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.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Dear loved ones,

We probably don't have the same politics. I think at this stage we agree to love each other despite our differences of values, opinions, and faith. However, sometimes there are things which I am sure we both find difficult to ignore. For me, it's blatantly hateful, racist, or discriminatory comments or promotion of such ideas.

When I was teaching English Composition, my job was to teach my students how to construct a strong, well-rounded argument by using reliable sources. We focused on using critical thinking skills to evaluate sources, especially online sources. You can still use a biased source, but it helps to know where the biases are and why they exist so that your argument doesn't have a million holes in it.

Sometimes, we see stuff online that looks like journalism, but is actually not a reliable source. We like it and share it with our friends because it does a good job of convincing us of its point of view. But since we are bombarded with so much information all of the time, it's hard to look into the source of everything and have a good think about who benefits from that point of view and the institutional discrimination or power structures that inform it. In other words, who profits from that viewpoint? This is something that's just smart and healthy to ask. Is it the culture of power?

A few years ago, my father and I watched the documentary film, "One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern." The movie "retraces George McGovern's bold presidential campaign of 1972 - a grassroots campaign that fought for peace and justice, and positioned ideas and people first." I thought it was really interesting, and informative since I was still a year from being born in 1972. But much to my surprise, about an hour into the film, my Dad, who was a democrat himself, got up and said in exasperation, "This is all propaganda!" I was puzzled by this remark because I agreed and accepted the premise of the documentary, the questions it was asking, and the people it featured. I was also puzzled because I assumed that my father agreed with it, too. But he obviously saw something there that I didn't -- probably because he was 42 years old in 1972. Ultimately, I trusted the voices in the film like Howard Zinn and Gloria Steinem, and I am comfortable questioning the American electoral process. My father was not comfortable with their line of questioning, for reasons unknown. At the time, I didn't ask him why because I was afraid of the answer. I know all too well how crushing it can feel to realise that people you love feel so fundamentally differently about something than you. I've had periods, such as during Presidential elections, where I've purposely avoided people because I didn't want to be angry with them. And I didn't want to risk feeling that way about my Dad, though he was considered "the bleeding heart liberal" of his siblings.

I tell this story of the McGovern film because it made me realise that the left does have its own propaganda, which includes biases and slanting information. And it can feel threatening to conservatives and non-conservatives alike to be forced to question huge institutions like our government, our police and military forces, marriage, gender roles, race and cultural appropriation, religion, and so on. And questioning those institutions, no matter how much academic and peer reviewed research you throw behind it, can seem just as conspiracy theory coo-coo to them as they sound to us. And what happens is that most of us, no matter what our views are, find ourselves preaching to the converted, whether on purpose through our own filters, or because we've been filtered out by others. This is why I assume that most of my right wing cousins have hidden me from their facebook news feeds by now. Why would they want to see all my posts about abortion rights and anti-capitalism?

So it's hard because the people I'm really hoping to reach will probably never see this. And it's difficult because I don't want to create rifts or bad feelings. But sometimes I see something that is just so awful, so offensive and plainly wrong, but in its accuracy and ethics, that I have a hard time ignoring it. So here goes. Bear with me.

When someone in my family posted this video on their facebook page, I was shocked and perplexed. (Please BE WARNED: there are graphically violent images in that link.) In fact I will admit that I didn't make it all the way through the video. The premise, from the text below and the part I did see, was that "the liars who promote false racism" are people who think there is a disproportionate incidence of violence and discrimination against people of colour. The "real" racism, they say, is against whites. For a moment, I considered posting a counter-view to this basic premise. But anyone who's been on Facebook for more than five minutes knows that starting a political debate, especially with family, is probably not going to be productive for anyone. I love my family, and with an ocean between us, I don't need to insert an extra divide.

So right now, I'm debating whether to even try to engage with this video, as much as I'd like to. My friend Peter had this to say: "I have found, in my many similar discussions with family members, that it is rare to dissuade them of their baseline view that the world is or could be a pure meritocracy. That's really the core faulty assumption at play here. If you accept that opportunities actually ARE equal regardless of gender, sexuality, race, etc., then the logic of the video stands. If you understand, however, that this is not and has never been the case, it seems ludicrous on the face of it."

So given this potential road block in the way of mutual understanding, I want to tackle it just as I would if one of my students used this video as a source for a research project or to strengthen an argument. So, let's look at the source. Is it reliable? Who/what is the source? And what might their biases be? The video appears to be produced by a website called "" a website that claims to "help you increase your wealth and grow rich" run by three guys: Kenneth Ameduri, Daniel Ameduri, and Joshua Enomoto. They also have another similar site called So, let's see. Do they cite their sources? No, they do not. Do we know anything about their biases? From the videos featured on their site, it appears that they are libertarians who want to convince their readers that anyone can become a millionaire. What makes them experts on race and police violence? Your guess is as good as mine.

Their website has a section called "stopthehate" which lists the people they think should apologise for the "hands up don't shoot" campaign. Among those are the President of the United States, Barack Obama; civil rights activist, Jesse Jackson; Rachel Maddow, a news reporter, Rhodes scholar, and published author with a PhD from Oxford; and Eric Holder, former US Attorney General, to name a few.

Up until last week, I'd never heard of a man named Alex Jones. But apparently the people who made the video in question think that his two websites, and are "most excellent and outstanding sites where you can find true journalism and trustworthy information." Alex Jones is a conspiracy theorist who thinks that the US government was involved in the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11. He thinks the Bible is prophetic. There's no other way to say it: he's a complete wingnut.

If you're still reading this, I really thank you for your patience. I just have one request. Please don't post something on the internet without considering whether it comes from a reliable source. Consider whether it might be propaganda, and if so, what it's promoting. I'm not entirely sure why that video was made and what it's supposed to promote except maybe white supremacy and a false understanding of the institutionalised violence that people of colour face in America. Before you deny the existence of something so fundamental as racism (racism!!), think about how well educated you are on the topic (are you, for example, oh, white?), and how your own experiences and perspective might fog your understanding of it.

We should all be asking ourselves why we think what we think, and striving to promote peacefulness and equality in this world where so many people are discriminated against for so many reasons. I mean, shouldn't we?

But if you need to post videos denying that such inequalities exist, please, at least have the kindness to filter me from seeing it on your Facebook feed. I'd really appreciate it.


Sunday, February 1, 2015

Groundhog Day 2006

It was February second, Groundhog Day, the day when some poor groundhog named Phil in a place called Gobblers Knob comes out of his hole and then goes back in again, and in the process somehow foretells the weather for the rest of the winter. On this day, my metaphorical groundhog was coming out of the hole and it sure as fuck wasn't going back in again.

The first thing I noticed, once I got inside the Planned Parenthood on West 33rd Street in Manhattan, was that every single woman in the waiting room wore a black jacket or coat, including me. I distracted myself by trying to think about our black coats in a post-structuralist context – are the black coats a symbol of mourning? Are we like shadows, trying to will ourselves to disappear? Are we simply in New York, where everyone wears black? I was probably over-thinking it.

In most abortion clinics, you feel like cattle as you are pushed from one waiting room to another for several hours. The procedure itself takes only minutes, so the majority of the 4 to 6 hours you're in the clinic is just spent waiting. The first waiting room is the big one, where the guilty looking partners shift in their seats uncomfortably. When each woman's name is called, she leaves him behind, gets checked in, and ventures into the bowels of the clinic to get blood drawn. All the waiting rooms from there on out are patient-only. There's no one to hold your hand, distract you, or comfort you. You wait some more. Then you are called in for an ultrasound. The lady who gave me my ultrasound was cranky because she couldn't get a good view of my uterus. She told me in an irritated voice that my pelvis was wonky – she didn't use that word exactly, but I got the point – and she was going to have to use the transvaginal wand to get a better look. Oh, the transvaginal wand. If only you actually
had magical powers! But you are cold and covered in lube and the lady is pissed off because there are 40 patients outside waiting to get their ultrasounds too and my wonky uterus is holding up the queue.

Ushered into another waiting room, I received “counselling”, which really was just to make sure I understood the procedure, was doing it of my own volition, and didn't have any questions. Yes, yes, and no. I have already googled this shit to death. All my questions have been answered. Questions I didn't know I had have been answered. Let's do this thing.

You get a plastic bag to put your stuff in, and you are given a one-size-fits-all hospital gown to put on. I'll tell you right now, one size does not fit all. One woman declared, “This gown isn't big enough to cover my ass!”, but the medical assistant didn't respond or even look her way. You have to take off your socks and shoes, and you're given these paper slippers that are the colour and texture of dried out corn husks. My feet looked like big tamales as I shuffled from the bathroom to the next waiting room.

This next bit is where you wait the longest. This waiting room is the abortion version of Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist play, No Exit. And you are so, so hungry. The ladies in the room started talking in great detail about what they wanted to eat: a nice, big, juicy steak with gravy; a plate of Fettuccine Alfredo; and a big red lobster with melted butter in a cup for dipping. I listened quietly to the conversation, but I didn't join in. Anyone who knows me will find that hard to believe, but it's true. I was the only white woman in the room and I felt out of place and timid, so I kept my mouth shut. On the topic of food, they talked about how produce and fish where black people live sucks compared to where white people live. “No disrespect,” a woman said to me. “None taken,” I said. They talked about how, “thank god everyone in this waiting room is clean, cuz my sister was here once and she said it stank to high heaven.” There were lots of nods and someone remarked that you gotta make sure you're clean down there whenever someone is going to be going down there. Then someone else said, “They make those portable wet wipes now so you don't have to go home from work to wash your ass.”

There were a few lulls in the conversation. We looked at the floor and our tamale slippers. My feet didn't touch the ground and I felt like a child. “They sure did a shitty paint job in this waiting room,” one woman observed. “Just look at the window panes. So sloppy! I guess they didn't know that Rhonda was gonna be sittin' here lookin' up at these walls.” They discussed which dollar store products are as good or not as good as some brand-name products. How some kids eat like crazy and don't gain weight because they have a fast metabolism. How it's ok if you want to sit on your ass and drink your forty-ounce bottle of malt liquor, but “go do it in the park so the kids can run around and climb a tree or something and get some exercise.”

But if there's one bit of advice I'll always remember from my time in the waiting room of Planned Parenthood, it's this: If you have a complaint about a restaurant OR abortion clinic staff, you should voice those concerns AFTER you receive either your food or your abortion, respectively. I have never sent food back since. As Rhonda said, "Cuz you don't wanna come in here with an STD you didn't walk in with, know what I'm sayin'? People will fuck with your shit -- spit in your take care of 'em, but make sure you do it AFTER you get your food! I don't want nobody with a finger up my ass, fuck that shit."

My name was finally called for the procedure. I got IV sedation, which is stronger than local anaesthetic, but you aren’t completely knocked out...unless you're me and you are sensitive to anaesthetic. I woke up in a reclining chair, surrounded by other women like me in a line of chairs along the wall of the room. I've had a lot of anaesthesia in my life, and it always makes me cry. This time was no different. I was sobbing before I'd even properly woken up: dry, tearless, breathless sobs. “Now, now,” a medical assistant scolded me, “I thought you were tougher than THAT.” And I thought, you know what? I am fucking tougher than this. I pulled it together. I stopped crying and sat stoically, thinking about how happy I was that it was over. I didn't have to wish that this problem would be solved; it was solved and I could get my life back. I could go back to school on Monday and finally be the only one living in my body.

But there was still that queue of women behind me, waiting. I needed to make room for the next person. I was ordered to go into the bathroom with my plastic bag and change back into my clothes. I wasn't 100% out of the anaesthesia, but I wanted to get the hell out of there. I held myself up with the edge of the sink because I was still so dizzy, I nearly fell over. But I was ok. And when I stepped outside into the cold February air in my black coat, I left that clinic behind and I didn't look back.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Why You Should Be a Pro-Choice Activist, No Excuses

Being involved and caring about pro-choice activism sometimes feels gauche and illicit. It feels, ironically, unfeminine. It's demeaning and has often made me fear for my safety. As such, I don't generally put my activism, through which I've learned many desirable work skills, on my CV, to prevent possible discrimination. And while it's such a big part of my life -- how I spend my time, with whom I spend it, and how I think about the world in general -- I don't often mention it to people I've just met unless I'm sure that they are pro-choice.

This is all kind of incongruous because part of the work I do revolves around de-stigmatising abortion. You'd think I'd practice what I preach. And I do...but not always. To me, this illustrates the power of the patriarchal claim over women's bodies and behavior. Fighting for the most basic right, control over your own body, should be just one of those things we all agree is important.

Except, it's not one of those things.

And that's because some people do have control over their own bodies, and they don't really want to think about what it means that a great many others do not. Generally, if you are a man, or if you have enough money to take time off work and travel, if you have access to contraception, or if you have never been and never will be raped, never get cancer or another terminal illness while pregnant, or never have a pregnancy with a fatal foetal abnormality, then you should probably count your blessings and it's quite likely you are calmly chillin' and living your life feeling pretty (relatively) secure in your bodily autonomy. And you may not think you need to think about the indelicate issue of abortion.

Even just the word sounds so...harsh and impolite. Abortion. It's not pretty and soft like the word meadow.

So if you don't need to worry about access to abortion, for whatever reason, good for you. And maybe you aren't the kind of person who cares about the less fortunate. If that's the case, go ahead and stop reading right now. But if you care about the world and human rights, even a little bit, you'll start thinking about abortion a lot more. Because it turns out that fighting for abortions rights is about a LOT more than abortion, and if you think otherwise, it's time to get your head out of the sand and look around.

I was recently disturbed by a conversation I had with someone about the Miss Y case in Ireland. I was explaining that Miss Y was a woman who immigrated to Ireland after being raped in her previous country. After she arrived, she discovered she was pregnant from that rape. It's a long story, and I won't go into every detail here, but she was suicidal, as you can imagine. Despite the new law that supposedly allows suicidal women to access abortion, she was denied, despite going on hunger and thirst strike. In fact, she was force fed and strung along, made to believe she would be able to abort. Meanwhile, the foetus had a team of lawyers. Literally. Basically, they stalled her abortion access until her pregnancy was at just over 25 weeks, at which point they presented her with a supposed solution: cesarean section to deliver the baby. Imagine having to deliver the offspring of your rapist without your consent. They took the words "termination of pregnancy" and twisted them. Sure, they terminated the pregnancy. But not in the way that was best for the patient. She is permanently traumatised.

As I told the story, it wasn't until the part where she had the C-section against her will that my listener chimed in. "I mean, nevermind about the abortion, that's a real violation of human rights!" they said. I've rolled that response over and over in my mind. It never occurred to me that some people aren't making the connection between abortion access and human rights.

When the law or lack of access forces some people to be pregnant, but not other people, it's a violation of human rights. If some people are denied basic health care, but not others, it's a violation of human rights. When you get to a point where a person is having a baby cut out of her that she doesn't want to give birth to, a serious violation has already happened.

I want to have control over what happens to my body at all times. Don't you? I don't want to be punched, raped, stabbed, shot, operated on, or pregnant against my will. There are lots of reasons why people don't want to be pregnant. Too many to name. You might think none of them matter. You might think some of them matter. You might think only one or two of them matter. But that's your business. Personally, I would be overjoyed if smoking was magically eliminated across the world and I also think that smoking is morally wrong. But that's my business and my belief that I acknowledge shouldn't be pushed onto other people. Morality has nothing to do with abortion. It has to do with the fact that people who don't want to be pregnant become enslaved when they are forced to carry that pregnancy. Forced pregnancy is a human rights issue.

Women seek access to abortion. Women have always sought access to abortion. Women will always seek access to abortion. Whether you think it's morally right or wrong. And guess what happens when governments make it difficult to access abortion? Women die. Being denied the right to be pregnant or to not be pregnant forces women to terrible measures.

And while I'm here, I just want to state the obvious: abortion is not murder, and I feel sorry for you if you've been brainwashed by religious child abusers. You've obviously never actually read the Bible. (And p.s. foetuses do not feel pain.)

You know what, though? That's not even what I want to say.

If you don't care about your own rights, or the rights of people you don't know and will never know, and if you aren't willing to give up some of your spare time to fight for those rights, actually reading this may not make a bit of difference. It's just that abortion access is being etched away around the world, and fast. And I don't want to sound all paranoid and conspiracy theorist, but they're not just going for our abortion rights. They're going for complete control over women's bodies.

If you think I'm being hyperbolic, take this case from a few weeks ago in Ireland, where a brain dead woman was kept on life support because she was pregnant.  Or the many, many cases where women who've had miscarriages have been criminally charged.

The most important thing you need to understand is that even if you live in a country where abortion is "legal," unless it's available to everyone, no matter where they live, no matter how much extra cash they have, no matter what their age, then its legality is null and void. Legality without access is useless. According to an article in the Guttmacher Policy Review by Boonstra & Nash, in the United States, "more state abortion restrictions were enacted in 2011 - 2013 than in the entire previous decade." And they're not talking about a couple of laws. In those three years, a whopping 205 anti-abortion laws were passed. Considering there are only 50 states, that's kind of...staggering.

If you're in America and you feel all comfy with Roe vs. Wade, just take a look at Spain. Last year, they came dangerously close to outlawing abortion, hoping to model themselves after Irish law (which effectively and logistically outlaws abortion in all cases). According to Boonstra & Nash, "The majority of women now live in [US] states hostile to abortion rights: Between 2000 and 2013, the proportion of women living in restrictive states almost doubled from 31% to 56%." Yes, the "majority of women." (For more info on what this means, read this article by Katie Klabusich.) But the women most affected by anti-abortion laws are poor women (which includes those with residency or documentation issues), women in abusive situations, and women who are ill (physically or mentally). 

YOU need to be advocating for those women, and all women. If you don't, who will? On top of abortion access, the right wing money machine is making more and more progress gaining control over women's access to sexual health care, birth control, domestic violence aid, supports in cases of rape, and more. Reproductive rights are human rights. Stop thinking that this problem isn't going to get much worse. The Catholic church and the rich white dudes in public office have money at hand that's probably inconceivable to most regular people. And with that money comes control over public opinion from the pulpit to the news stand. They throw us into the "good abortion/bad abortion" trap and try to distract us from demanding our rights by trying to put their hypocritical so-called morals on us. It's ridiculous but it's happening and they are winning.

STOP thinking that social media "activism" is going to stop anti-abortion laws. Find out who your lawmakers are and contact them, letting them know that bodily autonomy is important to you and that you're watching how they vote. Find out what pro-choice activist groups are in your area and give them money and time. Keep tabs on demonstrations happening in your area and attend them with signs that show your pro-choice spirit. Look up organisations that help fund women in areas with no access to abortion to travel, take time off work, and pay for child care and see if you can get involved or donate. Find out what the laws are in your state or country and then reach out to groups working to improve those laws and see if you can lend a hand. 

I'm just so tired of seeing that the majority of the people I know are pro-choice in some form or another, yet they do nothing but complain on facebook and twitter when these anti-abortion laws are passed. It's all well and good to be working towards personal success and happiness, but if you leave those less fortunate in the dust, how can you really feel good about it? 

Some resources to check out:
Womancare Global
 RH Reality Check
Abortion Rights Campaign

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

There's a lot rummaging around in my mind today, and I'm going to see if I can flesh it all out. I hope it engenders discussion, but more importantly I humbly hope it might be a jumping off point toward healing, understanding, and harmony within my community.

First, I want to think about anger. We need it; it's what motivates us to do the work that leads to change. Anger propels us forward sometimes. Anger can even bond people together. It is often completely justified, useful, and in fact holding it in can often be very damaging. Women are socialised to avoid expressing anger, and as a result, when they do they are seen as hysterical, overly emotional, irrational, and so on. I understand that anger can be a strong political act, and that, as someone has said, "Marginalized people often do not have the luxury of emotionally distancing themselves from discussions on their rights and experiences. "

So when I feel critical of people who are acting out of anger, I am wary of invalidating their feelings and silencing them. However, anger doesn't need to be put aside in order to feel compassion for other people and recognise their suffering.

Reflecting on times in my life when I was mean, ridiculed people, ostracised them, or acted out of insecurity and anger towards them, I honestly cannot think of one positive thing to come out of my actions. I'm sure I achieved my goal of making the other person feel awful, but I also made myself feel awful, and I cut myself off from the possibility of either of us learning anything from the situation. And believe me, I have life long enemies to prove it, which saddens me and is a mark on my character, no matter how justified most people would say that I was. I forgot about their humanity -- creating a tit-for-tat "they did this, so I'm going to do this" scenario. And now, no reconciliation is possible. The world was made worse for it, if only in a small way. I think about how easy it would have been to do things differently.

As activists seeking to create a more equitable society, I think it's important to hold onto our suffering and the suffering of the people we're campaigning for delicately. This suffering is our key motivation, but it is a very powerful weapon and shouldn't be used against each other, even when we don't agree.

I don't want to get all new agey or whatever, but in my search for a more peaceful and satisfying life with happy relationships, I roll this Thich Nhat Hahn quote around in my mind: "When you begin to see that your enemy is suffering, that is the beginning of insight." I look to this idea when I am feeling lost, sad, scared, angry, or even hopeless about awful injustices going on in the world. It doesn't make anything OK. The injustice is still there, and my anger is still there. But something in my mind opens just a little bit when I can see their humanity.

That's just what works for me. And I consider myself a pretty happy person, after years of trial and error (mostly error, and a few trials). There's definitely a difference between what I'm suggesting and the idea that people should police their tone to appear more nice to oppressors. Simply put, I'm suggesting that if someone disagrees with you about something political, you remember the other ways in which you are connected to them and remember that they might not be a worthless write-off. They might be doing their best to be a thoughtful ally, even if those efforts fall short in your book. I agree with the person who said, "True friends will speak their minds honestly with each other, especially if they think the other is in the wrong."

Personally speaking, one of the magical joys of being human is the exchange of ideas and the fulfilling and deep relationships we can form through language. Listening to one another. Seeing the ways in which we are trying desperately to understand each other and be understood, despite the fact that it often doesn't happen. That's the absolute best and most amazing thing about life. That through it all, people find ways to love one another. Despite disagreeing on issues big and small. Despite hurtful things that happened in the past. Despite wars. And despite the knowledge that the future is uncertain.

I'm humbled by a lot of things I've learned over the past five years since I started getting involved with activism. I am embarrassed by a lot of beliefs I've since jettisoned, and by some that I have yet to give up. But I am so grateful that people were patient and kind enough to stand with me while I educated myself and allowed my ideas to evolve. I think gosh, if I'd been written off back then, or at any point along the way, for having those beliefs, I wouldn't be who I am today, and I wouldn't be part of such a caring, supportive community.

So really I guess I want to thank my friends and comrades who have taken the time to get to know me, to love me for who I am, and for teaching me so so so much about respect, compassion, courage, perseverance, self-care, and hard work. You've inspired me, encouraged me, and made me laugh. You make the world a place I like living in.