On death

All the hubbub around Planned Parenthood made me start thinking about death. Actually, remembering about death is more accurate.

Death is always present in this crazy world and many people go too soon in unexpected ways and we, the living, are left to figure out how to move on. I don’t think Americans do a really good job of dealing with the reality of death, whether it be of people or of the animals that become the food we eat. We  sanitize our meat in nice tight little hygienic packages so we don’t ever have to think about the fact that the meat was once a living breathing animal (often raised and killed in abysmal conditions.) We take dramatic measures to keep everybody alive at all costs or affect when sometimes we just need to let go. After death, we fill the bodies of our departed loved ones with chemicals and lock them in an air proof container so that they are frozen as static corpses, never returning to dust or Earth and then we ask people to move on, get over it and we are uncomfortable talking about it.

I believe in death. I believe in honoring the cycle of  life and death. To everything there is a season and death brings the opportunity to stand in our deepest connection to self and spirit and pain and loss and love. I believe in bringing an awareness of death more deeply into my daily life, to honor the small ways that death is present and to acknowledge the large ways that death is all around us. I don’t take this sweet life for granted and I tell my family I love them as we head our separate ways.

For me, dealing with death first came to me because of my political beliefs more than from an experience of pain and loss. As a young feminist,  humanist,  liberal,  activist,  I came naturally to believing in a woman’s right to choose – not just in the the case of rape or incest but anytime. No judgement, no questions asked.

So abortion became a big part of my life. I worked at two different clinics where abortions were done. I’d rather focus on prevention and access to contraception, of course. I do believe abortion should be the last resort. I was the education coordinator at a Planned Parenthood in Texas in the early 90’s and I took my bag of contraception to all kinds of people. I talked to wiggly 5th graders, rude 7th graders, tough men in halfway houses, people on the street, at fairs and festivals and I gave away thousands of free condoms.

But condoms break, people forget, methods simply fail to provide 100% coverage and pregnancy happens. So I believe in abortion. Which brings me back to death.

I kill some bugs, I pull weeds, I eat meat, I’ve had relatives and friends who have died, and I worked in abortion care. I was also a midwife. As a midwife, I stood at the doorway of life and death – most of the time new people came through the doorway into life. But I was always aware of the presence of death and a couple of my midwife sisters experienced the gateway that ended in death. Some midwives go to the other door and became end-of-life midwifes who help people transition from this life into the great beyond with the same care and attention that they used to give to new arrivals.

As part of my herbal and midwifery studies, I apprenticed for a summer with wise and wild woman Susun Weed up in Woodstock NY.  Susun had a reputation for pushing her apprentices hard – challenging them to step more deeply into their power. Word on the street was she frequently brought people to tears. As an emotional being and someone quick to tears, I went with some trepidation. Though I certainly cried over the course of the summer, I was not brought to my knees in some of the ways that my sisters were – partially because I was already a gatekeeper. Someone who had already stood at the doorway between life and death. Susun knew this about me and so she went a little easier on me.

Ostensibly I went to Susun to study herbalism. Raw, wild, connected herbalism – not nice clean bottles of capsules but herbalism steeped in myth, dirt, blood, ritual and prayers. Simple descriptions of Susun’s classes are not easy but suffice to say that one of the things I went to study with Susun was death. Specifically giving death.

Susun was, probably still is, a goat keeper. Her goats were a source of food, inspiration and teaching for us. We apprentices were responsible for herding, milking, making cheese, observing their grazing patterns to see how they used plants and, if there was a young billy on the premises, giving it death. Billies grow up to be big aggressive, stinky bucks unless castrated and, according to Susun, bring that strong goaty smell that taints the milk and cheese made on premises. So Susun practiced herd control by culling the young billies and using the act as a major teaching tool.

Susun ascribes several roles to the act of killing the young billy. There is She Who Wields the Knife, She Who Holds the Goat, She Who Stands in Support and She Who Walks in the Woods Wishing This Wasn’t Happening. I didn’t know about this before I arrived but as soon as I understood what was possible, I knew I had to be She Who Wields the Knife.

I didn’t grow up on a farm where death of an animal was a more casual affair. As a meat eater, I had never actually wrung a chicken’s neck though I watched my Danish exchange mom do it. I had never actually killed a deer though I had eaten deer my relatives had killed. So the act of giving death was important to me. If I was to continue to eat meat I knew I had to be able to kill the animal. Which also brings us back to abortion. I had been present at many abortions through the clinic and I had learned how to use homemade, safe, under ground ways of performing abortions should the laws protecting access ever fall and I had had an abortion but I had never performed one. I felt I had to learn a  more about the full spectrum of giving death in order to integrate all of my experiences.

It is no secret to the apprentices (or to the goats though I am not so sure about their grasp on human words and intent) which goats will die. They are given names and the goat my summer was Joe. One fine day close to the end of my apprenticeship it was time to usher Joe out of the land of the living and into being food for humans. We gathered in circle with Joe, we loved him up, we sang to him, we told him what was happening and when it was time, I took the very sharp knife and I slit his throat. Which was way harder than I expected. The energy field plus the hair and muscle are tough and it took all of my physical and emotional strength to make the cut. (Keep in mind, farm people and indigenous folk who live much closer to the Earth than I do, do this all the time. It’s just a matter-of-fact action. You want to eat, you kill the goat. No big deal.)

But for me it was a big deal. At this point in my life, I had not seen death up this close and personal. I had not seen a large being move from life to death, nor seen a newly dead being.

We waited until Joe’s spirit left. We supported him as he died. I saw the very clear moment when his spirit left though his life processes continued for another moment more. The natural pump cycle came to a close. And then we skinned him and we ate him and I tanned the hide and made rattles out of his hooves. Nothing was wasted and everyone who chose to eat meat was fed. She Who Walked in the Woods came back and life went on as normal. Except for me. I was changed inside. I was now a death giver. I knew I could do it again.

I also know that when you do something frequently, it becomes more matter of fact. The Turkana women in Kenya that I visited didn’t make a big deal out of preparing their meat. Neither did my Danish exchange mom – she simply wrung the chicken necks then chopped off their heads.

And now you may be wondering what this has to do with abortion. And here’s where it gets hard for people who have never worked in an abortion clinic. When you do something frequently, it becomes more matter of fact. The first time you sky dive (which I haven’t) it’s a terrifyingly big deal. For the jump instructor who’s jumped hundreds of time, not so much. Same thing with anything. The job of the jump instructor is to remember that it may be the first and only time for the participant and be present and attentive. Which is true for health workers attending a woman through her abortion. (And should be true for any health workers and social workers in any situation but often isn’t!) You are present for her, you support her as she needs to be supported and you are present for this individual having a very difficult day.

But in the lab and behind the doors, that individual is one of many for the day. You won’t remember her, she probably won’t stand out unless there is something particularly unique. Before a woman can be released for the day, the tissue has to be examined. The “product of conception” is the sanitized term. Lab workers (and I did this) have to examine the parts for completeness. No matter how supportive you are of abortion, this part is not that easy. You are examining what was potential for life, what might have become a baby. What some say already is a baby. I don’t agree with that, but there’s no doubt that you are looking at a potential human. But when you do something frequently, it becomes more matter of fact. You have conversations about where you are going to eat, what movies you saw, you laugh and make jokes. You do not remain in a state of reverence. And from what I have read and heard, this is true for morticians, embalmers, forensic pathologists, doctors. In their cases, hopefully they respect the human cadaver who was once a fully actualized person but I imagine they laugh and make jokes and talk about where they are going to eat even as they are cutting through a breast bone.

So I got really pissed off at the folks who went undercover to capture “callous baby killers” talking about sale of fetal tissue. Taking some self righteous, opportunistic, hypocritical tone about something they actually know nothing about. Wouldn’t it make sense that people working in stem cell research need willingly donated fetal tissue to study? Wouldn’t you rather have it benefit science, just like organ donation does? Planned Parenthood is an under funded program because to some people, preventing an abortion is more important than any other aspect of human life. As Sister Joan Chittister said: “…your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed.”  Some prefer to force women to be at the mercy of biology when at no other point in Western American life are we forced to “accept what is” and be at the mercy of biology. So if Planned Parenthood and research labs can work together on transacting willingly donated fetal tissue – so be it. Death is around us all the time, increased in the US because of atrocious gun laws and endless war, but let a woman take responsibility for her own reproductive actions and for her own life and give death gracefully and safely in the manner that works for her, and people freak out. I’m not going to deny that it’s death. I’m saying look at this death-giving in the context of many other types of deaths and know that it is way better to support women in being responsible for this choice in this action.

Abortion is one of the most divisive issues of our time. It’s never really desirable and should always be last resort but, for me, a woman’s right to not be at the mercy of her biology trumps everything else. Yes, it is giving death. Let’s not pretend it isn’t. Let’s midwife the woman through a difficult moment with whatever prayer, support or jokes she needs. And let’s stop sanitizing death so that those who work in giving death can’t be shamed by people with a political agenda taking a holier-than-thou stance. And maybe, just maybe if we stop sanitizing death then we will actually be affected by the grisly images of our children dying in war, of random gun violence, of the brutality of factory farms, and create something different – a world where we honor the full cycle of life and death, one where people can live and die with dignity.

I don’t believe in war, I don’t believe in trophy hunting. I don’t like first person shooter games that show such disregard for human life. I don’t support factory farming. But not because I don’t believe in “killing.” I do believe in creating a humane and respectful context for death for all of us. And especially for all who are in the presence of death: to the chicken or goat being eaten; to those losing loved ones; to the hunter feeding her family; to those who wish to pass with grace and awareness from this world; or to those making a choice to not bring an unwanted child in the world.

May you be comforted by the strength of your love.

When All That’s Left Is Love by Rabbi Allen S. Maller
When I die 
If you need to weep
Cry for someone  
Walking the street beside you.
You can love me most by letting
Hands touch hands, and Souls touch souls.
You can love me most by
Sharing your Simchas (goodness) and
Multiplying your Mitzvot (acts of kindness).
You can love me most by
Letting me live in your eyes
And not on your mind.
And when you say Kaddish for me
Remember what our
Torah teaches,
Love doesn’t die People do.
So when all that’s left of me is love
Give me away.

Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep by Mary Elizabeth Frye
Do not stand at my grave and weep I am not there. 
I do not sleep. 
I am a thousand winds that blow. 
I am the diamond glints on snow. 
I am the sunlight on ripened grain. 
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush I am the swift uplifting rush Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night. 
Do not stand at my grave and cry; I am not there. 
I did not die.

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