The following articles were authored by Jillian

Not Bad at All

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The crumbling gingerbread house is barely hanging in there on the dining room table, next to my menorah from Hebrew school graduation. The fake log made of coffee grounds is fake crackling in the fireplace. The cranky child is finally asleep. The PMS tea is steeping. The computer paper snowflakes are clothes-pinned to the barn lights. The tree is my best one yet; really, it is. Our house guest walked into the house this evening, looked at it and just said, “Thank you.” I shed a little tear.

The world is quiet, save the soft churning of the dishwasher and the washing machine. Which is to say: quiet enough. It’s never quite the Hallmark card/Pinterest board/Barbie Dream House, is it? But it’s still pretty great.

The thing that comes to mind are Snoopy’s words of wisdom from You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown (Yes, I played Snoopy in summer camp. Of course I did. Rachel Weintraub, witness!):

Not bad. It’s not bad at all.

Love you all tonight. I’m sure that’s a song, too.

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Thanksgiving Part 2: The Thankful Part

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Here’s a picture from the first year we brought T to Thanksgiving. Cute, right? I think we managed to stay for about 20 minutes. From the beginning, social situations have been scary and challenging for T. I still shudder when I recall my dear friend stooping to say hello, and T responding by punching her right in the snout. At that time, aggression was a daily occurrence for us. I was covered in bite marks. Scott and I would struggle to smile, while vigilantly monitoring him at gatherings. We were masters of the quick exit. The car ride home from T’s first three Thanksgivings were tear-filled. I think Scott may have even offered a few drops to the communal river.

This is T now, at the drums in the front of the room. Just look at that confident kid.

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At first, he wasn’t super-psyched about Thanksgiving, because all of the kids attending were older and he was worried he wouldn’t have anyone to play with. Then, the other kids (the most terrific teens in existence- they give me hope for the whole species), had the idea to have a family jam. I mentioned it to Tariku and he immediately lit up and begged to bring his drums. I very hesitantly asked if we could bring his kit, while acknowledging that it was potentially the world’s worst idea. They responded with a resounding YES.

The other kids even learned the Phineas and Ferb theme song to play with him. Scott jumped in as well. At six years old, Tariku sat in front of a room full of about twenty-five people and was funny, focused, and good.

When Scott was a kid, discovering music saved his life. It gave him a passion, a sense of purpose, something to dream about, something to work for. For me, that thing was books. Through books, I felt connected to the world around me.

At Thanksgiving, I believe I was seeing the seeds of that very process for my own son. As soon as he sat down and started to play, he was glowing with pride and purpose.

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And you see this guy I’m sitting next to… I’ve known my friend Colin since I was seventeen years old. Back then he had really long hair and always wore a black motorcycle jacket. I had really nineties hair and wore…well, I generally wore a lot less than I do now. His teenage singer/songwriter son blew me away. How strange, these 10,000 miles of road behind us. How surreal and incredible to see our kids now the ones at the front of the room, playing their hearts out. I’m so thankful we’ve made it far enough to see this happen.

Every year we write what we’re thankful for for on the tablecloth. Here is this year’s contribution:

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Thanksgiving Part 1: The Giving Part

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This Thanksgiving, I tried to figure out a fun way to ease Tariku into the idea of giving to others. Until now, I’ve been lazy about including him in our charitable efforts, for the reason that there’s a lot less whining without him. I’ve justified this by telling myself that modeling right action is enough. After all, that’s how I learned from my own parents, who were always active in numerous organizations. It seemed time to do something more proactive, however, since we’ve been focusing with Tariku on building empathy.

Honestly, I don’t often volunteer on Thanksgiving, because it’s the one day a year that soup kitchens and food banks actually have enough helpers. But in this case, it seemed a great opportunity to explore the concept of gratitude. We volunteered as a family with Gobble Gobble Give, a wonderful grassroots project that donates food and clothes to LA’s homeless each Thanksgiving.

We filled up the back of our truck with Gobble Gobble Give’s meals and donations and drove around handing them out to people. I wanted to do something concrete, so that Tariku could actually look people in the eye and have an experience of interacting with individuals.

Make no mistake, he did not want to go. He wanted to stay home and play dinosaurs or cards, or anything else really. He probably would have even preferred to clean up his room. I had to strong-arm him into it (okay, maybe I also promised him Cheetos if he cooperated).

We started by visiting our friend Cindy, a homeless woman who hangs around our old neighborhood. Tariku has known Cindy since he was a baby and was happy to visit her, but couldn’t figure out why she was included on our route. He had never realized she was homeless. She gave us big hugs, took donations to deliver to her friends and gave us some suggestions.

Then we went to some intersections in Pasadena that we pass every day on the way to T’s school. By this time, T was insisting on handing out all the bags himself. He was skipping, smiling his enormous smile, bringing the Tariku sunshine and making everyone laugh.

The only trouble arose when we passed a disturbed looking young man, cursing at a wall. I wouldn’t let Tariku walk up to him for fear the man might be dangerous, and T was upset with me for “leaving him out.” On our way home, T meditatively ate his Cheetos. I asked him if it had made him feel good to give to other people.

He said, “Mom, I’m still worried about that one guy.”

It was amazing to see his perspective shift over the course of a few hours. I hadn’t walked into the day with big expectations– I had simply wanted to transmit my belief that the best way to express gratitude is through action. But the experience really got a hook in him, so now I’m wondering, how do I take this ball and run with it?

I’d love to hear your suggestions. Let me know… how do you impart the spirit of giving to your kids?

Tune in tomorrow for Thanksgiving Part 2: The Thanks Part.

Huffington Post Parents: Why I Love Adoption

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Here is my newest blog, up now on Huffington Post Parents. Please read it, share it, leave comments. This one means a lot to me…

I am both an adult adoptee and an adoptive mother to a beautiful firebrand of a 6-year-old boy from Ethiopia. I love adoption. I love the whole messy, rich, textured, complex world it has given me. I do not love it because it is one long Disney happy ending. Rather, I love it for the way its struggles have defined my life and made me strong. I love it for the fascinating, crazy quilt of a family it has stitched together for me.

My story began with my unwed birthmother stranded alone in a snow-blanketed Chicago, feeling terrified and foolish. Across the country, my soon-to-be-mother had cried herself to sleep in her West Orange, New Jersey apartment every night for years, longing for a child. A deal was struck, a baby passed from one set of hands to another. I was adopted just barely before the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973. My mother says she did not once put me down during the entire trip home.

To be so unwanted and so wanted at the same time can carve a fault line in you. That was my experience for a long time, and it is shared by Laura Barcella, who recently responded to National Adoption Month in a post in the New York Times‘ Motherlode blog entitled “Adoptees like Me ‘Flip the Script’ on the Pro-Adoption Narrative.” In it, Ms. Barcella states that, “being forsaken by my biological mother has burdened me, for as long as I can remember, with a sense of inborn exile — a gaping hole where my identity should be.” She cites statistics of higher rates of depression, anxiety and addiction among adoptees. Indeed, all three of these things have been part of my journey, at one time or another. Adoption has not given me a life that has always been comfortable or easy.

Even more painful than my own struggles, I have borne witness my son’s profound anxiety and fear, derived from having survived malnutrition, illness and unimaginable loss in his first year of life. For almost the entirety of his first three years with us, he ate little, slept less and had violent tantrums roughly 10 times a day, during which he often bit me until I bled. My husband and I privately nicknamed him the Honey Badger (after the ferocious little Youtube sensation). I sometimes drove around weeping and cursing at God about my feelings of powerlessness. I agree with Ms. Barcella that adoption is a narrative that begins with loss and very often trauma. Where our standpoints diverge is that she not only begins, but also ends the story there.

My adoption story is not just one of pain, but of strength and growth. My search for identity has been, in large part, about learning to hold love and loss at the same time. As I have explored myriad avenues of help for my son, I have not only witnessed healing I never would have thought possible, but have also found myself unwittingly changing alongside him. Whereas I once yelled, “F*ck you for all these hurt and starving babies, God. What the hell are you thinking?” to an unfeeling sky, I now find myself driving around spontaneously thanking God for our challenges, for the way I have grown to know the fierce and brave heart of my son, for the fact that I have come to value more fully the strength of my marriage. Through the trials of the past few years, I have come to understand myself to be selfish, vain, petulant and unequal to the task of mothering, to be sure, but also resilient and determined and resourceful (who knew?) and possessed of a rock solid belief in my family.

My son Tariku and I love to cook together now, and we talk a lot about our favorite celeb chef Marcus Samuelsson, who famously combines Ethiopian, Swedish and African-American culinary traditions to create something truly unique and incredibly delicious. In his wonderful cookbook Africa: Soul of a New Cuisine, Samuelsson, adopted from Ethiopia at the age of 3 by a Swedish family, tells the story of his first night in Sweden. His mother heard a banging noise and emerged from her room to find him and his sister pounding on the door of the refrigerator, demanding to be let in, but not knowing they could just open the door. They had gone hungry for so long. This starving little boy grew up to create a life in which food has become not just an enormously profitable career, but also his creative expression, his gift to the world.

Barcella says about National Adoption Month that, “The campaign drives home the ubiquitous social message that adopting a child is an invariably pure act of selflessness. But for years on end, our culture has whitewashed adoption (both domestic and international), only telling the story from the rapturous perspective of adoptive parents while ignoring the darker realities adopted children can face.”

I disagree that this “rapturous” perspective is the dominant cultural narrative around adoption at this particular moment in time. I never walked into our adoption with visions of sugarplums, in large part because the process itself involved hours and hours of required classes that addressed issues like attachment, trauma, loss and cultural sensitivity. The “script” to which Barcella is referring was much more prevalent when she and I were both adopted, in the 1970s. Most adoptive parents at the time were adherents of this script not out of cruelty or thoughtlessness; it was just all they knew. I fought my way back from the ways that particular narrative made me feel invisible, and that fight lit a creative fire in me that has not only given me a career I love, but has instilled in me the grit it takes to weather the difficulties and rejection inherent in being a writer.

I have shared many of Ms. Barcella’s feelings. At the same time, I am acutely aware that my personal emotional journey certainly cannot be where the conversation about adoption ends, because that conversation has implications that go far beyond each individual adoptee’s exploration of identity. That exploration is an important thing. Here are some other important things:

Unicef places the number of orphans in the world today at 153 million.

There are 4.6 million orphans in the country in which my son was born

Half a million kids are in foster care in this country alone.

Adoption is not remotely the solution for the world orphan crisis, but it is a piece of the conversation that includes those enemies of family preservation: poverty, disease, lack of education and economic disparity. Most of the adoptive families in my social circle are involved in efforts to address these issues in some way. One of the unexpected gifts of adoption in my life it that it has ultimately left me not with a feeling of unfulfilled emptiness, but of deep connection to the world around me. The wide-reaching branches of our unruly family tree have engendered in me a sense of responsibility and a commitment toward social justice.

Adoption as an institution is absolutely in need of reform, and deserves to be examined always with a critical eye. But all the reform in the world will not eradicate the need for it. The need is real. For the children without homes, it is more than real; it is desperate.

At the end of her article, Ms. Barcella acknowledges, “I don’t know the answers.”

If we are going to enter a cultural dialogue about a subject that leaves the lives of children hanging in the balance, I ask that we push deeper, look further, reach for some answers. Because there are millions of children without families out there, and whether or not it’s convenient for one’s self-realization process, they need those answers and they cannot wait.

Death by Book

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As I approach the finish line of this new memoir, my response to the question How are you? has lately been, This book is killing me, or (in the style of the Wicked Witch), I’m melting! MEEEELTING! And other cheery and not-at-all dramatic stuff like that.

Then, right before Halloween, my best friend Julie in upstate NY called to tell me her husband just had emergency heart surgery. If they hadn’t caught the blockages, he would have been dead within the year.

After I hung up the phone, I vowed to slow down, to be in the moment, to be present for the miracle that is my life. Forever more. The end.

And then I used that vow to flagellate myself for the next few days because, as usual, I was unable to accomplish this goal in any significant way. Until I finally just said forget it and tossed the vow out of the window of my car, while texting at red lights, blasting The Shins, crying and eating an emergency taco on my way to therapy.

When I got home from therapy, I (not at all slowly or mindfully) stuck T in front of Phineas and Ferb, while I packed two suitcases for NY. In the morning we left to meet Scott and see an Everything Will Be Alright in the End show. The next few days were a maelstrom of activities and meetings and rock shows and no sleep. By the time we were in a rented car heading over The George Washington Bridge to go upstate and visit Julie and her family, I had been running nonstop for so many days that my whole body was vibrating.

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When we got there the air was crisp and smelled like rain, the grass phosphorescent against the grey sky. The last of the fiery foliage still clung to the trees. I began to breathe as we wound through the country roads that I recognize in my very bones, from having spent every summer of my childhood there. I hurried us all into our half-assed costumes (Frankenstein, the Mummy And a fortune teller, fyi), then met Julie, her sister and their kids in the hippie haven of Woodstock. It was adorable night, with exuberant trick-or-treating punctuated by lots of old school drum circles. Without even trying, there it was in front of me: the wonder of my days.

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When we got back to their house after the candy carnage, Julie’s husband was resting on the couch, waiting for us.

Scott asked him, “How are you feeling about all this, Man? Are you anxious?”

He replied, “I’ve never been calmer. Nothing matters to me anymore except this.”

The “this” he was pointing at included six children racing through the living room on plasma cars, screaming with laughter and leaving chocolate fingerprints on every available surface. The youngest of them toddled behind, yelling “Tarikoosh! Tarikoosh!”

Ah yes. This.

Writing is hard. Mothering is hard. Sometimes keeping both balls in the air does indeed feel like it’s killing me. But it’s not. Ultimately, it’s nourishing me. My family and my work both give me much more than they ever take out of me.

The book is called Everything You Ever Wanted. It’s a motherhood memoir for the slightly less traditional moms among us, about going from being a member of a harem to a member of the PTA, and it comes out in May. It is almost finished. So close. I can’t wait to share it with you. I am wicked stressed, but it is not killing me. Not at all.

Rock Wife Life: Then and Now

Last week Weezer released their ninth studio album, Everything Will Be Alright The End. It’s amazing, and if you haven’t listened to it yet, you should!

Here are my boys on the set of the “Back to the Shack” video.

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As T and I bopped around at the video shoot, I thought, how apropos: the moon. When we create, we are always in uncharted territory. We seek to break out of our habitual thought patterns, to view the very ground we stand on from a whole new angle. In its most transcendent moments, creating can feel like you’re not tethered to the laws of this world at all, not even gravity.

I adore this album and it has been an honor, as always, to hover around the edges of the room while music is being born.

The prospect of the upcoming tour dates has made me both excited and nostalgic. Here is Scott and me at Coachella 2003, my first Weezer show (awwww)….

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When we first pulled up stakes and toured, Scott and I were newly married. We left behind a ratty, weird apartment with mirrored closet doors, industrial grey carpeting, and Cottage White walls. It was full to bursting with the beginnings of a married life, or rather the beginnings of the accumulation of the stuff that signified being married (the monogrammed towels, the waffle maker, the Cuisinart…). On the one hand I loved our blossoming life together and on the other I felt suffocated by it. I mean, what the hell was I supposed to do with a Cuisinart anyway?

We were both relieved every time we dragged our suitcases out the door and left the stuff behind. As depicted in a thousand movies, the touring life was grueling and hard— the travel, the exhaustion, the repetition. But for Scott and me, life on the road was also a kind of rolling meditation. We loved it. I never felt more myself than when waking up, ordering room service and poring over the map of a new city. I was even happier if the breakfast contained one or two unidentifiable food items. Scott and I both had a sense of rightness on tour, as if we had happily been adopted into a circus family. In a way, that’s what being in a band is – a nomadic family, united by a common purpose and facing shared obstacles, buoyed always by the electrical force of the music.

I toured with the band all summer long and into the fall, curling up in the back lounges of the tour buses. I watched columns of light shoot up into the purple sky over the California desert, while the crowd boiled and churned and clamored for guitar picks. I gossiped for hours with the other wives and girlfriends. I watched Scott play grungy Dutch clubs and cavernous American hockey rinks and, bizarrely, the site of the Nuremberg Rallies. A certain hugely famous English rock star offered me cocaine in a Paris bathroom (declined, but still a fun moment, in a Studio 54 kind of way). I woke dazed in St. Louis, Toronto, Paris. I stepped over passed-out, topless Scandinavians. I wandered the 8th Arrondisement, the red-light district of Hamburg, downtown Detroit, Disney World.

And now? Now I have embraced the dreaded Cuisinart; I treasure the comfort of home; Yo Gabba Gabba Live has become our most coveted concert ticket. And in spite of this sea change, in many ways the song remains the same. I still fall in love with Scott anew every time I watch him step onto a stage. Tariku might just prove to be our family’s most ardent music lover. He’s on fire with rhythms and melodies, constantly banging on anything in sight. There is not any less music in my life now, there are just fewer topless Scandinavians. It’s still about the same thing: the songs, the family, the love, the adventure. I’m looking forward to seeing what this next chapter will bring.

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Happy 5775!

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Last week, I celebrated the Jewish New Year at an event on the banks of the LA River. An eclectic group of us wandered past the birch trees and down the concrete slope of the embankment, with hunks of bread in our hands. As is traditional, crumb-by-crumb we released the sins of the past year, each one hitting the water with a ripple of light reflected from the yellow streetlamps across the river.

I thought a lot about the people I had met and things I had seen in Ethiopia.

Two weeks ago, I returned from my Love Hope trip with Help One Now, where I was privileged to see the community development work they’re doing to support struggling families in the village of Gunchire. After long days traveling over unpaved roads in a rickety van, our dusty group of travelers unwound by listening to music and telling stories late into the night. They were a terrific group of people, who taught me a lot about what it means to truly make faith and social justice work a centerpiece of your life.

Back home on the riverbank, I thought about the ways I had lapsed, even over the course of a week, into vanity, selfishness, and convenient forgetting. As I stepped into 5775, I felt frustrated by the fact that in many ways I am no wiser, no more sure of my religious identity than I have ever been. I keep waiting for the ray of light through the clouds that will make me sure. I sighed and pitched my last hunk of bread into the water. What if in the end it is all just bread and just water- yucky LA River water at that- and I might as well have been home eating chocolate-covered almonds and watching Blacklist on the couch?

After the ceremony, we held hands and sang. I thought about standing in Gunchire, hugging Marta, who had only a year before been starving. With our arms around each other, it’s easy to see that we are all suffering. I realized that, riddled with doubt though I may be, I understand God and myself most fully when I am taking action to address this, both by looking outward and looking inward. I went home feeling filled-up, if not with answers than at least with community and prayer (and baklava!).

For me, walking into this New Year is not about some litany of shoulds and shouldn’ts. I’ve had quite enough of those lists in my life. Rather, it’s about noticing when I feel most myself, closest to God, most present with my family, stronger and lighter. It is about moving towards those things.

If you didn’t get the chance to follow our journey to Africa, you can either just scroll down or visit my page on the Help One Now website. While you’re at it, check out what Jen, Kristen and Korie had to say about it.

You can still sponsor a child! It’s truly life-saving work. By doing so, you’ll be making it possible for local leaders to leverage their resources, break the cycle of poverty and keep a vulnerable family together. If you haven’t done it yet, please check it out.

A very sweet New Year- new Hebrew calendar year, new school year, new harvest, new chill in the air, new chance to make a difference- to all of you.

(photos/video by Ty Clark and Scott Wade)

Hope Happens

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We’re back in Addis now, with its crazy slow-moving traffic, tons of construction, brightly colored corrugated tin shacks, miles of market stalls and crowds of people walking everywhere. I’m sitting under an overhang in an outdoor café, the rain blowing in sideways and soaking the bottom of my skirt as an Amy Winehouse album plays on repeat and I try to digest all that we’ve seen over the past week. The smell of frankincense wafts in from a neighboring shop.

I’ll see my little boy soon (okay, not that soon- after about 25 hours of travel). On every street corner I have little jolts of recognition as I catch glances of features that look like his- his wide forehead, his big bright smile.

I’m drinking a cup of rocket fuel coffee approximately the texture of wet sand, as the faces of the people I met in Gunchire hover in my mind.

I think about Marta, who has been sponsored by Help One Now for the past year. Her home was the humblest of the four we visited, a one-room construction of sticks and mud. You could see straight through parts of it to the green hills on the other side. She wrapped us in her thin arms and greeted us with four kisses each. Aschelew, the local leader of Help One Now, translated as she told us that she used to eat one time a day at best; her children were starving. Now they eat three times a day and have money for school supplies.

Marta wants the same thing for her kids I do, as all mamas do- that they be fed and healthy, that they have access to healthcare and education. The moms I’ve met over the last few days humble and inspire me with their strength and tenacity.

Help One Now supports the whole family in order to help break what seems like an impossible cycle. Marta is a widow with HIV, who finally has access to ARV drugs, without which she was too sick to work. The cool thing about Help One Now’s progressive model of international aid, is that it empowers women like Marta by leveraging her already-existing resources. Marta has land, so her Help One Now sponsorship is providing her not just with financial aid but also with seeds and training to help her farm.

This has been an awesome adventure in a beautiful country with a kick-ass, thoughtful group of people, but it has also been terrifically difficult emotionally. I live a sheltered life. I know theoretically that crushing poverty exists, but it is another thing to put a face to it- to hold the babies who have no families, to look Marta in the eye and kiss her cheek. I will take her home with me.

We reached our child sponsorship goals for the trip! You can still be a part of it. We have now shifted shift to vulnerable children in Uganda. Thanks to all for you who have supported our effort. We are coming alongside these struggling families and helping them to transform their lives. I love you all. You have blown my mind.

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(thanks to Ty CLark, Scott Wade and Jacob Combs for the beautiful photos)

The Road

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“From here on out, the road is KAPUT,” said Aschalew, the local Help One Now director and our emissary here.

Translation: the road is screwed. He wasn’t kidding.

We drove for two hours on a rocky unpaved road, through rolling green hills dotted with acacia trees and tukuls (traditional mud huts). We swerved around herds of oxen and goats. All along the roadside, people walked with bales of sticks on their heads and jugs of water on their backs.

We finally arrived, in need of serious chiropractic adjustments, at the Transitional Children’s Care Center in the village of Gunchire, which felt like it existed not just in rural southern Ethiopia, but also hundreds of years in the past.

When we got out of the van, a swarm of children rushed out of the house to greet us with flowers and hugs. One three-year-old boy ran right up to me laughing, his arms hopefully raised. His wide liquid chocolate eyes were so much like Tariku’s when we first met him- alive and sparkling but also confused and sad.

“His name is Tamrat. He’s new,” said Aschelew. “He just came to us a couple of weeks ago.”

I carried Tamrat on my hip all morning as we visited with the children, wandered around and learned about the work they’re doing at the care center. I tickled Tamrat’s soft belly, his smile wildly bright and sweet. Right about when we were getting ready to move on, he locked his arms around me, lay his head on my neck and sobbed. I put my palm on his warm little head and rocked him as he keened with sorrow.

Until that moment, I was filled with purpose, telling myself that I was strong enough for this, that I wouldn’t cry. Fat chance. I held his little body to mine, my cheeks wet, and remembered the time that Tariku used to wake weeping with grief five times a night.

The care center will attempt to reunify this little boy with his family and, if that isn’t possible, to arrange a (still rare here) domestic adoption. These goals may or may not be met. He may or may not find a family to love him. Like so many of the world’s orphans, he was orphaned not because his parents died but because they were so extremely impoverished that they could no longer keep him alive on their own.

The unique thing about Help One Now, is that they’re focused on orphan prevention, preserving families in the community. Help One Now is dedicated to keeping kids like Tamrat from winding up sobbing in some weird white lady’s arms in the first place.

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Later that day, I met a woman named Birknesh, but we call her Berkie. Looking up at us with a bowed head, her tone was shy, but underscored with fierceness. Berkie’s house was built of mud and straw and the inside was painted a deep summer sky blue. Berkie is a widow and not long ago her family was dying from extreme poverty. Take a minute with that and imagine yourself into it. Your children can’t eat. You feed them once a day, if that.

You have to give one up or the others won’t survive. Which one will it be?

We all rolled with laughter as her littlest, the mischievous one, the showboat (the Tariku of the family!) mugged for the camera and danced around.

Help One Now came alongside Berkie’s family and helped them to develop a sustainable plan. You should have seen her sparkling almond eyes when she showed us her coffee plants, her enset plants, her two milk-producing cows. I was leveled by it. There is so much I’ve learned in these last few days.

I’m going to get really real with you here. I don’t often talk about T’s origins, or the reasons he came to be with us. Tariku is a poverty orphan. Which is to say, that without the pressures of extreme poverty, he wouldn’t have suffered the trauma of separation, malnutrition, pneumonia- all the things that made his eyes so scared when we met him, his little legs hanging beneath him like skinny, limp noodles.

It’s so easy to fall prey to cynicism and apathy, to think that if you can make a good joke about something, that’s enough. It’s not enough.

Help One Now is so groovy and amazing and forward-thinking because they support community-based development. We partner with local leaders to bring aid to these vulnerable families, whose children will most likely be orphaned within the next year if they don’t receive support.

Straight up, it’s $42 a month to sponsor a child, which supports their entire family. You get lots of goodies, including entry in a drawing for a Weezer-signed guitar. You can give right here right now and I’m asking you…

…won’t you please?

Do it.

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Again, Always: Ethiopia

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The minute we walked off the plane in Addis Ababa this morning, the distinctive smell hit me- some mysterious mixture of frankincense, burning trash, eucalyptus, coffee, and bodies. It’s profoundly human and otherworldly at the same time and lets you know unmistakably that you are in Ethiopia- this glorious and complicated place.

I remembered the last time I walked into that airport. I was holding tight to Scott’s hand, shaking with anxiety and excitement. In only a week, we would finally, finally, be holding our child in our arms.

Tears brimmed in my eyes as the body memory overtook me. Then my mood swung in the opposite direction entirely and I giggled, recalling the hopeful idealists we were then, with all of our big ideas about parenting. Along with those big ideas about who we were, about the world around us, about everything. I look back on those people with a kind of wistful fondness. We were so sure of ourselves, and so totally clueless!

The morning before I left, I awoke as the dawn broke soft grey over the city. I curled myself around my warm, still-sleeping son in the bed and listened to the sound of his even breathing, felt the thumping of his little bird heart, breathed in the smell of him, like fresh bread and grass. I am now in the very place I first met him. It is the farthest I have been from him since that day.

I miss him in my very bones.

What a great gift to be invited to come back to this country that has given me my whole life, really. To once again be amongst its people, so that we might learn from each other and do the essential work of community development and family preservation.

I’m here with Help One Now and an amazing crew of creatives and activists, including Kristen Howerton, Jen Hatmaker and Korie Robertson. Tomorrow we’re going to the village of Gunchire and I will get to do all of my favorite stuff: listening, observing, hearing stories, writing. I can’t wait to share it with you.

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Love Hope

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On the final afternoon of our adoption trip to Ethiopia, we participated in a goodbye ceremony, after which we would be bringing Tariku home for good. Never again would we have to leave him.

By that time, I was beyond exhausted. My spirit of adventure was wearing thin and I was so ready to just be holding my baby in his green bedroom, surrounded by all my groovy baby shower swag. I wanted Whole Foods and clean water and my own sheets and not to have to wait three hours for everything or pass by burning trash every time I walked out the door

During the ceremony, the adoptive families held hands around the living room of the orphanage, while the nannies held the children in the center of the circle and said a few words about each of them. Tariku, looking wide-eyed and confused, wore a little traditional pantsuit, with an embroidered Ethiopian cross on the shirt. He clung to his favorite nanny Fantu.

A translator interpreted, as Fantu said, “Tariku is such a happy boy. He loves to dance when we sing to him. Every day he makes me laugh. You are very lucky. I will miss him. God bless you all.”

She handed him to me, with tears streaming down her cheeks.

Each child put their little hand in a tray of blue paint and left a handprint in a book swollen with pages and pages of these goodbyes. The ceremony was wonderful and moving and sad. At the end, the older children stood in a group and sang some traditional songs, as well as a rousing version of “Old MacDonald.”

E-I-E-I-O, they sang, as my heart fell into my stomach. A fancy grocery store? Nice sheets? I was such an asshole. Those smiling, singing kids were going to, once again in their lives, watch the babies leave with their forever families and then turn around and walk back upstairs to their row of cots.

When the plane left the ground the next day and Tariku was asleep in my arms, I took in a big gulp of air- my first real breath since I had seen his picture three months before. But as soon as the relief had settled into my bones, I felt an acute ache to return.

Our adoption gave us more than the family we were longing for; it also allowed us to experience our interconnectedness with people halfway around the globe, the permeability of the membranes between our lives. Since then, Scott and I have been trying to finagle a return trip. We often wonder- what can we do to work toward a world in which children are not orphaned by poverty? The answers are not always easy. Like a lot of people, we are sometimes overwhelmed and confused by the choices. How can we do the most good in a conscious and respectful way? Is there something we can do beyond writing a check? Is there some greater understanding we can gain, some more immediate action we can take?

Imagine how completely thrilled I was when an opportunity to do exactly this came and knocked on my door, in the form of an invitation to go on the Love Hope Storyteller Ethiopia Trip, with Help One Now. As soon as I learned more about this remarkable organization, I jumped at the chance. We leave in two weeks and I can barely wait.

Our group of artists, storytellers and influencers will have the opportunity to visit the town of Gunchire (Gun-CHEER-ee) in southern Ethiopia. In Gunchire, Help One Now is dedicated to work very close to my heart— orphan prevention. Using a sponsorship model, Help One Now is bringing aid to families who would otherwise be in danger of dissolving due to extreme poverty. Without help, the children of these families will wind up being more sweet faces next to the ones I saw singing at the orphanage.

We have a wildly exciting travel group, including my friend and hero, Rage Against the Minivan’s Kristen Howerton; author, house fixer-upper, rabble rouser and mom extraordinaire Jen Hatmaker; and the very lovely “Commander of Ducks,” Korie Robertson. I promise, we will not bore you!

I’m so excited to go back to the land that gave Scott and me our life’s greatest miracle and so captured our hearts in the process. I’m going to go meet the people of Gunchire and learn about the essential community development work happening there. I’ll be reporting back from the trenches the whole time. I hope you’ll come with me in spirit and hear their stories.

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Then and Now

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We spent a remarkable weekend with T’s “first friends.” Unprompted by me, he calls them his brothers and sisters. The first picture is of the kids when they were still living in a care center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The second one is of the same kids now (in almost the same order- wrangling challenges). I don’t even have words for the juxtaposition of these photos. Just look at these sweet, bright stars. The weekend was hilarious and touching and hard and big and real. I miss the other families already.

I had no idea what Tariku’s adoption would bring into our lives. It’s hard to remember, when sunk in the daily minutiae of mopping an inch bathwater off the floor or arm wrestling for the iPad or trying to teach subtraction. He has truly razed so many walls in my heart. Scott and I just wanted a baby. We weren’t looking explode our world. A bright light turned on all at once and we now have a network of strong and inspiring extended family. Our awareness has expanded and issues like race, belonging, family, trauma, and healing have moved to the forefront of our thoughts and our discussions. We are more compassionate. Above all, we know waaaaay more about airplanes than we ever could have dreamed.

I always knew he was a miracle, I just didn’t grasp the scope of it.

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On Special Needs…

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When I was stuck in traffic after the camp drop-off this morning, I found myself musing about the day I first heard the words “special needs” applied to T. It seems a lifetime ago. I remember the combination of fear and relief I felt. What would this mean to him? To our lives? How had my life strayed so far from any picture I ever had of motherhood? Some part of me felt like I was betraying him every time I said it, by admitting that he wasn’t perfect. Another part of me was grateful that I had some external validation for my concerns about his behaviors- I hadn’t just been imagining it all along.

Special needs. Say it a few times. See how it feels.

You may feel embarrassed. You may feel like you’re getting benched, not allowed out on the field with these other competitive moms who are humble-bragging at the coffee shop about their six-year-old playing Chopin and speaking Mandarin.

That’s okay. Don’t stop. Say it a few more times.

You may find that it begins to change shape in your mind, to grow roots in your heart. You may recognize it as truth, and truth is almost always a relief. You may begin to feel that rather than benching you, it puts you on exactly the right playing field, where you suddenly understand the game.

Say it a few more times. Say it like its no big deal because it isn’t any more. You will begin to hear an echo.

My kid has special needs, too!

You may find that the echo is coming from people that you’d far rather spend time with than the Mandarin-drilling Tiger Moms anyway. You may find that you’re proud to be among this new group of people, that all you had been waiting for was to feel less alone, and now you do. And while it is not all fixed, you have something better than fixed: you have hope.

These were my traffic thoughts this morning. How remarkably different from three years ago, when I used to drive around literally cursing at God. I am so grateful to the special needs community- the parents, the therapists, the educators, the kids. They have given me a life far richer than the one I imagined, when I first envisioned being a mom.

My Tedx Talk!

Here is the talk I gave at Chapman University, about adoption and the role of imagination in forming our identities. Hope you enjoy it! Please pass it along if you do.

On Fear and Soccer

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I’ve been struggling with a bizarre case of massive stage fright. I speak in public a lot, and this anxiety has been an intensely unpleasant aspect of my life for the past two years. When it happens, it’s practically an out-of-body experience. It’s not logical. There’s no talking myself out of it. I do every creative visualization technique in the book, and still I have an overwhelming urge to run for my life out the back door.

All of this was very inconvenient for my Tedx talk last week, at Chapman University. About an hour before I was scheduled to go on, I broke into an empty classroom, lied down on the floor, and tried to shake off the paralysis that had crept into my limbs. My entire body was a block of ice. I couldn’t remember anything. I mean, anything. I couldn’t remember my own address for the release form. It was bonkers. When I actually got up there, it went great (will post the link soon!). But the hours, even days, leading up to it were torture.

So why the hell do I keep doing this to myself?

Here is the answer. Because I have some things I want to say. Also, because I want to know what’s on the other side of this. And because when Tariku hits a wall of fear someday, what will I tell him? Oh yeah- I felt that way once, and I quit?

I’ve been drawing a lot of inspiration from the World Cup.

I’ve always loved soccer. Here’s me, the early soccer years…

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The World Cup players are warriors. They are amazing. Check out black-eyed Dempsey playing with his broken nose (hot!). They have to know how to lose and keep fighting (which will NOT happen Thursday against Germany, btw). They accept the inevitability that they will screw up sometime, and when they do it will be in front of thousands of people. And they will have to keep playing. When a ball gets by Tim Howard into the goal, he stands back up and stops the next one. Watching the games puts some fight in me

So Tariku and I have been avidly watching, and I’ve been letting the energy crawl into my blood. When I got up on stage last week, I told myself I was getting in the game. And when my son faces something daunting and frightening one day, I will be able to tell him that it is a noble fight, to do the thing that scares you.

GO USA!

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The Move and Everything After

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It’s been a long while. I wish I could say that I’ve been absent because the fam and I have had our toes sunk in the mud by a lake somewhere woodsy, or that we’ve been busy hunting for abalone shells, enjoying these last days of spring before the summer descends.

The truth is, we moved onto a new house in the middle of multiple work deadlines (sorry, Becky, I swear I’ll have the new book finished in a jiffy), the end of the school year, and Scott being in and out of town. I was hardly stopping to smell the roses. The best I could do was convince the movers not to trample the roses.

I had a disorienting experience when I saw at all of our stuff on the truck. Everything looked huge and tiny at the same time. I was like- Who are we, anyway? Who would we be if this truck just drove away and never came back? Scott was like- are you smoking weed? And I was like- way to undermine a poetic moment. And then we moved our entire existence six miles away, to the top of a big hill.

I have missed this blog space, because without it, I lose my frame. I lose my outlet, which has been a life-saver for me over the last six years. Six! I just checked. And in the middle of all this crazy change, I find that it is still here for me, waiting. So hello, again!

We were worried about how T was going to handle the transition. I’m happy to report that he was a peach. He loves the new place. We can see tons of airplanes from our wide windows and that is all T needs to be happy. That and a corn dog once in a while.

In truth, it was me who had the hardest time with the move. Scott was a bit taken aback by my high-strung emotional reaction.

What if the next house doesn’t have good luck? What if it doesn’t keep us safe? I cried to him.

Honey? It’s not the house that keeps us safe.

So, yeah. Some stuff going on. About security and home. About time and loss.

Speaking of time, T just graduated from kindergarten. His school handles things in a low-key way, which I appreciate There are no tiny caps and gowns, no ceremonies. At 12:30pm last Friday, I went and picked him up at school, then we went swimming at his friend’s house and that was that. Next year the grades start to have numbers, and there just aren’t very many of those numbers if you really think about it.

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We were lucky enough to have a remarkable teacher this year. The kind that come around once in a blue moon and you remember for rest of your life. I am deeply grateful to all the teachers out there who have extra love for the kids who struggle- for the outliers, the special ones. The beginning of the year was rocky, but his teacher saw his big bright light and she believed in him. Slowly, he became what she saw him to be. He did beautifully.

He won the Doctor Award at school, because he takes such good care of his friends. I was nearly as proud as the day when he said, out of the blue, “Hey Mama, Lou Reed is cool!” This kid is my hero.

He went to the airport to watch the jets with his Auntie this morning (his Saturday ritual), and before he left he stood next to me and pointed out the picture window toward the airport.

If you ever miss me too much, he said, I’m right there at LAX. It’s not far.

It was never really the house at all.

A Blow to the Head

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I am packing my books, pulling the dusty tomes down from a high shelf, when my dead friend’s poetry chapbook falls and hits me on the head. It is hot pink and stapled at the fold.

How I felt about her art always changed with how I felt about her, and our complicated friendship. It was:

Raw, vulnerable, essential…

or

Indulgent, sentimental, over-exposed.

Shifting all the time.

She made me angry and delighted. She was the one I called every day, with whom I shared a secret band name even though neither of us had any musical talent whatsoever. The one who got a matching tattoo. The one who was always spilling over at the edges. The one whose laugh was not very ladylike- almost exactly like mine. She made me feel less alone.

Dammit, I think, when I pick up the book. There goes my night. Now I’m gonna cry and hit the chocolate. I don’t have time for this. I’m moving, after all. Deadlines, kid on spring break, busybusybusy.

And then I slide down the wall, sit cross-legged on the carpet, and begin to read. How marvelous. To pause and have a visit with her tonight. When all I could think of was a to-do list.

I will meet you anywhere anytime, Jennifer Grant. I miss you every day, my friend.

I am grateful that the universe saw fit to drop her poetry on my head tonight.

Leaving

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We have been kicking around the idea of moving for years, dragging our feet. Then within a course of a month, KABAM, we have a new house and our old one is sold. It happened in a flash.

It has been a shock to my system. I’m all busted up about leaving. I’m not simply a touch teary and sentimental; I’m sitting on our front porch and sobbing.

I remember the first time we saw our little green house with the neat white trim, the golden afternoon light filtering through the camphor and jacaranda trees. It was love at first sight. We couldn’t believe our luck when we got it.

We waited for a child for two solid years in that house. We did not have the baby we so desperately wanted, but we did have our nest and I clung to it. I decorated his room with a zeal I don’t believe I will ever summon again for things like curtains. I spent some of the hardest days of my life in that house.

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I was sitting at our weathered farm table when I finally got the call:

You have a beautiful eight-month-old son. His name is Tariku.

My neighbor was pregnant with twins at the time. We spent many afternoons together, drinking lemonade on her porch. Something deeply lazy and serene washed over us as we slowly adjusted to the idea of the sea change before us. Those twins are now Tariku’s closest buddies and we haven’t had a moment of serenity since.

As Scott and I prepared to go to Africa, I sat on the bright green carpet in Tariku’s room under the painted starry night sky, while I packed and plotted and planned. I tried out various nicknames. It was Tariku’s room. Terry’s room. T-Bone’s room. T’s room. I sat in the rocker for hours and looked at his photos and was able to trust, for just a moment, that it would be fine somehow. That he would come home to us after all. That the world was about to shatter into something entirely new.

For the last five years, I have started all of T’s bedtime stories:

Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Tariku Moon, who lived in a little green house on Mount Royal Drive…

That era is ending now, never to return. Like the sweet sounds he used to make before he could form words. Like the smell of his baby head- some combination of powder and cookies and fairy dust- as he napped on my chest in the rocker. Like the small, shifting weight of him as I carried him around for hours in the Ergo, my little kangaroo.

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We have been through so much here. I think I am partly grieving the couple Scott and I were when we moved into the house, with all of our hopefulness and naivetè, seven years worth of mistakes and missteps still ahead of us. It was a freer, wilder time. It would be dishonest of me to say that absolutely everything is better now that we finally have the child we always wanted. We are tired. There are crazy new lines on my face. I have to pack a lunch box every morning and, man, does that start out cute and get old quick. Still, when I step back and look at the home we made, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. I realize how happy we have been, how lucky we are to be growing and moving on.

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We bought a dynamite place in a snazzy-cute neighborhood, with lots of fantastic cafés, artisanal grilled cheese, overpriced denim and clever mustaches. There are also tons of families, beautiful park space and a terrific farmer’s market. Our new pad is light and bright and vibrant. I am sad to leave, but I am also thrilled about the sense of wide open possibility. We might just be buying bunk beds… Also, my new kitchen is SWEET.

We are leaving a home that we have loved and of which I am proud. Our happiness has been in these walls but it is not of these walls. We will take it with us when we go.

Onward, to the next adventure!

Birthdays and Butterflies

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On the morning of his birthday, Tariku woke me up saying, “Your baby is six today!”

I immediately teared up. He put his arms around me and said, “It’s okay, Mama. Everyone has to grow up sometime.”

I am not even making this up. He writes the best dialogue, that kid.

Six.

He was eleven months old when we brought him home from Africa. His legs were like skinny, limp noodles. When I tried to look into his eyes, he often looked away. We were worried about his motor development. We were worried about his lungs. All I wanted to do was hold him to my chest. All I wanted to do was feed him and fatten him up.

For three months, he was no more than five feet from my body at any given time. I pretty much just fed him and walked around with him; that was the shape of our days. I held him and wandered in circles around the neighborhood, the house, the mall. And slowly, slowly, I felt him relax into my body. Slowly his eye contact improved. Slowly, his muscles caught up and in no time he was zooming around the house. It was the hardest and scariest and most tender time in my life, those initial months with T.

When I say he relaxed into me slowly, I mean it took years. It has only been the last six months that I feel something big has shifted in him. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly. Certainly, many of his trauma-based behaviors have subsided. There is something even sparklier and more alive behind his eyes. He is less afraid. I feel like I’m just getting to know my son.

We held his birthday at HIS spot: Proud Bird Restaurant. Proud Bird is one of those historic Los Angeles hidden gems. It’s right across the street from LAX and the airplanes pass directly overhead. He likes to sit on their patio for hours every Saturday, never losing his wonder at those marvelous beasts taking to the air.

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It was a special thing for him to be able to share it. T was friendly and sweet and, as always, exploding with that wild joy of his. Not that long ago, being around crowds used to pitch him into a panic. His party was a huge success. A triumph, really.

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His birthday happened to coincide with the hatching of our last butterfly. We raised five of them from caterpillars and the late bloomer was a real holdout. I was starting to get worried for the other ones in there, waiting around.

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We got the Butterfly Garden as a Christmas present and I was a little bit resentful, initially. I thought, Really? You’re going to make me order worms in the mail? It turned out to actually be fascinating and fun for all of us. I’m not sure who was more excited when they started to emerge.

Here’s the thing I didn’t expect: it was cool but it was also gruesome. I had a jar full of caterpillars and food and poop pretty much on my dining room table for a week. Then they turned into cocoons straight out of the movie Alien, in which they turned to goo. When they hatched, I sat watching them, mesmerized by metaphor and miracle, and then out of the blue one of them started bleeding. I almost had a heart attack. I looked it up and found that it’s normal for them to bleed- they expel the last vestiges of the caterpillar they once were. Seriously, real life butterflies are not a Hallmark card.

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When it was finally time to let them go, Tariku cried and got mad at me because he was going to miss them. It took him about fifteen minutes to come out of his room. Resolute and silent, with a tear-streaked face, he took the habitat outside, gently laid his hand on the top of it and said goodbye. Then he set them free. We laughed and ran after them until we finally gave up and just practiced our cartwheels for a while.

It is impossible to raise butterflies and not meditate on growth and transformation- the bloody complicated mess it all is.

It is also impossible not to marvel at the prize: wings.

Sisters

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She showed up in the lobby of the Omni Hotel in Jacksonville. Scott and T and I were hunkered down in a sitting area around the corner from the door, and there was a mirror on the wall, so I could see her reflection before she spotted us. She was taller than me, shiny and pretty with a mane of wavy red hair, black leather boots, dark jeans with white stitching at the seams and a salmon colored V-neck sweater. She got the blue green eyes- the sister I haven’t seen in twenty years.

Almost everyone who knows me is asking right now… What sister?

Many years after I was born, my birth father had another daughter. I met her once when she was seven and I was twenty. I was still casting about for an authentic sense of identity at the time, an understanding of my own adoption story. As was typical of me, I had boundless curiosity and very few emotional tools with which to metabolize the things that curiosity often unearthed. Instead, I walked away. I was always a runner when things got tough.

Now I am an adoptive mother myself. I have learned to hold different truths at the same time. I have become more comfortable with living in a world of fewer absolutes. This time, when my sister appeared out of the blue with the hope of reconnecting, I ran toward her instead of away.

Florida was surprisingly freezing- 40something degrees, wind blowing, persistent mist. I greeted her swathed in every candy-colored tropical layer I had brought with me, topped with a wool coat my sister-in-law happened to have in her car. My toes were tinged with blue in my open-toed sandals.

My sister has a son almost exactly Tariku’s age, so not only did I have new sister in an instant, but T had a new cousin. The boys were immediately lit-up and at ease. They played hide and seek behind the hotel couches, peek a boo around the granite columns. We piled into her car and navigated the looping highways to a crumbling bowling alley. The trees threatened to swallow the road, a hundred shades of green on green.

So now there is this. A sister. And the million fears and hopes that kind of a sea change brings. Will I invite new family into our life just to wind up disappointing them? Is there room for this? Is there time? Will I get to have this thing I dreamed of in all my childhood imaginary play- a sister to my heart and soul? Is that a corny thing for a grown woman to still long for? Is it smart to introduce an attachment into T’s life when it might not pan out? How do you weave so many threads into the tapestry?

As the boys hurled their lime green balls down the lane, she and I ate gross fried chicken fingers and talked about our lives. We wondered if we looked alike. We traded stories and dreams and apologies. I cried a little. It was a start.

She wrote me a letter when she was eight and cut it into a puzzle. She has saved it all these years and gave it to me when we parted. It is sitting in an envelope on my desk. I take handfuls of it out of the envelope, delicate like flower petals.

What does the puzzle letter say? Not even she remembers. It is a precious thing. I haven’t put it together yet.

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