Last Saturday, I sat on a bus with eighteen women and rode to Mt. Ranier National Park as part of an excursion from YWE (Young Women Empowered) Nature Connections program. The purpose of YWE, partnering with the Seattle Mountaineers to create Nature Connections was to build confidence in these young women, to get them out of their comfort zones, and build empowerment, fostering the next generating of creating change. Having previously committed to this program, I just couldn’t pull myself away from this event to participate in a march, even one I believed in with my whole heart. As one of my friends and classmates had but it earlier in the week, “You’re doing what they’re marching for.”
On the bus as the sun rose over the mountains and city, I checked up on my phone. I saw pictures of signs, march T-shirts, groups of women in pink hats. In New York, three hours ahead my brother and his girlfriend, a fantastic artist and wonderful girl sent me their photos with the sign “Fight Like a Girl”. A big part of me wanted to be there, marching with the women. I felt bad. Like I missed a part of history. Maybe I should have gone. It would have filled me with hope and voices, strength for the future.
But on the bus that morning, we talked about our lives and our struggles. I listened as a sixteen year old girl described to me her struggles with her parents, mental health, school, and self esteem. I told her I believed in her and thought that she could finish up the semester, catch up on her work. The bus wound up the road. Sun filtered through the trees and the mountains loomed. Some of the girls leaned out of the windows, amazed at the world around them.
During our hike, the girls were over the moon, frolicking and playing, throwing snowballs and rolling around. And one point two of them raced up the side of a hill, tripping over their own snowshoes and falling in a heap in the snow. During lunch, we sat in a snowy clearing off the trail, the huge spiked peaks of the Tatoosh range towering over us. Anna, the program director looked over to me, and asked if I wanted to say something. I nodded.
I kneeled down in the snow and said calmly, “If everyone can hear me, put your sandwich in the air”, I said. They did.
“Ok.” I took a deep breath. The mountain air was cold. “Last night I had texted Anna because I was feeling bad about missing the march. I was thinking if there was a way we could combine them, this experience here and the thousands of women marching in Seattle and around the world. I don’t want us to feel separate. I want us to feel, not separate but a part of everything that is happening today; we are conquering our challenges too, giving a picture of what women are capable of, and what we deserve.” I paused. Nods from the girls. I continued,
“So, in the spirit of this day, of this world we live in, and women everywhere I wanted to take a second to recognize that. Anna and I had the idea that, what if, we just took a few moments to go around in a circle and tell a story about a women that inspires you.” I paused again. More chewing. More nods.
“Okay… I’ll start.”
The conversation that followed was one of the most powerful of my life. Not powerful in the sense of deliberate action, or activism, but in the stories. In the raw emotion, the magic of the place, the sense of the mountains and the power behind us. In the surprised stares of passersby as a group of 17 women sat in a circle under mountain peaks, ate sandwiches and talked. In the tears in the eyes of the girls and mentors as they spoke of teachers, mothers, sisters, grandmothers, school counselors, and friends. Sitting in the snow, in protected land, on the edge of the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states of our entire country, eating sandwiches in the quiet mountain air, we held solidarity. Solidarity for the environment, for nature and for ourselves. And we talked about the women who made us strong.
The whole time, I had my gloved hand resting on chest, just below my neck. Under my scarf and layers and layers was my grandmother’s moonstone necklace. I had put in on that morning. Behind every woman is a woman who came before, and a women before her. That day she climbed the mountain with me.
As we descended back to the bus, I remember having a thought. Maybe this wasn’t just a hike. Maybe, today, it was our march.
Two weeks ago, while sitting in graduate school class, I had reached into my bag to pull out a pen. Instead I pulled out a pregnancy test. Hastily, I shoved it back into the bag, looking around to make sure no one saw. No one did. Flushed, I grabbed my pen, opened my notebook and began to write.
The precursor to this event was an appointment I was supposed to have the next day at the health center on the University of Washington campus to get an IUD. Earlier in the month I had attended an informational appointment at the health center, where the representative nurse showed me diagrams of the uterus, little plastic models of the T-shaped device, and spoke to me about the pros and cons of each type. Nervous, I made an appointment for a few weeks out, noting in my day planner “no sex” (okay fine sue me, careful sex) for the weeks leading up, and scrawling “take pregnancy test” on the morning of the day of the procedure. God forbid someone sticks something up my uterus if I happen to be pregnant right?
When the appointment came, I’ll be straightforward; I was completely freaking out. Maybe it was my small town fairly conservative public school upbringing, (in which my middle school sex education class consisted of playing a board game, where different squares were different ailments that occurred from having unprotected sex based upon the roll of a dice. I then had to write a detailed, shameful essay why my little chess piece ended up with chlamydia, herpes, and two illegitimate children…) Or maybe it was my cousin, who had the procedure done a few weeks prior and suffered pretty severe pain and cramping. Or maybe it was the fact that, besides the research I had done, and the assurance from friends, I still felt like I was largely facing an unknown.
In any event, I hardly slept the night before, and woke the next morning feeling shaky, popping a bunch of Advil, and texting all of my friends for encouragement. Unfortunately that morning I had to work an early shift at the rock wall on campus, which I wasn’t able to leave early from. I tried to change my appointment to later, which also wasn’t possible, so I figured I’d just run straight from work to the health center, hoping to be only a little late. As soon as the last person came down off the ropes, I grabbed my bag, rushed to the bathroom, peed on the stick I’d been mistaking for a pen (blue circle, blue line, not pregnant, always good), and ran as fast as I could across the parking lot and up the stairs to the health center.
Panting, I sat down at the desk, explained I was late, but I had an appointment at the women’s clinic downstairs. The lady looked pissed, pursed her lips and made a phone call; “Nope. Yup. Busy? Okay. I’ll send her down for rescheduling.” My heart sank.
“You’ll have to reschedule,” she said tersely. “We’re busy. Head downstairs and they’ll help you out.”
I slowly grabbed my bag and walked downstairs to the women’s clinic. The lady at the desk looked apologetic; “We’re just so busy,” she said. “It’s okay,” I said quietly. “I can reschedule you in two weeks.” “OK.” She typed a few things into the computer and smiled dismissively. I picked up my bag and slowly walked away.
Heading down the hallway toward the exit, I passed a bathroom. Quickly I pushed open the door and let it shut again. I leaned against the wall. I couldn’t help it. I broke down. Just started sobbing out of control. Maybe it was the emotional strain, the hype, the stress I had put myself under for nothing that day. Maybe it was just the pressure from grad school, finally getting me, causing my emotions to spiral.
But maybe it was something else.
According to some sources, the amount of women getting IUDs has increased by 900% since the election. A form of birth control which will last for seven years. Will outlast a presidency. A presidency that does not respect the basic rights of women. Because writhing beneath our society right now is this fear, is misogyny, and the knowledge that the basic rights of our own bodies won’t be protected. And maybe viscerally, deep down, somewhere, I just needed to know that I would be okay.
So maybe it was fear. Fear for my own body, fear to speak, and a desire to finally face that fear and deal with it head on which had been temporarily snuffed out, postponed. Now listen. I know this sounds cliche and over dramatic. I know thousands and millions of women have IUDs, and it is extremely commonplace, not seen as a big deal. But my hands shaking as I walked up the steps to the health center is not over dramatic. Making semi-permanent biological changes to a women’s body is not over dramatic. Someone sticking something so far up my vagina that it was practically going to the moon for all I knew is not over dramatic, and you if you think you are in a position to tell me otherwise, you can honestly shut the fuck up because you have no right. Because it’s goddamn invasive, it’s my body, and I’m afraid. It’s fear. It’s shamed based societal fear, driven and indebted in to me by a culture to afraid to talk about it’s most basic bodily procedures.
Last month I spent over 100$ on over the counter plan B at the downtown Seattle Target, waiting shaking in line, praying for a female check out assistant. And then why I did I later lie to my doctor about how much I had taken because I was ashamed? Just as I had been too afraid just to tell my new and very well-intentioned partner that I wasn’t on any birth control out of fear he wouldn’t want to sleep with me?
Why did a good, well educated college friend one time have to come to me to tell me her period was 15 days late? She was terrified but she wasn’t sure if she was pregnant because, from a conservative upbringing she didn’t have a good understanding of how pregnancy even worked. I coached her that time through buying a pregnancy test, nervous on her behalf until later that night I received still one of the greatest sequences of texts I’ve gotten to date, reading; “We’re in the clear.” “Longest two minutes of my life,” and, “Thank god for self check outs”.
And why did it take me four drinks one night over Christmas vacation just to tell my mother I was planning to get an IUD, yet a flu shot and check up is as routine as they come? What, in this culture, about oppression, about sex, about being a woman, makes us so fucking afraid just to speak? Maybe part of it is ignorance, of lack of knowledge and the failure of sex education in this country. When I was a freshman in high school at 14 years old, my first real boyfriend broke up with me immediately after I told him “no” when he started to unbutton his pants. I didn’t even know what I was saying no to. I couldn’t tell anyone for years; my parents or even friends. I just said it didn’t work out. I was guilty, shameful, and heartbroken, convinced I had done something wrong. It took a long time to undo that feeling, and even longer to even begin to get angry about it. In France they have sex museums children attend from early ages, just to learn how it all works. But here, in this country and many others, we have shame. The inherent belief, that we, as women, have done something wrong simply for the actions of our bodies.
I have a strong passion for bringing women into the outdoors. This past summer I led backpacking trips for all women ages middle school and high school. I remember one time one of the girls came to my co-leader and myself on the trail while we were stopped for a break. She was trembling and her eyes were full of tears. She asked if she could have a tampon. I remembered earlier in her paperwork that she, poor thing, at 13 years old had just gotten her period for the first time a few days before the trip. I remember myself kind of freezing, not sure how to help. Luckily my wonderful co-leader swooped in, giving her a huge hug, explaining that these things happen, and not to feel awkward or ashamed. That changing your tampon in the woods is cool. After she returned, we all sat on the trail together eating goldfish and complaining just about being women. It was in this time that a young girl, probably around the age of 14 said one of the best phrases I have still to this day ever heard;
“Why do I have to pay a luxury tax on tampons? There is NOTHING LUXURIOUS about BLEEDING OUT OF MY VAGINA.”
Sometimes, I told the girls that day in the woods, the female body can be awkward. It’s difficult and it’s fumbling, but at heart it is also insanely, beautifully perfect, endowed with the inalienable right to buy plan B from a checkout in Target without feeling ashamed. The right to carry a pregnancy test in your bag along with a pen, to talk openly about sex and the body, birth control, abortions and the blood that comes from us monthly, natural as the waxing and waning of the moon.
And this is why, on Saturday January 21st, 2017 collections women (and men) marched together bearing signs. Thousands. Millions. Millions of people to stand up for the rights of women, their bodies, their voices, and the voices of the LGBTQ community, African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, racism and causes worth fighting for. There were signs. There was singing. It was the largest national and international protest in history.
Just as we sat on the side of a mountain with tears in our eyes, reflecting the prisms of snow and the countless, thousands, millions carrying signs and marching in solidarity that same day. To mothers and sisters, and for my grandmother’s moonstone necklace and the courage to walk up a mountain, not separate but together.
Because, as silent as I way too often am, I am built up by the strong women around me; my dear beloved cousin who isn’t afraid to say anything to anyone, who talks openly about sex, and walks down the street proclaiming about her period, who marched on Saturday with her T-shirt which reads, “A Women’s Place Is In The House and Senate.” My college friend with the courage to come tell me she was afraid, and my bad ass ex roommate who owns a truck, runs ultra marathons, has a mug proclaiming “Man Tears”, who, when I texted out of desperation in the Target check out line responded, “Plan B? Please. Some days I basically eat that shit for breakfast.” I actually laughed out loud with relief. Yet she suffers daily from body image and self esteem issues, sometimes to the point of breaking.
And to the men as well, those who educate, love and support; husbands and brothers and friends, and even my pre-med college ex boyfriend, now a good friend, who sat with me in tears in the science library one day and charted out exactly why the hormones from my birth control pills were making me a crazy person. And to my current partner who sat with me over drinks at a bar one night, detailing the differences between types of IUDs, changes in menstrual cycles from hormones, and pros and cons of types of birth control. While I wanted to sink into the booth from awkwardness, he pressed undeterred, saying he thought it was important for men to know these things. “Plus”, he added with a shrug. “I learned a long time ago that women are much more likely to sleep with you if you can talk about periods.” I had a hard time arguing.
One morning, a few weeks later I realized that some blood from an unexpectedly early period had accidentally gotten on his sheets. Nervous, I sent an apologetic text. Later that night, he looked me straight in the eye and told me to never, ever again apologize for anything my body has done.
In Seattle, I am told that two bald eagles flew down over the march, circling as the protesters moved peacefully through the streets. There was cheering. A reminder of an America that was supposed to be, a hope for a time when we all can be treated with respect and dignity, when the words of the signs can come true.
Speaking of change, my new appointment for my IUD is tomorrow. Two hours before a graduate school exam. My friends are lined up with Advil, and my partner, bless his heart, has said he will make me a care package regardless of the fact that we haven’t been together long because, as he said, “I directly benefit from you being brave.” Men, take note.
My good friend and fellow writer Chuck will say that writing is not acting, because actions, not words, create change. But to me, everything starts with a voice. And voices create actions. A voice that comes from within us, beginning with the courage simply to speak.
We can’t be silent anymore, because we can’t afford to. Laws are being passed. Executive action is being taken by men, against the basic right for women to choose what is right for their own bodies. We can’t afford not to communicate, whether it’s with signs, with letters, with petitions or phone calls. And more importantly, we can’t afford not to communicate with those around us, with our friends, our partners, our families. Staying silent is losing; losing control of the country and of our own bodies. Simply sitting on the edge of the bed and looking a partner in the eye, saying it straight this is my body, and this is what it needs can be one of the hardest actions there is. Quite frankly, I’d much rather carry a sign.
But words are power. Voice is power.
So here it is. Step 1. Dear world; my name is Erin and I lead women to climb mountains. And tomorrow am getting an IUD, because I want my birth control to outlast this presidency and take back control over my body. And I’m terrified. But I am brave. Just as I want to sit in circles of women under an open sky and tall peaks, in the sacred protected land of our country, my grandmother’s necklace cool on my skin. I want to feel the wind on my face, bald eagles circling, laugh with my fellow women and exist in this world exactly as we are meant to, wild and free.
And I’m not afraid to say it.
No more shame.