A probably unnecessary clarification just in case anyone’s still reading

In a recent post, I talked about the two “abortions” that are part of my personal fertility story. It was written in the heat of my emotion over the “pro-life” death of an Irish woman. As such, I did not make my point as carefully or precisely as I should have.

Specifically, I wrote that “although I was in graduate school for Christian theology and ethics at the time, none of my friends or colleagues — not even the Catholics among them — offered to plan a memorial service for my dead baby. (In fact, they didn’t so much as send a card.)” This makes it sound as if no one at all acknowledged my loss, which is not the case. My family members were as sad as I was, and there were friends from both school and church who visited me in the hospital and/or sent condolences. One dear friend even brought over a casserole. I regret very much the insensitivity of my words.

Here is the point I was trying to make: No one offered to plan memorial services for my dead babies BECAUSE EVERYONE KNEW THEY WEREN’T BABIES. They were the beginnings of babies, the hopes of babies, but not yet babies. And had I behaved as if I had lost a baby – had I sent out a campus-wide email (“It is with deep sadness that we inform you…”) or invited people to a funeral – people would have thought I was over-reacting. A failed pregnancy can be a terrible loss, but it is simply not the same as losing a beloved person. Can you imagine if, upon meeting a stranger who inquired about my family, I said something like, “Well, I had three children but two of them died”? People I know have delivered fully-formed stillborns, with names and birthdays. A friend had a baby whose heart stopped at ten days old. A neighbor had a six-year old son who died suddenly of an infection. A distant relative died in a crash at age twenty-one. What I lost in my ectopic pregnancy and my miscarriage were simply not the emotional or moral equivalent of what these parents lost. And everybody – even the most pro-life Catholic or Evangelical on the planet – knows it. And I know they know it, because no one treats me like the mother of two dead children.

Nor do I expect to be treated as such! I have found comfort during my struggles in a very unlikely place – Adam Smith. In his early work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he argued that (among other things) it is incumbent upon those who grieve to cut their grief down to manageable size in order to allow others to imagine it and sympathize. To paraphrase, someone experiencing a failed pregnancy must “lower her passion to that pitch, in which the spectators are capable of going along with her”; if she doesn’t, she may be shunned as hysterical or viewed as otherwise indecent. (Think Mary Todd Lincoln.) A willingness to meet the limits of others’ sympathies is a necessity if one hopes to be understood, agreed with, and approved of. But a positive side-benefit of imagining how one’s grief will sound or look to others is that, over time, one begins to get a little bit of distance from it and put it into perspective.

There are countless women out there who have experienced failed pregnancies, and I do not speak for all of them. But in my own experience, miscarriage revealed the very important differences between first-trimester embryos and babies or grown children. All but the most radical religious people intuitively know this to be the case, otherwise they would treat miscarriages the same way they treat the deaths of other people. It is simply disingenuous to go on pretending that they can’t see the distinctions.


On Vulnerability

I’m thinking about vulnerability this week. Partly because I heard Brene Brown on Krista Tippett’s show Sunday morning, and she was talking about it. Partly because I posted this on the Huffington Post recently and it showed up yesterday, and I feel rather naked. I have to say that I posted out of momentary (though recurring) anger for fake pro-life people, but reading it today, I see that it looks like an appeal for sympathy. Perhaps it was that, subconsciously. I don’t think most of us understand fully our own motivations, at least not all the time, and I am no exception despite all my attempts to be self-aware and mindful and all that.

Here’s something I think: miscarriage is invisible, and no one else cares about it as much as the person miscarrying. People who have been through it can understand; people who are exceptionally empathetic can understand. But most folks just don’t get it. And that’s ok. I don’t see how most of us could function if we could fully understand all the suffering that goes on in this little big world of ours.

And here’s what else I think: Catholics and other pro-lifers don’t want miscarriage to stop being invisible. If they did, they’d never have time for anything else besides posthumous baptisms and funerals. For God’s sake, if Limbo still existed it would be overflowing with the souls of self-aborted persons! There would be no room for anyone actually born.

And finally (for the moment): I’m not sure why anyone, including me, would write something so personal for everyone from family members to acquaintances to total strangers to pick apart. I am certainly not unique in making myself vulnerable in this way. But really, why do we do it? Can anyone enlighten me?

Blogger Anxiety

Maybe it’s because I’m still relatively new at this, but there is a certain kind of sheer terror that comes in the moments between submitting a potentially-controversial blog post and having it go live. Or between having it go live and getting the first comments on it. Or between getting the first comments and clicking “refresh” over and over again. I feel it in my chest and my stomach, as well as in my mind. I am trying to figure out what causes it.

I detect a bit of guilt in it, as if I have done something naughty. But why should I be afraid of, or feel guilty about, sharing what I think? As long as I am putting forth my best (brief) thought on a topic, and not calling anyone names or saying things I know to be false, what is the harm of raising a question and starting a conversation? Perhaps it is not guilt so much as shame – as if I am stupid and worthless, and am doing the world a grave disservice by spewing my stupid and worthless thoughts around the interwebs. (Luckily, the virus that is my blogging voice has so little power to infect the masses as to be negligible.)

There is also a very basic fear of having strangers or acquaintances experience hatred or disapproval or disdain toward me because of something I wrote. Even if they never post hatred or disapproval out there for everyone to see, the very idea that it might be happening somewhere is enough to make me want to pull into my shell. You idiot, who do you think you are? says my inner troll; No one cares what you think. No one needs to know what you think. Why can’t you just shut up?

Well, because. I like ideas, and I like people. I like relating to people. I like relating to people through writing. I like them to relate to me that way, too (preferably without calling me names). This doesn’t make me particularly special or unique, but neither does it make me particularly self-aggrandizing or wicked. I don’t hate other people who write, so why do I hate myself for writing? It’s just something I do. I could stop, I suppose; that would fix the terror problem, but it wouldn’t really fix the underlying feelings of worthlessness and shame and fear.

I guess the best I can do is pay attention to myself – how I feel when writing, and how I feel when waiting for a response. What about you? If you write, why do you write? If you don’t write, why don’t you?

Non-Republican Soul Searching

Today, following the re-election of my president, I tried to follow my own advice about equanimity and blogged on Huff Post Religion about things liberals might learn from conservatives. But speaking of equanimity – I am still new to this blogging thing, and I am ambivalent toward / curious about / suspicious of my own reactions to people’s reactions to my blog posts. Quite simply, it makes me happy when they like my posts (220 likes!), and unhappy when they don’t. And even when a lot of people seem to like my posts, it never quite seems to be enough (only 52 shares?). I observe that that insidious old hedonic treadmill applies not only to material goods. Nor has it disappeared as I’ve grown older and wiser; it’s merely shifted its direction.

But never mind, Pema Chodron might say, it’s no big deal. They’re just feelings, Lama Surya Das might say. Accept them as they are. Use this self-observation, Lama Willa Miller might say, to become more compassionate toward other people and their weird and bottomless needs to be noticed, loved, validated.

OK then. All those crazy politicians suddenly make just a tiny bit more sense.

The Blog Graveyard

If you are anything like me, you have at least one forgotten blog somewhere in cyberspace. Once upon a time you started it, thinking to yourself, “Hey, it’s free, and it would be cool to write down my thoughts for posterity, and everybody else does it, so – why not?”

The first blog I ever started was eight years ago, right around the birth of my only child. At the time I was apparently both interested in having a mommy blog and also worried about “losing my identity” or some such nonsense, judging from the title I gave it: Not Just Augustin’s Mom (http://notjustaugustinsmom.blogspot.com/). Or perhaps I was worried that if I had a second child s/he might feel jealous of not having a blog with her/his name on it. Whatever the case was, the blog apparently took a back seat to actually parenting my child rather than writing about him (not to mention writing a dissertation, maintaining a marriage and friendships, and starting a new teaching job). It was also long before the fateful day that I joined Facebook, so I would have had no way to publicize it other than deliberately emailing it to my friends and family, which I would have felt weird doing. The blog withered (the only comments on it are spam!), but my kid is alive and well.

I started another blog last year after I wrote my first online opinion article and got some hate mail. I wasn’t sure what to do with the horror and anxiety that arose from my first encounter with “trolls,” so I became a stereotype and started a blog. As it turns out, I didn’t have enough material for a whole blog on what to do with internet trolls, so that died pretty much straight out of the gate. Then this summer I started a sabbatical blog for purposes of tracking and reflecting upon my activities during this academic year (http://delinquentprofessor.wordpress.com/).  But that, too, was uninspiring. How many posts can I possibly write about how I wander around my house meowing like a lonely cat, trying to figure out what to do with myself when I have no schedule and no one asking me to do anything or be anywhere?

I genuinely admire people who can pick a theme and go with it, day in and day out, year after year. How does Colin Beavan limit himself to thinking about reducing his impact on the environment? How does Gretchen Rubin write about nothing but happiness? How does Jessica Valenti manage to tie everything in life to women’s sexuality? How does Karen Maezen Miller stick to Zen and the art of parenting? Each of these formidable writers demonstrates a focus and a drive that I do not share and can hardly relate to. I am a somewhat low-energy, mildly introverted people person, and my brain is a classic “monkey mind,” jumping from topic to topic, from fascination to boredom, from hope to despair. I am actively working on bringing my monkey mind under control, but I sense the moment that I achieve that will be a long time coming. In addition, I have trouble committing to just one thing when there are so many fascinating rabbit holes out there to explore. (It’s kind of the same reason I don’t have a tattoo – what could I possibly print on myself that I would still want to look at in forty years, or even next week?)

But in the meantime, I love to write. I suppose I could try to monetize this love in some way, like this talented but cynical writer who uses the pseudonym “Ed Dante” [http://chronicle.com/article/The-Shadow-Scholar/125329/], but truthfully, I’m not that bad off. I have gainful employment and do not need to pimp out my writing proclivities to the highest bidder. I even have tenure, so I can write totally stupid things if I want (within very broad limits) and sign my real name to them. Like many bloggers, I tend to write about myself, because, shit, you’re supposed to write about what you know, and I feel as if I don’t know a damn thing about anything other than myself. Seriously, I think I get dumber and dumber every day.

So here I am, starting yet another blog. This time I am taking off the pressure to be consistent in my interests; I’m not starting a mom blog, or a religion blog, or a sabbatical blog, or an insert marketable topic here blog. This time I am going to write whatever I feel like writing, about whatever is on my mind at the moment – parenting, movies, books, teaching, sex, religion, academia, politics, food, friendship, technology, yadda yadda. (I’m pretty sure sports will never show up here, nor math – sorry Mr. Gillen, I know you tried!) This time, if I don’t try too hard to make my blog “just so,” maybe it’ll stick.

“Maybe,” she said.

Election Day 2012

There is a story I first heard way back when on Northern Exposure (told by the incomparable Marilyn Whirlwind), and later read in (I think) a book of Zen tales for kids, about a man and a horse. The horse showed up on his land one day, and his neighbors told him this was lucky. “Maybe,” he said. But then his son broke his leg while trying to ride the horse, and his neighbors said this was unlucky. “Maybe,” he said. Then a war arose and all the young men had to go fight, but his son couldn’t go because of his broken leg, and they said this was lucky. “Maybe,” he said. You get the idea.

This story is in my head today because it’s election day, and a lot of folks I know feel very strongly that what happens today is very important. If my guy wins, most of my friends and I will feel that it’s lucky; if the other guy wins, we will think it’s unlucky (and also that the election was stolen by private owners of voting machines in Ohio and elsewhere, but let’s ignore that for the moment). Never mind that in about five minutes we’ll be living in the midst of another horrible campaign and the whole cycle will repeat itself.

I think all of us could stand to inject a bit of “Maybe” into our thinking. A number of Christians I know are careful to remind us that all of this spectacle is just that – a distracting spectacle that takes our eyes off the bigger picture of whatever mystery God is working in human history. Since I don’t interact with any Buddhists on a daily basis other than those I read in books, I will imagine that a number of Buddhists would remind us that, whatever happens, it’s important to investigate – deeply – our own reactions. Elections do matter, because compassion and suffering are very real for us and our neighbors, but compassion and suffering exist under Republicans and Democrats (and tyrants and anarchists) alike.

It is even applicable to the feeling I often have that I am so lucky to live in the USA, where our democracy – for all its many flaws – kind of works, at least for white heterosexual women with money like me. But then I remember the folks for whom our democracy doesn’t work as well (unequal protection under the law, anyone?), and I also think of the harm Americans do to the health of the earth with our oversized democratic consumption, and I have to inject a little “Maybe” into my thinking.

When the results are in tonight or tomorrow (please, dear universe, let it be tonight or tomorrow and not via the Supreme Court in a few weeks!!!), I hope I will remember to say, “Maybe,” regardless of the outcome.

M.I.T.: Men in Trucks

Today I found myself behind a guy in a giant red pick-up truck driving down a country road in Georgia, where I’m currently living. He was driving under the speed limit and over the line, and I could see that he was reading something (a letter? a bill?) held in his left hand and was smoking a cigarette, with flair, that he held in his right. Apparently he was driving with his third hand. I was in a hurry and my automatic reaction (“habit energy,” as the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh calls it) was to be annoyed. More precisely, I called this driver an “asshole” – though only in my head. The truth is, I didn’t dare even whisper such a word until he turned off the road and safely left my world forever. Why? Because I was afraid of him.

For reasons not entirely known to me, but related somehow to my formal and informal training, I view white men in pick-up trucks as essentially aggressive and violent. In my unconscious and conscious imaginations, men in trucks are always ready for a fight. Plus, tomorrow is Election Day and I have an Obama sticker on my hybrid bumper. This is the deep South, after all, where M.I.T. are all racists, and everyone and his nanny’s got a gun. I would be a fool to attract this animal’s attention, would I not?

Never mind that my Southern father-in-law has a giant black pick-up truck (which we sometimes borrow), and he is one of the least aggressive people I’ve ever met. But my aversion to M.I.T. isn’t entirely rational. It is primal, wrapped up in images from Dead Man Walking and even Deliverance, which I’ve never actually seen because I’m too terrified of movies about violent white Southern men. In addition, tensions are extra high this week due to the elections, not just on the country roads, but also on Facebook, which colors my psyche whether I want it to or not. And I’ve already had some man behind me at a stop light, in a pick-up truck of course, gesture and mouth anti-Obama slogans to me via my rear-view mirror.

Just for this moment, I’m taking a breath and imagining that the driver of the giant red pick-up truck was not a rapist/murderer in waiting. I’m imagining that the letter he was reading was a medical bill that his insurance company won’t pay, and he was frustrated; or that he’s desperately tried to quit smoking half a dozen times but simply loves his cigarettes too much (as I love my chocolate and beer). I’m imagining, in other words, that he is a human being, just like me – made in God’s image, as the Judeo-Christians say, or an as-yet-undiscovered buddha who wants simply to be free from suffering, as the Buddhists say.

May you be happy and well, fellow traveler. May you be free from suffering. And may I learn to be less of an asshole, day by day.