Gratitude and Health Justice

Lightly edited 1/16/17.

There’s a lot of injustice in the world. For example, one of the side effects of my chemo cocktail is crazy dreams–malaria-level dreams–and yet in these dreams, I imagine I’m at faculty committee meetings. Truly, that is injustice.*

Fine. There are deeper injustices than that. And today, I realized I have different threads of thought running through my mind, and it turns out they are woven together.

I have been thinking a lot about gratitude. And about Dr. King.

Gratitude: I’m always grateful for the love of the good people in my life. But it’s usually a sort of steady, abiding awareness, not a bomb cyclone of gratitude. I have been aware of feeling actually physically lifted by the incredible outpouring of love, and while every fiber of my being wants to say “I’m NOT WORTHY,” the truth is we are all worthy of it. So instead of deflecting, I’m basking in it, and am deeply, deeply grateful. I’m facing a few months of grossness (hopefully wrapping the cancer cruise up by mid-summer), but I’m facing it with a mom who brings me my favorite pillow from her home, a husband who cheerfully brews me a fresh pot of coffee even when we both know I’ll only have one sip of it, a daughter who has perfected the exuberant gentle hug, a mother-in-law who is making an afghan, friends who make me jigsaw puzzles or make me laugh or both (and some friends who let me lose at Trivial Pursuit even when each victory could be my last and they should let me win because cancer). I have clients praying for me–and one client’s mom is praying for me from her own hospital bed in France. I have students reminding me of all the good that is being done in the world. I have colleagues who are letting me focus on my health and allowing me to work only to the extent it’s good for me.

So much gratitude. And so much awareness that it’s not like this for everyone. The love and support transcend class and race, for sure. One of Dave and my favorite moments of the cruise so far involved an older gentleman wearing a cap that Dave thought was  armed services -related, and he struck up a conversation with the man. (Side note: when Dave goes away for unexpectedly long times, he is always, literally always, having a fascinating conversation. Will tell about the poitín-maker another time.) Anyway, it turned out the cap was from a very old African-American congregation, and they chatted, and the man talked about how much he loved his wife who is going through the same cancer as me, and how he had been to every appointment over the past year, and when his wife showed up a few minutes later, the man just glowed.  So love and support transcend all.

But more practical things do not. And my treatment is in a city hospital where, despite the greatness of Chocolate City and the Gold Coast and Howard and Duke Ellington and more, poverty is highly racialized, and even in the legal profession, white salaries are a shocking $35,000 higher than African-American salaries.

The cancer I have is most common among African-American women. And as I look at the warm waiting rooms where I get my treatments, racial disparities smack me upside the head on a regular basis.  Health outcomes for African-American women are so much worse, across the board, than for white women. I’m no expert on this, but Lindsay Wiley is, and she has written compellingly about how health law is a social justice matter. (Lindsay is one of those brilliant people you can trust because she is also incredibly funny.) (It is possible my indicia of trustworthiness are a little weird, to be fair.)

Anyway, my own personal observations are these:

  • Good outcomes depend upon being able to access care. Insurance? Check. Transportation to medical centers? Check. Ability to wait around for a prescription to be filled? Check. I have all these things, easily, but I suspect each of these is a challenge for some of the women I share these waiting rooms with.
  • Good outcomes benefit from being able to rest and work less. Medical leave? Got it. Flexible work schedule? Oh yes. Colleagues who can pick up my slack? Yep. Family and friends pitching in so there are just plain fewer chores to do? Yep again. But medical leave is too much of an exception in our workplaces, and paid sick leave continues to be a legislative battle, even in friendly, progressive jurisdictions. So people like me who can rest and let the medicine do its work are going to do better than people who cannot take time off work.
  • Good outcomes probably benefit from education, and definitely benefit from language access. Doctors give patients a lot of paperwork. I love paperwork. It’s an excuse to buy a binder and fancy tabs, and do some hole-punching. It’s a justification for making spreadsheets which, next to planning and hole-punching, is my major hobby. [I need better hobbies.] But it’s a mountain of information, and a daunting amount to read–and it’s just got to make a difference that processing information is what I do for a living, that reading is a joy and not a burden. And that I speak English. While most of my sisters are African-American at Washington Hospital Center, there are a fair few Latinas whose first language is Spanish and whose English ability varies a ton. Yes, they have a right to interpreters and translated information. But I know those rights are unevenly realized, and sometimes, when they’re tired–and we’re all tired–I bet they just go along to get along and take the incomprehensible sheafs of papers in English.

I don’t assume everyone I see at Washington Hospital Center is poorer than me. I only know the stories of a few of the women I’ve talked to, and mostly we talk about family. Most of the women dress better than me, for starters (admittedly not difficult since I wear Takoma Park “fashion”) and the parking lot is plenty full of cars I could never afford. But poverty is also everywhere, and I would be foolish to wish it away. So all my gratitude is accompanied by profound appreciation for the things that I have that make this easier for me than for many others.

So, Dr. King. We remember him often as the visionary. And he was. But he was also fiercely unpopular in his day for demanding justice. Not something better, but something equal, something that respected the inherent worth we each have as individuals, no matter our station in life. For people who approach the world as zero-sum, where African-Americans being treated as fully human means white people actually lose something, that idea was toxic. And he died for that idea. Sometimes I think we forget that. He’s moved into a realm of inspirational quotes, and away from the ugly reality of that motel balcony in Memphis, where someone hated him enough to kill him. Hated him because of Dr. King’s love of humanity.

I went to Mass yesterday (let’s call it an unexpected port excursion on the Chemo Cruise), and Father Patrick Smith brought me to tears with his words about how Dr. King answered the call with “your servant is listening.” How none of this–the national holiday, the monument, the Nobel Prize–was part of his plan. He just listened to a call, said yes to it, and changed his plan to follow the call. And changed us all in the process, making us want justice to roll like waters. Father Smith asked us to listen and say yes, too. And that whether it results in greatness or some beautiful tiny thing that we never even understand happened because of us, that is how we move forward.

All I can do is be grateful for what I have. And heed the needs so many others have. And say yes to finding small, tiny ways–and maybe big ones if that’s how it goes–to bend the arc toward justice. I’m used to doing that when it comes to immigration law. It’s new for me as I think about health. But I’m listening. I’ll learn. And because Dr. King said yes, I’ll keep finding ways to say yes, too.

Today, and every day, let justice roll like waters.


*Small exception when the dreams involve the dream committee of Margaret, Natalie, Garrett, Audrey, Will, Dave, Chris, and Mike–people I spent 12 hours a day in a room  with more than once this fall, and still adore.

Pack your bags for the Chemo Cruise

So, I like to write. And I have a blog. And I have cancer.  And my blog is conveniently titled something generically aspirational. So obviously, I’m repurposing the blog now and will make this my place where I deal with the cancer. In a setting that is far superior to, god bless its humble and free heart, Caring Bridge.

This space will really only be used for humor, so if cancer does not immediately scream comedy to you, either stay tuned, or run away. (I did actually write and erase a Caring Bridge joke, so maybe I do have some sense of propriety.)

Ok, it will be humor with some generous doses of abiding gratitude for all the good and the love in my life. But I will try to avoid being maudlin because one wouldn’t  be after writing maudlin things. (In an Irish person’s head, literally the only thing worse than talking about death, torture, the horrors of the world, etc, is being MAUDLIN.)

Which brings me to cuticle care. Obviously.

So the thing about cancer, so far, is it turns you into a freaking paragon. Drinking? Only in my past. Oral hygiene? A must, and therefore I not only brush all three times a day (like, really, as opposed to just telling my dentist that’s what I do) but I also rinse with salt-water. What?

And I have to give up my lifelong love of biting my nails. I’ve tried everything to give up nail biting. I’ve put the gross tasting stuff on the nails. I’ve gotten manicures. I’ve thought long and hard about what my fingers have been in contact with–escalators on the subway, doorknobs at daycare–and still I bite my nails. Now, I get to try CANCER. Since having mangled uneven nails is not ideal for health, I am now medically not allowed to bite my nails. Dammit.

So I invested in cuticle cream, and now all I can think of is this.

I will have bigger struggles, I’m sure. But for now, being required to be a morally exemplary human being with good nails is the struggle that defines me.

Small Beauties

It’s been months since I wrote anything. And while I have some bigger things in mind, simmering so slowly they put southern BBQ to shame, here’s a glimpse of life’s small beauties.

I was attempting my first run in many months this morning, a rare humidity-free D.C. morning. Nothing hurt, and I felt great. Happy. Proud. Slightly embarrassed to be out running in nothing more than running shorts and a sports bra, but the laundry situation was what it was, and my husband assured me this was fine. (Note to self: husband is not to be trusted.)

As I was doing my last half-mile,* I saw an Ethiopian lady alongside the path, gracefully draped in the lightweight white shawl that is often part of the attire. She was staring straight up at the trees overhead, and as she heard me running, she lowered her head, and I smiled at her. I expected slight discomfort from her, or maybe a gentle rebuff, because I was dressed so immodestly. But no. Maybe it was my smile, who knows, but she beckoned me over, in no uncertain terms.

I went to her side, and she commanded me to stand straight, and look to the sky, and then to breathe in and out in a certain way, and it would bring looseness to the neck and relaxation. When she saw I wasn’t doing it correctly, she said, no, turn your eyes and watch me. I did, and tried again, and felt exactly what she meant. She smiled at me, told me to do that every day, and sent me on my way. I did that last bit of my run with a smile on my face.

We live in a world where that was possible. And what is that if not beautiful?

I confess, I have been having a tough time switching gears from being non-stop productive and useful (see: November through May, and thanks a lot 45 and co.) into summer when, technically, I’m not supposed to be working (and yet somehow was not relaxing). But something has shifted, and I’m starting to see the grace of being a little bit less purposeful, a little bit less driven. Somehow in my mind, that’s all connected with the perfect perfect-stranger reaching out to me on the path. Sometimes stopping your run and stepping off the path is exactly what the universe wants.


* This sounds good until you realize I haven’t told you how long the total run was (one mile).

“Freedom” and Health Insurance

Anyone remember that scene from, what, Deep Impact (one of the asteroid movies that came out at the same time) , and Tea Leoni is standing with archetypally remote father on a beach waiting for the tidal wave caused by the asteroid? That’s how I feel now that the House passed that horrifying bill worsening health care in America.

(Ok, that also reveals too much about the shallowness of both my brain and how I spent my 20s.)

Some Republican lawmakers think that forcing people to be part of health insurance is an assault on people’s freedom. I can see that argument, and it makes sense in a pure libertarian way. I am not a libertarian.

Perhaps it makes sense if there were an alternative, like everyone in my neighborhood chipping in to provide room and board for a highly-skilled doctor who is an expert at both my next-door neighbors geriatric needs, my other neighbor’s teen-age epilepsy management, and my own rheumatoid arthritis. Yeah, that’s funny, let’s move right along.

Here’s one thing freedom does mean to me: Being healthy.

  • Being able to go outside for a walk on a beautiful day.
  • Being able to pick up my child for a hug (when she wants one, of course, and god knows there are times now when giving her a hug is sooooo embarrassing).
  • Being able to sing without the sharp pain of each intake of breath (RA hits the lungs, isn’t that cool?)
  • Making plans to see friends, knowing I will probably have the energy to follow through on those plans.

Without medical care, all of those things are beyond me.

Here’s another thing freedom means to me: Being able to work where I can and want.

  • Regular readers know I love my job. And surely tenure wipes away all fears of losing job-provided health insurance, right? Wrong. When you’ve experienced long-term debilitating illness, the fear of losing health insurance never goes away. Every time I have changed jobs in the last decade, I have had to change health insurance, which means for a couple of months, while insurers battle with my rheumatologist, I do not get my prescriptions filled, and all those things I said I like to do above, well, I can’t do them.
  • And what if I decide at some point that I’ve given what I can to law teaching? BuellerDo I really want to be the burned-out law professor who mumbles from notes he’s been using for 30 years? No, no, I really do not. But my choice will be between staying at my job and trying something new like building my own immigration practice (forget being able to pay for the health insurance that would be available to me with my pre-existing conditions) or finally writing my not-so-Great American Novel (ditto). So the “freedom” not to pay into Obamacare actually becomes a force that locks me into my job.

Another thing freedom means to me? Freedom to choose to buy affordable insurance.

  • Look, I am writing from a place of about the greatest privilege imaginable: tenured law professor (not official until August, please let me not be jinxing it). And I work with and among some of the least privileged, most marginalized people imaginable, and I see their health crises up close and personal, and know the tangle of problems that happen when emergency room care is the only care they can access, because the law forbids them from participating.* Do they feel free because they aren’t allowed to avail of Obamacare? Guess what: NO they do not.

So, for the “Freedom” Caucus, I want to say, first: PrincessBride.gif

And I want to say, second:

[Unprintable] [unprintable] [also unprintable], you [unprintable] [unprintables].

There. That feels a little better. Now, I better go take that handful of pills that keeps me walking and breathing, thanks to the health insurance that, for the moment, I have.


*Post coming soon on how “undocumented” increasingly means nothing to me, since all my “undocumented” clients are actually on the slow, broken, slow, complicated, slow path toward having one of these statuses that would qualify them for Obamacare. (Did I mention the path is slow?)




Beyond the Bubble Bath

Journalist Anna North excoriated typical white girl self-care notions this week, in her essay Work Is My Self Care. There is obviously nobody better than me to respond since I actually had a real bubble bath this week (not just bath salts, but bubbles) and I am undeniably very white.

There’s a lot I agreed with in what she wrote. First, the term “self-care” increasingly makes me cringe, probably because of the co-optation she rightly calls out from, well, people selling bath products. Second, she is right on about the joy that comes from meaningful work, from being in the “flow” of doing your job well. But I think she sets up self-care against meaningful work, and what is really going on is a search for resilience. (As you might guess from the title of this website, I like the idea of resilience.)

Let me explain.

Even when I was in law school, and even more so when I graduated, I threw myself into law with every fiber of my being. The world was full of people suffering, and now I had a skill to use to mitigate the suffering a tiny bit. How could I rest, when my resting meant someone somewhere was suffering? If you think this sounds arrogant and over-wrought, I assure you that you’re totally right. I represented a detained asylum-seeker after my first year of law school, with minimal supervision, did a pretty good job and still lost. I had a brutal judge, and if you don’t believe me, this article might convince you. I carried that loss with me, though, as a sign that I wasn’t good enough, wasn’t working hard enough, and when I got to do another asylum case for my law school clinic, I was going to prove myself.

Which is when I came down with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Coincidence, maybe. Probably not, since stress is thought to be a trigger for RA. All I knew is I went from healthy to unable to bear the weight of a pen in my hand, almost overnight. Even without holding a pen in my hand, it felt like someone had smashed my hands with a hammer. Walking was slow and painful. Breathing? Yeah, even breathing hurt.

So I slowed down and took bubble baths, right? Wrong. I went and got a job at a place where every single person I worked with was as dedicated as me, and we did amazing things collectively. My own specialty was human trafficking and wage theft. Talk about suffering and meaning! But it was a place where, true story, I found out I had lost my first pregnancy on a Friday morning, kept working through the day despite the news, and on Monday morning got called out for my lack of commitment generally. As a colleague said, it was like we showed up for life toting our own crosses, and asking people to crucify us.

So, meaningful work? Check. Purpose and flow? Check. Impossibly high standards that could not be maintained without sacrificing my actual body? Check, check, check. I blame the organization for none of this–the work ethic there merely mirrored my own sense that I had no right to look out for myself when there was still an injustice that needed to be righted.

Oh look, there it is again: arrogant and over-wrought.

So I learned, and the next place I worked, I experimented in the kind of self-care Ms. shutterstock_354727520North decries. I did domestic violence work (of course I did), and after every trip to the dark, tense halls of D.C. Superior Court, which was thankfully several times a week, I rewarded myself with a lovely cupcake. This was in the early days of the cupcake craze, and I actually think I might have made the craze happen.

Then the recession happened, the non-profit began tanking, and I stumbled into a teaching job with one of the best, most resilient friends and colleagues I have ever had. And for the first time in a while, I began to think and notice things.

At the same time, I was blindly groping for ways to help my students not become me–an almost-burned-out, physically debilitated human being (albeit one whose humor somehow never failed). We generated ideas from exercising to writing with sparkly pens to spending more time making music (for the piano players and singers among them) to playing sports (for those people who enjoy that sort of thing).

This was a great start. Better than cupcakes, but still not connecting the dots. Actually, nothing is better than a really good cupcake, and I will get back to that.

What I was groping toward was the idea of resilience. And the answer became beautifully simple. If you visualize a tree in a storm, the tree sways, sometimes alarmingly so. But a healthy tree, and a tree whose roots run deep, will withstand the wind. Sometimes the storms are too powerful, sure, but the best way to stay standing is to tend the roots.

So now what I work with my students on is identifying the roots. There is some overlap here with “self-care” but while self-care asks what will make me smile right now?, resilience goes to a deeper question: what keeps me strong over the long term? And then demands that we pay attention to and nourish whatever it is that keeps us strong.

It might be family, or music, or prayer. It could be building a circle of colleagues who make you laugh and understand how relentless the work can be. It could be laughing with old girlfriends who help you stay real. It could be training for a race or making home a respite, whether that looks like the cover of Real Simple, or looks like books spilling from every corner. It could be remembering how much you love theater, and going to see it more than you did before. Or remembering that volunteering with animals brings you joy, and going to the shelter more.


Our lives so often require incredible resilience. Tending to the roots helps us build that resilience. And from there we can go forth and keep doing the work.

And maybe celebrate a good day at work with a cupcake, too. I’m not going to judge.




True Story

My daughter turned eleven this week. ELEVEN. That’s an important number to her, sure, but it’s also important for the resilience this blog is, theoretically, about.

Picture 18
It’s a matter of perspective. I’m not really as large as the Capitol dome.
You see, she was born in March 2006 (eleven years ago…yes, I’m going to keep emphasizing that number). I went into labor with her while I was at a rally for immigration reform at the U.S. Capitol. True story. (She was born with her fist over her head, too, also a true story. Also a reason the labor took a lackadaisical 48 or so hours, and yes, she still dawdles like a champion.)

In March 2006, we were beginning to see huge rallies and demonstrations across the country by advocates, increasingly led by the undocumented themselves, seeking immigration reform. It was an exciting time, full of possibility. And there I was, stuck in a hospital room pumped full of drugs (no, that wasn’t the plan, yes, god laughs at most of our plans) thinking I was going to MISS OUT ON IMMIGRATION REFORM while I was at the hospital. I really did.

As a friend just pointed out, some people have FOMO for parties; I have FOMO for immigration reform. I don’t think she was judging me.

You probably see where this is going. I did not, in fact, miss out on immigration reform. Eleven years later, we are still fighting, fighting, fighting. Some of the fights are a little different, many are much harder, and there has been some progress in places we didn’t anticipate eleven years ago (local activism, support for DREAMers, success in limiting law enforcement cooperation with immigration in many cities and states across the country).

These issues do not go away. My membership in the fierce band of immigration advocates dates back to 2002. Many of my colleagues in immigration have been fighting since the new, draconian, immigration law of 1996. More still go back to the Sanctuary movement of the 1980s, and the effort to pass the Refugee Act in 1980. 

So, for people, especially young people, feeling they have no ability to act against today’s injustices, I say this: Imagine what you want to be able to do in five years, whether that’s big or small, and start working toward that goal. 

  • Pick the issue that fires you up the most (because you need a strong fire to stay in the work), and be patient with yourself as you learn more, as you connect with others, as you learn who does the work in ways that fill your soul (keep them close), and who does the work in ways that deplete you (politely excuse yourself from their company).
  • Maybe learn a new language–it’s possible, it’s so useful, and for some of our brains, it’s really fun.
  • Maybe also learn the word no (a truly foreign language for me), so you say yes to things that matter more to you, and no to the things that don’t.
  • Think about running for a local office, or helping someone you admire to campaign. (Going door-to-door for them is also excellent exercise and will ever after give you intense admiration for how your local mail carrier does that day after day.)
  • Join a local affiliate of an organization that inspires you, and show up to their events, or help with a fundraiser, or work your way toward being a leader within the organization. A lot of great work happens at the most local levels, and while it can take over your life, it doesn’t have to.  Your role can be very small and very local, and still matter profoundly.

It all takes time, but when it comes to injustice, unfortunately, we have time–and the people who’ve been fighting for a while will be quite happy to tag out, and tag you in. And the faces of new people showing up will inspire and strengthen the people who do this full-time, I promise. And providing inspiration…what could be more satisfying than that?

So, true story, I did not miss out on immigration reform. Eleven years later, I have built my skills to the point where I feel maybe a little too useful, but that’s a nice position to be in.

And in honor of her 11th birthday, I’ll tell my sweet fist-still-raised-over-head daughter that she didn’t keep me from doing anything…she made my heart grow many sizes bigger, and she gave me the strength and love and inspiration to keep going, every single day.

Happy 11th birthday to her! And maybe we’ll get immigration reform done in the next eleven.

Message to New Activists

Things needed change before, and many activists have been in these fights for a long time. After the election, I had conversations with many activists in different fields, and they all said the same thing vis-a-vis the new energy and attention to social injustices in the U.S. It is striking, across many different areas of activism, the same conversations. So I want to try to articulate what I have heard on their behalves. (My thoughts are in parens.)
  1. They are exhausted. It’s been hard enough fighting for justice under President Obama. (True. See: locking up Central American babies.)
  2. They feel a bit ungrateful, but the new surge of energy means so many people asking more of their time.
  3. They worry that once someone finds out social justice work involves a delusional amount of banging your head on brick walls, interrupted by banging your head on brick walls with sharp things protruding from the walls, the person will tire of justice work. (Don’t get tired: realize you earn a bad-ass badge with every wall you hit.)
  4. They worry that a lawyer taking on pro bono cases will discover not all their clients are immediately grateful or return calls, and tire of pro bono work. (Don’t get tired. Sometimes your biggest pain in the ass clients surprise you and teach you things you weren’t expecting. Of course, sometimes they don’t, and then you just get to complain. I am here for you when this happens.)
  5. They hope people will realize no single person can do everything. So many interlocking systems grind the most vulnerable down, and if you fight them all, you’re not good at fighting any one of them. They hope people don’t get disillusioned by the thought of that. (My cure for this: Mary Oliver’s “Song of the Builders.”)
  6. They hope people pick one issue they care so much about, and then get educated about it. About the issue, but also about the fight. Who has been writing on this, who has been organizing, who has a good network already in place.
  7. Once that happens, they hope folks find a way to be of service to those good efforts instead of creating new ones. And remember that service can absolutely include donating and then reading the action alerts that worthy organization sends along to you. (Note to self: stop deleting action alerts when I get them.) The ways you serve people can be local and small, and can be things you love to do from writing to art to…anything.

There is so much need, and now so much energy, and if we can just get focus ourselves, be kind to ourselves, be humble and patient, we’re going to BRING IT in 2017 and beyond.