Monthly Archives: January 2013

Abortion, Small Town Iowa, 1927

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My grandmother, Dorothy Mary Gibson Roberts, was so lucky. When her first husband became jealous, then violent, and then brought a gun into the house, she removed the bullets, hid the gun, then called her father to come pick her up in Sioux City. He drove down the very next day, nearly being run off the road when my grandmother’s husband saw them leaving.

With the clothes on her back, she went home to Whiting, Iowa, to stay with her parents while she got a divorce and figured out what to do next. Meanwhile, Will Gibson protected his daughter Dorothy from a raging, harassing ex-husband, filing divorce papers for her, and arranging for an abortion when she found out she was pregnant. My grandmother was 25 years old.

Fram, as we called her, was reeling from the consequences of her choices:

“It was one of my minor disasters. I didn’t realize you had to be in love to get married. And I was not in love with Al. I liked him a lot, but I just had no affection—I didn’t love him. I knew immediately I had made a terrible mistake.”

When I interviewed Fram extensively for my senior thesis in 1983-84, I got the story of her abortion from her bit by bit, asking another question each time we met, until I had as much of the story as she was ever going to tell. According to Fram, both the town doctors performed abortions, and they did quite a lot of them.

“It was definitely illegal at that time. It wasn’t fun; it was supposed to be a disaster, but nowadays it’s no disgrace at all. I remember going up to their office. It was at night. But I don’t remember that it hurt or anything. I don’t remember anything about it. It apparently didn’t bother me mentally. I would have done anything not to have a child, because I knew that I’d made a horrible mistake.”

The doctor who performed my grandmother’s abortion was also the doctor who delivered her and her two brothers. My grandmother was so lucky: her family was white and middle-class, owned the car dealership in town, went to Church with the doctors and their families, and were part of a small-town fabric that valued independence and privacy. She was lucky because in Whiting, Iowa in 1927, the town doctors believed that women and their families should be able to make their own health care decisions, and that women were strong, resilient, and capable of reconciling having an abortion with their relationship to God.

Watching the national coverage of the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I wonder where those doctors are now. Why is there just one abortion clinic for the entire state of North Dakota, only one in South Dakota, in Arkansas, and in Mississippi? Why don’t more Family Practice doctors and OB/GYNs offer abortion services to their patients in these states?

Really, I am the lucky one in this story. My grandmother was able to recover from her low point, work again as a pipe organist and then as a secretary in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she met my grandfather. This time, she knew she was in love.

They married and had two daughters, one of whom is my mother. And my sisters, cousins and I got to have a feisty, independent, funny, straight-talking grandmother, who in spite of the pain of recalling that time did tell me this story, so I could tell others.

Abortion is part of women’s health care services. Access to safe and legal—and affordable—abortion is the best way to insure women’s health, and the health of their families. Abortion has always been performed in this country, and will always be, no matter what some backward state legislatures decree. But not everyone will be as lucky as my grandmother was.

Poetry, Inauguration, Land

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I’ve been sitting here watching President Obama’s second inauguration today, thinking about politics and ritual, about society and culture, and how even powerful, hard-won change can still seem, and maybe is, fragile.

Our country’s story in my lifetime has so often been written by violence. And every day that big story is not about tragedy but about the peaceful transfer of power, of a participatory democracy and civil society, I feel so moved I am riveted to the scene. So be it.

8th Annual Brigid Poetry Festival

This seems like a good time to start the ball rolling for the Brigid Poetry Festival, an outpouring of verse in honor of the Goddess Brigid, Patron Saint of Ireland. Already people are starting to post on the Poetry Festival’s Facebook Page that I have been curating for the past two years. I think this year’s silent poetry reading could be even larger and more inclusive than the last.

Here are two poems about the spirits of this land and the spirit of this country. The first is part of the ancient Navajo Mountain Chant, a nine-day ceremony of healing for individuals and blessing the whole tribe. It was witnessed and translated in 1884 by Irish immigrant Washington Matthews, who had served as a surgeon in the Civil War.

Twelfth Song of the Thunder

The voice that beautifies the land!
The voice above,
The voice of the thunder
Within the dark cloud
Again and again it sounds,
The voice that beautifies the land.

The voice that beautifies the land!
The voice below,
The voice of the grasshopper
Among the plants
Again and again it sounds,
The voice that beautifies the land.

Praise Song for the Day

The poet Elizabeth Alexander wrote this for Barack Obama’s first inaugural ceremony in January, 2009. I think it deserves to be read again today. All praise is due to love.

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.