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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Accentuate the Positive

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A few weeks ago, an acquaintance gave me an advance copy of her upcoming novel, which has adoption-oriented themes. I’m not going to mention the book by name because the author is actually a lovely woman with good intentions, but as I read the book I felt my throat tightening and a cold pit growing in my stomach.

The book reinforced negative stereotype after negative stereotype of people in the adoption community. There is a mercenary, dishonest agency owner with ten “souvenir” children adopted from all over the world, for whom “home schooling” is synonymous with neglect. There is a rich, racist, neurotic prospective adoptive mother and her racist, whoremonger, absent husband. The prospective fathers at an adoption information picnic exchange derisive asides as their wives anxiously wring their hands and angle for the best caseworker. The birth mothers involved in the domestic adoptions are either tragically wronged angels or criminal, money-grubbing skanks.

I read the book through to the end because I kept wanting to find something redeeming but there wasn’t a shred of positivity to be had.

I was so upset that I had a hard time sleeping that night. I was disturbed at least partially because the book wasn’t meant to be anti-adoption. In fact, the woman had given it to me knowing that Tariku was adopted. When I discussed it with her later, she insisted that she was just trying to explore the complexities around domestic adoption and look at the fact that someone always gets their heart broken. Negative stereotypes around adoption are so acceptable that a major publishing house apparently agrees with her.

I don’t believe in either art police or thought police and I don’t believe that it is our responsibility as artists to portray positive imagery of anything. It is our responsibility as artists to tell truth. I don’t say “the truth” because I believe there are many different truths. I know that the author did her best to tell truth as she saw it.

However, my truth about adoption is so radically different from hers that it cost me sleep. The glorious thing about being a writer is that I have a forum for telling my version of the story (next book idea? Perhaps…).

Adoption is indeed complex and imperfect and at its core there is loss and heartbreak. My son has lost his birth family, his birth country, his culture, his language. There has already been so much sorrow in his 27 months on this earth that I sometimes lie in bed next to him while he sleeps and cry just thinking about it.

But that is not the end of the story; it’s the beginning. I can’t erase the loss from his life, but today and every day after, I can offer him a safe and loving home where his feelings are respected and his history is treasured. Nor can I erase the loss of a birth family too besieged by famine and poverty to care for a little boy, but I can honor their sacrifice.

The channels through which children are adopted are imperfect and need vigilant examination. And adoption isn’t the answer for world problems like poverty and lack of health care, but that doesn’t change the fact that children need homes and they need them now. Adoption isn’t a solution for Ethiopia’s challenges, but it was a solution for Tariku and it was a solution for us.

So do we really need another book with reprehensible characters in the adoption world? Do we really need another horror movie where there is a bad seed orphan running around with sharp kitchen utensils? There is so much suspicion of difference and unfortunately still so much stigma around adoption.

We don’t need any more bad press.

So I’d like to share some good press. Adoption is imperfect, but I’m wildly passionate about it and one of the reasons is the incredible people it’s introduced into my life. Here are links to honest, intelligent blogs from some amazing adoptive families. Some are my faves and some were pitched in by my mama girlfriends.

Rage Against The Minivan

Our Little Tongginator

Welcome To My Brain

Dreaming Big Dreams

Ethiopian Tripletland

The Big Five

The Lost Planet

Easties and Company

Under the Acacia Tree

Goodbye. Hello.

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Our adoption was finalized in Ethiopia on the day of the inauguration. We all attended a goodbye ceremony at the care center, where the nannies and the children were dressed in traditional costumes and the staff said a few words about each child before praying together. The rest of the children sang to those who were leaving and Tariku left his little handprint in a book. It was sad and it was great and the whole time part of me was wishing we were just on the plane home already. I felt that way the entire week. But, in retrospect, I appreciate the importance of the rituals involved and the respectful and slow way that the children were transitioned.

In the afternoon we went to the embassy. The TV in the corner of the corner of the room was playing the BBC News. We watched as hundreds of thousands gathered on the National Mall in the dark, waiting for the day to begin. Scott and I were told there was some problem with our paperwork. For a long moment, we really thought we were going to be staying in Addis for an unspecified amount of time until they worked it out. In the end, we made it through.

Tariku conked out around 7:30 that night. I really had no idea if it was going to wake him up, but I had to try. I picked him up and carried him downstairs to the den where everyone was watching TV. Scott and I watched Obama’s inauguration with our son sleeping on my chest.