on female anxiety (part 1)

Women grow up in a genderized culture of isolation.  Sure, we build powerful friendships with other women, we fight together for women’s rights, and access to reproductive health, but for many of us, our relationship with “womanhood” and our bodies is often shrouded in whispers, late-night google searches, and even erasure.  We are taught to desperately hide some of the physical markers of womanhood: from the first drops of our periods to the menstrual cramping we are supposed to manage away from the other sex’s suspicion.  We teach our daughters to hide a “period kit” in their backpacks in case of an emergency.  The blood that leaves our bodies must be carefully collected and disposed of.

This closeted culture extends into our later years as reproductive health becomes a landscape of timid exchanges with medical professionals and even more fraught experiences within our own bodies.  All of this leads to an anxiety-ridden dimension to femininity that leaves women stripped of agency, autonomy and power.  Our culture demands of us: you are having a baby, and that should happen soon.

My miscarriage happened when I was twenty-nine.  I had a blighted ovum, also called an anembryonic pregnancy.  There was no embryo when we went in for my first ultrasound.  It was late at night, and the doctor seemed unwilling to tell me the news. She told me she wanted another technician to check on a more detailed machine, so I was sent to the emergency department.  I waited for two hours for the second technician to concur, “indeed there is no baby.”  My husband and I cried together, alone, and in the dark.  I had a dilation and curettage procedure a week later.  While I was told that the procedure had gone fine, I did not realize that the resident who performed the D & C had scraped my endometrium to a bloody pulp.  My uterus was scarred terribly, which caused the sides of my uterus to collapse.  I did not have my period for six months, though each month I felt the same horrible cramps of menstruation.  I could not have a period, though, because my uterus was clamped like a fist over my cervix.  After many appointments with doctors and specialists I was convinced that my body was broken.  It wasn’t until I met a reproductive endocrinologist named Abigail that I felt differently.  She used the term “cautiously optimistic,” but she also reoriented my thinking.  There was no need for dejection or humiliation.  “Our bodies are amazing, aren’t they?” she asked me during an appointment.  I didn’t quite know, fully, what she meant.

I scheduled a procedure with her in which she would identify the extent of the damage from my D & C.  I watched on an ultrasound as she pumped saline into my vagina until my uterus reinflated like a balloon.  It just took a little verve from Abigail to reinstate some love for my own body.

We do not experience miscarriage, infertility, or parenthood without anxiety.  I think it is bred from the moment we are secretly given our first sanitary pad.  (On a side note: why isn’t toilet paper also called “sanitary” paper?  They essentially go in the same place.  Because we continue to align female genitalia with the same, ancient archetypes of the Virgin Mary.  We must be clean and pure, but fertile; engorged with milk, but not blood; curvy in pregnancy, but thin when we are not.)

The markers of womanhood are meant to be discussed behind closed doors.  We feel ashamed when we tell family and friends our pregnancies have ended.  We cry, often silently, in the dark.  And this culture of shame continues even if we manage to carry a baby to term.  And then certainly into motherhood.

I remember one of my first mommy-and-me classes several months after I had my son, Henry.  We were in a baby yoga class together and the teacher was checking in with each parent about how everything was going.  Many mothers expressed tired frustration with their babies’ sleeplessness.  Others offered suggestions to help the babies sleep:  firmer mattresses, a mattress pad, a foam lining on the mattress, organic sheets, etc.  As a first-time mother, I made feverish mental notes.  Then a mother raised her hand and added, “Well, my husband is just so happy that I didn’t give up.  I’m back to my pre-baby weight, and he’s so proud of me.”  A match could have been lit over a puddle of gasoline and no one would have blinked in that room.  Mouths were agape, but no one said a word.

I think back now on that comment, and I wish I would have spoken up.  Not for myself, necessarily, although I was still thirty-pounds heavier than before I was pregnant (OBVIOUSLY!), but for my son.  I want him to know that I grew a placenta with the fat from my blood. I used my marvellous muscles to push him out.  And I fed him with my once-perky, now-saggy-from-engorgement breasts.

I wish I had given that mom, and every other parent, a gentle reminder:  women are fucking incredible–without any contextualization.  Abigail reminded me of this with a little saline water.  There’s no bar that’s set for being a woman.  We’re not supposed to be or do anything.  Whether we’re having the heaviest of periods, straddling the table at the OBGYN’s office for a Pap smear, or on our third round of IVF, we, women, are amazing.  In our most profound and beautiful messiness.

 

 

 

on spring

she wears the kind of scarf that binds her temples like a sheath,

touching and straight.

her dress is long–

to her ankles, but that doesn’t keep the draft out.

 

she feels the bind of her position

but only speaks to a softer place, under the skin,

tucked away like a coin purse–

only hers is one that can not open

 

until she can find shelter, but

not in a market, a tire dealer, or a laundromat.

she knows what is forbidden.  we all do.

she’ll have to find another place to wait.

 

 

 

 

on me, and the antidepressants

For the past two months I have been weaning myself off of Paxil, a SSRI (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor) that I take for anxiety. I started taking it four years ago when we first moved to Utah.  That’s another blog post, but I was in a b-a-d place when we arrived in Salt Lake City. So bad that one day when I was teaching a writing class down in Orem, I stopped mid-sentence and said to my students, “I have to go.”  And I walked out the door, drove to a walk in clinic, and said I need to see a doctor now, or I may die.  The Paxil matched with Wellbutrin was a remedy cocktail for me, and I gradually recovered.

Recently, I started coming across articles about people having long-term problems with Paxil.  Besides the fact that we don’t know a lot about the effects of these drugs, there are also the short-term consequences related to their safety and efficacy.  I unintentionally tested my own safety about a year ago when I accidentally forgot to refill my prescription for Paxil, and, literally, went crazy.  I’m not exaggerating.  The half-life of Paxil is very short, which I didn’t know, and the dramatic plummeting of the drug in my system left me hysterical.  I started to feel a little funny about two days after I stopped taking it.  Within five days I started to feel shortness of breath, insomnia, and agitation.  By day six I was sobbing, hallucinating, and hastening my own death.  It was terrifying. I went back on my medication, but only because Mark wrote an emergency prescription for me.  I couldn’t get in to see my primary care provider because I was fifteen minutes late to the appointment–because I’d gone crazy.  There is something deeply problematic about the fact that I was denied admittance to my appointment because of my tardiness due to insanity, but I digress.  Within hours of taking my medication, I started to return to normal.

This time, I’m coming off of it intentionally and slowly.  We just got health insurance (as in six months after arriving), so I was preparing myself to come off of Paxil, just in case I couldn’t refill it in time. We have insurance now, so I could go back, but I figured I’d see how I feel.  I’m honestly not feeling so great.  And I don’t know if, like Utah, this is environmental and situational or if I’m generally in need of anti-anxiety medication ALL the time–as in for the rest of my life.

My brain is reminding me of all the mistakes I’ve made over the past thirty-eight years, but mostly the past three.  I’m reliving “stupid” things I’ve said and done; I’m wallowing in my loneliness here in Toronto.  But, is it situational?  I don’t have a job; I don’t have a lot of time left to make new friends.  I mean, we practically just got here, and we’re about to leave again.  I’m avoiding other parents I know on the street.  Is it the loss of Paxil or is it me?  I asked this EXACT same question when I started taking it four years ago.  I felt such relief at the undercurrent of hope Paxil gave me:  all would be well.  I asked Mark, is THIS who I really am? Or am I the helpless, pathetic, depressed person?  He likes heart analogies, and he said he likes his patients to take their medications so they don’t die. Touché.

I was with my dearest friend, Ashley, last weekend, which made the re-entry into Toronto especially difficult.  I realized how much I need my people.  What else is the point, really? Ashely said to me in one of my lamentings, “Babe, no matter what you do or what you say, I’ll always love you and I’ll always be here for you.”  And I know that this woman-sister-soulmate of mine means every word that she utters. She is the one who sees me and loves me and cheers for me even when she knows all the mistakes, and stupid things I’ve said, and foot-in-mouth diseases I’ve contracted, and darkest parts of my past.  She just goes on loving me.  Because she sees the honest, earnest, real me, and I suppose I’m enough?

If I were given the keys to unlock door left and I could teach across the hall from Ashley, and my other friends from Utah or Oregon lived nearby, and we could have Thursday dinners together, and see outdoor summer concerts with linen blankets strewn across the dewy grass, and drink something sparkly at the farm table while the dogs sleep like lions under our feet, and we talk excitedly about the camping trip we are all planning, I might not need the Paxil.  But in this life, right now, I open door right, and here I am, typing inside an oversized closet, as our bank account approaches zero, and I’m supposed to pay the kids’ school lunches tomorrow, buy groceries for the weekend and snacks for Henry’s karate grading, and clean the goddamn floor.  And I’m a failure, because I should have made all kinds of better choices.  Paxil is a tempting bedfellow.

 

a small piece of a story

Five days after Jorge Luis Borges was born he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.  It was said that the Scandinavians had a tradition of honoring those born brilliant, thus Jorge was immediately whisked from his mother’s bedside in Palermo, Argentina to a transatlantic freight headed to Stockholm.  Jorge’s mother was allowed, naturally, to accompany him on the journey, although the committee members made it very clear that no one, other than security, could be on the same transport.  They explained that it would be just too dangerous.  When Petra objected that her husband and daughter should be allowed to join them, she was contested by the chairman of the Nobel organization, Erik Ekström.

Madam,  

We wish to inform you that the current list of diseases identified by the Swedish government on a preceding freight included:  cholera, dysentery, influenza, and yellow fever.  Please advise. -E.E.

The rest of the family moved to Geneva after the ceremony.  Jorge’s father, Jorge Guilhermo, had a degenerative eye condition, and he needed to live near the Swiss ophthalmologist, Dr. Hans Landholt.  Dr. Landholt’s recent paper on Bietti’s Crystalline Dystrophy had rocketed him into Guilhermo’s speeding orbit of medical literature.  His wife, Petra, read the articles to him, and when she reached Dr. Landholt’s final paragraph on the degenerative prognosis, Guilhermo shrieked, “Mi hijo, my dio!” because if it weren’t for Jorges, they never would have been in Europe in the first place.

Norah and Jorges, el caudillo y el tortuga, their parents called them, played among the mazes and corridors in the old city while their father went in weekly for his treatments.  Temporarily halted by a monument or a courtyard-cum-cul-du-sac, the brother and sister played their winding, sometimes re-winding, street games like monkeys in a tree–stopping only to recalibrate distance, speed or approach.  They would be wet with perspiration when they returned to their father on the steps of Hôpitaux universitaires de Genève.  He said nothing to them for the oil-soaked cloth that greased his eyelids spoke the necessity of obedience into their slowing hearts.  By this time of day the street lamps glowed like orbuculum, and they all felt the urgency of their twenty-four kilometre journey home.  The brother and sister guided their father to the brown-leather, front seat of the green Turicum.  As they found their positions, Guilhermo started the car and placed his large shoes squarely on each pedal.  Jorges leaned over to adjust the gears, while Norah, standing over her father,  reached to hold the wheel with both hands.  It was an uneventful drive, despite the rugged terrain and the gaping stares of other drivers, though Guilhermo often sat in the car for minutes after they’d parked at the house,  blotting his slick brow and wiping the spittle from the corners of his mouth.

By evening the children were eating puchero and laughing as they watched a goosander swim with her chicks on her back across a small pond.  The house was in Geneva proper, but shared commonalities with the Swiss countryside.  Their land swept to the north from the edge of the pebbled driveway where the children played, and from their supper spot they could view not only the pond, but also the rush of larch and pine that ran down the glacial valleys to the meadows of Alpine Asters.

 

. . . . . . . . (to be continued)

on rhetoric

My head is spinning. Mary Oliver died. I finally watched the Gillette ad and its bizarre controversy.  I read more about the kidnapping of orphaned Jayme Closs.

I felt exhausted after my day spent catching up.  The stories and briefings were shocking, and sad, and strange, and I realized it wasn’t just the content that had me so upset.  It was the writing, too.  Among the many articles I read I was nonplussed by the ease with which authors made clumsy assumptions–about facts, audience, background, even truth.  It seems that there is a burgeoning, perhaps ongoing, mal au regard that many authors have for rhetoric.

Aristotle believed Rhetoric was among the highest virtues.  Through intense study and practice, Aristotle argued, one could come closer to attaining enlightenment or knowing God.  Though my beliefs don’t directly align with Aristotle’s, I do believe that one purpose of this life thing is to seek Truth.

I teach my students that rhetoric is the art of persuasion.  We often think about legal documents or position papers as more classically persuasive, but truly everything with which we engage (as an audience) is rhetorical.  Aristotle defined Rhetoric according to three parts:  logos (wisdom), ethos (credibility), and pathos (emotions or psychology of audience).  In Aristotle’s time, if a persuasive document or speech lacked the critical components of Rhetoric it was relegated to sophistry or manipulation.  One might imagine an article written in the New York Post as lacking logos and ethos, but nailing pathos (hey, who doesn’t love a good horoscope?).  And, what is our general opinion of the NY Post?  It’s great, in a splashy and untrustworthy sort of way. Catch my drift? Likewise, a published writer who makes grammatical errors loses the ethos piece.  A scholarly article that does not have peer-reviewed sources lacks logos.  Most of the time these missteps are unintentional, but nevertheless they cause the audience to question the writer’s credibility.  We are therefore not persuaded.  The writer must dig deeper, investigate further, and edit more carefully to persuade successfully; wherein, we reach truth.

The problem I find today is that so much of our information comes from sophists.  I watched a clip from Facebook that briefly discussed the responses to the Gillette ad.  It struck me as a particularly powerful example of how we, the audience, are perpetually exposed to lazy rhetoric.  One of the hosts said that women nowadays lack an effective leader to move them away from “constantly identifying as victims.” I could draw with a marker on my whiteboard all the enormous holes, assumptions, and generalizations in this argument–not to mention the fact that an issue this big is always exponentially more nuanced.

Another key part of Rhetoric involves defining one’s terms.  This is critical if your audience is not only going to listen, but also get on board.  In the clip there were so many hugely loaded terms like “feminism.”  There has to be a spoken or unspoken agreement between speaker and audience that we’re all talking about the same thing.  I know this example is a little touchy, but imagine how Donald Trump and Gloria Steinem might define feminism differently.

A female host remarked how the media perpetuates concepts like “micro-aggressions” or “male privilege,” which she believes further victimize women and ultimately immobilize them.  She continued, “These words show women as weak when they’re trying to be on an even playing field.  Men are constantly worried they’re going to offend someone, or worse, be accused of unintentional, sexual harassment.”  Sigh.

While I love the sentiment behind the Gillette ad, the men in it did ALL of the talking.  Women are still silent, except for the one, female anchor who reports on the #metoo movement.  The ad really was meant to support women, but the micro-aggressive part is that the men in it are still not listening.

The thing is it’s difficult to discern truth.  It takes uprooting a lot of personal, cultural, and sub- or unconscious baggage.  You not only have to do the unpacking, but also the rebuilding once all the pieces are disassembled.  I truly believe this is where Rhetoric can help us.  We can reclaim the importance of investigation, peer-review, etc., but most importantly, listening.

We hear or watch ONE advertisement on social media, and suddenly it becomes the axis on which our rhetoric spins.  Fast information is a relatively new phenomenon, and one that I hope someday leads to a reexamination of what we mean by truth.  For now, we need to slow down, as best we can.

Tomorrow I will venture far from the internet.  I will head to the library.

 

on Canada

I have no long-term status in Canada.  I have a visitor’s visa, which means I’m supposed to leave before the visa expires at the end of June.  I should have started a permanent residency visa, but it’s a lot of paperwork.  There are so many other things I’d rather do, but we may be staying here longer than I expected, so I should probably get started.

When Mark and I started dreaming about his first, “real” job, there often wasn’t a specific location in mind.  I’d say to people, preferably west of the Mississippi, but as the years went by (and the more specialized Mark became), I realized how few jobs would be available.  Right now, there are FOUR openings in the entire United States; there is one in Canada; and one in Sydney, Australia.  So, we may be staying in Canada, and I’m now thinking a lot about what it would be like to become a Canadian.  There are a lot of similarities between our two countries, but also some massive differences.  Namely, there are no Targets in Canada.  Ha.

The most impactful part of living in Toronto has been the hugely diverse population.  Over fifty perfect of the residents were born in other countries.  My kids’ school has students from all over the world.  My son’s three closest friends are from Iraq via Dubai, Northern India via Singapore, and Kenya.  They all speak multiple languages (except my kid), celebrate a vast range of holidays and customs, and bring incredible experiences and knowledge to their classroom.  Concomitant with their rich cultural backgrounds is the fact these kids are totally Canadian.  And this is what makes this place so remarkable.  In the United States there has become an increasing  prejudicial divide between birthright citizens and immigrants.  It makes me sick to think about Trump’s wall, the Syrians who are/were banned from the US, the children and families in detentions, the worsening racism and bigotry.  Here, everyone is an immigrant and celebrated as such–other than the First Nation peoples who are respected and acknowledged at every public event.*  I’ve never lived anywhere in which all residents truly belong.

Canadians pay roughly what Americans do in taxes, but with the high tax rate and a low defense budget in Canada, most of the money goes right back to the people, which means excellent public schools (including colleges), well-maintained infrastructure, universal health care, subsidized housing, etc.  My takeaway in this arena is that Canadian tax money goes in a different direction than most American taxes.  In Canada there is an emphasis on birth rights, or human rights.  In other words, there is a specific language that defines our access to rights in the United States. For example, the hyphen between one’s culture or heritage and America often separates individuals from access to healthcare, education, or housing.  This is problematic as the hyphen is meant to connect two disparate terms, but seems to only emphasize a divide.  Conversely, there is no such thing as Syrian-Canadian, African-Canadian, or Mexican-Canadian.  The hyphen is replaced with dignity.

It feels different in Canada.  Stores are different, but in the same way CVS and Duane Reade differ; the produce is a little older/staler from being transported so far; it’s less self-aggrandizing, but no less patriotic; Toronto is transient, but the suburbs seem rooted; and the people are noticeably happier.  This could just be my perception, but among the bustling subway lines and streetcars are people who look each other in the eye when they pass one another.  I experienced this recently when my daughter was having a temper tantrum after leaving the Royal Ontario Museum (a favorite of ours).  A woman got off the bus alongside us, looked at me and grinned.  She asked if I needed help.  Grace was about twenty yards behind me stomping her feet.  I smiled and said, “No, thank you, but thanks for asking.”  The woman laughed and said, “I’ve been there!”  In Toronto, so many of us were born far away, but we’ve all “been there,” and that common ground is beginning to make Canada feel like home.

 

 

*A public statement addressing First Nations peoples is recited at the beginning of  sporting events, the ballet, theatre, school performances etc. The statements differ depending on the province and region, but the acknowledgement is along the lines of:  “We [I] would like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is the traditional territory of the Wendat, the Anishnaabeg, Haudenosaunee, Métis, and the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. Each day we greet and honour the original inhabitants of the land.”