The Sock in My Washing Machine
Four years ago, I started meditating, by which I mean that I sat down in the shower, for one minute per day, trying to focus on my breath. I mostly engaged in relentless thinking, but during the occasional break of silence, I incubated some useful realizations. I learned: my mind was like a washing machine with a bright sock lodged in the spin tub. Whatever passed through became discolored. Any information that my brain received would be tinted with prior reference. You could tell me a story and I would dye that story until it matched a familiar category.
I wanted to remove the sock from the washing machine. I did not want to be a washing machine at all. Maybe an empty vessel or a clear channel. Anything, really, to transcend the excruciating repetition that such slanted thinking invariably promised: if prior reference shot through everything I saw and heard and read, then I would experience variations on the same theme for the rest of my life. Being stuck like this seemed a boring way to go down. So I kept meditating in the shower, where it occurred to me that I was not alone—my bright sock was a liability of human nature. We live in a world of ubiquitous stuckness.
Into this world I deposited two abortion essays last year, and I saw how readers—perhaps washing machine types like myself—confer political meaning to narratives of abortion, even when the author has not. The New York Daily News ran an op-ed of mine, entitled “Get Your Politics Off My Grief,”about becoming Pro-Voice. The New York Times later published my Modern Love column, “A Lost Child, but Not Mine,”about my relationship with my ex-boyfriend, who had a baby with another woman three years after I ended my pregnancy. Readers Tweeted and Facebooked and blogged both pieces. I was profoundly grateful that anyone cared enough to scatter the stories around the Internet.
The morning after my Daily News op-ed ran, the Google Alert I have on myself (yeah, I have a Google Alert on myself) pinged my inbox. The link led me to a pro-life website featuring a spooky photo of yours truly and an article titled “Pro-choice op-ed: I choose ‘the right to wail myself to sleep.’” Framing that line from my story with a pro-choice slogan would have been cleverly barbed and maybe even funny had I actually published a pro-choice op-ed. But I hadn’t.
I had written about becoming part of the Pro-Voice movement, an apolitical, grassroots effort to unconditionally support the human beings who have had an abortion, regardless of their belief system and opinion on the procedure’s legal status. The Guttmacher Institute reports that about seventy percent of women who have had an abortion are religious: 37 percent Protestant, 28 percent Catholic, and seven percent other. We support them. Women and men who identify as pro-life or pro-choice have had an abortion. We support them. People in the United States and around the world have had legal and illegal abortions. We support them. Yet we are not interested in the conversation about legality. We envision an entirely new dialogue of shared experience and deep listening, free of politics. Such a unique approach can be difficult to grasp.
It must have been. In the weeks following both publications, readers hashtagged my essays #prochoice or #prolife, though I had not identified as either. I had actually voiced my desire to “keep my story out of the political sphere,” but each person has a bright sock in her washing machine, perhaps including that writer covering my op-ed for the pro-life website. My story entered her spin tub as Pro-Voice and came out as pro-choice. The title of my essay had requested that individuals remove their politics from my grief, but here was someone applying her politics to my grief. These labels indeed suggested more about the people sharing my stories than about the content of my essays. They certainly did not reflect what I had written.
Once my personal essays began circulating, I understood why authorial intent mattered.
When partisan nametags masquerade as the objective of a text, it is stripped of nuance. Reduced to a “pro-life story” or a “pro-choice story,” abortion experiences become objects to classify, limiting the audience or a reader’s encounter with the text. There is no quintessential abortion story, but labels give people license to stereotype before they scan the first line. Although I don’t know anyone whose story is identical to mine (if you’re out there, hey friend, Tweet at me), I still relate to others through their unique narratives, and I hope readers can relate to me—even the pro-choicer who sees #prolife jammed up against the headline.
Being branded pro-life and pro-choice did falsely implicate me in a political movement. I gave no opinion as to whether abortion should remain legal. I happen to believe that if party lines and debates were the answer to our national abortion gridlock, then we would have reached peace decades ago. Some might say that the political part of abortion is like the watery part of the ocean, but having ended a pregnancy, I can say that there’s a fine distinction. Participating in the debate is diametrically opposed to my sanity.
Because I plan to continue writing and speaking about my abortion, I have decided to accept that some communities treasure the sock in their washing machine, regardless of its tendency to warp any fabric it touches. Some individuals might be more interested in the problem than the solution. The Pro-Voice movement is a target without reward—“your experience is wrong” is not exactly persuasive oratory—but once an activist aligns me with her foe, she has made me a bull's-eye for her cause. I can let her. It does not serve my purpose to control how my experience is received. Not that this comes naturally. The more I feel is at stake in the matter and the more I cherish my own opinion, the more likely I am to distort what I observe. As a Pro-Voicer who wants to practice this way of being in every area of my life, I strive to develop the level of awareness that releases even the opinions that I hold dear. I am limited by my opinions and my expectations.
Ultimately, being characterized as pro-life or pro-choice is an expected occupational hazard of doing something new. Spreading the Pro-Voice worldview will help our future community to see that a different dialogue is possible. The more people who see, the greater the chance that men and women who have had abortions will feel safe enough to tell their story, whether to a friend or to the public. Pro-Voice is about listening and allowing stories to be complicated and contradictory, ugly or pretty or both, no judgments and no unsolicited tags. I aim to create the kind of world I want to live in. The challenges of joining the Pro-Voice movement have motivated me to keep meditating so I can bring nothing but my full attention to a person’s story. I still have a sock in my washing machine, but the dye has lost much of its power.
Kassi Underwood’s essays have appeared in The New York Times and the New York Daily News. An MFA candidate at Columbia University, she is working on a memoir about her quest for post-abortion therapies and cultural rituals. She recently represented the Pro-Voice movement on a Planned Parenthood panel called Demystifying Abortion. Follow her on Twitter @kassiunderwood
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