This site contains a variety of short and longer poems, along with some essays and travel narratives. Some were written for a specific occasion or about a specific person or place. Others were intended to be more general and to have a longer shelf life. I hope an entry here or there may resonate with your experiences. Enjoy!
I wish the Dobbs decision had never happened. For months leading up to it, I dreaded its potential impact on our fractured body politic. Now that it has happened, I am doing my best to find a forward-looking response. I doubt that any legal decision regarding abortion can satisfy anyone completely. I doubt that abortions will ever stop being performed, whether legally or illegally. I doubt we can ever reach an American (or global) polity in which every child is deeply wanted and loved, in which no mother dies from complications of pregnancy or delivery, and each new human is born into a fully functional family and society.
In the wake of Dobbs, activists on all sides of the U.S. abortion debate have increased their fundraising, outreach, and advocacy. Personally, I believe abortion prior to fetal viability should be primarily the decision of the mother-to-be, that her rights supersede any supposed state interests. However, I also believe that some common sense restrictions on abortions can be consistent with goals of family integrity and human rights. How can I best express my views? How do I act on my beliefs? When does life begin? How can we possibly know?
Headlines tend to emphasize exceptional cases—the 10-year-old girl in Ohio who in May, 2022 was raped. After seeking care in Ohio, she had to travel to Indiana for an abortion because she’d exceeded the six week gestational limit mandated by a 2019 Ohio law triggered by the Dobbs decision. Overall statistics make less absorbing headline fodder, but are still abysmal. Over the preceding five years, Ohio had an average of over one abortion per week for a child aged 15 or younger.
In ideal cases, a developing fetus is the result of consensual sexual activity between prospective adult parents. Ideally, once a woman’s egg is fertilized, the resulting zygote begins to divide, then implants and thrives in utero throughout the pregnancy, which ends when a healthy mother delivers a healthy infant. Many hazards exist between conception and birth, though—miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, maternal health complications, lethal fetal abnormalities. The rate of spontaneous miscarriage is estimated at between 11 and 22 percent of confirmed pregnancies. Possibly over half of all pregnancies end even before pregnancy is confirmed. About 2% of pregnancies are “ectopic”—the embryo attaches outside the uterine cavity, potentially threatening the life of the mother. In 2020, the US had the highest maternal mortality rate among developed nations: 23.8 deaths per 100,000 live births. About 3% of babies born in the U.S. have birth defects of varying degrees of severity, with the most severe defects causing about 20% of deaths in infants below the age of one.
Ideally, prospective parents are financially and emotionally ready to raise to adulthood any child they conceive. However, a study from the New England Journal of Medicine in 2011 found then that nearly half of pregnancies were either “unplanned” (27%, maybe later?) or “unwanted” (18%, not now, not ever!). Per their research, unintended pregnancy rates are highest among low-income women, women younger than 24, unmarried women cohabiting with a male partner, and women of color. Economic studies repeatedly link limiting access to contraception and/or abortion to increases in child poverty and crime.
To help ground me since the Dobbs ruling, I’ve returned to my Christian roots, revisiting Biblical stories of King Solomon to try to find wisdom to help me through this most recent set of conflicts over reproductive choice. A seminal account involves Solomon deciding a difficult case shortly after he has asked God in a dream for wisdom in guiding his people. As recorded in I Kings 3:16-28, the case involves the death of a newborn and two frantic mothers’ competing claims on the one surviving child. To help determine the rightful claimant, Solomon threatens to cut the surviving child in two. The real mother cries out to let the other mother keep the child, willing to relinquish her child rather than have it killed. Through his decision, Solomon does his best to honor the mothers, the child, and the child’s future.
The Dobbs decision was injected into a United States with many festering debates. Abortion has been, and continues to be, even thornier than the dilemma posed to Solomon, with no clear one-size-fits-all answers. What seems clear so far is that many women, their families, and their doctors are fearful and upset at Dobbs’ sweeping change in national policy. The change overturned fifty years of judicial precedent, including many cases attempting to strike some sort of balance among competing rights—the mother’s, the developing fetus’s, and that of the governmental apparatus charged with supporting families and children.
I like to think that Solomon in his wisdom would have come up with ways to help us broaden our focus, leaving us less obsessed with the period between conception and birth. It is a rare pregnancy that lasts more than nine months, a rare (though tragic) instance when a life after birth lasts less than that, a strange anomaly for a girl/woman to conceive before typical puberty, which happens between ages 8 and 13.
Perhaps we can see beyond our differences to lessen the damage we are causing to the already born and to women not ready to become mothers. Our faith, our gender, our life circumstances can help impart the wisdom we need to navigate post-Dobbs America. If Solomon could consider the mothers, the child, and the future, might we be inspired to behave similarly? Are we each doing our best for the human family of which we are a part? Are we helping to preserve a livable planet for future generations? What would Solomon decide?
I want to believe in the possibility of democracy, and in the willingness of many people, much of the time, to make small (or sometimes even big) sacrifices for the common good. Lately I’ve found it more and more necessary, in order to maintain that belief, to limit my media exposure. Sometimes I need to abstain altogether. It turns out I have widely read company. In an opinion piece in a recent Washington Post, writer Amanda Ripley explained why “I Stopped Reading the News” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/07/08/how-to-fix-news-media/). Has our media-saturated society begun to grate on you, as well?
Earlier generations of pundits have repeatedly created models of successive revolutions in human cultures and economies—from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists to industrialists and industrial workers to a contemporary “knowledge society.” The transitions seem to come faster and faster. At each transition, something of the former organizational system lingers, with some from prior iterations ending up marginalized. We all will continue to need food, material goods, and access to reliable information. However, without empathy and mutual understanding, those in the groups seemingly left behind and those in the groups seemingly forward looking can engage in escalating clashes rather than working toward mutually beneficial solutions.
For over a decade before covid, I was a citizen of a rapidly evolving North Carolina. My relocation there gave me a chance to get more thoroughly acquainted with a whole group of cousins on my dad’s mother’s side. These were cousins I’d rarely met during my youth in Maryland. The Rea clan of my grandma’s generation had started out as farmers on the outskirts of Charlotte. During a rare childhood visit to one of their farms, I found the rural area where they lived both fascinating and strange. I got treated to homemade biscuits slathered with hand-churned butter from the family’s cows. I rode a pony, one of their smallest mounts. Years later, once installed in a Raleigh area apartment, I began to attend cousins’ beach weekends and to visit with the relatives who lived geographically closest. Mostly I listened to stories of family history, especially about the farm-wife grandmother I’d hardly known.
By 2018, the metropolitan area of Charlotte had surrounded the family’s old homestead. Multi-story apartment complexes hedged in former horse pastures and outbuildings. That Thanksgiving, over a hundred cousins spanning several generations gathered at “the shed” to share a partially catered, partially homemade feast of turkey with all the trimmings. I was surprised at the diversity of the extended family I found ( https://jinnyoccasionalpoems.com/2018/11/25/who-did-you-expect/)—rural/urban/suburban, stay-at-homes and world travelers, pale-skinned and darker. We skirted talk of politics, but everyone I met was friendly, hopeful, respectful.
Come 2021, my husband and I began preparing for another relocation, this time to follow a grown son to southern California. Friends from the middle of the country have sometimes charged me with being a “bi-coastalist,” out of touch with the nation’s heartland. On our way west, I spent nearly two weeks on a cross-country car trip, seeing some areas where people interacted directly with the land. We drove through the “in between” states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, stopping to eat, shop, sightsee, sleep. We got to see the Mississippi River, the Missouri River, and Sandia Peak up close. I learned that Yuma, Arizona is the iceberg lettuce capital of the world. The colleagues we visited along our way were retired from academic or consulting careers, so knew of the challenges of rural livelihood only indirectly. Still, the overall landscape was inescapable—much of American geography is rural.
As I rode past isolated farmsteads, or ate at local restaurants in small towns that were just barely scraping by, I could imagine life in such places being hard as well as insular. Faraway elites in urban/suburban areas could be viewed with suspicion and disdain.
“What can those people possibly know about my everyday life? They sit in their book-lined home offices and make pronouncements about fixing my problems without ever asking me, or even meeting me.” If the railroad ceases operation, if the feedlot shuts down, if the price of fuel fluctuates wildly, if commodity revenues are as unpredictable as the weather, it can be tempting to blame uncaring outsiders.
Although the editorial slant is somewhat different in big urban media markets, the impact can be similar. “Why don’t those yahoos ever learn that more guns make us less safe, not safer? Why don’t they respect the rights and aspirations of minorities? How can they be such nativists? What’s wrong with those people?”
Much of the time, the algorithms and editorial decisions that shade our news access seem more intent on making America grate than on making America great. Ms. Ripley’s opinion piece suggests that the best news coverage will need to provide its readers/watchers/listeners with three basic ingredients: hope (all is not lost), agency (I can do something about a particular issue), and dignity (I matter). Imbibing more of our current news landscape may hinder rather than help to spread these traits. Perhaps a friendly in-person “Hello” to a neighbor, a more-generous-than-usual donation of time or energy to a local non-profit, a more frequent use of the “off” button to our indirect information sources, are needed steps toward renewed greatness.
This is the land of sun and surf,
A golden destination for outdoor buffs.
Having by now spent a first cycle of seasons
In southern California, I can attest to
The draw of the beach and the waves,
To the lure of canyons and hillsides.
What I hadn’t expected as much
Was a sort of lull between the cooler
Months and the dry warmth of high summer.
“Gray May and June gloom,” the locals intone.
Some mornings, there is fog, or low cloud.
It can take several hours before the sun peeks through.
Under the overcast, I cast my lot walking along
Nearby pathways and streets.
Across the sidewalks are narrow slicks of
Snail trails, sometimes even the snails themselves.
Gardeners tell me the shelled creatures are pests.
I haven’t noticed them eating my plants, not yet.
Still, their morning presence has become for
Me another marker of southern California life:
Most of our recent news is bad: warfare in Ukraine, mass shootings in the U.S., wildfires, floods, tornados, hurricanes, the list seems endless. It helps me to remember that most news has always been bad. We tend to take for granted the generosity, kindness, humor, and loving that people bestow on each other much of the time. Pleasant weather is considered unremarkable. We rarely get headlines or breaking news about the nice people or the nice weather. It’s the bad examples, the exceptions, that get the bulk of the publicity. Through our increasingly interconnected global communications, we can more readily and extensively broadcast the negative aspects of reality. They are not the whole picture.
Last week, after an overload of news about wars and mass shootings and refugees and climate crises and teen anxiety and so on, I was tempted to lapse into “learned helplessness, ” a psychological condition often linked with depression. Problems can seem just too overwhelming to deal with.
Instead, I made a conscious attempt to find some good news. I started with a basic internet search on altruism, broadly defined as actions taken on behalf of others that provide little or no benefit to the altruist. I sat down with my husband to watch a “Kindness 101” segment created by CBS reporter Steve Hartman in 2020, early in the covid pandemic, when he and his children were stuck at home due to school closures and lockdowns. I marveled at the story of Eugene Youn, a 28-year-old adventurer who quit his job and embarked on a long-distance hike to fundraise the $80,000 needed for a set of prosthetic devices to help paraplegic Arthur Renawinsky, a man Youn had yet to meet, walk again.
Later, I honed in on experiments done with very young children to try to find out how altruism develops. Research at the University of Washington showed that toddlers as young as about a year and a half will help an experimenter they believe needs their assistance (https://www.washington.edu/news/2020/02/04/altruistic-babies-study-shows-infants-are-willing-to-give-up-food-help-others/).
Much earlier in my own life, a son who was then studying psychology in college urged me to check out the relatively new field of “positive psychology,” focussing on what’s right with us, rather than just diagnosing and treating what’s wrong. At son Scott’s suggestion, I read a pioneering volume, Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman. Later I studied some of the work of the Hungarian-American psychologist with the difficult name, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I read one of his seminal works, Flow. One of my go-to internet sites, TED, has a subset of 15 positive psychology talks featuring experts in the field: https://positivepsychology.com/positive-psychology-ted-talks/. I recommend them.
Even earlier in my life, one summer at a family church camp I enrolled Scott as my assistant in the infant nursery. As the “baby of the family,” our younger son had rarely gotten to care for children even younger than he was. His chance at about age 3 to be a “caring older brother” for a week was one of the highlights of his camp that year. It gave him a sense of power to be able to help care for the infants in the nursery. He was very caring, very careful.
It’s important to me that the war in Ukraine end soon, with as little additional carnage and displacement as possible. It’s important to me that those whose lives and livelihoods were ruined by the war receive humanitarian assistance. It’s important to me that those responsible for conducting the war be held accountable. It’s important to me that we Americans find ways to reduce our epidemic of gun violence. It’s important to me that we take more individual and coilective actions to reduce the future impacts of ongoing climate change and resulting catastrophic weather events. However, if I attempt to “fix” any of these issues by myself, I’m likely to get discouraged. All are big problems.
Instead of the “learned helplessness” of throwing up my hands or getting angry at slow-to-move officialdom or deciding that all these are somebody else’s problems, I can practice learned helpfulness. I can pick and choose where my individual skills and actions would most likely make a positive difference and then use my skills, do the actions.
Like my three-year-old nursery assistant, I can engage in the “learned helpfulness” of altruism. I can make small but positive differences in the lives of those I interact with. I can continue to learn from my mistakes and improve. Learned helpfulness will glean better results than its opposite, I’m sure of it.
On this final day of my weeklong “strike for choice,” my husband suggested, without prompting, that the two of us go to a pro-choice rally being held mid-morning in downtown San Diego. I had just walked home after enjoying some early morning coolness while at our neighborhood’s community garden. I was not averse to attending the rally. It seemed appropriate.
We hurriedly gathered sunscreen, hats, water, and granola bars, then headed for the rally site at the “Hall of Justice.” By the time we got within several blocks, we could see large clusters of demonstrators. Parking was at a premium, but we found a paid lot not too far away. When I had trouble operating the fare machine, a very nice younger woman used her credit card, then declined my offer to reimburse her.
“After all,” she informed me, “we’re all headed for the same place.”
From where I stood at the edge of the crowd, the demonstrators seemed to be predominately white, but with a noticeable component of other races and ethnicities. There were more women than men, but not overwhelmingly so. Hubby and I had not had time to craft a handmade sign. We opted not to carry any of the mass-produced versions offered. The homemade signs of others were more varied and more interesting.
A lot of women in my age cohort expressed outrage at having to fight the “coat hanger wars” all over again. Many younger women opted for variations on a “don’t tread on me” theme, with a rattler coiled inside a stylized uterus. One sign proclaimed: “Women are not incubators.” There were a good many signs comparing women’s reproductive rights with gun rights: “Maybe if I learn to shoot bullets out of my uterus, those a******* in D.C. will stop trying to regulate it” or “America, where my body has fewer rights than an AR-15.” Some signs advised, “Listen to black women.”
One sign that moved me, especially after I’d inquired about the story behind it, was a simple one. On a piece of cardboard, it recorded a woman’s name with her birth and death dates: 1907-1930. The great-niece who was marching in this woman’s memory explained that her grandmother’s married sister had become pregnant with her fifth child at the beginning of the Great Depression. Lacking resources to stretch beyond the children she’d already borne, the woman tried a self-induced abortion. She died in the attempt. Per population researcher Christopher Tietze, there were 2,677 recorded abortion deaths in the U.S. in 1933. Starting in the 1940’s, abortion deaths declined with the introduction of penicillin and the increasing skill of those performing most abortions.
By the time today’s speechifying was done and the march officially began, the crowd had thinned a good bit. A group attired in “Handmaid’s Tale” red robes stood on a street corner and provided drum and tambourine accompaniment. Because my husband’s septuagenarian back and my septuagenarian feet were beginning to protest, we opted to stay on the sidelines and just watch the marchers go by. Near the end of the throng was an older woman whose sign helped me place the machinations of some existing Supreme Court justices and draconian legislators into a longer perspective. She listed several herbs that had traditionally been used as abortifacients.
Public officials may come and go, rulings and legislation may try to control women’s bodies, but women do and will endure.
I started my first period the day of my maternal grandfather’s funeral. I was alone in our house. My parents had left to attend the late morning service, after deciding that I was too sick to come along, but not sick enough to require a doctor’s care just yet. No one, not even I, was quite sure what my problem was.
I sipped weak tea, tried nibbling saltines. Amid bouts of queasiness and pain, I curled up in a miserable lump on the sofa, under a hand-knitted afghan. Then, on one of my bathroom trips, I noticed a telltale stain on my panties.
Throughout the previous year, the communal shower for our girls’ phys. ed. class had confirmed me as a menstrual late bloomer. (Among the earlier bloomers, a couple of girls in the class ahead of me had already skipped periods due to pregnancy.)
My mom sometimes called menstruation “the curse.” For most of my teens and into my early twenties, this was an apt description. I was irregular, so I could rarely predict when the bleeding, bloating, and nausea would start. The worst cycles were the ones when I was awakened from sleep by a searing abdomen, one that would only release me once I’d vomited up the prior day’s meals and thrashed and heaved for what seemed like hours. I’d retreat into the basement, as far from the upstairs family bedrooms as possible, muffle my moans and retching, then find a blanket as I eventually subsided into a fetal heap.
As my twenties progressed, I managed, partly through good luck and partly through newly available birth control pills, to defer children until I was decorously married and ready for parenthood. The joys of raising a family brought welcome release. I’d still cramp up on occasion, but most of the time I was too busy and too happy to pay much attention. Once the children grew up and menopause loomed, some cycles would produce a few cramps, with heavy flows and clots. Others were barely noticeable.
I’ve aged into a crone, though perhaps not an especially wise or effective one. The political landscape around me gets increasingly fraught. Many media platforms, whatever their slant, seem intent on increasing polarization to bolster their ratings and income. Attempts at quiet wisdom can get drowned out.
It’s been over a generation since I last bled. Now, my writhing and thrashing are mostly due to the distrust and oppression of a society turning increasingly brittle, fractured, and patriarchal. There’s no physical reason for my malaise. This time, the cramps are in my soul.
Until about a week ago, I had been looking forward to a fairly traditional Mother’s Day: I’d receive a card or two, perhaps a phone call from the grown child who lives out of town, maybe a home-cooked breakfast from a spouse who typically does little of the family cooking. I wondered what other mothers and expectant mothers would be doing to acknowledge the day. I thought that this Mother’s Day would be a low-key chance to reaffirm the importance of mothers in all our variations.
I believe that mothers are indispensable to a functioning society. A day’s worth of recognition can sometimes seem a small recompense for a generation or more of parenting labors. When our children are small, we may nurse them from our bodies. As they grow, we attempt to guide them into making life-affirming choices. We do our best to provide for them both financially and emotionally. Even if we’re exceptional parents, we sometimes need to rely on other adults, whether or not they have children of their own, to help us through the rough spots.
Amid all the other uncertainties of American life in 2022, I expected Mother’s Day to be more or less “normal.” Then, early last week, American media exploded with news of a leaked draft opinion by U.S. Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito. Alito urged that the landmark U.S. abortion decisions of Roe vs. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood vs. Casey (1992), permitting abortions in most instances prior to the viability of the fetus, should be completely overturned. Although efforts on multiple governmental levels to weaken abortion access had been going on ever since the Roe case was first decided, this was an unexpectedly harsh opinion at the national level.
I started losing sleep, wondering what more I could do to influence the ongoing abortion debate in an appropriate way. Earlier, I’d written letters and emails, phoned my elected representatives, posted blog entries, sometimes even attended demonstrations. So I blogged some more, sent more letters and emails, even submitted a brief letter to the editor pointing out the irony of expressing outrage over the breach of privacy suffered by Justice Alito while ignoring the subsequent breach of privacy he was advocating for millions of American women. (I figured brevity might count for something, although it’s not my typical style.)
Before dawn on Mother’s Day, I awoke and did a basic internet search on “Mother’s Day protests,” thinking it would be appropriate for me to attend one to express my support for motherhood that was voluntary rather than coerced. No events in my vicinity popped up, but there were severaI links about a nationwide “Mother’s Day Strike” during the next week or so, patterned after an October, 1975 women’s strike in Iceland to support women’s value and women’s choices.
So, to the extent that a retired grandmother can, I’m going “on strike.” I do not plan to do any housework for the next week. I’ve alerted my spouse to be on the hook for household chores. I plan to spend a good bit of my week at the public library, where I recently discovered a non-fiction book by Melinda French Gates, The Moment of Lift, about women’s empowerment, both globally and here in the U.S. Ms. French-Gates is a practicing Roman Catholic as well as a partner in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which widely supports family planning.
I encourage any of you who can to create your own strike on your own terms, letting those around you know what you are doing and why. Happy Mother’s Day, all!
This April has not provided a great backdrop for poetry, despite its designation in the U.S. as National Poetry Month. Too many people are busy slamming each other physically or via verbal abuse. Not enough are participating in good-natured poetry slams.
Likewise, the month has been somewhat problematic for planting, as military invasions and erratic weather have both contributed globally to farmers’ woes. So I was heartened when, amid all the horrid news coming out of Ukraine, I saw a short video clip a few days ago about a Ukrainian farmer who’d regained access to his fields after a Russian military withdrawal from his area. He was out surveying his acreage, preparing to fill in recent bomb craters and then to plant much of his 100 acre spread in sunflowers.
As a neophyte gardener in southern California, I’ve been tentative with this year’s planting, with limited success so far. Some of the succulents I’ve attempted to grow in pots have survived, others not. My springtime carrot “crop” is laughable. Most of the yard plantings that predated my arrival are holding their own, though about a third of the trees in our housing development have varying degrees of die-back. Each weekend, I spend time at our neighborhood’s closest community garden, listening to more experienced gardeners, gathering tips. Then I continue planting and experimenting with water conservation and shade provision measures, as the sun daily gets higher in the sky.
It’s nourishing to me to spend time outdoors—minimizing my exposure to airborne viruses like covid. Outdoor, unplugged time also helps reduce my exposure to the incessant chatter of media types. Many seem intent on nudging everyone toward the extremes of the political spectrum, clamoring for our attention like overstimulated toddlers.
When active gardening isn’t enough to mitigate my worries about the state of the world, I sometimes turn to scriptural sources for reassurance. One partial verse that has long inspired peace activists and aging flower children like me occurs in two different books of the prophets. Both Isaiah and Micah talk of a time when wars will cease, when former weapons will be transformed into gardening tools:
“…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3)
Micah then goes on with a second gardening reference: “…but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” (Micah 4:4)
Loath to conflate any of our current earthly political leaders with the “Lord of hosts,” not even a little, I still long for and work toward a time when it may be possible for each of us to sit outdoors unafraid.
So, as another planting season progresses, I take heart. Maybe this year some sweet potatoes, maybe sunflowers, maybe corn. Maybe a different kind of seed—a donation for humanitarian relief, a soothing refrain in the ear of a frightened child. What seeds will you plant?
Every war has its own shape,
Its own trajectory, even when it
Occurs on territory pockmarked
By prior conflicts.
Crimea, the Donbas,
All have seen much carnage
Through the ages.
Those of us who’ve
Viscerally known atomic horrors
Dream gingerly, if at all,
Of a bad end this time.
We listen wistfully for the
Nightingales of the current conflict.
We watch reports of the
Thousands of deaths, of the
Millions fleeing destruction.
International aid agencies
Despair as planting goes
Dormant under the tread of tanks.
Earth is resurrecting herself—
She needs seeds, not bombs.
Watchful, waiting, we
See the graves and we ask:
What will be the shape
Of the next peace?