Remembering Dr. Tiller 4 Years Later

Four years ago today, I was teaching high school. I heard on the radio or read an article about a doctor being murdered.

I didn’t consider myself a religious person, not then. I was just starting out on my spiritual journey. But even then, I heard the news and thought: aren’t churches meant to be safe places?

Even The Wire, after all, depicts Sundays as a ceasefire day.

I heard about a doctor being murdered while volunteering at his church, among his community, before God. He was murdered. The story stuck with me. It started following me around, interrupting my tasks with questions and worries.

I emailed my feminist friends. Four of us  gathered for weeks to have Tiller Talks, conversations about what Dr. Tiller’s death meant, what role we could play in preventing future murders, what we as individuals – as young feminist women – could do.

We wrote long lists of ideas — hosting movie nights, supporting abortion funds, cultivating dialogues with “the other side”, signing petitions, training to be abortion providers or airplane pilots — and debated what our tiny contingent could do, all of us young and eager, just starting out in our adult lives.

We didn’t have money or clout, but we had passion and conviction.

In the intervening years, one of us volunteered for an abortion fund, one conducted research on abortion, another sent thank you cards to other late-term abortion providers. We all did the tiny and not so tiny things we could, in Dr. Tiller’s memory and honor. But for ourselves as well.

tillerThank you, 4000 Years for Choice.

It feels right, real and good to work under the light of our passions. The flame that ignites from learning of an injustice grows to a fire with time. We do not live in a world where we murder people whom we disagree with, and as a religious person, as a feminist, as a woman it is my duty to stand up and say “this is wrong.”

Today I also think about Beatriz in El Salvador, who has lupus and is 24 weeks pregnant with a fetus that has no chance of surviving after birth. I think of the Salvadoran Supreme Court, who is denying her a life-saving procedure.

I think of Savita. I think of the countless women whose names we do not know, who died because they had no access to a simple medical procedure, who self-induced abortions, got unsafe abortions, who had no one to stand up for them. History is filled with these women. They are our ancestors, our relatives, our neighbors.

I think of what it means to live in a world where we let women die.

I think of the accident of birth — here, in LA, I have a say over what happens to my body, have access to the medical care I need, can afford an abortion; but in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile — if I’m pregnant there and need an abortion, I have no say. I wouldn’t have control over my own body there, wouldn’t have a say about my own health. Someone else would get to decide what happens to me – a court, a president, a doctor, a husband – determining whether I live or die.

I think of the abortion providers I know and love. I think of their courage and conviction. I think of the legacy Dr. Tiller left us, how he trusted women.

If you don’t own your body, what do you really own?


Colombian Curiosities III: Thong Bus Seatcovers

I found an entry from my time in Colombia last year, that got lost in the shuffle of research. I likely was waiting for two other items things to add to the list, as the previous posts included multiple curiosities. It felt greedy to not share this with you, since I had enjoyed it so much. Here it is, a year belatedly:


I was walking home from work when I passed a bus with underoo seat covers.

Please place your underwear on the headrest and put your tray in the upright position.

I walked past it twice, then asked the driver to explain it to me. He talked in great detail, politely, about the benefits of leaving the edge of the headrest without a cover, asked me what I thought, allowed me to take photos of his luxury bus.

Dia de los Muertos, Los Angeles style

Here in the city of angels, we celebrated Dia de los Muertos last week, with an event at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

There were intricate altars for family members, to call them back to us. To appreciate and rejoice in their lives. Some had lights, and others had candy. Families sat by each one, smiling and sharing stories about their beloved dead.

Some had papier-mâché figures.

Some were people sized, and others were giants.

The marigolds, seen at every altar, are traditional flowers whose purpose is to call the dead back to us, to lead them home.

Altars included items and themes important to the dead, like this one from Alice in Wonderland:

There was a traditional Mayan dance, to call them back to us.

One had a snakes and ladders game, where you roll the dice to learn your vice or virtue, then earn the right to write a deceased loved one’s name on the board. I wrote small, but it felt good and right. Loss transcends culture, location, time. The particulars are personal, yet death wears a common shroud. The days of mourning are long, but the years are fast. When we remember together, in that communal remembering we bring to life those we are no longer with us.

I painted my face:

Later that weekend, in church, the service was on Lessons from the Dying. We did a choral reading of a Rumi poem I plan on using at my own someday future funeral. We heard the top 5 regrets of the dying, and I ticked them off in my head: improving, good, good, improving, maaaaaaybe.

As I grow older, I realize how repetitive life experiences are. No one has the same constellation of events, the same quirky characters and idiosyncratic specifics, but there are thick, common threads that bind us together. Someone has gone through the life event you’re experiencing. They survived. You will too. They probably even wrote about it. Why not learn from them? We’re not such special snowflakes. Might as well benefit from the bounty of others’ life experience.

Focus Groups with Women: Things Left Unsaid

I started focus groups with contraceptive users yesterday. It’s been providers only before, gathering data for my practicum. Women, contraceptive users, clients – however you call them, are completely different. Their stories get into your heart, their words are less precise, their qualms don’t fit into charts and tables.

It’s draining. I had two groups today, maybe that’s why I want to crawl into bed and eat Rocky Road ice cream with potato chips. For a week. While watching addicting bad tv.

Maybe it’s because I had a million things I wanted to tell them, clarify, provide resources. But focus groups aren’t about that. I can observe and try to improve things later on, but in the moment I am helpless to change anything. I agree and accept all sorts of responses, reactions I wouldn’t dream of encouraging if I were presenting, teaching, training.

The things I wish I could have said pile up throughout the hour or two, linger in my head at the end, when the women leave alone or in pairs, thanking me or walking out quietly. This happened in DR too, when I did life story interviews there. (Much messier, completely unstructured, unsupervised, ultimately unused.) So much I wish I could have said, could say.  If wishes were horses…here is what I would have said, were it possible, were it up to me:

1. Your body is yours. Not your lover’s, not your husband’s, not your children’s. Yours. You are responsible for it, for doing what is right for you, for ensuring – at times, forcefully – that others respect this right, your decisions, your needs.

2. Whether or not you want to be pregnant is your choice. Yours alone. My heart aches for you that your experience has been one of disassociation, abandonment, fear, resignation. You deserve to be happy.

3. I don’t know how to help. I very much wish I did. I am working on things that might maybe end up helping you, or women like you, sometime in the future. But this moment? I am at a loss.

Bogota Culture: Museo National

Last week I went to the Museo National with my coworker and her daughter. It’s within walking distance from work, and we spent the afternoon looking at paintings, talking about colonization and searching for dessert. Here’s a sample of the art from the FEMSA exposition, with art from 11 Latin American countries:

Remedios Varo‘s Papilla estelar

Forgive the blurriness – though I think it makes the painting look even more magical, dream-like. This was one of my favorites in the collection, a woman feeding the moon spoonfuls of stars.

Armando Reverón Traviesco‘s Puerto Cerca de La Guaira

The frame is a work of art, filled with tiny sprigs and twigs and bits of fuzz. It looks like a bird’s nest with a painting in the middle, protected.

Rufino Tamayo‘s Nueva York desde la terrraza

My coworker’s daughter told us that Tamayo always has watermelons in his paintings. I am nostalgic for New York, for the pulse of the city, the subways, the magic of rooftops at night.

Claudio Bravo‘s Negro Interior

I love the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of this painting, how the cotton handkerchief is so life-like, and the window is waiting to be filled. I love how the painting looks done and unfinished.

Brought from the old world, found in the new world

Exploring the rest of the museum, we talked about the violence of history, the mixture of European, African and indigenous peoples in Colombia. I vaguely remembered my Latin American Social History class in the Dominican Republic, the professor asking us to answer Hacia donde va American Latina? for our final essay.

Crepes & Waffles for dinner

After dinner, they accompanied me to take money out of the bank and to buy the essentials at the grocery store: cheese, tomato sauce, Nutella. That’s how things are done here: in groups, together.

NYC to Bogota: Packing + Arrival

Somehow, all this:

fit into this:

Hint: Roll it.

Note the threadbare leggings, flip flops and travel pouch. My mom helpfully told me that everyone could see my underwear just as I was going through security. Maybe that’s why I didn’t get strip scanned?

I sat next to a Colombian woman who offered to connect me with her son, who rents rooms to students; watched The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, and finished Season 3 of Six Feet Under. Going through customs and security was long but uneventful. I asked for a 90 day visa and got a 30 day one – most likely because my jumbled explanation that I was in Colombia as part of my studies, but was studying at Columbia and just completing a study here.

The taxi stand outside El Dorado, the Bogotá airport, should be replicated everywhere. I pushed my trolley up to a window outside the airport, told them the address of my hostel, and got a printed paper to give to the cab. No negotiation, no confusion.

It finally hit me that I was someplace new, that I was moving to another country, that I was in Bogotá when we were driving away from the airport. That trip always does it for me, whether it’s driving in to Moscow from Sheremetyevo or Santo Domingo from Las Americas. Of course, my hostel had moved without updating their website, so there were a few moments of frenzied scavenging for the new location (3 blocks away). Overall, not a bad way to get into a city.

Packing summary

1 borrowed granola backpack  (46.2 lbs)

+ 1 NorthFace backpack bought for $20 outside CUMC (20 lbs)

+ 1 fancy leather bag  (15 lbs)

+ rainboots (felt light as air)

=   5 textbooks, 2 binders, 1 laptop, and the pile of clothes you saw above.

Soundtrack Summary

In honor of my birthday, and the official birthday of this blog,  I offer you, dear reader, a soundtrack to my last couple years:

In 2005, I spent 6 months studying and interning in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. The bodega outside my house played one song, all night, every night: Daddy Yankee – Gasolina. I spent a lot of time on buses, the kind you stop with hand signals and shouting. To get on, you swing two fingers back and forth and the driver shouts “doce doce” to confirm that it goes to the part of town I lived in (Los Kilometros). You get off the bus by shouting “En la esquina, por favor” (Drop me off on that street, please) or “déjame donde pueda” (Let me off wherever you can). Each seat would fit three people, with a folding seat extended in the middle, used during peak hours. I loved watching the cobrador, the fare collector, jump on and off the bus as it was moving.

At 6 am on Sunday mornings, I went directly from Saturday revelries to La Pulga to buy work clothes. Professional clothes, from expensive US labels, sold for $5 or so. I recorded every cent I spent in green pen, and added up my weekly spending by hand. I’d come home with my loot on Sundays and nap all afternoon under the unopened bed net. (I wasn’t intentionally being a delinquent; I just  never saw any mosquitoes.)

Senior year in college, I frequently had a playlist on in my room and Rainer Maria – Artificial Light was the first track. I was an RA and lived in the back room of an apartment that was demolished a couple years later to make way for a new residence hall. That was the year I traveled to Key West for 11 days, filled up a Moleskine, and biked on the boardwalk at night with my eyes closed.

After graduation, from February – December 2007, I lived in a beautiful apartment in Santiago, Chile. It was $300 a month. When it rained, I could see the mountains from my window. I bought a bed the first day, and a stove, couch and fridge on the second day. Otherwise my apartment was empty. I had two forks, two spoons, two knives. Meals were frequently served on the floor. In the mornings, I would brush my teeth on my tiny 16th floor balcony and look out into the windows of my neighbors. I taught English to medical students and government students at the Universidad de Chile, executives at SC Johnson, and gave private lessons.

When I wasn’t teaching, I was at my practicum at CEMERA – Universidad de Chile’s Adolescent Reproductive Medicine and Integrated  Development Center. I collaborated with a health psychology student and social work student to create and provide sexual health workshops to high school students.  We’re still in touch, all work in the field of sexual health and share resources. When it was dark, in the early hours before work, I got ready to the Mountain Goats – This Year.

The summer of 2009 was spent in San Francisco at the National Sexuality Resource Center. During lunch at Delfina, a friend introduced me to J Dilla – Workinonit. She was living with the person she was in love with, and it was early on in the effervescent early stage of the relationship and they knew every move, every thought the other had. But they never touched, except through words. She would step out of the shower and put lotion on her skin, and through the closed bathroom door, she’d hear “you forgot a spot on your back.” True love, workinonit.