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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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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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.

Some un-Wisdom

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So what has been happening? New York happened. Back to school happened. We had a few weeks of major regression in T’s behavior and it led me to a dark place. We’re all clawing our way back out of it toward the light. Yesterday at yoga, the room suddenly seemed three times brighter, and I thought- I’m pulling the cobwebs from my eyes. It’s getting better.

It was partially due to parent fail. He’s been doing so well lately that I forget to keep the things in place that help his nervous system stay regulated. Things like lots of sleep and very regular food and plenty of time to calm down between activities. Scott and I subjected him to crazy fast transitions all summer long. Disney! Legoland! Pool parties! Beaches! Broadway shows! Coney Island! Sounds fab, right?

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All that “fun” sounds good on paper- to him and to us both. And we did have moments of serious fun. For instance, taking him to The Lion King– his first Broadway show- was a moving experience for all of us. We had a blast with old friends in upstate New York. But overall, August was draining and worrisome. There were tantrums we haven’t seen the likes of for a year. When T’s nervous system gets out of whack, it can unravel not just his emotional well-being, but mine as well. I have to keep a close eye on my tendency to mirror him.

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What helped? School starting. Getting rigid about his sleep schedule. Getting back to his awesome occupational therapist.

Tariku teaches me about courage all the time. He never stops trying. He loses his shit entirely and makes heroic recoveries nearly every day. He loves school, but it’s also a hard, long day for him. I watch him pin his shoulders back, take a breath and steel himself to enter that classroom every morning and I take a lesson from it.

I tell my students to write through the breakup, write through the parent death, write through the divorce, write through the depression, write through all of it. Just keep moving and creating. Emotionally volatile times can stir a lot of resistance. You know- I’m too busy feeling things, I can’t be bothered to write. That’s exactly when you need to sit down and let some words happen. There may not be any worthwhile product that comes out of it, but the process is gold. I also find that you think you’re going to remember the intense moments, but you’re so stoned on adrenaline that they don’t always stick. So it’s good to have a record.

I figure, I don’t always have some pithy bit of wisdom, but I always have my heart to share. I learned that from T. Even when you don’t have it figured out, just go in and play with all you’ve got.

The Dignity of a Funny Costume

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The other day we went to a neighborhood BBQ. The girl across the street, who is a bit older than T, came over earlier in the day and convinced him that all the kids at the party would be wearing costumes. He insisted on dressing like a triceratops, of course.

You see where this is going, right? We arrived and he was the only one dressed up. My stomach dropped. When things like this happen to T, it triggers deep memories in me of being made a fool of as a child. I get really angry, mostly about my inability to protect him from these sorts of experiences.

A friend of mine turned to T and said, “Oops! She tricked you!”

Under my breath, I said, “Well don’t tell him that if he hasn’t figured it out.”

He was like, “What? OH!”

He got it. He stood in the doorway in his big green costume, looked around and let it register for a moment. Then he smiled his huge Tariku smile and said, “I don’t care because I’m SCARY! ROAR!”

He kept that outfit on the whole night. He roared and danced around and got everyone screaming and laughing. He’s been displaying a real knack for physical comedy lately. Scott says he’s like a little Charlie Chaplin. He stands in front of the mirror and does little dances, talks in silly voices, makes funny faces.

Tariku instinctively knows that being the one stuck in the dinosaur costume makes you the fool, yes, but it also can make you the star if you play it right.

When he finally got too hot in the costume, he took it off and lovingly brought it to me to hold, saying that he didn’t want to put it on the floor where people could step on it.

I thought he handled the situation with tremendous dignity. I felt so proud of his fierce, funny soul.

And I love that he thinks this costume is scary.