|Grandkids napping, 2021|
My Korean immigrant mother told me only one thing about sex: “We don’t believe in abortion.”
It was the 1970s. She had recently been diagnosed with an autoimmune condition, myasthenia gravis. Chondoso-halmoni (“Evangelizing Grandma”) came and stayed with us while Mommy recovered from major surgery in which the doctors foolishly and violently removed her thymus gland, mistakenly thinking it was the culprit to her weakened condition. All her life thus far, my mother was a rather lukewarm second generation Christian socialized with Confucian values. But in her vulnerable, post-surgical state, Chondoso-halmoni—not our real grandma, but a community grandma, eternally old but unreasonably spry—turned Mommy into a repenting, born-again, Pentecostal Christian.
I would never begrudge Mom or anyone else their redemption. But every redemption has its price, and in order to feel in the right, others have to be in the wrong. So I must have been wrong, terribly wrong, in 1984, a junior in college, to find myself pregnant.
My body blossomed into pregnancy within weeks, as if it had been waiting for just this moment. I felt bloated, nauseous, terrified, but I couldn’t help entertaining the notion of keeping this baby—that’s how much my hormones had already begun taking over. I went so far as to write a letter to my parents on my manual typewriter, explaining the situation and my decision to become a young mother and postpone my senior year of college. A letter I never sent.
In my 12th week of pregnancy, I finally committed to terminating the pregnancy. I was drowning in guilt, remorse, and shame, but I was resolved. I would go on with my life. I would finish school. I was in a relationship, but I would let it take its time, and not let it be shaped by an unplanned child while we were so young. The doctor at the clinic was a brusque, impersonal Korean man. He exuded no judgement, but I couldn’t help feeling guilty and sinful. I asked him what was the baby’s sex? And he scoffed and said, “It’s not a baby.”
Nevertheless I felt I had taken a life. In my short pregnancy I had strangely experienced a budding relationship with this being that I was carrying. Politically I was, and continue to be, staunchly pro-choice and a feminist. But in my soul I experienced a severance and a deep sadness.
I buried my sadness and proceeded with my studies. I won a writing award, and created a volume of poetry as my senior thesis. I told next to no one about my secret loss. I went on with my life.
Maybe partially in response to my unresolved grief, I married early, at age 21, with my 25 year-old partner, took myself off birth control pills, and found myself pregnant once again almost immediately. Apparently my body longed to be pregnant, over and over again, like my basil plants that bolt within weeks, continually flowering and seeding. This time I knew I would keep the baby.
I dove into motherhood and zealously embraced natural childbirth, breastfeeding, family bed and more. Motherhood radicalized me and awakened me to my own power. Becoming Meiko’s mother grounded me and gave me an undeniable sense of purpose and joy.
As soon as Meiko began talking, she started referring to her big brother, Suki. Suki this and Suki that, we heard story after story about Suki. This went on for several years. It finally ended when she surprised herself by finding a photo of Suki, her imaginary brother, in the basement of my parents’ Korean Church in Buffalo, New York.
“Look!” she said, startled. “There’s Suki.” She pointed to a boy in one of the family photos lining the walls of the church. He looked about 8 or 9, standing with his family. Meiko was maybe 4 or 5 at this time.
“Oh, wow,” her dad and I said, humoring her, as surprised as she was. We went on with our day, Meiko grew older, and Suki faded away. But for those years, Suki was a presence in our family, and in Meiko’s toddler life. It doesn’t matter whether we regard an imaginary sibling or friend as an angel, a ghost, a projection of a mother’s guilt, or simply a product of a child’s imagination. I also embraced Suki, and some non-logical part of me even regarded Suki as my own.
This is how I would describe my pregnancy and decision to end it:
A being came into my life. After careful consideration, I declined to admit this being to fully manifest in my body. In the triangle of me, God, and this being, I stepped forward and said, no, not now. And released this spirit back into the ineffable cosmos.
Once I departed from conventional Christian notions of heaven and hell, the spheres of spirit revealed themselves, and I recognized the unstoppable pulse of life everywhere. Once I shifted the lens from the human point of view to the more-than-human perspective, I realized that life reveals itself through all forms, including the wind, water, trees, art, and sometimes even the seemingly mundane.
When does life begin? An impossible question, because when does life end? My answer is never.
After Meiko, I gave birth 2 more times, to Katja, and her brother, Malachi. I experienced yet another pregnancy, when Malachi was 2 years old. Once again, I found myself struggling with how to relate to this being. Once again, I was caught off-guard. I felt complete with our 3 kids, and up to my ears in responsibilities, with barely enough time to care for myself, do any writing, or even rest.
This time I did share my concerns with a few trusted friends, and eventually decided, yet again, to terminate the pregnancy. This decision pained me, possibly even more than the first time 9 years prior, because I never thought I would have to do it again. A friend accompanied me to my second abortion, and we walked through a phalanx of protestors at dawn. She held me while I cried when it was all over. Just because we commit to a course of action doesn’t mean we don’t grieve our losses. And just because I am grieving does not mean I made a wrong decision. I can be sad but not regretful.
What is right and what is wrong? Life doesn’t operate in binaries. We live in the “yes, and.” We muddle through the contradictions and complexities. We do the best we can in any given moment. Why would we do any less?
I released another being from my body, so that I could care for the 3 I gave birth to, with a modicum of energy left for myself. It was a profound and difficult act of self-care and self-love.
BKS Iyengar observed, “Most people want to take joy without suffering. I will take both.” I, too, refuse to go through life trying to avoid suffering. Especially as mothers, we understand somatically that we contain both joy and suffering, both life and death, and that we must accept both. Pregnancy and childbirth themselves teach us this with magnificence, no holds barred.
With each pregnancy, I realized that I was not a one-way channel, but that I was in relationship. As such, each agent practices sovereignty. We practice consent and dialogue. We are in circle with one another. Each party can decline to proceed at any time.
I also realized that I am part of an ecosystem, a collective, a network of realms and beings, and that closing one door allows another door to open. We each extend beyond our individuality, and belong to collectives of consciousness.
Shortly after my second abortion, my 2 year-old son, Malachi, woke up in the middle of the night crying. He wasn’t crying out of a physical need. “Baby,” he cried, “babeeeee.” He pulled me out of bed and took me into the playroom next door. He dug through the basket of dolls and finally pulled out the “fetus doll.” I was a natural childbirth teacher, and I had a model pelvis and model fetus doll, the size of a newborn human baby, with a cloth body and plastic head that the children loved to play with. He tearfully clutched the doll and we went back to bed.
It’s easy to speculate and impossible to have firm answers, but I know that strongly in that moment, I felt the spirit of the child I released present in our own family. Who knows what dream Malachi awakened from that night? Who knows why he wept for the baby? What baby? Or whether he was picking up on my grief, tasting it through my breastmilk? We exist in constellations, we feel each other nonverbally. We cry together, we experience both joys and losses together.
As Malachi became more verbal, he, like Meiko, referred constantly to his imaginary siblings. He had 3 brothers, Michael, Jonathan, and believe it or not, Goofy, who went on all kinds of adventures, and even died and revived. Our family, like all others, was a menagerie of beings and characters encompassing all levels of reality from the concrete physical to the imaginary invisible. I choose to let the mystery be, and embrace the weirdness and wildness of all possible life forms.
Once I was in conversation with a young woman, who described herself as firmly Democrat in her political views, except for the issue of choice. She explained that because she was adopted, she was anti-abortion, because she would not be here today if her biological mother had aborted her. The observation struck me as peculiarly Western, in its individualism, as if her personal existence was in and of itself a victory.
On the other hand, I’m inclined to say, although I did not at the time: So what if you were never born? You would just take form another time, another place. Is our uniqueness that precious? Is your current life that perfect that you refuse to imagine another embodiment?
Animism teaches me to be less precious, both about myself and other beings. It’s about the complexity of relationships rather than mere transactionality.
Here in Honolulu, I discovered a grove of several mature, incredibly abundant mango trees. They are in an old cemetery from the early 20th century. At first I hesitated to take the fallen fruit at the risk of being offensive. But the trees, heavy with fruit, implored us to partake, and alleviate their burden. After all, the only reason they produce fruit is to propagate themselves. So now I visit the trees often, leaving flowers, stones, and tokens at gravesites, tidying up and gleaning.
For many years, I was vegetarian. But I returned to being an omnivore when I realized I was not keeping up with my nutritional needs. I had not found it possible to adequately nourish myself without being in relationship with other animal beings. Vegans must be in relationship with plant beings, and be willing to sacrifice them to meet their own survival needs. Omnivores choose to be in relationship with both plant and animal beings. To some extent, we take on one another’s karma. I recognize my hands are not innocent, and that to live, I require the sacrifice of other lives. One might argue that veganism emerges from an anthropocentric view, and that once we remove humans from the top of the power pyramid, we recognize that we live as kin with plants, other animals, fungi, bacteria, viruses, and the elements.
The peninsula of Korea is 75% mountains. While living there in 2014, I realized that the mountains, like humans, are constantly moving, changing, and shifting as living beings, but so slowly that it’s mostly undetectable to human senses. I’m talking not only about the obvious surface vegetation and animal life, but also the deep stony foundations. 1 day to a human being might be like 1 year to a mountain. The mountainous islands of Hawai`i where I now live remind me of this daily.
Why do we refuse to grant sovereignty to the more-than-human, while some insist on giving rights to unborn humans? Has Christianity convinced people that humans indeed sit atop a hierarchy, to assert dominion?
Or are we willing to consider, for instance, Elder Malidoma Somé’s description of his Dagara cosmology, in which trees are the wisest, highest beings, animals second, and humans third? Why do we easily choose to kill trees in order to build a house, yet harshly judge a woman who sacrifices an unborn human with whom she shares her body?
Every sacrifice—a sacred surrender, letting go, renunciation—is highly personal and intimate. I suggest our current debate over Roe v. Wade indicates we need to reinvigorate ritual and spiritual practices into our everyday lives. Why do many cultures pray before eating? Because we universally perceive that eating requires sacrifice, and that for our own bodies to survive, other beings had to lose their lives.
We understand that the energy from eating gets recycled, through our bodies, as we fuel our activities, and create waste, that then, if we complete the loop, goes back into the earth to provide nitrogen for plants. I hope that when it’s time for me to leave my earthly body, I can be consumed by creatures so that I am giving back to the earth all that has supported me through the decades.
The Roe v. Wade debate indicates that we live in a death-phobic society. When we see death as a one-way road, with a destination determined by our goodness or repentance, it definitely can be terrifying. But I see death as a transition from one form into another. We will each give up our physical presence as we return to the earth, wind, and waters, and shift into spiritual presence, as stories, memories, dreams, and more. From a yogic perspective, we eventually reincarnate, and come back into an earthly form to try again, to learn the lessons our spirits long for.
Yes, we grieve. Death rends the hearts of the living. We miss our dearly departed. We long for their physical presence. We lose too many too early due to war, genocide, disease, injustice, and inequality. We fight to change these conditions, while learning to accept the losses when we cannot prevent them. Grieving is a continuation of loving. Reinvigorating ritual and spiritual practices must include deep, daily grieving. Our capacity to grieve expands our emotional range, and our capacity for joy and pleasure. The goal of life is not to avoid death, suffering, and loss. We came here, I believe, to learn, grow, mature, evolve, and, hate to say, our hardships are sometimes our greatest teachers.
My first intimate experience of death was the sudden loss of my older brother, John, when I was 24 years old, and he was 25. The event devastated me and my family, especially my mother. We don’t necessarily recover from huge losses like this. But his death opened a door for me, as a young woman, to come to terms and begin to accept the inevitability of death, and start to understand death in more nuanced ways than mainstream culture and religion taught. Later, in my 30s, I accompanied each of my parents through their death journeys. In my 40s and 50s, I had the privilege of being present with friends and mentors through their dying processes. Each of these experiences, as well as my abortion experiences, broke me open, so that I could receive profound teachings, about what it meant to be alive, in this body, in this time and place, in relationship with all other beings—human, more-than-human, embodied, and disembodied.
Let us live into the complexities and contradictions. Let’s not police each other’s bodies. Let’s cradle, nurture, and cherish all life, realizing that life neither begins nor ends with the physical body. Let’s be present with each other, and hold each other in our grief. Let’s enter the wells of grief willingly and deeply. Let’s celebrate the stunningly beautiful temporality that gives us joy and pleasure: our bodies, our human loved ones, the waters, mountains, stars, moons, planets, the winds, the stones, songs, art, our plant and animal kindred, and so so so much more. May it be so.