Monday, February 20, 2017

When A Baby Shower Feels Like An Act of Defiance



It's a bright sunny day, a respite from the rain that our region has experienced recently. Years of drought followed by this much rain, though, would leave anyone longing for the warmth of sun-kissed skin. We in Southern California are welcoming this sunny day with a similar energy that those in the Midwest welcome the smell of spring thaw. 

I am running late on this Thursday morning, as usual. Every week, I try again to make it the week that we will pick up the Afghan women and their children on time. That we will install the extra car seat on time. That we will get them all to English class on time. Fact: this is pressure I put on myself, never pressure that these women put on me. I am an American of distant German descent; my life has often been run by the clock, but I am lousy at being on time.

Still, this Thursday morning is different. Today, class is canceled. Instead, there is a celebration to welcome two babies: one, a girl, growing large in my belly, and the other, a boy, growing large in the belly of his mother who came here from Afghanistan and has welcomed three other children before him. Together, the teachers and students in this class who represent Afghanistan, Syria, Canada, Turkey and the United States will throw a joint baby shower in honor of these babies who will both be U.S. citizens and share in the privileges thereby bestowed upon them. 

I pick up the two women, sisters-in-law, from the two floor apartment that their families share. Between their families, there are four adults and six sons. The two year old accompanies his mother and his aunt to class on Wednesday and Thursday mornings while his older brothers and cousin are in school. I don't know exactly how many bedrooms there are in this apartment, but judging from the size of the first floor, it cannot be many. I am still learning the story of how they came to live here, but like several of the women in the group it is likely that their husbands worked for the U.S. military during our involvement in Afghanistan, or had some other American connections, and thus their lives had been threatened by the Taliban or others. This would put them among the lucky ones - those who qualify for Special Immigrant Visas and survived long enough to make it into the United States. For each of them, there are many others who still have not been able to come.

We make the beautiful drive to the upper hills of our city, the neighborhoods where you can see the snow-capped mountains clearly in the distance, where signs indicate that drivers should be aware of riders on horseback. Today, we celebrate at the spacious and beautiful home of a woman who faithfully prays for and supports this group. It was an email from her that originally helped me connect with them last summer, doing the one low-commitment thing I felt I could do as a mother of two young children: drive my minivan to and fro. 

I pull into her driveway and we unload: three of us mothers, and three of our children, along with gift bags and an aluminum tray of delicious smelling rice prepared Afghani style. I honestly couldn't tell you what makes it taste so good (I hope someday to learn!) but I know this: it tastes so good. 

We are ushered to the back porch along with the other expectant mother, her children and the young university student who drove them. There are more than forty others there, I am sure, and a table spread with chicken dishes of multiple colors, deviled eggs, rice dishes, banana pudding, almond cookies and some more traditional American potluck fare (excepting anything that would include pork). It will be impossible to sample each one.

We gather in a circle and hold hands according to instructions from the head of house, the woman who emailed me last summer, and greet each other. The air is ripe with need for a celebration after the upheaval of the news from the last several weeks: an executive order from our president handled most sloppily and applied unjustly against entire citizenries of countries. It was immediately followed by objections across the country and eventually stayed by legal means. However, I gather that this has done little to assuage the fears of families across the world who now have solid evidence straight from the top that supports their suspicions of being unwelcome under this presidency. I don't know in what ways this eruption has personally impacted the students gathered here, but I am certain it has, and fear is not out of the question. 

Food is piled onto plates, and we are smiles and laughter. Shrieks come forth from the mouths of the children gathered here who have spied a distant outdoor play space, complete with an old row boat long out of commission but perfect for the imagination of the typical preschooler. Eventually, all of us are gathered to a small grassy garden area, near a brook running through the property. I am ushered to a patio sofa along with the other expectant mother, and the showering of gifts begins. Truly, this is the most literal showering of gifts I have ever seen, let alone experienced. I have barely enough time to open one and look around to thank the giver briefly before another is pushed into my lap. The scene is the same on my right with the other mom. I can't help but giggle at it all.

Internally, my logical bent does battle with my heart. As a person who errs toward painful practicality, receiving gifts for my third child is an exercise in accepting excess. It's not that I'm not grateful - I certainly am - but any hesitation toward simply receiving these sweet symbols of love runs the risk of being offensive. I wonder how much these women have had to scrape and save in order to celebrate not one but two babies who will soon be among us. Is it worth it? My family certainly has enough that this baby will be well taken care of - I hope so much that the receiving of these gifts has not caused unnecessary burdens for these families, and yet I have a sneaking suspicion that there has been sacrifice. They are beyond generous. I don't deserve their generosity. What have I done to help but drive them occasionally to class? As a native-born representative of my country I feel especially undeserving at the moment. 

Slowly, though, in the same way the sun rises, it occurs to me how defiant this celebration is. Fear of difference has loomed large in the world for ages, and recently this fear has become more exposed than ever for this generation, in our hearts and across borders. The very fact that so many of us women from different countries are gathered together to celebrate two babies who will be born to mothers of different nationalities seems profound right now. In the face of a world that keeps telling us to fear, to retreat, to build walls, to close ourselves off, and to believe the worst stereotypes presented to us (to "embrace our suspicions", as Austin Channing Brown puts it), celebrating together throws burning coals in the direction of snake-like lies. It's a "NO!" in the face of fear that's as firm as the "NO!" I give my children when they make a dash toward a busy street.

The party stretches well beyond the time we typically allot for English class, but this seems to faze no one. I don't have all the names of the women who have been so generous with their sweet gifts, but I try to offer a few small words of gratitude and pleasure at being part of this growing group. 

As we leave to take my friends home, I again dwell on the fact that I've never experienced a baby shower like this one: a party that feels so radical just by virtue of the fact that it insists on joy in the midst of uncertainty. 

Nothing breaks down walls and causes us to sit down at the same table together like babies do. Though the English they may know is still growing, and though my Pashto, Farsi and Arabic are non-existent, we speak the same language of motherhood. We want our babies to be welcomed exuberantly into the world, we want them to grow up without fear for their lives, we want them to know love beyond comprehension. And so, as mothers we will insist on dancing for joy over our babies, insist on delighting over them, insist on singing over them, and insist on celebrating each one. This, most days, will be my most profound act of defiance in the face of fear - to speak and live love, hope, joy, celebration.