conspirators meet to plot the assassination of President Lincoln. But when she accidentally runs into Mary Todd Lincoln on the street, she bonds with her as one mother to another, and together they mourn the losses their hometowns have suffered in the war.

And then there is Chester Manton Saunders, who was brought up in a devout Quaker home. Catching on to his mother’s strong Christian faith, he believes ardently in the abolitionist cause and the “divine spark in every man.” His faith will not allow him to fight in the war, but he joins the army anyway, serving under Decatur Bronson, and helping the unit out in any non-combat way he possibly can. When he realizes Bronson is about to commit murder, he knows time will allow no better intervention than prayer, and his mother’s faith urges him to call upon the Father. The answer to his prayer will astound you.

Our congregation cannot support the demanding ensemble this play requires. So, out of necessity and perhaps divine intervention, we feel compelled to reach out to our sister church in Lynwood in partnership. This is the part that really excites me. Because this play is all about unity, brotherhood, and Christians coming together during turbulent times to work toward a common good. And so with this partnership we attempt to do just that. If this succeeds, we will be bringing the lofty ideas off the stage and into real life. This partnership is an opportunity for our congregations to come together in unity and brotherhood and abolish the differences that would divide us. What would usually just be figurative, only represented on stage, we wish to make literal, and practice in real life.

We always say that FBCD’s Christmas show is a gift to the community. Well, this year will be a gift like no other. I have directed the FBCD Christmas show several times now and I always do it because I want to serve my church and serve the Lord. (And because it’s fun.) But this year, I have new eyes.  I truly want to do something special in this community and I believe in the strong message of this play. I have always believed that FBCD is a special sub-culture within Downey and I believe we as a church are well-suited to be giving this gift at this time. This play will meet us where we are as individuals, as a community, and as a nation.

Oh, and did I mention that we are currently remembering the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the 20th anniversary of the LA Riots?

I hope that the whole congregation at FBCD will rally around this play, so that it will truly be a gift from the whole church, and not just a few members. There are still some auditions left, so if that is your interest please come audition or talk to David about singing in the choir. If not, there are many other opportunities to serve such as set/props construction and coordination, stage management, costume coordination, stage hands, PR, Tech Team, and by telling others in the community and bringing a group to attend the performance. As usual, all performances are free. Theatre is not an art of isolation. We are moving a mountain here, and it’s going to take an army.

This play has something to say, and I want to help it find its voice in Downey. Will you join me?

Share
Next Page »