Pie Fight!

T snow

I smashed my iPhone and I’m up in the mountains. Gah! Email me. Don’t bother texting….

Anyway, hello from Big Bear, where it is actually cold and there is actual white stuff on the ground!

As we wound up the mountain road and the first dirty, slushy patches of snow appeared, Tariku screamed like he had won the Publisher’s Clearing House. It’s strange to me that snow is exotic to him. My childhood was so different than my son’s sunshiney LA life, where the darkest wintery days barely require a sweater.

I remember the magic of waking up in the morning and seeing the world newly white. I remember evenings in the downstairs den snuggled in front of the fire under an afghan, looking out windows frosted over with snowflake patterns of ice and listening to my favorite Burl Ives album. I remember trading in my ice skates every year for a new pair, waiting to see if the lake froze over and we’d actually be able to skate outside and not just in the indoor rink, with its watery hot chocolate.

Scott is like, who cares? Winter sucks. He just remembers getting hit in the face by snowballs and the one time in fourth grade he nearly froze off his little toe. He doesn’t have the nostalgia for seasons that I do. Then again, I have nostalgia for nearly every piece of lint that ever blew across my path.

I’m currently sitting in a café in Big Bear, drinking a decent almond milk latte across the table from my friend Fred. We just dropped our kids off at ski school. I decided to give myself a pass from skiing today and instead just hang around and write and read and caffeinate. I’m unreasonably ecstatic about this plan.

I want to share a bit about our New Years with you, because it was one of my favorites. First of all, Mr. Shriner took me out to a beautiful dinner and dancing. We had a super-fun, sorta-wild New Years Eve. I think it was a response to the midnight yoga/chanting/interpretive dance that I made him go to last year (totally serious- I did that to him and he stayed with me).

Tariku dragged me and my aching head out of bed at six the next morning, pumped to embark on our mission for the day. Tariku has been begging– begging— for a pie fight for the past three years. New Years day we decided to do it.

The three of us went to the grocery store and bought a stack of pie tins and a landfill’s worth of whipped cream bottles. Then, after searching my soul about whether I wanted to be videotaped in a showercap or get gross whipped cream in my hair, I came down decisively on the side of ruining my blow dry. Hair be damned, it was a blast! It’s so fun to to listen to Tariku’s wild laughter.

The New Year causes us to reflect on the passage of time, and I’m always painfully aware that his little boy laugh will soon go the way of his toddler babble. So it was particularly sweet. I think we’re going to make the pie fight a tradition. We followed it with Box Trolls and a spaghetti and meatballs living room picnic. It was a happy way to spend the first day of 2015.

I didn’t make a big resolution, but I do aim to enjoy my accomplishments more this year, whatever they may look like. I’m so hard on myself. It’s not that I don’t love my work– I do. I’m just uncomfortable with finishing and sending my creative babies into the cold cruel world. My therapist Judy actually used the word “grim,” which startled me. Me? Grim? The originator of the First Annual New Years Day Pie Fight?! But it’s true. I tend to underplay my accomplishments, to apologize for my success, to close one project and immediately open another without even a breath, a sip of tea, a glass of bubbly, a Mallomar…nothin’. This compulsive over-sharer didn’t even tell anyone for days that I had finished my book. I aspire to be less grim. To bust out the Mallomars. To love and respect my own work the way I hope others will.

2014 held a lot of sadness, with many troubling themes rising to the surface. It was a year that the deep institutionalized racism in our culture found a powerful place in public dialogue. The incidents that provoked this dialogue were so sad and frightening, but the outcry was heartening to me. It leads me to hope that this year and the next and the next will see progress. That my son will grow up into a world that is safer for black men. A world that is kinder to their bodies, their hearts, their human rights, their souls. I hope the same for women. I hope the same for all of us.

moms know

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Wishing you lots of self-care, dancing, safety and pie. Happy New Year!

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.

Thanksgivukkah: Gratitude and Light

remember

Remember this guy? Remember how adorable and yet how incredibly challenging he was for a while there? It seems he slept for a total of about 5 hours in 3 years. My body was more decorated with bite marks than it was with tattoos. And I have a lot of tattoos.

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Well, here he is in his first school play. I didn’t mess with the picture at all to create that effect. The way the light fell in the room made him glow. He stood there like a champ, looking calm and proud, and when his turn came, he flashed that giant smile and gave ’em the Tariku razzle dazzle and got the only laugh in the whole show.

And another thing….

Remember her?

andrea b:w

If there was a way to leave bite marks on the world, she would have. I always understood my son, with all his wildness and fear and anger. I had the same thing, for a long time. We’re both a little better now.

chef

T is quite a cook these days and he asked for a chef’s hat for Hanukkah. We have been cooking up a storm. This is really the first year we’ve done much Hanukkah celebrating, as it usually seems to get lost in the shuffle and holiday stress. But it’s easier for me now somehow. It’s not so laborious as it once was to have a few people over for dinner and light the candles. There is a bit more ease to my days. Not because I’m less busy, but because I’m less of a basket case.

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This holiday season, I am thankful for healing and change. And for patience, when I have it. And for faith, which is there even when you think it isn’t.

hanukkah

Get Up, Stand Up…

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This morning, I smiled and nodded and let some homophobic comments pass right by me in a schoolyard conversation. I feel disappointed in myself and curious as to the cause of my inability to speak up. I have spent all day considering ways I might deal differently with a similar situation in the future.

This is what happened…

I was joking around with some parents after the drop off. We were having a “cute stories” moment, talking about our little boys liking to dress up in girls’ clothes. Tariku likes to put a toy airplane in his hair and pretend it’s a tiara- that kind of thing. One of the dads piped up with: it’s fine when they’re seven as long as they’re not still wearing dresses when they’re seventeen. “I mean, that’s just not okay,” he said.

And that’s when I said…nothing. I said nothing.

I should have said, I’d be thrilled to have my son in a ball gown at his wedding if that’s what makes him feel good about himself and happy in his own skin. That is the truth.

So why didn’t I?

When I imagine being confronted with racism or sexism or homophobia etc, I think that I would always stand up to it, that I would always do the right thing, no question. In reality, we are often in situations with a great deal of social pressure. We are taken off guard. We want to be liked. We don’t want to make other people uncomfortable.

I feel like an outsider among the parents at pre-school and I am honestly often self conscious about T’s wacky behavior. When we arrive for drop off, most of the kids are sitting nicely, waiting with their parents, while T is running around, hollering and leading dance parties on the playground. I’m conscious that we’re different. The fact that I look like I fell of the side show carnival train doesn’t help. It makes me try extra hard to fit in. I think my desire to be socially accepted at the school is one factor in my silence.

Another factor is practice. It can be helpful to think situations like this through before we get blindsided with them. When I was first walking around in the world with Tariku, it used to be a lot harder for me to speak up when people said boneheaded things about adoption or race. Now I’m more experienced and I have a handful of standard responses that allow me to speak my mind in a way that doesn’t generally create a confrontational dynamic. I rarely wind up in the car later obsessing about what I might have said.

I’ve been thinking about the standard narrative of Rosa Parks. I was always told that she was tired from work one day and refused to move to the back of the bus. The reality is that she was a trained civil rights activist and that her refusal to move was a planned act of civil disobedience. We could all benefit from a little training, from a little practice. Perhaps on all of those back-to-school nights that we spend looking at their macaroni collages, we could take ten minutes to have a conversation about diversity.

Whether or not it’s incorporated at an institutional level, this does remind me how important it is to keep an open dialogue about these issues at home.

I’m going to a parent meeting at the school tonight and I’m going to bring up the idea. Because, as I would say to T when he screws up, “We’re gonna do better next time!”

Wish me luck!