Reflections on the New York abortion law

I have to admit, I thought twice about writing this. OK, that’s a lie. I thought about it least three or four times, and definitely more than two. Because I know abortion is a touchy issue, and I know I have friends with passionate feelings on both sides of it. I want to be a uniter, not a divider.

But the recent legislation in New York struck a chord in me. To recap, S2796 allows abortions for any reason up to 24 weeks — that’s six months — or at any time up to birth if there is an “absence of fetal viability” or “at any time when necessary to protect a patient’s life or health.” The word “health” is not defined — ostensibly, it could be interpreted loosely to mean any aspect of the woman’s mental or physical health related to the pregnancy.  There’s also no mention of the degree to which health may be protected. Any birthing process involves at least some health risk, right?

There’s a whole argument surrounding when life begins and if the “bundle of cells” created at conception is actually a baby or not. But it’s hard to argue that a 24-week-old fetus is not a baby.  At 24 weeks, the child weighs more than a pound and is about 8 inches long. His inner ear is fully developed, his lungs are formed. He has a heartbeat and fingerprints and responds to stimuli from the outside world. He can most certainly feel pain.

I’ve got a family friend who was born prematurely at 21 weeks. That’s right, 21. He’s now a college-age adult, smart and independent and without disability. According to New York’s law, he would not have been considered human in the moments preceding his birth.

I’m aware this is all well-trodden ground, covered in countless opinion pieces and blog posts over a period of decades. But I guess I just feel compelled to share my thoughts because it has me so upset and confused. I genuinely don’t understand how so much of our larger culture is able to not only condone abortion, but to celebrate it. I find it indescribably tragic and, to employ an admittedly overused word, offensive, that One World Trade Center — a tower that was erected to commemorate the innocent fallen of 9/11 — was lit pink in celebration of a law that will only increase the ranks of innocent victims felled in the State of New York.

In many ways, I see myself as a feminist. I grew up one of three daughters in a house with no sons. I was never taught to see my femaleness as a weakness or a disability. I always believed that I could do whatever I wanted to do, if I were willing to work for it.

I believe that women and men are creations of equal value, and I believe in a woman’s right to make her own choices about her life and her body. It’s a woman’s right to choose what career to pursue, or whether to pursue one at all, where to go to college, or whether to go to college. In the workplace, women should garner equal respect and equal pay to their male counterparts, and those male counterparts should understand that a woman’s body is, without question, her own to decide who touches it and how they touch it. It’s a woman’s right to decide who she dates, or if she dates; with whom, when, how or if she has sex; how she dresses or cuts her hair or whether she wants a tattoo or a piercing or any of a thousand other decisions.

Yet I know that my thoughts on abortion would make me unwelcome in most circles that describe themselves as feminist.  It’s a strange middle ground to walk.

But I honestly don’t understand how abortion gets packaged in with this concept of a woman’s right to make choices for her own body, because at the point you’re pregnant — especially 24 weeks pregnant — you’re no longer making choices for your body alone. You’ve helped to create a second, brand new body. It’s from you, but it’s not you.

Please don’t misunderstand. I say this with all love and respect for women whose pasts include difficult decisions, who have dealt with life experiences that are not part of my story. I’m not writing this to judge or shame women who have had abortions. If you are one of those women, please know that my God bought you for a price and loves you unconditionally. The God I serve is a God of forgiveness and grace, and I’m so grateful that Scripture explicitly states that it’s not my job to judge, but only to love.

I’m simply writing this to express my view of the realities we need to accept if we’re to live in a world that values life and human dignity for all.

The pro-life movement often gets criticized for being solely pro-birth and leaving its support for life at the delivery room door. For some wings of the movement, that’s probably a correct characterization, but it’s not fair to judge an entire group by the attitudes of a few. If I were in a mood to cast stones, I could toss a few at the more radical wings of the pro-choice movement as well.

Speaking for myself, I know full well that the right to be born is only the first of many obstacles in the life of a child. We should all do more to support resources for children and families in crisis, to make it much less expensive for loving and willing families to adopt babies whose mothers can’t care for them, and to build one-on-one relationships with children who need some extra mentorship and guidance.

Abortion is just one way of devaluing human life, but in my view it’s also the most egregious. If we can’t all agree that human beings have a right to be alive, how then are we supposed to work toward building a better, fuller life for all those with whom we share this planet?

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Christmas at the orchestra

Christmastime gets busy, and when my boyfriend starting talking about fitting in a Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert amidst all the Christmas parties and the family get-togethers and work deadlines surrounding December, I pretty much assumed it wasn’t going to happen. It would be fun, sure, but there were all these things to do. Adding another one just didn’t feel like a “sensible” idea.

Given the geographical spread of where we and our families live, there were several shows on the schedule that could have worked, potentially. But there was a big snowstorm one weekend, a shift in travel plans another and here we were Christmas week, driving north to see my family in Maryland. There was a show on the schedule for Washington, D.C., an hour and a half away from my parents’ house, but there were so many reasons not to go — the cost, the distance, the lack of good seats left available, the pull of time with usually far-away family — and left to my own devices those factors probably would have added up to the sum of a pass. Maybe next year, I would have said.

But he wanted to take me, if I would just say yes.  So I did.

It was a great decision, because the Trans-Siberian Orchestra is amazing. A seven-piece orchestra, an eight-member chorus, frontmen rocking out on keyboard, guitar and violin — it was Christmas with a strength, enthusiasm and musicality like none I’ve ever heard before. Add in strobe lights piercing multi-colored lines through the foggy darkness of the arena, the levitating platforms and bursts of fire so big we could feel the heat even from our nosebleed seats way toward the back, and it was certainly a show, full of the joy and wonder and magic of Christmas but with a just-sharp-enough edge.

As we walked out of the arena, though, I realized that in the nearly three hours of Christmas music we’d just heard there hadn’t been one mention of Santa, or of elves or Frosty the Snowman or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But there was an awful lot of Jesus.

The first half of the concert was a story, of sorts, with a storyteller coming out between each song to relate another installment of the fictional tale of a runaway girl who ends up spending Christmas Eve in an abandoned theater. As the night goes on she experiences ghostly visions that culminate with a decision to come back home.

In one of the episodes, the theater’s caretaker settles down to tell the girl about what Christmas really means. And when he does this — as part of the next song, of course — it’s not about time with loved ones and learning to be happy and appreciating the small things in life. Instead, it’s a jazzy number telling THE Christmas story, the most real Christmas story there is — the one about God coming down to earth in the humblest package possible, to rescue his most beloved creations from themselves and create a path that could defeat death and end in eternal joy and reconciliation.

In this season of colored lights and brightly wrapped packages and calendar-filling Christmas parties and deadlines and obligations, I’m grateful, as cheesy as it may seem, for this reminder of what Christmas is really about.

It’s a bigger, grander, more perfect version of my concert experience itself, of someone who loves you saying, “Do you want to go with me? All you have to do is say yes.” That’s a beautiful thing, yet only a shadow of the love manifested by the God who came from the perfection of heaven to the dirt and pain and turmoil of Roman-dominated Israel, for the sole purpose of living a life and dying a death of sacrifice.

All that so that he could finally say to all the world, “Do you want to come with me? All you have to do is say yes.”

If you’re reading this as someone who’s not sure what you think about who Jesus was and what he did, consider taking some time during this Christmas week to read through my favorite book, John. In my opinion, it’s the best read of the four gospels and gives a solid picture of the life of Christ. 

Moosey climes, moosey times

Coming back to our ending point on Iron Lake.

We should have seen a moose yesterday. Everything about the day said so — the morning rain, the low clouds that hung around and occasionally spit throughout the afternoon, the lily pads and reeds and plethora of other aquatic plants that pervaded our route. Even the guidebook said we were basically assured a moose sighting, headed across the lakes we were headed across.

But there was no moose. What there was, though, was a beautiful paddle through long, stringy lakes under a cloudy sky that quelled the direct heat that had me sucking down water at such an incredible rate the day before. There was a sense of exploration as we portaged the canoes along moss-bordered trails, paddled through a narrow canyon with lichen-covered walls on either side, and struggled through a section that offered an obstacle course of rocks just below the surface.

Save a single loon, though, there was no wildlife to be seen.

Yesterday’s loop route.
Today’s route, an out-and-back.

Today was different. Like yesterday, it was cloudy, humid, cool. Like yesterday, we paddled the canoes through long, stringy lakes, lily pads abundant.

Unlike yesterday, we saw a moose. Two, in fact, our first and only moose sighting of the week. It was a momma and her calf, the momma moose swimming in the water just off a swampy shore on Iron Lake when we came upon her. She saw us, or heard us, lumbering out of the water and off into the woods with her calf before I’d had a chance to draw my camera.

Though brief, the moose sighting was something of a harbinger for the rest of the day. Who knows? Maybe the rest of the wildlife needed permission from the moosely royals before making an appearance to we humble canoeists.

After the moose, we saw a muskrat dip into the water, a stream of bubbles following its progress across the lake until it finally came up for a breath, right next to our canoe. I set down my paddle to raise my camera, inadvertently knocking it against the top of the boat as I did so. The muskrat flipped back into the water and was gone.

We continued on and entered river otter territory. There were three of them, hanging out along a fallen log jutting out from the bank, perhaps 50 yards in the distance. They didn’t move as we drew closer, clustering first on one side of the log, then on the other, heads almost eel-like as they rose from the water, elongated and slicked down with oily fur. They looked directly at us, so very much smaller than the nine of us in our four canoes, but defiant. They hissed, letting us know we were in otter country now.

We laughingly hissed back, paddled on, passing west of the otters and toward the loons. Or the loon, rather — singular. It floated on the water maybe 20 feet from our boat, dipping in and out in its quest for a tasty dinner before finally completely submerging itself, as loons are wont to do, not emerging for at least a couple minutes. We had passed the loon already when it reappeared. Or at least I assume it did, because we heard its call behind us, wild and haunting.

By the time we’d stopped for a floating lunch on Tucker Lake and portaged back into Iron, the clouds above us had begun to break, the sun muscling its way through to warm the air, our skin, the colors of leaf and sky, both reflected in the clear, glassy water.

The view from Honeymoon Bluff.

Today is my last day in the Boundary Waters, and that seems fitting. The wildlife, the variation in cloud and sunlight, and the capstone hike up to Honeymoon Bluff, where we ended our day at an overlook displaying three different lakes — Hungry Jack, Bearskin and Flour — as well as the tree-covered islands and peninsulas surrounding them. The sun was nodding lower, casting warm light whenever it emerged from the patchwork of clouds still braiding the sky.

A birds-eye view, almost. But to truly take in the wildness of the Boundary Waters — such a large portion of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes — a bird would have to fly higher than it had ever flown, up into the stratosphere, or even higher, up into space where the moon that had shone so brightly over the lake just hours earlier greedily absorbed its light from our life-giving sun.

There is still so much to explore.

Blueberries, blue sky, blue water

The burn char on the dead trees peppering the blueberry spot was still visible from a fire 10 years previous.

We left the lodge this morning armed with tools of the trade and the inside intel we’d need to use them: drive north on the Gunflint Trail, look for the ____* and then take the first ____* onto a gravely Forest Service Road. There, we were promised, our hunt would be successful.

The only problem with the directions, was the directions. We couldn’t find the landmark on which our turn was to be gauged and eventually came to the end of the road, which proved to be sadly devoid of quarry.

It wasn’t a bad place to be adrift, really. The northern reach of the 57-mile Gunflint Trail goes through aftermath of the 2007 Ham Fire, which burned 75,000 acres of mature forest. A decade later, it’s all young aspen, spruce and shrubs, he shorter growth making for wide views full of sky.

And blueberries. Lots and lots of blueberries.

That’s what we found, anyway, when we finally found the spot we’d been told about. We parked the car down an overgrown Forest Service road, whipped out our plastic bags and containers, and got to work.

I love picking blueberries, or any fruit, really. Sometimes it’s hard to say why. Today, for instance, the sun was high and hot. The blueberry bushes were as low as I’ve ever seen them, and harvesting the tiny fruits was a painstaking labor of bending over and plucking the berries one by one. I quickly began to feel sun-dazed and dehydrated, frequently taking long drags on my water bottle.

Beautiful, beautiful wild blueberries.

But somehow, it was also a satisfying kind of pursuit. It was quiet out there, off the road and away from any formal recreation area. The wind breezed merrily through the young trees bordering the blueberry patch, and all manner of shrubs and plants — many with berries of their own — interspersed it all. And to top it off, the blueberry expedition proved quite fruitful (pardon the pun), with our five pickers harvesting enough berries to promise dessert later that night and breakfast in the morning.

Nevertheless, the residual heat and fatigue from our morning in the sun still followed me when we arrived back at the cabin. But that was fine, because I had just the idea to banish them: a jump in the lake.

In northern Minnesota, just shy of the Canadian border, I knew that a cold lake was all I could expect, even in August, and I was mostly just planning to jump in, jump out again, and call it a day. But surprisingly, the water welcomed me. It was cold, yes, but invigorating, the chill perfectly balanced against the heat I generated as I paddled around the water, waiting for a less cold-tolerant friend to join me.

Eventually she did, with a subsequent sweat in the sauna providing the optimal center to a lake-jumping sandwich. Soon I stood on the dock once more, water or sweat or a combination of the two dripping down my sides and watched our resident bald eagle swoop through the air to his island, just across the way.

Then, I jumped.

* Redacted to protect classified information

O, Canada!

One of the many beautiful views along the long portage to Daniels Lake.

Vacation isn’t typically a time when I’m big on setting alarms, but since today was the occasion of the Great Paddle Trip of 2018, I made an exception.

The plan? Get up at 7 a.m., leave by 8, and complete a giant loop that would take us through two lakes, up across the Canadian line on the north shore of Rose Lake, and back to our starting point on Bearskin Lake via a 1.5-mile portage and paddle down the length of Daniels.

Today’s route.

It was a perfect day to be outside. High of 70, barely a cloud in the sky, light breeze moving the air through our boats. Sunlight danced off the water and deepened the greens overflowing islands and coastlines. We stopped for lunch on a point on the north shore of Rose Lake — Canadian territory — wondering for how many thousands of years settlers and fur trappers and Native Americans had tied up their boats and found respite on this same point, taking in this same incredible view.

From there it was a short paddle across the lake to the long portage, roughly 1.5 miles of trail along which packs, paddles and canoes had to be carried toward the put-in to Daniels Lake.

I wasn’t carrying a canoe, so I enjoyed the walk immensely. It followed an old logging railroad grade, passing through flower-bordered swamps and stands of trees with green light filtering through the canopy. It was perfect moose habitat, but no moose could be found — only a deposit of remarkably fresh droppings.

Pushing off into Daniels Lake.

If I was feeling relaxed by the woodland walk, the sensation disappeared as soon as we put in to Daniels. The wind that had made for choppy water and quick sailing over Rose Lake was still present, and this time it was against us.

We struggled through that long lake. The wind whipped the water into a stiff batter, tiny whitecaps roiling the surface and causing the canoe to thunk up and down, splashing water in my face as it passed the larger of the waves. I dug my paddle hard and deep into the water, giving each stroke my all. But despite my efforts — and those of the two other people sharing my canoe — sometimes it seemed we were barely moving at all. My lips were dry, my muscles screaming. It seemed incredible that my arms still managed to continue the essential pattern: reach, pull, lift, repeat.

We were spent when we finally pulled into shore, wondering how we’d find the strength to complete the short portage and paddle that remained between us and the cars. It was a quiet ride home as we each silently debated our priorities upon arrival at the cabins — which first, shower, water, beer, food or plain old sacking out on the couch?

Reaching this long-awaited portage out of Daniels Lake was a wonderful moment.

Tomorrow will likely be a lower-key day, and I’m fine with that. But I’m grateful for today’s adventure, too. Despite the difficulty, there’s something immensely satisfying in the feeling of tiredness that comes after a full day of exertion outdoors. Especially with the ankle injury I’ve been battling this summer, opportunities to immerse myself in the outdoors and to push my physical limits have been rare over the past couple months. So I’m grateful for this day, this place and the people I got to spend it with.

And, also, for the amazing night of sleep I’m fully expecting to experience soon.

Light on the lake

Leaving the swamp, coming into some weather.

It’s amazing how much difference light can make. This morning’s paddle started under the same dreary sky that was my introduction to the Boundary Waters yesterday. I wore a sweater over my t-shirt, a knit cap pulled over my head. We paddled to the end of Poplar Lake and then into the long, long portage to Meeds Lake.

Somewhere over the course of that portage, though, the clouds began to thin. A mile is a long way to walk when you’re carrying a 50-pound canoe. Canoe carrying wasn’t my job, thankfully, because I’m pretty sure I would have failed miserably on such a long distance marked by jutting rocks and vertically undulating trail. But our hardy portagers were rewarded for their trouble as a few slim pieces of blue sky began to show over the water when we finally made it to the other side

Today’s route. Outgoing is in green and returning is in orange

Meeds Lake is one of the bigger lakes pockmarking this section of the Boundary Waters. A stiff wind steadily blew the clouds ever-further into the distance, revealing a shining sun that sparkled off the rippling waves created by the wind and illuminated the varied greens of aspens, birches, firs and spruces. Our lunch spot at the end of the lake was bordered with a smattering of raspberry bushes — mostly picked over, but still containing a few berries bursting with flavor. I laid down in the grass, closed my eyes and enjoyed the sunshine on my face and the chance to rest my arms.

We’d gotten across Meeds Lake and through a narrow strip of swampy territory — reeds, cattails and lily pads surrounded us, spurring us to keep our eyes peeled for the moose that still refused to show — when the clouds returned, this time with purpose. Their bellies were full of rain, and we pulled out raincoats and stowed cameras as the water began to spit, then drip, then hammer, through our crossing of Caribou Lake.

I marveled at how different the landscape looked from even just a few minutes ago. The formerly sparkling greens of the trees dulled to a forgettable shade of murky slate. The water ceased to shine, raindrops bouncing on its top before bursting to join the lake’s expanse.

Staring down Lizz Lake.

But just as suddenly as it had begun, the rain stopped. The clouds moved off and the sun returned as we put in to the portage between Lizz Lake and our home turf of Poplar. I saw again an uprooted tree at the portage that I’d noticed yesterday, thinking that if the lighting were different it would be a beautiful picture. This time around it was indeed a beautiful sight, the low-slanting sun reflecting off a float of lily pads in front of it and the white of the woody roots contrasting with the dark of incorporated soil.

My mood was as light as the sky as we pulled the canoes back into our beach, and my stomach as tight as a rubber band. I’m looking forward to stars and a sunset later tonight. But first, dinner.

Minnesota minus mooses

Our end point at Vista Lake.

This morning I woke up across the lake from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Literally, about 20 feet from the back door of the cabin is Poplar Lake, the north side of which is privately owned but the south side of which is part of the Superior National Forest, which quickly turns into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Right now, typing on my bed with the windows open, I can hear a loon calling on the water. A bald eagle recently swooped by to return to its kill.

But for a quick paddle around the lake after arriving last night, today was my first taste of what the rest of the week will be filled with: paddling across lakes separated by narrow strips of land, hauling canoes and packs through the portage and putting in again when a new lake comes in view.

While I spent all day on the water — we left at 10 a.m. and returned about 5 p.m. — I feel like I haven’t really met the Boundary Waters properly yet. That’s because, while there wasn’t any rain all day long, the sun refused to come out and the air maintained a hazy mist. With no sun reflecting off the water, pine needles and leaves surrounding me, the whole place retained a mysterious air.

Today’s trek. Our route is shown in green.

There’s also the fact that recent ankle injury is still restricting the amount of weight I’m able to carry, meaning that I didn’t do any actual canoe portaging today, just watched the others carry theirs and tried to be as helpful as I could with paddles and such. So while I’d love to write about the rigors of portaging and discuss my newfound expertise with the skill, there likely won’t be any of that this week.

Nevertheless, I’m excited for what this adventure will bring. Today we paddled through four lakes, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the seemingly countless lakes displayed on even my little map, which contains but a paltry subsection of the larger area.

You can get a sense of how numerous Minnesota’s lakes are — I hear something about how there’s 10,000 or so of them? — by reading their names. It quickly becomes apparent that the early explorers eventually ran out of new and innovative names for their discoveries. There are the gimme names, like Poplar, Swamp,and Long Lakes. Then there are the ones named after animals — Swan, Caribou, Mose, Little Trout and Ram (which, incidentally, is right next to Rum Lake) — and the ones named after people — Daniels, Winchell, Larson and Henson. There are names that point to possible mishaps in years past (Dislocation, Hungry Jack and Misplaced Lakes) and others that just seem terribly random (Flour, Tote and Wench Lakes).

My best buddy Cora killing the portage!

One thing that didn’t happen today was a moose sighting. I find this frankly incredible, seeing as everyone in our crew has perfected the art of the moose call, which basically involves calling out in a low, dumbly voice, “Moooooooooosssssseee.” It’s scientifically proven to work. Really.

Somehow, though, the moose didn’t buy it, though we paddled through plenty of lakes containing tasty moose food in the form of lily pads and grasses.

The sight that awaited us as we returned to the cabin made up for it, though. A pair of bald eagles was feeding on the shore of the island closest to our beach, and as they finished, one by one, they flew across the water to the opposite island, huge wings pumping just a stone’s through from where we stood. Moose aren’t the only incredible animals that call the Boundary Waters home.