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?


Notes on Citizen Who by Eric Liu: What If US Citizenship Was Earned?

Last night I walked down the street to the neighborhood theater (what up big city living), and saw the debut performance of Eric Liu’s Citizen Who.

As an immigrant myself, I loved Liu‘s mediation on what it means to be an American citizen. Like all good storytellers, he interspersed personal stories rich with detail and surprise turns with broad summarizes that brought together the disparate threads of theory and history. The same story – that of how his  mother came to the US, for example – was told multiple ways, and through that telling the audience saw the slippery category of citizenship, the way immigrants, or those who look like immigrants can suddenly become “foreign until proven otherwise” or exist in a perpetual in-between-ness of tenuous belonging (to paraphrase Liu).

Since we’re such a new country, and have little common history, customs or beliefs to bring us together (at most, the eldest of our lineages are only about 14 generations), belonging is the central tenet of the American dream. But belonging is both a legal status (Never give up your US passport!) but also a social status (Do you look American?). Liu points out that citizenship, while repeatedly mentioned in our beloved Constitution, is never once defined. In times of doubt, those who were once citizens can suddenly become a “non-alien” or “other”. So this “we” of “we the people” cuts both ways: we, as citizens, are responsible for what we have done and accomplished. Both the horrible and the great. We are one nation, indivisible, despite all that divides us. “In” and “out” are not the only categories here; because of our “color-coded legacy” (Liu’s spot-on word choice ), sometimes citizens and non-citizens not only look alike, but are sometimes the same person. We may have the right papers, but can still be treated as an outsider.

One non sequitur in my notes that I have been mulling over: Freedom is made up of simple pleasures. No matter the context of the suffering, people dream of escaping to experience the same things: mouth-watering meals, the sensation of soft touch, light and airy gatherings with laughter.

One particularly riveting question Liu posed was: When is loyalty dissent, and when is dissent loyalty? What is the threshold for us to participate? As equal parts patriotic and dissatisfied citizen, I appreciated Liu’s call to participate in our democracy, to contribute to our community as a way of rekindling, reviewing, reigniting our citizenship vows. What if we earned our citizenship, rather than were given it by birthright? What if it were renewable, based on whether one participated, served the common good? We are, after all, responsible for our own country.

There are photos here, and you can even watch the whole video of last night’s performance here. And they say there’s no good live theater in LA! Ha.

Post-Gastroenterology Observations: New Reasons to Be Thankful

It’s funny how spending a couple of hours observing how other people live, — hearing about their experiences of living in and with their body –, how that insight can radically change my own perspective. After spending some time around people with gastroenterology issues, I have several new items to add to my list of things I’m thankful for:

– the ability to produce saliva, which allows me to consume food without it getting stuck in my throat and allows me to speak without pain

– not having h. pylori

– working in a field where I can wear fashionable shoes to work instead of clogs

– not being constipated for 3 days or going to the bathroom 20 times a day

– not having to resist the persuasive enthusiasm and at times moral concerns inherent in interactions with drug reps

– that every pain I’ve experienced has been temporary and treatable

– that I didn’t spend my birthday or holiday hours away from my home in a waiting room

– that there really are compassionate and clear providers, with good bedside manner who can communicate well with people who are hurting

– that not every doctor has bad handwriting (some are not only legible but even pleasant to the eye!)

Remembering Audre Lorde 20 Years Later

It’s Saturday night and the house is filled with the not-so-distant voices of neighbors and friends, visitors and housemates. Snippets of conversation float in from the kitchen, and I am here, a little antisocial, looking up poems by Audre Lorde. She died in 1992, at 58 years old, before I had ever heard her name.

Some of the reasons I love her have nothing to do with her writing. For example, she was a librarian. Like me, she attended Columbia University. She put words to intersectionality, a concept so ubiquitous at conferences and academic conversations that the world seems myopic prior to its nomenclature. I love the perfect symmetry of the five letters of her first and last name, that each one ends with the letter e.

Two great New York City organizations bare her name: The Audre Lorde Project, which serves queer people of color, and The Callen-Lorde Center, which provides primary care services to the queer community.

I’ll end with one of my favorite Lorde poems, which deals with one of my favorite topics (adolescence). It’s sweet and accurate, and I rarely see it out and about. Savor with me, now:

Progress Report

When you do say hello I am never sure
if you are being saucy or experimental or
merely protecting some new position.
Sometimes you gurgle while asleep
and I know tender places still intrigue you.
When you question me on love now
shall I recommend a dictionary
or myself?

You are the child of wind and ravens I created
always my daughter I cannot recognize
the currents where you swim and dart
through my loving
upstream to your final place of birth
but you never tire of hearing
how I crept out of my mother’s house
at dawn, with an olive suitcase
crammed with books and fraudulent letters
and an unplayed guitar.

I see myself flash through your eyes
in moments caught between history
and obedience
those moments grow each day
before you comply
as, when did washing dishes
change from privilege to chore?
I watch the hollows deepen above your hips
wondering if I taught you Black enough
until I see all kinds of loving still intrigue
you growing more and more
dark rude and tender

What you once took for granted
you now refuse to take at all
even I knock before I enter
the shoals of furious choices
not my own
that flood through your secret reading
nightly under cover.

I have not seen you, but
I hear the pages rustle
from behind closed doors.

Audre Lorde [1971]


Ruminations on Savita Halappanavar’s Death: The Difference Between The Law and Its Application

Surely you’ve already heard of Savita Halappanavar’s tragic death in Ireland on October 28th of this year. Go on, read the article if you haven’t already. I’ll wait.

I’ve been listening on the radio, reading, thinking about the heartache her husband and family feel, about the protests in India and Ireland. About the medical providers who saw her suffering and are likely suffering now themselves. I’ve been rolling the facts around in my head: Savita was 31 years old. A dentist. A Hindu. Since 2008, Savita was living in Ireland with her husband, Praveen Halappanavar. She was organizing the Diwali festival in her community. Savita was 17 weeks pregnant with a desired pregnancy, then she miscarried. When she went to the Emergency Department, she requested an abortion and was denied one.

Some facts I do not know the answer to but wish I did: How well did Savita or her husband Praveen know Irish abortion law? What support did she and her husband have during the miscarriage? What influenced the decisions made by the medical personnel treating Savita? What had occurred in prior incidents when other women had come to the hospital in the midst of a miscarriage? What are the repercussions for denying a patient the necessary treatment? Who provides illegal abortions in Ireland? If a woman is unable to travel to the UK for an abortion, how does she access these non-medical and likely unsanitary and unsafe illegal abortion providers? What are the medical providers who treated Savita thinking and feeling now? When they talk with their beloveds at night, what do they say about this story?

Hearing about Savita’s autopsy report, we learn that her death was caused by septicaemia, and E.coli ESBL. However, these conditions were caused not by the miscarriage she was experiencing, but by a miscarriage of the law. By delaying the one treatment that would have likely saved Savita’s life: an abortion. I am certainly no expert on Irish abortion law, but after some searching I’ve learned that: Despite the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which not only made abortion illegal but also punishable, since 1992, Ireland explicitly allows abortion in order to save a women’s life.

Ah yes. The law has been adjusted (20 years ago!), but public opinion, provider knowledge and attitudes and skills and training…take time to change. The systems in place to prevent women from receiving abortions (including the kind that save their lives) has been around much longer. Maybe medical providers were uncertain, unskilled or afraid. Change takes time. Eventually, the miscarriage was removed from Savita’s body, but by then it was too late. Too much time had passed.

It is not the law itself, but the interpretation of the law that determines whether it is followed. The law is a blunt instrument, and when applied without clear interpretation, without ample knowledge by those affected, the results are often tragic.

This also presents an example of how a geographical location and its associated laws supersede nationality and religion. Because of the borders a cartographer drew around this land, our rules are different from those of the land next door. Rights you had back home are no longer accessible to you. It didn’t matter that Savita wasn’t Catholic, and wasn’t from Ireland. The decision-makers had decided long before she arrived.


First Day of Full-time Work Post-MPH: First Impressions & Gratitudes

Today was my first day of work at my new job. Yay working! I won’t tell you exactly what the work is, or where, but I will provide some first impressions & specific things I am grateful for:

– the fancypants coffee/tea/hot cocoa maker, which saved me when I left my tea on the counter at home.

– that my coworkers seem nice & no one told me I was smelly despite my forgetting to put deodorant on this morning.

– that my coworker said that some Fridays, there is a dog that visits the office. (!!!)

– that when I stayed past 5 pm, I was told to go home.

– that when I got locked out without my office keys, phone or ID, a kind stranger let me in when I banged on the front door and made a sad face with praying hands.

– that I was the most over-dressed person at the office, which means I can retire the heels & suits already!

– that no one beeped when I stalled on the way to and from work, twice. Twice each time.

I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’ – Muhammad Ali

I’ve been collecting other people’s words for about a decade now, and I think it’s about time I start sharing my bounty. For the next couple weeks, I’ll be starting the week off with a quote.

I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’Muhammad Ali, the greatest.

Though I’m not a boxer, and likely neither are you, this was my mantra for parts of last year. This quote was at the top of my daily To Do list, one of the first things I’d see every day. When it was cold & dark & late & lonely. When the work piled up high and I thought I’d never get to sleep. It applies to anyone working on something difficult, that may not have a clear end. Maybe the idea of giving up is comforting. It’s okay to think about it. Just don’t do it. Keep at it.  Sometimes all you can do is endure. And that’s enough. Let the commitment to staying the course guide you through the rough waters.