Category Archives: Uncategorized

My Body, My Choice

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. 

Rulings and legislation can only go so far…

Phantom Cramps

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. 

A 2022 Mother’s Day Strike

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!

Planting Season

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?  

Shape Shifting

Every war has its own shape,
Its own trajectory, even when it
Occurs on territory pockmarked
By prior conflicts.

Crimea, the Donbas, 
Mother Russia–
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?

Anniversaries

This year, it may be March that’s the cruelest month—
Snows are melting in Ukraine, but little planting
Gets done, just more craters from more shelling.
It’s a month since Russian troops crossed the border,
Initiating what average Russians are
Forbidden to call a war.

How many more month anniversaries before
The carnage abates? How many more refugees?
How many more lives lost or displaced?

This month contains, too, my annual wedding
Anniversary, typically a happy event. I need
To remember, though, some prior years with strife,
Separation, near despair at mending
Serious breaches. 

Online sources’ lists of global notable
March 24 events show the date
With a mixed record: the Exxon Valdez
Oil spill in 1989, Bhutan’s first democratic
Parliamentary elections in 2008.

Lest we forget, anniversaries can mark
Both triumphs and disasters–
We cannot relive the former.
With luck and skill, we can avoid
Perpetually reliving the latter.

Changing the Rules/Cadences of Warfare

It’s been a struggle lately to decide whether or not to turn on network or cable news. Just when we thought the covid pandemic might be easing, we were slapped with another whammy—a “hot war” between Russia and its southern neighbor Ukraine. Few journalists with fluency in both English and local languages are reporting from Ukraine on American media. As of late March, 2022, coverage is spotty at best. My guess is that were I living in Moscow rather than southern California, the impressions I’d get of the conflict would be quite different. Might I even be persuaded that Mr. Putin was a hero fending off a predatory NATO alliance, with Mr. Zelenskyy as its puppet? I don’t know. 

What I do know is that the war is damaging for all of us, whether directly or indirectly,  wherever we live. Where I live now, I face rising gasoline prices, continuing supply chain disruptions, the renewed specter of nuclear fallout from intentional attacks or tragic accidents, worry about loved ones vulnerable or in harm’s way. Your list may be slightly different from mine, but it’s not likely pleasant, either.  

The older I get, the more aware I am of the difficulty of eliminating warfare altogether. I was spared direct experience of the horrors and deprivations of World War II, but since I was born, there has been nearly continuous warfare among humans somewhere on this planet we share. My childhood not far from Washington, D.C. was spent in anxiety about a possible resumption of nuclear warfare, with a “near miss” during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. As I took my first tenuous steps toward adulthood, the U.S. got increasingly involved in an ongoing conflict in Vietnam, part post-colonial struggle, part civil war, part proxy for an increasingly expensive, destructive stand-off between “capitalism” and “communism.”  

When in the late 1980’s, the Berlin Wall fell, ushering in a brief period when warfare seemed somewhat more contained, I cheered. Then the Balkans exploded. Then hijacked planes exploded in American cities. Then the U.S. launched retributive or pre-emptive attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq, ostensibly to prevent further terrorism on American soil. Twenty years on, Afghanistan is in tatters, Iraq remains unstable, and home-grown American terrorists have stormed the U.S. Capitol. 

Yet in parallel with “advances” in warfare, there have been corresponding attempts to limit its damage. Since armed conflict became more mechanized and more deadly during the 19th century, there have been repeated efforts to limit the carnage: the International Committee of the Red Cross (founded in 1863), the League of Nations (founded in 1920, dormant after 1940), the United Nations (established in 1944, since expanded to include 193 nations), Doctors Without Borders/Médecins sans Frontières (established in 1971, now operating in 70 countries).  Similarly, various treaties have attempted to limit the weaponry used in warfare, having some impact on the devastation, though ignored by combatant nations and groups from time to time. 

I’m by now somewhat geriatric to be marching in peace demonstrations, so I do what I can from the sidelines. I make donations. I write letters to media outlets and public officials. I blog. I try to make some sense of what is going on. I try to maintain my own mental health. In this effort, it helps me greatly that I still have access to a non-lethal space outdoors. I can take walks. I can garden. I can marvel at the changing seasons, yes, even in southern California. 

Even when indoors, I can listen to music. Recently I did an online search  for beautiful music from Ukraine, and found a YouTube selection I liked a lot. If the English translation of “A Moonlight Night” is accurate, its lyrics fall somewhere between a lullaby and a seduction song. Not that it’s likely to happen, but I wonder what would occur if, instead of the thumping cadences of planes and bombs, wars were required to be conducted in waltz time?   

 

Diaspora

Horrified, we watch the bombs fall,
The buildings crumble. Another
Round of refugees flees
Across artificial borders,
Seeking some sort of
Sanctuary.

Observers or participants, we carry
Revulsion as baggage. Perhaps,
We feel an aggrieved resignation.
Fear, loathing–why such destruction
Mischaracterized as conquest,
Again?

So many have fled our birthplaces,
Impacted by overt violence,
Or, having survived more subtle
Pressures, hunting for better
Lives elsewhere.

Wherever our homeland,
Whatever our current location,
Our wanderings began at birth–
Expelled or pulled from the womb
Once it became confining and
Uncomfortable.

We’re all part of a human diaspora,
Pilgrims, seekers, strangers, yet
Inescapably kin.

Sooner or later, whether
By war, accident, injury,
Illness, or old age,
Our diasporas
Will coalesce.

Each of us will return to earth.
We’ll be subsumed to oneness,
All of us once more at
Home.

My Granny’s Knitting

Until I was eleven years old, I lived with my parents in a family compound, with my maternal grandparents next door. Until age four, I was an only child. Then, during the post-World-War-II baby boom, my three siblings were born over the course of twenty months. While my mom and dad were busiest—mom caring for my younger sister and twin brothers, dad building a fledgeling small business, both of them scrimping and saving up for a larger house—there were several years in the mid-1950’s when “Granny” became my frequent caregiver. 

Granny taught me piano, encouraging me to practice daily on the tuned used upright at her house—as our family grew to four children, our small cottage threatened to burst at the seams and had no room for a piano. Granny also taught me to knit. I noticed that on social occasions, Granny often proudly wore a Red Cross lapel pin that identified her as a World War II “knit your bit” volunteer. She and others like her had knit warm sweaters, hats, and socks for Allied soldiers, both those at the front and the wounded in hospitals. 

During the years when she was teaching me knitting basics, Granny was still knitting warm socks and caps for the Red Cross, probably to be shipped to World War II refugees in Europe. As the 1950’s gave way to the 1960’s, the need for Granny’s knitting diminished. Arthritis eventually put an end to her handicraft efforts. I don’t know what happened to Granny’s lapel pin, but recent events have got me to thinking about her knitting again. 

The February 24, 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops plus threats of nuclear escalation by Russia’s president Putin have struck a nerve for many. They remind me of a previous nuclear stand-off—the Cuban missile crisis. In the fall of 1962, as I entered high school, the U.S. and the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.), which included the current country of Russia, engaged in a tense stand-off about the deployment of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida. At the time, the U.S. had stationed nuclear missiles in Turkey, near the southern border of the U.S.S.R. Many adults around me worried about the possibility of an exchange of nuclear arms. The widespread destruction and the ongoing aftereffects of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed that nuclear weapons strikes could obliterate entire U.S. cities. They could also contaminate with long-term nuclear fallout the Maryland countryside where I lived. After a tense couple of weeks, the 1962 crisis was resolved peacefully, with the removal of missiles from both Cuba and Turkey. 

Mr. Putin’s threat to again use nuclear weapons raises the specter of human-induced annihilation. It’s also scary that the site of one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents so far, at Chernobyl, is in northern Ukraine. Escape of radioactivity from that partially hardened reactor might be an ancillary result of ongoing hostilities.  

It now makes more sense to me why Granny did her knitting, and why her Red Cross pin was so special to her. Granny was born in rural Virginia in 1879, when the area where her family lived was still struggling to rebuild after the U.S. Civil War. She lived in various parts of the U.S. before relocating to central Maryland with her husband and growing family about 1915. In April, 1917, when the U.S. entered “the Great War,” Granny was pregnant with my mom. For much of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Granny became the prime family breadwinner, heading the housekeeping department at a Baltimore luxury hotel. 

When war again broke out in Europe in 1939, Granny worried about the draft status of her only son. She followed news reports closely. I’m not sure how early in the conflict Granny began knitting for the Red Cross, but I think she produced warm wear for soldiers and then civilians for much of World War II and its aftermath.  

Last weekend I attended a local rally in support of Ukraine. It was a sunny day in San Diego. War seemed distant. Lots of attendees waved Ukrainian flags, carried bouquets of sunflowers, hoisted hand-lettered signs decrying the Russian government’s aggression, expressing hopes for a speedy end to the killing. Several speakers explained, in Ukrainian, Russian or accented English, that there was no quarrel between the peoples of the two countries, just lethal aggression instigated largely by Mr. Putin.

By now, I too am a “granny.” It’s a continuing joy to watch our two grandchildren grow toward adulthood. Soon, if all goes well, I’ll have three additional step-grandchildren and a third biological grandchild. Since this past weekend’s rally, I’ve arranged further donations to charities working with refugees fleeing the fighting. I’m intensifying my charitable efforts more locally, also reaching out to friends and acquaintances with ties to Ukraine. I’m searching for ways to be more effective in reducing the suffering caused by this senseless war. I’m recalling Granny’s knitting with a renewed sense of respect.  

On to Kyiv, and Then What?

Like many globally in this media-saturated world, I’m distressed about the ongoing invasion of Ukraine by its larger neighbor Russia. For weeks, we’ve seen reports of a buildup of Russian troops and military equipment along the borders with Ukraine. Now it seems that troops and equipment are on the move and a full-scale invasion has started. The aim, as nearly all American pundits and experts tell us, is to topple the existing Ukrainian government and to install a regime more to Russia’s liking. 

This is a scenario that has played out countless times throughout history by whatever superior military power desired to dominate its neighbor(s). The United States of America has not been immune to using such tactics, despite our protestations of “spreading democracy,” and so on. 

Problems can arise in the aftermath of a military conquest, as we’ve seen most recently and tragically in contemporary Afghanistan. Conquering and governing are two rather different domains. Once a new regime gets installed, who repairs the infrastructure that’s been damaged or destroyed during the conquest?  Who provides the basic necessities—food, clothing, shelter—to a cowed, needy, and probably sullen civilian population?  Who firms up borders and stems the outflow of brain and talent of those eager and able to leave? Who works to reduce the likelihood that resentments will fester and eventually result in further armed conflicts when the balance of military power shifts?  

I’ve never traveled in Ukraine. Prior to the current war, my main point of reference to Ukraine was the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, a now-decommissioned power plant near the Ukrainian/Russian border, about 70 miles from Kyiv. Much earlier, I was taught courses in Russian language and culture by a college professor who’d escaped from Ukraine during the final days of World War II. When “Dr. K.” taught us, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was near its height, the Cold War was raging, and the availability of non-official information about conditions in any socialist republic was severely limited. As our language facility in Russian improved, Dr. K. showed us articles from the Soviet press that glorified the Soviet state without mentioning any possible problems. 

An ancillary point of reference to things Ukrainian: I’d learned to recognize a musical piece, “The Great Gate of Kiev.” I liked the somewhat ponderous music, but didn’t make much effort to visualize an actual gate. It turns out that there was not actually a “great gate” when composer Modest Mussorgsky wrote his piece during the late 19th century. The Kiev-related piece was the final composition of a suite called “Pictures at an Exhibition” that featured an artist’s rendering of what a memorial gate might look like. It would have celebrated the survival of Tsar Alexander II after a failed 1866 assassination attempt. In much earlier times, there had been a gate, erected during the 11th century reign of Yaroslav the Wise as part of city fortifications. (Per the sources I referenced, an actual memorial gate was reconstructed in Kyiv in 1982 by a then-waning USSR.)  

The impulse to conquest seems to be part of our human heritage, from the earliest cave dweller with a bigger club, through the desolation wrought by 1940’s era fire bombings and atomic bombs, through the 1990’s Rwandan genocide conducted mostly with machetes, plus all the other “more conventional” weaponry used before and since. If we are to survive as a species, it seems to me that we need to cultivate more assiduously a countervailing impulse to nurture. The members of the military I know best and most admire are much more eager to assist after natural or man-made disasters than they are eager for combat and conquest. The ongoing disaster of our current global viral pandemic, plus the slower-moving planet-wide disaster that is climate change, can use all our ingenuity and empathy. These and other disasters call out for the greatest exercise of our nurturing sides that we can muster. 

If or when Kyiv “falls,” then what?