Organized by method. If you don’t have something nice to say, please say nothing. That said, I appreciate everyone for reading.
The first time I was on the Pill I got pregnant. I was 19 and had been taking it two months, not really long enough to get a good routine; I missed a couple days here and there, and followed protocol for that, but then I just kind of knew one month, before my period was even due, that I was pregnant. It was like a sudden hormone shift. I can’t explain it. I took a test. I cried, I called my boyfriend, he cried. He was a philosophy major. He said maybe we could raise it; that abortion was “technically murder.” I called my big sister, who worked at a Planned Parenthood. I was a lucky girl. She came to my town to stay with me for four days. The doctors were nice, as I remember. They told me I was 4 weeks pregnant, and would have to wait till week 5, which is the earliest abortion is medically effective. I used the abortion pill, because I thought I would prefer to be at home, but no one prepared me mentally for all the cramping and nausea and heavy bleeding. It was winter and my apartment seemed really really dark. I was very down, and took a week off work. A woman manager at work was angry with me; she had had an abortion and was back at work the next day, she said. It never occurred to me to carry the baby to term. I was miles from motherhood then, and I know I did the right thing. But I wouldn’t tell my loving parents for 7 more years, out of fear.
I have tried five or six kinds of hormonal birth control—pills, rings—and all of them have made me depressed and disoriented all month long. I’m prone to depression naturally, and manage it very actively and effectively, but the pill tips the scales considerably, out of my control. I don’t use hormonal birth control anymore.
I use condoms. My boyfriend uses condoms. We use condoms. Tons of them. I haven’t gotten pregnant using condoms. I am pretty thrilled with that. I am less thrilled with the expense, that I think most free condoms smell and don’t feel natural; more expensive condoms seem shaped better. I care about that. Sex is a part of intimate partnership, and I care very much that we not be too distracted from each other during that.
I also never felt secure that the guy I loved would put up with my need for condoms—my body’s rejection of hormonal birth control—until my present relationship. Some women don’t need condoms. I always felt sexually inadequate for needing them. Now it makes me angry when guys complain about them.
Intra Uterine Device (IUD)
Because of my concerns about condoms and hormonal contraceptives, I tried an IUD. I had it for a year. The clinician told me to take two Advil before I came in for the insertion procedure. The procedure involves a metal forcep that manually dilates the cervix, which is normally the size of a pencil tip, and which nothing except a labor normally messes with, to the size of a silver dollar. I screamed during the procedure; the clinician said I had a small cervix and she was surprised she was able to insert the IUD. I only kept the IUD for a year, because I had daily cramps for that year; it’s common to have daily cramping for 6 months up to a year after that procedure. I was discouraged about starting from scratch again but unwilling to call chronic pain a normal part of fertility management.
As I understand it, withdrawal is fairly effective when done correctly, and guys seem to prefer it to condoms, but it being done correctly is almost entirely up to the guy, for hopefully obvious reasons. I don’t prefer it to condoms. Most women (me) need longer to come from intercourse than men do, and withdrawal ends that part of the sexual session whether the woman is ready or not. I achieve orgasm mostly from intercourse, so I experience withdrawal as a ticking clock situation. Besides, a guy only has to do it wrong once for it not to work. The second time I got pregnant, my boyfriend at the time had been withdrawing. I was 22. When I found out I felt like a hundred pounds of lead. When I told my boyfriend, his first response was “I got half.” He was referring to the cost. I think he felt very evolved. Once again, I did not think about carrying the baby to term. I had good parents, and I knew people without good parents, and I did not consider myself ready to be the parent my child would deserve. My mistakes should not decide a child’s life, and to let my selfish young body decide for my brain or heart when I’m ready to start a family seems like a grievous kind of foolishness. Not to mention that I was still working on my aforementioned depression; at the time I was still using a depression medication that endangers feotuses, and still learning how to manage my emotions without it, and I was simply not open for business, baby-wise. I was ashamed, however. I worried people would think I was callous, or worse. I still worry about that. I was also afraid of letting my boyfriend or friends know that I hated to be doing this. There was no room for me to be sad, to feel loss, to express frustration as a woman that I was not capable of supporting a baby. I noticed more things this time than the first: my breasts changed immediately, and the specific hormonal shift toward tenderness and protectiveness. I had a lot of feelings that I didn’t talk about, because they didn’t fit into any existing political narrative in my community. I had the inpatient procedure, 5 weeks in. I was very lucky to live in LA, where my sister also lived at the time. She helped me again. Women with sisters who love women are so so lucky, and women who live in relatively respectful parts of the country are so so lucky. Other women are not so lucky.
When I finally told my parents, my father said he had figured at the time that that had probably been going on, but that he hadn’t wanted to violate my sense of privacy about something so sensitive. My mother, who is very devoted to motherhood and would never have had an abortion, said she didn’t judge me for a moment, and that she loved me. I am incredibly lucky.
If I got pregnant today I don’t know what I would do. I feel close to ready to start a family, but I don’t like the idea of letting my body choose the timing, instead of me and my partner. We use condoms so that we can wait a few more years, but if we made a mistake I think we could probably rise to the occasion now. We might have to, because I don’t know if I’m willing to go through that again. And I’m saying “again,” but I mean “today.” If I had never ever had an abortion, I still think I might be unwilling to have one today, because I’m almost ready now. I feel almost like a mother. I didn’t then, and I stand by those decisions. Planned Parenthood is a ridiculously well-chosen name; not a euphemism, or a cover-up, but a reality. I will be an active mother. I will not be a passive mother. I will not be a child, or think like a child. Children deserve that. Society needs that. I am the only one who could know when I was ready. For me it is a question of readiness. For other women it will be a question of willingness, and I honor that too. Humans are miraculously conscious creatures. Let’s make some real decisions.
I remember being sixteen, on vacation, in the attic of a rural Maine library. I was looking through a beautiful old illustrated edition of Peter Pan and Wendy, the kind with tissue paper protecting the illustrations. I had loved Peter Pan as a kid. I used to “crow” out loud all the time, leading to a nickname my family still uses, Rooster.
I sat there rereading the early chapters, the Mrs Darling stuff: how sad she is, how there’s a secret “kiss” no one can get from her, how she’s unattainable even to her husband, because she exists first and foremost as an ideal. Woman, mother, beauty. And I read and reread this, and my breathing got short. I thought about all the rom coms I’d seen Julia Roberts play a fun yet distant, secretly sad ‘creature’ in. I thought about boys at school who seemed romantically excited by my apparent depression. I thought about how much energy and courage I’d had as a kid, before I figured out I was a girl, and before I started starving for bold, open female role models. I had been a rooster.
I started crying, and had a panic attack in front of my family, in the attic of a library, about feeling trapped, about feeling like for every step I took in a healthy direction, I had to swat away a bird-strike of shitty images and stories, out in the world and stored in my brain, about women who were the “other.” I had to abstain daily from the positive reinforcement of my peers, and then again from positive reinforcement from my usual respite, literature. I was lonely and tired.
I’ve come a really long way. I’ve found my peers, and I’ve found my stories, or some of them. But when I wrote a screenplay a couple years ago, I first wrote it with a male lead; that seemed more “relatable.” It wasn’t until a friend reading it asked why I’d done so that I realized how afraid I was, still, of alienating people by asking them to relate directly to a woman. I rewrote it.
A lot of you are writers, or women writers. Or guys who write about women, or for women, or even just read about women, as though they were human beings, to whom you could relate. When you do, you help give me a road to walk on. Thank you, friends.
I was a loud little kid. I was a quiet little kid.
Pausing before wheeling, I’m standing on the blacktop in a heavy denim coat. The other kids are flocking and scattering, kaleidoscopic, pigeons around a loaf of Wonderbread. Girls are getting chased and kissed, boys are chasing and kissing them, and I’m slowing down, buffering the realization that (a) I’m low on this food chain and (b) I have to decide quickly whether I’d rather be food or be alone. I see the girls with the longest braids trailing ribbons, slowing down to be grabbed and kissed by wind-up wooden boy soldiers, and sides are forming everywhere, like melted fat congealing in cold water. I run, far, to the edge of the playground, to the trees, and keep my distance until everybody forgets I was one of them.
The sun owns spring and summer, but it gave up fall and winter to the moon.
The moon gathers the idea of light, and hands it over as a comfort to the dark.
There is more of moon, in the best of human nature, than of sun.
Next to my driveway, there was a cherry tree with magenta flowers. I picked them in bunches. Closer to the street, a fern tree; that reminded me of dinosaur-times. There were two loose-needled pines near the front door of the house, and grass wouldn’t grow in their shade. I would sweep the hard dirt of needles and soil dust until it was bare and all but shone. That made it one of my outdoor homes, in games with the neighbor girl, Kirsten.
The branches of those pines grew out straight and horizontal. They could support your weight, especially when you weighed 80 pounds or less. It was as simple as climbing a steep staircase, to make your way up to roof height, hands sticky with half-dried sap. You did not make the mistake of de-sapping your hands by licking them, not after your first try, because the taste was like burnt sugar, soap and earthworms.
The neighbors had thievable flowers. On the right, the Grothes’ towering forsythia, which had to be torn off the shaking bush with both hands. On the left, the revolving-door house—it couldn’t seem to keep a family in it—which had a tree whose whole top mass looked like pink cotton candy in tons of little tufts. These flowers were so soft they should have been collected, and slept on. Every time a new family moved in, I became newly nervous about jumping up and down in their yard, grabbing a branch, pulling it down, and tearing off twigfulls of flowers. None of the residents ever said anything, which was good. They’d have an easier time keeping me away from a tree loaded to sagging with wrapped Christmas presents.
Daffodils behind the Mackin’s house, pussywillows by our cul de sac’s big shared mailbox. And on the way to school there was a full block of crabapple trees. The fallen fruit drew bees in solid numbers; the apples were inedible, and melted into vinegar on the sidewalk.
And everywhere, there were wildflowers, of course. Lots of weeds, skunk weed, umbrella weeds, weeds with flowers. Dandelions. Buttercups that left a yellow grease-smear on your skin if you rubbed them. Pale star-shaped flowers—not a quarter inch across, and perfect, like dollhouse miniatures of stargazer lilies. Solid and spotted violets swarmed, free from pots or gardens.
Probably best though, were the tiger lilies. In the summer the Maryland thunderstorms—we’d lost more than one tree to lightning—flooded the creek into a powerful torrent, and the banks would spring out with thousands of angry orange tiger lilies that you had to walk through the woods to get to. The woods’ near wall was at our yard’s edge, and immediately upon entering there’d be nowhere to stand. Walking through the pathless woods was stomping and tearing through. The lilies abutted the trees and then grew so thick that there was nowhere to stand while you picked them. I was still a girl’s girl, and I loved to come home with anything that could be arranged in a vase.
But with all these flowers, for me, did not come a place to roll like a happy dog or spring lovers. The flowers were themselves perilous, having untold mites and tunneling bees and tough stubborn stalks and stems. The woods began thirty feet behind my house, and they were both treacherous and potent. You might find strawberries back there but you’d definitely find wolf spiders, and you could train a tangled grove into an idyllic suite—a cave with vines and trees for walls—but the next summer you’d never recognize it. There’d be no hint that human children had exerted their wills here, nine hours a day every day for a week, unless perhaps you found plastic trinkets hung for the intention of decorating house. Somehow we had amassed a collection of a dozen or so plastic L.A. Gear sneaker tags on little chains; the tags had rhinestones on them and were pretty enough to hang from twigs, to show that this was civilization.
But like I said, we couldn’t maintain it against the floating dirt, and the rain, and the moving vines, and when we came back even the tags were underfoot, under leaves and twigs and a film of crusted dirt, as though someone had purposefully come in, undone, and redone our work—on the woods’ behalf.
Winter was odd in that way. The neighborhood kids did not organize in the same numbers to keep the woods at bay. We all had school and it got dark at four o’clock or so, and the woods were dry and scratchy then; more hostile, less balanced. The bugs were gone but so were the leaves. Sometimes after school, or on a weekend, I’d make a solo mission back to a summer haunt, find it a hot mess, and spend an hour or two neatening up as best I could. I’d head indoors feeling I’d accomplished something, cleared some clutter, reasserted some of the shapes of the space, and cleaned house in a more meaningful way than my parents did. Having done so I would agitate for my parents to come out and see, just as I would after having cleaned my bedroom unprompted, but with greater pride of authorship in the forest-room.
We—Kirsten and I—were comprehensive on our attempts to make these rooms real homes. We definitely made a toilet out of a cement mixing bucket, and tucked it to the side. We perched on fallen logs and ate leaves: oak and maple and walnut and whatever looked fresh and wasn’t poison ivy. We found the funny yard-onions that grew with the regular grass, looking like scallions, and which might even have been escapees from some garden, and we smelled them and then pierced their slender juicy white bulbs (with their tufty goatees of roots) with our fingernails until our hands smelled rancid. I would bite one once in a while, permitting the hated onion flavor to spread thin and invasive in my mouth, because it had come out of the ground, growing freely, and there was a value to that. Meanwhile, I would never have eaten real, on-purpose, garden onions, because onions were disgusting.
My dad kept a limited garden, compared to Mr. Grothe’s hand-built terraces full of flowering bushes, all purposefully landscaped. My dad grew tomatoes. And bell peppers, and a little zucchini. The strawberries we picked up at Home Depot didn’t like the dirt in the thin strip that lay alongside our house. Or maybe they didn’t like the Maryland weather, but they always ended up white, sour; snappish and tiny. Even so, birds or squirrels or mice were always at the albino berries, leaving little dirty craters.
But it was good, we were proud of all the fledgling plants and of our huge swarthy Dad, in shorts and brown shoes and garden gloves, who knelt and sweated and made food happen, in the fridge or in the dirt. I brought him 32-oz plastic cups (collectors cups from Oriole Stadium) full of ultra-iced water. The condensation on the cup helped wash the dry dirt from his hands.
* * *
I spent summer days outside, and kept the woods in line, and made things out of clay from the creek, until Kirsten got to junior high and quit playing outside. Around then I start to remember a lot more TV shows. Cartoons and Nickelodeon. Staying in, making cookies with my little sister. Summer was still fun, but the woods started to seem dirtier and dirtier; either from lack of child-maintenance, or because my tolerance declined. By now, as far as I know, it’s only the LA Gear tags out there, holding down the fort.
I can understand why Virginia Woolf would have chosen a river to sink into.
I think of Lily sitting at a dinner table surrounded by competing voices. Considering to herself the placement of a tree, in a painting no one but herself cared to create. Deciding to move the tree “rather more to the middle,” though they all were talking, and had wants of each other, and of her, and none of them knew or cared about the tree.
Hard work, to fight for a tree that only exists for you, to decide where to fix it, what spot to fix it to, while you’re surrounded by such relentless movement. Movement, voices, and the teams of teeming thoughtless, agreement rushing each other along, swirling each other forward in a faithful flood.
How to resist it all?
And stand still in the flood, or move contrary to the motion, or move rather to the middle and fix yourself there. And while they speak and plan, you’ll make plans for your tree; it is your tree.
How long can you plan alone for a tree before you need rest too badly to continue?
A fifty-years’ flood would wear out a tree, let alone a woman, even a woman of extraordinary vision! Virginia! She filled her pockets with rocks, yes? And walked into the moving water, and sank, and stayed.
I don’t approve.
I’m pained, I miss her, we need each other. I’m pained she’s gone, but I understand.
We have to speak, to hear each other. We have to make a grove, and stretch our tender roots, and stay.
The trees in the everglades share a root structure, and live inundated that way. They slow even the water with their stillness. They feel the ground together. They stay in touch, staying still like that.
My dad’s making eggs.
Me: If you cracked open one of those eggs and a baby chick fell out dead, would you start to cry?
My dad: Only after I stopped screaming.