Happy Enough New Year 2016!

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On Christmas day we rushed Bright Eyes to the emergency room with pneumonia. He seems to be pulling out of it now, but it was deeply nerve wracking. It feels like it’s been weeks and weeks of nothing but of sickness and worry around here.

At 11pm on New Year’s Eve, I was on my hands and knees cleaning vomit off the bedroom floor after a stomach flu raged through the house for 2 days, thinking, hey, at least they missed the rug this time. Scott lay on the couch in his checked pajamas and stared at the ceiling in shock. On the other side of our fence, the bass pounded from our neighbor’s black tie party. When I was done cleaning the last of the barf remnants, from my voyeuristic vantage point at the kitchen window I could see flashes of glittery dresses and crisp bow ties twirling next to the pool, where burlesque dancers lounged on enormous rafts shaped like swans. Yup- swans.

Then I shuffled papers from pile to pile for a while on our annoying dining room table that has crumbs and glitter and lord knows what else ground into every crack of the reclaimed barnwood rustic bullshit I’d never buy again in a million years because I have to clean it with a toothbrush. The whole house looked like a giant to-do list.

I set the bar low and wrote down some pathetic resolutions. Like- take walks. That kind of thing.

I thought- Oh, my poor life, my self, my soul, where have you gone? I’m a shell of a human in green socks and Birkenstocks on New Years eve, pretending I need more filtered water so I can spy on my neighbor’s swanky party.

I peeked in to the bedroom, where the two kids were through the worst of all the illness and finally asleep in our bed, snuggled in soft blankets and snoring gently, curled beside each other like two commas in different point font. I sat on the edge of the bed for a moment and just breathed with them, watching the deep calm of their sleeping faces and the sweetness of it all was nearly painful.

There was everything, right there. The parties we weren’t at. This crazy family we somehow lucked into. All of our choices and blessings and regrets. All the years, passing faster and faster. Everything we still long for and everything we have and everything we traded and fact that we don’t get to keep it. Any of it.

I did a little exercise I sometimes like to do when I am faced with choices or doubts. I ask myself- on my deathbed, what will I wish I had done with this day?

I thought, I didn’t do so badly. Today, I took care of the people I love. Today, that’s enough. I’ve earned my night’s rest. I wouldn’t rather be on a swan, or anywhere else, really.

When we woke up, everyone felt better and we took Bright Eyes for his first time bowling and we laughed and laughed and ate gross chicken fingers and it was pretty awesome. There will be other parties.

Wishing you all bright and beautiful things in 2016!

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L.A. Sunday Funday

us n muralWe had a crazy fun family day on Sunday, inspired by The Industry’s Hopscotch Opera, which Scott and I were lucky enough to experience the day before. Hopscotch is performed entirely in cars that drive around L.A., and at various sites at which the cars stop. Beg, borrow, or steal a ticket if you can. It’s remarkable. The city  itself is an integral thread in the fabric of the story, and we walked away pumped to explore more of this magical, maddening place we call home.

Tariku’s passion for visual art has really been blossoming lately, and he constantly draws dinosaurs and sea monsters and knights and dragons. He is obsessed with drawing the Phoenix, which seems like a particularly poignant symbol for a boy who has come so far.

us muralsSo Scott and I decided that we’d all go see the downtown murals, and then design our own to “paint” (with chalk) on the walls in our backyard.

It was a blast! We wandered the Downtown Arts District and gaped at the mind-blowing street art, then settled in at Wurstkuche to munch their outstanding sausages and fries (yum!), while we drew our design plans. We then took the plans home and executed them. Afterwards, we rewarded ourselves with some pumpkin pie we had picked up at The Pie Hole.

The experience gave us a chance to educate Tariku about the history and culture of street art, which was thrilling to him, because it’s essentially the Robin Hood story, but with art. We also talked about color, composition, and how we choose our content.

Most importantly for us, we discussed how art is positive way to express our feelings- especially the ones that are bubbling up and need to get out of us! Tariku probably said is best: “It’s better than screaming and yelling!”

Amen to that.

I can’t extol enough the virtues of project-based learning. Or of a stroll through the Downtown Arts District.

Look at that proud face.

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Baby J: The Sequel

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Baby J. came to stay with us again, for a week this time. Yesterday morning I kissed him on the head and buckled him into someone else’s car seat and watched him drive away.

Afterwards, God and I had a big long chat and let me tell you, it was not polite. I won’t reveal the exact content, but I will say there was lots of swearing involved.

When Scott and I got the call that Baby J. needed a week of respite care, we looked at each other with less of a sense of adventure and curiosity this go around. After the baby left us last time, I felt like someone had disemboweled me with a butter knife. I pulled the car over to cry about every seven minutes for two whole weeks.

We knew that the phone call basically translated to: “Would you like to take this baby and not sleep for a week, until everyone gets cranky and starts snapping at each other-because you’re taking care of a baby and babies are annoying, even awesome ones. Oh, and this baby is particularly awesome and you will fall madly in love with him and then he will leave you and you may never see him again. Whaddaya say?”

Well, shucks, yeah! We thought you’d never ask!

Of course, we said yes.

We had such a fun week with him! We hung out and made little drum beats with him for hours on Tariku’s old toy drums. We took him to the school carnival. He brought the house down at Whole Foods with his epic cuteness- I could barely get my shopping done. And we all got grouchy and stressed and sleep deprived and sick with baby cooties. All that good baby stuff.

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And then we said goodbye, again. And I cried a lot a lot, again.

I’ve been thinking about how to model dealing with loss. I really like plans, so I tried to come up with one, but I just couldn’t. It all happened so fast and we were in survival mode. So instead, I simply told Tariku the only way through loss is through it. We cry and have our feelings and hold each other and talk to each other and take care of each other when we’re not strong. And we breathe and breathe and get up again the next morning and make breakfast. And everything eventually changes- it doesn’t hurt this much forever.

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I’ve been thinking of the nannies in Tariku’s orphanage: tireless, strong-armed, their heads covered in blue kerchiefs- who held and bathed and fed my son, and showered him with love. They kissed and kissed his face, even though they knew the day would come that they would likely never see it again.

There were also the anonymous women who held me for the five days in between when I was born and when my family came to adopt me. For five days, someone I will never thank held and loved me.

I tried to look at this time with Baby J. as my thanks to them. With every round of our “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” I did my best to honor their strength and generosity of spirit.

And I breathed and got up this morning and walked past the empty space where the pack-and-play was the day before. And I made breakfast.

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When Big Baby J. Came To Stay

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As many of you know, Scott and I are in the process of adopting through LA County DCFS (Department of Child and Family Services). As of a few weeks ago, we’ve got our stamp of approval, so we’re officially certified and ready to do this thing!

We got a call last week that there was a six-month-old baby in need of respite care, which is when a child needs an emergency place to stay for a few days. We had not remotely expressed interest in doing respite care, but there is a crisis-level need in LA County for foster parents, and so they called us anyway.

My first response was: no way! I’m super busy and also that sounds really hard and also…ummmm…also nothing. So I called Scott, fully expecting that he would say, no way! No luck. And then we talked to Tariku, to see how he’d feel about it. You see where this is going, right?

And that was how we wound up with Big Baby J.

Big Baby J. had the best chunky baby thighs you’ve ever seen in your life, and the deepest, brightest, most gorgeous eyes. He had a funny off-kilter smile and sweet dimply cheeks. He had us all laughing and laughing.

Tariku was remarkable with him. He fed him and played with him and helped bathe and dress him. He was even kind and funny when the baby woke him at 4am. His exact words were, “Dude! Can he just whine a little quieter?”

I talked to Tariku’s teacher daily, and watched closely for any signs that he was having a hard time. His teacher told me that he actually had his best week yet since school started, and that he was communicating in a very matter-of-fact and enthusiastic way about Baby J.

As for me, I decided that I was going to love this baby with everything I had for the short time he was here. I put away the to-do list. I lay with him on the bed for hours. We banged Tariku’s old toy drums on the living room floor. I looked him in the eye as much as possible and held him on my chest while he drifted off to sleep.

I figured- 3 days, right? We know from the very beginning that we’re giving him back, so how hard could it be?

It was very hard. I spent the whole last morning with him pretty much just crying into his hair. I handed him back, held my head up, and I told him I hoped I would see him again one day.

Tariku said, “I hope he remembers me.”

I told him, “He may not remember you in his head but he’ll remember you in his heart.”

I’m still pretty wrecked. And I’m also happy. I’m proud of us as a family for how we said yes to something scary, and then all came together to make it happen.

What a wonderfully surprising life we have. It snuck up on us. It was never like we sat down and said: gee, I hope we get to be foster parents someday. Honestly, I’m not strong enough for this. I’m not very strong at all. I was in bed all day after Big Baby J. left, gnawing on a vat of industrial strength Maalox, because my stomach felt like I had chugged a gallon of acid.

But I think- who’s strong enough for this? The people who aren’t super-sensitive? Maybe, but why would they say yes? It’s paradoxically always going to be up to the people who are perhaps least equipped: the marshmallows, the kids who were always described derisively as “overly-sensitive” on our report cards.

I just kept looking in the mirror and telling myself: you’re strong. You’re a warrior. You can do this. This isn’t about you and what you want. This is about a baby who needs a place to stay and a lot of love. And you have all of that to offer.

I’m sure we needed Baby J. as much as Baby J. needed us.

When I was in Africa last year with Help One Now, my friend Jacob Combs  gave me this Giving Key necklace, with the word “HOPE” on it. The idea behind the necklace is that you keep it for as long as you need it, and then you pay it forward to someone you think could use the message. I liked mine so much as a piece of jewelry that I held on to it for an entire year!

This seemed like a good time to let it go. I gave the key to Baby J.’s full-time foster mom, when she came to pick him up. It’s a message I’d love to offer to all of us- parents, kids, everyone- who have a more circuitous journey than most to find the place we truly belong.

Baby J- I know you are for big, bright things here in this world. I’m blessed to have met you and held you and kissed your perfect face. I am so lucky.

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I See You

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I had a number of meaningful conversations during the Jewish New Year festivities, but my favorite was at a break-the-fast gathering, where I met a lovely woman who had spent the last year working with traumatized female veterans. Trauma- one of my favorite subjects to learn about! Of course I cornered her and asked her all about what she knew. One story in particular stuck with me. She told me about a woman everyone else had given up on, with whom she just sat in silence.

I thought about how, when Tariku is having a total freak-out and hides under the bed with his hands over his ears, I will sometimes just go and lie down on the floor next to him and not say anything. I remember when he was little and having one of his alarming tantrums, at first I would instinctively try to hug him or comfort him and he would panic and lash out. So I started sitting outside the door and waiting with him until it passed. And then little by little I began sitting in the doorway. Then I made it into the room. Sometimes he still needs to go be by himself for a while and work it out, but I’ve learned to see if there’s a little window open through which I can hold out an olive branch. If there is, I will go and sit silently with him.

My talk with the woman at the party caused me to reflect on how important it is to feel witnessed. Not just to be able to call a good friend on the phone and unload, although that’s great too! But to have your trauma and pain recognized and supported on a larger cultural level. We need simply to know: I am seen and there is a place for me here on this planet. All of me. All of my suffering and flaws and hope and humanity.

Because I am fortunate enough to have brilliant friends from different faith traditions, the week before the Jewish New Year, I found myself at a Christian Women of Faith event to hear the awesome Jen Hatmaker speak.  I heard her saying hetmessentially the same thing, with a different set of operating metaphors. Forgive my reductive paraphrasing of such a compassionate, eloquent and funny speaker, but what I heard from her was: You are seen and you are loved. Not for your accomplishments or your good behavior or your willingness to tow the line or your terrific souffles. You are seen, in all your imperfect and frightened humanity, and you are worthy of love. Period. End story.

I think a big part of all holiday rituals is simply to say to each other: I see you and we’re here together. We are all sinners; we are all in pain; we are all hungry for love and connection; we are all going to pass back into the unknown from which we came too soon. In light of all that mishigas (yiddish for “craziness”), we sit here beside one another in the presence of the divine mystery.

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