Holding The Pieces

I sat on a pile of concrete fence posts across from her. She juggles her baby, almost a year old now, she says. She doesn't really know because the baby's father has taken all of her birth records.

I ask her to tell me how she came to be "married".

"I was 12," she says, "I had only had my period 3 times. He called me to come in and lay down with him. I thought he just meant to lay together like children do. But he had sex with me. I bled a lot, it really hurt. The next day I couldn't even sit down. But didn't take me to the doctor or anything."

Her parents didn't know at first, because this happened far away at a cousin's house. But then they sent her to live with him because sex equals marriage around here, or at least, an obligation on the part of the man to care for the girl.

This is how she ended up married to a man twice her age and living at his house. His mother called her a prostitute when first she met her. He beat her, didn't feed her, and eventually she ended up pregnant. When he threatened to hurt the baby she left. Now she lives with her parents, who welcomed her back.

I go from this conversation, next to a row of one room wooden shacks near a construction yard, to the shopping mall to pay some bills, and pick up a few last minute gifts for my oldest daughter. I buy her a dress, reflecting that this may be my last year shopping for her in the girls section. I saw a hint of a developing waist and hips when she was in the bath the other day.

I go home, and my husband and I cook a birthday feast for this girl who is now 11. We visit with our guests, celebrate our daughter, and go to bed.

My heart feels like it lives in separate pieces. One piece is laying on the floor weeping for the girl who was raped when she was still a child, and then endured living with and being beaten by her rapist, giving birth to a child, becoming a mother, when she was way too young. I try to resist the urge to insulate myself against this tragedy, to keep it at a distance.

Another piece is celebrating my lovely daughter growing older. She's a wonderful, clever, inventive, brave child.

While watching her laugh and eat cake, part of my brain is busy thinking of all the ways that I would exact justice, or at least revenge, from the body of a man who dared to touch her, the way I want to do for the the girl I sat with that morning. That's the part that's fighting back the fear caused by the inescapable knowledge of what a vulnerable thing it is to be a girl, a young woman, here, there, anywhere.

I don't want her to become a woman. I know girlhood doesn't stop some men, but it feels like a defense to me nonetheless.

I've watched men leer at her already, as she rides shotgun in the car with me. She's obliviously telling me some story about her cat, and I have to swallow down the rage I feel to answer her lightly, to listen to her story.

My heart is keeping all these pieces separate. I'm trying to hold them all together.

I'm afraid, and sad, and angry, and joyful and even thankful. These feelings, they don't fit together. They bang against each other and make me uneasy. And yet, my heart has room for them all.


I wrote this 2 months ago. I didn't publish it, as I don't publish many things these days. I wasn't sure if I should. Ijust had to write it down to get it out of my heart. But here it is. This was a hard day, and a happy day, all at once and jumbled up together. Somehow, I live with that tension. 


When I realize, again, That My Husband is a Better Christian Than Me.

We had unexpected guests at the close of the year. One of the hazards of working cross culturally is that you sometimes often find yourself grossly misunderstood.

Like this one time, when Aaron reconnected with an old friend from his first few trips to Thailand. The friend said he wanted to move back to the area where we currently live and Aaron said, "Great, if you do you should give me a call we could hang out and stuff, maybe even work together."

Remember Aaron is basically still a beginner at Thai, his friend is a beginner at English. This is probably explains why, when his friend arrived on a bus the day before New Year's Eve, with his wife and child and all earthly possessions packed into a few bags, he thought we had a job for him, and a place for him to live.

Slight misunderstanding.

We don't have a job for him, unfortunately, we wish we did. But we weren't going to leave him hanging with nowhere to stay until he figured out a plan B. We have a few choices for places to live. We have a wood farmhouse on stilts that doesn't have electricity or running water. They didn't want to stay there. We have a small living space upstairs from the shop for volunteers, but they didn't want to live there either, too lonely, too much in the city. We also were fixing up the recently vacated little guest house on our property to be ready to host volunteers who were arriving in just a few more weeks. (By fixing up I mean things like cleaning years worth of grime off of things, and patching screens in an effort to make it sort of mosquito proof.) They opted to stay there, knowing they would have to leave a short time later, and that I would be in and out working on it while they were still there.

It was a bit awkward. I was trying to paint and stuff. But they found a good job and a new place to live very quickly and left to live there.

Aaron phoned to tell me this while I was out and ended with, "I told them they could take a few of the mattresses and some of the pots to get set up in their new house."

This is the part where I got all upset and started asking stuff like, "Wait, which mattress did you give them? Because one of the ones I put in there was way more expensive than the others. "

"I didn't know," he said, "and it really wouldn't have mattered. I gave it to them."

Cue me muttering in frustration under my breath, because, I'm the one who has been wandering town looking for deals, trying to furnish our living spaces for volunteers on a strict budget.

"It cost over ($30USD)!" I told him, on the point of tears.

"Carrien, how much does that mean for them, knowing what they probably make?" He asked.

"It's more than a weeks wages," I answered.

"Exactly," he said, "for us, it's a bit inconvenient, and a bit of money. For them it's a whole lot more."

I thought to myself that he's very generous with my time, and my inconvenience. Because I'm shockingly self centered, fairly often.

When I had time to check out the house the next day, it was cleaned out! They had, either purposely, or more likely by misunderstanding, taken every last carefully selected kitchen item I had stood and deliberated over in the store, all the things I had just furnished it with, the mosquito net, and even the extra dishes she had come over to my house to borrow her first day here. Everything except the electric burner was gone.

I was so frustrated, again. I said bad words aloud into the empty house. I called Aaron to vent.

"I'm embarrassed that I feel so angry about this. But I do. GRRR."

He of course reminded me that it's not a big deal in the end. We'll be fine, $100 worth of housewares will not break us. I wished I had known he'd be giving everything in there away, because I have crappier versions of many of those things that I would have preferred to part with. (My heart is so full of charity toward my fellow man, isn't it? Here, take my old things I don't want, but don't take anything nice, I want to keep that stuff. I want to give it to MY friends to use.)

So yeah, the old kitchen stuff is in the guest house for now. I bought new mosquito nets. I finished the painting and clean up. It's not perfect, but it will serve for a while.

My heart may need a bit more work though.


Of Darkness, and Hope, and How You Can Help Bring Light

Today I met a 14 year old girl, when I was visiting two of the mothers in my birth class. She was squatting in the house next to one of the grandmothers. I thought she was a kid who came in to watch the babies.

17 year old mamas
The two mothers I was there to see were the youngest women in the class. They were both seventeen. One of these girls discovered that the man who got her pregnant was already married to someone else, before he started sweet talking her. She was so upset over this that she took something to try and abort her babies. That's right, plural. The doctors at the clinic told her she was pregnant with twins.

But whatever she took was only half successful. One of the babies lived. He's a tiny little thing, with intelligent little eyes in his beautiful face.

His grandfather is quite taken with him, and insists he will care for and raise his grandson himself if need be. I'm happy for this baby boy and his mother that it turned out this way. She hopes that she will meet another man and this time he will be a good man. It seems unlikely here, in this place where men can abandon women, and children, without consequence.

The other girl was taken to the government hospital for a C-section, because her baby was breach. The doctors did what they always do to Burmese women, they cut her right down the middle of her belly. If you know anything about C-sections, you know that that is the worst place to cut, it makes her uterus really weak for any subsequent labors, because of the location. Who knows how the doctors actually stitched her up, and whether they made it at all strong for her. They don't care what happens to her the next time she's pregnant, or about leaving a scar. They don't give her the same courtesy they give to Thai women, giving them a low, transverse cut, and doing a good job and stitching up carefully. They are simply fulfilling a legal requirement to help them, even if they can't pay, and consider it an imposition. So this seventeen year old girl has had her uterus compromised by indifferent, racist, doctors.

As we were sitting on the wood floor, admiring the 2 babies, the 14 year old girl suddenly left and came back with her 7 month old daughter! She had been 13 when she delivered her, 2 months early.

My head scrambled with the math. If she delivered a baby at 7 months gestation, while still 13, the oldest she could have possibly been when she got pregnant is less than 13 and a half. So that would be like my oldest son, the kid who just turned 13 and is still more kid than teenager, suddenly becoming a parent. I don't even want to think about it.

Then she told me that the baby's father, her "husband", had left her to stay at his parent's house and didn't come around anymore or even give her any money to pay for food.

So I asked how old he is, thinking maybe he's a kid like her who just couldn't handle the responsibility. No, he's 25 years old!!

He's a 25 year old man who seduced a 13 year old child and got her pregnant and then abandoned her to go live at his parents house and get high on the local drug.

14 year old mama
 There's no one she can turn to. This place is lawless. In Burma she could go to the village head man, who would have witnessed her marriage, and demand support for herself and her child. But here, there is no headman, no village government. There are just squalid settlements and almost everyone is in survival mode. The Thai police don't care about migrants. They do nothing except harass and abuse them.

[The government hospital purposely doesn't stock important medicine that helps a premature baby's lungs develop, because they are required by law to give it to Burmese babies too, and it's expensive. So they don't keep it in stock so they don't have to give it. My friend's baby almost died because they didn't have this medicine on hand when her daughter was born early and her lungs and heart weren't ready. Friends had to drive 4 hours on treacherous mountain roads to bring the medicine back to the hospital for her baby.

Most Burmese don't have a friend with a car willing to drive all day to bring back medicine for them. What do you suppose happens to those babies?]

This was just one part, of one day. I saw many other women today, went to many more places to bring the nutrition packages I've committed to giving to the pregnant and nursing mothers in my class.

We left some eggs and vegetables with the 14 year old mother also. It was the only thing we could do in the moment to help her. I'll be back with more next week.

As we got back in the car, TinTin, our assistant director, and translator extraordinaire, said to me, "Sometimes, I think I hate men."

I knew exactly what she meant, and how she felt. Sometimes I feel the same way.

I know that the gaps between posts on this blog get longer, and longer, and I'm silent far too often. These stories are hard to tell. I often don't know where to begin. I usually tell them over here at The Charis Project's blog. There are good stories in there too, along with the hard. I try to focus on the good.

(I wonder if I should tell you that as I write this I'm experiencing significant gastro-intestinal distress again. I've run to the bathroom 3 times 4 times so far. Or that I spent the last 2 days going through all my children's hair and doing laundry because of lice, again. You know, so you get a complete picture. It's such a small detail compared to the other things, but it's part of why I've lost energy for blogging.)

I'm trying to tell some of these stories today because we need your help.

We're barely scratching the surface of the need with our programs so far. Since I started the birth class I've been swamped with requests to do it again, for more women, in more communities. It's a little thing, but empowering women, and mothers, it turns out, is not such a little thing after all. You can see it, in the way they sit a little taller, and speak a little more confidently after class, in the way they teach each other what I've taught them.

TinTin wants to start a women's center. She wants a place where we give classes every night, real  classes that help women to care for their children and families, and also give them an excuse to leave the house when husbands are drunk, or high, and it gets violent and dangerous. One night some of the women in our class shared with us that their husbands are alcoholics, and it's very hard to live with them. They said they don't mind when class runs late because it gives them an excuse to stay away from home until the men are passed out.

We talked about violence and how it affects children, even if they only see it and don't experience it directly, and how there's always a choice, even if it doesn't seem like there is in the moment. The day after that class, TinTin told us her idea for a place that women could come to learn, and escape, the secret rooms that no one knows about.

We also want to start a nursery school that helps care for these children during the day and gives them a good start on learning. It will help these mothers, who need to work to survive, and help these children succeed. (Kids can come on a scholarship that their mothers, or fathers, qualify for by attending our night classes that help them to parent and provide better.)

We want to do this as soon as possible. But first we need to have another $1500/month coming in in committed donations.

I wrote a post on the other blog that explains all about it. You can read it here. I tried to make it lighthearted and funny. (My heart is less light today.)

Or you can just decide right now that you want to help us do something about this, to shine a light in this dark place.

You can go directly to our donate page, and sign up for a monthly donation to any program that you like, but Community Education is the one that funds the birth class and the center.

The light of hope seems such small fragile thing against the immense darkness, but if there is anything that advent has taught us, it's to hold onto hope. This season will you join us in lighting a candle to hold against the darkest night? Will you help us give these families hope?

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