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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A Letter to Jovi Starshine on his Gotcha Day

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To my Starshine on his Gotcha Day

A year ago you showed up here in your red-and-black sweatsuit, with pleather stars in a semicircle across the chest. You didn’t know what they were called yet, but you loved those stars. When it came time to pick your middle name, your brother suggested Star. You picked Starshine, after the song from Hair I sing to you every morning.

“I Jovi Starshine,” you said. And so you are.

You were three-and-a-half when we found each other.

The second day I visited you at your foster home, I took you out for lunch. You wouldn’t stop facetiming Daddy in the car. When I finally insisted we walk into the Sizzler rather than sitting in the parking lot all day, you pointed at Scott’s face on the little screen and me sitting there gobsmacked in the front seat, and said, “Him my daddy, and her my mommy.”

I can only imagine how frightening it was for you when your prediction actually came true.

Miss Johnson (your foster mom before you came to us) dropped you at our house a few days later and then slipped out the front door because she had a hard time with goodbyes. And just like that your world changed entirely.

So many mangled goodbyes in your short life. A lifetime of terrifying and unfamiliar and unsafe everything. You didn’t speak much for weeks.

It was scary for us, too. But we believed in you from the minute we looked into the depths your sparkling, huge eyes. My heart still kvells every time I see them peeking up from behind the couch, where you like to hide and wait for us to find you.

There is nothing in this world as wildly sweet as watching those eyes open when you wake. For just a moment, they are as tender and as young as they should be, nestled in your puffy morning face.

You have a thousand faces. Sometimes you walk like a prizefighter. Sometimes you walk like a runway model. You talk like a sixteen year old. You talk like a two year old. You are an ever-shifting mystery, and yet I can’t imagine a time you weren’t with us. I feel like I’ve known you always; you are a part of my body and soul.

You fight with your brother nonstop, but you two won’t be apart from each other for five minutes. You push and pull. You want to be close but you’re afraid.

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Truly you are a miracle, my glorious son. You couldn’t hold a crayon, and now you write your name. You could barely speak and now you know all your letters. You couldn’t count to three and now you count to fifty.

You are funny and musical. You love to listen to KISS and Weezer and Panic at the Disco. You dance even when there is no music. For you, there is always music. I can see you’re listening to it. I wish I could hear it. I hope I will someday.

You love to play pranks. You want a snake for the holidays, just so you can scare me.

You have a flair for drama You love makeup and costumes and masks. You keep lipgloss and Pokemon cards and your Barbie “cellphone” in your Elmo purse.

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You love to press buttons. You love sloths and dogs.

You don’t even know that your dog Calvin is usually grouchy and growly and snappy, because you have brokered some kind of magical agreement with him, in which he sits there contentedly while you hug and kiss him, and put your fingers up his nose. No one- I mean no one- has ever done that to Calvin without practically losing a finger. You dad likes to say that you and Calvin have “an arrangement.” I like to think Calvin feels your heart and knows that you are deeply gentle.

You are also a fighter. You show me your muscles ten times a day. You are growing stronger all the time. You know it and you want to make sure the world around you reflects it. I hope I do.

A year ago we tried to go to a bowling alley on New Years day and you sat there emaciated and overwhelmed, crying and shaking in your winter coat. Yesterday when we bowled,  you stood tall and strong and bowled a strike.

You are my heart and my hope. I love you beyond all imagining. I can’t wait to see what this next year brings.

Love,

Mommy

 

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Meet our Son

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Yesterday, the four of us drove out to Lancaster and stood holding hands under the fluorescent lights of the juvenile court. The kindly Santa Claus of a judge spoke a few magic words and in an instant the world got brighter, our breathing easier, the burden on our shoulders lighter…

Dearest friends, we are over the moon to finally introduce you to our son- legally. All signed and sealed.

Jovanni Starshine.

Isn’t he glorious?

We call him Jovi. Jovi Starshine. Tariku picked his middle name and you have to meet him to know how wonderfully apropos it is. This kid sparkles with joy and sweetness and resilience and mischief and creativity and curiosity and music and dancing and delight.

“Look what we did,” I said to Scott on the ride home, somewhat astounded to be watching our children happily munching animal crackers, listening to their favorite songs, getting crumbs all over their good suits. We made a family.

“Look what we did,” he agreed.

My heart is a balloon. Meet Jovi.

He is perfect. We are perfect together.

Now that I can legally show you his face, brace yourself to be barraged with roughly a bazilliontrillion pictures (top photo by Jill Greenberg)…

 

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An Open Letter to Parents of Well Behaved Children

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Dear Parents of Well Behaved Children,

I just spent the summer traveling around the country with two spirited children and I have met lots of you. You usually like the idea of us. You start out eager to chat with me at the pool or the park. You ask if my boys are adopted. You tell me you’ve always thought of adopting… later. Someday. You tell me how beautiful they are. They are.

And then my little one gets frustrated with something and shouts, “SHUT UP, YOU FUCK!”

Then my big one does a wild dance that is funny for a minute but goes on a little too long. Then a lot too long. And it starts to seem weird.

Your smile grows forced, your body language uncomfortable. You drift away. You corral your kids in another part of the playground.

Don’t think they don’t notice. Don’t think it doesn’t hurt my kids’ feelings to be rejected and side-eyed. Don’t fool yourself into thinking they are doing anything but their absolute best. They want the exact same thing we all want- to be seen and loved and appreciated for who we are.

When your kids are munching the sushi from their bento boxes and politely building Neutra-inspired sand castles, it’s easy to think you got all this because you’re worthy of it. You manifested it from your vision boards. Your babies listened to so much Mozart in the womb they popped out whistling “A Little Night Music.” When they were six days old they asked you in sign language to please turn on NPR.

I’m sure they did. And I’m sure you’re terrific parents. But having well-behaved kids is also in part an accident of birth. A roll of the dice that landed just so in terms of privilege, personality, temperament, needs, and abilities.

By a different accident of birth, my kids were born into traumatic situations, and now fight mightily to function with neurological wiring that tells them every minute of every day that they are unsafe and everything they know and love could at any minute be taken away from them. So, yeah, my little one swears like a sailor and my big one will teach your kid to fart on cue. And they are doing AMAZING. This is what amazing looks like for us.

I had so many judgments about parenting… before I was a parent. More specifically, before I was a parent to two kids with special needs. I was sure I knew the magic formula to raising creative, inquisitive, polite, humble children- full of curiosity and bursting with energy for seasonal crafting projects. I was kind of an asshole. A well-intentioned asshole.

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As embarrassed as I remain, even to this day, by the very public antics of my incredible, hilarious, often suckily behaved children, I am so grateful they saved me from being that asshole. They could do the same for you if you’d open your hearts to them.

Now, I look at families who appear to be struggling and think- I have no idea what’s really going on there. I have no clue what that kid has been through, what this family’s story is, what the copy beneath the headline would tell me. I ask myself not how far I can get from this bad influence, but rather how I can throw my arms around this family and draw them closer.

Of course that takes extra work, and parenting is so much work already. It might just feel easier to shut out anything that seems unfamiliar or uncomfortable. But it’s not an act of charity! Here are five important benefits your angels could derive from spending time with my wild pirates.

  1. COMPASSION. Compassion is a hallmark of emotional intelligence, which may be far more important than academic performance in determining success and leadership abilities in life. It is also essential for leading a life of deep and meaningful connection with others. Compassion isn’t learned from a textbook. It’s learned by interacting with people from varying circumstances, with different advantages and disadvantages.
  2. CONFLICT RESOLUTION SKILLS. It’s tempting to want to shield our children from discomfort, conflict, and failure. If only we could enclose them in a utopian bubble of support and cooperation and safety. If only they never had to hear an unkind word, be the last one picked for a team, have their toys grabbed or their bubbles spilled. But how would that really prepare them for living in the world without us? Which is ultimately our goal, right? The world is rife with spilled bubbles. When are they supposed to learn effective conflict resolution strategies if we shield them from all potential sources of conflict?
  3. ACHIEVEMENT. Now I have your attention! Studies show that classrooms of diverse children perform better than more homogeneous groups. When children of different needs are represented in a classroom, the kids learn to support a classmate who may be struggling. Teachers are forced to teach out of the box and tailor their instruction more individually to each child.  I believe this applies not only to the classroom but also to the world around us. Everyone wins by diversifying our lives.
  4. RESILIENCE. My kids are amazing models of no retreat no surrender. Just try to stop them. I once watched Tariku, at 3 years old, take twenty minutes to figure out a climbing wall that was way too advanced for him. He whined; he cried; he got frustrated; he walked away; he came back. Still, he refused my help. Still, he would not go to another activity. Finally, finally, with one or two shoves of assistance, he made it up. This stubbornness can be a pain to deal with as a parent but it is exactly the kind of grit that we all need to face life’s climbing walls. I’m reminded of this as I watch the Olympic athletes fight and keep fighting and fight some more.
  5. JOY. My kids are not quiet. They sometimes have lousy table manners. They will splash you in the pool. They also love life with an infectious, boundless enthusiasm. They are full of celebration and wonder and affection. They will make the line outside the museum into a spontaneous party. They will get you laughing. They will sing everywhere and anywhere. They will free you from inhibitions. They will make you want to dance. And c’mon. You know you want to dance.

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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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