the way back

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As I got into bed last night around 2:30am, I told my husband that I felt like I had fallen through a hole in time and landed in an alternate reality. Like the dystopian fiction my father introduced me to when I was my tween daughter’s age: Huxley, Orwell, Bradbury, Camus. As if real life were still moving forward somewhere in the place I had fallen from, and I just wanted more than anything to find my way back there.

I lay awake for a while, knowing sleep was going to be elusive even though I was physically, mentally and emotionally sucked dry. I thought of all the people celebrating the 2016 election while I was lying in shock, the depth of sadness I feel today only barely registering. I practiced the words I would tell my daughter in the morning, when she woke up and realized that we hadn’t woken her up from sleep to hear the victory speech of the first woman president.

I don’t believe people are inherently bad, but I do believe that when we act from a place of scarcity rather than abundance, of fear instead of trust, of individualism over connection and collaboration, that we can do incredible harm and create rifts that can take generations to heal. I don’t want to be a part of that.

I woke up this morning and recognized a familiar feeling. It’s hard to describe, but it reminded me of the day over eight years ago when I woke up from a dark and brief sleep and realized that I had – the night before – said goodbye to my baby daughter Tikva as she breathed her final breaths. In that remembering, I felt a combination of shock, bewilderment, disbelief, the beginnings of a grief that I would (will) never quite completely shake, and this question:

How will I ever reconnect with hope?

There is one difference between that morning in 2008 and this one today. I have the gift of hindsight, the gifts of my experience, and the big picture of all I have gained since then. I know how I found my way back to hope.

It was a dark time, and for days, weeks, months, and even years I felt it all – anger, sorrow, fear, regret, doubt, hopelessness, aloneness, grief. So much grief. I cried and I wrote and I cried and I wrote and I questioned every single moment of my daughter’s short life and I screamed WHY at the universe, which had no answers for me.

And then, as I did all those things, I began the long, slow work of healing. And I did it, without realizing at the time, like this:

I connected. I met other parents who had lost their babies. It was painful and terrifying because all of a sudden there were a million ways babies can die, and I became aware of how often it happens and how many cracked hearts there are in the world. But those parents – they saved me. We saved each other. Connection saved us. It saves us every day.

I wrote. I wrote as if my life depended on it. I shared my experience for my own survival. I shared in others’ experiences as a witness, as a friend on the most difficult road. I put aside shame and self-consciousness and fear of not being good enough and I spoke openly about my experience. And I heard from others that they understood, that they felt understood. And I was able to turn some of my pain into a love that I could share with others.

I owned my story. I took responsibility for it, recognizing it as the greatest gift my daughter had given me. I started to practice radical self-love, forgiving myself for the ways I thought my body had let her down. I told my story in a new way – as a story of the mighty power of unconditional love. As a story of resilience. Even as a story of hope.

I reached way beyond my comfort zone. I sat with the discomfort until its edges softened and ease sneaked in. I trusted that I could contribute to the collective healing even as I was struggling to heal myself.

I became relentlessly determined to be a light in the world. Because I have held both life and death in my arms, and I don’t take anything for granted. Because on my daughter’s headstone are the words, “Love is all you need.” Because I know that I came here in this lifetime simply to love and to connect.

This morning I said to my husband, “I really need to read something today that is going to give me guidance on how to move forward. How to regain hope in order to dissolve the fear and sadness I feel.” I held my children tight before sending them off into a world that feels changed from how it felt yesterday. I went on Facebook and found comfort there, in community. I cried. I listened to Paul sing Let It Be and Hey Jude. I cried some more.

I don’t know that I’m going to find that single piece that will tell me what to do because I think the knowledge of how to move forward is going to come out of each one of us – together. But I am determined to find my way back to hope, so I promise you this:

I will connect.

I will write.

I will be responsible for the story I choose to tell and the words that I use.

I will dare to do uncomfortable things and put myself in uncomfortable places in order to bring about justice for all people.

And I will remain relentlessly determined to be a light in the world.

Will you join me?

on fear and courage

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I went ziplining with my daughter and a small group of women and one man a few weeks ago. My daughter was the only one I knew well in the group, but there is something about cruising 210 feet above the ground in 30 seconds, between two trees that stand a quarter mile apart from each other, that brings people together.

I was absolutely terrified but I knew I had no choice but to try it. I’m not much of a fear of missing out kind of person, for me it was more of a fear of disappointing myself, a fear of regret kind of thing. I knew that if I had the opportunity and didn’t take it, I would be letting myself down.

I told myself that I had already done something much more terrifying: I had jumped out of a plane on a tandem skydive for my 25th birthday, an unforgettable experience. How much more frightening could ziplining be? But then I told myself that I was almost 20 years older now, a wife, a mother, more personally aware of things like pain and suffering and loss… and death. I’ve noticed something about inhibition as I’ve gotten older: Certain things are more scary now than they were when I was in my twenties, while others feel so much more surmountable.

There was nothing logical about my fear. I knew that if anyone had died or been seriously injured on that zipline, the place would no longer be in business. I knew I wouldn’t fall. I knew I wouldn’t crash into a tree or fall off a platform. I knew that the worst thing that could happen was that I would spin around, go too slow and have to drag myself in at the end – basically that I wouldn’t get to go fast enough to have the most fun possible. Our guides were phenomenal and professional, I knew I truly had nothing to fear.

But I could still feel my heart thumping, fast and hard and loud. I still couldn’t believe what I was about to do.

My 11-year-old daughter was 100% totally and completely unafraid. She knew there was no real risk, so why waste a second being scared? She was excited and confident and I did my best to follow her lead. The other people my age and I were not surprised; we talked about how invincible you feel when you’re a kid – of course she was undaunted and brave. That’s also her personality – she came into this world with things to do and she has never looked back.

I asked myself when that changes, when fear enters in and why. I told our guides I would need to be one of the first to try the first zipline in our group of nine because I knew that watching eight people go ahead of me would give me too much time for further freak-out. My daughter said she would go first, and I would go second.

There were seven zips, and there was the option to stop after three. The fourth and fifth were the longest – the quarter-mile ones that last for 30 long seconds, provide the most beautiful views and are the most exciting. I knew I had no choice but to do all seven. Not because of any pressure from my daughter, but again… that fear of regret thing. And the determination that I could turn my fear into one of those surmountable things.

I was shaking and about to cry after the first short zip. I knew that my response was purely physical, it felt beyond reason and out of my control. I wondered what had just happened in my body chemistry as I experienced fear, and as I overcame that fear enough to do something absolutely frightening. What was going on inside my body that caused my hands to shake and brought the tears I did everything in my power to breathe through – all of these physical feelings I was having after having successfully crossed the first line and reached the second platform? Why was I clinging for my life to that tree trunk, afraid beyond logic of being so high up while I could see, not six inches from my face, the harness that would keep me from falling?

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I shook a little less after the second zip across, and by the third I was no longer shaking and I no longer felt like crying. Then I found myself staring down the fourth zip – the longest, highest, fastest one. The one where the opposite platform – my destination – was so far away that I couldn’t see it nor the guide who would be waiting there for me. We were told to look to our left at the incredible view of the Smoky Mountains as we zipped across, that it was breathtaking.

My heart raced, and I surrendered to trust, lifted my feet and told the guide on my platform that I was ready and she could let me go. My body felt rigid but I was determined to stay straight and move gracefully across. I could hear myself breathing as if I were laboring to birth one of my children – rhythmic breathing, consistent, loud and determined. I did look to my left and I did see the view, quickly, afraid that if I turned my head too much I would start to spin. It was breathtaking. And then I was on the other side. And I almost cried, but not from fear. From elation, from relief, from pride in myself.

I zipped back across that same distance on the fifth run. By then I felt like the fear was no longer a part of my experience, a thing I had surmounted. The sixth and seventh zips were short and easy and I even let go completely of my hands and let myself spin and play. The final tree’s platform sat way high up and the tree was small and swayed in the wind as it held us – 8 women, 1 man and 2 guides. I can’t say I felt stable until I was back on solid ground, but by then on that final platform, I knew completely that I was safe.

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I’m not sure exactly when, but sometime in the last few years I’ve become increasingly aware of the finite nature of the years I have ahead of me. That is assuming, of course, that nothing unexpected happens and I get to follow in the footsteps of my paternal family and live an abundantly long life that takes me almost to 100. Ninety-something is a lot of years, and yet it feels like not enough as I find myself about halfway there. I have moments of panic where I think, How did I get to my forties already? Have I done enough already? Have I wasted time I can never get back? My usual response to calm myself down is to think of all the things I have done – the big things – and tell my story in a different way: My, how full and abundant the last 44 years have been! Look at me. I am so incredibly lucky.

Still, I feel closer to aging now than I ever have. My father struggles with a degenerative disease and I can’t help but wonder how long I have left when I can still call him on the phone. I think about my beloved great aunt who died two years ago at almost 96, how even though she lived overseas I could always call her and hear her voice, and how even though I can’t anymore it still feels like she is close. My parents’ generation has now become the grandparents, and my generation – we are the grownups. We are the ones holding the challenges our parents once held – the aging parents, the mortgages, life insurance policies, illnesses. We are the ones becoming aware of our fragility, of our finiteness.

I ask myself if it’s death I am afraid of. I’m not sure. When I was a child, maybe around my daughter’s age, I was sometimes afraid of going to sleep, fearful that I wouldn’t wake up. I’m not sure where that fear came from and I don’t remember ever speaking to my parents about it. I was a bit of an insomniac then, and I would stay up very late, the last one in the house to go to sleep. I would lay thinking and sometimes I would worry, and eventually sleep would take over. I felt relief in the mornings when my parents would wake me up and I was still very much alive.

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I heard a story once about a very old woman who was on her deathbed. Someone was interviewing her for a magazine article and they asked if she was afraid of dying. She had a smile on her face and a sense of peace in her entire being, and she responded that she wasn’t afraid at all because she would at last be reunited with her baby. She had lost a child over 65 years before, at birth, and decades later she still waited to see her again.

Tomorrow will be seven years since I held my daughter Tikva as she breathed her final breaths. She feels closest to me in the most full and courageous moments of my life – which are sometimes also some of the most challenging moments. It’s as if she is saying to me, Yes! This is how to live your life deeply. I could feel her spirit whirling high up in those trees I zipped through. I knew very soon after she died that the grief I had to work through was for me, not for her – that she didn’t need me to spend the rest of my days sad and bitter because she was gone. I knew that I would honor her life most powerfully by living my life well. By truly living.

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I consider myself an emotionally courageous person. The hardest parts of life don’t scare me, and I have been through my share. I am an easy crier, tears don’t scare or worry me, my own or others. I worry more when I’m going through something difficult and I can’t seem to cry, because it usually means I’m stuffing something down that will eventually catch up with me. (And it always does).

In seventh grade peer counseling class, I learned about active listening, and I found a language for something that already came easily to me. I know now that I was learning then about the power of compassion, about unconditional love. I learned early that connection is what I live for, that friendships feed my soul. I don’t shy away when those around me are going through something challenging. I can sit with emotional pain, with loss, grief, sorrow and anger – others’ and my own. In this space, I am unafraid.

But I have always felt much braver emotionally than I am physically. At least that’s what I came to believe. Maybe that’s just the story I’ve been telling myself and it’s actually just that – a story, one that isn’t really true.

I used to say that I can handle any amount of emotional pain, it’s the physical pain I can’t do. But then I gave birth. And I had shingles. And I’ve struggled with an autoimmune condition that at times has been incredibly painful. And I’m still here, a little scarred, a little cracked, but very much intact. Still courageous. Perhaps more courageous now than before. Definitely much more aware of the preciousness of life.

I used to say that I my strength is in my heart, in my mind, not in my body. But it takes great strength, great courage, great faith and fearlessness to live with a chronic illness – and to live well. And I think of all the physical things I have tried at different times in my life: Skydiving. Ziplining. Boxing lessons where I sweat more than I ever had before, and which made me feel like a total badass. Dance classes where I had so much fun even while getting tangled in my feet. Rock climbing at the climbing gym and feeling mighty and high (and totally badass) as I looked way down to the floor. Lifting weights with my husband when he was a personal trainer, spotting him on weights twice as heavy as those I lifted myself. In perfect form on the pilates reformer, unleashing the strength in my core. That moment when I had done yoga long enough that even the most challenging poses came with ease. And even those six months I spent trying out running before I acknowledged that it wasn’t for me.

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where fear originates, and also what creates fearlessness. I’ve been thinking about the true meaning of courage and all the ways every single one of us is courageous. I’ve been thinking about aging and death, and what it is that scares me when I remember, Holy shit, I’m 44?! I’ve been thinking about how fragile we all are, and how mighty we are at the same time.

I don’t think they are exactly opposites, but perhaps fear and courage are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps they need each other, cannot exist without each other. Perhaps it is fear that inspires courage, and I needed the fear to push me off that platform and across those trees.

It’s been a strange summer, one in which I have spent a good deal of time extremely aware of the fragility of life. The days I sat at my father’s bedside last month reminded me of the days I spent in the NICU sitting with Tikva seven summers ago, as she struggled to breathe and even on those days when she breathed a little more easily. I remembered the fear I felt in those moments when doctors and nurses would rush to her bedside in response to a code pink, and also the grace I felt knowing that she was held – I was held – by something so much bigger.

I held the image of the red tail hawk so tightly throughout Tikva’s short life, and seven years ago tomorrow I released it as her spirit was finally able to soar. When I went skydiving almost 20 years ago, what I loved most were the moments before the parachute opened up, the moments that were the closest thing to soaring I have ever experienced, when I was literally floating on the wind.

I tapped in just a little to that feeling as I zipped across the trees two weeks ago. Even in those moments of fear and courage, I knew I was held. And like my Tikva and the red tail hawk, I knew that it was up to me to play.

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all the things that are out of my hands

When I was a child in France, the remedy for all minor scrapes and cuts was mercurochrome. The liquid, applied with a little brush like on a nail polish bottle, would leave my knee or finger candy apple red with a golden metallic sheen, and it would stop the bleeding almost immediately. It was in the medicine cabinet of every home and you could usually see mercurochrome red spots on the bodies of at least a few kids at school each day. Mercurochrome is no longer sold in the U.S., France or Germany because it contains mercury (thus the name). I didn’t know this until recently, when I looked it up to see why I’d never encountered it in the 11 years I have been a parent.

Mercury? Really? I was an active kid and I got a lot of scrapes. I vividly remember watching the bleeding stop as the mercurochrome dried on my knee. That’s at least seven years (possibly longer, as I’m pretty sure a bottle of mercurochrome made its way with the rest of our belongings when we moved from France to the U.S.) of mercury regularly making its way into my bloodstream through open cuts. Great.

I’ve never had a desire to have my levels of heavy metals measured. To be honest, I’m pretty sure I’m walking around with heavy metals in my body just as most of us are. Lead from the old paint in that gorgeous Victorian I lived in during my mid-twenties, and the gasoline in cars when I was little; mercury from mercurochrome and dental fillings and tuna salad and sushi and probably some of the vaccines from when I was little and they hadn’t changed the formula yet to avoid thimerosal. I can only imagine what the process is to eliminate these metals from our bodies – if that is even entirely possible (I’m dubious). I got my share of cavities when I was younger and those mercury fillings hung out in my molars for decades, until I had them replaced with white fillings as they began to wear and crack during my thirties. I know that’s not a benign procedure, that dentists can only do their best to keep that mercury from getting into your system as it is being removed with a drill.

Every time I take my daughter in for a cleaning, the dentist brings up coating her very back molars with a plastic resin to prevent cavities. And each time I let him know I’m not interested – that I don’t like the thought of her slowly absorbing the chemicals in plastic without knowing the possible effects. Since it’s a relatively new thing in children’s oral hygiene, they don’t yet know what they now know about mercury fillings. So I remind my daughter to spend a few extra moments on those back teeth each time she brushes.

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When we moved to the Midwest from California in 2009, I met the head of neonatology of a major children’s hospital. We sat in his office for over an hour and I told him about Tikva, how she had been diagnosed with a congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH) in utero and lived for two months after she was born. CDH is less rare than many other congenital conditions, but it is less researched than it could be because few babies survive, and those that do are often too fragile to have their bodies poked and prodded any more than they need to be to support them. As I sat with the neonatologist, he told me about CDH research they were participating in with a university in Australia. The research was being done on sheep, and diaphragmatic hernia in fetuses was induced by injecting a concentrated amount of a regularly used herbicide into the amniotic fluid while the sheep were in utero.

An herbicide. A chemical that is toxic to plants and is used in gardens to destroy unwanted vegetation. Injected into the amniotic sac of a fetal sheep, it quickly induces the forming diaphragm not to form correctly, completely or at all. 

Shortly after I met the neonatologist, my husband was bemoaning the growing amount of crab grass on our front and back lawns. He wanted to spray it with some kind of weed killer and replace the crab grass with new healthy grass seed. I listened to him complain about that crab grass for the entire four years we lived in that house, but I wouldn’t let him spray. Instead, my head spun with thoughts about when my body could have unknowingly taken in enough herbicide chemicals to eventually cause my baby’s diaphragm not to form completely.

I had hoped to get a job at the children’s hospital during our time in the Midwest; give meaning to my daughter’s short life by putting my management skills to use on behalf of others like her and the medical staff who care for them. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t. Sometimes knowing too much is not helpful.

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So what do we do with all that information? What do we do with all those lists of things that are out there, all those things that are or might be bad for us, that can harm us? What do we do with the fears they bring up? Can there be a balance between fearing everything and making the best choices we can with all the things we know and the exponentially larger number of things we don’t know?

I have no idea what caused the hole in my daughter’s diaphragm. It wasn’t the shingles I had while pregnant, the doctors assured me, because by the time I got my first blister her diaphragm had already formed. Was my body not ready to grow a healthy child because I had struggled with an auto immune condition and taken medication for almost two years until my symptoms healed just before getting pregnant?

Shortly after Tikva died I read something in the book, Healing With Whole Foods, that really angered me. Among other prohibitions to ensure successful conception and healthy pregnancy, the book instructed: Do not conceive if either partner is weak or sick. That hit me like a brick on the back of my head, and I almost threw the book across the room. I have barely picked it up since, and this is why: I think it is completely arrogant to think that we have much control over any of it. I used to think that the reason my older daughter was born so healthy is because I did “everything right” while I was pregnant with her. But I was wrong. She is radiantly healthy because that is the constitution and the spirit she brought with her into this life. Would she have been born as healthy if I had been an IV drug user while carrying her? Doubtful. But beyond not ingesting knowingly addictive and harmful drugs while pregnant, beyond eating enough good food and drinking a lot of water and getting good rest – to take care of both my unborn baby and myself – I think the rest is just random luck. Nobody warned me about avoiding deli meats while pregnant, and I spent a good month of my first trimester eating turkey sandwiches daily. I ate soft cheeses daily for five weeks as we traveled through Turkey during the second half of my pregnancy. And she turned out completely fine. (And honestly, do women really avoid sushi in Japan when they get pregnant?)

A babylost friend I met shortly after Tikva died wrote about the random shitstorm of life, and how when our babies died we were caught right in the eye of the storm. I know, now, what an incredible random miracle it is when everything goes “right” and a baby is born healthy and easily. I know more about the thousands of ways babies can die than I wish I knew, and yet there is something freeing in that: Because I am not in control. I know that for every one danger I can try to protect my children from, there are ten I cannot even imagine or predict.

I hope more than anything that my children always remain as healthy and strong as they are now. I hope they will thrive free of illness and challenges. I hope tragedy stays far away from them and those they love, and I know that about 99% of that is not in my hands. I will continue to feed them well, good and healthy food, teaching them healthy habits that I hope they will embrace as adults. I will make sure they wear a helmet when they ride a bike. I will take them for their pediatrician and dental checkups regularly. I will sign them up for softball and soccer and (gulp) even football. I will kiss their booboos and hug them when they fall, carry bandaids in my purse at all times, bring home popsicles when they get sick. I will give them their vitamins and, if they need fillings, get the white ones. I will teach them self-care and self-love. And I will love them unconditionally.

Beyond that? I’m not so sure any of the rest is in my control. And to be honest, I find that liberating. Something about knowing I am doing my best as a mother, as a human being, and that is enough.

seventy-five percent: on nourishment and fear

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Image source: Nourish Raleigh

Do you like kale? I mean really truly love it? Kale is one of those foods that has two staunchly opposing camps – the kale camp and the anti-kale camp – I have yet to meet someone who is neutral about kale, who could take it or leave it. You either love it or you can’t stand even the thought of it. I’m in the kale camp, but not because I totally and completely adore the taste and texture of kale in my mouth, or its bitter flavor before I drench it in salt, pepper and lemon and saute it in coconut oil. What I like about it is the color and what that dark green (or purple) tells me: I am really good for you. If it’s cooked well, I can even enjoy the chewy grittiness of it. I like the sensation of literally chewing on and swallowing iron and the other nutrients that come in dark leafy greens. And I love kale chips for the salt and pepper and crunch they are vehicles for. But would I eat as much kale if it had the nutritional value of iceberg lettuce? If the experience didn’t come with a message of nourishment? I’m not so sure.

This is the thing, though. I read recently that eating raw kale is not good for you. Raw kale can inhibit the uptake of iodine needed by the thyroid gland, which can lead to hypothyroidism. And it is high in oxalic acid, which binds with minerals in the body and makes them crystalize. These crystals can damage tissues and cause inflammation. So it’s best to cook your kale before eating it.

Okay, I can do that.

But I wonder what the raw food people would say to that. What does that mean for all those amazing “massaged kale” salad recipes out there? What does it mean for the big world of green juices and smoothies? Seems like it is impossible to win if all of a sudden a leafy green vegetable, which even my children’s mainstream pediatrician promotes, is suspect. This is the thing, and the reason I’m thinking about kale at eight o’clock in the morning:

There is always going to be something out there that’s not good for us. 

There will always be a hundred different theories about whether that thing is really bad for us, good for us or benign, and another hundred theories about why. Back in the early eighties when tofu was relatively new to the American grocery scene, pre-Whole Foods when it wasn’t in every store and instead a rare ingredient found in Asian restaurants, it became the new greatest thing, the healthier option to replace meat. At the small health food store in our town, you could find soy products in a hundred forms, but no meat. It was around the advent of soy in our home that the fried steaks and breaded filets of sole my French mom was so good at cooking disappeared and were replaced by spanakopita that was made with ground tofu instead of ricotta, and whole wheat crust instead of filo dough. I actually liked it, though it was definitely not true spanakopita like my Sephardic grandmother made.

But we know now that all that soy is actually not good for you because of the way soy mimics estrogen hormones and confuses the body. The paleo camp has soy at the top of its do not eat list for this and a dozen other reasons, and the paleo diet has in its presentation and coolness factor replaced vegetarianism and veganism as the new hot health trend. In the same way that all the “healthy people” in Hollywood used to be vegetarians, now they are paleo. Please rest assured I am pointing this out for its irony, not because I believe there is any one way for all people to be healthy. I’ve done the paleo thing and I like it for the most part, but for me it’s too much meat – I’m a 3-4 times a week carnivore, not 3-4 times a day. And I actually feel better when I eat some grains on a daily basis. And I love dairy and the goat milk yogurt I make myself is one of the most nourishing things I love most in the world, filled with good, fresh probiotics. And this: I’m not convinced that just because we’ve only been eating grains and dairy as a species for 10,000 years and before that we ate just meat, vegetables and fruits, nuts and seeds for millions of years… well, I’m not convinced that 10,000 years isn’t enough time for our bodies to adjust to consuming grains and dairy. But mostly this: I am incredibly resistant to the idea that ALL OF A PARTICULAR THING IS TOTALLY AND COMPLETELY BAD FOR ME. (Except maybe a Twinkie, but there is a big difference between a fluffy yellow thing filled with white stuff of dubious origin with a half-life of a million years and a bowl of homemade yogurt.)

It makes me want to say, Prove it! Prove it for MY body. Prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt that YOUR way will bring me complete healing and consistently radiant health. Forever.

It’s hard to keep up, and I can assure you that I have tried. But not toward a blind goal of generally wanting to feel “better” or do the “right” thing, but to address an auto immune condition in my gut that has been an on-and-off challenge for 20 years. People will ask me, Oh, you’re not eating that, is it because you’re gluten free? To which I once replied, Sort of, about 90 percent of the time. I think it helps, but I’m not 100 percent sure. It’s been literally years since I’ve eaten a sandwich so I’m not sure what would happen if I did. A sandwich. Years. The food I pretty much lived on for the entire 17 years of elementary school (when I wasn’t sent to school with a slice of tofu spanakopita), middle school and high school, and much of college – though by then I had become a vegetarian and incorporated bagels, burritos and pizza to my healthy collegiate diet.

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At some point early in our marriage, probably around the time we had our first child, my husband and I incorporated what we call The 75% Rule. Mostly it applies to what we eat, what we clean our house with, what we clean our bodies with. It also applies to how we parent and to bigger life decisions. I think it’s a very kind and gentle approach to ourselves – guided by the idea that perfection is a trap, an endless black hole that has no end, and if we can aim for doing our best 75 percent of the time, that’s pretty great.

So it means we don’t go into debt buying the $4.00/dozen grass-fed eggs at the farmers market – because even though they are really beautiful and delicious and I wish they were in the budget, our children’s 529 college savings account takes priority. It means we make sure our meat is free of added hormones and antibiotics and splurge on the local, grass-fed stuff once in a while, and we don’t eat meat every day. It means we get some of our fruits and vegetables organic – in particular the ones that are at the top of the eat only organic list – and others non-organic, again because I prefer this to credit card debt of any kind. It means the products we clean our house with are natural, except for the bottle of bleach we keep in the cabinet for unexpected totally gross messes like the dead squirrel one of our cats dragged into the basement last week. It means we don’t spray our lawn with pesticides or chemical fertilizers but will do a non-toxic spray against mosquitoes before they return in the spring. It means we keep a frozen pizza in the freezer for babysitter nights. It means there is always chocolate in the pantry because if any camp believes chocolate is bad for me, I don’t want to know.

It means we do our best without making ourselves crazy, because I know from years of experience that making myself crazy is the #1 worst possible thing for my auto immune condition. Not to mention crazy is not good for my self-esteem or my sanity, and I value my self-esteem and sanity a great deal.

There is always going to be something out there that’s not good for us.

We can spend our lives chasing after the next great thing, the surefire solution to all of our physical ailments or challenges. We can feel constantly like we are never doing enough. And the Enough Trap is in close collaboration with the Perfection Trap in conspiring against us.

Or we can do our best, follow the good feeling that leaves room for the enjoyment of all that is out there, and remember that anything we fear – even if it’s organic, grass-fed, homemade, artisanal, all-natural – as long as we fear it, it will not nourish us. I probably would be fine if I had a sandwich like the kind I used to eat back in high school – roast beef on a French roll with tomato and mayo. I probably would love it, too. Especially with really good bread and really good roast beef and a juicy organic tomato. As long as I could let myself enjoy it fearlessly, just for the purely delicious experience of savoring something good. I’m pretty sure it would taste better than a bowl of kale.

courage and fear

I’ve learned a few things about myself in the past week since my January 26 post about my personal process around immunization was picked up by the Washington Post and printed in a shorter version as a Sunday Op-Ed.

I’ve learned that I am courageous. I don’t mean that in a boastful way, but I think we spend waste a lot of time doubting our own courage, keeping ourselves quiet. And we are often courageous in small and unexpected ways that are important to recognize. I’ve done plenty of that – keeping myself smaller than I know I can be.

I’ve learned that I have a voice and that I should use it. A sincere voice that speaks to more than my family and friends, but also to people I don’t know. Several older and wiser people in my life have told me that your forties are the best decade because you’ve released many of the insecurities of your previous decades, you know who you are, you have less tolerance for bullshit, and you’re not afraid to speak up. I accept their wisdom as permission to believe I know a few things and should make use of what I know.

I’ve learned that I am a peacemaker, that I take seriously the desire not to offend, not to condemn, not to alienate, not to preach. I’ve learned that I am sensitive to criticism. (Is there anybody out there who’s not?) I’ve learned that when your piece appears in the Washington Post and generates 557 comments (or comments to comments), it’s a good idea to stop reading those comments after about 50. I’ve learned that some people love a soapbox from which to speak preach rant and attack, and that it takes very little courage to do so from an anonymous ID in the comments section of a major newspaper. I’ve learned that fear (and prejudice) can sometimes lead people to be really nasty to each other.

A piece by David Brooks on Conflict and Ego in last Friday’s New York Times was helpful.

I’ve learned that it takes great courage to share a very personal story in such a public way; and that it’s much easier to criticize or dismiss someone’s personal journey, and to project your own fears, judgments and beliefs onto them. Reading what some of my commenters – critics and supporters – projected onto me when they read about my experience was shocking, in a way, and I had to remember that their words spoke more about them than they did about me. It took turning off the computer, putting down my phone and going outside to garden and play with my children to remind myself of who I truly am at my core. To remind myself of where my heart is. I don’t think I will ever read a personal essay in quite the same way again. We are capable of being so deeply moved by a piece that, in the best of circumstances, we connect and feel understood; and in the worst of circumstances, we manipulate what we read to simply prove our biases, prejudices and fears.

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There is so much fear around this conversation about immunizations. I won’t even point out that the fear is on “both sides” of the conversation (which I think is obvious to anyone who is reading anything about it) because I think the fact that the story is being told as “this side vs. that side” is a symptom of fear. We fear what we don’t understand, and we don’t seek to understand what we fear. It can be easier to place ourselves in contrast to the other, to see ourselves on one side while “they” are on the other side. The problem with that simple equation, though, is that there are never just two sides. If you see it as a debate, it is two-sided. But I see it as a conversation, one that we are all a part of. 

In an interview with Vox last Friday, On Immunity author Eula Biss spoke to how this conversation, the responsibility we have to protect each other, involves all of us. Even those of us who are not parents making vaccine decisions for our children. She spoke about the “complicated backstories” that lead each of us to make very personal and often complicated decisions, and how in the case of vaccines our decisions go beyond ourselves. That, right there, is what I think makes this whole discussion incredibly complicated (and fascinating) – it’s messy; like debates about abortion or circumcision, the personal becomes political. But unlike abortion and circumcision, we immunize ourselves not just for our bodies but also for others.

“We live in at least, I, live and participate in a parenting culture, an upper middle class, usually white, well-educated parenting culture, that really encourages and supports fear and fearfulness. Fear is understood as a sort of intelligence in this culture. Promoting fear in another parent or mother is seen as a kind of favor. If you don’t think somebody’s feeling afraid enough, your job is to scare them. I think the other way into empathy is to look at how scared people are, and to think about why they’re scared, and what’s happening culturally to support and encourage that fear.”

That’s Eula Biss in the Vox article. I spent most of my Monday following the Washington Post Sunday publication hyper aware of my own fears. I poured out the remaining contents of a bottle of mouthwash because its neon blue color had been haunting me, as if screaming out, “I am filled with chemicals and they are getting into your body and you don’t know what they might do!” I chewed on a piece of gum my daughter gave me, then spit it out about 3 minutes later because I worried what artificial ingredients were responsible for making a piece of chewy stuff red and cinnamon flavored. I questioned whether I had sold out my belief in all things natural, beliefs I never questioned very much until recently. I don’t question those beliefs because all of a sudden I think chemicals are better for me than natural ingredients – all the cleaning and beauty products in our home (except for the blue mouthwash) are still free of that long list of offensive ingredients you see everywhere these days. But I take medication daily and weekly for my auto-immune condition; I have to prioritize what is most important in terms of organic and grass-fed when I buy groceries because I don’t make $1 million a year; I drive a 12 year old car that isn’t electric or hybrid; and I’m not going to keep my kids from eating pizza and cake at a birthday party because the cheese contains hormones and the frosting is made of partially hydrogenated oils.

I think we do what we can to make the best decisions possible – decisions that have to feel right not just in our heads but also in our hearts. We make choices based on what we know in one moment, and cannot blame ourselves later for what we didn’t know then that we do now. Sometimes our decisions change, and to me that is a good thing. One of those same elders in my life once told me when I was in my late twenties, “Consistency is overrated.” There is no medal given to the person who succeeds in holding the same beliefs their entire life. We are here to grow. Our thoughts and understandings evolve, and sometimes we surprise ourselves with where we arrive. And then when we think we’re done because we have arrived, we continue to change.

That takes courage, and courage is defined as “a quality of spirit that enables you to face danger or pain without showing fear.”

my mother, my self

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“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”    ~Anne Lamott

When I was 10 or 11 years old, my mom took me out to lunch, just the two of us, at a crunchy food court place downtown. We went often; I got beef teriyaki with green onions over rice and she got vegetable tempura or something with tofu from the Japanese place. Then we’d find a table and eat our meal.

That day, as we waited for our food, I saw another mother out with her grown son. He was probably about 20 and he had no hair. His eyes looked sad, maybe tired, and they stared off into the middle distance. I didn’t know why he had no hair, or why his mom, who was smaller than him, held his arm and helped him walk. But I wanted to know, I sensed that there was a story there and so I watched them as they ate their lunch near us. I didn’t say anything to my own mother about it until we had left the building and were waiting to cross the street. I remember exactly where we were when I did – in front of the Woolworth’s that for a while became a Long’s and which is now long gone.

“Did you see that man with no hair who was eating with his mom? Something about him felt so sad. What do you think was wrong with him? Do you think he was sick?”

My mom became noticeably tense from my words. Her face got very serious and she grasped my hand tightly. Then she looked at me and said, “Be careful. You need to keep your energy separate from others’. Don’t take in their pain, their feelings. That energy can hurt you.” There was a very real fear in her words and in the way she spoke them. I don’t remember responding.

This is one of those moments from my childhood that I remember with such clarity that it could have been just last week that I was the age my own daughter is now. I don’t remember having a longer conversation with my mom about this, but I do remember thinking deeply about what she’d said, not just that day but for years to come. As her own story as a mother unfolded, her words began to make sense in a way I hadn’t truly understood them before.

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I’ve often thought that the story of my mother’s departure from our family just a few years later would make a great work of true-to-life fiction, but I have hesitated to write it. I remember a conversation with my husband when he was just beginning his studies to become a rabbi. We talked about how the Torah doesn’t command us to love our parents, but it does instruct us to honor and respect them. Even in the years when contact with my mother was elusive, I always had a desire to respect her need for privacy, to respect the parts of her story that were solely her own to tell (or not to tell). I still do.

But her story is also my own story. Her choices, her actions, her needs and her mistakes – they have formed me. In ways I’m not sure she really knows, my mother has shaped me – during her years of presence and her years of absence. While I am no longer the daughter whose mother left her who became such a central part of my identity during my teens and twenties – the years when I was either burying my anger and sorrow in Ben & Jerry’s or working through them in therapy – I am still and forever my mother’s daughter. So, in the words of Anne Lamott, perhaps if my mother had wanted me to write warmly about her (or not write about her at all), she should have behaved better (and not encouraged my writing since I was a child). This is probably a good time in my life to look at that story because all these years later my anger has mostly dissolved. I don’t know if warmly is the word I would use, but there is love there. Forgiveness even. A loosening of the entanglement that binds me to my mother.

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I understand now that the words my mother spoke to me that day in front of Woolworth’s were a reflection of her own fears. Even then, several years before her need for independence pulled her from our lives, I think she may have been consciously separating herself from the heaviness she felt in the world around her. The thing is, I didn’t understand then how what she was telling me to do was even possible. Not feel the sadness around me? Not feel compassion for those in pain? Not feel incredible joy when those around me felt joy? How do you do that – not feel empathy – and why would I want to?

My mother, I also understand now, is a lot like me – highly sensitive to everything around her. But we are different, too: What I feel, what I take in because I am sensitive, doesn’t scare me. I feel like it is why I am here in this life this time around. If I’m not here to connect deeply to those around me, to everything around me, then what’s the point? Is there anything more important than connection? Is there anything more juicy, more fun, more thrilling, more real?

We are permeable, emotional and connected beings, even the most reclusive, the most aloof, the most removed among us. We can’t help it and sometimes we fight like hell against it because it can be scary to connect, terrifying to truly feel each other. We might hurt each other and we might be hurt. We might also be cracked open in the most magnificent ways.

During the years just before my mother left when I was 15, she was already beginning to withdraw, to hide out. After she left, there were many years when I allowed myself to disappear into the loss of her. Who was I without her guidance, without this woman who had so often been my best friend? Was I still her daughter? Was she still my mother? Food quickly became a comfort and I ate a lot after she left; and while I got bigger as a result, in many ways I felt smaller, more invisible inside my new larger skin. (That’s another post, though, about the ways in which we see each other differently – or don’t notice each other at all – because of size, color, age.) I hid in that new body for several years, hid from the loss of my mother, from the pain she had unleashed in me, from my anger towards her. I was absent without her presence, and so I became the daughter whose mother left her. This became my new identity.

I imagine that it wasn’t always easy for my mother to be a parent, even during the years when she was a really good mom. I know it couldn’t have been easy for her to leave, to dismantle her life and build a new one, to miss all those years in the lives of her children. But something made the separation necessary. I think she needed the space to figure out who she was. And while as a mother myself it’s hard to imagine how anyone could leave her children, because I am a mother there are days when I get it. Mothering is hard work and requires both the deepest connections and the clearest boundaries. I have yet to meet a mother who has mastered this. (If you are out there and have advice to share, please let the rest of us know.)

Maybe, though, it’s less about mastery than about compassion and gentleness – mostly towards ourselves as the nurturers, and also towards our children when our very last button – you know, the REALLY BIG RED one that reads, DO NOT PUSH THIS BUTTON OR ELSE! – is about to be pushed. We’re never going to be perfect, I’m not sure there is such a thing as the perfect mother.

I am deeply entangled with my children – in good ways, in ways that stretch me, in ways that trigger me (my daughter still has to get through middle school), in ways that create space for our relationship. There are days when it’s easy to feel like I am disappearing, as if without my children I’m not entirely sure who’s left. A few weeks ago at dinner, asserting my motherly right to sit at my usual place at the table next to my toddler son on a night when my daughter wanted to sit there instead, I heard myself saying, “I exist too! I have needs too!” My husband and children held the befuddled looks on their faces for about one tenth of a second before bursting into laughter, and about two tenths of a second later I joined them. I am at my best as a mother – as a human – when I can remember not to take myself too seriously.

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While it has loosened over the years, my mother and I are still deeply entangled. It’s been more than two decades that my voice has sounded like hers. My cheeks are hers, especially when I smile. I have her big eyes that smile along with my mouth. My hands look like her hands, especially as they age. We have had the same laugh for a very long time. I am a good mother like she was during those early years, and since some of the pain of her abandonment has dissolved, I can let myself connect with those times. I am sometimes prone to worrying like I remember her worrying, like I am sure she still does. But I am conscious that her fears are not my own, and I know how to assuage my own fears when they show up. I am no longer the daughter whose mother left her, but her leaving is forever a part of my story.

And what I became afterwards… well, that is the real story.

 

 

immune, or how i made friends with my monsters

I’ve been kind of obsessively reading a book the past few weeks called On Immunity by Eula Biss. I’ve read it with a yellow highlighter in hand, marking passages that make me think, that make me go, “Mmm hmm, I’ve been there. I know that thought. I know that fear.” It didn’t take me long to realize that her writing – which is philosophical and poetic more than it is medical, in spite of her topic – was familiar. I had read and scanned and saved an article she’d written in January 2013 called Sentimental Medicine, which was published in Harper’s Magazine. It was this article that grew into her book.

When I finished the book I read an interview with the author in which she explained that she hadn’t set out to write a book or even a published essay about vaccination. She had started writing about it for herself, to sort out her own thoughts about it all. I get that, too. That’s why the book was so fascinating to me, because of my own journey around this in the last 12 years. When I was a child, I wanted to be a psychologist, and perhaps I should have listened to that call. I am fascinated by the human process, and in my personal psych lab I am my own favorite study. I read the book because I wanted to better understand my own personal journey around vaccination; because I am fascinated by the process that led me to do a 180 around the question of whether and when to vaccinate my children.

Disclaimer: I’m not writing this to preach. I’m not writing this to change anyone’s mind. My intention is not to tell anyone what to do. I’m writing only about my own journey here. And I understand how deeply personal a choice this is, even while I now understand how deeply public a choice it also is.

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When I was pregnant with my first daughter 12 years ago, whether or not we would immunize her was a hot topic. I read everything I could get my hands on at the time, talked about it with our midwives, talked about it with fellow pregnant friends. I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, and if you’ve ever lived in the Bay Area you know that there are ways of thinking that aren’t questioned in a way they would be if you left the Bay Area – which I did four years later. Especially around all things related to motherhood and children – birth, breastfeeding, vaccination, nutrition, education.

It was easy to feel inadequate amid the collective messages that circled around me at the time; in fact, it didn’t take long for me to feel like no matter how hard I tried, I was doomed to fail at being the perfect parent and raising a radiant, thriving child. The homebirth collective I was a part of held an “immunization panel” to discuss the issue, where parents could ask questions of practitioners on both sides of the “to immunize or not to immunize” question. When I remember it now, I’m not so sure the panel really did include all ends of the spectrum. But I really believed, at the time, that I had done my homework. Before our daughter was even born, I spoke with her pediatrician – who after practicing for over 35 years was no novice to children’s health – about a delayed and partial vaccine schedule for our child.

And that is what we did. For her entire first year of life, our daughter wasn’t vaccinated. I wanted her pristine immune system to have a chance to build up on its own, without being bombarded with viruses and chemicals. I breastfed her and understood that this would keep her safe. She wasn’t in daycare during that time so she wouldn’t be prone to all of those germs. Her pediatrician explained that an adult with whooping cough might just have a cough, whereas a baby with it could stop breathing, so to keep her away from anyone coughing, even at the grocery store. I could do that.

When she turned one, a magical number I’d decided was enough time for her immune system to be strong enough, I took her to get her first shot. On her immunization record, it says that shot was for HIB, which I remember her doctor said was very dangerous for a young child. A month later she got her first polio shot, and five months after that she got her first dose of DTaP, except I asked for the version that did not contain the P for whooping cough. My understanding was that she was past the point when pertussis could make her airways shut down; she couldn’t die if she got whooping cough and I was more terrified of what I’d read and heard was in that part of the vaccine and what it could do to permanently damage her body. I can’t remember anymore what terrified me so.

It took the next 9 years to get my daughter caught up on all of her immunizations. At 11 years old she still hates needles, and since I wanted her to get no more than one or two vaccines per visit, that was a lot of needles and a lot of visits and a lot of trips to frozen yogurt afterwards.

What changed? I can’t say exactly, but a few things happened. First, we moved from the Bay Area and landed abroad and then in the Midwest for several years, and the messages around us changed. While we were abroad, I got very sick with shingles and my then three year old daughter kept wanting to touch my blisters, which could give her chickenpox. I couldn’t imagine caring for a child sick with chickenpox while I myself was so miserable with fiery blisters on my chest, back and arm. So I got in a cab and rode to the other side of town to pick up what seemed like the last remaining chickenpox vaccine in the city, and then took my daughter to the American doctor to get the vaccine put into her system. He warned me that it would take two weeks to really build up her immunity and that she would need a second dose at some point to be even more effective.

The first time I felt let down by what I had believed about vaccines was when I got the shingles. I had had chickenpox as a baby, a full blown case, the kind that I had previously understood would provide me with much “stronger immunity” to shingles than the chickenpox vaccine ever could. Well, I know now that shingles doesn’t work that way – once the chickenpox virus is in your system from having had it, you are always at risk of getting shingles, a piece of the same virus that travels in your nerves, and it can come out when your immune system is compromised in some way, which mine was.

We left our life abroad abruptly and unexpectedly when we learned that our second daughter, who had been growing inside me for 21 weeks, had a serious and life-threatening birth defect. Our baby girl was born back in the Bay Area and lived for just two months. For her entire short life, she struggled to breathe. She lived attached to machines that helped her to breathe and tubes that administered medicine and fed her my breast milk. During the few weeks when we held hope that she might at some point be able to come home on oxygen, we talked to the doctors about whether they could vaccinate a child so fragile, and which vaccines were most important to protect her. We discussed the yearly RSV vaccine for children with fragile lungs and airways. We discussed the pneumococcal PCV and HIB vaccines. We discussed whether she could wait to get her Hep A and B shots.

What changes forever when you watch your very sick child fight for every breath, when you hold your child alive but attached to so many wires and tubes helping to support her, when you hold your child as she breathes her very last breaths and her spirit lets go of her fragile body? You take nothing for granted again when it comes to the health of your children. Nothing. And what matters changes completely. Forever.

I took so much for granted when I was pregnant with my first daughter. And for the first half of my pregnancy with my second daughter (which was actually my third pregnancy since I’d miscarried early the second time) I was also incredibly confident. Even with the shingles I had during that third pregnancy, a few months before the ultrasound that revealed her birth defect. I remember rebelling against using the word “defect,” instead referring to it as a birth “anomaly.” With time, I’m no longer attached in that way; they’re just words, really.

When we made our decisions about vaccines the first time, I hadn’t seen what my daughter’s pediatrician had seen in the clinics overseas where she had volunteered and in the U.S. hospitals where she had worked. I hadn’t yet spent 58 days in the NICU, praying over my child that the fluid in her lungs wouldn’t become full blown pneumonia. I hadn’t seen all of the other sick babies around her. I hadn’t yet heard from other bereaved parents about all the ways babies can die. It was all abstract. My child couldn’t die from measles. My mom had had measles and she was just fine…

After our baby died and we had moved to the Midwest, our new pediatrician was a heavy pusher of vaccination. She was not green either, she’d been practicing for over 20 years and she understood public health. She was as concerned about the community at large as she was about my daughter and her other young patients. “You can go blind from measles,” she explained. At first it irritated me, and I clung to my long-held beliefs about not wanting to bombard my robustly healthy five year old with a bunch of shots filled with preservatives, many for diseases that didn’t even exist anymore, at least not in the U.S. I didn’t want to sell my Bay Area-raised soul just because I was living in the Midwest, where so many less people seemed to question vaccination.

But something happened over time: I forgot why I had felt the way I’d felt when my daughter was born. I couldn’t explain to her doctor or to other moms why vaccines were so dangerous. In a way, my fear of immunization began to dissolve, perhaps because of all I’d seen in the NICU. Perhaps because I no longer trusted that nothing could harm my child if only I did all the right things to strengthen her immune system.

Over time, I started hearing our new pediatrician differently, trusting that she had my child’s – and all children’s – health at heart. We continued to get her caught up on her shots. My only holdout was the flu shot. I still believed that for my healthy daughter, and for our healthy family, the flu wasn’t a danger. We all took our vitamin D and fish oil and ate well and washed our hands. The viruses our daughter got about once a year, whether they were the flu or something else, meant a lot of movies while she lay on the couch drinking Gatorade and sucking on popsicles; they would strengthen her body to protect her from worse things.

Then I read Biss’s piece in Harper’s and for the first time, I understood how herd immunity works. And that is the piece that tipped the balance in how I felt. There is a line somewhere in the article – and in her book where these pieces of the article appear – where she explains that for many years it worked for some people not to be immunized because of the herd immunity provided by all those around them who are vaccinated. I was reading the article at work while I ate my lunch, and I froze. A voice in my head – my own voice from years before when my first daughter was just a baby – said, “We don’t need to vaccinate her. She’s safe even without her shots because everyone around her is vaccinated.” I actually said that, several times, to several people. Friends said the same thing to me about their unvaccinated children. We had that luxury – we could count on herd immunity to protect our unvaccinated children from illnesses.

I didn’t think about others. I didn’t think about children like my second daughter, who are too sick to be vaccinated but who need more than anyone to be protected from illness, how herd immunity protects them. I didn’t think about old people, those who could die even from the flu. I didn’t think about how herd immunity protects pregnant women and their babies. I didn’t understand then – as I was now understanding for the first time – how my vaccinating my child meant contributing to the protection of not just my community but the larger community of our entire world.

I copied the article and gave it to my husband to read. I think he was relieved. I shared it with a few friends, not because I felt the need to convert anyone to my new realization but because I needed to process what I had just understood with people I trusted. I can’t say exactly why the idea of protecting others all of a sudden hit me in a way it hadn’t before – I have always been a sensitive and empathic person – but it did. Hearing myself all those years before taking for granted that my unvaccinated child could remain protected without my having to vaccinated her… well, that got me.

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“One of the mercies of immunity produced by vaccination is that a small number of people can forgo vaccination without putting themselves or others at greatly increased risk. But the exact number of people this might be – the threshold at which herd immunity is lost and the risk of disease rises dramatically for both the vaccinated and the unvaccinated – varies depending on the disease and the vaccine and the population in question. We know the threshold, in many cases, only after we’ve exceeded it. And so this puts the conscientious objector in the precarious position of potentially contributing to an epidemic.” – On Immunity, Eula Biss

Measles is back in California. That makes me wonder if I would have trusted the herd immunity around me quite so cavalierly if this had been the scenario when I was pregnant for the first time.

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“Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag

I live with an auto immune condition that requires me to be on immunosuppressant medication. That means that I have joined the ranks of those with fragile immune systems – babies, elders, pregnant women. I am more susceptible to viruses than others. I can get more sick than others. Thankfully, this has not played out in horrible ways, and I do a lot to support my health and immunity. But it is always something I am aware of and health is not something I take for granted. This year we all got flu shots, including my strong-as-an-ox husband because his work takes him to hospitals and nursing homes and places where people are vulnerable.

My son came to us through adoption, and there is so much we don’t know about his biological family’s health history. He is almost two years old and he has had almost all of his shots according to schedule. The only one I requested delaying, because he was born early and weighed less than 4 pounds at birth, is Hep B, but he had that shot within his first year. Like my biological daughter, he is robustly healthy.

My daughter is all caught up on her shots, too, and next month at her annual physical she will get some of her boosters and one vaccine that didn’t exist when I was her age, HPV. A vaccine that can help prevent the only thing known to cause cervical cancer? To me, that one is a no-brainer. I am not naive about this. I still read everything I can get my hands on about immunizations and so many other things related to health. I read them critically and I ask a lot of questions. I read medical journals and philosophical pieces like Biss’s book, which questions the origins of our fears and mistrust about all things medical and “foreign.”

And lately, I’ve been questioning a lot of my own fears. Because I don’t have the luxury anymore of taking medicine for granted; medicine, that imperfect system, has helped me. I have an ongoing relationship with my doctor and each year I am the only one in our family who meets my health insurance out-of-pocket maximum. I recognize my need for the medical system, however much I would love to not come anywhere close to that limit each year.

Because my illness is related to my digestive system, I have spent a LOT of energy fearing what I consume. I have wished I could afford to eat only grass-fed meat, eggs, dairy, only entirely organic vegetables and fruit and grains. I have spent weeks and months trying out a paleo diet, a vegetarian diet, a grain free diet, a vegan diet. I have feared meat and I have feared soy. I have feared grains and dairy and sugar and caffeine and alcohol, even chocolate. I have feared toxins and heavy metals and chemicals and candida and leaky gut, and so many other things I can’t even remember them anymore. I have learned the hard way that detoxing and cleansing are not good for me, that they always trigger a flare of my illness.

And I have learned that this fear doesn’t serve me, that it doesn’t guide me towards healing. I am learning to nourish myself and to approach cooking and eating as an exercise in nurturing – myself and my family. As I read Biss’s book I heard myself so many times; her fears were mine, her insecurities as a mother were my own. And one more thing was mine, too: a surrender of the idea that we have any control over any of it.

We spend 9 months in a completely sterile environment, and the minute we come through the birth canal we are exposed to millions of bacteria. Google the word microbiome and you’ll understand how dependent we all are on these bacteria, which also need us to survive. And, as Biss describes, how intricately connected we are with everything that lives within and around us, including each other.

For me, that helps to take away a lot of the fear. Since I can’t protect my children or myself from EVERYTHING that is out there (and everything that is already a part of us), all I can do is my best to care for, nurture and protect our perfectly imperfect bodies.

Note: Biss refers to “how we make friends with our monsters” on page 154 of her book. This made me think about how we all carry monsters inside of us, both literally (the organisms that are a part of us and that we are a part of) and metaphorically (our fears, our insecurities), and that perhaps if we make friends with them we can see how much we need them and they need us.