A Tale of Two Inaugurations

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Tariku and I attended the Women’s March Los Angeles, on January 21, 2017.

We could barely move, gridlocked in a sea of bodies. We were all there to be counted. To say we did not consent to this new world order of fear and scapegoating and hate and rabid nationalism. I held Tariku’s hand, now practically the size of a catcher’s mitt. He rarely lets me anymore, but even my bold, brazen boy was unsettled by the sheer number of souls crowding the downtown streets.

Our experience of the Women’s March was moving, inspiring, and also totally annoying, as a day of inconveniences will often be when you’re with your kid. Tariku bitched and whined for roughly 7 straight hours that we never got to meet up with his friends, and that we had to walk for so long. It was blustery and overwhelmingly crowded. The Metro was impossibly backed up and there was no cell reception, so we almost had to walk the 6 miles home. We made it about 2 miles up Sunset Blvd (which was NOT FAIR), before we finally got reception and a friend came to pick us up.

And we had to wait in a long line for tacos, which was also NOT FAIR. Lots of things are not fair right now. Nearly-nine-years-old is the age of realizing how very #$%! unfair the world is.

Exactly eight years and a day prior, on January 20, 2009, I sat on a beat-up, brown, velour couch in a guest house in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, while a tiny Tariku slept on my chest. After a few days of transitioning him slowly out of the care center in which he’d been living for nine months, he was finally in my arms for good. I never again had to leave him in that crib covered in chipped, sky-blue paint, with a picture of Scott and me taped to its rails.

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He was eleven months old and it was his first night with us. We had zero idea of how it was going to go. Do babies sleep when you watch TV (Yes! Sometimes they do!)? Why won’t he eat the baby cereal I brought for him (Because it’s gross, and anyway he’s already eating spicy sausage stew.)? Will he die if he doesn’t poop for two days (Nope. But you will be very, very sad when he finally does.)?

I held his tiny, perfect hands. Smelled his sweet head- that baby scent that resembles a magical combination of soap and angel cake and fairy dust. Our new friends sat beside us, also holding their babies. Tears of awe and joy and relief streamed down all our faces as on the satellite TV we watched Obama’s inauguration. Aretha Franklin sang “My Country Tis of Thee,” and in doing so, we hoped, we thought, we knew, ushered in a whole new era.

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I was sure I was bringing my son, my black son, home to a world that was immeasurably better, safer, more humane, than any that had come before it.

A lot happens in eight years.

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I now have two sons. I now feel as if I have to apologize for the world in which I’m raising them. I feel compelled to ask forgiveness for my own culpability and privilege. For having done what I thought was my best, and it not being enough.

Some of my changing perspective has to do with this wild political pendulum swing we’re experiencing. Some of it has to do with my own re-education about race in America.

One thing that has not changed is my hope– a thumbprint on my heart, small right now but still very much alive.

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My son- my tall, brave, bright, whiny, impossible, beautiful, surprising son- held my hand as we marched with 750k people through downtown LA, along with millions of people marching around the world. Together we chanted, “This is what democracy looks like!”

I will never forget it. Any more than I will ever forget holding his small, fragile body that first night and imagining the sparkling future that has not, in fact, come to pass. Yet.

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Living Out Loud

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Two days ago we were at the water table in the Chicago Children’s Museum. I left the room for exactly five seconds to tell Scott something. When I got back, there was a knot of confusion and yelling around Tariku. I ran toward him and found an incensed grown man screaming at my son, while the other parents stood by mouths agape.

“If you touch my daughter again,” he yelled. “I will call the police”

I said, “Do not threaten my child.”

I wanted to throat punch him. Instead, I composed myself and said, “This is a conflict between children. Let’s see if we can help them handle it.”

I looked at Tariku standing there confused, head hanging, frightened, embarrassed. I shook with adrenaline.

T said, “I wanted my boat to go under the bridge and her boat was under the bridge and I asked her to move it and she said no and so I knocked it.”

I said, “Why don’t we apologize and then you and I can talk about how to make a better choice next time.”

Y’know…Because that’s how you talk to children. You don’t threaten to call the Chicago P.D. because a little boy knocked your kid’s boat out of the way.

Tariku apologized to the little girl’s back, because the man was already stalking out of the room, dragging his daughter behind him.

I imagined for a moment that I was seeing T’s future- my child’s minor transgressions answered with fear and fury due to the color of his skin. I didn’t sleep well that night.

I’m writing this from the front lounge of the tour bus, during the last hour of our drive from Nashville to Dallas. I like the longer drives, because when we wake we’re still on the road and get to see the scenery, as opposed to the usual drill of driving through the night and waking up in an amphitheater parking lot.

Today, the scenery contains a lot of flags flown at half-mast.

Today, I roll into town not with my usual curiosity and anticipation, but rather with sorrow and trepidation. I’m hyper-aware of the unique dangers of living in public as a trans-racial family.

Scott and I long ago accepted the fact that our family will never fit in. We look weird. People look twice; they look a third time. The carnival of the rock tour is about as close as we’re going to get to a utopian bubble of belonging and safety. We thrive in our own little ecosystem, here where we know everyone, behind the tall fence that encloses the backstage parking lot.

Outside the fence, the world is decidedly less sweet and secure. That world is crushing my heart right now. Driving into Dallas, I’m filled with cold fear- a mother of black sons.

I try not to make assumptions about what I’m going to encounter in any given area of the country, because I’ve found that my expectations are often challenged by experience.

Mostly, I find that we’re embraced wherever we go. We’re lively and funny and we’re nice to people and we tip well. Plus, my boys are still little- still round faced and bright eyed. I like to think people get a kick out of us. But there are times I absolutely feel eyes on us in a more aggressive, fearful way. We’re different than the norm, and difference invites suspicion.

And let’s face it- my kids live out loud. They’re big spirits, impossible to ignore. They roil with wild energy. They holler and run and dance and swear and hide under tables and act like dinosaurs and make fart noises with their armpits. They make their fingers into guns; they make pool noodles into guns; heck, I’ve seen Tariku make an American Girl Doll into a gun. They’re boys. But because my oldest is now a tall eight-year-old black boy, he’s on the cusp of losing his cuteness and turning into someone people are afraid of. I tell him you cannot make gun noises, gun gestures, gun anything at all in a public space. And then I pray he’ll comply and I know he won’t entirely, because he’s human. I watch it all unfold with a sense of helplessness and dread.

As we drive into Dallas, I’m mourning. I’m praying. I’m hanging tight to my boys. I’m grateful for our strange blessed life of music and wandering and adventure. I’m deeply saddened by the events transpiring in the world right now, but first and always I’m holding hope and love in my heart.

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Shana Tova 5776!

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We just got done celebrating the Jewish New Year. As an interfaith household with a great love for all the traditions in our crazy quilt, we celebrate many holidays. This is both totally exhausting–especially around Christmukkah and Eastover– and totally worth it. Celebrating different traditions allows not only for lots of parties, but also for learning, exploring, and the challenging but important practice of honoring divergent belief systems. As F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said:

IMG_8251The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

The Jewish New year is a time for celebration and also for deep reflection. It’s a time to cast away the sins of the past year and welcome the coming year with a clean slate and an open heart.

Sometimes I go to temple on the holidays and sometimes I don’t. When I don’t, it can bring on a tsunami of guilt (cuz Jewish), but this year it didn’t. I actually feel great about our holiday activities and am stepping into the New Year feeling both nourished and renewed.

We did a few fun, meaningful things. First, we had a party at the hoaapplesuse to celebrate both the Ethiopian New Year (my sign is wrong, it’s 2008) and the Jewish New Year, which fell a few days apart this year. We wished each other a Shana Tova (good new year), ate Ethiopian food and apples and honey, hung out in the backyard with a handful of good friends, and, most importantly, used the last of our 10 yr old wedding napkins- win! We made brownies (these. you’re welcome.) with a thousand M&Ms in them, which was Tariku’s idea of what would usher in the sweetest New Year. And everyone still got to bed at a reasonable hour. IMG_8272

A few days later, Tariku and I went to the beach to do a Taslich ceremony with Ikar, a special and innovative Jewish community here in Los Angeles, which happens to be led by a childhood friend of mine. Taslich is a meditative ritual that involves tossing bread into a body of water, which is symbolic of casting off our sins from the past year.

On the car ride to the beach, Tariku and some friends and I had a fruitful conversation about sins and personal growth. I personally don’t have any problem with the word sin, though I know a lot of people cringe due to the baggage attached. I’m not a fan of the shame that it can sometimes inspire, but I do like the gravity of the word. Sins are serious- we hurt people and we hurt ourselves. I consider it good soul medicine to take a conscious moment to truly consider the ways I have transgressed and to re-align my intentions with a greater good.

I explained to Tariku that one of the sins I wanted to cast away was my yelling. I told him I don’t think it’s a sin to be angry, but I do consider it a sin to take that anger out on the people around me in ways that aren’t loving and respectful.

Tariku said that a sin he would like to cast away is when his Mom doesn’t let him use the iPad.

Okaaaaaay. Let’s try this again.

And then I prompted him a little bit and he came up with some pretty good answers, but I wasn’t sure if he had grasped the concept or if he had just figured out what I wanted to hear. Either way, it was a good start of a lifelong conversation.

When we got to the beach, the sun was setting in one of those garish, show-offy Southern California displays of pink and gold and powder blue. The unusually warm ocean was glassy and glittery. Tariku dove headfirst into the waves over and over, popping up with his arms outstretched toward the sky in a gesture of pure joy. I stood at the water’s edge and watched as he gleefully threw his bread into the cresting waves. My glorious, life-loving boy!

I experienced one of those waves of pure gratitude that nearly knocked me to the ground. Not “oh-I-should-make-a-gratitude-list” kind of gratitude: the real, pure main-lined good shit.

I thought- Please, God, if I am ever flat busted and alone and eating cat food and everything is lost, please let me at least always remember this moment. Let me always hold the fact that once I was this happy.

Oh yeah, and thanks. Did I mention thanks?

Later, I heard Tariku explaining the ritual to my mom on the phone. He said, “We threw all our big mistakes into the ocean. Like the ocean was the biggest garbage can of mistakes in the world!”

Which is both poetic and hilarious.

Shana tova to all of you! May your 5776 be poetic and hilarious and so very sweet.

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Coming Home

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I’m back, friends! Sorry for the long absence. I’ve missed you! I got home from my wonderful (if exhausting) book tour during Tariku’s last week of school and crashed full force into the daily minutia of life. The every day-ness of waking stupid early, making breakfast, facing piles of laundry and cleaning dog throw-up was both an enormous relief and a bit of a let-down. I had exactly three days before we had T home full time. And that was five minutes ago. Oh wait- it was three weeks ago. How is that possible? You know, how summer is so relaxing (cue hysterical laughter of moms who work at home)?

This book is extremely precious to me and it was thrilling to be able to share it with so many people. I went to parties and readings, spoke on panels and taught workshops. One of my favorite events of the tour was a panel on transracial adoption at the Mixed/Remixed Festival here in LA. Mixed/Remixed brings together people of all races, creeds and genders to celebrate what it means to be Mixed, multiracial, or part of a blended family. Being in that room felt like taking a deep breath. I was overjoyed and inspired to dialogue with people about so many of the subjects about which I’m passionate- family, belonging, race, identity, adoption, self-worth, parenting…

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And then Charleston happened and it knocked the wind out of Scott and me.

The day following the terrorist massacre, Scott and I were meeting with our social worker, talking about our next adoption. I looked over at Scott and he started to sob in the middle of a sentence. Soon all three of us were crying.

I have to be honest here and admit that when Scott and I were first talking about transracial adoption, nearly ten years ago, I was dismissive of the idea that having an African American child would make me think differently about race. I would have told you I didn’t need a child of a different race to be concerned about racism. I was an artist and an activist- someone deeply concerned with equality. I protested discrimination and injustice whenever I could. After all, once upon a time I had driven hours to see Angela Davis speak at a rally about diversity on college campuses.

I was so clueless. Because all the college protests in the world did not remotely prepare me to look into the face of my child, my heart, and know that someday soon, I will have to explain to him that he is not safe. That he will not be treated equally. That I enjoy privileges that he may never enjoy in his lifetime. That people with his skin color in this country have experienced hundreds of years of brutality and disenfranchisement and discrimination. That he lives in a world where we must shout #blacklivesmatter, because it’s not obvious. That things might be better than they used to be but not nearly better enough. Not even close.

I don’t have anything particularly new to offer the discussion. Maybe you feel the same way. Please don’t let that stop you from raising your voice and speaking out against racism and discrimination as loudly as you can.

I offer my grief, my rage, my fear, my solidarity, my tears, my voice, my eagerness to learn, my willingness to work.

Here are some of the posts about Charleston, from my touchstones:

Awesomely Luvvie: “On Charleston, Forgiveness and Black Pain”

Jamelle Bouie on the GOP and the Confederate flag.

Jon Stewart being awesome.

Mocha Momma: “Let’s get to the Work of Anti Racism”

Brene Brown: “Own Our History Change the Story.”

Karen Walrond at Chookaloonks: “Say Something.”

I am memorizing the names of Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons Sr., Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson.

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Being Counted

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In October of 2008, Scott was on tour in Seattle and I was sitting at my dining room table working on my first memoir, when the number of our adoption agency flashed on my phone. We had been waiting a solid year since we finished the last of our paperwork. I picked up with a shaking hand. The voice on the other end said, “We have a beautiful ten-month-old boy for you….”

I opened my computer to find an email with two photo attachments, which I forwarded to Scott as I dialed his number. The blurry photos were of a gorgeous infant with dark, thoughtful eyes, a wide forehead, skinny legs and a face like one of the famous Ethiopian paintings of wide-eyed angels that adorn the ceilings of their churches.

“There’s my son,” said Scott. “Look at him. He’s perfect.”

I was smitten. I wore my little angel around my neck in a locket. I blew the pictures up and put them in every room in the house. I carried them around in my purse and shoved them in the face of everyone who would look.

“Look! My son! Isn’t he terrific? Isn’t he beautiful? Isn’t he clearly a genius?”

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One day, I met my friend Joel for coffee and began our chat by enthusiastically foisting Tariku’s pictures on him. He oohed and aahed appropriately, and then he said, “I’m here for you if you need help. And you’re going to need help. For instance, someone is going to have to teach this kid how to handle the police.”

I said, “He’s not even a year old, Joel.”

He said, “It goes fast.”

I thought he was being a tad hysterical. But Joel is a black man, and now, a few years later, as Baltimore is smoldering and I can’t look at pictures of Freddie Gray’s face without crying for that young man’s mother, I see that Joel wasn’t being hysterical. Not remotely.

Tariku is seven now, reed thin, goofy-toothed, adorable and all wild boy. He’s taller every day, all of his pants two inches too short because I can’t keep up with him. And as I watch him lope through the park like a gazelle, I think, How soon before he’ll be mistaken for a teenager? How soon before it’s not a mistake and he is a teenager? With every inch he grows, how much less safe is he?

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This should not be a mother’s first thought upon looking at her growing boy.

I’ve found myself stuck every time I sat down to write this past week– unsure how to write about Baltimore and unsure how to not write about it. For such a big mouth, writing about race doesn’t come easily to me.  I’m personally terrified and politically enraged about the brutal institutionalized racism in this country, but when it comes to writing about it, I feel overemotional and under-qualified.

Then I read this sentence from Kevin Powell’s amazing “Why Baltimore is Burning:”

“They know it is madness that so-called progressive, liberal, human-rights, or social-justice people of any race or culture have remained mightily silent as these police shootings have been going down coast to coast.”

That’s me, I thought– the mightily silent. I acknowledging my privilege, cry over pictures of Freddie Gray, make it out to a protest or two once in a while, read books by people smarter than me, retweet people more clever than me… It’s really not enough.

I joined some amazing women at a blogging conference this last weekend, including Kelly Wickham, Luvvie Ajayi, and Kristen Howerton (see: the people I often retweet who are more clever than me), and walked away feeling inspired. These women challenge me to read and write more about race. To reach for my own voice in the dialogue, even if I don’t have anything new to say. It’s not an originality contest, it’s about being counted. This is how I begin.