To My Son on his Cha Cha Day

Four years ago today we first held Tariku in our arms. We call it his “Gotcha” day and celebrate it as a kind of second birthday. T has taken to calling it his Cha Cha day, so I’m renaming it officially now. Because who doesn’t want a Cha Cha Day?

What are we doing to celebrate? Well, we’re watching Star Wars for the first time tonight. He begged, okay? It’s kind of hilarious, because four years ago I vowed he wouldn’t watch television until, like, he graduated college. Such an astonishingly short leap from there to, “Do you want Shrek or Darth Vader on your cake?”

Here is a letter I wrote to him this morning, for some time in the future. Or for before Star Wars tonight, depending on how he does with the cupcakes:

To My Son on his Cha Cha Day-

It’s been four years since your father and I first climbed the stairs of the care center in Addis Ababa. Four years since your nannies picked you up out of a blue baby chair (your father called it the “launching pad”) in the center of the room and placed you in my arms for the first time. I saw in an instant your deep curiosity and your overwhelming joy, two of the things I still love most about you. I saw for the first time your huge smile, which still brightens my every day.

I wonder if it was that first trip from Addis to Los Angeles that has made you such an adventurer, has caused your imagination to be so captured by the skies. Even before that, when we were still in Ethiopia, you spent hours staring up at the clouds. It’s the reason we chose your middle name- Moon. Because you seemed so entranced by it. Now, when we sit at LAX and watch the airplanes fly overhead, I look at you transfixed by those giant steel birds and imagine that one day I will stand in the same spot by myself and watch a plane take off and you will be on it. I wonder where you will travel. Wherever you choose to go will be a richer and more joyous place because of it.

You sometimes struggle and I don’t always know how to help. You have great big feelings and they shift so quickly that you have a hard time keeping up with them. Your body seems to do things on its own and it surprises and scares you. You want things passionately and don’t take kindly to not getting them. One of the things I love about you is how hard you try. I can see that you are feeling safer every day. One day soon you will grow into your big feelings and it will not be so uncomfortable to be the shining star you are.

You have already traveled so far; have already seen more in your short life than some people will ever see. Your birth mother named you “Tariku,” which means “history,” because she thought that you had already lived such a big story for such a little boy. You are the strongest person I know. And I am a stronger person for knowing you. It is the great privilege of my life to be your mother.

Happy Cha Cha Day!

A Letter About Adoption

An old, dear friend emailed yesterday to tell me that he and his wife are considering international adoption. He wanted to know if I had any advice. I began to write a short email back and a novel pretty much poured out of me. As I was writing, I looked at the date on the computer and realized that exactly four years before, Scott and I were on a plane to Ethiopia. I had been feeling emotional all day and couldn’t really pinpoint the cause, but I guess I was having a subconscious body memory of that earth-shaking time in my life.

The letter only begins to scratch the surface of some of our hard-earned wisdom about the international adoption process, but it’s a start. I thought I’d share it with you. Here it is..

I am so thrilled to hear you’re considering international adoption! I’m always a little bit jealous of people at the beginning of their adoption journey. You have such a transformative road ahead of you. I could never have predicted the myriad ways that adoption would blow my heart, my mind, indeed my whole world wide open. In fact, four years ago today, we were on a plane to Ethiopia to adopt Tariku. I still can’t believe my luck. I think back on the adventure and it seems like someone else’s amazing life.

It’s definitely a marathon, not a sprint. And when it is over you will truly know yourself to be both fiercer and more tender than you ever could have expected. I think that the patience was the hardest lesson for me. I used to say that they should have given me a law degree as well as a baby, when the whole thing was over and done with. So at least you’re ahead on that score. Neither you nor Linda will be scared off by a little bit of confusing paperwork!

Okay, I have buckets of advice. It’s my favorite subject, after all. I’m not sure how far you’ve gotten in your research, so forgive me if I’m being too basic. I’ve been thinking about what the most important nuggets of wisdom I’ve gained are- what I most want to share with you as you head out the gate…

First of all- if you haven’t started your home study yet, start immediately. Today. It’s the first step in any adoption, domestic or international, and it’s done through the state so it can take a while. Don’t wait until you feel absolutely confident (you probably won’t) or have all the details sorted in your head, just start. I promise you’ll want to move faster than they do once it gets going.

Do you have any ideas of what country you’re interested in? It has changed so much since we adopted 4 years ago and I’m not sure about the various regulations. There are pros and cons to every place. I know that you have to go back to Ethiopia twice now (it was only once, when we did it) and that the wait is significantly longer. However, I can’t say enough about my experience with the country and its people. There is an incredibly attached and loving caregiving style with children in Ethiopia. I thought Scott was going to have a heart attack in the airport when every woman in sight kept coming over and hugging and kissing Tariku. It’s a wonderfully warm culture. All children who live for a time without parents suffer some sort of trauma; that’s just a fact. But I truly believe that the love and affection he received in the care center helped to facilitate the attachment process when he was finally in our arms. That was one of the primary reasons we chose Ethiopia. What I couldn’t have predicted was how the country would capture my heart. I can’t wait to go back there- we plan to as soon as T is old enough to handle the flight.

When looking for an international adoption agency, it’s important to talk to some people who have gone through an adoption with them, preferably in the country of your choice. I was very happy with Children’s Home Society and Family Services in St Paul. What you want to look for in an agency is a commitment to ethics and transparency and an involvement in the communities from which the kids are coming. When we were in Ethiopia, we had the opportunity to tour the hospital and school that Children’s Home Society sponsors in Addis. At the time I was just annoyed to have any time taken away from my getting to know T, but in retrospect it’s significant to me. The global and personal ramifications of international adoption are complex and it’s important to me to feel like I’m contributing toward a world where women aren’t forced to give up their children due to poverty, famine and disease. So you want to make sure that the adoption agency is on the same page. Of course there are all kinds of scary stories- and believe you me EVERYONE will feel the need to tell you one for some reason. But there’s no reason to be scared. Just do a little research (duh).

Which leads me to my next piece of advice- many well-intentioned people say assinine things about adoption. Like multiple times a day. You will gather a file of stock responses and it will become no big deal. Don’t let it throw you. The only people who have relevant advice are people who have gone through it. The nice thing about these people with experience in the matter is that a lot of them have blogs! Here are some of my favorite:

Rage Against the Minivan
The Lost Planet
Under the Acacia Tree
Welcome to My Brain
Dreaming Big Dreams

The most important thing I can recommend is to do some radical attachment parenting once you get your child home. This is true regardless of the age of the child. I have a friend who adopted a five year old and she kept that little girl less than six feet from her for six months. They ate with her, slept with her, bathed with her, eventually went to school with her. AND they have three other kids! And she is doing marvelously now. For us, we cocooned with Tariku for two months, then transitioned him slowly for another two. No one but Scott or I held him or nurtured him. We did a lot of just sitting around holding him to our bare chests. We slept with him and bathed with him and played endless peek a boo and other activities with a lot of eye contact. The only time I ever put him in a stroller was to go for a walk or a run. Otherwise I wore him in the Ergo carrier, which I think is the best carrier for heavier/older kids and for longer periods of time. Obviously you guys work a lot. But if at least one or the other of you can be with the child all the time in the very beginning, it will make a huge difference. There is plenty of more extensive advice about attachment and adoption, but this is the general idea. It’s definitely a huge commitment, but I can tell you that the initial attachment process with Tariku was the sweetest, best few months of my life.

Another thing- I think it’s important to introduce some specific rituals into the child’s life that honor his/her adoption in some way. We had a welcoming ceremony. The rabbi who officiated was a woman we met in Ethiopia, who also adopted a child from the same care center. So one of Tariku’s friends from Ethiopia was at his ceremony! It was so special. Another thing we do is celebrate his “gotcha” day ( I know- super dorky adoption-speak) as if it’s a second kind of birthday. I also light a candle with him for his birth mother the night before Mother’s Day. These are just the things I’ve integrated, there are countless ways people honor their children’s stories. It’s up to you to be creative about your family’s special language of ritual, because there is nothing pre-packaged that recognizes adoptive families in our culture.

Lastly, I think it’s very important that we as parents keep a regular, developmentally appropriate dialogue about adoption going with our kids. It shouldn’t be up to them to ask. I talk about adoption a lot, so it becomes really natural and comfortable (for both of us), and I give T the opportunity to ask questions or not. His interest level seems to go in phases, but I want the structure to already be in place when the questions start to get hard.

Okay, well, that’s a novel! And there’s more where that came from. You can always call me with any questions. I’m so thrilled for you. Adoption is hard and complicated and it’s completely amazing. I send you all our love and blessings as you embark!

In Defense of Confession

Annie Leibovitz - Louise Bourgeois

It seems every six months or so there’s a new viral essay disparaging memoir. They bemoan the fact that hoards of narcissistic memoirists are clogging up our MFA programs and slush piles, poisoning the minds of the reading public with confessional junk food and ultimately edging out the real writers (i.e. journalists and fiction writers), who actually have something important to say. You know, really important stuff, like essays trashing an entire genre.

I generally stay out of the line of fire, mostly because I’m too busy actually writing something to stop to defend it. Besides, I can usually count on Stephen Elliott over at The Rumpus to handle it better than I could (as he does here). I agree with Stephen when he says:

Most people’s lives are very interesting but most people don’t look at their lives in an interesting way. The unexamined life is never interesting. If a good memoir was merely predicated on having an interesting life then some of the best books would be celebrity memoirs. These people live a life most of us know nothing about. But celebrity memoirs are rarely interesting, despite how interesting their lives appear from the outside. The problem is not that they don’t live interesting lives, it’s that they’re not writers.

It’s easy to point to bad memoirs and use them to attack the entire form but the form is never the problem.

It’s never the form that’s the problem and it’s never the subject that’s the problem. Russell Banks once said to me, “A book is never about what it’s ‘about.'” I loved that. I think about it a lot, and let it remind me that what’s important is the heart of a thing, not the hat it’s wearing.

I was drawn to confessional work long before I ever sat at my desk and turned my own life inside out looking for some kind of truth. When I was twenty, I saw a Louise Bourgeois (pictured above) retrospective in Paris about twelve times. I knew I wanted to do what she did. I had no idea what my medium was going to be, but I got that she was using self to transcend self, and I felt instinctively that therein lay my destiny.

Confessional work has always been essential to the artistic expression of the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the voices for whom mainstream avenues of education and distribution aren’t readily accessible. For feminist artists and writers in the 60s and 70s, confession was a political statement. It’s a tradition I’m proud to inherit. Some of my favorite gut-spillers include Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, Dieter Roth, Tracy Emin, Nan Goldin, Kathryn Harrison, Nick Flynn, Tobias Wolff and Mary Karr.

I consider the process of confessional writing to be neither cathartic nor exhibitionistic. Rather, I think of it as a sacrifice. I sacrifice my life to the muses, the gods, the world, and hope that it will be of use to someone. The gift I receive in return is that I get to live with a sense of purpose- a reason for noticing, for listening, for trying to be aware and present in any given moment.

There are people who can better defend the confessional genre than I, on grounds aesthetic and political. But I can speak from the inside of the creative process and say that we don’t choose our medium, it chooses us. The derogatory essays always seem to imply that if we memoirists were less solipsistic and more talented, we would choose to write about something else. But writing is never a choice, it’s a calling. For me, at least, I find it way too hard to be strategic and calculating. I don’t sit down and say, “Hmmm… What important thing can I write about today?” I sit down and I pray.