Saturday, March 14, 2015

I didn't vaccinate my kid... and then I did.

It’s a little embarrassing to write this post. It would be easier to keep my head down, and keep my medical decisions private. But with all the recent news about the measles outbreak, and concerns about the high numbers of unvaccinated children in Vermont, I feel I must tell my story.

It begins long before my child was even a twinkle in my eye. Before I met my husband, even. I was working on an organic farm on the North shore of the island Kauai. The woman who owned the farm had two radiant children and a bookshelf full of everything you would ever want to know about natural childbirth and midwifery. When I wasn’t setting up drip irrigation or planting papaya trees I could usually be found reading one of these books. I’m not sure why I found them so fascinating, but I loved the photos and stories of women bearing their children without medical interventions.

Maybe it was because my own birth, in 1967, was quite the opposite of this. My mom was only 21, and had no wise older person to reassure her that she could have the natural childbirth she wanted. The doctors administered anesthesia, I was delivered with forceps, and my mom woke up three days later!

Many years after my time in Hawaii, when I became pregnant I sought out resources for a very different kind of childbirth than the one my mom experienced. I subscribed to Mothering magazine, which advocated home birth, breastfeeding, attachment parenting, and you guessed it, no vaccines. I can’t say I gave it a ton of thought. We had an amazing, empowering home birth, and our daughter was healthy and happy. If I had to boil it down, I would say that we had made a very different choice around birth, it worked out well for us, we distrusted the pharmaceutical companies, and worried that injecting our baby with vaccines would be more harmful to her health than, say, contracting chicken pox.

My pediatrician sister in law was horrified, and sent us terrifying photos of kids with the diseases we were choosing not to vaccinate against. It did nothing to change my mind. I was just sure that I was making the right choice. My mind was made up.

Fast forward ten years. The state of Vermont tried to get rid of the philosophical exemption, the rule that allows parents to send their kids to school unvaccinated, if they have a nonreligious objection to immunizations. Parents who didn’t believe in vaccinating stormed the statehouse, and the philosophical exemption was allowed to stand. I got a lot of emails urging me to join the lobbying effort, but somehow I just couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm.

A short time after this, my good friend Regan, a documentary film maker, posted a question on Facebook, asking her online community to weigh in on vaccines. I was really interested to read their responses, because a lot of her friends are scientists. The ensuing discussion was fascinating, and weighed heavily in favor of vaccines. But some of the comments, from Regan’s friends who are disability rights activists, pierced my heart. “Do you realize,” one of the comments read, “that many babies and children can not be vaccinated, no matter how much their parents wish they could be, due to different immune issues such as cancer. These children depend on herd immunity. In other words, they depend on the healthy individuals in the community receiving the vaccines, to prevent outbreaks of the diseases that can be so life threatening.”

Reading these comments, I realized that I was putting the extremely slim chance that a vaccine could harm our child ahead of the reality that someone else’s child’s life could be endangered. Suddenly I felt I had been unspeakably selfish. I spoke to my husband about it, and we made an appointment with the pediatrician the very next day.

Just as there is scientific consensus that climate change is real, there is overwhelming scientific consensus that vaccines keep the whole community healthy. You are unlikely to find scientists who do not believe in climate change, and you are unlikely to find scientists who do not vaccinate their own children. As Neal deGrasse Tyson said, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

I am an outspoken advocate for natural childbirth. I have had the incredible honor of attending six births, besides that of my own daughter. I’ve helped my friends navigate the challenges of breast feeding, co-sleeping, attachment parenting and other holistic ways of mothering. And after one last appointment, my child will be all caught up on her immunizations.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

 Painting the Tree of Yoga

I didn’t have enough going on over Chanukah, Christmas, and New Years, so I decided to paint a sixteen foot long mural on one of the walls in the yoga studio. Really, I would have preferred to do this at any other time, but this is just how things worked out. Actually, I wasn’t planning on painting the mural myself at all. I pictured myself more in the role of a benevolent overlord, saying encouraging things, like “Wow, it’s really coming along beautifully!” Or, “Maybe a little more green down at this end?”

When the studio moved to its new home in the Marble Works, a little over three years ago, I immediately began to imagine how this long wall would look, covered with a mural of a huge, spreading tree, with eight limbs. Because yoga is described as an eight limbed endeavor, the tree would depict each aspect of our practice. Although most of us are first drawn to yoga for some physical reason (we have a bad back, or we want to lower our blood pressure, or we want to be more flexible) we soon learn that through the doorway of the physical postures, we can learn about all the other facets of this rich practice.

The first limb of the tree is described by the sanskrit word Yama. Yama means abstentions, or ethical precepts, or What Not To Do. There are five branches coming off of this limb. These five ethical precepts are Not Harming (nonviolence), Truth (no dishonesty), Not Stealing (practicing generosity), Continence (no sexual misconduct), and Greedlessness (no hoarding resources).

Now my original intention for this mural was that someone, a real artist, would paint the tree, complete with bark, leaves, and nesting birds, and I would come along and write the sanskrit word along each limb. You may have guessed, from the opening paragraph of this column, that this is not exactly how things worked out. One of my students, a lovely young person and very talented artist, took my rough sketch and turned it into an elegant eight limbed tree, outlined on the wall. She sketched a monkey sitting on one of the limbs, and painted a beautiful peacock on another. Then she dropped off the face of the earth! Apparently this is not at all uncommon among college students, as finals and the holiday break approach.

It turned out that as soon as my artist friend had taken her last final, she had gone to NYC to take part in the Black Lives Matter protests, after the grand jury had declined to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner. I couldn’t be more proud of her for joining in these historic demonstrations. As I was painting the word Ahimsa (sanskrit for nonviolence) on the first branch of the first limb of the tree of yoga, I was thinking about the dreadful statistic that in the United States, every twenty-eight hours a person of color is killed by a police officer, security guard, or vigilante.

The second branch on that limb, Satya (sanskrit for truth), asks me to search inside for how racism has affected my own mind and heart, and to tell the truth about it, to myself and others. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” is so apt, and yet so heartbreaking. Why do we have to paint this on a sign, and hold it up on the street corner? It is painful to recognize how much our society disregards the lives of people of color. How else to explain the fact that African-Americans, who only comprise 13% of regular drug users, make up 35% of drug arrests, 55% of convictions, and 74% of people sent to prison for drug possession? It’s an unjust and immoral system that has fractured the lives of so many U.S. citizens.

While my heart aches for the hundreds of thousands of families who will be missing people around their holiday tables, I am glad that people from all walks of life are grappling with these issues, having difficult conversations, and taking to the streets. Even in little Middlebury, Vermont, over a hundred people came out on a chilly December afternoon to say, “Black Lives Matter.” I think a lot of people came to that vigil because they could put themselves in the shoes of a mother who lost her son to police brutality, or a father whose teenager is sentenced to life in prison.

The tree in my studio still has a ways to go, but each limb is named, and the branch that says Aparigraha (sanskrit for Not Being Greedy) asks me to look within and see what I have to offer to this world. My prayer for 2015 is that we can all look into our own hearts, and stretch ourselves to be as generous as possible with our resources of time, energy, and money to create the society we want to live in. I want to live in a country where everyone has equal opportunities to thrive, no matter how much pigment they have in their skin. How about you?