This week I want to tell you about a choice I made in my 20s that made everything else in my life possible.
It’s a controversial choice. It was a difficult choice at the time. It might be difficult for some of you to read about. It’s something for which, now, I have nothing but the most profound gratitude.
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but after my depression and divorce in my early 20s, I went to Japan and became, most unexpectedly, a stage actor. Much to my own surprise, as I reveled in the hot stage lights each night, I embarked on a new and fabulously healing chapter in my life offstage.
I was touring with a traveling theater troupe most of the time, so I rented a tiny shoebox apartment just outside the Tokyo loop. One day I realized that it was the first time I had ever lived completely on my own. And oh, I reveled in it. I made pictures of the moon and painted self-portraits on masks! I hung up my most beautiful clothes on the walls as art! I tacked a swath of butcher paper on the wall and started writing down things I wanted to do and ideas for how to make them happen! And I wore exquisite high heels wherever I went.
Such adventures: I got my picture taken, went to parties, drank tons of champagne, and had some mind-blowing sex. I was being paid to go onstage every night and have Lots Of Feelings, and I thought it was hilarious that my old loathed drama queen self was turning out to be quite the cash cow. I signed on for another tour of the play I was in. I was even starting to do a little bit of writing.
And then, one day, I peed on a stick.
There was no radiant flicker, no “Gasp! A baby!”
Instead I felt a deep, awful thud, a clanging warning, a knell of doom.
Oh god, fuck you.
The first sick inklings of my pregnancy slapped me right back into my cage, to the familiar place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. I wept, grieving a baby I didn’t want. I couldn’t help thinking that I deserved everything bad that might happen, since I had been stupid enough—and slutty enough—to get pregnant in the first place. In the throes of nausea, pregnant with a tiny speck, I resented the hell out of it. Stupid clump of stupid cells; scary alien tadpole. I hated it.
I felt no love. I wanted to say, “I just can’t be a good enough mother.” But really I was saying, with every cell in my body, “I won’t.” This was the deep truth, the only one that let me breathe, but every breath brought an attack of self-loathing.
For years, I had pressed my hand to my heart in moments of fear or desolation to reassure myself that it was still beating, that I still existed. There were moments when my own heartbeat felt like the only thing that anchored me. Other times I was braced with the knowledge of how hard it beat, with what violence of life.
I had to have the abortion before the heart started beating.
I loathed and feared the idea of a surgical abortion. It seemed unnecessarily violent, a brutal way to force the body to let go of a pregnancy. I had come to believe, thanks to Dr. Christiane Northrup’s wonderful book Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, that there must be a way to work with the body instead of treating it like the enemy. So I tried persuasion. I thought that if I could just attune deeply enough, if I could grope my way back to that primal connection with my own womb, somewhere in the mind-body matrix I would find my gestational motherboard. I was looking for a manual override switch that would let me ovulate, conceive, and flush a pregnancy at will.
I meditated. I willed my period to come. I begged it to come. I held a raggedy séance and asked the invading presence to leave me. But I kept throwing up.
I read about an apocryphal set of acupuncture points called “the forbidden points” that could supposedly end a pregnancy. I turned to the wise witchy women, certain that they would not let me down. Herbal lore is hard to find and harder to implement, but I was desperate. I tried herbal abortifacients that carried dire warning labels; I put parsley in places it shouldn’t go. But the clump of cells stuck. I couldn’t dislodge it, and I couldn’t welcome it. So I cried and threw up and cried some more, and finally I scheduled an abortion. I cried out to a god I no longer believed in for permission—and for forgiveness. Neither came.
Naturally, I was not the first person I knew to get accidentally pregnant. After all, many of my childhood friends were still Christians. They were trying to be celibate into their twenties. Celibate people, remember, don’t carry birth control. And so it happened that, to everyone’s great surprise, bewilderment, and sorrow, a lot of girls in my old evangelical community got pregnant.
Shocking! Scandalous! Those poor, wicked girls. Some cases were more dramatic than others and involved public confessions and weeping, while other pregnancies were quietly swept under a generous wedding dress. But the options available to these girls were few. They could give up the baby for adoption, they could be single mothers with or without the help of their family, or they could marry the fathers and start their own families.
And so, many of these girls chose to get married. Some of the women I love most dearly in the world got started in this way as mothers, and they are smart, savvy, patient, and nurturing—even those who got started at the shockingly young end of the age spectrum. So many good mothers begin this way. I don’t know that any of these women resents her children or feels like she was robbed of a more exciting or fulfilling life, but even if she ever felt a tiny twinge of regret, of course no one would ever hear about it. Because who could ever admit to such a thing without the words Bad Mother appearing on their forehead? In blood??
I, on the other hand, already knew that I would be a Bad Mother. I had left the church but found no community to replace it (my party animal friends notwithstanding). I was drinking quite a bit. I had very little money. Theoretically, I believed that having an abortion might even be a merciful thing to do, since I had already steeped the poor embryo in plenty of alcohol and cigarette smoke. But I couldn’t dismiss the fact that I was closing the door on a potential life. I stewed. I thought about what kind of mother I wanted to be, if I ever was one. Pictures of abused or neglected children tore at my heart, but there was also the frantic desperation I sometimes felt when I didn’t know how I would pay my rent. I knew that a crying infant could send even sturdy women into near-insanity.
Suddenly it was simple. My children—any child—deserved a better mother than I could be right then.
The night before my abortion, back in Chicago for my brief grim errand, I sat in my grief and defiance. I lit a candle and placed it in front of the collage I had made with images of blood and babies and egg yolks and frightening blue eyes—everything that haunted me, buoyed me, frightened and consoled me. I looked at the prayer that I had scrawled over all of it in desperate black ink: Let there be light.
I was hoping for a moment of numinous clarity, an epiphany. The harsh light of the candle only revealed my miserable face, devastated with pregnancy acne. I looked as wretched as I felt. Staring at myself in the mirror, I tried out sentences like, “This is a woman who doesn’t want her own baby,” and “I am choosing my own life over my child’s.” I was trying to find a phrase that might break my resolve; I was testing to see whether I would regret my decision. But there I was, reflected back—grieving, unwavering.
I climbed into the bath and got very still and talked to my baby. I didn’t feel that the blastocyst, which still looked like a blood clot, was my baby. The baby was the soul perched precariously on this clot, tentative as a moth. It was fluttering at me, asking to be let in. I shook my head. There was no room in the inn. I told her that I couldn’t take care of her. I felt her withdraw, I felt her leave, and I felt surrounded by a vast and great silence, a deep darkness waiting to swallow up that tiny phantom heart.
I raged. I blustered. I sent tentative feelers out into that great dark silence. I didn’t believe in God, per se, but I didn’t believe that there was nothing, either. I didn’t believe that we were just chemical accidents. I remembered the gold kernel I sometimes felt in my own heart. I reached out to that blissful energy that had poured through me as a child lying on the grass, the language of the flowers that could fill my body with rosy light. Whatever energy set this world in motion and occasionally flashed into it briefly with love or power—this impulse surely had room in it to take in this one little fluttering moth. If there was nothing out there that moved to the rhythm of compassion, if we were caught in a void or a machine, then we were all so incredibly fucked that there was really no point in going on, I decided. So I sent out a breath. Not to the angry God of my churched childhood. But to every glimpse of love and grace, to the energy of creation and mothering, to the roar of fire and ocean, to the heart that I sometimes sensed beating out there and even in myself—to all these, I would entrust this little moth. Ba-dump, ba-dump. Yes, you, beating heart, I trust you.
And then something broke through. I literally sat up straight in the tub with surprise. If I could entrust this vulnerable baby soul to the heartbeat I sensed in the darkness, maybe I could trust myself to it too. I breathed in this remarkable thought, utterly shocked. And then I was enveloped in light. I was in it, of it, covered by it, filled with it. I thudded with its bloody rhythm, the gasps and suckings of its mighty valves.
In that bathtub, bursting out of all names, crying fuck God, fuck the Lord, fuck the Bible, fuck all that—I heard a heartbeat, and that heartbeat was love. Me in the bathtub, beloved. That baby moth, beloved. I the aborter, beloved. All beloved. Everything, each atom of this chipped porcelain, each drop of water, each toenail. Beloved aborting, beloved weeping, beloved laughing, beloved enraged and drunk and having orgasms and walking into the ocean. All connected, all adored beyond words, all this love bursting out of the old stories and the old names like a baby from a mother’s womb. Brand new, nothing new. I heard a heartbeat, a deep thumping rhythm that cycles everything in and out, giving life, taking it, sucking in, whooshing out. This heart. I trusted this heart. This great heart loved me down to my bones, to my blood and shit, down to my bloated womb and unwanted clump of potential. It loved that clump of cells. But it loved me too, and I understood that it didn’t matter, or rather everything mattered a great deal, but it was all the same to the love. The love was the fabric everything else was made of. The love was the heart, and the heart’s beating, and the blood rushing through the heart, and all of us veins and arteries and blockages and limbs and lions and mucus and smut were all love too.
In the clinic, they told me I would feel some mild discomfort. That’s one word for it. On my back, feet in stirrups, in that posture of humiliation, I refused the woozy drugs because I wanted to know what was happening. Someone held my hand. I cupped my other hand over my womb and kept thinking that the stabbing suction tube was going to puncture through my uterus and skin and gouge right into my fingers. I lay on the table, being gutted by the appliance inside me.
I asked to see what was in the metal dish. I looked, I had to look. Just blood clots. Oh. Oh, thank everything.
Then I was in the room where other women were waking up. Broken, desolate, violated, and bleeding, I threw up for the last time. Emptied out in every way possible, I lay back on a vinyl reclining chair with a measly sheet to cover my freezing body, and I could not bear to be looked at. I threw the sheet over my head, sat in the whiteness, and cried. I placed my hands on my belly, my poor aching torn-up womb, and hacked out the pain and loss of what had just happened.
And the relief. Oh, the relief.
I had been ripped, but I was open. I was empty, and I was free. After a while I staggered out into the strange room with the furtive waiting men, past the nurses, through the hateful protesters, and into my loyal friend’s car. And then I sat where I would sit for the next good while, in the blood and loss, and cried thank you thank you for the new life I had been given.
I was sore and tentative for a day or two, and my soul felt as quiet as a beach after a storm. And that was the beginning of my sheepish but shameless agnosticism, the one that stays with me still, the persistent and unbidden belief that the universe, in spite of all appearances, is bursting at its seams with love.
After struggling for years in the lockstep of Christianity, and after finally turning my back on it with disgust, I had blundered into a surreal realm where I didn’t know what I was trusting—certainly not the angry father God of church, and not the Jesus of the misogynistic gospels—but I trusted something. I still don’t know what to call it. It doesn’t feel like faith, exactly, and the faithful would not claim me. The closest I can come is to say that I feel loved.
Let me assure you, this is not a story that will get much play in any Sunday School I’ve ever attended.
I knew myself to be loved when I did the one thing, above all others, that I was told was unforgivable. I had always been taught that you could be forgiven for anything—murder, rape—if you just repented. But I am not repentant. My abortion was not an accident, or something that I was forced into, or a mistake made in confusion. It was a sacred initiation that gave me a chance to start a new life. It is the very reason I could become the person, and the mother, that I am now.
My words fail me here. No matter where I go in my heart and mind, I cannot escape the Christian imagery that has shaped so much of my life. I want to say, neither this nor that nor anything else can separate us from love; and I want to say, the old shall die that the new may be born again; but I won’t say those things because they mean something else to me, with their echoes of Judeo-Christian trauma. They’re so coated in the sludge of the old religion that they leave the taste of metal in my mouth.
But this new life is a new language. I left the old religion and found a truer love. I need a new wineskin for this new wine, dense as blood. I need the mother tongue, the one that is deep within, that echoes out in the cosmos. It is as old as forgetting, as new as birth.