Thoughts on Marriage

Note: I recently wrote this for a younger couple I care deeply for.

I thought I’d write out some of my thoughts on marriage. As I stare down 18 years of marriage, I have certainly learned many hard-won lessons. In many ways, I wish I had someone with a lot more experience with marriage and parenthood to tell me what they had learned or discovered. It may have saved me from a whole lot of unnecessary struggle and heartache.

First, I won’t pretend that I know what the fuck I’m doing. I don’t. And all of the “lessons” I’ve learned are ones that I constantly have to re-learn. I might be totally full of shit. Maybe most people have better marriages than I do. At the very least, I wanted to record some of my own thoughts, regardless of their value. 

You’re in the hardest part

I wish someone had told me that marriage while raising infants/toddlers was the hardest part of marriage. And I wish someone had told me that it gets better. It really does. Little kids take so much physical and emotional energy; there’s simply not much left to give to our spouse. I think that’s normal and okay, though it doesn’t feel okay in the moment. But I can offer this: It gets easier. Every day is a little easier than the day before. Before you know it –in five or ten years’ time– you’ll have so much more time and energy to contribute to the development of yourself and your marriage. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to neglect ourselves or our marriages for the sake of our kids, but I think it’s far more common than you think. If you can make it through the next few years, it gets so much easier. Parenthood and marriage are never easy, and they always take hard work, but it all becomes less overwhelming. You’ll have a little breathing room to care for the neglected parts of your life. In the meantime, soldier on and enjoy every moment of your kids’ first years. It goes by way too fast. Acknowledge that all marriages have really hard seasons. But they’re just seasons that come and go. 

Acknowledge that you’re both deeply flawed individuals 

This sounds like a simple statement. It’s easy to say, “Fuck yeah, my spouse is deeply flawed! Let me give you the list of his/her personal deficiencies…” It’s a lot harder to look at yourself and acknowledge, on a very deep level, the ways in which you yourself are deeply flawed and constantly fail your spouse. I think it’s helpful to verbalize your flaws to your spouse. Speaking the words gives them more weight. It’s a sign of good faith when you say “I really am a moody/anxious person” or “I’m short-tempered. I’m working on it, even if it doesn’t always seem like it.”

I think the concept of “good faith” is so, so important to a marriage. Even if your spouse is being difficult, if you believe they’re acting in good faith, you at least of a starting point, even if they’re being shitty. Ask yourself, how do you demonstrate that you’re acting in good faith through word and action? Are they the words and actions that your spouse will recognize as a good-faith effort on your part?

When you start from the perspective that you are deeply flawed and have often been a consistently shitty spouse, you start from a place of grace towards the other person. When your spouse is being shitty, break outside of your negative thought cycles and acknowledge that sometimes you are a shitty person as well. And your spouse still chooses to put up with you and extend you grace, even though you’re no picnic to live with.  

I think one of the strangely beautiful parts of marriage is the somewhat-cynical acknowledgment that you are both deeply flawed individuals, but that you still choose each other despite those flaws. (We might both be shitty people but at least we’re shitty people together!) For many years I thought that my goal and responsibility was to build a perfect marriage. I had this clear vision of how wonderful our marriage could be! (Of course, in my mind, it conveniently meant there were 27 things my spouse needed to change for that to happen! I was fine, it was her deficiencies that were holding us back. That line of thinking is simply bullshit.)

I think the other critical aspect is to simply accept your spouse, flaws and all. It’s incredibly unlikely that you are going to change them, despite your best efforts or intentions. To this day, there are so many things I wish my spouse would do/be. But that’s a dangerous line of thought, one that leads to a lot of discouragement, discontent, and resentment. 

For instance, my spouse is never going to be a particularly reflective individual; she lives in the moment. She’ll never be particularly philosophical or poetic. That’s okay. She has lots and lots of good qualities that I often don’t appreciate simply because they’re not the qualities I want her to have. That’s not fair to her. Despite whatever I perceive as her shortcomings, the fact is that I have committed my life to this deeply flawed person. She has done the same with me. Our marriage took a profound turn for the better when we stopped trying to change one another and simply learned to love and accept each other, flaws and all. She r 

Virtuous and destructive relationship spirals

My spouse and I have a very consistent pattern of conflict. 

  1. One of us gets our feelings hurt. Often the other person criticized us, didn’t acknowledge us in the way we wanted, or did something we perceive as inconsiderate or malicious. There other person’s intentions are rarely as malevolent as we think, but one of us is deeply hurt and feels attacked. 
  2. We get defensive. Whether we are the one who originally felt hurt or the one who feels attacked, we immediately put up walls and start justifying our behavior. Any conversations or arguments we have during this stage are usually futile or make things worse. Our hackles are up, we aren’t deeply listening to each other, and we are both lobbing emotional grenades at each other. This is when 20 years of history is brought up, rehashed, or used as evidence for our “clearly-I’m-right-because-look-at-this-evidence” attitude. 
  3. I start to ruminate. I can’t speak for my wife on this one, but I usually spend the next few days in a pretty dark place. My thoughts spiral. (More on spirals later). 

Just a couple of weeks ago we got into a pretty good argument. It was about a topic we have had countless arguments about in the past. We have literally made the same points and arguments hundreds of times in hundreds of different ways. The argument seemed pointless to both of us since we’d rehashed it so many times. Additionally, I didn’t feel heard or acknowledged. I felt a deep sense of hopelessness that anything would ever change for the better. Then I started down my long and ever-present list of my spouse’s perceived flaws. Before I knew it, I was saying all sorts of nonsensical stuff to myself: “She’s fundamentally not a good person. I never should have married her. My life would be so much better with someone else. She doesn’t deserve me.” Of course, these thoughts are just a form of self-imprisonment. They’re the nonsensical, emotional reasoning of someone who feels hurt. Each of those statements is objectively false, but I get stuck in them. Constantly. These thoughts make me mentally and physically sick, and that isn’t her fault; it is mine. 

Before I go on, I want to talk about spirals. I feel like marriage is constantly in a state of either spiraling downward or spiraling upward. The reason I consider it a spiral is because it’s the same shit over and over again. I bet every married couple can come up with a list of at least a half-dozen issues that come up over and over and over and over again. They’ve been arguing about these same issues for years or decades. It’s frustrating because it feels like nothing ever gets resolved. Nothing ever changes.  And if you stay in the downward spiral long enough, you can reach a place of real despair. 

On the same token, I think we can spiral upward. All it takes is a kind word or gesture. All of a sudden you feel appreciated or acknowledged again. It feels good, and all of a sudden you have the emotional energy and vulnerability to open up a little bit. You drop the defenses and can offer them some of the same grace and love you just received. This can turn into a virtuous cycle where instead of considering all the ways you’ve been wronged, you start to look for ways to show love, acknowledgment and care for your spouse.

Breaking the downward spiral always takes one person in the relationship to acknowledge what’s happening and break out of the cycle. Often this means swallowing a lot of pride and a lot of ego. Even if you know, in your heart-of-hearts, that you are objectively and categorically correct in the argument, it doesn’t matter. You have to stop the downward spiral. 

My wife and I have several ways of making this happen, and it usually takes a few days of hardly speaking to one another to get to this point. Here’s what usually happens with us:

  1. Someone owns their own shit. Even if I am convinced that my spouse is being the shitty one and should be the one who is apologizing, I take it upon myself to own my own poor behavior without any caveats or conditions. Often it’s as easy as saying “Sorry I’ve kinda been an asshole the last several days.” (Notice I don’t say, “Sorry I’ve been an asshole, but you’ve been one too.” That gets us nowhere.) I also don’t expect an apology in return. If I do, I’ve created a “covert contract”, an unspoken, uncommunicated expectation that if I do or say X, she will do or say Y. Covert contracts are excellent seeds for resentment. 
  2. We communicate non-verbally. We’ve been married long enough that the right kind of hug or the right kind of snuggle demonstrates that we’ve broken out of our spiral. It’s unspoken but profoundly recognized by each of us. 
  3. We offer grace and space. Sometimes it takes me a few days to get my head screwed on straight. I think the same applies to her. Even if one of us is ready to break out of the negative spiral, the other person might not be ready yet. Sometimes we have to give the other person some grace, space, and time to come around. In our most recent argument, my wife clearly demonstrated through words and actions that she was ready to break out of our downward spiral. It took me a few more days to come around. I was still feeling deeply hurt. I appreciate that she gave me a couple of days of being a withdrawn asshole. When I was ready to break down those walls, she was still there willing to work towards a more virtuous cycle. 

I can’t overemphasize how hard it is to break out of these negative spirals. It goes against our thoughts and feelings. It requires killing the ego, which is damn near impossible sometimes. And things still feel unresolved. My wife and I still have the same half-dozen issues we had last week, last month, or last year, but we are once again acknowledging and interacting with each other as human beings instead of adversaries. That is a monumental shift. 

Don’t trust your own narrative

Often, when my wife and I are in conflict, she’ll spout some narrative about our marriage that seems outlandish and ridiculous. She’ll give this narrative of our relationship (“You’ve always done X, I’ve always felt like Y, you treat me like Z”). What comes out of her mouth seems so ridiculous that I can’t fathom that she’s talking about the same marriage I’m a part of. It’s a crazy fucking narrative. 

While it’s so easy to point out the flaws and inconsistencies in her narrative of our marriage, it’s a hell of a lot harder to acknowledge the flaws in my own narrative. After all, they’re MY experiences, MY emotions, MY storyline. No one can argue with that. It’s the objective truth. On my best days, I’m able to examine my own narrative – my own simplified story of our relationship – and see where my own narrative is flawed. It’s profoundly difficult to reject your own “reality,” and to acknowledge that your perceptions, attitudes, and narrative are flawed, incorrect, and almost always created to make me out to be the hero of the story, with my wife playing the part of the villain. I think it takes a lot of humility and the total rejection of ego to let go of these convenient but also mistaken and destructive narratives. 

I don’t want to pretend like our marriage is perfect. It’s dysfunctional as hell sometimes. I expect many of our issues will never be resolved. We can both be terrible people and we have managed to accumulate a ton of baggage in 18 years. But we’ve also bound ourselves to another deeply flawed person, agreed to put up with their bullshit, and to love and care for the other person despite their deep and impossibly difficult flaws. There’s a certain beauty in that. 

I no longer expect or dream of a perfect marriage. I’m happy with one where we love each other in spite of our many flaws. I acknowledge that our marriage goes through predictable seasons of negative or virtuous cycles. I know there will be many days in the future when I don’t feel like I like my spouse as a person, and I know there will be many days that she will feel the same way about me. But 18 years in, I’ve had this deeply flawed person by my side, even when I haven’t deserved it. And that means something. 

You guys are in the hardest stage of parenthood and marriage. It can really suck, but there are brighter days ahead. Own your own shit, extend a lot of grace, break destructive spirals, question your own narrative,  and try to enjoy the difficult but deeply fulfilling stage of this journey until you arrive at those better days. 


Thoughts on Abortion

The overturning of Roe vs Wade this week has compelled me to write a few shit-ton of words on my current beliefs as it relates to elective abortion. Most states have laws for aborting a pregnancy in the case of incest, rape, or harm to the mother, so I will not be addressing those uncommon situations here but will instead focus on elective abortions to define and narrow my argument.  

Abortion and pathos

Abortion is an extremely emotional issue. 

I once met a woman who had a son with down syndrome. He was a product of rape. She birthed and cared for that child well into his fifties. I met her shortly after her son had died. She spent decades caring for a disabled son born out of trauma. She was a modern-day saint.

I once had a sophomore student who became pregnant. Her family was dirt-poor, she wore musty-smelling clothes, and her boyfriend had left her. I watched as this fifteen-year-old girl stared down a lifetime of struggle and poverty because of one bad choice. Here she was, just a kid herself, and her future was already laid out for her. That future wasn’t bright.

We all have anecdotes, experiences, and stories that pull on our heartstrings. However, I want to look at abortion from a more pragmatic angle. Let’s strip away all the rhetoric and pathos that can cause such fierce emotions, and look clear-eyed at a complicated issue.

Abortion and logical fallacies 

Because the abortion issue is so emotional, it is often full of logical fallacies. Every year I teach my students logical fallacies and I often use the abortion debate as an excellent, real-life example of people using these poor methods of argumentation, particularly the Straw Man and Ad Hominem fallacy. In case you’re unfamiliar with fallacies, “the straw man fallacy, occurs when an opponent’s point of view is distorted in order to make it easier to refute” (Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy). Another common fallacy used in the debate is the Ad Hominem fallacy: “Arguing against, or rejecting a person’s views by attacking or abusing his personality, character, motives, intentions, qualifications, etc. as opposed to providing evidence why the views are incorrect” (Dictionary of Philosophy).

“Pro-life people are a bunch of backward, uneducated, Bible-thumping assholes who want to control women’s bodies.”

“Pro-choice people are a bunch of woke, atheist, feminist baby-killers who don’t give a shit about human life.”

Of course, both of these over-dramatized statements drip with Ad Hominem and Straw Man fallacies. Unfortunately, a lot of people subscribe to similar viewpoints that don’t really serve anything but our own sense of self-righteousness.

Abortion in the era of meme/TikTok politics.

Most of us must admit we are swayed by memes and online short-form videos. They are short, compelling, and often full of fallacies. 

Two examples from differing viewpoints on abortion:

Abortion in 100 Years – YouTube

@drq_dpt (@drq_dpt) TikTok | Watch @drq_dpt’s Newest TikTok Videos

The sad truth is that more of us than we’d like to admit build our political and social stances based on these bite-sized arguments. They usually sound so good! They confirm our beliefs (and ego) while elucidating a thought we couldn’t quite put into words ourselves. But the fact that we often base our convictions on whatever anonymous, convenient, on-the-go, don’t-have-to-think-too-hard images or videos are fed to us should give us pause. Are our viewpoints on abortion (or any other issue) determined by sustained inquiry using reliable sources? Or are our strongly held beliefs simply the evitable product of our personal and online bubble? 

Both “sides” have a lot in common.  

First, I don’t subscribe to the idea that there are only two clear “sides” to the abortion debate (False Dichotomy fallacy). There is certainly a spectrum of beliefs. All that said, I think that there are two statements nearly everyone can agree on:

  • It is unethical to take a person’s life if that person is a child. 
  • We would like the number of abortions to be reduced

So where do we disagree?

The first way we disagree is how we define a “person.” Does a “person” exist at conception as the Catholic Church believes? (An interesting aside is that some people consider personhood to be after “day 14, gastrulation, where the embryo becomes an individual, where you can no longer form twins and triplets” (Swarthmore College). In other words, is a freshly conceived embryo a “person” if it can divide into one or two other “persons?”)

Does personhood begin when the fetus is viable outside of the womb, as Roe vs Wade claimed?

Does personhood begin at the first breath? The state of New York defines personhood as such. There are religious readings of the Bible that suggest the same:

“While the Talmud gives the full status of humanness to a child at birth, the rabbinical writings have partially extended the acquisition of humanness to the 13th postnatal day of life for full-term infants.” (National Library of Medicine)

“Protestant theology generally takes Genesis 2:7 as a statement that the soul is formed at breath, not with conception. However as Baptists believe in the priesthood of every believer to search the Scriptures, find truth, and make moral decisions for themselves, we have differing views on the matter of birth control and the question of when life begins” (Baptist Press, 1976, p. 5)

Ultimately, the question of when personhood begins is unanswerable in any meaningful way. Religions, the state, and ethicists all have differing views based on different sources and beliefs. 

The second disagreement is how to best reduce abortion. Nearly everyone agrees that abortion is not desirable. The question of personhood aside:

The 2008 report of the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion (TFMHA) concluded that “it is clear that some women do experience sadness, grief, and feelings of loss following termination of a pregnancy, and some experience clinically significant disorders, including depression and anxiety.”4 Indeed, task force chair Brenda Major et al.’s own research had reported that 2 years after their abortions, 1.5% of the remnant participating in her case series (38% of the 1177 eligible women, after dropouts) had all the symptoms for abortion-specific post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In addition, she found that compared to their 1-month post-abortion assessments, at 2 years the participating remnant had significantly rising rates of depression and negative reactions and lowering rates of positive reactions, relief, and decision satisfaction.” (“The abortion and mental health controversy: A comprehensive literature review of common ground agreements, disagreements, actionable recommendations, and research opportunities”, Reardon, 2018)

There is no disagreement that we need to reduce abortions, if only for the sake of women and their mental health. However, some people (mostly Republicans) believe that we can legislate a decrease in abortions. I think this is misinformed and simplistic. But more on that later. 

Why do women get elective abortions? 

According to a 2013 study of US women, 40% percent of women claimed they wanted an elective abortion because they “were not financially prepared” to raise a child. 31% said it was “partner-related” ( Relationship is bad, poor and/or new; Respondent wants to be married first/not a single mom; Partner is not supportive; Partner is wrong guy; Partner does not want baby; Partner is abusive). A surprising number of women had children already and didn’t feel they could care for another one. 

Who has abortions?

Minorities: “Among the 30 areas that reported race by ethnicity data for 2019, non-Hispanic White women and non-Hispanic Black women accounted for the largest percentages of all abortions (33.4% and 38.4%, respectively), and Hispanic women and non-Hispanic women in the other race category accounted for smaller percentages (21.0% and 7.2%, respectively) (Table 6). Non-Hispanic White women had the lowest abortion rate (6.6 abortions per 1,000 women) and ratio (117 abortions per 1,000 live births), and non-Hispanic Black women had the highest abortion rate (23.8 abortions per 1,000 women) and ratio (386 abortions per 1,000 live births).” (CDC, 2019)

According the Guttmacher Institute, here are the rates of abortion per 1,000 women based on race in 2014:

Black 27.1/1,000

Hispanic 18.1/1,000

Other non-Hispanic 16.3/1,000

White 10/1,000

The poor: “Poor women continue to account for a disproportionate share of abortion patients, and this representation increased from 42% to 49% over the six-year period, mostly driven by an increase in the population of women of reproductive age who are poor. The abortion index for poor women changed little, and disparities in abortion rates by income did not increase between 2008 and 2014. Still, it is now the case that 75% of abortion patients are low income, having family incomes of less than 200% of the federal poverty level.” (Guttmacher Institute)

What may happen with the repeal of Roe Vs Wade

  • Minorities and the poor will be disproportionately affected. Unintended pregnancies have real effects on the quality of life of both mothers, children, and the community at large. We already know that minorities and the poor face the tragic choice of terminating their pregnancy at a far higher level than white or economically stable individuals. Unintended pregnancies can create a wide range “of negative consequences—abridged educational careers (23, 24), labor-market struggles (19, 47), higher crime rates (2, 53), more abortions (48), increased levels of household stress (47, 48), and other related outcomes” (National Library of Medicine). 
  • There may be more unsafe abortions. Because abortion services have been legal in the US for the past 50 years, there is little data about unsafe abortions in the US. While we cannot speculate on what may happen here in the US after the revocation of Roe vs Wade, we have worldwide data that suggests women who do choose “unsafe” abortions (abortions without the care of a certified healthcare worker) can face tragic consequences: 

Every year, worldwide, about 42 million women with unintended pregnancies choose abortion, and nearly half of these procedures, 20 million, are unsafe. Some 68,000 women die of unsafe abortion annually, making it one of the leading causes of maternal mortality (13%). Of the women who survive unsafe abortions, 5 million will suffer long-term health complications. (National Library of Medicine).

Really want to reduce abortions? 

Easy/free access to birth control

Easy and free access to birth control is probably the single most effective way to reduce elective abortions. A study completed in 2014 gave women in the St Louis area access to free, long-term birth control (like an IUD, implant, patches, etc). The results? Abortion dropped by over 80% for participants who received the free, long-term contraceptives. 

The data speaks for itself. 

Comprehensive Sex Education

Abstinence-only sex education, or expecting abstinence, doesn’t work. 

The first reason is simply a matter of math (that even an English major can understand). The median age of first marriage is currently 30 years old for men and 29 years old for women. (In 1950 the median age was 23 and 20 respectively.) (US Census). The simple dynamics of our culture, where settling into a stable career and home takes far longer than it once did, means marriage must wait. On the other hand, sexual maturation happens, on average, between 13-14 years of age (Graber). The average age for first vaginal sex occurs at 17 years old (National Library of Medicine). Do we really expect young people today, full of raging hormones, to take a vow of celibacy for 13-17 years? 

Other data backs up the idea that abstinence-only education actually has a negative effect on teen pregnancies:

After accounting for other factors, the national data show that the incidence of teenage pregnancies and births remain positively correlated with the degree of abstinence education across states: The more strongly abstinence is emphasized in state laws and policies, the higher the average teenage pregnancy and birth rate. States that taught comprehensive sex and/or HIV education and covered abstinence along with contraception and condom use (level 1 sex education; also referred to as “abstinence-plus” [26], tended to have the lowest teen pregnancy rates, while states with abstinence-only sex education laws that stress abstinence until marriage (level 3) were significantly less successful in preventing teen pregnancies. (National Library of Medicine)

Comprehensive sex education, delivered either by schools, churches, or parents, would provide young people with the tools to safely navigate their emerging sexuality and would presumably prevent more unwanted pregnancies.  

Financially support women who choose to carry to term. 

In Norway, health care is universal and nearly free. “Dads get 15 weeks of non-transferable, use-it-or-lose-it paid leave. And, overall, new parents can take 49 weeks at 100 percent of earnings or 59 weeks at 80 percent of earnings” (Forbes). Norway’s abortion rate? 9.2 out of 1,000 pregnancies. The US abortion rate? 14.4 out of 1,000. I don’t want to get sloppy and suggest causation where there is a correlation, but it does make one wonder if more financial support to not only expecting mothers but to new mothers as well would reduce elective abortions. After all, 40% of respondents in the US cited financial challenges as one of the reasons to get an elective abortion.  

Other data shows just how expensive carrying to term can be. A study from 2015 found that women with health insurance pay $4,500 on average for delivery and pre and post-partum care. If 75% of abortions occur for women who earn less than $26,000 a year, a pregnancy alone costs nearly 20% of their annual income. Additionally, in 2015, a single parent could expect to pay an average of $172,200 to raise a child from birth to age 17, “not including child-related expenditures made by the parent without primary care or by others, such as grandparents.”

If you are this hypothetical woman who earns 200% of the federal poverty level, carrying to term will cost you 20% of your annual income and 40% of your income each year for the next 17 years.

Teach men to accept responsibility

One in four children in the US do not live with their father. We lead the developed world in fatherlessness. Considering 31% of women cited partner-related issues as a factor in choosing an elective abortion, men have a strong role to play in helping to reduce abortion. By persuading a significant other to have an abortion (or by simply disappearing), fathers often drive women to make very difficult choices. 

A note on adoption:

Many posit that women should carry a fetus to term and put it up for adoption. In 2019, over 64,000 US children were adopted. There were 629,898 abortions in 2019. Based on these numbers, if anyone thinks adoption is a viable option for ending elective abortion, I would challenge them to start the adoption process themselves.

What? You can’t afford or don’t have the space to take on a baby? Your partner doesn’t want to take on a baby? It’s not the right time? That’s how she feels.

A final note: 

If we can all agree that we want to reduce the number of abortions, there are real, actionable steps to make that happen. It’s not as simple or convenient as overturning a court ruling. 

Teach your sons and daughters about safe sex and how to reduce unwanted pregnancies. 

Teach your boys to take responsibility for their actions. 

If you’re staunchly pro-life, great. Start the adoption paperwork. Donate money or create a fund to help women after they have given birth. (Pregnancy resource centers don’t count. A bit of counseling and a few free diapers doesn’t cut it.) Advocate for free, accessible birth control and better maternal leave. Open your wallet and help pay a single mom’s tuition or watch her kid while she works or takes classes. Just don’t sit on your couch and congratulate yourself on your perceived moral victory. A lot more kids might be born. And their moms will likely be brown and poor and alone. Go help someone dramatically different from you by giving your time and money. After all, it’s for the kids, right?  Hear her story, hold her child, and give her real, tangible support. It will be hard work. That’s what you’ve signed up for. 

If you’re staunchly pro-choice, great. Even if you feel like you’ve lost the legal battle, donate your money to provide women with long-term, free contraception. Stock up on short-term and emergency contraception and offer it for free to anyone in your community. Chances are, you’ll have women showing up at your comfortably suburban and tastefully decorated front door. They will likely be brown and poor and alone. Offer her opportunities and resources to climb out of poverty. Challenge your school district’s abstinence-only sex education. Work with “the other side” to set up funds and support for new moms. Demand that your representatives support the same children they were so eager to “save” now that those children face a lifetime of challenges, poverty, and fatherlessness.  It will be hard work. That’s what you’ve signed up for.

The Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe vs Wade has felt like a huge moral victory or defeat for many. I personally find it reprehensible, and I think it will absolutely lead to more unsafe abortions and more poverty (and all the negative outcomes poverty produces). 

If we truly want to reduce abortion, we need to offer women more choices. Not less.


Manifesto of the Children of the Mountains

Recently, I found and read The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism, written by the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti at the turn on the 20th century. With Marinetti’s spirit in mind, here is a manifesto of the mountains, much needed at the dawn of the 21st century.

We are the children of the mountains, the sons and daughters of the forests and fields. We are those who live beneath the barren stars in the solitary night.

My friends and I had stayed up all night, dancing in time with the frenetic movement of the Aurora Borealis, dodging the moonlit shadows of the mountains. We listened to the murmurings of the frozen river and the crackling of the fire. Ours was a night of laughter and merriment in the frigid darkness.

Through our revelry, we could hear the silence from the grimy horizon of the city. It was the silence of tomb-like rooms, abandoned tables, and discarded wrappers.

“Quick! Up!” we cried as the silence mingled with the smoke.

“Now is the time for action! Our brothers and sisters exist in that silence, slaves to their blue screens, their loneliness, the worthless obligations demanded by an impotent society! For too long they’ve listened to their corporate mothers and fathers. They’ve traded the real world for a billion, glittering unrealities. They worship their god ‘The Future’ and his archangel ‘Technology,’ as the altars of the past crumble and humanity lies abandoned underneath the wires and wheels and radio waves.”

My friends and I stood up straight, tilting our heads at the dark and unfathomable sky. We thought of our brothers and sisters, their backs arched in reverence to their tiny electric gods. We mourned their limp satisfaction with their artificial lives. We clenched our teeth on their unwavering faith in the empty promises of the future.

We stoked the fire higher. All through the night the mountains echoed our laughter and stories and the muffled sound of our axes. Higher and higher the flames lept into a dancing sky. The fire became our beacon, our tiny insubstantial flame against the indifferent technological darkness.

Somewhere from the deepest part of our aching guts came this chant — this manifesto:

  1. We reject the empty promises of the “future” sold to us by society. We look to the past for answers, drawing on the tapestry of authentic human experience to guide our path. The future has always offered empty promises.
  2. We’ve sacrificed too much personal agency, creativity, and original thought at the altar of technology. We abhor any technology that destroys community, that separates us from nature, or that traffics in unrealities and vanity.
  3. We demand the real. We will no longer be satisfied with the virtual, the hyper-real, the artificial. We demand dirty hands, strong backs, and stout hearts. We are children of the mountains.
  4. We reject our culture’s narrative of happiness and success. We will no longer measure our lives by the standards of a sick society. We will measure our lives by our own standards: by the ideas we create, by the gardens we plant, by the mountains we climb, by the feasts we share. We do not seek happiness. We seek authenticity.
  5. We welcome the hard road — the way of struggle, of hard work found in workshops and soil and lofty mountain peaks. Hardship is the crucible of truth; our skin tells stories in scars.
  6. We reject the trappings of vanity — the likes and shares and tweets and snaps that birth hideous discontent. We do not traffic in unrealities. We live our lives, not record them.

We repeated this chant louder and louder. Our forested echoes reached the silent city and was heard in the veins and the stagnant blood of a million sleepless bodies.

We ran through the city streets, our raucous shouts interrupting the nauseating industrial symphony of clicks and buzzes and dings.

“Wake! Wake!” we cried, “There is another way! It is the way of the children of the mountains!” In our rough and calloused hands we carried axes, torches, seeds, and poetry as we called to a hundred million souls lost in the fog of technology and comfort.

“Our axes are here to crush your Instagram realities! Our torches are here to burn down the pillars and temples of vanity! Our seeds will be spread in the concrete cracks of your illusions of control! Our poetry is crafted from words you have forgotten how to speak!”

Bleary, sullen eyes peeped with fear and distrust from behind curtained windows and above intimate screens. Their soft and fleshy faces began to appear in doorways as they stared at ours — hard and rough and etched with scars and lines of laughter. Gloriously flawed.

As our footsteps faded past their windows and doorways and bedrooms, they felt their blood warm with forgotten memory, with latent untranslatable desire. From our clothes, they caught the scent of wood and sweat and soil.

We returned to our mountains — to our gardens and feasts and midnight winter revelries. Here we craft our lives of meaning. Here we launch our raucous love songs to the barren sky.


Reflections from the trapline

The woods after the first snowfall have a distinctive sound. The world becomes quieter, and any remaining sound is muffled, as though filtered through cotton. It’s in this new silence that I find myself snowshoeing through the trees. My headlight illuminates the forest ten feet in front of me — the entirety of my universe at this moment. Nightfall is arriving earlier every day here in Alaska, and these woods, now dark and covered with snow, seem strangely unfamiliar.

As I walk, I come upon tracks. With the recent winter storm, these tracks cannot be more than a day or two old. Here a squirrel raced from one spruce tree to the next. As a trapper, one begins to see the world through the eyes of the animals. I cannot help but think of the squirrel as he hopped through the snow. Was he full of fear as he moved through the open, looking skyward for an eagle or owl? Has he stored enough food for the winter? As I imagine him rushing over the snow, anxious and alone, I can almost sense that same feeling of trepidation running through my nerves.

xmas (1 of 2)Here an arctic hare made his way along the edge of the willows. It’s been years since I’ve seen many hare tracks on this mountainside, and their huge, soft prints bring a smile to my face. They’ve returned.


Hare populations increase and decline in an almost clock-like fashion. Some years their trails crisscross the snow like highways designed by a madman. The animals are pure white and difficult to see, so their roads and back alleys are usually the only sign that they share the woods with me. When they are abundant one can sense their presence from their shadows moving across the snow. Eventually though, their population will collapse. A combination of overpopulation and predation takes their toll, and one winter their tracks will be gone. It will be a few years before I will see their tracks again, and ten before they once again lay down their snowy highways.

The trapper lives within this same cycle of plenty and hardship. The populations of fox, lynx, and coyote mirror the populations of hare, shrew, and squirrel. Trappers must accept, just like the animals they pursue, that their will be lean years and abundant years. Some winters the landscape seems eerily empty —  as though it has been entirely abandoned. Other years, signs of winter life is etched into the snow with myriad footprints.

Trappers can help temper these cycles of overpopulation and collapse. Even to this day, trapping regulations usually stipulate no limit on the number of animals one can harvest in a season. It is up to the trapper to understand these cycles and not exploit the land. If an area is over-trapped, the breeding population of furbearers can no longer maintain itself and the animals will disappear. The landscape is out of balance, and will remain out of balance for some time.

Likewise, areas that remain untrapped suffer the worst of the boom and bust cycle. Without trappers to temper the number of predators, they can decimate the population of prey animals making the recovery of prey populations harder. Trapping, in some way, is stewardship of the land. It’s entering and participating in the natural cycles of the wilderness, while still being conscientious of it; making sure one never takes too much…


As I continue to walk, I come across fox tracks. A line of deep, straight dimples stretch across the snow in either direction from me. As I follow the tracks, I once again see the world from eyes other than my own. Where was he headed? Was he simply strolling through his territory, enjoying the silence as I do now? Perhaps he was hungry, cocking his head to one side to catch the impossibly faint sound of a shrew beneath the snow. I do not know, but I play all these scenarios through my mind, trying to enter his.

In a world where we think of all knowledge as coldly scientific, a trapper, hunter, or fisherman holds knowledge that is deeply personal. The favorite tree of the resident grouse. The small creek that never seems to freeze. The unpicked harvest of cranberries still on the bush. A trapper find a small piece of earth and lets it teach him. In this way, those lonely souls walking the woods at night carry a knowledge that is deeply personal and utterly unique. They “know” a landscape in a way no one else does.

Many people think of trapping as an activity that is somehow exploitative and wasteful. The idea of harvesting an animal for its fur, in the era of Gore-tex and nylon, seems unnecessary. They visualize scared-looking animals in traps, their dignity stripped from them. The reality of trapping is far more complex.

foxes (1 of 1)When I come upon my catch, there is a mix of emotions. Certainly there is a feeling of pride. I’ve learned what the landscape has been able to teach me. All the scouting, preparation, and work have not been in vain. I’ve entered the animal’s world and have played a fair game.

Often that pride is accompanied by sadness. I’ve spent weeks, maybe months, playing the game and now the game is over. His tracks will disappear from the landscape, hopefully to be replaced next year.

Above all, there is a feeling of respect for the animal. Touching its coat, feeling the softness and warmth, one cannot help but respect an animal that can thrive is such conditions. Every time I catch an animal, I carry it home in my arms. Part of this is pragmatic — I don’t want to damage the fur — but part of it is symbolic. The animal, whose life has been long extinguished, still deserves respect. Many emotions run through me in quick succession as I cradle it in my arms.

Trapping essentially centers around mortality, and I don’t think that fact is lost on many trappers. Trappers delight in a “clean catch,” where the animal was quickly killed and didn’t suffer much. Likewise, one is filled with remorse when one occasionally catches an animal improperly and it’s death was unnecessarily long.

I think about mortality a lot while I’m on the trapline. As I watch relatives die from cancer, as I notice parents getting older and slower, and as I carefully lift the stiff and cold weight of a fox out of the snow, I cannot help but think about death. How will I go? The trapline has illuminated my thoughts on my own ending. My hopes for the fox and myself are the same. In the end, I’m just hoping for a “clean catch.”

Skinning the animal is equally respectful. A well-skinned fur will fetch far higher prices than a sloppy one, but the ritual is more than that. It takes me about an hour and half to skin a fox. Every movement is a gentle one as I use my knife and my fingers to slowly undress it. Its scent fills my nostrils. I fuss and worry over it. For time  to time, and step back purely to admire it.

Once the skin is off, stretched and dry, I take a hair brush and softly comb the hair backwards, revealing the thickness of the fur. It is a final ritual before I put the fur up, to be tanned or sold.

Most humans don’t receive such burial rites.

Once the fox is skinned, I take the carcass and strap it to my backpack or sled. I bring him back to woods, using him as bait for another set. Chances are, the ravens and eagles will get to him first. Most of him is returned to the land from which he came…

Tonight, however, my snares are empty. The fox has been hunting another part of his territory, and his tracks merely pass through this piece of woods. I leave the forest and pull my frosty hat off my head. Behind me, the quiet forest —  my tracks mingling with his.



It’s not often that I write about specific events in the news. Most stories get pushed through the news cycle like meat through a grinder. There’s often little left to say that hasn’t already been said and I rarely feel the need to comment on things that are already sensationalized.

However, the shootings in Connecticut are different. Maybe it’s because I have kids that are school aged. Maybe it’s because the story knocks on the deepest fears of a parent: losing a child. Maybe it’s because I am a teacher. But whatever the reason, it is events like these that cannot tolerate silence.

There’s no doubt in the coming days that public dialogue will shift from the tragedy that these families experienced to matters of policy. The gun lobby will recite their tired slogans. The gun-control proponents will do the same. Fingers will be pointed and news anchors will ask, in a vague and slightly sincere way, “How could this happen?” This story will dominate the news cycle for a week or two — at least until a more interesting story hits the front page. They will profile the shooter and try to explain what was wrong with him. They will interview people who said they never saw this coming, and others who say they did. And that will be that. Shootings in Oregon, in Connecticut , in Colorado, in Arizona and in Virginia will eventually be filed away, only to be mentioned as a comparison of body counts when the next mass shooting occurs.

In some ways, these things have become a sort of accepted archetype. Since Columbine (and maybe before) mass shootings have simply become a fact of post-modern society. It’s never a matter if another shooting will occur, but a matter of where and when. And in some way, we’re complicit in this.

Psychiatric patients aside, shootings like this demonstrate how untethered — how utterly disconnected — people can become. There is no other explanation for such violence and evil. It’s not access to guns that are causing these murders. It is not the failure of institutions or law enforcement to identify these people that is the problem. The problem is that we live in a society that allows for such extreme and destructive isolation.

It’s all too easy to be isolated from each other: from friends, from family, from a sense of community. These things root us. They provide a sense of how we are connected (and important) to each other, to our sense of place, and to the world. When I sit down with my daughter and read her a book, I understand that she is utterly dependent on me for not only the necessities of life, but also for teaching her a sense of place and belonging — to orient her in this world. When I gather to celebrate with friends, I begin to comprehend that I am forever tied to the narratives of many other people’s lives. When I worship in the pew on Sunday, I understand that my own history is written on the walls of the building and on the wrinkled faces of people who have watched me grow up. I am connected and my roots run deep.

We are not all so fortunate. The allure of our screens, the normalcy of divorce, and the breakdown of a sense of community allows us to cast ourselves adrift. It’s too easy to “plug in and tune out.” Without community and without connection, there are no outside forces to correct us, to question us, or to reveal our connection to the larger world. In my opinion, the problem of isolation is the problem of perspective. When I am connected to others, I am no longer the center of my own universe. I conceive of the world as a more complicated, connected, and wondrous place. But when I am isolated, my universe revolves around me. The daily struggles, failures, and problems of my life are not put in the larger context of a world far bigger than my personal problems. On the contrary, when I am isolated, my problems and struggles are the problems and struggles of my universe and become a much deeper, more serious problem. It is in this darkness of isolation, without the perspective and connection of a larger life, that we encounter the worst of ourselves.

I’m not suggesting that I know why the killer did what he did. Only God knows. But we have to look at such acts of violence not as an independent act, but as a symptom of something much larger. It’ a symptom of a disease. Our society and our lives are not healthy. Until we address the underlying disease — until we have the difficult discussions and the social revolution we need to become connected — we are simply treating the headache of a brain tumor with Advil.


Of sausage making and celebration

River helps me with the sausage stuffer.

A couple weeks ago, my family, my dad, and my brother gathered together to make sausage. I’ve made sausage ever since I was a little boy. I remember sitting on the kitchen counter of my grandparent’s ranch, helping my grandma separate pork casings and check for holes. I remember helping my grandfather butcher a pig or two that he bought at auction to mix with the venison — I watched as a living animal became tranformed into food.

Sausage making has always been a sort of celebration. In the cutting and grinding of meat, the mixing of spices, in the stuffing and the smoking, there is ample time for celebrating. We retell hunting stories and dream of next season. We laugh at the funny or scary stories that the year’s hunt produced. We reflect on weather and missed opportunities. We give thanks for the pure and nutritious wild game we have harvested.

All of this celebration happens in the midst of good work. We are busy from morning to evening with cutting, cleaning, stuffing, smoking, and packaging. By the end of the day, we’re  tired but happy at having put away food for the coming winter. The day is full of stories old and new, laughs, and memories…

I’ve been thinking about celebration a lot lately. As the holidays quickly approach I’ve been questioning what we celebrate and why we celebrate it. I’ve been thinking about how much of our cultural celebration has been co-opted.

Walk through any supermarket and one will see the “celebration industry” in full form. A cake is made from a box or purchased. Party decorations are readily available, pre-packaged, and licensed. One can even order balloons to be delivered instead of blowing them up themselves. What we call “celebrations” can easily fit into a shopping basket.

All of these products, of course, are promoted as making these celebrations “more convenient.” They’re marketed as taking the stress out of parties. What we forget is that celebration is more than just the party. Celebration is a matter of good work done together before and after the gathering. It is telling stories over a sink, or good-natured teasing, or of giving thanks for the past. This “good work” is largely removed from our pre-packaged celebrations. We hire florists and caterers. We buy branded themes of party favors and overly-sugared cakes. At the end of our so-called “celebration” we’re left with a trashcan full of plastic table clothes and a sugar hang-over. This is not true celebration.

Another problem with celebration is that we need something to celebrate. Celebration often comes at the end of a long and arduous journey — at the end of a marathon, the birth of a child, or the end of a hunt. These types of celebrations acknowledge the hard work and struggle that the participants have undergone. Of course, the highly commercialized holidays we celebrate — secular Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Halloween, and Thanksgiving  — in no way celebrate our accomplishments or struggles. They are merely celebration for the sake of celebration. These holidays no longer celebrate a successful harvest, the struggles of saints, or the birth of hope. We’ve replaced the meaning of these holidays with hearts, turkeys, and tinsel, a poor substitute. If anything, secular Christmas and Thanksgiving are meaningful if only for the good work that is shared in preparing the afternoon meal of turkey and cranberry sauce.

Finally, “entertainment” has largely replaced celebration. If celebration is giving thanks and good work done together, entertainment is a passive substitute. Celebrating a winning football team or our favorite actor receiving an Oscar may give us the same sense of pleasure and pride, but it is a poor alternative. It may quench our thirst for a sense of accomplishment, but we have not shared with others in good work, in struggle, in success.

With these thoughts in mind, I’m half-tempted to abandon many of the holidays we celebrate. And as I make seafood chowder and bread bowls for old friends this weekend, hopefully I’ll be a little more mindful of the good work that accompanies our gathering together — our celebration.




The Truth Reveals Itself

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been starting my classes out with a poem taken from the Poetry 180 site. It’s been a good way to get students in the right mindset, and it requires that I start reading poetry on a regular basis.

It’s funny the way that writing reveals itself to you. Over the course of teaching and exploring a poem with five different classes over two day span, the poem slowly begins to reveal itself; the fifth time I discuss the poem with the class, it is an entirely different beast than when I started.

I’m constantly  being re-reminded of the rewards of being is a state of patient expectation. The last few weeks I’ve been spending quite a bit of time hunting. Perched in a tree or sitting on top of a hill, I wait in silent hope. I may see moose, I may not, but in that state of intense listening, watching, and anticipation, even nature reveals itself in a rare way. Watching a mouse loudly busy himself near my feet, observing a raven circling the clouded sky, or studying the intricacy of the tundra beneath me: these are the ways nature reveals itself to those who sit in silence and expectation.

In a society that values getting as much done as we possible can, and where we intentionally set a break-neck pace for our day, it’s no wonder so many of us feel disconnected, discontent, and  stressed. There is simply no room to practice silent expectation:  waiting for a poem, the world, or God himself to be revealed to us in due time.



The hard work of community.

I had the most interesting experience this Sunday. Our church, which is a fairly conservative flavor of Lutheranism, had a congregational meeting. At issue was whether the church should change its constitution to allow women to serve as vice-president and president of the church council.

From the outside looking in, it would appear that our church is decades behind the times. In some ways, they’d be right. But what happened yesterday was testament to the power of community and culture, and the hard work of intentionally considering our community:

I walked into the sanctuary expecting the meeting to be a quick and easy vote to change the church constitution. Of course we would allow women on the council, I thought. We filed in, signed our names on the attendance sheet, and grabbed the proposal.

The pastor started the meeting with a prayer, making some vague reference to “contentious issues.” Then the council president gave a brief run-down of the proposal.

“We found that few people are interested in council positions,” he started, “We changed the wording in these two rules to allow for women to serve as council president. Any discussion?”

The church remained silent for a minute. I figured that this vote would be nothing more than procedural. But one of the older and highly respected members of the church raised his hand.

“It’s not that I don’t support this,” he started, “but I believe that women are the heart and the center of the family. Their role is so important. I don’t want their responsibilities on the church council to take them away from that important role.”

The congregation sat in silence for a few moments, considering what had just been said.

Another respected member of the church raised his hand. “I support this idea, but are we doing this for the right reasons? If we’re only allowing women to fulfill this role because the men don’t want to do it, aren’t we just ignoring the real problem?”

Again, there was silence as the congregation considered his words.

A woman spoke up, “Here’s the way I see it. By not allowing women to serve as president, we are essentially leaving half of our talent pool untapped. Why would we do that?”

The conversation continued in much the same way for another half an hour. Each member humbly offered his or her opinion. After each person spoke, the congregation reflected on their words in a few moments of silence.

From the outside looking in, people might be shocked that a group of 21st century Americas were actually having a conversation about whether women should be in leadership roles. But from the inside, that’s not what happened at all.

On Sunday, our community came together to have a discussion. In a very authentic and intentional way, we decided how to change our culture.

The respect that had been built from decades of mutual work and experience allowed each member to talk honestly and openly. Everyone was shown respect for their opinion and words – not because it was the right thing to do, but because they had earned that respect from years of service to the community and by their evident spirituality.

Furthermore, we talked thoughtfully about how this change would affect our community and culture. Popular and homogenized culture demands that people change according to the will of the masses, but a true community examines the value and merit of changes that will affect its culture, even if their choices put them out of the mainstream.

That’s why I respect the Amish so much. They have spent centuries, as a culture, determining how new fashions, new technology, and new beliefs would affect their culture. And overall, they’ve decided the culture of the populous is not a healthy culture. Instead, they have kept the family and the community at the forefront of their values.

In the end, we did decide that women should be allowed to be council president by a vote of 42-2. It was undoubtedly the right decision even if it was a few decades late. But more importantly, we had the conversation. That’s were the hard work of community begins.



Facebook, efficient relationships, and the “performance of self”

I was watching an interview the other day with an author by the name of Sherry Turkle, from MIT, and she briefly mentioned a few topics I thought were worth discussing…

On my Facebook page, there is a small box that proudly proclaims how popular I am. “You have 182 friends,” it states. According to Facebook, my social life is represented in 182 tiny thumbnails pictures of my “friends” and my interests in life are tidily summed up on my “Info” page.

Every morning I wake up and scan my “News Feed” where an algorithm feeds me the latest news from my 182 friends. It determines what information I should see. I scan the page in 30 seconds, quickly perusing the latest news and minutia from my 182 friends’ lives. Feeling content that I have kept up on my social connections, I grab my lunch and head out the door.

In the evenings, I occasionally load images or messages to my Facebook page. Isolated from others, I carefully curate my latest photos, deeply thinking before I assign captions and “tags.” I consider how to phrase my status update, knowing that 182 friends may see my picture or my status. This thought gives me feelings of grandeur.

My entire social life has become incredibly efficient. In a matter of minutes, I have kept up with my 182 friends. This, according to many, is the “new” way of connecting socially.

With 600 million people “connected” to one another is this way, we have to wonder whether we will eventually forget how to truly connect with each other and our community. As an MIT professor has recently said, “there is a difference between the ‘performance of self’ and ‘self.’”

I would argue that true community requires a level of both privacy and intimacy that is not possible with “social” media. I think deep down, we recognize this. When I look at my “news feed” I do not see the following status updates:

  • I’m thinking of leaving my wife
  • I’m lonely
  • I’m grateful in an inexplicable way for the wonders of life.
  • I’m not sure how to parent my kids
  • We got into a huge fight
  • I feel a sense of contentment and spiritual peace.
  • I’m lost in life.
  • I don’t know what I believe.

These are the sort of intimate details that we only share with those who are closest to us. They’re not the sort of things we share with 182 near-strangers. And so our social media is actually filled with pointless statements:

  • I made brownies today
  • I finished my essay
  • I went for a jog today
  • I love “Glee!”

At the end of the day, we think we’ve had meaningful interactions, but all we’ve really done is publicly postured our lives; all we’ve done is played the role of ourselves; all we’ve done is talked about things that don’t matter. And we’ve done it in an extremely “efficient” way. We have reduced the work of community to a few words and mouse clicks.

True community is both more public and private than this. It is messy and inefficient. In true community, we learn that living peacefully means listening more than talking. It means keeping things to ourselves. It means only allowing the handful of people into our lives who we trust.

At the same time, true community is far more public than “social media.” We cannot curate an image of ourselves when we spend time with each other. Building a house, backpacking through the wilderness, or worshipping beside one another necessitates a certain level of authenticity. We get to see each other’s true selves. This means that true community requires a certain level of vulnerability and tolerance. We find that we must show our true selves — vices and all — to our family, our friends, and our immediate community. In that sense we are vulnerable and trusting in their mutual trust of us, despite our failings. It is these interactions that create the sinews and ligaments of community. And it is these interactions that can never be recreated on a social network.


An excellent quote by a personal hero:

“But there are an enormous number of people — and I am one of them — whose native religion is Christianity. We were born to it; we began to learn it before we became conscious; it is, whatever we think of it, and intimate belonging of our being; it informs our consciousness, our language, our dreams. We can turn away from it or against it, but that will only bind us tightly to a reduced version of it. A better possibility is that this, our native religion, should survive and renew itself so that it may become as largely and truly instructive as we need it to be. On such a survival and renewal of the Christian religion may depend the survival of the Creation that is its subject.”

– Wendell Berry from “Christianity and the Survival of Creation”