Monday, November 5, 2018

I'm doing it. I'm posting about my CURLY HAIR JOURNEY.

When I left American for Ireland, I had sort of wavy hair that I wished was either straight or actually curly.
Well, somewhere along the way I had to accept that my hair turned... curly. Like, doesn't want to be anything else, will freak out if you brush it curly. Once I accepted this, I realised I needed to figure out a whole new way of doing my hair. So that's when my research started in earnest. And here's my hair today, after being air dried. See what I mean?

Now that I've done the research, read all the blogs, and watched all the youtube videos, I'm going to pass on what I learned with you.

OK SO! It's very easy to sort of get caught in a black hole of curly youtube videos - there are so many youtubers talking about their methods. LUCKY FOR YOU I have watched a million of them and I can tell you some which I think are helpful.

This lady, Curly Susie, has some good videos for beginners, like this one on how to start using the curly girl method:

EASY/OVERSIMPLIFIED Curly Girl Method for Newbies

Some people think that the Curly Girl method means you don't wash your hair. THAT IS NOT TRUE. I wash my hair! It's really about finding the right products. 
The first thing is to make sure that your shampoo and conditioner is sulfate and silicone free -- you'd be surprised which ones are/aren't 'curly girl approved' -- for example, most of the LUSH shampoos have a sulfate as the first ingredient! 

You don't have to spend a tonne of money, though you easily can. Here is a list of products that should be easier to find here in Ireland (well, UK, but you know...some of the same shops) It turns out that this gel from boots is curly girl approved and is super cheap at 1.50. I used it for a couple of weeks and I thought it worked great! I did have to use a little bit more than some other thicker gels, but I really liked it and you can't beat the price. (It turned out that I was massively allergic to it, sadly.) I use the Giovanni 2chic, Ultra-Moist Shampoo, for Dry, Damaged Hair, Avocado & Olive Oil line of products.

The second thing is to use an old t-shirt or microfiber towel instead of your regular towel. And always plop! Don't twist the hair in a turban. Here's how to do the plop:

Basically the idea behind the curly girl method is to use a gentle shampoo or cleanser ('no poo'), a good moisturising conditioner, and then two products: a leave-in conditioner and then a curly-girl approved gel or mousse. The leave-in conditioner just adds that bit of moisture, and then the gel/mousse locks it in and gives the hair a shine and eliminates frizz. In the old days, you'd have that spaghetti hair gel look, but nowadays gels don't leave that shine.

Now, what I've found is do not be afraid of product. I have really fine hair, and some products weigh my hair down. However, I can use loads of the right products, and in fact going heavier has lead to great results for me. I really like the method used in this video:

The trick is often called 'scrunch the crunch' -- once your hair is dry and your curls are nice and frizz-free, you just scrunch the hair a little and it releases the gel cast on them, so they feel soft again. 

How to create a gel cast:

So I shower, squeeze the excess water out of my hair, put my leave-in conditioner in, then the gel, and then plop my hair. I leave the towel on for about 15 minutes.

Then, I just take the towel off, part my hair where I want it with my fingers, and then go. I try not to touch my hair again until it's basically dry. Then I scrunch the crunch with my head upside down, give it a little shake, and voila!

A lot of people swear by the co-wash method ('washing' with conditioner instead of shampoo) and I think it's great, but even if you go down that route, you should still wash with proper shampoo every couple of weeks. For me, I co-wash every other time that I am wetting my hair in the shower, alternating with a gentle shampoo. So it goes co-wash, skip a day or two, shampoo, skip a day or two, co-wash, and so on. I just find that I enjoy shampooing and my hair gets filmy and weighed down if I don't shampoo once a week or so.

If you live in an area with hard water like I do, there are also clarifying or "chelating" shampoos that get rid of mineral buildup. Here's a blog post from curly cailin about when to use one of those.

Oh also the best thing to avoid frizz is DON'T BRUSH YOUR HAIR. This one was hardest for me, especially because often my hair is only wavy and not curly. I'd think surely I can brush it a wee bit. NO. It gets super frizzy and then I have to wet it down again to get rid of the frizz.

I hope that's helpful to you on your hair journey! 

Sunday, October 28, 2018

You Won’t Meet a Girl in the Homestead, a short story by Angela Coraccio

   Billy looked in the mirror to check the equilibrium of his tie knot. Removing a comb from his right pocket, he ploughed its teeth through his auburn hair, thick and shiny with brylcreem. The strands of orange hair yielded narrow rows. “Come on, Johnny. Let’s go,” he hollered at the ceiling. Johnny, a boy of ten or eleven with a halo of blonde curls, bounded down the stairs. “There you are, now,” Billy said, satisfied. “Didja go before ya go?” Johnny nodded. “Ok, then.” Billy opened the door and the two spilled onto the footpath. Johnny ran ahead, skipping toward the gate. Billy walked past him to let them both through.
   They headed down toward Cabra Road. “Where we going?” Johnny asked as he took two steps for every one of Billy’s. “For a walk,” Billy said. They swung right at Anamoe. Johnny strained to see whether a boy in his class was home as they went by, but the house showed no signs of life. He ran to catch up. Billy nodded to the neighbour, Mrs. Brady, who swayed toward them from side to side. “Lovely day, what, Mrs. Brady?” She looked at the sky. “Rain tomorrow, though,” she said without breaking the beat of her pace. “Her ankles are thicker than her feet!” Johnny whisper-yelled when they’d only barely passed her by. “Did you see that?” he asked.
“Quiet yourself,” Billy said. He walked on. He could feel tiny beads of sweat starting to crawl out of his pores, so he slowed his pace slightly. By the time they reached Grangegorman, Johnny was officially bored. “What do the crazy people do all day, anyways? Do they get their own rooms? Do they tie the people up? Have you ever been in there? Podger’s granda was in there but he never said antin about it to Podger.” He picked up rocks along the way and tried to throw them at birds. “Do you think he was shell shocked?”
   Billy cleared his throat. It made a hut huh sound. “It was just a nervy kind of thing,” he said. “He wasn’t himself.” Johnny wondered what that meant: he wasn’t himself. “If he wasn’t himself, who was he?”
   “You know what I mean,” Billy said as he exhaled the air from his lungs. They turned onto North King Street and walked the length of it to Church Street, where Billy stood on the corner and looked around while trying not to look like he was looking around. When it appeared no one took notice, he turned around and headed the way they’d just come along North King Street. Johnny followed.
   Their mother’s words echoed in Billy’s head: “You won’t meet a girl in the Homestead!” His eyes roamed the footpaths, front gardens, and windows for Phyllis Lennon. Phyllis Lennon. She had Greta Garbo looks and a way of laughing with her right hand outstretched that could make you weep with desire. A few weeks before, he was in town, having cycled in after a particularly pointless wander around the Botanic Gardens. He looked up from his feet to see her smiling at him, as if she’d noticed him for a good long while and was amused at his distractedness and attention to the ground. She told him she’d just gotten off work. She looked at him conspiratorially from underneath her tilted hat. “Where are you headed?”
   “Oh, just...home.” Billy was headed nowhere whatsoever, but he didn’t want to highlight his unemployment, his aimlessness.
   “Let’s stop off for a drink. Come on!” But he knew he had to say no. “I’m sorry Phyllis -- my pockets are empty.” He put his hands in his pockets and felt around, as though a coin might magically appear. He hadn’t got a pound to his name. “Nonsense, Billy!” Phyllis grabbed his arm. “I got paid today. What’s mine is yours!” And with that, she stuffed a note into his pocket. He thought he might die from shame, but he wanted to be with her more than he wanted his pride. She slid next to him in a booth at Edwards’ Café. They drank two cokes each. He walked her home as slowly as possible. Her voice bounced against the buildings of Bolton Street like bells at Christmas mass. But then, they lost touch. That was nearly six weeks ago. Six long weeks.
   When Billy and Johnny reached the opposite end of the street at Blackhall Place, they stood on the corner once again. “I’m hungry,” Johnny said. 
   “We’ll go down the street again and I’ll buy you a sweet at Prendervilles, ok?” Johnny ran ahead in reply, jumping and skipping down the crumbling footpath. Billy wiped his forehead with his handkerchief. He never saw Phyllis Lennon again.
   As so many did in those days, Phyllis made her way to Wales. There, she would meet a man from Malta, marry him, move to Valletta, and have two children. “You know, she probably thought Johnny was your son,” Dolores, the neighbour, would say. He pictured little Johnny, sprinting up the road ahead of him. Perhaps it was true. It didn’t stop Johnny dying of pancreatic cancer before either of them got to old age. Billy continued to  walk the same streets of Dublin. The faces of the shop fronts declined, closed, got renovated, re-opened, changed names, or became another sort of building altogether. Billy’s hair turned blonde, then white. And one day, on his way to mass, he would find himself in front of Mrs. Lennon, Phyllis’ mother. She would steady herself, her arms shaking from the weight of her messages. “Billy Perkins! Billy Perkins, why didn’t you marry my lovely daughter, Phyllis?” Dark lines would punctuate her pursed mouth and wet eyes. “Awful, awful people they were. Jim had to borrow money from the credit union to go over and see what the story was. A fight, someone said, but we’ll never know how she fell down the stairs.” Mrs. Lennon closed her eyes. When she opened them again, she looked right through him. “They didn’t even have the decency to tell us she was dead until she was three weeks in the grave. Oh, Billy Perkins. Why didn’t you marry my lovely daughter, Phyllis? If you’d married Phyllis, she would still be alive today!”

Angela Coraccio

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Dublin, you're my home.

The title of this blog is a play on that song's famous lyrics, "Boston, you're my home," because for many years, Boston was my home and even when it wasn't, I was never far away.

Nine and a half years ago, I moved to Dublin at the age of 35. I had no job and practically no savings. I didn't know a single person in Dublin my age other than my husband. For the first few months, I wandered around town trying to familiarise myself with Dublin streets. I spent a lot of time online waiting for my friends and family in America to wake up and get online so I'd have someone to talk to.

A couple of months in, I started going to this 'autonomous social centre' that was being set up called Seomra Spraoi. I had been in some anarchist spaces in the Boston area -- not many -- but I knew that if I wanted to find out about the interesting stuff happening, I'd need to find the punks, even though I myself had never identified as such. I helped a little with the construction of the space and helped cook for the vegan café nights that happened once or twice a week. I started to meet people here and there, but I felt like I had OUTSIDER tattooed on my forehead. Still, I kept going back.

Mark brought home a magazine called 'The Rag' by an anarcha-feminist group called Revolutionary Anarcha-feminist Group (aka RAG). I learned that the magazine wasn't just something you could submit work to -- you had to be part of the collective, which met monthly and worked collaboratively on the annual magazine. So I joined. And that's where my journey home began.

In that group, I found the most wonderful and inspiring women. I was able to use my writing and editing skills and learn new skills like layout in InDesign. But I mostly learned how to listen. I learned how to think about the connection of oppressions and powers. I learned to be honest with myself and others about my privilege. I learned how to question the judgements and criticisms I had made throughout my very middle class, white-dominated life. I learned how to work in a collective. I learned how to organise and how to support other people in the collective.

When RAG decided to have an open meeting back in July 2012 to talk to pro-choice people about how we could start a campaign to legalise abortion, I had no idea what was ahead of me, but I hopped on the rollercoaster with great enthusiasm because I'd had a taste of what it was like to be part of a collective working towards a goal, and I wanted more of that feeling. At that meeting, we found a huge appetite not just for change, but for action. We formed a network of pro-choice groups. We had our first March for Choice. Then we turned the network into a campaign: The Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC).

I was the first Secretary of ARC, but I'll be honest and say that I had to give it up before my term ended to focus on my fashion business, which I was then just starting. But I tried to keep active, never being able to stay away for long and threw myself into various projects whenever I could manage them. ARC was where the action was. Some exciting development was always happening, and we made small wins over the next five or so years as our marches got bigger and bigger. By then I was on the Board of Directors, though I admit that I tended to shy away from leadership positions because I was afraid of having to quit partway through again.

Finally, in November of 2016, I had a steady job and was in a new home and I had no excuse not to run for Co-convener. At the last second we convinced media and design powerhouse Caoimhe Doyle to run with me. When we were voted in, I made two promises to myself: 1) I would not quit and 2) I would do the absolute best job that I could. I wanted to look back and feel proud of myself and to feel like I really gave it my all. And you know what? As I sit here, I can say that I really kept those promises. Was I the best Co-convener that ever was? Heck, no! But was I the best Co-convener that I could be? Yes. During that year, my father-in-law was very, very ill. It was hard to be working full time, going to as many ARC meetings as I could humanly go to, and supporting my husband in caring for my father-in-law and himself.

But it was full of so many amazing moments, I couldn't possibly summarise. But I think the highlight was being onstage with so many other dedicated pro-choice activists, standing in front of a crowd of 40,000 people, and finding the courage to speak passionately about legalising abortion in Ireland. My American friends and family will probably never know how important that day was in Irish history: it was the biggest pro-choice march the country had ever seen, and I got to be part of making that happen! This middle-aged lady from New Hampshire! Sharing a stage with absolute legends!

During that year, I was probably a better Co-convener than I was wife and daughter-in-law. I made that choice, and I am at peace with it. My father-in-law died just before the clock struck midnight on the day that the new Co-conveners would be elected. My year was up and I thought I was ready for a break.

But I should have known better. I didn't really want to take a break with so much still going on. We got our referendum! We needed to make sure that ARC got a place at the table in whatever referendum campaign came together. I wasn't able to take as much time off to work on Together for Yes as I wanted to, but I took a week off to work in HQ and I took every Wednesday off to work on the campaign for six weeks, trying to do bits and pieces whenever I could. I couldn't believe how many hundreds -- thousands -- of people were giving it their ALL. So many dedicated people giving up their time, putting blood, sweat, and tears into the campaign. And not just people who were already active. People I never even knew were pro-choice were canvassing every night!

And that was the amazing thing. I used to refer to the Abortion Rights Campaign as 'red-headed step-children' (pardon the American phrase) of the pro-choice movement. We weren't an NGO. We had new people in leadership positions all the time. We had non-hierarchical, anarchist-leaning ways of organising. We had the word Abortion in our name. We often felt like we had to fight tooth and nail for respect and recognition. But here we were, in the middle of this campaign that SO MANY people came out of the woodwork to support. We learned that we had been supported all along, since the beginning, even if the supporters didn't always make themselves known. Our work had paid off. The Together for Yes campaign used most of the ARC infrastructure built over the past five+ years and it just exploded in a burst of enthusiasm and energy.

But still, we weren't sure of winning. Right to the end, we weren't sure. Which is why, on Friday the 25th of May when the exit poll results were announced and we learned that we would win by a landslide, there were thousands of sobbing activists around Ireland and indeed the world.

I never worked for something so long and so hard in my entire life. And I have never felt part of something so big and so important. I know that anyone who played any part in the Yes campaign probably feels the same. Because we all did it, as the name says, together.

But when it came down to the end of the timeline leading up to referendum day, I decided that I'd do the fun stuff and I planned a party for the night of the results. I reserved a huge bar in city centre. I had no idea if anyone would come, but I made it open to everyone who had worked on any group in the campaign. And I was so happy because people came! And there was a great buzz about the place, though everyone was absolutely exhausted. It was a funny energy -- a mixture of happiness, relief, fatigue, surreal disbelief that it was over and we'd been victorious.

Then something magical happened. Dr. Groove fired up his laptop, we turned the volume up, and he started to play his DJ set. The next thing I knew, this room full of people who had, moments before, looked limp and fading, got up onto the dance floor and started dancing like nobody's business.

And that's when I started to cry. I realised that these were my people. I'll always love my friends and family back in America, but the people I've come to know here in Dublin are my found family. They accept me, they lift me up, they laugh at my terrible jokes, and they let me be part of this amazing movement. As I watched everyone dance I thought, "I can never leave here. This is where I am happy. This is my home."

After my father passed away, I felt like I would never feel real joy again. Grief is like that. But grief, I've realised, is what has motivated me to live a life that means something to me, that gives back to my community, that will serve the greater good, that brings me more joy than I thought possible and that I can look back on when it's my time to leave and say, I did some very cool things with some very nice people who loved me as much as I loved them.

Monday, May 1, 2017

A response to 'Abortion movement has been hijacked by the middle class'

Hi. You may not know me. In my spare time, I am one of the Co-conveners of the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC), which you may have heard of because it's the largest abortion rights campaign in Ireland (we do what it says on the tin). I'm writing this on my own blog because these opinions are my own and do not represent ARC's views.

Today, we woke up to an article in the Irish Times by Kitty Holland, entitled, "Abortion movement has been hijacked by the middle class." I'm not going to attempt to summarise it. So I'm going to pick out specific points.

First off, I commend Kitty for being frank and open about her two abortions. I appreciate everything involved in writing about abortion from a personal perspective so publicly. It takes courage.

However, she says, "In October 2012, Savita Halappanavar’s death awakened a new generation to the abortion wars and in 2015 two brave women, Róisín Ingle and Tara Flynn, received nothing but support for speaking publicly about their abortions." I know this statement to be patently untrue. If I'm not mistaken, there was huge public outcry, including threats to their personal safety, causing much distress and the need to take a step back from social media. It was all there happening on social media in front of our eyes. I can't imagine being one of these two women reading such an inaccurate version of their own personal histories. How this made it to print without being fact checked surprises me.

In the article, she also writes about a once-off event, organised by the Repeal Project, held in the Olympia Theatre, as a fundraiser for the purpose of campaign work toward repealing the 8th Amendment. She says, "Despite three very brief, and very important contributions – from Senator Lynn Ruane and her daughter Jordanne, Traveller activist Eileen Flynn and poet Felicia Olusanyo – women from marginalised communities were, as far as I could see, almost wholly absent from both stage and audience ... Accessible abortion is essential if women are to achieve economic and political equality with men, and it is absolutely essential if the poorest, most marginalised women are to achieve economic and political equality with their middle-class sisters. I have not heard this basic argument articulated by Repeal campaign."

Here's my frustration. What do people think the 'Repeal campaign' is? The 'Repeal campaign' doesn't exist. There's a movement to repeal the 8th, yes. But something called the 'Repeal campaign' just flat out is a made up thing which any amount of journalistic research would have discovered.

Allow me to break down Irish pro-choice politics for you. First, we have The Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment. They are a coalition of organisations of all kinds, or a group of groups, who have signed on to support repealing the 8th. They're huge. They have 80-something organisations signed up. They do research, talk to politicians and other movers and shakers, and all in all do great work. They reach out to their member organisations, who in turn reach out to their members. Check out their website to see what they do -- it's inspiring and important. ARC is a proud member of the Coalition.

Then you've got independent projects like Hunreal Issues and the Repeal Project. These are basically run by individual people who dedicate a lot of time toward raising people's awareness and raising money through selling merchandise and holding events. They aren't campaigns. I repeat: they are not campaigns. And no, they aren't accessible to everyone. I myself have talked publicly about the paradox of the repeal jumpers and how they are not accessible, and I stand by that. Not everything pro-choice is going to be accessible if we are to reach the audience we need to, and to be perfectly frank, to raise the money needed to do the work of campaigning.

After independent projects, there are pro-choice groups created by political parties and universities. They reach out to their supporters by doing education, outreach, holding demos and rallies, and fundraising. They also do important work for specific groups of people.

There are also individuals acting as such or in interest groups such as Parents for Choice, who write blogs, articles, and are committed to the cause on social media. They also do important work in making people aware of all kinds of issues and how those issues intersect with reproductive rights.

And finally, we have the Abortion Rights Campaign. We are now an international campaign, with 20 Irish regional groups (north and south), a London group, a Scottish group, and a new group in the US. ARC Dublin has six working groups who meet at least once a month and a monthly Open Meeting that anyone can attend. The regional groups meet at least once a month also. Some working groups have sub-groups working on specific projects which meet regularly. There's also a monthly steering group meeting. So, in any given month, there are at least 35 ARC meetings happening. That's around 420+ meetings per year attended by literally hundreds of people. And that's just the meetings. From the meetings, we all go home and work on the action items decided on the meetings. Many of us are putting in as much or more time on ARC as a full time job.

Why do I mention ARC's work in this way? Because one of our chief concerns for years now has been inclusivity. If you go to, and hover your mouse over "ABOUT ARC," you'll see a drop down menu with one item: 'Values and Inclusivity." That's no mistake. Just two days ago, I was at an event co-hosted by the Anti-Racist Network and the Abortion Rights Campaign, and complained to a full room of people that despite our best efforts, the campaign was predominantly comprised of white middle-class women. Do you know what I was told? Basically, I was told to get over myself. But that's neither here nor there.

When people talk about the 'Repeal campaign,' most of the time they have no clue what that means. There are a LOT of people doing a LOT of things. Some of those people are trying to include marginalised communities. Some are not. But do your research, journalists. Know who you are talking about and know what they're doing before you go to the most widely read news outlets and criticise an entity that doesn't exist.

The Repeal Project, as it currently exists, is essentially a fundraising effort. If it gets middle class people to fork over their extra cash to pro-choice campaigns, then I say GREAT. Thank you for your money, here is an event or a jumper as a bonus/thank you, and we will do good work with it. Again: it isn't a campaign.

For those of us who have been trying to find innovative ways to include marginalised people, such as creating Women's Education Projects, inviting people from other groups such as the Trans Equality Network of Ireland to come speak to us on how to be more inclusive, supporting groups such as Sex-Workers Alliance Ireland or the Anti-Racist Network, translating our materials into foreign languages, it's extremely frustrating to wake up to read that someone we thought was a supportive voice in the media try to publicly take us down without even acknowledging us by name.

I feel sorry for the hundreds of people reading this article who work so hard, not just on reproductive rights, but doing it in such a way that constantly strives to improve and be more inclusive. We had a volunteer survey recently. From that, we've been trying to change the way we run meetings, so that everyone feels welcome. We are trying to partner with groups that involve people from marginalised groups in a way that isn't tokenistic. We invite them to speak at our marches. We try to talk about ways to hold space for them without being defensive about it. We remain open to suggestions.

When you conflate one event with an entire movement comprising thousands of hours of work done by volunteers, you effectively ignore all that work. As someone who spends a lot of time preoccupied with building the strongest grassroots campaign this country has ever known, it honestly just makes me sad. Because while we grow in leaps and bounds, we are watching ourselves being written out of history as it's happening.

You'll never hear me say that the pro-choice movement in Ireland isn't led by white middle class women. It completely is. But the reasons for that are extremely complex. (For one, middle class people have more time and more money.) And as we've found in ARC, simply wanting, no matter how desperately, to include them doesn't make it so. It's our biggest challenge and one we are constantly trying to solve. But we try. Despite being criticised heavily for it, we really, really try. And someday, I'd like to see an article about THAT struggle rather than a highlight of our apparent failure.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Rest in Peace, Joy.

Back in 2007, my husband Mark and I decided to move to Ireland (where he grew up) because he is an only child and his parents and uncles were elderly. We didn't want to be in America and receive a phone call with bad news and be helpless to do anything to help them. Also, we wanted to be able to spend some time with his family while they were still relatively well. So it took us well over a year to do it, but we moved in 2008. Sadly, two of Mark's uncles passed away before we got here, but we enjoyed over seven years with Mark's parents and his uncle, Billy.

But last Friday we had to say our final good-byes to Mark's mother, Joyce. She was 86. She died peacefully in hospital with her family by her side, holding her hands. She leaves a huge hole in our lives. Please keep Mark and his Dad in your thoughts.

I wanted to share the eulogy I read at Joyce's funeral. I didn't have much time to prepare it, but I did my best to convey what she meant to me. 

My mother-in-law was a person of many names. Her given name was Sarah, but she went by her middle name, Joyce. Those of us close to her called her Joy. Just a couple of days ago, we found out that for some reason, Joy was known around Cabra West as Grace. Mark and I had to laugh, because we can only speculate on how she earned the nickname. Yet, it’s fitting in a way because she had a certain grace, a comforting way, and a talent for the art of conversation. And, most strikingly, the woman had style.

When I suddenly appeared in Bill and Joy’s lives seven years ago – a stranger from America they’d only met briefly once before – I didn’t know what to expect. I remember feeling intense relief that this new, second mother in my life was a down-to-earth, likeable, generous, and independent woman with no pretentions that I could happily spend time with. You could confide in her about your life, your interests, and your beliefs and always know that she would never judge you. She didn’t preach and she never told people how they should live their lives. She embodied a ‘live and let live’ philosophy that helped people feel more comfortable around her.

The best and most challenging thing a parent can do is accept their children for who they are, and I must say, her unconditional love for Mark flowed out of her with every breath she took. I feel honoured to have been able to witness such mutual respect and admiration between a mother and son.

I admired Joy’s devilishness. If anyone in this room ever had the pleasure of making Joy laugh, you know what a thrill it was to hear. She was proper, but also a little bit mischievous. I imagine that growing up in an era of poverty and very few opportunities for women forced her to find creative solutions in order to do the things she wanted to do. Mark and I have often lamented that we weren’t alive to hang out with her as a young wan in her mini-skirts and heels, fancy Chanel-styled suits, and the trouble-making twinkle in her eye.

Joy bucked the conventions of marriage and children until she was good and ready, with the right person. She didn’t need taking care of – she worked. She dated, and she also had a close knit group of friends that she socialised with. She and I might have come from different cultures, different backgrounds, and different eras, but these are things we had in common with each other. As a result, I felt that she fundamentally understood me in a way I never had to explain. Mark and I never had children, and you’d expect an Irish mammy to have something to say about that. But Joy never broached the subject of whether we’d have kids because she understood it from her own experience as a private decision. She didn’t make us feel that we were less-than or lacking because we didn’t give her grand-children, and I think it reflects the unspoken love and respect she gave us. Because with Joy, she often made her feelings known not by what she said, but by what she didn’t say. So when Joy spoke, she spoke sincerely and from the heart.

BUT… if she needed to, she could go up one side of you and down the other with a single sentence. She was a lady, but she was a strong lady who could speak for herself. This is a skill that many of us are still trying to master. She was able to do it by quietly observing and sizing up people and situations. Nothing got by Joy. Just when you thought you’d pulled a fast one on her, she’d kindly remind you that she knew what you were up to in the subtlest way possible.

When we moved to Dublin, I saw the true level of care and attention that my husband was capable of giving when he was with Joy. Not just when she was sick, but all of the time. To say he doted on her doesn’t begin to cover it. And I know he learned to show such careful attentiveness from her. Joy cared for people. I think a lot of people who didn’t know Joy probably knew her to see because for many years, she’d be walking every day back and forth from her own house on the Quays or in Drumcondra up here to Cabra to mind her parents and her brothers, only to go back home to mind Bill and Mark. In fact, she was still calling over to help Billy with the housework – whether he liked it or not – until quite recently. In the best way she could, she showed her love for her Mother, her Father, and her brothers Jimmy, Billy, and Johnny with physical actions over words.

And now I need to say something about what Joy taught me about love and mutual support. Despite the fact that she married Bill at the ‘ancient’ age of 38, they celebrated their 47th anniversary last August. Forty-seven years isn’t just a long time to be married, it’s a long time to stay in love with someone. It’s a lot of cups of tea. It’s a lot of trips to the pub. It’s a lot of trips to the doctor. It’s a lot of negotiating tasks. It’s a lot of birthday cards – and when it came to cards, Joy liked the ones with a bit of verse. Watching Bill and Joy master the art of marriage was like watching a finely choreographed act on the flying trapeze: It often seemed chaotic, but they always caught each other and held on tightly. Through simply living their lives together, they showed Mark and me what it looks like to mutually depend on someone for life but still remain your own person.

Bill was telling me yesterday that one of Joy’s favourite songs was ‘What the world needs now’. I’m sure everyone here has heard it: What the world needs now is love, sweet love. The song is about how there are enough mountains to climb, oceans to cross, enough fields for growing things, and enough sunlight and moonbeams. But what everyone really needs is more love. It’s a simple message, but it’s true. Joy recognised that all people want in life is a little love and attention. Someone to be there for them. Someone to have an aul chat and a drink and someone to be there for you when you’re down. For her friends and family, that love, sweet love came from Joy.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Why I am anti-Catholic, in one handy list.

Because I am atheist people sometimes mistakenly assume that I am against people believing in God or I have disdain for people who pray or hope that God will bless them. Last time I spoke with my mother (hi mom!), she started a sentence by saying, “I know you don’t care about this, but I’m praying…” I wanted to interrupt her and explain that it’s not that I don’t care, and in fact the implication is offensive to me. I care very much. And anyways, it’s hard to deny the power of prayer and its healing role in people’s lives. You can be atheist and still respect other people's beliefs.

So the other day I posted this article to my facebook page, entitled, "Religious children are meaner than their secular counterparts, study finds." with this post: "This is the result of a system that tells you that it's ok to be an a-hole because you can confess it later, say a few prayers, and pretend it never happened. Oh, and that judging everyone and feeling superior to other people is ok too." And I say this not as a passive outsider but as someone who spent many hours in religion class (known as CCD) and in mass on Sundays. I was, to put it mildly, a religious kid. So while I recognise that my experience is not universal, I'd estimate that it is fairly typical, or at least unremarkable.

A family member of mine seemed to take it personally, commenting, “I don’t think I’m an a-hole. Do you?” You can recognise that a system contributes to the production of assholes without saying “All religious people are assholes.” You really, really can. I think people are confused about why I am so against the Catholic church and they can’t separate the corporation of Catholicism™ with individuals who believe in God or even who think they believe in the Bible (I say think because to be honest most people haven’t actually read the Bible for themselves and just think whatever their priests or religion teachers tell them the Bible says).

So here are just a few of the many reasons why I think Catholicism is bad for people and the world generally. To be honest, it was both boring and infuriating to think about, research, and write. I know this is a hard pill to swallow for people who persevere loving their religion and honestly believing that it's the only way to heaven. Well, if there's a heaven, I sure hope that participating in Catholicism isn't the only way there. And if it is, I'll take the nearest escalator going down.

1. Years and years of global child abuse at the hands of thousands of priests. But it's not even just about the abuse (sexual, physical, emotional). It's about the institutionalised cover-ups that occurred. When people started complaining about priests and their sexual misconduct, do you think the priests were fired and ex-communicated? Hell no. They were sent to other parishes. And guess what kind of places they were sent? Working class areas. Places where people didn't have as much agency and power. Places where people complained less. Everyone knew what was going on. You knew. I knew. The fucking Pope knew. Nothing was ever done. Maybe this kind of thing is why the Church teaches people to 'turn the other cheek.' Either way, thousands of victims' lives were completely ruined and they received no justice, and in many cases no apology. Many of them have committed suicide. The stories are heartbreaking, and no Pope has adequately addressed the issue. I guess I don't understand why Catholics aren't mass protesting about this. They just accept the infallibility of the Vatican. They just keep going to mass and giving tonnes of money to their churches. In my mind that's saying that everything is a-ok and it's just peachy that there was a mass cover up for decades of systematic rape and molestation of children. And if you don't believe in the top-down cover up of the abuse, then you haven't read enough about it.

I recently watched the film Spotlight. When that story broke, I was actually living in Boston and I actually had no idea how many priests and how many victims were involved. The scale, worldwide, is astounding. I honestly don't know how you can comprehend the heartless and systematic cover-up and still walk into a Catholic church, let alone give them a penny of your money.

2. Exercising control over educational systems and curriculum to spread harmful misinformation. Oof - where to begin with this one. Well, I'll start with the situation here in Ireland where in the year 2015 kids who aren't baptised in the Catholic church have a harder time getting into public school. Yep, public school is the one that's supposed to be free and available to all people. A person can be put last on a list to get into a school because they didn't get water poured over their head by some old dude chanting about original sin. The United Nations recently published a report saying Ireland needs to fix its discriminatory policies about their supposedly public education.

But Ireland aside, there are countless children all around the world whose access to education about health and science is being curtailed because of Catholicism's strange denial that things like evolution and sex ed are helpful subjects to know about. The upshot is that kids aren't left ignorant about healthy attitudes towards sex, sexual consent, sexual health, and healthy boundaries. Not to mention all those unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. So much money goes into Catholic-endorsed abstinence-only education, despite the fact that countless studies show it simply perpetuates untruths and harmful myths about how the world and humans work.

2. Symphysiotomy. I never heard about symphysiotomy until I moved to Ireland in 2009. Basically, when a woman was having a difficult childbirth, for various reasons, doctors in Ireland wanted to avoid using Cesarean section because you can only have so many of those. If women needed to limit the number of kids they had for medical reasons, then they'd need to make contraception available. But contraception was illegal and the Catholic church wanted to keep it that way. So instead of giving C-sections, they sawed women's pelvises in half without their knowledge or consent. Women were leaving hospitals in wheelchairs, unable to walk, and having no idea why. Some didn't discover it until years later. And this practice continued until the 1990s. Imagine going into the hospital to give birth and coming out with your pelvis split in two. Can you guess how that went? If you want to have a good cry, check out the website of the Survivors of Symphysiotomy. You might say oh that's the doctors, but no. The doctors were acting as the arms of the church when they mutilated those women.

3. Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes. It's easy to act like certain things that the church have done are ancient history, and aren't they so evolved because the new Pope was in a rock band or whatever. But the victims are still living with their trauma, and many of those that have died from crimes of the church are unnamed and hidden in the ground. There are some redress schemes in the form of pensions, but throwing money at people doesn't turn back the hands of time. Want to read something horrific? How about hundreds of dead babies thrown into a septic tank by nuns who didn't give a shit about them or the women who gave birth to them?

But that's actually just a blip on the institutions that were created for 'errant' women around the world. The last one closed in 1996. I don't know about you, but I was an adult in 1996. Many women were so desperate to escape that they literally died trying to climb their way out. And for what? Their own good, according to the church.

4. Anti-gay and anti-transgender bigotry. The Catholic church is still preaching that homosexuality is wrong and being transgender doesn't exist. People then use these teachings to beat and murder members of the LGBT community. Oh, and don't pretend that the Pope is all cool about the gays. He isn't. Honestly I'm really annoyed at how gullible people are at the Vatican's slick Public Relations techniques. The truth is that this new Pope isn't any different than any other -- he's just basically putting the same messages in different packaging to lull people into feeling as though the Vatican has made progress on social issues. They haven't. And meanwhile, people are suffering because of it. And if you think their attitudes about it have anything to do with the Bible, I hope you don't mind being stoned to death for using the lord's name in vain because that's in there too.

5. Inherent misogyny and sex negativity ingrained not just in Bible stories, but the church hierarchy itself. What's the big deal about women not being able to become priests, bishops, deacons, cardinals, or any other position of power in the church? It's the same big deal when women aren't in positions of leadership everywhere: decisions are made that affect them without their input or consent. Policies are put in place which endanger their lives. For example, as with the aforementioned symphysiotomy. Or birth control. Or abortion. You can't count the number of women around the world who die each year from lack of abortion services. This is to say nothing of the hetero-normative gender roles that the Church promotes, whether through the Bible or otherwise. But, honestly, I hate to even bring up the Bible at all because there is some seriously messed up stuff in there that only a psychopath would be ok with. The Church just picks and chooses which ones it's going to latch onto, and then sometimes 'interprets' the Bible to suit its opinions, when in actual fact that's not really what the Bible says when you study it. Case in point: abortion. Jews tend to have a different take. According to about a thousand years of rabbinical study, the Bible doesn't actually forbid it.

7. Cultural imperialism through missionaries and charity. First off, why can't Christians just let people have their own beliefs and Gods? I know, I know - they think they're saving people's souls. But I actually don't think it's about that. I don't think there's anything altruistic about it, to be honest. I'm no expert on this subject. And sure, they build houses and do charity work, but if it comes with strings attached, then I personally don't view it as charity. If you go back in history to the genesis of missionaries, you'll find that it was more about politics and making loads of money than God anyways. They prey on disadvantaged people with little agency, and have been doing so for thousands of years.

8. Use of wealth to fund causes of inequality and healthcare prevention. Each year, thousands -- actually it may be millions, but I'm too lazy to look it up -- of dollars are spent by Catholics in America to try and curtail the rights of people in places like Ireland. Youth Defence is one group funded in such a way. Life House is another. They spread horrible lies and misinformation about abortion and actively try to keep women from accessing basic health care and human rights.

9. Culture of secrecy and dictatorship. Do I really need to explain this one? Shame and browbeating is what the Church is best known for. Be ashamed of your bodies, your sexualities, conform to gender roles, do what we say, believe in our infallibility, and only tell God your secrets. Fuck. that. shit.

I know there are so many other things I should list. But frankly, I've spent enough time on this.
But really what I want is for people to stop judging me for not accepting that religion is this benign institution. It doesn't exist to send people to heaven. I'm sorry but it just doesn't. It exists to exert control over people's lives. End of story. If you believe in God and it's helpful for you in your life, that's great! I'm happy for you! But I think people need to take a look at the actual good vs. harm being done by Christian religions and ask whether it's worth being part of.

Finally, I entreat everyone to listen to the wonderful and hilarious Julia Sweeney talk about her journey to atheism. She talks about how reading the Bible made her lose her faith, and it's brilliant.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

What we don't talk about when we don't talk about infertility

For the past four years I have been part of a movement that seeks to de-stigmatise talking about female sexuality – in particular, our abortion stories. But abortion stigma is part of a larger attempt to silence women when they try to talk about their experiences with basically everything to do with reproduction, whether it's infertility, miscarriage, menstruation, menopause, pregnancy, childbirth, and post-pregnancy experiences. There is an unspoken feeling that these things are best shared very, very privately. And of course, these are private matters. But the consequence is that often women feel isolated because they don't feel comfortable breaking the silence.

Over the past four years, I have also struggled with unexplained infertility. I've had many, many tests ranging from simple blood tests, to slightly more invasive, to surgical. I've spent too much time on Google and fertility messageboards filled with other women desperate to talk with others who are going through similar issues. I've peed on a lot of sticks to see if I was ovulating or pregnant. I've spent weeks taking my temperature every day before getting out of bed. I've inspected my cervical mucus. I've tracked and charted my menstrual cycle. I've abstained from alcohol and medication during “the two week wait.” I've spent hundreds of euro on acupuncture. I've taken supplements such as vitex and mexican yam. I got vitamin B12 shots. I cut back on soy intake. I stopped eating gluten. I drank more water. I took Clomid. And finally, I tried to stop thinking about it altogether.

You'd be amazed at how many people seemed to think they were going to cure my infertility by telling me to “just stop thinking about it!” And yes, everyone knows someone in their 40s who just suddenly got pregnant. My own sister is one of those lucky ones. And no, it doesn't mean that my chances aren't as bad as I think. And yes, I've read that article by the woman who decides to find out where the dire statistics for fertility of women after 35 come from and golly gee it turns out the studies are really old! Yeah, well, all the New York Times articles in the world aren't going to magically make me pregnant.

One thing I knew I'd never try is IVF. Well, that's only slightly true. I was told that with my medical card, the HSE would give me one free round of IVF, which I thought was fairly generous and incredible. But oops, it turns out they only give free IVF to women under 40. This would have been useful information when I was 38 or 39 and going to the infertility clinic at the Rotunda Hospital. But that's the thing. Using public healthcare meant that I was only seen twice or three times a year. I had faith that if I just kept at it, I would conceive naturally. But when it didn't happen, I had spoken to enough people who had gone through the pain and expense of unsuccessful IVF that I knew it wasn't for me (or maybe not unless I won the lotto).

But after a little research, I thought I might give IUI at go. IUI stands for Intra-Uterine Insemination and it's often referred to as a “glorified turkey baster.” But there's more to it than that. First you are given medication to inject yourself with starting two days after your period starts. Using ultrasound scans, they track your follicles as they grown to 18mm or so. Then, ten to twelve days later, they tell you to take a “trigger shot,” which is a different medication. Two days after that you go in and they inject treated sperm through a tube directly into your uterus, bypassing the long journey that the sperm usually has to take up the vagina and through the cervix. (That's unfortunately one syllable too long to sing to the tune of “Over the river and through the woods.”) IVF costs €4,000 to €8,000, while IUI costs €850 (not counting a couple of extra tests that might be needed on the first time out).

Funnily enough, giving myself the injections wasn't nearly as difficult as I expected. It didn't hurt at all – it was more the idea of it and the anticipation that made me anxious. And the second time I did it, it left quite an impressive bruise. But once I got the hang of it, I didn't mind them at all and in fact I felt sort of tough. That is, until I saw the special needle for the trigger shot. But, I managed it, and I have to say that giving myself injections was the least painful, inconvenient part of the process.

In retrospect, we picked a bad month to try IUI. I started the injections the day before we moved house. The move took well over a week and cost a heap of tears. Moving is stressful at the best of times. Under the influence of fertility hormones? Not recommended. I didn't know myself. I became a different person. Someone mean. Someone with an endless supply of rage. Someone I couldn't help becoming. And I couldn't have a drink to relax, either. In fact, I couldn't even take my allergy medication, so on top of everything I was a sneezing, wheezing mess. My poor husband handled me with incredible patience, though he did admit that in eleven years he'd never known me to be that way. I was scary.

I was also a bundle of nerves. For the first time in my life, I spent a sleepless night suffering from an acute panic attack that manifested itself as crippling chest pain. And they told me to lay off intense exercise, so I couldn't go running to let off steam.

I knew that my chances of success were low. And I knew that they were even lower during a time of significant stress. And, of course, that stressed me out even more. And, of course, I'm sure that lowered my chances of success, and on and on.

The thing about fertility is that there is some information that is set in stone, but even more that seems...questionable or conflicting. I had been told by doctors that the time from ovulation to menstruation is always 14 days. On day ten of my cycle during the IUI process, I thought I might have ovulated. But when I went for the scan, the technician said that everything looked great, the follicles were still growing, and we were still all systems go. Two days later, they told me to take the trigger shot, and when I went in for the IUI, I still hadn't ovulated. So you can imagine my surprise when I got my period on day 24 of my cycle.

Wait – this wasn't how it was supposed to be! I was supposed to get my period on day 28 or 29 – sure, I'd know that the IUI failed, but that at least things were working as they were supposed to. Based on what I'd been told, if I got my period on day 14, I had to have ovulated on day 10, which means the ship had sailed way before the IUI. I rang the clinic for an explanation.

A very tense and defensive doctor just kept repeating, “We did everything right. We did everything right.” Frustrated, I tried to explain that I wasn't ringing to see did they do everything right – I wanted to learn why this happened to me. I wanted to learn. I also wanted to know whether I'd just wasted over a thousand euro, and whether I should even bother trying it again. After that conversation, I did some googling, of course. I learned about a condition called Luteinized Unruptured Follicle Syndrome (LUFS), also known as trapped egg syndrome. It's when your body shows all the signs of ovulation – well, all but one – but you're not actually ovulating. The only way to actually know that you've ovulated is through ultrasound scan to see that it has actually ruptured. I convinced myself that this could hold the key to my unexplained infertility.

My husband and I went into the clinic a couple of days later for a review session with a different doctor. “Before we begin, what did you think your chances of success were for the IUI?” the doctor asked me. I grimaced. I knew they weren't great. “About...ten percent,” I answered, tentatively. He told me that I was way off. But, actually, not as far off as most people. “You'd be surprised how often people like you come in here and tell me they think their chances are fifty percent,” he said.

It turns out, my “fecundity,” as he kept repeating, before the IUI, was only 2%. It kind of bears repeating: 2%. Two. Percent. And I am a healthy 42 year old woman with no known illness. That two percent is not based on some kind of defect with either me or my husband. That's just based on age and the number of months in a year. With IUI, I doubled my chances. Doubled, in most circumstances, sounds promising. But in this case, me doubling my odds is 4%. Suddenly, trying to find out whether I might have LUFS seemed basically pointless. Besides, there's no known cure.

He worked out some math, and in order to get pregnant with IUI, according to the odds, I would have to spend about €25,000. He compared that to IVF, which, it should be noted, only ups my odds to about 10 percent. But since IVF costs so much more than IUI, I'd have to spend €40,000 to get pregnant that way. Now, of course, we could be one of those lucky on the first try types. But those aren't the odds. That's not realistic. And to be honest, all I want right now is to be realistic because this is my fucking life here.

The long and the short of it, he said, was that to be honest we could probably double our chances without IUI by me not thinking about it anymore. Yes, there it was: the old “Just don't think about it” advice. Except, what the doctor was saying is, this isn't going to happen for you. If you accept that, you will have a much happier life, a much happier marriage, and hey, you never know. Except you kind of do. Sorry.

So that was it. I heard the things I already knew, yet hearing them in this context felt like the nail on a coffin. Like so many hundreds of times before, I had to dry my eyes, buck up, and go on with my day. I went to work. I took deep breaths. I tried not to think about what it all meant.

But here's what it means. It means I have to learn how to stop questioning whether bad decisions I made in my life have led to my not being able to have children. I have to stop feeling that I have failed myself. I have to stop feeling that my husband failed me. I have to stop closing my eyes and picturing what it would feel like to hold a child that is mine. I have to stop questioning every life decision I've ever made, thinking about my career choices, my relationship choices, my financial choices. I have to remind myself that I actually love my life and part of why I love it so much is the freedom that not having kids affords me. I can stop worrying that I'll have a child that has a disability. I can stop worrying that I'll have a child who is obnoxious. I can stop worrying that I won't be able to afford a child. I can stop worrying that I am adding to overpopulation. I need to think of all the wonderful, smart, and thoughtful life decisions I have made in my 42 years. I need to celebrate all the interesting and world-changing projects I will now have time for. I need to stop wondering what people will think. I need to stop thinking about people from my past knowing I couldn't have kids and saying I deserve it. I need to stop thinking about other people's pity. I need to stop thinking about anyone else at all.

I know so few people going through this. And I'm going to be honest: I feel embarrassed and ashamed that I couldn't have kids for the simple reason that I wanted them. I wanted something and I failed at getting it. I keep telling myself hey, there are lots of things in life you wanted and you didn't get. But truth be told, I haven't failed at too many things that I thought were realistic and attainable that I actually tried for. This feeling is fairly superlative. As a little girl, I played with dolls. In fact, I played with them until my teens. I dreamed of being pregnant. I dreamed of being a mother. And the only time I questioned those dreams were when I had partners who didn't want kids. But in my mind, I felt like eh, it's always an option, somehow, if I decide I want to. And I did decide. Wholeheartedly. And now, well, now is now.

This feeling will haunt me for the rest of my life. Cruelly, it's as irreversible as having kids. And that's that. Somehow, I've got to learn to accept it because this is my life. Now I have to make something of it. I have to make a different kind of mark on the world. I have to get on with living. And the first step towards doing that is sharing my experience so that other women suffering with infertility will know they aren't alone.